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User:Robotech Master/Assault Batteries

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FreeRIDErs story universe


Integration

by Jon Buck, Robotech_Master, and Jetfire

Part 14: Assault and Batteries

September 1, 156 A.L.

Alpha Camp

Paul yawned and stretched, as much as he could from where he was curled up inside the belly of a wolf. “Morning,” he said. “Any change?”

“Negative,” Fenris rumbled all around him. “I have been monitoring our ten ‘Fortunatos’ as closely as I might since the two cured RIDEs have returned to the camp, but I have not seen any unusual movements near them, nor detected unusual network traffic. Of course, whisker laser transmissions are very hard to detect.”

“Any signs of anyone trying to leave the camp?”

“Negative,” Fenris repeated. “Only standard patrols. All those who departed subsequently returned.”

“Hmm. Two days on and we’re not a lot closer to finding our culprit than when we began.” Paul closed his eyes and dropped into the Fuser link, opening Fenris’s eyes and staring out into the world. “We hear back from Shelley again?” He checked comm records himself. “Ah, we didn’t,” he said. “Just that one message yesterday.” Rochelle had sent a terse email that she was passing on the info about the trojan to someone closer to the camp. There was too much scrutiny on them back in Uplift right now for her to be seen slipping away into the desert, and they were also working with Zane on plans to retake the mining platform Fritz had driven him out of.

“Indeed,” Fenris said.

“Hope they get here soon,” Paul said. “I think Alfie’s about to go stir crazy if we can’t point him at a culprit.”

“They know how urgent it is,” Fenris said. “I doubt they will be dawdling.”

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The 20,001st Floor

Upgrade complete. Quinoa’s old batteries would be reading 300% full at this point. There had been a moderate loss of sarium during the condensing process, but within acceptable limits according to the old forum post. As her body systems came back online, she listened to the environment around her. Nobody there…no other Integrates. She opened her eyes.

“Good afternoon, Dave.” The voice that spoke was a perfect replica of the HAL 9000, fitting for her cell. It was a voice the sphinx was long familiar with. HAL was one of the Steader family’s stock Ad-Is (along with Robbie the Robot and Teletraan-1). For some reason, perhaps some long-departed programmer’s sense of humor, nothing they could do would induce him to call anyone anything but “Dave.” “Your Uncle Dave left you a message. Would you like to hear it?”

“Play it, HAL.”

“Hello, Quinnie. I’m telling HAL to play this when you wake up—burying it under enough layers of encryption that hopefully Fritz won’t see it. As I was on my way to the jet to leave, I overheard Fritz say that he left that necklace of yours in HAL’s core. I don’t know whether that’s important, but if it is, that’s where it is. Good luck, and I’ll see you later.”

Thanks, Uncle Joe. Quinoa’s body burned, aching all over as if she’d just run four marathons in a row. Calf muscles complaining every centimeter, she levered herself to her feet and spread her still-bare wings. Sitting on the dining table in front of her was a feast. Hunger gnawed at her, but now wasn’t the time to eat. There was still a possibility that her upgrade could go sour, so she had a narrow window of opportunity.

Well, time to channel Bruce Lee. She put herself into a ready stance, pulled her fist back, and smashed through a wall. The corridor beyond wouldn’t have been out of place on the refitted starship Enterprise. She knew this corridor. There were homages to three centuries of known science fiction in the Steader family’s counterweight mansion, but Quinoa hadn’t been up here for years. Long enough that the layout was unfamiliar—it was always changing, anyway. The house was built on a modular design, and as the Steaders’ interest in particular works waxed and waned, they would move those sections nearer to or farther away from their living quarters. The place was also completely empty of humans, RIDEs, and even Star Wars droids.

“What are you doing, Dave?” HAL said.

“Going home, HAL,” Quinoa said. Without her DIN there was no way to easily interface with the mansion’s computers. “Which way out?”

“I cannot let you jeopardize the mission, Dave,” the faux movie AI continued according to script.

The book and the movie versions of 2001 were different in a lot of ways. In the book, the Discovery’s destination was Saturn, not Jupiter; and the giant monolith wasn’t in orbit by itself, but sitting on Enceladus. Other than that, they shared a lot of details. HAL’s psychosis caused by conflicting orders, which ended up killing all of the crew except for Dave Bowman. In both versions, Dave had to go into vacuum without a spacesuit for a brief period. The book had HAL venting the atmosphere from the Discovery’s interior, and the movie had the dramatic explosive decompression into the airlock from the pod.

For an Integrate, going out into space without a suit wasn’t that big a deal. A skin-tight hardlight atmo barrier was enough, but the limiting factor was oxygen. Without any supplemental oxy, she could spend an hour “exposed” to vacuum before her systems started taking damage and she had to go into hardlight-shelled hibernation. While that still wouldn’t mean her death it would be some time before ZOT could pick her up. And by then, who knew what Fritz could have done?

The big question in Quinoa’s mind was what version of events HAL would decide to follow.

“Open the pod bay door, HAL,” Quinoa said experimentally, walking through the empty corridors of the family space mansion, one of a number of similar structures that studded the planetoid-sized counterweight satellite whose orbital velocity held the Alohavator up. The various mansions tended to be based on all different architectures and designs; the Steader home looked like a futuristic space station, all tubes and rounded modules strung together.

“I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that,” HAL droned.

Quinoa went to a wall computer and pulled open the keyboard. DIN or not, she was a very fast keyboardist, but the unit was powered down and not responding. Okay, how about this? the sphinx thought, yanking a panel off the wall underneath. The place had been designed with science fiction tropes in mind. She’d been exposed to thousands of them all the way into early adulthood. It only took a little rewiring and rearranging of a few faux “isolinear chips” to restore power.

The red HAL eye overhead came alight. “Dave, what are you doing?”

Quinoa stayed silent, pulling up a current layout of the mansion. Now, where is it you’re keeping your core these days? She had to assume there was at least one of Fritz’s supporters somewhere onboard. She looked at the HAL eye and waved, grinning. “Just try and stop me, poindexter. I dare you.”

It only took a little bit of searching to find HAL’s central core. No matter how the arrangement of the modules might change, after all, the central core had to remain more or less central. She found it in the layout, cloaked herself, and headed that way.

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The Coffeehouse

Fritz slouched in his throne, slurping on an iced cappuccino as he flicked through the network news feeds. It had been a few days since anything important had happened, which made it ever more likely that something else would happen, the more time passed.

As it turned out, something did happen—his DIN pinged with notification of an incoming call. The caller ID was of one “Murphy”—the Irish Wolfhound Integrate he’d put in charge of the Brubeck mining platform’s occupation. Oh yeah, time for their daily check-in. Fritz opened the connection. “It’s your dime, don’t waste it.”

The Integrate in question appeared on the comm wall display opposite Fritz’s throne—a tall shaggy grey dog, hardlight emitters visible as red TRON lines through the fur, standing at attention and saluting. His RIDE half had originally been in an elite NextusMil branch, Fritz recalled—not the Loose Cannons, but one of the Sturmie hunter-killers from the war days. Sturmies liked to use wolves, so naturally the military had thought it would be a good idea to use wolfhounds. “Top o’ the mornin’ to ye, Mister Bosscat Sir!”

Fritz waved a hand languidly. “Yeah, yeah, the rest of the day to yourself and all that jazz. What’s going down out there?”

“We’re still in full possession of the platform, sir!” Murphy reported. “No sign of any enemy counterattacks.” He frowned. “The others ye left me with here…I can’t say I’m thrilled by their behavior. No discipline a tall.”

Fritz shrugged. “Hey, man, they can’t all be war heroes like us, ya dig? Don’t blow your jets, it’s cool. Even that bunch of bimbos will be more than a match for any meat and mech Brubeck can throw at you. Meanwhile, let ‘em blow off a little steam.”

“Uh, as you say, sir,” Murphy said.

“Hey, doggie, you doubt the Bosscat?”

“Nossir! ‘Tis a fine day today, too. We’ve been scrapin’ the best Q we’ve ever tasted off the floor, even. Shor’n it’s a big party here!”

“Well, cool. You cats have yourselves a swinging time, but don’t go too crazy with the juice. You should be all set to put knuckles to the creeps if they do come sniffing around. You cats give me another ring if events eventuate. Later.” He rang off without waiting for Murphy’s reply. “Buncha murgatroyd frisbees,” Fritz muttered. “But they’ll be cool. Not like the kinda meat and mech they’ll be up against are any kinda tough toenails.”

:Have you forgotten Tocsin so quickly?: that little voice in his head nagged.

Fritz shook his head as if trying to dislodge an annoying fly from his ear. “Can the lip, Jiminy. Toxie’s back at Alpha Camp—I been keeping an eye on him. Anyway, he’s the one and only, and they’d need a whole squad of Toxies to give the bum’s rush even to that bunch a’ bums. Not that I don’t wanna see ‘em try.” He smirked. “But there ain’t no percentage in wasting energy, is there?”

:Still, you might not want to underestimate them.:

Fritz shrugged. “So what? Worst-case scenario, they drive those losers off and get the platform back. They’ve still learned a lesson. And it’ll still cost ‘em lots of time and money to fix it. Even if that happens, it’s all good. I wouldn’t want to trash ol’ Clint’s digs permanent-like—if nothing else, that’s where our best Q-munchies come from.”

:And speaking of Tocsin, what about Quinoa?:

“What about her? Since ol’ Joe bugged out, it got too boring to hang up there—so here we are, home again. Anyway, I left an old friend of hers up there to keep an eye on things. We’re golden, Jiminy. Completely copacetic.”

The inner voice didn’t reply, but Fritz couldn’t quite shake the feeling that he disagreed nonetheless.

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Brubeck Mining Private Hangar, Uplift Aerodrome

“You sure you want to risk your sub again?” Zane asked Rhianna as a small group gathered at the company’s private hangar. “Completely sure?”

“We’re good. It’s as ironclad as the systems in your campus and half of your platforms, and a lot smaller and more maneuverable than your Starmasters,” Rhianna replied, hefting a bag full of DIN-beta units over her back. She wore easy-Fuse denim coveralls and a red bandanna to tie up her hair. It felt good to do physical things. She walked up the aft loading ramp of the Dream Chaser. “Leah and Vince both gave these their seal of approval. We’re ready.”

“Launch is mainly a matter of intel,” Vince said. The raven Integrate fluttered on half-spread wings. “There doesn’t seem to be any activity at your compromised platform, Zane. But we know that’s probably not true.”

“The key word there is ‘seem’. We can’t even get satellite imagery of it, it’s all blurry,” Zane said. “Which seems to suggest they’re at least throwing a party there or something.”

“Yes, there is that,” Vince agreed. “What about our flesh and metal friends? Are they ready for this?”

“You tell us,” Kaylee said. “I’ve got DINs and weapons up the wazoo. I don’t think Rhi could pack anything else onto this old chassis of mine.” Kaylee herself didn’t look any bulkier, but the support pak and nanolathe supplies were sharing space with a pair of shoulder pulse cannons and a dozen leg-mounted micro-missiles. Everyone else would be protecting Rhianna and herself as she did the hardware swap, then it would be Rochelle and Uncia’s turn to toss Fritz’s Inties out of the platform’s systems.

“DINs by the tens!” Uncia said happily, loping up the ramp behind her. The normally sleek lines of her fluffy fur were disrupted by a long cannon barrel poking forward over her right shoulder and a large metal pod on her left. There were smaller pods on her hips, other equipment modules on her lower back, and still more gear stored internally. “Dare ya to hack me! Double dare ya!”

“Like I’ve done a couple dozen times already?” Vince said tiredly. He’d only broken through the first couple layers half the time as it was. What the beta units lacked in complexity they made up for in redundancy. “Pass. You’re ready. And I’ve got an optimized DIN, thanks to you.”

Rochelle chuckled, bringing up the rear with a shoulder bag full of tools and gear. Her hair was white with grey rosettes today, matching Uncia’s fur. “We’re all ready. It’s gonna be awesome giving Fritz back some of his own. He won’t know what hit him.”

Rounding out the assault team were Myla and Sophie, Marc and Cernos. The stag Command Armor had been fitted out with more crypto gear to act as a backup to Rochelle and Uncia in VR—and his hated hardlight epaulets were finally gone. Befitting Sophie’s Scout Armor status, with the help of the Integrates her hardlight camo was as good as theirs, though more battery-draining. She’d be working closely with Carrie-Anne for stealth.

“You ready for this?” the black jaguaress asked Zane’s other bodyguard.

“Wouldn’t miss it,” Myla said. “I just wish we could’ve talked Zane into staying behind. Absorbing a mil-spec combat skill chip is a poor substitute for actual experience. So, Zane, keep yourself cloaked when at all possible.”

“Roger that, Myla.” For his part, Zane was more nervous than usual. They were going in with what amounted to a full assault team—a dozen Integrates with military backgrounds, plus Carrie-Anne and himself. Vince had brought him a forearm-mounted pulse rifle that plugged directly into his wrist socket to power it, plus a hardlight shield amplifier. “You know, Rhianna, this isn’t how I wanted to introduce you to my platform. I wanted to…well, present it to you like a gift. Watch your eyes light up when I showed you into the RIDE master maintenance bay, with all the equipment and RIDEs being serviced…” He sighed. “Instead, we’re going to toss out a bunch of vandals who’ve probably tagged everything with graffiti by now.”

“A…gift?” Rhianna said, sensing something in his undertone—she tried to wrap her brain around it, but couldn’t. “Well, that’s very kind of you, but…uh…”

“Well, a gift of the experience, anyway.” Zane waved a hand randomly. “Not like I was actually going to give you the place.” He muttered something that sounded suspiciously like, “you’d just say no anyway,” then cleared his throat. “Um…well…you know, I have to admit, at least it’s cozy in here,” he said almost frantically. “Kind of like a flying RV.”

“Doesn’t look much like a Winnebago, does it?” Rhianna said, feeling the urge to smirk at his discomfort. This was familiar, since she still remembered being a young man, stammering through conversations with pretty girls. A young man with a…Oh, boy. Oh God. Does he..? Does he have a crush on me? That put his past behavior in an entirely different light. She knew Terry had a lot of respect for her—that much was in Kaylee’s memories. But the last thing she expected was a boyish—tigerish—infatuation.

The cargo area of the sub had just enough space for the extra equipment and the assault team. “I thought you Inties could probably cloak it that way or something.”

“So which one of you is the Druish Princess?” Zane said, chuckling.

“Present,” Rochelle said cheerfully. “They’d better not shoot the hair.”

“Guess that makes me the mog,” a golden retriever Intie said. Ianau’s tongue lolled.

“I guess we know what the in-flight movie’s going to be,” Rochelle said.

“No movie. We need to focus,” Carrie-Anne said. “Where’s CinTally? She agreed to pilot.”

“You had to ask?” The female Cooper’s Hawk answered from the flight deck. “I came in through the side hatch. Neat little sub you’ve got here, Rhianna. She’ll fly like a dream with me at the controls. She’s got some great acceleration with those engine and battery upgrades.”

“And she’s modest, too,” Rochelle said, grinning.

Rhianna had spared no expense for once, either on the sub or on Kaylee’s upgrades, even accepting compensation from the cash-strapped Brubeck Mining to get the right tools for the job—something this important was no place for pride. They went in prepared, or not at all. The Dream Chaser had fore and aft retractable pulse cannons and two dozen of Kaylee’s favored micro-missiles in underwing FAST paks—the weapons were temporary, at least.

Zane pinched the bridge of his muzzle and chuckled. “Are you sure the Starmaster won’t be jealous?”

“Starry and me, we got us an understanding,” CinTally said happily. “We can launch when you’re all strapped in!”

Kaylee Fused with her partner. In that mode they did look rather bulkier than before. Between the support pak, shield-mode hardlight pelt, and shoulder-mounted weapons, she looked like a very muscular female mecha.

Rochelle and Uncia Fused up as well, taking a little more time than usual due to having to move various modules around to fit Rochelle into the body. They ended up with the shoulder-mount cannon racked on her back and other equipment positioned at various spots around her body. Her forearm gauntlets each held a fast-firing pulse submachine gun modeled after the 20th-century mini-Uzi, on spring-loaded auto-holsters that would snap them into her hands on command. The rest was high-speed hacking gear with Enigma-3 and their own DIN-beta Sneaker software.

Rhianna didn’t mind depending on Kaylee’s own experience, now that she had full access to all her memories. There was a lot of ground to cover there, including some pointed things they both wanted to ask Conyers, and how to break to Katie that not only was Kaylee actually her “biological” mother but Fritz was her dad. And what had happened to the other fifty-two Ris? The odds weren’t good that they were all still alive, but many of them could be. Did they even know they’d had “real” parents? What had blotted out Katie’s memory of her mother, even after they’d given her Kaylee’s old parts? And had that research ever been declassified? Could today’s RIDEs have “biological” children too?

The visceral loss of Frank from the previous night’s review still sat heavily in Rhianna’s belly. She’d known it was coming, from the memories Kaylee had shared of her reunion with Kandace the evening after Paul’s crew had come and gone, but experiencing it directly had a tremendous impact. The whole situation had been so confused, as far as Kaylee knew no one had ever found out exactly what vehicle Ophelia Steader had even had in her garage to mount such a powerful weapon. It was just as if lightning had struck from out of a clear blue sky and blotted out her littermate. Who the hell keeps something armed like that in their garage? Who? Rhianna wondered.

:I’m going to find out once this crap is over with, come Hell or high water,: Kaylee said, picking up on her rider’s thoughts. :More, I want to know who fired it. Fritz never did like Frank very much. Fritz always showed up in the ‘nick of time’. Feh!:

They weren’t ready yet to go over what had happened to put Kaylee in the Shed a couple years later. Even Kaylee herself shied away from reliving those days, keeping them isolated. She was scared. Rhianna didn’t blame her at all. The shed had been the greatest trauma of Kaylee’s life, and when something that bad happens to you, you always end up wondering if you somehow deserved it. What would you do if you were suddenly given the chance to find out for certain just what you might have done?

:Rhi, let’s just do the job in front of us right now,: Kaylee sent. :Dwelling on not dwelling on something is kinda uncomfortably recursive.:

:Yes,: Rhianna replied simply, shutting the aft ramp. Then, aloud. “Lock and load, everyone. Let’s get old Clint’s platform back. CinTally, do that thing.”

“You got it!” The Integrate pilot kicked in the engines and launched. The sound of electric guitars played over the onboard speakers as another selection from her playlist went into the intercom.

Yeah, we’ll get higher and higher
Straight up we’ll climb
Higher and higher
Leave it all behind
Oh, we’ll get higher and higher
Who knows what we’ll find?

After the takeoff, CinTally faded the music out of the speakers, though kept up a sideband playlist broadcast for anyone who wanted to listen. It was easy to tell who was tuning in from the heads nodding in rhythm along the seats. She projected flight path and ETA data along another sideband—18 minutes to apogee, 34 to landing. “The pilot has turned the ‘no smoking’ sign off!” she chirped cheerfully over the intercom. “You are now free to move about the cabin.”

Zane chuckled. “Well, I can’t fault her enthusiasm. You get hired for the thing you love doing, and never work a day in your life.”

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Alpha Camp

The first hint that the camp might be receiving a visitor came in the form of “somebody big” calling Paul and Fenris by laser comm to ask them to warn AlphaWolf and the camp of an incoming “new recruit”. The language of the missive strongly suggested one of the larger dinosaurs. But the message itself had unmistakable “Integrate dandruff” all over it.

“Heh. Looks like we’re going to have some competition, big guy,” Paul said.

“I’ve never seen size as a ‘competition,’” Fenris said.

Paul chuckled. “That’s because you’ve never had to. Some of those dragon RIDEs get pretty big—especially the ones that turn into full-fledged subs. And I gather bigger RIDEs don’t shrink that much when they Integrate.”

“In that case, I shall rather look forward to meeting someone even bigger than I am,” Fenris said. “And I believe I will adopt that philosophy of yours.”

AlphaWolf called a general meeting before going out to meet the new arrival. “Okay, everyone. I have good news. We’ve got another big guy on the way, so don’t be shocked when he flies over. Spread the word to anyone who isn’t here. We’ll be going out to meet him first, of course. But we’ll have another set of big guns like Fenris here.”

“Well, this should be interesting,” Kandace said. Her tawny hardlight pelt had been installed since returning from Uplift. She looked much happier, and there was even a family resemblance to Kaylee.

Alone with Fenris and Paul after the meeting, waiting outside the dome to greet the new arrival, AlphaWolf was somewhat less positive. “So you’re telling me we’re not just getting an Integrate visitor, we’re getting a huge Integrate visitor?” he growled. “Are you sure they’re not trying to undercut my authority here?”

“They’re as horrified by that trojan as we are, Alphie,” Paul said. “We did another survey. There are two more infected in the Camp, more than we thought. We think it’s spreading—maybe losing two caused whoever’s behind it to trigger a more active phase—so we have to act.”

“Getting comm signal,” Fenris said. “He’s here, cloaked, outside the dome.”

“I guess the point is moot,” AlphaWolf said unhappily. “He knew exactly where we are.”

“Ah, yeah,” Paul said. “About that…” Rhianna had mentioned that the camp’s location was something of an open secret among the Integrates, but he hadn’t really figured out a good way to break that to AlphaWolf yet.

“I hate to barge in on this chat,” came a friendly new voice. “But we’ve known where you folks were since the day you established the Camp—some sympathetic Inties over at Camelot directed you here. Until now we’ve had no reason to stop by for a cup of sugar. Sorry, I’m Peaches.”

AlphaWolf blinked. “…Peaches?”

“If it helps, you can call me Mister Peaches,” the uncloaking dragon deadpanned. His scales were the shade of a ripe peach, and he had an oddly jolly expression on his pointed muzzle. He was about fifteen meters from nose to tail. His horns, dorsal spines, and tail fork glowed. “Pleased to meet you. My human half is Captain Josh Weinstein, formerly of the Burnside Militia. But ‘we’ go by Mister Peaches.”

“Of course. It makes sense a dragon would hail from Burnside,” Paul said.

“Oh, marvelous! I’ve never heard that one before!” Peaches said, rolling his eyes good-naturedly. “I’ve got all the anti-virus tools from Shelley and Uncia at the ready.”

“Think you’ll be up for cleaning out twelve infected at once?” Paul asked.

“My RIDE half was a Command Armor. As I see your fellow is, too.” Peaches nodded to Fenris. “I was a drop-shuttle-slash-gunship and I’ve still got all the comm gear. I just funnel it through my industrial-sized DIN and it’s a win. I could give short stuff over there a copy as a backup, just in case.” Peaches grinned good-naturedly at the two-tailed wolf who came up to his shoulder.

“You have sufficient parallel processing to handle them all at once?” Fenris asked. “Impressive.”

“Only after I Integrated. Before, well…I wasn’t the sharpest tooth in the jaw,” Peaches said uncomfortably.

Paul smiled ruefully. “You two have more in common than you know. Oh…one more thing.” He nodded to AlphaWolf.

“We fully expect whoever is behind these infections—perhaps the trojan’s original author—is still within our camp. But we haven’t been able to pin down who it is,” AlphaWolf said. “He or they are also likely to have non-infected supporters.”

Peaches concentrated, his hardlight spines glowing, then appeared to be a metallic dragon RIDE. “This is going to be tough. If they run, I’m a little too big to chase, and I’m going to have to focus more on curing the infected, so I’m going to be vulnerable. Bring in some with more mobility for the capture. Once I get inside I’ll start analyzing signals and pinpoint this bastard. If they’re in the Camp, I’ll burn them out.” The disguise’s eyes flashed red. “Just keep them off me until I’m done.”

Paul grinned. “Fenny, could you let Kandy-girl know we need her and any others she can round up she trusts?”

“With pleasure,” the wolf boomed.

AlphaWolf groaned. “This is already worse than I thought. Even if this goes well the Pack’s going to be weakened for years, maybe. Word will get out. Abused RIDEs will stop coming to us for sanctuary…”

“Better to root out the poison now before it gets any worse, boss,” Paul said. “There’s a major risk they’ll decide to infect even more of the Pack, just for kicks. It could be like a zombie attack from the old movies.”

“Of course you’re right,” the movement’s leader said firmly. “We’ll hurt for a while, but it needs doing.”

“Let’s get this party started!” Peaches said. “Your friendly neighborhood driggin at your service.”

“Righto.” Paul turned to the giant wolf beside him. “Let’s Fuse up!”

Fenris nodded, then opened wide and gulped him down, standing up into their six-meter Fuser shape a moment later. “You know, you enjoy that a little too much,” Paul said.

“Can you blame me? Since we can’t eat together while Fused, it’s the only time I actually get to taste anything directly.”

“Oh, thank you for that,” Paul said. “Someone pass the brain bleach.”

Mister Peaches started snickering metallically. “I think we’re going to get along just fine. Good ol’ human-me got nommed a few times, though there was an…alternative way in.”

“Can we not go there, please?” Paul asked.

“So to speak,” Fenris added.

“Argh!”

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The 20,001st Floor

The problem with obvious places were rather self-evident, but it was just like her uncle. The problem was that if there was another Integrate aboard they could have done any number of things if they found the DIN. They could have destroyed it, moved it, or were just waiting for Quinoa to show up. Still, Fritz didn’t want her dead—yet. To her knowledge neither he nor his followers had ever killed another Intie.

There was always a first time, given what was now at stake.

Quinoa passed through the Star Trek section, then Imperial-style corridors from Star Wars, followed by the Jetsons home. This place she remembered fondly. It was a play-area for the ever-changing gaggle of Steader children, and had never been empty for as long as she could remember—until now. Seeing it like this made her angry. Rosie the Robot went pling in her corner, the red eyes on her cylindrical head blinking, but she didn’t move. The poor Ad-I seemed confused.

The next step was to open a maintenance crawlspace—a Jeffries tube—to enter HAL’s meticulously reproduced core. Pulling off the access panel rewarded her with a deafening racket of machinery. “What the Hell is that?” the sphinx fumed, peering into the tube.

There was more to science fiction than just TV, books, and movies. There were plenty of video games in that genre as well. After the My Little Pony bodyguards that poor Myla was subjected to, there had been one “Samus Aran” paired up with “Mega Man X”. At least those two had had excuses for being armed to the teeth. If nothing else, the video games had provided ample fodder for more IDE projects for her Uncle Joe…and also, the tableau that faced Quinoa now.

“You’re kidding me. You’re fucking kidding me, Fritz,” Quinoa said. In front of her was a larger room filled with floating blocks that vanished and reappeared in a predictable pattern. Little robots in hardhats, and floating hardlight Metroids moved around just to add some spice. Yet another play area. “I’m not doing this. I’m not.”

Quinoa powered up her lifters, forming a dense hardlight shell around herself, atom-thick at the leading edge. There was only one thing to do when presented with a Gordian Knot like this—slice right through it and hope there was nobody in the way.

She stopped herself before launch. This was a very Steader thing to do, she reflected. Acting without thinking had gotten her into this mess in the first place. Underestimating the hippogryph had almost gotten her killed. She shut the entrance to the videogame haven and pondered where else Fritz might have hidden the DIN, or even whether she needed it. For most Integrates the DIN was something of a security blanket—their connection to the outside world. Then she remembered.

The nano-paste was still in her DIN socket. The sphinx facepawed. What the hell was I thinking? No, she knew exactly what was on her mind. The Steader family had a well-deserved reputation for being crazy, unpredictable, and downright creepy. Quinoa’s own cousin Harold (half the time Henrietta) was the nuttiest of a nutty bunch, going through RIDE after RIDE, discarding each one as he became bored. When Quinoa was younger, before she’d gotten the sphinx Quorra, he’d offered to give the then-teenaged girl a huge black panther named KITTy at one of the twice-yearly family reunions. Not wanting to be an “icky” boy, she’d turned him down.

No more Crazy Crazy, she decided. No more “come at me, bro” taunts. No more thinking of potential Integrates—as she now thought of them—as a lower form of life. There were times when crazy worked, but no more.

It was simply time to leave.

The sphinx started hyper-saturating her body with oxygen, topping off her batteries. The counterweight’s geostationary orbit would give her a re-entry trajectory right over Gondwana. It was going to be rough, but no worse than orbital skydiving. There was an airlock intended for that sport not far from where she was, in fact. She lifted, then headed that way at speed.

Rosie the Robot followed, going pling-pling all the way.

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Approaching Brubeck Main Platform, Brubeck Ridge, Southwest Dry Ocean

At six thousand meters the avian Integrates Vince, TimRazor, and Cosma jumped out of the opened aft loading ramp. The Dream Chaser was still going all of Mach 3 at the time, but the speed was immaterial for the raven, the peregrine falcon, and the harpy eagle. CinTally glanced wistfully at them as they departed, then she and the other Integrates cloaked the sub. The avian pilot slammed on the deceleration thrusters.

Zane pointed ahead at the small landing pad high on the side of the platform. “There. It’s meant for fliers, not subs, but this sub is flier-sized, shouldn’t be a problem. That’s where I brought the cargo ship in when we took out the Board.”

“Aww, I thought you said it was gonna be a challenge,” CinTally said. “That’s a lot bigger than a postage stamp.”

“We’ve got some activity on the platform,” TimRazor reported. “I’ve got a half dozen of Fritz’s cronies milling around. Looks like they’re…playing volleyball?”

A scrap of music came over the speakers. “…playing, playing with the boys…” CinTally shook her head and it cut off. “Whoops, soundtrack moment. One of Tally’s original features I haven’t been able to root out of my brain yet. So, how you wanna play this, boss?”

“Configure the pulse cannons for EMP,” Zane said. “An area-effect blast from vehicle mount guns should scramble even our systems for a few minutes, and with any luck it’ll be ‘quiet’ enough they won’t notice inside.”

“And with any luck we’ll fry a DIN or two,” Rhianna added.

“Hell, the way they make DINs I’ll bet you ten mu we fry at least half of them,” Rochelle said.

“They will have spares,” Rhianna reminded her. “Let’s make them use them up.”

CinTally nodded. A panel flipped open on the instrument board and a bank of switches flipped themselves. Targeting reticles appeared in the HUD—entirely redundant to the ones on CinTally’s inner eyes—and a moment later a series of energy pulses spat from the Dream Chaser’s nose, splashing the impromptu volleyball court with energy. A half-dozen Integrates froze and fell over. Unheeded, the ball bounced over the side of the platform and rolled a hundred meters down to the desert.

“Ooooh, that must have hurt!” Cosma chirped. “Sparky sparky boom DINs! They’re all down.”

“It would be nice if someone could shove all that deadwood to the side so I don’t crunch any of them when I land,” CinTally said. “Not that I’d mind, but I don’t wanna risk damaging the landing gear on this beauty.”

“I thought you wanted a challenge,” Zane said. “Bet’cha fifty mu you can’t land on that platform without squishing at least one of them.”

CinTally grinned. “Ooooh, you are on!

As it happened, Cindy was able to nose the Dreamchaser into place amid the comatose and twitching volleyball players without fatalities, though she ended up lifting one of them with the nose skid and carrying him along ten meters before setting down.

“Well, that’s six,” Carrie-Anne said. “How many are left? Myla, our turn to find out.” She moved to the hatch and vanished as she slid through it.

“We should secure those guys,” Rochelle said. “Don’t want them waking up and giving us trouble.”

“Don’t worry,” said Flint. The bear Integrate had jumped at the chance to sign onto this assault mission. The chance to work with so many Nextus soldiers and Myla again was just too tempting. “I’ll stay here and keep watch on prisoners and the sub with CinTally. With the birds giving us air cover we should be well situated for defense.”

“Just like Old Smokey,” Marc said. The antlers on his whitetail stag Fuser were aglitter with communications gear. He’d given some tiny laser reflectors to Myla and Carrie-Anne to place during their scouting. Unfortunately their usefulness was a little iffy due to all the Q dust in the air. The platform’s hardlight shields were still down—getting them up again was one of the mission’s priorities.

Rochelle flicked her wrists, popping the pulse Uzis into her hands and back to the greaves. “You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me?” She grinned. “This is gonna be fun.

Carrie-Anne reappeared in the doorway. “We seem to be clear all the way to the secret hatch. No sign they are aware of it.”

Rhianna and the Brubeck Mining techs had gone over the platform’s network schematics with a fine-tooth comb, looking for key points where DIN-betas could be installed to regain them control of the computers. A remarkable number of the points could be accessed from the same secret shaft Zane and Terry had used to make their way to the boardroom when they had infiltrated the platform. It was a bit of a risk given that Fritz had used it himself, but Fritz had shown a level of overconfidence bordering on megalomania so it was judged worth a shot.

The mechanic would need one minute per network junction to replace the nodes. It was no stretch that the second she touched anything inside the occupiers would notice something amiss. Even one DIN-beta would be enough to tip their hand, so they’d start looking for a cause. Two were enough to make them really take notice.

Rhianna had over a dozen to install around the platform. Rochelle could start her VR work when six were finished, but her arsenal would still be incomplete. There were all sorts of “big guns” within the DIN firmware she could use.

“Come along,” Carrie-Anne said. “We are ready.”

Rhianna, Rochelle, and the others skimmed silently through the hall in their RIDE armor or Integrate bodies under cloak of invisibility, as the RIDEs and Inties kept weather eyes out for any signs of life. A quick jog down the corridor and into a broom closet, then out the door in the back and they were in the twenty-foot-wide shaft in the center of the platform. Not bothering with the ladder along one wall, the escorts spread out vertically as they rose, covering known entrances and exits, as Rhianna moved to the first junction box near the secret entrance to begin her work.

“Magic paws, do your thing,” Rhianna muttered, or maybe it was Kaylee, or both. The duo often spoke in unison when Fused. One nanolathe started cutting into the node, and in her other handpaw was a DIN junction unit at the ready.

Uncia floated back to back with her, submachine guns clutched in both hands. “The enemy gate is down,” she muttered, staring down at the square of desert sand visible in the distance at the bottom of the shaft.

Meanwhile, Zane and Myla floated up above the others, watching the square of blue sky and bits of superstructure visible through the top. It was most likely any assault would come from either the top of the bottom, as finding other entrances into the elevator shaft might take time if the intruders were unfamiliar with the place. They would cover it from here until everything was underway, then move outside to cover the approach when the fracas started.

But for all that, the first DIN was going to be a “freebie.” Only after it was done would they really need to worry. The node came free easily enough. Rhianna placed the DIN unit and started securing it in place with the nanolathe. The unit was the size of a Fuser thumb, and it used several times as much qubitite as all the Integrate DINs she had seen thus far. Rhianna was still trying to fully apply the basic principles, so the beta units were much less complex. Ideally they would only need one in the future, but for now redundancy was essential.

:You know, when this is over we’re going to make a killing on security hardware and software,: Rochelle said through Uncia. :The banks are going to fall all over us.:

:I’m not really interested in patenting something this important. Besides, we already sent the beta designs to the Consuls. They’re a pretty sharp bunch, so I hope they’re doing their own installs right now.: Rhianna said. The second network junction came free and its replacement went right in without trouble. :Intie activity on the network. I think they know we’re here. How many do we have to worry about?:

Myla reappeared at her side. “We counted about thirty that we could see. There could be others cloaked, but Carrie-Anne doesn’t think so. That puts them at a two-to-one advantage.”

A darker form entered the light square below them. “Not smart, guy,” Rochelle muttered, cutting their lifters and dropping, the cannon on her shoulder firing an EMP blast to precede her. She opened up with the Uzis as she fell closer, Uncia’s targeting system centering both blasts on the unlucky Intie’s torso. She felt something tickling at the back of her mind, but ignored it, cutting the lifters back on in time to reduce her impact just enough as she bodyslammed the hapless rat Integrate to the ground. Slightly singed and battered, leaking silvery-pink fluid from half a dozen wounds, he squeaked in fear, squirming and trying to throw the leopardess off. Uncia growled and showed her fangs, and Rochelle poked the muzzle of one of their guns into his face.

“Why…can’t I hack you?” the rat wheezed.

“Because you didn’t say the magic word,” Rochelle purred. Then she growled, “Now surrender or I blow your damn fool head off.”

The rat squeaked and complied, his DIN switching to open access mode. It only took them a moment to access his systems and send him into deep hibernation. Then they lifted him back up the shaft by the scruff of the neck and tossed him through the broom closet door, where he’d be safely out of the way.

Zane, Carrie-Anne, and Myla floated back to back above the top entrance of the shaft, keeping Fritz’s defending Integrates at bay. Zane blocked pulse blasts and other shots with his shield, and sent the occasional lifter push or pulse blast back at the enemy. Carrie-Anne, Myla and Sophie covered his rear. Then all three dived for cover, staying in motion to keep the enemy guessing. The various heating, cooling, and ventilation units scattered around provided plenty of cover for friend and foe alike.

Overhead, Vince and the avians were keeping the enemy birds busy—but there were more of them, too many for Cosma, TimRazor and himself to fully engage. It was an aerial dance, watching them fire away at one another but not hitting. Their attacks were likely more in the virtual realm.

“Ha, gotcha!” Zane whooped, vaulting over a pipe to land feet-first on top of a wolf Integrate. He slammed the butt of his pulse rifle down on the wolf’s forehead and he went out like a light, then turned and fired across some crates at a lioness who was lunging for Myla. His blasts furrowed her shoulder, and she lost concentration and fell.

Carrie-Anne hunted swiftly and efficiently from stealth, slipping up behind Integrates and catching them in sleeper holds until they passed out. It would have been more efficient to break their necks, but Zane and the others had been in agreement that they didn’t want any unnecessary killing insofar as it could be avoided.

As the only non-Integrate, Myla was the most at risk, but she was moving quickly with speed and grace, managing to keep out of the way of most attacks. Her stealth wasn’t quite as good as Carrie-Anne’s, but it was enough to throw off the aim of most attackers. And the heavy gauss pistols she wielded were sufficient to knock any Integrate they hit for a loop. But she was perhaps most valuable as a distraction, as Integrates kept getting distracted trying unsuccessfully to hack her long enough for Zane or Carrie-Anne to move in and take them out.

But they’d gotten so busy taking out enemies at close range, they’d forgotten to keep an eye out for enemies at greater distances. By the time Zane caught the motion out of the corner of his eye and saw a redtailed hawk Integrate taking aim from midair a hundred meters away, it was too late. She fired a concentrated burst of energy from one arm that stabbed through Myla and Sophie’s side like a hot poker. They slumped to their knees as Sophie flooded the area with medical nanos.

Zane knocked the avian from the sky with a pulse blast, then ran to Myla’s side. “Myla!” His eyes narrowed as he took in the damage. He put his hand over the entry point, as if to try to stop the bleeding. Then he felt his hand start to tingle. “What—?”

A long-silent voice reappeared in Zane’s mind. Easy, buddy. This one’s on me.

Myla looked up. “Zane—what’re you—”

Zane gasped. “Terry…?” Then he felt a surge of energy rise up in his body and gush out through his hand, sinking into the traumatized metal and flesh beneath it. He felt the wounds close up beneath his hands—and the energy start to spread further, sinking into Myla’s and Sophie’s bodies alike. What in—? He tried to pull back, but he couldn’t take his hand away. And then he felt things beginning to shift and change within their bodies…

Then Carrie-Anne hit him with her shoulder, knocking him back and free of his contact with the downed fennec Fuser. He shook his head. “What the—what did I just do?” Terry? What did you just do? But his inner tiger had slunk back down into his id again. Zane wanted to reach in and grab him by the neck and shake him, but there wasn’t time.

“I don’t know,” Carrie-Anne said. She frowned as she felt Sophie’s Fuser form shift under her hands. “But whatever it was, it healed the wound, so that is at least something.”

Myla and Sophie’s eyes flickered open. “Ngggh,” Myla said. “Feel strange. Woozy.” She got to her feet. “Whoa…and my balance is off. What’s going on?”

“Half my internal diagnostics are giving me weird readings,” Sophie reported. “I feel so funky!

“You were shot. Zane healed you.” Carrie-Anne blinked invisible again, vaulting a ventilator intake to close on a rabbit Integrate coming up a ladder. She kicked him in the head, and he fell off again. “There may be…side effects.”

Sophie bent over to pick up their gauss pistols. “This can’t be right. My batteries are reading 210% charge.” She spun around and fired twin blasts at an approaching raccoon. “Wow—we’re fast! Faster than we should be.”

Zane followed up Sophie’s gauss shots with a fusillade of pulse blasts. The raccoon ducked behind a cooling unit. “Don’t look a gift horse…”

“Wait…what? My batteries are only at 150% charge,” Sophie said. “The other 60% is coming from…Myla’s batteries?”

“What? I don’t have batteries,” Myla said.

“I, um, think you do now,” Zane said. Terry, I swear after this is over I’m gonna come in there, and…

RI and human alike blinked at Zane, then looked at herself. “Well, crap. Fight now, fuss later. But we’re going to have words, boss. This wasn’t in the medical plan.”

“I need a little help here!” the self-described mog said. “They’re regrouping!”

Rhianna was on the fifth DIN near the top, moving faster, starting on the sixth and last Rochelle and Uncia needed to get into the platform’s systems proper.:We’ll need to move into the Boardroom next!: Kaylee broadcasted on a secure channel. There were another three nodes in there. :How are your DINs holding up, everyone?:

:Couldn’t be better,: Vince said from above. :I’ve hacked three other birds before they can hack me! The sub platform’s swarming with cronies, though they’re not doing anything yet. Flint and the others are holding ground. Ow! Damn! They winged me! He’s gonna pay for that one! You don’t touch the feathers!:

Nobody was actually trying to kill one another, which made the assault team’s job easier. The Integrates in particular didn’t want to cause any mortal injuries to their opposite numbers. Integrates could take much more damage than the Fused could, so there were a few serious injuries. But nothing, Vince said, that couldn’t grow back.

:That’s number six!: Rhianna sent. :These puppies are shielded. On to the Boardroom. Once we get there, Shelley, Uncia, Marc, Cernos, it’s your show!:

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The 20,0001st Floor

Quinoa realized she was being followed almost immediately, but not soon enough. She also finally realized that wasn’t Rosie. She narrowly escaped being pounced upon by a giant black panther Integrate with a single roving red eye. The sphinx-girl spun around to face him. “Hello, KITTy.” She paused, chuckling as she realized what she’d just said. “Long time no see.”

“Shaddup and get back into your cell,” the midnight-black panther said in a voice modeled after the original KITT’s voice actor William Daniels. He crouched on his forepaws, red eye swooshing from side-to-side across the bridge of his metallic muzzle between eye sockets. One of the unlucky Integrates who were stuck in animal rather than human form, KITTy hadn’t lost too much mass from his Trans-Am-replica RIDE days. “And I prefer ‘Cylon’ now.”

“Funny, I would’ve thought ‘Ravage’ suited you better,” Quinoa said, snapping a hardlight whip across his nose. “I’m not going anywhere you tell me to. I don’t want to hurt you, but I will if you keep me from leaving.”

“Oh, but I’d love to hurt you,” Cylon growled, prowling back and forth in front of her. His eye continued to cycle back and forth as he glared at her. “You and your whole damned clan, Steader bitch. Your kind has never brought me anything but pain.”

“For what it’s worth, I’m sorry about that,” Quinoa said. “Harold was a fool, and you’re far from the only RIDE whose life he ruined.”

Cylon snorted. “And a fat lot of good the rest of you Steaders have done for any of us.”

“Yeah, I…realize that. And I’m sorry about that, too.” Quinoa sighed. She hated to admit it, but the Integrate was right. All she’d ever done had been shake her head sadly at Harold’s antics. As for Uncle Joe…he’d been swimming in booze for so long, sometimes Quinoa wondered if he even knew what year it was. “I guess I never really thought about it before I got a RIDE myself, and then I got Integrated and kidnapped so there wasn’t an opportunity. After all this is over, I’m going to try to track as many of them down as I can and make whatever amends I might.” She shook her head. “But at the moment, I’ve got other places to be, so you need to get out of the way right now, or we’re going to have some trouble.”

The black panther sat on his haunches and started grooming a forepaw. “Oh, I think you’ll find getting out is harder than you think, even if you do me in. Fritz locked this place down tighter than Harold’s old fetters on me. I personally welded every airlock shut. You’re going nowhere, doing nothing. Dig?”

Quinoa slammed him with a hardlight fist—the hardknuckle straight out of Mega Man—so hard and fast his eye-lens shattered. The huge black panther slumped over, unconscious. That would buy her a few minutes at most, though. She instantly ran for one of the windows in the Jetsons playroom. There were times when crazy worked. It was all a matter of knowing when. “Dig that. I’m out of here!”

The sphinx didn’t break her stride, pumping power into her lifters, once again forming her hardlight into an atomically-sharp arrowhead. She slipped through the transparent aluminum window as if it wasn’t even there, then curled up into a ball. On a lark, she reformed the shell around her into the shape of a Mercury capsule, with Sphinx 7 emblazoned on it. Quinoa blasted her lifters for retrofire and began her steep descent back to Zharus.

Moments later she saw the entire side of the 20,001st Floor mansion explode, habitat modules scattering away from the counterweight into space, followed by an angry roar in radio. Cursing that last bit of Steader flightiness she hadn’t yet shaken, she realized that she hadn’t taken Cylon’s DIN when she had the opportunity. But it probably didn’t matter anyway, she reflected a moment later—as shoddy as the damned things were, he would have been carrying plenty of spares anyway, and she certainly hadn’t had time to frisk him. Besides, he’s frisky enough already.

The angry jaguar Integrate didn’t bother with any hardlight theatrics, adjusting his velocity to intercept her. But orbital mechanics being what they were, Quinoa was far enough away from him that they would both be falling out of orbit over the Dry Ocean before the fight would resume.

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Brubeck Main Platform, Brubeck Ridge, Southwest Dry Ocean

Sophie fed Rhianna her diagnostic data as they moved towards the Boardroom with very little resistance. The defenders had lost over half their numbers, either to injury or forced hibernation. Those who were left were demoralized and regrouping.

The assault team was not without its own casualties. Myla’s gut shot was comparatively the worst, but Vince himself was missing a few toes from a crony’s pulse gun. He assured the others they would eventually grow back.

“You’re a cyborg,” Rhianna informed the fennec Fuser. “Otherwise, you’re good as new. It’s on par with my own Q-enhanced Earth implant, plus the…uh…batteries. There are a few other little bits here and there that I don’t have time to suss out right now, but we can do a full work-up after this is over. You need a real cybernetics doctor.”

Myla snorted. “Great! This better get me a huge bonus paycheck for hazard pay, Zane!”

“Even if I have to sell a few platforms,” Zane said, still a little upset at his inner tiger. “I was going to have to do that anyway to raise some cash. We’re down to number 40 on the Fortune 100 list.”

“Even this one?” Rhianna asked, shoulder cannons swiveling to lay down some covering fire. The defenders were hardly putting up any fight now. “You can’t sell old Clint’s platform, can you? How much of the lode is left?”

“Far too much, even if it weren’t for the sentimental value.” Zane replied. “We account for a good 40% of all AA+ Sarium on the market just from this one site. 55% of the double-plus. I’ll be keeping it, of course. But considering all the damage I doubt it’ll be back up to full production for a month or two, so look for high-grade sarium prices to stay spiked in the short term.”

The interior of the Boardroom was a wreck—and a recent one. The table was in little pieces, the walls bore hardlight gouges and scorch marks, there wasn’t a single light that wasn’t broken. Rhianna had the schematics for this room as well. She plunged her hand into a wall panel and pulled out a long-buried network access port. She quickly attached a DIN security node. “That’s number seven. Here’s your access, Shelley, Uncia. The other network ports in this room are dead, though. I think one of them might’ve figured out what we’re up to. The other DINs are reporting ruined nodes all over the platform. There’s a lot of them, so the network is still fine. Old Clint sure knew how to build things to last,” she added reverently.

“Seven might be enough to do the job,” Rochelle said. “We still have to get them out of the mainframe.”

Marc and Cernos entered the ruined Boardroom. The Medium Command Armor’s shoulder-mounted PPCs were smoking a little. “Sorry for the delay. Ran into a little complication.”

Rochelle pulled a hardwire connection from one of Uncia’s hip pods. “Well, deer-boy, hook up. Glad to have you watching my back in there.”

“Four of us will be watching out here,” one of the assault team said.

“And I’ll be in there with you, too,” Vince said, flying in through the passageway door. “I can’t wait to see this Enigma of yours in action!”

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Low Zharus Orbit, Descending

The Aloha Elevator passed by Quinoa a few dozen kilometers away as the fires of re-entry enveloped the hardlight Mercury capsule, much as it had John Glenn’s centuries ago. It was a very steep, 15-G deceleration intended to get her out of orbit as fast as possible. Her own inertial dampers were up to the task, but in combination with the hardlight heat shields they were draining her upgraded batteries quickly. To save energy she dispelled the pointless capsule illusion. The sphinx Integrate scanned the area for Cylon. Even an Integrate couldn’t cloak this kind of thing.

The black panther was ten kilometers away now, and moving closer. Quinoa fired her lifters to adjust her trajectory. It would be some time before she could brake herself enough to regain full control over her velocity. Cylon also had to avoid hitting the ground himself. Angry as he was, he wasn’t suicidal.

The first red pulse blast came in at just over thirty thousand meters, Quinoa easily dodged it—taking out Cylon’s visual sensor had obviously helped—and returned fire with a fusillade of her own beams. However, she didn’t hit him either.

Quinoa fired her lifters again, hoping to make him fly past her, but was rewarded with a sharp pain in her stomach. Her entire body was on fire, power levels fading. She barely kept enough hardlight online to keep herself from being torn apart by the supersonic wind. The sensation left a taste in her mouth like sour milk. Shit! Shitshitshit!

One of her batteries had…curdled. The forum post had mentioned this could happen if she didn’t condense the sarium exactly right. She’d hoped she had done so, but given the conditions she’d been working under she’d had no illusions about how likely that actually was. If she didn’t purge the affected qubitite substrate then it would scram every single speck of sarium in her body. She would be quite dead before she even hit the ground. She poured every single bit of power remaining into her shielding, falling limp.

A screech echoed across the comm space, and a golden spear dived down from the upper atmosphere. Glowing missiles separated from the spear, aimed at Cylon. The giant jaguar tried to dodge, but surprise and their speed caught him by surprise. Most exploded around him, but two struck him square on. Cylon was blasted off course, momentarily stunned.

The spear itself adjusted its trajectory, bending in the atmosphere to keep Quinoa locked on. It came up on the red, bare-winged sphinx from above, matching her speed. In the flaming nimbus at the heart of the spear, a golden eagle reached to grab onto the sphinx with her talons and hands. Quinoa felt the strong talons grab her shoulders and grip her hips.

Quinoa was conscious enough to know a rescue when she felt one. She started to expel soured sarium, silvery fluid streaming from every pore and orifice. The sooner she got it out of her system, the less risk she’d have of losing the rest. “Battery curdled…going to…need sarium…”

“You need a brake first. Ground’s coming up mighty fast,” the eagle replied.

The air lit up above them, as the eagle spread her wings. Fiery golden wings extended from her own natural wings, catching the air, killing most of their downward speed at once.

“Thank you…” Quinoa mumbled. “Sorry about…the mess. Whoever…you are…”

“Astranikki,” the golden eagle woman said. “We still have your friend up there to deal with, but I have reinforcements coming in about thirty seconds. Just hang tight!”

Astranikki? Uh…oh. Astranikki Munn, whose daughter Wanda had run many of the Integrate web boards Quinoa had shut down the last five months. “Sorry…”

“Not now!” she replied, dodging left from their pursuer’s shot. Half a minute was a long time.

A bat-shaped flier shot past them too fast for Cylon to react to it. It quickly braked, not quite as fiery or quickly as the eagle’s methods, but just as effective. The Fuser then reversed course with its mouth open. Whatever it was doing Cylon didn’t like it very much. The big black jaguar roared in pain and confusion and broke off pursuit.

Astranikki flinched a bit and banked a bit further away from the bat. “He’s getting better at his aim at least. First few times he tried that, he was very omnidirectional.”

For once Quinoa was glad she didn’t have her DIN after all.

“Not bad for meat and mech,” Astranikki said proudly. “Now let’s get some power in you so you can thank them properly on the ground. Next stop, Aloha.”

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Brubeck Main Platform, Brubeck Ridge, Southwest Dry Ocean

The cyberspace of Zane’s platform looked about like the platform itself, but with more graffiti. In glowing neon, it adorned the walls, and even hung in space within the air. “INTIES RULE, MEAT DROOLZ!” was the most articulate. Some of the graffiti was even in binary or bar coding. Clad in bright white snow leopard armor, Rochelle looked around and wrinkled their feline nose.

“This is utterly ridiculous,” Cernos said. The stag flicked his ears and looked around. “What are these people, a bunch of spoiled children?”

“That’s exactly what they are,” Rochelle said. “Spoiled children who don’t want to grow up. And Fritz is their Peter Pan.”

“Well, that means Zane gets to be their Captain Hook,” Vince added.

“Does that mean Quinoa was Tinkerbell?” Uncia wondered. “And who does that make the alligator with the alarm clock?”

“Okay, let’s not get too sidetracked, here,” Marc said. Various access panels opened in the air in front of them, revealing armor and weapons. They floated out of the DIN memory stores and attached themselves to the Fused stag duo. The matte black, blue tron-lined armor was only partly complete. As Rhianna and Kaylee added more DINs to the network things would improve. “Not bad. Not bad at all, Rochelle.”

Rochelle picked up her own share of weapons. “So let’s get started. You cover me. I’m going to start uploading the code.” She started with the greenly-glowing DIN that had been placed in the conference room. For convenience, the network had been arranged to have a 1:1 topology between the virtual and real worlds, which meant that the DINS in here would be in exactly the same places as outside.

Some of the network nodes blinked out, but the platform occupiers were lazy enough to not know them all. Rochelle reached out with a flood of DIN encrypted network probes masked as something from another Integrated. She got several pings back. “There’s four of them. They’re stationary right now—they must think we’re coming to take them one-on-one.” She chuckled, and started shifting code into the DIN. “Maybe you should feint at them a little, keep them in their holes for longer.”

“I’ll put on a show of being the one who’s really doing the work,” Vince said. “You’re just ‘meat’ and ‘mech’ to them, so why should they bother you?”

“We’ll give ‘em a whuppin’,” Marc said, rubbing armored hoofhands together. “Just a little prodding. They’re already off balance from the pasting we’ve been giving them IRL. It shouldn’t take much to get them to cut and run.”

Rochelle finished her upload, and the DIN changed from green to blue. “I’m gonna get the others in the shaft now.” She slipped out the secret door and drifted down.

“I’ll watch your back,” Marc/Cernos said, activating his armor and following her down. “Oh, this feels good.”

“I’ll stay here and put on a good show,” Vince said.

Rochelle got the second and third DINs uploaded without incident, but by the time she got to the fourth, Vince reported, “Watch out. I think they’re getting wise by now. They’re on the move.”

“They’re in X-Wings,” Cernos deadpanned. “They want to treat this like a game? Fine. Let’s give them a game.”

“Ready player one,” Rochelle said, grinning. “Hmm…what game shall we play?”

“Global Thermonuclear War,” Vince said.

“How about a nice game of tic tac toe? I’ll let you be the Xes.”

The X-wings appeared in the pane of blue sky above, then swooped downward, firing energy blasts from their wingtips. Somehow they managed to fit into the elevator shaft even though they should have been several times too wide. Rochelle reached out and tapped one as it passed, and it collapsed into wireframe lines that disappeared. The Integrate inside, apparently a hamster, kept right on going until he smacked into the sand at the bottom of the shaft, raising a little Wile E. Coyote style puff of dust.

“That was anticlimactic,” Marc said, smirking. “For them.”

“You know, I don’t think the crew Fritz assigned to occupy this place is all that competent,” Uncia said. “I mean, look at this! Not really professional.”

“Why do they need to be?” Rochelle asked. “They’re Integrates. Practically perfect in every way. They’re so reliant on their one trick—hacking anything that moves—that when you take it away they go right to pieces.”

“They’re not very good with weapons either, for the most part,” Marc agreed. “After the performance we saw…present company excepted, of course.”

“Hey, no problem,” Vince said. “Just give the rest of us some credit for keeping our skills brushed up. We’re not too proud to use actual weapons.”

“Of course,” Marc said.

Rhianna’s voice rumbled out of the sky. “That’s DIN eight! Number nine coming right up! I think the ones in VR are the only ones left putting up any kind of resistance, so have at ‘em!”

“Have we got enough in the system yet to run the purge?” Uncia asked.

“I’d like another one or two just to be safe,” Rochelle said. “But we can start the compile, anyway.” She opened a display panel in front of her and flicked it with a claw. It rang like a chime and turned blue, as code began running and a wireframe image building behind it.

“Numbah nine!” Rhianna said. “Lots faster now. Just give me a couple more minutes and you’ll be good to go!”

“I’m on it!” Rochelle moved to the virtual location of the new DIN and tagged it with a code upload. The wireframe started to build faster.

“They’re coming around again!” Marc said, raising his own VR bazooka. This time the trio of avatars were doing without the game elements—simply three arrows of light. “Eat this, you amateurs!” He fired.

The burst scattered them, but they didn’t stop. Vince opened fire with his own virtual weapons, adding to the chaos, then formed a shield between them and their attackers.

“Ten! Eleven!” Rhianna shouted. “Yes, that’s two!” They blinked into being on the opposite side of the shaft.

“Two lovely DINS! A-ha-ha-ha!” Rochelle said, playing a thunder-and-lightning effect, as she placed one hand on each and uploaded to both at once.

The VR attackers shook themselves out of the shock they’d experienced, only to get another one when they saw what was being built right in front of them—a cartoonish, bulbous-shaped bomb with a big yellow and green radiation symbol on it. Vince smirked at them. “You guys better log out now if you know what’s good for you. I’ve got a surprise coming.”

“Ohshit!” one exclaimed. “You’re not…”

“Bada boom!” Uncia said, giggling.

Twelve!” Rhianna boomed.

“You could just save yourselves some trouble and surrender now,” Rochelle said reasonably. “Put yourselves into hibernation and we promise not to doodle on you with magic markers while you’re asleep. Well, much, anyway.”

The one who spoke first instantly vanished, but the other two weren’t quite so intelligent. They poured on more speed, smashing against Vince’s shield. “Children, the both of you,” the raven reproved. “Me and my friends will be just fine, but you’ve been warned. The Fat Man is ready.”

Rochelle put on smoked-glass goggles and held up a detonator switch with a big red button under her thumb. “We’re ready for the kick-off here. You guys ready out there?”

“Eeek!” the Integrate attackers squeaked, and winked out—moments before Rochelle pushed the button. The virtual explosion swept the mainframe clean of their remaining control access.

“Big bada boom!” Uncia said cheerfully, clapping their hands.

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“That’s it! They’re bugging out!” TimRazor reported. “We did it!”

“Yes, but perhaps too easily,” Carrie-Anne said. The platforms systems, those still undamaged by Q-dust, were coming back under their control. While the platform-wide hardlight shield was down they could at least restore power to the residential emitters. “They were simply unprepared for the ferocity of our assault. Next time we will not be as lucky.”

“Lucky,” Myla said, glaring at Zane. “Boss…not that I don’t appreciate it—I do—but did you almost Integrate me or something? Sophie’s reporting all sorts of big changes, in me and on her.

“This is real fur!” Sophie exclaimed, shaking herself. “I’ve got little fleshy bits in me here and there. Ewww.”

Zane groaned. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to. I was worried…” He facepalmed. “I thought you were gonna die because of me.”

The fennec’s shared expression softened. “How can I blame you for that, boss? I knew the risks on this operation. Anybody in the military does. As an LT I lost a few people under my command. This is just—I dunno. I guess we’ll see once I de-Fuse. If I can de-Fuse.”

“I didn’t go that far,” Zane said. “I think.”

“Partial Integration isn’t unknown,” the golden retriever, Ianau, said. He transmitted some data. “There are at least a dozen known cases over the past thirty years. Including one of Aloha’s Munns. In each case, they were…boosted, but didn’t become a single being—unless and until they Integrated all the way later on, anyway. Aside from your new batteries, I can’t say how you might look once you de-Fuse.”

“As long as I don’t end up one of those Earther cyberpunk borgs…” Myla said.

“Hey, what’s wrong with us Earther cyberpunk borgs?” Rhianna asked, mock-offended. “We need love too, you know.”

“Nono! Not like that,” Myla said, chuckling. “You know, metal bits? Uh…”

“Like the one I have inside here?” Rhianna tapped the side of her own head.:You’ve got one, too,: she sent.

“Um…I didn’t mean—” Myla said, a little flustered.

“Just funning you, Myla,” Rhianna said, patting her friend on the shoulder. “Nothing like a job well done. I’m going to install another half dozen DIN units for safety before we leave.”

“We need to decide where to put the prisoners,” Carrie-Anne said. The black jaguar transmitted video from the newly-online cameras. The Dream Chaser had some carbon scoring, but nothing serious. There were ten hibernating Integrates in all. “We can’t take them back to Uplift.”

Zane sighed. “We’ve got a brig on the platform. Mainly meant for miners who get a little too exuberant with those stills we intentionally never quite manage to stamp out, but we can easily make them secure against Integrates, especially if we keep their DINs. Won’t be the first time this place has kept prisoners.”

“As long as we have root access to their systems, we should be okay,” Vince said. “I’ve come up with some experimental fetters for Inties. We’re not a completely trouble-free community, after all. We have our miscreants and criminals.”

“Gosh. Integrates, not completely trouble-free?” Zane said. “I thought we were all a bunch of peaceful hippie lotus-eaters who form communes to try to expand our minds.”

“Sarcasm aside,” Vince continued. “There’s something else that crossed my mind. It’s my opinion that Fritz will think his people were beaten only by other Inties—whatever his cronies tell him. This makes the Freerider Garage something of an open secret. Once Fritz realizes that Rhianna and Rochelle are the source of his pain…”

“Aw man, we only just rebuilt the place,” Rochelle said. “And the insurance company won’t touch us with a ten foot pole.”

“I could—” Zane began.

“No, you couldn’t,” Rhianna said.

“You don’t even know what I was gonna say,” Zane whined.

“You’ve done enough for us already,” Rhianna said tartly. “I’d rather keep you as a last resort.”

“I’ll be happy just so long as you want to keep me at all,” Zane said, his voice sounding more like Terry’s for a moment.

Rhianna smiled warmly, realizing what she said had stung him a little too much. She and Kaylee answered in concert. “Of course, Terry.”

“Terry?” Myla said. “Oh…right.”

“A voice I have not heard in some time,” Carrie-Anne said.

“I keep to myself a lot, much as I wish I didn’t,” Zane said. “Er…I mean…he does. As much as he wishes…er…I wish…” Zane shook his head. “Oh, I don’t even know which pronouns I meant anymore.”

“Just…trust me,” Rhianna said. “I know my pride’s a personal flaw, but it’s nothing against you. When I truly need your help, I will ask, and I won’t be shy about it.” Trusting her feelings, she hugged the tiger Integrate, who purred loudly while wearing a very startled expression. It felt like a very feminine thing to do, maybe stereotypically so, but that was the point. “Now, come on. What next? Call in repair crews?”

Zane nodded. “The Starmaster and a couple other subs are already loaded with repair supplies, and our maintenance teams are standing by. I just need to comm them and they’ll be here in half an hour.”

“We’re in no rush to leave,” Rochelle said, smiling at her business partner. “Are we? I’d like to make sure my little firecracker did its job.”

“Let me get the laser comm gear back up so we can get in touch with the mainland,” Rhianna said. Her brain was itching, her paws were twitching. Big repair jobs were what she did best and loved most, and here was the biggest one yet, right in front of her. After what the Inties did to it, making this vast machine come to life again would feel so good. It already felt like a second job, for that matter.

Over the past week she’d gotten to know the people in the Brubeck Maintenance and Repair Department, as well as a number of the RIDE techs. They’d gotten to talking shop a time or two, and it was a lot of fun to share tips and tricks. Though sometimes the Brubeck techs would clam up at odd times when it came to discussing restoring older RIDEs, as if there was something they weren’t supposed to talk about. Some sort of corporate secret project, she supposed. Well, that was fair. She was just a consultant, after all. They hadn’t even made her sign an NDA.

“And I could show you that repair bay I mentioned,” Zane said. “If the Inties haven’t taken it apart or something. Maybe you and Myla should come down there with me and you could check her and Sophie over.”

“Let’s do it,” Rhianna said.

“Yeah. I want to find out if I need a new wardrobe,” Myla said. “I feel…off.”

Rhianna considered her. “I wasn’t going to say anything, but I’m sure you were at least five centis taller than I was before, not counting the ears. Now we’re meeting at eye level, even in Fuse.”

Abruptly, Zane twitched. He held up his DIN, and a body-conforming hardlight pane formed in front of Myla and swept across her from front to back, scanning her just as he had done to Rhianna and Rochelle in the garage after they had made his DIN. He looked distant for a moment, then groaned. “Oh God.” He buried his face in his hands. “It just hit me what that idiotic tiger did. Terry, wherever you’re hiding, I am coming after you with a roto-rooter.”

Both women folded their arms across their chests in an almost disturbingly identical gesture. “Well?”

“You’re gonna find out sooner or later,” Zane said, his voice muffled by his hands. “When you de-Fuse, anyway. I’m just gonna go find a bottle of hemlock to drink or something.”

“Repair Bay, Zane, now,” Rhianna said sourly. “Climate control’s operational in there.”

“Okay, now this I gotta see,” Rochelle said.

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The repair bay was everything Zane had said it was—an immense cavernous facility with state-of-the-art repair cradles and diagnostic equipment situated along the walls in numbered spaces. There was a section at one end where motorized tool carts, painted with numbers and designations, rested until they were called for. They could trundle up to a given space and unfold into exactly the right assortment of tools for any given job. At the other end were a set of in-depth diagnostic scanning tables and devices.

The chamber had benefited from its position buried deep down at the bottom of the platform. By the time the partying Integrates had worked their way down to it, they were too exhausted to give it more than a couple of desultory licks of spray paint and dent a few control boards. All the displays were hardlight anyway so they wouldn’t even have the satisfaction of smashing glass screens, and to scatter tools all over in a symbolic gesture they would have first had to retrieve the carts all the way from the other end of the room, then open them. Too much trouble when there was still booze to be had from all those hastily-abandoned stills…

“This place reeks like a frathouse,” Myla said. “So Fritz just takes the place over, leaves it to his most irresponsible cronies, and we get to waltz back in and retake it with minimal time and effort.”

“I expected much more resistance as well,” Carrie-Anne said.

“Fritz must still be drinking his own kool-aid about Integrate superiority,” Rochelle theorized. “He didn’t think he’d need any more than a few simps to hold this place against anything norms could dish out.”

“And he thinks he hasn’t pissed off enough Inties yet that they’d care to take a hand,” Flint said. He punched his right fits into his left hand. “He’ll soon find out he’s wrong about that.”

Ianau looked around the space. “Let’s get this Q-dust cleaned up before you de-Fuse. Flint, you game?”

“Willing to try. It’s more fine lifter control than I’ve done before,” the bear Integrate said.

“You’ll do fine, sarge,” Myla reassured him.

“I can help, too, if you show me what to do,” Zane said. “Never let it be said I didn’t do my share of the…light lifting.”

“Like what Quinoa did when she cleaned up Katie’s old DE shell,” Kaylee said, leaving unvoiced her concern about the missing sphinx. She wasn’t Kaylee’s favorite person, nor anybody else’s here, but she’d partly redeemed herself before her kidnapping. It still bothered Kaylee that she’d never had the chance to thank her for how she’d fixed Katie’s original body.

“Set your visual scanners for fine acuity,” Ianau said, the golden retriever’s eyes turning a deep purple. “Raw Q has this spectral pattern.” He transmitted it to Flint and Zane.

“Right,” Zane said.

“And once you find some of it and get a feel for it, you can sort of reach out for anything that ‘feels’ like Q around you and lift it all at once. Like turning yourself into a magnet that only attracts qubitite dust,” Ianau continued. “It’s kind of hard to explain, but if you fiddle with it a little it’ll just click in a minute or two.”

“Repair crews launched, Zane,” Cernos reported. “ETA forty minutes.”

“Righto.” Zane held out his hands, peering at the floor and frowning in concentration. “I think…I get what you’re talking about. Q-dust kind of…tingles. Like pop rocks, only not on my tongue.”

“That’s quantum for you,” Ianau said, smirking. “It’ll tingle on your tongue, too, if you ever eat any.” He considered the bluish-tinged sand and grit on the floor thoughtfully. “I think there’s…oh…about two thousand mu worth of AA dust in this room, if I’m any judge. And I am. I was in the Uplift Assay Office.”

“Well, we are sitting right on top of a vein of the pure stuff,” Zane said. “I still don’t know exactly how my Dad found it.” He shook his head. “Anyway, let’s get it contained.” A haze formed in the air around him as qubitite dust wafted up off the floor, walls, and out of equipment.

Flint held the palms of his hands about ten centimeters apart, the dust streaming between them into a diffuse sphere. The bear Integrate’s brows were furrowed with concentration. “I…think I’ve got it.”

“Looking much better in here,” Ianau said. “Back into the green. No risk of contamination. Q dust in the lungs is nothing to sneeze at.”

“I think it’s more something to develop a hacking cough about,” Zane said, shrinking the cubic meters of dust around him into a little sphere the size of a golf ball.

“Keep those,” Ianau said. “Good money in them—or you could just eat it.”

Zane blinked at him. “Eat…qubitite? That’s the second time you’ve said something about that, so I guess you’re not joking…?”

“Our Integrate bodies treat it like a nutrient, in certain situations,” Ianau said. “Certain other minerals, as well, like the doping materials for sarium batteries. I can fill you in later.”

“Getting Q-dust out is normally a months-long job on a rig this size,” Rhianna said. “Just…don’t do too much, okay? The repair crews still need something to do,” she jibed with a grin.

Zane tossed the qubitite sphere up in the air, and it circled his head like a small moon. “I’ll bear that in mind.” He glanced at Flint. “So to speak.”

“You owe me a fish for that pun,” the bear Integrate said.

“Well, I’ll get you one,” Zane said, grinning at him. “Just bear with me.”

“Hey, if you’re hiring, I’m willing,” Flint said. “And make that two fish.”

“And you’ll charge all the market will…oh, all right, I’ll stop now.” He chuckled. “Seriously, if you want a job, you’re hired. You did good on this assault, and—” he glanced at Myla “—you’ve got great references. You can speak to my head of security when she gets here on one of those Starmasters—or see if my chief bodyguard has room for another Intie on the team.”

Myla chuckled. “I don’t think that will be a problem, if you can bear the terrible puns. See, now he’s got me doing it.” She grinned. “Welcome to the team, Flint.”

“Thanks, LT.” Flint matched her grin. “Looking forward to it, ma’am.”

Rhianna was looking critically at the equipment in the Repair Bay. It was of similar quality to the Freerider Garage’s, which she approved. The cradles looked in good condition with the dust now off of them. There were even several Fuser dummies like she recalled from Kaylee’s testing phase for accessing parts that could only be gotten to that way. The temperature still wasn’t quite ideal—still about 30C—but cool enough. It would go down further once they’d had the chance to de-dust the cooling fans and generators, which Zane was suggesting Flint and Ianau should do next. Then he glanced worriedly at Myla.

At a mutual nod, the women de-Fused from their RIDEs at the same time.

Sophie’s pelt didn’t shut off. As the fennec pulled away from her rider, hands and feet reconfiguring into paws, it was clear the light golden fur was indeed quite real. A few odd pieces of gear—almost fleshy—could be seen inside the RIDE’s frame before she closed up. The woman she revealed, on the other hand could have been Rhianna’s twin sister aside from her face, hair, and ears—and even then she had a fennec’s cold-and-wet nose like Rhianna’s feline version. Her build had formerly been slimmer and taller, but now she was exactly as short and well-rounded as Rhianna.

Zane projected a perfectly reflective two meter by two meter plane of hardlight in front of them so they could see themselves, and started to whimper a little.

One arm folded across her chest, Rhianna sighed before putting the other hand over her eyes.

“Lordy Lord Lordy,” Kaylee said, face-pawing herself.

“Oh my God!” Rochelle squealed, her voice abruptly cutting off as Uncia, undoubtedly showing a greater sense of self-preservation than her rider, stifled the incipient giggle before it could escape.

Rhianna just sighed, at a complete loss for words.

Myla looked at her reflection, then back at the lynx’s rider, then at herself again. She had no external signs of being a cyborg. No more than Rhianna herself did, at any rate. “Well, at least we can share clothes.”

“I…I think I’m hungry,” Sophie said. “Am I? Do I have a stomach now?”

“We should call Mike Munn,” Ianau suggested. “He and Tonto stayed like that for several years before they were finally fully Integrated.”

Zane groaned. “I am so sorry about this. Please don’t kill me. Or…please do kill me if it would make you feel better…it might make me feel better.”

“I’m…really not that upset,” Myla said. “Rhianna has a nice curvy figure, so I don’t mind sharing. But then again, maybe it isn’t me you need to worry about.”

Rhianna smiled predatorily at the tiger. “Okay, I understand. You have a crush on me. I don’t know how to feel about that—I’ve never been on the female end before. I—”

Myla tugged on the crossrider’s sleeve. “We need to chat, before you say anything else, okay?”

“Fine,” Rhianna said, shrugging. “Lead on, MacDuff.”

“Excuse us. We need to visit the Ladies Room,” Myla said.

“Uh, it’s that way,” Zane said in a small voice, pointing.

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The Aerie, Aloha

The Munn family home—the Aerie—was often written about in Zharusian architectural circles. Quinoa had visited it a few times over the years, before her Integration and after. The after was the problem more than anything. Until recently, Astranikki had been living with her family in secret. During that time, Quinoa had paid a visit to her daughter Wanda and rather arrogantly (being honest with herself) shut down her Integrate web boards in person. The same boards that had provided the knowledge the sphinx had used to escape captivity.

Dr. Sam Munn was currently in his male minotaur aspect, rather than the female panther shape in which she spent the other half of her life. He probed the paste clogging the sphinx’s DIN port. “I’ve never seen this material before. Tell me, has an Intie ever had a port damaged beyond repair?”

“They grow back, but it takes about a day. You could surgically remove it if need be,” Quinoa said between swallowing off-the-shelf AA-class sarium batteries and more normal human food. Her green flight feathers were even beginning to grow back—but by her own choice, no longer iridescent. It was time to grow up.

Sam shook his head slowly, still poking at the plugged DIN slot with a probe to judge how hard it was. “That’s a bit extreme. This is more of a mechanical problem than a biological one. Maybe we can drill out most of it, and try to scrape the rest off enough for you to heal. Instead of chopping the entire thing out.”

The Munns rivaled the Steaders in terms of quirkiness, but without the Crazy to go with it. Sam and Jason/Janet Munn swapped their RIDEs—and genders—every five years. Astranikki’s son, Tracy, had been one of the first civilians to Fuse a dolphin. There was Nikki and her golden eagle Astra who had been a de-facto married couple even before they Integrated. The video of Nick’s Fuse proposal was often used in campaigns by RIDE rights groups. Then there was the family’s long reliance on IDEs, even after everybody else but Clint Brubeck had abandoned them for RIDEs.

I should’ve been a Munn instead, Quinoa considered. Satisfied, she pushed her plate back. “I’m sorry. I’m so, so, so sorry. I’ve done horrible things to you. I’ve acted like a…a prick. That’s what.” That was a word that supposedly applied to males, but this was Zharus, after all.

“Never thought you were acting,” Astranikki said, eyebrow raised.

“Well, I wasn’t,” Quinoa admitted. “There, I said it.”

Wanda studied the battered sphinx carefully from the other side of the table, her ears twitching as she thought. “Don’t worry too much about it—we know a thing or two about Fritz’s faction, and the control he wields over his people. We didn’t take it personally. In that light…apology accepted. As long as you promise not to do it again.”

“I can do better than that.” Quinoa tapped the side of her head. “I have a lot of stuff in my head that’s useful. I never actually deleted anything Fritz told me to. I shut down more boards than just yours, Wanda. A lot more. What I’ve got are the results of a lot of basic research. As soon as I get an operational DIN, I’ll upload you a copy of everything.”

“You didn’t really delete it from us either. We had multiply-redundant off-site backups. We just went deeper into the mesh and kept going. It’s harder for newbies to find us now, but it kept you guys in the dark too,” Wanda said, unable to resist boasting about how futile Quinoa’s attempt had been. “My hat may usually be white, but I hate bullies. When the need’s there, it can be as black as night.”

Crystal, Wanda’s snow leopard RIDE, nuzzled Quinoa’s side. “Give us a call when you’ve got your DIN back, and we’ll send you the keys to the boards. Ashley’s teams would be interested in that research and your thoughts on it I’m sure,” the RIDE purred. “We’d make you one ourselves right now, better than the one you had, but we’ve been monitoring recent events and it seems things are afoot. Something tells me we may not have the kind of time it would take us to analyze your socket. And that’s assuming we can find a quick way to get that gunk out of it.”

“Speaking of Ash, she’s already searching the boards, to try and find what that goop might be. It’s not as easy as it used to be since you shut us down, but if anyone has heard of anything, she’ll sniff it out,” Wanda added.

The sphinx seemed to melt under the unexpected feline affection. She stroked the snow leopardess between her ears. She strongly reminded her of Uncia, though she had a slightly smaller shell. “I will. Now, fill me in on what’s been happening since I screwed the pooch a couple of weeks ago.”

“Actually, there is one more thing you need to do before Ryan loads up the powerpoint,” Astranikki said, nodding to the pair of bats waiting at the breakfast bar. Normally, the family would have some of their members Fused, but they were all separated from their RIDEs, to not-so-subtly make a point.

Quinoa nodded, feeling sure-footed enough to stand up again. Peter Munn had been partnered with Vincent long enough that he looked more changed than many, and bats were one of those RIDE types that needed something like the wing membranes and a bat-like nose. She hugged Peter, then his RIDE. “Thank you. I’ll repay you both. You risked a lot going up against Cylon.”

Pete reddened, but his RIDE answered for them. “It vas nothing; ve do the orbital sky dive regularly. Vas goot to test those new routines too, and to see they vorked.”

“We had backups in case they didn’t,” Peter added. “But seeing that cat take off like his tail was on fire was sweet.”

“Right now, if there aren’t any more thank yous to go around, I believe someone requested a briefing.” Ryan, Wanda’s husband said. One wall lit up.

“Remember, hon, keep it brief,” Wanda added. “Nikki’s graduation is in two years and I don’t want to miss it.”

Ryan threw a roll at his wife, and the first news clip started.

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The Coffeehouse

The giant, trembling black jaguar tried to make himself small in front of Fritz. His red eye was barely healed, sluggishly moving side-to-side across the bridge of his nose. The eye stopped in the left socket, then it was joined by a blue eye on the right. Cylon waited for the Bosscat to make his judgement.

Fritz looked from him to the similarly trembling Irish Wolfhound Integrate standing just a couple of meters away from him. The truth about cats and dogs. Maybe I should have ‘em fight to the death, how would that be?

:Fritz…: Jiminy sent quellingly.

:Don’t get your panties in a bunch, I’m just yanking your chain.: Fritz sighed. “Man, this is just not copacetic. What am I ever gonna do with you cats?”

“N…no excuse, sir!” Murphy said, thick Irish brogue almost entirely absent. “I still don’t know what happened…we couldn’t hack them! They…they came into cyberspace and kicked us out!

Fritz snorted. “Well, at least you’ve got the right name for it. Sounds like whatever could’ve gone wrong for you, did.” He turned to look at Cylon. “And you, KITTy-cat, what’s your excuse?”

“The blasted Munns showed up,” the panther growled. “I couldn’t fight them off and keep after the Steader girl at the same time.”

“Sounds like you couldn’t do either one, beakel.”

“N…no, I couldn’t,” Cylon admitted.

Fritz paced back and forth in front of them. “Oh, you crazy kids.” It only took a gesture, then he was holding his nearly-invisible flensing blade in his hand—the one with the keen, monomolecular-sharp edge that had accounted for so many of the pelts that now lined various rooms in the Coffeehouse. Both Murphy and Cylon froze in place.

Fritz scratched his own chin with the tip of the blade—actually less dangerous than it looked, since an invisible hardlight field protected its edges when he willed it, but it impressed the hell out of anyone watching who’d seen what that blade could do. “Now what am I doing to do about you? Such nice soft fuzzy pelts you have, too…” Out of the corner of his eye, he watched synchronized lumps move down their throats as the two Integrates exchanged glances and swallowed in unison.

And then Fritz made the blade disappear, smirking. “But things are happening too fast right now. If I indulged myself, you cats would busy growing your skins back if something else suddenly came up and I needed you. So, just this once, I’ll suspend that sentence. Just. This. Once. Ya dig?”

“Y-yessir!” Murphy squeaked. “I—I won’t disappoint you again, sir!”

“See that you don’t. You tell me how they’ve got that platform set up now. See if you can get back in. Fill me in on the gory details.” He turned to Cylon. “And you—you find the girl. Don’t approach her, just let me know if you can get a line on her.”

Cylon nodded.

“Then get to work. Screw up again, you don’t have to worry about bits of you being carpets.” He nodded to the mantel with the jars on it. “You get my drift?”

Fritz returned to his throne as the two subdued Integrates made their way out of the room. Murgatroyds. I ought to skin ‘em.

:It’s just as well you don’t. Not now.:

:Yeah, I know.: Fritz chewed on a knuckle thoughtfully, too irritated for once even to snap back at Jiminy. :I’ve got other fish to fry.: He frowned thoughtfully. :Like that Zane Brubeck cube, for one. Maybe it’s about time I made a public example of him.:

:He’s Clint’s son,: Jiminy said.

:Yeah, but that ain’t a get-out-of-jail-free card.: Fritz stretched lazily. :It’s just about time Mr. Brubeck learned what happens when you try to pass Go and collect two hundred bucks if you land on the space that says not to. There’s only one Bosscat, and he don’t have stripes.:

Authors’ Notes

R_M: I suppose it won’t surprise you, knowing me, that I based the title of this episode on a terrible pun. When I was a cashier at K-Mart, and someone happened to buy salt at the same time they bought batteries, I was all set to deliver one of my favorite zingers. (It didn’t happen very often.) Given that the episode involves an assault on Zane’s Integrate-captured platform on the one hand, and Quinoa’s new super-charged batteries on the other, it was as if it was asking for that pun. So, why not?

Apart from those two main plots, this episode also involves the first stage of dealing with the Amontillado infection at Alpha Camp. Perhaps this episode should have been called “Assault, Batteries, and Peaches”?

Speaking of which, Mr. Peaches the dragon was named in honor of one of the denizens of the furry IRC channels where Jon and I sometimes hang out. (A denizen who has, as far as I know, not actually read the FreeRIDErs stories himself.) Peaches is a particularly fun character to write, as a rather non-threatening dragon. I tend to think of him in terms of the titular character from the Disney cartoon “The Reluctant Dragon” (based on a book by Wind in the Willows author Kenneth Grahame). Said cartoon was incorporated into a behind-the-scenes documentary featuring Robert Benchley, in which Alan Ladd portrayed a Disney animator before he made it big as a leading man. It probably also inspired the live-action/cartoon hybrid movie Pete’s Dragon, about another non-threatening dragon. But I’m getting off the subject.

Given that Mr. Peaches is based on a real-live person’s fursona, it also makes it a little tricky sometimes to decide how to portray him. I sometimes worry a little whether anything I should write about him doing might conceivably reflect poorly on (or be taken badly by the owner of) the fursona version of said character. Would the Integrate Mr. Peaches engage in stereotypically draconic-predatorial behavior in Nature Range, for example? It’s a troublesome question to consider.

This is the first episode where we see RIDEs equipped with Rhianna’s new DINsec components in direct combat with Integrates. Of course, they’re not exactly the most skilled Integrates. The sense we had while writing this was that Fritz didn’t actually bother to put any good fighters on the platform—which you would really think he should have done if he was serious about keeping it.

At the time, of course, we hadn’t come up with the rationale we retrofitted a few episodes back in this Director’s Cut to explain why he didn’t destroy it outright—the idea of Fritz being old buddies with Clint Brubeck and so not seriously wanting to harm his legacy. I expect that we just set it down to overconfidence at the time—that Fritz thought he didn’t need to bother to put anyone with a lick of skill there, because even the least competent Integrates would be more than a match for any “meat and mech.” But with the subsequent changes, and Fritz admitting that at least one “mech” is more than a match for Integrates, that rationale by itself seemed a little…less compelling.

This episode is also where we see the first signs that Zane has a bit of a crush on Rhianna—and that Rhianna is reciprocating, whether she is consciously aware of it or not. Is it cute that they’ve got a crush on each other? Is it disturbing that the crush effectively accidentally remolds Myla into having Rhianna’s figure? (Zane blames Terry for it, but is that just a convenient excuse? We never were terribly clear on that.) That’s something readers will have to decide for themselves, I expect.

This is, thus far, the one and only time Zane has tried his “magic fingers” routine—he’s never seen to try any sort of Integrate “healing” again. But given what happens this time, it’s not exactly hard to come up with a reason for that. And also, it’s not as if he’s been put in a position where he would have needed to.

At this late date, I’m no longer entirely sure what drove me to have Zane do that, unless it was wanting to get to play with a semi-Integrate duo the way that Jetfire did with Mike and Tonto Munn in his earlier stories. (And upping the soap-opera quotient on Zane and Rhianna’s relationship, of course.)

Speaking of Jetfire, this marks the first episode of Integration in which he has a major level of involvement—he co-wrote the scenes in which members of his Munn clan rescue Quinoa on the way down. Jetfire isn’t inclined to look back at his older stories, or write author’s notes about them, which is really too bad from a standpoint of wanting to describe the background of how the story was written. But on the other hand, his scenes here (and, probably, in the next episode as well) were generally not affected by most of the major changes we made to other aspects of Integration, so we were for the most part able to leave them just as they were. I did add a couple more lines of dialogue, though.

We also added a couple more Fritz scenes, to show his mindset prior to the attack and after Zane takes the platform back. It occurred to me to use Murphy, the Irish Wolfhound Integrate who originally shows up in a much later episode, in the role of chief Ascendant honcho aboard the platform—he doesn’t actually show up in person in the scenes that take place on the platform, but then again, none of the Integrates who fight Rochelle and the others at the final confrontation in cyberspace is actually described. So he could have been one of them.

Apart from those, the biggest change had to do with tweaking Quinoa’s escape scene. The original version of it was on an untethered space station, and it was originally Crazy Joe who had locked her up. But those changes required surprisingly little actual rewriting.

I honestly can’t think of anything major we changed about the attack on the mining platform itself. But that’s the way that this project has been—some parts of the series are practically perfect as they are, while others need tweaking and rejiggering.

JonBuck: So, why does Nextus keep making dragons if they have such a high Integration rate? How do they explain all those missing pilots? [R_M: Also, how do they eat and breathe? And other science facts? (La la la.)] Honestly, FreeRIDErs is the first setting I’ve built that I wanted mythical-types in and could actually justify it under setting rules. Does this mean there are Chimera RIDEs with three heads? Probably not. But we do have the two-headed dog named Zaphod and Beeblebrox who may have been a cerberus where the human wore another RIDE helmet next to the RIDE’s actual head, for the effect.

When starting out, I pondered what animals were suited for what roles. I wanted a smaller RIDE to start with, so I ended up with lynxes. But that ended up not being a hard and fast rule. Besides, what’s a mecha-based series without some giants?

I wanted Astranikki to have a suitably dramatic entrance for the first official crossover between JF’s and our storylines. I think we delivered. Granted, it takes some of the thunder away from Quinoa’s escape, but it’s good to have someone there to catch you if you fall. Quinnie will have another big moment soon, though…

We have some out-and-out technology porn in this part, describing in great detail the weapons and other gear they’re all carrying. What can I say?

R_M: Incidentally, some of the illustrations of the characters on the FreeRIDErs setting page are intended to depict Kaylee and Uncia wearing the weapon paks described here. They didn’t necessarily get them exactly right, but close enough.

Preceded by:
Integration Part XIII: Kaylee & Anny
FreeRIDErs Succeeded by:
Integration Part XV: The Task of Amontillado