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User:JonBuck/Marshals

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FreeRIDErs story universe


Marshals

Author: Jon Buck

(With Robotech_Master)


Chapter 1: Making it Real

October 3, 155 AL: Uplift RIDE Auctions

“For the last time,” Bernie Thompson fumed through his vocoder. “I am not a ‘droid’, nor am I a ‘Drive Extender’ or an ‘Advanced Intelligence’. I am a human being in a brainbox mobility frame. I am not for sale. Get the fuck away from me!” The mobility frame itself was half human size and zipped around on a single wheel, held upright with a combination of gyros and lifters.

It was also very cute, John Murland reflected. The frame had been based off of an ancient movie character Bernie had dug up by the name of “Burn-E”. On Earth it had been no problem—few recognized it outright, even with mesh-connected implants. But on Zharus everybody seemed to know who and what the frame referred to. It was very frustrating for him. Earther cyborgs like Bernie were a virtual unknown on Zharus, and he got stares wherever John and the third member of their group went.

John, Bernie, and Ibrim were all of two days off the spaceliner Spruce Goose, which had celebrated its tenth Earth-Zharus voyage during the six-month trip. Today was the culmination of years of planning, a number of unhealthy (by Earth standards) fantasies, and being “recolonized” from the planet as undesirables.

“Hey, John,” Ibrim said, tugging on the other Earther’s sleeve. Ibrim was much less of a cyborg than Bernie, but much more of one compared to John. His arms, legs, and half his face were prostheses due to war wounds. “I think I found one you’ll like. Come on.”

The “mech markets” as they were sometimes called on the local mesh made John very uneasy. He was unprepared for just how conversational the Reticulated Intelligences actually were, even after some long conversations with native Zharusians aboard the ship. He felt like he was strolling around one of the slave markets that had popped up during the Dark Age almost four centuries ago, when human muscle power briefly became cheaper than oil-powered machinery. RIDEs were no less a person than Bernie was. Yet here I am, partaking in this, he thought guiltily.

Ibrim led him to a lot where a large she-coyote sat on her haunches. Unlike the majority of the others she was in good shape, with a full anatomically correct hardlight suite. “141 AL Coyote. Well cared-for,” the sign said. “All maintenance done by the local Freerider Garage, fully certified rebuild. A steal at 2,000 mu.

“Two thousand?” John said. Why’s the money named something so damned literal? “That’s just about every monetary unit I have.”

“I know, and I can foot you a loan for a little while until you get back on your feet. But trust me. Sit and talk to her. She’s crossridden two others in her time, so she’s got experience. Say hello to Zoey the coyote.”

“Pleased ta meet ya, John,” the coyote mech said, nosing her potential partner’s hand with an amazingly realistic cold, wet nose. “So, ya want to be a woman, eh? I can oblige.”

“It’s kind of an obsession of mine,” he replied shyly. “My friends and I heard Zharus is rather libertine about this sort of thing RL. You can’t get this kind of thing done on Earth on unless you’ve got GID.” And I had enough scrutiny on me already that doing it under the table would’ve been downright suicidal. “I don’t have Gender Identity Disorder. I’m just curious as all get out.”

“The minimum safe time to cross back is three years, just so’s you know what you’re getting into,” Zoey continued.

“It’ll be an adventure,” John said. “I’m not doing this on accident.”

“See, Zoey? I told you,” Ibrim said. “And she’s a third the cost of a male ‘yote in comparable condition. Sure, there’s a lot cheaper femmes here, but she’s the one for you.”

“Just like the paper claimed,” John agreed. “Just one thing I need to ask. How do you feel being bought and sold like this? It makes me feel dirty even contemplating it.”

Zoey raised her ears. “Well, that’s not what I expected to hear from an Earther. I regard it as a necessary evil—I don’t like it, but here I am in front of you. After you buy me, if you feel a need there are ways to emancipate me. That make you feel better, John?”

He used his brain implant and placed a bid. “Yes, yes it does. Well, here goes.”

“What do you mean you can’t put my brain in one of those awesome stag Drive Extender shells?” Bernie said, talking to someone he’d just met.

The man, apparently a RIDE mechanic, was rather short and had the ears and bobtail of a lynx. “They just don’t work that way. They need an RI core to run everything else. You can’t just plop your brain into the chest cavity and run about on all fours.”

“Well, that sucks rocks!” Bernie said, throwing his arms outwards in frustration. “I want to get out of this brainbox I’m living in and into something with some style.”

“Well, there’s a market for a brainbox like that,” the mechanic continued. “This planet’s all Earth twencen crazy. Folks’ll want to buy that frame of yours—they’ll pay top mu for it. You could at least get a custom EIDE frame like they’ve got in Laurasia. Or you could put a down payment on getting a new body printed for you. They can do that here.”

“Screw that! Being a plain old human male’s no fun—no offense, Ryan,” Bernie said. He noticed Ibrim and John. “Oh, hey guys. This is Ryan Stonegate. He’s from New Boston originally. He even came over on the Goose.”

“My brother has a frame like Bernie’s,” Ryan said, lynx ears twitching. “I had to say hello, at least. I’ve been here since about 149 AL, local.”

“Nice to meet you, Ryan,” Ibrim said, shaking his hand. “Nice town. The three of us met in Nuevo Los Angeles in Aztlan. That city could use some hardlight domes like these. Amazing!”

Ryan grimaced. “Sorry to hear that. I spent a few months there, recycling quake damage about ten years ago.” The four of them shared that grimace. The quake had been bad, but had done a lot of demolition of long-empty suburbs the city had been unwilling to do. “So…”

“John Murland,” he said. John decided to test the waters a little. “Soon to be Aleka Petrovna.”

The lynx-eared man smirked, but gave no indication he knew the name. “You remind me of a friend of mine. Here’s her comm address. She’s as enthusiastic about crossriding as you are and she’ll be glad to show you the ropes.”

John received the information via implant, among other suggestions. There was a local bar—Cheers—for crossriders. It was a common enough thing that there were traditions surrounding the event. By the looks on their faces, Ibrim and Bernie now knew what they were.

“So, you’re picking up Zoey?” Stonegate asked.

“Yep!” John said, three electronic bids later the RIDE was up to 2,300 mu. A shade overbudget, but Ibrim assured him it wasn’t a problem.

“She’s a good one. But when you Fuse, you’ll find out for yourself. Her previous owner was a regular at the Garage. Also a crossrider like yourself, but she decided to cross back again a few months ago.” Ryan shrugged. “Good luck, eh? I have some parts I need to pick up.”

“I’ll keep her serviced at your Garage, Ryan,” John said cheerfully.

“I’d like that a lot,” Zoey herself said.

“Happy to keep her in the family. Good luck, new Zharusians!” Ryan waved and melted back into the crowd.

There were no additional bids on Zoey. Within three minutes of Ryan leaving Zoey’s sale was confirmed and her title transferred to one Aleka Petrovna—an identity John had prepared in advance, ready to trigger the moment he “crossed over” as they said on Zharus. In Old Russian patronymics, -vich meant “son of” and -ovna meant “daughter of”. He had already been Aleka for almost two decades on Earth’s Virtual Life mesh, and that had been quite enough. Then he’d learned about Zharus and its crossriders, and his obsession took on a whole new flavor.

John kneeled down and hugged his new friend. “Okay. I’m tired of waiting. Girl me!”

The coyote mech tilted her head. “What? Now?”

“Yes, now. I’ve been a man for almost forty years with nothing to show for it anymore but a bit of a paunch. My own planet rejected me. I’m ready to start anew. After coming twenty light years for this, why wait any longer?” John was almost vibrating with anticipation.

“Well, they’re your ovaries. Or soon will be,” Zoey said, tongue lolling. “Ready?”

John let her go, then stood with his back to her, arms held level. “Do it.”

Warmth engulfed him.

:I’m going to make this the best you’ve ever had,: came a new voice in John’s mind, feeling much closer than just a cyberbrain “telepathic” link. :I’ll make the crossing as transcendent as I’m able. Your body is mine…to reshape…to play with…to make you the woman you desire to be. To make you feel renewed.:

:Renew me. Transcend me!: John replied. He felt a tickling sensation inside his head.

:I…am detecting an unhealthy amount of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder here,: the she-coyote said, taken aback slightly from her mysticism. :You want me to…fix that a little? Take the edge off?:

:Uh…if you think it’ll help,: John thought, confused. There was a growing warmth on his chest, his hips, his groin. Before long he was John no more. :Do your magic. I want a girly brain, too. I want to think like a natural woman as well as look like one.:

More hesitation from her new RIDE. :There’s transcendence, and there’s brainwashing. I’m not going to impose personality changes like that,: she said firmly. :Just…ick! That’d be like messing around in my personality core.:

:Okay,: Aleka thought, feeling a little more disappointed. :What about other things? I don’t know if I want to hit the ground running or learn the ropes day-to-day. Can you…:

:Er…no. You’ll have to learn those the hard way. I’m not a living skill chip. That’s a specialized neuro-nanite thing, and I don’t have those anymore. I’m disappointing you, aren’t I? I am.: Zoey sighed mentally. The changes flowed over her rider’s form, bending, shaping her body image. :I’m not capable of doing all the things you think I can. You’ll be a complete woman inside and out—including having a technically female brain—but that’s it. You won’t be Marilyn Monroe or Kate Winslet when we de-Fuse, but you won’t be Tootsie either. You’ll be you. Girl-you, but you.:

This already wasn’t going as Aleka had hoped.

Separator k.png

Milkbottle Creamery, Bifrost Park, Uplift

“I’m glad one of us got what she wanted today,” Bernie said, putting as much emphasis on the pronoun as possible. He licked his soft serve ice cream with a plastic tongue. While the full-replacement cyborg didn’t eat like a human, he did need to eat. A good portion of his oversized head was a nutrient digestion unit combined with some genuine tastebuds. “Dear Lord you’re hot, Aleka. I feel a stirring in my loins looking at you—and I haven’t had loins in ten years.”

:I modeled you on Yoko Littner,: Zoey said, showing her a picture of the ancient anime character. She was trying to sound happy, but there was little life in her voice. :But I used the same voice you had in VL. You share taste in clothing. I’m glad you like it.:

:Absolutely love being her,: Aleka assured her, though there was a trace of disappointment in her voice. She blushed over her milkshake. The trio were visiting the spectacular Bifrost Park, with its rainbow hardlight fountain, and an ice cream place that had come highly recommended in the local yelp mesh. If her mind wasn’t what Aleka had hoped, Zoey had outdone herself on her new body. She had ripe, lovely curves and luscious breasts that would occupy her and Ibrim for many hours once they got some time to themselves. Before visiting the park had been a short shopping trip. Aleka wore a black-with-red-flames bikini top and minishorts, mimicking the outfit Yoko herself wore. She enjoyed the feeling of the cool breeze against her skin.

The coyote ears and tail added a certain extra spice to the experience. Her long hair flowed over her shoulders in a ponytail, starting golden brown atop her head while the last third of their length were more reddish, with white tips, the tri-pattern reflecting Zoey’s fur from her back to her belly. She wagged her tail. “Still, I only got about eighty percent of what I wanted,” she said, loving the sound of her own voice. Zoey audibly sighed, Aleka ignored it. “What about you, Bernie? You putting that frame up for sale after all?”

“Once I have a custom replacement lined up, yes,” the full cyborg said. “I’m still looking for someone who can customize one of those deer Drive Extender things for me. Ryan sounded like he knew what he was talking about, so I’m trying to be open-minded about alternatives. Those Laurasian EIDEs look interesting enough. Maybe I need to think this through better and read about some of the tech here. They’re a lot more advanced we thought.”

“I don’t think there’s another brainbox on this entire planet right now other than you, Bernie,” Ibrim said.

“Actually, there’s a few hundred. Some crap even their nanotech meds can’t fix. They’re just not like what I’m wearing now—they’re basically full-body replacement human prosthetics. Like the really expensive ones on Earth, but they’re much cheaper for the same quality here. I know. I’ve checked,” Bernie said, slurping up more ice cream and half the cone. “Frankly…after what I’ve read, I want a femme one if I can’t get an animal DE. They do amazing things with hardlight around here, so I can probably look a little bit beastly if I want to—like you do right now, Allie. Look at Zoey.” He nodded at the coyote.

“It sure does help staying comfortable,” Zoey said, shaking herself realistically. “Feels like real fur and skin to me. And tastebuds.” She looked wistfully at the milkshake. “Can we Fuse up again, Aleka? Just a little taste…”

“That’s kind of strange, isn’t it? You can’t taste anything on that tongue?” Aleka said. She felt an odd combination of disappointment and guilt. How could she be sure the coyote didn’t want to Fuse because she felt she had to to fulfill some kind of programmed master-slave obligation? Did she really have that much free will? Aleka felt uncomfortable just speaking with her. The guilt was just too intense.

“It’s a design flaw…or at least I like to think so. I can taste but there’s nowhere for the food to go. Makes a real mess,” Zoey explained.

“I’m…not in the mood right now, Zoey,” Aleka said. While she chatted with her friends in RL, her virtual assistant was busy looking for work and having a half dozen interviews at the same time. There were a number of immigrant and crossrider-friendly businesses in Uplift hiring, but finding a combination of the two was proving difficult. “Maybe when we have dinner.”

“Oh, okay,” Zoey said. “I’m going to flop down in the shade. Call me when you want me.” The disheartened RIDE walked off and rested under a bush.

“You know, it’s not her fault she won’t mess with your brain,” Ibrim said, metal arm gently around her waist. “But your body is wonderful. I can’t wait to help you test out the new digs.”

“Now don’t you start!” Aleka fumed. Her relationship with the half-cyborg was a strange one by Earth standards. Real Life, they’d been friends for almost twenty years. Virtually they’d frequently been husband and wife, one of the many ‘alternative lifestyles’ that had popped up in VL. For years they had kept their Real and Virtual Lives strictly separate. Now those walls were breaking down swiftly. She couldn’t stay angry with him, and kissed him on the fleshy cheek. “You’ll have to give me a little time, sweetheart. This isn’t really what I expected. These aren’t simulated hormones anymore, you know. I feel a little funny in the head, in a good way. I’m submerged in real estrogen.”

“Your libido will normalize in a few days,” Zoey said from the shade. “I’ve done this twice before.”

“Is that a dinosaur RIDE?” Bernie said, mouth dropping open. Melted chocolate ice cream dribbled out. “Looks like a generic dromaeosaurid—look at those claws. A frigging dinosaur! I didn’t know they had those here!”

“Dinosaurs, dragons, pegasi, griffins,” Zoey said from her shady spot. “Still want to be a stag, do you?”

“I suppose deer’s kind of a ground state for me, but I can’t decide,” Bernie muttered. “Never could decide. I had like fifty different VL avatars. Regular women, deer-people, werewolves, weretigers, weredolphins, dragons, lizards, birds, horses…had a whole stable of PonyTales personas, Transformers…usually played the femme fatale when I could in noir games, too. If the game didn’t give me a nonhuman option, I’d go femme. I want to experience everything.”

“So, you’re an altiholic in VR?” Zoey asked, warming to him.

“VL. Virtual Life. An altiholic’s altiholic.” The cyborg fidgeted, swallowing his remaining ice cream. This wasn’t something he normally discussed with anyone, even close friends. “There is no ‘me’, you see. I don’t really know who that is. There used to be a me, but I had it surgically removed.”

“A regular Peter Sellers or Heath Ledger,” Zoey said. “I don’t think I’ve ever met a human who decided to go ‘borg by choice.”

Bernie’s eyepatches blinked, then he shrugged. “With what I’ve been reading about the tech on this planet, I think I can actually bring some VL into RL. The brainboxes you’ve got here for folks like me are a damn sight better than anything on Earth—mutable hardlight skins, and these sarium batteries means they run for weeks. I can finally bring ‘Brooke’ out of VL and Allie and I can be girls together. Teegee more fun with a friend.” He looked up at the necking couple. “Get a room, you two! A real one!”

“He’s right, Ibby, we can play later,” Aleka said, trying not to giggle at Ibrim’s light touch on her breasts. “This isn’t VL, no privacy curtain. But I do want to ask, Ibby. Now that I’ve gotten what I want—more or less—and Bernie’s on the way to getting what he wants, what do you want?”

Ibrim looked taken aback. He wasn’t used to being asked that question. He got his kicks helping others get what they want and living vicariously through that. It took about ten seconds before he answered. “I can get replacement limbs. Be fully flesh-and-blood again. I’ll probably keep my face the way it is, though. It’s pretty badass.” His solid-glowing cybereye flickered between various colors.

“What about a RIDE?” Bernie asked. “You should get one so you can keep up with your ‘wife’ there.”

The other cyborg nodded. “Yes, I have thought about that. But…I dunno. It isn’t really me. A skimmer should do me just fine. One of those transformable jobbies that can change into powered armor I read about. What did they call them? Ah! AIDEs. I’m sure there’s some old military surplus units knocking around somewhere on the cheap.”

“What, like that ancient disease?” Aleka said, finishing her shake. She folded her arms beneath her breasts and hugged them. She felt the need to say something to Zoey. :Thanks, Zoey. They’re perfect.:

:You’ve said that to me five times already, girly. Still, I’m glad I did something right,: the coyote said crisply. :You spent how many years as a virtual woman and you didn’t learn any of this stuff? Do you even know how to pee sitting down?:

Only the most devoted crossplayers insisted on full realism—eating, eliminating waste, menstruation, even pregnancy. Aleka had seldom been interested in that level of nuts-and-bolts except as a temporary change of pace. Virtual Life was supposed to be an escape from reality, after all. The social dimension was also a little like a tidepool. She had spent years with a small circle of similarly-minded friends in the genderplay areas of VL. You could be anything you want in VL and with modern cortical implants one’s bodysense could be altered to fit. By and large she already knew what it felt like in broad strokes.

So far, having it in Real Life was almost everything she hoped for. In Virtual Life you always knew at some level that it just wasn’t real. By law there had to be a “leash” back to Real Life so people didn’t submerge themselves completely in VL. There were no leashes here. Real breasts, real ovaries, real womb, real labia, real everything.

Bernie had rarely spent time out of VL. He had lived, worked, and played there. Over the years of friendship with Aleka and Ibrim he’d played many roles from the fantastic to the mundane. From various family pets—wild animals, farm animals, dogs, cats, birds, dinosaurs, fantasy creatures—to their college-aged daughter Brooke. The difference between the Virtual and the Real had brought him to Zharus with the “married” couple so they could live out that fantasy. For years he’d dreamed of putting his brain in a Drive Extender shell (”one of those animal robot bodies” he’d said back then), only now he had a change of plans. “I can be Brooke while they figure out how to make an animal shell I like, right?” he asked.

“Of course, Bernie,” Ibrim said. “As long as you want to be her, you’re welcome to play.”

“This bod is soooo perfect,” Aleka said dreamily. “Makes the whole experience worth it. Thanks again, Zoey.”

:Stop thanking me. You may think you know about being a woman, but you don’t,: Zoey said tartly. :Welcome to Real Life, sister. Take a seat. It’s gonna be bumpy.:

:Hey, nothing worth doing is easy.: Aleka replied.

:I’m sure you’ll still love it.: Zoey sighed. :How about going to Cheers to meet Rufia and Yvonne? If there’s anyone who knows how to enjoy crossing over it’s them.:

Separator k.png

Cheers, Uplift, East Dome

A place where “everybody knows your name.” It was creepy the way the doe Fuser barkeep waved at them as they came inside the Cheers bar. “Aleka! Bernie! Ibrim! Welcome to Zharus! I’m Diane Faline and this is my bar. Great seeing you again, Zoey.”

“Nice to be back, Di,” the coyote said, padding behind her new rider.

Aleka took some time to look around. It was a very old-fashioned sort of place, to the point where they had actual glass bottles full of liquor over the centrally-located bar. It looked like it was actual wood, for that matter. Earth was a planet of synthetics, the natural materials restricted to restoring the natural balance as the human population plummeted due to emigration and the two-children-per-family rule still in effect after three centuries.

“I’m starting to like this planet!” Ibrim said. “Real homey. Thanks for the welcome, Diane. Are those real glass bottles?”

“Hey, if it’s one thing we’ve got on Zharus, it’s sand,” the doe said good-naturedly. She gestured at a very female elk sitting on the other side of the bar. “That’s Rufia and Yvonne. Hey, Rufi! They’re here.”

Rufia blinked, apparently dozing on the barstool. “Huh? Oh. Sorry, Diane. I’ve been running hard lately. I’m a little tuckered out.”

“Then let me take care of it,” came another voice out of her cervine lips. The tone and inflection differed from the first speaker—a little heavier on the sarcasm. “I’m Yvonne. My sleepyhead partner’s a little overworked,” she said.

“And underpaid,” the first voice intoned.

“So, let me get this straight,” Yvonne said, looking at Aleka. “You’re practically off the ship from Earth and the first thing you do is turn crossrider? Daaaaymn! Even Rufia waited a couple years before she tucked in the family jewels!”

Aleka shrugged, smiling impishly, walking around the bar to meet them face to face. Since the Fused duo were very tall, it was more face-to-breasts. Large, furry, voluptuous breasts covered with a hardlight camisole top and exposing lots of cleavage. Bernie was openly staring at her. If he was still all human he’d probably have a nosebleed.

You’d never see this on Earth RL, Aleka thought. After five hundred years furry-play was still considered more deviant than genderplay. But it was a popular, vigorous VL subculture all the same. Aleka did have a furry form she used in VL when the mood struck her, but hadn’t used it since just before her femme Virtual Life had been exposed.

:I can do that,: Zoey said, obviously wanting to Fuse again.

:Uh…I dunno, Zoey. I just…: Even surrounded by openly furry people, old demons haunted Aleka. The RIDE’s eagerness bothered her. :I have my womanhood, and thank you for that. But…:

:But that’s all you wanted from me?: Zoey said hotly. :Look, I know I disappointed you, but if you think you can discard me just like this…Shit, I thought you were an enlightened Earther! I thought you knew I was a person! All you wanted from me were a pair of tits!: The coyote mech’s ears drooped. She slunk away with her tail between her legs.

When Aleka tried to send to her again, all she got was a busy signal. Ibrim and Bernie stared at her as if she’d just grown a second head. She folded her arms over her breasts. “What? She wanted to Fuse, I said no,” she said, sounding far more haughty than intended. Her pride wouldn’t allow her to admit she’d made a mistake just yet.

Yvonne’s previously friendly expression turned sour. “Whyfor you do that to kind Zoeyote?”

“I’m just not…not ready to Fuse again,” Aleka repeated timidly under her flat-eared glare. “I admit it. There’s this whole furry thing that I just wasn’t into. And…I feel bad about buying her like she was a new gadget. How can I ask her to do anything?”

“I thought it might be something like that,” the elk said, still unhappy. “Look, if all you wanted to be was a woman, you could’ve just rented a femme RIDE for twenty mu. But you just bought a person, see. You entered into a long-term relationship. If you can’t treat her right then sell her to someone who will, hear me?”

“But…I felt dirty buying her like that. I don’t think I could sell her,” Aleka stammered. “What am I supposed to do?”

“If you don’t want to dirty your precious girly hands, you prick, then give her to someone in this bar and they’ll find someone right,” Yvonne said.

“Whoa!” came Rufia’s voice. “Wait, Vonnie. Hold on. She’s just off the boat from Earth. She just doesn’t get us yet. Ease up. She prob’ly feels like she bought a slave, right?”

“That’s exactly it!” Aleka almost shouted. “I feel awful! I’m not going to ask her to do anything for me. I don’t know what to say when she offers to do something like Fuse. It’s…not really about being furry, I suppose. It’s that—I don’t want a slave, I want a friend.”

“And you’ll have a friend if you’ll let her be one, you silly girl!” The elk sighed. “I just don’t have a lot of tolerance for ignorance, even from folks just off the boat. How much do you know about RIDEs, anyway? What do you hear about us on Earth?”

“Well, here,” Aleka said, transmitting all the materials she’d downloaded before boarding the Spruce Goose.

It took a very short time for the RIDE to look it over. The elk burst out laughing. Then she apparently gave it to the rest of the bar patrons, and the entire room soon joined her. Three uncomfortable Earthers stood in the middle of all that. “Are we really that funny?” Bernie asked.

“’Fraid so,” Rufia said, smiling at Bernie. “Hey, I haven’t seen a frame like that for years. Pretty sweet.”

“Hey, thanks. I’ve spent far too much time in VL, though. I want something real. I’m looking to get rid of it for something better,” Bernie said. “A femme elk like yours…”

“No can do,” Yvonne said. “I couldn’t Fuse with you. Our Fuser nannies can’t reshape that kind of metal. Now, you could always get a new human body cloned and then get a RIDE.”

“Still not what I want, sorry,” Bernie said, frustrated. “I want four legs. I want hooves, or…or paws, or wings. In real life, not virtual. Can I get my brain uploaded into one of those RI cores, maybe?”

“Nope, or you’d have RIDEs downloading into organic brains, too,” Yvonne said. “Only happens in penny-awful scifi. I have no idea why you’d want something like that to begin with.”

Bernie drooped like a child who’d just been told that not only he couldn’t have a cookie, there weren’t even any cookies possible. “Well, crap on a crutch.”

“How about an EIDE chassis?” a new voice suggested. Ryan Stonegate himself, followed by a large lynx, entered the bar. “You got me thinking about this, Bernie. I’m glad I found you here. Whenever the word ‘impossible’ comes up I just can’t help gnawing on it.”

“You’re losing me, here,” Bernie said. “What’s an EIDE anyway?”

Enhanced Intelligence Drive Extender. Different tech than the Reticulated Intelligences like Kaylee or Zoey, an offshoot of the Advanced Intelligence that was such a fuckup.” Ryan petted his RIDE on her cheek ruffs. “Developed in Laurasia about…ten years ago, maybe? The EI itself isn’t really the important part, though. The DE-frames tend to be more like a normal animal in size. They generally can’t Fuse like our RIDEs can because they’re mostly not big enough and Laurasians think it’s a little tacky. Ris and Eis are more, personal assistants, maybe.” He shrugged. “Anyway, the frames are more flexible in what inputs they receive, I think I can kludge something for your brainbox I/O protocols. Gonna take some work, but if you’re paying, I’m your guy.”

“Oh, hey. I can pay alright!” Bernie said.

“Hey Ryan,” Rufia said neutrally. “Hey, Kaylee.”

“Hey there, Rufia,” the lynx said in a surprisingly female voice. “Long time, no hunt, Vonnie.”

“Long time, no kick, Kaylee,” the elk said, smirking.

“Bernie, let’s talk,” the short man continued, going back outside.

“’Scuse me, Aleka, Ibrim,” Bernie said. His eyes were animated on a screen on his head. They turned into happy upturned half-circles, manga-style.

“Okay, point being,” Rufia continued. “I know you feel dirty for buying her. We all know how that feels. We’re not exactly hot on the buying and selling ourselves, but it’s the world we live in. But she is your partner. Your friend, who gave you that totally hot bod you’ve got now.”

“Aleka, darling, I talked to her for about half an hour,” Ibrim said. “You haven’t said more than a few dozen words to her. She’ll be as much your partner as I am. I’m grateful to her that she made you the woman you’ve dreamed yourself to be. Please, I don’t mind furry. I played furry in VL for years too, you know.”

“Unless you go apologize I won’t lift a finger for you,” Rufia said. “Stop being such a prick.”

“Um…I’m a woman. I can’t be a prick,” Aleka said defensively.

“This is Zharus,” Rufia said, slamming her Fused fist on the bar hard enough to shake the glasses. “Women can be pricks and men can be bitches. Now, either apologize to Zoey or leave without her.”

“I’ll repay you the amount you bought her for,” Yvonne said. “If you decide to stay a prick, that is.”

Aleka grimaced as the things her friends were saying finally hit home. They were right—as far as Zoey was concerned, Aleka had just used her and thrown her away. She had meant well…but hadn’t considered the consequences of her actions. Stupid, stupid, stupid. This wasn’t the first time in her life she’d needed to be grabbed by the (figurative) balls before she realized what an idiot she’d been. It felt like a lump in her belly—or a knee to the groin. She turned beet red, then pale. “Uh…thanks for the kick in the nuts, everyone. Pardon me. I need to apologize to my new friend.”

“You can have a drink on the house if you come back Fused,” Diane said. “Otherwise, don’t come back.”

She found Zoey in the Ladies Room, plugged into a charging port. She was belly-down on the ground, forepaws covering her muzzle, crying.

“Zoey? I’m sorry,” Aleka said. “You’ve done so much for me. I just…I’m not on firm ground here. I’ve never met anyone like you before. It wasn’t my intent to just use you like I did. I just…I don’t know where our relationship stands. I was a prick.”

“Yes, you were,” she said, glaring at her rider with light gold eyes. “I’m still sorry I wasn’t able to give you everything you want, you know. But…I’m not capable of half the things in those Earther rumor boards.”

“You probably heard the bar laughing over those,” Aleka admitted.

“Is that what that was?” Zoey said dryly.

“I’m sorry. I’m a prick and a bitch,” Aleka repeated.

“Technically I’m the bitch. Which makes you one too, with my tail and ears,” Zoey said more lightheartedly. She unplugged and stood up again. “You know, I did a really good job on your figure and voice. I’m honestly proud of my work.”

“You have the right to be. You said you ‘crossed’ two of your previous riders?” Aleka asked, sitting down on the cold tile floor next to the huge coyote. “What was it like the first time?”

“It’s an art,” Zoey said. “More an art than a science. She was my first rider, actually. You remind me of her—curious as all get out. I was built for the Marshals, you see. Tin Stars—cadets—for that service are given RIDEs if they don’t have their own. It’s just a necessity for the job. Newbs get four to choose from: Bay, palomino, chestnut, or coyote.”

Aleka puzzled over that, querying the mesh for definitions, putting her arm around Zoey’s shoulders. “Oh…I get it. It’s either horse or coyote.”

“You’re a sharp one,” Zoey said with only a trace of sarcasm. “She was a lot like you. Wanted to try the femside because she was curious, so she asked for a female RIDE during induction.”

“Zoey, I’m just…I feel bad about asking you to do anything for me. I feel bad when you offer to do anything for me, like Fuse.”

“Is it because you don’t want me to feel obligated to you, or the other way around?” the she-coyote said, ears flat. “Look at your reasons very closely, my girl. You bought me fair and square. I’m a RIDE. We’re programmed to Fuse with our riders or we feel awfully hollow inside—no pun intended. It’s part of who and what we are.” She nosed Aleka’s bare midriff. “Just like that new womb is part of what you are now. You want to have babies—we want to ‘have’ you. Get what I’m saying here?”

Aleka considered this for some time. “I think so. It’s…instinct?”

“Exactly. If it makes you feel any better you can use this neat new program I found on the Net that’ll release all my fetters,” Zoey said. “It’s made by one of Ryan’s associates.”

“Well, you have my permission to download and install it. If you think I’m treating you badly, though, whap me upside the head with your tail,” Aleka said, wagging hers.

“Oh, I will. Believe me, I will.” Zoey lolled her tongue. “And it’s done! I’m free! Apology accepted.”

“Come on. Fuse with me,” Aleka said, standing up.

“Thank you!” Zoey said, doing just that. :We didn’t really get to know one another before, Allie. Can I call you Allie?:

:That’s fine.: Aleka thought.

:Well, Allie-girl, let me show you something that wasn’t in any of your web rumors about us. Let me show you what it’s like to be me.: Zoey opened herself up.

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It was 141 AL, and her name was Irene Elwood. Nobody knew whether that was her original surname or a moniker she’d adopted to go with her new gender, but either way her look was right out of the twencen nostalgia that was just beginning to take Gondwana by storm. It was at blatant odds with the Old West motif the Marshals largely adopted, but ironically that just made it fit their style even better.

She wore a dark suit made of a nano-motile fabric (it repelled almost any foreign substance and even mended itself after taking damage), replica Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses, and a dark fedora. She was “Goodnight” Irene, the Blues Sister. And Zoey fell under her spell from the moment they met.

For five years in the Marshals they made the lives of outlaws and fugitives a living hell and looked outrageously stylish while doing it. The duo spent years building their reputation, often working by themselves in the field, defending miners from claim jumpers, dealing out the rough justice that was often necessary in the anarchic Dry Ocean.

“You were in law enforcement,” Aleka said, feeling a little awkward. She and Zoey sat in a virtual space that felt rather different compared to VL on Earth—a classic Bijou-style movie theater, with plush seats and velvet curtains. Here the coyote took an anthropomorphic form, seated next to Aleka with a bucket of popcorn between them.

“I was built for it,” Zoey said, picking up a handful of popcorn. “After five years, though, Irene had had her fill. The Marshals have no problem with letting their partners go at the end of their tour—that’s five years after enlistment, minimum—and I was delighted to be out. We traded our badges for a microphone—Irene and I ran a little blues club down in Nuevo San after that.”

“Sounds like the Marshals treat you like people,” Aleka said.

“About as close as you can on this planet,” Zoey agreed. She started looking at Aleka’s surface thoughts, then looked a little ill. “Oh Lord, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize…”

“Law means something a little different on Earth. The last three years I haven’t been allowed to be me,” Aleka said darkly. “But that’s neither here nor there. I have you to thank.”

“I started feeling drowned in those thank-yous, but now I know why,” Zoey said. “Both of my previous riders crossed-over—that is, changed genders—by choice. The culture here has had to adjust just how easy that change is now. But you couldn’t..? They wouldn’t let you?”

“They threw me off the planet, that’s what. This is the only planet in Earth-space where you can get changed into a woman on accident. I know,” Aleka said, giggling. “You really enjoyed your time in the Marshals, didn’t you?”

“Like I said, I’m built for it. It’s part of my core programming. I was pretty damned good, too. Both of us were, Irene and I. She graduated to Copper—that’s a rookie—only a couple weeks after entering field training. We were veteran Silver Stars by the time we mustered out. Not everyone gets that far, that fast.” The image on the movie screen changed, flickering—the image of a house fire appeared just before Zoey banished it. Tears rolled down her face. “There were some…consequences, though. Goodnight, Irene.”

Aleka tossed the virtual popcorn bucket away and reached across to hug the anthro coyote. “I’m sorry, Zoey. You don’t have to go into any more detail.”

A reel-change dot appeared on the screen, and the image changed to Zoey’s next partner, Youngmi Olsen—a blonde, somewhat effeminate boy with slight epicanthic folds. Contrary to Irene’s need for adventure—the gender change had been a big aspect—Olsen was driven by pragmatism to crossride. As close to magical as Zharusian nanotechnology was, not every medical condition was easily treatable. Olsen had been born with Klinefelter’s Syndrome, a condition in which he had an extra X chromosome. As a teenager, he had been physically weaker and less coordinated than other boys his age, picked last at sports, and generally made fun of.

The most commonly prescribed treatment for this syndrome was a complete nanotech body rebuild, replacing every cell in his body with a properly XY version. However, the condition was so rare that the treatment was still expensive and rather prolonged, so Youngmi had been on the ropes until he noticed a recent medical journal article on his condition.

Researchers at a Laurasian university had determined that, since it didn’t need to preserve any of the original chromosomes at all, the gender-change process employed by Gondwanan RIDEs could change XXY to XX as easily as it could change XY to XX. This meant that Youngmi could bypass costly surgery simply by picking up a cheap RIDE and spending a few years female.

Zoey and Youngmi got along fairly well, though they weren’t as well-matched as she’d been with Irene. There wasn’t any of the personality clash that turned some pairings into living hells, but no real attachment, either. They’d been friends, but never really good friends. Still, “a few years” turned into almost nine as Youngmi first decided to add a few more sigmas to the chances of successful reversion, then simply got into the habit of being female.

But at last Youngmi got curious enough about what it would be like having the male body she should have been born with that friendship wasn’t enough to keep her and Zoey together. There was a male Great Dane RIDE she had her eye on, and to get it she needed some fast cash.

Aleka blinked. “So she just…sold you? That’s kind of cold.”

“To be honest, it was a shock to me, too,” Zoey admitted. The projector flickered off. “So, how does this compare to Virtual Life?”

The new woman folded her arms. “It feels different. I can’t put my finger on it. I wonder if I can…” she shut her eyes and concentrated, then was a body-double of Zoey’s anthro coyote.

“Oh, we’re twins now. How droll,” Zoey said dryly.

“I don’t often go furry-girl like this, but hey,” Aleka said, stroking her forearms, staring down her narrow muzzle. “You’re cute. We’re cute. I can’t believe I didn’t want to do this before.”

Zoey lolled her tongue and put her handpaw on Aleka’s shoulder. “How about we get out of this VR space and you be ‘me’ in Real Life?”

“That’s what I’m here for,” Aleka said. “Virtual’s not enough.”

The two she-coyotes faded out, back into the real world, the movie theater dissolving behind them.

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December 30, 155 AL: Uplift suburbs.

Outside the Domes it was the dead of winter—only hitting 20 degrees celsius in the daytime, but dropping fully 50 degrees overnight. Inside the South Dome the quiet street where Ibrim, Aleka, and Bernie lived it was a chilly two degrees, as low as the city’s climate system would allow. It was the last day of the year, and the first day of Winter.

“It’s here!” Bernie cheered, leaving wheel marks on the house’s carpet. He waved his arms back and forth excitedly. “It’s here, it’s here!”

What’s here?” Ibrim said, coming in from the garage. His flesh-and-blood arms and legs were still somewhat pink from the nano-regeneration, having just come home from the hospital yesterday. He was covered in grease and grime from the VM-1 Chinook and the spare parts that took up all the garage space. The old AIDE was more often in pieces than acting as Ibrim’s personal transport. “Come on, Bernie, spill it.”

“You heard the delivery skimmer, Ibby,” the cyborg said. “You know what it is. I’ve been in this tin can for too damned long. They don’t even have decent VL on this planet.”

Aleka smiled, looking up from her newspaper. She pushed off some irritating popup ads and set it down on the table. As usual, she was Fused with Zoey, lounging on the couch after a long day’s work at the bar—with another five hour half-shift ahead on this busy New Year’s Eve. Unfortunately she desperately needed the overtime. Her husband’s new limbs didn’t come cheap and the Polis-funded healthcare system wouldn’t cover “inferior” replacements when he’d had four “enhanced” limbs to begin with. “Can you install your brainbox in it yourself? Or do you need help?”

“I’ve got all the self-installation gear in my bedroom, Allie. Just give me about an hour before the reveal, okay?” the cyborg said, wringing his metal hands. “You didn’t wait for your ovaries when you got Zoey, so why should I? I want to meet the New Year in a new bod.”

“Found a buyer for that ‘tin can’ yet, Bernie?” Zoey asked.

“Yep! Just been waiting for this custom jobbie to arrive,” Bernie said. “Excuse me while I go put my face on.”

Ibrim cleaned the grease off his body then sat down on the couch next to his wife. They had been married the day after Aleka crossed over, finally bringing VL and RL into alignment. She was a little larger than him when Fused, so he snuggled up with her, nestling in her cleavage. Zoey enjoyed a good cuddle, too, though she politely allowed the couple their privacy.

He smelled so good after working hard like that. There were times when Zoey’s nose came in handy. She could almost taste her husband’s masculine pheromones in his sweat, and in fact sometimes licked it right off of him, setting the man off into rather endearingly feminine giggling. She quickly discovered he was especially susceptible to this on his new limbs. Ibrim was still tittering when an indignant female voice neither had heard in almost ten years made itself heard.

“Well, so much for my big entrance!” Brooke Thompson fumed, hand on her hip. Bernie’s female alter-ego had always had the same name, but a multitude of looks. The young woman standing before them looked as real as Zoey’s pelt did—her white rabbit ears and tail were unsurprising in and of themselves, considering the brainbox’s wearer. Brooke had the Playboy Bunny figure and black leotard to go along with it. “Should I come in again? You two are always necking! Get a room!”

“This is our house, Brooke,” Ibrim said. He looked her over. “So, what are you this time? Quirky neighbor? Quirky roommate? Quirky college-age daughter?”

“None of those things,” Brooke said, shrugging. Her skin and breasts moved quite naturally with the motion, and she was clearly being sensual about it. “At this point being in Real Life and having a ‘normal’ body like this is fresh and new. I’m going to take this opportunity to rediscover the ‘me’ I had cut out and buried all those years ago. There’s a whole new planet to explore, you know.” She smiled cutely. “Lots of possibilities here. Like this…” Her face flickered, then gained a twitchy white rabbit’s nose to go along with the ears. “See?”

“Right up your alley, Brooke,” Aleka agreed.

“Damn right! I’m throwing the rest of the money from the Burn*E frame at Ryan to build me something even more versatile. I don’t want to be human all the time. ‘Brooke’ will work just fine in the meantime. She’s my Mark One.”

“Well, Brooke, congratulations,” Zoey said, easily lifting Ibrim off her chest. “You look cute. Very…bouncy. Everyone’s going to think you have a rabbit RIDE, though.”

“Let ‘em,” Brooke said, shrugging, then turning it into a slow shoulder roll. She turned to the mirror again. The rabbit ears and tail turned to tiger, wolf, ring-tailed lemur, then finally to deer with a nose to match. Her skin went through several shades, from near-ebony black to pale white, then briefly covered in rusty deer fur. A snub deer’s muzzle grew on her face before retracting back to a rather pretty human nose. Next, her skin turned metallic, then she looked like the robot girl from Metropolis before turning back to the little-bit-beastly Playboy Bunny. “Well, everything checks out. So now I’m going to do some clothes shopping—all I’ve got is this leotard and hardlight clothes are no fun. Want to come with? I could, uh, use a ride. Otherwise I’ll call ZipSkim.”

The household’s only reliable transportation was Zoey, and the Coyote RIDE was normally a one-seater. Even Ryan had taken one look at Ibrim’s Chinook and thrown up his experienced hands in defeat. Ibrim had found the thing in a junkyard on the other side of the Dry Ocean—the salesman had even claimed it was owned by Nick Munn (”And that’s cutting me own throat!”). He continually assured his wife that all the pieces were there. They just refused to work together for longer than a few dozen klicks at a time.

“I’m working tonight, Brooke,” Aleka reminded her. “Finances are kind of thin. I need the mu. We need the mu.”

Brooke’s ears drooped. “Awww. I forgot. I’d contribute, but all my money’s going towards the the Mark Two.”

“Didn’t that one cost fifty thousand mu?” Ibrim asked. “How much did you get from this Steader guy for Burn*E anyway?”

“Oh, enough,” the cyborg woman said cryptically. Brooke had no visible means of support, but always seemed to have enough money for the things she wanted to do, and had never missed the rent.

“Why don’t you drop by Allie’s bar and show off the new body?” Ibrim suggested. “That’s some really impressive tech. The guys and gals will be all over you.”

“Top of the line Nextus MEDworks ‘HUM-FBP-01F’ model. Human, Full Body Prosthetic, female model. Complete hardlight skin with all organ systems simulated down to the cellular chemistry, especially the naughty bits. I’m not as real a woman as Allie but it’s pretty darned close. And I can change my skin on a whim, as you can see. I asked for that special.”

“And if Ryan comes through, maybe the rest of you, too?” Aleka said.

“That man’s a genius. I’m going to ask him out once I get the gumption to,” Brooke said, smiling predatorily. Her ears went wolfish to go along with her expression and she got some cute little fangs. “This hardlight bod goes all out. The one drawback is I need a recharge every twenty hours or so if I go too far out of standard skins.”

Zoey fed Aleka a price list for all those things. The price was far more than what she’d said—closer to five hundred thousand mu. So where was she getting all that money? “Uh…good for you, Brooke. Very good.” She hoped the buyer of her old frame was paying top mu for it after all. “Well, time for Zoey and me to get to work. Sorry, hon,” she put her husband back on his feet as she stood up.

He put his arms around her from behind and gave her breasts one of his trademark perfect squeezes, making her shiver in delight. “Do you two have to work tonight?” he whispered in her Fused ear. “You hate that job.”

:You’ve known about this for a week, Ibby. I know your package got replaced with the rest of your limbs, but not now. No money, no home, no nookie.: Aleka turned her head and licked his face, wishing he had a RIDE too. Things were starting to feel uneven in their relationship and they both knew it.

The image he sent her of one of their adventurous sexual escapades would’ve gotten them both arrested on Earth for even viewing it. But this sort of thing happened on Zharus on a daily basis and nobody seemed to care. The looped video she sent back—a puppy being whapped with a newspaper on the nose—was a proper reply. “Not. Now. Honey,” she emphasized with a little bop on the nose with each hit.

“Aleka, you’ve had your fantasy, now I want mine,” he said. “When are you going off the pill? I want babies. I want this house filled with laughing children.”

“I’m…going out,” Brooke said, making herself scarce out the front door.

“I need more time, Ibby. Please,” she said to him, a little more firm this time. “I’ve only been a real girl for a few months and I’m just not there yet. You can bide a while longer.”

“Well, how long do I have to wait?” he said petulantly. “You’ve said it yourself. It’s the most feminine thing in the world—and you’re not jumping at it?” he grumbled. “I’m a little confused here. What gives?”

Aleka shrugged. “A year or two? It’s my womb, Ibrim. Don’t push me on this.”

:Jeeez he’s a creep about this,: Zoey opined. :Isn’t this new for him?:

:Very new. He never even brought it up in VL in years of genderplay,: Aleka told her RI partner. Then, aloud, “I’m going to work. Don’t want to be late.”

Ibrim hugged her tightly, possessively, tenderly, then reluctantly let her go without another word.

Outside the house Zoey de-Fused, then walked a few steps away before changing to skimmer mode. Aleka looked up at the stars through the Dome. Aleka wore a Russian-style fur coat in the winter chill that nevertheless managed to set off her figure very well. Brooke approached just as she was about to enter Zoey’s art-deco rocket form.

“I’ll think about showing up at the bar,” the cyborg woman said. “But I don’t like that place. The owner creeps me out and the girls are just…ick. Why didn’t you take Diane’s job offer again? Cheers is really crossrider-friendly.”

“The one we work out now pays better,” Zoey said. “It’s not a bad place. A little quirky, but it’s good money.”

Mu talks,” Aleka added, getting inside as Zoey warmed up her lifters. “No pressure, Brooke. Have fun on your shopping trip.”

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April 8, 156 AL: Coyote Bar & Grill, Uplift.

I really hate this job. Aleka let Zoey do the footwork behind the bar during peak hours. There was simply too much going on to risk dumping a serving tray or shattering bottles with her furry elbows. There were still too many patrons who loved to cop a feel—her butt or tail most of the time, her breasts if they were a little drunk. When that happened the eagle-eyed bouncers removed the offender. The owner considered a woman’s behind fair game, but her boobs were beyond the pale.

The bar uniform was a hardlight chip depicting a man’s plaid flannel shirt with the front tied tightly around her breasts, baring cleavage and midriff, and short shorts they called Daisy Dukes on this planet. They were tight enough to give the coyote Fuser a virtual camel toe. Aleka thought having to work in Fuser most of the time was a blessing. She bounced very attractively when she walked due to the chip physics parameters. There was no more skin exposed than what she normally wore out in public, but wearing it here somehow felt dirty.

There was another section intended for human and Walker-mode patrons. She dreaded working on that side, where the patrons were rowdier and she didn’t have Zoey’s hardlight and metal between her real skin and them. On those days she had Zoey drop her a cup size—sometimes two, if she could get away with it and the boss was in a good mood that day.

But it was just that kind of place. Coyote depended on beautiful women to attract its clientele—and a number of the other employees were even more enthusiastic crossriders than Aleka and Zoey who “girled it up” constantly. To get a job here you needed to have a wild female canid RIDE—wolf, fox, or coyote. More boobs, more ass, and more tail equaled more tips.

I thought this would be a fun job, Aleka thought sometimes. An opportunity to show off the body she loved so much and Zoey was proud of. Sure, the tips were good, and she’d learned bartending during her time there, but it just wasn’t the thing for her. It wasn’t a purpose, or a career.

To top it off, she couldn’t stand her co-workers. Several of them had what were called “BBV” RIDEs. The vixens made Allie and Zoey’s already generous bosom look like a pair of A-cups. As a rule the Fused duo stayed as far away from them as possible, even if it meant working in the non-Fuser part of the bar that day.

The polity was gearing up for the yearly Rainy Days Festival at the start of Spring on the Ides of April . Since Aleka hadn’t seen a drop of rain since Earth, she was looking forward to the partying and getting wet “naturally”.

“Hey, Allie, Zoey!” the Earthborn owner shouted across the crowded room when he could just as well message her, even un-Fused. “New schedule for next week. Check it.”

:You’ve already futzed with it four times this week,: Zoey fumed. :Wait, we’re working Rainy Days? You close Rainy Days!:

“Not this year,” he replied. The man apparently didn’t own a RIDE himself, but did have an implant like hers. “And you’re working with Tata and Josie. They’ll wait tables while you tend bar.”

:Fuck that!: Aleka said, almost shouting it unencrypted. Those two were the worst, laziest people she’d ever met. :Just three people for the whole bar? Do you expect our RIDEs to carry trays?:

:Are you PMSing or something? What’s gotten into you?: the man said.

Zoey was reluctant, but Aleka was more certain. She placed her tray down on a vacant table, then her uniform flickered into her favored off-work outfit. “I quit. Find another girl to get her butt slapped and tail stroked. I’m through.”

“Door’s that way,” he said, shrugging. Employees up and quitting like this was almost normal at the Coyote. “Final paycheck’s already in your account. Well, bye!”

Outside the bar, under the green neon sign with the howling coyote on it, Zoey changed to flier mode. The coyote was built for pure speed—most RIDEs her size changed into hovercycle-style skimmers. Zoey was unique, she turned into a single-person flier shaped like an art-deco rocket right out of Flash Gordon. Her fellows had sometimes ridiculed her as looking like one of those child’s riding toys outside of supermarkets, but only until they saw her in action. Zoey was fast.

“I’d catch that roadrunner before poor old Wile E can blink,” she’d said once. CYE(f)-LSA-008R: Coyote, female Light Scout Armor, series eight, “Roadrunner” hardware. She’d outflown some eagles.

“Hubby’s not going to like this,” the coyote said through her control panel. “We need every centimu, you know. This was a nice gig.”

“The only man I want touching my ass is Ibrim,” Aleka growled. Despite the problems the couple had been going through lately, she still loved him very much. But the tension between them was growing to a breaking point once again. “I told him that from Day One. He’s not going to be surprised I quit.”

“Still, we’d better come up with something else fast,” Zoey continued. “I’ve sent out job search agents. And I’ve…uh…got a suggestion if you’re open to it.”

“You’re not going to suggest what I think you are,” said Aleka. She ascended to flier level inside the dome. “Are you?” her tone of voice was more hopeful than skeptical.

“You’ll get a huge signing bonus if you join the Federated Marshals, especially with me and my experience. Remember Irene, my first rider? I was built with the Marshals in mind, you know. Irene liked me enough she bought out my service. Sure it’s not exactly the most feminine of jobs. You’ll probably get shot at unless you take a desk jockey position in one of the Divisions. But you’ll be making a difference again.”

Zoey knew what buttons to push. Aside from her rich VL on Earth, Aleka had been politically active. Aleka Petrovna had organized VL protests against various totalitarian government programs—she had met with some success up until her fetishes caught up with her and someone exposed to the general public she was a man in RL. The last three years on Earth being banned from VL had been sheer hell.

“I just don’t imagine myself in law enforcement. You know why,” Aleka said.

“This is Zharus. It’s different here. We’re not fighting a nascent totalitarian regime. Quite the opposite. We’re protecting innocents from people who would otherwise prey on them—RIDE and human slavers, bodyjacking feral RIDEs, claim jumpers, fugitives from polity justice, outlaws. It’s anarchy out there, Allie. The law are the good guys here, believe it or not. You can’t have liberty without the law, just chaos. What you see on Earth is too much law. Out in the Dry, there’s too little.”

“It doesn’t really pay well, does it?” John said, but the rebuttal felt weak. It paid substantially better than working in a dive of a bar. “Let me think about it.”

“Think fast, my girly girl. We’re almost home,” Zoey said.

They Fused before landing, then paused on the sidewalk, pondering their next step. Bernie looked up from his grazing on the lawn, then came over to nuzzle her handpaw. “Penny for your thoughts?” the stag said.

After a half year of work Ryan Stonegate had come up with the second iteration of the nonhuman EIDE chassis, something Bernie could live with—and live in as a male. He still claimed the project was entirely financed by the sale of the Burn*E brainbox to the Steaders, one of the Colony’s resident “rich and crazy” founding families. Joe Steader had paid an insane amount for it, enough to pay for the cervine EIDE’s current hardlight-pelted version. The neighbors thought he was an un-paired RIDE. That was partly true. The Enhanced Intelligence Drive Extender shell was from Laurasia, where they made them very differently than Gondwana. It was the size of a normal deer, for one.

With custom nutrient extraction, Bernie ate like a deer to supply his brain with food. With special Q-based neural map subprocessors he acted like a deer, all skittish and hoof-stompy around strangers. He reveled in being a deer like he had as Brooke in the human prosthesis. His brain was in a protected part of the mecha’s chest since the head was too small for it. And with a flick of his mind, the stag could reconfigure into a doe. It was just a different hardlight configuration, after all. Everything was anatomically correct of course.

The icing on the cake was a full vehicle mode Ibrim sometimes used when he wasn’t riding his “classic” Nextus-Sturmhaven War VM-1 Chinook. The massive skimmer-cycle suited him and the chiseled body he cultivated after getting the rebuilt limbs—he worked as a personal trainer. His old arms and legs had been sold to the Cybernetics Department at Martinez University for study. They didn’t get much tech right from Earth on Zharus.

“I quit my job at the bar,” she told him. “Not sure what I can do about it. Can’t collect unemployment.”

“Zoey talk to you about joining the Marshals again?” Bernie asked, chewing his cud.

“Did she just tell you she did?”

“Eeeeyep,” the coyote added.

“Well, you should. You’re the kind of person I’d like to see more of in law enforcement. You’ve been on the bitter end of the flashlight a few times, so I don’t think you’re in danger of going all Bad Cop,” the cybernetic stag opined.

“I appreciate the vote of confidence,” Aleka said. The house was reporting there was nobody home, so she still had some time to decide. Her employment agents were coming up empty, so her options were dwindling with each passing second. Ibrim had run out of money quickly and their finances were razor-thin between manageable debt and debt-slavery.

Bernie startled at the sound of the VM-1’s crackling, badly-tuned lifters and sprinted off, tail flagging. Ibrim loved doing that—and Bernie loved it, too. The simulated adrenaline rush to his “animal” brain made things real. Aleka turned to face her husband—after months of growing arguments the shine was off the brass in their relationship.

“Home early? Bad day at work, hon?” Ibrim said. “No…”

“I quit that shithole of a job,” Aleka said, her expression daring him to question it.

Ibrim glowered. “You’d better have something else lined up, woman. I’m behind on the Chinook’s payments. They’ll repo if I miss another.”

“You and that stupid hovercycle,” Aleka replied hotly. “That thing’s been a money pit since the day you bought it! Either sell it or let them repo.”

:Not this shit again,: Zoey said. :There’s no point to this argument, Allie. He won’t let either happen. He loves that thing like a RIDE. Swears it talks to him. Addies were never that smart.:

“If you can’t find a job, then you’re going off the pill. We agreed—you agreed you’d be a housewife if you didn’t work,” Ibrim said. “I want children—grandchildren. I remember you saying that motherhood was the most feminine thing you could ever do?”

“Ibby…we can barely support ourselves as it is. Having a baby? No. That’s a big fat, firm no.” Aleka folded her arms over her coyote Fuser breasts.

“I’m not kidding. I really want children this time,” Ibrim insisted plaintively. It was hard to resist him when he did that, but he’d done it often enough in recent months it no longer had quite the same power over Aleka.

“I’ll make use of this womb when I’m ready. Not you. It’s not yours,” Aleka rebutted. What she said next she would come to regret in the near future, but it was how she really felt. “Go fuck yourself. And I mean that sincerely. Get milked at a sperm bank, rent a Minerva at the femme RIDE place down the street, then inseminate yourself with your own seed and pop out as many kids as you want. Go. Fuck. Yourself.”

The argument went downhill from there.

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April 10, 156 AL: Coastal Ring Skimmerway, southeast of Uplift

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a more creative way to say ‘go fuck yourself’ in all my years,” Zoey said. The RIDE was in terrified awe of the last couple days’ events. “I’m duly impressed, Allie. But…was Ibrim really being that terrible? I don’t understand why you blew up at each other like that, and I’ve been in your head. I know you better than he does and I’m still mystified.”

“It’s complicated,” Aleka told her partner. Regret aside, she was morbidly proud of what she’d said. She watched their speed carefully. The skimmerway had an actual speed limit of about 700 kph, but that put them hours from Nextus all the same. She was being very careful with the charge in Zoey’s batteries, trying to stretch it as long as possible. The little coyote flier didn’t have the space for large batteries, so her endurance at high speeds with her current double-As was very short.

“’Complicated,’ she says,” said a roughly deer-shaped skimmer next to them. “Whenever they blew up at each other like this in VL they ‘divorced’ for a few months. It’s just RL reflecting VL. One is—sorry, was—the pressure release valve for the other. Except this time there’s no RL to escape to, so here we are leaving Uplift,” Brooke said.

“I’m doing the only thing I can do to maintain my sanity,” Aleka said. “I can’t just go back to being John for a few months this time until we cool off. There’s no VL here to play in, and and that would defeat the purpose of coming to Zharus anyway. I’m Aleka for keeps. Keeping it real.”

“It’s gotta be real,” Brooke agreed. “I’m as real a deer as I’ve ever been, and I love it. I’m glad you still love being Aleka.” She paused. “Hey, do you have any money? All mine is tied up right now and I could use a recharge.”

Aleka chuckled. “Two words for you, Brooke: signing bonus. I’ve got the mu. I sent in my application yesterday and they accepted. There’s just a few formalities to take care of. You’re looking at the newest Federated Marshals Tin Star.”

“Maybe this time they’ll let me in, too,” Brooke said. “I want one of those Tin Stars, and that signing bonus.”

“This time? How many times have you tried?” Aleka asked. “I didn’t know you wanted to join up.”

“This’ll be the, uh, third,” the faux doe admitted, her VR head in the corner of Aleka’s vision looking embarrassed. “Yes, the third.”

“I know why they’ve rejected you twice,” Zoey said, grinning in the other corner of Aleka’s vision. “I hope you’ve fixed it or they’ll do it again, Brooke.”

“I’m good this time. I’m good, really,” Brooke insisted. “Ryan did a special install for me on this Laurie deer chassis. Besides, I’m not staying with Ibby while he’s in his arsehole phase.”

“You left your human prosthesis at the house,” Zoey reminded her.

“I don’t need it right now, with this chassis,” Brooke said. “I sent the HUM back to the manufacturer for some modifications I think the Marshals will accept.”

“You didn’t have your sweetie Ryan do it?” Zoey taunted.

“He humored me with one date, okay? Besides, the HUM is medical equipment and he’s not certified to tinker with that,” Brooke muttered. “It wasn’t ‘beefy’ enough for field work, so I sent it back. They’re going to upgrade the chassis.”

“What makes you think they’ll let you in wearing that thing, then? You need hands to join the Marshals,” Zoey asked. “I’m genuinely curious. And where are you getting all this money to pay for it? I’ve never seen you working for a living since you got here.”

The doe smiled. “Hey look, clouds!”

“Clouds and rain,” Aleka said glumly. “Fits my mood.”

Brooke snorted. “Don’t go all emo-girl on us now, Allie. Come on. You and Ibby just need time apart. It’s happened before.”

“Not like this, Brooke. This time it’s real. I don’t think there will be any cooldown. I’ve…filed for divorce.” Aleka gunned Zoey’s throttle and left her old friend in the rocket’s jetwash.

Chapter 2: Tin Star

April 10, 156AL: Nextus Residency Application Office

“I am not a RIDE, poindexter. I am a sentient, talking doe.” Brooke stamped her forehoof at the Residency Agent, lowering her head in irritation. “Have you ever seen a deer RIDE my size? I’m too small to Fuse with anyone.”

“She’s a human brain in a custom animal prosthetic body,” Aleka supplied, rolling her eyes. “Come on, Brooke. Don’t make this harder than it needs to be.”

“Laurasian-make EIDE shell, I see,” the woman in the cubicle said. “They do make ‘em weird there. But you actually put your brain in one?” She shrugged. “Who am I to judge? There’s a skimmer excise tax if you’re moving here with one of them. You can pay now, or ten percent more in a month. Your choice.”

“What if it’s my body? Does the tax still apply?” Brooke-the-doe said, ears flicking.

The agent let out a long-suffering sigh. “Only if you can prove to Materiel Recovery and DRRT that your ‘body’ isn’t a recreational unit and something you actually live in full-time. Otherwise, pay the Piper. I don’t think they’ll approve your residency application until you do.” She turned to Aleka. “As for you, Mrs. Petrovna, there’s the matter of owning an unfettered RIDE within polity borders.”

“Isn’t there an exception for Marshals?” Aleka asked, sending her the acceptance and admittance letter. “Fetters get in the way of the job.”

The bureaucrat chewed on her lower lip. “There is. But it’s provisional until you complete your training. If you wash out, you’ll have to pay in full even if you leave the polity immediately. And it doesn’t apply to the Power Consumption Fee for hardlight use.”

:I really hate this place,: Zoey sent to Aleka. :Hatehatehatehate…Bureaucracy is an artform here. Hopefully when we’re done with training we’ll end up somewhere less uptight, like Aloha or Burnside.:

“Okay, fine, here you go,” Brooke said. “What is wrong with you people, anyway?”

The woman shrugged, then her bureaucratic mask fell away and she gave them a truly friendly smile. “Stay awhile and get to know us, Mrs. Thompson. I moved here from Sturmhaven about three years ago. Nextus folks are really nice once you look below the surface. Everyone else thinks we’ve got a stick up our asses, but that’s just a face we wear to outsiders. Good luck to both of you.”

“I appreciate the warm welcome,” Aleka said. “Keep it real.”

“Always do,” the woman said, the mask coming back on. “Next!”

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Nextus Materiel Recovery Service/Federated Marshals Academy

On the face of it the Federated Marshals Academy was very impressive, but Aleka and Zoey knew better. The Marshals shared it with the Nextus Materiel Recovery Service training facilities, the polity’s IRS-with-guns. The Marshals’ reception area was off to one side of the Induction Lobby, where newly-admitted MRS recruits could show off their new cadet-green uniforms to friends and family and act all military for them.

The trio caused a stir, especially Bernie, who’d decided to look regal for the occasion with a nice set of antlers and rut-swollen neck. His hardlight hooves clacked hollowly on the tile floor as he passed the MRS cadets, head held high.

:I like him. He’s silly,: Zoey said. :Doesn’t have a chance in Hell of getting in this time, but I admire his silly persistence.:

There were met by a tall, curvy woman with bi-colored horse’s ears (the left was chestnut, the right was white) and tail. “Aleka Petrovna,” she said, stating a fact. She wore a bronze star on her duster’s right breast, next to a gold one. “Welcome to the Marshals, Tin Star.”

“So happy to be here, Sergeant-Major Croft,” Aleka said, also saluting. For the occasion she wore a blue blouse and a long brown skirt with leather boots, conforming to the dress code. “You just need some of my biometrics and we can get started, right?”

“Just a few formalities. You’re already assured a place in this month’s cohort. Your quals are very impressive. I followed your VL career on Earth for a while, to be honest,” Croft said. “I wasn’t into genderplay, myself. But I was on Fur World.”

“I’ve left Earth and especially VL behind,” Aleka said, a little coldly.

“Of course.” Croft looked over the new Tin Star’s shoulder. “So it’s ‘Mister’ Thompson this time, is it?”

Bernie’s antlers flickered off, and the whitetail deer shrank a little. “Mister, Miss, does it matter on this planet?” Brooke said. “At least you’re not laughing me out of the place this time. Does your requirement still stand, Sergeant-Major?”

Croft raised her hand, palm out. “If you can give me a high-five, you can join the Marshals. Your quals are as good or better than your friend’s, but unless you have hands, since you’re not a RIDE we just can’t accommodate. Your ‘Mark One’ was too fragile. The ‘Mark Two’—well, I don’t see much difference between that one and what you’re wearing now, other than the hardlight gender-switch.”

The doe smirked, then panels opened at the base of her neck. Arms emerged from the openings, then her neck started to stretch. The neck panels reshaped themselves, the arms spreading out with actual shoulders. When the hardlight came back on there was a naked female human torso atop the deer body and five-fingered hands. A Marshals-blue blouse quickly covered the large breasts. Her muzzle pulled in about halfway, eyes pointing more forward, human-style hair sprouting atop her head. The effect was rather astonishing, and artistic in its own right.

Brooke easily gave Croft the high-five. “How about that, ma’am?”

Hot damn! That’s a new one!” came a new voice. A white-haired, horse-eared, weathered-faced man, wearing a stetson and a duster like the other Marshals, followed by his equine RIDE, came into the induction area. “Ain’t never seen a deertaur afore, let alone that.

Brooke folded her arms across her chest. “This frame will pass your durability specs with flying colors. I can mount weapons and turn to a vehicle mode as well. I have a top speed of about four hundred kph and of course hardlight aero. I’m no RIDE—and I can’t pair with one anyway—but I don’t need one. Do I qualify for one of those special circumstances admittances?”

The new arrival smiled and slapped Croft on her left shoulder. “Come on, Delilah, we’ve gotta have her. Him? Whichever.”

The breasts vanished, antlers reappearing, the blouse becoming a muscle shirt as his shoulders broadened. “Whatever I want to be,” Bernie said. He extended his hand towards the Marshal. “Full name’s Bernard—or Brooke—Thompson. You are?”

“Senior Marshal Ken Masterson. Gonna be your main instructor this time ‘round,” he said. He gestured at the dapple gray horse behind him, then rubbed the equine on the nose. “This here’s Glenn.”

Bernie saluted. “Looking forward to it, sir.”

“Welcome to the Marshals, Thompson,” Croft said hurriedly. “Now, hoof it this way if you please. We have some things to do before you can join the rest of the cohort. You’re going to need some special maintenance gear, I think…” Croft led him away.

Masterson doffed his hat for the ladies. “Step this way, ma’am. The rest of your cohort’s awaitin’.” He smiled at the coyote. “And it’s damn good to have you back, Marshal Zoey.”

“Happy to be back with the Silver Star, sir! Just going to the garage for recommissioning.” Zoey said, bouncing up to Glenn. “And you’re as talky as ever, aren’t you?”

“Eee…nope,” the stallion RIDE said. Glenn looked like the strong, silent type alright. The two of them walked away different direction than Bernie and the Sergeant-Major did.

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There were only four other incoming human Tin Stars—not exactly the numbers Aleka expected from an organization like this. The Gondwanan Federated Marshals were an inter-polity law enforcement agency intended to keep Coastal Ring politics out of the Dry. Its major government funding sources were Uplift—who accounted for about half—then Nextus, Sturmhaven, and Aloha, with the rest in equal measure. Most polities contributed some kind of funding, either in mu or in-kind. The Marshals had a standing order with Nextus and Aloha RIDEworks for Ris, DE shells, and spare parts.

New Cadets were encouraged to “BYOR”. If they did then the signing bonus would be much higher, unless their RIDE needed extensive modifications to meet their standards. Otherwise all new cadets were either assigned a horse or a coyote of their gender of choice—three of Aleka’s cohort were brushing down their newly-assigned horses, while the remaining one sat with his coyote, apparently deep in conversation. None of them were apparently crossriders.

Three men and one woman. They seemed like a diverse group. The woman had what Aleka knew was a Sturmhaven accent here, but it sounded Russian to her canid ears.

There was a desk with her name on it and a velvet box about the size of her hand. Aleka took that seat, but left the box where it was. At another desk farther down the row another name flickered on: B. Thompson.

:Good for Brooke,: she sent to Zoey. :Uh, ma’am.:

:They’re giving her a diagnostic to confirm her specs, then she’ll join you in a few minutes,: the coyote said. :I’m going to shut down in a minute or two. They’re putting me in Passive to reinstall some of my old gear. It’s still pretty current. Won’t take long.:

:Isn’t that stuff like ten years old?: Aleka said, looking at the box.

:If it ain’t broke…: Zoey said. :Going to sleep now, Tin Star. Talk to you in a few.:

The four other names were: H. Rollins, R. Seaford, N. Pinkerton, and M. Vazov. The last one was the strong-bodied Sturmhaven woman, built a lot like Rufia, quietly conversing with her new RIDE in Ukrainian, a language the “Russian” Petrovna mostly understood—the two languages had diverged quite a bit on Earth over the centuries. They were a lot like Spanish and Portuguese had been.

When Senior Marshal Masterson walked in with Glenn they broke off their chatter and took their seats. Vazov was next to Aleka. The dark-haired, soft-featured woman looked at her neighbor’s nameplate and raised one sculpted eyebrow.

Aleka smiled and gave her a friendly little wave before Masterson spoke up.

“Okay, Tin Stars. We’re not too tight on formality here, but there are some traditions. Includin’ this little welcoming pep talk.” The wall behind him started giving an overview of the Nextus-Sturmhaven War. “We’re here to prevent something like this from happenin’ again.”

“But sir, we’re not diplomats,” Rollins said. The male cadet already had horse ears and tail. “We’re law enforcement.”

“You don’t know as much about the Federated Marshals as ya think. We represent the governments in the Coastal Ring, Rollins,” Masterson said. “All of them who buy in. That means we chase Burnside and Nuevo San baddies as well as Uplift fugitives and Nextus tax-dodgers. We also enforce treaty obligations whenever we run into other agencies out in the Dry—especially these MRS folks we share a building with.”

“The Materiel Recovery Service spends over half their yearly budget in the Dry Ocean,” Seaford said. “There are a lot of places to hide things out there.”

“’Zactly right, Seaford. But there’s some places in the Dry we Marshals just can’t touch, so we let the MRS or Allied Strike Teams do it for us. We don’t have the authority or the firepower to traipse into, say, Bartertown or Tombstone and arrest anyone. They’d eat us alive.

“No, we patrol around the shore of the Dry, mostly along the Shelf and about five hundred klicks farther in than that. We fly out to the big mining platforms to deal out justice on invitation, but it’s suicide to go too far off the track out there. Even this Gold Star I’ve got ain’t worth a damn without the firepower to back it up. We have some RAATs—Rapid Armor Assault Teams—when things get hairy, but we only have twenty of ‘em for the whole Dry.”

“Oh, come on! Brubeck Mining just dumped a ton of money into your agency!” said Pinkerton. “You have to do more. Sir.”

“It’s yours now too, ya know,” Masterson said. “Before Brubeck we only got about fifteen percent of the funding we actually need. Now it’s more like twenty five percent since Nextus and the other polities ponied up matching funds after good ol’ Zane shamed them. We get just enough volunteers ta keep up with attrition, even with the signing bonuses y’all are getting. This cohort of six is actually very small. Your other classmates in this building number about a hunnerd.”

“Where’s the sixth of us, then?” Pinkerton said. He was next to the empty chair. “Where’s Thompson?”

The door opened and Zoey came inside, claws clicking on the floor as she scooted over to sit behind her rider. Aleka stroked the large friendly coyote between her ears and down her back. Soon after Brooke was there again—back to her handless doe form, probably for the shock value. “That would be me,” she said.

“Is this some kind of joke?” Pinkerton asked. “You’re letting in rider-less RIDEs or something?”

“Look again, ‘Pinkie’. That’s no RIDE, she’s too small. Check your ‘specs,” Seaford sneered.

Pinkerton facepalmed. “I still don’t believe it. But come on over, uh, Thompson. Pleased to meet you.”

“Say hello to Tin Star B Thompson,” Masterson said. “She’s…special. She’s not an RI, or Ad-I, or a Laurie EI. There’s a human brain in there. This is simply how she likes ta present herself, at least for today.”

:Just ‘B’?: Aleka asked her old friend.

:Compromise on the official papers—they didn’t select male or female on the demographics form, either. They’ve never had someone like me before,: Brooke said, deer face smiling with delight in VR. She gestured with her nose at the other cadets. :Wait until they get a load of me.:

“You may now open the boxes in front of you,” Masterson’s RIDE said. “Ask your neeeeighbor to the right to pin it on. You’re going to be working with them closely for the next six weeks, so get to know them.”

On the inside was the Tin Star of a Cadet Marshal—five points with no encircling bezel around it like Masterson’s Gold Star had, with her name and badge number engraved on the front. The badge itself was more than just a symbol—it was a full Q-based computer in its own right, it recorded everything the Marshal did officially, on duty and off, monitoring for accountability. Aleka’s actions would be reviewed once per month.

“I’m rooming with a doe?” Pinkerton said. “There’s no place to pin this on.”

A blue sash appeared around Brooke’s long neck. “Try this, ‘Pinkie’. Do you have a first name? I don’t want to get off on the wrong hoof here.”

“Nestor,” he said. “Now how’re you going to pin this on me? I thought you needed haaaa—”

Brooke repeated the show she had put on for Croft and Masterson earlier, then picked up her partner and roomie’s Tin Star. She pinned it on him, then retracted her arms and was soon just a ‘normal’ doe again.

“She’s quite handy in the hand department,” Masterson deadpanned. “When she wants ta be.”

Tin Star Nestor Pinkerton opened his mouth, closed it again, then repeated that cycle. He shrugged helplessly. “I’ve…I’ve got nothing.”

“And if you’re uncomfortable rooming with a girl, I can fix that too,” Bernie said, antlers flickering on with the neck-swell of a rutting stag.

“Check, please,” Nestor said, dazed.

“Yer all gonna see stranger things out in the Dry,” Masterson said. “FrankenRIDEs bodged together from whatever parts are available, Mad Max style. Skimmers with arms from old IDEs tacked on as cargo-loading cranes. Some folks’ve even taken those old disposable mining rigs left for junk and use them as floating bases—they look like crap, but they work. That sort of thing.”

“Honestly, I don’t know if that’s really creepy or really cool,” Nestor said, staring at Bernie. “Maybe it’s both. Why you’re living in one of those things must be a great story.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” the stag said. “And I’ll be happy to tell. We’re gonna have a blast, Nestor.”

Rollins and Seaford apparently already knew one another, so all they did was pin their Tin Stars on before turning to the remaining two women.

“Marsha Vazov, of Sturmhaven,” Aleka’s new roomie and partner said. “I’m…here because I want to do something important with my life that isn’t just for Sturmhaven’s sake.” She pinned the star on Aleka’s blouse.

“Aleka Petrovna of Uplift—of Earth, until last year,” she said. Words swirled around in her mind until she found the right ones. “Here because…it’s decent money and I want to make a difference, too—was there something, Nestor?”

The glare he gave her could have peeled paint. “No, nothing. You a crossrider?”

“Since the day I got here,” Aleka said excitedly, then realizing she’d spoken before thinking. “It…was an…ambition of mine on Earth.”

“True womanhood is something all men should aspire to,” Marsha said as if from a script. Then she blinked and slapped herself on the side of her head. “Damnfuckit. Sorry everyone. Every once in awhile something trips the old propaganda triggers.”

“I thought you Sturmies got rid of those brainwashing crossride training units years ago,” Seaford said.

“It was my mother’s idea,” Vazov scoffed, rolling her pretty green eyes. “It’s been six years and I still can’t shake this ‘girls rule, men drool’ crap. Hell, I can’t even make myself crossride back! The very idea of being a man again still makes me shiver with revulsion.” She looked at her assigned RIDE. “Hopefully Thirty-Thirty will be able to fix that, right girl?”

“Damn sure gonna try!” the bay mare across the room said, nodding.

“You’ll see other Tin Stars around the training base,” Masterson said. “We get a new cohort every week. You’ll also be spending time around the MRS cadets. That ain’t gonna be pleasant.”

“They look down on us Marshals,” Zoey said. She had a Silver Star on a collar around her neck. “So, expect hazing, expect taunts, expect them to snap your bra if you happen to be female—and make sure you give as good as you get!”

“Expect wedgies, guys,” Masterson said with half a chuckle. “There’s a reason why dusters are popular with us, you know. Nothin’ for those pranksters ta grab.”

Zoey nodded. “You’ll be issued dusters and Stetsons later today. We’re better known for them than the blue shirt and brown pants, so they’re pretty much your official uniform more than the clothes you wear underneath,” Zoey said. She winked at her rider. “There’s a lot of styles out there there if you want something femme, too.” :You can even wear that favorite bikini-top outfit of yours underneath it and I don’t think anyone would complain,: the coyote added privately. :We’re like that around here. You’ll just need someplace to keep your gun close at hand.:

“The next six weeks aren’t going to be easy for ya,” Masterson said. “For the first two weeks you’ll be in class fifteen hours per day and you’re expected to spend another four hours studying the finer points of the law—criminology, forensics, and the like. You’ll be trained with several types of firearms—pistols, rifles, pulse guns, slug throwers, missile pods, ECM. You will have survival training. You will sleep in your RIDE, where they will help you settle what you’ve learned in your head. On Earth training like this would take upwards of a year.” He nodded at Aleka and Bernie. “But here we’ll get you out in the field with an experienced partner very quickly.”

He gave Bernie a speculative look. “Now, Thompson, you don’t have a RIDE, but I’m sure the Lithium boys’ll come up with something that’ll turn the trick.

“Welcome to the Marshals, Tin Stars,” Masterson said, looking at all of them, clasping his hands behind his back. “Gondwana is fortunate to have you.”

He looked like he was about to turn away, then looked back. “One more thing. Your RIDEs have been assigned to with an eye for personal compatibility, so’s we think you’ll get along. But let’s make one thing clear here. Your RIDEs are not equipment. They are your partners, through thick and thin, boredom and terror. They will rise in rank with you—except for Zoey, who’s already one of our Silvers. You will obey her as you would any superior officer.

“You will depend on one another for survival. Your RIDE will save your life in the Dry. You’ll also have to do field maintenance using whatever materials you can scrounge up, so they will depending on you as well. If you start treating your RIDE like equipment you will receive reprimands on your record—no matter how far you rise in the Marshals. Even if you’re a Platinum with thirty years of experience, get enough of them and you’re out.

“Tin Stars, dismissed.”

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After dismissal the newly-inducted Tin Stars were assigned quarters. The Marshals had their own barracks at least, and it was there they encountered the upperclassmen for the first time. The were very silent upperclassmen—Zoey explained that they wouldn’t speak to first-week Tin Stars, and the same was expected of them when they progressed. Most of the other cadets were Fused up, and there seemed to be a large proportion of horses and coyotes to other species. They gave Zoey a respectful nod or a tug on the brim of their hats as she passed, acknowledging her rank.

Finally, this is my idea of the 26th century, Aleka thought as they entered their room for the next six weeks. The accommodations were refreshingly free of kitschy 20th century knickknacks. The surprisingly huge room was a total blank space from door to balcony, the supporting technology invisible except for a control screen on the wall—not even any visible hardlight emitters. There wasn’t even a closet or a stick of furniture, but there were a number of RIDEsafe plugs. The room itself was intended for two humans and horse-sized RIDEs after all.

She used her implant to access the room controls and had its hardlight emitters turn the blankness into a nice conversation pit with cushy chairs and a little feminine flair to the décor. It could be easily configured into sleeping space, even a kitchen. Thirty-Thirty went into her stall and Zoey bedded down in her alcove for a quick defragment.

“Well, we have a couple hours until dinner in the Mess Hall,” Aleka said, taking a seat on a lace-edged easy chair. “I guess we should get to know each other if we’re going to be sharing a room.”

“I think that’s what they expect, sister,” Marsha said. She wore a pair of the usual interface specs that they seemed to prefer here over implants. “Can you answer a question for me, Aleka?”

“Sure,” Aleka said, nodding. “And call me Allie.”

“Okay, Allie.” She waved her hand and a dozen hardlight screens popped up in the air between them, all scrolling stories and video about immigration from Earth, interviews of immigrants, and statistics. “What the hell is happening on Earth lately? I’ve studied colonial history and I can’t figure it out. Look at these numbers—you’re hardly the first recent Earther who crossrode the first chance she could get.”

Some of the faces on screen were actually familiar to Aleka. She was hardly the only “recolonized deviant” as the Zharus newsies openly called it. She smiled, happy to see some friends had made it, but wondering why nobody had contacted her. But then…she hadn’t been big on contacting them, either. “How can I put this?” Aleka said, pushing her red-brown hair out of her vision. “I had two lives on Earth, Virtual and Real. And they deserve the capital letters these days. In fact, the majority of us on Earth do. It’s why everyone has implants.”

Marsha shivered. “I don’t understand how you can have someone inject nanobots right into your brain.”

“Convenience. It’s very useful. I have a neural lace. It’s woven right into my brain and down my spinal cord,” Aleka said. “It’s hands down the best way to experience Virtual Life—I’ll be calling it VL from here—because it can fully replace my own body’s senses.”

“Well, I get that. It’s like Fuser nannies,” Marsha said, dispelling the screens. “What I really don’t understand is, what did you do that got you ‘recolonized’?”

Aleka put her hand over her right breast. “I had the audacity to agitate to bring this body into RL. To make VL and RL match. It’s funny, because that’s exactly what the Feds wanted, too. Except they wanted to take away our VL power of choice and make it match RL. There would’ve been absolutely no escape. See what I’m getting at?

The young Sturmhaven woman looked confused. “So…they wouldn’t let you choose your sex? Is that it?”

“Modern Earth culture doesn’t like hidden depths—same as it doesn’t like social mobility. You have to be what you look like RL. Wear everything on your sleeve. People with Gender Identity Disorder get around this by the fact we can match their mind to their body very easily. But me? John Murland was just your normal guy. They didn’t like a straight man being a straight woman in VL. They absolutely hated me telling them I didn’t want to limit being her to VL.”

“So you got to like being Allie so much in VL you wanted to bring her…out?” Marsha asked. “But they wouldn’t let you.”

“If you think it was bad for me, think of my friend Brooke—or Bernie, if she’s in that kind of mood. She found a way to get around all that by putting her brain in a brainbox and staying connected to VL 99% of the time. I can barely count the number of avatars she’s had over the last fifteen years I’ve known her.” Aleka laughed.

“I’d ask what makes a straight man want to be a woman, but I am a Zharus native, and a woman of Sturmhaven,” Marsha said. “I think I’m getting the picture. My story isn’t quite as interesting as yours…”

“Don’t sell yourself short, Marsha,” Thirty-Thirty said from her stall, where she was chewing on some hardlight alfalfa.

“Okay, so I’ll ask anyway. Why bring Allie into Real Life after all if it’s caused you this much trouble?”

Aleka hugged her breasts. “To be brutally honest with you and myself, for all the problems it’s caused me, being Allie makes me happy. I love seeing this face, these breasts, this figure in the mirror every morning. I love just the being female part by itself. I get an electric thrill knowing that I’m not in the body I was born with. It’s…almost…”

“Transcendent?” Zoey supplied with just a touch of bitterness.

“That, yes,” Aleka said, nodding respectfully. “Thank you, Zoey. Plus it means that I don’t have to miss out on the fem-side. I feel more complete. I can have babies, nurse them…call it womb envy? I dunno. I tried one of the hermaphrodite VL worlds once, but it just didn’t work for me. I need the…” Aleka searched for the right word. “The duality of being a man or a woman, the feminine and the masculine, but being not both at once.”

“I see. So, where do the politics come in?” Marsha said, chewing on her lower lip. “Wait…save that for later. You’ve given me enough think about. Now…let me tell you a story about a young man named Uri, from Sturmhaven.” She closed her eyes and looked a little green. “But first…Thirty-Thirty…I think I’m ready.”

The bay mare came out of her stall. “As you say, Marsha.”

The two Fused for the first time then settled on the couch again, which had grown to accommodate the three-meter horse Fuser. “No offense, Thirty, but I almost feel manly in this body,” Marsha said. “And the fact I can say that without throwing up tells me it’s working. Thank you!”

“What’s working?” Aleka asked.

“When Uri—when I was sixteen my mother decided she didn’t want any sons after all and sent me to a crossrider military school. They put me in this old shewolf named Darya who did her level best at first to make me into a strong, completely stereotypical Sturmhaven woman. Funny thing is that neither of us wanted me made into some silly caricature. I came of age at school just about then, so my mother no longer had legal hold over me. I bought Darya with every centimu I had at the time and, let’s say, disenrolled myself. At the first opportunity I helped her slip her fetters, and she took me all the way to Aloha. I didn’t mind starting from nothing. Mom couldn’t do anything about it, either. I got my ears and tail bobbed when I could afford it.

“Unfortunately Darya had already done a lot of stuff to my brain before I jailbroke her. I could’ve been a man three years ago but I got physically ill whenever I thought about it. At least, until now. Thanks, Thirty.”

“I still have a lot of work to do massaging this cortex. The triggers are pretty deep,” the mare said. “Lord, I never thought I’d see so much derp!” Her expression turned sheepish. “I kinda hope you’ll keep me and not ask for a new RIDE. But I understand if…”

“Hey, Thirty. It’ll be okay,” Marsha said, patting herself on the thigh. “It’s…not really that I hate being a woman. It’s just that the brainwashing doesn’t allow me to choose to be a man.”

“What happened to Darya?” Zoey asked, eyes narrowed.

“She went off by herself into the Dry after dropping me in Aloha to be my own woman. That’s all I know,” said Marsha. “She’d probably burned out from all the crossing.”

“I see we have something in common,” Aleka said. “In an oblique sort of way. We’ve both had our power of choice taken away from us.”

“But from opposite directions. I suppose we do,” Marsha said. “Probably why we ended up roomies.”

More video panels popped up, with Masterson’s face on them. His horsey ears flicked. “Hey there, ladies. We’re ready for you downstairs. Come and pick your Stetson and your duster, then we’ll brief you on what they can do. They ain’t normal clothes. See yas in a few.”

The two crossriders looked at one another. “Shopping?” Aleka asked.

“Fine, shopping,” Marsha said, shrugging. She de-Fused from Thirty-Thirty and tugged on one of her equine ears. “How do they look?”

“They’re cute.” She flicked one of her own coyote ears. “Nice tail, too. Need help brushing it out?”

Marsha moved it back and forth, black hair making an audible swish at the end. The hair on her head was now black as well, and extended down to the base of her neck. “Later, sister. Shopping first.”

Their RIDEs following them, they headed for the Uniforms Office.

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Masterson walked back and forth, hands clasped behind his back, in front of the newly-uniformed Tin Stars. “Your duster and your Stetson are not just clothes. They are survival gear, they are your armory, your extra batteries, your forensic sensors. Standard equipment includes AAA-class sarium batteries with enough juice for a photon bazooka to fire fifty shots, or provide days of life support in the Deep Dry if you find yourself without your RIDE. The material and lifters are the same stuff they use for orbital diving suits. Yes, the suit can seal up physically around you with your hat as a hardlight helmet. It’s a full space suit complete with thrusters. Goes without saying is that it’s a full physical and hardlight armor fitting. It’s the very definition of ‘crazy prepared’. And by the end of six weeks using it will be second nature.”

“It’s worth about a quarter of a RIDE, as far as capability is concerned,” Zoey said. “It supplements and reinforces us. It means we can do that much more than our enemies—it’s how we get our edge. Force multiplication.”

“I love it. Love it! This is why I’m here.” Seaford started to laugh. He’d chosen a rather worn-looking gray-brown duster and similarly-scruffy hat. His RIDE had even added a scruff of a beard. Aleka’s implant told her that he now looked like Clint Eastwood from A Fistful of Dollars aside from the coyote ears and tail. As a weapon he had a multicannon that resembled an 1866 Smith & Wesson lever-action repeating rifle with some odd gears and fiddly bits attached that seemed to serve no purpose, even his hatband the same geared theme.

:The Steaders’ 20th century fad is bad enough. Are the Seafords going all steampunk now?: Zoey scoffed. :You look good, Allie. For a moment there I was afraid you’d go all girly-pink.:

To Aleka there was a difference between the feminine and the girly. It was just fine to be girly, and she dabbled in that in measured amounts, but overdoing it was like eating too much cake. It got sickening after a while. Aleka’s light suede-colored duster managed to walk that line between the two, mostly in how it fit her. The material itself could easily change color and patterns. It had many hidden pockets, interior and exterior, and was more lightweight than it looked thanks to low-power lifters. Buttoned up it fit snugly around her bosom, revealing as much cleavage as she felt like. Loose or open it displayed her preferred triangle bikini top, now Marshals blue.

The coup de grace was it could be more than just a duster—it could be a dress as well, good for any occasion, a shape-shifting garment in its own right. She’d had to use some of her signing bonus to afford that feature, but it was worth it. Hat and duster alike were made of nanobots that facilitated Fusing, though they were normally worn by the RIDE when Fused.

On the other hand, the Stetson was almost pure business, plain white with wide, flat brim and a blue sensor-bead hatband around the crown. It had a Nextus-style simplistic flair to it.

Brooke’s variant, as befitting her Special Marshal status, was intended for deertaur mode. It draped over her shoulders and over her cervine back. Out of that mode it slunk down to become a blanket, like a horse would wear. Unlike everyone else she had no hat. For weapons, a pair of pair of tri-barreled pistol-sized miniguns extended from her flanks and could give full coverage. “Among other fiddly bits I can’t talk about,” she said, waggling her eyebrows.

“I think I know where your money goes,” Pinkerton said. “These clothes and weapons are amazing.”

“The clothes change size to fit your RIDE,” Zoey added. “The Lithium Stars—our R&D division—manage to outdo themselves each year. This is why we can do the work of fifty thousand Marshals when we only have twenty. And they’re expensive as hell, so keep hold of them tight. You’ll have three spares of each, kept where you’re stationed. If you need more than those, or you want a second set with different customizations, it’ll come out of your paycheck.”

Every Marshal needed to check out on a variety of firearms, but aside from knowing the basics everyone was supposed to have a weapon-style as personalized as their “uniform”. Aleka’s was a combination of a five-barrel pepperbox pistol and an over-under barreled LeMat carbine that could fire a combination of high velocity, low mass gauss rounds and pulse bolts, with an option to change out the barrel for a sniping weapon.

“Okay, is the guy in charge of this organization a secret Steader?” Rollins scoffed. He’d simply picked off-the-shelf gear, not customized at all. “This is absolutely absurd.”

“We aren’t re’glar military, Tin Star Rollins,” Masterson said, taking off his hat. His horsey ears twitched as he brushed the dust off of it. “We aren’t regl’ar cops, neither. We often work alone—and I count a Marshal and RIDE as one unit here. I suppose we’re a little like the Steaders and the Seafords. We take a personal quirk and turn it ‘up to eleven’ as they say. It gets the job done, so don’t be shy.”

Aleka had to look up what that actually meant before she understood what the Gold Star was talking about. :Oh, I see.:

:If you ask me I think it’s a weakness in the organization,: Zoey replied. :But that’s my quirk. We could use the visual solidarity a real uniform gives. The star just isn’t enough.:

This time Marsha spoke. “You can always ID a Marshal, Rollins.” She tugged on her gray Stetson, then her red duster’s tall collar. Strapped to her back was a massive lever-action shotgun that looked like the barrel had been made out of welded metal plates. No doubt it had its own lifters to make it usable. In Thirty-Thirty’s hoofhands it would look just slightly oversized. “These. Plus the personalizations…it gives us a certain reputation, since we work ‘alone’ or in pairs as Ken said. It gives us a kind of ‘rebel’ look. We get the job done, whatever it takes. Most of the time the Marshals are highly visible—we have to be, we’re the long arm of the Law in places that don’t normally see any.”

“The ‘uniform’ is designed so you don’t need to pack much, if anything, with you in an emergency,” Zoey said. “Worse comes to worse, there’s even a micro-fabber in your hat for food and a few spare parts. All a human Marshal needs is her hat, her coat, her gun, and her RIDE.”

Seabiscuit nosed Rollins from behind. “Because we are the other half of this team. We have our own special modifications, much like your dusters, that nobody else has. That uniform is necessary because we can’t be with you all the time—there will be times when we can’t Fuse. But we can wear it in Fuser too, you know.”

Rollins turned around and rubbed his new friend’s velvety nose. “Okay, buddy, I get it. Gold Star Masterson, mind if I go back and give myself a little more kick?”

“A’course not, Rollins. Let this old hoss help you out. Everyone else, dismissed!”

Once Rollins returned, the six humans all looked at one another, broad smiles on their faces, all geared up for their careers in the Marshals. Their RIDEs looked just as pleased, and eager to get started. Marsha was right, for all the personalizations, each one was unmistakable as a Federated Marshal, the relentless lawgiver and equalizer of the anarchic Dry Ocean.

Rusty Seaford, the steampunk Clint Eastwood. Nestor Pinkerton, the gentleman hunter with a massive elephant gun. Instead of interface specs he wore a monocle, his hat a cross between a Stetson and a pith helmet. Marsha Vazov, a female Vash the Stampede with some Bravestarr tossed in for good measure. With this black hat and duster, Henry Rollins had added dark interface specs. He resembled an old west version of Neo from The Matrix. His chosen weapons were a pair of modern Nextus pulse SMGs.

Brooke was hard-pressed to do anything more distinctive than she already was. But since she went without a hat, her leather duster had elaborate designs that were actually sensors.

“Fellow Tin Stars,” Rusty Seaford said, putting on his best Clint Eastwood impression. “Let’s head down to the saloon and have ourselves a party!

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April 11, 156 AL: Federated Marshals Academy

“Good morning, sleep well?” Zoey’s cheerful voice echoed in her rider’s skull like a clanging bell. Everything throbbed, from her head to her breasts, which felt like they’d been used as punching bags. “How about some coffee to wake up a little, sleepyhead?”

“Where’s the fukin’ nano detox…” Aleka muttered through a purple haze.

“Hangovers build character, Tin Star. But don’t worry about throwing up all over yourself. I’m in the driver’s seat right now, so you’re nice and safe.” It felt like Zoey was actually petting her. “You had such fun last night. That guy you kissed was soooo handsome. He loved that lap dance.”

“Whut guy was that?” Aleka asked stupidly. She began to realize that the body motions she felt were not ones that came from her. The pair were in the VR space inside their own heads.

“That one with the thing,” Zoey said flippantly. “We had such a goooood time! I’m sorry you can’t remember. His RIDE was the cutest wuffy I ever met! What a sweetie! Oh, before I forget…”

Reveille blew right in Aleka’s ear in time to the painful throbbing of her head and breasts, while Zoey sang to it and flooded her rider with detox. “Oh I hate to get up, I hate to get up, I hate to get up in the mooooorn-ing! Up and at ‘em, Tin Star!” She started barking in laugher. “Oh, wait. You already are.

Now Aleka’s outer eyes opened, senses barging back in. But all she could do was watch herself move and feel Zoey’s all-too-gleeful emotional state. :You knew this was coming, Allie…I shared it with you,: she thought.

The other Tin Stars were lined up in front of her, with Glenn-and-Ken standing off to her left. Zoey wore their re-sized duster and Stetson. Aleka could feel their ears poking through the holes. A Silver Star was pinned to the duster over her right breast, next to Aleka’s cadet badge. “Good morning, Tin Stars!” Zoey said.

“Good morning, ma’am!” the three horses and one coyote said in a properly deferent tone.

“For the next six days, we RIDEs have a responsibility to our riders!” Zoey continued, sounding like a Drill Sergeant. “This is a bodyjacking! We now have full control over their actions and they have none! But the thing is, you four are fresh off the assembly line. You’re even greener than the humans! So for the next week we’ll have a little trust exercise. Senior Marshal, if you please?”

“Thank ye, Zoey,” Masterson said. “RIDEs will learn to trust their riders—but you humans also must trust your RIDEs, implicitly and without thinking. We are effectively never off duty, but since we mere humans still have to sleep, your RIDE will pick up the slack. Out in the field you will eat, sleep, drink, piss, and shit in your RIDE. You can’t survive in the Dry without them. You will think and act as one.” He paused. “But hopefully not too much.”

“Roll call!” Zoey shouted.

“Tin Stars Justice and Nestor Pinkerton, present!” the Clydesdale said.

“Tin Stars Trips and Rusty Seaford, present!” the male coyote said.

“Tin Stars Thirty-Thirty and Marsha Vazov, present!” the bay mare said.

“Tin Stars Seabiscuit and Henry Rollins, present!” a smaller chestnut stallion said.

“Silver Star Zoey and Tin Star Aleka Petrovna, present!” Zoey said for both.

“Uh…Tin Star Brooke Thompson, present?” the female deertaur said. “No disrespect intended, but why is Zoey in charge here?”

“That’s one demerit, Tin Star,” Zoey the coyote said. She pointed at the Silver Star on her chest. “This is why. Five years of experience as a Marshal.”

“Bet yer wonderin’ how yer going ta participate in this little exercise, Thompson,” Ken Masterson said. “The Lithium boys have come up with something special. Say hello to your ‘RIDE’. Silicon Star Fenwick! Front and center!”

There was a whirring sound, like lifters but higher-pitched. A winged ferret flew into the room and saluted Zoey and Glenn. “Hey there, Ken, Zoey! Whassup?”

“Fenwick, like the deer EIDE frame Thompson wears, is also from Laurasia. They make Ris different there,” Masterson said. “They’re often more…personal assistants, you could say. Some folks call ‘em ‘daemons’, out of some old book.”

The doetaur looked at the normal-sized ferret, then opened her mouth to speak, but could only bleat. Fenwick settled on her back, wings vanishing, then the doe’s human torso retracted, much to her apparent surprise. Brooke bleated again as antlers and other bits flickered on and off again, eventually settling in stag form so the little Laurasian RIDE could perch in them. “Remote checks out, sir.”

“The Lithium boys know their stuff,” Masterson said.

“Good. Now, I was saying about trust,” Zoey continued. “You’ve been allowed to ‘bodyjack’ your partners—and I know what they’re thinking. By the end of this week, you will trust each other. If, by the end of that time, you find you cannot, you will both wash out of this cohort and be reassigned a new partner in next week’s cohort. You both get three tries before you wash out of the Tin Stars—this has only happened three times in our history, so no worries.”

“That just about never happens,” Masterson agreed. “Maybe one in a hundred thousand. The boys in the Admittance department know their stuff.”

“Of course, it also helps if you’re already paired with one,” Zoey said, more for Aleka’s ears than theirs.

:There is that,: Aleka sent dryly. :Ma’am,: she added.

:Allie, you may be a Tin Star, but our relationship’s more casual than just rank,: the coyote said. :So don’t worry about my rank. We’re partners. We’re not big on formality around here. Okay?:

:Okay, Zoey,: Aleka said. :But I will defer to your experience here, of course.:

:My experience is yours,: she said, opening up to her rider once again. :You’ll rise to Silver quickly, if you have the knack with us. I think you will.:

Masterson clapped his equine hands together. “Okay! Now that this shit’s over with, time for today’s class. That’s about as military as we get around here, so now that reveille’s over, relax. Everyone, head to the aerodrome. You’re going to meet Gondwana face-to-face today. Time y’all learned firsthand just how big this supercontinent—and our planet—is.”

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“The first one of you Tin Stars who says ‘meep, meep’ to me will get five demerits,” the roadrunner orbital shuttle pilot said. He had what they called a Shooting Star badge, green in color, indicating his role in the Marshals as a cargo/support pilot. Just like any other organization there were a number of divisions and roles. There were twelve major Divisions within the Gondwanan Federated Marshals. “The second one gets ten.” He pointed his long, sharp beak at Trips. “And you get fifty if you just look at me all hungry!”

“Jonesy, we don’t give demerits outside of roll call and you know it,” Masterson said.

“Seriously, a roadrunner?” Trips said.

“Shooting Star Chuck ‘Jonesy’ Steader,” the roadrunner said, tapping the bronze star badge that sported a green cometary tail. He prodded the coyote’s chest with a talon. “Don’t you forget it, Wile E..”

“Well, this is getting crazy real quick,” Justice said. “A Seaford and a Steader on the same shuttle? That’s just asking for trouble, according to the ‘net. What’s your RIDE’s name, Shooting Star?”

“Velox,” the RIDE himself said.

“’Velox Ridiculous’ no doubt,” Trips said.

“A’right, that’s enough Loony Tunes for now,” Masterson said. He gestured with his thick thumb “Get aboard, Tin Stars. And you, Miss Zoey. You’ve done this afore.”

:Jonesy always does this with newbies. He’s been doing this for going on twenty years now,: Zoey said with a mental chuckle. :Thinks it’s a laugh riot, the toonhead. As Steaders go he’s very level-headed.:

:Why do I get the feeling that really isn’t saying much?: Aleka replied.

The shuttle itself was called the Acme, for that matter, but looked as far from a cartoon rocket as possible. Like their quarters, the design of the spacecraft was modern and almost completely free of 20th century nostalgia. It only resembled the lifting body craft like the Space Shuttle in the sense that most ships had the same shape, or most aircraft, or most fish. A little research told Aleka that the pilot did this every week for each new cohort. But she was completely unprepared for the actual view from high orbit.

Aleka had only caught a glimpse of Zharus aboard the Spruce Goose, so focused was she on getting dirtside and finding a RIDE to crossride with. The Acme was a very high-performance craft and reached its target orbit of 2,500 kilometers quickly. The shuttle even had an onboard fuel cell power unit so the sarium batteries could be fully recharged.

“Tin Stars, this is Zharus,” Masterson said. The gravity inside the shuttle was shut off so everyone could get a good view. “On this orbit we’ll be over Gondwana again in a few hours. We always have our first day of class on-orbit. This is the planet you’re helping to protect. Say hello to the nice lady. She’s been very gracious about humanity barging in on her privacy.”

When it became obvious the man was serious, the RIDEs doffed their hats and bowed before the “lady” in greeting—at least as well as they could in zero-g. The shuttle was currently over the East Thalassic Ocean, between Laurasia and Rodinia. By itself Rodinia had more land surface area than the entire Earth, and it was the middle of the three continents in terms of size. Rodinia was a Planetary Reserve, theoretically with no people there aside from some sanctioned scientific facilities and tourist areas.

“Of course y’all know better that there’s more people living in Rodinia than what’s official,” Masterson said. “But we got no authority there, so don’t you worry about it.”

“I can see my house from here!” Fenwick said. Brooke was back to doetaur form with the Laurasian ferret making a home in a special pocket on her duster. She didn’t look unhappy with that, though she still couldn’t talk. “Seriously, I can see my old house.” A reticle appeared on the window in a spot on the southernmost visible point on Laurasia, then zoomed in.

“Okay, everyone. Review chapters one to three in your planetary history vid-text before we come around to the west coast,” Zoey said. “There will be a quiz for the humans once we’re over Gondwana. This especially goes for the Earthers. Hard to have empathy for people you don’t know the history of.” :And if you miss any, Allie, I’m gonna be very put out,: the coyote sent. :This should be in your head already if I’ve done my job right. The hard part was doing it while you were drunk. This is more a test for the fresh-boot Ris than you.:

:So…what you’re saying is that we don’t have to learn facts by rote?: Aleka asked.

:Exactly! They refreshed my old nannies, so I can do that now. Don’t worry about the finer points of the Law, that’s what I’m here for,: said Zoey. :I only put what you absolutely need to know in your head. This kind of training used to take up to a year on Earth, but we can get you through the book learning in six weeks.:

:Implant, remember?: Aleka scoffed. :Earth tech’s just as good here at integrating new knowledge.:

:Don’t say ‘Integration’,: Zoey muttered. She hadn’t actually touched her rider’s implant since the day they’d first Fused, which Aleka thought curious. It would have made the thought-sharing Fuse enabled that much easier.

:I think you’re being a little dramatic about all that. It’s just a mesh rumor,: Aleka replied.

The coyote RIDE barked laughter aloud. :You have no idea. I’m just playing it safe. I like being me. I’m not sure I like you well enough to be an ‘us’. I’ve never seen one, but I know other Marshals who have. They’re real. I’m not going to risk an accidental trigger.:

Aleka wasn’t sure if she should be offended at that statement or not.

With the blue orb of Zharus overhead, the Tin Stars studied the planet’s history. Originally discovered by the Kepler space telescope in the early 21st century, the first probe was not dispatched until well after the Oil Age firmly ended in 2215. At nearly half the speed of light it took over 40 years to reach “Kepler 4055d” as it was called at the time. Unfortunately that probe was unable to go into orbit, but ultimately it didn’t need to. This was long before anyone thought FTL travel was even possible, it took 18 years for the probe transmission to reach Proxmia, one of Earth’s two Colonies at the time. Proxima sent a follow-up probe at 80% the speed of light.

Ultimately only the first probe’s data was enough. Zharus was an ideal world…if only for distance. Decades later the Zharus Diaspora Group and the Steader Colonization Consortium banded together for the first time and purchased the colonization rights from the United Nations—at a cost many times the Gross World Product of the early 21st century when the planet was discovered. It took a century for them to pay off the debt and was the last world ZDG financed. The colonists thought it fitting to name their new world after the philanthropist group.

The most curious feature on the planet was the Dry Ocean. It looked like a giant impact feature, and that’s what people thought until Dr. Martinez began studying it in 53 AL, the same year Nextus was founded. That polity was the first official settlement on Gondwana. In the next few decades, Sturmhaven, Uplift, and Cascadia followed.

“Then about forty years ago what was actual desert wasteland became our greatest treasure,” Brooke said. The doe nuzzled Fenwick for allowing her to speak. “Which led to war…”

“Which we’ll go over another time,” Zoey said. “Well done, all of you.”

The gravity was back on, otherwise they might not have noticed Thirty-Thirty going into convulsions and collapsing on the floor, twitching, exuding a metallic odor. A silvery pool started spreading around her within seconds.

Ken-and-Glenn were on the ball. It was Glenn who spoke. He was the one without an accent. “Velox, Jonesy! Dump out out of orbit, now! Gimme a full brake-and-drop! We’ve got an Integration in progress! Everyone else, de-Fuse now!”

Zoey practically barfed her rider out, ejecting her a full meter on the low-gravity deck. The shuttle was over the middle of Gondwana. The Acme spun on its axis to give full thrust to retrofire. The inertial dampers couldn’t quite handle it, making everybody slide backwards a little. Shrinking Thirty-Thirty left a trail of silver on the simulated hardwood.

“That’s just an urban legend!” Rollins shouted nervously. “Er…is it infectious? Is that why you…?”

“We doubt it, but we’re not taking chances, Rollins,” Masterson said. “Wait a second. Zoey…do you see what I’m seeing?”

“She’s looking more like a ‘Mark’ than a ‘Marsha’,” the coyote RIDE said. “What happened? I know her RIDE was supposed to help break that Sturmhaven brainwash…ing.” She facepawed. “Oh, crap. That’s the goddamned trigger right there. What’s next, Ken?”

Ken covered the now-masculine, groaning being with his own duster, stepping through the slime of rebirth. “I’m coming Mike, he should…”

“Get them to the Cave of Wonders,” a horsey new voice came through the speakers.

Masterson looked up at the windows. The shuttle was dropping so fast that it had already entered the planet’s atmosphere. The re-entry shields were wreathed in ionic fire. The Acme had a lot of tricks up its sleeve. “You sure about this, Mike? I’ve got a shuttle full of shiny Tin Stars here. No patina on ‘em yet.”

“You wanted to introduce Thompson there to the Quantums, didn’t you?” the surly voice replied. “You have a small group this time. Bring ‘em in. Munn out.”

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Cave of Wonders

Even with the meteoric reentry getting to their destination was going to take some time. With the now-oversized duster wrapped around him, the integrated Thirty-Thirty and Marsha huddled with Ken and Glenn in the center of the classroom, shivering. The silver slime had dried out, turning to powder. The shuttle’s cleaning systems were having problems with it.

Finally, Ken stood up. “Okay, Tin Stars. What you just witnessed was the ‘birth’ of a new form of life—I’d call ‘em the first Zharusian natives, myself. We—”

“What the hell happened and why am I a stallion?”

“Thirty? What do you remember?” Glenn asked.

“I…I pried something loose in Marsha’s head,” he said dazedly, with a woman’s inflection. “The brainwashing was deeper than either of us thought, so I went to root it out. We Integrated, didn’t we?”

“Eeeyup,” the dapple gray horse said.

The new stallion snorted. “Well, this is hardly fair. It’s only been six weeks since my First Boot!” There were three clear hemispheres on each side of Thirty-Thirty’s neck, embedded in his skin. They were of varying sizes, the largest the size of an orange, the smallest the size of a marble. They started flickering.

A young man’s voice came from thin air. “Sorry about this,” it said. A faint outline, like a pencil drawing, appeared next to the Integrate. His facial features were familiar—if you took Marsha’s heavily feminine face and pushed it just as far in the opposite direction, the result was in front of them. It was hard to believe it was the same person. Then the image flickered again, and it was a nude pencil drawing of Marsha, then back again. “Am I here? What am I? Where am I? Where are my clothes?!”

The Gold Stars looked at the flickering hardlight image. Glenn wuffed and snuffled the Integrate’s neck. “Ken, I think we’ve got a projector Intie here.”

“I agree, old friend,” Masterson said. He put his hands on the projection’s shoulders—apparently it was quite solid. It kept flickering between male and female, finally settling on female again.

Thirty-Thirty took a deep breath, and started changing. His equine features softened a little. It was obvious the body hidden under Ken’s duster changed as well. “Ahhh…this is more like it,” the mare said, sounding even more drained than before. “No more weird dangly parts.”

“This is right up my alley!” Brooke said. “Hey Allie, remember, uh…”

“Curia Blueblade? Oh, yeah. You changed sexes when you sneezed,” Aleka said. “And you always found a way to sneeze at the worst times for maximum comedy. I see where this is going.”

The orange-sized hemisphere on Thirty-Thirty’s neck separated, revealing it was actually a globe. It flared brightly, then the young man Aleka assumed was teenaged Uri Vazov stood in front of everyone. He kneeled next to his RIDE, then hugged her. “You gave me what I wanted, Thirty. But…wow.” The image morphed into Marsha. “Now I can’t decide. Seems our physical body reflects who’s in charge.”

“Tonto’s here,” Glenn announced, turning to the classroom door. The shuttle wasn’t yet on the ground.

Another black equine Integrate, hardlight emitters on his shoulders, entered. “Up and about already? Well, I’m Quantum Star Mike Munn. I’ll be your guide to your new selves.”

“We’re going to need a whole new atlas,” Marsha said, image flickering like a bad hologram, revealing the globe inside.

Thirty groaned, shutting her eyes. “I messed up so bad. I was just trying to help her! And now we’re…what? What are we?”

“On the ground in thirty seconds,” Jonesy informed.

“No, that’s the answer to ‘where are we’. Don’t worry, Tin Star. We’ll get you all sorted out.” He offered Thirty-Thirty his hand. She took it, and he helped her stand up. “And cleaned up. Post-Integration gunk isn’t pleasant.”

The globe projecting Uri/Marsha’s image abruptly flickered and dropped to the floor, where it bounced. Brooke snapped it up before anybody else could, an expression on her face like Indiana Jones finding the Holy Grail. Mike quickly snatched it away from her and re-installed it in the new Integrate’s neck. “Thanks, Thompson, but be careful with that.”

“Marsha doesn’t actually live in that little thing, does she?” The hope in the doetaur’s question was obvious to everyone.

Both of us are in here,” Thirty-Thirty said, tapping the side of her head below the ears, looking like she was about to fall asleep on her feet.

“That’s just a ‘remote’, you could say,” Quantum Star Munn said. “And it only has a limited charge, made worse because I don’t think she has much to spare right now. Let’s get our new Intie a full stomach and some full batteries. Ah, Donna! Everyone, this is Gold-Quantum Donna-Rose, she’s my second in command here.”

Brooke was completely crestfallen, like the boulder had just run Indy over.

“You rang?” rumbled a deep-but-still-female voice. “Where’s the n00b?”

Seaford folded his arms across his chest. “Does this mean that all Integrates are horses?”

Donna abruptly rushed over to the human to loom over him. “Why? Do you want to join us? I can arrange that. We have a nice little mare RIDE that—”

“Hey!” Trips yelped, dashing across the room. The coyote physically pushed the mare away from his rider. “He’s mine! Shoo, horsey! I don’t care what you are!”

“Well well,” Ken said. “Now that’s the kind of thing I want to see. Glad you two bonded so tightly already, Trips, Rusty.”

“Yes, bonded,” Donna said with a very creepy smile. “Forever and ever…”

Aleka felt a stab of fear, but not from herself. It was Zoey, at the far end of the room, cringing inwardly so much she nearly provoked Passive mode.

“I’m…we’re ready to go now,” Thirty-Thirty said weakly.

Donna turned around and simply picked up the new Integrate without apparent effort. “We’ll get you sorted, Tinny, don’t worry about that.” She looked up as the windows overhead started opening—the classroom was also a cargo bay when needed—then lifted into the sky.

“Donna likes heroics,” Munn said. “The rest of you, follow me. Fuse up and stay tight. You’re the not first non-Inties to enter this place. But there’s a lot of us who don’t think too highly of non-Inties. Be prepared to be called ‘meat’ or ‘mech’, those are insults. However, if you’re called ‘flesh’ or ‘metal’, that’s a sign of respect. Got it? Good! Fall in!”

Zoey did as she was ordered, but the Fuse felt reluctant. Aleka wondered just what was wrong, but her partner wouldn’t answer. The coyote just remained silent and distant.

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:I’m getting a really creepy vibe here,: Brooke sent on a heavily encrypted channel. The Cave of Wonders seemed hardly fitting of the name—it was just a village of old portable quonset huts contained within a climate dome inside a large cave. The buildings all had a very lived-in look, and there was nobody around they could see. Those they could were fixed on Brooke herself, as if she was a new kind of butterfly. :Really creepy.:

:First rule of Integrates,: Munn sent with the very same encryption keys. :Your private conversations aren’t. Don’t say anything encrypted that you wouldn’t say aloud. Got it, Tinnies?:

“Yessir, I got it,” Brooke said. Then she decided a little show was in order, extending her human torso and turning male at the same time. The rack—of either kind—was quite impressive. There was zero response, deflating him further.

Fenwick took up his accustomed perch in Bernie’s antlers. The little ferret was trembling in fear. “How long we gonna be here, Ken? These people…they don’t like me.”

“Not long, Fenwick, so don’t pay it no mind,” the Gold Star said.

“Welcome to the Quantum Village,” Munn said. “We’re in Building Six.”

“Is it the same as Building One?” Trips asked dryly.

“That’s one demerit for knowing the reference,” Munn said sourly. “But yes, it is. It was some Chrome’s idea. Maybe I should give the demerit to her.

“I thought you didn’t give demerits outside of Roll Call?” the coyote said, ears raised. One demerit equaled three hours of cleanup duty.

“The Village is Mike’s domain—he’s a Platinum, a Divisional Marshal in charge of the Quants,” Masterson said. “He was our very first Integrate Marshal, maybe twenty or so years ago. We’ve basically created the Quantums out of whole cloth the last ten years or so. Right now they encompass the Inties and the undercovers, although the twain have not yet officially combined.” He looked sideways at Bernie. “I believe you expressed an interest, Thompson?”

“Can’t think of a better way to apply my altiholism,” the stag-taur said proudly. “Remember the ‘Mark One’? Well, I sent it off for some modifications. I realize this frame is far too distinctive for undercover work, but I’ll be any kind of girl you need me to be in the Mark One-A.”

“What if we need you a man?” Mike Munn asked. “Did you consider that?”

“Uh…” Bernie stammered.

The Platinum Marshal held up one hand. “No worries. We’ll need to chat once we finish the class. I just wanted to raise the possibility with you—it could be years in the future after you have a lots of experience under your belt—’Virtual Life’ terms, you’ll need to gain a few levels first. We’ll play to your strengths, of course,” Munn said.

Bernie smirked. “I only just chose my Race and Class and I’m still in the tutorial. I see what you’re getting at.”

“Glad ya do, Thompson,” Masterson said, slapping him amiably on the shoulder. “We’re just funnin’ ya.”

Munn led the group into one of the classrooms in Building Six. “What we’re going to do here is bring in some of the other Integrate Quantum Tin Stars—a dolphin, an avian, a dinosaur, and a couple others. They’re going to show you what they look like, we’ll go over Intie characteristics, what we can do, and how to fight us if it should come to that. You may have noticed we’re generally not a friendly bunch to flesh and metal. I’ll also go over just why that is. Sit down, take notes, ask questions…yes, Tin Star Seaford?”

“Will Marsha and Thirty-Thirty be rejoining us?” Rusty Seaford asked. “It’s going to look funny if we don’t come back with them.”

“She’s not the first to Integrate during training,” Masterson said. “Don’t you worry none, Seaford. We’ve got it in hand.”

The classroom strongly resembled the one back in Nextus, likely on purpose. The room itself didn’t need computers or screens with its Integrate students—and for that matter, neither did the Fused humans and RIDEs. Hardlight chairs formed behind the desks and they each had a seat.

Munn clasped his hoofhands together. “Oookay, where to start?”

“How about nowhere?” Everybody’s head turned to see who had spoken. It was a disgruntled velociraptor with a Tin Star on his duster’s lapel. “I didn’t join the Quantums to work with meat and mech. I was told I wouldn’t have to.”

“By whom?” Mike said. “I’m damned certain none of my Golds would’ve said such a thing, or even my Silvers. I don’t recall you expressing this kind of opinion when you applied at Jurassic Park, Tinny.”

“I’ve had a few words with some folks around here,” the small dinosaur continued. “Longtimers you haven’t listened to from the start.”

“They’ve had ample opportunity to leave,” Munn pointed out calmly. Then with every word he seemed to grow a little larger, a little angrier. “And you joined us anyway. I’m going to give you the opportunity to stop your threats and leave. You’ll only get ten demerits. For each second you fail to do so, I’ll add another ten. If you even twitch towards raising any weapon—physical or hardlight—at me or anyone else, I’ll slam you to the ground so fast you’ll be in a recovery tank for a week. Do I make myself absolutely clear, Tinny?”

What happened next was almost too fast for the humans to perceive. The Tin Star launched a fusillade of hardlight discs at them, Munn and their RIDEs threw up shielding fast enough to stop them, but they perforated the classroom walls. A giant fist then descended down on the velociraptor Integrate, cratering him.

The Tinny groaned, while behind him Donna dusted off the palms of her huge hands. “I’ll get in touch with some Enclave who might take him once he’s healed up,” she said sadly, deftly removing a device from the base of the unconscious Intie’s tail. “DIN confiscated, Mike. He’s a bit smooshed, but he’ll live.”

“Arrest him properly when he wakes up,” Munn said, clenching his own fists. “The damn Intie prison isn’t even off the drawing boards yet. Fuckit! Sorry about this Glenn, Tinnies, I thought we’d screened new applicants better than this. This is a big failure on our part.”

“There’s probably a few of Fritz’s or even Appa’s supporters still lurking around the Village,” Donna said. “That one Integrated pretty young as they go. Very impressionable. Dinos like him are a little flighty as it is.”

After stripping off his duster, Donna formed a hardlight shell around their would-be attacker. A couple other Integrate Marshals arrived and took him into careful custody. Munn and Donna looked pensive. “We’ll do another screening. Perhaps now wasn’t the best time after all,” the stallion said.

“I think they should stay, Tonto,” Donna said, folding her arms. “I take responsibility for that one. I screened him and he still got through my interview with flying colors. He’ll be expelled from the Cave for this.”

“If you say so, Rosie,” Munn said. He looked around at the damage to the walls. “Building’s still sound. Only superficial damage.”

“You want to start with Darcy?” The mare nodded at the Tin Stars. “She’s our dolphin. A real cutie.”

:And how does a dolphin wear the uniform?: Zoey thought. She’d barely said more than a few mental grunts since leaving the shuttle. She was scared. Frightened enough to be shaking their shared knees.

:What’s gotten into you?: Aleka asked, knowing the Inties could overhear. She didn’t bother with encryption. At least the other Tin Stars wouldn’t overhear.

:I like being me. If I…merge…with you, I’ll no longer be me. And you’ll no longer be you,: Zoey said. :It’s…it’s death, Allie. It’d be like getting my core crushed. I c-c-c-…:

“Zoey, you’re excused from this class,” Glenn said with firmness, but a surprising amount of empathy. “Petrovna can stay if she wishes, but you’re free to return to the Acme.”

“But…Glenn! How did you…?” Zoey stammered.

“I relayed it to him,” Munn said. “I’m sorry today has turned out poorly after all. Tin Star Petrovna, are you willing to stay without your RIDE?”

Zoey spat her out again before she could answer yes or no, her hat and duster floating in midair. The coyote was out the door in skimmer mode before they floated gently onto Aleka’s own head and shoulders, shrinking to fit. “It’s okay! I was going to say yes,” the Earther said, raising her hands. “She knew it before I did. What’s wrong with her, sirs?”

“Hopefully not a RIDE Fuse-phobia,” Glenn said, chewing his lower lip. “Those’re tough to treat without going into her core. There were no indications of this before today, far as I know.”

“Seeing one of your classmates turn Intie right in front of you will do that, I’m afraid,” Munn said. “Okay, then let’s get started.”

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Another kind of fear gnawed on Aleka during the demonstration. Fear of washing out—if Zoey had suddenly developed a phobia, what could they do to treat her? Would they just put Aleka’s training on pause? Or even shuffle them both into desk jobs? Neither Masterson nor Munn gave any indication this was even a risk, though they did signal the matter was under discussion during class.

“For all some of us will tell you that we’re a ‘superior’ species, we certainly are not. Yes, we can do many things neither humans nor RIDEs can. But we’re no smarter than pure flesh or metal,” Munn said after several Intie Tin Stars did their demos. “Our so-called superpowers are simply highly refined extensions of our own tech. Instead of making us smarter, our qubitite processing power and memory goes into making our body systems work.”

“So what do we do if we encounter one of you in the field breaking the law?” Aleka asked.

“Your duster and your RIDE have experimental gear for that,” Munn said. “Once you progress to field training we’ll be working with you closely. My Quants need time with you as well.”

Seaford had looked confused through the whole demonstration. “This makes no sense to me at all—to me or Trips. What’s happening here are microsingularies, so why aren’t you transcending to another plane of existence or something?”

“Fair question,” Munn said. “We honestly have no idea. We do know that the first Integration happened in Nextus during the War, but there was no ‘becoming one with the universe’ there either.”

The orientation lasted some hours. Aleka was fascinated where Zoey was horrified and even Brooke was uneasy. The Inties had an astonishing array of powers, from Munn’s shapeshifting, to Donna’s great strength, and another’s quick-change gender swapping almost as fast as Thirty-Thirty’s. They all could do incredible things with hardlight and their lifters, amounting to perfect disguises and real telekinesis. All of them could fly, though the avians were still much better at it than everyone else—same as the cetaceans were better underwater. Then the newly Integrated themselves returned, all cleaned up and wearing blue and brown. A bipedal mare followed by the hardlight remote of Uri Vazov.

“Welcome back, Tin Stars,” Ken said. “You both look much better.”

“We feel much better,” Thirty-Thirty said. “Amazing what some food and a recharge will do for you.”

“And a nice bath. Yuck!” Uri said.

Aleka walked over to Uri. He was very handsome. But that hardly meant much with hardlight—he could probably look however he wanted. She extended her hand, and he took it. His palm and fingers felt warm and supple, like real flesh and skin. “You look great, Uri. Are you coming back with us?”

The young man morphed the projection back to Marsha, then nodded. “Yes, but we’ve been asked to join the Quantums. We’ve accepted.”

“Does this mean you’re a ‘we’ now?”

“No,” Thirty-Thirty said. “More like conjoined twins. It’s like we have a perfect Fuse—we share one body—but we’re still quite separate. It’s a trade-off on who’s running the body and who has the remote. Uri there can be Marsha as much as she wants, but my brain goes crazy if I feel dangly parts.”

“That’s a design weakness for RI cores in general,” Munn said. “Hasn’t been solved in thirty-five years. Severe gender dysphoria for the RI core because the neural map isn’t as flexible as we would like. This is why the RIDE can’t change sex to match the rider instead. Funny how it persists in some Inties.”

“They’re not the only Sam-and-Als I know of, but they are the first I’ve seen with those floating globe-thingies,” Donna said.

“Sam and who?” Aleka asked, her search agents turning up a few hundred possibilities on the local mesh.

“Look up Quantum Leap,” Marsha said. A sparkling capital H appeared on her forehead. “Sounds better than being a ‘Rimmer-and-Lister’.”

“More references I just don’t get,” Aleka grumbled. This time her agents came up with something called a “Britcom” titled Red Dwarf. “Where did you people find these things? Twencen didn’t have near this kind of VL following back home.”

Thirty-Thirty punched her close partner on the back of her shoulder and laughed. “Guess that makes you the smeghead, smeghead.”

Marsha turned to face her permanent roommate. “Oh, yeah?” The hardlight hologram vanished into the sphere, which rejoined its slot on their neck. There appeared to be an internal struggle of some kind, then their body rapidly expanded into a stallion. Uri folded his arms across his broad, muscular chest.

The globe again separated, sparkled, then a young human woman that didn’t resemble Marsha stood there, the same H on her forehead. She put her hands on her face. “Okay, this is new,” Thirty-Thirty said.

“Smeghead,” Uri said, grinning.

“As fascinating as this is, can we play Stupid Intie Tricks later?” Munn said grumpily. “You’ll both have plenty of time to figure out your new abilities. For now I suggest you swap back and use that other trick they taught you, Thirty.”

The second swap happened faster than the first, only to be followed by the large Integrate mare shifting to all fours, looking very much like a normal horse aside from the six emitter globes and another pair of square-plate emitters on her spine. A marble-sized globe on each side flickered and the image enlarged slightly into the un-Fused Clydesdale mare. Then the large globe returned, and Marsha reappeared.

Munn handed Marsha her duster and hat. “Here you are, Tin Star. Carry on.”

Marsha put them on without any trouble, smiling broadly. The projection looked no less real than her physical body had before. “Happy to carry on carrying on, sir. Both of us.”

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Once class was over they promptly returned to the shuttle. There was a steaming pile of…something at the base of the Acme’s ramp. “Fuser nannies,” Glenn said, the RIDE was clearly upset. “Zoey’s.”

A hardlight climate shield surrounded Aleka, who had been asked to test out that function as they left the Cave. The shields shimmered a little the harsh sunlight. It’s sixty degrees C and I feel fine, she thought. But here she was, standing in the middle of the broiling Dry Ocean, unprotected by a RIDE. The battery meter was steadily dropping, though.

They found Zoey in the head—the shuttle’s restroom—huddled in a corner with her tail between her legs and forepaws covering her face, whimpering. Masterson nodded at Aleka, indicating she should do what she can before anything else. The Earther nodded, then slowly approached the frightened coyote.

“Zoey? It’s Allie,” she said, walking in slowly. There wasn’t a lot of room, so there wasn’t far to go. She put her hat on the sink and shrugged out of her duster, then knelt down next to the RIDE. “Come on, Zoey, talk to me.”

“Nonononono! Not doing it again,” she whimpered, shaking her head violently. “Can’t. Won’t! Got rid of my Fusers.”

“You know, the thought does cross my mind…half a year ago you were the one who demanded to Fuse,” Aleka said carefully. “Because I wasn’t giving you your due. You know what? You were completely right. I didn’t understand at the time, but now I do. We know each other, Zoey, body and soul. Now you’re not giving me mine.

“Well, I like my body and soul where they are!” Zoey snapped, snarling at her rider. “Not a part of you! I don’t want to be smushed into some forgotten corner of your head! I don’t want you gabbing in a corner of mine for all eternity! I want my thoughts to be my own! I’m not Fusing again! Get another RIDE!” She shouted loud enough to make Aleka’s ears ring.

Aleka sighed, then stood up. “Do you really mean that? Truly? Or is that just the fear talking?” The rejection hurt. It hurt badly.

“I’ll resign my commission if I have to,” Zoey snarled, not backing down.

“No need for that,” Glenn said, coming into the head Fused with Ken. “You’re hereby placed on medical leave from the field and assigned to desk duty with the Silicons. You’ll be given counseling to alleviate your fear—”

“Fuck that!” Zoey spat. “Sir.”

“Your rider will be temporarily assigned another RIDE until such time as you return to active duty,” Glenn completed. “Sorry about this, Aleka. Really, really sorry. If you want to take the signing money and run, you don’t have to give it back if you decide not to continue with us. These are special circumstances.”

“If I do that then Zoey won’t get the help she needs, will she?” Aleka asked.

“Well, no. She will. But you’ll be completely RIDE-less.”

Aleka sighed. “I’m not going anywhere. I’ll take the temporary. And help her, please.”

Chapter 3: Head of the Class

April 30, 156 AL (Week 3)

The pepperbox pistol had quickly become Aleka’s favorite weapon. It was versatile, with as many different firing modes as there were barrels—five of them. Like her more powerful LeMat carbine, the pistol could fire pulse and gauss shots. In addition, it had micro-grenades, could fire a tracking bug, and had a pulse X-ray laser for instant-hit capability.

However, the LeMat was no slouch either. It was directly connected to her duster’s power feed and could fire thousands of pulse shots. There were legends of Marshals holding out against incredible odds for days without ever once sleeping or needing to reload their weapons. The reputation for determination and indomitability was well-deserved.

Aleka flicked her equine ears. Everything felt so different Fusing with Vanna, her assigned temporary RIDE, that she was starting to wonder would actually be temporary after almost three weeks. Zoey wasn’t getting any better. Thinking about her first Fuse and friend always put her off balance. Her next shot with the pepperbox went very far wide of the target. “Frack!”

“It’s okay, Allie. You’re doing better than I would. Poor Zoey,” Vanna said, lipping one of her ears amiably as she would another horse. Vanna was chestnut, with white socks and a blaze down her nose. The pair had Fused several times already. The mare was very careful not to make any unnecessary changes to Aleka’s figure. But the horsey ears, mane-style hair, and tail were a given.

Aleka’s chestnut hair continued in a narrow growth down her neck, beyond the human norm, all the way between her shoulderblades. Reflecting the blaze on Vanna’s face Aleka’s eyebrows were white, and at her hairline over them there was a wide patch of white hair, giving her a very distinctive look. It was fussy and hard to keep groomed on her own. She and Marsha had taken to grooming each other’s mane and tail in the mornings—the Integrate projection didn’t actually need it, but it was necessary to keep up appearances.

“I’ll get it this time,” Aleka said, sighting down the barrel without any direct assistance from Vanna or her own implant. The RIDE had given her the muscle memory she needed, but it was only a booster. Refining the basic skills through actual experience was necessary. The aim was to have a basic un-assisted firearms certification by the end of the classroom portion of her Tin Star training. Aleka clicked the barrel a couple notches to enable the pulse gun.

When the barrel was turned, depending on the mode, it wasn’t just that single barrel that fired—it was up to all five for maximum power and zero recoil. She put a pulse shot just barely left of the target’s center-of-mass, then smiled in satisfaction. “Yes!” She pumped her fist. “Suspect down!”

“And that’s the end of today’s firing range practice,” Vanna said cheerfully. “You’re not perfect, and you’re certainly not terrible either. Good show!”

“Real good,” Aleka agreed. She didn’t have to be the absolute best, but was still near the top. The others in her class had taken to calling her “Pepper”—but only on an exploratory basis, they were earning their own nicknames as it was and nobody wanted a bad one to stick. She was still considering if the nickname fit. “Pepper” Petrovna seemed a little…cliché. It implied a sort of spunkiness—even boyishness—that she wasn’t sure she had or wanted. But if the horseshoe fits…she thought. Well, maybe. “LeMat” Petrovna didn’t have the same alliterative ring to it.

So, maybe Pepper isn’t so bad, she reflected, still on the fence. The firing range was a busy place, full of MRS cadets and Tin Stars getting their practice in. She couldn’t help noticing that the MRS cadets only practiced while Fused. While the cluster of bullseye shots were kind of impressive, it more reflected their RIDEs targeting sensor calibrations. Aleka couldn’t help feeling a little extra pride over her accomplishment.

Vanna materialized a saddle, but no bridle. With a slight lifter boost from her duster, Aleka jumped up and settled in. One aspect of being a Marshal was being very visible when they wanted to be. Riding on horseback (RIDEback, really) was the natural way to do this. The coyotes typically entered the fortified, hardlight-shielded villages and townlets along the Shelf either Fused up or in a cloud of dust kicked up by their high-performance lifters.

Under her open duster, Aleka’s breasts bounced freely, barely contained by her cobalt blue bandeau top. She liked causing nosebleeds in some men, and being honest with herself, she knew that having the body she did gave her a kind of power over the more testosterone-poisoned of them. Maybe that was being a manipulative bitch who used her body as just another gun in her arsenal, and she knew it was a moral failing, yet she did it anyway. It certainly worked on Ibby, she thought glumly, except when it didn’t.

It was all part of VL genderplay, the women-playing-men had gleefully played up their side of things, causing their share of squealing like a teenaged girl even in Aleka herself. Turnabout was fair play, after all. It was all in good fun, except when it wasn’t

Vanna’s back abruptly opened up, Aleka’s Stetson and duster flying off of her on their own, and the human sank inside as the mare folded up around her into Fuse. Just as the hardlight came back on, the enlarged hat and coat floated gently back down on the RIDE’s head, Vanna precisely putting her arms through the duster’s sleeves. The whole process took about five seconds. :Fuse drill complete! A new personal record!: the mare said gleefully, clapping their hands. :Hurrah!:

:You know, every time we Fuse…dear Lord, you’re a big ‘gun, Vanna,: Aleka said, looking down at their shared chest.

:I am in perfect proportion to my height and weight,: the mare said proudly. :Two and a half meters of anthro mare mean big tracts of land.:

That wasn’t what Aleka meant, and Vanna knew it, but the mare liked to think she was clever with the misinterpretation. Compared to Zoey, Vanna was a giant. She was listed as a Medium unit, but was no smaller than the Heavies. She had lighter armor, and as a Mobility unit the extra space was used for a number of different modular equipment paks. Her current training pak sent telemetry to the Bronzes—the teachers and trainers—for evaluation.

:A rating of 89 for the firing range, and 95 for the Fuse drill,: Aleka read, delighted. She looked at the name on the grade card. “Aw, geez. They’re already putting ‘Pepper’ Petrovna on my cards!”

“After that last shot, guess that makes it official,” Vanna said, smirking. “No way that’s an accident. I’m technically the ‘Old Salt’ here, you know. Fifteen years in the Marshals—still a Silver, but I don’t care. That makes us Salt and Pepper.” Then she turned more serious. “Guess we’re off to see Zoey now, right?”

“Let me go alone this time. Last time…”

“She almost bit me in VR, I know,” Vanna said pensively. “You ready?”

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Like the last time, Aleka first met Zoey’s therapist in a comfortably-furnished virtual anteroom. It was almost as good as VL, but something about Zharusian VR just felt just that much off-kilter from what she was familiar with. It wasn’t something she could exactly pinpoint, but she expected it was the qubitite-based mainframes they used imparted a certain impression to her neural lace it had trouble adapting to.

Kiva—a coyote like Zoey—hugged Aleka in welcome. “I’ll start with the good news,” she said in a smooth, friendly voice. “There’s been some improvement. Unfortunately I can’t claim to be the source. She asked to be put to work again so she could feel useful, so we did. She’s doing coding for the Sillies.”

The Silicon Stars were one of the many supporting divisions that enabled the Field Marshals to do their work—they were even less formal than the rest of the organization, and had gotten their nickname all too fittingly. “They haven’t been ribbing on her too much, have they?” Aleka asked.

“No. They’re smart enough not to go after someone like that. We’ve got her mostly working alone,” Kiva said. “Thank you for not bringing Vanna with you. It’s going to take time.”

“After Zoey told me to get another RIDE, I don’t understand this,” Aleka said, sitting down in one of the cushy chairs. The inside of the room was moderne 1930s décor, with sleek lines and soft edges. “I guess this means she didn’t actually want that to happen.”

“Quite true, Ms. Petrovna. Or can I call you ‘Pepper’?” Kiva lolled her tongue. She was quite nude.

“I’d prefer ‘Allie’, please,” Aleka said, not quite willing to settle on that nickname yet.

“Fair enough, Allie. Before we go into the new virtual space, let’s get you dressed for the occasion.” Kiva pulled a bundle from midair and pushed it in the Tin Star’s direction. “I’ve built a very specific environment for her treatment.”

Aleka tapped the icon on the bundle, then found herself in a deerskin Hopi dress, with beads woven into her hair. “Okay, is this a character I’m playing?”

“It’s just for atmospheric purposes,” Kiva explained. “We like our symbols here. Coyotes are significant spiritual figures in the American Southwest.”

“Tell me again why you can’t just edit out the incident that caused her phobia?” Aleka asked, settling the dress over her shoulders a little more comfortably. The tanned deer hide scratched her nipples. “Can I at least have a bra under this?”

“Nope! I insist on authenticity,” the RI therapist said brightly. “As for the memory deletion therapy, we don’t use it. Our Marshals need what we call a ‘continuity of experience’. We’ll encrypt to prevent copying, but not delete, the memories of mustered-out RIDE Marshals. You’ve already seen those results twice, with Zoey and Vanna.

“Besides, simply deleting won’t actually treat the cause of the phobia. If a similar incident happens again in the future, she’d just have the same reaction. I’ve already had Marsha and Thirty-Thirty speak with her on multiple occasions since your last visit. I think we’re making progress, but there’s always a chance of regression. Make your visit brief.”

The wall faded away, revealing a southwest landscape that hadn’t existed for a thousand years and more—not to mention twenty light-years. Aleka walked out into the VR landscape, a fresh breeze tugging on her hair. High clouds partly shrouded the turquoise-blue sky, reflecting strikingly off ochre-colored fork formations. Set under an overhang were several adobe dwellings, stacked like the Anasazi villages on Earth. Aleka had been here before, and made her way towards the first ladder. Zoey’s home was two ladders up, then one down into the home proper.

A fire burned in the center, turning the air smokey. In the far corner of the room an anthro coyote woman, wearing nothing, worked at a loom. She pushed the shuttle back and forth, carefully working up line by line. Aleka knew this was just a symbol for the work Zoey was doing, but it was an impressive one.

“I heard you and I can smell you, ‘Pepper’,” Zoey said, not looking at her. “I’m happy with your progress. You’ve got that shine I knew you did.”

“I wish you were there with me,” Aleka said.

“Of course you do,” Zoey said, still not making eye contact. “I’m glad you don’t have that old nag with you this time. She used to have a white hide, you know, until she got tired of the references and changed it to chestnut. Someone at Nextus RIDEworks just loves digging up twencen cultural references and sticking them on us RIDEs like so much superglue.”

“At least they ran out of coyote puns before they reached you,” Aleka said, coming closer.

Zoey finally looked at her. “I’ve requested they take my RI core out of my DE and plug me into the mainframe permanently. I’m more useful with the Sillies these days. I might as well save the Marshals some money by giving it to a naïve new ‘yote.”

“You know they won’t do that,” Aleka said, a little alarmed. “I won’t let them do that. You’re my friend. I don’t own your personality core, at least the way I think of it, but I do own the DE. That DE is yours and only yours.”

“If you say so,” Zoey said, returning to her weaving.

“What’s that you’re working on?” Aleka said, folding her arms.

The coyote RI didn’t respond for several minutes, while she wove a few more lines. “Sorry. Most of my cycles are doing decryption. They actually put me to work on trying to untangle Integrate signals. It’s a…difficult problem, but I think I can break the base code…”

“Kiva said you’ve been chatting with Marsha and Thirty-Thirty.” The last time she’d been very animal-like in her reactions. Kiva had explained she’d shut down her higher human functions to further retreat into a ‘safe place.’

“We’ve talked for a while,” Zoey said evenly. “Just because they ended up the Thing With Two Brains doesn’t mean we would.”

A glimmer of an idea formed in Aleka’s head. There were some fairly major obstacles to overcome, though. Mostly Zoey’s intense personal dislike of Vanna. But there was also the matter of the best use of resources. Her implant quickly told Aleka that her request had never been done before—but it didn’t necessarily mean they’d deny it. The Marshals were quick to adopt change and experiment to find what worked.

“Take care, Zoey,” Aleka said, putting her hand on the coyote’s shoulder.

“See you in the funny papers, Pepper,” Zoey said with a hint of her old humor. “I’ll keep in touch.”

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The unusual request went right to the top—all the way to Qibitite (Qube) Star Reed Mosley, the Commandant in charge of the Federated Marshals. His RIDE was, oddly enough, an arctic fox named Summers. Aleka could just imagine the laughter in the RIDEworks design building over making an arctic animal-based RIDE for primary duty in the Dry Ocean. Mosley himself was a Cape Nord expatriate, having rejected that polity’s patriarchy and married a woman of Sturmhaven. Rumor had it as a classic Romeo and Juliet romance, only with less death at the end.

Fitting his RIDE, Mosley was a small man with small foxy ears, currently in their dark brown summer phase. Nevertheless he had a commanding bearing and certain charisma under his white Stetson. His wife, Hilde, was something of a free spirit and had spent several years as a man just to see what it was like—something her family in Sturmhaven had disowned her over. She wore a Western-style petticoat under her dress.

“It’s not unusual to have us work in pairs, Reed,” Vanna said. He and the mare were on a first-name basis, which helped their case. “I don’t like seeing a fine Field Marshal like Zoey put in the Sillies. It’s a waste of her talents. But since she won’t Fuse…”

“I largely agree with you,” Reed said, steepling his clawed fingers. “And since she technically belongs to Pepper there it’s ultimately her decision, and Zoey’s. What do you want, Tin Star Petrovna?”

Aleka chuckled ruefully. “Does everybody know that nickname now? No disrespect intended, sir.”

“Word gets around fast, of course,” Mosley said. “The big question here is, can you work as a an effective trio out in the Dry? If Zoey’s operating without Fuser capabilities, with her permission we can modify her vehicle form for additional functions. Tracking, prisoner transport, better endurance at high speeds, things of that nature. We already have a fair number of independent RIDEs in the field, so this isn’t really unprecedented.”

“Does this mean you’re willing, sir?” said Aleka.

“You can call me Reed, if I can call you Pepper,” the man said, smirking. “And yes, it does. Do you want to let her know, or should I?”

“I know her. She’s rather more by-the-book than a lot of us are,” Aleka said. “I think hearing it from you would be more meaningful.”

“I agree. I’ll get in touch with Kiva and ask her when the best time to approach her is and if this works with her treatment goals,” Mosley said. “Good luck with the rest of your training, Pepper. I’m glad you decided to join us. We like the way you think.”

Aleka glowed. “Thank you very much, Reed!”

“Dismissed.”

Buoyed by her success, Aleka bounced out of the the conference room where she’d had met the Qube. A stag stood there waiting, and next to him was another woman with a familiar face. “Brooke? You got your Mark One back?”

“Yup!” she said cheerfully. “The Lithiums had a hand in it, too. It’s all up to their specs and more. You’ll never guess who’s running the stag.”

“Fenwick, right?” Vanna said dryly.

A hatch on the back of the stag popped open and a ferret’s head peeked out. He wore leather flying cap and goggles. “No score on that one, maresy. When Brooke’s brain is in the HUM, I’m in the deer. In fact, I’d better…” the antlers faded and the doe actually grew to normal Walker-mode size. The hatch closed, then the doe’s mouth moved. “There! Now I’m all girly.” Fenwick’s voice was feminine, too. “She” giggled. “Tee hee. Call me Fennie.”

Brooke grew doe ears and tail to match. “Now we’re a proper pair. This is really coming up roses for us. I just felt like showing off a little, Pep—Allie. I said Allie.”

Aleka put her hand on her hip. “Show off? You? Why, that’s so out of character for you,” she jibed. “And…please, keep calling me Allie?”

“Just because you’re you, I will,” Brooke said, tipping her hat. “But I also wanted to tell you some bad news. We’re being sent off to the Cave for special training starting Week Five. We won’t see each other again until we graduate.”

“Graduate? From classroom?” Aleka said, having a bad feeling.

“We’ll be Coppers before we see each other again, I fear,” the cyborg woman said, eyes full of sorrow. Coppers were fresh graduates—first year rookies. “I’m going to miss you, all three of you. Zoey, too.”

The former Earthers embraced, hugging one another for a long time. Aleka gave her a little kiss on her nose. “Be careful out there, hear me?”

“See you around, Allie.” Another quick snug, and Brooke headed down the corridor with Fennie behind, the doe flicking her tail.

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May 19, 156 AL: 5th Avenue Diner, Nextus

Watching Marsha eat was always strange. The projection claimed that she could digest food normally if she wanted to, but it was enough of a mess as it was when she got rid of it during bathroom breaks. There were times when Aleka had to remind herself Marsha was “just” a hardlight projection from a little floating globe, and her real body was one she shared with Thirty-Thirty. The Integrate mare’s head was over her body-mate’s shoulder, eating more of the food on their plate as her partner.

“So, two weeks of leave,” Marsha said. “Plans? Where are they sending you first?”

“Cascadia for a month,” Aleka said, picking at her pancakes. “I like rain, but not that much. Going to be learning tracking and some investigation techniques with the local Cobalts.”

“Speaking of,” Zoey said. The coyote padded over and put her large head on the table. “Decided if you’re going to specialize yet, Allie-hon? Alloys are stronger than base metals, you know. You’d make a great Cobalt alloy.”

“I was thinking of changing a couple of points, that’s it,” Allie said, petting the coyote. The Marshals encouraged cross-training wherever possible in prospective Field Marshals. They referred to it as changing the “points” on one’s badge, going beyond the basics in each area a Marshal was supposed to know—and each Marshal could have two points on their Star changed into a different metal to show their specialities. Specializations in a single other Division were called “Alloys”, then the next level was simply joining a different one completely.

“I think she’ll make a fine Field Marshal as she is,” Vanna opined. There were Marshals without any points or alloyed stars—their speciality was the fieldwork itself. The chestnut mare swished her tail. “But…a couple of points will do just fine. I suggest Chrome and Magnesium, myself.”

“I don’t see her as a Shiny or a Maggie,” Zoey replied. The Chrome Stars were the fix-anything Division, doing everything from RIDE and skimmer maintenance to keeping buildings in good repair. Forensics were Magnesium, and Cobalts the Investigators/Detectives. “Cobalts? Sure. She’ll be good at rooting out the bad guys.”

Aleka groaned and pulled her hat down over her face. She didn’t know what was worse, the full-volume arguments about procedure, or when they argued about who knew Aleka better than the other by making suggestions on her future career.

:Not this crap again: Marsha sent. She and Thirty-Thirty had been present for almost every single argument.

:I’m starting to wonder if this team up was a good idea after all,: Aleka replied. :We got…passable ratings on teamwork. Nothing particularly stellar.:

:But Ken still passed the three of you, so that’s something. He’s not the kind of guy to pad anyone’s rating,: Marsha pointed out, swallowing some pancake. :Now we’re on to the field training. They’re sending us to Cape Nord first.: She snorted. :No idea why. I’m no Valk who can’t stand to even see a man. I’d turn male now if this wasn’t a public place.:

The five of them were in a Pullman diner in northwest Nextus. The restaurant was comfortably enlarged, with several booths that had privacy screens. The food was simple fare, but inexpensive and not bad for fabbed meals. “So, how are the Quants treating you two?” Aleka asked.

Before the duo could answer, a text message came in on Aleka’s implant. She dropped her fork when she saw who it was from by the encryption key, then pulled down on the brim of her hat again. “Sheeeeeit!”

“It’s Ibrim, isn’t it?” Zoey deadpanned. “I thought there was a cooling-off period?”

“There was, but it was over yesterday.” She hadn’t spoken to her ex-husband before the divorce was finalized four weeks ago. “Wonder what he wants.”

Aleka returned the text, then connected. A woman appeared on the connection—one with a rather maternal build. She had wide hips, large breasts, and a familiar, if very feminized, face. “Ibby? You…? Ibby?

“Yes, it’s me.” She paused to let her ex-wife take her new self in. “I’m ‘Sally Rush’ now, by the way. I decided on a clean break with my old self, but I had to get in touch with you one last time,” the blonde woman said. She’d even gotten rid of the “badass” cybernetic eye. Her expression and tone of voice were slightly condescending and self-satisfied. “I popped into one of those body-mod clinics they have here. Got the full transgender treatment without needing a RIDE. Decided it was time to put up or shut up.”

In almost two decades Ibrim had never expressed any interest in being a woman himself. “Well, uh, Sally…this is kind of a shock here,” Aleka said. “I never thought you’d actually…well…”

“Fuck myself?” the new woman replied, smirking. “Remember you said that? Well, I’m not going that far. But you got me thinking about the possibilities. A couple weeks ago I realized I was still thinking like an Earther, not a Zharusian. No offense, dear, but I realized I didn’t actually need you if I wanted to have children the natural way. You remember the name of that male-female crossing-over place over on Struthers Parkway?”

“’A Womb of Your Own’,” Aleka said with a depressed sigh. The storefront specialized not only in crossovers, but finding their clients jobs as surrogate mothers. For all hardlight could reliably simulate a woman’s uterus, most people preferred to have babies the natural way. Aleka felt like Sally had just stabbed her in her own womb.

The condescension in Sally’s voice sharpened when she realized she was getting to her ex-wife. “I’m not actually using my own seed, of course,” she said in a haughty tone, fingering her pearl necklace. “But…I’m already with child. It’ll be a grand adventure.”

“I didn’t wait to turn girl, so why would you, to be preggers?” Aleka said, feeling a sob threatening to break free, feeling a spasm in her womanhood. “I’m happy for you.”

“Good luck in the Marshals,” the pregnant woman said sardonically, recognizing when her partner was about to lose it. The wound was made, the knife twisted, mission accomplished. “Well, goodbye.”

:Why that vindictive little…: Zoey fumed. :What a worthless underhanded bitch! She didn’t have to do that! There’s only one reason she would do that…that…: Zoey was so angry she became speechless.

:For once Zoey and I agree,: said Vanna. :There was a ‘girlier-than-thou’ attitude, plain as day. She wants to make you suffer for walking out on her.:

:She wants to make you miserable that you never bore her children,: Zoey added. :Don’t let her get to you, Allie. Don’t.:

:Yes, don’t!: Vanna added just as sincerely. :You don’t need her!:

Well, it worked. Aleka pushed her food away and rested her head on the formica table in front of her, arms around her face, crushed and sobbing.

“You know, a few kind words won’t be enough,” Vanna sniped at Zoey.

“You’re one to talk!” Zoey sniped back.

“Why don’t both of you stop with the bickering?” Marsha said tartly. “I don’t know what just happened, but you’re not making things any easier for her, you know.”

“This is a family dispute,” Zoey said hotly to the Integrate. “You stay out of it. Both of you!”

The conversation went sharply downhill from there.

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June 20, 156 AL: Dry Ocean Field Training, Towers region

“Forty-Two,” Trips reported. “That’s a good number for the Ultimate Answer, but not as a rating for training. That’s the third time I’ve killed you today, Allie. Jeez! What’s wrong with you three?”

The abject teamwork failure hurt far more than any simulated pulse shots to the back. Vanna and Zoey were already bickering over whose fault it was this time.

“I told you there were more than two black hats!” Vanna fumed. “It’s your fault they got me first! You’re supposed to be air cover!”

“If you’d move that horsey ass of yours a little faster you wouldn’t have gotten it burned to a crisp,” Zoey said smugly.

Trips and his partner looked at their human classmate. :Are you sure these two are supposed to be Silvers? How long have they been doing this?:

:Far too long.: And it was getting noticed by the Bronzes, especially Ken. Their ratings had dropped precipitously and word from on high was that if they didn’t shape up soon, at minimum Zoey would be pulled back into the Sillies permanently. At worst, all three of them would completely wash out of the Marshals.

Since the training was supposed to be as realistic as possible, Aleka and her classmates were out in the Marshals Training Zone in the Deep Dry with only their RIDEs for material support. The Towers region made Aleka think of Monument Valley on Earth, but where the buttes and spires were all pushed together more closely, then a huge cave network added for good measure. Add being several thousand meters below sea level, much denser atmosphere, and 80 Celsius temperatures, it was as close to Hell as Zharus could get—and the region went on for thousands of kilometers, all the way south towards Aloha.

The class had been unceremoniously dropped here two days ago and told to “make do with what’s on your back” for the next four days. They were also supposed to complete several simulated exercises: Track and Capture, Shootout, and Bandit Raid. Aleka’s team had failed all three exercises so far.

Along with Rusty and Trips, Nestor and Justice were present. “You know, you were the top of our class. What the hell happened to you three?”

“I happened,” Vanna said. “After she couldn’t do her duty and Fuse with her partner.”

The coyote glared back. “I swear, if you do anything to make my Allie Integrate with you—”

“What the hell is that?” Nestor said, looking up.

Descending overhead was what Aleka’s implant identified as a AN-225 replica, the biggest flying cargo aircraft of the twentieth century. It was spraying out a significant amount of ECM, according to her hat sensors. The only way anybody was going to detect anything was visually.

“Are they crashing?” Zoey asked. “Should we…?”

“Hold those paws, Silver. That’s a Steader Air Cargo automated flier. There’s likely nobody aboard,” Trips said. “It looks like a controlled descent to me.”

“Something like that doesn’t have Dry Ocean flightpath certification,” Vanna pointed out. “It’ll get saturated with Q-dust at that altitude. Some kind of malfunction? The ECM…this doesn’t smell right.”

“I’ll laser a report back to Cascadia, and they’ll relay it to whoever need it,” Justice said. “Why don’t we run that last exercise for the three of you one last time? A do-over?”

“Works for me, buddy,” Aleka said, shivering.

The problem were the dreams. Every night she dreamed she was still happily married to Ibrim, either pregnant, nursing, or seeing their children off to school for the first time. The imagery drove her to distraction, twisting the figurative knife in her own womb, and she couldn’t find the source. Her neural lace was acting normally—Sally didn’t plant any viruses or trojans. No, these feelings of insecurity and self doubt came from inside. They gnawed at her day and night. She had never once been pregnant in VL, though she had been wet nurse a few times. But this was RL.

So much Drama, she thought, with the capital D. VL was filled with it, yet before she and Ibrim had always gotten back together after a few months. But now she couldn’t even turn to Brooke/Bernie for emotional support—all her avenues for pulling herself out of this distraction from life were either missing, or unable to fill the need.

A spinning beachball appeared in her HUD, indicating the Augmented Reality Hunting Grounds were reconfiguring for a fourth time. The game was took into account there were three of them.

Aleka couldn’t help noticing Zoey wasn’t looking too good. “Hey, what’s wrong?”

“I’m letting you down,” the coyote RIDE said, head hanging.

“Yes, you are,” Vanna sniped. Then she sighed, and hung her head also. “And so am I.”

The human fixed them both with a death glare—this exercise was harder than all that had come before. Aleka was un-Fused and depending on her duster for climate control and armor. In these temperatures it was wrapped around her from head-to-toe like a jumpsuit rather than hanging loose, and even her hat was more of a helmet, all color-shifted to desert camouflage. “I’ve given you two every chance to get along. Every. Chance. I realize I’m not in the best of moods right now either, but if you two can’t even work together professionally…well, if I wash out today you can both to go Hell. I’ll donate Zoey to the Marshals and start fresh in Cape Nord if I have to. Then you two can bicker until the sun goes red giant!

“You’re Silvers, I’m the Tinnie! You have twenty years of experience between you! Why am I giving you this lecture about professionalism?”

Instant silence. The mare and the coyote gaped at her.

Zoey yelped. “I’m…I’m sorry, it’s my fau—I shouldn’t.”

Vanna spoke at the same time. “I’m sorry! I didn’t…”

Not now. We’ve got a job to do. You’re the professionals here. We’re a team, and I need your help,” Aleka said in a cool, calm voice. “Focus on the job, ladies. I’m pleading with you. What would Reed say about your behavior the past few weeks? I’m telling you right now, leave your bickering behind when we’re on the job. I’ve already died three times today because one of you wasn’t covering my back!”

The go-buzzer sounded, the door opened. Zoey changed to the sleek, stubby-winged flier she’d been modified into—like an ancient UCAV—and launched into the air.

The objectives were simple, completing them was hard: Track, pursue, capture or kill, without getting killed yourself. The first time their virtual black hats had methodically taken out Zoey, then un-Fused Vanna, then Aleka. The second they’d barely gotten out of the gate before all three were taken out almost at the same time. The third they’d almost pulled it together, cornering their quarry but falling prey to a boobie trap.

:I have a dust cloud, bearing forty-two, distance three hundred meters,: Zoey sent. :Three contacts…it’s the Westworld Trio.:

:Shit! This looks like Shootout to me!: Aleka said. That wasn’t the one they’d just completed, so it was hardly a “do over” like Justice said. Shootout was the hardest of the training programs they carried. The other members of the group were actually running the Trio, since AI just wasn’t smart enough for it.

The playfield took place among spires and cliffs worn smooth by millions of years of katabatic winds off of the Western Wall mountains. There wasn’t a single sharp angle anywhere in the Towers. The rock strata alternated between ochre and lighter, bluer qubitie bands. Even if temperatures were fifty degrees cooler, qubitite content was far into the red.

Zoey dodged a pair of micro-missiles and sprayed the rest of the launches with ECM, using her enhanced maneuverability to seem like she was actually bouncing against the cliff sides like a pinball. She sent off a salvo of her own, streaking through the tiny wind-carved canyons, only to explode well before reaching their targets. :They be jammin!:

:Let’s see them jam this!: Vanna added, spraying gauss shots against the narrow canyon wall, making part of it collapse. The Trio were forced to go left. Her next statement was the picture of a professional. :Zoey, let’s get them cornered over at…these coordinates. Copy?:

:Copy that. I can keep them from lifting, Allie! Get that sniper barrel ready!: Zoey sent.

Aleka’s LeMat had a swappable barrel. She replaced the under-over with a longer, single-barrel sniper and loaded a fresh magazine of non-lethal slugs. Depending on her duster to steady her arm, she sighted down the scope at her targets, three hundred meters away. The objective was to capture, not kill.

The viral load on the slugs all hit their mark. One of the Trio’s RIDEs went down with the Black Hat inside.

With Aleka’s implant so tightly bound up with her nervous system, warning phrases like “Incoming!” or “Watch out!” were dramatic but entirely unnecessary. Since joining the Marshals her body had learned new reactions to certain signals from Vanna or Zoey. The one that arrived via laser in a split second was: Watch your back!

Dropping her sniper carbine, in one motion she grabbed her pepperbox out of its holster, spun around, and hit her attacker in the chest with blast from all five barrels. The gun had no recoil, but the pulse blast had inertia once it left the barrel. It slammed the Black Hat backwards, overwhelming the AR RIDE’s inertial compensators, crushing him before the energy even entered the simulated RIDE’s chest.

Moments later she was snapped up by Vanna, Fusing while still wearing the hat and duster. They lifted back around to grab the LeMat and racked it. :Great catch! Which one of you called it?: Aleka asked.

:She did it first!: they both said at once.

:Know what? I don’t care who did. That’s two of four taken out. Where are the last two, Zoey?: Aleka asked. With her teammates focused, Aleka found it that much easier to keep her mind on the job.

:They’re at Rogers Gulch. I’ve got them gro—-e—-d,: Zoey said, breaking up. Her next sending was too garbled to make out.

:Anti-laser chaff,: Vanna said. They had already changed course to meet the coyote. A hardlight version of their white Stetson and duster appeared on them. :But too little, too late. Let’s give them a chance to surrender.:

The wind blowing dramatically from behind, their duster billowed. Vanna un-racked her Fuser-sized LeMat and made sure it was fully charged and connected to her power feed. Vanna amplified her voice. “Federated Marshals! You’re hereby under arrest! Resist no further and you’ll be treated well! Fire on me and there will be no quarter given! You’ve been warned!”

To emphasize the point, Zoey fired a few shots from her four forward pulse cannons. They went just wide of the Black Hats. The remaining duo dropped their weapons and raised their hands, then vanished in a puff of Augmented Reality smoke.

“Simulation complete!” Rusty said over laser. “Yahoo!”

“That’s more like it! The grading software says a 99-rating! You’ll pass the course by the skin of your teeth—pulled yourself up to an overall rating of 72. You were a 42 before. Damn fine comeback! Real fine,” Justice said, but smiling broadly. “What did you do differently this time?”

“Focused on the job,” Aleka said. There was just no way “Sally” was going to make her miserable.

“Reminded ourselves personal is not the same as important,” Zoey added.

“What she said,” Vanna said, nodding at Zoey. It was one of the Marshals’ unofficial mottos. “Well put.”

“Ah…return message from Cascadia on that flier we saw,” Justice said. “If we encounter, do not engage or investigate. Observe and record only, if safe. The MRS claimed this one right off the bat. So, focus on training.”

“Well, that figures,” Trips grumbled, resting his gun over his shoulders. “What now? We’re done with the exercises. We just kick back for two days until they pick us up?”

“Pretty much that, Seaford,” Vanna said. “There’s a lot of sights to see in the Towers. Can’t think of a more beautiful spot to spend them.”

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June 21, 156 AL

The next morning the sensors they had placed for the AR training reported an incoming skimmer. It was going much faster than it should for its 40-year age, nearly eight hundred kilometers per hour. Their IFF identified it as belonging to the Freerider Garage, all the way from Uplift. There was nothing but Hardpan for thousands of kilometers between the Towers and that polis. Few places for pirates to hide, even from visual sensors, but precious little qubitite worth mining.

“They’re moving towards where that big flier landed yesterday,” Zoey said. She turned to Vanna, who was technically the most superior Silver. “Want I should go recon?”

“No…it’s probably a salvage skimmer,” the chestnut mare said. “But Justice? Shoot that info back to Cascadia. Let’s keep an active uplink to home. My instincts are telling me something’s about to happen and I want them informed.”

“Gotcha, boss,” Justice said, opening a comm laser port on his backpack. “Sat painted, connecting…”

The Qube himself appeared in AR in front of them. “Okay…that’s everyone,” Mosley said. “I won’t beat around the bush. You’re about to be caught in the middle of something big. I can’t share the details, but the MRS is using this so-called crash to draw out the Liberators—the RIDE emancipation group, that is. The one with guns and suborbitals. You’ve got one incoming now.”

“Orders, Qube?” Vanna asked.

“Vanna, you’re the ranking Marshal there, so I want you to take charge. Keep those Tin Stars out of danger, find somewhere to hunker down in the Towers. Should be easy enough to find a hidey-hole. But since I can’t anticipate every eventuality, if you should encounter any party converging on the crash site, do your best. Here’s all the intelligence we can give you. Qube out.”

As soon as the skimmer reported the position of the salvage it was a matter of time who got first claim on it. No fewer than three suborbitals had launched. One from Uplift, two from the Nextus area.

“Skedaddle,” Vanna ordered, changing to skimmer mode. “Zoey, you hug the ground.”

Aleka settled herself Vanna’s left seat and let the mare do the driving as the rest of the Tin Stars did likewise, ramping up the actual ECM they had, which wasn’t much. “Dollars to donuts the MRS will ignore us,” Aleka said. “Their cadets ignored us.”

“Ignorance is a long MRS tradition,” Zoey quipped, generating some laughter.

They took shelter in a small cavern after Justice deployed some micro-sized sensors and laser reflectors atop the canyon walls. This far into the Deep Dry even laser comm wasn’t always reliable with all the dust in the air. Q-dust was very effective anti-laser chaff. Fortunately there wasn’t much of a breeze, though with the thicker atmosphere it didn’t take much to lift the dust.

“Okay, everyone. We’re going ‘on the rocks’ here. Full camo, silent running,” Vanna said, Fusing around Aleka and dropping prone to the ground.

As visible as Marshals were in public, when they needed to be invisible, there were certain tricks of the trade that Lithiums were always tinkering with, making just that much better. The Marshals had some of the best stealth, and the best camouflage, outside the polity militaries.

The three Fused Marshals and one RIDE seemingly vanished against the rocks, reducing their power levels to the minimum needed to maintain the camouflage and life support. :Now we hurry up and wait,: Vanna said. She extended a network cable to Nestor and Justice, who connected to Zoey, Trips, and Rusty.

Ever since induction day Nestor only spoke to Aleka when the situation required it. He was all business, never one for small talk, and even Justice was a horse of few whinnies around Zoey and herself. Aleka decided to take the opportunity and opened a channel in VR for the two of them. To her surprise, he agreed to the meeting.

“Okay, Nestor, I’ll get right to the point. What is it about me that gets your goat?” Aleka asked, hands on her hips.

Nestor Pinkerton glared at her. “Fine. I’ll tell you. You’re the reason why my family left Earth and ended up here. Mom and Dad were big into role-reversal in VL. That much wasn’t really a big deal to me—I played daughter often enough in VL myself. But after that big VL march in ‘92—the one you organized? They decided since Earth wasn’t about to let them do it in RL they pulled up roots and moved us here with a little help from the Feds.”

The 2492 RL Lifestyle Choice March (in VL) was a mixed bag, it wasn’t a huge success, but it didn’t exactly fail either. It was about the same time that being Aleka Petrovna ceased being just a anonymising mask. Things had gotten serious with Ibrim, Bernie was deep into his MMOs and changing avatars almost daily, and John Murland finally admitted he liked being Aleka for its own sake after three years of it in VL just to make a point about choice. When the choice was crapsack reality versus being an exotic Russian femme fatale, there was really no contest.

The March itself unfortunately had the net effect of accelerating the pace the Feds were going to begin their voluntary “recolonization” of deviants. Soon after, they started getting rid of people like Aleka by giving them a subsidy to leave the planet. Once all of those who wanted to take it had left, they started doing it forcibly, as they had to Aleka, her ex, and Bernie.

“If you’re looking for an apology, then I can’t give you one,” Aleka said. “Your parents decided to move on their own, right? Earth’s been trying to make itself into a homogenous monoculture ever since the end of the last Unification War—even before then, if you think some of the historians are right. It’s not just social deviants, either. We were just the most obvious. The plutocrats basically told the middle class to ‘leave, or else’, so they did. Ever heard of the term…Planet of Hats?”

“No…but…ah! Thanks Justice. I think I see where you’re going with this,” Nestor said.

“Earth has become a sick-but-effective parody of a global fascist state. They’ve made themselves into a planetary strawman,” Aleka said. “Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t come to Zharus years ago instead of fighting right up to the wire. Do you really miss Earth that much?”

“Well..uh…” Nestor rubbed the back of his neck. “Well, not really, I suppose,” he said sheepishly. “We’ve had better lives here than we ever could on Earth.”

“So, why are you angry at me again? I honestly don’t get it.”

Nestor swallowed and broke eye contact. “Er…I’m sorry. That was really childish of me, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, it was. But I can’t say it’s affected our professional relationship any,” said Aleka.

“You know what they say about ‘personal’ versus ‘important’ in the Marshals,” he said, looking at her again. “I truly believe it.”

“Very good,” Vanna added, appearing in VR. “I’m glad. That’s the kind of professionalism we want here.”

Aleka opened her mouth to complain, then closed it again. It wasn’t exactly a private conversation.

“They’re here,” Justice said. They all felt the ground rumble as the Liberators’ large suborbital flew overhead, looking for a spot to land. “And passive sensors report they’re putting down about three hundred meters away…whoa!”

They all felt it, an active sensor sweep right over and through them.

“Stay frosty, Marshals,” Vanna said.

“I’m getting an IFF broadcast,” Zoey said. “Narrow beam. It’s…a Quantum. One of Mike’s undercover Inties.”

“And right on our position,” Justice grumbled. “Ping reply, Vanna?”

“Granted, one ping only,” the mare replied. :Not like we’ve got a choice,: she told Aleka alone. “Make sure he knows we’re mostly a bunch of Tinnies, Justice.”

“Gotcha,” the Clydesdale said.

:Greetings, Tinnies and Silvers,: came a friendly voice. :Quantum Star Bastian here. I’ve got a little problem and I need some assistance.:

:Just how big is this ‘little’ problem, Bastian?: Vanna asked. :I’ve got five very green Tinnies here. Zoey and myself are the only experienced Marshals.:

:That should be enough. This Liberator cell’s got a couple in the middle of the Wanted List. The Libs have a history of not being too picky about who they let in. It’s the Dooleys, Roscoe and Gomer. Their RIDEs are as rotten as they are, and they’re a fair bit smarter. Perseus and Theseus are their names, a pegasus and a minotaur, natch.: Bastian said. :There’s about fifty of them here getting ready to take on the MRS. They’re fighting over the RIDEs that are supposedly inside that flier that landed yesterday. That one is in a cave about two kilometers northwest from your location.:

The Marshals viewed well-meaning groups like the Liberators and AlphaWolf’s Pack with a great degree of ambivalence. They were technically terrorist groups, but they also were fighting for full rights and citizenship for RIDEs. As an organization the Federated Marshals were easily the most progressive on the supercontinent, if not the planet. They had thousands of un-paired RIDEs as support staff and acted as a sort of adoption agency similar to human orphans. These shared goals made the Marshals willing to overlook relatively minor infractions whenever they could stretch the point.

:Here’s the plan…: Bastian began. :I’m going to engage in a little creative sabotage. I’ve been building to this for some time now, so it won’t be out of the blue for them. Hopefully I won’t have to blow my cover, but I will if I have to. This is daring, but the Liberators know they’re off limits to us. They also have to know that they landed near one of our training areas—they’re not secret, after all. What you’re going to do is get out in the open, march right up to the Liberators’ sub, and arrest the Dooleys.:

:Right in the middle of their camp?: Zoey said. It was a very Marshals way of doing things—aside from the Quantums. Be visible, be daring, be determined, be fearless—and fearsome. :Sure, I’m in. Won’t be the first time.:

“Won’t be for me, either. So, what’s the word, everyone? Are y’all up for this?” Vanna asked.

“What happens if the rest of the Libs start shooting?” Nestor asked. “You know that’s going to happen, don’t you? A plan only works until the first engagement. We need to think on our feet.”

Aleka pulled up the rap sheet on the Dooley Brothers and their RIDEs and whistled. Fugitives for six years, the foursome had done everything from claim jumping to attempted murder of a Marshal to RIDE slaving. The latter wasn’t technically a crime, but the Marshals had a way of dealing with it that was just as technically legal. They had warrants for alleged felonies in six major Polities and Laurasia. “How’d these two end up in the Liberators anyway?” she asked. “After the slaving they did?”

:As an organization, the Liberators have some…blind spots, let’s say, if the joiners claim to repent,: Bastian said. :I think we can talk some sense into them. Are you in?:

“I’m in,” Aleka said. “Ready and willing.”

“We are, too,” Rusty said for himself and his RIDE.

“No doubt about it, so are we,” Justice echoed. “This is what I was built for!”

Magnificent Seven time, just like Billie and the rest of our class back in ‘42.” Vanna said, standing up and removing her camouflage. “Form up, strike a pose, but not too much ham. Hear me?”

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Enclosed within their shielded dusters, the three Tin Stars rode astride their partners. Rusty managed to go on coyote-back, making it look like the most badass thing in the world. There were seven of them, the magic number as far as the Marshals were concerned. When they worked in units rather than alone, they used that number. It just seemed fitting, like it was for cowboys or samurai.

The ground was hot enough to boil water at sea level, sending off shimmering waves between them.

The Liberators acted as expected, keeping their weapons at the ready as the Marshals approached, but otherwise not stopping their preparations. A man and his owl griffin RIDE with floating epaulets over his shoulders came to meet them, along with a few bodyguards. “Okay, Marshals, that’s close enough. You know you’re not supposed to be here, so what are your intentions?”

Nearer the seventy-meter combat suborbital, Perseus and Theseus and their riders watched the group closely. Vanna pointed her head in their direction. “You have wanted fugitives from the law here in your cell. We’re not here to fight you, but you need to be aware of their rap sheet.”

“The Dooleys?” the commander said. “They’ve repented their crimes and have provided us with a lot of new arms and RIDEs.”

“Repented?” Zoey said. “Is saying ‘sorry, we won’t do it again’ really all they needed to say? Those men—and their RIDEs—spent a decade running a RIDE slaving operation, and you just let them in? Where did they get those RIDEs you spoke of, anyway? Are they unfettered?”

“You know she’s right, Quan,” the female raccoon next to him said. “What are they doing here?”

“We were short on manpower, so…” the owl griffin stammered, doubt creeping into his voice.

“Let us put them under arrest,” Aleka added. “Then you can go on with your battle. We have no part in this otherwise.”

“And if we don’t let you arrest them?” Quan said, folding his arms. “What’ll you do? There’s fifty of us, and seven of you.”

“Boss, do you really want to fight over these assholes?” the raccoon said. “They’re not worth it.” Other Liberators nodded in agreement with his second in command, while others formed up near the Dooleys. “What’s their motivation for even joining us? And what does that say about us that we actually let them join? They got some kind of hold on either of you?”

“If we lose any manpower now we lose this operation before it even starts!” Quan said, regaining some hardheadedness. “We’re here to rescue experimental military RIDEs from bondage. We’re going up against a dragon and a whole unit of dinos! We need everyone we can get!”

“What makes you think that isn’t why they came along? They were slavering to volunteer for this!” the raccoon pointed out. She looked around and projected a privacy field. “What if they want to kidnap who we’re trying to free? How many of those RIDEs they brought are actually loyal to us? You know as well as I do that there are unfettered RIDEs as cruel as any human. We’ve been to AlphaWolf’s camp and met some of them. And Perseus and Theseus are worse than they are!”

“Not now, Preston! This isn’t the time! Why didn’t you say something before we launched?” Quan asked.

“I did,” his second-in-command grumbled, folding her arms. “Many times, but you went ahead anyway.”

:I’m going to force the Dooleys’ RIDEs into lockdown for about thirty seconds,: Bastian sent. :I’d do it to everyone here, but I’m not authorized to mess with the Liberators who aren’t on the Wanted List. Once they go down their supporters will start shooting. Let Quan and Preston know if you want.:

“The fact is that you did let them in, which makes you a Marshals target,” Vanna said. “We’re taking them, right now. Those here who truly believe in your cause will let us do that. But if someone starts shooting, I wouldn’t feel too bad about shooting back—they were here to enslave. Got that?”

The griffin commander sighed. “If you think you can take them without incident, yes. But I frankly doubt that there’s any…”

“If there’s any questions about loyalty, Commander, you’re about to get an answer in ten seconds. We’re taking the Dooleys, incident or no. Then you can go on your merry way and get yourselves killed by the MRS,” Vanna said darkly. “Their comrades won’t take too kindly do this and they’ll react with gunfire. You gonna help us or what?”

:They’re down!: Bastian shouted as the minotaur and the pegasus keeled over, but they got back up almost as fast. :Friiiiiiiiink! How in the…? They resisted my hack! Grab the Commander!:

Aleka was already in motion, leaping from the saddle with a little lifter help, grabbing the Fused Commander with the crook of her arms, then dragging him into cover behind some rocks in one swift motion. Almost all of the Dooleys’ dozen supporters had opened fire on their comrades, but the atmosphere had been suspicious enough that the true Liberators weren’t completely taken by surprise. Only a couple went down in the first barrage, and the others scattered for cover themselves, along with the Marshals.

Most of the Dooleys’ supporters took cover amid the stones on the other side of the field, but three of them—a peregrine falcon, a hippogryph, and Perseus himself—took to the air. A moment later, Zoey followed them into flight. Her UCAV form streaked through the sky like a comet, hitting the enemies with bursts of ECM followed by micromissile barrages and pulse bursts. She wasn’t doing much damage, but as long as they had this fast-moving hornet in their midst the fliers were unable to provide their earthbound comrades with air support.

:Where the hell is Bastian?:, Aleka asked. :Can’t he just get everyone to stop shooting?:

:So sue me! I don’t have that kind of CPU power!:the Marshal’s voice replied. :Vanna, look out!:

As Vanna bolted for the cover Aleka and the Liberator leader shared, the minotaur Theseus leveled his arm-cannon and caught her with a massive ECM burst. Aleka’s duster caught the edge of the blast, shorting out one full battery. But the effect on Vanna was far worse.

:Oh, fuuuowwohaponiwrew…: Down went the mare’s shields, her hardlight, and herself—then another shot took off her headas she collapsed. The RIDE’s core was actually in her chest area, so she was still alive, but with so many sensors out she’d not be useful if she even came to.

:Fuck! I’m sorry, I should’ve seen that coming!: Bastian said. :I’m a frinking lamerof a lemur today!:

:Vanna! Aleka! You okay down there?: Zoey said, dodging a particle beam from Perseus that would have fried half her systems. The blast struck a stone spire and shattered it, sending boulders raining down on the Dooleys’ concealed partisans. One of them all but flattened a heavy lion RIDE, reducing the enemy’s firepower by a moderate amount. And another, fortunately much smaller one landed squarely on the head of an invisible lemur in the process of sneaking up on their lines.

:For now, yeah—but only if I don’t take any more hits!: Aleka shouted back. :Or have to do any more shooting! I’m down to half an hour of bare life support!: Another cannon blast pitted the rock near her face, sending stone splinters flying like shrapnel. Aleka winced as deflecting one of them knocked three minutes off her life-support counter.

Across the stony field, Seaford and Trips poked their rifle out between two rocks and plinked away at Theseus/Gomer. Not to be outdone by the Marshals, Preston stood up and blazed away with dual sub-machine pulse miniguns, drawing lines of light in the air between herself and the minotaur. “Hey, Red Bull! Over here!”

:Crap! Be careful, Preston, or he’ll ‘give you wings’ for real!: Aleka commed. But taking advantage of the distraction, she and Quan (well, mostly Quan) dragged the headless Vanna back into cover with them. “Can you do anything for her?” she asked Quan.

“Do what? She’s lost her head!” the gryphon-man said.

In the air, Zoey managed to outcorner the peregrine falcon and smack him solidly in the back with a gauss round. His shields fizzled and he fell to earth. A moment later, Seaford managed to lead the hippogryph with a series of pulse blasts that hit the weak spot where eagle and horse bodies joined, and she followed her comrade down. “It’s just you and me, Percy!” Zoey taunted.

As Theseus advanced on Preston, shrugging off the pulse blasts as if they were annoying squirt guns, Aleka muttered, “Screw this for a game of soldiers.” She set her pistol for maximum pulse from all five barrels and fired it straight into Theseus’s back. She actually saw his shields flicker under the combined damage—but it also completely drained the pistol’s capacitors. Charging it back up again would take most of the energy her duster had left. She holstered it instead, unslinging her LeMat.

“Theseus! Gomer Dooley!” Aleka yelled, standing up herself and leveling the rifle. “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me!”

The minotaur bellowed, turning to face her as Preston and Seaford dropped back into cover to recharge their own guns. Aleka sighted along the barrel of the rifle and fired a barrage of pulse shots and gauss rounds, the impacts sparking off his shield. Then she dropped back behind the rocks as Theseus raised his arm, particle cannon charging. :Oh shit.:

Then the blast went wild as a heavy shot knocked into the minotaur’s hand, slamming into the base of a stone spire across the battlefield. “That’s hardly sporting,” Nestor said, sighting down the barrel of the 40mm “gentleman hunter” gauss rifle he’d picked for his and Justice’s personal longarm. “Why don’t you pick on someone your own size!”

:I don’t think anyone else here is his own—: Aleka began. Then she cut off as a new shadow fell overhead. She looked up. :Oh shit!: The spire Theseus had hit was slowly dropping like a felled tree—straight toward her and Quan. The gryphon pumped a cloud of missiles toward it, followed by pulse blasts, but it only deflected the impact. The last thing Aleka saw was a boulder falling toward her, and Quan desperately throwing her out of the way.

:Allie!: Zoey howled. Whipping around in the air, she shoved her lifters to full-out power and threw herself toward Perseus almost faster than he could see. The rattled pegasus’s pulse fire completely missed, and by the time he realized Zoey’s intentions it was too late. The UCAV’s sharp nose slammed through the pegasus’s hardlight shields as if they weren’t even there and bashed in his chest with a sickening crunch. The last any of the Marshals saw of him, he was arcing limply through the air, heading for ground somewhere over the horizon.

Zoey swept around in a wide arc, shedding velocity as quickly as she could, then streaked back to where Aleka had been. Theseus had turned back toward Seaford and Preston, apparently dismissing Aleka as any further threat. A few Liberator and Dooley partisans were still raggedly exchanging fire in the background, but it appeared that most of those on both sides had taken advantage of the distraction offered by the main firefight to make themselves as scarce as possible.

Zoey switched back to coyote form, dropping the last few meters to land on all fours at Aleka’s side. Quan had managed to get her out of the way of the main fall, at the cost of taking the brunt of it himself. He was completely buried in rocks and gravel except for one hand, which was twitching. She couldn’t tell whether the RIDE or the man inside had survived, but there’d be time to sort that out later.

Aleka was a more pressing concern. She was still alive, but she’d hit her head when she landed, and a glancing blow from a boulder had broken her right arm, leg, and several ribs. And her duster batteries were red-lining. She had only two minutes remaining before it could no longer regulate her body temperature and the boiling air and ground would finish her.

Zoey stared at her partner, eyes widening in horror. “No…” she whispered. “Not again.

For a moment she was back in Nuevo San Antonio, seeing the red glow at the end of the street as she flew back with the load of groceries Irene had sent her to fetch. Flying into the heart of the fire to reach her partner, and finding her lifeless body with a gauss hole in the back of her head and not much left of her face. Goodnight, Irene. That there had been three other bodies with hers—members of a gang Zoey and Irene had brought down in their last year of Marshal service—hadn’t made her sense of abject failure to protect her partner any less palpable. Neither had blowing the flier containing the two fleeing survivors into a mid-air fireball.

Zoey threw back her head and howled mournfully. Then she leaped to the top of the rock pile, looking around desperately for someone, something, anything that could help. The other two Marshal pairs were pouring fire into Theseus, who was still shrugging it off but had stopped returning fire. He was staring off in the direction Perseus had last been seen flying. Then, Marshals forgotten, he started running. But there was no time to deal with that now.

Then Zoey caught her breath as she spied Vanna’s headless body, miraculously untouched by the rockfall save for a few glancing blows from pebbles. She was still alive, if a bit scrambled. But without a head, she was in no condition to Fuse even if she had been awake. And even without her injuries, Aleka wouldn’t last five minutes without Fuser life-support.

Zoey’s eyes widened. That was it! Vanna’s Fuser nanites were still functional—and Zoey still had the tank and conduits for circulating them. They were too integral a part of a DE shell to be removed. It was just a matter of siphoning the nanites off and using them. But that could mean…

For just a moment, Zoey faced the prospect of accidental Integration and the full squirming horrors it held for her. The idea of losing herself in another mind, or losing another mind in hers, or even just coming to share a body with another mind the way Marsha and Thirty-Thirty had still gave her the all-over willies.

But then she balanced it against the certain knowledge she had let another partner die when it was fully within her power to save her, and discovered that fear had almost entirely lost its impact. She rerouted Vanna’s Fuser conduits to the access port in the horse’s side, placed her muzzle over it, and triggered the purge. I’m coming, Allie!

The nannies flooded into her holding tanks and were barely checked before the coyote was back with Aleka. With only a few seconds left of battery power she Fused over critically injured Aleka, flooding her with medical nannies from head to toe, stabilizing her. Concussion, broken bones, internal bleeding…Zoey thought.

Zoey stood up and opened a panel on Vanna’s flank that contained their RIDE-sized LeMat and pepperbox pistol. Perseus was down, but the the minotaur was still at-large and dangerous. With Vanna down she was ranking Marshal. :Everyone, I’ve got Allie stable and Vanna’s in controlled shutdown. Report your status!:

:Cleaning up a few stragglers, Zoey,: Justice replied. :Pinkie and I are working with the Libs on this. Hope that’s okay.:

:Make sure you record all this under ‘peculiar circumstances’. Where’s the bull? And where the hell’s that Intie lemur?:

:The bull just noticed he was all alone. Cut and ran. Haven’t seen the invisible lemur since the beginning of the battle,: Rusty said.

:Technically we didn’t see him even then,: Trips pointed out.

Rusty snorted. :Anyway, I think we’ll be fine. We’ve got to catch those two!:

Zoey lifted and hovered over to the other Marshals. “Well, find Bastian. I’m damned sure that the first thing the bull will do is go find where I flung his brother. Nestor, Justice, you stay here with the Libs and help them tend to their wounded—unbury Quan. Rusty, Trips, with me. We’re going to need speed and I’m afraid Justice can’t keep up.”

“No problem,” Justice himself said.

The two coyotes nodded at one another. Even Fused they could outpace most regular skimmers—and for certain a lone minotaur.

“I’ve got a skimmer dust cloud in the direction you flung Perseus. No guesses,” Trips said, levering his steampunk rifle. “Let’s nab those bastards!”

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There was no time for stealth or subtlety. The two coyotes rose over the Towers, going supersonic in pursuit. :If Perseus and Roscoe are still alive, they’re not going to put up much fight after what you did to them,: Trips said. :But you saw how strong Theseus’ shields are.:

:How the hell did they resist an Intie hack like that?: Zoey said. On the inside, Aleka was regaining consciousness. Marshals Fuser nannies had high medical functions. Her bones were mended, though weak, and the concussion effects were mitigated by her neural lace. :Hey, girly, you feeling better?:

“Zoey?” Aleka said. “Oh…wow. Fill me in, will you?”

“You did good down there, top notch,” Zoey said, updating her. “I have to admit I squee’d a little when you posed atop that rock with your gun. That’s pure Marshals bravada.”

“Yeah? Well, remind me never to do that again un-Fused,” Aleka said. She projected profound relief that Zoey was temporarily able to overcome her phobia and Vanna was alive. But that could wait for later—they had things to do. “Now, where are these varmints? We’re going almost Mach two! How far could they be?”

“They’re faster than we thought, but…there!” Trips said, transmitting range and bearing on their HUD. There was a visible supersonic shockwave on the ground with a rooster tail of dust. “Oooohhhhweee! They must be burning sarium like nobody’s business!”

“The Dooleys and their RIDEs have a cargo skimmer load of bad points, but they always look out for one another,” Zoey said. “But they’re not getting away from us! Pour it on, Trips!”

Theseus had Perseus in his arms, the broken-winged pegasus looked like he was in serious pain. The minotaur looked back at his pursuers with bright red eyes—splashing both of them ineffectively with lasers.

“He’s got too much power in his lifters to do any damage,” Rusty said. He raised his pulse rifle and fired as Zoey followed up with her remaining four mini-missiles. The combination shattered Theseus’ weakened shielding and blew out the lifters on his right thigh, forcing them down. “Watch out for that cannon!”

“On it!” Zoey said, leading the minotaur as he jinked and wobbled back towards the desert floor. Funneling through Aleka’s neural lace for some extra processing power, the coyote targeted the weapons hardpoints on the huge RIDE. A few well-placed gauss rounds took them out of commission without injuring the fugitives much.

:Great shots!: Aleka sent. :Use my brain anytime you want, you hear.:

:Will do, Allie. Now let’s go arrest these assholes.:

Fifty kilometers southwest of the Towers, the Dooleys and their RIDEs knew when they were beaten. With no weapons, no shields, and an injured brother, Gomer Dooley and Theseus raised their hands above their head.

With Trips and Rusty Seaford covering them, Aleka clamped fetter collars on both RIDEs. “Any further attempts to resist will be met with deadly force. You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to an attorney. Your RIDEs will be dealt with and punished in accordance with Uplift standards of evidence. Deletion of relevant memories will be taken as evidence against you and dealt with accordingly. Do you understand?”

“We do,” Theseus said. “Just make sure Percy and Roscoe get help.”

“Mmmph,” Perseus grunted painfully, nodding.

“We will.” Zoey painted a satellite with her comm laser. Once she was connected, she sent the regulation raw data dump to the Silicons to comb over and digest into an after-action report. The reply was just as quick—the Acme was on its way.

By the time they returned to the Liberators camp, Commander Quan had been unburied. His RIDE had broken wings and some damaged plating, but hardlight shielding had kept them from being crushed. The gryphon-man did not look happy—either with the Dooleys, or the Marshals.

“I’m in command now,” Preston said. “Quan’s been relieved—for medical reasons and because he’s a damn stupid moron idjit.”

“I get it, I get it!” Quan said. “They sweet-talked me—us.”

The gryphon’s inflection changed to the RIDE’s. “I have a feeling that they actually hacked me, but I can’t prove it. I have no idea why I trusted them.”

“They were slavers, Quan, Ziff,” Preston said. The raccoon spoke with the double-voice of human and RIDE in accord. “You’re going to get court martialed for this.”

:Now, I wonder who did that hack? Where’s Bastian? Didn’t he say something about ‘creative sabotage?’: Zoey asked.

:I think he’s over here,: Trips said. He was kneeling next to what looked like nothing, but it was a dust-covered nothing. The coyote picked up something from the dirt and dropped it, kicking up a small puff of dust. :The Intie’s out cold. I think he got beaned with a rock.:

:Lamer of a lemur,: Nestor said. :The Acme’s almost here, Zoey.:

The raccoon-woman looked up at the descending shuttle, then glared at the Marshals. “Thanks for all you’ve done, but take the Dooleys and get out. We’ve got enslaved RIDEs to save. I’ll have to call in reinforcements as it is. We’ll take care of their cronies, if you don’t mind.”

“You’re welcome to them. Good luck against the MRS anyway,” Aleka said. “You’re gonna need it.”

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June 28, 156 AL: Marshals Administration Center, Uplift

“Fine work, y’all. Real fine,” Qube said. The group stood, un-Fused, in Mosley’s chilly office. The man’s arctic fox RIDE, as well as himself, needed cooler temperatures for comfort. For the desert dwellers of Uplift the chill could be disconcerting.

The eight of them—including Bastian—were there. The ring-tailed lemur was very contrite. He’d been taken out early in the fight by the rockfall that had injured the lion. “Never gonna live this down,” he mumbled, hunched over. “Sorry, everyone.”

“We all have bad days, Bastian,” Reed Mosley said. “Just don’t have any more like that one. We’re not as durable as you Inties.”

“I’ll keep that in mind, sir,” Bastian said, blushing through his fur. “I honestly expected a bit…”

“You’re assigned to city duty the next two months,” Qube continued. “That was a very poor performance out of you—we’re supposed to adapt quickly to changing battle conditions. And you got knocked out by a rock. Mike agrees.”

“A desk job?” Bastian said, crestfallen.

“No, not exactly. You just need to work with reg’lar folks for a while. You’ve been out in the field on your own too long.” He turned to everyone else. “As for the rest of you…I can’t fully express how happy I am with every single one of you. You turned a FUBAR into the arrest of the Dooleys, and weakened the Libs in the process. Perseus and Theseus will be rehabilitated as well. Now I get to do something I don’t often get to.”

Mosley picked up a large velvet case off his desk, then opened it. “Real world experience is a better Final Exam than any of our Bronzes can devise. You Tin Stars are hereby graduated and promoted to Copper. Congratulations, rookies! This is well-earned!”

Aleka gasped, picking her new star out of the case. She’d read about this in the Marshals bylaws. Sometimes something like this happened during Tin Star field rotations. She removed the tin and pinned on the copper. “Thank you, sir! I’m honored.”

“I’ve got another special announcement, and it involves you, Petrovna, and your two partners,” Mosley continued. “You see, ever since our funding got boosted a few months ago we’ve had some internal discussions over what to do with the money. We’ll be increasing our manpower—RIDE and human—by about a third over the next few years. You three have shown us one way to go about it.”

“What do you mean, sir?” Vanna asked, swishing her tail.

“Aleka, Zoey, Vanna, you three make a bang-up team and I don’t want to separate you. You’ll be the first of a new type of unit—one human, two RIDEs, preferably one ‘unattached’. This won’t be right for every situation, a’course, but we think working in threes like this will give the black hats that much more to think about. You’ll be able to carry more supplies, stay longer in the field, and more.”

“Really? This…this is permanent?” Vanna said, nuzzling the back of Aleka’s coyote ears. The mare hadn’t Fused since the fight, knowing that Aleka would like to keep Zoey’s coyote tags for a while.

“The ‘Three’ will join the ‘Seven’ as a basic field unit,” Mosely clarified. “Your skills complement one another. There’s just no way I can break you up.”

Rusty laughed. “Hooboy, Henry’s gonna go crazy when he sees I graduated to Copper ahead of him!”

:And Bernie, and Marsha, and Thirty-Thirty…: Aleka sent to Vanna and Zoey.

:They’re Quantums. Who knows what they’re doing right now,: Zoey replied.

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June 29, 156 AL: Milkbottle Creamery, Bifrost Park, Uplift

“I don’t know what it is, but in Cape Nord they can’t make decent ice cream,” Bernie said. The deertaur lay in the grass, legs folded beneath his cervine torso, long tongue making good headway on a double-scoop cone of chocolate and vanilla.

“They think ice cream’s too girly, partner,” Fenwick said. The Laurasian ferret RIDE lay on Bernie’s shoulder, partly wrapped around his neck. Bernie gave Fenwick a petting with his free hand.

“Fenwick, they think good ol’ Ahnold Swartzie was too girly,” Bernie said.

With Vanna bedded on the grass, and Zoey relaxing next to her, Aleka lay across both of their backs as if they were a pair of furry hammocks—head against Vanna’s withers, legs over Zoey’s shoulders. She worked on a banana split mondae that was absolute heaven. Her shiny Copper Star was affixed to a leather lanyard around her neck, resting comfortably in her bikini-top cleavage. Between spoonfuls of ice cream she admired them both. The badge wasn’t going to stay shiny. Over the rookie year it would corrode with the characteristic green patina, even in the Deep Dry.

Zoey didn’t ask to Fuse so she could have a taste. Kiva, her therapist, had said that her Fuse phobia treatment was progressing, but it would still be some time before she would do it again. Aleka wasn’t about to rush her partner. Vanna herself agreed.

Marsha returned from getting a third helping of Death by Chocolate, followed by Thirty-Thirty. “So, what’s next for you, Copper?”

“They’ve still got me on rotations. Sturmhaven next, then Aloha, then Cape Nord,” the new Copper said. “I’m really not looking forward to Sturmhaven. Everything I’ve read and you’ve told me about the culture there gives me the willies. Brrr! No offense.”

“Why do you think I left? They aren’t sending me there, thank Goddess, but Cape Nord’s going to be a trick,” Marsha said, sitting down on a park bench. Thirty-Thirty hoofed it over and slurped up most of the mondae. “Hey! I was eating that, Thirty!”

“Too bad,” the mare nickered. “I need it more than you.”

“Don’t break character,” Marsha muttered.

“Don’t worry about it, Marsha, we’re on leave,” Bernie said, finishing his cone. He straightened up a bit, ears flicking forward. :Hey, Allie, danger at five o’clock. Isn’t that…uh…Sally at the shop window?:

Aleka slid between her RIDEs and pulled her visor down on her hat, zooming in. “My God, it is!”

“You’re not going to run away, are you?” Bernie said, finishing the cone. Since his hands were no longer needed he retracted his human “taurso” and got to his hooves. Fenwick took his place on the little saddle on his partner’s back.

Aleka laid back and pulled her hat down over her face, using the sensor band and her implant to keep track of Sally. Deja vu, she thought. Aleka and Ibrim had gone through several relationship cycles over the years. They loved each other—they “hated” each other—they loved each other anew. The Real Life escape valve had once allowed them to start over again, sometimes in very different forms. They loved the initial frothy, bubbling infatuation, the maturing of passion, and the frequent lovemaking (without consequence in VL). On Zharus they had thought they could make it last, but that had turned out badly.

No, the cycle was cleanly broken, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t have a different kind of relationship now. Sally Rush was an attractive woman, in a matronly sort of way, but didn’t give Aleka that gooey-inside feeling of lust—she was just another woman, like herself.

“I’m going to say hello,” Aleka said, sitting up again.

“You go, girl!” Bernie said. “I’m sure she knows you’re here. She saw me, so I pinged her back.”

“Impossible to miss you, Big B,” Fenwick said, chittering.

“Thanks a lot, Bernie,” Aleka said sourly.

“Hey girl, don’t make me choose between you two in this little spat of yours,” the deer said. “You know better. I’m neutral in all this. Sally’s still my friend even if she isn’t your hubby anymore. That’s the way it’s always been.”

“Okay, okay. I’m sorry. My bad,” said Aleka. She watched Sally get a cone of vanilla from the ice cream store window, then walk over to a bench to eat it. This was also familiar—it was one of their ways of renewing their relationship, the “chance meeting” of two “strangers” on a park bench. Except…Sally was playing Aleka’s part, too. Aleka sighed. :Looks like this is going to be off script.:

:Well, this’ll be interesting,: Vanna said.

:No kidding?: Zoey said dryly, prodding the mare with her left forepaw. :Good luck, Allie.:

The first thing Aleka did was get another small cone for herself, also plain vanilla. Then she sauntered over towards the same park bench, and slowly sat down on the opposite end from Sally. The two women focused on their ice cream, each ignoring the other. They knew what was said next, and how it was said, would determine the nature of their relationship going forwards.

Their eyes met.

“Allie…” Sally began, “did they really try and call you ‘Pepper?’” She spoke as if addressing an old friend, but nothing more. There was obviously more the pregnant woman wanted to say, but starting with that unraveled some of the tension.

“Tried, and failed. It didn’t stick,” Aleka said, smiling. “How…how much has Bernie told you?”

“Enough,” Sally said, looking at the badge. She shut her eyes. “I’m sorry, Allie. I was a complete prick. I’ve tried blaming these wild hormones, but that’s just making excuses. I was a hateful, malicious prick and a bitch. When Bernie told me you almost washed out because of me, well…I want to make it up to you.”

“I wasn’t exactly Miss Manners to you, either. I can’t believe I said that. ‘Go fuck yourself’? And how to do it? Ugggggh! I regret every word, Sally,” Aleka said. “I think we’re even-Steven on the insults.” She looked at her former husband critically. “Wow. Just…wow. You’re gorgeous. All those years and you never played the girl, now this?”

“You…inspired me. What can I say?” Sally said with a sincere smile. The blonde woman ran her fingers through her wavy hair, over her curves, then rested her hand on her bare belly. There was no baby bump yet. “Of course, this one isn’t ours—or mine. I just want the experience first.”

Aleka didn’t know how to respond to that, so the silence stretched between them for over a minute.

“We’re not getting back together this time, are we?” Sally said, voicing what they already both knew.

“No, Sally. Not like the old way,” Aleka said. “Not with both of us like this.”

“I knew it the moment I saw you in that fancy duster,” Sally said, gesturing at her Marshals getup. “It looks great on you, sweetie. And that hat is so cute!”

“Even if we did, I wouldn’t be home much. I’ve got duty rotations for the next four months, then I get a semi-permanent assignment. I’ll be out in the Dry with Zoey and Vanna most of the time. There’s outlaws to hunt down and arrest, people trying to make a living to keep safe, stuff like that”

Sally’s eyes glimmered with sadness, she gave Aleka a pat on the knee. “I don’t think I’ve heard you so passionate about something since that first Rights March. It’s good to hear from you.”

“Thanks, Sal.”

The two women stood up and faced each other. The chasm between them remained, and would probably never be filled, but the new bridge they had just built seemed strong enough. Aleka smirked, then gave her former husband a hug, making sure it felt like two female friends embracing. “Hey, don’t be a stranger, okay?”

“I won’t. Good luck out there,” Sally replied, returning the hug tightly before letting go. They held hands like girlfriends. “Now, I’ve got to get back to work. Being a surrogate mom doesn’t fully pay the bills—I still have Chinook, and he needs parts. I’ll keep in touch.”

After she left, Aleka returned to her RIDEs, Bernie, and the others. Bernie was all smiles, and Marsha gave her a sisterly squeeze. Aleka blushed. “I hope you enjoyed today’s soap opera, everyone, because I’m tuckered out.”

“No problem, Allie,” Bernie said. “But the four of us need to get going, too. It’s been great seeing y’all.”

“Back to Quantum training,” Thirty-Thirty said. “Congrats on the early graduation, but I’d rather finish my run as a Tinnie without the life-threatening danger. Marsha and I will happily save that until we get our Copper.”

Aleka hugged each friend in turn, before they too left, leaving just the two Silver RIDEs and new Copper almost by themselves in quiet Bifrost Park. Aleka returned to her partners, who were also ready to go. She opened one of Vanna’s saddlebags and put on a pair of sunglasses, then mounted the mare in her Walker form.

“I think it’ll work out between you, this new way,” Zoey said. “Sal’s a nice girl—now that she apologized. I’m glad you apologized, too. Very mature of you.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Zoey,” Aleka said. She re-wrapped her duster snugly around her, undoing the top buttons enough for a little showing off.

“We’d better get on the skimmerway to Sturmhaven,” Vanna said. They could have taken a suborbital, but seeing Gondwana from the ground was more fun. “We’ve got a few thousand kilometers to cover today. But if you want to ride out of town on my back like this, I have no objections.”

“It fits our calling,” Aleka said, straightening her white Stetson hat. Her new copper Marshals badge glinted in the sunlight. She patted Vanna on the side of her neck and sent good feelings to Zoey. “Let’s go.”

END

Author's Comments

These are most of the notes I made to keep the characters straight, so not everything fits (there were some aspects I didn't use).

Dramatis Personae

Aleka Petrovna

  • Female VL alter ego of John Murland, has been his VL public face for almost two decades on Earth. For many Earthers escape into VL is a necessity, since reality is so bad. VL is the last bastion of real freedom on Earth, but now the UE gov are starting to crack down on that.
  • Prominent in VL (Virtual Life) political circles. Not popular with the United Earth government. When the gov found out who Aleka really was and her "deviant lifestyle" they used it as a pretext to ship John off planet.
  • Aleka is romantically involved with Ibrim. They're essentially married, the result of some genderplay that got serious. The female alter ego was originally a way to anonymize John. But it ended up a case of Becoming the Mask.
  • Finds life as a woman almost but not quite what she expected. Not good, not bad, it just is. This is a good thing.

RIDE: Zoey the coyote

  • Nextus RIDEworks CYE(f)-LSA-008R. Light Scout Armor, high on speed ("Roadrunner" mods), low on stealth.
  • Vehicle mode is a small one-person flier shaped like an art-deco rocket with an open-cockpit skimmer mode. Top speed Mach 4, high altitude. Rivals some birds.
  • Partners (both crossriders):
    • Irene Elwood ("Good night, Irene!" Used Blues Bros' style for her outfit. Mustered out with Zoey after five years, but killed by the members of a Dry Ocean gang.)
    • Youngmi Olsen (decided to cross back after about nine years)

Vanna: Aleka’s "temporary" RIDE

  • Chestnut mare, white socks, white blaze. Quarter horse base.
  • HSE(f)-MMA-010D
  • Built: 138 AL, one of the earlier Marshals RIDEs.

Riders:

  1. Billie Olson (138-142). Carbon/Silver
  2. Frances Borden (142-146). Cobalt/Silver
  3. Xen Xiao (146-150). Titanium/Gold
  4. Elaine Beryl (150-154, out of Marshals from 154-156, then re-acquired). Gold-only. Field specialist.
Not “fresh off the line” as the other horses. Another Marshals vet, repurchased by the organization at an auction and upgraded. Never crossrode anyone. Skimmer mode is a sleek 2-seater “convertible”. She’s a lot slower than Zoey ever was, but has far better endurance. But she’s also quick, funny, strong, and very compatible to her “temporary” rider. Zoey hates her on sight, of course, despite Vanna warming to her. She’s…maybe a mix of Twilight’s studiousness, Applejack’s strength, and a tiny bit of Pinkie Pie’s “smile, smile, smile!”

Bernie/Brooke Thompson

  • "Brain in a can" cyborg, in a mobility frame that strongly resembles Burn*E from Wall*E.
  • His thing? Doesn't want to be human. Sold his body to an organ market.
  • Starts looking into Zharusian hardlight tech, sparks his interest.
  • The only one of the trio that gets exactly what he wants, after a lot of work.
  • Bernie is the Altiholic of Altiholics. In the MMORPG areas of VL, he could never settle on just one character—but it had to be female, or nonhuman, or nonhuman female. He wants to bring this out of VL into RL.
  • He's a lot like Peter Sellers: "There is no 'me'. I do not exist. I had it surgically removed."

Fenwick the Ferret, Bernie’s “RIDE”

  • This one was a bit of a poser. All other Marshals, even the Quantums (Even Mike, when you think about it) have RIDE partners. So, how do I fill this need for Bernie?
  • Solution: A Laurasian RIDE. These guys are generally not able to Fuse, because most of them are just animal-sized.
  • Can "Fuse" with Bernie's Mark Three frames (deer, raven, smilodon, utahraptor). Your standard Cute Pet while in the HUM frame.
  • Small, agile, able to get into places nobody else can.
  • Has worked for the Marshals since before they even started. Long experience. Has a Silicon Star.

Ibrim al-Zaeed

  • The "normal" one of the group by comparison. Semi-wealthy enabler of Aleka and Bernie to fulfill their fantasies.
  • Half cyborg. Limbs and half his face replaced looks a bit like Kano from Mortal Kombat.
  • Martian War veteran. Which side? Dunno yet.
  • Aleka is his Ideal Woman. Making her real was one of his major goals in life. But as with many things, be careful what you wish for. This is no longer an idealized VR world. It's Real Life.

Cadets & their RIDES

Rusty Seaford (No nickname)

  • Roger's 3rd cousin, age 28.
  • One of the "Idle Rich" became a Marshal out of boredom more than anything.
  • Also wants something positive to come out of his family quirkiness.
  • From Laurasia, decided to "rough it" like Teddy Roosevelt.
  • RIDE: Coyote named Trips. CYE(m)-LSA-008T
  • Uniform style: Steampunk Clint Eastwood
  • Weapons: 1866 Smith and Wesson repeating rifle, multicannon. Colt revolver.

Henry Rollins (no nickname)

  • Rusty's friend from Laurasia. Known for going along with Rusty and his trademark Zany Schemes(tm). Age 30.
  • RIDE: Small chestnut stallion named Seabiscuit. HSE(m)-MCA-020T (Training). Lighter RIDE than the other horses.
  • Uniform style: Old West Matrix-y.
  • Weapons: Modern Nextus pulse SMGs.

Nestor “Pinkie” Pinkerton

  • Nextus, age 25.
  • People call him "Pinkie" whether he wants them to or not.
  • His family is on Zharus indirectly because of Aleka.
  • RIDE: Bay Clydesdale stallion named Justice. HSE(m)-HSA-010T
  • Uniform style: Gentleman Hunter.
  • Weapons: 40mm "Elephant gun"…60mm RIDE-size.

Marsha “Switch” Vazov

  • Sturmhaven, age 22
  • RIDE: Thirty-Thirty, bay mare. HSE(f)-HMA-010T
  • Uniform: Gray Stetson, red duster, Vash-style.
  • Weapons: Modern pulse pistol, big 'ol "shotgun" like 30-30 in Bravestarr.