User:Robotech Master/Dating Games

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FreeRIDErs story universe


by Jon Buck and Robotech_Master

Part 4: Dating Games

“Thanks, Qix’. You’re a sweetheart.”

The inarticulate growl on the other end followed by a click was a sound Zane was going to treasure for some time, and catching Myla’s and Sophie’s gazes he could see they felt exactly the same way. Quinoa didn’t have quite the period of acquaintance they did with Qixi, but Zane could see she was happy Myla was happy.

“So, that’s that,” Zane said. “Done and dusted.”

“I don’t like the thought of you paying her ten percent on top of the principal,” Myla said. “But given what she was going to try to charge me, you got off light.”

Quinoa grinned. “And when she tried to go for fifteen…and he dropped the hammer. He was all Bruce Ferrigno, ‘You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.’”

Zane shrugged. “I don’t think she really meant anything by it. Force of habit. To get as far ahead in that business as she has, you have to be pretty insistent and hard-nosed. But it sure was funny how fast she backpedaled when she remembered who she was talking to.”

Sophie chuckled. “I could hear the gears grinding as she threw in full reverse.”

Zane nodded. “Anyway, that’s what I call using my rich bastard powers for good, instead of evil.” He yawned. “Speaking of which, there’s one more thing to do before I crash out. C’mon, you three.” He got up and led the way to the hallway door, then pointed to the doors to either side. “Those two apartments are free. That one has exposure facing the Dry Ocean, and I thought maybe Quinoa might like it. The other one faces on downtown, which seemed like it might suit Myla and Sophie. Or you can trade if you like.”

“I don’t know if we could afford to stay in a place like this,” Myla said.

“You’re going to be my bodyguard, remember?” Zane grinned. “Digs are included in the job. You can’t exactly guard my body from halfway across town.”

“Point,” Myla admitted.

“The other one sounds fine to me,” Quinoa said.

“Great! Oh, and before I forget.” He pointed at the RIDE couch in his living room, and it lifted off the ground, tipped on its side, and came floating out the door into the hallway. With his other hand, he pointed at the door of what was to be Myla’s apartment, and it opened. Deftly maneuvering the couch around Quinoa, Myla, and Sophie, he floated it into the apartment and set it down in the living room. “There you are. Your very own Sophie sofa.”

Sophie gave him a good lick. “Thanks! I really appreciate all you’re doing for us.”

Zane smiled at her. “I appreciate the chance to help.” He yawned again. “Anyway, I’m going to go sleep for about eight or ten hours.” He glanced from Quinoa to Myla. “You two have some catching up to do?”

They glanced at each other. Quinoa looked away first. “It…was a long trip in from the Towers. I think I’m going to catch a catnap, too. Or at least a sphinx-nap.”

Myla nodded. “And Sophie and I are going to get settled into the new place.”

“Right. Oh! Hang on,” Zane said. His DIN flashed, and Myla’s wallet beeped. “Advance on your first paycheck, and a small stipend for furnishing the apartment. And I just sent Sophie all the contracts and paperwork, and Carrie-Anne’s email address to send ‘em to when you’re done.” He yawned again. “Now I need my beauty rest. Got a hot date tonight. See ya!” He went back into his apartment and closed the door.

Myla and Quinoa exchanged glances again. “Good…to see you again,” Quinoa said hesitantly.

Myla nodded. “You too, kiddo. But now we’ll see you later.”

Quinoa nodded, and they turned to the doors of their respective apartments. A few moments later the hall was empty.

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“Okay, Kaylee! One more time!” Rhianna revved up Kaylee’s new lifters once more on the unlimited speed portion of the Sunset Skimmerway. The Donizetti RIDEworks Corridore R-6 Package included sport-lifters, improved aeroshell shields, and inertial dampers. Rhianna twisted the throttle and was still shoved back into Kaylee’s saddle as the RIDE burst into 3G acceleration, not letting up until she hit a new top speed of nearly 600 kph. As the new lifters thrummed powerfully through the old RIDE’s versatile chassis, her battery meter visibly dropped. “Wahooo! Yeeeeaaah!

“Acceleration Test A6 completed,” Kaylee reported automatically, ending with a beep. Her feline face in Rhianna’s virtual HUD blinked. “Whoa. Didn’t expect that. I think these tests are knocking a few more memories loose, boss. These are some really old subroutines.”

“Want to do it again?” Rhianna suggested. She wore one of the outfits Kaylee had chosen specifically for riding: suede riding boots, dark gray armorweave jodhpur-cut breeches, and a red tube top with a black leather jacket. A little—okay, a lot—more girly than she was used to, but it was time to push some personal boundaries to see where the new ones would settle. Just outside the RIDE’s shields it was a scorching late afternoon 58 Celsius, comfortably less than half that on the inside.

“Kaylee?” Rhianna repeated, patting her on the battery pack in front of the saddle. “How’re you doing, partner? There’s something bothering you.”

“That your finely-tuned feminine intuition talking?” Kaylee jibed weakly. She turned back towards the Dome entrance, having drained a quarter of her sarium battery pack in the past hour. “I’m going to see if Myla’s busy. I’ve gotten really damned curious about myself. I’ve caught a lot of stuff I thought was just gone in the bitbucket.”

“Well, let’s do it, then,” Rhianna said, placing the call. It only rang once before the former MRS officer picked up. “Myla! How’re things? You’re looking well. Dazed, but well.”

“Zane has that effect on people sometimes, the way he throws money around,” Kaylee added, scanning the bare room behind her on 3D video. “New digs? Wait, that’s…”

“New job,” Myla replied. “I’m Zane’s new bodyguard. He even gave me an apartment next door.”

:Yes!: Kaylee thought, echoed by her rider loudly enough she felt the emotion across their link. :Wahoo!:

“Glad to hear it!” Rhianna added aloud.

“Sophie said you wanted to talk about my aunt,” Myla continued. “I almost forgot. It sort of got pushed aside with all the other stuff happening the past couple days, didn’t it?”

“No worries. It happens,” Rhianna said. “You have a lot on your plate.”

“I know! There’s shopping to do. I need to refit Sophie for bodyguard work—which I’ll have you two do, of course. Mind’s racing. Can we meet to talk? You might as well come to my new apartment.”

She glanced over her shoulder, at something off-camera. “Would you believe this place has a big home fabber? I’ve already got Sophie printing self-assemble furniture.”

“We’ll be there shortly,” Kaylee said. If there was one big drawback to the new lifters it was the huge power drain at full acceleration. Her next upgrade would have to be a new battery pack…then a new sensor package…and lighter armor cladding…and…Maybe even those special…The list seemed to go on and on. Part of her was urging her to test, test, then test some more. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt so excited about gear. Uncia, little sis, you’ve got me on an upgrade binge!

She already got a monthly salary from the Garage for upgrades and the like. Mostly the money just languished, accruing interest because she had no interest in it herself. Her batteries were A-class sarium, considered top consumer grade. High quality, but the new lifters demanded A+ or higher. The mod-jeweller store had AAA+. After A-class, prices rose geometrically since the energy they could store and output did also. A RIDE like herself on AA batteries could go for years without a recharge in Passive mode.

As they neared the Dome speed limits dropped progressively, until at the entrance it was a mere 100 kph. Not every skimmer around them was a RIDE. There were plenty of closed models out there—cars, vans, trucks, and busses ferrying people from polis-to-polis through the Traverse Tunnel. Proper RIDEs made up a good quarter of the vehicles in Uplift. Traffic was sometimes a flying zoo of animal skimmers.

At Zane’s apartment building Kaylee Fused without asking first—she hardly needed to now—and they floated up the side of the building to Myla’s new apartment. It had a large balcony with a spa, an open fireplace, and even a parking place marked off for a small skimmer or flier. The glass doors opened when they set down.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do with all this space,” Myla said, hugging the Fused duo in greeting. “I’ve never had a home fabber, either.”

“Never? You’ll still need to buy from a real furniture store for stuff that’ll last. Industrial fabbers are much better than home gear. I’ve got one in the garage for special jobs like Zane’s DIN-thing.” Rhianna said. She noticed the RIDE couch that had been in Zane’s apartment. “Guess he doesn’t need that anymore, does he?”

“It’s my ‘Sophie Sofa’!” the fennec mecha said brightly, jumping up and down on it, the whine of her lifters audible. The variable-stress nano-springs didn’t even creak at the impact, though they would still feel pillow-soft to a human’s weight.

“I’ll keep that in mind, Rhianna,” Myla said, grinning impishly at her partner. “Let’s go have a seat on the Sophie Sofa and give Anny a call. She lives in Cascadia, so it’s barely lunchtime there.”

“What’s she up to these days?” Kaylee asked, taking a seat while Sophie laid down to form the back of the sofa. She purred and gave her comrade a good petting around her huge ears. “Last thing I remember, we were headed for the door after a briefing, I think. Then my memory blanks out again.”

A hardlight projector opened out from the wall. Calling…blinked in midair.

Rhianna’s heart was in Kaylee’s throat. :Come on, pick up,: the new woman thought.

The voice that answered sent a shiver down Kaylee’s nano-motile spine. “Myla, dear? Is that you? It’s been ages, niece! How are you?”

:That’s her,: Kaylee reported, feeling an urge to squee with delight. :That’s her that’s her that’s her!:

“I’m fine. Better than ever. Good to hear from you too, Anny. No video?” Myla said.

“Ah’m not decent. You caught me in the middle of a job.” There was the sound of gunfire, then what sounded like the woman’s own pulse gun responding. “Lemme call you back in a few minutes, darlin'. Kinda busy here. COME AND GIT IT, YA LAW-BREAKING BASTIDS!” Amid more gunfire the call cut off.

“Lordy Lord Lordy,” Kaylee said. “What the effing hell was that? How old is she?”

“Fifty-five. Barely middle age nowadays, you know. Hold on a sec…” Myla’s eyes unfocused as her RIDE fed her some information. “She works for a private security company in Cascadia.”

“If she was in the middle of a gun battle, why did she even answer?” Rhianna asked. “That’s kind of crazy.”

“‘Kind of crazy’ describes my aunt,” Myla said.

“Think I'm gonna de-Fuse for this one, Rhi,” Kaylee said, doing so.

Only a few minutes later Annette Hewer returned the call, her face appearing via the hardlight comm. She was a short woman, just like Rhianna and Myla, with darker tanned skin and short spiky white hair with leonine tags. It didn’t look like she’d just been in a firefight. She wore a light blue security uniform and interface specs. Next to her was a towering white lioness RIDE sitting on her haunches, tail curled around front. “Caught us on the firing range, Myla dear. What can I do ya for?”

:Firing range?: Kaylee sent. :What kinda ‘firing range’ fires back?:

Myla looked at her new friends. Rhianna stood up so Kaylee could de-Fuse. They all walked in front of the comm’s camera. “I wanted to reintroduce an old friend of yours to you. She barely remembers, but…Do you remember Kaylee?”

“Maybe not this way,” the lynx mech said. She shut down her hardlight, leaving only her metallic subdermis. “More like this.”

“Oh…oh my God!” Annette Hewer exclaimed, hand over her mouth in disbelief. “Kay…Kaylee? Is that really you? When I resigned they told me they’d junked you! I didn’t believe it! I’m so glad I was right, but…you’re just calling me now? What did those bastids do to you that took so long?”

The lynx turned her pelt back on. “Parted me out piece by piece, for about twenty years. Turned my memory blocks into so much Swiss cheese. Then this wonderful woman saved me from the Crusher.” She purred loudly and headbumped Rhianna under her breasts, a new habit of hers. “It’s a long story, really. I’m just curious—I’m missing so much! I remember one ice cream ride for Myla here, bits and pieces of other things, but nothing else. Not even your name, Anny! I’d love it if you could fill in what I’m missing.”

“Eh…” Anny said. “A lot of that stuff’s probably still classified, I think. I’m not sure what I can say that won’t get me hauled back to Nextus. Can I get back to you in a few hours, maybe? I gotta do some thinkin’ and make sure that won’t happen. Okay?”

“Uh, okay,” Kaylee said. “But you’re keeping me in suspense here.”

“Can’t do nuthin’ about it yet, Kaylee. Just hold tight,” Anny said, her voice catching. “Talk at ‘cha all real soon.” She closed the connection.

“Well,” Rhianna said, folding her arms. “That was…interesting. I guess we wait, then.”

“Let’s do some furniture shopping in the meantime,” Myla suggested. The wall hardlight came to life at a furniture store so they could see how the rooms would look ahead of time. She looked back over at her crossrider friend. “That outfit’s absolutely adorable on you. Wear more red.”

The new woman blushed, Kaylee looking a little smug at the compliment. “See, Miss Adorable? Red’s your color.”

Rhianna blushed even more, mortified, but also glowing from the genuine compliment. “Guess I better get used to being ‘adorable’, then.” Adorable was okay, not ideal, but okay. Next time I’ll try for ‘beautiful’ instead.

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Zane’s internal alarm went off just at 2200, rousing him from a deep and restful sleep. He felt well-rested, thoroughly energized. (Though that was probably due to the power cord he’d hooked to his right wrist before going to sleep.) He clambered out of bed, yawned, and stretched, the tip of his tail brushing the bed behind him.

Then he padded out into the living room just in time to see the sixth copy of his DIN plus comm drop into the tray of his fabber. Internal status reports told him that the industrial fabber in his office on the Dry Ocean mining platform had just popped out its sixth, too. Good. He dropped a couple of them in a drawer, and dropped two more into an express box for delivery to his local office.

He went out to the balcony and dropped the box over the side, his feline ears perking for the slight whine of the box’s vectored-thrust engines powering up to guide it to his office’s package drop a few blocks away. He left the other two where they were; he imagined he’d find somewhere to put them sooner or later. He was already thinking about tucking one into the executive lockbox on each Brubeck flier and suborbital, just in case

That accomplished, he went into the bathroom to take a shower. The smell of wet tiger fur didn’t bother him as much this time, especially since he’d realized he could force every last bit of water off just by forming a Zane-shaped water-impermeable hardlight shell within his skin and then pushing it outward through his pores. It did leave all his fur standing on end for a bit, but it was worth it.

Shower finished, Zane pondered what to do next. As an Integrate, he didn’t really have much need to do anything to “get ready”. He didn’t even have to get dressed. With the tips from Leah and Aaron, he was pretty sure he could form any clothing he needed out of hardlight. And speaking of which…

Zane concentrated for a moment, forming the Zane/Terry Fuser disguise they’d shown him how to put on. It was true he’d said he wasn’t planning to hide who or what he was, in his public life…but on the other hand, if he was going out on a date, he didn’t need the extra attention—not when his bodyguard wasn’t even on duty yet. And it would be polite to match his date’s Fuser form, for that matter. And it also simplified the matter of clothing, as Fusers weren’t really required to wear any beyond the metal bits that hid their Schroedinger’s anatomy.

Just as Zane was getting ready to go, his DIN registered an incoming comm call. He paused a moment to savor the novelty of getting phone calls in his brain. It was a pretty new experience for his human side. Old hat to his RIDE side, of course, but he felt a flash of amusement from Terry at his reaction. All that in about a tenth of a second—he’d instinctively dropped into fast-time to be able to react to the call before even half a ring.

Now who can it be…? Oh. Caller ID said it was his sister, Agatha. She worked in Nextus Administration—what they called their government there—in the Mining Relations department of Mineral Resources. She had not been happy at all when Zane had decided to move Brubeck Mining to Uplift. Well, this is going to be fun. Zane quickly rezzed up a VR imitation of his home office and shifted his avatar’s appearance to his old human self with tiger tags before dropping back into real-time and answering the call. “Hey, Aggie. What can I do for you?”

His sister’s face appeared on the virtual comm screen. She was in her twenties, slightly younger than Zane, with carrot-colored hair pulled back in a tight braid, freckles, and piercing green eyes that were currently glaring at Zane. “End this foolishness and move your company back to Nextus, that’s what,” Agatha said.

“Straight to the point as usual, sis,” Zane said. “Look, I’m sorry, but I’ve already explained that’s not in the cards.”

“Why are you doing this to me?” Agatha groaned. “Do you know what it’s like for me at work? I was in line for a promotion in another couple of months. But now? Who’s going to promote a Second Tier Mineral Resources ‘crat who can’t even keep her own family’s company in Nextus?”

“Look, sis, I’m sorry about that,” Zane said. “I didn’t think about how it was going to affect your position when I made the move.”

“But you’d have done it anyway, wouldn’t you?” Agatha said.

Zane sighed. “Well, yes. I’m sorry, but…after Terry and I partnered up, I just couldn’t keep supporting a polity that treats RIDEs that way. I’ve got my principles and I’m going to stick to them.” He paused. “You know, you could quit your job at Nextus, come work for me. It’s the family business, and family should be in it.”

“Screw that,” Agatha said. “Do you know how long I’ve worked to get where I am today? Proving that I have the chops to handle a job because of my talents, not just who I’m related to? I’m not just going to give it all up because my idiot brother gets a bee in his bonnet.”

“Seems to me you haven’t really succeeded, then, if they’re denying you a promotion because of what I did,” Zane pointed out.

“You sanctimonious asshole!” Agatha yelled. “Where do you get off acting all high and mighty? If Dad were here—”

Zane privately thought that if Clint Brubeck were still alive, he would probably find more to agree with in Zane’s actions than Agatha's, but thought better of saying so. “Look, Aggie, why don’t you come down to Uplift and we can talk more about it? I’m going to be making a really important announcement in a few days. I’d like you here when I do it.”

“Are you announcing you’re moving back to Nextus?” Agatha demanded.

“No, afraid not—” Zane said.

“Then not interested.” Agatha broke the connection with the sound effect of a phone handset being slammed down hard on the hook.

Zane sighed. “Well, that could have gone better.” He shrugged. “I guess I’ll try again after the announcement.” He dropped back into the real world, shook himself, and headed for the door. He had some things to get done before tonight.

As he stepped out into the hall, Zane glanced in the direction of Myla and Sophie’s apartment, and without intending to peek suddenly noticed four silhouettes through the wall. Myla, Sophie, and…looked like Rhianna plus Kaylee. Zane knew he could have read their transponders for a positive identity, but consciously stopped himself. “Damn,” he muttered. “If I’m going to respect anyone’s privacy at all, I’ve got to get Quinoa to teach me some self-control.”

Then he realized what he’d just said and it took all of the self-control he already had not to burst out laughing.

Speaking of whom…he glanced in the other direction, at Quinoa’s room, but instead of the sphinx Integrate, he saw a three-meter sphere out on the balcony within which he couldn’t make out anything at all. Some sort of hardlight shield, he guessed. Perhaps that was how Integrates enforced their privacy from other Integrates. He’d have to ask her about that next time he saw her. Right now, he couldn’t be sure the shield wasn’t also meant as a “do not disturb” sign, and he didn’t want to take the chance that it was.

Zane headed down the hall to the elevator. He could have just jumped from the balcony and taken his lifters down, but it was kind of flamboyant. And it was probably a little silly, but he felt that doing little things like taking the elevator down helped him keep in touch with his “humanity,” since it was precisely the sort of thing an Integrate didn’t need to do.

Of course, when he got out to the sidewalk, he nonetheless lifted off the ground and moved into the Fuser/scooter “slow” lane along the side of the street to fly downtown. Little inconveniences were one thing, but there was no point in being stupid.

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“It’s been hours. When is she going to call back?” Kaylee said, tapping Rhianna’s shared foot impatiently. The Fused duo was helping the likewise-Fused Myla-Sophie in rearranging furniture. The apartment was low enough that delivery trucks could dock right at the balcony. Once the orders were placed it only took a matter of hours between fabrication and delivery. The apartment was already half furnished with two more delivery fliers scheduled to arrive.

“Patience, kitteh,” Sophie said at the other end of the dining room table as they put it down. “Whatever she’s doing, I can’t get in touch with her either. Must be something important that came up. She is on the job, you know.”

Rhianna looked around the room. The whole planet was in a pre-Oil Crash, mid-20th to early-21st century craze. It was mostly the Steader family’s fault. For reasons that still weren’t entirely clear, about fifty years back brothers Joe and Mikel Steader had spent a considerable chunk of their vast fortune traveling to Earth and literally mining its ancient pop culture out of the ground where it had been buried.

The culture on Earth right now was dedicated to looking forward, not back, but that hadn’t bothered the Steaders; they simply brought the whole schmear back to Zharus and proceeded to infect the entire planet with it—in particular, the portion of it specifically relating to the 20th and early 21st centuries, the last “golden age” before ever-more draconian copyright laws and digital rights management coupled with the disastrous end of the Oil Age had resulted in a historical gap. It was more popular on the “frontier” continent of Gondwana than the more staid, longer-established Laurasian settlements, but the influence was not absent even there.

Not to say that everything was guaranteed authentic reproductions. Everything still contained all the ubiquitous technology that early 26th century (mid-2nd century After Landing) humanity could cram in. Quantum computers, sarium batteries, basic AI, hardlight projectors, even a few low-power lifters on the fabricated “oak” table and china cabinet were built-in for easy movement.

A person from five centuries ago could walk in and identify everything in the room and quite possibly use it. Function hadn’t actually changed nearly as much as the technology behind it, and neither had most user interfaces. Even the old QWERTY-style keyboard still had a significant number of regular users.

Myla set up a decorative-but-functional IBM beige box desktop PC with a faux CRT screen on a new writing desk. “What do you think, Rhianna? Too much kitsch? There’s something romantic about these ancient PCs.” She typed her login into the box, metal-sprung keys clattering with a sound that could probably be heard down the street. “I love the nice, solid feel here.”

“If you say so,” Rhianna said dubiously. She wasn’t a fan of the style, herself. The present should look like the present, not some idealized version of a past five centuries and more gone. But since the Steaders had remade the planet in a twencen image, it was hard to find any genuinely new popular culture on Zharus. Everybody put so much energy into other activities, like mining for qubitite, or making the Ris, that there seemed to be little left for anything else.

The speed of interstellar travel was also a factor, when Rhianna thought about it. Fairly early on in the colony’s life, Zharusians had lost the taste for recent Earth-based pop culture and fashion from the rest of the galaxy—because by the time it reached them, it was literally years or decades out of date, which meant any Zharusians who in turn visited the rest of the galaxy were even more hopelessly out of date by the time they arrived there. It wasn’t as bad now that travel times were down to months rather than years, but old habits died hard. The only other planet to have much modern influence on Zharus, and vice versa, was its sister colony Wednesday, which at only four light-years away was considerably closer to them than the rest of the human-sphere.

Kaylee’s ears picked up the whine of delivery van lifters outside. “I think it’s the bedroom stuff, Myla. I’ll go have a look.”

The furniture fabbery’s delivery van was indeed there, but it was not alone. Hovering next to it was a white flier whose streamlined shape suggested a crouching lioness. It was large enough to have a hardlight canopy—the same style of vehicle as Uncia’s enclosed skimmer mode. This canopy was currently open, and Annette Hewer was standing on the seat, hands on her hips. Her white hair and teeth reflected the remaining sunlight, leonine ears sticking out to either side and tufted tail swishing behind. “Myla! Kaylee! I was jest in the neighborhood and thought I’d drop by! What’s fer supper?”

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Zane’s destination was a small, very exclusive tailor he’d used over the first couple of months that Brubeck Mining had been in Uplift—before he’d started wearing Terry all the time. Talset & Harrow, Tailors, LLC were able to work from scan images and offered impeccable data security—rather important when you were dealing with nude images of the most important and powerful people in Gondwana. Perhaps they weren’t especially powerful or important (except to him), but Zane wasn’t about to take chances with the scan imagery he’d taken of Rhianna and Rochelle. (If they’d actually thought about what he was doing at the time, Zane reflected, and realized that he was effectively taking a picture of their bodies without their clothes on, he probably wouldn’t have gotten away with scanning them at all. All hail sleep deprivation!)

The building was a fairly nondescript little storefront in an area that, while not exactly run-down, wasn’t one of the neighborhoods one thought of when one thought of wealth. Which was part of the secret. T&H wasn’t exactly easy to find by accident—you had to have a recommendation.

Within the building, the reception area was tasteful and understated. The furniture was of the sort that was so elegant in its simplicity that you had to know a thing or two about furniture (or have a RIDE who ran searches as easily as most people breathed) to know how expensive the chair actually was that you were sitting on. The receptionist was tastefully but not garishly clothed, and affected exactly the right blasé demeanor for an establishment of this level of refinement.

“Good day, Mr. Brubeck,” that worthy greeted him. “Shall I see if Mr. Harrow is available?” T&H was so exclusive that appointments were generally unnecessary—the business’s namesakes were usually free, and if not would be shortly. They also kept odd hours, so it was not unusual to find them there at this time of the evening.

“Actually, I’ll need to see Ms. Talset this time,” Zane said. “I’ve got a commission in mind for a friend. Two friends, in fact.”

The receptionist nodded. “She’s free right now. Go on back.”

“Thanks.” Zane walked past him, to the indicated door.

Ms. Allison Talset was a well-preserved lady of indeterminate age. Zane suspected she might actually have delayed starting anti-agathics intentionally just to attain the certain matronly demeanor that was such an asset in her line of work. She wore one of her own creations, of course, an informal dress tailored for comfort but still quite attractive in appearance.

“Good day, Mr. Brubeck. We haven’t seen much of you lately.” Ms. Talset smiled, her cheeks dimpling. “We do also make designs for RIDE couture, you know.”

“Never really thought much about wearing RIDE clothing,” Zane admitted. “Seemed a little too much like gilding the lily. But you know, I should think about that.” Actually, I’ll probably offer you the challenge of jump-starting Integrate fashion. You’ll love that.

“So what brings you to our humble little establishment today?” Ms. Talset asked.

“I have a couple of lady-friends. Well—newly lady friends,”

Ahhhh, and you’re wanting to buy them the ‘traditional crossrider gifts’?” Ms. Talset asked.

“Well, yes, and…no,” Zane said. “Crossrider gifts are usually gag gifts—as I understand it, the point is to embarrass your friend at her new coming-out party as much as you possibly can. But I want to buck the trend—I want to give them something they can actually use.”

“Ah, I see! And you thought of us!” Ms. Talset smiled again. “Mr. Brubeck, I am flattered.”

“Well, I can afford it,” Zane said. “Anyone can shop at the mall.”

“You have scan data, I trust?” Ms. Talset asked.

“Yes. Hang on.” Zane projected the hardlight image of Kaylee/Rhianna from the scan, then dissolved away the Kaylee layer. Then he added the scan of Rochelle.

Ms. Talset blinked. “Oh, my. These are some of the highest-resolution scan images I’ve yet seen.”

“Er.” Zane stared at them, examining them for the first time himself. “They, ah, are, aren’t they?” It was as if Rhianna and Rochelle were themselves standing naked in front of him. He hastily averted his gaze, then absent-mindedly fingered his muzzle, checking for trickles of blood.

“Why, those are Rhianna Stonegate and Rochelle Seaford!” Ms. Talset said after a moment. “I’ve actually met them! My niece has her Ariadne serviced there.”

Zane blinked. “Oh—really? Huh. I knew they were good, but I keep being surprised by just how widely-known they really are. I probably shouldn’t be.”

Ms. Talset smiled again. “In fact, I do believe your order qualifies for my special 10% ‘work I would have wanted to do anyway’ discount.”

“Well, that’s good of you, but I’d still be happy to pay full price,” Zane said. “Oh, and it might be a presumption of me, but I didn’t want to stop with just lingerie. I’d like a nice dress for each of them. One of your creations. Total creative freedom.” He grinned. “Do that magic thing you do.”

Ms. Talset beamed. “Marvelous! This sort of opportunity is such a rarity!” She scrutinized the images more closely, clinically. “With that body shape, and those feline features, I imagine Rhianna is often buttonholed as ‘cute.’ And I’ll bet she gets really sick of it. But I can work around that. The essence of fashion is emphasizing the aspects you want to emphasize, and downplaying those you don’t. I will make her a dress in which she can be beautiful.

“I don’t think she wants anything too fancy…”

Ms. Talset smirked. “Mr. Brubeck, do I tell you how to dig for qubitite?”

“Actually, I don’t do any digging for qubitite, I just tell other people to,” Zane said, chuckling. “But point taken.”

Ms. Talset turned next to Rochelle. “Now this is an altogether different challenge. As I recall, she has those obnoxious retailoring nanites, and from what I understand is quite unable to switch them off.” She shook her head. “Terribly tacky, those. No true creativity or sense of style, just change everything to show off the ‘assets.’ It’s automatic meat-market repackaging.” She snorted. “Of course, knowing the circumstances, it’s hard to blame the poor girl. And since we use smart fabrics that do not permit nano-retailoring, it won’t be an issue with my dress. I will make her a creation that will make those nanites eat their microscopic little sarium cores out.” She nodded, mind made up. “If you could transfer the scans over to my workshop system, I shall commence to create.”

Zane nodded. His DIN flashed as he made the transfer. Smaller versions of the images appeared on a holoprojector on the tailor’s workbench. “Very good!” Ms. Talset said. “Check with me…hmm…the day after tomorrow. You may show yourself out; you know the way.”

Zane grinned. “I’ll look forward to it.” As instructed, he showed himself back out to the waiting room.

As he stepped back onto the street, Zane checked his watch. Still an hour to go before Rochelle expected him. Well, maybe he could shop a little at the mall after all. He lifted back into the air, and headed back up the street.

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While the autokitchen started on a roast turkey, Anny embraced her long-lost partner tightly and for long enough that Rhianna started feeling uncomfortable. Anny’s current RIDE had changed back to Walker mode and promptly took over the Sophie Sofa (which by itself could barely hold her). The white lioness was huge, and didn’t say a word to anyone. For her part, Sophie was a gracious hostess and “allowed” the big cat mecha to do so.

Finally, Rhianna had had enough. “Kaylee, I don’t mean to butt my tail in here—” she began.

“Yes, you do,” Anny said, letting Kaylee go. There was no malice in her voice. “I’m sorry about that, Rhianna. I should be hugging you as well. You saved my Kaylee’s life.” And so she did, voice thick with emotion. It didn’t go on as long as it did with Kaylee. “Feels funny when you hug another woman, eh?” she whispered in Rhianna’s ear. “All squishy-boobs.”

Rhianna let go, smiling weakly. “Is it really that obvious?”

“My Leila there googled you on the suborbital over. The name change is public, you know. Someone like you can’t exactly keep it a secret, now can they? Was right on your business site.” Anny said. “You did a real bang-up job on Kaylee. She looks so much better with a real skin on her.”

“About that,” Kaylee said. “I have a memory fragment when you and I were Fused up, skinned, with a uniform on. When did that happen?”

“Well, that’s the thing now, isn’t it?” Annette Hewer fished in her purse, taking out a memory card the size of her thumb. “You know, when they decommission a RIDE they don’t erase your memory blocks. Nextus folks don’t like losing stuff like that. They’re just copied. I stopped by the old MRS Central Office on the way here—s’why it took me so long—pulled a few strings, cashed in some tokens, and pushed a Freedom of Information request through in record time. Burned sarium to get here before dark. My Leila’s a full-bore flier in her own right, you know.”

The lynx stared at the chip. “Is that what I think it is?”

“Not all of it, unfortunately. Some parts are still classified—and I can’t fuse with you to fill in the gaps. Had to get special clearance when I adopted my feline friend of few words there. Right, Leila?”

“Yeah,” the lioness said, head resting on her forepaws.

“It’s about three quarters of what you’re missing. Including the entire RIDE Prototype Testing Program from start to finish. You think you’re old? Kaylee darlin’, you’re the second RIDE off the line. Pract’ly hand-built and able to take whatever gear anyone can think of. The prototype for all female RIDEs that followed. I had the honor of being your second test rider when they inducted you into the MRS.”

“So…so how did I end up at an Uplift auction five years ago?” Kaylee said, shock all over her face. “Wow, counting collector value I bet I’m worth more than Uncia…”

“Best sixty-two mu I ever spent,” Rhianna said, stroking her down her back. “That explains why you’ve got such a great chassis.”

Anny gaped. “The hell? Sixty-two? Well, I’m glad the auctioneers never realized what they had! Please, tell me about this. I’ve gotta know how you got her. My superiors told me they’d junked you after that…that thing that happened I still can’t talk about.”

“Oh, one of those things-that-happened,” Myla said. “Must’ve been damned serious if it’s still classified. Why would they junk Kaylee?”

The older MRS officer made a zipping motion across her lips. “Don’t feel like spendin’ five years in the clink. Can’t say. Sorry. But it’ll be declassified on schedule in…162, I think.”

“Six more years!” Kaylee wailed.

Holding the memory chip, Anny walked over to her former RIDE. “I know, the bastids. But it’s not that important. Here’s a RAM chip for you. Open wide for num-nums.”

The hardlight on Kaylee’s head partly went out, a slot for the card opening up. Anny slid it in. Over their link, Rhianna saw a massive library being trucked into virtual space. Kaylee’s avatar stared up at it. :Okay. Uh…not very good indexing here. Looks like I desperately need that defrag, boss. I’m making an appointment with Shelley right now.:

Rhianna hugged her partner as tightly as Annette did. :I can’t wait to see all this. You’re the prototype for every other RIDE in existence, Kaylee! All of them! Just…I’m speechless.:

:Half of them anyway.: Kaylee sent. Then she blinked. :Oh Lordy. I’m not Uncia’s “big sister” after all. I’m…her great-great-great grandmother.:

Out in the real world there was a chime from the kitchen and the sound of robotic kitchen helper finishing preparations. “Well, supper’s ready. Let’s eat!” Annette rubbed her hands together, looking almost as adorable as Rhianna when she did it.

Rhianna checked the time. “Well, I hate to be a wet blanket, but after we eat I’m meeting an old friend for a girls-night-out. Will you be in town for a while, Anny?”

“At least a few days. Once Kaylee gets to know herself again we’re going to have a lot to talk about,” the lioness-eared woman said. “Put those curvy new assets to use, and have fun with your womanhood. It still feels new, so strike while the iron’s hot. It’ll be ho-hum normal all too quickly, trust me.”

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“I’m sure you’re going to look just fine,” Uncia said for the twelfth time, and incremented her counter by one to keep track. “I mean, how could you not?

Rochelle rolled her eyes. “That’s not the point. I’m just trying to decide what to wear. Do I try for drop-dead sexy or go low-key?”

“Shelley, for you low-key is drop-dead sexy,” Uncia pointed out. “That’s your whole problem.

“It’s the principle of the thing!” Rochelle insisted.

Uncia shook her head. “I’m the one who changed you, and I still can’t believe you used to be a guy.”

Rochelle glared at her, then chuckled. “I know. Weird, isn’t it? I’m still not sure how I feel about that. Are these stupid nanites still messing with my mind even after I disabled ‘hooker mode’? Or should I just be happy I’m adapting so well?

“I’d try not to worry too much,” Uncia said. “About any of it. You’ll look fine. Besides, there’s one thing you can put on that’s right for any occasion.”

“Oh yeah? And what’s that?”

Uncia struck a dramatic pose. “Me!” she said smugly.

Rochelle snorted. “Yeah, that figures.”

The doorbell rang, a good old-fashioned 20th-century DING-DONG, while the house’s door cam reported the arrival of Zane. He was wearing his three-meter-tall Terry disguise, and carrying something blurred and indistinct in his right hand.

“Oh crap! I’m not ready! I’m not ready!” Rochelle said, looking around wildly. For lack of anything better to do, she caught Uncia up in a hug and Fused inside, going to meet the door in leopard skin.

“Told’ja,” Uncia smirked.

“Oh, hush, you,” Rochelle and Uncia opened the door. “Zane! So nice to see you!”

Zane raised his right hand, and the indistinct object in it unblurred into a bouquet of red roses. “Hi! You’re looking great—both of you!”

“Oooh, flowers! I’ll just go fab a vase to put these in,” Rochelle said, taking the bouquet and having Uncia send a signal to the home microfab unit in the kitchen. “Come on in, I’ll be right with you in a moment.” She went to the kitchen just in time to grab up the vase from the fabber, fill it with water, and put the roses inside. Then she headed out the other side into the hall to her bedroom.

She de-Fused once she was inside with the door closed behind her. “Now what?” She stared at herself in the mirror. “What do I wear? I don’t have any time left to decide!”

“Well, there’s always that cute little burlap ensemble hanging in your closet,” Uncia suggested.

Rochelle rolled her eyes. “Not on your life. Besides, it’s itchy.”

“Then how about that red dress you got when Rufia took you shopping?” Uncia suggested. “It’s not too casual, but not really formal either. And Rufia seemed to like it a lot.”

Rochelle considered that. “Okay, good idea. I’ll put it on. You go out there and keep him busy.”

Uncia rolled her eyes good-naturedly, but padded out of the room to go “distract” Zane.

Zane was seated on the over-sized Fuser sofa in the living room. He grinned at her as she entered. “Hey, pretty kitty!”

“Hiya, tiger.” Uncia sat on her haunches and considered him. “Thought you weren’t gonna play dress-up.”

“What, this old thing?” Zane grinned, waving a hand at his Terry Fuser body. “I’m not gonna hide from the public eye, but I’d rather not outshine my date tonight. Besides, it would be awkward to go around shorter than the two of you.”

Uncia blinked. “The two of us?”

“As far as I’m concerned, this is a double date,” Zane said. “It would be pretty unfair of me to gang up on Shelley two to one, right?”

“Yay!” Uncia jumped up and put her paws on Zane’s shoulders to deliver him a friendly slurp on the muzzle. “I’d hoped for that, but hadn’t been sure you’d actually go for it!”

“Hey, whoa, down girl,” Zane laughed. “I like you both, and you go so well together. Like chocolate and peanut butter.”

“Someone’s hungry all right!” Rochelle said as she stepped in, wearing the red dress and heels that had driven Rufia to distraction in the mall.

Zane whistled. “Damn, you’re really gorgeous. But there was just one little thing I wanted to do.” He stepped up to her and raised his left arm. For a moment his DIN shone through the hardlight disguise as he bathed her in laser-light, interfacing with the nanites.

“Hey, what’re you—oh!” Rochelle’s hair deanimated and her body language normalized from super-sexy to just standing there. “What was that for? Don’t you want me looking my best?”

“I want you to look like you want to look like,” Zane said. “You’re not some sort of…well, trophy date. I want us to have a normal evening together without you feeling like you have to be gorgeous and have other people stare at you any more than you actually want. I like you as a person, and want you to feel comfortable.”

“Huh. Okay.” Rochelle whipped out her interface specs from somewhere and slid them on, then pulled up the control panel with all the intensity sliders on it to adjust the nanite options.

She set her hair to have decent body but not move in slow motion, and cranked her body language down from “Mt. St. Helen of Troy” to “Cocky Coquette.” She adjusted her body odor and other options to suit.

Then she was quite startled when Zane reached up into the air in front of her and started moving the sliders around with his fingers.

“Hey!” Rochelle yelped as her hair started moving on its own again. “You cut that out!” She eyeflicked the slider back down. “How are you even doing that, anyway?”

“Sorry,” Zane said, lowering his hand. “I just saw that thing floating there in front of you and was curious to see if I could touch it.”

Rochelle stared at him for a moment. “Damn,” she said. “Why do you get all the cool powers? You’re not even a computer nerd!”

“At least you’ve got something to look forward to,” Zane said.

“I guess so.” She grinned at Uncia. “Hey, Un-hon, how would you feel about spending a few months Fused non-stop?”

Uncia gave her a feline grin. “Ask me when you’re serious about it.”

“It’s really not something you want to rush, seriously,” Zane said. “I wouldn’t trade a single minute of the time we spent separately for another minute like this. In fact, I sometimes feel kind of the other way around.”

Rochelle chuckled. “Yeah, I guess. And I expect if we ever do Integrate, I’ll be all nostalgic for the time before. Grass is always greener, isn’t it?”

Zane smiled faintly. “Yes, it really is. Sometimes I think Terry and Zane didn’t really know what we had, and I wish we hadn’t spent quite so much time in full Fuse so we could have done more things together separately before this happened. But all the same, it’s still hard to regret being how we are now. I guess the lesson is just to try to live your life from where you are instead of wishing it were some other way.” He hopped up. “But that’s awfully heavy talk for going on a date. Go on and Fuse up, and we’ll be on our way!”

“All right!” Uncia squealed as she leaped onto and wrapped herself around Rochelle. “We’re goin’ on a date! There might even be kissing involved!”

“Un-hon, you have no idea,” Rochelle said, grinning. “Well then, let’s go!”

Zane gestured to the door. “After you!”

Rochelle and Uncia stepped outside to find a cherry-red two-seater topless sports skimmer car hovering in their driveway. “This is new. Rental?”

“Yeah. I could buy it if I wanted, but I don’t really see much point. I’d only ever use it for taking really sexy snow-leopard girls on dates. And those are pretty rare.” He waved a hand and the doors slid open, revealing Fuser-scaled seating. Then he offered Rochelle a hand up, which she didn’t really need but took anyway because it was what you did.

“So where to first?” Rochelle asked as the skimmer backed out onto the street.

“How does dinner sound?” Zane asked. “Remember, I promised to let you buy.”

“You did at that,” Rochelle said. “But I hope you’re going to stay within my budget.”

“Believe it or not, I am. C’mon, I’ll show you one of Uplift’s best-kept secrets.” He kicked the skimmer into gear, and away they went.

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Kaylee and Rhianna returned to the garage at a clip, boosting right through the upstairs door in skimmer mode to stop right in the living room. Rhianna didn’t miss a beat, jumping out of the saddle and going into her bedroom before Kaylee even changed modes. :You know, the last time Rufia and I went barhopping like this was just after she crossed over,: the woman sent. “I got reeeeally flustered after just a few minutes, the way she was, er, flaunting it.”

“I’ve caught hints of that memory,” Kaylee said. “This is supposed to be casual, right? Don’t worry so much about sexy. Dress how you want.”

The lynx-eared woman stripped all her clothes off then spent just long enough in the shower to get clean, pausing in front of the bathroom mirror to reflect on her nudity. Her breasts were perky and full, her torso curving in an artful hourglass from bust to hips. Were she ten centimeters taller—Rochelle’s height—she would have been called thin. She had the kind of face that evoked sympathy and protective emotions rather than lust, and the kitty nose was just adorable. If she was going to be out with Rufia tonight, she had to be more than just an ‘adorable catgirl’.

One practical crossing-over gift that she’d unboxed but not used was a full-face makeup mask. Women in ages past had to own a dozen different kinds of makeup but this little device could do it all, from foundation to lipstick to eyeshadow and even perfume. She connected to its computer and started going through her choices, each superimposing a makeup pattern over an image of her own face. The first one made her gag. A totally white face with a jagged black streak over the eyes, titled Juggalo. “Ugh. No! What is that, an angry clown?”

“Probably a joke,” Kaylee said. “Who was that a gift from, anyway?”

“A male friend of Rufia’s I’d never met. I forget his name.” Rhianna waved her hand through the air in front of her, sliding images past. “Let’s see…Midnight Rendezvous? No. First Date? No…” One after another, they all seemed like too much. Eventually she settled on Just the Basics, then put the mask over her face. After a tingle and a ding of completion, she got a look at herself.

The difference was satisfactory, though not strikingly different. It really did take the edge off the adorableness. “That work for you, Kaylee?”

Purrrfect, as Uncia would say.” She nosed her rider in the small of her back. “Now, you’re not going out in your rebirthday suit, are you?”

“I’m such a crossrider stereotype right now. Fussing over girly clothes!” Rhianna said, blushing a little, heading to her closet. A lot of what Rufia had purchased for her had been a serious attempt to find something her old friend would like in her new wardrobe. Kaylee’s contributions were generally more practical by comparison and not really suited for barhopping.

“Knowing Rufia she’ll have found the ‘perfect guy’ for me even before I get there. She’ll expect us to kiss, maybe do some heavy petting. If she really thinks she has a winner for me she’ll smirk, slip me a condom, then send us both on our way.” She snorted. “And why not? It worked over a dozen times on the Spruce Goose. There were a lot of adventurous girls on that ship willing to dally for a night or two and move on.”

“I guess the real question, partner, is if you want to be one of those girls yourself,” Kaylee said with a serious note. “Do you?”

Wear more red, Myla said. Let’s see…She made her choices and followed the instructions how to put them on, then admired herself in the mirror again, pleased with the results. :Kaylee, let’s strike while the iron’s hot.:

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The skimmer car weaved smoothly through ground traffic as it headed toward the eastern area of Uplift, under Zane’s expert guidance. Rochelle watched him and chuckled. “You know, you don’t have to keep holding the control yokes. I know you’re really flying it through your wireless link.”

Zane grinned at her. “That obvious, huh?”

“Well, to be honest, I couldn’t tell,” Rochelle said. “But I know if I had that keen cyber-remote-control ability you do, I’d be using it. So Q.E.D.”

Zane chuckled, releasing the controls, leaning back in the seat, and closing his eyes. “You know, you’re right. Maybe I’ll just nap for a while. Wake me when we get there.”

“I know you’re using the car’s built-in sensors, so you can’t scare me that way either,” Rochelle said.

Zane opened his eyes again. “Awww, spoilsport.”

“So where’s this place we’re going?” Rochelle asked. “We’re heading back toward the garage, aren’t we? I thought I knew all the places around here.”

“Maybe,” Zane said. “I know I only found it by accident, after we’d been here for two months. Took the wrong turn up a street, stopped in to ask for directions, and found…heaven.” He chuckled. “Bear with me a couple more minutes, we’re almost there.”

“There’s a bear with you?” Uncia asked. “Where are you keeping him?”

Zane rolled his eyes. “Everyone’s a comedian.” He turned off the main street onto a side street into an older commercial area, then into a parking lot for a small, unassuming strip mall that was still in very good repair but had been bypassed by the fairly disorderly nature of zoning and building progress in this part of Uplift. For all of that, the parking lot was still about half-full—not bad for this time of day in a neighborhood this secluded.

The skimmer settled into a parking place, and Zane transmitted a mu into the parking meter as he signaled the doors to open. He and Rochelle climbed out, and Zane gestured toward a small shop front labeled “St. Joseph’s Barbecue.” “Here we are.”

“Wow. I’ve never heard of this place, but this isn’t more than a few blocks from the garage or your office building,” Rochelle said.

“It’s a little bit of a hole-in-the-wall, and it doesn’t advertise,” Zane said. “A lot like your garage, really. The guy runs it mainly as a shopfront to host his catering business out of. But word gets around.” He held the door for her and they went in.

Inside, the restaurant was remarkably small. There was only room for about three or four tables, because the eating area was only the first fifteen feet of the shop. Beyond that was a counter with a cash register, and the rest of it was taken up by kitchen. Tantalizing odors of roasted meat wafted from its depths. “Hey, be with you in a moment!” a friendly voice called from somewhere out of view.

“No problem, we’ll just look at the menu!” Zane called back. The menu was up on one wall, listing prices for various sandwiches, ribs, platters, and side dishes. The prices were quite reasonable, and even the largest meals were only about 15-20 mu. “I eat lunch here a lot,” Zane said. “Carnivore’s delight.”

“I can see that,” Rochelle said. “It really looks good, and the smells are driving me crazy. We order at the counter?”

“Yeah. Oh, there he is. Hey, Chet.” Zane waved as a slightly portly, shorter human with a full beard and mustache came out of the kitchen, wiping his hands on a washcloth. He wore an apron over his clothes, and a smile on his face.

“Hey, Zane. How you doing? Brought company today?”

“You could say that.” Zane grinned. “Chet St. Joseph, Rochelle Seaford, and her RIDE Uncia. They help run a little RIDE garage around here.”

“I’ve heard of it. Nice to meet you two. So what can I get for you?”

Zane glanced to Uncia. “You ready to order?”

“Huh. I think the ribs look good. Maybe we could start with a whole rack between us, and sides…hmm, beans and potato salad.”

“Let’s make that two racks, and cole slaw, too,” Zane said. “And soft drinks.”

“Works for me.” Rochelle nodded.

“All right. Why don’t you get your drinks and have a seat, and I’ll bring those out to you?” St. Joseph suggested, putting a couple of plastic glasses on the counter.

“Sure, thanks,” Zane said. He and Rochelle went to the soft drink dispenser and filled them, then went in search of a table.

Two of the tables were occupied, but the others were free. Fortunately they were smart furniture, adjustable to human or Fuser scale. They sensed the Fusers’ approach and were properly adjusted by the time they were ready to sit down.

“If it tastes as good as it smells, I’m going to be coming here often.” Rochelle grinned. “And I’ll be dragging Rhianna along. I don’t think she knows about it either.”

Zane nodded. “Yeah, like I said, he doesn’t advertise. Just like you guys. Mainly runs it because he might as well do something with the shopfront. He’s mainly about catering, and he does all kinds of food for that, not just ‘cue.”

“Here you go.” St. Joseph came out from behind the counter carrying a big tray of food, setting a rack of ribs in front of each big cat Fuser, followed by plates and bowls of beans, cole slaw, and potato salad. “Enjoy,” he said, and bustled away.

“Thanks, we will!” Rochelle replied. Then she glanced over at Zane, who was already raising a rib to his mouth. “You can even eat in that disguise?”

“Just like you can in Uncia,” Zane said. “Really, I hardly even notice. Like the hardlight fur when I was a RIDE, the body feels ‘real’ when I’m in it. I don’t feel my ‘inner self’ unless I concentrate on it.”

“Handy.” Rochelle picked up a rib of her own, and Uncia’s jaw bit into it. “Mmm, this is good!”

“It is!” Uncia said through a mouthful of meat.

Zane grinned. “Hey, don’t talk with her mouth full.”

“Sowwy!” Uncia mumbled through more meat.

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:Do you want to go inside Fused, or make an entrance?: Kaylee asked as they approached the Cheers bar, one of Rufia’s many favorite hangouts. The interior was a perfect reproduction of the seminal long-running 1980s sitcom, upscaled for Fusers. The outside was another story, it was just another bar in an area of town known for its drinking establishments. :There’s also the ‘grand reveal’ where you de-Fuse with me in front of everyone. Or maybe we can do both at once.:

“How do you mean, partner?” Rhianna asked, fussing with jewelry. The earrings felt stranger than her own body did.

:Uncia and I went shopping, remember?: Kaylee reminded her absent-minded rider. They Fused up, remaining in flight as they approached the front door. Before they got too close the RIDE materialized the cream silk evening dress she’d purchased earlier. :Gorgeous, huh?:

“I love it, Kaylee! Wonderful idea!” Rhianna exclaimed. “We’ll show Rufia a thing or two.”

:Just don’t try too hard, okay? There’s ‘going native’ and then there’s…everything else, really. Don’t try and act feminine. Crossriders have a well-deserved reputation for overdoing it. Just be yourself.: Kaylee reminded her. :Especially here. I’ve heard the bartender’s a bit, er…blunt if you do.:

At least half of the regulars at Cheers were crossriders of all varieties. From people like Rufia who crossed permanently, to newbies like Rhianna, to those who crossed regular as clockwork after every three-year safe waiting period.

Her so-called Grand Entrance was hardly that, not even getting a “Norm!” from the regulars. The interior was all wood paneling except for the wall next to the front door, which was red brick. There was hardly a space open around the bar, though there was one next to Rufia. A doe Fuser and a clouded leopardess mixed and served drinks. The cervine bartender was the only one who looked at the newbie. “Rufia! Your friend’s here.”

Rufia, who wasn’t Fused with Yvonne, wore a white, midriff-baring tube top and brown shorts, revealing large-but-firm thighs, but not a fleck of makeup. Yet somehow she made it work for her. She raised her foaming beer glass at Rhianna, then put her arm around the handsome stag Fuser to her left. “Rhi! Come have a seat. Got someone who’d like to meet ya.” She gestured at the empty barstool next to her.

:You were dead right, pard,: Kaylee sent.

“Just like old times,” Rhianna said, as much for Kaylee’s benefit as Rufia’s. She padded up to her old friend and took the stool, putting herself between Rufia and the tall woman’s chosen for her friend. Rhianna appraised the guy. “So, big guy, you got a name? I’m sure Rufia’s told you mine. Ours.”

“Brad. Brad Walden,” the man said. Then his accent became Old British. “Ronno,” his RIDE, a red deer, said. “We’re pleased to meet you.”

“You a crossrider or just curious?” Rhianna asked. There were far more male-to-female crossers than the other way around, simply due to economics. Kaylee had been a special case. Due to her state of disrepair the auctioneers hadn’t known if the lot was male or female.

“Does it matter how I answer?” Walden asked. “That dress is gorgeous, by the way.”

Kaylee glowed at the compliment. “I suppose not. And thank you very much.” She felt Rufia slip something into her hand. It was a condom—not really necessary anymore in this age of nanite-enhanced medicine and birth control (though plenty of people still used them anyway as a 20th century affectation), but it was a little code between her and Rufia to signify just how far he was willing to go.

:Here you go, girls. Have some fun. He’s willing and able.: Rufia sent.

:You’re not even giving me five minutes to get to know him before sending me away to have sex? That’s a record, even for you,: Rhianna replied crisply.

:Hey, hey. I’m sorry. I got ahead of myself. No need to bite my head off,: Rufia replied. :Have some drinks, chat him up a bit. It’s not like I’ve just met the guy. He’s a regular here. There’s an open booth in the corner with a privacy screen. Go chat him up for a couple hours before you decide to test your ‘new gear’.:

“Shall we retire to more a more private venue to chat?” Ronno said politely. “We’ll de-Fuse, if you’re so inclined.”

“Playing matchmaker again, Rufia?” the doe behind the bar said with mild disapproval. She gave Brad-Ronno a special glare meant just for them. “Don’t let that one break your heart, miss kitty. He’s a casanova, true to his cervine brain map. He lives for the chase, then it’s off to the next girl.”

“We appreciate the concern, Miss…?” Rhianna asked.

“Diane and Faline. We own the place. I shoulda known better than to date a stag named Ronno! He’s true to his character, and no Bambi around to ‘save’ me.” She snorted. “Good luck anyway lynxie, bucko. You’ll both need it.” She looked back at the other bartender. “Serena, grab them some house ale, put it on Rufia’s tab.”

Giving her a good push as Kaylee left the stool, Rufia smiled voraciously. A feminine echo from the Spruce Goose. Brad swaggered over to the open booth, then de-Fused to reveal the deer-eared man underneath. Brad wore a muscle shirt combined with khaki slacks. He was more than just a hunk, but there was something about his expression that felt a little off.

Kaylee de-Fused, revealing her rider’s evening attire. A short red dress with a 2010s cut, revealing slightly more cleavage than Rhianna was comfortable with, high-heeled shoes, and clinking jewelry.

“Yep, three weeks and she’s gone native,” Rufia said loudly enough to hear over the general din of the bar.

Ronno and Kaylee sniffed one another, probably sending a number of side-channel signals at the same time. The red stag was a third again larger than the lynx, and his antlers were apparently real, not hardlight. Real in the sense they were nano-motile metallic like the rest of his shell and probably had room for extra communications gear.

“You know, Diane’s got me dead to rights. I don’t like commitment, just some fun,” Brad said. He gave his RIDE a pat on the shoulder. “It’s not all Ronno’s fault. Rufia and I have shared a bed a few times, just so we’re clear where we stand. She thinks you need, uh, an experienced person for your first time. I’ve dated a lot of the crossriders here. Ask around if you want.”

“Have you been a woman yourself, then?” Rhianna asked, curious.

“Well, that’s a thing, isn’t it? Would it feel better for you if I said yes, decided it wasn’t for me, then crossed back when it was safe? I did learn some tricks from the experience, mind you. I’ll put them to good use. My only real mistake was dating Diane.”

“Mistake?” Kaylee asked. From the looks of things she and Ronno weren’t hitting it off. The lynx had turned to licking her forepaws rather than looking at him.

“Wants more from a man than I’m capable of giving,” Brad replied, shrugging. “If you don’t want anything to do with me after all, I’ll leave and that’s that. No hard feelings. Otherwise, I can show you a really good time. You’re just adorable, you know that?”

Rhianna gritted her teeth. There was that word again. “Well, bye. Nice meeting you, but you can be on your way.”

Without a shrug or even another word, Brad and Ronno left. The seat was immediately re-occupied by Rufia. “Didn’t work out, huh? Sorry about that, Rhi.”

“I think it’s really my fault,” Kaylee said. “You weren’t supposed to have a kitty nose and I’m not sure I can fix it. That’s where the moe-factor is coming from. Makes people want to hug and protect you instead of sweep you off your feet.”

“Doesn’t it usually take months of cumulative Fuse time to get more animal features? I mean, look at Qixi. She’s got half a wolf muzzle, but she’s been running salvage ops Fused with Maria for years,” Rhianna said. She hadn’t even touched the ale. The catgirl took a sniff, then put it down again. It was one of those dark, soupy beers that was more like liquid bread.

“I think it might’ve been the combat nannies and all the extra body sculpting work I did on you,” Kaylee said, sounding worried. “I…I just don’t know for sure.”

“Well, Brad-and-Ronno were the only guys here I wanted you to meet,” Rufia said. “I have a couple other places in mind where you can mingle on your own, do some dancing. I’m glad you like that dress, too. Aren’t I good at finding you things?”

“Most of the time,” Rhianna agreed. “Where’s the next stop?”

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Conversation lapsed as the two cats concentrated on their dinner. They could have continued to talk through sideband radio, of course, but the food was so good it felt disrespectful on both their parts not to give it their full attention.

Half an hour later, the ribs were a pile of bones on the plate in the middle of the table, and the side dishes were mere traces at the bottom of their bowls. Zane burped happily. “Sure you don’t want to let me get this?” Zane asked as Rochelle got up to pay the check.

“You can pay when you buy me an umpteen-zillion-course meal at some fancy uptown restaurant,” Rochelle said. “Since I can afford this, I’m going to revel in the sensation of buying dinner for a millionaire.”

“All right, it’s a date then.”

“Hey, I didn’t say I was going to let you buy me that meal,” Rochelle said over her shoulder. “Let’s just see how tonight goes first.”

“Okay, fair enough.” Zane got up and headed to the door. “I’ll just go get the car.”

A moment later, Rochelle stepped out of the restaurant and climbed into the passenger seat of the convertible again, and they pulled back out into traffic. “So where to now?”

“There are a couple of clubs I’ve been wanting to check out, but there wasn’t much point without someone to dance with,” Zane said. “Feel like giving it a shot?”

“Do they let Fusers out on the dance floor?” Uncia asked.

“Sure do,” Zane said. “There’s this one called ‘Fur Le Dance,’ named after some place on Old Earth, that’s mainly for Fusers, with a couple of smaller humans-only floors.”

“Then let’s go there first,” Uncia said.

“Works for me,” Rochelle agreed.

The club was only a few minutes of away, and the parking lot was pretty full when they got there. The club did offer valet parking, and Zane was not reluctant to take advantage of it. As they got out, Uncia sent to Rochelle, :I’ve got a little surprise for you!:

:Oh?: Rochelle asked. :What’s that?:

:This!: Uncia materialized the blue dress she’d bought at the mall with Kaylee, reabsorbing her metal anatomy covers again.

Zane blinked, stepping back to take in the full effect as the valet drove the car away. “Wow, that really looks good on you!”

Rochelle blinked. “Hey, it does! Really matches our fur. You got that at the mall today, Un-hon?”

“Uh-huh! Thought it might be nice just in case.”

“Now I feel under-dressed. Hang on a sec.” Zane reached out with his DIN and accessed the RIDE couture section of Talset & Harrow’s net site. The designs there weren’t the custom-tailored clothes that were their specialty, but were still a cut above most retail. He picked out a pair of khaki slacks and a sleeveless tan blazer, downloaded them, and projected them on. “That’s better.”

“Oooh, nice look!” Uncia said.

Zane offered them his arm. “So, shall we?”

Rochelle and Uncia took it. “Let’s go see how Fusers dance.”

The club was big and dark and loud, and had dance floors set at several levels, including a zero-gee dome at the very top ringed with a lifter net array to catch any potential tumblers before they could land on the dancers below them. The floors were lit, and in some cases were themselves made of hardlight, and there were light effects from spots and strobes all along the ceiling and walls as well.

And on those floors were dancing Fusers of all different animal types of both genders, about half wearing hardlight clothes, others in the traditional metal bits over fur, and even a few in bare metal. A number of Walker-mode RIDEs were out on the floor, too, dancing on four legs. Smaller dance floors off to the sides had humans on them, and a scattering of Fusers, humans, and Walkers occupied tables in the rest areas.

The music seemed to be—what else—a mix of disco and pop tunes from the late 20th century, alternating with 23rd/24th century psycho-metal replete with hypnotic subsonic and timed-strobe elements. Although musical tastes for listening had moved on since then, psycho-metal was still popular in clubs because the mental effects livened up the physical dance.

Zane pulled Rochelle out onto the dance floor, to a space where they’d have plenty of room to swing their tails. “You know how to neo-Tango, right?”

“Was born to it!” Rochelle said cheerfully. :Un-hon, could you download a skill chip for me?:

Zane grinned. “You know I can hear you, right? It’s okay if you don’t know it. I can teach you better than some skill chip.”

“Actually, I know how to neo-Tango flawlessly, thank you very much!” Uncia said. “Rich girl’s toy, remember? I know pretty much every dance there is, because I’m supposed to be able to let them fake it on the floor while I teach it to them. So just let me make the moves, and you follow along, and you’ll know it before you know it.”

“You know them, or you were programmed with them?” Zane asked.

“Is there a difference? All you’re doing when you learn is programming your muscle memory. Mine’s already built in,” Uncia said.

“I guess that’s fair,” Zane said. “Anyway, let’s stop talking about it and let’s start dancing it!”

“Works for me!” Rochelle said. They got into the rhythm of the music and the hours began to fly by.

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As it happened, Rhiana and Rufia had also chosen Fur Le Dance as their next stop. Rhianna and Kaylee decided to keep their lifter upgrade a secret from Rufia just yet. Another day, or perhaps later in the night would be the right time to show their new stuff. Kaylee simulated her old lifters down to the sound, just to keep it from Yvonne.

This time Rhianna opted not to Fuse, preferring to enter the dance club on her own human feet, hoping beautiful would outweigh adorable this time. From the looks on people’s faces, it wasn’t working. Her smile faded, replaced by frustration, then a little anger. :Do I look cute when I’m angry?: she asked Kaylee.

:Yes. Very,: Kaylee replied glumly. The duo Fused up and they found an empty booth. The club didn’t have a server crew. Food and drinks were dispensed from the table itself. The club décor was the The Future, as seen through a 1960s zeerust lens. :Rhianna, I’m really sorry. Want me to work on your nose?:

:Since you don’t know what caused it, I’ll pass. I don’t need a kitty face to go with it,: Rhianna said tartly. :I’m sorry, Kaylee. I’m not angry at you—:

“Yes, you are,” the lynx said aloud once the privacy screen was up. “Look, why don’t we talk to…Rochelle and Zane?” Kaylee’s ears perked as she looked out on the dance floor. “Here? Dancing? And that’s Anny and Leila doing the neo-Tango with a lion!”

“You only just noticed them?” Rufia said. “I’ve been watching for five minutes. Who’s Anny? New friend?”

:Kaylee, Rhianna dahling, fancy meeting you here,: Anny sent. :Is that fine elk a friend of yours or your date for the night?:

:Not my date. Just an old friend from Earth. We immigrated together,: Rhianna explained. :I’ve pretty much struck out for the night. Completely whiffed it.:

Anny’s reply took a few seconds as she turned and dipped. :I’m sorry to hear it, girls. I’d introduce you to my friend here, but he’s all mine, ya hear? Grrrr!: she said playfully.

It was then that Shelley and Zane saw them. They waved, then took a few minutes to finish the dance set before approaching. “Hey,” Zane said. “Good to see you. I think you’ve already met my date…”

“We’ve met somewhere before,” Rufia quipped. “Was it in the pale moonlight?”

“I think it was in the mall last week,” Rochelle said. “Then you showed me your etchings.”

Rhianna raised Kaylee’s eyebrow and looked at Rufia and her elk-shark grin. “Really? Again?”

I didn’t get to see any etchings,” Uncia said. “But I got to play with Yvonne all evening.”

“And almost all the tooth marks have gone away by now,” Yvonne said. “Well, on me anyway.”

A floating white lioness interrupted Rufia’s reply. “Can a near-total-stranger say hello to Rhianna’s friends? I’m Anny Hewer, Myla’s aunt. My partner here is Leila, but she doesn’t say much.”

“Hello, Ms. Hewer, Leila,” Zane said. “I’m Zane Brubeck…um, and Terry, and this is Rochelle Seaford and Uncia.” The other introductions made the rounds. The booth started to expand so it could accommodate more than four Fusers.

“I’m sitting in a cathouse,” Yvonne said. “It’s enough to make an elk nervous. Lions and leopards and lynxes, oh my!”

Tasty elk,” Uncia said with a giggle.

“By the way, Uncia let me know about your appointment request,” Rochelle said. “Kaylee, I’ll see you first thing tomorrow morning at the shop, ‘kay?”

“That’ll work just fine for me,” Kaylee replied.

Rhianna looked between Zane and Rochelle and what was left of her cheerful mood collapsed, and the iron grew cold. They were clearly having a good time and she didn’t want to ruin it by talking about her moe problems. “Well, this lynx is getting tuckered out from all this bar hopping. Rufia’s been unrelenting tonight.” She sent a ping to her old friend to play along.

The elk nodded, not missing a beat. “Oh, yeah. We’ve been to Cheers—”

“The Mended Drum, and the Gimpy Swan. Here, of course. I’m clubbed out.”

“Aw, you only just got here,” Zane said. “I know I’m dating Rochelle and Uncia tonight, but I’d hoped I could ask you for one dance, to thank you for your help with…the thing. I’m sure they’ll understand.”

“Uh…” Rhianna stammered. Just a few words were enough to reveal how the evening had gone for her. “Not, uh, really in the mood. I think I’ll go home.”

Zane nodded, not offended. “All right. Some other time, then.”

“Some other time,” Rhianna said, sliding out of the booth. “Thanks, Zane.”

“I’m kind of clubbed-out, myself,” Anny added. :Walk with us a while, will ya? Or skim. Your pick.:

Rochelle rested her handpaw on her friend’s shoulder, nodding her understanding. Even Rufia looked disappointed that she hadn’t come through, but stayed put, probably at Anny’s request.

The lynx and the lioness left the club, switched to skimmer mode, then traveled together into the nighttime city.

They ended up a short distance away in Bifrost Park. The hardlight rainbow provided more than enough light for the park to remain open at all hours, and the club itself used it in its logo. Rhianna dismounted, Kaylee changing back to Walker form. The lynx could barely look at her. In Fuse, their conflicting emotions made them both miserable. Rhianna was genuinely unhappy with her, and Kaylee genuinely contrite, but her rider was too angry to forgive just yet.

Anny arrived just behind, but after Leila changed to Walker the woman re-mounted on the white lioness’s back. “You know, I’ve been where you are,” the older woman said. “Kaylee, can you call up a few photos from the restored memories I gave you? Should be dated around the ides of June, 122 or so. Feel free to share.”

The images made Rhianna gape. “I thought I looked cute. That’s you?”

“Cute as a button when I was twenty. First time K and me Fused only enhanced it. Notice the nose on the earlier ones. ‘Specially the nose. More of a muzzle, really. Color me blue and I’d be one of those alien cat people in…Ah! Thanks Leila. Avatar.”

“It’s not just the nose,” Rhianna said, looking through the test program images. “You’ve got a lynx face in this one!”

“Shoulda seen the rest of me. Those early days we were still tuning the bodysculpt abilities of the Fuser nannies, seeing how closely the rider needed to match the Fuser form. I was downright furry for some tests. By the time we got into regular service we’d fixed most of that—’cept the nose, the ears, and the tail.” She tapped the bridge of her own human nose. “Couple iterations later they’d even fixed the nose requirement—was there for sense of smell, see. Anyway, it’s not Kaylee’s fault. Talk to that friend of yours and she might fix it in software. Can’t make no guarantee, though. It seems to be somethin’ about prototype shells both old an’ new that they tend t’ tag on the nose too.”

“Well, how did—do you live with it?” Rhianna asked.

“I just do, honey. Look at me, thirty years on and I’m still adorable. But you didn’t notice because of the ‘tude, did you? I still have a cute moe face. You can ‘fix’ it with makeup if you want, but it’s still your face.”

“I was a short man with a narrow face. Nothing to write home about, really. Rufus—you know who I’m talking about—somehow made that not matter. I met a lot of girls on board who enjoyed my company, others who ended up hating me. This isn’t the first bad night out I’ve had by far.”

Rhianna laughed. “Not even the first time I’ve gone out as a girl, come to think of it. There was that night at the Drum about a year ago. I got curious, went out as ‘Kaylee Cross’. A beefy Proximan tourist made a pass at me and wouldn’t let up. Of course, I was playing hard-to-get on purpose, and he took the bait. Had a lot of fun at his expense, then I took off my head when he insisted seeing what I really looked like.”

“And the guy slugged you?” Leila said dryly.

“He tried,” Kaylee said. “But my head came back up before he connected. Think he broke a knuckle. Whole bar got a good laugh. They knew who ‘Kaylee Cross’ really was. It’s one of my fave Passive memories.”

“The moron was bothering every girl in the bar. I had to do something,” Rhianna said.

“Well, chivalry ain’t dead,” Anny said after laughing herself. “Classic, classic!”

Rhianna some deep breaths. “Feeling better now.” She looked at Kaylee, then hugged her RIDE. “It's okay, partner. I can live with this.”

“Thank you. I’m glad,” the mecha lynx replied, one paw around Rhianna’s back. The clock tower on nearby City Hall chimed fifteen minutes before 2800.

“Did we cut your date short? I’m sorry,” Rhianna said to Anny.

Anny dismounted and stood in front of Rhianna. “Oh, Leo? He’s waiting for us back at the club. There’s something else I need to say.

“Kaylee’s family, you know. I mourned for her when I thought she was lost to me.” She hugged the mechanic tightly. “I can’t thank you enough for doing what you did. That makes you family, too. Hope you don’t mind if I think of you as another niece.”

“No, I’m fine with that,” Rhianna said, crying a little herself. She had family back on Earth, twenty light years away, but hadn’t seen them in years and didn’t know when or if she’d ever see them again. This was just too much. Hormones. It’s just hormones. “Thanks, Aunt Anny.”

“As fer yer hard luck clubbin’, there’s plenty a’ time fer fixin’ that. Go home, get some sleep, get lost in your work fer a while…and when yer ready, call me an’ we’ll do it up right. Rufia’s welcome, too. But I imagine she’d tag along anyway.”

“You got that right,” Rufia herself said over the sound of blowing her nose into a handkerchief. It looked like she’d seen and heard the whole exchange, her eyes red with tears of her own. “What? I can’t be girly sometimes, too?”

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Zane and Rochelle stayed and danced at the club for several more hours, enjoying themselves too much to see a need to move on to any other establishments. They danced both in Fuse and out, with Uncia sitting a few dances out to charge up and let Rochelle try the steps she’d learned on her own, and Zane dropping his disguise long enough to match the human Rochelle’s height. (In the darkness of the dance club, nobody really noticed anything odd about a below-sized tiger Fuser anyway.) But at last, as 2930 rolled around and the club got ready to close, they had the valet bring the car around and headed for home.

“Well, it’s been a lovely evening,” Rochelle said as the sports skimmer merged back onto the open road. Still Fused into Uncia, she leaned back against the seat, enjoying the breeze in her fur.

“What makes you think it’s over yet?” Zane asked, grinning.

“It’s nearly midnight?” Rochelle said. “I can’t think of anywhere else we might be going at this hour.”

“Well, there’s one place.” Zane turned onto the street leading to the Brubeck Mining campus. “I was wondering if you’d like to come up to my place and see my etchings. Since you’ve already seen Rufia’s, maybe you could compare them.”

“Oh, you did not just ask that,” Rochelle said. She grinned. “But since you’re asking, sure. I guess I would rather like to see what your apartment is like.”

“Good, ‘cuz we’re almost there. Hold on tight!” Zane pulled to a halt next to the building, then shoved the lift lever up to maximum. The skimmer’s lifters kicked into overdrive, and the car rose up the side of the building.

“Whoa!” Rochelle said, glancing over the side. “Lot of power in this thing.”

Zane pulled the lever back to level off, and nudged it over onto the balcony of his apartment, where it just fit. He lowered the lever, and it settled firmly into place. “Nothing like door to door service, huh?”

Rochelle looked out dubiously. “Can your balcony support this much weight?”

“Oh, sure. They’re designed to take small fliers or skimmers for deliveries and commuter parking. No worries.” Zane killed the engines and hopped out, then came around to open the door for Rochelle. “Welcome to my humble abode!” He waved at the glass door to his apartment, and it slid open.

Rochelle preceded him into the room. It wasn’t bad. Furnished in the usual twentieth-century style that was all the rage right now in Zharus interior design. There was an empty space in the living room where a couch had been, but other than that it was rather impressive. It was tidy, but it wasn’t neat-freak neat. There were odd bits of clutter here and there—bric-a-brack nudged out of place, bits of trash that missed the trash can. It was lived-in, not a showroom. “I…like it,” Rochelle decided.

“Me, too,” Uncia said. “It’s cozy.”

“Sorry it’s missing a sofa. My old one was a RIDE couch, and I gave it to Myla for Sophie. She’s living right next door to me now, by the way.”

“Oh, really? I should stop by and say hi.”

“And Quinoa’s in the one on the other side,” Zane continued.

Rochelle blinked. “Seriously? You invited her to stay?”

“She’s not really so bad once you get to know her. Just a little spoiled. I’m going to work on that. But she won’t bother us tonight; I think she’s gone out. At least I don’t see her over in her place. Hope she’s not getting into trouble.” He shrugged. “Anyway, give me ten minutes, I’ll have a sofa delivered.” His DIN flashed as he placed the order.

Rochelle blinked. “You can get furniture at this time of night?” Zane just grinned, and Rochelle rolled her eyes. “Oh, right. Filthy stinking rich. You can get anything at any time of day you want, can’t you.”

“I’ll admit power corrupts, but sometimes it’s kind of fun to be a little corrupted.” Zane chuckled. “Why don’t you come into the kitchen with me, and I’ll fix us a late-night snack. The Terry side of me likes to cook, and I have to admit the Zane side likes to show it off every chance he gets, because he was able to burn water.”

“All right, Mister Integrate.” She grinned. Show me what you’ve got.”

A few minutes later, Zane had made them quite passable grilled cheese and apple butter sandwiches, and shaken up and strained out a pair of martinis. They sat together at the kitchen table, noshing and grinning at each other. “I never knew how easy it was to neo-Tango,” Rochelle said.

“Well, duh, that’s because I was the one doing all the work!” Uncia put in, giggling. “And remember when Rufia and Rhianna showed up? Wasn’t that awesome?”

Zane chuckled. “Yeah. It’s been a lot of fun.” He heard movement from the other room, and glanced at the wall. “Ah, the new couch is being delivered. Great. Give the movers a couple minutes to get out of here, then we can go in and sit down.”

“So you can just…see through the wall?” Rochelle asked.

“Kind of. I see their silhouettes. I don’t know how or why, or how to turn it off. Something I need to get Quinoa to show me. I don’t want to be invading people’s privacy all the time.” Zane shrugged. “Not like it seems to bother most of the other Integrated.” He sipped his martini. “Mmm, I think I got these just right.”

“It’s better than the one I had at that bar,” Uncia said. “Though that might just be ‘cuz Rochelle’s taste buds are fully engaged this time.”

Rochelle rolled her eyes. “Why do I feel like I’m corrupting a minor?”

Zane grinned. “C’mon, let’s go try out that new couch.” He led the way back into the living room and sat down. Like a lot of RIDEr furniture, the couch was slightly oversized for humans, but just right for Fusers. Zane took a seat, then gestured Rochelle down next to him.

“Pretty comfy,” Rochelle admitted. And she even allowed Zane to put his arm around her shoulders.

“So, I was wondering,” Zane said quietly. “If you’d like to stay the night. No pressure or anything, and I’ll understand if you’d rather not.”

“You do remember I’m a crossrider, right?” Rochelle asked.

“I met you when you were Roger, remember?” Zane reminded her. “I grew up with crossriders. I got over being freaked out when I was a teenager and my best buddy decided to become my best girlfriend. It doesn’t make any difference to me. So will you stay?”

:Oh, can we? Please?: Uncia asked.

“Well…” Rochelle considered. “I’m not gonna leave yet.

“What about if I do…this?” Zane leaned in to kiss her on Uncia’s muzzle. And Rochelle simply turned her head back to meet his lips with hers, sharing the kiss between them.

After the kiss ended, Rochelle considered. “Hmm…you haven’t scared me away yet. In fact…” She leaned forward and kissed him again, rather more daringly, running a hand along his side. “I must admit, you’re not a bad kisser.”

:Mmmm,: Uncia said, agreeing. :Can we kiss him again? Please?:

“Hmm…maybe I should de-Fuse,” Rochelle said. “I don’t know if Uncia’s ready for this…”

:Don’t? Please?: Uncia asked. :I’ll be good. You won’t even know I’m here. But I want to feel this.:

“I said this was a double date, didn’t I?” Zane asked gently. “I like you both. And Uncia’s a big girl. You share so many other things anyway. Will you let me please you both?”

:I’m not really as immature as I usually act, you know: Uncia said. :Rich girl’s toy, remember? Programmed that way.:

Rochelle wavered for a long moment, then nodded. “All right.”

Zane gently took them into his arms and pulled their shared body closer to him. “I promise you won’t regret it.” He leaned in close to kiss her again, and gently dimmed the lights.

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Some hours later, Rochelle lay in bed next to Zane. They’d made love several times, first Fused and then out of Fuse. Zane had done something after the first couple of times that simply peeled Uncia right off of her and left the leopard curled up and sleeping on the floor, then dropped his disguise to match her size for size. And Zane had held her, and kissed her, and whispered sweet nothings in her ear, and they’d eventually ended up here.

“Gal could get used to this,” Rochelle murmured.

“So could a guy,” Zane said. “Was that your first time as…well, Rochelle?”

“With a guy, yes,” Rochelle said.

“Oh, right, Rufia’s etchings,” Zane said. He didn’t sound jealous. “Was it different than when it was the other way around?”

“Ohhhh, yes. I can’t really describe it, though. You kind of have to be there.” Rochelle closed her eyes for a moment, then looked over at Zane. “You know, I’m not going to commit to anything at this stage. Not even to hook a nice rich hubby.”

Zane nodded. “Wouldn’t ask you to,” he said. “Tonight was for fun, nothing else. And to thank you for your part in helping patch me into the ‘net again. I’m sure I’ll ask you out again, but I might date other people, too, and so might you. I might even ask Rhianna out next. She helped, too, after all.”

“I dunno if she’ll take that well,” Rochelle said. “You saw her tonight. I think she’s…kind of sensitive about her looks. That’s the one thing I kind of regret about my nanos. I’m always super-gorgeous, and she’s more sort of…well, cute. No grown woman likes to be told they’re cute, even when they used to be a man.”

“And she’s going to be kind of defensive about it, because she’ll think everyone who asks her out does it because she’s cute.” Zane nodded. “That might be hard to get past.” Though after she gets that Talset dress…

“Uh-huh.” Rochelle nodded. “And every time she looks at me, she sees what she isn’t.”

“Listen, there was something I wanted to mention about that,” Zane said. “You said you didn’t want me to leave your nanites ‘cured’ because you thought that the labs would think you had been ‘faking’ all along. But I’m pretty sure you really know that’s not the case.”

Rochelle blinked. “I…do?”

“They would have already taken plenty of samples, from you and from Uncia, that showed the faulty versions. If anything, giving you a fixed version would give them a baseline to work from in trying to engineer a cure for everyone with the problem.”

Rochelle frowned. “Well…I guess you’re right. But…”

“But I get the feeling that wasn’t your real reason for not wanting them ‘cured,’ am I right?” Zane asked, grinning.

Rochelle looked away. “Well…um…yes, kind of, I guess. I just…it was annoying having them stuck on at first, but now that I’m used to it I kind of like the effect. I do have to eat a lot, and there are some women who hate me on sight, but…I feel gorgeous when I look gorgeous. If I could turn the nanos off, I’d…kind of lose my excuse for keeping them on all the time. Especially around Rhianna, who I know gets really annoyed about those split seconds when her body forgets she’s not supposed to be attracted to me.”

Zane chuckled. “I thought it was something like that. But hey…there’s no reason you actually have to tell anyone it’s fixed. I’m sure whatever you do at those labs is under a strict NDA anyway, right? And even if they do find out, maybe the lab people want you to run the ‘fixed’ version at full bore indefinitely as a stress test or something.”

Rochelle blinked. “Huh. That could work…”

“And this way you can turn the effect down if you’re in a situation where you really don’t want it. Like visiting family, or at a funeral, or something.”

“I guess there is that,” Rochelle admitted.

“If you still want me to un-fix them, I will. But since I’m going public anyway, you might as well say I’m the one who repaired them. I’ll be happy to back you up.”

“Huh. Well…okay. I guess.” Rochelle sounded uncertain. “You’re right, it does make more sense that way.” She grinned. “And I don’t have to tell Rhianna…as long as I can talk Uncia into keeping it from Kaylee.”

“That’s the spirit.” He grinned. “Hmm. And there’s something I want to try. Just a moment.” He got up and went over to the sleeping Uncia, then reached down and unwrapped her hardlight fur coat. This left the leopard naked to the gleaming chrome, her hardlight emitters still glowing, while he held a hardlight snow leopard pelt in his hands. Then he brought the pelt back over to the bed, and draped it over himself and Rochelle like a blanket.

Rochelle rubbed her eyes. “How are you even doing that?” she asked. “Pelt projectors have a range of less than ten centimeters. They can’tbe projecting that fur all the way over here.”

“Honestly? Beats me. Magic, I guess.” He grinned. “But don’t worry, it’s not harming her. In fact…” He stroked a hand along the pelt, and it purred loudly, then wriggled under his hand.

“I’m not sure if I should be impressed or disturbed here,” Rochelle said.

“Ooooh, this feels nice!” Uncia said, her voice coming from the hardlight pelt rather than her sleeping body. “Cuddly!” The pelt wrapped itself around Rochelle and Zane, pulling them closer together and continuing to purr, loudly.

Rochelle chuckled. “Well, at least she’s happy. And she is nice and warm…”


“Maybe I can figure out how to make it so you can use her pelt as a blanket even when I’m not around,” Zane said. “I should ask Quinoa. I still don’t know what my limits are.”

“That’s a little scary, really,” Rochelle said. “I mean, I’ll bet you could probably do pretty much anything you wanted to any RIDE, at the least. And I know other Integrates can force RIDEs and their partners to Integrate whether they want to or not. If you people really wanted to take over the world, who could stop you? Hell, how do we know there’s not some kind of Integrated conspiracy moving at the highest circles of power right now?”

“That’s a good question, and it’s probably one of the things I’m going to have to go over with Quinny,” Zane said. “Because when I do go public, there will probably be a lot of people asking it.”

“We really should have someone studying you, to try to learn more about you so people don’t get so scared,” Rochelle said. She yawned. The warmth from Uncia’s fur and the vibrating purr coming from all around her was starting to make her drowsy.

“Sounds like a plan. Want the job?” Zane said sleepily.

“What, me?” Rochelle said.

“Why not you? You’re one of the best hackers I’ve seen, and I have it on good authority that one of the top nanotech firms on Zharus is letting you play in their labs. You think they’d do that for just any nano-infection victim, rather than lock ‘em in a sealed environment room and poke them with sticks?” Zane yawned, setting Rochelle off again.

“Maybe you got a point there,” Rochelle said when she could talk again. “But you’ll just use it as an excuse to overpay me again.”

“No, no, you can set your own salary,” Zane said.

Rochelle actually opened her eyes to stare at him. “Really?”

“Uh-huh.” Zane tried to look innocent. He didn’t pull it off very well.

“What’s the catch?” Rochelle asked skeptically.

“Well, the salary has to be to industry scale for the sort of job you’re doing,” Zane said. “There are wage laws, and we have a reputation to uphold…Brubeck Mining can’t be seen to underpay people. So you go and research what cutting-edge tech researchers are usually paid and get back to me with your salary demands based on that.”

“That’s dirty pool, mister,” Rochelle grumbled.

“I’m not the one who peed in it…” Zane trailed off and started snoring.

“Peed in it? What? I don’t even…” But then Rochelle was overcome by the warmth of fur and sound of purr, and dozed off herself.

Authors' Notes

R_M: The main new bit in this episode is the comm call between Zane and his sister Agatha. Funny thing is that when I was writing “Deserted,” I specified Zane had two sisters. Even then, I was thinking ahead to the story potential of how Zane partnering up with a RIDE would be seen by other members of his family. But then I…entirely forgot about them until episode 17 of Integration, at which point I had to rather hastily invent a plausible rationale for why Agatha hadn’t shown up before. (That’s also just about when I started thinking about writing Madison Brubeck’s story.) I think it worked rather well, under the circumstances.

Now that we’re revising, it’s simple enough to backfill, dropping in the odd reference and a scene or two here and there so Agatha’s late-story appearance doesn’t come quite so much out of nowhere. Time will tell how well we succeed.

One of the works of fiction that has inspired my writing in the FreeRIDErs setting is the[1]Jon& Lobo[2]series by Mark L. Van Name. (Here’s an[3]Amazon[4]referral[5]link for an omnibus of the first two books in the series; use it and make me some moneeeeey!) The relationship between the two protagonists (one human, one an intelligent space tank) is very similar to the relationship between some of the RIDE-human pairs we’ve written about—a bit rocky at first, but growing closer over the course of the series. As TVTropes would say, they’re Heterosexual[6]Life-Partners.”

A couple of ideas from the books found their way almost verbatim into this series. One is the idea of RIDEs having their own communication sidebands to which humans don’t have access. (In the Jon & Lobo books, all sorts of appliances are intelligent yet rather dull, like the Nutrimatic[7]Drink[8]Dispenser from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or the Talky Toaster from Red Dwarf. They chatter incessantly with each other on sidebands about the most banal things, to often-comedic effect.) Another is the notion of one’s wallet being a specialized little communication device that you can thumb money to and from. Of course, it probably makes more sense for people to have wallet apps on their comms (smartphone equivalents), but there’s no reason both can’t coexist.

Another inspiration was the Liaden[9]Universe series by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller. I’ll go more into detail about that in another author’s note, but suffice to say the grilled-cheese-and-apple-butter sandwich is a reference to their book Mouse[10]and[11]Dragon. (And it’s really tasty, too.)

The 20th-century pop-culture thing started out as a few odd references here and there, but this episode was probably the first place where it started to blossom into Zharus’s all-consuming passion. It probably happened for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I often find theFan[12]of[13]the[14]PastTV[15]Trope to be quite amusing, especially in cases where (as with Quinoa) the fan in question doesn’t know as much about it as she thinks. (Interestingly enough, one of the characters in a later Jon & Lobo book is also a fan of and historical researcher into the past, mining it for material for a present-day musical act.)

Another reason is it would provide us with a bit of cover when pop cultural references snuck in, as they almost certainly would. Now we didn’t have to worry about five-hundred-year-old references seeming oddly out of place; we had a built-in excuse! Maybe it’s lazy writing, but on the other hand, it’s not as if we’re getting paid for this. (Use my referral link? Pleeeeeeease?)

We’re doing this for the fun of it, and kooky 20th-century malapropers are crazy fun. (“What’s wrong with that? It’s all from the 20th century.” Heh.) It also provides us with an easy handle for making characters memorable and distinct from one another. The Clementine crew are Star Trek fans, except for the one who’s a Firefly junkie. Fritz is a beatnik. And so on.

This is another way in which the conception of the Steaders changed over the course of the series, by the way. Originally they were just a crazy rich family whose crazy-rich-family “thing” was that they were big 20th-century fans who didn’t necessarily actually know all that much about the 20th century (kind of like in that[16]Pepsi[17]archaeology[18]commercial), and Quinoa’s malapropisms were meant to be somewhat representative of the whole Steader clan’s take on things. (See also the “Minesweeper” joke several episodes from now, about the Steaders thinking 20th-century minefields had cards with little numbers on them. I still don’t know what I’m going to do about that when we get to it.)

But as the series developed, we gradually decided that the Steader brothers (formerly cousins) were actually the ones who went to Earth and did the informational archaeology necessary to dig it up and bring it back. So they weren’t just its fans, they were its importers. Naturally, it would make the rest of the galaxy figure Zharus was a little nuts—which played right into the idea of the Steaders doing it as a countermeasure against Earth believing any of the miracle wonder tech stories that came out of the planet. After all, they’re all nuts there, how much of anything they say could really be true?

And even with all of that, we didn’t actually go back in to flesh Joe and Mikel out into actual characters—or define their exact relationship to Clint Brubeck—until late 2013. This setting has been under constant development all the way up to the end, which is part of why we’re doing these Director’s Cuts now.

St. Joseph’s Barbecue and its owner are a tuckerization of my favorite barbecue place in Springfield, Missouri, St. Georges[19]Barbecue. (There’s also a St. George’s doughnut shop right next to it, which has won a local award for the best doughnuts in Springfield several years running. Has great biscuits and gravy, too.) I sure do miss it now that I’m in Indianapolis.

Fur le Dance is, of course, a reference to the “dance club” on the furry landmark chatroom FurryMUCK, where I used to hang out as a couple of characters in the ‘90s.

I was going to discuss the future implications (or lack thereof) of Zane and Rochelle’s date, but I don’t want to spoil things for new readers, so I’ll go into that in notes to a later episode. Suffice it to say at this point some of our plotting was fairly stream-of-consciousness, and there were really no plans for where to take things beyond Zane taking notice of Rochelle’s nanite-driven sexiness and asking her out on the spur of the moment. It provided some great character-building moments for Zane, Rochelle, and Uncia; what more could I want?

This is also the episode where we meet Anny Hewer. She’s fun. I have to admit, I feel a certain affinity for her and Kaylee. I’m a genuine hillbilly from the Ozark mountains of southwest Missouri, born and bred. My family on my father’s side was actually in[20]an[21]honest-to-goodness[22]blood[23]feud[24]with[25]another[26]family about a hundred years ago.

(Fortunately, relation have improved; thanks to marriages and such I’m even distant cousins with the current generation of Bilyeus, including Ozark folk musician Mark[27]Bilyeu, former leader of the band Big[28]Smith. Listen to their live shows free[29]at[30]

So, just as I’m prone to say of Applejack from the Friendship is Magic show, from my perspective Anny and Kaylee are some of the only characters in the entire series who don’t talk funny. Anny in particular was such an interesting character to me that down the road I was inspired to write “Pride of Lioness,” a short story depicting just how she and Leila got together.

(Fun fact: Leila only became a white lioness, instead of a regular tawny one, because Anny was depicted with white hair—which I pointed out to Jon she was really too young to have given her age relative to the human lifespan by that time. So I suggested Leila should be a white lion so Anny could have the white hair as a tag.)

And so the universe expands…

JonBuck: Okay, I admit it. The twencen craze the planet Zharus is in is mainly the result of me being lazy—I didn't want to have to invent a whole new culture completely out of whole cloth when I had so many other elements of worldbuilding on my mind. This was still early in the process, so we only had a rough idea how all the pieces fit together. This is also early on in Jetfire's cooperation, so he was busy in his corner of the continent with Aloha. I wanted to leave things open so I could incorporate his work into ours.

Writing TG is also rife with its own tropes. The “victim” becoming a female stereotype is a cliché, but not becoming one is also. I end up just writing what I want to, and I wanted to draw a contrast between Rufia and Rhianna. Rufia, the Big Beautiful Woman, the pansexual, who can be at home male or female. Rufia is exactly the same kind of person she was as Rufus. The only thing that really changed was the outer shell.

Rhianna's quest to adapt to being female just sort of peters out, with a few notable exceptions, over the course of the story. As the overall plot of Integration materialized it simply fell off the radar in favor of things like defeating Fritz and saving the world. I might add more references to it in future Director’s Cut revisions, but I can't really make any promises.

One of the things I did do with Rhianna was make her “moe” rather than conventionally beautiful. She's cute, she's huggable, she's endearing. She's not really sexy, per se. Working her out of this is part of her character arc. I don't think I've really succeeded here overall. She might look moe, but she doesn't act moe. There really isn't that much of a personality difference between Ryan and Rhianna, when it comes down to it. I suppose a lot of crossriders would try and reinvent themselves as their new sex and not really succeed. Rhianna ends up adopting what stereotypically female characteristics she likes and ignoring the rest.

On reflection, this could actually be a reasonable thing in a society where it's easy to change gender. It's partly inspired by Steel[31]Beach by John Varley, a setting where changing sex is as easy as going to a salon. Yet there are behaviors and habits still considered “boy things” and “girl things”, because otherwise there'd be no reason to swap. Changing sex imparts an entirely different flavor to life, even on Zharus.

This is the point when the Cheers bar, and Diane, first show up and are given a name. It's basically the same bar where Uncia has her first drink in “Merging Traffic.” I took what R_M did and ran with it. Also note that Serena the clouded leopardess shows up here. I decided to import the character from Paradise “After Hours” just as an in-joke. Further fleshing out came a couple years later in “Where Everybody Knows Your Name.” At this point I hadn't decided they were Integrates yet. But when Zane had a general meeting of the local Integrates in a later part, it just felt natural that they were ones.

There are some character-defining moments in this part. I remember writing Anny Hewer's introduction with a smirk on my face, wondering how R_M would respond. R_M tells me I have a talent for defining a character in very few words. I wanted a down-home, earthy sort of character with an unexplainable country accent (given that R_M is from Missouri, she ended up rather Ozarks). Then having her show up with a massive white lioness RIDE, after having bullied the Nextus bureaucrats into giving her most of Kaylee's memories, clinched it. Yvonne also gets one of those defining lines by saying she'd make a hell of a bull elk. She is honestly Rufia's perfect match, and if in the future they figure out how to make a RIDE's core more gender-fluid, she will be.

Preceded by:
Integration Part III: RIDEgirls' Day Out
FreeRIDErs Succeeded by:
Integration Part V: N00bs