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User:Robotech Master/Parallels Clementine

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Return to Totalia, Part Two: Parallels
Part Two: Clementine

Author: Robotech_Master, JonBuck, & Jetfire
Author's Comments

This story can be downloaded in PDF, EPUB, Mobi (Kindle), ODT and RTF format from this website, as "Totalia Parallels.". Note that this e-book comprises both Part 1 and Part 2, and will have Part 3 added when it is complete.

Foreword

Here, as promised, is part two of Totalia: Parallels. Remember that this story takes place simultaneously with the other two parts, though some parts of it take place after parts of the previous one. (In particular, an early scene with Zane here picks up right after a scene with Zane in “Visitors” ended.) As with the other two parts of Parallels, this picks up where Totalia: Prelude left off; you might want to re-read it to catch up.

Remember when you read the dates in this story that the Zharusian calendar consists of not twelve but ten months of thirty thirty-hour days each, named for Earth months but missing February (because it’s shortest) and August (because, really, who cares about August?). This has the side effect of making September, October, November, and December actually match up to the 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th months for which they were originally named. So just remember, on Zharus, March comes after January, and July jumps right into September.

You might wonder why we used Zharusian dates even for the parts that take place on Totalia. The answer to that is, we haven’t figured out a way to keep track of calendar dates from two star systems simultaneously, and for the sake of figuring out when everything was happening within the story (especially given that we’d split it into three chunks), we had to settle on the one dating system. Maybe someday if we ever get the means to sync dates, we’ll revise it. For now, if you’re not happy with that, we’ll give you double your money back, guaranteed!

Enjoy!

—Robotech_Master
5/15/2015

Prologue

January 4, 158 AL (Totalia Equivalent)
Totalia City, Clarke Residence

Sitting at the breakfast table, First Speaker Raph Clarke once more reviewed the video records of the former First Tranche’s escape. His breakfast cooled, congealed in the bowl, pancakes and eggs uneaten. The sight of a man flying backward, firing beams from the palms of his hands and somehow shielding the bus. The tiny Zhaursian ship easily taking out their fighters and a detachment of troops on the ground. Then the worst, the mutiny of several Cosmy ships a few days later.

Clarke’s aide, Mehl Gerent, stood fidgeting by the side of the table, a tablet clutched in his hands. “Sir, please. You’ve lost another half kilo. You must eat something. Nectar may be good for the soul, but it’s a poor substitute for actual food.”

“I thank you for your concern, Mehl, but I am quite healthy,” he replied coolly. Clarke picked up his cup of moderately alcoholic nectar. The drink was made from a sweet native plant that supposedly resembled strawberries in taste, though certainly not in raw form. Not that Totalia had that particular crop. Clarke’s own grandfather, bless his soul, had been one of those with enough clout on Earth for the fleeing colonists to bring the major cultivars with them. Corn, wheat, rice, apples, oranges, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, and a few others, combined with some genetically engineered versions of the native primitive plants. Said plants were pulped, turned into a semiliquid, then printed by foodlathes into somewhat appetizing shapes. “What’s on the agenda for this morning?”

“There’s good news and bad news. Which would you like first?”

Clarke sighed. “The bad, I suppose.”

“Second Speaker Quincy’s making another fuss about how we should be ‘tightening the belt,’ imposing martial law, and going all out to find the Traitors and wipe them off the map.” Gerent rolled his eyes. “I honestly think that if we hadn’t suspended them for the duration of the emergency, he would have called at least three votes of no confidence on you by now.”

“Just as well for us that we have suspended them, then.” Clarke sipped his drink again. “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to put another bee in General Tilson’s bonnet about expanding reconnaissance flights. Maybe that will placate him for a while. I do wish imposing martial law were as simple as Quincy seems to believe, but it wouldn’t work. It was bad enough keeping it in effect for two weeks after we took over. The people would storm the Totaliment by nightfall if we tried it again.”

“Yes, sir.”

Clarke shook his head, dismissing it. “Let’s have the good news now. What is it?”

“Latest weapons reverse engineering report from the labs, sir,” Gerent said, handing him a tablet.

Clarke gulped down more nectar and read the report, flipping through photos and some video. The captured Traitor weapons had proved quite easy to reproduce, and R&D were already making rapid improvements. The phrase “massive scalability potential” caught his eye.

He authorized R&D to follow up on that, and marked it Supreme Urgency. Let the Traitors keep up with that, no matter what ‘help’ they may have gotten from that…whatever that was.

Thinking of the First Tranche’s Zharusian rescuer and its ship, he called up the after action report on that again. Video from the fighters’ gun cameras showed something armored and obviously not human, performing incredible maneuvers and firing blasts of energy from his hands.

“It’s a giant metal ferret, sir,” Gerent said. “I had a ferret as a pet as a child. It’s definitely a ferret.”

Clarke glared at his aide. “If I want your opinion, I’ll ask for it.”

“Never stopped me from speaking my mind before, sir. That’s why I’m your aide.”

When they had left Earth in search of a new home, the Totalian colonists had brought ferrets instead of cats. They were understandably popular pets. Totalian land-based animal life were insectoid with a few pseudo-reptiles. For this alien to show up in the guise of one seemed a remarkable coincidence, at the least.

Clarke sighed. “What can be the significance of such a thing? I suppose the escaped Scouts sent back notes on our culture. Were they attempting to send some sort of message with this?”

“It’s probably pointless to speculate without further information.”

“I suppose it won’t be long until we can simply ask them,” Clarke said dryly. “Make sure R&D is exploring all possible avenues of use of this new weapon technology, including scaling it up. We’ll need every advantage we can get when they come.”

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Southwest of Totalia City

Breaking-and-entering is a three year minimum sentence, former SWAT Lieutenant Beck Hensley thought. The Cyclone’s on-board computer, better than anything from his own world, broke the weak encryption on the datacenter’s lock in seconds. “You’re clear, Sims,” he whispered to his partner-in-crime.

Technical Sergeant Merie Sims nodded and slipped inside while he stood guard. The Cosmy Marine was one of the dozen the Zharusian Scout had brought with him from the Kybalion. She and the other eleven Marines were doing their best to turn a rabble of a Resistance into a reluctant fighting force.

These are people we will have to live with again after the war is over. Whoever won—though Beck was certain it would be the Loyalists—preventing a permanent division amongst his fellow Totalians was a monumental task. One that still lay in the future, though possibly not that far in the future, if they managed to dislodge the Zealots before the Zharusians arrived in force.

“I’ve got the repeaters wired in,” Merie reported over the encrypted comms that had been another gift from Joel’s ship. “Both the clunky obvious one and the sneaky one. Hopefully it’ll give us at least two bites at the apple.”

“Good. Come on out. We should be clear to—hold on. Picking up something.” Beck double-checked to make sure the arm-mounted pulse cannons were set to heavy stun, then moved to the corner of the building and reached around, the periscopic lens on the bike’s armored gauntlet relaying the image of a half-dozen SWAT cops moving up. Aw, shit. Some of ‘em could be old buddies of mine. That was one of the most un-fun things about this gig, the people on the other side.

There were probably the same amount coming around the other side of the building, too. And they were carrying bulky rifles of a sort Beck didn’t recognize, but had some guesses about based on their configuration. “Shit. Whole SWAT squad. They’ve got pulsers. You run for it, I’ll try to draw them away.”

“But if there’s a whole squad of them—”

“That’s an order, Sergeant. I can take the hits, you can’t. Go.”

“Sir.” Merie dashed through the door and broke into a run, while Beck stepped out into the open and triggered the Cyclone’s PA speakers.

“This is Beck Hensley, formerly of Totalia City SWAT. Some of you might know me. I respect you for doing your jobs, but I don’t respect the assholes who seized power, so I’m afraid I’m going to have to make your jobs harder. So either you drop those guns and retreat, or I will open fire.”

The pulse blasts started coming before Beck had even finished his speech. “That’s the way you want it, eh? Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Beck marked all the SWAT troopers with the armor suit’s eye-tracking targeting system, set the pulse intensity to maximum stun, and then pulled the trigger.

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Kybalion, Approaching Isis

Captain Sandeep paced the bridge nervously, watching the violet ice giant grow on the screen. This meeting had been months in the making, mostly through coded messages exchanged with the Loyalist forces on Totalia. A group of low level officers on the Seed of Truth had had enough of the Zealots’ zealotry, and had taken over their ship. Now they were waiting in Isis orbit for the Kybalion to arrive and the first face to face.

“Still clear,” the tactical officer called out on the quarter hour.

Sandeep nodded his acknowledgement of the report and forced himself to sit down. Every spare eye was watching the sensors, alert for any sign they were walking into a trap. He wanted it to be true, to have another ally out here, to show the Zealots weren’t winning everything. At the same time, he wasn’t naive enough to trust something so awfully convenient.

“Relay spotted, exactly where they said they would leave it. Shall I signal?” the communications officer asked.

“Go ahead.”

Kybalion to Seed of Truth. We are approaching Isis. Please acknowledge.”

The bridge was silent in anticipation, the minutes ticking by slowly until a response came through.

Seed of Truth to Kybalion. We receive you. It’s good to hear from you. We’re more than a little nervous about this.”

The voice that answered sounded young and nervous. Sandeep could relate; the officers that had lead the revolt were all young, fresh from the Academy. That they had the nerve to stand up to their seniors like they did spoke much of them.

“This is Captain Sandeep. To whom am I speaking? Sandeep asked.

A few minutes later the answer came in. “Lieutenant Roswell, sir. And may I say, you’ve been a hero of mine for years.”

“No need for the hero worship, lieutenant. History will sort that out when we’re done. Now this is a secured line, why don’t you send us some rendezvous coordinates and we can figure out where to go next.”

“Aye-aye, sir. Coordinates being sent now.”

Sandeep looked to his navigator, who nodded. “A bit closer to Isis than I might like, but they’re valid.”

“Set course and take us in,” Sandeep ordered. “Lieutenant? We’re on our way. See you soon.”

“Thank you sir, we’re looking forward to it.”

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A few hours later, the Loyalist Cosmy ship was decelerating into an orbit around the ice giant. They had spotted the Seed of Truth, and were able to communicate directly.

“We see you Captain. Won’t be long now,” Lieutenant Roswell reported soon after they saw him.

“So do we. How are things aboard ship? The Zealots giving you any trouble?” Sandeep asked.

“A little. We caught the senior staff by surprise, got most of them in the brig before they realized it. Here’s a live shot from the brig to show you what we have,” Lieutenant Roswell sent a video file along with his voice signal.

Sandeep looked at his comm officer. “It’s clean,” the officer reported before showing it in a corner of the screen. The video showed a crowded brig filled with angry men and women, most of them in night clothes. The rebellion had happened late in the night shift when most of the senior staff was off duty.

“Looks like you have your hands full there. We’ll help you sort things out soon,” Sandeep reassured the young man.

“Thank you sir, we can use all the help we can get.”

Sandeep muted the signal and glanced around the bridge. “How does it look? Any threats?”

“None we can find. No sign of anyone here but us and the Seed of Truth,” the tactical officer reported.

The communication officer looked up with a frown. “Sir, there is an incongruity with the video signal. They said it was a live feed, but the metadata in the file says it was recorded five days ago.”

“He’s young and inexperienced, and thrown into a bad situation. Maybe it’s the wrong file.” Sandeep give the resistance fighter the benefit of the doubt. “Any change with the Seed?”

“Nothing obvious… but I don’t like this, something feels wrong.” The tactical officer keyed some instructions into his console. “I’m not getting any target locks, but watch its orientation since they saw us.”

The screen flickered and centered on the view of the other Cosmy ship. When they had first seen it, it had been in a standard orbital orientation. In the time since it saw the Kybalion, its orientation had been slowly shifting.

“It’s pointed right at us.” Sandeep sighed, his hopes crushed in the core of the gas giant.

The tactical officer nodded sadly. “They’re almost in an optimal firing position now.”

“It could be a coincidence. Helm, jerk us away a little. Like we’re dodging a rock.”

“Aye sir.”

The Kybalion shuddered as its engines burned, pushing it to starboard. Almost immediately, maneuvering thrusters on the Seed of Truth flashed, turning it to keep a soft lock on it.

“Roswell to Captain Sandeep. Is everything alright?”

“We’re fine Lieutenant. Just dodging some invisible rocks.”

“Understandable, sir. Can never be too safe out here.”

Sandeep muted the connection again and looked around. Part of him wanted to believe that the Seed of Truth had truly flipped. Every other part of him was acknowledging the truth; they had waltzed into a trap.

“Bring us around slowly, main weapons to bear on the Seed of Truth. And keep your eyes peeled behind and around us. I don’t think we’re alone.”

The mood on the bridge turned grim as the crew geared up for battle. Sandeep waited until his ship had a soft lock on the Seed of Truth before speaking again.

“Sandeep to Seed. Congratulations on such a well-constructed trap. We waltzed right into it. Our mistake—one you can be certain we won’t make again. Rest assured, while we walked into your trap, we will walk right out of it. Stand down and let us leave and no one needs to get hurt.”

“A trap, sir? I don’t know what you mean.” Lieutenant Roswell sounded puzzled.

“Play dumb if you want. Don’t think we didn’t notice the soft lock you have on us. We’ve got one on you too now.”

“Targeting systems just went live. We’re painted,” the tactical officer called out. “I’ve lit them up as well.”

“Start evasive maneuvers. Don’t fire unless they fire first.” Sandeep strapped himself into his seat and waited.

A new voice spoke from the Seed of Truth. Sandeep recognized him as the Seed’s captain, Bilko Marnais; not quite a friend to him even before the rebellion, but an associate nonetheless. “I’m sorry, Captain Sandeep. We had hoped this could have gone more easily.”

The Seed’s weapons lit up, blaster fire shooting across space and scraping the side of the Kybalion. The Kybalion’s weapons lit up in return, a volley of missiles following the blaster shots. As the flagship of the fleet, the Kybalion was able to give considerably better than it received. Moments later, the tactical computer downgraded Seed of Truth’s status to non-threat as it lay there, engines down and leaking air in a dozen places.

The tactical officer whipped his head around to look to his captain. “We have movement behind us. Two more targets.” On the Captain’s small screen, the targets lit up. The new ships were in higher orbits and behind the Loyalist ship. Sandeep felt a chill run down his spine, but he kept the fear from showing on his face.

“Full power to engines. Get us out of here. Fire on targets of opportunity. Keep them back.”

“Aye sir!” echoed around the bridge, and the great ship shuddered from the impact of more weapons. Sandeep stayed quiet, at the mercy of orbital mechanics and the skill of his crew now.

The good news was, they’d forced the trap to spring early. If they’d come in fat, dumb, and happy all the way to the end, there would have been no escape. But breaking off this early, there was still a window they might be able to squeeze through, if only barely. Even so, they were going to come within range of the other ships’ heavy guns for a good couple of minutes before they could break away. Murmuring a prayer to whatever Totalist or other powers might be listening, Sandeep clenched his fists around the armrests and waited for the end.

Chapter 1

January 13, 158 AL
Brubeck Mining Corporate Headquarters, Uplift

Zane found Madison and Agatha in the executive lounge, competing on the replica Dance Dance Revolution machine in the corner. Madison was holding her human shape, and barely holding her own against her sister as “Kick the Can” played, accompanied by a rapid-fire series of arrows.

Finally it ended, with Agatha winning by a hair. The sisters high-fived each other, then stepped down and turned to see Zane. “The winnah!” Zane applauded. “Funny, I’d have thought Integrate reflexes would make this game too easy.”

Madison shook her head. “It takes a lot of concentration to hold shape still. That’s why I’m doing this. Practice. If I can hold my shape and play DDR…”

“When she does it in her normal shape, she beats the hell out of me. And she’s getting better game by game. I’m probably gonna lose the next one, so maybe I should quit while I’m still ahead.”

Madison pouted. “Awww, don’t deny me my victory! Anyway, what’s up, Zane?”

“Another torp just came in from Captain Roberts and the SOL. And I just had a visit from Commander Lee.” He chuckled. “Given how much you’ve been seeing of her already, I figured it was kindest to leave you out of it. Anyway, here’s the data.” He held up his arm and flashed a signal across from his DIN to Madison’s.

“Thanks…give me a sec to spend a couple hours reviewing it.” Madison relaxed into her natural shape, fur sprouting, tail and muzzle growing back.

Agatha sniffed. “Cheater. I’m surrounded by cheaters.”

“Oh, oh God. Barb…” Madison gasped. “And Joel’s a… Well, um.”

Agatha frowned. “Can I have the executive summary, please?”

Zane nodded. “Joel Roberts’s ship got hit by an invisible space rock, he made contact with the Resistance—or the Loyalists, as they call themselves—helped rescue a whole bunch of them, and is bringing some home to meet Mama. Oh, and he’s a secret humaniform Integrate himself. Not so secret anymore, though, to us or the Totalians. And Barbaretta got seriously injured in a Resistance op, so he’s bringing her home, too, in cryo.”

Agatha raised an eyebrow. “Well, that’s certainly a summary.”

Madison tilted her head. “You know, from what everyone says, Joel was always a little weird. Talked to his ‘Magic Voice’ a lot. There was that Mystery Science show obsession. I suppose it makes sense in retrospect.”

“Disappointed you’re not going to be the first Intie in the system after all?” Zane asked.

“Well, I was never going to be the first Intie. Not when I arrived at the same time as you and everybody else. I suppose it’s a bit of a relief I’ll have less explaining to do when I get there. Maybe I learned this whole shapeshifting thing for nothing.”

Agatha patted her on the shoulder. “Come on, Maddie. Learning a skill like that is never for nothing. Keep at it.”

Samantha spoke up. “We will. I want my four paws on the ground in the Real again.”

“All right, all right.” Madison chuckled. “We’ll work on that next.” She shook her head. “It’ll be nice to see Teenette again. She was really disappointed Samantha wouldn’t Fuse with her. And Darrek is the one who gave me the idea of looking for Kendlen Canton in the first place.”

Zane nodded. “So you said. I’m looking forward to meeting them in person, too. Our first honest-to-goodness Aliens from Beyond Known Space. Even if they are human ones.”

“And Barb should be fine. If nothing goes wrong when they tip her into a shell.” Madison chuckled. “Man, I’ll bet she’ll be pissed off about losing all her ink. I showered with her—it was the only way we could talk privately in the prison. She had planets from her neck to her knees.”

“Given the alternative was to lose her life, maybe she won’t mind so much,” Agatha suggested.

“I don’t think I can really guess at that without asking her. Anyway, I’d better go hunt up Marcus and give him the news. He’ll be glad to know both the others survived…for some value of surviving. Hamner didn’t exactly come off so well either.”

“Better than they could have been, in both cases. Yeah, let him know. We’ll be wanting you both on hand when they get here.”

Madison snorted. “Oh, then I’d better hurry. We’ve only got, what, six months to get ready?”

Agatha smirked. “And isn’t that time just gonna fly?”

“I guess I should let Clementine’s bunch know about this,” Madison said. “They’re our main expert consultants on matters of Integrates and space travel, after all.”

Zane nodded. “They already know pretty much everything else, and they’re good at keeping secrets, so yeah. Next time you see them, I guess?”

Madison nodded back. “I was going over there for more shapeshifting practice this afternoon anyway.”

“It’s finally my turn to get a new shape!” Samantha added.

Madison turned back to the DDR machine. “Buuuut, we’ve still got an hour or two. ‘Twilight Zone’?” She took a deep breath and shifted back to her human appearance again.

Agatha rolled her eyes. “Yeah, soooo gonna lose this one…”

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Later that afternoon, Madison dropped through the dorsal cargo hatch and headed to the dojo where Eva was already waiting, seated in the lotus position in meditation. “Hey,” Madison said.

Eva opened her eyes. “Hello, Madison, Samantha. I take it you’re ready for today’s lesson?”

“Boy, are we!” Samantha said.

“But there’s something we need to talk to you about, first. You’ll probably want to get Wilma and Ghostie in here for this. We’ve had another message torpedo.”

A few moments later, Wilma van Dalen and Ghostate strolled in, and Clementine’s holo-avatar appeared. “What’s happening?” Clementine asked. “More news from Totalia?”

“Is there ever.” Madison uploaded the data packet to Clementine, who passed it on to the others.

Eva blinked. “Well, that’s certainly an…eventful scouting trip.”

Wilma facepawed. “So much for being the first Intie scouts. What does all this mean for the fleet, though?”

“Full legitimacy, for one thing,” Madison said. “There’s a world of difference between, ‘We should go and do something about that, because reasons,’ and ‘Hey, these guys are asking for our help.’”

“But we’re months before the fleet is fully prepared and ready to fly, and since the SOL is coming home that leaves them with no coverage,” Clementine said. “I really don’t like the idea of leaving the Resistance to fend for themselves for that long.”

“Maybe they can send a single ship, right now?” Eva said brightly. “It’d show that we have a commitment to follow through on their request. And maybe by the time the rest of the fleet arrives they won’t really be needed for shooting things. Captain, what do you think?”

“I think we need to go chat with Zane and maybe Commander Lee,” Wilma said. “We should also put together a team of infiltration experts and some war materiel for the Resistance. If we can get our hands on a mil-spec fabber…”

“Don’t get too carried away,” Ghostate advised. “Or we might not be ready to leave very long before the rest of the fleet.”

“Well, draw up whatever plans you need to, and we can talk them over,” Eva said. “But right now, it’s time for Maddie and ‘Mantha to have their next lesson—which is more important than ever if we’re not going to be here much longer.”

“If you’re really going to try to head to Totalia, I’d love to come with you,” Madison said. “Of course, I know I can’t. I have to motivate people here.”

“Speaking of motivations, I promise we’ll have you on four paws before the morning’s over,” Liis said. Her form shifted until she was nearly a physical double of Madison’s base form, except for her spot pattern. “Since we may not be here tomorrow. Shall we?”

“Please,” Samantha said, turning her hands into forepaws. “Now, how do we get the rest?”

“Pay close attention, and I’ll show you,” Eva said. “We start like this…”

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January 17, 158 AL
Scout Headquarters, Uplift

The older Brubeck siblings were the last to arrive for the hasty meeting in Commander Lee’s office with Captain van Dalen and her crew. A System Security Committee representative was also present.

“Oh good, you’re here,” Lee said to Zane and Agatha. “Now we can really get started. Go ahead, Captain. Give them the same proposal you just gave the rest of us.”

“Our aim here is straightforward,” the arctic vixen said. She had rezzed a Starfleet dress uniform for the occasion. “We send one ship able to bring enough personnel and materiel to Totalia to show their legitimate government that we mean what we say. The way things are going it’ll be September before the main fleet even leaves Pharos space.”

“That one ship being the Clementine and your crew?” Commander Lee said.

“We have the space, the speed, and the means,” Wilma said. “We can take up to eighteen more Integrates and humans with us, and more RIDEs who are willing to come.”

“This was a lot simpler when we were only going to be sending the one fleet, all at once,” Commander Lee said dryly.

“No plan ever survives contact with the enemy, Commander,” Zane said cheerfully.

“We just need people with the right skillset for infiltration and military training,” Eva said. “After what happened with Captain Roberts, the Zealot government will have some idea what we can do, and will be working hard to produce countermeasures.”

“My chief concern is how this is going to look—both there and here,” Commander Lee said. “History is replete with examples of governments secretly trying to topple other governments, and eventually getting exposed amid great scandal.”

“I’m inclined to give this my stamp of approval,” the Committee representative said. He gestured at the recording bird on his shoulder. “This is a military operation at the behest of a government-in-exile that asked us for assistance. We are recording everything for posterity and it will be declassified in due time.”

“I’ve stated my objections,” Lee said. “But I’m not prepared to veto it if the rest of you feel it is a good idea. For what it’s worth, I hope you’ll do some good out there.”

“I’d like to be in subspace in ninety hours,” Captain van Dalen said. “We’re fully armed. We just need the supplies and materiel, and probably a message for their government.”

“We’ll have that part ready for you,” Zane said. “I’m calling in Socah Gates for military advice. She can help you pull together the right people we already have on the fleet. As for materiel…most of the supplies won’t be a problem—you can pick them up at Cerberus. Now, RIDEs…we don’t have anything like enough time to winnow down candidates to send with you on such short notice. Unless…well, I’ve already arranged with the folks who operate RIDEalong Manufactory and Nextus Mechanicals to take along a few hundred of their new units in the fleet. We already have the first batch warehoused.”

“Uh…” Wilma said, taken aback. “Huh. I’d say it’s not an ideal solution, but with those specs we could take a couple dozen in passive storage.”

Madison blinked. “I’m missing something here, aren’t I?”

“Well, you already know most Ris these days are born in the creches rather than made,” Eva said.

“Most? I thought they all were,” Madison said.

“There’s still some people—RIDEs themselves, mostly—who think RIDEs are best made the old way,” Eva said. “The RIDE part of all of us Integrates here—including your Samantha—were built to a personality template and essentially ‘born’ mature.”

Madison nodded. “I’ve got ‘Mantha’s memories of that, I know that part.”

“Well, there’s a couple of RIDEworks still making them that way,” Eva said. “The RIDEs who run them call themselves ‘Mechanists.’ The idea being that RIDEs are not natural and shouldn’t pretend to be. They want to stick as close to the ‘old ways’ as the law will allow, which includes pairing up RIDEs with humans from the get-go because that’s what they were ‘made for.’”

“Of course, the RIDEs they make have the same rights as any newborn RIDEs do,” Zane said. “But they have to pay back the cost of their shells the same as creche-born, and the state of the law does allow indenture contracts. Not so much a concern with ours, of course; I’m not gonna ask them to pay me back. The one thing is, the RIDEworks ships them so the only way to activate them for the first time is to Fuse with them.”

Eva rolled her eyes. “They want to be sure their RIDEs start out with a human partner, just as they did. And the thing is, until the RIDEs are actually activated, the RIDEworks owners are the legal guardians of record and officially entitled to make those decisions.”

Madison frowned. “Hold on. Do we even want to deal with that kind of thing?”

Zane shrugged. “Well, once they’ve woken up and all, the RIDEs themselves are generally as well-adjusted as any made the old-fashioned way ever were. And they are people, who deserve a shot at being alive just like anybody else.”

“And they can’t say no thank you to being bundled off to another planet,” Wilma said dryly.

“I’m not entirely pleased with it myself. But when I told the RIDEworks’ directors why we were looking for RIDEs in large quantities, they said that this would basically make the RIDEs Totalian ‘natives’ with no question of divided loyalties—and they insisted I take them along, to spread the RIDE species to another world and so on.”

“Who’s to say they’re wrong?” Samantha put in. “I can’t imagine what my life would have been like if I hadn’t started out partnered up. My first partner and I learned a lot from each other.”

“We seem to be getting off on a tangent,” Commander Lee said.

“We’ll be happy to take them,” Captain van Dalen said. “Whatever qualms we might have with their manufacturers, you’re right—it is simplest overall, and at this point the simpler the better.”

“Socah’s on her way,” Zane informed. “We’ll work out the logistical details with her, get the Clementine supplied, then send you to the fleet for personnel. All within sixty hours.”

“Works,” Wilma said. “We’ll be ready.”

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January 18, 158 AL
Planetary Advisory Assembly Building, Zharustead, Laurasia

Diplomatic Attache Booker Albescu was deep into his daily review of the day’s message torpedo dispatches when the door to his office opened without a knock. The voice of authority spoke—someone a couple levels over his immediate superior. “Grab your go-bag and meet us at the secure elevator in two minutes.”

“Yes ma’am,” Booker dutifully replied, standing up. She closed the door behind her as he went over to a storage closet then swung the duffel bag inside up over his shoulder. That he had a go-bag to begin with was something of a new thing. His actions at the Zharus Consulate on their sister colony of Wednesday had earned him a promotion. And a promotion meant he would be sent where needed. Which meant he had to be ready to leave the planet at short notice.

The sound of little hooves at a trot joined him in the hallway. “So, where we off to, you think?” the little animal mecha said. “Ibn Rushd? Zheng He?”

Booker smiled and gave the grey tufted deer a sideways look. He was the size of a medium dog, and had fangs instead of antlers. A tuft of gray fur stood up nearly straight atop his head. “No idea, Grey. But it’s better than sitting in an office, right?”

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January 20, 158 AL
Uplift Aerodrome

“I can’t believe you’re just leaving me here,” Geena grumbled. “I’ve been part of your crew for months!”

Eva sighed. “We went over this, Geena. Traveling around the planet and the system is one thing, but I don’t think your Aunt Aeri would appreciate us taking you thirteen light-years away.”

“She’s not really my aunt,” Geena insisted earnestly. “She’s just the woman who raised me. Anyway, we could ask her! I’ll bet she’d say yes! It’s not like she needs me to help run the business, what with Oralie’s selves helping out…”

“Geena, you’re still legally a minor,” Ghostate pointed out. “Even by Alohan standards. Even if we wanted to let you come along, it would look pretty bad to the Council. We’re not just going to another star system, we’re going into a war zone.

“Besides,” Liis put in, “Madison here is still going to need someone nearby to help her with the finer points of ‘shifting. She can’t always be flying out to New Olympos to see Boston.”

Geena pouted. “Aw, c’mon, that’s just make-work! She’s doing just fine on her own.”

Madison shook her head. “We really would be glad for the help, Geena. We’re still finding feral form a little tricky, but you do it so well…”

Geena sighed. “Thanks for trying to make me feel better about it, but this is still really annoying. A whole new colony, the best kept secret in two hundred years, and I don’t get to go see it!”

“We’ll send back plenty of pictures and video for you,” Eva promised. “But that’s the most we can do.” She turned to glance beyond Geena and Madison. “Oh, there are the blank-slate RIDEs we’re taking along.” A skimmer forklift was pushing a lift barge laden with the huddled forms of inactive RIDEs.

“Not entirely blank slate,” Ghostate said. “They had their First Boot and some basic personality assessments at the factory, so they can at least theoretically be matched to humans who’ll get along with them. But yeah, they’re n00bs.”

“They’ve got some amazing tamper-resists on them, too,” Wilma said, joining them. “I looked them over. Very latest DINsec spec and everything. I suppose the Mechanists know how much it galls the activists to make them require a human partner for activation, and want to make sure nobody can meddle with how they want things done. Can’t say I’m terribly thrilled with it myself.”

“But once they’re activated, they can make the same decisions any RIDE can,” Eva said. “Up to and including deciding they don’t want anything to do with that human after all. At least the Mechanists are just as down on fetters as everyone else.”

“Thank heavens for small favors,” Wilma muttered.

In all, on very short notice the Clementine mission was still able to recruit almost two dozen people. They were mostly Integrates, a few human/RIDE pairs, and some human infiltration specialists. Some of these had already been sent ahead to the new Fleet staging point in the outer system, and they would pick them up on the way out along with the rest of their supplies. Others had already boarded and were settling in. The ship being as small as it was, many had elected to enter cryo-sleep, passive mode, or the Integrate equivalent for the duration to stay out of the way, and most of those were already down and sleeping.

“I wish I were coming with you,” Madison said.

“Not half as much as I do,” Geena muttered.

“Anyway, we’ll pass on your message to Kendlen when we see him,” Eva said. “Won’t he be surprised?”

“I’d hoped to show him ‘the new us’ in person, but…” Madison shook her head. “If he’s going to hear about it anyway from the news-and-info package we’re sending, he should hear about it from me first. Tell him I’ll see him in a few months.”

“Will do, Scout Pilot Brubeck,” Wilma said.

“Cargo secure, Captain,” Clementine announced. “We’re ready for dustoff.”

“We with you the best of luck, Captain van Dalen,” Samantha said, shaking Wilma’s hand.

“And thanks again for the ‘shifting lessons,” Madison added. “You’ve shown me some pretty amazing stuff.”

“The galaxy is full of amazing stuff,” Liis said. “And thanks to you, we’re going to get to go see some more of it.”

Geena grumbled again. Wilma grinned at her. “Be good until we get back, kiddo. There’ll be other trips, I promise you.”

Geena sighed. “All right, fine. Good luck with it.”

“Thanks.” Wilma nodded. “Let’s be on our way, then.”

As Wilma and the others headed up the boarding ramp, Madison put a hand on Geena’s shoulder. “Come on, we’d better clear the runway.”

“I really wanted to go along,” Geena sighed, following her.

“You’ll get to, sooner or later.”

“I want it sooner, not later. You know, I could look older if I needed to.”

Madison rolled her eyes. “You heard what Ghost said. They can’t bring a minor into a war zone.”

“But only half of me is a minor! My RIDE half is fully-grown. I could be her instead…”

Madison just shook her head. They turned to watch the Clementine rise majestically into the air and exit the dome. “Good luck, guys. See you on the flip side.”

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“Is there anything else you need, Ambassador?” Clementine asked inside the somewhat cramped quarters. “Are you certain you want to stay out of cryo the whole trip?”

“This’ll work just fine, Clementine. Thank you.” For the next ninety days this would be Booker’s place to study Totalian culture. Bed, desk, charging nook for Grey, and wardrobe. His two assistants were already sawing logs in cryo, and Booker envied them that a little. But given his overall responsibility for the diplomatic mission, he couldn’t afford to waste a moment of time to bone up. He would dine with the crew and the few other passengers who had decided to remain awake.

As if Clementine had sensed his thoughts (and who knew? Depending on how well she read body language, she might have), she said, “The Captain sends her compliments, and wants me to remind you we’ll be eating in the mess in 45 minutes.”

“Thanks. We’ll be there.”

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January 21, 158 AL
Cerberus

“Not really much here yet,” Clementine reported. The plutoid in the space before them had one completed dome about a kilometer in diameter, built in one of a close-set trio of craters. The other two glimmered with pinpricks of light that showed welders in action and constructors hard at work.

“Not too surprising. They only started planning this, what, last month?” Eva said. “I’m surprised they’ve even gotten this far building the infrastructure.”

“No kidding.” Wilma considered the dome thoughtfully. “And we’re supposed to complete our crew here?”

“Well, the crew won’t be actually dirtside yet, but they’ll be in one of the ships serving as temporary barracks nearby until the domes are ready for offloading. We’ll be docking with some of them later.” Gigi glanced at her console. “And I’ve got a line on the last of the supplies we need. We’ve got clearance to snag the crates directly out of their parking orbit. Hobnobbing with CEOs hath its privileges.”

“We have a communication request from the dome,” Clementine reported.

Wilma nodded. “On screen.”

The caller was an older man with slightly slanted eyes, wearing a Colonel’s boards. “Colonel Nguyen,” Clementine explained while keeping it muted. “Supervising officer, Cerberus base.” She unmuted. “Go ahead, Colonel Nguyen.”

The officer looked vaguely annoyed. “Captain van Dalen?”

“Yes, Colonel. Thank you for meeting us on such short notice.”

“I understand you are here to retrieve supplies and personnel. We only just received word, and I must say, this is highly irregular. This sort of request should have come through channels instead of just being dumped in our lap at the last moment.”

“It was a last-moment sort of mission. I’m sure you have ample experience by now of just how scrambled the chain of command can be sometimes,” Wilma said soothingly. “Believe me, it caught us by surprise, too. Forty-five hours ago we were in Zharus atmosphere.”

The Colonel seemed slightly mollified. “Yes…well. We’ll do our best to have you on your way quickly. Let us know if you need anything.”

“Will do, Colonel. We’ll let you get back to your work. I’m sure you must be very busy.”

Nguyen nodded, and the transmission flicked out. Once he was safely off the screen, Wilma rolled her eyes. “Petty bureaucrats are the same the galaxy over. If we didn’t need their cooperation…”

“Your rigid self-control is an inspiration to us all, Captain,” Liis deadpanned. Wilma rolled her eyes again.

Clementine coughed. “Wilma, I’ve been checking their manifests. They have a mil-spec compact fabber—just ten cubic meters—that will just fit in the cargo space I have remaining.”

“Is it on the list of material we’ve been cleared to take?” Gigi asked.

“Well, no,” Clementine admitted. “But it’s a Sampo MR6. It can make everything from foodstuffs to DE parts. And it’s just the right size for Resistance needs based on Captain Roberts’s report.”

Wilma nodded. “Snag it if you can. We’ll be gone before they know it’s missing. We can ask forgiveness later if need be—but odds are, they’ve got at least two dozen of those things floating around and will probably never miss one.”

“Not much organization out here,” Clementine commented. “They’re just dumping stuff into a parking orbit and leaving it. With a plutoid this size, it doesn’t take much to fling anything past escape velocity.”

Wilma frowned. “This late in the game? I don’t know if that bodes well for the fleet getting left on time. If we weren’t on a tight schedule ourselves…” She shook her head. “Drop a note to Zane suggesting he should have someone look into it.”

Clementine nodded. “Will do, Captain.”

Wilma shook herself. “Let me know when we’re ready to dock to take on crew. I’ll be in my ready room.”

“Affirmative, Captain.”

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A few hours later, Wilma and Liis were waiting by the airlock as it unsealed to admit the first of the rest of their crew, boarding from the Nextus ship S.S. Montefeltro. First to come aboard was to all appearances a generic cervine Integrate—a stag with a pair of swirling hardlight lenses on his hips. As he approached, that image shimmered and shrank into an equally nondescript young human man.

“Bit of a showoff,” Liis said quietly.

“Hey, Captain. Permission to come aboard?” he asked.

Wilma nodded. “Granted. Welcome aboard the Clementine.”

“Thanks. I don’t know if you remember me, but we met briefly in the aftermath of the whole Fritz thing. Though I was in a different body then. Quantum Silver Star Bernie Thompson, Marshals. Undercover specialist.”

Wilma nodded. “I remember you. You were on the team they sent in to inspect the Coffeehouse after we secured it. Brainboxer, aren’t you?”

“I was.” Bernie grinned. “Thanks to one of my fellow Marshals, not anymore. I got a full RIDE scholarship!”

“Uploaded to a core?” Wilma said.

The hardlight skin flickered off, leaving…a rather unorthodox metallic skeleton, studded with compact emitters. When the skin came back on, a woman stood there. She smiled. “Like I said, undercover specialist. The name’s ‘Brooke’ when I’m like this, by the way. Or just call me ‘B’.”

“I can relate, B,” Eva said.

Liis laughed. “Intie-grade hardlight shapeshifting, eh? Well, we’ll see how to work that into our plans. Welcome aboard, Marshal Thompson.”

“Thanks. But I’d better get out of the way and let the rest of the gang stomp aboard in their big stompy boots.”

“I can show you to your quarters, if you like,” Eva offered.

“I just need a place to plug in. I’ve always lived more inside my head than out.” Brooke changed to a doe form, much like Eva’s. “Lead on.” They stepped away, leaving Wilma alone at the hatch.

Next to come aboard were a group of four soldiers wearing combat fatigues, carrying duffel bags over their shoulders. Their leader had lieutenant’s bars. Behind him were a sergeant and two corporals. They saluted. “Permission to come aboard, Captain?”

“Granted, Lieutenant…Rowcliff, was it?”

“Yes, ma’am. This is Sergeant Stebbins, and Corporals Cramer and Skinner. We’re the infiltration specialists you requested.”

“Very good. Is that all your equipment?”

“Yes, ma’am. Our specialty is making use of the resources we find within enemy territory. Carrying too much gear would just slow us down.”

“Great. We’ll show you where to stow it, and get you settled in. Is anyone else coming behind you?”

“No, ma’m. We’re the lot.”

“Good.” She pressed the switch to seal the airlock, then keyed the intercom. “Van Dalen to Clementine. Everyone’s aboard; release the clamps and we’ll be on our way.”

“Affirmative, Captain,” Clementine replied.

“Now, if you soldiers will follow me…” Wilma led the way into the ship.

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The leopard-woman on the screen shook her head. The blocky video compression artifacts around her flickered with the movement. “Sorry, Booker, one of the things we didn’t get to do was attend any sort of Totalist religious service. We didn’t want to risk too much interaction once we’d escaped—”

Booker waved a hand. “I know, I know. I don’t blame you, Maddie. It’s just something I’d hoped to have someone’s perspective on, rather than just what I could read out of the books you scanned. I’m glad you saw as much of their culture as you did.”

“Is there anything else I can tell you? You’re jumping in half an hour. I’ll be out of reach ‘til the fleet gets there.”

Booker chuckled. “I’m sure there are whole volumes you could still tell me. I really wish someone had figured out ahead of time that any ZDC diplomats who could be sent that way might need more time for briefing. But I think we’ve covered enough that another half-hour wouldn’t make a lot of difference. Wish we could have gotten together in the flesh, though.”

Madison nodded. “’Mantha and I would have liked to meet you in person, too. If I’d thought of it—”

Booker shrugged. “Who knows; if you had, maybe they’d have assigned someone else and we’d miss the chance. Just have to take a rain check on that ‘til you get there. If everything goes smoothly, I’ll be buying you dinner in Totalia City in a few months.”

“And if it doesn’t go smoothly?”

Booker grinned. “Then I’ll have to let you buy me dinner, because I probably won’t be able to afford it.”

They shared a laugh over that, then Booker said, “Much as I wish we didn’t have to go, Captain Van Dalen promised me I could say a few words before we jump about the importance of the mission. If I don’t want to miss my chance, I’d better do that now. It’s been a real privilege talking with you.”

“Same goes for us. Good luck with the mission. Break a leg, or whatever it is they say in diplomatic circles.”

“I think the proper expression is ‘Don’t cause an interstellar incident.’” Booker chuckled. “We’ll do our best.”

“I have every confidence in you. See you on the flip side.” The signal cut out, replaced by the standard “Clementine” screensaver.

Booker took a deep breath, let it out, then stood up and straightened his jacket. “Well. I guess that’s that.”

“Yep.” Grey nodded. “That is definitely that. They don’t get any more thatter.”

Booker snorted. “That’s not even a word.”

“Sure it is. You use it yourself. Now ‘thatter’ is another story…”

Booker swatted the little deer lightly on the back of the head. “C’mon, let’s go give the pep talk.”

“Like they don’t already know how important the mission is.”

“It’s not really about lecturing them. It’s about getting acquainted now that the pressure’s off to get us out of the system. But then, you already darned well know that.”

“Yeah, but like most diplomats, you like to hear yourself talk. So I try to give you every opportunity!” Grey dodged out of the way before Booker could swat him again.

Chapter 2

May 6, 158 AL (Totalia equivalent)
Totalia, Outer System

“Captain, we have realtime connection to the sensor probe network,” Clementine announced. For the occasion her holotar was in Vulcan mode. “Data is coming in now.”

“Thank you, Clemmie.” Captain Wilma van Dalen shifted position in the Captain’s Chair, staring ahead at the viewscreen. “Now we see if the mods we made to the Scout survey probes actually work.”

“No anomalies so far, Captain,” Clementine said. “DINcom bandwidth is holding steady at 56k baud. We can hold that bitrate for weeks if need be.”

The Clementine had jumped in a week before, hopscotching from a preliminary entry point a good distance outside the Ra system to a new point about a quarter of the way around the system rim. This was the same spot that the Zharus fleet would use when they came in. It was hoped this would put them out of range of any Zealot patrols that might be expecting new arrivals to use the same entry point the Scouts had.

Since then, the Clementine and her cobbled-together crew had put into motion the deployment plan they’d developed before and during the voyage from Zharus. Their equipment was a mix of modified Scout gear—like the cloaked System Survey Probes—with bits and pieces from the Rangers, Marshals, Integrate Enclaves, and various Gondwana militaries. In addition to the probes they’d dispatched in all directions, they had also left DINcom-equipped communication beacons for instant communication with the Great Western or any other Zharusian ship that might arrive.

First order of business was to rendezvous with the Kybalion and Captain Sandeep, but they had to find the ship first. With the Totalium-coated hulls, even Integrate-enhanced sensors were having trouble. There were signs of a major battle around Isis, the outermost gas giant. But judging from the debris trajectories, that had been weeks ago, with no evidence of which side had won.

“If we can’t find them, they’ll have to find us,” Wilma decided. “Joel said he’d left modern Scout comm gear with them. We should be able to transmit on frequencies they can pick up but the Zealots can’t. Use the probes to echo the signal; they might be closer to one of them than us.”

Clementine nodded. “Opening hailing frequencies now, Captain.”

“Right. So now we wait.” Even if they were relatively close to one of the probes, it could still take minutes for the light-speed signal to reach them, and minutes more for a reply to come back. Assuming they were even still out there at all.

The next half hour was a fairly tense one on the Clementine’s bridge. If the Kybalion wasn’t still around, it would throw their entire main plan into doubt, and they would have to figure out some other way to contact sympathetic forces in the system. Fortunately, after twenty-eight minutes had passed, Clementine reported, “I’ve received a communication from the Kybalion, via one of our probes. They’ve sent coordinates for a rendezvous near one of Isis’s moons.”

Wilma nodded. “Excellent. Lay in a course. What’s our ETA?”

“At our best in-system speed, and given our stealth requirements, we’ll make it in just under two days.”

“Good, plenty of time to get the rest of our diplomats out of cryo and bring them up to speed. Eva, Liis, see to that.”

The winged deer Integrate nodded. “Aye, Captain.”

“Did Captain Sandeep or Fleet Admiral Frankel include anything about their status?”

Eva grimaced. “They did. It’s not pretty, Captain. They need our help.”

“I’ll see what they need the most and warm up the fabbers,” Clementine said.

Wilma sighed. “Something tells me this is going to be a long two days.”

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They had closed to within two light-seconds of distance before the first video comm request came in. “It’s a fairly low-powered signal, even by our standards,” Clementine reported. “Either they do not wish to risk detection, or the battle damage to their ship is preventing them from transmitting a stronger signal.”

Eva nodded. “Or could be they just wanted to wait until we were close enough to talk in near-realtime, and are using just as strong a signal as they need. So…do we pick up, or let the machine take it? No offense, Clemmie. I don’t know if it’s a good idea to reveal ourselves yet.”

Wilma frowned. “We knew we were going to have to face them sooner or later. And we agreed that using human disguises would likely rebound to our disadvantage when the truth came out.”

“Ugh, I’m still not sure if I should be in a mammal form,” Ghostate said, changing to female cheetah, then back to barn owl again. “This face is going to creep them out.”

“We’ve gone over this, Ghostie,” Liis said. “You’re fine in that form.”

Clementine shrugged. “Given their society’s incipient xenophobia, I imagine it would probably not make much difference either way.”

“Right. Well, the longer we put it off, the longer they have to wonder what we have to hide.” Wilma waved a hand toward the main viewscreen. “On screen.”

In a flicker of static, the image of the ruggedly-handsome captain of the Kybalion appeared on the screen. There were a few differences from the images included with Joel’s report, however—most notably the patch over his left eye, and the scar that led through the eye and down his cheek.

:Wow, Captain Harlock much?: Liis sent along a sideband.

:Shush,: Eva replied, with a chuckle emoticon.

“Hello, Captain Sandeep. I’m Captain Wilma van Dalen, and this is my crew. We were just in the neighborhood and thought we’d stop by.”

For four seconds, Captain Sandeep’s expression didn’t change, then his remaining eye widened. “You’re, ah, more than welcome, Captain van Dalen. As you’re aware, our ship has been extensively damaged. We’ve had word the Resistance on Totalia itself has had mixed progress as well. How many ships have you brought with you?”

“Just the one right now, I’m afraid,” Wilma said. “The main fleet was still being organized when we left. They hope to be ready in just a few more months.”

Four seconds later, Captain Sandeep nodded. “Ah. Bureaucracy is universal.”

“Just like hydrogen,” Wilma agreed. “But that being said, we brought a team of diplomats, a team of special forces infiltrators, and certain…specialized equipment with us. We might not be able to win your war single-handedly, but we can start laying the groundwork for a peaceful solution.”

“And we have some decent medical equipment on board, as well,” Liis said. “I don’t know if we can fix your eye, but we could replace it with cyber until the bigger ships get here.”

After the communication delay, Sandeep waved a hand dismissively. “A number of my crew are much worse off than this. Perhaps if there’s time after you see to them.”

Wilma nodded. “We’ll be delighted to, Captain.”

“Well. Good, then.” Captain Sandeep cleared his throat, visibly nervous. “Ah…you do realize, you’re…not exactly what we were expecting. Captain Roberts was quite remarkable on his own, but…” He trailed off.

“But at least he still looked human?” Eva chuckled. “Yes, we know. You grow up on movies featuring bug-eyed alien invaders, and here we are, obviously not quite human anymore.”

“We considered adopting disguises, but we thought it would be best to get the shocks out of the way as quickly as possible,” Wilma said. “But don’t worry, we have regular humans with us, too, including our diplomats. We’ll let them do most of the heavy lifting as far as face-to-face contact is concerned. Just as well to ease into things.”

“And just as well it happens now,” Ghostate put in. “The fleet is going to have plenty more of us.”

“I…see.” Sandeep mulled that over for a moment, then nodded. “Regardless of how you might look to us, you have extended the hand of friendship, whereas the ‘pure humans’ of the Zealots have enslaved our planet. I have little doubt there will be some who are…not as flexible as we might hope, but I think most will be glad enough of your help.”

“We’d like to offer the services of our fabbers and crew to repair your ship as much as possible,” Wilma said.

“We will be glad for any help you can offer,” Sandeep said emphatically. “But we can discuss that in person when you arrive. At your present trajectory, that should only be a matter of hours now.”

“We’ll look forward to it, Captain. Clementine out.”

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The ship that was waiting when they matched orbits was considerably more battered and scarred than the version from Joel’s report. Several gun turrets were unpowered or outright missing, and whole sections of hull were torn open, the deck inside exposed to space. Ghostate shook his head. “Even with the supplies we have, they’re going to need the services of a shipyard to fix everything.”

“It’ll be better than nothing, anyway.” Wilma looked to Clementine. “Have they sent docking instructions?”

“The hatches are blown on that docking bay the Satellite of Love used,” Clementine informed. “We have adaptive docking gear that will work for one of their standard ports.”

“Dress uniforms, everyone,” Wilma said, rezzing her own Scout-style uniform. The Clementine and her crew had been made honorary Scouts for this mission after some fast-time simulated training. She suspected it was a matter of saving face for the Scouts, given that the Clementine was going regardless—so they might as well be Scouts while they were there. The past few days had seen a lot of preparations, getting the Totalians used to the idea that most of who they were about to meet were no longer human. “With all due respect to Joel, we’re essentially in a First Contact situation,” Wilma said. “Unless there is a security risk, no disguises. We are what we are.”

“Repair teams are ready, Wilma, just give the word,” Liis said.

“What about our diplomats?”

“Ambassadors Albescu and Grey are waiting in the ready room,” Clementine reported. “I’ve been keeping them briefed, per your standing orders.”

Wilma nodded. “Then let’s go and introduce ourselves.”

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Captain Sandeep awaited them by himself on the other side of the airlock. He offered a crisp salute as they boarded, which Wilma and the other crew returned. Ambassador Booker Albescu nodded politely. “Welcome aboard the Kybalion, Captain van Dalen, Ambassador Albescu. I wish it could be under better circumstances.”

“As do we,” Wilma said. “If I might be candid, I’m surprised you didn’t meet us with an honor guard.”

Sandeep shrugged. “I wanted no misunderstandings, and a platoon of armed men would send the wrong message, even if their uniforms were bright and shiny.”

“We appreciate that,” Booker said. “There’s plenty of potential for misunderstandings already, the situation being what it is.”

Sandeep nodded. “Besides, I honestly don’t have the people to spare. The able-bodied are all on damage control and repair teams.”

“We’ll be happy to lighten the load for you there,” Eva said. “This is an amazing ship. We’ve all seen Joel’s reports, but I’ve been looking forward to seeing it in person.”

Sandeep smiled tightly. “I assure you, she has been more amazing than she is now. But come, let me show her to you.”

“I’ve never seen a ship this big before!” Clementine said. She had sent along one of her holotar probes. She grimaced. “These damage reports…ugh. Wilma, I’d like to get started as soon as possible with my repair drones. I can use wreckage or junk for fabber matter. The moon down below has some raw materials I can use, too.”

“This young lady is…?” Sandeep said, looking closely at Clementine’s pale skin and neon blue hair.

“I understand Joel briefed you on ‘Reticulated Intelligences’,” Wilma said. “Perhaps he didn’t mention our AI cousins, the Eis. This is Clementine.”

“The ‘E’ can stand for ‘Enhanced’ or ‘Evolved’, for preference,” Clementine said in her most friendly tone.

Sandeep raised an eyebrow. “Since you have the same name as the ship you arrived on, I assume you operate the ship in question?”

“Yes, sir,” Clementine said. “Actually, I consider myself to be the ship in question.”

“Your type of AI is fairly common in fiction at home,” Sandeep said with a note of skepticism.

“And usually ends up trying to take over the world, right? It’s a trope dating from the mid-twentieth century when computers were invented. Your culture seems to share a number of common ideals with Earth of that era.”

“I have seen some of the films from back then, courtesy of your Captain Roberts. I can see the resemblance.”

“Luckily, a lot of that paranoia turned out to be dead wrong in the long run.” Booker reached down to give Grey a scratch behind the ears. “But it took them a while to get there. Hopefully it doesn’t take your people that long.”

“I’ve called my Senior Staff together to meet with you after the tour.” Sandeep glanced at the small animal he suspected was anything but. “The faster you can start your repairs, the better shape we’ll be in. Our tactical situation right now is a stalemate. Your arrival tips the balance in our favor, so we should exploit that while we can.”

“If you’ll put me in touch with your Chief Engineer, I can begin coordinating the repairs as we tour,” Clementine offered. “I have plenty of attention to go around.”

“Right now it’s important for my crew to just see you for what you are.” Sandeep gestured down the docking tunnel. “So please, this way.”

Wilma nodded. “We’re right behind you, Captain.” They followed Sandeep into his wounded ship.

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Dressed in his best Zharus Diplomatic Corps outfit, Booker Albescu walked alongside Captain Sandeep deep inside the massive ship, where the three members of the Totaliment-in-Exile (which included their Fleet Admiral) resided. The crew of the Clementine followed just behind.

:Wow. She really took a beating,: Grey sent over secure comm to his implant. The crewmembers hard at work making repairs hardly gave the LRIDE a glance, given the motley zoo that marched along with them. A few of them were too shocked to even salute their Captain, dropping their tools.

Sandeep led them into a wood-paneled conference room, where sat two older men and one woman behind the table. The eldest, who appeared to be in his late sixties by Old Earth standards, rose to greet them.

Captain Sandeep saluted, then gestured at each in turn. “Admiral, I would like to present Ambassador Booker Albescu of the Zharus Diplomatic Corps, Captain Wilma van Dalen of the Clementine, her First Officer Eva Dorset, Second Officer Ghostate, and in a fashion, the Clementine herself.”

Booker noted that he did not introduce Liis, Eva’s body-mate. But such concepts would have to come at a pace the Totalians could handle.

Frankel surveyed the trio of aliens before him, eyebrows raised. “Well…as much as Captain Roberts tried to prepare us for this meeting, I fear that now that the reality is here, we’re slightly flummoxed. Welcome to the Ra system, Zharusians. I had hoped we could give you a more formal welcome, but the flagship is slightly the worse for wear at present.”

Wilma nodded. “I offer the resources of my ship and crew to make repairs, Admiral.”

“Sir, I have as large a mil-spec fabber we could fit in my cargo hold,” Clementine said. “And with the right materials I can fab a bigger fabber for you.”

“So quick to offer gifts,” Frankel said with a note of skepticism.

Booker raised a hand. “If you want to pay us back for them later, you can. The equipment has standard prices, and there are standardized rates of interest on loans. These things can be worked out, once we settle on a rate of currency exchange or other form of trade. What’s important right now is getting you on the best footing we can to take back your world.” He grinned. “Believe me, I understand your position. Your whole culture was founded on breaking away from a culture that was increasingly hostile to you. Ever since then, without any outside contacts to tell you otherwise, you’ve gotten more…concerned about the motives of anyone you don’t know. And you just have the word of a few people to tell you what we’re about. We get that. We’re willing to do whatever we can to show our good faith.”

“We don’t want to become dependent on outsiders,” the second Totaliment speaker said. “Although, in this specific case, getting the Kybalion back in action is not optional. Wouldn’t you agree, Admiral?”

Frankel grimaced. “That practically goes without saying.”

“Our tactical situation is best described as a stalemate,” Captain Sandeep said. “After the last engagement with us, the Zealots have lost enough ships that they barely have space superiority over Totalia itself, let alone the rest of the system. But they control most of the manufacturing in system, both on Totalia and the Bastet Shipyard. The main thing holding them back is manning the ships. They’re all on skeleton crews.”

“Attrition has whittled down the Cosmy to the bare minimum,” Frankel said. “Seven ships. Of the two ships that defected to our side during Captain Roberts’s escape, the Foucault’s Pendulum was retaken by the Zealots and the Law of Learning is keeping busy elsewhere. After this is over, replacing the lost ships—let alone trying to integrate your new technology—will be top priority. Regardless of how ‘open’ we become to the rest of the galaxy.

“Our request for help was genuine, Ambassador Albescu, but not at the cost of our independence,” Frankel said. “We’re not foolish enough to think there are no strings attached.”

“Gentlemen, we’re going to try to be as transparent as we possibly can here. We don’t want to overwhelm you. We just want to give you whatever help you’re comfortable with, and no more than that. Any repayment we ask for will be out in the open, at fair rates agreeable to both of us. No nebulous future ‘favors,’ no ‘offers you can’t refuse,’ and no contracts or agreements loaded with weasel-words. Just help. That’s all.”

“Ambassador, you and I know that you’re catching us at our most vulnerable.”

Booker grinned again. “I know it looks too good to be true, but look at it from our side of things. Earth hasn’t gotten any better over the centuries. Just look at me—my family hails from Endurance, a wildcat colony that wasn’t quite as lucky or smart in where it set down as you guys. Earth scooped us up and dumped us on Zharus with all the rest of their garbage.” He shook his head. “I don’t think Earth would be inclined to try to pull the same thing on you guys this late in the game, but they will find out about you sooner or later. Probably sooner—the Zharus fleet is going to include diplomats from every colony, and it would be a pretty big insult if they left Earth out of that. To be honest, we’re more worried they’re going to be moving on us soon, given that even they don’t have some of the same tech we’re showing you. Totalia is no threat to them—yet. We are.”

He spread his hands. “Trust me, it’s in Zharus and the other free colonies’ best interest to have strong allies—especially ones who’ve developed the kind of radiation-shield tech you have. And it’s also in our best interest to make sure they can’t steamroller over you and take your Totalium if they do decide to try. So if you’re concerned we’re helping you too a bit too much out of the goodness of our hearts, without any obvious thing we’re getting out of it, believe me when I say that there’s just as much in it for us as for you. For all of the other colonies, not just Zharus.”

Admiral Frankel glanced at his two First Tranche comrades, each giving him a nod. “Well, Ambassador, my colleagues find your answers adequate for now. Captain Sandeep, what’s your assessment?”

“The old saying goes, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Although I have never seen a horse in person,” Sandeep said. “We need their help if we’re to get the Kybalion on his feet again. If there was a time and a place begin earning our trust, this is it.”

“Captain Sandeep, it would be my pleasure,” Clementine said.

“Permission for my people to come aboard?” Wilma said. “And, Captain, I should say that you are about to see a horse in person—or at least, a reasonable facsimile thereof. We’ve got a horse RIDE among our technical staff.”

Admiral Frankel glanced to Sandeep. “We have no objection. Captain?”

Captain Sandeep nodded. “By all means. Please begin right away.”

“I’ll warm up the fabbers,” Clementine said. “We’ll get the big guy fully spaceworthy again in no time.”

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A three-kilometer battleship like the Kybalion had a crew numbering several hundreds. The vast majority of the interior space was taken up by reactors, pre-cavorite gravity generators and inertial damping, thorium reactor clusters, fuel stores, support machinery, and engines. “Just imagine what they’ll be able to do with all the extra space once they have cavorite and sarium!” Clementine said.

“Right now we need to ensure what’s inside stays there,” Wilma said. The three attacking ships had raked the battleship with lasers, making hull plating blister and burn, opening interior spaces to space, taking out a number of laser clusters. There were charred areas from missile hits, pock marks from railgun slugs. The Zealots had thrown everything they had at the flagship, but the “Big K” as the crew called it refused to go down.

“You know, we can fab decent amounts of cavorite ourselves,” Clementine mused. “No reason we shouldn’t replace these damaged gravity generators with modern alternatives, is there? It would actually be faster and easier than assembling and installing their spares.”

“You should probably run that by Captain Sandeep first,” Wilma said. “It is his ship, after all.”

“We don’t want to leave them anything they won’t know how to repair themselves,” Ghostate pointed out. “And now isn’t the time to teach them.”

“They’ve still got their spares. If they have to, they can put them back in instead, later,” Clementine said. “Now is the time to get them operational again as fast as possible. You never know, another attack could come at any time.”

“Ghostie, we’re already upgrading some of their lasers to pulse cannons where we can to give them an edge,” Liis pointed out.

The barn owl shrugged. “Fine. If Sandeep signs off on it, sure.”

“Great. I’ll append the request to our next report.” Clementine nodded. “Now, about this ruptured secondary reactor coolant pipe…it would probably be simplest to rip it out altogether in favor of increasing the throughput of the undamaged tertiary system…”

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Captain Sandeep stood in what had been an empty cargo bay in the heart of the Kybalion and peered up at the humming boxy machine that now occupied about half of it, and the large cylindrical tanks that took up much of the rest. A pair of Zharusian technicians were hard at work. One of them was a raccoon that strongly reminded him of his favorite character from Darla’s Front Door—the imaginatively-named Mr. Raccoon. Though this version had a pattern of glowing lines under his fur and wore a rather utilitarian gray jumpsuit.

It was a rather inelegant machine, with a large door three meters on a side where the final products for large items were output, and some smaller trays on one side. It looked rather oddly like some kind of commercial kitchen appliance.

“Initial calibrations are nearly complete, Captain,” the raccoon said. There was a beep, and a tray slid out, revealing a number of perfect solids—spheres, cubes, pyramids, and others. “Ah! Wonderful. All within tolerance.”

“Thank you, Grant. What’s next?” Wilma said.

The fastidious Integrate rubbed his hands together. “We need to work with Totalium to see how well the assembler nannies do with it. Should be only a few hours before we get the knack, then we can fab replacement parts for the Big K’s systems with confidence.”

“Very good, Grant. Carry on.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Wilma nodded, then walked over to Captain Sandeep. “What do you think?”

“So this is the ‘economy-sized’ version of the ‘fabber’ device that Captain Roberts’s ship carried?”

“That’s about the size of it,” Captain van Dalen said proudly. “With this, you can crank out pretty much any repair part you need—or any consumable, though using it for TV dinners is kind of overkill. You just have to have the fabber matter supplies for it.”

“And when we run low, without you to resupply us?”

“In a pinch, you can make fabber matter out of raw materials, of which you have plenty in abundance out here. Nickel-iron meteors, water ice, hydrocarbons…for that matter, you could also throw in worn-out ship parts, garbage, even sewage if you like. Just dump it all in that big recycler tank over there, and the specialized nanites will break it down to its component materials and recombine them into fabber matter, which it will pipe to the storage tanks.”

“Impressive. But if these, ah, ‘nanites’ get out?”

“They shouldn’t, the way these things are built. Even if they do, they can only survive within the tank’s special environment. Take them out of it and they break down right away. No ‘grey goo scenarios’ here.”

Sandeep smiled. “Giving us all this…you are much too kind.”

Wilma shrugged. “Eh…not at all, really. On Zharus, any well-equipped machine shop would have something like this. Maybe not one quite so big, but exactly the same in every other way. It doesn’t cost any more than, say, a mid-range luxury skimmer car. And we’re adding it to the bill we’ll present your government after all this is over, so they don’t have to feel beholden to us.”

“I see.”

“Also, added to the one on the Clementine, it lets us crank out repair and upgrade parts for your ship twice as fast, so we can be on our way twice as quickly, so there’s a touch of self-interest involved, too.”

Sandeep chuckled. “As you say.”

“We’ll be leaving a couple of technicians to maintain it, and train your crew in how to service it themselves. We can pick them up again on the way out, or they can go back with the Great Western.” Wilma led the way over to a row of what looked like four crates along the wall. “And we’re also leaving you these.”

Sandeep raised an eyebrow. “These are four of the RIDEs you brought, aren’t they?”

“Yes. Female fox, male tiger, female horse, male mountain goat. Along with deep space oxygen, maneuvering, and tool paks—and with the fabber, you can make other paks at need. We’ve uploaded the personality specs and surveys to your computer, so you can find the closest matches among your crew.”

Sandeep knelt and ran his hands along one of the compact metallic boxes. “Shouldn’t you save these for our compatriots on-planet? I would not wish to take resources they could better use.”

“We’ve got twenty more for them. But this ship is important, too, and trust me—RIDEs are just as good in space as on the ground. Back home, they didn’t catch on as fast as they did on the planet, but lately we can barely keep up with the demand from the Spacers. They’re strong, sturdy, maneuverable, and versatile—great for damage control operations, internal security, and shipboard maintenance.”

Sandeep inclined his head. “I see. Very well, I will make the quiz available to any who might wish to try. Bear in mind that there may not be many takers.”

“They’ll keep. Once someone goes first, and everyone else sees how well it works out, you’ll get more volunteers, I’m sure.”

Sandeep straightened back up. “We shall see. Is there anything else?”

“There is…one more thing, actually.” Wilma averted her gaze for a moment, then brought it back to Sandeep’s eyes. He raised an eyebrow. It seemed she was about to broach a difficult subject. “One thing we haven’t gone over so much…is something about us. Integrates, I mean. You’ve already seen that some of us can shapeshift. We have other abilities, too. In particular, something about the quantum-organic nature of our processors means that it’s very hard to keep us out of any computer system. Including your shipboard computer systems.”

Sandeep nodded. “Captain Roberts mentioned something to that effect. He explained it was how he was able to escape so readily from Foucalt’s Pendulum.”

“Yes, though I don’t know if he gave you the whole story. Captain Roberts could literally have taken over your ship’s entire computer system with a thought. So could I. At least, until now.”

Sandeep raised both eyebrows. “Indeed? Ah, I do remember just how easily Captain Roberts hacked the Pendulum, and got into our own systems as well. The technicians did say he left it in better condition then he found it, but…” He gave her a rather penetrating look—with his new cybernetic eye, likely on several wavelengths. “I suppose this comes very easily to you.”

Wilma sighed. “Yes. To be brutally frank, far too easily. Zharus has had its share of Integrate troublemakers over the last few decades. These abilities caused a lot of trouble back on Zharus, until someone invented these a couple of years ago.” Wilma held out her hand, on which nestled a couple of small devices. “They’re called DINsecs—because ‘DIN’ is what we call the network interface Integrates use. They will block any Integrates—us or anyone else—from accessing your systems without authorization. Like any security measure, they can be hacked around, but it takes skill and effort. We’re equipping your shipboard systems with these as part of the upgrade process. And you can fabricate more of them with that—” she jerked her thumb at the fabber “—and send them to your allied ships. We brought a thousand kilos of qubitite with us just for this.”

“I see. So you are essentially locking yourselves out of our computers.”

“As we’ve said, trust is important. Of course, you do only have our word for it right now that these things do what we say they do—but sooner or later your people will be able to go to Zharus to make their own investigations. So we want to make sure you find out then that we were completely straight with you now.

“Impressive.” Sandeep turned away to look at the giant boxy structure of the fabricator, while he gathered his thoughts. “You realize,” he said at last, “that with that sort of power, you could effectively conquer our world. Or at least the technological part of it. Shut the Zealots down completely.”

Wilma sighed. “Believe me, I know. It’s part of why we’re working under tight restrictions as to what we can do. We don’t want to come in and just…take over. We want you to work this out among yourselves.”

“But if it could prevent more needless loss of life…”

“It could also make us look even more like the evil, meddling alien invaders your culture fears so much. That’s not a great way to start interstellar relations.” Wilma shook her head. “That kind of decision is, thankfully, made well above my pay grade. Maybe the leaders on board the Great Western will have other ideas when they get here. Until then…our job is to build trust. And part of that trust involves giving you the means right up front to protect yourselves from us. We’ll be doing the same for the Resistance planetside, when we get there.”

Sandeep nodded. “I understand. Thank you for being frank with us. I can see that I have much to think about, and discuss with my advisors.” He stood a few more moments in silence. “Is there anything else you need to go over now?”

“Not really—I’d best get back to Clemmie. Now that we’ve got this new fabber on-line, the repairs can really ramp up. And we have something like a thousand DINcom pairs to install in the new communication array.”

“As many as that?”

“We have no idea what kind of situation we’ll find on the planet, or whether we’ll even be able to make it back out here before the Great Western arrives. As cheap as they are to make, we thought it best to err on the side of caution. We already left a pair of beacons with a couple hundred each out near our arrival point, so when the Western arrives, they’ll be able to talk to us; we’ll be giving you half of those DINcom pairs, too.”

“A wise decision, I am sure. I, too, should return to my bridge. Thank you, Captain. I see now, more than ever, we are in good…paws.”

Wilma chuckled, and offered hers for him to shake. “Whether it’s a paw or a hand, we’re glad to lend a helping one. Let us know if anything else comes up.”

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Repairs progressed well over the next few days, especially once the second fabber was fully online and cranking out parts. Given that it was about twice the size of the one on the Clementine, Wilma’s estimate of doubling their part throughput had actually been on the pessimistic side. They had closer to tripled the speed at which parts could come out—and between the Kybalion’s crew and the technicians the Clementine had brought, they were getting repairs completed almost as fast as they could have in a shipyard.

Meanwhile, the diplomats hadn’t been idle. Booker Albescu had reported cautious optimism from the talks with the Totaliment aboard the flagship, but it would be some time before they could agree upon the infiltration strategy. Ultimately it was the Totalians who would decide what the Zharusians could and could not do on their world.

The main holdup seemed to be that Booker had firm orders from his superiors back home to try if at all possible to open talks with the current government and see if some peaceful resolution could be achieved. Given all that they knew about the Totalians’ cultural paranoia, they wanted to do everything they could to avoid coming off as the sort of forceful alien invaders the Totalians so feared. Booker was trying to get a commitment from the Totalians to that effect, but they were more interested in hearing about the Zharusians’ offensive capabilities and how quickly they could take down the Zealot forces.

Wilma was more in sympathy with the Totalians, and wanted to be on her way with the rest of her passenger manifest, but all the same it was hard to blame the diplomats for wanting to engage in diplomacy first. After all, that was the entire reason they’d spent months flying out here. And Wilma would have preferred a peaceful solution just as much as anybody else. But if the people who knew the planet best didn’t think that was possible, who were the Zharusians to argue with them?

Fortunately, the overall authority for the mission rested with Wilma, and she had dropped some none-too-gentle hints in Booker’s ears that she was willing to take matters into her own hands if they didn’t get the lead out. Not that they were really called for. She had more than enough experience with bureaucracy to know how these things worked. Booker was just as eager to get on and meet the rest of the Totaliment as she was. He just had to give it a good try for the sake of his performance evaluations when he got back home. She suspected they would probably reach an accommodation before too long. Once the DINcom relay was set up at the Loyalist base they could come to a final agreement.

Despite the delay, it was at least getting the Kybalion’s crew over the shock of their “alien” benefactors that looked more like the anthropomorphic animals in their favorite children’s show than the bug-eyed monsters in their xenophobic movies. A number of them had come by to meet them and tour the Clementine. A few had even come more than once—Wilma suspected they might have been furry fans if they’d even known there was such a thing.

That extended to the RIDEs they’d left, too. More crewmembers than Sandeep might have expected took the survey, and so far there had been two very good same-gender matches for the fox and the goat. They’d gone ahead and Fused, and were getting used to their new partners and their new duties aboard the ship. Wilma didn’t doubt that the other two would be snapped up before long. She promised all the disappointed crewmembers who didn’t rate close enough that there would be plenty more RIDEs on the Great Western, and they’d send the survey results back to Zharus with their report by torpedo to ensure the Western brought suitable partners for them.

The delay was also giving Clementine a chance to get to know the Cosmy ship. In directing the repair teams, she’d amassed a knowledge of its design second only to its original architects. She could often be found examining the schematics holographically or in her VR, mooning over them like a smitten teenager. “I know a half dozen sprouts back home who’d love to have something like the Big K as their own,” she mused. “Much of the tech might be a bit out of date, but I’ve never seen so much raw power.”

“Which tends to come with the tech being out of date,” Wilma said dryly. “What they lack in finesse…”

“I know, I know. But imagine in a few years, when we can retrofit them completely with modern tech.” Clementine’s eyes sparkled. “All that power… There won’t be a cosmy in the ‘verse that can stop them! Can you imagine what they’d do to an Earth ship?”

Eva frowned. “I hope we never have to find that out.”

“Well, yeah, me too,” Clementine admitted. “Still…wow.” She stopped and shoved the blueprints into nothing. “Captain, we’re being hailed. Looks like Booker finally came through and hashed out a preliminary agreement.”

“That is really good news, Clemmie. Thanks. Please make sure our report for back home is up-to-date, and load it onto one of our torps. As soon as the repair teams are finished with their tasks, get everyone together in the Holodeck for a Roll Call. Invite Captain Sandeep and Fleet Admiral Frankel as well. I’m sure they’ll want to say a few words before we depart.” Wilma stood up and did a Picard tug on her uniform.

“Time to get this show on the road,” Ghostate said.

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When the call came that the Clementine was finally getting ready to leave, Booker was lying in bed, trying to relax after a grueling multi-hour marathon of negotiations. The why he’d been assigned to this mission had been apparent after he’d read his orders. It was all about his family history with Endurance. The last wildcat colony uprooted by Earth over forty years ago. It gave him some real empathy for the Totalian colonists who had left Earth so long ago—empathy he’d hoped had come across as genuine to the Totalians.

“If you don’t get up I’ll have to stand on your chest,” Grey said. “Maybe dance a little. With my pointy little hooves.”

“Okay, I’m up,” Booker said, levering himself to his feet. “Where are Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee?” The nicknames weren’t exactly complimentary, but it was so hard to remember his assistants’ real names, or even tell them apart, that he couldn’t think of any more apt. They were every bit the bland cookie-cutter career diplomats on which the embassy system thrived. More power to them, Booker thought. And if I ever start to look that way, someone please put one right between my eyes.

“I’m going over the preliminary Joint Forces Deployment Agreement one more time,” Grey said. “Which we still have to pitch to the rest of the Totaliment once we get on the ground.”

“If they get the DINcom set up we’ll be able to coordinate everything with the Cosmy in realtime,” Booker said. He scratched the stubble on his prominent chin, then started getting dressed. The stubble was an affectation he’d picked up after a visit to Cape Nord in his misspent youth, as far away from home as he could afford.

He had roamed from one end of the planet to the other over several years, always getting along with people, getting rides from one polity to another for free due to some kindness, learning how the different cultures on Zharus got along with one another—or didn’t. Along the way he had spent five years as a woman named Bianca Heron, just for the experience. When he got sick of wandering and decided to at last look for a career, he had happened to be in Zharustead during the last expansion of the Zharus Diplomatic Corps.

The prospect of seeing the other Colonies had sparked more wanderlust. He had applied for a low-level position, similar to the one his two assistants had, and things had snowballed from there. Ironically, he never had gotten around to visiting the other colonies (besides Wednesday, which scarcely counted). This would be his first offworld assignment as a full Ambassador.

Because everyone more experienced was already somewhere else. No doubt they’ll replace me when the Relief Fleet arrives. Yet, that prospect was still months in the future, and this would still be a nice feather in his cap whatever happened. Assuming I don’t totally screw it up. Which is still an option.

“Hey, I know that look,” Grey said. The little tusked deer had been his LRIDE assistant since he’d joined the ZDC. ‘Dee and ‘Dum had theirs as well, a pair of white rabbits as generic as they were. “Buck up. I think you’re doing a bang-up job so far. Admiral Frankel’s got a good head on his shoulders, and so do you. You get along.”

“Yeah, well, I’ve still got to meet and impress his bosses in the rest of the Totaliment.” Booker shook his head, buttoning the coat of his less formal outfit with the ZDC’s logo on the lapels. “Which could still go completely sideways.”

“We’ll pull it off somehow,” Grey said. “We always have. We always will.”

“Wish I had your optimism.” Booker grinned. “I suppose it’s just as well one of us does. We pull this off, I am so getting you that full-sized shell when we get back.”

Grey shuddered. “What, are you trying to get me to sabotage this now? The day I share brainspace with you…”

Booker chuckled. The full-sized shell was a running joke between the two of them. Grey swore up and down that the only way Booker would ever get him into one involved manacles and a can-opener, but Booker privately suspected he protested a bit too much. Of course, he’d never go through with it without an explicit okay from Grey—and for that matter, he wasn’t sure how he really felt about the idea, himself—but that didn’t stop him from teasing the little Asian deer about it.

“Well, I guess we’d better re-pack our bag and get back to the Clemmie. It’s been fun, but I won’t be sorry to bid this ol’ tin can goodbye.”

Grey gave him an affectionate head-butt on the leg. “Me neither. It’ll be nice to set foot on a planet again.”

“Our very first—other than Wednesday, of course.” Booker stepped into the bathroom (or head, he reminded himself) and dropped razor, toothpaste, and brush into the toiletry kit and zipped it up. He brought it back in and dropped it in the suitcase, then started pulling his few clothes out of the dresser. “Can you credit it? No ordinary colony for the likes of us.”

“No ordinary anything for us. We’re weird.”

“Damned straight.”

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For the occasion, the Holodeck emulated a Second World War naval briefing room. Captain Sandeep stood up front, peering at the hardlight walls with his new cybernetic eye. Fleet Admiral Frankel and Wilma stood nearby in-uniform, waiting for everyone to arrive. Once the room was full Wilma cleared her throat. “That’s everybody. Captain, Admiral, it’s all yours.”

Frankel surveyed the room, looking from Integrate, to human, to RIDE. When the Clementine first arrived he had done the same thing, with a lot more suspicion and skepticism. Now, with the Kybalion in better repair, and having spent as much time as possible interacting with the strange Zharusians, he was a lot more friendly. “How did that song go, Captain van Dalen? You can’t always get what you want?”

“But if you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need,” Wilma filled in.

Frankel nodded. “You certainly delivered that. I am still amazed at how much you were able to accomplish in such a short time.”

“And thanks to Clementine here, we should be able to help keep the jump point clear when the rest of the Fleet arrives,” Captain Sandeep said.

“More than happy to help,” Clementine said. “I don’t know how long we’re going to be on the ground helping the Resistance. I’ll have room for those spare reactor cans you want to lend me once we’ve offloaded the supplies, but no guarantees we’ll be able to get back out to pick them up any time soon. They’ll probably need a lot of help on the ground.”

“And we’ll make sure the messages you’ve given us for the rest of the Totaliment get delivered,” Booker promised. The little deer beside him nodded. “Of course, once we get the relay up, you’ll be able to deliver future ones directly in real time with no interference.”

Frankel nodded back, then turned to the group again. “Zharusians, I’m the first to admit that I was a skeptical man when you arrived. My first sight of Captain van Dalen and her crew made me re-examine my expectations. I honestly thought Scout Captain Roberts was overstating the transforming nature of your technology. I see now I was mistaken.

“I don’t envy the job you have in front of you, but I am confident you will succeed.”

Wilma nodded. “Thank you, Admiral. Then let’s get started.” She turned to address the others. “We’ll be heading in-system within the next fifteen hours. The plan is to land as stealthily as we can and make contact with the Loyalist Resistance led by Kendlen Canton. We will remain on-site and provide them with as many resources as we can, to help them hold out until our fleet arrives.”

Ghostate stood up and faced the infiltrators. “To that end, our job is primarily to collect intelligence. How we go about that will be the hard part. We’ve all watched Totalian movies the past few months. Lately the Totalian Zealot government has pumped up their anti-alien propaganda. Unfortunately our infiltration will use many of the tactics the aliens in their films do. More unfortunately, we can’t avoid this problem.”

“Remember, you are to stay out of non-military systems,” Frankel said. “Or anything that could indirectly cause civilian collateral damage. Unless the Totaliment on-planet countermands that, of course. We’re going to need all those systems once the Zealots are removed and arrested, in any case.”

“We’ll make our final deployment plans with the Resistance and the Totaliment once we’re dirtside,” Wilma said. “May the wind be at our backs. Dismissed.”

Chapter 3

May 16, 158 AL (Totalia equivalent)
Totalia Low Orbit

“That’s strange…” Ghostate peered at the sensor readings.

Wilma glanced at him. “What is it?”

“I’ve been monitoring comm traffic on the long-range receivers. We’re getting a lot more signal degradation from the planetside transmitters than we ought to be. It’s as if something’s blocking part of the signal.”

“‘Something,’ huh?” Eva said. “Captain, I think we probably ought to send a probe or two ahead before we start entry. Just a thought.”

“My preliminary analysis indicates Totalium sensor scattering,” Clementine said in full Vulcan mode. “This is consistent with the orbital clutter data provided by the Cosmy, though it’s on the high side. This system is rife with Totalium, from dust grains to asteroids.”

“Any sign we’ve tripped the Zealot gravitic sensor nets?” Wilma said.

“Cloak and silent running still engaged,” Ghostate said. “I have detected no military comms, and I’ve looked in civilian transmissions for anything encrypted. After what Joel put them through they’ve likely made comm protocol changes. There’s nothing I can hack into from orbit.”

“So if they’ve detected us we won’t know until they let us know,” Wilma said. “Begin de-orbit burn, Clemmie. Let’s get dirtside.”

The Clementine began to slow below the speed needed to maintain orbit. Her nose dipped below the horizon as she eased into the proper trajectory. Almost immediately, they began to hear a slithering, rustling noise, like sand sliding along the hull. Wilma frowned. “Clemmie, what’s that?”

Clementine frowned. “It appears to be fine grains of Totalium striking the hull. This is necessarily an inference, since they do not appear directly on my sensors. I have attempted to capture some for later analysis—though since I cannot sense them, I am uncertain whether I have succeeded.” The rustling grew louder, punctuated by occasional pings of larger objects against the hull. “This is unusual. Neither Madison nor Joel reported encountering Totalium debris on landing or launching.”

“Are you all right?” Wilma asked. “Should we abort the landing?”

“If it holds at current levels, there should be little danger. Though my hull is going to look like it was sandblasted. So much for the new paint job. There do seem to be a lot of volatiles in the mesosphere; perhaps it’s just an enriched comet that passed recently.”

Soon enough the soft slithering and pinging faded away, replaced by a subsonic rumble as the ship dived into the atmosphere. To minimize the risk of detection, Clementine came down on the opposite side of the planet from Totalia City. She lowered herself slowly to minimize the friction heat and to not show up as a fireball. She levelled off a few kilometers above the ground and headed towards the location they’d been given for the Loyalist base.

“Now comes the fun part,” Clementine noted. “A planet with only a few dozen spaceworthy craft total, and I’m still have problems finding a parking spot.”

On her screen, she showed a view of the Loyalist base from a fast probe they’d sent out. It showed a thick hybrid forest around a man-made lake. The base itself was hidden in the support structures of the semi-abandoned concrete dam complex.

“Admittedly, most places don’t usually have parking spots available for ships the size of a city block,” Wilma said.

Clementine made big shocked eyes at her. “Are you implying I’m fat?”

“Uhm…” Wilma paused, not sure how to escape.

“No handy Golden Gate Park to set down in,” Eva said, scanning the night-dark, partly terraformed landscape and providing Wilma an escape route. The vegetation was a combination of Earth and native, with Totalian treestalks mixed in with young oak and maple. “Ideas, Clemmie?”

“It looks like our only choice within fifty kilometers is an old-fashioned splashdown in the reservoir. I can modify the cloaking field for underwater work.”

Eva nodded, changing into an otter. “Good thing I packed my swimsuit.”

Wilma nodded. “It should also provide some added concealment from above, if they have satellite overwatch or recon flights. Go ahead.”

Clementine nodded. “Aye, sir. Beginning landing sequence.”

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Nectar River Terraforming Facility

Kendlen Canton’s nights had been restless ever since first meeting Madison Brubeck and Samantha. When the coup happened it only made matters worse. He was the closest thing to a leader the burgeoning Resistance had. Even after rescuing the Totaliment, he continued in that capacity, a sort of civilian general to the troops. (Trilby had offered him the Fifth Speaker position in the Totaliment-in-Exile, to replace one of the traitors who had joined Raph Clarke, but he’d turned it down. He felt completely unqualified to play at being a “real” politician.)

The upshot was, he slept lightly, if at all. After lying awake for hours, he was finally drifting off to sleep in the manager’s office-turned-bedroom. It had bare concrete walls and a leaky roof that allowed in night smells from the damp landscape outside. The roar of the spillway waterfall provided a steady white noise.

Then sleep was snatched away again. Kendlen groaned, and pushed the covers off. He sat on the edge of the bed in the darkness. Does the First Speaker have as much trouble sleeping as I do? Kendlen had a few precious sleeping pills, but only used those when absolutely necessary. They were in short supply.

For a moment, Kendlen couldn’t figure out what had woken him up this time. Then he became aware that the white noise of the waterfall had grown significantly louder. Oh hell, is that old dam finally breaking up? But no, now it seemed to be falling back to the usual level.

Curious, Kendlen got up and threw on some clothes, then made his way outside. In the moonlight, he could see that the spillway from the dam was wet from edge to edge, though the runoff was back to the trickle it had been. Hmm.

Kendlen looked up at the top of the dam, shading his eyes. He might just have been jumping at shadows, but the longer they stayed here, the more antsy he got about anything out of the ordinary. There were only so many places outside the city that people could hole up, after all; sooner or later he imagined the Zealots would get around to looking here.

“Mister Canton…”

The whisper from an unfamiliar woman’s voice made him jump, even with its friendly tone. He looked around, but there was nobody there. “Who is it? Who’s there?”

“Friends,” another woman’s voice said. “From a long way away.”

Kendlen worked out the timing in his head. The Satellite of Love wasn’t that fast, but the Zharusian message torpedo Joel had sent ahead with the Totaliment’s request for help would have gotten there weeks before he would arrive. Which would have been a little over a couple of months ago. That would mean…they sent help very soon after that message got there. Kendlen sighed. His optimism had given way to more realism as time passed. “Welcome to Totalia. How many ships?”

“Just the one for now. The main fleet’s still being organized, but they wanted to send what help they could right away.”

Kendlen nodded. “I know how bureaucracy is. Well…come inside and we can talk about it, I guess.” He looked around again. “And maybe you can show yourselves?”

“Sure. We just didn’t want to give you too big of a shock all at once.”

“Joel explained the whole ‘furry’ thing,” Kendlen said.

“Explained is one thing. Seeing is another,” a new female voice said. The sound came from a floating sphere about the size of an orange. Its surface glowed, then around it the image of a woman formed. She had neon blue hair and pale skin, and she wore a khaki Scout uniform. “Greetings, Kendlen Canton. I’m Clementine.”

Kendlen rubbed his eyes. The surreality was getting to him. “Clementine? Like the little oranges?” He realized how inane it sounded as soon as he said it, but he never was at his best just after waking in the middle of the night.

The woman laughed. “Exactly like the little oranges.”

The second figure to appear was a woman with the head and tail of a white fox, and furred, beclawed hands. “Captain Wilma van Dalen, at your service.”

An anthropomorphic doe faded into view. “Eva, occasionally Evan, and Liis.”

“Occasionally Evan?” Kendlen said, wondering what exactly that meant and trying to keep his composure. He fumbled for Joel’s explanation of the process. “And I gather Liis is your…body-mate? Like Zach with Joel?”

“We call it a time-share, but it’s essentially the same thing,” the doe said in another voice.

“Anyone else lurking in the shadows?”

“We are it; everyone else is aboard me,” Clementine said. “We thought the few of us would be enough.”

“Goodness knows we weren’t expecting to see the man we’re looking for so soon,” the white vixen said.

Kendlen nodded, trying to fit the reality before him into a new worldview. What does she mean by ‘aboard me’? Is she their ship AI? “I suppose this means your ship landed in the lake.”

“It’s a refreshing bath,” Clementine said, indirectly confirming his deduction. “As the saying goes, ‘Eureka’.”

“Well…at any rate, we’d better go wake the Totaliment.” Lord, I hope some of them don’t have a heart attack.

Wilma nodded. “While you get them up, we’ll tell our chief diplomat it’s safe to come out. They’ll feel better with at least one unmodified human around.”

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First Speaker Trilby Whitfield rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and blinked myopically at the five newcomers in the makeshift Totaliment-in-Exile chamber. The other members of the ruling council were in similar states of bleariness. He was tempted to blame the apparitions before him on lingering fragments of a dream, if it hadn’t been that he knew he’d never dreamed of anything like that. A fox, a deer, and a blue-haired space woman walk into a bar…

At least there was one “normal” human in the bunch, though the small deer at his side was another oddity all its own. He was pretty sure the pictures of deer in the Earth natural history textbooks hadn’t included fangs. In his drowsy frame of mind, he wasn’t quite sure which was weirder—the fangs, or the fact that it talked.

Seventh Speaker Jassen Baldurson was the first to find his tongue. “If you people say ‘we come in peace’ I am going back to bed. It’s far too early for this.”

Booker opened his mouth, then closed it and grinned. “While tempting, I’m too professional to open with that. Still, the intent is true.”

“Well, it’s not the most…diplomatic phrase I would have chosen, Jassen, but it worked as an icebreaker of sorts,” Trilby said. “So. Your Scout, Captain Roberts, told us that someone of your nature might appear. I am quite curious to know more about you, but that can wait. Please bring us up to speed on the state of preparations to aid us, and the nature of any material you might have brought along.”

“The Zealots reverse-engineered the pulse weapons we built from Barbaretta’s schematics,” Kendlen said. “We’ve lost that advantage, and they’re making improvements on it rapidly.”

“We brought a dozen infiltration experts, plus support staff, mostly Integrates,” Booker said. “And a brace of twenty RIDEs, if you choose to partner with them.”

“We also have two military-spec fabbers that can build sizable vehicles with the right materials,” Eva said. “Not to mention modern-tech weapons that should be better than anything the Zealots can make, and beyond their ability to reproduce.”

A pair of drones were busily setting up a console on the meeting table. The First Speaker kept looking sideways at them as they worked with insect-like precision. The space woman smiled at him, then turned to the Captain and Booker. “DINcom terminal online, Captain, Ambassador. I have clear pings from the Kybalion.”

“The flagship is in orbit?” Kendlen said, brightening. “We actually have space superiority?”

Wilma shook her head. “Not as such, no. The Kybalion is still doing repairs out around Isis. The Zealots still hold the skies above us.”

“But you said you have real time communication?” Trilby asked, trying to contain his excitement. “Does that mean…?”

“It means just that. We have limited FTL communication capability—a very recent invention—so you can speak to them in the outer system with no time lag and or risk of interception. No interstellar capability, so we can’t call Zharus, but just for talking in system, it’s truly revolutionary, especially in your case.”

Booker nodded. “Which means you can verify we told them the same things we’re telling you. Among other things.”

Trilby clapped his hands and lost all sense of decorum. “Hot damn! If you don’t mind, we’ll call the full First Tranche to order in an hour. After we’ve had time to put on some proper clothes. It’s finally time to put our noses to the grindstone and make Clarke and his cronies’ lives a living hell. Kendlen? What’s the latest from the field?”

Kendlen scratched his stubbled chin. “I haven’t had time to check the morning reports from Hamner’s cell yet, sir. I’ll need at least a half hour anyway.”

“Of course,” Trilby said. “Captain van Dalen, please start bringing your troops and supplies here. We’ll let everyone know what to expect before your people arrive so they’re not caught quite as flat-footed about your appearance as we were.”

Captain van Dalen nodded. “Will do.”

“I’ll help spread the word on the way to Intel,” Kendlen said.

“Ah, yes,” Liis said. With the voice change there was a subtle shift in how the doe looked. “Our Intel Chief will be there shortly to coordinate actions. Question. Do you have barn owls here?”

“Our founders were only able to bring a few animals with them, mostly farm livestock,” Trilby said. “Owls are not one of them, nor are deer or foxes for that matter, though there are plenty of books about Old Earth with pictures and viddies. If there are any other shocks, Captain, please tell us now. Captain Roberts was quite forthcoming about Integrates when he briefed us.”

Booker glanced to the Integrates. “Well, there is the little matter…”

Eva cleared her throat. “Ah, yes. First Speaker, have you ever seen The Monsters from Planet Thirteen?”

“No, but I’m very familiar with the genre. What Totalian isn’t? That’s very the core of our problem. We fear change, and aliens who can change their shape…” The First Speaker raised his eyebrows. “Ah, I believe I see now.”

The doe…changed, losing female curves, muzzle, and fur. Very shortly there was a human man there instead. The demonstration provoked gasps and a few Totalians took a couple steps back before the Integrate resumed her previous form. “This doesn’t come naturally to us Integrates,” she said. “Then again, nothing about us is exactly natural.”

Booker nodded. “We don’t want to seem like ‘invaders.’ But then, that’s just what the invaders in some of your movies say. As you say, ‘We come in peace.’ It’s a knotty problem.”

“If it hadn’t been for that idiot Raph Clarke, we wouldn’t have had to deal with it like this,” Baldurson grumbled, gesturing at Eva. “We could have introduced you at a more…measured pace. But thanks to him, it’s right on our doorstep.”

Eva shrugged. “I’d say that we’ll just stick around until you throw the bums out, then be on our way. But by then the damage will already have been done. Besides the three of us here, we have a handful of other Integrate shapeshifters, and a half-dozen RIDE/human pairs. And that’s not even counting the twenty ‘newborn’ RIDEs we brought for your people.”

Trilby rose from his chair. “Life isn’t perfect. We’ll deal with it.” He nodded to Wilma and Booker. “We’ll see you in an hour.”

Booker nodded back. “We’ll be here.”

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“Beck. Beck!” Sgt. Sims awoke her superior with a shout and a shake of his shoulder. “Get up, now! We’ve got company!”

The urgency in her voice wakened him better than a shot of caffeine to the bloodstream. Then he realized that it wasn’t fear in her voice. It was excitement. “I’m up, I’m up! What all is happening?”

“Captain Roberts must have gotten away clean, maybe sent some message ahead,” Merie Sims said. “Because some of the help he promised just arrived. First Tranche is meeting ‘em now. We’d better hop to and make ourselves presentable.”

“Great. Uh…do you know if they’ve got the hot water working on the shower yet?”

“Everybody’s heading down to the lake to help them bring in their gear,” Sims said, brimming with excitement. “They landed under the lake.”

“So take a bath instead is what you’re saying?” Beck said weakly.

“Oh, uh. Not yet, Lieutenant. Sorry.”

“Have you seen them? What do they look like?” Beck got out of bed and started dressing himself. The Totalian military had always mixed men and women, so nudity in situations like this didn’t even register.

“Furry people, mostly. Like characters from Darla’s Front Door.”

“Really? Huh. Used to love that show.”

“Didn’t everyone? I think the captain of the ship is some kind of fox. They wear the same uniform Captain Roberts did.”

“Fox, huh? Didn’t think you were into women.”

“Beeeeck…”

“Right, sorry, couldn’t resist. I know what you meant. I honestly thought Roberts was pulling our legs on that one.”

“Well, he wasn’t. So get ready. They’re going to start briefing us on the new toys they brought as soon as they’ve brought some of them in.”

“New toys? Well, you certainly know how to pique my interest.” Beck finished throwing his clothes on, sniffed experimentally at an armpit, and decided he wasn’t too ripe yet. It would do. “Let’s go see what Santa has brought us.”

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A few hours later, Kendlen finally had the chance to sit down and relax for a few minutes. He’d been running ragged ever since the Clementine’s unexpected arrival, corralling the various members of the Resistance who would be best equipped to deal with their various visitors. The best of their mechanics and technicians would be studying the fabbers on board the ship, their strategists would be conferring with the infiltration experts, and the Totaliment itself was in conference with the Ambassador they’d brought along, using the FTL comm to coordinate strategy with the Kybalion. Finally, he had a little time to himself.

Which ended a moment later as Eva knocked on the doorframe of his office. “Hey. Got a moment?”

“I do if you do. What you need?”

“Didn’t have a chance to mention it earlier, but Madison recorded a personal message for you. She would have preferred to come herself, but the effort to pull the fleet together couldn’t spare her.” Eva held up a media tablet. “It’s loaded onto here, if you’d like to watch it.

Kendlen took it. “Uh…thanks. I’ll do that.”

Eva nodded. “I’d better get back to things. I’ll see you later.” Before he could reply, she was gone again.

“Huh.” Kendlen looked down at the tablet in his hands. “Well, all right…” He fiddled with it for a moment, found the “play” button, and hit it.

A moment later, the tablet lit up with a familiar face. Madison smiled at the camera. “Hey, Kendlen. I wish I could be there to tell you this in person, but things are what they are. I’d wait until I could be there in person, but I expect the news footage they brought along will spill it and I’d rather you hear it from me first.” She shrugged. “It’s really not easy to say this into a recorder and not know how you’ll react when you see it. I hope it doesn’t freak you out too badly.

“By now you’ll have met Eva and friends, so you know what a shapeshifting Integrate is. What you don’t know is…” She paused, and then her features started to blur. Kendlen stared in astonishment and nearly dropped the tablet as her face settled into a leopard’s muzzle, with Samantha’s markings. “…’Mantha and I are one, too. We’ll tell you all about it in a bit, but we just wanted to assure you first off that we’re still the same people we always were.”

She paused, then said in Samantha’s voice, “And that goes double for me!”

Madison continued. “It’s just one of those things that happens sometimes—rarely—when you partner up with a RIDE. It won’t necessarily happen to you, if you do…but it won’t necessarily not, either.”

Kendlen smiled despite the surreality. Her tone of voice was almost exactly like his parents had used to explain the birds and the bees. He had seen Eva demonstrate her (his?) abilities a short time ago and kept wanting to ask her to repeat the performance. He was still trying to assimilate it. Now, Madison had also become a shapeshifting Integrate and all he could do was smile. Down the rabbit hole, Alice.

“We don’t want it to scare you off if you’re thinking of hooking up with one of the RIDEs we sent along. As you saw when we were there, if you find the right partner it’s a friendship like none you’ve ever had before. Though we’ll understand if you’d rather not risk it.” She shrugged. “Anyway, now that’s out of the way, I’ll fill you in on our trip back and what we’ve found out since we got here. You’ll hear a lot of this from the official briefing materials, but we thought you might appreciate our own spin on it.

“It all started when ‘Mantha and I got shot as we were stealing our ships back…”

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Totalia City

Raph Clarke looked at the screens, not sure he believed what he was seeing, even though it was right in front of his eyes. The reports from the two spies left on the Kybalion had just come in, and he was still trying to process what he was seeing.

The screens themselves showed an impossible thing; strange techno-animal-men walking like friends among the Kybalion crew, helping with repairs. Occasionally there were pictures of normal people, usually accompanied by robotic animals. One video showed one of the animals opening up and engulfing a human, then standing on two legs in some odd parody of humanity. One report noted that one of the most human looking Zharusians wasn’t even human at all; she was an avatar of the Zharusian ship itself. Other pictures and videos showed strange devices floating in midair and somehow repairing some huge machine he didn’t recognize.

“We should’ve taken that ship out when we had the chance, when it was still wounded,” Clarke said, rubbing his temples and trying to absorb the new information. Totalia-shaking as it was, the first thought that went through his mind was nonetheless, When Quincy’s bunch sees this, they’ll go crazy.

“We didn’t know where it was, sir. Once they got away, they went into silent running while doing repairs; our spies couldn’t risk sending any messages until just before the Zharus ship arrived. We were lucky they stayed in the Isis system where our repeater sats could catch their drops.” Jermy Orinson said, speaking from a window in one of the screens. He was Clarke’s appointed Fleet Admiral of the True Totalian Cosmy, whose flagship was currently parked in geosynchronous orbit over Totalia City.

“Once we did find out where they were, we were getting ready to go after them with everything we had. Then we got the warning of the Zharusian ship’s arrival and decided to hold back in light of their already-demonstrated technological superiority and the damage we’d taken already. If they’re upgrading and re-arming the Big K…well, caution is warranted here.”

Clarke sighed, “And now, the opportunity is lost. Based on what the spies reported, what’s your assessment?”

“The Kybalion still seems severely damaged, but it has restored much of its offensive capabilities, boosted further by Zharusian tech. Taking it on would not be wise unless we had some other advantages.”

“Advantages we’re working on. How are the tests coming?”

The Admiral glanced off screen to verify his words. “Still very preliminary, but promising. The technology is scaling well, but we may not have a framework big enough.”

“Good, take whatever you need to make it work. Any sign of where that alien ship went after it left the Kybalion?”

“We assume it came to Totalia. We’ve been reviewing sensor logs and there are a few ghost images that might be them, but we don’t know where they went. They are probably in orbit somewhere; they’re too big to land easily.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure of that. Their Scouts’ ships were almost as large, and they landed easily.” Clarke frowned and forced himself to relax his hands before he snapped another pen. “Find them. Wherever they are, they can’t be up to anything good. I’ll have the media guys isolate these images and release them; show the people just what the so-called Loyalists are willing to work with to get their way.”

The Fleet Admiral snapped a salute, “On it, Sir. We’ll find them,” he said. He started to reach for the disconnect and paused. “There’s one other thing we’ve noticed. We’ve detected a few explosions in low orbit around Totalia. Not targeting anything, just random booms.”

“How random? Could it be some Zharusian trick?” Clarke asked.

Orinson shrugged, “I don’t think so, but I don’t know what it is. There’s been a detonation every couple of days or so, and no other effects we can tell.”

“Anything else going on up there I should know about?”

“Well, the levels of Totalium around the planet do seem higher than usual. Nothing dangerous, just something we’re being careful of. Probably why we lost one of the weather satellites last week. We think it’s because we’re passing through Apophis’s tail.”

“Right. Keep me in the loop.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Orinson said, disconnecting.

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May 18, 158 AL (Totalia equivalent)
Nectar River Resistance Base

The Satellite of Love had left a platoon of a dozen of the Kybalion’s Cosmy Marines before leaving for Zharus again. Kendlen had spent as much time as possible undergoing the same combat training as the rest of the Resistance. He could confidently say he was a better shot than he had been, under Lt. Maxl Beregan’s instruction. Beregan was also the most proficient with the micro-IDE Cyclone hovercycle/powered armor Joel had also left with them, with Beck Hensley his close second.

So of course he was the first volunteer for the newly-formed RIDE Assault Team. They met under the shelter of the giant concrete terraforming building. Kendlen was mildly disappointed to see that there were barely a half-dozen recruits, and most of them looked more curious than committed. There were also a dozen or so curious onlookers, including First Speaker Trilby Whitfield himself, but they stayed well back from the RIDEs and the volunteers.

But then, Kendlen realized, they hadn’t actually met Madison and Samantha in person. Only he, Teenette, and Mikken Fellin had, and Teenette was on another planet while Mikken was heading up one of the Totalia City Resistance cells. Most of the Resistance only knew what they’d seen on TV and what Kendlen had been able to tell them about her, and the weirdness of Joel and Zach, followed by Eva and the others, hadn’t been exactly reassuring. Totalia forbid they find out Madison and Samantha Integrated, that would be all they need to hear.

Why am I taking a personality test again?” Beregan asked, scowling at the tablet in his hands.

“Good partnerships begin vith compatible persons. You vill see, Lieutenant.” Brunhilde, the woman in charge of the program, was built like a bear, including her ears, and spoke with a strange accent Kendlen had only heard in Earth movies. Kendlen assumed she had a tail, too, but it felt tacky to ask. Her RIDE, whose name was Chatka, ambled around the training area, chatting with the potential female matches. She was far more friendly than fearsome, like a big Mama Bear out of a storybook.

Over where the RIDEs had been offloaded, Kendlen’s current second in command was looking over the ten male RIDEs the Zharusians had brought. Beck Hensley had been instrumental in the First Tranche’s rescue and had only gotten better since. The former SWAT officer was awaiting the results on his own personality test to see if any of the RIDEs would work for him.

For his own part, Kendlen was taking a test himself. Partly to show solidarity with his troops, and partly for not…entirely selfless reasons. But there were only twenty RIDEs, and they were needed for combat missions. The Fleet would arrive with hundreds of them. And Maddie would arrive with the Fleet…

“Lt. Beck Hensley!” Brunhilde announced. “We have match for you!”

“Uh…that’s great, I think…” Beck said. “Uh…maybe someone else should go first.”

“Oh what the hell?” Kendlen exploded. “You’re getting cold feet? You, the guy who led the prison raid to rescue the First Tranche?”

Beck looked to him, an almost pleading expression on his face. “I just…don’t know, Kendlen. I mean…after hearing about what these things can do…”

“They’re not things, Lieutenant, they’re people.” Kendlen shook his head, then glanced to Brunhilde. “It would have helped if they’d sent along some candidate RIDEs who were actually awake, you know.”

“Chatka and I were best they could do on such short notice,” Brunhilde said. “Am apologising. Are not exactly enthused about RIDEalong’s way of doing things ourselves, but if we could not take joke, should not have joined up.”

Kendlen sighed. “I had meant to give the troops first go at these, since they’ll be helpful in front-line combat. But if we don’t even have enough interest from everyone to partner them all, I might as well lead by example. Samantha and I got along pretty well, after all.”

Horosho! Good!” Brunhilde nodded approvingly. “Of course you know they are not being toys or pets. They are being people and partners. Also are knowing must match sex first, or else will match sex after.”

“Uh, yeah…” Kendlen said. “Make mine male, please.”

“Even if you are perfect personality match for one of our girls?” Brunhilde grinned impishly.

“What, am I?” Kendlen said weakly.

“Am not knowing. But could check!”

“Uh, thanks but no thanks. I’ve got enough on my plate already.”

Brunhilde chuckled. “Is fair enough. Let’s see what your quiz results say. Mmm. Ah! Yes. Asante good match for you. Also happens to be leopard.”

“Huh.” Kendlen thought about that. “I could certainly do worse than a leopard.”

“Da. Of course, could do better, too. Once have gone bear, is never going back.”

“I’ll…bear that in mind. Uh…pun not intended. So which one is Asante?”

Brunhilde pointed to one of the RIDEs stored in cubical transport mode. This one had a clearly feline head and paws, though they were all folded up together at the moment. “That is he.”

Kendlen nodded, approaching hesitantly. This is silly. He’s not just going to wake up and eat me or something. Then he remembered what he’d been told about how Fusing was necessary to activate them. Then again, maybe he is. “So…uh…what do I do?”

“Be entering proper frame of mind, then pressing glowing button on top. Hold out arms, Asante will do rest.”

“Okay…uh…anything else I should know?”

“Remember, Fusing is sharing,” Chatka put in. “You will share thoughts and memories with each other. Be prepared for that. Some people might find it…off-putting, but most on Zharus hardly give it a second thought.”

“I…see.” Kendlen paused a moment to consider this. Taken all at once, it seemed like there were a lot more drawbacks to this Fusing thing than benefits—and that wasn’t even counting the possibility of Integrating down the road. But Madison had started out aghast at the idea herself, and by the time he’d met her and Samantha just after they’d first Fused, she’d said she wished she’d started months before.

And then there was Asante to think about. After all, the leopard hadn’t exactly asked to be Fused to him. “This situation really isn’t ideal, is it?”

Brunhilde shrugged. “Is being what it is. Hoping you will be happy together.” She looked around. “Is anyone else being ready yet?”

“Done!” Lt. Beregan declared. He tapped a few panels on the tablet. “Results sent, ma’am.”

“Received,” Chatka said. “Ahhh…Brunhilde, what do you think?” The two of them went quiet, apparently conversing over wireless.

The deactivated RIDEs were arranged in two rows. There was a mix of species, with one male and one female bird-of-prey among them, which from Kendlen’s reading would be a hard sell to even the more open-minded, given the physical changes necessary.

Brunhilde smiled. “I see you have an interest in werewolves, Lieutenant.”

“Werewolves, vampires, that sort of thing. I think a set of wolf ears would look pretty badass on me.”

Brunhilde gave him a friendly slap on the back. “Da, I see. Come, meet Bert.”

The Cosmy Marine puzzled. “Wait, a wolf named Bert?”

“You were expecting maybe ‘Silverfang’ or ‘Moonmoon’?” Chatka said. “Is short for Bertrand. Good, stronk Sturmhaven male name!”

Beregan smiled and chuckled. “I’ll take your word for it, ma’am. This is him?”

“All it takes is to push big green button,” Chatka said, looking over his shoulder. “There are no guarantees, of course, but you will at least awaken him if match not good. He has only small memory of Zharus. He will be born on Totalia. The first human mind he will know is yours. And this will have great influence on him.”

The Marine’s indecision faded at that. “Well then, I think I’ll get to know Bertrand.”

And that galvanized Kendlen, too. Was he going to let a Cosmy jarhead show him up? Before he could think better of it, he reached out and pushed Asante’s button right then.

For a moment, nothing happened except the button started flashing. Then the metal cat-cube began to unfold—and then, before Kendlen was quite aware what was happening, it reared up on hind legs, opened up, and surged forward. For a moment, everything went dark.

The darkness lasted only a short time before a landscape began forming around him, first drawn in pencil, then inked, then rapidly filling in increasingly detailed color until it reached full photorealism. Some kind of virtual reality, I guess. The air around Kendlen was hot and dry, with a landscape of golden grasses and strange trees he remembered from books about Earth. A huge snow-capped mountain loomed in the distance.

Draped over the branch of a nearby tree, a nearly-black leopard yawned as he awoke. Kendlen stared up at him. “Uh, hello? You must be Asante?”

The leopard dropped to the ground as if pouring himself off the branch, then slunk up towards the human. “I am he,” the big cat said. “And you are the one my makers said I would find upon waking. Am I truly on another world?”

Kendlen nodded. “You sure are. I’m Kendlen Canton. Pleased to meet you, and welcome to Totalia.”

“You are the first human I have ever met.” Asante walked around Kendlen. “But then, I have met no one else beyond my makers. I am eager to see the world. My world. Our world. Shall we enter the Real?”

“I assume you mean going back out to the real world? Sure.” The savannah world faded out, and Kendlen opened his eyes to look out on the real world again. Everything looked a little odd, and it took a moment for Kendlen to realize that was because he was seeing it from a couple of feet higher off the ground than usual.

“Welcome, Asante!” Chatka said. The she-bear had Fused up with her own partner in the meantime. Nearby, Lt. Beregan had yet to initiate the Fuse on Bertrand. All the Marine could do was stare at both.

“How are you both feeling?” Brunhilde said.

Kendlen raised an arm and looked at it. His forearm had a dark grey pelt with black rosettes. Well, that’ll be good for night ops.

“It feels very different from Nature Range,” Asante said, looking at the forest beyond the dam runoff stream. “The savannah of my First Boot was very…limited.”

“I guess it would be,” Kendlen said, having no idea what Asante was talking about. “So, uh, welcome to your life.”

:Have I permission to share yours?: Asante’s voice came from within. :I have little of myself to share in return, sadly. But this is the nature of Fuse. It is part of my being. If you wish me not to as yet, I will respect your request.:

“Uh…sure. I can’t say I’m a hundred percent easy with it, but I knew we’d be sharing when I turned you on. If I didn’t want to, I shouldn’t have done it.” Kendlen smiled shakily. “I knew someone who’d partnered up with a RIDE and they got along really well. I hope we can too.”

“Kendlen, you and your friend look badass. Okay, I’m getting in on this right now,” Beregan said. He slammed the wolf’s Fuse button and was also engulfed.

They had begun to draw a crowd now. Word had quickly spread about what Kendlen was doing, which had drawn out the First Speaker and some of the First Tranche, along with Eva and Wilma. Many of them were watching the “werewolf” as Beregan got to know his own partner.

:I will try to be as unobtrusive as I might,: Asante said.

:Uh, sure,: Kendlen sent back. He had no real idea what to expect, but what he got was something that felt a lot like nostalgia. Out of nowhere, he started remembering odd moments from his past. He assumed this was because Asante was accessing them too. Some of them were kind of private. Kendlen didn’t imagine he needed to worry about Asante spilling his secrets, but it still felt a little odd to know someone else was learning them.

:If there is anything you want me to forget, I shall,: Asante promised.

:Uh…no, that’s okay.: Kendlen shook his head mentally. :If we’re going to be partners, let’s know each other fully.:

:There’s not so much else of me to know.: Kendlen got an impression of waking up in a lab, accessing memory banks that gave him a grounding in language, education, the present state of galactic culture, and so forth, before being asked to take an assessment quiz before he even fully understood who he was. Then it was off to sleep again, to wake up with a new partner he hadn’t requested or fully understood the need for.

:Sheesh,: Kendlen sent. :That’s not exactly a nurturing childhood.:

:It is what I have. I didn’t know anything different—until now.:

“So, Kendlen,” Trilby said. The old man was absorbing all these new things like someone half his age. “Who is your new partner?”

Kendlen chuckled. “I’m still finding that out. For that matter, so is he.” He turned to face the audience. It would be nice if I could let them see my face—oh! In response to his wish, Asante retracted the head-helmet away. Kendlen blinked briefly in the sunlight, then glanced around at the others and spoke.

“Hey, guys, I know the whole idea of this is scary, like something out of those body-stealer movies you grew up on. But the mindset behind those movies is the exact same one that drove Raph Clarke and his bunch to steal our government and do everything they can to keep us shut away from the rest of the galaxy. What do you think we’re fighting against here, huh?” He shook his head. “I’m not going to shove you guys into doing anything you’re not ready for, but I think you should take a look at why you’re not ready and see if those reasons really hold up.” He looked around. “And while you’re doing that, I think I’m gonna take my new partner out for a spin.” :OK, done talking,: he thought, and the helmet snapped back into place.

:I think skimmer form is appropriate?: Asante said. The RIDE peeled away from Kendlen, changing forms underneath, leaving him in a saddle of a sizable, sleek hovercycle—skimmer, the Zharusians called them. Asante projected his head over the instrument cluster. “Is it satisfactory?”

“Yes,” Kendlen said, trying to get accustomed to a tail and a pair of twitchy feline ears. “Yes. Wow.”

“Nice look there, Kendlen,” Beck said. He glanced over at Beregan and Bertrand. “Wonder what’s keeping him.”

“Them, Mr. Hensley,” Trilby corrected.

Brunhilde grinned broadly. “Them is keeping them. Are beink gettink to know each other. Is takink more time for some than others. But is goot! Much talk is meanink much in common! Bad match, Bert would spit him out like bad borscht.”

Kendlen thumbed the starter and Asante rose a half meter over the ground, the field beneath them pushing the carpet of old leaves away. “Perhaps we’ll head to the top of the dam first, Asante?”

“I have local maps, but beyond that, where we go is up to you,” Asante said. “Everything is new to me. Everything. Show me.”

Kendlen twisted the throttle. “Let’s go.”

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They headed up to the top of the dam, and cruised along the walkway along the top. It wasn’t in the best of condition, given that the dam hadn’t been maintained for sixty years, but Asante’s lifters meant they never actually touched the crumbling cement. Kendlen glanced across at the whirlpool that marked the spillway intake, and further back the silhouette of the Clementine barely visible below the surface.

From there they moved into the forest, weaving amid the trees. For all that he knew the Zealots didn’t have any satellite coverage, Kendlen still felt a little better under the cover of the trees. He was still getting used to Asante’s handling. Lifters had a very different feel than the tires all native Totalian ground vehicles had to offer, and the inertial dampers kept him glued to the saddle.

As they drove along, Asante asked things about life on the planet and their culture. He seemed to be an odd mixture of knowledge and ignorance. Presumably he had been loaded up with everything Madison had been able to glean about their culture in addition to whatever he’d picked up from Kendlen’s own memories, but there were plenty of gaps in the coverage.

“What is this movie I’ve seen pieces of in your memories? Battle Beyond the Stars?” Asante asked.

“That one? One of the few anti-isolation movies of the last thirty years. Loved it as a child. Still do. Well…”

Battle Beyond the Stars was practically unique. The basic plot was that Totalia decides to take a peek at the rest of human space to see what’s going on, and finds that aliens (it’s always aliens) have taken over humanity and enslaved it. Using their miracle metamaterial, the plucky Totalians build an improbably massive fleet and kick the complacent aliens’ asses six ways from Sunday. The Totalians were greeted as saviors, and the movie ends with a triumphant return to Earth.

“I think I would enjoy watching that,” Asante said. “It means a lot to you.”

“You have no idea…well, no, I guess you’re literally the only person who could have any idea how much.”

“That is true. I saw it in your mind.”

“I guess it’s largely thanks to that and Darla’s Front Door that I turned out the way I did.”

“I saw some of that in your mind as well. It was…a children’s television show with funny animals?”

“Right. All about how people should be nice to each other no matter what they looked or sounded like. Even if they looked like puppets or people in animal suits. It’s actually from back during my Dad’s childhood, one of the first shows the original colonists made after things got set up. Which is why it’s lasted so long, I guess, and everyone shows it to their kids instead of just forgetting about it. It’s a cultural touchstone, as Professor Fellin would say.”

“Curious. It was about…‘being nice to each other,’ you say?”

“Yeah. I think they made it because there were people from so many different races and nations in the colony effort, and they were a little worried about all the new children getting along with people who looked different or talked differently.” He chuckled. “They probably didn’t really need to worry. Since they grew up in a brand new culture, without prejudices carried over from a pre-existing society, I don’t think racism would even have occurred to Dad and his friends.”

“The message seems at odds with the rest of your culture.”

“Doesn’t it just? I guess most of Dad’s generation took it as read that the whole getting-along thing only applied to other humans on the same planet, and the people dressed up like animals were just a metaphor. Which isn’t necessarily the way a lot of we youngest folks who grew up on it see it.”

“And that is what interested you in RIDEs?”

“Well, it’s one thing. Have to admit, it’s quite a coincidence.”

Asante’s projected head nodded. “As you say.”

Kendlen pulled to a halt in a clearing and climbed off. “So you’ve got a…what they call it…’Walker’ mode?”

“Ah…yes. I believe I have found it…” The hovercycle collapsed in on itself, its metallic plating becoming semi-liquid as it changed shape. Shortly there was a metallic matte-gray leopard, then the hardlight came on and the pelt formed once more. Astante stretched and yawned. “Yes, this is more the thing.”

Asante was larger than he had appeared in the VR environment—about a third larger than Samantha had been. The giant cat looked up at one of the Totalian treestalks. “Hrm. No branches to nap on, and the Earth-types lack a certain robustness to take my weight.”

Kendlen chuckled. “I don’t expect many trees could. You’re a little heavier than the average cat.”

“Well, we shall make do.” He sniffed at one of the tree trunks, then pushed through some undergrowth at the other end of the clearing.

Kendlin grinned and followed. “Sounds good to me.”

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Beck Hensley peered at the tablet thoughtfully. “Huh.”

Merie Sims raised an eyebrow. “What is it?”

“Just got the results of the personality survey. This is…interesting. I have a compatibility match to the 93rd percentile. According to the help section, that’s well within acceptable limits for a good Fuse match. It’s a cougar, or puma—a kind of a tawny panther from old Earth. My next closest match is only an 83, which is borderline.”

“That’s interesting, all right…but not exactly a surprise, is it? I mean, that’s the point, to find close matches.”

“Well…the thing is, it’s a ‘she.’ Her name is, uh…I don’t know how to pronounce this. ‘Injy’? ‘Ing-uh’? Spelled I-N-G-E.”

“Let me see that…huh. I think your second guess is the right one.” Merie took the tablet and glanced at it. “You’re right, you do have a good match there.” She grinned at him. “Funny, I never thought of you as all that feminine. Is there something you’re not telling me?”

Beck took the tablet back and gazed at it for a long moment. “You know, you just might have to start thinking of me that way. I read all the stuff Joel left on RIDEs, and if you partner up cross-gender, it changes your body to match.”

Merie stared at him. “You’re not seriously thinking of going for it, are you? Changing something so fundamental about yourself? Seventh Aphorism: Gender is part of all things, and manifests on all levels.

“I know the Aphorisms, Sergeant.” Beck rolled his eyes. “You’ll notice it doesn’t say which gender. I promise you, I’ll have every bit as much gender manifesting afterward as I do now. Maybe even more.”

“You haven’t studied your Aphorisms,” Merie said gently. “Fourth Aphorism: All things exhibit duality. Extremes bond.”

Beck’s grin took on more than a hint of smugness. “I can’t think of anything more duality…uh…ish than experiencing both genders instead of just one. And extremes bonding is just what this is all about. I’m extremely male, she’s extremely female, and Fusing is going to be a bond between us.”

Merie sighed, giving up on the philosophy. “Beck, you just want to be the first Totalian to do this, don’t you?”

“That’s…part of it, I guess.” Beck shrugged. “There’s also a hefty dose of curiosity. C’mon, haven’t you ever wondered what it would be like to be a guy?”

Merie shook her head. “Why would I? I’m happy the way I am.”

Beck smirked. “Sure you are. But…also, well, if I’m going to Fuse a RIDE, I want the best match I can get. The help file said anything above 90 is pretty rare, and to get one in a batch this small is something special.” He shrugged. “You know how much we’ve all given up already for the sake of our country, and what have we gotten out of it so far? Stuck in an abandoned terraforming plant halfway around the world with prices on all our heads. By comparison, saying goodbye to Mr. Happy seems like such a small thing in return for something good, like the best new partner I can get.”

Merie looked away. “’New’ partner, huh?”

“What? Now hey, it’s not like that.” Beck put a hand on her shoulder. “I’m not talking about replacing you. Any more than you’d be replacing me if you got a RIDE. This is just a different kind of partner, that’s all. It won’t change anything about our friendship.”

She looked at him with a level, measuring gaze. “Give me that tablet. I want to take one of those tests. Maybe I’ll even find a male match. If you’re so set on this, I’m not going to let you do it alone, ‘Becky’. This process works both ways, right? Well, the Aphorism of Balance is at work here. If you’re going to switch, so will I.”

“That’s not an official Aphorism,” Beck pointed out.

“No, it’s my personal Aphorism,” Merie said. “Give me that tablet, Lieutenant.”

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Kendlen and Asante returned to find Brunhilde in a fine Valkyrie fury. She was standing in front of Beck Hensley, fists clenched, yelling into his face.

“—are idiot! Complete zadrota! You do not even know what you are talking about!” She lapsed into a torrent of rapid-fire Russian that lasted for a good thirty seconds before stopping to take a breath. Kendlen found it a little odd that her accent actually seemed to lighten when she was mad.

Beck didn’t avert his gaze, but looked back at her with a raised eyebrow, and jerked his thumb at Kendlen. “What’s the problem? You were willing to match him up with a female RIDE.”

“Was joke! Had shown he was not interesting in it anyway!”

“So why can’t I be?” Beck shrugged. “People have assumed my name was ‘supposed’ to be ‘Becky’ all my life. I might as well correct nature’s mistake.”

“You can be my girlfriend!” Maxl put in. He was leaning against a giant furry grey wolf on the edge of the field, watching with his own lupine ears cocked forward. “Hey, ‘Becky,’ wanna go out with me?”

Brunhilde glowered at him then back at Beck again. “This is big joke to you! None of you are taking seriously! You have no idea what you would be getting into. You do not even believe it is real. This will make you girl for three years! You will have boobs, no dick, and angry time of month! You really want that?”

“Why not? If it’s just for three years, I can put up with it for that long. How do I know if I’ll like it or not if I haven’t tried it?”

“And what about RIDE? Is not fair to force newborn to have to deal with you. After novelty wears off, you will be angry and out of sorts. You will take out on your RIDE, who never asked for it and does not even know how real human girl is supposed to be. Nyet. If you really want to be girl, Chatka can do this for you without hurting malyshka RIDE feelings.”

The big bear moved forward. “It would be a pleasure.”

“But I still want a RIDE of my own,” Beck insisted. “Look, I promise I’ll do my best not to, uh, hurt her feelings. But if I’m going to let a RIDE mess with my body and mind at all, I might as well go all the way. Someone’s got to be the first, uh, ‘crossrider’ on Totalia, and it might as well be me.”

“It is true he does have a closer personality match among the female RIDEs than the males…” Chatka pointed out.

Brunhilde threw up her hands. “Argh!”

Kendlen felt he should say something. Just an hour ago the man had cold feet about RIDEs, now he wanted to crossride? “Uh…Beck, you know, this isn’t a joke. You’ll really have to deal with being a woman for three years…while hiding out in the wilderness, fighting for our freedom. Maybe you don’t think they’re serious, but they are.”

Beck rolled his eyes. “Aw, not you too. Look, you want me to write up a statement and sign it, with witnesses? Whatever happens, I’ll deal with it. It can’t be any weirder than hooking up with a RIDE in the first place. And if people like Merie here can deal with being a woman while hiding out in the wilderness, I think I can too.”

“For what it’s worth, I believe he is serious,” Merie Sims said. “He has thought it through—about as well as he ever thinks anything through, at least.”

Beck rolled his eyes. “Gee, thanks.”

Merie ducked her head in a semi-formal bow. “You are welcome.”

“Look,” Brunhilde said, regaining some composure. “Even crossriders at home often seek transition therapy. Especially when happens accidentally! Brain is made womanly, yes, but…”

“Then I don’t understand the problem,” Beck said.

“Is more to being woman than having right mental plumbing,” Brunhilde said. “But if you truly wish to be the first Totalian to cross, my Chatka will do it. Will not subject newborn RIDE it.”

Oh, I think I get it now, Kendlen thought. “Beck, can we talk a minute?”

Beck turned to him. “Uh, sure boss?”

“Follow me—us.” Kendlen gave Asante a pat on the shoulders. They walked over to a semi-private place among the decaying concrete walls. Asante sat on his haunches and licked the back of his forepaws. “I know what you think you’re doing. I think Brunhilde hit it right on the money.”

Beck frowned. “Kendlen, I respect you. You’re the boss. But you’re ten years my junior. I’m capable of making this decision.”

“You have no idea what you’re getting into. You haven’t spent any time at all around a RIDE…much less Fused with one. I have on both counts. You don’t know what they’re like at all. You don’t have the experience you need to make a decision this important. And personally, I don’t think you really believe their tech can do this anyway. Not deep down.”

“Oh, come on. The stuff those scouts gave us before they left says people over there get crossed over all the time by accident, and they seem to make out okay. I’m doing this on purpose. Why shouldn’t I? The way I see it, this is also a way of showing the Zharusians how committed we are to this alliance.”

:You will not dissuade him,: Asante sent. :His biosigns are firmly set for this.:

Kendlen crossed his arms. “You seem to have it all figured out. Well, there’s one person you’re forgetting.”

Beck blinked. “What, you?”

Kendlen shook his head.

“Then who?”

“You tell me. See if you can tell me.” :If he’s clueful enough to get it, I’ll back him. If not…well, Chatka can have him if he still wants it. Then we’ll keep his matchmate reserved for a while ‘til we see how he adjusts.:

:Wise,: Asante said. :I would not want any of my bootsisters hurt.:

Beck looked at the big leopard, then back at Kendlen, as the two conversed privately. Understanding dawned. “Ohh… I forgot, er, what’s-her-name. The one that the survey said I was a good match for.”

Kendlen raised an eyebrow. “’What’s-her-name’?”

“Uh, Inge, the cougaress RIDE that came up as the match. Sorry. I’m a little flustered by all this.”

“All right. What about her, Beck?” :Sheesh, I sound like my college logic teacher. He was always big on the Socratic method.:

“Well, like Big Bertha over there said. She’s basically a newborn, right? I mean, I suppose I could take Chatka up on that offer to cross me first. That might make things smoother for Inge.”

Asante spoke. “It might. But it might also deprive her of an important bonding experience. Crossriding is part of what we are made to do, after all.”

:I hadn’t considered that, and I wonder if Brunhilde did, herself,: Kendlen sent. It was quickly becoming second nature to think what he wanted to say to Asante. The cybernetics the nanotech had built in his head were working just as Madison had described. :It’s too bad we can’t just ask her what she prefers…or if she’d even like Beck at all. When the fleet gets here, I’m going to have words with whoever thought sending us a bunch of unhatched eggs was a good idea. Seems like it’s causing more headaches than it’s solving.:

:So far, my bootbrother and Maxl Beregan are getting along, as well as ourselves,: Asante pointed out. :Perhaps try for three out of three?:

Beck was silent, considering what Asante had said. “And your intentions toward her are…?” Kendlen prodded.

“Be the best partner I possibly can,” Beck said. “And…well, I do want to be first at this, Kendlen. I want to be more than just a historical footnote for having rescued the First Tranche. I know it’s going to be weird in ways I can’t imagine—even after reading that ‘What to Expect When You’re Crossriding’ book in the info packet. That’s part of the point! But I can do this.”

Kendlen reflected for a long moment, then nodded. “If you can’t, you’re not the only one who’s going to get hurt. Think of what’ll happen when it goes public to the rest of Totalia. You’re going to end up the default spokesm…spokesperson for their nanotech, good or bad. You sure you want to take that risk?”

Beck swallowed. “I…think I can handle it.”

“Also, Maxl is going to ask you out. You sure you want to take that risk?”

Beck laughed. “I think he was joking, Kendlen. He’s like that.” He paused. “I think.

“Okay.” Kendlen sighed. He nervously combed his hair back with his fingers. “Okay. I’ll talk to Brunhilde and tell her I’m convinced you know enough about what you’re doing to let you go ahead. Let’s call in the medicos and someone from the First Tranche to observe. If this is what you want, we’re going to do it right. Record everything. For posterity.”

As they returned to the others, Merie Sims was approaching Brunhilde with a tablet. “Can you point out to me which one of these is the timber wolf, Knute? I see that I have an 89th-percentile personality match with him.”

Brunhilde facepalmed and muttered something very impolite in Russian.

Chapter 4

True Totalian Cosmy Flagship Eye of Horus, Low Orbit

Fleet Admiral Jermy Orinson’s eyes snapped open on the first beep of the alarm, instantly alert. By the time he sat up, he was already beginning to relax; the alarm was an alert, but not a hull breach alarm or similarly disastrous warning. He hit the direct comm line to the bridge while he pulled on his uniform.

“What is it this time?” he snapped at the officer that answered.

“Another explosion sir, low orbit like the rest.”

“Anything down there to explode?”

“Negative sir, it’s empty space up there. Nothing to shoot at, nothing to blow up. No sign of what it was.”

The alarm went silent, but the damage was done; sleep was out of the question for the rest of this cycle. “I’m on my way up.”

“The coffee will be waiting.”

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Jermy stepped through the hatch and glanced around the bridge. Everyone was relaxed, busy with their tasks. “At ease,” he called out before anyone could move. He headed over to the tactical station.

“Sir,” the officer acknowledged him, moving over. “As reported, same as the rest of them. Dozens of explosions, bearing similar characteristics to our ship-to-ship missile warheads—but to no effect. There is nothing in the area for them to affect.”

An ensign brought over the Admiral’s coffee, and stayed back. Jermy sipped the drink and waited a moment. “No sign of anything before it went off?”

“Same as the rest, no sign anything before it went off. Nothing from the planet, nothing from the outside. Just suddenly, Boom!”

“Great. Does anyone have anything new?” Jermy looked around.

At the science station, a lieutenant raised her hand. “I think I know where the aliens are.”

The Admiral stared her down until she spoke again. “I’m still verifying, but the weather sats recorded a disturbance a few days ago.”

He joined her at her station, and watched her bring up the readings. “The air currents are disturbed over the ocean, here. Not much but it doesn’t match the meteorological models. It’s too straight a line to be natural.”

The screen showed an infrared view of the planet. The angle wasn’t good, but an obvious straight line crossed the screen.

“Do you know where they went?” he asked hopefully. Clarke was getting impatient to have any sort of news about what the aliens were up to.

“The coverage is too spotty. And once they cooled down enough they could have gone anywhere. But I think we can assume they are planetside.”

Jermy nodded, it was some news, and it got the problem out of his domain. “Good work. We shrunk the search space down at least.”

“Thank you sir.”

The admiral turned around and briefly considered his next move. “Put a call down to the planet, to Clarke’s office. Patch it through to my office.”

Jermy left the bridge to the small side room. It was barely big enough for two, but it gave him a space for private conversations. He skimmed over the rest of the night’s reports while his call request worked its way through the bureaucracy.

The screen beeped, drawing his attention. “Good morning, Speaker,” he greeted Clarke, noting the other man looked surprisingly composed for the time of the call.

“Good morning indeed. Do you have news?”

“I do indeed. We’ve been looking for the Zharusian ship up here, when apparently it’s been down on the planet all along.”

Raph’s eyes narrowed. “They landed after all, then?”

“That’s our best guess. We spotted a trail in the met-records. It disappeared before we could figure out where they are, but we’re confident it’s down there. We’re still trying to figure out where.”

Speaker Clarke sighed, his shoulders visibly bowing. “I’ll advise General Tilson to have his recon flights keep an eye out. It’s a big ship; there can’t be that many places it can hide.”

“More than you might think. We assumed it wasn’t atmospheric and they surprised us. What other surprises do they have?”

You assumed, at least.” Clarke glared at him a moment. “So, since you don’t have the alien ship to worry about, what else are you doing up there?”

The admiral sighed and organized his thoughts. “We had another explosion in low orbit. Same as the fourteen before it.”

“Sandeep’s doing?” Clarke asked.

“Possibly? Their purpose still eludes us. The spies haven’t sent any more reports, and their previous ones haven’t hinted at anything like this.”

“Anything else?”

Jermy shrugged. “Not really. We’re still coping with a manpower shortage. Since that isn’t ending before more aliens show up, I’ve had the Shipyard start making some unmanned projects, that we can leave as surprises anywhere they might gather. There is one problem… We lost contact with the automated Totalium factories in the Kuiper Belt.”

“Lost contact? Why didn’t you tell me before?”

“We just confirmed it ourselves. The shipyard didn’t receive the loads that should have been incoming. I sent the Hermes Trismegistus out to look at the main factory, and it’s gone.”

“Sandeep and the Aliens again?”

“It’s the only explanation. No debris, so they probably took them over.”

Clarke sighed. “Oh that’s just great. We have enough reserves down here to last awhile at least. Are you good up there?”

“There’s still enough coming in from the rest of the factories that we’ll be all right for a while. The Shipyard has enough stocked up to last a year, and our project has more than enough for its needs.”

“So we have a missing alien ship and a missing Totalium factory. Anything else go missing?”

Jermy glanced away. “Actually, that’s four factories. Three automated ones and the main controller. Eight people ran the master. None are responding.”

“Well you’re just full of good news, aren’t you? Anything else?”

“No sir. Other than that, everything’s going according to plan.”

Clarke studied the Admiral across the vid-link before closing it without another word. Jermy made sure the connection was closed, before slumping back in his seat, letting out a long held breath.

“Well, that went better than expected,” he said to the blank screen. He stood up and headed out to see which problem he could tackle next.

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May 22, 158 AL (Totalia equivalent)
Nectar River Resistance Base

“We have very strict limits on how our Integrates can operate, worked out with the Totaliment members aboard the Kybalion and then ratified by the full session here,” Ghostate said. No, Gigi, Kendlen corrected himself. They’d explained about how they adopted different names based on their different forms. It didn’t seem any weirder than anything else about them, so he shrugged and went with it. The male owl who’d turned into a female cheetah stood on the opposite side of the planning table where the Resistance made their coordination plans with the Zharusians. “No breaking into civilian networks. No noodling around in mid-level systems without operational necessity.”

Lt. Beregan smirked. “So why don’t you just shut ‘em all down? All the computers the Zealots are using? The way Captain Roberts just took over our systems, it seems like that should be easy.”

“As we’ve said, we want to interfere as little as we can in your internal affairs.”

“It’s a matter of trust,” Kendlen said. “We’re trusting them to keep their word, Lieutenant.”

“And we will,” Gigi said. “Within those limits there’s still a lot we can do. The First Tranche approved a DINcom tap in the Cosmy Admiralty and Planetary Command buildings. That will be our first mission.”

“So why the restrictions at all?” Maxl asked. “I’m sure there are ways hacking civilian systems would help us, too. For one thing, we have to resupply with food every so often and we have to hit civvie warehouses for that.”

“Food won’t be such an issue now, Maxl,” Kendlen said. “We’re using the bigger fabbers they brought to make food fabbers productive enough to feed thousands. It won’t be the tastiest, but it’ll make that supply line that much more secure.”

Unless they stop working. And fresh food is a good morale booster. Always was on the Big K.”

“There’s also the fact that both we and the Totaliment agree that it would be better in the long run if we don’t do very much at all.” The cheetah shook her head. “It’s not going to look great to your people that you need any outside help to clean house as it is, let alone interference from alien shapeshifting invaders from planet Z. You can bet your Zealots will seize upon any sightings of us as ‘proof’ that you’ve been co-opted by xenomorphs.”

Kendlen opened his mouth, then paused when he received a message via Asante.

:First Tranche is calling everyone in, Kendlen. The Kybalion retrieved a message torpedo from Zharus a few hours ago,: the RIDE said. :It has the first report from Dr. Sigurdssen and Teenette. They’re uploading the contents, but slowly.:

“Well, well.” Kendlen raised an eyebrow, then looked to Ghostate. “Looks like we just got a care package from your extended family.”

“So I heard.” Gigi tapped the side of her head. “But it’ll be another hour before they have everything downloaded. Don’t want to burn out too many com units. We can finish up here and join them in the meeting chamber.”

“Great. So, let’s go over your plans for getting those taps into place…”

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Later that afternoon, Kendlen sat in Asante’s virtual jungle clearing with a dozen display panels open all around him. He was rapidly coming to realize this was one of the best ways to review a lot of information at one time—which was a good thing, because a lot of information was exactly what there was.

He’d only had time to go over the text reports and some of the photos, but he was already amazed by some of the things in them. Foremost, he was relieved to know Barbaretta was all right…but he was somewhere between puzzled and incredulous that she had apparently been uploaded into a RIDE. He might have partnered a RIDE, but Barbaretta now was one. And partnered with Teenette, of all people. That had to be weird.

“It does seem odd,” Asante agreed. “But I have reviewed all the material. They seem very happy together so far.”

“Uploaded into a RIDE…what would that even be like?”

Asante purred and licked the back of a paw. “I am sure I would not know.”

Kendlen snorted. “Yeah. What do you think, maybe we can trade places someday?”

“Apparently, anything is possible.”

And even Darrek had found a new friend…another person of synthetic intelligence named Arca. She was an EIDE. Kendlen wasn’t entirely clear on how that differed from RIDEs, save that she didn’t have animal features. He imagined he would find out as he went through the additional material.

Kendlen pulled up some of the video files and took his first look at another world. Well, not really his first, given that the files Samantha had copied onto his computer had a lot of footage of all the colonies. But this was the first video showing someone he knew on that other world. Darrek and Teenette were exploring Aloha, the tourist paradise with the huge space elevator right next door. They went into shops and took footage of the wares available. They went to the beaches and saw people with a lot fewer clothes on than was the average on Totalian beaches. They went to parties and tried various beverages of interesting colors—all in the name of serious cultural research, of course. It seemed parties were available at all hours and all days in that city.

And that was just the first of many videos. Hours and hours of them. “And you’ve already watched all of these?”

“I do have a moderate advantage when it comes to speeding up my perceptions.”

“So what do you think of it all?”

Asante flicked his ears back and forth. “It is…interesting to learn more of the world on which I was made. I feel mild regret that I did not have the chance to learn more of it before I left.”

Kendlen nodded. “Yeah, that’s right…you didn’t get a choice about coming here, did you. Do you want to go back there someday?”

Asante turned one amber eye in his direction. “Perhaps, to visit. But it is not so important to me. This is the world on which I was born. Did you get to choose where you were born?”

Kendlen chuckled. “I get it. Yeah, I think I’d probably like to see Earth myself someday—the planet where my genes were made. But Totalia will always be home.”

“Exactly.” Asante purred. “Why don’t you watch the next video? It’s quite good. They visit Nextus.”

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“I still can’t believe you really went and did it.” Becky’s voice sounded weird in her inner ears. It was as if she’d inhaled a balloon full of helium that stuck. And that was on top of the way her hearing was different thanks to the new swiveling kitty ears. The funny thing was that of all the strange new things about her newly female body, that was actually the hardest part to get used to—not the weird new lumps where there hadn’t been any and the absence where there’d used to be something important, but the fact that the voice inside her own head when she spoke was a stranger’s now. She wondered if Merie—Merle, now—felt the same way.

“What’s so hard to believe?” Merle asked in his new rich baritone. “I told you, it’s important to keep Balance.”

“Yeah, well, how are you going to balance all the hundreds or thousands of people who do it after this war is over and anyone can get a RIDE?”

“I won’t have to.” Merle shrugged with the same equanimity that had irked him when Merie did it. “Once that happens, the numbers will balance out by themselves. But when it’s only one person, there should be an opposite. Yin to Yang.”

“And what happens if there isn’t one?” Becky demanded, ears laid back. “The world blows up or something?”

“Bad things happen. Very bad.” Merle grinned at her. “Fortunately, we don’t have to worry about finding out.”

“You’re just lucky no one else wanted to crossride, or you might have had to find some other yangs to yin.”

Merle rolled his eyes. “That doesn’t even make sense.

Inge, purring up a storm, headbumped her partner’s torso affectionately. Becky returned it by stroking the fur between her ears. “It may not make sense, but it will be a great adventure regardless, right?”

“I suppose.” Merle glowered at her. “It’s so hard to sit comfortably with this…this farking great sausage in the way. How do you even do it? I can’t even cross my legs properly.”

Becky grinned. “I don’t have to worry about that anymore. Really, you should have thought about that before you changed.”

Merle snorted. “Just you wait a few weeks and see how you feel then. I am really looking forward to that.”

The rest of the Resistance had taken this development more in stride than expected. Exposure to the Zharusians had taken the edge off—what was one more shock? After the double-cross Becky and Merle had spent a few hours with the base doctors to determine just how thoroughly changed they were.

Becky was still a little miffed that Merie had decided to share the spotlight—and that the others had let her. If they thought he didn’t have the right attitude, how could they have let someone cross who just wanted to do it because of a religious notion of “balance”? “Double-cross” is right. But whatever she’d said to them had apparently worked, because they’d allowed it.

About the only good thing about all this was it had scared Maxl off once and for all from asking to date her. “I’m sorry, but I just can’t compete with the affections of someone who’s willing to go that far to stay in the running.” Neither Becky nor Merle had bothered to correct his misapprehension. (Which was a little puzzling when she thought about it. Becky knew why she hadn’t said anything, but why hadn’t Merle?)

Becky chuckled, and ran her hand down Inge’s tawny pelt again. All the annoyances and triumphs alike of the whole thing faded next to her. Becky hadn’t expected to feel this way, for all that their personalities were compatible and everything, but when they’d Fused, they’d really just “clicked.” :Thanks for putting up with me, partner.:

:You’re welcome,: Inge sent complacently. :After all, it evens out. Maybe you only wanted me for the boobs…but since now every guy you run across will only want you for the boobs, you’ll soon know how that feels.:

:Ha ha.: It was amazing, what it felt like being inside a living metal and hardlight powersuit. The Cyclone was like…well, it was like when you were little and your Mom made you a suit of “armor” out of cardboard boxes and shoe boxes. That was how it was by comparison to this…second skin that could fly and run and roll and fight…and think.

Now that she’d gone and done it, Becky realized what an idiot she—he—had been, and understood exactly what Brunhilde had been afraid of. He hadn’t been taking it seriously. He’d only thought he had. Even what he’d said to Kendlen about taking care of Inge had been just lip service.

But when that purring presence with the glowing amber eyes wrapped itself around her and sank into her mind, learning her and revealing herself inside and out, Becky knew this was another person—a singularly vulnerable person, practically a newborn, with no real-world experience or understanding. But, Becky suddenly knew, Inge would die to protect her…and she felt exactly the same way about Inge.

Did Merle and Knute feel the same way about each other? She hadn’t quite worked up the courage to ask. But as she saw Merle’s hand absently reach down to scratch behind one of the immense timber wolf’s ears, she suspected that it might not be that hard to guess.

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May 27, 158 AL (Totalia equivalent)
Near Totalia City

Even though they were currently at war, with all the attendant dangers and hazards, Kendlen had to admit that seeing the familiar spires of Totalia City on the horizon still gave his heart a lift. Maybe it wasn’t safe to go back in there yet, but sooner or later it would be. And just being this close and seeing it with his own eyes counted for a lot.

:Actually, you are seeing it with my eyes,: Asante pointed out.

“Yeah, I guess you got me there.” Kendlen chuckled. He and Asante were Fused up, as were all the other RIDE-equipped members of their little troupe, including Becky and Merle, hiding amid the trees of a pine orchard bordering on one of the access roads that led to the satellite farming communities. The road made a sweeping curve at this point, with a rock outcropping on the inside of the curve blocking one end of it from the other. It was the perfect spot for an ambush.

It was really kind of bad security to have a forest this close to the road, but the trees were themselves a cash crop, and precious given that there were no native-Earth forests anywhere else on the planet. The Zealots were willing to accept the risk. Really, both sides had a kind of unspoken agreement to try to keep the war as limited as possible in order not to damage the resources the eventual victor would need. Kendlen wasn’t sure he wanted to speculate on how the introduction of forces from outside the star system (and outside his culture’s limited experience) was going to affect that balance.

Take the operation they were about to pull off now. Empty transport trucks would be coming from town to collect the harvest. They were going to knock down the trucks and block the road—but on the way out, not the way back. The food wouldn’t be harmed—just delayed a bit. Even the trucks could be salvaged and rebuilt with auto-lathe factories almost as readily as the Zharusians could with their fabbers. Once they had the road well and truly blocked, they’d fade before the police or army showed up.

It was really only a minor operation, and something they could easily have pulled off even without the RIDEs. They’d done it before, with their makeshift pulse guns and some equally makeshift explosives. But this time it would serve the dual purpose of trying them out in a relatively low-risk situation, and also distracting the Zealots while the Integrates and their fellow infiltrators snuck into the city to plant the communication relays they’d brought along.

“Inge’s picking up road vibrations that are about right for the convoy we’re expecting,” Becky reported over the comms. “ETA, about two minutes. Ready up, everyone. Just like we drilled it in virtual.”

Kendlen nodded. “Affirmative.” Despite his prior leadership role, in this operation he was just another soldier. Folks like Becky and Maxl had the most combat experience, so they were the ones in charge.

Becky opened a private comm channel to speak to Kendlen directly. “I still say you shouldn’t even be out here, sir. You’re too important to the Resistance—”

“Maybe that was true before, but we’ve got a Totaliment to lead us now. And with only 17 RIDEs adopted, you need every one you can get in the field.” The remaining three RIDEs were still available to anyone who wanted them, but so far no one else had been interested. Kendlen imagined they’d get placed sooner or later, as cells were dispatched on operations and other cells with new people were pulled back to base to meet the aliens. “To be honest, I never was all that comfortable being in charge anyway. And I’m really looking forward to the chance to just shoot stuff for a change.” After all the endless complications of the last week, finally something simple.

Becky chuckled. “All right, fair enough.” She switched back to public. “Thirty seconds. Looks like there’s a light tank in the lead, two trucks, another tank in the middle, three trucks, and one more tank in the rear. Let the first tank and the first two trucks pass, then open fire on the middle tank. The first tank should be out of sight behind that curve by then and out of the fight ‘til they can get turned around. No fatalities if you can help it, but…take out those tanks.”

A chorus of acknowledgements followed from human and RIDE alike, along with a couple of dry “yes, ma’ams” with them. Weapons were attached to gauntlets. A half dozen cloaked themselves and went to their ambush positions, while the others moved in to offer covering fire. Kendlen raised Asante’s pulse rifle—a lot better than the ones he and Barbaretta had cobbled together back in Totalia City—and felt the whine vibrate through Asante’s arms as the weapon powered up. The seconds ticked down…

And there they went. The first light tank—effectively a two-ton truck with armor plating and a pulse gun turret slapped on—proceeded up the road, followed by two cargo trucks. As the third tank began to pass by, Becky ordered, “Now!” Several pulse beams lanced out, slicing through the tank’s wheels, as gauss rounds hammered on its armor. Kendlen lined up a pulse blast that severed the barrel of the turret mount before it could even go into operation. Asante purred. :Good shot, my friend.:

The crew of the tank slammed open their hatches and left it in a hurry, running for cover in the forest with their hands over their heads. The RIDE gunners moved on to the trucks to either side. “Maxl! Merle! Get that rear tank!” The tank was blocked from direct fire on them by the curve of the road and the other trucks in the way, but it was trying to pull back and come up beside them. In another few moments it would be clear to fire.

“On it!” Maxl unclipped a cylinder from Bertrand’s hip, gave the end a twist, then a quick overarm toss. It hit the side of the turret with a clank and stuck in place. Three seconds later, it blew, knocking the turret off. Another toss sent a different cylinder into the hole left behind. A moment later, white clouds of tear gas billowed from all the tank’s openings, followed by its crew diving coughing and sputtering for cover.

“Jeseph, Kren, the front tank!” A lynx and German shepherd hastened to give it a similar treatment.

By now, most of the truck drivers had followed their military compatriots into the forest for cover. Kendlen ran along the row of abandoned vehicles, checking to make sure each was truly empty. “We’re clear!” he reported.

“Good! You know what to do.”

Kendlen nodded. With help from the other RIDEs, they began to tip the trucks and tanks over, positioning them to block both lanes of the road in a layer several vehicles deep. “They’ll need to get cranes in to clear this out!” Maxl crowed. “Or an aerodyne, maybe. Damn! We couldn’t manage this with a few popguns and pipe bombs.”

Kendlen grinned. It felt good to be able to just lift and tip a deuce truck with almost no effort. He could honestly believe they were going to be able to pull this off.

Becky and Inge glanced up at the sky. “Word from the bird—they’re sending a relief column. Tanks, troops, and it looks like a couple fighters. Time to fade. That includes you, bird. Get your tailfeathers out of the sky and meet us back at the transport. Double-time, people!”

They stayed by the road, counting the troops as they passed until they were sure everyone was accounted for, then brought up the rear as they made their way through the trees to the clearing where they’d parked the aerodyne transport that Madison and the others had stolen so long ago. Since the Integrates had easily cracked the Zealots’ friend-or-foe transponder codes, they’d been able to pass themselves off as a Zealot cargo flight on the way in. Kendlen wasn’t sure the same trick would work a second time, or even well enough to let them get away this time, but it was worth a shot.

Becky strode up the center of the passenger compartment as RIDEs latched into place in the RIDE benches the Clementine crew had fabbed and installed for them. The last one in was the golden eagle RIDE who had been pulling lookout duty in the air. “Strap in, people! We’re in the air in fifteen.”

Kendlen grinned, reaching up to high-five Becky and Inge as they passed. “Good job out there.”

Becky nodded. “Yeah. I hope the other guys were able to pull it off as well.”

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Scheisse!” Scout Lieutenant Hamner Reinhagen returned fire from the Cyclone’s forearm cannons, the Zealots’ own white-hot bolts of energy flying overhead. Hamner had inherited the Cyclone since he didn’t want to take a RIDE away from a deserving Totalian. And he was more comfortable in the dumb machine anyway, despite its shortcomings.

“So, they have pulsers,” a large horse Fuser next to him said. “Big ones.”

These pulse cannons were mounted on tanks. They were bulky things compared to the railguns, with a lower rate of fire. But they burned through almost anything that wasn’t hardlight-shielded. The pulse-bolts were more like ball lightning—wild, unfocused. The weapons put out a lot of heat, too. It made them easy to target, but the automatic rifles the infantry had made returning fire a risky business if they focused fire.

“Fall back,” Hamner ordered. Every edge we get, they seem to have a counter. The Scout sighed. “This mission is a wash!”

“Maybe not completely.” The horse poked his gun out from cover and fired, minimizing his exposure thanks to the targeting sensor on the front. “Word is the Resistance’s op went great. And if there’s this many of them here, it means the pressure is off…” He trailed off, not wanting to take even the remote chance of being overheard, but Hamner knew what he meant. This was another poke-the-wasp’s-nest-with-a-stick mission, meant to draw the Zealots’ attention away from the other part of town, where a small team of Integrates and Lieutenant Rowcliff’s men would be infiltrating into the city if all went well.

“All right, team, hold the line for another minute, then we’ll fall back and let ‘em think they’ve won.”

“They kind of have won,” someone else muttered over the comm. They hadn’t taken any lethal casualties, but the Clementine’s med bay was going to be busy when they got back.

“So it shouldn’t be hard to get them to think it,” Hamner said. “We’ll see if we can get some heavier weapons fabbed for next time we come back.”

The horse fired a few more times. “That’d be nice.” He yelped as a pulse blast took a huge gouge out of the boulder they were crouched behind, just a few centimeters over from his head. “I think it’s time for the better part of valor.”

“Running the hell away?”

“Yeah. That.”

Hamner primed a grenade, and used the Cyclone’s arm actuators to toss it backward over the boulder without particularly looking where it was going. “Okay, people, let’s move! Grab the wounded and GTFO. No one left behind!”

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On the other side of the city, the explosions were only a distant rumble. But they were a good sign, Bernie thought, as he led the team of infiltrators up a drainage culvert toward a stormwater runoff drain grating. It sounded like they were really drawing some fire. Good.

Bernie glanced back through one of his body’s rear-facing optics at the small group behind him. Directly behind him were the four human soldiers, Rowcliff and his men. They were among the few members of the crew who’d stayed awake during the entire trip, studying for their role. They had soaked up every bit of Totalian history and culture Madison had sent back, including making a careful study of the native accents used in their audiovisual media. It wasn’t really enough, but it was a start. They would be adopting Totalian identities and staying within the city even after the others had left.

Beyond them were the Integrate members of the team. Maxwell was a brown rat whose RIDE half had been with Nextus military intelligence during the Sturmhaven war. Dominique was a Eurasian Lynx from Uplift by way of Chakona Enclave, and Sharona was a shaggy Shetland pony who often wore a Camelot hardlight tabard. They hadn’t met before the trip, but they’d spent subjective years training and drilling together in fast-time on the way over and by now carried on like old friends.

The Integrates weren’t planning to stay long, as it was considered too risky for non-humans to linger within the city. It would simply be too easy to make a slip, and who knew what kind of sensory equipment the Zealots might have deployed by now that could penetrate their disguises? But their special abilities would come in handy on shorter sorties like this one, to make contact with the local Resistance, plant surveillance and communication gear, and help the humans get established via plausible whole-cloth identities inserted into the citizens database.

Then there was Bernie’s job. It…wasn’t going to be the most glamorous, but his completely inorganic body meant he could go places the humans couldn’t. He didn’t need to eat or breathe, and his custom body was almost as flexible as an Integrate shapeshifter’s. The Marshals’ Lithium Star division had outdone themselves creating it for him after he uploaded.

Having made a study of the schematics and blueprints Madison had sent back, aided by information picked up from discussions with natives back at Resistance HQ, Bernie planned to infiltrate the city’s infrastructure in the most literal of senses. Apart from the underground tunnels the Resistance had used as a temporary headquarters, Totalia City was rife with cable conduits, ventilation ducts, and, of course, sewers that went practically everywhere. Which meant, so could Bernie.

Unfortunately, it didn’t mean he could play Ninja Turtle. He was probably going to be more like Get Smart’s Agent 13, poking his head out of unlikely spots to help the other infiltrators or the Resistance. Oh well. It’s a living.

Bernie tested the grating over the tunnel. A rusty padlock held it in place at the bottom, and rusted hinges at the top. A low-powered pulse shot took care of the lock, and a little nano-lubricant ate away enough of the rust from the hinges to make the noise of opening it a non-issue. Bernie held up the grating then passed it to Rowcliff. Each of them would hold it up for the one behind him until the last Intie in the rear lowered it gently back into place.

“Times like this I’m glad I can shut down my nose,” Maxwell said. The little rat Integrate’s nose twitched nonetheless, out of habit perhaps.

“Some of us can’t,” Rowcliff said.

“Shh,” Bernie said. “Secure comm only. Sound carries up pipes.” He shifted shape to move on all fours, while most of those behind him had to walk slightly stooped over in the pipe’s 1.5-meter height. Fortunately, they only had a hundred meters or so to go before they could break out into the old tunnels. They would be coming out not far from the site of the old Resistance base, though they didn’t plan to reconnoiter it. There wouldn’t be anything left there by now anyway, except possibly Zealot surveillance cameras to see if anyone did drop by. Bernie thought he might check it out later on his own, nonetheless.

This grate wasn’t locked, but it was welded into place. But his pulse gun could be reconfigured as a cutting torch, and it only took a few seconds to open this one up, too.

“You guys picking up any cameras in range?” Bernie sent via comm.

“Nothing within a hundred meters,” Dominique reported.

“Okay, we’ll risk it. But keep an eye out. Given that the Resistance used to be all over this place, it wouldn’t make sense for them not to try to keep an eye on it.”

They slipped out into the concrete tunnels, lit dimly by self-contained long-life bulbs built into the ceiling. This section of tunnel was deserted, which was all right by Bernie. They’d be meeting the Resistance elsewhere.

Sharona raised a hoofhand. “Hold up, boss.” She blew and popped a large pink bubble, slurping it back into her mouth with a big equine tongue. “Camera, next corner…okay, diddled it. Carry on.”

“Thanks.” Bernie still wasn’t sure whether the bubble gum was real or hardlight, and had never quite worked up the nerve to ask. Wouldn’t it get stuck in her fur? But then again, maybe Integrate lifter fields would lift it right out. Either way, it was an integral part of the laid-back Cascadia slacker persona she carefully projected. Bernie wondered whether they had bubble gum on Totalia.

They followed the tunnels for a couple of klicks, feeding cameras looped footage of empty halls as they passed. They moved fairly slowly to make sure they didn’t miss one, but still made good progress over time. At last, they climbed a flight of stairs up to a sealed metal bulkhead door. The Integrates seized control of every camera outside and declared no one was in the area. Bernie squirted nano-lubricant liberally all over it and gave it a good five minutes to work before he slowly cranked the wheel in the middle and swung the door outward, letting in the bright afternoon sunlight.

They came out in a small park. The door behind them was in a small concrete-block building that served as the base of an impressive albeit somewhat abstract statue of a pyramid. “TUNNEL ACCESS/STORM SHELTER” was stenciled above the door.

“Disguises in place, everyone,” Bernie reminded them. “Sharona, no bubble gum until we know for sure it’s a thing they do here, okay?”

Sharona rolled her eyes. “Aw, geez, boss…” But she took the gum out and very carefully stuck it behind one ear (well, that answered that, then), before assuming the disguise of a young woman in jeans and sweatshirt, with mirrorshades and chestnut hair pulled back in a bun. Dominique had a silk dress with a pattern that seemed somewhere between leopard print and camouflage, her dark hair plaited in a French braid. Maxwell had a grey serge suit. All their clothing looked slightly weird to Bernie, but that was because it was cut to the Totalian fashion, which tended toward baggy trousers and sleeves, and shirts and jackets that came down to mid-thigh. In particular, Bernie privately thought Maxwell looked like he was cosplaying David Byrne in Stop Making Sense.

Lieutenant Rowcliff and his men came next. They’d changed out of their uniforms half a click back, transferred their equipment to native knapsacks and duffels, and cached the foreign stuff behind a section of wall stone the Integrates had cut and hollowed out for them.

Maxwell nodded to him. “Your turn, Bernie.”

“Right. Let me see.” Bernie considered a moment, then shifted his proportions and appearance to female, human, and pulled up a local-style dress that seemed to be part gown and part kimono. At least the female Totalian fashions weren’t quite as ridiculous as the male ones. “How do I look?” Brooke asked.

Sharona flashed her a quick thumbs-up. “Like a natural, boss.”

“Great. OK, you’ve all memorized the maps and know your routes. We’ll meet up at Karlyl’s Restaurant in 90 minutes. Got it?”

“We’re clear.” Dominique held out her arm to Maxwell, who gallantly took it, and they strolled nonchalantly out from behind the building. Brooke silently counted up to two minutes, then nodded again, and one of Rowcliff’s men—Stebbins—walked out in the opposite direction. After a few more minutes, two more of them left, and then Rowcliff himself.

Sharona grinned at Brooke. “Looks like it’s just you and me, boss-ette.”

Brooke smiled back. “So it is. You’ve studied this place a lot more than I have, so is there anything important I need to know before we step out?”

Sharona shrugged. “Just act natural.”

“Fair enough.” Brooke followed her out into the city.

Chapter 5

For all that she was an old hand at acting jaded, Brooke still found her nonchalance sorely tested as they walked through Totalia City. She finally just gave up and used the hardlight to camouflage her rubbernecking. (She wondered if the Integrates were doing the same.) This was a city that had been built a century ago on designs a century older, and evolved completely independently of any outside influence since then. It was like nothing else she’d seen on Earth, Zharus, Wednesday, or in pictures and vids of the other colonies, which all tended to share at least a touch of sameness in one respect or another.

“Yeah, it’s a peach, innit?” Sharona said via private comm.

Brooke blinked. “What, were you—?” But no, she had a DINsec, she’d have known if she was being hacked.

Sharona chuckled. “No great mystery what you’re thinking, bosslady. Thinkin’ some of the same myself. Neither part of me was ever off Zharus before. Not even to Wednesday. ‘Til a couple years back, never thought I’d ever get to go anywhere. All this…it’s totally new, and I can’t wait to explore it. Only sad I can’t stay as long as you.”

Brooke shrugged. “You never know. After we’ve been here a while, maybe we’ll decide it’s safe. Anyway, it’s just ‘til the war’s over.”

Sharona gave a particularly equine snort. “Yeah. Funny. You think these people even know there’s a war on?” She nodded toward the other civilians on the street, all peacefully going about their business. “Other places, there’d be austerity measures, buy-government-bonds signs, maybe even tanks in the streets. But here…”

Brooke nodded. “Know what you mean. It’s like they don’t want all the bad stuff from a war, so they’re trying not to actually have one as much as possible. All the ones who’re fighting it know if they get all the civvies mad at them, it’s game over. So the Zealots don’t want to piss the people off by tightening the belt, and the Resistance don’t want to make life hard for them to force an ending.” She shook her head. “It’s like a prisoner’s dilemma. If either side went all-out, they’d probably win the battle, but they’d lose the war. It’s a stalemate.”

“Yep. It’s why they need us.” Sharona opened her mouth, started to reach back toward her ear, and stopped herself. “You know, I’m pretty sure they have bubble gum here, boss-gal…”

Brooke smirked. “Buy me a pack and we’ll talk.”

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Karlyl’s Restaurant was a friendly little bistro in one of the more historic downtown districts. Kendlen had said it wasn’t far from his old penthouse. He hadn’t eaten there especially often, so he didn’t think the Zealots would have any particular reason to keep an eye on it. It served mostly burgers, pork cutlet sandwiches, and other home-cooking-style fare remembered from Earth or made up anew on Totalia.

“We’re with the, uh, Fellin party?” Brooke said. The greeter nodded, and ushered them into a back room where two tables were pushed together to seat a dozen people. Rowcliff and two of his men were already there, along with two natives. Brooke recognized the conservatively-dressed older one right away from the pictures Kendlen had given her: Professor Mikken Fellin, a History of Pop Culture professor at Totalia University, and leader of one of the local Resistance cells. Kendlen aside, he was also the only member of the Resistance currently on the planet who had met Madison, Samantha, and the other Zharus Scouts in person.

Brooke nodded to him. “Hello, Professor. Is it safe to meet openly like this?”

“My research has led me to conclude it’s safer than trying to sneak around. The less you act as though you have something to hide, the less suspicion you attract.” He smiled faintly. “Also, the owner of this place is a friend of mine, and we sweep it for surveillance devices regularly.”

“Good enough. I’m Brooke, this is Sharona…I take it Rowcliff’s introduced his people to you. Ah, there’s Sgt. Stebbins.” She waved as the waiter ushered the fourth human in. “We’re just missing Maxwell and Dominique…” She pinged their comms. “…and they’re just up the street. Be here in five minutes. Great.”

“This is my second, Recha Throckmorton. Also one of my graduate students.” Mikken nodded to the young woman seated next to him, her pale blonde hair in a pageboy cut. “And you’re from…outside.”

Brooke nodded. “If we were somewhere really private, we could drop our disguises. Still…” She glanced around to make sure no one was looking, and let the hardlight disguise over her metallic arm flicker out for a moment, then back on. “Proof enough?”

Mikken’s eyes widened, and Recha outright stared. “But that’s…you…”

Mikken recovered his aplomb. “I did tell you what kind of people we’d be meeting, Recha.”

“Yes, but…actually seeing it…”

Sharona waved a hand. “You understand, we’re not here to try to take over or anything. We’d just like to see you guys back in charge.”

“We want to help, that’s all.” Brooke shrugged. “I know even you guys are going to be suspicious of us, and that’s okay. I’d be, in your shoes. We’ll let our actions speak for us. Anyway, we’re putting ourselves in your hands here—if you guys should find you can’t trust us, all you have to do is call the Zealots and turn us in.”

Mikken shook his head. “I’m sure that won’t be necessary. Between you and them, you are definitely the lesser evil.”

“Anyway, we brought you this.” Brooke slid a local-format media chip across the table to Mikken. “Recording of the real Totaliment in session. Watch it when you have the chance.” Mikken nodded and swiftly pocketed it.

Rowcliff spoke up. “We also have comm gear that can put you directly in touch with them with no chance of interception. If you have a safe-enough place for us to set it up.”

“Oh, you started without us?” Dominique asked as she and Maxwell entered the room. “I suppose we were a little late.”

Maxwell nodded. “Missed it by that much.”

Mikken shot him an odd glance, then shook his head. “Please, be seated. If this is everyone, we should go ahead and order. You, ah, do eat, right?”

Brooke grinned. “The rest of ‘em do, I don’t. Well, I can if I really have to, to keep my cover, but no point among friends.”

“Too bad. The food here is really quite good.” Mikken waved the waitress over with menus, and shop talk ceased while everyone placed their orders.

After the food had arrived and people had a chance to address it, Brooke asked, “So how are things inside the city? It doesn’t look like the war is hitting anyone especially hard.”

Mikken sighed. “It’s not. That’s one of the reasons it’s hard for the Resistance to get traction. People seem to have gone back to not caring about the greater galaxy again.”

“But what about all those letters they sent in, all that publicity, back when the Scouts were here?” Brooke asked. “I gather they were running in favor of contact.”

Slightly in favor.” Mikken shrugged. “Without the Scouts themselves around to keep the pressure on, people tend to forget. They lose their enthusiasm, put their heads down, and worry more about day-to-day life. And the Resistance has not exactly been good at getting the message out since the Zealots effectively drove them out of the city.”

Sharona grinned. “Well now, that we can change. Comm equipment cuts both ways, eh?”

Brooke nodded. “We’re going to pull a repeat of the same stunt Madison did to get her video out at your rally, but we’re going to make it a little more permanent this time.”

“And not just for the propaganda, either.” Dominique smiled serenely. “We have brought diplomats along. I am sure they will want to speak to the usurpers and see if some kind of peaceful transfer of power can be arranged.”

“We are very eager for a peaceful solution. But it’s been…difficult for the legitimate First Tranche to gain traction for negotiations,” Mikken said. “As they have no doubt informed you.”

Brooke grinned. “We’ll see how that changes when we call them out on every vid screen in the city.”

“I don’t know about this…” Recha said. “It seems unnecessarily…disruptive.”

“Some disruption is exactly what we need at this point, Recha,” Mikken said. “Our little civil war has been very divorced from the average Totalian. People have forgotten what’s at stake. We cannot keep fighting among ourselves now that the rest of the galaxy knows about us. The isolationists have already lost. We must face reality and meet the rest of humanity on our terms.”

:Hmm. Remind me to have Rowcliff keep an eye on this Recha chick,: Brooke commed to the Integrates. :Seems like she might be the sort to change her mind about things if it looks like they’ll cause too much “trouble.”:

“What you’re basically talking about is a propaganda war,” Recha said, folding her arms.

“Well, you are already in a civil war. At least a propaganda war tends to have fewer fatalities.”

“It’s our job to help keep a clear line of communication between the legitimate government and the people who actually voted for it. We have methods they can’t block,” Brooke said. “Those are our orders direct from the Totaliment-in-Exile themselves. And we’ll do that whether the Zealots want it or not.”

“Believe me, miss, we’d all rather be back on Zharus, relaxing on an Alohan beach with one of those drinks that comes with the little pink umbrella in it,” Maxwell said. “But we came out here because your government—your real government—officially asked us to help. And we’re going to do what they tell us to. No more, no less.”

Recha sighed. “I guess you’re right…”

“Of course I’m right.” Maxwell gave the lapels of his suit a tug. “And once we get the comms set up, you can talk to them about it yourself.”

Brooke cleared her throat. “We probably should go ahead and get around to that, while Rowcliff’s men get settled.”

“Of course.” Mikken nodded. “We have temporary quarters set up for them, until they can find a more permanent situation. What about the rest of you…?”

Brooke rose. “We’ll be in touch.”

“Oh…by the way,” Sharona said. “You do have bubble gum here, right?”

Recha blinked. “Bubble…what?”

Sharona sighed. “Aw, horse apples.”

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A few hours later, the sun had gone down, and the Totalia City lights shone brightly forth, with little regard for making it difficult for enemy bombers to find targets. Since they know the Resistance doesn’t have any, and if they did, they wouldn’t use them on civilian targets, Brooke thought. What a crazy way to hold a war. She supposed it would probably change once the Fleet arrived. Well, enjoy the scenery while you can, deerie.

She wondered what her friends back Zharus-side were doing. Aleka, Vanna, Zoey, Fenwick, and the rest of Aleka’s bunch…Tamarind, Jeanette, and the other Young Guns. Would any of them be riding the Fleet out? Or would they be staying to keep order in a world that suddenly had a large number of its heroes occupied elsewhere? It would be just like that Appa to cause trouble when he thought the forces of law and order were at their weakest…

Her thoughts were interrupted by a transmission over the secure comm line. “Sharona here. In position.”

“Dominique, in position.”

“Maxwell, in position.”

Brooke replied. “Brooke, in position. Any surprises where you are?” The replies came back in the negative. “Then go for it, just like we practiced in virtual. Comm if anything happens.”

The Integrates were infiltrating three of the city’s main communication hubs to plant their gear, and Brooke was at a fourth. In a way, she’d taken the most challenging assignment. The Integrates’ hubs were located out in the open, or at the least inside buildings, where it would simply be a matter of fiddling with an access panel and leaving.

Brooke’s assignment was one of the internal hubs deep within the city’s infrastructure. Apart from a high-security military checkpoint, the only way in was to crawl a hundred meters down a one-meter-wide cable conduit whose available space narrowed to half a meter in places. “Good thing I brought a can of Crisco, ‘cuz it’s shortening,” she muttered as she went down the stairs to the tunnel entrance. The conduit ran right along the ceiling here, with an inspection hatch right above her.

Brooke dropped her human disguise, reverting back to plain ol’ Bernie. Then his metallic body began to elongate and stretch out, becoming taller and narrower. He looked down at his suddenly-spindly form and chuckled. He simply couldn’t resist; he had to say it. “I am Groot!”

Then he kicked in the lifters to rise up and into the conduit. Rather than try to slither like a snake, he simply used the lifters to push himself forward, or up, or down, or backward as necessary, while he maneuvered himself around and through potential obstacles. Heh. I shoulda been a plumber. Or at least a roto-rooter.

Almost before he knew it, he had made it to the end of the conduit. He quickly scanned for any signs of tamper resistance or alarms, but didn’t find any. Of course, who would expect someone to come in from this way? He extended his upper half into the box, wrapping snake-like around the cluster of circuit boards that made up its inner workings. He made sure to stay away from the access panel to the box itself, which surely would be alarmed. Then he insinuated boneless fingers within the circuit boards and injected a few cubic centimeters of a silvery fluid. The nanites pooled atop one of the boards before pulling themselves into it and disappearing.

The problem with the physical comm relays Madison and the Scouts had used was that they were easily detected and removed. But a relay built on microscopic scale by assembler nanites within the components of the original circuit board should be practically undetectable by Totalian science. The only way they could get rid of it would be to rip the whole box out and reinstall it—and that was assuming they could isolate the actual source. The external relays, with the actual DINcoms, had already been placed in hidden spots outside the city where the comms could be easily swapped out when they burned out. They should be good to broadcast propaganda and make comm calls 25/7, at least for a while.

Mission accomplished. Now to get the hell out of Dodge. Putting the lifters in reverse, he pulled himself back out of the box and slithered backward through the conduit, dropping back out of it and reverting to normal. He reached up and closed the access hatch, while he counted the seconds in his head. After two minutes had passed, he sent a quick test pulse to the relay, and was rewarded with an acknowledgment from the comm tap.

“Bernie here. My tap is installed, self-test is green.”

“This is Dominique. Mine is also go.”

“Sharona, boss. Got it done.”

“This is Maxwell. Everything looks good over here.”

“Great. You three exfiltrate the way we came in, just as we planned. Get back to the transport and return to HQ. I’m going to check in on the Professor, see how Rowcliff’s doing getting that comm gear up.”

“Sure thing, boss. Pleasure working with ya.”

“Same here, Sharona, but no gum until you’re back in the tunnels, got it?”

“I know, I know, sheesh!”

Bernie resumed the disguise, and Brooke made her way along the tunnels to Professor Fellin’s Resistance safehouse. Setting the hardlight to invisibility mode, she made her way up to the safehouse door, gave the coded knock they’d arranged, and slipped inside when the door was opened, only resuming visibility when it was safely shut.

The safehouse was effectively a small room subdivided out of a larger warehouse in the industrial district. It had actually been walled off and forgotten during the construction necessary to join one warehouse to another, but the basement exit to the tunnels still existed. The four human agents were at one end of the room fiddling with a field video communication unit, while Mikken Fellin and Recha Throckmorton looked on curiously. “Hey, all. Relays are up.”

Rowcliff looked up. “Great! I think we’ve just tapped into them. I’m pulling in civilian broadcasts now. I think this is a news channel.” He moved aside so a newscaster was visible on the screen. The slide beside him showed exaggerated animal faces—a fox head with vicious fangs, a deer with ominous red eyes—and the caption “Alien Invaders!” in a jagged scare font.

Brooke frowned. “Hey, turn it up, I want to hear this.” Actually, she thought she more sort of didn’t…which made it all the more important that she do.

“…Totaliment’s courageous agents, at great personal risk, managed to smuggle this footage out to us, showing the kind of creatures the rebel forces have aligned themselves with. We caution parents that these scenes may be too disturbing for impressionable younger viewers.”

Oh…merde. Brooke sent a quick comm ping to the Integrates, who should still be within range. “Hey, guys, check the comm relay. Public channel 3 Alpha. Looks like our bunch has made the news.”

The newscaster blinked out, replaced by doctored scenes from the Kybalion, showing Captain Van Dalen and her crew conversing with Captain Sandeep and other Kybalion crewmembers, or assisting in repairs. There were a couple of closeups clearly showing the animated animalistic faces of the Integrates and Fusers.

“I hate this show already,” Maxwell quipped over comm.

The scene changed again, this time to another face they all knew well from their briefings. Raph Clarke looked sorrowfully into the camera and gave a little speech about how he’d hoped even the rebels would know better than to ally themselves with these strange aliens from the unknown, whose very motives were suspect and who might very well want to enslave their world and ransack it for its Totalium. He called upon the rebels to turn themselves in and face justice, offering clemency to any who would renounce their rebel actions, and rewards for anyone who aided in the capture of an off-worlder.

“You’re recording all this, right?”

Rowcliff nodded. “Every second.”

“When it’s over, send it off via the relay to HQ. They’re going to need to see this.”

“Hey Miss Boss, maybe we should break into the channel and tell that Clarke where to go, huh?

“Best all around if we leave that to cooler heads, Sharona. That’s the whole reason we’re here.”

“Yeah, I guess. We’re almost back to the ship, so we’ll be signing off now. See you later!”

Brooke turned to Mikken and Recha. “So, what do you think?”

Recha shuddered. “I don’t know what to think. They look so…alien.

Brooke sighed. “So what? I can look alien, too.” She changed her hardlight disguise to her deer fursona. “See?”

Recha squeaked and jumped back, hands over her mouth.

Mikken’s lips tightened. “Was that really necessary?”

“Maybe not, but…we are what we are. We’re people, no matter what we look like. People like that Raph Clarke who take a look at someone and say they aren’t…they just get on my nerves. Sorry.” She flickered back to her human disguise.

Mikken nodded. “I’ll say this much for him. He’s a very talented public speaker, especially when nobody is allowed to present the opposing view.”

Brooke smirked. “That, at least, shouldn’t be a problem for much longer.”

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As the weeks went by, Clementine kept herself busy. She was good at that. Sometimes she wondered if any of her crew ever realized just how good—or how busy she kept herself. But she had to do it. Every time she saw something not being done that should be done, it was so much simpler just to do it herself than to waste minutes or even—Patil help us—hours trying to get someone else to understand the problem and take action on it. She had the processing power, and she had the fabber, and there was always plenty of time that it wasn’t being used for something else, so why not?

Sometimes it was as simple a matter as setting up charging stations for all the RIDEs who had awoken and joined the Resistance. Everyone was so happy about seeing all the charging stations pop up in vacant space in the old terraforming building that nobody ever thought to ask who had actually authorized or commissioned them. With constructor help, more creature comforts appeared—reliable hot water, better food, rooms that no longer leaked. The entire building was slowly being rebuilt under their noses.

It could also be as complex a task as setting up early-warning defenses for the base—which nobody had seemed to bother to do before they had arrived; a shocking oversight. They seemed to be relying on “security through obscurity,” and she had access to centuries of history showing why that just didn’t work. A world where they put Totalium on everything posed a number of interesting new challenges to defense—but that was okay, because Clementine loved a good challenge. And since there wasn’t much of anything else to do while she was stuck dirtside (well, except for the few dozen other self-appointed tasks she’d given herself, but most of those were trivialities by comparison), something like that she could sink her teeth into was just what the technician ordered.

The most obvious solution was optics, of course. If you couldn’t ping it with radar, you could only rely on being able to see it coming. But the biggest problem with optics was that they worked best in the daytime, when there was plenty of visible light. Sure, there was always some light even at night, especially if larger, closer the moon was up, but the kind of sensitivity you needed to detect a moving object under those conditions invariably led to plenty of false positives. And while she was smart enough to eliminate each false positive in a matter of picoseconds, the Resistance probably wouldn’t have anyone who could do that when she left, as she would invariably have to sooner or later.

There was also the option of laser-ranging—shooting lasers out to see what bounced back—but the problem with that was it would probably end up lasering someone’s eye if they came close enough. Not exactly the most friendly way to say hi.

The solution Clementine eventually hit on involved a network of cheap lifter-equipped aerostats which did laser ranging in a two-dimensional plane around them. She built a network of these drones starting several klicks out from the base, in a pattern that resembled three nested geodesic domes. Any projectile that broke through one of the planes of the outer dome would trip an alarm, then when it broke the next dome she could calculate trajectory. The third dome would let her determine whether the object was moving in a straight line or an arc.

Then, if it did turn out to be hostile, she would have plenty of time to zap it with one of the pulse turret emplacements she was quietly setting up around the base. And the system was simple enough that even a non-sapient expert system could work it almost as well as she. (Of course, they’d have to use friend-or-foe transponders or make manual exceptions for friendly aircraft, but she could go over that with whoever needed to hear it before they left.)

But this kind of thinking was only part of what kept Clementine busy. She was also constantly watching and interacting with her crew, the Resistance, the diplomats, and the Totaliment. Probably more than they realized, given that every communication device she installed had a passive mode backdoor that let her monitor everything through it. (It was intended to let an expert system watch for command keywords or gestures, but she had no qualms about subverting it to her natural nosiness—especially since she felt responsible for keeping them all safe.)

It was fun to watch the friendships blossoming between the human soldiers and their RIDEs. The personality-match algorithms had come through, and almost every pairing seemed likely to be permanent. There were a couple pairings who bickered a lot, but even they seemed to be more attached to each other than not.

She was especially interested in the cases of Becky/Inge and Merle/Knute, Totalia’s first crossriders. She was considering writing a paper on them for one of the RIDE medical journals back home—she’d ask for a little help from Mom, Dad, Dr. Patil, and Dr. Clemens in refining it. How did a crossride pairing outside Zharus’s cultural context differ, and how was it the same? Did the humans seem to have more trouble, less trouble, or about the same difficulty adapting? It would make an interesting case study. So far, they both—all four, rather—seemed to be doing pretty well. The counseling they were getting from Eva, Ghost, and the couple of other crossriders among the crew they’d brought from Zharus seemed to be helping.

She also kept an interested eye on the political situation via the communications the rebels were injecting into the Totalia City media networks. The Zealots had gone crazy trying to root out the source of the broadcasts, but no matter what they did to stop it, the Loyalists were able to route around it—especially with Bernie on the inside to reinfect any communication nexus they ripped out and replaced outright.

The recording aired at least twice a day. A stern-faced Trilby Whitfield stared right at the camera and intoned, “Citizens of Totalia. This is the voice of your government—your true government. We call upon the usurpers to step down from power and return the reins to the government you elected—or at the very least, call new elections so you can decide once and for all who you want leading you.” Then he would go on to talk about the Scouts they’d held, the visitors who’d come from Zharus, excerpts from the report they’d gotten back from Darrek and Teenette, and the overall situation. He emphasized that a fleet was on its way, and they needed to greet them in friendship. And froth as Clarke’s “True Totaliment” might, it was just as Clementine’s Mom would say: they couldn’t stop the signal.

Meanwhile, Booker and Grey and their assistants had been engaging in direct communications with Clarke and company, seeking to bring private diplomatic pressure on them to complement the public pressure. So far the talks weren’t terribly productive, as Clarke’s group categorically refused to engage in discussions with a foreign power as long as it had a footing on sovereign Totalian soil, but Booker was being calm and patient and there were a few signs it might be having some effect.

Clementine had stationed one of her holotar floaters in the First Tranche’s conference room as a courtesy. The First Speaker, Trilby Whitfield, was only middle-aged by Zharus standards, but here was a man of advanced age. Yet his mind was sharp as ever. He’d decided to present the Special Ambassadors’ report in full, unedited form—including Dr. Sigurdssen’s rather exhaustive appendices on cultural and historical minutia. Nothing was held back.

“I think that Dr. Sigurdssen and Miss Clark’s report is having a positive impact,” Trilby said. “The political rally was fascinating—so different from our own politics. Indeed, it’s beyond interesting to observe the political workings of a world where there are dozens of different political entities, and not just one city.”

“You’ve seen it ten times by now, Trilby,” Seventh Speaker Jassen Balderson said. He checked his watch. “Five minutes until we make our ceasefire and debate pitch.”

“Think they’ll go for it?” Keran Lawrence, the Sixth Speaker, asked.

“They’ll go for it,” Eleventh Speaker Jaine Ramos said, voice edged with bitterness. “It’ll give them the chance to continue their weapons development and military build-up in peace.”

“That’s the trade-off we make in return for getting to look like the ‘reasonable’ ones who made the offer first.” Trilby shrugged. “We are, in effect, gambling that whatever ‘development’ they can make in a few months will not be enough to counter the couple of centuries our new allies have on them. And after seeing the wonders they have demonstrated so far—including those we are about to broadcast—I firmly believe that to be the case.”

“I hope you’re right.” Jassen Balderson checked his watch again. “One way or another, we’re all going to find out before very long.”

Clementine was thrilled by these developments. More than once, she forked a process exclusively to watch and enjoy the political exchanges, virtual tub of popcorn at the ready. She knew that it was all very serious and lives were in the balance, but nonetheless her sense of drama appreciated a great confrontation.

She had enjoyed Darrek and Teenette’s report as much as anyone else, if not more. It was always fun to see your own culture through outsiders’ eyes. Also, she took maternal (or grand-maternal) pride in Arca, one of the many young Eis who had sprung out of what Clementine’s parents had learned from making her. Clementine had met the girl a few times back at the Institute, when she was still a sprout. She’d seemed nice, if a bit confused. Clementine had always thought she’d go far if she could just straighten out who and what she wanted to be. Now, it seemed, she had done so, and was going to go very far indeed.

There was always so much going on around here. Clementine liked that. It was almost as good as being out in space. Since she probably wasn’t going to be leaving for a while, she would make the best of things, and find more things that needed doing. It was the best way to keep from going stir-crazy.

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June 30, 158 AL (Totalia equivalent)
Nectar River Resistance Base

Booker Albescu straightened his tie as he walked down the ramp and through the underwater tunnel to the Clementine. It had been deemed more efficient to install a transparent aluminum corridor that mated to one of the ship’s side cargo hatches than have to keep raising and lowering it to load and unload cargo. It had also been a great demonstration of Zharus’s technology, as the whole process had taken only a couple of hours from start to finish—including digging the part of the tunnel that led up to the surface of the ground, and lining it with quick-set plas-crete.

The tunnel was seeing a lot of use. Booker and Grey stood to one side as a Totalian pushing a lifter pallet laden with supply crates passed them going the other way. The fabber was very popular these days. Not just for supplies, either. Apparently Trilby and a couple other members of the Totaliment had developed a taste for Zharusian kraken while Captain Roberts had been here, and Wilma had assured them it would not at all be a drain on resources to have that or other alien cuisine every now and again.

Booker hoped the Resistance wouldn’t become too dependent on the fabber. But that was something for his assistants to worry about. They were handling most relations between the Zharusians and the Resistance while he focused on the relations between the Resistance and the Zealots. Or, rather, the Loyalists and the True Totalians, as they styled themselves.

Which was what brought him and Grey to the Clementine, as it happened. Captain van Dalen had requested a briefing on current events. Given that was part of his job, he was happy to oblige. “Clementine?” he said as he entered the cargo bay. “Where do they want to see me?”

“Just come on up to the bridge, Ambassador,” Clementine said. “We’re not being very formal today.”

“All right.” They walked forward through the ship. After spending months aboard it with a number of other passengers and cargo, it felt oddly spacious now that most of them had been unloaded. Wilma, Eva, Gigi, and Clementine herself were waiting, seats swiveled back to face him as he came in. “Hello, everyone.”

Wilma waved him toward one of the vacant chairs at the reconfigurable utility consoles toward the rear of the bridge. “Please, have a seat. Pardon the informality, but this is where we’re all most comfortable.”

Booker nodded. “Of course.” He sat down, and Grey lay down next to his chair. He started things off with an informal question himself. “How are things going with you?”

Wilma shrugged. “Same old same old. We’d like to get back into space, but we knew when we signed up that this support mission would take a while. Price of visiting a new star system.”

“That being said, we’re very happy with how things are going here,” Eva put in. “All twenty of the new RIDEs we brought along are partnered now, and they all seem to be getting along well—even the crossriders, for a wonder.”

“And we’re learning a lot more about the local culture, now that the comm taps are live. Getting a feel for the local music, working up a potential set list for some shows.” Gigi grinned. “A little live music should be good for morale—theirs and ours. We’ll just need to find a good local drummer. Maybe you could ask around, see if anybody here plays.”

“I’ll look into it.” Booker cleared his throat. “Anyway, you wanted a briefing on the state of the negotiations?”

Wilma nodded. “Go ahead.”

“When we first made contact, Clarke’s Totaliment was not interested in speaking to either us or Trilby’s Totaliment. They didn’t feel they wanted to grant us that degree of legitimacy. Of course, that changed after Trilby began his broadcasts, and it became clear that a lot of citizens considered Trilby to be a lot more legitimate than Clarke.”

“For political reasons?” Wilma asked.

Booker waved a hand. “Possibly. Trilby’s charisma helps a great deal, I imagine. He comes off like everybody’s grandfather, while Clarke…well, comparing him to a pedantic college professor is probably putting it charitably.”

“Or to put it uncharitably, he’s just an old windbag,” Grey piped up.

Booker shot him a look. “Grey…”

“Hey, I’m not a diplomat myself, so I don’t have to be diplomatic. Especially since we’re being all informal and stuff.”

“Anyway, we’re not at the point where we can pry any major concessions out of them, but over the last few weeks we did finally get them to agree to a cease-fire while they hold a weekly series of video debates on the matter of outside contact. Mostly Trilby vs. Clarke, one or two with the Second Speakers against each other, and one or two with their chosen representatives from the rest of the First Tranche. After that, there will be a non-binding public vote whether they want to open relations.”

“Non-binding, huh?” Gigi said.

“More like a poll, really. It’ll at least show them which way the wind is blowing.”

Eva twitched a cervine ear forward. “And if it blows against us, then what?”

“It won’t.” Booker smiled. “It’s really kind of a formality when you get right down to it. Most of the Totalians alive these days are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the original colonists. They never signed onto the original colonization plan or had any stake in keeping hidden from the rest of the galaxy, and a lot of them are curious about their origins and what else is out there. Folks like Clarke and Whitfield are first-generation natives, and they’re more of a toss-up—but as you can see, even they tend to be sharply divided on the matter. After the debates, we’re predicting a margin of at least fifteen percent in our favor, give or take a percent or two.”

Wilma raised an eyebrow. “But if it’s non-binding, will it make any difference?”

“It will at least show our supporters once and for all that they’re far from alone. That could galvanize them in favor of calling for an end to the pretenders’ reign. Maybe even organizing and taking action. It’s our best chance to resolve this peacefully.”

“Of course, we’re pretty sure Clarke’s bunch have to know this, too,” Grey pointed out. “Which suggests they’re just stalling for time. But if they feel like they need to stall, they know they’re in a position of weakness, which is going to make it that much easier when the Great Western pulls in.”

Gigi frowned. “Maybe. On the other hand, animals get the most dangerous when they’re cornered.”

“Which is why we’re trying to make sure the lines of communication are good and solid now, so we can try to talk them down from any ledges later.” Booker paused. “Another interesting thing we’ve determined is that there seem to be at least two factions within the ‘True’ Totaliment. Believe it or not, Clarke seems to be a more moderate element compared to his second speaker, Thomm Quincy.”

Wilma’s ears cocked forward. “Oh, really?”

“Quincy was one of the three defectors from the Loyalist Totaliment, which of course doesn’t make him popular with the Loyalists. But even so, he seems to think Clarke isn’t going far enough. He wants martial law, curfew, lockdown, and a total offensive, full speed ahead and damn the torpedos. If he had his way, I imagine any aliens on Totalia would be captured, shot, and dissected. Clarke seems to be trying to keep him on a tight leash, but you know the type. He’ll wiggle loose sooner or later.”

“Someone to keep an eye on, anyway,” Gigi said.

“What about negotiations on behalf of Zharus?” Clementine asked.

“Not going so well. They’ll tolerate me as a moderator for discussions between the two Totaliments, given that I’m about the most ‘outside party’ possible. But they refuse to address the idea of any sort of trade treaties as long as a hostile alien force has a foothold on their sovereign soil.”

Eva rolled her eyes. “I get the feeling that’s a direct quote.”

“You’d be right.” Booker shrugged. “We didn’t expect this to be easy. The important thing is to get it started, so we’ll be there when they’re ready to listen, or when the Loyalists get back in.”

Grey nodded. “If at first you don’t succeed, keep on sucking ‘til you do suck seed.”

“…yeah,” Booker said. “That’s one way of putting it, I guess. Anyway, that’s about all I have to report at this time.”

Clementine smiled. “Thank you for filling us in. Please keep us informed of any further developments.”

Booker nodded, getting up from the chair. “We’ll be in touch.”

Chapter 6

September 12, 158 AL (Totalia equivalent)
Nectar River Resistance Base

Inge shook her head and sneezed, peering distastefully at the display panel scrolling credits. “I don’t understand. Why do they call it ‘Cougar Town’ if there aren’t any cougars in it?” She’d been trawling through the Clementine’s media archives when she found the old sitcom, which turned out not to live up to her expectations.

Becky was seated in a lawn chair next to Inge in the woodland clearing in her VR that they used as a workspace. She shrugged at Inge’s question. “You’ve got me there. Maybe you should ask one of the Zharusians. It might be some kind of cultural reference they would know about.”

“Good idea. Oh.” She stared at nothing for a moment, then laid her ears back briefly. “Clementine says that when this was made, ‘cougar’ was slang for ‘a woman who seeks sexual relations with considerably younger men.’” She wrinkled her nose. “That’s speciesism, plain and simple.”

Becky chuckled. “Sort of the opposite of us, then. I was the much older one in our relationship.”

“I wonder if there’s an animal for that?” She stared into the distance again. “Oh. Clementine says there were lots of different terms, but one that stands out is ‘wolf.’”

Becky snorted. “So…that would make me a ‘wolf’ and Merle a ‘cougar.’”

Inge laughed, then rolled over on her back and waved her paws in the air. “We’ll have to tell them that next time we see them.”

Becky reached over to give Inge a belly rub. “Do you ever…I dunno…regret that you didn’t have any choice about Fusing with me? I understand that usually RIDEs get to pick out their own partners these days.”

Inge rolled back upright and gazed levelly at her. “But I did have a choice. If I hadn’t liked what I saw, I could have turned you down afterward. But I did like you.”

“Lucky thing for me.” Becky grinned.

You could have turned me down, too.”

“Only if I was insane or something, as well as just an idiot. I’m just lucky you liked me anyway, even though I was an idiot.” Becky scratched behind Inge’s ears.

Inge purred. “Those must be some really good algorithms in that personality match quiz.”

“I guess they’ve had enough experience to get them right. Good thing they have.” Becky stretched. “Funny, if you’d told me a few months ago I’d trade my manhood for a big metal kitty-cat, I’d…well, I’d probably have agreed that was exactly the sort of thing I was likely to do, given the chance, but I’d at least have been a little surprised about it.”

Inge tilted her head. “Do you regret that tradeoff?”

“I dunno. Maybe a little, sometimes? But not so much because I gave something up, but because of all the little habits I picked up that I have to re-learn. No more peeing standing up, that kind of thing. Kind of irritating. And there are other things I’m still…well. Apart from that…” She shrugged. “I’m still me. At least, I think I’m still me. I still feel like me to me. But maybe I’m a different me than I used to be and just don’t notice it.”

“That’s one for the philosophers, all right.” Inge blinked. “Oh. Merle and Knute just sent a comm ping. They’re coming out to see us.”

Becky stood. “I guess it’s back to the real world, then.” Between one blink and the next, he was back in his body, within Inge’s Fuser form, standing in the forest by the reservoir. A moment later, the anthropomorphic timber wolf of Merle/Knute emerged from the trees nearby.

Becky waved. “Hey. What’s up?”

Knute’s wolf-head retracted to reveal Merle. He had been experimenting with growing a mustache, and it seemed to be coming along nicely. Inge opened her own cougar-head helmet so the two humans could talk directly. “I was just going to ask if you’d like to come swimming. Since it is our day off, and all.”

Becky considered. “Well, I haven’t been in a while, so why not?” She paused. “Waaaait a minute. This wouldn’t be just that you want to see what I look like in a swimsuit, would it?”

Merle raised an eyebrow. “It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve been swimming together. You saw me in my suit plenty of times.”

“So it’s that Balance thing again, huh? Turnabout is fair play?”

“If you want to look at it like that.” Merle shrugged. “I just thought, it’s a nice warm day out, just the right kind of weather for the ol’ swimming hole.”

There was a shallow spot a couple of klicks along the reservoir rim, well away from the dangerous whirlpool of the spillways, that the Resistance used for a recreational swimming area. It was true, Becky reflected, that they hadn’t been there in a while.

“I guess we should go get our swim things, then.”

“Actually, we don’t need to. Knute tells me his Fusers can fab a swimsuit onto me, and Inge can probably do the same for you.”

Inge spoke up. “She’s right, I can. I’m looking for some suitable designs now. You want me to run them by you, or just surprise you?”

“Uh, I think it would probably be best if—” Becky began.

“Surprise us,” Merle said. “Both of you.”

Becky blinked. “Are you sure about that? I’ve seen photos of some of the stuff they wear back on Zharus…”

“It’s just going to be us four anyway. Everyone else is out on assignment or doing other things.”

“Uh-huh.” Becky gave him an old-fashioned look, but he maintained an expression of innocence. Of course, even as Merie, she’d had the best poker face on the base.

“Come on, I’ll meet you there.” Knute’s helmet flipped back up and they took off with their lifters.

“Guess we might as well follow them. Hey, if you’re going to make me a swimsuit, what happens to my normal clothes?”

“I remember how they were made and put them back on you when you’re done. Since you’re wearing stuff made with nano-motile fabric now, I can do that.” Inge closed her helmet again and followed Merle and Knute into the air.

“Huh, that’s convenient.” Maybe too convenient, he thought wryly. What is he up to now?

A few moments later, they touched down on the gravel beach next to the swimming hole. As Merle had said, they were the only ones there today. As they landed, Knute peeled away from Merle’s body, reforming into a big brindle-grey wolf. Merle was wearing a pair of dark blue swim trunks. They weren’t particularly short or tight, just a pair of loose thigh-length shorts. Of course, the fact that he wasn’t wearing anything else still served to show off a fairly muscular physique. Merie hadn’t been particularly pumped, but Becky gathered that the crossride process had built the muscles on. Once he had them, Merle had to exercise to keep them—which he was obviously doing, regularly.

“Your turn!” he called out cheerfully.

Becky sighed. “Okay, go ahead.” She felt the tingle all over her body that indicated the nanites were doing something to her clothing. Then Inge dropped away, revealing…well, revealing was the right word. It wasn’t quite a bikini, because the top and bottom were connected, but it was a pastel pink one-piece with large belly and back cut-outs, so the overall effect was similar. :Inge…:

:Hey, you’ve got the body for it, and I’m proud of my work. So why not show it off?:

Merle grinned at her. “Nice look! My compliments to your tailor.”

“Of my clothing or my body?”

“Both, since they’re the same person. C’mon in, the water’s fine.” Merle splashed out into the water, and Becky followed. They proceeded to enjoy themselves for a while, under the watchful eyes of their RIDE lifeguards.

Even swimming was different in this new body, Becky reflected wryly. She was a lot more…floaty than before. Merle seemed to be having the same sort of problem adjusting, because he kept sinking, and finally confined himself to the shallower part of the swimming hole to keep from inhaling water.

After an hour or so of swimming had them both wrinkling up like prunes, they removed themselves to some large flat rocks that were just starting to catch the sun, to lie down and soak up some rays while they dried off.

They lay there for a while, dozing in companionable silence, each occasionally turning their head to look at the other. Then it happened that they both looked at each other at the same time, and Becky caught Merle grinning at her again. “What’s so funny?”

“You.” Merle chuckled. “I have to admit, you’re adapting better than I expected.”

“What’s so surprising about that? It’s just my gender manifesting. I told you it would.”

Merle snorted. “You wouldn’t know your ‘gender manifesting’ if it bit you on the part you don’t have anymore.”

“What about you? Made peace with your sausage yet?”

Merle stuck out his tongue. “You’re never going to let that drop, are you? But, for your information, I think I have. It’s been an…enlightening experience. So many things I never understood about men have suddenly become clear.”

“I guess we of the masculine persuasion are just simpler folk than you, because I sure don’t feel any closer to understanding women than I was before, even after being one.”

“Well, there is one part of the experience you haven’t tried yet.”

“What?” When Merle just grinned at her, Becky didn’t take long to work it out for herself. “Wow. You men really are all the same, aren’t you? Even the ones who used to be women.”

“It wouldn’t exactly be the first time for us.”

This was true. Even though Beck and Merie had been just friends, and in the same chain of command to boot, they had rolled in the hay a few times, recreationally. It was a cheap form of entertainment when you couldn’t just go out and see a movie. Besides, they tended to be a bit more informal about the whole chain-of-command thing in the Resistance.

“But it would be the first time for both of us like this.

“Then who better for both our firsts than each other?” Merle shrugged. “If you think it’s a bad idea, then fine, forget I mentioned it. But if you’re as curious as I am…”

Becky considered. “Just to be clear, this is just like all the other times, right? Just sex? What the Zharusians call ‘friends with benefits’?”

“Of course that’s all, Becky. I promise, I have no ulterior motives.” Merle grinned. “I swear it by the Seven Aphorisms.”

Becky blinked. “Wow, you’re really serious.”

“Serious and curious. And where else am I going to find someone else who might be just as curious?”

Becky considered. It was true, she had wondered more than once what it would be like. But she’d just been too busy to think about that sort of thing lately. And given that they’d both done it before, it would provide a baseline for comparison. There was one other consideration, though. “Are…Inge and Knute okay with this?”

:Of course we are,: Inge sent. :We don’t get jealous of that.: :It’s a natural human relationship,: Knute’s deeper voice added. :Part of being organic. Denying you that would be like…you denying us Nature Range.:

Whatever that was. Becky smirked as another thought struck her. “And besides, you’ll read our memories of it afterward and enjoy it yourselves, too?”

:There is that…: Inge admitted, accompanying it with a wink emoticon.

“Well, I guess all my objections have been addressed.”

“Good.” Merle propped himself up on one elbow. “You know that lookout spot that we don’t use anymore since Clementine set up her sensor network? I think the air mattress is still there…”

Becky sat up. “I think it’s our solemn duty to check and make sure the Resistance’s meager resources aren’t being wasted.”

Merle grinned. “I like the way you think, Lieutenant. Lead the way.”

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Meetings. More and more endless meetings. The bright side of the meetings was that Kendlen was able to attend them in Fuser form with Asante. The Totaliment wanted him there that way, in fact, as a sort of living reminder of the results of having relations with the Zharusians—results that were both beneficial and disturbing, all rolled up into one. It also helped that Asante’s hardlight projectors had three-dimensional multimedia capabilities that put the meeting room’s display to shame.

Kendlen didn’t mind, because he was able to review other matters internally during the meeting, while having Asante there to catch him up if it turned out he needed to respond to something in the real world. Right now, he was reviewing the latest details on Lt. Becky Hensley and Technical Sergeant Merle Sims.

Totalia’s first two crossriders were adapting well, according to the latest psychological assessments. The process made deep brain changes that prevented gender dysphoria, and the two did seem comfortable enough in their new bodies. The biggest problem they usually had to contend with was all the curious people asking questions about how different it was. :When this is over they’re going to have to face the rest of the Totalian public,: Kendlen said to Asante. :Not to mention their own friends and family. I don’t envy them.:

Asante licked the back of a paw. :At least they have each other?:

:They’ve never been interested in a relationship before. I don’t know why they’d start now.:

:I’m sure you’re right.:

Asante’s answer carried such an air of smug amusement with it that Kendlen had to ask. :All right, what are you on about now?:

:You do understand that one of Clementine’s main sensor clusters is right over the old northeast lookout?:

:So…?:

Asante threw up a still frame of two entirely nude people who were obviously Becky and Merle in the middle of a very passionate embrace on an old air mattress in the forest. :There is also video, if you like. With sound.:

Kendlen stared, more glad than ever that his face wasn’t visible. :Uh…no. That won’t be necessary. Allow them their privacy. Uh…this isn’t circulating, is it?:

:No…Clementine only released it to me because, as their superior, you should be aware of any possible repercussions. She would not show it to anyone else.:

:Sheesh.: Kendlen shook his head. :Nah, their affairs are their business. Pun not intended. At least until it starts interfering with their duties.: He chuckled. :Besides, they make a cute couple.:

:As you say.:

Kendlen turned his attention back to the world outside as Trilby gestured to the display screen at one end of the conference room. Charts and figures were visible. The first vote count results were coming in on the outside-contact referendum in Totalia City. So far, the vote was running about two to one in favor, though the polls in the more conservative farming communities had yet to report.

“We can’t truly expect Clarke and his ilk to abide by this,” Seventh Speaker Jassen Baldurson said. “This is only going to end up in further bloodshed.”

Trilby snorted. “Tell us something we don’t know. But at least it will cement our legitimacy in the eyes of the people. And who knows, there’s always the chance they’ll see which way the wind is blowing and back down.”

“Yes, and maybe pigs will fly,” Sixth Speaker Keran Lawrence put in.

Trilby shrugged. “With those fancy new ‘lifters’ they brought from Zharus, anything is possible. Anyway, the cease-fire has been as beneficial for us as for them. Possibly more so, since we all know that we have reinforcements coming soon.”

“The thing that worries me,” Jassen said, “is that they have to know that just as well as we do. And yet they’re still stalling. What do they know that we don’t?”

“Since they’ve moved their deliberations to a chamber with no audiovisual pickups we can hack into to keep an eye on them, it’s hard to guess.”

“We could ask Bernie to try to bug their chambers,” Kendlen noted.

“That’s just a little further than it would probably be a good idea to go right now,” Booker Albescu said. He and his little deer RIDE were watching the screen just as nervously as the Totalians. “But depending on how things turn out, we’ll keep that option open.”

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The Loyalist Totaliment wasn’t the only group anxiously watching the results. In a chamber in the Totaliment Building in Totalia City, Raph Clarke and the other members of his First Tranche were watching the same readouts on a video display receiver they’d brought in. Raph gloomily watched the percentages climb higher, and sent Gerent for more antacid.

Second Speaker Thomm Quincy watched the little man scurry away, not bothering to hide his grimace of distaste. He was still kicking himself for his slowness. If he’d just moved faster, he could have been the one to seize power, instead of that wishy-washy Raph Clarke. Why hadn’t he thought of it?

“Sir. Comm call for you on the private line.” It was his own aide, Grom Yeager, holding his personal phone.

“Thank you, Grom.” Quincy took it and left the room, walking down the corridor until he was sure he couldn’t be overheard. “Yes?”

“This is General Tilson. We’ve had a breakthrough. We believe we’ve found the headquarters of the Resistance—and the location of the alien ship. They’re at the old abandoned Nectar River terraforming base on the northwest coast. The ship seems to be parked underwater in the reservoir.”

Quincy’s eyes narrowed. “That’s perfect! General, I think it’s time we put Project Daedalus to its intended use.”

“Has the First Tranche authorized this?”

“You let me worry about the First Tranche, General. As military commander, I have the full authority to authorize Daedalus, and will take full responsibility for the outcome.” Clarke had bestowed that position to him as a sop to keep him happy—thinking, no doubt, that there wasn’t any actual power in the position since the First Tranche as a whole had to authorize any overt act of war. But there were still things, actual things, Quincy could do with that authority, and this was one of them.

“Uh…yessir.” The voice on the phone sounded hesitant, but obedient. Good.

Quincy returned to his seat, carefully concealing the grin of elation he felt on the inside. In a matter of minutes, all their problems would be over. The Resistance and their alien friends would be wiped off the map. Invade his home world, would they? The world his father had died to keep safe? They would soon see Totalia was amply able to defend itself.

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The settlement of Totalia City itself was only the center of an occupied city-state-sized chunk of land on the southeast coast of the main continent. Southwest of the city were the farming communities, the breadbasket (and meat locker) of the colony. Northeast were the military bases, including the prison where the Scouts had been held during their stay.

But a few hundred klicks southeast, right on the southern-most tip of an archipelago, was a nondescript little space that was almost entirely underground—but heavily guarded on the surface nonetheless. Beneath the round metal cap, a small army of researchers had been working feverishly to unmothball and prep one of the rockets that had been used for putting weather satellites into orbit before the nuclear-powered ships of the Cosmy could do it more economically. But this rocket would be carrying a considerably different payload than a harmless satellite.

It wasn’t anything fancy. But then, the nice thing about nuclear weapons was that they didn’t have to be fancy. When you got right down to it, all they really were was a way to bang two rocks together really fast. And as heavily as they used nuclear fission tech on Totalia, they had plenty of the right kinds of rocks to spare.

General Tilson, a heavy-set older man in a green and bronze miliary uniform, entered the command center of the base, nodded the duty officer aside, and sat down at the console. He lifted a heavy chain from his neck, found the key dangling at the end of it, and slid it into a hole on the console and turned it. Several lights went from green to amber. He turned it again, and they went red. A new section of controls opened, and Tilson wasted no time entering an access code.

He reached to another keypad and pulled up a map display, then zoomed in and placed the carat directly over an old concrete structure at the northwest edge of the continent. The console beeped and projected a course that would take the rocket up almost into orbit, then down again, to hit a target that was almost on the other side of the world. Tilson acknowledged and approved it, took a deep breath, and slapped the “launch” key.

Klaxons sounded throughout the base, as all personnel were given five minutes to reach safety or else get fricasseed by the blast. The metal lid of the silo cranked open. The timer gradually ticked down toward zero.

“Sir, are you sure we should be doing this?” the duty officer asked. He knew full well what was riding on the tip of the rocket and where it had to be going.

“Ours not to reason why, Captain,” Tilson said.

The officer sighed. “I hope this is the right thing to do.”

“As do I, Captain. As do I.”

With a rumble that could be felt all through the base, the rocket’s mighty thrusters fired, launching it skyward. The first stage fell away, then the second, then it was time for the missile to go ballistic. Its trajectory took it higher and higher, and it was just seconds away from going into free-fall…

…then a second sun lit up the entire hemisphere.

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Wilma van Dalen entered the bridge at a dead run and practically vaulted into the Captain’s chair. Gigi and Eva weren’t far behind her. “Clementine, report! What was that?”

Clementine was in her Vulcan guise at the science station. “A nuclear detonation in low orbit, Captain. Estimating about a two to three megaton yield. From the direction of the blast and debris, I estimate it was an ICBM-type weapon launched from somewhere near Totalia City, aimed—” She turned to look at Wilma. “Aimed directly at this facility, Captain.”

“Go on.”

“Sensor readings from just before the event show no trace of the rocket. It must have been Totalium-clad.”

“This gets better and better,” Eva muttered. “Why did it detonate prematurely? Not that I’m disappointed that it did.”

“I am not…no. Actually, I do have a hypothesis. Look.” Clementine threw the visual of the explosion up on the main viewscreen, slowed down a thousand times. “Look.” Just after the blast, a thousand tiny pinpoints of light showed up all around it. “Spectrographic analysis suggests those are reflections of the blast’s light from chunks of pure Totalium.”

“Fragments of the bomb’s casing?” Gigi asked, turning to her console and keying in a query.

“No, these were there already, and much too far distant to have been thrown off by the blast. The ones at the very edges of visibility are several hundred klicks from detonation. These are the same as the debris we encountered on the way down, only considerably denser.” Clementine paused, switching to a different view. “Now that I know what to look for, I can detect sunlight glinting off similar such fragments elsewhere in orbit. I hypothesize that someone has been seeding Totalia’s lower orbit with these fragments to create a Kessler field blocking access to the planet. The missile struck them on its way up and hence detonated prematurely.” She paused again, and a most un-Vulcan-like tone of distress entered her voice. “Captain, the density of fragments I am extrapolating would make it extremely unlikely I could pass through to orbit safely, even with full shielding.”

Wilma sighed. “Looks like we’re stuck here for the duration.”

“Who would do that? The Totaliment?” Gigi wondered.

Eva shook her head. “If they did, they must not have been thinking too clearly. They cock-blocked their own nuke.”

“And a good thing for us that is, too.” Gigi hugged herself and shivered. “If it had gone off even at the outermost limit of our defensive shell, it would still have done plenty of damage here.”

Clementine glanced up. “Captain, the Totaliment are requesting a briefing.”

Wilma facepalmed. “I’ll just bet they are. And probably not putting it quite that politely, either. Clemmie, please keep us posted. We’d better go tell them what just happened.”

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“What in all of Totality just happened?” Raph Clarke demanded, standing at the head of the table and glowering. In particular, he glowered at Thomm Quincy, who he was sure had some part in this.

“A nuclear explosion in low orb—” Dr. Reena Quand, the representative from the Science Committee called in to provide their findings, began.

“We know that!” Clarke said, pounding the table. “Where did it come from?”

“We’re still trying to work that—” the Science Committee woman said, but Clarke waved her to silence as Gerent came running up to him and leaned down to whisper in his ear. His eyes narrowed, then he straightened up.

“I’ve just received word that a rocket was launched from Hermes Base just a few minutes before the blast. On the orders of General Tilson, who certainly didn’t get his orders from me. In fact, it seems we have our very own Second Speaker to thank for that.” He glared at Quincy. “Explain yourself.”

“What is there to explain? I saw an opportunity to eliminate a terrorist threat, and I took it. If it had worked, it would have completely vaporized the Resistance headquarters.”

“Uh, about that—” Reena said.

“With whom we were negotiating, and had agreed to a cease fire!” Clarke roared. “Do you know how this is going to make us look? How much worse it could have made things if you’d succeeded?

“I think you need to know that we’ve found—” Reena tried again.

“Cease fire? Pah. I’m sure I don’t know why you even bother. We know what’s best for the people even if they don’t. We would never agree to let outsiders onto our world. Now that we know where they are, we should simply drop the pretense and wipe. Them. Out.” He punctuated his last few words by pounding on the table.

“We are trying to buy time to further our technology development program! Or did you forget that?”

“We will have all the time we need no matter what you do, up until their reinforcements arrive. So why leave them around to be another thorn in our sides?”

Reena took a deep breath and yelled at the top of her lungs, “THERE IS A CLOUD OF TOTALIUM FRAGMENTS IN LOW ORBIT, COMPLETELY BLOCKING ANY SHIPS FROM TAKING OFF OR LANDING!” She paused. “Sirs.”

Raph Clarke blinked. “…what? Explain.” He turned to look at Reena, finally giving her his full attention.

“Sir, in reviewing the visual record of the explosion, we have discovered an immense cloud of Totalium fragments, like shrapnel, in low orbit around the planet. On Old Earth, this phenomenon was called a ‘Kessler cascade.’ Earth actually had a similar debris field for a time, which blocked all attempts at space travel until its orbits had decayed, a few decades before the Totalia expedition was launched. We think that’s why the missile blew up prematurely—it ran right into this field. It’s like it was hit by a point-blank shotgun blast.”

“The explosions in low orbit, sir,” Gerent said. “The ones Fleet Admiral Orinson mentioned. They must have been seeding it.”

“And you say this will block ships from taking off or landing?”

“Yessir. Any ship that tries to go up or come down will get the same thing that missile did. Tiny little fragments of invisible rock, orbiting at high speeds.”

“But who’s been doing this?” Fifth Speaker Kendlen Janssen asked. “The Loyalists? Quincy?”

Clarke frowned. “I find it hard to believe the Resistance would intentionally block the planet off, when they know their allies are going to want to land here. They might be misguided, but they’ve shown no sign of being stupid.” He frowned at Quincy. “And I rather doubt he would have fired that nuke had he known about this…Kessler thing.”

“Sir, we’ve lost space,” Reena said. “That includes all of the ships we have left, and everyone else off-planet. The electromagnetic pulse even fried our last weather satellite, and we can’t put up another from down here.”

“But if we’ve lost space, so, too, have the would-be invaders lost planetfall!” Quincy crowed. “Let them come! They’ll sit impotently out there, unable to land and spread their blight to—”

“Shut up!” Clarke shouted. “You don’t get to be happy about this! You don’t get to be happy about any of this! Do you realize the position you’ve put us in? We broke the cease-fire, and tried to wipe out the people we were negotiating with. Including representatives of the alien planet whose Scouts we so carefully did not kill out of the desire not to burn any bridges! And this is after our people clearly voted to show they want to deal with them!”

Quincy sneered. “You are far too soft. Grow a backbone! Regardless of what happened to Project Daedalus, this ‘Kessler cascade’ will give us yet another edge in the war.”

“How do you know they won’t devise some method of clearing that debris when they arrive? You saw Dr. Sigurdssen’s report. Yet I doubt we’ve seen even a fraction of what they can do.”

“If they have, then we’ll deal with it then. The reverse-engineering efforts, coupled with Totalium and our native resolve and ingenuity should be sufficient to see us through.” Quincy shrugged. “As for our position, the only opinions we really need to worry about are our citizens’. And it would be simple enough to turn this to our advantage. After all, the detonation was exactly halfway between us and them.” He closed his eyes and steepled his fingers. “Simply say the missile was theirs.”

“What? But we fired the rocket. It passed right over our city! The contrail was visible to the naked eye!” Reena protested.

“Bah, one of our patrol aircraft, or a weather satellite launch. Tell the people something reasonable, and they will believe it.” Quincy smirked. “After all, they were raised to fear and distrust outsiders. We all were. Give them a reason to believe that fear is well-founded, and they will thank us for protecting them.”

“I’ve got a better idea. How about we arrest you and try you for treason?” Raph Clarke growled. “Maybe hand you over to them and let them do it.”

“Oh, really? Is the pot going to call the kettle black? Do you think they’ll really believe you had nothing to do with it and weren’t just seeking a scapegoat? Remember, they want your head, too.”

Eighth Speaker Darleen Cherry cleared her throat. “Quincy has a point. As far as these so-called ‘Loyalists’ are concerned, we’re all traitors. If we can use this incident to our advantage, and dampen the proles’ enthusiasm for inviting in alien invaders, it would buy us some breathing room at the very least.”

“And when the invaders show up?” Clarke demanded.

“We’re not exactly any worse off. As he said, we’re all traitors already. If we don’t win, it will hardly matter if we hang for a sheep or a lamb.”

Thomm Quincy smirked. “Exactly. With your permission, I will begin preparing for the press conference.”

The hell of it was, Clarke couldn’t see any compelling reason not to adopt Quincy’s proposal. Admitting to the rocket attack and impeaching Quincy would be a tacit admission that the Loyalists were right, and would only help their popularity with the people. At least this would sow enough confusion to buy them some breathing room for a while.

You always knew it was double or nothing from the moment you pulled the trigger on Operation Lockdown, he told himself. You have to win, or you lose it all. So be it. Clarke sighed. “Fine. Do that.” He waved to a couple of security guards. “Gentlemen, please take Dr. Quand into protective custody for the time being. No communications.”

“What? You can’t—”

“Sorry, my dear, but I’m afraid we have to. We can’t risk any leaks, no matter how well-intentioned.”

The guards relieved Dr. Quand of her communication devices and led her, still protesting, from the room.

“You should just kill her, you know,” Quincy said after they were gone.

Raph shuddered. “I am not that far gone.”

Quincy shrugged. “Sacrifices have to be made in a war. But as you will. Any further disaster to come out of it will be on your own head.” He pushed back his chair, rose, and stretched. “Well, I will see you later. I have a press conference to prepare.” He pushed his chair back in and breezed out of the room.

Raph leaned back in his chair, groaned, and drank more antacid. It was turning out to be a long year.

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Recha Throckmorton sat in her chair, staring at the blank display panel. Only seconds ago, it had been carrying the Totaliment’s press conference about the nuclear attack that had nearly wiped out their city, and the clouds of shrapnel in the skies blocking them off from any aid by their forces in space. She felt a great hollow emptiness in the pit of her stomach. What had she done? What had she been a part of?

She’d joined the Orion Club when she came to college largely out of a love of science-fiction, and it seemed the most science-fictional thing in the world to dream about getting in touch with the rest of the galaxy again. Totality knew it would never happen, not in her lifetime. Of course, the very next month, Barbaretta Hansom had landed, caused a great stir—and then vanished so completely it left half the Club, Recha included, believing it had all been some kind of hoax.

She’d shrugged, put her head down, and finished getting her History degree, then went back for a graduate degree. She’d stopped attending most Orion Club meetings for a while as the Barbaretta thing caused them to devolve into little more than forums for outlandish conspiracy theories. She’d definitely stayed away from the public rallies they’d grown into. Who had time for that nonsense when there was studying to be done? She’d almost forgotten about the affair altogether when Barbaretta Hansom had come back into her life with a vengeance—along with three other Zharus scouts and some kind of…talking animal. The broadcasts, the releases of verifiably genuine lost media from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries…

Suddenly it all seemed fresh and new. She’d watched the ancient movies they released onto the networks, listened to the music. She’d started going to club meetings again, even a rally or two. Her belief was re-energized, along with most of the other lapsed Orion Clubbers’, it seemed. It was really going to happen! Galactic contact again, not just in her lifetime but in just few months!

Then had come the…well, she guessed it was a coup, technically. Recent developments were causing her to re-evaluate these past events in a new light. Could you really call it a coup if they had your best interests at heart? Raph Clarke had taken over, declared martial law for a couple of weeks, and when the dust settled, a new, more conservative Totaliment had taken power. Clarke insisted that it would be best to proceed with caution, because what did we really know about these outsiders when you got right down to it?

At the time, Recha had partaken of the same stunned disbelief as the others of her generation. They’d made their voices heard, they’d said plainly what they wanted. Who were these old fools to decide what was best for them? In the throes of idealism, when her professor had revealed he had ties to the ousted Totaliment and their Resistance faction, she had been a ready recruit. And she had worked tirelessly to restore what she had believed to be their legitimate government.

But then…she’d started to learn more about what these Zharusians were really like. She’d heard the stories of Joel Roberts, the Scout with a talking ferret and amazing, superhuman—inhuman powers. And then she’d actually met some of them, including that “Brooke” woman who was actually some kind of robot in disguise—who could change from a person to a…a deer person in the blink of an eye.

Recha had always assumed that movies like The Monsters from Planet Thirteen were simply fiction—pedagogical rubbish that conformed to the belief bias of the overall population in order to gross higher at the box office, she would have said in her Orion Club days. But…but what if they weren’t? What if the people making them had known what they were talking about? The reports from Dr. Sigurdssen and Teenette Clark that had been broadcast were intended to put them at ease, but…how could she know they hadn’t all been faked to put them off their guard?

When you got right down to it, two facts were unassailable: first, that the Totalians’ ancestors had fled religious and economic persecution to found a new paradise of their own, far, far away from any other human civilization. And second, they had Totalium, an amazing wonder mineral that could be found nowhere else in the galaxy. Who knew what lies outsiders might spin to get their hands on it?

And then had come that great light in the northwestern sky. She’d been outside in the park when it happened, had seen with her own eyes the flash brighten the landscape. She’d hurried inside to watch the news, as soon as the media networks recovered from the electromagnetic pulse. And there it was…direct proof that the outsiders weren’t really so friendly after all. Not only had they been secretly erecting a deadly wall around the planet to keep help from coming through, but they’d tried to fire a nuclear weapon right at them! It was only their own incompetence in forgetting about the trap they themselves had set that had saved Totalia City from going up in a ball of fire.

She didn’t want to believe it, but—they were strange. Alien. People who combined with, sometimes even merged with bizarre animal-machines. People who couldn’t even decide whether they wanted to be men or women. How could you ever really trust someone like that? How could you even know what they were thinking?

And she had been complicit in helping to hide a group of their saboteurs—hardened infiltrators fanatically willing to lay down their own lives in service to their cause. (Why else would they have stayed, even when the nuke was in the air?) What more harm might they do now that the attack had failed?

(A tiny little fragment of doubt nagged at her. The infiltrators had seemed like such nice, fully human people. Would they really have stayed around if they knew a nuke was coming? But…no, she told herself sternly. That’s just what they want you to think. They’d sacrifice their own people to keep you from spilling what you know.)

Enough. She couldn’t be a part of this any longer. She couldn’t turn her back on the safety of her planet, her people, in the name of a childhood dream that had probably always been unrealistic and harmful. Recha took a deep breath, let it out as a sigh, then reached for the phone and dialed the emergency number. “Hello…yes…I’d like to report some alien activity…”

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The Nectar River Resistance base was a hubbub of activity. It hadn’t taken long at all for it to sink in that the attempt to launch a nuke meant that the Zealots damned well knew exactly where they were, and a more conventional attack could be on the way at any moment. They had, of course, already known they would be found out sooner or later, and had people out scouting and prepping new base locations—ones that had nothing to do with previous terraforming installations. The Resistance would be splitting up its personnel and equipment between three such bases, further inland. With any luck, they could keep their heads down and hold out until the Zharusian fleet arrived.

With all need for stealth abandoned, the Clementine hovered protectively over the camp while the Integrate and RIDE soldiers who’d come along, plus the Resistance’s own RIDE brigades, stood ready to repel any attackers. Most did, at least—some had been co-opted to help with the heavy lifting as they loaded up any equipment that could be moved onto the transports and other air vehicles they’d managed to acquire over the last few months.

The Totaliment themselves, as well as Kendlen and the Zharusian diplomats, were already aboard Clementine, that being deemed the safest possible place for them to be in the event of an attack. The ship had considerably better defenses and speed than any native vehicle, and could have them out of there in a heartbeat. Its advanced comm gear meant that it was also an excellent mobile command center.

At the moment, they were in the ship’s main conference room, with every wall configured as a media display showing Totalia City news reports, footage of people in the streets, replays of the explosion, and whatever other footage was available. One screen showed police marching the four Zharusian infiltrators out of a tunnel exit, hands behind their heads. Bernie (or Brooke) was nowhere to be seen.

Trilby Whitfield was pale and badly shaken, and had spoken little since the explosion. Kendlen himself and the rest of the Resistance was in little better shape. The collective, unspoken thought going around camp… They tried to nuke us. The enormity of that act made what had revealed the attempt secondary by comparison to the rank-and-file. But not to Kendlen.

A Kessler Cascade, caused by a century of space junk, in the late 21st century had made low Earth orbit too dangerous for manned missions for a good seventy years. Even unmanned ones had difficulty getting through. And all those fragments could be tracked by conventional radar—something Totalium made moot. The only way to reliably track the stuff was the far more energy intensive lidar, which wasn’t all that useful in space.

Who could have done such a thing? The more Kendlen thought about it, the more he thought he knew. “Belters,” he said aloud.

The word attracted the attention of Trilby and a couple other Totalimentarians. “What’s that?”

“Huh? Oh. Just thinking aloud. Trying to figure out why we have an orbit full of Totalium shotgun pellets.”

“You don’t think it was the Zealots’ doing?”

Kendlen shook his head. “Even they would know better than to try to shoot a nuke through their own debris field. This had to be as big a surprise to them as it was to us.”

Seventh Speaker Baldurson pondered. “The Moses Belt Refinery has the equipment. They produce an especially pure Totalium ingot from their mines.”

“There are a lot of small belt refineries with the necessary automation. My Dad owns several of them. So do half a dozen other small mining companies. Some of them are even set up to send unmanned carriers inward for collection, rather than load manned freighters. Wouldn’t take much conversion to make those into dispersion missiles.”

“It wouldn’t take much, done over several months,” Jassen Baldurson said. “Ever since our rescue.”

“And Belt folk do tend to be among the more conservative sorts.” Kendlen shrugged. “It’s in their mindset. You always do things the same way, the safe way, because any deviation could potentially lead to explosive decompression.”

The First Speaker sighed. “So what we have is a group even more extreme than the Zealots, acting independently.”

“Maybe more than one group.” Kendlen shrugged. “I’d love to ask Dad if he knows anything about it, but last I heard he was out in the Belt himself, on the other side of a Kessler field from us.”

A chime came from the room’s speakers. “We are receiving a ping from the Kybalion,” Clementine said. “They are conserving bandwidth, so text only. They acknowledge receiving the report we sent via DINcom.”

“Put Torris and Captain Sandeep on the line,” Trilby said. “Can we risk a video conference?”

“We’ve lost about a quarter of the com units since we arrived here,” Clementine said. “Given that we do not know when or if it will be possible to resupply in light of recent events, we should conserve them as much as possible.”

Trilby sighed. “Agreed.”

“Looks like we’ll have to stick to that ancient Internet Relay Chat protocol,” Clementine said. “I’ll open a channel. Please enter #briefing.”

<CaptSandeep> We are preparing one of the message torpedoes Captain Roberts left with us.

<FltAdmFrankel> No doubt about it. We need them here now. If they haven’t already left, they need a kick in the ass. We need them here as soon as possible.

<FirstSpeaker> Go ahead. Let’s hope they’re already in transit.

<FltAdmFrankel> Could be, Trilby. But Sigurdssen’s first report said they’d be sending their final one right before they leave, and it hasn’t come in yet. Until we receive that word, I will assume they are still making preparations.

Booker Albescu spoke up. “It can’t be too much longer. Based on the timetable they gave us when we left, they should really be leaving any time now. Even if they haven’t left yet, it’s entirely possible Sandeep’s torp will cross theirs and arrive after they’ve already jumped.” Clementine transcribed his words and sent them over the text channel, as she was doing for all the others.

“We can only hope,” Trilby agreed grimly. “At this point, now that the Zealots have shown how far they’re willing to go, I think it’s time we ceased organized Resistance operations and went underground until such time as reinforcements can arrive. Further provocation of these extremists can only result in needless bloodshed.”

“We’d like to try to keep the lines of communication open, but if you feel that’s unwise…” Booker said.

Balderson waved a hand. “As far as I’m concerned, you can talk until you’re blue in the face, as long as there’s no chance of them finding out where we are from your communications. Knock yourself out. But I don’t know what good it will do. They’ve already proved you can’t trust a damned thing they say, and anything you say they’ll try to twist it so we look like the bad guys.”

“Ambassador, after what’s happened, I’m afraid that we are beyond your help at this point,” Trilby said sadly. The man appeared to have aged a decade since the nuke exploded. He was uncharacteristically distant, contemplative.

Booker nodded. He wanted to rant and rave. After all their efforts to resolve this peacefully, the work of weeks—all undone in a flash of light and radiation. “I understand, First Speaker. But I have to keep trying. It’s my job.”

Trilby reached over and patted him on the shoulder. “I know, son. I know.”

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At the very tip of one of the bronze pyramids atop one of Totalia City’s highest skyscrapers, Bernie Thompson leaned against a largely ornamental radio antenna, hardlight cloak rendering him effectively invisible. Given that the Zealots were busy scouring the tunnels for any further signs of enemy infiltration, this seemed like the safest place for him to be right now. If nothing else, it had a hell of a view.

“Man, what the hell?” he muttered. It had been a really crazy couple of days. He’d been as optimistic as anyone at the way the voting had been going. He had been looking forward to going out and mingling with the crowds celebrating victory. And then had come that crazy contrail across the sky, and the unmistakable fireball of a nuke going off to the northwest. The EMP had knocked out the media broadcasting networks for a couple of hours, and when they’d come back up, it had been with the utterly unbelievable story that the Zharusians had fired the nuke and blockaded their orbit. The sheer, mind-bending cognitive dissonance!

At least, Bernie thought it was unbelievable. But a lot of the Totalia City citizens, who had formerly been so eager to believe in friendly aliens, were falling for it. All but the very staunchest supporters seemed to be wavering. There was a lot of argument over whether it really had been the Zharusians or not, but all it really amounted to was an ongoing flamewar with neither side convincing the other. All their forward progress had been lost.

Worse, the EMP had also knocked out most of their comm taps, so the Resistance couldn’t immediately counter the Zealots’ propaganda. Not that it might have helped much, as deeply-ingrained as fear of the unknown seemed to be in these people.

Including Recha. Bernie took scant satisfaction in knowing that he’d been right about her. Fortunately, he’d tapped her phone, so he knew the instant she called the police to turn the Resistance in. He was able to give Rowcliff enough advance warning for them to destroy their equipment, but it hadn’t been quite enough for them to get out in time. Bernie promised himself he’d break them out if there was a chance, but it didn’t seem likely in the near future—at least, not without exposing himself.

Bernie shook his head. “Idiot girl. If this shell could Fuse…bodyjack city. In a heartbeat.”

He sighed and closed his eyes…optics…whatever. Well, that was that. Latest word from Clementine was that he was on his own for the time being. The Resistance had gone to ground and couldn’t send anyone to retrieve him. He’d just have to survive until the situation changed.

On the bright side, he didn’t need food, and every power socket here was RIDEsafe. If nothing else, he could at least do plenty of snooping around to keep busy.

Bernie grinned a defiant grin, staring down at Totalia City spread out all around him. “All right, you beautiful bitch…prepare to give up all your secrets.”

Then he kicked in his lifters, and jumped.

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Fleet Admiral Jermy Orinson debated popping another aspirin for his growing headache, then nixed the idea. Aspirin, along with just about everything else, had to be carefully rationed now. He took a sip of water and looked around the table, refocusing on the discussion at hand.

“The Seed of Truth was greatly damaged in the fight against the Kybalion. Its engines are shot, but it’s environment envelope is still mostly intact. We were going to bring in new engines from the Shipyard, but in light of new events, it might be better as a greenhouse,” Fleet Ops Officer Meghan Oleary explained.

“How so?” Jermy asked, a little worried he might have already missed the explanation. Since the planet was now sealed off from them, he’d been rearranging the fleet for long term space operations. A fleet that was already decimated from infighting and that was used to regular resupplies of people, equipment and perishables from below.

“We can tow it out to Totalia-Ra L1, where it’ll get lots of sunlight, and fill it with hydroponic gardens. It’ll be a few weeks before we’ll get even the fastest growing crops from it, but within a month or two, it could supply most of the needs of everyone in the fleet and the Shipyard. What it can’t supply can be covered by onboard gardens and rationing.”

“Hmm. At least it’s already got a fitting name for a greenhouse ship. Make it so. How about the Shipyard?”

The shipyard representative was relaxed in his chair. “Still working as normal. We’ll miss the fresh meat from the planet, but we’ve mostly been self sufficient as is. An automated carrier is bringing in a dozen spy sats and weather sats for the planet as we speak. They will need a bit of work to retool for higher orbits once they get here; they were designed for lower orbits, but in light of recent events….”

“Well, they’ll appreciate the weather sats at least. Wouldn’t want them to get surprised by a hurricane.”

“Sir,” the communications officer interrupted them. “Speaker Clarke wants to speak with you.”

“Tell his office five minutes,” the Admiral said. He looked around the room, “Anyone have anything else to add?… No? You have your orders, until Speaker Clarke tries to change them. Dismissed.”

The room emptied quickly, leaving Jermy and the comm officer. When the Admiral said he was ready, the officer sent the signal, and stepped out himself.

Raph Clarke appeared on the screen in front of the admiral after a few seconds. Jermy noted how he’d aged a decade since the failed nuclear attack and the discovery of the Kessler field. Unlike most, Jermy knew the true origin and destination of the rocket, though there was nothing he could do about the information.

“Mr Speaker,” he greeted the other man.

“Admiral,” Clarke returned the greeting. “How goes the fleet?”

“Unsteadily sir. We’re still taking inventory and preparing for a long duration space mission. But I think we can survive indefinitely, once we get our ducks in a row.”

“Indefinitely? Surely that damn field won’t be up for that long?”

Jermy sighed, “It’s low orbit, but not low enough. The field as it is now would dissipate in a few years if we did nothing. The problem is, there’s been two more booms since the nuke went off. Hence our plans for an indefinite stay up here. As long as someone keeps replenishing it, no one is coming up or down.”

Clarke winced and shook his head. “And you have no idea who it is?”

“We think we know what it is, if not exactly who. All of the corporate Totalium factories in the asteroid belt are accounted for. They’re not exactly built for stealth. Or security, for that matter, since we don’t—well, didn’t—have to worry about piracy. But in the Kuiper Belt, there were four experimental factories, three automated and one master. They went dark soon after the Kybalion mutinied. We assumed Sandeep grabbed them for some reason, but now it seems more likely someone else did. Their operators or someone else who know about them.”

“So they’re operating independently. Can’t you get them to stop?”

“If we knew where they were. The factories were designed to go from rock to rock, extracting as they went. And like most of our stuff out here, they were plated with Totalium for cosmic-ray protection. If they don’t answer us, we don’t know where they are.”

The comm channel fell silent for so long, Jermy wondered if it had glitched. Finally Clarke spoke again.

“Try to find them if you can and make them stop. What about the rest of our projects?”

“Mostly on hold; we have survival matters that are taking priority. The last Phaeton tests were very positive, we’ll probably move it out to Sekhmet for more testing soon.”

“Don’t delay them too long. We need to make sure we control the entire system before the alien reinforcements arrive. We’re hoping that their ship is as grounded as ours, which means we just need to take out the Kybalion. That has to be your priority.”

“Yes sir,” Jermy said, hiding his own misgivings. The numbers he was looking at were very tight. If any of their optimistic plans didn’t work exactly as planned, they would be in trouble within weeks. Theoretically, Sandeep’s Kybalion should be in a similar situation, but from the information the spies had snuck out with the video footage, the alien tech it had on board left it in a much better spot. If nothing changed, Jermy could see himself going hat in hand to Sandeep for help in the near future, treason or no. It was one thing to die for your country in battle, but quite another to let your men and women starve to death because your leaders were idiots.

Jermy pulled himself back to the present and finished his report. “I do have some good news for you. The shipyards have some new sats coming in for you; spy and weather. We need to reconfigure them to orbit above the Kessler Cascade, but it will give you some fresh eyes in the sky. We’ll have them running within a few days.”

“Well, at least you’ll be good for something. Clarke out.”

The Fleet Admiral looked at the blank screen and sighed. On the one hand, he understood the pressure the Speaker was under. On the other, he had his own pressure to handle. There were hundreds of people across a dozen ships and stations now dependent on him to keep them eating, drinking and breathing.

“Screw rationing, I need to clear my head,” he mumbled to himself before raiding the first aid kit for a couple of aspirin.

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“…and that’s the current state of the Zealot Fleet.”

Captain Sandeep nodded to his intelligence officer as the woman finished the briefing. It was odd how easily you could get used to things, he reflected. Like Lieutenant Saunders having vulpine ears and a shaggy tail now. But then, she’d always been one of his cannier officers. Being part fox suited her.

“So what about it?” Admiral Frankel said. “They’re clearly on the ropes. Sounds like we should press the advantage.”

Sandeep considered, then shook his head. “With all due respect, Admiral, I think not. As you say, they’re already on the ropes. Kicking them when they’re down could only cause further casualties and hard feelings.” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “It seems to me, we might have the opportunity to turn them, or at least some of them. If Lieutenant Saunders’s projections are correct, they will soon be low on supplies with nowhere else to turn. And we already know that many of them are not exactly in sympathy with the ‘True’ Totaliment.”

“We can essentially rule out Captain Forestor’s and Falco’s ships. By now they’ll have rooted out any potential mutineers from their crews,” Frankel said. “That makes four out of the seven ships they have remaining in service we could potentially turn.”

“I’m surprised Clarke didn’t make Falco their so-called Fleet Admiral,” Sandeep said. “But then, he was always best as a Captain. Jermy is much more level-headed.”

Captain Sandeep knew every one of his fellow Captains, some of them personally. He’d spent time with them and their families while on leave. Falco had been in his graduating class at the Cosmy Academy and nearly beat him for the assignment to the Flagship. It hadn’t sat easy with him to be on the opposite side from so many of them.

“I think you’re right, Captain,” Frankel said. “They’re certainly not in any position to launch more offensive sorties, or go setting more traps. We’ll keep an eye on them.”

Sandeep nodded. “Quite a remarkable turn of events, isn’t it? In attempting to help the Zealots protect the planet from alien invaders, our mysterious benefactors have instead helped our side, not once but twice.”

Frankel chuckled. “We should send them a thank-you card or something.”

“Of course, to do that, we’d have to find out where to address it…”

They both turned simultaneously to look at Saunders, who nodded. “Yes sir. We’ve already been looking into it. No results to speak of, but we’ll keep on trying.”

“No rush, Lieutenant. As long as they keep Totalia sealed off, they’re doing our job for us. I don’t expect it will be a problem for the Zharusians, as many other miracles as we’ve seen them work.”

Frankel nodded agreement, and opened his mouth to say something, but the intercom chime interrupted him. Sandeep tapped the button. “Yes?”

The bridge watch officer spoke in quick, excited tones. “Sir, we’ve just received another message torpedo! We’re retrieving it now, and should have it decoded within a few minutes.”

“Speak of the devil.” Sandeep tapped the button again. “Thank you, Lieutenant Saltzman. We’ll be there in just a few minutes.”

Frankel raised an eyebrow. “The final report?”

“The timing is right. I doubt it could be anything else.” Sandeep smiled. “Regardless of its precise contents, I can already tell you what it means. Help is on the way.

Separator k left.png Coming Soon Separator k right.png
Separator k left.png Return to Totalia: Parallels Separator k right.png
Separator k left.png Part Three: The Fleet Separator k right.png
Preceded by:
Parallels, Part One: Visitors
FreeRIDErs Succeeded by:
Parallels, Part Three: The Fleet