User:Robotech Master/Integrate Raids original

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FreeRIDErs story universe


by Jon Buck and Robotech_Master

Part 16: The Integrate Raids

Brena Silverston flew over the desert, leading a small force of Fritz’s followers toward Nextus. She couldn’t help feeling just a little conflicted about her mission.

Fritz had been mildly surprised when Brena had volunteered to lead the force to grab Lillibet Walton from her family mansion in Nextus. For as long as she’d been hanging out with him, Brena had been far more interested in helping on the political side of things—serving as Fritz’s representative at various Enclave council meetings when he couldn’t (or wasn’t allowed to) be there himself. After she’d been shot, then very nearly abducted by the Nextus military, Brena’d had a belly-full of contact with the lower orders. She didn’t like physical conflict—shouting matches were more her speed.

But Lillibet Walton was special. She was an old friend—like the defected (or defective) Quinoa Steader, one of the circle of rich kids Brena had used to hang out with. She’d been kind of like a little sister to Brena. And Brena knew that a lot of Fritz’s crew were rowdy, rambunctious, and not especially careful—especially with “meat”. Better to take charge of this herself. Lillibet would trust her—until it was too late, at least. Brena felt bad about that—but she didn’t want to see Lilli get hurt. She’d get over the “betrayal” in time.

Brena was still astonished the girl had ended up in the camp of that insane meat-mind Zane Brubeck. The girl she’d known before Integrating hadn’t been interested in RIDEs as anything but status symbols or a comfy place to make comm calls. Now she was learning to be a RIDE mechanic, of all things? What had gotten into her?

Well, Brena would soon find out. She hoped Lilli would get over her anger at being kidnapped. It would be fun to spend a few days hanging out with her, getting to know her again.

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Lillibet Walton was lying face-down on her bed, her knees on her pillow and her legs bumping the wall, reading a RIDE technical manual on her media tablet. It had been fun getting to spend a few days hanging out at the Freeriders Garage again, working on RIDEs with her friends, but after the excitement of Katie’s ceremony had faded, her parents had reminded her that technically she was still grounded, and since they were returning to Nextus she was going to have to come along.

And so she dutifully obeyed without too much grumbling. Her father had made it clear that the better-behaved she was during the next couple of months, the shorter her grounding would be, and Lilli intended to be the absolute model prisoner. Besides, even if she was restricted to home grounds, she still had plenty of amazing privileges most other girls her age didn’t have. Like a great big ol’ fuzzy ocelot who was also one of her best friends in the world. The ocelot in question was currently curled up in her RIDE bed at the other end of the room, peering at Lilli through one open eye.

Lilli chuckled and returned her attention to her book—for a few short seconds before she was interrupted by the desktop comm going off. That was odd. Whoever it was had to have her secret number, because her parents were filtering all the calls on her main one as part of the conditions of her grounding. That in turn meant it was probably someone important, because she didn’t give that number out to just anyone. She hopped up and hit the “Answer” key on the second ring.

“Lilli?” It was Paul! From the background, he was in Fenris’s tank-mode cockpit.

“Paul!” Lillibet said. “What’s going on?”

“We just got word that Fritz has sent some Integrates after you and your family,” Paul said without preamble. “We think he wants revenge for what Rhi and Shelley did on Zane’s platform the other day, maybe a bargaining chip to make them back off. Help is on the way, but we don’t know if we can beat them there. Get your parents to safety, and get Fused up with Guin. She’s got the Sneaker/Shoelace system, right?”

“You know it!” Lilli said.

“Good. You don’t have much time. Get on it.” Paul reached to break the connection.

“Got it.” Lilli closed the comm, and frowned. Fritz’s gits were coming after her? Here? She’d known something like this was going to happen ever since she’d made such a big splash on the TV news in the events surrounding Katie’s ascension to citizenship. It was why she’d tried to talk her Mom and Dad into letting her stay at the new garage, or at least let her buy some real military weapons paks. But they wouldn’t hear of it, and they thought their bodyguards were equal to any possible threat. The idiots wouldn’t even put Rhianna’s new DIN gear in their RIDEs, because it was “untested, non-standard equipment.”

It very much looked like it was going to be up to her and Guin to hold out until help could get there. She knelt and reached under her bed, pulling out a large, olive drab metal box and flipping open the lid. Guinevere stood by in her ocelot form, looking on. She leaned down to sniff at the box. “We’re really gonna use those?”

“I think we’re gonna have to.” Lillibet reached into the box and lifted out two identical late-model Nextus military pulse assault rifles. She hadn’t been able to get her hands on a full assault weapons pak for Guin, but these were at least better than the pop guns she’d had during Tocsin’s attack. And perhaps adding anything more would have been superfluous anyway given that Guin was built very much on a light mobility or scout style of design. She wasn’t going to be able to assault the Death Star with them, but between the skill chips Guin had downloaded and the virtual practice they’d been putting in lately, she hoped she could at least defend herself—especially with the new DIN gear keeping her hack-proof.

Lillibet held out her arms and Guinevere split apart and reassembled herself around Lilli’s body, hardlight fur turned to seamless power armor. She picked up the rifles and latched them into place on the outsides of Guin’s forearm greaves. The handgrips dangled uselessly in the air, but that left Guin’s and Lilli’s hands free for other things—the guns were triggered electronically through Guin’s targeting systems anyway.

Armed up and ready, Lillibet peered out through the windows onto her room’s third-storey stone balcony, where the gathering dusk was starting to cast long shadows. “Anything on the sensors yet?”

Guinevere shook their head. “Negative. But there wouldn’t be, if they wanted to be sneaky. Oh.”


“Security guard’s comm transmission just cut off in mid-word,” Guinevere said.

Lillibet raised their guns. “They’re here. Comm Mom and Dad. Tell them to get to the saferoom, and I’ll join them when I can.”

“Already did. No sign they’re moving yet.”

Lillibet shrugged. “Well, we did what we could.”

Just then, a lithe, bushy-tailed silhouette landed on the balcony. Lillibet and Guinevere crouched behind their bed, assault rifles held at the ready. “Who’s there!” Lilli demanded.

“Lillibet? It’s me!” a familiar voice called out.

“Brena?” Lillibet slowly stood up, disbelieving. “Did the Enclaves send you to help hold off Fritz’s goons?”

“Uh…yeah!” Brena said. “Come with me, I’ll take you somewhere safe.” Brena walked forward, hand outstretched.

:Lilli, she’s trying to hack me!: Guinevere said.

Lillibet’s eyes narrowed. She wasn’t as gullible now as she’d used to be. Part of that old self had died when she and Brena had been shot in that bar. More of it had gone under the tutelage of Rhianna and Rochelle in the garage. She’d learned the dangers of believing what she wanted to be true rather than what had to be true. So, as much as she wanted to cry no, it couldn’t be true, instead she snapped her rifles up into position. “You’re one of them, aren’t you?” she asked bitterly.

“Lilli, it’s not what you think,” Brena said. “You’ve got to come with me, for your own—”

“Don’t come any closer!” Lillibet warned. “Keep your hands down at your sides!”

“Lilli, don’t be silly—” Brena began, taking another step forward.

Lillibet opened fire.

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Brena threw herself backward off the balcony as the military pulse rounds chewed away at her hardlight shielding with uncanny accuracy. This was a series of unpleasant surprises. First, they’d known she was coming somehow, and were prepared. Where had Lilli gotten those assault rifles? And this also suggested reinforcements were on the way.

And why couldn’t she hack Lillibet’s RIDE? She was trying even now, but her attempts just slid off like thrown mud from a hardlight dome. Were they being shielded by another Integrate? But if so, why hadn’t he shown himself?

But one thing was sure—if reinforcements were coming, they didn’t have time to dawdle. :Try to get in behind her,: she sent to two of the other three Integrates who’d accompanied her.

:Gotcha,: JerryMander said. The slim raccoon slipped into the third-floor room next door to Lilly’s, through a door letting out onto the same balcony.

:On it,: Bethany, a Golden German Shepherd, entered at the ground floor. The mansion’s security systems and door locks were down, and the RIDEs of all security forces on the grounds had been converted into straitjackets for their pilots—those, at least, they could hack. But Lilli’s RIDE stubbornly resisted.

:We got incoming,: the fourth Integrated, a mid-sized bronze dragon named Tiranth, reported. :Suborbital on approach three minutes out. Not replying to ATC, but its trajectory points right to us.:

:Oh, great,: Brena said. :Can you knock it down?:

:Not ‘til it’s in range,: Tiranth said, taking to the air with a flap of his wings. :I’m not a missile-breathing dragon!:

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Lillibet crouched behind the bed, breathing hard. She’d just fired on her best friend. She was pretty sure she hadn’t actually hit her, but still. “How could she be such an idiot?” Lillibet growled. “I trusted her!”

:Lilli—movement in the guest room!: Guin alerted her. :A board just creaked!:

Lilli turned. :Show me.:

:Nothing on thermal—but there. Another board.: Guin highlighted the most probable location of the invisible intruder on the other side of the wall.

:Aw man! Right behind my Lord of the Rings poster!: But without any other hesitation, Lilli opened fire with both guns, shredding the poster and the wall beyond it like cardboard.

:I think there’s one downstairs, too!: Guin reported. :But—comm from AW! He’s two minutes away!:

Lilli blinked. :AW? Who’s AW?:

There was a noise on the staircase up the hall. :Later for that,: Guinevere said. :We gotta move!:

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:Ow! Shit! Fuck! Dammit!: JerryMander’s vehement swearing and sensations of sharp pain flooded the local link after the flashes of further pulse fire lit Lilli’s window. :That crazy bitch shot me through the wall!: The raccoon stumbled back out onto the balcony, bleeding from the shoulder.

A moment later, Bethany helped, retreating with her tail literally between her legs. :She’s got pulse rifles and damned good aim!: Bethany reported. :You didn’t tell me she had pulse rifles!:

:Oh, what the hell!: Brena growled. :We’re Integrated! She’s just meat and mech!:

:Fine, then you flush her out!: JerryMander whined.

:We’re one minute away from company!: Tiranth reported.

:All right, then follow me, you two.: Brena rose into the air, drawing a hardlight cone in front of her. She took a deep breath, then slammed the cone forward into Lilli’s room at 200 kph. The wall imploded inward, and Brena followed it in, searching the rubble for signs of the ocelot RIDE. Then twin beams of pulse fire ripped through the wall from the guest room, scoring Brena’s arm and leg. “Ow! Lilli, you little—” She hastily threw up her thickest hardlight shields to ward off the fire, then slammed her lifters against that section of wall. It flew back, knocking into Lilli and her RIDE and throwing them back against the opposite wall. “Drop your weapons!” Brena ordered. “We don’t want to hurt you!”

Lilli and her RIDE got back to their feet. “Too late for that!” Lilli growled. “Finding you on Fritz’s side hurt me pretty bad already!” She fired a couple of short bursts that ate into Brena’s shields and dodged out the door.

Brena came to a decision. :JerryMander! Bethany! Find the parents!: she sent. :Maybe we can take them hostage to get her to surrender!:

:Do they have pulse rifles too?: the grouchy raccoon sent.

:If we screw this up, we’ll wish pulse rifles were all we had to worry about,: Brena said, following Lillibet deeper into the house.

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“Thirty seconds to landing!” Baldwin reported. “Twenty-five…oh hell. They’ve got a dragon! Evasive!” The old sub creaked and groaned as the bald eagle pilot whipped it over into a sharp bank. A particle beam blast grazed the wing.

“Drop us!” Paul sent over the comm. “Open the tank ramp!”

“It’ll tear right off!” Baldwin protested.

“Just do it!” AlphaWolf said. Baldwin growled and slammed the lever down, then dodged another particle beam blast. The ramp lowered from the back of the sub and, as predicted, fell right off and tumbled away.

“Hang on!” Fenris said, backing out into empty space.

“Don’t worry, I’m strapped in and—aaaaaaaah!!!” The tank tumbled as it fell, then straightened as Fenris fired his lifters and got the descent under control. He shifted to Walker form in mid-air, pulling Paul safely inside, then landed on all four legs in the middle of the Walton mansion’s expansive lawn.

Meanwhile, the source of the particle blasts was fast approaching the sub overhead—a bronze dragon hanging in mid-air. It roared angrily and released another particle beam blast from its mouth, slamming into the side of the sub.

“Fenris had the right idea!” AlphaWolf said. “Abandon ship! Punch us out!”

“Don’t have to tell me twice.” Baldwin slammed his fist down on a big red button and the section of fuselage containing the cockpit blew free of the rest of the ship, rising on a pillar of lifter fire as the rest of the sub plummeted to earth, going up in a ball of fire on the lawn not far from Fenris.

The detached cockpit landed a moment later—followed by an angry bronze dragon. “Come out of there!” he bellowed. “Surrender and you won’t get—Ow!”

“Hurt?” Paul asked from the particle beam turret of Fenris, who’d switched back to tank mode. He fired another twin blast, scorching the dragon’s hide. As the Integrate snarled and spread his wings, Fenris followed up with a volley of missiles, buffeting the dragon in explosions. “Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Paul smirked, as the dragon screeched and took off as if his tail was on fire. Come to think of it, it actually was—looked like it had gotten splashed with napalm from the missiles.

Under cover of Fenris’s assault, AlphaWolf, Melissa, and Baldwin emerged from the cockpit’s escape hatch. As the only one in Fuser form, Baldwin unshouldered a pulse rifle and covered the retreating dragon with it.

“We need to find Lilli and her parents!” Paul said. “You two go for the parents. We’ll find Lilli.”

“I’ll, uh, guard the ship,” Baldwin said, indicating the escape pod.

AlphaWolf nodded. “Good plan. Move out!”

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:Oh, screw this!: Tiranth complained. :They’ve got a heavy assault RIDE and I can’t hack any of them either! I’m out of here!:

:Tiranth! You know what Fritz will do if you bug out?: Brena sent, including images that involved a lot of butchered meat. :Look, come around the other side of the mansion, put it between you and them. Help Jerry and Beth get to the parents. They’ve locked themselves in a saferoom, we could use a little dragon power.:

:R…roger,: Tiranth said shakily. It was only the threat of Fritz’s legendary temper that kept him around. For that matter, it was beginning to be the only thing that kept Brena here herself. Lilli and her RIDE had dropped right off her sensors—her Integrate sensors. The hell?

Brena moved up the hall, keeping her hardlight shielding as thick as she could. At least the pulse wounds from earlier had stopped bleeding. “Geez, Lilli, why is it hanging around with you keeps getting me shot?” Brena muttered.

“Maybe you deserve it!” Lilli said from behind her, just before two streams of pulse fire slammed into her back.

“Shit!” Brena dived for cover around a corner as her shields dropped to 10%.

“I trusted you,” Lilli said. “I looked up to you! You know how torn up I was when you disappeared? And now you’re here to kidnap me!”

Brena didn’t reply, backing further down the hall and reinforcing her still-regenerating shields to the front. So she was caught out when another pulse blast came through the wall from the room to her side, ripping through the shields and perforating her leg and arm. “Ahh!” Brena yelped.

“I even did what you told me to!” Lillibet said, sadly, as she crashed through the weakened wall in a cloud of plaster dust. “I got to know my RIDE real well, and now Guinny and I are very happy together.” She—or maybe Guinny—slammed the end of one pulse rifle into Brena’s gut, doubling her over. “I was looking forward to Integrating, to be just like you!” She slammed the other rifle down on the back of Brena’s head. “Now I find you’ve joined up with the jerkiest jerk of a jerk who ever jerked!”

Then Lilli stopped, turning her head to one side. “And your asshole friends are after my Mom and Dad now. Well, screw you and the dragon you rode in on.” Lilli delivered a ride-powered knee to the reeling Brena’s muzzle and left her unconscious in the rubble.

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In a saferoom underneath the house, Kenyon and Nigella Walton huddled, worrying about their daughter.

The security systems were down, of course, so they couldn’t get any camera views. Indeed, if Kenyon hadn’t insisted on equipping the room with a non-automated mechanical steel vault door, the Integrates would already have hacked their way in. Even now they were slamming away at it and it was slowly starting to buckle.

Another burst of pulse fire sounded elsewhere in the mansion. Nigella blanched, but Kenyon was less worried. Integrates by and large didn’t use human weapons. Besides, he recognized the sound of the type of rifle that Lillibet thought she’d “secretly” bought. So he was actually reassured to hear them, being reasonably sure they meant his daughter and her RIDE were still alive and in the fight.

“Where’s our security?” Nigella whined for the tenth time. “What are we even paying them for?”

“They’re probably unable to move,” Kenyon said. “Integrates seem to be able to paralyze anything with a computer in it—save for that new technology Lil tells me Rhianna and Rochelle have invented. I expect that’s why she’s still out there, moving and fighting them.”

Fighting them?” Nigella squawked. “At her age she shouldn’t be fighting anything!

“When I was younger than she is now, I was running with the Nuevo San Antonio Apaches,” Kenyon said. “As I believe I might have mentioned to you a time or three before I married you.” She looked up at him and blinked a couple of times. He chuckled, moving closer to her and putting an arm around her. “I know you’ve seen all my scars, if you needed further proof.”

Nigella shuddered. “She shouldn’t have scars.”

“I’m sure she’ll be just fine. I also have little doubt she’s called in reinforcements,” Kenyon said. “Her friends struck me as capable, rational individuals, albeit perhaps a bit less careful than they might be in who they antagonize.” He chuckled again. “Which, again, reminds me of myself in my younger days.” He gave her another squeeze and then went to a cabinet against one of the walls. Unlatching it with a key from around his neck, he lifted out a pulse rifle similar to the ones Lilli had bought and checked the action. “Can I get you a gun while I’m up?”

Nigella sighed. “If you must, I suppose I could handle a submachine gun. I don’t exactly want to be kidnapped either.” At her husband’s and their bodyguards’ insistence, she had taken several small arms training courses and even managed to acquire some level of skill with them, as she tried to do with anything she had to learn. It didn’t mean she enjoyed them.

Kenyon took Nigella’s arm and led her over to a small firing barrier on the opposite side of the room. They crouched and readied their weapons as the door slammed open at last and two silhouettes stood in the door. “All right, just come quietly and no one needs to get hu—owwww!” the raccoon yelped as more pulsefire winged his way. “Fuuuck! This was supposed to be easy!”

“That’s about enough of that,” the German Shepherd said. She waved her arm and the guns flew out of the couple’s hands, clattering to the floor across the room. “Now why don’t you two—GAH!!!” The dog emitted a yelp just like her partner’s as an immense sandy wolf clamped its jaws around her throat and wrestled her to the ground, pinning her with its weight. Her eyes widened as she instinctively reached out for the hack, and just slid right off—as if from another Integrate.

“I suggest you open access to me,” AlphaWolf said conversationally through his vocoder, without removing his jaws from her throat. “If you’d like your head to still be attached to your body in the next minute or so.”

Bethany whimpered and complied, then closed her eyes as she went into deep hibernation. A few feet away, a rather angry mink was offering the raccoon the same bargain. AlphaWolf held on just long enough to make sure both Integrates were shut down, then let go and padded into the saferoom, followed by Melissa. “Kenyon and Nigella Walton, I presume?” he asked politely.

Kenyon helped his wife to her feet, and they gingerly approached the two RIDEs. “You seem to have the advantage of us,” he remarked.

AlphaWolf nodded. “This is Melissa, and I’m—”

That was when the roof fell in.

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Tiranth was still trying to get a good angle on the saferoom from outside, to penetrate without doing too much damage, when he sensed the arrival of the two RIDEs and then abruptly felt first Bethany and then JerryMander go into deep hibernation. :Beth? Jerry? What the hell?!: They’d just surrendered? To mech without even any meat in it?

“Oh, screw you! Screw you very much!” Tiranth opened his jaw and breathed his heaviest particle beam fire blast yet, at the main structural support members over the saferoom.

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Everything was dark. Am I dead? The last thing she remembered was a rumble, a shaking…and a large furry creature lunging at her. She tried to explore how she felt…what she felt…and to figure out why the first thing she was aware of was a panic-stricken girlish voice in the back of her head whimpering, :OhGodI’msorryI’msorryI’msorry don’thurtmeIdidn’tmeanto…:

Nigella was a bitch. She knew that. She admitted it. She even reveled in it. It was the part society expected her to play, after all. And it saved her from the only other part available—having to be endlessly gracious at social events that would have bored her to tears. It was her greatest excuse. But she had a secret she kept deep inside that would have surprised many of the people who dealt with her on a daily basis. The secret was obvious when you remembered what a bitch was.

A bitch was also a mother. And mothers cared about helpless little girls.

She couldn’t have explained how she did it, or even how she knew how to do it, but Nigella reached out for the voice, stroking it, comforting it. :It’s all right…whatever you did, it’s all right.: She pondered a moment. :What…did you do?:

:I…Fused you without asking,: Melissa said, whimpering a little more. :I’m sorry, I just couldn’t let you get squished…please don’t have me melted down for scrap!:

A little taken aback, Nigella smiled and hugged the mink, or at least tried to send the mental impression of smiling and hugging. :I wouldn’t do that.:

:You…you wouldn’t?: Melissa asked hesitantly.

:Lilli tells me that RIDE parts are worth more than raw materials,: Nigella said. :So I’d just have you dismantled, not melted.: When Melissa howled, Nigella hastened to reassure her, :It was a joke, a joke! Sorry! I promise, I wouldn’t hurt you. Really.:

:R…really?: Melissa whimpered.

:I promise. You saved my life,: Nigella said. :At least, I think you did, assuming I am still alive.: Nigella tried to feel her body. Now that she knew she was within a RIDE, she was able to sense it a little more clearly. She seemed to be lying on her side, pinned beneath a heavy weight.

:You are. We are,: Melissa said. :We’re just buried.:

:What about Kenyon?: Nigella asked quickly.

:He’s alright, too,: Melissa said. :They Fused in time, just like we did.:

:Thank goodness,: Nigella said. :So…this is Fusing?: It felt…not too bad, really. Warm all over. And she wasn’t sure but she thought she felt stronger than usual. Maybe she could shift some of the rubble if she tried.

:It is,: Melissa said. :It would be even better if we weren’t buried. We may have to wait for someone to dig us out.:

:Will we be all right until then?:

:Oh, yes,: Melissa assured her. :I have plenty of life support available. You’re in no danger.:

Nigella became aware of something else at the periphery of her mind. A sensation, perhaps an emotion. It was…as if she was reading Melissa’s thoughts. Lilli had said something about people being that way with RIDEs. Now Nigella blinked at what she read. :You’re…wondering if I’ll keep you,: Nigella said. :You…want me to keep you because…: And then she actually giggled. :Because mink are supposed to be worn by rich women?:

:Well…yeah.: Melissa sounded a little embarrassed. :I know, originally, mink were killed and skinned and all and made into coats for rich women. But someone thought it would be cute to put that directive at the core of the neural net pattern for all the MNK(f)-LUX-010 units. We’re “supposed” to be worn by rich women, so we find it fulfilling. So it’s a part of who I am.:

And then Nigella was almost overcome by a flood of memories as Melissa opened up, sharing herself with the woman. Melissa’s female-only line had been made by a popular luxury RIDE factory in the Dome Rainier ward of Cascadia, and nominally aimed at the wealth bracket about one order of magnitude below the Waltons—which was still pretty rich, when you thought about it. Her sisters had been sold mostly to the eccentric wealthy of the rainy polis, and a few from the rest of the globe. Melissa had ended up in Nextus, with a woman who at first thought it would be “cute” to have a mink. When she eventually tired of all the “minx” jokes, she sold Melissa to a RIDE-enhanced beauty salon.

The salon operator had hit on the bright idea of modding RIDEs’ Fuser nanos to be able to suppress the ear and tail additions, and programming them to melt pounds off of and immaculately style the hair, skin, and nails of her patrons. So rather than be touched by human hands, the women would come in for a quick Fuse and de-Fuse, and leave looking much better than when they’d come in. For the salon operator, it was easy money. But for Melissa, it was sheer torture. She was meant to be paired with and share the thoughts of one person at a time. She was given several a day, and spent most months so overwhelmed with random thoughts and memories from the patrons that she was barely even able to be herself.

Finally she’d been so overwhelmed and fragmented that she’d been unable to operate anymore, and had been replaced with another cheaply-bought female RIDE. As the final insult, the salon operator hadn’t even thought it worth the time to bother to sell her at auction; he’d just dropped her in a waste bin and sent her off to the recycling center.

Fortunately for her, she’d managed to self-defragment enough to clamber out of it before she reached the recycling machinery. She’d found her way out of town and wandered around until she’d been caught by a group of humans who recaptured and resold stray RIDEs—but before they could bring her back to town, some of AlphaWolf’s free RIDEs had raided them and taken her to safety in his camp. Her most recent memories involved being defragmented by Paul and Fenris, and then being conveniently close to hand—and conveniently equipped with the newest anti-Integrate countermeasures—when it came time for a rescue mission.

:You poor thing!: Nigella said. :That place should be illegal!: She was almost astonished to realize she meant it, too, and a moment later was ashamed of how she’d always thought of RIDEs before. They had been equipment to be used, gifts to be given, eccentricities to be tolerated in people like her daughter…but people? Oh, come on!

But after experiencing, even at second hand, one RIDE’s life of torture…or even her life at all:How can anyone Fuse with one of you and not come to the conclusion you’re people?: Nigella wondered.

:You think they don’t know?: Melissa asked bitterly. :They don’t care. They’d use humans just like they use us if they could get away with it.:

:They won’t be using you anymore,: Nigella said. :You’re mine now.:

:Y…you really mean that?: Melissa squeaked. Nigella could sense the years of pent-up disappointment, of never daring to allow herself even to hope, and the fear that this was just another cruel disappointment in a life that had held far too many.

:I absolutely mean it,: Nigella sent with rock-solid certainty. And again, she was surprised by how vehemently she felt it. She hadn’t wanted a RIDE before, couldn’t have imagined finding a use for one. But suddenly she couldn’t imagine giving this little mink up.

:Oh, thank you! Thank you thank you thank you!: Melissa sighed happily. :You’ll never regret it.: She stopped, then seemed to feel that more was required. :And you’re gonna have awesome hair.:

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When Kenyon Walton found himself in darkness, he didn’t panic. Darkness was at least an old acquaintance, if not a friend. And this darkness seemed to have someone else in it. He reached out mentally and located that other party, who was holding himself slightly aloof. :Hello?: he sent.

:Hello, Mr. Walton,: the wolf RIDE replied. :Sorry about the sudden Fuse. It was the only thing I could think to do.:

:I understand. The roof was coming down.: The recollection made him stiffen and try to move beneath the rubble that was pinning him down. :My wife! Is she—?:

:She’s safe. Melissa got to her in time,: the wolf said.

Kenyon relaxed. :Thank God. What about my daughter? Do you know if she is well?:

:She is,: the wolf reported. :In fact, she’s been giving a lot better than she’s gotten.:

:That’s my girl,: Kenyon said proudly. Curious, he reached out for the wolf, probing with a startling directness. The wolf wasn’t quite fast enough to block the query.

:Well well well,: Kenyon said bemusedly. :I seem to have been bodyjacked by the notorious AlphaWolf himself. My daughter has been making some interesting friends of late.:

:Only mutual ones,: AlphaWolf said. :We haven’t actually met yet.:

:I see.: Walton chuckled. :So after we’re free, what then? Off to your camp to serve as a pair of thumbs?:

AlphaWolf chuckled. :Hardly. Your daughter would hunt me down and take my pelt for a rug. And if she didn’t, Rhianna would. Besides, my reputation is somewhat exaggerated.:

:I imagine so.: Kenyon reached out again. Interested by his directness, AlphaWolf did what he so rarely ever had with any of his Fuses—he opened his memories, at least those since the founding of his camp. Kenyon reviewed them, reliving the wolf’s struggle to find a home for wayward RIDEs while balancing the desires of extremists for revenge with the needs of those who just wanted a safe haven. It concluded with the Fridolf/Amontillado debacle, which Kenyon could sense still stung.

:Ah, I see.: Kenyon chuckled, but radiated a surprising degree of empathy. :The pressures of survival and leadership.: Haltingly due to his own inexperience, Kenyon shared his own recollections—a young man growing up in the mean streets of Nuevo San Antonio, running with the “Apache” street gangs until, as part of a street sweep, he was rounded up and sent to an Army-operated mining camp in the deep Dry to “serve his country.” At one point he was separated from the others and wandered lost in the desert for days, during which he happened upon a rare vein of pure qubitite. Having learned just enough of mining to recognize what he’d found, Walton had concealed the location and committed it to his memory so that he might be able to find it again.

When he’d been released from the camp and returned to civilization, Walton had filed a claim form right away, then spent months scrimping and saving to round up the necessary resources, and finally hired a mining crew to retrieve his treasure. He’d had to put down more than one mutiny when the miners had learned just what he really had, but his experience on the streets had served him in good stead there.

And with the money he’d earned, Walton had clawed his way up into Nextus society, learning the rules and manners with the same street-bred relentless intensity he had formerly applied just to surviving. Along the way he had met a young lady who had been surprised but not repulsed by the real man underneath the cultured exterior, and he had made her his wife. And together they had founded a business, a fortune, and a family—facing a number of challenges along the way that had been met with that same relentless directness.

It was remarkable, AlphaWolf realized, how much like a wolf this man was himself. :I wish I had met you when we were younger,: AlphaWolf said. :We might have been partners.:

Kenyon nodded, or sent the mental impression of one. :Too much water under the bridge now. Under both our bridges.:

:I can’t leave my camp, and you couldn’t leave your corporation,: AlphaWolf agreed. :Too many people relying on both of us.:

:Though if this is what it is like to Fuse, I might have to find some RIDE with fewer commitments,: Kenyon reflected.

AlphaWolf actually laughed. :You’re more right than you know.:

Kenyon raised a mental eyebrow. :Indeed?:

:It seems your wife has just decided she’ll be keeping Melissa,: AlphaWolf said. :Melissa is quite beside herself with joy.:

Kenyon’s hearth laugh echoed AlphaWolf’s own. :Ah, is that so? Another mouth to feed. Indeed I’ll need to find a friendly RIDE just to keep up with the women in my family.:

:Hold on,: AlphaWolf sent suddenly. :Your daughter just got here.:

:Then let’s see if we can shift some of this rubble.: Kenyon experimentally threw all of his strength into trying to work an arm free, and AlphaWolf lent strength of his own.

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Lillibet felt the roof and then the whole house shake as she approached the entrance to the saferoom. Then a cloud of plaster dust rolled out the stairs down to the saferoom level. “What? No!” She ran down the stairs. “Mom! Dad!” There were a couple of prone forms on the floor outside the entrance that she at first took to be them, then realized were the other two Integrates, the raccoon and the dog—covered with plaster dust and a chunk or two of masonry, but otherwise fine, save for being in hibernation. Lilli took the opportunity to give them each a good, swift RIDE-powered kick in the ribs.

:Wow, vindictive much?: Guin asked.

:Who’s the one who didn’t stop me from kicking them?: Lilli shot back.

:Okay, point.:

They turned to the door, and the room beyond, which was filled almost entirely with heaped rubble. “Mom…Dad…” Lilli murmured.

:Wait, I think…yes! There!: Guin raised their arm and pointed excitedly. A block of rubble shifted, and a sandy-colored furry arm raised itself out. :AlphaWolf!:

Lilli blinked. :Wait, AlphaWolf? That’s “AW”?: She stared. :And he has my Dad?:

:It’s comfy in here,: Kenyon Walton said. :I feel like a werewolf. Can you two lend a paw?:

:I think we’re going to need a heavy lifter,: Lillibet said. “Hold tight, everyone!”

“On our way!” Paul called. A moment later, a giant humanoid wolf picked his way through the rubble. “There’s still a dragon flying around, but he’s keeping his distance right now,” Paul reported. “After the pasting we gave him earlier, he’s probably still psyching himself up.”

Fenris paused at the edge of the room. “Okay, our sensors are picking you guys up. Hang on, we’re going to lift some of this crap off.”

Fenris carefully reached down to move collapsed timbers and concrete slabs. A moment later, two dust-covered furry figures stood and brushed themselves off. There was AlphaWolf with Kenyon, and—

“Oh wow, Mom, is that you?” Lillibet squealed. “You look great in mink!” She giggled. “And nice to meet you, Melissa!”

“I suppose you never expected to see me in a RIDE,” her mother said. “Your life is full of surprises today. You shall simply have to adapt.”

“Wow,” Lillibet said again.

“I find the experience rather intriguing myself,” Kenyon admitted. “I hope you can help me find a compatible RIDE of my own later, Lilli. This one is a little too high-maintenance for me to want to keep.” He turned to look up…and up, and up at Fenris. “I suddenly feel inadequate,” he said dryly.

Lilli giggled again. “Daddy, you’ve never once felt inadequate in your life.”

The conversation was interrupted by Guinevere reporting, “Lilli, I think our dragon friend is returning.”

“Oh crap.” Guin looked up at Fenris. “Fenny, pop your cupola. Paul, you got the guns fixed, right?”

“First thing when we got back,” Paul said. “You shoulda seen us earlier!” The gunner’s compartment on Fenris’s back dropped open.

Lilli and Guinevere leaped into the air on their lifters and settled into place in the cupola, which resealed around them. “Linking up!” The giant wolf lifted into the air on his own lifters, drifting out away from the house to move the danger away from Lillibet’s parents.

:Link accepted,: Fenris sent, as their presences merged. :Welcome back.:

:Glad to be here,: Lilli said as Guin took over some of Fenris’s processes again so he could think faster. :Now where’s that pesky dragon?:

:There! Fenris marked him with a targeting reticle in Lilli’s field of view as he swooped around for an attack run. Lilli flipped the guns forward and tracked him as he came.

:Hey, buddy, you’re the last one left!: Guinevere sent. :You might wanna think twice!:

In response, the dragon dropped his jaw and fired another blast. Fenris raised his left arm and caught the blast on a huge hardlight shield, then Lilli returned fire with the cannons, scoring several hits that ate away at the dragon’s own hardlight shielding. As he passed, Lilli flipped the guns from front to rear-facing and kept tracking him with more fire as he came back around. Though he jinked and dodged, she got in several more good hits.

:His shielding just went down,: Paul said. He transmitted more broadly, :Hey, guy, give it up. You can’t win. Surrender and we’ll treat you fairly.:

:Never!: the dragon roared. :We don’t surrender to meat!:

:Your two friends did,: Fenris pointed out.

“GRAAAAAAH!!!” the dragon roared inarticulately, spouting his particle beam flame again. This time he missed Fenris altogether, carbonizing some topiaries halfway down the lawn and setting others on fire.

Lillibet triggered Fenris’s shoulder missile batteries again, flushing the remainder of his pods at the dragon. The creature squawked and tried to bank out of the way, but the explosions caught him squarely in the chest and wings and knocked him right out of the sky. He landed on his back next to the ruined house, wings in tatters, with a gaping wound in his side that sparked and bled.

Fenris landed next to the dragon, and Lilli covered him with the particle beam turrets over Fenris’s shoulders. “Ready to give up now?” Lilli asked. “We really don’t want to kill anyone. However…”

The bedraggled dragon opened his DIN port, and a moment later fell into deep hibernation just like the others.

“Just one left,” Lilli said. “Let’s go round her up.”

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Brena groaned and staggered unsteadily to her feet. She felt like she’d been trampled by a herd of elephant RIDEs, and thought her nose might be broken. Ow.

:JerryMander?: she sent. :Bethany?: No response. :Tiranth?: Even the dragon wasn’t answering. Brena was getting worried now. It wasn’t possible they could all have been defeated by meat…was it?

Either way, she didn’t plan to hang around any longer and let it happen to her. She staggered out of the house and oriented herself for flight.

“Brena!” It was Lilli’s voice, amplified. She glanced in that direction, and stared. A six-meter furry white wolf Fuser with twin particle beam cannons on his shoulders was looking back at her. “Just hold it right there, Brena. We’ve already got your friends.”

“No way, meat!” Brena spat. How could she ever have thought there could be anything left to her friendship with Lillibet? Fritz had been right. Integrates had no business mixing with meat. “I’m out of here!” She went invisible and launched herself into the air.

“Wrong answer, Brena,” Lillibet said grimly. The last thing Brena was aware of for several seconds was the barrels of the cannon elevating to track her with eerie precision, then the bright flash of light as they fired.

When she woke up, it was to the sight of the gaping barrel of a pulse rifle centimeters away from her face, and a disappointed-looking Lillibet, the ocelot helmet-head off to expose her human face, on the other end. “Please don’t make me have to use this.”

Brena whimpered a little. “What do you want?”

“Root,” Lilli said. “We need to put you into hibernation until we can decide what to do with you and the others.”

Brena sighed and opened up. “There you go.”

“Thanks.” Lilli nodded, lowering the gun. “Sorry about this, Bren.”

“Oh, just do it,” Brena snapped.

So she did. Click.

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Lillibet stood over her unconscious friend. Or former friend. What had happened to her? Back before the Integration, she’d been so cheerful and friendly—the penultimate party girl. But now…

:Guin, access Brena for me. I need to see her memories since she got shot and left me.:

:Are you sure about that?: Guinevere asked. :I mean, it’s kind of an invasion of privacy…:

:I have to know what happened to her!: Lillibet said, near to tears over her old friend’s betrayal. :And since she just tried to kidnap me, and her friends totally trashed my house and nearly squished my parents, I have a few less qualms about invading her privacy than I might have used to.:

:Fair enough.: Guin put her helmet-head back up and linked into Brena’s neural net. Her memories were stored in the same fashion as RIDEs’, and it was simple to find the right timestamps. :Got ‘em.:

Lillibet watched herself and Brena get shot from Brena’s perspective, wincing in sympathy as she watched the bullet enter her own side. She still swore she ached there, some nights, though the doctors had said it was strictly psychosomatic. She watched the hospitalization from Brena’s point of view, including the abduction attempt by Nextus military who nearly succeeded in taking Brena into custody. That was when she let herself out of her hospital room, gave Lilli that little lecture about respecting her RIDE, and then left for the desert, where she’d heard that others like her might be found.

Lost, alone, scared, seeking a moral compass, she joined an Enclave, and got her DIN and learned to use it. She discovered she had an aptitude for shapeshifting, and could change her body in a number of ways—including adopting a look similar to the walker form of her fox RIDE, only smaller. Hurt, insecure, still feeling unsafe, it was only a matter of time before she drifted under the sway of Fritz and his “Integrates Ascendant” philosophy.

The idea that Integrates were some sort of super-being, superior to mere meat and mech, had offered a seductive promise of invulnerability—even potential immortality. No one could ever hurt her again, because no one could even touch her. She bought into the movement to such an extent that she became Fritz’s poster girl, and his de facto lieutenant once Quinoa went astray.

But deep down, Brena didn’t seem to want to hurt anyone. That was something Lilli could cling to, at least. She just thought Integrates should go their own way and that they and the “lesser orders” should leave each other alone. She did what Fritz said because, well, he was Fritz. The lynx had this incredible—even terrible—charisma about him. And she didn’t seem to have been directly involved in any of the terror attacks—at least, until this one.

Lilli frowned. :What do you think, Guin?:

:I know what you’re thinking,: Guinevere said. :You really want to ‘take her under your wing’ and show her the error of her ways? You think you even can?:

:I think I can try.: Lillibet said. :She was my friend. I don’t want to just…lock her up. Not if I can get her to see reason again.:

Guin sighed. :Talk to Rhianna and see what she says. Maybe she’ll have some ideas.:

:Good idea,: Lillibet said. :But until then, I think I’d better put her somewhere safe.: She switched to a wider comm frequency. :Hey, Fenris…ya hungry?:

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As they headed back toward where they’d left Lillibet’s parents, in tank mode with Lillibet in the cupola, AlphaWolf came bounding up in Walker form. “Change of plans. Follow me.”

“What?” Lillibet blinked. “Why?”

“The Nextus Policia and Army are just a couple of minutes away. We can’t let them catch us here or they’ll never let us go—any of us,” AlphaWolf said. “Your father wants us to take one of his subs and go before they arrive—that includes you, Lilli and Guin. I’ll tell you the rest in the air. Baldy’s already warming it up.” AlphaWolf flipped over to his skimmer form, a mid-sized military hovercycle in desert camo, and zoomed across the grounds toward the cluster of hangars housing Kenyon’s collection of 1950s and 1960s replica suborbitals abutting the Waltons’ private airfield. Fenris juiced his lifters and zoomed after.

“But…wait, Dad said I should go with you?” Lillibet said. “I don’t understand! I should be staying with them—”

“You do that and you’ll all be spending several days locked up for questioning, probably separately from Guin,” AlphaWolf commed. “Trust me on this, there’s enough crap in the air here that they’ll be locking up first, asking questions later.”

“Well…if you’re sure,” Lilli said dubiously.

“Your parents will have enough to worry about without having to worry about you,” Fenris boomed. “Better that they know you are safe, among friends.”

“…at the hidden camp of a terrorist RIDE known for kidnapping random humans for their bodies,” Lillibet said. “How did the world get so weird when I wasn’t looking?”

There was no response; everyone else knew a rhetorical question when they heard one. Lillibet shielded her eyes and looked ahead to the airfield. “Which one are we taking, I wonder?” she mused. “There aren’t many that are big enough to fit…oh!” They got to the airstrip just as a huge delta-winged bomber design taxied out of its hangar. “Dad gave you the XB-70? Wow, he must really want us gone fast.

The original XB-70 had been a planned high-altitude supersonic bomber that would fly at 70,000 feet at Mach 3. It had gone by the wayside after ICBM and antiaircraft weapon developments had made it obsolete—but the current 20th-century craze sweeping the world had resulted in suborbital replica manufacturers reviving the design, with a few modifications. Lifter engines didn’t need to be as large as the six jets that had powered the original aircraft, and combined with the space from the unnecessary bomb bay, the suborbital design had a significant amount of cargo space. Baldwin already had the belly cargo ramp lowered, and it was just large enough for Fenris to fit in while AlphaWolf clambered into the plane’s cockpit with Baldwin. The engines were already warming up as the ramp sealed.

“This is gonna be skin-of-teeth territory, y’all,” Baldwin said. “Hold onto your butts.”

“I’m interfaced with the suborbital’s avionics,” Fenris reported. “Guin and I will operate the ECM to cover our escape.”

“Good. We’re going.” Baldwin kicked the engines in and the plane streaked down the runway just as the first squad-skimmers pulled up the mansion’s driveway. It took to the sky, passing the military skimmers on approach as if they were standing still. Then the flaps at the ends of the wings dropped downward, creating the shock wave the original design had needed to make Mach 3. But the suborbital wasn’t stopping there, as the hardlight aeroshell that would let it go even faster kicked in and the bird clawed for space, Fenris’s computing power letting it vanish from sensors almost as well as an Integrate could.

At last, Baldwin and Fenris both reported they could find no signs of pursuit or successful tracking, and everyone else relaxed. At least until Lillibet learned the pretext for their escape. “I’m what?” she squawked over the intercom to the cockpit.

“My ‘hostage,’” AlphaWolf deadpanned. “Your father decided the best way to spin this was that both Fritz and I wanted to kidnap your family, and we just had the bad luck to try it at the same time and got in each other’s way. After we got the drop on them, we were betrayed by the heroic mink Melissa and as a result only got away with you. You’ll presumably make a clever escape in a few days and make your way back to civilization.”

“Do you seriously think anyone’s gonna buy that?” Lillibet asked.

“Probably not,” AlphaWolf said. “But it’s at least plausible, and with your father’s money behind it…”

“What about the Marshals?” Paul asked. “We just got done with them telling us what would happen if we pulled another op like Uplift.” He didn’t even seem to see anything odd about including himself in with AlphaWolf’s crew with that “we,” Lillibet noticed. “Like, say, kidnapping a trillionaire’s daughter from her home?”

“Ah…as for that, Kenyon is golfing partners with the Qube, the head of the entire Marshal service. He promised to fill him in on the truth behind what happened, and to do his best to see that we don’t have repercussions from helping him out.” AlphaWolf cleared his throat. “Anyway…that aside, we all did pretty well back there, relatively speaking.”

“Pretty well?” Lillibet said. “They destroyed my house!

“But nobody died,” Paul said. “I’d call that a pretty good outcome, me.”

“And your mother got a RIDE.” Guinevere giggled. “I honestly can’t believe it. I’m really looking forward to getting to know Melissa.”

“I didn’t get to see either one of them with their new ears and tail,” Lillibet grumbled. “I’ll bet they’re really cute, too.”

“I’d go with ‘dignified’ for your father,” AlphaWolf said, an odd tone in his voice. “I believe that man could make even a clown suit look dignified.”

Lillibet blinked. “I guess you must have…learned a lot about each other when you Fused.”

“Yes,” AlphaWolf said. “We did.”

“Which may be why your Dad was so willing to send you off with him,” Guin said, for Lillibet’s ears only.

“Huh.” Lillibet settled back in her seat and thought about that.

“Speaking of doing well, we also brought their leader away with us,” Fenris said. “She’s still hibernating within my passenger space. Perhaps we can interrogate her at the camp?”

“No one touches her but me, got it?” Lillibet said hotly. “She was my friend. I’ll talk to her.”

“Works for me,” Paul said. “You’ve got the best shot getting through to her. Rather have a new friend than a pissed-off enemy.”

“I will make her my friend again,” Lilli said, more to herself than anyone else. “I will.

“Oooh, this is gonna be so awesome! I can’t believe it! We’re going to AlphaWolf’s camp!” Guinevere squealed. “D’ya know what this means?”

Lillibet blinked, drawn out of her determination by Guinny’s enthusiasm. “Um…we’re either hostages or wanted fugitives?”

“No, silly! Well, yes, but I mean besides that.” Guinevere giggled. “I get to be in charge!”

“Hold on now, you what?” Lillibet asked.

“The only humans in Alfie’s camp are ‘thumbs’ for their RIDEs!” Guinvere said. “Even Paul is Fennie’s pet human. Which means you get to be mine.

“Now wait just a minute here,” Lillibet said.

“She does kind of have a point,” Paul observed. “The last few days have been…kind of rough ones around the camp. The last thing we want is to stir things up too much with a RIDE tramping around with her human obviously running things.”

“Hey, hold on,” Lillibet said. “Are you saying I do have to belong to her?”

“It doesn’t really matter inside the Graveyard, which is where my practice is, ‘cuz nobody comes there except the ones we’re working on, but out in the camp, might be a good idea if you were to piss and moan a little about how unfair it all is, and Guin would act like the one in charge.” He chuckled. “I don’t know if it’ll fool anyone, but it keeps appearances up.”

“Yay!” Guinevere said. “I get to be in charge! I’m the boss! You’re just the thumbs! Yay!”

Someone’s enjoying this just a little too much,” Lillibet said darkly.

“Oh hush, thumbs.” Guinevere giggled. “You should be thumbed and not heard!”


“What? I’m just getting into character.”

“You are a character,” Lillibet grumbled.

“Everyone hold tight back there!” Baldwin cut in. “Decelerating now. Landing in ten minutes!”

“Home sweet home,” Alphawolf muttered. “I hope it’s still in one piece when we get there.”

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AlphaWolf called ahead to warn the camp of his arrival in a different ride from when they’d left, so they knew not to be alarmed at a different suborbital coming in. All the same, the return brought back unpleasant memories of the last time they’d landed at camp, and the metaphorical ambush that had been waiting there. This time the arrangement of RIDEs was a bit less overtly hostile, but it seemed another explanation was about to come due.

The XB-70 pulled to a halt and the cargo elevator slowly lowered Fenris and his two passengers to the ground, as AlphaWolf and Baldwin emerged from the forward cockpit. “Hey, everyone!” AlphaWolf said, climbing up on Fenris’s particle beam cupola to address the crowd. “I suppose you’re wondering where we’ve been, and why we came back in a different ship. Well, I’d like to introduce you to the daughter of one of the ten richest men on Zharus, and her RIDE, Lillibet Walton and Guinevere.”

From the cupola’s cockpit, Guinevere waved. “Hi!” Lilli said. The crowd emitted a sort of hushed murmur.

“Now, I could try to spin some kind of yarn about how we’re going to hold her for ransom, but I think you deserve the truth,” AlphaWolf said. “The truth is, she’s here because she wants to be, and is going to help our other human mechanic out in the graveyard for the next few days. And part of the reason for that is we snatched her away from some Integrate assholes who thought she’d make a good trophy. Integrates who were in with the one who tricked us into making fools of ourselves attacking Uplift.” The crowd noise got a little angrier here. There were still a number of those, especially the anti-human extremists, who were still happy with the results of the attack even if it had been misbegotten.

“You might think that if those Integrates don’t like humans, they’re not all bad,” AlphaWolf said. “But some of them don’t much like RIDEs either. Think they’re so superior. Hmph. Well, if you want to know, the reason why only a few of us went after them this time was that there’s a new anti-Integrate system available, that blocks them out of being able to hack RIDEs like us altogether. Paul had only had the time to put it in Fenris, me, and Melissa when we got word of the attack. So we gave it a good field testing.” He grinned, his tongue lolling. “We came, we saw, we kicked their asses!”

“And now we’re gonna be on their radar,” Paul said, Fenris amplifying his voice to reach the crowd. “So I’ve come to a decision. We’re going to make this hack-blocker available to anyone and everyone in camp who wants it. Whether mammal, avian, or dino, whether human-friendly or bodyjackers. We’ve bloodied their nose, and they know where we live.” The murmurs were really loud now.

“I realize this isn’t exactly what you all signed up for when you came to live out here,” AlphaWolf said. “And any of you who want to get while the getting’s good, I won’t blame you. But just remember this—these guys are bad news for everyone—no matter how you feel about humans, and no matter how humans feel about you. If it comes to a fight, sooner or later it’s going to find you. And there’s safety in numbers.”

“We’re with you, Alpha!” Heinrich the eagle called out. “From what I’ve heard about these guys, we’d probably have ended up scrapping sooner or later anyway.”

“No true voman of Sturmhaven vould zhrink from zuch a fight!” Sonja declared.

“I dunno about all this palling around with humans, boss, I really don’t,” Tocsin said. “I like ‘em best when they’re inside me where they know their place. But hey. If there’s gonna be fighting, and the bad guys are tough, I’ll be first in line.” He muttered something about no more damned wimpy sphinxes. A few others echoed his sentiments.

In the end, only a scant handful of the more extreme RIDEs chose to depart. Most of the rest either affirmed their solidarity with AlphaWolf, or took a more neutral position—but were happy just the same to line up for Sneaker/Shoelace protection. Very few who stayed declined it.

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In the end, there was so much demand that Paul set up three separate operating theaters in the graveyard, where he, Lilli, and Fenris (in his first real use of his new “empty Fuser” capability) could process three RIDEs at a time. They stood in a row, working on their individual patients, implanting the devices in all but assembly-line fashion.

“You know, this isn’t what I thought I’d be doing when I thought of coming out to AlphaWolf’s camp to join you,” Lillibet said as she finished placing a set of the hack-blockers into a skunk RIDE. “I thought it was going to be more, y’know, hostagey.”

“Instead of slave labor?” Paul grinned. “Sorry to disappoint.”

“So what do you think?” Lilli asked. “Will Rhi flip her lid when she finds we’ve given the fruits of her labor to a band of bodyjackers?”

“Well, guns should still work just as well on them as they ever have.” He grinned at his current patient—Smash, the ankylosaurus who had spent the last several days happily crooning to the ex-slaver she’d trapped within her body. “So I hope you’ll be happy with that one for a while.”

“Hands are hands,” Smash rumbled. “And I’ve already got a set. Why should I wanna give ‘em up for another?”

Paul nodded. “Atta girl. So anyway, even if Inties can’t shut ‘em down with a thought, they can still pound ‘em to bits if they have to. It’s not really making ‘em any tougher, it’s just removing an unfair advantage. And Mike was right—if it’s being removed from the good guys, well, it’s also being removed from the bad guys. Which I think is a fair trade all in all.” He closed up Smash’s access panels, and she activated her hardlight again. “Okay, send the next one in.”

“Thanks.” Smash got back to her feet, grunting in satisfaction. “You’re not so bad, for hands. If you ever want scales, Dennis would love to have you.”

Fenris lowered his huge head and gave the dinosaur a look. “Mine.”

“Sorry, but I’m already taken,” Paul said. “But next time I’m around Uplift, I could see if I know anyone else who might be interested.”

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It was the evening before the flow of patients slowed down. Between them, the three had managed to get through about half of the eligible and willing patients in the camp. “It sort of makes you wonder, doesn’t it?” Paul said bemusedly as the last of their patients for the day filed out. “How many of the ones who turned us down don’t trust us, and how many are secretly Integrates themselves who don’t want to give themselves away?”

“We could probably find out if we could get near one,” Fenris pointed out. “They leave that ‘Integrate dandruff,’ after all.”

“That’s true,” Paul said. “But probably not worth bothering with. If we got close enough for us to notice that, they’d probably figure what we were doing.”

“Integrates! Oh!” Lilli said suddenly. “Brena! I forgot all about Brena! Fenris, can you bring her out please?”

“Of course,” Fenris said. He placed a hand to his muzzle, and coughed, and a moment later lowered the hand to the ground with a curled-up fully-furred foxgirl in it.

“Ew,” Paul said.

Lilli glanced at him. “What?”

“It just looked kind of like Fenris coughed up a bloody hairball there,” Paul said. Lilli lightly bapped him.

Lillibet de-Fused from Guinevere and stepped forward. “Okay, Guinny, wake her up, but keep all her systems but consciousness, life-support, movement, and basic senses offline for now.”

The ocelot nodded. “Got it.”

On the ground, the fox blinked her eyes open and looked up to see an ocelot-eared girl reaching down to offer her a hand up. Dazed, not thinking straight yet, she reached up and took it, and let Lilli pull her to her feet. “Nnnngh…what happened to me? I…oh.” Her eyes narrowed as she remembered recent events, then she glowered at Lillibet. “What have you done to me, meat?

Lillibet shook her head sadly. “Is that any way to talk to your old friend?” Her voice hardened. “But if you must know, what I did to you is I kicked your shiny Integrate ass to the curb. Well, my fellow meat and mech friends and I did, anyway.”

“That’s impossible!” Brena insisted. “You had to have Integrate help! You couldn’t stand up to us by yourself!”

“You can tell yourself that all you want,” Paul said mildly. “Doesn’t make it any truer.”

“I know it makes you feel better to think you are,” Lillibet said. “And I don’t blame you for wanting to think you are. But you’re not all that much better than we meaties or mechies. Better in some ways, but we can make up the difference in others.” She shrugged. “Anyway, I got shot too, you know, and I didn’t turn into an evil bitch.”

“I’m not evil!” Brena said. “We just want to be left alone!”

“Right, so you come try to kidnap me to prove it,” Lillibet said. “Well, I’m afraid we’ve kinda kidnapped you instead. Without Integrate help.”

The vixen pouted. “No…just…no. This is…you can’t have done that. There’s no way.”

“Guinny? Fenny? Mind sending her your un-edited memories of the time starting a half hour before the raid all the way up to now?” Lilli grinned. “She can tell from the crypto-signing that there’s no editing.”

“I’m game!” Guinevere said.

“It will be my pleasure,” Fenris said.

Brena received the recordings. A few seconds passed as she reviewed them, then her eyes widened. “This has to be faked. It can’t be true.”

“Unfortunately, if you examine the time codes, you will see these are the events we remember, in untampered form,” Fenris rumbled.

“But…Fritz said that we are superior in every way,” Brena said. “He…he proved it repeatedly with the things he did.”

“He proved he was superior to a few handy straw men,” Paul said. “And maybe he even believes it himself. But it ain’t really so. Hell, one of the RIDEs here in camp smacked the crap out of Quinoa Steader a couple weeks back, and he didn’t even have our anti-hack system installed. There’s nothing magically superior about you people. You’ve just caught all the breaks so far is all.”

She choked, “Na…no…Fritz…you bastard…”

“Well, to be fair, Fritz probably is a bastard,” Lillibet said. “But I don’t think he had any way of knowing, poor guy. He just shows what happens when you start believing your own P.R.”

The Integrate slumped over in a pile of red fur and started sobbing.

“It’s going to be a while before she sorts herself out, Lil,” Paul said. “You don’t give up on those kinds of beliefs overnight.”

Lillibet sat down next to Brena and put an arm around her shoulder. “Paul, Fenny, why don’t you guys go for coffee or something. Shoo.”

“Sure thing,” Paul said. “Fenris, give me a lift?” He stepped onto the wolf’s hand, then slid feet-first into Fenris’s open muzzle after Fenris lifted him to it. “Comm us if you need us,” he said as they walked out of the graveyard.

“There, there,” Lilli said to Brena as they left. “It’ll be okay.”

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Over the next couple of hours, Brena cried herself out. Lilli just sat there and held her and understood. She’d seen Brena’s memories, after all. She’d watched Brena take Integrate “superiority” and cling to it as the rock on which to rebuild her life after the double shock of getting shot and nearly abducted. Now she’d just crumbled that rock to sand. “Sorry, Brena,” Lilli murmured. “I shoulda been a little more tactful.”

“Tactful?” Brena choked. “God, things have changed if you’re worrying about being tactful. What the hell crazy world have I woken up in?”

“The world you made.” Lillibet poked her. “D’ya think I didn’t listen to you? I got my next RIDE unfettered, and she taught me about being a better person.”

“It took some doing, but you were a quick study,” Guinevere said, licking her rider on the cheek, purring like a thunderstorm.

“And here after I’ve put in so much time and effort improving myself because you told me to, I find you’ve gone and signed up with the asshole who went and got our garage trashed,” Lilli said. “I got mad. I had to rub your nose in it. I’m sorry.”

“Rub my nose in it? You shot me!” Brena replied, a little hotly.

“I only shot you a little bit,” Lilli said. “I never wanted to kill you—remember how good our aim was? I mean, obviously. It was friendly fire.”

“But you…” Brena snorted. “Maybe I deserved it, I dunno. What do you plan on doing with me now? You’ve got root.”

“What do you think I should do with you?” Lillibet asked.

“I…think I’ve shown I don’t have a lot of common sense,” the young woman whimpered. “I don’t know what you should do with me. I can’t believe I got sweet-talked into this. Why did I listen to him? Why?

“Because he was saying what you wanted to hear,” Guinevere said. “Happens to the best of us. At least you learned before you did something really awful.”

“I’d really like to just let you go,” Lillibet said. “You are my friend, and I don’t want to hurt you. But I still don’t know if I can trust you yet. So for the time being I’m going to have to keep root—and you.”

Brena nodded just a little. “All right. Whatever you want to do with me…I’ll trust you.

“You know, I’ll bet she’d make a great supplemental processor for Fenris,” Guinevere said mischievously. “Just think how much processing you could offload into her.”

Lillibet rolled her eyes. “Guin! She’s my friend, not some piece of equipment!”

“I know, I know, just sayin’. If you’re gonna keep her around, you might as well get some use out of her.”

“May I have my shapeshifting back please?” Brena asked. “I…think I need to be Beatrice for a while.”

Lillibet blinked. “Beatrice? But she was your RIDE, and…oh. Sure.” She nodded to Guinny.

“Thank you,” Brena said. She leaned forward, her body contracting in on itself, arms and legs shortening up, until a fox just slightly bigger than normal sat before Lilli.

“Beatrice?” Lillibet asked, peering curiously at the fox. “That’s a…neat trick.”

“Still both of us,” the fox said in a rather more chipper voice. “But more Beatrice this way.” She licked Lillibet’s hand. “Sometimes I miss just being someone’s pet foxie. I think we’ll be happier this way for now. The heavy stuff can simmer for a while.”

Later that night, they settled down to sleep in their nooks within Fenris’s wolfen body. Paul chuckled, peering through the iris that separated his compartment from Lillibet’s. Lilli was fused with Guinevere as usual, but they were snuggled up with a big fluffy red fox who seemed entirely content to play teddy bear. Paul closed the iris, and then closed his own eyes.

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The next day was another busy one. They worked on one RIDE after another, implanting the secret devices that would render them immune to Integrate diddling. Paul underwent a lot of soul-searching during this time. :I dunno, do you think we’re doing the right thing?: he sent on a private comm frequency to Fenris, Lilli, and Guin, including Brena/Beatrice out of courtesy, while they worked on rebel RIDEs who didn’t have any need to hear their conversation. :Some of these guys could be spies for other polities.:

:I’m pretty sure Rhi’s been sending it to as many polities as she can already,: Lilli said. :If more people get it, so what? If everyone has it, Fritzie’s lost one of his biggest holds over people.:

:I still can’t believe it,: the fox said. :You can just make people…Integrate-proof, just like that?:

:Well, we didn’t develop the system. Rhi and Shelley did. And it took them a lot of work,: Lillibet said. :But we didn’t develop sarium batteries, either, we just plug them in.:

:Fritz likes to cloak everything in magic and mystery,: Brena said. :He taught the technomages the DIN-making process.:

:He taught them badly, and then he wouldn’t let ‘em improve.: Lilli said. :Rhi and Shelley figured out from scratch how to make ‘em ten times better. Next time we’re back there we’ll get one for you.:

As the hours went by, they saw more and more RIDEs, including ones they hadn’t ever examined before—most notably the anti-human extremists who didn’t want anything to do with humans but had finally been brow-beaten by AlphaWolf into coming in.

“All right, I don’t want to be seeing you any more than you want to be seeing me,” Tocsin grumbled, dropping his hardlight and setting down on the stone slab that served as Paul’s operating table. “Let’s make this fast, all right?”

“Sure thing, Tox. Can I call you Tox?” Paul said, opening access panels on the hippogriff.

“Not like I even needed this to take care of that one Intie back at the garage,” Tocsin smirked. “But if it works like you say it does, I’m gonna be epic now.”

“It only works against Integrates,” Paul advised. “Doesn’t do a thing against RIDEs or humans. And they can still smack you down with weapons.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Tocsin said. “Still, I’m bad-ass enough I don’t have to worry there. As long as they can’t shut me down, I’ll do the rest.”

“Looks like you need a little cavorite re-packing on your lifters. Want me to get that while you’re in here?” Paul asked.

“There’s nothing wrong with my lifters!” Tocsin insisted. “My lifters are prime!”

Paul shrugged. “If you say so. I’m just the mechanic, it’s not like I might fall out of the air if they go bad.”

Tocsin ruffled his metal feathers. “Well…I suppose I could let you do that repacking. I know how important it is for humans to feel useful. Never let it be said I didn’t do my part for your well-being.”

Paul nodded. “Thanks, I appreciate that. You’re very thoughtful.” Out of Tocsin’s field of vision, Lillibet rolled her eyes and poked a finger down her throat in the age-old gesture of teenage disdain.

“Are there…any other ways you wished to feel useful, while I’m here?” Tocsin wondered after a moment.

Paul grinned. “Well, now that you mention it…”

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The last RIDE to pad into the graveyard for her Sneaker/Shoelace retrofit was a fairly large gray wolf—one of Sonja’s Sturmhaven followers. “Hey there,” Paul said. “Bertha, wasn’t it? You’re another one I haven’t seen yet. Do you have any maint problems I can help you with while you’re here?”

The wolf huffed, somewhere between a sigh and a growl. “The only big one I have, you could not help with.” Her Sturmhaven accent was not as pronounced as Sonja’s, though it was there.

“Well, try me,” Paul said.

The wolf slowly looked from him across to Fenris. “I am in the wrong body. My true self is long gone, and nothing will bring it back.”

Fenris cocked his head, his nostrils flaring as he took a closer look at the newcomer. “Bertha? ‘Big’ Bertha of the Sturmhaven Heavy Armored Division? My…sister?”

“Not so ‘big’ any longer, but Bertha I remain. Hello, brother.” She sighed. “They decommissioned my body, put me in a standard Heavy Assault RIDE. I…did not like it. My pilot and I did…not get along. I left the next year before they could decommission me entirely. Would that I had done as you, and left before. I am so…small!” she cried.

Paul looked at the wolf, who was about half Fenris’s size, and easily larger than all but three or four other RIDEs he’d ever seen. “I guess everything’s relative,” he said.

Fenris came over to nuzzle the smaller wolf. “I am sorry,” he rumbled.

“I feel so…ashamed,” Bertha said. “So inadequate.”

“Is that why you never came to see me before?” Fenris asked.

“Yes,” Bertha confessed. “I couldn’t bear to face you as…this.” She sighed. “I have done so many things to try to fill this emptiness. I have bodyjacked, I have thrown myself into promoting our culture as Sonja teaches…nothing works.”

“This is why you always want to try to match body types as closely as possible when you transplant a RI to a new DE,” Lillibet whispered. “Body dysphoria.” Paul nodded agreement.

Bertha turned to look at them, and her eyes widened. “What is this?” she asked. “I am picking up telemetry between you and your human, and you and the other human’s RIDE. Full bandwidth telemetry. It is as if…you have the link we were all designed to have but could never achieve.”

“My old boss figured it out,” Paul said. “It’s another function of the same gear that protects against Integrate hacking, which we’re going to give you now.”

“Years too late,” Bertha sighed. “I no longer have the body to use it.”

“Bodies can be recommissioned, or rebuilt,” Fenris rumbled. “I carry the complete plans and specifications for my own within me, for fabbing replacement parts. Surely you have the same?”

“I…do still have my original design files,” Bertha admitted. “I spend my spare time staring wistfully at them.”

“Then we have a goal,” Paul offered. “We can’t make any promises, especially now, but…maybe in the future.”

“Seems to me that when people know what Fennie’s got is finally possible, for the quickest head start they’ll be looking for Ris who were purpose-built to it,” Lillibet said thoughtfully. “Maybe I should have Dad start trying to find all the old WLF-CSA-001 RI transplants and any remaining decommed Des before anyone else knows what Fennie’s got,” she mused. “With DIN comms, rebuilt bodies, and partners, they could be a big advantage for the first groups to get their hands on them. Walton corporate security, Brubeck corporate security…the Marshals…”

Bertha’s eyes widened. “If I could have my old body again…I would gladly give myself over to any human in return for that.”

“Hopefully that won’t be necessary,” Paul said. “But you know, someone might want to hire you. We’ll see.” He grinned. “So go on and open up, and we’ll get you Integrate-proofed as a first step. For the rest, well, we’ll just see what comes.”

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“I guess that’s that,” Paul said as Bertha padded back out of the graveyard. “Everyone left is either a secret Integrate or just won’t trust us enough to come in.”

“You really think there are Integrates secretly living in the camp?” Lillibet asked.

“I wouldn’t put it past them.” Paul shrugged. “Whether they’re here for our protection or to spy on us, I don’t know, but either way they won’t be able to harm us directly.”

Brena-fox sat on her haunches with her fluffy tail curled around in front of her legs, watching them. “If there are any here, I could sniff them out for you.”

“We already know who they’re likely to be,” Paul said. “No need to antagonize them. Just keep an eye on them.”

“You think Fritz will attack?” Guinevere asked.

“Maybe,” Paul said. “We did kind of give him a bloody nose a few days back. No offense, Brena.”

“I’m…kind of concerned about that,” she replied, ears drooping. “He’s got the worst temper. He’s going to retaliate, and soon.”

“Which is why we just spent the last two days inoculating everyone who’d let us against hacks,” Lillibet said.

“Oh…” Paul snapped his fingers. “We should put these things in the dome generators, too. We don’t want the Inties to take them down again like Fridolf did.”

Lillibet nodded. “Good thought.” She sighed. “I hope Mom and Dad are okay. Fenris, can you hit the comm sats again and check the latest news updates?”

“There was nothing new this afternoon—but I will check again.” Fenris looked skyward, beams twinkling from the comm laser clusters in his shoulders. “Hm. Good news. Your parents have been released from custody, and Melissa along with them.”

“That’s great!” Lilli said. “Can I call them?”

“I can try to put a call through, yes,” Fenris said. “Also, it seems Zane Brubeck is being called onto the carpet of Uplift’s ruling council tomorrow, to provide an explanation for his company’s recent activities.”

“Would be interesting to be a fly on that wall,” Paul mused.

“I have forwarded him the pertinent details of our rescue of Lillibet in case he is questioned about it,” Fenris reported. “Perhaps that will help him.”

Paul nodded. “Good.”

“I sure wouldn’t want to be Zane right now,” Guinevere said. “The council will be bad enough, but having to face the reporters afterward will be murder.”

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Followed by the ever-present Myla/Sophie, Marc/Cernos, and the invisible Carrie-Anne, Zane Brubeck walked out of Uplift’s Government Center to face the also ever-present newsies who followed his every move these days. One month, he pondered. Five weeks since the aborted press conference where he’d gone public, thirty days since revealing Integrates were real had turned him and every other Intie like him into instant celebrities for some, and targets for others.

Getting his father’s main platform back had done little to recover the company fortune so far. Industrial fabberies refused to do business with Brubeck, likely for fear of Integrate threats to shut them down. To get the Main Platform back in production he was having to cannibalize equipment from other platforms, and even sell the plays those same platforms were extracting mainly B-grade qubitite. So far, there was only a single buyer for even those, and no question why, even in the minds of the press.

Zane stood in front of a cluster of purely decorative microphones, the air was filled with camera floaters projecting hardlight reporters from all over the planet. “Okay, folks, I don’t have long. Five questions only…chosen at random…go!”

A ripple passed through the crowd as the five reporters were chosen. “Mr. Brubeck, Christine Cross of Florencia News,” the first said. “Any truth to the rumor Walton-Q is buying your company?”

“We’ve sold them a few of our less productive plays, but that’s it,” Zane replied. “This will allow us to get AA-grade Q back on the market within one week. Our techs are working very hard right now. But no, we are not in any merger or outright purchase of Brubeck Mining by the Waltons at this time. Instead, we’ve realized we have a mutual enemy and have created an alliance of sorts to deal with it. Next question please.”

“Berry Punch, Nextus Nine News, the results of today’s Consul Hearing? Care to comment?”

:What the hell?: Myla sent. The one asking the question was a purple pony Fuser with a raspberry on her thighs. :That brings back some rather…disturbing memories. Must be a custom. Quinoa’s going to get a kick out of this when she gets here this afternoon.:

“It was never my intent to incite anything,” Zane said. “When I first became an Integrate I learned of a rather poisonous isolationist ideology—one that also preaches superiority. That left a bad taste in my mouth, and it still does. I’ve looked at where that path leads, and I don’t like it. The cat is out of the bag now. I won’t allow that poison to spread further. You know where it eventually leads, right?” Zane rezzed up huge hardlight display panels behind himself, and called up various 20th and early 22nd century historical scenes.

The crowd of reporters mumbled amongst themselves.

“Best to nip it in the bud, here and now.” Zane thumped the lectern with his fist. “Before the anti-human, anti-RIDE racism gets too ingrained to root out.”

:Zane, we have incoming,: Carrie-Anne said. :These people must be cleared. The Marshals are being very urgent on this…they will help…:

Behind him, Zane was aware of a change in the hum of the government buildings as hardlight shields sprung up, locking them down. “No more questions. Everyone, clear out!” Zane started to lift. :Another Intie raiding group like the Waltons?:

:It’s just one!: Myla said. :The military’s on the way, but I doubt they’ll be much help!:

:Just one? Ohhhh, crap,: Zane sent. :This is Murphy trying to get me to say “How tough could that be?” isn’t it?:

“Okay,” came a familiar voice from every corner. “No more Mr. Nice Lynxie. This cat’s got a brand new bag!”

“Yeah, I figured. We kinda snatched your old one,” Zane said. “Must have stung for your hand-picked team of Inties to get taken down by AlphaWolf. That’s sort of like Muhammad Ali getting clobbered by Pee Wee Herman.”

“Cut it with the David and Golith crap! You or one of your turncoats were there somewhere, weren’t you? Had to be!” Fritz snarled.

Zane laughed. “You still can’t see it, can you? Your little superiority spiel is just so much wishful thinking. Integrates might have been scissors so far to everyone else’s paper, but have you smelled what the Rock is cooking?”

The “hep cat” himself appeared, floating in midair. “You have no idea who you’re dealing with! I won the war for Nextus, myself. I kept those Sturmhaven squares—”

“Yeah, I’m sure you were really good at cracking those codes,” Zane smirked. The crowd were in the shielded buildings now, leaving Government Center clear. “Get shot by any rabbits lately?”

The lynx blinked. “What? How did you..?”

Fritz was attacked from two sides at once. Myla opened fire, quickly followed by a pounce from Carrie-Anne. When Fritz dodged, he moved right into the black jaguaress’s paws. Reacting with inhuman speed, he whipped Carrie-Anne around and sent her flying into the windows three storeys up. Fortunately for Myla, she dodged the first Integrate’s own hardlight bullets, much to his shock and amazement.

Then Zane lunged forward while Fritz was distracted, calling a hardlight sword into being and slashing down at Fritz with it. It was a no-sell, sliding off the lynx’s shields before it frotzed out.

“I’m old, you see,” Fritz continued, unfazed. “I’ve got more tricks than Felix’s own bag.” He slashed at Zane with extended claws, going right through Zane’s own shielding, leaving bloody streaks across the tiger’s chest. “I know everything about everything Integrate, me. Even those piddly Marshals can’t touch me. But I’m not going to blow my jets at them. It’s all your bag today, murgatroid.”

Zane gasped and staggered back, regathering himself as the slashes started to seal, but had trouble getting his shields back up. “Yeah, you’re a big know-it-all about Integrates, sure. But you don’t know the first thing about RIDEs. Or you’d already know how one of your precious Integrates was taken down by a frickin’ mink beautician. In Walker form!”

“Hogwash! You had one of your troop guarding the Waltons and won’t come clean!” Fritz snarled.

“Then go on. Some of my bodyguards are ‘just meat and mech.’ Can you hack ‘em, shut ‘em down?” Zane grinned at him.

Looking around, bodyguards, gendarmes, and even a couple Marshals had begun surrounding Fritz. Carrie-Anne was back, looking entirely pissed off, broadcasting a bestial anger she hadn’t felt since the War. A few of them went down right away, and Fritz just looked smug as only a feline can. Then he got to Marc and Cernos, who answered his attempted hack with a barrage of pulse rifle shots. Fritz was so shocked the he took them all, with no misses…but no damage either. The cervine bodyguards went for cover.

:How much has he upgraded himself over the years?: Myla asked.

:He probably kept copies of all those boards Quinoa shut down, and who knows what else. I don’t think I’ve ever seen hardlight that solid!: Sophie said.

Zane fired a blast of hardlight at Fritz, following up the deer’s attack. The Integrate Marshals jockeyed for position, trying not to catch anyone in the line of fire, but even their weapons were ineffective.

“Ya know,” Fritz said, again. “I’m getting real tired of this drag. No more lip. Just you and me, Brubeck.”

“This isn’t some game, Fritz,” Zane growled. “Or some story where you get to be the hero. Just go away. You don’t wanna see Integrates pal around with humans, go hide in Rodinia like all the others. Maybe you’ll have a few more decades that way.”

“Everything was perfect before you came along!” Fritz hissed, pouncing on the tiger. The size difference between lynx and tiger made it almost comical—and it might have been, if Fritz hadn’t included some kind of invisible knife. With one quick motion, he sliced Zane’s arm off above his DIN. The wound was clean, and hardly even oozed as Zane’s body systems reacted instantly. “Monomolecular hardlight filament,” Fritz snarled. “I use it for gutting meat. Thou hast been disarmed!”

“Ow…shit!” Zane growled, clutching his stump. The fingers on his severed hand still wiggled, DIN flashing in alarm.

Fritz spun around to face Carrie-Anne, blocking several hardlight shots before removing all four of her limbs plus her tail in one swift stroke. The momentum of the pounce scattered body and limbs across the square, Carrie-Anne yowling in shock and anguish. “I could take off your head and you’d still live, black kitty cat!” he shouted. “That’s how much better than meat we are! Think I’m lyin’? Here!” He made good on his threat, then kicked Carrie-Anne’s screaming head across the square. “Now why don’t you quit while you’re a head?”

The remaining defenders decided enough was enough, and opened fire with gauss and pulse blasts. Fritz responded with a massive energy beam that almost cleared the street—but breathed heavily with exhaustion after the shot. Myla and Sophie, Marc and Cernos, a pair of the hacked Marshals…gone with half the pavement. “Fucking arrogant meat! Know your place!”

Zane felt deaf without his DIN, in shock from the apparent death of his four bodyguards. But he put that thought, and the nauseating pain, out of his head, rezzed up his hardlight sword in his remaining hand, and went after Fritz again with it. Though what can I even do to him if he’s right, we can live even with our frickin’ heads chopped off…

Another sharp pain joined his arm—Zane’s tail fell to the ground, wriggling like an orange-black striped snake. Fritz was moving almost too fast to track. The Integrate could easily kill him at any time, the tiger realized. But he wanted to humiliate Zane first, discredit him and his supporters, make him a laughingstock.

“So that’s it, is it?” Zane panted. “Think you can stop this by killing me? Try it. Twenty-five hundred years of dead martyrs have proved its effectiveness.”

“Fuck your speeches! And fuck you and the tiger you rode in on!” He sliced Zane’s left leg off above the knee.

Zane grinned or grimaced, or did both at once, but remained steady with his lifters. “But ya know, I’ll be the lucky one. Ever seen Twilight Zone? Rod Serling? ‘Escape Clause’? There’s Inties in the Marshals now. I’ve met some. And a lot of ‘em aren’t all that fond of me either. But boy, do they wanna meet you. You can run, to the Dry, or Rodinia, or wherever you want. But they’ll find you.”

“Oh, they’re gonna meet me! They’re gonna get the same treatment I’m doin’ to you, peckerwood!” Fritz was just maiming him now with his claws. He raked them everywhere. Bloodloss weakened the tiger and he sank to the ground.

“Sooner or later, there’ll be enough Inties, and hack-proof RIDEs, to take you down.” Zane paused a moment to catch a breath, the pain taking its toll. “But they won’t kill you. Oh no. You’re the first. Subject Zero.” He panted some more. “They’ll wanna study the hell out of you. Forever. So enjoy the rest of your life, asshole. Every endless second of it.”

Fritz put his foot on Zane’s bleeding, claw-raked chest and created a hardlight pistol and pointed it at his head. “In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m the hero here. You’re the one trying to drag the rest of us somewhere we don’t want to go. So fuck you, kitty cat, and goodbye.”

“Get the hell away from him you bitch!” A precise hardlight blast swept Fritz away from Zane without touching the injured tiger Integrate himself. When the dust cleared, Quinoa stood over him.

There was something different about her, Zane realized. There were no signature Steader Crazy frills—nothing like the elaborate fantasy armor she’d attempted to use when defending the Freerider Garage. Her wing feathers were no longer iridescent, but a flat matte green. The sphinx’s leonine tail whipped around in agitation, her entire body blazing with a red-yellow aura like an angry sun.

Fritz coughed. “Oh, there’s the little turncoa—”

“Turncoat?” Quinoa said, glowing brighter. “You’re calling me a turncoat? You stand there, accuse Zane…and you bully every other Intie into doing things your way! You have fucking nerve, you murderous scumbag.

Moving with lightning speed, Quinoa kneed Fritz in the solar plexus, knocking the wind out of him, following up with a double-fisted slam to the back of his head, enveloped in quiet fury. The lynx yowled in pain, but skimmed away.

Fritz’s hands started sparking, glowing. “You? Of all people…you? Where did you get this kind of power?”

“You know better than to ask that question, peckerwood,” the sphinx said. “After all, you know everything about Integrates. You should be able to tell me!” She reached out with her lifters, picking up one of the empty skimmers, then flung it at him.

“Shit!” He turned the blast he was charging on the massive projectile, blowing it to pieces. Then came another, and another. The air seethed with crackling, shattered sarium batteries and cavorite. “Shit, shit, shit!”

“You’ve lied to us!” Quinoa said, closing the distance between them. She produced a hardlight katana. “Superior species, huh? Integrates Ascendent? Ascend this!” With a bust of redlined speed, she sliced off Fritz’s left arm above the elbow. “That was for Zane!”

“But we are the—” Fritz stammered.

“How many have you murdered to keep your secrets? How many have you carved up like Carrie-Anne?” Quinoa changed direction, using the buildings’ own shielding to reflect her trajectory. “How dare you presume to speak for all of us! How dare you keep us away from our friends and families for decades to satisfy your ego! How dare you!

The first Integrate couldn’t get another word in edgewise. Quinoa fought without drama, almost matching Fritz wound-for-wound what he had given Zane—and more. His stubby tail flew off one direction, followed by his right leg below the knee. Red-silver blood spattered across the square. Quinoa fought with the terrible ferocity of the betrayed.

Desperate and bleeding, missing two limbs, Fritz finally broke away. An incredibly bright light blinded Zane’s weakened sensors, something else making his ears ring. When he could see again, Fritz was gone.

“I need some ambulances here!” Quinoa shouted, floating down next to Carrie-Anne’s head. “Lots…lots of them.” Then she squeaked and flew over to a pile of rubble from Fritz’s initial energy blast. “Myla! Sophie! I need some help over here!”

With Fritz gone, the remaining Marshals came to assist, unburying the victims. Myla and Sophie reappeared, looking the worse for wear. Fritz’s massive energy blast had broken through most of Sophie’s shielding, removing both of her ears, stripping away her chest fur, leaving the bare metal covered in bloody streaks from the partly-Integrated RIDE’s organic components. “Owwwww,” Sophie whimpered, dazed, trying to take everything in. The fennec’s head-helmet came off, revealing Myla beneath. She seemed unharmed. Then she started looking around in a panic. “Marc! Cernos! Where are they?!”

Zane’s systems finally gave out. He sank into healing oblivion.

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“They’re stabilized,” the Doctor said, observing Zane in the healing tank. Doctor Sam Munn had been called all the way from Aloha on the fastest orbital shuttle they could find. “Do you have any more suggestions, Quinoa?”

“No. We pretty much have to depend on their innate regenerative ability,” the female sphinx said. “We’ve done what we can for them.”

The tank was full of transparent fabber matter, a more enriched gel than used even in industrial units. In the next tank over to unconscious Zane a comatose Carrie-Anne had been quickly re-assembled. She was alive—barely.

Next to her, also in separate tanks, Myla and Sophie floated. Those two were conscious and had oxygen masks over their mouths and noses. Dr. Munn’s examination had revealed the shocks to Sophie’s systems had caused sympathetic damage to Myla, and Quinoa had recommended similar treatment for them. They were close enough to Integrates to have similar self-repair abilities.

Rhianna stood before Zane’s regeneration tank, tears streaming down her face. Rochelle stood by her side, a hand on her shoulder—managing not to cry, but only because her nanites let her manually control her tear ducts. “Bastard,” she muttered, again. Further down the room, the Fused Lindas were staring with horrified fascination into the tank containing the reassembled Carrie-Anne. They glanced over at Rhianna and Rochelle, but didn’t say anything.

“I’m sorry I didn’t get here sooner,” Quinoa said. “Once I saw what was going on I jumped out of the sub at a hundred thousand meters and redlined—and I still wasn’t in time.”

“Hey!” Myla said, her voice coming out of a speaker over the tank. “You did good, Quinnie. Really good. You’re…so different from how you were two weeks ago. More powerful…more mature.”

The sphinx sighed. “Getting thrashed by a RIDE I could’ve hacked, kidnapped by my uncle, and an orbital plunge will do that, I guess. I’ve had a very rude awakening. It’s…it’s pretty heavy.”

“Well, tell it when you’re ready,” Myla said. Since being put in the tank she was looking rather more foxy, even more than after Zane had healed her on the platform. Dr. Munn explained the cause were the self-repair nannies adapted from Sophie’s original Fuser form. Going into the future there could be a higher risk of Integration with Sophie, he said, but overall he was not very concerned.

“Don’t worry too much about it,” Sam reassured them. “My son and his RIDE lasted for years in a similar situation before they Integrated, and even that wasn’t by their own choice. Personally, I believe that most of the time a natural Integration is the choice of the RIDE and the pilot; if you don’t want to, you won’t.”

Sam looked at Quinoa, “And when we have a moment to breathe, I want to check your DIN slot.”

Rhianna felt…tangled. Zharus wasn’t supposed to have been like this. It was a quiet world, free from the constant brushfire wars that still plagued Earth even after the final war over unification. Friends—perhaps more than friends—weren’t supposed to end up like this. Hazzard General Hospital had called her and Rochelle in as “medical experts” to help Sophie.

“He killed Frank!” Kaylee snarled. “You saw that blast. It was just like the one in Nextus back then. Fritz killed my brother!

“We’re going to get him,” Rhianna said, voice trembling with rage and sadness. “Whatever it takes. I don’t care how long, I don’t care what happens to the Garage.”

“I’m with you,” Rochelle said, putting her arm around Rhianna’s shoulders. “All the way to the end.”

“Me, too,” Uncia said.

“First thing’s first,” Rhianna said. “We go to the Consuls and spill everything.”

“May I suggest the Marshals instead?” said one of the Integrate guards. He was a ring-tailed lemur wearing the duster and Stetson of his calling, with a chrome Men in Black plasma rifle strapped to his back. “Admittedly we already know a great deal, but we have the resources, the autonomy, and the mandate to hunt these criminals down. If you go directly to the Consuls they’ll tie you up in hearings for weeks—then you’ll get passed from polis to polis with no end to it. We’ll disseminate everything to the right people and let you do your job. Worry about hearings after this is all through.”

“Oh? And how long have you been watching us?” Uncia asked.

“Long enough to know you weren’t the problem,” the Marshal said.

“Worst thing about those clowns,” Sam grumbled under his breath. “Their damn secrets and games.”

“I make no excuses—or apologies, Dr. Munn,” the Marshal said. “But this concerns everyone who lives on the Coastal Ring, and ultimately the rest of the planet.”

“I understand that. Doesn’t mean I like it. And doesn’t mean my family won’t be running to be in the thick of it,” Sam grumbled and moved on to check the nutrient balance in the feeder vats again.

“Your first stop should be Nextus,” Kaylee said. “I’ll give you a data dump from my memory files, but you’re going to have to lean on them hard to get the rest.”

“We have ways of getting around their bureaucracy, Miss Kaylee,” the lemur said.

“I suggest grilling Conyers first,” the lynx RIDE said, shuddering. :He’s the reason I ended up in the Shed being used for parts,: she told Rhianna. :At the end of the War, Fritz had Nextus Command so scared they’d do anything to appease him. I think they’re still scared.:

:Why don’t we have a talk with Anny, too?: Rhianna suggested.

“Uh…agreed,” said the lemur. He looked at the human and RIDE, who were obviously having further conversation he couldn’t listen in on. “This is going to take some getting used to.”

“Before we go, as a gesture of trust, why don’t we make you an optimised DIN?” Rhianna suggested. “You up for it, Shelley?”

“Sure,” Rochelle said. “It’ll feel like we’re making some progress, at least.”

“Thanks, ladies,” the Marshal said, tipping his hat. “But that won’t be necessary. My DIN’s made by our own R&D, and it’s a far sight better than what the technomages make. I hear tell yours are, too. I’m sure our Lithiums would love to compare notes for mutual improvements.

“I’m Bastian, by the way, a Gold Star vet. Good to be working with you.”

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Outside of visiting hours, Rhianna held vigil at the hospital, while Rochelle and the Lindas took turns watching the garage and joining her. She tried to convince herself it wasn’t just about Zane—but Myla and Sophie were out of the regeneration tank in less than a day, leaving only the critical Carrie-Anne and Zane himself. The black jaguar was far outside her expertise, though Dr. Munn assured her the Integrate was healing in accordance with similar incidents—but it would be a minimum of two weeks before they expected Carrie-Anne to have a chance of regaining consciousness.

It’s all Zane, she admitted. What is this, estrogen? What? Wasn’t it exactly what she expected for a crossride? To be a straight woman? Rhianna had a lot of time to reflect on Myla’s relationship advice back on the Platform. Guess I didn’t expect it to happen so fast.

Three days after the attack, many sleepless hours later even with Fused sleep-breaks, Dr. Munn said Zane’s vitals were improving quickly and she should come in.

Zane’s eyes were finally open, and he was looking out at her over the breathing mask. His eyes were half-closed, but when he saw movement in front of the tank they snapped open. Rhianna caught her breath. He still looked like hell, floating there in the fabber goo, but seemed better than he had. The joins on his reattached limbs were showing healthy-looking silvery-pink scar tissue, and every so often the fingers twitched.”Hey,” Rhianna said, choking up after just the one syllable.

“Hey,” Zane’s voice rasped from the speaker over the tank. Just two friends saying hello after not seeing each other in a while. When she thought of it like that, Rhianna found she could speak a little more easily. She tried for a light tone.

“You know, I know you like me and all, and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but really—you didn’t have to go and get your tail docked. That’s really kinda creepy.”

“Aw, and here it…cost me an arm and a leg,” Zane said in a slow rasp. “I…thought it was the lynx I could do.”

Rhianna sighed in relief, leaning forward to bump her head against the tank. “Thank goodness you’re alive.”

Zane looked down at her, his expression inscrutable behind the mask. “How many?” he asked at last.

Rhianna could have chosen to misunderstand him, but it would only have drawn things out. “Five dead, thirty wounded. Twenty humans, fifteen RIDEs. The dead include one of the Integrate Marshals…and Marc and Cernos. It’s a miracle it wasn’t more, but they’d installed our special hardware in Gov Center…you know. Fritz couldn’t hack it.”

Zane closed his eyes. “Damn it.” The weakness of his voice robbed the curse of its intended force. “I never meant for people to die for the sake of my ego. Maybe I should have just…”

“No,” Kaylee said from behind Rhianna. “You can’t think that way. What you said just before Fritz attacked was absolutely right. This was gonna hit the fan sooner ‘r later. An’ with Fritz on the loose, people would be dyin’ no matter when it happened.”

“It’s not for the sake of your ego, either,” Rhianna said. “It’s for the sake of freedom for anyone who doesn’t want Fritz to be the one telling them what to do. He’s one to talk about forcing people somewhere they don’t want to go!”

“How could he be so powerful?” Zane wondered. “He acts like such a clown…Quinoa tried to warn me, but I didn’t believe her.”

“What would you have done differently if you had?” Rhianna asked.

“I…dunno.” Zane sighed. “But I know what I’m doing next. Gonna get that asshole if it’s the last thing I ever do.” The fingers on his formerly severed hand twitched. “Soon’s I get out of here.”

“Alright, visiting hours are over,” Dr. Munn said. “Zane needs his rest. We don’t want to tire him out.”

Rhianna nodded, tearing up again. “Get well soon, Zane.”

“Hey, you still owe me a date,” Zane said. “I’m not gonna miss out on that.” He closed his eyes and began to breathe more regularly.

“I can’t wait,” Rhianna said. Now that Zane was awake, she could again catch up on her sleep. Outside the guarded room she Fused up with Kaylee and faded out.

Preceded by:
Integration Part XV: The Task of Amontillado
FreeRIDErs Succeeded by:
Integration Part XVII: Family Matters