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User:Robotech Master/ANGLE ON

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FreeRIDErs story universe


ANGLE ON

Author: JonBuck and Robotech_Master


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This story can be downloaded in PDF, EPUB, Mobi (Kindle), ODF, and RTF format from this website as part of fade_in_trilogy.*


June 25, 156 AL

EXT. GONDWANA COASTAL RING SKIMMERWAY - APPROACHING STURMHAVEN - DAY

Outside the window the Gondwanan landscape sped by at several hundred kilometers per hour. Since her arrival on Zharus, Kisa Romanov was continually in a state of shock of just how large the planet was compared to her icy home colony. A meter and a half to her left, the man who had picked her up on the Coastal Ring Skimmerway smiled at her in a friendly way. “Neorussian, aren’t you? I’ve seen that kind of travel kit before. You folks are really serious about your travel. What do you call it? The Grand Tour?”

“Pretty much,” Kisa said, not feeling all that chatty. She stared out the window again, then focused on the reflection of her own image in it against the backdrop of blurring scenery. A girl some had called “pretty,” with short brown hair in a pageboy cut, a small turned-up nose, and intense brown eyes used to questioning everything. Hardly the sort of person you’d expect to find the entire length of the civilized galaxy away from her homeworld. Yet…here she was.

The Grand Tour was something all Neorussians of a certain age aspired to do. Finish college, then spend three to five years seeing the rest of the Colonies and Earth. Zharus was the farthest point, 37 light-years from Neorus. But weird things happened to tourists here—they vanished without a trace at a rate an order of magnitude higher than any other colony.

Tourists like Kisa’s brother, Pietro.

“So, what do you think of Zharus so far?” the driver said.

“It’s big. I don’t think I realized how big until I was a few hundred klicks east from Aloha.” Kisa sighed. Her third-hand low-end “TravelFriend Value” Luggage simply wasn’t made to endure everything she’d pushed it to do and the cheap cavorite had given out. “Thank you for saving my stupid tourist ass, Mr. Ironstag.”

“Call me Flint, please, Miss Romanov. I admit, though, that you seem greener than the usual Grand Tourer. But that’s neither here nor there. Where’re you headed?”

“Sturmhaven. I have some business there.”

Flint Ironstag was a brawny, brown-haired fellow, with the ears of a deer and antler nubs to match. What Zharusians called “tags”. Those ears perked, as he shot Kisa a glance from steel-grey eyes. “What kind of business could you have with that awful place, if I may ask?”

Kisa decided there was no harm in telling. Years after receiving the announcement from the Zharus Embassy back home, it still burned. “It was there some ‘Amazon’ bitches turned my brother into my sister against his will. The last place he was seen before he vanished.”

“Oh, Lord. I’m sorry to hear that,” Flint said. “I was going to tell you to steer clear, but I can see you have a good reason. Since you’re already female you don’t have anything to really worry about. I’m willing to take you as far as the border, but you couldn’t pay me enough to step inside. Yeesh.”

“I appreciate you doing that much, Flint. Thank you. I’d pay you for the ride, but I’m a little short of cash right now.” All Kisa had, after upgrading the batteries on her Luggage with sarium versions, was 55 monetary units. She’d planned on subsisting entirely on the food, clothes, and other items the onboard fabber could make, and camping on the roadside using its pop-tent mode. It also had a basic skimmer mode, though without an aeroshell it maxed out at 120 kph—horribly slow by Zharusian standards. The best Luggage even had basic AI, but not hers.

“Pay me? Please, I’m a Gentleman. Hell, I was going to offer you a couple hundred mu. You look like you need it.”

Under the circumstances Kisa could hardly say no. She put her pride aside. “Thank you, Flint. I…really need it to fix my Luggage.”

“A Gentleman always helps a Lady in need. There’s a bunk and galley in back if you need shuteye or some eats. I have to make a few stops before we get to the Sturmhaven border.”

“Well, I’m not in any hurry. Thanks again.” Kisa swiveled the passenger chair and went into the skimmer-rig’s living area.

The Zharusians did things very strangely. Flint operated a fabber supply delivery service, driving a sleek rig that was about forty meters long. There were many places on the planet where there were small settlements, or even isolated homes, where no pipelines were possible; so they needed their fabber matter shipped in. On Earth or the other colonies it would be an automated process. Here, they seemed to prefer a human touch with everything.

Back home we don’t have that luxury. We’re just trying to make the planet livable. Everybody was needed for that titanic job, so everything else was as automated as possible. Ideally, once the situation regarding her brother-now-sister was resolved, she’d return to Neorus and work as a Terraforming Technician. Of course, there was the not-insignificant chance she’d just vanish like Pietro had. It didn’t bear thinking about.

Kisa settled into one of the bunks. The living area was the size of a decent RV. After a few weeks of camping, the bed felt good and the net connection solid. It was time to do more digging on Sturmhaven and the Amazons.

The first thing Kisa reviewed was the announcement the Amazons had sent the local Neorus Consulate of Pietro’s “prize” for winning the Amazonian Games. Apparently the men of Sturmhaven could compete for “honor” of “shedding boorish manhood” to take their rightful place amongst them. Seven years later the video still filled her with rage. Pietro—renamed “Fiera”—posed in front of the camera in a ridiculous blue-and-red costume with a golden eagle on the chest. She had stood behind the woman who had made the proclamation with an expression that could have killed.

The video had one important piece of information. The only clue Kisa really had to go on. The announcer’s name was Promethea Sorovna. It took a while for her netferrets to find information about her current status. For the first time Kisa had something to smile about. For doing what they had done to Pietro and numerous other men, Promethea had been sentenced to a lengthy prison term. Maybe I can get an interview with her…

“Miss Romanov? I’m about to make a delivery, if you’d like to watch,” Flint said from the driver’s seat.

Kisa looked up from her reverie. “Huh? Oh, of course. I’ll be right up.” Flint was being so kind to her, she felt she owed him some polite expressions of interest. Besides, she really didn’t know how anything worked here, so who knew what might prove useful in the end?

As Kisa slid back into the passenger’s seat, the rig pulled in at a small service station alongside the coastal highway. Well, if “alongside the coastal highway” meant “floating in mid-air next to a mid-air marker beacon that was itself floating over a wide, unspoiled wilderness area. Other such beacons floated a couple kilometers in either direction.

For all that the architecture was unusual and it was a bit of an odd location—service stations tended to be properly on the ground, back home—it was immediately recognizable for what it was—a station where weary travelers could get out and stretch their legs, obtain some inexpensive food, and recharge their vehicles. Such things were more or less unchanged the galaxy over, even if here they tended to have a decided twentieth-century-Earth flair to their décor.

Flint’s huge transport skimmer settled onto a utility pad connected to the station’s loading docks, away from the public landing areas. The wide cargo door adjoining the pad was already open, with a coverall-clad young man with goat ears and horn stubs leaning against the frame.

Flint nodded toward him. “That’s Reuben. Assistant shift supervisor. Runs the maintenance bays and keeps the fabbers in working order. They run through their monthly fabber supply regular as clockwork, so this is the time of month they get a refill.”

“Reuben? Like the sandwich?”

Flint nodded. “Sure, one of his distant ancestors invented it,” he proclaimed with the too-straight face that Kisa was pretty sure by now meant he was telling a whopper.

Kisa warmed up one of the odd 20th-century colloquialisms she’d been bombarded with ever since arriving here. “You wouldn’t be trying to ‘get my goat,’ would you? The only one I see around here is over there.”

Flint laughed. “Ouch. Touché. Anyway, this’ll only take a second.” He tapped something on his dashboard, and the panel in front of Kisa lit up with a menu display—food and beverages in the main section, with links to clothing, accessory, souvenir, tool, weapon, and machine part menus at one side. “Hungry? Thirsty? For that matter, anything else you need, within reason, it’s on me. I get a good discount. They’ll fab it and run it out here while I’m getting him set up. Just don’t dial up a sports car or something, my bank account only stretches so far.”

Kisa stared at him, trying to judge the straightness of his expression. “Dial up a sports car? Seriously? They can do that here?”

“They don’t do as much at fabberies on Neorus, do they? Suppose they’re still too busy terraforming and most resources go toward that.” Flint chuckled. “Out here, we’ve already made our peace with the planet staying more or less the way it is, so we’ve got more to spare. Yes, you can get most anything at the fabberies here, even up to a small passenger van.”

Kisa blinked. “How does that even work? I know I’ve seen actual skimmer dealerships, too. They were the first thing I saw when I stepped off the shuttle, in fact.”

“Oh, nothing you get here will exactly be top-shelf quality, especially something as big as a skimmer, but it’ll last you a while. A lot of people treat their fabbed buggies as disposable—drive them until they wear out, then recycle them at the next fabbery for a discount on the replacement. It’s a cheap way to get by if you just care about getting from Point A to Point B, not so much about style or permanence.”

“I see.” Kisa cocked her head. Even with the funds she’d arrived with it wouldn’t have been an option. “It’s a different sort of culture than back home. Everything on Neorus is built to last. Even the Luggage we take with us when we leave—or perhaps especially that.”

“Oh, sure. On worlds like that, you make do. Here—well, there are fabberies, but there are also dealerships for people who want something a little more durable.” He chuckled. “Though five will get you ten, that ‘dealership’ you saw on landing was actually just another fabbery. They’re big on slapping tourists with cheap wheels or floaters, because they won’t be here long enough for them to wear out. And when I say ‘cheap,’ I’m only talking about how they’re built.” He waved a hand toward the buildings. “At least anything you get here won’t be that overpriced. Some overpriced, maybe—it’s the only station on the highway for klicks, after all—but a tourist trap, this ain’t.”

“Well, we actually get a few offworld tourists back home. Other than the Crystal Ranges there really isn’t much to see yet. Anyway, I just need some replacement cavorite rotors for the Luggage. I can install them myself.”

“Mm. Well, this is a decent spot to get them. Service stations like this with industrial fabbers specialize in that kind of vehicle part, and there’s not a lot of room to pad something that simple. Second panel from bottom on the right; there’s a space to input the specs you need. Have them loaded aboard, and we can handle that before we get you to Sturmhaven.” He powered down the lifters and the transport settled onto the pad.

Kisa nodded. “Thank you. I will.”

“Sure. And don’t forget some food and drink, too. This place is near enough the coast that the kraken actually isn’t fabbed. Don’t worry about me, I’ll punch my own order in when I have a spare moment.” He slid the driver-side door open and stepped down to go speak to Reuben.

Kisa nodded as he left, then settled down to consider the panel more seriously. She wasn’t going to try to take advantage of Flint too badly, but she was curious about what sorts of things could be obtained here. Could you honestly just…buy a gun here? She tapped curiously at the screen and discovered she in fact could. For someone from the staid, safe world of Neorus, this was a bit of a shock. Anyone could be packing a weapon here and I’d never know it. Flint could be packing a weapon. She sternly controlled herself against the urge to look under or behind his seat for signs of a concealed holster.

She took a stern grip on herself. This is a frontier world, Kisa. It’s not safe. So of course they would sell things so people could keep themselves safe. There actually were some controls, she was pleased to note on clicking through the fine print. Her embassy would be informed if she purchased any weapons while she was here, and she would be required to certify she was leaving them behind if she returned to her home. If I buy one legitimately, at least. She had little doubt there were other ways. She shook her head sadly. Ah, Pietro—Fiera—what kind of a world have you gotten yourself involved with?

Kisa hauled herself back on track. She did still need to order those cavorite rotors, after all. Fortunately, they were easy to fab. Neorussian Luggage had been designed to use parts that could be easily obtained anywhere. Even if she ended up on some poor benighted world without public fabbers, there were only a few of the most very exotic parts that could not be made or jury-rigged in a qualified machine shop.

With that job finished, Kisa turned her attention to the food menu. About half the items were staples common to the human experience, like grilled cheese sandwiches or hamburgers, and a few were ethnic specialties she recognized from Neorus or other colonies. But there were a few—including that “kraken” Flint had mentioned—that were unique to Zharus. As Flint had said, they were marked with the indicator for non-fabbed, which meant it could take a little extra time to prepare. She considered, then punched for a small order of the stuff. Non-fabbed food was generally accorded better—plus when it arrived, Flint would see she’d taken his suggestion, which he could take as a compliment. She certainly owed him that much after he paid for her meal and the new rotors.

Plus, of course, she was curious about the stuff, which was enough of a reason by itself—but Neorussians tended to like to do things for more than one reason. It was more efficient that way.

Kisa spent the rest of the time before Flint returned exploring the different fabber submenus. Most of the machine part selections didn’t mean a whole lot to her, though she noticed a disproportionate amount were devoted to RIDE replacement parts. Ah yes, the mysterious technology that they’ll let anybody use but nobody can export. Well, no surprise there that it got the lion’s share of the part selection. (Especially since, as she understood matters, some of them might actually be lions. Kisa chortled at her little joke.)

There were a remarkable number of unimportant little gewgaws on offer in the accessories section. They even had tampons in multiple different formulations—for tourists not comfortable enough with nanotechnology to use that sort of solution while they were here, Kisa assumed. Most items were available in several different recipes—different “brands,” apparently. There would never have been this much space devoted to that many similar products in a Neorus fabber.

Now that I think about it, I wonder why? Kisa mused. It’s not as if the extra space on an option page costs that much, or the additional storage for alternative recipes. It doesn’t cost extra to offer something, or even cost more in material if you make it slightly differently. Something in the Neorus mindset, I guess. We don’t want to be “confused” by having too many options.

Might that be one reason so many Neorus expatriates never went back? Discovering they enjoyed having more choices? Was that why Fiera had broken off contact? She enjoyed being who she was now and didn’t want to have to explain it? Or was there some other reason? Kisa turned the thought over and decided to give it more consideration later, when her traveling companion wasn’t expected back at any time.

Kisa glanced out the window to see Flint accompanying a large modular tank on a lifter-powered hand truck as it entered the wide-open door in the building. As it moved on, Flint turned to Reuben and they appeared to be having a friendly conversation. Then they shook hands, Flint nodded to the goat-man, and then he turned and headed back for the transport.

A moment later, Flint opened the door and swung himself back up into his seat. “Hey. Get your business taken care of?”

Kisa nodded. “They say my stuff should be here in a few minutes.”

“Good. They’ll let us hang around that long.” Flint tapped his own display, then nodded. “My stuff’s on the way, too.” He leaned back. “So, thought about where you’re going next?”

“As I mentioned, I need to stop in Sturmhaven. You don’t need to come along, and I appreciate you bringing me this far.”

Flint shrugged. “It’s not a problem at all. Anyway, the odds are pretty good Sturmhaven won’t be your last stop. My delivery route circles the continent, and I’m cheaper than airfare, if a little slower. So why don’t I wait for you outside, and you can let me know if you’ll need a lift further on?”

“Oh, you don’t have to do that—”

“No, I’d like to.” Flint grinned. “Being alone is nice, but sometimes I do like to have company for a while, and you seem like a safer option than picking up another random hitchhiker.”

Kisa smiled. She’d just been one of those random hitchhikers. “Well, if you’re sure…” She glanced around. “Is your truck actually your home, too? I get that feeling.”

He laughed, a little awkwardly, and scratched behind one ear. “Ayup! I don’t have a set address. Never one to settle down, me. If this was the twentieth century for real, I would’ve been a trucker on those Interstates they had. Won’t hear any of that ridiculous CB lingo from me, though.”

“I’m not sure what you’re talking about, but I’ll take your word for it.” Kisa smiled. “Not sure what’s going to happen after Sturmhaven. My brother left there and then poof. He could be anywhere, if he’s still alive.”

“Well, on Zharus you never know. The way things change here. People, too. You already said those bitches changed him into a woman. Would’ve had to stay one for three years.”

Something had been nagging at Kisa since meeting Flint, now it finally connected “Where is your RIDE, Flint? I’d like to meet him.”

“Ah…heh.” More awkward scratching behind one of his big deer ears. “Well, I don’t really ‘have’ one presently. It…doesn’t always work out in the long term, you know. Just like relations between any two people, you get right down to it. Kept the tags, though. Kept more than that, really. But that isn’t here nor there.”

“I see.” She didn’t, exactly, but people could be sensitive about things, and it sounded like he was sensitive about this one. She looked for a way to change the subject. “Is it true what they say about RIDEs? They can actually simulate thinking?”

Simulate thinking? Oh, wow. No more ‘simulated’ than the average person. I know that’s hard for a lot of offworlders to really understand. But, what can you do? Anyway, I’ve got two more stops before we get to the Sturmhaven border. Like I said before, I’m not going to follow you inside. They don’t like my type there at all.”

“I’ve figured that out.” After what they did to my brother. “It shouldn’t take me long, I hope. Now that I can fix my Luggage.”

“There’s a bus line to the city proper just inside the border station. Won’t cost you much. I hear they like Neorus women. Comm me when you’re done and I’ll meet you at the nearest border crossing.”

Kisa nodded. “After we lift, I’ll go and get my Luggage ready. Should be done by the time we get there.”

“Sounds like a plan. I’ll be happy to help, if you like. Oh, there’s our food.” A small lifter drone was approaching, carrying a pair of sealed containers underneath. Flint reached through the window to take them, glanced at the labels, and passed one over to Kisa. “I see you got the kraken, too. Hope you like it.”

“I’m looking forward to trying it, at least.” Kisa opened the box. “It smells interesting.”

“Wait’ll you taste it.” Flint grinned. “This is one time I’m glad I’m not actually a herbivore.”

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The kraken was interesting. The taste was not unpleasant, and the texture was unlike anything she’d ever had on Neorus. It did take a little getting used to, the idea that she was eating the flesh of a formerly-living creature, but then eating real meat wasn’t exactly unheard of on Neorus—it just tended to be rare and expensive. Not a common treat, given that fabbed or vat-grown food was a lot cheaper.

Midway through the meal, another drone had arrived with Kisa’s Luggage’s cavorite rotor, which she’d tucked under the seat until she finished her lunch. It didn’t take too much longer for them to get done eating, then Kisa took her purchase back to the workshop where her Luggage was parked while Flint got the transport in the air again.

Changing out the old cavorite rotor was a simple procedure, but then most everything about the Luggage was. It was built not to require much in the way of tools, because you never knew what you were going to have handy. Effectively, it boiled down to undogging a panel, popping the old part out, and seating the new one. The entire operation took only a few minutes, and she dropped the cracked original part in a bin fastened to the wall marked with a “recycling” logo.

She had been mildly surprised to notice that the original part was several shades darker than the fabbed replacement. Generally, the lighter the shade of cavorite, the purer it was. The really pure stuff required high-end fabbers, which tended to be reserved to government or big industrial outfits back home.

But reading between the lines of the colonial news and tourist brochures she’d seen since coming here, she was starting to get the idea that fabber tech back home was a few years behind places like Zharus. Which wasn’t really surprising, given that there were other places that were a few years behind Neorus—they'd never catch up on data storage. And the Luggage was designed to work pretty much anywhere.

As Kisa finished closing the Luggage back down, Flint stepped back in while the rig flew itself on autopilot. He leaned against the wall and regarded the gizmo thoughtfully. “I've seen gear like that with most Neorussians. Nice idea, well-executed.” In compact mode it was about the size of a large trunk. The exterior surface was crisscrossed by seams and separation lines for mode changes and access to storage. “It's kind of a RIDE…ish thing.”

“Never really thought of it like that.” Kisa shrugged. “It was originally intended to be a sort of…universal traveler’s trunk. Then when cavorite lifters got cheap, later models incorporated them so they could be bigger and carry more, yet still be moved around easily—like those whimsical little suitcases with the wheels on that some people seem to like to use here. Then other designers realized that with cavorite’s power-efficiency, there was no reason to stop there, and they became their own sort of mini-vehicle.” She chuckled. “Never say that Neorussians cannot have their own excesses. Some of our so-called ‘Luggage’ is as big as your transport, and unfolds into a multi-room hab. But you have to be ridiculously wealthy to afford one of those. Mine's about as basic as you can get.”

Flint nodded. “I wouldn’t try to cross the Dry with it, but for city use it ought to be just what you need.”

“And it folds up small enough to pack on the bus, too.” She smiled wryly. “It had better be just what I need. It’s effectively all I have.”

Flint pursed his lips. “We might be able to do something about that later. But for now, let’s get you to Sturmhaven and see what you can find.”

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The “Haven of Storms” was busily living up to its name. Even after Aloha, Kisa hadn’t acclimated to the the hot, humid climate. During high summer, equatorial Novy Kyiv was lucky to average ten degrees Celsius, even with the reflected sunlight from the Central Crystal Range. Sturmhaven greeted her with the echoes of thunder and pea-sized hail.

At the border station the guards (all female) spoke in an odd Russian dialect sprinkled with German. They ranged from the solidly-built “Mother Russia” stereotype to a busty heavily Germanic blond who looked as though she belonged on a bottle of that “St. Pauli Girl” beer they had sold at the spaceport duty-free shop. As for the men, well…

It was easy to see why Flint refused to step over the border. But it was even harder to see why Pietro would have. There were numerous warnings about the place in Neorussian travel guides. On top of all the unpleasantness, Kisa’s destination was the Nova Siberia Prison—located under a climate dome that turned the hot savannah into tundra fit for a Soviet gulag. For Kisa the weather would practically be balmy, but enjoyment was the farthest thing from her mind.

In scooter mode the Luggage was fast enough from the nearest point the bus dropped her off. They were expecting her. When she trundled up to the security booth (really, that was the most appropriate word for how the Luggage moved—it “trundled”), the guards waved her through without even a pause. The guide she’d been sent directed her to Visitor Admissions, where there was secure parking for the Luggage and a woman in a subdued uniform with a media tablet waiting.

“Your interview request has been approved,” the woman said in careful Russian. She actually sounded sincere. “We…regret what happened to your sister, Miss Romanov.”

Kisa almost corrected her, but after what she’d seen in just the space of a few hours she knew it would be counterproductive. Besides, she thought gloomily, whatever he was before, she’s certainly my “sister” now. “Thank you, ma’am.”

“If nothing else, I hope you find closure. You’ll find Promethea in Booth Six.”

“Thank you.” Kisa walked the way the woman indicated, and paused outside the door marked with the big number 6. She took a deep breath to steady her nerves, then hit the button to open it and stepped inside.

On the opposite side of the hardlight security field, Promethea sat in the uncomfortable-looking chair as if it were a throne. She didn’t look disconsolate or even unhappy, like to Kisa’s mind a prisoner ought to. She looked…pleased, like a queen granting an audience. Kisa’s pleasure at the external appearance of the prison started to evaporate. She’s even got makeup on. What kind of prison is this?

“Greetings, Kisa Romanova. I am glad you came. Did you have a pleasant journey from Neorus?”

“Tolerable.” Kisa had spent the trip in cryo—and had gone straight from Neorus to Zharus rather than stop anywhere in between, which was why she seemed so green to Flint. She was green. Really, this wasn’t so much a Grand Tour as a Where-the-Hell-is-my-Brother Tour. “Let us dispense with the pleasantries. I am trying to find my…sister’s whereabouts after she left Sturmhaven. I have reason to believe that you may know something.”

“Ah, Fiera,” Prometha said. “The moment I saw her birth-form I knew there was a woman within that must be brought out. It was a waste—”

Spare me your idiotic misandry,” Kisa growled. “I grew up with him, and there was never anything womanly about him, until you somehow tricked him into entering that stupid contest.”

Prometha smirked.”It’s always the closest ones who see the least clearly, isn’t it? Not that it should be so surprising. With that figure, you’re practically male yourself. You should take advantage of the free biosculpt while we’re here. Real women have curves.”

Kisa forced open clenched teeth and forced herself to speak pleasantly. “That depends on what you think of as ‘real.’ Where did she go?

The Sturmhaven woman’s smirk broadened. “You can’t force me to tell you, you know. I should require you to get a ‘sculpt before I say anything.”

As Kisa stared, jaw dropping but no words coming out, Promethea sighed theatrically and continued. “But they’d never let you in to see me a second time, and what I have is so little it would hardly be worth the bother, so I suppose I’ll have to content myself with the knowledge that you’ll get what’s coming to you sooner or later.”

Kisa clenched her teeth again and spoke through them. “So what. Is. It.”

“Just as soon as the sculpting was over, she caught the first suborbital out of town. To Cascadia, as it turns out.”

Thank you.” Kisa got up and turned to go.

“You might as well not bother!” Promethea called after her. “Some of my sisters went to try to bring her back, but after she hit Cascadia, she simply vanished. You won’t find her! You might as well stay here and—”

Kisa slapped the door button as she passed, and it shut behind her, cutting Promethea off altogether. I can’t stand it here. I’m getting out before I punch somebody in the freaking face. She used her implant to call Flint.

“Hey, done already?” he asked.

“Yeah. Flint, I’ll be at the eastern border station in maybe six hours, if I’m reading this bus schedule right. Can you meet me there?”

“Of course I can. I think you’ve seen why I won’t set hoof inside that damned place. They’d un-Man me in an instant. Did you at least get some useful info from that bitch?”

“My brother was last seen in Cascadia.” Kisa called up a map of the supercontinent. Cascadia was almost exactly on the opposite side from where she was—well over ten thousand kilometers if she didn’t hop on a suborbital over the Dry Ocean. She weighed her options. “Mind if I catch a ride with you?”

“Well, I won’t be up that way for two or three weeks. Still, we’ve gotten along so far. And I’m a Certified Gentleman, no need to worry for your virtue. I’m not that kind of buck—man. That kind of man. Can’t promise I won’t pick up other hitchhikers, though. It’s what I do. See you in a few hours, eh?”

Kisa jogged up towards the Prison Security Office to retrieve her Luggage. “Yeah. See you.”

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July 8, 156 AL

EXT. APPROACHING CAPE NORD - DAY

“You can’t be serious. Really?” Kisa stared at Flint. “This is a joke, right? From the land of straw feminism to the realm of macho bullsh—uh, Manliness?”

Flint grinned at her. “What is it they say about turnabout and fair play? Seriously, though. You’re an offworld tourist, so different rules apply. The City Fathers aren’t stupid.”

“No threats to bodysculpt me without my permission?”

“Wouldn’t think of it. The Cape Nord of ten years ago, maybe. But not anymore. We have a much greater appreciation for the variable female form than we used to. I can still drop you at the Cascadia border if you want.”

Kisa shook her head. “I came this far, I might as well see it once.” She shrugged. “Besides, if it’s as Manly as it’s supposed to be, maybe they’ll have a private investigator I can hire to scout ahead for me. A…very cheap private investigator.”

“Very Manly profession,” Flint agreed. “Besides, as a Gentleman I will defend you from unwanted advances—unless you’d rather handle that yourself. If some manling is a little too uncouth, you can always deduct points from his Man Card. There’s an app for that you can download to your implant.”

“I think I’ll stay out of that game, whatever it is, if you don’t mind.” It just seemed like Zharus was like this. Some of the polities they had made stops in along the way had a very distinctive character. Nextus was Bureaucracy, Uplift was Academia, Aloha was Free Spirit. Most of the rest were just places to live. Flint would fill up the fabber matter tank in one of the big cities, then make his stops along the way. She’d met with people living in tiny towns and a hermitage or two. At least she felt like she was seeing the real Zharus, traveling like this.

“Hey, no pressure. No pressure. Just stick close to me, okay? It’s not like you’ll be unsafe in Cape Nord, but as long as I’m with you there’s less chance of, shall I say, unwanted attention.”

“I’ll bear that in mind. Thank you.”

Entry into Cape Nord was through one of a number of large cavern mouths scattered around a section of otherwise unremarkable tundra. They followed the trail of flashing beacons down into the gulf, then glowing arrows along the wall. A bright green stripe along the floor served to keep them vertically oriented as the passage went through several twists and turns.

Kisa gripped the seat rests nervously. “Is it safe to go this fast?”

“We’re actually on automatic guidance. I could even take my hands off the controls, but I won’t scare you like that.” Flint flashed her a quick grin. “Besides, I never completely trust the automatic guidance.”

“How reassuring.”

“Keep your eyes open—we’re almost through, and I want you to see this.” The cavern leveled out, and they passed through a glowing ring, then they were in within a huge open cavern with a city spread out beneath and all around them. “Welcome to Cape Nord!”

The cavern walls were obviously artificial, with equally massive skylights to let some natural light in. Some of the skyscrapers went right through to the surface, and likely well beyond it. She tried to sound less impressed than she was. It was an adaptation to the climate outside, a lot like Uplift’s own hardlight domes. “This looks like NeumonFormer work. One of the original TF-1 designs, if I remember. We use TF-5C units on Neorus. We have a couple dozen stationed around the planet.”

“Uh, yeah. Used to be some of the bigger metal deposits here in these caves. Mostly rare earths. Founders thought it made a good place for Men to settle.”

“I can see why. Very practical.” Very Neorussian. Kisa was certain the government back home knew about this place, but she could think of a half dozen reasons why it wouldn’t really be practical back home. “I’m going to start looking for a cheap PI.”

“Yeah, about that…” Flint glanced at her. “When you brought it up earlier, I started a search agent of my own. I know the place, and I know some people…anyway, I found one you might want to look at first. If they don’t pan out, you can still do your own search, but—”

“Please, show me!” Kisa smiled at him. “You have the local knowledge I don’t. I’d be stupid to turn down your help.”

“Here, I’ll send it to your display.” The screen in front of Kisa lit with a comm directory listing: G&C, Mitch Goldman (with “True Nordsman” in big neon letters) & Jade Cattano (”Feminine Matters”). The man looked like he’d been hewn from the Crystal Range itself, while the woman had tigress tags—even down to her legs and feet, which seemed extreme even for Zharus.

The rates for missing persons cases seemed surprisingly cheap, which made her a little suspicious. Kisa looked up their public records on missing persons cases and found their success rate was rather lackluster—though they did seem pretty good at the administrative side. But they were cheap. Thing is, they weren’t quite cheap enough. She had 215 mu to her name after paying for the replacement cavorite and bus fares out of the money Flint had given her. There was the little matter of needing food and shelter before she could use her return cryo ticket home. I need more money…

Her Luggage.

Many of the Grand Tourers who ended their voyages at Zharus ended up selling theirs to collectors, handily financing the return ticket and reducing its cost in cargo fees at the same time. Even a low-end model like hers could fetch a few thousand mu to the right person. That would be enough to employ the investigators for a week or so. If they didn’t find any further signs of Pietro there was no point in staying anyway…and it wasn’t as if she was going to need it for moving on to other worlds in her “tour.”

To return home in failure, to so much gloating, would be humiliating. Her parents thought she should let her brother go. Her parents didn’t provide a single ruble for her journey. Her parents thought she was throwing away years of her life at a futile effort. They hadn’t directly stopped her from going, they’d just refused to support her in doing so.

Kisa sighed. It wasn’t as if she was really attached to the vehicle, having only just bought it for the sake of the trip, but it was the one tangible piece of home she had with her.

Flint glanced over at her. “Hey, what’s wrong? Still too much? You know, I can kick in some money…”

Kisa shook her head. “I can’t let you do that. You hardly even know me, and I couldn’t owe you that much. But I can sell my Luggage. Tourists who’ve returned tell me they often get a good price for it here.”

Flint nodded thoughtfully. “That’s true. There are people who collect damned near anything on this rock. Everything from Earth cybernetics to unopened cans of beer. You’ll probably get a lot more for it than you paid for it back home. Still…you should have something to let you get around without me. Or…someone.

Kisa raised an eyebrow. “A RIDE, you are saying?”

“They’re pretty cheap here—just as your suitcase on lifters would be back home. And as dangerous as the place is, it’ll help you to have a survival suit who can think for themselves—especially if your search takes you somewhere away from civilization.”

Kisa regarded him neutrally. “I wouldn’t even know what to look for.”

“I would. And I think I could find someone you’d get along with. On one condition.”

Kisa hadn’t exactly been born yesterday. “That you pay for it?”

“That I pay for her, yes.” Flint grinned. “I promise nothing expensive. War or mining surplus, most likely. But she’ll be sturdy enough—and glad to be off the lot. And that way you can use whatever you get from your Luggage for finding your sib.

“Besides, it’s one of the most Zharusian things a tourist can do here. You’ve come all this way for to find your brother, but this is a unique experience you can’t get anywhere else in the galaxy.”

“And, if you can be believed, it is also a person.” Kisa frowned. “I am still skeptical of that, but if it is true…how can they just…sell people here?”

“Well, Kisa, believe me when I say that sad state of affairs is not long for this world.”

Kisa considered this. “Well…I will at least meet anyone you recommend to me. If we…get along…and I can’t believe I’m saying this about a vehicle…well, we’ll see.” She shook her head. “But that can come later. For now…I suppose I should see what I can get for the Luggage.”

“That can come later, too. For now, maybe you should meet with Goldman and see if you want to hire him? You won’t find anyone cheaper in this burg for missing persons, that’s for sure. So if not, you might as well maybe wait ‘til we hit somewhere like Aloha where there are fatcats who might give you more money for it.”

“That’s…on the opposite corner of the whole continent. It was where I landed and began hitchhiking, before you picked me up.”

“You would be waiting a while, yeah. Though with the kind of money those people have, you could probably arrange for one of them to send a sub to pick it up.”

“Then I might as well post a continent- or world-wide ad now and see if someone is that interested.”

Flint chuckled. “You do catch on fast, don’t you? All right. So you post that ad and set up an appointment with Goldman, and I’ll check with the local RIDE dealerships between deliveries. We’ll meet up for dinner at the end of the day?”

Kisa nodded. “That sounds reasonable. I’ll get started now.” She reached out to pull up the on-screen keyboard and accessed the global network’s want-ads section—they called it a “Craigslist,” whatever that meant. A photo upload from her comm, a quick description, and her contact information, and that was that.

Then it was time to reach out to Mr. Goldman. The comm brought up a woman with decidedly feline features—tiger-striped hair, ears, and orange eyes. “Goldman & Cattano! I’m Jade Cattano, may I…” She trailed off, stared, then shook her head. “Uh, may I help you?”

Kisa tilted her head. “Is everything all right?”

“Sorry…the comm just glitched is all.” Jade smiled at her. “What can I do for you, miss?”

“I’d like to meet with Mr. Goldman. I may have a missing persons case for him.”

“Actually, you’ll probably be seeing me first—I handle those meetings myself. But I’m a full partner, so it’s not as if you’ll be talking to a secretary. Missing persons case…so, guessing you’re a Neorussian from that accent, further guessing it will be one of your sibs, cousins, or friends who disappeared while on Tour, since you’re about the right age and they tend to do that here, am I getting warm?”

“Well. You are a detective, aren’t you?” Kisa smiled. “You are…I believe the expression they use here is ‘batting a thousand’? Whatever that means.”

“It’s a reference to the ancient sport of baseball, and the way they used to track how often a batter was able to hit the ball when they came up to bat. A score of one thousand would mean the batter literally never missed—but you didn’t call up for Trivial Pursuit answers.” Jade grinned. “I see you’re coming from some kind of cockpit or cab, and the caller ID says you’re on the in-polity comm network, so I’m going to guess you just hit town? No need to make you wait—we’re not busy, so just come on over.”

“Thank you. I will be there as soon as I can.”

Flint glanced over as she closed the connection. “I can drop you off right down the block in ten minutes.”

“That will be perfect.”

A few minutes later, the transport swept in to ground level on the street in a slightly down-market section of town. The buildings here were of a slightly older design than the others, though Zharus being Zharus, it was hard to tell whether that was natural or artistic. The building where the detective agency’s address put it was a multi-level brownstone tenement, with an establishment called “Hooters” on the ground level. Kisa raised an eyebrow. Through the large front windows the employees were rather busty women in white halter tops with the logo on the front and orange short-shorts. Uh…huh. Yeah.

Flint grinned a rather smarmy grin at her. “You know, I think I’ll check and see if there’s a truck park around here. It’s been awhile since lunch, and the Yelp says this place has great wings.”

“I’ll just bet it does.” But she’d been riding with him too long to take any real offense. “I’ll comm you when I’m done.”

Flint nodded. “See you then.” He waited for her to step down from the cab, then lifted slowly away again. Kisa took a deep breath, then headed for the small side door that led directly to the stairs to the upper levels.

At the top was a dimly-lit wood-paneled hallway. On the right a door with frosted glass had the name of the agency in bold gold letters: Goldman & Cattano. The hallway had a musty odor and the air felt stuffy. It wasn’t exactly a welcoming atmosphere as such, but it did impart an air of mystery. Kisa turned the brass doorknob and entered.

The woman, Jade Cattano, was behind a scarred wooden desk facing the door. She smiled at Kisa as she entered. “Miss Romanov, thank you for coming! Please, have a seat. Can we offer you anything to drink?”

Kisa’s mouth felt a little dry. “I’ll just have some water, thank you.”

“Sure.” Cattano stood up and padded over to a large glass water bottle. Her movements were liquid, taking after the tigress she resembled. Her tail tip flicked idly as she filled the glass, the upturned bottle making a loud gurgle.

The entire office was that way. Replicas of antiques—desk, file cabinets, chairs—all seemed to have a theme. Kisa tried to say something diplomatic. “More twentieth century…stuff?”

“Takes some getting used to, but it grows on you,” Cattano said. She handed her prospective client the glass then took the seat behind the desk again. “Now, the initial interview is free. I won’t quote you a rate until I have a better idea what the job could entail. But I do want to caution you, Miss Romanov. Our rates for missing persons are cheap for a reason. To be perfectly frank with you, we’re not very good at it.”

“And I can’t afford anything else right now.” Kisa tried not to let too much desperation creep into her tone of voice. “I’m selling my Luggage to afford even this.”

Cattano bit her lower lip. “Ahh…I, uh. I see. I’ve met a few Tourers over the years. I know what the Luggage means.”

Kisa shrugged. “It means a suitcase on wheels, as far as I’m concerned. My brother—or sister, if you like—is important. The Luggage is just a thing.”

“I gather your…sister ran afoul of something. Accidental crossride, perhaps? Or something else?” Cattano looked to be choosing her words very carefully. “Something possibly involving Sturmhaven?”

“They sent us an announcement. I have it for you here.” Kisa sent her a file transfer request. A couple seconds passed before it was accepted.

Jade’s eyes flicked down to a screen below a glass surface on her desk, and she adjusted an earbud in one of her tiger ears. “I…see. Valkyries.”

“Pardon me?”

“That’s one of their…I suppose you would call them political parties. Extremists who feel they can do more or less whatever they like, as long as they do it to men. Especially men from somewhere else. It will get them in trouble someday.” Her voice was artificially calm.

Kisa cocked her head. “You sound…angry. Or like you’re trying not to be angry.”

Jade took a deep breath and let it out. “Their kind have done bad things to…friends of mine. And since they still hold significant power in Sturmhaven, it is hard to get any real justice for it.”

“I got that sense.” Kisa grimaced. “When I visited her in prison, she acted like it was an inconvenience to see me, because I was taking her away from her sewing circle or whatever it is they do in there.”

“Please, tell me what happened from the beginning. Let’s see what we have to work with.”

“All right. We received this a few months ago—well, a few years ago now, but I still find it hard to count the trip time…” Kisa went over the whole sordid story, with Jade making polite listening noises and occasionally interrupting with a clarifying question. By the time she finished, her water glass was empty, and Jade got up to fill it again.

As the tiger-woman returned to her seat, Kisa sipped the water and shot her a look of expectation. “Well?”

“Well.” Jade frowned, her ears twitching. Kisa watched them thoughtfully. She’d noticed that the animal ears on people who had them actually did tend to move in time with their emotions, like the real version on an animal. It was odd, but it was also a pretty obvious “tell” that a lot of people didn’t even realize they had. Kisa often wondered what it would be like to play poker with them. “Strange as it might seem to someone from Neorus, there isn’t a lot out of the ordinary there. We can certainly take this case, at the usual rates for missing persons. I’ll caution you not to get your hopes up too high, though.”

“Yes, you said. You are not good at this.” Kisa shrugged. “At least you have more training and experience in it than I have. I’m just looking for some sort of closure. I know my family back home would like some, too. Even if they’ve just given up on Pietro.”

“It’s not even that, so much as it is the way missing persons cases tend to work around here. We have a considerably higher unsolved-disappearance count than Earth or every other colony. Sometimes I’m surprised any other planet still lets its people come here.”

“You’re kidding, right? Back home, Zharus is the place everyone wants to see. The risk just makes it all the better. I’m not sure how much money my Luggage will get, but it should be enough to get started. After…I dunno. I’ll think of something. Find a job, maybe.”

“We’ll do all we can. But I will warn you now, we may reach a point where we simply can proceed no further. If that happens, we will tell you so and end our services, rather than continue charging you for a service we cannot provide.”

“That seems fair. Thank you, Miss Cattano. I really appreciate this.”

“Please, call me Jade. This is Cape Nord, and we women stick together here.”

“Is it really that bad? With what I saw through the window of that place downstairs…it seems as though we are just here for men’s entertainment, as much as the opposite seems true in Sturmhaven.”

“I’d rather be a woman here than Sturmhaven. And I live here, so I’m being honest with you. We let the men think they’re the ones in charge, you see.”

A sudden feeling of emotional exhaustion brought out an urge to be contrary. “Really? Or do you just tell yourselves that? From the outside, it’s hard to tell.”

Jade coughed. “Well, if you need a place to stay, I recommend the Langston Motel on Chester Street. In-room fabbers, good for a longer stay. I know the owners personally. I’ve done work for them in the past.”

“I don’t know how long we’ll be in town—I’m riding along with a jobber on a delivery loop, as it seems like the most economical way to get from place to place. In fact, that was part of why I wanted to hire you—you can be working on it while I’m on the way. But thanks.”

“A great way to see Gondwana, too. Well, I’ll be in touch. Don’t worry about giving us the down payment immediately. I can give you some leeway to sell your Luggage. I’m sure you’ll get a good price for it.” Jade held out a beclawed hand to shake. The palm and fingertips were padded, like a cat’s.

Kisa was very curious about this woman. Her tags were some of the most extreme she’d seen so far on Zharus. Yet, there was no sign of a RIDE around, much like with Flint. A falling out between friends, maybe? Another case of not getting along? She took Jade’s hand and shook it, then turned to leave.

Jade kept her composure for a good minute after Kisa had left. Then she slowly facepalmed, lowered her face to the desk, and groaned. “Well, that went well…”

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Kisa stopped outside the Hooters franchise. Despite what Jade had said she just couldn’t bring herself to step inside. Flint was sitting at the counter with a plate piled high with wing bones. Kisa waved enough to catch his eye, and he nodded and gestured to the waitress to get his check.

When he came out, he seemed uncharacteristically subdued. Kisa raised an eyebrow. “Is everything all right?”

“Oh, sure. Just one of those things where…you ever try to do something nice for someone, and have it backfire and blow up in your face?”

Kisa blinked. “This isn’t about what you were doing for me, was it?”

“Oh, no, nothing to do with you. Just…something. Someone else’s business.” He shrugged. “People are complicated, and life is full of weird coincidences. Nothing I coulda known about, just that I was trying to help some people but made life a little harder for them by accident. But they’ll get by.”

“If you’re sure it’s all right…”

“Nothing to worry about. C’mon, the truck park’s this way.” He waved a hand. “While I was eating, I commed around to the local RIDE dealerships. I may have a line on just the one, but we won’t know until we meet her.” He paused. “Assuming you want a ‘her,’ that is. You could always crossride—y’know, just for symmetry.”

Kisa rolled her eyes. “No. Just no.”

Flint grinned at her. “You sure you don’t want your parents to still be able to say they’ve got a daughter and a son?”

“I’m the youngest of four children. They still have a son. Now please, I’m not in the mood.”

“All right, all right. I was just saying, y’know, going back and changing your answers on the census can be—” Kisa favored him with a glare, and he cut off in mid sentence. “Right, right, giving it a rest, got it.”

The truck park was just a block away. It proved to be an elevator down to another subterranean cave level that made an ideal parking garage for larger vehicles. Flint opened Kisa’s side of the cab first, then went around and climbed up into his own. “All righty, then. We’ll be at the RIDE shop in ten minutes.”

“Uh, great.”

Flint glanced at her. “Having second thoughts?”

“Not exactly, it’s just…the idea of buying a vehicle who is also a person…the closer I get to it, the more it seems uncomfortably like slavery.”

“I know what you mean. A lot of people have trouble with that. And maybe you’ll decide it’s not for you after all. But you should talk to her anyway.”

“Oh, I will. It’s just…weird thinking about it.”

“So put thinking about it on hold for…eight more minutes. We’ll be there soon.”

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INT. “RIDE SAFARI” DEALERSHIP - AFTERNOON

“So. Who are you, then?”

Kisa considered the elk standing in front of her. She had a perfectly natural-looking pelt, and liquid brown eyes that were currently peering at her along a long, wedge-shaped face. The odd whisker poked out of her muzzle. She looked as if she should be roaming the high plains back on old Earth. Except that she had just spoken aloud like a talking animal from a Disney movie—a talking animal with a bit of an attitude.

“My name is Kisa. I’m from Neorus.”

“Well hello, Kisa from Neorus. What brings you to our fair hole-in-the-ground?”

“Well, Flint here thinks I could use a new friend. I’m honestly not sure how much longer I’m going to be on Zharus. Could be anywhere from a few days to a few months. He thinks we might get along in the meantime.”

“Yeah, maybe we could at that. If it gets me off this lot, sure.” She snorted. “You came to the right place if you’re looking for a sale. They’ve had me around long enough they’re just about ready to give me away. Don’t know quite what to do with me, the poor lunks. I’m not exactly the ‘delicate flower’ type they’re used to around here.”

“I’ve seen enough of that, myself. As long as you’re not the overbearing she-woman type either, I think we’ll get along.”

The elk wrinkled her muzzle. “Sounds like you lifted up a Sturmie rock, and weren’t too thrilled by what crawled out. Yeah, join the club. Hate those bitches. Real pity they made me twenty years too late to do anything about it.”

“Dolores is one of the last models from an outsourcing program for NextusMil.” The RIDE dealer, a fellow by the name of Bill who was dressed like a Victorian jungle explorer in keeping with the lot’s “Tarzan” theme, spoke up. “Made by a Cape Nord RIDEworks, during a time when their usual Nextus supplier was unavailable due to factory renovations. When they aged out of service, the surplus units ended up back here.”

“Yeah, ain’t that just a hoot? Nordie soul with a Nextus attitude, a born soldier who never got to fight anything—I’m just a mess of contradictions, I am. A little too uncouth for their usual clientele.”

“Not exactly ladylike, by our standards,” Flint said, though not with any apparent disapproval.

“Yeah, well, your standards suck. I’m sorry, but they do.” She snorted. “Really, I was a dumb idea from the outset. Their little cold war was undergoing one of its periodic thaws, and some genius Nextus pencil pusher thought RIDEs from He-Man Land would be just what the doctor ordered to take on the Polity of the Amazons. Which…never happened, and then we got too old for ‘em and they sent us back here. Yay us. I think most of the dealerships finally just gave up on us and traded us to shops in other polities, but this one’s just too stubborn for some reason.”

Bill snorted. “Give me a little credit, Dolly. I don’t sell a RIDE to anyone I don’t think will treat you right. Like that last joker…what was his name? Said he needed something cheap for his girlfriend. Doesn’t really matter. Miss Romanov here looks like a good egg.”

“Oh, sure. These ears have directional mics, you know. I know all about the running bet you and the other boys have on which one of you will be the one who finally gets me off the lot.”

Bill sighed. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by now at you listening in on Man Talk. It certainly wouldn’t do me any good to act shocked, would it?”

“’Fraid not, no.”

Bill grinned at her. “So…you think I’ve got a chance?”

“You’ll have to ask her.” Dolores nodded toward Kisa.

Kisa glanced from Dolores to Bill and back. “How can you just…banter about this? You’re casually discussing selling a person.

Bill shook his head. “A lot of tourists ask us that. There really isn’t any good answer. Things are changing, but…very very slowly. Not enough people trying to push it forward, I guess.”

“Blame the system. I do. All the time.” Dolores pawed the ground thoughtfully. “We’re all stuck where we are, and most of us try to be nice about it to each other. Because if we don’t, that way lies crazy-town, and its out-of-his-core-housing wolfy mayor.”

Ugh… Kisa came to a decision that felt as exploitive as it did compassionate. “Well, Dolores, if you’re willing to take a risk with me, we could be partners. What do you say? When I leave Zharus I’ll do my best to make things as right as I can for you before I go.”

Dolores jerked her head up and down in a quick nod. “Well! Now you’re talking.”

“You’re sure, Kisa?” Flint said.

“Sure as I have been of anything on this planet.”

The dealer rubbed his hands together. “I’ll get the paperwork started. I’m sure we’ll come to an agreeable price. A Lady’s first RIDE is important. Follow me into my office.”

“No fast ones, Bill. I know all your tricks,” Flint warned.

“Oh, don’t worry, you’re going to get a great deal.” He grinned. “I’m going to be making most of my profit on this one from when the rest of the boys pay up.”

Dolores leaned her head forward and gave her future partner a friendly lick. “Thank you, Kisa. Really, I can’t express my gratitude. At least, not until we Fuse.”

“Is that…slobber? How can you even do that?” Kisa smoothed back her wet hair.

“I’m a ‘GSA’ frame. General Support Armor. I have an onboard multi-fabber. A lot like the Luggage you Neorussians haul around with you.”

“Which is one reason I thought she’d be just right for you,” Flint added.

Kisa blinked. “You have an onboard fabber and you use it for slobber?

“Hey, details matter. Have to be ready to fab anything out in the field. They didn’t remove much gear when they decommissioned me. What a deal, eh?”

Flint grinned. “You two get acquainted, and I’ll go get all this cleared up and bring the truck around. See you soon.”

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EXT. GONDWANA COASTAL RING SKIMMERWAY - LEAVING CAPE NORD - EVENING

“Gotta admit, this beats hell out of being stuck in a lot staring at my hooves.” Dolores leaned on the armrest and peered happily out the windshield. She and Kisa were sitting together in the passenger seat, which had been reconfigured to support a Fuser form.

Flint chuckled. “Glad you approve. Kisa doing okay in there, too?”

Kisa replied. “Oh, sure! Just a little distracted is all. Dolly’s been showing me her virtual reality.” She paused. “Uh…I think I’m lost.”

“Mwahaha, you fell victim to my evil scheme—uh, I mean, backtrack fifty meters and take the left, you’ll come back out to the clearing.”

“Thanks. It’s bigger than it looks in here.”

“Hope you like rain,” Flint said cheerfully. His demeanor had changed since they’d left the dealership. “In just a couple days, we’ll cross the Wet Line into Cascadia.”

“Rain? I’ve heard of that. We hope we will have some, someday, on Neorus.” She chuckled. “Well, actually we do have a few centis per year in sprinkles, but not what you might really call a shower.”

“Just consider this a sneak preview of what you have to look forward to, then.” Flint chuckled. “Frankly, I’d be happy to box about half of this up and send it to you with a little bow on. Two thirds, some days. Know why they call it the Wet Line?”

Kisa remembered what she’d read. “It’s where the orographic uplift effects from the Western Wall really kick in. A bunch of ten-thousand-meter peaks will do that. It’s at least a few hundred centis of rain per year from there south. Can’t imagine there’s much topsoil in places. It’d get washed away.”

“Hey, gold star for the tourist. I guess you don’t have that effect on Neorus?”

“We get some orographic snow, but in general the atmosphere’s too cold to hold much moisture. We’ll have to pump almost two hundred parts per million of carbon dioxide to get where we need to be, climate-wise. There’s barely enough CO2 to support photosynthesis as it is.”

“Really?” Dolores said. “How do you plan on doing that?”

“There’s vast fossil fuel deposits formed before the snowball effect killed off most plantlife. Kind of the opposite problem Earth still has. We’re still figuring out how to use it without getting the atmosphere too dirty.”

“You oughtta see if there’s any methane deposits you can heat up. If there’s one thing we ruminants know about, it’s methane.”

Kisa laughed. “Oh, that’s the truth.”

The elk’s ears raised. “Hey, got an offer on your Luggage, Kisa. 3,500 mu. That’s not too bad…”

“Could be better. It’s enough to get me ten days of investigation time. I’ll take it.”

“Sure you don’t want to hold out for more? The auction research I did for giggles shows three of the same model going for about four point eight K in the last six months, and a couple for a full five.”

“See if you can chivvy him up to 4? If so, take it. If not…well, take it anyway. I’d rather just have the money now so I can pay the gumshoes.”

“Fair enough.” Dolores was silent for a couple more minutes. “Looks like I can get him up to three and eight. So you’ve got eleven days for your gumshoes.”

“Done and done. Ask him where he wants us to drop it off.”

“There’s a shipping drop at our first stop, coming up. Got anything in there you want to keep?” Flint said.

“Nothing I haven’t already transferred over to Dolly’s cargo compartments,” Kisa said. “Frankly, it’s kind of a piece of junk. It works, but I honestly didn’t expect to get as much for it as I did. When the money runs out, I’ll think of something.”

“You never know. Something might turn up,” Dolores said. “If nothing else, we could go prospecting for Q. Always wanted to try that.”

“All I’m really here for is to find my broth…my sister. I don’t really care about touristy things.”

“Whoa there,” Flint said. “Dolly’s not saying you should ignore that. But you’ve already admitted you can’t do it on your own. Let the gumshoes do their job, and in the meantime, do something interesting. You’ve come all this way, Kisa. My rig’s Dry-hardened. All I need is the right trailer for prospecting.”

“Yeah. Don’t stress yourself out,” Dolores said.

“I’ll think about it.” A kind of listlessness was settling in. Kisa lacked the emotional energy to feel strongly one way or another. The last few days were catching up with her. The awfulness of Sturmhaven and Cape Nord weighed her down.

:Hey, buck up,: Dolores said privately. :You’re making new friends. Flint isn’t really a that bad, as men go. Nordies, that is. And hey, you’ve probably saved me from a life of sheer boredom.:

:Yeah, I guess. I just…now that I’m here, it all kind of feels anticlimactic. There was supposed to be some big dramatic reunion. Swelling strings, slow motion, and all that. People don’t just disappear. But…:

:Some of my own friends—RIDEs, of course—have disappeared, too. Hell if I know what happens to people on this planet.:

“I’m going to go check over the Luggage one last time and make sure it’s prepped to ship,” Kisa said aloud, releasing the restraints that clamped Dolores’s Fuser form in place to the seat. “Let me know when we’re ready to drop it off.”

:Ready to see the new, improved you?: Dolores said as they made their way back.

:I’m not that out of shape, am I?:

:No. I’ve just cleaned house a bit. You had some liver damage from some of the chemicals you worked with back home. I haven’t changed your body type, if that’s what you’re afraid of. I haven’t touched any deeper memories than you’ve given me permission to, either. Okay?:

Some of the Grand Tourers brought back their Zharusian “tags” as a badge of their journey. It wasn’t unusual to see people older than Kisa was with the ears and tail of some canine or feline. She even knew a woman who had kept feather-hair. She’d never really asked them about their experience, and had just assumed the tags were some kind of local fad to show solidarity among RIDE partners. But now she was starting to get the idea it was more than that. :Okay. As long as you didn’t turn me into a Valkyrie or something, we’ll probably be fine.:

The de-Fuse process left Kisa a little breathless. Her skin felt chilly, giving her goosebumps. Her pale skin was now slightly tanned. Neorus was, by and large, an indoor colony. Even when she went outside she put on an undersuit that kept her body at the right temperature. The only tropical environments were completely artificial hardlight climate domes. Basically the polar opposite of what much of Zharus used them for.

“My butt feels a bit fuzzy,” Kisa said.

“Well, elk—or ‘wapiti’ if you prefer—don’t have much tail to speak of. So you get a fuzzbutt,” Dolores said cheerfully. “Check out your cute ears.”

Kisa reached up to feel the side of her head. “Wow. I’ve got ears like Flint now.”

“Well…broadly. They are cute, though. Make your friends talk when you get home. You know, eventually.”

So, what would I do if the gumshoes ran into a dead end? Stay here? For the first time she seriously considered doing that. She had reason, though her family would be disappointed. She would also have to pay back a percentage of her education. Trained TerraTechs like her were a valuable resource.

But she was pretty sure she could find work here in that field. They might not be trying to reshape the whole planet, but any individual settlement trying to survive in the harsher climes needed the same sort of expertise. She’d spent quite some time in Punta Sur, looking at Gondwana’s own terraforming efforts, and met some of the Neorussian expats who worked there.

“I know that look,” Dolores said. “You’re doing some heavy thinking. ‘What if they don’t find her’? That sort of thing.”

“You kind of have a direct line right into my head, even unFused,” Kisa pointed out.

“It’s just a thing we do. Hope you don’t find it too disturbing. Some people do.”

Kisa waved a hand. She slid open various drawers on the Luggage, making sure there was nothing left behind. “Not exactly. More the idea of someone understanding me so well so quickly. Being close to someone…I haven’t really been, since my brother left. My other two siblings are more than ten years older than we are. They were already away from home by the time we were old enough to do more than toddle around.”

“I do hope you find him…her.”

“Yeah, me, too.” Kisa sighed. “But I have to face up to the possibility that it’s not…what is it you say here…’in the cards.’ I may go the rest of my life never knowing what happened.”

Dolores reached over to nuzzle her shoulder. “Who knows, maybe something will come up. You can’t give up the battle without firing a shot.” She snorted. “Not that I’ve ever been in a battle, or fired a shot that wasn’t at a practice target, but still, it’s what they tell me.”

Kisa closed the last drawer. “Thanks. I wish I could believe that.” She shrugged. “Well, I think I’ve gotten everything I need. I hope the new owner gets hours of enjoyment out of this turkey.”

“They’ll probably hotrod it out,” Flint added from the cab.

“Hotrod Luggage?”

“Well, sort of. With the right mods they’re a RIDE alternative, in a sense. Except we can’t quite get them right on Zharus and they’re hard to export from Neorus for some reason.”

“Zharus, planet of the leftovers. Leftover Luggage from Neorus, leftover cyber from Earth, and us leftover RIDEs from the army. If it was used somewhere else, we got it here!”

Kisa chuckled. “So, who gets your leftovers, hmm?”

“That’s where the metaphor breaks down. I’d say that it ought to be the cockroaches, but the Keplers don’t usually get anywhere near here.”

Flint looked back from the cab driver’s seat. “Kisa, we’re on approach to the cargo drop now. ETA, five minutes. I’m sending along the particulars for your shipment now. They’ll be ready for it when we touch down.”

“Great! The sooner, the better.”

A few minutes later, the transport landed at another platform like the one where Kisa had purchased the new cavorite rotor. They all seemed to be built around the same general plan, save for different cosmetic touches here and there. Maybe they fab them and then just plop them down? The idea amused Kisa, all the more because for all she knew it was probably correct. The thing about recursion is that it’s just so…recursive.

Dropping off the Luggage was just the work of a couple of minutes. She drove it out onto a cargo elevator, then stepped off. As it lowered out of sight, Dolores reported getting a digital receipt, and as soon as she forwarded it on to the buyer, she got an ack that the payment had been released from the escrow account. “Ka-ching!” the elk reported.

“I have a few days to kill after my deliveries, so we can do the tourist thing in Cascadia if you want,” Flint said. “It’s a lot like Uplift. Life under hardlight domes to keep the rain off. It rains 250 days out of the year there. Couple thousand centimeters. Best water you’ll ever taste, though.”

“I’ll have have some, then.” Kisa tried to pull her mood out of the doldrums, but failed. And where Pietro disappeared. Maybe I should do a little gumshoeing, myself. “But first, why don’t we try their police headquarters? I’d like to get the reports on my brother right from the source.”

“Sounds like a plan. I’ll comm ahead and get things set up.”

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July 10, 156 AL

INT. DOME ST. HELENS, POLICE CENTRAL, CASCADIA - FLUORESCENT LIGHTING

The policeman behind the Cold Case Department desk had the ears of a zebra and striped hair that stood right on end. He listened to her story carefully, the zebra standing in an alcove behind him also attentive. Once Kisa finished he slid over a hand scanner to verify she was genetic next-of-kin.

“Now that the formalities are taken care of, I can confirm that we do have your brother’s personal effects in storage here,” Officer Colter said. “It’s been some years, so they’re in a long term facility. It’ll take a couple days to get them out. Is that okay?”

“Better than I’d hoped!” Kisa said. “It’s a wonder the motel didn’t just sell them off.”

“Nah. Most folks here are stand-up enough not to try and pull a fast one like that. The inventory I have has…well…it’s almost the size of Yipes back there.”

“Pietro didn’t skimp when he bought his Luggage.”

“I guess. In the meanwhile, I do have the set of holograms they took when they stored it. If you’d like to look it over, I’ll shoot it across to your RIDE.”

“Thank you. We’d appreciate that.”

“No problem. We’ll ping your comm when they’re here. Will you be in the area for a while?”

“We should be, thank you. I’m planning to see the local sights.”

“Be sure you stop by some of the local microbreweries. We have great beer here. It’s the water, you know.”

“I guess it always comes back to that here, doesn’t it?”

“Well, it’s not the only thing we do. It’s just what we’re known for. Have a good afternoon, Miss Romanov.”

Flint and Dolores awaited her in the lobby. He stepped forward. “Nice to see a smile on your face for a change, Kisa. Looks good.”

“The gumshoes are probably going to get a good laugh when I tell them. At least I can have them spend the money on other leads. We’ll hand it over to them along with the police’s forensics data, of course. See what else they can figure out from it.”

“Sounds like a plan. Have you thought about what touristy things you want to try first?”

“You know the local territory, so what do you think I should try first?”

Flint grinned. “Well, if you’re leaving it up to me…how about trying a little fishing?”

Kisa raised an eyebrow. “Fishing? You have that here?”

“We surely do. I guess you don’t on Neorus?”

Kisa chuckled. “We’d need to have fish for that. Maybe in a few decades. Why not? If nothing else, it will make for amusing videos to send back home.”

“That’s the spirit. Besides, they’ve got real salmon here, descended from specimens imported live from Earth. Them’s good eating.”

Dolores snorted. “Ugh. Include me out on the eating. If God had meant for elks to eat fish, he’d have given us dorsal fins.”

A couple of hours later, the three of them shared a secluded spot on the bank of a small river. A series of stepped waterfalls gently roared a few hundred meters upstream. Flint demonstrated the finer points of attaching floats and lures to the end of the line, then casting out into the water. It only took Kisa a couple of tries to make a passable cast herself.

Kisa peered at where her float bobbed out in midstream, a few meters away from Flint’s. “So…now what?”

Flint grinned. “Now…we wait.”

“We wait? For how long?”

“Until the fish deign to notice our humble offering. Could be minutes, or it could be we don’t get so much as a nibble the whole time we’re here. You never know. It’s kind of like playing the lottery. A fish lottery.” He leaned back in the folding chair he’d brought from the transport, and reached down to the portable cooler stocked with a couple of six-packs from local breweries.

“A…fish lottery. Right.” Kisa frowned. “That doesn’t seem very efficient.”

“Well, you know what they say. Give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, he’ll sit out by the river and drink beer all day.” Flint popped the top off one of the beer bottles with his thumbnail and happily drank. “You want one?”

“Thanks, but no. Perhaps later.”

“Fair enough. They’ll go well with sushi, if we do manage to catch something here.”

They sat in companionable silence for a while. Dolores grazed nearby—or pretended to graze, Kisa didn’t know which, and wasn’t entirely sure it would be polite to ask. Flint’s line bobbed a couple of times, but there was nothing resembling the strong tug he’d told her to expect if something took the bait.

The sounds of the river and the distant calls of birds and other animals were calming. Kisa let her eyes half-close, and after a while, she felt so relaxed that before she even knew it, she opened her mouth and said the first thing that came to mind. “What is it with you and meat, anyway? I mean, the kraken, the wings…now sushi?”

Flint chuckled. “What do you mean? I’m a human, after all. We’re omnivores.”

“But you were partnered with a deer…weren’t you?”

“Just because you’re partnered with Dolly now doesn’t mean you’re considering going vegetarian, does it?”

“Well…I’ve been kind of thinking about it…if it makes things easier for her…”

The elk in question gave her head a shake, ears waggling. “Eh, you don’t need to do that. I don’t really mind. Not like I’ve even got a real stomach to begin with. It’s all just programmed instincts, but they’re also programmed not to get in the way of whatever humans want to do. Pretty stupid, really. It’s not like any part of me was ever a real elk, anyway, except for the few little strands of DNA they based my core on for God only knows what reason.”

“See, that’s just how Mikey felt. Only stronger.” Flint grinned. “He downright resented having instincts imposed on him by people who made him, and determined to do everything he could to rebel. Which included developing a taste for meat. Like Dolly there said, he didn’t have a stomach, so what did it matter what the heck he ate?”

Kisa raised an eyebrow.”That sounds like an…interesting point of view.”

“Oh, you have no idea.” Flint shook his head. “The hell of it was, my—his first Army partner, my predecessor, was a strict vegetarian, who thought asking for a nice herbivorous deer RIDE for a partner would be just the thing.”

“Oh, no!” Kisa laughed. “Really? What happened?”

“They got the RIDE equivalent of a divorce. Irreconcilable differences.” Flint chuckled. “Confused the hell out of the CO. He’d seen it happen a few times when the human wanted to eat meat and the deer just couldn’t stand it, but never the other way around. Anyway, they both ended up with new partners after that. As it happened, I had no problem at all with eating meat, though up ‘til then I could just take it or leave it. But even long after my partnership with Mikey, uh, ended, that’s one thing that’s still stuck with me.”

“Wow. That’s some story.”

“The beauty of it is, it’s even true. Mostly.”

“Mostly?”

Flint winked. “What’s any good story without a little exaggeration and shading the truth? Oh, hey, think I’ve got a bite!” His line went taut, and the rod bowed as a fish started fighting the line. Flint began cranking it in, and finally jerked a squirming silver form free from the water’s surface. He cranked it the rest of the way in and held it up. “Hey, would you look at that? Must be four or five kilos!”

Kisa applauded with one hand, while keeping a firm grip on her own rod with the other. “Nice! Where are you going to—hey, what’re you doing?” Flint carefully detached the hook, blew through the fish’s gills, and threw him back. Kisa blinked. “I thought you said we were going to have sushi afterward?”

“Oh, we are! It’s just that I’ve found from experience it tastes a lot better when someone else makes it, so after we finish up here, there’s this great little sushi place back by the park entrance…”

Kisa laughed. “You incorrigible—hey, I think I’ve got one now!”

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Altogether, they managed five catches between them—two for Flint and three for Kisa. Flint credited it to beginner’s luck. They let them all go again afterward, then headed down to the sushi shack to place their order. The restaurant used fresh-caught salmon from the same river, but the difference was that they didn’t have to clean it themselves. “Which, I mean, eww,” Flint explained.

Kisa peered at him. “Are you sure you’re from Cape Nord?”

“Yes, but I’m not in Cape Nord. Which means I have some leeway.”

Kisa peered suspiciously at the sushi as it arrived. “Is that fish raw? Aren’t you supposed to cook it first?”

“Does sushi mean something else on Neorus? Or do you just not have it?”

“We don’t have actual fish on Neorus yet. And any that comes in on ships…doesn’t exactly resemble actual fish anymore. Pre-cooked, flash-sealed—like the canned tuna they sell here. Sushi…we’ve heard the word, but I guess we don’t really understand what it means.” She poked at a strip of salmon with the tip of a chopstick. “Eww. It’s so…squishy.

“Try it. You might like it. Ancient Japanese delicacy.”

“Ancient? As in, ‘from before they learned how to make fire’?”

“We can always get the standard cedar plank salmon if you prefer. No pressure here. Pacific Northwest delicacy.”

“No, no, I’m going to try this. If your friend Mikey could bring himself to eat meat at all, I can darned well eat this raw.” Kisa picked one up, popped it in her mouth, and forced herself to chew and swallow.

Flint raised an eyebrow. “Well?”

“It’s…interesting. Not what I expected. Flavorful. I didn’t expect it to taste like that.” She peered at the plate. “What’s this green stuff?”

“Uh, you really want to be careful with—”

“Aaaah!!!” Kisa grabbed for and drained her glass of water.

“—oops, too late.”

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July 16, 156 AL

EXT. DRY OCEAN, PARSONS PROJECT FLAT - DAY

Most of the Tourers Kisa had spoken to were at a loss to describe the vast, desiccated landscape of the Dry Ocean. Holos, photos, and video weren’t really enough to capture the sheer beautiful desolation. The Dry Ocean was just a shade smaller than the combined land area of Neorus. In its way, it was as gorgeous as the Crystal Ranges back home—which happened to be the source of raw neoquartzite crystal, then refined into their own metamaterial, Infinium.

During their time in the Dry, Flint seemed rather preoccupied. He was less talkative than usual, a distant expression on his face, lost in thought. The rented Q prospecting rig wasn’t all that successful—they would be lucky to break even on this trip. But since most Tourers didn’t even do that, Kisa was satisfied. “Really, it’s a mug’s game this close to the major polities anyway,” Flint explained. “The really rich deposits are hours or days deeper into the Dry. But that’s a little far for tourists to go.”

“Hmm.” Kisa stared off into the distance. “It seems simple enough to pick up—especially with what I know of geology from terraforming school. Perhaps some other time we can try our luck deeper in.”

“That’s something you two will have to work out between yourselves. My rig doesn’t usually leave the coastal ring.”

“Shouldn’t be a problem if you mean it, though,” Dolores put in. “There’s a whole cottage industry devoted to giving freelance miners a starting stake loan. Kinda like bail bonds, but more optimistic. Or you could go to work for one of the mining corps for a year or two, like Walton or Brubeck. They have pretty good terms and they can always use peeps with training like yours.”

Kisa frowned thoughtfully as one of the names jogged a memory. “Didn’t I see something about Brubeck, on the comm display at the mining rig rental? They had it tuned to one of the mining news channels.”

“Yeah, something about a big press conference coming up tomorrow. Something happened on their main drilling rig out in the Dry and they had to abandon it. Brubeck’s going to talk about why. We can catch it, if you want.”

“Sure, why not? Remind me when it’s almost time. For now, let’s get this thing turned back in and cash out, then go pick up Pietro’s Luggage. They should have it ready by now.”

Turning the mining trailer back in didn’t take long. They left with nearly all the money Kisa had paid in, plus a souvenir—a small blue pebble of raw qubitite, coated in an acrylic sealant to keep it from crumbling and contaminating any machinery. It was kind of a silly thing, but collecting souvenirs was sort of what you did on a Tour. Lacking any real Luggage to put it in anymore, she tucked it into one of Dolores’s cargo panniers where she kept her stuff. But speaking of luggage…

When she got to the police impound lot, Kisa found a small crowd had gathered around the newest arrival. When she and Dolores made their way through them, they immediately recognized the vehicle she’d last seen years before on Neorus. Pietro’s up-market Luggage, which she’d always envied just a little. Now…it was kind of hard to look at it and know her brother wasn’t just about to step out from behind it and tease her for her avarice.

In compact mode it was as large and roughly the shape of a full size bed. Aesthetically the locals would think of it as moderne or art-deco. A silvery surface with red lines where the modular sections could be removed from the framework or indicating mode-change segments. As a vehicle it was a two-person convertible. It could extend a pop tent that comfortably slept ten people—a dozen in a tight squeeze. Kisa herself had slept inside it several nights prior to Pietro’s departure, and ridden with her brother in its vehicle mode. She’d been fourteen Earth Standard Years old at the time.

She reached out and ran a hand along the smooth surface. So here it was. It was the first physical evidence she had that her brother actually had been here. Yes, she’d known it before, but still, this was the first proof she could reach out and touch. It was…sobering.

“Miss Romanov?” the yard’s officer said. “Thumbprint here and you can claim it. Far as we could tell it hasn’t been opened since your sibling arrived at the motel.”

Kisa gave her head a shake, pulling herself back to the present. “Sure, sure…” She went over to the woman to press her thumb on the tablet.

“That’s actually kinda neat,” Dolores said. She read the nameplate. “‘Airstream CarryAll 300’. A company on Earth had that name. Made travel trailers.”

“Zharus actually does not have the monopoly on nostalgia.” Kisa came back over to regard the Luggage again. “Some of it occasionally leaks out to other systems.”

“It’s pretty big.” Dolores walked around it, peering at it from all sizes. “Your brother prone to throw slumber parties or something?”

“He did enjoy his space. Just a touch of claustrophobia, I think.”

“So what’re you planning to do with it? Sell it, too, to finance the detective work?”

“No! No no no. I won’t do that. No. But I will send it to the gumshoes for a once-over. Who knows? They might find something.”

“Fair enough. We gonna go ahead and take care of that now, or you wanna spend more time with it?”

“Let’s just get it to the drop ship point.” Kisa looked over the surface of the Luggage, then found what she was looking for. Another thumb press and a panel slid open. She connected to it via her implant, then sent a command for Follow mode. It lifted a few centis off the ground. “Let’s go. I think Burnside was next on the sightseeing list, Flint?”

His ears were folded back a bit. “Uh, yeah. Yeah. Some of the best soil on the planet. Volcanic. Artsy sort of place. Yeah. Sure.”

Kisa supposed Flint was in another one of his moods, but she figured it was probably best just not to ask. Cape Nord men didn’t seem to be terribly talkative when something was bothering them. “Great. This’ll just take a few minutes, then we can be on our way. No more reason to hang around, I guess.” She’d tried asking around the motel, feeling she might as well since she was here, but of course nobody even remembered her brother/sister all these months later. She’d let the detectives do their job—after all, that was what she was paying them for.

Flint nodded absently. “I’ll go warm up the rig and meet you out front of the post office.”

“Good. I’ll see you then.”

:That man is really preoccupied with something,: Dolores sent. :Wish he’d own up to what, but Nordies are Nordies.:

:It’s probably none of our business, and he’d tell us if it is.: Kisa drove the luggage carefully up the street to the local post office, adjoining one of the municipal aerodromes. She was still a little amazed at how easy it was to ship large objects here. It probably had to do with suborbital shuttles being so common. She’d seen more of them launching or landing just in the polities they’d visited than she thought they had on all of Neorus.

Getting the Luggage set up for shipment was surprisingly quick and painless. It cost a little more than she would have liked, but less than she would have expected given the exchange rates between here and Neorus. She couldn’t shake a slight feeling of wistfulness as she watched the Luggage disappear into the back of the post office—she’d only just gotten it back, after all—but if something in it could give the detectives something to go on, far better that they have it right now than she.

Kisa tucked the receipt away—it seemed to be part of the planet’s 20th-century fixation that they gave paper receipts as well as the digital copy—then Fused back up with Dolores and headed out to climb into the cockpit of the transport. As they settled into the acceleration couch, Flint lifted the transport up into one of the outbound lanes and headed them for the nearest dome exit.

Flint seemed to be back to his usual jaunty self. “So, how’d you like Cascadia?”

“I want to go fishing again before I leave Zharus. If I leave. I guess I’ll just call it ‘next time’.”

Flint chuckled. “There are other places with good fishing spots. If you’re still aboard when we hit Califia, I’ll have to take you trawling for kraken.”

“Oooh. Sounds…uh, manly.”

“I’d say the ocean air would put hair on your chest, but given that you’ve already got fur all over right now, that would probably be redundant.”

“Well, you haven’t steered me wrong yet, so why not?”

“Uh, yeah…” Flint cleared his throat. “Anyway, you’ll like Burnside. It’s kind of like an art commune, on a grand scale. They’ve got this thing where they mold statues out of actual lava…seriously, you gotta see it.”

“Sounds interesting. When do we get there?”

“Sometime tomorrow afternoon at our usual cruising speed. Once we get on the road, I’ll set the autopilot and maybe we can play a board game or something, what you think?”

“Sounds like fun. I’d like to try that ‘Settlers of Catan’ one again. It seemed like I was just starting to figure it out.”

Flint grinned. “Works for me. If there’s one thing I’ve always got, it’s—”

“—wood for sheep,” Kisa said in unison, rolling her eyes. “Yes, you have mentioned. We’ll just go get the board set up.” The elk Fuser arose and headed back into the transport.

Flint turned his head to watch them go, his ears drooping a little once they were out of sight. He took off his hat and fanned himself with it before going back to join them.

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July 17, 156 AL

EXT. GONDWANA COASTAL RING SKIMMERWAY - APPROACHING BURNSIDE - MORNING

The next morning, Flint was in the cab watching the terrain scroll by as Kisa and Dolores came forward again. “It’s almost time for that news conference,” Kisa said, tapping the controls on her board to open a media display. “We thought we might as well watch it up here, unless you aren’t interested.”

Flint waved a hand airily. “Oh, sure, no problem here.”

Kisa cocked her head, Dolores’s ears flicking. “Are you all right? You’ve been out of sorts lately. It’s odd.”

“Eh…it’s just a little ennui is all. It’ll pass.”

“Is it Manly to have ennui? Aren’t you just supposed to be ‘bored’ or something?”

Flint just shrugged and grunted.

The screen lit up with a view of the podium at the Brubeck campus in Uplift. A brown-haired, clean-shaven young man had just come to the podium, and was beginning to speak.

Kisa cocked her head. “What’s he talking about? ‘Integrates’?”

Flint raised his ears with alarm. “Uhh…well…”

Dolores snorted. “They’re like chupacabras. Some kind of mythical critter they make up to scare the tourists.”

“Chupa-what?”

“Baba Yaga?” the elk offered. “Cryptids. Bigfoot, Yeti, Loch Ness Monster?”

“Are you sure you’re speaking English?”

Then the image of the young man on the screen flickered, and he was replaced by…a human-shaped tiger, basically. Like a Fuser form, only a lot smaller. Dead silence came over the air for a few seconds, then he spoke. “Hello, my name is Zane Brubeck, and I’m an Integrate.”

Kisa blinked. “Are you sure you’re on the right channel? This was supposed to be a press conference, right? Not a science fiction movie?”

“We’re getting the live feed.” Dolores stared at the display herself. “This is seriously new.”

Flint stared at the screen, reaching out to flip the autopilot on entirely by touch. He slowly leaned back in his chair, still staring. “Seriously? Is this some kind of a prank?”

“Doesn’t look that way. Huh.”

“…Now, there’s a lot I can’t tell you, because the other Integrates value their privacy and I’m encroaching enough on that already just by proving we exist. Nobody really understands exactly how or why it happens. But the net result is, a human and RIDE become one single being, closer together even than Fuse. And—”

Flint shook his head. “Shit, that crazy son of a bitch really did it.”

Kisa turned to look at Flint. “Huh?”

Flint waved a hand. “Oh, it’s just…you hear things every so often. ‘Integrates’ are Zharus’s own home-grown urban legend. A RIDE and a human ‘merging’ into one whole new mixed-up critter. Something the old hands make up to scare the tourists, some would say—which is why I never said much about them, you’ve got enough problems of your own already. But almost nobody actually believed in ‘em. There was no evidence. Any time someone tried to come out and tell people, they’d just…”

Kisa glanced at Flint. “Just…?”

Flint waved a hand. “You’d up and never hear from ‘em again. Bogeyman got ‘em.” Flint glanced at the screen, where a number of angry RIDEs had attacked to break up the conference. “Bogeymen, those ain’t.”

“Shit! That’s AlphaWolf himself!” Dolores exclaimed. “That mayor of crazytown I mentioned a while back.”

“Okay, he’s at least half a bogeyman,” Flint admitted. “But something like this…this is live. Since when is that even…?” He trailed off, shaking his head.

Kisa watched Zane get herded off the stage. “Looks like the press conference is over.”

“Yeah, but not before it started. Like it would have been before.” Flint gave himself a shake and turned back to his controls. “Interesting times we live in, I guess.”

Dolores snorted. “Yeah, tell me about it. The news channels are having a lot to say right now.”

“Which one?” Kisa asked.

All of them. Seems like the news that Bigfoot is real has gotten everybody talking. Oh…that’s interesting.”

Kisa raised an eyebrow. “’That’ is? Just one particular thing is interesting?”

“Well, some people are already speculating in one of the news discussion forums that this might be why Zharus has so many unexplained missing persons cases. Nobody took the whole ‘Integrate’ thing seriously before, but now…”

Kisa blinked. “You mean…you think maybe that happened to Pietro—’Fiera’?” She frowned. “Having him turned into a woman was bad enough. But this…Integrate thing? I don’t even know what to think. Or, for that matter, who to ask about it. I mean, if Integrates are real, there must be a lot more of them out there. But where would I even find one?”

Flint coughed and cleared his throat. “That’s a…good question. Maybe we can ask around when we get to Burnside. You never know—if someone as big as Zane can go public, maybe they’ll start coming out of the woodwork.”

“I’ll run some searches and keep an eye on the most interesting feeds,” Dolores promised. “Maybe something will come up.”

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EXT. BURNSIDE - DAY

Kisa wasn’t sure what she’d expected Burnside to look like—and for that matter, if she’d really wanted to know rather than being surprised, she could have just looked it up—but a town with a river of lava flowing right through the middle was not it. “Wait, seriously? They’ve just got…lava flowing through the city? What if someone falls in?”

“Actually, they couldn’t fall in, they’d just fall on top of. Lava’s a lot denser than water, so they’d float on top while they burned up. The Lord of the Rings movie was wrong.” Flint grinned. “Also, there’s really not as much lava as it looks like. Most of it’s just a hardlight illusion for the tourists.”

“Are there really that many tourists?”

“Four billion people in-system, remember. Plus, the soil is some of the best on Zharus, at least as good as the Grand Valley in Laurasia. And there’s a nice little artist colony in Southridge.”

“I guess Dolly and I will do some tourist stuff then while you take care of your deliveries.”

“Sounds like a plan. Comm me if anything comes up.” The transport slowed to let the woman and elk climb down, then headed on to take care of business.

Kisa looked around. “So. Here we are.” Not too far away was the canal where the lava flowed through town, with a proper railing along both sides and every so often some kind of enclosed staircase that seemed to go down to the lava’s edge. The stairways were appropriately decorated with hazard warnings, but when she looked critically they seemed a little too garish, like they were trying too hard to be convincing.

“Yep. So what do you say, want to go look at the lava up close? Or is there somewhere else in town I can take you? I don’t think I ever showed you my skimmer mode yet.” Dolores’s hardlight pelt flickered out, leaving her a gleaming silver elk-robot—and then she split apart and unfolded into an efficient-looking skimmer bike design from the prior decade.

“You’re a hell of a lot better looking than that stupid old Luggage.” Kisa could see a few design touches that suggested the form of a running elk, mainly in the fork holding the forward lifter and the way the battery pack in the center flowed up and over from front to back. For a military unit Dolores’s design seemed rather fancy.

“The Nordies who designed this frame wanted something at least somewhat feminine by their standards, so here I am. Hop on. I’ve got an aeroshell, too. We’ll make good time.”

“Where are we going?”

“Beats me, you’re the tourist. Climb on.”

Kisa put a foot on one of Dolores’s footrests and swung a leg over the saddle. It was surprisingly comfortable. “You’ve got better suspension than the Luggage, too.”

“Not too surprising. A beat-up living room sofa has better suspension than that thing.”

“Yeah.” She chuckled. “Funny thing is, this is the first time I’ve been in a town without it. I used it because it was ‘good enough,’ and it was what I had. I didn’t even think there was much difference between lifter vehicles.”

“’Not much difference,’ huh? Bite your tongue. You still use wheels too much back home. Well, hold onto your hat!” The skimmer bike lifted off the ground and moved up into one of the lower traffic lanes.

“Since I have no idea where we should be going…where are we going?”

“I checked the local Yelp, found a park that looks like a good spot for people-watching. I figure people-watching is as good a way to spend time as any, given that I got to do so little of it back on the dealer lot and all. Apart from the people who came to the lot, and it doesn’t seem like they were the most representative sample.”

“That works for me. Really, I feel like you’ve got more call on doing anything you want to do than I do. I’m just…”

Dolores snorted. “If you say ‘along for the RIDE,’ I might just dump you off.” She dropped out of the traffic lane and turned toward a rectangle of greenery on the ground below. “I appreciate the thought, but I feel like you might not be getting entirely into the spirit of the thing. We RIDEs were made to do what you humans say. And while it might have been a bad decision at the time, and we’re all learning how to move beyond it in little ways every day, it’s still part of who we are. So it’s okay if there’s stuff you want to do. I’ll be happy to do that, too.”

“You…want me to boss you around?”

“Not going that far, but I’d be okay with it if you did. We’re easy-going types, we RIDEs. Mostly.”

“I’ll, uh, keep that in mind.” Kisa cast about for another topic, as this one was getting a little bit too uncomfortable. “So what sorts of things do people do in a park on Zharus?”

“If they’re a RIDE, they park! See, there’s the parking lot.”

“You’ve just been waiting for the chance to use that, haven’t you?”

“What, haven’t you ever heard of a ‘park and RIDE’ facility?”

Kisa gently smacked the dashboard. “Bad elk. Bad.

The RIDE drifted down to the parking lot to touch down, and Kisa slipped off the side and stepped back to watch Dolores fold back up into an elk. Now that she was paying attention, she appreciated all the more the efficient way all the parts slid back together before the hardlight flickered on. “It feels odd to be saying this to another person, but you’re very well-designed.”

“Why, thank you! So are you, I’m sure. In that organic, humany sort of way.”

Kisa chuckled, and walked on into the park. It seemed designed after the way of human parks everywhere—a field of open grass, paths, benches, ponds, a playground or two. Of course, given that the terrain was predominantly dry and sandy here, it was built on imported sod, and the terraforming expert part of her mind was cataloguing the tell-tale signs and grading its designers on how well they had done. She tried to turn it off and just enjoy the place.

Just as she started to relax a little, a chime announced incoming email. It was the confirmation that Pietro’s Luggage had been attempted delivery to G&C, but was unable to be completed due to “Special Exception”.

“’Special Exception’? What in the world does that mean?”

“The web site says it’s a catch-all for anything that isn’t covered by any of their other descriptions. Basically a ‘none-of-the-above’ ticky box.”

“Well, that’s helpful. Isn’t there supposed to be somewhere they write in a description?”

“There’s something going on in the Agency’s neighborhood right now is all I can ferret out,” Dolores added.

“Huh.” Kisa frowned. “Is there anything on Cape Nord news channels that might explain it? And—” She paused. “—what’s that going on over there?” There seemed to be a mild commotion in another part of the park. A crowd of media drones hung in the air like someone had just tripped and spilled a load of marbles but they’d decided to ignore gravity. There were also a number of humans and Fused RIDEs following along with the handheld microphones that were so popular here.

Dolores turned to look where Kisa was pointing. “That’s new. Oh.” She tilted her head. “That is new. Look!” The crowd of drones parted as if someone had just shoved them out of the way.

“Please, everyone, please. There’s enough of me for everyone.”

Kisa stared. “Oh…uh…what?”

“Is that…?” Dolores gawked at the…dragon. It was a dragon, a small one, anthropomorphic, but a dragon nonetheless. The guy had a series of tribal-style tattoos on his scaly green shoulders and wings that pulsed in various colors—and he was also visibly, impressively naked. He posed, flexing his muscles for the camera and the growing crowd. “It’s a dragon. A freaking dragon!”

“It certainly is.” Kisa cocked her head. “Seems a little small for a dragon, doesn’t he? That some sort of hardlight costume, you think?”

Dolores looked at her. “Were you not paying attention to the press conference yesterday? That is an Integrate. A real live one. In the flesh—or whatever it is they’re made of.”

Kisa stared. “Seriously, they’re real?

“That was rather the entire point of the press conference, you know…”

“I thought…I don’t know what I thought. You and Flint were playing a prank on me. The entire planet was having fun at my expense.” Kisa shook her head.

“The Brubecks aren’t known for being pranksters, and there’s that thing with their big mining rig being shut down, costing them approximately a zillion mu a day in lost business. This is as real as it gets. I’m as little flustered here too, Kisa.”

“Well, he certainly isn’t.” Kisa folded her arms, trying not to laugh at the presumed Integrate’s posing and cartoonishly arrogant voice. “But I can’t help feeling we’re being had in some way.”

“It stands to reason it would be an egotist that came out first. Hell, I’ll bet he’s a nude model or something for the local artist communities. Won’t they all just love to know he’s been faking it all along?”

The dragon apparently heard them. “We’ve all had to tell a few little lies to get along, dearie!” he called over to her. “But all that is finally over! Besides, I think you’ll agree I’m a much more interesting subject for sculpture now.”

“Certainly a lot har…more difficult,” Kisa corrected herself. He was rather impressively masculine despite the dragony aspects. It made her a little uncomfortable.

:He’s giving off some ‘Manly’ pheromones. Maybe we should Fuse,: Dolores suggested.

:I think we should just get a little less polluted air.: “Uh…it was nice to meet you.”

“Just think. You can say the first Integrate you ever…well, the first Integrate you knowingly met was myself. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have fans to impress and a career to stoke up.”

Dolores snorted. “Yeah, whatever. Have fun ‘stoking’ yourself!”

They watched as the dragon made his way out of the park, the swarm of media drones and reporters following him. Kisa shook her head. “That was certainly…something. What did he mean knowingly met? How would he even know who we’ve met?”

“If they can disguise themselves as regular people, we could have met any number of them and not known it.”

“No, he started to say he was the first we’d met, then he corrected himself. That suggests he knows we met some other Integrate.” Kisa stared after him.

“Or else he realized we probably had. We’ve met a lot of people riding with Flint. Like that guy you had lunch with just south of Cascadia. Or the ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ on that island just off the coast here.”

Kisa shook her head. “I don’t know. Something seemed really weird about all that.”

“Well, maybe we can bring it up with Flint next time we see him. He’s a bit more widely experienced than either of us; maybe it’ll mean something to him.”

“Good idea. For now…well, let’s not let it spoil our day. I want to look around this park some more. Who knows, maybe there will be some other Integrates around. I get the feeling we’ve only just scratched the surface.”

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Kisa and Dolores spent the next couple of hours looking around Burnside while Flint finished his deliveries. After the park, they made their way to one of the spots where the actual lava floes were accessible so that lava-molding artists could impress the tourists by creating souvenir statuary on the spur of the moment. By the time they were finished watching, Kisa was ready to make a drinking game out of tourists who squealed, “Oooh! It’s still warm!” when they were handed their obsidian statuette.

“What did they expect, it was going to be ice cold?”

“The funny thing is, I think the instant cooling process they use to solidify them actually chills it down to several degrees below ambient temperature.” Dolores popped up a few wiki pages describing the process on the head-up display. “Then they actually warm it back up again so it feels more ‘authentic’ when they hand it over.”

“That makes a surprising amount of sense. Tourists are tourists everywhere, aren’t they?”

“Yeah. Doesn’t matter if they live four hundred klicks away or forty light-years.” Dolores popped another notification up on the screen. “Flint’s done in town, and suggests we meet at the truck stop near Southridge. Next stop, Califia!”

“Sounds good to me.” Kisa leaned back in the seat. “Take us there?”

“On our way!”

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July 18, 156 AL

EXT. APPROACHING CALIFIA - DAY

“I wish they all could be Califia / I wish they all could be Califia Girls…” the radio sang cheerfully.

Kisa glared at the dashboard, it standing in as the proxy for the cab’s invisible speaker installations. “You know, I am not from Zharus, and hence not steeped in 20th century pop culture, yet I am pretty sure that is not how that song originally went.”

Flint waved a hand. “Local cover bands take poetic license sometimes. Especially since it can sometimes confuse the tourists to hear people talking about California when they’re at Califia. Honestly, I don’t know why they didn’t just call it California or at least New California to begin with; it’s not as if the name is trademarked.”

“Perhaps they wished to trademark ‘Califia.’”

Flint chuckled. “You could be right. Well, we’ll be there in a few minutes now.” He blinked. “Oh. Incoming comm request. Goldman’s office. You want to take it in the back for privacy?”

Kisa shrugged. “I don’t think there’s any need. You already know everything I told them.” She reached out to tap the “accept” button on the dashboard panel. “Hello?”

It was Jade, and she seemed flustered. “Miss Romanov—Kisa—from the itinerary you sent, you should be arriving in Califia soon. I have important news—too important to discuss over comm. I’m on my way out there now to meet you.” In the background of the image, black sky and stars were visible through a transparent canopy, slowly wheeling backward.

“Uh…very well? You know I can’t afford to pay that kind of expenses, right?”

Jade waved a hand. “This is a company sub. Expenses are negligible. Besides—but no, that should wait for in person. I will see you soon.” The signal blinked out.

Kisa blinked. “That was…abrupt. Huh. I hoped for some results when I mailed them to look into the Integrate angle, but I didn’t expect any so soon. Good news, you think?”

“She did sound excited,” Dolores observed.

“Who knows?” Flint shook his head. “It’ll be some kind of news, anyway, or she wouldn’t have jumped a jet out here.” He frowned. “Just in case, you shouldn’t be too disappointed if it turns out…well, however it turns out.”

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INT. “THE SANDBAR” BAR & GRILL - WARM INCANDESCENT LIGHTING

The bartender was a cat-woman with large, dark rosettes and a sort of deep orangy shade to her pelt. She also had visible round hardlight lenses scattered here and there on her skin, pulsing with light in a rather fascinating pattern. Her bartending outfit was a red bikini. The Sandbar was right on the beach, so it wasn’t out of place. Kisa, in her short-sleeved blouse and pants, was the odd woman out here.

Flint stared at the nametag stuck to the top and gasped melodramatically. “Serena? You’re an Integrate? I always thought you were a little catty, but…”

“Don’t push your luck, Flint Ironstag,” Serena replied, nonplussed. “Now, your usual? Bacon-infused vodka martini, Bond-style?”

“It’s you alright, Serena.”

The leopardess rolled her eyes. Behind her, a martini glass, a shaker, and other bartending implements floated off the countertop and went though the motions of mixing the drink. Halfway through Serena turned to Kisa. “And what will you have, Ma’am?”

“I…” Kisa stared at the floating glasses. “How…?”

“You could call it a form of gravitic telekinesis, but with lifter fields. Just a stupid Intie trick.” Serena’s demeanor remained calm. Half of the patrons in the bar seemed to be Integrates, deep in conversation with regular people within privacy fields. “So, what’ll you have?”

“A Cascadia Seltzer, orange,” Kisa said, trying not to stammer. Her internal chrono told her Jade Cattano was still at least ten minutes away. Ten minutes of waiting. Ten minutes of thinking. Ten minutes…

Serena smiled at her. “No need to be nervous. We don’t bite, you know. Except in certain fairly obscure situations that a RIDE would be more likely to encounter than you would.”

Dolores snorted. “Nature Range, you mean?”

“Precisely.” Serena mixed the seltzer, using her her hands this time rather than lifter fields. “We’re just people, the same as anybody else.”

Kisa stared at her again, and before she could stop herself, said, “The same? Really?”

Serena shrugged. “Well, I say ‘the same,’ but we’re obviously different in one way. A way we’ve been having to hide for the last umpteen years because certain people thought it was a good idea. But now someone’s stopped hiding and the world apparently hasn’t ended yet, so others are starting to think it’s a good idea, too.”

Kisa thought back to the Burnside dragon. “I’ve…had that impression.”

“And there are a lot of us around. Not every RIDE-rider pair Integrated, but a good chunk did.” Serena rested her elbows on the bar. “Some say maybe five percent, some think it gets into the double digits. And they made a lot of RIDEs. Odds are pretty good you’ve met someone like that already and didn’t even know it. Wouldn’t you say that’s likely, Flint?”

Flint blinked. “What’re you asking me for?”

“Well, you are the native she’s been traveling with…”

“What? Oh, right, yeah…” Flint shook his head. “Sorry, just been a little out of sorts the last couple days. Musta been something I ate.”

Serena smirked. “Yeah, you need to watch the salts.”

Flint started. “Huh?”

“I said, ‘watch the salt.’ It’s not good for the blood pressure, you know.” She snapped her fingers. “Oh, that reminds me. We’ve got a lunch special on, if you’re planning to stay for din-din?”

His ears folded back in irritation. “So, how’s Diane taking all this? I mean, her business partner being an Integrate and all.”

“She says that you’re not welcome back to Cheers until you stop butting heads with Ronno.”

“That’s not what I asked, Miss Kittyface.”

Serena shrugged. “Well, it’s not really a problem. We’ve got too much in common to worry about something silly like one of us being an Integrate and the other not.” She turned to Kisa. “Anyway, what I’m saying is, try not to be too surprised, and try not to get too angry, if someone you already know secretly turns out to be one. They probably had good reasons for not telling you. You never know. Some of them might still be too scared to come out of the closet even now.”

Kisa cocked her head. “I…see? Well…I don’t know very many people on Zharus at all, so I can’t see who any of these closeted Integrates could be, but…thank you, I guess.”

Serena shrugged and waved a hand. “Just try to remember it if it should turn out to be relevant is all. It’s the same thing I’m telling all my patrons these days.”

Flint twitched an ear forward. “All your patrons?”

“All the ones it might apply to, anyway!” Serena said cheerfully.

“And just what’s that supposed to mean?”

While Serena and Flint bantered, Kisa’s stomach tied itself in knots. What was the news? Why did Jade need to tell it in person? Was it good, bad? What? The minutes dragged on, then Jade Cattano herself swept through the door.

Serena raised an eyebrow. “Well, now. I can’t say I ever expected to have a celebrity in my bar. Can I offer you a drink on the house? I think I have some vodka imported all the way from…oh.” She blinked and paused for a moment. “Well, now. Why don’t you and Miss Romanov take that booth over there? It has a privacy screen.”

Jade flashed her a nervous smile. “Thank you, Serena. And hello, Miss Romanov. As I said, I do have news for you, and I think a private booth would be the best place to discuss it.”

Kisa cleared her throat. “That…sounds like a good idea to me.”

Jade nodded to the bartender. “Serena, that vodka actually does sound like a very good idea right about now. In fact, if you could send the bottle and two shot glasses over to the booth in about ten minutes…”

“Consider it done.”

“You want me to just wait for you guys over here?” Dolores asked.

Kisa shook her head. “No, no, I want you along. I’ve told you everything else so far. It feels like you ought to know whatever we find out next, if Jade doesn’t mind.”

Jade nodded. “I think it would be a good idea for you to have all the support you can.”

Kisa and Dolores followed the cat-woman over to the booth, and a toggle engaged the privacy screen. Kisa cocked her head. “What was that about being a celebrity?”

“It’s…a bit of a long story. I’ll get to that, but it’s not important right now.” She shook her head and took a deep breath. “What is important is, I have some confessions to make, and I shouldn’t let anything get in the way of that. If I let myself, I would stretch this out forever, and you’d get mad at me for not coming right out and telling you…and you’ll be mad enough already.”

Kisa blinked. “All…right? I’m not sure what you’re talking about…”

“First of all, just so we’re clear…I know I look like I’ve just had extreme biosculpt, but actually…I’m an Integrate, just like Serena over there. It just takes some of us this way—I can pass for nearly-human, so I usually do. It’s important to be clear on that, because it underlies everything else I’m about to say.”

Kisa blinked again. “Uh…okay?” She took another look at Jade. Of course, she didn’t seem any different now than she had the first time they’d met, so it was difficult to know what to think about that. Except…there was something different about her face. Something familiar…

“Now for the big one.” Jade took a deep breath. “I have misled you. I have misled you and I have lied to you. I’ve just now refunded every centi-mu you spent on our agency, because it was paid under false pretenses. Also, I’m the one who bought your luggage—I’ve got it in storage back in Cape Nord if you should want it again, though I think you’ve already found a much better replacement for it.” She smiled faintly for just a moment, then went on into the silence while Kisa’s mouth worked with no words coming out. “I had good reasons for it at the time, and if weren’t for that wonderful idiot Brubeck I might still be having to keep up the pretense. But he just turned the world upside down, and suddenly there’s a better way.” She took a deep breath. “It’s a long story, and I’ll tell you all of it if you’ll listen, but the punchline is that my name isn’t just Jade. It’s Pietra Jade Romanov. The brother-cum-sister you’ve been looking for…is me.”

Kisa stared at her. Of all the possible news Jade might have had for her, she hadn’t expected that. “…seriously?” she said weakly.

“Remember the time you were 14, the month before I left? You took the ice sledge out on Lake Vladivostok but didn’t know the spring thaws had begun early? I had to come rescue you, and you were so embarrassed you begged me not to tell Mama and Papa…so I didn’t. Or anyone else. But you know that.”

“Oh my God. Seriously.” Kisa stared at her for a long moment. The familiarity about her face made sense now. Her facial features were more like those in the photos of her new “sister.” Had she been…disguising herself somehow when they’d met back in Goldman’s office? “But…you…how…why? All this time and you didn’t tell me?

“You have no idea…no idea…how much I wanted to blurt this out when you called that first time. But I couldn’t risk you—or Dolores. If I had, someone might have come along and made you two into one of us against your will. That’s what happened to me, years ago, just after the Sturmies made me into Fiera. I was at the wrong place at the wrong time. Again.”

“Sounds like you had a hell of a bad week,” Dolores quipped. “I…appreciate you thinking to protect us like that, really.”

Kisa frowned. “You couldn’t just have…not told anyone you told us?”

Jade shook her head. “Very few people are good enough actors to carry that off. They would already be keeping a close eye on you because they knew who you were. If they saw you were suddenly relieved or angry with no clear reason…” She sighed. “The most I could do was try to get you quickly off-planet, maybe send along some kind of hidden message that wouldn’t decrypt until you were safely in jump. Then at least you’d have months to get used to it before you came back again.”

“And they can get away with this crap how, exactly? It’s nobody’s business—”

“Under threat of force and bodily harm, that’s how. But it’s over now, thanks to Zane Brubeck. He’s made it so we don’t have to hide anymore, because the cat’s out of the bag. So here I am. And here you are. Having this conversation in a Califia bar.” Jade’s eyes filled with tears. “I never thought I’d see you again, Kisa.”

“I always expected…well, I don’t know what I expected. I…can’t even remember what I expected anymore.” Kisa shook her head. “I had time to deal with the whole crossriding thing. Compared to that, the rest of it almost seems…anticlimactic. But at least you’re here now.”

“I would have come and found you days ago, but things have been so chaotic in Hellir since Brubeck’s announcement—I just haven’t been able to get away until now.

“I’m so sorry, Kisa. For the life of me I never expected to meet you like this. I knew you’d planned on your own Grand Tour, but I never… the odds of our meeting were so small…and then there you were on the comm…” Pietra broke down, sobbing, grasping her sister’s hands across the table with her beclawed fingers.

A multitude of feelings warred in Kisa. Relief and joy that she’d found her sister clashed with anger and frustration that, if tiger-guy Brubeck hadn’t said anything, Pietra would have had to maintain the charade. In the end, Kisa would have left Zharus without ever knowing she’d found her sister. But for Pietra, it would have been pure torture knowing she was literally within arms reach of Kisa and couldn’t act.

Serena chose that moment to open the field and put a bottle of Neorussian Blue Vodka on the table, along with two lowball glasses. She smiled at them, then closed the field again.

“Impeccable timing,” Kisa said. “Is that…Blue?”

Jade nodded. She wiped away her tears. “The real thing, straight from home, yes.” She looked at the bottle for several seconds before it floated in midair and poured each of them a glass. “I hadn’t thought about home in years, until I saw your face. Now I’m homesick.”

“Then come home with me, Pietra.”

Jade smiled. “I’d like to, but…aren’t you forgetting someone? Even if I could—and there are some things in the way, but forget that for now—your new elk friend couldn’t.”

“Well, that is a thing,” Dolores said. “I know we haven’t known each other for very long. But I wouldn’t mind seeing Neorus in person.”

Kisa frowned. “But surely there are smugglers. There are on every planet.”

“You haven’t been here as long as I have. Zharus fears for its sovereignty if anyone in the rest of the galaxy discovered how good Qubitite really is. So they do their best not to let it leak out. I would have a hard enough time getting me offworld, and I can cloak.”

“So, what? We wait?” Kisa said. “For how long?”

“Until the legal situation resolves and I can leave with enough sarium and Q to fill my nutritional needs. See, that’s the other thing. I need sarium salts like normal humans need Vitamin C.”

Kisa frowned. “Oh. And even if you could sneak out, they’re pretty good about spotting when someone tries to smuggle out the raw materials…like your sarium salts…”

“That’s right. But once things are more settled, and they understand our dietary requirements, maybe we can take some along.”

Dolores nodded. “And if they let you take along the raw stuff, they’ll probably not object to some getting up and walking along with you.”

“Besides, you still have a lot of Zharus left to see, and I want to introduce you to the folks I’ve been living with. And I just want to spend time with you.”

Kisa smiled. “Well, I don’t seem to have any other demands on my time right now…” Though there was something niggling at the corner of her mind. Something Jade had just said. What was it…? Well, it would come to her.

The sisters shared a smile. Jade took a sip of vodka. “Ah…good, as usual. If I can’t go home right now, at least I can enjoy a taste of it.” She set down the glass and regarded her younger sister. “So…how’s the family been since I left? I really want to know everything.”

“Only if you tell me how you ended up running a detective agency in a place like Cape Nord. Ugh! How do you stand it? It’s as bad as Sturmhaven!”

“That is a very long and very complicated story. I don’t believe there is enough Blue on the planet to give it justice yet. But I promise I’ll tell it to you eventually. For now, I guess we should figure out what to do next.”

“Good question. I… Well, if I had to, I could go back to Cape Nord for a bit I suppose. I don’t want to leave you again after finding you after all.”

Jade shook her head. “No need for that. With the recent revelations, I think I could use some distance from those caves. Where were you planning on going to next?”

“I don’t know. Back to Aloha’s next, and that would have completed my tour technically. But since I found you, the tour is finished anyway. We could go anywhere now.”

“As long as it’s in system… or to Wednesday.” Jade looked pensive and savoured her drink. “It’s bad luck to not finish a tour. How about we go to Aloha, take the time to catch up, and figure out from there.”

Kisa nodded in agreement and lifted her glass. “To Aloha then.”

Jade lifted her glass without hands and clinked it to her sister’s. “Aloha it is. If your friend is up to it, he could come too. That’s quite the stag you hooked up with.”

“Flint? He’s… yeah, he’s been a huge help. I wouldn’t want to impose.” And then Kisa had it. “You said…you need salts. Sarium…salts.”

Jade raised an eyebrow. “Yes?”

Kisa turned to glance out the privacy field, to where the distortion of the field combined with the distance to turn Flint into a wavering silhouette. “Just…something odd Serena said before you got here. Several things she said, that suddenly make a little more sense now.” And some of the things that had puzzled her about Flint. If not all Integrates had to look like people-shaped furry animals… “Now that you mention it, I think I do need to talk to Flint.”

“I think we can wait a bit on that. We have a lot to catch up on first. Now, spill. Did Mama ever get that autokitchen project of hers working right?”

Kisa laughed. “I can’t wait to tell you this one. You won’t believe it!”

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Hours later, when the privacy field came down, Flint was sitting by himself at the end of the bar, well apart from the other patrons. Kisa walked up to him. “So…when were you going to tell me?”

Flint looked at the multi-layered cocktail in front of him. It was some kind of margarita, complete with umbrellas, an orange slice for garnish, and a crazy straw. “Well, I didn’t want to steal any thunder from your sibling here,” he said sheepishly. “Anyway, it wasn’t like I could have said anything before.”

“You people keep saying that. Your ‘leader’ sounds like a real prize.”

“He’s not our leader. Just someone who thinks he is.” Flint shook his head, ears flopping. “So what’re you gonna do now?”

“Well, that depends, I suppose. How long before we get to Aloha?”

Flint glanced at her. “’We’?”

“Well, you are going our way. Dolores’s and mine, anyway. And it looks like you have room for another passenger. Seems a shame to waste the trip.”

“Uh…Jade Catanno, on my rig? Wow, I mean…wow. Really?”

“I go where Kisa goes,” Jade said, coming up behind her. “Just don’t get any ideas. As a Nordic citizen, I can deduct Man Card points if you get too uncouth.”

“I’m still trying to understand how my sister could be a famous actress. I still remember when Pietro flunked the tryouts for the school play.”

Jade rolled her eyes. “I have gotten to be a better actor since then, you know.”

“Well, you did fool me until now, so I guess I have to give you that.” Kisa turned back to Flint. “So. If I understand this ‘Integration’ thing properly, you and Mikey did not so much part ways as…the exact opposite, is that right?”

“It’s kind of a long story.”

Kisa slid onto the stool next to him, and Jade took the next one down, placing the still-half-full bottle of Neorussian Blue on the bar between them. “We’ve got time.”

Flint shrugged, then settled himself on his stool. “Well, then. This was, like, ten or eleven years ago… Hey, can I have some of that booze?”

“Make it good and there’s a steak in it for you, too. You carnivorous deer,” Jade said.

“Well, there really isn’t that much to it, really. We mustered out of NextusMil ‘cause I couldn’t bring myself to part with Mikey. We were brothers-in-arms, you know? As bros as bros can be without being gay and the same species. Know what I’m saying?”

“I think we have some idea,” Jade said.

“Well, maybe you would, Miss Jade,” Flint said.

Jade’s expression hardened. “Don’t push it.”

“It was a thing of beauty, anyway. We started to start and finish each other’s thoughts. Never left Fuse. Then, one day, pow!”

“Integration goes ‘pow’?” Dolores said.

Flint shrugged. “You think it’d go ‘boink’? Whatever. Next thing we knew we were in a puddle of goo. Happened just after a delivery while in my old rig. Truck driver then, truck driver now. Fact I ended up looking up pretty much with the face I was born with this helped me just pick up and move on. Really lucky buck, I guess. Heh. Never even had any problems with Snatchers.”

“Just goes to show,” Dolores said. “Every day on the road, dozens of people in the fast lane pass the buck without even knowing it.”

Kisa grinned. “And maybe those places where you make deliveries should put up a sign: ‘The buck stops here.’”

Flint gave her a sour look. “Okay, you got your story. Now you owe me some Blue for that godawful pun.”

Kisa laughed. “I pay it gladly.” She grabbed an empty shot glass, and poured.

“I’m surprised you didn’t come home to Cape Nord,” Jade said. “You could easily have passed for ‘sculpted, like I do.”

“Well, this was before ‘The Show’ hit IntieNet, so I didn’t even have any idea Hellir existed. Of course, once I found out, I got hooked. It was like a little taste of home for me. Then…well, I stopped by now and again, when my circuit brought me ‘round, but I didn’t want to come off like some dufus fanboy and make a pest of myself. I preferred life on the road anyway.” He scratched behind an ear thoughtfully. “Until Kisa showed up with her problem, and I thought hey…maybe it’d be a legitimate way to get a cameo on the show. Of course, I didn’t even know for sure her sister had Integrated…let alone have any idea that she was Jade Cattano herself.” Flint shook his head. “Boy, I sure screwed that one up. Got an earful from Tallyhawk about it while you were in the office.”

“Oh…so that’s what all that was about, about trying to help someone and screwing up.” Kisa frowned. “But you said it didn’t have anything to do with me.”

“Well, it kind of didn’t, did it? It had to do with your sister on the one hand, and me on the other.” Flint shrugged. “Anyway, as little white Intie lies go, it was one of the littlest.”

“I have to admit, seeing Kisa’s face on the screen…it was the hardest ad-lib of my life,” Jade said. “But ultimately, I have to thank you, Flint. All unknowing, you brought my sister to me. If you hadn’t, even with Zane Brubeck’s grand reveal, we probably would never have met. It’s a big world.”

“Heh…well, you’re welcome, but really, there’s nothing to thank me for. It was just a happy accident all around.” He shrugged. “I hope this whole Brubeck thing isn’t going to cause too much trouble for you. It’s one thing for Inties to come out when they live hundreds or thousands of klicks from the nearest human settlement. But for folks like you, living in a human settlement…”

Jade rolled her eyes. “You have no idea. They’re not exactly thrilled to learn that ‘Mitch Goldman, True Nordsman P.I.’ was played by one of two women most of the time.”

Flint winced. “Ouch.”

“But it’s a problem we’d have had sooner or later anyway. Just our good fortune it happened right now.” She shrugged. “I’ll probably have to fly back there in a few days, but for now, I want to enjoy a little taste of freedom—and spending it cruising from Califia to Aloha on a big rig with my sister is, as the idiom goes, killing two birds with one stone.”

Kisa chuckled. “Now I know you’re my sister. Neorussians do like to do things for more than one reason, don’t we?”

Jade took her sister’s hand. “We do. And…I’m glad you’re able to accept it. That I’m your sister now. I worried about that.”

Kisa shrugged. “I won’t say I was terribly thrilled to get the news, but I’ve had months to come to terms with the idea. I would much rather have a sister for a brother than one fewer sibling entirely.”

Jade gave her hand a squeeze. “I’m glad you feel that way. I…didn’t have the easiest time of it myself at first, but then…once I found a role in the show that suited me, it was as if I was finally the person I’d been born—or reborn—to be.” She shrugged. “It doesn’t make me like the Sturmies any better, though.”

“Of course, we’ll have to send a message home to the family. If we can figure out what to say.” Kisa paused. “Of course, I’m going to have to rub their faces in it a little. Only a little. They thought you were dead and I was a fool for spending every last ruble I had to go find you.”

“Well, there’ll be plenty of time for that.” Jade smiled. “Right now, let’s have some dinner, then I’d like to see Flint’s truck. It looks pretty impressive from the outside.”

“I’m glad you think so. I’m pretty proud of her.” Flint waved to Serena. “Could we see some menus?”

“Sure thing, hon.” Serena brought the menus over. “Glad everything’s going well for you. I do love a happy ending.”

Kisa grinned. “Oh, this isn’t an ending. This is only just beginning.”

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