User:Robotech Master/Enemy Lines original

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FreeRIDErs story universe


Integration

by Jon Buck and Robotech_Master

Part 21: Enemy Lines

Four Weeks Earlier

“What the..? Where’s the backdoor I put in?” Mavra floated in VR, staring at the blank space where her previously undetectable hack into Gerard Financial Services had been. The black-footed ferret Integrate shrugged, then reached out with a handpaw to open a new one. It was a simple matter for an Integrate, after all—the backdoor had merely been there for convenience. She had only to wave her handpaw, and—

Her virtual claws skittered across a very smooth surface, unable to find any grip. The firewall was now as solid as starship hull metal. “What…the…hell is going on?”

Undeterred, she cracked her virtual knuckles and extended her encryption-breaking fractal claws. In one of her previous lives she had been a FRT(f)-LIA-007Q. She and Idra had mustered out of the Nextus Intelligence Agency about a year after the end of the Sturmhaven War after a storied military career. They’d thought highly enough of her to allow Idra to go with her, minus a few classified memories and gizmos of course—a new and unusual thing at the time, though hardly precedent-setting.

Though her counterintelligence equipment had been “officially” disabled, Mavra had other means to keep it up-to-date, so at the time of her Integration she’d still had the best counterintelligence hardware and software available. Even now she could burrow into the most secure systems.

The backdoor into Gerard Financial was, she had to admit, a personal weakness on her part. Her other old life had been Mavra “Brigadier” Gerard, and she still liked to keep tabs on the family business she had helped found twenty years ago and give them a helping handpaw every now and again—well out of Fritz’s view, of course. There were children and grandchildren to keep track of. The best she could do was be a “mysterious benefactor”, but doing anything more openly would invite reprisals from the more zealous of the Ascendant.

She took some satisfaction in the fact that she was hardly the only one of the Ascendant who did that—and if Fritz tried to ferret (heh) out all of them, he wouldn’t have any time left to raid polities or kick the crap out of Integrate mining magnates.

The firewall took time to drill through, on the order of minutes rather than milliseconds. An eternity in quantum computing terms. “This…this shouldn’t exist!” she exclaimed, examining what remained of the security software. “I don’t understand this.”

“Mav!” a friend of hers called from the aether. The feral wyvern’s VR form winged his way up next to her. “Strange things are afoot,” LeLane said. The red-and-black wyvern hovered and shifted his VR form to something more anthropomorphic. Unlike dragons, wyverns had only four limbs.

“The hell you say,” Mavra said dryly. “Look at this, Lel! Never seen encryption like it.” She grabbed him by the wing-arm and pulled him into the breach. “See?”

“Ack! Hey, don’t be so pushy,” LeLane said. The wyvern turned his spiky head around to examine the encryption data structure. “The fark is this? I’ve never seen anything like this, either!”

“Maybe we oughta find a technomage,” Mavra suggested, forking off several sub-processes to get a better look at the thing. The decompiled code fragments had an oddly familiar style to it, but she couldn’t place it yet. “This is…who could have done this?”

“Traitors, that’s who!” Lel said. “There’s just so many of us these days. Lots of n00bs coming out of the woodwork who don’t know any better. They don’t need meat, and meat doesn’t need them.”

“Yeah, but…” Mavra stopped herself before continuing.

“’But’ what, Mav?”

“There’s a lot more to this than meets the eye,” the ferret said smoothly. “Come on, Lel, I’m counter-intel. I should get a closer look at this gear, maybe get some samples. There’s a hardware component, if I’m reading these fragments right.”

“You just want an excuse to visit your old meat,” Lel said sourly.

You’re one to talk, given how you briar-patched your way into keeping an eye on Cape Nord.” Mavra retorted. “Does Fritz know you’ve got family there?”

“What he doesn’t know can’t hurt me. It’s just…lip service, ya know?” Lel and Mav were members of a very secretive faction within the Ascendant Enclave. Since Quinoa and Brena defected, Fritz was being extra careful to make sure his followers were true believers and making examples of those who weren’t. A purge was underway, and those purged didn’t make it out alive. Those who had left early had actually escaped with their pelts intact. Mavra and her friends regretted they hadn’t skedaddled when they had the chance.

Still, with Fritz in the regeneration tank for at least a few more weeks, and his most zealous followers too busy fighting amongst themselves… When the cat’s away, the ferret will play!

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Now: December 3, 156 AL

Kyla squirmed uncomfortably on the bench in the passenger section of the Ascendant suborbital as it arced through the sky. Visually, the place was very impressive—all gleaming silvery chrome and glowy hardlight bits floating just above solid surfaces just like in that 21st-century videogame franchise, what was it called…Huge Effect? It echoed and underscored Fritz’s rhetoric: “Look at us! We Are The Future!”

Of course, it was also terribly uncomfortable to sit on, even if your rump was covered in yellow-brown stripedy fur. The designer hadn’t given any thought to tails (which made sense if the designer had been Fritz himself, given that he didn’t have one to speak of. And even less of one now…), so Kyla’s thick and muscular one was awkwardly pressed up against the seat back. That they represented a “future” full of flash and glitz that was more than a little uncomfortable for almost everyone except their leader was an irony lost on most of Fritz’s closer followers.

And Kyla sometimes wondered (though never aloud) what it said about Fritz’s message that he was defining his vision of the “future” against not present design trends, but those of the period five hundred years ago that this planet was crazy about. “Look at us, we’re…four hundred years out of date”?

Are we the wave of the future, or nearly extinct? Kyla wondered. Of course, some of us can be both… She yelped, along with half the compartment’s other inhabitants, as the sub hit an air pocket and bounced. “Ow! Too many more like that and I’m walking to Uplift.”

“You and me both, sister,” the zebra (and fellow stripey-butt) next to her said. “Who tuned the inertial dampers on this thing last, anyway?”

“Apparently they aren’t needed in the Future,” Kyla muttered.

“Shh, don’t let our Fearless Leader hear you talking like that,” the zebra muttered.

“Feh. If he can hear me all the way from the next sub over, let him.” Kyla snorted. “I’m a thylacine. We’ve already been extinct for six hundred years. What’s the worst he can do? Like he even pays attention in person anyway.”

Zeerust snorted in kind. “You ask me, everything’s falling to pieces. But here we are, punishing the meat and the scrap. Wait, was ‘scrap’ the derogatory term we’re using for RIDEs these days? I’ve lost track.”

“Why are we even here, anyway? Seriously?” Kyla grumbled. “I could have gone off with all the other Integrated thylacines and Tasmanian devils to start our own marsupitopia.”

“Same reason the rest of us are,” Zeerust said. “We couldn’t stay away from the polities, and Fritz caught us at it. Then it was join the crew or walk the plank.”

“Speak for ye’self! I’m bein’ after watchin’ ye two, an’ no mistake!” a canine Integrate growled from further up the compartment, the TRON-lines of his hardlight emitters burning a deep red. The authority of his glower was undercut, however, by the way he was currently hunched up against the ceiling. As his RIDE half had been an Irish Wolfhound, he was well over two meters tall and looked singularly uncomfortable in the sub, for all that he was trying to bear his cramped confines with some form of dignity.

“Oh, can it, Murphy,” Mavra said. The sullen black-footed ferret was seated across from Zeerust and Kyla. Her friend LeLane was in the aft compartment, since he was too big and oddly-shaped to fit in a seat. He and the other fliers would be the first out. “And you can drop your RIDE’s cheesy brogue. You and I both know the closest either of you’ve ever been to Ireland is the bottom of a pint of Guinness.”

“Well, it’ll be a Harp for all of you if Fritz hears this kind of talk,” Murphy said with only a trace of an accent. “This is your last chance to prove yourselves to your fellow Ascendants. The Bosscat won’t tolerate any more traitors! He’ll break out that gutting knife of his.”

“Funny that he’s never been able to produce any of these ‘traitors’ besides Zane and his little bunch,” Kyla said. “None of whom were anywhere near the Waltons’ when Brena…” She sighed. She hadn’t seen eye-to-eye with the fluffy foxgirl politically, but like many friends they’d learned to agree to disagree and focus on the things they had in common. They’d both been from the same peer group back in Nextus, along with Lillibet Walton—and one of Mavra’s granddaughters, for that matter. Then Brena’s team had been captured while trying to kidnap Lilli—and no matter what Fritz said, there hadn’t been any signs of unfriendly Intie activity in the area. She’d checked.

:I don’t like this operation,: Mavra sent to Zeerust and Kyla. :The objectives are vague. We’re just supposed to ‘scare the meat’. Since Quinoa cut him up like that…well, you saw him at the so-called ‘briefing’. He’s lost his mind.:

Mavra wasn’t popular among the more strident believers. It was her theory where that technology had originated that made her such a heretic. She could even put a name to that source—or sources—but hadn’t put that information forward except among her little circle of friends. The owners of a little podunk garage on the outskirts of Uplift, the most unlikely place she could imagine. Mavra had determined the firewall was even based on Integrates’ own DINs, but kept that to herself, not even telling her closest friends.

“Okay, everyone!” Murphy shouted. “We’ve got about sixty dome emitters to hack and bring down in less than five minutes. A few weeks without them and Uplift will just dry up and blow away. You were issued twenty DINs before we left. Try not to burn through them quickly! Hack a public fab if you need more, but don’t hang around in one place for too long, even cloaked.”

“Why so worried? Expecting the Loose Cannons to show up?” Kyla snarked.

“As a reminder,” Murphy continued, “we’re here to show just how primitive they are compared to us. We’re like meat kicking at an anthill. They have no chance against us. If you find any traitors, go after them. But meat and scrap are beneath us.”

:I don’t know about you, but I’m letting him go first,: Kyla said.

:It’s not him that bothers me,: Mavra said, glancing at the half-dozen other Integrates in the compartment who were clearly hanging on Murphy’s every word. :It’s the ones who’ll be bringing up the rear. They’re the ones who’ll have a gun on our backs.:

:Terrific,: Zeerust sent. :Any plans on how to deal with them?:

:We just need to keep our eyes open…but stay networked, okay?: Kyla said. :This is going to get messy, so we have to snatch the opportunity when it appears.:

:What opportunity is that?: Zeerust asked.

:We’ll know it when we see it,: Mavra temporized.

Zeerust sent an emoticon of a super-deformed zebra rolling his eyes. :Terrific.:

Murphy glared at the trio. :Don’t you probies get any stupid ideas of turning traitor. I know you’re talking about something, and I can guess what. You especially, Mavra. If any of you make one false move, or jeopardize this mission, I’ll gut you like a fish, with the bosscat’s blessing.:

“Oh, yes sir,” Zeerust said aloud.

“You think I’m kidding, stripes?”” Murphy continued. He made a cutting motion with his right hand and snipped the tip off of the zebra’s ear with a hardlight blade.

Zeerust clenched his teeth then grabbed his sliced ear. "Bastard!”

"You three have your assignments. Bring down your assigned emitter and there won’t be any more pain.” Murphy glared at Mavra, then lolled his tongue. "Bosscat says I’m to make sure you do the job, ferret-lass. You’re the best hacker here, so you get to take down the ancient junkheap in Bifrost Park. The meat take a lot of pride in that one, so the traitors added some extra protection. Since all the domes have to come down at once, you’re our lass. Don’t mess it up.”

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As Fritz’s boasts still echoed through the park, Dr. Patil calmly put down her spoon and stood back from the ice cream parlor table. With a series of metallic clacks, the knapsack and most of the other metal pieces adorning Rohit detached and lowered themselves to the ground, where they clumped together into a metallic crate shape that she shoved under the table.

Bereft of the clutter, Rohit’s shape was amazing to behold. Where the proportions of most RIDEs tended to give them a squat, almost chunky appearance—unsurprising given the need to fit a human body inside the metal one—Rohit appeared so slim and slender that it was almost hard to see how there was room for a woman inside at all. It was a clever optical illusion—without a frame of reference, her body simply had such perfect proportions that it seemed smaller than it really was. Nonetheless, even in the middle of a panic, Rhianna had to freeze for a moment appreciate the masterwork.

Then Dr. Patil picked up Rattigan, whose hardlight skin flickered off as his body reshaped itself into something like a cannon. She latched him into place along Rohit’s right gauntlet. “I expected this day would come,” she said, her voice more determined now. “But I did not expect it to be quite so soon.”

The crowd—what there was of it—was already reacting, heading for buildings or underground entrances with disaster shelter signs prominent or Fusing up with their RIDEs. The few nearby buildings that had them deployed their own layer of hardlight shields.

Kaylee deployed her own meager weaponry, only one shoulder pulse cannon, hardlight pelt solidifying from fur to armor mode. "The domes are going down all over the polis!” she announced, checking the network alarms. "They haven’t gotten to Bifrost yet, but it’s only a matter of time.”

“Crap, the domes!” Rochelle said. “How much you wanna bet they’re one of those systems the polis forgot to upgrade out of DIN-beta?”

"No bet,” Rhianna said, looking at the Bifrost emitter and tapping into its network. "That one is on the 1.1 spec, but that won’t last much longer. One of Fritz’s cronies has to be on site here somewhere.”

"Awww, shit!” Kaylee cussed. Above them, the old Dome finally flickered off like the rest. The whole polis was now naked to the hot, desiccating wind off the Dry Ocean.

"That doesn’t mean we can’t bring it right back up again,” Rochelle said. A panel in Uncia’s chest slid open and Rochelle extracted and unfolded her submachine guns and their power-holster rigs. “Right about now, replicator or no, I’m glad for that extra storage. Rhi, you okay for firepower?”

"I need that Donizetti weapons pak back at the Garage to be any use,” Rhianna said. "Thank you, Lilli.”

“Here, you can borrow this ‘til then.” Rochelle tossed her one of the SMGs. “Can shoot more accurately with just one at a time anyway.”

"’Ratty-gun’ has a few surprises, too,” Rattigan said, his voice more metallic now that he was no longer in rat-emulation mode. "Oh yes, yes he does, precious.”

“Which we shall try to keep for a last resort,” Dr. Patil said, opening a panel on the side of the vintage Bifrost emitter and peering within. “I’m a mother, not a fighter.”

“I am commencing fabrication of DIN-sec 2.0-beta-2 modules,” Rohit said in a different cadence than Dr. Patil had been using to speak through her. “Time to completion of first batch: thirty-seven seconds. If I’m to make more than two batches I’ll need more raw materials.”

"We’re gonna need some official help here. I’m putting in an Emergency Services priority call. They know who we are—I hope,” Kaylee said.

“Lee and I need to get back to security HQ,” Anny said, Leila changing to flier mode. “We been coordinating with E.S. on prep, but they’re gonna need leadership.”

"Beat it, Anny,” Kaylee said good-naturedly, jerking her thumb towards the Brubeck campus. "We’ll get the ball rolling here. Where the hell is that psycho?” Leila was already gone before Kaylee had finished her second sentence.

A panel in Rohit’s chest slid open and she caught four small round pieces as they dropped out. “Here are the first of them. If you keep me covered, I will install them myself.”

"Mom, I’m going to get Relena and report to the Marshals,” Katie said. "I hate to leave you like this, but…”

"We’ll be fine. Do what you have to. Now you get to put that Ahnuld chassis of yours to good use!” Kaylee said.

"Oh, believe me, we will!” Katie said. She slipped into skimmer mode and sped off even faster than Leila.

Kaylee beamed with pride as she watched her go. "That’s my kitten.”

"Sensors on full active,” Uncia said. "Emergency protocols for the Dome isolates them from the polis systems. Hacking Bifrost means they’re beneath our feet in the maintenance room.”

"Question is, can we do anything about it?” Rochelle said.

Rohit opened her mouth to speak—then vanished into thin air.

“Bwa?” Rochelle said.

Then as suddenly as Rohit had vanished, two other figures appeared to either side of the dome emitter. To the left was an Irish wolfhound, towering over them, teeth bared, hardlight lance gripped in his right handpaw. To the right was a shorter black-footed ferret, who somehow managed to look menacing and apologetic at the same time.

“Better beat feet, meat!” the wolfhound growled, leveling the lance at the Milkbottle and firing a brilliant blast of energy that lit the clearing as white as a nearby lightning strike. It took the top off the small building. The heat from the blast set the grass and trees ablaze, along with what was left of the Milkbottle.

Rhianna returned fire out of sheer rage and reflex, Rochelle joining in. The gauss rounds didn’t even faze him—and he made an obvious effort to look bored by the whole attempt. "Not even a scratch. F for effort, meat.”

:I need my farking weapons pak!: Kaylee growled.

:Bwing me my spear and magic helmet!: Uncia added.

:Don’t just stand there, let’s go!: Rochelle grabbed Kaylee’s arm and fired her lifters. While not exactly an Ahnuld, she wasn’t a bad sprinter—especially when she ignored all Uplift’s traffic laws.

"That’s right, fly away!” the wolfhound gloated, shouting after them. "See, Mavra? See how they run?”

“It’s not how they run I’m worried about,” Mavra muttered. “It’s how they debug and recompile.”

The Garage’s mini-dome hadn’t been as well maintained as some in the years since the polity’s main dome had expanded past its neighborhood, but it was functional, and the lot was full of people who’d been caught out in the dust and heat when the main Dome came down. The Lindae and the other employees were doing their best to help out, bringing as many of them inside the better-shielded work bays as they could. Every RIDE who could Fuse was Fused to someone. If they had weapons they were deployed. A few of them displayed Uplift Militia badges and tried to get the foursome’s attention as they landed on the roof of Rhianna and Kaylee’s home.

"Kinda busy right now!” Rhianna said. "Lindae, you’re doing a good job! Keep at it!”

"Will do!” the Fused tigress said.

:I hope Rohit’s okay…: Kaylee sent.

:They’re survivors,: Rhianna replied. :They’ll manage.:

The Donizetti weapons paks Lillibet had purchased for them all those weeks ago had undergone a few modifications since the assault on Zane’s platform, based on their experience there and Fritz’s own assault. Rhianna had replaced the shoulder cannons with a pair of beam weapons she hoped would compare with Fritz’s own arm cannon, and Uncia’s single pulse cannon had been similarly amped up. Uncia had also added a pair of plasma burst submachine guns to her arsenal to complement the gauss Uzis—and these were the lightest of her additions.

"Heat em up!” Kaylee said, tossing Uncia her borrowed SMG back and latching into the equipment alcove.

Kaylee’s hardlight powered down, latches and ports opening on her back as the plating expanded. The precision waldoes in the alcove installed military-grade batteries, weapons capacitors, and targeting sensors into their proper places, following up with the bulkier armor plating. Kaylee received multi-purpose hardlight weapons gauntlets in addition to the dual-cannon backpack and over a dozen leg-mounted mini-missiles in hip pods.

Uncia’s smooth metal modesty plates fell away, revealing her in all her anatomically-correct glory momentarily before the hardlight also flickered out and thicker and heavier-armored versions of the plates latched into place. Greaves and gauntlets slammed home, and hardlight armor panels in Uncia’s fur colors appeared above them, completing the ensemble.

As the arming waldos retracted, Uncia raised her arms for inspection and glanced down at herself to be sure everything was in the right place. “Smoking! Ready to go?”

"Weapons systems green,” Kaylee confirmed. "Let’s show 'em what 'mere’ flesh and metal can do.”

“I feel like I’m wearing a BattleMech,” Rochelle said. “This better be worth it.”

"One more thing!” Rhianna said brightly, walking over to the experiment table. She picked up a DINcom prototype. "Let’s get one of these in you. You can install the other one somewhere Fritz’s cronies won’t find it, and you’ll have a connection to the polis network they can’t jam. If they’re going after the Domes, who knows what else they’ll fark with. You can hook up with the Marshals’ Silicons.”

“Oooh! Is this where I get to try out marginally-tested experimental equipment in a crisis situation again? Goodie! I love it when that happens!” Uncia said without irony. She flipped open an armor plate on her chest and slid open an access panel. “Stick it right in there!”

Rhianna handed half of the DINcom over. “Here, put it in yourself.”

“Awesome.” Rochelle took the device and held it up for a moment, inspecting it. “Hard to believe we’re holding the next revolutionary breakthrough in interstellar communication right here in our paw.”

“I feel like I should be saying ‘In brightest day, in darkest night, no evil shall escape my sight’ or something,” Uncia said.

Rochelle laughed. “Or maybe some deep voice ought to say, ‘Arise, Unctuous Prime’?”

“Now you’re just being silly.” Uncia reached into the access panel and latched the DINcom into place, then slid everything shut again. She picked up the other piece and slid it into a compartment in one of her gauntlets. “I’d stick this in our workstation, but I think if we can kick those Inties out of one of the emitters and get it resecured it might be an even better place—on a main trunk of the network instead of a feeder line.” She grinned. “And I know just which one we should hit first.”

"Damned good idea, Uncia. Now, let’s give those two degenerate terrorists a little surprise,” Kaylee said, lips curled in a snarl.

“You don’t have to tell us twice!” Uncia said.

“Let’s do this thing,” Rochelle agreed. Their lifters fired up again, and they swooped out of the garage—slower than they had come in, but with a lot more momentum. Like boulders rolling down a hill, Rochelle thought. Now let’s see what we smash at the bottom.

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“That’s right! Run for your puny little meaty lives of…puny…meatiness!” Murphy jeered, standing on top of the Bifrost dome and shaking his lance, lord of all he surveyed. Smoke and flame from the burning Park surrounded them. Fire Department drones Murphy had shot down littered the ground, adding their own noxious smoke. "They’re ants under our boots!”

Yeah, and who’s the one who actually did the real work here? Mavra grumbled inwardly—though she didn’t so much as roll her eyes on the outside. She liked her ears the way they were. “So, what, should I go hack something else now?” I stick around here much longer, I’ll get spacked when those RIDErs come back.

"We’re supposed ta stay here until the Bosscat’s carved up Brubeck into tiny pieces, and anyone else he hates,” Murphy said. "Don’t you do anything stupid, or I’ll gut you myself. But I have to say, you made good on the dome.”

Only just, Mavra thought. She’d burned through three quarters of her DINs in the process. "I need more DINs. There’s a public fab nearby that’s still working.”

“Fine, go,” Murphy said flippantly. “But don’t wander far. I’ll be watching you.”

This really bites, Mavra thought as she headed over to the fab. Her latest DIN sparked and fizzled as she hacked it, and she slapped another into place with a sigh. Her replacement supply rattled down into the output tray as if some New Vegas slot had decided to pay off in jaggedy bits of metal. Junk, all of it. As a techie, Mavra knew how badly they were made. But she also knew what happened to the people who tried to make improvements.

Her private analysis of the after-action reports of those who escaped the Brubeck Main Platform fight suggested that whoever had made the DIN-based network encryption had also made much-improved regular DINs the traitors were apparently using. Mavra knew who those makers were now. Their Garage was barely two kilometers away. The same direction that those two felines—the two whose RIDEs were the right species to be—what if they had been out getting ice cream when she and Murphy—Oh…fark. Fark it all! I’m sooooo dead.

"For a terrorist you lack the enthusiasm of your partner,” came a female Indian-accented voice out of thin air. Mavra felt the barrel of some kind of gun in the small of her back. "Please, do not force me to use this. I abhor violence, but I will pull the trigger if I must. No hardlight tricks.”

The originator was nowhere on Mavra’s sensors. Not even the tickle of another cloaked Intie nearby. "Why not just shoot me and get it over with, lady?” Mavra muttered. "It’s not like I don’t deserve it. I liked that ice cream stand. I hope I didn’t kill anybody.”

"As I said, you lack enthusiasm,” the woman said. "Now, if you know what’s good for you, you’ll stand here and wait just a little while. Your 'friend’ is too busy gloating over his destruction right now to notice, I think.”

A thin blue pulse beam abruptly perforated Murphy’s shoulder, shattering his shields. The Integrate let out a canine yelp, clapping one paw-hand reflexively to it as he turned and brought up his lance with the other. But before he could even look around for the source of the beam, three hundred kilos of angry Fused lynx wielding a blazing hardlight sword swooped past and sliced through the lance, which flickered and dissolved as it lost cohesion. Then, on the backstroke, she sliced off the arm that had held it at the elbow.

“Here boy! Now shake! Oh…well, guess you can’t. Too bad!” a heavily-armored snow leopard jeered from next to the lynx. She fired several more blue pulse beams from her shoulder-mounted cannon, making Murphy dodge with only a single success.

A painful jolt in Mavra’s back crackled through her nervous system, enough to daze but not much more, made the ferret slump to the ground. The image of a Fused doe burned in the back of her eyes as her captor fired a followup shot that hit Murphy right in the center of mass. The tall wolfhound felled like a Cascadia redwood.

“But he can play dead like nobody’s business,” the lynx smirked.

The doe turned to Mavra. "You got the lowest stun setting,” the rat-like gun on her forearm said. "What yer friend there got…wasn’t.”

"Izze dead?” Mavra asked dazedly, hopefully.

"Please. There’s simply no need,” the doe replied. The Fuser picked the smaller ferret Integrate up by the scruff of her neck like a bag of potatoes. "Now, you’re coming with us. We have matters to discuss.”

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The ferret sat at one of the few ice cream parlor tables that remained upright, elbows resting on the table, holding her throbbing head in both hands. Rohit stood behind her and to the left, which not at all coincidentally positioned the arm with Ratty-gun on it behind her back, though the gun was pointed to ground at the moment.

"The damage isn’t too bad,” Rhianna reported, poking around in the panel that Rohit had opened earlier. Her gloves were busy doing nanolathe repairs. "These old girls have lots of redundancy. I’ll have the dome back up in two shakes with 2.0-beta-2.”

"Don’t you mean two twitches?” Rochelle teased. "I don’t think you’ve got enough tail there to qualify as something you can 'shake’.”

"Unlike some of us,” Uncia added, flirting her fluffy bar of fur back and forth.

"Oh sure, that might come in handy if you wanted to clean out a pipe or something,” Kaylee retorted. "Some of us like being able to sit in chairs.”

"Hey, we can sit in chairs just fine.” Uncia demonstrated by picking up a charred, knocked-over chair from the ground and turning it around to straddle in reverse, resting her arms on the seat back, across the table from the ferret. "See?”

"That’s not sitting in a chair and you know it,” Kaylee said. She and Rhianna pulled back out of the emitter and closed the panel, making a dusting-off motion with their hands. "There, all done.”

With a deep rumble, the fountain booted back up. Unlike before, the particle fountain only reached a few hundred meters up, and the dome covered about the same radius. “That should give us a bit of breathing room,” Rhianna said with satisfaction. The air temperature was already starting to drop.

“So what do we do with her?” Uncia nodded toward the ferret.

“I surrender,” the ferret mumbled.

“You can’t surrender, we already caught you,” Uncia said.

“I surrender anyway. Take me away and throw me in your dungeon.” She sighed. “I didn’t want this. I didn’t want any of this. But you try telling that to Fritz and his lapdogs. Like Murphy over there.”

“I think a wolfhound is a bit too large to be a ‘lapdog,’” Uncia said.

The ferret snorted. “Not with the size of Fritz’s ego.”

Kaylee and Rhianna pulled up another chair. “So what’s he after here? What’s the plan?”

“Isn’t it obvious? Take down the domes, screw with the infrastructure. Show what happens to anyone who stands up to him. Oh, and get even with your buddy Zane.”

“Dammit!” Rhianna swore. “We need to get to him. He’ll need our help.”

“The whole city will need our help,” Dr. Patil reminded them. “And the help of as many of those who wish to help as it can get.” She looked meaningfully at the ferret.

The ferret raised her head and turned it to stare at Rohit. “You’d…you can’t mean me?

“Do you want to help?” Dr. Patil asked reasonably.

“Yes, but…how do you know you can trust me?”

“I believe I am a sufficiently good judge of character to know these things,” Dr. Patil said. “But my friends may need greater assurance. What proof can you offer?”

“I…um…” The ferret thought for a moment, then sighed. “Put my DIN back in. I’ll give you root access. Just…be careful in there, okay?”

“What, these crappy things?” Rochelle held up one of the small beads between thumb and forefinger, then squeezed it into dust. “I’d be afraid to access any system with one of these between me and it. How on earth do you manage?”

The ferret looked down at the table. “I use a lot of ‘em,” she mumbled.

“I’ll bet you do.” Rochelle glanced to Rhianna. :If Dr. Patil thinks she’s a good risk…what do you think?:

Rhianna shrugged. :We can always unplug it afterward if it doesn’t work out.: She glanced over at Rohit.

Rochelle and Uncia grinned together. :And it’s a chance to show off, right?: Uncia put in.

:That’s just a fringe benefit,: Rhianna insisted virtuously.

Rochelle turned her attention back to the ferret. “Yeah, I think we can do better than that. Hey Do—ah, Rohit, got a stopwatch?”

The doe Fuser inclined her head in a nod.

Rochelle looked to Rhianna. “Okay, go.”

The Fused lynx walked up to the ferret and put a hand on her shoulder to lean her back so she could get a good look at her. “Where’s your…ah, belly-button, huh? Have a friend who’s got hers there too. This’ll probably feel a little cold…” She extended probes from one clawtip and poked them in. The ferret squealed and stiffened, but otherwise stayed very still as Rhianna worked.

“Most interesting,” Dr. Patil said. “How are you—ah, thank you for the telemetry. I see.”

“Hang on, let me do that,” Rattigan put in as Rhianna reached toward a pak at her waist. “I can kick the ass of that bolt-on micro-fabber you’re wearing any day.” The rat’s cannon muzzle dilated and a small silver disc dropped onto the table in front of Kaylee.

“Thanks,” Rhianna said, picking it up and fitting it into the ferret’s navel. “Okay, Rochelle, your turn.”

The ferret shook her head dazedly. “Who are you people?”

“Just a couple of working girls and their partners,” Rochelle said, attaching leads to the DIN disc and starting her decryption subroutine. “No one really special. Which is why Fritz hates us so bad.”

"I don’t think he knows it’s you he’s supposed to hate,” the ferret said.

“I would be inclined to disagree,” Dr. Patil said. “He hates the idea of Integrates ‘going public,’ but why do you suppose that is? Integrates are not so much more wonderful or powerful as he wants to believe—and any mixing invites closer comparisons.”

“Hey, Ratty, can you do me a solid?” Rochelle asked, pulling the DIN disc back out of its socket and unclipping the leads. “I need—”

“I know what’cher need,” Rattigan said, spitting out a small glittering laser comm bead. “Ptooy! That should do it.”

“Right!” Rochelle picked it up and latched it into place on the disc. “Time?”

“Three minutes, seventeen seconds,” Dr. Patil said.

Rochelle raised her arms in a victory pose. “A new record!”

Assembly finished, Rhianna held the completed DIN between thumb and forefinger. "If you don’t follow through with root access, Rohit and Ratty-gun here will make you join your partner in la-la land for a few days.”

“You don’t need to threaten me,” she said. “I just want away from Fritz. You guys can have open access to me as long as you want it—hell, you can dress me up in a maid outfit and force me to serve tea for all I care if you can keep me safe from him.”

"So, how many true believers does he actually have left?” Kaylee wondered. "It can’t be that many, since he had to bring you on this.”

“I don’t even know. Nobody really does.” The ferret shrugged. “We’re all stuck in a big ol’ prisoners’ dilemma. It’s risky to trust anyone, because anyone might be one of Fritz’s bully boys, or they might just be really good at toeing the party line. So we don’t know how many more are just pretending. I have some friends who were dragged into this just like I was, but we haven’t found anyone else we’re sure enough of to take a chance on.”

More Fire Department drones had arrived, using hardlight to enclose the remaining flames and choke off their oxygen, using fire retardant elsewhere to put out remaining embers. The temperature inside 250-meter radius Bifrost Dome was close to fifty degrees Celsius, a normal Dry Ocean winter for this time of the year, but dropping steadily.

"Emergency Services and the Marshals must have their hands full,” Rochelle said. "Nobody responded to our call. Must be chaos around here.”

"It’s a big polis,” Rhianna said, looking off in the direction of the Brubeck campus. She turned back to the ferret. "Before I plug this in, I’d at least like to know what to call you.”

"Uh, Mavra. Mavra Gerard.” The trio of hardlight emitters on her back swirled. "I’ve been Integrated going on fifteen years now. Only been hooked up with the Ascendant the last five or so.”

"You made some poor choices, then,” Rohit said. "Perhaps you’d like to correct them.”

"Choices? What damned choices?” Mavra sputtered. "We were inducted all but at gunpoint—or what would pass for it if Inties needed guns. Me and my friends’ve been looking for a way out for months. The last group that tried to leave openly were beheaded and put in nano-jars like some kind of cartoon. The ones who tried to sneak away…mostly just disappeared.”

Rhianna installed the DIN in the turncoat’s belly button socket, and waited for the reaction.

The corners of Mavra’s mouth twitched. "Oh…wow. That’s…it’s like I’ve never had net before.”

Rhianna smirked. “We get that a lot.

"Root, please,” Rochelle said firmly.

"Uh, here. Here you go.” Mavra opened the ports, reassigned privileges, then sighed, lowering her head onto her arms on the table again.

Rochelle nodded. “Thank you. We’ll try to be as gentle as possible.” She slipped into the ferret’s cyberspace and sifted her memories for corroborating evidence. “Oh, wow, you weren’t kidding about the nano-jars. Yuck!”

“Fritz has so much to answer for,” Kaylee growled. “Every time I think he’s gone as low as he can go, he finds another slimy sewer to drop into.”

“These are her friends.” Uncia flashed images of Zeerust and Kyla across to Kaylee and Rohit. “Keep an eye open.”

Rohit nodded. “We shall,” Dr. Patil said.

“Okay, I think we’ve seen enough.” Rochelle withdrew. “You’ll want to change your root passkey now.”

"You’re…huh?” Mavra said. “You don’t want to…keep access just in case?”

Rochelle shook her head. “I’ve found no signs of duplicity in you now, so I don’t expect you’re going to develop some when my back is turned. And I’d rather have a free ally than a servant under duress.” She grinned. “Of course, if you’d like to apply for that maid position you mentioned, talk to me after this is all over, we’ll work something out.”

Mavra blushed through her fur. “Uh…thanks. I think.”

“We could maybe use you as an assistant,” Uncia put in. “You’ve got really good tech skills, for an Intie. Maybe we could train you in DIN crafting. We’ll need more real crafters when Fritz is out of the way.” Uncia purred. “And you might make a tasty mouthful in Nature Range, too! I haven’t had many Inties.”

“And you could serve tea, too!” Rochelle said. “Well, okay, actually I prefer coffee. But you could still wear the uniform.”

Mavra laughed nervously. “Uh…I’ll consider it.”

The surrounding fires were all out now, leaving Bifrost Park and the Milkbottle a charred ruin. Ash and smoke still lingered in the air. What trees hadn’t burned were under so much heat stress they wouldn’t survive, even with the local Dome restored. Somebody in Emergency Services must have noticed that the Bifrost Dome was the only one operating. In the distance a flotilla of Emergency Services and Militia fliers escorted by the distinctive stetson-and-duster Fused profiles of the Marshals approached. A familiar coyote holding a steampunk rifle accelerated away to get to the Park first.

"Cavalry’s here,” Rochelle said. "Hey Rusty, Trips!”

"Shoulda known it was you folks who brought this old girl back up,” Rusty said. "We’ll be making this our base of operations for the duration, a’course. Damned good job, all of you!” He glanced curiously at Rohit and Mavra. “Who’re your friends?”

“This is Rohit—she’s just in from Rodinia to meet some friends,” Rochelle said. “And this is Mavra—another one of the Inties who’re helping us.”

“Er…” Mavra said. “Hi.”

The coyote’s head cocked, then he grinned, hardlight tongue lolling pleasantly. “Of course she is. Lucky thing she was one o’ those who’s been with you all along, not one of Fritz’s, or we’d have to take her in for interrogation.” He winked. “But hey, if you vouch for her, that’s good enough for us! Lord knows we can use all the help we can get.”

"What’s going on around the polis?” Kaylee asked. "What’s our status?”

"We’ve got a half dozen subs incoming from Sturmhaven and Nextus for the counterattack. Other than that, not much is working besides the power, and that’s an ongoing battle in VR as we speak. The polis network is farked, the public fabs are spewing wind-up toy robots shouting 'made of meat’, and who knows what else,” Trips said. "It’s a complete mess. We figure there’s at least a couple hundred of them. We have no idea where Fritz himself is, he hasn’t made a move yet.”

"Knowing him, he’ll make his entrance when it’s most dramatically appropriate,” Kaylee said sourly.

"That reminds me,” Rochelle said. "I need to install the thingamajig into the network trunk.”

“Thingamajig? Is that a technical term?” Rusty asked.

“Something like that,” Rhianna said. “New networking hardware to let Shelley get in the fight.”

Rusty nodded. "The Sillies can use all the help they can get right now. Fritz’s Inties on the main network are working in teams, so when one of their DINs burn out it doesn’t screw everything up.”

Mavra glanced to Rochelle. “Can I…may I help? I want to put this through its paces.” She nodded down toward her navel, where the new DIN was glowing faintly.

Rochelle nodded. “Sure, the more the merrier.”

“Thanks,” Mavra said. “I promise I won’t let you down.”

Rochelle smiled, and reached out to pat the ferret on the shoulder. “I know. Now let’s hit the network—together.”

“Right!” In unison, Mavra, Rochelle, and Uncia closed their eyes, and the three of them dropped into cyberspace.

Separator k.png

The sign read “Dr. Roberto Martinez Memorial Center.” The squat, white stucco buildings weren’t much to look at, especially compared to the more graceful and modern architecture of the university that had sprung up around them, but in a very real sense these were the true heart and soul of Uplift. Or they had been at one time, anyway. These were the original buildings where Dr. Martinez had begun the research into desert phenomena that put this polity on the map.

It was traditional for classes from the various elementary and middle schools around Uplift to come to the buildings once a month as part of their history or science education. The research station’s pre-hardlight era had been a short few months before Zharus University had relented and given Dr. Martinez one of the experimental emitters for "field testing”. From then on, the station had been sheltered under a low-power dome only fifty meters wide. That emitter was now in Bifrost Park, having been moved early in the city’s history when three additional units were added.

“But Great Granddad was ecstatic just to get the first one,” the dark-haired girl with the raccoon RIDE tags told the class. “Meant he could stop spending half his time wrestling with equipment failures and get some science done.” A few high schoolers always came along on the field trips as teachers’ aides and kid wranglers. Gina Martinez and Jinkies were especially popular for this duty thanks to Gina’s inside track on the family history. Since the current generations of Martinezes still helped curate the site, she’d practically grown up here. And since getting her RIDE, Gina had matured to the point that teachers even trusted them alone with the kids. At the moment, Miss Othmar had gone to the restroom while Gina and her fellow minder watched the class.

Thanks to Jinkies the place was absolutely spotless. The raccoon RIDE’s hardlight had finally been upgraded from the cut-rate cartoon units to something more realistic, but "stylized”. Jinkies didn’t want to lose her 'toon looks completely.

But unusually for one of these trips, today the middle-schoolers were actually paying more attention to the other teacher’s aide. Gina’s fellow wrangler today was her fellow RIDE partner Relena Packard, though Relena’s RIDE Katie was off doing other things. The middle-school students were all well aware of who Relena was—or, rather, who her partner RIDE was. As far as they were concerned, even having Relena with them was like being in the presence of a real live movie star. As Relena and Gina shepherded them to the next room, with Jinkies padding placidly along behind, Gina said, “It’s a weird feeling not being the one they’re all staring at for a change.”

Relena tucked her hands in the pockets of the too-large Gondwana Marshals windbreaker Katie had finagled for her and chuckled nervously. “It’s a weird feeling being the one they’re staring at. But one I’m kinda used to these days. My whole life has gotten weird lately.”

Gina chuckled. “I guess so. I saw you on the news.”

“You and everybody else.” Relena shook her head ruefully. “It’s funny. All I wanted was a RIDE—a friend, companion, way to get to and from school without riding the bus…what I got was halfway famous when my RIDE got all the way famous. It’s an eye opener.”

“It hasn’t gone to your head any,” Gina said.

“You have no idea.” Relena shook her head. “I had such a hard time dealing with it at first. Here I was, born and raised in Uplift in a liberal family. Supposed to think of RIDEs as being people themselves, with their own rights and things, even if the law isn’t quite there yet. In theory, anyway.”

Gina glanced at her. “Yeah?”

Relena sighed. “I was so worried about her after Tocsin smashed her to bits. Then when I had her back…and she got famous…I realized I resented her for it. I didn’t want to, and I hated myself for it, but…here she was, supposed to be ‘mine,’ and suddenly she ‘belongs’ to the whole polity, which means she can’t spend as much time with me anymore. So much for thinking of her as ‘her own person’. And what’s worse, she could sense exactly how I felt every time we Fused up.”

“That doesn’t mean you don’t think she’s her own person,” Gina said. “You’d feel the same way if any of your close friends got famous suddenly and couldn’t see you as much.”

“Yeah, that’s what she told me, too.” Relena smiled ruefully. “She understands a lot about human nature. Not surprising, I guess, since she’s like twice as old as I am. And I guess if I were going to be upset about anyone being famous, I ought to be upset about her making me famous. I didn’t even do anything to deserve it.”

“But you just said you resented her being famous and you not,” Gina said.

“Yeah, well, that was before I learned about how annoying it was to be famous,” Relena said. “Neither one of us can go anywhere anymore—though it’s more a problem for her than me. And anyway, the thing that bothered me more is I can’t have her around as much anymore, because she can’t just be ‘my RIDE’ anymore. She’s a citizen so she’s gotta have her own life. And it turns out it’s just as hard for her, too.” Relena shook her head. “You and Jinkies should be glad neither of you has to deal with that crap.”

“We are,” Jinkies said happily. “I like belonging to Gina. She’s so good at making things messy so I can clean them up again! If I couldn’t clean up after her, I don’t know what I’d do with myself.”

Gina chuckled. “Glad you approve. You know if you ever want to do anything more, all you gotta do is ask, right?”

“I know,” Jinkies said. “But I’m a simple coonie with simple tastes. I’m happy where I am.”

“You know, I think there’s gonna be a lot of adjustment going on if RIDEs ever do get full citizenship,” Relena said thoughtfully. “I wonder how many of them won’t want it. And what do they say if they don’t? ‘Well, tough, you have to be a citizen’?”

“I think things like that are kinda what they made Katie a citizen to help them figure out,” Gina said. “Sort of like she’s a test case, and—”

"Hey, it’s gotten really windy outside!” one of the young students said, pointing to a window. “There’s all kinds a’ paper and trash blowing around!”

Jinkies perked up. “Trash blowing? Maybe I should go out there and—”

“Not now, Jinkies,” Gina said. She stepped over to the window herself, just in time to see the hardlight domes start flickering out. Her RIDE squeaked and Fused around her partner out of protective reflex.

Relena joined her a moment later. “Aw, crap.”

Gina and Jinkies turned around to face the students, and after a moment she had Jinkies retract her head so she could address the students face to face. “Hey, kids, guess what? This is your lucky day! I’m gonna show you a part of this complex that almost nobody ever gets to see anymore.”

The array of munchkins in front of her emitted a collective, “Oooh?”

“The first dome had a really primitive Maxwell’s Daemon, so it wasn’t always good at keeping the inside cool enough,” Gina explained. “Sometimes, on really hot days, Great Grand-Dad and the rest of his science team had to shelter in these stone chambers they dug out underground. C’mon and I’ll show you.” She glanced to Relena. “Make sure we haven’t lost anyone? Then get Miss Othmar.”

Relena nodded. “On it.”

What could possibly bring the domes down? Relena wondered. They were supposed to be as reliable as the dirt under their feet, or so her parents had said. Okay, maybe I should be asking who would possibly bring the Domes down? AlphaWolf? Some other group of Inties? For the life of her she couldn’t imagine Diane and the friendly folks at the Cheers bar doing anything like this.

:Relena!: Katie’s call through her basic comm implant was very faint. :Sh…stuff’s happening. I’m…. o….way to y..now.:

:Hurry!: Relena sent back. She made her way back through room after room, glancing around to see if any kids had stayed behind. Sometimes some of the kids got so enamored with one display or another they just didn’t move on with the rest of the class. Under normal circumstances that wasn’t a big problem, since the gate minders wouldn’t let them out without the rest of the class, but now it was a bit worrying.

Halfway through the building, she came to the public restroom, and glanced inside to see if the teacher was there. “Miss Othmar?” But the restroom was empty. Relena frowned and moved on.

Over the years the research station had grown from a single portable quonset hut into a sizable ring-shaped structure that housed almost fifty people and several labs—mostly grad students before the core of the polis had sprung up around it. Most of the rooms were carefully preserved just as they had been on the day before the Uplift Research Station Academic Governance Council decided to declare its status as a polis to the Planetary Advisory Assembly in Zharustead. By then there were dozens of ramshackle buildings under the three new hardlight dome emitters and almost two thousand permanent residents—mostly academics and prospectors willing to risk the hostile environment.

"Stay away from these children!” Miss Othmar’s shout came down the hallway from the vintage, still-functional auto-cafeteria. "I don’t care what you are! What is wrong with you?”

"Just a bit of fun, meat,” a woman’s voice replied.

"Yeah, Pattie, lay off,” came another unfamiliar voice. "We’re supposed to ignore them. Let ‘em be, eh?”

"Shaddup, Kyla,” the first voice replied. "You’re on thin ice as it is. Don’t make me cut off your ear like Murphy did to Zeerust, 'cause I will. And I’ll do it at the root.”

Relena froze for a moment. She could swear she heard her heart pounding in her ears. There were invaders here, in this building—threatening kids and teachers. Her kids and teachers. Well, that just wouldn’t do.

She looked around for anything she could possibly use as a weapon, and her gaze settled on a red spray fire extinguisher on the wall. Not exactly Dirty Harry’s .44, but better than nothing. If only barely. She grabbed it and pulled the pin, then grasped the squeeze handle tightly as she crept up to the cafeteria entrance and peered inside.

Miss Othmar stood between one of her students and a burly female polar bear Integrate. For some reason the bear had a hardlight cigar in her mouth that spewed iridescent smoke. Her only visible weapons were her formidable teeth and claws, but against the unarmed teacher and her students they were quite sufficient. Standing off to one side, a Tasmanian tiger with a striped pattern of hardlight emitters on her shoulders and hips looked distinctly grumpy but non-aggressive.

“So what’re you gonna do, then?” the thylacine asked. “Eat them?”

Pattie laughed. "Maybe I will. I did come here for a snack.”

"Don’t you even joke about that!” Kyla snarled. "If you harm a hair on any of their heads, I’ll—”

Relena could never be sure afterward exactly what had gone through her head, but before she knew it she was running forward, taking advantage of the bear’s momentary distraction arguing with the thylacine. She swung the extinguisher around, aimed the muzzle, and FSSSSSSSHHHHT! The bear staggered for a moment as her face disappeared under a huge glob of nanofoam.

Then the thylacine moved, lightning quick, grabbing the bear from behind and pinning her. “Get them out of here!” she yelled. “Hurry, I can’t hold her for long.”

“GRAAAAAHH!!!” the bear yelled, coughing and sputtering from inhaled foam. “LET ME GO THIS INSTANT I SWEAR I’M GONNA KILL YOU!!!”

A hardlight blade extended from Kyla’s forearm. "You think I’m going to let you do that, bitch? Huh? Any more struggles and I’ll punt your head across the University Quad!”

Relena dropped the fire extinguisher and turned to the paralyzed teacher and two small middle-schoolers huddling behind an overturned table. “That way! All the way to the end of the hall, then all the way down the stairs to the shelter. Go!

The teacher nodded at her, then grasped the arms of the two children and pulled them along after her. Relena followed, but stopped just beyond the door, turning back and peering around the corner to watch what transpired next.

A long spike emerged from Kyla’s back, and she shrieked in pain. Just as suddenly the spike was gone and the thylacine slumped to the floor, bleeding silvery-red Integrate blood from a massive hole in her torso. "You fucking n00b!” Pattie growled. She stood up and brandished a thin hardlight sword. "You gonna die now, bitch!”

The only thing Relena felt was a whoosh of air over her back, and suddenly Katie was there, dumping her momentum just in time to get her own teeth and claws ripping through the polar bear’s face. Pattie’s muzzle crunched audibly as Katie’s powerful jaws broke it. A pair of tri-barrel pulse miniguns extended from her sides and finished the job, blasting into the massive Integrate’s torso.

Against all odds, Pattie was still somewhat conscious. She was a bleeding white-furred lump on the cafeteria floor. "But you’re…you’re… This is impossible…you’re just…”

"Metal? Shut down now and you’ll maybe survive, or I’ll explode your goddamned head,” Katie hissed, extending yet more weaponry that might or might not have been hardlight bluffing.

"Okay, okay!” Pattie sputtered. Her eyes went out and her body relaxed completely into unconsciousness.

“Katie! You did it!” Relena ran forward. “What about the other one—is she all right?”

"I’ll live,” Kyla wheezed. "I’m just…just glad y’all are okay. Was worth it.”

“You’ve got to help her!” Relena insisted. “She bought me time to get the others to safety.”

“Stay still,” Katie said. “I’m calling for a medevac. I’ll tag you as one of the ‘good guys.’”

“Whatever.” The thylacine slumped to the floor. “Good luck.” She passed out.

“I’m glad you’re all right,” Katie said, giving Relena a slurp on the face with her bristly hardlight tongue. “You should get down to the shelter with the others. It’s not safe out here.”

“No way in hell,” Relena said. “I may not be a Marshal yet, but I’m your partner. Your only partner, unless there’s something you’re not telling me. And this is my home. And I refuse to believe a shelter without you can be any safer than being inside you. And you need me to use some of your weapons. And—”

Katie chuckled. “Whoa, hey, slow down. Okay, I give. I give.”

Relena blinked. “You do?”

“You’re right, on all counts. I don’t have time to argue…and I guess I’d feel better myself not letting you out of my sight.” Katie favored her with a toothy feline grin. “So, ya ready, kiddo?”

Relena held out her arms. “Fuse me up, Katiekitty!”

Behind her, Katie reared up on her hind legs, limbs and torso opening up, chassis shifting to receive. Relena felt the elder RIDE’s comforting presence in her mind as she Fused, all systems rising to full military power. :It’s all yours, Katiekitty.:

:Girl, I don’t know what I ever did to deserve you, but whatever it is, thank you,: Katie replied. "Let’s go.”

Separator k.png

The Martinez University campus dome emitter was located in pride of place amid the buildings of the Quad, where the now-Bifrost emitter had sat for so many years. It had been shut down and was being guarded by three Integrates—a shrew, an echidna, and a caribou.

The first clue they had something might be wrong was when the shrew vanished in a tawny blur. A moment later, one of the stucco buildings had a shrew-shaped impression in the wall. The gray furry Integrate slowly peeled off it, then toppled forward and collapsed onto the ground.

“Kathy! Are you okay?” the caribou yelped, swinging his head to and fro as he looked for the source of the attack. The echidna bristled, hunching down and fluffing up his spines. Then a shower of pulse shots rained down from directly overhead, scorching holes in the echidna’s spines before Katie slammed into him from above, a body-length hardlight shield taking the impact. She rolled to her feet, already bringing her cannons up—but the caribou was gone.

Katie put her back to the emitter and looked slowly around, ears cocked as she sought for the visual flickers or scuffing sounds that could sometimes give away a cloaked Integrate’s position. “Gondwanan Marshals! Stand down now!” she called out. There was no response.

Then Katie became aware of a low, building whine from the generator behind her. She started forward, then looked down at the echidna crumpled at her feet. “Aw, shit,” she muttered, bending down to scoop him up and then kicking her lifter pack into emergency overdrive. A second later, the generator exploded, and the shock wave buffeted Katie out of the air. She landed on top of the echidna again, who was starting to look decidedly the worse for wear, but her hardlight armor protected her from his spines and from most of the explosion shock.

“Give it up, you can’t win!” Katie yelled.

“You’re scrap, scrap!” the caribou yelled, materializing in front of her and lunging at her with a curved hardlight blade.

Katie parried with a hardlight blade on the back of her left gauntlet. “A bat’leth? You’re attacking me with a bat’leth? Seriously?

“It is a good day to die!” the caribou growled. “Integrates Ascendant!

“Yeah? Well ascend this!” Katie shoved the caribou back with her shield, then fired her thrusters to leap into the air. After a moment, the caribou followed, firing electrical blasts at her from his antlers.

“Oh, is that how you want it?” Katie released a cloud of mini-missiles, which boiled out on random paths before converging on the caribou. He wiped about half of them with an electrical blast from his antler, but the other half buffeted him and depleted his shields. Then Katie changed direction in the air and rocketed toward him, firing her dual pulse miniguns as she came, then slamming her hardlight shielding into him and riding him down to the roof ten meters below. He made a caribou-shaped crater in the roof tiles.

Katie got up and stepped back, dusting off her hands. “Yeah, it is a good day to die. Qapla’, asshole.”

She turned to look down at the square and sighed. Apart from the impression made by slamming a shrew into one building, they had now all been peppered with shrapnel from the generator as well as a few pockmarks from stray cannon shots. “That’s gonna leave a mark.”

“Gina’s gonna kill me,” Relena moaned. “Still, you took them down. That’s something.”

We took ‘em down, pard,” Katie corrected.

“You’re the one who did all the work,” Relena said.

“But I couldn’t have done it without you, girl. That counts.” Katie grinned. “You’re right, y’know. ‘Bout what you said earlier.”

“What was that?” Relena asked.

“You are my partner, and I won’t have any other,” Katie said. “You’re the one who saved me from the scrapheap, where I was gonna end up sooner than later.”

“But it was Lillibet who fixed you,” Relena said.

“And it was you who picked me.” Katie chuckled. “And who refused to give up on me when I was being all grumpy. Y’know, the Marshals wanted to assign me a temporary Fuse partner for gunnery practice and stuff, but I turned ‘em down flat. Told ‘em it could wait ‘til you were ready to join. It was gonna have to wait for graduation, but y’know what? When this is over, if I can’t get you a special internship in the Marshals I’ll eat my tail.”

“I…wow. I don’t know what to say,” Relena said.

“You don’t hafta say anything. Just be, and that’ll be enough.” Katie shrugged. “Anyway, as for all this crap, I’ve called it in, and the cleanup squad will be here in a few minutes,” Katie said. “Wanna go see if anyone else needs a little help?”

“Let’s do it!” Relena said. “Something tells me there’s lots more butt that needs kicked today.”

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The outskirts of naked Uplift were a collection of hardlight soap bubbles from emergency mini-domes. The panic that Fritz had so gone on about hadn’t materialized, Zeerust reflected. The Domes had gone down, but the “meat” simply sought shelter and the “scrap” rescued people caught in the sudden blast of Dry Ocean heat. 'Kicking an anthill,’ he said. 'Like ants under a magnifying glass,’ he said. 'Watch them scurry and fry’ he said.

The only scurrying being done were the Ascendants engaging the polity’s police force, militia, and a few Marshals who’d decided they couldn’t wait for a coordinated counterattack, and the Ascendant were losing those battles more often than winning them.

Among the emergency bubbles, one stood out from the rest. A huge geodesic hardlight structure that enclosed the Brubeck Mining buildings like a fortress. A few probes told Zeerust all he needed to know. The campus was physically isolated from the polis’s systems, and fully protected by whatever it was Mavra had run into a few weeks back. Trying to hack those domes would be like assaulting a medieval fortress with a slingshot.

"Every fortress has a weak point,” Fritz said. "That’s how these things are supposed to work. BarXan, tell your charge to find it.”

"You heard the Bosscat,” the larger zebra said, prodding Zeerust in the back. "Find it.”

How did I end up in this group, of all places? Zeerust fumed. Stuck with the Bosscat himself and two dozen of his hangers-on. He didn’t have any specialist or military background. His RIDE half had been a middle-of-the-road Connor RIDEworks ZEBRA-8. His DE chassis had been average in every way and even three years later he had no idea why he’d Integrated in the first place.

And now they were all looking at him, as their hacker-on-a-leash, to find the “weak point” that only had to exist because all fortress had them in the movies. I should just tell him to “Use the Force, Luke.” Yeah, right, like that would do anything except cost him the rest of his ear, and probably assorted other parts too.

Just thinking about it inadvertently caused him to twitch it, which rewarded him with another twinge of pain that made him wince. It was more annoying than anything, since as an Integrate he could grow the tip of it back in just a few days. But it promised the removal of other things that would take much longer to grow back, and would be considerably more unpleasant.

“I’m lookin’ already,” Zeerust grumbled. But it felt pointless. This place wasn’t going to be left unguarded. Even the underground approaches would likely be sealed like Fort Knox. But Zeerust dutifully checked the ports. He was beginning to sweat, because he could already see how this was going to turn out.

Unless…no, wait! One of the sewer junction accesses had somehow been overlooked in the upgrade. It seemed to have the old version of the firewall on it—the one Mavra had eventually been able to tunnel through. It looked like he could get in just as easily. “I think I got something here,” he reported as he started the hack. “Of course, you know this is probably a trap.”

Fritz snorted. “I know it is. For them. Get ready, everyone, we’re going in!”

Terrific. Well…maybe I can get captured early. The worst they’ll do is put me in prison, Zeerust thought hopefully. Prison sounds pretty good right about now. Restful.

"You first, probie,” BarXan said, prodding him in the back.

Zeerust wanted to give his fellow zebra a massive kick to the groin, but with Fritz right there his future lifespan would probably be measured in seconds and shower the ground below them with gore. I’m dead, they’re going to kill me. I’m going to die, he thought. But maybe there was a slim chance. As he’d tried to tell Fritz, the weak point screamed honeypot, an Obvious Trap if there ever was one. But Fritz had a habit of sacrificing a few mooks before joining the battle himself—and since he’d just finished doing his only job, he had now joined the ranks of the expendables. But there might be a way out of this…

Possible death versus certain death won out every time.

A blue hardlight bubble covered the trap’s belowground entrance. Zeerust’s keeper fired on it a few times before getting an elbow in the ribs. "Stop it, BarXan. This isn’t Metroid. It’s not going to open when you shoot it.”

"I’ll have it down in two shakes,” Zeerust said, pulling an access panel off the wall. The naked laser-comm ports also screamed honeypot. Someone in Zane’s cabal obviously thought they’d be stupid enough to take the bait—and here they were, doing just that. Not like that’s exactly a big surprise, Fritz being Fritz.

But maybe there was something…he formulated his plan in the second before the bubble came down.

Zeerust’s hips and shoulders burned as the cavorite in his lifters flared out, leaving an acrid odor of scorched fur, blowing out a few of his hardlight lenses in the process. His "comrades” didn’t react quickly enough and the bubble slammed closed behind him, slicing off limbs and even BarXan’s lips. He’s gonna have a harder time kissing Fritz’s ass now, Zeerust thought hysterically as he scrambled up the passage as fast as he could. He might have been the group’s designated hacker, but the honeypot had been simple enough even Fritz could get through it in a few minutes.

The pathway led into a basement room with every door save one welded shut with hullmetal plates. The door at the end was ajar, open a crack, with light streaming through it. Nope, no way that could be any kind of trap, no sirree…

Zeerust wasn’t sure what annoyed him more—the fact that they thought his fellow Inties were so stupid, or the fact that they were right. Well, it wasn’t that Fritz was too stupid to see a trap, to be fair, so much as that he simply didn’t believe Zane and company could pose any kind of credible threat. As far as Fritz was concerned, a “trap” was simply the same as a friendly invitation. That’s gonna bite him in the ass someday…

He’d come this far. Now it was time to hope they didn’t think he was a honeypot and just shoot on sight. Shoulders still trailing smoke from burned-out cavorite, he raised both arms and slipped through the gap.

"I surrender! I need help! Get me away from these dickweeds!” he shouted. "I want off this crazy train!”

Zeerust wanted to cry with relief when strong arms grabbed him by the shoulders and slammed him to the ground. Someone else kneeled on his back and he felt the cold barrel of a gun kiss the base of his neck. “Root, now,” a woman’s voice commanded, her tone flat and deadly.

They didn’t have to tell him twice. "Take it! Take it!” He winced as someone came in and scoured his memories with an intensity that left him feeling like the inside of his skull had just been sandblasted. He’d probably have a migraine for days—but he couldn’t blame them. In their position he’d have done exactly the same thing.

The knee came off his back, and the arms lifted him to his feet and dragged him forward. He caught glimpses of a wedge-shaped room designed to funnel entrants into a tight corridor, lined with firing ports and drop holes in the ceiling. Then he was through it, and through a hardened steel security hatch, and up some stairs, and through another hatch, into a command center full of RIDE-clad guards and a few Integrates. The tiger at the center of the room needed no introduction.

“Hey, look what the black cat dragged in,” Zane Brubeck said. “Nice stripes. Don’t you think the world would be a better place if more Inties had them instead of spots?” He glanced past Zeerust’s shoulder, at the woman behind him. “He on the level?”

“He is,” the black jaguar-woman said, stepping in front of him. “His memories are clear, with no signs of tampering. Another of Fritz’s press-gang victims.” She actually patted him on the shoulder. “Apologies for the headache, friend. We are just a little…fraught right now.”

“No worries,” Zeerust mumbled, as the adrenaline shock settled in. He’d made it! He was safe! Well…assuming Zane won, anyway. But to someone standing in his hooves, it felt like a risk worth taking.

"Fritz is just outside,” a fennec Fuser said. She moved a little differently than most RIDEs—Zeerust noticed her fur was real rather than hardlight, but she didn’t really look like any Integrate he’d ever met. "Think he’s going to come in the hard way, Zane?”

"It’s looking more likely, Myla,” Zane said. "We’re ready for him.”

"Zane, the Bifrost Park dome just sprang back up,” a huge lioness Fuser reported. "No guesses who fixed it.”

“That’s my girl.” Zane grinned. “So what should we do with our new friend here? He’s injured.”

“Just…lock me up somewhere, I’ll be fine,” Zeerust mumbled. “Do whatever you want to with me. Won’t resist. Just don’t let him get me again.” He held out his hands as if for cuffs.

"There’s no need for that,” Zane said. "Bastian, would you mind taking care of him for a few minutes?”

A ring-tailed lemur Integrate wearing a Marshals duster and Stetson stepped forward. "Sure thing, Zane. I’ll get him settled upstairs in the infirmary and be back in a jiffy.”

As Zeerust followed the lemur out, he turned back and said, “Just do me a favor and win, okay?”

Zane grinned at him. “Well, since you asked me to…I’ll see what I can do.”

Preceded by:
Integration Part XX: Prodigals
FreeRIDErs Succeeded by:
Integration Part XXII: Alpha Strike