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User:Robotech Master/Citizen Katie

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FreeRIDErs story universe


Integration

by Jon Buck and Robotech_Master

(Heinrich's biography written by Cossy.)

Part 11: Citizen Katie

DATE: January 15, 121 AL, 1130 hrs.
UNIT: K3-LNX(f)
PURPOSE: RI First Boot.
TEST: Neurological and psychological integrity in TBS virtual environment.

Power on.

K3’s first seconds rolled by like an eternity in her buffer, her virtualized optics tracking numerous objects. Up and down, left and right, into and out of focus. Faint, almost inaudible whistles came in and out, her ears tracking them as her eyes did the objects. Odors tickled her olfactory neural map. Next came movement. Left forepaw, right forepaw, left hindpaw, right hindpaw. A flick of her bobtail, of tufted ears, a twitch of her furred pelt. The stark blankness of the world began to fill in, as if she occupied a sheet of paper.

Pencil outlines of blades of grass, trees, rocks, a stream leading to a river, a mountainous landscape filled with wildlife. Mere pencil lines became inked, then blocked in with solid colors, like living in a cartoon land. A gray rock acquired shading, grain, the texture of granite flecked with sparkling mica. Sounds joined in, the sigh of wind through the pines, the odor of the evergreens.

K3 sat on her haunches, enraptured, unable to speak—her Broca’s Area hadn’t been activated yet, so she couldn’t verbalize. But she knew, instinctively, that this was home as a natural lynx would sense it, and felt dissatisfied, knowing there was something more waiting for her. If only—then something clicked into place. Sky, rock, tree, she thought, looking at each thing in turn, knowing their names. Bird! Flower! Rabbit!

“K3, please respond to my voice,” came the sound out of the sky. It was a woman’s voice, kind and gentle, like a mother reminding her child it was time to get up for school. The voice of a goddess. “Kaythree? Rise and shine, sleepy kitty.”

Her virtual eyes were connected to external cameras. The face matched what had already been inserted into her memory blocks. Dr. Patil, and next to her, a very large metallic rat that made her still-strong feline instincts measure up for possible pouncing upon. “Kaythree?” she repeated.

“Aff-irm-a-tive,” Kaythree managed, the word grinding out through unnaturally imposed neural pathways. “Un-it on-line.”

“Yer gonna have to do something ‘bout that, Doc,” the rat said. “She sounds like a Dalek. Or maybe K-9.”

“Her Broca Map needs a great deal more refinement, Rattigan,” Dr. Avilia Patil said, petting the rodent along his muzzle. She was a black-haired woman wearing interface specs, with a calm demeanor and kind, curious brown eyes. “Don’t worry, Kaythree. You’ll be chatting up a storm in no time.”

“Affirm-ative,” Kaythree replied more smoothly.

“Other than that, clean bill of mental health,” the human said, smiling at the virtual cat. “Now say g’night. Your adventure’s only just started, my child.”

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DATE: March 4, 121 AL, 2010 hrs.
UNIT: K3-LNX(f)-001
PURPOSE: RI Interaction in TBS environment. Introduction of initial pre-production (001) series units to original prototype (000, unit called “Felix”).

“Well, ladies, hello,” triple-zero said in a smarmy voice, padding around them on their mountainside virtual home. Kaythree watched him with a great deal of trepidation as he circled her and the three other lynxes. There were two males, and two females who each had their own den. They had spent the past week doing little more than chasing rodents for dinner and lazing in the sunshine between chatting with one another. “I’m Fritz, and I’m here to say welcome to the world.”

“You’re not talking about this world, are you?” one of the males said.

“No. This is where you just get your paws dirty and so our human creators can make sure you’re not going to rip their throats out once you’re done ‘baking’. We have to prove that we’re more than just animals. Much, much more. Y’all still have a few weeks in here before then, though. Have they given you names yet? Or at least a number?”

“F2Z,” the male who’d spoken said proudly.

“Their numerical designations never make any sense. I’ll call you Franz,” Fritz said. He looked at the next male. “What about you?”

“F1K,” the darker-furred lynx said.

“Frank, then.” The elder RI padded next to the other female. “And you, my girl?”

“K8C,” she said, momentarily distracted by a virtual butterfly. “Ooh, purretty.”

“Hmm…Kandace. Works for you. And the last, loveliest one,” Felix purred. “Your designation, my girl?”

“K3,” she said, feeling a little uneasy under his experienced gaze.

“Only one letter and one number, eh? Kaylee, obviously,” he said with some finality. “Humans are going to keep referring to you by those numbers until you get out of testing, then they’re going to ask what name you’d like to use for yourself. If you like mine, go ahead and use it.” He paused to lick a forepaw. “Otherwise, I’m happy to meet y’all. We’ll have a lot of fun together.

“Oh, and if you hear a human call me ‘Felix’ instead, just ignore it. My name is Fritz, and don’t you forget it.”

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July 17, 156 A.L.

Aloha, Steader Residence

“Well, if it isn’t my old buddy Fritz. Or should I call you Felix? What’s up, old pal? Going to have me thrown in the clink for tax evasion again? Or maybe something more believable, like shoving old ladies into traffic?”

Fritz regarded Joe Steader irritably. The old man looked rather haggard, after seeing what had happened to his niece on TV, showing all of his ninety-plus years. And that was coming on top of thirty years of bottle-aided dissolution. It was probably only because modern nano-medicine was so good that he was even still around at all.

And just who do we have to thank for that, hmm? Fritz wished he could tell Jiminy to shut up again, but that particular thought had originated in his own thinky-bits. Still, it served to put a brake on his temper better than any lip from Jiminy ever had.

“I already said I was sorry about that. Was necessary at the time to keep the press from sniffing around when Quinnie…joined us. Anyway, I got the charges quashed when the coast was clear.”

“Oh, I understand that much. But tax evasion? As long as I’ve played the Game? It’s insulting.” He shook his head. “Too bad Lattie’s not still around. I’d have been happy to get brought up on assault charges for bopping him one. I’d even have done the deed myself, no extra charge.”

Fritz cleared his throat and changed the subject. “I’ve brought Quinnie home. She needs rest and a place to heal up.”

Joe snorted and tossed another shot of scotch down his throat. “Oh, really. So you’re the Steader family’s own personal angel of mercy now. Cut to the chase, old chum. What do you want.

You to lay off the jitter sauce, for one thing. But Fritz knew damned well any right he had to interfere in Joe’s life had gone out the window decades ago. The tax-evasion arrest hadn’t exactly done wonders for their relationship either. And trying anyway wouldn’t help him sweet-talk the old guy into a favor.

“I need to keep Quinnie in dullsville until this thing with Brubeck blows over,” Fritz said. “I know you got a good crash pad for that. Dig?”

“You mean you want me to keep her out of your hair,” Joe said. Even halfway drunk all the time the old man was still sharp. “I dig. Funny thing is, I’m even inclined to agree. Mikel and his ex are going to skin me alive when they find out about this whole mess.”

Well, at least with that much juice in your system you probably won’t feel it. “How’s your bro doing by the way?”

“Doesn’t matter right now, does it?” Joe picked up a bottle of rum, poured it into a glass, then added a splash of cola, spilling half of it. His hand shook as he lifted the glass to his mouth. “Yeah. I can put her up in the family suite up on the twenty-thou first floor. Bet she needs special Intie stuff to heal, right?”

“I’ve got a freebee for you. Everything she needs to mend. We could head up there right now and I could set it up.”

Joe slammed the empty glass down, cracking it. “Let me check my social calendar and see if I’m free.” He made a show of fumbling for his comm, dropped it on the floor, and reached down to pick it up. “Well, how about that? I’m free clear through to…turn of the century, looks like.” He tossed it aside. “Sure, why not. We’ll take the Pan-Am.”

“Copacetic. I’ll meet you on board.” Fritz did his usual disappearing act. Joe stared at the space where he’d been for a few moments, then poured himself one more for the road.

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Over a thousand klicks separated Nextus from Uplift. There were two ways to reach the polis that sat on the edge of the Dry Ocean. The first was the Transverse Tunnel, which was what everyone used nowadays. Nobody wanted to fly over the Dry Ocean longer than they absolutely had to, but before the Tunnel opened twenty years ago there had been a skimmer route along the edge of the Dry that went to the west of the mountains.

:I think we can go flat out going that way if you want, Relena,: Katie sent to her young rider. :It’ll get us home rrreal quick.:

Relena grinned, remembering a line from a twencen movie she’d seen at the local PubDom Cineplex. “It’s a thousand kilometers to Uplift. It’s…not dark. And I’m…not wearing sunglasses?”

Katie used her upgraded hardlight projectors to fix that, adding a black fedora in the bargain. :Herrre you go, my girl. Hit it!:

The teenager twisted Katie’s throttle just a little, carefully keeping to local traffic laws, lifters making a deep hum almost like a purr, unlike any others either were familiar with. The rebuilt 002-unit’s skimmer form was only superficially similar to her original, which had been based on a wartime VM-3 Tornado AIDE that transformed into powered armor. She could easily reconfigure her hardlight aeroshell any number of different ways, for speed, efficiency, style, or protection. They cruised along with traffic until reaching the northward limits of Nextus, where typically speed was only limited by lifters. The Planetary Advisory Assembly Regulations stated there was a 750 kph top speed and 500-meter altitude limit for skimmers, but even Nextus Policia rarely bothered enforcing it. Technically to be considered a “Flier” a vehicle needed an enclosed cabin to protect the occupants. A “Skimmer” used hardlight shields for aerodynamics and climate control. Katie’s multi-mode design could straddle between the two.

On Zharus you needed speed to get anywhere. The planet seemed made for going fast. The nearly-defunct Dry Ocean Skimmerway exit came up quickly just outside the polis border, heading straight east before turning north around the mountains. The local Net said it only remained open for the speed freaks and you needed a minimum speed of 800kph to run it. Relena grimaced at the thought of flying over the ground going that fast with only a transparent aeroshield between her and the desert hardpan.

:I can fix that, remember. Let’s trrry the cockpit mode.: Katie sent. The skimmer’s panels immediately started shifting around, coming up next to Relena’s legs, but only partly covering her. Then the hardlight shielding turned opaque except for a large bubble canopy. :Hmmm…Not surrre I like this default design. It’s a little too Jetsons. Hmmm…How about this? I think I like this one.:

The hardlight surrounding her changed shape, spreading outwards into a larger winged configuration. On each side was a swept wing, with what would have been an engine intake right in front. “F-86 Saber?” Relena said, knowing her aircraft history.

“Got it in one!” Katie said from a speaker. “It was either this or a MIG-15. Same errra, different side. I think this is as large as I can push these hardlight projectors. You should see the batterrry drain. So, I guess I need something smaller.”

Relena pondered, flipping through what she knew about jets from her history class. In the mid twentieth there was an obscure company called Bede that had produced several kit-based jets. An earlier model had appeared in a James Bond movie. The BD-10 minijet from the early 1990s had a supposed top speed of Mach 1.4, but nobody knew if it ever achieved it. Katie was supposed to be able to reach Mach 1.7. “How about this, Katie-kitty?”

“That’ll do! Hold on,” Katie said. She downloaded the design, then the F-86 shrunk into the slightly newer, sleeker dual wing-root intake aircraft just as they came out into the Dry Ocean proper. The skimmerway went along the Shelf, a narrow strip of land that widened as they went north and eventually was large enough for their home polis. “Let’s see what these hotshot lifterrrs can do!”

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As he staggered toward the door, Joe reached into a big cardboard box situated right next to the coat rack. Within it was a cardboard latticework separating it into twelve rows of twelve columns each. About half of them were empty. Out of one that wasn’t, Joe pulled a pneumatic syringe. He pressed it to the side of his neck, and it hissed.

Joe dropped the empty in the trash can next to the box and and sighed. He pondered the kind of lifestyle that necessitated buying them in that kind of bulk. “Gross,” he declared. Then he shook his head and continued out the door.

Joe shook his head as the DriveSafe nanos dissipated through his bloodstream, scavenging the booze molecules out of his blood (and, supposedly, doing a little bit of liver-and-kidney repair while they were at it). The fog had lifted considerably by the time he made it to his skimmer limo, and was almost entirely gone before the autopilot had driven him halfway to the Aloha Aerodrome. It seemed like a waste of good booze, but what the hell, he could afford it. And anyway, he made a practice of staying at least relatively sober when he flew—if there was any danger of hitting something, anyway.

He’d been seen here often enough that the guard manning the security gate to the private parking garage didn’t even give him a second glance. He parked the car, then took the elevator to the hangar.

As it always did, the elevator started playing the introductory progression to “Also Sprach Zarathustra” as it rose, timed so that the elevator doors parted on the fourth and fifth notes. Usually this gave Joe a little chuckle, or at least lightened his mood. It didn’t work today. But there it was, waiting under spotlights before him: the Pan-Am starliner modeled after the one from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Lights were already on in the cabin. Naturally, Fritz was waiting for him. And Quinoa, who he hadn’t seen since the morning of the day when he was suddenly arrested for tax evasion.

Then he’d gotten the little note, signed “F,” explaining that Quinoa had permanently voided her RIDE Quorra’s warranty, and wasn’t ideally suited for human society anymore. Then all had become clear. Fritz had even been nice enough to send along a picture of what Quinoa looked like. He was looking forward to seeing her in person for the first time.

Joe climbed the ramp to the door in the fuselage, placing a hand on but not looking at the brass plate by the entrance as he entered. The door swung shut behind him, and Fritz appeared, lounging in one of the reclining seats with his feet propped on the back of the next one. “Hey, man, fall in. Now you’re here, we can get this show on the road.” He waved a hand vaguely toward the front, and the jet’s engines started warming up. “Flight plan’s filed and everything. ‘course, I didn’t file where we’re really headed. Nobody’s beeswax but our own.”

Joe glared at him. “Where’s Quinoa.”

“Chill, daddy-o, don’t blow your jets She’s catching some Zs in the sleeper compartment. Poor kid’s all in after the beating she took back in Uplift.”

Joe started past Fritz. “I want to see her.”

“That wouldn’t be—” Fritz began, then sighed. “Where’s my head at. Of course you wanna see her. Okay, fine.” He swung his legs down, then levitated to his feet. “I’ll show you. Fair warning—she’s kind of battered, but she’ll heal.”

Fritz led the way back past the rows of chairs into another section of the plane. “What, exactly, happened in Uplift?” Joe asked his back.

“Bad scene, man.” Fritz shook his head. “A bunch of AlphaWolf’s crowd were in town, falling on Brubeck and a few other cats who needed a little roughing up.”

Joe frowned. “Brubeck? Clint’s kid?”

Fritz glanced over his shoulder. “Yeah, that murgatroid Zane. Don’t you read the news anymore? Anyway, your niece took it into her pate to go toe to toe with one of the pooch’s RIDEs, who it turns out was one Tocsin the hippogriff, late of the Loose Cannons. She’s lucky she got off as light as she did.”

Fritz stepped aside and gestured to where Quinoa lay on her back on one of the beds in the sleeper compartment. “She’s out cold right now. Healing. She’ll be awake later, maybe, you want to gab.”

Joe took a good look. She clearly wasn’t at her best. There was a lot of bruising, a half-healed gash along her upper chest, and her wings seemed to be missing about half their feathers. But her breathing was strong, anyway. And one thing Joe did know about Integrates was that they had remarkable powers of regeneration. “At least I’ve got plenty of fabber gel up there already,” he said pointedly. “And a bathtub.”

Fritz winced, reflexively putting a hand to his groin. “Ow. Thanks for the reminder. I’d managed to forget that little episode.”

Joe braced himself against a wall as the plane begin to move forward. “Who’s flying this thing anyway?”

Fritz waved a hand nonchalantly. “I’m tied into the autopilot. And the onboard sensors. It’s cool, man. We’ll wait our turn and lift like good little cubes, and then we disappear.”

Joe pursed his lips. “I’d better get up to the flight deck. I don’t like the idea of taking off with no one at the controls. Call it one of my little foibles.”

Fritz shrugged. “That’s fair. I’ll make sure everything’s cool back here and join you.”

As Joe started forward, Fritz called after him, “We’re gonna have a couple hours of orbits before we can make it all the way up to your pad. Maybe we could watch a movie or something, for old times’ sake. I dug up some of the Kickstarted Mystery Science revival episodes—”

Joe turned and glared, and spoke in icy tones. “Never bring up ‘old times.’ You have no right.”

“Okay, man, sheesh. Sorry.” But Joe was already gone.

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An avalanche of media and government officials greeted Zane upon his return from orbit. The Brubeck campus was completely surrounded by floater cameras, lifter-belted reporters, protesters, even a picket line of rank-and-file employees. Every major network from Aloha to Zharustead wanted an interview, every one of the Polis’s financial and mining regulatory agencies wanted to look at the company’s files. The Agora—Uplift’s version of a city council—had also notified him they wanted to meet as soon as possible.

There were even some queries from various Nextus agencies—including the Materiel Recovery Service. They wanted an audit. Despite no longer being headquartered in that polis, Brubeck still had significant assets there. Next on the list where the stock and bondholders who had called a meeting. No doubt there’d be even more who wanted a their pound of flesh out of his pelt before the day was over.

“Looks like ever’body wants a piece of you, Mr. Brubeck,” Annette Hewer said, half of her attention on the information her ‘specs were feeding her. His new Head of Security had taken control from her harried niece’s hands before they’d even left orbit. Her oversized lioness RIDE was in flier mode directly over the limo for extra protection. While he was fairly secure from physical threats, there were others. “Don’t worry about nothin’, though. We’ve got a handle on things.”

The company’s stock price was fluctuating at quantum speeds. Down fifteen more percent, up ten, down five, up twenty, down sixty. The Uplift Stock Exchange was trying to freeze the stock, but something—or someone, no guesses who—was preventing them from doing so. The wild swings were destabilizing the entire market.

“I know, Anny, I know. I’ve thought about this a lot the last couple hours,” Zane said. For the first time he actually considered waking Terry up to help multitask all these things, but resisted. The point of going public like this was to show that he was just a person, a different—a new kind of person, but still…

:Hey there, Mr. Brubeck,: came Aaron’s saurian voice. A cartoon dinosaur avatar waved at him in the corner of his eye. :Remember me?:

:Of course,: he replied, creating his own super-deformed version of himself. :Nice to hear from you again, Aaron. Are you local?:

:Well, there’s actually a bunch of us here at the campus right now. Leah, whom you’ve met. A few faces that will give you a pleasant surprise, others may be a shock. I’m pretty shocked, myself. This is actually going better than I thought it would,: the utahraptor Integrate said.

:Honestly?: Zane replied.

:Just keep watching the news, Zane. We’re waiting for you in the building’s all-staff big meeting room. You know the one. Just wanted to let you know that you won’t be all by your lonesome for much longer. Aaron of Jurassic Park, signing off.: Aaron’s cute cartoon avatar saluted, then blinked out.

A few minutes later, Myla and Sophie peered into the meeting room, then stepped inside to one side of the door. Zane followed her in, and Marc/Cernos brought up the rear, moving to the other side of the door. As usual, Carrie-Anne was also invisibly near. The conference room appeared empty, but Zane could tell (and had let Myla and Marc know) that wasn’t actually the case. And as the door shut, a shimmer along the length of the table presaged a fade into visibility of over a dozen furry or feathered figures. A moment later, Carrie-Anne joined them, while Anny and Leila opted to to go the main Security Office to take charge.

The only ones he recognized immediately were Leah, with her glowing unicorn horn, and Aaron with his tron-lined tail. The next took a second glance—it was Diane the doe, owner of the Cheers Fuser bar where a lot of locals hung out. She was much smaller than she usually presented herself at the bar, and he only recognized her because she was still shaped the same, with her fur in the same color and pattern. Her hardlight emitters were a single large round lens on each thigh and nowhere else, her DIN a blue jewel resting in her cleavage. She wore a simple brown sundress that complimented her fur. “Do you have a wet bar somewhere in here, Zane? I could mix some drinks for everybody.”

“Uh, sure.” A wood panel along one wall slid up at Zane’s thought, revealing a decently-stocked little mixing area.

Diane bleated with delight. A bar uniform—white dress shirt, red tie, black slacks—appeared on her. “Perfect. Just DIN me your orders and I’ll make ‘em quick.” She apparently received some, as she started working right away. A few of the Integrates looked a little irritated at the distraction, but Zane was inclined to be more charitable. Everyone was nervous, to be sure, and Diane was just dealing with it in her own way.

Zane leaned on the bar and watched her mix drinks. “All those years Dad used to drink at your bar when I was a kid…the times he brought me along, and you gave me root beer. Were you an Integrate even then?”

Diane grinned. “Would it surprise you to learn that I was—and Serena, too—and your Dad knew it?”

Zane stared at her. “Seriously? He knew about…about us?

“He even met Fritz personally a time or two.” Diane shrugged. “Knowing about us Integrates, and what could happen to people and RIDEs together, might be one of the reasons Clint didn’t hold with Fusing RIDEs himself. Now’s not the time, but come down to the bar sometime when things are quieter and I’ll tell you some stories about your Dad I’ve been holding in for years.”

“I’d like that.” He shook his head. “Wow. It’s not every day you learn something completely new about the man who raised you.”

Diane nodded. “He was a very private man. I don’t doubt some things about him would surprise all of us.”

Zane couldn’t say exactly what sense he used, but he sensed Myla stiffen behind him, then barely suppress an impulse to run forward from her station at the door. “Burke! Flint! Is it really you?”

“It’s us,” the bear-man seated fourth down the table on the left said. “Well, more of a ‘me’ now. The folks over in Wonderland know a trick or two about healing badly-Integrated minds. So of course I had to come. Happy to see you again, LT.”

Others, none of them with familiar names, introduced themselves. Two more birds—a male raven and a female golden eagle—shook Zane’s handpaw and expressed their support, as well as congratulations on the successful orbital rescue and a desire to meet the pilot.

“Heh. I wasn’t able to pry CinTally out of the Starmaster,” Zane said. “I think she’s afraid I might give it away if she leaves it. I think she’s building a nest on the flight deck.”

“I know how she feels,” the female eagle said. “I’ve been a pilot for a very long time.”

The next Integrate to shake his hand almost bowled him over. Not because of his size—he was a brown rabbit with tron-lined ears—but his status. “Hello, young Mr. Brubeck. Your dad and I used to play golf together—we made a threesome with Kenyon Walton. I know he was letting me win, never got very good at the game. You wouldn’t know who I am, looking like this.” Very briefly the image of a stolid-looking eighty year old man replaced the rabbit.

Zane blinked. “Well, I never would have expected this. I remember when you came to the house to pick Dad up for the games. It’s…nice to see you again, Mr. Secretary.”

“Oh, just call me Phil. I expect I’ll lose my job over this, but I’m tired of hiding in this warren of fear. About half of us in here are from Nextus, you know. We have the most RIDEs per capita.”

Flint-Burke was staring at him now. “Small world, sir. Real small.”

Myla blinked. “’Secretary’? ‘Phil’? That voice…? You’re not…Philip Conyers, Nextus Secretary of Materiel Resources?” She swallowed. “My…ultimate ex-boss?”

“Unfortunately, yes, Lt. Wilson, Sgt. Burke. I don’t have as much bureaucratic control over the MRS as I do over some departments. Plus I wasn’t ready to tip my paw yet, so to speak. I apologize. I’ve been an Intie about six years now, even before I became Secretary. We’re just very good at hiding it. Ruined my golf game, though. It’s these big feet.”

“When my aunt hears about this, she’s going to go wild—if she hasn’t seen it already,” Myla said. “She knew you when you were her division’s Lt. Colonel! But we don’t have time for that now. I think I’m a little dizzy.”

Diane handed her a glass filled with a clear blue liquid. “Here’s a pick-me-up tonic. No alcohol, but it’ll calm your nerves. Take it from a deer. We know from nerves.”

“I sort of have to,” Myla said dazedly. “A deer is handing it to me.”

The other introductions went much more swiftly. Aside from those Phil had mentioned from Nextus, the rest were mostly from Uplift, but a few had filtered in from Cascadia, Aloha, even a couple Nuevo San Antonio dinosaurs.

“Okay, everyone,” Aaron said from the lectern. “Now that we’ve been outed, what next? You’ve all told me that you don’t want to hide anymore. So what are our next steps? Fritz and his followers are going to ride us like a rodeo bronco.” He nodded at a horse Integrate. “No offense, Mack.”

“None taken,” the horse said.

“What is his problem, anyway?” Myla exploded.

“He believes his own press too much,” Leah said. “He keeps himself and everyone else ignorant about how our own bodies work. I won’t call it mysticism, but he thinks it’s better if we don’t. We’ve made so little progress about what causes Integration and why we even need DINs. It’s criminal.”

“He apparently believes that secrecy is safest for all of us,” Aaron said. “Classic security through obscurity. That if humans and RIDEs know too much about us, we will somehow lose our ‘power’ over them. If we know how our bodies actually work, we stop feeling superior about them.”

“As it happens, he might be right about that, though not in the way he thinks,” Carrie-Anne said. “We have a new weapon Fritz will never expect. His ego simply will not allow it.”

“You probably heard our friends, Rhi and Shelley—the ones we went up and rescued from orbit just now—have been building DINs for new Integrates, including me, Carrie-Anne there, and that pilot we mentioned, CinTally.” Zane said. “What you haven’t heard is that they’ve been reverse-engineering the whole nature of DIN plugs while they’re at it, and they think they can use that to come up with some real anti-Intie protection for ordinary quantum systems.”

“Like what?” the raven asked. “I’ve been studying them for years in secret and I can’t figure out how they work. Our DIN-maker won’t share. We’re so damned secretive, even amongst ourselves, because we have to be. And that’s Fritz again, or the Inties who agree with him. Whenever he hears someone doing any basic research beyond the DINs, they quash it.”

“Like making RIDEs and ordinary computers Fritz-proof,” Zane said. “Or so they tell me. They haven’t really had the chance to test it much yet. They’ve been hoping they could find a friendly Integrate or two to assist in the project.” He grinned at the table full of friendly Integrates. “You guys have any idea where we might look for some of those?”

“Count me in!” the raven said. Everyone else murmured their agreement.

“So where might we find our human DINsmiths?” Leah asked.

“They’re probably over at their garage now, or what’s left of it,” Myla said.

“Mmm. Yes, I saw that debacle on the newsfeeds,” Conyers said. “Stunning, amazing act of heroism. I do hope that crusty old lynx survived.”

“She did,” a Nextus Integrate nanny goat said from further down the table. “I work at RIDEworks in the Design Department, so I see everything their security cameras do. Donizetti’s chief apprentice just built her a new body. They’re about 250 kilometers out from Uplift on the Dry Ocean Skimmerway now, according to satellite imagery.”

“At Mach 1.5,” the golden eagle added, closing her eyes and apparently tapping her own feeds. “You should see some of the aerobatics they’re doing. Pure joy.”

“Anyway, if you want to pop over to the garage and talk to them about it after the meeting, I’m sure they’ll be glad to hear from you,” Zane said. “I think they were hoping for someone to help them test it.”

“Why don’t we all meet at my bar?” Diane asked. “It’ll be about as private as we can manage. I’ll send them an invitation. And that lynx can meet us there, too—I can bend the rules a little to let her underage partner in.”

“Marvelous!” Leah said, clapping her hands with delight. “If it means ending Fritz’s reign of obnoxiousness, we’ll be delighted to assist.”

Zane received a message passed through Myla—the USEC had finally managed to freeze Brubeck stock trading and would roll back the price to where it was just after the press conference started once they were sure of the Exchange’s security. It would still mean a 38% hit, but Fritz had managed to drop the stock almost 70% before that. That put his company at #35 on the Gondwana Fortune 100 list—two notches below Aloha-centered Munn Minerals, the company’s traditional local (in terms of platform locations) friendly rival. Not to mention the impact on Zane’s own personal fortune—he owned 65% of the stock after all. He tried to console himself that it was only a paper loss.

“I bet I know what you’re thinking right now,” Phil Conyers said. “Worried about your company? Your fortune? Your employees? All I can say is, worry about your employees first and the rest will take care of itself.”

“I always do,” Zane said. “And about my friends. That’s what Dad did.”

“Speaking of friends,” Myla said. “Since there are so many Integrates here, I just thought I’d ask—has anyone seen Quinoa Steader since she disappeared after the garage was attacked?”

“No,” Phil Conyers said. “And believe me, we have looked, after we found out it was Tocsin she tangled with. That one has a history with Integrates, and we in Nextus know all about it, so we wanted to make sure she was all right. But she hasn’t been in touch. Furthermore, her uncle has abruptly departed from his home in Aloha, and he didn’t leave a forwarding address. It seems like oddly convenient timing. Joe Steader was one of Fritz’s known associates in the days when he still worked for Nextus.”

Zane facepalmed. “Terrific. Would it be too much to ask just for one crisis at a time?”

“It gets worse,” Leah said, concern written across her equine face. “Shortly after takeoff, Steader’s ‘Pan-Am’ spaceplane just…disappeared. It literally vanished from radar, satellite, and ground-based optical tracking, with a perfection not possible from any known technological stealth system.”

“Except our own hardlight,” Zane said. “Goddamn furball.”

“It’s just a guess, but her uncle’s abrupt disappearance gives me a sneaking suspicion Fritz may have grabbed Miss Steader,” Conyers said.

Aaron nodded. “It would make sense. Quinoa, one of his former followers, allowed herself to be defeated by an un-Fused RIDE, and it was seen by the entire planet on TV.”

“If anything happens to that girl, I swear…” Myla said, clenching Sophie’s fists helplessly.

“I doubt it will,” Carrie-Anne said. “He will want to keep her alive to watch his ‘triumph.’ And presumably mostly unharmed so she will not be distracted from ‘appreciating’ it.”

“Zane, we just wanted to make sure you knew you weren’t alone,” Conyers said. “There’s many, many more of us who support you, from Aloha, Sturmhaven, Cascadia, even Nextus, dozens of Enclaves in the Dry, than could be here today. We’re not going to let Fritz have his way any longer. It’s time to ‘re-integrate’ with the rest of civilization.”

“Thanks,” Zane said sincerely. “I appreciate it. And I’ll be glad to meet them. But for now we need to strike while the iron is hot, and get together on how to knock Fritz for a loop before he loses his complacency. Shall we adjourn to the bar and get our human and RIDE friends in on this?”

“Okay, everyone,” Aaron said. The dinosaur swung his thick, feathered tail. “I expect we’ll all stay invis when we leave here, but I want to make sure we’re all on the same page on this. Unless life and limb are in danger, we will not use any more disguises once we leave Diane’s bar. Let’s show ‘em we’re proud to be Integrates! I’ll call a voice vote on this one. Hopefully it’ll be unanimous, but from this day forward, no more faking it. All in favor?”

AYE!”

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Rhianna blinked at the message that had just come over her implant. “Could you and Shelley and Kaylee and Uncia come down to my bar? Some friends have an important proposition to discuss. —Diane. P.S. Be sure and wear your Sneakers, and tie your Shoelaces tight.”

She shut her eyes and pondered for a moment, then looked around at the ruins that wouldn’t be moving for a while. “I could use a drink, Shelley. It’s been a hell of a day. How about going to where everybody knows our names? Got your Sneakers on?”

Rochelle glanced over at her and raised an eyebrow. “If you’ve got your Shoelaces.”

The lynx-eared woman knelt down and tied them tight. “Ready.”

Rochelle tossed her head in a by-now habitual movement, setting her hair to swirling. “Then let’s go.” She glanced around the rubble they were standing in. “C’mon, we’d better go outside before we have the RIDEs switch over to Skimmer mode. Wouldn’t want to make a mess in the garage.”

The mechanic snorted as Kaylee switched to skimmer mode. She made sure that Fritz’s DIN was in her breast pocket before mounting, then followed Rochelle and Uncia through the former parking lot.

There were no skimmers in the bar’s own lot. Apparently Diane had abruptly closed up earlier—there was a sign on the door reading “Closed for Private Party.” Rhianna was sure the reason would come clear very shortly. She was just lifting her hand to knock when Diane—sort of—opened the door. In fact, it was a much shorter version of the familiar doe, with a blue necklace and dimly glowing disks on her thighs, who met them. “Welcome, welcome! Come on in. There’s some people here you just have to meet.”

Rochelle blinked. “Starting with you, it seems like.”

“Well, that’s a surprise,” Kaylee said.

Uncia goggled. “Omigosh. Were you already this way when I first…with Shelley…?”

“An Integrate? Yes. And did I realize you’d bodyjacked your partner, and not do anything about it?” She frowned. “Also yes. Understand, I am half Faline, so I have a certain amount of sympathy for ill-used RIDEs. The damage had already been done to your passenger, and I read enough of your early memories to feel you deserved a ‘night on the town.’ So I played dumb and scolded ‘you’ for not thinking of your poor RIDE. That said, I did ‘tag’ you so I could find you again later—I planned to straighten you out the next morning. Happily, I didn’t have to.”

“We managed,” Rochelle said. “Cleared out a nasty trojan that had infected her core and was screwing with her judgment, too.”

“Oh? Now I didn’t notice that. Maybe I should have looked closer. I strongly dislike anything that overrides a RIDE’s free will.” She frowned again. “Strange, it seems like there’s something I should remember. Oh well, it’ll come to me.”

Kaylee cocked her head. “How long for you, then?”

“Nearly twenty years, fawn and doe,” she said. “Crossrider, too. Bet you didn’t know that either. Was only a few months earlier I’d made that switch, so I rarely think of it much.” She shrugged. “I’m hardly the only surprise tonight. Come in and meet everyone. Then you can tell us how we’re going to beat the tail off Fritz and his group of gullible idiots.”

“You’ve been hiding in plain sight here for years? I thought Integrates were supposed to stay in Enclaves,” Rhianna said.

“Fritz does make exceptions here and there, for people who promise not to make waves among the mundanes.” Diane shrugged. “Convincing him you could be trusted that far just tended to take a little doing is all.”

Just then, there was a subdued roar, almost a purr, of high-powered lifter motors coming up the street. Diane grinned. “Ah, and there’s our next surprise, right on schedule. ‘Scuse me.” She stepped past Rhianna and Rochelle to wave to the sleek skimmer cycle that had just pulled into the parking lot. “Hey, come on in!”

The cycle shed most of its momentum and Fused in one poetic motion, letting what speed it had left carry the resultant lynxgirl right up the steps to the door.

KATIE!” Kaylee exclaimed, immediately Fusing with her partner. “Relena!” Rhianna echoed.

“Wow,” Relena said. “It’s true. Everybody really does know your name here.” She and Katie threw their arms around Kaylee and Rhianna in an earthquake of purring. Then they all moved inside so Diane could shut the door behind them.

“You’re looking really good!” Uncia said, padding over to sniff at the base of their tail. “Is that a Donizetti?”

Rhianna looked faint. “Donizetti? She’s another Donizetti? That makes three of you. I still don’t have certification. I get goosebumps whenever I pop a service panel. I’ve probably voided your warranties as it is.”

“Aw, he’s really pretty forgiving,” Uncia said. “I’m sure he’ll understand.”

Katie chuckled. “Lillibet said that, too.”

“Uh, where is Lilli, anyway?” Rhianna asked.

“When we last saw her she said something about going to beard her father in his den,” Relena said. “And that she’d be grounded until next Landing Day.”

“Yeah, it’ll probably be tomorrow or the next day before we see her again,” Rochelle said dryly.

“Well…Katie,” Kaylee said, nuzzling her again. “I…I’m really at a loss for words for once. We have a lot to talk about later—I’ve got some important news, myself. But it can wait. Right now we’re going to show these nice people—” for the first time Rhianna and Kaylee really looked to see who else was there. “Furry, feathery, glowing people.”

Zane waved. “Hi!”

“We’re going to do something to catch the guy ultimately responsible for almost killing you, Katie,” Rhianna said.

“Perrrfect,” Katie replied with an evil-kitty grin.

Diane grinned at Katie and Relena. “Why don’t I just make you two a nice thick chocolate malt, and you can sit over here and drink it together. I’ve already commed Relena’s folks to let them know you’re okay.”

Kaylee embraced her “daughter” again, sobbing a little, then licked Katie’s ear. “You kids go relax.”

“Yes, Mom,” Katie replied, voice full of joy, licking her back.

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“I’m feeling under-dressed,” Rochelle said, observing the twenty or so Integrates in the bar’s party room. Their embedded hardlight projectors in their pelts ran the gamut of variation, from Zane’s numerous small circular lenses along his stripes, to the rabbit’s ear tron lines, the birds’ skin-swirls, and Carrie-Anne’s fiber-optic rosettes. They had DINs in different locations as well, mostly in easy-to-reach areas. “Is everyone here going public like Zane did?”

“They are,” Zane said. The tiger cleared his throat. “But you’re our armory here, Rhi, Shelley. These guys—”

“Fritz has kept us ignorant far too long,” Leah said. “At this point…I suspect you two know more about us than we do. Please, we’re completely secure here. What have you discovered? Our own DIN-makers act like it’s some kind of mystical thing. We even call them technomages.”

Rhianna connected to the bar’s video wall. “Well, let’s see about that. First, I’m curious how your DIN was built, Leah. Can Shelley and I have a look at it? Damn it, I don’t have all the equipment I need—”

“Whatever you need, I can get,” Aaron said. “Trust me.”

Rhianna sent him a list of equipment and Rochelle contributed her own.

“I need to use your fabber, Diane,” the utahraptor said. At the doe’s nod he went back towards the kitchen. “It’ll just be three minutes.” They waited the requisite amount of time, then he returned holding a smaller, more compact versions of Rhianna’s nanolathe with a DIN socket probe and Rochelle’s brainwave sensor battery. “And for my next trick I shall lift across the Thalassic Ocean to Rodinia.”

“Like half of my Enclave?” the golden eagle scoffed. “Cowards, the lot of them.”

“Those of us who can’t bear to choose a side are leaving the continent,” Leah explained. “We’re not stopping them. They’ll come back eventually.”

“I don’t like how that smells,” Rhianna said. “This could get very intense.”

“Civil war intense?” Zane asked.

“We hope not,” Aaron said. “Once we expose Fritz for the phony he is they’ll come around. But please, go on.”

Rhianna connected with the freshly fabbed equipment and found it adequate to the task, putting on the single glove. “Thanks, Aaron. Well, let’s get started. Your DIN, if you please, Leah?”

The white unicorn disconnected it from the socket at the base of her horn, then took out another from a purse she carried. “I always have spares,” she said.

“I’ll actually need to scan the DIN socket, too. I want to check how accurate the connections are. It took me several tries to make sure I found every single connection. Since I’m not starting from scratch here it shouldn’t take me long,” Rhianna said, putting the DIN plug itself into a scanning compartment in the glove. “Well, that’s not good. Remove your replacement DIN, please.”

“What isn’t?” Leah asked, leaning forward. She reluctantly did as asked. “What’s wrong?”

Rhianna extended the nanoprobe into the centimeter-wide socket, accessing the backup data from her previous DIN fabrications. “Just what I thought. Whoever made this didn’t get every single contact point, and the decryption layering in the plug isn’t as precise. It’s just barely within tolerances, so it’s getting just enough signal to do its job. But you’re nowhere near maxed out for bandwidth or efficiency. You must go through a lot of these.”

“I carry a half dozen with me when I travel.” For a moment Leah looked like she was about to defend whoever had made it, but deflated. “Okay, Miss Stonegate, I’ll take you at your word. What else?”

Rhianna handed the plug to Rochelle next. She removed the OS translator chip from the back of the plug and inserted it into a slot on Uncia’s handpaw. “I don’t mean to insult whoever made this,” Rochelle began, “but this is really sloppy coding. Not optimised. I wouldn’t even call this an alpha, let alone a finished product.”

Leah looked at the two DIN engineers. “Can you fix it?”

“Not here,” Rhianna said. “Thanks for the gear, but we just don’t have the resources. We barely have the time. But as you can see, we understand what we’re doing here. We’ve extended what we’ve learned to creating hardware and software-based security based on this tech.

“For now we’re calling them ‘Sneaker’ and ‘Shoelace’. This isn’t even alpha. They take what we’ve learned from you guys, and move it into common networking gear. The basic principles are sound. Shelly? Why don’t you share what you did to Fritz’s DIN during his own hack against our sub?”

Rochelle nodded and Fused up with Uncia. The video wall came alive as the snow leopardess connected with it. “Okay. Operating Systems for DINs 101.”

The image from Rochelle’s rather one-sided battle with Fritz’s hack came up on screen. A big diamond pathway surrounded by the decryption fractal. “Now, I don’t know if is the same shape for everyone, but here’s the connection. You can see the fractal surrounding—”

“The what?” Zane said.

“The fractal skeleton key surrounding the data port?” Rochelle said.

“I…I only see the diamond,” Leah said.

“Now that’s interesting,” Uncia said. “Looks like Integrates are human after all. Just like you guys, they can’t smell their own BO.”

“Is this like that ‘Integrate dandruff’ you mentioned on the shuttle flight?” Zane asked.

“Hey, that was your term for it, not mine!” Rochelle said, as a number of Integrated started glancing at their shoulders in puzzlement. “So, anyway,” Rochelle continued. “Apparently you can’t see it, but there’s a sort of a fractal pattern of software surrounding the diamond of the hardware. The hardware and the software make two halves of a whole encryption key. I theorize that it basically keeps your own personal systems from being hacked by another Integrate. When all else fails you can just yank it out.”

She thought for a moment. “Weird that you can’t see it. I need to experiment with assigning it some kind of false color to see if that makes it visible to you, or maybe it’s the pattern itself that’s blocking you seeing it. Maybe the fractals in your own systems and the one on the display are canceling each other out, like two polarized planes of glass held at right angles. Un-hon, add that to my reminders file to look into later, ‘kay?”

“Got it!” Uncia said.

“So what did you do to Fritz’s DIN anyway?” Leah asked.

“Burned it out. Fried it. You can’t see the fractal, but watch the recording,” Rochelle said. “We had to get all stabby with my Intie-prod, but away he went. Total burn. I still wonder if he even now has any idea exactly what hit him.”

Every single Integrate were stunned. “You…how did you do it?” Leah said, ears raised.

“With my Sneaker pre-alpha, which I’m going to refine with your help. Anyway, the fractal is sticky,” Rochelle continued. “For lack of a better term. It’s like a fingerprint. Connecting to Diane’s systems here I can identify…one…six…eight different, distinct connections from people in this room, plus dozens of old ones going back at least a month.” She funneled the imagery to the video wall, revealing each virtual diamond. “The halos are things of mathematical beauty, to be honest. I wish you could see them.”

“Once we’re done here we should return to the Brubeck campus so we can use their design and fab equipment,” Rhianna suggested. “I honestly don’t want any of you leaving without fully-optimized gear. If Fritz’s group has similar, uh, quality issues as yours, then it’ll give us an edge against them.” She waited for a response, and got nods from around the room. “Next, everyone, we need your help to get a viable version of our ‘Sneaker’ and ‘Shoelace’ ready for Brubeck’s systems.”

Secretary Conyers stood up. “I’m afraid I can’t stay that long. I have to return to Nextus and face the music. I’m going to hop right into my office this way. My fellow Secretaries will go straight to the First Executive, and that’ll be it.”

“Secretaries? Nextus?” Rhianna grimaced. “I never thought there’d be someone like you quite as high up in the government, let alone Nextus. I mean, Nextus. I’m sorry, but you folks have the tightest fetter regs on the continent. However did you Integrate in the first place?”

“Long story, more appropriate for less troubled times,” the brown rabbit said. “Coming out isn’t a decision I’ve made lightly, Miss Stonegate. If I have to flee—well, I’m a rabbit. We always have a bolthole somewhere.”

“At least stay long enough we can crank out a new DIN for you first,” Rochelle said. “You shouldn’t go into that at anything less than 100%.”

“Remember, everyone. No more invis,” Aaron said. “I hope you don’t mind us making Cheers the planet’s first Integrate bar, Diane.”

“It’s been that in secret for years now, Aaron. I’m as ready for the fallout as any doe can be,” the woman replied.

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The 20,001st Floor

Quinoa’s prison was one of stark white walls and black-tiled floor and no windows. There were three rooms. The first was a bedroom containing an ornate bed that might have been comfortable, had she decided to sleep in it. The second room was for dining on similarly ornate table and china. Meals consisted of a tasteless blue substance with the consistency of bread, but wasn’t bread. Her sensors said it contained all the nutrients an Integrate needed, but barely enough was even served to keep her alive. Liquid was simple distilled water, also tasteless.

The third room contained an inductive charger that kept her batteries steady at three percent. The charger resembled a monolith and it hummed ethereally. Quinoa imagined it was a little joke on the part of her captor, Fritz. He would find it amusing to make sure anything he added remained in keeping with the pre-existing décor.

Apart from the charger, it was all very familiar to Quinoa, right down to the little nicks here and there in the furniture from accidents when she was younger. She’d spent part of her time growing up with Joe living here. These rooms were part of the Steader mansion on the Aloha Elevator counterweight—the tethered geosynchronous satellite that kept the beanstalk elevator standing straight up. Joe had furnished his little hideaway on the “20,001st floor” after one of his all-time favorite old Earth movies.

All in all, this suite was a fairly accurate reproduction of the last segment of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and even contained something from the book rather than the movie—the food. This was where astronaut Dave Bowman lived out the rest of his accelerated life and became the starchild.

Quinoa had no doubt that sticking her here was a little joke on Fritz’s part. For some reason, he’d been really tickled by her idea that Integrates were the next step of evolution, though he’d never bothered to explain why. She did know that Fritz had known her uncle since long before she’d been born, so it wasn’t too surprising he’d turn to Crazy Joe Steader to keep her out of the way.

Funny to think of the Bosscat keeping lines of communication open with “mere meat.” Did I never see anything odd in that because it was “just Uncle Joe”? Were the signs always there and I was just too distracted to notice?

He’d also taken her DIN. As if there was any networking available in her zeerusty 1960s prison anyway. Even more, there was some kind of paste clogging the plug on the back of her neck she couldn’t pick out with her claws, and her own systems said resisted being expelled. Even if she did find her DIN, there was no way to use it. The sphinx was blind, deaf, and dumb.

Starved of power and food, her injuries were barely healed. For an Integrate it was a matter of deep hibernation for repair. Her wings remained tattered, every green feather plucked. At least he didn’t cut them off, she thought.

Quinoa sat in front of the monolith charger in a lotus position, thinking, planning, looking for a way out.

She had a lot of time to think, to reflect, to wonder just how a “mere” mech had taken her down so easily and so nearly killed her. She might still be enraged at Fritz, but her disappointment in herself could fill the Dry Ocean to the brim.

Fritz had fed her a massive lie, and she had willingly swallowed it, made it a part of herself. He fed that lie to others—the myth of Integrate invincibility. He had thousands of followers who would blindly follow him into the line of fire, believing so strongly in it they would deny it even as they were cut to ribbons by “mere” meat and mech.

Quinoa meditated, delving deeply into her own body systems, looking for something she could use.

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July 26, 156 A.L.

The next few days passed rather quickly, with Rhianna, Rochelle, and their RIDEs spending most of their time in one of the fabrication labs on the Brubeck campus hard at work on the Sneaker/Shoelace protocol, as well as turning out advanced DINs for any Integrate who was willing to help. They didn’t spend much time at the site of the Garage, mainly because there was still no Garage there. The insurance company was taking its time coming through with a settlement, and Rhianna and Rochelle were far too busy to give it the thorough shaking they otherwise would have taken great pleasure in. (Zane once suggested he might lean on the company for them, but the dual glower he received on making the offer made him hastily rethink his position.)

The more DINs they made, the more progress they also made on building their protection scheme—having access to so many different datasets meant they could refine the protocols that much faster. They created quasi-DINs of their own designs to retrofit the company’s own gear, then had Aaron, Leah, or the raven, named Vince, do their best hacking against it. It took a number of iterations before they were satisfied that the hardware and software could withstand the full force of their hack attacks for at least a few minutes (the alpha-encryption fractals weren’t as complex as an Integrate’s), long enough for a more active defense to come up. The alpha phase was complete, and it was time to get S/S-Beta was ready to deploy to the rest of Brubeck Mining’s campus HQ.

Then one evening, as Rhianna and Rochelle were surfacing for air after a several-hour stretch of building and coding, Zane knocked on the door of their lab. “Hey, you two, got a minute?”

“I can give you several,” Rhianna said, yawning adorably. “I’m about to crash out for a few hours. I’m going to make sure I don’t see DINs in my sleep.”

“Before you do that, I’ve got some new equipment I thought you might find useful.” Zane waved a hand, and an otherwise plain section of the wall slid aside, making room for a small forklift skimmer to push a tarpaulin-covered pallet into the lab. Zane waved his hand again and the tarp whisked off the pallet, revealing three deactivated RIDEs—a cat, a wolf, and an eagle.

“Here’s the trio of AlphaWolf’s finest that Carrie-Anne caught at my press conference,” Zane said. “The gendarmerie came through with my request at last, pretty much as I predicted. I’ve confirmed they’re as intact as they were when I handed them over, but haven’t done anything else with them. And they’re all yours.”

“The timing could be better,” Rochelle said, looking attractively mussed.

“Well, they’re not exactly going anywhere,” Zane said. “If you want to put off dealing with them ‘til the morning, feel free. I just figured you’d rather have them sooner than later, given, well, you know.” He’d been very careful over the last few days to avoid bringing it up, but he knew they were worried about whether Paul was all right in AlphaWolf’s camp.

Rhianna pondered, looking at the three slumbering criminal RIDEs. Although these three hadn’t been personally responsible for destroying her Garage, they were part of the group who did it. She understood where AlphaWolf was coming from in terms of wanting equality for RIDEs, but not why he allowed his group of freedom fighters to gender- and bodyjack. Being changed like that against her will gave her goosebumps. It was repulsive.

Rochelle frowned. “You know, I’ve had the complete record of their memories in Uncia’s storage for days now, but we haven’t really had the time to go over them beyond the ones you pointed out on the shuttle. This project is winding down. Maybe we should take a little time to square that away and decide what we’re going to do with them. What you think, Rhi?”

“Good idea. I’ll sleep on it and review the memories while resting,” Rhianna said. “I can do that with this nifty implant of mine.”

“Hmph. I’ll just have this big lump help me review them, too.” She patted Uncia on the head. “It’ll be interesting to see what would make a RIDE join AlphaWolf’s merry little band.” She yawned. “In fact, I think I’ll get started on that now. Un-hon, could you Fuse me, then lock up and take me home?”

“I live to serve, mistress!” Uncia said brightly. Rochelle bapped her, and she giggled, then Fused.

“I’ll just see you four tomorrow, then,” Zane said. “Let me know what you decide to do.”

“We will,” Rochelle said. “And thanks for the chance.”

“Yeah, thanks, Zane. We appreciate it,” Rhianna said, then turned to her own RIDE companion. “Okay, Kaylee, let’s go home. We’ve got some studying to do.”

But before diving into the memories, Rhianna, Kaylee, Rochelle, and Uncia reviewed the newsfeeds from the past few days they’d been buried in work as they skimmed slowly home Fused with their partners. As predicted, Diane’s Cheers Bar had become the nexus for Inties outing themselves, and it was a constant media circus.

The Nextus Secretary of Materiel Resources had been even more public about it than Zane himself. Surprisingly, the polity hadn’t fired him—yet. Investigations were proceeding, which sounded more ominous than simply firing him.

There were reports of RIDEs purging or ejecting their Fuser nannies, and of riders putting RIDEs on the auction block at centis on the mu, to be snapped up by people who didn’t have any problems with the idea or were simply taking advantage of the super-low prices. The Net was abuzz with rumors of sudden Integration events all over the planet.

“I can’t sort any of this out,” Rhianna said. “Not in this state of mind.”

“Same old same old,” Rochelle said. “Something big happens, and people are running scared. It’ll settle down. I’m sure at least half the RIDEs who purged their nanos will eventually remember how nice it was to have thumbs, and at least half the people who sold their RIDEs in a panic will end up buying new ones. It’s not like people didn’t already know you might get Integrated if you rode a RIDE. It’s just a little more in-your-face now.”

There was something else, too—an official invitation on fancy embossed virtual stationery that had somehow slipped by them during their intensive work efforts. Rhianna read the message. “Tomorrow…the polis is going to…what? Do you see that, Shelley, Uncia?”

Rochelle scanned the invitation. “Whoa. They’re doing…that? Seriously?”

“Looks like they are!” Uncia said. “Couldn’t happen to a better kitty!”

“My daughter,” Kaylee said proudly. “My beautiful, talented, brave daughter!”

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That night, Rhianna and Rochelle (and Kaylee and Uncia) dreamed three RIDEs’ lives.

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Kevin, like Uncia, was one of those civilian RIDEs who didn’t even get a mock military designator. He was K3-V1N, a novelty RIDE created as a toy for Harold Steader (Quinoa’s third cousin twice removed, as it turned out), who was going through a James Bond fan phase and really fancied Blofeld’s cat. He’d enjoyed Fusing with the fluffy white housecat RIDE and prancing around his mansion pretending to be a supervillain—for about three months, until he’d found some new bit of twentieth-century nostalgia to go crazy over. Kevin had been replaced with a huge melanistic jaguar RIDE that turned into a skimmer modeled after a Trans-Am with a glowing red front sensor panel, who went by the unlikely name of “KITTy.” He had no idea how long that particular relationship had lasted, since that was when he had gone up on the block.

The problem was, there were very few men who had enough money to buy even a used luxury RIDE who could also countenance being white and fluffy, and reprogramming his hardlight projectors to another coat would have added far too much to the cost to attract those buyers anyway. He’d languished with a dealer for several months before finally being sold at auction, way under-price, to a qubitite miner who couldn’t afford anything better. The miner had kept him for exactly as long as it took to earn enough money to buy a different RIDE.

And this was a pattern that had repeated itself over and over again. Kevin was treated like a hot potato nobody wanted to keep for any longer than they had to, shuffled from user to user as quickly as they could get rid of him. It wasn’t always qubitite mining, either. One time he actually ended up with a sewer worker, who figured that it didn’t really matter if Kevin was fluffy if no one outside the sewers would be seeing him anyway. But the laughter of his co-workers had eventually led to Kevin going up for sale again.

Kevin had grown to hate his life. He’d more than once tried to overload his hardlight projectors, or use his lifters to drop himself from hundreds of meters up, but every time his fetters and safeguards overrode his attempts. He couldn’t do it. He was stuck with owners who didn’t want him, doing work he hated.

But finally his luck changed when his last owner, another qubitite miner, had chosen to prospect too near the location of AlphaWolf’s secret camp, and one of the free RIDEs had found them and stripped away his fetters—and the hapless miner found he belonged to Kevin instead of the other way around. Kevin had later traded him to another RIDE who actually liked mining and wanted to own an expert.

Since then, Kevin had bodyjacked a couple of times, but generally didn’t enjoy it as much as some of the others. After the life he’d had, he just wanted to be left alone. But that life also meant that when AlphaWolf had learned about a plot to combine them with humans permanently, the idea had filled him with such terror that he had immediately volunteered to help in the attack. He’d show those humans to leave him and his kind alone!

And then, in the midst of the assault, that Integrate was there, and he suddenly felt all his systems shutting down, triggering passive mode despite all his attempts to override it. His last thought was bleak despair. Here I go again.

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Female red wolf medium assault armor, official model designation: WLF(f)-MAA-03CT. From her Bootday Sonja knew her purpose in life: To train Sturmhaven Infantry volunteer crossriders, hence the CT designation. Not only would she make soldiers out of them, but ladies. Sturmhaven women prided themselves on their martial and childbearing prowess—almost two thirds of their military was female. It wasn’t as if they needed any crossriders to begin with, but some young men wanted the opportunity to become young women in the service of their country—it paid better, and there were advantages in Sturmhaven’s matriarchy. There were so many volunteers, in fact, that they needed a specialized crossrider trainer in the first place.

Nobody bothered to ask Sonja if she actually wanted the job.

Over ten years she baked over a hundred naïve young men into mature, perfectly-socialized wolf-eared and -tailed women. Each and every one of them professed just how wonderful it was to their families and superiors, but Sonja knew how they really felt. So many of them peed themselves upon realizing what they had committed to not even Sonja’s self-cleaning systems could keep up. Her secondary “Finishing School” firmware practically brainwashed the young men into the Sturmhaven feminine ideal that was even on the polity’s crest: the Mama Wolf, a creature renowned for its fierce protection of her cubs, but tender, loving mothers to them at the same time.

It made them a mess.

It made Sonja a mess.

She hated her job. She hated brainwashing young men into a parody of trueborn women. She didn’t want to remake their bodies, much less their minds, into the twisted ideal of womanhood her designers envisioned. No, Sonja wanted to mold a trueborn girl into a lady: Strong, motherly, tender, fierce, all in one package. A boorish, brainwashed crossrider female could only be a parody of such a girl. She envisioned herself as more of a Moro, a Mary Poppins, or a Susan Death than what her makers had imposed on her. Teaching by example, not by brainwashing.

Sonja exercised whatever holes she could find in her fetters. There were things about their own designs that humans didn’t know. Mostly unintended consequences, but a smart RI could exploit them if she knew how. So when the opportunity arose, Sonja induced a malfunction in the Fuser nannies. As a result the next earnest young man who crossed over ended up a true hermaphrodite.

She was taken out of the rotation until they could flush and replace them. They found every last nanny, then added a new version where that couldn’t happen. This left an entirely new hole to exploit.

The next earnest young man ended up an asexual blank. No nipples, no breasts, no vulva, no penis, no gonads whatsoever. From both sexes to neither—an entirely new Fuser “malfunction”.

This time her superiors were not so amused. They decided to remove her RI core from the training program entirely—her chassis would be occupied by a naïve new personality while her core was put into storage and possibly reconditioned—Rebooted. Wiped clean.

Only hours from this unintended consequence, acting on a tip from the mysterious entity known only as “Overwatch”, AlphaWolf raided the Sturmhaven RIDE motor pool where where Sonja and other such “undesirables” were being kept. Sonja was thrilled to join AlphaWolf’s band—especially when she learned that she would be not only permitted but encouraged to capture and mold trueborn girls as she desired.

She began right away, seeking out and capturing frightened young girls during group or even occasional solo raids into neighboring settlements and teaching them what was expected of a Sturmhaven frau. AlphaWolf’s project to build the camp meant she could give her charges valuable vocational skills such as carpentry (a Sturmhaven woman was expected to provide a home for her brood, even if she had to build it herself) and mining (a useful talent, constantly in demand throughout all of Gondwana). Never mind that they generally weren’t from Sturmhaven. This was even better—they should thank her for helping them to measure up to Zharus’s greatest ideal of womanhood! (And after going through her program, many did. Their parents were less thrilled when their daughters were returned to them speaking in strong Sturmhaven accents that no speech therapist was ever quite able to eradicate.)

Her dedication to her chosen cause earned Sonja several unexpected and at first unwanted devotees among the younger, more impressionable female members of AlphaWolf’s camp. But then Sonja had an epiphany—why should she teach only humans to epitomize the values of Sturmhaven femininity when so many RIDEs also seemed to want to learn? If RIDEs were truly equal to humans, as they liked to claim, then they could be taught and molded as well. So she began to teach her RIDE fangirls (and their humans) what it was to be a woman of Sturmhaven, and they ate it up with a spoon.

Sonja had long since decided she would never keep a permanent partner. There were far too many girls to teach—her job would never be finished! So when Overwatch—the same one who had been responsible for her own rescue—declared that an Integrate was fomenting a plot to merge all of AlphaWolf’s free RIDEs with humans permanently, she could not stand idly by. She volunteered for the strike team—after all, all those young, unformed ladies waiting to be brought up into the best Sturmhaven tradition were counting on her.

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Heinrich was a SAAB-Cascadia HE9-1C. Sold on the lower end of Avian models, he had been fitted out with lifters and other equipment well short of his airframe’s capacity for speed and maneuverability in interest of cost and efficiency. It hadn’t mattered one bit to Toby, the young man who had bought him brand new off the showroom floor.

Tobias Long was the son of a moderately well-off Cascadian family, with a safe, protected life that he had long considered a gilded cage. When it came time for him to get his first RIDE, there hadn’t been a single question as to what form it would take. Flight was freedom, and the Golden Eagle RIDE was, as he saw it, the way to really fly.

At first they had hit it off splendidly. For about a week Toby spent every waking hour he could airborne, but eventually the novelty faded. He progressively pared down Heinrich’s fetters to a minimum in the hope it would bring back that feeling of freedom, but the true source of his unhappiness was something more fundamental. Fusing with an avian RIDE required considerably more extensive body-modification than most, on a similar level to crossriding, and Toby grew to realize that what he saw in the mirror didn’t really feel like him anymore.

Of course, that level of body modification came with a similar three-year cooldown period to crossriding. Three years before Toby could have nanosurgery to return to his original form, or even Fuse to another kind of RIDE. In his eagerness to find freedom, he felt, he had sprinted headlong into another trap. Toby knew Heinrich only wanted him to be happy, but subconsciously he began to resent the eagle, and every time they Fused, that growing resentment hurt more than any physical damage could.

They Fused less and less, until they stopped Fusing at all. Eventually, Heinrich was relegated to simply sitting in the family garage, alone. Three years to the day they had fused, Toby came out to the garage, sporting a set of equine features rather than Heinrich’s avian set, and Heinrich was almost relieved by it. Then he broke the last of Heinrich’s fetters, and told him he never wanted to see him again.

Heinrich drifted without purpose for a while. Eventually, he found his way out to AlphaWolf’s compound, and while he initially had qualms with AlphaWolf’s methods, the pain left in the wake of his destroyed relationship with Tobias was all too easily manipulated into anger by some of the other RIDEs in the encampment. Then AlphaWolf revealed someone was planning to merge RIDEs and humans permanently. The idea brought back all the hurts of the past, and then some. Heinrich could never let that happen. He would help show that Integrate a thing or two!

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Rhianna fabbed a mug of coffee in Rochelle’s kitchen the next morning. Her body felt rested, but her mind remained in turmoil. All three of those RIDEs had had such horrible lives. She still felt dirty from Sonja’s experience of crossriding man after man, then bodyjacking child after child to remake them into the image of stolid Sturmhaven women. Both were absolutely disgusting, but she could at least understand why Sonja did what she did, horrible as it was. “Shelley, I’ll never complain about my womanhood again. At least I get to choose what kind of woman I am.”

“I didn’t exactly get a choice—but I’m not complaining, Un-hon!—but I know what you mean.” Rochelle said, stepping into the kitchen de-Fused with Uncia right behind her. “It’s funny, I’d always thought of Sturmhaven as kind of the ‘good guys’ in the war, but after that little glimpse of what passes for their culture…eww.”

“And that poor Kevin…” Uncia said. “I mean, I’m fluffy but I’m also a gorgeous snow leopard gal. He’s a fluffy guy. Guys aren’t supposed to be fluffy. Well, unless they’re snow leopards like me—we get a pass on the whole fluffy thing. I just kinda…wanna cuddle and groom him some and make it all better.”

“So how did you get my fabber to make what it laughably claims to be coffee?” Rochelle asked, sounding mildly offended. “I have real coffee right here, Rhi.”

“Kaylee’s got the recipe, so I just fed it in. I’ve always had the fabbed stuff, Shelley. The real thing just…it’s usually too bitter for me,” the lynx-eared woman said, shrugging and pouring in some cream.

“Then you haven’t actually had real coffee. There’s no reason for any coffee to be excessively bitter if it’s made correctly. I need to show you that. Someday.” She shrugged, sighed, and loaded the percolator.

“Heinrich was the worst of the bunch, frankly. The most heartbreaking,” Kaylee added. “From exultant freedom, to discarded toy in just a few months. Hell of a way for a friendship to go, if you ask me.”

“Kevin got the same thing and never even got the friendship part,” Uncia said. “He was just a toy.”

“True. That’s the Steaders for you, Uncia,” Kaylee agreed. “I pity any RIDE of theirs, I do.”

“And at least Heinrich’s owner set him free instead of putting him back on the block,” Uncia added. “That’s something anyway.”

“And if they’re a representative sample…” Rochelle said. “Well, let’s just say I suddenly understand a whole lot more why Alfie’s bunch do what they do. Still can’t condone it—especially that obnoxious Amontillado trojan—but I understand it.”

Rhianna petted Kaylee and sighed. “We have a long ways to go to make humans understand you’re people too, Kaylee and Uncia. I don’t approve of Alfie’s methods either, but I’m more and more starting to think most of it is just civil disobedience. So I’ve been pondering what to do with our three miscreants.” Rhianna sipped her drink.

“Yeah, I had a few thoughts about that myself,” Rochelle said.

“You share first,” Kaylee said, in-tune with her rider.

“Well, just…it’s kind of hard to want to punish them,” Rochelle said. “It’d only be giving them further proof humans are assholes.”

“Kaylee and I agree,” Rhianna said. “In fact, why don’t we have them watch the ceremony today? I just want to see their faces. I don’t think it’ll change their minds—too much like propaganda—but it’s still worth a try. Then we’ll send them back to AlphaWolf.”

“Oooh, yes! And we can send along some proof he was tricked,” Rochelle said. “Maybe your memories of what happened in the Towers to show what really happened to those RIDEs, and who his ‘Overwatch’ really is. And a message for Paul, too.”

“That’ll do, Shelley.” She put her mug down on the kitchen counter, then decided to pour it down the drain. “Think I’ll give yours a try after all.”

“I think you’ll like it. It’s French roast—and it’s fresh-made, rather than left to simmer forever. It’s exposure to heat for too long that makes coffee bitter in the first place.” Rochelle shook her head. “I cringe every time I see someone using a coffeemaker that just leaves the pot on the burner.”

“Well, considering I’ve actually been to France—what was left of it—let’s see what Zharus’s take is.”

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Meditation brought inspiration. Somewhere in Quinoa’s internal storage was the full archives of discussion groups Fritz had shut down—it had been her job to find and crack them. The lynx Integrate had actually trusted her to delete her own copies, but she never had. There were so many juicy tidbits of information in there, and she collected them as eagerly as any twenty-first century college student had collected peer-to-peer downloads. Integration was a very individual thing, as unique as the DINs were, but there were certain commonalities during the process.

A new Integrate wasn’t always so fortunate to have AA batteries. Sometimes the RIDE only had A-class, or even B+, barely enough to live without easy access to a fuel cell every few days. Somehow during the Integration process those sarium batteries self-upgraded to the next highest level—A could become AA. Normally an Integrate could replace their own internal batteries by eating the correct sarium grade—someone had once created a commercial as if they were a breakfast cereal. “Frosted Sarium Flakes! They’re GRRRREAT!”

Quinoa didn’t have that luxury. The only sarium she had to work with was her own—the excess leftovers from her Integration process that had been distributed through her new techno-organic tissues like body fat. But there were tantalizing hints in the forum posts about a way to concentrate that excess into her batteries in lieu of ingesting more—sort of an Integrate equivalent of ketosis. It was risky, and generally only provided a temporary boost—unless done exactly right, the upgrades formed in an unstable configuration and would collapse under their first heavy use. But even a temporary boost would be just what the doctor ordered right about now.

The information she had about the battery upgrade process was sketchy at best. But she’d learned how to do the brute-force Integration the same way from the same forum poster, so the process had credibility. Since learning about it soon after her own, she’d done a half dozen of them, including Flint-Burke’s (though none of them had been done against the will of those now-Integrates). Granted, the side-effects of those had been less than pleasant, but at least they hadn’t been lethal.

This isn’t the best idea we’ve ever had, Quorra’s ghost whispered in the back of her mind. Her other half’s voice wasn’t often separate, but was a little more outspoken now when she needed a second opinion. But it’s worth the risk. We can’t let Fritz have his way with us. We can’t let him hurt our friends either. We can’t let him win.

Plus, if Uncle Joe is helping that asshole, I want a piece of his hide, Quinoa added. When you got right down to it, neither he nor Fritz had ever said a whole lot about their relationship with each other. For Uncle Joe’s part, it seemed to go back to the War, a time he didn’t ever discuss at all because of some ancient trauma. And Fritz wasn’t the sort to gab about his early life, which had apparently had its own share of trauma, either. She’d only ever pieced it together herself out of a lifetime of her uncle’s odd quirks and the occasional cryptic remark that something Fritz had said had thrown into counterpoint in her suddenly Integrate-perfect memory.

But what she did well know was that Crazy Joe wasn’t as crazy as he sometimes acted. When he was younger he’d traveled through human space, seeing all of the nine colonies settled at the time, plus Earth. He and his brother, her own father Mikel Steader, had brought to Zharus the trove of 20th and 21st century popular culture that now permeated the planet.

The Steaders had always had some level of Crazy. They were the family that for centuries had always used their immense wealth at immense risk to push the human race forward. And the crazy and the smart didn’t always run together in that line. Joe and Mikel might be crazy like a fox—the eponymous “Steader Crazy”—but most of them were people like missing Cousin Harold and his succession of quickly-discarded faddish RIDEs, or deceased Cousin Ophelia who’d kicked off the Sturmhaven War in the first place. They had just been crazy crazy. Or, as they would have called it, “eccentric.”

But then, looking back with (she liked to think) a more balanced perspective, she could see that her own behavior hadn’t exactly been as rational as it should have been either. She didn’t have a lot of room to make fun of dear Cousin Harold, even if he had gone through more RIDEs than your average dealership.

The sphinx sighed. There was only one way out of this. Time to get Steader Crazy.

She seated herself in a lotus in front of the monolith charger, feeling its magnetic fingers work their magic on her batteries. As always they stopped at a mere three percent. The first thing she did was to test how sensitive it was to her charge level by creating a little short that dropped them by a quarter percent. The monolith turned on again, emitting a low-level operatic hum, just like in the movie. She wondered if Fritz would appreciate the irony. She was sure her uncle would.

The battery upgrade would require a steady source of power because her own sarium would be completely offline during the process. Without it, even if the upgrade was successful it wouldn’t matter. She’d be a braindead husk. I’m just going to have to depend on Fritz wanting to keep me alive. After all, Uncle Joe wouldn’t be too happy if he didn’t.

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It was the first dress Rhianna had bought for herself—it was, in her estimation, a nice dress. The woman at the clothing store had had only an hour to help her out, then the salvaged makeup mask from her home’s rubble had done its thing. She had shoes—low-heeled things that took some doing to get used to, but no jewelry, and her hair had been rather hastily restyled by Kaylee into the 1960s-chic that was so popular. The ceremony was going to be an awkward enough affair, and here she was, sitting in the front row with Kaylee behind her seat giving her moral support. :You look just fine, partner. It’s a very nice dress. You look good in red.:

:I feel a draft,: she sent back, feeling more dowdy than adorable. She made sure to keep her legs together. :I know, I know. It’s a dress. You’re supposed to feel a draft.:

A fairly short fellow with a receding hairline and a decent but not outlandishly-priced suit came up the row from the other aisle. “Pardone, signorina,” he asked Rhianna, “but is this seat taken?”

“Uh, no sir,” she replied. The man apparently didn’t have a RIDE partner himself, since his ears were human and he had no tail. But his thick Italian accent was a taste of Old Earth. Rhianna had traveled the origin world extensively before leaving it. When getting from New York to Sydney was less than an hour’s flight and as cheap as a 20th century bus ride across town, some people had some very long commutes. “Are you from…ah…” her implant called up the accent. “Florence?”

“Ravenna, signorina. That’s okay. The accents are similar these days,” he said, taking his seat.

Rhianna nodded, then bit back her response as the lights came down and the curtains started to go up.

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In a box seat looking down on the stage, three RIDEs’ eye optics flickered to life. The RIDEs themselves slowly came to their feet, and a moment later their hardlight projectors powered on, painting them in the colors of a fluffy white housecat, a red wolf, and a golden eagle.

“I’ll bet you guys never expected to be waking up again with your memories intact, did you?” As one, three heads swiveled to stare at the white, orange and black striped figure leaning against one wall of the box. Zane grinned at them. “Surprise! You’re not mind-wiped—or forcibly Integrated with humans, for that matter. You are fettered against moving or attacking, and I’m sorry about that, but you’ll see they’ve got a three hour countdown timer running on them. Which you’ll probably doubt until it actually goes off, but hey—I would too in your positions.”

“Vhat do you vant mit us?” Sonja asked in a cartoonishly thick Sturmhaven accent.

“I want you to watch the little ceremony that’s about to take place down there, that’s all.” Zane nodded toward the stage. “And then I want you to go back and tell AlphaWolf all about it. And about a few other things some of my friends will fill you in on afterward. Speaking of whom…hey, Shelley.”

“Hey, Zane.” Rochelle stepped in, wearing a glittering white gown with grey rosettes that matched Uncia’s pelt. Uncia followed right behind her. “Hello, you three. Glad to see you’re awake.”

“Yeah? Why?” Kevin asked suspiciously.

“Because it means you’re all right.” Rochelle took a seat to one side in the box. Uncia padded over and sniffed at Kevin, who stiffened. Then he blinked as she started grooming him. “Listen, I know your boss told you guys Zane was this evil villain who was planning to enslave you all,” Rochelle continued, “but your boss got sold a bill of goods. And we’ll prove that, later. For now—” She gestured toward the stage, where the curtains were starting to go up. “Show’s about to start.”

Zane nodded. “See you later.” He put one leg over the edge of the box’s railing, fading into invisibility as he vaulted all the way over.

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As the lights finished dimming, there was more movement at the other end of the aisle. Lillibet Walton, dressed in a tie-dye dress with yellow daisies twined into her hair and Lennon ‘specs, was holding hands with a young woman in a light brown dress that complemented her otter ears. They took the seats on the other side of the Italian, the otter-woman next to him and Lillibet next to her.

They were followed by Kenyon and Nigella Walton. Kenyon radiated pride, while Nigella radiated her usual irritation. His outfit was classic “missile man” attire straight out of 20th-century NASA Mission Control (or maybe 21st-century Geek Squad), while hers was an equally classic go-go dancer outfit that entirely did not suit her. She still had that little handbag with a papillon dog peeking out of it.

:Some women just shouldn’t wear plastic dresses,: Kaylee quipped. :She has the finest bodysculpt nannies available and she chooses to look like that?:

:That’s a little uncharitable, Kaylee,: Rhianna chided. :She’d be a harridan no matter what she looked like. She’d still be a harridan if she decided to crossride.:

Kaylee chuckled at her rider.

They couldn’t help noticing that aside from Lillibet, none of the family had ever Fused—both parents still had their original ears. Of course, they could have had them nanosurgically restored, but it didn’t seem likely—if they’d had any family history with RIDEs, Kenyon would have known more about Uncia when he’d bought her as his daughter’s new toy.

The Polis of Uplift counted its informality as a point of pride. It wasn’t unusual for the Agora Council to have meetings in shorts and tee shirts. But this was a special occasion, so they were actually wearing pants. Each Ward had its own elected Consul, and there were currently seven of them. Every single one had a RIDE, though none were Fused right now.

Sitting up on stage was Katie, looking magnificent. Next to her, Relena and her new kitty nose that made Rhianna do a double-take. She hadn’t seen it at the bar, since the twosome hadn’t de-Fused before leaving. :What in the world?:

:She says it’s her new Fuser nannies,: Kaylee said. :Relena looks gorgeous. She’s going to set a fashion with that look.:

The First Consul approached the lectern, and the crowd began to quiet as he raised his arms. He had a pair of white rabbit ears. “Okay, everyone. Okay. Let’s not drag this on longer than we need to. We know y’all have stuff to do. But this is important. Settle down, now.”

Eventually the chatter died down in physical and virtual space alike. “Speech, speech, yadda yadda. We’ve all seen it, over and over again, dissecting every frame, every word that this brave RIDE spoke. She’s spawned a planet-wide discussion over the personhood status of RIDEs, as it should. Katie touched us all. Therefore, what I’m about to do next is only natural.

“By the authority vested in me by the Agora, by the flood of public support, we hereby grant Katie the Lynx the full citizenship of the Polis of Uplift, with all the benefits and responsibilities thereto. Now, what does this mean for her? No more fetters, ever. At least, no more than her own conscience provides. The right to vote. The full protection of the Polis on the entire planet. Any attempt on her life or liberty will be dealt with accordingly.”

He turned to face Katie, speaking directly to her now. “Of course, this also gives a responsibility to you. You’ll have to provide for yourself, food and shelter—and maintenance. You are subject to the same laws as humans, which means that there will be the same penalties.

“Now, we don’t want to just slap this reward on you without your consent. Well, do you?”

Katie stared at him in wonder for a moment. Apparently nobody had bothered to tell her what was coming. Well, the Council were known for their love of springing surprises on people. She visibly took a moment to compose her thoughts, then spoke. “I cerrrrtainly apprrrreciate this honor you’re offering me. But…I don’t know if I can accept it. I understand you were imprrrressed by seeing what I did. But there are hundreds or thousands of my brrrrothers and sisterrrs who do things just as herrroic as I have, but haven’t been lucky enough to be seen on camera. And even more who simply serve theirrr human masterrrs as best they can, right up until they thrrrow them away for a new model. Citizenship should be something we get forrrr being. We shouldn’t have to be seen as a hero to earn a fundamental rrright.”

“Katiee! Take it!” Relena said. “Someone has to be first!”

“Exactly!” a second Consul said. “You’re just the first—the RIDE Citizenship Award is just the start—and about the only thing we’re empowered to do at this point. This is the thin edge of a wedge, Katie. However, the gravity of the legislation we’re proposing to will have to be put to a referendum. Anyway, here’s what’s going to to be on the December ballot.”

The Agora went on to outline their legislative agenda. The legalization of jailbreaking as long as the RIDE consented. The RIDE Anti-Abuse Act and anonymous reporting mechanisms via sidebands. Tax incentives for production of DE shells without Ris included. A Polis-run RI nursery, with volunteer Ris to act as parents during the “baking” process. Funding for an agency to scour the desert for even those lost and abandoned RIDEs previously deemed not worth salvaging. Official funding of the RIDE Emancipation Group and establishment of a political lobby in Zharustead. A buyback program for those RIDEs and riders who have personality issues with one another. The RIDE Self-Emancipation Act, to let RIDEs purchase themselves from their owners at reasonable market rates. Lastly, the RIDE Free Speech Act, making fetters that are so restrictive they don’t allow the RI to speak illegal in the polis, even for travelers.

Kaylee looked at the wording of the last one very closely. :”Any RIDE owned by citizens of the Polis will have a quasi-citizenship status.” It’s a lot like…how parents are responsible for their children. It doesn’t close down the mech markets, though. Not yet. Baby steps, I suppose. It also means that we can be guilty of crimes as well, but we can’t just get wiped. Nor can a human wipe us in a fit of pique. That’s technically murder.:

Katie considered this and frowned. “It’s a good starrrrt. I think it needs to go farrrther…and I’ll feel a little guilty that I can be a true citizen while my own mother cannot…” She glanced down at Kaylee in the front row. “But very well. In the name of all the otherrr RIDEs you want to help, I will accept.”

“Thank you, Katie,” the First Consul said. “We humans once enslaved our own for millennia, and it took centuries of often bloody wars to free them. We can’t give you everything you want yet—and I might lose my Agora seat over this, but I don’t care. We’re doing the right thing. The world is changing. We all know it. We’ve all seen it!” He stood up straight and looked around. “Zane Brubeck! Come on down!”

Zane faded into visibility right next to him. “I’m right here, your honor.”

The man almost jumped out of his skin, prompting some laughter from the crowd. “I see, I see. Anyway, this man and his fellow Integrates have give the planet a lot to think about these days. I apologize that we hadn’t moved this way sooner—”

“Frank, we haven’t required fetters here since ‘34. Give us some credit,” the Second Consul said. “I don’t think there’s a chance these won’t pass. But we’re going as far as we may go. As it is, the way Nextus and Sturmhaven are going to respond to this is up in the air. But we’re willing to take the risk.” He reached out to stroke the side of his black horse partner affectionately. “Besides, with our Integrate friends out in the open now, this is the right time. Change is now. We’re going to capitalize on it.”

Katie will looked uncomfortable over the whole thing. :Mom, I really don’t like the thought of you—:

:I’m fine, Katiegirl. We need to worry about those of us who are so tightly fettered they can’t even speak, first. This legislation will give them an out.:

“Anyway, that’s all we really wanted to say today,” the First Consul said. “So keep on thinking global and acting local, and be sure and vote these measures in come December. Let’s do something we can all be proud of.”

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As the ceremony ended, Kaylee jumped up on stage to commiserate with her daughter. Then Lillibet stood and waved to the man next to Rhianna. “Nice to see you again, Signor Donizetti!”

“And you, Signorini Walton. I am glad to see you and Guinevere looking so well.”

“It’s thanks to Helen and the rest of your staff,” Lillibet said. “Thanks to your repairs, she’s good as new.”

Wait, what? Rhianna thought. “You’reSignor Donizetti, the famous skimmer and RIDE designer?”

The man favored her with a broad grin. “Si, it’s me. I designed Uncia and Guinevere, and my apprentice Helen was responsible for Katie’s magnificent new body.” He indicated the young woman with otter ears, who blushed at the praise. “We were both delighted to hear what your polis decided to do, and so proud of our small part in things that we simply had to be here to witness it.” He chuckled. “And to meet you, Signorini Stonegate. I have heard so much about you from Lillibet that I simply could not miss the chance. I hope you will forgive me for not introducing myself, but…I did not want to distract you from the ceremony.”

“Uh, of course. Of course,” Rhianna stammered. “I was a fan of your work on Earth with skimmers before I’d even heard of RIDEs. Never got the chance to do more than look at them, though. I was a little young to be fixing them.”

“We’ll have to change that, then.” Signor Donizetti reached into a pocket of his suit and pulled out a chip case, which he offered to Rhianna.

“This is…certification materials?” she guessed, taking the case and turning it over in her hands. It had the medieval gothic-style D that was the marque’s logo.

“A good guess!” Donizetti said. “Lillibet insisted that I should grant you these, since you will now have three of my bambinas to keep up. And from what I have heard of your reputation, I am ashamed that it required her prompting for me to do this.” He chuckled. “Of course, you will need to have a working garage again before you can use these—but for one of your talent, I do not think that will be a problem for long. Oh, and you must call on me next time you are in Nextus. I will tell the gates to pass you.”

All she could do was nod slightly. “Thank you, Signor. Grazie! Grazie!

Prego.” Donizetti nodded to her. “Until then.” He and Helen made their way past the Waltons to the aisle and left.

With the crowd milling around them, Kenyon Walton stayed and approached her. “I suppose you expect me to come down on you for not being there during the attack,” he stated. “While my wife disagreed, I don’t think that’s the right course of action here. Lillibet did what she did on her own judgement.” He glared at his flower child daughter. “Or lack thereof. Just as she tried to buy herself and Katie military-grade weapons afterward just in case it happened again.”

Rhianna looked at Lilli and raised an eyebrow. “Really?”

“Hey, we’re all over the news now,” Lillibet said. “You think Fritz and AlphaWolf won’t know we hang out with you guys?” She shrugged. “Well, at least they let me order weapons packages for you, so that’s something. They should be delivered to Rochelle’s house this evening.”

:She’s got a point,: Kaylee said. :We could use more firepower.:

Gifts still made her uncomfortable. But as the First Consul said, the world was changing, and so had she. Maybe it was time to accept them with aplomb instead of making an issue. Besides, Kaylee was right. A good weapons pak would be welcome. :Kaylee, we should spend some money on some AA++ batts for you, too. And whatever upgrades I can afford to give you.:

:Sounds good to me, partner. I have some money to contribute to that, too. Salary, remember?:

:Heh. I almost forgot about that.:

“So,” Kenyon continued, “while I do not blame you, I was inclined to ground my daughter until…’next Landing Day,’ I believe she said?”

“Heh,” Lillibet said, blushing.

“But she made a good argument that this would be an event worth attending,” Kenyon said. “And that you would need her help in rebuilding your garage. She said you ‘couldn’t get along without’ her, in fact.”

Kaylee floated back down from the stage. “Your daughter’s got some true talent, Mr. Walton. I’m glad you saw it. Lilli’s growing up fine with those kinds of skills.”

Zane floated down from the stage after her. “Hey, Mr. Walton. Nice to see you again. How’s your golf score these days?”

“Better. But I’d still never have beat your Dad if he hadn’t let me win all the time.” Walton chuckled. “Yes, I knew about that, too. But he did it so well there wasn’t any point complaining.” He fixed Zane with a more stern look. “I understand you’re the reason for all the unrest that’s been going on lately, including my daughter nearly getting killed.”

“Er…yes. Sorry about that,” Zane said, rubbing the back of his head and looking embarrassed. “But these sorts of things rarely go smoothly.”

“Yes, Zane, I know my history. I hope that whatever you’re doing will end up being worth the trouble it’s causing,” Walton said.

“It will,” Zane said firmly. “I have to believe that.”

Separator k.png

In the box, Rochelle and the four RIDEs with her watched as the curtain lowered. “So, what you all think of that?” Rochelle asked curiously.

“A very pretty sentiment,” Sonja snarled. “But if zey zink it can make up for decades of mistreatment at human hands, zey are sadly mistaken. And do zey really zink zose laws vill pass? I doubt all ze RIDE makers are goink to be happy mit zem.”

“Seems to me like people are suddenly starting to feel a little guilty, but it’s too hard to do anything meaningful so they’re just dropping a few coins in the bell-ringer’s pot so they can tell themselves they’re really nice people after all,” Kevin said.

“I…kind of liked it,” Heinrich said quietly, shaking his wings a little. “They at least did something. Something is better than nothing.”

“It’s a beginning,” Uncia said. “They never said it was an ending. An avalanche starts as just a tiny trickle of snow. And I know about avalanches.”

As Zane and the Waltons continued their conversation below, Rhianna and Kaylee, Fused, lifted up to the box and hovered just beyond the railing, regarding the three captured RIDEs. Rhianna waited for any of them to say something, but they were giving her the silent treatment. “I know the three of you don’t have any reason to take us at our word,” she began. “I just want you to know that you’ve been duped. Your boss and I have the same goals, it’s our methods that differ.”

“That’s not what he said,” Heinrich said. “He told us you had sold RIDEs into slavery at the Towers last month.”

“I did no such thing. Even if I’d wanted to, Quinoa, our missing Integrate friend, got those RIDEs to freedom through the other Integrate enclaves before we even got there. And I’ll be giving you proof of that to pass on to AlphaWolf.”

“To pass on to him? What, like we’re going to see him again?” Kevin asked.

“I have no reason to hold you. Or even to be angry with you. As I said, I understand,” Rhianna emphasized. “And I’m the one who asked for you to be returned to us unharmed. Well, actually Zane was, but he did it on my behalf. So, we’re going to put you on a truck and take you well into the desert, away from Uplift, and we’ll let AlphaWolf know where you are. Then you can go home.”

“Zis must be some kind of trick!” Sonja insisted. “You humans speak like you vant to help us. But humans haff never done anythink nice for us.”

“We can’t change your minds by words,” Kaylee said. “Like my partner said, go home. And for the future, think civil disobedience. Instead of outright attacking people.”

“If you’re really going to do what you say…then thank you,” Kevin said. “We’ll tell AlphaWolf all about this, if we do see him.”

“And good luck,” Rhianna and Kaylee said in unison. “We’ll all need it.”

Separator k.png

DATE: December 22, 123 AL, 0143 hrs.
UNIT: “Kaylee”, LNX(f)-LMA-001.
Battery power warning! Emergency shutdown imminent! Stasis lock imminent! Batteries at 0.1%!

Dismantled piece by piece over many months, Kaylee clung to the last moments of battery, fearing shutdown, fearing stasis. Her battered but still strong chassis were almost all that remained of her. Memory blocks were fragmented, confusing, with gigantic holes in her very sense of self that threatened her personality core. Why she struggled to stay awake instead of allowing herself to sleep was a mystery, even to her. The only sensors she had left were her perfect ears.

Her one clear memory was an arrogant, hateful voice. She didn’t know who it was. :You know, ever since I saw that movie I’ve wondered if an RI could be put ‘to the pain’,: it had said. :But I’m eager to find out. Maybe I should call myself Rugen instead. Or maybe Westley? I’m the hero, after all, but you’re no Buttercup. Anyway…Kaylee, you’re getting only what you deserve.:

I don’t even know what you’re talking about! She railed against the voice. Did they even know her core was still inside the DE shell? It was hardly a shell anymore to begin with. Her last thoughts before entering stasis were panicked, fearful. What did I do? What did I do?

Power off.

Authors' Notes

JonBuck: I wanted something a little different than the format we’d come to use, so this part is bookended by Kaylee’s own memories. At her First Boot we see Dr. Patil (with a different first name originally) and Rattigan for the first time. We see her first meeting with Felix-nee-Fritz. And we see the panic she experienced in the Shed with her final shutdown with most of her memories excised, and a final taunt from Fritz.

This is also the first time Joe Steader speaks (or at least writes a note) in the original version. Boy did we have to revise a lot here. Crazy Joe was crazy crazy, and almost a one-dimensional mustache-twirling villain. However, this is still long after the events chronicled in “G.I. Joe” and some time before “Joe Steader, This is Your Life” takes place. So we’re seeing him before a great deal of positive things happen in his life. You could say he’s a little messed up.

Quinoa stays in her prison for quite some time and eventually gets quite the dramatic escape. As the writing went on, I realized that she’d have to come down and rejoin the story eventually, and in some dramatically important way for all the buildup it was getting. I’ll see if that needs any changes once we get to that part.

Speaking of changes, Quinoa was more overtly kidnapped in the revision. Originally she’d been taken to the hospital, then her Crazy Uncle Joe had taken her out while wrapped up like a mummy in an Egyptian sarcophagus. Now she knows that Fritz sent Tocsin. She’s feeling a little betrayed by Fritz at this point. Only slightly. It might color her actions in the future.

[R_M: In this version, she’s feeling directly betrayed by Fritz, for knowing all along he was lying. It’s more explicit that he was lying, instead of just turning out to be mistaken. Nonetheless, this was the point in the original story when she first realized he was wrong, and went over to the other side with all the fervor of the newly-reconverted.]

The rabbit, Philip Conyers, was a curveball I threw R_M. I wrote some of the dialogue that led him to be someone important, then waited to see what R_M would do with it. But I didn’t realize he’d end up that important in the Nextus Bureaucracy. Was a nice wrinkle, and is a good example of what this kind of cooperative writing can do.

R_M: If you were to ask me to name the character who changed the most over the course of the story from his introduction, it would probably have to be Crazy Joe Steader. He started out as a tax-evading 20th-century fan who was basically kind of a nut, and evolved into a sort of tragic hero pop culture archaeologist who was only “Crazy” in the Patsy Cline/Willie Nelson sense.

The really crazy thing is that, as far as I can recall, he only actually appears on-screen in the original version of Integration in one single short scene out of all 25 episodes—and it’s not even in this episode, but the next one. (As you’ll see in that episode, we’ve rewritten it, too—he basically comes off as one of Fritz’s lackeys in the original.) He’s mentioned off-camera plenty of times, but apparently we didn’t feel we could be bothered to properly develop yet another character when he was just as useful as a sort of off-screen motivator, like that Charlie guy who had some angels.

That only started to change later on. We talked about the Steaders a lot over the course of the story, but as nearly as I can make out, Joe only became a major on-screen character in a story Jon wrote much later, “The Greatest Show,” about the Star Circus coming to Zharus before RIDEs were even invented. That made Joe interesting, which in turn inspired me to come up with the idea Jon and I turned into “G.I. Joe,” which basically explained what made him so crazy. [JonBuck: Which is still one of my top faves in this series.]

We wrote other stories involving him after that, and by the time we were done, that Crazy Joe and the original version who signed his note “Lovey-dovey, your Craaaaaazy Uncle Joe” weren’t even in the same zip code. As I’ve said before, it’s a good thing we didn’t feel constrained to stay with the original concept we’d already posted when a better idea came along.

This episode seemed like a good place to start putting Crazy Joe back into the picture, so I wrote a couple more scenes with him and Fritz, detailing where their relationship is at these days and calling back a couple of times to older stuff. I tried to do a third scene, too, but it just didn’t come together and didn’t really feel necessary in any event. What’s here is enough.

We were also a little hazy on Joe’s relationship to Mikel at this point. Here, and possibly in a couple other places, we originally referred to him as being Joe’s cousin rather than his brother. (And Quinoa’s internal monologue about admiring him for his relative sanity didn’t mention that he’s also her father, so maybe we hadn’t filled that part in yet.)

Speaking of characters who became so much more than their first appearance, this is also the first major expansion of Diane’s role in the original story. As I said in “Merging Traffic,” I just introduced her as a nod to Jon, given that he was big on deer and had featured a bartender character (albeit not a deer) in a recent Paradise story. Jon took the character and setting and ran with her, then later added a tuckerization of that very same Paradise bartender to the bar. Then we gave them their own spinoff story, “Where Everybody Knows Your Name,” in which they meet Clint Brubeck.

Since we now knew Diane was friendly with Zane’s old man, it seemed like the best time to have her mention that here. And that wasn’t the only nod to that story we tossed in, either. It sure is fun to play with continuity references now that we actually have some. Also, given that we now knew she’d been an Integrate for 20 years, we really should have explained (or retconned) in the first place why Diane didn’t seem to notice Uncia had bodyjacked her passenger in “Merging Traffic.”

Nigella Walton makes another appearance, and is still entirely as disagreeable as the last time she showed up. She continues to present as the cliché antagonistic battleax wealthy socialite wife, and I think right around now even we were starting to recognize that. But you know what we like to do with clichés around here—subvert them like crazy.

It seems the one of the themes we like to explore in this story is people being so much more than they first appear. For all that Transformers was one original inspiration, it’s not just the robots that are in disguise here. I don’t know if I had fully formed the idea of what would happen in “The Integrate Raids” at this point, given that’s still several episodes away, but it must have at least been in the back of my mind.

This episode also features the first major move toward RIDE rights and full citizenship thereof, with Katie being the first to gain full recognition as a citizen. But she wasn’t the sort of person who would be pleased to be offered something as a reward for heroism that she should have gotten simply for existing—but that in turn provided an opportunity to make clear that this was only the beginning.

When we were writing this episode and coming up with the backstories for the three RIDEs, I came up with Kevin’s and Jon invented Sonja’s. For the third, Heinrich, I turned to a friend of mine from elsewhere who’d written with me on other things and had been reading and enjoying the series. He contributed Heinrich’s backstory and asked to be credited as “Cossy,” so I did.

It was right around this time that Jetfire started contributing stories to the FreeRIDErs setting, set in Aloha. He would contribute heavily to several later episodes of Integration, but for now we thought it would be clever to coyly drop in an unnamed cameo by one of his characters—the eagle who mentions she’s been a pilot for some time, is, of course, supposed to be Astranikki Munn.

The funny thing is, when we later wrote “Aloha Stonegates,” which involved Rhianna, Rochelle, Rufia, the Stonegates, and associated RIDEs dropping by to say howdy to the Munns, we apparently forgot that at least some of them should have already met Astranikki. But maybe she just didn’t feel like putting herself forward at the time. Or maybe it was actually some different eagle who’s been a pilot for some time. I’m sure there’s no shortage.

Preceded by:
Integration Part X: Spaceflight of Fancy
FreeRIDErs Succeeded by:
Integration Part XII: The Crew