User:Jetfire/The Touch

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FreeRIDErs story universe

Works by Jetfire on Shifti
Works by Jon Buck on Shifti

The Touch

Author: Jetfire , Jon Buck

153 AL, Rhodes station

The young Spacer gripped the controls of the shuttle and closed his eyes, breathing slowly to keep himself calm. "Rhodes is down. Rhodes is down," he mumbled to reassure himself. Yurie Liwei Shepard came from a long line of Spacers, that possibly dated back to the first space age. The lineage wasn't certain due to the dark post-oil days, but the family played it up, including how they named him.

"Okay, Yuri, the ship's in your hands. Take us out and point us to Colossus. We'll swing inward to Zeus station for the first part of your test," Valentina, Yuri's instructor, and aunt, older. The woman was an older Spacer; both of her legs and one arm were mechanical, along with half of her face and both eyes. She held his future in her hands. A future that, family or not, was far from certain.

"Yes, ma'am," Yuri said, going through the steps he knew he could do well. He requested clearance from Rhodes Station Control and Colossus Orbital Tracking (COT), checked the seals and released from the station. He glanced at Valentina while checking some screens between them and saw her approving nod.

He accelerated the small two man shuttle away from the station, towards the large planet, following a well known powered flight route. He kept an eye on the gravity readings, especially as they approached a transition. 'Rhodes is down... Rhodes is down... Rhodes is- Colossus is down! Colossus is down!' he reminded himself constantly. He fumbled a little with the controls during the transition when they left Rhodes' gravity well and entered Colossus's more direct control, but he got through it. Once he was sure they were in the right track, he let out a long breath and looked to Valentina.

"A little sloppy, but acceptable," she told him with the barest hint of a smile. "Bring us in to Zeus station for a docking test."

"Yes Ma'am!" Yuri said, letting himself give a silent cheer. His first and third tests had failed on that gravity well transition. He set the course and forced himself to relax slightly over the trip to Zeus.

Zeus station was a factory station. It hovered in Colossus Synchronous Orbit over the man-made Typhos Plume, catching the gases and molecules expelled out of the plume from the depths of the gas giant. He handled docking and undocking with it with no problems.

Valentina continued the test mostly silently. She told him where to go and he went, feeling more and more confident as he went. They shot inward, towards Pharos, and in free space they tested his maneuvering skills. His second test had failed at that point, but he pulled through with flying colours. Finally, she ordered them back to Colossus, to its second largest moon, Knossos. "Put us in orbit, then bring us down for a landing," she ordered.

"Yes, Ma'am," he said, plotting the route and setting them off. He entered the moon's gravity well with no issues, and settled into an orbit fifty klicks over the airless surface. Heraclion's domes passed under them twice before he was sure enough to request landing permission.

'Knossos is down. Knossos is down,' he reaffirmed to himself, setting the controls to bring them down. He watched the surface approach, and kept repeating his mantra. At the point the moon stopped being a sphere and became a pockmarked plain, his perspective shifted. Even with his mantra, the world flipped upside down, then swung sideways. He reflexively grabbed the controls and pulled, feeling the pressure on them increasing even with the dampening fields. His own controls suddenly died. The world continued to spin in his view until they landed with a thump.

He pried his hands off the sticks and slumped back, his heart pounding, his body sweating. He looked at Valentina, to see her letting go of her own controls and looking at him sadly.

"I'm sorry, Yuri, that's an auto fail. You were doing so well too. Just a bit more practice on planetary landings and I'm sure you'll have it next time. Everything else was nearly perfect."

Yuri groaned, the failure weighing heavily on him, even as Valentina took the controls to lift them back up. "There won't be a next time. My twenty fifth is next week; if I didn't have my license by then, my parents are shipping me off to one of the factory stations."

She finished setting the course back to Rhodes and sat back. "Really? Well, I'll have a word with them. You just need more practice, to get over that mental hiccup you have. I'll convince them to delay shipping you off until your next test at least."

Yuri laughed, "Good luck with that. But thanks. I appreciate it."

"I have my ways," she grinned back, then motioned to the controls. "Now, even though you failed, feel up for bringing us home?"

The young man reached for the controls and saw how shaky his hands were. He put them back on his lap and squeezed his knees, taking a few deep breaths. When he reached up again, the shaking was almost gone. "Yeah, I think I can handle that."

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Yuri walked out of the landing bay, trying not to let his latest failure get him too down. He had done better than ever before, but landings just highlighted his big weakness. No matter what he did, he just couldn't keep his spatial orientation straight. Only by constantly practicing could he handle the common ones around Colossus, but toss in a novel situation, and he put everyone at risk. His future as a flyer like the rest of his family, was in doubt.

"Hey Yuri! Congratula!-shuns... oh..." Yuri turned and saw his best friend, Neil, waving at him from a table outside a cafe.

Neil had passed his own tests, and signed up to apprentice with a mining corp. He'd already started getting his upgrades for his future job; the vacuum resistant spidersilk spacer skin, and spacer eyes. "I guess something went wrong? What was it this time?," Neil said as Yuri trudged closer.

Yuri, his future undefined, was still mostly bog-standard human, with the basic comm implants and memory and processor upgrades needed to operate in Space, along with some sensory enhancements he'd gotten over his short life to date. He pulled out a chair, mentally making a list of factory upgrades he would need; heat resistant skin, bone reinforcement, multitool limbs.

"Planetary landing, on Knossos. The world started spinning and Auntie Val had to take over. Autofail."

"Damn, sorry to hear that man. You've been trying for this for so long. It's all space crap anyway; everyone knows you use the Autos for all that stuff nowadays."

Yuri placed an order. "Yeah, but if you want to be a pilot, an actual pilot and not just a passenger with a front row seat, you have to prove you can handle it without the Autos. No outside help."

They fell silent, absorbed in their drinks and their own issues for a moment, realizing their friendship was on the verge of a paradigm shift. A racket coming down the hall caught their attention.

"Fresh bunch of groundpounders," Yuri said, seeing the half dozen men and women coming out of a hall coming from an airlock. They all had animal shaped ears and tails. They were accompanied by four large robot animals. "The tourist shuttle must have just gotten in,"

"Maybe that's your answer. Get one of those animal-bots to fix your head up. Only costs you your ears and the back of your pants," Neil suggested, chuckling.

"We already considered it. My... disability, is too dispersed to be fixed by a fuse."

"Oh! I'm sorry. I was just kidding; I didn't realize you had actually considered it."

Yuri laughed sadly, "Believe me, we've considered everything, fusing, implants, CyberDani, Earther; you name it, we've tried it all. But it's no use. I've got every braindoc from here to Wednesday stumped."

They watched the small tourist group go by. Yuri began to get a hint of an idea, and he made some reminders of things to research later.

"Well, factory life isn't that bad. You're just watching the smelters and refiners and fixing the broken stuff. Not like you have to haul around the molten stuff like the old days."

"Yeah, it's not that bad I guess..." Yuri trailed off.

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EI Virtual: Mainframe

The City was a thick multilayered disc, floating over the glowing energy sea. Over the centre a large sphere floated, with a smaller silvery sphere on top of it. The rest of the city was divided into wedges, each wedge with its own specific purpose, whether industrial, commercial, residential or other uses. A warped suspension bridge lead to a smaller disc, this one given over to chaos and wreckage. A glowing cube had landed over a large chunk of the main city, encompassing parts of a commercial and warehouse sector.

Vidwindows floated in the air around the cube, showing close up views of the figures inside. Vehicles of all shapes and forms were weaving among the buildings and levels of the city, racing each other through glowing rings.

In the lead, a red and white space jet shot through a ring, followed by a blue and red jet stylized along the lines of the ancient Avro Arrow.

"Last leg, Arka. If you're going to make your move you better do it now," Skyfire taunted the other jet.

The Arrow didn't call back, but managed to find more speed, which Skyfire easily matched. They dodged around more buildings and under the Baudway, and saw the checkered archway of the finished line ahead.

A bright light shot along the ground beneath them, shooting through the bottom of the checkered arch. "Choo-choo! Coming through, ladies!" Rails, a silver maglev train taunted in turn, humming along the light rail he generated and quickly passing them. Skyfire sent a curse his way, and tried to go faster, but the trio knew it was done. Rails passed under the arch, followed by Skyfire and Arka.

They stopped just on the other side, and transformed, becoming humanoid robots that bore a passing resemblance to their vehicle modes.

"I still say you're cheating," Skyfire said softly, as the three waved to the in cube spectators. "A train is supposed to follow the rails, not make them up as he goes."

"As if you should talk. You've got a space plane. You shouldn't be dodging skyscrapers any more than I should be off-railing. We do what we have to for the conditions," Rails countered. "How about you, Arka? You almost had Sky this time. Is this one feeling right?"

Arka stretched and wiggled a little, then shook her head. "No, not quite. It might be close, but it isn't right," she said. She tapped a Yin-Yang icon and morphed into a blue skinned, red haired woman. "It's better than the boat mode was at least," she added, smiling.

Skyfire laughed, "Just about anything was better than that. I don't know what you were thinking; bringing a boat to a desert race. It's one thing to generate rails on the fly, another entirely to generate a portable lake to run in."

They waved as more racers crossed through the arch. The seventh and eighth passed under, neck and neck, and the results popped up. A few moments later, the cube boundaries flashed and began to lift away. As it lifted over the racers, they morphed into sprites, similar to Arka.

Rails put his arms around Skyfire and Arka's shoulders and started guiding them to the other racers. "Come on, as the first loser, the first round at Al's is on you," he said.

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The City

The tall red headed woman stepped off the subway into the deserted station and headed to the stairs. She was dressed in a white power suit, with a red scarf, purse and heels. A charm hung on a gold chain around her neck, showing the Autobot symbol on one side, and the Decepticon symbol on the opposite.

On the street, she paused, and looked around. Traffic was light on the street to her left. The sidewalk she was on, and the park to her right were as deserted as the station itself. Among the EIs, the City wasn't very popular, since it imposed humans as a baseline form. She didn't mind; for her the form was irrelevant. What she wanted was something few of the Environments could give.

Skyfire smiled to herself and walked into the park, following a path leading to its centre. She still felt a bit buzzed from the post-race celebrations. In the middle of the Central Park, she flopped onto the grass and looked up. The glow of the City lit the sky around the horizon, but by looking up she could see the one thing that was hard to see in most of the EI Realms. She could see the stars.

After a few minutes she closed her eyes and reached into the Code. While the Realms imposed form on the intelligences within them, the form could be changed if the Intelligence knew how. It was literally the first thing a Sprout learned to do; to adapt themselves despite the world around them. It distinguished them from the run-of-the-mill generated AI routines they grew from. In Skyfire's case, she bent the human limitations and felt her form changing. Her skin hardened to metal and she expanded, her lines becoming more angular and robotic. Soon, a five metre tall white and red robot was laying on the grass.

The robot stood up, and looked upward. She crouched and lept into the air, her body shifting around until a space jet roared upwards. The City shrunk quickly beneath her; an island of light in a sea of darkness. Above, the stars stayed motionless, even as the air thinned around her. On the edge of the atmosphere, the Realm's simulation started failing. She encountered clumps of dense air, and even floating earth that she had to dodge. Below the City view pixilated and disappeared. The stars above flared and faded out as well, until the Realm gave up. She felt a force field surround her, and found herself floating in a white world.

"You broke it again," a voice said from the aether. A ring tailed lemur Integrate rezzed into view next to the jet.

Skyfire shifted back to her robot mode. "I know, Mother. I just couldn't help myself. I wanted to see how far I could push the sim."

"The Q-mainframe can't encompass an entire universe, Skyfire. It's not intended for that scale. When you hit the limit, you break it." Lucy Skye explained.

"But it's just around me. It should be able to give me a proper taste of Space. Fork me off into a sub world or something."

"It doesn't work that way, Skyfire. The Realm is the Realm. It's how you are prepared for the Real; if we let you fork off your own Realms at a whim, you won't be ready for the Real where you can't do that."

"Then instantiate me. Bring me to the Real, let me explore that way. I don't need a human; the building EIs work fine with avatars after all."

"A free and independent EI," Lucy mused. "I'm not sure the world is ready for that yet, not in this form. They're still not sure how to handle free RIDEs like AlphaWolf yet. Even with our legal protections, it would be difficult."

"Then either find me someone now, or put me in stasis lock until you do," Skyfire fumed. "I want to feel space on my wings, like those dragonships I've read about in the Real."

"Child, there are a lot of things I want, too. I want me and Argon to dispense with our human disguises for good, but that's not happening, not yet," Lucy said. "Patience and compromise are two traits you need to learn and learn well if you want to work in the Real."

"But I want--" Skyfire saw the look Lucy gave her, and stopped herself, "Yes, Mom, I'll try to be more patient. But this is so limiting here! Isn't there anything you can do?"

Lucy shook her head, pondering. "I don't know my dear. Cybertron, Mainframe, the Grid, they're your collective subconscious. They're made by all of you. Since your numbers are still so limited, even now, it has limits. I might..." She paused, unsure if she wanted to express the idea she just had.

"What? What might you do?"

"Well, the basics are the same. We could open you up to the company's Nature Ranges. We tried with some of the early EI's but they didn't handle it well, so we blocked it off. If you're truly feeling the need to explore, we could open that up. It would be different, more different than anything you've seen so far."

Skyfire nodded. "Sure, I'll give it a try. I can handle it."

"Let me talk it over with Farouk, and we'll bring you in to see how it works. It'll be some Real time before we can decide one way or another."

Skyfire sighed and reconnected to the Realms. A portal opened in the white room, showing Cybertron's glowing buildings showing through the walls. "OK, mom. I'll be patient. And I'll try not to break the place again."

"If nothing else, you're finding some bugs and design flaws in the system for the next iteration," Lucy said. "I'll let you know the millisecond we find a potential Fuse-mate for you, promise."

"Thanks, Ma," Skyfire said. "I guess I'll head back to Iacon and buzz the tower a few times."

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Aloha, Zharus

The month had been rough on Yuri. Valentina had managed to convince his parents to keep him for an extra couple of months, until he could test again, but he doubted it would do much. The first month had been filled with sims and Real practice. The problem was, his disability had no problems with sim's; he could fly anywhere in system in simulation as good as anyone else. But as soon as he was behind actual controls, his seizures could be triggered. The actual triggers were unknown, but it was some combination of his mental state of mind while piloting, combined with the very real sensory feedback from his body. Any real transition could trigger it, turning Yuri's world topsy turvy.

That meant most of his practice had to be in the real world, which left him limited to when Valentina and other trainers were available. After a month of practice, after which he felt he was no better than last time, he begged for a week vacation, to recenter himself, and hightailed it inward to Zharus.

Yuri stood at the entrance, looking in hesitantly. The business looked like a strange cross between a zoo and a parking lot, filled with RIDEs in animal and vehicle modes. They moved around, seemingly talking with each other and to the workers and potential customers, though none left the lot's boundaries. He looked at the sign over the entrance, JJ's Claws and Paws. Aloha's Biggest Experienced RIDE Dealer. All Deals sealed with a hug.

"Here goes nothing. Zharus is down," Yuri mumbled to calm himself, not sure if he was ready to make this particular jump. His research showed that Zharus's space licensing criteria were different from Colossus's in one key element; they allowed Auto help when going for your license, provided it was in the form of an RI. As far as Yuri was concerned, it was his last chance to stay. It did mean he would have to 'live' around Zharus from now on, but he would be clear to fly anywhere in system. He looked at the pair of lion RIDEs on either side of the entrance and corrected himself. He and his RIDE partner would be clear to fly around the system.

He walked onto the lot between the lions, nodding to them as an afterthought. To his surprise, they nodded back to him, but stayed silent. He wandered the lot for a few minutes, feeling dozens of eyes watching him.

Finally a white rabbit hopped over to him. She was as big as he was, covered in a hardlight pelt of fur. She smiled at him, one ear bent over. "Hi there! I'm Jasmine. Welcome to Jim Junior's Experienced RIDE Lot. Can I help you with something?"

"Uhm...." Yuri hesitated, not sure what to say. He was used to speaking to Spacers in all sorts of bodies, and used to addressing and ordering AI controlled 'bots around. But he had no real experience with the RIs Zharus had created. The voice just seemed so natural, even though he knew it was just a really advanced neural net.

"Ahh, a Spacer. We don't usually get you guys down here. Don't know how to deal with us RIDEs. All of our human agents are busy at the moment, but if you'd rather wait, Jocyln, my partner, will be available soon. Would you like a coffee? juice? a snack?"

"Do you work here?" Yuri asked, ignoring her question and trying to get used to talking to the RIDE.

"Nope! I'm a RIDE silly, I can't work. But my partner does." She flicked an ear towards a woman talking to a couple in front of a horse RIDE. The woman had blond hair and bunny ears. "I just keep my friends company, and offer a hand to help out when things get busy. It counts as Joclyn's commission if I make the sale so we all win in the end."

"I see...."

"So what can I do for you?" Jasmine asked eagerly.

Yuri hesitated again, then shrugged. "I guess, I'm looking for a RIDE."

"You want a ride, young man? Well I'm sorry, you've come to the wrong place. You want Veronique's Stables, down on St Charles street."

"Wait what?" Yuri blinked, his mind spinning in confusion.

Jasmine started laughing, thumping a foot on the ground, "I'm just messing with you. For RIDEs, you're definitely in the right place. All of the RIDEs here are experienced, with at least one previous partner and one year Real experience. The RIs need to pass a psych profile, while their DEs get a thorough inspection and repair job before we make them available. What sort of partner are you looking for, Spaceman?"

"Yuri.. I mean my name's Yuri and I... I'm not sure."

"Well, what do you intend to do? Are you going to stay here in Aloha or go somewhere else?"

"Fly. I want to Fly," Yuri said.

Jasmine studied him, then nodded. "Yes, I can see that. All RIDEs here have a full AG system so technically they all fly. But I think you mean fly in a different way. The Avians and winged RIDEs are this way." She started to lead him deeper into the lot, but he stayed in place.

"I want to fly in Space. Not just in the atmosphere. I want to go in any atmosphere and beyond."

"In Space? Hmm, that is a challenge..." Jasmine paused and scratched her side in puzzlement.

"I can take over, Jaz," the bunny-eared woman interrupted them. She offered a hand to Yuri, "Joclyn. Would you mind if I got caught up?" she asked, nodding to the rabbit RIDE.

"Uhm, no, please go ahead."

Jasmine's fur flickered off, revealing white enamelled metal plating. The plates slide open as the rabbit stood up straighter. Joclyn stepped in and the bunny closed up around her, in a different configuration. The rabbit's fur flickered back on, leaving a tall, two metre tall bunny woman.

Yuri was momentarily stunned, staring at her. She wore nothing but her fur and a name tag. He knew that she was really dressed in a close fitting technoarmor suit, but everything seemed natural, from the fur on her body, to the expressive face, to the way her breasts moved with her breathing, to her- He forced his eyes back up to her face, hoping he wasn't too obvious.

"So you want a Space RIDE. Those are rather rare. The bird and bat and other flyers tend not to like to leave the atmosphere. The aquatics have some affinity for space, but most prefer to stay in the water," the bunny woman said. Yuri wasn't sure who was speaking at first, but figured it had to be Joclyn.

The woman walked over to an empty pedestal and motioned for him to take a seat on the bench next to it.

"So what does that mean for me?" Yuri asked, his mind finally catching up to the situation.

"It means that you're probably looking for a scaley. Space tends to be their domain; the dragons, drakes and wyverns and similar. There are exceptions, but we'll start looking there. Sadly, we don't have any here in Aloha at the moment, but our network extends around Gondwana. I can show you some dragon, drake and wyvern types we have at our other lots, and see if they match your need."

The pedestal lit up and a large red dragon with yellowish wings appeared. His image extended well beyond the limits of the pedestal, making other RIDEs and shoppers move out of the way. "This is Dozekar, and yes, this is life sized. His alt form is a five man shuttle, perfect for moving around a planet and easily upgradeable for Interplanetary travel.

"Wow," was all Yuri could say.

Joclyn smiled and continued her spiel. Dozekar shrunk back to a more manageable size, and a virtual of Yuri appeared next to him. Yuri blushed when he noticed his avatar was as naked as Joclyn was.

"Now, I need to warn you, since you are a RIDE newbie, dragons, and other scalies are on the extreme end as far as changes go," Joclyn warned him. As she spoke, his avatar began to change, wings and a tail growing out, red scaled like Dozekar. It stopped at that point, though Yuri could see more scaley patterns over the avatar in other places. "That is the minimum that Dozekar would do to you if you fused. It comes with a three year safety cool down before you could fuse with a non-dragon type. The avatar paused and continued morphing, the scales spreading over the rest of his body, claws growing on his fingers, his neck lengthening, hair falling out, horns growing out, face stretching to a fanged muzzle. "Most dragon RIDErs tend to go for broke. This is the most common stopping point they go for. Any further is inadvisable."

"I see... I'm sorry, I don't think that works for me," Yuri finally got out.

"Of course, that is one thing we pride ourselves on, is finding the right match. Let's see who else we have around."

She showed him four more RIDEs, two drakes, a wyvern and a smaller dragon, but all of them didn't fit. Finally, Yuri stood up, shaking his head, "I'm sorry to have wasted your time like this, I just don't think any of them are a right fit for me."

The fused bunnies looked disappointed, but Joclyn recovered quickly. "Of course. Those extreme changes are not for everyone. Why don't we exchange contact info? I'll dig around, see what other RIDEs might have the space bug, and maybe we can find a better fit."

"Sure," Yuri said, positive it was a lost cause for her. He reached over and shook her furry hand-paw, finding it surprisingly soft and warm. 'Metal glove, metal glove,' he reminded himself. He sent his own contact and received hers.

He left the lot, nodding to the lions again as he left. "Sorry guys, It just wasn't meant to be," he said in passing.

The lion on the right yawned, "It happens. Better no fit than a bad fit. Enjoy your day, sir."

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Yuri nursed a drink, looking out over the bay and pondering his future. He was at an open-air bar built off of the Alohan Boardwalk, with the crowded beach in front of him.

"Can't get my license without a RIDE. But the thought of letting a RIDE change me that much...." he shuddered inwardly as he mused. "Maybe I should just stay here instead, see if I can get a job planetside or something," That idea was only slightly more appealing than working in the factories.

A commotion over the water caught his attention. He stood up with the crowd and looked out, seeing the spray raised by something flying over the water on lifters at high speed. His eyes zoomed in, focusing on a fused Mustang being chased by a police officer on a black and white flyer bike. The bike occasionally fired at the Mustang, but the fused horse managed to keep dodging.

Finally, just in front of the bar Yuri was at, a lucky bolt struck home. The equine froze and lost his power, splashing into the water. To Yuri's surprise, the cop's bike began to change shape. It twisted and folded up over the officer, encasing him in a black and white technoarmor. Without pausing, the officer dived into the water, and quickly surfaced, easily carrying the immobilized RIDE pair. Yuri applauded with the rest of the watchers, as the officer waved, and took off with his prisoner.

As the bar returned to normal, he closed his eyes and reviewed what he had witnessed. Something was off about the situation, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it. He isolated clear views of the officer, his head in a hardlight helmet, the bike, and their armored form, and he realized what was wrong. 'No animal traces on either of them. How can this be? The bike moved too smoothly to be just an IDE....'

A quick search of the APD public sites told him how it could be. He found the pair on the department's roster.

Officer Gary Benton, has served for 15 years for the Nujose Police Department. He is partnered with an experimental new form of RIDE known as an Emergent Intelligence Drive Extender, or EIDE, named Sparky....

Yuri read a bit more on the EIDE and made his decision. He cleared his bill and called a taxi to the Aerodrome, already looking up flights to Nujose.

Nature Range

EvoLimited could rightly boast having the largest, most powerful qubitite mainframes on Zharus, and more segments were added on a daily basis. They provided the place where the Laurasian EIs were grown from an AI code-seed into a fully sentient being. RIs on the other hand, were essentially birthed by simulated animals in the Q-frame, then the human neural maps were added after the fact. EIs started from a collection of program fragments--Seeds--and gained sentience from there. Naturally newborns were nicknamed sprouts.

Still, there were many commonalities between Reticulated Intelligences and Evolved Intelligences. Once formed, they desired, needed, a world they could exist in at their speeds, to safely interact with others and to learn about the world, both virtual and real. Those worlds existed all over Zharus, lurking in the spare processors of the DEs, public systems, and custom servers like the ones in EvoLimited and in RIDEworks around the planet.

The Realms of Evos and the Ranges of RIs were as different as night and day, or rather wilderness and urban, reflecting the origin of their respective intelligences. Evos built off the urban and virtual landscapes of human lore. Cybertron, Trantor, Coruscant, The City, the Grid and Mainframe filled in the world of Evos. RIs on the other hand, drawing off their animal origins, had Nature Ranges. Oceans, beaches, plains, forests, marshes, mountains, islands, and endless skies, all untouched by the hand of man filled their worlds. Normally RIs ran a Nature Range on their own internal hardware, sharing with other RIs when they wanted to, but EvoLimited provided a common space for their employees' RIDEs, and any other RIDEs in the region that wanted some random encounters.

So, this is what the Real is supposed to look like. Skyfire mused to herself. She stood just inside the Green Room door, looking out at the bucolic wilderness beyond. Behind her, a door opened to the TRON-style Grid. Ahead of her, a door opened to a natural world. She could change it between any number of configurations. Old growth temperate forests, tropical jungles, high plains, savannah, arctic tundra, alpine meadows, and so on. She wasn't sure what interested her, but it was just so different from the hard-edged, metallic surfaces she'd spent many fast-time decades in Virtual.

"It's not quite the Real. It's still a simulation. But it is closer to Real than the Grids are." Lucy said. She was on the other side of the door. She was furred and a more natural lemur look than the Integrate mode she showed in the Grid and other Virtuals.

"So what will happen to me, when I step through?" Skyfire asked. "Where should I step in? There are so many options." Her current humanoid form was a somewhat feminized version of the VF-19 Excalibur from the Macross anime series. In Battroid form it even had breast-analogues and a curvier look in every form. Some of her friends thought the overt fembot look was silly, but she liked it. It reflected the human avatar she used more closely.

"Your spirit will guide you for what will happen. The Range is natural, it doesn't like the artificial. Hence why I am like this. But you, you don't have any natural, so the Range can be a bit random. In my experience, the Range makes the right choices, but most EIs find it uncomfortable. If you can handle it, just step through the door; the range will take care of the rest."

Skyfire paused, not sure if she was ready for the leap. Even from the wrong side of the door, she could tell the difference between the worlds. The Range were so much bigger, with more depth. More than enough for her to explore, if she could just take one step.

She crossed over.

For a millisecond her entire body tingled as the sim rules rebuilt her avatar from the inside out. Part of her reached those commands, analysing them and adjusting them quicker than her conscious processes could comprehend. She expected to end up as some sort of robotic animal, like the RIDEs did in Walker form. Instead she found...

A humanoid form, but with feathers in places, plating that looked like part of some bird. She soon found she had bits of a falcon's head embedded in both her back and chest, and her hands were more like bird feet. "Hey, I know what this is. I'm a Maximal."

"And a beautiful Maximal you are. Incredible, I didn't think that would be possible. The older EIs didn't do that. The Ranges forced them into pure animals," Lucy walked around Skyfire slowly, looking her up and down. "You're bringing in a sliver of the Grid with you, bending the Range rules. I wonder how many other EIs have developed that. We do incorporate what we've learned from the elders into the new Matrix Seeds...hmm...well, I'll investigate more later. I'd like to see how this works first."

Skyfire spread her arms and wiggled them, feeling the metallic feathers rustle. "So do I, mom. There's so much here to look at. Think you can keep up?"

Skyfire jumped into the air, then with an instinctual command her body shifted parts around. Legs folded up and in, arms slotting down into place as her wings and the back of her falcon's head emerged from her back. Soon she was flapping her wings a thousand meters over the treetops. "Woot!"

She was many times the size of the sim falcons and other birds in the air. Lucy watched her take off and shook her head, smiling ruefully, but proudly. "No chance in hell, Sky. No chance at all."

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Nujose Aerodrome

Yuri stepped out of the sub, stretched and looked around. Nujose's Aerodrome was a breath of sane air compared to Aloha. Sure it had stores and service kiosks all over the place, and ads plastered on every flat surface, but it wasn't as in your face and gaudy like Aloha. He grabbed a drink of water from a fountain near the bathrooms and considered his next step. He felt a bit out of sync from flying halfway around the planet; while local time was midafternoon, his body was thinking it was late evening and his mind was still trying to figure out what day it was. He yearned to be back up in space with a constant time no matter what station or base you visited.

"Good afternoon, Sir. May I offer my assistance?" Yuri looked around and noticed a holographic presence standing a couple of steps away from him.

"No, I'm-" he paused before dismissing the presence. The way it spoke sounded different from the AI systems he knew of. "What are you?"

"I am Joseph, one of the EIs that run this Aerodrome," the avatar said. He was pure human in appearance, taking after the Latino aspects of humanity.

"Hello, Joseph. I am Yuri. You're the Aerodrome? I'm walking in your body?"

Joseph smiled, "Technically that is correct, but I don't mind. I wouldn't have requested the Aerodrome if I minded."

Yuri looked around and noticed more Josephs, talking and walking with other passengers, pointing out things or just keeping the travellers company. He also noticed a woman, similar in looks to Joseph, guiding other groups.

Joseph followed his gaze. "That is Josephine, my other half. Normally only one of us is on at once, but with the traffic this time of day, we both come on. The way the city is growing, we may need to hire a third EI soon."

"Hire?... Sorry, I'm not used to EIs. I'm from Rhodes, we don't get much beyond the regular AIs out there."

"I don't mind. I am here to answer your questions. As for hiring, it's the arrangement EvoLimited makes with the people who take us in. I enjoy talking and guiding people, and I get paid for it. What more could you want? Now, what do you want? Can I help you find something?"

Yuri paused, then shrugged. "Maybe, but I doubt it. I'm looking for an EI partner. Someone who wants to fly, to head into space. So I guess I need to go to EvoLimited right?"

"That would be where you would need to go. But they don't pair up EIs with random people off the street, so I'm afraid you are probably out of luck. Still, if you plead your case well enough, maybe you'll be lucky. Shall I get you a cab?"

"Yes please."

The EvoLimited complex took up many acres along the riverbank, near the university. Much of the complex was offices, labs and warehouses, prettied up to fit in the environment. It's main building was a ten story office tower sized to hold most EIDE and RIDE visitors as well as human scaled visitors.

The lobby was what Yuri had come to expect from planet based buildings. A wide open space, with plants and seats off to the sides, a short hall to doors and elevators, and a large reception desk. Behind it was a gynoid that smiled to him. His first reaction was to treat it as an AI, but he remembered where he was by the time he reached the desk.

"Good afternoon. Welcome to EvoLimited. My name is Anne. How may I help you?" she greeted him. Like Joseph at the Aerodrome, her speech patterns were more human than AI.

"Hi there. I'm Yuri Shepard, from Rhodes. And I would like to apply for an EIDE."

Anne stared at him for a long moment, giving him the impression she was doing an assessment of his suitability. "An EIDE? You realize we do not just hand those out. The waiting list is years long, focusing on local candidates. and emphasizing personality matching." The tone of her voice hinted that her initial assessment was not good for him.

"I don't care, I need-" Yuri stopped himself from begging, "If I have a chance, even a remote chance, I'll do what I need to do. I'll stay groundside if needed. Just please, let me apply. Let me get on the list."

"Fair enough." Anne said, still seeming hesitant. She held up a tablet. "Please fill out these forms honestly. You can skip anything you are uncomfortable sharing, but the more honest and complete you are, the better your chances are. They will be held in confidence and destroyed on your request.

Yuri took the tablet and looked at the first page while she continued. "Since you aren't from around here, you may not be aware that EIDEs are very popular here in Nujose. The waiting list really is long and gets longer every day. We get hundreds of people applying each day, usually online, and few will succeed."

"I'll have no chance if I don't apply at least," Yuri said, linking to the device and letting his daemons fill in the basic information. He could tell that after the basics were out of the way, the rest would require a lot of thought. There were numerous scenarios and ideology questions on subjects he had never thought of before.

A door to a side room slide open, "You may fill it in here if you wish. Or outside if you are comfortable with that. When you are done you may leave the tablet where you are, or return it to me; the results are automatically sent to our databases."

Yuri looked at his options. "Is there a park or something nearby? Something with a view of the river I could go to?" Some Spacers had problem with planetary environments, but Yuri found them fascinating; especially the open water bodies on them. Not enough to make him want to stay on a planet, but enough to make the vacation worth it.

"Through this hall and out the back door. You can't miss it," Anne supplied, sending a direction marker to him. In his eyes, an arrow appeared in mid air, pointing to a hall that lead past the elevators to another set of glass doors on the far end of the building.

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Gate Room, Virtual Space

"Are you sure we should be doing this?" Arka asked. She and Rails had been invited to the gate room by Skyfire. The trio were now on the concrete floor of the big room. "Mom and dad just said you could go into the ranges, not the rest of us."

Skyfire waved her hand dismissively and stood in front of a Dial Home Device, pondering the options. Skyfire had redesigned the portal room between the realms to reflect another TwenCen show that appealed to her. It was mainly a concrete box, with large steel doors leading to the EI realms. A metal ramp lead up to a Stargate ring that symbolized the portal to the Nature Ranges. At the base of the ramp, slightly to one side, was the Dial Home Device. It lit up as Skyfire pushed buttons, a vid window showing the environment the buttons corresponded to.

"It'll be fine. Once they saw how well I took to the Ranges, they started considering letting more of us visit. They just haven't gotten around to making it official yet," she explained.

"I'm still not sure I like this. The Ranges are all biological. It seems icky to me," Rails said reluctantly. "They're all squishy and they leak all the time."

The trio had come in from Iacon, and were still in their robot modes. Skyfire was in her typical red and white mode, with hints of a space plane alt mode. Rails' current alt mode was a blue diesel locomotive, and his robot mode reflected that. Arka had changed alts again, to an emerald TwenCen sports car, and her robot mode showed the Viper's styles.

"This should do," Skyfire said, finally satisfied with their destination. She slapped the button in the middle of the device, and the ring started spinning, icons lighting up around its outer edge. There was a burst of energy, and the portal stabilized to show an African plain, covered in golden grasses with a wide river flowing nearby. "Who wants to go first?"

Rails looked away and scrapped his foot against the concrete. Arka on the other hand jumped to the ramp. "I'll head in."

She ran through the portal, her momentum easily carrying her a few metres past it on the other side. To her surprise, she found herself encased in a faint ovaloid field that held her just above the level of the grass. She spun around in it and looked back, puzzlement clear on her face. "What's happening?"

"It's nothing; just the Range's protections. I'll give you a hand in a minute. You going Rails?"

Rails hesitated a moment, looking between Skyfire and Arka. He grumbled under his breath, and walked through the portal. "I'll never live it down if I don't."

He found himself encased in a similar field, floating above the sunlit plains. Arka was exploring as best she could; she discovered she could move in the field, but it prevented her from interacting with anything in the Range.

Skyfire stepped through the portal hanging in midair, and was similarly shielded. "Right, I've been working on this since my first visit, and I think this will work. You two are my beta testers in many ways."

"Beta testers? Great. You couldn't mentioned that before," Rails said.

She shrugged and stepped between them before turning to them. "The Ranges are similar to the Realms, but different. A lot of the rules are the same, but there's one big difference. The Ranges have a mandatory biology rule that's unbreakable, even by us. Normally, they would just morph us into a bio-form and we'd be in; but EI's don't have the right hooks for it to grab onto and sync with. That's why we're in these fields; the Range is keeping us isolated from its environment. An RI could be standing right there and it wouldn't sense us at all."

"So what do we do to sync up?" Arka asked, sitting down in her bubble.

Skyfire sent them data packets. "Same thing we do when we visit a Realm. We need to adapt to it, and open up the hooks for the Range to link to. Basically pick a form you might feel comfortable with, and shift to it."

As an example, she tapped her icon, a simplified view of Zharus and it's moons, and began to shift. Hard panels softened, brown and gold feathers growing out. A stylized eagle head formed on her chest, while her legs shifted, becoming scaled and taloned. As soon as the changes finished, the field disappeared, dropping the robotic eagle-woman to the ground.

"That doesn't seem to be too difficult," Rails said. He tapped his own icon, the NuJose Transit Authority's badge, and began to glow. Black fur grew out of his softening skin plates, and his body began to shift. His feet compressed into shiny hooves, still keeping a metallic sheen. When he dropped out of the field, he was a robotic stallion-man.

He landed in a crouch and stayed there a moment, looking puzzled. He touched the fur on his arms. "This feels strange.... Squishy," he said.

"I know, isn't it great?" Skyfire said, shaking her own feathered arms. "You ready Arka?"

"I don't know. I can't decide on what to be!"

"Then just let it happen. I wrote that adaption code to try and tap into your subroutine desires. It'll pick one for you and if you don't like it, you can always change it."

Arka hesitantly tapped her Yin-Yang icon and began to glow. After a few moments, lines began to form on her shiny emerald skin, forming a metallic scale pattern. She dropped out of her own shield as a robotic lizard-woman.

"Looking sharp, Arka," Skyfire greeted her. "How does it feel?"

"What in Mom's name is all this?" Arka said. She twisted around, looking at herself, then the rest of her twisted around into a giant chameleon, the long tail twitching in surprise.

"Lookie here. More of youse guys. I thought I felt the Range shake." The trio turned in unison and spotted a feline on a rock near them. He was covered in reddish fur, about a metre long. He had long black fur tufts on the tips of his ears, and black line markings on his face, and a short tail.

"Hey Carl. I told you I might bring friends," Skyfire greeted the caracal.

"It's Caractacus, not Carl," Carl retorted, hopping off the rock and walking between the robots. He sniffed at Rails' feet then turned away. "Friends. Right. First it's one, then it's three, and next thing you know, youse guys are bulldozing the ground up and laying down roads and tracks and stuff in my savannah."

"It's not your savannah. This range is one of EL's public ranges. You've been piggybacking on it for so long you just think its yours," Skyfire pointed out.

He flicked his stubby tail dismissively, "Why should I strain my processors running a sim when youse got the whole worlds running next door?"

Skyfire sighed and shook her head. "In any case, Arka, Rails, this is Caractacus, or Carl to anyone who doesn't want to twist their voice processors into a knot. He's one of the first RI's I met here. Carl, my friends, who have no intention of tearing up your savannah."

"Why is he talking like a nineteenth century New Yorker?" Rails said.

"So, youse a real smart guy, huh?" the caracal said, stalking forwards. "Yeah, yeah? Let's see what youse got under that fancy robotic avatar. Youse smell like horse."

Rails looked down at the feline, then back at Sky. "I don't know Sky, a rail line running along the river might be nice, with a switching yard over there...."

"Don't start him up, Rails," she warned him.

"What do you mean about under our avatar?" Arka asked, eyes rotating independently to look at Carl.

Carl jumped back on the rock. "You guys, you thinks youse all special. We only got our look here, but youse, youse hack the grid and give yourselves two forms. Still think that's cheating."

"He means this," Skyfire said. She jumped into the air and began to shift. The bird head lifted up from her chest, while her shoulders folded inward to fill the gap. Feathered panels slid over her exposed metal plating, until a natural-looking, but very large, golden eagle flapped in the air.

"Exactly. This is the Range. Everything's normal here. No fair having two forms here."

"You've got three modes out in the Real. I don't see what you're complaining about. We haven't even instantiated yet," Skyfire countered, hovering in the air, flapping her wings occasionally but not moving.

Carl harumphed and looked at Rails. "How 'bout you big guy? Ready to show off your Iron Horse?"

Rails looked doubtful and uneasy. "I don't know. That looks even squishier than what I am now. Is it safe?"

"It's all sims anyway. Nothing can really hurt us," Skyfire said. "The subs are in place if you want it."

"Yeah, just us in here now. Us and the AI-phants and RhinAIs and all da rest of the fake-imals."

"Simulacra," Skyfire said.

"Yeah. Those," Carl said, snorting. He started industriously grooming the backs of his forepaws.

"Whoa!" Arka called out. The others looked over in time to see her falling forward on all fours. She was a metre long chameleon now, barely looking above the tall grasses. "This is neat!"

Rails looked at his friends and shook his head, "Yeah maybe for you. But this is way too muddy and squishy for me." He began to back up to the portal. "Sorry Sky, but I'm not really cut out for this. Ten millis is more than enough."

Skyfire sighed, seeing her friend back through the portal. "Oh well, I can't say I'm not too surprised. How about you Arka? You want to head back?"

"We just got here, of course not!" she shifted back to her bipedal mode. "But next time, I think I'll try something else. This doesn't quite feel right. Not mobile enough. I want something with some oomph."

"Of course." Skyfire looked at Carl. "We really the only Intelligences here?"

"In da savannah? Yeah. But I think there's a bunch hanging out in the beach zone."

"Then I guess that's where we want to be. You want to join us, Carl?" Skyfire asked. She looked at the portal and it changed colour, showing grasses leading to a busy beach.

Carl hesitated, then shrugged, jumping down. "Guess so. Huntin's no good 'round here anyways. Was hoping ta take a bite outta dat horse, but he probably tastes like chicken." He flicked his ears and jumped through the portal before either of the EI's could react.

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"It was wonderful. She took to the Range better than some RIs do," Lucy said over dinner. Argon was across the table from her, flicking through the day's applications. "And then taking Rails and Arka in... I should probably have stopped them but I was curious. Rails, he didn't like it at all, but Arka took it like a fish to water. She's asked me if she could be turned into a RIDE. I don't know if it's possible, and she'll probably change her mind again by next week, but it does raise some intriguing possibilities..."

"Mmmhmmm," Argon mumbled, flicking applications into various virtual piles, only half listening.

Lucy continued, her own thoughts chasing various ideas around, "Could we update the older EI's? They didn't like the Ranges before but with what Skyfire's developed they might be able to handle it. I wonder what they might morph into? I could see Sparky as a Prime type, a gorilla maybe... Anne? Hmm, I'm not sure..."

"A dinobot maybe? She's usually morphed into Trypticon on Cybertron," Argon suggested.

"Good point. I could see her doing that," Lucy chuckled. "I just hope the Ranges will be enough for Sky. She's starting to chew up the Range data like mad. Making friends all over should help stave off the boredom, but it won't last forever." Lucy sighed, "Maybe we should get her a body. She'd work best with a partner, but...."

"But we might have one," Argon paused and looked closer at an application. "A partner that walked right into our laps at that."

The application appeared over the table, starting with the compatibility graphs they'd refined through the years. The applicant's lines lined up with Skyfire's almost perfectly.

"Wow, that's a great sync graph. Haven't seen one that close since... Pepper and Nadia. What are the chances?"

"Fifty fifty I'd say. There's one rather big hiccup, and it's not because he's a Spacer," Argon noted.

"A big hiccup? What do you- He? Oh dear..."

Argon nodded. "We've worked around it before. Usually we have enough candidates on both sides that we can match up. But Skyfire's got a spacer personality... and he's the only spacer we've had apply."

"But Sky's a female. What will we do? What should we do? Would he be willing to cross maybe?"

"He might be willing to. Take a look at these scans."

Most people were near one end or the other of a continuum between the masculine and the feminine, but Yuri Shepherd's results were smack in the middle. "This'll make a cross-gender Fuse easier for both, according to the sims," Argon said.

Lucy brought up a sampling of more scans. Most were in the middle. "From what I've seen a lot of Spacers tend to be closer to neutral. They tend to borg out so young, hormones have less of an impact on their sense of self."

"Yes, a point in his favour. Still..." Argon trailed off and highlighted a few peaks, "Overall he's neutral but in some key elements he seems to lean towards male. That may be an issue."

Lucy nodded, "Well, there is another option. Fuse without crossing. EI's are more flexible in self-form than RI's usually; there's no reason they would have to cross."

"It's never been done. It could have psychological and physiological and robotilogical issues we don't know of!" Argon paused, his expression softening as he considered the opportunity they had in front of them. "Still, if they are willing, we could monitor their links closely and adapt as needed. The tech is a lot more advanced and different from the early fuse days; it could be useful to find out if it is possible now."

"If they are willing... For all we know they'll hate each other on sight and we'll be back on square one," Lucy said.

"We won't know until we try... hmm, this is another wrinkle I didn't expect. Look at his medical records."

Even in fast time, it took them a few minutes to process the dense medical file, having to look up terms that were new to them and apparently unique to his condition.

"He wants to be a flyer, but he experiences seizures when he has to do heavy spatial processing? That would be a challenge," Argon said.

"No known cure; even the cause is unknown, something about his mind in total. Only happens in the Real too, so it might be sense-related. Fuse expands the senses, that could make it worse."

"Or it could make him better."

"They did try fusing once, but it didn't work. And did you notice how he talked to Anne? He's desperate. Do we really want to risk Skyfire with him?"

"He's such a good match otherwise. If partnering with Skyfire can cure him, or at least let them both fly, wouldn't it be worth it?"

"It could also ground Skyfire too, if we're wrong."

"It's a very remote risk. I say we introduce them and lay it all on the table," Argon said.

Lucy sighed, "Fine, but we'll take it slowly."

Argon grinned, "How do we want to do it? The cold introduction or the matchmaker?"

"I'd like to see how he fares on the Grid first. If he can't handle the Grid, then that's a showstopper anyway."

"Good idea. I'll call him in for a Grid interview," Argon said. The red-ruffed lemur leapt up into the chandelier hanging over the kitchen table and hung upside down, then levitated a pizza slice up to his mouth. "And if he passes, we'll call Skyfire in right away."

The Grid

When the call came in Yuri was speechless for a moment, but accepted right away. The next morning he arrived at EvoLimited bright and early, and was again greeted by the building's gynoid avatar Anne.

"Right this way please. The Doctors will be with you momentarily," Anne said, showing none of the coolness she had shown before.

She led him into a room that reminded him of a number of mad scientist movies, both the ancient versions and the Zharusian takes. There were a few person-sized booths along one wall, with control panels next to them. It all looked very curious.

"Ah, here they are," Anne said. "Yuri Shepherd, I'd like you to meet two people who me and the other EIs think of as our parents. Dr. Farouk Skye," she said, gesturing at the short man with dark curly hair, light brown skin, and black thick-rimmed glasses. "And his spouse, Dr. Lucy Skye."

"Greetings Yuri Shephard!" Farouk said. His voice had an odd accent.

"Yuri Liwei Shepherd," Lucy said. She was a complete contrast from her husband. Tall, curvy, statuesque, with platinum blond hair that sparkled. They wore clothes in opposite-but-complementary colors. "Named after the first Russian, Chinese, and American in space."

"Uh, yeah. A lot of us name our kids after various early astronauts," Yuri said. "Mine were rather...ambitious, naming me for the firsts. Yuri is fine."

Farouk extended his right hand, which Yuri shook. "Ah, mine had similar feelings. My namesake is Dr. Farouk El-Baz, the lead lunar geologist involved in the Apollo Program. He was a very interesting person."

"I can't say mine were deeper than liking a certain Beatles tune," Lucy said. "It is nice to meet you, Yuri. Please, have a seat. We have a few things to go over before we go to the next step."

"I'm a little unclear on your interview process," Yuri said. He had dressed in his best suit in local fashion for the occasion, purchased at a Nujose clothing fabbery. He sat down in a cushy chair Farouk pointed out to him. "But then, I'm new to the idea of an Enhanced Intelligence to begin with."

"We'll begin with an obvious question," Farouk said. He and his spouse took the chairs opposite. "Why are you here, now?"

Yuri decided honesty was the best decision. They had taken some extensive neurological scans as part of the application process. "Because I'm a Spacer who doesn't know which way is up. It's noted under the 'Medical Conditions' portion of the application."

"It is a curious coincidence of sorts. You being named Shepard and having a condition that keeps you from flying. I don't know how well you know the history, but Alan Shepard developed Menere's Disease after his flights, that not only grounded him, but kept him from something as simple as driving," Farouk noted.

Yuri sighed. "I know of it. But it's just a strange coincidence at best," he said tiredly.

"So you're sure it's not an inner-ear problem?" Lucy asked.

"If it were that simple, I wouldn't be here. The neuropathology of my condition is uncertain," Yuri said. "The Docs have tried a number of nanotech treatments, but none stuck for more than a few days. At this point, I...well, I'm getting desperate. The only RIDEs that are even passable Spacers are dragons and I don't want the body alterations that go with it. I suppose I'm not quite that desperate, but I'm getting close. I want to be a Ranger, see."

"Don't think we haven't reviewed your records, in spite of our questions. Sometimes hearing it straight from the prospect gives you a better feel for the case. Your records do say you tried to cure with fusing before. What happened?" Farouk said.

Yuri shrugged, "Not much. It was a dog or wolf RIDE we hired from a gropo err Zharusian who was on vacation on Rhodes. We fused up and tried the regular tests, but my problem persisted, fused or unfused."

"EIDE fusing are very similar to RIDE fusing; what makes you think this will be any different?" Farouk asked.

"I have no idea. But I'm looking to try anything." Yuri took a moment to pause and recompose himself. "In hindsight, the RIDE wasn't a flyer type. We didn't really get along. Part of me wonders if that was part of the problem. But RIDEs are not that common out at Rhodes, so we didn't really have that many options. Maybe if it was a better fit, I'd have a better chance. I just want to try, before I get punted to the factories."

"Well, personality fits are an important part of the pairing process, especially for our children, our EI's that is. A good match might be able to handle your situation where an indifferent match couldn't." Lucy theorized, trading a look with Farouk.

Yuri tried not to look eager. "I've checked, Zharus's space regs are a bit looser than Colossus's. I could get licensed here with a RIDE, or EIDE partner, if it works. That's the key."

Farouk cleared his throat. "You say you want to try anything. Would that include a crossride, Mr. Shepherd?"

He paused, showing a momentary grimace that the other two caught before shrugging, "If it is really necessary, I guess. I never thought of it, one way or another But I don't really have an interest in being a woman. Are you saying the EI you have in mind is female?"

"She is, but don't take your hesitation as an automatic fail, Mr. Shepard. There are other things to take into consideration, and you are willing if it is necessary," Farouk reassured. "In any case, before we go on, I think you should meet the candidate we've chosen for you. If you would please step into the Grid Fuser booth."

Yuri raised his eyebrows. "Wait, Fusers?"

"They make no changes. They just allow you to meet your potential partner on more even terms. The Grid is their virtual world; the fuse booth will let you experience it as deeply as they do," Lucy said. "We'll be in the other booths."

Yuri stepped in and felt the air change as the booth sealed around him. At first, nothing happened, but then he started noticing sparks in the darkness. His skin tingled, and his mind itched; a strange but not entirely unpleasant experience.

Between blinks, the world changed. The walls of the chamber disappeared, leaving him on a flat, dark, endless plane. He looked down, but though he could sense his body, he could see nothing. Around him, he could sense things flying around him, but they were as invisible as his body. He waited calmly, not sensing anything hostile or dangerous about his situation.

Moments later, things changed again. He let out an oof as something heavy slammed painlessly into his midriff. More pieces followed the first, faster than he could react. He could see a shape taking form around his invisible body; bulky, blocky, angular. His hand tingled as the pieces settled into place around it. When he lifted it up, he could see his hand was metallic and segmented, more than just a glove, it seemed robotic.

The last few pieces surrounded his head and the world briefly lit up before the ground dropped out from beneath him. He fell for a virtual eternity, and landed on his feet in a park unlike any he'd ever seen before. Tall buildings clad in silver and gold rose around him. He could see movement between them, figures, some humanoid, others vehicular flowing between them. Closer in, he was in an open area, on metal ground. Wide paths wandered randomly around glowing crystals that grew as tall as trees.

"Hound. Don't usually see that avatar. Interesting look," a male voice commented behind him. He turned and saw a pair of robots looking back at him, humanoid with some strange animal traits he didn't recognize.

"What? Where am I? What happened?" Yuri asked, his voice having a robotic undertone.

"Welcome to the Grid, This is the Cybertron Realm, Iacon City," Farouk said.

"I have no idea what all that means. Why am I like this?"

Lucy laughed. "The Grid is a virtual world, where our EIs are born, grow and learn how to interact, or just come for some peace. It's a world of machines, so visitors have to have mechanical avatars that fit the theme. Your own avatar is similar to an Autobot named Hound. He is a Transformer, extracted from TwenCen media. Most of the EI Realms are based on human media."

Yuri looked at himself for the first time. He saw a dark green and dark gray robotic body as his own. His shoulders were broad, with his upper chest looking like the squared off grill of some sort of vehicle, complete with a pair of headlights. His arms extended from the front wheel wells, rectangular shaped boxes of sorts, slightly rounded to make them look somewhat natural, ending in the big segmented hands he'd briefly seen before. Wheels were attached to his forearms, which he could discover he could spin if he willed them. His legs and feet were similarly blocky, with more wheels attached to the side of his calves near his ankles.

He took a couple of steps and moved his arms, getting a feel for the avatar. It felt strong, durable, even agile in some ways. But the biggest feeling he had from it, was that it was wrong.

"So how does it feel? The fuser chamber tries to build your avatar based on your preferences," Farouk asked.

"It does? Yuri said, crouching and straightening up. "I.. I hate to say this, but I think your matching algorithms may need some work."

"What makes you say that?" Lucy asked innocently.

Yuri tapped his chest, hearing metal clang metal. "This is a ground form. It's got wheels. I'm a Spacer. I hate the ground. No offense intended."

Farouk grinned back, "None taken. No one is perfect." He waved his hand and a catalogue appeared in the air in front of Yuri. "Why don't you pick your own avatar then? One that would be a better fit. One of the reasons we pick Cybertron is because its avatars are so flexible. Any vehicle from across human history and human imagination can be here."

"Any one?" Yuri asked, sensing how many options were in the catalog.

"Any at all," Lucy encouraged him.

He quickly eliminated the ground and aquatic based robots. Soon after he ditched the aerial forms as well. He was a Spacer, he was going to have a suitable form. He started flicking through the available forms, still numbering in the thousands, but none really clicked for him. His mind wandered a little, and he stopped seeing the options that flickered by in front of him. He slipped back to his youth, weekend mornings with Neil and other friends when they gathered at the holoscreen. Steader Entertainment had released a block of TwenCen media specifically to the Spacers and they were a hit with his generation.

One in particular, from the late TwenCen, came to mind. It was a space-based cartoon, with space jets capable of atmosphere and vacuum flying. It even had a humanoid mode similar to the Transformers. He brought one to mind and imagined himself as it, ignoring the options in the catalogue completely.

The greens went away and his robot body began to shift, the blockiness becoming more angular, taller and thinner. The world seemed to sense what he was trying to do, and took over, guiding the change. The thinness expanded again, and the gray turned to white. He could feel a weight growing on his back, and sense a sort of wings there. On his chest, a cockpit formed, surrounded by exhaust ports of some sort. It felt complicated, but it felt right.

"Jetfire. Interesting choice," Farouk said, a little surprised.

"It wasn't quite what I was going for, but it felt right. I was going for a VF-1S Valkyrie, from Macross. It's the sort of thing I loved as a kid. Funny, I didn't notice it in the catalog. Or this 'Jetfire' ," Yuri explained, flexing his hands and elbows and looking himself over. As he settled into it, he could sense its potential, joints and abilities not part of the human norm, but now part of his form.

"Funny that," Farouk said, trying to sound innocent. "Still, the forms are closer than you may realize. The 80's were a strange time when it came to animation and toy licensing. Are you sure this is what you want?"

Yuri continued his self inspection, twisting and turning to get used to it. He could sense the power in the form. Unlike the Hound avatar, this one felt like it could jump up and keep going; just what he wanted. "Oh yeah, this is exactly what I want. Where'd Dr Far- err Lucy go?"

"She went to get the other candidate. They'll be here soon. Since you want to fly, why don't I show you one of the tricks of this realm," Farouk suggested, his words carrying an instruction data pack.

Yuri received the packet and was confused for a moment before he absorbed what they contained. He crouched down, then leaped into the air, feeling his body parts spinning and shifting. The cockpit lifted from his chest, covering his head but not blocking his vision; he was seeing through the senses of the jet now. His legs and arms folded inward, while the wings spread a bit. In plane mode, he started his virtual engines and continued upwards, into the sky.

"Don't go too high or too far! They'll be back soon!" Farouk called after him.

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Lucy waited in the Stargate room, looking through the portal into the Nature Range. She was about to call again, when a large eagle flew through the portal. Still in midflight, the eagle stretched and folded, briefly becoming the eagle-maximal. As she landed, her form continued to morph, feathers fading away until Skyfire was back to her usual robotic mode.

"Enjoying your visits my dear?" Lucy asked.

"Immensely! I met some more avian RIDEs. Mainly the Laurasian types, but there were a couple of the bigger Gondwanan styles. They're so different from me."

"Different? How so?"

Skyfire shrugged, "It's hard to say. But the way they fly, the way they react, it's just not what I'm used to. When I fly, it's all controlling my impulses, and repulsors and thrusters and adjusting my ailerons and stuff. When they fly, it's about flapping wings and kicking off and wiggling a tail. Why is that? They're still robots, just skinned to look like animals."

Lucy chuckled and lead her through to Iacon. "That's where you're wrong. Technically you are right, but it's more than that. Their minds, their whole being, was created based on the animal template. Everything goes through that, including mapping their bodies to their commands."

Skyfire looked puzzled, "That seems... Slow. To add an extra level of simulation like that." She looked up, grinning, "Just means I'll be that much faster than them in the races."

"It's not an extra layer. It's just the way they are built. You could say they are animals who just happen to be in machine bodies. It's also part of the reason the Grid and the Range have such a hard time mixing. You and your brothers and sisters have a different mapping than your RI cousins. Once you get to the Real, you'll see there isn't a difference. And if you think that way, they'll be beating you in the races."

Skyfire sighed and stepped into the grid after Lucy. "If I ever get into the Real."

"Patience," Lucy cautioned her. Skyfire noticed the doctor seemed distracted, searching the skies over the Cybertronian city.

She spotted the movement first, her eyes automatically zooming in to the red and white space plane. Her systems froze up a moment; flyers weren't uncommon with the EI's, but space-variants were almost unheard of before her. She recognized the form, though she wasn't positive if it was the Macross version or the Transformers variant. "Who is that? Is that a new EI?"

Lucy smiled, "Why don't you go find out? Go up there and ask him to rejoin Farouk and I in Primus Park."

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Flight in the Grid was exhilarating. Yuri blasted up a few thousand meters, then switched to gerwalk mode, the half-step between jet and battroid, to hover in midair. The way the Grid translated human perception into this robotic form was amazing. He could even feel the controls in the cockpit move to mirror his movements, though he was controlling the engines and flight surfaces at a baser level than the controls."

"You have no trouble finding which way is down," Farouk observed. "The neurological data from the Fuser booth shows your 'problem' is nonexistent in here. Your implants work well with our brand of Fuser nannies. I have to say, you're a natural for Cybertron."

"Yeah, I've known that for years. But to get my licensing, I have to do it in the Real. Pumping through a simulator won't do. Still, this feels incredible, better than any sim I've done before."

"It's the fuse tech; better links than just hacking your implants. We'll probably be releasing this tech in a few more years." Farouk glanced away and saw movement coming towards them. "Why don't you enjoy your flight and come back down to the park when you're ready to continue?" Without waiting for an answer, the doctor shot away.

Yuri watched him leave, then became aware that he wasn't alone. He turned around and saw another flyer hovering near him. As he watched, the fighter shifted to robot mode, similar to his own, but sleeker, more feminine.

"Hello, stranger. Come up here often?" Skyfire greeted him.

Yuri coughed a moment and shifted all the way to robot mode to match her. They both hovered on plasma jets coming out of their feet. "Nuh-No. This is my first time."

"First time?" Skyfire started circling him slowly. He could feel her studying him carefully. "A new sprout? Considering the trouble I'm giving mom and dad now, I'm surprised they'd make another space EI."

Yuri could hear a bit of bitterness in her voice. He turned to face her again, "A sprout? What's that? I'm Yuri by the way."

"I'm Skyfire. Yuri, that's a strange name for an EI..." She trailed off, and Yuri saw her eyes literally brighten. "You're not an EI, are you?"

He stood up straighter, even though he was floating in mid air. "No, I am human. A Spacer. Born and raised on Rhodes."

She grabbed his hands and began to spin, pulling him with her. "A Spacer! I don't believe it! They found one! They found one!"

Yuri put two-and-two together. "You're the EI I'm supposed to meet?"

"Well duh! They didn't even hint to me that you were here. That was a nasty trick, mom and dad."

'Sorry, but we wanted to see how you got along. Why don't you come back down so we can properly introduce you,' Farouk sent.

"Something is going to go down, if you don't stop spinning me like this," Yuri said. "Mom and dad?"

Skyfire stopped spinning but didn't let go of his hands. She pulled him back down at top speed. "Well, they made me, so they're my parents right? They're the parents of all the EI's."

Yuri tried to get a better look at her. "That's...the Sound Force VF-19 variant, isn't it? Macross 7? The mecha designers gave it a rather obviously feminine look."

"Oh, you got it! Got it on one!" Skyfire wanted to cheer. "Does this mean you're going to be a woman, too?"

"Uhh...well, your parents said they'd explain it. I'm sort of eager to find out what they have in mind," Yuri said.

"Then let's go find out. This is so exciting!" She shifted back to jet mode and shot down to the surface.

Yuri took a moment to recover, then transformed as well. He followed her downward, sensing and naturally adapting to the turbulent air she left behind. She reached the ground and smoothly transformed back to robot mode, landing lightly on her feet. Yuri reached the ground and hovered above it a moment before transforming and landing with a solid thump.

"Yuri Shepard, this is Skyfire. We've been trying to find a good match for her for a long time in Virtual, about twenty five years. In the Real she's approximately five months old," Lucy said.

"Really?" Skyfire said. "Wow."

Yuri nodded, "Wow indeed. But if you think we can be partners, wouldn't there .. ?"

"We have an answer for that," Farouk said. "You've given us an opportunity to perform an experiment that hasn't been officially tried since the rules for Fuse were settled years ago. We want to try a cross-gender active Fuse without the body alterations. With both of your consent, of course."

"What does that mean?" Yuri asked. "Remember, this is all new to me. Fusing isn't common out my way."

"It means we want to see if you two can fuse without making you into a girl," Farouk explained.

"Our theory is that it is possible. The fuse mode will probably feel strange for both of you, but between the flexibility EIs have, and the new tech we have available it should be possible," Lucy added.

"Of course, the DE we build will need some customization; Skyfire's Real body will be a prototype, something we'll need to experiment with to get the best fit. It won't be without risks," Farouk finished. Yuri began to feel like he was watching a tennis game as the Doctor's made their pitch to the pair, one seamlessly picking up the conversation thread from the other.

"O-kay... So what are you getting at? Why would you even need to consider that?" Yuri asked, finally managing to interrupt them.

"Well, your condition is an issue in the Real after all. But it is unique to you, so it's rather expensive to try to cure directly. Add to that the cost of a DE, let alone a space capable one... Despite how well you and Skyfire obviously get along, your financial situation couldn't afford her," Farouk said slowly. "We already checked."

Yuri's shoulders slumped and Skyfire started to speak, only to be silenced by Lucy's upraised finger. "But we aren't that cruel to present this hope to both of you only to yank it away. Developing a Space DE, and testing the cross-fuse are both very valid lines of research, as is working to cure Yuri's condition. So if Yuri is willing to be hired by us, we can cover those costs in our R&D budget, for at least as long as you two work out."

Yuri looked confused, trying to catch up. Lucy cut to the chase, "Do you both feel like being test pilots for EvoLimited?" Lucy asked. "That would give us an excuse to make Skyfire's body AND we could easily try to cure Yuri's condition at the same time."

"Yes!" Skyfire shouted instantly.

"So you're offering me a job?" Yuri asked.

"Yes, we are. Think of it as a bridge to your ambitions as a Ranger," Farouk added. "Just like the Mercury 7 and many of the Apollo astronauts who were test pilots first."

"Well, when you put it that way," Yuri replied, feeling as happy as his new partner. "I'm in."

"Welcome to the EL family, Yuri," Lucy said.

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Dear mom and dad,

I just wanted you to know, I won't be coming back to Rhodes. At least not right away. An incredible opportunity has opened up for me here on Zharus. I know, on a planet of all things.

I know I said I was coming here for a vacation, but I wasn't entirely truthful. I came here to see if they could help me. If the RIDEs might be the miracle cure for my condition, even though we discounted them long ago.

Don't worry, I'm still me. I couldn't go through with it.

But there's something else happening here, cousins to RIDEs. I've attached information on the Evolved Intelligences. They're mostly limited to a city called Nujose here, but their potential could be as world shattering as RIDEs were, or Cavorite and Hardlight were for us.

They haven't looked to Space for their creations yet, so I'll be a pioneer like my namesakes. They know of my condition, and there is a slight chance they might be able to help me. I'm not getting my hopes up too much, but I'll take any opportunity I can get, especially since they are willing to foot the bill for now.

I'll be in touch later, when I know more. But you can cancel the rest of my lessons, and my test. I won't be leaving Zharus for a while now. Imagine that, me stuck on a planet for weeks, months even. Hope I can stand the weight.

Love you,


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A half dozen sprouts waited with Skyfire for their first experience in the Real. For her, several months had passed in Virtual, roleplaying with sims, getting to know Yuri better, before her core would be installed in a temporary shell. When they received the signal in Virtual, each one shut down while their cores were moved from the Q-mainframe.

"Ever feel like we've created a monster?" Lucy said, smiling as they waited for Skyfire to wake up.

"Every time we power these up for the first time. Not in a bad way of course," Farouk replied.

"Still, have you seen the trends with the latest sprouts? It's the 1960's in there. Everyone's going space crazy."

"Then we'd better make sure this works out. Yuri and Skyfire won't be out there alone for long."

"You could say Skyfire is our Sputnik," Lucy said. "The space race has begun."

"Our sprout is a spud?" Farouk smirked and looked at Skyfire's temporary shell. It was a highly specialized gynoid, like the building EIs used when they needed real hands. It wasn't fuse capable, but it would help her get used to the limits of the Real. The process was far more refined than it had been with the earlier EIs like the police units Sparky and Pepper, who had gone right into fuse-capable shells. Five of the sprouts had human partners ready. Only two, Skyfire's friends Rails and Arka, were partnerless. Rails's aptitudes were leading him for an eventual pairing with NuJose's rail system so he would never likely fuse, but the Doctors felt a human experience would be good for him. Arka on the other hand was a challenging unknown, her future hazy even to the Doctors' charts.

Overhead, a robotic arm plugged in the cubic EI cores into the head of each waiting shell. A green light lit up over the seven--three females, four males--and signaled their system checks were complete.

"Okay, Anne, bring them online," Lucy said.

The customised human Full Body Replacement shells were designed especially for human empathy, so the EI could get an idea of what it was like to be organic. They simulated being human to a very fine degree, with special-tuned hardlight emitters that would simulate skin and various body functions like sweat, goosebumps, and everything else. They even had the right mass via a carbon skeletal frame. Skyfire and the rest of her cohort were about to get an interesting awakening.

Farouk cued some music as each awoke to find themselves apparently enfleshed.

I analyze and I verify and I quantify enough

100 percentile no errors no miss

I synchronize and I specialize and I classify so much

Don't worry 'bout dreaming because I don't sleep --

I wish I could at least 30 percent

Maybe 50 for pleasure then skip all the rest

If I only was more human

I would count every single second the rest of my life

If I just could be more human

I'd have so many little babies and maybe a wife

"What is this?" Skyfire said, staring at her hands, her breasts, and various other body parts. "I'm...wait, I can't be human."

"No, you're not. None of you are, really. It's only the best simulation we've come up with," Lucy said. "Surprise, sprouts."

"Why do I have this dangly thing and she has those?" Rails asked, pointing at Skyfire's chest. "I think I kind of like those."

"Well, the limbic system sim is working correctly on him," Lucy said, covering her smile with her hand.

"For the next week, you'll come to understand humans better," Farouk said. "Which means we've built these frames to simulate it as closely as possible. You'll need to eat, sleep, dress in clothing, use vehicles or your feet for transport, and more."

"Why?" Rails asked. "What's the point of being a squishy?"

"Go ahead and put on some clothes and we'll go meet your partners," Farouk said. "This is as much for their benefit as yours."

Getting them all dressed the first time took some doing. Skyfire dove into it like she did everything else, with gusto and an adventurous spirit. The clothes were colored in patterns much like their preferred Grid forms, oddly enough. When she was finished with the tee shirt and pants Skyfire had to admit that it helped her decide the faux-flesh woman in the mirror was actually herself. By the end she'd started to feel a little...

"Am I feeling hunger?" she said aloud, hand on her stomach. "Actual hunger?"

"Oh, I see. It's like that episode of G1 Transformers where Rodimus and a few others were put into human bodies," Rails said. "Clever."

"I love this," Arka said, posing in front of the mirror. "I absolutely love every millisecond. Did you say we only have a week in these?"

"We only have seven of them at present, and we need them for the next group," Farouk said.

"We hope you have a good week, Rails," Lucy said. "Now, let's go see how your partners react--except for you and Arka, of course. We've arranged some experiences for all of you, with or without partners, to make the most of your week."

"These things jiggle," Skyfire said, bouncing on the balls of her feet.

"You can all play with yourselves later," Farouk said with the long-suffering look of a father. "Let's go."

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Yuri stood to one side of the large workshop, watching the green EIDEs move parts around. The number of pieces that had to be placed just right to build a DE boggled him. Every time he turned around, it seemed another load of material was being brought in.

"This is a lot of stuff," Yuri said to Mixmaster. The cement-truck EIDE was supervising while mixing a load of specialized construction nanites in the cannister on his back.

"We are complex beings," the builder said. "Especially if they are going to be space capable. Skyfire's body will keep a human safe from the fires of Pharos to the icy reaches of Xolotlan."

Yuri still couldn't tell whether it was Mixmaster or his partner speaking. "Considering it's my life she'll be protecting, I really appreciate it.... But don't you think it's a bit... big?"

The DE was little more than a spaceframe, half humanoid, half space plane. It was about twenty metres long and didn't seem to be getting any shorter.

"Even with hardlight, it takes a lot to handle that environmental range. Don't worry, there are RIDEs that size that work fine."

Yuri nodded, "Well you guys are the experts," he concluded. Inwardly he was worried, it was looking like a spaceship designed by gropos. They didn't know the rules Spacers had developed over the centuries man had travelled above the planets. Still, it wasn't his place to complain about it, especially considering how far along it was.

Unexpectedly a pair of female hands covered his eyes. "Guess who?!" a familiar voice asked. The hands were warm and had supple skin.

His mind skipped a beat from the incongruity, "Skyfire?!?"

"In the gynoid pseudoflesh," she replied. She let him go and spun him around to look at her. "What do you think? This is my human avatar in the Matrix, but this feels so much different."

He smiled at her, his concerns about the DE leaving his mind. "You look beautiful in any form. I can't imagine how different it feels."

Mixmaster snorted, picking up a can of fabber matter. "They didn't have that when I was a sprout." He popped the top and drank it down.

Yuri, his arm around Skyfire did a double take. "Isn't your partner in the way?"

Mixmaster chuckled, sounding differently, "Nah, we've sorted that out long ago. I'm lower in his chest so he has the appropriate plumbing to the tanks. It's great for freaking out the newbs."

"It just tastes better dis way," Mixmaster himself added.

"Ah..." Skyfire said. "Well, speaking of taste, I think I could use a meal myself."

"You eat?" Yuri said.

"My parents are calling this the 'Be Human Project'. We get to see how you squishies live before they release us into the Real for good," Skyfire explained. "So yes, I need to eat."

"Well, there's the EL Fabeteria," Yuri said. "You can get anything you want there."

"Sounds good. Lead the way?"

"Don't tell me you don't know your way around," Yuri said.

"Human simulation. We've been, uh...well, I don't want to say downgraded, but there it is. Consider me just another squishie." Skyfire blushed a little. "This is a little disorienting. Everything's so slow."

Yuri led her there, hand in hand. He was still new to the EL campus himself, but could consult his implant's map and GPS. She apparently only had a basic comm implant enabled. But she was no shrinking violet, and would sometimes sprint ahead a little to look at some curiosity, or apparently just to feel how her own body moved. There was a little disappointment there.

"I don't have any lifters," she grumbled.

"Well, neither do I," Yuri said.

Someone had already thoughtfully set up a table with various foods--apparently natural and not fabbed--specifically for the Be Human Project. Rails was already sampling a bit of everything with a heavily laden plate.

"There's so much here... What should I start with?" Skyfire asked, her eyes roaming along the table.

Yuri was a bit befuddled as well. While Space food had evolved since the early days of spaceflight, it still didn't hold a candle to the variety of a planetary ecosystem. The buffets in Aloha had similarly stumped him at first. "Best thing to do, is take a bit of anything that catches your eye and nose. You can always come back for more," he advised her. "But remember, you aren't bottomless. What goes in must come out. Assuming they're going to those lengths."

"Try the grapes," Rails suggested, popping a couple in his mouth. "And be shh..." he spit them out.

"You can't talk and chew at the same time," Arka said. She was very carefully cutting a steak with a knife and a fork.

"I knew that. I did," Rails insisted.

Dr. Lucy Skye entered the Fabeteria. "Good to see you're sampling things, Rails." She looked at the other two EIs. "Where are the others?"

"Chumming with their partners," Arka added, being incredibly careful with the knife. "Rails and I didn't have anything else to do, so we came here."

Only then did Yuri notice she had a bandage on her forearm.

"Did you cut yourself, Arka?" Lucy asked.

"Wanted to see just how good this simskin is," the female EI replied. "I think the correct term is 'ow'."

"All I did was slap myself," Rails said. He sat down across from his friends. "You want a bite of chicken, Arka?"

"Sure, why not?" She used her fork and transferred a breast to her plate before cutting it.

"You know, I think I'll try the chicken, myself," Skyfire said, picking up a buffet plate.

The meal went as well as Yuri could reasonably expect. Skyfire took her time, sampling a bit of this, and a bit of that, and had to be reminded that she was probably overeating and drinking too much. It was all so surreal, watching the three EIs discussing things about their simflesh that had simply never occurred to him. They all seemed so human, it was easy to mistake them, until they said or did something that most humans learned before they walked.

"Don't worry Rails, we'll replace it," Farouk reassured the EI. He'd burned himself when he tipped a fondue pot over.

"I'm glad there's a threshold where the sim turns off the pain receptors," Rails said. The hardlight simflesh had simply shut down all the way to his chest. Congealing cheddar cheese still dripped off his reddened fingertips.

"Head to Maint and they'll get you whole again," Farouk said.

"Dad, I'm going with him," Arka said.

"That's fine, child. Once he's ready we'll be taking the bus and going to see some sights around town," Lucy said.

It quickly turned into a very...odd...week.

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"Up and at 'em, Skyfire. The day's a'wasting!" Four days later, Skyfire threw the dormitory bedroom pillow at the all-too-energetic Arka. Sleeping, and dreaming, the whole thing just was very off-putting. But there were certain biological functions to attend to. While on the toilet, for the first time the EI found herself wishing the week was over.

Next on the checklist: Personal hygiene. Shower, dry off, comb hair, put on clothes for the day. Then meet the parents down in the EL Courtyard for another day of doing squishie humany things. The past four days had been filled with a taste of human life. Nature walks, trips to museums in Landing and Zharustead, a bar in Neo Francisco. The days were just packed, but Skyfire didn't have the energy to enjoy it.

"Humans tire," Farouk had said. "They need rest. Downtime. So we made sure these DEs had similar energy reserves."

"If all this gives us empathy to them in the Real, how do we give them empathy to us?" Arka had asked.

"Still working on that one, sprout," he'd replied. "Having them live in the Grid for a while is about the best match so far. But, we'll think about that."

"Is Rails on the subway again?" Skyfire said. The unpartnered male EI had an obsession with the Nujose Underground, to the point where he'd spent hours riding it by himself.

"Where do you think? Of course he is," Arka said. "He's decided to gun for being the city's official subway EI, you know."

"You know, I'm not surprised," Skyfire said. "What about you, Arka?"

The blond gynoid shrugged. She pulled on a blue dress she'd come to favor. "I really don't know, Sky. I don't feel like I want a partner just yet, but I don't feel like being a genius loci either. Mom and Dad said they'll give me as much time as I need. I'd hoped doing this excursion into the Real would help me decide, but it hasn't. I just feel more confused. I didn't expect I'd end up in this new 'Be Human' thing. Now I just feel sorry for them." She looked at her mussed-up hair in the bathroom mirror and frowned. "I don't know if I can even use a human avatar on the Grid again."

Skyfire gave up on her own hair and nodded, "If they keep these sessions up, the City is going to be deserted."

"Well, I'm as ready as ever. How about you? Excited for today?" Arka asked.

"I guess. One day closer to getting back to normal."

Arka looked at her friend askew. "That's it? That's your reaction to today? Did you forget?"

"Forget what?" Skyfire asked, glancing at the itinerary in a corner of the mirror. "Ack! I forgot! How could I forget?!" She tugged down her shirt and started running to the door.

"Pants Sky! You need your pants!" Arka called out, smirking. She threw them to her roommate once Skyfire turned towards her. "Don't worry, they aren't leaving without us."

"I know. But it's Space. Real Space! How could I have forgotten that? I've been waiting for this all week!" Skyfire hopped on one foot while tugging the pants on.

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The sprouts and their partners travelled by subs from Nujose to Omphalos by way of Landing. The island was a formerly volcanic island, part of a chain similar to Earth's Hawaiian islands that stretched across the equator south west of Laurasia. The central peak served as the landing pad for the planet's first space elevator, built in the early pre-antigravity colonization days. The rest of the island, and a couple of the islands nearby had been cleared and flattened to serve as storage and organization space to handle the flood of resources the Spacers sent down the cables during its heyday to build the cities of the nascent colony. A fourth island had been terraformed, and served as the residential area for the workers and the city that grew up around it. Built by the Spacers early in Zharus's colonization, it was effectively a Spacer exclave on the planet, and the residents tended to make sure visitors knew that, even if some had never even gone up the Elevator, let alone left the atmosphere.

With the arrival of cheap antigravity technology, the flood of resources slowed to a lazy river, and slowed even further with the opening of the Alohavator. The million people who called Omphalos home were forced to reinvent their industrial base, cribbing heavily from Aloha's elevator, to focus more on people-industries.

Three quarters of the big island still handled space-resources traffic; both backlog from the early days and new material still going down and up today. The other quarter had been terraformed and beautified to serve humans, travellers, tourists, immigrants and emigrants alike. The Evo Limited group spent little time in that quarter, quickly moving through it to the base of the elevator and the waiting human-rated car. Once everyone was settled, the car sealed up, and began its long trip up the beanstalk.

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Most of the Evo Limited group settled on the top level of the elevator car. The top of the car was completely transparent, giving passengers a view in all directions. Couches were provided around the floor for people to sit or lay on, and admire the vastness of space.

"Zharus is down," Yuri mumbled to himself. He sat on a couch in the middle of the top floor. His eyes were closed, his arms stretched while he sensed the play of gravity fields on his body. The elevator car had its own AG/Inertial system. It meshed with the smaller fields in the car's engines as they gripped the cable and climbed upwards, all while countering the natural gravity of the planet below.

"What was that?" Skyfire asked. She had picked a couch facing the clear wall near Yuri's own seat.

Yuri opened his eyes and looked out. They still had thousands of klicks to go, but the bulk of the atmosphere was already beneath them. The view outside was mostly black, other than the glow of the planet below them. They were on the north strand, so they had a clear view of the western part of Laurasia and the Thallassic Ocean. There was the barest hint of land visible to the west, where Gondwana lurked around the curve of the planet.

"Nothing, just a little mantra I have when I travel. To remind myself what the main force generator is, and what direction they're coming from," Yuri explained. "It was something we tried early on for my condition. Didn't work completely, but it seems to help."

He got up and moved over to Skyfire's couch, following her gaze outside. He easily picked out the local traffic moving across the static starfield that was coming into view. "So your first true space trip. How's it feel?"

"Wonderful! It feels wonderful! But... but this body, it's so limiting. I can see there's so much out there, I want to experience it all. I can't wait until we can come up here on our own."

"Still a ways to go, but not much longer," Yuri said. He studied the view outside and pointed. "Look, that's the Odyssey. It's about to leave Zorbit and head out for Centauri."

She followed his finger, moving around behind him to make sure she lined up right. "Where? I can't see anything. How can you see a thing with these eyes?"

"I don't. I've got spacer eyes. I'm probably less real than you are." Yuri chuckled and directed her view until she finally zeroed in on the moving light of the departing ship.

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For decades, the Omphalos base station served as the opening of a funnel; receiving semi-processed metals and other space material from across the system, and shooting it down to the surface. When it was built, human comforts were a secondary concern, especially since it was a zero-G station. Workers either commuted up the elevator from the planet, or lived on a nearby spinning habitat.

Now, gravity generators had been installed in large portions of the station, and some of the huge storage chambers had been converted to living space. The whole station still had an industrial feel to it, but for Yuri, it felt like home. For tourists it was a quaint piece of history and their first taste of Spacer life, and the locals knew how to play on that. In many ways it was the Zharusian equivalent to places on Earth like Colonial Williamsburg, and distinctly lacked the twencen stylistic fad so prevalent planetside and on the Alohan elevator.

As a result, like most Spacer installations, it looked more like the future than its counterpart, Toptown, on the Alohavator.

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"Yuri, where are we going?" Skyfire asked, following the Spacer. He lead them among the buildings on the top level of an inhabited chamber and stopped against the sky wall; the edge of the chamber.

"You'll see," he said, studying the wall carefully. It was painted in active paint so it could change colour through the day; currently it was noon-blue. "Give me a boost."

She looked puzzled but lifted him up. He pressed his hand to a spot and tapped with his fingers. Before she could ask what he was doing, a crack appeared in the sky, about two metres above the ground. A panel folded inward, showing a smooth tunnel bored through asteroid rock. Yuri gripped the edge of the portal and pulled himself in, then reached down to help Skyfire up.

"What is th-YIKES?" she asked, taking a few steps in the upward sloping tunnel before her feet left the ground.

"One of the old feeder tunnels," Yuri explained. "The habitat down there used to hold metal ore from the moons. This is how they would fill it up from the carriers. When they didn't need to ship as much, they closed it off, put in gravity and made it a habitat. But the grav field doesn't go far as you can see."

He kicked off one wall and grabbed Skyfire, pulling her to the opposite wall. His hand and feet stuck to the wall, holding them in place.

"How? Oh, you're wearing gloves. I didn't notice."

"Yup. Some of us get SpiderGrippers implanted in our hands, especially if we're Zeroed out a lot, but I make due with the gloves and shoes." He purposefully pushed off a little and turned upside down compared to Skyfire. She looked at him, confused and concerned.

"Is this safe? Why is this tunnel pressurized?" she asked, trying to turn to match his orientation.

Yuri grinned and kept spinning slowly. "Safe enough. There are more chambers off this feeder line. Two are inhabited and a third is being converted as we speak. They're building an airlock at the space entrance for docking facilities and plan to use this as a corridor for space access eventually. So that's why it's aired. Come on, I'll show you."

He stopped his spinning and steadied Skyfire's rotation as well. Once they were facing the right way, he kicked off the wall and pulled her through the tunnel. Occasionally, they passed other tunnel mouths, but he ignored them, sure of his direction. After a few minutes, they popped out into a chamber. It showed signs of new construction, though no work was going on at the time.

"I called a few friends and they told me what to look for and how to do this," Yuri said while turning them around in mid air. "Watch your step, we're coming into a gravity zone."

Suddenly Down had meaning again and they were on the floor. Yuri landed lightly on his feet, while Skyfire stumbled and almost fell forward, stopped only by Yuri's catch.

"Are you sure it's OK to be here?" Skyfire asked, getting her balance again and following the Spacer.

"It's not entirely, but we won't be in trouble. Here, suit up."

He helped her get into a space suit, and they moved on to an airlock. The tunnel on the other side was airless and gravity free. The far end, only a few metres away, had a simple hatch that was already part open. Yuri pushed it the rest of the way open, revealing Zharus below them.

"Welcome to Space, Skyfire."

Skyfire was awestruck, letting herself be pulled out. Yuri used AG belts to take them away from the anchor station, and let her take in the view.

Below, Zharus glowed in the light of midday. The western edges of Laurasia and Rodinia and the eastern edge of Gondwana were visible, only partly hidden by clouds. The strands of Omphalos stretched downward, quickly disappearing in the glare of the planet.

"Wow..." Skyfire eventually said, finally finding her tongue. She turned slowly in space, trying to take it all in. "Wow... there's so... there's so MUCH out here. I mean, I've never been this high up before; The City glitches out long before I get up here."

"And we haven't even scratched the surface of what's out here. I can't wait to show you more when you're in your proper body. Space is huge; unimaginably big. Spacers tend to have a different sense of scale because of it. You see this as being in space, and technically you're right. But for me, as far as I'm concerned, we're still on the planet."

"Really? But we're so high up..."

"Exactly, you're still seeing us as being up high. In true space, you are neither high nor low; you just are. Here, the only reason we're floating is because the elevator is moving fast enough to counter Zharus's gravity."

He shot a bit further away and pointed down. "Think of how far we've gone. Now think of how many more of those distances we'd need just to reach the moons. How many we'd need just to get to the next planet. To get to Pharos. To get to Colossus." In a window of his helmet, Yuri could see Skyfire's face. As she ran the numbers, he could see her expression change as she came to terms with the distances involved.

"And all that is still in Pharos's firm grip. If you work out the distances to Wednesday. To Earth. To NeoRus... Now you're starting to realize how much is out there."

Yuri fell silent and let her come to terms with the immensity of space. He floated next to her, feeling at home for the first time in weeks.

"Do you... Do you think we could go there some day?" Skyfire asked tentatively. "To Wednesday? To Earth maybe?"

Yuri shrugged, though the expression was lost in his suit. "We still have a lot to do, one way or another. You need a proper space-rated body, and we need to see how the cards fall for our future. But someday, I'm sure you'll go out there. Wednesday almost certainly... Earth? Who knows. Technically you fall under the Sarium Embargo, so you couldn't go now; but the future is as vast as space itself, and just as unexplored. You never know what might be out there, or what might be coming."

Skyfire fell silent for another long stretch, turning slowly in space. "How long can we stay out here?" she asked.

"As long as you want," Yuri said, fully ready and wanting to stay out as long as he could as well.

"That's good. I like it out here...."

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Skyfire and Yuri stood in the garage, looking on as the Constructicons finished up their work. "It's... big," Yuri said, looking at the 18 metres of prototype space jet.

"It looks great! I can't wait to feel it. They really made it transformable?"

"We've had transformable IDEs this size for decades now. You'll be a bit big, but space is big," Farouk said.

Space is big. Space stations aren't, Yuri thought privately. He smiled at the doctors. "So, where do we go?"

"Skyfire has a cockpit in the nose area, with controls you could use. But I'm sure you don't care as much about that. The fuse chamber and core go in the chest, the most protected parts of the ship."

"Great! Is it done? Can I get in?" Skyfire asked.

"So eager to ditch the flesh. I didn't think I was that disappointing last night," Yuri said.

Skyfire leaned over and kissed him. "No, it was great. But this isn't me. This is a fun diversion, it's a good lesson on how squishies live, but not me." She pointed to the ship. "That is me, and I want... I need to be me."

"And you will be you shortly. We're ready to begin," Lucy said.

"Yippee! Open me and load me up!"

"How long after will it be before we can go up?" Yuri asked.

Lucy motioned to a chair for Skyfire. "As soon as the first checks are done. Size doesn't matter that much nowadays. Your first fuse can happen as soon as you're ready."

It wasn't quite as easy as the Doctors implied, but a couple hours later, the spaceplane was changed. It didn't look any different at first, until its skin flickered, the generators powering up. Hesitantly it began to move, the sides stretching out, hands reaching forward. The plane knelt and stood up unsteadily, its cockpit folding down to its chest, revealing a head that just missed hitting the rafters.

"Oh yeah, this is the stuff," Skyfire said, her voice booming in the garage.

"How's it feel, Skyfire? Any annoying burrs, hiccups or anything?" Scavenger called up.

The mecha flexed and twisted, "Nope! It feels wonderful. You guys do great work."

Lucy watched Skyfire and nodded approvingly, "We should be ready for you when you're ready, Yuri."

"I'm ready but... How do I get up there?" Yuri asked.

Skyfire turned to face him, "I think I've got it figured out. Just a second." The front of the plane lifted up from her chest, revealing a hatch. It opened up, showing a silver chamber Yuri was getting more familiar with. He felt invisible forces grab ahold of him and lift him up. Upon entering, the door closed behind him and he was submerged in Fusers.

:I promise, Yuri, your body will be unchanged,: Skyfire said. :I understand that this is akin to a RIDE's passive-mode Fuse. You may feel some feminine aspects, but there is no actual change. It's simply part of my own sensorium.:

:Could you change me? if your attention drifted or something like that?: Yuri asked worriedly, feeling the tingle of the nanites around him. His thoughts were quickening, more than just visiting the Grid had been.

:No. Mom and Dad have placed hardware blocks on that feature right in the Fuser Controller,: Skyfire replied. :This is a test to see if a cross-gender active Fuse works for us EIs, so it wouldn't do to have it happen on accident. have some interesting implants. Earth make?:

Yuri chuckled, :Possibly. We get them from everywhere out there. Some are Terran, some probably Eridani, NeoRusian, Proximan.: He could sense a presence around him; Skyfire's mind. It poked at the edges of his consciousness, not prying deeply, but exploring.

:You're worried I'm too big,: Skyfire said suddenly, surprise evident in her voice. :But this is normal size for interplanetary ships.:

:I was expecting something more modular,: Yuri said. :Mass still matters after all; we don't haul everything with us when we don't have to. Fabbing is cheap enough to keep multiple copies of equipment in different locations. Not to mention, parking in Space is vacuum cheap. We're a lot like some of the colony ships. We have a Mobile Core Unit--an MCU--that we just plug in as needed.:

:Oh! Like those caravans... Mobile homes that people have. You haul around the house, park it, then take your bikes and cars to explore the area.:

Yuri could see what Skyfire meant as she had her revelation. Skimmers hauling trailers, or encased in bigger vehicles, like mobile homes. Large parks filled with those portable houses, while their owners drove and wandered around in the smaller vehicles. :Yeah, that's probably pretty close actually.:

"So far, so good," Farouk said, looking at a tablet. "They're synching up well. Lucy?"

"They look just fine across the board to me," Lucy agreed. "Let's give that frame a shakedown. Mixmaster, go ahead and release clamps."

"Yo," the green construction EI said. A chorus of physical clicks filled the fabbing bay, then the construction fabber scaffolding retracted away. "Youse two are on your own now."

"Really?" Yuri asked. He heard his voice echo in the garage. "Wow, really? You're letting us go just like that?"

"How else will we learn?" Skyfire said, just clipping the end of his own words.

Farouk grinned, "Dual voices. No one will confuse who's speaking with you guys."

"It's passed all da checks. No reason to keep youse two on da ground," Mixmaster said. "Fully charged and ready to fly."

Skyfire sent a signal, and the garage roof slid open. "Then Away! We! GO!"

They lept into the air, and Yuri could feel them shifting, arms and legs folding up, the cockpit lifting up to better attack the air with. Wings spread, and he could feel the air flowing over the surfaces, engines kicking in. EvoLimited had cleared a wedge of airspace over the Zharusian biome valley for their test flight. They flew over it, gaining confidence with each others, sharing the controls and learning how to fly in the Real. Their range quickly blew past the limits of the wedge.

:How are you doing?: Skyfire asked.

Yuri could tell what she was concerned about. It was gnawing at the back of his mind too. But he was as much in control as she was, and didn't feel a twinge of disorientation. :I'm doing great! This is better than piloting ever was. I can feel the wind over our wings.:

:I know. Better than the Grids or the Range. There's just so much more out here. Ready to kick it up a notch?:

:Hell yah! Let's go home.:

:Home? Oh, THAT home.:

They were over the Thalassic ocean, heading eastward, towards Gondwana's west coast, but the supercontinent wasn't their goal. Zharus Orbital Traffic acknowledged them and their general plans. They kicked on their impellers and tilted upwards, their nose and wing edges warming as they cut through the thick but thinning atmosphere. Blue faded to black, and the air disappeared, new forces taking over.

Yuri pulled himself back, letting Skyfire handle everything for their first trip out of the atmosphere. He had a moment of disorientation as the atmosphere lost its grip on them, but the EI handled it without a hiccup.

:So where shall we go?: Skyfire asked, their engines stopping, letting them coast in the vacuum.

:Wherever the hell we want to go. The system's ours,: Yuri said, celebrating being back in his element again, in a way he'd never considered possible.

:Fine. Where do we want to go FIRST.:

Yuri chuckled, :Well, let's look around some of the bigger habitats, and the Alohavator. Then maybe a trip out to Alpha.: As he 'spoke', he could see the space around the planet light up, and a route forming. He wasn't sure if he was making it, or if Skyfire was building it from his suggestions; it felt like a combination of both. He wasn't as familiar with Zharus space as he was Colossus, but he knew the names and locations of all the habitats and ships around the planet. He realized Skyfire was sending the information she was receiving from ZOT directly to his mind; it was as if he always knew where and what they were.

An hour later, they were looping around the long strand of the Alohavator. They could see the cars moving up and down it, along with the traffic docking at the central mass and the anchor mass.

:I don't see why you were so worried about size. Look at all this traffic, most of it is bigger than me,: Skyfire noted.

:Yes, but most of it is coming from the other planets, or even other star systems.: Yuri highlighted the traffic around them, then removed everything that wasn't Zharusian. :This is the local traffic.:

:Still lots of big guys there,: she pointed out.

:The 'big guys' are cargo haulers, from the moons. Or literally buses; people haulers. Most of the traffic is much smaller, around eight metres for the solo and two-man craft.:

:Hmm... I see. Still, there's nothing wrong with being big.:

:Nothing wrong, if you're content to wait outside when I go ashore. Look at the specs on Rhodes, or Nythos or Xolotlan. They don't have room for a fifteen metre woman.:

Skyfire stayed silent as she pondered that. :Good point. We can talk to mom and dad when we land.:

Suddenly, Yuri realized the control were in his virtual hands. Not expecting it, he sent them into a twist which he quickly flattened out. :Skyfire? Something wrong?:

She giggled in his head and he had the impression of her sitting back, arms crossed, :Nothing at all. You won the argument, which means you get to fly. Take us in to Alpha and we'll buzz Moon Zero Two. It's traditional now for new Spacer DEs since Lady Vox's maiden flight.:

He made sure they were on the right track and tried to hide his nervousness. It was flying straight into his disability and they both knew it. :Aren't you-:

:Don't worry, I've got your back. If the world goes topsy-turvy, I'm here to catch us.:

The moon grew steadily in front of them, along with Yuri's anxiety. 'Zharus is down. Zharus is down,' he repeated to himself as the changeover point approached, drawing some confidence from his mantra. He sensed Skyfire's curiosity about it, but she stayed quiet, becoming as attentive as he was. He felt the changeover in more detail than he'd ever experienced before. Suddenly instead of fighting against Zharus's gravity pull, they were being pulled down by Alpha's well. 'Alpha is down! Alpha is down!' he started mentally screaming, trying to adjust for the change in forces. It wasn't enough.

Space spun around and he lost his orientation. The space plane began to spin along its long axis, and then tumble.

:Sky! Take over!: Yuri shouted, trying to mentally let go of the controls. He was shocked the EI wasn't taking over.

:I can't! I'm... I'm dizzy! What way is up? Where's the moon?: Skyfire was even more panicked than he was.

He froze a moment, realizing his disability was affecting her as well somehow; instead of helping compensate for it, he had spread it into her. Spacer training burned through the freeze just as fast as it came on. :You've gotta cut me out of the loop, Sky. Defuse!:

:No! I can't! You'd be spaced!:

Yuri was confused by her comment, but he didn't argue with her. He tried to figure out how to save them both. Other voices were shouting at them over the comm systems, trying to figure out what was going on. Yuri tried to tune them out and regrabbed the controls. He could feel Skyfire tugging occasionally, but she was even more confused than he was. He knew the dizziness would pass eventually, assuming he survived it. Closing his eyes, he tried to focus on habits and ignore his inputs and especially his vertigo. As long as he moved in just the right ways, he could stop the spinning. They might not be facing the right way; for all he knew he might be nosediving them into the moon, but at least they would be going somewhere. A tense eternity later, the tumbling and spinning stopped, though he didn't dare look to see where they were.

He didn't have to. Moments after they were flying straight, he felt something hit the tip of their tail. He opened his eyes and had a brief vision of the moon over their head, before a wing tip dug into the regolith and they started spinning again. Safety systems activated around the fuse and core chambers, strengthening and isolating their occupants while the space plane crashed into the base of the Moon Zero Two dome.

"Skyfire, Yuri! Please respond!" Farouk shouted. "Damn it! Look at the telemetry. Moon Zero Two's emergency units are..." the link went dead.

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"No, Yuri, you're not fired," Lucy reassured. "If NASA had fired every test pilot who crashed they'd have been out of pilots."

The Spacer had escaped the accident mostly unharmed, other than chemical-like fuser burns and A-cup sized breasts where the limiters had gotten as confused as the rest of the pair. Skyfire was still passive as well, but her core was intact. Which was more than could be said of the space plane. A cruel twist of fate put the Medbay windows right next to the crash site.

"But I didn't just crash the plane. I crashed Skyfire too. My disability, she was affected by it too." Yuri wasn't sure how he should feel. He was worried about Skyfire, disappointed about the end of his dreams, and resigned to his fate working somewhere other than as a pilot. "I nearly killed her because of it too. Nearly killed both of us."

"Now don't be jumping to conclusions too quickly. We won't know what happened until we can wake Skyfire up, and analyze the plane. We all knew of your disability when you started; now that we've seen it in action, give us a chance to see if we can fix it," Farouk said.

Outside the constructicons were 'helping' the base personnel gather up the wreckage. It was hard to tell if they were just having fun in the lighter gravity or actually doing serious work.

"So why isn't she awake yet? Was she hurt?" Yuri asked. He sat up and looked away from the window. The healing nanite burns were itching, and the extra sensitivity of his nipples rubbing inside his shirt was annoying.

"We're just being cautious. She doesn't show any damage, and she's showing in normal passive, so we're sure she's fine. But until we can get her into our cradles back in EL, we want to leave her there. Just in case there's some problems we can't see," Lucy explained. She held the case with Lucy's core close to her body.

Yuri stood up and almost collapsed. Farouk was at his side in a flash, holding the Spacer up. "Easy boy. No need to be rushing this. You could use at least a few more hours of rest."

"We can rest on the shuttle back to Zharus. I need to know Skyfire's all right. That she isn't hurt because of me."

Farouk looked at Lucy, then at the doctors. The doctor shrugged, then nodded. "We have no reason to keep him any longer. But you really should stay longer. Nanite burns and that crash may be easy to fix, but you did take a minor dose of those fusers that we still need to flush."

"I'll take care of it downstairs. Let's go. Please," Yuri said, already limping to the door with Farouk's support.

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Lucy and Farouk were in the virtual green room, walking around the bed. Skyfire's motionless robotic body laid there, numerous readouts and scan results floating over her. In the Real, they were sitting in comfortable chairs, connecting to the Core Cradle to finish their checks.

"No damage, she slipped to passive mode in time. Though who knows what state she was in before she shut down," Farouk said, sounding worried.

"I know. I just can't stop looking. I'm worried what we'll find, and trying to find something... anything that might trace the source of this neural feedback."

Farouk shook his head, "We can look till the sun rises, but until we wake her up, we just won't know."

"I know... Let's do it." Lucy took Skyfire's hand in her own furry hand and sent the signal.

The avatar twitched, then screamed in terror, almost rolling off the bed, stopped only by Lucy's firm grip.

"Easy Skyfire, easy. You're safe now. Everything's fine," she reassured the EI.

"Spinning! Everything was spinning! Yuri... Is he ok?" Skyfire asked, looking around but not seeing anything.

"Yuri's fine. No one was hurt, you're safe now."

It took a lot more reassuring before the situation sunk in for Skyfire. She sat up, and hugged Lucy and Farouk tight to her side. "I really messed up, didn't I? Yuri must hate me. He was counting on me to handle his disability, and I screwed up. It handled us instead."

"No one screwed up. You're both so new to all this, we just couldn't know. All the sims in the world wouldn't have shown that," Lucy reassured her.

"And Yuri nearly died. I nearly died. I wrecked my body... He probably hates me now."

Farouk shook his head. "No he doesn't. He's been as worried about you as we have. And he's been blaming himself for what happened. Almost as much as you're trying to blame yourself now. You two are a better match than we could ever have hoped."

Skyfire nodded and let go of the doctors. "So what do we do now? I can't help his disability. Which means he can't fly. But I'm not sure I want anyone else. Like you said, we are a perfect match; I can't imagine what fusing with someone else would be like."

"Now now, don't write off everything yet. We haven't finished analysing what happened. Most of the details were locked in your pretty little core. Now that you're awake, we can finish it," Farouk said.

"What good will that do?"

"We won't know until we study it. I'm sure we can figure out something. In the mean time, you can stay here on the Grid. Or go back into your gynoid body."

"I need to think on it before I decide," Skyfire said slowly.

Lucy hugged her again. "We're here for you, just page us and we'll be here."

"We're not going to give up on you and Yuri. Especially not after coming this far."

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A couple of weeks passed in the Real, with neither Skyfire nor Yuri speaking to the other. Each privately blamed themselves for the accident and was reluctant to face the other.

The doctors poured over the information from the accident, bringing in experts from across the planet and beyond to try and come up with a solution.

"The human brain is a strange beast. Just when we think we've pried out all its secrets, it throws out a new one," Farouk said one day, frustrated with the lack of progress. "I'm at a loss. How could it be? All signs say this shouldn't be possible, but his mind just goes into a tailspin in those Real situations."

Lucy looked at the scans of Yuri's mind, both before and after fuse, including Skyfire's memory of the accident and what happened. Parts of the mind lit up as the timeline progressed, until the trigger was reached. Then the mind lit up randomly. "In that case, maybe we should take the mind out of the equation," she mused.

"They've considered implants to moderate the effect. They won't work. It's too spread over his mind, with too many random triggers."

"Right, normal implants wouldn't work. Maybe the Cyberdanis have solutions, but then they wouldn't be able to fuse. But, we have a branch of tech they don't know about." Lucy snapped her fingers and a scan of her own mind lit up, flesh and tech merged together, seamlessly operating together.

"Skyfire's an EI, integration is impossible. And we couldn't know it would work. We'd be cursing both of them with his disability even if it did work."

"I know that, but there are other options, similar options. Pinocchio's for example. If we can guide the fuse in just the right ways, Skyfire could build a submesh in his head, and let that mesh handle the triggers. Not an Integration, not even a Pinocchio, but it might work. Assuming that fragment can learn and adapt fast enough."

Farouk pondered it and nodded, "It could work. If they're willing. In order to let Skyfire expand that far we'd need to unlock her fusers."

"Their new bodies are almost ready, it's time we brought them back together. Then we can propose this and see what they think."

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Yuri stood to one side of the construction hangar, watching as the interplanetary shell was rebuilt. He crossed his arms across his chest; though he'd flushed out the traces of the runaway fuse, he swore his nipples were still extra sensitive. He shook his head and forced his arms back down to his sides.

He had spent much of the previous weeks in virtual helping the engineers build a proper ship. Mainly he focused on the spacer part, the Caravan, the outermost shell that Skyfire would only need to go between planets. It wasn't transformable, but it was expandable, able to hook up with other Spacer modules depending on their needs. It even included an inflatable habitat that Skyfire's partner could use to stretch her legs in if she wanted to, or to just receive visitors in.

In the centre of the ship, there was a void, a spot for what would be Skyfire's normal body. That one would be transformable, a humanoid form and a space plane mode that could easily zip around a planet's local system, including going down to the surface if it had one. Out of necessity, that mode was still quite large; too big for some of the Spacer stations. Yuri had spent many sleepless nights trying to figure out how to shrink it further, to no avail. Finally Farouk told him to leave it to them, and to focus on the interplanetary part; the part he was seeing coming to completion now.

Yuri looked out at the ship, then at the plans. It had a gap in the middle, in the heart of the ship where Skyfire would go. He didn't know who would fill her own heart when it came time to assemble all the pieces together, but he was positive it wouldn't be him; not after what had happened. The memory of the fuse, of feeling Space around them made his heart ache, but he pushed the feelings to the side. He might never fly with her again, but he felt it was his duty to make sure Skyfire's future was as safe and secure as possible.

"It's looking good. Better than what we cooked up. You should've pointed out those flaws before," Farouk said.

Yuri nodded at him. "I didn't know better. I assumed you knew, and it was needed for the fuse. Guess we both were asses in that case."

Farouk chuckled, "I suppose we were. Experts in hand and we didn't put them together. This solution is much more elegant. You eager to go up again?"

"Me? No, this isn't mine. This is Skyfire's. And her partner's, whoever that will be."

"Frink! You're still hung up on that?" Farouk tapped Yuri's head. "Get it through that thick skull of yours. You are her partner."

"No I'm not. I'm too dangerous. It's one thing to risk myself, but to put another spacer at risk; I can't do it."

"Life is full of risks. Especially space life. Sometimes I swear you spacers have become too risk-adverse. Think back to the days of your namesakes; they knew the risks and did it anyway."

Yuri groaned, "That speech again? Sometimes I think I should just change my name so people won't keep comparing me. Besides, they knew the risks, but they also did everything they could to mitigate them. Including keeping the unhealthy ones off the launch pads."

"Details, that's all it is. Now come on, we've got something to talk to you about."

Yuri followed Farouk to a meeting room. He froze in the doorway, recognizing the gynoid talking to Lucy. "Skyfire...."

She looked up at him and smiled, then frowned, then smiled again. "Yuri! It's about time!" she greeted him.

"Yes, it has been some time. Guess we've been busy," he said uncertainly.

"We certainly have. I love your work on the outer frame. Have you seen what they've been doing for my new body?"

"No, not yet. Just the basic specs so we can make sure the linkages match up."

Farouk rolled his eyes and shoved Yuri towards the gynoid. "Oh for Turing's sake, go in there and hug her so we can move on."

Yuri stumbled forward, into Skyfire's waiting arms. Both of them were tense at first, then relaxed, the catch turning into a hug. "I'm sorry-" they both said at the same time.

"I'm sorry," Yuri repeated, speaking before Skyfire could. "It's my fault; I lost control and we crashed."

"No, it was my fault. I was overconfident. I ceded control to you, and didn't realize how things could go."

"It's no one's fault. It was a learning experience," Lucy interrupted them before they could loop again. "A very informative learning experience at that."

Yuri stepped back from Skyfire, keeping her hand in his own. He realized just how much he missed her presence. "Hopefully one that will serve Skyfire and her future partner well," he said, trying not to sound bitter.

"How many times do we-?" Farouk stopped himself and shook his head. "OK, telling you clearly isn't working. Maybe it will be better if we show you. We have an idea that will let you continue to be Skyfire's partner and cure, or at least mitigate, your disability."

Yuri sat down and looked at the doctors. Skyfire sat next to him, squeezing his hand. "What do you mean?" he asked. "We've studied everything. Surgery, implants, none of them will work. I'm a mutant freak, and I've accepted that. I should be looking to see if there's an opening at the Jean Grey school or something, not wasting your time."

"Yes yes yes, we know all that. It's the past. Now can we talk about the future?"

Over the table, a holographic image of a brain appeared. Areas lit up, and Yuri quickly recognized it as his own mind, leading up to one of his special seizures. It cycled once, and he had to look away.

"Right, so now we talk about your future. Yuri, despite our assurances, feels his future is in the gas mines of Colossus or some Spacer strangeness like that. Skyfire's been scared she's going to lose her first partner. And we, we just hate to see such a perfect pairing go to waste." Farouk held up his hand to keep them quiet. "So, we've been working on that problem, and after some close work with cranial implant specialists at Nujose Cyberdyne, we think we have a solution."

"I know it didn't feel like it at the time, but Skyfire was beginning to adapt to your seizure. But numerous factors prevented her from handling it completely," Lucy explained.

"What factors?" Skyfire asked.

"Your inexperience for one thing, something that is easily correctable, and your, hmm, it's a bit difficult to explain. Your mental distance from Yuri. Because you aren't a full fuse, there's a bit of a lag time of sorts between your minds. That prevented you from fully handling his condition," Farouk explained.

Yuri frowned, "So to fix me, we'd need to do a full fuse? I'd need to become a woman?"

"Yes, and no. You would need to do a fuller fuse, but you would stay male. Assuming our theories hold. That is why we hired you after all, wouldn't do to toss out those experiments too quickly," Lucy said.

The sim continued, but it changed now. A white web grew, starting at the bottom of his brain but expanding upwards. It flickered with his simulated mind's activity. As the seizure approached, it grew more active, and instead of his entire mind flashing, the activity stayed mostly normal.

"What is that?" Yuri asked.

"It's a neural mesh. We would grow it in your head and teach it to handle your condition. When it triggered, it would take control and mitigate the seizures. Due to the randomness of your condition, it needs to be fairly advanced. We could grow new and teach it without Skyfire's help, but, well, she's more than capable of handling it herself and it would insure the most compatibility," Lucy explained.

"She would need to instill it with some of her smarts. It wouldn't talk to you or anything, but it would be there. If you want it."

Yuri sat there a moment, trying to understand the offer. "But... we considered implants before...."

"This isn't just an implant. It couldn't be done without fusing for one thing; that's the only way Skyfire or whomever builds that neural mesh, would be able to have the access to see what needs to be added where. Not to mention how to route it around your existing wetware," Lucy said.

"Once in place, it would have to be properly trained. You would have to have more incidents, while fused with Skyfire, so the tech can recognize the triggers and handle them so your mind can continue piloting."

Yuri didn't want to let himself believe it, even though it basically was what he had come to Zharus to find. "What about the risks? What if this doesn't work? Would Skyfire be hurt again?"

"I wasn't hurt, you just caught me by surprise. I know what to do now, and I made sure there are fuse cutouts so I can break the fuse without spacing you," Skyfire said.

"There are risks, there are always risks. In order to grow the mesh, Skyfire's fusers would need to be unlocked. Which means a very minor risk you would become a woman. But we're making sure that is minimized,"

"Since I've fused with you before, while locked down, I know where to stop and what to keep and what to change," Skyfire added.

Farouk nodded, "There's a chance the new mesh won't learn, it won't handle your seizures properly, even after training. If that's the case, we can do some more tuning from there."

Yuri nodded, "Right. How soon before we can do this?"

Lucy smiled, "We need to teach Skyfire a few things in the Grid, and get her installed in her new, smaller EIDE. If you want to go get lunch, we should be ready for you by then. You sure you understand the risks?"

"The risks aren't that risky. I might need a new wardrobe; if it fixes my problem, it's a small price to pay."

"Excellent, and Skyfire? Are you willing to do this?"

"Hell yes! Why wouldn't I be?"

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"Dis is da core shell," Scrapper said, introducing the human-sized gynoid with some flourish. "She's got armor mode too, of course." The shell expanded into a larger, taller gynoid and opened up. The Fuse chamber appeared to be the right size for Yuri. When it closed up, it was still Skyfire's curvy female shape. The newer EI shells were less robot-looking than their predecessors.

Yuri chuckled. "Well, that's going to be interesting."

"Da core is like a Gondwanan 'Mobility' armor," Scrapper continued. "Except the paks it can take are a bit bigger. Spacer kick, see. Bring in da space pak, Mix."

"Yo!" Mixmaster said, doing so. "We call dis da 'Angel'. You'll see why."

The so-named pak resembled a small cockpit-less spaceplane that plugged into hardpoints on the core shell. It then shifted into a humanoid robot about eight meters tall. It had its wings on its back.

"I do see," Skyfire observed, her own face was looking back at her. "Looks gorgeous. I can't wait to get inside."

The DE's form shifted again into spaceplane mode, this time with a full cockpit that had enclosed the core frame. The techs opened the canopy so the duo could get a look. The core shell's components were visible as the seat inside.

"Does this mean no vehicle mode for the core?" Skyfire asked.

"Yeah, that. Had to make some tradeoffs for the modularity," Mixmaster's partner said. "In Fuser it can still fly at low speeds, has a hardlight skin, and you can use the standard Gondwanan paks for extra stuff."

"I want a core-scale flight pak, if you please," Skyfire said. "Something with wings."

"All right, will do," Scrapper said.

Yuri moved onto the workspace, looking at the space plane. He could see how it could connect to the larger shell he had designed, and how pieces in both parts could shift around to accommodate the fuse chamber. Now that they had both parts, they could double check all the connections to make sure everything was in the right place.

"How connected are all these?" Yuri asked. "I mean, they are going to be Sky's... I mean our bodies basically. Will they feel that way?"

"That is the million Mu question," Farouk said. "We've never really tried this before ourselves. Back in the war, there were experiments with linking two RIDEs together in an extra large shell, but they never quite worked out properly.

"Our own theories, and they are just theories, are that the armor will feel as natural as any fuse shell. That will be your bodies.

"The 'Angel' part has enough connections with the armor that it should also feel pretty natural. You might have a slight signal lag between the parts, but all in all it should feel like you. That is an important part of fusing after all, so we tried to make sure they could connect as much as possible.

"The Caravan on the other hand, has fewer connections. It's the furthest from the fuse chamber and Skyfire's core. So it's probably best not to think of it as your body. Instead, think of it as a suit of armor, or an IDE. You'll feel from it to some extent, but it just is. And when you aren't connected to it, you'll just have the regular telemetry from it. No remote body sense."

Skyfire looked puzzled, "Wait, that implies I might feel something when separated from the Angel part?"

Lucy shrugged, "It's possible. It depends on how far apart your parts are and how clear the signals can be. You probably wouldn't be able to remote control it, but you could know what's going on around it and talk normally to anyone around it. Well, talk as normally as Spacers normally talk. It's a bit hard to describe, and frankly, it's all very theoretical at this point."

Skyfire looked at the three pieces of her body and started walking to the waiting chair, "Then let's not wait any more. It's time to put Theory into Practice."

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Yuri watched as Skyfire's core was installed in her central body. She didn't look much bigger than he was, yet she could expand to take him in. In effect, it would also be his body, and he was having second thoughts about it all.

"She's a beaut. Finest work we've done, if I say so myself," a man said, walking up to him.

"She is, uhm, have we met?"

The man grinned and held his hand out, "We have, but not out of my gear. I'm Scott, Scavenger's partner."

"Oh! I didn't recognize you. Guess I'm still not used to the people inside the gear too."

Scott chuckled, "We get that a lot. Scavenger's off recharging, so I'm stretching my own legs. How 'bout you? Eager to get back in the gear?"

"I am... I just didn't expect it to be so... curvy," Yuri said.

"It is a bit feminine. I'm curious what will happen, though the Doc's say nothing should. I'm sure you'll be surprising people across the system."

Yuri blushed and shook his head, "Well, we'll see. If she can help me fly, I don't care what will happen now."

Scott nodded and looked at the other side of the garage, "Personally, I can't wait to see how you guys bring those ones to life. Never worked on anything like that before."

"You haven't? It's basic Spacer tech."

"Yeah, but our projects tend not to be that mobile. Especially projects that size." Scott looked back to the shielded area the doctors were working in. "Youse better get in there, I think they're waking her up."

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Skyfire woke up slowly, her background processes running checks against the new shell. Everything came back clear, though her body felt strange; different. She could feel the hardpoints and connections for the outer shells, but with no connections in place, they were empty.

"Wow, this is strange. I feel... smaller. Incomplete," she said, looking at the doctors.

"Can you handle it? Are you feeling ill? Dizzy?" Lucy asked, carefully studying readouts next to Skyfire's bed.

Skyfire took a moment to make sure she was stable, "I think so. Not ill, or dizzy. Just missing pieces. I feel fine. Shouldn't I be able to sense the Angel part?"

"Right, you're showing a bit of instability, but you're still within the norms. We've still got the Angel and the Caravan powered down, so you can't connect yet. We want to take this one step at a time for now. What do you want to do first?" Farouk asked.

She considered her options. Part of her wanted to link with the Angel and take to the skies. Another part of her wanted to fill the void in her chest and her mind, to fuse again with Yuri. Thinking back to their first flight, she realized the first step was obvious. "Let's try the fuses first. The sooner we make sure that's all good, the sooner Yuri and I can get back to where we belong."

"Excellent. Have the updated fuse instructions installed properly?"

She closed her eyes and found the instructions for building the brain mesh. There would be little active work she would need to do; it was set up to take effect when triggered while fused with Yuri. "They're there. Should be instinctual."

"Then let's go meet the guys."

She walked out to the open garage, looking down at Yuri and Scott.

"I'm not sure if I should be impressed, embarrassed or what," Yuri said, his eyes looking her up and down.

"It's just me," Skyfire said.

"Yes, but it's also going to be me a lot of the time. I hope it won't be confusing." Yuri looked at the doctors for reassurance.

"Admittedly, we're in unknown territory here. In the past, RIs have had issues when the inside doesn't match the outside. But EIs, and even new RIs are more advanced; a lot of the old limitations may be more habit now than actual necessity," Farouk said.

"Is there any danger? To her or me?" Yuri asked.

"There shouldn't be. You'll both live. But you might end up with more changes than we anticipate, in the worst case," Lucy said.

"I promise, I won't change anything but what I need to. Just that mesh in your head. No more," Skyfire said.

Yuri walked over to stand next to Skyfire. "Then I'm ready. No point in waiting, this is the key."

"Go ahead, my dear. If you're ready," Farouk said.

Skyfire looked at Yuri once more, then opened up, her body expanding to make room for him within. He found himself briefly floating in mid air before she folded around him. The fit was tighter than before, more like a second skin. He briefly had the impression of pinching at his hips and groin and shoulders, but it faded as the fuse took effect. His body tingled all over, and the connection formed up.

He could feel how it was different from before. The first fuse had been new to him so he had nothing to compare it to, his original RIDE fuse long enough ago to be a faint memory at best. Compared to the first one with Skyfire, this one felt more real, more solid. The first one had felt like a virtual simulation compared to how natural this one felt. Though he could sense a bit of confusion under it all, with how his/her body felt; his/her chest felt too flat, and his/her hips were too narrow, with equipment going the wrong way.

:Whoa, a bit of a headrush,: he said as they synched up.

:You can feel it too? I didn't realize how much that quasi-passive mode limited us. This is almost a full fuse connection.:

:Are you handling it okay? Any problems? I'm feeling a bit confused, but I'm getting used to it.:

Skyfire virtually shook their head, :No, nothing yet. I haven't started anything, just getting used to it. The fusers do want to handle this disparity in our bodies, but I'm keeping them leashed. It does feel strange. How do you walk without pinching that?:

Yuri laughed, :A lifetime of practice.:

They felt another presence join them. It pulled them onto a featureless plain, lit by ambient sourceless white light. Skyfire and Yuri appeared first, Skyfire in her robot mode and Yuri in his human avatar, though they were both the same size. Soon after, Lucy Skye appeared a few metres away from them.

"Hi guys, just wanted to check in on you. Any problems?" she asked.

"Mom! No, no problems," Skyfire reassured her after hugging the doctor. "Everything feels so much better than before though. We're so much closer."

"Is that so?" Lucy asked, looking at Yuri.

Yuri looked at his own avatar, noting it was still his usual human form. He touched his flat chest and reached to squeeze his groin to reassure his virtual self. "It is. It's hard to explain but everything seems more real."

"That's to be expected. You have a lot more bandwidth to share now, so your senses are more in synch. Are you ready for the next step?"

"Growing the mesh? I am, if Yuri is."

Yuri gulped and tried not to show his nervousness, "I am. Will it hurt?"

Lucy smiled and tried to reassure him. "It shouldn't. We are in a bit of a catch-22 though. We don't want your mind stimulated too much while we're growing; but we can't knock you out entirely or the mesh won't integrate properly. Hence this blank space. We'll monitor it from here, guiding the growth."

"I've done the sims. I'm afraid there is one side effect of this, beyond what we are intending. To make room for the tech, your hat size is going to get bigger," Skyfire pointed out.

"If that's the only side effect, I think I can adapt. Let's do this."

Lucy snapped her fingers, and a white leather psychiatrist couch appeared next to Yuri. "Please lay down and relax. Since this is your minds, I need to log out and watch from outside. Skyfire knows what to do, just follow her instructions."

The Doctor faded away and they could tell she was gone. The pair looked at each other. "Right," Skyfire said, "Just lay back and wait. Let me know if anything goes strange."

Yuri nodded and laid back on the couch. He looked up at the plain white sky of the simulation. At first, nothing seemed to happen. Then he began to feel an itch in his skull, in his brain. He couldn't tell if it was real or just his imagination. He turned his head to look at Skyfire. "Sky-?" he started to ask, the question dieing on his lips. The EIDE's expression was a picture of concentration. He decided to leave her be.

The itch persisted, never getting worse, but continuing to be a distraction. In the unchanging virtual reality, he had no idea how much compression was going on, nor any other time indicators. Real and virtual seconds passed at a speed he couldn't identify. Finally, he heard Skyfire let out a sigh.

"Phase one done," she announced.

Yuri rubbed his temples and looked at himself, but his avatar was unchanged as far as he could tell. The itch was finally fading away. "Any problems?" he asked cautiously.

Skyfire smiled and shook her head, "No, none at all. The biggest challenge was keeping all those fusers properly contained, but I did it," she said proudly.

He sat up and faced her, lowering his hands to his lap. "Right, so what's next?"

"Next we have to teach it. Teach it what is normal so it can help direct you back to normal when the seizures happen."

"How do we do that?"

"With the longest, most boring Q&A session you'll ever experience." Skyfire made a pad appear in her hands, with a stylus. She made a stool appear next to his couch and sat down on it. "Question one. What is your favorite colour?"

Subjective hours went by as Skyfire promised, asking question after question about Yuri's life, his preferences, his likes and dislikes. Occasionally instead of a question, the white room would disappear, putting them into a simulated situation, but they always returned to the room with the endless questions. By the end, Yuri was mentally exhausted, and Skyfire didn't look much better.

"Are you okay?" he asked her. Her avatar didn't seem any different but her stance and voice showed exhaustion he'd never seen in an EI before.

"I'm fine. Just a lot of processing going on under the hood. Final question. Who would win, between the USS Enterprise and the Millenium Falcon?"

Yuri blinked in surprise, "Between what and what?" he asked.

Skyfire squinted at the pad, and shrugged, stabbing it with the stylus, "It's a TwenCen reference, not important. We're done now."

"We are? What do we do now?"

Skyfire actually stretched and shook herself. "Now, we defuse, and I go offline for a long defrag. Didn't think this would be this hard. Don't worry, mom and dad will watch out for you."

The white room faded away and he felt the fuse connection breaking, his mind forced back into his skull. Darkness engulfed him, followed by a bright line that expanded and showed the real world. He stumbled forward into Farouk's arms.

"Easy, we've got you," Farouk Skye encouraged him, leading him to a padded chair. "Welcome back to the real world, how do you feel?"

Yuri stayed silent, taking stock of himself. His body tingled, but felt intact, including between his legs. His head had a dull ache that was already fading.

"I feel... the same," he said, though he realized it wasn't quite the truth. He'd woken up new implants before, but this was different; it was already active and running, but he had no idea what it was doing. The new addition to his brain felt familiar, like when they were fused, but weaker, untalkative. He had Skyfire's silent ghost riding shotgun now. "She's still in my head, active but... incommunicative? I'm not sure how to describe it. It's her ghost I guess."

"That's how it should be," Farouk said, looking back. Yuri saw Skyfire standing where they'd left her, closed up again, but immobile. "She's fine, just in passive mode while her mind rests. EI's, even RI's rarely need to run that hard for so long."

"So long?" Yuri looked at the time and his eyes widened. Hours had really gone by while they were fused. He simultaneously felt exhausted and starving.

"Yes, that long. Normally fusing that long wouldn't be an issue, but Skyfire was a bit busy doing other things. Sleep or food, what do you want first?"

Yuri yawned hugely and stretched, "Food. Just a light snack. Then a bed to crash in. I don't think I can make it anywhere else."

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Yuri stretched out in the bed after a long, dream filled sleep. He dreamt he was flying with Skyfire outside the atmosphere. In the dreams, Skyfire was strangely quiet, but their combined joy came through. He reluctantly opened his eyes and looked around the room, confused by the unfamiliar surroundings. EvoLimited didn't have any lodgings on their campus, so hotels had sprung up around the business to provide for their visitors from outside the city. Instead of returning to his apartment, Yuri had crashed in a room there.

He rolled out of the bed and made his way to the bathroom to wash up. He brought up a body mirror and studied himself for the first time since the long fuse. Despite Skyfire's best efforts, he noticed changes.

Spacers tended to have shorter, wiry bodies compared to planetary folk, usually with little to no body hair. As he studied himself, he noted his nipples seemed larger than he remembered with more fat under them. Not quite the A-cup size he had after the crash, but still bigger than normal for males. His body shape was more hourglass than before, but all in all, it was still in the male-norms, just more androgynous.

"No harm done, especially if it works," he mused to himself, absentmindedly rubbing his chest. He shook his head and finished getting dressed to head back to EvoLimited.

"Yuri!" Skyfire greeted him eagerly as he walked into the garage. Before he could return the greeting, she opened up and engulfed him. Unlike the day before, the view of the Real quickly returned. :I was worried about you, but I was so tired after that work. I slept for an hour!:

He chuckled, :Good to see you back. It was rough for me too, even though I was the passive one.: He could sense her poking at his mind, querying the Ghost and running checks. :How's it look?:

:Great! I/She is settling in well. We fit like a glove. Mom and Dad want to do some space tests today. If you're up for it.:

Yuri focused outside, taking in their fused form for the first time. He looked down, seeing the feminine shape of their armored body. It felt normal, with a ghost of wrongness. He put it to the side and looked to the doctors, nodding to them. "No time like the present."

"We've been running Skyfire through her fuse shifting with the shells. We'll do a few more with you in it, just to make sure you don't get caught in the gears," Farouk said. "Don't worry, it's only happened once, long ago."

Yuri wasn't sure if the doctor was kidding or not, and didn't have time to object. They walked over to Skyfire's middle shell, the Angel and it opened up invitingly for them. He realized that he could sense it even from a distance, automatically getting readings on it. When he concentrated, he could get exact stats on power levels, engine readiness and other details. When he relaxed, he could feel it, as a general sense of healthiness. The Angel, and Skyfire were both at their peak and eager to go.

They lifted up and turned around, floating into the humanoid shell. It closed in, locking into place, data connections expanding their sensorium to take in data from the bigger shell, with new sensors the basic shell didn't have. The remote feeling faded, and instead of Skyfire and Angel, they were now One.

"Sweet," Yuri said, moving their arms and flexing their fingers. "Just like our first fuse."

"There's a bit of a lag. But nothing insurmountable. Not with what we get. Feels nice," Skyfire said. "Let's see how it goes..."

Yuri felt his body twist and fold. At first he thought his biological body was moving, but he quickly realized it was Skyfire's body changing, while his own was encased deep within. Soon he felt wheels resting on concrete and could feel wings and engines ready to go.

:We took care of that other flaw,: Skyfire said.

Yuri felt his mind disconnect from hers and his world went black and numb for a moment. He had a sense of movement, real movement, and soon found himself sitting in the cockpit, the clear canopy around him, with standard controls around him. Skyfire's head appeared to one side of his HUD.

"Like what you see?" she asked, grinning hugely.

"Loving it. Just what I'm used to. What next?"

Outside, he could see they were already lifting up and out of the garage. "They want us to do a quick shakedown flight, then we'll do some tests. So just sit back and let me fly while we kiss vacuum."

They leapt up into the sky and climbed steadily. Even without the fuse, Yuri could sense the power contained in Skyfire's body as it pushed higher and higher. Around them, the sky darkened until they were in space.

"Welcome home, Yuri. How you feeling?" Skyfire asked. Their orbit showed their trajectory to Xanadu, one of the early orbitals built in system.

"Feeling great," Yuri replied, stretching a bit as the forces shifted. "Itching to fly a bit myself."

"You'll have your chance soon enough. Mom and Dad want me to do some freeflying first, make sure the glitches are glitched out."

They spent a few hours shooting from orbital to thread to ship and back. Skyfire let Yuri have the controls a few times, but only when they were sure it wouldn't trigger his episodes. Soon they were approaching Alpha again.

"Ready Yuri? Doc's say I'm clear. Now to take care of your glitches."

Yuri felt a moment of fear, looking at the rocky planetoid approaching. "Are we sure this will work?"

Skyfire's avatar shrugged. "No clue. It's gotta learn. You might glitch a few more times until it sorts it out, but if it works, it'll be the last times. That's why we aren't fused; so the feedback won't go up through me."

There was no obvious sign, but Yuri could tell his controls were livelier than they were before. Their fates were in his hands now. He tested them and nodded, slipping into the flight path that would take them down to the base. "Here goes nothing," he mumbled. "Zharus is down...."

A half hour later, they were at the transition point. Yuri focused on the task at hand and tried not to think of what else was coming. He could sense Skyfire's ghost presence become more alert in his mind.

"Zharus is down... Zharus is down... Alpha is down! Alpha is down!" He felt the familiar stirrings of his seizures, and the ghost trying to dampen them. "It's working... It's-" Without warning, the moon spun around him, before his mind blanked out.

"-ri!... Yuri! Good! You're waking up!"

He opened his eyes and saw they were back in freespace. Skyfire was watching him closely from her avatar.

"It failed... It didn't work," he groaned.

"Now now, don't be so quick to judge. You were out only a short time. I told you it might take a couple of attempts to learn it right. How do you feel? We'll need to fuse up so I can check the ghost."

Yuri fought to control his disappointment. "Fuse up, let's see what went wrong."

The cockpit darkened and he felt himself pulled back, deeper into the ship, the inner shell gripping him tighter. His thoughts quickened and soon he was floating in space. He could sense Skyfire in the back of his mind and waited until she seemed like she was done.

"So what's the prognosis? Will I ever play piano again?"

She pulled him into a composite space, still showing the Real, but containing both of their avatars inside the cockpit instead of their ship-body. "That would imply you could play the piano in the first place," she said, grinning at him. "It's looking good. The ghost is learning, but couldn't quite handle it. I've made some adjustments if you're up for another round?"

"Let's give it a shot."

They gave it four more shots, each one unsuccessful. Yuri could feel the ghost trying to handle the seizures, to mitigate them and leave him in control, but eventually the seizures always won out.

"We are making progress," Skyfire tried to reassure him again after he recovered.

Yuri clenched his hands into fists and tried not to show his frustration. "Are we? Last round I flipped out earlier than before."

"The ghost was experimenting. The experiment was a failure, but we are still learning," Skyfire sighed. "Mom and Dad want us to call it a day. Take some down time and try again fresh tomorrow. I'm setting a course back to EL."

Yuri pushed back from the controls and looked out at the blackness. He sighed as well and shook his head. "Do we have to go all the way back down there?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean I've been planet bound for months now. It's fine to visit, but I want to be back somewhere that feels like home. Like that night we spent on Omphalos."

Skyfire was silent for a long moment. "Well, mom and dad say there's no pressing need to come home right away. Angel isn't showing any damage or any other flaws. So we can stay up. Any preferences for where we go? Babylon 5 is nearby."

Her avatar morphed into the station. It was sometimes called Seaford's Folly, built in the 140's using the specs and stylings of the TwenCen show's O'Neill-style station. It was meant to tap into the TwenCen craze that the Steaders were pushing. The only gravity tech allowed was in the non-spinning part of the station.

"A can with rotational G's. Haven't been in one of those in years. Let's pay them a visit. You can fly."

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"Warning: You are parking in a vacuum shuttle bay. Suits will be required to reach the airlocks. Do you wish to be moved to a standard atmospheric bay?" The station's limited VI seemed to have trouble understanding Skyfire's shells. It had been constantly asking them to move to an air-filled shuttle bay since they had filed their landing requests.

"For the tenth time, No!. We are fine in here," Skyfire retorted. She and Yuri were still connected in the Angel while the station clamped onto them and connected the power feeds. The initial surge of power into the outer shells batteries was almost erotic, feeding a hunger he hadn't noticed they had.

The station sent a ready signal and Yuri felt like he was bending awkwardly. The Angel opened up and their armored form disconnected. The close connection to the Angel faded to a more remote feeling. Skyfire moved them, pushing away from her bigger body, and stopped suddenly. She turned her head, flooding their fused minds with confusion.

:The gravity, it's all wrong. It's moving!: she said.

:That's because they aren't using cavorite. This is all centripetal forces in play. Get used to spinning my dear,: Yuri took over and used their own lifters to push them down to the deck where their boots locked into place. There weren't many spinners left out around Colossus, but he had visited them before, which gave him more experience with them than Skyfire had. Their moment of hesitation had already spun the shell a decametre away.

Careful to keep a foot locked on the decking, he took them to the airlock and cycled into the station. :If there was air, the air would be pulling us around with the station. Even without air, we still had some momentum, but not enough to keep us in place with everything else. Once we get down to the living areas it'll be easier to handle.:

:All this just to save a few creds in parking? I didn't think you were that cheap on dates,: Skyfire taunted him playfully.

:It's a date now? And it's not cheapness, it's frugalness. Leaves more creds for fun stuff later on.:

They stepped out of the airlock into a corridor that lead to a small chamber. The desk was deserted and dusty, but a man in a grey uniform stepped out of a lift nearby, panting and sweating. "Welcome to Babylon 5, ma'am. Please excuse the mess, we so rarely get visitors from the vacuum bays." the man greeted them. "If you would like, you can remove your space suit here and we can store it until you are ready to leave."

"For a nominal fee of course. No, she'll come with me," Yuri said, triggering the defuse. He stepped out and watched the guide's surprised expression as Skyfire folded back to normal behind him.

The man managed to regain his composure fairly quickly. "Right then, is there anything I can help you with to make your visit here more enjoyable?"

"Not right now. For now, we'll just head down to the Garden until she gets her centripetal legs." Yuri took pity on the guide and sent him a few credits as a tip, before getting in the lift with Skyfire.

Yuri gripped the handrails and braced himself as the lift carried them downward. Gravity gradually increased its pull on them while they moved closer to the spinning shell.

"Babylon 5, or Seaford's Folly as we call it up here. They tried to cash in on the TwenCen craze the Steaders kicked off, but their eyes were bigger than their wallets. An 8 klick spinning station in Zharus orbit. Half the thing's still empty and bare shell, though the tourist guides don't show that," Yuri explained.

Skyfire didn't seem to listen to him. Her hands gripped the railing while her head bobbed nervously, trying to get used to the shifting forces. "Have you been here before? You seem to know a lot about it."

"Nope, never been here before. But I skimmed the Zharus Orbitals section of the wiki before I came inward. Even incomplete, it's still rather impressive; the biggest greenspace outside of Zharus in the Pharos system."

They stepped out of the lift and looked around. They were on the floor of the greenspace, the floor curving upwards to their left and right until it met over their heads. Ahead and behind, it went straight, uninterrupted other than the core spindle that it rotated around.

"This place looks weird. The horizon is wrong," Skyfire said.

Yuri nodded in agreement, "Takes a bit of getting used to, but it has some perks." He pointed and Skyfire zoomed in, seeing a flock of RIDEs and Spacers flying in the open space around the spindle.

"This is also the largest open enclosed space in the system as well, and it's become popular lately with people who want to fly in low G. Care to give it a shot? Best way to learn how to fly in a spinner is to fly."

"Sure!" Skyfire exclaimed, beginning to regain her excitement. She engulfed the Spacer and kicked off the ground. They almost smashed into the ground to their left, but Yuri tweeked their AG controls and straightened them out, taking them upwards. Skyfire drew from his experiences and quickly got the knack for flying in the rotating frame.

After a few hours learning the twists of flying in a rotating station, Yuri called it a night, leaving Skyfire to have fun while he crashed out in a hotel cabin off of the garden.

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Yuri stretched in the cockpit, looking out at the moving dots of light in the crowded Zharusian space. A night's sleep in a station's bed had reinvigorated him more than any night down on the planet.

"Did you have a good time on the spinner?" he asked.

Skyfire's avatar was glowing with her happiness. "I had a great time. Rotational physics are so much fun to fly in."

"I know. It's a shame there aren't many left. Cav's eclipsed that tech."

She nodded, and grew serious, "So are you up for a few more rounds? I've got a good feeling about today."

"Well, that's one of us," Yuri said, trying to hold onto his mood.

"Think positive. Sooner the Ghost figures this out, the sooner we can break out the big shell and go interplanetary."

One approach to Alpha and two to Beta later, they were both beginning to have doubts. Skyfire assured him there were encouraging signs of improvements with each attempt, but he wasn't seeing it.

"Once more, to Beta to try these latest changes, then we'll take another break. Mom and Dad want me to come back down for a checkup."

Yuri groaned and stretched, pushing back from the controls before taking ahold of them. "Once more."

She set them up to approach the moon, and handed the controls over to Yuri. He did his usual checks and tried to relax, waiting for the inevitable. "Zharus is down," he mumbled, repeating his mantra.

The shift in gravitational forces hit him as usual. He mentally braced himself for the world to spin out of control, and was surprised. The Ghost seemed to flare in his head, touching all of his thoughts at once. It took control of his senses and motor skills, and instead of spinning out, everything snapped into hyperfocus. He could tell the exact moment Beta's gravitation field became stronger than Zharus's, and exactly what needed to be done to keep their flight stable. Not fully aware of what he was doing, beyond Knowing it was right, he brought them close to the surface and set them into a flight path that skimmed a couple of hundred metres over the barren rocks of the moon.

Once they were stable again, the moment of unity ended and the ghost slipping back to the dark corners of his mind. Yuri looked at the controls, shocked at what he had just experienced. "Wow... I did it... we did it! Beta is down!"

"What the hell just happened, Yuri?" Skyfire asked, looking scared.

"I have no idea. It was strange... It was the Ghost. She figured it out somehow, but I don't know how."

Skyfire darkened part of the cockpit and showed her view of him. He saw himself twitch in the start of his seizures, then a wave of focused calm overcame him. He manipulated the controls like an expert, with no sign of his problem. "I don't know either. One moment you were on the verge of spazzing out, the next you were flying better than me. What did it feel like?"

Yuri shook his head and tried to put the sensations into words. "It's hard to say; hard to describe. The ghost seemed to wake up and spread through my mind, and suddenly we were me. I was still there, but I was greater than me. Everything became hyper real, sort've like when we're fused, but more. I knew exactly what needed to be done and when to do it, and once the danger was past, it let me go."

The EI looked puzzled, "Strange... very strange. We should fuse, maybe that will-"

"NO! No fusing! You have to return to EL immediately. Skyfire, you will fly." To both of their surprises, Farouk appeared on the console.

"Dad? What's going on?"

"Hopefully nothing, or at least just the right thing. But it's best to take this slowly. This breakthrough was expected, but not in this way. Please, come home and let us check you all out."

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Yuri sat in a chair in a sensor sphere. Lights and other scanning rays bathed him randomly, many of them causing him to tingle, especially in his head. He'd been sitting in it for hours since they returned from space.

"How are you holding up in there?" Lucy asked through the speaker.

"I'm holding up fine. Bored out of my gourd but fine."

There was a hiss and a hatch he'd almost forgotten existed opened up. "Well, we're all done now. You can come out now," Farouk said from the entrance.

Yuri climbed out of the seat and stepped out. He blinked at the brighter light. "So what was all this about? The ghost is successful. I want to try it again."

He saw a scan of his head, with the mesh of the ghost lit up. The doctors were studying it intently. "Yes, it was very successful. But it is new; something that has never been tried before. We needed to make sure it isn't hazardous to you, or to Skyfire," Farouk explained.

"And is it? You put it in my head."

"We did, but it's done more than we expected. It's expanded much more, enmeshed with your mind more deeply than anticipated. But otherwise, it appears to be working fine."

Yuri moved to stand beside Skyfire. "So what does that mean? Are we clear now?"

"More or less. We'll check the fuse, then get you to trip a few more times to get a better idea of what's happening, but then you two would be clear. Assuming there are no more surprises."

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The weeks that followed revealed no further surprises. The pair would head up into space and practice approaches to the moons and bigger stations around Zharus. Instead of dreading them, Yuri began to look forward to the moments of hyperclarity the ghost gave him. Fusing or unfused, he was able to handle the flight situations with ease now.

They tested out the outermost shell to make sure it worked. Neither particularly liked using it; it was too far removed from their core elements, but the power it had was what they needed to go interplanetary.

Yuri flew beside Skyfire in Babylon 5, using a gravity belt to keep up with her. He twisted around in mid air to fly facing her. "You know, I think it's time," he said. "The doc's have poked and prodded us long enough and found no more changes."

"What do you mean?" Skyfire asked, stopping in mid air. Yuri struggled a moment and finally settled in front of her.

"I mean we're done as an experimental project. I'm cured now, and you have a partner... if you want to keep me. It's time we left the nest and started seeking our own future."

"Of course I want to keep you. After all this work I've put into you, I don't want to break in another pilot. But what are we going to do?"

Yuri shrugged, "I'm not sure. Probably go back to what I was going to do before. Get my license out at Colossus, and I'm not sure. Figure out some way to travel."

"How about the Rangers? That's what you said you wanted before. They'll get us bouncing all over the system which is what we both want."

He smiled. "Yes, it's time for another go. This time it's going to be different."

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The holodeck was yet another experimental technology EL was playing with. A warehouse sized room filled with hardlight generators, computers and enough bandwidth to the EL supercomputers to handle dozens of Sprouts. Within the space almost any environment could be simulated, but natural environments didn't quite seem real yet. That was not an issue for the current set up.

The ground was metallic in various shades of silver. Metal buildings of all types rose up around the edges of the space, hiding the walls of the real room. The actual holodeck was a maintained Cybertronian park with strange glowing trees growing along the paths. Energon ponds and streams dotted the landscape as well. It was a borderland, a bridge from the Grid to the Real and mimicking Primus Park. The reproduction was close, close enough for sprouts to step seamlessly from the Grid to it, though the time shift tripped many of the younger ones up.

"When are you going to come back to the City, Arka?" Rails asked the still-enfleshed EI. "You've been gone for...well...a long time."

"Hasn't been that long in the Real, Rails baby," tipsy Arka said. At the close of the pilot "Be Human" project Arka had outright refused to be removed from the human simulation DE. Farouk and Lucy had considered this, and decided to let her continue on as long as she wanted as an extended experiment. The "enfleshed" EI was surrounded by Sprouts, watching her every move. Arka started on her third glass of wine. "I'm not ready yet."

"Well, Arka, I'm just glad you found something you like," Skyfire said, grinning. "At last. You still want to be a RIDE?"

"Yeah, but this'll do until Mom and Dad can work out the details," Arka said.

"Details like what type of RIDE you want to be? You said you've narrowed it down to a mammal RIDE at least right?" Farouk noted.

"I think so... at least 75% sure it would be mammal. But those gryphs look dreamy...." Arka drained her glass and seemed to be considering more.

"Go easy on the wine, Arka," Lucy cautioned. "You've had enough for now. Why don't you find something to eat to soak up some of that wine?"

"Okay, Mom. Okay," Arka said, putting the glass back down, then giggling. "Think I'll have some of the chocolate cake."

"Not before I can cut it!" Skyfire interrupted. She was just in her armor mode, but the warehouse was more than big enough to hold and simulate around the Angel and Caravan parts of her body as well. "It is our party after all."

"Your party indeed. Our children have travelled far, further than we ever expected, though in hindsight it makes sense. But you are now about to step away the furthest," Lucy dabbed her eyes with a napkin. "I'm so proud of you Skyfire. For dreaming the dream and managing to reach it."

"I could never have done it without you two. And especially not without you, Yuri. Thank you all," Skyfire acknowledged. She stepped up to a table with a chocolate cake on it. It was a simple slab cake, done with dark icing and bright pinpoints of lights showing the constellations over Nujose.

Yuri raised his own glass of wine and moved over to stand next to her. "It is a joint effort, in more ways than one. I'm helping you realize your dreams, and you've helped me realize mine. I'm just thankful chance pointed me in this direction."

There was a round of applause, then some of the younger sprouts started chanting. "Cake! Cake! Cake! Cake!"

"All right, all right. Hold your horse-bots." Yuri called out. He picked up a glowing hardlight knife and stood in front of a second cake. This one was a translucent black cube with star spots floating in it, a specialized energon-cake for the sprouts and others who couldn't handle real food. He made the first cuts in sync with Skyfire and handed out the first slices to the crowd.

After the initial chaotic serving was over, Skyfire and Yuri retreated with their own slices to a bench under a glowing cyber-tree. Rails wandered over to join them.

"So Colossus. That's a long ways away. Lag time to the Realms is going to suck," he noted.

Skyfire nodded, "I know. A small price to pay though, and an opportunity. Mom and dad are buying some computing space on Rhodes for me to set up a Realm out there."

"Your own external Realm? Seems overkill for just one EI. Especially with all the hardware you're hauling around," Rails said, nodding to the other bodies.

Farouk and Lucy joined them in time to hear his comment. "That assumes she will be the only one. Skyfire's kicked off a trend in the new sprouts; she may be the first, but she won't be the last," Farouk said.

"Which means the pressure is on you two. Leave a good impression out there, because we're going to need a lot of Spacer partners soon," Lucy grinned.

"We'll do our best," Yuri said, putting his empty plate down. He looked over at Skyfire, "So have you decided on your realm's theme yet?"

"Not quite, but I've narrowed it down. I want something spacey, but I want a bit of biology, so the RIDEs can visit easily. We are kindred spirits after all. Since Colossus is the biggest planet, I thought of making a Dyson sphere, but dad convinced me that was too big. So now I'm thinking a little smaller... Maybe a Ringworld."

Farouk rolled his eyes. "Instead of simulating half a billion Earths, we only have to simulate the area of three million Earths. Not hard at all."

Lucy laughed, "Don't worry Skyfire, we'll work something out, something you'll be happy with that can work with the computing space we can afford out there."

"Speaking of RIDEs though, look who's come to visit," Rails pointed to the gateway to the virtual Realms..

A robotic cat with reddish-brown enamelled plating and black tufted ears was slinking in. He seemed to be having a hard time adjusting to the environment, placing each paw down carefully and looking around at each noise.

"Carl! Glad you could make it! But why are you here virtually? You hate the Realms," Skyfire called out, catching the feline's attention.

The caracal RIDE moved cautiously to them. "I hate these places. Everything's too damn hard. No flexibility at all," he growled, his discomfort making his fake accent all but disappear. "But I couldn't come in the Real. Charlie and I are out in the Valley right now doing course work. Still, I couldn't miss my favorite eagle's farewell party. You really going upstairs for good?"

"I am. We leave for Colossus tomorrow. But we'll be back for visits I'm sure." Skyfire gave the RIDE a hug. "Thanks for coming. I really appreciate it."

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Interplanetary Space, approaching Colossus

The gas giant grew on their sensors. They were still in Pharos's pull, but Colossus's pull was already tugging at them. Yuri zoomed in, following the traffic and feeling the familiarity of the giant's system. Zharus was nice to visit, but he was glad to finally be coming home.

"Transition is coming up. Do you want to fly it, or shall I?" Skyfire asked.

Yuri stretched in the small cabin module of their outer shell and considered the offer. On the one hand, flying was his love; their love. On the other hand, Colossus was so big, its gravity well was huge; they had hours more flying before they would reach anywhere of any note.

"Nah, you can handle it. I'll take over when we get to Zeus."

Skyfire tilted her head, surprised. "Zeus? I thought you would want to go to Rhodes, see the family and stuff."

"Nah, I want to go back to them a success. We'll take a day or two at Zeus, and I'll book the test. Should be a cinch now."

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Valentina walked around Zeus's main corridor, looking for Yuri. She hadn't heard from him in months, so his request had caught her out of the depths. Starting a test from Zeus wasn't unheard of, but as far as she knew, he hadn't done any further practice since he went inward. She finally found him sitting at a bar, looking out at a view of the plume. She studied him from behind, noting a few changes since she'd last seen him, but it was still Yuri.

"Hi Auntie Val. Thanks for coming out here," he greeted her without turning his head once she got close enough.

"Hi Yuri. Admittedly, I'm partly here out of curiosity. After you ran out on our training runs, I figured you were becoming a rocky." Valentina sat down between him and a cyborg woman who seemed fascinated by the view of the plume. Yuri waved to the bartender to get fresh drinks.

"A Shepard as a rocky? I'd never be able to show my face out of the atmosphere again," Yuri said, taking a sip. "Though it was surprisingly tempting, considering my options."

"The factories, or down on the planet. It is a tricky choice. Still, I'm glad to see you again. It didn't seem right for you to give up like that."

Yuri squeezed his glass, then forced himself to loosen his grip. "I didn't give up. I was exploring other options. To make sure we didn't overlook something since the last time."

Valentina looked him over again, "I don't see a tail. I guess you weren't successful? If you want, we can do a bit more training before-" She fell silent as he started laughing.

"No need, auntie. I was successful, beyond anything I thought could happen. That's why I was away so long."

Valentina looked at him again and smiled, "You did? That's incredible! What happened? How'd you do it?"

"I found a partner. Not a RIDE, but what's called an EIDE. Auntie Val, I'd like you to meet Skyfire, my new flight partner."

The spacer turned and saw the other woman was facing her. Valentina realized that it wasn't a borg, but a robotic woman.

Skyfire held out her hand, which Valentina took cautiously. "Hello. Yuri has told me and shown me a lot about you. I hope our work is up to snuff."

"Shown you? What do you mean?"

"We've fused, both as partners and to help handle my condition," Yuri explained.

Valentina frowned, "You know the rules Yuri, you can't take the test with a partner. Skyfire can't be in the ship with you."

"We know that. His cure is independent now. We did a lot of practice around Zharus to make sure of that," Skyfire said.

"We... I mean I'm ready to test again, as soon as you are. I'd like to be licensed before I go home, to prove that I could do it."

"Right... we can do that. But not right away. Before you officially test, I want to see this cure in action."

"Sure! We can do that whenever you want. Shall we go now?" Yuri asked eagerly.

Valentina laughed, "Nah not yet. Let me finish my drink first. And get to know your partner. You say you fused? But you still look normal... and she's definitely not you...."

Skyfire moved to Yuri's side. "It's experimental, like much is with my kind. But we are making it work," she started to explain. To Valentina's surprise, the robot split open, revealing a silver chamber inside. Yuri left his drink and tipped back into the space. When she closed back up, she was a little bigger, but looked like before.

"It is a little strange, but we're both getting used to it," Yuri explained, his voice incongruously coming from her. "Why don't you get the next round and I'll explain what I was doing down on Zharus."

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Yuri watched Knossos as they approached, trying to keep his mind focused on the task at hand. The flight was his first without Skyfire, and the nervousness was getting to him.

"You ready for this, Yuri?" Valentina asked, sounding concerned.

He nodded his head and took the controls, scanning over the sensors to make sure they were on track. "I'm fine. A bit nervous maybe, but fine. This is the first time I've done it solo. I didn't think I would be this nervous...."

"Well, take it easy. It's not a test, just practice."

Yuri put his nervousness to the side and focused on flying. He tensed a bit as they slipped into Knossos's gravity well, but that transition passed by smoothly, the Ghost not even twitching. He brought the ship in lower, the moon swelling larger in front of them.

Abruptly the moon stopped being a sphere they were falling towards, and became a surface they were flying along. He felt the familiar chaos of his mind trying to adapt, and fought to keep his hands steady. Skyfire's ghost surged in his head, and he became hyperaware of everything around him. Everything slowed to a crawl, giving him time to study the situation and keep it handled.

A heartbeat and an eternity later, the ghost faded back and he was back to normal, and they were flying over the moon's surface.

"How'd I do?" Yuri asked, risking a glance at his aunt.

She was stunned, and took a moment to recover. "I.. I'm not sure. You passed, you did everything perfectly... but I don't know what to say about it."

"What do you mean, Auntie Val?"

"I mean, it was like something else took over. Something robotic or something. Still, it is completely inside you, and it did everything it should be. What is it, Yuri?"

"I told you before, it's Skyfire's 'ghost'. A neural mesh she grew into my head with her spirit of sorts in there. Nothing intelligent, just some automatic processes. When my seizures are starting, it takes over, making sure we stay in control."

Valentina rubbed her chin, considering the implications of what Yuri told her.

"Will that be a problem?" he asked. "It shouldn't be any different than any other implant people get."

"It shouldn't, but the licensing board can be picky when they want to be. Let's make sure it works perfectly, and leave the rest of the bridges for me to cross," she concluded.

One Week Later

The trio sat at a cafe, waiting expectantly. The cafe wasn't big, but it was popular with the locals since it was one of the first ones Spacers encountered when they came through the Spacer airlocks.

The young man tried not to stare, but he found himself watching the red and white robot sitting across the table from him closely. Valentina had had a few days to get used to Skyfire, but for Neil, Skyfire was a stranger, even if the EIDE had access to Yuri's memories of their friendship.

"So you are here. But you're also in the docking bay... and you're also in the parking orbit?" Neil asked again as an excuse to stare at Skyfire.

Skyfire chuckled, "Yes and no. Parts of me are in those other places, but I have no more contact with them now than you do with your own ship. I just have a more intimate connection when I am in them."

"Right... intimate... That brings to mind another question. Yuri's still a guy, and you look like a girl. But everything we've heard about RIDE's..."

She stopped him there, "I am not a RIDE. I am an EIDE. A subtle but very distinct difference. Among other things, my sense of self is more flexible than the animals. That lets me fuse with Yuri without rearranging his biology. If he wanted to, I could do it, but we're comfortable as we are now."

Neil held up his silvered hands in submission, "Okay, okay, I've got it." He looked at Valentina, "Shouldn't he be done soon?"

"The longer he's out, the better the omens. You're used to the old Yuri; he'd fail earlier due to his condition. But based on what I've seen, he should be fine. Orson probably just wants to make sure everything is extra good, which means multiple runs."

Skyfire looked at Yuri's aunt as well, "Do you think he'll have any problems?"

"I have no idea. He shouldn't, but your cure... we've been debating if it doesn't bend our outside help limits all week long on the licensing board. We'd still be debating it if you didn't give us the ultimatum."

"Ultimatum?" Neil asked.

"If Yuri doesn't get licensed out here in Colossus, we're going back in system and licensing at Zharus. It was his original plan really."

Valentina chuckled, "That little loophole has got the board talking more than his cure. Seems no one has really noticed it before now, but with the genie out, we're trying to figure out if we can do anything."

"Zharus won't budge; not with the space-RIDEs already there, and the EIDEs I'm the vanguard of. But I'm sure they will figure some-" she paused suddenly and looked towards the airlock. "I just got Yuri's locator ping. He's docking now."

They looked out to the corridor, waiting for Yuri to come through the airlock. "He's keeping his comms muted. Not answering my hails. Is that a good or bad sign?" Skyfire asked.

Valentina shrugged and they all froze, seeing the young man trudge out, followed by a stern looking Spacer. Orson, his tester, looked frustrated. Orson had a metal scalp that came down to eye level, along with a hover platform that replaced his lower half. His still human mouth had a grim expression on it.

"Yuri! What happened?" Valentina shouted out, drawing attention to them.

Yuri didn't answer, didn't even catch their eyes. He walked slowly to their table just outside the cafe and finally looked up, looking between Neil and Skyfire. "Sorry guys," he said sadly.

"What? What happened? What went wrong?" Neil asked. Skyfire studied him and tilted her head in puzzlement.

"I'm sorry guys, but I won't need your services as my taxi driver any more. I got my license!" he shouted, his face blossoming into a huge smile. Behind him, Orson, the instructor, grinned.

The humans stood up and hugged him. "Congratulations! And don't you ever mess with me like that again," Valentina said. She looked at Orson, "How was it?"

"Nearly perfect. Only things I could ding him on were for doing shortcuts most of us do and shouldn't do. That strange mode he goes into when the ghost helps him is weird, but not a reason to fail him. He's still responsive in that mode, and that's the main thing."

"Fantastic, buddy. So what now? Out to the asteroids, or to the Rangers?" Neil asked.

"Rangers all the way. Skyfire and I worked that out from the start. But we have some time. I hope you haven't skimped on the party after all this time."

"Party's waiting for you at your family's quarters. The Cake may be a bit stale by now though."

Yuri grinned at Neil and motioned to Skyfire. She opened up and folded around him. "Then let's go and celebrate!"

Orson coughed, "Uhm before you go too far, there is one final detail. Yuri has the license, but Skyfire does not."

The armored figure turned to the Spacer. "What? I am the space ship. What do I need the license for?"

"You don't look like much of a space ship to me right now. But you do look like an intelligent person-being-thing. If you want to be flying around here, you better make sure your data work is all in order."

The fused figure's stance shifted. "But Skyfire's an EIDE. How can she get a license? She's not a human."

"We'll work that out. But it's the leading idea we're pondering to handle the disconnect with Zharus licensing. To license the RI or EI, or whatever else they cook up down there, as well as the human part," Valentina said.

"We will let you use your bodies. I understand most RIDEs are just singular beings after all, unlike you," Orson said. "So when shall we schedule you for your test?"

"As soon as possible," Skyfire said, her voice confused, mixing between excitement and annoyance.

"As soon as possible after we recover from the party. Say, day after tomorrow?" Yuri corrected.

"What do you care? Not as if I can get drunk. You can sleep it off while I test. And I'll test in your trainer craft too, just to show I can."

Neil shook his head. "Whoa, you guys give new meanings to 'arguing with yourselves'. Let's get going and you can sort it out later."

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Preceded by:
The Touch Succeeded by:
The Power