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User:Robotech Master/Cougar Town

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FreeRIDErs story universe


Cougar Town

Author: Robotech_Master and Jon Buck (with Jetfire)


Author's Comments

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


E.C.S. Steady Hand Landing Site
March 25, 159 A.L.

The fabbed barracks was so new it was still warm from its own construction. An officious-looking woman in a staid dark pantsuit motioned for him to follow her. She led him into a small cubicle, then handed him a tablet. “Sir, I promise you this will be the smoothest experience with bureaucracy you’ve ever had. After what you’ve been through the last subjective day we NextusCrats don’t want to make your situation that much worse. You can either fill in the blanks on the tablet form with a stylus, or we can do it verbally. Your preference.”

“I’d just as soon talk it through. Help me shake off this cryosleep grogginess,” Ed said, sitting his considerable bulk down on a camp stool.

“Okay. Let’s start with name and age.”

“Edward Lancaster, forty-five.”

“Former occupation?”

“Not the most glamorous, but necessary. Landfill reclamation, with some archeology on the side. Depends on what we find during the dig. I’ve done everything from actual landfills to fixing mountaintop removal coal mines.”

“Marital status?”

“Single. Never married. Dated a few times in RL and VL, but nothing, um, ever came of it.”

“Former place of residence?”

“Oakland Arco, up in the Altamont Hills. Hardly ever left it, between my job telepresence and VL. Hardly ever needed to.”

The woman raised her eyebrows. No doubt she probably had intuited his sedentary lifestyle from his admittedly corpulent physique. Even with med-tech on Earth less advanced than on Zharus it took real work to be as obese as he was. “Interesting. Interesting. I believe I’ve found you in the passenger manifest, Mr. Lancaster. It says you were recolonized due to your ‘habit of presenting as female in GVL and FVL’.”

Ed snorted. “Sounds about right. I mean, look at me. This ugly face and enormous flab. I hardly leave my apartment and it shows. As for the rest…” he blushed.

Her expression turned surprisingly sympathetic. “Mr. Lancaster, I change my sex every three years and have borne three of five children between myself and my spouse. Welcome to Zharus. There’s no need to feel any shame.”

He ran his fingers nervously through his hair. “I know, but it hasn’t really sunk in. Now, I’d like to get online, but you use a different network standard here.”

“The techs for updating your implant’s network protocols are a little behind. And I understand they’re bringing some bodysculpt pods for those who wish to take advantage of being on Zharus right away for changing teams.”

“I…think I still need to mull that over. Need anything else from me, ma’am?”

A small fabber printed out a plastic card. “Not from me, but we will be following up. This is your ZID—Zharus ID. It comes with a permanent, spam-free email address and access to Basic Accommodation. The card has a hardlight projector and can answer any questions about BA. Again, welcome to Zharus. Can you send in the next person as you leave?”

Ed nodded, putting the card in his pocket.

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“Lawrence Erskine, age forty-two.”

The gentleman in the staid business suit with cute red panda tags smiled at him. “Welcome back to Zharus, Mr. Erskine. Is there a RIDE we should inform of your return?”

“Well…John and I didn’t really get along. We were almost at each other’s throats at the end of my tour here.” Larry’s ears drooped a little.

“Unfortunately we can’t all be perfect personality matches,” the man agreed. “There’s no one else here you’d like to tell?”

“Actually…there was one RIDE, Layla—she was from the same rental agency as John. We never Fused because of the crossing thing, but…now that I don’t have to worry about fitting in when I go back to Earth, might be a different story.”

“Ah. Well, she shouldn’t be too hard to track down. We’ll let her know.” The man made a note on his pad. “I seem to have found you in the passenger manifest and our tourist records. Should we continue with the interview?”

“Sure.”

“Former occupation.”

“I was in the Reclamation Corps, Habitat Restoration. After the clean-up crews finish their work and leave us a pristine site, my division goes in and gets the natural processes jump-started to restore the area to approximately pre-industrial condition. We set up CO2 removal systems, too.”

“Marital status?”

“Confirmed Bachelor in RL, been married a few times in FVL. Never worked out for too long, but it’s all in good fun. Or was.”

“Place of residence?”

“Vancouver Arco, BC.”

“You were apparently recolonized in part due to your political activism.”

Larry snorted. “Yeah. Even marched against that frigging Act. Have to admit seeing Judge Gates and her hubby right there to greet us was a welcome sight. Not to mention Marshal Petrovna.”

“I’m sure. Now, here’s your ZID. Some techs will arrive soon to update the network protocols in your implant…”

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“Janice Howard, age thirty-six. Not employed, but on Permanent UBI. I lived in the slums in Halifax, England. Single, never married. But I have a brother here, David Howard. I suspect he’s why I ended up here. I was a freaking model citizen! I don’t even have an implant! Never touched VL in any form.” She smiled at the bureaucrat. She might have piercing eyes and hawk feathers for hair, but Janice knew the type.

“Impressive. You anticipated all my basic questions, Ms. Howard,” the woman said. “UBI is Universal Basic Income, which is like our Basic Accommodation on Zharus. The notes in the manifest mention you hadn’t held a regular job in nearly ten years. Before then, you bounced around a dozen occupations. In two years.”

“That’s me, pretty much. Useless to society and loving it. We’re supposed to wear our true selves on our sleeves, after all. Your point being?”

“Your own government marked ‘Unemployable’ as the main reason why you were recolonized. Not because your sibling is a furry—though that is included as a supporting footnote.”

The indignation Janice had felt since awakening deflated a little. “Oh. Ohhhhhh…”

“Afraid so. As a new Zharus citizen, you are entitled to all BA benefits in perpetuity, Ms. Howard. If that’s truly all you want out of life.”

“I’ve never aspired to much, frankly. Of course, UBI really wasn’t much to live on. Before they threw me out I was thinking of selling my left arm for extra scratch. You can get good money for an arm and a leg.”

“I see,” the hawk-eyed woman said. “Ms. Howard, I think you’ll find that boredom is a great motivator on Zharus for making something of yourself. Here is your ZID. I believe they’re opening a cafeteria soon if you wish a bite to eat. Take that tablet with you since you don’t have an implant. Good day. Next!”

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Ed leaned against the wall of one of the fast-built houses where the local bureaucrats were conducting their interviews. A couple dozen such temporary offices had been opened already, and they all had considerable lines waiting. Workers were moving up and down the lines, handing out tablets so they could fill out preliminary surveys—and also folding camp stools, to make the line wait a little easier for anyone who needed to sit down. Ed thought that was pretty nice of them.

In his pocket, Ed fingered the card they’d given him. Apparently he could pull it out and ask it questions about things, and it would answer him—probably some kind of embedded expert system. That was…well, nice, he supposed, and he was sure it would be very helpful when the urge arose, but just at the moment it was all he could do to stay in one place and try to soak everything in.

It was still so hard to believe that, in the space of a few subjective minutes, his entire universe had changed and here he was, double-digit light years from home. His old home—he didn’t imagine there was going to be any going back any time soon. He felt a surge of anger at the thought. “Bastards,” he muttered. “I gave them years of work helping to restore the planet. And for my reward, I get tossed off of it.”

“Yeah, it sucks, doesn’t it? I feel the exact same way.”

Ed looked up, and there was his buddy Larry. Apparently he’d just come out of one of the other offices. “You,” Ed said.

“Yeah, me,” Larry replied. “Hey, Ed. How’re you taking all this?”

Ed sighed. “I guess it’s finally starting to sink in. All that stuff I thought was private…”

“Yeah, welcome to the mesh,” Larry said. “I guess nothing’s really secret from the government that runs the thing. I sort of expected I’d be beneath their attention. I marched in the protests, sure, but it wasn’t like I was an organizer or anything.” He sighed. “I am glad to be back here—really liked the place that time I visited a few years ago—but I wish I’d had the choice.”

“Yeah, you and me both.” Ed knew it was irrational to blame his friend, but a part of him wondered if he’d still be here if he hadn’t let Larry get him into FVL/GVL play back on Earth. But he guessed that was water under the bridge. “So what now?”

“Might as well wander over to that cafeteria, I guess. I wonder if they’ve got kraken there? Haven’t had that stuff since last time I was here, and I remember it being pretty good.”

“Hey, you two.” The woman accosting them was another familiar face, though only because they’d all woken up in the same room together. She’d been the one who’d insisted she was a “model citizen” and thought she’d been recolonized because her brother was a furry. But her haughty demeanor seemed to have been taken down a few pegs now. “I’m Janice Howard. Mind if I tag along with you? I…guess I kind of feel like some company right now, and I don’t know anyone else here, but we all at least woke up in the same batch, so…”

“Sure, why not? Misery loves company,” Larry said. “I’m Larry Erskine, that’s Ed Lancaster. Nice to meet you, Janice.” He nodded in the direction of the cafeteria. “We were just going over there to see what’s to eat here.”

Janice nodded. “Sounds good to me. Might as well see how what they consider ‘Basic Accommodation’ here works.”

“Bastards took everything but the clothes on our backs, and apparently some of us didn’t even get that much,” Ed said. “So it’s Basic or nothing right now.”

The spartan structure was being completed before their eyes. An orderly line of long tables and benches floated inside on lifters, landing in neat rows. Food fabbers soon joined them. All under the watchful eyes of the Nextus military and some other techs. A number of them were Fused RIDEs, drawing the eye of many of the furry exiles, including Ed and Larry.

A hungry crowd was starting to gather, waiting to be allowed inside. It was simply a large metal box with two floors, perhaps one of the prefabs the colony ship had brought with it. Once the flow of furniture and machinery stopped, a green light blinked over the wide double-doors. The tech went inside for a few seconds, then gave the soldier a thumbs up.

“Looks like we’re open for business,” the skunk said. “You can go ahead on.”

It put Ed in mind of more of a military cafeteria. He picked up a tray and headed to a fabber. “‘All meals served with post-cryo electrolyte drinks’,” Ed read.

“Makes some sense,” Larry said. His tawny tail swished. “When I feel like this I always go for breakfast foods. So…” He pushed a few buttons on the menu screen for a buttermilk short stack, syrup, scrambled eggs, and bacon. After a moment, he considered and tapped the key to change “bacon” to “kraken bacon.” “That’ll hit the spot.” A slot opened for the tray, which he pushed inside. A progress meter started.

“Great idea, Larry,” Ed said, keeping his order the same except for adding chocolate chips to the pancakes. “I think I’ll stick with plain bacon, though. Not feeling adventurous enough yet to try the local delicacies.”

“Make that three, plus some tea,” Janice said. “I haven’t had a proper breakfast in years, UBI being what it is. Mostly I survived on Soylent and NutriRamen.”

Larry grimaced. “Ugh. Well, this planet will be a paradise for you, I can tell you that already.”

Standing on a cafeteria bench in the empty portion of the room, a man wearing a white shirt with a black tie and black slacks with panda tags whistled. “Okay, now that I have your attention. We’re about to have a gizmo go online that’ll enable you to update your implant’s network protocols. All it needs is your permission.

“Those of you without implants, we’ve got both media tablets and interface specs available, gratis, that will allow you to browse the local networks nearly as well. Or you can stop by one of the medical bays and get basic network implants, also gratis, as part of the refugee Basic Accommodation package.

“Thanks for listening, and enjoy your first free meal of freedom.”

The three of them carried their trays over to the end of one of the long cafeteria tables. As they put their trays down, Ed pulled the card out of his pocket. “They said this thing could answer some questions about this new place. Might as well try it out.” He placed the card on the table. “Okay, so how does this work?”

“Welcome to Zharus! I’m Informio, your guide, an Enhanced Intelligence who has chosen to help the Steady Hand refugees acclimate—or reacclimate, in Mr. Erskine’s case—to your new home. What questions can I answer for you?” It was a smiling, friendly, human face with neon blue eyes projected over Ed’s ZID card.

“Okay, Informio. Wait, Informio? Isn’t that name rather on the nose?”

“My actual name isn’t Informio. But I usually take the name of the service I’m offering when interacting with patrons. Now, what can I do for you?”

“What is Basic Accommodation? We have Universal Basic Income on Earth. How is it different?”

“On Earth, UBI only provides a poverty-level monetary income. Everything else is considered the responsibility of the recipient. On Zharus, BA provides much less in terms of mu, that is ‘monetary units’. What it does provide are material needs.”

Ed blinked. “How can you even do that without going bankrupt?”

“The short answer, Mr. Lancaster, is nanotechnology-based fabrication. As you can see with the city being built around you, construction is cheap. Also, the public domain is large. You can make almost anything you want from the public domain from a public fabber at no cost to yourself. Even people who are not on Basic have this benefit.”

Almost anything?” Janice said.

“Some public domain products still require large amounts of fabber matter, or are very complex and have thousands of moving parts. Personal transportation is generally only a few hundred mu, though. Well within your monthly five hundred mu stipend. Tourists often use public domain fabbed vehicles for travel.”

“That still seems awfully expensive to sustain,” Larry added.

“For some simple items we are very nearly a post-scarcity economy. Cost is very near zero. Ergo, twenty years ago the Zharus Planetary Assembly made a decision based on this reality.

“No Zharus citizen shall be without basic food, clothing, shelter, and fabbed goods. It’s the very bottom any citizen is allowed to fall to maximize the opportunity to rise again.

“Put simply, it is less costly to the government to provide for this Basic Accommodation than than allow citizens to become homeless, starving, and sick. Citizens remain fed, clothed, sheltered, and in good health in the event of losing everything due to disaster, bad life choices, or simply bad luck. Perhaps you don’t aspire to more than Basic. This is extremely uncommon, but possible.”

“Holy crap!” Janice exclaimed. “Do you know the bureaucratic hoops I had to jump through to get permanent UBI?”

Larry whistled. “You got permanent UBI? That’s quite an accomplishment.”

Janice shrugged. “Achievements in boredom, I guess. Without anything else to do with myself, I learned to navigate the bureaucracy just to keep from going out of my head staring at the wall.”

Ed frowned at the EI face. “Why’s it so uncommon, Informio?”

“Interesting Ms. Howard should say ‘boredom’. On Zharus we’ve found that boredom is a powerful motivator to rise out of Basic again. Numerous options are available. If your skills aren’t needed in your location, Basic will move you to where they are if you find employment on the other side of the planet.

“Mr. Erskine, your extensive experience in habitat restoration is in demand in Punta Sur, our terraforming polity. We can put you in touch with the hiring managers there.

“Mr. Lancaster, your profession is also related to terraforming. However, you also have options in resource recovery. You’ll be able to find a job anywhere, from public recyclers to industrial scale.

“As for Ms. Howard…” Informio gave her a look. “Perhaps speak to one of the people from Nextus about ‘Surrogacy’. If that doesn’t interest you, then you can go ahead and spend the next fifty years in a Basic efficiency. If that’s all you aspire to.”

Janice blinked. “Surrogacy? Like, what, carrying a baby for someone?”

“It is about doing something for someone else, but it’s not carrying a child. Let’s just say that if you’re as adept at navigating bureaucracy as you seem to be, you could make some decent money doing it for Nextus citizens.”

“I really don’t understand what you’re talking about. I guess I’ll check it out later, anyway.”

“I think I understand what he’s getting at,” Larry said. “I learned a little about it when I spent some time in Nextus, last time I was here. On Earth, bureaucracy is a joyless thing you have to put up with for the sake of getting anything done, but in Nextus they’ve turned it into…well, kind of a game. And if I remember right, a ‘Surrogate’ is kind of like a pinch hitter in baseball—if you’re not so good at the game yourself, you can pay someone money to play it on your behalf.”

Informio nodded. “An adroit summation, Mr. Erskine.”

“So, I get to stand in line and fill out forms for other people, and get paid for it?” Janice said.

“On the surface, yes. But there are loopholes built into the system. The more of them you find and exploit, the better your pay and the less queue time you spend,” Informio said. “And what Mr. Erskine said earlier has just prompted me to research the process of obtaining ‘permanent UBI’ on Earth. I gather that it requires navigation of a number of obscure forms and protocols. If you were able to find loopholes that were left through sheer bureaucratic oversight, you should be even more adept at finding ones that are intentionally engineered as part of the game.”

“You got that right, blue eyes. Huh. Well, I’m British. I know how to queue,” Janice said. “I’ll look into it once I get my head together. Ugh! It’s been a day, you know?”

“So let’s have pancakes. They’re getting cold,” Ed suggested. “Thanks, Informio.”

“You are all quite welcome. Should you wish to speak to me again, simply preface a question with my name and an expert system will alert me. Now, enjoy your meals.” The face nodded to them, then winked out.

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“So we’ve got full bellies. Great. So now what?” Ed wondered as they walked out of the cafeteria.

“Well, we’ve satisfied one part of the bottom tier of Maslow’s Pyramid,” Larry said. “We’ve got the food part down. Maybe now we should look into ‘shelter.’” He waved a hand toward the rows upon rows of efficiency dwellings that had sprung up like mushrooms in the hours since the landing. “As I understand it, it’s fairly simple to lay claim to one of those places—so maybe we should get three adjoining ones. Probably should get in it early while the ones closest to the facilities are still available.”

“Gosh, a place of my very own,” Janice said. “And I don’t even have to jump through flaming hoops backward to get it. My cup, it runneth over.”

“I had an apartment with a ton of useless stuff in it,” Larry said. “The apartment was just where I slept. Otherwise I was using an android telepresence rig to do my job or in VL.”

“Pretty much the same,” Ed added. “Though I had a neat collection of ancient appliances I dug out of the ground. Had a PhilCo TV I restored before VL took over my life. All gone, now.”

“I imagine all that ancient stuff is in the public domain, so you could fab a replica of it if you wanted,” Janice said. “If I understand what I’m hearing about this Basic stuff, anyway.”

“Wouldn’t be the same. Anyway, I wonder if Aleka is available. Got to chat with her a couple times in VL. Kinda shocked to see that GVL face in person. Though she wouldn’t know this face of mine. Or the rest of me, for that matter.”

Janice looked puzzled. “Just how does that VL stuff work, anyway? Is it like…wearing a cat costume? Going out in drag? Going out in cat costume drag?”

“Implants like we have generally include full sensory simulation,” Larry said. “So it’s not like wearing a costume. It’s like we’re physically anthropomorphic cougars.”

“Or a woman,” Ed said.

“To the extent VL permits simulating that kind of thing,” Larry said. “As I understand it, it’s not completely accurate, given the neurological and physiological differences between the sexes. But it’s as close as you can get without having yourself nanotechnologically reconstructed.”

Ed nodded. “And we used them in VR chatrooms—basically the same thing we’d hold VR business meetings in, except with different environment settings.”

Larry chuckled. “I forgot to turn off my FVL avatar for meetings a couple times. Nobody said a word. I was the coolest cat there.”

“I was always so careful about that,” Ed said. “Practically paranoid. Kept my worklife and homelife carefully separated. Fat lot of good it did me in the end.”

“My brother’s a furry. Loved raccoons,” Janice said. “Went on vacation here ten years ago. Never came back. In fact, he never sent another email after that ‘I’m staying’.” She laughed. “He was very open about it on Earth. Like you’re supposed to be. Wore ears and tail everywhere. Sometimes a holomask if he was ‘feeling his fur’ as he said. Saved every penny to ship to Zharus, then buggered off for good.”

“Can’t blame him,” Larry said. “It was one of the hardest decisions of my life whether to go back myself, when I came here as a tourist. Especially with Basic Accommodation available. But I felt like I had to be a Responsible Adult…” He shrugged. “My mistake, right?”

Janice shook her head. “If I’d known what passed for ‘Basic’ here, I’d have gotten here by hook or by crook years ago. If my brother had been responsible for me getting sent here, I guess I’d have to thank him for it.” She snorted. “Instead, it turns out they threw me off the planet for being a bum. Go figure.”

“Well, maybe here you’ll find something you like doing, so you don’t have to be a bum,” Ed said.

“Oh, I’m fine with being a bum,” Janice said. “Just knowing I can be one here, and no one will be pestering me to Do The Responsible Thing And Contribute To Society, is what makes being here worthwhile, really.”

“Let’s just go snag those efficiencies and maybe go people-watch,” Larry suggested. “I thought I heard something about Integrates. They were an urban myth when I was here. Maybe we’ll see some felines, RIDEs and Integrates. Maybe we can get a she-cougar to Fuse with you, Ed.”

“Heh. Well, I’m not going to go charging into this head-first, Larry. VL was just virtual. I could change avatars when I felt like it. I understand it’s a little more permanent here.”

“You guys don’t plan on looking for jobs right away?” Janice said dryly.

“Far as I’m concerned I’m on vacation,” Larry said. “Maybe for a month. I have a feeling this city getting built is going to tear up the landscape around it to hell and back. They might even need someone like me to help put it back together again.”

“Not exactly sure what I could do here,” Ed said. “My specialty doesn’t seem to be as much in demand since humanity had gotten over trashing the planet by the time it got here. Maybe I’ll change careers. We’ve all got another century to live anyway. Can’t do the same thing forever.”

Janice chuckled. “Whoa, look at you, planning that far ahead. I’m lucky if I even know what I want to do this afternoon.”

Ed frowned. “You’ve chosen what to do with your life, and I’m choosing mine.”

“Actually, I don’t choose much of anything. That is my life.” Janice grinned. “Kind of envious of you people who actually know what you want, you get right down to it. Maybe that’s why I always piss them off at me. The whole ‘sour grapes’ thing. ‘Least that’s what the shrink I had to see to keep my Permanent UBI used to say.”

“Right now, I want to get us into some housing,” Larry said. “It looks like most of the ones nearest the ship are already taken, but that new construction area over there looks promising. What say we wander over and take a look?”

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“I never saw anything built this fast back on Earth,” Janice said. The trio stood behind a safety barrier erected by the Nextus military, along with a growing crowd of exiles waiting to be allowed into their new homes. The site was half a kilometer from where the Steady Hand had settled on the ground. A hundred meters overhead a construction barge 250 meters long floated, floodlights and warning beeps filled the air.

“That end looks a lot like the garbage-eaters and earthmovers I monitored on Earth,” Ed said. “But faster, I’ll give you. Should be dirt flying everywhere, but it’s being sucked up into the reclaimers in that barge. Lots of useful materials in plain old dirt if you can sieve them out.”

“Well, I hope it’s saving enough of the soil bacteria and mycelia. They’ll have to put enough back to make the ground fertile,” Larry added.

Once the utilities and streets were laid, one by one a hollow block the size of a small house came down on the foundation of each lot. Only fifteen minutes later it retracted back up into the barge, leaving a completed home in its place.

They were assigned 226, 227, and 228 on B Street.

They were tiny houses in rows, alternating in colors, with metal siding and sloping roofs. Inside was a bed, a desk, a table, a few chairs, a couch, a kitchen, a closet, and a bathroom. The kitchen consisted of a small fabber, a small cabinet/pantry, a tiny countertop, and a sink. The walls were plain white, with all four flashing “media wall calibrating” in the center. The floor was a kind of easy-to-clean linoleum. The two windows overlooked the continuing automated construction outside, but had a sound barrier to prevent the noise from disturbing the residents.

“I love this!” Janice squealed, coming back outside of 226. “The inside could use some more color, but this is so much better than the slum I was living in. If they have one of those public fabbers set up I’ll get a nice red rug, some covers for the couch and chairs, curtains… There’s so much potential here!”

“Reminds me of my first apartment on the lower levels in the Arco,” Ed said. “It’s a good place to start over, I’ll give ‘em that much.”

“I don’t think we’ll be here that long, Ed,” Larry said. “I’m just across the street from you two, in 227. If you don’t mind, I need a little alone time to catch up on some news since they froze us.”

“Yeah…I think I got some stuff to do, too,” Ed said. “There’s someone I want to see if I can send a chat request to.”

“Well, since you two are retreating into your shells, I guess I might as well too. Maybe I’ll see if I can touch base with my shiftless brother. To be honest, I’m kind of disappointed he wasn’t here to greet me. They said they made the passenger manifest world-searchable, you’d think he could have taken an interest.” Janice shrugged. “But he always was a little self-absorbed. Anyway, ping me before you go out anywhere. I’d be up to tag along.”

The other two nodded, and the three of them retreated into their houses for their respective “me time.”

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A couple of hours later, Ed sent comm pings to Larry and Janice, and a few minutes later they had stepped out of their houses to meet in the street once more. “Hey,” Larry said. “What’s up, Ed? You look like you just got some bad news.”

Ed sighed. “Well, yeah. Remember Aleka Petrovna, who was there when we woke up? I sent her a chat request, was hoping she might have a little time to talk. Got this back.” He held up one of the free media tablets the Nextus ‘crats had been handing out.

The message displayed Aleka, with a coyote and horse standing to either side of her. “Hi! Please excuse the form-letter nature of this response, but it was the fastest way to say everything I need to say to everybody.

“First of all, I’m very flattered you wanted to chat with me. I really am. But I’m also feeling just a little overwhelmed by several hundred thousand of my biggest fans all ending up here at once, so unfortunately that’s not something I can do for everyone on an individual basis right now.

“So my RIDE partners, Zoey and Vanna—” she indicated the coyote and horse respectively “—will be acting as my personal secretaries in this, and reviewing all my correspondence. They can speed time up in their heads, so they could pack subjective years into real days, so they actually have time for that. So, if you have general affirmations, well-wishes, and so on to pass along, rest assured, they’ll make sure I hear about them.

“If you have questions or concerns about how to adapt to your new life here, I wouldn’t be the best one to answer those in any case—but I encourage you to take advantage of the resources all the polities here have brought to bear, and talking to the counselors and others who’ve come to help you at the landing site. They’ll be much better at answering those questions than I would.

“If you want to chat about old times on Earth, well, Zoey and Vanna will see when we can pencil you in. If you actually knew me personally back then, they’ll try to bump you up the queue. But, honestly, between how many of you there are, and how busy the Marshals keep me, it could be months before I can speak to everyone. We’re looking into maybe scheduling some kind of town hall meetings where I could chat with several dozen of you at once, or something.

“I’m sorry I can’t speak to you directly right now. But rest assured—no matter who you are, no matter whether I knew you or never spoke to you—I’m honestly glad you made it off that backward planet, and I hope and trust you’ll soon be settled into your new homes here. Thanks.”

“It was worth a try,” Larry said.

“She’s why I felt comfortable with…you know. I’d hoped I could just chat a little. But she does have more important things to deal with that one fan.”

Janice shrugged. “You heard her. Give it a few months. Or maybe set down what you want to say in an email or vid message, and the secretaries will pass it on.”

“I guess I’ll have to.” Ed shrugged. “I wasn’t exactly best buds with her, but I did hang out in her chatroom a time or two back in the day. Maybe that’ll count for something, I dunno.”

“I marched with her in the protests,” Larry said. “Maybe I’ll drop her a line, too, and put in a good word for you.”

“What about you?” Ed asked Janice. “You get in touch with your brother?”

The blonde woman laughed. “Ha! Ha. No. Decided I really don’t feel like bothering myself with family troubles right now.”

“You know your own business best,” Larry said. “But you’re the only one of us who actually has any family here, and it’s possible they might have some useful advice from the experience of living here…”

“You know, you’re right,” Janice said. “I do know my own business best.” She snorted. “Anyway, from what I read over the last couple hours, they tried to notify as many local relatives as they could before we even woke up. If he knew I was coming and he still didn’t show up, I’m sure he doesn’t want me bugging him. Anyway, if he really gave a rat’s ass, his message home would have been longer than just ‘I’m staying.’”

Larry nodded. “Well, I expect he’ll get in touch sooner or later. Even if you’re not close, family arriving from 20 light years away isn’t something you just ignore.”

“Meh. He has so far, why wouldn’t he keep it up?”

Further argument was forestalled by an attention chime that sounded simultaneously from their tablets and comms. Opening the notification, the three of them read the message.

Attention, fellow exiles!

This whole thing is very jarring for so many of us, so let’s start in a familiar place with familiar faces. We’ve gotten some Virtual Life servers up and running. Connect with servers ExileVL, ExileGVL, and ExileFVL, meet old friends and make new ones. They’re patched into Zharus’s network, so we may even be joined by some of this world’s organic and digital natives!

Hope we’ll see you there!

“Ooooooh,” Larry said. “The servers are up and responding to pings.”

“Let’s go see if anyone else we know has been woken yet,” Ed said.

“We might get lucky. We might not. Fewer than a thousand of us have been defrosted yet,” Larry added.

“Guess I’ll let you go to stick your heads in the sand,” Janice said. “I’m going to go stuff myself with tea and crumpets at the cafeteria.”

“You should join us,” Larry said. “They’re handing out free comm implants at the med bays, and I checked the specs—they’re more than good enough to hop into VL.”

“And they’re free,” Ed said. “Your favorite word.”

“If they can do it without putting me into one of those pods, maybe. I don’t want some joker turning me into a man on a lark,” Janice said. “Now excuse me.” She turned and marched back to her hut.

“Why did we decide to make friends with her again?” Ed said.

“It’s barely been six hours since we were all on Earth. Give her some time,” Larry said. “Meet you in FVL, Sonjapuma?”

Ed laughed. “Sure, why not?” They headed back into their own houses. While you could surf VL from anywhere, doing a full dive required a more secure environment.

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In his implant’s private VL server, Ed unpacked his various avatars and looked them over. He’d thought that keeping a copy of everything in his implants’ storage had been an affectation, given how reliable Earthly cloud storage was, but now he was glad he’d gotten into the habit—now he still had not only all his VR stuff, but also all his personal financial records, photos and vid recordings, and other important matters. Not that the financial records were likely to mean much here, but they were still nice to have.

His first VL avatar was, of course, the one he used for business meetings—effectively himself, but about a hundred pounds lighter. He supposed it was a little vain of him, but what did it matter? None of the people he used it to touch base with was ever going to meet the “real” him anyway.

Then there were a succession of minor and temporary characters, which he’d used while still playing with VL and learning how it all worked. Young and old, male and female, they ran the gamut of physical descriptions. He still brought some of them out from time to time, but he’d ended up taking what he learned from them and building his “mains.”

He did have a certain amount of fondness for his first female character, which he’d created partly out of curiosity and partly at Larry’s urging. Edie—based on a younger version of himself, gender-flipped—had been interesting to play, but not really someone with much long-term day-to-day appeal. But after he’d gotten used to her, he’d realized he could be people a lot more different from himself.

And that was where Sonja Cannon, and her furry counterpart Sonjapuma, came from. Sonja had been made for a “cyberpunk” setting, based on some of the twentieth and twenty-first century media that leaked back into the network from Zharus tourists. She’d been a “street samurai”—a sort of hired gun in the corporate wars—who took her surname from the big gun she carried. Some of the VL firefights she’d been in had been fun, though the neural feedback from catching the occasional bullet really stung.

Sonja Cannon, to fit the genre, was a busty woman with dark skin. The left half of her head was shaved bald for the exposed cybernetics, the other half dyed neon purple, cut even with her jawline. She wore a long purple leather trenchcoat over a “cyber-bikini”, and high-heeled shoes. More cybernetics were on her exposed skin. All the better to “wire up” into whatever system she was hacking into.

Then one day Larry’s avatar had dragged her through a “trans-fur-mation portal” from the cyberpunk GVL into a similar FVL “furrypunk” setting. When she’d emerged from the other side, she’d been covered in tawny fur, with a mountain lion’s head and blunt muzzle. And so Sonjapuma had been born.

Ed considered the two Sonjas for a moment. He still enjoyed playing the cyberpunk human girl, but in this particular time and place, there was really only one choice that felt right. He stepped forward into the alcove displaying Sonjapuma, and felt his own body, his sense of self, shift, molding to her own contours.

He—she—twitched her ears, swished her tail, and wondered, not for the first time, just what it felt like to actually have those parts—like Larry did. Larry said that tailed avatars felt about the same for him as they did in the real, but was that just because he had the actual sense-memories to be cued by the VL matrix? Would it feel the same for someone who’d never had real ones? Maybe someday Ed would find out.

Now that he (she) was properly accoutered, it was time to see what the local FVL servers were all about. Sonjapuma stepped through the glowing portal that represented the uplink to connect to the public server.

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“Wooow,” Sonjapuma purred. “Not a bad server setup.”

Larry had chosen to log in as a virtual version of his real-life self to start—the cougar ear-and-tail tags he had in real life were also the baseline of what constituted a “furry” avatar. “Feels a little different,” he said. The environment felt slightly…off. Just a little higher resolution, details here and there that felt more realistic than Earth tech could manage.

It wasn’t the furry cyberpunk setting she and Larry were used to playing in, but it did at least allow them to use the gear that went with their avatars. Sonjapuma leaned against the cannon that was larger than she was. It was both weapon and mount, with a motorcycle seat and handles near the center. It was transformable, like a RIDE. And in FVL there were more than a few touches reflecting her puma self.

“Welcome to Luskwood,” their host said, waving them in. He was a male dalmatian, wearing a snazzy dinner jacket that set off his spots. The environment was a massive treehouse in an equally massive tree. “You can call me Bix. This is a reproduction—in much better resolution, of course—of one of the first furry hangouts in Second Life, about 2006. Think of it as VL’s five-hundred-year-old precursor.”

“This seems like a step up from the servers back on Earth,” Sonjapuma mused. “Better quality textures, and it just…I don’t know…feels different.”

“Well, it is an emulation on Q-based hardware,” Bix said. “We have everything downgraded to nearly Earth standard, otherwise you’d be in for an even bigger shock. I’m an expat myself. There’s a sizable VL enthusiast contingent on Zharus. We’re used to Q-based hardware, but just letting newbies jump right in can be too much to take all at once.”

“Really? A shock?” Sonja asked. “Larry, you’ve been here before, do you know what he’s talking about?”

Larry shrugged. “I was too busy poking around in the real to do much in the virtual. My rental RIDE’s VR was pretty amazingly high-quality, come to that, but it didn’t, well, overwhelm me or anything.”

“It’s the Fuser nannies,” the dalmatian said. “We’re just taking precautions not to overwhelm anyone’s Earth consumer-grade implants.”

“So we should go ahead and switch up to Q-based, is that what you’re saying?” Larry wondered.

“That, or Fuse a RIDE. I gather there are a number of RIDE adoption agencies and matchmakers setting up shop in the next couple of days.”

“Hmm,” Larry said. “My rental and I didn’t really get along so well.”

“They’ve gotten a lot better at personality-matching lately,” Bix said. “You take a personality assessment, and they’ll see if there’s anyone out there who might be right for you. Kind of like online dating.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

Sonjapuma shook her head. “So what gave you the idea to set this place up for us?”

“Like we said, familiar faces. You two were in the first batch to wake up. It’s only been hours since all that started and there are only a few hundred awake out of over six hundred thousand. So we’re the virtual welcoming committee.”

“And it looks like we’re the first ones,” Sonjapuma said. She raised an eyebrow.

“Ma’am, is that some kind of gun-based RIDE?” their host said.

“No, but she has come in useful from time to time,” Sonja purred.

“Compensating for something?” came a familiar voice. “Hey, what do I even look like?”

“A fine tigress,” Bix said to the window floating in midair. The system had overlaid the avatar over the human on the other side of the screen. “I take it you never actually tried FVL on Earth. Got curious?”

Sonjapuma tried to appear welcoming to Janice, but felt more than a little anxiety creep in. The whole point of VL was to kick back and relax, wearing a kind of mask so the only people who knew who you were would keep it to themselves.

“So this is what you couch potatoes do with yourselves all day, huh?” Janice glanced around. “I recognize you, Larry, but where’s Ed?”

“Oh, he’s around,” Larry said noncommittally—carefully not looking at Sonja. “There’s a lot of Virtual Life to explore.”

“Oh. And who’s this?”

“A friend from Earth VL,” Larry said. “Sonjapuma. Or Sonja Cannon when she’s being human.”

“Sonja Cannon?” Janice snorted. “Sounds like a porn star.”

“Haven’t heard that one before,” Sonjapuma said dryly, rolling her eyes.

“Well, it’s nice to meet you anyway,” Janice said. “I was noodling around on my tablet and I saw it had an app that would let me peek in. So, here I am, peeking in.”

“You should join us,” Bix said. “They can get you set up for free at the med bays.”

“So people keep telling me,” Janice said. “Meh, I dunno. Not sure I’m so hot on the idea of poking random bits of metal into my brainmeats.” She appeared to be pushing buttons on the tablet. Part of the window was obscured now. “But it says here it’s just a nanite injection. Huh. Guess I’ll have to think about it some more.”

“Oh, don’t trouble yourself,” Sonjapuma said airily. “If you never bothered with VL back on Earth, why start now?”

Janice snorted. “Well ain’t you clever, with your reverse psychology. I said I’m thinking about it. Didn’t get to where I am today by jumping into stuff.”

“Where you are today—you mean, canned like a sardine and mailed twenty light years from home, postage due?” Sonjapuma suggested.

Janice actually laughed. “Oh, I like you, kitty cat. Maybe I’ll go ahead and do it after all. ‘Scuse me.” The window blinked out.

Larry laughed. “I think you managed to get under her skin a little, Sonja.”

“I’ve been wanting to do something like that for hours.” Sonja laughed, too. “So, what avatar do you think she’ll choose? Might be that random tigress, or something else.”

Larry shook his head. “I wouldn’t put it past her to find a way to come in pure-human, just to be contrary.”

“Looks like we’ve got a few new exiles logging in,” Bix said. “Could be people you two know.”

“Maybe I should switch up to one of my ‘mains’ then,” Larry said. “Sonja, any preferences?”

“Feral, maybe? Good for doing some serious cat-loafing around.”

Larry chuckled. “Sounds like a plan. Let’s go say hi.”

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After chatting with more of their fellow furries, a couple of whom Larry remembered meeting a time or two at some event or other, they wandered through some of the other rooms available in the VL setup. There were a few rooms that they clearly remembered from Earth’s VL community—their operators had kept the code in their implants, much as Ed had, and Bix and his fellow admins had made an import function available.

Other rooms were new. Of particular interest was a “Zharus World’s Fair” pavilion, with library annexes for viewing a selection of media from a number of local publishers and networks. One building seemed to be woven from a tangle of rose vines (the thorns, fortunately, were illusory), and was named, appropriately enough, Rosebriar Press. There was a little stone hill with a cave mouth labeled “Hellir Enclave,” and a big black monolith with a planetary alignment and the words “Steader Entertainment” floating overhead. The strains of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” could be faintly heard emanating from it.

This being virtual reality, the annexes were much bigger on the inside than the size of their entrances suggested. Sonja stepped into the monolith, and was treated to a brief montage of psychedelic visual imagery before emerging into what appeared to be an ornately-furnished mansion. There was uncomfortable-looking furniture where people could sit, and doors to various rooms that appeared to be libraries. One of them was marked with a sign bearing a big paw print, and Sonja drifted in that direction.

The furnished-mansion visual metaphor only applied to the waiting area. The library room was a more modern media center, with holographic search terminals and various images and moving pictures displayed on floating panels. They all seemed to be furry-themed. Sonja recognized a few of them—Disney’s Robin Hood and Zootopia, and a couple of others—but a lot more of them were unfamiliar. There were already a few other furries browsing the contents.

Focusing on a screen caused its audio to start playing, and Sonja drifted from panel to panel taking them all in. She’d paused at the Zootopia display to watch Judy Hopps chase down Duke Weaselton when she became aware of a minor commotion behind her, as well as a familiar voice.

“’Scuse me! ‘Scuse me! Comin’ through! Sharp and pointy here, watch yourself…”

Sonja turned to see that an anthropomorphic porcupine woman had just entered the room. She bristled with spines, and people were hastening to give her a wide berth. “Janice, is that you?”

“Yeah, who’d you expect?”

Sonjapuma looked her over. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. I already knew you were prickly.”

“Yep, that’s me! Wanna hug?” She spread her arms.

“Iiiiiii don’t think so.”

“Smart girl.” Janice nodded. “My brother told me that all you furries aren’t really perverts, but a girl can’t be too careful.” She looked around. “So what’s all this, then?”

“Steader Entertainment—the company founded by that guy who came to Earth a few decades ago to retrieve all that lost twencen media and bring it back here.” Sonja waved an arm at the displays. “Someone’s curated a huge collection of furry stuff from their archives, and they’ve made it available for free viewing here.”

Janice nodded. “So I guess I can see what all the fuss is about, huh?”

Sonja shrugged. “If you like. I’m sure you’ve got plenty of other stuff you could be doing.”

“Ah, there you go again with that reverse psychology.” Janice chuckled. “Okay, so show me something. What’s this?”

Zootopia. Disney movie from the first quarter of the 21st. It and its sequels are big favorites in the fandom.” Sonja tapped the screen, producing a pair of glowing tickets. She offered one to Janice. “Here.”

“All right…” Janice reached out and carefully took the ticket from Sonja’s fingers. Both tickets dissolved, and then they were in a darkened movie theater with the Disney logo showing on the screen.

Janice looked down her muzzle. “This is really weird.”

“It’s how people used to watch movies, back in the day. They’d go into a big darkened room with lots of seats, and see them on a big screen in front of them.”

“No, I mean this,” she tapped the sides of her muzzle. “This is really weird. I can’t see the whole screen.”

“It helps if you tip your head forward and look slightly upward. There are also mods you can use to erase it from your field of vision temporarily. Search on ‘Got Your Nose’.”

Janice tilted her head. “Oh great, now there’s an ad in my field of vision.”

“Oh, that’s right, it’s shareware.”

“How am I even gonna pay someone on Earth for shareware? Even if I had the money?”

Sonja chuckled. “Well, whether they’re still on Earth is an open question. Who’d make a VL mod for furries unless they were a furry themselves?”

“They’re probably not even unfrozen yet if they are here,” Janice snorted. “Well, the ad just went away, anyway.”

Sonja relaxed and watched the movie. Zootopia was one of those comfort movies that always made her feel better—and finding herself twenty light-years from home was certainly ample reason for needing to. For a wonder, Janice seemed to enjoy it, too—at least, she watched it without trying to make any extra conversation during it. She even tapped her fingers to “Try Everything”. Then, when Judy and Nick caught Flash the sloth speeding at the end, she laughed.

As the movie ended and the theater dissolved back into the Steader media library, Sonja raised an eyebrow. “Liked it?”

Janice waggled her hand palm-down. “Eh, it was okay.”

Sonja smirked. “Well, there’s lots more like it here. Even some stuff I haven’t seen yet. And it’s free, at least for now. That’ll probably change once people start getting off Basic, though.”

“Guess I’ll enjoy it while it lasts.”

“Hey, you two.” A tawny cougar padded up to them on all fours. “Thought I might find you here, Sonja. Janice, is that you? Nice look, it suits you.”

Sonja nodded. “Hey, Larry. We were just watching Zootopia.”

“Nice. I’ll have to take that one in again myself. I liked the first sequel better, though.”

Sonja chuckled. “You are so wrong. The first movie’s always the best.”

“I’m sure I’d have an opinion on that, but I only just saw the first one.” Janice shrugged. “So what else is to do around here?”

“I’d actually like to see what that Hellir thing is,” Larry said. “Ads say it’s all original Zharus content rather than old Earth stuff or remakes.”

Sonja blinked. “They make their own stuff? Is that legal?”

“For a while I gather it wasn’t, at least in Hellir’s case. Something to do with the way Integrates had to stay underground. Literally, in Cape Nord.”

“Looks like one of the ‘Shows’ is a documentary on that. ‘Underground in the Underground: Hellir in the Fritz Years’,” Sonja said. “What about that other place, Rosebriar Press?”

“That’s a publisher run by Zharus’s most famous crossrider romance novelist, Iphigenia Rose. Has a lot of romance novels, plus a bit of other genre stuff from other authors.” Larry shrugged. “Not the kind of stuff that floats my boat, but probably worth a look.”

“Romance novels, huh?” Janice mused. “I might just want to check that out.”

“Romance fan?” Sonja asked.

Janice shrugged. “When you’re on UBI, you gotta do something to pass the time. And there were lots of romance novels to read.”

Larry nodded. “Well, you’ll find lots more now.”

“I’m starting to think this world might just have its good points after all,” Janice admitted.

Sonja smirked. “Oh, don’t go all mushy on us now.” Janice favored her with a Bronx cheer and a rude gesture.

Larry grinned. “Great! Why don’t we go check those out, then. And sometime soon one of the friends I made last time I was on the planet should be stopping by. You might find her interesting.”

“A friend of yours? From here? Yeah, I guess ‘interesting’ would be the word.”

Sonja sent a private message to Larry. “I’m one inch from putting her on my ignore list. I’m really trying here, but I just…” she sent a frustrated emote.

“You don’t deal well with people in real life, do you?” Larry sent a tongue-sticking-out emoticon. “She doesn’t really bother me. I think it’s an act she’s been putting on for so long she’s forgotten how to drop it.”

Sonja replied with a flat stare emoticon. “Are you serious?”

“Perfectly. I mean, look. She’s been fired from every job she ever tried to hold. And thrown off her planet on top of that. And her brother cut ties and stayed with just a two-word message sent home. You don’t think she’s got some serious fear-of-rejection issues? So she puts on this prickly exterior—literally—to keep people from getting close enough to hurt her by rejecting her again. Really, I feel sorry for her more than anything else.”

Sonja sent an eyeroll. “I’m just about to reject her again.”

“Yeah, so she’d be able to write it off as ‘expected,’ before you get close enough for it to hurt more. I’ve been there myself. Why you think I got so deep into VL? My real life just sucked. Took a long time for me to come out of my shell. Long before I met you, of course.”

Sonja sighed. “I’ll just follow your lead.”

Larry sent a wink emoticon. “It’s like you do with any feral housecat. You gotta socialize them.”

“Are you two just gonna sit around staring at each other all day?” the object of their conversation wondered. “It’s not polite to talk behind people’s backs, you know.”

“Sideband private chat is a fact of Virtual Life, dear,” Sonja said airily. “It’s considered polite to pretend you don’t notice.” Sheesh, I’m out of practice at side-conversation camouflaging.

“Sorry, Janice,” Larry said. “Private messaging is kind of a VL habit, but sometimes the conversation goes on longer than you intend.”

“Meh, I guess that figures. I guess people with comm implants whisper quietly behind peoples’ backs in real life, too. Heh. Which come to think of it could include me now. If I even had anyone I wanted to whisper quietly with. Really, bullhorns are more my style.”

Sonja rolled her eyes. “Now why doesn’t that surprise me?”

“All right, all right, peace, y’all,” Larry said, raising his hands. “Now c’mon, let’s go check out more of the pop culture this new world has to offer, huh?”

Janice nodded. “Sure, why not?”

Sonja shrugged. “Works for me.”

Together, they left the Steader Entertainment pavilion and headed next door.

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They spent the next couple of hours in the Hellir Enclave library, which turned out to be furnished after the style of a cozy twentieth-century basement lounge, complete with comfy sofas, beer logo wall hangings, and a big-screen TV. In short, a “man cave”—which Larry explained was a sort of Hellir Enclave/Cape Nord in-joke.

Given that they were alone in it despite having watched several people enter the cave immediately before them, Sonja suspected that it was being freshly instanced for each new group or person to arrive. She wondered exactly how they could tell who was together—was one of Zharus’s ubiquitous AIs watching the arrivals to take its best guess?

The index metaphor was a shelf full of DVDs, which reshuffled and repopulated themselves as they browsed and made selections. Prominently positioned on the shelf was a multi-disc set entitled “Welcome to Zharus: Things Every Newcomer Should Know.”

“Some subtle hinting, that,” Janice observed.

“Probably couldn’t hurt to watch at least the first episode,” Larry decided. He pulled the first disc out of the shelf and slid it into the player under the tv. Then he joined the other two on the sofa.

After the title card, the next people to appear on the screen were a tall, attractive brown-haired girl, and an elk. “Hi, everyone! My name is Rufia, and this is my partner Yvonne. The fine folks at Hellir Enclave have asked me to talk to you about some of the things you really ought to know about our fine planet. So let’s begin…”

The episode was a top-level survey of a lot of topics, which the series promised to cover in greater detail episode by episode. There was a primer on the history of RIDEs and the newer EIDEs and what made them so special (and a special section on what kinds of mistakes to try to avoid when hiring one), a discussion of the planet’s climate and the hazards of the Dry Ocean, and finally a rundown of the planet’s recent history, with a focus on the events surrounding the fall of Fritz. Rufia hosted some of the segments, and they had other hosts for some of the others. Apparently she was some kind of tour guide—she didn’t miss a chance to plug her own business, and the video producers seemed content to let her.

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“That woman was a crossider?” Janice said after the video ended.

“She said she was, so?” Sonja said.

“How can someone just…get up one morning and decide,” Janice lowered her voice. “‘I’m gonna be a woman today!’ I mean, how?”

Larry sighed, then reformed his avatar into Laura Stern, Sonja Cannon’s dual-pistol wielding sister-in-arms. “People do it all the time in GVL.”

“You’re just playing at being a woman,” Janice said. “Blowing off some steam, jiggling virtual boobs around. Believe it or not, that much I get. But that Rufia person? She actually did it. She’s a big girl and loving it, I can tell that much.”

“Be sure to read the fine print if you decide to Fuse a RIDE,” Sonja said. “You could have it happen by accident.”

Janice shivered. “Brrrr. Think I’ll stay well away from that side of things, thank you very much.”

“Oh, speaking of RIDEs, my friend is here.” Laura blurred back to Larry. “I’ve asked her to join us.”

A moment later, a cougar prowled in—much like the feral form Larry had worn, only looking somewhat—different. She seemed to…flicker, Sonja realized. Like the environment was having trouble with her graphics settings. She flipped between a lower-resolution Earth-VL-quality version, and one that was almost photo-real, for a couple of seconds.

Then Sonja realized that it wasn’t the environment that was having the problem—it was Ed’s implants. They couldn’t seem to handle the level of photorealism this cat was presenting. When Sonja manually locked the resolution level, the flickering stopped. Is Zharus tech really that much better? Perhaps it was time to stop by the medical bay and get her own implants upgraded.

“Layla!” Larry sang. “You got me on my knees. Layla! I’m beggin’, darling, please. Layla! Darling won’t you ease my worried mind?”

The cougar gave a throaty chuckle. “I will make the best of the situation, before you finally go insane. Hello, Larry. Been too long.”

“I should make introductions. Layla, everyone. Everyone, Layla. There.” Larry grinned. “She was the other cougar RIDE at the rental agency.”

“I’m so sorry you got stuck with John,” Layla said. “Even on his best days he’s one irascible kitty.”

Larry nodded. “Tell me about it. Anyway, Layla and I hit it off so well that I almost…but I knew it would cause problems when I headed back to Earth, and I still wanted to head back to Earth. If I only knew then what I know now…”

Janice stared. “You seriously considered…that…just because you got along with someone?”

“Yep! It would have been interesting to try out for a few years.” Larry shrugged. “So, Layla, how’s life been treating you?”

“Well enough, I guess,” Layla said. “Went on working at the rental agency until my rights came in, and then I told ‘em they could take that job and shove it and have been living off my freedom stipend ever since.”

“You ever find a steady partner?”

“Haven’t really looked,” Layla said. “My needs are simple. So I’m still available if you wanna try something for a while, given that the bums on Earth have finally given you the permanent heave-ho.”

“It’s very, very tempting, but I want to think it over a while before I commit,” Larry said. “It’ll be a pretty big change—for both of us.”

“Wait, what?” Sonja said. “You’re seriously considering doing that…in real life?”

“Sure, why not?” Larry said. “This is Zharus, remember? It’s reversible, once enough time has passed.”

“But that’s just…” Sonja wasn’t sure why it felt so wrong to her, but it just…did. Some fantasies were supposed to stay fantasies, they weren’t supposed to be brought into real life.

“Oh, come on, not you too.” Larry grinned. “We’re on Zharus! We can chow down on all the forbidden fruit we want to now.”

“When did I even say I was hungry?” Janice drawled.

Okay, that’s it. Limit reached. Sonja logged out. Ed felt like throwing something. Instead he shut down his implant, locked his door, then had the windows turn opaque. It was time to cool off.

Ed walked into the kitchenette and peered at the fabber. Half out of thirst, half out of curiosity, he punched for a beer. The thing responded with a list of dozens of brands and varieties, most of which Ed had never heard of. He recognized a few as brand names from old Earth media, and suspected most of the rest probably were, too. What a world. How do they even know what a 500-year-old beer is supposed to taste like, anyway?

He finally settled on a Heinekin, one of those names he recognized, having dug up thousands of bottles and cans. The thing actually produced an honest-to-God chilled aluminum can. They haven’t used these on Earth in two centuries. He wondered just how many of these cans he’d dug up in the course of his job. Shaking his head, he took it back to the sofa to sit down, and try to figure out how the opener worked. It was one thing to watch someone casually open a pop-top on video, and another to do it yourself. He got it after a little bit of fiddling, and managed to spill only a little of the beer in his lap.

The beer itself wasn’t bad, though Ed had no idea whether it was actually authentic. But just the act of sipping it helped him to relax a little.

What was with Larry? Was he really serious? You thought you know a guy, and then he starts talking about possibly changing his sex just about as casually as he might change his socks. Ed was just as much into genderplay as the next girl, but that was going a little far even for him.

As if right on cue, the doorbell chimed. Ed hardly needed to check the cam with his implants to know who it was. Larry—by himself, thank goodness. Just Larry was bad enough, right now, but Ed doubted he could have dealt with Janice on top of that. Even so, Ed had half a mind to tell him to just go away, but he supposed he owed it to Larry to hear him out. Sighing, he triggered the unlock. “You might as well come in.”

Larry was the tall and thin to Ed’s shorter and fat. The Laurel to Ed’s Hardy. They had met during one of the site hand-off procedures from reclamation to restoration. Virtually, of course. They had only met in person a few times, trading vacations. Then Larry had spent nearly three years on his Zharus “sabbatical”, and upon return had opened up to Ed about his furrydom. Which had led to FVL, then GVL.

The two men had been friends nearly twenty years.

“I’m sorry I pushed your buttons, Ed,” Larry said. “I know how you get when someone flusters you. You just shut down everything.”

“I need to think, Larry. I need to…how long has it been since we even woke up?”

“Dunno, what time is it now?” Larry checked his implant. Eight hours or so. Barely into the afternoon here. Or ‘after fifteen’ as some say.”

“Well, I’m really feeling all those months I spent on ice right now.” He shook his head. “Where’s the party-pooper?”

“Janice? Still back in virtual. She got in a conversation with Layla about life here that looked like it could go on a while. So I thought I should come check on you.”

“Layla…” Ed said slowly. “Are you really serious about that?”

Larry spread his hands. “Well…yes. I know it looks sudden to you, but I’ve actually had years to think it over, and I’ve come to the conclusion that passing it up the first time was one of my biggest mistakes. But it’s one I can now fix.” He shrugged. “If I decide to go through with it, anyway. I know I tend to jump into things, but this time there’s no rush to make up my mind.”

Ed shook his head. “I don’t know, man. This is all a bit sudden for me. I haven’t had any previous time on Zharus to get used to all these crazy ideas. I’m just an old West Coast junk man. You want to know how much dogshit in plastic bags per cubic meter there is in a late twencen landfill? I’m your man.”

“Hey, you think I did any better my first day here? You’ll get the hang of it.” Larry grinned. “I promise I won’t do anything permanent—or, well, long-term—before you’ve had a chance to settle in.”

“Uh…thanks, I guess,” Ed said, nonplussed.

“Look, maybe you should get out of the house and look around the Real for a while. See what else Zharus had to offer—without me and Janice looking over your shoulder. Stop being such a homebody.”

Ed blinked. “Get out and go…where?”

“Anywhere. Walk around the settlement, check out the booths from the various polities and RIDE-matching services, stop by the administration office and see if anyone you know is on the passenger manifest…the choice is yours. But do it in the Real. Even back on Earth, staying inside all the time wasn’t good for you.”

“I’ll…think about it,” Ed said.

“Cool. Well…you’ve got my comm code. I’ll just leave you to your alone-time.” Larry nodded and headed for the door.

Ed just watched him go, sipping his beer. Whether or not it tasted like it had five hundred years ago, it really wasn’t bad. When it was done, he dropped the can in the recycler and considered his options. He could have another beer, maybe watch a movie or something on the media wall. Or he could get out and do something like Larry had suggested. What to do, then?

Ed sighed. Larry was right, as he often was. It didn’t do any good up just sit in here and mope. Besides, a little exercise would probably do him good. He got up, made sure his comm was in his pocket, and headed out the door.

The main construction was already a kilometer away, and was focusing on fewer, taller buildings that looked like apartment complexes or possibly offices. It was hard to tell. Modern Earth architecture was an unlovely thing. The structures looked functional, but little more.

More interesting was an area of tents literally popping up or pavilions dropped from… “Holy shit. Dragons?” Honest-to-God dragons? They were very popular in FVL. Sonja and Laura had even had draconic avatars for a time. But there they were, big as life. Bigger.

There were a lot of people on the street. Mostly exiles like himself, and all of them were gawking at the half dozen dragons flying towards the makeshift park. “Hello, everyone! Hello!” a blue one said in the friendliest of tones. “Hello, newcomers! You are welcome here!”

Ed shook his head in wonder. “What a world.”

He wandered over in the direction of the tents, looking here and there to take it all in. One tent was surrounded by metallic objects about the size of washing machines, arranged in neat rows. A placard on the tent read “RIDEalong RIDEworks.” Out of curiosity, Ed headed that way.

A human receptionist stepped out of the tent, carrying one of the ubiquitous media tablets. “Hello, sir! Are you interested in partnering a RIDE?”

“Uh…not really,” Ed said. “But…these are RIDEs?”

“Yes! They just haven’t ‘hatched’ yet. You see, the RIDEs who run RIDEalong believe that RIDEs should start their lives as partners with a human, because that’s what they were originally designed to be. So these RIDEs are awoken by their first Fuse with their human partner to be.”

Ed blinked. “They don’t get any choice in the matter? That seems kind of…well, cruel.”

The girl shrugged. “I can see how it would seem that way, and sometimes I’m not so sure I disagree. But the RIDEalong RIDEs would point out that human babies don’t get a lot of choice in being born, either, or who their parents are. You can argue the validity of the analogy, but they seem to find it compelling enough.”

“How do you even know they’ll get along with the human if they don’t wake up until they partner up?”

“Well, they are awakened briefly, when they’re first booted. As part of that process, they’re given the standard human/RIDE personality assessment. It’s a way of building a personality profile that can be used in matchmaking.”

“Like in a dating service?”

“Exactly! In fact, I gather the tests were originally adapted from the ones dating services use. You could say this is ‘computer dating’ taken literally—because you’re going to be dating a computer.” She smiled, and offered him the tablet. “Why don’t you take it yourself? Nothing says you have to pair up with one of our RIDEs, but it’s a standard assessment that you can put in your data cloud and then any RIDE can use it to tell how good a match you’re likely to be with them.”

Ed took the tablet. “Hmm. Well, I guess it couldn’t hurt anything.” And maybe it’ll help me understand what the deal is with Larry and Layla.

The questions seemed fairly familiar from all the personality quizzes floating around the mesh back on Earth. There were the standard Myers-Briggs questions, a quiz on personal politics, and so forth. Some of the questions were rather intimate, though the quiz’s fine print noted that tests were compared on a “black box” principle, rendering a grade on closeness of match overall and in particular areas without divulging specific details of either’s answers to the other. The quiz also allowed particular areas to be set public and others private on the taker’s net profile, so those who took the test could make as much information public as they wanted to and hide the rest.

Once finished, he transmitted it to the receptionist.

“Well, we have a few here who you’d get along with, Mr. Lancaster. Both male and female. Here are the results.” She handed him another tablet. “We’re waiving 50% of the shell cost for new arrivals, and deferring payment on the rest until you get off Basic. Just something to consider.”

There were three high-match RIDEs, two of them females—including a female cougar. But…he didn’t feel like reading more deeply into it than that. “Thank you for the test, ma’am. But I have no idea where I’ll be financially in the near future. I think I’ll go see what else they’re setting up here.”

“Well, we understand that you’ve had a rough day. They may not be here if you decide you want to partner. But we’ll getting more in as the others go, so there likely will be more that fit your profile,” she said.

“I get that, but I’m still not going to make a decision yet. Thank you.”

So he left, wandering the tents again, until he smelled something delicious. The heavenly odor led him into an area set up with food stalls and tables. The signs advertised “non-fabbed!” and “natural!”. One stall, called Kraken House, was particularly busy.

Ed wasn’t entirely sure how he was going to be able to afford to pay for any of the food—but on the other hand, the vast majority of the people here were in the same boat, so perhaps they were getting paid from the Basic funds somehow. Or else they were giving stuff away in the hope of building brand recognition among the new arrivals for when they got off Basic, which Ed supposed was also a possibility.

A number of what Ed assumed were Integrates were eating. There were a few details off, but there they were—FVL avatars in the Real. Except they weren’t avatars. They were people. There was a vixen and a female skunk sitting at a table, chatting. He must have gawked a little too much, because the skunk noticed.

“Oh, hi there,” she said in a friendly voice.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to…” Ed stammered.

“It’s okay, really,” the vixen said in a slightly deeper voice. “After the shit you exiles have experienced, you’re allowed to gawk. Come, have a seat.” The third chair opposite them pushed itself outwards.

Feeling more than a little self-conscious, he did take the seat. The Integrates each had a plate of what was probably kraken. “Uh, thanks, ladies.”

“Our pleasure. Are you hungry?” the skunk asked. “You look hungry for something.”

“Peace of mind?” Ed mumbled.

“Yeah, we felt the same way after Integration,” the vixen added. “But seriously, if you’d like to try some kraken, you can take some off our plates.” She pulled a napkin out of the napkin dispenser and set it on front of him as a makeshift plate.

Ed was going to demur, but his stomach chose that moment to rumble loudly. It had been a while since breakfast. So he took a couple of pieces of it and gave it a try. It wasn’t too bad—spicy and chewy, it reminded him a little of Cajun fried chicken, only a little more rubbery. “If I wanted to order some of this myself, how would I pay for it?”

“You wouldn’t need to worry about that,” the skunk said. “The tab is being covered by the benevolent fund the local polities set up to cover costs. It’s free to the new arrivals.”

“You’ve only been here not even half a day. They don’t expect you to pay for anything,” the vixen said. “After that you’ve experienced, that would be cruel.”

“Okay,” Ed said. He looked at the two of them, and at the other Integrates and RIDEs in armor form. “I think I’m going to gawk a little more, then go do…something. I don’t know.”

“There’s counseling available if you’re feeling too off balance,” the skunk said kindly. “And gawk all you want. Hope you feel more balanced, soon.”

“Thanks. And thanks for the food.” Ed got up from the table and walked on.

A loud noise made him look up, and he saw a shuttle of some kind descending overhead, heading for an open area just beyond all the tents. Now that he looked, he could see a number of planes and ships were on the ground there. It looked like part of the open area had been paved with some kind of quick-crete, turning it into a de facto spaceport. Or “aerodrome,” as they called them around here. Well, he was walking that way anyway. Might as well see what was going on there.

At the edge of the aerodrome, there was a tent set up with terminals and people lined up. There was a bulletin board to one side with hardlight signage listing arrivals and departures. Ed looked around for someone to ask what it was all for, then remembered he had that someone in his pocket. He pulled out the card. “Hey, Informio, what’s all this about?”

The disembodied head rezzed up over the card and looked around. “This is the temporary aerodrome that has been set up to support arrivals and departures of all the people who’ve come from other polities to help yours get off the ground. Incidentally, there is also a free round-trip shuttle service available between here and most of the other major polities on this content, plus a few places in Laurasia.”

“A shuttle service?”

“Yes. Suborbital flights from here to there, and from there to here—for workers who commute, and for new citizens such as yourself who would like to see some of the sights. You’re guaranteed access to one free round-trip per day, with additional flights potentially available on a contingency basis.”

“So I could just…get on one of these planes and go to some other city?”

Informio nodded. “You can stay as long as you like. Your Basic stipend will cover food and shelter wherever you go; there’s no reason you have to spend all your time here. We’d like to help you find the place you feel most comfortable, and you can’t do that without exploring some of them.”

“Huh.” Ed looked at the departures board. “Looks like the next one is about to leave for…Uplift? I guess I could use an uplifting experience.”

“Then by all means, go. And should you have any other questions, do not hesitate to ask.” Informio’s face disappeared, and Ed pocketed the card and got in line to board the suborbital.

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The spacecraft reached the apex of its arc in short order. Ed had a window seat and watched the sky turn dark, then lighter as they descended towards Uplift. He had no idea what to expect. Larry might have told him about this city years ago, but he’d forgotten. What drew his eye more at first was the incredible expanse of the Dry Ocean. He pulled out his ZID. “Hey, Informio. How big is that desert, anyway?”

“Larger than the Pacific Ocean on Earth,” he said. “And the most dangerous environment on the planet before the advent of efficient micro-hardlight shielding roughly forty years ago. Also the source of the mineral that gives me and my RI cousins our brains.”

“Maybe I’ll get into mining,” Ed mused. “But my job was already too much like mining, so maybe not.”

“You’ll get a great look at Uplift in about five seconds,” Informio said. “Anything else?”

“Not right now. Thanks.”

“My pleasure, Mr. Lancaster.” Informio blinked out.

The suborbital turned sharply, bringing the city-state into sight. The sunlight refracted slightly through the dozens of miles of hardlight climate domes, all merged together into one long arc along the shelf, covering an area about the size of Los Angeles. While he couldn’t see any streets yet, his first impression was a kind of orderly disorder, like a chaos butterfly. The central areas had dozens of tall buildings sticking through the top of the domes.

“We will be landing at the North Aerodrome in ten minutes,” the pilot said. “Public transport in Uplift is free, or you can get a scooter if you want something more personal. They’re not very fast, but will generally get you where you want to go. The Aerodrome is pretty close to Bifrost Park, so I recommend a visit to the Milk Bottle for a welcome-to-Zharus ice cream.”

It really struck him at that point that people on this planet didn’t need to live in arcologies to spare the environment. They had long gone back to the type of housing that was only possible with large expanses of undeveloped land, travel at low energy cost, and the simple human need to have some space. On Earth, Ed generally only saw the remains of the kind of housing Zharusians enjoyed on reclamation sites—when they were silly enough to build atop their own landfills.

As the sub descended, individual houses and streets became more visible, further validating Ed’s musing. This was laid out much like a town from the same twentieth-century Earth whose pop culture they were hooked on. Perhaps that was part of why they found these shows so attractive—they depicted a culture more in line with how they actually lived here.

After touchdown, they de-planed into a terminal building that could have come from any one of the old 20th century shows, save for the little Zharusian touches like the ubiquitous hardlight, and all the animals and animal-people of various shapes. There was a scooter rental stand just outside, and Informio informed Ed that his Basic stipend would cover a rental, so he took one and got on the road. The controls were simple enough, especially after driving similar vehicles on Earth.

Except the battery was good for about a thousand kilometers.

The scooter had both wheels and lifters, but was only good for low speeds anyway. Still, that was fine with Ed. He was all about going slow and taking in the scenery. And there seemed to be plenty of it to see. He felt like a tourist, which he supposed he sort of was. A permanent tourist.

The architecture was amusingly eclectic, especially compared to the Oakland Arco. But given how fast they could build houses here, Ed supposed you could just pick your look on the spur of the moment. Heck, it might even be reasonably cheap to decide you were tired with your current house one day, have it demolished, and then rebuild it in a completely different style before the day was out.

There seemed to be one style that came up more than others. Ed didn’t even have to ask Informio what it was. Googie, he thought. About a third of the commercial structures he passed had that look. Rooflines at an upward angle, sharp corners, illuminated panels, starburst shapes, boomerangs. The rest ran the gamut from TwenCen moderne, art deco, and international to 23rd century Martian colonization habs. Then there were the strictly Zharusian homes—often hovering on lifters a hundred meters over the lot.

He motored down Bifrost Parkway, the scooter on automatic, doing more gawking. Until he heard a beep that someone was pinging his implant model number. He put on the brake and turned to see who it was.

About a hundred feet down the street was a storefront named Brandy’s Skullshop. A very large anthro capybara jogged to meet him. “Oh! Hey there! Hi!”

“Uh, hello?” Ed replied.

“How much do you want for your implant?”

Ed stared at her (them?). “Why would you want this thing?”

“It’s a Munro VLW-60,” she said.

“Yes, it is. But it’s not even a high-end implant. Couldn’t afford it. It’s just humdrum barely middle-grade. I just connect to VL and work telepresence.”

“Doesn’t matter. You see, the only way we can get our hands on any Terran implants at all over here is to buy them from people who use them. That makes even the lowest-end model rare, which in turn means they have value to collectors. Also, implant users who travel on business have to use non-Q-based implants under the current customs laws, because it’s forbidden to take Q tech out of the star system.”

“I guess this means you’re Brandy? Or one of you is? Nice touch using ‘Skullshop’. Very authentic Terran for cyber implants.”

The head of the capybara retracted, revealing a woman with short brown hair the same color as her RIDE’s coat. “I’m Brandy, this is my partner, Cary. I keep telling her I should put her name on the shop, too, but she thinks it’d be bad for our brand recognition.”

“It’s not really about me,” another voice said.

Anyway, even a mid-grade implant like yours is worth a few thousand mu. And I’m willing to throw in a solid NextusNano CC-Lace.”

“And that is…?”

“Ah, excuse me. You must be fresh off the boat. A corpus callosum-based neural lace. I put you to sleep for five minutes in my medpod, remove your Munro, and leave the NN in its place. Of course I’ll move all your implant’s data storage contents over, too, before deleting them out of the old implant for your data security. You’ll find the performance far outstrips anything short of Fuser nannies or Terran military spec implants. You’ll even be able to use Nature Range, if you like that sort of thing.”

“How much was that again?”

“Six thousand mu. I just lined up a potential buyer for your implant. Provisional on your accepting my offer, of course.” Her eyes were bright with great enthusiasm, and she didn’t exude the kind of used item salesman vibe that was universal.

Ed shrugged. “Sold. Why not? Could use a little nest egg to start with.”

The inside of the shop looked authentically Terran, with shiny, clean surfaces and various implants on display. In the back was a Zharusian medpod, which opened with a hiss.

“Okay, backup all your data to my secure server and then reset the implant to factory settings,” Brandy said, capybara head back on.

“Done,” Ed said. “Now, I guess I get to get into one of these things again today…”

“Huh?” Brandy said.

“Had you heard about the ship that just landed? The Steady Hand? I’m one of its passengers…or cargo, I guess.”

“We honestly don’t pay much attention to the news. Distracting,” Cary said. “Just a sec.” About a second passed. “Oh. Oh, crap!”

“It occurs to me, you might want to set up a booth or something out there. Probably better do it soon. There are still a few hundred thousand people to wake up, and enough of them will have implants and stuff that it’s probably gonna depress your market for a while. Might want to get in early while there’s still some money to be made.”

“I’ll add another thousand just for that tip, Mr. Lancaster,” Brandy said, obviously getting his name from the account chit for the transplant. “Step right in.”

After the pod closed there was a humming sound…then he was waking up again, the door opening. The booting up sound used since time immemorial. A monarch butterfly flew around his field of view, followed by NEXTUS NANO logo. He redownloaded his data in milliseconds and made sure it was all there.

“As they say on Old Terra, you’re all green,” Brandy said. “Enjoy! And go have a welcome ice cream. It’s practically required. Welcome to Zharus.”

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Half an hour later Ed was relaxing in Bifrost Park, a sparkling fountain of hardlight behind him, enjoying a chocolate mondae. He’d been a little shocked to learn that the ingredients came from actual cows, cacao plants, sugar cane, and everything else. Actual animals and food crops on Earth were only for the very rich. The price everyone paid for the depredations of the 20th and 21st centuries on Earth’s ecosystem. But there was none of that here, though of course fabbed food was there if one wanted it. Right now, he certainly didn’t.

I hope they know just how special their world is, Ed wondered, taking another bite. He was finally feeling relaxed. He decided to ping Larry for a voice chat.

“Hey, buddy! What’s up?” Larry said.

“This is,” Ed replied. He gave him an eye-view feed with his implant, looking around the park—now that he could do that.

“Uplift, huh? Spent about half my time there,” Larry said. “You’re coming in loud and clear. Tons of bandwidth. You upgrade?”

“Well, yeah. Got a great offer on that Munro you liked to hack. I think it’s enough to buy a house here. Or maybe get one built. Somewhere. I dunno. Got a NexusNano setup.”

“Nice specs. A full neural lace? That’s great! Well, I’ve got some news, myself. I got scouted by Punta Sur Terraforming. Offered me a job monitoring the Steady Hand site. I took it. Not exactly high-level pay, but it’s a good start here. I need to learn Zharusian soil ecology before they’ll promote me.”

“It’s good to know twenty years doing it on Terra is still worth something here. Congrats, buddy.”

“Thanks. You know, they could probably find something for you to do, too. Especially with me there to tell them how good you are at what you do. That nest egg of yours won’t get you too far.”

Ed nodded. “I probably will end up going that route, when I’m ready. On a world where I don’t know anyone, a referral from the one person I do know will be about a thousand percent better than nothing. But I feel like I want to enjoy my all-expenses-paid vacation a little while longer first.”

“I can respect that. I just don’t feel secure without something more than this Basic Accommodation thing,” Larry said.

“I think I’ll grab a nice hotel room and see the sights. Got any recommendations for things I shouldn’t miss? Heck, you could even join me if you wanted, if you can take a day off from the new job.”

“Actually, I know a few spots in Uplift from my trip I’d like you to see. Kinda off the beaten path. Plus, I think Layla lives in the city now.”

“Well, I wouldn’t mind meeting her in person. What about Debbie Downer?”

“Janice? I’ll try and drag her along, if you don’t object. And if she doesn’t.”

“The flight is free. I don’t see why she would.”

“And you?”

“Eh…I’ll give her another chance. Maybe seeing something of this planet other than a construction site would do her good. It’s done me good. This hardlight fountain is gorgeous.”

“And the ice cream?”

“Well, you’ve had it. What do you think?”

Larry chuckled. “Right. Well, next sub flight between here and Uplift isn’t for an hour or so. I’ll chat with Layla and see about Janice. Back in touch later, Ed.”

“Later.”

Ed considered what to do next. He had his implant send the scooter to the nearest collection point, then rented a small car. He didn’t know how to drive, but as good as the self-drive systems were here, he didn’t really need to. Then he considered his outfit. It was still the rumpled polo shirt and slacks he wore for work. The authorities had gassed him in his own apartment in the middle of his workday. It was time to do a little shopping. “Informio…”

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An hour, as it turned out, was ample time to get started on a new wardrobe. Ed had been going to keep it down to what he could carry with him, until he learned that the shops also offered inexpensive suborbital delivery to anywhere on Zharus—so he bought one outfit to wear, and a few more to ship back home to the new settlement. Fortunately the lack of an official name for the new settlement wasn’t an obstacle; the exact coordinates of his home were stored on his ZID, and the system was able to route it through the nearby aerodrome with no trouble. They’d even laundered and shipped the clothes he changed out of along with them, at no extra charge.

Layla found him at the aerodrome terminal just before Larry and Janice arrived. She slunk through the crowd, tail in the air. There were an awful lot of feline RIDEs, but she was the only cougaress. Her black-tipped tawny tail was distinctive.

She sat down on her haunches in front of him. “Nice to meet you in the real Ed,” she purred. “I’m afraid we somehow got off on the wrong paw earlier. Larry explained why.”

“I’m glad he did,” Ed said. “It’s nice to meet you too, Layla.”

The RIDE moved close enough and presented the top of her head. “Well, now that we’ve introduced ourselves, you may now pet the giant kitty.”

Sonjapuma had done exactly this sort of thing when greeting friends. There was nothing like a friendly bunt and head petting. He returned the gesture with a bump from his forehead, then started the petting. “Your fur is so soft,” he said.

“Thanks. I just had my hardlight tuned,” Layla said. She lowered her head down onto his lap and started purring. “Mmm. Good pets.”

“You know, I thought you were supposed to have the same rights as humans now,” Ed said. “Shouldn’t this be beneath your dignity?”

Layla considered. “Hm…on the whole…nope! Not beneath my dignity at all. I’m a kitty and I like pets. What good is having rights if you don’t have the right to act however you want to?”

Ed chuckled. “Well, I suppose there is that.”

“Well, I’m glad to see you two getting along,” Larry said, walking out of the arrivals gate.

“We barely got a chance to say hello in VL before he logged out,” Layla said. “Your friend gives good pets. We’ll get along just fine.”

“So, where’s Janice?” Ed asked.

“Looking for any free stuff she can find,” Larry said. “She’s learning to leverage being from the Steady Hand into just about anything she can.’

“That figures,” Ed said. “After all, her whole life back on Earth was an exercise in getting everything she could for a minimum of effort. Though I suppose I don’t have a lot of room to point fingers, given that I just sold a piece of consumer-grade trash for a small fortune.”

“People here are funny about Earth cyber,” Layla said. “I don’t really get it either. Maybe because it’s just so hard to get their hands on.”

“Not going to be so hard for the next little while, as more people wake up,” Ed said. “Really, it’s probably going to crash the market. As I told the person I sold it to.”

“I wonder if you can short-sell cyber futures or something,” Larry mused. “Oh well. I’d probably lose my shirt if I tried to dabble in the market.”

“Great to see you in person again, Larry,” Layla said, lifting her head off of Ed’s lap. “Pardon me, Ed.”

Ed stopped petting. “No problem.”

“It’s good to see you, too,” Larry said, stepping forward to give Layla a friendly scratch behind the ears. “You’re looking good. Did you upgrade your hardlight projectors or something?”

“Yeah, when I got my ‘sorry we enslaved you for a few decades, here’s some money to make it all better’ payout. Wanted to buy something cool, and about all I can really use are better parts. Bumped up my batteries to A+, too. I can go for a couple weeks without needing a recharge.”

“Nice. So they actually did come through with a cash settlement?”

“Oh yeah. Pretty good one, too. Wages-plus for my ‘job’ as a rental, among other mu,” Layla swished her tail. “To be fair, they actually did seem really sorry about it. Just one of those funny little blind spots people have, I guess. Sometimes you don’t realize when a girl’s attracted to you, sometimes you don’t smell your own B.O., and sometimes you accidentally create and enslave a whole race of machine intelligences. The sort of thing that can happen to anyone.”

“Sounds like it,” Ed said. “So…where to next? Once Janice shows up, I mean.” Just then, he noticed her saunter towards them out of the corner of his eye, carrying a bag of swag.

“It’s amazing what people will hand you once you tell them you’re a poor exile from Earth,” she said. “Hi Layla, Larry, Sonja.”

Ed flinched. “So, you figured it out.”

Janice made a dismissive gesture. “Wasn’t hard. Do you think I care, though? I didn’t care my brother’s a furry. Why should I care you wear virtual boobs? Besides, I like that look she has. Purple hair. Real classic cyberpunk. You play her very well. From what little I saw.”

Her tone wasn’t mocking, or condescending, but it wasn’t exactly praise, either. It was just a factual statement from Janice, and probably the only kind of compliments she ever gave. “Thanks,” Ed mumbled. I think. “I put a lot of work into being Sonja.”

“Oh, it shows. It really does. Now, what’s this about BBQ with real meat?”

Ed shrugged. “I don’t know, what is it? Nobody here said anything about it…”

Layla and Larry looked at one another and nodded. “Follow us,” Larry said. “Janice can either ride in Ed’s rental, or pillion with me on Layla.”

“If the kitty can carry two, I think I’ll ride with you,” Janice said. “If I rode with Ed, it’d probably just be awkward.”

“Yeah,” Ed deadpanned. “Just shoot the address to my implant.”

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Ed never did figure out who had suggested the place, but whoever it was, it was a good choice. St. John’s Barbecue was a really tiny little hole-in-the-wall shop, that was about 90% kitchen by volume, with only a couple of little tiny tables out front. There wasn’t even room for a RIDE to fit in, which made it fairly exceptional among Uplift businesses. (When he asked, Ed learned that the proprietor ran the business as a sideline to his main occupation, which was mobile catering out of that huge kitchen.)

But it wasn’t a worry that there was no room for Layla; they planned to get their meals to go and eat them in a nearby park anyway. But first, Layla had an offer to make Janice.

“So, Janice, I gather you’re looking forward to some real-meat barbecue,” Layla said. “You know that’s not gonna be covered by Basic, right?”

Janice shrugged. “I’m sure I’ll be able to work something out.”

“I was thinking I could offer to cover the cost of it for you on one condition,” Layla said.

Janice raised an eyebrow. “All right, I’m listening.”

“See, I happen to like the taste of barbecue, too,” Layla said. “But to taste it in the Real, I need to Fuse with someone to use their taste buds. And being as doing that with one of these two would have some long-lasting side effects…”

“Oho. So I get a free meal, if you get to help me eat it.”

“That’s the deal. What you think?”

“Hmmm.” Janice considered it. “I guess I wouldn’t mind too much. As long as you stayed out of my head.”

“There’s a setting you can set in your implant configuration to block me from reading your thoughts or memories.”

Janice glanced at Larry. “And I’d get ears and a tail like that?”

“I’d pay for them to be docked if you didn’t want to keep them, but yeah. You’ll get my tags, you lucky thing you.”

“Huh.” Janice considered. “Well sure, why not. Might as well give it a try. Like the song goes, ‘try everything.’”

“Okay. So, stand up straight, hold your arms level,” Layla said. She nodded as Janice did so. “And here we go…”

Ed had seen it many times in FVL. Simulated RIDE companions were very popular in some corners—almost as popular as being furry yourself. So seeing the Fuse process in real life was slightly anticlimactic. When complete, Janice posed a little.

“This is absolutely bonkers,” Janice said. She felt her muzzle with her handpaws, then looked at those, too. She flexed her claws. “Completely, absolutely bonkers.

“Ain’t it just?” Layla said. “Now, let’s murder some meat.”

Ed stared at the menu. There were so many words there that he understood definitially, but seeing them presented on a menu was as nonsensical as finding a library full of telephone books. Words like “beef” and “pork” and “chicken.” Well, actually pork and chicken weren’t so odd, he supposed—after all, they were relatively inexpensive to raise, so even in the vat-meat world Earth had become, they were still within reach as occasional special treats. Much like “steak” had used to be back in the twentieth. But beef needed a lot of resources, and was out of reach to everyone except the insanely wealthy.

And yet, here all three of these things were, priced about the same as vat meat would have been back home. You could afford to eat these meats every day. Even beef. Ed felt a little weak in the knees just thinking through the implications. They really did throw me in the briar patch.

“So, what’re we having?” Janice wondered. “I’ve never had any of this stuff, so one thing’s just as good as anything else to me. And you’re paying for it anyway, so…”

“When in doubt, you can’t go wrong with beef brisket. How’s your appetite?”

“I…don’t know, really. I’ve never eaten much real food, so I don’t know how much I can eat.”

“We’ll start small, then. Can always have seconds if you feel like it.”

“Beef brisket sounds fine to me,” Ed said. He felt a little shiver of anticipation just speaking the words. All the empty cans he’d dug up of beef stew, corned beef hash, and other foodstuffs with the word “beef” on them—delicacies from long before his time—and now he was finally going to get to try it himself. He wondered if he’d like it, or if it would be too different from the fabbed food he was used to.

“Make that three beef brisket plates,” Larry said. “How do we split the check?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Layla said. “I’m buying this round. Call it my ‘welcome-to-Zharus’ present. I like seeing people enjoy their food.”

“Guess I can’t argue with that,” Ed said. “But I’ll have to buy you something in return sometime.”

“Well, Christmas is coming up,” Layla said. “Get me a nice present or something. Anyway…I’ve commed the order ahead. You two can run in and pick it up, and we’ll go stake out a picnic table.”

Larry nodded. “Works for me. C’mon, Ed.” They headed into the small establishment while Layla headed for a nearby table.

As they went through the door, Larry glanced over his shoulder at Layla. “Well, that was sudden. I didn’t really think she’d do it.”

“Well, that’s our Janice. All you have to do is dangle a freebie in front of her, and off she goes.” Ed shook his head. “I wonder if we could convince Layla to keep her?”

Larry chuckled. “Oh, be nice.” He headed up to the counter. “Hey, we’re here to pick up the order for Layla C.?”

“Be ready in just a minute!” the proprietor called.

Ed sniffed the air, and his stomach growled. Something smelled really good, in ways he hadn’t ever smelled before. It was kind of an atavistic smell, harking back to the days of life in castles and meat roasted on spits over fires. Vat meat just didn’t have an aroma that strong. He could hardly wait to see what it tasted like.

“Okay, here you go.” The proprietor set two trays on the counter, one with a single plate and one with two. They were piled high with what seemed like, to Ed’s mind, an immense amount of meat, as well as thick slabs of toast, and bowls of potato salad, beans, and coleslaw. It was a veritable feast.

“Will we even be able to eat all that?” Ed worried.

“What you can’t eat, you can just take home and eat later,” the barbecue chef said. “It gets even better when it’s reheated. Enjoy it, and do come back.”

Larry took the tray with two plates, and Ed took the other, and they headed outside and over to the table where Layla and Janice awaited. “Hey, smells good!” Janice said. “Wow, I can smell it from all the way over here?”

“Kitty nose!” Layla said. “Good for more than just booping.”

Larry put a plate in front of Layla and Janice and one in front of himself, as he and Ed sat down next to each other across from her. The table, Ed noticed, was actually made of reinforced metal alloy, and bolted down, so as to take the weight of a Fused RIDE without tipping over.

“So, dig in,” Layla said, picking up a fork. “I’m sure gonna.”

“How does this work exactly?” Janice asked.

“Well, your mouth is right behind where my mouth is,” Layla said. “So I open wide, and you get fed.”

“Uh…okay,” Janice said. “It’s been a long time since I had anyone hand-feed me.”

“If you want, you can control the fork once you get the hang of it. But I’ve practiced more, so I figure we’ll work it that way for the first few bites.”

“Okay, I guess that’s—MMPH!”

“Sorry…really hungry here!”

I guess that’s one way to shut her up, Ed thought. Then he turned his attention to his own plate. Vat-meat had a noticeably different texture. The cheapest didn’t even bother with the “twitching” step to make all the muscle fibers align. This meat was from a real animal who had used these muscles day in and day out. Ed wasn’t sure about that part, but it did look extremely delicious. The meat was marbled with fat—more fat than he recalled seeing on any meat. But when he took a bite, hesitantly, and chewed, he was surprised at the burst of flavor that flowed over his tongue. The texture was different than he was used to, but he thought he could get used to it.

“Mmm. Mmm, wow,” Ed managed at last. “This is…there’s nothing like it.”

“Well, there’s quite a few things like it, really,” Layla said. “Pork, chicken, turkey…all of ‘em really good, too.”

“It’s different than I’m used to,” Janice said. “Not really sure it’s my favorite thing, but…eh, it’s not bad.”

“Do all RIDEs like eating human food?” Ed wondered.

“We can all enjoy it. Not all of us are huge fans, but I am. Seeing all the different spices and ingredient combinations available was a revelation. It’s such a different experience from just eating raw deer and rabbits.”

“Wait, you hunt real animals?” Janice said.

Virtually real animals,” Layla said, shoving another bite of meat into her mouth. “We have a VR simulation called ‘Nature Range’ where we can go to hunt or be hunted. And of course, you eat what you kill.”

“Sounds like the ‘Tooth and Claw’ server in FVL,” Ed said. “Ferals like to hang out there.”

“I’ve heard about your FVL,” Layla said. “It’s cute, but it’s nowhere near the level of Nature Range. You probably roleplay the hunting and killing and stuff. But we RIDEs actually experience it. From both sides.”

“What do you mean, ‘experience’?” Ed asked. “You mean…you actually feel everything?”

Everything,” Layla declared. “From your muscles bunching as you prepare to pounce, to the claws and teeth through the flesh of the prey. But if the prey is big enough they can give you such a kick it’ll break your face. But there’s nothing like chewing through fresh, raw thigh of venison, hot off the buck.”

“I…think I’ll just take your word for that,” Ed said. Suddenly all his experiences role-playing a cougar girl seemed a little juvenile when faced with an example of the real thing.

“And the deer I hunt tell me they’re by and large pleased with the experience of having their throats ripped out as well.”

Ed blinked. “Wait…what?”

“There are a few notable exceptions, but generally prey seem to like the whole being hunted down and eaten thing. I’m not an expert in ungulate psychology, but apparently it satisfies something deep in their code. Lets them feel like they’re part of the circle of life or something. It’s just how we’re made. Human intelligence or not, we’re still animals.”

“Huh,” Ed said. “I guess we just tend to think of you as…well, different-shaped people. Humans, I mean.”

“I like being thought of as a ‘people,’ actually. We haven’t heard that word used enough, most of our lives,” Layla said. “Not about us, anyway.”

“People are stupid,” Janice said. “Uh…the people who aren’t RIDEs, anyway. Take things for granted and don’t question assumptions. Those of us from outside can see it clear as day.”

“No argument here,” Larry said. “You’re a person in my book, whether you’re an animal or not.”

“Right,” Ed said. “And I’d kind of like to know more about how you live in virtual—the parts that don’t involve blood and guts and raw meat, anyway.”

Layla nodded. “If you’d like to try our style of virtual reality, there’s a no-predation version called ‘Bambi’s Forest’ that we can use if you just want to four-paw it around for a bit,” Layla said. “Or you could try your VL avatars there.”

“The Terran VL addicts on Zharus have a freeware resolution upgrader for Nature Range,” Larry said. He sent Ed the software over their implant link. “With Zharus-tech implants, it should work just fine.”

“After we eat, why not.” Ed looked down at his plate. “Though I think that could be a while.”

“Well, don’t rush your meals. It can wait, and good food should be enjoyed at your own pace.”

Ed nodded. “You know, I think I’m going to be coming back here a lot. At least until I’ve worked my way through more of the menu.”

“Less talking, more eating,” Janice said. “This stuff is good.

Ed rolled his eyes, and Larry chuckled, but they did devote their full attention to their meals thereafter.

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Quite to Ed’s surprise, he actually was (barely) able to finish the whole thing. Must have been hungrier than I thought, I guess. But he was definitely going to remember to bring a “kitty bag” next time he visited. Larry and Janice-as-Layla seemed to have done just as well.

“That was…pretty good,” Janice said. She belched loudly. “’Scuse. Thanks for paying.”

“Thanks for the use of your taste buds,” Layla said. “Good stuff. One of these days I may have to pull the trigger on a humanoid shell with simulated digestive system, so I can eat for myself. Pretty big investment to make, though.”

“You can get one of those?” Ed asked.

“Yeah. They’re kind of all the rage lately. Since someone figured out how to scan human brains into RI cores, there’s been a lot more demand for them, and so they’ve gotten a lot cheaper. Still not quite cheap enough, though.”

Ed blinked. “Wait, what? Scan human brains?”

“Yeah. Ain’t this a funny little world? If you were born the wrong sex, wrong species, wrong anything, you can get it fixed. If you think you shoulda been born a RIDE, well, now you can be.”

“Crazy,” Larry said. “If we don’t decide to partner up, I might have to look into that.”

“And if we do, we could maybe trade back and forth if you wanted,” Layla said. “Might be interesting to try.”

“And speaking of which, I think you’d invited us to your VR?” Larry said.

“Do we need to go somewhere we can lie down?” Ed wondered.

“If you want,” Layla said. “But as long as you don’t plan to spend hours on end in there, you really just need to be sitting comfortably. We could do it right here if you wanted.”

“We probably should go somewhere with a little more privacy, anyway,” Larry said. “If we’re all just going to be zoning out and staring blankly into space.”

“Well, my hotel room has a few chairs and stuff,” Ed suggested. “We could go there. Besides, I’d like to give this new implant a test run.”

“Works for me,” Larry said. “Janice, you want to come along?”

“Oh gosh,” Janice deadpanned. “Did a strange man just invite me to his hotel room?”

“I’m sure I could find some etchings somewhere for you to look at,” Ed replied.

“Oh, what the hell. I am part cat now, so I guess I’m even more curious than usual. So why not.”

“As long as we’re Fused, might as well show you what lifter flight is like,” Layla said. “Beam me the address, we’ll meet you two there.”

Ed sent the transmission. “Larry and I will take my rental car. See you soon.”

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The car pulled up outside the hotel just as the puma touched down. “Whew, that was fun!” Janice said. “I might just have to see about finding a RIDE after all. If they can find one who’ll put up with me.”

“Oh, we have all personality types, same as humans. I’m sure you’ll find someone who you’ll get along with,” Layla said.

Eventually, Layla messaged Ed and Larry.

“So, ready for the de-Fuse?” Layla asked.

“Sure thing, hit me,” Janice said.

A moment later, Layla’s hardlight winked out, and she unfolded from around Janice and back into her four-footed form. Janice reached up to feel her new pointy ears, and then around back to her new tail. “Well, this is new.”

“They suit you,” Larry said.

“If you want them removed, there’s a nano clinic not far away and I’ll cover the cost,” Layla said.

Janice shook her head. “Nah. I’ll keep ‘em a while longer anyway. After all, some people have to come all the way to Zharus to get tags like this.”

“But you’re on Zharus now,” Ed pointed out.

“Yeah, and your point is…?”

Ed rolled his eyes. “C’mon, let’s go inside and get set up for VL.” He led the way up to his hotel room, and nodded to a pair of chairs. “You guys can take those, I’ll just lie down on the bed.” He nodded to the other bed. “Or one of you can lie down there if you want.”

“I’m good with sitting,” Larry said.

“Yeah, me too…if I can figure out what to do with this tail.”

“Try not to sit on it,” Ed suggested.

Janice rolled her eyes. “Oh, thank you Mr. Helpful.” But as it turned out, like much Zharus furniture, the chair was designed with a tail-hole, so that part wasn’t a problem.

Ed kicked off his shoes and lay down on the bed. “Okay. Layla, let me know when you’re ready?”

There was a chime from Layla’s server. “Okay, Green Room’s ready,” she said. “Once you get there, pick your avatar. See you all inside.”

Ed shut his eyes and sent some commands to his implant. Everything blacked out, then came the NextusNano logo and jaunty jingle. I’m really going to have to change some defaults. He should have looked at the manual, but who ever did?

Then he was traveling down a long tunnel. Clearly it took some time for the environment to load. Then the tunnel vanished, and he was in…a green room. Literally, the floor, walls, and ceiling were all different shades of green. There were multiple VR terminals floating in the air, displaying tap-to-login prompts. And a moment later, there were two other people in the room with him—Janice and Larry took a moment longer to show up, perhaps because their implants weren’t as high-quality as the one he’d gotten in barter from the store. Janice’s default avatar had the ear and tail tags she’d gotten from Layla; perhaps something in the RIDE’s operating system had made that change.

“So what do we do now?” Janice wondered.

“Select the avatar you want to take into Bambi’s Forest,” Layla’s voice said. “You can use those terminals to make your selection; you can load the ones stored in your implants or use one of the system defaults.”

“Seems simple enough. Hmm.” Janice peered at one of the terminals, and reached out to tap the button. Larry did likewise, and so did Ed.

The interface defaulted to the Avatar Select screen he used for entering VL—so at least that much was familiar. In front of him were the avatars for Sonja Cannon, Sonjapuma, the one he used for company meetings, and the gender-flipped version of himself. He’d always kept that one available, despite not using it for years. Sonja was just a “louder” version of Edie, especially in the breast department.

And…somehow using one of the Sonjas didn’t feel right here—they were both designed for cyberpunk-themed worlds. They’d be out of place in a pure natural forest. And for some reason he didn’t want to use even the idealized version of his real-life self here. That was for work stuff only—after his first few sessions, his hobby VL activities had always involved an element of genderplay. But Edie definitely had possibilities…

A flashing notification drew Ed’s attention to a footnote at the bottom of the screen. It read “Animal avatars are available and suggested for the Nature Range/Bambi’s Forest environment.” He briefly looked at them. It was all the standards for the Rockies and Sierra Nevada. Cougars of course, lynx, bobcats, deer, coyotes, various rodents, birds-of-prey, even songbirds. But none really held the appeal that Edie did. But, Edie was still missing something.

Ed brought up the avatar editor, then made a copy of Edie to modify. He made her slightly more like Sonja—adding a slightly larger bust and changing her hair color to purple. He accepted the edits and decided to name it Sonja Lancaster. Let’s start with something more familiar before deciding to go on four paws, he thought.

The “Wear Avatar?” dialogue came up. Ed selected yes…

Sonja sighed with relief. It was like getting into a bath that was the perfect temperature. Finding the sweet spot in your favorite comfy chair. Or waking up in the early morning and the bed was just too warm to leave.

“Sonja?” Larry said. “I like the new avatar. You look…”

“Comfy,” Janice supplied. Her ears were perked, interest piqued. “So, how does that feel?”

Sonja couldn’t resist cradling her breasts. “Well…it’s much more real than the old implant. These feel like they have actual weight now.”

“No kidding, eh?” Janice said, thrusting her own chest out. “I was only in your VL once, but even I can tell the difference. It just feels more…lifelike, I guess. So…what about the naughty bits?”

Sonja blushed. “I’m not going to talk about my ‘naughty bits’.”

“Cute,” Layla said. She had appeared in an anthro form. “Now, are you going to kitty-out? I have some stuff I want to show all of you. Cougar senses will blow your minds.”

“My mind is pretty well blown already,” Sonja said. She looked down at herself, at the way her body moved when she walked. There had always been a certain element of plastic stiffness in VL avatars, just because they didn’t have the processing power to simulate how every body part moved individually so some were grouped together for simplicity. But here…it seemed just like it would have in the Real. Every muscle, every inch of skin had the natural flex it would have in the real world. (Or at least, she assumed it did. She’d never experienced a real female body like this, after all.) “I think I’m going to need a little more time to…uh…get used to this.”

Janice smirked. “You mean, go off by yourself and do a little exploring, hmm? Go on, knock yourself out. Or feel yourself up, whichever.”

Sonja blushed harder, and was still trying to figure out how to reply to that when Larry spoke up. “Yeah, I think we probably should get used to being human in here before we try four paws,” he said. “So I’m going with my default avatar, I guess.” He tapped the icon.

“Yeah, me too,” Janice said. “If I was a porcupine in here, I’d probably just stab myself or something.” She tapped the button on her own screen.

“All right, we can come back to that,” Layla said. “Initializing the forest…” The green room faded away, leaving them in the middle of a forest clearing. All around them, old-growth trees reached for the sky. Birds called in the distance, and the air smelled fresh and clean.

“Oh, wow,” Larry said. “This is what I was working towards on Earth.”

“I’m sure some of it exists back on Earth by now…somewhere…” Sonja said. “Not that we’d ever have seen it, since we only worked in the places that weren’t…”

“Is this a forest?” Janice wondered. “It’s hard to see—there are all these trees in the way.” She gave Sonja a look. “You know, your boobs aren’t going to fall off if you let them go.”

Sonja blushed. “I know. I just…like holding them.”

“I see,” Janice said. “Well, at least try a different outfit than that re-sized polo shirt and slacks. Show a little cleavage.”

“No, no. I’m good,” Sonja stammered, blushing redder.

Janice tilted her head. “Seriously. Are you okay? I mean, I like being a woman and personal breasts are pretty cool. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen that particular expression before. Are you sure there isn’t something, you know, psychological about this?”

Sonja couldn’t even bring herself to be irritated at Janice. “I…I don’t know. It’s just…I’ve never felt anything like this before.”

Larry raised an eyebrow. “That good, huh? I think maybe I’ll…hold off a little on trying it myself.”

“Look, why don’t you go find a clearing or something and…y’know, do what comes naturally,” Janice said. “We won’t try to follow you, and there shouldn’t be anything that can hurt you here, right Layla?”

“That’s right, but…” The cougar cocked her head. “It’s interesting. You’re acting just like a new-minted crossrider, but I can still see you in the real world and you’re still definitely a guy.”

“Uh…yeah,” Sonja said. Suddenly the idea of jacking out of VR and going back to a male body just felt…icky.

Can you crossride virtually?” Larry wondered. “I thought it was all bound up in hormones and things.”

“We simulate those here,” Layla said. “I’ve never heard of someone being affected like that by simulated hormones before, though. Maybe I should do some research. That implant Sonja’s got is pretty high-end, might have something to do with it.”

“I really can’t explain this. I can’t,” Sonja said.

“I’m starting to have suspicions,” Layla said. “My research is telling me a surprising number of Terran tourist crossriders were undiagnosed gender dysphoric. Now, I’m not saying that’s what you are, but…”

“But I can’t be…can I? I’ve never felt like I was born the wrong way. I just logged in like this to blow off steam.”

“Maybe we should be sure,” Larry suggested. He suddenly looked very concerned. “Try logging out and see what happens, Sonja.”

The mere suggestion was abhorrent. “Don’t wanna,” Sonja mumbled.

Layla sighed. “I think we need to call some medical professionals. This isn’t normal.”

Sonja sat down on a log and shivered. “Do whatever you need to. I’m not leaving here if I don’t have to.”

“Layla could crossride you,” Larry suggested.

“Uh, about that,” the cougaress said. “Ed is, let’s say, over my mass tolerance. Another RIDE could do it, but it’s just too much for my light frame. He’d at least need to have that mass biosculpted off first at a corner clinic.”

“If she has to go to a corner clinic anyway they might as well do the cross there,” Larry said.

“I’m just too fat in the Real,” Sonja said, snorting. “Besides, if this really is what’s wrong with me, I want to be certain about it.”

“I’ve made the call to EMS,” Layla said. “They’ll be connecting to my Nature Range shortly so they can diagnose you. And here they are.”

Sonja looked up at the three newcomers. They all had medical uniforms, like paramedics. Two were human, while the third—a woman—had a metallic skin and solid blue eyes like Informio. They unpacked various gear around her. All symbolic, of course, since they were still in the Zharus-grade VL.

“Hello, Mr. Lancaster,” the EI said. “I’m Doctor Ein. Before we get started, we’ll need medical access to your implant.”

“Take it,” Sonja said. She hugged her breasts. “What is this? Why do I feel like this?”

“That’s what we’re going to find out. You’ll feel a little buzz as we do our work. Hold on.”

It only took seconds, then Dr. Ein conferred with her colleagues. They nodded. “Okay…Ms. Lancaster, this might be hard to take.”

“Well? What’s wrong with me?” Sonja asked.

“To speak plainly, you have gender dysphoria. Your brain and body don’t match.”

Sonja stared. “What?”

“It happens all too often on Earth. They ‘miss’ things because they often don’t test for issues like this,” the EI doctor said. “Here.”

A trio of images of a translucent human brain popped up. She pointed to the first one. Several areas were highlighted—the largest part was middle-cortex where the body was mapped to nerve sensation. “This is a typical masculine brain, in the sense of gender identity. The next one is a typical feminine brain.” The second one lit up with slightly different areas. “The differences seem slight, but it all has to do with body image and reaction to hormones. These areas get changed during the crossriding process. Now, here’s your brain.”

Sonja’s brain was perhaps eighty percent like the female brain.

“We think that your upgraded implant and the Nature Range environment triggered these areas in full for the first time—including producing the appropriate hormones. Your ‘Genderplay Virtual Life’ might not have had the resolution Nature Range does, but it was enough to fill some subconscious need.”

“I…suppose that makes sense,” Sonja said. “I spent most of my non-working hours in it.”

“But now that you ‘have’ it in Nature Range, you naturally don’t want to leave that body behind,” Ein said.

“So, what do you do to fix this?” Sonja could guess the answer to that question.

“There are two treatment options. One is to alter these regions of your brain so they’re masculine. But in cases such as yours, it’s not the recommended course of treatment. I’m sure you can guess the other option. Current thinking is that we cross you, and in three years, if you want to be a man again, that’s always an option. It’s better for cases like yours to have the body match the brain for some years, rather than vice-versa.”

Well, this is complete bullshit. Unfortunately, it’s bullshit that makes too much sense. “I don’t get it. Even on Earth they’re supposed to catch this sort of thing before you hit puberty.”

“Do we have your permission for the latter treatment?”

Sonja snorted. “Sure. It’s Zharus. What’s the big deal?”

Larry smiled. “Don’t worry, Sonja. Laura will be right there with you. We’re going to do this together.”

Sonja smiled at him for the reassurance. “Happy to have her, Larry.”

“We’re going to have your implant put you to sleep, now, and we’ll come by your room to pick you up,” Dr. Ein said. “When next you wake, it’ll all be better.”

“Uh…wait, what is all this going to cost?”

“This type of issue is considered medical treatment rather than a voluntary cross and biosculpt,” Ein said. “So don’t worry. It’s all covered under Basic.”

“And even if it were voluntary, it would cost less than our barbecue dinner just now did,” Layla added. “Speaking of voluntary…” she looked at Larry, who nodded.

Through the whole thing Janice hadn’t said a word, more puzzled and confused than the dispassionate way she normally took things. “Okay, um…congratulations and everything, but I’m going to log out.” Her avatar vanished.

“Okay. I’m ready for nap time,” Sonja said.

“Sleep well,” Dr. Ein said, then sent the sleep command…

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Ed slowly drifted back toward consciousness, scattered recollections of the last few hours gradually falling into place. One of the first recollections was that she wasn’t Ed out here anymore. Now she was Sonja everywhere. Huh. That’ll be a little different, she mused. Maybe a little confusing, too.

She remembered how natural her virtual body had felt, in a way that she never recalled her real body (his real body) ever seeming to. Funny that he had never known anything was really wrong, because he’d never known there was any other way to be. Was that why I ate so much? she wondered. I unconsciously knew something about my body wasn’t right, so I was changing it the only way I could?

As she drew closer to wakefulness, she got the first real sense of her body. It felt…surprisingly like it had in Bambi’s Forest. It felt natural, like it was the way she’s always been supposed to be. She let herself relax, luxuriating in the feeling for a few more minutes before finally opening her eyes.

“I know you’re awake, because I can see you moving.” It was Laura’s voice. “Come on, Sonja. Why did it take so long?”

“The medical nanos we use in this process are much more finely-controlled than the RIDE Fusers Miss Layla used for your crossover, Miss Erskine. Don’t get me wrong, they do a good job, but they’re rather brute-force by comparison.”

“I’m up, I’m up!” Sonja said, opening her eyes and levering herself up on her elbows. She checked her implant. “That took almost four hours?”

“We had to remove…quite a lot of excess mass to give you a real life version of the avatar you were using in Nature Range,” Dr. Ein said. “That type of bodysculpting is more delicate than you’d think. Plus, we haven’t touched your brain. There was no medical need to.”

Laura Erskine was tall and blonde, much like her former self. She wore her hair in a fauxhawk style, a yellow sundress and a pair of sandals, as if she’d just walked off of a beach. Like Ed, Larry had modeled her off the cyberpunk avatars they had used, toned down to a more realistic physique. “Well? What do you think, Sonja? How do I look?”

“Amazing,” Sonja said. “Truly amazing.”

Laura smiled like the sun, swishing her tail.

A tawny cougar padded into the room. “Morning, sleepy-head!” Layla caroled cheerfully. “Ready to join my harem? I seem to be collecting friends with cougar tags lately, might as well complete the set.”

“Sure, why not?” Sonja said. “There was actually an unhatched female cougar RIDE back at the landing site that I got a good personality match on, now that I think of it. Wonder if she’s been taken.”

“You mean I’m going to get a little sister, too? Sweet!”

“Just a few more things to square away and we can discharge you, Miss Lancaster,” Dr. Ein said. “Name change. Everything else is already part of your ZID file.”

“Sonja is just fine. Thank you. Now, where are my clothes? I assume they’ve been re-sized.”

“Plus a complimentary bra,” Ein said. “Unless you’d prefer going without.”

“I’ll just let them swing free for now, thanks.” Sonja giggled a little. This is just too much. I can’t even…even. She contemplated asking for some time alone, but decided not to. There would be time for that later. Other things needed tending to first. “Now, if you don’t mind…”

“Right,” Dr. Ein said. “Your clothes are on the chair next to your bed. Just have your implant shut off the privacy screen when you’re done.”

“Right, thanks…” Sonja glanced at the others. “Speaking of ‘privacy’…?”

“We’ll just be waiting in the next room,” Laura said. “Call if you need any help figuring out the clothes. They button on the other side than you’re used to, you know.”

“I know, I know.”

“I just had a four hour crash course on all this. See you in a few, Sonja.” Laura waved as her friend put up the privacy screen.

With a gentle pull, Sonja took off the hospital gown. She had literally seen a woman’s body from this point-of-view hundreds of times. So much that it had ceased being strange. Now, though, here it was in Real Life. Her own.

The Sonja Cannon avatar now felt like a ghost by comparison to what her body felt like now. Her eyes were drawn to her breasts, and the way they sagged a little to either side as she lay back. She rocked her shoulders to watch them wobble. Oh, wow.

Then there were the ‘naughty bits’ as Janice had so drolly referred to them. Ed had been too large to actually see his own for several years. But this was something else entirely. With more than a little trepidation, she spread her legs a little, then carefully probed with her fingers.

Holy shit. GVL could never simulate that.

She decided it was time to get dressed.

Finally, Sonja took down the privacy screen and made her way into the next room. Taking my first steps as a bona fide woman! As she saw the others sitting there, it occurred to her that someone was missing. “Hey, where’s the sourpuss? No, I don’t mean you, Layla.”

Laura shrugged. “Not sure. Haven’t seen her in the last four hours. When the medicos showed up, she lit out of there like her new tail was on fire.” She smiled wryly. “I’m afraid we may have just freaked a mundane.”

Sonja considered. “Not sure how I feel about that, all things considered. She’s annoying, but…she does kind of grow on you, I guess.”

“She’s had a rough time…today. Wow, it really hasn’t been a day for us, has it? Anyway, guys she just met are now women,” she snapped her fingers. “Voluntarily. Just like that.”

“Think we should ping her implant, see if she feels like talking?”

“It’s worth a try,” Layla said. “Mental lock-out or not, I still caught her surface thoughts. That woman’s got issues. I don’t think it’s wise to leave her alone too long.”

“Not sure I’m in any position to talk about someone else having issues,” Sonja said wryly. “But I think I agree with you.”

“Let’s link up and conference,” Laura said. “Let her know we’re concerned about her.”

Sonja nodded. “Ready.”

“Same,” Layla said.

Laura sent a voice call invite first, to see if Janice would respond. When she didn’t, Laura downgraded it to a text chat, and waited…

Uh…hello, Janice responded. How do I even talk to you gu…girls now? I can’t even.

It’ll be easier if we did it face-to-face, Sonja sent. You want to meet up in Bifrost Park? Buy you an ice cream, if they’re still open.

A full minute passed before there was a reply. I need a few to get my head together, but I’ll meet you there. It better be a big ice cream.

The biggest, Sonja sent. I need one, myself. It’s been…a day.

Separator k.png

Now it was night. It had taken long enough for it to get there—but then, they did have 30-hour days here. That’s something else to get used to, Sonja mused. Though I did just have a four-hour nap.

From the clinic Sonja rode pillion, sitting behind Laura, feeling a little awkward from the closeness. If wasn’t as if she had to hold on tight, but Laura radiated a sort of giddiness about her womanhood that Sonja didn’t quite share. She decided it was probably due to the crossriding and her brain being rewired. Sonja’s own brain finally had a body the right shape, and correct mix of hormones.

“Isn’t it hard to ride when you’re in a dress?” Sonja asked.

“A little, but it’s not too bad. How are you holding up?” She turned her head back.

“I was going to ask you the same thing, Laura. Sheesh! I have to keep reminding myself this isn’t GVL.”

“Nope! It’s GRL. ‘cuz we’re both GiRLs now.”

Sonja laughed. “Oh, you’ve got that right, sister. Right on that pretty nose of yours.”

“Thanks. I took a cue from that new avatar of yours and tweaked Laura Stern a bit. I still look enough like the old me so I don’t feel too weird about this. I think my mother would still recognize me…after a little effort. Layla and I went shopping afterwards. Used some of my Basic stipend.”

“We’re here,” Layla announced. “She’s waiting by the Milk Bottle. I can sense my Fusers there.”

The hardlight fountain provided most of the light in the park, supplemented by path lights along walkways and lamps over the picnic tables. Janice sat at one of them, looking rather shaken as she watched them approach. The ginger-haired woman motioned for them to take a seat across from her. “So…um. What a day, eh? Girls?”

“No arguments from us about that,” Laura said.

Janice sighed. “I don’t get this planet. It changes people. I look at you two and my brain just breaks. You can’t be the two guys I met this morning.”

“You might have an easier time believing it if you’d stayed and watched the change happen,” Sonja said. “But believe me, I’m just as surprised as you are. Look at how I freaked out over the idea of Larry becoming Laura…and then look at me now. Something I didn’t even know about myself, suddenly clear.”

“Shit, if they’d caught it on Earth when they were supposed to, I doubt you’d even be here now,” Laura said.

“But changing yourself so completely…how can you even deal with that? I can’t deal with that, and I’m not even the one who did it to myself!”

“If I’m being honest…I’m not really sure,” Sonja admitted. “I think I’m still riding the hormone rebalancing rush from the change. After it’s over…I’m not sure.”

“The clinic gave us some referrals to crossover therapists,” Laura said. “In case we have more serious trouble.”

“Still…we don’t have any experience at actually being women,” Sonja said. “Just a lot of pretending. I mean, where the hell do I even rest my arms with these? Over? Under? It’s not like they gave me an instruction manual—”

“There are several, you know,” Layla said. “Like, dozens. They’ll even show you how to pee correctly. Animated diagrams and everything.”

“Okay, I’ll give you that,” Sonja said. “It is Zharus.”

“Yes, it is,” Layla drawled. She was resting her head in Laura’s lap for a good petting. “Plus, I still need to Fuse with you so you can get my tags. Unless you want to wait for the kitty back at the Steady Hand encampment.”

That reminds me. “Er, give me a minute. I need to see if someone is still available.” She quickly called the RIDEalong RIDEworks tent, hoping someone was there at night.

She was greeted by Informio. “Hello again, Miss Lancaster. Are you interested in adopting the RIDE you were interested in earlier?”

“Er…yes. Thank you. I guess she’s still available?”

“She is indeed. I’ll put a hold on her. You can still change your mind, but nobody else will be able to adopt her until you make a final decision.”

“That works just fine. Thank you, Informio.”

“My pleasure, Miss Lancaster. Have a good evening.”

That was unexpected. Sonja smiled. “Well, she’ll be there when I get back home.”

“I approve of your decision to adopt a new RIDE, but you should know what you’re getting into,” Layla said. “RIDEalong RIDEs have fully-formed personalities, and a basic store of knowledge, but very little actual experience. She’ll be new to the world, just like I was way back when, and you’re going to have to help her learn about it.” She gave the back of a paw a couple of licks. “You do already know she’ll be a person, so you’re good there. But she’s also going to be a big responsibility, and you can’t just send her back if you decide you don’t like her. Are you sure this is the best time to take this extra challenge on?”

When she put it that way, it did sound a trifle irresponsible. But still…it felt right. Sonja considered for a moment. “I guess…both of us being new people in a way…it feels right to be new people together.”

Layla nodded. “Fair enough. You’ve thought about it; you’re not just doing it on a whim. So, I think you’ll be okay.”

Janice shook her head. “You people really do believe in just diving right into things, don’t you?”

“That’s the best way to get used to the water temperature all at once,” Laura said. “Thought about finding a RIDE of your own?”

Janice snorted. “Like I could find one who’d put up with me. Or that I’d be willing to put up with her if I did.”

“You don’t know if you don’t try. Here.” Sonja beamed a file across to Janice’s implant.

Janice blinked. “What’s this?”

“RIDE matchmaking personality assessment. Fill that out and maybe you’ll find a match.”

Janice snorted. “I suspect any RIDE I did match wouldn’t have the patience for this foolishness.”

Sonja shrugged. “Never know until you try.”

“I’ll think about it. Now I think someone mentioned ice cream?”

“Pick whatever you want off their menu. I’ll be right behind you.” Sonja laughed. “Maybe my first female meal shouldn’t be a chocolate sundae, but what the hell? It’s a cliche because it’s true.”

“We call them ‘mondaes’ here,” Layla said. “I wouldn’t mind a RIDE’s De-lite, if Laura’s okay with it.”

“You can count on me,” Laura said.

A few minutes of waiting in line found them seated back at the table with large bowls of ice cream and other confections placed in front of them. Few sounds were heard for the next few minutes as ice cream was addressed in earnest.

“It’s still just so…weird,” Janice sighed at last. “I hardly even knew you guys, and now you’re ‘you girls.’”

“We’re still the same people you hardly even knew,” Laura said. “Just a whole lot prettier now.”

Janice snorted. “I guess that’s one way to put it.” She looked down at her nearly empty bowl, Janice toyed with the melting ice cream with her spoon. “Now I’m starting to wonder just what that prodigal brother of mine might have turned into. Do I have a missing sister now? Or something even weirder?”

“We’d be happy to help you track him down if you want,” Sonja offered. “As networked as this world is, it shouldn’t be too hard.” She took out her ZID—for the benefit of everyone else. “Hey Informio.”

“Greetings, ladies,” the EI said cheerfully. “What can I do for you?”

“I need a surefire way to get in touch with my brother,” Janice said. “He’s either ignoring me, or something else.” She snorted. “Maybe he doesn’t even know what’s going on. He liked to tune out on occasion.”

“There are many places in the Dry Ocean where communication is difficult even on the best of days,” Informio said. “If contacting him is extremely important right now you can send a search bird for him for a nominal fee.”

“I’ll…I’ll pay it,” Janice said, grimacing. “I have a few hundred moo from my stipend. How much?”

“Ten mu per day,” Informio said. “Shall I begin the service?”

Janice rolled her eyes. “Yeah, sure. Why not? It’s important. Just give him this message when you find him. ‘You wanker. Love, Janice.’”

Laura raised Layla’s eyebrows. “Sounds like you two really got along.”

“It’s the message I was going to send him years ago when he gave us all of two words that he was staying.” Janice shrugged. “But, you know, that sort of thing costs money.”

“You raise penny-pinching to an art form,” Layla said. “You should watch some Jack Benny.”

“Whatever, kitty. So, blue guy, how long til we get results?”

“If he’s in the Deep Dry it will be tomorrow at the earliest. It still takes time to get a messenger bird out there. Otherwise, could just be a few hours. I’m running a recent public records and social media search to see if your brother mentioned any destination or filed a flight plan, to narrow the search area if at all possible.”

“Fine by me.” Janice sniffed. “The less money I have to spend on finding that bum, the better.”

“I’ll ping your implant the moment there’s any news,” Informio promised. “Enjoy your evening, ladies.” He blinked out.

“So,” Laura said, “what are your plans for the evening, Sonja? Going to overnight in Uplift in the hotel room, see the sights? Or head back home and make a new friend?”

“Frankly…I think I’d rather go home. I have too much on my mind right now to really enjoy sightseeing. And I’m a little envious of you and Layla.”

“Welcome your new friend with an open mind, and you could have that closeness, too,” Layla said.

“And other trite aphorism crap like that,” Janice supplied.

Sonja ignored her. “The next flight back to the Steady Hand leaves in a couple hours. So we have a little time.”

“Great! So what else is there to do around here?” Laura asked. “Anything new and notable since I was last here a few years ago?”

“I suggest hitting Cheers for a half hour or so,” Layla said. “They’ve expanded. Then we can head to the aerodrome.”

“That’s that bar based on the old tv show, right?”

“It’s a great place to mix with RIDEs, Integrates, even some EIs in meat-suits now.”

“I’m all for a good pub right now,” Janice added.

Sonja smirked. “Especially if someone else is buying, right?”

“Well, since you so kindly offered, I could let you buy me a drink…” Janice said.

“I think I’ll let you buy me a drink, too,” Laura said. “You’re the one with the windfall right now, after all.”

“Call it your first girls’ night out,” Layla said. “Because it literally is. Just don’t go heavy on the alcohol. Lighter bodies, less tolerance.”

“For them,” Janice said. “I’m just as tolerant as I ever was.”

And just as intolerable, Sonja thought wryly. But somewhat to her own surprise, there wasn’t really any heat behind the thought. Now that she’d been around her for a while, Sonja could see that Janice might be all prickly and stand-offish, but there didn’t seem to be any actual malice behind it. It was just how she was. Maybe life had just hurt her so much that she needed to put up a tough facade. Sonja resolved to try to be a little more tolerant of Janice—though not so much so that Janice would accuse her of getting “mushy.”

“Anyway, last one there is a rotten egg!” Layla converted over to skimmer bike form, Laura straddled her, and off they went.

“I think we may just be rotten eggs,” Janice said. “Meh. Not real big on hurrying anywhere, anyway.”

“Then let’s go be fashionably late.” Sonja took their dishes to the trash, and headed for where she’d parked.

Janice followed her a moment later. “’Fashionably late.’ I like that.”

“Just something I read somewhere.”

Janice raised an eyebrow at the sleek skimmer convertible. “Nice. And you rented this?”

“It was surprisingly cheap,” Sonja said, climbing into the driver side. “Skimmer tech seems to be a lot more common here.”

“Gee, wonder why that would be.” Janice took shotgun and fastened her safety harness. “That magical battery mineral Earth is so hot on must be some really amazing stuff.”

Sonja glanced at her. “Hm?”

“It was all over the news, haven’t you been keeping up? After we landed, Earth’s ambassadors showed up with this big list of demands about how Zharus should fork over the quality stuff, and in return Zharus kicked the bums right off the planet.”

“I’ve…been a little too busy with personal things to keep up with current events,” Sonja mumbled. Which is kind of the same thing that implant dealer said, come to think of it. I guess I should make the time, given that I’m part of one of the biggest events to hit the news around here this decade.

“Apparently it’s part of what makes RIDEs and stuff possible.”

“Right…I did notice my rental scooter had a range in the thousands of klicks, come to think of it.”

“Well, there you go, then. Super-cheap batteries, unlimited clean power, the whole nine yards.”

“Nine meters. Zharus is on metric.”

Janice rolled her eyes. “Shut up and just get us to the damn bar already.”

Preceded by:
Warm Welcome
FreeRIDErs Succeeded by:
Cougar Town: Down on the Farm