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User:Robotech Master/Alpha Strike

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FreeRIDErs story universe


Integration

by Jon Buck and Robotech_Master

Part 22: Alpha Strike

October 21, 156 A.L.
The Dry Ocean: Just outside Alpha Camp

Svetlana stood on a stone ridge in the depths of the Dry Ocean, peering into the west with every sensor available to her Integrate sight. She was still too far away to see much, but she could at least make out the hardlight dome of AlphaWolf’s Pack’s camp shining like a dewdrop on the horizon. She’d dispatched a scout to learn more.

She imagined that she herself would make quite a striking sight, silhouetted against the brightening dawn sky behind her―a nearly-six-meter-tall twin-tailed she-wolf, ears swiveling to seek any available sounds or comm signals. Perhaps it might have been a bad idea to be so visible. But Svetlana didn’t care. She was an Integrate―and furthermore, an Integrate Woman of Sturmhaven. So let the meat and mech see her coming, if they were looking this particular direction. It would only give them more time in which to fear her.

Besides, Svetlana was in a particularly foul mood today. She almost hoped some subordinate would suggest she climb down. She would enjoy the chance to bite someone’s head off. If they were lucky, she’d only do it figuratively.

Of course, Svetlana was frequently in a foul mood in general. Such was the lot of an Integrate woman who was stuck at six meters tall. It was very hard to find dates, of either gender―and finding one who would render her the obeisance properly due a Woman of Sturmhaven was practically impossible. It was a continual source of irony to her that, as a human, the slim-chested Marlena with whom she had Integrated had wished so hard she were more “statuesque.” Be careful what you wish for, little girl…

But the thing that made her day especially lousy was that she had to take orders from a male―and as if that weren’t bad enough, the very male who had practically single-handedly defeated her Motherland in the war thirty years earlier. But she had little choice, either honorably or practically. She owed Fritz a debt of honor after he had saved her from her own people after the Integration. And from the practical standpoint, Fritz had demonstrated that even at his diminutive size he was still more powerful than she was. That cannon blast of his―where had it ever come from?

To add insult to injury, Fritz then had to go and be so understanding about it. “You don’t want me in your scene, I dig. That’s copacetic. You just do this one solid for me, I let you beat feet to Rodinia and kick off your own little New Sturmhaven bohemia. We cool?”

Svetlana had assured him that they were indeed “cool.” As aggravating as the whole situation was, it would be nice to get out from under Fritz’s thumb afterward. She had already sounded out a number of her female compatriots as to whether they would be interested, and many of them had said yes. Interestingly enough, Svetlana had heard there was a sizable contingent of ex-Sturmie RIDEs within their target today. She wondered if, after her group defeated them, some of them might consent to be Integrated and join her new enclave. It couldn’t hurt to ask.

As she sat there deep in thought, a comm signal pinged in her DIN. She glanced down to see her scout de-cloak on the ground. She held out a hand, and the tiny Chihuahua Integrate flew on her lifters to alight on it. Barely over one meter tall, Beverly was one of the smallest Integrates anyone had ever seen. She came in for a lot of Taco Bell jokes, but there were few ground scouts who could top her for sneakiness. “Report,” Svetlana ordered.

“It is as we feared,” Beverly said. Anyone who met her for the first time was invariably surprised when she opened her mouth, as she had a posh British accent that was completely at odds with her appearance. “They have used the last month wisely and fortified their camp―I probed their systems but hit an impassable wall. And it appears they are on high alert. If these old eyes don’t deceive me, I spotted Tocsin himself on patrol ten klicks out.” Her voice trembled slightly at the hippogryph’s name.

“Damn.” Svetlana growled deep in her throat. “We really needed better coordination on this op. The assault on Uplift will have warned them to expect us.”

Beverly shrugged. “We’re not a professional army, old girl. We have not trained and drilled for this. Slip-ups are to be expected, what?”

“I know,” Svetlana said. “What we are is a gang of thugs going around kicking down anthills because we are stronger than the ants. It offends my sense of propriety to be a part of this, but what can we do when our Lord and Master commands?” She sighed. “Oh well. I will order in the air strikes, and then we will assault on land. Return to your forward position.”

Beverly nodded. “Right ho!” She saluted and vanished into cloak again.

Svetlana stood there for a moment longer, taking one last look at the dome, then sighed again and hopped down from the stone shelf. “Right,” she said. “Time to go stomp some ants.”

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“They’re here.” Fenris’s words yanked Paul out of a sound Fuse sleep and into full awareness right away.

“You’re sure, Fennie?” Paul asked, as he brought up the data feeds to get up to speed.

“Fritz’s forces just hit Uplift,” Fenris continued. “AlphaWolf has just put Plan Ankylosaur into effect.”

“Still think that’s a silly name,” Paul muttered.

“But Smash likes it!” Lillibet giggled over the internal intercom. She had been sleeping in Guinevere in her own separate compartment behind him, and presumably woke up at the same time.

“Good for her,” Paul said.

Of course, he understood why Alfie had called it that. “It may look like we’re turning turtle,” he had said in one of his speeches during the month-long project to fortify the camp. “But we’re really turning ankylosaur.” He nodded to Smash, who was standing placidly nearby. “That’s like a turtle with spikes on it!” And everyone had cheered―not least of all the dino and raptor contingent, who were happy to be getting additional love from their fearless leader.

Built with the help of Integrates from Camelot and a few other friendly enclaves, the fortifications were reasonably impressive. They were not meant to try to block off the camp―that would have taken a whole castle wall, which couldn’t have been built that quickly even with Intie help, and would have been pointless at any rate thanks to Integrates’ flight powers―but to provide protected bunkers from which defenders could fight. Another, larger bunker had been built from space hollowed out under the heart of the colony, to store supplies and weapons and provide a space for the unpaired humans to hide during the fight.

“Brena’s hacked all the RIDEs who turned down DINsec and is marching them down to the bunker’s storage annex now,” Guinevere reported.

Paul nodded. “Good deal.” Was going to be bad enough fighting Inties without having to worry about some of their own turning on them. And if it upset them to get hacked like that, well, maybe they’d accept DINsec next time it was offered to them. “What about Bertha?”

“She’s already on station at the tower,” Fenris reported. “I’m moving us there now.”

“Good.” Paul extended his awareness into Fenris’s senses, and found them walking in Fuser form toward the ten-meter stone air defense tower at the center of the camp, just to one side of the hollowed-out space for the bunker. It looked a lot like the rook from a chess set, with a hollow top. It had not been meant for human habitation, and there were not even any passages or flights of stairs. But there were clusters of defensive lasers and pulse guns ringing the lip of the upper rim. They would serve as added missile defense under the command of Hedy and Guin’s processors, so that Bertha and Fenris could devote their full attention to the greater threats.

Paul shivered a little. It was one thing to build defenses, but another altogether to know you were about to be in the middle of a heated battle in them. God knew he wasn’t a soldier. He hadn’t been trained for this. And while they had all done plenty of combat drills over the last month, he was still dubious of his abilities on the actual field of combat.

“Don’t worry,” Fenris boomed. “I will keep you safe. All of you.”

Paul grinned. “Thanks, Fennie. I’ll try to do the same for you.”

“And we’ve got your back!” Lillibet said.

“Absolutely,” Guinevere said with firm assurance. “Just like we practiced, right Lilli?”

“Sure thing, ‘boss,’” Lillibet replied.

Paul chuckled inwardly. He’d worried a little at first over Lillibet’s stubborn resistance to accepting a subordinate position to Fenris’s command as he had. Would they have trouble working as a team if Lilli wouldn’t take orders? But as it turned out, he needn’t have worried. Right after they’d gotten to camp, Guin had more or less taken charge of Lillibet. It had started as something of a joke―any RIDE in Alpha’s camp had to have bodyjacked its pilot, soooo…

But then Lilli had noticed how much happier Guinevere was when she got to be the one in charge―especially in a community of other RIDEs who were likewise the bosses of their pairings. So finally she made a deal with Guinevere that she could be in charge out here, though that would change when they went back home. Paul privately suspected there would be a little renegotiation then, but it would be okay. Guin was no LindaCat who wanted to be in charge just so she could push her partner around. For that matter, neither was Fenris, which was why Paul was so easy with “belonging” to him. The upshot was, Lilli was cool for the moment with “belonging” to Guinevere, who was just as cool with “belonging” to Fenris.

:And so chain of command is discovered,: Fenris sent amusedly over his private link to Paul.

Paul chuckled. :I couldn’t ask for a better commander than you, boss.: he sent back.:As long as you’re easy on the reins, I’m good with you having them.:

:Command is a responsibility,: Fenris said. :Too many of those here forget that,: he added darkly.

:Maybe after we win we can see about reminding them,: Paul said :But one battle at a time.: Aloud, he said, “Okay, we’re here,” as Fenris lifted up to the top of the air defense tower and set down in the waist-high enclosure within. Bertha was already taking up her half of the tower, facing west. The eastern facing had been reserved for Fenris, as since the enclave was in the western half of the Dry Ocean it was assumed any attacks would come out of the east.

“Turret up!” Lillibet announced as the compartment containing her and Guin emerged from Fenris’s back and locked into place behind the barrels of his immense particle beam cannons.

“Heavy assault unit Bertha reports all systems and crew in readiness!” Bertha commed. “We’re not quite as strong as you anymore, alas, but we’re more than ready to back you up.”

“Let them come!” Fenris boomed, lips lifting away from his teeth in a ferocious lupine snarl. “We shall show them how the wolves of Sturmhaven fight!”

“A wolf of Nextus appreciates that,” AlphaWolf said dryly over the same comm channel.

“Ve should put azide our differences and chust be volves togesser,” Sonja put in.

“Wolves talk too much!” Smash grunted. “Plan Ankylosaurs hit things!” She punctuated this by whacking the ground with her two-tonne tail club, causing a thump heard for at least a kilometer.

Paul grinned. “We might all end up dead in the next half hour, but I can’t think of a better team to go out with. Let’s kick some Integrate ass.”

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Down in the bunker, the mood among the camp’s humans was subdued. They had been fully briefed on the situation; between Paul’s positive example and a few pointed hints from the Integrates helping build the defenses, their treatment had improved considerably. RIDEs were regarding them more like people, and talking to them more. Some of them had even been sent home in exchange for, of all things, some human volunteers rounded up by the Marshals. For all that AlphaWolf was inclined to grumble about damned squishy hipsters, the minority of humans who were there by choice had been glad to see their numbers grow.

Now AlphaWolf, Sonja, and a few other Walker-form RIDEs had appeared on the ramp down from the surface, and Alpha stepped forward to address the crowd. Funny, I can’t remember the last time I gave a speech to a crowd of humans, AlphaWolf thought. Well, unless you count Zane’s press conference, I guess.

“Ladies, gentlemen,” AlphaWolf said. “As you know, we’re expecting an Integrate invasion at any moment. We’re fighting to protect you as much as we are to protect ourselves. With that in mind…I’d like to ask for volunteers to fight with us, to unlock our Fuser forms. We’d prefer people with prior military experience, but what counts is willingness to help us fight―we’ll do the heavy lifting. I can’t promise you anything but the chance to risk your lives along with us―but if we win, we’ll be properly grateful for all the help.” He paused, then added with a tongue-lolling grin, “So sayeth me!”

“I vould prefer a voman uf Sturmhaven should vun be available,” Sonja said. “But I vill vurk mit vhat I get!”

“Ooooh, I’m such a sucker for a strong Sturmhaven accent!” a blonde woman with a strong Califia valley-girl twang said. “I’m not from there, but I’d like to be. Does that count?”

Sonja’s eyes lit up. “Even better! Are you villink to be mine?

The woman held out her arms. “Take me, you lovely thing.” A moment later, a humanoid red she-wolf headed through the door to the armory section.

“Okay,” AlphaWolf said. “Who’s next?”

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A couple of minutes later, AlphaWolf padded through the security door into the armory himself, still in his Walker form. There weren’t going to be enough volunteers for everyone to have them, and going into battle wouldn’t be the best time for him to want to break in a new set of thumbs anyway.

Admit it, he told himself. You’re so used to bodyjacking that you’re totally spoiled for willing partners. You’re gonna have it soooo bad after you go legit and can’t do it anymore. You’ll probably need years in therapy.

“Feh,” AlphaWolf muttered as he padded over to a particular olive-drab crate set apart from the ones where other RIDEs were even now attaching weapons to themselves and arming up. “Don’t need thumbs to fight well anyway.” He straddled the crate, dropped his hardlight skin, and sent a comm signal to it. The crate unfolded, metal arms reaching up to latch onto hardpoints on AlphaWolf’s sides and flanks, then raising weapons paks to latch into place.

AlphaWolf glanced over his shoulders at the gleaming paks―missile launchers on his hips, pulse guns on his shoulders that would drop to his forearms if he Fused with anyone―and ran a series of system checks to make sure they were all right after their storage. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d actually had to arm up―but he was sure he still remembered how to fight. He brought the hardlight skin back up, and it settled into place around the hardpoint latches.

He turned and looked around at all the other RIDEs who had just finished arming up. They were all looking to him as if they expected him to say something. Ah, a leader’s work is never done. “All right, people,” AlphaWolf said. “Let’s go fight for our home.” They still waited, expectantly. And AlphaWolf rolled his eyes inwardly. “So. Sayeth. ME!” he finally added, and every other RIDE in the room cheered before charging back out of the armory and up the stairs to the surface.

AlphaWolf shook his head and followed after, more sedately. If we all come out of this intact, it’ll take a miracle, he reflected. I really, really hope we get one. So prayeth me.

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The first sign of the impending attack was the black specks on the horizon that failed to show up on any radar. Then the long-range missiles came slashing in.

“Multiple bogeys,” Paul said, a bit unnecessarily.

“We got ‘em,” Guinevere replied. “Synced up with Hedy…defensive fire in three…two…one.” Like a light show at a rock concert, dozens of laser and pulse beams licked out from the tower, sweeping the air clean of missiles. Spheres of light blossomed all across the sky, like FX from an ancient anime. Then the sky was clear―and remained so, save for the glowing specks.

“Why aren’t they firing more?” Paul asked.

“Preliminary analysis suggests they do not have sufficient launchers to oversaturate our point defense,” Fenris said. “We can fry their missiles faster than they can fire them. Rather than throw them away at range, they’re saving them for close combat.”

“Is that good or bad?” Lillibet asked.

“Good for us personally, perhaps not so good for our fellow fighters,” Diana Fuerst chimed in. “Our defenses are better at picking off rockets aimed directly at us. We will not be as efficient at shielding our allies.”

“Less talk, more SMASH!” Smash said plaintively, standing below the tower in her Fuser form. “Where are the bad guys?

“They’re coming, Smashie dear,” Bertha said. “In fact, here are the first of them now.” The specks grew into five dragons and a host of smaller wyverns, gryphons, hippogryphs, pegasi, and birds of all descriptions.

Five dragons?” Fenris boomed. “We only rated five dragons? What a disappointment.”

“Hey, I’m not complaining!” Lillibet said, tracking the lead dragon with Fenris’s turrets. “In fact, let’s see about making that four!” She fired a series of ranging bursts, followed by a heavy blast right into the space the dragon was just dodging into. He took them right to his torso, squawked in surprise, and fell out of the air, landing in a heap just outside the hardlight dome.

“Good shot. 78% probability that dragon will be out of the fight for at least five minutes,” Fenris commented.

“Graaaaaaah!” Smash yelled, charging happily at the fallen dragon and swinging her club around her head.

“Correction: make that 100% probability,” Fenris said dryly.

After that, the battle got too intense for Paul to pay attention to specific adversaries. He was busy helping Fenris mark targets for the other RIDEs contributing supporting fire, while the other RIDEs and pilots saw to defense and offense. Lilli knocked down two more dragons with particle blasts before they started keeping a healthy distance.

“I have an idea!” Fuerst yelled at one point. “Program the point defense pulse clusters for heavy EMP and set them to fire as they bear on any enemy!”

Lillibet got it. “We could fry their DINs!”

“On it!” Guinevere said. The pulse clusters had been lying mostly idle due to the paucity of missiles to hit. Now they opened up again on new targets, and where they struck many Integrates wobbled in the air as a telltale puff of smoke emitted from some part of their body.

“Yeah!” Paul whooped. “That’s gotta hurt.”

“Their coordination has fallen by 30%,” Fenris reported as the enemy formations grew considerably more ragged. “Warning―enemy ground forces now approaching!”

“YES!!!” Smash roared. She’d been running from place to place administering the coup de grace to enemies the wolves had knocked out of the sky, but it just wasn’t much fun. Most of them surrendered before she could do more than hit them once or twice, and AlphaWolf (that spoilsport) had given her a very stern talking-to on the necessity of accepting surrenders. Now she looked up to see a wave of dozens of Integrates approaching on the ground. “Who’s first! Who’s first!”

Then Smash cocked her head as if listening to an inner voice no one else could hear. “Aww, c’mon, thumbs, don’t cry. This is just what you like doing―beating up on helpless people! You should love this! We can hit ‘em even harder than you ever ‘smacked your bitch around’! Don’ worry, I’ma keep you good an’ safe, ‘cuz I’m the Plan Ankylosaur!”

And with that, she waded into the crowd of enemies, and moments later they started flying in all directions.

Smash wasn’t the only one. AlphaWolf, Sonja, and all the other camp RIDEs with some fight in them had also taken the field. “Remember, don’t hold back but do try to take them alive if you can!” AlphaWolf called.

“Aw, that’s no fun!” Smash complained, swinging her club and sending a marmoset Integrate flying with a very loud “CRAUNCH!”

“I concur,” Tocsin said as he swooped down from the sky in a rain of razor-sharp hardlight feathers. He wore his Fuser form now, and used it to full effect, laying about himself with a pair of hardlight blades shaped like stylized eagle feathers.

“Think of it as a challenge,” AlphaWolf suggested, firing his shoulder-mount pulse cannons left and right. “You saw what those Camelotters did for us just in their spare time. Just think what we could do with an Intie chain gang of our own! We could build a lot more than some puny log cabins, I expect. Anyway, it’s not like I’m asking for much. From what happened to Zane and that jag of his, you’d have to work pretty damned hard to kill one.”

“Nrgh. No promises,” Tocsin grunted, slashing about himself with razor-edged wings and swords. Severed limbs rained down. “But I will see what we can do.”

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Svetlana stood atop an outcropping much closer to the battle than before, from which her optic sensors could actually perceive the fight. She sent orders over her DIN from time to time, but wasn’t quite ready to commit herself to the battle yet. When she did, she would lose her perspective on the fight as a whole―her ability to see what was going on everywhere and issue commands accordingly. Anyway, it would have to take something pretty spectacular to require the personal attention of such a juggernaut as herself, and―

She stopped and stared. What on Zharus? On a fairly ridiculous-looking stone tower at the center of the camp, two huge wolves stood directing anti-aircraft fire―and apparently the whole course of the defensive battle from their side. Around the tower, ground-based defenders were firing with deadly accuracy, engaging single targets in groups of three or four, then switching to other targets in different groups.

That level of coordination could only come from a command RIDE―such as the larger of the two wolves in the tower, who she immediately recognized as one of her own Sturmhaven lupine brethren. She paused for just a moment to be astonished and more than a little touched that one of them was even still at large―she’d heard they’d all been decommissioned after she’d Integrated. Then she stared outright as she realized what he was doing.

How on earth was he keeping up the command and control and managing to fire effectively himself? WLF-CSAs just weren’t that capable. They couldn’t do both things at once. She knew that―oh how she knew that, from bitter experience. Her Integration with Marlena had been such a huge blessing, at least for her RIDE half―she’d been able to think clearly at all times for the first time ever. No longer was she just another one of the “big dumb bitches” even her own maintenance crew had called her and her sisters.

Then she zoomed in closer and actually saw the face of another RIDE, a cat of some kind, occupying the wolf’s turret’s control cupola. She stared in stark disbelief for almost a full real-time minute. They got us to work! How did they get us to work?

But that wasn’t important, she realized. What was important was that they were single-handedly (double-handedly?) holding back the tide of battle. As long as they―and that tower―continued operating, as incredible as it seemed, the Integrates Ascendant could make no major headway.

“What the hell is going on up there?” Svetlana exploded. “This flies in the face of everything Fritz has ever told us!” She shook her head. If it were up to her, she would have pulled everyone back out right now. But the spectre of Fritz and his monomolecular flensing knife still loomed large. In one of his less affable moments, Fritz had once calculated, down to the last square centimeter, exactly how many rooms he could carpet with her pelt―while leaving her alive to regrow it so he could carpet another set of Coffeehouse rooms after that.

Svetlana sighed. Well, when it came right down to it, she had her own beam weapons, didn’t she? She pulled them up and over her shoulder, targeted the center of the air defense tower, and fired.

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“Holy SHIT!” Paul yelped as two white-hot beams of light pierced the camp’s dome and slammed into the center of the stone tower. The world started tilting sideways. Fenris and Bertha quickly fired their lifters, rising safely free as the tower crumbled beneath them.

“We’re all right!” Bertha reported. “We always knew that the tower was only a temporary measure.”

“Losing those air defense guns is gonna hurt, though,” Hedy said. “Where’d those shots come from, anyway?”

“That ridge over there,” Fenris said. “Lilli?”

“On it!” The turret swung around to the coordinates Fenris indicated and opened fire. But by now there was no longer anything there.

“Keep an eye out,” Paul said. “Unit that heavy can’t stay hidden―not if it wants to keep using the big guns.”

Without the air defense, they could no longer protect their ground forces as well. Fenris sent the order to scatter to stay safer from area-effect weapons, and continued offering targets to engage as they were able.

The battle continued to rage. Fenris and Bertha came in for more attacks now that they had been identified as AlphaWolf’s command and control nexus, but Bertha was able to use her close-in weapon systems to take out short-range threats while Lilli and Guin managed Fenris’s weapons to cover the long ones. And crazed berserkers like Smash and Tocsin also helped to keep the pressure off.

All the while, Fenris crunched his numbers and looked for patterns in enemy behavior, trying to find their own C&C nexus. Not that it would really matter if he did―the Integrates fought more like an unruly mob that occasionally got nudged in one direction or another. The only reason they were hanging in this long was there were so many of them and their shields and weapons were so much better than most of the RIDEs’. Fenris’s organizational skills were evening the odds, but it was still a fairly even battle and anything could cause the tides to turn one way or another.

“Warning! Strong sensor distortion field nearby!” Fenris said. “Possible powerful cloak or huge―”

That was when a she-wolf almost as large as Fenris appeared out of nowhere in front of him, already hurtling forward at speed, and used her momentum to bodyslam him to the ground.

“Oof!” Paul gasped. Even through the blood-freezing lockdown of emergency crash dampers, that impact had been bone-rattling. Then he peered up through Fenris’s eyes into the face of another white-wolf―a face that was just as large as Fenris’s own, and just as angry.

“You will shut down,” the she-wolf growled. “Now!

Fenris’s response was to fire one of the heavy pulse cannons in his forearms. The she-wolf rolled aside to avoid the blast, buying Fenris a chance to get back to his feet and face her.

“Sister, don’t do this!” Bertha yelled from above, raining down a shower of laser blasts to punctuate her plea. The unknown wolf shrugged off most, but winced as a couple of them penetrated weak spots in her shields and scorched her hide.

The Integrate stared up and growled, “By what right do you call me―” She blinked as her DIN interpreted the RIDE’s transponder code. “Bertha? Is that you?”

“Svetlana! It is you!” Bertha said. “Stop this fighting! You’re on the wrong side!”

Svetlana replied with a plasma blast from one arm, which Bertha swerved to one side to dodge. Then she dived to one side herself as Lillibet fired a blast from the particle cannons right through the space where she’d been a moment before.

“Damn―she’s fast for something that size,” Lilli muttered.

“Stand down right now and you will not be ill-treated!” Svetlana offered. “And if you were to Integrate, you could join the New Sturmhaven enclave I’m starting―”

“Vhat vould ve be needink New Sturmhaven for?” Sonja demanded, popping up behind a pile of rubble from the tower. “Old vun ist still perfectly gut! Vill be velcomink you back, I am zure!

Svetlana dispatched a plasma blast in her direction and another at Bertha―both half-hearted efforts that went wide without any dodging being necessary. “You don’t know anything! After we Integrated, they tried to imprison me! They thought I was a freak―and as a WLF-CSA already, a freak’s freak!”

“No!” another voice chimed in. “No, that’s wrong! I was there! I’m Oberstleutnant Diana Fuerst, Sturmhaven military RIDE research branch! We were trying to protect you from Fritz and his Snatchers! They always took every new Integrate away. I am sorry we didn’t make that clearer. We just thought…it was best to give orders first, explain later.”

Svetlana actually froze for a moment. “No! That’s not true! It can’t be―”

“An Integrate won the damned war for Nextus!” Hedy put in. “How stupid would we have to be not to want our own? Not to imprison, but to help the Motherland better than they ever could have before!”

“Let me guess,” Guinevere put in. “The one who spun you this story about Sturmhaven wanting to lock you up―that’d be Fritz, right? The same one who told you about how Inties rule, meat and mech drool?”

No!” Svetlana yelled, eyes closed and tears starting to stream from beneath. “That can’t be right! IT CAN’T BE RIGHT!”

“Oh crap look out―” Paul began as Svetlana’s Intie cannons dropped into place over her shoulders. The world went white―

―and faded back into clarity again with a small fox-red figure floating between Fenris and Svetlana, her arm upraised to deflect the blast. “Svetlana, you stop that!” Brena scolded. “It’s not helping.”

The giant wolf Integrate stared down at the small fox-woman. “Brena? But you were captured―”

“I was. By ‘meat and mech,’ who turned out not to be so very much more primitive than we are after all. Just different. Svetlana, Fritz is a lying liar who lies with lies.” She grinned, tongue lolling from vulpine muzzle. “And if he’s running into the same threshing machine in Uplift that you are here, something tells me you’re not gonna need to fear him any longer.”

Aaaaargh!” Svetlana howled. “I need to think!” She vanished again, but Fenris’s sensors were able to pinpoint her location with a fair amount of accuracy, just as they had when Brena had tried to run. Lillibet swung the guns around and locked on, but Fenris overrode her trigger.

“Wait,” he said. “She is in no state to command or pose any other threat right now, and if we take her down this early there is a 67% chance it would give her forces a rallying point rather than demoralize them. We can hunt her down after the battle.”

“If you say so, big guy,” Lillibet said. “But I had a perfect shot!”

“You sure you’re okay, Lilli?” Paul asked.

“Shaken, not stirred!” Lillibet said with a giggle.

“All systems are go here. Just some minor damage from the bodyslam, and our self-repair is already handling it,” Guinevere reported. “Let’s get back in the fight!”

Fenris once more lifted into the air, and sought more targets.

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Bertha watched Svetlana disappear, anguished howl still echoing over the battlefield, feeling mingled sadness and satisfaction. How could one of her own sisters, who she’d known so well from their service days, have gone down such a wrong path? But on the other hand, her former-and-again partner, Diana Fuerst had put her soundly in her place. Perhaps there was still hope for her yet.

It was hard to blame her, in some ways. Sturmhaven hadn’t exactly played straight with her—though she could understand the reasoning behind it. So many of Sturmhaven’s brass had never known RIDEs, and still thought of them as machines who merited no explanations. Even the ones who knew better still thought of them as subordinate officers who didn’t rate them either. But when faced by something so terrible as Integration, the chain of command provides scant comfort.

The chain of command…And that brought Bertha back to thinking about Diana, and remembering the weeks since she’d come back. Perhaps it came from encountering a sister who had been so ill-used, but Bertha suddenly realized she hadn’t been exactly gracious herself. Still remembering the days when she had been at another’s beck and call, she had imposed her will as…well, revenge, she guessed. And that wasn’t right.

As partners went in the old days, Diana had been a pretty decent person. And hadn’t she come all the way out here just to find her? And then spoken up of her own volition to put Svetlana in her place? Abruptly, Bertha felt ashamed.

“Diana?” she said as the three of them together scanned the skies for more incoming Integrates. “I have just realized…I’ve been acting the same toward you as those fools in command did to us. I…am sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it too much,” Diana replied. “I sort of figured you’d have some of that to work out of your system, the way things worked out. I guess I knew what I was getting in for when I volunteered to come out here.”

“That does not excuse it,” Bertha said. “Let us…change the way this has been. Let us truly be partners—all three of us. And if I start to push you around again…please remind me of this.”

“All right, I’ll do that.”

“Sounds good to me!” Hedy put in. “But we need to get our minds back in the fight right now. Heads up—we got incoming!”

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Overhead, the fighting proceeded apace, with plenty of explosions. A particularly near burst of flak sent a serval Integrate careening out of the sky to land in the middle of the old RIDE graveyard. As he got back to his feet, shaking his head to clear it, he caught sight of a gap in the rock wall separating this clearing from the rest of the camp. There appeared to be…someone in there. Cautiously, he moved closer, rezzing up his hardlight claws.

As he approached the gap, the serval became aware of soft lighting in the little nook in the wall, shining down on a beaten-up sofa with a fox RIDE in Fuser form draped over it. She was quite nude, and also quite…large. She could only be one of the infamous “BBV” models―built for pleasure and not much else.

She looked up at his approach. “Oooh…hi there!” she cooed. “Are you an Intie? Inties get me soooo hot…I surrender, but only if you take me now!” She took a deep breath and expelled it in a sigh, her impressive bosom heaving most dramatically.

The serval stood there and stared for a long moment, ears perking forward attentively. He looked up at the fighting overhead. It really was his duty to get back into it…but then he looked back at the fox again, who was peering at him with a hopeful expression. What the hell…he had time for a quickie, didn’t he? He grinned and walked forward into the gap…

…and that was when the electrodes hidden just out of sight to either side of the entrance sent 20,000 volts through his body and he collapsed in a steaming heap.

Nora the fox RIDE jumped up off the couch and ran over to the unconscious serval, quickly located his DIN, and ran the hacking software one of the Integrates from Camelot had traded her for a night of toe-curling passion. With most of the serval’s defenses down, it was a cinch to lock in root privileges. Then she lifted him onto her shoulder and dumped him onto the swiftly-growing pile of unconscious Integrates behind the sofa before artfully draping herself across it again.

“Alfie’s never gonna let you keep them all, you know,” Rose, her human partner, said from within.

“I’d just like to see him try to take them,” Nora sniffed. “He’s not the one out here risking her virtue.”

Rose snorted. “Virtue? Do you even know what that is?

“Shush, here comes another one.” Nora looked up at the raccoon Integrate who’d just touched down in the graveyard. “Oooh…hi there! Are you an Intie?”

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This is hardly a challenge, Tocsin reflected as he took down another Ascendant. His partner-in-battle, Smash, gleefully swung her tail back and forth, wielding hardlight warhammers in front or even just her fists. The injuries the two inflicted were a study in contrasts, between Tocsin’s signature clean cuts versus Smash’s blunt-force trauma. I have to admit, we make a good team.

And speaking of good teams, Tocsin had to admit that his thumbs were surprising him in that respect. After his first assigned humans, Tocsin had intentionally chosen the least assertive humans he could find to bodyjack, simply because he was tired of fighting to be the one in control. If it meant they weren’t much use in a fight, then so be it. Tocsin was good enough in a fight without a human on board, as his destruction of the Freeriders Garage had amply demonstrated. He found humans more useful for out-of-combat tasks such as grooming his hardlight pelt anyway.

But lately it seemed Joseph was starting to grow a backbone―Tocsin was rubbing off on him, perhaps? Tocsin wasn’t entirely sure how he felt about that. The thumbs had braved Tocsin’s displeasure to insist on going along to help clean up the garage debris, and Tocsin had been so taken aback that he had granted the request. And then he had asked to come along now, insisting he could be helpful and wouldn’t be a burden in battle. And so once again, Tocsin had acceded. He did have to admit, it felt good to be using his sword skills again after all this time.

:You know, I don’t think any of these guys we’re cutting up are soldiers. Does this feel like old times in the Cannons?: Joseph asked. The hippogryph felt no fear from his thumbs even now―just a fierce determination mirroring his own. :I don’t think you’ve ever been quite this happy.:

:I’m being gentle,: Tocsin replied, separating another handpaw from its owner while letting go a pair of targeted feather-blades. Others in the Pack were following up on the disabled Integrates and putting them in root-stasis.

:They fear you. They make mistakes around you,: Joseph observed. :They know your name.:

A surprising number of Tocsin’s parts had been derived from Integrate prisoners in the Loose Cannons’ Zoo after it was rebuilt in the new base. He had better shielding, better weapons, than even most of his peers. In actuality he was a 000-prototype, the first of his kind―though his first chassis had been melted after his stupid First Boot self had Fused around an Integrate to capture her. He’d needed a Second Boot to fix all the problems that had created―personality fragmentation had been the least of them. Even Tocsin admitted his version 1.0 hadn’t been too smart.

On the other talon, Tocsin 2.0 had Issues all his own. They started with what he remembered of that sniveling coward Private Lewis. He’d been thrown out of the Cannons for being unable to control his RIDE. His opinion of humans dropped into the abyss from there.

:Of course they do. I decided to kill our quarry instead of taking them prisoner,: Tocsin said grimly. :I had to get…creative to get around my fetters. It only took them three ops and two pilots to realize what I was doing. I killed them to spare them the torture.:

Killing the feral Integrates cleanly was a far better fate than the torture of the Zoo. Tocsin 1.0 wouldn’t have felt this way, but 2.0 wasn’t the cruel child. He was a professional. He had honor. What the Cannons did to their prisoners was dishonorable in the extreme.

After that third op, his memories got a little foggy. He’d done…something to his pilot, wrenched free of his fetters, and ended up drifting around the various RIDE camps in the Dry Ocean for months before finding AlphaWolf. He considered the lupine RIDE slightly stupid, but a fine leader otherwise.

Tocsin screeched in sudden pain. Someone had breached his Intie-grade shields at the base of his tail but hadn’t pierced his armor. Joseph yelped as well. :How are you faring?: the hippogryph asked, surprising himself he even asked his thumbs the question.

:That stung. A lot!: the young man said. :I think we have a sneaky little cloaker, boss.:

:Concur,: Tocsin replied. He opened a channel to Fenris. “CnC, I think we have a cloaker looking for targets of opportunity. Kick up your sensors.”

“Copy that, Tocsin,” Guinevere replied. “Boosting active scan power.” Tocsin felt a mild touch of pride in her. She and her human had been more than a little stiff toward him at first, but they’d soon gotten over the anger. Indeed, they were becoming quite the fighting duo.

With Svetlana gone most of the attackers were focusing on Smash and himself. Even AlphaWolf had gone hunting around the outskirts of the battlefield, culling stragglers.

As powerful as the attackers were, they had no idea how to use their own weapons effectively. Those few with military experience, like the dragons, had been taken out early on. The Pack were mostly seasoned veterans of many battles. They made the best of the weapons and skills they had, looking for weak spots in the Integrates’ defenses.

Pack casualties were few, but not nonexistent. In particular, their main greenhouse had been flattened by an enemy barrage, and it seemed unlikely any of the RIDEs or humans within it had survived. It was unfortunate, Tocsin reflected, but casualties happened in war. The important thing was to end the war quickly so there would be no more.

“Hey, Toxie! Batter up!” Smash said, swinging her tail club. “Toss one my way!”

“That would be unnecessarily cruel,” he said. He let loose a salvo of razor feathers with a flick of his wings.

“What?” the ankylosaur said, head cocked.

“Just take them down, Smash! Don’t play with them,” the hippogryph replied firmly.

“Hmph! You have fun your way, and I’ll have fun mine!” Smash growled. She waded back into the fray.

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The intensity of the fighting in and around the camp had dropped off as, bereft of leadership to the contrary, the Ascendant Integrates had concentrated their fire on the two uncrackable nuts of Smash and Tocsin on the one hand and Fenris and Bertha on the other. And of course the camp’s other mammals, avians, and dinos were doing their part in individual fights. It was remarkable how well this DINsec thing was working, AlphaWolf reflected. Thanks to that, the Inties would know they’d been in a fight, instead of simply waltzing in and walking all over them.

Now that the pace had slacked off, AlphaWolf was taking the chance to run a little patrol around camp to the west, looking for enemies who had the bright idea to try to slip in from behind. Fortunately, these were few, far between, and generally unwary enough that AlphaWolf left a trail of rooted and stasis-locked Inties behind him.

Quite remarkable how polite an Intie suddenly became when you were on top of him with your jaws around his throat, AlphaWolf thought. He was considering suggesting this idea for use as therapy on captured Integrates after the battle. He could even provide some of the jaws himself! He chuckled inwardly at the notion. It probably wouldn’t go over all that well, though.

As he slipped in and out of the standing stone formations on the outskirts of the camp, AlphaWolf became aware of a minor commotion centered around a small hill made of piled-up boulders a couple of klicks west of camp. It looked like three or four Inties were on the ground, one of them pointing up at its peak, and there were another pair in the air. Then, as AlphaWolf watched, one of the fliers―a Cooper’s Hawk, looked like―plummeted, and a split second later the sharp WHAP! Of a heavy gauss gun going off split the air. From the echoes, the shot had to come from a nest within that formation somewhere.

“Well now, that’s interesting sure enough,” AlphaWolf mused. Taking his cue from the very Integrates he’d been following, he made a wide circle around behind the boulder formation―another couple of WHAPs sounded as he worked his way there―and came upon a jaguar Intie just starting to claw his way up the rocks himself.

Wasting no time, Alpha leaped, goosing his lifters for a little extra speed. A well-targeted jaw grab and twist, and the jaguar was on his back on the ground with a very angry sandy-colored wolf slavering over him. “Root. Now.

The jaguar complied, wetting himself in the process, and Alpha shut him down into stasis lock. Of course, like any of the others he’d left behind, the jag could be revived by any of his compatriots who happened across him―but at least he’d be out of it for a while.

With that task completed, AlphaWolf examined the cliff. It looked like it should be easy enough to scramble up with minimal use of lifters―so, after looking around to be sure he wasn’t about to be caught as unaware as the jaguar, he started up.

He reached the top just in time. In a small concealed nook ringed by sheltering boulders, a human of all things stood at bay with upraised arms, surrounded by three of the Inties Alpha had seen on the ground―a donkey, a weasel, and a panda. The human was wearing a top-of-the-line Dry Ocean survival ghillie suit―an environmental rig used by special forces in situations where RIDEs were impractical. It provided life-support and hardlight environmental protection, but needed to recharge or swap batteries every six hours unless hooked up to an external power feed, whereas RIDEs could keep it up indefinitely.

On the ground next to the human was a Nextus Arms heavy anti-materiel gauss rifle―one of the heaviest weapons a non-augmented human could fire with any accuracy, more often used by sniper RIDEs in this or a slightly heavier form. Its main purpose was busting light tanks, IDEs, or RIDEs. And AlphaWolf happened to know that this model was made exclusively for the use of Nextus’s own armed forces and no one else.

“Now what ‘ave we ‘ere?” the weasel asked, in exactly the sort of cartoonish villain voice that might have come from one of the weasels in a Wind in the Willows adaptation. “Where’s your mech, little meat? You can’t be out here in the Dry all by your little lonesome…”

“Sorry, ‘fraid I am,” the human said, his voice only slightly muffled by his suit. “But you got me, fair and square, friends. Now what?”

The panda held up a hardlight sign: WHO DO YOU WORK FOR?

“Who says I have to work for anyone?” the human asked reasonably. “I’m out here all by myself.”

“With that?” the donkey asked, nodding toward the rifle.

“I’ve got a permit!” the human insisted earnestly.

“What ya think, maybe we take ‘im back with us?” the weasel asked. “Fritz’d probably wanna know why ‘e’s nosing around with such ‘eavy gear…”

The panda held up another sign: GOOD IDEA.

AlphaWolf had seen enough. If someone from Nextus was going to be spying on him, he wanted to be the one to find out why. Which meant it would be necessary to protect this human from taking damage in the inevitable firefight that would follow. Which meant…

AlphaWolf leaped into the air and dropped, hardlight winking out and body parts shifting around as he fell. To any onlooker, the effect would have been quite dramatic: one moment, a suited human was standing there with his hands up―and the next a metallic blur fell onto him and then a sandy-colored humanoid wolf was standing there instead. A wolf with missile packs on his hips and pulse cannons on his upraised arms.

The Integrates’ moment of shocked surprise lasted just long enough for Alpha to drop those arms and open fire on the weasel, who took two pulse hits to his chest and went right down.

But the other two were already moving. The donkey whipped up a pair of gauss sub-machine guns, and the panda swung a huge hardlight battleaxe―on a sign post, with DIEDIEDIE! emblazoned on the blade. Alpha parried the axe with one of his arm cannons, then rolled forward to put the panda’s bulk between him and the donkey just as the donkey opened fire.

Exactly as Alpha had expected, the donkey walked his SMG fire right into the panda, obliterating most of his hardlight shielding. “Oops! Crap, sorry!” the donkey swore. The panda held up another sign: OW! OW! OW!

AlphaWolf grabbed the sign out of the panda’s hands and broke it over his head. The bear went down with little hardlight stars and canaries holding up signs reading CHIRP! Circling around his head.

“You son of a―” the donkey growled, opening up with both guns again. AlphaWolf once more dived and rolled, his trajectory this time taking him over the heavy rifle lying on the ground. He came up in a crouch with the gun cradled in his arms, and pulled the trigger. The center of the donkey’s torso blew out in a shower of silvery-red blood, sending him right into stasis lock.

“Hmph. Some bad ass he was,” AlphaWolf muttered. Then he turned his attention inward, to the human who’d been watching through his eyes as he dealt with the Integrate intruders.

“I guess I should thank you for saving my life,” the Nextus soldier said. In Alpha’s VR, bereft of his ghillie suit, he was in his mid-twenties, brown-haired―and wearing a Nextus military uniform with Lieutenant’s rank insignia. “But something tells me you’re not just gonna say ‘Glad I could help’ and then have us go our separate ways.”

“You got that right,” AlphaWolf growled. “This is my home turf, and I’m not too happy to see any outsiders on it without my say-so. The Integrate kind, or the slimy bureaucrat kind either.”

The soldier nodded. “You got me dead to rights. Lieutenant Merle Phelps, Nextus military intelligence. I don’t guess it would do much good to say we were just sent here to monitor the Integrate situation?”

“You could’ve asked. You even coulda asked if you could help. That mighta been nice. But I guess you bunch didn’t learn anything from that summit meeting.”

Phelps shrugged. “All that stuff’s above my pay grade. You’re from Nextus, you know how long it takes to get anything useful done around there, even when everybody wants to do it.”

AlphaWolf growled disgustedly. “Either way, I think I’ve just found my new set of thumbs for the next little while. One that I don’t have to feel even the littlest bit guilty about keeping for a while.”

The soldier shrugged. “There’s worse things could happen to me than ending up your thumbs. I knew the risks when I signed up. So take it away, big guy.”

AlphaWolf cocked his head. “You’re a little too calm about this.”

Phelps smiled wryly. “Hey, they gave me your dossier, so I know you’re not really the ‘big bad wolf’ you make out. Besides, I’ve already got the hazard-pay paperwork pre-filled except for dates and signatures. After whenever you do let me go, NextusMil’s gonna pay through the nose.”

AlphaWolf growled again, but turned his attention back to the world outside. He racked the rifle into a carry slot on his back and clipped the nearby panniers of spare ammo back by his tail. Then he headed out to get back into the fight.

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A dozen klicks west of AlphaWolf’s camp, there was a large cave in the side of a hill―source of outflow from some ancient river that had long since dried down to nothing. It had a huge entry chamber and a lot of smaller tunnels leading off of it, which made it a pretty good place to store, say, a suborbital shuttle and keep it out of prying overhead eyes―especially with some good camo netting to disguise the entrance.

Of course, that only worked on eyes in the sky. Eyes on the ground would have an easier time of it. Which was why a bald eagle Fuser was sitting in a lawn chair just inside the entrance, laying out cards on a small folding table in the time-honored Klondike solitaire spread. “Red four, red four, where’s a red four…” he muttered, flipping through the cards held in the taloned, scaley fingers at the tip of one wing-arm. “Aw, hell.” He glanced around to make sure no one was watching, then started to lift the corner of one of the face-down bottom cards for a quick peek.

That was when three avian Integrates dropped out of the sky a dozen meters from the entrance. The eagle looked up. “Well hell again.” He shoved back the chair, glanced at but didn’t pick up the sawed-off gauss shotgun leaning up against the cave wall behind him, and walked out to face the new arrivals unarmed. “Mornin’ boys. Ma’am.” He nodded to the three birds―a corbie, a great horned owl, and a pink flamingo whose mammalian breasts pegged her as female. “The name’s Baldwin. Can I help ye folks? Lost maybe? Need directions?”

The corbie stepped forward. “Very funny, mate. Yer a right corker, you are. You bloody well know why we’re here.” He nodded at the nose of the XB-70 suborbital, visible beneath the netting in the cave mouth beyond Baldwin.

“Oh, would ye be wantin’ a ride somewhere? I could oblige, but hafta wait out a little unpleasantness back at the ol’ homestead,” Baldwin said, steepling his claw-fingers to crack the knuckles then clasping his hands together behind his back. “Boss might need me to come a-runnin’. An’ a’course I would have to charge ye fer it, cover fuel costs an’ so on.” He nodded to the flamingo. “Though I’d make an exception for you, ma’am. Never could resist a pretty beak.”

“You can’t really be that stupid, now can you?” the corbie asked, summoning up chest plate armor and a set of hardlight talons. “We’re here to wreck yer pretty plane to teach AlphaWolf a lesson about who his friends are!” He advanced on the eagle, followed by the owl. The flamingo stayed back―she probably wasn’t even armed, just here to report on the others.

Baldwin cocked his head, hands still behind his back out of sight. “Those friends would be you, then? Funny, doesn’t seem to me like destroying a man’s shuttle is ‘zackly a friendly thing to do.”

The corbie made an inarticulate noise somewhere between a caw and a growl, and broke into a run, raising his talons as he approached the stationary eagle.

At that point, Baldwin whipped his right hand back around and fired the sawed-off gauss shotgun in it point-blank into the corbie’s face. The bird stopped like he’d run into a brick wall and slumped, his mutilated face leaking silvery-red blood.

The owl froze in his tracks. “How―” he choked out, rezzing up a spatha-like hardlight sword and owl-face-shaped shield in his arms. But before he could raise them, Baldwin had brought his other hand around and slammed the folding chair he’d been seated in against the side of the owl’s head. The owl staggered back, then swung his sword around in a decapitating-cut―

―except that Baldwin’s head wasn’t there anymore. He was suddenly a head shorter, and correspondingly slimmer―and putting both hands together fired a shockwave that sent the owl flying ten meters backward. In a blur of motion, Baldwin was kneeling over him the moment he hit the ground, gripping the owl’s neck tightly with one clenched, taloned foot.

His beak bleeding from the cere, the owl stared up Baldwin in undisguised shock. “You…an Intie…why?

“’How?’ ‘Why?’” Baldwin echoed, raising a hardlight-mailed fist. “Ain’t it supposed to be ‘Who?’” He slammed his fist down, and the owl’s lights went out.

Baldwin got back to his feet and turned to walk over to the flamingo, who’d been knocked on her back by the fringe of the shockwave. He leaned down and offered her a hand. “Mighty sorry ‘bout that, ma’am.”

The flamingo stared mutely at him for a moment, before slowly raising her own wing-arm to take his hand. “But…why?” she asked as he pulled her to her feet.

“Aw, not you too.” Baldwin chuckled. He turned and gestured with both hands, and the shotgun and seat floated back over to where they’d been before, by the card table. Then he put his hardlight Fuser disguise back into place. “Not sure I could rightly say, t’ be honest. But Fritz’s holier-than-thou attitude just stuck in my craw, and this was ‘bout the only place I could be where he wouldn’t be lookin’ fer my kind. And after I was here a while, I found I kinda liked the people.” He turned back to face her. “Now I’m really sorry ‘bout this, ma’am, but I’m afraid I’m gonna have to ask for your root password, temporarily. I can’t have you callin’ in reinforcements on me.”

The flamingo wilted. “You…you won’t let them hurt me, will you? Everyone says humans and RIDEs do terrible things to Integrate prisoners.”

“On my honor, ma’am, you’re safe with me,” Baldwin said.

“Very well.” She offered up her root password, and Baldwin secured her comm protocols and lifters.

“Thank you kindly…pardon, ma’am, but could I know your name?”

“Felice,” the flamingo said shyly.

“That’s a right purty name, Felice,” Baldwin said, leading her back over to the table. He pulled out another chair and seated her in it before sitting down himself. “So…you know any good card games?”

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At the edge of the battle, Svetlana stood in stony silence, watching it unfold and yet not quite seeing it. Her thoughts were in a chaotic swirl as she thought back to that confused time when she and Marlena had first merged together forever. It had started with erratic responses from her self-repair nanites and Marlena falling silent, and ended with her lying on her hangar floor amid a silvery puddle, rampant confusion in her head and ominous silence on her comm.

While she was still trying to come to terms with what had happened, stern orders had come over the loudspeakers to move to a hangar annex in a top-secret restricted area, with no answers to the questions she asked in response. Nor had answers been forthcoming when she’d gotten to the hangar―but only hours later, amid sounds of fighting, the hangar door had rolled open and there Fritz had been. The small lynx-man had stared up at her and whistled. “Well, hello, dolly! Aren’t you just one crazy far-out chick? I can see they been keeping you in the dark, but I tell ya what―let’s pound gravel back to my pad and I’ll put you wise, ya dig?”

Svetlana hadn’t “dug” half of what Fritz had said, but as she’d been getting more and more agitated over the hours she’d been confined there without anyone coming to tell her what was going on, especially given her inability to access the data networks anymore, she was only too willing to listen to him. Part of her wondered, in retrospect, whether that had been a mistake…?

No! she insisted. He talked to me when my own side left me hanging!

But he’s a male, that treacherous other part insisted.

But males can have good ideas, too, she told herself. It’s rare, but it happens. Besides, he surrounded himself with sensible women. Women like Quinoa Steader―

―who changed sides―

and Brena Silverston―

―who also changed sides.

As if thinking her name somehow invoked her, Svetlana suddenly became aware of Brena’s voice calling out above the din of the battle. She was hanging in the sky over the camp, shining like a crimson beacon as she broadcast on all frequencies and shouted out loud, “Integrates, hear me! I know why you’re here. You’re scared. Whether that’s of a future in which you’re not the most powerful thing in the world anymore, or more personally of Fritz and his nasty temper―I understand! I’ve been there! But it’s time to get that fear under control. Listen to me! These RIDEs aren’t the pushovers Fritz promised you. They’re standing up to you despite their limitations. Just imagine how much stronger we can be if you join with them against the fears Fritz is pushing!

“So please, stop this madness before it’s too late! Surrender and you won’t be harmed! Or leave and we won’t chase you! If you keep fighting, you’ll only hurt yourself and the other people who want to help you!”

Maybe she’s right, that traitorous little part of Svetlana insisted. We should join them. Add our own voice to Brena’s calling for a surrender. End the fighting.

NO! Svetlana insisted to herself. That would mean I’ve been wrong all these years! Fighting for the wrong side, hurting the wrong people…I can’t believe that! I won’t! This is all some kind of meat-and-mech trick to make us doubt ourselves―but I won’t fall for it!

Svetlana powered up her beam cannons, set her crosshairs on Brena, and let fly. The beams parted as they reached her―as an Integrate, her defenses were still top-notch, especially since she hadn’t been doing any actual fighting―but recovering from overloaded shields would at least keep her from broadcasting more propaganda for a while.

The battle had been swinging against her side in the last few minutes she’d sat it out conflicted―but she could still turn the tide if she could cripple Alpha’s command and control. It shouldn’t be too difficult if it relied upon the link between Fenris and his partner. Svetlana powered up her shields and her weapons and moved back into the battle, pinging the comms of all her soldiers who remained in the fight to pay attention. A success now would give them an important rallying point.

Svetlana streaked through the air, picking up speed as she approached the spot where Fenris and Bertha were fighting. Targeting systems reported a lock, and she popped the lids on all her missile bays, sending the rockets she’d been saving streaking forth in a cloud. It would take minutes before her body could rebuild them all, but that should be time enough.

The giant wolves saw them coming, of course, and fired off missiles of their own. The resulting explosions took out some of her birds, but they were Intie-smart and enough got through to give them a solid battering. Part of Svetlana admired how well they stood up to the pounding―coming from Sturmhaven counted for something after all―but she was already firing off plasma bursts to take advantage of their momentary distraction and cause some additional damage.

Then she slammed into Fenris like a freight train, bearing him to the ground. He landed on his side, giving her just the opening she needed. Many critics of the WLF-CSA line had argued that the secondary operator’s cupola was too lightly armored and vulnerable. As things stood, this had been a largely academic concern because it had never been used for anything except storage; if they’d ever been able to get the RIDE linkage to work it would probably have been redesigned. But the important thing from Svetlana’s perspective was it was just as vulnerable on Fenris now as it ever had been. She reached out with one clawed hand and ripped it right off of his back.

“Graaaaah!!” Fenris yelped as part of his body was torn away. “You will pay for that!”

Svetlana carefully set the sundered armor capsule on the ground, then stood. “See?” she called out to her fellow Integrates. “They’re not invin―” Then she staggered herself as Bertha hurtled into her, shoulder first.

“You just don’t get it!” Bertha growled, firing the pulse guns built into her gauntlets. “We’re not going to give up, no matter what you do! Too many people are depending on us!”

Svetlana cocked back her immense right fist and slammed it into Bertha’s muzzle. As a WLF-CSA, even with the matter she’d lost through Integration she still had the height and mass advantage over Bertha’s Heavy Assault body. Bertha’s head snapped to the side, and she reeled backward. “And my people are depending on me!” she retorted, following up with her left. “I will lead them to victory, and I will have my New Sturmhaven!”

New Sturmhaven?” a voice said from near her ankle. “What about the old one, huh?” The ocelot RIDE had emerged from the cupola. She leveled the military pulse rifles mounted to her gauntlets and fired into Svetlana’s thigh. It was painful, like an insect sting, but hardly debilitating. She aimed a kick at the small RIDE, which it easily dodged. “What do you think will happen to it, or the rest of the frickin’ planet, if Fritz gets his way?” Lillibet continued. “Think he’s just gonna say, ‘Okay, point made, now everyone chill out!’ or something?”

Svetlana fired a plasma burst from her arm, which grazed Guinevere, causing her hardlight to flicker out for a moment, but did no serious damage. “We just want to be left in peace!

“You’ve gotta be kidding me! Peace? Whose side started shooting first here? Yours!” Guinevere said. “You want peace? Stop shooting!

More pulse blasts from Bertha sent damage readings spiking into the yellow zone. Svetlana roared in frustration and leveled her shoulder guns, firing a white-hot blast that sent the wolf RIDE staggering back with hardlight down and furrows slagged through her torso armor. “Stay down, damn your eyes!”

Svetlana felt two hands on her shoulder, followed by a knee to her back that made her spine creak. “If she does, you should join her!” Paul yelled as Fenris followed up with a straight-arm punch that shoved her forward. “’Left alone’ my great aunt Fanny! If Fritz really cared about being ‘left alone’ he wouldn’t have been such an asshole all these years! All those people who got Integrated and then kidnapped! All the people his Candlejacks and Snatchers and Loose Cannons fucked up! Including you, if you had the brains to see it!”

Svetlana turned, firing a plasma blast from her arm as she tried to bring her shoulder cannons to bear again. “Shut up! He did what he thought was right!”

A series of small explosions, like firecrackers going off and about as effective, battered the back of Svetlana’s neck. She turned her head to see that a small lupine scout RIDE had emerged from the fallen Bertha. She hung in the air, hip-mounted micromissile paks smoking. “Listen to you, defending a man’s sense of right!” Hedy growled. “Are you even qualified to found a New Sturmhaven? Are you fit to lick the boots of a real Woman of Sturmhaven, bitch?”

“How dare you―!” Svetlana roared, turning back toward her

“ENOUGH!” AlphaWolf’s voice, broadcast at a searingly boosted level, cut through the din of battle. “Surrender now, or it’s on your own head,” he said in tones fit to freeze Burnside’s lava stream. “So. Sayeth. Me.” The words that seemed so silly every other time he’d ever uttered them seemed to drop like cannonballs into a frozen lake.

Svetlana looked around, but the wolf was nowhere to be seen. Even she was taken aback for a moment, before rallying. Since when had AlphaWolf ever been anything but a buffoon? “Do your worst, clown!” she growled, turning back toward Fenris.

“Don’t say you didn’t ask for it,” AlphaWolf continued in those same frosty tones. But Svetlana was already putting him out of her mind, starting forward toward the embattled command wolf.

She was very surprised to feel a searing pain in her left elbow, and even more surprised to watch her left forearm start to fall free to the ground a half-second before the thunderous WHAP! Of a gauss round reached her ears. Another pain, another WHAP!, and her right arm followed suit.

No! I can’t lose! Svetlana leveled her shoulder cannons, and then her left knee blew out. Frantically, she balanced on her one remaining foot with her lifters, which were already flickering out due to earlier battle damage and shock from losing her limbs. Almost…almost…

WHAP! The sniper took out her right knee, leaving her quite literally without a leg to stand on. She toppled, the cannon blast going wild.

Svetlana lay on her back on the ground, staring up into the sky. A moment later, a sandy-colored wolf holding a long rifle entered her field of vision. “It’s over,” AlphaWolf said.

Fenris leaned in from her other side. “You fought well,” he said. “A real credit to the Motherland. Don’t―ah, pardon me.” He turned and loosed a pulse burst that took down an incoming missile barrage. With their leader down after fighting so hard, the fight was going out of the remaining Ascendant. “Don’t throw your life away,” he continued as if nothing had happened. “Tocsin, rally at Point Gamma with Squads 2 and 3, then make sure that retreat turns into a rout.”

The hovering hippogryph nodded, changed to flier mode, then sped off, a human pilot crouching low in his fuselage.

Svetlana stared at him. “You…still fighting…commanding…but the link…”

Upside down, the ocelot leaned in from above her and stuck out a pink tongue. “Is wireless, Miss Know-It-All. Nyah nyah miya!”

Svetlana sighed like a gust of wind, cubic meters of air leaving her lungs. Perhaps her defeat had been inevitable. But whatever happened, she had given it her all. Fritz couldn’t have asked any more of her than this. “I surrender…but to you,” she said to Fenris. “Only to you.”

“And here I’m the one who actually blew her limbs off,” AlphaWolf smirked. “Oh well, whatever works.”

Fenris nodded solemnly. “Accepted.” He raised his voice, broadcasting on all frequencies. “Attention, Integrates ‘Ascendant’. Your leader has fallen and surrendered. There is no further reason to fight. Give yourselves up and you will be fairly treated.” He paused, then echoed AlphaWolf’s words of moments before. “It’s over.”

Author’s Notes

R_M: Well, here’s the big Alpha Camp battle scene. I think I had the writing of most of this by myself, Alpha Camp being my baby and all. (Though there are parts I do specifically remember Jon wrote, such as the byplay between Tocsin and Smash, and probably more that he wrote that I don’t remember by now.) It fell basically to me to do all the needful revisions on it, and I’d burned out on the Director’s Cut for a while so left it on the back burner for a few months.

Maybe I shouldn’t have waited so long; after I took a good look at it, there were only a few places that needed to be changed, and it only took an hour or so of work all in all. By this point in the narrative, we’d pretty much figured out the shape of things. My changes largely boiled down to filling in a place or two where I noticed more was needed (such as Bertha realizing she’d been too hard on Diana), or adding in references to later-written stories (such the greenhouse getting destroyed, from Claude’s Alpha Camp stuff, or a tweak to Tocsin and Guinevere’s relationship in light of the flashback from “Wolves in the Fold”).

The biggest change, I guess, was the culmination of that bit I mentioned earlier, the Nextus soldier who was originally supposed to be AlphaWolf’s unwilling Integration partner. As I explained, that subplot basically went right by the wayside, and all the remained was to tidy it up. So instead of Nextus continuing a long-standing habit of keeping tabs on AlphaWolf, with plans to take him and his camp out, they had simply sent an observer to watch the battle—without bothering to tell Alfie about it. The outcome, insofar as the story goes, remains fundamentally the same.

What else is there to say about this episode? It carries on the Alpha Camp tradition of having episodes to itself, rather than being interspersed with other stuff. I suppose part of that might have been the way it was easiest just to write most of the episode by myself while Jon was working on stuff happening in Uplift. Perhaps more importantly, it makes for a good self-contained episode, a way to have something conclusive happen while the big fight is still raging in Uplift.

I’d already done a couple of things with Fenris’s RIDE type—Fenris himself, his bodychanged cohort Bertha. Good things come in threes, so it was only natural to wonder what might happen if one of them had Integrated. And such an Integrate would make a great leader for the force coming up against Alpha Camp—there would be a nice amount of drama from meeting Fenris and Bertha, plus it would make for a great “boss fight” for the ending.

And, needless to say, an immense Integrate called for a teeny tiny one for the sake of the contrast. I probably should have done more with Beverly the chihuahua, but you know how it is when you have too many characters.

One of my favorite parts of the episode is the segment with Nora and Rose. It provided some much-needed comic relief in the middle of a battle, and showed that there’s more than one way to fight Integrates. And the idea of Integrates’ libidos luring them to their doom—and being part of a pile of unconscious bodies behind the couch—just tickles me.

More comic relief comes from the bit with AlphaWolf taking out the Integrates attacking the Nextus soldier. Any anime fan would recognize that the panda with his hardlight signs is a reference to Genma, the sign-waving panda from Ranma ½. It stands to reason that some Integrates would be meme-infected by anime—especially anime involving cute furry animals. By the physics of the setting, AlphaWolf probably shouldn’t really have been able to clobber him with his own hardlight sign, but it works well-enough as a sight gag to invoke Rule of Funny.

AlphaWolf’s gun is, of course, inspired by the heavy sniper rifle from Mass Effect II and III. If anything could amputate Integrate limbs with a single shot, it would be a gun like that one.

I suppose Baldwin the eagle merits a little explanation. When the idea of an eagle character to be AlphaWolf’s pilot first came up, free association with “bald eagle” produced the name “Baldwin.” And at the time, I’d been a fan of Firefly, and enjoyed Adam Baldwin’s performance in it, so it wasn’t much of a stretch to name and model the character after him. Of course, since this was written, Adam Baldwin kicked off and took part in the whole “GamerGate” movement, and as a result I’m no longer quite so fond of him anymore. But it seems like it would be too much trouble to change the character’s name now, as many places as he’s appeared.

Making him be a secret Integrate was effectively a spur-of-the-moment inspiration at this point. Even as recently as the Integrate raid on the Waltons’ house, we were still thinking of him as an ordinary RIDE, which is why there’s a mention of upgrading him with DINsec on the flight out. But it occurred to me there had never been any mention of his human, which meant it stood to reason he might not actually have one. And it would be a fun way to turn the tables on Fritz’s bully-boys for him to turn out to be one after all. Later on, we would delve into his backstory and how he got to Alpha Camp in Oh My Darling Clementine.

We’re definitely into the home stretch now. The next few episodes ought to be a lot of fun.

JonBuck: Here we are! The home stretch in our 25 “episode” anime. I worried some about the pacing of the climax, but there are enough loose ends to tie up that the overall story really needed to be done like this. Our revisions here just work out some of the kinks. Not a whole lot to change.

Since we wrote this after I’d finished Fly With Me, there was the issue of why the Tocsin in that story was such a moron compared to this one. I figured that in Fly With Me we were seeing Tocsin 1.0. They weren’t really good with mythical-types at the time, so there were a lot of design flaws in the neural map. I thought that they made an interesting duo in battle. Smash was all blunt instrument compared to Tocsin’s surgical precision.

Up next, the Battle of Uplift continues, we make some connections to other stories/characters that didn’t exist before, and we show on-screen what had only been off-screen…which we’ve been building up to for a couple parts now.

Preceded by:
Integration Part XXI: Enemy Lines
FreeRIDErs Succeeded by:
Integration Part XXIII: Universe of Battle