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User:Robotech Master/Integrates original

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FreeRIDErs story universe


Integration

by Jon Buck and Robotech Master

Part II: Integrates

It had been quite a night, Zane reflected as he rode his skimmer up the street after Rochelle. He hadn’t gotten a lot of sleep, but had gotten something a lot better. He glanced down at his DIN, still plugged into the socket on his left wrist looking for all the world like an oversized designer watch. He was still amazed at the level of interface he had with the net now. He hadn’t had anything like this level of access even when he’d been Terry, a Reticulated Intelligence made to live on the ‘net.

At any rate, breakfast sounded good. He still had a bit of charge left over from the zap he’d taken last night, but it was starting to run low—and besides, he wanted to taste something again.

“Look out, comin’ throoooooough!

“Yeek!” Zane swerved to the side as Rufia roared past him, crouched low against her Skimmer-mode RIDE Yvonne’s back. He swore he heard her voice doppler shift. “Hey, there’s a speed limit around here you know!” Luckily it was early enough there was almost no one on the street yet anyway.

“‘Scuse us!” Kaylee said cheerfully as she and Rhianna followed a moment later. They pulled into the parking lot just ahead of him, next to Yvonne, Rufia, Uncia, and Rochelle who’d made it already. Then they skidded to a halt as Kaylee snapped into Fuser to kill their momentum, then melted back off into Walker form as they stopped.

Zane chuckled, pulling up a moment later. “Showoffs.”

Rhianna grinned. “Maybe, but we’re showoffs who aren’t going to get licked all over by Uncia.”

“You’re not gonna tell me she was serious,” Zane said.

“Hope you brought a towel!” Rochelle said cheerfully. Uncia peered thoughtfully at Zane and licked her chops.

“I think I’m gonna take a rain check on that,” Zane said. “I’m starving. Let’s get inside and eat?”

“Sounds good to me!” Rufia said, heading for the door.

“Works,” Rhianna said, following.

“Wait a moment,” Rochelle said. “Zane, are you going to put your ‘disguise’ back on?”

Zane considered it, then shook his head. “I’m about tapped out. If I look funny, then I’ll just have to look funny.” He followed the others and their RIDEs inside.

As with most businesses built after the RIDE craze, Bea’s Breakfast Nook had double-wide aisles inside, as well as tables of varying heights where either humans or Fusers could sit, and there was space around the human-sized tables for RIDEs as well.

Zane knew what Rufia had meant about the décor being “girly”. The tables had blue and white gingham tablecloths with frilly lace edges, and each booth having its own cute theme: flowers, kittens, puppies, baby gators, and the like. That hadn’t stopped him from coming here a number of times when he wanted breakfast at odd hours after work. It was the nearest 30-hour breakfast diner, and they’d soon learned to cook his eggs just right. Terry had liked the place, too.

They’d just settled in at a human-sized table, the RIDEs taking up position behind their partners’ seats to plug in, when the waitress, Paula, came over to take their orders. A matronly older lady, Paula was the main waitress at this time of day. She peered at the four friends, and blinked. “Zane Brubeck, is that you?”

“Yeah, Paula. I’ve kinda lost a few kilos,” Zane admitted.

“And a few dozen centimeters, looks like,” Paula said. She regarded him curiously for a moment, then shook her head. “Your usual, then?”

“Yeah. Eggs over easy, hominy grits, biscuits and gravy, bacon…but double the order,” Zane said. “I’m starving. And black coffee.”

“And what can I get for the rest of you?”

“Waffles,” Rochelle said reverently. “Four of them, stacked. Real maple syrup and butter, lots of bacon. Oh, and black coffee here, too.”

“Soysteak, pancakes, hashbrowns, and burn ‘em real crispy,” Rufia said. “With greens. Orange juice.”

“Right. The usual, then. Uh…” Paula looked at the remaining party member. “Oh, I forgot. What’re you going by now, Ryan? I haven’t heard.”

“Rhianna,” the lynx-eared woman said. “I suppose we’re far enough down the street the rumor mill doesn’t quite get this far.”

“Congratulations, it’s a girl,” Rufia said, smirking, mussing her old friend’s long, pony-tailed light brown hair. “Don’t worry, Paula. We’re getting her all nice and settled in her new digs. And she’ll have what I’m having, right Rhi?”

“Sure, why not?” Rhianna said, giving Rufia a friendly slap on her shoulder in return. “But make that a real steak. Carnivore here.”

“It’s not like you can’t afford it,” Zane said, grinning—though he was sure they all knew he intended to try for the check at the end.

“Got it!” Paula scurried off to put the order in at the kitchen, then came back with a coffee pot to fill Rochelle and Zane’s mugs and the orange juices for Rufia and Rhianna. As they waited, Zane looked around the place. It was still an hour or two before the main breakfast rush, so they had the place pretty much to themselves. Nobody at the other tables was looking their way.

Zane didn’t even notice the way his eyes seemed to slide right over the booth in the opposite corner at first, but then he spotted it on the second pass. Hmm. It was as if there wasn’t anything there…including that corner at all. Zane had the presence of mind to keep looking around rather than staring, though he occasionally came back to it out of the corner of his eye. Guess who, he thought wryly. Well, it looks like they’re at least going to let us eat in peace.

“So, you come here often?” Rochelle asked Zane. “You had a ‘usual’.”

Zane chuckled. “Yeah. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. So sometimes I have it for all four meals.”

“So Zane, here you are, surrounded by three beautiful crossrider girls for breakfast,” Rufia said. The wall video panels were currently showing verdant fields of wildflowers rippling in a light breeze. “Ever wondered what might’ve happened if Terry’d been female? Hmmm?”

“Well, Fusing with him—I mean, her—would have been a harder call, for one thing,” Zane said with a grin. “Almost like one of those bad stories you read in the magazines, you know? Where the writer basically just wants to write crossrider porn, so he sets up some impossible dilemma where the protagonist doesn’t have any choice but to give up his precious manhood.” He chuckled. “No offense—I just remembered I’m the only one here who didn’t do that.”

“Yeah, you just Integrated. Poor bastard,” Rochelle said. “The rest of us can change back after three years.”

“If we wanted to,” Rufia added. “Five years and counting, never going back.”

“Never?” Zane asked.

“Look, I’m not a woman of many words. But I am a woman. I’m going to have babies eventually. Not sure what else to say about it.”

“Then let me turn your question around. You ever wondered what might’ve happened if Yvonne had been male?”

“I’d be a hell of a bull elk,” Yvonne herself added. “I could add hardlight antlers if I really wanted to, you know.”

“I’ll bet you’d be a hit at stag parties.” Zane grinned.

“Already am,” she snorted.

Rhianna had a look on her face like she was trying to wrap her brain around something and it wasn’t quite working. “Rufia…I just…I can’t imagine you all pregnant and broody. I can’t imagine me that way either, for that matter.”

“I could simulate it for you!” Kaylee said helpfully. “It would be simple.”

“No. No no. No. Just no,” the mechanic said. “No.”

“You say that now,” Rufia said, “But someday you’ll meet some handsome man, and—oh, cool, food’s here!”

Paula set the plates down on the table, unerringly placing each one in front of the correct person. “I’ll be back by in a few minutes if you need anything.”

“Thanks!” Zane said, grabbing a fork and beginning to inhale his eggs. Rochelle chuckled and attacked her waffles. The others similarly dug into their food, and conversation was sparse around the table for a while. Paula came back by a couple of times to refill coffees.

At last, as the four diners were all putting their forks down on empty plates, Paula approached again, this time looking somewhere between uneasy and disturbed. “Have you got our check?” Zane asked.

“Well, actually…they do.” She pointed over at the corner table, which had popped back into full visibility.

On the left side of the table sat a slim white figure looking like a smaller version of a horse Fuser, with a long golden mane, bright blue eyes, and a small golden horn poking out of her equine forehead. She wore a simple gold dress that matched her hair and horn, slit up the side to reveal a finely-shaped leg.

In the middle, a yellow-and-brown feathered dinosaur with scythe claws on his feet and a half-displayed yellow crest atop his head. The Integrate had a friendly expression despite the dagger-like teeth. Circular hardlight lenses on his tail flickered at idle.

And to the right, a woman whose face seemed to be somewhere between human and feline, with red-yellow slit-pupiled eyes and iridescent green wings. She was wearing a pink felt skirt with a poodle embroidered on it, a “Bee-Gees” sweatshirt with shoulder pads, white linen bloomers, and combat boots. She had teased her hair up into a poofy red-and-pink hairdo. She was also holding the check.

“They…said they wanted to cover it,” Paula said.

“That was nice of them,” Zane said.

“But where did they come from?” Paula wondered. “I never saw them come in, or saw anyone at that table. I…never even saw that table.”

“That’s all right, Paula,” Rochelle said. “They’re just some…friends we’ve been waiting for. I think those people at that table over there wanted your attention.”

“Oh, thanks.” Paula hurried off, clearly glad to have something normal to attend to.

“Lord Lordy Lord,” Kaylee muttered. “Quinoa Steader. Figures. I’d prob’ly better let Sophie know about this just so Myla knows she’s here.”

“Zane, darling, so glad you could join us,” Quinoa called in a haughty gone. “Do come over. We have much to discuss.”

“Thanks for the invitation, but I think I like the company better over here,” Zane said.

“Then Quinoa can stay here and we’ll come over there,” the unicorn said, glaring at the sphinx. Even from across the room the acrimony between her and Quinoa made Zane’s skin prickle. The atmosphere there was distinctly two-against-one, with the unicorn and the dinosaur barely tolerating the oddly-dressed young woman. “I can’t believe you’re wearing a 1950s poodle skirt with 1910s bloomers, a 1970s sweatshirt, and a 1980s hairdo! And combat boots!

Quinoa looked genuinely confused. “What’s wrong with that? It’s all from the 20th century.”

“Anyway,” the dinosaur said, taking a deep breath. “You’ve met the sphinx. My colleague and I aren’t from the same Enclave she’s from. In fact, we’re not too happy about these circumstances ourselves. We’re here to welcome you, Mr. Brubeck.”

“To Jurassic Park, no doubt,” Rochelle muttered.

The velociraptor Integrate looked slightly embarrassed. “Well, yes. But I didn’t name the place.”

Rochelle facepalmed. “I was joking. Why does the universe have such a juvenile sense of humor?”

“I’m Leah Sheryl Daye,” the unicorn said. “I’m from the other Enclave nearby, Terrania.”

“Aaron Stinson, Jurassic Park. Again, not my idea,” the dinosaur said.

The unicorn and dinosaur slid out from the table and moved over to take the empty table next to theirs. Quinoa remained in the corner booth, arms crossed, and looked grumpy.

“Pleased to meet you, Leah, Aaron,” Zane said. “I gather my reputation preceded me.”

“It does. More so than any other new Integrate we’ve put out the Welcome Mat for,” Leah said. A four-pointed blue diamond hung at the base of her horn, and closer examination revealed that it was connected to a port right at the base. Her horn glowed, probably acting as a single hardlight emitter instead of Zane’s own numerous dermal lenses. “To tell the truth, until we saw you we had no idea who had actually Integrated. This is a surprise.”

“And you knew my name because I’m the only tiger RIDEr who had anything to do with Rhianna and company,” Zane guessed. “Who you’ve probably studied up on after what happened with miss 20th century digital girl over there.”

“The Enclaves are a small community. Word spreads fast,” Stinson said. “We’ve met with Flint-Burke as well, helped him as much as we could. Towers…does things its own way.”

Zane snorted. “From what I’ve seen, that’s putting it mildly. Well, I guess it’s not much of a surprise. I’ve never met her before, but I don’t think Quinoa’s changed much. Spoiled rich girl who can buy anything she wants turns into spoiled Integrate who can do anything she wants. Power source changes, corruption stays the same. Thank God Dad raised me middle class.”

“I can hear you, you know,” Quinoa said, sticking out her tongue. The others ignored her.

“Indeed,” Leah said. “But, it’s your current position we need to discuss in a more private setting. Even though Quinoa’s her uncle’s heir, you’re actually in control of the seventh largest corporation on the planet. Brubeck personifies the qubitite revolution. The son of its founder can’t simply vanish off the face of Gondwana.”

“Normally we would extend the hospitality of our Enclaves, let you choose where you want to settle, but in this case that would be difficult at best,” Aaron said.

“Not that it really matters, does it?” Leah asked. “You’re not the type to hide away in an enclave somewhere.”

“You kidding? I’ve got a business to run.” Zane grinned. “No eating lotuses for this tiger.”

“Exactly. So what we can do is teach you a more efficient way to create a hardlight shell of your former Fused form,” Leah continued. “But we will need you to visit one of our Enclaves briefly, so we can make you a device we call a Data Interface Normalizer.”

“Oh, so that’s what it stands for.” Zane grinned. He held up his left hand. “You mean like this one?” He sent a quick handshake pulse to Leah’s to prove it was functional.

Leah and Aaron stared. “Where on Zharus did you have that made?” Leah asked. “It couldn’t have been at either of our enclaves.”

Zane patted Rhianna on the shoulder. “I know some very good mechanics.”

“Took Rochelle and me all night,” Rhianna said a little smugly. “Kaylee, and Uncia too, of course. Couldn’t have done it without our partners.” She rubbed her lynx between the mecha cat’s tufted ears. Kaylee hadn’t taken her eyes off any of the Integrates.

“But it should go faster next time, now that we know what to look for,” Rochelle said. “We were thinking of hanging out a shingle. Integrates-R-Us.”

Aaron pinched the bridge of his muzzle. “Thank God Fritz isn’t here. Remember the last time they sent him to pick up a noob, Leah?”

Leah facepalmed. “God, what a mess. He puts the ‘ingrate’ in ‘Integrate’.”

“Hey! Fritz knows what he’s talking about!” Quinoa said, defending her Enclave-mate. She pointed at Paula, who had retreated behind the ancient register. “They’re made of meat!”

“And if the likes of you are supposed to be some kind of advertisement of the benefits of an upgrade, I think we’d prefer to stay that way, thank you very much,” Rochelle said. “If the first Homo sapiens had your attitude, the rest of us would still be living in the trees.”

“So, please. Can we converse privately?” Leah said. “Without the sphinx. You can go home, Quinoa. We don’t need a rep from Towers on this.”

“I’d like nothing more!” Quinoa said hotly. Then she deflated. “Except I…kinda can’t,” she mumbled. “The Council will kick me out of the Enclave if I come back early.” She did a pretty fair imitation of Col. Eduardo Grey. “‘You caused the problem, now you’re going to be part of the solution…or else.’”

I think they just wanted to keep her away for as long as they possibly could,” Rufia stage-whispered.

“That, too,” Quinoa admitted, obviously having heard her perfectly clearly.

“Good old Eddie,” Rufia added. “I like him. He’s a card.”

“Well, then,” Zane said. “If you want to stay, lose the ‘tude. You used to be made out of meat too, you know. Or at least half of you did.”

Quinoa sighed. “All right, fine. I’ll be good.”

“For some value of ‘good,’” Leah muttered.

Kaylee raised her ears and sent what she hoped was a private transmission to Rhianna. :Myla’s awake now.:

:Does she know about Quinoa?: Zane asked.

The older RIDE was taken a little aback by Zane’s response. :Uh, that was a narrowcast laser…nevermind. She does. They’re heading for Qixi’s office now, so they won’t get in our way. She really is serious about avoiding Quinoa.:

“I don’t mean to be rude, Kaylee,” Leah said, “but if you’re going to be around us much, you probably ought to know that the only one who can scramble a transmission so that an Integrate can’t pick it up is another Integrate. We don’t mean to listen in, but there are so many different frequencies that it can be hard to tell which are meant to be private. Something in our heads just strips out the encryption so we don’t even notice it.”

“You can’t be getting that much out of just backscatter!” Yvonne exclaimed. She was built for communications. “That’s just crazy. I couldn’t even detect Kaylee sending anything, and I’ve still got mil-spec gear.”

“We don’t really understand it ourselves,” Leah admitted. “We haven’t had enough of the right kind of scientists or technicians Integrate to be able to study it.”

“It is a mystery,” Aaron agreed.

“Maybe we should go somewhere else and continue this discussion,” Rhianna suggested. “Crunch time is coming for Paula here and she’s a little on edge. Hell, I’m on edge. I’m not going to risk Fusing around Quinoa, frankly.”

“I said I’d be good,” Quinoa said plaintively.

“Girl, I’m sorry but after your little performance back in the Towers, I don’t think you even know what ‘good’ is anymore,” Rufia said.

“We just did what we thought—” Quinoa began hotly, then remembered her promise and finished more quietly, “—was right at the time.” She sighed and mumbled, almost too quietly to hear, “Maybe it wasn’t.” Zane peered thoughtfully at her for a moment.

“C’mon, let’s go back to the garage, then,” Rochelle said. “We can talk there.”

“And I’d like to show them just how we reverse-engineered that DIN of theirs. I don’t often like showing off. In fact, more of a never. But I’m curious how well we did working from first principles. I’m sure whoever invented these in your Enclaves worked it out somehow. Wouldn’t mind comparing notes.”

“And you want to rub their noses in it that we humble ‘meaties’ and ‘mechies’ can still teach Inties some tricks, huh?” Rochelle asked.

Rhianna and Kaylee smiled the same Cheshire-lynx grin.

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The Freeriders Garage was now the largest such business under the East Dome of Uplift. Rhianna and Rochelle depended purely on word of mouth rather than advertising to build their customer base. Zane himself had put in a good word on several review websites, as had young Lillibet Walton, and it had gone viral among the wealthier of Uplift society and, oddly enough, the children of a number of Nextus’s rich. (Those who didn’t have a curfew, at least.)

But there were no separate bays for those wealthy clients—Ryan had laid down that law from the start. A million mu RIDE could share a bay with a broken-down thirdhand AIDE skimmer. Nobody got preferential treatment, and any wealthy potential customer who didn’t like to sit in the waiting room with everyone else could take his business elsewhere. But almost none of them did. Enough of them were eccentric in their own way to be willing to accept this form of eccentricity from someone else. Zane was pretty sure they even bragged about it to their friends—which might have accounted for even more business.

The lot Rhianna leased was still about twice the size of the garage’s present structure, leaving plenty of room to expand—which simply meant adding on another prefabricated service bay module and some more equipment. (And if business ever took a downturn, they could simply sell the module back to the dealer and contract again.) The only permanent buildings were now the office/waiting room, Rhianna and Rochelle’s private garage (which had been the original garage building when Ryan had been starting out), and Rhianna and Kaylee’s home above it. (Rochelle still lived in her own place by the park, though sometimes crashed on Rhianna’s couch.)

It was into that private garage that Rhianna led the others now, after checking to make sure Myla and Sophie had already left. Aside from being the place where the work had actually been done, it was also somewhere private where the other employees wouldn’t intrude unless invited. Though it was a little crowded with three humans, three RIDEs, and four Integrates in it, there was still room for everyone to sit and have a good view as Rhianna demonstrated how she had determined the composition of Zane’s plug.

“But how is this even possible?” Quinoa demanded. “We’re supposed to be advanced beyond mea—beyond humans’ understanding.”

Rufia snorted. “Who’s been selling you that crap? Ain’t nothing magical about you. You’re just humans mashed up with something humans built. Even that weird shit you do with our encryption is probably just from computing super-fast.”

“She’s right, you know,” Leah said. “There’s a lot we don’t know about ourselves, but we’re not gods.”

“But—” Quinoa stammered, then cut herself off, looking down at her feet.

“I’m sorry about her,” Aaron said to Rhianna. “In a way, you could say it’s our fault.”

Rhianna blinked. “Your fault?” she asked, the plug prototype in her hand temporarily forgotten.

“Of the Integrate community collectively, yes,” Leah said. “You see, a certain number of new Integrates come to us convinced of their own superiority, and in some cases their mandate from heaven to replace ‘meaties’ and ‘mechies’ as the next stage in evolution.” She rolled her equine eyes expressively. “Several of them trickle into most Enclaves every year.”

“And over the last couple of decades, most of us simply got tired of dealing with them,” Aaron said.

“So you sent them all to the most remote Enclave you could find, all the way out in the middle of the Dry Ocean where they couldn’t cause problems for anyone actually near ‘meaties’ and ‘mechies,’” Rhianna said dryly. “How’s that working out for you?”

“The earlier residents of that Enclave have not been…terribly pleased with the rest of us over it, I fear,” Leah admitted.

“And the worst part is, there are a certain number of new, young, and impressionable Integrates who intentionally pick the farthest Enclave from humanity that they can because they assume it’s the ‘most Integrate-like’ place—or perhaps because they have relatives or other matters in the human polities they wish to escape,” Aaron said. Three human, three RIDE, and three Integrate heads all turned in unison to look at Quinoa. “Where they fall under the influence of bitter exiles like Fritz,” he continued.

“That’s not true!” Quinoa insisted. “Fritz is there because he wants to be! That’s what he told me!”

“Child, Fritz is there because every other major Enclave has rejected him,” Leah said. “And your Council is just barely too soft-hearted to do the same, because they know it’s his refuge of last resort.”

“I don’t believe you,” Quinoa sulked.

“I hate to change the subject,” Kaylee said. “But Fritz gave me this horrible death glare, as if he knew me.” She broadcasted the memory to the Integrates. “See?”

“Maybe he’s your long-lost twin brother?” Quinoa asked, rolling her eyes. “He glares at a lot of mec—of people.”

“Hmm.” Zane thought for a moment. “Quinoa, after you guys are finished here, would you hang around a little? I’d like to talk to you, one on one.”

Quinoa blinked. “You would?” She brightened a little. “I—well, sure! If you want to…”

Now, if I could only ask Kaylee for a copy of her memories of that time in the Towers without Quinoa hearing me, Zane thought wryly. Hmm…maybe if I connect directly. He surreptitiously reached over and put his hand on one of Kaylee’s paws where he knew she had a dataport. :Hey, K-Spared, could I get a copy of your audiovisual memory of that time in the Towers? I’d like to see exactly how it happened.:

:Sure, if it’ll help you,: Kaylee replied, surprised. She downloaded him the memories, and he quickly assimilated them. He had mainly wanted to find out whether the details happened exactly as Rhianna had told him, and to watch Quinoa’s behavior. As it turned out, it was pretty much what he had expected. That could be useful.

“Anyway, after I finally finished mapping the connectors,” Rhianna said, “I turned things over to Rochelle to decrypt the signal. Your show, Shelley.”

Rochelle stood up, her hair bouncing and flowing around her with the movement. “Right! So I started out with this program I wrote, that I called ‘Enigma’…”

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After the demonstration was finished, Leah and Aaron expressed their astonishment at how well the DIN had been made. Zane demonstrated it, and they had to admit it worked as well as any DIN they’d ever seen made at their respective enclaves. Even Quinoa found some halfway nice things to say—perhaps cheered by the knowledge that not only was she going to stay until the end of the visit, she was going to get to stay after the others had left.

“This is very impressive,” Aaron said at last, turning one of the prototype plugs over in his claw-hand. “Rhianna, Rochelle, if you wouldn’t mind, do you think we might come to terms for sending any new Integrates from Uplift your way for a DIN fitting? It would be more convenient all around than trucking them all the way out to an Enclave.”

“Agreed,” Leah said. “I’m still amazed. Our own fitters might do it faster, but certainly not any better. And you’ll do even better with practice.”

“Well, since it turns out that most Integrates seem to be decent people, I don’t see why not,” Rhianna said. Quinoa glowered, but said nothing. “But call me back late tonight or tomorrow to go over terms? I don’t talk business on a sleep deficit. I learned that lesson with Qixi.”

At last, Leah and Aaron showed Zane some techniques for creating a better hardlight disguise that was impenetrable by scan and also used much less energy than his previous attempts. “Thanks,” Zane said, after he’d perfected it. “I’m sure that will come in handy, if I ever need it.”

“If you ever need it? I don’t understand,” Leah said. “If you’re staying in Uplift, you’ll need to disguise yourself so people don’t know you’ve Integrated.”

“I appreciate your concern, but I don’t think that’s going to be necessary,” Zane said. “I have Integrated, and if I started trying to hide it I wouldn’t ever be able to stop. And I don’t think I have anything to hide.” He chuckled. “Besides, it would end up being a bigger scandal if I hid it for a few years and someone discovered me during a momentary lapse. This way I have more control to start with.”

“But…you’ll be hated! Feared! Hunted!” Quinoa insisted. “Or the army will kidnap you for experiments!”

“This is Uplift,” Zane said. “I don’t even think they have an army.”

“There’s a volunteer militia,” Kaylee said. “But I don’t think they’ve fired a shot in anger since…well, ever. The Sturhaven-Nextus War never got this far. And they’re not in the business of kidnapping people.”

“Even annoying Ingrates, I mean Integrates,” Yvonne said, looking pointedly at Quinoa.

“I think most people around here generally have kind of open minds,” Rochelle said. “And for those that don’t—hello, seventh biggest corporation on Zharus? He can hire whole teams of bodyguards.”

“Could it really be that simple?” Leah wondered.

“I’ll make it that simple,” Zane said. “It’s worth a try, anyway. Someone’s got to do it, because the more mystery and confusion there is around us Inties, the more potential there is for misunderstandings. Possibly violent misunderstandings.”

“Well, we’re not ones to forcibly interfere in other people’s lifestyles,” Leah said. Again, nine heads turned in unison to look at Quinoa. “Mostly,” Leah amended.

“I said I was sorry,” Quinoa grumbled.

“So if you really want to go through with this…well, we’ll wish you luck,” Leah said. “I’ll talk to my Enclave and see what they think. I wish I could say you’ll get support from us, but…well…”

“Yeah, I know,” Zane said. “That’s the other reason I don’t want to hide. You keep your head down for too long, you forget how to raise it up again.”

“I’ll put the word out, too,” Aaron said. “I know there’s a few of us out and about, not beholden to an Enclave. We’re just really good at pretending to be the old ‘we’, you know.”

“If there are any of them here in Uplift, or who want to come to Uplift, have ‘em contact me,” Zane said. “I won’t force them to out themselves if they don’t want to, but we Integrates should stick together. I might be able to get them jobs, or other help getting by.”

Leah nodded. “We will let them know.”

“You know I’ll…have to tell the Towers Council about this, when I go back,” Quinoa said. “They…well, some of them probably won’t be too thrilled.”

Zane chuckled. “I can imagine. We’ll talk about that here in a bit before you go.”

Rhianna yawned, revealing her adorable pointed kitty canines. “Speaking of going, I think my wakey pills are wearing off. Tired kitty needs her catnap. Leah, Aaron, it was great to meet you. Zane, glad to help you. Quinoa, don’t let the screen door hit your butt on the way out.”

“And I think I’m gonna crash on your sofa again,” Rochelle said. “Or maybe on Uncia. She’s sort of like a sofa.”

“I’ll see them all out,” Zane said. “And thanks again for the help.” He snapped his fingers. “Oh, and that reminds me. When you’re ready to buy your suborbital? Give me a call. I’ll put you in touch with the dealer we get all ours from and give you the company discount.”

Rhianna yawned again, stumbling up the stairs. “Thanks, Zane. Kaylee, remind me to do…um…whatever it is he just said. Dude, if I don’t go to sleep now I’m going to hit the floor.” She threw herself upstairs as quickly as she dared.

“I don’t think I can make it up the stairs,” Rochelle said, yawning. “Uncia, could you lie down, hon?”

“Sure thing, Shelley.” The snow leopard complied, and Rochelle settled into the curve of the spine on that broad furry back and began snoring.

Zane chuckled. “C’mon, you-all, exit’s this way.” He led the three Integrates and Rufia to the door.

Rufia chuckled. “I gotta admit, you know how to throw a party. Breakfast with several of Zharus’s greatest urban legends in the flesh. Too bad I can’t tell anyone. Well, anyway, I got places to do and people to be. Check ya later!” She thumped Yvonne on the back, and the elk flipped over into skimmer mode. Rufia swung into the saddle and headed on up the street.

Finally, Zane turned to Leah and Aaron and shook each of their hands. “Thanks for coming, guys. Let me know when you’re in town again.”

Leah nodded. “We will.” Then she simply vanished, though now that he was watching for it Zane could see the way she actually used hardlight to bend light around herself before flying away with her lifters. He made a mental note of the technique, so as to try it himself sometime.

“The pleasure was mine,” Aaron said. He disappeared and flew off in the same way, leaving Zane alone with Quinoa Steader.

“So,” Quinoa said at last. “What now?”

“Walk with me for a bit. I want to talk to you about some things,” Zane said.

Quinoa shrugged. “All right. Let’s walk.”

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They headed up the sidewalk in the general direction of the Brubeck campus. Quinoa was using a hardlight illusion to hide her wings and feline features, making her appear to be the girl Zane imagined she had been before she’d Integrated. “So…what did you want?” she asked uncertainly. She still seemed subdued, hadn’t recovered her old attitude yet. Good.

“I wanted to ask you a very important question,” Zane said. “I want you to think about it before you answer.”

“All…right?” Quinoa said nervously.

“When Rhianna, Qixi, and the rest ended up in the Towers…what did you do wrong?” Zane asked.

“But we didn’t—” Quinoa began angrily, but Zane held up a hand.

“I want you to think about it,” he repeated. “Take several minutes if you want. I can wait. I think you probably already know the answer. You just don’t want to admit it to yourself.”

Quinoa opened her mouth to reply, then closed it again. They continued walking in silence for a while.

“You know, if there’s one thing I really hate, it’s tethers,” Zane said after a while. “And since I’m Nextus-made, I know tethers. My first owner had pretty much every tether it was possible to have on me. My next owner took half of them off me, but there were still enough that I couldn’t even speak out when they stuck me next to K-Spared—I mean, Kaylee—and I found she couldn’t get into Passive at night. I only finally got rid of them just before I met Zane.”

Quinoa didn’t seem to be confused by Zane speaking from his RIDE’s viewpoint. She just nodded, though still didn’t say anything.

“So my first impulse would be to want to rip those tethers out of any tethered unit I ran across,” Zane continued. “With my teeth, if necessary. And Zane might have been a bit naïve about the way things worked in Nextus, but he still wouldn’t have retethered me even for one moment, even just to fool the DRRT and save himself some money, even when I told him he could.”

“Then you understand,” Quinoa said.

Zane raised a hand. “I said that would be my first impulse. But I’m from Nextus.”

Quinoa blinked. “Well, so am I—”

“So how do they feel about tethers in Nextus?” Zane asked.

“You have to have them. If you don’t, you pay a fine.” She smiled slightly. “I must have cost Uncle Joe a hundred thousand mu in fines just the first year I had Quorra. I hate tethers. Always have.”

“And what if you’re in a government job?” Zane asked. “And your RIDE gets jailbroken?”

“Well, I…dunno,” Quinoa hedged. “I never had a government job.”

“Take a guess,” Zane said.

Quinoa was silent again.

Zane nodded. “A lot of government jobs allow you to purchase your RIDE outright and decommission it and take it with you, you know. Because Nextus isn’t a bunch of total idiots, and they know some people and their RIDEs come to love each other no matter whether they approve or not. Giving them that chance makes them work harder, to put a little money aside to save up toward that buy-out.”

Quinoa still didn’t say anything, but it didn’t seem to bother Zane. Her brow was furrowed, and was it his imagination or was she starting to look a little paler?

“So before I yielded to that first impulse, I think I might want to try to find out whether this was one of those cases where the RIDE and the rider—” Zane stopped, then looked up at a cloud of dust coming up the road. It looked familiar. In fact—it was Sophie, in her skimmer form, totally disregarding the speed limit. And then his vision zoomed in, showing Myla hunched low over the controls, tears streaming from her eyes. “Oh hell. Speak of the devil. Quinoa, could you get out of sight please?” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the sphinx-girl seem to blink out of existence. “Good enough.”

Then he sent to the onrushing skimmer, :Sophie? It’s Zane. Rhianna and Rochelle are both asleep, and Rufia’s gone. Can I help?:

:It…didn’t go well.: the fennec RIDE replied. :Qixi’s the worst kind of boss. I can’t imagine why she’s as successful as she is. We knew within five minutes it wasn’t going to work out, then spent an hour in pure hell. Qixi knew she had us by the tail.:

:What did she do?:

:Pulled a fast one on the so-called ‘goodwill loan’. Jacked up the interest rate she was going to charge. It wouldn’t have been a job so much as indentured servitude. It was all I could do to keep from chewing her face off myself. She said if we walked out she was going to send the bill to a collection agency. Well, we did. That bitch is screwing with the wrong fox!:

:Pull up over here, Sophie. Let me talk to Myla. Maybe I can fix things.: He carefully didn’t look over where Quinoa had been standing.

Sophie slowed below the speed limit, her rider too inward-focused to notice. The duo went directly into fuse.

Zane approached the pair, and placed a hand on their shoulder. “Hey. I know we didn’t really get off to the best start, and this may not be a very good time, but I really need to talk to you. It’s urgent.”

The fennec’s head retracted to reveal Myla’s tear-stricken face. She looked a little better than before. Having Sophie share her misery must have put a damper on it somehow. “What do you want, Mr. Brubeck? I really…well…what do you want? Oooh noooo…they’re going to repo my dear Sophie…”

“No, they’re not. I’ve been repossessed, and I won’t let that happen to anyone I can help.” Zane shook his head. “What I want is to offer you a job. A real job, because I need talents you have—not a make-work or an indenture to pay off a loan you shouldn’t have had to take out in the first place.”

He paused to let that sink in. “But first, I wanted to show you something. I’m passing it to Sophie now. I know you saw the worst side of Integration back in the Towers. If you’re going to trust me enough to work for me, you need to see a better one. This is kind of personal…but it’s all I’ve got.”

He sent the memory packet through the link from his palm: two sets of memories, one beginning with a man limping through a desert, and the other beginning with a tiger RIDE trapped in a sinkhole. The memories played out over several months of friendship, culminating in an evening when two friends worriedly asked each other what they were going to become…and then became it. Then they woke up the next day, a new man.

:That was…beautiful,: Sophie said, stunned.

“Absolutely,” Myla agreed. “Thank you for sharing that with us. That…takes a lot of trust.”

Zane shrugged. “I trust Rhianna. Rhianna trusts you. I figure trust should Baconize.”

“I don’t know if something like that could ever happen to Sophie and me, though,” Myla mused. “At least, not now.”

“I wouldn’t want it to, before it was time,” Zane said. “Which is why I’d never try to force it on anyone. I just—”

And then there was an Integrate sphinx prostrated on the ground next to them. “Myla, I am so, so sorry,” Quinoa sobbed. “I didn’t…I never thought. Even when you mentioned that time I didn’t understand. But I…I do now. I never meant to do this to you. I never meant to…to hurt you.”

A fleeting expression of rage and anger, directed at Zane and Quinoa both, passed swiftly. The fennec de-Fused, turning her gaze on the sobbing child, then up to her rider. “You…didn’t say that she was with you, Mr. Brubeck. But I’m not angry. At least, not now. Come here, kiddo,” Myla said, reaching down to give her a hand up off the ground. “You remember what I said to you about ‘contrition’ all those years ago? You were what, twelve?”

“Twelve and a half,” Quinoa said, half-smiling through her tears. “I remember.”

“Sincere remorse and repentance. A willingness to make up for wrongs committed. Penitence for wrongs. Do you understand now, little girl?”

“I…I do. I hadn’t thought it through. I just thought tethers were bad. And the others said the same…but now I understand.” She forced herself to meet Myla’s gaze. “And I’ll do…whatever I can to…to make up for it.”

“You know, this time I think she does get it,” Sophie said.

“I think so too, Sophie. Then she’s a big girl now, isn’t she? Quin, you’re on the road to being a ‘young woman’ now. Finally.” As she spoke the last words, her voice went from patronizing to genuinely pleased.

“I’m just so sorry,” Quinoa said again. “The others said…” She shook her head. “Why did I listen to them?” She shook her head.

“Quinoa, I might have some ideas about that, but I need to talk to Myla and Sophie alone for a little bit first. Could you wait for us here?” Zane sent her the coordinates of his apartment through his DIN.

“All…all right,” Quinoa said, sniffling. She lifted off her feet and vanished, and they felt the breeze of her passage as she zoomed off toward the apartment building.

“Sorry,” Zane said. “I honestly didn’t mean to spring her on you like that. We’d just been out walking and talking, when you came driving up. I’d asked her to keep hidden, but…”

“It’s Quinoa. She could never keep quiet about anything for very long.” Myla was starting to recover from the shock now, and her RIDE licking her cheek threatened to make her giggle.

“Anyway, it’s not quite her fault. Well, not entirely, anyway. I think there’s a couple pieces of the puzzle you’re missing.” He sent across another memory package, this one comprising their conversations with the Integrates from breakfast up through his talk with Quinoa and Myla’s arrival.

“Glad they’re not all assholes, then,” Sophie said. “I recognize the dinosaur’s name, too—one of the few bits of memory they didn’t dig out of me with a spork. AWOL from the army a couple years ago after he lost his arm and a leg in a firefight while Fused. Command asked Materiel Recovery to look out for his RIDE.” She chuckled. “Something tells me they’re not going to get that one back.”

“And it’s nice to hear that Burke, or Burke-Flint, is getting help,” Myla said.

Zane nodded. “So what I’m thinking is, I ask Quinoa to stay here in Uplift, put her up in an apartment nearby where I can kinda keep a big-brotherly eye on her, and where she won’t have that Fritz pouring poison in her ear. And that kinda brings me to you.” He looked directly at Myla.

The former Nextus officer shrugged. “I’m open to suggestions. At least I know you’re on the level, unlike that bitch Qixi. Bitches, really. Her entire crew is almost as bad as she is.”

Zane nodded. “Yeah, we’ve contracted with them before, and I’ve met her once or twice. Not pleasant. Anyway, as you heard in those memories, I’m not going to be hiding under a rock—or a disguise. And I’m sure there are going to be plenty of ordinary people who are scared of me, and probably Integrated like Fritz who won’t want me upsetting their apple cart either. So what I need is a bodyguard. One with the kind of tenacity it takes to tough it out for months in a pastel pegasus pony RIDE if that’s the job.” He grinned. “Though I promise you won’t have to do that this time.”

“Why couldn’t they have found a Luna for me? Honestly, the worst part was the pastel blue ears and rainbow-colored hair and tail. After a while Dashie and I got along fine. But that’s neither here nor there. It’s this stupid loan I signed with Qixi. She damn well knew the emotional state I was in and took advantage of it!” She smacked her knee. “I want to kick her tail soooo hard!”

Zane chuckled. “Don’t worry about Qixi. I’ll buy your loan off of her outright, and throw in enough of a buyout bonus she won’t be able to say no. She won’t be any problem; she knows I can squash her like the obnoxious little stink bug she is if she gives me any trouble. And I just hope she gives me trouble.” He actually blushed through his fur. “I’m sorry, I don’t like playing the rich bastard, usually—it’s just not me—but loathsome little twerps like Qixi just make it too tempting to pass up entirely.”

Myla blinked. “You’d do that, for me?” Then she shook her head. “I’ve seen what kind of person you are from your memories, of course you’d do that. I…don’t know what to say.”

“The word you’re looking for is ‘yes’.” Zane chucled. “And I know you’re of a type with Rhianna and Rochelle—you’ve got your pride, so I won’t even think about just trying to forgive the loan,” he said. “I know you wouldn’t go for that. I almost kind of wish you would, but then I realize that if you were that kind of person, you wouldn’t be the kind of person I wanted in the first place.”

“Thanks…I think,” Myla said. “So how are you going to want me to pay it back?”

“I’ll just figure up a payment at a reasonable interest rate and dock it out of your first few paychecks,” Zane said. “But I do plan to pay you enough that you’ll hardly even notice the chunk missing.” He grinned. “I’d do this for anyone, but especially for a friend of Rhianna’s. And I hope you’ll be my friend, too—both of you.”

Myla grinned. “It already feels as though I’ve known you for months.”

Sophie chuckled. “It does. Funny, that.”

“Then welcome to the team.” He held out his hand for Myla to shake and Sophie to lick. “Let’s go tell Quinoa the good news, then I’ll phone Qixi and you all can listen in. Should be fun.”

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They got to the apartment to find Quinoa waiting for them on the edge of Zane’s living room sofa. She hopped up as they came in, eyes still directed at the floor.

Sophie peered thoughtfully at the sofa Quinoa had vacated. “That looks comfy. May I?”

The sofa was a bit of an oddity, as it was in some ways more like a mattress than a sofa. It was actually a combination RIDE bed and couch, intended for a large furry RIDE to arrange itself along one side and serve as a living sofa back for the humans who sat on the other edge. Zane had bought it in the first few days of his partnership with Terry, though they’d never actually ended up using it much, discovering that they preferred staying Fused most of the time.

“As long as you don’t mind us leaning against you, be my guest,” Zane said. “In fact, if you want I can have it moved down to your and Myla’s apartment, when we get one set up for you. I certainly don’t have a RIDE to use it with anymore.”

“Thanks!” Sophie arranged herself along the back of the sofa-bed with her hind and fore legs to either side of the seating space.

Myla chuckled. “She does look comfortable, doesn’t she? In more ways than one.”

“C’mon, let’s sit down.” Zane took one end, Myla the other, and he waved Quinoa to take the space in between them. “We had something we wanted to talk to you about.”

“What was that?” Quinoa asked.

“Well, for starters, Myla’s agreed to sign on as my new bodyguard,” Zane said.

Quinoa perked up. “Oh! She’s good at that! You know, I think my uncle still has that Dashie RIDE around somewhere…”

“Nooooo thanks,” Myla said. “I’ve had enough pony for a lifetime.” She rolled her eyes. “Sooooo much pony.”

Zane chuckled, and Quinoa actually giggled a little.

“The other thing I wanted to talk to you about was, well…from what you said earlier, I got the impression that maybe you and the Towers Council could use some time apart,” Zane said.

Quinoa sobered up, and nodded once. “They…haven’t really been all that happy with me since last month. I get the feeling they’ve been waiting for me to make ‘just one more mistake,’ and then…”

“So here’s my proposal,” Zane said. “I find you an apartment here, too, and you stay for a while. You can teach me the things I’d learn if I were an Enclave newbie, and maybe we can talk more about Integrate philosophy. And you could tell the Council when you report that you’re being all responsible and staying here to keep a closer eye on things.”

“And perhaps we could find the time to do some things together, just like old times,” Myla said.

Quinoa blinked. “You’d…do that for me? After what I said? And…” she glanced over her shoulder at Sophie “…what I did?”

“I won’t necessarily say all is forgiven yet,” Myla said. “But you’ve gone a long way toward getting there.” She smiled faintly, running a hand along Sophie’s fur behind her. “And as, well, devastating as it was at the time, I do have to admit you and your friends did some very good work with the upgrade.”

“Same here,” Sophie agreed. “It feels completely natural! Or, at least, what I’d imagine completely natural must feel like.”

“So thank you for that, at least,” Myla said.

“You’re…welcome, and I’m sorry again,” Quinoa said, looking down. “It’s kind of…dogmatic around the Towers that any tethered RIDE must be freed. And I bought into it. I screwed up. I…think I know better now.”

“There’s still one more person you have to apologize to, you know,” Myla said gently. “The one who got hurt even more than we did.”

“I know,” Quinoa said. “And I will, when I get the chance. I’ll find out which Enclave he’s in, and go there. You can come too, if you want, if the Enclave allows mea—I mean, non-Integrate visitors. Most of them that aren’t the Towers do.”

Myla thought about that for a moment. “I think…I’d like that. It might be nice to meet some Integrates who aren’t…” She glanced at Quinoa, then trailed off.

Quinoa smiled. “It’s all right. You can say it. I know what we were. ‘Total assholes.’”

“You said it, not me,” Myla said, and they all chuckled.

“Well, now comes the fun part of the evening’s entertainment,” Zane said, leaning back against Sophie. He opened a comm line and piped the output through the apartment’s entertainment speakers.

A moment later a gruff female voice came over the line. “Qixi. What you want.”

“Hi, Qixi, this is Zane Brubeck. Listen, I’ve heard that in a moment of weakness you recently made a loan to an ex-Nextus Materiel Recovery officer. Since you’ve done a number of jobs so well for Brubeck Mining in the past, I’ve decided out of the goodness of my heart to take that loan off your hands for you…”

Preceded by:
Integration Part I: All-Nighter
FreeRIDErs Succeeded by:
Integration Part III: RIDEgirls' Day Out