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User:Robotech Master/Meetings Completing

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FreeRIDErs story universe


Integration

by Jon Buck, Robotech_Master and Jetfire

Part 19: Meetings Completing

June 18, 123 AL

Anny scrutinized every step of Kaylee’s latest refit. Since her commissioning two years ago the RIDE’s chassis had had loadouts changed once or twice per month, befitting her semi-prototype status. New gear would be tested with the three remaining 001-series before wider deployment to the 002-series on up, who up until just a month ago had been in active combat.

This refit was different than all the others. The RIDEtechs installed two dozen hardlight projectors just inside Kaylee’s exterior plating, and Major Annette Hewer wanted to ensure there were no errors. Two years in and she knew at least as much as the techs did, if not more, from hours of Fuse and a lot of field maintenance.

The big question was, how would Kaylee react? They hadn’t told Anny they were doing this until the briefing just a few minutes ago. Her CO, Lt. Col. Phil Conyers had been apologetic, but insisted it was necessary for the upcoming mission.

They were going to put Fritz away for good this time.

With the end of the War with Sturmhaven had come elections. The old Congress was out, after being duly thanked for winning the war. The new Chief Executive and her Cabinet were far less tolerant of Fritz and his deadly patriot games. They wanted the strange integration of RIDE and man captured or killed—preferably the former, so he could be tried in a military court for treason.

It was being pitched as the last major military operation of the war—a sort of coda, tying up loose ends. Anny had to admit she was rather looking forward to what was planned for afterward. As the need to stay on a war footing was winding down, many RIDEs and their operators would be given the opportunity to transfer to other branches of government service—the Polizia, or even the Materiel Recovery Service—where they would serve as training cadres to help bring those departments up to speed on using the new RIDE technology. Anny supposed that coming face to face with a snarling metallic cat would give any smuggler or tax-evader pause. (Or at least paws.)

The big question on everyone’s mind was how fast RIDEs would spread to the general populace. The RI bakeries were full and the military had depots bursting with unused “spare” DE shells—the existing ones having proved substantially more durable than expected. The new Government was more than a little uncomfortable with the legal status of RIDEs in general. They couldn’t simply be allowed to run free—but with the manufacturing techniques already in the hands of every other major and most minor polities, it was more a question of who would be first to market rather than there not being a market at all.

“What the hell is that, Scooter?” Major Hewer asked the young tech, pointing at a ten-centimeter wide disc that looked like pure qubitite.

“This’ll make you invisible to Fritz’s sensors for a few minutes, or so we think,” Lt. Scooter Pearson said. The man sported red panda tags, and the long, striped, fluffy tail looked a little unwieldy. “Kaylee’ll have the specs when she boots up, Major. Your entire detachment will have them.”

“Well, get that thang installed and button ‘er up already,” Anny said. “I want ta break it to ‘er myself. Doubt she’ll like havin’ fur when we’re Fused after what happened ta Fritz.”

Unfortunately that was largely the point of this operation. Lure Fritz out into the open with the promise of maybe a female of his kind. After what he and Kaylee had done during their time “feral” in the Q-mainframe, she was the natural choice instead of Kandace or any of the later 002-series RIs.

“Okay, she’s ready,” Scooter said, replacing the last armor plate on the mecha lynx’s back. “I want to run the hardlight pelt through a pre-boot calibration cycle first. It’s gonna look a little weird, but this is only the second time we’ve done this—or maybe the third? I think Rattigan’s got a pelt.”

“Do it. Oughta be interestin’,” Anny said. “Start with her head.”

She was long used to Kaylee’s near-expressionless metallic face. Not even her “tufted” (actually, small antennae) ears were mobile. A barely-audible hum came from the RIDE, though her optics remained out. A multicolored mist appeared over Kaylee’s face, then it was a real—if enlarged—head of a tawny lynx, eyes closed in slumber.

Panel by panel, the rest of the RIDE’s emitters came online, slowly covering the animal mecha in a tawny pelt that was visually indistinguishable from an animal’s. Even so, even after Anny’s frequent interactions with Kaylee in VR space, seeing her “in the flesh” was astonishing.

“Still needs some fine-tuning, but I think we’ve got it, Major,” Scooter said. “Want I should reboot her?” At Hewer’s nod, he pushed a few physical switches on the panel next to him.

The first sound out of Kaylee was a thunderous purring, making everyone else in the Refit Shop pause in their work. She yawned, showing a realistic tongue and mouth, and stretched as much as she could in the cradle.

“Kaylee, dear, time ta git up!” Anny said cheerfully.

“Lordy Lord Lordy!” Kaylee purred. “Just another hour please, Anny. Just kick up the time compression…”

“This ain’t VR, honey,” Major Hewer said gently.

The RIDE’s hardlight eyes snapped open. “What? You…damn it! I just read the briefing! With all due respect, Anny, Conyers and Vinnie can suck my stubby tail for this asinine idea! What, do they think Fritz is Pepe le Pew and I’m some damn housecat they can paint stripes on to fool him? He’s an idiot, I’ll give them that, but he’s not a moron.”

“I’d mostly agree with ya, but orders is orders,” Anny sighed. “And they got reasons they’re not tellin’ me for thinkin’ he’d find ya tempting.”

“I’ll just bet they do,” Kaylee said darkly. She had never quite gotten around to broaching the subject with Anny of her mating by Fritz and subsequent virtual pregnancy. It felt too personal to share just yet. Maybe in a few more months.

“Anyway, how ya feel?” Anny asked, trying to keep the concern out of her voice. “No odd notions ‘bout getting skinned if they should wanna turn it off again?”

Kaylee snorted. “Hardly. If they wanted to turn it off right now…” She demonstrated by shutting it down for a few seconds, then turned it back on. “Huh. Well, okay, I gotta admit it does feel kinda nice to have on. Like the difference ‘tween having clothes on an’ walkin’ around stark nekkid in public.” It was actually considerably more profound than that—the difference between being a wind-up toy and being real—but Kaylee was uncomfortably aware that saying so wouldn’t exactly soothe Anny’s fears. “But I’m not about to go Looney Toons if they want to take it away.”

She would be disappointed, though, she realized. But there wasn’t anything she could do about it, so she resolved to enjoy the hardlight pelt as long as it lasted. And who knew, maybe if there were no further problems with it with her, they might let her keep it after the operation. If not, well, there was always later on after she and Anny mustered out together…

“Good ta hear,” Anny said. “So whadaya say we go road-test your new upgrades, pard?”

Kaylee purred again. “Sounds like a plan. Let’s roll out and form up the rest of the squad.”

“See y’all later, ma’ams!” Scooter said cheerfully, wiping his hands on a grease rag. “Good luck.”

The 41st Detached Company was a new unit, formed just after the end of hostilities. It was an odd command as the Nextus military went, a regular army unit composed of soldiers who didn’t quite fit in other commands but had a well-deserved reputation for getting the job done via unconventional means.

They were officially named the Loose Cannons.

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“Oh, yes. Them,” Leah said, the venom in the white unicorn’s voice clear as day. “Of course they’d be involved in this. Hunting down ‘renegade’ Integrates is the whole reason they exist. I believe they were the ones who tried to capture Brena Silverston.”

“They did so at the behest of the young woman’s parents,” Olav Roberts said.

And they tortured and nearly killed another member of my crew,” the Starfleet fox added. “They did that on Fritz’s ‘behest.’”

“We recognize they have taken many questionable actions in the past,” Olav Roberts continued. “However, that was under a prior administration, and the exigencies of the current situation have changed matters considerably. Rest assured, the Loose Cannons have been brought to heel.”

“Is it too much to ask they play dead instead?” Aaron hissed sharply. “Their crimes have only recently come to light, thanks to the Marshals. Sixty feral Integrates hunted down and killed in the past two decades, twice that many imprisoned, experimented on. What the hell were you thinking?”

“These decisions are above even my pay grade,” Roberts said. “Look, I know you want to think of Nextus as the villain here. Our Frankenstein experiments unleashed Fritz upon the world, and our subsequent paranoia destroyed people’s lives. I get that.”

He pushed back his seat and got up, pacing the length of the table as he talked. “Unfortunately, I don’t have the brief to apologize for it on behalf of Nextus, officially. That takes, well, an Executive Act. All I can say is, these decisions were made by people. Fallible people spurred by Fritz’s heinous crimes. People who were worried about their home, their families. People who didn’t have all the facts at the time.” His walk took him back to his own seat, and he placed his palms down on the table and leaned forward against it. “People who, maybe, regret it afterward and want to make it right.

“Remember, we only had Fritz himself to go on. We didn’t know if he was a singular being, or there’d end up more like him. Regardless, he gave us ample reason to fear him. We had to act to protect ourselves. You can’t deny you would not have done the same.” He nodded respectfully at the Integrates at the table.

“As a gesture of good faith, we’re divulging the research we’ve done over the years on Integration and Integrates in general,” Dr. Clemens said. “You can find the relevant files on NextusLeaks as of now.”

Leah’s eyes fogged over for ten seconds or so. Some of her anger faded. “Reviewed, verified, and compared against what we’ve done. You are no farther ahead than we. For the same reasons, perhaps?”

“We’ve long known that Fritz was watching us, and secrets are hard to keep from him. The Cannons could not have done what they did without his consent,” Roberts said. “Their purpose became to maintain the status quo. As you said—” he nodded to the fox “—the Cannons sometimes actively assisted Fritz to silence any Integrate who wanted to go public.”

“To our shame,” Anny snarled.

“But that, at least, stopped some years ago.” Roberts flipped a hand. “Granted, as far as we can tell it only stopped because Fritz lost interest in the outside world, rather than from anything we did—but now that we are aware of it we have taken measures to ensure it never happens again. The new ‘DINsec’ access blockers Misses Stonegate and Seaford have come up with have been invaluable there.”

“What of the Integrates that attacked the Waltons’ home?” Leah asked. “They’re guilty of crimes, no doubt, but we’ve heard nothing since their capture.”

“You’ll have full access to them immediately—and to any other Integrates we have managed to detain. They have not been mistreated,” Roberts said. “Now, shall we continue the replay?”

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Escape and capture was all a game to Fritz. He was necessarily at the center of intelligence gathering, hacking Sturmhaven systems in the field with relative ease, so much so they were reduced to non-networked message drones to carry their communications in some situations. Their alternative was to spam so much misinformation even Fritz had trouble sorting through it—or so he said. Command only gave him access to his Data Interface Normalizer when absolutely necessary.

“This time, y’all, we’re gonna make him come to us,” Major Hewer said to her detachment. “Kaylee and I are the bait. Officially we’re experimenting with hardlight pelts for a wider rollout.”

“Major, that’s screwed up,” Lieutenant Bruges said. The Cannons were loose when it came to respecting one another’s rank. “You just gonna saunter all sexy-like around the park?”

Hewer snorted. “Hardly. This ain’t some damn cartoon. But we’re doin’ the next best thing. We’ve leaked the word where Fritz can hear it ‘bout a shared op with Materiel Recovery. We’re supposedly helpin’ ‘em track down some smugglers sneakin’ in through the Dry.”

“So you’re thinkin’ he’ll show up to try to look all heroic for his lady fair, roundin’ up the nasty ol’ smugglers?” Captain Chang asked.

“I ain’t his lady, fair or otherwise,” Kaylee snarled. “But yeah, that’s ‘bout the size of it. An’ since half of us are gonna be playin’ the smugglers, we’re hopin’ we can take him by surprise when he shows up an’ we both turn our attention on him.”

“What’ll really piss him off ,” Major Hewer added, “is that the parts these guys are supposedly smuggling came from Dry Ocean battlefields. He’s a patriot—he can’t stand that kind of desecration. He won’t be able to resist. Now, that puts y’all playing the smugglers in a pickle.”

“Goddamned arm cannon of his is really the only thing that can still hurt us,” Chang said. “We’ve got some heavy shields that can put up a fight. The real trick will be that new Q-scram weapon out of R&D. He’s sure to pay attention to that.”

“Sucks to be him,” Bruges snarked, his bull elk RIDE turning his metal ears back. “Kill the bastard! Motherfucker killed half my platoon because he just sat on his furry ass and didn’t give us the intel we needed!”

“He’s got a lot to answer for, no bones about it,” Kaylee said. Eight kittens, eight of them that nobody quite knew what to do with. Dr. Patil kept the RI parents apprised of what was going on—the kittens and all the other RIs’ “natural-born” young were due to be transferred from the frozen Q-based mainframe into standard RI cores. Whether any of them would ever learn how they were born was a matter of intense discussion among First Tier Administrators and Dr. Patil herself.

“Then let’s get it done, Major,” Chang said.

“Alright. Briefing over,” Hewer said to the thirty soldiers and their RIDEs in the room. “Gear up, finish prepping. We deploy in three hours.”

In order to play their roles, those Loose Cannons playing the smugglers had their RIDE tags docked and some bio-sculpting done on their faces. How long these measures would fool Fritz was anyone’s guess. It was entirely possible that he already knew the operation was a fake and he would show up anyway. It had happened a couple times before. :He’s always gotta be the hero, Anny,: Kaylee gently reminded her rider. :Even if he goes about it in the worst way.:

:Yeah. Sometimes I don’t think he cares if it even looks real, long’s he can have fun pretendin’.: Hewer replied. :What the hell got into him, anywho? I know plenty a’ RIDEs with their little quirks, but I never heard of one damn other who was out an’ out psychotic that way, you? An’ we’d be in a sitch to know, if anyone. Leastways iffen it happened on our side a’ the war.:

The ambush of the “smugglers” was to take place far enough outside of the city proper that, should anything go spectacularly wrong, collateral damage would be minimized. “The old ‘Abandoned Warehouse’ cliché,” skunk-striped Captain Chang grumbled. His RIDE, like all the others, hadn’t taken his attention off of Kaylee since they’d revealed the new pelt.

It was actually worse than that, Hewer reflected. For all the years she’d lived here, some of the weird turns Nextus’s government took still surprised her. It wasn’t bad enough that they had their own official leaks site, an oxymoron if she’d ever seen one—Nextus also had an “official smugglers’ entrance,” and this warehouse was right on top of it. Apparently the thinking went that it was easier to crack down on the major excesses when you were inclined to wink and nod at the minor ones.

By tacking on stiff additional penalties to any smuggling that went on outside this channel, the Nextus government ensured that only the stuff that was a hanging offense already would go that way. Things like luxury goods or borderline-illegal substances—chocolate from Sturmhaven, weed from Califia—came this way.

The Nextus government would intercept some of it, which it could then either tax or seize and resell itself—but was careful to allow enough through to keep it worth the smugglers’ while to keep using it instead of trying to find some way around. The irony was that it only earned Nextus a little less and smugglers a little more than trading legitimately—but it gave all those people who got a wicked little thrill from buying or supplying black-market goods a way to get their jollies relatively harmlessly.

It also made it easier to pick out the signal—the genuinely nasty stuff, like harmful narcotics—from the noise when all the noise had its own “easy” road into the city. So in some ways this little bureaucratic foible made sense. But it was also one of the things that made Hewer privately dubious about the operation, because the RIDE parts that were ostensibly being smuggled in were one of those things that more commonly eschewed the “easy” route. Would it make Fritz suspicious?

:Ya might’s well stop worryin’ ‘bout it, Anny,: Kaylee said. :Really doesn’t make a difference in the end. As you said, he won’t give a damn if it’s real or not. He’ll show up either way. Might even be more like t’ show if he thinks it is a trap.:

:Yeah, I know,: Hewer sent back. :But you know me. I’m not happy ‘less I’m worryin’ ‘bout somethin’. Worryin’ ‘bout the little things keeps my mind offen worryin’ ‘bout the big things.:

:Fair ‘nuff.:

It was all so damned…half-assed, Hewer thought more privately. But she supposed it fit. When you got right down to it, the whole war had begun in a desultory half-assed kind of way. It made sense it would finish up that way, too.

She still wondered, when she thought about it—which was more often now that she wasn’t out on the battlefield all the time—just what the hell people had been thinking, going to war over some Steader idiot getting his ego bruised that he couldn’t take his sarium batteries offworld with him. It wasn’t quite clear who was more to blame—the Sturmie Valks who’d been looking for a casus belli, or the late unlamented Ophelia Steader who’d been happy to give them one so she could make a packet on war materiels. Rumor had it that some of the Sturmhaven Valkyries were distant Steader cousins themselves, which also wouldn’t have been too surprising.

But either way, a quarter of a million soldiers on both sides had ended up losing their lives thanks to that incident. Although Anny would have died before she admitted it to anyone, Fritz’s butchery of Ophelia Steader was one of the few things she actually wouldn’t have blamed him so much for, if only he hadn’t killed poor Frank and Corporal Hayes while he was at it.

As far as she knew, the Steader idiot with the batteries was still somewhere off in deep space on his grand tour of the Colonies and might not have any idea even now that he’d indirectly precipitated a war. She privately suspected his homecoming might be a bit…prickly. She had tagged his name in her news search bots just to make sure she didn’t miss it when it happened.

But if she was honest, the idiot had just had the misfortune to set off the tripwire on tensions that had been building between both sides for years. Except for the aforementioned Valks and Ophelia, nobody had wanted a war, expected a war, or really been prepared for a war—it had just sort of happened. The continent was big enough that there was lots of room for everyone to live, even two polities as “close together” as Nextus and Sturmhaven. After all, they only looked close on a map, and that was only when you were used to thinking of “the world” as Earth-sized. They were really thousands of kilometers apart—as far apart as Mexico City and New Boston back on Earth. There was no question of war over “living room.”

But that had been before qubitite had gone from nuisance to miracle mineral. Suddenly both polities were claiming all the Q-rich territory they could on all sides—including between them, completely ignoring small-fry Nuevo San Antonio in the middle. As their claimed borders bumped up against each other, a few incidents that resulted in fatalities to either side ratcheted up tensions quickly. And then it was “si vis pacem, para bellum” time.

It had actually been kind of embarrassing how unprepared for war both sides really had been. The first couple of years of hostilities had been amateurish on both sides, like watching a drunken brawl when you were expecting a professional boxing fight. The militaries of both polities had originally been pro forma citizens’ militias, meant originally for keeping the peace in the wide open spaces outside the city. With the sudden strategic importance of Q, their mission had been expanded to include preventing claim-jumping, but neither side had been quite sure how to handle an entire polity deciding to jump a claim.

When it came time to get professional, Nextus had the advantage. Its placid and generally unimaginative nature had strongly appealed to combat veterans of the dozens of brushfire wars on Earth or its closer colonies. When they had sought somewhere quiet to retire, an orderly little community on a distant, peaceful colony that didn’t have anything anybody wanted to fight over must have sounded like just what the doctor ordered. In some cases soldiers from opposing sides ended up living right next door to each other. This had provided a core of veteran personnel who could be conscripted to form training cadres to get Nextus’s personnel up to snuff, and to provide experienced voices of command.

Sturmhaven, on the other hand, didn’t share quite the same appeal to military retirees. The armed forces of most other worlds had been fully egalitarian for centuries, and the tight camaraderie their members developed across gender lines meant that both male and female veterans were likely to look askance at a polity that placed such a strong emphasis on the primacy of one gender over the other. (Hewer understood that Cape Nord had much the same problem, which might have been a problem for them if they actually had anything someone else wanted to fight them for.)

With relatively few veterans to call on, Sturmhaven had to hire mercenaries to train and fight for them—and since there just weren’t many all-female mercenary companies in the galaxy, the polity’s civilians and government inevitably had friction with the personnel they hired—another factor in the Sturmies’ slow start. Hewer sometimes wondered whether the war might have been ended sooner if Nextus had just been a little less cautious about prosecuting it in the early years when Sturmhaven was still having trouble. But hindsight, twenty-twenty, et cetera.

But regardless of personnel, neither side had exactly been the best equipped when it came to fighting out in the Dry where mechanical equipment failed with uncanny alacrity. The problem was that the places with the richest mineral deposits were the very worst to fight in for that very reason. It had been estimated that as many as a third of early deaths on both sides had been caused by malfunctioning equipment rather than enemy fire.

But then had come Dr. Patil’s breakthrough, on top of the other technological accomplishments of the last few years. Sarium batteries, hardlight from Wednesday, and finally RI cores had come together to create the first mechanical units that were completely immune to Q contamination and effectively doubled available manpower. So we could start killing each other directly instead of having our own equipment do it to us, Hewer thought wryly.

And had they ever. Since RIDEs didn’t come in sizes larger than light tanks, this had effectively turned the fight into a largely-infantry war on both sides, like World War I on Earth. There had been no equivalent to mustard gas, thank God—environmentally-sealed suits made that a non-issue—and modern medical nanotech had allowed soldiers to survive wounds that would have killed them just a couple of decades before. But there were still limits.

By the time Sturmhaven realized it could no longer support the mounting casualty count and sued for peace, as many as a quarter million soldiers had died. And neither side really had much to show for it in the end except for bitter experience.

Well, that and these new “miracle machines” that should have as many applications in peace as they did in war, Hewer thought wryly, glancing down at the fur that that covered her and Kaylee’s shared body. They had already revolutionized Q mining as both sides had realized they could build them faster if their human miners were no longer unprotected as well. Now they were entering the civilian market for the first time, and God only knew where that was going to lead.

But another “miracle” had come out of the war in the form of Fritz, and that was what they were here today to contain. Fritz’s merging and advanced abilities had deeply troubled the Nextus brass. Hewer was too far down the ranks to hear everything, but Conyers had confided in her that there had been a lot of argument over whether to attempt to create more “Integrated soldiers” intentionally, using volunteer RIDEs and pilots who were known to be more psychologically stable than Fritz and Captain Ryder. Thankfully, the end of the war had forestalled the debate, but who knew what might have happened if it had gone on? The more desperate the situation, the more desirable the end and the more justifiable the means would become.

And reading between the lines, Hewer was pretty sure that was a big part of the reason they were out here now—to show that they didn’t need more “Integrated” to deal with Fritz. If they could put him down without a problem, then he became less a desirable technological advance than a simple curiosity that could be easily dealt with—and those arguing for additional experiments would lose further ground. Hewer couldn’t exactly say that would disappoint her.

Kaylee broke into her thoughts again. :Look alive—jus’ got the signal. Our “smugglers” are in the tunnel. ETA ten minutes.:

Hewer nodded. :Understood.: She glanced around the warehouse, double-checking that all her soldiers were in position. They were arranged in what looked at first glance like an ambush of the hatch in the floor through which smugglers would emerge. But it would serve equally well in directing unobstructed fire at anyone who entered through the warehouse entrance or skylight—with those who entered through the hatch positioned to provide fire support.

All was in readiness. All it would take would be for Fritz to show up. The problem was, they couldn’t be sure exactly when that would—

“So, what’re we waiting for?” Fritz’s voice purred smugly from right behind Hewer and Kaylee’s left ear. “Smugglers, is it? You needn’t worry about them, dollface. They’re not going to get away.” He paused just long enough for Hewer to feel his smirk radiating like heat from a furnace. “By the way, that’s a very nice new look for you. You should thank me.”

Hewer didn’t quite jump out of her skin, but that was only because Kaylee overrode her reflexes. “Thank you for what exactly?” Kaylee growled.

“Why, because they’d never have given it to you if they didn’t think it would lure me into your square little trap,” Fritz purred from behind Kaylee’s right ear. “Silly of those cubes, really.”

“Well, it worked, didn’t it?” Kaylee said.

Fritz laughed. “It’s gilding the lily. You know I’d have come anyway. And you can tell your murgatroid friends to stop creeping up. I’m wise to ‘em.”

“Are you going to come with us all quiet-like?” Hewer said irritably. “Or do we have to get rough again? The War’s over, Captain.”

“Says you, Major Hayseed. I’ve got enough dirt in my memory banks to blow the War wide-open again. The Sturmies have been up to some interesting things, and the Nextus squares on the outs were no prize, either.” Fritz’s right arm started to glow. “So, let’s just forget all the talk and go straight to the violence. Come on, Kaylee, I need a hostage.”

Kaylee rolled her eyes. “The hard way, then. Catch me if you can, beatnik.” She shut down her hardlight and all external inputs, then powered up the Q-disc. The shock and dismay on Fritz’s face was priceless, he actually reached out in front of him into the space Kaylee had occupied. :It works!:

The Loose Cannons had been put together from soldiers known for their ability to think on their feet and improvise—even if it meant doing something very risky. They were already dropping into “silent running” themselves, falling off Fritz’s sensors as they surrounded him. Fritz snapped his head around, staring left and right in shock.

It didn’t last, however. For all that they were invisible to his sensors, he still knew where they had been and could guess about where they were now. He snapped up his arm and fired a blast from his palm that slammed into Captain Chang and his RIDE and threw them back into the warehouse wall. His other blasts weren’t quite as accurate, but they did send the other Loose Cannons diving for cover.

“This is so not cool!” Fritz growled. “Right! It’s splitsville for this hep cat!” A loud rumbling shook the warehouse, and the smugglers’ hatch flew open as a ball of fire and smoke belched out of it. As the explosion lit the warehouse interior flickering orange, Fritz shot straight up for the skylight.

:Bruges, NOW!: Hewer commed. Lt. Bruges raised the Q-scram rifle and fired. The blast almost missed, but caught Fritz’s left arm. Nonetheless, the result was all Hewer could have hoped for—Fritz screamed in agony and fell out of the air, landing on the warehouse’s cement floor with a thump.

“Ow, shit! Shit, shit, shit!” Fritz yowled, lying on his back and clutching his arm. It was actually steaming, and now looked noticeably smaller than his other one. “You fucking crazy bitches, what the hell did you do to me?!”

“Looks like we clipped your wing,” Hewer said. “You shoulda come quiet-like when you had the chance.” She held out her hand to Bruges, who passed the rifle over. She trained it on Fritz. “Interesting effect. Your arm’s so much Swiss cheese. I wonder what a torso hit would do. Think we should mebbe find out?”

Fritz stared up at her, eyes wide. “You wouldn’t. You can’t—you got orders about me!”

“Yeah? And how many orders you didn’t like have you ever followed?” Hewer asked, her finger tightening on the trigger. “Looks like you were ‘shot while escaping’ to me.”

“Kaylee? Kaylee, you can’t let her do this!” Fritz pleaded.

“Yeah? What reason have you ever given me for not being the one to pull the trigger myself?” Kaylee growled.

“But—but I love you, babe!” Fritz protested. “And what about our k—”

Kaylee aimed the rifle a meter to the left of Fritz’s head and fired. The blast pitted the pavement, coating Fritz’s right cheek with concrete dust. “Don’t you ever mention that! You don’t get to mention that. You made me into an animal, for a year, and then you…you just don’t.

“You didn’t seem to mind so much at the ti—” Fritz swallowed and cut off as Kaylee swung the muzzle back to his face, then seemed to regain a little of his composure. “Look, really—ix-nay on the ooting-shay. Trust me, you wouldn’t like what happened next.”

“And what’s that suppos’ta mean?” Hewer said, her growl matching Kaylee’s for tone.

Fritz smiled shakily. “It’s like I said. I’ve got enough dirt in my memory banks to blow the War wide-open again. And yeah, it’s a cliché, but if I don’t check in on time, it leaks to everyone.”

“If you ain’t got proof, then yer all talk,” Hewer said.

“Okay, then. Here’s a taste, just for you,” Fritz said. “But you’ve gotta let me transmit to you.”

“Do I look like I was booted yesterday?” Kaylee snorted.

“Okay, then. Guess I’ll havta get nasty about it. You should be getting something from Conyers about…now.” Fritz looked up.

Conyers and Vinnie were already overhead. “Stand down, Major! We got trouble. Administration wants to negotiate.”

Hewer felt an icy chill go down her spine. In years to come, she would have time to regret over and over again that she didn’t obey that chill and pull the trigger right then. It might have been a shallow regret, since it was pretty clear in retrospect Fritz had been telling the truth, and if so it might have led to the resumption of hostilities—not to mention the end of her own career and freedom. But then, looking back, it had ended her career and freedom anyway, hadn’t it? There was no getting around it—this was the pivotal moment when there hadn’t been a right choice to make. And Scylla was no more appealing than Charybdis.

But she’d been trained to follow orders. So she lowered the gun and nodded, not sure she could trust herself to speak.

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“On the face of it, the agreement was very simple,” former Secretary Conyers said. “We left one another alone, to mutual benefit. He knew we could track and kill him, we knew what he could spill would cost us dearly in lives and property. The needs of the many and all. We were sick of war, we hated ourselves for what we’d done.”

The Sturmhaven contingent glowered at their Nextus counterparts. “How…noble of you. One wonders what Fritz wanted to make public? What would we think of it, now?”

“To be honest, the dirt he had on both sides has largely come out by now anyway in dribbles and snippets over the years,” Conyers said. “And while there were a few minor controversies and scandals about some of it, nobody thought it was worth a new war by then. Time heals all wounds.” He shrugged. “But by the time Fritz’s infodump lost its threat, other Integrates had appeared in the world, and Fritz had consolidated his power base among them to the extent that taking him out might have meant another full-scale war, with less easily-defined adversaries.” He smiled wryly. “And the passage of all that time had made him seem less important, too.”

“The new guv’ment was skittish and stupid,” Anny said. “They decided my Kaylee was a danger ‘cause she was so closely associated with Fritz, I’m guessin’ because of the kittens and all she did to keep Fritz on his toes for two years. They wanted to scrap her.”

“I couldn’t let that happen,” Conyers said. “Even leaving the moral issues aside, I knew if they did, Fritz would have gone ballistic and we would have been in a war again. We didn’t have any way of blocking Integrates out of our systems in those days, and we veterans were full well aware Fritz was almost certainly still watching every move we made.” He sighed. “But that administration didn’t know Fritz like I did, and any arguments I might have made would have fallen on deaf ears. So, I sent her to purgatory. Excised memories, sent her to the Parts Shed, put an abandon-in-place order on her core. I know how the Nextus bureaucracy works. I know the Game very well. I bet everything on her remains getting surplused out at some future date. She at least had a chance at renewed life.”

He looked down at the table for a long moment. “I tried to keep an eye on things, to see when she finally went on the market—I’d wanted to buy her myself, maybe see about getting her back with Anny again. But I couldn’t watch as closely as I wanted without drawing suspicions, even then. So I missed it when it happened, and, well…it seemed like she’d found a good home, afterward, and Anny’d found Leila, so I figured it might be best just to let bygones be bygones.

“Then Vinnie and I Integrated…and Fritz took a renewed interest in me. But that’s another story.”

“All that hopin’ don’t mean you’re forgiven, bunny rabbit,” Kaylee said. She de-Fused from Anny and padded over. “Getting Ryan—I mean, Rhianna—to restore me was a lucky break. We still got a score to settle.”

Rhianna walked over to stand next to her partner. “Later, Kaylee. After we’ve dealt with Fritz once and for all.”

“Kaylee, you got every right to be pissed off at what happened to you,” Anny said. “To us. Lord knows I’ve been. And while you were asleep most a’ that time, I had to take the long way around. You know how long it took me to get over it, you saw it just now when we Fused.” She shook her head. “But somewhere ‘tween decades two an’ three, I figured out I was—an’ you are—blaming the wrong person. You might just’s well blame me for not killin’ Fritz when I had the chance.” She shook her head. “Only one person needs to get the blame for this, an’ that’s the asshole who caused it. Thanks to Fritz, there weren’t no good choices for none of us to make.”

The lynx mecha growled in the back of her vocoder. “I suppose I’ll get over it. I only just got all my memories back and defragged. Feels all too recent to me.”

AlphaWolf’s mouth hung open in abject horror. “Necessary or not, and I know about having to make difficult decisions, that’s one of the most horrible things to happen to a RIDE I’ve ever heard, Kaylee. Respect.”

“I’m sorry to say that I doubt Administration will ever compensate you, Miss Kaylee,” Olav Roberts said. “Too much internal politicking. That’s just the way bureaucracies are sometimes.” He looked around the room at the gathered representatives, human, Integrate, and RIDE.

“The question now is, since you now all know how events unfolded, how should we collectively deal with this crisis?

“We should make sure we do deal with it collectively, for one thing,” Leah said. “All too often, poor communication kills.”

“He’s a threat to everyone,” AlphaWolf agreed.

“And Fritz isn’t the only crisis we have, either,” Aaron said. “Just the most immediate one. The other one is, hey, look at us. We’re Integrates, we live in communities out in the Dry, and for good or ill we’re not going to be able to hide anymore.”

“Those of us who do live in communities out in the Dry,” Desilu interjected. “Hellir is lucky enough to be situated right inside Cape Nord, which is causing its own share of commotion.”

Aaron nodded to her. “So we’re going to want official recognition as polities for at least the larger Enclaves or close groups of smaller ones.” He looked narrowly at Conyers. “And we’re going to be very interested to hear about weapons like that Q-scram of yours. Its effects sound nasty enough that it should be banned by treaty.” Other Integrates at the table nodded their agreement.

“So noted,” Roberts said breezily. “But those things can be decided at official summits to follow this one, now that we’ve opened the door a crack. But for right now…what about Fritz?”

“Fritz now, but there will be others,” AstraNikki said. The golden eagle Integrate clenched her beak. “The Cave of Wonders was founded by one of them, a white bison by the name of Appa. He’s still at large. He’s not the type to have gone to Rodinia—or if he has, it’s only to get ready to come back. Since he was ousted from the Cave he’s gotten worse than Fritz, if anything.”

The equine leader of the Cave of Wonders nodded her head. “I was there when we founded that community. Appa knew Fritz back then, got many of his ideals from him. But they’ve grown apart, in their own directions with their own views on how things should be,” Clarissa explained. “I think we set him back when we gave him the boot, but that is another ticking time bomb that will have to be dealt with. Eventually he’s going to realize that he’s never going to be able to get all the Integrates on his side again, and when that happens….”

“The Marshals have been keeping Fritz’s followers busy for weeks now,” Qubitite Star Reed Mosley said. “We’ve done the best we can with the resources we have, but we’ve taken a number of casualties. Integrates are tough opponents.”

“Reed, I hate to say it, but given the nature of the thing I think the Marshals are still our best source of manpower for this,” Conyers said. “You’re neutral, your relations with most polities are excellent, you’ve got the most experience working in the Dry, you’re better equipped than most polities for this. I think the Polities themselves will best look at defense within their borders, but otherwise…” He looked at the two from the Freerider Garage. “I understand we have you and your business partners to thank for this new encryption equipment and software.”

“If Fritz hadn’t hacked our sub and put us into orbit for a ‘made of meat’ prank it never would’ve happened,” Rhianna said, uncomfortable at suddenly being the center of attention. “I’m sure someone else would’ve invented it eventually. I’m just a RIDE mechanic. Never been to college or anything. Looks like Nextus already had something similar, anyway.”

“Don’t sell yourself short,” Zane said. “You think my Dad had a long list of degrees? But…” He waved a hand at the room around them, and by extension the rest of the rig beyond it. “As my Dad used to say, never underestimate the power of getting pissed off.”

“Before that, you and Rochelle reverse-engineered a technology you had never seen before in the space of one night,” Quinoa said. “Days later you used those first principles to make Integrate-resistant encryption. Rhianna, I saw what was in your servers when I was still in my sycophant phase. You had hundreds of high-level research papers on RI neural architecture and RIDE engineering with language that makes my head spin. You made annotations on the articles, you clearly understood them. Seemed to me you knew what they were talking about. Sometimes you commed the researchers. At least one time you sent a correction that they added to the paper.”

“It was three times,” Kaylee smirked. “I been tryin’ to tell her. What does she think a college education even is except readin’ lots of textbooks and papers? I keep telling her she ought to try testing out of the matriculation exam at MMU but she’s too shy. She’s already a damned good RIDE mechanic teacher for the Uplift Junior College.”

This seemed to pique the Sturmhaven group’s interest, but other than a speculative look at Rhianna, they kept their own counsel.

“Everyone will get the latest spec when it’s done,” Rhianna stammered.

“See? There she goes changin’ the subject,” Kaylee said, outright grinning now. “Like I said, shy.”

“Sorry ‘bout this, Rhianna,” Anny said, matching Kaylee’s grin. “She’ll be a little less ‘me’ after your next Fuse or two. We always were a little cross-contagious that way.”

“That explains the accent, I guess,” Rhianna said.

“At any rate,” Quinoa said. “Thanks to you, and Rochelle and Uncia, RIDEs and other computers can be protected against Integrate hacking. I understand Uplift has already gotten most of its infrastructure covered.”

“We’ve had to work quietly on that, so we’re still working furiously to get everything upgraded,” First Consul Vogel said. “Fritz tried to hack the Government Center shields, but couldn’t do it. I think if he’d been able to devote his full attention to it the gear would’ve failed after a few minutes.”

“Our independent testing revealed the same thing,” AstraNikki said. “No offense, Rhianna. We’re throwing everything we can at them, and we’ve got our own variants.”

“None taken at all. Wanda can keep hammering away at it,” Rhianna said. “She and Crystal are merciless beta testers. We’ve been sharing research notes lately, and Shelley’s been out to meet her.”

“Well, she has the advantage of two Inties in house to help out, three when Mike’s home. But even Integrates can’t keep other Integrates from hacking one another,” Astranikki said. “The only way for certain is to remove your DIN. Point being, this is going to be a constant arms race. And even a partial defense is better than none, as long as we know of its weaknesses. We’re busy outfitting our own infrastructure with it too, especially the Alohavator. Aloha isn’t a primary target, but it would be a showy one. We’d rather not have it become one.”

“Well, since the four of us aren’t the only ones working on this now I’m happy to spread the risk,” Rhianna said.

“You’re still important,” Consul Vogel said. “So, we can’t have you all without protection.”

“Protection?” Rhianna snorted despite herself. The idea of Uplift’s militia throwing a protective cordon around her garage struck her as completely ludicrous. “No offense, but I think you should concentrate on protecting all of Uplift instead. They’d have to get into Uplift to get at us, anyway, and if they do make it inside we’ll all have a lot bigger fish to fry than protecting us and our shop.”

“Details that you can discuss later,” the Sturmhaven representative said. “Not to denigrate Miss Stonegate’s achievement. I understand you only invented this new technology after you crossed over?”

“What the hell does that have to do with anything?” Vogel said. “When are you people going to stop believing your own press?”

“Then a more serious subject that bears discussion.” She looked at AlphaWolf. “Your Fenris has committed an offense against our polity.”

“Oh, really?” AlphaWolf said. “The polity that was going to yank him out of his own body and stick him in a smaller one whether he wanted it or not? Can’t imagine why he’d want to do something bad to you gals. Besides, he’s only a male. How bad could it be?”

“That is beside the point!” the fox-tagged woman fumed. “He—”

“Freed a fettered RIDE?” AlphaWolf asked. “Hmm. You’re right. I’ll have to have some words with him.”

The woman seemed slightly mollified. “I am glad you understand the seriousness of—”

“Yeah, I mean, why on Zharus did he stop with just the one?” AlphaWolf continued. “I’ll make sure he knows to do all of them next time.”

The banter provoked a chuckle from Consul Vogel, all of the Integrates, some of the Marshals, and most of the RIDEs in the room. Higgins guffawed, while Scoresby simply smirked. The Sturmhaven representative went beet red.

AlphaWolf waggled his ears amusedly. “Seriously, lady, he commed me and told me about it right after he did it. Your Oberleutnant Fuerst was pestering him about stuff that was none of her beeswax, and he politely told her to shove off. Then she tried to active-scan him. Now maybe you do things different in civilization, but where I’m from we’ve got protocols for sniffing each other’s butts. Far’s I’m concerned, your officer got just what was coming to her, and you should be glad you got off so light. As I said, I wouldn’t have stopped with the one, but that boy’s always been too polite for his own good.”

“I’m afraid we still have a long way to go where RIDE rights are concerned, even in Uplift,” Vogel admitted. “But we’ve made headway.”

“A topic for another time,” Sturmhaven huffed.

Mosley banged the hardlight gavel. “I’m afraid she’s right, y’all. What I would like to come out of this meeting today is arranging a formal summit.”

“Uplift suggests no longer than ten weeks,” Vogel said. “Strike while the iron’s hot.”

“Aloha seconds the motion,” AstraNikki said.

“Okay, votes please,” Mosley said. Less than ten seconds went by. “Motion passes. Thank you for attending this rushed meeting. If there’s no further business we’ll adjourn.” There were none, and Sturmhaven’s group left the table regardless. Mosley watched them with a smirk on his face, then banged the gavel again. “Cut, print, that’s a wrap.”

Desilu nodded sagely. “We’ll clean it up in post.”

Tally grinned. “Wrap party at the reception lounge!”

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The crowd in the reception area was just starting to thin out as Desilu and Tallyhawk stepped in. Desilu waved. “Ah, there you are. Any good food left on the buffet?”

Jade nodded. “They’re pretty good at resupplying it. Help yourself. How’d the meeting go?”

“It was…interesting. Oooh, a cheese tray! Mine!”

Kisa raised an eyebrow. “I thought mice liking cheese was just a myth.”

“I don’t know about mice, but I like cheese.” Desilu started filling a plate.

Tallyhawk nodded to Jade. “We learned a lot about Fritz’s early life, and other Integrate Enclaves, and started to get some hints about how they, the Marshals, Alpha Camp, and the human polities might work together. It was an interesting time.”

Ubu raised an eyebrow. “Alpha Camp? What, you mean AlphaWolf was there?”

“In the hardlight pelt. Hold on, I’ll shoot you-all a memory archive so you can catch up with what we saw and heard. Just a sec.” Tallyhawk’s DIN twinkled and pulsed for a few moments. After it went out, she wandered over to the bar and nodded to Diane. “Best Scotch you’ve got, please, neat. After some of the stuff I just saw, I think I could use one.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Actually, just bring the bottle, and a couple more shot glasses. Looks like we’ve got some more company.”

The Cape Nord reps Higgins and Scoresby had just come in, from the same entrance Tally and Desilu had used. They glanced around, then made for the Hellir table. They reached it just as Desilu returned bearing a plate loaded with cheeses and a few meats. “Ladies, gentleman,” Scoresby said.

Higgins politely hooked an empty chair with his foot and jerked it out from the table, and nodded to Desilu as she approached with her hands full. Desilu smiled at him, then took the proffered seat. A moment later, Tallyhawk returned with the bottle and glasses, and Scoresby pulled out a chair for her. She rolled her eyes a little, but didn’t see any point in not accepting. “Hey, you two. Please, have a seat. Can I offer you a drink?”

Higgins nodded as he grabbed a seat from a nearby table and straddled it backward. “It ain’t Schlitz, but sure, I don’t turn up my nose at free booze.”

Scoresby took a seat of his own and sighed loudly at Higgins’s antics. “If only my esteemed colleague could be a little more genteel. But indeed, madam, I would be delighted to partake.”

“Going a little heavy on the purple prose, Scoresby?” Higgins jibed.

“What can I say? The mood strikes.”

“So, what can we do for you?” Ubu asked while Tally poured.

“After what came out at the meeting…well.” Scoresby sighed. “It does tend to change our attitudes about…certain things, doesn’t it?” He picked up his shot and tossed it back, while Higgins sipped his more slowly and smacked his lips contentedly.

“For the better, I would hope,” Desilu said. “We’ve been trying to tell you that we really want to help Cape Nord, given that it’s our home, too. And you’d be hard-pressed to find many Integrates outside of Fritz’s bunch who don’t think kindly of our human and RIDE brethren.”

“No doubt there are a few bad apples. Every group has one,” Scoresby said.

“You know, that shit we saw in the meeting,” Higgins mused. “My Dad decided to enlist in the Nextus military. War makes a Man, he said. I think he might have met that Captain Ryder guy once. Talked about this officer who talked all weird—like a Beatnik.” Higgins shivered. “Hell of a way to go. Uh, no offense.”

“So how about it, then?” Ubu asked. “We don’t have to sign a peace treaty right now, but if we could reach an accord recognizing that we both do have a mutual interest in seeing Cape Nord thrive, it would be helpful down the road.”

“Y’know, Cape Nord is the only major polity we know of to have a full-fledged Enclave already living right there inside it,” Jade added. “Every polity’s going to be trying to figure out how to get along with Integrates now that we’re ‘out,’ but it seems to me Cape Nord could have a big head start in that area—if you’re willing to work with us.”

“It’s a tricky question, isn’t it?” Scoresby mused. “These last few weeks, we’ve been upset at the liberties you took within our polity—but learning what all Integrates have had to face due to Fritz and his cronies does put things in a different perspective. I think Higgins and I can stop sniping at one another long enough to propose a general amnesty to the City Fathers.”

“We think they’ll see the light, as they say,” Higgins added.

“But the way you do this ‘Show’ is going to have to change,” Scoresby said. “We can work out the details once we return to Cape Nord.”

“Oh, that’s a given,” Desilu said. “If nothing else, all the tourists wandering around mugging for the camera would throw a huge wrench into things all by itself. But more importantly, we no longer need to treat that as our only way to interact with Cape Nord proper, so we can let off steam in other ways now.”

“We already have some ideas on how to operate above-board,” Ubu said. “Ways of making it clear when and where ‘live’ filming will happen, arranging for consent, and so on. We’ll be happy to go over them with you, once we’re back home.”

“Perhaps the McKenna Street blocks over your Enclave could be—ah, well. We’re getting ahead of ourselves here.” Scoresby stood up and raised his shot glass. “I think the occasion deserves a toast.”

“Hear, hear!” Higgins said happily, pouring out more scotch for all. He raised his own glass. “Here’s to burying the hatchet!”

Tallyhawk raised her shot glass to join them. “Here’s to getting along!”

They finished their drinks, then the Cape Nord representatives pushed their chairs back and arose. “We should be returning to our delegation,” Scoresby said. “There is still more networking to be done. We’ll look in on your screening room later.”

Ubu nodded. “We’ll see you then.”

Scoresby and Higgins headed away again, though not before Higgins winked and waggled his eyebrows at Desilu. Tally snorted. “You know, I think he really is sweet on you.”

Desilu raised an eyebrow. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean. But he is kind of cute, in an uncouth sort of way. Probably just needs someone to mold him.”

Tallyhawk rolled her eyes. “Cape Nord. It’s something in the water, isn’t it?”

“Well, that was certainly…interesting,” Kisa said, watching the Cape Nord reps retreat. “Whatever went on in that meeting must have been amazing.”

“It was,” Dolores said. “I’ve gone over the memory dump three times and I’m still finding it hard to believe myself. We can Fuse and I’ll show you the good parts while the others are setting up the screening room, then review the whole thing on the flight back.”

Jade shook her head. “What she said. I’d heard rumors about how Fritz started out—we all did. But to see the reality of it…”

Desilu nibbled on another slice of cheese thoughtfully. “You know what? We should build on this for the screening room. Show some of Fritz’s episodes from 442. I think we’ve probably got the most recorded footage of him that anyone does now. That isn’t classified in Nextus, anyway.”

Ubu nodded. “And perhaps it’ll help people be less scared of him if we show what a terrible actor he is.”

“I’ve got an even better idea,” Tally said. “Remember that ‘x-ray specs’ filter we used for some of the behind-the-scenes stuff in the extras, where we ran scenes while showing what the actor behind the costume actually looked like? We could do that for some of the episodes. Do a split-screen effect showing ‘Major Hayseed’ in one half, and Fritz himself in the other. Just to ‘prove’ it’s really him. It shouldn’t take too much processing power to do that, for a few scenes at least. We could edit it up on the fly ourselves.”

“It might make us targets too, y’know,” Jade said. “Fritz probably won’t be too happy about us making fun of him.”

Tallyhawk shook her head. “He’s going to have to go through Zane and friends first. They’re the ones who carved him up like a Landing Day turkey. And what with the cooperation I saw at that meeting…I think Fritz has met his match.”

“Well, I’m game if the rest of you are,” Desilu said. “We ought to do something to pull our weight in the fight.”

“C’mon, let’s go get the room set up. I’m already reviewing the episodes for scenes we can post-process.”

Desilu dumped her empty plate. “Works for me. Let’s go.”

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“Never thought I’d see the inside of this office again,” AstraNikki Munn trilled as she and most of the rest of her family followed Zane and Agatha Brubeck inside of Clint Brubeck’s rustic office. She gestured at one of the equally-worn guest chairs. “I spent many hours sitting there chatting with your Dad. That was back when this office was in Base Camp, before this platform was even scratches on a drawing board, but it hasn’t changed a bit since then. God, that was a whole other life ago, maybe two lives.”

You’ve changed since then, bro,” Janet Munn said. They had originally been male identical twins, immigrants from Earth in the early 100s. “But then, so have I.”

“More curves, anyway,” Agatha quipped. “You both look beautiful for being over seventy.”

“Hey, these days it’s the new thirty. I’m close to the age your Dad was when he and Allison first had you kids, you know,” Janet Munn said, grinning with pointy feline canines. Her RIDE, a black jaguaress named Melody, padded behind her.

“Hey, yeah, that’s right. So when’re you gonna be starting your next family, then? What with the kids from the last one being mostly grown and all, pretty soon you’re gonna have an empty nest.” Zane glanced over at Astranikki. “So to speak.”

Janet shook her rather feline head, “No more. When Sam realized our youngest was the same age as Wanda’s Nikki, we decided it was time to pass the torch.”

Having Melody around reminded Zane of Carrie-Anne. Dr. Sam Munn, sitting with Janet, saw his glance and must have guessed what he was thinking. “Don’t worry, Zane, she’ll get there. If she wasn’t out of the woods by now, I’d never have left her.”

Zane nodded grimly. “That bastard has a lot to answer for,” he said. “Kenyon and Quinoa should be up here soon. Is there anything you think we ought to discuss just between us?”

“Well, first I’d like your medical diagnostic data,” Dr. Munn said. He paused as Zane sent it. “Good…error rates from your formerly severed limbs are decreasing faster than expected. I don’t think you’ll need that cane longer than a few more days.”

“I think I’ll hold onto it, though,” Zane said. “It makes me look distinguished.” He grinned. “And goodness knows I need all the help I can get for that.”

Agatha looked distant for a moment as something came up in her ‘specs. “Zane, AlphaWolf would like a word.”

“Sure, send him in,” Zane said. He glanced at the Munns. “If no one here minds, anyway.”

Janet shook her head, “Not at all. I wanted to have a word to him at some point.”

A moment later the sandy-colored wolf padded in. “Hello, Zane, just wanted to—oh.” He stopped as he realized how many other people were in the office. “Didn’t mean to interrupt anything.”

“It’s okay, we’re all friends here,” Zane said. “And what with the stuff going on ‘tween you and me and the Waltons and Steaders already, you probably ought to meet the Munns anyway. Gondwanan industrial magnates, collect the whole set.”

Sam nodded to the RIDE. “He’s already collected one. Not sure if he wants the whole set.”

“Munns, huh.” AlphaWolf’s ears laid back slightly. “Yeah, I met one. Wasn’t exactly a red-letter day.”

“We heard. He’s our eldest. After dropping off his charge, he came home to unwind a bit. I know it may not mean much to you, but we did give him a good chewing out. Not that he wasn’t kicking himself in the first place,” Janet said. “He’s put himself on leave from the Marshals for a while. Decided he’s been in the desert too long and he needed to re-find himself.”

“Well, good, I guess,” AlphaWolf said. “I don’t normally have anything against hotheads, but when they endanger the lives I’m trying to protect, well.”

Astranikki nodded, “Something all of us understand well. Still, we do owe you some reparations. We’ve got our own paws in pretty much everything that happens in southwestern Gondwana.” She paused a moment, looking closely at Alpha. “I just sent you a location. A cargo lifter will have mechanical difficulties there in a couple of days and need to be abandoned. It should have what you need to properly improve your shields.

“Hmm,” AlphaWolf said. “You sure you want to be seen giving aid to ‘the big bad wolf’?”

Janet smiled, “We owe you that much, for reparations. Besides, we’re Alohan. We make deals with anyone who has money. There’ll be something else in there, something for you to consider going forward as well. But this is neither the time or place to discuss it. When you get it, think it over, talk it over with the others in your camp. No obligations.”

“I’ll keep it in mind,” AlphaWolf said. He turned back to Zane. “Anyway, I was just coming by to say goodbye before I meet Fenris and the others for the trip back to the camp. And thanks for hosting.”

“You’re welcome. Take care,” Zane said.

“I will,” AlphaWolf said. He nodded at the Munns, then made his exit.

“I don’t think I heard him say ‘so sayeth me’ once since he’s been here, Zane,” Agatha observed.

“That’s a Steader Entertainment thing, Howl of AlphaWolf,” Quinoa said as she floated through the door. “Uncle Joe’s idea, or maybe one of the scriptwriters, I’m not sure which. AW only does it in real life when he’s feeling especially bombastic. I think he finds having a catchphrase invented for him, especially such a lame one, hilarious.” She smiled bemusedly. “Kenyon will be another minute. He and AW wanted to say their own farewells.”

Zane nodded. “I can get that. Must not be easy, finding the perfect match who’s wrong for you for all the other reasons.” Some of the Munns nodded knowingly, AstraNikki most of all.

“At any rate, Uncle Joe decided it might be best he stayed away from folks ‘til tempers have cooled off a little about the Fritz thing, so I’m here officially representing the Steader family and our business ventures. The Entertainment arm’s the biggest, but we’ve got our finger in just about everything,” Quinoa said.

“When you aren’t giving our companies the finger,” Janet smirked.

“We keep each other on our toes,” Quinoa replied, sharing the smirk.

Kenyon Walton, Nigella, and Melissa entered the office, making it a tight enough fit for the mink RIDE to Fuse up with her partner. Kenyon took a deep breath. “Yeah. I’ve got a little wolfy nose now, too. Still smells like Clint’s blend of tobacco in here.”

Sam shook her head, “Probably not after we leave though. Fitting in a way, a new beginning, a new phase of Gondwanan life, of Zharus life really.”

“Speaking of odors and new beginnings,” Zane said, nodding at the Munns. “This is going to smell like collusion to the media, but I think it’ll work out better if we work together. We have to work with Inties to bring them into the mainstream.”

“PR will be the biggest thing right now. You realize that three of the four most influential families here all have Inties leading or in positions of power?” AstraNikki pointed out.

“And the way our daughter is going, it may not be long until it’s four for four,” Nigella Walton said. “I need to make sure that girl banks her eggs next time she’s back in Nextus. I want grandchildren one way or another.”

“We can’t claim we’re unbiased, that’s for sure,” Quinoa said.

“Which could be a problem if we ever pretend to be journalists, but hey,” Zane said. “We’re rich, we’re supposed to be eccentric.”

Quinoa nodded. “So, we won’t even pretend—just be as transparent as we can. We also don’t want lapse into trying to dictate anything to other Inties, or we’d just end up like Fritz. So we have to take our cues from the rest of the community. Follow their lead.”

Janet’s ears flicked. “Well, in any case, there isn’t much we can do obviously. We aren’t in the media sphere. We’re venture capitalists mainly, and shipping secondly. We can arrange funding where needed, grease the wheels more. And we can talk with the Enclaves we’re already dealing with, get them to go public, with the media and others.”

“Media’s my job,” Quinoa said. “Uncle Joe told me he’s worked with Integrates for at least twenty years, including Fritz himself. He’s made plans. Rather convoluted ones, but that’s Joe. Mind like a mobius twisty straw.” She projected one in the air in front of her.

AstraNikki thought for a moment, “Cave of Wonders wouldn’t be the best yet. They’re still too skittish. But Jay and Trace, they’ve been supporting an enclave out in the Tethys for a few years now. That might be a good one to bring out.”

Zane nodded. “For that matter, with the Hellir bunch on the platform right now, we should talk to them, too. They’ve got the lock on Integrate media influence right now. Maybe they’d have some ideas.”

“We’ll need to establish regular suborbital service between open Enclaves and the rest of civilization. We’ll have to convince more than one to open up fully to flesh and metal, otherwise we’ll be accused of just having a Potemkin Village,” Quinoa said. “I think Xanadu, Terrania, and Jurassic Park will be the first, then maybe Camelot. And of course Hellir’s another good possibility, though they’re something of a special case given their situation.”

Janet smirked. “Sub Aloha’s has schedules ready to go when the enclaves open up. At least for the ones near us.”

Zane suddenly chuckled as a thought occurred to him. “You know, it’s really gonna burn Fritz’s biscuits when he figures out that we have him to thank for all this. If it weren’t for him giving us a common enemy, there’s no way we would ever have gotten so organized about this so quickly.”

AstraNikki sobered up a moment. “Gonna piss off Appa’s group too. Probably get him more converts. Anyone with brains can tell Fritz is going to go down, but Appa hasn’t hit the spotlight yet, making him a good magnet.” She sighed. “One emergency at a time I guess. Fritz first, Appa later.”

“Lastly…I’m going to announce Brubeck Mining is going to change a bit,” Zane said, looking at his sister. “Aggie and I have been working on a new business plan. We’re willing to sell a third of our remaining rigs to you, Kenyon, unless you’d like to get in on this too.”

The mining magnate raised an eyebrow. “Oh? What’s on your mind?”

“Aggie’s going to be in charge of a new division, Brubeck Integrate Services. Our needs are rather different than humans or RIDEs. We can eat sarium flakes for breakfast, qubitite crackers for a snack, cavorite casserole for dinner, that sort of thing. There might just be money to be made in supplying those needs for Inties who want to live in ‘civilization’.”

AstraNikki nodded. “We’d offer to join you in that. But I think we’ll be competing. Some Wonder and Alohan Inties have already pitched some ideas we’re going to be supporting. Competition’s always good after all.”

“Doubt it’ll just be our two companies, either,” Agatha said.

“If you’re selling, I’m buying, Zane,” Kenyon said. “I’ll stick to mining. Besides, your Dad would love the idea of you exploring new ground like this.”

“Diversification is key to successful business, y’know,” Zane said, grinning. “But cool. I’ll have my people draw up the paperwork.”

“You can also count on a substantial investment from SI, LLC. That’s my personal arm of the company,” Quinoa said.

“Let me guess. ‘Steader Integrated ,’” Kenyon said.

“It was just a bunch of mu moldering in a bank until last week,” Quinoa admitted. “Uncle Joe wants me to run something smaller before he hands over the big one. He’s got some years left in him.”

“He’s barely over ninety,” Kenyon said, folding his arms. “Frankly, Quinoa, the way you were shaping up I was going to suggest he clone himself.”

“Can I get a little credit here, Kenyon? I’m not my uncle Harold. Or is he Henrietta right now?” The red sphinx in the blue dress shrugged. “I’ve lost track. He swapped more than Janet and Sam do.”

Walton realized he’d stepped on a landmine and earned a mink-furred elbow in the ribs. “Right, right. I’m sorry, Quinoa.”

“I think we’re done here,” Nigella Walton said.

“It’s been a long day,” Zane agreed, yawning. “And I feel another nap coming on. But thanks for showing up for all this, everyone. At least some of it’s been fun.”

The tiger shook hands with everyone as they left. Then, just as he was putting his feet up on the old scuff marks from his Dad’s boots, a ping from Rhianna and Kaylee interrupted him. They were just about to start their DIN-making demonstration, and wondered if Zane wanted to sit in. Zane decided a catnap could wait for a little while longer. He messaged back, also sending a text to Anny.

They replied to meet them in RIDE Maint.

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“So, this is it, then.” Desilu frowned at the small conference room—mostly used for departmental conferences for the maintenance division for this section of the rig, apparently. “Zane was right when he said it wasn’t very big.” It could only fit a dozen Fusers, or perhaps eighteen humans. It was going to be a tight fit, but at least it had food fabbers for refreshments.

“We can work with this,” Ubu said. “Looks like standard vidwalls. Let’s get these tables out…”

“Got it,” the goshawk said. The furniture started to shift around as they used their lifter fields. In short order the tables were stored and the chairs arranged to face the wall opposite the door.

“Dolores and I are going to go put up signs directing people here for the screening, and see if we can round a few people up. There’s so much networking going on, you never know—maybe a room this size is all we need.”

Jade rolled her eyes. “I wouldn’t count on that, given how many of them there were down at the reception.”

“MarkSeven has Fritz’s 442 eps prepped and ready,” Desilu reported. There were only three of them. As they’d expected, he had grown bored with it pretty quickly—given that he understood he actually had to keep more or less to a script for things to work, and Fritz just couldn’t stand other people having a say in what he was permitted to do for very long. The “Major Hayseed” character had stuck around for a few episodes after that, played by other cast members until they were sure Fritz was done with her so the scriptwriters could write her out.

In any event, the gambit had served its purpose—keeping the Bosscat kindly-enough disposed toward Hellir’s preoccupation that he permitted it to continue. In that respect, it had been a smashing success, regardless of how bad an actor Fritz had been in the moment.

People were already drifting their way. The first to enter was the main rep from Jurassic Park. “You folks say you have Fritz on camera?”

Tallyhawk smirked. “Oh, do we ever, Aaron. You’re going to see Fritz as you’ve never seen him before.”

They came in ones and twos, including Higgins, a lower-level Sturmhaven aide, a pair from Nextus, and a few more Integrates. The RIDEs ended up in virtual attendance. The conference room quickly filled to capacity until it was standing room only and spilling out into the corridor.

“I guess we’ll get started,” Desilu said. She raised her voice and lifted off the floor a little. “Okay, everyone. Thanks for coming! We didn’t expect quite this many to show up, to tell the truth.”

“But we’ll deal with it,” Tallyhawk said. “If you have trouble squeezing in, hey—blame Zane. He’s the one who stuck us here.”

“First, a little background about Hellir,” Ubu said. “Many of you probably already saw or heard about our broadcast a while back, where we explained it. And those of you who’re RIDEs or fellow Integrates have probably already downloaded it and fast-timed it while I’ve been talking, or else you’re just about to.

“But for those who can’t or haven’t, the first of us set up Hellir Enclave in Cape Nord in the late 140s because we thought it was somewhere Fritz wouldn’t be willing to hunt us down, and maybe we could live in peace. As it turned out, we were only half-right. He did hunt us down, but he was amused enough at the idea of us living right under the noses of the ‘meat’ that he agreed to let it slide as long as we didn’t make waves. Especially after he saw what we were doing with our little improv act, which started out as just us disguising ourselves to go topside for groceries and supplies, but soon turned into…well, what you see. But Fritz being Fritz, he wanted a piece of the action.”

“So we gave him what he wanted,” Desilu said. “We knew he’d get bored with it soon anyway, and it seemed like the best way to keep the peace. Sure enough, he only lasted three episodes before deciding the acting life wasn’t for him—but he was perfectly ‘copacetic’ with the rest of us carrying on as long as we kept under cover.”

“Anyway, without further ado…we present 442, the Fritz episodes.” Jade smirked. “We would ask that you use sideband chat or a VR chatroom for any riffing you’d like to do, so the people who want to watch it ‘straight’ can do so. And trust me…once you see it, you’ll want to riff it.”

The theme for 442 started with a piano flourish and montage of the setting and cast. It was pretty much a standard late-twencen sitcom format, but with an ensemble cast that consisted of about half the residents in the building who were Cover Personas for the Integrates—the remainder were just regular people and RIDEs, with careful editing and a laugh track none of them could hear. The setting was the five-storey apartment building at 442 McKenna Street in one of the less desirable neighborhoods in Cape Nord.

“Hey, I’ve seen this one,” a hawk Integrate said. “Fritz is in it? I think I know who…”

“No spoilers, please,” Tallyhawk said gently, freezing the video at the end of the theme. “We’re going to show the scene as originally aired on the first go. Try playing some Guess-the-Tyrant. There will be no prizes for this, as I assure you you’ll know when he appears on screen. Okay, here we go.”

One aspect of the Show came not from twentieth-century television, but from twentieth-century comic books. The old comic books had been known for having several ongoing titles that featured the same major characters simultaneously, which occasionally crossed over with each other. Superman had appeared in several titles at once, for example, and so did Batman.

In coming up with the Show’s various series, the writers had recognized that not all circumstances surrounding the same characters would necessarily fit into the same style or genre—but there was no point in throwing away perfectly good stuff that happened around them just because it wouldn’t fit into the show they were doing. So they modeled some of the series after this same premise, creating multiple shows in parallel, with the occasional clip synopsis to catch up people who followed only one show with important events from the other.

The Hooters restaurant and its characters had a number of ongoing series and spin-offs. The soap-operatic goings on, such as Johnny’s fight over JadeCat with Big Jim, and subsequent transition to Joanna, were the mainstay of semi-drama The McGees (formerly The McGee Brothers). JadeCat still appeared in it from time to time, but she’d mostly spun off into the Goldman and Catanno Mysteries. Meanwhile, whenever wacky hijinks occurred on the premises, they usually ended up in the sitcom 442.

Where to put the aftermath of the transition had been an open question, given that such things tended to have both their serious side and their wacky side, but when Fritz had proposed his “Major Hayseed” character there hadn’t been any question which show that would fit in. The episode opened with Joanna leaning against the bar and bantering with her brother Jim, who was still every bit the testosterone fountain he had ever been.

“I’m telling you, I think you’ve lost your touch. JadeCat turning you down flat, for another woman?”

Jim snorted. “She turned you down, too. With the obvious result.”

Joanna shrugged. “Perhaps, but then, I was never God’s gift to women, was I? That’s why I’m better off this way.” She smirked. “But you’re supposed to be a Ladies’ Man. That’s the endorsement on your Man Card. If you’re losing your touch…well, it might not be so long before I’m showing my new big sister the ropes.”

Jim bridled. “I am not losing my touch.”

“Prove it.”

“How?”

“If you’re such a charmer, then charm the next woman to walk through that door. Whoever she is.”

Too late, Jim sensed the trap closing. “Now wait just a second—”

But before he could get out another word, he was surrounded by a ring of grinning, smirking waitresses. “I think that seems more than fair!” Carla said.

Nicole giggled. “You’re up to the challenge, aren’t you big man?”

Jim sighed. “All right, fine. Fine.” He glared at Joanna. “This is Cape Nord, so what’s the worst that could happen?”

Major Hayseed’s entry got off on the wrong foot right away when “she” missed her entry cue. (In actuality, when the episode had originally aired they’d fixed that in post, but the “special edition” release had “unfixed” a few of the more amusing bloopers in the name of entertainment.) Several seconds passed before the door to Hooters opened and a bedraggled middle-aged woman with greasy brown hair, wearing a ratty NextusMil uniform, entered. She had a half-burned cigarette hanging from her mouth. “Uh…uh…” she stammered. “I heard you hep…you-all had an opening for a waitress?”

Big Jim looked at her for a long moment, then slowly turned to stare at Joanna. “You set me up. Didn’t you.”

The smirk that had never left Joanna’s face only grew broader. “Hey, what are sisters for?”

Cue the laugh track.

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What followed was, Tallyhawk thought, one of the finest half-hours of television Hellir Enclave had ever produced…though, perhaps, not for the reasons intended. She thought the x-ray specs split screen really added to the effect.

Beyond that, it was a standard sitcom plot. Jim asked her to come to lunch as part of the “interview,” and Major Hayseed completely missed any sign of a romantic subtext. Then some of the Hooters girls did a kind of half-assed Pygmalion number on Major Hayseed to get her ready for it. The end result was that she still looked more or less the same, but without the cigarette. (Which she promptly lit up again in the next scene.)

The date itself was the predictable disaster, and Jim was halfway convinced maybe he should follow his erstwhile brother’s example, when an old female acquaintance from Aloha blew into town and made a big deal of how she simply couldn’t get Jim out of her head, so she came all the way out just to see him. Jim’s reputation (not to mention his self-image) was saved, Major Hayseed ended up with a job at Hooters for no terribly good reason other than Joanna wanting to rib Jim about her every time he was around, and roll the credits.

Somewhere around the middle of the episode, Tallyhawk became aware of a small, ominous presence with lynx ears in her peripheral vision. She turned her head and saw Anny Hewer standing there, glowering at the screen, arms crossed. Tallyhawk blinked, then forced herself to neither stare nor facepalm. She wasn’t sure why she’d never twigged to it during the meeting, but now that Tally saw her here, at the same time as Fritz engaged in his antics on the screen as “Major Hayseed,” it suddenly became painfully obvious exactly who the original inspiration for “Major Hayseed” had been. The figure on the screen lacked tags at all—ironic considering who was playing her—but otherwise it was pretty clear who she was supposed to be. And, considering what they’d learned during the meeting from Kaylee’s memories, it was clear why, too.

:Er…Desi? We may have a Situation here.:

Desilu turned to look. :Glen A. Larson’s beard! How did we never notice that before?:

When the credits rolled Ubu decided to go first. “Now, crossplaying—that is, playing a character of the opposite sex—isn’t a skill one naturally has. Especially for someone who’s never crossridden before—”

“That damn a-hole was terrible at it!” Anny said, almost shouting. “Fool couldn’t even come up with a real name. ‘Major Hayseed’ my ass! Maybe, ah dunno, ‘Marjorie Hayes’ or something like that. Hayseed!

“Uh, everyone, I think Miss Hewer there was Fritz’s…let’s say ‘inspiration’ for the character,” Desilu said. “We didn’t really make that connection until just now. On behalf of Hellir, I, uh, apologize for Fritz’s portrayal of…a parody of you.”

“Bastard holds a grudge,” Anny said. She laughed a little. “Truth, I’m more amused than pissed. It’s a real knee-slapper I made that much of an impression on him, if he still had a mad-on for me twenty-odd years after th’ fact. Ah never smoked, though.”

“We…retired the character as soon as we reasonably could, once Fritz lost interest,” Desilu said. “She was ‘put on a bus’ as we say in the business.”

“Huh. Well, I want to have a chat with y’all before you leave, and ah think Kaylee might want a word, too. She has to see this. Trust me, she’ll laugh, too.”

Desilu scratched nervously behind one ear with the stub of a pencil. “We do have a royalty-sharing deal for people who inadvertently appeared in our episodes. It’s not quite the same circumstance, but we could stretch a point…”

Anny waved a hand dismissively. “I’m well-off enough, and after that settlement they saddled me with the last thing I want is to make any more money off a’ Fritz. Tell ya what—you use that money to start a foundation or trust or sumthin’ for the sake of helping Integrates fit back inta human society. That’ll be like spitting in Fritz’s eye with his own hokey acting.”

Ubu nodded. “That sounds like a great idea to me. We might even be able to get others to kick in, too.”

“So, any other questions from the Peanut Gallery about how the Show works?” Tallyhawk said.

“Vill roles be available to anyone in the future?” the Sturmhaven aide asked. “And will it remain restricted to Cape Nord?”

“We’re working on an overhaul with Cape Nord. Details yet to be worked out,” Desilu said, nodding at Higgins. “If you’re asking whether we might set up some kind of franchise in Sturmhaven…we won’t say no out of hand, but it’s a little early days to be thinking about that sort of thing yet. But beam us your comm code and we’ll add you to our mailing list so you’ll be one of the first to know.”

“Here’s one for ya,” Higgins said. “The cast—these cover persona things—don’t have to just be humans anymore, right? Could a guy like me play an Integrate? Or even a RIDE?”

“Well…that’s mainly a technical thing,” Ubu mused. “And it also depends on your skills as an actor.” :Or lack thereof.:

:Be nice,: Desilu chided him.

:But we just got done showing the Fritz episodes!: Ubu protested. :And I thought Fritz had no self-awareness at all. Now he’s asking about playing out of type?:

“Since this isn’t a matter of life and death anymore, well, there will be auditions for available roles,” Ubu said aloud. “Which won’t be unlimited.”

“We’re having to come up with entirely new procedures,” Jade noted. “After all, everyone wants to be a part of something they love, and this is a thing where it’s actually sort of a possibility. On the other hand, with no offense intended, not everyone is necessarily cut out to act for the screen.”

“But we might set up some kind of LARP or VR adjunct, so people can at least enjoy themselves playing in the setting,” Tallyhawk said. “And we could recruit people who show special talent there into the ‘big’ show. Again, it’s still in the planning stages. This is all pretty new to us, too, after all.”

“Among many things that still need working out as we move into this bold new era,” Aaron said. The dinosaur smirked. “That came out more melodramatic than I intended. Anyway, we need to take care of Fritz and company first. And seeing Fritz like that was quite an eye-opener.”

“Anyway, lest you think we’re all about the cheesy sitcoms, we’ve got a good selection of shows from a number of genres,” Desilu said. “Next up is an episode of The Goldman and Catanno Mysteries.”

“Afraid I have to step out on this one,” Anny said. “Zane just paged me to meet up down in maint for the DIN-making show. Some a’ y’all might want to come along, in fact. Promises t’ be pretty interestin’.”

“Why don’t the rest of you go ahead?” Ubu suggested. “I’ll stay here with Kisa and Dolores and keep the episodes rolling.”

Desilu nodded. “Works for us. We’ll comm you if anything comes up.” She, Jade, and Tally followed Anny out the door.

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When Zane arrived in the platform’s RIDE garage he found Rhianna and Kaylee with Rochelle and Uncia with a group of polity and Enclave dignitaries in the Fabbing Shop. The subject was Brena Silverston, the vixen looking a little uncomfortable under all the scrutiny. Lillibet Walton was sitting next to her, holding her hand. On one of the flat panels overhead “DIN Baking” was displayed. Cooking analogies were pretty common in the RIDE engineering field.

“I guess this is where I do my Julia Child impression,” Rhianna said.

“Oh, good! That means I get to be Alton Brown,” Rochelle said, clapping her delicate hands once.

“I want to thank Dr. Clemens and Dr. Rosenthal for attending,” Rhianna said, nodding at the two researchers. “I never thought I’d rate this kind of audience.”

“I created the original DIN, Miss Stonegate,” Dr. Clemens said. “I’m curious about your reverse engineering process. When I made the first one, for Fritz, I had the feeling that he might prove to be a, ah, handful based on his prior behavior, so I intentionally built in several design flaws that would be non-obvious to him in hardware and software. If I’d been worrying needlessly, I could have had a ‘breakthrough’ and fixed it in a subsequent model, but as it turned out, that necessity did not arise.”

“Figures that’d be your doing,” Aaron said. “Not that I’m complaining here, considering. But it’s irritating when you have to carry a dozen of them with you because they burn out faster than your average Aloha Shore star.”

Dr. Clemens nodded. “From the units I’ve examined since then only a few of these defects were ever fixed. You understand, of course, at the time I never imagined that first unit would be the template from which an entire civilization of Integrates proceeded. We never anticipated there would ever be any more Integrates than just Fritz, based on the…extenuating circumstances around his metamorphosis.” He smiled wryly. “If we had known it would become so commonplace, who knows whether we would even have let RIDEs go into civilian production.”

“And it figures Fritz wouldn’t monkey with it,” Rhianna said. “After all, he didn’t know they could work any better. He was just duplicating something he knew did work. At any rate, baking is apt here. The basic structure of DIN hardware is a lot like a layer cake. It’s composed of a unique layering of RI-grade Q with various impurities and quantum-level points of ‘contact’. The uniqueness amounts to a physical encryption, and you have to find 99.99% of the contacts in the socket before you get any signal—and there’s millions of ‘em, some of them only there some of the time. It took Kaylee and me hours to figure out the basics.”

“And the right tools,” Clemens said. “You use a lot of nano-paste in your work?”

“Have to, for RI core field repairs. I have a pair of custom nanolathe gloves. I’ve had a few jobs out in the Dry where an RI core couldn’t be removed until I patched it, and that’s delicate work in a very hostile environment,” Rhianna said. She picked up one of the probes. “Anyway, Miss Silverston, this won’t hurt a bit.”

The red vixen nodded, then turned so the slot was visible in the hollow of her neck between collarbones. Rhianna plugged in the reader until it beeped. “We’ve got it really fast now. Took me five, six tries with Zane before I knew what to look for,” the mechanic said, smiling warmly at Zane.

“Why every Intie has this connector in a different place—or not at all—is another one of those ineffable mysteries,” Aaron said. “After all this time, I still find it hard to believe you just reverse-engineered that cold.”

“Well, not exactly cold. Until that thing I was involved in at the Towers, I’d heard of Integrates through the rumor mill, just like everyone else. And I met Quinoa and got to see her DIN briefly during the incident without knowing what I was lookin’ at. But I didn’t know any specifics until Zane-and-Terry—you know what I mean—showed up at the Garage late that night before you and Leah met us for breakfast. I won’t say it was easy.” Rhianna shrugged.

The fabber dinged and dispensed the DIN plug. Rhianna picked it up and sniffed it. “Nice and fresh out of the oven.”

Rochelle leaned over for a whiff. “Smells like…cumin.”

Rhianna handed the new DIN connector over to Brena, who held it up and examined it thoughtfully, then plugged it into the socket in the hollow of her neck at Rhianna’s prompting. Rhianna attached cables from Rochelle’s console to its leads.

“Your show, ‘Alton,’” Rhianna quipped, going to stand with Kaylee.

“Right. Well, what I found out is it’s really not so much a matter of creating a whole new operating system from scratch—the comm unit we attach the DIN to has its own, after all—but more crafting an interface layer. Figuring out which connections map to which inputs. Here’s what Zane’s DIN map looks like.” She threw up a diagram on the display behind them.

“The thing that boggled me for hours at first is that there’s a little encryption on the connection—but an extremely weak version compared to what Inties’ bodies are capable of. Just enough to make things difficult for someone who assumed it wouldn’t be.” She summoned a hardlight keyboard in front of her and tapped a key, and data started scrolling up on her monitor. “I mean, if it had its full quantum computing power behind it, we’d never crack it without another Intie, if then. It’s as if they just wanted to make creating your own interface illegal under those twencen Digital Millennium copyright laws.”

“Or make it just tricky enough we had to work at it, not hand it to us on a silver platter,” Aaron said. “If that doesn’t suggest some sort of intelligence at work behind this, I don’t know what does.”

Some of the other Integrates in the room looked like they wanted to argue this point, but thought better of it. Rhianna understood that the origin of Integration had taken on aspects of a religious debate among some Integrates, and couldn’t deny she’d put more than a little of that sort of thought into it herself.

“The first time we did this, it took me hours to break the code, and fifteen minutes or so to do the first compiles. We’ve tightened it up considerably along the way.” Rochelle’s fingers danced over the hardlight keyboard. “I ran the basic decryption and mapping algorithms while we were just talking, and now I’m starting the compile. Normally it would still take two or three minutes to churn through it with our portable gear, but the extra horsepower of the computers on this platform means it should be done just…about…now.” An egg-timer style “Ding!” went off as “COMPILE COMPLETE” flashed on the screen. “Now we upload it into the DIN itself…along with a copy of the design schematics, suitable for fabbing…” A progress bar slid across the screen. “And we’re basically done.”

Rhianna disconnected the leads and unplugged the DIN from the socket. “Last step: we pair it with a bog-standard laser comm module. You can go as plain or as fancy as you want; all your DIN really needs is the basic comm protocols. Zane’s has a lot more bells and whistles, though I understand he hardly ever actually uses any of them.”

Zane nodded. “The stuff I’ve got in my bod basically makes most of it redundant.”

“So since all you need are the basics, we’ve taken to making our decision a cosmetic one.” She held up a velour box and opened it. “Her fur really should set off this sapphire nicely, don’t you think?” The audience chuckled, and Brena…well, it was awfully hard to tell if she was blushing given that she was bright red already. But perhaps the exposed skin on the interior of her ears colored just a little.

With a quick twist, Rhianna locked the DIN into place on the back of the comm, and again handed it over to Brena. “There you are. If we were doing it at speed, not taking it slow to explain it, we could probably have gotten it done in under five minutes. Ten for sure, counting compile time. Not bad for a couple of self-taught grease monkeys, eh?”

Neither of you have any formal training?” Dr. Rosenthal asked. The woman tilted her head. “That’s…I’m honestly impressed. Experience is often a more effective teacher. I’d say you’re more a John Harrison than a Julia Child. I can see how the networking security gear you invented is an outgrowth of this.”

“It’s a natural development,” Dr. Clemens agreed. “I can’t claim I never thought of something similar, but it was too risky to pursue with Fritz and his cronies keeping such a close eye on us. Some days I could feel him watching me from the public camera net and inside of our own mainframe.”

“Of course, we’re not the only ones who’ve been doing work on DINs, even with Fritz quashing the research,” Rochelle said. “The Marshals are pretty good at making their own, and the Munns have their own computer genius who’s been working in the field, too.”

“We were sort of right-place right-time,” Rhianna said. “But now that we all know about each other and can share notes, expect to see us all get even better. And that goes for all of you, too. This isn’t a competition.”

“Heh. Yes, ma’am,” Aaron said with a little salute. “How does that feel, Brena?”

“Like I’ve been blind, deaf, and dumb since I—we—Integrated,” the vixen said, the blue-jeweled comm gear glittering on her chest. Lillibet, still standing next to her, smiled with encouragement. “I was looking through a muddy window and thinking it was crystal clear. And this won’t burn out like the old ones did, either?”

“You can flush all your old spares,” Rhianna said, grinning. “But fab a bunch of spares of this one, just in case. We haven’t had one of ours fizzle yet, but there’s plenty of ways to misplace ‘em.”

“You’re miracle workers!” Brena squealed, impulsively bounding over and hugging the lynx-girl, then doing the same to Rochelle.

“I think we should assume some samples of your work will eventually get into Fritz’s hands,” Conyers said. “He may not act on it, but his followers aren’t as inflexible as he is. We might even see some improved units on their side.”

“Anyway, we’ve got time to fab a few more examples if anyone else needs ‘em. And we’ve made up a package consisting of our most current process notes which we’ll be happy to share around,” Rhianna said.

Rochelle nodded. “We’re always refining them, but they’re still a darned sight better than what your technomages have. And maybe you lot will come up with some new wrinkles we haven’t hit on yet. We’re always happy to trade research notes.”

“Anyway, in the current situation, none of us—and especially none of you—should be at anything less than our best. So have at it and get yourselves fully up to spec.”

The duo fielded a few more questions from the audience before the group finally broke up. There was much shaking of hands, and some lingering discussion with Dr. Clemens. He wanted them both to keep in touch with him. He had a few ideas to add, himself. Rhianna blushed rather adorably from the offer. “Thanks, Doctor. We will.”

Anny and Leila had come in during the demonstration, along with most of the Integrates from the Hellir delegation. They had been standing at the back of the crowd, watching with interest. Zane was glad to see Anny and Leila hadn’t re-Fused yet, so Anny still had Kaylee’s ears-and-kitty-nose lynx tags.

It took a little effort for Rhianna to look away. “Just…just a minute, Zane. Be right there…”

Zane planted his cane in front of him and leaned on it with both hands. “You put on quite a show there,” Zane said. “Now let me see, what were those hourly consultant fee rates…?” He winked.

Rhianna smiled felinely. “You know my bank routing number. Anyway, I’m glad I got to see this place in full operation before I left. And…well, thanks for helping me burn out these overactive hormones.”

Zane chuckled. “Oh, no problem. It’ll be that much more fun to kick them into high gear again down the road.”

Rhianna blushed. “Much more talk like that and it won’t be that far ‘down the road.’”

Zane grinned. “Okay, okay, I give. You know, I really should thank you again for that chewing out you gave me all those weeks ago. You were right, any rich idiot can throw money at people. It’s more fun to figure out nice things to do that don’t cost anything. Like this.”

“Like what?” Rhianna asked suspiciously.

“Come over…here. Yeah, this’ll make a nice backdrop.” He pointed to the large display they’d used for the demonstration, and it flickered and lit up with a very familiar set of blueprints—the LNX(f)-LMA-001. “Kaylee, Anny, you too.”

“All right…” Anny said. “I think I see where this is goin’.”

“Huh?” Rhianna asked. Then she blinked as she got it. “Ohhhh!

They gathered in front of the blueprint display—Kaylee seated on her haunches in the middle, Anny standing to her left, and Rhi to her right—and both women rested their near hands on the lynx’s shoulders. Kaylee purred delightedly and reached over to give first Anny and then Rhianna a sandpapery lick on the cheek. They grinned at each other over Kaylee’s back, and Zane grinned right along with them.

Zane took a step back and framed the trio in the center of his field of vision, then did an image capture and beamed some instructions to a nearby part fabber. Moments later, it produced two 13 by 18 centimeter photographs, enclosed in frames made from the same metal alloy as RIDE plating. He picked them up and handed them across to Rhianna and Anny. “There’s a chip in the frame with the digital copy,” Zane said.

“Wow, look at us,” Rhianna said, directly comparing her face to Anny’s for the first time. “We’re about the same height, same build…same hair and tags, right now…from a distance, we’re practically twins.”

“I wonder…” Kaylee mused. “Deep down inside a’ me, did some part a’ me still remember Anny when I crossed you over? I thought I was makin’ up yer new bod outta whole cloth, but…”

“Ya never forget’cher first,” Anny said quietly. “Even if ya think ya do.” She looked across to Rhianna, eyes glittering. “Thank you fer this,” she said. “I know it wasn’t easy fer ya. Wasn’t easy fer me, at first, seein’ her with someone else—even at the same time as I was happier’n I’d ever been in my life just seein’ her again at all.” She snorted. “No one ever said people’s feelin’s had to make sense. But…well, just thanks. Feels like I can finally close the book on that part a’ my life, an’ not have it rubbin’ me raw all the time.”

Rhianna stepped around Kaylee to give Anny another hug, as Kaylee nuzzled her back. “It’s all right,” she said. “I understand.”

“And it felt the same way for me,” Kaylee said. “It wasn’t…easy, seein’ what happened to you after what happened to me, but…feels like I’ve got that closure, too. We can move on.”

Anny glanced over at Leila, who’d padded up to sit possessively next to her rider. “An’ I know it ain’t been easy on you neither.” She hugged the lioness around her neck.

“It’s all right,” Leila said, nuzzling her. “As you said, you never forget your first.” She paused. “There’s no pressing need for us to Fuse again for a few days, you know.”

Anny smiled up at the lioness, and dabbed at an eye. “Thanks, pard. I appreciate that.”

“I wouldn’t be against the two of you doing it again sometime,” Rhianna said. “And maybe next time I will find out what a long tail feels like.”

Anny grinned. “It’s a date.”

“And speaking of dates—” Rhianna turned back to Zane. “Zane, thank you for…” She blinked. “Zane?”

The tiger Integrate was still leaning on his cane…but his eyes were closed, and as Rhianna watched he started snoring.

Kaylee smirked. “I think someone’s been up past his bedtime.”

Or else he just felt like giving a bunch of weepy women their privacy, Rhianna thought warmly. Either way…thanks, Zane. For everything.

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They weren’t quite able to get away from the maintenance bay for another hour or so, as a few more Integrates wanted to see some further demonstrations—or perhaps they just wanted new DINs for themselves right away. So they obliged the first few of them, before making sure that their research notes were available to those who needed them and excusing themselves.

Rochelle and Uncia slipped out a few minutes before Rhianna and Kaylee, as they lingered to address a couple of last questions about the process. Then, as Rhianna and Kaylee finally walked out to the Dreamchaser, they found Rochelle and Uncia at the edge of the landing pad saying their farewells to a young copper-badged Marshal and his coyote RIDE. “Look me up next time you’re in Uplift! We can show you the sights.”

The young man grinned. “Some of those ‘spots few outsiders get to see’ maybe? Sure. I’ll comm you when our rotation takes us there. See you then!”

“Bye!” Rochelle waved, and the pair of them headed off toward their own ship.

“Who’s your new friend?” Rhianna asked.

Rochelle blinked. “Huh? Oh. He’s not a friend, he’s a relative. Distant one. Rusty Seaford, of the Laurasian Seafords.”

“’Those rich bastards’?” Rhianna asked. “Those Seafords?”

Rochelle grinned. “Yeah, but this one’s not that bad. He was fun to hang out with, anyway. By the way, I forgot to ask at the DIN bake-off—what-all did I miss at all those meetings you had? I meant to come by, but…well, we got busy.”

“I’ll dump it all to Uncia, and you can review it on the trip back,” Kaylee said.

“To sum up, dirty laundry was aired out and people finally started talking to each other. Including Integrates to humans,” Rhianna said. “It’s a good start, but we hope it grows into more than just a start.”

“Sounds good to me,” Uncia said. “I hope so, too, then.”

“Then let’s head home, and see what happens,” Rochelle said.

Rhianna nodded. “Let’s.” They boarded the ship, and a few moments later were flying home.

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It seemed that the impromptu summit had ended almost before it even began. But then, Tallyhawk gathered, that had always been the plan. The platform had a lot of room, but it simply wasn’t a real convention center. There was only so much they could do in such a setting.

But they’d certainly done a lot toward opening up dialogue and promoting further human/Integrate understanding. The screening room for Hellir’s episodes had gone over really well, though the Fritz episodes had been by far the most popular. Then had come Rhianna and Shelley’s DIN-making demonstration, which had proven amazingly effective. After they’d made the first one for Brena, they’d done further examples for other volunteers—including Tallyhawk herself and Desilu. They didn’t have time to make them for everybody, but the data packet they provided would let Hellir’s own experts do nearly as good a job themselves.

“I feel like I’ve been blind and deaf all these years,” Desilu said. “I’ve got a petabyte of bandwidth to Hellir, even here, and no sign of burning out.”

“So you keep saying,” Jade said. “I wish they’d had more time. I want one of those things, too!”

“They’ve open-sourced the process, so we should be able to make our own once we get home,” Ubu added.

Tally still couldn’t believe the difference the new DIN had made. It wasn’t just that it was more stable and could do more without burning out—it could simply do more, period. It really did represent a major leap forward, and she already couldn’t wait to put it to work and see how it might change the editing process of the Show.

But enough with the woolgathering. As the platform gradually emptied out, the Hellir contingent was making its way back to the landing pad where the Starmaster waited to transport them back home. A number of other such planes were loading nearby.

“Hey!” Tallyhawk looked up to see another Integrate hawk approaching—this one a Cooper’s hawk, judging by the pattern of the feathers. “Tallyhawk, right? From that Hellir Enclave vid series? Been wanting to meet you.”

“Well, you just made it. Hi. Who’re you?”

“Oh, we’re a Tally, too. Cindy and Tally, or CinTally for short. Zane’s personal pilot, as it happens.”

“I swear half the hawk RIDEs get a version of our name,” Tallyhawk said. “Silverhawks was a thing.”

“Don’t they just? Like all the rats are Rattigans, or corgis get stuck with Ein.” She clicked her beak in amusement. “For all that humans say most Integrates aren’t terribly creative, they’re the ones who always reuse the same names. The Steaders have a lot to answer for.”

“If you want a really scary thought, in a generation or two there might be actual kids being named after us,” Jade said.

“Anyway, I just wanted to say, I’ve enjoyed your shows…but have you ever considered something on the order of radio? Maybe some kind of music station? I’m a big fan of twencen music, and I think I’d make a great DJ.”

:That’s a new one,: Desilu sent.

Jade sent a chuckle emoticon. :At least she didn’t say she has an idea for a TV show based on WKRP in Cincinnati:

“It’s just possible you might have something there,” Tallyhawk said. “Of course, you don’t need to be in Hellir to do that. The ‘net’s global; you could start your own channel yourself and have just as wide a reach.”

“Probably wider,” Ubu said. “After all, you’re the personal pilot to Zane Brubeck, which is an order of magnitude more fame than little ol’ we have.”

CinTally cocked her head. “Well…I guess there is that.”

Tally nodded. “If you do, let us know. Maybe we could have you on Hello, Hellir to plug it.”

“That would be great!” CinTally chirped. “Oops! Gotta go, Zane wants me to get his jet warmed up. It was great meeting you, and see you later!”

Tallyhawk nodded. “Always cool to meet another Tally. If you’re ever in Cape Nord, drop us a line.”

“Wings of silver, nerves of steel! Will do!”

Tallyhawk chuckled as the other bird Integrate lifted and sped away. “Well, how about that?”

“Great! Now I’ve got that theme song stuck in my head,” Desilu complained. “They were so good with ear worms back then.”

Kisa laughed. “The early bird causes the earworm?”

“C’mon, you lot. We’ve got our own sub to board, and a Cape Nord delegation to chat with on the way home.” Ubu nodded toward the Starmaster. “Maybe we could have solid foundation for our future peace talks by the time we land.”

Jade nodded. “You know, I think this get-together was one of the best things that could have happened right about now. Show those insular cavemen from the Man Cave that they’re in a race with the rest of the continent to welcome us back. Nothing brings out a masculine team spirit like a little competition.”

Desilu nodded. “That’s as may be. But it still falls on us to follow up. So, let’s go get this party started.”

The others nodded, and they headed up the ramp to the plane home.

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Fenris was uncharacteristically subdued as he carried Paul, Lilli, Brena, and Guin north over the desert to where they’d hidden the XB-70 sub. They were accompanied by AlphaWolf, in his skimmer bike form. He’d caught his late ride in with the Marshals, but had elected to fly back with Fenris and company instead.

“Is something wrong, Fennie?” Paul asked.

“Not precisely,” the wolf replied. “Except…I suppose it is true what they say, that you can’t go home again.”

“Did those Sturmies pester you while we were with Mom and Dad?” Lilli asked. “They looked mad about something as they were leaving.”

“They…did, in fact,” Fenris admitted. “And I fear I lost my temper.” He shared the relevant memories.

“Oh, my,” Paul said afterward.

“Tell me he didn’t just unfetter a Sturmhaven diplomat’s RIDE while the diplomat was in it,” Lilli said.

“For a diplomat, she wasn’t terribly diplomatic,” Fenris said.

“There is that,” Paul said.

“Do you suppose the RIDE will be waiting for us at the sub?” Guinevere asked. “Do you know if she picked us or the Marshals?”

“I have no idea,” Fenris said. “She did not communicate with me after we parted.”

“Something tells me it’s us,” Lilli said as they approached the small canyon. “Look!” There was a Fused RIDE standing at the canyon’s edge, waiting—a female wolf.

“That is indeed she,” Fenris said. “But why is she still Fused? I suggested she should drop Lieutenant Colonel Fuerst off before she came.”

“Good question,” Paul said. “Let’s find out.”

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“It was my own decision,” Oberstleutnant Fuerst explained to them all a few moments later. “There was…no longer anything for me in the motherland. Not after failing to complete my mission and losing my RIDE. So I…volunteered to accompany Hedy.” She shook their head. “Do not worry—the others know full well what I am doing. You will not be accused of ‘bodyjacking’ me.”

“You understand that you will be considered the property of your RIDE, every bit as much as she used to be property of you?” AlphaWolf said. “This isn’t some vacation trip.”

“I understand,” Fuerst said. “But I am willing to reap what I have sown.”

“Even with what she tried to pull on you, she’s really not a bad person,” Hedy put in. “And I’m used to having her inside me. I don’t actually dislike her. We get along. So if she’s okay with it, I am too.”

AlphaWolf shrugged. “Okay, well, if you’re both agreed, welcome to the Pack. Let’s get aboard the sub and head on home.”

Paul chuckled. “You know, Hedy, you’re gonna be very popular in camp for a while. There are a lot of Sturmy ex-military she-wolves, and I’ll bet they’d love the chance to Fuse with a real Sturmhaven lieutenant colonel.”

“We’ll see,” Hedy said. “First and foremost, she’s mine.

AlphaWolf glanced at her. “You know, I think you’re going to fit in pretty well around here.”

As Baldwin raised the sub out of the canyon on lifter power, Fenris looked thoughtfully at the wolf-suited woman. “Did you do this intentionally, I wonder?”

She looked at him and blinked. “What?”

“Did you plan to get yourself ‘ostracized’ in order to try to play upon my sympathies?” Fenris mused. “It seems highly unlikely that even Sturmhaven would be willing to discard an experienced female career officer over something beyond her control.”

The Fused wolf-woman just looked at him for a moment, then Hedy chuckled. “I told you it wouldn’t work. Not that I’m going to let you back out. You are mine now, and you’re staying that way.”

The wolf woman’s head drooped. “Was I that transparent?”

Fenris laughed. “Just a touch.” He shook his head. “You must really want that secret badly, to sell yourself into slavery at a camp run by a male. Is your career really so important as that?”

“It’s not just my career,” Fuerst insisted. “I was an intern on the team that made you. I crewed one of you in the field for two years. I…still feel bad about our failure.”

Fenris outright stared at her. “Why on Zharus didn’t you say so in the first place, woman?”

The wolf shrugged. “I was being monitored. Admitting an emotional attachment would have been taken as a weakness.” She chuckled ruefully. “We really are like wolves, you know.”

“I doubt it,” Fenris said. “Wolves consider both genders important.” Then the sub rose into view and opened the boarding ramps, ending the conversation. But Fenris glanced one last time at Hedy and Fuerst as he crawled up into the crowded cargo bay.

Transparent attempt to play on his sympathies or not, he was inclined to be a touch more kindly disposed toward Fuerst. At least she’d been honest when he called her out. Which could itself be a calculated strategy to get into his good graces, but at some point you had to stop wondering whether everything was a gambit. Besides, she had just sold herself into real RIDE slavery, unless Hedy was just playing along even while untethered. And even if she was, if the two of them were on good enough terms for that it was another point in Fuerst’s favor.

He wondered if he’d ever met her RIDE. In Sturmhaven’s army, the male units by and large observed strict segregation from the females. He’d only met the female WLF-CSAs a few times, so he didn’t know as many of them as he did the others of his own gender and he had never met their pilots separately.

Regardless, it would be interesting to see how she got along back at camp, especially with Sonja’s crowd. As he settled himself down for the trip back, Fenris decided he would look forward to it.

Authors’ Notes

R_M: Well, here we are again. Given that this is the second half of the story begun in part 18, a lot of the stuff I wrote there about the melding of the old and the new applies here. So all that needs to be said here are remarks on specific things that happen.

This episode presents the final pieces of the puzzle surrounding Kaylee’s fate after the war. Jon’s the one who came up with that, so I’ll let him expound on the inspirations and rationale behind it in his note. One thing I retrofitted was expanding on Conyers’s reasons for sticking Kaylee in the Shed. It had seemed puzzling to me that Fritz would let the object of his affections be put on ice like that, but perhaps he saw it as a suitable compromise if the alternative was destroying her altogether.

But why didn’t he ever fetch her out of the Shed and wake her up again himself? Maybe he even intended to “rescue” her at some point, but just never got around to it. Maybe he liked having her “on the hook,” available at any time he wanted to reach out his hand, a little too much—and, since she was available at any time, he never felt the need to get around to it until it was too late. He knew she wasn’t going to be very happy with him in any event; perhaps he just didn’t want to have to deal with that level of frustration until he was good and ready.

I also want to make one thing perfectly clear at this point. When I was talking about “weed from Califia” where the smuggling is concerned, I was specifically referring to marijuana, the drug that we call “weed” in the here and now—and that, thanks to California’s legalization of medical marijuana, is indelibly associated with that state. I referred to it as “weed” because that’s the slang for it, and Anny would have been the sort to think of it by the slang term rather than by its proper name.

But then Jetfire decided to use the fact that I mentioned “weed from Califia” to make up an entirely new native plant whose drug derivative was called “weed,” even though I argued until I was blue in the face that it wasn’t supposed to be any sort of new drug at all. Maybe I should originally have said marijuana in this section, and I was more than halfway tempted to make that change for the DirCut to emphasize that. Or change it to “pot” or some other slang term to make it clear that’s what I was talking about. But it seems like a little too much trouble to go to over a minor irritation.

In any event, as far as I’m concerned, they grow marijuana in Califia—good old-fashioned pot. Not some new and different native drug whose effects might not be anywhere near as benign as we now know marijuana to be.

Here’s a fun one: the idea for the Q-disc Kaylee uses to disappear during the trap for Fritz was developed during the writing of “More Foxed.” The ending of that story had originally involved Fiona using knowledge from her Nextus Intel days to craft versions of those discs out of the Q they’d mined, and the family using them to go head to head with the nasty critter who was actually running Bartertown. But as I was writing it, I realized I wasn’t sure just how they’d fight that critter, the story was long enough as it was, and I really didn’t feel like adding yet another subplot to it. So I let them go ahead and get away, and saved the nasty critter for “The Good, the Bad, and the Fritzy” some time later.

Back to the present-day of the meeting. Although we didn’t know it at the time, we started laying the foundation here for AlphaCamp to “go legit.” We were still expecting it to happen years down the road, but the way the story developed it ended up coming about a lot sooner than expected.

The screening room was a fun scene to write, and was probably in the offing ever since Fritz first put on the “Major Hayseed” disguise. That was all Jon’s idea, of course, but I ended up writing the actual plot of “her” debut episode. I tried to hit all the standard sitcom tropes and clichés, and I think it turned out pretty well. It was amusing to see Anny Hewer’s reaction to it. I need to remember to retrofit a mention or two of it into the banter at the final battle later on.

At the DIN-making demonstration, Dr. Clemens shows up in the present-day for the first time since the flashbacks, and reveals a little more background on their original design. I can’t remember for sure, but I think his appearance here was one of the elements that inspired Second-Hand Lioness, at least in part. Incidentally, Second-Hand Lioness is coming up in the reading order, and I’ll probably talk some about that in the next episode’s author’s notes. Not planning to do a Director’s Cut version of that one, either, though I have made a couple of minor dialogue tweaks based on the new Director’s Cut timeline—you can see what they are by using Shifti’s change-history comparator.

Oh, and if you’re wondering about the in-joke around Diana Fuerst’s name I mentioned in my previous note, “wonder” would be the right word to use. “Fuerst” is a German word for “prince,” after all. And “Diana Prince” was the alter ego of Wonder Woman, a superheroine who also comes from a land where women are the ones in charge. The character is not meant to represent Wonder Woman in any other way, but I did find it amusing to sneak her name in like that. (I had wanted to use a German equivalent to “Diana,” too, but my research with German baby name lists showed me that the German equivalent of “Diana” was, in fact, still “Diana.”) Did any of you notice that before now?

JonBuck: The final flashback scene is fairly pivotal. So there’s a kind of Mexican Standoff taking place, where the Loose Cannons could kill Fritz, but doing that would have restarted the War. So, Nextus and Fritz went their separate ways. Fritz would go on to make a cozy little living space in the caves in what would become the first Enclave, Towers. Later on he decided to split that scene, because, you know, it was too crowded.

I think Sturmhaven experimented (either on their own or from “leaked” info via Fritz) and probably made at least one Integrate of their own. But she thought the whole War was just stupid and refused to fight for them. Beyond that, I have no idea what she was like or what happened to her.

A fairly open question at this point is when the first “natural” Integrates started to show up and how Fritz discovered him or her. Well, that’s good story fodder, so I won’t speculate here beyond this: The first natural Intie was probably a Q-miner. Or maybe not. Maybe it was a Nextus bureaucrat. Or an easygoing Alohan sea otter. Perhaps a dragon. Or… Well. Let’s just say it’s up in the air.

Lots of additions from the Hellir Crew here. The whole idea of FADE IN and the Show was one of those things. I wanted to do something that I hadn’t done in the setting before (TG aside). Which also brings in that at this point in the writing we hadn’t figured out very much about Cape Nord at all. They were a nebulous “male version of Sturmhaven”. Fortunately we’ve fleshed both of them out a lot since.

One change we’ve made is the explanation of the provocation for the War. We didn’t really have a clear idea at the time. Mikel Steader as a character hadn’t been created yet. This is just the nature of writing fiction.

R_M: As I recall, you’d originally planned on having the hapless battery schmuck just be some random Steader, and you had the notion of doing some kind of travelogue of him narrating his adventures on various planets. You do like your travelogues, don’t you?

JonBuck: I think going on so many roadtrips when I was young might have been an influence. Whether it was camping or going to Kansas (from NorCal) to see family, we were always going somewhere on summer vacations. Anyway, this was still early enough that Joe really hadn’t gelled as a character. I’d come up with the Star Circus concept, but didn’t really do anything with it for a while yet.

This Steader Cousin was supposed to visit the colonies because I wanted to flesh them out a little…then Joe would show up to make his life miserable, being the jerkass he was at that point. (R_M: As previously noted, in an earlier episode of Integration Mikel was referred to as Joe’s cousin ‘til we fixed that in the Director’s Cut.) Once I started on “The Greatest Show” I realized it’d work better if they were brothers instead, and Joe stopped being a jerkass. Having Mikel join the Star Circus also gave an opening for that story I’d originally planned to see the rest of Human Space. As it happens, we did start something, but it hasn’t really taken off. But even unfinished stories are good sources of ideas for other works.

R_M: And you never know. Oh My Darling Clementine was unfinished for the longest time, and we didn’t complete it until most of the plot elements that were supposed to have been “introduced” in it had already shown up in other stories. Someday we might just get back to that one, too.

Preceded by:
Integration Part XVIII: Many Meetings
FreeRIDErs Succeeded by:
Integration Part XX: Prodigals