User:Robotech Master/A Meating of the Board original

From Shifti
Jump to: navigation, search
FreeRIDErs story universe


by Jon Buck and Robotech_Master

Part 7: A Meating of the Board

At 2100 local time, the boardroom began to fill. Well, “fill” being used loosely, of course. With only four people on the board, it had never been full to anything like its total capacity. And Zane, Quinoa, and Carrie-Anne had been there since 2045. Myla and Sophie were still back in Carrie-Anne’s office, monitoring the security feeds—especially the one for the conference room.

Zane was once more in his hardlight Fuser disguise, seated at the head of the table in the space that had used to be a security camera blind spot but was no longer. Carrie-Anne was seated in her accustomed spot at his right hand. She was wearing a similar hardlight disguise to Zane’s, having had time to perfect it under Zane and Quinoa’s instruction before the meeting. Quinoa was invisible, leaning up against a corner of the room.

Frisco Tillman was the first to enter, followed by the mule RIDE Merle. Merle had been an old friend of Terry’s who Zane had rescued from the auction lot, and Zane felt warm feelings from the part of him that still was Terry at seeing the old fellow again.

Tillman was a more recent acquaintance for both of them, a professor of geology from Roberto Martinez Memorial University with a minor in Business Administration. He was a small man in his late 40s, with prematurely-thinning hair that he never could be bothered to go in and have fixed. The mule ears and tail he’d gotten from Merle looked a little incongruous on him, but he didn’t care. He and Merle got along really well, and the two of them shared a very hands-on approach to mining operations. They could often be found in the field checking up on platforms or investigating new veins.

“Hey, Zane, Carrie-Anne, good to see you two,” Tillman said as he took his seat. Merle stood placidly behind him.

“Good evenin’!” Merle said cheerfully.

“Hey, Frisco, Merle, glad to be here.” Zane grinned. :Merle, Carrie-Anne’s off-net right now, but she’s all right. Don’t be alarmed you can’t send to her.:

Merle swiveled his ears forward and peered thoughtfully at Zane and Carrie-Anne. :I take it there’s a good story behind that?:

:I’ll fill you in later,: Zane said. :In fact, you’ll probably learn at the same time everyone else does.:


Then the other member arrived. Saul Fusco was a big man, a little overweight, but not completely out of shape. He had brown hair, but like Frisco was clean-shaven. He also had cow ears and a pair of small horn nubs poking out of the sides of his head, because his RIDE was the Texas longhorn bull Tex who entered behind him.

Fusco had been Chief of Operations at a prestigious Cascadia long-haul skimmer trucking company, but had worked his way up from driving skimmers to dispatching to managing regional less-than-truckload shipping hubs. He had an unparallelled knowledge of logistics, and in that respect meshed well with Tex.

Before Zane had bought him at auction, Tex had worked in skimmer trucking himself. His skimmer form was a small tractor suitable for pulling light lifter-trailer truckloads, and he had over fifteen years experience driving the roads and moving heavy cargo. His and Fusco’s expertise had helped to streamline Brubeck’s ore-moving operations, with the potential to save millions of mu a year.

Fusco took his seat, with Tex standing behind him. He nodded to Zane. “Brubeck.”

Zane nodded. “Fusco.” He’d never really been able to come to a first-name basis with Fusco. It wasn’t that they didn’t like each other; it was just that Fusco seemed to prefer formality in the boardroom. Zane sent Tex the same private message about Carrie-Anne not being able to respond. Tex looked curious, but nodded his understanding.

“Thanks for coming, everyone. This probably won’t be a long meeting, but it should be one of the more interesting ones we’ve had—and that’s counting the one where I bodyjacked half of my old board.” He grinned. “I’m not going to beat around the bush. I’ve got something to show you.” Zane pushed his chair back and stepped away from the table…then dropped his disguise.

Tillman blinked. “What’s happened to you?”

“That’s a new look,” Fusco said. “You’ve Integrated, haven’t you?”

“That’s right,” Zane said. “There’s not really a separate me and Terry anymore. We’re one single being now. Smaller, but still equally lovable and cuddly.”

“That remains to be seen,” Quinoa said, dropping her invisibility and stepping forward. “And hi, everyone. I’m Quinoa Steader. Also Integrated. Mainly just here to watch, but I’ll be happy to answer any questions you might have about Integrates, if I can.”

Carrie-Anne remained seated and disguised. In discussions before the meeting, they had agreed it might be best to spare the board too many shocks at once. But Merle and Tex were looking speculatively at her, and Zane suspected they had already figured it out.

“So…Terry’s gone?” Merle asked. “I’m gonna miss him.”

“I’m not gone,” Zane said. “I’m right here. I’m just Zane at the same time. I’ve got all the memories of both of us, all the thoughts and feelings, too. I can even split them out and be separate inside my head if I want. But this isn’t a case of one of us taking over the other.” At least not in my case, he thought, glancing at Carrie-Anne.

“Well…congratulations, I guess,” Tillman said. “But what does Integration even mean? There are so many conflicting reports about it on the net.”

“Well, when a meatie and a mechie love each other very much…” Quinoa began. Zane shot her an old-fashioned look and she rolled her eyes. “Oh, all right. We’re not really clear on the causes yet, but for whatever reason sometimes people who combine with their RIDEs go one step farther than Fusing. They permanently meld their bodies and psyches, and also unlock amazing cosmic powers.” She surrounded herself with sparkling lights, making the board room resemble the inside of a Disco. “Ooooooh.”

Zane smirked. “Ladies and gentlemen, Quinoa Steader. She’ll be here all night. Don’t throw money, just applaud.” He pointed at Quinoa and made an extinguishing motion and the lights dimmed and went out. “More seriously, most of the people this happens to abruptly disappear from the public eye. Like, say, one Quinoa Steader, who mysteriously vanished from Nextus a few months ago.”

“I prefer to think of it as a permanent vacation,” Quinoa said.

“They hide themselves away in various enclaves where they don’t have to deal with ordinary people. Or some of them just disguise themselves as ordinary people and carry on.” Zane shrugged. “As a result, they’re pretty poorly understood.”

“We just want to be loved!” Quinoa said, clasping her hands together melodramatically. “I mean, don’t we all?” Zane gave her another quelling look and she subsided. “Oh, all right, geez.”

“But I’m not gonna go hide in an enclave…and I don’t like the idea of pretending to be something I’m not. So I’m planning to go public in a few days and announce to the world that yes, I’m Integrated, and I don’t plan to hide it.” He clasped his hands together. “Of course, this is probably going to cause problems for the company’s bottom line. We may have a hard year or two, and it could affect our stock prices because people always fear what they don’t understand.”

“It’s not the reactions from people you have to worry about,” Quinoa said. “Tell them about the other part.”

“I was coming to that.” Zane sighed. “There seems to be a faction of Integrates who don’t like the idea of me shining more light on them, and Quinoa thinks they’re prepared to go to war against us if I persist in my plans to go public.”

Fusco raised an eyebrow. “Go to war?”

“Rampant acts of sabotage,” Quinoa said. “Stock price manipulation. Anything you can do with a computer, we Integrates can make a computer do. Anything. Whether they know the passwords or not. It’s not even a matter of ‘hacking’ for us, it’s a matter of ‘asking nicely.’ You may think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not.” She shrugged. “You probably still think I’m exaggerating, but I tried.”

“So, anyway…here’s the deal,” Zane said. “I own 65% of this company, and these board meetings are really kind of a formality most of the time. But I don’t want to make life harder for all of you. So I want to hear from all of you whether you think I should risk it before I make my decision. And if any of you want to sell your stock before I do it, I’ll take it off your hands if you want.”

“Your stock price isn’t all you have to worry about here,” Quinoa put in. “If these guys do go to war on you, people are gonna get hurt. Some might get killed.”

“But if I don’t stand up to these guys, I’m giving the same sorts of guys who might hurt or kill people power over our future,” Zane said. “I don’t believe in backing down for terrorists.” He stepped forward and leaned on the table. “So give me your opinions.”

“I will be abstaining,” Carrie-Anne said. “I have…certain reasons.”

Zane nodded. “Frisco Tillman, Merle, any opinions?”

Tillman shook his head in consternation. “I don’t know. This is the sort of thing where I’d like to be able to research it thoroughly before I give a decision. I only have what you and Quinoa say on which to base it. That being said, you’ve given us an awful lot of negatives about what could happen without many positive benefits apart from you not having to keep it a secret.”

Zane nodded. “That’s fair. As for positives, my thought is that if we can get enough people studying Integrates, there could be spinoff applications for science and technology. Our bodies are put together in really amazing ways and there’s a lot we don’t understand about them yet. If we get in on the ground floor with this, we could have a head start over everyone else.”

“That sounds awfully…mercenary,” Quinoa said.

“Yeah, I know,” Zane said. “A lot of business stuff does. Anyway, as far as I’m concerned the big benefit is in me not hiding anymore. But shareholders have to know what’s in it for them.”

“Shee-it, far’s I’m concerned y’oughtta do it!” Merle said from behind Tillman. “Yeah, it may jes’ knock us on our asses for a while. But we’re a strong corp. Always have been, ever since your daddy’s day. We can get by.”

Tillman nodded. “I guess I’m not quite so optimistic as Merle, but…I’ve been studying qubitite all my life, and I don’t think we’ve unlocked anywhere near its full potential. But it seems like we’ve gone just about as far forward as we can with our current tech. If you Integrates can offer a quantum leap forward, we should do it for the good of the world. It’s worth the risk.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” Saul Fusco said thoughtfully. “Risk is something I’ve had to live with for decades as a trucker. I’m pretty good at calculating the risk of driving without enough sleep, or failing to balance your load, or even transporting mining explosives across the Dry Ocean.”

“That last one, that’s the riskiest,” Tex said from behind him.

“Thank you, Tex,” Fusco said.


“But I’m not so good at calculating the risk of something like this. Is it really worth the reward?” He shook his head. “I’m in the dark. Seems what you’re asking is whether I can bless your lifestyle choice if it has the potential of destroying our company. I mean, I’m sure we could have teams of scientists study you without you having to announce to the world what you really are.”

“I don’t know if that would really stop them, though,” Quinoa pointed out. “They may not be as worried about everybody knowing about them as they are about any non-Integrate knowing about them. We like to be left alone.”

“Y’know, none of us in this room, ‘ceptin for Audrey over there inside Carrie-Anne, was with Zane’s daddy when he built this company,” Tex said. “But I’m pretty sure the company wasn’t built on doin’ safe stuff. Didn’t ol’ Clint do some pretty risky stuff himself, like stayin’ up a week at a time in an ol’ IDE that didn’t work right half the time to defend this very spot from claim jumpers?” He shook his head, though only a little bit—with horns like Tex’s, you had to be very careful what you did with your head in tight spaces. “Anyhoo, if you can judge a man or an idea by the quality of its enemies, these varmints they’re talkin’ ‘bout sound like makin’ it a good idea to me just based on them bein’ varmints.”

Fusco nodded. “Well, you’re going to do whatever you want to anyway, and I get the feeling most of the people in this room are for it, so I’ll go along. And no, I’m not going to ask you to buy out my stock. I’m diversified enough I’d be all right even if Brubeck tanked, so I might as well stay along for the ride.” He glanced over his shoulder at Tex. “I just hope my partner’s right.”

“Believe me, I do, too,” Zane said.

“Made of meat. You’re all made of meat. Really stupid meat, too.” The voice came from every speaker in the Boardroom. Carrie-Anne was on her feet immediately. Quinoa promptly vanished. “And y’all stand there just flapping your meat at one another.”

“I beg your pardon,” Merle said.

Tex snorted. “You think we’re all made of meat, maybe you need new glasses.”

“Oh, I accord you slightly more respect, you clockwork clank. Slightly. You haven’t been around long enough to cause as much trouble as these meatbags.” Behind Zane’s chair, from the tunnel that that were now fully monitored, the door burst open into the Boardroom.

“What the hell?” Myla commed Zane. “There was nothing there!”

“Fritz, I presume,” Zane said.

The dust cleared, revealing a rather short feline Integrate with no visible hardlight emitters, or DIN. The lynx’s tufted ears were turned back, flat. “I’m not the one who’s presuming anything, Mr. Brubeck. You are, when you presume to speak for the rest of us.”

“‘The rest of us’? Including the ones who I’m told kicked you out of every enclave short of the Towers?” Zane wondered.

“Oh, what I did among equals is not the issue here. What I did was go against internal politics. That’s a whole different bag, man. They’re free to dislike me as much as they want. The issue here is you and meat. Your choosing to let the meat see you naked amongst them. That’s not a decision I can abide.”

“It’s my body. I can show it ‘naked’ or not if I want to. That’s the same choice any of us has.”

The lynx sighed, looking up at the ceiling. “Guess I’m not making myself clear here.” The lights started flickering. “Go home, run your company, stay in disguise, dig? You do that, or you haul your tail to Wonderland or someplace like that, I got no quarrel with you. But as long as you put me and mine at risk, I gotta make an example of you.” The whole room went black. “Lemme demonstrate. You got ten minutes to abandon this platform before all your shields go down, the vent fans go from blow to suck, and things get really dusty in here. You’ll just have to replace some stuff, that’s it. Nobody gets hurt, this time.”

The hardlight emitter lenses on Zane’s body lit up, relighting the room. Felix was gone, and the secret door behind him was in place, undamaged. “Was he even really here?” Zane wondered.

“Does it matter?” Myla said. “I can’t get into the platform’s systems at all. Even Sophie can’t log in. The only thing I see is…wow. Is he really this juvenile?”

“Whatever you’re seeing, the answer is ‘yes,’” Quinoa muttered from the empty air next to Zane. “Lord, I hope he didn’t see me.”

Carrie-Anne growled. “That one, someone needs to teach a lesson.”

The interior lights abruptly came back on, along with all the hardlight emitters. The room became thick with flashing, floating banners and marquees that said in many different fonts and a half dozen languages: MADE OF MEAT! MADE OF MEAT!

“I feel unloved,” Merle said.

“Very rude,” Tex agreed.

“I imagine he’ll come up with something equally derisive for you mechies someday,” Quinoa said.

“What is his problem?” Zane growled. “Well…I guess we’d better get everyone who doesn’t have RIDEs off the platform. Myla, sound the evac call. We can load them into the Starmaster. If this place gets dust contaminated, life-support will be the first thing to go.”

“And so it begins,” Carrie-Anne said.

“Doing it, Zane,” Sophie said, Fusing with Myla. “Guess we’ll see how well you’ve trained your crews on evac protocols.”

“Impeccably,” Carrie-Anne said. “We saw to that.”

“We’ll keep a core of techies with RIDEs here to try to minimize the damage and restore shield power,” Zane said.

“They won’t be able to do it,” Quinoa predicted. “Might as well just save them some time and go.”

“Whatever he did, can you undo it? Could I undo it?” Zane asked. “If it’s just waving your hand and doing Integrate things…”

Quinoa sighed. “Our powers don’t work that way. It’s not just like waving a magic wand. It’s like…creating a computer program. One that only he has the password to. And your Integrate computer magic can’t break it because it was made with Integrate computer magic. You can’t just brute force a fix to something like this, which is all your ‘instinctive’ powers can do. One does not simply walk into Mordor.”

“So, what, we just write the platform off?” Zane said.

“You can come back to it later. He’s probably set a fairly short expire time on the ‘spell,’” Quinoa said. “See, every spell we have going takes up a little bit of our…call it attention, and the more we have going on at once, the less we have left to do other things. So we don’t keep them up longer than we have to.”

“Less chatter, more evac!” Carrie-Anne said, dropping her own disguise. “Oh, crap. Did not mean to…”

“That’s new,” Tillman said mildly.

The new Integrate smiled wryly. “I am a little off my game today.”

“When were you planning on letting us know about that?” Fusco wondered.

“It just happened two hours ago, Saul, so I am telling you now. We need to get everyone who can not Fuse off the platform,” Carrie-Anne said.

“Right. Evacuate now, recriminate later. We’ll continue this meeting on the sub. Folks, you know your evacuation stations. Quinoa, you’re with me.” Zane led the others out of the room.

Separator k.png

Lillibet sat behind the counter in the garage office, taking her usual afternoon shift. Her feet were propped on the counter and she was engrossed in the HPG-HMA-001 technical manual on her tablet. She wasn’t too worried about missing seeing anyone coming in; that was what the little tinkle-bell on the door was for.

So when the soft voice spoke out of empty air next to her ear, saying, “Pardon me, but where can I find Rhianna Stonegate?” she fell right out of her chair and landed on her derriere on the floor.

“Ow! Ack! What the…who…?”

Guinevere came loping in from the next room. “Lilli, are you all right?”

“Oh…I’m sorry.” A humanoid black jaguar shape faded into view, and offered Lillibet a hand up. “I hadn’t realized I still had that on.”

“Had that…what?” Lillibet stared at her, ocelot ears twitching. “Wait, you’re too small to be a Fuser…oh! Um…I’ll be right back!” She stumbled into the next room, calling, “Rhianna! We need you up front! Now!

The Garage’s owner had seen the Integrate through her link and was already dashing through the door. “Thanks, Lilli! Follow me back to my parlor, Miss…?”

The jaguar inclined her head, ears flicking forward. “I don’t know if you remember me, but you worked on me after Zane bought me at auction. We both seem to have changed since then.”

Rhianna’s ears perked. “Oh? Oh! Carrie-Anne? Wow! I don’t…well, that makes this all the more important. Let’s get you back on the net again.” She sent a ping to Rochelle and connected her to one of the garage’s many cameras. It was an unusually light day at the Freerider Garage, with only a few skimmers being worked on. The jaguaress slipped into invisibility until they entered the Old Garage.

Shelley and Uncia weren’t by themselves inside. The hippogryph, Tocsin, was now ambulatory and allowed to make his way around the Garage. His left front leg was slightly gimped, so he had an odd gait. :What’s he doing in here?: Rhianna asked Shelley.

:He’s a curious creature,: Shelley replied through Unica. :I’ve been trying to gently shoo him out without hurting his feelings, but he won’t get the message.:

Lillibet and Rochelle weren’t ready to give the mythical creature-based RIDE a clean bill of health yet, and he had a few special, hard-to-find parts that needed replacement. Mythicals were finicky designs inside and out, and the diagnostics were indicating something wrong with his left wing lifters that stubbornly resisted tracking down.

“I’m sorry, Tocsin, but Shelley and I have some work to do,” Rhianna said.

“So you’re kicking me out? Okay, fine. I understand.” The hippogryph mech hung his head and slunk out like he’d just been hit with a newspaper.

“That one is a handful,” Uncia said. “And a little obnoxious.”

“And coming from you, young ‘un, that means something,” Kaylee quipped, projecting an image of a gray old Fuser lynx poking the snow leopardess with a cane. The older RIDE had effectively made Uncia stop almost calling her “grandma” by simply adopting the name with pride and turning the tables.

Kaylee Fused and the duo got their equipment ready. As her partner warmed up the software side, a concern crossed Rhianna’s mind. “You know, if we get more and more unexpected customers like this, folks will start to wonder where we disappear to and what we’re doing.”

“They’re wondering that already,” Rochelle said. “Not like they really have any need to know. We’re their bosses, we could just be off doing bossy things in private.” She nodded to Carrie-Anne. “Have a seat in the diagnostic chair, if you please. Your DIN socket is on your…tail tip?”

“Her bellybutton,” Rhianna said.

Carrie-Anne’s rosettes blushed red. “Maybe I should take up belly dancing or hula.”

Kaylee raised her ears. “Are you not working for Zane anymore? I saw what happened on that platform of yours on the newsfeeds. What went wrong? Or can you talk about it?”

“Zane said you’re involved in this, and probably at risk, so I’ll give you a run-down while you work. You two should kick up your security a few notches. Oooh!” The feline Integrate startled as Kaylee inserted the nano-probe. “That’s chilly.”

“Sorry. Cold paws. Please, go on,” Rhianna said.

“As soon as the board had approved Zane’s decision, Fritz appeared,” Carrie-Anne said.

:Fritz, is it?: Kaylee sent. :Think he’s ‘our’ Fritz?:

:I don’t think he’s anybody’s Fritz but his own,: Rhianna replied, eliciting a mental chuckle from Kaylee. She fed her first set of instructions to the fabber.

“He insulted everybody in the room, and when Zane refused to back down announced that the shields on our platform would be dropping within ten minutes, inviting q-contamination of everything. And they did, and nothing the technicians could do would bring them back.” She shook her head. “So we abandoned it. It is not as big a blow as might be, since the highest cost of building it was structure, not machinery, which we can replace when we go back. And it accounts for only a chunk of our income now but not the whole. But it is a big black eye.”

“He just…appeared?” Rochelle asked. “Your security cameras didn’t track him or anything?”

“Zane thinks he might not even have physically been there to begin with. Just a very good projection. Which of course presents its own security issues.” Carrie-Anne shook her head. “But no, Myla did not see him at all on the cameras until he showed up.”

“Myla was running your cameras?” Rhianna asked, retrieving the first test plug and socketing it into Carrie-Anne’s navel.

“I had appointed her pro tem chief of security for the time being, as I had just Integrated and no longer had the net access I needed to run security properly.” Carrie-Anne chuckled. “Technically she still is, in fact, and not very happy about it. Especially since I will not be returning to the position myself.”

Rochelle blinked. “You won’t? Zane fired you? That seems a little harsh.”

The jaguar Integrate shook her head. “Oh, no, no, he didn’t! But the more I consider this Fritz, the more I feel Zane will need another Integrate close to him who knows how to fight. As with your Kaylee, I was Nextus military. 134th Special Forces division, the Nightstrikers,” she said proudly. “So I have asked Myla for permission to join her bodyguard team.”

“Whoa.” Rhianna grinned. She checked the readings from the socket. “I’ll bet she was startled.”

“She was…ambivalent,” Carrie-Anne admitted with a smile. “I think she only accepted because for me even to ask it meant she knew was going to be running the bodyguard team again. She’s already recommended a suitable replacement chief of security, and we’re interviewing her now.”

“You’re not going to take over the team yourself?” Uncia asked. “You’ve got a lot more experience.”

“Ah, but not at bodyguarding,” Carrie-Anne said. “And Myla was the one Zane chose to lead in that role. Fortunately, I was a RIDE, and as used to taking orders as giving them.”

“You’re talking about yourself like you’re just Carrie-Anne, but isn’t there supposed to be a human in there, too?” Rochelle asked. “I thought the human personality was usually ‘in charge.’”

“She’s in here,” Carrie-Anne said. “Audrey Landon, the last of Zane’s original board. But she began making herself into a part of me before we even Integrated. And she’s happy that way now.”

“I guess there must be all kinds of Integrations,” Rochelle mused. “Well, if she’s happy that way, I guess that’s all that matters.”

Carrie-Anne nodded. “I still haven’t decided what to tell her daughter. They were no longer close, but…she at least ought to know.”

“We really are getting better at this,” Rhianna mused. “I think I’m only going to need one more prototype, and it’s not impossible I might start hitting them on the first try the next few Inties we get.” She fed the fabber the next set of instructions.

Rochelle’s ears perked forward. “It’s felt like things have been becoming easier for us, too. This might not take long at all.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” Carrie-Anne said. “I keep trying to check mail or news and it’s aggravating when nothing is there.”

Rhianna chuckled. “I can imagine. Well, you won’t have that problem for much longer.” She plugged the new plug into the socket and checked the readings. “That’s a wrap on the plug design. I’ll have the fabber crank out a couple more for you to take with you while Shelley’s sussing out your interface OS.”

Rochelle stood and stretched. “All righty, Un-hon, time to earn our salary!” The snow leopard flowed up and over her, and she hooked a cable up to the plug. “This may tingle a bit. I’ve been doing some heavy research with the Intie data we have, so there’s a few new additions to Enigma that’ll hopefully speed things up.”

“I’m a bit surprised Zane didn’t come down here with you,” Rhianna said.

“He still wasn’t sure you would want to see him yet,” Carrie-Anne admitted. “He told me that you had an argument some days ago.”

“Mmm.” Rhianna considered that. “Well, I still don’t know if I’d put him on my top ten favorite persons list yet, but he is still a friend. Tell him if he’s in trouble and we can help, he shouldn’t worry about old arguments. Just as long as he doesn’t try to bury us in money or oversized suborbitals afterward.”

Carrie-Anne laughed. “He has become smarter about that. A hand that is burned means a child who has learned.”

“Seems like there’s a lot of that kind of ‘learning’ going around lately,” Kaylee said.

“All the same, I’m concerned we may not be able to learn fast enough,” Carrie-Anne said. “This Fritz has been honing his powers for decades. Zane and I are only beginners. I might know how to fight physically, but Fritz could destroy us without coming into physical range. Quinoa might be more experienced than we, but is still a child in terms of her powers—even if she were willing to help us, she would not have much to teach. And if no one in the Enclaves is willing to stop Fritz, would any among them be willing to teach us?”

Rhianna caught her breath. “When you put it that way, you make it sound hopeless.”

“There is one chance that I see,” Carrie-Anne said. “This Fritz is a cat. And as all of us in this room should well know—” she smiled at Rochelle/Uncia and Rhianna/Kaylee in turn “—cats enjoy playing with their prey for some little while before they truly try to kill it, especially if they do not see it as a threat. Fritz’s silly little made-of-meat banners fit this pattern.”

“I’ll buy that for a mu,” Kaylee murmured.

“But for all of their powers, Integrates seem to be no smarter or cleverer than humans. Which means humans can be just as clever or smart as they. As your increasing adroitness at crafting DINs shows.” She nodded toward Rhianna’s fab. “So perhaps all Zane need do is keep Fritz toying with him for as long as he can, as the bird who plays wounded to lure the cats away from the nest. Meanwhile, you figure out some way to counter Integrates without needing recourse to ‘magical’ powers.”

“We’ve certainly had the most chance to study them of just about anyone who isn’t one of them,” Rochelle mused. “And I’ll admit we are getting more valuable data every time we build a DIN.”

“You can tell Zane we’ll do our best,” Rhianna said, retrieving two more DIN-plugs from the fabber. “But I hope he holds out as long as he can. It might just take a while.”

Rochelle checked the output of her software. “Wow. I think we can even manage this without having to ask you to go to sleep this time. Enigma’s gotten a lot better at picking out alpha- and delta-wave patterns even from the waking Integrate mind.”

“So you’ve almost got it?” Rhianna asked.

“Survey says…bingo! Okay, we’re running a compile of our Carrie-Anne OS 1.0 version,” Rochelle announced. “Now let’s see what we have in the way of comm gear. I’m thinking something in a sapphire.”

“That would be kind of appropriate,” Rhianna reflected. “Artificial sapphire used to be used as a substrate for integrated circuits the same way qubitite’s used for RI cores now.”

Rochelle grinned. “I was just thinking that it would look nice against Carrie-Anne’s fur.”

Rhianna chuckled. “Well, that too.” She pulled up a hardlight display panel with a selection of comm relay designs, chose one with the capabilities they wanted, and then customized it to dark blue in color. She then sent an order to the fabber for three of them.

Carrie-Anne blushed through her rosettes again. “If it got me back on the net, I wouldn’t care where it was.”

“Really?” Uncia piped up. “Quinoa was telling me about some of the weird places people have them. Do you know there’s one girl who has it in her—”

“Uncia!” Rochelle said.

“I was gonna say ‘ear,’” Uncia said.

“Suuuuuure you were,” Rochelle said, and everybody laughed.

“Which reminds me,” Rhianna said, poking Carrie-Anne in the chest. “I know you’re used to going around naked as a RIDE, but you really are going to have to get in the habit of wearing clothes now, at least if you’re going to be visible.”

Carrie-Anne looked down at her now-anatomically-correct self. “I…suppose you’re right. I had just been staying invisible much of the time.” She concentrated, and produced simple black cloth wraps around her upper chest and hips.

Rhianna nodded. “Better.” The fabber chimed, producing the first of three sapphire jewels. She unplugged the cable from Carrie-Anne’s navel, took the plug off the end, socketed it into the gem, and handed it to Carrie-Anne. “Here you go.”

“Thank you.” Carrie-Anne took the completed DIN and examined it, turning it over in her hand. “Such a small thing, to do so much.” Then she reached down to her belly button socket and plugged it in. Her face immediately lit up. “I have the net again! I have the world again! Oh, thank you so very much!” She swept Rhianna and Kaylee up into a hug, then did the same for Rochelle and Uncia.

“Oof! Not a problem,” Rhianna said, grinning. “I’m starting to think making DINs is worth it just to see the looks on people’s faces when they get them.” She scooped up the other two jewels and plugged the other two plugs into them. “Here’s your spares, and you can have any home or public fabber crank out more of them for you based on those designs. Treat them like people used to have to treat their glasses. Lots of spares in case you lose one.”

Carrie-Anne grinned broadly, white teeth making a startling contrast against grey-black fur. “After experiencing life without, you can count on it that I will. And now that I can touch the ‘net again…” She beamed across a pay voucher to Rhianna’s wallet account.

Rhianna brought it up half-suspiciously, then relaxed. The salary was still the same hourly consulting fee Zane had set, plus cost of materials, but given that the work had only taken about an hour this time it was a much more reasonable amount. And it was drawn on Brubeck Mining’s accounts payable fund, not Zane Brubeck’s personal wallet.

“Well, then we’re good,” Rhianna said. “Pleasure doing business with you.”

“And you.” Carrie-Anne nodded. “Keep up your studies. You never know when there will be a pop quiz.”

Rochelle nodded. “Give our regards to Zane and Myla.”

“I will tell them you are thinking of them,” Carrie-Anne said. She faded into invisibility, her grin the last part of her to disappear, before leaving the garage.

“Rhianna, there’s something we need to talk about real quick.” She picked up a hard cable and plugged it into Uncia’s ear, handing the other end to her partner, who did the same. :I have something to show the two of you, if you’ll follow me in virtual.:

Rhianna’s and Kaylee’s avatars nodded. Seconds later they were in Uncia’s personality core. “Welcome to me!” Uncia’s furry avatar said from her pedestal in the center. “Try not to track mud into the place, okay? I just cleaned up.”

“Uh, wow. Why all the way down here?” Rhianna asked.

“After what happened at Zane’s platform the juices started flowing, and now that I’ve got more Intie data I think I’ve found something that’ll help protect us. There are commonalities between how their Oses and DINs work together I wonder if even they know about. Do you think, after doing three DIN connectors, you can start designing your own?”

“Actually…” Rhianna considered. “Yes, I could. Probably be helpful to do at least one or two more for practice first, but I see where you’re going with this. No more hacking with just a handwave, right?”

“Exactly! The hardware and the software go together, you can’t have one without the other. It’s a sort of double encryption—physical and software.”

“Let me get thinking on that. I’ll start pondering designs and fab up some replacement networking gear for our machines in the garage first. Thing is, we’ll have to find a friendly Intie willing to test for us. And I’m not talking Zane, because he’s too new.”

“Maybe Leah or Aaron would be willing to lend a hand,” Uncia said. “We have their comm codes.”

“Perfect, Uncia. Let’s do that,” Kaylee said. “Granny approves.”

“All right. But you’d better let me do the talking,” Uncia said. “We don’t want your asthma acting up again.”

Kaylee poked the snow leopardess with her virtual cane. “Whippersnapper!”

“Hmm,” Rhianna said, looking at what Rochelle had so far. “I suppose this makes my part the ‘Shoelace’ to your ‘Sneaker.’”

“Works for me,” Rochelle said. “Let’s compare notes. I’d like to have a prototype as soon as we can manage.”

Separator k.png

Myla sat behind a desk in her office in the Uplift Brubeck administration center. Sophie was curled up in the corner next to her, eyes and ears peeping out from over the tip of her fluffy tail, into which her nose was buried. She glanced at the other corner, where the little shimmer in the air she’d learned to see told her that Carrie-Anne was waiting.

The jaguar had been staying invisible a lot, lately. After thinking about it, Myla had decided she approved. Might be handy to have someone around that the enemy couldn’t see. Would lead them to underestimate you. She tried not to think about the fact that she wasn’t sure whether Carrie-Anne’s invisibility would work against other Integrates. It would certainly work against non-Integrates—she’d tested this with every sensor Sophie had—and that was the important thing to her part of protecting Zane.

Myla looked at the hardlight displays floating above her desk, where the personnel files of all her prospects floated. Most of them were waiting in the anteroom outside for her to call them in to start the interviews. She was looking forward to it. The last couple of days had been annoying, as the duties of Brubeck Mining’s security chief were starting to drive her nuts. Carrie-Anne had helped, but she had rather infuriatingly refused to take the reins back since she was still learning to use her new Integrate interface and wasn’t sure she could fully trust it yet. And, besides, the new permanent head of security would be starting in just a couple of days, so why mix things up even further at this critical time?

But Myla had finally gotten the break she needed to begin organizing Zane’s full-time bodyguard team, and she was now ready to start talking to the prospects. And it was time to bring the first one in. She tapped a button on the desk to summon him through the door.

A familiar stag Fuser came through. Marc Flores, formerly a Lieutenant in the Materiel Recovery Service, who had decided to resign his commission. His RIDE, Cernos, was based on a whitetail, and was a Command Armor, a unit type the Nextus military was retiring. Its battlefield capabilities were excellent, but some bright chap at the design firm had given it easily-recognizable shoulder epaulets, which was the equivalent of painting a big bullseye on its chest with a sign saying “Officer HERE.” R&D had been trying to work out how to remove them, but it had turned into such a complicated project that the military decided it was more economical just to retire them. Marc had tendered his resignation simply because he couldn’t do without his RI friend—something Myla and Sophie could both appreciate. “Heard through the grapevine what happened to you, Myla. Bum deal,” the older man said.

Myla shrugged. “Yeah, well, if we couldn’t take a joke we shouldn’t have joined. But thanks. Anyway, it seems to be working out for the best now. So how have you two been?”

“Fair to middling,” Cernos said. “Still trying to get these ‘here I am, shoot me’ things off my shoulders. I’ve hated them since my Bootday. Just no way in hell I’d let my core end up in a civvie deer DE, so I live with it anyway.”

“I have a friend who’s a real genius RIDE coder and could probably help you with that,” Myla said. “I’ll beam you a ref.”

“Thanks,” Cernos said, echoed by his rider. “Happy to be working with you again, Myla and Sophie.”

“It hasn’t been the same since I haven’t had your ankles to gnaw on,” Sophie said happily.

“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about, actually,” Myla said. “You’ve probably heard Zane asked me to head up his bodyguard team, and I was wanting to see if you’d be interested in joining. The upside is you’d get a pay raise and more responsibility. The downside is it might be more dangerous, and you’d have to take orders from me.” She grinned. “What you think?”

“That’d be a switch, sergeant,” Marc said, grinning through Cernos’s cervine muzzle. “I can’t remember a time you’ve ever had to tell me what to do.”

They both chuckled. Myla had served under Marc as his first chief NCO just after he’d gotten out of officer school, which was to say she had been the standard-issue-to-young-officers military equipment package “Sense, Common (external)”. There had been plenty of times she’d subtly hinted to the young, wet-behind-the-ears lieutenant what he needed to do next. Other times, she’d had to whack him with a clue-by-four.

“But I heard you’d gone mustang and made LT yourself before whatever it was happened,” Marc continued.

“It’s not classified, Marc. I’ll tell you about it over drinks sometime. Now, you want the job or don’t you?”

Marc-and-Cernos saluted. “Yes ma’am! This stag’s ready to go.”

Myla reached across the desk to offer her hand, the hardlight displays moving obligingly aside. “Welcome to the team. Let me know if you need any refitting—send me a list of the upgrades you want and I’ll approve it. You can have it done when you go to see my friend about those monkey handles.”

Marc reached over to take the hand carefully in Cernos’s hoof-hand. “Thanks. Looking forward to it. And to those drinks, later.” He stood, saluted again, and grinned at her, then turned smartly about and left the room.

“He will do well, that one,” Carrie-Anne said softly. Myla started, having almost forgotten she was there. “His record is excellent, both in Nextus’s service and in ours. It will be good working with him.”

Myla nodded. “He’s an old comrade, and I feel the same way.” She reached out to hit the button on the desk again. “Okay, next!”

Separator k.png

“Who are you and what have you done with Rhianna Stonegate?” Rochelle asked her business partner facetiously. “You never buy anything new! I was hoping for one of those neat surplus military drop shuttles.” The gorgeous woman—currently brunette—looked at the craft that had recently landed in the space cleared for it. The hangar module would arrive in a few more days and would take up a quarter of the remaining lot space. Until then, the new suborbital occupied a place of honor. “Not the best-looking model on the market, is it?”

“It’s a modern Earth design, Shelley, so it doesn’t look like a bird or a DC-9 or anything. ‘S why I got it so cheap.” Rhianna said, polishing the heatshield coating on the composite fuselage. “It’s based on a classic lifting body design that hasn’t changed in centuries because it works. Besides, this one’s a stripped-down unit with only basic equipment, and I only spent a little over half of our sub funds to get it. There isn’t a huge market for single-deckers, especially Earther designs, but it’s a true suborbital and not a glorified flier like a redstone. Trust me, I got a great deal.”

“I do, Rhi,” Rochelle said. “I’ve read the specs. She’s got a great delta-v on her. What do you plan to do with the rest of the mu?”

“Like I said, it’s a stripper. Just the basics. Doesn’t even have passenger seats. We’ll customize the interior equipment for your needs and mine, maybe add the Garage’s logo in the right spots. Probably needs a better paint job.” Rhianna rubbed her hands together with excitement, smiling adorably (no doubt). “I—yes?”

A huge cartoon raccoon tugged on Rhianna’s sleeve. “Oooooh! Is that a Blue Origin HL-50 Dreamchaser? Can I clean it? Pleeeeeeeease?” Enough hardlight squeegees and mops popped up all over to make Gina’s RIDE resemble a somewhat misshapen porcupine. “I used to be in cleaning and de-icing at the Sturmhaven Aerodrome until they junked me for a new model. I know my stuff!”

“She does,” Gina said. Apart from replacing shot batteries, the raccoon hadn’t needed too much reconditioning to make her functional, though the duo hadn’t yet Fused. There were also plans to replace the cheap hardlight pelt with a more realistic model. “Don’t you, Jinkies? You should see my bedroom. Mom is amazed.

“Um…” Rhianna looked up at the gleaming sub, which still wafted new-skimmer aroma when you opened its airlock. If there was even a single speck of dust on it yet, she would be very surprised. “Well, it’s not dirty yet. But when it does get dirty, you can have that job all to yourself, okay?”

“You…you really mean it?” The raccoon’s nose twitched, and she sniffled loudly. “Oh, thank you! It’ll be just like the good old days at the aerodrome.” Jinkies sighed happily, put her squeegees away, and trotted off after her partner.

:And now the entire neighborhood’s going to turn up to see it. Everyone all the way to the BBQ place saw the landing, ya know,: Kaylee sent to Rhianna. She stood atop the Dreamchaser’s hull, right above the large forward windows. The dark gray and white craft had no visible seams and few angles. She was fifteen meters long, nine meters wide not counting the delta winglets that added another three meters. Behind the cockpit her lines straightened out for the last six meters. She had four cavorite thrusters, two on each side of the tail docking port/ramp. “Not a scratch on her up here. All systems as advertised. They only delivered her with the AA batteries half-charged, though. Frigging cheapskates. We should swap ‘em for AA-plus or better anyway. These’ll barely do the job.”

Well, more accurately they would do the job and more of what a suborbital was supposed to do, being a stripped-down “street-legal” version of a fully-orbit-capable shuttle. But as a sub was legally supposed to lack the “oomph” to go into full orbit in anything but a dire emergency situation, the sub version skimped on energy storage and a few other things that could also be easily fixed by the technically-inclined. Not that Rhianna necessarily wanted to go into orbit—that would be against the globally-enforced space traffic control laws. But it would be nice to have the power at her disposal if she ever needed it.

The craft was sleek where most Zharus subs were more like the blunt 1960s NASA versions or even the later Space Shuttle. Regulations stipulated all orbit-capable shuttles (including the down-rated suborbital versions) had to be built to take an emergency re-entry from orbit without any hardlight aero or heat shielding, so the new craft had a pair of delta winglets and a short tailfin as control surfaces. The HL-50 claimed a direct lineage to the five-plus centuries gone NASA HL-10 and its private space station-servicing spacecraft namesake from decades later. The whole body was designed to create the lift needed to enable it to glide to a landing if her lifters completely failed. An ideal dead-stick landing and rollout for a craft like this was two kilometers. Uplift had emergency runways like that outside the Dome.

“So, we going to name her or what?” Rochelle asked, folding her arms thoughtfully. Her eyes flickered back and forth across her specs. “Qixi never named hers, right? Survey says…only about half of subs even have names. Huh.”

“Going to take it for a test flight?” Lillibet asked.

“I can fly it, boss. I downloaded the skill chip and bought the RI Pilot Certification,” Kaylee said, leaping down from the top of the sub. “Should make sure the batts can take a full charge before we go anywhere. Should only take about twenty minutes.”

“Say, that’s a sweet-looking bird!” Myla said from the gate, sitting on Sophie in skimmer mode. “Brand new?”

Rhianna couldn’t help making a little squeeing sound, then rushed up to hug the fennec-eared woman. “Yes! Isn’t she gorgeous?” Sophie folded back up into Walker form and wandered over to sniff at one of the landing struts.

Behind Myla, Leila’s canopy opened and the older retired MRS agent got out. “Very!” Anny agreed. “You folks for hire? I have a job for you that’ll make your test run turn a profit.”

Rhianna perked her ears. “I’m listening, Anny. What do you have in mind?”

“Decided to uproot from Cascadia and come back here to Uplift. Already sent my employers my resignation. Myla had a line on a good opening for a security specialist around these parts, so’s finding a new job weren’t no trouble. This way I can stay close to Myla and my girl Kaylee.” Behind Anny, Leila returned to Walker mode.

The RIDE was one of the largest of its type Rhianna had ever seen, a Nextus LEO(f)-HSA-008C. That was the official designation that meant: Lion, female—Heavy Support Armor—Chassis version 8, hardware revision C. Lions remained a very popular base animal for RIDEs in most Gondwanan militaries, but Leila looked far too new to have been a decommissioned unit. The woman knew how to pull strings, or had done favors for more influential people in Nextus Administration she “retired” with her choice of RIDE.

“I don’t think I can move a whole apartment full of furniture and stuff,” Rhianna said. “But I do have some seats that’ll work with the floor latches. It won’t be a luxurious flight, but we’ll get you there and back.”

Anny Hewer folded her arms and shrugged. “Just have a few knickknacks and crap I can’t replace. Don’t care about nothin’ else and I don’t trust hiring movers to do it for me. Got some sensitive things. Won’t take up a quarter of your cargo space, so no worries no how.”

“Well, it’s just a test flight. So I’ll charge you cost plus ten percent,” Rhianna offered.

“Works for me, my girl. When do we leave?”

“Another half hour or so,” Kaylee said, rubbing affectionately against her former rider’s side. “I’ve filed a flight plan. Just need approval and a full charge. Thank you for flying Freerider Spaceways.”

Separator k.png

Myla was just converting Sophie back to skimmer mode to leave when a familiar red-eyed sphinx Integrate appeared out of nothing next to her. “Oh, so this is where you are. We were wondering. The press conference is in three hours, you know.”

“I know,” Myla said. “I was just heading back there now. Took a few minutes break to see Anny off.”

“Oooh, yes, she was wanting to fly back to Cascadia to get her stuff, and Rhianna got a brand new sub. Saw it fly by overhead on the way in. Whooosh!” Quinoa grinned. “Sporty little thing. But after thinking about it, you know, it’s kind of a pity they didn’t get the Starmaster after all. It’d look so nice parked through their parking lot…and the street…and the building across the street…”

Myla rolled her eyes. “Was there some other reason you came by?”

“Well, I thought this might be a fun place to visit right about now. To be honest…” Quinoa frowned. “After what happened at the board meeting, I’ve decided it’s probably best I stay away from the press conference. I don’t want Fritz to get the idea that…” She trailed off.

“That you’re on our side?” Myla asked archly.

Quinoa sighed. “I don’t think he’s really going to do anything bad yet anyway. So if I am going to interfere, I should probably save it for sometime that really matters.”

“Like if I’m in any danger, you mean,” Myla said. “Funny to think you’d care so much about a ‘meatie.’”

Quinoa shuffled one pawed foot and looked down. “You’re not just a ‘meatie’ to me.”

“Seems to me like ‘meatie’ is just another label you slap on for reducing people to something that’s not-people so you can hate or fear or even just disdain them,” Myla said gently. “You always run into trouble with those when you meet someone who fits that label but you can’t do that to, don’t you?”

“I guess.” Quinoa shrugged. “I suppose it’s kind of like we move the goalposts. We know we’re ‘people,’ so we get to thinking that anyone who isn’t our equal isn’t a person either. Even when we used to be just like them. I guess I’ve been kinda thinking that way myself, the last few months. Sometimes it’s hard to remember back to how it felt to be the old me…us.”

“Well, keep trying to get back in touch with that,” Myla said, powering Sophie up. “I liked the old you better. C’mon, Sophie, let’s git.” They zoomed out of the lot, leaving Quinoa standing behind for a long moment, staring after them.

Separator k.png

“You’re what?” Rhianna asked again.

Sternly fighting back the impulse to quote one of her favorite twencen songs (“Tiiiiiin roof! Rusty!”), Quinoa tried to explain again. “Since you’re all going to be out of the garage, I thought I might stay around and look after things. I thought some of the kids could use adult supervision.” It seemed quite reasonable to her. She couldn’t understand why Rhianna’s expression was verging somewhere between disbelief, annoyance, and outright laughter.

“I don’t know about this,” Rhianna said doubtfully. “Maybe I should stay. Or have Rochelle…”

“Hey, it’ll be all right, boss,” Paul spoke up. “I think there are some people here who could use adult supervision.”

Rhianna looked at him, then slowly grinned. “Maybe it will be nice to know there’s someone mature here I can count on to make sure things don’t get out of control.”

“Right, that’s what I said!” Quinoa said. It was good Rhianna seemed to be coming around to her way of thinking. “I promise, with me in charge here, you won’t have anything to worry about.”

“Okay. Well, I’m counting on you to make sure I still have a garage when I get back.” Quinoa thought it was strange she was looking at Paul when she said that, but it was okay. She knew what Rhianna really meant.

“I promise I won’t let you down!” Quinoa and Paul said at the same time, then looked at each other.

Rhianna chuckled. “Well, see that you don’t. Either of you.”

“Have fun in your flight,” Quinoa offered. “When Zane flew us out to the platform, he had the sub roll over right at the top of its arc so we got a good view of the world.” She sighed happily, remembering. “That was sooooo cool.”

“Yeah, it sounds like it,” Paul said. “Why don’t you tell us all about it once Rhi’s on the way? I hear you went in a Starmaster. That must have been amazing!”

“Oh, it was!” Quinoa grinned. “You wouldn’t believe how big that thing was! I got a crick in my neck just looking at it…”

Quinoa never even noticed Rhianna chuckling and quietly slipping away.

Separator k.png

“Okay boss, we’re all charged up and ready for departure,” Kaylee reported. A crowd had gathered around the Dreamchaser. All of Lillibet’s project RIDEs and the neighborhood kids they had bonded to were present, with Quinoa and Paul watching over them from one of the raised repair decks—Quinoa still blissfully oblivious of who Rhianna had actually left in charge. Katie was still in the maint cradle, unfortunately, but that had been wheeled out so she could watch the liftoff as well. :Once you’re up and around we can take you and Relena on a flight, Katie.:

:I think I’d like that, ‘Mom’.: the younger RI replied. Lilli had at least repaired the faulty hardlight emitter that kept half of the other lynx’s face from working, so she had a full smile this time. :They’re just about to wheel me over to the cleanroom and get this damned dust out of me. I’ve got such a bad case of contamination I can barely move.:

On the repair deck, Quinoa seemed to perk up, and turned to whisper to Paul about something. Paul raised an eyebrow, but nodded. Then they turned their attention back to the bay.

Anny and Leila boarded the suborbital via the fantail ramp. There was another hatch on the right side of the cockpit that had impressively been invisible until Kaylee opened it. It made the ship look like it’d been carved out of gray-and-white marble. Fused Rochelle-and-Uncia lifted up to that open door and went inside herself, followed by Kaylee.

Rhianna stood in the open hatch. “Okay, everyone. Thanks for seeing us off. Clear the area for lift!” The apprentices and children moved back, pulling Katie’s cradle with them to a spot clear of the launch site.

Since Kaylee was doing the piloting until her rider could get her suborbital endorsement, Rhianna Fused and took the pilot’s seat, then allowed her partner to take control. :Preflight complete. Lifters spinning up,: the lynx reported.

Antigravity technology had originated on humanity’s first colony world, Centauri. Like the qubitite substrate for sarium batteries and Ris, it was a native mineral someone immediately dubbed cavorite that allowed it to work at all. But unlike qubitite it proved easy to reproduce on a commercial scale. So easily, and so cheaply, that just about everything that could have lifters did. The technology was also the trigger effect for reactionless propulsion, inertial damping, artificial gravity, and hundreds of other applications.

The Dreamchaser lifted smoothly off the ground, landing gear retracting. Their passengers came up to the flight deck, Leila making the space very full until Anny asked her to return to the starkly empty hold. They leveled off at one kilometer, then gently applied the thrusters. There was a flier portal in the Dome nearby. Within minutes they were outside Uplift proper and accelerated to the civilian suborbital launch zone. They were third in line for blast off.

“Is that an X-15 ahead of us?” Rochelle asked. “Pretty good replica.”

“I get so tired of living on a zeerusty museum planet. I’m shocked it’s not attached to the wing of a hardlight B-52 for launch,” Rhianna said. Ahead of them the replica “lit” its “rocket” engines and accelerated away. “Our turn. Punch it, Kaylee! Warp speed.”

“You got it, boss! Up we go!” Kaylee adjusted the dampers so they could feel a little of the acceleration. Behind them there was no illustory rocket exhaust, just the bright blue fire of full-power cavorite thrusters.

Cascadia was on the other side of the supercontinent, a good hour even at suborbital speeds. But on a planet the size of Zharus, if you wanted to get anywhere in a reasonable amount of time you needed high speeds.

Uplift fell quickly away beneath them.

At the top of the arc, Kaylee shut off the artificial gravity and turned the craft over so that its huge front windows got a good look at the curve of the world from a hundred kilometers up. Rhianna marveled at the view. Museum planet or not, I wouldn’t trade this for anything.

Separator k.png

As a city in the mountains, Uplift was built on a plateau that was the old continental shelf, where a cliff sloped down to where the Dry Ocean began. It had been a convenient spot for Dr. Martinez to take his first readings, and had expanded naturally from there right out to the plateau’s edge. There were some caves in the cliff below, and the city used some of them as outflows for grey water which was processed by a separate facility downstream and pumped back up for city consumption.

There was a narrow path along the cliff leading up to one of these caves, and today this path was occupied by about a dozen RIDEs padding along in Walker form. The path was just feasible for passage on their four legs; someone on two would have had more trouble.

The RIDE in the lead, a large, sandy-colored wolf, paused in his ascent and looked up as a lifting-body-style suborbital streaked overhead, tipping back and streaking skyward on pillars of blue flame. Then he snorted and continued to the cave mouth just ahead. Infiltrating the city would be easy—he’d done it a dozen times before. But this time was different, and he supposed he might not be able to use this same path again—after today, they would probably be looking for it.

But after what he’d heard from his…ally, he judged it was worth the sacrifice. If this Zane Brubeck was allowed to go through with his plans, it could mean the end of freedom for all free RIDEs everywhere—especially in his enclave. And his agents in place had told him now was the time to strike.

One way or another, it would be a glorious blow for RIDE liberation. He was sure of that. “We’ll show them we mean business, or my name’s not AlphaWolf,” he growled to himself. “So sayeth me.”

Separator k.png

Lillibet and Relena were standing next to Katie’s repair cradle in Lillibet’s bay, talking, with Guinevere lounging nearby, when Paul approached with Quinoa.

“Hey, Lilli,” Quinoa said. “I saw you were here, but I didn’t have the chance to say hi.”

Lillibet looked up. “Quinny!” She came over to give the ten-years-older sphinx-girl a hug, which she returned. “I’d heard about you, but hadn’t seen you. You’re looking good! I hope if Guinny and I ever end up that way, it comes off as well as yours has.”

“Well, I hope you do, too,” Quinoa said, flattered. “Have you seen my cousin Patricia lately?”

“We don’t hang around as much anymore since I’m working here most of the time, but I commed her the other day,” Lilli said. “She’s doing great. Misses you.”

“Tell her I say hi,” Quinoa said. “I miss her, too.”

Lilli bit her lip. “Speaking of missing people…there’s a girl I knew who Integrated, with her fox RIDE. Brena Silverston. She was a good friend, but then she got shot and had to go away. Have you…maybe seen her, any?”

“Um.” Quinoa frowned. “I’ll…um…ask around.”

“Thanks, I’d appreciate that,” Lilli said.

“Quinoa also wanted to offer to help with Katie,” Paul prompted.

Lilli blinked. “Oh, really?”

“Yeah, I did,” Quinoa said. “I think I can clean all that dust out of her super-quick, if you’ll—and she’ll—let me.” She sighed. “Time was, I would have just…done it…but certain people have made it clear to me it’s better to ask permission than forgiveness.”

Lilli cocked her head thoughtfully. “You really could do this? How?”

“Well, I’ve got a degree of fineness of control with my lifters and hardlight projectors that’s light-years beyond anything any mea—I mean, any human or RIDE can do. I can take her apart, clean her, and reassemble her a hundred times faster than any clean room.” She glanced at Katie. “That is, if you’ll let me. I hope you will. I’d really like to help.”

Katie glanced at her partner. “Hm. What do you think, Relena?”

“If she really can do it,” Relena said thoughtfully. “It would save a lot of time.”

“I’ve seen Kaylee’s memories of what happened at the Towers,” Guinevere said thoughtfully. “Say what you will about their attitude, those Inties really were hot stuff in the repair department. They refitted Sophie and Flint for hardlight in a tenth the time it would have taken us.”

“Well, I can’t imagine there’s anything she could do to this old carcass that would make it any worrrse,” Katie reflected. “So surrre thing, hot stuff. Show us what you got.”

“All right.” Quinoa nodded. “Everyone move back so I have room to work. And Katie, sorry but I’m going to need to put you in Passive while I do this.”

“That’s okay,” Katie said. “Probably wouldn’t do my peace of mind any good to feel myself being taken aparrrt and put back together. Do it.”

Quinoa waved a hand and the light in Katie’s eyes went out. Then she moved her hands like a conductor, and various of her hardlight lenses and the DIN necklace flashed as the cradle undocked and Katie’s limp form lifted into the air. Then she made twisting motions with her hands, and began moving her fingers in complicated ways, and Katie’s body simply…came apart in mid-air, floating apart so it looked for all the world like one of the “exploded diagrams” shown in the repair manuals. The whole thing slowly rotated in mid-air.

“Whoa…” Lillibet gasped, staring in awe.

“You said it!” Guinevere agreed, watching the agglomeration of parts. Relena chewed nervously on her knuckles as she watched the bits and pieces that made up her new friend floating there in space.

The air around the parts seemed to get hazy or smoky as the Q-dust separated out of them. Quinoa moved one of her hands away from the other and tendrils of dust snaked away from Katie’s parts, forming into a separate globe in the air, which shrank down to the size of a soccer ball, then a baseball, then a marble that dropped neatly into Quinoa’s palm. Still keeping her other hand raised in the air, she turned and offered the black marble to Relena. “There you are. A souvenir.”

The girl took it. “This is…solid qubitite?”

“Along with other impurities,” Quinoa said. “You’d never make an RI core or even a sarium battery out of it, but I think it’ll be a nice little keepsake. It’s glazed so it won’t contaminate anything.” She turned back to Katie. “Let’s see, what else can I fix while I’ve got her like this…I’ll clean out her Fuser nano tanks…and…oh! Huh, imagine that. I found a couple of her original combat-quality Fuser nanos tucked away in some pitting on the tank cap. The flush must have missed it when her next owner put in civvy ones. Sloppy work. They really should have replaced the cap. But just as well they didn’t. I think I can revive and replicate them, and they’ll be a lot better quality than the stuff you’ve got here.” She made some complex motions with her hands, and parts shifted around. “Yeah! It’s working!”

She glanced at a counter nearby. “Oh, are those the replacement lifters? The ones she’s got are shot…” She quoted a line from one of her favorite twencen commercials, her voice pitched an octave higher like a child’s. “Move over, bacon! There’s something leaner!” Then she waved a hand so the old lifters flew out of the orbiting parts cloud, and the newer ones flew in. The old ones stacked themselves neatly on the counter in the others’ place.

“Let’s see…I can’t do anything for most of the other stuff that’s worn out—too bad you don’t have the parts here right now or I could put ‘em in while I was doing this—but I think I can coax a few more of the hardlight projectors back into functioning…done. Now let’s put her back together and see how she works.” She brought her hands back together, and the exploded parts reassembled themselves back into Katie, who drifted gently back down into her cradle, though Quinoa left it unlocked so she could climb back out. Then she snapped her fingers, and Katie’s eyes relit.

As she finished, there was a round of polite applause from the customers and neighbors present and even few Walker-mode RIDEs—all except for Tocsin. The hippogryph had such a look of abject horror on his face that everyone turned to look at him. “You…you…what the frak are you?” he stammered.

Quinoa took a deep breath and let it out. “A little tired, actually. Repair work really takes it out of you.” She didn’t seem to notice his tone or his look—at least, to the people who weren’t Paul and Lilli, who were close enough to make out the sadness in her eyes that she quickly masked. “Katie, how do you feel?”

“Not bad. You even fixed a nasty burrrr on my rotator joint.” Katie moved her paws experimentally, then got up off the cradle. “I can move again!” She jumped down to the ground, motion still a little stiff but more natural, and padded over to give Quinoa’s hand a grateful lick. Her hardlight pelt was more complete, too, with only a few metal patches left.

Relena came over and crouched down to hug her. “Oh, this is wonderful! Kaylee will be so surprised!”

“She still needs a little more work, mostly replacing worn-out parts,” Lilli said. “But it won’t take us long, and it’s not urgent so we can do it easily over the next few days. And if Quinoa was able to do all that she said—and I do still want to run a couple tests first just to make sure, no offense Quinoa—you should be completely safe to Fuse now.”

“Oh, wow!” Relena said. “That would be great! Um…if Katie’s okay with it.”

Katie licked her on the face. “I’ve been looking forrrrward to it. Run your tests, Lilli. I want to try having thumbs again.”

Quinoa grinned. “Awesome. Hey, mind if I steal one of your energy shakes from the fridge? And…oooh, you’ve got an inductive power charger! Dibs!” She moved over to lie down in the place with the most warnings and hazard stickers on an ominous-looking piece of industrial equipment, then waved a hand to switch it on. “Ahhhh,” she sighed as electricity crackled around her. Paul and Lilli looked at each other and shrugged.

Separator k.png

The polis of Cascadia was in many ways Uplift’s complete opposite. Located on the northwest part of Gondwana near the foot of the Western Wall mountains, the city-state got rain—lots and lots and lots of it. So much that they used climate domes just so they could have “Dry Days” all year compared to Uplift’s two “Rainy Days”. The Domes themselves were sculpted to resemble Earth’s Cascade mountains in order to funnel the millions of liters of rainwater into raging drainage rivers.

From above, the city resembled a collection of wet diamond mountains lit from within, its sparkling light reaching the dark clouds above. Dome Lassen was currently simulating a volcanic eruption. “Pretty. I’ve never been to Cascadia,” Rochelle said.

“If I was a real snow leopard I’d feel all yucky being wet all the time,” Unica said.

“Ta tell the truth, not much lives down there,” Anny said. “At least, not much that isn’t native. My place is in Dome Rainier , next to St. Helens. I don’t rightly know why this city is where it is.”

“Rainier than what?” Uncia asked. “If it’s any rainier than the rest of this, you must have to get around in arks.”

“That’s Mount Rainier,” Rhianna said. “One of the prettier mountains I got to see on Earth.” She checked the time. “Hm. We’ve got about an hour and fifteen until Zane’s press conference. Think we can get back to Uplift before it starts?”

“Don’t think so,” Rochelle said. “So why don’t we see a few sights, have lunch—or breakfast, here—and watch it on the boost back home?”

Separator k.png

“So what’s the verrrdict, doc?” Katie asked Lillibet, who had Fused to Guinevere and then connected a couple of leads from Katie into sockets on her body. “Will I live?”

“This is remarkable,” Lilli said, glancing over once more at Quinoa, who had fallen fast asleep in the inductive charger. She was curled up and purring, feline ears twitching, and looked about ten years younger that way. Lilli looked back at Katie. “She’s done just what she said she did. The Q-dust is at least 99.99% gone—the sensors don’t have a high-enough resolution to be certain on that last .01%, but it doesn’t make a difference either way.”

She flipped to another pane in Guinny’s head-up display. “The lifters are in place, and they’re even tuned reasonably well. 72% of your hardlight projectors are working, though I still want to pull and replace all of them while you’re here. And your Fuser tanks are full of Nextus milspec combat nanos whose firmware dates them back to about 141 AL.”

Katie nodded. “I recognize the little buggerrrs. They’re what I got in my last military update before I was mustered out. Never thought I’d see them again.”

“They’re a little obsolete now, but still better than the current civvy stuff on the market,” Lilli said. “And there’s a last firmware update for them from 148 that I’m feeding you now.” The firmware for Nextus military designs wasn’t tightly controlled, given that it was useless without the physical hardware that it was designed for.

“I feel it going in. This is amazing!” Katie looked over at Quinoa. “And that one cerrrrtainly has changed since the time in the memories you showed me, hasn’t she? Asking for perrrrmission…”

“I think she just needs a little guidance,” Paul said. “Someone to listen to her, the chance to show off a little…”

Lillibet chuckled. “Like some other spoiled little rich girl you know?” She shook her head. “I don’t know if we could keep her around the garage, though. If she does this sort of thing often, she could run us right out of business.”

“I don’t think she’s going to want to stay,” Paul said. “Seems like the type who gets bored easily.”

“Still, maybe while she’s here we could have her look at that condor, too,” Lillibet mused speculatively. “I’ll bet she could straighten out those bent parts a treat.” She grinned at Paul’s expression. “What? You use the tools you have when you have them.”

“So are we safe to try a Fuse?” Relena asked. “I want my cute little kitty ears and bob tail now, and Katie wants her thumbs!”

Lilli giggled, and unplugged the cables. “As far as I’m concerned, you’re good to go.”

“All right, how do we do this?” Relena asked.

“Step back a little…” Katie said. “A little fartherrrr…a little fartherrrr…there. Now hold your arms out to your sides…perrrrrfect!” The lynx stood up, wiggled her butt, and pounced.

“Oooooh!” Relena squealed as a quarter-ton of metal kitty landed on, then merged around, her. A moment later, they stood there melded together, looking very similar to Kaylee’s Fuser apart from missing patches of fur here and there. Relena lifted their arms, looked down at them, then down at the rest of themselves. “I’m a kitty!”

We’rrrre a kitty,” Katie said. “Oh how good it feels to have a partnerrrr!” She rose a foot off the ground experimentally, testing her new lifters. “And Mom’s parrrts come through again.” She looked up at the hardlight skylight speculatively. Lilli grinned and Guin sent the command to de-rez the panel.

“You two go enjoy yourselves!” Lilli said. “But come back in an hour or so, I want to do some more testing and tuning after you’ve run at full power for a bit. You may need some further adjustments.”

“Got it!” Katie said. “Thanks, Lilli. And thank you, Quinoa!” she added to the sphinx, who had been awakened by the noise of the thrusters kicking off.

“Any time,” Quinoa said, yawning and rubbing her eyes. She watched as the two streaked skyward and the skylight sealed behind them. “I’ve got half a mind to fly up there with them…but nah, those two deserve their time alone.” Quinoa smiled an open, honest smile—quite different from the sarcastic smirk she wore so much of the time. “It feels good to help people and not screw something up for a change.”

“You know, if you feel like it we’ve got another RIDE you might take a look at,” Lilli said. “It’s a condor, and it’s in a lot worse shape than Katie was. I don’t know if you could do anything with it…” she added diffidently

Quinoa looked at her for a moment. “And you won’t let me whitewash your fence, either?”

Lilli grinned. “Well, it was worth a try.”

Quinoa chuckled. “Sure, I’ll be happy to look at it. I like a challenge. Like I said, it’s good to help people and not get yelled at.” She went over to the maint cradle that held the mangled bird. “Hmm. Yeah, that could be pretty tricky, but I think I could make a difference…”

In the shadows across the bay, Tocsin crouched, watching…an unbalanced gleam in his eagle eye.

Preceded by:
Integration Part VI: All Aboard!
FreeRIDErs Succeeded by:
Integration Part VIII: Meat, the Press