IMPORTANT
In this past October (2020) the Shifti Community lost Chris "Robotech Master" Meadows to an accident involving an SUV hitting his electric bike and leaving the scene. While we may never know the full story of this event, the administrators of Shifti will work to preserve his account and works here as he'd wish us to. Thank you all for being such excellent people.

User:Robotech Master/Parallels Visitors

From Shifti
Jump to: navigation, search

Return to Totalia, Part Two: Parallels
Part One: Visitors

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.".

Foreword

Here before you, you see the first of three parts of the next Totalia story. It’s taken us a long time to write, and parts two and three will probably be a little while longer. This has been a tricky one to write, just because so much had to happen, in so many different places.

We started out writing it like we did the first Totalia story, with a single combined story for all three branches of the plot. But it soon became apparent to Jetfire it wasn’t going to work that way--it was simply too cluttered and jumbled together. He proposed splitting it into three separate stories covering the same period of time from different angles. And once he had done so, it suddenly became a whole lot easier to write.

“Easier” being relative, of course.

So, this story, when it’s complete, will cover the preparations to send a fleet off to Totalia from three different angles. This first story follows the Totalian ambassadors and the Scouts who accompanied them home as they look around Zharus and see this new world for themselves. The second, “Clementine,” will follow that ship and her crew as they head off to Totalia as an advance guard to pave the way. And the third, “The Fleet,” will follow Joe, Julius, and Quinoa to Wednesday and back as they fetch the Great Western, and then focus on others (including Melisande) as they build a fleet around it.

And once we’ve finally posted all three parts of this thing, we’ll all take a moment to reflect and wonder if we really are all crazy, before starting on the next one.

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.

Enjoy!

—Robotech_Master
4/21/2015

Chapter 1

January 12, 158 A.L.
Zharus Orbital Traffic Control Center, Toptown

It was just another ordinary shift. Shuttles taking off, shuttles landing, suborbitals suborbiting, intrasystem cargo ships moving in and out of orbit. Traffic Controller Second Class Chelsea Swinburne kept an eye on the traffic status indicators and listened to comm chatter with half an ear.

There wasn’t much point in doing more. Her job had been rendered even more superfluous since the antiquated Ad-I that had used to run traffic had been replaced by the new EI, who went by “Polestar.” He could handle all space traffic needs for this entire hemisphere without breaking a digital sweat and still guide lost tourists to their destinations within TopTown.

Chelsea was just glad that the safety regs still required a human to be on hand at all times, or she’d have been out of a job. As it was, she had even more time to read now, since Polestar didn’t mind if she didn’t pay full attention at all times. In fact, he preferred she relax during routine operations so she could be as sharp as possible for the non-routine ones.

She turned another page in the book she was reading—one of the old Clint Brubeck adventure stories, this time. They’d seen a resurgence of interest over the last few months, since an unexpectedly-Integrated Madison Brubeck had returned to the system, followed by long-vanished scout Marcus Trenton.

There were all kinds of rumors going around that Brubeck and Trenton had found some new alien civilization, or discovered new metamaterials that could stop the aging process, or found a diamond the size of a planet. Well, actually they’d started finding those with telescopes all the way back in twencen or thereabouts, but there were rumors she’d actually visited one and met a race of diamond-people who lived on it.

Or was that actually the plot of one of the books about her Dad? It seemed like half the rumors were based on some old Brubeck novel or other, and the snopesers took great glee in pointing that out—which also gave Chelsea more grist for her reading list.

She was just reaching the end of the chapter when the signal that had started it all went off again. Seemed like it was coming more and more frequently these days. “Looks like another unexpected torpedo reentry splash, from the same direction as Brubeck and Trenton’s arrival,” Polestar reported.

“Thanks, Polecat,” Chelsea said. “I guess this one goes directly to Scout HQ, then?”

“Afraid so. I’m polling the DINcom beacon now to strip the message packet. Can’t say what it’s about.” He paused. “I’d say I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you, but truth is, I can’t even see what it’s about. It’s got encryption on it even I’d have a hard time breaking.”

Chelsea shook her head. “With this kind of secrecy every time a scout torp comes in, no wonder all those rumors have been flying around.” Not to mention the way they’d suddenly found it worthwhile to build and replenish a comm beacon with the new DINcom system all the way out at the system rim, so any new torps or ships that came in could be hailed immediately.

“Well, whatever it is, it’s in the Scouts’ hands now,” Polestar said. “You can go back to your book. That one’s got a great twist ending, y’know.”

“Shush, don’t spoil it,” Chelsea said. Sheesh, at least the old Ad-I didn’t want to discuss my books with me.

Separator k.png

Brubeck Mining Corporate Headquarters, Uplift

“Well, that was certainly unexpected,” Zane mused as he peered at information from Scout Captain Joel Roberts’s report spread across multiple hardlight display panels floating in front of him. “One could say it changes the equation considerably.”

Scout Commander Lee pursed her lips. “When I assigned Roberts to this run, I never expected something like this. Up to this point, he’s always been one of my most reliable men. Now…I’m not even sure if ‘man’ is exactly the right thing to call him.”

“Peace, Commander,” Zane said, holding up a hand. “First of all, I’d be the last one to say anything against an Integrate staying closeted—especially one in a job that involves traveling outside the star system. There are those pesky export laws to consider.”

“Which seem to have more holes than swiss cheese at this point,” Lee said archly. “We’ve always known some of our scouts tended to carry forbidden items, but they never were quite so…brazen before.”

“Regardless, I’d recommend leniency—especially since it looks like his Integrate oomph was needed to pull this thing off safely,” Zane said.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Lee said. “But there will be some sort of disciplinary action against him and his so-called Magic Voice. Not to mention tightening up of Integrate data-engram identification on all scout ships and equipment.”

“Dandruff fingerprinting, you mean?” Zane asked, grinning. “Perhaps for his sins you could put him in charge of training the other RIDEs, EIs, and Integrates who want to join the Scouts. I’ve been hearing rumblings of interest out of the Enclaves ever since Maddie returned. It’s been pretty helpful in corralling assistance for the expedition, in fact.”

Lee’s eyes narrowed and she adopted a thoughtful expression. “Mm. That could work. He certainly has the necessary rank and experience to work with trainees, and his own experience as an Integrate and a Scout would be an asset in that regard. For that matter, perhaps your sister could help, as well. Though I suspect that the program may have to wait until after your expedition to begin in earnest.”

“Might not want to wait too long,” Zane said. “They’re already building FTL ships in Camelot. If you don’t let them in the Scouts, some Integrates might just decide to head off on their ownsome.”

“I think I know who you’re talking about. That’s a good point,” Lee admitted. “Though, as you pointed out, your own expedition could serve as a useful surrogate for the time being.”

“Oh, gonna shove the burden off on me, huh?” Zane grinned. “As it happens, I’m okay with that.

“But getting back to how Captain Roberts handled matters on his trip, I’m not saying anything against him. From what he’s said in the report, it sounds like he made the best of a bad situation, and might just have helped us out a whole lot in the process. Not to mention giving us a rather important warning about invisible space rocks. We’ll have to figure out some way to safeguard against those before we leave.”

“I’ve already put our best scientists on it,” Lee said. “They’ll be happy to liaise with any researchers you’d recommend, of course.”

Zane nodded. “Good. And I’d say having representatives on hand from the government-in-exile, not to mention a formal request of assistance, will make things a lot easier with the Assembly. The last of the roadblocks about whether we have any right to engage in ‘unwarranted militaristic adventurism’ ought to just evaporate. This venture is now a hundred percent legitimate.”

“Ought to, but probably won’t,” Lee said. “But that’s for the politicians to wrangle with now.”

“And they’re even bringing back another one of your missing scouts,” Zane said. “Do you have her genetic material on file, by the way? We could have the hospital start prepping a clone, and it would be ready by the time she got here.”

“Unfortunately, we don’t have her samples,” Lee said. “She was based out of a satellite facility on Zheng He. By the time we could get to them and they could get it back to us, she’d be practically here already.”

Zane winced. “Ugh. Maddie’s not gonna be happy to hear that. I guess it’s a brainbox for her, then?”

Lee nodded. “Ordinarily we’d just leave her in cryo until the clone could be prepped, but as time-critical as the matter is right now, we’ll need her input.”

“I’ll be happy to pay for the best prosthetic shell money can buy,” Zane offered.

“Thank you, Mr. Brubeck, but we Scouts have our own resources,” Lee said. “She won’t want for as capable a shell as Zharus can build.”

“Fair enough,” Zane agreed. He cleared the panels away, and offered a hand over the desk. “Thanks for keeping me posted. I appreciate it, and Maddie will too.”

Lee shook it firmly. “Not at all, Mr. Brubeck. This matter is of vital importance to all of us. We will appraise you of any further developments.”

Zane nodded. “Thanks for coming by.”

After the Scout Commander left, Zane looked up at the little bird in the corner of the room. “You got all that?”

“Yep, got it,” the songbird LRIDE said. The System Security Committee had deployed a flock of them to record and oversee what Zane and his siblings were up to when the expedition matters came up. “Encrypted and sent to official storage. I don’t even know what I saw anymore.”

“Great. Well. I guess I’d better hunt down Maddie and Aggie and tell them the news. Keep your eyes peeled for those early worms!”

“Whatever you’re doing, good luck!” the bluebird tweeted.

Zane wandered out of the office, humming “Zippedy Doo-Dah” under his breath.

Separator k.png

January 15, 158 AL
The Satellite of Love

Every morning Darrek Sigurdssen awoke in his tiny bunk with a smile. He was traveling faster than the speed of light in a little pocket universe, slipping underneath Einsteinian space like a submarine under the sea—subspace, as they called it. In the outdated multiversal theory he was familiar with it was called the “bulk.” The universe they lived in was a subset “brane” of that bulk. Except, that wasn’t the current understanding of cosmology. He’d had to throw out much of what he thought he knew.

Darrek had doctorates in particle physics and cosmology. Fortunately it wasn’t all useless when he tried to apply it to superluminal physics. The maths were more related than he had feared and the calculus underpinnings were the same. But it was very like going back to graduate school.

He was always sharpest in the mornings, so the first thing he did was pick up the tablet with the previous day’s unfinished work and delve into it. Teenette, in the other bunk, groaned and tossed her pillow at him—as usual. The young woman wasn’t a morning person, which was going to make the rest of the two months remaining aboard the Satellite of Love very interesting to say the least—especially given that the ship ran on Zharus’s longer thirty-hour day, which was playing havoc with their biological clocks.

“You can at least go get us some coffee,” bleary-eyed Teenette said, brushing her long black hair out of her face. “And a doughnut or two.”

“Give me just one minute,” Darrek said, completing a calculation exercise he had begun the previous day but hadn’t understood. “There!”

Now can you get coffee?” Teenette said irritably.

“Okay, I’ll get it,” Darrek said, heading for the galley just next door. There was something about the texture of fabbed food that wasn’t quite right to Darrek’s palate. The scout ship’s crew spaces were all clustered at the bow. They included the bridge, galley, science lab, med bay, quarters, and what Joel called the Theater. With a capital T.

The Theater was the largest open space on the SOL, five meters high, five meters wide, and ten meters long. Since entering subspace Joel had put getting it working again at top priority. Darrek had gathered it was some kind of reconfigurable space intended to keep the Scout from feeling too claustrophobic during the months of travel.

Before getting coffee Darrek decided to look in. Joel apparently didn’t need as much sleep as normal humans, and had spent the time when Darrek and Teenette were sleeping making repairs too complex for them to assist with.

“Morning, Darrek,” Joel said from inside. A small halo of lenses the size of his thumb floated around his head. He wore a red jumpsuit with a yellow checkerboard pattern on the left side of his chest with the word “Gizmonic” printed above it. “I’m almost done here reinstalling the hardlight emitters. Then we can watch movies in a proper theater instead of the galley.”

“What happened to this space? I thought the missiles didn’t do that much internal damage,” Darrek said.

“Some of Captain Forestor’s mole men shot up my equipment before I took my ship back,” Joel explained. The orbiting lenses floated into an open wall panel, where they seated themselves with a click. Joel replaced the wall panel. He did everything without actually touching the lenses or the panel. “And that, as they say, is that. Magic Voice?”

“Please exit the Theater while I conduct a few calibration tests,” Zach-as-Magic Voice said.

“Sure thing.” Joel stepped out past Darrek and closed the door.

“So, this hardlight stuff,” Darrek said. “It’s like solidified light, or simulated matter…and you mainly use it to give your RIDEs fur?”

“If you want the technical stuff, it’s essentially virtual matter projected via a beta-cortinide metaisomer lens,” Joel said. “And it’s useful for a lot more than just fur—the entire ship is shielded with it, for instance. If you want to join me for some movies later, feel free. Otherwise it’s a very flexible space. If you prefer lounging on a beach, I can arrange that, too.”

“Maybe I’ll take you up on that, once I can figure out how it works,” Darrek said. “I surmise this means hardlight can create rather complete simulated environments? What are the power requirements?”

“Details, details,” Joel said. “The specs are in the documentation, if you’re interested. I don’t keep them in my head when I don’t need them. Anyway, you’re both welcome to come riff movies with us in the Theater. It’s how Zach and I pass the time during these long flights.”

“I’ll let Teenette know. She might be interested in this ‘riffing’,” Darrek said. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m late with breakfast.” I’d better get to it, then, Darrek thought. “Thanks again, Captain.”

Darrek headed for the galley and the wonder of a food fabber. I’m living in a dream world. I ask for food, and it appears. “Give me one black coffee, one coffee with cream and two sugars, and six glazed doughnuts.”

The fabber hummed for thirty seconds, then a panel on the wall slid open and dispensed the food on a tray to the table. Darrek picked it up and carefully carried it around the corner to the Totalians’ quarters.

Teenette had already gotten out of bed and dressed herself while he’d been gone. She picked up the mug of black coffee from the tray. “What took you so long?” she asked irritably. She took a long sip of the hot liquid. “Oh, that’s good. Better than our foodlathes.”

“Well, considering their fabbers assemble materials on the molecular level…” Darrek began. Then Teenette gave him that morning irritable look again. “Ah, well. Nevermind. It can wait until you’re fully awake.”

“If not longer,” Teenette muttered, slurping her coffee. “Got to keep up my own studies. I’m looking at their industrial fabrication methods while you focus on the nano-scale. How they handle logistics. So much new stuff to learn.”

“You’ve got that right. There are whole new areas of physics I’ve barely even scratched the surface of. But what are you studying?”

“What else? The nifty new tech Zharus and the rest of the galaxy have spun up in the last couple hundred years. Cavorite alone…my God, it’ll revolutionize the whole transportation industry back home. And unlike qubitite, we can make it ourselves as soon as we have real fabbers. I was even able to cook up a little of it myself with the fabber on board this ship.”

Darrek raised an eyebrow. “Really? It’s that simple to make? I could have punched for cavorite instead of this?” He held up a doughnut speculatively.

“Well, not exactly. It took a couple of hours for the shipboard fabber to churn out a disc the size of a quarter, and it’s not the best quality stuff. They have specialized industrial fabbers for making it in bulk. But as a proof of concept, well, seeing is believing.”

Darrek shook his head. “Remarkable. How soon could we do it back home, you think?”

“Well, if Zharus sold us some of the fabbers, we could do it as soon as we got them set up. Otherwise we’d have to build the precursor technology to be able to lay the groundwork for making the tech we need to start.”

“Build the tools to build the tools. Right. I looked into that myself, in the early days. Could be at least a couple of years to get up to speed.”

“More like five or six. And we’ll have to do that anyway, no matter what Zharus sells us in the short term. But still…once we’re there…” Teenette grinned. “You know, we actually have some tech advantages over Zharus, thanks to Totalium, and I’m not just talking about cloaking. Their sarium batteries are great for a quick charge at almost no energy cost, and are great for outputting huge amounts of energy over a short time, but they don’t hold anywhere near as much juice overall as you can output from a compact fusion plant, or even a nuclear battery. And cav is very power-efficient.”

Darrek sipped his coffee. “So once we have cav, we could make better lifter-powered vehicles than they can.”

“Ones with a lot more endurance, anyway. And if we get their qubitite, too, we could add sarium batteries as boost capacitors for times when sprinting is needed. If we hold onto this, we could become as well-known for skimmers and fliers as Eridani is for starships.”

Darrek cocked his head. “That’s…an intriguing possibility.”

“Yeah.” Teenette set down her empty coffee mug. “We really need to be sure we don’t give away the farm when it comes to trading with Zharus. We should make them a fair deal, but not go totally overboard in gratitude.”

Darrek nodded. “That’s definitely something to think about.”

Silence fell as they quietly finished their breakfast. Darrek could tell there was something else on Teenette’s mind, the way she looked like she was mulling over whether to say anything. “Penny for your thoughts?”

The young woman put her empty coffee mug back on the tray. “Well, it’s not anything about their tech, so I’m not sure I should say anything. Tech is one thing, we can adapt to it.”

“But you’re not thinking about how we’ll adapt to their technology?”

“Remember that big blockbuster last year? Hands of Fate? Shapeshifting alien lizard people infiltrate Totalia and take over from inside, only to be repelled by the heroic isolationists.”

Darrek nodded. “That one wasn’t that bad, I thought. It actually had a great plot for a change.”

“What I’m getting at here is, after what I’ve seen Joel do, some of these movies are pretty dead on. After the Zharusians get there in force, what if the Zealots can convince enough people to change their minds and support them?”

“No way that’s going to happen,” Darrek said. “People can’t be that stupid.”

“With all due respect, Mr. Chairman of the Science Committee, I’ve spent the last few months fighting those stupid people,” Teenette said crisply. “Not only can they be that stupid, they often are.

Darrek sighed. “Point taken. But there’s not anything we can do about it right now, at any rate. We’ll just have to cross that bridge when we come to it. Until then, no point in worrying.” He stood up and pulled on his tunic. “Now, I’m going to pay my respects to Barbaretta before I return to my studies.”

“Tell her I said hi,” Teenette said, picking up her media tablet. “Okay, let’s keep going with that IDE development history. The Aleutian War and the TX-series transformables…”

Darrek smiled. She was the engineer while he was the theoretician. They were a good pair to send to Zharus. He took one last gulp from his coffee mug and headed for the cargo bay.

Separator k.png

April 20, 158 AL
The Satellite of Love

“Nodes are humming. We have begun surfacing resynch,” Zach announced. The black-footed ferret’s avatar was, as usual, trundling around atop the controls. “Which means what, Dr. Sigurdssen?”

“It would take me three hours to show you in calculus,” Darrek replied. “But colloquially, the Einsteinian ‘Local Reference Frame’ we’re traveling in must be re-synched to the surface universe as we open a new gate. If there’s anyone near our surface point, they’ll see mass shadows and ghost images prior to our emergence. For us, that’s only about five minutes. Commercial drives can have lead times in the hours.”

Joel applauded. “Give the man a prize. You understand the math much better than we do. And I’ve tried learning in fast-time.”

“Then comes the splash of tachyons on re-entry, and the Drive Ring is shut down,” Darrek said.

“I expect there will be someone waiting for us,” Joel said. “They’ll put a ship or two close enough on-station to the exit point to intercept us quickly.”

“Hopefully they’ll take Barb under their care right away,” Darrek said. The man had sat by the injured scout’s cryotube on a daily basis the entire trip.

“Don’t worry about that, Darrek,” Teenette reassured, hand on his shoulder. “After what I’ve learned about their med-tech she’ll be fine. Better than new.”

“Surfacing now,” Zach announced. There wasn’t a rattle or anything to indicate they were back again, but when the shutters opened the stars looked somewhat different for the Totalians. These were constellations normally hidden by the Caliburn Nebula between their home and Zharus.

“Welcome to the Pharos system, Totalians,” Joel said, petting his ferret half. “Broa…wait.”

“Receiving a hail from the SRS Endeavor,” Zach said. “They’re six light-seconds away and on intercept—they’ll be here in an hour. I’m heaving-to and prepping for docking. Commander Lee on-screen.”

“Captain Roberts, we have a great deal to discuss,” Lee said. “But that can wait until your guests have been given a proper welcome and we’ve taken Scout Hansom under our care.”

Joel saluted his commanding officer. “Understood, Commander.” With the 12-second turnaround the conversation had long pauses, more than enough for Joel and Zach to fidget.

“Overall, you’ve done the best you could with the hand you were dealt,” Lee said. “I would like to extend welcome to your guests. We’ll do so properly once we’ve docked.”

“If you don’t mind, Commander, I’d like to be present when Barb wakes up,” Darrek said. He waited for the response and fidgeted as much as Joel and Zach.

“That can be arranged, sir,” Lee replied. “We’ll work out the details once we can speak face-to-face. Endeavor out.”

“Darrek, I think you’ve grown a little obsessed with her,” Teenette said. “I heard you talking to her cryocapsule. That’s not healthy, Doctor.”

“I’m partly responsible for her injuries,” Darrek said heatedly. “Until I see her awake and whole again I can’t put my mind at ease.”

“The good news is, that’ll probably be a matter of hours at this point,” Joel said. “Well, theoretically as long as days, depending on what they decide to do. In any case, it won’t be long.”

“And it won’t be long until Her Highness has that little talk with us, either,” Zach said. “Noooot looking forward to it. She’s probably going to be sarcastic at me. I think I liked it better when she thought I was a dumb spaceship AI.”

“We’re probably due for a month of scrubbing toilets with a toothbrush. Anyway, let’s get everything secured for docking,” Joel said. “The Endeavor’s a sort of spaceborne tender and recovery ship, so they’ll get started on servicing the SOL right away.”

“I take it they have full medical facilities?” Darrek asked. “Why didn’t they send that ship to Totalia to recover the missing scouts?”

“Wrong mission profile. That ship is for rescuing shipwrecked scouts from uninhabited systems.”

“Or recovering the wreckage,” Zach added.

“And the body, if things really went south.”

“Not what you’d want to send where there was a space navy—excuse me, cosmy—waiting.”

“That makes sense.” Darrek nodded. “All right. Just point me at what I need to do, and I’ll help get ready as best I can.”

“Don’t worry about looking officially official. At least not yet,” Joel said. “There’s going to be plenty of time for that crap once they get you dirtside to Zharustead.”

“Relax,” Teenette said, “and enjoy the ride.”

Separator k.png

The Endeavor showed up first as a faint bright spot in the distance, the light from Zharus’s distant sun reflecting from one side of the hull. It took on greater definition as it approached. It was a utilitarian sort of design, as far as ships from Eridani Shipyards went. The flattened cylinder of it had fewer curves and was studded with sensors and a few weapons blisters. An enormous docking bay door—half the length of the 450-meter ship—opened on the starboard side.

The Satellite of Love fit inside with even more room to spare than there had been in the Kybalion. As the docking tackle latched into place, then gently brought brought her inside, Joel swiveled his seat away from the control console and stood. “Well, this is it. We who are about to die salute you.”

“Well, I don’t think it’ll be that bad,” Zach said. “Uh, I hope.”

You don’t have anything to worry about,” Joel said. “You’re just the AI.”

“Oh, look, there’s an honor guard waiting,” Darrek said. “At least, I assume they’re an honor guard. Suppose they could be a firing squad.”

Joel rolled his eyes. “Not helping.”

“The anticipation’s always the worst part,” Teenette said. “Come on, let’s go get it over with.”

A few minutes later, Joel led the way down the ramp, followed by Darrek and Teenette. Waiting at the bottom were Commander Lee, the SOL’s Maint Chief, busy casting her critical eye on the ship’s damaged hull, and a half dozen of the ship’s crew, all clad in formal dress uniforms. Joel swallowed, then stepped forward, saluting. “Ma’am.”

“Captain Roberts,” Commander Lee said cooly.

“These are Totalia’s ambassadors, Special Ambassador Doctor Darrek Sigurdssen, Chair of the Science Committee, and Special Ambassador Teenette Clark of the Loyalist Resistance, a close friend of Kendlen Canton,” Joel continued.

Lee saluted the Totalians in turn. “We are honored by your arrival, Dr. Sigurdssen, Miss Clark. Please, let us show you to a space where you can move around. We realize that being cooped up in a Scout ship for months is not for everyone.”

“Thanks, but first we’d like to be sure that Barbaretta is going to be all right,” Darrek said. “You’ll be seeing to her right away, yes?” He looked behind him anxiously.

A trio of medicos had already gone up the ramp behind them and were clustered around the cryotube, waving sensors over the frozen, injured scout, muttering amongst themselves.

“Barb made quite an impression on them, Commander,” Joel said. Zach rezzed on his shoulders. He reached up to pet his body-mate’s avatar. “I think getting her awake again as soon as possible would be a good idea.”

Lee pondered, looking at the way Darrek was watching the medicos. “Ah, I think I see your point. Please, follow us to the Medical Bay. The doctors will be along with her tube shortly.”

“Good, good,” Darrek said, not taking his eyes off the doctors.

Lee looked at the hardlight ferret on Joel’s shoulder. “We can deal with other…issues until after Scout Pilot Hansom is awake.” A smirk passed her lips. “So, this is ‘Magic Voice’.”

“That’s me!” Zach said. “Uh, Commander.” The ferret made an effort to salute.

“Er…” Joel said. “Uh, yes, ma’am…”

“You can relax, Captain,” Lee said. “I’ve already decided not to boil you in oil. Given certain matters of recent history, I can understand why you felt the need to conceal certain things.”

“Ah…thank you, ma’am,” Joel said, visibly relaxing.

“That said, you should have come clean after Mr. Brubeck’s announcement,” Lee continued. “And certainly before being dispatched on an important assignment to a previously unknown wildcat colony.”

“With all due respect, Commander,” Joel said, “you didn’t even give me a chance to finish my beer when you marched into Cheers and practically dragged me out by the shirt collar.”

“There were a number of months prior to that mission in which you could have said something, Captain. I can’t make the best use of my resources if I do not know exactly what they are.”

“Understood, ma’am,” Joel said sheepishly.

“You’ll have a chance to explain yourself at the Inquiry—not a Court Martial. SOP in cases with extenuating circumstances,” Lee said. “For now, we have a prosthetic body prepared for Barbaretta. We should have her back on a new set of feet within a few hours.”

“Great!” Teenette said. “We want to be there when she wakes up, for sure. For now, why don’t you show us to that place you were talking about where we can move around? It will be nice to be somewhere we can’t reach out and touch a wall again.”

Separator k.png

At first there was nothing, then there were scattered thoughts. The thoughts were vague, random things. She grasped at them, but they evaded her. She…who was she? Was there a she to be? That evaded her, too. Finally, she just drifted. If those thoughts meant anything, she imagined sooner or later they’d let her know.

Barbaretta. Her name was Barbaretta. That made sense, at least. And with her name, everything else started falling into place. The memories of her life started trickling back in, in random order. She was exploring her first world. Captured and imprisoned on Totalia on arrival. Growing up on Zheng He. Studying at the Scout Academy.

After hours (seconds? Days?) of reliving these memories, Barbaretta began to get some sense of where and when she was. It was just a matter of following the memories to the end of the string. Her last memory had been of leading a Totalia Resistance supply raid, climbing into the truck to run, and then…nothing. Something must have gone wrong, obviously. Scout medical training had noted that cases of severe trauma often interrupted the transition of short-term memories to long. Am I waking up from anaesthetics?

With that, Barbaretta opened her eyes, or thought she did. Instead of a hospital room, she seemed to be on the flight deck of her ship, the Red Sonja, in orbit around Zharus. Actually, now that she looked closer, it was the bridge of the Sonja as it had been years ago—she hadn’t had that hula girl on the dash for over a year before she’d been captured, and the navigation panel had been replaced by a different brand with a new layout at the last inspection. I’m in some kind of virtual reality, then. Constructed from old imagery of my ship. Did I get captured by Zealots? Is this some kind of interrogation trick? After a moment’s thought, she discarded the idea. The Zealots had her ship as it was now (and she tried not to think of what shape it might be in by now); they wouldn’t have needed (or been able) to use older footage.

The door chime sounded. Barbaretta turned to glance at the door back to the rest of her ship, then she got up and pressed the button on the commplate next to it. The screen lit up with the visage of Scout Commander Lee. “Scout Captain Hansom, may I join you on your bridge? We have some matters to discuss.”

That sealed it. There was no way the Zealots could have known about Commander Lee. Which had to mean they’d gotten her home somehow. But if they were waking her up in VR instead of a hospital room, that had to mean…

But first things first. “Of course, Ma’am!” Barbaretta hit the button to open the door, then stood aside for Lee to enter. She saluted, and Lee returned it. Then she gestured to her co-pilot’s station, usually unoccupied but a standard fixture on this model of ship. “Please, have a seat.”

Lee nodded. “Thank you, Captain.” She slid into the seat, and Barbaretta took her own a moment later. They turned the chairs to face each other.

Barbaretta glanced across at the Scout Commander. “So…how bad is it?”

Lee pursed her lips. “I won’t sugar-coat it, Captain Hansom. Your body is fairly bad off, though you only had a mild concussion to your brain, thank heaven for small favors. It’s not so bad it can’t be saved, however; no need to clone you a new one, unlike our first assessment. Under normal circumstances, we would simply keep you under for a few weeks while the nanosurgeons did their work.”

“But you need what’s in my head.” Following the chain of supposition led to further conclusions. “So the operation to retake Totalia must still be underway?”

“Barely even started, I’m afraid. But there will be time to go over that later. Right now, I need to brief you on your options for recovery. As stated, unconsciousness is not an option.”

“So I guess that leaves the brainbox transplant.” Barbaretta considered. “I know it’s a common procedure these days, but I can’t say I’m terribly keen on having my grey matter scooped out of my skull like so much ice cream.” She paused. “Assuming it hasn’t been already.”

“Not yet, Captain. We felt we should give you the choice, since another option has lately become available. I’m given to understand it is now possible, using experimental cybernetic implants, to read your brain out into a RI core, then read it back in later.”

Barbaretta blinked. “Really? Brain uploading is possible now? How do they deal with the ‘continuity of self’ problem?”

Lee flashed a wry smile. “That is something you would have to ask them. But I gather it is not an issue.”

“Huh. Then what, they put me in a RIDE?”

“A brainbox-style human body prosthesis is more likely. We have connections with the Marshals, so we can obtain one of their FBRs. But I gather they could use a traditional DE shell if you wanted.”

Barbaretta frowned. “I gather I’m not going to have a lot of time to make the choice either way.”

Lee nodded. “We can give you an hour to think about it, but…as you say, we need your expertise as soon as possible.”

“Not a whole lot to think about.” Barbaretta shrugged. “If I’m going to be keeping this body instead of getting a new one force-grown, might as well leave the brain where it is. Let’s go with the implantation and copying. Can always scoop the brain out later if it doesn’t take.”

Lee nodded. “As you say. I’ll let them know to commence the process. You may black out again, but when you wake, they will be ready to begin.” She rose from the seat, and offered Barbaretta her hand. “I look forward to a full debrief when you are ready, Captain Hansom.”

Barbaretta got up and took the hand. “I’ll look forward to giving it to you. Uh…I guess this probably isn’t a good time to ask how I got back here?”

Lee smiled. “We’ll go over that a little later, Captain. But don’t worry. Things are going well so far.” She stepped through the door, which sealed behind her.

Barbaretta watched her go. “Well. There’s a thing.” Then she sat back in her chair, closed her eyes, and waited. She was never quite sure exactly when everything faded to black after that.

Separator k.png

How am I supposed to diplomatically tell them I don’t like kraken? Darrek pondered. It was rubbery and too sweet. All he could do was smile and nod. Teenette, on the other hand, had helped herself to thirds. Darrek had just never really developed a taste for seafood, but he was here to sample everything Zharus had to offer on behalf of his isolated world.

“Hey, kids.” Joel, hardlight ferret companion on his shoulder, slid onto the seat next to Darrek at the Scouts’ Lounge table. “Oooh, is that real kraken? I’ve missed that stuff.” He grabbed a piece from Darrek’s plate and munched on it. “Mmm. The fabbed stuff just doesn’t come close.”

“You’re telling me!” Teenette mumbled through a full mouth.

On the other hand, Darrek said, reaching for a glass of particularly good red wine. “Do you normally keep food and drink like this on your big ships, Commander Lee?”

“We’ve been on enough rescue runs to know that stranded scouts deserve some luxury and pampering after their ordeal,” Lee said.

“Like me, about eight years ago,” Joel said. “Three months on a barren rock plugging hull leaks. And it was my first assignment, too. No Brubeck’s Luck here.”

“Speaking of stranded scouts, how is Barbaretta coming along?” Darrek asked.

“Captain Hansom has regained consciousness. I have to hand it to your med-tech, Ambassador. They stabilized her so well before putting her in cryo that she had no brain damage, considering the extent of the trauma to her legs and torso.” Lee nodded to Darrek. “The process to transfer her to a new temporary body should be well underway by now.”

“When can we see her?” Teenette asked.

“The med-techs assure me she will likely be able to attend our initial debrief in just over an hour,” Lee said.

Darrek raised an eyebrow. “That fast? No need for recovery after the transplant surgery?”

“There are transplants, and then there are transplants,” Lee said cryptically. “All will become clear at the debrief.”

Teenette yawned. “I hope it’s a brief debrief. It’s getting on toward evening by our body clocks.”

Lee nodded. “Of course. We will have plenty of time for longer meetings on the way back to Zharus.” She smiled faintly. “Longer for some than others. Don’t think I missed seeing that eyeroll, Captain Roberts.”

Bus-ted!” Zach caroled.

Joel petted his body-mate between his ears. “Oh, don’t worry. Zach and I are putting together something for Scout records. Ship logs and our own perspective. I’m no Ed Wood or Coleman Francis, but I hope it’ll entertain and inform.”

Teenette groaned, having watched plenty of Mystery Science Theater 3000 on the voyage. “Joel, to be honest, if it’s that bad…”

“If I can’t riff myself, who can I riff?” Joel said. He stuck a fork in some fire-grilled kraken that smelled of the odd Zharusian spices that weren’t sitting well in Darrek’s stomach.

“Ahem, quite,” Commander Lee said, in the careful tones of one who would likely have been backing carefully away had dignity permitted. “At any rate, I should go and prepare for the debrief. I look forward to seeing you there.” She nodded to those at the table, and excused herself.

“I think we scared her away,” Zach said once she was definitely out of earshot. He paused a moment, then waved a little hardlight pennant. “Yay us!”

“I hope you’re not going to get in too much trouble because you helped us,” Darrek said, for about the thirtieth time since boarding their ship.

“Don’t worry about it,” Joel said. “It would have come out sooner or later anyway. Come to think of it, if I hadn’t ended up having to tip our hand now, we’d have been in that much more trouble when we finally did come clean.”

“’Mitigating circumstances’ and all that,” Zach added.

“I’m looking forward to finding out what’s developed since we’ve been gone. I know Madison made it back, but they won’t tell me any more than that and I’m locked out of the shipboard newsfeeds,” Joel said. “With DINsec, they can make that stick, too. Apparently they don’t want to ‘spoil the surprise.’”

Teenette nodded. “Somehow, I get the idea there are going to be plenty of surprises for all of us.” She grinned. “Well, at least I won’t be surprised on an empty stomach!”

Separator k.png

An hour later, they all filed into the designated conference room. It was one of the ship’s smaller briefing rooms, sized for a dozen or so people, rather than the huge lecture-hall spaces used for mass briefings. That was something, anyway, though Joel had no doubt he’d probably be behind the podium of at least one mass lecture and probably more before he was finished.

Apart from himself and Zach, Teenette, Darrek, Commander Lee, and the SOL’s Maint Chief, the seats were empty. “Hey, where’s Barb?” Darrek asked.

“She’ll be joining us shortly,” Lee said. “Please, be seated. We’ll start with the Satellite of Love’s damage assessment and repair estimates. Lt. Case? Your show.”

“I’ve seen worse,” Case said, standing up. A hardlight lectern rezzed in front of her, along with a holographic model of the ship, highlighting the damage and repairs. “All told, not much to say. Joel and Zach’s field repairs were more than adequate and the Intie-tuned weapons and defense modifications performed beyond specs. The SOL will be mostly repaired before we reach Zharus orbit. That aft missile bay took the brunt of the damage and we’ll have to replace it and the hull around it.”

“Be sure you fill the tank with high-octane!” Zach piped up. “And I want those windows spotless!

“I’ll leave a can of liquid schwartz in the glovebox, just for you,” Case quipped. “Other than that, Commander, I’m done.”

“Thanks, Lieutenant. You’re dismissed,” Lee said.

Case saluted, then left the room. As the door closed behind her, the hardlight projector array at one end of the room began to power up. Lee glanced at it. “It appears Captain Hansom is ready to join us.”

Barbaretta’s voice came over the speakers. “Right! Uh…hi, everyone! Hang on, just a sec…” With a flicker, Barbaretta appeared at the end of the room in hardlight holotar form—a meter-and-two-thirds woman with short mousy brown hair. She looked more or less normal, wearing scout khaki slacks and a sleeveless shirt. Except…

“Hey, what happened to your ink?” Teenette asked.

Barbaretta glanced down at her bare arms. “Huh? Oh! Hang on…” With another flicker, tattoos of several planets appeared down her arms. “Huh. Wait…” They vanished again, then came back in, slightly smaller, with a couple more added. “Yeah, that works better. Think I’m gonna have them redone on the meat bod, too. I made everything too big. Found more planets than I thought I would.”

“Uh…wow?” Teenette said. “Uh…are you okay?”

“Considering I’m alive thanks to you, I’m fine and dandy,” Barbaretta said. “The rest, well, being a Scout’s a risky business and we’ve all had scrapes. Hey, is that Joel? Who’s your little friend there?”

“Here’s a hint.” Zach cleared his throat, then his voice became female with an echo. “Movie sign in five, four…”

“All part of the debrief, Captain Hansom,” Lee said. “Let’s not get too sidetracked. Totalians, Barb is using a hardlight-based telepresence rig while her body is being repaired.”

“That’s not all I’m using,” Barbaretta said. “But one shock at a time.”

Joel felt Zach reach out with a ping, slipping into fast-time. :Oooh!: Zach sent. :She’s in a RI core! How is she in a RI core?:

:They had to use a reeeeally big shoehorn,: Barbaretta sent. :It feels weird, but I’m getting used to it. Anyway, risky business. Scrapes. Speaking of which…what are you? You’re all…techno-organic.:

:Uh…yeah. We’ll have to gab about that later. For now, we probably shouldn’t talk behind people’s backs.: The whole conversation had only taken a second, so no one had noticed.

Lee glanced at a privacy-polarized hardlight display on the table in front of her. “Ah. We have another attendee ready to join us via long-distance telepresence. You might know her.”

Another node of the hardlight projector flickered and lit up, and a humanoid leopardess was standing across from Barbaretta. Her image flickered, lost some resolution, then stabilized. It still looked a bit hazy and unreal next to Barbaretta’s. “Barb! Darrek! Teenette! It’s great to see you again!”

Barbaretta stared at her. “Madison? And…Samantha? What happened to you?

Joel blinked, then laughed out loud. “Integration! All the cool kids are doing it!”

“Wow, seriously?” Teenette said. “We get our butts saved by an Integrate, and now it turns out you’re one, too?”

“I’m more concerned with what happened to you,” Madison said, glancing quizzically at Barbaretta. “They scanned you out? Really?”

“It was either that or scoop my brain out with a melon baller,” Barbaretta said. “Rather the ol’ grey matter stays where it is. Besides, they tell me it’s still experimental, and I can’t pass up the opportunity to explore something new.”

“Wow. We’re gonna have to talk about that,” Samantha put in. “Yeah, I’m still in here, too.”

“By the way, Marcus got here safely, a couple weeks after I did,” Madison said. “He’s out on a training exercise right now, but he’ll be around when you get planetside.”

“Cool! Looking forward to meeting the old so-and-so again,” Joel said. “Hamner’s okay, too…but if you got my torps, you already knew that.”

“Let’s get down to business,” Commander Lee said. “Ambassadors, the next couple days before you arrive at Zharus won’t be the most exciting. But we want to get as much of this official business out of the way as possible so you can enjoy what our world has to offer yours.”

“First thing is to present my full report,” Joel said. “Darrek and Teenette already lived through it, of course, but everyone else might find it interesting.” Joel opened a link to the room’s hardlight projector and fed the report in. Then as it started showing, he had an idea. He sent a quick link request across to Barbaretta and Madison, and a few moments later the three of them, plus Zach and Samantha, were seated in a virtual reality movie theater. Madison’s image shifted to human with leopard tags.

“Whaaaaaat’s uuuuup wiiiiiith theeee…” Barbaretta flickered. “…clock speed? Oh! Right…since we’re running on computer hardware, we can think faster. Neat! I didn’t know it applied to VR, too.”

Joel grinned. “Right! We can have our own private screening of the report here, and have plenty of time to talk about it before they’re even halfway done with it out there. Of course, we can talk out there, too, but…”

Samantha smirked. “There are some things the pure-organics just wouldn’t understand.”

Zach bounced up and down on the back of Joel’s seat. “You’re smart, kitty!”

“I’ve been wanting to talk to you for some time,” Madison said. “Especially since I learned you were an Integrate. I’ll bet you’ll have some great advice for little old us.”

Joel chuckled. “I’ve got a few questions for you myself. Like how you got all furry to begin with, though I’ve already got a pretty good guess. The wound you took on the way out?”

Madison nodded. “It was pretty dire. ‘Mantha held it together long enough for us to get into jump, then…well, as the old song goes, ‘I’ll stop the world and melt with you.’”

Barbaretta glanced back and forth between them. “Could someone tell me what the hell an ‘Integrate’ is? I’m not from Zharus to begin with, and never made it planetside all that much.”

“Oh, sorry.” Madison nodded to Barbaretta, cat ears flicking forward. “It’s kind of a side effect of RIDE Fusing. No one knows exactly why, but sometimes a Fused RIDE and human sort of…melt together, permanently, and get super-powers. Might want to keep that in mind and be careful if they put you in a Fusable shell. Doesn’t usually happen right away, but…well, you never know.”

“Now it’s my turn to be all confused at something you two know but I don’t,” Joel said. “They put Barb in a RI core…how, exactly?”

“New discovery in nano-cybernetics,” Samantha said. “Teen hacker accidentally figured out how to map human thought engrams into nano-implants. Now everyone’s doing it.”

“It’s an interesting experience so far,” Barb said. “You know, I’d thought about getting a RIDE if I got back to Zharus. But maybe I’ll just be one instead.”

“It ain’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be,” Zach said. “It was hard enough learning to be one being born that way. Coming into it as a human? Wow, I can’t even.”

“Where are you coming from, anyway?” Joel asked. “Your signal has enough interference to suggest it’s coming from a long way, but you’re chatting in realtime.”

Madison grinned. “I’m back on Zharus, actually. We had a bit of an FTL comm breakthrough, thanks to my brother’s girlfriend.”

Joel scratched his head. “That DINcom thing? I heard about it from some friends in the Marshals before Zach and I left, but it didn’t seem like much more than an interesting toy. You’ve really got it working for reals?”

“It’s still got some serious glitches, and it’s pretty costly to keep a high-bandwidth link up for very long, but yeah.” Madison chuckled. “We’re running up a hell of a long-distance bill right now.”

“At least you didn’t call collect.” Joel grinned. “Anyway, we’ve still got that report to watch. You’ve already got the broad strokes from my torpedo report, but I had time to fill it out some on the way back home.”

“I haven’t seen any of it!” Barbaretta said brightly. “And I really am curious to know exactly what happened after I went night-night.”

“Well then, let’s roll it! Magic voice?”

Joel reached back to give the ferret a friendly rub on the head, and a dulcet female voice intoned, “Movie sign in five…four…three…”

Chapter 2

April 22, 158 AL

The bluish expanse of the Dry Ocean grew larger beneath the rapidly descending elevator car from Toptown. Totalia was about ten percent larger than Old Earth, but Zharus was much larger than that. It was difficult for Darrek to grasp the sheer size of the supercontinent below them. By itself, the supercontinent of Gondwana had more surface area than all the landmass on his homeworld, and there were two more supercontinents besides.

“Naming your continents after ancient Earth supercontinents? That makes some sense,” Teenette said.

“Zheng He is a planet of archipelagos,” Barbaretta said. They had placed her in what the Zharusians called a Full Body Replacement frame, modded with their ubiquitous hardlight. She looked like she had back on Totalia, except with the new, smaller tattoos from the debrief meeting. “Like someone dropped gravel in a bathtub. Biggest ‘continent’ is the size of New Zealand on Earth.”

“The continental interior back home is still pretty arid,” Darrek said. “No plants to hold moisture yet. But I gather, nowhere near as arid as that landscape.”

“You’re going to see it firsthand,” Madison said. The leopardess Integrate had met them when the Endeavor arrived at Toptown.

“I’ve been on desert planets before,” Barbaretta said. “Some of them even hotter than Zharus gets. I’m looking forward to exploring other things…like life on four legs.”

“You’re seriously planning to get a RIDE body?” Teenette asked. “Thought about what kind?”

Barbaretta shrugged. “I’ll see what’s available. I’m not picky.”

“I’ve been thinking about maybe looking for the right RIDE myself. Maybe help Darrek find one, too.”

“If you want, maybe we could try partnering up,” Barbaretta said. “At least for long enough to see what it’s like to Fuse. I’m not so sure I’d want my first Fuse to be with a stranger, and maybe you wouldn’t either.”

“Geez, slow down.” Madison shook her head. “It took me months to get comfortable with the idea of letting someone else inside my head, and you’re talking about it like it’s just putting on a jacket.”

“And what’s wrong with that?” Samantha put in a moment later. “I’d just like to point out if you hadn’t been such a scaredy human, we could have had fun together for those months, instead of just a couple of weeks.”

Joel leaned back against the window and smiled thoughtfully. “It’s just something people have to figure out for themselves. Some jump in, some take their time. Couldn’t really say which way’s better.”

Madison sighed. “If you must dive in headfirst, I guess my brother’s girlfriend is the one you should talk to for advice. She’ll be waiting with the others when we land.”

“I can’t believe we’re here,” Teenette said, smiling.

“You said it,” Darrek agreed. “We’re about to tread soil no one from our planet has ever touched. The first Totalians to visit another planet for generations!”

“But hopefully not the last,” Joel said.

Darrek tried not to look at Barbaretta directly. He had spent far too much time sitting next to her cryopod aboard the scout ship, and said a few things that had felt right at the time. (Not that she’d been able to hear him.) He wanted to embrace her, confess how he felt responsible for her entire ordeal. That her consciousness had somehow been transferred into a robot body made it…awkward. He wasn’t sure how to feel about how the Zharusians had essentially invented functional immortality during Joel’s short absence.

Back home, a faction of the Totalian religionists would call it “Transcending the Flesh” and probably embrace it. He didn’t share their mystical worldview, but he had to keep that in mind for his first report to the Totaliment, to be sent by message torpedo in a few weeks.

From the reactions of the native Zharusians, though, it was as new to them as it was to him. So I have that going for me. We can struggle with these issues together.

The plan was for the Totalians to just be like any other tourists, not standing out. They would have no special escort besides the tour company and guides being provided—though considering the bodyguarding capabilities of RIDEs, it would probably be enough. After a tour of Gondwanan city-states—polities, as they called them here—including several Integrate Enclaves, they would go to a few Laurasian cities, and visit a science station on the quarantined continent of Rodinia. Interspersed with the tourism would be a slew of meetings with just about every political entity under the sun, including ambassadors from most of the other human colonies. The sun that was just different enough in spectrum from his home star to provide a palpable reminder this was a new and alien world.

Teenette pointed. “Look, you can make out individual buildings now!”

The viewport HUD displayed the names of various landmarks and scenery. The bay was the Bay of Tranquility, with the Briny Deep off to the northeast. To the west was the Thalassic Ocean—a redundant name, to Darrek’s view. Essentially it was the “Ocean of the Sea” in Greek. Directly beneath them was a hollowed-out mountain that served as the space elevator’s groundside anchor.

Totalia had the technology to build a space elevator, but it didn’t have the economy or the motivation to follow through. Opening trade with Zharus would hopefully fix both issues, or so Darrek liked to think. He would certainly be talking up the experience of riding one in his report. He wrote more notes on his tablet in the shorthand he’d developed for long committee meetings, then held it up to snap another image capture with the camera in the back.

“Can you put that down for a little bit, Darrek?” Teenette said. “Just enjoy the view.”

“I am enjoying the view. This is how I enjoy it.” Darrek finished his note and put the tablet aside. “Really, I feel like I should be taking stills and video of everything at every moment, or I’m going to miss something.”

“I suggest getting an implant,” Barbaretta said. “No equipment to carry around—except in your head.”

“Implant, huh?” Darrek glanced at Barbaretta. “More like an ‘explant,’ in your case.”

Zach bounced up and down.”I could go for some eggplant right now!”

Madison chuckled. “If you think this is something, well, you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Separator k.png

Darrek wasn’t sure what he had expected Aloha to be like, but whatever it was, it clearly wasn’t this.

It wasn’t the technology that gave Darrek pause—it was the people. The sheer numbers, the crowding. The polis of Aloha alone had many times Totalia’s population. The sidewalks and byways of the city were packed and teeming as he stared out the window of the sleek limo. And it wasn’t even a holiday! It was easy to feel overwhelmed, and from the look on her face, Teenette was feeling equally apprehensive.

For now, the pink Cadillac limo was on actual wheels instead of a hundred meters off the ground. They drove along the scenic, sparkling waters of the Bay of Tranquility, towards their hotel. The first meeting with groundside government officials, including the Eridani ambassador, was behind them.

Meeting someone from yet another colony had filled Darrek with great anticipation. What he’d read and watched about that strange planet on the scout ship stoked his curiosity. But as it turned out, the man had looked pretty much like anybody else except for some odd bits of metal around his eye and a pale complexion. He was one of the lower-level attaches who were only lightly enhanced so they could pass for “normal,” though he’d been in a real-time two-way link with the local embassy. He promised an invitation to the embassy to meet directly with the higher-level ambassadors later and learn about their world’s metamaterial. Darrek said he’d be delighted, and meant it. Cyberdani enhancements sounded…interesting.

Not that the Zharusians themselves were any less interesting. Between the transhuman Integrates, the humans with animal “tags”, and various forms of RIDEs and rarer EIDEs, Darrek spent most of the drive people watching. It wasn’t the landscape that Totalia would have to adjust to—it was these people. Millions of them—billions, in fact. How many of them would want to emigrate to Totalia? He wrote this question down in shorthand. Then he added a followup: How many Totalians would want to leave?

“Ugh. I hate crowds,” Barbaretta said. “I suddenly remember why I went into scouting. Again.”

“There’ll be a crowd of people waiting at the hotel, probably,” Madison said. “But they’ll be the good kind of crowd.”

The limo soon pulled into the hotel’s parking garage, letting them off near the elevator to the suites. Madison handed out key cards. “We’ll just go right up to the suite; registration’s already taken care of.”

“I could use a breather, thanks,” Darrek said. “Teenette?”

“I think I’ll gadabout the hotel a little before the next meetup, if that’s okay,” the younger woman said. “I think I saw some remote control agrav toys in the hotel store—er, fabbery. I want one of those aircars—er, skimmers.”

“Spend your mu wisely,” Darrek said. He couldn’t help grinning over the oh-so-literal nickname for “monetary units”. Whoever thought that name up was a man or woman after his own heart. “We’re still on a budget.”

“I’m a grown woman, Darrek. Please,” Teenette said tartly.

“Still, Aloha absolutely excels at separating tourists from their money,” Joel said.

“And their clothes, apparently,” Teenette said. “I’m just going to mingle among the natives a little.” She put her hand on his shoulder. “You look exhausted, Darrek.”

“It’s been…a day,” Darrek said. He looked at his two (four, really) Integrate escorts, and Barbaretta. “I think I can find my way to my suite, if that’s okay.”

“Fine, Darrek. Just fine,” Joel said. “The shindig can wait a bit longer until you’ve recharged. Get some rest. Go watch a good movie for a change. Comm us when you’re ready.”

“Mind if I tag along, Teenette?” Barbaretta asked. “I really haven’t been dirtside all that much, so it’s a new experience for both of us. Besides, these leg servos could use a stretch.”

The Totalian smiled. “Sounds like a plan, Barb. It’ll be good to spend some time together that doesn’t involve fixing a truck.”

“Have fun, you two,” Joel said as the duo strolled away.

The suite was on the 42nd floor, facing the Bay. It was just a common hotel room, with nothing that was outside the norm on Zharus. Two and a half months on Joel’s scout ship had familiarized him with hardlight and fabbers, so he couldn’t even claim them as novelties. He had the suite’s hardlight system create a writing desk out on the balcony, then sat down to add a few notes on his tablet.

Human consciousness. Uploading. Mind transfer. Continuity of self, or even the soul. Does this mean true immortality? Aren’t Integrates also immortal already?

Joel and Zach had shrugged at a similar questions on the journey. Integrates had only been around for thirty years or so, and nobody knew what their effective lifespan would be. They weren’t purely technological beings like RIDEs and Barbaretta now was, but they could have a lifespan of thousands of years.

All told, technology is just a neat and shiny thing, and it’s the second order effects that need closer scrutiny. I need to put on my Anthropology and Sociology hats to get to understand how these things will affect Totalia, he wrote. It helps that the Zharusians themselves are undergoing such rapid change, so I should meet with their academics at some point. But they are also a less homogenous, more pluralistic culture than tiny Totalia.

Darrek made a few notes to that effect while the thought was in his head, then put the tablet aside. The fatigue of changing time zones was starting to weigh on him, and it seemed like a good time to catch a nap. Or perhaps he could see what sorts of entertainment were airing on the local media channels.

Either way…he’d made it. Here he was, light-years from home. All things considered, he thought he could afford to relax.

Separator k.png

April 24, 158 AL

Joel and Zach returned to Toptown soon after the Totalians’ welcome party, after bidding a heartfelt see-you-later. As much as they’d come to know them during their months of travel together, the Integrate Scout had duties to perform, and there was still a punishment to be meted out for their decade of keeping certain important information from Commander Lee.

The Satellite of Love awaited them at Toptown to take back to Uplift. Though the vessel was in good shape, it still needed refitting for the job ahead. That meant months of downtime before the Fleet left, doing whatever Lee required of them.

“Time to pay the piper,” Joel said. They hovered along at a good clip through the spaceport docking corridors rather than walking, both anxious to return to Scout HQ and get it over with.. A lifting Integrate was an unusually uninteresting sight these days, Joel reflected. Nobody gave them a first glance, let alone a second.

“Face the music,” Zach added from the crook his his arm.

“Yep. I’d rather watch Manos without riffing.”

“Yep yep.”

“Or even Battlefield Earth.”

Zach looked upwards in shock. “Whoa, Joel! Let’s not get too masochistic now.”

The ship came to life as they entered the airlock, Polestar giving them immediate clearance to depart. The SOL was away from the docks before Joel was even on the flight deck. They would need to do some orbital maneuvers once they were a safe distance from the Alohavator, but otherwise they were just planning to do a straight drop to Uplift since they had so much delta-v to spare.

Ninety minutes later they were on the ground. As was traditional, Lt. Case met him at the bottom of the ramp, with a tablet in hand. Joel signed the ship over to Case’s care. She had done most of her scowling on the Endeavor, so here she and her crew were all business. The maintenance scaffolding and hookups were starting to engage.

“The Commander wants a few changes to your loadout for the next trip out, Captain,” Case said. “And that aft missile bay still needs a full replacement. We couldn’t do that on the Endeavor.”

“Thanks, Geri,” Joel said.

“And I want Zach’s signature on this handover doc, too,” she said, handing the tablet back with a grin. “It’s as much his ship as yours, right?”

“Finally!” The ferret snorted, then his avatar jumped atop the tablet and added his left pawprint next to Joel’s scrawl before jumping back. “How’s that?”

“That’ll do just fine, Zach. Thanks.” Case folded up the tablet and put it in her chest pocket. “Now, shoo. They’re expecting you two at Cheers.”

“Well, let’s not keep our friends and the booze waiting. See you later, Geri.”

Cheers was significantly larger than his last visit. It had spread out by filling in a lot of the space on the lot, but also going upwards, adding a second floor. “Guess Diane went through with her expansion plans,” Joel said.

“Check out the wolfy bouncer,” Zach said, eyeing the Fuser standing with her arms crossed next to the new main entrance.

“There he is!” Marcus Trenton shouted from the bar. “Get your Intie arse over here, Joel! And your furry friend, too. ‘Allo there, Zach.”

“Just how much did the Commander spill?” Joel said, taking the offered barstool next to Trenton. Zach scampered off his arm to the countertop.

“Enough to know you’re going to spend a few days in debrief,” Scout Maaz Goden said. “So get some good booze in you already. Diane has some new stuff that can actually get Inties drunk.”

The bartender was a white she-wolf Fuser Joel also hadn’t seen before. Her nametag said Henrietta, and she spoke with a Sturmhaven accent. “I have new ‘blueshock’ cocktail. Gives a nice buzz. It’s the charged sarium powder. Is very good.”

“Sounds great!” Zach said.

Henrietta mixed the cocktail quickly, adding the powder last and giving the tumbler a little tap. The liquid began to spark and sizzle as if it was lightning in a glass. Zach’s ferrety eyes sparkled as he stared at it, entranced. “Oooooh. I hope it tastes as good as it looks. Shiny!”

Joel picked up the tumbler. “Down the hatch.” Then he took a swig. There was an audible spark. “Whooo! I felt that one!”

Zach rolled on the countertop, giggling. “Ooooh, now that’s what Shiny tastes like.”

Zharus was headquarters to hundreds of Scouts, with roughly three-quarters of them out in space at any one time. It seemed like every single one of them still planetbound had somehow wound up in a single room at the enlarged Cheers, with all their attention on Joel, Zach, and formerly missing Scout Marcus Trenton.

“I still can’t believe you’ve been an Intie all this time and we never knew,” Maaz said. “We should have figured, you being weird and all, but hell, we’re all weird in one way or another.”

“I rather think the Marshals on this planet stole that particular shtick from us,” Marcus said, sipping his own cocktail. He himself wore his Great Hunter-style khakis, monocle, and handlebar mustache. “Then again, we have Clint Brubeck to credit—or blame—for rather enhancing that part of our reputation.”

“Brubeck’s Luck,” Maaz said.

It was a phrase every Scout knew from one corner of human space to the other. Scout Major Clint Brubeck had had a phenomenal career from beginning to end. He was the reason why the modern Scouts always had more recruits than they could ever hope to admit. And after his youngest daughter’s return from some mysterious planet or two…Integrated, on her very first voyage…

“Yeah. Even his kids have it,” someone said with a note of disgust and not a small amount of envy. “Which reminds me, Roberts. There’s a lot of rumors about what you were doing out there after the Commander dragged you out of here.”

“Can’t talk about it, sorry,” Joel said. “Still waiting for the full debrief.”

“Surely you can spare a few non-specific details?” Maaz said. “That sneakship of yours came back a little fried. Some new pirate base needing recon out in Caliburn?”

:As usual, word spreads fast,: Zach sent. :And we’re popular.: “Sorry, Maaz, no comment. I’m in enough trouble with Commander Lee as it is.”

“So, Joel,” Scout Pilot Charra Delgado said from nearby. “Ten years an Integrate, huh? That’s not really fair to the rest of us, Captain sir. I’ve been reading. I know how durable you guys are. I’ve seen the newsfeeds.”

“What are you implying, Charra?” Joel said, picking up his drink.

“You’ve been keeping a secret that naturally makes you and your little friend there a better Scout,” Charra said. “Even better than those fully cybered-up Scouts out of Eridani. I mean, there was just no way you could’ve come out of that crash four years ago without a scratch on you!”

Joel shook his head. “This isn’t a competition. We’ve all got different strengths and weaknesses. You’re a lot better at on-planet work than I am, for one thing. I don’t have the patience for all that ground-pounding. That’s why they stuck us in a sneakship.”

:Especially since you think so much faster than she does,: Zach put in helpfully.

:Shush, you.:

“Well, maybe so,” Charra said. “But there’s another thing.”

“I imagine everybody wants a RIDE partner now?” Joel said.

“Nah. More than that,” Marcus said. “They know about Barb.”

Maaz pondered. “I think the future of Scouting is getting yourself uploaded like Barb, leaving your meat body safe on ice at HQ, and shipping out all robot-like. Like being a human RIDE or something.”

“Nah, I doubt it,” Joel said. “Remember, we’re supposed to be scouting these planets for the benefit of organic human people. We’ll still need to have actual organic human people out there to see how it fits.”

“We can do that with simulations,” Maaz said. “I’ve had one too many close calls. I knew being a Scout was risky, but I think I want to be uploaded. Just adding that extra safety margin.”

Zach shook his head. “Or you could end up in shutdown on some alien world for a few thousand years until someone finds you. We have enough trouble with Rip van Winkles sleeping for only thirty years. Can you imagine thirty thousand?”

“At least we’d still be there for someone to find in a few thousand years, instead of dust…”

“Says you!” someone else shouted, half-slurred. “Ugh. Too drunk for this kinda talk.”

Joel chugged his drink. “Tell you what, Maaz. If you’re really interested in trying new things, how about I find you a RIDE to partner up with?”

“I could go for that to start,” Maaz said. “I’m sure it was nice to have someone else to talk to on those long assignments.”

“Heh. Yeah. You could say Zach and me were made for each other,” Joel said.

“Best buds forever,” Zach said, giving Joel a little fistbump.

“So, give me some ideas about what you might look for in a RIDE, and we’ll see who we can find.”

“Doubt we’ll lack for RIDE volunteers,” Zach said. “They’ll be breaking down the doors to see space.”

“Count me in,” Charra said. “Not letting Barb have all the fun.”

“Do I even need to ask?” Marcus Trenton said. “I plan on finding a partner on my own, regardless. I doubt Commander Lee will argue with that, considering the circumstances.”

Joel smiled at the formerly-missing Scout. “I don’t think she will. Okay, I guess we have some volunteers to start with. Maybe I can convince the Commander to put Zach and me in charge of a pilot RIDE partnership program?”

“No need to convince me, since I was going to do that anyway,” Lee said from the entryway. “For your sins.” The Scouts in the room all snapped to attention. “At ease, Scouts.”

“It’s nice we’re on the same page for once, Commander,” Joel said as the woman took an empty stool nearby.

Lee nodded. “It is, but if you think this is going easy on you, Captain Roberts, you’d be wrong. This isn’t just about finding partnerships. You’re also going to be testing equipment. I want you working with Kamen RIDEworks and possibly other manufacturers to design shells that explicitly meet our needs. We’re going to need better than the off-the-shelf gear.”

“Yes ma’am,” Zach said. “I’ve had some ideas there. It’ll be good to see them in action.”

“Happy to hear it. And one more thing. We’ve had a dozen Integrates apply to enter the program. I’ll also need you to evaluate them and work out a training regime. You’ll be working with Madison and Samantha on that one, though. I’m sure you’ll find the time for everything.”

“Taking advantage of the fast-time thing we do, eh?” Zach said.

“Damned right I am,” Lee said. She turned to the bartender. “The usual, Henrietta, if you please.”

“One black and tan, coming right up,” the she-wolf mecha said.

Zach tilted his head and looked at her closely. “Hey, is that one of those ‘shell mode’ mods I’ve read about?”

Da. No human in me right now,” Henrietta said. “Unfortunately is limited for this old frame of mine. Can have shell mode mods or partner, but not both. New ones not have that problem. But I like this frame. Is classic. So for now, this suits me. Is good to have choice for thumbs.”

“Huh. Kinda wish I’d had something like that, back in the day.”

Marcus sipped his drink. “You realize that if this all works out, Scouting will no longer be a solitary business.”

“I know,” Commander Lee said. “Some EI applicants want to be the ship itself. We have no procedures for that whatsoever, training or otherwise. So, we’re going by the seat of our pants here. Like the early days of the Space Race.” The older woman smirked. “Just like Scouts should.”

The assembled Scouts raised their glasses of whatever they were drinking and chorused their approval.

“Hear hear!”

“I’ll drink to that!”

“Damned right!”

“Brubeck’s Luck for everyone!”

“I’ll start looking at the applicants,” Zach said, rubbing his forepaws together in anticipation. “Oh, this is going to be fun.”

Chapter 3

April 28, 158 AL

Rhianna, Rochelle, Kaylee, and Uncia waited at the Uplift Aerodrome as the sleek, aerodynamic form of the Daydream Believer descended through the dome overhead. A scout ship was a little overqualified for suborbital transport duty, but Madison had wanted to fly her friends in from Aloha herself.

“How about that? Our first visitors from a lost colony,” Rhianna mused.

Rochelle nodded. “Madison’s said so much about them that between that and her and Joel’s reports, I halfway feel as though I know them already.”

The ship made one last sweeping curve and lined up on approach to land. A few moments later, it was down, and Rhianna and Rochelle came out onto the tarmac as the ramp lowered. Rhianna shaded her eyes against the bright morning sun, looking up at the ship. Good thing the press has moved on to the next big deal. Maddie’s “just another scout” again.

“Hey, gals!” Madison led the way down the ramp, followed by a middle-aged man with dark hair, a dark-skinned young woman with long, dark hair, and a short, brown-haired woman in scout khakis with tattoos showing on the visible skin of her arms. “Good to be back in Uplift again. Rhianna, Shelley, Kaylee, Uncia, I’d like to introduce my friends: Dr. Darrek Sigurdssen and Teenette Clark of the Totalian Loyalist Resistance, and Scout Captain Barbaretta Hansom.”

“What’s left of me, anyway. Hi, kids!” Barbaretta waved.

“Hi!” Teenette said. “Maddie’s told us a lot about you since we got here.”

“We’ve heard a lot about you three, too,” Rhianna said. She smiled at Barbaretta. “I understand you have a custom commission for us?”

“I guess you could call it that. I want to know more about my options, first thing.” Barbaretta grinned. “If I’m going to be out of body for a while, might as well make the most of it.”

Darrek stepped forward. “I’ve got something for you, too. A few grams of the current rarest substance on your planet. Well, rarest apart from radioactive decay elements, of course.” He chuckled. “If I didn’t get you some, I think Maddie would have mugged me for it.”

The leopard Integrate grimaced. “I want a working DIN, dammit.”

Teenette glanced from Rhianna to Rochelle, confusion writ plainly on her face. “Uh…sorry if this is kind of blunt, but…did you two really used to be guys?”

“I wasn’t what you’d call a ‘manly man’ before, but yes,” Rhianna said. “Of course, I’m not exactly a girly girl now, either.”

“But I am!” Rochelle said, giving her head a toss that stirred her long white hair.

“How complete is…?” Teenette stammered.

“Down to the genetic level,” Rhianna said. With the recent arrival of her extended family, more than a couple dozen of them, she’d been dealing with this issue a lot lately. “Takes a few years for the change to fully stabilize, but otherwise I can have babies. Totally fertile.”

“Incredible! I read about this on Joel’s ship, but I wasn’t sure how common ‘crossriding’ actually is here,” Darrek said. “I’ve been wanting to interview some crossriders for my report to the Totaliment.”

“Might want to talk to my older brother, Dr. Ferris Stonegate,” Rhianna said. “Anthropology is right up his alley. I know he’ll sure want to talk to you.”

“Anthropologist?”

“Yes. And pretty fresh from Earth, too.”

“Wonderful!” Darrek grinned. “I can’t wait to meet him. But you had some other things to show us?”

“Sure. We can start going over some of our tech for you back at the Garage, while we make Maddie’s DIN,” Rhianna said. “There’s a skimmer van waiting for you folks.”

Kaylee changed to her bike form and revved her lifters while her partner mounted. “See y’all there!”

Separator k.png

Upon seeing the Freerider Garage, Teenette smiled. “Reminds me of my Aunt’s place. She fixes cars, herself. Found my knack for mechanical things hanging around her.”

“Like me and my Nana,” Rhianna said. “Grandmother, I mean. When I was a little boy she had a workbench set up just for me to tinker.”

“Interesting just how casually you say that,” Teenette said. “That you were a little boy, that is.”

Rhianna shrugged. “Why? It’s just a fact. That I’m a woman now doesn’t change what I was then. It doesn’t change what I remember being.”

“It’s a pretty common attitude hereabouts,” Rochelle said. “You can get some pretty odd pronoun constructions in everyday speech. ‘He immigrated from Earth a few years ago, but she runs a garage now.’”

“I’ve been reading the materials you forwarded. I think I have some idea how to incorporate the stuff into the DIN structure, but there’s going to be trial and error,” Rhianna said.

“We can’t simulate the stuff prop’ly yet,” Kaylee added. “Need to know its physical properties ‘fore we can even program the fabber to work with it.”

“Ah, I can help with that,” Darrek said. “Melting point, specific gravity, et cetera…I have it all memorized to seven or eight decimal places.”

Rhianna chuckled. “Handy.”

“You can’t avoid it if you do much work with the stuff. Tell me where to type it in and I’ll get right on it.”

“Just recite it!” Uncia said. “I’ll plug it in as you do.”

Barbaretta wandered around the garage, taking in the RIDE cradles, the racks of parts and equipment, the tool carts with carefully-ordered rows of tools. “Funny. All these years I’ve been reporting in here, and I never knew the first thing about RIDEs other than that we weren’t allowed to take them with us, so how useful could they be.” She held up a hand and turned it at the wrist, flexed her fingers. “And now I are one. Or will be. How soon can you get me a…body? Shell?”

“Shell,” Rhianna said. “And we can certainly order out for one. But…what kind do you want? They go all the way up from mice to dragons.”

“Wow…dragons? Really? Might be fun to be a dragon.”

Kaylee snorted. “I’d start out a little smaller if I were you. Dragons are a bit much for a first-timer.”

“You’re probably right.” Barbaretta considered. “What would be a good fit for a Scout?”

“Well, they’ve got Scout RIDEs,” Rochelle said. “They’re very light, meant for slipping deep into enemy territory and slipping out again fast.”

“Not quite the right kind of scouting for me. I’d want something that could carry a bunch of equipment. Big, but not too big. Maybe ‘bout ‘Mantha’s size?”

Rhianna nodded. “Medium Mobility or Support frame, probably. Mobility’s a jack-of-all-trades, like Kay here. Adds on all sorts of equipment through modules and paks. Support has tools and equipment for repair and support roles built in.”

“That sounds more my speed.”

“Now we just have to figure out what kind of animal you want!” Uncia said. “I’m partial to snow leopards!”

“No way!” Samantha put in. “Regular leopards are the bestest!”

Barbaretta grinned. “Oh wow. If I have to make up my mind about that, I could be here all night.”

“The first person to do the transfer went with a lioness,” Rhianna said. “As a result, we have a pretty good grasp on how those work, and a body-instinct package with all the bugs worked out.”

Barbaretta shrugged. “I like most big cats, so lioness sounds fine by me.”

“All right.” Rhianna glanced at the available cradles in the garage. “If you’re sure you want one, we can get one over here in just a few minutes.”

Barbaretta favored her with a quizzical look. “Why wouldn’t I want one?”

“Well, it’s a bit sudden, isn’t it? You’ve only been in that body for a few days.”

“And if the lion doesn’t work out, I can go right back into it, can’t I? This isn’t brain surgery. In fact, I chose this so I could avoid brain surgery on the old meat-bod ‘til it’s ready for me to be back in it again.”

“Well…yes,” Rhianna admitted. “It’s just kind of weird to me for someone to just…up and decide to be a transforming animal robot.”

“We Scouts have a bit more flexible mindset than the average,” Madison said. “Or else we wouldn’t have become Scouts in the first place.”

“It’s just another form of exploration for me,” Barbaretta said. “I’m just going to be exploring a new body is all. I’ve already found some things I like about this one.” She rose a half-meter on the shell’s built-in lifters, then dropped back to the floor. “Now I want to see what it’s like to prowl around on all fours. And who knows, maybe even Fuse with someone.” She glanced over at Teenette. “You were saying you wanted to try it, right?”

“Well, yeah…” Teenette said. “You’re offering it with you?”

“Now hang on just a minute,” Rochelle said. “That’s really sudden. You don’t even know what Fusing is like.”

“I’ve read some about it,” Barbaretta said.

“You and whoever you Fused with would be sharing memories with each other, for one thing,” Rochelle continued. “Most natural-born RIDEs are okay with that because that’s how they’re made, and most people around here grow up with the idea so they’re pretty cool with it too. But it’s a little bit…intimate for newcomers.”

“I’d be sharing memories with any RIDE I Fused with, right?” Teenette said. “Might as well be someone I already know. We worked together in the Resistance for months.”

“Look, there’d even be a chance—a really small one, unless you get critically injured or something, but still—that you two could Integrate,” Rhianna said. “In my professional opinion, there’s just too many unknowns here. Even over the diplomatic ruckus it would cause. A human uploaded into an RI core and everything else…”

Barbaretta grinned. “You’re talking to someone whose profession is exploring the unknown. But…point taken. I’ll see how I like the body as it is first.”

“Uncia and I can do the neural graft so you can run the shell,” Rochelle said.

“And we can mod it so you can change to a humanoid mode without needing to Fuse,” Rhianna said. “All bases covered.”

“Great! So pick me out a good one. Scouts’ll foot the bill. You’re the experts.”

“Ya know, with this and Maddie-and-Mantha’s DIN, it could be another all-nighter,” Kaylee said. She licked the back of her forepaw.

“Get Barb taken care of first, and we can do me once we get the Totalians settled in their hotel,” Maddie suggested.

“I’d actually be interested in watching the procedure,” Darrek said. “I need to learn as much as I can about your technology, after all.”

“Not sure how much you’ll get out of DIN-making, but you’re welcome to stay as long as you want,” Rhianna said.

Darrek took a small box out of his pants pocket, then opened the top. A 1-centimeter cube of bronze Totalium glittered. “Here’s two grams to start with. I have more, but I need to save some for your university researchers.”

Rhianna picked it up reverently, then carefully placed it into the fabber input tray. “Now, the fun part.”

“Great! Let’s get started!” Teenette said.

Separator k.png

A half-hour later, a pair of RIDEs—a raccoon and a Rottweiler—in hardlight Kamen RIDEworks coveralls wheeled a stylized silver metallic lioness the size of a large motorcycle into the garage on a lifter pallet-jack. “This is it? Looks like something out of that Voltron cartoon Joel had.”

Rhianna looked up from the fabber. “That it is. It’ll look a lot different with the hardlight on, of course.” She glanced at the fabber again. “Okay, I think we can run the first batch, Kay. Keep it to quarter-speed until we can be sure it’s got the Totalium fabbing down. So far it’s playing nice with refined Q. That’s a relief. Some metas don’t play nice together.”

Kaylee nodded. “Good sign, Rhi. Got it.”

Rhianna rubbed her hands together. She knew it always made her look unbearably kawaii thanks to the kitty nose and ears, but it was too deeply ingrained a habit to break. “Right! Let’s see what we’ve got here.” She slid the pallet-jack over one of the cradles, then kicked the pedal to let its lifters take over so she could slide the jack back out and lower the shell into its embrace. “Thanks, guys! Much as I like working on older tech, there’s nothing like that new shell smell. What do you think, Captain Hansom?”

“Looks sleek and powerful, but beyond that I don’t much know what to think. Hard to believe in a little bit that’s gonna be me.” She shook her head. “I’ve just about managed to internalize that I’m in a mechanical human body, and here I’m about to go into a metal cat. It’s weird, but I think it’s a good weird.”

“Kinda like that feeling you get just before landing where nobody’s set foot before,” Madison said.

“That’s pretty much it.” Barbaretta grinned. “If nothing else, I’m gonna be a lot harder to lock up from here on out. Four years. Four goddamn years…”

“This won’t take long. We’ll have you in here before you know it.” Rhianna flipped open access panels on the lioness’s back. “They’ve already started building new shells with most of the necessary parts in place. It’s still in beta, but some people always want to live on the bleeding edge.”

Barbaretta patted the shell. “That’s where we Scouts are the happiest!”

“Uh, you don’t mind if I watch, do you?” Teenette asked, peering over Rhianna’s shoulder. “I race motocross back home, fix my own bikes…”

“Not at all,” Rhianna said. “If you have time, I’ll be happy to show you the basics. Except for the lifters, hardlight, sarium plant, Fuser nannies, and mode-shifting, I don’t imagine you’ll find it all that different.”

“Uh…Rhi, you’ve just listed about 90% of what makes up a DE,” Kaylee said.

“But she’ll totally rock that ten percent!” Uncia chimed in.

“I’ve had apprentices who started knowing less than she does, so I’m sure she’ll pick it up,” Rhianna said. She took a couple of boxes of parts from a rack on the wall, opened them, and started inserting components into the access panels. “I’ve been installing this system a lot lately. Alpha Camp is the main beta-testing site, so we’ve been helping Paul and Lillibet set up everyone who wants it in our spare time.”

“Alpha Camp?” Teenette asked.

“Settlement of RIDEs with reasons to want to be independent of humans. Until this system was invented, the only way RIDEs could have hands was to Fuse, which led to…well, it’s kind of a long story. Can you hand me the leg support armature? It’s that long ‘L’-shaped piece. Thanks. You can see how it locks into these thigh notches here, and here…”

Darrek smiled as he watched Teenette leap to assist. He had never been very mechanically inclined. It was the underlying principles and mathematical formulae that he found compelling.

Then a man in his mid-thirties plodded through the garage’s hardlight door. He had sandy hair, very pink skin, and close-set eyes over a short nose that gave him kind of a ferret-like appearance. “Hey, Ryan!” he shouted.

Rhianna gritted her teeth. “I’m busy, Eddie! I have company over. Come back later.”

“I need some more cash,” the man continued.

“I said not now, Eddie!” Rhianna shot back, practically growling. “Out, now!”

“Okay, Ryan. Fine,” Edward muttered before shuffling out.

Rochelle sighed and facepalmed, a gesture echoed by Uncia and Kaylee.

“I’m sorry you had to see that. I have a big extended family who just arrived from Earth,” Rhianna said. “They’ve been under foot a lot lately and some of them are not adjusting to Zharus well.”

“It’s only been a couple weeks, Rhi. Give ‘em time,” Kaylee said, rubbing her cheek against her partner’s side. “They ain’t all pudknockers like Eddie, neither.”

“You’ll be meeting more of them tomorrow,” Rochelle said. “Rufia’s taken on some of the less obnoxious ones as apprentices in her tour-guide business, and they’ll be showing you around Uplift.”

“Better her than me,” Rhianna muttered.

“He was rather pale-looking,” Teenette said.

“It’s a new-cloned bod; I know the look.” Barbaretta looked down at her hands. “They’d have gotten me one if my old bod had been just a little more busted-up. Ex-brainboxer?”

“Yeah. If we’d gotten him an FBR like yours he would’ve pawned it right away,” Rhianna said. “Eddie’s not the sharpest tool in the shed. I just know one of these days I’m gonna hear he’s hopped a sub to Aloha, run up a huge gambling debt in their casinos, and ended up as indentured thumbs in Alpha Camp. Frankly, the sooner it happens, the better.” She rolled her eyes. “Anyway, we’re almost done. Ready for the big step, Captain?”

“Hell, yes!” Barbaretta said.

“I’ll prep for the graft and core transfer,” Rochelle said. “Right this way, please.”

“This is very exciting!” Darrek said, barely pausing in his continuous jotting of notes on his tablet. “Can I take some pics and vid? For posterity.”

“I don’t mind if these ladies don’t mind,” Barbaretta said, nodding at Rhianna and the others. “I’d like to see it myself. Not every day you get to watch your own brain transplant.”

“No objections,” Rhianna said. “I’ll let you tap into the Garage’s network to record it from multiple angles.”

Barbaretta clapped her hands together. “Great. Then let’s light this candle!”

Separator k.png

Waking up this time was a considerably more orderly affair, Barbaretta found. No sooner had she closed her eyes, it seemed, than she was opening them again. She was still perfectly aware of who she was. But just as she had the last time, she was opening her eyes in VR first.

She seemed to be in a forest clearing, just a little more stylized and cartoony than real life. And she was still human. She glanced down at her perfectly ordinary avatar, a little disappointed. “Hey, what’s going on? Aren’t I supposed to have paws now?”

“First things first,” Rochelle said. “We have to graft.” She walked into the clearing, Uncia padding along behind her.

“Hey, that’s illegal, you know. And I didn’t think Uplift did its politics that way. Nextus, on the other hand…”

“Hey, that’s a good one!” Uncia said. “I’m gonna have to remember that!”

Rochelle rolled her eyes. “Everyone’s a comedian. Anyway, we’ve got to give you the right instincts and…well, autonomic nervous system for your body—both the lion one and the RIDE one. So your brain will know what’s where like it grew up that way.”

“Didn’t Jeanette say something about feeling like her big toe was spinning because she didn’t know what a cooling pump felt like?” Uncia said. “Before she grafted on the right mental bits, that is.”

“Yeah. Lucky for her, she had a full-fledged RI core riding along she could copy the template from. Most people who go this route swap with their partners, so they’ve got the same deal going. Since you don’t, we’re using a stand-alone template she helped us make up.”

Barbaretta shrugged. “Okay, you’ve convinced me. Do what you gotta do.”

“Right. The template will sort of attach itself, but won’t affect your personality or memories. You’ll shuck it off if you go back to a human body. Here…” She offered a folded, tawny, shaggy pelt. “Slip this on.”

Barbaretta raised an eyebrow and took it in her hands. “Like the skin-changers of old, eh?”

“Sometimes the old archetypes are the best.”

“Okay, let’s see…where’s the zipper on this thing…” Barbaretta slid her arms and legs into the pelt like a set of coveralls, pulled the skin on…and suddenly a tawny lioness was sitting on her haunches where she’d been a moment before. Barbaretta blinked and looked down at herself from a head that suddenly felt too big and…long.

“You’re a kitty!” Uncia cheered.

Barbaretta got to her feet and tried to step forward, but somehow she ended up on her side with her legs tangled up. “Oof!”

“Heh. Yeah…just because you’ve got the instincts doesn’t mean you’ve got the reflexes.” Rochelle chuckled. “Give it a little time, you’ll get it sorted out.”

Barbaretta rolled back to her feet, stood back up, and tried again. This time, she took three or four halting steps before tripping. “This might take a little work.”

“No worries, you’ve got time.”

After a few minutes of practice, Barbaretta was able to move around without falling over. “This is more like it!”

“Good for you!” Uncia cheered. “You’ll be pouncing on gazelles before you know it!”

“Now let me see…” Barbaretta cleared her throat, opened her mouth, and…roared.

Rochelle jumped. “Yow, that’s loud!”

“We should go hunting later,” Uncia said with much greater aplomb.

“We can do that?”

The sole human of the trio waved her hand in the air. The scene around them changed, the stylization vanishing along with most of the trees—leaving a dry African savannah with herds of antelope and zebra in the distance. “Welcome to Nature Range. Un-hon will give you the welcome brochure and complimentary dinner. But you’ll have to hunt it down yourself.”

“I dunno, Shelley, that might be going a little fast,” Uncia said. “She just got kittied.”

“No, no, I want to try this!” Barbaretta said. “Won’t be the first time I’ve killed and eaten raw meat. We had the craziest survival courses back in scouting school…”

“Well, this time it’s just tooth and claw. No cheating with pointy sticks or rocks…or thumbs!” Uncia said, baring her own teeth. “Rawr!”

“You sure you’re up for that? You can still barely walk.”

“It’ll be a great way to get practice in.” Barbaretta tossed her head. “I don’t expect to catch anything, but I should get a lot better at running.”

“Good enough. And when you’re done, it’ll be time to install your core in the shell,” Rochelle said.

Barbaretta got slowly to all four feet. Then she yawned and stretched. “This feels…”

“Weird?” Uncia supplied.

Natural. Not weird at all. And that’s the weird part.” Barbaretta glanced over her shoulder and twitched her tail. “This is such a trip.”

“Working as intended, then,” Rochelle said. A spread of screens popped up in front of her. “The graft is good, no problems with the linkages into your neural map. I can see a few places that could stand improvement in the next version, but those can be patched in later.”

Barbaretta lifted a paw and looked at it, extending her claws. “You said RIDEs and humans were already swapping themselves?”

“Uh-huh!” Uncia said. “Some of ‘em even do it willingly!”

“That’s good…wait, what?” Barbaretta blinked.

“People can use any tool for good or evil—and by people I mean RIDEs, humans, Integrates, and whatever aliens we may run into in the future,” Rochelle said.

“Yeah, okay.” Barbaretta looked back at her tawny-pelted sides. “You know, I’m still missing something here. Let’s see…” Her tattoos started to appear as darker hairs in her fur, rapidly changing in configuration until they all fit. Planets, stars, and swirls of nebulae backed by a golden coat.

“I admit, it’s you,” Rochelle said.

“Just one more…” Barb glanced over her shoulder again as another planet appeared at the very back of her left flank. “There. Got Totalia on my left butt cheek. All set.”

“Oooh, burrrn!” Uncia said. “Now are we going to catch some zebra or not?”

Barbaretta wiggled her butt experimentally. “Lead the way and I’ll try to keep up!”

Separator k.png

Out in the real world Rochelle opened Uncia’s head-helmet in Fuser. “Great news, everyone! The graft took. Barb’s off hunting with Uncia for a few virtual hours to break in. How goes Maddie’s DIN?”

“Third beta,” Rhianna informed, the DIN floating in a lifter field inside the scanner. “And probably the last. Totalium has some very interesting signal subspace-phase transmission properties.”

“Interesting how?” Darrek asked.

“Well, it’s not really absorbing wavelengths or certain radiation,” Rhianna said. “All that energy has to go somewhere. It’s a lot like some of the modified cavorite we use for heatsinks. Which reminds me, if we can alter the metachemical isomer, Totalium could be better and safer than…”

“Rhi, you’re driftin’,” Kaylee said.

“The point is that the energy is going right into subspace. It’s a one-way door, though. Otherwise it’d be more like p-cav, which lets energy out of subspace. That’s how our pulse weaponry works.”

Darrek nodded. “From my readings of subspace theory, you’re probably on the right track.” He shook his head. “I just hope it is subspace, and not some parallel universe where everyone on the planet is dying of radiation poisoning from all our reactor shielding.”

“This version is ready for testing, Madison. Give it a try,” Rhianna said. “On a whim I adapted some of my DINcom design. If it works we’re going to have a tonne of new data to send Dr. Rosenthal.”

“Okay, let’s see what we’ve got.” Madison took the gem with the small metal plug and slid it into the socket in the hollow of her neck. “Got a good connection…getting a decent throughput…”

“Good! Now, push it as hard as it’ll go. I need a full test. We only needed micrograms to make that DIN, so don’t worry about burning it out.”

“Ack. All right…” Madison screwed up her face against the expected burnout, and the gem glowed brighter. “Maxed out. Still getting a little warm.”

“Still within degradation rate tolerance. You’re good, Maddie, ‘Mantha,” Rhianna said.

“Wow, that’s great!” Madison said. “It feels like this one’s going to last a while. Uh…how many of these can we make with the Totalium we have?”

“Well, I only needed micrograms. I can churn out a hundred replacements and still have most of it to play with—with Darrek’s permission, of course.”

“Heh. Even with just micrograms in it, you realize every one of those DINs is practically priceless right now?” Kaylee said. “You could buy a country or two with the rest of it.”

Rhianna shrugged. “There’s a whole planet of it just a few light-years away. The price will drop soon enough.”

Rochelle pulled Uncia’s helmet head back down again. “Oh hey—Unnie’s signaling they’re done with their hunt.”

Rhianna pushed back her chair and got up. “Well, let’s get the core transfer set up, then.” She went over to the cradle and flipped open the lioness shell’s cranial plate, then turned to the workbench with the core interface that had Barb in it. “Have Uncia tell her to power down, and we’ll get started.”

Across the room, Teenette put down the media tablet on which she’d been reading magazines and came over to watch.

“Does Commander Lee know about this?” Madison asked. “I was just wondering. Barb didn’t say.”

Rhianna shrugged. “Either way, she will when she gets the invoices.”

The indicator light on the core reader went out. “That’s it, then.” Rhianna pulled on a pair of gloves and gently lifted the spherical core unit out of the socket.

“Brrr,” Samantha said through Madison’s mouth. “Just seeing someone carrying a brain in their hands like that…”

Rochelle grinned. “RIDE cores are tough, you know that. She could drop it on a concrete floor and probably not even scratch it.”

“It’s one thing to know that. It’s another to see someone with a brain in their hand.

Rhianna reached into the lioness shell’s head and settled the core gently into place. “There we go. All secure.” She closed the panel and activated the pre-boot diagnostics. “Kamen’s a good maker. No problems with the Shell Mode mods. She should be fine on two legs right away.”

“And that’s…really Barb now,” Teenette said.

“Functional immortality,” Darrek mused. “Transcending the flesh. It’s marvelous.”

“We could probably fit you out with one, too!” Uncia said. “I’m thinking something in a nice shade of squirrel.”

“I fear if I allow myself to be…modified in that way it could hurt my credibility with the Totaliment and the average citizen,” Darrek said. “As much as I want to experience it.”

Uncia smirked. “Suuuuure you do.”

A slight hum filled the room as the lioness powered up, eyes flickering on before her tattooed pelt rezzed, starting at her paws. She opened her hardlight eyes, looking around the room. “We are…live?”

Rhianna pushed on the clamp release pedal. “Try out those lifters, Captain.”

“Lifters? I’ve got lifters? Where…oh, there the little buggers are. Hold on.” A moment later, the lioness rose from the cradle and settled down on the garage floor. She craned her neck to look around. “This is new.”

“Wait until you’re in skimmer mode, flat out in the Dry,” Kaylee said. “Nothing like it.”

“Uh…am I okay to move around?” Barbaretta asked. “I don’t want to fall over on top of someone.”

“Your VR lion-body reflexes should carry over, for the most part,” Rochelle said. “Even if you fall over, your body’s tough, you can take it.”

“Sweet.” Barbaretta slowly padded forward, then walked around the garage. “Feels just as natural as in there.” She sat down on her haunches and proceeded to scratch behind one ear. “Dang it feels weird to do that. Like I’m some kind of contortionist.”

“You’ll get used to it!” Uncia said. “We kitties are flexible.”

“Yes, that’s what I just said.”

“That new shell needs a good shakedown,” Rhianna said. “I don’t know what your plans are for the rest of the day, but pay attention to the break-in manual. The cav needs conditioning…”

Rochelle put her hand on her friend’s shoulder. “I think she can handle it, Rhi.”

“You shoulda seen the crap powered armor they gave us,” Barbaretta said, tail swishing. “Of course, now I am powered armor, aren’t I?”

Rhianna nodded. “Pretty much. Speaking of, you should make sure the Shell Mode mods work before you go anywhere.”

“All right…how?”

“Lemme show ya,” Kaylee said. “I don’t have the mods yet myself, but I can show you where the switch is anyway. Just let me connect. I’m sure you’ll get it once ya see it done once.”

Barbaretta glanced at her and heard a little bell, signaling another RIDE asking for a connection. “Okay…?”

:It’s this subroutine right here.: Barbaretta sensed Kaylee highlighting a command in her operating system—metaphorically, a series of levers. :The others are the triggers for your other modes.:

:Thanks. Got it.: Barbaretta drew her attention back to the outside world, and triggered the change. Her hardlight skin winked out, and she had just enough time to register the oddity of the sensation of being hardlight-naked before her body started shifting and contorting around her. Then she was standing on two legs, and a moment later the hardlight was back.

“Woo! Good for you!” Uncia cheered, and the others applauded.

Barbaretta glanced down at herself. “This is new. It…doesn’t feel all that different from the body I came here with, this way. A little chunkier, I guess…”

“Congrats. You’re one of the first generation of RIDEs to be able to go humanoid without a human inside,” Rhianna said. “Until very recently, Fusing was the only way RIDEs could get thumbs. This led to…unforeseen consequences.”

Barbaretta snorted. “I’ll bet.” She took a few experimental steps, noting the way her footsteps fell heavier than before. “Funny, I’d have expected to go ‘clomp clomp clomp.’”

“It’s the hardlight. You’ve got real lion feet, or a reasonable facsimile thereof.”

“I don’t feel as clumsy as I’d have expected, either.” Barbaretta tried a crescent kick into an empty corner of the room. “This is amazing!”

Rochelle grinned. “The miracle of Qubitite.”

Barbaretta turned back to face them. “So what else can I do?”

“Well, you can turn into a bike, right? Just like Samantha could?” Teenette said. “What kind of bike?”

“Let’s find out. Let me see…” Barbaretta cocked her head, then a moment later her hardlight flickered out and metallic parts slowly unfolded into a rugged off-road skimmer design with four lifter pods on outriggers, a winch at the front, and a sizable cargo rack at the back.

“Not the fastest thing on the street, but a lot of power. Just what you might want on an unexplored planet.”

“Uh…huh.” Barbaretta’s voice came from a speaker on the instrument cluster. “Uh…how do I even move? I don’t have a frame of reference.”

“It may help if you think of yourself walking or running,” Kaylee suggested. “Not quite the same thing, but it’s a start. Gettin’ off the ground is kinda like standin’ up.”

“It might also help to have someone take you out for a drive,” Uncia added. “Having someone else control the throttle and steer lets you just feel what it’s like to move, then you figure out how to copy that.”

Madison grinned. “And as it happens, I gather we have someone here who’s put in a lot of time lately learning to drive a skimmer bike.” She gave Teenette a meaningful glance.

“Great! How about you help me test this new bod out, Teenette?”

“I’d love to!” Teenette said. “Uh…what, you just want me to climb on?”

“That’s genr’ly how it’s done,” Kaylee quipped. “Ah remember my first time out with Ryan.”

“I’ll never forget, either,” Rhianna added. “You two have fun. Just be careful, please.”

Teenette approached Barbaretta gingerly. “Funny…when you were talking about getting a RIDE shell, I never thought about how…awkward it would be, uh, ‘riding’ you.”

Barbaretta snorted. “Don’t read stuff into it that isn’t there. I’m a bike right now. Get on already!”

Teenette threw her leg over the seat, and put her feet on the footplates. She reached out to grip the handlebars experimentally. “This isn’t too far off from the ATV quads they have back home. So let’s see…” She revved the throttle, and the bike lifted off the ground.

“Oookay, I sure felt that!” Barbaretta said.

“Then you’ll feel this, too!” Teenette threw the bike into gear and moved forward. The garage door opened in front of them to allow them out.

“We’ll see you guys later!” Barb said cheerily. “Don’t wait up!”

Chapter 4

Barbaretta took stock as she trundled out the garage door. She was…a motorcycle. She had lifter pods, a chassis, handlebars, and even a passenger. It felt unfamiliar, but it also felt right. Her lifters didn’t feel quite like legs or feet, but they didn’t quite not either. She wasn’t moving them to walk, but she was pushing with them in a way that registered. Or at least, her body was doing it, at the behest of someone else on her back. But that felt right, too.

Perhaps the strangest thing was that it wasn’t so strange. In some of the twencen role-playing games that were part of the Scout library, anything that changed a person’s body away from human, like cybernetics or whatever, cost “sanity points” and going too far could drive you crazy. But Barb didn’t feel crazy. Maybe that was just part of the magic of qubitite.

“Hey, you all right in there?” Teenette asked. “This is weird. I mean, with Samantha, she was what she’d been all her life. But you…”

“I’m fine,” Barbaretta assured her. “Keep on doing what you’re doing. I’m working on building up kinesthetic memories so I know how to do it on my own.”

“Sure thing. This is nice. You’re not quite as responsive as the Scout skimmer I used back on Totalia, but I’ll bet you’re a lot better on rough terrain. Er…your body is, I mean. Uh, I mean…you know, there’s no way to put that that doesn’t sound weird.”

Barbaretta chuckled. “I know what you mean. So…how about we head for the nearest exit, and see how fast I can go outside the dome?”

“Can we do that? I mean, I thought it was halfway to boiling out there.”

“I should have a hardlight aeroshell that will keep the temperature regulated. See if you can find the switch.”

“Oh, right. It’s under the environmental controls, got it.” Teenette pressed a switch, and the breeze against her face died away.

“Great! I think I know how to do that on my own now. If you don’t mind, I’m going to try steering.”

“Go ahead, it’s your body.” Teenette lifted her hands from the handlebars, and Barbaretta reached out to take over. She couldn’t say exactly how she did it—there weren’t really any human words that fit. But she suddenly grasped how to steer herself just like a human might understand walking in a different direction.

“Got it! Whoa, hey, I’m driving myself!” She swerved from side to side, revving her lifters a little faster, rising higher into the slower traffic lanes over the buildings. All around her the skimmers and RIDEs were broadcasting signals giving her their ID, velocity, and position relative to herself.

“You good with that?”

“Yeah…yeah, I think I’m getting the hang of this.”

Barbaretta checked the navigation system for the nearest exit from the Dome, and took the next outbound lane. “The manual says I’m safe to drive around out in the Dry Ocean thanks to this shell. I have to say, no matter how nice this dome place is, I like the idea of being out in the open more.”

“I know what you mean,” Teenette said. “I always liked the nature trips back in my school days. There weren’t a lot of excuses to get outside the city otherwise.”

“I hope I can get some time off from holding hands and being debriefed to do some exploring out there,” Barbaretta said. “Some real exploring, being as it’s the closest thing I’m gonna get to the real scouting deal while we’re stuck here.”

“I remember you telling me about Torvalds,” Teenette said. “Biochemistry was right-handed. Nothing edible, but nothing that could infect you either.”

“That was where creatures tried to eat me, yes.” Barbaretta chuckled. “High oxy atmosphere, lower gravity. Animals grew big there, and they didn’t know I wasn’t edible. Six-legged thing the size of a bus and a mouth like a chainsaw chased me for thirty klicks before it gave up.”

“You’d give them even more indigestion now.”

“Yeah.” They passed through the permeable hardlight gateway out of the dome, entering a world of desert and bright sun. “Now let’s open ‘er up!” Barbaretta slowly cranked up the throttle, paying close attention to her balance. She’d ridden plenty of skimmer bikes before, but things felt a lot different when you were the bike.

They soon left the Domes behind them, racing out into the desert flats sending up a cloud of dust behind them. “Wow, this is great!” Teenette said. “I can’t believe how much smoother lifters are than wheels. We need to get this tech back home!”

“Lucky thing for you, it’s one of the easiest techs to get. You folks could almost make it now, if you knew what you were doing. I bet you’ll have it within months after they throw the bums out.”

“And won’t that just change…well, everything?” Teenette chuckled. “If everyone’s going to have flying cars, we’ll need a whole new air traffic control system.”

“You’ll need a lot of new stuff, that’s for sure,” Barbaretta said. “And I don’t think everything’s going to be hunky-dory even after they kick the Zealots out. Not everyone’s gonna be happy about all those changes. You might even end up with some of the people who fought the hardest to kick ‘em out starting to think maybe they were right after all.”

“I hope you’re wrong.” Teenette sighed. “But I don’t suppose you are. People are complicated, aren’t they?”

“Yeah.”

They cruised along in silence for a while, taking in the scenery. As Barbaretta got more used to the body’s internal systems, she switched over from optic view to infra-red, then laser ranging, then tried out a 360-degree sensor view for kicks. She wasn’t just seeing the desert, she was understanding it topographically and in three dimensions. What a trip. This would have been great for surveying in the field.

There was just one more thing to try…

“So…” Barbaretta said. “This Fusing thing…you wanna?”

“With all the stuff they said about it? Sharing each other’s memories and all? You sure you want to try that this soon?”

“The way I figure, that sort of thing isn’t going to get any easier if we wait, so if we want to do it at all, we might as well try it now as later. Besides, we know each other…and you saved my tail.”

Teenette smiled. “You didn’t have a tail when I saved you. But aren’t you worried about your private memories? Little things you’ve done and thought you wouldn’t want anyone else to know?”

“Are you?”

“Well…” Teenette blushed a little. “Maybe a leetle embarrassed about you learning a few things, like the way I hero-worship you. But…mostly, no. You know how to keep secrets, and I think I do too.”

“Then I’m not either. Hell, when would I even have had the chance to do anything embarrassing? I spend my life alone on alien planets…or, most recently, locked up in jail for four years.”

“Sorry about that.” Teenette shook her head. “Raph Clarke is such an idiot. I’m still embarrassed we almost have the same last name.”

“Eh, that’s all behind us now. I’m looking forward to seeing the look on his face when we go back and kick his booty. So anyway, how ‘bout it?”

Teenette shrugged. “Okay…why not?”

Barbaretta slowed to a halt, and reached within for the mode-change switch. The pre-Fuse diagnostics ran in milliseconds, her body tingled with primed nanites. “Here goes nothing.” Once again, she felt the peculiar sensation of her body dismantling and reassembling itself. This time, it was taking humanoid shape again…with another person inside. A moment later, her hardlight flickered back on.

And there she was…standing there with another person inside. And she was moving—moving her. It was as if her skeleton had separate muscles and a mind of its own. But she almost didn’t notice that, compared to the flood of memories and sensations flooding across the neural link her nanites had just forged to Teenette. She began seeing memories from the Totalian girl at the same time she was aware Teenette was examining her own.

It was a strange feeling. It could have felt intrusive, an invasion of privacy, except…they knew and trusted each other enough that it was more like sharing, watching a favorite movie together. In moments, they learned more about each other than they had in previous months.

:Yaaaa! You weren’t kidding about that huge, nasty thing!: Teenette said internally.

:And you weren’t kidding about the hero-worship. I’m blushing here.: Barbaretta sent an emoticon of a super-deformed blushing lioness face across the neural link, and Teenette giggled.

:Sometime I want to spend a few hours just looking at your scouting memories in depth,: Teenette sent. :But for now…: She switched to speaking aloud. “…let’s focus on the real world? I’ve got a catsuit on and I want to try her out!”

“I want to try me out, too. Now…how about boosting up to that rock formation?” Barbaretta pointed with a beclawed fingertip.

“Works for me!” Teenette said. “Up, up, and away we go!”

Separator k.png

They spent the next hour hovering over the desert, leaping from rock formation to rock formation, practicing martial-arts moves, and otherwise having fun together. The odd thing was that having a living human body inside felt different than simply being in shell mode. It just felt…right, somehow. Barbaretta wondered if it was the equivalent of an endorphin response, programmed in to make RIDEs happier about the idea of Fusing, or just a coincidence. Either way, she liked it. And from the sensations coming across their link, she got the feeling that Teenette did, too.

“I’ll have to bother the Quartermaster for some customized planetary survey gear,” Barbaretta said. “Can do a lot more with these sarium battery packs. Drill probes, atmospheric analyzers, biological assessments… There’s a lot of worlds out there just waiting for us.”

“Makes me wonder where all the aliens are,” Teenette said.

“You and everyone else since Carl Sagan.”

“I hate to say it, but we should probably think about heading back.”

“I suppose so.” Barbaretta glanced back toward the dome of Uplift, currently a small glinting spot on the horizon. “Y’know…given that we’re going to be doing most of the same stuff with most of the same people anyway, I was thinking, maybe I could just—I mean, we could, uh…”

“Partner up for the duration?” Teenette said. “Sure, why not. But what about the risks? ‘Integration’ and all that?”

“Well, it seems like the chance of that ever happening is very very small. From the research I’ve been doing in fast-time, looks like most people never Integrate, even after Fusing for years. There are some special cases and exceptions, but none of ‘em fits me.” Barbaretta shrugged for both of them. “Anyway, judging by Maddie, it’s not the end of the world if it happens anyway.”

“Yeah, I guess. I’m still amazed at that. The crazy things that happen…” Teenette shook her head. “Yeah, well, let’s get on back and show everyone how we threw our caution to the winds.”

“Works for me!” A little reluctantly, Barbaretta de-Fused back to skimmer form, and they headed back for the dome.

Separator k.png

“It sounds like this ‘nullifite’ you found on Barsoom is somehow related to our Totalium,” Darrek said to Madison.

“Except it’s an active absorber rather than a passive one,” Madison said, sipping some of Rochelle’s famous coffee. “Would’ve killed me if it wasn’t for ‘Mantha. The Scout metamaterials scientists are still testing it and the lifeforms that had it in their system. The organisms seemed to use it as a sort of substitute for chlorophyll and photosynthesis. Makes me wonder if there are electric fish in that ecosystem.”

Darrek scribbled more notes, then checked the time. “They’ve been out a while.”

“It’s always like that, the first time you’re with a RIDE,” Samantha put in. “Especially if…well, you know.”

“I know what?” Darrek said.

“Oh, they’re gonna Fuse,” Samantha said. “Teenette would’ve tried a Fuse with me back on Totalia if it weren’t that the tags would have been problematic. Ten to one Teenette’s got ears and a tail when they come back.”

Madison chuckled. “No bet. I may have spent most of my life not understanding why someone would want to just…up and Fuse right away, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know it when I see it.”

Kaylee rolled her eyes. “Kids these days.”

As if on cue, a distant skimmer sound grew louder, and a moment later a vaguely leonine off-road skimmer pulled in, with a lion-tagged Teenette on back. In addition to the ears and tail, her dark hair now had a few tawny streaks in it. “So, hi again,” Teenette said. “Yeah, she’s not a bad RIDE. I think I’ll take her.”

“You went ahead and did it, didn’t you,” Rhianna said. “Well, not really my place to judge, I guess. So how’d it feel?”

“Like nothing I’ve ever felt before,” Barbaretta said. “But I like it. I think I want to do more of it.”

“It was great!” Teenette said, eyes sparkling. “It was nothing like piloting that suit of transforming armor Joel gave me.”

“They’re not too bad for what they are, but yeah. Nothing like a Fuse,” Rhianna said. She patted Kaylee on her head, then Fused up with her. “Now, what’s your plans for the rest of the day?”

“We’ll be turning in before too long, as we have a tour of your fine polis scheduled for tomorrow,” Darrek said. “I suppose we should go ahead and return to the hotel.”

Teenette looked over her shoulder at her tufted tail. “I’m going to need some new clothes.”

Madison grinned. “Don’t look behind you, but it looks like you’ve picked up a tail.” Teenette laughed and made a slapping motion at her.

“Well, when in Rome,” Darrek said. “But as I told our new friends, one of us should remain…er….”

“Untainted by our technology?” Madison suggested.

“Perhaps a bit strong a phrase, but it’ll do,” Darrek said.

“Well, drop by any time while you’re in town!” Rochelle said. “And enjoy the polis. It’s a really great place to live.”

“I can believe it,” Teenette said. “I’ll bet it’s a great place to visit, too.”

Separator k.png

“I still can’t believe this place.” Raynor Stone, a brown-haired man in his early twenties, leaned back against the old hardlight dome generator and looked around the park again. The ice cream shop nearby was doing a brisk business, including the cone in his own hand.

“You’re about to drip on your new clothes, cuz,” Leda Stone, a slightly younger brunette girl next to him, pointed out. “Better lick that thing.”

Mumbling something about lines taken out of context, Raynor did so. “So, here we are on Zharus, and things are weird.”

“Tell me about it.” Leda worked on a cone of her own. “A whole planet of people who think nothing of plopping themselves into a sentient machines that can rebuild their whole body.”

Raynor groaned. “I know. Believe me, I know. Mom and Dad are all excited about it…not so much for themselves, but for me.

Leda giggled. “Seriously?”

“Yeah. They saw what Ryan did, and now they want a daughter too.”

“Hey, then I could get you to babysit Quincy some!” Leda said brightly. “Work on those mothering skills.”

Raynor facepalmed. “Don’t even joke about it. Really, I like me the way I am.”

“I think it’s kind of a neat idea.” Peter Bellamy, a blond-haired 17-year-old came over to join them, holding a malt glass with a straw. “If you want to be somebody different, you can. I could go into a body shop and come out looking like some twencen celeb dude. Sean Connery, Idris Elba—”

“Marilyn Monroe,” Leda suggested, arching one eyebrow at Raynor.

“Yeah, but you should be the one who wants it.” Raynor shook his head. “I get the uncomfortable feeling that Mom and Dad are going to bring some she-RIDE home one of these days and have her glomp me.”

“You know, you’re over the age of majority here,” Leda put in. “You could just move out.”

“I don’t feel over the age of majority,” Raynor said. “And I don’t think Mom and Dad feel like I am, either.”

“You could just do it and get it over with!” The boisterous voice belonged to Rhianna-nee-Ryan’s larger-than-life friend Rufia—who had been Rufus before arriving here, Raynor knew. “Three years is plenty of time for them to get it out of their system. Then you could change back later…if you still wanted to.”

Raynor shook his head. “Ugh.”

Leda grinned. “Aw, c’mon, cuz, I could help you out with it. It’ll be fun!”

“Fun for someone, maybe. But…I’ll think about it.”

Rufia chuckled. “Anyway, we’re going to meet up with a couple of even newbier newbs than you-all. This’ll be your first lesson by example in the tour guide biz.”

“I’m still not sure how we’re supposed to be tour guides when even we don’t know anything about this place yet,” Raynor said.

“Oh ye of little faith. You don’t know anything about tour guiding, either. So you might as well learn both at once. At least this way, you won’t make any of the classic newb mistakes, like renting the wrong sex of RIDE.”

Raynor cast a slantwise gaze in Rufia’s direction. “Unless, of course, you’ve been bribed to make sure I rent the wrong sex of RIDE.”

“I admit nothing!” Rufia said. “But you know, that’s not a bad idea…maybe I should give your folks a call. Vonnie, could you take a memo?”

The elk snorted as she stepped up behind Rufia. “Do I look like your secretary?”

“Well, it was worth a try.” Rufia clapped her hands together. “So, come on. I’ll introduce you to our new friends.”

Separator k.png

At the edge of the park, a man, a woman, and a lioness RIDE waited. Rufia quickly introduced them as Darrek Sigurdssen, Teenette Clark, and Barbaretta Hansom. Raynor thought it odd that a RIDE should have a last name, but if Rufia wasn’t making anything of it he supposed he wouldn’t either. “You’ve all got a few things in common, in that you’re all new to this planet.”

“Oh yeah? Where are you from?”

“Here and there,” Barbaretta said. “I’m originally from Zheng He, though I’ve traveled around a lot since.”

Leda cocked her head. “They have RIDEs on Zheng He?”

“I’m not actually a RIDE, I just look like one right now. The squishy body’s in the repair shop.”

Rufia grinned. “Oh, didn’t we mention? They figured out how to put people in RIDEs now. That’s going to cause a stir when more people know about it.”

“We’re from Zheng He, too,” Teenette said.

Raynor noticed they didn’t have remotely similar accents, but maybe there were different settlements on the colony. “Well, pleased to meet you.”

Darrek spoke up. “I gather you’re cousins of Rhianna Stonegate?”

“Who do you—oh, Rhianna, right.” Raynor shook his head. “Still so hard to get used to thinking of Ryan as that. Yeah, she’s pretty much the reason we’re all here. I think he came out here to get as far away from the rest of the family as he could…and then the joke was on him—her—when we all showed up anyway.”

“Of course, the joke is on us now, too,” Leda added. “Since now she’s the one who knows all about how this place works, and we’re the newbies having to learn a whole new planet and culture.”

Teenette grinned. “Which would be us, too.”

Barbaretta nodded. “So we’re all going to learn about it together.”

“I’ve rented a skimmer bus we can all go around in. There’s room for you too, Barb.” Rufia checked her watch. “Should be here…oh, there it is. I use these guys a lot; cheaper than owning my own. Though if business keeps getting better, who knows, I might bite the bullet.”

A small bus labeled “Uplift Charters” pulled up next to them. There was no one in the driver’s seat. Darrek raised an eyebrow. “You’ve got fully-automated traffic control here?”

Rufia grinned. “Handy, isn’t it? All aboard, everyone.”

And they don’t have traffic automation on Zheng He? Raynor wondered as they filed aboard.

Rufia stood at the front of the bus and grasped the microphone dangling from the ceiling on a cable—an obvious prop given that directional microphone technology could have amplified her voice with no obvious equipment necessary. But here on Zharus they went in for the whole twentieth-century verisimilitude thing. “Right, so! Welcome to Uplift. Jewel of the Dry Ocean. Academic capital of Gondwana. City in a Snow Globe. Yadda yadda yadda. You’ve already seen a little of it, but Vonnie and I are gonna show you some of the more fun parts. Buckle up for safety, everyone! Okay, m’dear elk, hit it.”

Yvonne was seated, legs folded underneath her, in an open area behind the vacant driver seat that also incorporated a RIDE charging hookup. “Hold onto your butts.” The bus lifted under her control, then moved forward.

“So what are we gonna see first?” Darrek asked. “The University? The generators that power the dome?”

“Racing tracks?” Teenette suggested. “RIDE factories?”

“I’d like to see the creches I heard about where they raise baby RIDEs,” Leda said.

“We’ll see all of those, I promise.” Rufia grinned. “But we’re going to see stuff that we pass right by, first. So up ahead is the main entrance to the Brubeck Mining corporate campus. We’ll be coming back to a side entrance of the place later to visit the RIDE museum, but it’s big enough to take up a good chunk of Uplift’s main dome right here. This is where the big fight took place a year or so back that ended Fritz the Integrate’s reign of terror…”

Separator k.png

Over Nextus

Zharus still has something akin to city-states, Darrek wrote. Although not until about a century ago, when the “polity” of Nextus was founded. Apparently said founders were extremely adept in finding loopholes in the Colonial Charter. The revised Charter, amended upon landing, contained a clause that restricted the supercontinent of Rodnia from being terraformed. The wording of the clause regards each supercontinent as a ‘self-contained world’. Somehow the Founders used that as their legal grounding for the creation of a politically independent Polity. That word is important in itself. See further details about the history of Nextus in Appendix D.

Beneath their airborne tour bus the city’s geometric precision was obvious. Concentric circles, tangent boulevards, turning into a grid of streets ten kilometers from the center. The landscape and parks were all verdant and green, and maintained with equal precision to the rest of the city.

“Is that building a klein bottle?” Teenette said, pointing at the half-kilometer-tall structure. “It’s gorgeous. Really stands out.”

“One of the more famous landmarks,” Rufia said. “Nextus Nano’s current HQ. My pal Shelley’s in and out of there a lot.”

“Reminds me of Totalia City a little,” Darrek said. “Totalism prefers a more angular geometry, though.”

“Pyramids, triangles, and combinations thereof,” Teenette said. “Still, after the ramshackle look Uplift has, it’s a nice change of pace. Our own architecture could use a few more curves.”

“I think you’ve got some great curves already!” Rufia said with a friendly leer.

Yvonne snorted. “Stop hitting on the clientele. I’m not covering your legal expenses if you get sued for sexual harassment.”

“Hey, can’t blame a gal for trying.”

The rather unimaginatively named Klein Building itself was an island of glass-clad curves in a sea of stark, un-ornamented concrete forms surrounding it. Darrek’s tablet called the dominant architectural style “Brutalist”. Totalian buildings might have had severe lines, but were often very artistically ornamented. His first impression of Nextus as they descended was that it looked rather cold and uninviting. “A nation of bureaucrats.”

“Aw, don’t judge ‘em too harshly just yet,” Rufia said. “Once you start peeling away their surface layers they get a lot more friendly.”

“You just have to find that way in first,” Yvonne added. “And that’s not always easy.”

“Oh, you’ll find quite a few exceptions,” Rufia said. “The Brubecks and the Steaders, for example. But the rank-and-file bureaucrats can be something else.”

“Interesting,” Darrek said. “And of course, RIDEs were invented here.”

“I was born here,” Yvonne said. “Literally born. Probably the one and only good thing to come out of Fritz’s antics. Not even Mama Patil and Doc Clemens knew RIs were capable of breeding in the Q-mainframe. A true happy accident…even if those dickish ‘crats did excise those memories from me. Only got them back once the Fritz crap was over with.”

“So, it was one of those wonderful, unforeseen happenstances,” Darrek said.

“Nobody knew Q-mainframes were quite that good, yeah,” Yvonne said. “Anyway…the hotel is just a hop and a skip away. Landing in five.”

Chapter 5

May 2, 158 AL

Nextus

Darrek stepped out of the hotel, glancing around to make sure he was alone. Teenette and Barbaretta were out somewhere exploring. They didn’t sleep in their room, half the time. Teenette was determined to make the most of the time she could spend exploring, and when she’d learned how simple it was to sleep in Fuse, she and Barbaretta no longer bothered to come back in the evening unless there was some pressing need to. They’d just find an out-of-the-way spot to Fuse-sleep, or Teenette would go to sleep while Barbaretta continued looking around and gave her the highlights when she woke up again.

Darrek had to admit, that kind of tempted him to partner up with a RIDE himself. They had so little time on the planet, and it was just a little irritating that Teenette was managing to make more efficient use of it than he. In part, that was what drove him to make this solitary expedition.

He wanted to look around some on his own, without a tour guide or other minder showing him around. It should be possible, especially since he’d withdrawn some cash mu so that the charge cards they’d been given wouldn’t tattle his location to whatever artificial intelligence was tasked with minding him. He couldn’t be certain there was such, of course, but given how quickly Rufia and Yvonne had shown up the last few times he’d charged something on his own, it seemed a reasonable surmise.

His destination this time was the rental skimmer stand at the corner. He’d taken them out before, on auto-pilot…and, again, his minders had shown up before too long. Even when he’d politely excused himself, he had the feeling they were hovering just out of his sight, watching him all the same. In a sense, Darrek couldn’t blame them—if something happened to him, it might well trigger an interplanetary incident—but nonetheless, it was hard to do any kind of real research with someone looking over your shoulder, even if you couldn’t actually see them.

But Darrek had read the rental manual, and it turned out there was a manual mode for “skilled drivers.” From the little he’d been able to try them on his own, Darrek was pretty sure the controls were close enough to motorcycles back home that he could get by.

Darrek dropped some mu into the coin slot, including an extra tithe to cover insurance since he wasn’t using a charge account, and the stand dispensed his skimmer—a fairly large bike with angled grips and anti-gravity pontoons along the sides. He straddled it and examined the instrument panel. Autopilot was easy enough to switch off. And there was also something marked “Transponder Beacon.” Darrek didn’t like the sound of that—the whole purpose of this trip was to get away without being tracked—so he turned that one off, too.

Thus prepared, Darrek started the bike and headed for the gateway out of town. There were several sites just outside of Nextus he wanted to get a better look at. The so-called “Recreation Park,” named with the literal-mindedness that was such a part of the city-state’s character, looked like a nice place for a picnic lunch after visiting the Terraforming Museum. The museum was built inside of one of the Neumonformers that had done the job before the original colonists landed—an irresistible must-see for him, but he wanted some time on his own for once. They would be sending their first report back to Totalia in a few days, covering everything that had happened since they’d arrived, and he wanted just a little something more to put in it.

By the time he got to the city gate, he’d figured out how to activate the hardlight environmental bubble, which was good—it was a little too warm outside to be comfortable right now.

He pulled onto the surface road and opened the throttle up some. He could have flown higher, of course, but he was barely comfortable driving in two dimensions; he didn’t want to risk three yet. And there wasn’t much surface traffic, so it would be safer that way, too.

The trip seemed to be going well. He’d zipped along for a good fifteen minutes, and was just starting to loosen up and enjoy himself, when disaster struck. He was approaching the crest of a rise when, without warning, a sleek wheeled vehicle appeared over the crest of the ridge…directly in front of him.

With a screech, the vehicle skidded out, fishtailing across the road. It almost but didn’t quite manage to miss the tip of the skimmer’s right anti-gravity pontoon, and before Darrek quite knew what was happening, the skimmer was tumbling through the air. His body froze in place, locked tight by the emergency damper system, and the hardlight environmental dome solidified into a dark grey sphere around him.

The bike must have bounced several times, but the dampers were so effective Darrek didn’t feel any shocks or impacts. Once it came to a rest the grey sphere flickered out, revealing the bike sitting upright about twenty meters from the surface road. Then the dampers released, and Darrek slumped against the instrument panel.

The ground car was roughly the same distance on the other side of the road, sand and dust fountaining from its rear tires as it pulled back up to the road. It was like nothing Darrek had seen on Zharus so far, a compact coupe with four large wheels at the corners and not a vertical surface. It was white, with pink light tubes ran along the body lines between panels. The segmented hubless wheels were attached to the rest of the vehicle just on the top quarter, with more pink lines resembling a tire tread. The sleek two-seater was designed with one thing in mind: speed.

The canopy slid back and a woman climbed out. She had a mix of Asiatic, European, and African features that was common on colonial worlds with highly-mixed populations like Zharus, with black hair and almost glowing green eyes. She wore a jumpsuit matching the color scheme of her car, with a company logo on the breast pocket. The woman stalked forward, anger evident in her posture. “What in the frack do you think you’re doing? Driving in the wrong lane, with no transponder—you could have been killed!”

“You…don’t drive in the left lane here?” Darrek managed weakly.

“No one drives in the left lane on this entire planet!” the woman said. “Where are you from?

“Uh…Zheng He…sorry. Force of habit…should have brushed up on local traffic laws…”

The woman tilted her head. “That’s not a Zheng He accent. And they don’t drive in the left lane there, either.” She considered. “In fact, your accent corresponds to no accent in Uplift University’s linguistics database by any closer than 68%.” She frowned, anger abating to thoughtfulness. “That still doesn’t explain why you switched off the traffic transponder.”

Darrek facepalmed. “Traffic transponder…oh. I, uh, thought it was something else.”

“Why would you think that? Have you never heard of a traffic transponder? But that wouldn’t make any sense…automated traffic control is universal.” She shook her head. “Anyway, it looks like your bike is out of commission.” She nodded to the right pontoon, which was now missing its front half. “There’s no reason you should need to wait for a tow; the rental company can take care of that. Why don’t I give you a lift back to Nextus? We can talk on the way.”

“Uh…all right. I guess I might as well, miss—”

The woman smiled. “Arca.”

“Pleased to meet you, Arca. I’m Doctor Darrek Sigurdssen.” He offered his hand, and she took it, then steadied him by it as he stepped down from the bike.

“Hello, Doctor Darrek!” Arca said. “Come on; we’ll call the accident in on the way back.”

“Aren’t we supposed to wait for the police?”

“I’ve got enough points in the Game that I can pull some favors and bypass that. You might get a ticket, though.”

Darrek shrugged. “I’ll risk it, I guess.” He followed her to the car, passing through a quick blast of heat as he passed out of the skimmer cycle’s environment bubble and then into the car’s. He climbed into the bucket seat next to Arca’s, and she slid the canopy shut and pulled back onto the road.

As they picked up speed, Darrek had time to replay the conversation, especially the part about Uplift University’s language database. “Excuse me if this is too much of a personal question, but…are you a RIDE?”

Arca shot him a wide-eyed glance, and laughed. “I’m your ride back to Nextus, let’s put it that way.”

“I have a…friend who was scanned into an RI core, then put into a human shell for a while,” Darrek said. “After how quickly you accessed network databases, I was just…wondering.”

“Oh, was I thinking out loud again? I really should stop that.” Arca smiled. “No, I’m not a RIDE. I tried being one, a couple of times, and it was fun for a while, but it didn’t work out. You’re close, though. I’m actually an EI, not an RI.”

“Oh, like ‘Polestar’ who oversees the Aloha Elevator?”

Exactly like him!” Arca said. “Except that he lives in a giant soda straw, while I prefer having arms and legs. And wheels.” She emphasized the latter by stepping down harder on the accelerator. Darrek was pressed back into his seat as the landscape seemed to blur.

“Er…should you really be going this fast?”

“Why not? We have automated traffic control, so I would be informed if there were an obstacle ahead.” Arca paused. “Well, present company excepted, of course. But what are the odds of that happening twice in one trip?”

Separator k.png

By the time they got back to Nextus, Darrek thought he’d earned at least four or five more grey hairs. Arca seemed to drive with wild abandon…except that wasn’t quite right, he realized. She drove like someone who had an absolutely insane reaction time, capable of responding to hazards before an ordinary person could even notice them. He supposed he shouldn’t really complain, given that same reaction time had probably prevented him from ending up a smear on the asphalt. Still, it was unnerving, to say the least.

“So, hungry?” Arca said as they almost flew over the plascrete roadway without lifters. “Of course you’re hungry. There’s a BB’s Burgers…”

The car took a hard left turn that only modern inertial damping and lifter bursts could make possible, a full ninety degrees in only a few meters into the parking lot of a restaurant. It had a comfortingly familiar look of a fast food place. She came to an equally quick stop next to a menu board.

The overly cheerful tone of voice was familiar, too. “Welcome to Burnside Bill’s Burgers, what can we rustle up for you today?” a young woman said.

“I’ll have an Uber BBQ burger…make that a number six combo, with curly fries and a chocolate shake. And what do you want, Doctor Darrek?” Arca smiled at him.

“Uh…” Darrek stammered, “Same, I guess. Uh…”

“Payment received. Pull up to the front window,” the clerk said. “Thanks for coming to Burnside Bill’s!”

“You…eat?” Darrek said.

“One of the many pleasures of the simulated flesh,” Arca said. She took the bags that were handed to her and unceremoniously handed them to Darrek, followed by the milkshakes. “Here.”

Darrek looked around for somewhere to put them. “Where are the cupholders?”

“We’ll chow down at the Policia parking lot, so no cupholders needed.”

“Well, you’d better take it easy getting us there unless you want this cockpit redecorated by milkshake.”

Arca laughed. “Oh, don’t worry. I’m very serious about my milkshakes.”

The food smelled…just like any other fast food from home, Darrek thought. Was it fabbed? It was hard to tell on this planet, where alongside fabbed food they raised real cattle, farmed real wheat, and caught real fish. Not that Darrek would have eaten the fish. He had a distaste for seafood in general.

After a surprisingly sedate drive, Arca pulled off the street into a visitor’s parking lot in front of a local police station. She reached into the bag and handed Darrek a burger.

“Is there a tray or…oh.” A hardlight food tray materialized over his lap. He handed her one of the milkshakes after the steering wheel retracted into the dashboard and another tray appeared in front of her. “Very useful technology, hardlight.”

Arca raised an eyebrow. “One would think you’d never seen it until recently.”

“I was taught never to take technology for granted while young,” Darrek said. It was very much truth. “We’re eating our meals on plates of simulated matter. And you, uh…do you…”

“This is a modified HUM body replacement frame,” Arca explained. “I get energy from eating, just like you. But it’s not really stock. I have lifters, bigger batteries, and a few other surprises. Just because I like living like a human doesn’t mean I have to go all the way.” She patted the car’s dashboard. “And then there’s this baby. I’m still tweaking the design.

“But, food’s getting cold. Let’s eat.”

The meal felt astonishingly familiar, perhaps the first one that really did since leaving Totalia. It was just standard fare, nothing special. He itched to make some notes on his tablet for the report, but had to settle on a mental note instead.

Here I am, having the most humdrum meal I’ve had in months…and I’m sitting next to another example of…a person. I can’t really call her ‘technology’ per se. No more than I’m just ‘biology’. She’s gorgeous… Well, maybe he wouldn’t put that bit in the report. But he had to admit, she was very attractive.

“So, you’re from Zheng He, huh?” Arca said between bites. The inside of the car smelled like charred meat and BBQ sauce. “If you’re from Zheng He, I’m a toaster.”

“I don’t suppose you’d be willing to believe it was an isolated small town on the outskirts of Zheng He’s settled area?” Darrek suggested.

Arca shook her head. “Nuh-uh.” She paused and growled. “Stupid Game rules. Excuse me a moment, I need to go file at a hard point to use the shortcuts I’m trying to use.”

“Maybe I should just turn myself in-” Darrek started to say.

“Nah, it’s no big deal.” She climbed out of the car and leaned in through the window. “Won’t be a minute. Stay put.”

Note about the Nextus “Game”, Darrek wrote on his tablet once she was out of sight. The people here have made bureaucracy into an artform. Loopholes are built into the system. All Nextus citizens get access to the tools needed to find them and earn ‘challenge tokens’ that make the process even smoother. Wealth is generally not a factor, or so I understand.

This kind of mindset, though, has some negative consequences. It makes the culture highly resistant to change…

“A physical pad? Cool. Don’t see many people using those.”

Darrek dropped the tablet in mid thought and looked out the window. Arca waved at him then climbed back in. “Most just use a personal diary app on their implants.”

“I don’t have any implants. Personal reasons,” he said.

She picked up the tablet and handed it back to him. “Curiouser and curiouser. No implants, no hardlight, wrong side of the road. Were you just defrosted or something?”

“Or something,” he said. “So what do you do exactly,” Darrek asked, trying to pull the woman’s attention from his own weak backstory.

She winked at him, acknowledging the deflection, but rolling with it. “Me? I’m a racer. I’m between races at the moment; just finished an Uplift to Nextus Rally along the Old Skimmerway.”

“So racing is common here?”

“It’s a world with lots of empty space and lots of fast cars. Racing comes with the territory.”

Darrek nodded, and picked up his notepad. “Would you mind if I recorded? It’s for uhm… It’s for my class back home. Most of them will never leave the planet, so it’s a chance to show them.”

“Go ahead. What do you want to know?”

He nodded and set his notepad to record. “Well, let’s start with the races, what are they like? Do you split RIDEs and human and Integrate drivers or something?”

“Some Cups split like that, but not the ones I run in. Mixed races are just so much more fun.”

“But surely the humans are outclassed? Or do the implants help?”

She laughed and shook her head. “Surprisingly, the humans are often the best racers. Their instincts tend to be better. Intelligences, we have huge processing power, but we’re not quite as good at the leaps of intuition like you guys can do. Makes the races fun when the human driver zags when everyone zigs; confuses the hell out of everyone.”

“I’d think your cars would at least be able to perform better, if you didn’t have flesh and blood humans in them to worry about keeping safe…”

“You’d think that, but the safety features are mandatory and universal. After all, we could be carrying human passengers at any time, and you can’t just disable them because you might forget to turn them back on.” She shrugged. “Anyway, the handicap makes it more challenging, which makes it more fun.”

“So have you been racing a long time?”

“Since I was a sprout. I raced all the time on the Grid; that’s the virtual space EIs inhabit. But racing in the Real is much more fun. The danger is so much more, well real. Crash in the Grid, and you rez back in. Crash in the Real, and you’re probably out for the race, if not a few days. You might actually die.”

Darrek first thought was that she had a deathwish, but he stamped that thought out and came up with a tactfully better term. “Sounds like you’re quite the thrill seeker then.”

“I suppose I am.” She paused and smiled. “Aaand they’re done…. You’re all cleared up. You’ll be receiving a bill for driving without a transponder and littering. Now, how would you like to go to a rally?”

He was struck speechless for a moment. “What? A race? Uhm…”

She laughed hard, “No silly, a RIDE Rights Rally.” She started the car and pulled out of the lot. “I’ll register you as a NeoRus observer.”

“Sure- wait, NeoRus? I’m from uhm… Zheng-”

“If you’re from there, I’m from Earth… You aren’t from Earth are you?”

“No, I am from Zheng He!” he protested.

“Don’t make me use that joke a third time. It’s already getting old. Besides, I checked the records. You supposedly came in on the Shanghai Queen, coming from Ibn-Rushd, but it did stop at Zheng He before that. The problem is you weren’t on their manifest on that leg.”

“Well, I-”

She waved him into silence. “Don’t bother. The most damning thing, is the Alohavator records. They show you coming down six hours before the Shanghai Queen entered Zharus orbit.”

“Uhm…” Darrek was at a loss for how to explain it.

She laughed again and stuffed some fries into his mouth. “Finish eating, we’re almost there. I don’t care where you’re from… well I care, but only enough to try and puzzle it out myself. In any case, you’ll be at the rally as an observer from Zheng He. It means you’ll only have about ten pages of a survey to fill out afterwards.”

He chewed and swallowed. “A survey?”

“You’re getting off easy. I’ll be there as a participant. They’ll have hundreds of pages for me to fill out after, to see if I met my goals for the rally and if it served the ultimate goal and all that. It’s a Nextus thing.”

She pulled into a parking spot on the street and climbed out. “We’ll walk to the Square from here. What’s your story anyway? I was chatting with Polecat to find out when you arrived. He got all panicked and cagey. And then I showed him your picture and he got extra twitchy.”

Darrek groaned. “You didn’t tell him where we are, did you?”

“No, but I’m not exactly hard to find. I did register you for this rally after all. Why? You’re not a fugitive from justice, are you?”

“No, just a fugitive from babysitters.” Darrek sighed. “Not that I really mind, I suppose, but I kind of like looking around on my own.”

“Given that you nearly got creamed looking around on your own, and now you’re getting involved with local politics, it’s possible you might need a minder more than you want to admit.”

“Says the one involving me in local politics?”

Arca grinned. “Hey, I never claimed to be a paragon.”

They joined the stream of people walking on the sidewalk. He noted that everyone seemed to be going in the same direction, probably for the same rally. The vehicle traffic changed as they got closer, becoming primarily RIDEs in vehicle mode.

“So this is a RIDE Rights Rally? I thought all that was sorted out?” he asked.

“Not quite. Nextus was one of the first ones to acknowledge us, but they’ve been lagging on getting things finalized. We’re here. Administration Square. That’s their main legislative building over there.”

Darrek had to stop and step out of traffic, a little overwhelmed by it. The Square was four blocks big, and packed with vehicles and people. He tried to estimate how many were there, only to realize he wasn’t counting the RIDEs. “This… This is a lot of people.”

“Yup, and we’re just in time. They’re starting now.”

A stage was set up at the base of the stairs leading up to the legislature. On it were a dozen people, six RIDEs, three Inties and three humans. A Canine RIDE was muzzled and ‘tied’ to a pole on too short of a leash. A horse RIDE was similarly tied up at the opposite end.

A lion RIDE walked to the front and the crowd cheered. “Thanks for coming everyone,” his voice boomed over the crowd. “Now let’s show the Administration what we want!”

Signs popped up around the crowd, some hardlight, most of them real. A lot of people, RIDE, fused, and human alike were dressed up in bondage gear of various types. They roared and cheered on the leaders on the stage.

“What do we want?!” the lion shouted.

Freedom!”

“When do we want it?!”

NOW!

Separator k.png

Darrek held his tablet aloft, recording the sights and sounds around him. The mood was very similar to the Open Totalia movement that predated the coup, even if the cast was somewhat different. It was much more like the civil rights marches of the mid-20th and late 22nd centuries. The atmosphere was both tense and hopeful. Policia in towering, ancient IDEs kept watch on the perimeter. While they were officially neutral, he did catch the occasional pilot fist pumping with the crowd when the pilot thought no one was looking.

He closed his notepad and looked around. “Arca?” he asked, not seeing his new friend. She was no where in sight. He felt a moment of panic, being alone in the mass of people. The crowd itself wasn’t bad, comparable to the ones in Aloha. Unlike Aloha however, this crowd was riled up. He knew it would only take one spark to turn it into a riot.

“Arca?!” he called again, stepping up on a railing to try and search better.

A hand grabbed the back of his shirt and pulled him off. He yelped and found Arca behind him. “You’re going to get another fine if you keep doing that,” she said.

“Well, I couldn’t find you, and I was worried….”

“Sorry, I spotted some friends and wanted to chat. You were busy with your diary, and I figured I’d be back in time. So what do you think of all this?”

“Impressive,” was all he could come up with.

She laughed and raised her arms, roaring with the crowd again with another cheer.

“Will this make a difference?” he asked when things quieted down for another speech.

“Yes and no. The legislation’s already in the works, it just takes its time to get through the Nextus red tape. But it is good to show them we want it. Rallies like this are a tradition around here. Uh oh…”

“What? What is it?” Darrek looked around, not seeing anything in the mass of people.

She pointed behind them, “They don’t seem to be here for the protest,” she said. Rufia and Yvonne were weaving determinedly through the crowd in their direction.

Darrek sighed, “Yeah, probably not. They’re here for me.” He held out his hand to her. “It was good meeting you, Arca. Even if our introduction was a bit accidental.”

She shook his hand, but didn’t let go. “Oh no, you’re too sweet a mystery. I’m not letting you go that easily.”

“You sure? It might get you in trouble.”

Arca shrugged. “I’m probably already in trouble, so I might as well find out what I’m in trouble for. Besides, I’m in trouble almost all the time. It’s not exactly a new state of being.”

The elk RIDE and her human—as they got closer, Darrek could see Rufia was wearing a collar around her neck with a rope leading to a similar one around Yvonne’s—finally made their way up to Arca and Darrek. Rufia grinned at them. “Been out making new friends, huh? Y’know, if you wanted some private time, you coulda just said. I’d have been happy to show ya how to run the skimmer bikes without causing traffic accidents.”

Darrek blushed. “Does everyone know about that by now?”

“Everyone who matters,” Rufia said cheerfully. “Don’t worry, you’re not going to get a spanking over it.”

“Though we probably are,” Yvonne said gloomily.

“Nah. We’re palsy-walsy with the bosses,” Rufia said airily. “At worst we’re in for a slap on the wrist.” She turned her attention to Arca. “Thanks for taking care of our poor lost sheep, by the way.”

“Least I could do,” Arca said. “Maybe we should go somewhere a little quieter to chat?”

“You got somewhere in mind?”

“What about Recreation Park?” Arca suggested. “Should be pretty empty, this time of day, especially with the rally over here.”

Darrek raised an eyebrow. “I still wonder who named the place. It’s so…literal.”

Yvonne snorted. “Some b-crat from Nextus, who else? Anyway, sounds like just the spot. Let’s go.” She led the way out of the crowd, toward the footbridge over the Blue River to the park.

Along the way, the hardlight collars and rope vanished. Rufia rubbed her neck where it had been. “That thing doesn’t have to chafe, you know.”

“But it does! As we RIDEs have long chafed under the yoke of human oppression!” Yvonne said dramatically, nose in the air. Arca applauded.

“You got there pretty quickly,” Darrek said. “Isn’t the hotel halfway across town?”

“We were in the area anyway,” Rufia said. “We like to show the colors at these rallies when we can. Thumb it in their noses that Yvonne’s just about as liberated as a RIDE can be, given that she supposedly ‘owns’ me and all.”

“That’s fine; I grant you permission to use ‘supposedly’ and those finger quotes,” Yvonne said magnanimously. “It doesn’t change the actual facts of the matter, that you lost your freedom to me in a card game.”

“Which you engineered,” Rufia pointed out.

“True, but I didn’t cheat! I won fair and square, and you could have stopped playing at any time.”

“But then the free beer would have dried up.”

“I rest my case,” Yvonne said primly.

Darrek tried to suppress a laugh and failed. “Oh Lord, you two.”

“This their usual banter?” Arca said, eyebrow raised.

“Very much so,” Darrek said. “And I’ve only known them for a few days. Hm. Where are Teenette and Barbaretta?”

“Touring the War and IDE Museum with Raynor and the rest of Rhianna’s cousins,” Rufia said.

Darrek felt some pity for that young man, and the way his parents (all of whom were extended family of Rhianna Stonegate) were pressuring him to become a young woman. Darrek had yet to ask Raynor if it was okay if he recorded his thoughts on the idea for a supplemental part of the Report to the Totaliment they planned on sending via torpedo in a few weeks. Darrek was trying to be as comprehensive as he could, and the ‘crossriding’ social phenomenon was something that really needed a fuller explanation to the unprepared.

“So…” Arca said, sitting primly on a picnic table bench. “Does someone want to fill me in on just what’s going on here? I keep running into interesting little walls when I search on anything related to you. Which…really isn’t a good way to make me less curious.”

“Uh…” Yvonne said. “I guess saying that it’s complicated wouldn’t be enough to satisfy you.”

“If it was me, the damned opposite,” Rufia added.

“I’ll just keep bugging Polestar until he gives,” Arca said. “He’s my seed-brother and I know his quirks. I’ll find out eventually. I’d rather hear it from you. Y’all piqued my curiosity.”

“You know, Rufia, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have an…ah, how to put this?” Darrek pondered a tactful way to say it. “Another example of the diversity of your wonderful planet on our team.”

Rufia rolled her eyes. “What’re you asking me for? You’re the bigshot ambassador. Tell the world if you want to. We’ll just have to deal with the fallout is all.”

Darrek grinned. “All right, if you want to put it that way, I guess it is up to me.”

“Ambassador? You’re an Ambassador? Why didn’t you say anything before? That would have smoothed things out a lot. We probably wouldn’t have even needed to go inside.”

“No, it wouldn’t have. Trust me on that,” Darrek said.

Arca crossed her arms. “So? Spill already!”

“You might have guessed already, I’m not actually from Zheng He.”

Arca snorted. “No, really?”

“In fact, I’m not from any of the established colonies. I’m from what you people call a ‘wildcat settlement.’ It all began a couple of hundred years ago…”

The female EI put her hand up. “Okay, whoa. I think I’ve heard enough, especially out in the open in the park. You can tell me more later, somewhere more private, ‘cause I’m going to be around for a while. I want in on this—whatever it is, ‘ambassador.’ Is that an official title?”

“About as official as it gets. Yvonne, you can give her an informational packet in fast-time, if you wish.”

“I think this is something worth learning about in the Real,” Arca said. “From the Ambassador’s mouth. You know, you should’ve mentioned you were an ambassador; diplomatic immunity would have simplified a lot of things.”

“I’ll keep that in mind for next time. How about dinner tonight? Chez Pierre?”

Arca grinned. “Are you asking me out?”

“Er, well, I…” Darrek paused. After all, why shouldn’t he ask her out? “Uh, yes?”

“Riiiight answer!” Yvonne said approvingly.

“I accept, Dr. Darrek,” Arca said with aplomb. “I shall see you there. For now…care for a lift back to your hotel?”

Yvonne looked over at the sleek, white-and-pink shape of Arca’s skimmer. “You drive that?”

“Hey, I know that skimmer,” Rufia said. “You’ve won the N-U Rally three times in five years.”

“That’s me,” Arca declared proudly.

“I’ll be going back with her,” Darrek said. Sometimes a man needs a few more gray hairs. Though how I’m going to explain this to Teenette…

Chapter 6

June 3, 158 AL

Turbinia, Zharus Orbit

“Well done, Cadet Sinewave. Your first launch went off without major incident,” Scout Marcus Trenton said. There had been a few minor hiccups, but nothing abnormal. This was just to be a test run to Xolotlan and back, a trip for a Zharus week at most. The Turbinia needed a shakedown after her hurried refit.

“Thank you, sir,” the female EI replied from the new pilot’s seat. The seat itself wasn’t strictly necessary, but Sinewave wanted to do her first launch manually in her gynoid shell. “Now, if you don’t mind, sir, I’ll install myself in the ship proper.”

“Granted. Carry on.”

Among the new equipment installed during the Turbinia’s lengthy refit was an alcove at the back of the Bridge. Sinewave stepped inside and was enclosed in a support structure, then her core was interfaced directly with the ship via a plug on the top of her head. A holotar of her head rezzed over the console. “Interface complete, sir.”

“And I’m going to get to land her, right?” Monday said irritably. The blue unicorn snorted. Even in shell mode he barely fit on the Bridge. That was a problem in itself. That he refused to move to a smaller shell was another problem, but not enough to disqualify him in itself. He had an alcove like Sinewave’s in the Garage to hook up to the ship.

Marcus’s own equine ears twitched in irritation. In the new training and deployment plans all three Scouts had to be pilot-rated. Monday had skill-chipped the piloting skills and passed the tests like Sinewave had. But his problems were not related to his piloting skills. Marcus couldn’t for the life of him figure out how Monday had been assigned to him. Was it possible to “cheat” on a personality test? Even the initial Fuse had been okay, if brief; just enough to get the tags, really. No, I don’t like this one bit. If he’s getting on my nerves this badly in Zharus space, what would it be like after years in the field?

“Cadet Monday,” Marcus said, trying to frame his thoughts. He rubbed the stubby horn on his forehead. “Do you really think that is a proper attitude towards a superior officer? Whom you’ve only known a matter of days?”

“But…” the unicorn said. “Here I thought we were like the Marshals. We didn’t stand on military org too much there.”

Marcus facepalmed. “At this point in your career, Cadet, do you think you can afford to make that assumption?”

The unicorn said nothing, just folding his ears back.

“Sinewave, please contact HQ and inform them we are returning to base immediately,” Marcus said. “Please execute the landing yourself. Orbital drop protocol.”

“Yessir!” the EI’s holotar said, snapping a salute. “ETA sixty-two minutes until dirtside.”

Outside the viewport, Zharus spun around as Sinewave reoriented the Turbinia for a retrograde burn. Marcus had ordered her to get them on the ground as fast as she could, and was confident Sinewave was up to the task.

“Uh, sir…did I just wash out of the Scouts?” Monday asked.

“Not my decision, Cadet, but I doubt it. I think in your eagerness to get into space, you might have been a little…enthusiastic to get a match.” Marcus had to smile. “We have us all kinds in the Scouts. Might be you’ll find someone who prefers a more…energetic companion.”

Separator k.png

Scout HQ

“You know, I think Monday might work best with Charra,” Madison said. She leaned back in the office chair. Her shapeshifting practice had been coming along nicely, and she was wearing her fully-human form today. “Assuming she’s willing to crossride.”

“Can’t hurt to ask,” Joel said. “But she’s not the type. We’ll have to put Monday on notice for when we expand the program.”

“You know, we might be going about this all wrong,” Madison said. “We’re focusing on finding RIDEs for graduated Scouts, but maybe we should add a branch of the program for the academy. Give the students time to find a RIDE they can work with before it’s off to the wild black yonder on a test run.”

Joel cocked his head. “That…might work. It would give the RIDEs time to get used to working with the Scouts, too. They could be students themselves.” He chuckled. “From Marcus’s report, it sounds like Monday could use a few semesters of polish. I’ll pass that thought on to Commander Lee.”

“Of course, I knew that Maddie and I would be a great match from the get-go,” Samantha said. “What about you, Zach?”

“Was more like, ‘hey, I need a RIDE, and you’re it,’” the ferret AI said.

“I got a job with Walton Q about fifteen years ago, so I needed one,” Joel said. “Out on one of their back-of-beyond rigs. We grew on one another, but I was pretty indifferent on the whole thing at first. Then Zach showed me some Mystery Science Theater 3000.”

Madison smoothed her hair back. “Who else have we got for Marcus, then?”

Joel considered the list of candidates. “How about Gatsby, the griffin?”

“They’ve got the tags minimized down to wings, ears, and tail,” Samantha said. “No beak, unless he really wants one.”

Madison shrugged. “Worth a shot.”

“All right. I’ll let ‘em know.” Joel grinned wryly. “Hopefully this one works out better. It’s tricky finding just the right people to team up with we lone-wolf Scouts.”

Madison grinned. “We’ll get it right sooner or later, you’ll see. Now, back to the grindstone. We still have a dozen matches to make.”

Separator k.png

September 1, 158 AL
Zharustead

The Governor’s Mansion was set up on a bluff that overlooked the Great Laurasian Bight. Its Grand Ballroom could, and often did, hold parties for hundreds of people as Zharus’s political elite hobnobbed with interstellar stars.

On this night, the gathering barely broke a hundred people. A hundred people who were the top representatives of all of humanity’s colonies on Zharus. Divider walls had been set up in the ballroom to keep them from rattling too much in the space.

The Totalian party stood in one of the walled off areas, waiting for their cue to enter. A screen showed the main ballroom as each colony’s ambassador arrived and were introduced to the room.

“For official gatherings like this, the Ambassadors are usually introduced in order of founding date, starting with Earth. Which means you would normally enter before Wednesday. But since this is your grand introduction, you get the final spot, after the Governor enters as Zharus’s representative,” a political aide explained. He was assigned to them to help prepare them for interacting on the Ambassadorial scene.

“But Zharus was colonized before Wednesday, right?” Teenette asked.

“The host always enters last. That’s the NeoRus group just entering now.”

“How many know what’s really going on?” Barbaretta asked.

Zane shrugged and tugged at his suit jacket. “You’ve met some of them already, or met their representatives. The rest probably suspect some or most of it; The Ambassador offices have more leaks than an onion farm. Still, this will be official confirmation, and Totalia’s introduction on the extraplanetary stage.”

“I just hope this isn’t too much; that I’m not overstepping our bounds.” Darrek gripped Arca’s hand for support.

Teenette shook her head. “We have to get this done. After that report we got from the Clementine last month, it’s more important than ever that we line up alliances wherever possible. If they could hurt the Kybalion that badly, who knows what else they might do in the meantime?”

Madison nodded. “Anyway, we’ve been careful. After tonight they’ll know Totalia exists, but they won’t know where it is. Other than the Scouts who actually went out there and us, the only other people who know Totalia’s location are out at Cerberus. We made sure to lock down the Scout records here. They won’t even know which scouts were there unless we tell them.”

“Oh, yeah, like you and I are about to tell them?” Barbaretta smirked.

Madison grinned, “Coincidentally, we’re the two scouts that can most easily forget where Totalia is as well.”

“Representing the Zharus Planetary Assembly, Governor Shandar,” the aide announced.

“You will be next, once he greets everyone,” Zane said.

Arca nudged Darrek and pointed to the raven haired gynoid walking in next to the governor. “That’s Regina. She’s a cousin of mine, and his biographer and bodyguard.”

On the screen, the Governor cleared his throat and waited for the room noise to die down. The screen split apart, showing a view of each ambassador, along with a few larger views of the room.

“Greetings everyone, thank you for coming, especially on such short notice. I assure you, the reason for this assembly, and the secrecy around it, is well worth it.”

“Is it me, or does the Earth Ambassador look bored?” Rhianna asked as the Governor droned on with his introduction.

“She probably is. She’s all but gone native; Califia native. She’d rather be out on the waves in the bight than in here. It’s her chief aide you need to watch; that one’s the power behind the throne,” Zane said

“Well aren’t you all politic-smart now,” she said, hugging the tiger Integrate.

He sighed and snuggled back, “Not willingly. I downloaded a thorough briefing before we came in, mainly from the Steader records. Look there, at the Centauri ambassadors. Both of them are looking confused. Maybe their spy networks aren’t up to snuff, or their allies aren’t in a sharing mood.

“On the other paw, the Ferengi are practically drooling. Too bad we won’t be saying as much as they want. Watch your tongue, and your wallet around them.”

“Who are the Ferengi?” Darrek asked, looking across the screens to try and figure it out.

“That’s what we call the Keplers.” Barbaretta pointed to the Kepler ambassador. “A bunch of pirates and scoundrels. They’d do anything for a buck, then rob you to take it back. Be extra cautious around them.”

“And Boom! The bomb has been dropped,” Zane said with a predatory grin. On the screens, waves of shock and surprise were passing through the crowd as the announcement of Totalia’s existence was absorbed.

“Looks like Earth had wind of it. As did Proxima, but they apparently forgot to tell their quislings at Centauri,” Kaylee noted, watching the reactions. She caught Rhianna’s look and grinned back. “What? I grabbed the same political packets Zane did.”

“Ibn-Rushd and Zheng He both look surprised too. Kepler knew, and we told Wednesday, NeoRus and Eridani already. Maybe the Ambassador spy network isn’t as good as we expected,” Zane said. He let Rhianna go and headed to an outline of a door in the hardlight dividing wall.

“In any case, that’s our cue to head out. Prepare to face the wolves everyone,” Zane said. He and Madison would be the first of the Totalian party to step out, followed by Teenette and Darrek. Arca and Barbaretta would follow close behind the Totalians, and then the rest of their entourage.

“Considering how much pull they have with the fleet, you’d think a Steader or two would be here,” Rufia noted.

Rhianna shrugged, “I figure it’s revenge. We tossed DINCom negotiations with Wednesday on their laps, they’re tossing Totalian-everyone else politicking on ours. I think they got the better end of the deal.”

An ornate door appeared in the divider wall and the aide started counting down from ten, using his fingers to count down the last five seconds. At his cue, the doors opened outward, to a trumpet fanfare. The fanfare smoothly transitioned into an orchestral theme.

“Is that from ‘Darla’s Front Door’?” Darrek whispered. He thought he recognized the quirky little tune, but it was an orchestral version. I suppose it does have more gravitas that way, but…

Madison nodded. “I, or rather Samantha, yoinked it while we were trolling your networks. Figured it was a decent musical anthem for you, Ambassador,” she whispered back.

“But it’s the theme to a kid’s show!

“It was about the only show we could find that wasn’t all xenophobic.”

“Yeah, it was too busy teaching toddlers the alphabet and numbers and colors.”

“And to play nice with each other. Which is really what it’s all about, isn’t it?” Samantha noted.

Well, she’s got us there, Darrek thought as he walked out into the spotlights. Suddenly, they were front and center to the rest of human space. He stood next to Teenette, his hand reaching back for Arca’s, while he waited on his cue from Zane.

The tiger Integrate stepped forward and looked around the room. “Greetings, Governor Shandar, your Excellencies, honoured guests and friends. Thank you for coming. I’m sure you all recognize me and my sister, and are wondering what the hell we have to do with this lost colony. It turns out, we have a lot to do with it.

“I’m sure you are familiar with the story of how my sister came back from a scouting mission as an Integrate. Surprised the heck out of all of us. What we kept quiet at the time, is where she came back from. While out in the wild, she, like numerous scouts before her, discovered Totalia. And while that nth contact situation was a bit rough, she was able to return to us with that information.

“Locally, it was a shocker as you can imagine. We kept a lid on it while we figured out what to do about it, both to keep from stirring things up, and out of respect for Totalia’s isolation. Luckily, more events happened that gave us the guidance we needed. Another scout returned home from Totalia, this time bringing guests. Official representatives of the Colony, come to help advise us on how best to reintroduce them to humanity at large.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, I’d like to introduce you to the Totalian Ambassadors, Doctor Darrek Sigurdssen and Ambassador Teenette Clarke.”

The room filled with applause as the Totalians stepped forward. Darrek scanned the room, noting the expressions and wishing he was elsewhere. He clasped his hands behind his back, then moved them to his sides, waiting for the applause to die down and trying to calm his anxiety. Well, I hope this speech goes over well.

“Totalia bids you greetings,” Darrek said. He proceeded on to tell an abbreviated history of Totalia, leaving out any mention of Totalium along with certain recent events and being partly truthful with others. They’d spent most of the day reviewing what they could, should and would say to the Ambassadors, all to try and maintain security while not seeming to avoid much. “Until recently my government preferred to remain isolated. The Scouts respected our wishes and kept our existence to themselves. But thanks to a recent referendum on the matter, we decided to finally reveal our existence and rejoin humanity.”

“Just where is your purported colony located, if I may ask?” the Earth Ambassador’s aide said.

“We are moving slowly. When we are ready to open more formal relations and possibly trade routes, we will be in touch. For now it’s enough to say we exist.”

“How do we know you exist? All we have is your words,” the Kepler delegate called out. “We can’t even verify it with Scout records.”

Darrek started to speak, but felt Zane’s hand on his arm. “I’ll handle this,” the tiger said.

Zane starred the Kepler diplomat down. “You don’t know they exist. You’ll just have to take our word for it. That’s part of the problem with the secrecy we’re working under. But Zharus doesn’t… Zharus can’t keep this entirely to herself, and we don’t intend to hide it any longer than we have to, for Totalia’s sake. Totalia has been isolated for two centuries. Having all of us show up at once would be a disaster, potentially worse than Endeavor. That’s why we’re being cautious.

“Still, they do want to reconnect, but on their own terms, and we are going to help them with that. Towards that end, we have arranged to borrow the new Circus ship, the Great Western. As we speak, it is in the outer reaches of the Pharos system, being loaded with everything Totalia needs to know about modern humanity. Within weeks, it will depart for Totalia to share those gifts. You, or your representatives, are all invited to be on board.”

Zane waited as the noise level rose in the room with that revelation. When it died down again, he spoke. “We have lots of room, so we should be able to accommodate just about any size delegation you wish to assemble. Just have your people contact mine, and be ready to leave soon.

“Now, enough grandstanding, let’s mingle.”

Separator k.png

Zane stepped between Teenette and Darrek and partly escorted them down the steps to the main floor. “These people are professionals, so you won’t be mobbed. Instead, they’ll expect you to approach them for the most part. Just remember, everyone’s got big ears, and they’ll be listening to what you say and what you’re asked. So try to relax, but stay alert.”

Soft music started playing, an ensemble of string instruments, and the room lighting changed subtly. Floating trays filled with drinks and hors d’oeuvres came out of the side rooms. The Ambassadors watched them, but mostly gathered into smaller groups of their own.

“Any suggestions as to who we should talk to first?” Darrek asked. He snagged a small plate off a floating tray, and winced when he realized it was kraken on a kracker. He glanced around, but there was no handy spot to leave it behind.

“Depends. Do you want easy, medium or hard? You’ll have to face them all eventually tonight. You know Eridani and Wednesday so you could start with them. The hard ones would be Earth, Kepler, or the Centauris.”

Teenette nodded to a familiar faces approaching them. “Or we could just let someone else throw protocol to the wind and let them come to us,” she said.

Madison chuckled, “Leave it to the Neorussians to be the most straightforward.”

Teenette glanced down at the unwanted appetizer in Darrek’s hand and rolled her eyes. “Oh, give me that. I swear, didn’t your mama ever teach you to clean your plate?” She swiped it and quickly made it vanish, then turned her attention back to the oncoming diplomats.

The Zharusians faded back, to let the Totalians handle the encounter. A short man led the way, followed by a taller woman.

“Greetings, Doctors. I am Ivan Tolstov, Ambassador for Neorus. I believe you’ve already met my chief aide, Natasha Kohut?”

“We did, in Cape Nord. I’m glad you were able to make it here in time,” Darrek said, shaking the offered hands.

Ivan grinned, “It was a close call. My shuttle just landed a few hours ago.”

“Well, Natasha was a perfect host when we met, and she spoke highly of you,” Teenette said.

“Her report on you, and of Totalia, was very informative as well. I look forward to visiting it in person,” Ivan said.

“We’d be glad to have you.”

Ivan patted his pockets and looked puzzled. Natasha opened the small purse she carried, and pulled out a ring box. “Here you go, Ivan. You left it on the shuttle.”

He took the box and blushed. “Ah right. Thank you my dear.”

Opening the box, he presented it to Dareek. Inside, a red gem the size of a fingernail was nestled in the middle of a small device that could spin it around. There were standard power and data connectors at the bottom.

“I’d like to present to you, a gift, from NeoRus to our prodigal brothers and sisters of Totalia.”

Darrek took the box, not quite understanding what it was. “Thank you, we-”

Teenette blinked. “Is that a data crystal? I read that those are illegal to export from NeoRus.”

“I am allowed some leeway as the planet’s representative,” Ivan said. “That crystal contains all of human history as we know it, from the earliest cave painters to everything we know of all of the colonies. I’m also looking forward to adding Totalia’s history to it.”

“We appreciate your gift. Thank you, on behalf of Totalia, and from myself as well,” Darrek said, reverently closing the lid on the box. He tucked it into the pocket of his suit jacket.

“Please, enjoy the party. I’m sure we’ll have the chance to talk more later,” Ivan said before wandering away.

Darrek snagged a flute of champagne from a tray and sipped it to clear the taste of kraken from his mouth. “Well, that wasn’t bad at all.”

“NeoRus is technically neutral, but they are very friendly to Zharus. Were they closer, we’d probably officially be allies,” Zane said. They wandered towards the large windows overlooking the large lawn. At the far end, a simple stone fence guarded the edge of the cliff.

“Uh-oh, now this might be trouble.” Zane nodded to the two Earth ambassadors who were now drifting in their direction.

“Remember, it’s probably not a good idea to snub them too badly,” Madison said. “Endurance and the like are the sort of open secret everybody knows about but nobody’s so gauche as to bring up in the open, most times…” She trailed off and took a step back as the Earth delegation came into earshot.

The aide spoke first. His voice dripped with skepticism and condescension. “Earth welcomes our wayward child back into the fold. Though I doubt all is as it appears.”

The Ambassador herself rolled her eyes. “Dude, Chuck. How many times do I have to tell you? Lighten up!”

The expression on the dour man’s face made Darrek stifle a laugh. He had a nervous tic in the corner of his eye when she spoke.

“Nothing is ever as it appears,” Zane said airily. “For example, I appear to be a tiger, and yet I’m a CEO.”

“Be that as it may, Mr. Brubeck,” said “Chuck”. “Earth believes such skepticism is warranted. Without access to Scout records we cannot independently verify your claims.”

“Chuck, you’re being a dick again,” Earth’s Ambassador said. “What did I say about being a dick? Stop it, or you can go back to the office.”

“I don’t blame you for being skeptical,” Darrek said with a faint smile. “We are not ready to show where we are yet, but you are welcome to return with us and see for yourself.”

The Ambassador smiled, “I’m afraid my own travelling days are behind me, but I’m sure we can gather a suitable group.”

“Yes, we are eager to see what our lost children have been up to, and are ready to welcome you back. I’m sure there will be many opportunities for trade between Earth and Totalia,” Chuck said, trying his best to keep his expression friendly.

Darrek’s smile didn’t budge. “We’re really more interested in Zharus as a trading partner right now anyway. In time, I’m sure we’ll be working with the remaining colonies and with Earth. But at this time, Zharus will be our main focus while we get up to speed. Considering the distances involved and from what I’ve heard, it’s not really clear Earth has much to offer us at this juncture.”

Chuck’s face turned red with anger. He took a deep breath, then the Ambassador put her hand over his mouth. “Chuck will be leaving now,” she said. Her voice took on an edge to it. “Won’t you, Chuck?”

“Mmmph mmmph!” Chuck said.

“What was that?” She took her hand off his mouth.

“Yes. Ma’am,” Chuck said through clenched teeth. Stiffly, he turned around and headed towards the Ballroom door.

“Now that he’s taken care of, I’m Xenia De Gaulle,” the Ambassador said. “Very pleased to meet you, Ambassadors. I’m…certain you’ve been briefed about Earth’s unfortunate history on wildcat colonies, Dr. Sigurdssen?”

“Part of the reason why we’re not going to disclose our location until we’re ready, I’m afraid,” Darrek said.

“I’ve met the Endurance survivors,” Xenia said. “They have a little town about a thousand klicks north of here. I’ve done everything I can for them—not that they accepted much from me. Unfortunately that doesn’t include an official apology.”

Darrek raised an eyebrow. “That’s more frankness than I was led to expect.”

Xenia sighed. “Without my aide here to record, nothing I say is actually official. It’s a…loophole. I learned how to find and use them from some friends in Nextus.”

Zane laughed. “You really have gone native, Ambassador, haven’t you?”

Xenia shrugged. “I doubt I’ll be in this position much longer. There are only so many loopholes I can exploit before they’ll just send someone more ideologically in line with Chuck.”

“I hope you won’t be sending your aide along to Totalia,” Teenette said, wrinkling her nose. “Or anyone who thinks like him.”

“Fortunately, there are members of my staff I do trust not to turn this into an interstellar incident. I will send along a list as soon as I return to my office.” She excused herself politely, then moved away.

“Well, that went better than I hoped,” Zane said. “She wasn’t quite what I expected. Her aide, on the other paw, is the arrogant Earther to a T.”

“If we hadn’t met so many other friendly Earthers, he’d make me want to change my vote on staying isolated,” Teenette said, rubbing her arms. “Hard to believe EarthGov would send someone so politically inept.”

“He’s not inept, just a solid believer. Why don’t we go meet some friends,” Madison said, nodding to the Eridani group. “And keep your eyes on the Ferengi. They have big ears.”

The Keplerians didn’t seem to be waiting, but it was quickly obvious they were doing their best to stay in earshot as much as possible. Darrek spotted one chatting with Ivan a few steps too close to be polite while he spoke to the Eridani ambassador. And later, Teenette spotted another lingering on her choice of drink while she talked with a Centauri aide that was excited to visit Totalia.

The three attending wore slick beige suits and I-specs. The way two men and one woman carried themselves made Darrek’s spine crawl. They were like used car salespeople waiting to pounce on a mark. He caught Teenette’s eye and motioned for her to come over.

“One last group to meet. No point in putting it off any longer,” he said, glancing over at the trio. For once they were giving the Totalians space, as if expecting what was coming.

“Do we have to? Feels like we’ve already talked to them. Between Chuck and them, I feel like I need a bath.”

“Regrettably, we can’t show too much favoritism, at least not here. Who knows? Maybe they’re actually nice folk.”

“No, they aren’t,” Barbaretta said. She and Arca were their minders for the night, mainly to help them avoid the big political land mines. “But you’re right, you have to speak to them at least once.”

Teenette nodded and sighed. “Then let’s get this over with.”

Darrek straightened his shirt and approached the nearest Keplerian, the larger man who was the Ambassador. “Totalia greets our esteemed colleagues from Kepler.”

“Hello to you, too,” the man replied curtly, looking over the top of his I-specs. He held out his hand to Darrek. “Chip Chaser. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”

“Likewise, Mr. Chaser.”

There was an awkward silence as the trio stared down the quartet, waiting for someone to make the first move.

“So what’s the Kepler system like? I hear it’s… uhm…,” Teenette trailed off, not sure how to finish her ice breaker.

The woman laughed without a hint of joy. “It’s a frozen hell hole, barely worth inhabiting. But at least we’re not Wednesday.” She held out her hand to Teenette. “Narcissa LeStrange.”

Teenette and Darrek shook her hand, and the silence fell on them again. A subtle glance around showed most of the attention was on this encounter.

“So a new colony world. And you founded it all by yourselves. That must have been challenging,” Narcissa said before things could get too uncomfortable.

“Very challenging, but luckily Totalia is well in the goldilocks zone. Totalia City is built in a short sleeves zone right from the beginning. Creating a proper Earth-like environment from there was straightforward, but very laborious,” Darrek explained.

“Very lucky for your ancestors. Still, maintaining a tech level must have been difficult, considering when you left. Did you lose space?” Chip asked.

“Lose space? Oh! You mean access to space? It was close, but no, we kept most of our colonization fleet in orbit and used that to build from,” Teenette explained.

The Keplerians exchanged looks, their expressions staying neutral. Still, Darrek had the feeling they got more out of that sentence then the Totalians had wanted to give.

“That is good to hear. A healthy space industry is important for a healthy colony. It can make up for many things a planet might lack, or otherwise make hard to get,” Narcissa said. “Asteroid mining, energy collection, zero-g production.”

“We don’t do as much as we should, admittedly. But we do some back home. And with what Zharus is selling us, we’ll be ramping up quickly I’m sure,” Darrek said, trying not to say much.

Chip nodded. “Still, space is a dangerous place. You’re getting quite the leg up package from Zharus, but might you consider other offers? Kepler is well known for direct energy devices, and missile technology. Suitable for civilian and military purposes.”

“So I’ve heard. I’m afraid I’m not cleared to negotiate on military matters on this trip,” Darrek said, keeping his voice cool and level.

“A pity. Still, you’ve waited for centuries already, a few more years won’t hurt much. Enjoy the rest of your time on Zharus. I look forward to seeing Totalia myself soon,” Chip said, lifting his glass to them. He turned away from the Totalian party, followed by Narcissa and the unintroduced man.

Teenette shuddered once they were out of earshot. “Ugh, I see-”

Before she could finish, Barbaretta twitched, bumping into a tray of drinks floating past them. The flutes tipped over, splashing over Teenette and Darrek.

“Oh my! I’m so clumsy!” she exclaimed. “Here, let me get that,” she said, fusing over Teenette.

Arca appeared at Darrek’s side, napkins in hand. She was mopping up the drops that hit him before he could react. “Shhh,” she whispered, running the cloth over his arms and hands even where the liquid hadn’t splashed. His hands tingled after a moment, the hair on his arms standing up with an electrical charge.

“What was that about?” he whispered when she was mostly done.

She smiled and looked him over, before giving him a quick kiss. “They bugged you. With the handshakes. Two sets of nannies, inert so they get past the mansion security. When you shook their hands, you got a dose of both, and they were starting to activate. You’re clean now.”

Beside them, Barbaretta defused, letting Teenette out, her dress spotless and her hair and makeup tidied up. She glared at the backs of the Keplers and shuddered, rubbing her bare arms. “What slimes!” she hissed in frustration. Darrek nodded in agreement.

Zane sighed and shook his head as he and Rhianna wandered back to the Totalians. “Good thing the fleet is almost fully kitted out now. We’re going to have to triple our scans on everything coming in now, make sure they don’t slip in any surprises.”

“Did we have to invite them?” Teenette asked.

“If we don’t invite them overtly, they’d just sneak in covertly. Better to have them in the spotlight now, then to try and spook them out later,” Zane noted.

“How big is the risk? How bad off are we when their pirates show up?” Darrek asked.

Barbaretta looked thoughtful a moment. “Honestly, not as bad as you might expect. They have a tech edge for now, but you have that surprise that mostly negates it.”

“And once you start modernizing with our help, you’ll show any pirate navy who’s boss in the Totalian system,” Arca noted. During some of their downtime between tours and events, Darrek and her had sketched out some plans for upgrading the Cosmy’s ships with modern Zharusian tech.

“Assuming we still have a Cosmy back home to upgrade.” Darrek felt a surge of homesickness and worry wash over him. The distance from home and not knowing what was going on there often snuck up on him, catching him by surprise.

“We’ll have to be careful, and keep an eye on the message torpedoes. Once we get to Totalia, you can be sure they’ll try to get the location home. Either piggy-backing on one of our torps, or by sending one of their own,” Rhianna noted. “Of course, even if they fail, they’ll get the word out as soon as they get back, but we can’t count on them failing. They haven’t gotten where they are without being very ingenious.”

“Just one more thing for the list,” Zane sighed. “Well, we knew this one was coming. It’s the main reason we waited so long before throwing you to the political dogs.”

“It’s not as if we’re going to keep the location secret for much longer regardless. We don’t have to make it easy for them, but it’ll get out one way or another,” Madison noted.

“In any case, how about we go hang out with some nicer company?” Teenette asked. She nodded to a group hanging by the windows overlooking the lawn and the large bay.

Natasha and Ivan waved them over. They were grouped with the delegations from Zheng He, Ibn Rushd, Eridani, and Wednesday.

“I feel like spending the rest of our time here with friendlier faces,” Teenette said, waving back. “Preferably somewhere more comfortable. Too many daggers around here, waiting for a back to bump into them.”

“Wonderful idea,” Arca said. “You know, I know of this great little brewpub nearby that does a killer nacho plate. Maybe we should invite them along.”

Zane grinned. “Sounds like a plan. No reason we should stand on ceremony. Let’s see what diplomats are like after work.” Decision made, he strode forward. “Hey, guys, we had a great idea…”

Chapter 7

September 9, 158 AL

NuJose, EvoLimited

Dr. Darrek Sigurdssen, Totalian-at-large, stood in front of the holorecorder in the EvoLimited campus office. After several weeks of touring the planet he and Teenette were accustomed to this. But this was a rather special report. Darrek and Arca decided now was the right moment to reveal her true nature. “In the closing segment of our report, I would like to reintroduce a friend of mine. She will be coming with us when we return to Totalia. Arca?”

The woman took the seat next to him. She wore a 1960s red Gogo dress with thigh-high leather boots, and a dark brunette flip hairstyle. She smiled and waved at the holorecorder pickup. “Hello, Totalia! Can’t wait to meet you all in person.”

“In the last section of my report we explored EvoLimited, met its Integrate founders, and a few Emergent Intelligences, cousins of RIs. Well, Arca is also one. But she’s unique. Since coming into the ‘Real’ she’s been living in a human body replacement prosthesis. How long, Arca?”

“Oh, years. Mom and Dad—that’s Argon and Luke—bring new sprouts into the Real by putting us into ‘droid bodies for a week, so we know what being human is like,” Arca said. “Since these are meant for humans who can’t get a new body cloned, or simply for lifestyle preference, they’re as human as can possibly be. I eat, drink, sleep, everything an organic must do in daily life.”

“So, why would you do that?” Darrek asked.

“I…like it.” Arca was actually blushing. “A lot of us end up in vehicle shells, or a locus, but when I tried them it just felt like something was missing. At first I thought I wanted to be a RIDE, but I was always unsatisfied. I kept coming back to this. I honestly think of myself as human…though I can’t say I really want an organic body. I’m a human born of a codeseed, grown on the Grid, now a happy woman in the Real.”

Darrek grinned. “No impulses to, say, take over the world, or enslave organic humans to do your bidding?”

Arca grinned back. “Only on Mondays.”

“Well, that’s understan—hey, wait a minute, you don’t have Mondays here.”

Arca laughed. “Bright boy! Are you a PhD or something?”

“As it happens, I am.”

“Well, good to know that fancy education pays off.” Arca chuckled. “Yeah, I know all about your cultural paranoia of aliens and AI. I understand that, before they actually invented the real thing, they had it here, too. But familiarity breeds contempt. A bit too much contempt, actually. But luckily the pendulum’s swinging back the other way now.”

“Indeed.” Darrek stood up and walked around in front of the table, then leaned against it. Arca joined him to his right. “I’d like to conclude this report with something…a significant speech. Some pithy phrase. Something they’ll still be quoting hundreds of years from now. But Teenette and I think it speaks for itself.” He gestured for for her, the leonine Barbaretta Hansom, and Madison Brubeck to join them.

“Teenette and I thank the Totaliment for this honor. Our time on Zharus hasn’t always been smooth, or easy, but our neighbors are by and large good people. Humanity and its children and grandchildren would continue on without us, should we decide to resume our isolation. But in light of what we’ve seen and experienced the last few weeks, how can we possibly not be a part of this adventure?”

“And…cut!” Rufia announced. “That’s a wrap.”

The others in the room applauded, then added a few whoops as Arca gave Darrek a big, not-at-all chaste kiss.

“At least you waited until they stopped the camera this time,” Darrek said, once they were done.

“That’s okay. I still have the first three takes on record,” Rufia said with her trademark smile.

“So much for being ‘uncorrupted by Zharusian technology,’” Teenette quipped.

“She’s an extraordinary woman,” Darrek said. He reached out and took Arca’s hand, then kissed the back of it. “I can stand a little corruption.”

“As one of humanity’s ‘grandchildren’ I say, thanks, gramps.” Arca laughed, then gave him another kiss on the cheek.

Madison chuckled. “And you’ll never have to worry about buying a car again.”

“Can’t wait to take my lightrunner shell for a spin through Totalia City,” Arca said. “It shouldn’t look that out of place. It actually has wheels.”

“They still barely touch the ground with the lifters off,” Darrek said. After they’d met outside of Nextus, Arca had been assigned as his designated EI guide through the NuJose region since Rufia’s crew didn’t know the Laurasian city as well as those on Gondwana. The tour of Laurasia had been filled with a number of heart-pounding moments, both in her car shell and out.

He wouldn’t necessarily call their blossoming relationship love at first sight, but they were both willing to explore their feelings, wherever they led.

“So, that’s the last thing you needed? You’re all ready to send off the report?” Madison asked.

Darrek nodded. “If we’re going to make the torp’s launch deadline, it’ll have to be. I’ve already assembled the rest of our final report. I’ll go over it one more time to make sure everything’s there, then pfffft! Off it goes. It’ll be there in a couple of weeks to let ‘em know we’re finally on our way.”

Madison sighed. “I wish I were there.”

Teenette grinned. “Surely you wouldn’t want to deprive us of the pleasure of your company…”

Madison rolled her eyes. “Meh, I can’t win.”

“It’s not as if we won’t be there soon enough. Or at least leaving to go home soon enough. Just over a week to go,” Darrek shook his head. “Where did the time go….”

Separator k.png

NuJose HoJo Hotel

Darrek found Arca in the hotel garage, sitting in her lightrunner, eyes closed. He studied her for a few moments, trying to get a sense of what she was feeling. He concluded that there was something bugging her.

“Hey there, what’s on your mind?” he asked, climbing into the passenger seat.

She honestly looked startled. “Oh! I didn’t realize you were around. I’m just thinking of the trip. Excited to be going, and to see your home.”

“I’m excited to be going home too. But is that everything on your mind? You seem disappointed too.”

“Disappointed? No, I’m excited!” She paused. “Well…I’m just thinking of some might-have-beens.”

“Might-have-beens?”

Between them, the dashboard lit up with a fanfare and a bodiless voice started speaking.

Congratulations Arca! You’re the Speed Racer! You have qualified for the Alohan Invitational Grand Prix as part of the Naming Day celebrations!

“Congrats! I take it this is a big thing?”

“One of the biggest races on Gondwana. Invitation only, top racers from around the planet, and only if you’ve been racing for the past year. I’ve been trying for years to get an invite and was doing great this year. Then I ran into you, and with everything else…I guess my record was good enough even with the last few sprints I missed.”

Darrek leaned over and hugged her. “That’s great!”

“No, it’s horrible. The race is a couple of days after we leave.”

“Oh? OH! Ouch…yeah that…” Darrek trailed off, not sure what he wanted to say.

“That sucks royally yeah. So close, yet so far.” She sighed and smiled at him, “Still, it’s an annual event. I’m sure I’ll be back eventually, ready to reclaim my title.”

“True. I’m sure you’ll come back with enough Totalian records to qualify automatically.” Darrek wasn’t actually sure there was that much rally-style racing on Totalia, come to think of it. But if there isn’t, I’m sure the appearance of such an exotic vehicle and its exotic driver will jump-start interest in one, so that’s something.

“Exactly,” she said, not sounding entirely convinced. “They do have interplanetary invitations ready for suitable racers from the other colonies.”

He let her go and smiled. “Dinner’s happening as soon as you’re ready.”

“I’ll be up in a few more minutes. Thanks.”

“No problem.”

Separator k.png

After Dinner

Teenette knocked on Darrek’s door before walking in. She found him going over his notes and presentations. “You wanted to see me?”

“Hey there. Yeah, I did. How eager are you to head out to Cerberus?” he asked, shoving his notes to the side.

She shrugged and flopped onto the couch near his desk. “Somewhat eager. Hard to believe these are our last days. Why?”

“I’ve got a bit of a conundrum, with Arca.” He outlined the invitation the EI racer had received, and the timing problem. “I’ve checked; if we wait until after Naming Day, we can still make it out there a few days before Launch. It’d be tight but doable. But I don’t want to bring it up without you on board.”

“You figure they won’t leave if both of the Totalians aren’t there,” Teenette noted, grinning at him.

“Uhm, yeah, more or less that I suppose. We’d probably miss the launch of the Barsoom fleet, but shouldn’t slow things down too much.”

She pondered it a moment, scratching her ears. “Naming Day is one of their big parties in Aloha right? Let’s go for it.”

“Thanks, I’m glad to have you on board.”

He tapped on the screen and soon a familiar tiger Integrate was on the screen.

“Hey guys, how’s it going? Excited to be heading home?” Zane asked.

“Very, but we do have one final request before we leave,” Darrek said.

“Sure, just name it. If we can do it, we will.”

“We want to stay a few more days and do a final trip to Aloha,” he requested.

The tiger’s eyes widened. “Aloha? During Naming Day? That…might be difficult.”

Darrek’s face fell. “Oh, I thought we could delay our shuttle a few days but still make—”

Zane waved his hand, “The shuttle? That’s easy. In fact we’ve got a crew we can call in for the pickup and get you back before the Barsoom fleet leaves. The hard part is finding you rooms in Aloha over Naming Day.”

“Really? That’s the hard part?” Teenette asked.

“It would be great if you can find something. I wouldn’t mind camping if I needed to. Arca would be thrilled to be able to run in the Invitational.”

“Arca got an Invite? Fantastic! Give her my congratulations. If that’s the case, I can see why you want to stay longer. Wouldn’t dream of making her miss out on that chance.” He considered. “Hell, the way these things usually go, we probably won’t be ready to leave right on time anyway. I’ll take care of shifting your ride out to Cerberus, and finding you a place to stay down there.”

“Thank you, Zane. She’ll be thrilled.”

“Tell her my money’s on her. Good luck, and have fun.”

“You interested in coming to watch too?” Teenette asked.

Zane shook his head, “Wish we could, but we have too many other things going on to get this fleet ready for launch.”

Darrek felt guilty at his request. “You don’t need us to help, do you?”

“Nope! To be frank, you guys would just get in the way right now. Easier to keep everyone focused without the guests of honor around. Go enjoy the race, we’ll be watching on the ‘nets.”

Separator k.png

Darrek found Arca fiddling with one of the lifters. He tried to keep his expression neutral as he walked up. “Whatcha up to?”

“This lifter's a hair out of tune, didn't want to get worse while we're in transit.”

“Good idea. Is it race-worthy?”

She pulled out an assembly and turned it over in her hands. “Pretty much. Not that it'll be racing any time soon.”

“Funny, I didn't think two days from now didn't count as 'soon'”

She stopped and looked up at him. “Whatcha talkin' 'bout, Darrek?”

“Well, if we're going to get to Aloha in time, we're going to have to get it loaded on the Sub in a few hours.”

“And why do we need to go to Aloha?”

“For the Invitational of course.”

Arca was speechless for a couple of minutes. “Our flight to Cerberus—”

“Was delayed for a couple of days. Zane's working out all the details for us.”

The lifter assembly dropped to the floor and she threw herself onto him. “Really? Thank you, Darrek! You're wonderful!”

He hugged her back, “Considering you would have missed it because of me, it was the least I could do. Now, what do we really need to do to get this race-worthy?”

Separator k.png

September 11, 158 AL
Seahaven, Aloha

Darrek was overwhelmed. Months ago, when they had arrived at Aloha, he had thought the polity was crowded, but he could handle the numbers. Today, it seemed like the entire planet was trying to reach the resort polity, and it was still the day before Naming Day. They had only passed through it briefly on the way to Seahaven for the race start. He didn’t know how he would handle it when they went back there.

He shoved those thoughts to the side and lifted his camera again, filming the race pit area. Fifty racers of all sorts had answered the invitations and they were all gathered under the Arch to the Dry.

“The Alohan Invitational is a rally going from Seahaven to Aloha via the Maasai Plains. Seventy-five invitations are sent out every year to the top racers of all sorts in the system. Usually around fifty are able to accept and participate,” he narrated as he recorded the crowd. “Race officials are inspecting the vehicles and bodies of the drivers to make sure they are within the race limitations. Even with those limitations, the variety of vehicles is astonishing. Looks more like Wacky Racers*, doesn’t it?”

Darrek paused, then made a footnote. *See Cultural Notes, Appendix C: American Cartoons of the 1960s.

The camera stopped on Arca’s lightrunner as she spoke to a pair of race officials, a man and horse RIDE. On the other side, Teenette and Barbaretta stood, wearing pink Speed Racer caps for Arca’s race team; a team of just one racer but numerous sponsors. Brubeck Limited’s badge was recently added, next to the Speed Racer logo, opposite the EvoLimited badge. He put the camera down and walked over to join them.

“Crowds, ugh. It’s worse being in this frame,” Barbaretta noted. “I’m keeping my lifters running just to make sure I don’t step on anyone’s toes.”

“Just a couple more days and we’ll be out of the crowds. Isn’t all this exciting?” Teenette said.

“It is. I wonder if there’s any place in particular we should go for the start?” Darrek said.

“There are bleachers over there, or you can stay here. Barbaretta can lift you high enough to get a good view,” Arca said, joining them. “We check out, and we’re clear for racing.”

“Great! So we should let you be to get the car in position. Why don’t we head to the bleachers to claim a good spot?”

Arca grabbed Darrek’s arm. “You aren’t going anywhere. You’re my navigator after all.”

He blinked, his mind hiccuping. “Huh?”

“I signed you up as my navigator. Don’t worry, I handle it all internally, but it lets me have a passenger. Come on, we need to get you suited up.”

“Buh—but I haven’t been checked,” Darrek protested not sure if he wanted Arca’s gift or not.

She hauled him to the car and pulled out a helmet and other gear. “They could tell you’re bog-standard; no worries there. Put these on, lifter bracelets, hardlight shields, comm gear and so forth.”

Teenette laughed, “Go on Darrek, it’s a great opportunity. We’ll meet you back in Aloha.”

“Right…” he said, snapping the gear on. He kept the helmet off. “It will be quite the experience to report on. And it is safe, right?”

“Absolutely. Outside of the retro leagues, there hasn’t been a major injury in decades.”

Arca opened the canopy and motioned to Darrek to get in. He waved to Barbaretta and Teenette. “I get the feeling that if the others realized what I was doing, they’d be blowing a battery.”

Barbaretta chuckled, “No doubt. But we’re your handlers for now, and we’re allowing it.”

He climbed in and Arca belted him into the seat. He felt it mold around him, providing support and extra protection. On the other side, Arca climbed in. Instead of belts, the seat melted around her, surrounding her until she was barely visible. A helmet covered her face, her arms staying at her side. She and the racer were one.

“Powering up. System checks are green,” she said, her voice coming from all around him. Nothing changed on the console, but the vehicle rumbled to life, lifting off the ground. “Put your helmet on. Don’t worry, it won’t bite.”

Darrek put the helmet on. There was a moment of darkness before it lit up, letting him see again. A heads up display identified the other racers, including indicators for who was behind her.

“Impressive,” he said, trying to sort out the icons and arrange them.

“Be more impressive if you had the proper implants, but this will cover the basics,” Arca said. He looked over and saw a hologram of her overlayed on her seat. Outside, they were inching through the crowd to the starting line, escorted by a fused Teenette and Barbaretta.

Five minutes to start time. Please clear the track area. A voice announced over the comms and loudspeaker.

Darrek’s window opened and a lioness head poked in. “Good luck guys!” Teenette said cheerfully. “We’ll be watching.”

“Thanks,” he said, “I almost wish I was just watching too.”

Arca glanced over and frowned faintly. “Do you want out? You don’t have to ride along. I just thought you might enjoy it.”

“I’m here now, let’s do it,” he reassured her, heart pounding with growing excitement. It was the good kind of excitement, rather than the bad kind associated with the rescue from political prison what seemed like a lifetime ago. “See you two back in Aloha.”

The lioness waved and backed away. The window closed, and Darrek watched them leave the track area with the rest of the support crews.

“Two minute warning,” Arca warned him. “You can see the route on your lap. We’re starting towards the back of the pack, but there’s lots of time to move up.”

He looked around and saw a diorama style map on his lap, showing a bird’s eye view of the route. The rest of the icons were simple information icons whose purposes were fairly obvious. “Oh, neat. The lap, on my lap.”

“Feel free to narrate the race for your records. I’ll be handling the actual navigation of course,” she said. “Eyes front, here we go. Go Go Speed Racer!”

He looked up just in time to see a green flag drop from the top of the arch. As one, the racers lurched forward, accelerating fast through the tourist city. Inside, protected by the inertia fields, he barely felt a thing.

Separator k.png

Maasai Plains

Darrek looked across the endless sea of grass and shook his head in amazement. Scenes like this really showed him just how big the planet was. The other thing that got him was the lack of any sign of man. There were no roads, no power lines, nothing but the occasional locater beacon. All the racers were running on lifters for this part of the race. He watched a herd of bison take off, startled by the lead racers, and corrected his mental notes. There were no signs of man, other than the fact that the entire landscape and the creatures within it had been created by man’s machines. Two centuries ago, an entirely different sort of life had dominated this landscape. He shoved those morbid thoughts to the back of his mind and picked up his narration.

“Two hours into the race, we’re about halfway through the Maasai Plains section of this Grand Prix. The lakes of the Serengeti Resort will be where we turn around and start the sprint back to Aloha proper. The Serengeti Resort is primarily an Integrate village, publicly known before Integrates revealed themselves, but isolated enough to hide their true nature. When Astranikki returned, she and her family helped protect the Integrates that founded this lakeside resort village from discovery and from other Integrates who disliked them being so exposed.

“At this point, Arca and I have worked our way up to the Top 10, with our sights on Top 5 by the time we reach the resort village. Five racers have dropped out for various reasons, and six more are effectively out of the race.”

“On your left,” a voice said over the comm.

Darrek paused his narration and looked around. Coming up behind them, on their left, was a 1930’s style open-wheeled race car, driven by a single person. The ERA R6B’s wheels spun uselessly in the air as it was under lifter power. It had a red white and blue paint job, complete with what seemed like a target on the driver’s side of its nose; red and white rings with a white star on a blue background for the bullseye.

“We see you Steve, go ahead. We’ll pass you on the turnaround.” Arca said, their own vehicle moving to the side.

Darrek called up the racer’s info for his narrative. “That was Steve Rogers that just passed us. He is a normal human, or at least as normal as humans get in this league. He has a full suite of implants. He has neither RI nor EI partner on board, so everything is controlled by him, with the implants giving him reaction speeds comparable to the Intelligence controlled competitors.

“Considering his style, he looks more meme-infected than some Integrates we’ve met. He’s ‘Captain America.’”

“He’s good; gonna be tough to get by him again,” Arca said. “Turnaround coming up. Hang on tight. The dampers are on full.”

Separator k.png

Finish Line, Aloha

“Here they come!” Teenette shouted. She was sitting on Barbaretta’s shoulders with the crowd at the finish line. Huge screens gave them views of the race progression. The lead cars were just dropping down to the ground near the Alohan airport for the final leg of the race.

“This is where it gets interesting,” Barbaretta said. “They can’t go more than 50 centies above the ground from here on out, and everyone is going to be jockeying to get in the lead.”

On the screen the first racers touched down on the road and sped through the empty streets. Alohan traffic control had already cleared the route, and hardlight fields would protect spectators and pedestrians on the walkways as the race roared through the city streets.

“There she is! Seventh place!” Teenette shouted, pointed to the familiar white coupe. Two more landed just behind her before there was a noticeable gap.

“Nine in the front pack, not bad. At least I think it’s a good sized bunch. I’m just skimming old races as we go,” the lioness scout said.

The views focused on the leading nine. The vehicles tore through the streets, mere centis separating them as they took the corners.

“Those turns look impossible. They’re 90’s and they aren’t even slowing down.” Teenette was shouting from the excitement reverberating through the crowd.

“Experience and tech. But it’s right at the edge of the tech; any little flaw and—” Barbaretta was interrupted by a gasp from the crowd.

On the screen, the third, fourth and fifth racers came a hair too close to each other and clipped. The vehicles tumbled, crashing into the hardlight field centimetres from the crowd. The spectators and pedestrians ducked and ran instinctively, but the fields held, flaring brightly to shed the energy of the high speed impacts.

Steve, in sixth place, was forced to slow and swerve to avoid the debris. Arca in seventh, had enough time to plot her path through without slowing. She smoothly slid around the corner and passed the red, white and blue racer.

“Is she?… She is! Woohoo! You go girl!” Teenette shouted, raising her arms and cheering.

The final minutes of the race were tense. Arca closed in on the lead pair, and Steve closed in on her. Had the race been longer, she might have had a chance to move up or slide back. As it was, three seconds separated first from fourth as the racers crossed the line.

Barbaretta fused around Teenette and the pair took off to the winners circle. They got through the crowd just in time to see the passenger door open. A helmeted figure rolled out and seemed to hug the ground before unsteadily getting to his feet.

The driver got out soon after. Arca’s face was flushed red with excitement, and she waved enthusiastically to the crowd. She hopped over the hood and scooped Darrek up in a hug. “Thank you. Thank you! Thank! You!” she exclaimed, spinning him around.

“Arca, you might want to stop. He’s looking mighty green,” Barbaretta said.

She stopped and tugged the helmet off. Darrek’s eyes were unfocused for a moment and he looked on the very edge of hurling. He somehow managed to keep his breakfast down.

“You—you’re welcome. Glad to give you the chance. And to have the opportunity…” he stammered out, leaning against Arca for support.

“On your left,” a voice called out. Steve walked up, wearing a blue jumpsuit with red and white stripes and red boots and gloves. A blue cowl covered his head down to his eyes. A white ‘A’ was on his forehead and a white star adorned his chest.

Arca all but shoved Darrek to the fused lioness, and shook Steve’s hand before hugging him. “Great race, Steve! Especially that end. A half second and you would have had me.”

“I know. All the luck of the race. I look forward to racing you next year.”

“Next…erm, yeah, I look forward to next year too.”

He saluted her and waved to Darrek. “Great race. Congratulations. She’s a fantastic driver.”

“That she is. I think most of me is still back on the Maasai,” Darrek said.

Steve grinned. “In any case, you’re being called to the podium. See you later at the Checkered Flag?”

“Of course!”

Chapter 8

September 13, 158 AL

Toptown Charter Departures

Darrek, one arm wrapped around Arca’s lithe waist, looked out at the curve of Zharus spread out below them. Next to them, Fused, were Teenette and Barbaretta, tail swishing thoughtfully. Teenette—presumably—sighed. Darrek glanced at them. “Hmm?”

“Just wishing we had more time,” Teenette said. “It’s going to be great to go home and all, and I know they need us back there, but I feel like we’ve barely even scratched the surface here. We can come back again later, but it’ll be such a long trip…”

Darrek chuckled. “Believe me, I know just how you feel. I’ve learned so much from my peers here, and after being able to talk to them on the spur of the moment it will be hard having to wait weeks for replies to my correspondence. Still, we are the first of our people to set foot on another world in generations. It seems ungrateful to want even more.”

“I really hope they haven’t screwed up my ship too badly,” Barbaretta muttered. “It’s probably in a few thousand pieces by now. Damn them! I had the Drive Ring tuned just right. Squeezed another point-five past lightspeed out of it.”

“Meanwhile, I’m going to be the first of my kind to set foot on your world. Or one of the first, anyway,” Arca said. “I’m looking forward to that.”

“One of the first indeed. Who knows, I might beat you down there,” a new voice joined in. A silver-skinned Spacer man and red and white gynoid walked out of the crew section of the lounge. The man had glowing blue tattooed lines visible on his hands and arms, disappearing under his shirt.

“Sky!” Arca squealed, rushing to her sister and tackling her with a hug.

“Arca! How have you been? Still in the meat suit I see,” Skyfire greeted her, spinning her seedsister around.

“Still in it. I did borrow a page from your book. Just wait ‘till you see what’s in my luggage. What are you doing here?”

“We’re your ride out to Cerberus,” Skyfire said, releasing her sister. She turned to the Totalians and bowed to them. “Sorry for ignoring you; I just had to greet my sister. I am Skyfire, and this is my partner Yuri. We’ll be taking you out to the Fleet.”

“Wonderful to meet you, Skyfire. Arca speaks highly of you,” Darrek said. He offered his hand to Yuri. “And you’re her partner…sir?”

“And not a woman, yes,” Yuri added, answering the question that most people had upon meeting the two of them. “It’s complicated.”

“Actually, to use the vernacular of some acquaintances of ours, it’s Science!” Skyfire corrected him. She looked between Arca and Darrek and smirked. “Mom and Dad might want to look closer at our seeds. We both picked cross partners it seems.”

“Cross partners?” Darrek asked, then blushed a little. “Ah, I see what you mean.”

“What do you mean? I’ve got a meat suit. I can’t—”

Skyfire brushed between her sputtering sister and her sister’s stunned partner, and held her hand to the fused pair. “Greetings. I assume the other Totalian is in there somewhere?”

Teenette shook the hand, the lioness paw-hand engulfing the EI’s. “I am. Teenette Clarke. Good to meet you.”

“Scout Captain Barbaretta Hansom,” the lioness said, still shaking the hand.

“A pleasure to meet you both as well,” Yuri said, his own hand getting similarly shaken. “I’m afraid the Caravan isn’t the most spacious way to travel in system, but it is the fastest. Most of the time RIDEs travel outside, but since it’s just the four of you, I’m sure we can squeeze you inside,” he said, addressing the RIDE.

Barbaretta nodded, the Fuser’s stance shifting. “It is just the four of us. Everyone else has other transport arranged. I would have offered to take them out myself, but since my ship didn’t make it back from Totalia, and they really wanted to see Naming Day, you helped make everything work out. If it is too cramped, I can ride outside; I’m a Scout, Space doesn’t bother me. Especially not in this body.”

“We’ve got room, just need to pump the balloons a bit bigger.” Yuri looked at her puzzled. “I didn’t think RIDEs were Scouts yet, let alone coming back from Totalia. Or rather Samantha was the only one to come back, sort’ve.”

The lioness grinned. “Oh, I wasn’t ‘born’ a RIDE. I’ve opted to upload, for various reasons. We can go over it en route, I’m sure.”

“Upload? You—” Skyfire said. She blinked, looking distant for a moment while catching up on the implications of that term. “Oh. Wow! Well. You’ll have to tell us about this during the trip out.” Speechless for a few microseconds, Skyfire looked back at Arca, “You…you said something about your luggage?”

“Yup! I’ve got my own armor. It’s a modified multi-mode lightrunner. I couldn’t completely give up the speed after all. Designed it myself.”

Darrek coughed. “I can vouch for the speed part of that. Third place in the invitational a couple days ago.”

Arca grinned and looked at the Rangers. “Is it here yet?”

“All your luggage came up earlier. It’s stored down below. If you need anything now, you might want to get it; once we’re going, it won’t be as accessible,” Yuri explained.

“No, we’ve got it all,” Darrek said. “At least enough for a day trip. You can really get to Cerberus in time?”

“Fastest man-rated ship in system,” Skyfire said proudly. “We’ll get out there before you know it.”

“Another long story we can cover en route,” Yuri explained. “Getting out in time will be a bit tight, but well within our capabilities.”

“We’ve been in and out so often, we’re going to open a burger franchise,” Skyfire said. She saw the puzzled looks and shrugged. “Tough crowd. The Zharusians get it.”

“Usually we go Cerberus to Rhodes and back. Even with DINcom, the Engineers don’t like virtual. They aren’t satisfied until they touch steel. And with the amount of material going out for the Western and the fleet, that’s a lot to touch.” Yuri continued.

He motioned to the airlock. “If you’ll come this way, I’ll show you the Caravan.”

He led them through the airlock into the ship. Most of the expanded module was open living space, with a couch and kitchenette. One door lead towards the bow. A short hall had two side doors and a door at the end. Yuri turned to start pointing things out, but was interrupted by the lioness pair.

Fused together, the lioness was a tight squeeze in the space. She had to duck and turn sideways just to make it through the locks, and even inside she couldn’t stand fully upright. Realizing the problem before Skyfire did, the Fuser opened, releasing a young woman with lioness tags. But rather than dropping to four legs, the RIDE compressed herself and remained bipedal. “There. More headroom,” Barbaretta said, standing fully upright, her ears a few centies from the ceiling.

“Neat trick,” Yuri said after a moment. “I didn’t think that was possible.”

“My understanding is that it was partly adapted from EI Fuser armor frames,” Teenette said.

“Makes sense. Those limits you had seemed rather arbitrary to me,” Skyfire said, the airlocks sliding shut behind her. “In any case, as Yuri was about to say. Cabins are on either side of the hall. Both are identical, so take your pick, two bunks to a room. Head’s at the back. Cockpit’s up front. That area’s off limits supposedly, but knock first and we can let you in if you want to see.”

“I’ll be spending most of the trip fused, or in here being a host. If you need anything, just ask,” Yuri added.

“So are you going to do one of those sneaky escapes with us and tell us we’re already away?” Darrek asked.

Yuri triggered a few views on the walls. One showed they were still connected to Toptown. “It was tempting, but we figured we’d give you the chance to cast us off.”

“Besides, Polestar hasn’t given us clearance yet. It’ll take us about an hour after that to get far enough out to kick off, and traffic over Aloha is a nightmare,” Skyfire explained.

“You know, Totalia is going to need a space elevator,” Darrek said, wandering to a screen and looking at the view of the elevator. “if we’re going to get serious about space.”

“Well, cavorite makes them moot more or less. Aloha’s elevator, they mainly use it to bring things up, and to power the polity. Coming down, it’s faster to just drop it on an A-G sled. Still, it is great for the tourists,” Skyfire said. “There we go, we’re cleared to cast off. Care to do the honors?”

Teenette and Darrek looked at eachother, then at Barbaretta. “Honors?” Teenette asked.

“Take us out, Captains,” Barbaretta said as explanation.

Skyfire snapped a salute to the lioness. “Aye aye. Releasing from Toptown, and breaking orbit..”

“I think I’m jealous,” Arca said, smirking at Skyfire.

“It loses a smidge of its excitement when you’ve do it dozens of times in the last few months,” Yuri noted.

The only hint of movement was from the screens. They pulled away from the station and started climbing. Space was crowded with moving objects, most too small to see as more than a point of light.

“So what way are we going? Just straight to Cerberus?” Darrek asked once they were well on their way.

“We have a little side trip planned. Our speedy engines have some specific requirements. We can’t get too close to gravy sources. Zharus, Colossus and Cerberus are in a close enough alignment, we can’t go direct.” Yuri explained. The lights dimmed and a model of the Pharos system lit up. “Even though Cerberus is off the ecliptic, the direct route is close enough that Colossus is in the way.”

Skyfire nodded and a line lit up, heading away from Zharus, not quite going towards Cerberus. “So we’re doing two jumps basically, heading away from everything, and then taking a direct route to the Fleet.”

The Totalians and Arca nodded, while Barbaretta looked curiously at the Rangers. Darrek spoke up before she could ask anything.

“Arca mentioned you’re not from Zharus right? From Rhodes?”

“That I am, from a spacer family going back to Earth’s original orbitals.”

“I wish we could have been able to make it out there. There’s just so much here to do and so little time to do it in. The scale of everything here is so big, it’s hard to wrap your mind around.”

“Size, distance, number of people, it has been quite daunting. Still, we did our best to get a slice of culture to bring back home with,” Darrek said.

“Did you spend any time off planet? Z-Space has a lot to see by itself, even if you can’t leave orbit,” Yuri asked.

“Not since we were picked up. Barbaretta was in rough shape so we came right to the planet and didn’t leave until now.” Darrek saw Yuri’s expression and continued quickly. “I see now it was a mistake. A bad mistake. Back home, we only have a few tens of thousand people living in space. Most of them aren’t even permanent spacers. You’ve got millions of people out here, people who have never tasted open air. It’s a slice of culture we didn’t realize we missed.”

“Damn right it’s a slice. We built this planet—”

“—on rock and roll. Calm down Yuri, it wasn’t intentional. There’s only so many hours in a day, even one as long as Zharus’s.” Skyfire interrupted, trying to calm her partner.

“It’s a shame we didn’t make it out there. You’ve still got your original space stations right? I think I read that Rhodes is one of them,” Teenette asked. She sighed wistfully. “Be nice to take a look at it. Might feel a bit familiar to see something that came from Earth around the same time we did; tech with the same Sol-roots.”

Barbaretta laughed. “If you’re looking for that at Rhodes, you’re in for a big disappointment. It’s been rebuilt and rearranged through the centuries; now it’s just a glorified space truck stop.

“Now, if you want a classic station, you want Xolotlan. That place was mothballed for decades and is barely touched now. Sadly, even Skyfire’s speeds can’t make that sort of side trip in the time we have. It’s on the opposite side of the system we’re heading towards.”

“You’ve been peeking, haven’t you?” Skyfire grinned at the lioness. “And yes, Xolotlan is way out of range. I’m just trying to see if I can crunch the numbers for a flyby of Colossus at least, but orbits might not work out.”

“If you can make it work, please do,” Darrek said. “We still have a few days, and seeing Colossus up close would be a great send-off. And partly fill in a gap in our culture report.”

“Oh yeah!” Teenette said.

“I don’t know, are you sure you want to see a ‘space truck stop’?” Yuri asked with more than a hint of bitterness.

Skyfire shook her head and bumped her partner as she headed to a door to the cockpit. “Ignore him. His home-station pride is showing. I’ll go put on my bodies and see what I can work out with TraCon.”

Barbaretta smirked to herself and stretched out on the couch she had claimed. “Sure you need to work something out. Did you even bother going towards that fake route?” she whispered to Skyfire.

“And waste the fuel? If they hadn’t asked, we had an ace up our sleeves; Goldie was going to send in a pickup request to justify the diversion. Technically this is a slower route, even if we don’t stop, so we did need some justification.”

“But practically, it makes no difference, and now they have some more for their reports. How long can you give them at Rhodes?”

“A few hours at most, maybe half a day. Takes longer to coast in and push out of Colossus compared to Zharus.”

“That’ll do for now. Quark’s still rigging the Dabo tables?”

Skyfire laughed, “They’re still as bent as space around a black hole.”

Isaac’s Way, Rhodes Station

After a whirlwind tour of the station’s historical sections, the Totalians and their escorts were taken to Isaac’s Way, one of Rhodes’ higher class restaurants. They had a chance to relax in a private room with drinks, while waiting for the rest of the dinner guests.

“My apologies for the delay. Snow Squall and the Captain are both on their ways now,” Rodney explained. Rodney was an athletic metallic blue man with a classic grecian look. He wore a sky blue cloak and loin cloth, sandals and a crown. The crown silently burned with blue flames on his head. He was also the recently installed genius loci of Rhodes Station.

“No problem. A bit of down time is appreciated, especially after the past few months,” Teenette said.

“We realize our arrival was unplanned. That they can take the time out of their busy days to see us is appreciated,” Darrek added.

Rodney stood up and headed to the door. “They’re just entering now.”

By the time he reached the door, everyone else had stood up and moved to place the table behind them. Rodney glanced around, then opened the door. “Presenting Bruce Markov, Captain of Rhodes station, and Snow Squall, CEO of Talon Enterprises.”

The man that entered was normal looking. Markov was short, barely 150 centis tall, and completely hairless. His pale skin had the sheen of vac-resistance, but otherwise he was unremarkable. He was dressed in a simple blue business suit.

Behind him, the griffin integrate made up for the Captain’s unremarkability. Standing a little over two metres tall, Snow Squall was a mix of human, snow leopard and gyrfalcon. Mostly grey-white feathers transitioned to grey fur at his belly, just above the waistband of his pants. His wings, with black and white feathers that gave a hint of a checkering pattern, were pulled in tight to his back. His curved beak was black at the tip, fading to grey like his feathers near his nares. His hands were grey scaled like his feathers, tipped in black talons. He swished his long leopard tail slowly behind him while he waited for introductions.

“Thank you for coming to see us on such short notice,” Darrek said once the introductions were done and they were settled around the table. He found himself sitting across from Snow Squall, while Teenette sat across from the Captain at the other end.

“Thank you for the consideration of inviting us. I only wish you could stay longer. I assume Rodney has been making the best of the short time you have to visit?” Captain Markov said.

“He certainly has. The museum section especially; it reminded me a little of home, of pictures I’ve seen of Cosmy ships,” Teenette said. “Not that they’re that primitive. It’s just, the tech from back then is closer to ours,” she corrected herself quickly.

Snow Squall chuckled, “I have seen the reports on your space technology and resources. The comparisons, and differences are valid. Adapting our gifts to what Totalium can provide is going to be some interesting challenges. Challenges I’m looking forward to tackling.”

“You’re looking forward to it?” Darrek asked.

“Yes indeed. Talon Enterprises is part of an alliance of Colossus and Zharus companies that are providing the gift of the four industrial ships. Unlike those companies, I and the rest of T.E. will be moving to Totalia with the ships. We hope to reincorporate there once things settle.”

Darrek found himself momentarily speechless. He’d been so busy on Zharus, he hadn’t closely followed what the fleet plans were. “That… is interesting,” he stammered out.

“What are your intentions with Totalia?” Barbaretta asked, a touch of suspicions in her voice.

“Only the best, I assure you. The opportunity it provides is just too juicy to ignore. The Industrial ships are effectively seed ships, much like the one in the centre of Rhodes here. They’re meant to grow into a proper spacer civilization. Unlike those older ships, these ones contain modern technology, improvements the original Spacers couldn’t even dream of. In some ways, Totalia will be a safe test bed for seeing what works and doesn’t work.”

Teenette put the pieces together first. “That implies you’re thinking of colonization.”

Snow Squall sipped his wine and nodded. “In a way. Not of the Totalian system, but beyond. It has been decades since a new system was settled. The populations of the colony worlds continue to rise, and even Earth’s population has stabilized. As Zharus and the rest of the colonies mature, people are going to get itchy feet again, to get a desire to find someplace new. With the long life I have to look forward to, it’s inevitable that I will see another colonization wave start. It’s only wise to keep those skills sharp and modernized.”

“Wow,” Arca said.

Further discussion was interrupted by a soft knock at the door. A second later, it opened and waiters brought in trays of food and fresh drinks. Darrek saw a large salmon steak, with a fried kraken side dish, put in front of Snow Squall and had a moment of worry. He was relieved when a real steak with mushrooms, potatoes and other vegetables was placed in front of him.

“I made sure they knew your preference,” Arca whispered to him, winking and stealing a plump mushroom from his plate. “No seafood.”

“Thanks,” he whispered back, and dug into the food. He studied the meat chunk on his fork, trying to decide if it was real or fabbed.

“Isaac’s Way only serves natural food, grown in the gardens and water tanks of Rhodes or shipped live from Zharus,” Markov explained, as if reading Darrek’s mind. “Most of our food is fabbed, but even we like to treat ourselves occasionally.”

“Make sure you enjoy it. You’ll be on fabbed food for the next 4 weeks. Unless you break into the Ark and go hunting. Noah wouldn’t like that,” Yuri said.

“The Ark?” Teenette asked.

“Another gift, no strings attached. It’s a gene bank to help fill in any ecological gaps on Totalia. It also has numerous biomes already active. Noah is an EI who tends it all.”

“Wow, we’ll have to check that out when we get out there,” Teenette said. She took another bite and mmmed. “Fabbed or not, this is fabulous.”

“Chef Isaac is the best on Rhodes, and one of the top in the system,” Snow Squall said, savouring his own dish.

“Well earned,” Darrek agreed. “I’m being spoiled by all this. When we get back to Totalia, we’re just going to be regular folk again, having to live off our own budgets.”

“Don’t remind me,” Teenette groaned.

“Considering the friends you’ve made, I doubt you’ll be ‘regular folk’, even back at Totalia.” Barbaretta noted.

“No matter what, you will always be guests of honor here,” Bruce assured them.

“Thank you,” Teenette said. “I hope we can get back to take advantage of your hospitality. We haven’t even scratched the surface of what we could see here.”

“Not bad for a ‘truck stop’,” Yuri noted, before getting elbowed by Skyfire.

“Now, about all this new technology, you’re providing us…” Darrek said. “I assume you’re sending along means to train us to use it?”

“Most of the personnel with the industrial ships will be for training your own people; we’re barely bringing along enough to run it. To properly use our gift, we’re going to need many more people, preferably Totalians,” the griffin said. “The objective is self sufficiency for Totalia. Not to mention to see what you might come up with on your own based on what we teach you. New perspectives result in new technologies, after all.”

“New technologies you’ll control?”

Snow Squall smiled and shook his head. “Only partially. We are reincorporating in your system. Over half of Talon Enterprises will be owned by Totalians if our plans go well. So you’ll control what we get. We’re just giving you what you need to rejoin us on equal footing.

“I understand very few Totalians actually live in space; even your Cosmy regularly cycles people back to the planet. When we arrive, your first permanent off planet habitats will be built. Built with your help, and the supervision of one very talented horse Integrate.”

“Impressive plans. We’ll see what we can do to make them pay off,” Darrek said.

Separator k.png

“Ugh, I’m absolutely stuffed,” Arca said, leaning on Darrek and rubbing her belly. They were wandering slowly back to the docks.

“But damn, that was good,” Teenette agreed. “Going to take me weeks to work this off. Unless you want to help me?” She grinned at Barbaretta.

The lioness shook her head and laughed. She carried a parting gift from the restaurant; a tub of hand made ice cream, an apple pie and chocolate cake. “Only if you let me share this with you. All this fine food you’ve been served almost makes me miss my soft body.”

“Well the food coma’s we’ll all be in should make the next stage of the trip go by faster,” Yuri said. He opened the airlock and stood to the side. “After you.”

Darrek paused and looked back. He could just see the Promenade at the end of the corridor, the flashing lights and music shifting as the crowds walked by.

“Thanks for hosting us again,” he said to Rodney.

Rodney shook his offered hand, “My pleasure. Good luck with your home. I look forward to seeing you return with good news.”

“We look forward to bringing it back,” Teenette said, shaking the EI’s hand as well. “Once we get home straightened out, I can’t wait to come back and see all we missed.”

“I’ll send you a suggestion list,” Rodney said. He stepped back while they stepped through the airlock. He waved at them until the hatches closed, sealing them off from the station.

Chapter 9

September 15, 158 AL

Cerberus

Eight light-hours out, Pharos was a very bright point in the sky, visible through the physical dome of Lassie, one of the three “heads” of the plutoid where the Totalia Relief Fleet had set up their staging area. The other two, Pluto and Scooby, housed the different contributors to the Fleet—Spacers, Zharusian military, Rangers, Scouts, Marshals, and more. Thousands of people.

Darrek was awed, and more than a little humbled. Skyfire had shown them the half-dozen ships being readied. The Great Western was about the size as the Cosmy’s standard system patrol ship. Her unfinished hull was covered with a seemingly haphazard collection of habitation modules, a number of smaller docked ships, and materiel intended as the first gifts to Totalia.

Zane had provided detailed status reports during the planetary tour, including ship manifests, holo, and some personnel profiles. Darrek had spent the last few hours reviewing them. The majority of the fleet was just there to support Zharus’s operations in the Totalian system. The rest were gifts for the Totalians. Snow Squall’s industrial fleet would be huge, but they would arrive weeks later and set up out of sight of most of the planet. The Ark on the other hand…Darrek was positive that was going to be the biggest gift as far as the people were concerned. Which was why he had insisted they stop there first, even before going down to the habitat domes, or up to the King of Hearts.

Lush gardens seemed to fill the Ark from end to end. “Strawberries… These are strawberries,” Teenette gasped, bending down to pick a couple. She’d eaten more than her share during her time on Zharus, but here they were. “You’re giving strawberries to Totalia.”

“Strawberries, kiwi, bananas, and other fruits and vegetables I understand didn’t make it with your original colony ships,” Noah said. He was the Ark’s genius loci, presenting in the body of an older man with a long grey beard, dressed in simple linen robes. A leashed goat nibbled at the grasses next to him. “We’re also providing livestock, like these goats, and other animals and plants that don’t exist on Totalia.”

“No strawberries or bananas? The smoothie market is going to explode when we get there,” Arca said.

“This is too much,” Darrek said, looking around. The Ark had other sections for forests, swamps, plains and even a small ocean biosphere zone. So much in such a small space.

“We understand that Totalia has had very little in the way of terraforming. The Ark Lander is Zharus’s gift to Totalia. Rather symbolic, given the rest of the assistance. But I think necessary. You can use the genetic material and seedstock to fill in the gaps in your ecology.”

“But a gift? You’re just giving this to us?” Teenette said.

“Totalia has proven itself as a viable colony world. We want to make sure it will stay viable on the long term. Another world of Man will benefit everyone in the end.”

“Oh behalf of Totalia, I’m honored. We accept this gracious gift,” Darrek said, glancing at a couple of bird-sized drones that were rushing towards them.

On Zharus, their cover had miraculously stayed intact, so they hadn’t needed to watch for the fifth estate. Out here at Cerberus, everyone knew of the Totalian mission and especially who they were. The press had been caught by surprise when they stopped at the Ark first, a surprise they were getting over.

“We are pleased to gift this to you. If you’ll come this way, I’ll take you to the plains. We have a half dozen bison there, ready to release on your world—and frozen eggs and sperm enough to create thunderous herds given a few years.”

Darrek fell back as the tour continued, noting the press drones flittering around the group. He wrote on his notepad for the final dispatch to the Totaliment. Now this…media circus. Fitting, I suppose, since we’ll be living on a circus ship.

“Okay, everyone. Give them some breathing room,” a tiger Integrate said, coming out of an access entrance with another feline integrate. Zane Brubeck shooed the media floaters aside, Madison next to him. “You’ll have plenty of time for interviews during the jump.” He waited for them to back away to a somewhat polite distance, then extended his handpaw towards the Totalians. “Nice to see you all again.”

Darrek and Teenette shook it in turn. “Doctor Livingston, I presume?” Darrek said.

Zane grinned. “Quite. So, how was your trip out? We expected you a day ago.”

“Ah, we insisted on taking the long way,” Darrek said. “Skyfire swung us to Colossus. Technically a brown dwarf, isn’t it? The name is very fitting. We stopped briefly at Rhodes to recharge, and met some people there.”

“That’s understandable,” Madison said. “Rhodes was my first stop in the Daydream Believer on my shakedown.”

“And our home. Was good to stop in for a visit before leaving,” Yuri noted.

“The Mads gave us the go-ahead to push their experimental STL drive a little harder,” Skyfire said. “Now they’re going to want their data.” She looked to Zane and smiled. “Since I assume you have a ride from here, Yuri and I are going to head to the Heart of Gold. They’re going to want to retune the Caravan after this little jaunt, before we leave the system.”

“Sure, we can handle it from here out. Just make sure to send their luggage over to the King,” Zane said.

“Of course.”

“Thanks for the ride out,” Teenette said. “I guess we’ll see you en route?

“We’ll be aboard the Great Western with most everyone,” Yuri said. “So we’ll talk again sometime. Nice meeting you.”

“Wait until you meet the Mads,” Skyfire added. The red-and-white gynoid smiled at her old friend. “See you on the Grid, Arca.”

Arca smirked. “Not if I see you first.”

The spacers left, passing more of Zane’s group on the way. A she-elk Fuser wandering about, looking up at the transparent physical dome rather than the crowd around her. Rufia and Yvonne had had some final business to take care of before leaving Zharus and come out with their own ride. “This is all just pure awesome!” Rufia said.

“Over here, Rufe!” Teenette shouted, waving her over.

Darrek nodded to her. “Hey, Rufia. When did you hit the station?”

“Just a few minutes ago. Caught a lift with Marcus, heard everyone was stopping at the Ark, figured I’d come by too.” She smirked. “I had no idea how roomy those scout ships are. Especially the bed.”

“Roomy?” Teenette said. “Roomy, she says.”

Darrek grinned. “Well, if the bed was the only part she got any use out of…”

“This is really something, huh?” Rufia said. “This’ll be the first time I’ve been out of the system since Ryan and I came to Zharus…what was it, ten years ago? Time flies.”

“First time I’ve been out of the system at all,” Yvonne said. “Makes me kinda nervous and excited at the same time.”

“This time we’ll be giving you two the Grand Tour,” Teenette said. “I can’t wait.”

Rufia nodded. “It’ll be a learning experience, that’s for sure. And not just for me. Rhianna dragooned me into setting up a tour guide school for Totalians. You haven’t exactly had the need for a tourism industry so far, but unless I miss my guess you’re about to in spades.” She shook her head. “Sheesh. I still can’t believe there’s a whole wildcat colony out there that actually survived.”

Zane padded over from Noah, who he’d been chatting with. “Hello, Rufia, Yvonne. Glad to see you made it.”

“Damn glad to be here, Zane,” Rufia said, giving him a friendly slap on the shoulder. “How long we have left?”

“About five days. The Barsoom Fleet mining ships are leaving tomorrow. Maddie’s closeted with their captains for some last-minute consultations.” He waved a hand in the general direction of the residential section of the station. “Let’s get you all settled here. The accommodations are rather spartan, but we won’t be here long. We’ve already started moving the last equipment and personnel to the Great Western’s habs and King of Hearts. We’ll be a lot more comfortable once we’re aboard.”

“I hope to meet as many of your brave soldiers as I can before we reach Totalia,” Darrek said in his best Ambassadorial voice.

Barbaretta, currently in bipedal Shell mode, snorted. “Trust me, you’ll have time to meet every one of them.”

“Dunno what you’re complaining about,” Teenette said. “You got to sleep all the way through the last trip. As I understand it, you could sleep through this one if you wanted, too.”

Barbaretta snorted. “What, and miss all the fun?”

Zane chuckled. “Right this way, folks. Your rooms are ready. Maybe the press will even leave you alone long enough to do touristy things tomorrow, if you want. But don’t wait too long. Cerberus is getting shut down as soon as we’re loaded.”

“Gotcha,” Rufia said. “Say, where’s Rhi and Kay? I have a bridal shower gift for her.”

“She and Kay are deep in a rather spirited ‘discussion’ with the scientist crew of the Heart of Gold.” Zane grimaced. “Never met a group of more meme-infected Inties. I’ll let her know you’re around.”

“All right. Guess we’d best get on to our quarters. See ya later!” She paused. “Hey…I don’t s’pose it’s gonna be an open marriage?”

Zane rolled his eyes and pointed. “Get outta here.”

Separator k.png

September 19, 158 AL

“Closing time, open all the doors and let you out into the world…” From the Daydream Believer’s bridge, Zane watched the lights go out one by one in the three domes of the Cerberus asteroid station. He could have used the ship’s sensors to follow it, but his Integrate eyes were able to zoom in far enough to make out the details.

Cerberus was closing down. Every last human, RIDE, Integrate, EIDE, and other person had packed and left, and the last of multiple sweeps and double-checks had been performed to make sure no one was left behind. Now the facility was being mothballed. It might see some other use later on, but for now there were already plenty of deep-space stations and settlements in the area. Cerberus had been built specifically to bootstrap the Totalia fleet supply effort, and the plan had always been to fold its personnel into the fleet when that was over. And the plan had worked—though there had been some serious logistical hurdles along the way.

“That’s that,” Madison reported. “The decom team’s shuttle’s launched. All Cerberus systems are in cold standby. Shall we beat feet back to the G.W.?”

Zane nodded. “Might as well.” He glanced back to the trio in the bridge’s jump seats. “What say you, Ambassadors?”

“I guess we’ve seen enough,” Darrek said. He reached over to give Arca’s hand a squeeze, then nodded to Zane. “I can’t thank you enough for…I don’t know, saying ‘the help’ or even ‘the warm welcome’ seems inadequate.”

“I can’t believe our trip is over,” Teenette said. “I wish we had longer. It still feels like we’ve barely scratched the surface of Zharus and the space settlements.”

“Not to mention the other colonies?” Barbaretta said. “I still want to show you around Zheng He, you know.”

“I’m looking forward to it,” Teenette said.

“And I’m looking forward to seeing your home,” Arca said. “I hope we can free it quickly, without further bloodshed.”

“That makes…well, all of us,” Madison said.

“Let’s head back to the Great Western,” Zane said. “It’s time to get underway.”

Separator k.png

Fleet Launch: T-12 hours

The Great Western had been equipped with the very latest technology in modular docking tackle. The hull was studded with adjustable ports, grips, and clamps, so attaching any given ship to any given section was more or less an exercise in sticking it into place. It was like starship velcro, or maybe LEGO. Of course, with this many ships involved, they couldn’t just stick them on any which way. Working out the most efficient arrangement had taken a considerable amount of time.

Smaller ships, like Rochelle and Uncia’s Maxima, Joe Steader’s Pan-Am starliner, and the group of generic shuttles Camelot had pitched in, were mounted toward the front, for easy access to the King of Hearts and the Hab Module. Once they got to the Totalia system, they were expected to be in and out a lot.

Being midway in size between these small ships and the larger cargo craft, the three Scout ships were clustered together right behind them, connected to the Great Western’s main transport shafts with flexible docking tunnels. To conserve space elsewhere and increase the amount of personnel intermingling during the voyage, the three Scout ships had agreed to bunk a few extra passengers for the duration of the jump. They’d find other places to be after arriving at Totalia.

At the moment, a number of these ships were in the process of arriving and docking for the last time before departure. Joel thought it looked kind of like a slow-motion explosion in reverse. Instead of parts flying off every which way, they were slowly flying in from all directions instead.

:MOOOOOOOOB!: Zach sent cheerfully.

:Huh?:

:That’s the sound an explosion in reverse makes! Or would, if there was sound in space.:

:Heh.: Joel reached up and gave the hardlight ferret on his shoulder a scritch behind the ears.

“Hey, look, there’s the DDB!” Zach said aloud, for the benefit of their guests on the bridge. Marcus had been wanting to get a good look at a sneakship like the Satellite of Love for some time, and this had been the first good opportunity to have him and his new crew aboard.

Marcus watched the ship slowly maneuver into its docking slot to the SOL’s port side. Reaction thrusters flared, pushing it gently into place. “A sweet little ship, that. Of course, she doesn’t have the classic lines of the older generation of vessels.” He nodded toward the Turbinia, to starboard.

“Of course,” Joel said dryly.

“So that’s the white knight who came to your rescue, huh?” Gatsby said. “Somehow I expected it would be bigger.” The griffin RIDE was seated on one of the bridge’s jump seats in shell mode, shuffling real playing cards on the console for dexterity practice.

“Size isn’t everything,” Sinewave said. “In fact, rather the opposite. I was afraid I would have to settle for a huge cargo hauler, and instead look at me—I get to be a scoutship!”

“That reminds me,” Marcus said, raising his newly cat-like ears. “Do you two plan on recruiting an EI to run this ship?”

“Well, you know, sneakships rarely drop planetside,” Joel said. “Might not be fair to them to have to stay cooped up with us all the time.”

“And it depends if a prospective EI shares our tastes in entertainment,” Zach added. “It would be kind of nice to have a ‘real’ Magic Voice, but we can’t exactly recruit someone just for that.”

Madison’s voice came over the comm. “Hey, you guys! Okay, we’re here, they can start now.”

Joel grinned. “Hey, Madison. Glad you could join us.”

“Oh, you know. Didn’t have anything better to do. My social calendar was completely blank.”

“And you know, we don’t really see that changing for the next few months,” Zane added. “Looks like we’re going to have a lot of time to sit around and play cards.”

Gatsby perked up. “Did someone mention cards?” He riffled the deck together, flipped it over, and fanned it out—shuffled into perfect order. “Poker, gin, spades, Uno…”

“Bridge?” Zach put in.

“More sort of a flight deck, really, ship this size,” Gatsby said.

“You’ve been waiting to use that one. Haven’t you.”

Gatsby smiled. “We can also play Magic: The Gathering, Munchkin, Cards Against Sapience, Cripple Mr. Onion, Sabacc…we’ll have plenty of time and lots of potential players. In between training exercises, of course.”

“I guarantee that nobody’s going to be bored on this trip,” Zane said. “I want you all on the bridge of the King of Hearts when we submerge, too.”

Joel chuckled. “Sure thing, boss. But I’ll see you on the SOL later for movie night.”

“Wouldn’t miss it. We’ll bring the Steaders.”

“Joe Steader. In our theater!” Zach said, nearly swooning. “I’ll find our very best movie cheese for riffing.”

“Looking forward to it, Mr. Brubeck, sir,” Joel said, snapping an ironic salute.

“I wonder if Mikel’s as enthusiastic about B movies as his brother?” Zach speculated. “And there’s that Julius cat, too.”

“Well, we’ve got stuff to do on the King, and I imagine you’ve all got your own ducks to hoe. I’ll see you once we’re all in jump,” Zane finished.

“Looking forward to seeing you guys again!” Madison added before breaking the connection.

“This is going to be the most crowded voyage we’ve ever been on,” Joel said. “There’s what? Nearly ten thousand aboard the GW, all told? Rickenbacker has another couple thousand…”

Zach giggled. “The LOOOOOOOVE Boat!”

“Do we have time for perhaps one hand of something short?” Gatsby pleaded. He started shuffling the deck again. “How ‘bout something simple? Go Fish?”

“A little obsessed with card games, eh?” Zach said.

“A guy’s gotta have a hobby, right?”

“Set up the table, Cadet,” Marcus said.

“I’m game,” Sinewave added. “I’ll put up my standard handicaps when I play with organics. No offense, sir.”

Marcus laughed. “I just realized I’m the only plain human here.” He flicked his rather small wings. “Well…sort of.”

Joel shrugged. “That’s all right. Nobody’s perfect. Anyway, we can spare a half hour or so in the Real. I’ve rezzed up the card table in the Theater.”

Gatsby put his deck of cards under a chest panel then dropped to all-fours, wings held tightly against his flanks. There was a glint in his sea eagle eye. “Don’t worry, everyone, I’ll go easy on you.”

Joel chuckled. “You’d better. Your hands aren’t quicker than our eyes, you know.”

Gatsby smirked. “Oh, is that a challenge I hear? Heh heh heh…”

“Ever see Maverick? We catch you cheating, we throw you off the boat.”

“If you catch me cheating, I’ll deserve it.”

Marcus shook his head. “All right, let’s see if you really do know when to hold ‘em. Loser takes the first maintenance shift after we enter jump."

“You are so on.”

They filed out of the bridge, Joel leaving last to dim the shipboard lighting. He glanced out at the stars one last time, and smiled. “Gonna be an interesting trip.”

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 Two: Clementine Separator k right.png
Preceded by:
Return to Totalia, Part One: Prelude
FreeRIDErs Succeeded by:
Parallels, Part Two: Clementine