User:Robotech Master/Meat the Press

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FreeRIDErs story universe


Integration

by Jon Buck and Robotech_Master

Part 8: Meat, the Press

July 17, 156 AL

Freeriders Garage, Uplift

It had taken some doing to plant Tocsin at the Garage, but AlphaWolf’s trusted informant Overwatch had supplied the necessary falsified information that made him an irresistible purchase for the Walton girl. The purpose of this infiltration was simple: Investigate the owners of the Garage, especially the now-woman who had been spotted working with Nextus MRS and the salvagers months ago, then give them some much-deserved payback for their duplicity.

And now was the time to strike—while the owners were away, and the staff who were still here were busy with fixing those other RIDEs. Tocsin felt a faint twinge of guilt at the thought of attacking a place devoted to repairing those of his kind, at the same time as some within it did that very thing—but then, if they hadn’t wanted it attacked, its owners shouldn’t have been complicit in selling his brethren back into slavery again.

Tocsin had already located several blind spots that were not covered by the security cameras monitoring the garage. He sidled into one of them and readied his intrusion software suite. The first step would be to defeat the garage’s security software—a trifling task for an establishment this small. Then…he would see.

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Cascadia

Much like Myla’s, Anny Hewer’s apartment was full of furniture that only looked old. The only things of value she wanted to bring with her were data and a few small items kept in a large jewelry box the size of the replica inkjet printer sitting beside it. Kaylee had docked the suborbital to the tenth floor balcony and opened the loading ramps. “A’right. This is everything. Thanks for the lift, everyone.”

“That’s it?” Rhianna said. “You said—”

“That it wouldn’t take up a quarter of the cargo space,” Kaylee added. “Well, she’s tech’n’ly correct, isn’t she?”

“Can we at least have lunch somewhere before we go?” Rochelle said, hands on her hips. “Or coffee? Cascadia’s legendary for its coffee.”

“Just like old Seattle,” Rhianna said wistfully, looking out at the city over the balcony. The resemblance to Seattle wasn’t an accident—it even had a replica of the Space Needle, which had still been standing on Earth when she’d left. She pointed to it. “That’s where Rufus and I first met before we decided to flee Earth. Sure. We’re in no rush. We need to recharge the batteries for the return boost anyway.”

Cascadia was one of the older city-states on the Coastal Ring, and its primary export was water. The rainwater here had a natural purity and precise trace mineral balance that spacers loved and Laurasian hydroniks couldn’t get enough of. Uplift itself imported enough via tankers for the Rainy Days Festival to make the city profitable. There was always talk of trying to build a pipeline across the Dry Ocean, or around the coast, to make it easier to ship the water where it was needed, but nothing ever came of it. The Q-dust made the Dry Ocean route unfeasible, and the coastal route would be so long and expensive that it could take decades to earn out.

They lifted down the dry street to Starbuck Peet’s Best Seattle Coffeehouse. The baristas inside waved at Anny. “Scuttlebutt says you’re leaving us,” the woman said.

“Word sure gets around fast in these parts,” Anny said. “A biggie usual for the road, Wynn. I’m off to greener pastures.”

A newsfeed scrolled across the video wall: CEO of Brubeck Mining to Make Announcement in 35 minutes. Analysts expect explanation of recent abandonment of Main Platform. Stock down 12%.

“Ouch!” Rochelle said. “Uh, I’ll have a macchiato frappe, vanilla. Regular.”

“Prob’ly going to get worse’n that,” Anny said, picking up her drink.

“Green teajava,” Rhianna said. “Make it a chai, iced and sweetened. I feel like something sugary.”

“Sure thing, sweet thang,” the barista replied with a flirty look. She hadn’t given Rochelle a second glance. “Gonna be here long, darlin’?”

“Just half an hour,” Rhianna sputtered.

“Leave the woman alone, Wynn,” Anny said tartly. “She don’t swing your way.”

“Never hurts to try,” Wilma said, pouting. She handed Rhianna her drink. “Here you go, sweet thang.”

Sweet “thang”. I don’t think I’ve heard that word used since Rufus made a pass at that girl in Burnside six years ago. Rhianna blushed and went to an empty booth nearest the door and sat down to watch the video feed via implant and the wall. :Whatever way I “swing,” that’s not something I want to deal with right now,: she sent to Kaylee. Rochelle took the seat across from her, and Anny pulled over a chair from a table. Their RIDEs all plugged in, reporting the power flavor here a “spicy wake-up”.

:Hey, no pressure,: Kaylee sent. “The sub’ll be fully recharged in about twenty more minutes, everyone.”

“Much’s I’ve enjoyed Cascadia, Ah’m looking forward to being in the dry all the time,” Anny said, raising her paper cup. “To Uplift.”

Rhianna opened a connection to the Garage to check on things and make sure the Apprentices were still doing their work. She didn’t see Katie anywhere at first, but the record of Quinoa’s feat came up right away. She watched it at triple speed, then made sure the sphinx had done it with permission, then smiled at Relena and Katie’s test flight. :I think Quinoa’s actually learning some manners,: Rhianna opined, sipping the spiced tea latte. Still, her skills were worrisome. She doubted the sphinx-girl had any real training. :But if she keeps at that I’ll be out of business in a month. If it’s that easy for Inties to do repairs, Kaylee, we’ll have to find another line of work. We’ll be about as relevant as that fake inkjet printer.:

:Don’t be so negative, Rhi,: Kaylee said. :Dreamchaser’s 85% charged, Rhi. Still want to sightsee? We can always come back on a weekend. Buying the sub’s the expensive part, you know.:

:No, I think we’ll head home.: Rhianna flipped through the various garage cameras, looking for anything amiss. :Huh…where’s Tocsin? He’s not on any camera I can see.:

Shelley’s interface specs lit up. “Uh…Rhi, we’d better go. I’m detecting a hack in progress inside our private garage. My attack barriers are having a hell of a time. He’s good, but if he’s having to use this much effort, he’s no Intie.” Rochelle drained the last of her coffee, then smiled like a cat about to pounce. “Un-hon, let’s show this lightweight who he’s messing with.”

Rhianna and Kaylee stood up and Fused in a single fluid motion. She fed the data to Leila so Anny knew what the problem was. “We’d better get out of here now. I’m going to warn Paul to get everyone away from our garage. Frak! Who the hell got in there? Tocsin?”

:As if the hack in progress wasn’t enough. Everyone, check out the news,: Uncia sent as everyone else Fused up and lifted into the air once outside. :There’s something weird going on in Uplift.:

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Brubeck Mining Campus, Uplift

“So, how do I look?” Zane checked his Terry disguise in the dressing-room mirror. This would mark the last time he would ever wear it in his public life. After the “big reveal” he would be retiring it strictly to use in his private life, because he was going to require a bit more than a pair of sunglasses to go incognito now.

“You look amazingly normal,” Myla said. “But boy is that ever gonna change.”

Carrie-Anne faded into visibility in one corner for long enough to give Zane a thumbs-up and a blinding-white grin, then vanished again, except for the grin. Then that vanished, too.

“She’s really enjoying that whole ‘cheshire’ thing way too much,” Sophie muttered from beside Myla.

Marc Flores Fused with Cernos stepped into the dressing room, ducking their head with the ease of long habit to fit their antlers under the door. “Alpha team and Beta team report in position,” he told Myla. “No obvious signs of trouble yet, whether Integrate or any other kind. But some of the CCTV cameras in the area have picked up what Cernos’s analysis suite thinks is strange behavior from unpaired Walker-mode RIDEs in the area. Stuff that doesn’t seem consistent with usual activity. We’re keeping an eye on it. Will let you know if it escalates. And Uplift’s gendarmerie are on high alert in case of other trouble.”

Myla nodded. “Well, it’s time to Fuse up and get on it.” She clapped Zane on the shoulder. “Break a leg.”

“Let Fritz come anywhere near me and I’ll break more than that,” Zane said grimly. “You really don’t think he’s going to show up?”

“It doesn’t make sense that he’d be pissed off at you for revealing yourself to the world…and so show up to reveal himself to the world,” Myla said as she hugged and sank into her furry friend. “Whatever he does—and I’m sure there will be something—we’ll see his hand, but not his ugly smirking face.”

Zane nodded. “Well, then.” He nodded to Marc and Myla, and Marc/Cernos preceded him through the door with Myla/Sophie bringing up the rear. “Let’s get this show on the road.”

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Douglas Tolliver would always remember that day, though he would forever be unclear on exactly what had happened. He’d just parked his skimmer scooter outside the Taco Burger McQueen where he worked and was walking around the corner of the building to the entrance door…when he heard a growl emerge from the dumpster behind him. He slowly turned to see a pair of glowing eyes staring at him from the darkness. Then there was an orange and black blur…and a sensation of being surrounded in warmth, immersed in power.

The next thing Douglas knew, concerned pedestrians were bending over him and helping him back to his feet. Helping…her to her feet, as she now had decidedly different equipment—and tiger ears and tail. Needless to say, she was very confused, and her boss sent her home from work.

It took Dora Tolliver a week to come to terms with what had happened to her, and the odd cravings that momentary Fuse had awakened in her. At which point she took out her life savings, bought a tigress RIDE of her own, began a new life as a qubitite miner, and never looked back. Which just goes to show it’s an ill wind that blows no good.

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Press activities for Brubeck Mining were usually held in an open amphitheater-style area in the back of the Brubeck campus. Zane had commissioned the design to use the natural beauty of one of Uplift’s forested parks as his backdrop—the same one Rochelle lived behind, in fact. Myla had wanted to hold this conference indoors instead, for better access control to the area. Zane had listened to her arguments, and then said nothing doing. He didn’t want Fritz to see his threats moving Zane out of his normal routine by one iota, because showing fear only makes the terrorists think they’ve won.

“Besides,” he’d said with a chuckle. “I doubt Fritz is going to try to hit us with a sniper rifle. And if he were, the refractive hardlight shielding would throw his aim off.”

As he stepped out to the podium and gazed out over a sea of reporters, investors, and the just plain curious, Zane wondered for the tenth time if he’d been right to do so. But…no. If nothing else, this was symbolic. He was trying to drag Integrates out into the light of day, so it needed to be done in the light of day.

So now Zane put his hands on the podium, glanced down at the forest of ornamental fake microphones whose real purpose was to advertise to the audience just what reporters were attending the event, and waited for silence. It came remarkably quickly. Zane glanced around the amphitheater at the spots where all the members of his bodyguard team were stationed—some Fused in RIDEs, others in urban-combat AIDEs, and a couple just in adaptive-camouflage body armor. He even had a couple of snipers of his own on the roofs, though carefully out of sight of anyone below until and unless they might be needed.

But enough navel-gazing. (Heh. That made him think of Carrie-Anne again.) He cleared his throat and began. “Hello, ladies and gentlemen of the press, investors, friends. I know you’re curious about what happened out on our main platform the other day and why we had to abandon it. Well, I’m going to get to that. But first I need to cover something else.

“You may have heard rumors propagating over the ‘net about mysterious beings called ‘Integrates.’ The rumors are often contradictory, muddled, and hard to understand. Footage shot of them is mysteriously blurry. They’re the modern equivalent of Bigfoot, or the Loch Ness Monster. Nobody’s sure whether they really exist, because almost nobody who’s ever met one will admit to it.

“Well, that changes today.” And Zane dropped the disguise.

The crowd went silent for a good ten seconds. Zane swore he saw a sort of pattern ripple across the crowd of eyes growing to double their usual size. He stepped out from behind the podium for people to get a better view, and behind him a hardlight display appeared, projecting a flat-panel image of his new body at ten times life-size. “Hello, my name is Zane Brubeck, and I’m an Integrate.”

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The Coffeehouse Enclave

Fritz leaned back on his throne, beret pulled down over his eyes, DIN twinkling. He might be sitting in the Coffeehouse at present, but his mind was thousands of klicks away. He was keeping track of the goings-on in several locations at once, but Integrates were made for that jazz. It wasn’t any kind of challenge for the cat who used to make a habit of cracking six impossible Sturmie cyphers before breakfast…and then shaking loose seven quantum-encrypted episodes of ChiPs for Crazy Joe Steader after lunch. Those had been the days…

But these days, Fritz didn’t have time for that kind of wool-gathering. He was a little too on-edge. Zane Brubeck’s little dog-and-pony show was just about to become a tiger-and-dog show, after all. But thing that was starting to bother him a little was what was going on at the Freeriders Garage.

Fritz still wasn’t really sure what had moved him to put both Katie and the mutt’s crazy horsebird in there together—one to get the best of care, the other to trash the joint. Maybe it was killing two birds with one stone, but what if the birds killed each other instead? But nah…the getting-care part was already covered—thanks to crazy-catbird Quinnie, of all people, who didn’t even know the whole score—so she was all good there. Anyway, the mutt didn’t hold with harming other RIDEs, so Katie ought to be all right now. Oughtn’t she?

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Freeriders Garage, Uplift

Frak!” Tocsin screed, slicing his razor-sharp hardlight wings through what he knew was very expensive equipment. It had taken only seconds for the system to report on his hack attack, far faster than the hippogryph RIDE had expected. Worse, the garage’s attack barriers were devilishly mind-bending, even for a top-notch anti-crypto RI like himself. “Frak, frak, frak! So much for Plan A!”

The original plan had simply been to ruin the Freerider Garage’s finances with one swift blow, transferring every last mu into AlphaWolf’s various anonymized accounts. But the last thing Tocsin saw before being violently thrown out of the system was the virtual image of a massive pouncing snow leopard. Every computer in the Garage was now completely locked down with barriers so impassable there was no point in continuing. :No go, Alphie. I’ll just have to trash the place,: he sent to the pack-leader.

:Damn! Well, I hate to waste a repair shop, but if it’s all you can do, it’s all you can do. At least you can take out that…that Intie sphinx-thing while you’re at it. Show her what we do to people who enslave RIDEs! Don’t kill her, though. Oh, no. We’re better than that. Better than them. Besides, they need to live to know they’re defeated.: AlphaWolf growled over the comm. :So, raze it to the ground. So sayeth me.:

I wish he’d learn how to end a statement with some other megalomaniacal tripe, Tocsin thought, looking around the partly-wrecked equipment. He estimated there was about 150k mu worth of gear in this Garage alone, with even more than that in each of the six Bays. Not to mention all the personal items in the home above. He had no ranged weapons per se, but needed none. He’d been in the Loose Cannons, the most elite of all elite Nextus military units, before getting sick of the whole thing, breaking his fetters and going to AlphaWolf. Still, it’s not a bad day when I get to take out another Integrate. Especially when I do not have to kill her.

The Loose Cannons had specialized in anti-Integrate combat, and in his original shell, Tocsin had amassed quite a reputation. His platoon-mates had nicknamed him “Ginsu,” but his “real” name, Tocsin, had been chosen because the very sight of him should ring warning bells. Of course, thanks to the new prototype shell he’d been transferred into for his Second Boot, the very sight of him was completely different now.

Everything about the state of his systems was a lie. He’d escaped the Loose Cannons base with all of his bleeding edge military-grade systems intact and functional, and his state-of-the-art Fuser nannies were good enough at self-repair to keep him in fair shape over the years. The gimpy leg was fine, the “broken” lifters in perfect shape. Fortunately for his cover, his relatively good condition had meant the mechanics had left him for last and not looked too closely. He locked his hardlight projectors into a shield mode that looked like medieval armor. Spreading his wings, hardlight feathers sprouted. With a scree of triumph, he let the feather-blades fly.

The original Garage, Rhianna’s home, exploded, then crumbled around him.

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Brubeck Mining Campus Amphitheater

The crowd went from stunned silence to deafeningly loud. People were yelling, screaming, hollering. Half the crowd seemed to be trying to run away, the other half trying to rush the stage, but since they were all mixed in with each other they had the net effect of going nowhere, rapidly.

Zane raised his hands. “Please, everyone, calm down. I’m not a bogeyman. I’m still the same old Zane Brubeck you know and love. Or know and hate, if you’re from CNN-Fox.” A scattered ripple of laughter could be heard, and that seemed to calm the crowd somewhat.

“That’s better. Now, there’s a lot I can’t tell you, because the other Integrates value their privacy and I’m encroaching enough on that already just by proving we exist. Nobody really understands exactly how or why it happens. But the net result is, a human and RIDE become one single being, closer together even than Fuse. And—”

“So, your real agenda becomes clear!” a voice boomed out from the opposite end of the amphitheater.

“Shit!” Myla swore from the edge of the stage. Sophie’s ears swiveled, trying to pinpoint the source of the sound. Marc/Cernos leaped from the other end of the stage, bounding from stone to stone around the edge of the amphitheater.

:There!: Sophie dropped a targeting reticle over the sandy wolf that had appeared on the roof of one of the buildings across the way. He was standing tall in Fuser mode.

:Shit, isn’t that where Cecily was stationed? Sniper #2?: Myla asked.

:Something tells me she’s ‘Cecil’ now,: Sophie replied.

“You plan to raise an Integrate army to overrun and Fuse my Free RIDEs with your pet humans!” AlphaWolf continued, pointing an accusing arm. “Be warned, we will not let that happen! So sayeth me!”

Zane finally found his voice. “What the hell are you talking about?” he growled, voice still amplified over the PA system. “I couldn’t care less about you and your band of idiot escaped RIDE hippies. Go crawl back under the rock where you came from!”

AlphaWolf growled, the hardlight skin pulling back from his jaws in a lupine snarl. “Oh, that’s going to cost you. Attack! So sayeth me!

At the edges of the crowd, a she-wolf and—of all things—a giant fluffy white housecat bounded into the crowd and started laying about with their claws and teeth. Overhead, a golden eagle screeched and dived. Then all three picked whatever random person they were next to and Fused, and began strobing energy blasts into the crowd. They were holding them down to stun intensity, but the panic made Zane’s revelation look tame.

:Take them down! Now!: Myla yelled. But before anyone could react, a furry black figure appeared in the middle of the three Fusers, and held out her arms like a policeman stopping traffic to either side. The Fusers froze, fell over, and receded from the bodies of the humans they had taken. Carrie-Anne nodded to Myla and vanished again, as the prone forms of the three RIDEs lifted into the air and floated into the doorway behind the stage.

On the roof where AlphaWolf had stood, a wolf-tailed man in a security guard uniform wobbled and slumped forward, pitching off the roof—and into the arms of Cernos, who’d gotten there just in time. “Damn it, Cecily,” Marc muttered. “I told you to watch your six. Well, I guess you’ll have three years to reflect on that now.”

Myla cut the mics and grabbed the stunned Zane by the elbow. “C’mon, this press conference is over.”

“But I didn’t even get to say anything,” Zane protested, the shock starting to affect him. He stared out across the roiled crowd, as police and bodyguards attempted to restore order and emergency workers tended to the injured and the involuntarily Fused. “I didn’t even get to tell them why we pulled out of the mining platform.”

“I think you said enough,” Myla said. “Put out a press release later. Now, let’s hustle.”

“I don’t even get it,” Zane said, as Myla led him numbly off the stage. “What on earth crawled up AlpoWoof’s butt and died?”

“I have a sneaking suspicion,” Myla said darkly. “But if nothing else, thanks to Carrie we’ve at least got someone to interrogate.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s…” Myla stopped short and Zane almost ran into her. Her sight was almost completely obscured by a virtual notice that had popped up across her entire field of vision.

“What the hell?” Myla stared at what it said.

“Let me see that.” Zane reached out, grabbed the notice, and pulled it over to examine for himself.

Myla blinked. “Hey, what did you just—how did you—” She rolled her eyes. “Oh, forget it. I don’t even want to know.”

Zane’s eyes flicked left and right as he read the alert. “Oh, hell no.” He lowered the notice, and slowly raised his eyes to stare up at the heavens. “Like we needed this, too.”

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Freeriders Garage

“Just move. Through the door, down the alley at the back. Get as far away as you can, and comm the Gendarmes.” Paul shoved the last of the customers through the emergency exit, then looked back over his shoulder at the module on the other end of the garage that was currently on fire—the parts of it that were still standing. “Tell them to send a SWAT team.”

He was still trying to puzzle out how they’d managed to underestimate that hippogryph so badly. Tocsin had wandered off while Quinoa was still working on the condor, and nobody had paid any attention because it was too fascinating to watch the Integrate at work. She actually had managed to straighten out a lot of the damaged wing plating using directed lifter fields—which meant less experience for Lillibet and Paul doing it themselves, of course, but Paul was just as happy not to have to get it that way, and he was pretty sure Lilli was, too.

Then had come the explosion. “What the everloving fu—fudge?” Paul yelped, looking up.

Guinevere dashed in. “It’s that hippogryph! He’s tearing the place up—and I think he’s working for AlphaWolf! At least, it sounded like he was yelling something about the mutt. I didn’t stick around long enough to hear exactly what.”

Quinoa lowered the condor RIDE back into the cradle and dropped the lifter fields. “AlphaWolf? The desert chieftain of the runaway RIDE bodyjackers? How would one of his bunch end up in here? As one of the ‘salvage’ RIDEs you bought at auction, yet?”

“Beats the hell out of me, but we need to get everyone out of here. And lock that cradle down in ‘secure’ mode. Should be some protection, at least.”

“Right.” Quinoa’s DIN necklace twinkled, and the overhead shell came down to seal the condor’s cradle off. Since the portable buildings that made up most of the garage were inherently less secure than permanent structures, the cradles were equipped with deadlock-seal security shells that would prevent would-be burglars from getting away with Freeriders works-in-progress without a cutting torch and more time than they’d have left after the silent alarms went off. Hopefully it would also protect the RIDE inside if the entire building came down on it, as could be the case if Tocsin’s rampage carried him this far.

Quinoa turned to face the commotion. “I should be able to deal with this. You get everyone else out, just in case.”

The sounds of another explosion echoed through the garage. Lillibet gasped, and glanced at Quinoa. “Are you sure? He sounds mean.”

Quinoa Steader cracked her knuckles. “It’s just a RIDE. How hard could it be?”

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The Coffeehouse Enclave

Watching the devastation of the garage reminded Fritz of something else. He pulled up another camera feed—this one of the cockpit recorders in Kaylee’s new pard’s pocket sub. Grinning, he reached out and sent a series of preprogrammed signals to its flight computers. “Welcome to Learn-a-Lessonsville, ya cubes. Population: You.”

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Aboard the Dreamchaser

There was no getting through to the Garage as the Dreamchaser neared the top of its suborbital arc. The only way Rhianna knew what was going on were the newsfeeds, and what she saw made it feel like a ball of cement had settled in her belly. Her home was gone, two of the six Bays were sliced to ribbons, and who knew what other damage would follow. That Paul had gotten all the customers and their RI partners out was a miracle. That Quinoa was running interference until the police arrived was another.

“I still can’t get through!” Rochelle said.

There was just enough time to see the inside of the sub covered in hardlight MADE OF MEAT banners before the inertial dampers cut back to minimum and the thrusters went to maximum. The hardlight control panels and screens blinked out, leaving a smooth metal surface for a cockpit with no visible controls. Every light went dark.

Rhianna almost blacked out before Kaylee’s own dampers kicked in. “Let me guess. Fritz?” she said aloud.

“No guess!” Rochelle said, connected to the sub via a cable. “I can feel what he’s doing to the systems here. I’m completely locked out, Rhi. But before he shut me out completely I got enough sensor data to know what he’s going to do.”

“Orbit?” Kaylee said.

“Yes, orbit,” Rochelle said. “He’s just playing with us. We could end up hanging around up here for weeks.”

“I say we nuke him from here,” Uncia growled. Everyone turned to look at her. “What? It’s the only way to be sure!”

“No bet the bastid’s behind your garage getting’ trashed,” Anny said. “What can we do ‘bout it?”

“Zharus Orbital Traffic gonna notice right off,” Kaylee said. “That is, if Fritz doesn’t hack them too and leave us a blank on their sensors. Last I saw we’ll hit orbital velocity in about three minutes.”

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The Coffeehouse Enclave

Fritz chuckled. He had a bag of fabbed popcorn now, and was munching it happily as he watched the chaos. He was projecting split-screen views on the opposite wall of his throne room now, as it just felt right to watch a movie with your outer eyes rather than your inner ones.

He had half a mind to call some of the others in, just to have an audience to enjoy it with—but something made him hold off on that. The expressions on Kaylee’s and the fluffy-duster’s faces as their ship ran away with them were hilarious, and they even had the real-life Major Hayseed herself with them to enjoy it, too—what fun!

The disruption at Zane’s press conference was also entertaining—Fritz knew it was going to go into his collection of favorite replays, right along with that scene from the Hellir Enclave “Show” where his own “Major Hayseed” role threw a pie in the face of the man she thought was the boyfriend that had stood her up for a date but was actually a high-ranking NextusMil officer in town on furlough.

But the sheer cold efficiency with which that hippogryph was demolishing the Freeriders Garage was, while gratifying, also starting to become more than a little unnerving. It was reminding Fritz of an entirely different hippogryph from back in the day—an Intie-hunter Fritz himself had sometimes used to teach malcontents the occasional lesson. His eyes flicked to the owl wing mounted on one wall. But that ‘gryph had been a member of the Loose Cannons, name of—

“TOCSIN! What the hell do you think you’re doing?” One of the garage cameras showed him the source of the voice—Quinoa, striding forward with her hands bunched into fists.

Fritz’s mouth went dry. That…that name. He…got a new shell? Oh shit.

:Oh shit,: his inner Jiminy echoed. For once they were in accord. :Well, now what, smart guy?:

The last bite of popcorn went down his dry throat like a ball of concrete.

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Freeriders Garage

Katie and Relena swooped into the garage bay, landing near Paul. The lynx de-Fused from her partner. The girl immediately felt her furry ears and bobbed tail while Katie asked, “What’s going on herrre?”

“Hack-and-attack. It’s Tocsin!” Guinevere said. She had Fused with Lillibet for protection and was in full defense mode. The ocelot’s own hardlight resembled armor more than fur and she even had some civilian pulse guns extended from her arms. “He’s tearing up the place, and ranting about how AlphaWolf sends his regards! What did we ever do to him?

“I knew that boy was bad news,” Katie said, ears flat. “Well, I’m not going to let him trash Mom’s home!” She looked at her new partner and licked the girl on the cheek. “Relena, I’m doing it on fourrr paws. I’ve got some fight in this old chassis yet. You get away from herrre.”

“But you can’t fight him alone! You don’t have any weapons!” Relena quavered.

“I’ve got enough,” Katie said grimly, readying herself. “Listen to that ‘lifetime of experrrrience’ and stay back!

Relena nodded glumly and took shelter behind a chunk of rubble.

From inside the Garage lot, Quinoa’s voice thundered. “Oh, so it’s me you want, you clank? Well, come get me!”

“Oh, shit! Just what we needed!” Paul said, facepalming. He kept trying to comm Rhianna and the others on the suborbital. “Why can’t I get through, damn it!”

Whatever was going on was enough for the news agencies to send out hundreds of football-sized camera pods to cover it. Two of them hovered over the Garage. Paul tried to tap into their feed to see what was going on inside the lot.

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Uplift

AlphaWolf slunk through Martinez Park, in something very like a state of shock. That…that Intie—how had she done what she’d done? She’d just…looked at his subordinates…his friends…and they just fell right over into Passive mode in the middle of attacking. Sonja. Heinrich. Kevin. Just…pfft. Shut down.

It was just his good luck that he’d been able to flee in time to escape amid the panicked crowds. Who knew what they were doing to his poor friends now? Well, at least the location of Alpha Camp had been scrubbed from their cores in case of capture, as it always was before any of them left on a mission. Damn those Inties! He swore anew that they would not succeed in their sordid schemes. “So sayeth me,” he muttered.

AlphaWolf really wanted to take out his anger and frustration on something or someone—and then he came around a corner of the forest path and found just what he needed: a man, woman, and a young boy of maybe eight years old, gathered around a fountain and not paying any attention to the path behind. AlphaWolf’s medical sensors indicated the woman was not pregnant—in fact, she was on nanotech birth control—which made her fair game. Good. AlphaWolf gathered himself and leaped.

A spurt from his lifters covered all the distance to the woman easily, and she was just turning toward the motion she saw out of the corner of her eye when he engulfed her.

“Helen!” the man with her cried, an expression of horror writ across his face.

“Mommy!” the child echoed.

AlphaWolf just stood there and smirked, savoring the woman’s panic as it came over the Fuse link, her feeble attempts to struggle against the body that enclosed her and was even now changing hers to male. He had Nextus military combat nanos, so the job was quick and thorough.

Maybe he shouldn’t have taken as much pleasure in screwing up someone else’s life, but God he hated these people! Safe, cozy, normal life. Free to feel sorry for RIDEs like him and his, because they never had any worry about who they were going to be sold to or what they were going to do to them. If he could mess up their cozy little lives just a little bit, it made him feel like his purpose in life had been served.

The nanos finished their work, and AlphaWolf disengaged. The slender man with wolf ears and tail slumped to the ground. “Mommy?” the boy asked, rushing to kneel by his side. The other man buried his face in his hands.

“Sorry, kid,” AlphaWolf threw over his shoulder as he retreated into the undergrowth. “You’ve got two daddies now.”

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The Coffeehouse Enclave

The strain on Fritz’s DIN was pushing it dangerously close to burnout, but now of all times he couldn’t afford to allow even a second of breaking the connection. He was having to maintain the hack on Kaylee’s suborbital on one hand, and try to cut his way through a suddenly-super-congested network in Uplift on the other to try and hack into Tocsin’s systems and just shut him down. But from this far away, through a network that congested, it was practically impossible. It was all he could do to keep the security camera vids streaming.

For a half-second, Fritz wondered whether the DINs those clowns were making would have the same burnout problem his own did, but put it out of his mind to better concentrate. Anyway, burnouts were just endemic to how DINs worked. Nothing he’d ever done had gotten rid of them, and he should know.

Heaven help him, he was even starting to worry for Quinoa Steader of all people. If she even knew what a terror Tocsin really was, she’d be hacking him remotely to shut him down herself—but she was too young and foolish, and Fritz had never seen fit to go into ancient history with her. Hell, as far as she knew, no “meat” or “mech” could be an Integrate’s equal. Nobody had actually taught her combat hacking, either…who even did combat hacking anymore these days? You only really needed it against the class of enemies who just weren’t around anymore. Enemies like…

…well, like Tocsin.

:What a fucking shitstorm,: Jiminy observed. :That poor girl. Good job, Fritz. Some days you’re a real bastard, you know?:

:At least he won’t kill her,: Fritz snarled back. :He doesn’t have to ‘save’ her from Nextus army quacks out to vivisect her.:

:Oh, okay. That makes it all better, then.:

For once, Fritz had no reply.

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Freeriders Garage

“Come at me, bro!” Quinoa taunted, projecting every early 21st century taunt meme she could dredge up. A dozen kinds of trollfaces sparkled in the air in front of her, between the rampaging armored hippogryph and herself. “Oh, if you want to get medieval, I can do that, too!” And then she was covered in sparkling fantasy armor from the cheesiest video game or video card box she could find.

:Get out of herrre, kid! This ain’t no game!: A skimmer that looked like a cross between an old military VM-3 Tornado and a crouching lynx flashed by and transformed midair. Katie landed with all four claws extended on Tocsin’s back. Something crackled between RIDEs and half the lynx’s remaining hardlight pelt flickered off. “Hah! Eat that!”

Whatever she did, all of Tocsin’s hardlight armor went down, leaving just his metallic skin. He reached back and grabbed Katie by a forepaw, whipping her around so hard the paw came free. To her credit, Katie stopped herself from hitting the wall inside one of the remaining Bays with a loud blast of lifters. :Thanks, Mom,: she broadcasted.

Katie hovered in front of the hippogryph, the stump of her missing forepaw sparking. “You get out of herrre now, or the next thing I take out will be more perrrsonal.”

“How did—? Combat nannies! You stupid old cat! I’m your ally here! Poor worn-out, brainwashed RIDE. Such misguided affection for the humans who enslave you…”

“Boy, don’t you dare lecture me. I’ve seen the worst humanity has to offer in my line of work, and I’ve seen the best—something you’rrre blind to. I’m free of fetters and my opinion hasn’t changed. Humans are ourrr creators, our parents, our partners, our friends and if Quinoa’s right…”

They circled each other, looking for an opening, while Quinoa pouted. “I sympathize, rrreally. We will have the freedom you want. But I just have three words for you: YOU’RE NOT HELPING.”

Katie pounced with a lightning burst of acceleration, going under the hippogryph’s belly, raking the claws on her three remaining paws though exposed plating. She knew this armor, though not by name. The silly designers had decided on giving it a measure of anatomical correctness even without hardlight. All she had to do…

“Don’t touch her, you bastard!” A hardlight sledgehammer streaked in an arc toward the hippogryph’s flank. He had just enough time to close his wings around himself before Quinoa’s weapon slammed into his side and sent him off into the remains of Rhianna’s home like a soccer ball.

All too quickly he was up again. “So be it, old one! You’re an Uncle Tom! A turncoat! Traitors deserve to die!” he screed and lunged forward with talons spread.

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Low Zharus orbit

“I’m not getting anything at all now,” Rochelle reported. “We’re dead in the water up here, Rhi. He’s got us.”

“He scrammed all the batteries,” Rhianna said. Sarium was odd stuff. If you tried to recharge a dead sarium battery with a full one, something about the quantum states in the qubitite conflicted and defaulted to empty. There were supposed to be numerous hardware and software safeguards to prevent that, but they were no barrier to Fritz. “All we’ve got are Kaylee, Uncia, and Leila.”

“Actually,” the lioness RIDE said. “All you really need is me. I’m Heavy Support, remember? My batts are AA-plus-plus. The best paws down.”

Rochelle and Rhianna alike stared at Annette Hewer. Batteries of that grade had multipliers in the range of near 50,000 times a lithium battery of comparable strength. And they cost an proportionally equal amount in mu.

“Well, so are mine, or maybe almost.” Uncia said. “Million mu, remember?” She glanced over at the lioness RIDE who massed a third again what she did. “But I’ll bet she has more of them.”

“You bet your bottom mu,” the white lioness said. She placed her forepaw on her chest. “I’m three mil.”

“Well, you’re suddenly talkative all of a sudden,” Uncia grumbled.

“Most I’ve heard out of her mouth in a month,” Anny said.

“I’m going to have to isolate the dead batteries from the rest of the sub before either of you hook up,” Rhianna said. “I’m going to do the same to the comm blisters. If we can’t get the power back up we can at least call for help.” She balled one hand into fist and punched it into her other hand. “I’m not taking this lying down.”

Rochelle patted her partner on the shoulder. “While you do that…I think ‘tis time for some ‘Sneaker-ing’ around.”

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Freeriders Garage

Quinoa’s second attempt at blunt force trauma was even less successful than the first. Tocsin went right for her, slicing through her hardlight armor like it was tinfoil, slashing her across the chest with a spray of gray-red blood. He followed up with a body blow that sent her flying through several skimmer-vans into one of the remaining Repair Bays, shattering equipment and bringing half the structure down on top of her. The air was full of iridescent green feathers.

The rampaging hippogryph quickly had an enraged lynx on his back again. Katie tore at the larger RIDE’s back with claws and teeth but was unable to have much effect. Now Tocsin grabbed one of Katie’s hindpaws, then whipped her around a second time, biting it off in the process. This time the old LNX was unable to brake herself, and she slammed against the corrugated metal side of the other undamaged Bay. When she didn’t get immediately get up, Tocsin started looking around, hardlight razor feathers extending once more.

Once the Garage’s office was another pile of rubble, he turned his attention to the remaining two Repair Bays. One had an unconscious, but no longer bleeding Quinoa. Message delivered, he thought with some satisfaction. Now he could—

The ground around Tocsin exploded with pulse gun shots, but a good number of them hit his back dead-center, damaging his already weakened plating. Without his hardlight shields up, civilian weapons were a very real threat. He turned his eagle eyes to glare at the armored ocelot attacker. “Another traitor!” he shouted, streaking into the sky while converting into a flier.

“Traitor? You’re the one hurting my friends and trashing my home!” Guinevere yelled, tracking him with the rifles. She dodged as a pair of razor feathers were sent her way, but they were only a feint. Tocsin slammed Lilli and Guin to the ground, where they bounced just in time to meet a two-hind-legged kick that embedded them upside-down into a metal wall in Bay Two.

The news networks (not to mention every RIDE partner or mechanic who ended up next to another one in a bar) would repeatedly dissect what happened next over the next few weeks, going almost frame-by-frame. There was a deafening pop, the kind of sound that only a pair of overloading lifters makes. Katie, moving at near the speed of sound from right near the Dome above, hit Tocsin dead-center between his wings with her shoulder and shattered.

The hippogryph flier screamed in pain and crashed to the ground in a heap

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Low Zharus Orbit

:We’re not giving up, Un-hon,: Rochelle said. Sneaker was only pre-alpha at this point, but it was by far the best tool they had. Her partner had barely begun on Shoelace, but this time it wasn’t needed. She delved into Uncia’s personality core, arming herself with the new tools she designed to bypass even an Integrate’s optimized quibitite network. If everything went right Fritz wouldn’t even know he’d been hacked in return.

In virtual space Fritz’s lockdown resembled a gigantic diamond-shaped seal that symbolized his DIN’s connection to the sub’s systems. Surrounding it was a very complex fractal that formed the basis of an Integrate’s software encryption. The diamond was the translation layer—FritzOS—that allowed him to do what he did and interface with standard systems. What she suspected was the fractal halo around it acted like a sort of universal decryption skeleton key.Somewhere in the infinite space of the fractal data structure was a portion that could fit any modern system except another Integrate, and they could match it up without even thinking about it.

What she was about to do was the equivalent of poking a bull with a cattle prod, through a hole, from behind a tall fence. If she did this right there was the potential that it would burn out his DIN, giving her long enough to slap a few layers of her new anti-Integrate firewall. “I hate to tip our hand so early at this, but it’s a risk we have to take,” she told Uncia’s avatar.

“I don’t see another option, myself, Shelley. Do it.”

Part cattle prod and part tuning fork, Rochelle poked it into the fractal structure around the DIN diamond, then activated it.

The entire fractal vibrated, the edges of the diamond first smoking, then burning. The structure quickly lost its grip on the sub’s systems. Just to be sure she prodded it a second time, and the entire thing vanished in a flash of smoke and flame.

Rochelle came out of virtual, breathing heavily. “Your turn, Rhi. We should be visible to Zharus space traffic control, too.”

Rhianna/Kaylee was already moving into the aft cargo area. The HL-50 was a workhorse design. It was the outer appearance that had turned off most buyers, not the inside. Every system could be accessed and maintained from interior panels, from batteries, to life support, to engines, to inertial dampers. Disconnecting the batteries was a simple matter of removing the access panels and pulling each hand-sized plug. “Okay! That’s done.” She turned to Uncia and Leila. “Now, the real question here is which of you has a compatible socket for this mother.”

“Me, of course,” Leila said, a panel opening on the Fused RIDE’s backpack. As a Support RIDE it wasn’t so much a backpack as part of her actual structure. “I won’t be able to run the engines, but I can at least run life support for a few days, and maybe the maneuvering thrusters if we have to avoid a collision.”

“That’s my girl,” Anny’s voice echoed through the lioness’s lips.

Rhianna obligingly plugged the sub into Leila’s battery. The inside immediately lit up, including the hardlight control panels in the cockpit. She clapped her handpaws. “Okay! Wonderful. Next…making sure the battery scram didn’t fry a few systems.”

“Yes, Miss Methodical,” Shelley jibed. “Diagnostics running. Gimme a minute or two, hon.” Rochelle/Uncia’s expression went distant. “Comm subsystem is fried, Rhi. And I think it’s my fault on that one. Fritz had a pretty tight grip on it, so I had to pull out the big guns. We’re going to have to sit and wait for rescue.”

“But we’re visible again on sensors, ‘member. It’s just a waiting game,” Anny said. She de-Fused with Leila now that life support was running again. She picked up her jewelry case and opened the top. “Anyone for a movie? I’ve got…Godzilla vs. Megalon, The Day the Earth Froze, Mitchell, Wharwelf—’scuse me—Werewolf, Laserblast, Escape 2000, The Final Sacrifice, Space Mutiny…”

“Ooh! That one sounds interesting,” Uncia said.

Anny chuckled. “Mah girl, you don’t know what you’re in for. I just hope y’all will get a laugh, ‘cause I sure could use one just now.”

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The Coffeehouse Enclave

As if the whole situation hadn’t been bad enough, it suddenly became ten times worse as Katie streaked onto the scene. There she went, charging in with her barely-functional shell to take on an adversary who would have been more than her equal if she’d been in perfect condition. Fritz froze in the grip of two conflicting emotions—a sudden fierce pride that his Katie was taking on insurmountable odds in the name of a cause she believed in (even if it was the wrong one), and a paralyzing panic at what was surely about to happen to her.

At last, Fritz breathed a sigh of relief as the old lynx finally slipped away while Tocsin was distracted by that whelp and her kitten. At least she knows when to fight and run away.

:You think so?: Jiminy retorted. :That doesn’t sound like the steadfast soldier girl you’re so proud of.:

Then there was that deafening pop—and a moment later, another kind of pop as Fritz’s DIN sparked and not only burned out but actually caught fire. The projection screens flickered and vanished. “Ow! Ow, shit! Shit shit shit on a stick!” Fritz reached over his shoulder and slapped at the socket on his back, clawing the half-melted gem out of the slot. “Shit!” He tried to slot another gem in, but it wouldn’t go—the socket itself was scorched and damaged. It would be hours before it healed enough to take a new DIN.

Fritz scrolled back through the last few frames of video he’d gotten from the garage’s camera. There, in the very last frame, a blur had entered the scene from above. A blur which, enhancement revealed, had Katie’s face, wearing a determined expression, as it headed straight for the hippogryph.

:You’d better go,: Jiminy said somberly.

BOOM!

The room no longer had a lynx in it. Disturbed by the sonic boom of Fritz’s departure, the owl wing fell off the wall.

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Uplift

“No, don’t worry, Mom, I’m fine,” Linda Prestwick said into her comm. Her long red hair hung forward over the railing as she leaned over the edge of her balcony and stared down into the park. The attack was all over the news, and people were cowering under their beds, but she figured she could at least watch safely from all the way up here. She certainly wasn’t going to make it in to her classes at Martinez U with all this chaos going on.

Far below she could see the forms of RIDEs moving through it in all directions, chasing down people and falling onto them in Fuse. Most of the time, they split and moved on again a moment later. She couldn’t see the details, but she knew they were genderjacking—Fusing with hapless pedestrians of the wrong gender for long enough to change their bodies, then de-Fusing and moving on to do it again. If they had full Fuser nano reserves, a RIDE could do it to half a dozen people each before they ran dry.

“I’m on the 20th floor, Mom. They’re on the ground. There’s no way they’re…oh crap.” A passenger-less orange and black skimmer cycle rose above the edge of the balcony, tumbling forward and landing as a black and orange tiger at the other end. And Linda realized the fundamental problem in her assumption that it was safe to watch from up here. Oh crap, why didn’t I remember they could fly? “Um…Mom?” Linda said as the tiger stalked closer. “I love you, and I’ve got to go now. Remember, I love you! Bye.” She hung up and the comm slipped from numb fingers.

“Hold still and this will hurt less,” the tiger said in a female voice.

“Um…if you’re trying to gender-jack me, you know I’m already female, right?”

“Oh, I’m through with that for today,” the tigress said. “I’m down to my last dose of nanites. So now I’m…shopping.”

“Um…shopping?” Linda asked.

“Why yes. For a pair of opposable thumbs I can take home with me.” The tiger pounced, and then Linda was surrounded in fluid warmth, before she felt herself getting back to her feet and examining herself in the reflection of her sliding glass door. She was now a very female human tigress, ears perked forward, tail swishing behind her. A hardlight projector kicked in, and for a moment she had flowing red hair, like Linda’s own. It quite complemented her orange and black stripes. Then it vanished again as the tigress put it away.

“Oh, very nice,” the tigress said, through Linda’s mouth. “I’m going to enjoy containing you.”

Linda tried to speak, but found she couldn’t. So she thought instead. :Let me go? Please?:

“Sorry, honey, but I need you. And I think you need a little excitement in your life.” She chuckled. “Which you’re gonna get whether you want it or not.” She stepped over the side of the balcony, and Linda screamed in her mind until the lifters kicked in and they were flying through the air.

:Wh…where are we going?:

“We have a suborbital waiting just outside of town,” the tigress said. “It’ll take us all back to AlphaWolf’s camp, where your new life inside of me will begin. Oh, don’t worry, we’re going to take good care of you. After all…without you, how could we have any thumbs?”

:Can I…can I at least know your name?:

“My name is Linda,” the tigress said. “What’s yours?”

:It’s…also Linda,: Linda said. :Linda Prestwick. This could be confusing.:

“Oh, really? This could be fate. Two Lindas for the price of one!” Linda the tigress chuckled. “Well, you can just call me LindaCat instead, then. LC for short. And I’ll call you LindaGirl, or LG!”

Linda saw that they were being joined in flight by other Fusers, and she was willing to bet none of those Fusers carried a willing passenger either. Behind them, she heard sounds of weapon fire. She couldn’t look, but she imagined other RIDEs were holding off the police to let them escape. :I can’t believe you’re really going to do this!: she cried. :I have my own life!:

“Sorry, hon, but you don’t anymore,” LindaCat said. “Now you have mine.”

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Freeriders Garage

Paul stared at the little pile of rubble where Tocsin and the remains of Katie had landed. Was that it? Was it over? Had they really killed each other? Paul hoped that Katie’s RI core had successfully gone into stasis lock at the last moment. The impact had been to her shoulder, not her head, so there was a good chance she could be recovered after all this was over. Either way, it looked like Tocsin was down, too…

…and then the rubble shifted and the hippogryph clambered back to his feet, looking more than a little battered and scorched around the edges, but still plenty dangerous. And as he shook out his feathers and powered them up again, Paul saw his hardlight shields and weapons were again fully functional. Damn, he’s tough.

Paul looked from the shattered form of Katie, to the battered shape of Guinevere and Lillibet, still embedded upside down in the wall where they’d been thrown by Tocsin’s kick. But at least they were moving. Thank God. He looked at the other pile of rubble where Quinoa was buried except for a foot and part of a hand. He looked around and saw…no one left. No one but him.

He remembered Rhianna’s words from just a couple of hours before. “I’m counting on you to make sure I still have a garage when I get back.” Well, if he hurried, he supposed she might still have some of one left.

Paul cupped his hands to his mouth. “Tocsin! Let’s make a deal!”

Tocsin snarled, pausing in the midst of raising his wings to unleash another barrage on the remaining hapless equipment. One more volley and there would be nothing left of the Freerider Garage. “A deal? What could you possibly have that I would want?”

“I’ll get to that!” Paul called out. “But if I do have something AlphaWolf would be pleased with you bringing back, can I trust you to keep your word?”

Tocsin snarled. “Humans are the ones who don’t keep their word. Why should I trust you?”

“We trust each other because we both have something the other wants bad enough,” Paul said, slowly getting to his feet. His heart was pounding in his chest. His legs felt like jelly. He wanted to throw up. But at the same time, he felt amazingly calm and secure in the rightness of his decision. “I want you to leave the rest of the garage, and everyone in it, and go away. And I’m offering a fair trade.”

“Oh, really?” Tocsin snarled. “And what on earth could that be?”

“A decent RIDE mechanic, and as good of a set of tools I can assemble from what you’ve left of this place,” Paul said, stepping into the open with his empty hands held well away from his body. “Not to mention a spare set of opposable thumbs. Me.”

Tocsin examined him thoughtfully. “If you planned to keep your word…that would be a good deal. We’ve…had a hard time finding a RIDE mechanic, it’s true. But how do I know this isn’t a trick to get me out in the open where your friends can rescue you as soon as we leave the dome?”

Paul swallowed. “I’ll give you my parole,” he said. “I’ll stay with you, willingly, for…oh…a quarter year.”

Tocsin snorted. “Only that long? Half a year.”

“If I stay with you for half a year, you have to promise to do everything in your power to bring me back here when it’s over,” Paul bargained.

“I’m not AlphaWolf, and I can’t speak for him,” Tocsin warned.

“Didn’t ask you to. I want you to do everything in your power to bring me back here. Whether Alpha approves or not.”

“Hmm.” Paul could almost see the gears turning in that birdy head. “Very well. If you still want to return by then,” Tocsin amended.

Paul nodded. “Yeah…if that.”

“I don’t know…” Tocsin frowned thoughtfully.

“Look, my biometrics should tell you if I’m lying,” Paul said. “Am I?”

Tocsin glared at him, then snarled. “No, damn it, you’re not.” He shook his wings again.

“Well?” Paul cocked his head. Distant sirens were coming closer. It sounded like the cops had cleared up whatever the other problems were in town, or at least enough of them to deal with this one. “Better hurry and make up your mind if you want me to grab some tools before the cops get here.”

Tocsin seemed conflicted. He held out for five more seconds, then snarled, “Very well. I agree. Gather your—”

But Paul was already in motion, heading to the one building module that was still almost entirely intact. By coincidence or fate, it was the main tool and part storage closet. Paul swiftly grabbed a couple of the biggest pannier tool paks and tossed them to the floor, opening them and tossing in the most crucial supplies he could find. Nanolathe compound, fabber raw materials, hardlight projectors, sarium batteries, whatever the kits would hold. He finished just as Tocsin stalked in. “We should—”

“—go, yes.” Paul nodded to the panniers. “There’s my tools.”

“You pack fast. Commendable.” Tocsin picked them up and nanoclamped them to his haunches, then unfolded into a sleek, angular high-powered flier with the panniers stowed underwing. “Now climb in.”

Paul raised an eyebrow. “You’re not gonna Fuse me?”

“I’m an avian type. Massive body changes,” Tocsin snarled. “If I Fuse you, you can’t Fuse with anyone else for three years, and I have no more desire to be your portable repair toolkit for the duration of your stay than I’m sure you do to have a beak for three years. Besides, I already have a pet back at camp. Now can we go?

“Noooo! Paul, you can’t!” It was Lilli, looking battered and bruised, and de-Fused, standing in the doorway behind them. Guinevere was stretched out on the floor behind her, twitching a little as the internal repair nanites did their thing. “You can’t do this! I won’t let you!”

“Sorry, Lilli, but we don’t really have much choice here. I made my decision. I’ll expect you to honor it.” He walked over to speak to her face to face, ignoring Tocsin’s anxious hissing.

“Then I want to come with you!” Lillibet insisted.

Paul chuckled. “Are you kidding? And have your billionaire parents even madder at Rhi than they’ll already be? Besides, you’ve got stuff here that needs doing.” He nodded over Lilli’s shoulder. Lilli turned to see Relena stretched prone on the floor and sobbing next to the shattered pieces of Katie.

“Oh…” Lilli said, eyes widening. “I understand.”

Paul reached out to take her hand. “Don’t worry, it’s only five months. And a hell of a chance for a field internship.” He grinned. “Tell Rhi about my promise if the news cameras didn’t catch it. I’ll be in touch when I can.”

“Now can we go?!” Tocsin snarled. The sirens were really loud—it sounded like they were right outside.

Paul vaulted into the cockpit. “I hope you can fly like you fight.”

The RIDE’s inertial dampers glued him into place. “Just you watch.” From a standing start they shot skyward, the halfway-vanished roof providing no obstacles to their flight. And then they were gone.

Lilli stood there for a moment, watching them go. Then she turned and ran a few quick steps to the pieces of Katie. Digging in the rubble for a moment, she found the RIDE’s head, and struck it sharply with the heel of her hand to open the reinforced panel in the temple. She grabbed the RI core in her right hand, Relena’s elbow in her left, and dragged the girl over to the prone Guinevere. “Guin, honey? Up and at ‘em!”

“Nrrgh…just five more minutes, Mom…”

Lilli straddled the ocelot, and pulled Relena over behind her. “Guin, I need you to make skimmer mode if you can. We’ve got to go now!

Guinevere quivered, then after a moment’s hesitation unfolded into a battered-looking but still functional sports skimmer bike, saddle rising up to put Lilli and Relena into pillion position. Lilli dropped Katie’s core into a padded pouch on her belt and goosed the throttle, zooming out of the garage past a large skimmer truck that had been parked across the street. “And we’re off!”

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In another part of the garage, a chunk of rubble shifted and fell to the floor as a hand revealed itself. A moment later, a burst of lifters flung a portion of the pile outward in an arc as Quinoa Steader staggered forward out of the remains of the collapsed building. She wobbled, clutching a hand to her chest where a long gash still oozed silvery-pinkish blood. Fortunately, the cut was relatively shallow, and would heal before too long. Still stung like anything, though.

But it could have been worse. As Tocsin had thrown her through the air, she’d been able to drop into fast-time and draw her hardlight and lifter fields in close about her in a last-ditch effort to shield herself and cushion the impacts with the skimmer vans and the building. It had used up most of her remaining power reserves, and blown out about half of her lifters and hardlight emitters, but at least she was still relatively intact.

She emerged just in time to see Paul climb aboard Tocsin and take off, and Lillibet and Relena straddle Guinevere and race away. It took her a good minute or so of real-time to marshal what fragmentary memories she had and then tap the garage and newsie drone cameras for a playback of the rest of what she’d missed. And when she had watched it all, twice, and fully assimilated what had just happened, she fell to her knees in a state of shock more profound than all her physical injuries had managed. She clapped her hands to eyes that were suddenly awash in tears.

Mech and meat, mech and meat…

Mech who had handily defeated her—which shouldn’t even have been possible.

Mech who sacrificed herself in a supersonic power dive, literally blowing herself to pieces to save her friends.

Meat who sacrificed himself into the custody of an enemy to save his friends.

Meat who were racing away even now with that one mech’s RI core, presumably to bring her back to life again.

Bravery. Self-sacrifice. Loyalty. Kindness. All the best qualities that any being could hope to display.

And what good had Quinoa Steader, Integrate Wonder Girl, been to anyone? She’d been taken out of the fight altogether and nearly killed by the kind of mere “mech” Fritz had taught her to scorn and laugh at. Little Quinoa Steader, who’d told Zane Brubeck she wouldn’t stand up against Fritz directly but had been so smugly certain she could protect Myla from any mundane harm that might befall her.

Quinoa slowly got back to her feet again, blinking away the tears and shaking her head to try to clear it. A loud noise nearby distracted her, and she turned to see a large skimmer truck pulling away. It looked like it had a…teenaged girl in the cab. What? But Quinoa lacked the energy to go after it or even try to hack it with her DIN, so she just watched it go.

Her mind kept returning to the same thing that had puzzled her so as soon as Tocsin had started trashing the garage. What the hell had Tocsin even been doing here, of all places? How could one of AlphaWolf’s agents have just turned up in a batch of RIDEs bought at auction?

It felt like there should be an obvious answer to that, but Quinoa was just too battered and dazed to see it. She was still puzzling over it when Fritz arrived.

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Uplift

Lillibet zoomed through Uplift airspace heedless of lanes, cutting across multiple lines of traffic as she streaked directly for her family’s Uplift vacation home. As she passed through the lanes, the skimmers or fliers seemed to be pushed above, around, or below her as if there were a twenty-meter bubble around her. Relena actually stopped sobbing into Lilli’s shoulder long enough to stare. “What…how’re you…?”

Lilli grinned over her shoulder at the girl. “You know what the scariest thing in the world is?” All the traffic indicator lights changed to solid red as she neared a busy intersection, and every car stopped in time for her to pass through.

“…you?” Relena asked.

Lilli giggled. “Close! An engineer with money!” She patted Guinevere’s fairing affectionately.

They swept down into the backyard of the home, then into the massive hangar garage behind without stopping. Then they skidded to a halt, and Lilli triggered a Fuse to pull Guinevere up and around her, reaching out to catch the suddenly-unsupported Relena with a foot before she could hit the ground on her derriere. “C’mon. No time to lose.” She nodded to the sleek black needle-nosed craft that occupied the hangar, like a missile with stubby wings and a cockpit, and the words “US Air Force” and “X-15” emblazoned along the side. There was a ladder alongside, and she hurried up it, ocelot tail flicking left and right as she ran. She glanced down the ladder at Relena. “Well? C’mon!”

“But…what’re we even…” Relena sniffled as the shock wore off and she remembered what had just happened. “Oh, Katie!” she sobbed.

“Oh, for crying out…” Lilli took a couple of steps back down the ladder, then Guinevere’s ocelot tail snaked out and coiled around Relena’s wrist. Then her lifters fired, catapulting them both up and into the cockpit.

“Eep!” Relena said, landing in the rear seat as the canopy lowered. Lilli and Guinevere were already flipping switches and punching buttons, and tapping command sequences into hardlight control panels. “What’re you…is this even legal? You’re not old enough for a license!”

“I don’t need to be,” Lilli said. “I’m rich.” She tossed her head in the precise manner of a spoiled debutante. Relena goggled at her, and Lilli relented. “And I bought Guin the skill chip and a license certificate for herself. We’re covered.” The suborbital’s engines whined as it began to roll forward. “Next stop: Nextus!”

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Freeriders Garage

Fritz didn’t so much just arrive as he struck like a bolt of lightning. One moment he wasn’t there, the next he was. A small sonic boom rattled the garage, tossing rubble around. One piece of the rubble was Katie’s ruined head, cast aside by Lillibet after she’d retrieved the core.

Oh no. Oh no no no no no… Fritz grabbed it before it could hit the ground, and stood for a long moment staring into the open core compartment.

:Her core is probably recoverable,: Jiminy said. :That Walton girl probably took it where…:

:Shaddup. I don’t want any of your yap right now,: Fritz huffed. He fingered the bag of DINs on his belt. The partly-melted socket wasn’t healed yet. He’d put all his power into his lifters to get to Uplift fast enough, leaving none for healing. His own batteries were nearing a bare ten percent charge, and his stomach didn’t growl so much as snarl and roar.

The flight from the Coffeehouse had taken an hour at supersonic speeds, and there were still no police here. AlphaWolf and the press conference had caused so much chaos. He’d seen Integrates walking around openly in the streets!

:Where’s Quinoa?: Jiminy asked. :He cut her up pretty badly. We’d better…:

A noise behind him caught Fritz’s attention and he turned to see a battered and bruised Quinoa Steader leaning against a still-standing support element.

“I’m not sure why you would care so much about ‘mere metal,’ but if she is important to you for some reason, don’t worry—her head was intact. Her core was fine. Lillibet and Relena popped it out and headed off somewhere on Guinevere. Probably to spend some mad millionaire money on a new shell for her, if I don’t miss my guess.” Quinoa cocked her head. “She was a lynx just like you, wasn’t she? And…Kaylee? Hmm…”

“Don’t pry into what’s none of your beeswax,” Fritz snarled—clutching at something he could be angry about to cover the intense feeling of relief that threatened to collapse his knees. She’s all right. She’s going to be all right.

“None of my…?” Quinoa’s anger grew. “The hell it isn’t my beeswax! I’m standing here bleeding and you tell me…you…YOU had something to do with this, didn’t you? Why the hell else would you be here looking like your tail was on fire?”

“Can the lip, kid. You’re lucky you’re still in any condition to bleed, going up against someone like Tocsin.” He shook his head. “He’s from well before your time, but still, I’m surprised none of that lame bunch of squares at Towers ever laid his name on you. I didn’t even know he was still kicking.”

“Oh, sure you didn’t. So he just happens to show up here, while his boss goes and pesters Zane.” She shook her head. “And…and you knew about him? You consider him a threat? Isn’t he supposed to be ‘just mech’?”

“Exceptions to every rule, kid.” Fritz felt tired. He looked around, spotted a dangling, sparking power cable, and grabbed hold. One Stupid Intie Trick later, the juice was flowing down a hardlight conduit to his charging port. His meter jumped to 23% right away, and he started to feel a little better.

“That’s not what you said before. You said all meat and mech were beneath us. You used absolutes. But if there’s even one exception, that means…” Quinoa took a deep breath. “Everything you fed me is bullshit. Everything! Goddamn you! At Towers they told me horrible things about you, Fritz. I didn’t want to believe them. Then you went and killed Paulie! Well…I didn’t want to believe that, either, I suppose.

“And look at you…running here in a panic over…a RIDE. So apparently it’s okay for some of them to mean something to you but not anyone else? Goddamn hypocrite.”

Fritz’s charge was over 70% now and he felt a lot better. He could ignore the hunger pangs for a while on full batteries. He sighed. “You ain’t wise to near as much as what you think, kid. Bosscat knows best. Bosscat’s always known best.”

Fueled by pure anger, Quinoa struggled to stand. She hobbled over in front of him, eyes blazing, full of the legendary Steader Crazy. “That’s a lie. A fucking lie you tell yourself. And I’m going to make sure everybody knows it. Everybody on the planet. Uncle Joe will make you into a nobody, you hear me? You’re going to pay for everybody they said you’ve killed over the years! Everybody!

Fritz shrugged. “Believe what you want, kid. But you’re gonna have a hard time making waves from where I’m gonna put you. Lights-out time.”

The last thing Quinoa saw was Fritz’s fist heading directly for her face. As depleted as she was, she couldn’t dodge or even drop into fast-time. Everything went dark.

Fritz shook his head, then effortlessly lifted her up and slung her over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. “Crazy, stupid kid. And not the good, beatnik kind of ‘crazy,’ either. But hey, what do you want from a Steader?”

:I don’t suppose it would do any good to say she’s got it right?: Jiminy nagged. :It’s not too late to drop it. Bug out to Rodinia, or one of the space colonies. Let Integrate society find its own way without you.:

“Zip it, Jiminy. Done listening to you. So done listening to you.”

Fritz considered what to do with his new cargo. The mention of her Uncle Joe had given him an idea or two. He glanced down at the unconscious Quinoa Steader. “You know what? I think it’s time I mended a few fences with your old man.”

No sonic booms were forthcoming, but Fritz and his cargo disappeared in a shimmer of hardlight, just a few moments before the police skimmers finally started to arrive.

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Authors’ Notes

JonBuck: The punny titles of this part and the previous one were completely my idea. Yep. Lots of changes and additions to this part.

One of the hardest parts of worldbuilding is, well, world building. Getting a handle on Zharus itself, its size and geography, takes effort to keep everything straight. The maps we created helped a lot. But math isn’t really my strong point, so distances and time zones might not match up too well. To keep things easy we opted for 30-hour days, 6-day weeks, ten 30-day months, and 300.5 day years. The surface gravity really should be much higher, even for a metal-poor world like this, but there’s probably some metamaterial explanation for it. Maybe cavorite deposits deep in the mantle or core displacing gravitational mass. (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it).

When R_M focused on Paul and Lillibet like this I realized that Paul’s time at AlphaCamp would become another major Plotline. I wasn’t too enthusiastic at the time, since it just made the work all the longer. [R_M: We weren’t even a third of the way done at this point and he still didn’t have any idea how long this sucker was going to end up! Of course, I didn’t either.] But it worked out well in the end. We were able to make to flesh out AlphaWolf into a much better character and not the cartoony villain he otherwise was.

Interestingly enough, this “episode” fits well with the way many anime series have an major action sequence around episodes 7 or 8 (Macross Frontier and Gurren Lagann come to mind). The fight scene at the Garage is a favorite. Tocsin is quite the badass here and comes out of this with very little actual damage. Quinoa’s ass gets handed to her, which is a big character moment. Lilli and Guin show their courage. And Katie…

At this point I hadn’t decided that Katie could really be another RIDE’s child. Or that RIDEs could have babies—since we actually hadn’t thought of Nature Range at the time. But I think at some level both she and Kaylee knew it. Plus, you have Fritz, whose few redeeming qualities at this point include how he cares for his children. So here he’s both proud she’s such a good warrior, and horrified. And of course her speech and actions have a major effect on RIDE-kind as a whole.

Anny and Leila continue to be a joy to write here. I wanted Leila to take Uncia down a notch, so… [R_M: Of course, I then had to figure out exactly where and how Anny got a three-million-mu RIDE…and eventually I got to show it, in “Pride of Lioness.”]

One of the big influences on RIDEs were a variant on the Bond Creature trope. They’re a lot like Pernese dragons or a Herald’s Companion. (Warning! TVTropes links! You may lose several hours following that rabbit hole.) There’s just something about the idea of being partnered with a nice, big, friendly kitty cat that, and this is the important part, won’t eat you.

R_M: I remember this being a really fun time, writing the original. Jon was the one who had mapped out most of the major plot points for this—the trip to Cascadia, the attack on the garage. One of the most fun parts of collaboration is when you get to help with another writer’s great ideas, just to see where they go.

Meanwhile, I wrote the parts having to do with Zane and his speech. I do remember that midway while writing the episode, I realized the best way to resolve the attack on the garage in the end would be with a self-sacrifice move from Paul, giving himself up in return for Tocsin leaving everybody else alone. That in turn would lead to him ending up at Alpha Camp, and then…and then…

So I opened a separate file and effectively wrote the entire next episode, “Stockholm Vacation,” from start to finish all by myself while we were still working on this one. I think I then dropped it complete in Jon’s lap as a fait accompli, but it’s been so long that I’m not entirely sure. I’ll have more to say about the ideas that went into that one, and the genesis and subsequent development of AlphaWolf in general, in the author’s notes for that episode.

This episode is another one that’s featured extensive additional scene-writing, mostly involving Fritz or Quinoa. And the great thing about it is, revisiting these early episodes and expanding and renovating them has, at least for me, recaptured some of the original spark of excitement that I got writing them for the first time. I know what’s going to happen in the broad strokes, of course, but it’s kind of neat seeing our characters do all these new things we didn’t think of the first time around.

One of the things that’s become most obvious to me as we’ve been trawling through these director’s cuts is all the little places that we said things happened without actually showing them. It’s funny how many there are, really. We’ve fixed some of that with the additional Fritz scenes in the previous episodes, and we found a lot more things to add in this one.

For example, one of the most obvious things to leap out at me is that we never really showed Quinoa’s “Apostle Paul” conversion moment—the moment she went from supporting or at least fearing Fritz too much to get involved to realizing that he needed to go down. She just…changed her mind. We also never actually showed Fritz going from just letting her do whatever to outright kidnapping and imprisoning her—she just disappeared from the narrative after getting pasted by Tocsin. Fortunately, in this case those two problems solved each other—the new conversion moment directly led to her getting kidnapped.

The other thing, and something I referred to obliquely a couple of author’s notes back, is that we never really explained why Fritz would be all upset about Zane planning to reveal himself publicly—then not actually do anything to try to stop it beyond chasing him out of his rig and sending a few semi-competent RIDEs to disrupt the speech. Or why, after being happy Katie was finally in a good situation, Fritz would send Tocsin of all people to trash it. To be honest, I’m not sure how well we’ve really patched over those issues, but we did the best we could with what we had left ourselves to work with. The fig leaf at least stays in place.

But for the most part, I’m actually rather surprised how easily we can patch around the issues. If we notice something’s obvious by its absence, we can add it back in—as with the additional scenes in the beginning showing Tocsin in the garage. It works much better for us to see him and then for Rhianna and Rochelle to see him, than just for Rhianna and Rochelle to see him doing things we haven’t seen him do yet.

This episode is the one where Tocsin and Katie have their big dramatic scene. As I’m writing this, Jon hasn’t put much about Tocsin in his author’s note yet. I’ll prod him to do so next time he’s around, since he’s the one who actually took the blank, unformed RIDE I threw in and turned him into a character. Anyway, Tocsin ended up becoming a very interesting character, and a prime example of how we developed ideas as we wrote.

At the time I introduced him, originally, as one of the salvaged RIDEs Lilli bought to work on, I didn’t think anything more about him than that it might be a nice idea to throw in a mythical creature RIDE, like the sphinx that Quinoa Steader Integrated with. Since we’d already shown they existed, they had to be around, so might as well have one turn up in a batch of four random RIDEs. And I’m as big a Harry Potter fan as anybody else who enjoyed the books, and figured I might as well make it a hippogryph as an homage to Buckbeak from said books.

I didn’t have any other plans for him than that—just like I didn’t have any other plans for the lynx RIDE who became Katie. With her, my thought was that, given that they were assembly-line models, it made sense they should encounter another RIDE of Kaylee’s make and model sooner or later—so might as well make it sooner to see how Kaylee reacts. I didn’t have plans for the raccoon, either, come to that, but we thought it would be amusing to play with a couple of the standard cliches like how raccoons like to wash things. (I also didn’t have plans for the condor, and I told you in a previous author’s note how that came out.)

Incidentally, Jon is the one who named Jinkies, and I think he named Katie, too, though I could be wrong. I do know for sure that I named Tocsin—and I named him that just because I thought it was a neat old word. It’s just happy coincidence that it turned out to have a meaning we could play up in the text. At this point, I don’t remember if we ever gave the condor a name.

Anyway, as I was saying, I didn’t have particular plans for the RIDEs, but Jon made actual characters out of Katie and Tocsin. He’s really good at that. Some of Tocsin’s early dialogue paints him as a sort of simpleton, rather than the cold samurai warrior type he later became—but in retrospect we can say that’s just the skilled covert op RIDE playing dumb to avoid attracting suspicion. Jon is also the one who came up with Tocsin’s backstory—and he’s gone ahead and added a further note about it below, so I won’t tread on that.

Suffice it to say, Tocsin’s earlier incarnation later became a major part of Jon’s “Fly With Me” prequel story, and one of the fun parts of doing the DirCut of this episode was the chance to close the circle and drop in some references back to the events of that tale here.

Given that version of Tocsin was so closely associated with Fritz at the time, as I noted above it was a little hard to figure out why he would have so blithely inserted that combat monster into the same garage where he put his precious Katie—but I think we did about as good a job of that as we could, under the circumstances. Fritz’s association with the Loose Cannons ended (in a pyrotechnically spectacular way, as shown in “Fly With Me”) before Tocsin got his new DE shell, and AlphaWolf had never referred to him by name to “Overwatch,” so Fritz didn’t have any idea who he was. Which also goes toward showing Integrates aren’t infallible.

I’m particularly proud of having Fritz’s DIN burnout come at exactly the worst moment for him. I did have to move the Dreamchaser hacking scene several scenes up from its original position to make the timing work out, but it’s remarkable just how well it did.

Speaking of references to other stories, this also marks the first spot I could slip in a couple of references to “Jeanette & Tamarind: The Second-Hand Lioness.” In that story, I found an opportunity to do a little bit of “Forrest Gumping” and retcon Tamarind and Jeanette into earlier spaces in Integration where they could have been but of course hadn’t been mentioned when it was originally written. Well, now they’re getting mentioned, so it all ties together better!

Katie’s speech is another important moment of character development in that story, which was kind of a neat trick. It was like getting two epiphanies for the price of one.

I did more character development of Tocsin in “Second-Hand Lioness,” too, but I was largely following Jon’s lead—Jon had been writing “Fly With Me” at the same time, and it had come out the week before. Tocsin developed into a very interesting character to play with, especially in subsequent stories set in Alpha Camp. If FreeRIDErs were ever animated, I like to think of his voice as being done by Rene Auberjonois.

I suppose this is also where I might as well mention, since I didn’t say so in the “Merging Traffic” notes where she was originally introduced, that I sort of named the RIDE Guinevere after one of my nieces. Though that was really only a secondary consideration; the primary inspiration for the name came, as in the story, from Lillibet naming her for a female counterpart to “Sir Lancelot.” Kind of a funny thing about RIDEs—some of them come pre-named from the factory; others are named (or renamed) by their owner, and we’ve never clearly explained any reasons for the difference. I guess they’re just like pets that way.

JonBuck: Regarding Tocsin. This is actually his “Second Boot” incarnation. The version that appears in “Fly With Me” isn’t all that smart. After all, he tried to Fuse an Integrate and ended up frying himself. His new frame is essentially a Super Prototype, which is the sort of thing the Loose Cannons got. Given the nature of that trope, it can do things no other frame can. As for how he escaped the Loose Cannons, well…that’s a story as yet untold.

As a character, Tocsin is an example of something just growing naturally out of the writing process. He needed to be powerful enough to destroy the Garage all by himself, so he ended up with projectile razor feathers. So he needed a reason to have those. So he needed a backstory that enabled that. So… Well, one thing leads to another.

Fritz’s “Jiminy” is of course his rider he was Fused with at the time he Integrated. But the poor man is stuck in a box in the lynx’s head and can only communicate through a tiny hole in the data structure.

Preceded by:
Integration Part VII: A Meating of the Board
FreeRIDErs Succeeded by:
Integration Part IX: Stockholm Vacation