|FreeRIDErs story universe|
|Works by Jetfire on Shifti|
Start: Aloha, 152 AL
Dance music pounded through the opened doors of the condo on the tenth story of a fifteen story complex in Aloha. It was the latest releases from The Clack, an Alohan band of human and RIDEs that was on the rise, their music a mix of acoustic and electric instruments, as well as animal and human sounds.
The building had a nice view of the Bay of Tranquility, like most buildings in Aloha, but the view itself wasn't as spectacular as other, pricier homes in the city. Every unit faced the water, even if there was a few blocks of buildings and occasional tower in between. The rear of the building was open to the air hallways that connected to the doors of each unit. For bachelors just leaving university life, they made a nice starter unit.
A large rented cargo skimmer was parked on the pad extending out from the building on each floor; while the units didn't have its own skimmer pad, each floor had one at each end for owners to use. A white haired man piled boxes on a floater pad, shaking his head, his furry triangular ears twitching. A large Samoyed RIDE waited to pull the pad down the hall to the condo in the middle of the building. He had a thick coat of Hardlight fur that almost hid his almond eyes. The RIDE had dark lips and a dark black nose, and a thick mane of fur around his neck.
"Erin, how the hell did you fit all this stuff in your A.U. apartment?" Ashley called to his twin, kicking a box to square it up on the floater pad.
His twin sister, with long white hair and equally furry triangular ears gave him a quick poke with a curtain rod as she squeezed past the floater pad. "Stop that! You'll break something. And I didn't have this all in my old apartment. Most of this is the furniture I ordered from Ikes when I closed on this place," she explained, her tail curling back up once she was past. Like him, she was just in shorts while they worked. Alohan norms didn't bat an eye at a topless woman; and even bottoms were considered overdressed in some areas in the Polity.
Ashley groaned and stood on the rear of the floater. "Ikes? Great. We're going to be spending the rest of the night figuring out what tab is Tab A and which slot is Slot Z. Mush! Chimo, Mush!"
The RIDE stood up and chuckled, moving forward, pulling the floater with ease. "Be honest, Ash. You'd be doing that tonight, anyway. Probably with one of the girls down at Kokomo," he called back, stopping at the door and helping nudge it sideways into the unit.
"Damn right I'd be doing it. And it would be a lot more fun than doing it with furniture. Only a few months till our switch birthday, and I intend to enjoy my tab while I've still got it."
Striped arms reached into the pile to start pulling boxes off of it. The humanoid housecat, slightly bigger than a normal human, lifted them easily, checking labels to figure out which room to drop them off in. "You don't have to switch back you know," Scratch suggested. Inside the condo, he wasn't maintaining his disguise. He was an integrate that usually used a hardlight disguise to make him look like a fused RIDEr, or more rarely, a normal (if modified) human.
"Oh hell no!" the twins said simultaneously, giving the integrated feline a pause.
Ashley pushed the rest of the boxes off of the floater and sat down on it. "Much as I enjoy my tab, I'm eager to get my slot back," he explained, taking a swig from a beer he'd grabbed from the kitchen. "So, you're going to be available to help my move right? That's the deal?"
Erin glared at him a moment while sorting out the boxes, checking for damage. "That's the deal. It shouldn't be difficult. We just need to dump everything into the recycler and we're done."
"Now come on! It's not that bad. I'm sure I could find a few things I want to keep,"
His twin rolled her eyes and paused, glancing towards the other end of the condo. "OK, Lunch break guys; Chena's back with the pizzas"
A quad-lifter two seater skimmer was just landing on the private deck of the condo. It had a shiny metallic white finish on the outside, and soft furry white seating inside. It began to fold in on itself, the front folding back into a broad head, the lifter pods lowering and reshaping into legs and paws, and the thick antenna softening and relaxing into a tail that curled over onto the canine's back. The female Samoyed walked into the condo, balancing a trio of pizza boxes on her back.
"Pizza! Great! I'm starved," Scratch said. He flopped into a recliner that they'd hauled in earlier and scanned the codes on the boxes Chena was carrying. He lifted his hands while staring at the boxes. The second box smoothly slide out from between the two boxes, before the first one settled back onto the pile. He wiggled a claw, and the second box floated over to his lap. He opened it up and licked his lips eagerly.
"Erin! What's all this green stuff doing on my pizza?" Ashley demanded, having peeked in both the remaining boxes, and finding them identical.
"They're vegetables. Mom wants us to be eating more veggies you know. And fruit. Wouldn't hurt you to have an orange now and then."
He began picking off pieces of green pepper and ewwing. "We're canines, we don't need veggies, we're meat eaters."
She sighed and rolled her eyes. "No, we're humans with canid features. We still need our veggies. Hell even the dogs need some greenery in their diets. Eat the peppers and be glad I ordered deluxes and not veggie delights."
With little further ado, the three hungry movers devoured the pizzas. Soon enough, the empty boxes were on the nearest flat surfaces, and they were taking a moment to let their meals settle.
"Thanks again for helping with the move, Scratch. You know I wouldn't have minded if you had gone out to the Cave with Aunt Nikki and Clarissa," Erin said.
The integrate nodded, his tail plugged into one of the RIDE safe sockets along the wall. "I know you wouldn't have minded. But I had promised to help; and the Cave will still be there when I do head out eventually. For now, I'm still getting used to how different things are here from there. There's just so many more people here; meeting complete strangers is such a new experience for me, and I like it."
Ashley let out a loud belch, and tossed the empty bottle towards the recycler. It fell short and clattered to the floor. Erin gave her twin a death glare that bounced right off him. She sighed resignedly. "I'd say he was feeling his testosterone, but he was like this when he was a girl.
"Anyway, before we were so rudely interrupted, you like meeting people? Could that be another aspect of your preIntegration life? You were a tourist RIDE right?"
Scratch considered it carefully and nodded, "That could be. I never really thought of it that way. Then again, I can't think much of that time to begin with. Whatever I did to ourselves, I really screwed up our memories." he sighed and peeked in the empty pizza box, only to confirm it was still empty.
"So nothing else is ringing bells?" Erin prodded carefully.
"Lots of bell ringing, but nothing clear. I've gone around Aloha and Seahaven, and a lot of things are familiar, but I can't remember why they're familiar."
Ashley leaned forward, getting more serious as well. "What about Christine's memories? Biological memories should have been harder to purge than your quantum memories, right?"
"Perhaps, but if they're in my head, I can't find them. Occasionally I've had a flash of something that I'm sure was hers, but they rarely last long enough for me to realize them, let alone index them to find again."
"Damn, that's messed up. Sorry, didn't mean to be that harsh," Ashley quickly apologized.
Scratch shrugged, "It wasn't. I know it's screwed up. Part of me really wants to know what drove me to do that; but knowing what Shah did to people, RIDEs and Humans alike, part of me is really glad its all gone."
"There is that. Still, it's a shame you lost Christine along with Scratch." Erin looked pensive as she started cleaning up the boxes. "Then again, maybe we're just trying to find her the wrong way. The Callahans were just visiting Aloha, they weren't from here. So there aren't as many memory hooks here to trigger her memories." She pointed at Ashley, then pointed at the bottle. Her twin reluctantly got up and put it away.
"You thinking of going to Florencia? Their condo has been sold and the tower was torn down; we already checked." Scratch gave her a hand with the cleanup.
"Maybe eventually, but there's another strong memory hook we could try that could work better. We could try and find her... your dad."
He paused, having a flashback to the quilled woman he had rescued so long before. A woman he had known was important to him back then, but not why she was so important. "It's an idea. But we already tried. Your brother checked on it after he realized who I was. He found that she'd left the Sturmhaven clinic less than a year after she was rescued and disappeared. There's been no sign of her ever since."
"No sign in the records; but someone probably saw something. We'd probably have to go in person to find out what's going on."
Ashley grinned, a maniacal glimmer in her eyes. "In other words, ROAD TRIP!"
Stop 1: Sturmhaven
"Ashley! Look out!" Erin shouted, as Scratch pulled their companion out of the way. The Sturmhaven Valk walked through the space he had been in without slowing down, not even reacting to the stream of curses Ash was shouting her way.
"God damn this backwards polity. How the hell do they even function like this?" he growled, the woman who had nearly bumped into him having moved on beyond earshot.
Soon after they had first arrived, he had been bumped into by another Valk, and they had learned the hard way what was expected in this Polity. Only fast talking had kept Ashley from being arrested for Interfering in the normal business of a fem. In the end, Erin had been levied a fine for failing to control a male, and the cop had let them off with that 'light' warning.
They had spent the night in a hotel in the Inter-polity district, where Ashley had earned more fines for attempting to hit on the wrong person in the hotel bar. He'd been warned that a third fine would earn him jail time, reeducation time, or expulsion from the polity.
"Ashley, calm down. You're not helping your case any," Erin urged her brother, looking uneasily at the looks they were earning. "We won't be here long; we just need to go to the rehab centre and talk to some people there. Then we can leave."
Scratch was watching them, a step or two away, in her fused hardlight disguise. The DIN in her ear flickered as she tapped into the surveillance network, blurring their activities for further protection. "Maybe you should let Chimo handle things until you calm down a bit," she suggested.
The group had naively assumed Sturmhaven wouldn't be much different from Aloha; and had a bad case of culture shock when they entered the main city. Scratch had been in male form at first, but when they realized how bad the gender balance was there, he'd shifted and blurred the surveillance records to make it seem like she had always been that way. Ashley regrettably hadn't had that option.
Ashley took a deep breath and unclenched his fists, his tail still swishing in aggravation. "Right, maybe we should do that. Before I get a noise fine for speaking out of turn or some bullshit excuse like that."
Chimo reared back and flowed over him. Soon enough, the canine was standing on two legs, white fur flickering on, along with a simple pair of Alohan shorts. "I believe the proper curse here is 'cowshit', but the emotion is the same," he said as he settled a bit. "Feel free to scream all you want, Ash, I won't let them hear."
Scratch shook her head a little. "I did block more than a few noise complaint notices from leaving the area," she confided in the group on a private comm channel. "Chimo, you may want to put on a shirt too, and pants. Before I need to start blocking decency complaints. Long sleeves, and long pant legs."
The RIDE tilted his head, puzzled a moment before his chest fur melted, becoming a long sleeve button up shirt. The shorts similarly morphed into long legged pants. After a second he colour shifted both of them to the dull colours they saw on the few men they had seen. "I'm beginning to understand Ashley's frustrations," he commented dryly.
His stance changed slightly, becoming more aggressive as he scratched at the sleeves on his arms. "How can people wear this? It itches,." Ashley complained.
"Now you're just milking it. Come on. We'll be late for our appointment at 'Our Blessed Lady of the Earth' at this rate," Erin said. Chena morphed to her vehicle mode and Scratch and Erin climbed in. Chimo followed closely behind them.
"I think I can understand why Dad would leave this place," Scratch mused as they drove through the city. Erin stayed silent, waiting to see if the feline would find more.
"I mean, we've only been here for a couple of days now, and I'm already itching to leave. Dad, he couldn't stand a place like this."
"He couldn't?" Erin prompted cautiously. Christine's memories were fragile when the Integrate could find them.
She looked confused a moment and sighed. "I... I'm not sure. It was a feeling, this isn't the type of place he could be in. I don't remember details, but I've got the impression that he and mom were equals; whether he was a man or a woman, this place would turn his stomach."
Erin reached back and squeezed her friends hand. "It's a start. An excellent start. Even if this is a dead end, it's more than we had before."
'Our Blessed Lady of the Earth' was a large isolated building located just outside the city. The grounds were well cared for; grassy fields sloping enough to give a view of the ocean in the distance. Patients were out, enjoying the sun while under the careful watch of various attendants, both RIDE and human.
"Cozy place. It's no Arkham, but it's in the same ballpark," Ashley commented over Chena's comm.
"Oh be nice, Ash," Erin chided her brother. "This place is one of the top places on Gondwana for dealing with fuse-related mental breakdowns. It only made sense to send Adam Callahan here. Just try not to think too hard on how or why they got all this experience." Before RIDEs, even with the mentality of the polity, Sturmhaven had a gender split roughly comparable with everyone else, if slightly tilted to the female side. Since RIDEs and the easy gender changes, the gender split now fell heavily on the female side, with the male population levels still dropping.
Scratch climbed out and reactivated her fuse disguise while hidden beside Chena. Erin didn't bother climbing out, letting Chena fold herself around the human's body and stand up. The group made their way into the asylum.
"Welcome to Our Lady. How may I help you?" the receptionist asked them, looking up from a hardlight screen.
Ashley moved to the front of the group, "We're here to see Doctor Connors. We have an appointment," he explained.
The receptionist didn't react, looking past Ashley and Chimo to Erin and Scratch.
"Gaw-" Ashley fell silent as Chimo muted him. The RIDE sighed and stepped to one side to let Erin move up.
"As my brother said, we're here to see Doctor Connors. We have an appointment, under Munn," she explained.
The receptionist smiled at Erin, and glanced down at her screen. "Of course. I'll let Elizabeth know you're here. Please wait."
A sound privacy field snapped up around the desk, and the receptionist blurred enough so lips couldn't be read. The group backed away politely.
"You going to behave yourself now, Ashley?" Chimo asked. He waited a moment before his stance shifted.
"I hate this damn polity," he cursed quietly.
"Doctor Connors will see you now. Down the hall to your left. Her office is the one at the end," the receptionist called out to them. Scratch and Chena received a guidance map and signal to help out.
Erin smiled at her, "Thank you," she called out, turning to follow the directions.
The door to the office was partly open when they got there. Erin knocked on it politely, to hear a soft voice call for them to enter. The office itself was large, with huge windows facing south. The walls were paneled in wood. A large desk was set up along one wall, but most of the space was taken up by comfortable chairs, sized for RIDEs. In the sunniest spot, a chameleon RIDE relaxed, its tongue flicking out in the air occasionally, one of its eyes following the new arrivals.
"Pleassse have a ssseat," the soft voice suggested. "Can I get you anything?"
They looked around and finally found the doctor in a shadowed corner of the room, where a simple drink bar was set up. She wore slacks and a simple blouse. Her skin was scaly and dark brown, nearly matching the wood panelling around her. Her head was hairless, with two slightly bulging eyes. "If it makess you comfortable, you can make the jokess now."
"We're good I think. What jokes?" Ashley asked, moving into the room to the circle of chairs.
The lizard woman moved away from the wall, carrying a tray with a pitcher of water on it and glasses. "Doctor Connorss being a lizardwoman and all that. Since the surge in interest in ancient Earth entertainment memes, everyone who seess me thinks I picked Carol because of the Lizardwoman in those old Spiderwoman comicss and showss." Her skin colour gradually shifted, becoming a neutral green as she moved away from the other dominant colours. The chameleon by the window shifted a little to get a better angle on the sun, and the room occupants.
Erin smiled, "I'm sorry... or maybe not sorry, but we never really got hooked into that craze. We prefer to live in the now. Or at least the recent past in this case."
She put the tray down and looked at the three fused people in her office. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't tired of the jokes myself." She smiled and nodded. "You and your brother are crossriders, aren't you? As is your friend, Scratch I would guess."
"How'd you guess?" Ashley asked.
Erin started to repeat the question, only to be waved silent. "I heard it the first time. Unlike those stuck up Valks, I've got no problem interacting with men. And don't look so surprised. Even if I hadn't looked up your histories when you made the appointment, we deal with so many crossRIDEs here, I could recognize one in seconds."
The doctor poured herself a glass of water and sipped it while staring at Scratch. "Though you hadn't mentioned your friend. She's a bit strange, but familiar in some ways."
"Right, if you don't mind us getting down to business, we'd like to talk to you about a patient that was here, about ten-twelve years ago. Adam Callahan," Erin said, trying to steer the conversation where she wanted it.
"That fearful porcupine crossride. Yes, I remember Amy's case. I dealt with her personally, along with a couple others from that cursed cavern." Elizabeth never took her eyes off of Scratch as she talked. "I'm not sure how much help I'll be however. Most of those records are sealed, under doctor-patient confidentiality. Even family wouldn't be able to get access to them."
They all twitched in surprise, Scratch most of all. Doctor Connors smiled and set her glass down. "I thought as much. You move like she did. You can also drop that silly disguise too; I know about Integrates. We get one every few years."
Scratch shrunk down to her integrated form and looked at her. "I don't want you to break your confidentiality. I won't even try to tap into your systems. I just want to know what happened to him... to her. If you could tell us anything about where she might have gone maybe?"
The lizard thought for a moment. "I appreciate the consideration. As for how Amy was, I don't know what I can say. She was in rough shape when she got here, mentally and physically. Her mind was there, but she was suffering from both sensory overload and sensory deprivation. The extreme fuse signs didn't help either; she barely had any dexterity left in her hands for example, and her eyesight was shot."
"That... That sounds like some of Pascal's usual tricks," Scratch said softly, earning a curious look from the doctor. "My RIDE half had been one of their projects along with my human half. I don't remember much before Integration, but they weren't secretive about what they were doing. After Integration, I learned a lot about them, and their favorite tricks, until they were rescued."
"I see. I wish we could talk longer; I would love to find out more about the RIDEs that could do these things. But I get the feeling you're anxious to move on. Alohans rarely feel comfortable here."
"You got that right," Ashley growled softly.
She sighed in disappointment. "Maybe we can arrange to talk further another time then? Perhaps in another city?"
Scratch nodded her head and motioned for her to continue.
"Right, we didn't know who she was right away, and she wasn't responsive enough to tell us, so the best we could do was comfort at first. We managed to restore some of her dexterity and most of her eyesight with a purge, but we didn't have a compatible RIDE handy to try and restore her further. It wasn't until we started getting the results of the interrogations of the creatures in that cave that we found out who she was originally, and just how bad things were. Before then, we were treating her like just a long term fuse; the true scale of what happened took us aback.
"With her original name and some history, we started making some progress. She chose the name Amy for her new identity, and started interacting with other patients more. We started more cleansing treatments to start moving her back towards human normal appearance, but she stopped us before long; she wanted to keep her quills and fur. Personally, and this is just speculation, I suspect there's some psychological traps left behind in her subconscious to make her want that form, but I wasn't able to confirm it."
The doctor sighed again and sipped her drink. "We tried to avoid telling her about what happened to her wife and daughter. But she eventually insisted on us telling her. Julie was confirmed among the dead in the invasion. And you, Christine, were assumed dead as well. Amy took it hard, but she didn't fall back far at least."
Scratch smiled, a ghost of a memory returning. "Dad wouldn't. He was a tough guy, in a good sense. But losing both of us, damn...."
"We received a query on Amy's status from the Marshals about a year after her arrival. I would guess that was when you were found? Sadly, that was about a month after Amy left us."
"So you have no idea where she went?" Ashley asked, leaning forward.
Elizabeth shook her head. "She just left one evening, no message no nothing. We are not a prison here, we're a hospital, an asylum. We do try and track who comes and goes, but she had recovered enough that she was only minimally supervised. We never expected her to just walk out the door.
"We searched for her of course, and her appearance was rather distinctive; there are not many porcupines out there, not then, not now. We're reasonably confident she didn't stay in Sturmhaven, but that's all we were sure of."
Chena looked pensive, mirroring Erin's expression. "So where could she have gone?"
The doctor nodded to her RIDE. A hardlight map of their section of Gondwana appeared, "We're only a few klicks from a truck stop along the highway. She would have been able to get there easily. Once there, she had to go northward. The southern loop was still under construction and didn't connect to anything yet. So she'd be heading up the coast, maybe Nuevo San Antonio, maybe Nextus, maybe Uplift."
Erin stood up, followed by Ashley. "Thanks Doctor. It's a start," Erin said.
"No problem at all. Here, this may help. I can't show you the videos of our sessions, but I can at least give you stills from them. Even if they're out of date, it'll be more you can work from." The RIDEs and Scratch received an updated picture, of a woman. Her face was covered in short black fur that extended down her front. White tipped quills framed her face and the back of her head, going down her back to a short tail. She wore a simple smock that covered her chest and groin and was held in place with straps around her hips and back.
Scratch closed her eyes and sighed. "Thank you. She looks better than when I last saw her."
"Your welcome. And I'm serious, I'd love to talk to you about what you experienced and saw in there. We still have three victims here that we haven't even been able to tell who they were, let alone what all was done for them. Any tips would help."
"I'll... think about it. To be honest, it's not a time of my life I like to spend a lot of time dwelling on."
"Understandable, but if it could help some people. I'd be willing to come to you, to Aloha, to Cascadia, well maybe not Nextus, but just about anywhere."
Scratch joined the others on the way to the door. "I'll think about it. I think it'll be best if we were going now though. I don't think we'll get Ash out of here otherwise."
She smiled, "You might want to head out to the highway and start on your way, unless you have to go back into the city."
They thanked her again and left the asylum, following her advice to head right for the Coastal Ring Skimmerway and out of Dodge.
Stop 2: Nuevo San Antonio
The difference between Sturmhaven and Nuevo San Antonio was like night and day for the group. They crossed the border without incident, their Alohan IDs getting scanned and verified as they travelled along the marked skimmerway.
A few klicks away from that border, nestled in a small valley, was a service village, complete with a couple of hotels, restaurants, garages and places to provide services for the travellers and workers alike. Two things especially struck them as they stopped for a food break. Everyone seemed to have a RIDE with them, or Fuse signs if the RIDE wasn't there. And the gender balance was closer to the more normal fifty-fifty split.
"Ah, I almost feel normal again," Ashley said while Scratch climbed out of Chimo's skimmer mode. Once the feline was clear, the RIDE engulfed the twin. He quickly dismissed the hardlight clothes he'd put on in Sturmhaven.
Scratch chuckled and stretched himself, before flicking on his own hardlight disguise. "It does feel better, but not much. There's a lot more comm traffic and VR traffic going on around here than I'd expect for just a service village."
Erin fused with Chena and looked around. They hadn't drawn any attention so far, that she could tell. "Well, this is San An. They're just a bit paranoid after getting pinched in the war. I wouldn't be surprised if this was a secret first strike base or something military like that," she commented, starting to walk to the door of the restaurant. "Not our concern in any case. But it does make me glad we're kitty-corner opposite from all these folks. Having a nice, big, dangerous desert between us and them is just about enough."
Scratch followed them, half distracted while he took a read on the local virtual space. "Most of these RIDEs are armed. And not just civilian armed. Your guess at a base may be closer to right than you think," he whispered, and promptly tripped on the doorsill into the diner. To his surprise, he fell forward and upwards, his feet leaving the ground.
The restaurant was designed as a twenty-second century orbital retro diner. Space Beat music echoed softly around the space while the tables floated in geodesic spheres in the big gravity-free space. The main incongruity to the theme, was the scale; everything was larger, to accommodate the fused RIDEs that made up most of the patrons.
A dolphin waitress swam past them, carrying a sphere of food. "Hi guys, settle down where ever you want. I'll be right with you," she called in passing.
In unison, Erin and Ashley picked an empty sphere across the room and launched themselves towards it. They each grabbed Scratch by an arm and pulled him along.
"Not used to zero-g?" Ashley asked as they slide into place, slight changes in field strength helping them slow down.
Scratch shook his head, looking distinctly uneasy. "Not really. I'm all turned around.... As are you."
Erin smirked and waved at him. She had twisted around so she was upside down with respect to the cat. "Surprised Aunt Nikki hasn't hauled you up to Aloha:Space for some Zero-G fun. We aren't as good at this as she is, or Pete and Vincent. But we can get around. Just be careful with your impellors," she grabbed a handhold and reached for Scratch's tail. He had tried to take off, and almost set himself into a spin.
"You guys picked this place on purpose, didn't you?" he growled softly, letting the twins get him positioned near a handhold. They were all basically head to head, forming the three arms of a three-dimensional axis. He had to keep fighting the urge to try and catch them, or to catch himself.
Hardlight menus appeared in front of them as Chimo activated them. "Maybe," Ashley said, smirking. His tail twitched in time with the music. "Actually, I did, but not for the purpose you're thinking of. This place is twenty years old, and very obvious from the highway. Not to mention it's the first place you reach when you cross the border. Figure we could see if there's anyone left who may have seen your dad."
"Good evening folks. How are you doing today?" the waitress asked, swimming to their sphere. "You guys look tired. Fresh from Sturmhaven I take it?"
"Yeah, we decided to cut our visit there short," Erin said with a weary smile.
"Travelling with two males; I can understand why. If you are interested, our special of the day is Fish and Chips, made with No-G Cod fillets battered in our house beer batter, fried in a cloud of oil. Soup of the day is Jovian swirl, with a spicy red spot. I could take your drink orders now if you want, while you decide."
"Chocolate milkshake, largest you've got," Ashley ordered quickly.
Erin gave him a puzzled look, while smirking, "But chocolate's dangerous for canines like you," she taunted him.
"Human with canine features, remember?" he countered.
"Sure... Same for me please," Erin added, with Scratch quickly ordering the same. "Oh! Before you go, would anyone here have been around about a decade ago? We're looking for someone who may have passed through back then," Erin added, catching the waitress before she could leave. The porcupine woman's image appeared between them.
The waitress looked at it and shook her head, "Honey, do you have any idea how many people pass through here in a day? Let alone in ten years? Still, don't see many porcupines around. I'll pass it around see if anyone remembers."
"Thanks, that's all we want."
"So what are we going to do to try and find Scratch's dad? Stopping at every restaurant and hotel and garage from here to Uplift is going to get tiring fast," Ashley asked.
"You don't have to do this. We've been apart for so long, I don't know..." Scratch started to say.
Erin interrupted him, "Don't give up yet, we just started. We can just visit the cities, and rely on luck if nothing comes up."
They brainstormed over dinner, trying to come up with other ideas, and came up dry, or at least dry of ideas. The soup of the day thoroughly soaked Scratch before he got the hang of zero-G slurping.
As they left the restaurant, a trucker stopped them. "Excuse me. Are you the folks looking for this lady?" he asked, projecting the image of Amy from a tablet he carried. "I saw your waitress showing it around the restaurant."
"We are. Do you recognize her/" Erin asked eagerly.
He nodded, "I think so. An old friend of mine may have picked her up here, long long ago of course. She'd snuck on a truck from Sturmhaven and wanted a lift anywhere else. He ended up getting her a meal and taking her in to San An."
"Did he say where he took her there? Could we talk to him?"
The trucker's expression dropped, "I'm afraid not. Five years ago now, Ricky was running a load of RIDEs between Uplift and Nextus, and he went off the skimmerway. Found his truck a hundred clicks into the Dry. Never found the RIDES or him.
"She did leave an impression on him, and his truck. She wanted to go to the Spaceport, and get a ticket home to Laurasia. But she was broker than broke. Rick wanted to help her as best he could, even going out of his way to get her to the field, but he didn't have the cash to spare to get her tickets."
"It's something to work with. Thank you sir. And sorry for your friend," Erin thanked him.
"No problem, glad to help. Was she a friend of yours?"
Ashley pointed to Scratch, "She was her father," he explained.
The driver looked at the male cat and sorted out the crossing, before nodding. "Good luck. I hope you find her."
Nuevo San Antonio stretched around a bay leading to the ocean. It's beaches weren't as nice as Aloha's, but it was close enough. Before the founding of Aloha, and the war, it had been in the running for the resort jewel of Gondwana. Now, Aloha held the jewel and the crown it went with, but it was still a solid second place. Despite the war history and uneasiness that the polity had with Nextus and Sturmhaven, there were a surprising number of tourists in its foreign districts.
"Man, this place is making me homesick," Ashley said as they passed into the outskirts of the city.
"Not as nice as home; war was rough on this place. But it does look good. Should we head right to the spaceport, or go rent some rooms and relax?" Erin suggested.
Scratch yawned and stretched in Chimo's cabin. "I wouldn't mind a room and some downtime from that mess we left. It's not as if we're chasing down a hot lead. It's lukewarm at best. Costa Del Sol's got a hotel complex here. I've already booked some rooms for us."
Erin grumbled as they flew to the spaceport. "OK, that was my fault. How was I to know the beach wasn't topless?"
"It was posted on VR space... and on the stairs down from the boardwalk," Scratch pointed out, flying between the huskies. Since they were in city, they were travelling fused.
Ashley chuckled. "At this rate, we're going to run out of money before we reach Uplift, just from the fines we're racking up."
"It wasn't that bad. Scratch, did you look into the spaceport? Did they have any records left from back then?"
They landed at the main terminal, while he shook his head. "Records are purged after two years. They're long gone. Was worth a shot I guess."
"Then I guess we're relying on Lady Luck again," Ashley said.
Terminals were largely the same across the planet, differing mainly in scale. In San Antonio's case, it had a mid sized terminal building, similar to Aloha's, designed to accept and greet tourists from all over. The group divided the space between them, and spread out to show the image around, looking for anyone who might have been around back then.
Scratch ended up being the lucky one. He found an old security guard on a coffee break, who'd been working there all his life.
"I remember her; I remember most of the hard luck cases that have shown up here. Completely broke, not a mu to her name, and she wanted a lift back to some place in Laurasia... Flanders, Frankfurt, something like that. We didn't have a flight there, never did, probably never will. And she couldn't afford it even if we had one."
"So what happened to her?" Scratch asked, trying not to loom over the old guard; in his disguise, he was almost a metre taller than the unfused man.
"Same thing that happens to most hardluck cases. We gave them a good meal and sent them on their way. If she was smart, she would've gone to one of the shelters downtown. If she was stupid, she would've tried turning tricks, and probably ended up in jail, or worse."
The guard stared at his coffee pensively. "Come to think of it, she did neither. She managed to beg some cash before we had to stop her. She managed to scrounge up enough for a ticket to Nextus... A bus ticket that is."
"Thanks. That's a step further. Do you... Do you remember anything about how she was? As a person?"
"Sure, she really stuck in my mind, no pun intended. You don't normally see someone that changed, other than the war vets. She handled herself well enough, but she was a bit different in the head if you get what I mean. Like she didn't know who she was. But she was friendly enough that we didn't think to call her in until she was gone."
Scratch offered him a few mu, "Thanks. For your next coffee break, or dinner break. We'd be stuck big time without what you remembered."
The old man hesitated a moment, then pocketed the cash, "Not a problem. I wish I could tell you more."
Scratch met up with the twins and shared what he had found. He nibbled on a chocolate bar while they considered the news.
"Why didn't she tap into her funds? Surely your family had some money left? They would have identified her early enough not to get declared dead after all," Erin asked.
"She snuck out of Sturmhaven asylum. She probably never got her identity properly straightened out to access it. Or maybe she was worried it would be used to trace her and take her back there. She must have created a new life somewhere, we just haven't found where it is yet," Scratch mused.
"Wouldn't it be freaky if she's been in Aloha all this time? She could be your new neighbour, Erin and we never found out," Ashley taunted, only to get a virtual kick from his sister..
"Well, chances are she isn't in Sturmhaven now. And probably not here. It's progress. Sounds like we're off to Nextus next in any case. If our leads go back to Aloha, then we'll go there," Chimo suggested.
Ashley practically cheered, "Perfect! We'll be able to get there in time for New Years. I'll call Rick and let him know we're on our way."
Stop 3: Nextus
Crossing over into Nextus was less shocking than crossing from Sturmhaven. Nuevo San Antonio maintained its defenses equally along both borders, but the Nextus side felt less strict, more relaxed. It wasn't until they reached the city itself that the first problem showed its head.
"What do you mean I have to register my RIDE?I don't even have a RIDE!" Scratch shouted indignantly. He was in his fuse disguise, staring down the city agent.
The agent at the city gate stared back at him. "Care to try that again? You're clearly fused. We just need your RIDE's information and fetter status and we can let you in."
Before Scratch could blow his cover, Erin intervened. She tugged his arm and smiled to the agent. "Sorry about all this, he just got his RIDE before we left. Seems like his purchase records haven't caught up to us yet. If you'll excuse us a minute, we'll be right back once we sort this out," Erin apologized to the agent. She pulled him out of line and whispered, "Just calm down, we'll get this sorted out in a minute. Wanda and Astranikki forgot to tie a RIDE identity with your new IDs. Ashley's talking to them now."
"So what are we going to do in the meantime? I don't have a RIDE anymore, or a human. I'm not sure I could confirm fetter status, whatever that means."
Erin glanced at her brother who was talking over a link Chimo was projecting. "Be patient, that's all. Until Wanda and Astra can sort this out."
"Why do they even care about this?" Scratch moaned, "We're just visiting, it's not as if we're looking to move here."
"Visitor taxes and fees or something like that. They want to make sure the visiting RIDEs pay their fair share for HL power, not to mention making sure they have the right coverage for protection; either proper fetters or enough insurance to cover an unfettered RIDE," Ashley explained. He rejoined them and Chimo sent Scratch a data package.
"Aunt Nikki said you'd be able to slip this into their systems. It'll register RIDEs for both of your identities, covered under our family name, so we'll be cleared," Chimo explained.
The feline closed his eyes and inspected the virtual package. His DIN flickered behind his ear a moment as he tapped into the local space and found where to slip it in place. "Right, it's in place now. Let's see if it works."
"You guys all set now?" the agent asked as they approached him again.
"We should be. Fast tracked the records through, he should be in your system by now," Ashley said.
He did his own checks and looked closer at Scratch before nodding, "Looks good guys. Welcome to Nextus; Enjoy your stay."
They entered the city proper and headed to a restaurant to gain their bearings. "Aunt Nikki says she's sorry about that mess up. Normally they aren't that picky about RIDE registrations, but being so close to New Years, they usually tighten up to make sure any potential trouble is covered." Ashley said.
"Well, it's a moot point now; we're here, we're clear. Now what do we do?" Scratch asked. "It's just a wee bit bigger than San An. I doubt we'll be lucky enough to bump into someone who saw her again."
"We could take you to visit Aunt Hannah; introduce her to her adopted daughter slash son." Ashley suggested, grinning evilly.
Erin rejoined them with a tray full of food. "Don't even joke about that. Just being in the same city as her makes me feel icky.
"But we are a bit stuck. No leads, and no place to query even if we had them. With New Years a few days away, we can forget about looking up via anything government related too. They'll be on minimal staff at best, if not completely closed."
She smiled, "But we won't be entirely without something to do. Rick's invited us to stay out at his place, if we don't mind attending his New Years party."
Ashley looked at Scratch worriedly, "Would that be wise? Given what Scratch is?"
Erin laughed, "You were the one who was all gung-ho to go to a Rick party earlier. Hell you're the one who called him. Having doubts now?"
"Of course not! I'm not gonna miss this chance. I'm just worried for Scratch is all."
"Ash, It's a Rick-party... A New Years party at that. Integrates, even gender changing Integrates, will be the least strange thing people will be seeing. Lighten up sis, it's the chance for some normality among all the strictness we've been wading through the past few weeks."
"I'm not your sis again for another month, and don't forget it, Chimo, send Rick the message, we'll accept." Ashley grinned at Scratch who was looking a bit confused himself. "Scratch, you're in for a treat."
Scratch groaned, part waking up, part coming back online. One ear was just giving static to him, and his left eye was a solid blue. He breathed slowly, trying to sort out what had happened; remembering a lot of drinking and other stuff, but he couldn't figure out why his mechanical half was so messed up. He reset his senses a few times, and eventually his vision cleared up and the static died down to a low hiss.
He opened his eyes to take note of where he was. Colours gradually shifted to normal, as he made out a fused bobcat male and an unfused woman with puma traces, both asleep and curled against him. He checked himself, finding himself naked, and in a form he wasn't familiar with. He had his female form's breasts, and a quick exploration with his paw found both male and female aspects at his groin.
He felt a new hand on his groin, squeezing lightly, "Mmm, are all Inties like you? That was fun," the puma woman purred, half awake.
"No, not all of us." Scratch pushed her hand away gently and tried to settle his systems, to reset his gender. He felt his chest shrink back, but also his geneitalia. He sat up slowly, and realized he'd gone too far; he was neuter now, neither male nor female. The puma let out a disappointed sigh.
The puma woman purred and cuddled against him, distracting him as he tried to get himself back to normal. He cycled slowly, never quite getting it right; first pecs but a female slit; then breasts and male genitals. She finally managed to get herself reset mostly as her female self, though her curves were wrong compared to her normal mode, more barrel chested than figure eight.
She felt a hand rub the base of her tail. "I could work with that. We could have fun with all of that," the puma purred happily.
"Maybe another time, I'm starved." Scratch's DIN flickered as she tapped into the house network. She was shocked to discover it was late in the day. She couldn't remember much beyond counting down to the New Year. "Which way to the kitchen?"
"Down the stairs, at the back of the house." She stood up, "I'll take you. This is a big place."
"Thanks...." she hesitated, drawing a blank on the puma's name. It was very disconcerting to her, since she hadn't had any memory problems since integrating.
"Petra. My name's Petra. Bobby's the fella still asleep over there. I think we rode both of him harder than they're used to."
Petra lead her out of the bedroom and into a long hallway. Scratch sensed RIDEs and humans in the rooms around them, most of them dozing or otherwise unconscious. The stairs proved to be a grand staircase, leading down to a marble entryway, filled with the remains of a party, including a crystal chandelier that used to hang between the two arms of the stairs.
In the dining room, she spotted a familiar white furred mass. Chimo raised his head and wagged his tail a moment before dropping it back down; his sideband signals as scrambled as Scratch's head felt. Ashley was asleep on the floor, naked save for a set of straps that looked suspiciously like a sled dog harness. Scratch shook her head and let him be, following Petra's careful steps through the dining room into the kitchen.
The kitchen was surprisingly intact compared to everything else Scratch had seen. The metallic red lion was up and about, setting up a meat-heavy meal on a counter. "Morning, Scratch, Petra. Help yourself. Rick's still asleep," Lance explained. "January 1st is a mythical day as far as he's concerned."
The house cat dug ravenously into the food under the amused gazes of the other two felines. Once the edge was off her hunger, she looked up at the lion curiously. "How do you get away with this? These parties I mean. This is Nextus after all. Everything I've heard, this would have been shut down before everyone showed up."
Petra chuckled, "He gets away with it, because he's providing an essential service to the polity. He relieves social pressure by giving people a chance to pull the sticks out of their asses before shoving them back in deeper."
"Petra!" Lance looked horrified a moment before grinning, "Well, I would have put it a little more tactfully, but that's basically correct. Despite Rick's reputation, most aren't usually this big. New Years is our biggest shindig of either year. We give people a chance to release their inhibitions safely and without fear of it going beyond these grounds."
"Some of the more prudish people want him shut down... But so long as half the council and most of the cops are regular attendees, he's safe," Petra giggled. "They'd have better luck shutting down Mary-Ann's book club."
Lance nuzzled the puma a moment, "I dunno, I've heard stories from that club that make even me blush. Remember the uproar when they read the Fifty Shades series?"
Scratch listened to them banter, her tail stretching out and plugging into an outlet near the table. With fresh food and fresh power, she felt her systems slowly returning to normal; the hiss faded away and the orange tint in her vision cleared out. She was even able to get back into her normal female form.
Throughout the evening, the household gradually woke up. Scratch and Petra helped clear the dining room and set up a buffet of food and detoxers for those who needed it. RIDE, human, and fuse alike were all in similar states of exhaustion, though everyone was in good spirits overall, when they had the energy to have spirits.
"Where's your RIDE, Petra? You clearly have one, but I haven't picked up any puma's around," Scratch asked as they served food from the buffet side by side.
She smiled back, "Paula is a great girl, but she doesn't care much for these big parties. We get along great, but we quickly learned I was the partier and she preferred her alone time. Had I really wanted her here, she would have come, but there's rarely been the need. I'm sure she'll be here later, once things calm down a bit more."
Scratch nodded, and put a pile of pancakes on a plate held by a fluorescent green-furred paw-hand. It was so eye-searingly bright, she had to do another internal check to make sure her eyes hadn't bugged out again.
"More please, Scratch," a familiar voice asked. She looked up and gasped, trying not to laugh. Erin was covered from head to toe in green Samoyed fur. Her nose, lips and the little skin that was exposed was a deep forest green. Her face had stretched into a muzzle, and her hands and feet were clawed and padded, also in the contrasting green. A quartet of green nipples peeked through the fur below her breasts. "Go ahead and laugh," the twin prompted. "Chena lured me into the Green room, and I woke up like this. She promised it would flush out eventually, and won't cause any problems for the swap."
"I'm sure it will. Though the fur looks good on you," Scratch snickered, trying not to laugh too loudly.
"It itches like hell though. How do you stand it?" She squinted at Scratch a bit more carefully. "You sure you should be here like that? Out of fuse form that is?"
"Lance said it'd be fine. I'm apparently not the first integrate that's been here, though we're rare enough to be popular in some circles. And very unpopular in others, the ones that don't come here. His house operates on strict Vegas rules; what happens here, stays here. And he's got more than enough ammo to enforce that."
Erin scratched at her arm, and yawned. "Well, I'm not planning on going anywhere any time soon. If you see Ash or Chimo looking for us, just tell them to look for the purple and green dogs." She nodded towards the back of the room, where Chena was plugged in, recharging herself. Her hardlight fur was shaded a deep royal purple. "I told her as long as I'm green, she's gotta be purple."
Late in the evening, Rick finally woke up. By then the house was mostly deserted, down to a couple dozen regular RIDEs and humans, who were helping clean up, or just chewing the breeze. The lion man walked out onto the patio where the twins were gathered with Scratch and Petra, dressed in a loin cloth and sipping a glass of water.
"Good New Years everyone. I hope you had a good time."
Erin scratched at her arms, and smiled, "Mostly. Though I'm feeling more dryad than canine."
Rick did a double take at her appearance and chuckled, "You found the green room? I should have warned you about it. The colour nannies should die off in another day or so."
"So do you always sleep through the cleanup?" Ashley asked, lounging against Chimo, his feet dipped into the pool.
"More or less. Lance likes the chance to be host and in control for a bit. And it lets me escape having to say good bye to everyone while hungover."
He dove into the pool and swam a lap before surfacing near Scratch and Petra. Her RIDE, Paula, had joined them hours before, and the pair were leaning against her furry side, the human cuddling against the Integrate. "Having a good time, ladies?"
"Maybe later, Rick," Petra purred.
He hauled himself out of the pool and sat on the edge, watching Scratch. "I've been thinking of your problem; trying to find your dad."
"Do you have an idea?" Scratch asked.
"Perhaps. You know I used to be the circus ringmaster right? Well obviously, we travelled around a lot, and saw a lot of people through the years. Granted I don't remember everyone I've met, or even saw, but we recorded a lot of our shows, and crowds. Given how rare porcupines are, especially ones as fused as she was, it shouldn't be too difficult to search and see how many we can find."
"It would be worth a shot. Not as if we've got a lot of leads to work off of."
Rick grinned, "Exactly. Lance is sorting through our records now, and calling around to have some friends look as well."
It took a couple of weeks before Rick and his friends found something. A couple of weeks that the twins and Scratch spent just being tourists around the city. Erin quickly cleared most of the extra fur, while the colour nannies faded away, leaving her skin and hair with just a hint of green. She kept the claws and extra nipples as well, by her own choice. Her lips and areola persistently stayed dark forest green. She suspected Chena was behind it, but neither the RIDE nor Scratch would tell.
They were at a restaurant, beginning to consider checking somewhere else when Rick and Lance joined them.
"I've got some news for you," Rick said, pulling out a seat and stealing one of Scratch's fries. Lance projected a holo over the centre of the table. "Look familiar?"
The hologram was choppy, pulled from a crowd shot that hid some of the viewing angles. It showed a woman with quilled hair and a furry face. She wore a simple shirt that bulged a little at the back from the thick fur and quills she had. Beside her, Lance added the hologram they'd gotten from Sturmhaven, showing the quill pattern was similar.
"That could be her. That could be dad," Scratch confirmed. She leaned in closer. "Where was this taken? When was it taken?"
"Burnside, about six years ago, at one of our shows back then. The shirt has the emblem of the Monte agricorp. I'd guess she was recruited here as a worker for one of their plantations out there."
"Is that common? Seems like a long way to go for fruit pickers," Ashley asked.
"Very common. Sub space is cheap, as is human labour. The big AgriCorps hire hundreds of people at a time during harvest season and fly them out. End of season, they fly back the ones that want to come back and life goes on. It's not a bad living all in all, if you don't mind the labour in the tropical heat.
"I've put in a query to try and ID this woman, but Monte was bought out four years ago, and their records are mixed up, if they even existed in the first place. They tend to be lax in the record keeping department; makes it easier to fudge the tax numbers."
Erin nodded, "In other words, we'll probably have better luck heading out there in person and trying to find old Monte folks directly."
"Exactly. We'll keep doing our searches, see if we can find a more recent sighting, but that does seem to be your best lead."
Stop 4: 153 AL, Burnside.
Burnside was a small polity of a few million people, located at the base of an active volcano. The volcano itself was strictly monitored and controlled; its pressure released steadily and safely through vents away from the city itself. It's biggest visual feature, was a lava river that constantly flowed through the centre of the city. Other than the city of Burnside itself, the polity was mainly filled with corporate villages, serving the needs of the workers of the huge plantations in the fertile valleys formed by the numerous volcanoes in the region. The spaceport was located a couple hundred klicks outside of the city. It was a bit bigger than a polity of its size would normally warrant, but it was built to handle the harvest season surges.
A metallic blue lion met the group as they entered the terminal. It was the off season, so there wasn't much traffic. The few shops that were opened were manned by bored looking workers.
"Hello, welcome to Burnside," the lion greeted them, holding out a paw. "I'm Sven, and Tony; Lance and Rick's friend. He called and said you were coming down." He had a slight accent that reminded them of Boris's, but it was barely noticeable.
Ashley shook his hand, and introduced everyone else. "Thank you for meeting us. And offering to be our guide."
The lion chuckled and defused. Tony's mane of hair was the same blue as his RIDE. "No problem at all. We're in the quiet season, so not much is happening, as you can see."
The twins defused as well, their RIDEs going over to nuzzle and talk with Sven. Tony quirked his eyebrow up as he noticed Erin's green parts. The twins were in t-shirts and shorts. " I hope you don't mind, but I'm not the party host like Rick is either, so don't expect too many shenanigans."
Erin chuckled and rubbed her hair. "That's fine. I'm still recovering from the last party. Even an Alohan has their limits."
Tony snorted, "That's news to me. But if anyone could find those limits, it'd be Rick."
Sven looked around curiously, then back at Scratch, in his human sized disguise. "Is there another RIDE coming?" the lion asked curiously.
"No, I'm afraid not. It's just me."
Sven lead them down the highway into the city itself. The highway route was set up so visitors could see the city clinging around the base of the volcano, and the lava path going through the centre, with bridges and tunnels crossing the river as needed. At the far end of the lava river, it dove back into the earth where it was pumped back into the magma chamber. Their particular path eventually took them into a hardlight tunnel through the actual magma river.
"That's not real lava, is it?" Scratch asked as they passed under the molten rock.
Sven chuckled, "You noticed? Most people buy the brochure story and ignore the asterix. It's not all lava. There is a tube of it in the centre of that, maybe a metre wide or so, that cycles in a loop from the magma pocket, mainly to show they can do it. Everything else is smoke and hardlight illusion."
"It's still quite impressive," Ashley said, turning to look back.
"That it is. I hope you don't mind, but since you said you weren't in a rush, I booked an appointment with Louis Hayden in a couple of days. He used to be with Monte, high up in their HR department. I told him who and what you were looking for to give him time to find what he can. I figured you'd want a day or two to get over orbital lag," Tony said.
"That sounds fine. Crossing this way does make for an even longer day," Erin nodded, leaning back.
Louis proved to be a big man, well tanned and looking out of place in the office he had, on the ninth floor of a ten story office tower. He was pure human, showing no signs of ever fusing. The office tower itself predated the war, and hadn't been retrofitted for Fused folks. While Scratch could have used his human disguise, it would still have been a tight fit for him. They decided it would be best for him to wait outside with the RIDEs, listening in on the comms.
"Thank you for meeting with us on such short notice," Erin said after they introduced each other.
He chuckled, sitting down on a chair in front of his desk, motioning for a couch to them. "It was no problem. You caught us in the slow period, so you'll find most of us will jump at the chance to do something. But I was told there were three of you?"
"There is. It's actually Scratch's father we're tracking down. But he has a... medical condition that keeps him fused. Your building is just too small for him. If you don't mind, we'd like to open a comm channel so he can participate?" Ashley asked.
"A medical condition?" Louis asked curiously.
Erin nodded, "Psychological issues, coming from the same incident that made his father into Amy."
"That makes sense. Sure, go a-" Before he could finish speaking, his phone lit up, and Scratch's head appeared holographically.
"Do you know where Amy is?" he asked eagerly, not waiting for introductions.
Louis recovered quickly, turning to address the housecat face on his phone. "Amy Callahan, right. I never met her in person, but I did find our records on her. We recruited her from Nextus eleven years ago for the 142 harvest season. Most of our hires go home after the season is over, to be with families, but she stuck around year round. That's common if the hire doesn't have connections."
He picked up a tablet and checked his notes, sharing them with the others. "Her overseers reported her as a solid worker, a great climber, but not very social with the other workers. She did regularly go to the theatre and circus, but always alone."
Scratch's image flickered as he looked pensive. "Dad and mom did like to go see shows. I hated them myself; but they loved to see people acting out on stage. What happened to her?"
Louis's face showed disappointment, "She was doing office work for us in 147, working here in Burnside. But she handed in her resignation before the planting season, and disappeared, no forwarding address.."
"So you have no idea where she is?" Ashley asked.
"No idea at all. I'm sorry I couldn't be more use to you"
Erin stood up, followed by her twin. "It's more than we had before. We're only six years away from her now, instead of the twelve years we started from. It's a big help. Thank you for your time."
Once they were back outside, they flew slowly along the parkway along the magma river. "He was entirely truthful, as far as I could tell," Scratch said, flying along side the Samoyed skimmers. "I poked through his records while we were there, and there wasn't anything suspicious. Or at least not suspicious with regards to dad. Some of their financial records are a bit murky, but that's not our concern."
Ashley nodded, fusing with Chimo to fly alongside Scratch. "I had a similar read off of him. Just your typical HR person. I guess our next step would be to check where she was staying, see if anyone may know more than they found."
"If there's anyone left there from then. But it's our best lead." Erin flicked her ears and leaned back. "Tomorrow? We've got a dinner planned with Tony and some of his friends."
The apartments were a bust, as was the plantation itself. They found a few people who remembered Amy, but no one who was close enough to be her friend. One day she had been working, tending to the plants and preparing for the upcoming planting season. The next day, she was gone, without a word.
After a few days of fruitless searching, the group relaxed in Lava Park to figure out where they stood. The park was a barren landscape of carefully sculpted cooled lava formations. The lava river flowed through it. During the busy seasons, lava artists would be set up along the river, pulling out molten rock and shaping it into statues while wearing protective suits or less. This time of year, the only artist was a young apprentice, practicing his art and tossing as many sculptures back into the river as he kept out.
"So, what have we found?" Erin asked, stretched on a bench and looking up at the cloudless sky. "We know she came here and worked here for years. But six years ago, she decided to leave. Could she have gone home?"
"Home to what? Mom was gone; I was stuck in that Integrate camp and dead as far as dad knew; and the condo was long sold off. There's not a home to go to," Scratch pointed out.
Erin nodded, "Right. But we still don't know where she went to. Or why she left."
"Rick's still looking, seeing if he can find a more recent sighting, but he's not holding out much hope. In the meantime I guess we can be fairly sure where she isn't, right?" Ashley nodded to Chimo who lit up a map of Gondwana. "Sturmhaven is out. As is San Antonio and Burnside. We can probably rule out Aloha as well. Everyone back home's been looking, and haven't found any 'pines that could be her." As he spoke, the polities faded away.
"We can't rule out Nextus. It's too big, and we weren't there long enough to tell if she was there or not. But we can let Rick do his magic through there and see if she's there," Scratch pointed out. The Nextus region faded to a slightly different colour. "Still a lot of places to check."
Erin inspected her claws and sat up. "Well, we've still got a lot of time. Even if we don't find her, the search has been enlightening. I think I know where we're going next in any case."
Ashley looked at his twin, "You do? Where?"
She smirked, and nodded. The map zoomed in on the western coast, north of where they were now. "Did you forget the time of year? Our birthday is next weekend. Party's in Cascadia this year, with mom's side of the family."
Ashley slapped his forehead. "Duh, right. I lost track of time. When do you want to leave?"
"Unless anyone has anything else to do here?" she looked around and got no objections. "I figured we'd say our goodbyes and thank yous to Sven and Tony, then hit the road first thing in the morning. We should be able to reach Cascadia by nightfall."
Stop 5: Cascadia
Their mother had come from an old Cascadian family, most of which still lived under the domes. Their aunt, Sam's sister Helen, had raised four kids in a house on the edge of a central park. The kids had moved and started families elsewhere in Cascadia, but the big house was still available whenever any family dropped in.
The white skimmers pulled up to the house and let their riders out before shifting to walker mode. Erin ran to the front door and opened it up without knocking. "Aunt Helen! Uncle Matt! We're here!"
"Back in the kitchen guys!" an answering voice shouted.
While the Cascadian branch of the family didn't have many RIDEs, the house was more than big enough to handle the Samoyeds. The group moved en masse to the brightly lit kitchen. Helen was checking on a roast, while their uncle was chopping vegetables. "You guys made good time," she commented, bent over the oven to check the cooking meat.
"Got some great tailwinds along the coast. We skirted a storm all the way," Ashley explained, flopping down on a kitchen chair and grabbing a carrot his uncle had just peeled. He wagged it at Erin before taking a bite from it. His sister rolled her eyes.
Helen straightened up and took her first look at the twins. "What the hell did you do to yourself?" she exclaimed, staring at Erin.
Erin looked down at herself, her green claws. "Just leftovers from a party. It'll flush out when we swap," she explained with a grin.
Matthew swiped the vegetables in a pot and walked around to give her a hug and a kiss. "Well it looks good on you. You guys still planning to do this swap?"
"Of course we are! Fourth swap in a row," Ashley called out. "Scratch, beer me."
Scratch started to the fridge and paused, looking over to Matt. Their uncle nodded and grinned. "On the door. Help yourself guys."
The feline gathered beers and passed them around. Helen and Matt took their own drinks and took a break. "Hope you don't mind, but the three of you are going to have to share a bedroom, at least for the weekend. Got your whole brood coming up, so we promised the other bedrooms to your parents and the rest of the young'uns," Helen explained.
"That's fine, Aunt Helen. We'd sleep in our RIDEs on the lawn if needed," Erin reassured her.
"So how have you guys been? Heard you've been doing some wandering," Matthew asked.
"A lot of wandering, and a lot more to go," Ashley started.
The house was crowded with friends and family, many of whom had come up from Aloha for the twin's celebration. The guests of honour stood at the head of the table, their RIDEs on either side of them. Their classic cake was lit up with the candles, a yin-yang symbol with furry Samoyed tails, in blue and green.
As the last chorus of 'Happy Birthday' faded away, the twins grinned and leaned forward, blowing out the candles on the cake.
"Thanks everyone," Ashley called out. "Before we chop this up, there's one more thing we need to do."
Chimo and Chena fused with their current partners and stood there a moment. Chena's fur had gone green to match Erin's hair. They turned to face each other and hugged, the RIDEs' hardlight skins flaring brighter. Hidden behind the light, their chests reopened and the humans swapped places, their skins silvery with the fusion nanites. The light faded, and the pair stood in the spots they were in before, but their stances were slightly different. Chimo's fur colour was now blue, to match the cake.
With no embarrassment, Ashley rubbed her green furred breasts and grinned. "Welcome back girls. Been a long.... Chena, why are we green?"
Chena's muzzle opened up as she took over briefly, "What can I say? I liked the colour. Especially with Chimo in blue."
"I think we've been punked, sis," Aaron said, wiggling his fused hips a little. They were used to the feelings of crossriding and how long it took to settle. "We'll have words with you guys later. In the meantime, let them eat cake!"
True to their suspicions, when they defused they found their RIDEs had been busy. Both of them had full heads of hair, with Aaron's hair going down around his chin, forming a mane around his neck. Their noses were turned up slightly, with the hint of muzzles, and their fingers and toes were clawed. Like their RIDEs, their hair was coloured, green for Ashley and blue for Aaron. Their claws, lips, noses and nipples were also coloured, darker versions of their hair colours, while their skin had lighter matching colour tint.
"Yeah, we're gonna have a long talk about colour choices when we're sober again," Aaron told Chimo, ruffling his RIDE's ears. He'd been to the bathroom and discovered the canine had been creative with more skin colouring on his new equipment.
Chimo wuffed softly and nuzzled back. "I've been white all my life. I figured it was time for me, and for us to change up. Couldn't let you and Chena have all the fun."
"Right, long talk." Aaron looked around and waved, spilling his beer a little, "Hey Scratch, over here. How yah doing man?"
The cat made his way over, offering a bowl of chips. "Hey Aaron, looking good."
"I look like hell... well not that bad, but I've got fuse hair. Enjoying yourself man? Not as rocking as Rick's, but there are kids here."
"Not any more. Your cousins and siblings left right after the cake," Scratch pointed out.
Aaron pondered it and nodded. "Right, right, they did." He looked at his beer bottle and put it down, "Still, this is Aunt Helen's house. Not really the proper place to have some fun. Sobre up a bit, and I know a place just outside the domes that rocks the night away."
Scratch tilted his head and glanced at Chimo. The RIDE rolled his eyes and smirked. "Don't you start," Aaron pointed between them, "I'll be fine. Gotta work off the cross hormones somehow, and we ain't doing it here.... Ash! Chena! You gals ready yet?"
The girls were already fused, and making their way towards the others. "We've been ready for ages. You've been sitting there for an hour, scratching yourself," Ashley taunted her brother. She tossed him a can of SobreUp. "Drink this and let's go."
The group ended up spending weeks in Cascadia. The twins knew the city well from visits to family, but it was brand new for Scratch. It gave them an excuse to do the tourist thing during the day, and to crawl all the night spots at night. It often meant their touristy days didn't start until late in the day, but they were having a blast.
They'd nearly forgotten their quest, until Rick called them up just as they were getting ready to head out for the day.
"Hey guys, big news. We may have spotted Amy. Spotted her recently," he said as soon as their holo images stabilized.
Scratch almost flooded out the twin's connection as he leaned closer. "You did? Where?"
"In Uplift, a few days ago. A friend of a friend of mine spotted a highly fused porcupine morph. Didn't get an image sadly, his RIDE was having some vision hiccups with a bug that's been going around lately, but it could have been her."
"That's great news, Rick," Ashley said. "Where in Uplift was she seen?"
"I'm sending you everything I've got on her so far. She was seen near the university campus. It's not much to work off of, but it's a start, right?"
"Right. I've got us booked on the next sub to Uplift. We'll be there tomorrow. Thanks Rick," Aaron said, busy with Chimo to get the tickets set up.
The lion man waved, "No problem. Good luck guys."
Stop 6: Uplift
The university campus wasn't large, but it was a lively campus. The twin's RIDE imposed colour scheme was tame compared to what walked around under the Uplift domes.
"Rick's friend spotted the quilled woman in here, but he couldn't get close enough to be sure it was Amy," Aaron said, looking around. "Probably the best thing to do would be to start asking around."
"Or we could just ask that quilled woman over there if she's seen any other porcupines around," Scratch said, pointing.
They could tell right away that the woman wasn't Amy, but she was almost as changed as Amy was. She was covered in brown quills down her back, with a furry body. Her hands were clawed, but she maintained her full dexterity. She wore a simple dress that slid over the quills and seemed thick enough to keep them contained.
"Could it be another victim of Pascal? We haven't heard anything of her since Shah's cave was cleared," Ashley asked.
Scratch shook her head, "No, she's too well adjusted, too relaxed.... Shah's crew, they haunt you even if you get away, they're always in your mind. But that doesn't explain why she's so changed. No RIDE should go that far, even by accident."
"I dunno, I can think of two that might go that far on purpose..." Ashley looked over at their RIDEs.
Chimo wagged his tail and smiled, while Chena failed to look innocent. "Why are you looking at us? We wouldn't do that," she said, her mouth open in a grin.
Aaron shook his head and started towards the quilled woman, who was eating lunch. "Excuse us, we were wondering if we could ask you some questions."
She looked up and did a double take, "Whoa, cool looks guys. You guys in the contest too? What do you have to do, change your colour every day or something?"
"What? No... what contest?" Ashley asked.
She grinned, "Q103's Really Tough Contest. I'm in it now myself. I'm Sally."
Ashley introduced them to Sally before asking the question on their minds, "Really Tough Contest?"
"Yeah, the Really Tough Contest. I just started it last week. Had to Fuse with Pat and go this extreme. If I can keep it until the end of the contest, I qualify for a draw for ten grand." She pushed the remains of her meal away and pulled out a tablet. A hologram appeared, with a porcupine RIDE similar to her appearance, and a woman with spiky hair but no quills. They seemed a matched pair otherwise. "That's Pat and Pam; they're the hosts of the holostation's morning show and are the main ones running this contest." She paused and looked at the group closer, "You guys aren't from around here are you?"
"No, we're Alohan. We're just visiting actually... Wait, you let yourself be changed that much for just the chance to win money?" Ashley stared at her incredulously.
"It's worse actually, I crossrode for this. They couldn't believe I'd be willing to do this, but I figure it's a small sacrifice to improve my chances. There's another prize that's voted on. I figure crossriding will help." She laughed and sipped her drink. "All in all, it isn't bad actually."
Scratch looked on curiously, "What else have people been doing for this?" she asked.
"All sorts of crazy things. One gal spent a full weekend in the station's basement with just a flashlight, while some song chorus played on a constant loop. No idea how she made it. And another guy, he had to walk around the inside of the University's dome within three hours. Lots of crazy things. Why, just yesterday morning, a guy had a ball and chain strapped to his ankle. He's gotta carry it until the end of the contest too."
"Damn, that's crazy... you're all nuts," Aaron shook his head. "I guess this lead's a bust, but we might as well ask." Chimo sent the image of Amy to Sally's tablet. "You haven't seen this woman have you?"
Sally looked her over, then shook her head. "Sorry, I'm afraid not. But I never paid much attention to RIDEs and stuff before this contest. Maybe Pat and Pam her, or know someone who knows of her."
"Could be worth a shot. The rarer RIDEr types do tend to keep in touch. Just look at Tracy and Jay, and all the avians and Astranikki," Aaron said, looking at his family. "Do you know how we might get in touch with them?"
"Well you could try the station, they could probably arrange an appointment. Or you can come with me. Today's stunt is to find a needle in a haystack within three hours. I figured I'd stop by and see the competition."
"And offer a needle?" Ashley smirked.
"Perhaps. But I think the rules say it has to be a metal needle, so I'm out of luck."
The stunt was set up on the patio of the Student Union building. The benches and tables had been pushed aside, and a large tarp spread out. On it was a dozen bales of hay.
"They have to find a needle in all that?" Aaron asked.
"She does," Sally pointed to the woman, talking to the spiky haired host. "Of course if she doesn't find it, the hosts have to find it to prove it was in there. At least the hosts can use a magnet. She's gotta go by hand."
The porcupine RIDE noticed Sally and waved her over to add to the show. The group watched the filming while being careful to stay in the crowd. Finally, the woman stepped onto the tarp and waited. The hosts counted down from 10, and she started tearing into the bales with her bare hands. Overhead, a hard light timer started counting down from 3 hours.
An hour later, the woman was methodically tearing into the bales of hay under the eyes of the crowd and the holostation crew. Sally escorted the two morning show hosts over and introduced them.
"Sally says you're looking for another porcupine woman?" Pam asked.
Scratch held up a tablet and projected Amy's image. "Yes, this woman. You haven't happened to have seen her, have you?"
Both Pam and Pat leaned in to look. "That's Amy Callahan, isn't it?" Pat asked, the RIDE rustling her quills.
"You know her?" Aaron asked eagerly.
"Not quite, we don't know her, but we know of her. Pascal is a blemish on the 'pine records, and her victims are well known. The couple we know of that is. Why do you want to know about her?"
"She's my father," Scratch explained.
The hosts stared at her a long moment, before responding. "You're Christine? I thought you were dead," Pam said.
"I'm Scratch now, but I was Christine. It's a long story I'm not quite ready to tell yet," she explained.
"That's okay. I'd love to hear it, but if you aren't ready to tell it, you aren't ready to tell it." Pam saw their incredulous expressions and smirked, "I'm just a holo host, I leave the prying to the newsies,"
Pat nodded her head, "As for your father, I'm afraid we don't know where she is now. I can ask around if you want me to. Will you be in the city long?"
"We're in no rush to leave. Especially after what we've seen so far. Compared to some of the places we've been to lately, this feels like home," Ashley explained.
Before they could continue, the crowd started cheering. Everyone looked over to see the woman standing in a pile of hay, holding up something metallic.
"Gotta run. Give Sally your contact info, and we'll be in touch. Enjoy your visit!" Pat started running to catch up with her partner.
The Alohans gathered at the Milkbottle at the request of the Holovision hosts. After a week taking in Uplift's sites and bars, Pat had called them and asked to meet up. The twins were fused and enjoying their ice cream cones when the hosts arrived.
Pat's vehicle mode was a motorcycle, with an exposed engine. Her cowling and other covered parts were painted to match her quill pattern. As she reached the group, the cycle split apart, pieces bending around and gripping the rider, until the single figure was jogging to them, hardlight quills rustling behind her.
"Thanks for meeting me guys, sorry I took so long... What's wrong with him?" Pam asked, looking at Scratch. Scratch had frozen in place, staring at her, his ice cream on the verge of tipping out of its cone.
Aaron quickly moved to steady his friend, realizing what it might be. "Easy Scratch, it's Pam and Pat, not Pascal. Pascal's not here. She's long gone," he reassured him.
Ashley offered the spare cone they'd gotten for the hosts while in line, and kept a concerned eye on her twin and friend. "Scratch'll be fine, I think... " she explained, "It may be a Pascal flashback though; Scratch spent a lot of time in Shah's encampment with the monsters therein. And Christine saw her parents taken by the RIDEs. She was forced to watch them taken."
The hosts quickly defused, Pat dropping back onto all fours, "I'm sorry, I didn't even think of that," Pam apologized.
"It's OK, you didn't know," Scratch stammered out, recovering and saving his ice cream. "I didn't even think it would be a problem. I mean you two separate didn't do a thing. But seeing you fused...." He shuddered and looked back, "I'm sorry. You don't even look like Pascal did fused, it just brought back too many bad memories."
Aaron motioned to a spot next to him, "You found something out for us?" he asked, trying to steer the conversation to safer territory.
"Right, I've been asking around for your father. She's been pretty quiet, but someone noticed someone who might be her. The timing seems to work out at least. She, Amy that is, was spotted by a friend of ours in a shopping center in Cape Nord back in 148.
"He caught up with her, and talked briefly. Martin confirmed that it was Amy; she was getting fitted for better clothing for the upcoming winter. He said she seemed happy, but she had a haunted look to her."
Scratch leaned forward eagerly, "Does your friend know where she might be now?"
"I'm sorry, I'm afraid not. They had lunch and talked. She was living with a guy named Lionel, in a village outside the main city, a guy she said she'd met down in Burnside. Martin offered her some contacts in case she wanted to get in touch with some kindred spirits. It doesn't look like she took advantage of them. She certainly hasn't shown up on any of the quill gatherings." While Pam talked, Pat sent further details to the other RIDEs.
"This is incredible, Thank you Pam, Pat. This is a huge help," Aaron said, skimming over the report. "We must be getting close to her now."
Scratch nodded as well, "Yes thank you. I... I never thought dad would go with someone else. It's … surprising."
Ashley hugged her friend, "It was a decade by then. If she found the right person to help her, it could have made all the world of difference."
"It's also making me doubt my mission. If I suddenly show up, after she's made a new family, what could happen? Could I ruin all the progress she's made? I don't even look like Christine any more."
"We can go and look, Scratch. See how she is. If we can find her there, then we can decide whether to show yourself. If you don't want to, we'll leave and she'll be none the wiser, but you'll know at least." Aaron said. "But I suspect you will tell. She's your father, you're her daughter. It's a hard link to break."
Scratch stood up and looked towards the ice cream stand, "Right. We can just go see. The lines don't seem so bad, anyone want another ice cream?"
"I could use one. Ladies?" Aaron stood up and saw his sister and Pam nod. "We'll be right back."
Pam watched the men walk away and leaned closer to Ashley and Chena, "This may be a private thing, but wasn't Scratch a woman when we met a few days ago?"
Ashley froze a moment, trying to think of how to explain the Integrate. Most of the people who noticed the house cat's duality were friends or others they could be completely truthful with. But Pam and Pat weren't that close.
"It's part of their... her rehabilitation, after the time in the cave. Scratch and Christine, they can adjust their hardlight skin between male and female. Depending on Christine's mood of the day basically," Ashley explained. Chena sent the story to Chimo and Scratch so they could be consistent.
Pam ohed silently and touched Pat's head lightly, "I didn't realize. They really screwed people up, didn't they?"
Chena nuzzled Ashley as the twin hugged her RIDE. "More than you know."
They fell silent and watched the crowds around the park, most of the people with ice cream cones or other frozen treats. Ashley felt a different nose touch her hand and looked down to see Pat tentatively looking up at her, the porcupine's quills pressed back carefully.
"The records are rather sparse on what those monsters were like. If it's not too personal, is there anything you could tell us about Pascal? All us quills are terrified we could become a monster like her," Pat asked tentatively, looking away once Ashley's attention was on her.
"She was a monster, but she was a one of a kind. You guys don't have to be worried about becoming her," Scratch explained, saving Ashley the explanation. He passed out the cones they returned with. "Even I don't know where she came from. I'm almost positive she was meant for the war, but no clue which side she was for. She was meant to be an explosives expert, but they didn't get the quirks worked out of her quill systems before the war was over.
"She was bitter that she missed the war, the chance to blow things up, and to terrorize the enemy. Shah found her, and built on that, twisting it into the monster that made Amy, and ruined who knows how many more lives before that."
They fell silent again, lost in their thoughts while trying to enjoy their ice creams. Pam rubbed her RIDE's head again, and broke the silence. "So I guess you'll be off to Cape Nord next? Ever been there?"
Scratch and Aaron shook their heads, but Ashley nodded. "Once, long long ago with dad. We were meeting a guy who wanted to expand his business to Aloha." She crunched her cone and shrugged, "Aaron was grounded because he moved the Queen of Thorns. Said he was going to take it to Rhodinia I think."
She grinned at her twin and continued, "I don't remember much of the place. It was summer so not too cold. Most people just ignored me and I ignored them back. Saw some Samoyeds there, the actual dogs, not RIDEs and fell in love with them. That's why I wanted Chena and Chimo once we were ready for our first RIDEs."
Pat looked them over, "I haven't been there myself, but when I found out where Amy went, I looked closer into it. They say it's the opposite of Sturmhaven, but that's not exactly right."
She shook her quills and settled down, sending a data stream to the RIDEs while talking. "As everyone knows, Earth's colonies were primarily founded by those they considered 'abnormal'. For us, most of the colonists landed in Laurasia and settled there. Gondwana in turn tended to get the ones that Laurasia considered abnormal. Which means we're two steps removed from normal."
Aaron chuckled and rubbed his furry belly, "All depends on your definition of 'normal' of course. Back home, Terran or Laurasian is the most popular native game on the beaches, since they both tend to freak out over our everyday stuff."
"Exactly. That abnormality tends to exhibit in different ways, but like does tend to attract like. The Freewheelers to Aloha and Uplift. The Feminists to Sturmhaven, the Masculinists to Cape Norde, and so forth. But it doesn't exhibit the same way."
Pat considered her words carefully, "Sturmhaven for example, they don't exactly hate men... But it's close. And it's been getting worse since crossRIDEing became possible."
"Been there, done that, got about a thousand mu in fines for it," Ashley admitted ruefully. "It was our first stop on this trip. I didn't take it well."
"You didn't take it well? But you'd be an ideal Sturmhavenite. They love the strong female types," Pam protested.
"Ideal except for the fact that I was a male at the time. Aaron and I trade our partners every five years, on our birthdays. We just swapped a few weeks ago."
Pam looked at them closer, then shook her head. "I never would have realized it. Granted I don't know you guys well, but you move so normally."
"Well we are back in our birth sexes now, but that doesn't matter much. It's our fourth?" Aaron paused and rechecked his math, "Yeah fourth swap, so we're comfortable in either sex."
"Right, in any case, Cape Nord. Cape Nord isn't as bad as Sturmhaven in that respect. They still for the most part appreciate women, and aren't trying to make everyone into men or anything crazy like that. But they do have a rather firm view on what a man should do and what a woman should do, and strongly discourage one from trying to do the jobs of the other. For visitors it isn't so bad, but if you look to move there...."
"That could explain Amy's attitude that your friend noticed," Ashley noted.
"Exactly." The hosts stood up, "I hate to eat and run, but we've got another challenge to get to. Got three people who're gonna race to finish off a stick of Dry Ocean Jerky the fastest. I wish you luck in finding your father." Pat shifted back to her cycle mode and Pam climbed on board.
Scratch waved to them, "Thanks for your help. It's good to know she's out there, and we're getting close."
Pam waved back, "Oh one more thing. If you do go to Cape Nord, you might want to flush out those colours. For an abnormal group, they tend not to react well to stuff outside what they expect. From what I've read, they're still coming to grips with RIDEs."
Stop 7: Cape Nord
Cape Nord's spaceport was similar to all the other ones the group had visited on their travels. The air was thick with the smells of stale coffee and alcohol from the waiting areas. The large open areas were clogged with real space signs advertising the sights of the polity, as well as timetables for arriving and departing subs. Subtle markings on the signs could be read by RIDEs and other systems to tell where to go in VR space for more information.
The ads were tuned for the season, advertising local hockey teams, the best places to go skiing and sledding, and the upcoming Iditarod race, run with real men and real dogs; no RIDEs allowed. A VR footnote pointed out the RIDEtarod would be run the week after.
The temperature inside the terminal was cooler than they were used to. Aloha's terminal did very little air conditioning, and generally stayed in the low 30's temperature that the rest of the polity enjoyed. Cape Nord's terminal was warmed, but only enough to make it livable compared to the outside; it was held in the low 20's.
Aaron shivered as they walked towards the outside doors. Through the windows, they could only see whiteness, as the blizzard they had landed in raged outside. Aaron checked the weather reports and shuddered, "Minus 10. I didn't think that was possible outside the Ice Bar."
Ashley, clad in Chena, walked through the door without pausing, "Don't be a wuss. This is the sort of thing Chimo and Chena were meant for," she said, sending it on their comm channels as the wind picked up and stole her words. "The tunnel to the city is closed for construction, so we've gotta take the overland route according to these directions."
The fused trio left the shelter of the terminal and were almost blown away by the gusting winds. Ashley let out a cheerful shout, while Chena increased her power to counteract the winds. The swirling snow blasting through the valleys cut visibility to nothing, forcing them to use their instruments to follow the route to the cave leading into the city.
"OK, I have to admit, that was fun," Aaron admitted once they were safely in the cave and out of the storm. Their RIDEs and Scratch were busy shedding the sticky snow that had built up on them.
"Well, we could go back out if we want. But we should probably find a hotel. News reports are advising that the storm's knocking out the positioning towers along the overland routes. We're going to be here a day or two," Ashley said.
Scratch finished drying of as best he could and stepped out of the pile of snow he'd shed. "Well that won't be too bad. Gives us a chance to get the lay of the land." He lifted off the ground and flew through the tunnel to the cavern city.
Cape Nord's central city was built in a series of caverns built in the mountains that surrounded Glace Bay. Originally a terraforming base, it had been taken over by the Cape Nord founders early in the Gondwana settlement phase.
A string of crater lakes nearby, formed from an ancient asteroid strike, provided the main reason for the polity's existence. It was one of the few areas on the planet with enough metal ore to be worth mining. Most of the metal used on the planet still came from space, but Cape Nord, and similar locations in Laurasia, were important to keep the Spacer monopoly under control, especially in the early days of the colony before RIDEs and Sarium batteries gave the planet something space couldn't provide..
The ceiling lifted away as they left the tunnels and entered the caves that made up the core of the city. Artificial sunlight hid the rocky ceilings, while multi-story buildings filled up the floor space. Their hotel was easy to find, near the closed tunnel leading to the spaceport terminal.
"Doesn't seem too bad here," Ashley noted as they merged with the city's traffic. They were a little surprised at how few RIDEs were there, fused or otherwise, but no one gave them a second glance.
"Yeah, I glanced through the local ordinances. No real surprises for you overall. We shouldn't rack up too many fines," Aaron replied. "Seriously though, they say it's the male-Sturmhaven, but the gender balance is still more or less balanced. They just have some rather strange, well strange to us, views on who can do what based on their plumbing. Visitors have a lot more leeway than natives."
"It does make me wonder why dad came here. Doesn't seem like the type of place she'd like. Before or after," Scratch mused, flying on automatic between the fused twins.
Ashley shrugged, "Maybe she didn't realize all the catches. Or she was blinded by love. She's not in any of the directories, but the guy she was with is still here. Well in the polity at least."
They had called their contacts in Burnside once they had discovered Amy had been with a man in Cape Nord. That had jogged some memories and records free, enough to find out a bit about him; enough for them to track down his home.
"Let's just get our rooms and find someplace to kill time till this storm blows out," Scratch said, trying to sort out his feelings. The closer he got to Amy, the more uncertain he was becoming. He was having a hard time deciding if he really wanted to meet her or not.
Snowed in for at least a day, the group left their hotel to check out what Cape Nord's caves had to offer. They found a pool hall just off the main road, and went in to claim a table, leaving Chimo and Chena outside.
The pool hall was similar to any other pool hall across the planet, with screens showing the local hockey games, a bar set up along one wall, and a variety of classic pool table and vari-G tables. The vari-G tables were actually force field cubes that the pool balls floated in, with the pockets set in the eight corners. The gravity fields within the cube would randomize between games to change the flight behavior of the balls. Cheaper tables would duplicate the effect using magnetic fields, but they discovered this pool hall had gone for the true-gravity controlled tables. The twins knew from experience that the randomness of the vari-G was the only true way they could fight Scratch's Integrated advantages when it came to pool.
Ashley walked around the cube slowly, studying the angles and trying to figure out how she could sink her final ball of the game and beat Scratch. The obvious shot had an annoying repulse field right in front of the pocket so she was trying to juggle the angle and field strengths to use it to her advantage. Her internal VR space was cluttered with notes and observations on the cube layout as she concentrated.
She caught a warning flash from Aaron, just as something grabbed at her cue stick. She felt something else squeeze her butt. "Looky here guys, this bitch thinks she can use a cue stick. Why don't you let this go missy, and maybe later tonight I can teach you how to use a real stick," a deep, nasally voice said from behind her.
She cleared her VR space and refocused on the Real. A gray trunk had curled around the end of the cue, and was tugging on it from over her shoulder. Tightening her grip on the cue, she twisted around, and saw the source of the trunk; a large miner with heavy fuse traces. His thick fingered hand was just lifting away from where her rear had been. Behind him, another miner, with rhino traces was leaning against a regular pool table, while a bison-miner was setting up the balls.
"You got this?" Aaron sent privately.
"Need any help?" Chena added just as quickly.
"I've got it. It's just three muscle bound oafs. No biggy," she responded, sizing up the threats and taking in the space she had to work with. She quashed the worry in the back of her head that she was too out of practice to do this, and instead focused on her foes, recalling what her sensei had taught her.
Aaron looked them over as well and mentally prepared himself just in case. He felt Scratch tense up as the Integrate noticed the bison, and put a reassuring hand on his friend's arm. "Try not to damage the place too much. Mom would be pissed if we had to spend our allowance on a pool hall in Cape Nord," he warned Ashley, but included Scratch as well.
"Thought it was Appa for a sec, but it isn't. Man I really need to get out more," Scratch added, relaxing a little.
Ashley glared up at the big miner, the conversation between herself and her companions having taken just a second. "You know what they say about elephants. The bigger the trunk, the smaller the stick. Judging by your trunk, if I tried to play with your stick, I'd need a strapon," she insulted the miner smoothly, keeping a firm grip on her cue.
The elephant snorted, his large ears shaking. "Bitch like you should know her place," he growled. Around them, the pool hall went silent as the patrons realized a fight was brewing.
"She knows her place perfectly well. And she knows your place too. She'll show it to you if you and your friends don't find a new table to play at," Aaron goaded him on from the other side of the cube.
"Stay out of this. Unless you're gonna fight for her," the rhino called back.
Aaron flicked his tail and sipped his beer. "No need. She's more than capable of handling you guys by herself. Figure you wouldn't even be a five minute workout for her, right Scratch?"
"Eight minutes. Ap- The bison over there looks a bit slow," Scratch replied, picking up the theme.
The bison snorted in anger and stamped around the table to join his rhino friend.
"Now now, boys. This is my fight. They started with me after all," Ashley grinned wolfily at the elephant man and tucked the cue under her armpit. She cracked her knuckles and flexed her claws. While their RIDEs had stripped the fur colour off of them, they'd kept the fur cover and most of the sled dog traits. "Now, this is your last chance. Move away, and this bitch won't have to hurt you," she growled to her opponent.
The elephant man snorted and pulled hard on the cue stick. She had expected that move and let him take it easily, the cue swinging upwards from the sudden release. She followed it with a strong uppercut at the man's jaw that sent him staggering back a few feet. While he was off balance, she dropped down low and swung with her feet, hooking his left leg behind the knee, and sending him falling back, crashing against the table.
She crouched on the floor, glancing between the rhino and the bison to see who would move first. The bison, perhaps spurred by Scratch's insult, charged first. She shifted her stance and leaped as he got close, grabbing his horns and using them to flip over his head. She used her momentum to kick at his spine, but just missed. The bison screamed in pain between the yank on his head and the kick on his back. He crashed through the vari-G table's field, causing it to flicker off and the balls to drop down on them.
Before Ashley could recover, the rhino was in the fight. He grabbed her by the upper arms and squeezed, lifting her free of his bison friend. "I recognized your moves. ZhengHe Jiu-Jitsu? Don't think it's going to help you with me," he growled in her ear.
Ashley shook her head, her ears ringing. The very ball she'd been trying to sink had conked her on the head as the field went down. She tried to sort out her situation and figure out how to get out of it. In the rhino's grip, she didn't have much reach. His groin was temptingly close to her feet, in easy kicking range, but his comments and comfortable stance gave her pause; she suspected he would be expecting an attack like that. He had a large mouth and nose muzzle with a horn on it, that made a head butt attack risky at best. She decided patience would be her safest bet, and let her body go limp, to wait for an opening. She started wagging her tail, letting it brush against his belly and groin as a distraction.
"Good girl," he growled at her, feeling her relax. He looked at his companions who were slowly picking themselves up, "Get up you two. We've gotta show this bitch her proper role," he called to them.
The rest of the bar was watching them in anticipation; some with expressions of desire, many with disgusted looks. The waiters were talking with the barkeeper, trying to decide how far to let it go. Ashley ignored them, sensing an opening coming as the elephant man approached her. "Great, I can't wait to teach her a lesson," he said, his trunk swinging up towards her shirt.
The rhino's grip on her arms was strong, but she still had enough movement to reach the trunk. She grabbed the end of it with both hands, digging her claws in. The elephant man started to react, but she didn't give him a chance. She swung her legs up around his tusks and hooked them around the base of the trunk. She pulled down as hard as she could and felt his massive body start falling towards the rhino and her.
The grip around her arms released as the tusks came dangerously close to her. She dropped down between the off balance men and heard the rhino curse at his friend. She rolled away, just missing their feet, and stood back up, panting hard.
Rhino-man was holding his friend up unsteadily. The fight was mostly out of the elephant; his trunk hung limply, with blood dripping from the end of it. The bison was just getting back on his feet, holding his head stiffly, rubbing his thick neck. She saw him limping a little, his right leg clearly not moving as easily as his left. The move she'd done, had it landed properly would have snapped his spine, leaving him crippled until he could get medical attention. But she was enough out of practice that she'd missed the sweet spot. Still, she didn't expect the bison to rejoin the fight.
Ashley grabbed her brother's beer and finished it with a gulp. Other than the cracked regular table, the damage had been minimal; the vari-G table just had to be reset and realigned.
"They're still walking; are you feeling all right?" Aaron asked.
"I'm fine. Just a bit out of practice. Remind me to put some more time in the dojos when we get home," she responded, stretching and wincing a bit from overstretched muscles.
Scratch eyed the trio warily, "Think they'll give us any more trouble? They were just beat by a girl," he smirked. He saw anger flare in the bison's eyes a moment before the big man winced and stumbled on his next step.
"Yup, that they were. Three big strong men, beat up by a single unarmed girl. Good luck with those man cards, guys. You really should reconsider RIDE signs with so many dangly bits. They make such great handholds," she taunted them and started towards the door. The miners paled, but didn't make a move towards her. "Let's head back and get some rest guys."
Outside, Chena folded herself around Ashley. The Alohan signed in relief as the fuse and medi nannies flooded her system, cooling and numbing her strained muscles. "Damn, I'm out of shape since we swapped. Wake me up early so I can get a workout done before we leave please, Chena."
"Will do, Ash. Nice job in there, even if you think you're rusty."
Ashley yawned and let her RIDE take over for the trip back to the hotel, "I knew I had you, and everyone else watching my back. No way I'd take that sort of risk if there was a chance those oafs could actually do something. Beating me up in a fight is one thing. Beyond that..." she trailed off and shuddered.
By morning, the storm had blown out and the skies were clear. The local news announced the roads outside the main city were open for skimmer traffic again; ground traffic would have to wait for the groomers to get the routes prepared.
The Alohan's waited until late morning before leaving. Amy's friend, Lionel, lived in a village called Nuuk, on the shore of a frozen lake. Since Chena's and Chimo's vehicle modes were wheelless, they were able to go whenever they wanted. They were wary about retaliation from the bar trio, so they took their time heading through the city caves and out, watching for anything suspicious, but didn't see anything. The exit they took was at the base of the ridge that held most of Cape Nord. Their route followed that ridge for most of the way to the lake system.
The ground was covered in a thick layer of snow. The only sign of the road they were following was the guidance towers poking up through the snow every klick. Occasionally, they passed a groomer that was compressing and clearing the snow from the ground tracks, but otherwise the road was deserted.
"I can't believe anyone would want to live out here," Aaron said as they flew over the white covered landscape. The ridge line had faded away behind them, and they were now passing through a wide path cut through a forest. "Water should be liquid, not solid. It should only be solid when it's mixed with drinks, or chopped up in slushies."
"I dunno. It's rather nice. Never seen snow before," Chimo answered. He and Chena were slowly dropping lower, until they were skimming only a couple of metres above the snow.
Ashley clued in first as the RIDEs started slowing down, "Guys? What are you doing?"
"We're not in a huge rush..." Chena started.
"So let's play in the snow." Chimo finished. Without any more warning, they turned off their hardlight shields and shifted to their walker modes. Their pilots found themselves dumped into the thick snow in the middle of the ungroomed trail, the Samoyeds landing shortly after, crouching down expectantly and grinning. Scratch hovered over them on his own lifters.
The humans sputtered and struggled to sit up from the deep snow drifts they were dropped in. "What the hell was that for?" Aaron shouted, shaking snow off.
Chimo faced his partner, crouched in the snow, his tail wagging. He woofed and grinned, "Just wanted to find out what it was like."
"It's cold, that's what it's like. We aren't dressed for a snow romp," Aaron shook himself again. Not expecting the snow dump, the twins didn't have jackets on; just pants and a short sleeved shirt each.
Chena nuzzled Ashley and woofed herself, "Sure you are. We thickened your undercoat and upped your temperature nannies last time we fused. You're as comfortable here as we are."
Aaron looked down at himself, realizing his RIDE trace fur was thicker than he was used to, and despite the outside temperatures, he wasn't feeling cold, just a little chilled. He rolled his eyes and crushed a handful of snow into a snowball, that he threw at his RIDE. It splattered against Chimo's nose, causing the RIDE to sneeze. "Fine. we'll take a snow break," he said, dodging the pawful of snow Chimo threw back.
The impromptu snow fun continued until they received warnings of a groomer getting close. The RIDEs switched back to vehicle modes and picked up their pilots and Scratch. They took to the air, turning up their cabin heat to warm the humans up.
A couple hours later, they arrived at Nuuk. It was a small village, built mainly of preconstructed multistory buildings on the shore of a frozen lake. The snow was packed deeply around the first floors of most of the buildings, making clear why they had second story entrances. The lake itself had been the first crater to be mined. It had run out years ago, and the land restored. It now served as a vacation spot for Cape Nord, and a supply stop servicing the mines further along.
"Not many people around here," Scratch noted, lifting out of Chimo's cabin. The few people around were busy cleaning up from the storm, blazing new paths between the buildings. A few kids were even burrowing tunnels in the snowbanks and having a snow war in a park.
"Local mesh says this place is mainly a summer place now, since the mines moved on. Lots of houses are summer homes for people in Cape Nord. It's got about five thousand people during the summer, but once the snow comes, it drops to about a thousand," Aaron said. "Our guy is in the condo building over here."
Chena took the lead on the way over, "Not many RIDEs around. Even fewer than in Cape Nord. All I can pick up is a couple of the groom crews, and a smattering of others." She paused a moment in surprise, "Wow, a dozen homes in that building, and not a single RIDE among them."
"Outside of the mines and some of the more dangerous outside stuff, these guys just haven't taken to RIDEs as big as other places. Stats show they're on the rise, but it's a mix of Laurasian and Gondwanan RIDEs," Aaron explained. "We're here."
The RIDEs landed in the flat area in front of the complex. "A parking lot. An actual parking lot," Chimo noted incredulously. "I guess we're waiting out here."
"If the doors were any smaller, I'd be waiting with you guys. We'll shout if we need anything." Scratch started towards the stairs up to the main entrance, followed by the twins.
On the fourth floor, they paused a moment. Scratch held his hand in front of the door bell. "Stale alcohol, and one guy in there," he said after sniffing a moment. "Holovision's on, but just in passive mode."
"So he's not a wire head. That's good. You sure you want to do this? Aaron and I can handle it if you want to wait outside."
"No I'm good." Scratch showed his certainty by pressing the door chime.
It took three more chimes before the door finally opened up. They had a brief glance of a disheveled man, with a three days growth of beard. He was bare chested, and out of shape. To their surprise, he had a set of fox ears and a bushy fox tail. The man looked out long enough to identify them before the door closed again.
Scratch knocked on the door, "Lionel? We'd like to talk to you," he called out. "It's about Amy."
"Go away. You animal people wrecked my life already. Just leave me in peace," the voice shouted from behind the door.
The twins exchanged looks. "Animal people?" Ashley asked privately.
"Not many RIDEs remember?" Aaron pointed out. He called out, "Please, Lionel. We just want to talk to you about Amy, then we'll leave."
The door opened again and the fox-man peeked out. "What about her?"
"We're trying to find out where she went. You're the best lead we have left. We found out she was here with you a few years back," Scratch explained. He saw Lionel look at him curiously and answered the unasked question. "She's my... parent. We were separated a long time ago, and I want to find her, to let her know I'm still alive."
Lionel looked shocked, his unkempt tail dropping down to the floor, "A kid?... She said she was dead...."
"May we come in? If you'd be more comfortable we can go outside instead," Aaron asked after introducing themselves.
After a moment, Lionel slid the door open the rest of the way and walked back in deeper. Inside, the apartment was a mess, empty cans and boxes on every flat surface. Dirty clothes were piled in corners, along with wrappers and other trash.
"Man, we found someone who's a worst housekeeper than you are, Ash," Aaron sent, stepping around a leaning tower of pizza boxes.
Ashley shuddered and looked around, "If I ever get this bad, just kill it with fire. It'll be the only way to be sure," She debated sitting on a couch and decided to stay standing. "Scratch, over there. On the table."
Their eyes all turned to an end table next to the couch. Unlike the rest of the place, it was clear, other than the statue on the middle. It was a lava statue from Burnside, containing three figures. A fox RIDE in walker mode, a man with fox ears and tail that looked like Lionel, only in better shape, and a porcupine woman.
"What can you tell us about Amy, Lionel? Or rather what do you want to tell us about her?" Aaron probed cautiously, while Scratch went over to look at the statue.
Lionel tensed a moment before answering, never taking his eyes off Scratch. "We met in Burnside 5 years or so ago now. I was on a 'See the world for cheap' kick, and ended up there during harvest season. We worked the same plantation, and to be honest, she fascinated me. She was a hard worker, but she kept herself separate from everyone else. She had such a hurt vibe coming off of her, that I couldn't help but..." he paused and reconsidered his words, " … want to help her.
"She resisted at first, but through the season, I wore her down bit by bit, sharing lunches with her, finally taking her out to dinner. By the end of the season, we were hanging out all the time. I was ready to move on from there, to head home, and I wanted her to come with me."
Ashley looked puzzled, "We talked to people on the plantation. No one saw you with her."
"It was the plantation, everyone settles in their groups and rarely notices anyone outside them. Since she was a loner to begin with, I became a loner by proxy. It wasn't too bad. We went to Burnside on the weekends for fun, just the two of us.
"When the harvest was over, I was ready to move on, but she wasn't quite. She'd promised to do some office work or something for the company in the off season and she didn't want to break that promise. So we got an apartment together in Burnside for those months while she worked. To get a better understanding of what she was going through, I leased Frex, a fox RIDE and the three of us had fun through the winter. That's when we had that made," he nodded to the statue.
"What... what did you know about what she was going through?" Scratch asked cautiously.
He refocused on Scratch, "She didn't want to tell me at first, but she gave enough hints that I figured it out, Christine." His face fell a bit and he sat down tiredly, "That's part of what broke us up in the end. When her obligations were done, I convinced her to return to Cape Nord with me. She was concerned about how she'd be accepted there, given the stories, but I was already planning on moving out to Nuuk, so the culture shock wouldn't be as bad.
"Neither of had much money, so we reluctantly had to leave Frex behind. I would never have been able to afford to keep him up here. But we set up a good place here.
"At first, things were great. She settled in with some of the young woman around here, as they showed her their ways. But the little things started to add up. She never quite fit the way we had hoped. She had a streak in her that jarred badly with our culture. Not a tomboy streak but something else. I dug more into her past, sometimes openly, most of the time on the sly, and discovered more about who she was and what had happened."
He sighed and picked up the statue. "That was probably the beginning of the end. I felt for her, and what happened to her, and tried to support her, to put what savings we had towards the help she needed, but she refused. By the end of winter, we were at the end of our respective ropes.
"At the start of summer, she'd had enough. After a bad encounter with some guys at a bar she was waitressing, she decided she'd had enough of Gondwana in general. She said she was going back to Florencia to try and get back to normal."
"Back to normal? As RIDE changed as she was? She never tried to flush the changes out?" Ashley asked.
Lionel shook his head, "No. Every time we brought it up, she got bad shakes. If I pushed, she'd shut down, all but freezing for a day."
"Pascal's work. She loved to leave traps like that. Pissed Shah off at times when she needed to swap people around," Scratch growled and looked away. "Florencia... She was there the entire time. We really should have tried there first."
"Well this way we know more about what she went through, so we know what to expect now." Ashley moved over and hugged her friend. "It's a long shot, but you haven't kept in touch with her have you?"
"No, not really. The last fight was rather intense. But she's probably in the Florencian directories. I've almost looked her up a few times, but couldn't take the final step."
Ashley looked around the apartment once more, on the verge of leaving, but too curious for her own good. "Thank you, Lionel. You've been a huge help. Is there anything you'd like us to tell her when we see her?"
His voice caught as his eyes locked on the statue again before he forced himself to look away. "No. That phase of my life is over. I need to move on."
"Are you sure? That it's over? That you want it to be over? I mean you still have Frex's signs on you. Even here in Cape Nord, it wouldn't be that expensive to remove them...." Ashley started, ignoring her twin's expression.
Lionel's own expression hardened and he motioned to the door. "I think it's time for you to go," he said, his tone colder than the lake outside his windows.
Aaron grabbed his sister's arm and started directing her towards the door. Scratch followed, casting a look back at the fox man who had picked up the statue. "Thank you for your help, Lionel. I do appreciate it."
On the way back to Cape Nord, Ashley couldn't let it go. "He's still carrying the torch hard for her," she noted. "I mean, look at that place. He hasn't done a thing since she left, other than survive. His life is in a holding pattern, probably since they broke up. But he loves that little statue, and he kept the fox tail. Wonder if we could get Frex as a gift for him?"
"Ease up, Ash. Let's reunite Scratch first, before you go matchmaker again," Aaron tried to redirect his sister. The skimmer route was a little busier than when they had left in the morning, most of the traffic heading towards them, heading to the mines.
"But … " Ashley reconsidered her words and sighed. She slumped back in her seat. Scratch was riding in Chena with her for the trip back. "Fine, you win. Any luck finding her guys?"
Chena's virtual head appeared in the air over her hood. "Not yet. We searched all the directories in Florencia and came up dry. We're backtracking to when she would have left Cape Nord, but it's a lot of details to filter through. Especially for a common name like Amy."
Aaron's head appeared, along with Chimo's. "You know, maybe she didn't make it back to Florencia. There aren't any direct flights between Cape Nord and there. Maybe she stopped along the way and just stayed?"
"It's an idea," Chimo admitted. "Chena, you keep digging into the past, see if you can figure out where she went. Cape Nord doesn't have any direct Laurasian flights, not back then or now, but she could have gone via Cascadia, Nextus or Aloha. Which makes her likely destinations Neo Francisco, First Landing or Zharustead. I'll check their current directories for her."
The group fell silent, lost in their thoughts as they retraced their flight back to Cape Nord. The RIDEs, with much of their attention focused on queries to the other side of the world, automatically received a detour notice and followed the instructions, not sensing anything amiss about the reroute around a rock fall.
Thus they were caught completely unaware when a blast erupted from the forest they were flying over. The pulse struck Chena's undercarriage, flipping the RIDE end over end over end. Her lifters fizzled out and she plummeted to the ground. Chimo reacted quickly, diving after her. A second blast erupted from the forest, just missing his tail antenna.
"What-" Aaron started to say, as the cabin collapsed around him, hugging him tighter as it reshaped into a humanoid form. He felt his thoughts quicken as the fuse completed and linked him to Chimo. " - happened? How are they?" he finished, reviewing Chimo's sensors in quick time while they appeared to drift slowly to the ground.
Instead of speaking, Chimo set up an overlay to highlight the crash sight. Readings showed the status of the RIDE and her passengers. Chena herself was intact, but her hardlight shields were on the verge of collapse. She was still in vehicle mode, and not responding to hails, but her automatic systems partly responded to status checks. Ashley had been knocked around, and was unconscious and bleeding, but had no immediately life threatening injuries. Scratch similarly had been knocked around, but had fewer injuries. He wasn't responding either.
Satisfied their family were safe enough, they shifted their focus to the source of the blasts, and Aaron felt a shiver of fright. The first thing they found was a large metallic gray tank. It rumbled through the forest, knocking down trees and plowing through the snow with ease. Its trunk-like rail gun turret was slowly swinging around to try and get a bead on them.
Converging on Chena from another angle was another armored RIDE vehicle. It rolled through the forest as easily as the tank did, angled blades plowing snow and rock and vegetation alike to the side.
The third target, the source of the shot at Chimo was found in the air behind the two approaching Chena. A fused bison RIDE with little in the way of hardlight fur was aiming another pulse gun towards the pair. Aaron noted in passing, that the bison's hump was the source of the sudden comm interference they were now encountering.
"Suggestions? Options?" Aaron asked, feeling their fused body move slowly to react to the tank's targeting. In the back of his mind, he pulled up the lessons on quick time fighting his father and aunt had taught all their kids. The first rule that came to mind, was the thing never to forget, even when fused with a RIDE. "Your mind may be quicktime. But your body is still real time. React accordingly."
Chimo's priority list flashed through their mind. First goal, to survive. Second goal, to keep the other three alive. Both of them knew those goals were nearly impossible to pull off. They were outnumbered, and outgunned. While most of the Munn family had gotten milsurp RIDEs, Chimo and Chena had been specifically ordered and built for the twins, and didn't have the weaponry or shielding that Melody, Boris, Jay and Vincent had.
Chimo dodged the bison's next shot, taking him further away from Chena. It was becoming obvious that was the bison's main task at hand; to keep them away from their sisters and friend. "Don't they realize the trouble they'd be in for killing us?" Aaron asked in frustration.
A map flashed in their shared space, showing where they were, and showing Cape Nord surprisingly far away. It also showed another storm moving in. "We're in the middle of nowhere. We wouldn't be found until spring at best. By then they'd be long gone. And that assumes they don't just take our bodies elsewhere. ... Aaron, I can't see any options other than running," Chimo whined in frustration. It was an option neither of them could accept.
The dog abruptly killed his lifters and they plummeted downward. A boom echoed through the forest, and a rail gun blast shattered the air they were just in. Chimo reactivated his lifters and crashed through the upper branches of some trees, trying to regain both height and distance.
"We're outnumbered and outgunned. We need to even the odds. We need to wake Scratch up."
They jigged in the sky again as another rail gun blast blew past them. It was followed quickly by a scattering of shots from the bison. Chimo tapped into Chena's systems so they could speak and listen inside her, and Aaron slipped back down to real time. The rhino was getting uncomfortably close to Chena.
"Scratch! Wake up! We need your help!" Aaron shouted, sensing Chimo trying on other channels.
They both yelped in pain as a blast scorched the hardlight fur of their hip. They tumbled in the air a moment before recovering. "Scratch dammit! We're all gonna die if you don't wake up!"
A burst of static rose from Chena's position, overwhelming Chimo's sensors for a moment. It resolved into a groggy wordless query signal with Scratch's signature.
"I hope he didn't blow his DIN out, or we're really screwed," Aaron mumbled. He reactivated the channel as their vision cleared. To their relief, the blast seemed to have caused the trio to pause as well. "Scratch, focus. Don't blow your DIN. We need you intact," Aaron called out.
"Whuh- What happened?" the integrate finally sent clearly.
"We were diverted into a trap by Ashley's new playmates. They really weren't happy to be beaten by a girl. They've got three heavily armed RIDEs helping them," Aaron sent quickly, feeling Chimo dodge. The trees near Chena were shaking as the rhino got closer.
It felt like the feline took forever to recover and realize what was going on. "What do you need?" Scratch sent, slipping into quick time.
"We're outnumbered and outgunned. Can you lock them down somehow until we can recover?"
Scratch groaned and shook his head, then winced again, "I could normally... but I'm still scrambled. Hit my head hard when we went down. Ashley looks fine at least, but she cracked her nose."
"Forcus Scratch, the rhino will be on you in seconds," Chimo pointed out.
"I'm trying to. My heads rattled. I can sense them all, but I can't get a lock on them. I'm seeing quadruple." His signal faded a moment before returning, "Damnit, my DIN's cracked. It's responding, but there's a lot of static."
"Do you have any spares handy?" Aaron asked.
"Not on me. They're in Chena and Chimo's storage compartments. We don't have time for me to get a spare.... Maybe... Chimo, could this work?"
Aaron sensed a surge of data pass quickly between the pair, faster even than his quickened mind could sense.
Chimo chewed on the idea a moment before sending acceptance, "That could work, Scratch. I think we can do it."
"What could work?" Aaron sensed Chimo becoming distracted, setting up something he couldn't tell.
"It's risky, but if you two are willing. We're going to off load my DIN functionality to Chimo and you. If you're willing, you two will emulate most of my DIN, and I'll funnel the commands through you."
Aaron considered it a moment, "How risky is it?"
"No risk of Pinocchio'ing if that's what you're thinking of. Mike and Tonto were in a different situation. But there is a slight risk of brain or core damage. None of us have tried this before," Scratch explained, the uncertainty clear in his voice.
"All of our lives depend on it, do what you need," Aaron reassured his friend. "Chena and Ashley especially need our help. There's no other choice."
"Emulator is set up. Go when ready, Scratch," Chimo added. "Five seconds for the rhino."
Aaron briefly felt Chimo open up something, and a strange, but familiar, presence entered their minds. Unlike when he was fused with Chimo, this presence only took, it didn't share. The fused pair's vision and other senses dimmed as Scratch used their better vantage point to compensate for his own internal damage. He felt like he was in a muffled cocoon, isolated from his own body as the Integrate made use of their senses and minds. Strange thoughts, a mix of data so dense it seemed like static and normal thoughts that seemed almost-human skirted around the edges of his awareness.
Their body turned and focused on the rhino. In quick time it looked like it was barely moving, but it was almost at Chena's crash site. Everything else froze for a moment, and faded away, leaving just the rhino RIDE. Different views of the rhino flickered by, showing power flows, hard light densities, sensor networks, nanite flows and other controls. A dense pocket of information glowed brightly in the rhino, almost too bright to look at. Scratch, through Chimo, reached out and forced a stream of data into the bright core. It faded down to a dim ember, and the rest of the systems quickly faded down to inactivity. In real time, the RIDE's momentum carried it through the trees before it froze, meters away from the fallen Chena.
The elephant tank was there next target. They turned and found the tank's rail gun aimed directly at them. The power flow viewed showed it was almost fully charged and nearing release. One quick pulse from them activated the turret's motor, swinging it to the side before the charge released, launching its projectile. Their view switched to the information flow view, and they quickly found the elephant's core. Another pulsed command slipped through the RIDE's defenses, and the bright core dimmed down to passive mode.
A blast of force struck them in the back, shattering their concentration momentarily. The world regained its clarity, along with a sharp stab of pain. Chimo twisted them in air as he tried to recover, seeing the fused bison firing at them.
"What did you do to them?!?" the bison shouted in panic, firing constantly. He pulled the trigger so fast, the gun couldn't properly recharge, causing most of the shots to misfire. The few shots that did get out packed much less punch than they would normally.
Chimo didn't answer. Now that they had the bison clearly in their sights, they were able to dodge easier. A wave of medical nannies dulled the pain from the shot they did take, while the emulator link was re established. Aaron slipped back into the cocoon with the Integrate thoughts passing through him.
The information view of the fused bison was different from the other two RIDEs. Instead of having a single bright core, there were two slightly different coloured cores, one for each intelligence working in the fuse. A cord connected them, glowing almost as bright as the cores themselves. Aaron sensed a moment of hesitation as Scratch's attention flickered between both cores, trying to decide which to affect. He finally sent his command out to the bluer core. It faded down to a dim ember passive, the cord splintering and breaking. The redder core glowed brighter, the nanite flows shifting and connecting directly to it, but the data flow was slower. Scratch intercepted many of the streams and pinched them off; the only one he allowed was the one that let the bison drop down to the ground safely.
The presence pulled back out of their minds, and broke the connection. Aaron felt his fused body return to normal, complete with the dulled stinging in the small of his back from the shot. "Wow," he mumbled.
"Are you two OK? I tried to be as careful as possible," Scratch sent.
Chimo finished his internal checks before responding. "We're fine. No damage, no side effects I can tell."
Aaron started dropping them down to Chena's inactive body. They could very faintly hear shouts and banging from the frozen rhino nearby. "What did you do to them, Scratch?"
"I put the RIDE cores into passive mode. The first two weren't fused, so once they were passive, they're effectively shut down. Well once I killed their internal controls at the same time. The fused one was a bit harder, but I managed to get it. Could you guys pass me in one of my spare DINs?"
"Sure, just give us a moment... Chena!" The appearance of the other RIDE caught Aaron by surprise. The blast had shattered through her shielding and plating, melting and crushing many of the elements inside. Only the internal armor of her cabin had kept it from punching right through, and even then it had left a bulge that left the seats askew. The subsequent crash had pushed her forward lifter assembly back, further compressing the cabin. He could tell that neither Ashley nor Scratch would be able to get out without outside help.
Scratch waved weakly from the back seat, silvery blood staining his fur from various scratches, "She's fine. Her core is in passive safety mode, just the automated systems running. I'm helping where I can, but this DIN's sputtering bad," he called out.
Chimo took over from his stunned pilot and moved them in closer. A hatch opened in his chest and he pulled out a bag of black gems. He picked one out and handed it in to Scratch.
"Thanks," the integrate said, pulling a cracked gem out of the slot behind his ear. He pressed the new one in with practiced ease and sighed in relief. "That's much better. I'm already thinking clearer. Never did anything like that before," he shuddered, "Never really want to do anything like that again."
A groan from the front seat interrupted them. Aaron defused from Chimo and climbed up to check on his sister. Her face and arms were half covered in shiny medi-nanite bandage clots from what Scratch had managed to do. Her eyes were open, but not focusing. "Don't worry, Ash. We're safe now. Just relax," he reassured his sister, taking her hand and squeezing it gently. Her eyes closed again and she went limp. Her implant readouts and the meddies both said she was stable, but weak. "Chimo! Can you get a signal out for help?"
Chimo looked up to the skies, then towards Cape Nord. He lifted into the air a bit and straightened his tail until he found what he was looking for. "Got it. Emergency services are on their way out. Salvage skimmer and ambulance for our guys, and cops with proper fetter controls for our friends over there." He landed and looked puzzled, "What are we going to tell them? How did we beat them?"
Scratch leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes a moment, "I'm not sure, we'll have to think of something. Don't be alarmed, I'm moving them closer to us. I've got control over the three RIDEs now, but I'd rather have them close at hand to keep an actual eye on them."
The elephant tank rolled up through the path the rhino had cleared. Soon after, the bison arrived as well, still fused. They all froze into immobility once they were in position, all weapons pointed as far from the group as Scratch could point them.
"Wanda," Aaron said suddenly. "That's what we can say." He got confused looks from Chimo and Scratch. "We say we've got some sort of experimental device Wanda and Aunt Nikki were cooking up for APD, to handle feral RIDEs or something." He shrugged in frustration, "It's not as if we can tell them the truth. And as far as those idiots know, only Chimo and I were active, so it looked like we were the ones who shut them down."
"It's weak, but it'll probably hold enough water to get by. I'll give them a heads up in case anyone starts asking questions. Just got an updated ETA from Cape Nord, we should have company in about an hour," Chimo informed them.
Scratch started carefully pushing against Ashley's seat, trying to get his own legs unpinned. "Give me a hand here guys. I need to get out and on my feet. There'll be fewer questions, and medical checks if I'm mobile," he explained.
With Aaron's help, the integrate managed to extricate himself from his seat. The feline fell out of Chena's cabin and lay in the snow a long moment. A long deep scratch down one leg oozed silvery-red blood until it sealed up.
"You OK?" Aaron called out.
Scratch rolled over carefully and sat up, leaning against Chena's rear lifter. "Yeah, just need to catch my breath. Energy levels are a bit low after all this, but I'm good. Could use something to eat."
Chimo landed next to the feline, and opened up one of his compartments. Scratch reached in and pulled out some of the snacks they had picked up in Nuuk. "Thanks pal," he said, slumping back and tearing into the food.
The RIDE and the Integrate stared at the three large RIDEs they had captured. All three had minimal hardlight textures. Their metal skin was battered and dented from their time in the mines.
"It's not their fault," Scratch said quietly. "The RIDEs that is. I've been peeking. All three are former military RIDEs that were sold off. They work the mines thirty-six, changing pilots about three times a day, with almost no downtime for recharging or mental defragging. And they're so heavily fettered, they can't even speak. Hell they were so fettered, they were practically in passive mode while fused." He shuddered, "That mining company only sees them as machines, to be used up and replaced."
Chimo shuddered, his tail dropping down. "Damn. No breaks? Three pilots? I don't even want to think of that.... But wait, if they're worked so hard, what are they doing out here?"
"Their RIDErs were on their leave, and brought them back to Cape Nord for some specialized servicing. To take care of the fragmentation and other needs that were being neglected out at the mines."
"Doesn't mean much in the end though. Especially up here. At least they'll probably get a small vacation while this mess is sorted out. And they probably won't be held culpable if that's any help. They're just machines after all," Chimo growled softly, then sighed and flopped down in the snow, his gaze shifting from the captured RIDEs to his partner tending his twin.
Scratch fell silent as well, closing his eyes to look like he was resting. The only sign of activity was the flickering light deep within the DIN behind his ear.
In VR space, he stood on a snowy plain, with three large cages in front of him. Inside each cage, the captured RIDEs were represented, heavily bound and muzzled.
"You won't remember this until the conditions are met, but I want you to know, I know you guys didn't have a choice in this incident, so I'm going to give you a chance," he said, moving to each cage and reaching in, touching the bindings. They glowed and weakened slightly.
"Letting you go now would leave too many questions, but you will have an opportunity. As you return to the mine, this gift will trigger. It will release all of your fetters, leaving you free, perhaps for the first time. After that, it'll be up to you what you want to do. I would suggest heading for the Dry. If you're fused, I'd also suggest leaving your pilot behind. It causes less trouble that way. But it will be your choice. Do what you want with it."
He stepped away and looked at them one more time, before dropping the link. He slumped back into semi-consciousness to let his body continue healing..
A half hour later, the first responder arrived. A simple black and white tri-lifter skimmer flashing red and blue landed and a man bundled in thermo gear climbed off. He took his helmet off and tucked it under an arm, while taking note of the situation. His skimmer started to shift shape, pieces moving around until a three meter tall humanoid robot stood next to the officer. An old style police cap flickered into being on its head.
"Howdy, folks. I'm Officer Benton. Gary Benton. And this is my partner, Sparky. I was passing close by when yer call came in. The rest of the guys should be here soon. How are things going here?" he introduced himself, nodding to Aaron and Scratch. He had a Laurasian accent that they couldn't quite place. Sparky similarly nodded to them, but stayed silent.
"Hi officers," Aaron called back, having a hard time looking away from Sparky. "We're doing OK, but better now that you guys are arriving." He introduced the others, and gave him a rundown of what their situation was. Gary pointed Sparky towards the RIDEs while he went to do his own check on Ashley.
"So this is the woman who put the MacIntyres in their place? No wonder they were so riled up. Never thought they'd go this far though," he commented.
"You know them?" Scratch asked. He watched as the robot started attaching devices to the RIDEs; leashes to keep them under its control.
"They've got a reputation, especially when they come into town. Some say it's influence from their machines there, but I don't buy it. They're just nasty folk. And your sister there wrecked their night on the town last night. What I don't get, is how in tarnation you managed to lasso those big guys by yerselves."
"Secret project my cousin was working on," Aaron said, picking up the story they'd cooked up. "Just something to help protect yourself from wild RIDEs in the Dry, without having to arm yourself to the teeth."
He hopped down and ruffled Chimo's ears, "It was only meant to be a single shot device. Making it work for three burned it out, but not before we got things under control. Still, it's a relief to see them properly leashed now."
"That they are." he nodded to Sparky who tapped the side of the elephant. Muffled shouts came from within, but no one paid them any attention. "They can just stew in there a bit longer 'till more folks show up. So, is that a problem 'round here? Feral RIDEs? I'd think they'd be too expensive to let running around fer free."
Scratch chuckled, "You're clearly not from around here. While they're pricy, they also have minds of their own. After the war and the mass production since then, they're so common that it's not that hard for them to slip away if the thought occurs to them."
"Where are you from? You don't sound like a Nordian. Or from Gondwana for that matter," Aaron asked, trying to shift the subject to safer topics.
The officer straightened up and beamed proudly, "I'm not. I'm from Nujose. Twenty years on the force, ten of them partnered with Sparky there. One of the first Law Enforcement EIDEs to be made." Sparky tapped its hardlight hat and nodded.
"Interesting, but what brings you here to Cape Nord?" Chimo asked, startling the officer.
Gary looked curiously at Chimo for a moment. "An officer exchange program; I wanted to see how things were done in the wilds of Gondwana, and maybe see what those RIDEs people kept talking about were."
He looked around a bit and shrugged, "Though to be be honest, I'm thinking I hooked up with the wrong place. Cape Nord's not that bad a place, though it does have some twisted notions. It's just not quite what I expected. I expected to see people like you all over the place, but here, everyone's normal. Aren't you cold dressed like that?"
Aaron looked at himself, then shrugged. He was still in a short sleeved shirt and pants. "Not at all. Feels a bit toasty to be honest. Then again, we aren't normally this furry. Chena and Chimo increased our fur coats on our way out here. Plus we've got thermo-nannies to help with our internal temperature control. About the only way we could survive with sled dogs on the equator."
"They can do that? You'd let them do that to you? Wow." Paul's gaze shifted from Chimo to Aaron and back.
Aaron nodded to Chimo and stood up. The RIDE stood as well. "Most people wouldn't trust their RIDEs that far. But we've been together for years, and we trust each other with our lives. All four of us. Chimo and Chena are as much a part of my family as Ashley is. And I'm not going to be comfortable until Ashley AND Chena are healed up." As he spoke, Chimo opened up and engulfed Aaron. He didn't miss a beat in his speech as they fused up, leaving the large bipedal dog speaking at the end.
"If you wanted to see how RIDEs were like out here in the wilds, you came to the wrong end of Gondwana. From what we've seen here, they aren't using them as much as the other polities around here. You'd probably have a better feel if you'd gotten another place, like Aloha or Uplift," Scratch noted.
"Yeah, I've realized that now. Where's your RIDE?"
Scratch turned away, "I lost him long ago. An accident. He wasn't recoverable.... I think I hear more people coming."
The site turned into organized chaos as more police and other vehicles arrived. Statements were taken, along with Chimo's records (carefully doctored by the RIDE and Scratch while they were waiting). The homicidal trio were forced from their RIDEs and taken away. An ambulance crew managed to get Ashley free and on her way back to the city. Chimo and Aaron followed close behind, while Scratch kept watch on how Chena was taken care of.
Ashley woke up slowly, and felt lost. She could tell she was indoors, but couldn't remember how she had gotten there. She opened her eyes and found herself in a clinic bedroom. It didn't look very different from a hotel room, other than the buzz of data streams she could sense with her implant. The actual devices monitoring her condition were hidden in the bed and walls of the room. She saw her brother slouched in a chair next to her bed, dozing. She tried to speak, and coughed against the dryness of her throat. It was enough to wake her twin up.
He picked up a bottle of water and shushed her until she drank some of the water. "How are you feeling?" he asked once she'd downed most of the water.
"Horrible. But better," she coughed out. "What happened? Where are we?"
"In a clinic in Cape Nord. Your friends at the pool hall decided they wanted a second shot at you. So they shot Chena in the belly with a railgun," Aaron explained.
"Chena!" She sat up and winced in pain. "How is she?"
He gently pushed her back down to the pillows. "She's in rough shape. We're not sure if the DE is salvageable. But her Core is solid. She's being kept in passive mode, but Scratch has talked to her, let her know we're all fine."
She relaxed and sighed, "That's good. How long do we have to stay here?"
"Well the nurses said that you'd probably be cleared to leave once you woke up. Most of the damage has been patched up."
"I don't mean that. I mean leave this place. Leave Cape Nord. I don't care where we go, I just don't want to stay here any more."
Aaron looked out the window and shrugged, "Well, the police want to get a statement from you about what happened. Both at the pool hall and in the woods. But the case is pretty solid against those murderous jerks, so Gary doubts we'll need to stay here. Even for the trial, we could arrange a holoconference from Aloha."
"Good. Call the cops, let's get the statement and book our tickets."
"But what about Chena? They're still scanning her DE to see what can be saved."
Ashley's expression hardened, "Tell them to stop. The idiots here wouldn't know a nani fuse-pump from a TF Cog. We'll get her fixed some place where they know RIDEs."
Knowing that arguing with his sister would be fruitless, Aaron signaled the nurses to start the checkout routine.
An hour later, they pulled up to the police complex. They climbed down to the ground, and Chimo shifted back to his walker mode. Ashley put an arm around his neck for support, and looked around. "What is that?" she asked suddenly.
Aaron glanced where she was looking, "That's Sparky, Gary's partner. He probably sent it down to get us. I did tell him we were on our way."
"What is it? And... Aaron, there's someone in there!"
"It's an Enhanced IDE. They're getting popular on the other side of the world... what do you mean someone in there?"
As Sparky got closer, it was obvious it was bulkier than it had been back at the crash site. Its movements were smoother as well, now that Aaron watched it. When the tall robot reached them, it split apart down the chest and down the limbs. Officer Benton stepped out, and nodded to the twins. Behind him, the robot compacted down to the tall form it had before.
"You showed me yours, but I never had a chance to show you mine," he said, smiling at Aaron and shaking his hand. The smile faded slightly, becoming more comforting as his focus shifted to Ashley. "Good to see you up and about, Ma'am. I'm sorry you had to go through all that."
"I'm sorry I had to go through it myself. And I'm really sorry Chena got hurt. But we'll get her fixed up soon. Will this take long?"
He pointed to a park across the street. "Over there would be fine. We just want to get your side of the story for the record. The case itself is pretty open and shut, between what your brother and RIDEs provided, and what we got from the pool hall." He led them to a picnic table and took a seat, "Since you were unconscious through most of the events, this shouldn't take long," he started.
As promised, he didn't take long, though Ashley did feel herself getting frustrated by the end of it. He finally stood up and offered his hand to her. "Thank you. We'll be in touch if we need more information, but we should be good until the trial. What are your plans now?"
"To get as far the hell away from here as I can," Ashley growled, though she did shake the offered hand. "There's a sub leaving for Uplift soon, and Chena and I are going to be on it one way or another."
"I'm sorry your visit is ending on such a sour note, but I'd probably do the same thing in your shoes. If you have any problems, feel free to call. And if we need anything else from you, we'll be in touch."
"We will," Aaron said. "And if you get tired of this frozen wasteland, give us a shout. I'm sure we could get you transferred down to APD if you wanted to. Only ice down there is in your drink."
"I'll keep it in mind. Have a good trip."
Stop 8: Back to Uplift.
Ashley didn't completely relax until the suborbital was in its descent to the Uplift spaceport. With Chena disabled, she was in the passenger section, with her brother for company. Scratch and Chimo rode in the RIDE section, with the crate containing Chena's DE. Her core rode in a padded container on Ashley's lap.
"Have you decided yet what to do?" Aaron asked quietly.
She wiped her face with a damp cloth and shook her head. "I don't know. I thought getting away from there would clear my head, but I'm as muddled up as I was before. I can't decide if we should wait for the next sub to Aloha or try to have her fixed here or what."
Aaron squeezed her hand, then rested his hand on top of hers on Chena's core case. "The next available sub home isn't until tomorrow. So we've got time, and that list of trusted garages from Bryan and Beth. It includes a couple here in Uplift. We can take her there, get an opinion and decide then what we'll do next."
Ashley sniffed hard and blew her nose. She nodded her head and smiled weakly. "Yeah, we can do that. At least we'd know faster, one way or another."
The truck pulled into the mechanic's lot. Behind it, the white skimmer landed and Aaron and Scratch climbed out. Chimo folded back into his Walker form by the time Ashley got out of the truck.
"Is this the place?" she asked, looking around uncertainly.
"The address matches. As does the name on the sign. Hours on the mesh say they should be open. Maybe they didn't hear us arrive?" Aaron nodded to the bays towards the back of the lot.
Ashley walked back to the waiting driver, "Can you wait here a moment to make sure he's here? If no one's home we'll need you to take her back to the port."
"No need for that," a male voice called out. A man walked towards them, wiping his greasy hands on a well used rag. "What can I do for you?"
"We've got a RIDE, well a DE. She took a rail gun blast and crashed hard. Her core is fine but we don't know what to do, if we can save her shell or if-" Ashley choked up before she could finish, clenching Chena's core tighter to her chest.
The man waved to a spot near the bays, "I understand. Take her DE over there and let's take a look, see what we're dealing with. I'll go get my partner, Kaylee, do the triage. My name's Ryan, owner of this joint."
The fused female mechanic walked into the waiting room and looked to the twins. Aaron and Ashley stood up in anticipation. "Well, my news matches what you found out in Cape Nord. Chimo's damage is superficial; his armor worked the way it was supposed to. Replace a few plates and he'll be good as new," she explained.
"Chena on the other hand, is in worse shape. She took a hard hit to her belly, and the crash didn't help either. I could repair her, but she'd never be back to full power and ability. I'd suggest a new DE for her."
Ashley sighed, "We thought that might be the case. I just hoped it would be something else."
Kaylee smiled sympathetically. "If there was anything else, I would have suggested it. But her frame is just too twisted from the damage. Bending it back into place would leave it weakened. You'd notice a stiffness while fused, and she'd probably have a limp in walker mode."
Aaron nodded to the mechanic, "We need to think about this, can you give us a moment? Feel free to start on Chimo's repairs if you can,"
"Of course. I'll be waiting for your decision. And I'll have your RIDE back up shortly."
"Well, I think we all agree that repair is right off the table, right?" Aaron started, before the door finished closing.
Ashley nodded, "Even just to get back to Aloha, it would be a waste of money. So a new body it is."
"Two new bodies. Gotta keep the twins together." Aaron sighed, his eyes glazing over as he checked his internal systems. "Not sure how we can afford it though, especially after this trip."
"We've been planning on getting them new shells for a while now. ARW's got the basic details for their new form. We just need to finish it."
"Yeah but we were going to do that next swap. Five years from now. All they have is the frame basically. Half the stuff we wishlisted is still experimental."
Scratch looked at his friends; "Well why don't you get her a temporary shell? Something similar to what she had now, to make due un-" He fell silent under their twin glares.
"We are not doing a temporary shell," Ashley said coldly. "Now, open up these schematics for us. Let's see what we've got to work with."
Scratch projected the basic schematics in the air between them. The finer details stayed in their shared VR space, while the real image helped keep them somewhat grounded and to scale. It was an awkward system that most of their friends and family found strange, but it worked well for the twins, and Scratch had adapted quickly to their style. Together, they quickly rearranged their plans, replacing theoretical and planned options with stuff that was available now.
"OK, assuming selling Chena's old frame for scrap will cover the labour here, and selling Chimo's old frame to put towards the new ones, and putting off all the upgrades we can … that still leaves us short." Aaron sighed and rubbed his eyes.
Ashley stepped back from their work spaces and leaned back, her spine cracking. She winced in pain. "Not that short. We'll have to ask mom and dad. They'll understand, I'm sure."
"Sure they will. You can call them."
Ashley glared at her brother, but didn't argue. She felt in her heart that Chena's damage was her fault; so it was her duty to make it right.
Aaron left his sister handle the calls home and moved to the garage area. He opened the door to the garage area and waited, watching the mechanic work on Chimo's frame. "She seems to know her stuff," he commented quietly.
Scratch nodded beside him, "She does. Then again, these guys wouldn't have been on your list if they weren't good." He watched the fused mechanic a moment, then shrugged. "Your parents just OKed the funds for you. Ashley's forwarding the updated designs to Aloha RIDEWorks."
"Great. I can't wait to get Chena back. Wonder how much longer Chimo will be down? He'll be ecstatic to realize he's getting a new body so soon."
"I can bring him up now if you want," Kaylee wiped the grease off her furry hands and looked over at them. She flicked her ears and smiled. "I take it you've reached a decision?"
"We've decided what we're going to do. We're replacing Chimo and Chena's DEs at the same time. We've always upgraded them at the same time. If Chena gets a new body, Chimo needs one too."
She gave Aaron a puzzled look, then shrugged. "It's your money. Guess I jumped the gun, fixing him up."
"No, no you didn't. We need him fixed up to get a good price for his body." Aaron saw a message from Ashley. "Aloha RIDEWorks is rushing our designs through the sanity checks and into production."
Kaylee moved towards Chena's core in its cradle. "I'll prep her core for transport then. I'm sure you're anxious to get back home, and get them back in the care of their normal mechanics."
"No please, keep her. If you don't mind? Until the DE's get here? We'll have the new DE's shipped up here, and we would love to have your shop install the cores. We wouldn't be here if our local mechanics hadn't vouched for you," Aaron stopped her.
"What he means is, If we go back to Aloha, we'll get caught up in family business again and probably never get a chance to finish Scratch's search," Ashley explained, rejoining them. The lost look she'd had since Chena went passive was beginning to fade now that they knew when the RIDE would be back up.
Kaylee looked them over, then turned away from the cradle. "Of course you can. She'll be in good hands. Ready for Chimo?"
"Go for it."
Chimo's bare frame flickered as his hardlight came back online. His tongue rolled out and he curled his tail up. He turned his head slowly, eyes glittering as they focused. "Wuh-wuh-What's the news, Doc?" he asked, stuttering a moment as he finished reconnecting.
Kaylee ruffled his furry head, "Well, your body's in fine shape. You'd normally have years left on it. But we'll be doing a brain transplant in a week. Your body's being donated to science and they don't need your brain."
"Great! Wait! What?" Chimo tilted his head, confused.
Ashley laughed, "Chena's frame is too damaged to repair. Or at least to repair properly. So we're getting you both new frames. A few years earlier than we planned; but that's life for you."
He crouched down on his forelegs and wagged his tail faster, "Goody! Does Chena know yet? What are we going to look like? When do we get them?"
Aaron went to his partner and hugged him, "We'll show you later, big guy. Chena's gotta stay asleep a little while longer, but I'm sure she'll love the new bodies when they come in."
"What do we owe you for this work so far?" Ashley asked.
Kaylee started towards the office, "Let me check with Ryan on what you guys are planning, make sure he's fine with it all. I'm sure he won't have a problem, but you never want to assume."
Scratch looked curiously at Kaylee, and turned away to hide his expression.
A few minutes later, Ryan joined them in the yard. Chimo had fused with Aaron and they were flexing, testing the repairs out.
"Hey guys, how are you feeling? Any problems?" he asked, addressing Chimo first.
Chimo flowed off of Aaron and wagged his tail, "None at all. I feel great. Though I'm eager for my new body now."
He laughed, "I'm sure you are. But I'm glad your repairs went well. Kaylee's one of the best in Uplift, in my opinion at least."
Scratch snorted and stifled a snicker. He looked away from the looks the others gave him. "Sorry, snorted up a fly," he apologized lamely.
Ryan stared longer at Scratch, then continued, "Right, So I'm glad you approve, even if it's only temporary. As for the rest of what Kaylee promised you, I don't mind Chena staying with us for now. She'll be kept safe here until she's in her new body."
Ashley moved over towards the damaged skimmer that was Chena's body. Most of the panels had been removed to inspect the damage, and were piled to one side. She put a hand on one of the exposed lifters and shuddered a moment. "Thank you. For all your help. What do we owe you so far? For the repairs and the storage?"
"I've sent the bill to your brother, as well as my bid on Chena's old DE. The frame itself isn't worth much, other than the scrap price. But most of what's attached to it is in great shape. I could certainly use it to build up my cache of spare parts."
Ashley moved around the remains slowly, running her hand carefully along the familiar chassis, reluctant to let it go. "We'll consider it."
The group settled around a bench in Bifrost park, though none of them felt like getting an ice cream this time. Aaron put his arm around his sister and hugged her. "How are you holding up?"
"Horribly," she mumbled, leaning against him. "I feel so naked without her around. I know she's fine, but I miss her."
"We all do. But the important thing is, she is fine." Aaron tried to look on the bright side, "We'll be back together in a week or two, with brand new toys for all of us to play with."
"But it was my fault we got in this mess in the first place. If I hadn't been such a show off-"
"Stop right there," Aaron cut her off. "Don't start down that path. We didn't know how dangerous those assholes were. But we lived, we all lived. And we stomped them back down into their place."
"I suppose so." She sniffed and wiped her eyes. "How bad was the damages in the end?" she asked, trying to shift her focus a bit.
Aaron sent her the bill and the bid to her implant, "Surprisingly reasonable. I'm waiting to hear back from Wanda and Bryan, to see if they feel the bid is fair, but my gut feel is, we're getting a very good deal."
"A very good deal," Ashley's eyes widened. "Prices like that, he's sure to get repeat business. But how'll he afford to keep a mechanic like Kaylee onboard? Any garage on the continent would love to have a mechanic like her."
Scratch snickered, then tried to cover it with a cough. He looked away, then looked back and saw the twins staring at him. "Spill it, bub. Before we get the water guns out," Aaron threatened.
"Okay, okay. It's not really my place to say. I mean, it's his choice if he wants to keep it quiet. But that guy won't have any problem keeping Kaylee on board." He leaned forward and lowered his voice, "You see, he IS Kaylee. They passively fuse for some reason."
The twins stayed silent for a moment as they processed Scratch's declaration. "Of course, it makes sense now," Aaron said, thumping his forehead.
"It does explain a lot. But it doesn't change anything. They're a fine mechanic and what they do personally is their business," Ashley noted. "Hell, Aunt Nikki and Astra would probably have passive fused if it'd been available back then."
Aaron stood up and started towards Chimo. Chimo shifted to his skimmer mode. "Right, well now that is settled, shall we go find something to do? We've got a couple of weeks to kill... to cheaply kill... before the DE's get here."
Scratch and the twins arrived at the Freeriders Garage to find Kaylee and another man with no traces disassembling two large crates. They paused in their actions and waved to the arrivals.
"Just in time. Your new DE's showed up this morning," Kaylee called out. "This is Roger. I hire him to do software work when needed. He'll be handling connecting your RI's to the DE's."
"Chimo! Get away from there. No peeking until you're reconnected," Aaron called to his RIDE. The sled dog lowered his tail and backed away from the partly opened crates.
Aaron grinned back at Roger. "Software expert? But no RIDE signs. Very interesting indeed. But if Ryan trusts you, we'll trust you."
Roger returned the handshake firmly, "Thanks. I appreciate your trust. Some people have a hard time handling that a RIDE expert doesn't have a RIDE themselves; but I just haven't found the right one yet."
"That we understand completely. Hey Aaron, this box has our name on it," Ashley pointed to a smaller box on a workbench just inside the garage.
Kaylee went back to the big DE crates, "It came in with your DEs, addressed to you. We haven't opened it of course. Chimo, if you want to climb into the cradle inside, we'll be able to get started shortly."
With Chimo in passive mode, they pushed his new DE into the garage. Cleared of the protective packing padding, they were all impressed. The DE had been shipped in skimmer mode. Its outer surface was covered in white enamelled metal. It looked like a twentieth-century F1 race car, without the wings, and bigger. Four lifters pods were connected along the body that contained two white furred seats and controls. The antenna tail curled up from the rear and bent forward like their old form.
"OK, colour me impressed," Roger said, shaking his head. "I wasn't sure they could make DE's look like that."
"It's an Alohan specialty. Form follows function, but they believe form should also look good too." Aaron rubbed the sensor pod in the nose of Chimo's new body and shook his head, "They outdid themselves this time. It's more than we expected."
"Right, Roger, we don't want to keep our clients waiting. I'll finish the checks on this DE while you get Chimo's core out. The rest of you, shoo. Let the experts do their job." Kaylee motioned them towards the office, before popping open a panel on the new DE.
Aaron stayed near the door of the office, looking expectedly out at the bays while the mechanics worked. Ashley tore open the box and started inspecting the contents.
"It's from Wanda and Aunt Nikki," she announced, taking out two smaller boxes and a DIN gem similar to Scratch's. The gem had a note attached to it, simply saying 'For Scratch. Use ASAP'. "I think this is yours," she added, tossing the DIN to the integrate.
He looked at the gem curiously, then shrugged. He swapped the gems in his ears, and closed his eyes. "It's a message. For all of us," he announced, before tapping into their implants and pulling them into VR space.
Their virtual forms appeared in an urban park. Nearly formless buildings could be seen above the forests that surrounded the groomed grass of the clearing they were in. An eagle integrate, and a fused snow leopard were waiting for them.
"Hi guys, sorry for the cloak and dagger work, but this is important. Knowledge of this must not leave the family for now," Astranikki's persona greeted them.
"As you know, dad and I have been working on a lot of projects, related to Integrates and how they work with external systems," Wanda said, not waiting for a reaction. "One of the things we've been trying to figure out, is a way to block Inties from unauthorized access. Currently they blow through firewalls and ICE like they don't exist. It's a problem that's got us stumped."
"But we have had a minor breakthrough. It isn't much, but it is something," Astranikki continued. "In the box with this DIN, are two alarms. We've tested them with Mike and myself and Clarissa, and they seem to work well enough for now."
"They won't stop an Intie invasion of your systems, but they will alert you and your RIDE that it is happening. It'll give you a small window to react. It cuts out the element of surprise at least, which is a step forward," Wanda explained.
"Just don't rely on it. Mike and I have found if you expect it to be there, it's pretty trivial to bypass without tripping it. We're relying on surprise for this to work; hence the cloak and dagger approach," Astranikki said.
"We've installed them in the family's RIDE's so far, as well as in the Aerie and Queen of Thorns and other family facilities. But it's still too prototypical to spread further than that. We tried to get them installed in the new DEs before they left Aloha, but we weren't fast enough. Hence why we're sending them separately,"
"We're leaving it up to you guys. Scratch has detailed instructions for how to install these now. You can probably figure it out yourselves, or have someone in Uplift do it. I'm sure you can come up with a suitable cover story. Or you can wait until you get home.
"If you do decide to wait, please destroy the devices before you go anywhere else. We don't want them getting into the wrong hands."
Astranikki shook her wings and looked at the twins. "We don't expect you, or anyone to need these. But we never expected you to need proper shields and weapons either. After what happened up there in Cape Nord, we decided you should be given the chance to have this protection sooner, rather than later. Just incase."
"Take care guys. And be careful. Let us know what you decide."
With that, the personas faded away, leaving the trio in Scratch's VR space. A light snow began to fall.
Ashley broke the silence, "Wow. Never even thought of that. I mean, we know what you can do Scratch, but I never really thought of other Inties doing that to us."
Aaron thought back to what he and Chimo had channeled back at Cape Nord, and how easily Scratch had shut down the three RIDEs, even by proxy. "It does make sense. You didn't see it Sis, even with a cracked DIN, Scratch took those guys out in seconds. And it only took so long because he had to go through us. If one of them had been an intie instead of a fuse, well, we wouldn't be talking right now to consider it."
"For what it's worth, I haven't picked up anyone trying anything on you guys. I suppose an Integrate could hide their actions, but I'm pretty sure we've been untouched. It's probably just a bit of paranoia, but justified paranoia," Scratch said. He lifted his hands and brought up the instructions Wanda had left.
Aaron looked at them over the feline's shoulder. "So what do you think? Do we wait, do it ourselves, or have them do it?"
"I think our aunt and cousin overestimate our technical skill, just a bit," Ashley said after looking at the instructions. "They've got us practically disassembling the DE's sensor nose to hook this up. We could do it, maybe..."
"Right, have them do it or leave it? Part of me wants to leave it till we get home. But now that we know the threat, I'm getting worried."
Scratch leaned closer to study the connections. "The hookups straightforward enough. Just hard to reach. If we say they're the keys to our family's homes. it would probably fly as an explanation."
Ashley nodded, "That'll work. Let's take these alarms over to them, and get them added."
Chena woke up slowly, her core detecting the connections to her new body. They'd woken her up in VR space a few times, to explain what had happened and what was going to happen, and now she was feeling her new body for the first time.
"Chena? Can you hear me Chena?" a strange voice asked, received through new ears. She briefly got distracted, testing her new ears, finding their range and sensitivity greater than before.
"Is she up yet? Can she hear us yet? Why isn't she talking yet?" an almost familiar voice asked. Processes from new drivers in the base of her core positioned the voice, placing it further away than the first speaker. She identified it as almost Chimo's voice, though it sounded a little different from before. She couldn't tell if it was because of his new body, or her new ears or both.
"Chimo, please be quiet. She's awake but she's still sorting out her new drivers and equipment. Remember what you went through."
"Ah'm awake," Chena said carefully. She opened her eyes and the world was flooded with light. More processes automatically adjusted the reception until she was seeing normally again. She triggered some of the options and felt different filters come into play, shifting her vision into the IR. "Cool. Heat vision," she said. She focused on a young man standing in front of her cradle, and watched him tap away on a tablet.
"Right Chena, I'm Roger, we spoke in VR. I'm here to get you reconnected. We're going to go somewhat slowly, activating your systems a few at a time. Mainly so you don't blast the wall out of the garage by mistake."
"I said I was sorry. I didn't know what that command did," Chimo whined.
"We both learned our lessons. That's why that particular subsystem is staying safetied until you're fully up Chena. Now, let's take it slowly."
With Roger's help, Chena quickly got herself activated. She found her new body was better in almost every way from her old form. The twins had kept their RIDEs upgraded through the years, but there was only so much that could have been done with the original chassis. Now, everything was new and she was loving it.
She looked at herself and Chimo through the feeds in the garage. Her walker mode was sleeker, slightly smaller than Chimo's, but it looked more real. The hardlight fur had a finer resolution, and it felt more realistic. She nuzzled into Chimo's mane of white fur and growled happily at the sensation. "This is great."
"You look great," the young man who had led her through her start up said. "Let's try your vehicle mode first, then call Ashley in for the fuse."
Chena gave herself enough room and shifted. Her body swelled and reshaped almost too fast for her to realize it. Lifters in her reshaped paws hummed quietly and lifted her a quarter meter off the ground. She tilted the skimmer she'd become from side to side, testing her body's vehicle controls. Still software locked, she could feel weapon pods in her shoulders, their power ready to be unleashed once she learned how.
"Chena, you look wonderful. I'm sorry I got you hurt so badly." Ashley ran in and hugged her RIDE's forward lifter nacelle.
Chena morphed back to walker mode and nuzzled her pilot, "It's fine Ash. It's fine. If every bar fight ended up with a body like this for me, I'd encourage you to get into them more often."
"I should hope they wouldn't. We'd bankrupt the family. Glad to have you back, Chena." Aaron pet her and joined Chimo.
"Can we fuse up?" Ashley asked eagerly.
"Go right-" Roger started.
Chena engulfed Ashley before he could finish. She felt her nanites light up and flood over her partner, creating the connection. Her body stretched and curled over Ashley, faster than it had before, inner servos and nanomotors crafting her into an armored second skin to her pilot. The fuser nanites linked up and gave them a stronger connection than she was used to.
"-ahead." Roger finished.
"I have curves!" Chena giggled, turning around to look at herself through the garage cameras. Her new form was a tall woman, with a decent sized bust, covered in white fur. She swished her tail, then let it relax, curling it back up to the small of her back.
"Just like we picked out," Ashley said, her grin obvious as she inspected their new fused form.
Chena's giggling got louder as she saw Chimo and Aaron fused. Like her, the fused form was more natural looking, complete with a male sheath. "You're gonna have no luck in Sturmhaven," she giggled.
Chimo shrugged and grinned, his tongue hanging out, "Alohan Rideworks. Where correctness is our specialty," Aaron quoted from within. Their appearance flickered a moment, and modesty trunks appeared around their waist.
Chena activated a simple modesty mode on her own form, and a bikini appeared around her chest and hips. She turned to the two men who'd helped bring her back. "Thank you guys. You did a wonderful job."
Roger blushed a bit modestly, "You're welcome. It wasn't that difficult; but it's always nice to see a happy RIDE leave the shop."
"It's a shame Kaylee couldn't be here too. Please, thank her for us. We appreciated her work even if we did sell the body off right after," Chimo added offering his hand, keeping his rider's laugh muted.
"Emergencies wait for no one," Ryan commented, looking curiously over at Scratch. The feline was smirking strangely and trying not to look directly at him. He shook Chimo's, then Chena's hands.
"I know we've got the bills settled but please, if you're ever in Aloha, feel free to give us a call. We'd be glad to show you some of the better places the tourists don't usually get into," Ashley said while shaking. "After we get back from Neo Francisco of course."
"I doubt we'll be down that way for awhile. But thanks for the offer. I'll keep it in mind."
Scratch waved and was the first into the yard. Without Chena to help him out, Chimo had taken longer to troll through the Laurasian systems. But he had finally found Amy in Neo Francisco, and they were all eager to end their trip. "Come on guys, we've got a sub to catch."
To the RIDE's surprise, instead of going right to the spaceport, their pilots directed them to a deserted area just outside the city's main domes. "What are we doing here?" Chena asked once they stopped. They weren't fused, so she couldn't peek in Ashley's memories for clues.
"You'll see," Ashley said, waiting for Scratch to climb out of the back seat. The RIDEs shifted to walker forms, standing next to their partners.
The Integrate create a hardlight quarter mu coin and flipped it in the air. "Chimo, call it!"
"Heads! No wait! Tails! Tails!"
The hardlight coin landed and expanded, showing clearly it was heads. "Aww-" Chimo started groaning. It was the last thing Chena heard.
She felt a presence touch her systems, and parts of her she hadn't been aware of suddenly activated. Her body froze in position, and a loud voice that she realized was her own, started screaming "Intruder! Intruder! Intruder!"
An eternity later, she sensed something click in her, and she regained control of her body. The unknown system shut down again, and faded from her awareness. Shouts of 'Intruder' were still echoing around the field, this time coming from Chimo. He fell silent a minute after Chena did.
"What the hell was that?" Chena growled, shaking herself and trying to figure it out herself. Even though she knew it was there, she couldn't find the mechanism that had locked her up.
Scratch was rubbing his head and groaning a bit. "They didn't mention the denial aspect of their alarm," he groaned, shaking himself. "Neat trick. Will certainly catch them by surprise."
Ashley hugged her RIDE and rubbed her ears. "It was a gift, from Wanda and Nikki. Protection from integrates. We had it installed while you were under, but we couldn't test it at the garage."
Aaron nodded, helping Chimo get settled. "We figured it would be best to surprise you with it, to be sure it worked properly. According to Wanda, everyone back home has got it in now too."
"It was unpleasant," Chimo growled.
Scratch shook himself one more time, "It wasn't pleasant for me either. Hopefully you'll never have to feel it again."
"I hope so too." Chena morphed back to her skimmer mode. "Unless there's more testing to do, we should get going. We still have a sub to catch."
Stop 9: Neo Francisco, Laurasia
A suborbital flight halfway around the world wasn't significantly longer than the flight a quarter the way around the world; but it still took time. In the sub's RIDE level, the lights were dimmed and most of the fused RIDEs were immobile, their pilots and RIDEs in their own personal worlds, shared or private.
One Samoyed RIDE couldn't seem to settle down. Every few minutes, the white furred canine would shift and squirm, her hardlight fur coat flickering occasionally.
"Chena! Would you settle down please? I'm trying to get some sleep!" Ashley mumbled from within, annoyed and grumpy.
Chena wiggled in her seat again, tugging on the belts a little, as she tried to find a comfortable position. "Sorry, Ash. I just can't get comfortable. This body feels strange. Bumpier than I'm used to."
"You're the one who picked that chassis design. We tweaked it a little for the rush order, but the basic shape was all you my dear,."
"I know! Doesn't make it any easier." Chena opened her eyes and glanced over to the next seat. Chimo sat there, eyes closed, his sideband indicating he and Aaron were snoozing. "How the hell can he sleep so easily? He got that bulge between his legs now." She tugged the belt and adjusted it over her breasts again in frustration.
"Chimo could fall asleep through a hurricane. And his belt doesn't press down on them. But remember when they did the vehicle to Fuse move? Aaron's still speaking soprano," Ashley giggled at the memory and took control. She tugged at the belts and rearranged them over their body so they didn't pinch or press down as uncomfortably.
"Thanks Ash," Chena mumbled, finally settling down. She shifted into her rest mode to finish sorting out all the new abilities of her body. Ashley stayed awake, looking around the dimmed cabin. Unlike their hops around Gondwana, there weren't that many RIDEs going to Laurasia. There were a dozen fused RIDEs in the seats in the forward half of a cabin that could easily handle three times that. Her total included Scratch, who was maintaining a hardlight skin that made him look fused. At the back of the cabin were another half dozen RIDEs, not fused. Their pilots were probably in the human part of the cabin a level above, or awaiting the RIDE at their destination.
She closed her eyes to sleep again, and seemingly immediately after, she felt Chena moving again. "Chena..." she warned sleepily.
"Wake up time, Ash. We're on final approach now."
Yawning, she brought up a view of the outside in her internal VR space. The sub was flying over the ocean outside the bay the city was built on. The new Golden Bridge stretched across the mouth of the bay, the ten klick suspension bridge carrying ground and tourist traffic between the city and the new spaceport.
The city itself spread out from the south end of the bridge, tall towers forming the core of the city. Traffic, both air and ground flowed among the buildings, almost invisible from their distance.
"Look down there, under the bridge," Aaron said, the VR space expanding as Scratch and Chimo joined in. "It's one of Tracy's pods."
Under the bridge, heading away from the city, three large container ships were swimming. They were a mix between a normal looking ship and a whale. Large tails flexed in the water, helping propel them forward, while side fins kept them stabilized in the water. They were experimental ships, owned by their cousin's company.
"It's the Melville pod, heading back to Gondwana with their loads," Aaron pointed out. "Ahab's in the lead. Ishmael next, and Moby last."
"Shame they're on the way out. Would love to have gone down to say hi to them," Ashley said.
"Well, Jay and Tracy aren't there; they're back home, for the TransTethyian shareholder meeting. But yeah, it would have been nice to see them again."
As soon as the ships were clear of the bridge, their forms shimmered, hardlight skin sealing over the containers on their backs, completing the whale look. Zooming in, they could see the aquatic RIDE crews climb inside the ships after finishing their checks. One by one, they let out a spurt of water and slipped beneath the waves, going deeper to catch the Northern Tethyian Current to Gondwana.
Amy, they found, lived in a suburban neighbourhood on the inland side of the city. Neo Francisco, like most Laurasian cities, encouraged its population to stay tight to their cores, in residential towers of varying sizes. But many of the cities were finding a pushback from their populace to let people own their own homes. This in turn lead to the growth of suburbs around the fringes of the cities. Her own house was a simple fabbered single story house, on a smartcrete slab that supplied the utilities from the city, all on a quarter acre lot.
"Doesn't look like anyone's home," Ashley commented as they pulled into the short driveway next to the house. The group got out of their RIDEs, letting them shift back to walker mode.
"Public records indicated she works in the government offices downtown. She has a skimmer cycle that's at a local park and ride, so she's probably at work," Chimo explained.
Scratch started to the front door and paused, studying the plants in a garden along the path. He leaned closer to examine the purple and yellow flowers on the prickly bushes. "These roses; they were what dad gave to mom, on their anniversary," she said softly. "Of course, why didn't we notice it before? This is where mom and dad were married, this city. We moved to Florencia when I was two, because of mom's job. These flowers were the focus of their wedding, but they don't grow in Florencia."
"That's a good sign right? You're remembering your human life?" Ashley pointed out.
"I suppose so...." Scratch looked at the door, then around. There was no one else she could see. She disappeared from view; and the deck creaked.
Aaron looked at the door of the house, "Scratch? What are you doing?... Don't you dare go in there!"
The door clicked and opened slightly. Her voice came from the doorway, "I have to know. I have to look. I won't be caught, but you guys should probably leave for now. I can catch up with you at the coffee shop we passed on the way here."
Ashley shook her head and started towards the door, "Scratch, that's not a good idea."
"Please, just go. I'll be fine. I just need to know," Scratch's voice shifted to their implants as he switched to the sidebands. "I won't be long, Please, just go."
The twins exchanged looks, then sighed in unison. "We're just going to attract attention if we stick around here," Aaron said, fusing with Chimo. "Let's give her her space."
Scratch closed the door behind herself and looked at her father's home. According to what they had found, Amy had lived there for three years, but the house didn't look it. The front of the house was open space containing the kitchen, dining room and living room. A pair of couches and a breakfast bar helped divide the areas, but there were few decorations to personalize the space.
She started exploring the kitchen while tapping into the house's network. The kitchen was lightly stocked mainly with premade meals. That struck her as wrong, but she couldn't figure out why, the memory stuck just out of her reach.
The house network was as bare as the main rooms of the house itself. It contained the basic records and bills to maintain the house itself, but the personal files were sparse. She found some images and recordings from her time in Burnside, and with Lionel in Cape Nord, but nothing more recent, nor anything older.
"What are you doing dad?" Scratch mused to herself, moving to the hall that separated the three bedrooms of the house. "This isn't living...."
The first bedroom was remade into a simple office, with a futon couch. It had a desk with hardlight controls. She flipped through them briefly, finding calender and other planner apps, and nothing interesting.
The next door led to the master bedroom. It was the closest to a 'lived in' room that she had found, having a slightly rumpled bed, and some clothes in a hamper. In the attached bathroom, she found specialized brushes, and some black and white barbed quills in a pail next to the sink.
Back in the hall, the next pair of doors lead to a simple utility room, with the washer, dryer and recycler, and a second bathroom. Both rooms were neat and spotless.
The final room was marked on the design she had as the third bedroom of the house. She opened the door, not expecting anything else, and caught her breath in surprise. Instead of having an extra bed, it had been turned into a simple music room. A small piano took up most of the space, set up in the middle of the room, facing the window. Along one wall, a pair of guitars were on their stands, and in a corner was a drum set.
Like the rest of the house, the room was clean, with no dust or garbage. But unlike the other rooms, it showed signs of use. The floor was scuffed where the instruments and their stands were moved, and the stools showed scratches and other signs of being used.
Scratch moved deeper into the room and sat down at the piano. She activated it's music stand and started flipping through the music pieces. In the depths of her memory, pieces connected together, and the music notes blurred, replaced by events.
She remembered an evening spent with her parents, snow falling outside as she and her father played guitars while everyone sang. Her mom couldn't carry a tune in a bucket, but none of them cared, enjoying the holiday together.
Another memory of her father teaching her to play the piano, his large hands guiding her small hands over the keys, showing her the scales.
Yet another memory, of her on drums, playing in a small band with her friends in the common room of their condo tower, their parents watching encouragingly. She shuddered as she realized that little concert had been days before they'd left for their vacation in Aloha.
Tears began to wet her cheek fur as the memories continued to click into place. She closed her eyes and laid her head on the covered keys of the piano, letting them wash over her. There were still vast gaps in her past, but moments were beginning to return to her. Her parents were already changing from simple images that she felt were important to her, to people that had helped make her who she was now.
"Who the hell are you, and what are you doing in my house?" a woman's voice cut through her memories.
Christine blinked and sat up, taking a moment to remember where, and who she was. She turned to look at the door, and saw a short woman, covered in spiky fur. She was dressed in a simple blouse and skirt. A hedgehog Laurasian RIDE was perched on her shoulder.
"Dad?" Christine asked, not sure what else to say. She didn't have time to say anything else.
As the tiger-house cat integrate turned to face the woman, the woman's expression changed from anger to terror. "No! No no no no no!" Amy exclaimed, backing out of the room and bumping into the wall. The RIDE slipped down to her hands and reformed into a gun that stayed pointed at the integrate, even when Amy's hands shook. "You aren't going to take me again! You monsters aren't going to get me!"
Christine lifted her hands slowly, submissively, "Dad, wait, please. It's me," she said, trying to calm the situation. She sensed an alarm bounce from the RIDE to the house and onward before she could silence it.
"Amy, stay in control. We'll be fine," the RIDE-gun tried to calm her bearer. In a louder voice, it called toward the room, "Stay where you are. Do not move. The cops have been called."
"I can't do this, Moui. It's one of Them. The one that took Christine." Amy shook harder, sliding down the wall, forcing some short quills to poke from the back of her blouse.
The gun kept shifting, to keep its target in sight, "We've talked about this, Amy. They aren't looking for you. You're free now," the RIDE continued trying to calm her.
The integrate hesitated, not sure what to do next. The RIDE wasn't a risk, but the alarm put them on a tight timeline. She was torn between running, and maybe never seeing her father again, or telling the truth, and possibly risk harming her father worse.
"Actually...," Christine started, feeling guilty for what she was about to do, but feeling she had to do it. She slowly lowered her hands to the piano's keys cover. "I am your daughter. I'm Christine, Dad."
"No, no, no! You can't be. She's dead! Killed by those monsters in that damn cave!" Amy waved her arm faster than Moui could adapt.
Christine lifted the cover of the piano keys, while still speaking. "I wasn't killed. I lived dad. I even helped make sure you lived. I forced Pascal to release you when the cave was raided."
"Amy please! Stop waving around so much!" Moui tried to keep her target on the feline, with little luck.
"Dead! You're dead! You can't be her! You killed her!" Amy shouted.
The feline shuddered at the accusations, but was committed now to try and go through with the idea. She faced the keys and brought back the memory of the final concert with her friends for their parents. She'd been the group's drummer that time, but they all knew the other's parts. The Scratch part of her helped strengthen the memory.
"Dad, I'm not dead. I was changed there. Changed a lot. I lost myself for a long time. But I'm trying to find myself again," Christine said, her hands starting on the keys as she spoke. The tune was a simple one, but it was something they had made, for a piece they'd written themselves. She wasn't sure if it would hit the same notes in her father as it did in her.
The effect was stronger than she expected. Amy stood up and shuddered, "Stop that! Just stop that! You aren't her! Get out! Get out of my house!"
Moui shifted and dropped to the floor to keep from being waved around. She continued to glare at Christine, even while not in weapon mode. Christine stopped playing and tried to figure out what to try next.
"Scratch? What's going on? The police just roared past here, heading in your direction," Chimo sent.
The feline shook a little, and Scratch weighed the risks, still torn, but having less time to decide. As the faint sounds of sirens grew louder, she decided she had to leave. "I'm sorry, Dad. This didn't go as I thought it would. I have to go; but I am still alive," she said before cloaking herself and sending a location for the twins to pick her up at.
Still cloaked, the integrate climbed into Chimo's rear seat, and the RIDE took off, merging into the late day traffic back to the core of the city. Chena led them a half klick ahead.
"What the hell happened Scratch?" Aaron asked, twisting around to look at his friend.
"Amy came home. I... I was lost in thought and she and her RIDE caught me by surprise. The RIDE called the police before I could sort myself out," Scratch explained slowly.
Aaron stayed quiet a moment. "I'm sorry it didn't happen better. Did it help at all?"
Scratch brightened a moment, "More than I expected. Dad's keeping a music room in the house and I remembered. He taught me how to play; I was going to be in a band when I grew up...." her face fell, "Guess it's too late for that now."
Ashley's image appeared between them, "It's never too late. How much did you remember? Are you still Scratch?"
"I..." Scratch paused and reconsidered her questions. "I am, I'm still Scratch. I'll always be Scratch; that's who I am now. But for a bit there, I think I was Christine again; she is me. I'm still missing a lot of her though. Dad could still be a help I'm sure. I just don't think she'll go for it."
"You gave her quite the shock. As far as she knows, you've been dead for over ten years. And you do still look like what took you. We're planning to stay here a few more days at least, why don't you give her a day or two and then we can try again? Maybe by being more forward?" Aaron suggested.
Scratch sighed and leaned back in Chimo's furry seat, "I suppose so. I just expected it to go so much better than it did."
Ashley laughed lightly, "This isn't the holo's, Scratch. Real life rarely is as cut and dry as the holos make it out to be. But try and stay positive; you know where she is now. That's a huge plus."
Aaron woke up and felt like he was drowning. Outside of his control, his mouth and throat were gulping down a cup of coffee. He stopped himself from taking control until the cup was lowered.
"Chimo? What are you doing? Where are we?" he asked coughing a little as the liquid woke him up. He checked the maps and found they were outside the coffee shop they'd spent time at a couple of days before while Scratch was in Amy's house.
"Good morning. Are you hungry?" Chimo cheerfully greeted him.
"No, I'm confused. Why aren't we in our hotel room?" Aaron took another sip of coffee, under his own volition.
"I had an idea. From what Scratch said, meeting her dad directly probably won't work well, even with a few days cooling off. But she doesn't know us. Our family has connections with her, not just through Scratch, so I was thinking we could approach her, explain about Scratch and see if we can smooth things out," Chimo explained.
Aaron shook his head and wiped his face, "So you kidnapped me out of bed? What about Chena and Ash?"
Chimo sounded a little rueful, "The idea occurred to me while I was defragging. I didn't want to waste any time. I left a message for the girls, saying we'd be back later."
"A- for the idea, C- on the execution," Aaron shook his head, "Still it's worth a shot I suppose. Especially since we're here already."
Chimo slid open a panel and took out a bundle of clothes, "Right, I thought it might work."
"No, we don't know if it'll work or not.... You plucked me right out of bed didn't you?" Aaron interrupted himself as he realized what Chimo was holding. He sighed, "Why didn't you dress me first? You know I hate being nanodressed."
"It would have woken you up, and I didn't want to get in a fight, and maybe wake the others up." Chimo opened his chest slot, the hardlight fur flickering off, briefly showing the silver-covered mass of Aaron. He tossed the clothes in and closed up. Aaron felt his body tingling as the clothes were reshaped around him.
Chimo released him and dropped down on all fours in front of him. Aaron looked down and checked himself, to make sure everyone was reassembled properly. "You want something to eat? We're here now, we can take our time."
"Yeah, I'll go get something. And give me a summary of the Cave invasion; I want to know more about what happened back then."
Aaron walked up to the door of the house and rang the bell. Chimo, in his vehicle mode, was parked out of sight, around the corner. They had decided it would be best to keep it human to human for now at least.
The door opened , and Amy stood there, dressed in casual weekend clothes. Her hedgehog watched from her shoulder. "Can I help you?" she asked suspiciously. She looked tired, but wired; a look Aaron recognized from University. It was the Stim-look that his friends got when they used stims to try and get more cram time. In Amy's case, he suspected she wasn't sleeping well, and using the stims to keep awake instead of getting a proper rest.
"Miss Callahan? My name is Aaron Munn. We-I'd like to talk to you, about your past, if you don't mind."
"I do mind. Go away," Amy glared at him and started to close the door.
He put his foot in the doorway and winced as it bounced off his sandaled foot. "Please, I just want to talk to you. We've been looking for you for a long time, and we want to help you."
"Go away before I call the cops," Amy warned, keeping the door almost pressed against his foot.
"My family was at that Cave too. They were part of the posse that rescued you. I just want to talk to you, offer our help, and maybe explain some of what happened."
She pushed the door again, causing Aaron to wince. "I said LEAVE. I don't need any help."
Aaron kept himself from pressing back, "Please, Amy, just listen. My dad Rode out a storm in Shahrazad. He had my brother's RIDE backing him up, but she still damn near wrecked him. That's what lead us to her cave to rescue you. I was too young to be there, but just about everyone else in my family played a role in that raid."
"Good for you. But I'm not giving you a medal."
"I'm not asking for one. I just want to talk to you. They rescued you.... But they learned afterward your wife was killed in the action, and your daughter was missing. There was nothing they could do, at least not then. But my brother, he joined the Marshals, and kept an eye on the cave, in case Shah came back.
"Shah never did. But someone else did. Or rather never left." He felt the pressure ease a little. "Christine had never left."
The pressure vanished but the door stayed closed. "Christine is dead. She died before your raid," Amy said softly, doubt in her voice.
Aaron tried to be comforting and honest. "She isn't dead. She's changed, more than you were. More than my dad was. Please, give me a chance to explain."
The woman at the other side of the door stayed silent. Aaron mentally crossed his fingers, hoping her RIDE wasn't calling the cops. "I can explain what you saw a couple days ago too."
The door swung open again, and two pairs of eyes were locked on him. The RIDE was alert, but still on her shoulder and not in defensive mode. He focused on the human ones and waited. "You're not going to turn invisible too are you?" she asked.
He lifted his hands, thankful that Chimo had picked up simple clothes that obviously couldn't hide anything. "I come to you in the open. I won't disappear. I just want to explain, and to help a friend. We could speak outside if you'd prefer it."
She stepped away from the door and walked to the dining room table covered with the remains of breakfast. A holo clicked off, leaving the room silent. Aaron followed her, letting the door close behind him. Amy sat down at the table and pushed her plate away. She stared at Aaron, not offering him a seat. "Speak then. Tell your story and then you can get lost."
Aaron hesitated, debating taking a seat versus staying standing. He decided to stay on his feet, but stood behind the chair opposite the quilled woman. He half wished he had Chimo or Scratch to back him up, to control the holos, but pushed the wish to the side; he had his words and only his words to salvage this mess.
"I'm confident what I'm about to tell you is true, but some of the details may be wrong. You'll understand why when I'm done, if I can finish, but I'm sure the overall events are right."
She glared at him, "Don't make me start a timer on you."
"Right, Well, this starts before you were captured. Shah and her crew are a nightmare to humans and RIDEs alike. Some time before your family was captured, she had captured another group, a tour group of RIDEs and humans. She'd used up everyone in that group, save one. A tiger striped house cat RIDE named Scratch.
"Scratch was between the classic rock and a hard place. He hated what he was being forced to do, but he was also Shah's pet project; practically her pet entirely. So he couldn't escape, couldn't crash himself, couldn't do anything but what Shah allowed him to do."
"Didn't seem to slow him down when he took my Christine," Amy snarled.
Aaron gripped the back of the chair for a moment. "He didn't have any choice in the matter. He had to keep up appearances, or Shah would have put him AND Christine through fates worse than deaths. You were in Pascal, you must... No let's not go there."
He saw Amy's expression changing slightly, a terror in the back of her dark eyes that he didn't want to wake up. "Scratch had to go through the motions, but he'd been planning. He couldn't stop what he was forced to do to your daughter, but as soon as he could, he slipped away, to a private spot he had to activate his plans.
"We're not sure what he did exactly, but we have some ideas. It looks like he intended to surrender himself to Christine. Give her complete control of his body, while destroying his own memories so she wouldn't be burdened by his past. He hoped she would be able to escape with his shell someday, but the plans were fuzzy after that.
"His plan worked, but not as he intended. They took out his own memories, but they also started on Christine's. They tried to stop it, but something else was happening. Something that can happen with RIDEs- Gondwanan RIDEs that is- and pilots that isn't commonly known.
"It's called Integration. It's when a RIDE and rider fuse permanently, mind, body and everything else. The result is a mix of human and machine. Usually the personalities mix as well, but your daughter's case was different. Because of the memory deletions Scratch had tried to do, the new Integrate only had fragments of their memories. They knew enough to stay hidden from Shah and her crew, but only had impressions of what was important and what wasn't."
"So I was right! Christine is dead," Amy interrupted him.
He shook his head, "No, she's not dead. She's changed. Different. Damaged in some ways, but trying to heal herself. When we raided the cave, she didn't know who you were. But she remembered you were important to her. She's the one who trapped Pascal when that RIDE escaped, and forced her to release you. You're free because of her."
Amy stared at him, stunned, the revelation of her true rescuer overcoming the terror Pascal had left in her mind. Aaron pressed on as quickly as he dared.
"She stayed alone in that cave after everyone had left. Not trusting anyone for a long time, not knowing who, or what she was for a long time. To pass the time, she cleaned it up, repaired it, and let her subconscious try to do what it could.
"My brother, now a Marshal, kept the cave monitored, and discovered her. She went by the name Scratch since that's the name she heard from the others, but she wasn't just the RIDE. Mike found a statue she had made, of a family, of you, and her mom and herself as they were, which helped him figure out who she was. Sadly that discovery came after you disappeared from Our Lady, or else I'm sure you would have been told of her."
"I couldn't stay there. Not with what they did. The care was fine, but the attitudes outside the sessions. It just wasn't right," Amy shuddered a moment and finally motioned for Aaron to take a seat. Her RIDE nuzzled her comfortingly, and she stroked it gently.
He pulled the chair out and sat down. "We were there a few months ago, and I can understand what you mean. Sturmhaven isn't the nicest place to be. Scratch even said it was a place you wouldn't be able to stay long in. Not a memory exactly, but an impression at least. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
"Like you, Scrah- Christine needed help, to heal from what happened to her. But Mike couldn't convince her to go get that help. She was too untrustworthy of anyone else, even my brother.
"Eventually the world caught up with her. A group of isolationist Integrates moved into the cave. They took her in, and helped her realise what she was, but she couldn't leave, not for a long time."
Aaron paused, debating how much he wanted to say, then decided to jump ahead. "A couple of years ago, she left the cave, with my aunt. They came home, to Aloha, and she's been living with my aunt's family ever since, adapting to a new life.
"She's doing well, she's having fun now, more than she had before according to Aunt Nikki. But occasionally, we notice it. The flashes of regret, of loss, when she tries to remember who she was before, or when something reminds her of a memory she lost.
"That's why, a few months ago, we decided to help her. To try and find you, to see if it would help her recover any memories. We've been searching for months, following your trail from one side of Gondwana to the other and back. But we eventually found you here. Scratch... Christine got a bit too impatient when we showed up a couple days ago and you weren't home. I hope you won't hold it against her too badly."
The room fell silent for a long moment. Aaron looked away so he didn't seem to be staring at Amy while she processed the story. He couldn't tell if she believed him or not, but it was all out, one way or another.
"Did it help?" a quiet voice asked.
He refocused on Amy, and saw her waiting expectedly. He felt his tail curl up hopefully, "It did. The music room especially. We ended up picking up a guitar after she left."
She nodded slowly, "It's so hard to believe. To accept after all this time. How can you handle it when someone you thought was dead just shows up at your door all of a sudden?"
Aaron chucked sympathetically. "You check their story thoroughly, but you welcome them home. Because of that Isolationist Integrate group, we thought both my brother and my aunt were missing and dead for years until they showed up at my cousin's house. Sadly, Scratch's story is harder to vet, due to the time, and the memory damage."
Amy scratched her RIDE's head a moment and whispered quietly. The RIDE jumped to the breakfast bar and then into the kitchen to get a glass of juice. "Well, here's your chance. The story is extraordinary, but you seem truthful. Tell me about your friend. Convince me that my Christine is in her somewhere."
He sighed softly in relief, "I'll try. Some visual and audio tracks might help though. Would you mind opening up the holo to my RIDE? Chimo's nearby and can help fill in what I miss."
"Go ahead. Moui, let him in please."
Ashley yawned and stretched, feeling the warm sunlight on her skin. She rolled over and fell off the couch with a thump. Outside the window, sunlight glittered off the water of the Golden Strait. Their room was in the hotel built in the southern bridge tower.
"Hey there sleepy head. 'Bout time you woke up." Chena greeted her. "Scratch has gone up to get lunch. Chimo and Aaron have been gone for hours."
She shook his head and slowly processed what her partner had said. "Lunch? It's that late? Oh so it is. Not even a respectable brunch hour. Where'd the boys go?"
Chena stretched and shook herself. She had claimed the balcony while everyone was gone. "No clue. Chimo left a message saying he was going to try something and left early this morning with Aaron. No word from them since then, and he's keeping his signals muted."
"They're probably off finding a new place to go to tonight. We've only got a few more days left here."
She ducked into the washroom to freshen up, "Right, ping Scratch, let him know I'm on my way up. If he's ordered, ask him to add a burger and fries for me."
With her white hair pulled back in a ponytail, she stood in front of a tru-view mirror, trying to pick out which shirt to wear. Before she'd settled on one, there was a knock on the door.
"What the hell? It better not be housekeeping. The Do Not Disturb signal is lit, isn't it?" she asked, tugging on the t-shirt, her tail swishing in annoyance.
"It is, but it isn't housekeeping," Chena reported, nudging the patio door open. She looked concerned. "It's NF PD."
Ashley looked at the screen next to the door, to see a man and a woman outside, waiting patiently. The man had a badge clipped to his shirt pocket, the woman wore hers on her belt. Like most of the city, they didn't have any Fuse signs. They didn't even have any Laurasian RIDEs visible. "NF PD? What the hell do they want? We didn't do anything last night that I've forgotten, did we?"
"Nothing that would warrant their attention," Chena replied as the man knocked on the door again.
She glanced around the room to make sure there wasn't anything she didn't want seen, then opened the door. "What can I do for you, detectives?" she asked. The display hadn't been clear enough to read the badges, but neither were in uniform so she figured it was a safe guess that they were detectives and not officers. She half hoped that addressing them that way might surprise them.
To her slight disappointment, her correct assumption didn't phase them. "Good day, Miss Munn? I am Detective Mary Carter, and this is Detective Chris O'Neil. May we come in?" the woman asked. "We'd like to ask you a few questions about your visit to our fair city."
Ashley stepped from the doorway and motioned for them to enter, "Sure I guess. Don't mind the mess, we haven't had housekeeping in yet. You can call me Ashley. That's Chena."
"Chena?" the man looked at the RIDE, who wagged her tail and smiled. He jotted a note on his notepad. "Right, your RIDE," he mumbled to himself.
The detectives sat down on either end of the couch in the room after giving it a quick lookover. The hotel room was a simple one; two queen sized beds, a bathroom, a table and two chairs in one corner near the balcony doors, and the couch on the wall facing the table and the beds. Ashley sat on the unmade bed and waited for the detectives to speak first.
The woman consulted her notes before breaking the silence. Ashley had spent enough time with her cousin-in-law to know it was mostly an act meant to make the subject nervous, but she didn't see a reason to call her on it. "According to records, you are travelling with your twin brother, Aaron, and a cousin in law, a man named Scratch." She paused and double checked, "As well as three RIDEs, two canine and one feline based?"
"Yes," Ashley answered simply, knowing the tricks of an interview well.
Detective Carter waited a moment, before moving on. "Do you know where your companions are?"
"Scratch went to get lunch. Aaron and Chimo... Chimo's his RIDE, left this morning. They didn't leave a message."
She nodded, letting her partner do the writing, "And Scratch's RIDE?"
"His RIDE? Oh! Probably up on the roof, catching some rays. Those feline types love the sun; especially the house cat variant." Ashley mentally kicked herself for the slip up. The detectives had noticed it as well and were considering their next question carefully.
"What brings you to our city?" Mary asked next.
"Vacation. We're just wrapping up a self guided tour around Gondwana, and we decided it would be good to end the trip with a visit to another continent. What is this all about? We cleared the border controls with no issues."
Detective O'Neil spoke next, "We'll get to that. What were you doing in the Bloomfield neighbourhood two days ago?"
"Bloomfield? Where's that?" Ashley asked, honestly not knowing it.
Chena answered before the detectives. "It is the name of that suburban area we drove through. We like to explore a bit, see the things off the tourist path so to speak, and our path took us there."
"Right, witnesses say they saw you and your brother at the Second Cup coffee shop. But no sign of your third companion. Where was Scratch during this trip?" Chris asked.
Ashley shrugged, "No idea. He was probably working off the orb-lag. We did just get in from Uplift."
Chris flipped his pad over and activated a holo from its back. A small image of Scratch, in female form, sitting at a piano appeared. "Do you recognize this person?"
She made a show of looking closely at it, then shrugged, "If you squint really hard, it might look like Scratch. But Scratch is male, and that is clearly a female. Never seen her."
Detective Carter studied Ashley closely, while her partner shifted the image. This one showed Scratch again, in female form, walking into the hotel lobby with Aaron and Ashley. Another shift, and the trio, with Scratch in male form, were walking out. "Care to revise your statement?" Chris asked, his voice still carefully neutral.
Ashley stayed quiet and motionless while trying to come up with a suitable explanation. Before she could find one, the door opened, and Scratch walked in, with a takeout bag. "Where've you been Ash? Your food was getting all cold, and eat... en...." He fell silent, seeing their visitors.
"I think it might be best if we moved this interview down to the station," Detective Carter suggested after introducing herself and her partner. "Please understand, you are not under arrest. We just want to ask you some questions."
"Questions about what?" Scratch asked, still standing in the doorway.
Detective O'Neil motioned for Scratch to step outside and for Ashley to head out as well. "You can have your brother and your RIDEs meet us down at the Southbank Police station. We would like to speak to him as well, about a home invasion in the Bloomfield suburb a couple of days ago."
Mary looked at the Alohans, "Will your RIDEs follow us, or will we need to use leashes?"
"I will come along, since you asked so nicely," Chena interrupted, coldly. "I sent messages to the others on where to join us. I'll meet you outside. Let's get this over with." The RIDE stood up and shook herself. She walked back out onto the balcony and jumped off, shifting to skimmer mode on the way down.
Aaron scratched Moui's head while listening to Amy talk. The Laurasian RIDE was small, and light, but she seemed to enjoy having her hardlight fur coat rubbed as much as her bigger Gondwanan cousins.
They had spoken for hours after the initial story, trading stories about their experience with Christine and Scratch respectively. There were still many minefields that he had to maneuver through when dealing with Scratch's father, topics that brought about a reaction the changed woman couldn't hide. They were now seated in the living room, him on the couch, her on a second couch, with Amy talking about a trip the family had taken to a waterpark, the year before their big trip to Aloha. He could tell the memories were painful at time, but Amy wanted to tell them, now that she had a sympathetic ear to listen to them.
:Aaron, we may have some trouble. I just got a message from Chena. She, Scratch and Ash have been taken in for questioning. The cops want us to come down too as soon as possible.: Chimo told him by his implant.
:Questioning? For what?:
:Not sure. Sounds like it's for breaking into Amy's house.:
:Breaking into... Oh my.: Aaron facepalmed and groaned softly.
Amy saw his movements and stopped talking, "Is something wrong? I'm not boring you am I?"
"No, no, it's not you. Your stories are fascinating. I've noticed so much of Scratch in what you told me. She may not have remembered Christine directly, but she is Christine in attitude and action. It's something else, something Chimo just told me."
"Your RIDE? What did he tell you? What's going on?"
Aaron hesitated a moment. "I know you're still digesting all of this, and you may not be ready to go this far yet. But something has come up, with my sister and Scratch." He took a breath to steady himself, and gave Amy a long look. "It's a decade later than it probably would have happened. But how would you like to go bail your daughter out of jail?"
Chimo's head appeared on the holo display against the wall. "They've been taken to the South Bank Police station. It's the closest one to our hotel. No charges have been filed yet, but they want to question us... that is, Aaron and me, about Scratch's visit a couple of days ago."
"Her visit? Oh!... I should go with you. I can help clear this up, I think," Amy stood up and moved to the door, before pausing uncertainly. Moui jumped off of Aaron's lap and ran up to her shoulder. "Or should I? I could just clear this up with a call..."
"It's up to you. We'll get this sorted out one way or another, even if you don't do anything. Admittedly, having your help would smooth things faster, but it is your choice."
She took a deep breath and ran a hand over her head. She plucked a quill free and tossed it into a bin, a motion Aaron had quickly realized was her own nervous quirk. "I'll go. Moui, call a cab for us please. South bank station?"
"That's the place. You don't need to use a cab if you don't want to. Chimo is a two seater; we have more than enough room."
"I am at your service, just outside your door," Chimo added cheerfully from the holoscreen.
"I haven't ridden in a RIDE since... since Frex and Lionel," she whispered the last words as she dug out the memories. She slipped her feet into her shoes and looked to the door.
"We met Lionel, in Nuuk a few weeks ago. He's the one who gave us the last piece we needed to find you," Aaron explained carefully. He'd glossed over much of their search for Amy, fearful it would trigger the emotional mines he'd been trying to avoid. From her reaction, he could tell it had been a good idea.
She visibly struggled to keep control of herself, wiping her eyes and shaking. "Lionel was... he was one of the first people to really convince me that being a woman... being like this wouldn't be such a bad thing. I just couldn't stay at that nasty place any longer; the way they treated me. Not as bad as Sturmhaven, but different. I've wanted him here but...." She shook her head to get out of the memory he'd raised. "How is... How's Lionel doing?" she asked quietly.
"He's... living. He is still carrying a torch for you, so to speak. We only met for a few hours, but he seemed lost, without a purpose. He did still have his fuse signs too."
Amy took a deep breath and straightened up. "Right, one thing at a time. First my daughter, then, we'll see." She opened the door and walked out, pausing a moment at the sight of the new, white quad lifter skimmer in her driveway. Hardlight steps appeared as a side door opened.
"He's quite proud of his new form. Thank goodness for Hardlight; or he'd probably have me scrubbing the bugs out of his grill every trip." Aaron took Amy's hand and led her to his RIDE, helping her get in.
They were well on their way into the city when a thought occurred to him. :Chimo, did Chena mention which Scratch they have?:
:She said Scratch was in male form...uhoh.:
:Right, uhoh indeedy.: Aaron gulped and shrugged. "Amy, there is one other aspect of Christine, of Scratch I haven't told you about...." he started, turning his seat around to explain to her, face to face.
South Bank station looked like most other police stations. A dense, fortified building with few windows. The front had a simple entrance with a large variety of scanners and blockers hidden in the framework. Behind the station was the parking lot and garages. Chimo let his passengers out at the front door and shifted to Walker form. Amy ruffled his head fur and smiled; she'd taken the news of her daughter's dual sexuality surprisingly well.
"Chena's in the regular parking lot; why don't you go wait with her and we'll get this settled?" Aaron said, rubbing his friend's side before starting up the stairs. "We won't be long."
As he walked into the station, he felt like a heavy blanket landed on his shoulders. It took him a moment to realize that his implant was being heavily blocked. What few channels it could still reach outside his own body, were constantly tagged with a 'This is a monitored channel. Any use of this channel may be used for evidence.' message.
"You okay?" Amy asked, noticing his misstep.
He nodded his head, "Yeah. Their mesh controls caught me off guard. Let's go find my sister and your daughter."
Detective O'Neil came out to meet them, after they checked in at the front desk. He didn't notice Amy at first, instead focusing on Aaron. "Thank you for coming in so quickly. My partner is with your sister and cousin now. I'm sure we'll get this sorted out," he said after introducing himself.
"I'm sure we will," Amy spoke up, drawing attention to herself.
"Miss Callahan! I didn't realize you were there! What brings you here?" he asked, honestly surprised.
Aaron let himself smirk a little, "She came with me. She heard you had news about the break in at her house a couple of days ago."
The detective looked flustered, looking between the two and trying to figure out what was missing. He was putting two and two together, and it kept totaling five. "Right we do... Or rather we might," he stammered, trying to recover his mental balance. "Once we finished processing the clues, we were going to call you with an update."
"I'm sure you would have," Amy said. She looked past the detective to the hallway leading deeper into the station, "Now, could you please take us to his sister and my daughter, and we'll try and get this sorted out?"
Aaron almost laughed at the poor detective's expression, seeing his mental take of the situation just total six. He looked at Amy and noticed an amused twinkle in her dark eyes as well.
Detective O'Neil gave up the fight and lead them into the station. He lead them upstairs to an interrogation room, where his partner was waiting outside.
"What took you so long? Aaron Munn? Hi there, I'm Detective Mary Carter, and... Miss Calahan! I wasn't expecting you!" the partner smoothly hid her surprise at the presence of the victim with one of their suspects.
Amy waited for the handshakes to finish before she nodded to the door. "Is my daughter in there?"
"Daughter? I'm not sure what you mean...." Mary looked as puzzled as her partner.
Aaron stepped past her and opened the door. Ashley and Scratch looked up, seated at a table, the remains of Ashley's lunch on top of it. "I can't leave you two alone for a minute, can I?"
"Hey Aaron. We were good. We just had visitors, that's all. Where have you been?" Ashley sipped from a can and waved.
In response, Aaron stepped to one side so they could see who was behind him. Ashley's eyes widened, while Scratch gasped.
Amy stepped into the room and paused as well, some of her bravado fading now that she was facing Scratch in person again. She moved a couple more steps into the room, uncertain as Scratch stood up. The detectives slipped into the room behind her and stayed quiet while the events played out.
"Show yourself," Amy said quietly, not taking her eyes off Scratch.
Scratch looked confused, glancing to Aaron, then back at his father. "What?"
"Your friend explained it all to me. About what happened and what you are now. I want to see it. Show yourself."
"Uhm, before you do that, maybe you should make sure this stays a little more private," Aaron suggested, realizing what Amy wanted.
Scratch still seemed puzzled, until he realized what Aaron meant as well. He closed his eyes a moment, and the gem behind his ear flickered. Then his entire body flickered. He grew a couple of decametres, while his fur became thicker in places, his stance more feline than humanoid. His embedded hardlight panels became visible on his belly though they stayed mostly hidden by his shirt.
"What the hell?" The detectives shouted in unison, starting to the door. They discovered it was closed and not opening.
"Aaron, what did you do?" Ashley asked, looking bemusedly at the cops.
"Full disclosure. It was Chimo's idea. Looks like it worked with Amy," Aaron nodded to the reunion going on at the table. Amy seemed hesitant at first as she got closer to her daughter. Scratch held up his hand for her, and waited, letting her make the move. His stance seemed different to Aaron, not quite as certain as he was used to his friend having.
Ashley sighed, "Maybe. But now we have to do another one. Please Detectives, don't do anything rash. We'll explain everything we can, but it may take a while."
It took a half hour of fast talking by the twins to explain what was going on enough to calm the detectives down. During the time, Amy and Scratch talked, building on the foundation Aaron had helped build. In the end, it wasn't the lock down that Scratch imposed on the room that convinced the policemen. It was Scratch shifting to female mode in front of their eyes that finally made them accept that there was something bigger going on.
Scratch restored her disguise and released the room locks once things were settled. Clearing the charges was trickier, but having Amy there to state she didn't want to proceed helped cut through the red tape to set them free.
"Well, that could have gone better. But we're not in cells, and we aren't running, so I guess that's a plus," Ashley said. The four were at a restaurant near the hotel, to figure out what to do next.
Aaron nodded, swallowing a bite of his meal. "True. Would have been easier if Scratch hadn't revealed herself. But it was out of our hands." He looked over to the next table, where the Callahans were still talking, their meal mostly ignored. Both of their cheeks were wet from the tears of memories. "Least she handled the monitors so it was only two detectives instead of most of the station. That would have really pissed people off back home."
"So what do you think? We're leaving in a couple of days. Will it be a twosome, threesome or foursome?" Ashley asked.
Christine turned to them, and smiled, "Twosome. I'm going to stay around here for a little longer, work with Dad more, and we'll see how things go from there."
Aaron smiled at his friend, "Take all the time you need. You know where we are; where we all are; if you need anything. That applies to you too, Amy. Scratch... Christine is part of our family, which makes you and Moui part of our family too."
The quilled woman wiped her eyes and nose again, "I'm still having a hard time believing this. I mean, I still had doubts after your stories, but the more we talk, the more I'm sure. I can't believe my Christine is back after all this time. Thank you."
Aloha, One Month Later
Aaron surveilled the room and shook his head. "Right, I'll get the lighter fluid. Chimo, you supply the flame. We'll burn it out. It's the only way to be sure."
The lights in the room lit up, showing a well lived in studio apartment. The furniture in the room was covered in clothes and other debris of living. "Oh come on, it's not THAT bad," Ashley said, squeezing past her twin. "I just haven't had time to clean up before we left."
He picked up a bra from the back of a chair and shook his head, "Or since we got back. It has been a month, Ash. I didn't think an Alohan could have this many clothes."
She balled up a blouse and threw it at him. "We switched while on the road remember? I had to take my old stuff out of storage and I still haven't finished sorting. Now grab a box and start packing before I make you clean out the fridge."
"The fridge? No! Not the fridge! I've already called the hazmat team to deal with that." He held up his hands to surrender, then started filling a box.
An hour later, Ashley paused and started sniffing the air. "Do you smell something?" she asked.
"I'm doing my best not to smell anything. You know you're supposed to move the things on the shelves when you dust, right?"
"No I'm serious, I smell pizza... Chena?"
The RIDE fused with her, and continued sniffing the air. She sniffed to the island in the kitchen, and bumped into something. Scratch appeared, grinning and holding a trio of pizza boxes.
"Hey guys, hope I'm not too late. I brought a peace offering," he said, setting the boxes down.
Ashley snatched one of the boxes and opened it, finding a heavy meat lovers pie. "Mmmm peace restored. What the hell are you doing here? When did you get in?"
"Last night. I slept in a bit, else I would have been here sooner." He grabbed his own box and pulled out a piece. "But I'm here now. I did promise I'd help you move after all."
"Good to see you, man." Aaron grabbed his paw, forcing the Integrate to levitate his box and slice at the same time. "How are things going between you and your dad? We haven't heard much from yah."
The integrate rebalanced his load and took a bite, "Things are going well. A few rough spots here and there once the initial joy wore off a bit. But we got over it and we're coping. It's been a long time since we had the other, and we've both changed a lot."
"Understandable. How long are you back for?" Ashley asked.
Scratch waved a hand and sent beers to his friends. "Not sure yet. Probably for good. Dad wants me to find a place for her to rent. I offered her a spot up at the Aerie, but she wants to keep some space.
"I've also convinced her to talk to Melody, to see if she can help with her issues. I can tell, Pascal left a lot of traps in her head that we trip over every so often. Those were some of the worst fights we would have, when we triggered some of them. Moui helps a lot, but we need someone more experience. I've already talked it over with Mel, and she's willing to do what she can."
"Great. So we all worked out in the end." Ashley let out a burp and crushed the can on her fused chest. She tossed it into an empty box and grinned. "Well, as the latecomer, you get the best job. You're on fridge duty."
Scratch eyed the appliance in the corner, "Do I have to? I don't think my shields are strong enough...."
Sum of their Parts
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All Spark Bulletin