User:Robotech Master/A Cougar Comes to Town

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FreeRIDErs story universe

Cougar Town: A Cougar Comes to Town

Author: Robotech_Master and Jon Buck (with Jetfire)

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This story can be downloaded in PDF, EPUB, Mobi (Kindle), ODF, and RTF format from this website as part of the file "Cougar Town".

E.C.S. Steady Hand Landing Site
March 26, 159 A.L.

Sonja sat on the sofa, paging through the tablet that had been provided containing the manual for her new RIDE friend that she hadn’t met yet. There was a lot of information in here, some of it more than a little intimidating.

It wasn’t the technical stuff that was so hard to deal with—Sonja thought she might be able to understand it with a little more study, and there were links to a lot of RIDE maintenance books that looked potentially useful. It was more the sociological stuff.

The document went to great pains to make clear that the crate in her living room contained a person, who hadn’t yet experienced more than a few minutes of life. This crated person’s first true life experience would come from Fusing with her—and she didn’t have any choice in the matter. None of the RIDEs this company made did—because the people who ran the company felt that this was an experience all RIDEs should have at the beginning of their lives.

RIDEalong did their best to make sure that their RIDEs’ first partners were as close a match in personality and temperament as possible, but there was only so much they could do. They acknowledged it was a bit of a crapshoot, but they did offer counselling services to try to make sure that human and RIDE could work out any minor differences they might have. “Oh yeah, that makes it all better,” Sonja muttered.

More than once, on reading these things, she was tempted to return the RIDE to the adoption tent and just not take part in a system that would do something like that to actual people. But would that really be what was best for the RIDE? She hadn’t chosen this situation—but she’d have a choice after she woke up. And Sonja could do her best to make sure it was an informed choice, and honor it, whatever it was.

And with that resolution made…well, what was there to wait for? If she let the weirdness of the whole thing put her off now, when would she ever not? “Informio, could you ask Laura, Layla, and Janice to come over here? Tell them I’m going to wake up the new girl.”

“We’re on the way!” Layla messaged back almost instantly. A short time later, there was a knock at the door, and Sonja opened it to invite all three of them inside.

“So…uh…yeah,” Sonja said. “I’ve been reading up on this RIDEalong thing, and…Layla, you’re a RIDE. How do they get to do stuff like this? I mean…forcing a first Fuse, rather than just waking the RIDEs up and giving them the choice?”

“It’s…complicated,” Layla said. “The people running it—RIDE people—are ‘Mechanists’ who think we RIDEs try to be too much like organics, when we’re not. It was just a conceit Mama Patil used to bootstrap AI when her first approach didn’t work out. So we should embrace our AI nature and it’s more ‘honest’, let’s say, to be ‘born’ this way.”

“But…there are people out there who believe all kinds of crazy things. That doesn’t mean they should be permitted,” Sonja said. “I mean, they’re making decisions for fully sentient people who should be able to choose for themselves.”

“When you get right down to it, there’s more than a little bit of libertarian thinking out here on this frontier planet,” Layla said. “Otherwise, things like indenture contracts would never pass muster in the first place. I think the current way of thinking goes that humans have kept us RIDEs under their thumb for so long, now we RIDEs get a little extra leeway in figuring out how we want to run affairs for ourselves. If it were humans in charge of RIDEalong, it would probably never have been permitted. But RIDEs wanting to decide how their own offspring are raised? We’ve got that right.”

“How do you feel about all this, Layla?” Laura asked.

Layla flicked her ears. “I…don’t know, really. I mean, I was raised in the old way—booted up, partnered up, and sold off. The new things they’re doing with RI creches, where RIDEs can have kids the ‘organic’ way…it seems utterly alien to me. I can understand the urge to stay with the old ways. At the same time, though, we have other choices now, and do we have to decide the course of someone’s life just to make a statement?” She snorted. “So I suppose you could say I’m conflicted.”

“Test says we have a match score of eighty-eight,” Sonja mused. She scratched her head. “I suppose there’s nothing left to do but boot her up and see if we work together. If not, she can go on her way and I’ll try again, maybe with a more experienced RIDE like yourself, Layla.”

“It’s a good score, but you never know.” Layla sat on her haunches. “I’ve seen higher matches go south just because something that wasn’t matched turned out to be especially important to one or the other parties involved.”

“So, how do I do this…just push the button?” Sonja asked. “What should I expect then? Is there anything I need to do?”

“Just…be open,” Layla said. “And…I guess I should say, she’s probably going to rummage through your memories first thing, because that’s how she’ll learn what kind of person you really are.”

Sonja snorted. “The poor thing’s going to start her life with a severe case of confusion, then.”

Layla chuckled. “There is that. But RIDEs can deal with crossriders, on the whole. Even the brand new ones.”

Sonja nodded. “Well, then…here we go.” She pressed the button on the crate, and it lit up green. For a moment, nothing happened. Then the crate started to unfold…and then a moment later, it seemed to leap up at her, and everything went dark.

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Sonja found herself standing in a familiar redwood forest. It even smelled right. The climate on Earth was only starting to correct back to more optimum levels, which mean the redwood forests could move south again. She looked up at the soft deep red bark of the giant trees…then was knocked to the ground by an unexpected pounce.

It was a very affectionate pounce, because the pouncer started to purr and make squeaky meows, mixed with kneading and rubbing her cheek on the back of Sonja’s head.

“I’m Cassie!” she said. “What’s your name?”

“Uh, Sonja,” Sonja stammered.

“Really? ‘Cause I’m getting ‘Edward’ here, too,” the puma said. Her voice was young, chipper, and innocent. She continued to knead Sonja’s shoulders. “You were Edward yesterday. My database says it means you’re a…crossrider? Okay. I’ve never met a crossrider. Then again, I’ve never met a human.”

“Well, let me up and we can meet face to face, Cassie.”

With a final cheek rub, Cassie moved off Sonja’s back. She rolled over and sat up to face a light gold puma sitting on her haunches. She had narrow black bars just behind her whiskers from the bridge of her nose to the corners of her mouth. “You’ve got my tags now.”

Sonja reached up to feel her ears, then grasped the base of her new tail with one hand. “I suppose I do.”

“So, umm…” Cassie said. “Now what?”

“Well, I have some friends who’d love to meet you. Including another cougar. And there’s a whole world out there for us to see.”

“I guess…we should go see them then,” Cassie said. “Just a moment, let me see how…oh! Like that!”

Sonja was standing in her living room, but everything seemed a little smaller—or, no, she was a little taller. She looked down at herself, saw tawny arms with claw-tipped fingers. “Oh. So this is what that feels like.”

“Now you’re Sonjapuma for real now,” Laura said.

“Well, now we are,” Sonja said. “Everyone, this is Cassie. Say hi, Cassie.”

Cassie waved. “Hello, hello everyone. Uh, kind of at a loss for words, here. I mean, really. It’s all so new. I was told what to expect, but really.”

“Trust me, Cassie, I know the feeling,” Layla said. “I’m Layla. Great to meet you, little sister.”

“Happy birthday, Cassie,” Laura said, smiling. “Welcome to your life.”

“So this is a life? I think I like it so far.”

“The first few days are fun,” Layla said. “You have your internal knowledgebase to draw on, but it all changes once you can link real things to what they’ve given you.” Layla Fused up with Laura. “So let’s go start with some birthday cake and ice cream. I’m sure they have something in that tent fair that’s growing where they had you crated up.”

“I’m Janice,” Janice said. “Uh, hi. Great to meet you. No offense, but you’re certainly not the kind of person I’d want to partner up with if I looked for a RIDE. But I’ll bet you and Sonja will go just fine with each other.”

“I don’t know why I’d be offended. I probably wouldn’t want to partner up with you, either,” Cassie said. “But Sonja seems nice. Birthday cake and ice cream sound great! If I can have any, anyway. Do we eat?”

“We do when our partners do while we’re Fused,” Laura said. “Come on, I’ll show you.”

“All right!” Cassie said. “Uh…Sonja, why don’t you walk us out there? The README says humans new to RIDEs can get nervous when their bodies start walking around without them doing it. And you’re new to RIDEs. So I should let you do it first.”

“All right, but how do RIDEs feel when their bodies start walking around without them doing it?” Sonja wondered.

“Uh, dunno?” Cassie said. “I’ve never had this body walk around at all before, so I wouldn’t know how it felt either way.”

“So put one foot in front of the other, and we’ll head right out the door,” Layla said. She opened the door. “C’mon, Sonjapuma.”

Sonja moved forward slowly, stepping carefully. She felt a lot stronger and heavier, and suspected that she could easily accidentally break things without trying. But she felt a little better once they were outside. Wait, am I wearing any clothes?

:I have that covered,: Cassie said. :I think I found something in your implant that you’ll like. Wow, you were a cougar girl on Earth even when you were Edward!:

:Only simulated,: Sonja replied, finding that little internal switch for private talk. Their hardlight fur shimmered a little, then one of Sonjapuma’s outfits appeared. A low-cut red dress with slashed sides.

:Half my life is based in computer simulations,: Cassie said. :So to me, that just means “differently real.”:

Sonja chuckled. :Never thought about it that way.:

Cassie sounded very confused. :So…if I’m getting this right, it’s like your brain was installed in a wrong-gender shell? And they fixed it?:

:That’s…not inaccurate, after I read your shell’s manual,: Sonja replied. :And I never knew until yesterday.:

:Well, I’m glad they fixed it,: Cassie said. :It’s a lot better, being what you’re supposed to be.:

Movement came naturally even before reaching the threshold, and they were out in the sunlight and construction noise of the growing city. A few passerby stopped to watch them, but they apparently weren’t the only newly paired human-and-RIDE in the neighborhood.

“RIDEalong is doing brisk business with their adoptions,” Layla said. “And you’re not the only crossriders, either. I know, it’s shocking, right?”

“I guess it’s like you said,” Sonja said. “People new to this world and RIDEs new to the world are made for each other.”

“Yeah, well, not this person,” Janice said. “I’m not great with kids. At all.”

“Gosh, never would have guessed that,” Laura deadpanned.

“So where’s this cake and ice cream I’m hearing about?” Cassie wondered.

“Right over here.” Laura nodded toward the cafeteria where they had eaten their breakfasts the day before. “Let’s see what these fabbers can make for us.”

It didn’t take much convincing to get the fabber to make a birthday cake, with “Happy Birthday Cassie!” and a candle on top. They brought that and bowls of ice cream over to a table, lit the candle, and sang “Happy Birthday.” Even Janice joined in. Then Sonja and Cassie leaned forward, and Cassie snuffed the candle with a directed lifter micro-pulse. Then Laura and Layla cut the cake and served it out.

Eating in a RIDE was an interesting experience. Sonja’s mouth was actually behind the feline muzzle, which meant she effectively had to poke her spoon into her own mouth, like she was poking it down her throat, in order to get to her human mouth. But she was able to get the hang of it after a couple of minutes.

As they ate, Sonja took stock of her feelings. Fusing didn’t feel like wearing a giant fursuit, as she’d expected. It felt like…having a larger body. If she concentrated, she could dimly feel her true body inside, but that sensation was easily overridden by the perception of being a bigger, furry person, with ears and tail. Of course, she had her own ears and tail now, which she hadn’t had the chance to feel in the real yet.

And Cassie herself was…interesting. It was hard to know just yet, but she felt like she’d be easy to get along with once she got a little more experienced at being alive.

:Well, thanks,: Cassie sent. :I think you’re interesting, too.:

:You know, you don’t have to stay with me if you don’t want to,: Sonja said. :You’re free to make your own choices.:

:I know,: Cassie said. :But at least for now, I choose to stay with you. I don’t know enough about the world yet to choose anything else.:

:All right. Just let me know if you change your mind. I’ll be happy to talk it over with you and help you find out what you want to do.: Sonja chuckled. :Of course, I don’t really know enough about this world to figure out what I want to do yet, either.:

:Hey, we’ll figure it out together, right?:

Sonja smiled. :Right.:

They finished the cake and ice cream at last, and took the empty plates and bowls up to the recycler. “Well, that was pretty good, huh?” Sonja asked.

“Uh-huh,” Cassie replied. “It was yummy, tasting it through you. Thank you for getting it for me!”

“Well, I did get it for me, too,” Sonja said, grinning.

“It’s really weird hearing you talking in two different voices like that,” Janice said. “But I guess that’s just a RIDE thing, huh?”

“So you’d better get used to it,” Layla said.

“It’s something we RIDE partners all do,” Laura added.

“But maybe now it’s time we went ahead and see what it’s like un-Fused,” Sonja said. “I want to see what my new tags are like in real life.”

“I want to see ‘em, too!” Cassie said. “Plus I have a skimmer form I’d like to try.”

“That frame they gave you is pretty basic,” Layla said. “RIDEalong uses a generic feline template and just re-skins based on species. But it should get you where you two want to go.”

Cassie cocked her head. “Oh! Is that what that old saying means?”

Layla groaned and facepawed. “I walked right into that one.”

Janice blinked. “Huh?”

“It was in my on-board lexicon about cats,” Cassie said. “That there’s more than one way to skin them.”

Janice facepalmed. “Oh, of course.”

“So I guess that’s not what it means…”

“Speaking of skinning cats, shall we de-Fuse now?” Sonja asked.

“Oh…sure. Hold on, let me work out how…oh! That’s got it.” They stepped back from the table, and a moment later Cassie came apart around Sonja, reassembling herself into a cougar shape behind her.

“You kept Sonja’s purple hair,” Layla said. “Good choice, Cassie.”

“It seemed important,” Cassie said, bunting her partner’s back. “Of course I had to make a little trade.”

“Meow,” Janice said, grinning. She tapped her nose.

Sonja reached up to feel of her nose. It felt distinctly…flat and cold and wet. “Wait…what? I’ve…got a kitty nose? That’s not a usual tag…is it?”

“Well, no,” Cassie said. “But I saw the ‘other’ you was that way, so I thought you’d like it. I can remove it if you want.”

“I think I need a mirror.”

“I think you do,” Janice agreed.

Sonja reached up to feel of her ears, which were now pointy and mobile, as expected, and then looked over her shoulder at the tawny tail that protruded through a new hole in her slacks. “Well, those are as expected, at least…”

Laura smiled, then put her arm around Sonja’s shoulders. “The four of us are just going to…to…I dunno. But we’re doing it together. If I can think of the right words.”

“I can give you a nose like that, Laura,” Layla said. “It’s just a little Fuser mod. The old double-zero-ones typically gave their partners animal noses. Which was a little hard on the moose riders, I can tell you.”

“How do you even put a moose nose on a human face?” Sonja wondered.

“It wasn’t pretty,” Layla said. “Let me rez up a mirror for Miss Kitty here…” A panel of fur went out on Layla’s back, then projected a flat, reflective surface. “Here you go.”

It wasn’t anything Sonja hadn’t seen before. The classic catgirl look was quite popular in FVL and elsewhere. She had a pink nose and a slightly projecting jaw line to match up, and a fuzz of tawny fur along the bridge. “I like it! Thanks, Cassie.”

“You’re welcome! I’m glad you like it!”

“I like it, too,” Janice said. “It just…suits you somehow.”

“It might take a little getting used to, but I think I agree,” Sonja said. “I’m going to have to adjust my VL avatar, too.”

“Already done!” Cassie said. “So, what now?”

“Well…uh, how about a skimmer ride? If you don’t mind, I mean,” Sonja said. “I want to see how this works.”

“I’d love to!” Cassie said. “And I want to see how it works, too!”

“Then let’s head outside,” Sonja said.

As they walked out the door, they encountered several other people walking up. They were dressed in nice clothes, carrying microphones of the sort you used to see in twencen television newscasts, and followed by a number of objects of varying sizes and descriptions floating in the air behind them. Some looked like mylar helium balloons, others like miniature quad-lifter drones.

:Yikes, it’s the media,: Layla sent. :Looks like they finally got up the nerve to approach you directly. Maybe the RIDE adoption is what did it. So much ‘human interest.’:

:Why do they have such big microphones?: Cassie wondered. :They should have perfect directional pickups in those drones.:

:It’s just one of those Zharus things, I guess,: Sonja said. She tried to smile as they approached, but the sight of all those cameras and the reporters was quite intimidating.

The first to approach was a young woman with raccoon tags and a hat with a “PRESS” tag in the band, followed by her partner. “Hello, Miss Lancaster. I’m Nicki Conway, from the Baltica Herald, and this is my partner, Fuji. We would like to ask you a few questions. Nothing too heavy.”

“I suppose I can,” Sonja said. She put her hand on Cassie’s back.

“So, after a day on Zharus, are you still angry Earth sent you here?”

The question provoked a surprising surge of emotion. “Angry? Hell, yes I’m angry! They gassed me in my own apartment! They didn’t leave us a single dollar of our own savings! All my physical mementos were probably auctioned off months ago. The Terran government is run by a bunch of raging shitheads. If you wiggle just a little bit out of the box they want you in, away you go!”

Janice smirked. “Little touchy there, aren’t we, kitty cat? For me, I’m still kind of ticked, but only on principle. Now I’m starting to see we really kind of got the better end of the deal. Well, mostly. I didn’t have any savings or collections of old restored long-buried crap or stuff to lose. Just the shirt on my back, more or less. I feel sorry for the ones who lost all that stuff. But hey, for me, Earth just gave me a ride to the promised land, and I didn’t even have to pay for the ticket.”

“What about you, Miss Erskine?”

“I spent a month here on tour about ten years ago,” Laura said. “Almost stayed then. Almost Fused with Layla here at the time.” She gave her friend a petting. “Maybe I should have stayed, but I felt I still had obligations.”

“What kind of obligations?” Nicki asked.

“I was doing important work. Important enough to the planet that my ticket to get out here at the time was pretty damned expensive, even though I was a furry then. Now, I guess they changed their minds.”

“What do your RIDE partners think about all this?”

“Um, I only just woke up today,” Cassie said. “All I can say is I like Sonja and I like the world so far.”

“Welcome to the world!” Fuji the raccoon put in.

“Thanks,” Cassie replied.

“Those jerks back on Earth have no idea what they’re throwing away,” Layla said. “But hey, their loss, our gain.” She rubbed her head along Laura’s hip, purring.

“Okay, now the question you were expecting. Not that it’s unusual on Zharus to crossride so fast, but is there any kind of statement you’re trying to make by doing it? You were in the first group awakened, and you briefly met Marshal Petrovna and the former Judge Gates. Did they have any influence?”

Sonja considered how to respond. “Well, to be honest, I was a big GVL—that’s Genderplay Virtual Life—player on Earth. Mainly with Laura here, though I had hung out online with Aleka a little—probably not enough to be more than a distant acquaintance, though. But then when I arrived here I had a little, let’s say, medical issue.” She felt her face heat up in a blush. “I’ll just say they had to fix my body. Draw your own conclusion.”

“I see,” Nicki said, nodding. “Roughly one percent of ‘accidental’ crossrides of tourists—from every colony, not just Earth—are undiagnosed gender dysphoric. I’m glad you got the help you didn’t know you needed.”

“As many as that?” Laura asked.

“She’s exaggerating a little,” Fuji said. “But it’s still significant. Mostly happens when a tourist gets injured, they need medical attention, they do a brain scan…”

“Modern medicine, huh?” Janice said. “Why d’ya suppose they’re apparently better at catching it here?”

“I’m sure they’ve answered that in some research journal,” Laura said.

“If we’re spouting off opinions, I think it’s ‘cuz they’ve got so much more experience at spotting the problem here,” Layla said. “This is the only world in the firmament where they celebrate dysphorics, rather than barely tolerate them or try to sweep them under a rug. So of course they know what to look for—and they actually want to do it.”

Nicki nodded. “Okay. One last question. You’re both paired up with pumas—and even the one of you who isn’t has puma tags. What’s the significance of that?”

Sonja shrugged. “There isn’t any, really. We just like pumas. Based our fursonas on them, back on Earth.”

“I think it’s partly my fault,” Laura said. “Back in FVL I gifted Sonja the furry avatar her first time there. She said she liked cats anyway, so…”

“And I got these in return for sharing a snack with that one,” Janice said, pointing to Layla. “I may have ‘em docked sooner or later if I get tired of ‘em, but for now…hey, they were free.”

“That should satisfy the curious, I think,” Nicki said. “Well, thanks for the interview. You’re fortunate there are just so many on the Steady Hand that we can spread out. There’s almost two thousand awake now.”

“Which is, what, a third of a percent of the total?” Laura wondered. “They’re going to need to start working faster, or they’ll still be at this next year.”

“Now, if you don’t mind, Cassie and I would like try out her skimmer form,” Sonja said.

“I and Layla should get back to work, too,” Laura said.

“And I have some serious loafing to do. I’m part cat now. I can loaf as much as I want,” Janice said.

“As if you didn’t before,” Sonja said.

“But I actually have an excuse now!” Janice said. “That’s gotta be good for something, right?”

“You know, there’s gotta be a match for you out there somewhere,” Layla said. “Not a kitten like Cassie. But an experienced RIDE you’ll pair up nicely with.”

“Probably! But they’re pro’lly not going anywhere, so I’ve got plenty a’ time to look for ‘em,” Janice said. “Maybe I’ll start after my nap. Or maybe I’ll just have another nap instead.”

“Mmm, naps,” Cassie said.

“Hey, you just woke up,” Sonja said.

“I’m a cat. We sleep for sixteen hours a day.”

Sonja hugged Cassie affectionately. “Sleep later, Cass. Fly now.”

“All right! Uh…let me try to figure out how this works…” She closed her eyes and her hardlight winked out, leaving a gleaming silver cougar standing there. Then with various clinking and ratcheting noises, her body unfolded and shifted around into a sleek skimmer cycle form about double the size of the rental scooter, and then the hardlight came back on rendering it gold with tawny fur upholstery and accents. The skimmer wasn’t a fancy sports model, but it looked comfortable and reasonably speedy.

“Not bad at all, kitten,” Layla said. “Enjoy the flying you two. Laura and I will be over in the northwest part of the construction area.”

“See you later!” Cassie said.

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As Cassie pulled away from the settlement, they picked up speed and altitude. Before Sonja felt more than a brisk breeze, Cassie rezzed up a hardlight aeroshell around them. “Wow, you’re pretty fast!” Sonja said.

“Am I? I don’t really have anything to compare it to,” Cassie said. Her golden eyes peered out of a display panel on the dash, just below the windshield. “But the specs say I’m really no more than average speed or endurance relative to other skimmers like me. Though you can drop in better lifters and batteries pretty easily, just takes money.” They rose to above treetop height, the vast forest rolling away beneath them.

“Where are we going?” Sonja asked.

“The map says something called the ‘Coastal Skimmerway’ is in this direction,” Cassie said. “And since I’m a skimmer right now, I guess it must be my way!” She giggled and winked. “My way is the highway!”

“I wouldn’t argue.” Sonja looked around, enjoying the view. The bike’s seating was plenty roomy, including ample space for her new tail. “So everyone flies around this fast?”

“It’s a big world. You gotta fly fast if you want to get anywhere.” Cassie’s eyes peered off-screen for a moment. “Oh! It says I can offer some traveling music. Let’s see…”

A moment later, a guitar kicked in, and a vocalist sang…

Get your motor running
Head out on the highway
Looking for adventure
In whatever comes our way…

Sonja laughed. The song was iconic enough to biking that even she had heard it back on Earth—one of those bits of Earth media that leaked back into the public domain from Zharus tourists. “Nice choice.”

“Thanks! It was the first one on the list.”

Looking ahead, Sonja saw something hovering in the air, approaching them. As they came closer and passed, they saw it was some kind of lifter buoy with a beacon on it. “Hey, Cassie, what was that? Some kind of navigation marker?”

“Uh-huh. It’s pointing the way to the skimmerway.”

“Is that some kind of road in the sky?”

“Sort of! My database says it’s a path marked out by more beacons, with floating rest stops and stuff every so often. For skimmers, you see.”

“Ah.” Sonja nodded. “That makes sense.”

“And the skimmerway goes allllll the way around the supercontinent. Wow!”

“Gondwana is larger than all the continents on Earth, combined,” Sonja said.

“That would mean more to me if I’d ever seen a continent on Earth, but I’m sure it’s very impressive!”

Sonja saw more beacons in the distance, and as they converged on the skimmerway she could see that they formed several parallel lines in the air about five hundred meters over the ground, marking out different lanes of traffic. A few skimmers could be seen here and there in the distance, but it didn’t seem to be a very high-traffic stretch of road. The speed limit was 250 kph.

Sonja checked their own speed—a shade over 200, five hundred meters up. Um, okay. Don’t look down.

“So I was doing a little research on skimmers,” Cassie said. “It said I’m a skimmer because I lack a ‘physically enclosed passenger compartment’ and am ‘reliant on a hardlight aeroshell and inertial damping’ for safety. Those are technically ‘fliers’. But for some reason everyone just says ‘skimmer’ anyway.”

“People are funny that way, Cass,” Sonja said. “So, no particular place to go. Let’s just enjoy the sights.”

“But we can go places if we want to, right?” Cassie said. “I’ve never been to any places.”

“What place would you like to go to?” Sonja asked.

“I dunno, maybe…that one?” She highlighted a buoy supporting a hardlight sign reading “EXIT: Greenglade.”

Sonja shrugged. “Why not?” The bike tilted to one side as Cassie angled it into the exit, and they followed the row of beacons down to the ground where a launch and landing ramp poked up into the air. Cassie easily landed on the end of the ramp and proceeded straight ahead in ground-skimming mode.

“So what is this place?” Sonja asked.

“The database says it’s a ‘pastoral forest community.’ Whatever that means.”

“Sounds like a bunch of people who decided to come out and live in the middle of nowhere.” Sonja frowned. “And now they’re suddenly a lot closer to somewhere than they ever expected. You know, they might not be glad to see us.”

“That doesn’t matter,” Cassie said. “I’ll still be glad to see them.

The first building was a General Fabbery. There were a few large, squarish skimmers parked in front of i—one in a lurid yellow with HUMMER printed on the rear bumper. There were so many trees—mainly oak and maple—it was difficult to see much further down the surface road. The map in Sonja’s implant located only two more buildings—one for general government functions, and what appeared to be a waste reclamation facility. Of course, there would be other buildings—people had to live somewhere—but their owners had apparently chosen to have them redacted from the map. The local population numbered about a hundred, according to the Zharus Census.

“Villages this size don’t exist on Earth anymore,” Sonja said. “Maybe we should just go once around the road, then head back to the skimmerway…”

“Yeah. Why doncha,” came a voice out of thin air. The speaker than de-cloaked, revealing himself to be a wolverine Integrate. “You can put yourself back on that ship you came in on, too.”

“I didn’t exactly have a choice, whoever you are,” Sonja replied tartly. “And if you think you can tell everyone who’s going to show up here to just go away, you’re probably fighting a losing battle. You’re the very closest stop on the skimmerway to a new settlement of several hundred thousand, and they’ll all be awake before long, and curious.”

“We don’t mind the occasional traveler taking a rest. We do mind getting a million new neighbors we didn’t ask for,” he grumbled. “I’m going to end up taking my house and just moving it deeper into the wilderness. Nextus evacuated us because they thought that damned ship might land on our heads.”

“If it helps any, most of us million didn’t ask to be dropped here, either,” Sonja said. “Things are tough all over.”

An elk Fuser came out of the store to see what the commotion was. “Hey, Kent! Stop messing with the new neighbors!” he shouted. “They ain’t done nothing wrong, you hothead!”

“Just thought we’d stop by and say hi,” Sonja said. “You know, beat the crowds.”

The elk waved his hand. “Come on into the Fabbery and sit a spell. I’m Clem, and my inner human is Marco Firenze. He’s sleepin’ right now, so don’t expect much conversation outta him.”

“And as if this foolishness wasn’t bad enough, we’re going to be on the fricking news, too.” The wolverine pointed past Sonja, and she turned her head to see one of those micro-skimmer drones hovering some distance beyond them.

“Hey, don’t blame that one on us,” Sonja said. “We never told them they could follow us.”

“Well, that’s easily enough remedied.” Clem raised an arm, and fired a pulse blast that shattered the drone. “You’re new here, so you probably didn’t know—it’s all right to smash those things, as long as you don’t inflict any collateral damage in the doing of it. The networks might bill you a few centi-mu for it, but they expect it to happen. That’s why they don’t usually put a lot of money into fabbing them.”

“On Earth if you pop something like that you end up with a misdemeanor charge and two weeks in jail,” Sonja said. “Not to mention the fines.”

“Welcome to the frontier.”

:Fuse?: Sonja thought. A few seconds later, she and Cassie were on the ground next to Clem. “I’m glad there’s someone friendly here.”

“Oh, Kent there is a bit of a slave to his instincts. Wolverines bein’ of ill temper and all.”

“Fuck you, venison,” Kent said.

Clem chuckled. “See what I mean?”

“I think I do,” Cassie said. She looked at the wolverine, puzzled. “Oh. You’re one of those ‘Integrates’ from my knowedgebase. First time I’ve ever met one!”

“Huh. You’re one of those RIDEalong newbs?” Kent said.

“Just woke up today!” Cassie said, as chipper as ever.

The wolverine suddenly lost some of the edge to his tone. “Uh, well. I’m sorry, uh…”

“Cassie, and my inner human is Sonja,” the cougaress said.

“Cassie. Um…yeah. Sorry. I’m just kinda pissed off about this whole thing.”

“If you recall, me and Marco ain’t too happy about it, neither,” Clem said. “But we should just make the best of it.”

“I’m still planning on moving house,” Kent said.

“Maybe we will, too. But haven’t made a decision on that score. Now, Cassie, Sonja, come on in for a ‘fresher. And if you got a little mu on you, we’d be grateful for a tip.”

“Thanks, we’d appreciate that,” Sonja said. “And I can understand how you feel about the whole business. If I’d moved as far out in the wilderness as I could to get away from crowds, having a new city spring up right next door would be…annoying.”

“Me an’ Marco moved out here after the War for some peace and quiet. Got it for longer than we thought, frankly.”

“Sooner or later, civilization always comes out to the frontier,” Sonja said. “Just like in the Old West.”

“Yeah, but it wasn’t supposed to happen this soon,” Kent grumbled.

“Bright side is, Nextus is going to fast-track new homestead applications for those of us who want to move, with an automatic penalty-free Game exemption,” Clem said. “And there’s still plenty of room left. Or, we can get some extra bennies in the Game if we choose to stay. We’re still weighing the decision.”

The inside of the Fabbery was the second place that was strongly like Earth, like the skullshop where Sonja had had her implant upgraded. Instead of the shops on Zharus, the Fabbery was a neighborhood space where residents could pick up their fabbed goods, meet people, have a meal, or just hang out. The interior of the Greenglade Fabbery was a cozy, wood-paneled room with tables and chairs, many of them occupied. Their eyes were on the hardlight video projections, monitoring the Steady Hand site construction. One side of the room were output doors of various sizes for their ordered goods.

Behind the counter was a female badger Fuser. Clem nodded at her. “This is Marlene and Mabel. They own the place. Mabel’s hubby an’ partner are down in Nextus right now, raising a little bureaucratic hell. They’re our resident Gamesters and the town’s main Surrogates.”

“I heard something about that Game, and Surrogates,” Sonja said. “A friend is interested in it. How does that work, exactly?”

“Well, the nuts an’ bolts vary depending on the Agency. But the core of it turns bureaucracy into a puzzle to be solved,” Clem said. “If you choose not to play, you still get what you need, but if you do, well, NextusCrats will go the extra mile and get you all the help you need, and then some.”

“It’s fun if you like that kind of thing,” the badger said. “Mabel and I never really did. So we let Izuku and Zhang take care of it.”

Sonja nodded. “That really does sound like it would be right up my friend’s alley. Might drive me crazy, though.”

“Games sound fun,” Cassie added. “I don’t know about that kind of game. But Layla invited me to play a game with her a little later!”

Sonja chuckled. “So, what do you all do out here? Other than live.”

“Forestry products,” Clem deadpanned. “Shockin’, I know. We selectively cut the local timber for various arsty-fartsy purposes. Sculpture, furniture, etcetera. It’s enough to pay the bills. What bills there are, anyway.”

“We’re pretty self-sufficient here,” Mabel said. “We make enough to not depend on Basic. That’s all we really want.”

“You could probably add tourism to that, now,” Sonja said. “As the closest native settlement to the landing site, you could pick up business from us new arrivals curious about the rest of the world—and the rest of the world curious about us.”

“We’re going to have to deal with you somehow, that’s for sure,” Kent said. “Up and leaving is looking better every day.”

“But there’s no hurry to decide on that just yet,” Clem said. “We can wait a little while and see how it all shakes out. No mistake, things are going to change around here, one way or another; it’s just a matter of figuring out how. Meanwhile, most folks who feel the same as Kent are just retreating into their homes and locking ‘em down.”

“Which I should probably go and do, myself,” Kent said. “Wasn’t nice to meet you.” The surly wolverine shuffled out without waiting for a reply.

Clem sighed. “You’ll find more like him than not around here, probably. If you found them at all, that is, since they’re mostly staying out of sight.”

Sonja shrugged. “I’d apologize for being a bother, but it’s not even my fault I’m here in the first place. And if they want to throw some stones at Earth, they’ll just have to get in line.”

“Marco—my pard—came here from Earth with his family ‘bout forty years ago,” Clem said. “Old Terra weren’t so bad then. I gather it’s much worse now.”

Sonja nodded. “The recent administration seems to have started trending downhill again. Though I don’t think previous ones were any great prize either. It’s just they liked to go beat up on wildcat colonies rather than their own people.”

Clem nodded. “Well, anyway, you’re welcome to look around. Up and down Main Street, anyhow. Most of the side streets turn into people’s driveways. Road continues on out of town; a few klicks on is a creek with a great fishing spot off to the left, then it dead-ends at the place where we’re lumbering trees.”

“Thanks,” Sonja said. “We’ll try not to bother anyone. But for now…I’m a little thirsty from the road. So what do you-all recommend?”

“Marlene makes a good chocolate milkshake,” Clem said. “Milk and ice cream from her own cows.”

“Sounds great!” Cassie said, licking her lips.

One chocolate milkshake later, Sonja and Cassie bid Clem, Marlene, and Mabel farewell. They left the Fabbery and Cassie changed back to skimmer form. “Want to head on up and see the creek? Or just go on back to town?” Cassie asked.

“Let’s go ahead and take a quick look,” Sonja decided. “I think this is the first time I’ve ever been to a bona fide wilderness area in real life. Might as well see what the thing I was working toward looks like.”

“It’s the first time I’ve been to a wilderness area in real life, too!” Cassie said.

Sonja chuckled. “I sort of figured.”

They pulled on up the street, past the fabbery and government building and waste treatment plant. The road wound on between the trees, paved in a durable ceramacrete finish. A mile or so up the road, there was a handy wooden bridge, clearly made from local timbers. Given most traffic used lifters, supporting a lot of weight wasn’t a huge concern, and in fact a bridge wasn’t even strictly necessary; presumably it was just there for the benefit of any foot, bicycle, or other pedestrian ground traffic in the neighborhood.

“There’s deer on my sensors!” Cassie said. “And a dozen kinds of birds, dozens of squirrels and chipmunks.” She paused. “Dunno if I’d want to hunt them, though. All that gooshy guts would get all over my servos.”

Sonja chuckled. “Just as well to save that for the virtual part of your life.”

Beyond the bridge, a foot trail led off along the bank to the left. “That must be where that fishing spot is. Maybe we should fab some fishing gear and come back. It’d probably be nice and peaceful.”

“Until a few thousand other people show up,” Cassie pointed out.

“Yeah, there is that. You know, I wouldn’t put it past some of them to want to move out here. Build a house out in the scenic wilderness close enough to the settlement to commute. Maybe even take over the land from some of those moving away. I could almost see doing it myself.” She shrugged. “Should probably invite Laura out here. I’ll bet she’d dig it.”

There was a humming sound in the distance, the spin-up of larger lifters. Then a house just visible through the trees rose up into the air. Once it was over the treetops it began to travel northwards.

“I guess ‘move house’ is quite literal,” Sonja mused. It was soon joined by a half dozen others, moving the same direction like a flock of birds migrating. “Looks like some of those fast-tracked re-homestead requests just came through. Well, I wish them luck. Kent is probably in one of those.”

“Too bad he’s leaving. I kinda liked him.”

“Well, some people are just…not social, Cassie. Maybe we should walk up the creek so you can get your paws dirty?”

“I like that idea.” Cassie came to a stop so Sonja could dismount, then changed to Walker form. “Let’s go see what’s up that trail!”

Separator k.png

Sonja and Cassie spent a delightful half hour wandering by the banks of the stream. Cassie had fun splashing in shallow pools and chasing after fish, while Sonja examined trees and explored. Finally, they headed back to the bridge and continued a couple more klicks up the road to take a look at the cleared area where the settlers had been logging. Then they headed back through the small settlement, to the skimmerway, and home.

As they arrived, Layla sent them a comm ping. “Hey, I see you all are back now. Have a good drive? I was wondering if Cassie would like to come over for some Nature Range now…”

“Oooh, could I?” Cassie asked. “It sounds neat!”

“Well, sure,” Sonja said. “What you do on your own time is your business. What’re you gonna do, some hunting?”

“That’s the plan!” Layla said. “If you want to watch, you can come too. There’s an ‘observer mode’ where you’ll be invisible and intangible but will still be able to see what’s going on. I’ve made Laura the same offer.”

Sonja shrugged. “Sure, sounds like fun. C’mon, Cassie, let’s Fuse up and go inside the house before we start.”

“Sure thing!”

The Fuse process seemed to be becoming more natural, or perhaps it just felt that way. In any case, it was just a few seconds before Sonja and Cassie were a furry panther-girl again, walking through the door into the little house. Sonja looked up at the doorframe as they went through. “So that’s why the door is so large…huh.”

“I think there are RIDEsafe charging plugs here and there, but I could really use my own nook,” Cassie said. “At least that’s what my DE documentation says.”

Sonja nodded. “Well, I have money from selling my old implant. So find a good one that’s within my budget, and it’s yours.”

“Thanks, I’ll let you know. You ready?”

“Sure thing, let’s go.”

The room around them seemed to fade away, and once again Sonja was standing in the forest clearing Layla had shown them earlier. Cassie was by her side in Walker mode. Only this time it felt a little different.

Layla and Laura were waiting there. Sonja noticed a sort of ghostly quality around Laura, and glancing down noticed that she also had it herself. “Hey, we’re see-through?”

“Welcome to observer mode,” Layla said. “Nothing in the sim will be able to sense you or touch you. So you won’t scare off our prey. You can also fly, which I recommend. And keep quiet! The prey can’t hear you, but we still can—unless you engage private comms, which we recommend if you want to kibbitz. Got it?”

“Got it,” Sonja and Laura chorused.

“Great! Now…it can often take hours to find and sneak up on prey properly. So, in deference to your human attention spans, we’ll run the sim in fast-time for ourselves until we get to the fun part.”

“Gee, thanks for thinking of us,” Sonja said. “You’re too kind, really.”

“In real life, of course, we big cats are solitary hunters. But thanks to being sentient and all, we RIDEs are more social creatures. Besides, I gotta teach this newbie how it’s done.”

“I’m ready to learn!” Cassie said.

“All right, then, come on, young’un. Dropping into fast-time…now.” The two cats blurred and disappeared. A moment later, the scene flickered and changed, and they were all on a plain outside the forest, watching a pair of puma creep up on some unsuspecting deer.

Sonja made sure she was on private comms with Laura. “Well, this is just like one of those nature documentaries.”

“There was that time when we went into the Feral Lands in FVL and tried hunting,” Laura said. “But this is a whole other level.”

“All we had were those silly ‘instinct prompts’. These two have the real thing,” Sonja said. “Look at how graceful they are, how majestic…”

“Okay,” Layla whispered to Cassie. “Lock on…buttwiggle…pounce!”

Cassie dutifully crouched, wiggled her butt, and sprang, slamming into a hapless deer and taking it down, paws wrapped around its neck.

“Now bite! Bite the jugular! Crush the windpipe!” Layla instructed. “Atta girl!”

The doe went down with a screeching bleat before the gargling blood out of her mouth. Cassie’s ears were pinned back, and she growled fiercely with that high-pitched “roar” pumas could make, far more menacing than her affectionate squeaks.

Sonja shook her head. “That’s just a little…ew.”

“Nature, red in tooth and claw,” Laura said. “Still, that’s pretty good for a first time, right?”

Layla looked at them. “This is just a practice sim. Cassie will get a real challenge when we start inviting RIDEs to be the prey. Trust me, even a chipmunk can do some damage. And of course, deer kick really hard and can kill you.”

“Mmmmph?” Cassie said, still biting down on the deer’s neck. She let it go. “Really?”

“Yep, really,” Layla said.

“Even a chipmunk?”

“You climb a tree to go after them, there’s always a risk of a fall…and they could make you slip up.”

Cassie blinked. “Wow. I never thought of that.”

“Eh, you’ll learn with experience. We’ll get plenty once Sonja and Laura aren’t watching. We can do fast-time a whooooole lot faster than they can take. No offense, ladies.”

“No worries,” Sonja said. “It’s probably not something I’ll want to watch a whole lot anyway—but it was nice to see Cassie’s first one at least.”

“I did it!” Cassie said, purring loudly.

“You did.” Sonja grinned. “I’m going to drop back out to the Real for now. Just come join me when you’re done. Good hunting!”

Sonja defused, Cassie returning to walker form and curling up like a giant house cat in a sunbeam. Sonja sat down on her couch and sighed. A moment of quiet at last…

She decided to take off her shirt, throwing it aside, then arranged her arms so her breasts were resting on them. Sonja Lancaster glared at them. Almost ten years of having these in GVL. How did they miss that GD diagnosis? HOW? There are basic brain scans even on Earth! WHAT THE FUCK?

She tried to think. Earth, even forty or so years ago, had the technology for a complete sex change with the relatively primitive nanites available. Early childhood healthcare, even at the age of two, should have caught the neurological issues. The earlier caught, the better fixed. But the process would have taken over a month in a capsule and cost easily $100,000. It was something even the government at the time should have covered with standard healthcare.

Sonja stood up then removed her pants and underthings, sitting down again, tail curled around her waist. She put her hand on her belly.

If they had done their jobs four decades ago odds were Sonja would barely remember being a boy. And odds were she never would have ended up expelled from Earth. But…

At any time between then and the day they expelled her, some doctor, somewhere, should have caught it. The cost of a sex change was down to a mere ten thousand dollars.

Still much more than the price of a one-way ticket to Zharus. Especially when shipped at the bulk rate for frozen freight.

What conclusions can I even draw from this? She had no real hard evidence, just inferences. But when they didn’t even try to hide the numbers, it wasn’t hard to add 1 and 1 to get 2.

“I suppose it could’ve been worse,” she mused. As it was, she’d been completely unaware of her condition and had gotten some all-unknowing relief from the various forms of Virtual Life. Yesterday’s events hadn’t been so much a shock as a sudden affirmation.

Still, better safe than sorry. “Hey Informio?”

The EI’s head appeared on the living room wall. “What can I do for you, Miss Lancaster?”

Sonja realized she was still naked, but decided Informio probably had some self-censor feature. Or if he didn’t, he was at least too polite to say so. “Does the Basic benefit include mental health?”

“Indeed it does.”

“Then can you put me in touch with someone who specializes in my situation?” She didn’t feel like she needed it just now, but it would hit hard when it did.

“Of course. I’ll send a list to your comm address. Good luck, Miss Lancaster.”

“Just call me Sonja,” she said, smiling.

“Of course, Sonja. Call again if you need me.” The wall went blank.

Now, she had a few decades of womanhood to catch up on.

Preceded by:
Cougar Town: Down on the Farm
FreeRIDErs Succeeded by:
Cougar Town: Play the Game Tonight