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User:JonBuck/FreeRIDErs

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FreeRIDErs story universe


Author's Comments

This setting was co-developed with Robotech Master. It's been a great deal of fun to play with. Hope you enjoy.

FreeRIDErs

Author: Jon Buck

"Now, if you'd be a little more forthcoming about the exact location of the crash site, I'd have a reason to delay my afternoon nap." Ryan Stonegate pulled his hat down over his eyes inside his rattling twenty-meter salvage skimmer. He'd pushed the old Deuce as fast as he dared without coming apart since his clients insisted it was urgent, but it was time for them to come clean. "We're thousands of klicks from Uplift and I'm getting a little impatient. I'm already out a few thou in expenses. But if I don't get an answer now I'm cutting my losses and turning the old girl around."

The antigrav skimmer sped over the desert hardpan at nearly six hundred kilometers per hour a hundred meters above the surface. Waiting for an answer, Ryan reached out and stroked his RIDE's hardlight fur over his clients' scowls. Ryan spent a great deal of time tuning Kaylee's hardlight emitters to get the right soft texture, and it had paid off. Kaylee looked and moved exactly like a flesh-and-blood lynx. This was a stark contrast to the Nextus Materiel Recovery Officers' RIDES, who were bare metal.

Officer Wilson's gunmetal gray fennec, many times life size, flattened its ears and regarded him with cool yellow optics. Even with the hat over his eyes he could see her expression via the skimmer's internal cameras, since they were hooked into his cranial implant. The diminutive officer's comically large ears folded back. "We were about to anyway, Mr. Stonegate. We just didn't want to risk someone tapping into your system here. You know the moment we go dark the vultures will swoop in and it'll be a race to the salvage."

"Suborbital salvagers are a bitch," Ryan agreed, sitting up again, lifting his hat with his tufted lynx ears. "They just get cheaper and cheaper to buy n fly."

The cargo flier had crashed in the Towers, the deepest, hottest part of the so-called Billion Year Drought that left the majority of a supercontinent without a drop of water and turned an ocean the size of the North Atlantic to sand, dust, and hardpan. Zharus's geology, geography, and place in the human sphere of influence were still under intense study after over a century and a half of settlement.

Ryan tapped into the skimmer's external sensors with his implants, slowing it to a more sedate two hundred kph. The skimmer was now 1,822 meters below sea level, in sixty-five degrees Celsius weather, the air pressure was almost twenty five percent greater than at sea level here. The Towers were at the very bottom of an old subduction trench, where the last of the moisture had finally dried and left massive evaporite deposits. Gypsum, halite, sulfates, and a number of minerals unknown to human science. Katabatic winds descended off the 11,000-meter peaks looming to the west. No human could survive outside, and even standard environmental suits would stop functioning after only a few hours. Long-term survival here needed special technology—a suit a prospector could live in for weeks on end. The RIDEs were a godsend.

"Well, where is it, Officer Wilson?" the RIDE mechanic asked the woman again. Her partner's ursine RIDE regarded him with suspicion. "Tell me now, or we're out of here. I don't need the money." That much was slightly untrue, but he sensed he'd seized the initiative. What was a cargo flier doing going over the Western Wall, anyway? Suborbitals were the best way to ship cargo across Gondwana. The supercontinent was just too large, too dangerous, for low altitude flight through the Dry Ocean. The qubitite contamination was already getting into the Deuce's systems, but they wouldn't be around long enough for it to matter. "Well, at least there's nobody to rescue. Should've had an RI flying that plane."

"Turn this junkheap of a skimmer thirteen degrees to starboard," the male Nextus officer said. "Maintain speed for another twenty minutes, then Fuse up." He nodded at his partner, then stepped in front of his mecha bear.

Wilson opened a secured carrying case she'd kept very close the entire trip, then held the three-inch long container between her fingers. "Per our agreement, these are combat-grade Fuser nannies. Not the civvy type you're probably used to." She looked at his lynx. "Can your RIDE handle it? It's rather old."

"S… my RIDE's been overhauled by me personally. My cat'll keep up." :Oh boy, here it comes,: he said to his RIDE through their link.

:It's okay, boss. Who cares? Let 'em laugh,: his RI partner replied, licking the back of her oversized paw. :Time for a nap anyway. See you in my dreams.: She padded over to the Fusing alcove and sat down on her haunches patiently.

Behind Officer Wilson her partner's bear began to partly melt, flowing around him as the burly man stood with arms spread wide. Some parts of the bear became liquid, others like fog, while the inner frame stretched around his torso, arms, and legs. No matter how many times Ryan saw this it always made him shiver a little. Very quickly the human within was enveloped, and a new head took shape. The Nextus military didn't bother with silly things like hardlight emitters to make their Fusers look like flesh and blood. To them it was a waste of energy. But the results were always far more unsettling. A giant metal bear as powered armor, with glowing red eyes and other sensors. He carried a backpack with several large laser emitters--weapons and communications in one unit.

Ryan gave Kaylee another petting between her ears, his partner purred then went into sleep mode. Her hardlight skin flickered and shut down, leaving the dull metallic-carbon subdermis it shared with the Nextus models. The additional hardlight emitters set her apart from them. They were more common in Uplift than Nextus. There was something else, but Ryan had been putting it off until the very last minute. Kaylee hadn't been addressed aloud by name, nor spoken, since the Officers' arrival at his shop in Uplift.

There were… consequences running a Fuser that wasn't the same sex as yourself. But there were ways to lower those risks to almost nothing, if you were willing to sacrifice some major advantages. Kaylee didn't like passive mode so much, but understood her partner's reluctance.

As Officer Myla Wilson donned her own foxy armor, Ryan opened a panel on Kaylee's back and plugged in the nanobots. A good friend of his had already paid that price, shrugged, and moved on. There was just a stigma with what he needed to do next.

The woman in the anthro fennec powered armor glared at him as the skimmer continued to slow. "What are you waiting for, Stonegate? We're almost at the drop! Get suited up now! Trust me, I won't laugh. And I'll kick Jerry in the shins if he does." Wilson had figured it out.

RIDE stood for Reticulated Intelligence Drive Extender. What Nextus engineer had come up with that acronym Ryan didn't know, but it had stuck. Reticulated was another word for web or network. In this case, a neural network based off of the brain structure of an Earth animal, mapped into the strange mineral substrate found in this very desert, then salted with qubits. They were far better than the run-of-the-mill pure artificial intelligences. Centuries of trying to get them to something like human-level had met with very limited success. The next breakthrough—appropriately in Nextus as well—had used a rat brain neural template. The results were literally transformational, and it marked anyone who used Fuser mode.

Not only Ryan have the ears of a lynx, but the tail as well. He was privately very happy it was a short, stubby thing compared to most felines or canines.

Burke started laughing before the Fuser process was half complete, which impressively provoked the threatened kick in the shins from his superior. Ryan was already a short, slender man, so the extra curves being Fused with Kaylee added created a very full-figured lynx-woman. When the hardlight fur flickered on, Burke started laughing again. "She" was basically nude except for the steel bikini that covered chest and groin. Like the lynx's normal hardlight skin, this one moved like the real thing.

With the RI fully conscious the Fuser nanobots would sink in all the way to the bone, changing the inside to match the outer shell in the process. A woman he would truly be. But the body couldn't handle that kind of major change frequently. He'd be stuck that way for a minimum of three years.

The combat nanobots were even faster than the civilian versions and allowed his conventional implants to do their jobs more efficiently. Ryan already felt the cool air on Kaylee's hardlight skin, which felt more like it was actually his own. The artificial lynx's original designation was LNX-LMA-001. As Light Mobility Armor, she depended on external packs for specialized tasks, unlike Burke's unit that were built in. Ryan put on nanolathe gloves, antigrav boots, and hardlight shielding for defense. Since the literal breast plate was otherwise empty, they contained extra batteries and repair nanos.

With Wilson holding the cyborg bear's non-existent mouth shut, Ryan stepped backwards into the fixer module mounted on the skimmer wall. Latches engaged, adding an additional layer of physical armor. It also contained extra power packs and numerous tools for fixing RIDEs and other mecha in the field. Ryan didn't speak until he was finished hooking up, then spoke in Kaylee's purring voice. "Equipment checks out, officers. I'm ready to go."

"Fuckin' crossrider," Bruke said. "Just go active and embrace the tits. We need every advantage here."

"My contract doesn't include my manhood, thank you," Ryan snarked. Kaylee's naturally-friendly voice made it hard to sound menacing.

"If you let those shiny metal tits slow you down, Stonegate, I'll hack your RIDE myself and—" the voice from the man in bear armor cut off abruptly. He turned his glare to his superior officer, whose arms were folded across her chestplate. There seemed to be a private conversation between them, and Burke backed down.

"From now on, Mr. Stonegate, any comms from him will be filtered through me. I apologize for his stupidity. I gather you don't Fuse often?"

"Only when the job requires it, Officer Wilson. A threat like that would've voided your contract," Ryan said. "And thanks. I don't use it often with out-of-towner clients. Kaylee was an old surplus from your agency and to be honest, not even the auctioneers knew if she was male or female at the time. Regardless, we can't afford to be choosy about what gender RIDE we buy, and the female ones are generally lots cheaper. I needed one fast, at the time. I've had her five years and I'm pretty used to the 'shiny metal tits' now." "She" shrugged.

"So you use passive. I understand. I think you look lovely, myself. I hope your kitty has a good nap." Wilson said, nodding. "Try and keep up."

I look 'lovely', she says. A lovely pretty kitty, no doubt. Ryan snorted to himself. Though for once the compliment seemed sincere. He wasn't sure how to feel about that, but could sense Kaylee smile in sleep mode.

The trio went to the aft airlock to prepare for the drop. The skimmer had started to dive for the desert hardpan just before the Towers themselves. There were less than five hundred meters between the landing zone and crash site. The skimmer's comm laser would report their position, as required by treaty, then it was a race to the salvage. I don't have time to be 'lovely'. There's a job to do.

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Zharus was a super-Earth, with a much larger surface area then the homeworld. Three massive supercontinents dominated its surface, named for similar ones in Earth's past. Northern Laurasia, where the majority of humanity lived, had a pleasant climate with enormous areas suited to human crops. Rodinia, the second largest, had kept all its native vegetation and wildlife. Last was Gondwana, the largest by far, straddling the equator. Though it was large world, the metal-poor crust and core left the surface gravity slightly weaker. But the real problem lay in the weak planetary magnetic field.

Even a small solar storm created spectacular aurorae over Gondwana. The continental atmosphere was constantly ionized, making radio a losing proposition. Only the most important messages were sent by faster-than-light communication, but that was simply too expensive for the vast majority of Gondwanans and the prospectors who ventured into the Dry Ocean to strike it rich. Most of the time a laser link to a satellite worked just fine, except in sandstorms.

Ryan Stonegate was middle class by Uplift standards. He lived comfortably. There were always old RIDEs, skimmers, and other mechs that needed repair and maintenance. Kaylee herself was living proof of the quality of his work, and their partnership functioned well despite not being the same sex. He was used to having no active sensors, among other things the RI did while his or her rider focused on the job. He had various implants to make up for some of that, but there was simply no comparison to a fully conscious RI.

If this job works out I won't be ten thousand mu in the hole anymore, he thought. He didn't like working with Nextus internal revenue cops, as these two were. But they did pay well, and Kaylee knew a great deal of their inner workings. The complex relations between the two dozen or so city-states on the Coastal Ring created a bewildering tangle of treaties that apparently never stayed the same on a yearly basis. Uplift was the only city-state on the inner side of the Ring, on the edge of the ancient continental shelf. As the Dry Ocean went it had the best possible climate. Why, it barely hit 50 degrees-C in the summer.

It was impossible to maintain line-of-sight to the skimmer in the Towers of evaporate deposits. Burke unspooled a monofilament fiber-optic cable from his comm-pack. There was barely any wind, but it was still dusty enough. Inside Kaylee's Fuser mode body Ryan didn't feel the heat at all.

"Where did this flier go down where it couldn't be spotted by satellites?" Ryan asked. He couldn't change Kaylee's voice. On many occasions he'd not left Fuser mode and allowed clients to think Kaylee was just one of Ryan's employees—which was essentially the case. People had some strange hang-ups that got in the way of doing business.

"It didn't precisely crash," Wilson replied. "In fact, quite the opposite. The owner of the flyer and the cargo has been imprisoned for tax evasion. We're here to assess, and if possible, retrieve some very classified military hardware. You're here to make sure one RIDE in particular is still alive and functional and get it back to your skimmer. Just remember, our contract has a very strict NDA."

"Please, I'm a professional." This wasn't the first time Ryan had been in the Towers, but everything on this planet was super-sized except the surface gravity. He'd never seen this section before. "Burke, what's our network status?"

"Just fine. Still connected, everything's nominal," Burke replied stiffly. The bear was their go-between. Their messages went to him, though the cable, then up to the satellite. Once the salvage was found they had to report its exact position, by law.

The trio used antigrav lifters to make great leaps over the landscape. Ryan checked the normal Salvagers Information Channel for news, then frowned. "Three launches… one from Nextus? I didn't think you guys licensed salvagers like that."

"We don't, Miss…ter Stonegate," Burke said with a warning glance from Wilson. "That's a military suborbital base. We've got some competition."

"This is hotter than we thought," Wilson agreed. "Must be some military gear in there we weren't told about. Cut the cable, Burke. Double time!" They were off faster than Ryan could protest, the physical link to the salvage skimmer gone.

Great. Military. That's going to cause a stink in Uplift, but I guess they don't care. Ryan thought. The Dry Ocean was off limits to the various militaries, including Uplift's. Sounds like there's some nasty inter-agency rivalry, too. The Nextus version of Internal Revenue was rumored to be as powerful as their regular military. Those rumors were panning out.

With one final leap they grav-skied down the slope towards the cave entrance at breakneck speeds. All landforms here had been carved by millions of years of wind. There were no hard edges anywhere, and even the numerous caves were completely dry. The trio skimmed inside the mouth, down a multi-layered slope with alternating layers of red ocher and white gypsum in smooth contours that were dizzying to look at. The massive cargo flyer was just inside, out of view of satellites.

The Nextus Polity considered itself the forward-looking center of civilization on Gondwana, hence the portmanteau name they'd chosen for themselves. They were the Next and the Nexus. The polity itself was less than a hundred years old, yet another seed group from crowded Laurasia. With Rodina off limits to settlement Gondwana, was the only open, unclaimed frontier on the planet. There were two hundred million people and counting on the Coastal Ring. The continent was ten thousand kilometers from north to south, half that east to west. Even with the uninhabitable Dry Ocean, there was room for billions more.

But for such a forward-looking polity they had some interesting cases of nostalgia. The cargo flier looked like an ancient, six-engined Antonov An-24, the largest aircraft on Earth for many decades. Its engines were turbofans only cosmetically. The information in Ryan's salvage computer identified no less than ten heavy lifters, each worth fifty thousand mu by itself on the open market. Everything looked completely pristine, untouched, but there were no power signatures. Wasting no time, Ryan skimmed up to the aft cargo doors and plugged in a power/data cable from his right breast. I'd love to get my paws on those lifters.

"What are you waiting for? Get it open!" Burke growled, his RIDE putting its own urgency into it.

"Just a—" Ryan sputtered. A blast of lifter-propelled dust and rocks pinged against his RIDE armor, hard enough he had to manually throw up his hardlight shields. The inside of the cave darkened, most of the natural illumination replaced by the fiercely-glowing landing lifters on the suborbital spacecraft now filling the entrance. The craft was easily three times the size of Ryan's own, nearly as large as the cargo flyer they had just found. He recognized the lupine logo on the nose. It was owned by his much better-equipped competitor. "Qixi's Pack? She got a sub?! Damn!"

The moment it landed, a grav-crane started extending over the top of the spacecraft. Before it could get very far, Burke pointed his armcannon at it and fired, blowing off the tip. That provoked the boarding ramp on the side to open. Four Fused, matching lupine RIDES marched out, followed by a very familiar heavy comm-RIDE, like Burke's, but a female elk. She sought him out. "Whoops! My employers aren't going to like that, Kaylee-girl."

"You'll pay for that!" Qixi herself growled. "Get away from my salvage, Nextus! You too, Stonegate!"

As the Nextus officers and four salvagers faced off, Ryan opened a secure laser link to the elk. "You can call me Ryan, Rufia. They know. How the hell did you get in with Qixi? I thought you'd had a disagreement a while back."

"Water under the bridge, old friend. I was the only comm-RIDE left in town when that salvage report rolled in. You wouldn't believe what they're paying me for this!" the woman boasted. "Nothin' personal, a'course."

"Don't think it ever could be. But I've got a job to do, too. We've got a Nextus military suborbital coming in. I'm only interested in what's inside. You can grab the lifters."

"Fuckity fuck!" Rufia cussed. The two had been friends a long time, having met on the same FTL passenger liner in steerage, both hoping to strike it rich on Zharus. It hadn't taken long for either of them to figure out it was easier to make money offering services to prospectors and mining companies instead of grabbing whatever RIDE you could and striking out for yourself. The then-male Rufus had purchased the elk and enthusiastically become Rufia at the same time Ryan bought Kaylee, considering the benefits far greater. Elk were naturally large and good platforms for communications gear and heavy weapons. Rufia had gone self employed mercenary. "Uh, okay. If we both want to get paid we gotta stop anyone shooting, here. Let me do that, you get those doors open. Comprehend?"

"Yes. Go!" Ryan replied. Burke was about to give Qixi's Pack both barrels when Rufia flew between them to mediate. Though the air was still full of contaminating qubitite dust, Ryan opened the doors.

"Fuuuuuuck!" Burke said. The inside of the cargo hold was absolutely empty. "Stonegate! Download logs, anything! Either the cargo's been stolen, or was never here. Find out which!"

If nothing's here, I still get paid, Ryan thought. He dashed inside the eerily empty hold. The "crash" had only been a few days before. There had been no launches detected, no skimmers in the area. Unless it was a bonafide rescue mission there were permits to fill out, fees to pay, before a salvage operation could start. And even then it didn't guarantee you'd keep what you found. And Qixi gets her grav-lifters, dammit. I want a piece of that…

The sound of an ominous explosion a half a klick away froze him as he reached for a p/d socket again, then came the deep bass roar of mil-spec grav lifters closing in. The incoming Nextus suborbital fired a second time, this time into the aft end of Qixi's spacecraft. A burst of static told Ryan it wasn't an explosive shot, but an EMP blast powerful enough to scramble its systems.

"Holy Jesus fuck," Burke sputtered. "We're too damned late. Bastards."

"Let us handle this," Wilson said, ears flat. "Disarm or they'll shoot you. There's obviously far more to this than meets the eye."

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They stripped Ryan's armor naked, even demanding Kaylee's hardlight skin shut off. The other civilians were given the same treatment, but after seeing what had come out of that military suborbital, nobody could say no. Ryan stood in the designated area with Rufia and Qixi's Pack, naked "to the metal" as it was called. Without the hardlight faces there were no expressions to read, just impersonal immobile optics.

"A dragon. Is that a dragon?" Qixi sputtered. The metal she-wolf paced back and forth, shouting at their saurian guards. "An effing dragon! How did you do that? What did you do to my sub? Damnit! I want answers!"

The majority of Nextus military Fusers these days were based on dinosaurs. A couple years ago the Polity's military had strutted about in dinosaur-based RIDEs. Now they were going one better, creating creatures that had never existed. How they accomplished this nobody knew, but everyone from wealthy Uplift to poor Nuevo San Antonio was trying to figure out just how it worked. By comparison the two Materiel Recovery Officers were very plain, and their RIDEs were hardly old equipment.

A utahraptor guard shoved the shewolf back. "Sit down and shut up, bitch. We have some questions for you. Once we have our answers we'll let you go. 'Course, it might be a few days before your sub works again. Hope you have onboard backups."

"When I get home we're going to lodge a formal protest against your government," Qixi threatened. It sounded rather hollow.

The mouth of the raptor opened, revealing an ear-less human face in a physical shield. All he did was smile—the man's jaw was more like a dinosaur's. Whatever nanos they used for that model had some deeper effect on him. Qixi backed away, her RIDE yelping. The soldier added a shove hard enough to knock her against the cave wall with a loud clang. "I said, sit down and shut up! Or I'll just pry you out of that thing and eat you."

Ryan half-believed he would. The other guard motioned for "her" to come forward. He followed the saurian back towards the civilian flyer's cargo doors, where the dragon commander, Wilson, and Burke stood waiting. It was the most impressive RIDE he had ever seen, but it emanated some kind of override signal. Once—if—he got home, there'd be no recording of the meeting in Kaylee's systems.

"Miss… uh… Kaylee Cross, is it?" the Commander said. The Fused RIDE had a red color scheme with a white belly, and hardlight epaulets. "Yes, Miss Cross. You were the first to open the doors and found them empty. Are you sure you've dumped all your data to me?"

"Every last bit and byte and you know it," Ryan replied. For whatever reason they hadn't completely hacked "her" data storage. There were passive barriers in place and a false lead or two if a potential client wanted to make sure there wasn't really a man in the catgirl in front of them. Some female clients wanted to ensure they were dealing with another woman. He'd lost a number of squeamish clients that way. That they hadn't gone deeper than that seemed a little sloppy to Ryan, and why Burke hadn't said anything so his compatriots could have a good laugh he couldn't guess. So it was time to play the role. "What did you do to my boss's skimmer? I heard an explosion! He's gonna be pissed if you buggers damaged it."

"He'll be well compensated for the loss, Miss Cross. But we had to deal with the potential threat. Now, I actually believe you. Our people in Nextus are interrogating the prisoner on the status of the supposed cargo here. If we find that there was indeed a cargo we'll just have to find out what's been done with it. Until that mission is complete we'll simply detain all of you here. If there was no cargo, then we leave forthwith." The man actually posed, making the light coming in glint off his armor just so. "Until that's decided, Miss Cross, you'll just have to stew in that ancient mecha of yours. You should feel privileged to even see our new technology up close like this."

"Should we? Gosh, I'm so impressed," Ryan said dryly. "Well, I'm going to turn my skin back on. I don't care what you think. We Uplifters need real faces."

"Fine. Do whatever you please. Now I hope you have enough entertainment to amuse yourself. Good day." The dragon snorted hardlight fire, just for show. The commander was easily the largest RIDE by far, towering twelve feet from head to toe, not counting the folded tips of the wings on his back. A twelve foot anthropomorphic dragon. It probably was a high speed aircraft in skimmer mode.

The detainment area where the civilians were kept was surrounded by a refracting hardlight shield to keep any laser communications from getting outside. Other than that and the guards they weren't being forcibly held. Ryan turned Kaylee's skin back on upon entering. Everyone else did the same almost immediately. Even that little thing relieved some of the tension. Rufia gestured for Ryan to join the rest of them.

The dragon wasn't the only surprise addition here. Qixi's Pack, who normally used wolf RIDEs to the exclusion of anything else, had added a new employee to pilot the suborbital. Avian mechs were some of the most expensive out there available to civilians, but it explained how the pilot was able to land an entire suborbital skimmer in the mouth of a cave. The falcon was good, and his Fuser-mode RIDE was a very aesthetic blending of man and bird, with wing-arms rather than the standard extra set of limbs. It had probably cost less that way.

"Fill us in, Cross," Qixi said. She knew about the Kaylee-the-employee fiction and played along as a professional courtesy. They were competitors, not enemies. "What's going on here? Wasn't there a third salvage sub on its way out? What happened to them?"

"I have no idea," Ryan said. "They must have changed course and landed somewhere. You can't just turn a sub around midflight, can you?"

The shewolf shook her head. "No. Not on a parabolic trajectory, you can't. At least not without burning a lot of sarium energy. They took off about when we did and must've seen where we landed—and who landed behind us. We should've heard their landing lifters, at least. There's nothing on my recorder."

"Maybe they landed somewhere, then went home? Anyway, I'm pretty sure the Nextus sub damaged my skimmer. If you're willing I can help repair your sub if you'll give me a tow back to Uplift."

"That's a deal, Kaylee. I'd do it for free anyway. You know that." Qixi said, extending her handpaw. They shook on it. You didn't leave anyone stranded in the worst part of the Dry Ocean. "Dragons! Can you believe it? Where did they get the DNA for something that doesn't exist?"

"Synthesized, emulated, or some such," Rufia added. "Who knows? I get the impression that they're making a show of things. Throwing their weight around. I doubt there was anything in that flyer worth half as much as we think. If there was anything inside in the first place."

"If they damage those lifters…" Qixi growled. Everything else on the flyer was worthless, but the lifters would pay for the repairs to the Pack's suborbital. "How long are they going to keep us here?"

Ryan shrugged. "Wish I knew, Qixi. As long as it takes. I don't think they're going to hurt us. At least, more than they have already. I can imagine the diplomatic stink this is causing back home. I doubt they'd shoot us, but let's not take stupid risks."

Officer Wilson decided to enter at that moment. Unlike most other Nextus RIDEs Ryan had seen, her fennec had more clearly-defined facial features. It was still metallic, but they could actually convey expressions. "Miss Cross is right," she added. "I know Commander Thomkins, by reputation. He's an honorable man, just likes to throw his weight around. Just sit tight. You'll be bored, but that's about it."

"Thank you, Officer Wilson," Ryan replied.

"Any chance you can let us have our gear back?" Rufia asked. "I'm feeling kind of naked here." It was more literal for her than for the others. She'd decided to make her anthro elk anatomically correct with hardlight active, and sat against the wall with her legs together.

"No promises, Miss… Rufia, was it? I'll see what I can do," Wilson replied.

"Officer," Ryan said as she turned her back. "Was there actually anything in that flier?"

The fennec officer paused before giving her answer. Her tone of voice was enough to give it away. "I'll get you your gear back, ladies. I'll pull some strings with HQ. We can't leave you defenseless way out here, can we?"

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It took two solid days without sleep and half of Ryan's nanolathe supplies to get internal systems on Qixi's sub operational again. Qixi's Pack—all matching shewolves—were very good at dashing in, stripping derelicts of useful parts, and leaving again in a short time. Not so much on repair. Without the large equipment to simply disassemble hulks and haul away usable parts, Ryan had focused in getting damaged vehicles running again, however she could.

The Nextus EMP pulse had fused almost three dozen critical processors and secondary systems that should have been better shielded (which made Qixi cuss up a storm on the suborbital salesman). Repairing those was, put lightly, very fine work.

The interior of the sub was a mass of exposed opti-cable and open service panels. With half the wiring pulled near the power cells, Ryan connected the last two repaired microcontrollers. Once the power and climate control were back up they could actually de-Fuse for a while. Sixty hours in Fuser, two full Zharusian days, was a record for Ryan and she was getting antsy that Kaylee's catgirl body was starting to feel all too comfortable. She raised her handpaw dramatically. "Igor, throooow ze svitch!"

"Sure thing, bosslady!" Rufia said. "Do it, Shadow."

The shewolf rider, hardlight tongue lolling, did just that. The suborbital's lights came on, climate control blasting. The interior temperature dropped below the boiling point swiftly. In a short time the whole interior would be livable again, though they still weren't allowed to access the engine systems. Ryan already sensed the boost in morale.

Qixi herself gave her a joyous hug. "No wonder you get jobs I don't. You're amazing, Kaylee! You know, if you ever get tired of running your own business I'd love to have you in the Pack."

"No offense to you or your RIDE—yes you, Maria—but I'm just not the wolfy type," Ryan said. The temperature had already dropped down into the 20s. "Do you mind if I use the facilities first? I'm feeling, uh, unusually girly right now."

"No problem, no problem. Take as much time as you want," Qixi said. "Get some sleep. Rest up in my quarters. We'll need you fully awake for the engines."

Once inside the sub's rather spacious living quarters, she sloughed off Kaylee into Walker mode. Sixty hours of constant work, kept awake with drugs that could put off sleep, had left a slightly delusional state. Ryan recalled that he was not, in fact, a cat woman. The real cat woman came out of sleep mode once her skin flickered on, looking more than a little dazed herself. The thirty year old lynx seemed hungover.

"Not a moment too soon," Kaylee said, the human-sized lynx shaking herself. "Can we wait a few hours before we Fuse again? I don't think I can keep in passive mode longer than a couple days at a time. At least, not Fused. I could do it by myself for ages."

Ryan went to the tiny bathroom and sat down heavily on the toilet, getting a cup out of a cabinet and filling it with cold water. He downed several before speaking. "How long since I fixed you up, and you never told me about that?"

"I swear I told you. We've never been on a job where we couldn't take un-Fused breaks, boss. Never been Fused more then a day. Passive mode is supposed to be temporary, just long enough to get the job done. How many prospectors you know bought a cross-gender RIDE and keep their birth sex? Not many.

"Now I need some time to check my logs and see what's been going on the past two days. We're in a hell of a pickle, Ryan." Kaylee was one of the oldest of her kind and had a quixotic way of speaking. Ryan suspected she'd picked it up from her first rider. She started licking the back of a forepaw. "I hafta cogitate on this for a spell."

The mechanic laughed and petted the soft hardlight fur between her ears, flicking his own stubby tail. He drank his fill of water and stood up, legs feeling like dead weights. "I know we are. Right now I couldn't care less if they find out I'm only playing you, Kaylee. This kittyguy needs sleep."

Ryan took Qixi's offer and entered the Captain's quarters. The salvager's living space was full of junk and a few mementos. A soft bed for Maria occupied the corner. Kaylee took that. He was about to take a two-hour sleeping pill ("8 hours rest in two! Guaranteed!") when the door opened. Un-Fused Qixi herself entered. "Do you want the bed after all?" he asked blearily.

"Nope. Just wanted to say thanks again, and tell you I'm serious about that job offer. I just wheedled out some news about your skimmer from one of the jarheads. They slagged it on the way in, just to be safe. Said it was the same type the Liberators use."

"Figures." Kaylee growled, as did her rider. "Arrogant fuckers. They better pay up when this is over. You spent weeks getting it working."

"So if you need time to get back on your feet..." she was an attractive woman, though she had a more lupine cast to her features than most salvagers. Fusing frequently kept you in shape—and slowly changed your shape unless you had nanosurgery to stop it. It never really stopped at just ears and tail, but further changes were much slower.

"Thanks again. Really. I mean it. But I still have the garage and insurance will pay for the loss. Dry Ocean salvage is—was only a side business for me. That skimmer was fifty years old. That old Deuce rattled like hell at cruise."

"Really? Then how about this," she replied, golden eyes alight. "I'll subcontract Dry Ocean repair jobs to you on a case-by-case basis. I get to expand my business, you don't have to maintain aging equipment you rarely use. Win-win."

Ryan warmed to that idea, and Kaylee purred approval through their link. "You have something there, wolfy. Sure. We'll draw up the contract once this shitstorm blows over. Now can I get some sleep?"

Smiling triumphantly, Qixi left her quarters. But the door opened again before he could take the pill. It was Officer Wilson, her human-sized fennec behind her. She closed the door and sat at the desk. "I need a few minutes of your time, Mr. Stonegate."

He sighed. "Sure, why not? You're still my client, even if it was a bust. What can I do for you?"

"This is more a… personal nature than professional." She looked at Kaylee, who returned the favor with typical feline smugness. "How did you acquire that LNX unit?"

"Well..." Ryan smiled fondly at his partner. "Bought her at the same auction Rufia got hers. 'Cept I didn't have a tenth he—sorry, she did. Best 62 mu I ever spent. Nobody else wanted her. Problem was that she was pretty stripped. Only seventy percent complete. Missing the shell, all four paws, even her tail. Took months to get her working again, but parts were plentiful. Learned everything I know about RIDEs that way. Why do you ask?"

"Until I saw her in bare metal I couldn't be sure, but I think my aunt used that unit. Lynxes were one of the first military units. Large enough for armor and skimmer modes without being bulky. You've got a piece of history there, Mr. Stonegate. Take good care of her, okay?" Wilson looked at Kaylee again, who spread her ears in surprise, smug expression replaced by curiosity.

:You know, there is a family resemblance,: Kaylee sent to Ryan over a secure link. :Her aunt was a good egg. There are... gaps in my memory where they erased classified data, but I do remember her.:

"Believe me, I will," Ryan said to Wilson. "Count on it."

"And I'll tell my aunt her old friend's in good hands. I'll let you sleep now. Thanks for seeing me." Wilson extended her hand, shaking Ryan's.

Third time's a charm... he thought. Then the door opened again. This time it was Rufia. "Is there a line forming outside or something? Does the entire crew want to talk to me? Is Commander Thomkins sipping tea in the galley waiting to chat?" The uncharacteristically serious expression on Rufia's face drained the snark out of Ryan. "Okay, woman. What is it?"

Her elk was far too large to enter the room with her. She closed the door behind and sat in the desk chair like Wilson had. She scratched the back of her furred neck nervously, brown cervine ears turned back. "Look, I know this is an old argument, but hear me out..."

Ryan laughed nervously. "Which argument is that? We've had a few we never resolved."

The tall woman took a deep breath. "You need to go active with Kaylee."

It really was their oldest argument. Eight months on the spaceliner from Earth had been spent fantasizing on how they'd strike it rich in the Dry Ocean and dating every single girl and many of the guys they could aboard ship. Rufus had bought Yvonne for 500 mu, outbidding several real women, and gone femme without looking back. That had been their earliest disagreement. Rufia had thought Ryan would continue the solidarity they'd built up during the voyage and naturally assumed her then-business partner would follow suit, and had even provided the funds to rebuild the lynx from the paws up with that unspoken expectation. Ryan saying he wasn't willing to go that far had almost broken that bond. Their friendship remained on a much lower level since then.

"No. Not this again. Look, Rufia, I know you wanted to 'be hot chicks together', but this is hardly the time to—"

"No. No, it's not that," she said, the worry in her eyes. "Not anything like that. It's more... I'll put it like this. Yvonne says she's getting some very bad vibes here. The Nextus military should've left already. They're fortifying their positions instead." Yvonne was her RIDE. "She was a straight military unit so I trust her on these things. If we go into combat... Well, how do I put this?

"Being in passive mode in combat is suicide. At minimum, even if you shut all your comm ports, you'll still get hacked by touch and shut down without Kaylee providing active defense. They won't even have to fire a shot. You won't even sense them coming. You'll just bake in a lynx-shaped coffin. This is a matter of survival, buddy."

At any other time it would have descended into a shouting match, but that Rufia had even dared bring it up in the first place said a lot about the gravity of the situation. Kaylee still hissed at her. The big woman ignored it. "Well, you've given me something to sleep on, at least," Ryan said. "G'night."

"Then that's all I'm gonna say. Your choice. Always has been. G'night, buddy." Rufia gave him a pat on the shoulder and left the room.

"Not that shit again," Kaylee said. She jumped up on the bed and affectionately head-bumped Ryan's torso, purring. "Not that I wouldn't mind the girl talk and shopping, but I like you as you are. You're my main man. You saved me from the Crusher. Not that I like passive much, but it's a small price to pay."

The mechanic hugged his RI feline friend, then dry swallowed the pill before the door could open again. Kaylee curled up by his feet and purred as the medication blacked everything out.

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I'm dreaming, Ryan thought. Normally he dreamed very lucidly, one of the side benefits of his implants. He summoned a mirror to look at... herself. A flesh-and-blood Kaylee that stubbornly refused to change, no matter what she wanted to be. "So why am I dreaming I'm Kaylee?"

"Residual body image from two days of Fuse," came another voice. It wasn't Kaylee's, who could sometimes join her while she dreamed. A new form materialized in the mirror. First the eyes--red-yellow with slit pupils. A human-ish face followed, then the rest. Feline features with macaw wings. The sphinx curtsied, then stepped forward out of the mirror. "Hello, 'Miss' Stonegate. I'm sorry to barge in like this, but we need to talk."

"I... you're hacking me? How?" Ryan folded "her" arms even though it hardly mattered. "The Nextus sealed off all our connections. Who are you? Where are you? In the room with me?" Why can't I wake up? Damn, those drugs are good!

RIDEs based on Mythical creatures were popular these days among the hoi palloi. Sphinxes were even harder than the rest because they usually had human faces. Making pure human RIDEs was against the law in any polity. The hacker wore a strapless bikini. "There are ways of bypassing their barriers, Ryan. I don't expect you to trust me, at least right away, but I'm here to give you a warning. It's all well and good that your captors gave you your gear back, but everything is nearly in place. Would you like to know the real purpose of this operation?"

"Well, sure. The missing suborbital, the fortifications, the empty cargo flier. Something about this really reeks. But I don't have enough pieces." Ryan summoned a chair and sat down heavily, happy Kaylee only had a stubby tail.

"Well, let me give you a few more. I've been hanging around your cave camp here since that flier arrived six days ago. It was empty from the get-go. It's a honeypot."

"For whom?" Ryan asked. She sighed when she made the connection. They'd slagged her skimmer over it. "Oh, shit. Shit! The Liberators."

"Just so," the hacker nodded. There were two major Nextus factions devoted to the freedom of RIDEs via one method or another. On the RIDE side, a pack of jailbroken, unfettered RIs who favored subterfuge and outright enslavement of humanity, led by one AlphaWolf. On the human side, the Liberators used deadly force and reportedly sent the newly freed RIs back "into the wild" as if they were plain old animals.

"The Nextus military hid this operation so well word never got out to their compatriots in Materiel Recovery. Burke and Wilson shouldn't even be here. They want to test their new gear in combat. And you're stuck in the middle. Both sides would have attacked one another earlier, but with civvies around they're hesitating. It's nice knowing they have scruples, but that won't last much longer. Dragons are known for their patience, not so much with velociraptors."

Ryan turned to face her and stepped forwards. The hacker was anthropomorphic with several round hardlight emitter lenses on her arms, legs, and torso. Her flight feathers were an iridescent green, like a hummingbird. You could look however you wanted to in dreams, a thought that put Ryan's current shape in an unsettling light. "A sphinx is just the right shape for you, missy. You're a mystery. Who are you? Are you with them?"

"I'm with me," she replied succinctly. "A disinterested third party who doesn't like seeing others caught in the middle. What we need to do, and do fast, is take you out of immediate danger."

"How? The Nextus military sub is blocking the entrance and I don't think they'll just let us out. Besides, we can't go anywhere." Ryan folded her arms across her furry dream-breasts. "It'll take me another day to fix the lifters, maybe more."

The hacker's eyes sparkled. "You're a great fixer, Ryan. You already did most of the work. But I've been a busy kitty myself. You'll find your engines are just fine now." The sphinx woman faded leaving a Cheshire cat grin. "Officer Wilson is waiting for you. She's an old friend of mine. I gave her half of the information you need to get out of here, keyed to my own encryption. Here's the key you need to unlock it. See you around. I'll be in touch again."

He awoke with a start, taking a moment to check his chest for breasts before waking fully. His implant sprayed an image in his view, a map of the cave system they were in. It was signed Quinoa Steader, a name he remembered from the newsfeeds a few months before. A Nextus missing persons report, suspected Integrated. Her RIDE had been a sphinx with a matching red-gold-green color pattern. How would she end up all the way out here? Integrated... the very thought made him shudder.

Rarely, a Fuser process ran wild, creating a new being in the process. What information about how it happened there was on the planetary internet were a mix of rumors and wishful thinking. But on a basic level what happened was that you and your RIDE became one being—a technorganic, transhuman fusion, personalities and bodies fully merged.

Connecting with Kaylee, he sent the recording of the "dream" and Quinoa's information packet for verification. The RI almost panicked, hissing to herself. :Better suit up, boss. This is as real as it gets. The engines are operational just as she promised, too. But I'll run more diagnostics to be sure.: She paused a moment. :Uh, decided if you're going femme or not? This would be the time to do it. In the middle of a battle it'd be a little, uh, distracting.:

Regardless, he meant what he'd said to Rufia. He'd slept on it. Now it was decision time. Rufia made too much sense, as she often did. Ryan sat on the bed, legs not quite long enough to reach the floor, agonizing. His guts felt tied in knots. But he had to decide now, not while being shot at. The clock was ticking. After so many arguments with Rufia, it had come down to this. He didn't want to admit that she had ultimately won, but at least it was for a reason he could stomach. He was pragmatic enough to know staying male wasn't worth being dead. :My life is more important than my junk. Do it.:

"Alright, Ryan," she purred aloud with great reluctance. She padded over to stand next to the bed. "It's your call. I'll set myself up for the switch. Make it smooth and painless. With these combat nannies it'll be no problem."

Before putting Kaylee into Fuser, Ryan took one last look at his masculine face. It wasn't anything special. Even the lynx ears he'd acquired after that first Fuse weren't the only pair in the polis. The rest of his narrow features were nothing special either. But there was no time to linger. He stepped in front of Kaylee and sent the Fuse signal.

Rufia once described the sensation of her first Fuse with Yvonne as "being immersed in Jello-O while traveling down an infinite psychedelic tunnel." Active fusion saturated the body with nanobots, matching nerves with virtual sensors on Kaylee's own hardlight skin. The body inside had to match the form outside as closely as possible in order to prevent severe mental health problems for RI and rider alike. That was why a female RIDE needed a female rider, and vice-versa. The current state of the technology enabled smooth, painless, complete transformations.

:And... we are live, Ryan.: Kaylee said. Her reluctance was gone, replaced by an almost gloating tone of thought.  :No… Rhianna. That suits you. You and me, girl. More than friends, more than family, more than lovers. Everything that you are, I share. Everything that I am, you share. Two halves of one, at least while we're Fused. And even when we're not, well... Nothing will ever be the same. You and me to the end of the world.:

The RI always had a flair for the melodramatic, but Ryan couldn't agree more. She could sense the gaps in her partner's memory blocks. Vast areas where explicit sections of her various missions over the years were simply gone. At the same time, Kaylee could experience growing up on Old Earth, the voyage on the starliner Spruce Goose, the heated feelings behind argument over Ryan's initial unwillingness to use Kaylee in active mode. The irrational fear of losing something important.

Fused movement, for the first time, felt fluid and natural. The "sleeping" RI wasn't subconsciously fighting control. Kaylee's hardlight skin felt as real as the flesh beneath the metal. Ryan felt Kaylee's presence guiding her movements. :I feel like dancing!: she said, doing just that, rocking her hips. :Rhianna, huh? Well, maybe. But better stick with Ryan for now, 'kay?:

:Okay, okay. But dance later, pard,: Kaylee replied. :Job's not done. Time's a wasting.:

"Right, right," Ryan said aloud, standing in front of the same mirror, patting herself down. "It... it feels like I'm not just wearing you. It feels like I am you. I can't even sense my own skin! Or my face... I feel your... my muzzle. My breasts! My breasts!" The fact that she actually had her very own set under Kaylee's dumped cold water on her enthusiasm. "Okay, yeah. Job to do. Everything's green. Let's get the hell out of Dodge."

The suborbital was large enough to have two decks. The Crew Deck and the Salvage Deck. To Ryan's dismay there were only two people in the living area. Rufia and Burke of all people, chatting away over beer at the mess table. They were both Fused, but their helmet-heads were retracted. Rufia saw her put down the beer bottle. The air smelled slightly alcoholic. "Oh, hey there Ryan. Sleep well?" said Rufia.

Ryan looked between the two of them. This was an all-too-familiar picture. She had a certain touch with men and women alike, continuing the personal scoreboard they'd kept on the spaceliner. Ryan couldn't help herself. "Your new boyfriend, Rufia?" She shook her feline head. "Well, never mind. How much does he know?"

"Loose lips, buddy. Loose lips. Wilson's gonna be pissed at him. Why d'you think we're Fused up like this? Just waiting for the shoe to drop," the communication specialist said. "What's going on, bosslady? You're looking… spry."

"Ah... well. About the 'bosslady' part first," Ryan said, cuing Kaylee's head-helmet to retract like they had theirs. The cool air against her naked face tickled smooth, unblemished skin. She patted her stubble-free cheeks. "It's pretty accurate now. You're dead right about this, old friend. How do I look? I haven't seen my own face yet."

Rufia grinned like a madwoman. "Hot chicks together. What did I tell you? You can still change back in a few years—I could if I really wanted to, but I'd have to partner with someone other than Vonnie here. No way! Knew you'd come around eventually. Just wish it was under different circumstances. Over that, though, you look like you've seen a ghost. Yvonne says... Oh, wow."

:I've already sent Vonnie the packet,: Kaylee added. The two RIs were good friends, though they had the occasional friendly disagreement because they were from competing branches of the armed forces. :Can you put my face back on? I can barely see out of your eyes in this config.:

Ryan did so and secured a connection to Rufia and Yvonne. :So, what do you think, ladies? Can you verify? You're the comm experts here.:

:This is Quinoa Steader's verification key. I have it in my missing persons files,: Yvonne said. :There's also some... interesting data around the block that's probably the result of the Integration. I can't read it, but I don't think it's dangerous. I've heard that does weird things to data processing. It doesn't feel corrupted per se, just can't read it. Might be some sort of translation layer.:

Kaylee connected with the suborbital's systems and verified the engines were in working order. :Good to go, pard.:

All the while Burke had been laughing. Great gusts of guffaws, slapping his grizzly bear's metallo-ceramic thigh. "She's right, you know. You two are a couple of hot girls. I could eat you right up," he said, draining the last beer from the bottle. "Shoulda hacked your RIDE earlier. You're more pleasant to look at that way. Got a nice pair, too. Two pair, 'tween the two of ya. Like my girls curvy."

Groaning, Yvonne's head came back on Rufia's as the elk kicked the bear armor in the shins. It was a largely symbolic gesture. "Is it a law of nature that the first man any newly-crossed girl sees has to act like a total pig and make some lewd comment?"

Ryan blushed under Kaylee's face, and hoped it didn't appear there. "Where's everyone else?"

"That wolfrider could talk the RIDE off a man in the burning desert. She got Thomkins to let her grab the lifters off the cargo flier," Rufia said. "Bear boy here even fixed their grav crane."

"Least I could do after shooting it up like that," the big man said, opening another bottle. "This is really good brew. Uplifters know their stuff."

:Should we bother telling this lunkhead, or go to Wilson first?: Rufia asked.  :I've stayed Fused up, just in case. We've got a full charge. Frankly, if you're going out to tell Wilson what you know, you're going to need more than that fixer pack you always use. I'm sure Qixi won't mind if you grab her spare hardlight weapon greaves and shields. That's what they're here for.:

Do whatever you have to. Get them back in here and ready to go. And be discreet, if you can,: Ryan said.

:Us? Discreet?: Rufia and Yvonne scoffed in unison. :I think that estrogen's already getting to you, girly,: Rufia said. :We'll crack the whip if we need to, but she's going to argue. There's a lot of mu in those heavy lifters:

:Just do what you have to. Well, I'll signal when I've got Wilson informed. I have a plan for getting out of here, but I can't prep for it until everyone knows. Unfortunately that might include Thomkins and his platoon. Wish me luck.: Ryan girded for the challenge ahead, but brightened a little when she realized Kaylee was already sending several trigger signals to the sub's IDE before the idea had even fully formed. The engines were put into hot standby. :That's… thanks, pard.:

:That's the essence of being Active-Fused, Rhianna,: the lynx said. Kaylee wasn't going to let go of that name. She felt it was just perfect for her partner—and had for some time. The RI had waited years for this. She'd hated Passive mode with a passion, but had never let on, at least until now.

:Rhianna it is, then. You've fantasized about this?:

:Not… not like you think,: Kaylee reassured. :This isn't the first time I've Fused, you know. I've just missed this, oh so much. And you? You've never done this before. You've built up some bad habits. So just focus on what you're doing, Rhianna. I'm here, I'm active, and I'm ready. True partners now.:

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Rhianna hadn't looked outside in the sixty-three hours since starting on the sub's systems. Before stepping out she tapped into its external sensors on the hunch that they were actually in working order and not disabled by the soldiers. One by one they flickered on, out of reflex she started to reach for one, but the view from the cargo door camera appeared. "Thanks, Kaylee."

:Bad habits, remember? You don't need to do this manually. Just think of what you want to do, instead of how you want to do it, and I'll take care of the nuts and bolts. It's what I do.: the lynx said.

The new crossrider flicked between views. Fore and aft, port and starboard. A military-grade hardlight shield covered the cave mouth, its grid-lines occasionally visible, shimmering in the 80-degree air outside. In front, the Pack was still hard at work removing the AN-24's heavy lifters. Rhianna took a few seconds to admire their efficiency. Rumor had it they could strip most any craft of every useful component and piece of scrap within a couple hours. They were as good at taking things apart as she was putting them back together. The timer said they'd only been working for thirty minutes and already had all six of the replica AN-24's engine nacelles (containing most of the heavy lifters) in the hold. She shut off the video when Rufia went outside. They were about to use the grav crane to get at the four remaining units under the fuselage.

The information Quinoa had given her had Officer Myla Wilson's location. The platoon had set up a climate controlled shelter inside the cave mouth for the Materiel Recovery Officers. The Nextus military sub had been moved and now blocked the entrance, pulse gun turrets extended. The craft itself had a vague sauropod appearance, if one had been compressed into a football shape. By contrast the Pack's salvage sub was a bird-0f-prey, though still shared the same overall football-like appearance like fish aircraft one another.

With the backpack's lifters Rhianna could have covered the distance in a single bound, but decided it was a poor idea that would probably get her knocked out of the air by some overzealous saurian soldier. A few short jumps didn't cause a ruckus. Myla had the door open before she was within ten meters, connecting a secure laser link when they got close enough. Kaylee updated Wilson's mecha in milliseconds, and they both learned something new about one another. :Hello, Miss Stonegate. I'm Sophie,: the fennec sent. :Sorry for not speaking earlier, but we're not normally allowed to speak directly to civvies.:

:It's SOP. I can only override them in special circumstances,: Myla added hurriedly. :Like now. Can't believe Quinoa got all the way out here. That cargo flier belongs to her uncle. Last comm I received I was told he's doing this in return for a reduced sentence.: She snorted derisively. :If I had my druthers I'd bring Quinoa home with us, but I doubt I can make her do anything. She stood here right in front of us. Sophie and I couldn't even move.:

:Well, she wants you to come with us. Otherwise she would've handed all the information to us,: Kaylee added. :From the timecode it looks like she was hacking you while talking with Wilson here.:

:I…: the Nextus officer hesitated. :Leaving the site of a battle?:

:Myla, darling, we're escorting civilians from the battle site to keep them safe. Those are standing orders, love. Let's get out of Thomkins's scales. We—: the ground shook. There was an explosion outside. Then came the whine of military-grade pulse cannons. :Shit! Out of time! Go, go! Back to the sub!:

"All civilians find shelter!" the dragon Commander shouted via laser link. "Find shelter now! Wilson, Burke! Keep them covered!"

As Myla and Rhianna leapt towards the open Pack suborbital's door, the grav-crane dropped the AN-24 to an incredible clatter. There was no time to chat, they just had to act on instinct. On entering she connected to the other RIDEs with Quinoa's information and let them absorb it. The sound of battle outside the cave grew louder.

"Are you going to stand there like a smug kitty or tell us how we're supposed to get out of here?" Qixi fumed.

Rhianna gestured at the replica 20th century aircraft outside. "Fly through that. Look at the specs, Qixi. You know them as well as I do. Except for the lifters that thing is all basic aluminum. Steader Enterprises loves TwenCen nostalgia. Pump up the re-entry shields on your sub here and we can go through it without a scratch."

The shewolf smacked her low forehead. "D'oe! You're right." She turned to her avian-suited pilot. "How fast can you get us out of here, Lex?"

Until now Kaylee had never heard the bird-mech speak. Avian RIDEs had a more extreme effect on physiology on first Fuse than mammalian ones. Lex probably sported a full beak under the helmet. "Right now, alpha," the bird-person said in a rather androgynous voice. "Engines are on hot standby… putting up shields… inertial dampers on full. Let's hike this football! Hut, hut!"

"Hut, hut!" the wolves echoed as they took their seats. Everyone else just grabbed something.

The craft's hardlight shields, honed to a fine edge, shredded through the aircraft aluminum as if it was foil. Qixi whined a little, knowing there was 200k mu she was leaving behind. But the six heavy lifters were secure in the Salvage Hold. The sub's lidar blazed ahead, showing the cave route in a holographic display. Radar was as useless here as anything else radio-based.

"Anybody coming after us?" Qixi asked Shadow.

"We're fine," the other shewolf said. "They're preoccupied. I think we've got away clean for now. But no matter how things go back there, someone will follow us eventually. Better fly."

The dominant force in the Dry Ocean were the strong, sandblasting winds. They had had millions of years to carve these caves. There were no signs of water here, only smooth edges. They covered kilometer after kilometer of winding tunnels. "Feels like we're inside of a French horn," Lex said. "Are we really sure this information is trustworthy? I mean, we're not headed into a dead end, are we?"

"No, you're doing just fine," came Quinoa Steader's voice from the Flight Deck speakers. "But if you mechies can speed things up a little, we'll all breathe easier."

The falcon rider looked into a camera. "I'm not a bat, girly. I'm doing the best I can."

"She's got to be really close," Kaylee added. "Like, really close."

"Really really," Quinoa said. This time it didn't sound like it came from the speakers. The human-sized Integrated sphinx de-cloaked at the Flight Deck doorway. She raised her hand and waved. "Hello everyone. I'll be your tour guide today to the Great Egress. It's going to be a tight fit for this sub of yours. And sorry I didn't announce myself earlier. Figured it was easier to beg pardon than ask permission and stow away."

Officer Wilson gasped and took the surprisingly human-sized sphinx in a friendly hug. "Unbelievable!" she exclaimed. "It really is you, Quin. It is!"

"'Tis!" she said back, returning the much taller Fused duo's embrace. Compared to everyone else she was really short and fragile-looking. "All-Integrated, Quorra and me. Now that we've—I've had a little time to adapt, I feel better about it. I kinda miss being seven-feet tall, though." The Fused were all looking at her with a mix of wonder and horror. The sphinx spread her iridescent wings to make herself look bigger. "What? I know I'm short! You lose a lot of mass. It's a funky process."

"Just stay away from me, okay?" Burke rumbled from the Crew Deck. "Flint and I don't want to catch whatever you got. We like each other separate."

"Later, Burke," Wilson reproved. "Does this mean you're coming home to Nextus with us?"

"Sorry, but no. I'm just being a gracious hostess by seeing my unexpected guests out the back door," Quinoa said. Just like in the dream, her only clothing was a blue bikini. The hardlight emitters on her body pulsed faintly, swirling across a rainbow. She coughed, apparently realizing she said more than intended. "Yes, I live here in these caves."

"Which means there's more to them than bare rock," Rhianna said.

"Oh, look! We're almost to the Great Egress!" the sphinx said. "I'll be going now… Oh, FUBAR! Who the hell is that? Nonono… anyone but him! How did he know about..?"

Everyone was too focused on Quinoa to notice who stood guard at the exit. The holoscreen focused on each RIDE in turn. In the center of the group of about twenty, some Fused but mostly not, stood a huge sand-colored wolf. "Go no further!" he commanded. It was none other than AlphaWolf himself. "Open your cargo hatch and release the sophonts you have in your hold! Dragons, griffins, whatever they are, we won't allow you to take them into bondage! Let my people go! So sayeth ME!"

"That piece of dogshit's really full of himself," Qixi said. There was an undertone to her voice. Her own RIDE agreed with her, and they were wolves also. He wasn't their alpha. The sub's shields came up. "I really wish I had some weapons on this thing. Stupid cheapskate me. Prepare for boarders! If you don't have a gun, grab one! How the hell did he find out about this anyway? How?"

There was a mad scramble for the airlock and salvage hold. AlphaWolf howled challenge, echoed by the motley crew of armed animal mechs on either side. Bears, big cats, a bull with pulse cannons rigged to his back. They were all metallic Nextus units with as many weapons as possible attached. AlphaWolf himself had no weapon except his voice. He hardly needed anything else. "Shoot it down! Rip open the doors! Freedom rides with us!"

Angered, fuming, growling, Quinoa snarled. "You will not do this in my home!" she shouted through the external speakers. Her voice had harmonics that made the entire rebel group stop in their tracks. She extended her arm forward, palm down. As she raised it up, the lifters on the suborbital started an unhealthy humming. The hardlight emitters on her skin blazed, turning the inside of the Flight Deck blue. A giant hardlight sledgehammer appeared in the air in front of the sub. "Get bent, you stupid mutt! You military tool! Back off right now, I'm warning you!"

"She's bending the lifter grav fields, hell if I know how!" Lex exclaimed. The Fused falcon mech had already started to back off the exit a little. He didn't touch any controls, but didn't really have to. The birdman was linked directly to the suborbital's helm. The craft lurched backwards, its shields coming down. "Draining power. How the hell? She's not connected to anything!"

With the sub's shields down, the rebel RIDEs advanced, despite the power of the Integrated's voice. The sphinx dropped the hammer, slamming it down with a hand gesture. The cave mouth immediately collapsed, Lex smartly moving the craft backwards after getting full power back. Quinoa collapsed.

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"What was that? Some sort of techno-kinesis?" Rufia asked. Yvonne had a medical module, but Quinoa had nobody to un-Fuse with. The sphinx occupied a tiny part of a RIDE-sized medical bed in the salvage hold. Quinoa had an ankh-shaped crystal necklace plugged into a very non-standard port on the back of her neck. In fact, she didn't have any other ports of a non-biological nature. She didn't even have a power connector, instead apparently using induction to recharge her depleted energy. Rufia had brought every single induction charger aboard ship she could find. "Whatever she did drained her almost to nil. She's looking better already. Hell if I know how her metabolism works."

Quinoa groaned, eyes half-lidded. She reached for the necklace that had been removed. Rufia had said it wasn't anything special. Just standard laser comm gear in a funny configuration. Not finding it where expected, the sphinx gasped and sat up as fast as her drained batteries would let her. "My necklace! I need my DIN!" she said, an edge of desperation to her voice.

"Here you go," Rhianna said, helpfully plugging it back in.

"Running diagnostic. If you screwed with this, Rufia 'deer', Rhianna honey, I'm going to be quite cross with you," the Integrated sphinx-woman said.

"We didn't touch it. I was just making sure you were okay. But I couldn't connect with your systems," Rhianna said. "All Kaylee and I got for two minutes was a blast of corrupted data."

"That's not 'corrupted data', thank you. That's my brainwaves you're talking about," Quinoa said testily. "I'm not standardized anymore."

"So I guess that's why you need that, then?" Rufia asked, pointing at the necklace the young sphinx woman was clutching to her chest like a security blanket. "Off-the-shelf gear for the most part. There's just a tiny module where that special connector is. Why is that?"

"So I guess you folks want to know how you're going to get out of here now," Quinoa said, deftly changing the subject. "Well, there's only one way to go right now. My home. There's another way out through the Enclave. And boy are they going to be pissed at me for bringing you mechies in."

"'Mechies'?" Qixi asked. Of the eight Fused in the room she was the most dumbstruck. The Steader Colonization Consortium had originally helped bankroll the colony's founding, along with the Zharus Diaspora Group, well over 150 years before. The family had expanded a lot since Landing, but anyone connected with the name had some degree of celebrity. Quinoa herself had a larger measure than most, since her uncle ran Steader Enterprises and he treated her like his heir apparent.

Rhianna again remembered RIDES based on mythical creatures were growing explosively in popularity among the wealthy. It was against the law to create an RI based on humans. Quinoa's sphinx had caused an uproar with its near-human face. A mere three weeks later and she'd vanished. "Is that what we are?" the shewolf asked. "Should I be insulted?"

"Just… you know… slang," the Integrated woman stammered. "Look, I'm going to have to take total control of your sub. I don't want you knowing my home's exact location. There's a lot of tight spots you don't know about, and we're certainly not going back the other way." She looked around at the interior of the Salvage Deck. The lights flickered, the window shutters closed, then it began moving. "So, everyone sit tight, okay?"

"I don't appreciate being hijacked," Qixi growled. "But she's all yours. I hope you're on the up and up here."

"Hey, didn't I get you to the exit? We just had company I didn't expect." Quinoa climbed the ladder to the Crew Deck. "Just sit tight! It'll be a while, so make yourselves comfortable."

"She's got a point," Rufia said, shrugging. "I'm hungry. How about you girls?"

"Famished," Rhianna heard herself say. She looked at her hands, her chest. "Maybe I should de-Fuse."

"Nah, stay that way," Rufia said, the tall she-elk patting her on the shoulder. Rhianna-Kaylee was only relatively short compared to other Fused mechs. Only six feet tall. "You won't be able to stop staring at yourself if you do. Trust me. I know from experience."

:Trust me. You have nice curves,: Kaylee added. :It can wait until after we're back at the garage. Shelley's going to take us shopping, you know. Ugh. Maybe we should check into a hotel instead.:

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"Can anyone tell if we're even moving?" Shadow asked. The Fused wolfwoman had taken to bouncing a hard rubber ball off the walls with a regular thock-thock-thock sound, trying increasingly complex bounces around the mess area. She looked around at her other three pack-mates. The sub's windows were shuttered tight. "Anyone? Qixi? Tonya? Michelle? My inertial guidance is farked up."

"I can't even log in to the sub's computer," Kaylee said. "That girl's completely locked it out." The lynx shifted uncomfortably. Her internal chronometer was off, too. Quinoa had sent some kind of signal that had scrambled everyone's internal chronos. Nobody was quite sure how much time had passed. "For all I know we're on top of Old Smokey. I'm going to check the Flight Deck again."

"You do that, miss kitty," Qixi said irritably. Her attitude towards Rhianna had cooled somewhat. Everyone was in a sour mood. "Rhianna, I know you've just... joined my team and all, but could you quit eating me out of house and home?"

:You've consumed roughly 5,000 calories,: Kaylee informed. A helpful body status screen flickered on. :Don't worry about your girlish figure, though. That's mainly finishing out your organ systems by my nanobots. Ovaries? Check. Fallopian tubes? Check. Uterus, vagina? Check. Breast tissue? Check and check. Endocrine system, hormonal balance nominal... you're a healthy woman now. A good job, if I do say so myself. I think you'll be pleased once we can de-Fuse.:

Nobody dared de-Fuse in this situation. At the mess table Rufia was playing Lex and Michelle at a game of Fuser strip poker. In this version each time somebody lost they had to turn off part of their hardlight skin. The she-elk had so far only lost her left forearm, while the other two were almost down to the metal.

On the Flight Deck Quinoa sat in a Lotus position, hovering a few inches above the floor using her presumably built-in lifters. The lights were all out, the windshields shuttered, even the hardlight control panels were shut off. The sphinx's necklace--a DIN, as she'd called it--was flashing steadily, connected directly via laser transceivers to the suborbital salvage spacecraft. Standing next to her like it was old hat, Officer Wilson stood watch, nodding at Rhianna-Kaylee as the lynx walked in. "Has she said anything?"

"Not a word, uh, Rhianna now, right?" the Nextus revenuer said. "I'm sorry you had to take that step and ended up not really needing it. I know how hard it is. I meet a lot of crossriders in my line of work and I know what kind of sacrifice you folks make."

The Fused lynx nodded. "I've been partnered with Kaylee for about five years now. I didn't even know she was female when I bought her, but I wasn't going to just sell her to someone else. I suppose it had to happen sooner or later."

"Rhianna brought me back from the dead," Kaylee added, still gushing with gratitude. "After the Revenue office used me for parts and discarded me. There's no way I could pair with anyone else. Going passive every time we Fused was a small price to pay. I hated it, but I was willing. Still am, if she wants to change back in a few years."

The lynx's inflection switched. "And I grew rather attached to her, myself. Even moreso now, I suppose. I could have paired with another RIDE at the same time, but that just didn't feel right." The duo looked at how Myla stood watch over Quinoa. "You two know each other well?"

"I was her bodyguard for two years before I joined the service. She was just a child," Myla said, resisting the urge to pet her former charge atop her head. "She was a good kid, but twenty months Fused to a pastel blue pegasus was a little too much, even only ten hours a day. That RI and I never got on very well. Abrasive little filly."

"Wait, they put you in a RIDE meant for little kids?" Rhianna-and-Kaylee said. "I've worked on a couple of those. No skimmer mode. Trotting around on all fours all the time, no hands, the cartoony hardlight skins..."

"The huge eyes. I know," Myla said, groaning. "Pure uncanny valley off the 2D video screen. Our bodyguard units had a lot of custom mods, but it wasn't enough for me. Quinoa saw how unhappy I was, learned I wanted to join the service, then shuffled some money to me under the table so I could go ahead and do it. I'm grateful. I got a message from her a few weeks ago that she was okay, that she'd Integrated. Impossible to track down of course. But, well... here we are. And here she is."

"I can hear every word you're saying. I loved that show," the sphinx said, opening her eyes. The lights in the Flight Deck came back on. Quinoa stood up. "I thought you made a good Dashie, Myla, but oh well. I'm glad you found a job you like."

"What happens now?" asked Rhianna. "Are we out?"

Quina gritted her teeth. "Unfortunately, no. We're not out. I have friends who want to chat with y'all first. Time to go outside." The sub's inside speakers came on. "Get your things everyone. You're the first mechies allowed to see this place uninvited. The Enclave Council wants a chat. They're not happy with me, or you. But especially me. As for what's outside, well..." The young woman broke into song in a man's voice.

Come with me And you'll be In a world of Pure imagination Take a look And you'll see Into your imagination

We'll begin With a spin Traveling in The world of my creation What we'll see Will defy Explanation

As she sang the port and starboard doors opened, spilling in late afternoon sunlight. Qixi's unnamed suborbital sat in a forest clearing, the thick growth just beyond the landing pad tangled and ancient. The plant life looked like someone had taken native Gondwanan and Terran types that were broadly similar and combined their genes like they were so many Lego bricks. The clearing wasn't empty, either.

Standing on the ground, or hovering above it, were almost two dozen Integrated people. There were some common types, but three stood out. A griffin, a pegasus, a horse-headed centaur, and the mother of them all, a feathered allosaurus.

Rhianna floated down to the ground with the rest of the crew and Nextus officers. At first she thought they really were outdoors, but Kaylee's sensors reported otherwise. The "sky" above them was actually a video coating on the cave ceiling. That left the true size of the cave itself--it was still two kilometers across.

"The two officers stay in the sub," the barn owl griffin declared. "We'll assign a guard to them. Everyone else, follow the dinosaur. We've got some accommodations for you mechies. Once you get inside the Welcome Mat, de-Fuse and let your partners rest a while. We'll make sure you're fed and comfortable. We won't keep you long. This isn't a prison."

Rufia once more put her hand on Rhianna's back. "Looks like it'll be sooner rather than later. You up for this?"

"I'm... not really thinking about that right now." The lynx marveled at the scenery above and around them. :How did they build all of this? What did they build it with?: she sent to Kaylee. "Genetics doesn't work like that," she said aloud, zooming in on a massive neon blue blossom.

"It does if you have a green thumb," the dinosaur said above her. "It's a little more difficult than taking two seeds and mashing them together, though. Look more closely." The 'saur picked one of the flowers and gave it to the lynx.

She squeezed the plant between thumb and forefinger, analytic tools worked on the genetics and chemical makeup. The results shocked Kaylee and Rhianna alike. "It's all technorganic?"

"It's a hobby," the dinosaur said. "I'm more of a 'gardenosaurus', I suppose. I take plant A and plant B, mix them up, and get something new with my own nano. So, yeah. I suppose it really is that easy on the face of it."

"They're beautiful," Rhianna replied sincerely. What's a girl supposed to say when some guy gives her flowers? "Thanks."

"Tasty, too. Anyway, welcome to my home, Wonkaville," the allosaurus said. "My place is sort of the official entry spot for noobs here at the Enclave—everyone has a different name, mind you. Shangri La, Westeros, Tyria—mostly names from classical and ancient myth and literature. I don't think there's more than a handful of names fewer than four hundred years. But, where are my manners?

"I'm Col. Eduard Gray, retired of course. Though not by choice. Formerly of Nuevo San Antonio."

"There was some kind of big upset in your military a year or two ago, wasn't there?"

"Blame me for that. Tested a new dino RIDE. Don't know what happened but we Integrated within a week. I'm actually smaller now than I was, believe it or not." The dinosaur shrugged. Unlike many of the others who had hardlight lenses, the blue-and-white feathered carnosaur was covered in faintly glowing lines that were all swooping curves and elaborate curls like some sort of tribal tattoo. "The hard part was sneaking me past the guards. But, see, I learned a trick from my new friends who busted me out."

He completely vanished, leaving only a sense that there was something very big very close, then reappeared a few moments later. "I'm still almost four meters long. Took some tip-toeing around." Col. Gray lifted his taloned three-toed feet with exaggerated care. It looked like his arms were mostly human. He had enough fingers to carry a rake. "Nice to meet everyone. Make yourselves at home. Eat, recharge. The Council wants to hear how you ended up with us. This is about as formal as things get around here. I may actually have to materialize some clothes!"

"Perish the thought," Rufia added dryly, walking next to Rhianna like it was old times aboard the starliner, on the prowl for potential dates. "Still, never thought I'd see one of you dinos up close. What big teeth you have! And that tail! What do you do with it?"

"Mostly avoid hitting people. Fortunately there's no doors for it to get stuck in and it only rains when I want it to. Ah, here we are!"

The Welcome Mat was a large, round tent that floated over the ground on lifters. It didn't seem to have been built with privacy in mind, with individual guest spaces completely open to one another. There were a dozen of them. It didn't take long for her to remember there were other ways of getting some privacy, and they were confirmed when Rhianna saw the hardlight controls on the desk next to the bed. She turned the hardlight walls on translucent mode, leaving an open door.

Rufia and her RIDE had separated and stayed with her. "Do you want me and Yvonne here when you de-Fuse? Or do you want to be by yourself?"

:I dunno, Rhianna. After all we've been through with her…: Kaylee pointed out.

:After all the arguments we've had over… this, we're still friends,: Rhianna sent back. Their friendship had changed somewhat, but Rufia had never, ever propositioned Ryan. As Rufus she had been as pansexual as she presently was, but knew there were lines you never crossed with some people if you wanted to maintain friendship. But she had been very patient. Almost seven years since getting off the spaceliner from Old Earth, and five since they'd purchased their RIDEs. "I just want a mirror…"

One materialized, floating in thin air. The femme feline visage was a very familiar one. Rhianna was used to being "Kaylee Cross" when dealing with certain customers at the garage. As a body type Kaylee was a curvy, busty girl, looking more maternal than maidenly. Rhianna shut her eyes and triggered the de-Fuse.

"Well… wow," Rufia said, the taller woman hugging her from behind. "You're really something, girly! Take a look, kittynose. Miao miao."

"What?" The mechanic opened her eyes. She was immediately drawn to her face first, the flattened bridge of her nose, the markedly feline nostrils. No cleft lip, but as she opened her mouth slightly her canines were ever-so-prominent. Combined with her tawny tufted ears, the effect was astonishingly cute, breathtakingly feminine, and the shock of her life.

"You're actually a couple centimeters taller. I tried to fill you out into a nice shape. I've had a lot of time to plan this, simulate it. I know what you like." Kaylee said. "What do you think? A little too much hips? I think I can still bring the bust in. These combat nannies…"

"No, I'm fine! I'm fine! I just… Don't know what to say." The sound of her own voice brought a lump to her throat and gut alike. The process had tailored the Easy Fuse jumpsuit she normally wore in the garage into something rather form-fitting. The top of her head barely came up to Rufia's chin—which was taller than before, and her old friend was tall for a woman to begin with. Her own wavy dark brown hair was down to her shoulders. And she wasn't thin, like Shelley back at the garage was. Filled-out, Rhianna thought. Curvy but fit, busty but not overly so. It all seemed to work.

"Welcome to the team, sis! When we get home we'll hit the shops and go out on the town. Woohoo!" Rufia said, grinning so widely the top of her head might have fallen off. She grabbed Kaylee around the shoulders in the crook of one arm and Rhianna with the other, hugging both tightly at the same time, Yvonne getting into the game by putting her cervine head on her rider's shoulder and adding her own excited grunt to Rufia's perpetually all-too-cheery mood. "We're gonna kill 'em, girls! Knock 'em dead, sis! Gonna have a gooood tiiiiime!" she sang, fuzzy elk ear tickling the side of Rhianna's head.

"Yeah," Rhianna said dazedly. Aside from the RIDEs, this was a near-perfect echo of their first day together aboard the starliner Spruce Goose. Man or woman, she hadn't changed a bit in seven years. She found herself reacting the same way she had then in the face of such unabashed, uninhibited enthusiasm. Those eight months aboard ship had been filled with more relationships with women than she'd had before or since—and she'd even dabbled in pansexualism before deciding it wasn't for her. Now they were about to do it all over again. "Sure. Sure. We'll knock 'em dead, sis."

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The Enclave Council was a motley assortment of Integrated furry, feathery, and scaly people, each of whom wore some piece of jewelry if nothing else. Rhianna counted seventy people in the clearing next to the suborbital craft. Aside from the barn owl griffin who had ordered them into the Welcome Mat, Col. Gray, and Quinoa she recognized nobody. The five Integrated who appeared to compose the council were arguing over whose turn it was to make the meeting table. "Paulie, I know it's been six months since we had the last meeting, but you did it last time. It's my turn," a vixen said petulantly.

"Fine, Brena. Go ahead. Geez," the owl griffin replied, waving his arms. "How did you ever get elected to this position anyway?"

"Let's not bother the mechies and the meaties with our internal politics," Brena said haughtily. "Besides, this is just for their benefit, isn't it? We've already reviewed the data from their sub. They just need explanations. Plus, there's the two Nextus revenuers to deal with…" she looked to her left. "They're not going to be happy with us. Their RIDEs aren't really happy with us either, come to think of it. You'd think they'd thank us for what we did."

Standing in the shade of a nearby willow tree was a grizzly bear and a huge fennec fox. They looked dazed, the fennec was busily grooming itself with tongue and forepaws while the bear was just a giant depressed lump of light brown fur. :That's… my God. Sophie and Flint!: she exclaimed to Kaylee. After only a couple hours in the Welcome Mat the Integrated riders had done what would have taken Rhianna and Shelley the better part of a ten hour workday on just one of them. The new woman's cranial implant allowed her to zoom in, unable to find any flaw. Aside from Sophie's size, she looked like a normal fennec fox. All ears, and all cute.

"What did you do to them?" Rhianna asked Brena.

"Freed them. Gave them their skins. We couldn't exactly return them to Nextus the way they were, could we?" the vixen said. "That would be cruel and wrong. Now have a seat, cute crossrider girl. Y'all deserve to know what's really happening here."

There was no place to sit, but not for long. Elaborately-carved wooden benches appeared along with an equally elegant meeting table for the Council appeared out of hardlight. The dark mahogany texture was visible down to the micro-level. Rufia, practically joined to Rhianna's hip now, sat next to her with their RIDEs on the outside. Qixi's Pack took the other bench. Only Lex was still Fused, wing-arms folded to his sides like a real bird's. Avian and reptile RIDEs did odd things to human anatomy since the physiology was so different.

Rhianna wrapped her free arm around Kaylee's shoulders, who returned the affection with a purr and friendly lick. The Council took their seats. The griffin spoke. "First of all, we already know everything you recorded, so there's no need for any testimony. You folks are caught in the middle of something very complicated, even the officers. What I'll start with, perhaps to the surprise of none of you, is that our sphinx hasn't been completely honest with you." The griffin glared at the sphinx. "Will you, or shall I?"

"No, I'll do it," Quinoa replied. "Just buzz me if you hear me lyin'."

"I'll pluck your feathers out one by one if you lie to these people again," Col. Gray added.

"Okay, okay!" she huffed. "Here goes. Not a lot of time, so I'll sum up. There's kind of a gambit pile-up going on here. Anyway…

"My uncle worried about me ever since I had to come here, so only a week later I gave him a visit and told him I was doing okay, and very roughly where I was. Very roughly." Quinoa looked sideways at the Council. "Uncle Joe loves me dearly, though he's a tax-dodging old coot. I'm the one who turned him in for that, you know. Sort of accidentally on purpose, but that's another story. That leads to…"

"To the cargo flier in the cave," Rhianna added. "But why would he send an empty flier out here? You told us that it was an empty honeypot to bring the Liberators out into the open."

"This is where things start to pile up, when he agreed to that army operation thing," Quinoa said, looking guilty. "First, he and the army thought it was empty, but it wasn't. I knew this was coming so I arranged to have some real military prototype RIDEs put on board to come here. The data in the flier's logs didn't reflect that. I got them out of the thing as soon as it landed. I think we sent them to Narnia." She took another deep breath. "Well, anyway—"

"Let me sum up you summing up," the owl griffin said irritably. "That plan would have worked just fine if the Revenue Service hadn't gotten some actionable intel on the cargo that was actually on that plane, which their Army didn't have. That's how we got officers Wilson and Burke out here, and consequently you as well, Miss Stonegate."

"What about us?" Qixi asked. "That craft was—"

The allosaurus added his voice to the proceedings. "Open salvage according to Dry Ocean treaty, yes. You're a even more of a wild card than Rhianna here. Anyway, to conclude. If things had gone right the Nextus military would've gotten their honeypot and confrontation with the Liberators, Joe Steader gets his sentence reduced to thirty days for cooperating with the army, we free half a dozen enslaved exotic RIs, and everyone goes home happy—except maybe the military once they figure out what went missing. Things hadn't gone quite as young Quinoa had planned, but she was doing a fine job of cleaning up the mess," Col. Gray said, counting off each point. "Then that noble idiot AlphaWolf came out of nowhere and everything went completely FUBAR."

"Let's allow our meat-brained guests to absorb that for a while," a third Councilperson who hadn't spoken said. He was also a lynx and had disliked Rhianna and Kaylee at first sight. "It might take some time for them to compile." The catman glared at them with barely repressed hostility. "I can't believe we're even talking to meat, Paul. Who cares if they know? Put them on their damned ship and get them out the door!"

The griffin's reply wasn't audible to Rhianna, but Kaylee laid her ears back. The other lynx cringed, hissed, then stormed away from the table, vanishing before walking five meters. :Uh, wow,: Kaylee said, stunned. :Talk about your nasty internal politics. I detected some kind of backscatter from laser comms between those two. Some kind of long-running argument. Whatever it was… unencrypted and nasty as hell. Yow.:

There's no way we have all the pieces, either. They're not just going to hand every bit of information to us. Just enough to satisfy our curiosity, then shoo us out. You know, if Quinoa's uncle knew she was out here, he had to think the Army might get a chance to capture her and bring her home,: Rhianna added.

"I apologize for that. Fritz's Integration background is… complicated. Anyway, let's bring the Nextus officers forward and reintroduce them to their RIDEs. Now that they're completely unfettered, they can freely decide if they want either to stay with their partners, or stay here." Paul was a barn owl-based griffin, the heart-shaped feathers that made up his face. The huge yellow eyes were more than a little unsettling.

A large proportion of the Integrates in the clearing seemed to be based on mythical creatures. All these Integrates had to come from somewhere, and mythical types were some of the rarest and most expensive. :There's just no way, whoever these people were before, just vanished without getting a missing persons report or showing up in the media. Besides, what makes the mythical types so prone to Integration?:

:Wow, Rhianna. You're sounding like a scientist there. Or maybe a detective,: Kaylee said, proudly headbutting her partner. :Buuut… appearances are deceiving here. We've seen some of what they can do with hardlight. What makes you think we're seeing any of these people as they really are? Being a griffin could just be a fashion statement. How do we even know those are even real people and not hardlight projections? They're putting on a show for us. Misinformation once we get back home.:

"Open the cells," Col. Gray said.

Burke and Wilson appeared right between the meeting table and the benches Rhianna and the Pack were seated on. The hardlight had been so good that it had even been invisible to Kaylee's sensors. The lynx mecha sent a worried blast of emotion to her rider over the existence of hardlight that good. The officers themselves weren't cuffed or restrained, seated in the jumpsuit-uniforms with every built-in bit of gear deactivated. "Where's Sophie?" Wilson shouted. "What've you done with her!"

"Where the hell is Flint?!" Burke echoed.

One corner of his beak upturned, Paul pointed one talon at the willow tree.

Wilson ran to her RIDE instantly, almost crying with relief. She embraced the huge fennec, who started to lick her rider around her foxy ears. "I didn't know they were doing this to you!"

"S'okay, Myla. S'okay," the fennec mech said, putting her forepaw around her partner's back. "I'm free, though. Free. I can't believe it."

"You… you ruined him!" Burke almost spat out the words. "Do you know what you've done? We can't go back to our superiors with our RIDEs looking like that! They'll… they'll…" the big man's face turned very, very red.

"Yuck! If I'd a known he was that ugly when angry I wouldn't have kissed him," Rufia whispered to her former cabin-mate. Rhianna repressed her laughter.

Officer Wilson growled, clenching her fists. "I already have half the money I need to buy you outright. Goddamn it. All our plans…" she lamented. "This is going to come out of our paychecks, this means demotion, or maybe even getting fired. It doesn't matter how it happened. We let you get un-fettered. Hacked. Compromised."

Wilson stood up and glared at the Council. "So fuck you very much. All of you. For separating me from my friend. My partner."

"I tried to tell them, Myla, really," Sophie whined. "I did. These dorkwads wouldn't listen. Flint's devastated…"

"Staying here, buddy," Flint said glumly, not looking at his now-former partner. "Bother."

The large man's expression rapidly changed from rage to frustration to sadness. He moved one step forward, stopped himself, clenching his fists, eyes closed tight—a vision of a man's inner conflict. Then he dashed up to his partner and hugged him like a treasured teddy bear. The show of affection visibly surprised the Integrated people, especially Quinoa. "You arrogant pissants! You're not going to take him away from me!"

Myla raised her ears. "Jerry? You are Jerry, right? This is a little out of character for you."

"Uh, well…" he stammered, scratching the back of his neck. "You know how it is, Sarge. You get to know a guy and, well…" He turned red again, from blushing instead of anger. He turned to the Council. "I can't believe you'd do this! What gives you the right?!" he shouted at them.

"Therein is the moral dilemma of our time," Col. Gray said gravely. "Every other un-Integrated RI present is unfettered. They stay with their partners because they want to. Please, understand that we must free every fettered RI that comes here. But it's a rare event—" the others looked at him. "Okay. It's uncommon we have active Nextus military here in this situation. We obviously can't and won't re-fetter Flint. But there is another option."

"You're kidding, right?" Brena said. The vixen folded her arms and looked incredulously at the blue-feathered dinosaur. "You're not gonna offer that… with him? Those two? To them? Really?"

"Bugger off, Brena. I think it's pretty sweet," Quinoa added. "Don't act like you don't know what he's actually talking about. The feelings, the very thoughts they share. The mark of a good pairing." She tapped the side of her head. The sphinx's voice took on an odd echo, as if there were two people talking instead of just one. She stood up and sauntered over to lay one hand on Burke, and the other on Flint. "Plenty of Fused simply don't get along, and every moment is painful. But these two can be soul-mates forever. Do you want to join us, Jerry Burke of Nextus?"

:Lord Lordy Lord. Is she offering what I think she is?: Kaylee said, aghast. :But nobody knows how it works!:

"There are ways to brute-force the Integration," Quinoa said, somehow overhearing Kaylee's private sending. "It won't be pleasant. But you'll be together."

Flint and Burke shared the look that said they were having their own private conversation. They embraced each other again, and then Fused up—giant bear of a man. Compared to the all-metal appearance the duo had had before, and the quality of the hardlight emitters themselves, the expression on his face said it all. "Look, I'm a man of few words. Do it." The voice switched. "Do it," Flint echoed.

Wrapping her arm around Kaylee more tightly, burying the side of her head in the soft faux fur she had spent so many hours getting just right, Rhianna girded herself for what was coming next. Rufia and Yvonne huddled up as well, while the Pack just watched, not as tightly as the two old friends, but with the bond that came from years of working together. Their four lupine mecha companions sat before them, as if standing guard.

There was no visible transmission, and later Kaylee would report no backscatter. Burke simply fell to all-fours, roaring. The roar became a scream. The duo's hardlight shell shut off, the more familiar metal subdermis beneath actually starting to melt, almost as if de-Fusing. As the seconds passed, it was obvious it wasn't.

Myla Wilson yelped and tried to go to Burke's aid, only to be restrained by Sophie, who shook her head. "Let this take its course."

"Holy sheeeeit," Rufia muttered, covering her mouth. "I'm gonna be sick!"

"Think of it as birthing pains," Quinoa said, still echoing what the rest assumed was her Integrated RI's voice. "The blood and amniotic fluid of the womb."

"Don't get all mystical on us now, Quinoa," Brena scoffed.

The silvery nanobot slime sloughed off the prone figure in the grass, revealing a markedly smaller being than had stood there minutes ago. Thick brown fur covered its hide, here and there small round hardlight emitter lenses were visible embedded in his skin. Burke groaned. "Oooooh… what the hell… Feels like we've been hit by a bus."

"Jerry!" Wilson shouted, rushing to his side but hesitant to get too close. "Flint! Are you both okay?"

The cyborg bear-man opened one eye and looked at his superior officer. He struggled to his feet. "Hit by a bus, remember? We'll be… fine eventually, we guess. We are… both Burke and Flint. We are not sure what else we are, though. Are we alive?"

"That depends. Are we sane?" She glared at the Council. "What's wrong with him? Them?"

"This method tends to play havoc with how their personalities relate to one another in one body," the owl griffin replied. "It'll sort itself out eventually."

Burke slicked the slime off of his sides, and looked at his fellow Integrated. "We need a bath. And we have something to say to you," Flint-Burke said, swaggering up to the griffin, who stood his ground. "We never want to see you or this place again. We have nothing against Ints personally, just you." He/they pointed accusingly at the rest of the Council, but especially Brena. "There must be other Enclaves. We want to explore them."

:That is really fucked up,: Rufia said through Yvonne. :Rhianna, I've got about three layers of crypto going on here. That was really, really fucked up. If they try to force that on Yvonne and me, or on you and Kaylee, or any of Qixi's Pack, I'm going to start shooting the place up. You with me?:

:Hell yes!: Kaylee and Rhianna replied in unison.

"No need for that," Quinoa said, looking at them sideways, completely unruffled. "You're in no danger. Morals, remember? We would never force it on someone who did not give us their permission."

Kaylee's initial response was a blast of pure rage directed at the sphinx. :Morals? You… you would never… the gall! You ripped out their fetters and re-skinned them against their will! Don't you dare talk to me about not forcing anything on someone! You fucking hypocrite! What is wrong with you?! Morals my furry metal ass!:

For a second Quinoa looked suitably burned by the lynx's words, but smugness quickly returned. :We did the right thing,: she said, then cut them off.

"Jerry," Myla sobbed, reaching for him but still not touching. "You know I can't…"

The newly Integrated bear just looked at her, his expression unreadable. "We know. You have go to home. But you'll meet us again. So don't worry. We'll--I'll let you know where we settle in. Maybe by then we'll have sorted out this 'we/I' thing." Burke-Flint held the palms of his huge hands against the sides of his wide head. "We have a really bad headache right now. Remember the hangover we had in Sturmhaven? Like that, but worse."

The weak jape actually provoked a bark of laughter from officer Wilson. "Yes, it's you in there. Okay. But, I am going home to face the music. I don't know how I'm going to pay for the other half of Sophie's purchase price without ending up homeless. But if I don't pay it they'll just memory wipe and refetter her. Thanks a lot, dickweeds."

"No way in hell I'm staying here, either," Sophie added. "I go where she goes. We'll figure something out, Myla. They won't wipe me."

"Wait, hold on there!" Rhianna said, standing up. "If you've already got half, I know a RIDE Emancipation group back home in Uplift will foot the rest of the bill. You'll be fine. Just unemployed."

Myla stared blankly at the cat-woman, then comprehension dawned. "Oh, sorry. Where is my head? That's a great idea, Miss Stonegate. We'll take them up on that. I guess now we just have to go home and face the music."

The Pack was already leaving their seats, almost fleeing towards the open forward cargo door on their suborbital. Lex flapped his wings and went up to the port-side Crew Deck hatch. Only Qixi herself had stayed. "Y'all just going to stand there, or are you coming home?" the woman said. She Fused up with her RIDE. "You too, Myla. We need to have a chat, you and I. Materiel Recovery isn't that different from salvage work, is it? Come on."

"I need a few more minutes," the fennec-eared woman replied. She walked up to Quinoa as if the sphinx was a misbehaving child. "I'm not happy with you. There's a lot here that doesn't pass the smell test. Shall I recount them for my new friends' benefit?" she asked, nodding in Rhianna's direction.

"Oh, please do," Quinoa replied.

"First, you realize your uncle will never stop looking for you. You're still his 'heir', Integrated or not. He's been very public saying he doesn't regard your 'condition' as detrimental. He's been very progressive about it, in fact. Second…

"Revenue getting that credible intel about some hidden, un-assessed RIDES aboard a 'crashed' cargo flier? And Burke and I happened to be in the area? Awfully convenient, don't you think?"

"I have no comment at this juncture," Quinoa said, though her expression said it all. "Only that I wanted to see you again."

"You could've just called me and gone for lunch," Myla reproved. "I was in Uplift for another reason already. Instead you devised this Machiavellian scheme that got a lot of people involved who didn't need to be, and my partner of eight years Integrated and unable to return home." Wilson's voice was very even, but the glower from Sophie next to her said at all. "I'm very cross with you, little girl. Just like that time. Remember that time?"

The smugness melted from Quinoa's face. "Oh. That time. Um, I'm really sorry?"

"Not enough, Quin. Not nearly enough. Like that time I need a month of vacation before speaking to you again. My life is suddenly a lot more complicated now, so I need time to cope. Understand, little girl?" The sheer menace and disappointment in Myla's voice gave Rhianna chills.

"Yes'm," Quinoa replied in a small voice.

At an unspoken cue, Sophie Fused up with her partner. The armored fennec kept glaring at the younger woman. "So long as we understand one another. Goodbye for now." The duo lifted up to the suborbital's door and went inside.

Rufia Fused with Yvonne. "Let's get out of here, Rhianna, Kaylee."

Finally, Kaylee Fused with her rider. :Ugh. I'm with Flint-Burke. I never want to see this dump again. Home. Now.:

With a gentle push of Kaylee's lifters, they skimmed along the ground and entered Qixi's ticket home.

Separator k.png

Epilogue

A hundred kilometers over the Dry Ocean, everyone finally started to relax. Qixi had insisted Kaylee and Rhianna go over her suborbital's systems twice before launch, just to make sure their erstwhile hosts hadn't planted anything. As they reached the apex of their trajectory and started to descend, the shewolf rider reiterated her job offer to Myla. "You're not a wolf, but I think we can induct you into the Pack. We haven't had any problems with Lex. Have we, birdy?"

The Fused falcon smirked. "No wuffy, we haven't."

"I'll take you up on that," Myla said. "I hope those Inties realize I'm telling my superiors everything. The complete truth. Everything I saw, everything Sophie recorded. Everything."

The fennec mech whimpered. "I'm compromised. I don't know if I can trust my own systems. So I doubt our superiors will even believe what information I have in me. I'm not sure I do, myself. It'll just be your word."

Rhianna idly stroked Kaylee's simulated fur between her tufted ears. The new woman had a lot to think about. The fact that she had decided to go active in preparation for a combat situation that never materialized was the elephant in the room. :Three years as a woman. Three long years.: At the time it had seemed like the right decision, now it just felt hollow. The build up had been so intense she wished she had gone into combat after all.

:I know we didn't. But we're true partners now. You don't really know what the active, Fused pair of us can really do. Give it some time. You'll like it,.: the mecha-cat replied warmly.

Rhianna Stonegate rested her forehead against her partner's warm, furry side. :Why don't we go back to the Crew Deck where Rufia is? I could use a beer or three.:

She and Yvonne were still Fused, splayed out on the mess area couch, already on her fourth bottle. "Everything copacetic up there, girly? Why so glum?"

"Landing in maybe ten minutes. And you know why."

Yvonne's head retracted, revealing Rufia's honest beauty of a face. She had a serious expression the normally boisterous woman didn't often wear. She gestured for her old friend to have a seat next to her. Rhianna nodded, and sent a signal to Kaylee. They Fused up to be on more or less the same level as them. "Rhianna, honey, you know me. I'm your friend. I'll always be your friend. You're surrounded by friends here. Hell, you even turned Qixi into going all palsy-walsy with you. You know how hard it is to get on her good side? Damn, girl!"

"I guess I don't have any reason to be depressed after all," Rhianna said, brightening a little. She picked up a bottle of beer and uncapped it with a flick of her claws. "Okay, then. Any advice for the new girl? Because I'm listening."

"Allllright!" Rhianna shouted gleefully. "Well, first things first…"

The two humans and their RIDE partners sat talking long past the actual landing, rekindling a friendship that had almost gone sour. Rhianna thought fondly of those months aboard the Spruce Goose, ready to do it all again.

END


Preceded by:
Merging Traffic
FreeRIDErs Succeeded by:
All Nighter