User:Robotech Master/Meat the Press original

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by Jon Buck and Robotech_Master

Part 8: Meat, the Press

Much like Myla’s, Anny’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’nly 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 their 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 the Space Needle, which was still standing on Earth when she’d left. “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 next 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 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, Wilma. 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, Wilma,” 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. :And 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.”

“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 Quin’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 that beat all?: 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 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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“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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“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.

:Good! I preferred that plan anyway. And 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 seemed to slaver over the comm. :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 Nextus military before breaking his fetters and going to AlphaWolf. During his time there his platoon-mates had nicknamed him “Ginsu”. His “real” name, Tocsin, had been chosen because the very sight of him should ring warning bells.

Everything about the state of his systems was a lie. The gimpy leg was fine, the “broken” lifters in perfect shape. 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 them fly.

The original Garage exploded, then crumbled around him.

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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. Mark/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!

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 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 think you said enough,” Myla said. “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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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 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 gettin’ trashed,” Anny said. “What can we do ‘bout it?”

“Space traffic control’s 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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“Where the hell are the police!” Paul shouted from across the street. Once he knew they were being hacked from the inside he’d done his best to get customers and their nonfunctioning RIDEs out, going so far as to have all the Apprentices and regular employees grab the maint cradles directly from the Bays and wheel them out into the street. There wasn’t much he could do about the dozen or so skimmers awaiting repair, but those could be replaced.

Katie and Relena had returned just as the attack started, 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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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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“Come at me, bro!” Quinoa taunted, projecting every early 21st century taunt meme she should 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 she could find.

:Get out of herrre, Quin! 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.

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, the old LNX unit 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 mech! I’m your ally here! Poor worn-out, brainwashed RIDE. Such misguided affection for the humans who enslave you…”

“Boy, don’t you lecture me. I’m older than you. 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 her 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 had appeared right next to 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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“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, apparently put out at no longer being the most expensive thing on the ship.

“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/Kaylee 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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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 sent, he though 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 some of his 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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“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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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?

The sirens were getting louder.

“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 protected pouch on her belt and goosed the throttle, zooming out of the garage past the arriving police cars. “And we’re off!”

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: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 have 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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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 get 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!”

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