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User:Robotech Master/N00bs original

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FreeRIDErs story universe


Integration

by Jon Buck and Robotech_Master

Part 5: N00bs

Rochelle opened her eyes as the first rays of light peeped through Zane’s bedroom window. For a moment she wasn’t sure where she was, then she remembered everything. She was still snuggled under a grey-and-white snow leopard pelt, which was gently purring. Other than the pelt, she was alone in the bed, but from the next room she heard the sound of silverware clattering and smelled the sizzle of bacon.

Rochelle yawned and stretched and turned back the leopard blanket, then rolled over to the side of the bed and fumbled around for her clothing. “Hey, when you have a moment could you put me back on my body?” the pelt asked.

“Oh, uh, sure.” Rochelle gathered the pelt up and carried it over to Uncia’s metallic body. “What do I do with it, just drop it on?”

“Yeah, I can get it from there.” As the pelt touched the metal, it reshaped and conformed around the body, and Uncia opened her eyes, yawned, and stretched. “Morning, Shelley!”

Rochelle hugged her around the neck. “Morning, Un-hon. Enjoy yourself last night?”

Uncia nodded emphatically. “Uh-huh! Thank you for letting me.”

Rochelle smiled. “You’re welcome. I’m sorry, I guess I do kind of think of you as a little immature sometimes.”

“That’s all right. It’s how I’m programmed to act.” Uncia rolled her eyes a little. “I’m supposed to have a personality close to the kind of spoiled rich girl I’m supposed to go with. The idea is that it’s supposed to make it easier for us to get along.”

“I could probably see about changing that, if you want, but it’s not something I could do lightly,” Rochelle said. “Personality encoding is really complex stuff, and you can do a lot of damage if you go in and just change parameters willy-nilly.”

“After having Amontillado screw with my head, I think I’m just as happy to keep it how it is for now,” Uncia said.

“Probably wise.” Rochelle pulled her dress back on. One of the nice things about 26th century fabrics was that they didn’t wrinkle—though even if it had, her nanites would have de-wrinkled it as soon as she put it on. And cleaned it, too, for that matter. Rochelle hadn’t had to do the laundry even once since Uncia had changed her.

“Want to Fuse for breakfast?” Rochelle asked.

Uncia yawned again. “I think I’ll pass this time, thanks. Going to charge up and do an interim defragment. But you and Zane enjoy yourselves!”

Rochelle gave her a good rub behind the ears. “You too, silly kitty. And that reminds me, we’ve got to head out after breakfast—we promised Kaylee a defrag of her own this morning. And from the details she sent along, this one’s probably going to be a doozy.”

Uncia nodded. “I’ll be ready when you are!”

Rochelle nodded, and headed into the other room to see Zane. She found him in the kitchen, in his new natural form, wearing a hardlight chef’s hat and apron that read “Integrate the Cook!” He was flipping eggs with a spatula, but leaned over to muzzle-kiss her on the cheek as she came in. “Morning!” he said.

“Morning,” Rochelle said, sliding into a seat at the table and tucking her fluffy tail through the hole in it. “You really do like to cook, don’t you?”

“Like I said, it’s kind of new to me,” Zane said. “But it was something Terry did for me—the first day after I got him, in fact. He made me breakfast using my own body, while I slept. Now, using his skill, it feels like it brings the Zane side of me close to him again in the same way.” He grinned. “And besides, Terry is really good at cooking.” He turned the eggs out onto a plate, added bacon, grits, and toast from other pots or pans, and put the plate in front of Rochelle. “Dig in!” He joined her a moment later with a similar plate of his own.

“Mmm.” Rochelle grinned. “Hey, you even know I like my eggs over easy.”

“Yeah, I asked Uncia.” Zane grinned. “I like ‘em that way, too.”

They ate in silence for a while, then Rochelle asked, “Were you serious about that offer you made me last night? Official Integrate researcher for Brubeck Mining?”

“Serious as a heart attack,” Zane said. “Also serious about the salary. If you’re gonna help me, I’ll pay you what you think you’re worth…as long as it’s somewhere in industry standard salary range.”

Rochelle looked across her breakfast at him. He was doing that trying-to-look-innocent-and-failing thing he always did every time he dropped a ton of cash or other gifts on you and made you feel like you couldn’t turn them down. “You sure about this? I don’t have a doctorate in nanotechnology or anything—or even a masters. I’ve just got an associate degree in RIDE tech from Uplift Community College and several years of self-teaching.”

“You’re the one who reverse-engineered my DIN,” Zane said. “Well, you and Rhianna. And my offer applies to her on the hardware side, too. Tell her that next time you see her.” He ate a mouthful of egg. “Anyway, if you’re insecure about the education thing, Brubeck has a great continuing education program, too. We’ll pay half the cost of any classes you want to take. So you could work toward the full degree of your choice at the same time.”

“Huh.” Rochelle had to admit, one of her biggest regrets had been that she’d had to settle for a two-year degree at the college. Her grades apart from those in computer and RIDE-related classes had just been mediocre, so the scholarship opportunities were limited and she’d made do with what she could get. She’d planned to save for a RIDE of her own first, then more schooling second, but now…

“Well, I’ll think about it,” she said at last. “And I’ll let Rhianna know.”

“Great! And remind her about the suborbital, too.”

“The corporate discount thing, right? Yeah, I’ll tell her.” Rochelle shook her head. “Damn, Zane, are you ever gonna stop helping us? It’s nice and we appreciate it, but we don’t want to feel like charity cases all the time.”

“If it helps, just think of it as karma in action,” Zane said. “And feel free to pay it forward in other favors you do for other people. I just feel obligated to make sure that nice guys don’t always finish last. Or nice gals. Who used to be nice guys. Anyway, trust me on this—if I didn’t think you’d earned it, I wouldn’t give it to you. Ask Myla about the phone call with Qixi sometime. Sophie can probably play it back for you verbatim.”

“Ooh, that sounds interesting. I’ll have to remember that.” Rochelle soaked up the last bit of egg on her plate with the last bite of grits, and finished it. “Mmm, now that’s a breakfast. Well, I guess I’d better round up Uncia and head on out. Work to do at the Garage and all.”

Zane nodded. “Well, thanks for coming and staying the night. It was a lot of fun, and we really need to do it again sometime.”

Rochelle nodded. “I might just be looking forward to it.”

Zane grinned. “I will be for sure. Let me see you two to the door.”

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The elevator doors had just closed behind Uncia and Rochelle when the other elevator doors opened and out stepped Quinoa Steader, whistling cheerfully.

“Good morning, Quinoa,” Zane said. “Enjoy yourself last night?”

“Mm-hmm! Went clubbing, then hung around the mech market and helped a few people buy RIDEs. Oh, don’t worry, used an untraceable generic wallet, so Uncle Joe won’t find me.” She smiled. “It’s so nice seeing folks get their first RIDEs. I’d forgotten how much fun it was to help others.”

“And you didn’t happen to, oh, make any of them Integrate while you were doing it?” Zane asked.

Quinoa rolled her eyes. “I told you, we don’t do that to people who don’t want it. I did remove the fetters on the RIDEs I bought—but only after I told their owners what I was doing, okay? And since this is Uplift, it should be okay anyway, right?”

“All right…” Zane was sure there was probably more to it than that, judging by Quinoa’s smug expression, but he’d learned over the years never to ask questions if he didn’t really want to know the answer. “Anyway, feel like giving me a few more Integrate lessons? There are some things I’d like to know before I go public with this.”

“You’re really still planning on that? Going public?” Quinoa asked.

“That’s the idea. Going to run it past my Board first, of course, but I don’t expect they’ll object.”

Quinoa shook her head. “Damn. Fritz is gonna be really pissed off at you, you know that?”

“After what I saw of him in the memories I borrowed, I can’t exactly say that thought fills me with disappointment,” Zane said. “Besides, I get the feeling that ‘pissed off’ is his natural state.”

“Aw, he’s not really that bad,” Quinoa said with a note of uncertainty. “He just…doesn’t like meat or mech people very much. And it’s kinda hard to blame him.”

“Is it?” Zane shook his head. “Quinoa, you grew up as meat and mech. I’m sure the rest of your family are still meat. How can you just turn around and act like that’s disgusting?”

“It’s not that. Not entirely.” Quinoa shook her head. “We’ve been given a hard time. Some of us still have the scars. I know a fox-girl in Towers…Brena, I think. You saw her in Kaylee’s memory record. She got shot up pretty badly. She claims the military wanted to haul her off for experiments before she escaped.”

Zane shook his head. “People are bastards everywhere, but you can’t judge everyone by the actions of just a few. Anyway, where do you think all the rest of your Integrates are going to come from? The Towers newbie guide you gave me said you’re all sterile—you can’t exactly breed them yourselves. And do you really think they’re going to want to join you after they Integrate if you just sneer at them before?”

Quinoa sighed. “It makes so much sense when Fritz says it. Like they’re creepy crawly nasty squishies, and we’re not. But you make sense, too. It’s hard to know who to believe.”

“You could believe the ‘creepy crawly nasty squishy’ who spent months on four hooves protecting your ass,” Myla said. She’d come out of the door of her apartment behind them while they’d been talking, and was wearing a terrycloth bathrobe and holding a steaming “Nextus Materiel Recovery Service” mug in one hand. “Do you know how big my chiropractor bills were even months after I left?”

“Myla!” Quinoa said. “I’m sorry, I just—”

Myla shook her head. “Yeah, I know you’re sorry, you can skip that part. I’ll accept your apology for the time being if you’ll stop making it again every time we meet.”

“Thank you,” Quinoa said.

“But as for Fritz—what the hell is his problem, anyway?” Myla asked. “He’s got to know the facts the same as we do. There’s no point in pissing off the people you want to Integrate and join you up there on that ‘next rung’ of the evolutionary ladder where the air is so thin so many of you seem to find it hard to think straight. Seriously, what’s his game?”

“I don’t know, exactly. He’s kind of loner—or he says he is.” Quinoa said. “All the others on the Council ever said was that his Integration background was ‘complicated.’ They wouldn’t tell me what it was, but he has a lot of influence and a number of followers in many Enclaves. I know what you think you saw, but he’s not just a random malcontent.”

“I put it to you that if he’s trying to stir up hatred, and won’t even tell you why, his motives need to be examined,” Myla said.

“Sounds like a right varmint t’me,” Anny said, coming to the door behind Myla in similar terrycloth robe, with a similar mug that was much more chipped and cracked, with just a few flecks of paint remaining in the shape of an illegible MRS logo. She looked like a marginally older version of Myla with a few more character lines on her face and a slightly feline cast to her features. “You need t’be more careful ‘bout who you let put things in yer head. Leastaways ‘til you know the why of it.” She sipped her coffee and leaned back against the doorframe, as a large white lioness regarded Quinoa impassively from behind her. “Annette Hewer, by the way; call me Anny. Myla’s my niece. And this’s my RIDE, Leila.”

“Uh, I’m Quinoa Steader, but I guess Myla already told you that. Nice to meet you,” Quinoa said. “And…now you mention it, I guess you’re right. I just…I dunno, Fritz has this kind of charisma to him. When you’re with him, it just makes sense.”

“People like that’re dangerous,” Anny said. “Get you thinkin’ like they are while you’re with ‘em long enough, an’ you start not questionin’ it even when you’re not with ‘em. There’s a word for that. Demagogue. Look it up, young lady.”

“What the hell does the man want out of this?” Zane said. “But anyway…we can’t find out by beating the dead horse here. Though, Quinoa, if you talk to anyone from the Towers when you send in your report, you might see if they have any idea.”

Quinoa nodded. “I’ll ask.” She glanced at Zane. “But there were some things you wanted to know? About being Integrated?”

“Yeah. I had a few questions I wanted to ask. Maybe you could come to my place, or we could go to yours?

“Your place works for me,” Quinoa said. She glanced to Myla and Anny. “It was nice meeting you, Anny.”

Anny nodded. “Same.” She and the lioness went back into the apartment. Myla nodded to Quinoa, and followed a moment later.

Quinoa followed Zane into his apartment, and out onto his balcony. “So what did you want to know?

“Well, first of all, I seem to be seeing people through walls…”

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“I do hope I’ve made myself clear, Miss Stonegate, that I will not tolerate my daughter or her friends hanging around this filthy place!” the wealthy woman huffed. In the crook of her arm she held a rather put-upon papillon dog who looked none too happy to be carried around like that all the time. Nigella Walton, wife of one of the planet’s wealthiest men—richer than Zane and the Steaders, combined—whose daughter had taken to spending her copious free time at the Freerider Garage.

It was all Rhianna could to not to laugh in her face. Her indignation was more comical than anything, since her fifteen-year-old daughter had taken to fixing up RIDEs all on her own. “Your husband thinks differently, Mrs. Walton. In fact, I received a message this morning about how pleased he was his daughter was taking an interest in something of a hands-on nature. Even if it involves a lot of grease.”

“Well, Mr. Walton and I disagree on a great many things,” Nigella Walton huffed. She seemed to exist in a state of perpetual outrage, looking for any hint of offense, any imagined slight, she could grab to hammer it down on Rhianna’s head. Rhianna refused to take the bait.

They were in the Garage’s waiting room, which itself was the subject of an earlier rant about how simple it was, with no android servants waiting on customers, and especially the dreadful state of the décor. It was just a common waiting room, with a complimentary fabber for simple food and drink, where people could wait for their RIDE or skimmer to be fixed or serviced. “I shan’t stay in this dirty place any longer! If I can’t convince you to fire Lillibet, I’ll have to go to your government for your hiring a child! Surely Uplift isn’t so vulgar…Lillibet! Come here! You’re coming home!”

At that moment the young woman in question entered, wearing one of the Garage’s gray jumpsuit uniforms with the logo on the back. Her cheeks were smudged with grease, even her hair. Ocelot ears poked out of the side of her head. “Mom, please. You’re embarrassing me.”

“Good!” Mrs. Walton exclaimed. “Come home now. You can play with your toys in your own garage, out of everyone’s view.”

“Mom, I’m not going anywhere, and they’re not toys. I’m working. And I really like getting my hands dirty,” Lillibet said, showing her mother her grease-covered hands. “In fact, Dad says he’s going to make me start working for my allowance. By the hour. Go ahead, ask him. I’ll wait.”

The horrified woman fled the waiting room to the Learjet 85 replica flier parked just in front of the door, taking up several parking spaces. With a whine of spinning-up lifters, the vehicle flew away. The dozen customers in the room, including two of Uplift’s own upper crust, started laughing. Behind Lillibet was one of Rhianna’s other Apprentices, about the same age as at her.

“Wow, Lily. You sure set her off!” Paul Anders said, grinning impishly.

“Well, duh. She’s my mom. I know all her buttons,” Lillibet said. “As long as Dad approves, I’m golden. Can I take a break, Rhi? I’m done reading the STG and OCT service manuals, and Guin’s ready to go. So I’d like to hit that BBQ place Rochelle mentioned, with Paul. That okay?”

“Go on, Lily, have fun. Let me know how it is, I might go there myself in a few days. And don’t forget that ice cream place in Bifrost Park, too.”

Smiling with delight, Lilly and Paul headed off together. Rhianna reflexively tried to send something about that to Kaylee, but remembered the old lynx was in Passive mode. Unfortunately Rochelle’s memory defragmenter worked best with the prototype RIDE sleeping, something she hated doing these days. But since the time was almost up, the mechanic quickly jogged over to her private garage.

“Hey, Rhi,” Rochelle said, looking up as she entered. She was seated at the same workstation they had used to reverse-engineer Zane’s DIN, wearing interface specs that obscured her eyes. “You’re just in time. We’re 98% finished, and I was just about to bring Kaylee back into active mode for the end of the run.”

Kaylee opened her eyes just as her hardlight pelt came back on, shaking her head. When Rhianna reached out to hug her Kaylee almost pushed her away. “Uh, Kaylee? Why so cranky?”

“I still can’t access my first boot,” Kaylee said irritably. “I wonder if that’s part of the chunk still classified. Why would it be, anyway?”

“If it’s there it’ll get put in the right place. Anything fun this defrag?” asked Rhianna, Fusing up with the lynx.

:Hmm. Well, how about this?: Kaylee thought, starting the memory replay. :Remember how Anny said she was my second test rider? The first was technically accidental.:

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DATE: December 8, 121 AL, 1034 hrs. UNIT: K3-LNX(f)-001 PURPOSE: Fuser Armor Mode Transition, Static Testing. TEST: 1A-3X

“Okay, K-Three. You’re booted for the day,” the man standing in front of Kaylee’s optics said. His face was blurred and his voice distorted, likely on purpose. “Acknowledge.”

Kaylee lifted her metal head. “Affirmative. Today’s test cycle internalized, initialized, and ready, [name redacted]. Let’s get started. I’m ready to go!”

The young man actually chuckled. “I’m sure you are, K-Three. I’ll also mark down that the new fetter configuration is still working as expected. Better than we hoped, really. How do you feel about that, K-Three?”

“About not having my speech locked down so I sound like a silly Ad-I? Pleased as punch. Now, what are we waiting for?” She sounded like an excited child waiting to dig into some cherished treat. Her remembered voice was unaccented, and rather more mechanical than it was 35 years later. It would take years of working with Anny to make it sound natural.

In front of her was a mannequin, female, standing in a ready position the engineers said was the best pose for initiating Fuse: standing up straight, arms held level to both sides, with [name redacted] male standing off to one side. Kaylee’s targeting sensors felt a little off, but there was a glitch. She hadn’t been spoken to, so she couldn’t communicate this to the testing crew in any way, and her telemetry was also glitched. Someone had forgotten something important with the new fetter configuration. So, when she centered on the mannequin and sent the target command, [name redacted] ended up in her crosshairs. She tried retargeting three times, and each time the crosshairs centered on the mannequin, then blinked and locked onto the young male systems tester.

This was the third Static Fuse Armor Transition Test in a long series before she ever left the facility. The others had all been done manually, step-by-step. It was the first time Kaylee would do it on her own, from start to finish, from the brand-new Walker mode.

If [name redacted] had stood by the test command console, or indeed if the other researcher monitoring the test had been there where he was supposed to be (instead of down the hall getting coffee), he would have seen the problem in the display monitor echoing Kaylee’s sensory output. But instead, he was standing right there—in exactly the right spot to confuse Kaylee’s glitched targeting sensors.

“K3, initiate test 3X,” [name redacted] said. When she hesitated, he repeated the order, then hit an override switch.

Well, okay, she thought. Gathering herself up for a pounce, she wiggled her metal behind and leapt.

“What the fu—!” the young man’s shout was cut off as Kaylee partly liquefied around him and it became a young woman’s shout. Fortunately for him—her—the Fuser nannies worked perfectly, just as Dr. Rosenthal had designed them.

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“World’s first crossrider,” Kaylee said dryly. “First real ‘RIDEr’, for that matter. The investigation found that it was mainly a problem with the fetters and a telemetry glitch, so they reconfigured them again so I could speak freely. What’s-her-name got extra pay and agreed not to sue, even though it was partly her fault. They gave her a new identity out of whole cloth, I think. The project was still Top Secret, so they couldn’t do anything else.”

Rhianna started laughing and could hardly stop herself. “I’m a horrible, horrible person for…heheh…laughing, aren’t I? I just can’t help it.”

“She knew the job was dangerous when she took it,” Kaylee quipped.

“I wonder if she ever changed back?” Rhianna mused. “Guess we’ll never know.”

“Unless that’s one of the things that gets declassified six years from now,” Kaylee said. “Anyway…let’s see. Almost lunch already? The defrag took that long?”

“You’ve got a lot of defragging to do,” Rochelle said from her seat at the workstation. “There’s petabytes of un-indexed data here. When they gave the chip to Myla’s aunt someone didn’t want to make it easy for her, or you, to sort through everything.”

“Lots of unanswered questions here,” Kaylee mused, licking the back of her right handpaw.

“I’m going to want to see you back again tomorrow morning,” Rochelle said. “Or maybe earlier if everything comes together. The defrag we did is the best we can do at the moment, but it just shoves everything together—it doesn’t necessarily index it properly. I’ve taken a backup of all your memory files and I’m going to see if I can hack together some kind of file analysis and indexing program. With a little luck, I can organize it for you outside of your fuzzy little head and then feed you the updated index once I have it. I’ll be doing it all by file metadata, of course—I won’t actually look at anything without your permission.”

“Shelley, if you have to, do it,” Kaylee said. “Anny said there isn’t anything classified in there, and if it’s anyone I trust with my core self, it’s you, ‘kay?”

Rochelle nodded. “All right. That might make it a little easier after all.”

“Gosh,” Uncia said. “I still can’t believe it. My ‘big sister’ is really my great-”

Don’t you say it,” Kaylee growled.

“-est friend, ever!” Uncia said without missing a beat.

Rochelle giggled. “Silly kitty.” She pulled off the interface specs and shook out her hair, letting it swirl around her as usual. “I have to admit, I’m really looking forward to seeing the records of the original RIDE test program from one of the RIDEs’ perspectives. This is stuff that’s never come out openly before. Kaylee, once you have it all back, you could probably write a book.”

“There’s a lot still redacted, but I’m sure I could. I know there were two of us…” Kaylee’s ears perked. “Shelley, check the garage’s internal sensors. I’m getting something odd. Felt like Zane for a second, but I don’t think it is.”

Uncia perked up, her own ears swiveling. “Already on it, gran—sis. There!” She pointed with a paw as the garage door opened and a shimmering patch of invisibility stepped inside. The door closed behind it, then the patch dropped, revealing a disheveled, human-sized figure. As it stepped forward into the light, illumination revealed a figure covered in dark and light brown feathers and swirls of glowing beige tron-lines. Her hands ended in short talons, longer flight feathers hung down from her arms, and her face sported a dark hooked beak lightening to yellow at the base, and unsettling red eyes with black pupils. From the coloration, her RIDE must have been a Cooper’s Hawk. There’d been a line of them a few years back from one of the Sturmhaven manufacturers.

“Uh…hello,” she said in a small voice, opening her beak slightly, otherwise her mouth barely moved. “I was told by someone I could come here and get something that’ll help me.”

Rochelle slowly grinned. “Hey, boss, our first customer! Come in, sit down, take a load off! We’ll get you all set up before you even know it.”

“I can’t…uh…afford to pay. My wallet’s not working for me.”

Rochelle shrugged. “Don’t worry about it. We’ve got a deal set up with the ‘someone’ who told you about us. And even if we didn’t, we’d still do it anyway just for the practice.”

“I’ve sent Zane a ping. I think he’ll want to meet our new customer,” Kaylee said. She and Rhianna started getting into their diagnostic gear.

Uncia padded up to the bird-woman and sniffed thoughtfully at her. “Wow, you smell like a real bird.” She considered. “I hope you can control when you poop, or it could get messy in here. Most real birds can’t, y’know.”

“Now, wait just a minute!” the hawk said, mantling her wing-arms. “I would never!”

“Ease up, Uncia. She’s not exactly at her best right now,” Rhianna said.

“Was just curious, geez.” Uncia padded back over to sit by Rochelle.

“Sorry about that,” Rochelle said. “She’s a bit of a handful. So I’m Rochelle, that’s Uncia, and those are Kaylee and Rhianna. Who might you be?”

“We’re—I’m—not real sure right now, uh…Used to work for Sturmhaven Fast Couriers. I can hit mach five, you know.”

“Does it hit back?” Uncia asked. Rochelle bapped her.

:Almost there!: Zane sent to everyone from somewhere outside the garage but coming closer.

:Stay on target!: Uncia sent back.

:Use the Force, Luke!: Quinoa replied. It seemed she was tagging along.

The hawk must have sensed something, too, because she closed her beak and looked at the garage’s hardlight door a moment before two figures zoomed right through it without stopping, slowing down, or dropping the hardlight. Zane and Quinoa touched down next to each other, just a few meters away from the startled hawk-girl.

“Welcome, sister!” Quinoa said.

“Hi. I’m Zane Brubeck, that’s Quinoa Steader. As you might have guessed, we’ve got a few things in common.

“Quinoa Steader?” the bird-woman exclaimed. “The Quinoa Steader?”

“No, a Quinoa Steader,” Quinoa said. “Haven’t you heard? I come in six-packs.” She giggled. “I’ve always wanted to use that line!”

“I know the Brubeck name, too. In fact, I was in the middle of a delivery to your office building here when..it…happened. I’m—we’re—lucky the whats-it finished before hitting the ground.” The new Integrate fidgeted, hopping from foot to foot. “I feel deaf…am I deaf? I don’t know.”

“You’re probably a little disoriented right now, but that’s normal,” Quinoa said. “It takes all of us that way at first.”

“But you’re going to be all right,” Zane said. “We’re here to help.”

“You’re not exactly ‘deaf’, but something about the Integration process cuts off our access to comms without a translator gadget,” Quinoa explained. “We call it a DIN, or Data Interface Normalizer. That’s what they’re going to make for you here.”

“Have you noticed any odd interface ports show up on your body?” Rochelle asked. “Like a data plug of some kind, or a power socket?”

“Got a powerful itch on my back,” she said, easily looking backward.

Quinoa walked around behind her. “That looks like a data port, all right.”

“Good, we know where to start,” Rhianna said, checking the fittings on her and Kaylee’s nanolathe gloves. “If you could just have a seat, we’re going to need to map out how your port is put together, and then Shelley can figure out your operating system.”

“We may need you to go to sleep for that part,” Rochelle said.

“O…kay?” the woman said.

“By the way, what are your names?” Rochelle asked. “Of the human and the RIDE you used to be?”

“I’m Cindy Livinsky,” the girl said. “But I’m also Tally. I swear, I—we—have the weirdest headache right now.”

“That’s totally normal,” Quinoa said. “In a day or two, with a little rest, you’ll be fine.”

“And it’s okay to say I or we,” Zane said. “I use ‘I’ myself, because most of the time my Terry’s fully part of me. But I understand some people go the other way.”

“But…what happened to us?” Cindy said plaintively. “I don’t understand it. I thought ‘integration’ was just an urban myth!”

“A living myth,” Rhianna said. “And don’t worry, I’m just here to help you get back online. Er…Zane, can you scan her and tell me where all her ports are? I don’t want to miss anything. Then we can get started.”

“Ah! Right. Cindy-Tally, this might tingle a little.” Zane raised a hand and a plane of hardlight appeared in front of her, then swept her from front to back. Then his DIN flashed, transferring the data to Kaylee’s on-board computer and Rochelle’s workstation.

Rhianna-and-Kaylee glanced at her display for a moment, then nodded, powering up the gloves. “Trust me, I’m a professional. Won’t hurt a bit.”

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The avian Integrate had a much less complicated connector than Zane’s. It took less than an hour to fabricate an interface plug that worked. As Rochelle worked on CinTallyOS 1.0, Rhianna and Kaylee de-Fused for a break. The lynx padded off to her recharge alcove in her corner of the garage. “I’d better check on how things are going out there,” the lynx-eared woman said. “The employees aren’t supposed to bother us in here unless it’s really important, and they haven’t been in. I need to check on my Apprentices in person.”

“Could use some air, myself,” Zane said, stretching. Cindy-Tally was dozing, feathers all fluffed up, with Rochelle’s sensor battery pointed at her. The Integrate’s body shape was very human, down to having mammalian breasts (mostly hidden under feathers) and female body curves. Rochelle found this odd, since when she’d entered her form had been more bird-like. Quinoa said it wasn’t unusual for bird-based Integrates to have some inherent shapeshifting.

After three alpha versions Uncia’s rider said the first full release would be ready within an hour. Quinoa watched the whole process saying hardly a word, other than a few doubt-filled mutterings of “they’re just meat” that got a sharp look from Zane.

Out in front of the garage the old Deuce skimmer Rhianna had started modding had been shoved into a corner of the Garage lot. Now that there was a suborbital on the shopping list that project had fallen by the wayside. She pondered what else she could do with it as Zane passed through the garage’s opaque hardlight door and stood beside her.

“You know, Rhianna, my offer from last night still stands,” the tiger Integrate said.

Rhianna didn’t reply at first, she still felt blue about the previous night’s strike out. “I…I don’t know, Zane. The funny thing is that I played being ‘Kaylee Cross’ for years. I got really good at it, even liked fooling people, though I never went out on any dates. But now that I’m this cute-as-a-button catgirl 30/6 the novelty is already wearing off.” She sighed, looking at her moe, busty self. “Enough introspection. I’ve got a business to run. ‘Scuse me, Zane.” Rhianna marched off to the office/waiting room.

Lillibet and Paul had returned from their extended lunch and turned in the work they’d been assigned. Rhianna looked it over via her implant. The teenagers were neck-and-neck in their quiz scores and component assembly tests. Lillibet was showing some aptitude for the work, but wasn’t a stellar student—at least when Paul wasn’t watching. Her classmate—who didn’t own a RIDE himself—was having an influence on her that her mother no doubt wouldn’t approve of, which motivated the girl even more.

Lillibet’s own RIDE, the ocelot Guinevere, was the other positive influence. Months ago she’d described Lillibet as “spoiled but not rotten”. The young woman was now well on the way to being much fresher.

Rhianna made some mental notes and looked up work schedules, assigned Apprentices to specific employees to mentor them for the next week, then sent the information to all parties. The Freerider Garage was one of the places students from the Uplift Community College RIDEtech Program could get hands-on training and certification. Lillibet had actually enrolled in a summer class, paying full non-resident fees of course.

“Is that Lillibet Walton?” Zane asked. “Lillibet Walton, up to her elbows in oil and dirt?”

“The one and only,” Rhianna said. She looked at the Integrate tiger sideways. “Are you following me, Zane?”

“I’m following you perfectly,” Zane said. “Hard work is often a good thing for the idle rich. Just look at me.”

Rhianna rolled her eyes. “That’s not what I meant.”

“Actually, I did want to talk to you, if you’ve got a moment,” Zane said, leaning against a tool cabinet.

“About what,” Rhianna said flatly.

“Well, for starters, this.” Zane held up a hand and one of the shop data tablets floated across from a table into it.

“Very impressive,” Rhianna said. “Do you also juggle? I’ll bet you’re great at parties.”

“No, seriously, look.” He waved a hand over the tablet, filling it with data. “McDonnell-Nextus C-217 Starmaster decommissioned military drop shuttle, part of a lot we got in from Nextus army surplus last month. We use them for heavy cargo transport to and from our mining platforms and other facilities, but we have to buy them in lots, so we often end up with more than we need at any given time. We usually place the extras through dealers at a slight profit, but I’ve just told them to make this one available for you at cost paid, if you want it.” He handed the tablet across to Rhianna.

Rhianna took it, looked at it. The price was…maybe a little on the low side for a single purchase, but overall reasonable for that model of bird. It wasn’t as if Zane was simply offering it as a gift—but there was little to no difference in her mind. Given that he’d also all but forced the money on them that made their purchase of it even possible. “You were just gonna put us in touch with your dealer so we could make our own selection, weren’t you? Why bring this up now?”

“It just occurred to me that in that room back there you’ve got a very confused and lost young lady who is also a very good pilot. I pulled her—their—records. They were consistently Sturmhaven Fast Couriers’ top performers. Live to fly. Heh—last name’s even ‘Live-in-sky’. That might be what caused them to Integrate.”

He paused a moment, then continued. “Fully rated on everything from skimmers up to full orbital shuttles. Even holds a provisional license to operate intra-system spacecraft, and was working toward qualifying for FTL in her spare time.” He shrugged. “Anyway, I doubt she’s going to want to go back to work for SFC like she is now. Which means she’s gonna need a new job. And I figured that this is probably the kind of sub you’d be looking for anyway, so why not put her to work right away?”

“We’ll need to look it over first, make sure it’s in top condition before we say yes,” Rhianna said politely. In her mind, a spark of anger grew. I don’t need this. It’s too much bird. Please, stop, Zane. She wished she could say that aloud, but he was on such a roll she could barely get a word in edgewise.

“How about a test flight? We could all go out to the Brubeck private aerodrome and take your sub down to my mining platform. I don’t think I’ve ever shown you the place, and you could be there for my historic first board meeting as an out-of-the-closet Integrate. Something to tell your grandkids about. Oh, and I’ll have Myla meet us there, since as my bodyguard she should go too.”

Rhianna frowned. “I don’t know, this is all a bit sudden. It’s too mu—”

“You really ought to see the RIDE maintenance bay. You know we use hundreds of RIDEs of all makes and models in the mining process, and sometimes we need to service dozens of them at once, so we have all the latest equipment and lots of great people to work it. No one in your league, of course.”

Rhianna’s lynx ears actually swivelled forward at that. She shook her head, but actually smiled. “Zane Brubeck, you should be an elevator operator. You really know all the right buttons to push, don’t you?”

Zane smiled faintly. “I doubt that, or I wouldn’t have whiffed so spectacularly when I asked you for a dance last night.”

Rhianna’s ears lay back and her smile disappeared. “Yes, about that,” she said in much colder tones. “I already told you—”

“Look, I would still like to take you out sometime, but it’s not what you think,” Zane interrupted. “I may be rich, but you already know I’m not some kind of playboy who boinks anything with a pulse. I’m not doing all this to try to get into your dress—hell, when we first met you were wearing pants. I’d just like to show you a fun evening with no pressure or commitments because you’ve helped me a lot—both of me—and I honestly like you. No more, no less, and no expectations at the end of the night besides a ‘sleep well and see you later.’”

Rhianna raised an eyebrow. “Is that what Shelley got?”

“Shelley was born on this planet same as I was and grew up with…well, the way things are around here,” Zane said. “So it would have been safe for me to ask, and safe for her to answer either way. Not that I’m going to say if I asked or how she answered, since that’s between her and me.”

Rhianna turned away and crossed her arms. “And she’s also gorgeous, while I’m just ‘adorable,’” she growled, her frustration finally surfacing. “You wouldn’t want to sleep with me, unless you were going to cuddle me like some kind of stuffed kitty toy.”

Zane put a hand on her shoulder. “No, actually, that’s not it,” he said gently. “If I thought you seriously wanted to sleep with me, with no reservations, I’d be happy to boink like bunnies until the early morning hours. But you’ve got a different problem, and I don’t think it’s one you’ve even thought about.”

Rhianna half-turned back. The angry spark turned into a flame. Did he even realize how he sounded? Rhianna doubted it. “Another problem? Are you going to psychoanalyze me now, too?”

“It’s like this. You’re not from around here. You grew up in a world where men were men and women were women, and anyone who wanted to change over was thought of as some kind of…well, perverted social deviant. That’s still coloring your thinking.” He shrugged. “You use your ‘adorability’ as a shield, but what you’re protecting is that even you aren’t sure if you’re ready to ‘go all the way’ yet.”

“What about Rufia?” Rhianna said. “Rufus came from Earth, too—right up the block from me, figuratively speaking. But she’s never hesitated, even since she was a she.”

“But she was also bi, even before he stepped off the ship,” Zane said, smiling at his own typically Zharusian use of mutable pronouns. “Already used to being attracted to people as people, not as plumbing. Wasn’t much of an adjustment for her. At least that’s my guess.” He gently turned Rhianna the rest of the way to face him and put his other hand on her other shoulder so he could address her squarely. “You, on the other hand, strike me as someone who was only interested in girls until the change, and now you’re still not sure, deep down, whether you’re even ‘supposed’ to be interested in boys.”

Rhianna looked down, her face flushed. Is that all I am? Just ‘attracted to plumbing’? You…you…insufferable…insulting…dickweed! But she was so angry she could only stammer. “But that’s…I don’t think…”

Zane blithely continued on. “So all I’m asking is, if you want to go out with some boy to see how it goes, why not go with one who understands that and won’t go tromping through the minefield without checking to see what numbers are in each little square first?”

Zane dropped his hands from her shoulder and straightened up. “I realize I probably haven’t helped my cause with all the breaks I’ve been giving you. I don’t want to put you in a position where you feel like you owe me anything. So I won’t ask you about it again. But I sure would like you to ask me, sometime. So maybe think it over, ‘kay?” He grinned at her. “Now I’d probably better get back to Cindy before Quinoa manages to convince her that all meaties are evil or something.”

He turned and left the bay, leaving a very confused and enraged Rhianna behind, still holding the tablet in one hand. She threw it against the Deuce’s side in frustration, hard enough to shatter it and snarled in sheer, pent up rage. In the last five minutes Zane managed to flay her to the bone and didn’t even realize what he’d done. She looked for something else to break, then shattered two more tablets. “If that’s what being an Integrate does to you, fuck it! I don’t want it! And fuck you, Zane! You stuck up, arrogant, patronizing bastard!”

She hated one-sided friendships. Zane threw millions of mu around like it was pocket change. It was like having a hundred-meter cargo skimmer full of gold she never saw coming dumping its entire crushing load on her head, leaving her a rich corpse. There was a fine line between fair wages for services rendered and what Zane was doing. Instead of gold she’d been crushed by a suborbital she couldn’t afford to keep, a pilot she couldn’t afford to pay, and worst of all, a standing offer of first-time-as-a-woman sex with him. More than a girl—than anyone—could take. “STOP HELPING ME, damnit!” Rhianna fumed, pacing around the empty service bay.

Was this what being Integrated did? Give you a superiority complex deeper than the Towers? Even the dinosaur and the unicorn she’d met a couple days ago had an air of condescension about them, though it wasn’t nearly as bad as Quinoa’s, and now Zane’s. Choked up with outrage and sadness, Rhianna put out a call. :Kaylee! I need you! You’re not going to believe this.:

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As Zane walked back toward the private garage, he was met coming out by Quinoa, who had a very intense look on her face. “You’n’me need to talk, mister. Care to step into my office?”

She held out a hand—and a moment after Zane took it, fired her lifters and zoomed straight skyward, holding up her other hand to part the hardlight skylight in this section of the garage for just long enough for them to pass through it. Once they were in the clear, she picked up speed, and Zane belatedly kicked in his own lifters to avoid having his arm yanked out of the socket. “Hey, where’re we—”

Quinoa didn’t answer, streaking skyward faster and faster—past the lanes of traffic, past the warning buoys indicating a hardlight ceiling only a hundred meters further up. Her arm still upheld, she opened a circle in the hardlight dome over the city for long enough to pull Zane through it with her.

Zane touched down on the smooth surface, then his feet slipped out from under him as he found it was entirely frictionless. He caught himself with his lifters and hovered just a few inches over the surface, as Quinoa was already. “All right, what’s this abou—”

“You know, you’ve got some gall calling me spoiled,” Quinoa said, hands on her hips. “If this is what you do with your money, I fear for the world when you come into your full Integrate powers.”

Zane blinked. “What are you talking about?”

“What you did with that poor woman down there,” Quinoa said, pointing back toward the garage, over three kilometers down.

“You were listening?”

“How could I not, the way you were broadcasting. We’ve got to work on that more. Later. But the point is, I dipped into Uncia and Kaylee’s memories of your earlier conversations to get up to speed, and all I can say is you’ve got a lot of nerve. Rich I might be, spoiled I might be, but at least I don’t try to buy my friends!

“I wasn’t trying to—” Zane began, but Quinoa wasn’t ready to let him complete a sentence yet.

“Now I’ll buy one-night stands, sure. What’s really fun is when I meet some cute boy who wants a RIDE, and I tell him I’ll buy him a nice one, but only a female one. Then I know I’m the very last girl who’ll have him as a boy for at least three years, and maybe ever. It really adds spice to the evening when they know it, too.” She shivered and gave a happy little sigh. “But those are all one-and-done. They give me what I want, I give them what they want, we go our separate ways, everybody’s happy. I don’t hang around them and give them more and more crap, and pile on more and more feelings of obligation. She can’t return your so-called ‘generosity’ equally and you damn well know it!”

“But I’m not…” Zane stopped and looked at her. “You really think that’s what I’m doing?”

Quinoa patted him on the shoulder. “Trust me. That’s what you’re doing. Now I haven’t said anything about what you’re doing with Myla, yet. You fixed my screw-up, I don’t have room to complain about that. But by God don’t you dare try to pull any of this, ‘oh, here have some more stuff! And some more! And some more!’ crap with her, or by God I swear you’ll know what pain is. And don’t you dare even think about asking her out.”

Zane stared at her. “I wouldn’t ask her out, she’s my bodyguard. That’s not professional.”

“Well at least you still have some scruples,” Quinoa said. “But have you even thought about what you’re piling onto Rhianna? That ridiculous salary for making your DIN? Well…maybe not ridiculous when you’re paying meat for doing it, I guess, given how much harder everything is for them, bless their little hearts, but still. But you just don’t stop. And then you’re all, ‘I don’t want you to feel like you’re under any obligation or anything, but wanna go out and boink?’ Good God, you’re gonna suffocate that poor woman! And…‘attracted to plumbing’? Patronizing much?”

She paused. “Now, mind, I do think you were kind of right in what you said about her ‘adorability’ problem and what she’s hiding behind it, but that just makes it even worse—nobody likes to have unpleasant truths about themselves thrown in their faces like that.”

“I thought you didn’t like ‘meaties’ that much,” Zane said. “Why are you suddenly arguing for her?”

Quinoa shrugged. “I call out cruelty when I see it,” she said. “I yell at for people for kicking dogs, too; that doesn’t mean I think the dogs are my equals.”

Zane looked away, out across the Dome. Fliers were entering and leaving the city through the ports on one of the other domes, and high above a blazing comet tail heralded a suborbital coming in. For a moment he almost felt his Dad standing nearby, giving him the quiet disappointment that was always much, much worse than being ranted at. Okay, Dad. I get it. I get it. This is why you didn’t want more money than we needed to live on.

“You’re right,” he said at last. “Thing about being raised middle class is you don’t really get used to having money. You get in the habit of doing little favors for friends, then when you have money your ‘little’ favors are other people’s life-changing events.”

“There’s nothing wrong with life-changing events in moderation. Especially when it’s making a new crossrider. I have to admit, I love talking guys into going girly. It’s so much fun to see how much they’ll sell out their manhood for, and then ask you how to adjust to their new lifestyle.” She giggled, then turned serious again. “But you don’t keep doing it to the same person. If you really like Rhi and Shelley, Kaylee and Uncia, the best thing you can do for them is take yourself right out of their lives for a while. No more favors. No more you. Let them earn their own way.”

She poked him hard in the middle of the chest. “If you and they want to keep doing business after everything cools off, then have them deal with your company’s HR department for pay, not you directly. It’ll put some distance between you and the money you’re offering. It won’t feel like a special favor so much. Get it?”

Zane nodded slowly. “I guess you’re right, there. Which is weird. I never thought I’d be saying that to you.”

“We all have things we’re smart on and things we’re stupid on,” Quinoa said. “I seem to be stupid on forcing things onto people with my powers, but smart about forcing them onto people with money. You seem to be the other way around.” She sighed. “Which brings me to another point.”

“What’s that?”

“Fritz may be wrong about meaties and mechies—I say may, the jury’s still out on that. But you seem to be acting like he’s just a big blow-hard who talks loud but can’t back up his talk. You’re going to send Integrate business to Rhi and Shelley, and you’re going to go public with being an Integrate in charge of a major corporation. And I’m not saying you’re wrong. Again, jury still out.”

“I hear a ‘but’ coming,” Zane said.

Quinoa nodded, starting to drift in a circle around Zane. “Look, where Fritz is involved you’re playing with fire here. Again, he’s not just some random malcontent. He’s…what to call him? Fine, a demagogue. A lot of Inties agree with him and follow his lead.

“You’re a n00b, Zane.” He almost swore he heard her pronounce the zeroes. “You don’t even know your own systems. On the other paw, Fritz is in full possession of his powers—he’s had literally decades to figure out the most effective ways to use them. And he’s got other Inties on his team who feel the same way—like that ‘Brena’ fox-chick I talked about earlier. He’s got her wrapped around his finger. And the most any other Integrates will do to stop them is maybe kick them out of their enclaves. They’re kind of stand-offish like that. But even that doesn’t matter. There are plenty of places in the Dry Ocean Fritz could establish an enclave for himself, too. Maybe already has. So big whoop. Out of sight, out of mind for everyone else.”

“So you’re saying he’s going to cause trouble for me?” Zane asked.

“For you, for your business, and for anyone around you,” Quinoa said. “He might be starting even now, if he’s heard about Rhi and Shelley’s DIN-making services. He’ll start out as a nuisance, but he’s gonna escalate real fast. You might wanna think about how important your ‘not gonna hide’ principles are, and whether they’re worth you, your company, maybe the whole damn polis coming under a full-out cyber-assault from the best hackers on the planet. You’ve poked a hornet’s nest.”

“Will I have you to help me stand up to him?” Zane asked.

“Undecided, but leaning toward probably not,” Quinoa said. “Understand, you helped Myla after I screwed up her life, so I do owe you big time. But do I owe you enough to paint that kind of big red and white bullseye on my butt? I know Fritz. I know what he’s capable of. You don’t, or you’d be scared as hell at the thought of getting him even a little bit annoyed at you, and I can see you still aren’t. And I’m nowhere near in his league.”

“I see,” Zane said. “So why are you even still here, if you think I’m in that much danger?”

She shrugged. “I’m mainly gonna stay around in the hopes that I can keep stuff from splashing onto Myla too bad, and maybe any other innocents I can protect without getting Fritz directly mad at me. I might even tell him so. Hell, if I can cut a non-interference pact with him to keep the meaties I do care about safe, and he can be trusted to stick by it, it might be worth it.”

“I see,” Zane said again. “Well, thanks for telling me where you stand, at least.”

“Look, I’m sorry,” Quinoa said. “I like you, for all you can be stupid sometimes. And for what it’s worth, maybe it’s time someone stood up to Fritz and yanked us all kicking and screaming into the light. But I know my own limitations, and I don’t do anyone any good if I end up a bug on Fritz’s windshield.” She stopped circling and hovered in place. “Anyway, I’ve said my pieces. I’m going back to the garage.” She opened another hole in the dome and dropped through, closing it behind her.

Zane stared after her for a long moment, then looked back out at the sky, sitting and thinking. What she’d said had hit home—all the more because he hadn’t expected that kind of insight from a “spoiled rich girl.” And given how right she’d been about Rhianna, was she also on target about Fritz? Was he really going to be that much of a threat? He was a lot less inclined to dismiss what she said than he would have been this morning. And he guessed he had been dismissing Fritz as little more than an idiot based on the opinions he held. But an idiot with a gun could kill lots of smarter people, and if Fritz had the kind of power Quinoa said…well.

He sighed. Regardless of what the truth was about Fritz, he was starting to realize that he owed Rhianna one hell of an apology for his insensitivity. He opened a hole of his own in the dome and dropped through. Probably best to go and get that out of the way.

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Kaylee, feeling her rider’s anger and distress, came running and Fused with flying leap. After absorbing Rhianna’s recent memories the RI was just as pissed off as her rider. :That…that…arrogant sonofabitch!: she fumed. :I don’t fucking care if he means well! He has no idea what it’s like to build a business from nothing, then suddenly just have everything handed to you! He thinks he can just pile shit on…: Kaylee’s mental voice degenerated into inarticulate growls as she read her rider’s buffer.

:I don’t care if he even comes back.: Rhianna admitted to herself. She was very familiar with greed, having tried to do business with Qixi and others, but being smothered in generosity like this felt even worse. :I need to do something with my—our own hands. Ideas, Kaylee?:

They turned their shared head to the Deuce, having the very same thought. :You know, we don’t need a D-O skimmer, but we could use another towskim,: Kaylee said. A parts list and design changes came up on Kaylee’s HUD. “It’ll take some deeper modifications to the Deuce chassis. The grav-thrusters will need moving out to wing nacelles to make room for a centerline grav-tow crane, modular lifter pods for larger breakdowns, etcetera. And we’ll need some help,” she said aloud.

At the sound of lifters, she looked up. Zane hovered about twenty meters up in his Terry-Fuser disguise. She glared at him. “What now? You going to buy me a new Garage, too?”

“I…came to apologize, actually. I was way out of line, Rhianna,” the tiger said, descending slowly to the ground and dismissing the disguise. “I was coddling you and being patronizing on top of that, and I didn’t even see it. Quinoa just knocked some sense into me.”

“Qui…Quinoa?” Kaylee said, picking up the broken tablet. “You kiddin’ me?”

“She might make mistakes with her powers, but she’s had years to learn to use money right,” Zane said ruefully. “I just came into my inheritance last year, and all I could think was how much I could help people out with it. I didn’t think about how it would feel to be helped. So I went too far. And then I started in on that little lecture…which ended up coming out of my mouth a lot different than it was meant to be in my brain.” He sighed. “I’ve wronged you—both of you—and I don’t know how to make good. God, if Dad could see me now, what would he say?”

“We just need some space,” Rhianna said, cooling down little by little. “First of all, I’ll be doing my own shopping for a suborbital. That Starmaster is much too big for my needs. You’re hauling heavy equipment and even small amounts of ore between shore and mining rigs, I’m just trying to score repair jobs from smaller operators out in the Dust or even around Old Smokey—I don’t do salvage like Qixi does. I’d lose money just on aerodrome fees and maintenance on a bird that size. I want something small enough I can keep in an on-site hangar.

“Also, I can’t afford to pay a pilot, over and above all that. I have flier certification myself, and getting a sub endorsement is a one-time cost. See what I’m getting at? You don’t know what I need. I run a small business, not a multi-billion mu mining company.”

“Okay, there I see your point. I swear I can feel Dad facepalming. He always did that when I did something stupid.”

“Well, listen to that ‘inner Dad’ of yours,” Rhianna said, waving a piece of broken tablet at him.

“I will be.” Zane sighed. “Listen, if you want to come to the meeting, tour the platform, whatever, I’d still be glad to have you, but I can understand if not. Apart from that, unless something comes up, I’m going to stay away for a while.”

“Yeah. We—all three of us—need to cool down.” Rhianna flexed her feline fingers. “And I need to do something more hands-on, and for that matter, macro instead of nano.” She looked at the old Deuce. “The old girl has possibilities…” she said to nobody in particular.

Zane nodded. “Anyway, if you don’t want to hire Cindy, tell her to apply at Brubeck if she wants a new job.”

“Uh huh. See you later, Zane. But not for a while, I think.”

Zane nodded. “Yeah.” Then he lifted back out the skylight, and was gone.

From high exaltation of a job well done and being flush with cash, to the depths of anger and despair, and then back out again, in thirty hours or less. It was almost too much to take, but brooding over it would only make things worse. Fortunately she had the means to occupy herself right there: the 40-year-old Deuce.

Kaylee sent texts to all five Apprentices, including Lillibet—especially Lillibet. They gathered around, three of them with RIDEs Fused up, the two without carrying the tools listed in their mail, wearing their interface specs. “Okay, bosslady, what’s all this?” Lillibet asked. “Extra credit?”

Rhianna-Kaylee nodded, ready to get her handpaws dirty. “Yep! Starting today you’re going to learn how to tear down and rebuild a classic pre-war Sturmhaven Skymotors CS-2 ‘Deuce’ cargo skimmer, used by civilians and military alike. Don’t worry about making mistakes, there’s still about ten thousand of these sitting in salvage yards if we need to get replacement parts we can’t fab here. We’re going to modernize her and give her a new life. Heat em ‘up, everyone! Let’s make some noise!”

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“What is all that noise?” Rochelle said as Enigma finally completed its analysis. The first version of Cindy’s translation software was almost ready. While it compiled she checked the exterior cameras around the lot. Rhianna and the Apprentices were attacking the Deuce like lions swarming over a fresh zebra carcass. Rochelle sighed as she recognized Rhianna’s frenetic, slightly twitchy body language, and the way the little nub of Kaylee’s tail was jerking back and forth. That certainly hadn’t changed with the crossover. Something had set her off, and she was busy working off some mad—and it seemed she had everyone else in the garage working it off with her.

:Whatever it is, Kaylee doesn’t want to talk about it,: Uncia said.

“I think I can shed some light on that,” Quinoa said quietly, appearing right next to Rochelle.

Rochelle jumped. “Gah! Don’t do that.” Uncia growled slightly.

“Erm…sorry.” Quinoa at least had the grace to look embarrassed. “Forgot I had that on.” She shook her head. “Afraid your boyfriend got too big for his britches.”

“My…you mean Zane?” Rochelle asked.

“Yeah.” Quinoa shook her head. “For someone as perceptive he is about motes in other peoples’ eyes, he sure can miss the logs in his own. Tried to put some moves on Rhianna without stopping to think how that was gonna look after all the money he’s been throwing around, and apparently forgot to eat his tact flakes at breakfast this morning. But I smacked him down and he apologized to her and Kaylee, so I think everything will be okay in a while. At least where they’re concerned.” She nodded toward the garage.

Rochelle shook her head. “I was afraid something like that was going to happen. Well, I guess even Integrates still have lessons to learn.”

“Yeah, listen, about that…I’m really kinda worried about you guys,” Quinoa said.

“Oh, really?” Rochelle asked archly. “Worried that the ‘meat’ might spoil and you’ll have to clean out the fridge or something?”

Quinoa rolled her eyes. “Look. I know you’re good.” She paused perhaps just long enough to add “for meat” under her breath, though Rochelle didn’t actually hear the words. “But I could, for example, root every system in this garage, right now, from standing right here, past any protections you might have put on them. That’s not a brag, that’s just a fact.”

“Oh, really,” Rochelle repeated.

“And I’m just a kindergartener when it comes to this stuff. Just know enough to take over people’s vehicles and fly them wherever I want to, put on a pretty light show while smacking down certain lupine RIDEs too big for their britches, that kind of thing. There are some of us who really don’t like you guys, and some of them have been doing this stuff for decades. And I’m not good enough to protect you, and if I’m not I know for damned sure mister n00b Zane isn’t. If you keep up this biz of making DINs…I just don’t want to see anyone get hurt, that’s all.”

“Hurt by whom?” Uncia asked, tail lashing. “’Cause I’d really like to know.”

“You’re friends of Myla’s, so I hope you don’t ever find out,” Quinoa said. “Anyway, just…be careful, okay?” She glanced over at the sleeping Cindy. “I probably should scram outta here. When Sleeping Beauty wakes up, let her know how to get to my place. Just next door to loverboy’s. I can teach her the basics about her new powers.”

“I know where it is,” Rochelle said coolly.

Quinoa nodded. “See you later.” She lifted off her feet and flew backward through the hardlight garage door, then lifted skyward with her iridescent green wings spread.

“Well, great,” Rochelle said, watching her go. “Rhianna pissed off at one Integrate, the other giving out mysterious warnings of gloom and doom, and new ones popping out of the woodwork. What else is going to happen today?”

The compile finished and loaded into the qubitite memory chip. Rochelle went to pick up Rhianna’s final version of the avian Integrate’s connector. The fabber tank was reading a little low, so she absently ordered a raw material delivery for the next day. She put the DIN together—this one used a sleek flier communications blister that looked less like a jewel. Then she tapped Cindy-Tally on the shoulder to wake her.

“That’s it?” the bird-woman said. “Well, plug it in.”

“All right, here you go.” Rochelle socketed it into place. “Now you’re going to want to run this through your home fabber, or a public fab if you don’t have a home one. Nothing in it can’t be duplicated, and you’ll want to keep plenty of spares against emergencies. Think of it as like glasses, when people still needed those.”

Cindy’s eyes literally brightened. “Wow! That’s…this is amazing! I can’t thank you enough. But I’m not sure where I should go next. Not sure if I can get in my own door, but there was this place called Terrania I was told…”

“Well, before you go out there, you should probably check in here, first.” Rochelle sent over Quinoa’s address. “Quinoa’s staying there right now—you met her earlier—and she can give you the full orientation. It’s not as far to go as one of the Enclaves, and you can land right on her balcony.”

Cindy hopped off the makeshift perch, then awkwardly crabwalked towards the door. “I will. Thanks again! I don’t mean to be rude, but I gotta fly!”

Rochelle nodded. “Good luck, and take care.”

On the exterior cameras Rochelle watched the new Integrate spread her wings. Her body reconfigured itself, fingers melting into the leading edges of her wing-arms, making them true wings, body changing to a more bird-like shape and stance. There was a sharp whine of high-speed lifters and the Cooper’s Hawk streaked skyward.

Rochelle turned back to her console. “Okay, now that’s out of the way, let’s get back to our other project. I want to have a preliminary index for Kaylee by quitting time tonight.”

“But you said it wouldn’t be ready until tomorrow,” Uncia said.

Rochelle grinned. “I know, but I’m trying to build a reputation as a miracle worker.”

“But if you rush a miracle worker, you get a lousy miracle,” Uncia pointed out.

“Oh, hush up, and Fuse up. We’ve got work to do.” She hugged her furry friend and slipped inside.

An hour passed and nearly a quarter of Kaylee’s memory blocks were re-indexed, when Quinoa’s words came back to haunt her. Instead of speaking about it “openly” with their normal Fused speech, Rochelle decided to go deep, back inside her RIDE’s personality core, adding layer upon layer of her very best encryption as she went. Eventually she was in the silvery room where she had once battled the lupine Amontillado virus to the de-rezzing.

“She said she could root everything in the Garage,” Rochelle said to her partner’s furry avatar. Upon reflection it didn’t sound like an idle boast. It fit with everything else she’d seen thus far. “Everything. If she can do that, Un-hon, we have some work to do. Let’s get Kaylee’s job finished quick. We have another long night ahead. Just open a new folder, call it ‘Sneaker’ and bury it deep down here with you.”

“Got it, Shelley,” Uncia said. The labeled manilla folder floated in the “air” next to them. “I just hope…”

The RIDE programmer put her fingers on the snow leopardess’s lips. “Let’s not tempt Murphy more than I already have tonight.”

Preceded by:
Integration Part IV: Dating Games
FreeRIDErs Succeeded by:
Integration Part VI: All Aboard!