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User:Robotech Master/Joseph Life

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FreeRIDErs story universe


Joseph Steader, This is Your Life!

Author: Robotech_Master and Jon Buck


Author's Comments

This story can be downloaded in PDF, EPUB, Mobi (Kindle), ODF, and RTF format from this website as part of the e-book "Joe & Julius".


May 15, 157 A.L.

“Hello, anybody home?” Quinoa Steader called cheerfully into the garage bay.

“Hey, Quinoa!” Rhianna called back. “Where’ve you been? It’s been a few months, hasn’t it?”

“Been a little busy lately,” Quinoa said. “First there was the cleaning up after myself, then a little space tourism since I was up there anyway.”

“Do tell?” Rochelle said. She and Rhianna had a RIDE up on their cradle, as usual for the working garage. They were un-Fused at present, with Kaylee and Uncia lying comfortably nearby.

Quinoa came closer and peered at it. “Is that a tapir?”

“Yep, meet Tater,” Rhianna said. “In for his six-month check-over and hardlight tuneup.”

“You always have the weirdest RIDEs,” Quinoa said. “Who’d even want a tapir?”

“Says the sphinx-girl,” Rochelle said.

“He was a Donizetti one-off,” Rhianna said. “Apparently made for someone who really really likes tapirs. I don’t judge, I just fix ‘em.”

“Oh, well, if he’s a Donizetti, that explains everything.” Quinoa chuckled. “My own Quorra was one of his.”

“So, you said you were cleaning up after yourself?” Rhianna said. “How’s that?”

“Not much to tell, really,” Quinoa said. “Back when Fritz and Uncle Joe locked me up that one time, in Uncle Joe’s mansion on the Aloha Elevator counterweight, I went through the window to get away, and it evacuated the house. Furniture, odds, and ends went everywhere, making a bit of an orbital navigation hazard. Zharus Orbital Tracking gave me until the end of this month to have all the debris cleaned up or they’d fine me. And Uncle Joe, the rat-fink, felt that getting it taken care of on my own would ‘teach me a valuable lesson.’ Never mind that he’s the one who locked me up there in the first place!” She rolled her eyes.

“Sounds like a herculean task,” Rhianna said.

“Oh, not really,” Quinoa said. “More tedious than anything else. ZOT had radar plots on everything that was still in orbit. Even back in the twentieth, Earth radar was able to track orbital debris as small as flecks of paint. So it was just a matter of going around and scooping it up.” She shrugged. “Took me a couple months, all in all. Outfitted myself with some Intie space paks from Camelot, plotted my orbital maneuvers, and basically spent most of the time in hibernation waiting for orbits to match up.”

“Wow,” Rochelle said. “You didn’t need a sub or anything?”

“Nope. I mainly used nets to scoop all the stuff up together, then towed them back to the mansion. It wasn’t too bad. I had a lot of time to think, and Zharus is really pretty from orbit. And I managed to rescue a few things with sentimental value, like Rosie, our old robot maid. All in all, a couple months well spent.”

“And I’m sure you’re not bringin’ this up jus’ to brag on how awesome Integrates are, ‘cuz you’re all over that by now, right?” Kaylee put in.

“Oh, of course!” Quinoa said virtuously. She clasped her hands together and a little hardlight halo appeared over her head. “Well, okay, maybe a little bit,” she admitted, as the halo turned into devil horns before disappearing. “Anyway, after that, given that I was already out in space, and all kitted out with state-of-the-art deep space survival gear I’d barely even broken in, I caught a ride out-system with the Clementine to visit some of the deep space Enclaves—Halley, Shoemaker-Levy, Ikeya-Seki. We’d met some peeps from there on Zane’s training-montage cruise before the big dust-up at Domefall, but I hadn’t ever been all the way out to the rim before.”

“Sounds pretty interesting,” Rochelle said. “How did that go?”

“Pretty well. I’d never been, and they were happy to see us—me and the Clemmie crew were the only actual participants from the Integrate Civil War who’d gotten out that far yet. Spent a couple months touring and giving talks, doing a little diplomacy and stuff, then caught another lift on a space freighter back in while the Clementine stayed.” She glanced at Rhianna. “I gather I missed some excitement down here—like your whole family showing up out of the blue, Rhianna?”

“Not my whole family—there’s a bunch of cousins and more distant relations tucked away on a slow ship that’s still a few months out,” Rhianna said. “But parents, sibs, and grandmother, yeah.” Rhianna paused. “In fact, my grandmother kind of wanted to meet you. You free for the day?”

Quinoa blinked. “Sure, but…why would your grandmother want to meet me?

“Well, she actually wants you to re-introduce her to your uncle,” Rhianna said. “She was assigned as Joe and Mikel’s babysitter when they were on Earth digging for treasure.”

Quinoa’s ankh-shaped DIN necklace flashed as she googled for information on Rhianna’s grandmother. “…really? Your grandma is Captain Thermopylae?”

Now it was Rhianna’s turn to blink. “Captain what?

“Thermopylae. It means—”

“I know what it means,” Rhianna said. “Who called her that?”

“Er…well, I overheard my Dad and Uncle Joe talking about old times some, when I was younger. That seems to be their private nickname for her,” Quinoa said, blushing a little. “I gather they had quite a crush on her at the time.”

“Really.” Rhianna shook her head. “Well, I guess that shouldn’t be any more surprising than learning that she knew them at all…

Rochelle giggled. “Was she aware of it, you think?”

Quinoa shrugged. “Not as far as they knew, but I gather they were your typical young guys at the time. She could have been anywhere from blissfully ignorant to secretly thinking it was cute. I guess we could ask her.”

Rhianna shook her head, grinning. “I draw the line at prying into Nana’s love life. But let me go ahead and give her a call.”

A few minutes later, a Harley-Davidson-inspired skimmer bike pulled into the bay, and Socah Gates climbed down. Her leather riding clothes blurred into a frilly, straight flapper dress out of the 1920s, with a wavy, bobbed haircut and close-fitting hat. The woman wearing them was far older than she looked and carried herself heavier than a person her size should, mostly because she was. The clothes, the pale complexion, were all hardlight projections over a fully cybernetic body, like a RIDE’s pelt.

Quinoa cocked her head for a moment, and her eyes widened. “Oh, wow! That’s a full-body prosthesis from Earth, isn’t it?”

“That it is, young woman. A North American Army officer’s G.I. Jane Mark Eight, with a few Zharusian touches,” Socah Gates said. “Take it you’re Mikel’s daughter I’ve heard so much about?”

Quinoa bobbed her head. “Oh…yes, ma’am. Sorry. I’m Quinoa Steader.” She offered her hand.

Socah took it. “Colonel Socah Gates, 56th Heavy Mech Infantry, North American Army, retired. Pleased to meet you.”

“And I’m delighted to meet you!” Quinoa said. “I’ve heard so much about you from my Dad and Uncle at one time or another, but never thought I’d ever run into you in person. And I sure had no idea you were related to Rhianna.”

“Life’s just full of surprises,” Socah said. “I had no idea we’d find a granddaughter instead of a grandson when we got here. Or that another one would join her a couple of months later.”

Quinoa blinked. “Really? Wow, I’m sorry I missed that.

“Ivy and her partner Cira are off touring Califia right now, or I’d introduce you,” Rhianna said. “She might end up moving there. She has a talent for fixing skimmers, and that’s where you find ‘em.”

“So how are your folks doing these days?” Socah asked. “I understand Mikel’s still off-world?”

“Dad’s on Proxima, trying to keep Earth’s grubby paws off of them,” Quinoa said. “He knows it’s a losing battle, but figures any time he buys for them is also time bought for us, so…” She shrugged. “Uncle Joe’s doing okay. ‘Fine as frog hair,’ he’d say…think that’s an expression he picked up from Clint Brubeck.”

“If I may ask, who’s your mother?” Socah said.

“None other than Isabella Brunel, Grand Ringmistress of Brunel’s Star Circus,” Quinoa declared proudly. “Still going strong after so many years. Though she might retire once she hears about what’s happened to me. Zharus is pretty much where the circusfolk end up when they finish their careers.”

“Oh, ho! The Star Circus? I ran across them during my last gunboat diplomacy tour on Centauri thirty years or so ago. Spectacular!”

“That would have been during Dad’s second tour with them,” Quinoa said.

“I don’t think I saw his name anywhere on the playbill, then,” Socah said.

“He often used a stage name,” Quinoa said. “And he was probably at a different big top than you saw. Most people don’t realize just how big a show the Circus really is. They do the whole star system all at once, and it takes a repurposed colony ship to haul it from place to place.”

“I take it your parents aren’t together anymore?” Socah asked carefully. “Forgive me, I don’t wish to bring up painful memories.”

“My parents divorced when I was four, so I’m over it. Dad decided to raise me on Zharus and Mom agreed I needed a planetside childhood. I see her every time the Circus makes the round here. They’re a bit late, but I think they should be back next year.”

“Then you’ll show her that colorful, feathery new self of yours,” Socah said, grinning. “The iridescent red and green feathers are stunning.”

Quinoa spread her wings. “I thought of maybe trying out for sideshow freak, but I don’t think Joe would go for it,” Quinoa deadpanned. “That’s how they did the RIDE-tagged folks before, in the Zharus Zoo.”

“So they don’t know you’ve Integrated yet?” Rochelle put in. “That’s…probably going to be a shock.”

“Honestly, as much as she’s been in the news lately, I’d half expect ‘em to know about it before they get here,” Rhianna said. “Starliner news feeds being what they are.”

Quinoa nodded. “Yeah…that’s possible.” She sighed. “I’ve tried to sit down and write or record a letter about it more than once, but it just doesn’t come together. I guess it’s just something I need to do in person.” She shrugged. “On the bright side, at least I won’t have to explain what Integrates are. Uncle Joe tells me there are at least a couple of them in the Circus already.”

“Well, that figures,” Kaylee said. “Integrates are kinda like Q-dust itself. They get in everywhere.

Quinoa grinned. “And make everything stop working?”

Kaylee snorted. “Hey, you said it, not me.”

They all shared a chuckle, then Quinoa said to Socah, “I’ll bet you have some great stories you could tell about Dad and Uncle Joe on Earth.”

Socah chuckled. “Just a few. Funny thing, they’re a lot more hilarious in hindsight than they were at the time. Joseph and Mikel were quite a handful, and they didn’t always look at things quite the same way we did on Earth.”

“They don’t always look at things quite the same way we do on Zharus, either,” Quinoa said. “They’re Steaders.”

Socah smirked. “Well, that figures. Let me tell you about the day I first met them.”

“We’d love to hear it, Nana,” Rhianna said.

“Well…”

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July 6, 100 AL (2450 AD)
DalWorth, Texas, Earth

“Can you believe it? We’re finally here!” Joe Steader waved an arm expansively toward the balcony of the hotel room they’d just walked into. By the standards they were used to, it wasn’t much. The plaster was cracked, the light fixture only half-worked, and everything from the room safe to the vid panel to the beverage cooler required credits to operate—if it worked at all. But that couldn’t cast a pall over Joe’s enthusiasm. “The cradle of humanity. The womb from which mankind emerged to colonize the stars.”

“Can something be both a cradle and a womb at the same time?” Mikel wondered, dropping a couple of suitcases onto the bed.

Joe rolled his eyes. “Come on, Mikey. Let’s get unpacked and then take in the sights.”

“Ahem.” The attractive woman clearing her throat was dressed in the dark green garrison uniform of the North American Army, and she had a Captain’s rank insignia on her collar. Her head was shaved save for a blonde one-centimeter mohawk up the middle, which made her strong chin and stern features stand out all the more. She was standing in the door, arms crossed, favoring the pair with a somewhat annoyed look. “The only ‘sights’ to see in this part of DalWorth are usually the ones on the end of someone else’s gun. Why on Earth didn’t you let us put you up in a five-star hotel closer to the center of town?”

Joe elbowed Mikel and snickered. “Did you hear that? She said why on Earth!

Mikel rolled his eyes. “I told you, Captain Gates. This is the closest place by far to the location Clint Brubeck gave us for where he found the entrance to a section of the underground with a lot of old-time artifacts in it. We’re still waiting on permission to go in, and we want to be ready to start right away when that comes through.”

“My company has the building secured,” Captain Gates said. “I see you paid the proprietor enough that she could retire now if she wanted to.”

“She said she’s going to high-tail it to Eridani,” Mikel said. Both men were in their mid-30s by the count of Earth and Zharus years. “I tried to sell Zharus to her, but she has family on that end of colonial space.”

“Far as I’m concerned, anyone who wants to leave, should,” Gates said. “Old Earth can’t take more than about three billion humans comfortably, so we still have a ways to go.”

“Funny you should say that,” Joe said. “Didn’t the population reach 10 billion before the Peak Oil famines? And it was puttering along comfortably with six or so through most of the Oil Age. Seems like the place has been backsliding.”

“Can’t be good for your economy to have a shrinking population like this,” Mikel added.

“This reminds me of that book from Clint’s collection, But What of Earth? by Piers Anthony,” Joe said. “It theorized that as the population of Earth lowered as people left for other worlds, civilization as a whole would regress. Hey, I just realized…we can see the original copy of that while we’re here.”

“Boys, the famines are perfect examples of a Malthusian Crisis,” Captain Gates said. “We are simply trying to prevent it from happening again by living within the planet’s means to support us with sustainable resources—still have about 150 parts-per-million worth of carbon dioxide to pull out of the air. Plus, now we can restore various planetary ecosystems to pre-Oil Age health. Imagine a herd of bison out there on the Plains. There’s room for that now.”

“Hm. True, that,” Joe said.

“I think we actually have some herds of bison on Zharus,” Mikel said. “In the terraformed plains of southwest Gondwana. You should come visit sometime, Captain Gates.”

Gates snorted. “Fat chance. Too much to do in this corner of the galaxy.” She shrugged. “Anyway, comm me if you need anything, and don’t leave the building without an escort. If something happens to two of the galaxy’s richest people on my watch…”

“All right,” Joe said. “Since you asked so nicely.”

Gates saluted, and left. As she headed down the stairs (the elevators, like so much in this building, were out of order), she faintly heard Joe saying to Mikel. “Can you believe that? How many soldiers do you think know what a ‘Malthusian Crisis’ even is?”

She chuckled and shook her head. She supposed it was a good thing she liked the two of them now. She had the distinct feeling they were going to try all her patience before this posting was over. She’d already caught Joe sitting in the cockpit of one of the six-meter CHN-50 IDEs, with a smile on his face that made him look like a twelve-year-old with a brand new toy. She’d finally had to promise him some time in a trainer IDE to get him to come down. On the bright side, at least she knew exactly what carrot to dangle in front of him if she needed to get him to behave.

Mikel seemed to be the more sensible of the two. More goal-oriented, less inclined to want to stop and smell every rose he ran into. Their differences were probably what made them such an effective team—each one providing a perspective the other lacked.

Gates checked in with her officer of the watch before turning in early. She got the feeling the next few months were going to be made up of long days.

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April 27, 101 AL (2451 AD)
Cornwall, Britain, Earth

“Joseph Cassius Steader, what the hell damn fool thing have you gone and done this time?”

Joe looked up from the fresh trench dug into the foggy British countryside by the AI-controlled ArchDigger. “Captain, last night’s sensor scans detected something car-shaped here, fairly well-preserved. I have to see what’s what.”

“We’re not authorized to excavate in this location,” Captain Gates said. “Digger, cease operations!’

“Oh, don’t worry,” Joe said. “We’ll put all the dirt back when we’re finished. Digger, keep going.”

The elephant-sized machine beeped in confusion, a blinking yellow light indicating it had paused because of conflicting orders given by different people in short succession.

“Digger, execute override forty-two,” Joe said patiently. “Continue operation.”

The light turned green again and the ArchDigger, built specifically for archeology, continued its careful work.

“Digger, cease operations!” Captain Gates repeated. But the machine wouldn’t stop. “Just what did you tell it, Joe?”

“Found some interesting features in the owner’s manual,” Joe said, putting his finger on the side of his nose. “Some rather obvious loopholes, if you know where to look.”

“If you don’t know where to look then they’re not obvious,” Mikel pointed out. He held a tablet. “But we’re from Nextus, so we do know where these things tend to lurk. Digger, change to quadrant four.”

“Acknowledged,” the AI said. It ponderously moved to the left two meters on its four elephantine feet and started to widen what had already been dug. The Archeology Expert System that it ran was just as good as having an actual human archeologist with them.

“Don’t worry about the authorization thing,” Joe said. “It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission. We can usually buy forgiveness.”

“Besides, you already know this machine really will put everything back as close to how it was as possible when we’re done,” Mikel said. “It even kept the sod in one piece. This would go faster if we brought over the other one.”

Captain Gates gritted her teeth and opened a comm channel. “Lt. Fries, mobilize Squad Two with a 2A Defense loadout and Squad One for ECM and long-range fire support. Deploy perimeter drones. And send out Digger 2 while you’re at it. We’ll have to get this done fast.”

“Something wrong?” Joe asked innocently.

“Joe, this corner of Cornwall is ruled by the Baron. He has his own private army. Do you have organized crime on Zharus?”

Mikel looked at her. “You still have it here?

“Oh wow,” Joe said. “This is just like those Jimmy Cagney movies from Clint’s stash. ‘Put ‘em up, you dirty rat…’”

“The point here is that there isn’t much government outside the arcos in these parts,” Gates said.

“Then technically, it’s not an organized crime problem, it’s a warlord problem,” Mikel pointed out. “You have to have a government for there to be crimes.”

The Army officer opened her mouth, about to disagree, then nodded. “Okay, you might be correct there, Mikel. Nobody would care if we shot the bastards up a little.”

“Oh, good. Then it’s not a problem after all,” Joe said, clapping his hands. “I was almost afraid we might have to hire lawyers or something. If it’s just a jerk with some rusty IDEs in his pocket, we’re fine.”

Captain Gates once again managed to keep from facepalming by reminding herself it was unprofessional. It was getting harder and harder these days.

“I guess we’ll find out if this Baron is stupid enough to attack an NAA Detached Company of over a hundred soldiers with the latest gear,” Mikel said. A trio of IDEs and two APCs were trundling over the damp field through the thinning fog. In front was the other Digger, floating on lifters and making very little noise. It soon joined the first one, deploying into its elephant-like shape.

I wish we could detach ourselves from your company, Captain Gates thought, not at all for the first time. “All this had damn well better be worth it.”

“It’s in a large granite box,” Joe said. “The AES says there’s an 87% chance this was done on purpose. It’s too isolated, no signs of other structures of the same era. It was a dirt field then and it’s a dirt field now.”

“If it’s somebody’s grave, you should leave it alone,” Captain Gates said.

Mikel shook his head. “You do realize that goes against centuries of archaeological practice, right? Archaeology is all about digging up ancient graves.”

“If it looks like it actually is a grave, we’ll put it back how we found it, in accordance with the archaeological code of ethics,” Joe said. “After copying any media and taking detailed scans of any artifacts, and giving the professional archaeologists a chance to do their thing. We’ve even got local clergy on call to reconsecrate it if necessary.”

Captain Gates rolled her eyes. The IDEs had taken up defensive positions nearby, the APCs deploying a dozen drones each. “Just hurry up and get this over with. I want your asses in an APC in an hour.”

It took less than an hour for the Diggers to clear away enough soil around the giant stone box, scanning every step of the way. Etched on the top, in bold letters: TIME CAPSULE, LONGSTONE PARK, SALTASH 2030 AD. TO BE OPENED IN 2130 AD.

“All right, we’re good!” Joe said. “This was meant to be dug up. Looks like they forgot about it, though—such is the fate of most time capsules. Well, better late than never.”

“What’s it doing way out here?” Mikel asked. “GPS says we’re fifty klicks from Saltash…wait.” The younger Steader’s eyes flicked over his tablet as he read. “There hasn’t been a Saltash for centuries. Swallowed by rising sea levels in 2110. They must have moved it before then with pure muscle power, considering energy prices at the time. What could be that important?”

“Great. Wonderful. Load it on the skimmer deuce and let’s get the hell out of here,” Captain Gates said.

“Diggers, priority retrieval mode,” Mikel ordered. “Override site preservation protocols, code 23.”

“Acknowledged,” the two Diggers chorused. They started working much faster, the dirt starting to fly as it was pushed out of the way with lifter fields. The brothers had to move or they would have been showered with moist dirt.

“I actually agree with Captain Gates,” Joe said. “We should load it up and get out of here.”

“Well, that’s a miracle if I ever heard one,” Captain Gates deadpanned.

“Hey, even I can read a large approaching dust cloud when I see it,” Joe said, nodding to the disturbance off in the distant north as the fog cleared.

Captain Gates looked where he was pointing and did facepalm. “Aw, crap. All units, alert! We got incoming!” She glared at the Steaders. “This had damn well better be worth it. Squad Two, open fire! Get that shield dome up over the site!”

“It will be, Captain,” Mikel said soberly. The trio of IDEs guarding them opened fire with their shoulder-mounted gauss guns. “When all’s said and done, you’ll see.”

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Rhianna and Rochelle exchanged glances. “Cornwall wasn’t that bad when I was there with the Homeworld Reclamation Corps. Wow, Nana. So they actually had you defend them against an angry warlord while they were digging up stuff?” Rhianna said.

“That’s my Dad and Uncle Joe!” Quinoa said proudly. “They put the ‘crazy’ in ‘crazy as a Steader.’”

“The Feds took a hand in cleaning up the place after that,” Socah said. “Partly out of embarrassment. Didn’t look good for some schmuck with a pocket full of war relics to attack rich tourists, no matter how deservedly. And after we put ‘em down—without so much as a scratch, I might add—there wasn’t all that much to do, really. Guy had N-1s for cryin’ out loud. Practically old enough for the Steaders to want to dig them up, too.”

“The thing about N-1s—” Rhianna began, then changed her mind. “Uh, never mind. If I get started on IDE operational history I won’t stop for hours.”

“That’s my granddaughter,” Socah said, patting her on the shoulder. “In the end, I suppose, it was worth it…though at the time I’d be damned if I ever admitted it to them. The box had a gorgeous old car in it…Mini Cooper, think it was. They said something about an Italian job. It was packed full of old books, papers, media, and such. And an 8-track Queen tape in the glove box. After they took scans of everything, they handed it all over to the local historical society.”

“Cool!” Quinoa said, her eyes sparkling. “This is just the kind of story I always wanted to hear about them!”

Socah chuckled. “Believe me, I’ve got plenty more. And enough time has passed that they’ve finally changed from aggravating to amusing even for me.”

“I wish we had more time to hear them right now,” Rhianna said. “But ol’ Tater here isn’t tuning himself up.”

“Right, we should probably go on and get out of your fur,” Quinoa said. “Lucky thing: Uncle Joe and I are actually staying in our Uplift digs right now, so you won’t even have to hop a sub to visit.”

“I would love to see him again. Pity your father isn’t here, though.”

“Give it a couple of years,” Quinoa said. “He promised me he’d make sure to get out at the last possible moment, and something tells me that’s not too far away. You kind of…wouldn’t recognize him, though. He’s mostly cyber now. Eridani tech, mostly.”

Socah whistled. “And they let him off the planet?”

“Dad has some kind of special status—he’s a dual citizen of Zharus and Eridani,” Quinoa said. “Some kind of technology sharing deal with the Star Circus. I don’t know the details, I was just too young. Every time the Circus stopped there he’d get a little more done. But, that’s another story.”

“Frankly, I hope your Uncle Joe still recognizes me,” Socah said. “For much the same reason. I didn’t get this G.I. Jane until ten years after they left. There was kind of a ‘flesh ceiling’ in the mech branch at that point.” She wrinkled her nose. “Which makes for a really gross image, but I didn’t coin the term. Had to get the shell to make Major. Which is probably what led to the end of my marriage, but that’s another story.”

“Well, let’s go meet him and find out,” Quinoa said. “Ooooh, I can’t wait to spring you on him. I still owe him for the time he and Fritz locked me up in space and I had to dive from orbit to get away.”

Socah raised an eyebrow. “Sounds like I’m not the only one with stories to tell.”

Quinoa chuckled. “I’ll fill you in on the way over. Let’s go.”

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“…and thanks to last month’s vote, the new RIDE rights legislation is on track to take effect as of the first of October. Consul Vogel’s office issued a statement today welcoming the new age of equal rights for man and machine—”

Joe clicked the button on the battered old replica twentieth-century remote he’d been using for decades, and the media wall blanked back to a living room wall with windows looking out onto black-and-white 1950s suburbia. He dropped the remote onto the sofa, then got up and walked into the bedroom. He opened the top drawer of his chest of drawers, and reverently lifted out a small rosewood box. The finish showed thirty-five years of wear, but the box itself was still sturdy. He sat down on the edge of his bed, opened the latch and flipped up the lid, to look on the treasure within.

Nestled in the crushed velvet interior were two objects. On the right were a silver medal and ribbon plate combination, Nextus’s Silver Medal of Bravery—the highest military commendation a civilian could receive. As far as Joe was concerned, it might as well have been the prize from a bottom of a cereal box, because the real treasure was on the left: a dull blue orb about the size of a walnut that represented the mortal remains of his best friend.

Joe lifted the cracked RI core out of the box and held it carefully in one hand for a moment, turning it over and looking at the faint hairline crack that was barely even visible to the naked eye. He thought, as he always did, that it was such a small thing to have cost the life of a friend. He stroked a finger over it gently, then nestled it back in the box.

He didn’t do this so often anymore. He’d long since realized that it was stupid to keep torturing himself. He needed to get on with his life—that was what Julius had wanted him to do. But every so often, it was worth remembering what he’d lost, reliving the good times and the bad, and reminding himself why he kept on doing what he was doing.

And today was one of those times.

“Hey, buddy,” Joe whispered. “I know it’s been a while, but…good news! Remember that whole RIDE rights thing we used to talk about? Well, it took a little longer than we wanted, but it’s finally happening. Thanks in part to Fritz, of all people. And to Quinoa—boy, you don’t know how glad I am that girl’s finally had some sense knocked into her.

“Of course, the real heroes of the thing are all the RIDEs and their people who came together to fight Fritz off, and Zane Brubeck and his friends. I wish Clint was still around. I’ll bet he’d be the proudest Dad you ever saw. But then, when you get to be my age, you get used to outliving your friends. I’ve had some practice at that, eh buddy?

“Anyway, it’s good to know the age of RIDEs as equipment is on its way out. Even in Nextus! If they get their legislation passed, too, I might just have to move back there for a while. See what it’s like there when RIDEs are free.” He shook his head. “Just wish you were here to see it with me.”

As he was looking down at the box, Joe heard the penthouse door down the hall open. “Hey, Uncle Joe?” Quinoa called from the living room. “Company!”

“Be right there, hon!” Joe called back. “Well, I guess I’d better go,” he said to Julius’s core in a lower voice. “Miss you, buddy. See you—”

His farewell was interrupted by a voice from his distant past. “Joseph Cassius Steader, what the hell damn fool thing have you gone and done this time?!” In a split second, Joe was sixty years younger, sitting in a canvas tent next to his brother, getting a well-deserved tongue-lashing from one fiery-tempered, steely-eyed Captain Socah Gates.

Joe dropped the box and fell right off the bed. “…what in the hell?” Leaving the box sitting on the mattress, he scrambled to his feet and stumbled into the living room.

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She was standing right there in his living room, an apparition from out of the past—dark green Army uniform, ribbons and medals on full display. There were a lot more of them than he remembered, and the insignia at her neck was a full bird Colonel, not a Captain. But she still had the same blonde hair and buzz cut mohawk, the same stern expression on her face…and the same almost-hidden twinkle in her steely eyes.

Joe leaned to the side enough to see Quinoa behind her, grinning like a Cheshire sphinx. “Quinnie, are you putting one over on your decrepit Uncle Joe?”

“Yes, but not in the way you think!” Quinoa said.

“I see I can’t leave you alone for sixty years without you going and making over a whole planet in your own image,” Colonel Socah Gates said. “If I’d known this was why you dragged me and my men around all over the place all these years ago…well, at least it would have made the whole thing seem to make more sense at the time.”

Joe stared. “Captain…er, Colonel Gates, is it…really you?”

“I’d say ‘in the flesh,’ but the flesh part ain’t quite true anymore,” Socah said. “But yeah. It’s really me.” She smirked. “I was just in the neighborhood, and decided to stop by.”

“In the neighborhood,” Joe repeated. “Just stopped by. Wait, didn’t I try and sell you on vacationing out here? Finally made it, then?”

“In a manner of speaking,” Socah said. “Call it a permanent vacation. Or ‘retirement,’ which is pretty much the same thing. Actually, my daughter and son-in-law got kicked off the ol’ rock, and I tagged along with the rest of the family to make sure they don’t get into any more trouble.”

“And they came here, because thanks to me, this is where Earth sends all its weirdos,” Joe said, slowly grinning.

“Partly,” Socah said. “Mainly ‘cuz we had family here already. See, when my daughter Arlene Gates married a fellow name of Roy Stone, they thought it would be cute to combine their surnames. Stone…gate. One of their kids had already come out this way and opened a garage.”

“As in Rhianna Stonegate? Freeriders Garage?” Joe said, eyebrows raised.

“That’s her,” Socah said. “Well, ‘him’ when he left. Our arrival, as you might imagine, was fraught with a number of surprises.” She chuckled. “We were told shortly after we got here that we would see ‘ten impossible things’ in our first day on-planet. That proved to be an understatement.”

“It’s a wonderful planet, isn’t it?” Joe said proudly.

“It is, I have to give you that. ‘Scuse me while I slip into something more comfortable.” Her outline blurred and the uniform was replaced by her flapper chic outfit.

Joe rubbed his eyes. “Uh…wow. That’s a new look for you.”

“It’s the cat’s meow,” Socah said. “Really, I blame you. If you hadn’t dug up all that media, I’d never have found the Roaring Twenties. Besides, a new world demands a new me, and the tech they installed in my G.I. Jane gives me quite the flexibility.”

Joe shook his head. “I can’t believe this. My old minder turns out to be the grandmother of the woman who turned my entire society on its ear. It feels like someone’s playing a cosmic joke on me.”

“Never let it be said the gods don’t have a sense of humor,” Quinoa put in.

“Well, I’m sure glad you gave Earth the old 23 skidoo,” Joe said. “Uh, can I get you anything to drink? Do you drink?”

“Thanks to that new tech I mentioned, sure,” Socah said. “Even though I’ve been here a couple of months, the ‘new’ still hasn’t worn off that yet. I’ll have a gimlet.”

Joe nodded. “Gin and lime juice, hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe’s poison of choice. That suits you.” He went over to the wet bar along one wall and busied himself there.

Socah had a seat on the sofa. “So tell me about Zharus,” she said. “I’ve been wondering for decades why you took the stuff we helped you dig up and turned this place into the laughing stock of the galaxy. Mind you, I have my suspicions, but it would be nice to have them confirmed.”

“Well…I’m afraid to answer that question I’m going to have to be brutally frank, Colonel,” Joe said.

“Go ahead. We’re both too old for subtleties,” Socah said. “And please, just Socah now.”

“The whole idea was to keep Earth’s grubby mitts off our stuff,” Joe said.

“Ouch,” Socah said, grimacing. “Well, the truth does hurt, even if that is what I thought from the outset. It’s why I retired when I did. I was sick and tired of being a grubby mitt.”

“Glad to hear it,” Joe replied, passing her the drink and sitting down with a scotch and soda himself. “Well, I’ve never been one to hold grudges. A toast. Welcome to Zharus, Socah. Feel free to reinvent yourself however you like. It’s what we do best.”

Socah grinned, clinking glasses with him. “I wouldn’t dream of being anywhere else.”

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While Joe and Socah reminisced, Quinoa smiled and slipped into his bedroom. Whenever she was staying here, she tidied up, made the bed, put the toilet lid down, and did all the little things her lifelong bachelor uncle had never gotten into the habit of doing. He didn’t have a regular servant staff, except in his larger mansions, so the place could get pretty messy after a while—and Integrate lifters were just the thing for straightening up an entire room at once.

But as Quinoa was pulling the blankets into place this time, she came across a small rosewood box she’d never seen before. It had obviously come out of the open top drawer of the dresser. She was just about to put it back when curiosity got the better of her and she opened the lid. Her eyes widened as she discovered what lay within. “What in the world…?”

She plucked the core out of its nest with a lifter field and held it up to her eyes. Thanks to Quorra’s scanners, she could look at it a lot closer than any human eye. She could see the quantum data cloud within, bisected by the crack—but there didn’t seem to be any holes or empty pockets within the data. As far as she knew, theoretically, this core should still be viable. And if it was viable, that meant it deserved a body.

She quickly closed the lid again and started to bring the box back to the living room to ask about it—then thought better of it. She didn’t want to interrupt her uncle’s reunion with Captain Gates, after all. Instead, she closed the drawer, tucked the box under her arm, and cloaked it. “Hey, Uncle Joe, I’m going to leave you two alone for a while, ‘kay? I’ll just let myself out.”

“Go ahead, you’re good at that,” Joe said, grinning. “Just use the door this time, eh?”

A few minutes later, Quinoa was back at the garage. She passed a happy-looking Tater the tapir on his way out. “Hey, Rhi, Shelley…”

Rhianna raised an eyebrow, and her lynx ears twitched forward. “Back so soon, Quinny? Everything go OK with Nana and your uncle?”

“Oh, yes, they’re getting on like a house afire,” Quinoa said. “But I just found this in Uncle Joe’s bedroom…and I had to bring it right here.” She produced the rosewood box. “What’s my uncle doing with a damaged RIDE core?”

Kaylee Fused over Rhianna, and a moment later Uncia did the same with Rochelle. “Beats me, but let’s go to the clean room and find out.”

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“So Joe, you never married?” Socah asked.

“Never found a woman who’d put up with me,” Joe said, grinning. “I have ‘Eternal Bachelor’ on my Cape Nord Man Card. You were about as close as I ever got, and you were taken.”

“I’m flattered,” Socah said. “Mind you, I wouldn’t have said I was flattered at the time, but I am now.” She shook her head. “Poor Manny just couldn’t get used to the idea of being married to a Barbie doll. But I couldn’t pass Captain without it.”

“Sorry to hear that,” Joe said. “Uh…it wasn’t anything we did, was it? I’ll admit to being young and stupid at the time. I never thought about the effect all the crap we pulled might have on your career.”

Socah waved the hand that wasn’t holding her drink. “Don’t worry yourself over it. It wasn’t you. There was just a…I guess you’d call it a fad going among the brass at the time. The idea that no one could have the ability to field-manage a mech battle in detail without the extra processing power of cyber to assist with it.” She shook her head. “Stupid, really. Somehow we got by for centuries without cyber. But it was a choice between upgrading and getting promoted, or staying flesh and not, and the Army was footing the whole bill, so…”

“And what did they do with your organic body?”

“I never asked. Parted it out? There’s probably some woman in Walla Walla who still has my liver and kidneys for all I know. You know Earth and the organ trade.”

Joe nodded. “Have you thought about having a new body cloned?”

“I have a sort of standing order at the Regen Clinic in town, but I haven’t pulled the trigger yet,” Socah said. “Honestly, it still amazes me they even can do something like that. And after living in this thing for so long, I’m not sure I could give it up. You get used to it, and the hardlight and energy tech you have here makes going fully organic again almost redundant.”

Joe nodded. “Yeah, that’s fair. Mikel is kind of the same way these days, and he has about the only cybertech more advanced than either Earth or here can do. He keeps telling me I should go to Eridani and get some ‘upgrades,’ too, but…nah. Not for me.”

Socah placed her empty drink on a coaster on the end table next to the sofa. “So what is for you?” She chuckled. “I remember you used to be so excited just to sit in the cockpit of one of our old IDEs. I gather from what Quinoa has been telling me that you’re kept your hand in as far as mecha are concerned?”

“I have warehouses full of mecha I’ve built over the years just from twencen media. Not all of them are any good in actual combat, but they sure do look cool. Mostly I rent them out for nostalgia conventions, car shows, and live-action versions of anime series.”

“That’s one of the things I miss most about being in the army,” Socah confessed. “Shoving big metal around. Zane Brubeck’s promised to let me play with Chauncey one of these days, but…”

Joe chuckled. “Well, you were as good as your word about giving me time in one of your trainers. I should return the favor. Perhaps we could…go have a look? See what you like? I can see you in a Phalanx or some other Destroid.”

“I’d like that,” Socah said. “But I don’t want you thinking I just like you for your big…machinery.”

Joe nearly dropped his drink. Holy crap, did Capta…er, Colonel Thermopylae just make a double entendre at me? “I…think I can let that pass.” He chuckled. “Of course, that’s all in Nextus. We could certainly take a sub there, but at my advanced age I’m less likely to do that on the spur of the moment these days.”

“Want to hit the Milk Bottle for cones, then?” Socah said. “I gather it’s all the rage for consummating reunions.”

“Practically a Zharus tradition,” Joe agreed. He extended his hand to her. “Shall we skedaddle to the speakeasy?”

“Now you’re on the trolley!” Socah said, taking his hand. Her outfit shimmered back into Roaring Twenties driving leathers. “C’mon, my bike’s parked outside.”

“I can hardly wait to see what style you went with,” Joe said, following her out the door. “Oooh, a Harley Softail? Nice! It suits you.”

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The mystery RIDE’s damaged core floated gently in the surgical unit’s lifter field, passive diagnostic scanners delving deeply into the qubitite quantum pockets. The Freerider Garage’s best examined the results in VR space.

“So, he’s male,” Rochelle said. “Genetic template shows…jaguar. Metadata says he was last in a JGR(m)-MMA-002A. One of the first NextusMil lines to enter production.”

Rhianna nodded. “The original jaggies. The Sturmhaven line of jags Melody Munn comes from was based on their stolen blueprints.”

Uncia giggled. “Wow, so Melody’s…a copycat?”

“Whoever he is, this guy could have rubbed shoulders with Kaylee and company back in the day,” Rochelle mused. “He’s like a jungle Nils.”

“I met a few jags in my time,” Kaylee said. “Tended to be loners. Decent enough folks, I guess, but nothing stands out.”

“Medial fracture along the medulla and right temporal lobes,” Rhianna said, spinning an exploded version of the core neural map—a combination of human overlays on a feline mind. A jagged red line curved up through the simulated neural tissue. “Looks like he managed to get himself into protective stasis despite the damage. Shelley?”

“I agree—good kitty! What hasn’t changed in thirty five years is booting that way will kill him,” Rochelle said. “Fortunately we can now do a quantum state transfer to a new core without even touching the old one. It’s not without risk, but it’s far better than permanent stasis.”

“Do it,” Quinoa said vehemently. “I have no idea who he is, but I know he’s got to be important to Uncle Joe.” She glanced down at the rosewood box she still hadn’t put down. “I hadn’t even known they gave him the Silver Medal of Bravery. I tried to look it up, but the circumstances are still classified. Probably his own doing. I emailed Conyers to see if he can shed any light on it, but…”

“Just a guess, but if he kept it in the same box as him, I suspect they’re connected somehow,” Rhianna said.

Kaylee cocked her head. “Ya know…I haven’t thought about this in decades, but now I think on it I remember that they were assigning RIDE bodyguards to various high civvy muckety-mucks back then, and Joe Steader was about the mucketiest muck you could get. Most of ‘em kept theirs after, an’ upgraded ‘em, an’ other rich people wanting one of their own to keep up with the Joneses was part of what kicked off the whole craze for ‘Ahnuld’ models. But I don’t ever remember seeing Crazy Joe with a RIDE, or tags.”

“Did he ever talk about having a RIDE?” Uncia asked.

“No. And he always refused the chance to get one,” Quinoa said. “Quorra and I tried to set him up with one, after we found how awesome it was being together ourselves, but he wouldn’t have any part of it. We always just figured it was something like the way Clint Brubeck felt about ‘em. But then again, Quorra was a present from him.”

Quinoa thought back with her Integrate’s eidetic memory to the day Joe had bought Quorra for her. It had only been a couple of years ago, but it seemed like a couple of lifetimes. She’d just officially come into a big chunk of money from her Mom and Dad on her 25th birthday, and she’d decided to celebrate with a RIDE of her own. She’d done temporary Fuses with a couple of friends’ partners, enough to know what it felt like and get some idea for what she wanted. Then Uncle Joe, who’d insisted on paying for the RIDE himself as a birthday present, had taken her down to Signor Donizetti’s and they’d fleshed out the design.

Quinoa had wanted something flashy. Something that would attract attention, that almost nobody else had. Mythicals had been out of fashion for a while, but that was all right—it just meant Quinoa could restart them as a new fashion. That was what rich people like her did, after all. Be a big enough iconoclast, and the world is your copycat. And she’d also been attracted to the idea of skirting the edges of propriety—a sphinx’s face was close enough to a human’s to draw frowns in some circles. Not that this was a deterrent to Donizetti, who liked pushing the edge in his designs as much as she liked pushing the edge in using them.

Before they’d finalized the order, Joe had taken Quinoa aside in a corner of the waiting room to speak to her. “Just one thing before we go on. You need to be sure about this, because a RIDE is not a toy, and she’s not even a pet. She’s a person, and you will treat her with respect. You can’t just send her back in a day or so if you get tired of her. But treat her right and she could be one of the best friends you’ll ever have. You understand?”

Yes, Uncle Joe,” Quinoa had said. She’d rolled her eyes, ‘cuz that was what you did to a parental (or avuncular) lecture, but he wasn’t through.

Joe patted her on the shoulder. “Good. Because I’ll be checking up on you two after you get her. I won’t ask her to betray any confidences, but I will ask if she’s happy. If she’s not…well, we’ll have ourselves a talk.”

Much as Quinoa had groaned at the time about being lectured like a little girl, she had to admit the lecture had stuck with her. In the few short weeks she’d had Quorra before they’d Integrated, the two had quickly become the best of friends. And the whole thing certainly didn’t seem like the attitude of someone who didn’t care for RIDEs.

“Well, this is a Nextus-Sturmhaven War-vintage Mark 1A core,” Rochelle said, bringing Quinoa back to the present day. “And they didn’t have the expertise in core repair back then that we’ve since developed. Even Dr. Patil would have thought this core was beyond repair. And she’d have been right…back then.

“Right.” Rhianna nodded. “We’ll need one of the tested-good core blanks we got from our Shed rummage last week. For the best shot at this, we should use one from the exact same generation.”

“One step ahead of you.” Rochelle held up a translucent plastic case, the dark blue orb of an RI core glinting within it.

“Great. Let’s get set up. Quinoa, you ever worked on a core transfer before?”

Quinoa shook her head. “I’ve read a little about it, but despite what you might think I’m really not a technician. Cleaning out Katie’s old shell was easy because I’ve got the processing power to keep track of how all the parts fit together, but I’m not so great at the non-mechanical stuff.”

“That processing power would still be a help,” Rochelle said. “And since he’s apparently got something to do with your uncle…”

“If I can help without messing anything up, sure!” Quinoa said. “If this guy’s important to Uncle Joe, I’d love to be a part of fixing him.”

“Great. Then lend us a hand, and we’ll handle the heavy lifting,” Rhianna said. “Core transfers are a little tricky, especially when there’s damage. To use one of the twentieth-century analogies your family loves, it’s like burning a CD where the bits you burn vanish from your hard drive as you copy them. You only get one shot, and if you burn a coaster, you’re screwed. Luckily, the copy process is a lot more robust than a rickety old mechanical CD-ROM drive.” She opened the case and tipped the core into a similar lifter field next to the first one.

“The initial quantum entanglement is the hard part,” Rochelle said. “You need to entangle the two cores so they think they’re one really big core, then move all the information across to the section of the big core that’s in the new core before you disentangle them. You usually check to make sure they’re properly meshed by copying test files back and forth from the new to the old…though when you’ve got one with a crack in it like that, it makes it trickier.”

“Quinoa, you have the processing power to keep track of the error correction,” Rhianna added. “This is the most important part of the transfer process. I’ve uploaded you the files and some sims you can run in fast-time to prepare. Most other Inties we’ve taken through this found it pretty simple, but if you’re not sure, let us know and we’ll comm one of them. We don’t want to take any chances.”

Quinoa nodded. “I’ve got ‘em. Dropping into fast-time now, gimme moment…okay, there. Yeah, I think I can do this,” she said.

“Your scores are good on the sims,” Uncia acknowledged. “Even the really tricky one with the three-way crack. Good job. Mavra got that one first-time, too, but it gave Chantilly some trouble.”

“Looks like we’re ready, then,” Rochelle said.

“Great! Let’s get this done before Uncle Joe notices I took his box,” Quinoa said.

“Time to make Dr. Heisenberg look the other direction,” Rhianna said, cracking her knuckles. “Quinny, Uncia, handshaking now.”

“Handshake received,” Quinoa replied.

“We are go for quantum entanglement,” Uncia added.

“Well, great! Let’s get tangled!” Rochelle said.

“Must admit, you’ve got the hair for it,” Quinoa said.

“Ouch, Ra-pun-zel hair,” Uncia said, giggling. “Okay, here we go. I think we have a lock.”

“Verified,” Quinoa said. “Looks good from here.”

“Beginning the data move,” Rhianna said. “This kind of crack isn’t usually a big problem anymore, but keep an eye on things.”

“No errors so far,” Quinoa said. “Letting my own cpu do its thing without me bugging it. Fingers crossed.”

“Completion in ten…” Rochelle said. “Five…three, two, one…bingo. It’s all moved over, and the old core reads dead-empty. Check me on that?”

“I concur,” Rhianna said. “Mr. Kitty has a new home.”

“Great! Disengaging entanglement…now. And…we’re clear. That wasn’t so hard, now was it?” Rochelle said.

“Not now, anyway,” Rhianna said. “Even ten years ago…” She shook her head. “Well, anyway, let’s plug him into a new jacket and give him a good defragging before we wake him up.”

Quinoa reached out and plucked the old core out of the lifter field, holding it up to the light and peering into its depths. Unlike before, it was now nearly crystal clear with just a faint blue tint. The crack was more visible than before, since there was now no data cloud inside at all. She smiled, returned it to the rosewood box, and shut the lid.

“Want to help with the defrag?” Rochelle suggested.

“You bet!” Quinoa said. “Let’s get him back in shape.”

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Socah grinned across the wrought-iron table at Joe, and took another bite of her RIDE’s Dream chocolate mondae. “This place really is great, isn’t it? My granddaughter took us all here right after we first showed up at her garage.”

“It’s the best reason to live in Uplift,” Joe agreed. “I used to live in Nextus, but I moved after the war. Well, actually I don’t tend to live in any one of my places too long at a time, these days, but I don’t spend much time in Nextus anymore even so. Too many bad memories of the war.”

Socah nodded soberly. “War is hell, and I say that having been in my share of ‘em. At least in the Army it felt like I had some measure of control over things. Don’t like to think what it’d be like as a civvie.”

“Being Joe Steader did have some advantages. I plowed about two thirds of my fortune into the war effort, all told. Made bank once the bonds vested and RIDEs turned out to have plenty of civilian applications just like I thought they would…but that was never the point.” Joe shook his head. “I’d give up every cent I own if…well, that’s not important right now. Anyway, I was right there in the thick of things, rubbing noses with technical types like Dr. Patil and Dr. Clemens, and the top brass like General Latimer.”

Socah blinked. “Latimer? Forrest Latimer?”

“That’s the guy,” Joe said. “Gather he was some kind of big cheese back on Earth, then he retired to Zharus, and they drafted him for his military experience when the war started. A lot of ex-Earth military types were commissioned that way, to jump-start our army with some actual combat veterans. Some of them even came from different sides of the brushfire wars.”

“So this is where Colonel Forrest Latimer ended up?” Socah said, mouth agape. “The man was a menace, a complete dickweed. The shit he pulled in the last Aleutian War…ugh. His promotion pre-dated the whole cyber fad, the bastard. He resigned when it became clear he wasn’t going to go any further without going metal. I wouldn’t normally say this about an officer being forced out for asinine reasons, but…in his case, good riddance.”

“That’s ol’ Latty for ya,” Joe said. “He’s dead now. Skimmer accidents are rare, but they still happen. Some things even our med-tech can’t fix.”

“Thank heaven for small favors,” Socah said. “If I thought there was even a small chance I might run into him again, I might have to leave the planet, and I only just got here.”

“Believe me, there was a time when I wanted to go all punchy-face on him. And he had such a punchable face,” Joe said darkly.

“That man really hurt you somehow, didn’t he?” Socah placed her hand on Joe’s forearm.

“Eh, all he did was be insensitive. It was more the situation.” Joe sighed. “I lost a good friend in the war. My bodyguard—he died saving my life. And Latty thought he could be replaced.” Joe focused on his chocolate malt.

“I’m sorry,” Socah said. “Didn’t mean to bring up bad memories.”

“Oh, no, that’s all right. They’re mostly good memories,” Joe said. “It’s just the end that sucked. And you know, even knowing what was going to happen, I still wouldn’t give up that pain if it meant losing the good memories too.”

“That must have been some friend,” Socah said.

“He was,” Joe said. “All this twencen stuff you see all over Zharus…well, it probably wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him. He had a profound impact on my life. He was a brother to me, really. The proverbial ‘brother from another mother.’” Joe sipped at his chocolate malt for a moment. “Let me tell you about Julius…”

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Back at the Freeriders Garage, Rhianna and the others dropped into VR and engaged Rochelle’s defragging software. It began reorganizing the core for more efficiency, sorting memory stores and putting them in their proper places. Occasionally they caught glimpses of the RIDE’s memories when the sorting software needed some additional input.

Among those memories was a brief recollection of lying on the floor in front of a sofa with a much younger, jaguar-tagged Joe Steader and, of all people, Fritz on it, a big tub of popcorn between them. “Oh, sure, every cat should have his own interocitor,” Fritz said. “Been meaning to build one myself one a’ these days. I’ll keep it right next to my turboencabulator.” Joe threw a piece of popcorn at him.

“Ehhhh…” Quinoa said, tilting her head in confusion. “What.”

“I, um,” Rhianna said, her head-tilt mirroring the sphinx’s. “I just…um…”

“Hey, isn’t that one of the movies we watched when he shot us into space?” Kaylee said with a slight growl. “Dammit, I want to be angry but I need more context. This ain’t what it appears.”

“I seem to recall, from your memories, Fritz vanished an awful lot, back in the day,” Rhianna said.

Kaylee sniffed. “Yeah. Gotta admit, if you’d asked me where he went, ‘sneakin’ off to watch bad movies with Joe Steader’ wouldn’ exactly a’ been in my top ten guesses.”

Quinoa shook her head. “I knew Uncle Joe and Fritz went way back, but I didn’t know it was this far back.”

“Let’s just get this finished,” Rochelle said. “Once we wake him up, we can ask him about that. Or we could just respect his privacy and let him tell us if he wants to, either way.”

“Should we upload him the Rip Van Winkle package we made up before we boot him?” Uncia asked.

“You know, I think we should give him a choice. If they really are old friends, Uncle Joe might want to tell him everything, show him everything,” Quinoa said. “They’ll have a lot of catching up to do.”

Rhianna nodded. “Good call. We’ll put it in an onboard file, but won’t interleave it. He can access it if he wants to.”

“I think we’re done here,” Rochelle said. “Loading up Nature Range, with a Central American jungle setting.” A jungle clearing appeared around them, trees hung with lianas of vines, tropical birds calling in the distance.

“Booting him up now,” Uncia said. A sleeping jaguar appeared before them in the clearing. “Wakey wakey, Mr. Jaguar!”

With a flicker, the jaguar was on his feet and awake. As often happened with crash restarts, the jaguar RIDE began speaking—or in this case, singing—mid-sentence. “—I’m half-crazy, all for the love of…” He paused. “For the love of Mike, what the fuck just happened?”

“Thirty-five years of RI core med-tech just happened,” Kaylee said. She was usually the first to speak when awakening a War-era RIDE. “Hey there, double-ought-two jaggie. G’morning.”

The jaguar peered at her and cocked his head. “I recognize you. You’re Kaylee, the second ought-one lynx. Am I back in the RIDE project Q-frame? Wait…you said thirty-five years?

“You’ve been sleeping,” Kaylee said. “You were, uh…shot in the core.”

“I remember that part. Shit! Thought I was dead.” The jaguar shook his head.

“You were sort of in limbo,” Rochelle said. “We only figured out how to patch around core cracks recently.”

The jaguar sneezed. “Let me guess. Nobody bothered to figure it out before ‘cuz we’re just fuckin’ equipment. Core gets a crack, just toss it out and get another.”

“For a time, yeah,” Kaylee said. “But the times, they are a changin’. By the way, could we get a name?”

“Julius,” the jaguar said. “If you go by the fake net ID Joe whipped up to pay me under, ‘Julius Orange.’”

Quinoa snorted. “That sounds like Uncle Joe, all right.”

The jaguar turned his head to look at her. “Uncle Joe? The fuck?”

“Ah, hi. Quinoa Steader. Mikel’s my Dad, Joe’s my uncle.”

Julius shook his head. “Thirty-five years. Fuck! Joe’s still alive, right? Not dead or in a coma or anything?” He reached for a data uplink.

“He’s doing fine,” Quinoa said. “I just left him less than an hour ago.”

“By the way, this is my partner, Rhianna, and our business partners, Rochelle and Uncia,” Kaylee said.

“Charmed,” Julius said distractedly. “Well I’ll be a son of a queen. He went and did it. That damned dirty ape actually went and did it.”

“Damn him all to hell?” Uncia quipped.

Julius shot her a surprised look. “Yeah!” He shook his head. “He said he was gonna build that fuckin’ Space Hilton and it looks like that’s just what he did. Just looked him up, and the picture was right there on the ‘pedia page.”

“You mean Space Howard Johnson, right?” Quinoa said. “Yeah, Dad’s been crazy about that 2001 flick since before I can remember.”

“Not since before I remember,” Julius said. “Is he here? I need to see him.”

“No, he’s out with my grandmother,” Rhianna said. “Long story. Quinoa found a box with your core and a Nextus Silver Medal of Bravery in it that he kept in a drawer.”

Julius wrinkled his nose. “Aw hell. That fits. I bet he even fucking took it out and talked to it every so often.”

“Well, now that you’re awake, we can get you a new shell custom-made,” Quinoa said. “I’ve got an account with Donizetti RIDEworks—you wouldn’t have heard of it, but it’s the best designer sport RIDE maker on the planet—and—”

“Shit. Thanks for the offer, but ix-nay on the fancy custom bod. That would take forever. Just get me any old thing that’s safe to use and Fuse, preferably with hardlight, and get it fast—I’m fuckin’ thirty-five years late to the party as it is. Anyway, if I know Joe, he’ll want to take me down to one of his factories himself and build me a new one by hand or something. I’m not gonna spoil his fun.”

“I got a line open to Dickerson’s down by the auctionhouse,” Kaylee said. “He’s got a couple jaggie shells in stock that pass muster. Even have decent hardlight.”

“All the same I want to give whatever we buy a once-over and hardlight tune-up before we put Julius here in it,” Rhianna insisted.

“Then don’t waste time sitting here and jawing, get on it!” Julius said.

“We’ve already got the shell on its way,” Rochelle said. “I think you’ll like it. About ten years back, Nextus RIDEworks did a ‘commemorative line’ of DE shells for the 25th anniversary of the first RIDEs—a ‘modern’ revamp of all the original lines, including yours. Didn’t sell too well, so they often show up on the market cheap. But it should be the next best thing to an original.”

“Great. Well…wake me when I’m in it. But hurry.” The jaguar flickered out as he put his core back into shutdown mode.

“Well, we have our marching orders,” Kaylee said. “Let’s hop to it, Freeriders!”

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“…and that was that.” Joe shrugged, wiping away some errant moisture from his eyes. “I keep his core in a little box along with that medal, and take him out and talk to him from time to time. Was just doing it before you showed up, in fact. Telling him about the equal rights RIDEs are finally getting these days. God, I miss him.” Joe had to stop talking for a moment, and take a long sip of his malt.

Socah reached across the table to pat his hand. “Believe me, I understand. I lost more than my share of good friends in wars. Including ones directly under my command. I know about feeling responsible.”

“When citizenship rights for RIDEs finally come through in Nextus, I’m going to petition Nextus Admin to have that stupid medal posthumously reassigned to Julius,” Joe said. “It’s what he deserves.”

“I’m sure he’d appreciate that,” Socah said.

Joe nodded, taking another pull at his drink.

“RIDEs are an amazing thing,” Socah mused. “I can’t experience them directly, of course, but every other member of my family has found a partner now. Including another grandson-turned-granddaughter. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised you wound up with one.”

“He wasn’t at all what I expected,” Joe said. “I don’t think any soldier who got the first units knew that they were getting. I thought I was just getting a better bike. Instead…yeah.” He smiled wistfully. “Fusing a RIDE is like nothing you’ve ever imagined. It’s like…being, and being with, a whole other person.”

“So the rest of my family tells me,” Socah said. “Half the time you can’t pry them away from each other. We ended up having to get a bigger table and chairs for all the times they want to eat dinner together.”

Joe chuckled. “That sounds about right.” He sighed thoughtfully. “A few times I’ve considered finding another RIDE partner, but…it just felt wrong. Either I couldn’t have the same closeness I did with Julius, and it wouldn’t be fair to that RIDE, or it would feel like I was dishonoring Julius’s memory if I did. Anyway, I’ve got plenty of toys to take up my time, and Quinoa to keep me company in my dotage. I’m good.”

“So far, RIDEs are the only reason I can think of that I’d go organic again, but I suppose I don’t feel the pressure as much at my age,” Socah said.

“If you’re comfortable as you are, I wouldn’t make the change just for that,” Joe said. “Unless you happen to meet a RIDE someday and really hit it off to where you want to.”

“It’s a big change to make,” Socah admitted. “Not so different from the one I made in the first place. Or from Fusing a RIDE at all if you never have, get right down to it.”

“If I’d actually known what I was letting myself in for, the first time I Fused Julius…” Joe considered that a moment. “Hard to say, really. I can’t imagine not Fusing him now. Of course, it’s different for most people these days—the ones who grow up knowing what RIDEs are all about.”

“The young whippersnappers?” Socah suggested. “Get off my lawn?”

Joe snorted. “That’s about right.”

“But not so different for us poor innocent souls who pop in from Earth,” Socah said. “When my youngest grandson became my newest granddaughter…barely a month and change after we even got here…”

“Well, I could tell you stories about some poor schlubs who get right off the boat and get their bits swapped on the same day,” Joe said.

“My granddaughter Rhianna’s friend Rufia—nee Rufus, from Earth—is a professional tour guide here,” Socah said. “She has plenty of that kind of story herself. But just because some people are out-and-out morons doesn’t make it any easier to see your own flesh and blood ‘only’ being an idiot.” She shook her head. “Fortunately, callow youth isn’t a permanent condition.”

“Socah, on the inside I’m still a giddy 12-year old,” Joe said with great aplomb.

“Yes, Joe, but you’re the exception that proves the rule,” Socah said, grinning.

Joe shook his head. “What does that even mean?

Then Joe’s comm rang, to the tune of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” “That’s my ringtone for Quinoa. Though I might have to see about changing it one of these days. Sec.” Joe put it to his ear. “Hi, hon. … Sure, it’s going great, we’re at the Milk Bottle right now. … Oh, they do? Sure, that’s fine. I’ve been wanting to meet them, too. … All right, then see you soon, sweetie.” He pocketed the device. “My niece is at your granddaughter’s garage, and they’ve invited us to drop by.”

“Not surprising, after all the stories I used to tell them about my time in the 56th. But I’m surprised you’ve never met them before, given the part they played in defeating Fritz and ushering in RIDE rights.”

Joe chuckled and actually blushed a little. “Well, there’s the little matter that I was sort of on the wrong side for a little while. Fritz and I have had our differences, but we also go…well, all the way back to the war, and Julius’s time. And he helped a lot with the twencen media project. So I owed him enough to hear him out, and he seemed to be making sense at first. Then I took a good look at what he was really doing, and…well. Quinny tells me they’re not mad, but I’ve still been too embarrassed to show my face.”

“It sounds like they’re willing to let bygones be bygones,” Socah said. “They certainly didn’t sound angry when I talked to them before Quinoa brought me over.”

“Then shall we go beard the cats in their den?” Joe said.

“Sounds like a plan!” Socah agreed. They bussed their dishes, then headed back to the parking lot and Socah’s Harley.

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As they pulled up to the garage, Joe looked at the sprawling complex of pre-fab drive bays surrounding a central garage building and a large suborbital hangar in back, and chuckled. It was hardly orderly, but then the best tinkerers—including himself—rarely were. And it was also familiar, as many times as stock footage of it had been featured on the news. He’d never been here in person, though many members of his social circle had. After all, they had to get their Donizettis done somewhere, and might as well be somewhere famous. The place everyone went always attracted more people, because everyone already went there. By all accounts, the older Donizetti-accredited shop across town was still wondering just what the hell had happened to all its business.

They pulled right into the central bay, which was empty of RIDEs except for the two belonging to the two owners. Rhianna Stonegate, Rochelle Seaford, and their RIDEs, Kaylee and Uncia, were waiting, along with Quinoa. They were wearing clean coveralls, but they were coveralls still. They hadn’t tried to dress up when they knew he was coming, which was another point in their favor. But then, they’ve been palling around with Brubeck and the Waltons, not to mention Quinny, Joe thought wryly. They’ve had time to learn about the proper care and feeding of billionaires by now.

The Waltons. He wanted to shake his head in bemusement. Who’d have thought they’d end up with RIDEs? Nigella got a mink, and Kenyon got fricking AlphaWolf. And it was the influence of Rhianna Stonegate, or of those she’d influenced, that ended up making the whole thing possible. These people really were something special.

They climbed down from the Harley, leaving their helmets on the seats, as the garage door closed down behind them to block the view of the news drones that were invariably drawn along in Joe Steader’s wake. “Well, here we are,” Socah said. “Rhianna, Rochelle, Kaylee, Uncia…meet one of the two biggest headaches I had in over sixty years.”

“You’re too kind,” Joe said, grinning and offering his hand.

Rhianna took it and shook it with a firm grip. “Welcome to Freeriders, Mr. Steader. Been wanting to meet you for a while now.”

“I’d say I’m in the comm directory, except I think I’m not,” Joe said. “But you should have had Quinny ask me to stop by sooner.”

“This was about the first chance we got for that,” Rochelle said, shaking his hand after Rhianna finished. “I gather she was kind of in orbit the last couple months or so.”

Joe chuckled. “Oh, yeah. Oops.” Maybe I was a little too strict there, he thought. But then again, if she’d really been annoyed about it, she’d have said so instead of just doing it. Will admit it was a little lonely without her, though.

“My granddaughter is almost as big a gearhead as you are,” Socah said. “She’ll talk your ear off about IDEs, AIDEs, RIDEs, and whatever if you let her.”

“Oh, really? I should bring her along when we go to my mecha warehouse,” Joe said. “I’ll admit to wondering what a mechanic who’s worked on my old pal Clint’s alter ego, rest his soul, would make of the stuff I put together back in the day.”

“I really want to see how you made the VF-19 Excalibur work so closely to how it looked in Macross Plus,” Rhianna said.

“Oh, well, that wasn’t so hard. They had really good mechanical designs,” Joe said, waving a hand. “It’s just that they didn’t have materials science up to handling them. Of course, when you get right down to it, it doesn’t work as well in real life as it did in the show. But then, those shows always stacked the deck anyway.”

“What was Clint Brubeck like?” Rochelle asked. “Zane said you and his Dad moved in the same circles…”

“Oh, he was quite a pistol. Our friendship waxed and waned over the years,” Joe said. “There were times when I got a little too crazy for him, but I usually came back down to Earth pretty quickly. He’s the one who actually kicked off my interest in the 20th century, you know. He even let me help him tinker with Chauncey from time to time.” He chuckled. “Mainly when he wanted to install some part too heavy for him to lift by himself.”

Rhianna chuckled. “That sounds like what I’ve heard about Clint, all right.”

“I think we were closest right after my brother left with the Star Circus and I was plowing money into Brubeck Mining,” Joe mused. “Me and Mikey were inseparable for our entire adult lives up to that point. Once he left…I can admit now I felt kind of unbalanced. It was good to have someone to talk to.” He shook his head. “But Clint and I drifted apart during the run-up to the war. He left Nextus in disgust and just lived out in his mining camp. Sometimes I envied him for that. As a Steader, I felt too much responsibility for the war to leave. Then I found someone else to talk to…for a while.” Socah reached out and squeezed his hand.

And that was when, for the second time that day, Joe Steader heard a voice he hadn’t heard in decades—a voice he thought he would never hear again.

“Well, shit. I leave you alone for just a moment, and next time I turn around, you’re shacked up with Captain Thermopylae again. I swear, you humans are in perpetual heat.”

Joe turned and stared, his jaw dropping, as a tawny jaguar RIDE padded in from the next bay over. Joe knew this RIDE immediately. He’d memorized every spot on that magnificent pelt, every whisker on his muzzle. He knew intimately the way he moved, the exact way the simulated muscles rippled under his hardlight skin, and precisely how he lifted his paws and put them down. And he knew what he was seeing was impossible. But that didn’t keep him from hoping. “…J…Julius?!

“Hey, buddy. Been a while. At least it has for you. I just woke up an hour ago. God, you look like hell.” The jaguar padded up to him. Joe fell to his knees and reached out, and Julius rubbed his head against Joe’s hand.

“But…what…how…I don’t…” Joe stammered. “Am I dreaming? Again?”

“Here’s a hint,” Julius said. “‘To blaaaaave…’”

Joe snorted at the same time as he drew a breath, and coughed as he accidentally choked on his own spit. “But…but how?

“He was only mostly dead,” Rhianna said in her best Billy Crystal impression.

“So your niece here brought me to Miracle Maxine’s and they put me in a whole new fucking core,” Julius said.

“They…could do that?” Joe said. “But Dr. Patil said—”

“Science marches on an’ all that shit,” Julius said.

“At the time, she was right,” Rochelle said. “But we’ve been learning a lot the last couple years. Having Inties doing the data corrections makes the process more of a sure thing.”

“I can’t…I don’t…” Joe stammered.

“Still having a hard time believing? Well, believe this,” Julius said, and Fused around him, bringing him back to his feet.

Joe gasped as all the old familiar sensations came back. He was fully enclosed by his old friend again. He felt him through the neural link in the hyperreal way none of his dreams had ever felt. And then, there they were. The same old virtual reality jungle clearing. The same jaguar avatar there with him. It was all just too much. He threw his arms around the jaguar’s neck and broke down sobbing.

“Yeah, that’s right. Let it all out, buddy,” Julius said, putting his forepaw around Joe’s back. “Don’t worry, they can’t hear us outside—you’re on ‘mute.’ God, I am so sorry. I didn’t mean to fuck up your whole life.”

“You…you didn’t,” Joe said when he could speak again. “You saved it. And you gave me purpose. All this stuff…the whole world…it was all for you.”

“Well, I see your memories are disorganized worse than ever,” Julius said. “God, how do you humans ever manage to get any thinking done?”

“We just let our RIDEs do all the thinking for us,” Joe said. “After all, they’re so much better at it. God, I missed you!”

Julius gave him a sandpapery lick on the cheek. “I can see that. Yeesh, I was right. You really did keep my core in a little box and talk to it. I’m not sure whether that’s endearing or fucking creepy.”

“It was a coping mechanism,” Joe said. “I can’t say I ever expected to have to explain it to you. Not that I’m not glad I am. This is the best day of my life since…I don’t know. Since Mikey and I found the Trove in Old Singapore.”

Julius snorted. “What, the day you first met me was chopped liver?”

“Uh…” Joe said.

Julius chuckled. “Oh, forget about it, I’m just yankin’ your chain. Oh, man, you’re so different now…but so much the same. Shit, you really gotta take better care of yourself.”

“I can’t believe you’re really back,” Joe said. “I keep thinking I’m gonna wake up.”

“I don’t know about waking up, but I think it’s time we drop back into the Real,” Julius said. “After all, we got a garage full of people waiting on us. Got ahold of yourself?”

“I…think so,” Joe said. “Though if I break down bawling like a baby again in front of everyone, I don’t care. It feels so good to have you back! Now I feel kind of bad I never had anyone check your core out sooner. I just…took Dr. Patil’s word for it.”

“Don’t blame her,” Julius said. “Like they said, before now it wouldn’a helped. When I read the damage on my diagnostics, I thought the exact same thing. ‘God,’ I thought. ‘I’m dead. Who’ll take care of Joe now?’”

Joe hugged Julius tightly around the neck again. “We’ve got each other back now,” he said. “And I’m never gonna lose you again.”

They opened their eyes back on the garage to the sound of synchronized nose-blowing. Rhianna had gotten out a box of Kleenex and passed it around. Quinoa was dabbing at her eyes. “You look great in spots, Uncle.”

“Doesn’t he just?” Julius purred. He retracted his head-helmet, and Joe blinked in the sudden light, then carefully reached up with one of Julius’s arms to feel the jaguar ears where his real ones had used to be. “Looks a damn sight better with my tags, too.”

“And less grey in his hair,” Quinoa said.

“That fits,” Joe said. “I feel thirty-five years younger. How is…how is this even possible?

“I found the box in your bedroom,” Quinoa said. “And when I saw it had a core in it, which should still have been viable despite the damage…well, I had to get it to the specialists.”

Rhianna opened a drawer in the workbench and brought the box out. “Here it is, by the way.” She flipped it open to reveal the almost-transparent core and medal inside. “You can keep the old core as a souvenir.”

“Let me look at that,” Julius said, head-helmet returning. “Not every day you get to see your own brain. Shit! Look at that fuckin’ crack! I can’t believe you were able to pull me outta that.”

“We’ve actually seen worse,” Rhianna said. “But I’m always glad to help.”

“Thanks for holding onto it,” Julius said. “Dunno where Joe would be without his pet rock to talk to.”

“I’m sure I’d get by somehow,” Joe said dryly. He looked to Rhianna. “I owe you all more than I can ever repay you. I’d have given my entire fortune for just five more minutes…” He trailed off as he choked up again.

“We’ve never been in this business for the money,” Rhianna said. “Right, Shelley?”

“We leave that kind of thing to people who have experience with it,” Rochelle said demurely.

“Well, you’ve got yourself a big ol’ Nextus-bureaucracy-game favor owed in my book,” Joe said. “It’s hard for me to imagine anything you could ask that would ever even the tally. Call on me any time for anything. In fact…” :You still have the “Franklin Mint” protocol, buddy?:

:Oh, that’s fuckin’ perfect!: Julius sent gleefully. :Four minty-fresh, comin’ up!: They glanced over at the small fabber on the workbench, and it whirred, spitting out four half-dollar-sized coins.

Rhianna picked one up and looked at it. It had a portrait of Joe Steader on one side, and a jaguar’s rump on the other, along with the star-colonization-era Steader family motto “Ad Astra Per Argentum.” “Is this…?”

Joe nodded. “It is. My own personal challenge coin. The data strip on the edge is signed with my personal crypto key to prove it’s valid. If you run into any trouble with stuffed shirts over there…well, enjoy yourselves. I don’t hand many of those out.”

“That’s like a get-out-of-red-tape-free card, Rhi,” Kaylee said.

“Not to mention a get-free-drinks-for-life card,” Julius put in. “Trust me, ain’t many coins in Nextus that’ll trump that. A’least there weren’t last time I was alive, and a quick google suggests things ain’t changed much.”

Rhianna swallowed. “Well, thank you. I promise we won’t abuse this.”

“Oh, go ahead. Abuse it. Trust me, nothing you could do would balance out what you’ve done for us today,” Joe said.

“Is that a challenge?” Uncia asked. Rochelle bapped her.

“Wasn’t that a treat?” Socah said, sniffling. “I might just have to pull that clone trigger after all after seeing you two like this. Nice to meet you, Julius.”

“And the same to you, ma’am,” Julius said. “After seeing all his memories, I have to admit, you manage to live up to ‘em.”

Socah chuckled. “Thank you.” She paused. “‘Captain Thermopylae,’ was it? The ‘Hot Gates’?”

“Er…” Joe said. “Well…yeah. That was what Mikey and I always called you when we talked about you between ourselves. Can’t say I ever thought it would get back to you.”

She smiled. “I appreciate the sentiment, though it’s been about fifty years since I had that body you apparently lusted after.”

Joe shook his head. “It wasn’t your body—well, okay, it was, partly, but—the big thing my brother and I always liked about you was your attitude. You didn’t give a damn how much money we had, you were always ready to put us in our place. That’s pretty rare when you have as much money as we did. It was a refreshing change from being surrounded by sycophants. And you’ve still got that in spades.”

“If Nana used the same tone of voice with you as she did me when I was little…” Rhianna said. “Or right after they got here, for that matter…”

“I’ve been using it since your mother was little, Rhi,” Socah said. “She ended up needing it more than either of you, though. Always getting into trouble, that girl. Which…hasn’t changed now that she’s grown up, considering how we got here. Perhaps I should have used it even more than I did.”

“Looks like you come by your talent for troublemaking honestly, pard,” Kaylee said.

“I can’t believe it’s been fuckin’ thirty-five years,” Julius said. “What’s the world even like now?”

“There’s a new ‘RVW’ directory we made for catching up in your pre-mem area,” Rochelle said. “Interleave it if you want, or you can catch up in the usual way. Up to you.”

“I think I’ll just live a while, and use your packet for catching up on anything I miss after that,” Julius said. “Thanks, though.”

“Plus, I gotta get us over to Donizetti’s, bro,” Joe said. “This isn’t a bad shell for now, but I know how you loved being cutting edge. Google ‘Katie Packard’ to see the kind of thing I’m thinking about.”

“See? What’d I tell ya?” Julius said, twitching their tail in amusement. “Honestly, it’s not all that big a deal, but if you’re buyin’, I’m not saying no.”

“And there’s also the little matter of thirty-five years’ back pay,” Joe mused.

“Hey. I’m not gonna take your fuckin’ money for the time I wasn’t actually on the job,” Julius said. “Besides, I just checked my savings account and with thirty-five years of interest on it, I done pretty well. So throw in the new bod and call it even.”

Joe nodded their head. “Fair enough.” He chuckled. “You always knew how to put me in my place, too.”

“That’s what I’m for, buddy,” Julius said happily.

“Now, I wonder if we can leave without the newsies figuring out what’s up?” Joe mused.

“How about this?” Quinoa said, her features blurring into a perfect untagged copy of her uncle. “Socah can drive me back to our place,” she said in Joe’s voice. “And you can be some random guy who came to pick up his jag after a tune-up.”

“It’s scary how well you do that,” Socah said.

“A necessary talent in darker days,” Quinoa-Joe said. “Fortunately not so much any more.”

“And…sheesh. What the precise fuck?” Julius said. “Was just reading some stuff linked from ‘Katie Packard,’ and…Fritz turned into a supervillain bent on world domination? Our Fritz? I knew he had to be mental after what he did to your cousin, but this…”

“‘Mental’, he says,” Kaylee said. “‘Your’ Fritz?”

“It’s…a long story,” Joe said. “We knew him before he went completely out of his gourd. Later on, he actually helped get Steader Entertainment off the ground by arranging for Integrates to help us crack, sort, and mine the stuff we dug up on Earth. And, well, you know about the stupid little stunt I pulled a few months ago.”

“Yes, we do,” Quinoa-Joe said, crossing her arms and glowering in a gesture so un-Joe-like that everyone else in the room had to laugh.

“Ow,” Joe said. “If you’re going to be me, at least don’t sulk. It’s not becoming.”

“If I were going to judge people based on how they felt about Fritz, it would kind of put me at odds with Dr. Patil,” Rhianna said. “We may not be too fond of him ourselves—”

That’s an understatement,” Kaylee muttered.

“—but I guess there aren’t too many people in the world who’re all good or all bad.” Rhianna shrugged. “I actually wouldn’t mind hearing more about the old days, if you wouldn’t mind talking about it sometime.”

“Sure thing,” Joe said. “Comm me sometime. I’ll send you my private code.”

Rhianna nodded. “Will do. And thanks again.”

“Then I guess ‘you’ and I should be going,” Socah said, nodding at “Joe”. “Give me a ring when you and Julius want to get together. I don’t care what the hour is. I don’t sleep much and getting dressed takes no time at all.”

“And if you need anything, any time, give me a call,” Rhianna said. “Kaylee takes all my calls, and she can wake me at need.”

“You’ve already done so much for me…for us,” Joe said.

“Just be sure and come back here for your tune-ups,” Rhianna said.

“Oh, an’ comm me sometime, Jules,” Kaylee said. “There’s a bunch of rescued old-timers around we could get together with. Including one we rescued just last week who got losted during the run-up to ‘Final Fury.’ We’re thinkin’ a puttin’ together a support group.”

“Sounds fuckin’ awesome, Kaylee,” Julius said. “I never had the chance to talk too much with too many RIDEs back in the day, but…we got stuff in common, so why not?”

The garage door rolled up, and Quinoa-Joe climbed onto the Harley behind Socah. “See you later!” she said.

“Keep in touch,” Socah added, before pulling away.

Joe and Julius watched her go. “I still can’t believe this,” Joe said.

“I can pinch you with my Fusers if you want,” Julius said.

“That’s…quite all right,” Joe said. “Well, let’s go, pal. We got a lot of catching up to do. We’re gonna leave through one of the other bays just so there’s less suspicion.” The Fuser lifted off the ground and hovered back to the door Julius had entered by.

“Have fun storming the castle,” Kaylee quipped, waving her forepaw at the Jaguar Fuser.

“Bye! And thanks again!” Julius said as they left the garage.

I can’t believe this is real, Joe thought. This is too much like the old days. I’m going to wake up any moment, and…

“No, buddy, you’re not,” Julius said firmly. “This is fuckin’ real as it gets. And I’m gonna keep proving that to you ‘til I get it through your thick skull into your meaty little mind.” He converted back to skimmer bike form, a hardlight helmet materializing over Joe’s head just like in the old days. “Rhianna tells me this shell’s batts and lifters aren’t the best available, but the spec’s still at least 20% over what my old ones could do. Shall we see how fast we can make it to Nextus on the road, or you wanna show me that fuckin’ ridiculous Pan-Am of yours?”

“Let’s save the plane for another time,” Joe said. “I want to show you the Tunnel anyway. Let’s punch it, bro.”

“You got it!” Julius said. His lifters growled and they were off. “And awaaaaaaay we go!”

Joe closed his eyes, leaned back, and let the tears of joy stream down his face as his long-lost friend carried him home.

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