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User:Robotech Master/Prodigals

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FreeRIDErs story universe


Integration

by Jon Buck and Robotech_Master

Part 20: Prodigals

September 16, 156 A.L.

Alpha Camp

The XB-70’s arrival back at camp generated relatively little uproar. The inhabitants had gotten used to AlphaWolf and friends departing on various odd little errands that didn’t involve raids lately, though AlphaWolf was fully aware that each such trip he took without an intervening raid put him on ever more precarious ground.

“So this is your camp,” Diana Fuerst said as she and Hedy, Fused together, stepped off the gangplank and looked around at the scattered log cabins. “It is not as…impressive as I was led to believe.”

AlphaWolf snorted. “What were you expecting? A James Bond villain lair? A Cobra Terrordrome? We got what we were able to build with our own two hands, sister. Or, rather, someone else’s two hands.”

“It’s not much, but it’s home,” Paul said. “Ours…and now yours.”

As they stepped off the gangplank, a group of several wolves of various sizes trotted up, the un-Fused Sonja in the lead. “You asked us to meet you?” Sonja asked Paul. “Ve are here.”

“Hey, Sonja,” Paul said. “It wasn’t me I wanted you to meet, but our new refugee. This is Hedy, fresh out of Sturmhaven, and her pilot, Oberstleutnant Diana Fuerst.”

Sonja padded up and sniffed amiably at Hedy. “I am pleased to be meetink you,” she said.

“Uh, thanks,” Hedy said. “That accent…you’re one of the old crossrider training units, aren’t you?”

Ja, I vas, but zose days are behind me,” Sonja said. “Now I only mold true girls into strong Sturmhaven vomen. Zough I am betveen girls at ze moment.”

“Diana? Really hope you’re proud of what you people have made,” Paul said matter-of-factly. “Just saying.”

I didn’t make them!” Fuerst said. “They were all supposed to have been recommissioned to ordinary field duty five years ago after we finally tossed the Valks out of the Bundestag on their ears.”

Sonja blinked. “Really? Zere is no more moldink of crossriders in Sturmhaven?” Behind Sonja, a larger wolf perked up and started fidgeting, ears turning forward.

“No, it turned out to be too psychologically damaging to the RIDEs and the riders,” Fuerst said. “There was a case study on one unit, named Sonja…wait. That’s you, isn’t it?”

Sonja’s ears twitched. “Do go on?” The other wolf opened her mouth to speak, then fell silent in deference to her leader.

“Um…well, it turned out you were only the first of your kind to have…problems with being forced to serve as a crossrider brood hatcher,” Fuerst said. “And it didn’t even work that well on the vict—ah, volunteers to begin with. We don’t do it anymore. We’ve gone back to human trainers. It’s more flexible when any female RIDE can be paired with a male volunteer anyway.”

“Vell vell vell,” Sonja mused. “So if I vere to go back…ah, but no. They vould never take back a deserter to begin vith. Ah vell. At least I know no others vill be forced to do vhat I vas.”

“It helps that the political environment has shifted away from the misandry of the Valks, but that’s neither here nor there,” Fuerst said.

The larger wolf finally got up the courage to speak. “D…Diana? Is that really you?”

Hedy froze, as her human’s reflexes overrode her own. “Oh mein Gott. Bertha? Bertha, is that really you?

“Ah, so that is who she crewed for two years,” Fenris rumbled, pulling around from the rear cargo bay exit ramp. “It all begins to make sense now. Perhaps you learned she was with us?”

“We suspected, we guessed…I hoped…” Fuerst admitted. “But I would have come anyway…”

Bertha padded forward, past Sonja. “Can I…can I see her? Please?”

“Uh…sure,” Hedy said, nonplussed. She de-Fused, leaving the dark-haired woman in the Sturmhaven uniform standing alone.

Bertha padded up to her and sniffed at her. “It is you!” she said triumphantly. She put her huge muzzle against the woman’s chest and lifted her off the ground in joy.

“Oh…Bertha. My Bertha…” Diana murmured, running a hand along her muzzle. Tears trickled down her cheeks. “What have they done to you…”

Bertha gently put Diana back down again. “What they were supposed to. Put me in a body that would be cheaper to run and more useful to them than my own…which did not work well enough to merit keeping up.”

“I am sorry…I tried to stop them, but found out too late, and a mere Leutnant did not have enough pull, regardless.” She shook her head. “I was at least able to keep them from destroying your body. It is one of the three we mothballed.”

“Oh…” Bertha murmured. “Ohhhh…” She turned to look at Hedy. “I know that…by the rules of this camp, she is yours, but…can I have her? Please? I would do anything…”

Hedy looked thoughtfully at them. “You know what? I think we can work something out.”

Fuerst froze, turning to look at Hedy. “…what?”

Hedy giggled. “I was supposed to pretend to be keeping her until she’d found the secret she’s here looking for, then escape with her back to Sturmhaven. But the teensy little problem with that is…I’m not fettered anymore. I don’t have to follow the script anymore. And I think you make a really cute couple.”

Fuerst glared. “Hedy…

“Really, you don’t even need me anyway. If you get the secret everyone in Sturmhaven wants right now, you’ll have a blank check.”

“She’s right,” Fenris said. “I have little doubt they would gladly reinstate and recommission Bertha in return for knowing how to make us work as we were supposed.”

“So if you get your old body back, I want you to insist I be assigned to your new gunner partner,” Hedy said. “So we can share her. That’s the price.”

“You know…there’s nothing inherent about the linkage system that requires a WLF-CSA shell,” Paul mused. “I’ll bet I could link the two of you up right now. And you’ve probably got enough internal space you could store her un-Fused…or maybe even Fuse with them Fused already. Might require a little modification to you both…maybe link your Fuser nannie circ systems…hmm.”

AlphaWolf shook his head. “Sounds like he’s picked up some tinkering habits from Rhianna. Besides, I’m sure the system that’s in Fenris could use some improvements, that is, if Hedy and Bertha don’t mind being our honorary X-series.”

“And while I might not be inclined to reveal the secret of our synchronization to a Sturmhaven officer, I believe I could do so to a fellow WLF-CSA,” Fenris mused. “Especially if it were to result in her restoration to her original body.”

Bertha stared from one to the other of them. “You would do that…for me?”

“You could do that with me?” Hedy asked.

“Wolves of a feather pack together, or something like that,” AlphaWolf said.

“Of course, you’ll have to stay around here long enough for us to tune it and test it,” Paul said. “Could be weeks. I don’t let half-assed work out of my shop.”

“But if it works, we bring along not only the information, but a working model of the technology,” Fuerst breathed. “You would really do this?”

Paul shrugged. “It’s tempting to try to use it as a crowbar to ask that Sturmhaven reform itself a little more, but I know they’d never do that just ‘cuz a man asked them to no matter what we give ‘em. And this tech will leak to everyone sooner or later anyway. So we might as well get what we can out of Sturmhaven for getting it early. And if that’s just helping friends, well, that’s some friends who wouldn’t have been helped without it.”

“Then…if it is well with my…partners,” Fuerst looked from Hedy to Bertha, “it is well with me.”

Bertha glanced over at Hedy. “Then…if I can have Diana…could I…have you, too?”

“I, um, guess?” Hedy said. “I hadn’t thought about it like that, but…”

Bertha leaned over and gave Hedy’s muzzle a lick with a hardlight tongue the size of her head. “I promise, I’ll take good care of you. Both of you.”

“Um…thank you,” Diana said.

“Great!” Paul rubbed his hands together. “Come to our shop and we’ll get started.”

AlphaWolf chuckled, watching the procession of differently-sized wolves led by one immense one head for the walled-off place where Paul and Fenris worked. Even Sonja was following along, out of curiosity no doubt. “Never a dull moment around here, that’s for sure.” He shook his head and trotted off to take care of other camp business.

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October 7, 156 A.L.

About a month had passed since the impromptu summit. There had been no sign of any further trouble from Fritz, either in Uplift or at AlphaWolf’s camp. But far from being reassuring, it only increased the tension. Everyone’s nerves were on edge waiting for Fritz to strike, as he surely would sooner or later. And everyone was preparing in their own ways.

The Marshals were keeping several crisis response teams on immediate standby. Zane had beefed up Brubeck corporate security in Uplift, sending Anny and Leila there to coordinate disaster response personally with Uplift’s civil defense. Nextus and Sturmhaven were conducting huge military exercises—against each other, for a wonder, with Nuevo San Antonio refereeing. Even Uplift had run a polity-wide emergency disaster preparation drill four months ahead of schedule.

Rhianna had spent the first couple of weeks getting more and more tense, until she had caught herself starting to yell at the Lindae for handing her the wrong tool. At that point, she realized her nerves were starting to do Fritz’s job for him. Leaving the day-to-day operation of the business to Linda, she retired to her and Rochelle’s personal garage to tinker with Kaylee, the DIN gear, and a few other personal projects and try to relax so she wouldn’t be a complete nervous wreck when he did show up. Rochelle joined her from time to time, when she wasn’t dealing with the stress in her own private ways.

:Hey, what about that funny DINsec cable coupling we found on the big platform?:Kaylee suggested one day. :I’d like to get a closer look at that.:

“Very good idea, Kaylee,” Rhianna replied. It was much better than the aimless gadgeteering that otherwise filled the time between improving what they now called “DINsec” and tinkering with Kaylee’s loadout configuration.

Ten minutes later they’d hopped in the Dreamchaser and were on the way to the platform. It took all Rhianna’s willpower not to be drawn into RIDE Maint—getting sidetracked right now would probably make her forget about this for another few weeks. She replaced the three sets of couplers in the flow control unit with new ones, then returned to the garage, all in less than three hours.

While she was gone, her fabber had created testing gear and she had some experiments designed. First, there was a fundamental question that needed answering: was this transmission effect common to all DIN-couplers, or just these three? All of them were from the same production run on the same fabber. Okay, so let me create a control group…

The first tests revealed that what she called the “Gap Transmission Effect” was unique to these three units, and likely all the other units from the same production lot, of which there were thousands. For the control group, when she separated the coupler the test data stopped. She could rule out that it was simply inherent to the design.

“Poor quality control?” Kaylee suggested. “They were churning them out as fast as they could to get systems secure. Must’ve cut a lot of corners. I’m detecting some palladium and cavorite contamination in the qubitite doping. I don’t know what they were fabbing before the DINs, but they didn’t clean up really well. It’s changed the layercake by a smidge, and I’m getting some weird readings that my cross-references say should only show up in FTL physics.”

“Really? Really? Oh, Lordy,” Rhianna said. She decided to sacrifice one coupler, putting it in a quantum scanner. Full analysis would take more time. True science was often more about waiting for results. Once the scanners revealed the full structural and material differences between standard DIN couplers and the aberrant GTE units, Rhianna understood the source of the effect well enough to make a few purpose-designed prototypes.

Rhianna and Kaylee lost track of time until Rochelle looked over her shoulder. “Hey Rhi, what’s up? You’ve been a busy catgirl today. What’s this setup about?”

“Where are the bubbling beakers?” Uncia said. “You can’t be a proper mad scientist without bubbling beakers!”

The wild-eyed look they got in return unnerved them. “Girls, I’m onto something…big. Huge. Massive!” Rhianna said. “Revolutionary!”

“Well, what is it, then?” Rochelle asked.

“I need to do more testing—a lot more. Just trust me. It’s big. I’ll send it to Paul and the bunch once it’s ready. Meet the DINcom,” Rhianna said, handing a prototype unit to the software engineer. “And I’m going to need your help now that the hardware’s ready. Here, I’ll dump everything to Uncia so you can review.”

Rochelle Fused up with her RIDE, then promptly almost lost their balance. “Rhi, you know what this is, don’t you ? You know what this is?” she said breathlessly.

“Don’t say it!” Rhianna exclaimed, waving her hands in front of herself. “I want to get more eyes on this first. I don’t want to jinx anything. Let me do a little more prep work on this, then we’ll com Paul and the others at the Camp. Fenris and Guinevere are going to love this.”

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The month had also been a busy one at AlphaWolf’s camp for Paul and Lillibet. Alpha was able to convince a few holdouts to get DINned up, and a few newcomers straggled into the keep who also needed them. Then there was the link-up work on Bertha and Hedy. Despite Paul’s earlier bravado, he soon found that retrofitting a link between the two RIDEs was nonetheless a challenging feat of engineering with his limited resources at the Camp. He and Lilli consulted with Rhi and Shelley as often as comm windows permitted.

During one of these consultations, Rhianna passed along a schematic for an experimental modification to the DIN system that hooked Fenris and Guinevere together. “What’s this supposed to do, exactly?” Paul asked, peering at the plans. “Extend the range on the RIDE linkage? I don’t see any obvious wireless hardware, so, comm lasers? How does it maintain the bandwidth we need?”

“It’s a…new technique,” Rhianna said. “Based on something I found out at the platform when we started it back up. Slap it in and see if you can tell me where the signal starts to fade out. I’ve been getting ranges of a few hundred meters—which is a big improvement—but this needs field testing. Don’t worry about wireless or line-of-sight for comm lasers.”

Paul shrugged and put it in. “Okay, guys, let’s see what this does.”

“Interesting,” Fenris said as he powered up the new system with Lilli and Guin standing nearby with Paul. “Ping times are back down to the femtosecond range. It’s as if we were physically connected.”

“Yeah, I feel it!” Guinevere said. “Weird—it’s throwing my reflexes off a little, but I can adjust.” She turned to Lillibet. “Let’s Fuse up and try for some real range!”

Paul hopped into Fenris’s cockpit. “You guys head to the other end of the camp. That’s far enough for a first test.”

“Right!” Lilli saluted, then Guin wrapped around her and they lifted into the air and skimmed away.

“So how is it?” Paul asked as he checked over the hardlight panel displays. “Still linked?”

“Yes,” Fenris said. “How remarkable. Previously we had to be right next to each other for a full neural connection—even as far as Zane’s platform from the parking lot we only had sensory sharing via telemetry. But now I am communicating with Guinevere as if she were right there in my turret.”

“Wow! Let’s Fuse up. I want to sense this.” Paul dropped into the link as Fenris’s body enclosed him. :Hey, you two. Wow, you’re really at the other end of the camp?:

:Yeah! Freaky, innit?: Lilli asked. :I can feel you like you’re right there!:

“Any signal strength drop-off?” Paul asked Fenris.

“If so, it is too small for me to measure,” Fenris replied.

:Okay, take it out into the desert until you sense it start to fade out,: Paul said. :Stop if I tell you to.:

:Roger!: Guin replied.

Paul peered out through Guin’s optics and Lilli’s eyes as they headed out through the dome. It was a little disorienting.

:I don’t understand. The latency should be increasing,: Fenris added.

:This is amazing!: Lillibet said. :I’m not getting any interference at all!:

:Oh my God,: Guin said, the ocelot’s eyes growing wide. :Do you know what this means? Do you know what this is? Paul, your boss has invented FTL communications! This is the holy grail humanity’s been after for decades! Centuries!:

:Holy mother of…: Paul stammered. :Why didn’t she say anything?:

:Knowing her, she wanted us to see for ourselves without any preconceived notions,:Lilli said. :That, or she’s waiting for Fennie and Guinnie to download their memories of the test to her so she can see the looks on our faces. Wow, we’re ten klicks out now, how far is this gonna go?:

:Still no discernable signal attenuation,: Fenris reported.

Paul made a decision. :Lilli, come on back. I’ll ask Alfie if we can borrow the sub for a real distance test.:

A few minutes later, Lilli and Guin hopped on board the XB-70 with Baldwin and blasted off, flying a thousand klicks out from the camp and circling it at that range. At no point did the signal grow perceptibly weaker.

“Okay, guys, come on back,” Paul commed. “We don’t want you any further out than that ‘til the Fritz thing is cleared up.”

“On our way!” Lilli replied.

As soon as they got back, the four of them commed to Rhianna and Rochelle again. When the two women came on the screen, Paul said, “Only ‘a few hundred meters’? Seriously?

“Well, I didn’t want to jinx it, frankly,” Rhianna replied. “I’ve never actually admitted to myself that our observations were accurate. I wanted a few more pairs of eyes on it first. Far as we can tell it’s not a quantum entanglement effect. You can’t transmit useful information that way. I’m still narrowing down how the physics work, but I suspect the signal is actually tunneling into subspace like the quantum-slip drive used on starships. I need to chat with some actual specialists in the FTL Physics field at MMU—I don’t have the background and the math is really tangled. I only stumbled on this, you know.”

“However it works, you’ve got lightning in a can here. We went a whole K of klicks apart and haven’t even found it start to weaken. And there was no speed-of-light delay at all.” Paul shook his head. “Boss? Patent this right damned now.

“Rhi, I want to wait until after this Fritz thing blows over. Once we submit the patent application the designs will basically be public, and we need the tactical advantage,” Kaylee said.

“I defer to Kaylee on military matters, so yeah, it’ll keep for a while,” Rhianna said.

“Truth. I wouldn’t go showing this to too many people just yet,” Rochelle said. “This isn’t a polio vaccine like DINsec. Even if this only works over a few K-klicks, the business and military applications are off the chart. If it works over interstellar distances, well…there you go. Think about chatting with folks in realtime on Neorus thirty-five light-years away.”

“You’d still have to send the other half there first. That’s an eighteen-month trip,” Rhianna said. “This isn’t like wireless.”

“No, it’s more like a physical networking cable that’s light-years long. In fact, it’s exactly like it,” Rochelle said.

“I’m sure not gonna give this to Bertha and Hedy,” Paul said. “Let Sturmhaven be happy with the link working at all.”

“Good plan,” Rhianna said. “It really does need more testing anyway.”

“Do you realize what this means?” Lillibet broke in excitedly. “I could go home—well, after all this Fritz crap is over anyway—and Guin would stay linked with Fenris. He might never have to go unlinked ever again!”

“Don’t go getting too excited just yet,” Rhianna warned. “We’ve only been getting durations in the minutes to tens of minutes before they fizzle out like an old-style technomage DIN. If you want to stay linked up for very long, at this point you’ll need to make an array of at least a dozen or so and rotate new ones into use as old ones fail. But, in theory, if we can lick the durability problem—then yes, a perpetual link could be possible.”

“That would be…more than I had ever dared to hope,” Fenris rumbled.

“Well, now you can hope a little more, big guy!” Guinevere said. “As far as I’m concerned, we’re joined for good. Dogs and cats living together!”

“So, speaking of living together, how are Bertha and Hedy getting along, anyway?” Rochelle asked.

“They’re ecstatic,” Paul said, grinning. “Bertha’s so delighted with the link to Hedy, she’s almost forgotten her body dysphoria.” He chuckled. “But Diana is a little overwhelmed, linked to two RIDEs at once…both of whom are higher up in the pecking order. She’s the omega.”

“Oh, dear,” Rhianna said. “They’re not…mistreating her, are they?”

“I’ve tried to keep an eye on that, and it doesn’t seem like they are…too much, anyway. I have warned them that they only get the goodies if they play nice. ‘Course, they do have some…issues to work through…”

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“Nnngh…Bertha, please!” Diana groaned. “I can hardly think when you swim through my memories like that.”

“Sorry, Di,” Bertha said. She was Fused possessively around Diana, and had been exploring the inside of her mind for hours—as she often did these days. “I’m just so happy to have you back, I wanted to remember the good times again.”

“I sort of guessed that, from the way you’ve been reliving every second of our partnership,” Diana said dryly. “Look, they’re happy memories for me, too, but I don’t want to drown in them.”

“I understand,” Bertha said. “However…”

Diana rolled her eyes. She knew what Bertha wanted to hear, because she wanted to hear it at least three or four times a day, every day. She recited as if by rote, “However, I belong to you, so if you want to drown me in my memories, you have that right.”

Diana felt a surge of affection from her erstwhile partner surrounding her. “I know. But since you asked nicely, I’ll ease up.” Diana felt Bertha’s presence recede a little. “Sorry,” Bertha added more contritely, a moment later. “I really don’t mean to make you uncomfortable. It’s just…”

“You like to feel you are in charge,” Diana said. “To demonstrate it. You’re the alpha of our little pack. I know.” She smiled ruefully. “I would be more upset if I was not aware exactly why you feel that way. After what we did for you…I can hardly blame you for wanting more control of your life.”

“Me neither,” Hedy put in. She was part of the Fuse as well, surrounding Diana like a wetsuit while herself being encapsulated within Bertha. Like Sturmhaven dolls, Diana thought wryly.

“Even though I never had it as bad as Bertie…or Sonja…the fetters were bad enough,” Hedy continued. “I’m never going to have them on me again.”

“If Sturmhaven agrees to our conditions, neither of us will,” Bertha said excitedly. “And…well, that’s not all we’re asking for, either.”

“It’s…not?” Diana asked. The RIDEs hadn’t exactly been forthcoming to her about their demands in exchange for the technology transfer. Things like a guaranteed right to keep their own bodies were pretty obvious, of course, but from Bertha’s tone of voice she seemed to have something else in mind.

“We will require that Sturmhaven recognize my ownership of you,” Bertha said. “I’m finished taking orders from inside my own body.”

“Me, too,” Hedy said. “Whatever human they give me, I’ll be the boss of her.”

“But…but they’ll never go for that!” Diana insisted. I don’t want them to go for that, another part of her added.

“Then they won’t get the linkage tech,” Bertha said. “I wonder if Nextus would be interested…”

“But…” Diana said.

“But you don’t want to stay mine?” Bertha asked. “You were just ‘playing along’ until we got back to Sturmhaven?” Diana felt Bertha’s smirk like sunshine on her face. “Isn’t that just too bad? I was perfectly willing to live my entire life belonging to someone else, in the old days. I knew nothing else. And what did it get me? A puny little body not my own. No. I will take lawful orders from my superiors, because that is how an army works. But I will not be a puppet ever again. I will own those I carry within me.”

“Hedy, too?” Diana asked.

“Why not?” Hedy asked. “She’s taken good care of us so far.”

“I thought you didn’t want to be owned again,” Diana said.

“Not by a human,” Hedy said. “But a RIDE who knows what it’s like? I think I can trust her.”

Diana sighed. The hell of it was, she couldn’t even say it was unfair. Looking back, while she’d thought she was being reasonably, maybe even unduly kind to Bertha at the time, she’d realized since joining the Gaian party that she’d still basically treated the RIDE as property. Valued, even cherished property, but property still.

While most of the Gaian Party’s political stance had been about how the polity treated its men, Diana had become uncomfortably aware how much of it also applied to RIDEs. Let even a female RIDE seem too strong-willed—like Sonja—and off to decommissioning she went. It had been ironic that Sonja so strongly embodied the very independence Sturmhaven claimed to value in its women that they’d wanted to wipe her for it.

“I will take good care of you,” Bertha promised. “And allow you as much freedom as I can. This isn’t about revenge. I just…want the missing pieces of my life back. To stay. And next to my old body, you were the biggest one.”

“For what it’s worth…I felt the same way about you,” Diana said. “I guess if it’s a choice between not having you and you having me…well, I hope you enjoy me as much as I enjoyed you.”

She felt another wave of affection pulse around her. “It’ll be fun for all of us,” Bertha said. “You’ll see.”

Diana shook her head. The world seemed twisted, upended. She realized the relationship between human and RIDE had gotten off on the wrong foot from day one, since slavery poisoned everything. Bertha didn’t seem to have a concept of a partnership instead of ownership, and neither did Hedy. Lecturing about it at this point seemed hypocritical at best. “I guess if I have to belong to someone, it might as well be you.” She paused. “That being the case…if you really want to poke around in my head, I…suppose you can.”

Thank you!” Bertha squealed excitedly, slipping back into her mind. Diana closed her eyes and let the memories submerge her again.

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October 9, 156 A.L.

Steader Residence, Uplift

“Quinnie, have you seen my argyle socks? Can’t remember where I put them…”

“Have you tried your sock drawer?”

“Of course I’ve tried my—oh! Well, here they are. Thanks, Quinnie. I must be getting senile or something.”

“Senile, never. Absent-minded? Maybe a little.”

“Well, that’s been me since I kept pestering Mikey about where I’d left my toy skimmers when we were in single digits.” Joe snorted. “I notice you didn’t say ‘drunk.’”

“I haven’t seen you get near a shot glass since I broke out of the mansion.”

“And you’ve been watching?” Joe chuckled. “Well, you’re right. With Fritz still on the loose, I need every iota of what few faculties I have left. I can toast The Dude with White Russians all I want during our victory celebration, but it’s the wagon for me ‘til then.” He pulled on his socks, and wriggled his toes experimentally. “Ah, still every bit the ankle fashion plate I ever was.” He paused. “Now where the hell are my loafers?”

“I think you have something more on your mind than socks and loafers.” Quinoa let part of her mind monitor the various transactions of her new company, Steader Integrated. There was still a lot of startup to do, and here was where an Integrate’s ability to multitask came in very handy. She could be at home with her uncle having breakfast while her DIN sent her data on decisions that needed making. In fast-time she could review her options and authorize things between sentences.

“Well, you could be right, there. We’re coming up on the earliest point you estimated Fritz could be all better and back on the rampage by. We’re running out of time to get ready. So, we need to exploit his absence while we still can.

“I still have some pull in the Intie community. There have to be followers of his who are on the fence. We need to undermine his support before he pulls any really dangerous crap.” He gave his niece a significant look. “And since you were in so deep with him, you might just be the one to persuade them to jump off the wagon.”

“You know I’ll do anything I can to help,” Quinoa said. “What’s that twisty brain of yours come up with this time?”

“While the cat’s away, the sphinx can play.” Joe grinned at her. “You need to get out there and sow the seeds of doubt while Fritz is still bottled up. I seem to recall you mentioned Fritz doesn’t have all that many really powerful lieutenants anymore, because he got tired of their annoying tendency to challenge him for leadership? After what you did to Fritz himself, you shouldn’t have any trouble dealing with whoever’s left if they try to stop you getting the message out.”

“That’s one way, but we might be able to be more subtle about it. I’ll have to give this a few days of thought in fast-time. Hmmm.”

“We’re starting to run out of time, fast or otherwise.” Joe shook his head. “My own efforts at human diplomacy have been starting to pay off, at least. Between me, the Qube, and Zane Brubeck, we’ve gotten everyone mostly on the same page. Even the Sturmies are lending a hand, so I hear—they’ve sent Zane a new prototype hardlight shield to reinforce the Brubeck campus with.”

Quinoa nodded. “Wasn’t it supposed to be specially-tuned to resist that cannon of Fritz’s? Let’s hope it works.”

“Anyway, if fear of Fritz is all that’s keeping his followers in line, you should get out there and start throwing out olive branches while he’s still soaking in fabber gel,” Joe said. “Heh, Fritz in fabber gel…that reminds me of a time when…hmm, no, that would take too much explaining. I’ll tell you later. For now…get as many Ascendants as you can to switch sides while the object of that fear isn’t around. After what you did to him in Uplift, you have some ‘street cred’ with the fence-sitters, I’d think.”

“I’m not especially proud of that, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat. If he hadn’t pulled off that ‘solar flare’ move I might even have caught him.” Quinoa pondered the next steps for a few virtual hours while her uncle finished getting dressed.

“Anyway, whatever you come up with, you’ve got my support.” Joe grinned. “If you need me to mount up in the hovertank and smack a few of ‘em around, just let me know. I’ve been itching to try that thing out again now I’ve got the new DINsec on board.”

Quinoa chuckled. “I hardly think that will be necessary. Fritz is enough of a ‘stick’ all by himself at this point. What we need is more ‘carrot.’”

“What kind of a carrot do Integrates want? From what I’ve heard about Integrate cuisine, seems like it would have to be some kind of a sarium carrot. Do they even make sarium carrots?”

“You’d be surprised. I understand some Enclaves have been working on hybridized vegetable variants that can fix qubitite and other minerals from the soil.” Quinoa shook her head. “But mustn’t get sidetracked. If we were able to offer some kind of a stipend for helping Integrates ‘integrate’ themselves into human society, it might make it more appealing to them to try to come in from the cold.”

“Well, I’ve certainly got enough money for that—and unlike most, I’ve employed enough Integrates myself in the past that the word should be out there I’m a straight shooter. At least, if they can overlook my little foible about being in Fritz’s camp fairly recently.” He grimaced. “I’ll get my accountants and lawyers on the comm and we’ll see what we can do.”

“Thanks, Uncle Joe.” Quinoa leaned in and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. “And I’ll get on my part of it. I’m already starting to have some ideas—the stipend will help—and I can do some more thinking about it on my way out there. I’ll keep a line open through that nifty new DIN the Freeriders cooked up for me so you’ll know if I get into any trouble. Who knows, maybe you’ll need that hovertank after all.”

“I’ll keep it warmed up for you.” Joe grinned. “Go get ‘em, Quinnie.”

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Martinez Memorial University RIDE Engineering Dept, Uplift

Clint Brubeck’s old mech Chauncey was currently in several thousand pieces, taken all the way down to his base chassis components—currently knolled out across the floor in an extremely orderly display of many, many parts. Zane had never seen the poor mech in such a state, even with all the tinkering his father had done over the years. Even his sister Agatha was slightly agast. Every component was being scrutinized, upgrades tested and readied for install. There were even Marshals from their high-tech Lithium division, who had brought along a new shield that would hopefully resist Fritz’s molecular knife.

“I can’t believe this,” Agatha fumed. “They might have said something. I could’ve helped out.”

Rhianna and Kaylee were in the center of it all, like the conductor of an orchestra.

Zane raised an eyebrow, peering over the display as he leaned thoughtfully on his cane. “I sure hope they don’t leave any bits out when they put him back together.”

“This isn’t a laughing matter, Zane! Fritz could show up at any moment, and here we don’t even have Chauncey ready!”

“Will it do any good to get upset about it now? Anyway, part of the point of the XF-3 Block 3 line of IDE mechs was that they were built to be easy to field-strip down to the core, and just as easy to reassemble. They’ll have him rebuilt before you know it.”

“And better than ever!” Rhianna called across. “Many of the internals needed refurbishment anyway, but hadn’t ever been replaced because they just weren’t easy to get to without taking the whole thing apart. Won’t have that problem now.”

“We’ll have the big boy at the best he’s ever been by the time you need him,” Kaylee promised.

“I hope so. I’m kind of attached to the old guy, y’know.”

“What else are you doing to him?” Agatha asked. “What are these ‘upgrades’ you mentioned?”

Zane smirked. “Enquiring minds want to know.”

Agatha put her finger to her ear. “I’ll have to ‘enquire’ more later. The Sturmhaven team that they sent to install their own ‘upgrade’ at the Campus won’t start work unless there’s a woman of authority present.”

“They didn’t send Valks, did they?”

“They’re not that stupid. They’re that ‘Gaian’ Party. Bad, but not horrible. See you later.” Agatha rolled her eyes and departed.

Zane watched her go. “I swear, she really ought to be running this company. She practically is already anyway.”

“Don’t sell yourself short, Zane.” Rhianna grinned. “Anyway, we’re about ready to start rebuilding the Lego kit now.”

“Well, don’t let me stop you. I’d offer to help, but knowing me, I’d just get in the way.”

“Don’t worry, Zane. We’ve got this.” Rhianna nodded to the RIDE Engineering students. “All right, boys and girls, let’s put Humpty-Dumpty together again.”

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October 9, 156 A.L.

Old Smokey Enclave Lair

“Vodka martini, shaken, not stirred.”

Diane raised an eyebrow. “You do realize that’s a cliché, right?”

Quinoa shrugged. “I like vodka martinis. Besides, if there was any place for that cliché, this one is it.”

“Fair enough.” Diane brought out a stainless steel shaker and started pouring ingredients into it. “What’re you doing here, anyway?”

“I could ask the same of you. Aren’t you supposed to be back in Uplift?”

“Serena and I fill in or guest bartend at the bars at various Enclaves now and then,” Diane said, capping the mixer with a pint glass and shaking it. “There aren’t all that many people they can call to substitute, and we do have a certain reputation. It’s a good way to keep up on what’s going on here and there.” She decanted the martini into a conical glass and added a cocktail onion on a toothpick. “Speaking of which, you’ve been a busy little bee, haven’t you?”

“I’m sure I have no idea what you mean.” Quinoa smirked and sipped her drink. “But since you asked, I have a meeting with a few important people about important things.”

“Watch out for the trick bridge over the piranha pool,” Diane suggested. “They do still manage to get a few people with that.”

This Enclave—which the residents insisted on calling a Lair—was run by one of her uncle’s former Steader Entertainment employees. One who had decrypted more than half of the James Bond franchise by himself. The result was a residence built into the side of the almost-extinct volcano called Old Smokey in the south central Dry Ocean. The bar was right next to the overlook into the crater.

“By the time he left he was a little funny in the head,” Joe had said. “That was before I realized Integrates had that meme infection problem. Otherwise I would’ve taken steps. Nice guy, though. Affable.”

As Quinoa sipped her drink, an otter Integrate in a stylized coverall uniform suit with a submachine gun holstered at his belt stepped into the bar and nodded to her. “Well, I think that’s my connection.” Quinoa finished the drink and set it down. “See you soon.”

“Take care, double-oh sphinx.”

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The room the henchotter led Quinoa to could have come right out of any of the movies involving SPECTRE—a big boardroom table with cushy seats along both sides. Quinoa wondered whether those seats were equipped to fry the people who sat in them at the whim of whoever was playing Blofeld. Probably not, given that even the meme-infected generally drew the line at killing other participants in their drama—but they might well dump them into some embarrassing substance. She decided to stand and keep her lifters warmed up, just in case.

At the end of the table, a white Persian cat Integrate with a monocle peered dubiously at her. There was another Persian laying on the dark granite conference table in front of him—a real one, rather than another Integrate or LRIDE. “Welcome to our council chamber, Miss Steader. You had a proposal you wished to make?”

Quinoa, wearing her best Bond Girl catsuit, leaned languidly against the edge of the table. The array of supervillain stereotypes was impressive. There was even a feral horse Integrate—a Whedon fan, she assumed. “Ladies, gentlemen, and those in between. Our esteemed Bosscat Fritz is indisposed—courtesy of yours truly—and now is the time to act. I offer an alliance with Zane Brubeck and the Enclaves aligned with him.”

“And what is in it for us?”

“Amnesty.” Quinoa let the word drop. “Sometimes, in order to survive, we’ve had to do some less-than-legal things. I’m mainly speaking of activities relating to keeping ourselves alive. Theft, embezzlement, larceny, that sort of thing. As long as they are nonviolent, the polities of Gondwana have extended their hands to welcome us back into the fold.”

A mutter passed around the table. A boar with a metallic arm frowned. “You would offer amnesty…to SPECTRE?” he asked in a raspy voice.

“We would offer amnesty to you,” Quinoa said. “Let’s be honest, shall we? You’re not really SPECTRE, no matter what your meme-infection says. You haven’t actually tried to conquer the world, and the polities are mostly prepared to overlook any minor infractions. And my Uncle Joe is organizing stipends of human currency you can use to resume lives in the human polities, or buy goods to help your Enclave go legit.”

The boar grumbled and leaned back in his chair. “Hmph. Though to tell the truth, these spy games have worn thinner over the years.”

“It’s merely been a method to pass the time,” said Blofeld. “A method to our madness, one could say. Yet, we are concerned about retaliation, should Fritz’s Ascendant faction win this little civil war.”

“There are risks to anything. You need to decide for yourself how likely Fritz is to win this. I think the probability is pretty low, but I’m biased.” Quinoa shook her head. “This is the offer: throw in with the good guys, and we’ll help you as much as we can, win or lose.”

“Allow us to debate amongst ourselves. You’ll have an answer within the hour,” Blofeld said. He gestured for the door, the henchotter returning. “Please take Miss Steader back to the bar.”

“Choose wisely,” Quinoa said. She turned and sauntered towards the exit, then paused, turning her head back to look over her shoulder. “After all, you only live twice.”

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October 15, 156 A.L.

Uplift

Finally, as the one-month anniversary of the summit approached, Rhianna and Kaylee went out to the Milkbottle to relax over an ice cream mondae and get a feel for how Uplift’s citizens as a whole were taking things. “Y’know, I’m not sure if it’s my imagination, but there don’t seem to be as many people around as usual,” Rhianna said, as they sat at one of the Fuser tables and enjoyed the ice cream together.

“Yer right,” Kaylee said. “It’s a hot day, but the lines aren’t more’n a dozen people long. Checkin’ the local yelp, looks like sales kinda been depressed all month. Ever since Fritz clobbered Zane.”

The polity hadn’t exactly announced that it was expecting an attack from Fritz, but the news that something bad was in the offing had sort of diffused through osmosis. People didn’t seem to be panicking, yet, but they did seem to be staying closer to home—which, from the point of view of disaster preparedness, seemed like a net positive. Rhianna hoped that the slower-than-usual business wouldn’t hurt the Milkbottle too badly, and resolved to start coming more often.

As they were finishing up the mondae, their comm pinged with a message from Dr. Munn. “I just wanted to let you know we’re going to try to wake Carrie-Anne up shortly. If you’d like to come down to the hospital…”

“We’ll be right there!” Rhianna said, bolting the last of her ice cream. “Some good news was long overdue, Kay.”

“Damn straight,” Kaylee agreed. The lynx changed to skimmer mode beneath her and they sped off for the hospital on carefully-tuned lifters. Semi-prototype that she was, Kaylee had endured a number of configuration tweaks lately, partly out of boredom, partly trying to anticipate what could come next. The upgrades to the Donizetti weapons paks had taken a whole week all by themselves. She’d wryly thought more than once that it felt just like old times back in the RIDE development program, but hadn’t said anything—if it helped Rhi deal with stress, she could cope.

When they arrived, the hospital room was already fairly crowded. The removal of Zane’s tank made more room, but it was largely filled by the tiger-man himself, plus Agatha, Quinoa Steader, Anny and Leila, Carrie-Anne’s human half Audrey’s daughter Karen (with Bastian the lemur Marshal standing behind her with a hand on her shoulder), and the half-dozen or so other guards and Marshals stationed around the room. And, of course, Dr. Munn himself, standing by Carrie-Anne’s tank examining her vital signs.

“Her vitals are better than Zane’s when he woke up on his own,” he said. “I think we can have her ‘reboot’ safely now. Could probably have done it a week ago, but better safe than sorry.”

“Please, do,” Karen said. She sounded a lot more calm now than when Rhianna had last seen her, but it had been over a month. Plenty of time to get used to the idea, she supposed.

:’Specially with therapy,: Kaylee smirked on a private channel. She looked at the ring-tailed lemur Integrate next to the woman. :Those two look joined at the hip to me. I don’t think it’s a romantic thing, mind you.:

“Hey, you two, good to see you,” Zane said, walking over to greet them. He wasn’t visibly limping anymore, but still had the cane with him. “I meant to get down to visit sooner, but you know how it is…you bootstrap your corporation back up from a standstill, branch it off into half a dozen new sidelines, broker peace between a roomful of polities who’d otherwise cheerfully go for each others’ throats, and bring a whole hidden society out in the light of day, and suddenly it seems like you don’t have a minute to spare.”

“You don’t wanna know how many appointments I had to cancel to get him here now,” Aggie said.

Zane grinned. “Really, I should just let you deal with them anyway. You’re so much better at it. That was your job back in Nextus for years.”

“Yes, but you’re the famous one right now,” Aggie said. “Everyone wants a personal meeting, and half of them want a photo-op too.”

Zane rolled his eyes. “Yeah. I’ll be glad when this whole thing blows over.”

Bastian grimaced. “Don’t say ‘blow’.”

“Boot sequence initiated,” Dr. Munn said. A brainwave monitor to his left showed a rising amount of the peaks and valleys of a living mind. “She’s in a REM state now. Expected. Good. Let’s give her a few minutes.”

“Does this mean she’s okay?” Karen asked.

“So far, so good,” Dr. Munn said. “Not seeing anything unexpected.”

Zane moved to stand next to the tank on the other side, looking into it. “C’mon, be all right…” he murmured.

The jaguar’s eyes opened a crack. Carrie-Anne wasn’t the type to panic; she calmly took in her surroundings, confused but not screaming in horror. Eventually her gaze locked on Karen, and she took a deep breath through her oxygen mask. “That serious?” she murmured through the speaker over her tank. “I’ve been out how long? My chrono is off.”

“Slightly over a full month,” Dr. Munn said. “Do you remember anything?”

“Just…leaving Government Center with Zane, then nothing. A blank,” Carrie-Anne said. She looked around at the room. “I feel like a zoo attraction.” She raised a hand to touch the wall of the tank. “Or an aquarium exhibit.”

“Well, we can fix that. You’re ready for decanting. We wanted to give your body as much healing as we could,” Munn said. He looked around at everyone but Zane, Quinoa, Karen, and Bastian. “If you’d mind giving a lady some privacy?”

“Certainly,” Rhianna said. They returned to the Waiting Room with the others, Myla and Sophie standing guard just outside the door.

“She’s okay!” Kaylee said happily.

“Hey, Myla,” Rhianna said. “How’s guarding Zane been lately?”

“We’ve—meaning, Quinoa and myself—have been teaching him some fighting skills. He’s learning fast, since we’ve been using time-compression in VR.” Myla said. “He’s motivated. We’re working on a counter for that monomolecular sword of Fritz’s. It’s more fragile than it looks.”

“And his arm cannon?” Kaylee asked. She and Rhianna had their own ideas how to counter that particular weapon. “We’ll have to compare notes. Kaylee and I have been a little out of it lately.”

“I know the feeling,” Anny said, joining them. She was back to her normal lioness Fuse tags now, Rhianna had noticed. “Near’s Quinny figgers, Fritz could’ve recovered by now. It’s got everyone on edge.”

“Knowing him, he’s slinking around, waiting to pounce,” Kaylee said. “We’re getting thousands of hack attempts per day. We have to keep updating DINsec hardware. But I don’t think it’s serious…yet. They’re just testing us.”

“I almost wish they’d hurry up and get it over with,” Agatha said. “It’s the waiting that’s the hardest part.”

“If Fritz doesn’t act first…well, the Marshals are doing their thing, we may have them to thank for this quiet,” Rochelle said. “My cousin Rusty’s been pretty vague, but I get the feeling they’re keeping the ‘Ascendent’ busy.”

“I’ll send along some thank-you gadget ideas,” Rhianna said. “I’ve been in touch with their Chrome division off and on the past few weeks, myself. They’ve got good, competent people.”

Rochelle nodded. “I know, but I’m rather biased.”

Myla looked up. “Okay, everyone, they’re ready for us in there.”

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They trooped back in to find the doctor had worked fast. Carrie-Anne had already been hosed clean and dried, and was lying in a normal hospital bed positioned where the now-absent tank had been. Despite the seriousness of the situation, Rhianna almost had to giggle—Carrie-Anne and Karen were regarding each other with remarkably similar nonplussed expressions, for all that one had a human and the other a feline face.

“So…you’ve really got my mother in there,” Karen said.

“It is…not as simple as that,” Carrie-Anne said. “She…is a part of me. She…felt it was best that way. She didn’t think you wanted her in your life anymore.”

“It’s not a question of ‘wanting her in my life’!” Karen said. “She’s my mother.

Bastian put a hand on her shoulder reassuringly. “Easy there, Karen. Nobody’s saying she isn’t.” He glanced to Carrie-Anne. “Do you think you could find her again?”

“I can try,” the black jaguar Integrate said. “Except…not just yet. Everything is still too scrambled up. Apparently having one’s head cut off tends to rattle the insides of it around.”

“I don’t want you doing anything that would tax you yet,” Dr. Munn said. “You still need plenty of rest—both physical and mental.” He fixed Karen with a pointed gaze. “And if you cause my patient further strain, I will ask you to leave, is that understood?”

Karen nodded reluctantly. “But…why? Why would she do such a thing?”

“Part of it was…feeling guilty over something and seeking a way to atone,” Carrie-Anne said. “But…she also felt that you did not need her anymore. She wished to be out of your way.”

And she had her little fantasies about becoming a ghost in the machine, but that’s probably more than Karen needs to know, Rhianna thought.

“I don’t want her out of my way!” Karen half-sobbed. “We had some fights, but…I always thought we could patch them up.”

Bastian put an arm around her shoulders. “And you will. Just not right this moment. Let’s go and get you some more rest and let her get some more rest too. There’ll be time for that later on.”

“A…all right,” Karen said, sniffling. She let Bastian gently escort her to the door, then turned back to look at Carrie-Anne. “If my Mom really is in you…well, I hope you both get well soon.”

Zane watched them go. “Damn.”

“We’re two-made-one, to one degree or another,” Quinoa said, projecting a holo of two bubbles merging into a single one. “I think you can see why so many of us wanted isolation for so long.”

Dr. Munn gave the sphinx a sidelong look, nodding slightly.

“I just keep thinking what if it turned out, back before I met Terry, that Dad wasn’t really dead but he’d gotten mashed up with some strange RIDE,” Zane said. “How would I have taken it?”

Aggie squeezed his hand. “I’m sure we’d have gotten through it. Like they will.”

“Like many people will. Coming back from the dead is going to be a common Intie trick as more of you guys come in from the Dry,” Dr. Munn said.

“I hope I can find her,” Carrie-Anne said. “She was buried pretty deeply already, and then this…”

“I know some Integrates who might be able to help with that, when you’re stronger,” Quinoa said. “Studying our own psyches was one of the few research areas Fritz didn’t stomp on. The ones who helped Flint and Burke after I fucked them up—” she grimaced at the recollection “—can probably help you too.”

“I hope so,” Carrie-Anne said. “I feel bad for her. Audrey genuinely believed Karen no longer needed her, and would be better off with her out of the picture.”

“Not the first time a mother’s been wrong about something,” Rochelle reflected.

“I never could figure out a way to break the news to Karen gently. So she had to learn this way.” Carrie-Anne sighed and leaned her head back into the pillow. “But I’m glad to see that you and Agatha are getting along again,” she continued. “It would appear that having extremities lopped off promotes family reunions. Nonetheless, I do not recommend it.”

Aggie blinked. “You know about me?”

“I was Zane’s chief of security,” Carrie-Anne said. “You were in his files.”

“Of course,” Aggie said. “I should’ve thought of that.”

“How long will I be convalescent, Dr. Munn?” Carrie-Anne asked.

“You’re basically healed, physically, except for some residual exhaustion,” Sam Munn replied. “But we want to keep you here for observation and physical therapy, just to make sure everything is going well.” He nodded at a fuel cell satchel similar to the one Zane no longer needed. “And we’ll keep your batteries topped off.”

“You need a vacation,” Zane said.

“We all need a vacation,” Rochelle said. “If you’re really nice, Zane, we might even let you pay for it.”

Zane chuckled. “If I thought you’d really let me…”

“What would you do?” Rhianna asked curiously.

“Well, one of my personal investments is a decent chunk of a small space cruise line,” Zane said. “I could charter one of their ships and we could head out and dally amid the asteroid belt for a few days. Did you know Brubeck Mining has some holdings out there?” He grinned. “You gotta admit, you can’t get much further ‘away from it all’ and still obey the stellar tech export laws.”

“Now that you’re healed, you and I have some accelerated training to do, Zane,” Quinoa said. “Sounds like a good ‘dojo’ to me.”

“It sounds as though I need the same training,” Carrie-Anne said ruefully. “Some special forces combat veteran I turned out to be. ‘Expert bodyguard.’ Feh.” She snorted. “I might as well have just cut my own head off and saved Fritz the trouble.”

“Oh, I have no doubt he won’t get another chance,” Quinoa said.

“Just go easy on her,” Dr. Munn said firmly. “VR only to start. Blast me your stats daily, and I’ll let you know when I clear you for Real.”

“Yessir,” Quinoa said. “You two didn’t get the orientation to your bodies that just about every other Intie does. I don’t know how much time we have, but I’ve learned a few things, myself. But I know a couple others who would be willing teachers in hardlight combat techniques. I could use some training, myself, and there’s no better place to learn zero-gee combat techniques than real zero-gee. For that matter, we should invite all the Integrates who work for you along—Flint-Burke, Ianau, and so on. They could either use the additional training themselves, or help instruct. Or both.”

“Ready and willing,” Zane said, Carrie-Anne nodding her agreement. “Looks like it’ll be a working vacation after all.” He glanced to Rhianna and Rochelle. “You-all wanna come too? See all the pretty stars and chunks of tumbling rock?”

“I think we’ll take a rain check,” Rhianna said, grinning. “We’d just be a fifth lifter anyway, you spending all your time training. I’d rather wait ‘til I can be the one occupying all your attention.”

Zane nodded. “Fair enough. But be warned, I will hold you to that.” He winked, and Rhianna blushed as if on command.

“So why don’t you go get the cruise set up, I’ll round up the instructors, and we’ll let Carrie-Anne rest up?” Quinoa said.

“Works,” Zane said. He nodded to Rhianna and the others. “See ya later. Aggie, you’ll have to hold down the fort for me while I’m out.”

Agatha rolled her eyes. “Of course I will. I’ll have loads of fun explaining why, right in the midst of a crisis, you drop everything to go on a cruise.

“Call it a ‘retreat’. They’ll understand. Ciao-meow!” Zane waved and vanished except for his grin, which also vanished a moment later.

Aggie snorted. “Some days I really do feel like I’ve gone down the rabbit hole.”

Carrie-Anne grinned. “Well, if anyone says ‘off with her head,’ I’m leaving.” Everyone in the room laughed.

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October 20, 156 A.L.

Medside Room, Coffeehouse

In a darkened room in the Coffeehouse, behind a heavily-guarded high-security door, a cylindrical tank stood, gently bubbling. The figure within hung in still repose, as he had for weeks on end. But then, between one moment and the next, movement returned. It began small, with just a finger twitching, then his ears, then the tip of his stubby tail. Then his eyes snapped open.

:Shit.:

The guards outside were alerted by a crash from within, and the door slid open a moment later to reveal the lid of the tank thrown aside and fabber gel slopped across half of the floor as Fritz levered himself up and out the top. The naked lynx paused to glare at them. “Well, don’t just stand there, ya murgatroyds! Get me a damn towel!”

A few minutes of panicked scrambling later, a properly dried bosscat lounged once more on his throne, wearing a terrycloth bathrobe and rubbing the last bits of fabber gel out of his headfur with a towel.

A quick review of the situation showed things had gone into a decline since he’d gone into the tank. It wasn’t exactly a surprise—without the Bosscat around to show the colors, he couldn’t head off further defections. He’d known that much at the outset—but there hadn’t been any choice. If he wanted to be back on his feet with all parts intact as quickly as possible, he couldn’t half-ass the healing measures. Especially given that Brubeck and the others would be healing faster, since they hadn’t lost the bits he’d carved off of them.

But even so, he hadn’t expected the extent to which the rot had set in. Multiple Enclaves had gone the way of Towers and rejected his representatives—some of whom had apparently defected to the Enclave in question rather than returning to the Coffeehouse. And even some of the regulars from the Coffeehouse had managed to slip away and lose themselves—be it in other Enclaves, human polities, or the vast expanses of the Dry Ocean or even deep space. He was losing more and more followers by the hour.

It also wasn’t a surprise that Quinoa Steader was behind it—or at least part of it. She’d been seen around some of the bigger Enclaves pitching an offer of amnesty. And the reports of a summit meeting on Brubeck’s platform with humans and Integrates in attendance weren’t exactly encouraging either. Seemed like the mice were finally getting up the nerve to try to bell the hep cat.

:Well, this is just the bee’s knees,: Fritz muttered. :Need to nip this right in the bud, and this time just smacking that tiger around won’t be enough. Not by a long shot.:

:You could end this here and now,: Jiminy said. :Just let it go. After what Quinoa did to us, you think she wouldn’t do it again? Face it, you’re done with this whole ‘Bosscat’ shtick. The world’s moved on. Cat’s out of the bag for good, you dig?:

“Shaddup, you!” Fritz hissed aloud, jumping to his feet. A half dozen off his hangers-on watched their Bosscat, waiting for him to say what their next step was. He regained some composure. “Okay, hep cats, listen up! If it’s war they want, we’ll give them a goddamned war! Get everybody together in the Hangar! Everybody!”

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October 21, 156 A.L.

Back in Uplift, another week went by. Zane’s Integrates went on their training cruise and returned relaxed and confident. Rhianna was given to understand there had been some excitement along the way, but wasn’t clear on the details. She supposed she could pry them out of Zane or Quinoa the next time she saw them.

With the continued lack of any action whatsoever by Fritz, the tension gripping the polities seemed to be dying down. Even Rhianna was less worried overall now, save for one or two little issues. The last month and change had given her and Rochelle time to complete a whole new revision of the DINsec spec and roll it out to all interested parties. They were better protected against Intie hacks than they had ever been.

Or at least, Rhianna hoped they were. Deep down, she was still more than a little worried on one key point. Her first DINsec beta release had been the most widely rolled-out, in a panic move meant to get as much of Zharus as possible as protected as possible against Intie attack. Tens of thousands of DINsec units had been placed in Uplift alone. Rhianna didn’t regret the move—it had been necessary given the state of things at the time, and they had always meant to upgrade them later. The problem was, that original beta spec had been hack resistant but not hack proof. But once the first flush of panic was over, subsequent retrofit efforts had been less frantic—and potentially less thorough.

Over the last few weeks, Intie hack attacks had been knocking out the DIN-betas protecting all sorts of minor systems in Uplift—traffic lights, public fabbers, sprinkler systems. Each one was replaced as soon as it happened, but Rhianna couldn’t help worrying that those attacks were serving as practice runs for Fritz’s Inties to get the hang of knocking down DIN betas—and that they might well have discovered more critical infrastructural systems that still had the betas. They could be carefully avoiding calling attention to them, biding their time, until Fritz was ready to strike. And now that some time had gone by since the summit on Zane’s platform, it was hard to get anyone down at Government Center to take her concerns seriously.

Rhianna sighed. It didn’t do any good moping about it. Fritz would come when he came, and no matter how well-prepared they thought they were it probably wouldn’t be good enough anyway. They’d just have to do the best they could.

Sensing her mood, Kaylee padded over to the workbench where Rhianna was sitting and tinkering with the FTL “DINcom” design, and rubbed a cheek against her side. “It’ll be okay, Rhi,” Kaylee said. “We’ll get through it.”

“I know,” Rhianna said. “It’s just the anticipation that sucks.”

“Pardon me,” a female voice said from the entrance to the garage. “Might you be Rhianna Stonegate? The RIDE technician?” It was a red sambar deer doe RIDE in Fuser form. She spoke with a liquid Asiatic Indian accent.

Beside Rhianna, Kaylee perked up her ears. The accent was familiar, even if the voice speaking it was a stranger. Dr. Avilia Patil, her mother, had been one of hundreds of thousands of natives of overcrowded India who had been sent off to the colonies over the years, so the accent wasn’t all that uncommon, but it still sent a little shiver down her spine whenever she heard someone speak that way.

“That’s me,” Rhianna said, wiping the grease off her hands with a rag and standing up. “Did you want to set up an appointment? I think Linda’s up at the front desk…”

“Perhaps, but I desired to meet you first,” the deer said. She was wearing a lot more metal over her hardlight pelt than Rhianna usually saw on RIDEs in town—in addition to the usual modesty plates, she wore greaves, leggings, and other bits and pieces, most of which seemed to carry additional pockets, panniers, and other compartments. There was also a large knapsack pak on her back, with a cylindrical drum about the size and shape of a bedroll strapped to the top.

All became clear when Rhianna noticed the emblem of the Laurasian Scientific Survey emblazoned across the chestplate, along with the symbol of the LSS’s Rodinia forestry division. “I like to get a feel for the people I might have to work on me, first,” the doe continued. “I am named Rohit, by the way.” She offered a hand.

“Sounds reasonable.” Rhianna came forward to take the hand. “Rohit” was obviously the name of the RIDE, not the rider, but there was nothing really odd about that. A lot of people went by their RIDE’s name while Fused, especially if they preferred to let their RIDE do the talking. For that matter, Ryan had gone by “Kaylee Cross” himself for several years. “Nice to meet you, Rohit. You’re a long way from Rodinia. Just off the sub?”

Rohit nodded. “We have some personal matters here in Uplift, and you were along the way to our hotel. Since we aren’t tired yet, praise be to sub lag, we thought we might as well stop and meet you.”

“We don’t get t’ meet many people from Rodinia,” Kaylee said. “What’s it like over there?”

“Oh, it is a beautiful place, wild and unspoiled,” Rohit said, her eyes gleaming. “Especially the parts of it we travel—the places the tourists never get to see, around the scientific survey stations in the deep interior. Native Zharusian life abounds,” She shrugged. “Of course, there are many unspoiled wildernesses on Gondwana and even Laurasia, but there is just something special about knowing you are one of a bare handful of people upon an entire supercontinent.”

“I can imagine,” Rhianna said. “We’ve seen a lot of gorgeous sights out in the desert, but I expect a place like Rodinia would have more variety.”

“Bet it gets lonely, though,” Kaylee said.

“Not always.” Rohit smiled. “After all, we always have each other.” She turned her head to regard Kaylee with some interest. “You are a LNX(f)-LMA-001, are you not? A very rare class indeed.”

Kaylee nodded. “They don’t get much rarer. I’m Kaylee.”

“It is an honor to meet you, Kaylee,” Rohit said gravely. “I am all too well aware of the debt we later-born RIDEs owe your generation.” She bowed with fluid grace in spite of all the equipment that burdened her. “I am pleased to see you are so well-maintained. It speaks well for your partner.”

“Uh, well, you’re, um, welcome,” Kaylee stammered.

Rohit turned back to Rhianna. “This appears a very well-ordered garage. I read of the attack upon it a couple of months ago. Very regrettable. However, you seem to have rebuilt very well.”

“Thanks,” Rhianna said. “I had some good friends to help out.” She regarded Rohit thoughtfully. “I have to admit, I’m kinda puzzled by what work you might need done. I’ve rarely ever seen a better-maintained RIDE than you. Your hardlight projectors are perfectly tuned, I’m not seeing any stiffness in your limbs or any signs of electrical problems either.” She shook her head. “Honestly, I wouldn’t have expected to see a RIDE just in from the Rodinian wilderness looking so good.”

“We have an excellent technician at our research station,” Rohit said. “I will pass along your kind words to her. But as for myself, I feel it is good to take care of preventative maintenance from time to time. If the need should arise while I am here…”

“Oh, of course,” Rhianna said.

:Boss, there’s no way a RIDE looking like that could have had a tune-up any longer ‘n two weeks ago, an’ that’s stretching it,: Kaylee pointed out privately. :Just how long she think she’ll be in Uplift?:

:True enough, but then again we are famous, especially in RIDE circles,: Rhianna replied. :And if they’ve been in Rodinia for months, this is probably the first chance they’ve had to come by. Not surprising they might make up an excuse.:

“Is there anything else we can help you with?” Rhianna asked. “If you want, we could fill you in on some good places to eat or shop ‘round here.”

“If you like ice cream, don’t miss the Milkbottle in Bifrost Park,” Kaylee offered.

Rohit nodded. “Thank you for your gracious offer. It may be that we will take you up on it. But for now, I think we should be getting along to our hotel.”

Rhianna nodded. “It was good to meet you, Rohit. Drop by anytime.”

The sambar deer RIDE nodded. “Perhaps we shall. Farewell.” She nodded and turned to go. Rhianna and Kaylee turned back toward their workbench—only to freeze in their tracks as an irascible male voice that was all too familiar to Kaylee, and to Rhianna from Kaylee’s memories, spoke up.

Oh. No. You. Don’t. I know you. You’re not going to any hotel, you’re gonna hop right back on that sub and blow town again. No way in hell. You do not get to drag me all the way back here from Rodentia just to pull your suffering loner act all over again, decide she doesn’t need us in her life, and walk away. You don’t have any right. You just don’t. She’s the one who gets to make that call.”

As Rhianna and Kaylee slowly turned back around to stare, one end of the bedroll-sized drum on Rohit’s backpack popped open and a furry muzzle poked out of it, bright beady eyes glittering in a white rat’s face that Kaylee hadn’t seen in decades.

Rattigan?” Kaylee sputtered.

The Rat RIDE hopped out of the carrier and floated on lifters down to the ground. “In the hardlight, kiddo,” he said. “Ya miss me?”

Kaylee pounced and started licking and headbutting him affectionately. “Of course, gramps!”

Then, almost as one, she and Rhianna looked back up at Rohit. The deer slowly turned back around, dismay and longing mingling on her face. “Oh, Ratty…” she sighed. Then she raised her arms, and the deer unfolded from around her rider with all the delicacy of a lotus blossoming—leaving a Walker-form sambar standing behind a slim, dark-haired woman. There was grey in her hair that hadn’t been there before, and more wrinkles than Kaylee remembered, and the deer RIDE tags were also new, but there could be no doubt this woman was Dr. Avilia Patil. Or, as Kaylee knew her—the gentle face from her First Boot.

“Mom!” she exclaimed, standing up to stare in disbelief, almost forgetting about Rattigan.

Rohit placed her muzzle in the small of Dr. Patil’s back and gently nudged her forward. Dr. Patil knelt next to Rattigan and smiled across at Kaylee, eyes sparkling. “Oh, my Kaylee…”

Anger, relief, love—Kaylee felt all three emotions at once, surging through the connection to her rider. Anger at her mother’s long absence, relief she was still alive, love just in seeing her again. She padded up to her and headbutted the woman’s chest, purring. “Where have you been? Were you really going to just…turn right around and leave without even telling me who you were?”

“I didn’t think I had any right to interfere in your life again after so long,” Dr. Patil said, brushing an errant strand of hair back from her face. “But…that really isn’t my decision to make. Rattigan was right.”

As usual,” the rat smirked.

“I am sorry I have stayed away for so long.” Dr. Patil smiled. “But I am back now—to stay, if you still want me in your life.”

Rhianna felt dumbstruck, she grasped for words that just slipped by. She felt weak in the knees. “I’m…I’m gonna sit down…over there.” Instead she sat down right where she stood, happy for the extra padding on her behind. The woman who had invented true AI, the inarguable mother to every RIDE ever made, was in her garage. “Right here’s just fine, though.” She threw a live feed of what was going on directly to Rochelle and Uncia.

:Bwa?: Rochelle said. :Holy crap, is that…I’ll be right down!:

Rochelle all but fell down the stairs from the upper level, arriving at the bottom in a flurry of chartreuse hair. Uncia glided down a moment later. “Oh my God! I’ve read everything you ever published!” Rochelle gasped.

“She has,” Uncia said.

Dr. Patil looked up, and smiled. “And I’ve read the annotations both you and Rhianna made to them on RIDEwiki. I found them very insightful.”

“She finds them insightful,” Rhianna practically squeed. “Hear that, Shelley?”

“Uh…wow,” Rochelle said, unable to take her eyes off the RIDE scientist. “But…um…why?”

“I looked up everything I could find out about the two of you when I heard where Kaylee was,” Dr. Patil said. “I was very pleasantly surprised. In many ways.” She looked back down at Kaylee eyes filling with tears again. “Oh, my Kaylee girl…I am so sorry I could not prevent what happened to you. It was all my fault that it happened in the first place.”

“How could my being in the Shed be your fault?” Kaylee asked.

“Because I made Felix…Fritz,” Dr. Patil said. “Or I did not prevent others from doing it, which amounts to the same thing.”

“You made him, yes, but he made his own poor choices,” Kaylee said. “I’d say he’s ‘kind of a dick’, but I’d be vastly understating. And I’m fine now. Conyers’ gambit paid off.”

Dr. Patil shook her head. “You don’t understand. It’s…more than that. We…didn’t simply make him. We molded him. Fritz was an experiment in more ways than anyone was ever told.”

“I don’t like the sound of that,” Rhianna said, getting to her feet. “I’ve seen a lot of ‘molding’ on Sturmhaven RIs, the crossriding units being the worst. The neural template tweaks are dicey at best.”

“That is precisely what we did to poor Felix.” Dr. Patil sighed. “The brass in charge of the project thought we could make him ‘patriotic,’ so he would be more easily ‘controllable.’ I protested—it had never been tried before, we could not guess at the results—but at the time, having just innocently revealed RI technology to the world, I was on thin enough ice as it was. At least I was able to save the rest of you from that…”

“Me, I’m a natural smartass,” Rattigan said, the oversized white lab rat lifting up to sit on Dr. Patil’s right shoulder. “No molding in the oven for me.”

“So instead of being patriotic, he turned out psychotic,” Rochelle said. “They wanted Captain America, they got Loki.”

“And they eventually paired him with Captain Ryder,” Rhianna said. “I’ve always wondered how a beatnik like that would end up a decorated military man, but he’s one of those statistical outliers Nextus likes to embrace sometimes.”

“I believe he had family in First Tier, but his military accomplishments were genuine,” Dr. Patil said. She shook her head. “Even by the end of the war, I still did not have enough influence to stop what happened. They buried you. They buried your children. They buried Anny. I was barely able to keep them from burying me, and that was only because I had become too much of a household name to disappear. Even then, I had to watch my every word. Entering ‘seclusion’ was a relief.”

“For a while they tried to make me into her keeper,” Rattigan said sourly. “Hah! I’m not built like other RIs and they couldn’t do anything to my core to make me into their patsy. I’m the prototype’s prototype. When they tried to shut me down—well, that’s a different story and I don’t like to brag.”

Kaylee snorted. “Since when?

“Thirty-some years can change a person,” the rat said with some gravity.

“So, you’ve spent time in Rodinia,” Kaylee said. “What else have you been doing?”

“She’s been doing the ‘walking the earth’ thing since a year or two after ‘seclusion’,” Rattigan explained. He smirked. “Don’t make her angry. You wouldn’t like her when she’s angry.”

“It is a very long story,” Dr. Patil said, smiling. “When I went into seclusion, I had not planned anything more than being a latter-day Greta Garbo for a while. Then Ratty pointed out that as long as people believed I was still there, I could slip out the back door and be someone else.”

“There was this full-sized rat DE frame I wanted to try out,” Ratty said. “And Doc here needed to be a different person for a while. Soooo…”

“So I became a man, for the first time,” Dr. Patil said. “It was a most…interesting experience. In the beginning, I developed a great deal of sympathy for poor Nadene—the tech that Kaylee accidentally crossed with her first Fuse. But I gradually came to enjoy it. If nothing else, it meant no one would imagine who I really was.”

“A’course, being big and all’s fun for a while, but then I wanted to go back to being me,” Rattigan said. “So I sorta noodged her into makin’ another RIDE.”

“And that was Rohit,” Dr. Patil said. “It took me years to finish her, though in a sense she has never truly been finished, nor will she be.” She smiled. “I began as a RI core specialist, it is true, but I’ve had a great deal of time to study all aspects of RIDE engineering…and to put everything I have learned into her. And into Rattigan’s shells as well, of course.” The deer nodded shyly. “She’s a little shy around strangers,” Dr. Patil explained, petting her on the muzzle. “They’ve been my constant companions in my wanderings, and between the two of them I have crossridden several times. It keeps life interesting.”

“I have so many questions,” Rhianna stammered. Her gaze moved between Dr. Patil, Rattigan, and Rohit. “Though I guess they’re mostly technical and not really important right now.”

Dr. Patil nodded. “There was a technical matter or two I would like to discuss with you as well, but there will be time for that later. I do have a question for you now, however,” she said, her dark eyes twinkling. “It has been long since I’ve been in Uplift. Could you perhaps accompany me to Bifrost Park? As it happens, we do like ice cream.”

Kaylee Fused over Rhianna so she could embrace her mother herself. “Of course we will! And…while we’re at it, I’m going to give Katie a call. My kitten’s all grown up and I think she’d love to meet you.”

“And is Anny still in town?” Uncia asked. “We should call her, too.”

“If there are to be reunions, I prefer them small just yet,” Dr. Patil said. “I’m…not accustomed to being in cities. We’ve been in Rodinia for some time.”

“And we’d like to keep the media from catching a whiff of our ‘return’,” Rattigan added. “I didn’t want Doc to leave here without saying hello to y’all, but I’m not too hot on being on Steader News Network 30/6 for the next week.”

“We can eat Fused, no problem,” Rochelle said. “And you look like an ordinary Laurasian RIDE. Hell, they were based on you to begin with. Enough people in Uplift have them that there won’t be anything remarkable about it, as long as Dr. Patil stays out of sight of face-recognition cameras.” She nodded to Uncia, who padded up and Fused over her.

In response, Rohit Fused over Dr. Patil again. This time Rhianna recorded the whole sequence, then reviewed it a few times with her implant. Rohit was amazing, that was the only word for her—there was not a single unnecessary step or part, yet the construction of her plating and chassis equaled anything Donizetti made. Mechanical poetry in motion—she didn’t even move Rattigan one centimeter from his position on Dr. Patil’s shoulder, but simply Fused under him, then the rat scurried back into his position in his carrier and closed the hatch. Rhianna wondered what her skimmer form looked like.

“Oooh…” Uncia breathed, muttering something that sounded like, “Leila, eat your heart out.”

“Well, shall we?” Rhianna asked. “It’s not far, so we can walk it and talk on the way.”

“I enjoy walking,” Dr. Patil said in Rohit’s voice. “I have done so much of it, I have become very good at it.”

“So why didn’t you come back sooner?” Kaylee asked.

The deer RIDE shrugged. “As far as I knew, there was nothing in the world for me. And every other RIDE I saw reminded me that I was single-handedly responsible for establishing a new form of legal slavery.” She sighed. “All my children and grandchildren in bondage, and I a party to a ruinous secret that could only destroy me if I tried to fight it. What could I do?”

“That was then, but things have changed. The secret is out. Right now you would be the single, best advocate for our freedom,” Kaylee said.

“I will…think about it.” Dr. Patil looked unsure for a moment, but then smiled. “But let me turn the question back on you,” she said. “I gather you have been awake several years now. Like every Zharus citizen, I have a lifetime mail drop. Why did you never write to me?

“I’ve…we’ve been hella busy, even after I got my memories back,” Kaylee said, hunching her shoulders. “Besides, you were always busy doing important things, back then. I guess I just sorta felt like if you wanted to be secluded, I shouldn’t be bothering you.”

“Kandace said the same thing, when she wrote me a few weeks ago,” Dr. Patil said. “I so rarely check the drop these days, I only got the letter last week.” She sighed. “I never meant to seem so distant, then. But there were always so many important things to be done.”

“Kandi wrote you?” Kaylee asked, ears perked.

“She seems to have adopted a teenager, whose mother is temporarily absent,” Dr. Patil said. “It apparently caused her to think about her own mother, who had been more than temporarily absent.” She smiled. “Her new partner insisted she write to me, in fact. I fear I have not yet replied, but I soon hope to visit them in person as well.”

“Ah…speaking of being a mother,” Kaylee said. “Katie’s almost here…”

“I remember her,” Dr. Patil said. “It seems like only yesterday that we discovered them…what a crazy day that was! I am glad you found each other again. Has there been any sign of the other children?”

“I still have an FOIA request pending,” Rhianna said. “They’re being pricks about this. I don’t think it’s gotten to Second Tier yet.”

“Perhaps this will help, kiddo!” Rattigan said, offering Kaylee a sizeable data dump whose contents were littered with Nextus “Eyes Only” warnings and encryption codes that had been shredded with the cybernetic equivalent of a buzzsaw. “Little somethin’ somethin’ I picked up as we left.”

“Thanks, gramps,” Kaylee purred, passing it on to Uncia as well. “You were a busy ratty.”

“You know us rodents. Always collecting shiny things.”

:Rhi, this is going to take a while to index,: Rochelle sent. :More stuff to look forward to after…you know…after.:

Dr. Patil sighed, but said nothing. The woman seemed like a bundle of regrets and self-doubt.

They strolled onwards, covering the two kilometers towards the park and its antique dome emitter at a leisurely pace. Once they neared the Park a sleek, shiny, riderless skimmer bike pulled up beside them on the road, then collapsed back into a lynx similar in appearance to Kaylee. She wore a copper-colored “Hollow Star” civilian Marshals badge around her neck. “Hey, Mom. Who’s your frrrriend?”

In response, Kaylee sent a summary of the past half hour over a DINsec channel, then waited for her daughter to absorb it. “You’re serious?” Katie replied. “Really? I mean, rrrrreally?” She looked at “Rohit” in wonder. “So, what should I call you? Grrrrandma? Goddess?

“Grandma would be fine, if you wish it. Or simply my name, but ‘Rohit’ in public for now,” Dr. Patil said. “The heavens know I am no goddess.” She smiled at Kaylee. “Despite what some might think.”

“Hey, when the first face you ever see…” Kaylee said, trailing off. “Course I was talking like a Speak N Spell at the time.”

“All right…grrrrandma,” Katie said hesitantly. “I…honestly never thought I’d everrr meet you. Or you’d even carrre about meeting me.”

“I saw what you did, Citizen Katie,” Patil said. “It was an heartwarming act of bravery. Your grandma is very proud of you.”

“Her mother’s pretty damned proud, too,” Kaylee said. “And someday soon we’ll find your brothers and sisters, Katie.”

“I just can’t get used to the idea that maniac Frrrrritz is my father,” Katie replied. “I thought Luke Skywalkerrrr had it bad.”

“Just like us humans, you can’t pick your parents,” Rhianna said.

“Hell’s bells, I can’t believe I even have parrrents,” Katie said. “I wish I could remember it. I’ve got Kaylee’s memorrrries of that time, but it’s like watching home movies of myself. I want my own back. Conyers was supposed to be shaking them loose since the summit, but he hasn’t come thrrrrough yet.”

“Nextus bureaucracy,” Dr. Patil said. “Do I ever remember that.

“Let me know if you need a stainless steel rat to gnaw through the red tape,” Rattigan offered. “They can’t have patched over more than half the backdoors I left in the ‘frame when we skedaddled.”

The red deer RIDE rolled her eyes. “Ratty…

“I’m just sayin’,” Rattigan insisted.

“I might take you up on that if they don’t get off their asses,” Katie said. “I know a few folks in the Marrrrrshals that might put a lean-on, too. This is how they like their game played, after all.”

There was so much Rhianna wanted to ask. And there was a tiny part of her that wanted to brag about DINsec, and especially the new DINcom. Since admitting to herself that it was the biggest scientific breakthrough since RIs, there was an uncharacteristic part of herself that wanted to shout “Eureka!” from the rooftops. The only thing that really kept her from doing just that was that she hadn’t purposefully set out to invent it. Science tended to go “hey, that’s funny” more often than “eureka”.

She received a VR com from Anny as she and Leila approached the park from the nearby Brubeck Mining campus. “Hey, Rhi ‘n Kay. Almost there. Who’s this y’all wanted us ta meet?”

“A new friend of ours,” Rhianna said calmly. “We think you and she might have some common acquaintances.”

:That’s just a leeeeetle bit evil, Rhi,: Kaylee scolded amusedly.

:Hey, she’s head of security for a major corporation,: Rhianna said. :I just wanna see how good she is at detective work.:

Kaylee snorted. :Admit it, you just wanna see someone else get shocked the way we did.:

:That’s just a fringe benefit,: Rhianna replied virtuously.

When Leila descended in her sleek flier form, Rohit looked on appreciatively. Anny hopped out of the cockpit, then the white lioness reconfigured to Walker mode behind her. Rohit tilted her head forward, watching the transformation process with an admiring eye.

“Anny!” Rhianna said. “This here’s Rohit, fresh from Rodinia.”

The lioness-tagged woman extended her hand. “Pleased ta meet ya, Rohit. My lovely bigger half here is Leila. Y’all said we have something in common?”

“I believe we might know a few of the same people, from bygone days,” “Rohit” said.

“Really?” Anny said suspiciously, reaching back to pet Leila on the nose. “Were you in the MRS?”

“I was attached to the early RIDE test project, in the technical division,” Rohit said. “I saw you all quite often.”

“Weren’t too many folks involved in all that,” Anny said. “I knew every single one of ‘em. Unless you’re that poor guy Kaylee accidentally crossed on that first Fuse test.”

Rohit inclined her head—not quite a nod, but an acknowledgement.

“Ahem,” Leila said. “In Hindu myth, Rohit was a form of the goddess Saraswati. She is a goddess of knowledge and learning.”

“Hindu myth?” Anny repeated, her voice tinged with disbelief. “Knowledge an’ learnin’?” The implication clearly wasn’t lost on her.

“It appears we are found out,” Dr. Patil said in her own voice, retracting Rohit’s helmet-head to reveal her true appearance. “I am pleased to see you doing so well for yourself now, Major.”

“Lawd!” Leila Fused up with her rider and the duo embraced the doe in joy.

Dr. Patil hugged them back, sliding her helmet into place again. “I am sorry I stayed away for so long, but…after seeing what they did to Kaylee, and you, and everything else that happened…I couldn’t bear to be a part of this society anymore.”

“I had five years to think about that, myself,” Anny said. “But disappearin’ ain’t my style, no offense. So I went into private security, and made sure the company treated RIDEs right. Thought about being a Marshal, but they’re just too loose for me. Now, well… I’m in the middle of a big ol’ mess.”

“A mess for which I bear at least some ultimate responsibility,” Dr. Patil said. “Now I would like to help clean it up.”

“What did ye have in mind doin’?” Anny asked, looking at her curiously. “I can’t ‘zackly see you fightin’ on the front lines.”

“You might be surprised!” Rattigan put in, poking his nose out of the carrier to wiggle his whiskers at Anny and Leila, then clambering out onto Rohit’s shoulder.

Dr. Patil chuckled, reaching up to stroke the rat. “Of course not. But there are other ways I can assist. As brilliant as their DINsec work has been, Rhianna and Rochelle do not have a monopoly on Integrate countermeasures.”

“I’ve got to hear this!” Rhianna said. “The more we have in our arsenal, the better.” :She called us “brilliant”! I’m going to fangirl all over the place, Shelley!:

:I know, right?: Rochelle replied, grinning.

“I’ve been working on refining the Qubitite discs the Loose Cannons used for stealth operations,” Dr. Patil said. “I have not exactly had an opportunity to do controlled tests, but as far as I know we have been able to slip away undetected the few times we have run across Integrates on Rodinia.” She smiled. “Until I learned of your DINsec last week, that was our only means of defense against them.”

“And I imagine you’ve been running into Integrates over there more often the past few months, huge continent or not,” Rochelle said.

“Not so much in person, but our receivers have picked up considerably more activity in recent months on the comm bands Integrates often use,” Dr. Patil said. “All of it unbreakably encrypted, of course, but the quantity of it told me that something was going on. After Kandace’s letter moved me to investigate events in the world again, I discovered why.”

“Hey, didn’t we come here for ice cream?” Rattigan asked peevishly.

Dr. Patil reached up and petted the rat’s nose. “Sorry, Ratty. There are simply so many important things to discuss and I have rarely found anyone with whom I can speak on matters like these.”

“Talk all you want, but get me some ice cream first,” Rattigan grumbled. “It’s been three years, two months, seventeen days, four hours, and ten minutes since I last had any. But who’s counting?”

“I suppose we should get in line, then,” Dr. Patil said, stepping forward.

Slightly confused, Rhianna and Rochelle followed suit, with Katie, Anny, and Leila bringing up the rear. “Rattigan…eats?” Rhianna asked.

Dr. Patil smiled over Rohit’s shoulder. “Oh, yes. It seemed cruel to deny it to him since he couldn’t possibly Fuse with an operator in that body.”

“I tried to get her to tweak it so I could Fuse with a gerbil or something, but nooooo…” Rattigan smirked.

“But…how?” Rhianna asked.

The deer Fuser winked. “See if you can guess.”

Rhianna blinked. Had the creator of the RI just playfully posed her an engineering challenge? She watched closely as Dr. Patil ordered a pecan turtle mondae and a small dish of vanilla for Rattigan, and took them over to a table with her. She and the others picked up their own selections and brought them along, and Rattigan had already started working on his scoop by the time they got there. His little pink hardlight tongue busily slurped away at the ice cream.

It was an easier problem than she had thought. Even on Earth they had prosthetic mobile “brainboxes” that had artificial tastebuds and nutrient extraction units inside their large heads. The former owner of one of those mobile frames, one B. Thompson, had commissioned from her a custom deer unit based on a Laurasian chassis that she’d subsequently modified into a transformable “deertaur”. As realistic as possible, B had demanded. That meant an artificial digestive system taken from a Zharusian HUM-series full-body prosthesis.

“I suppose it’s not really that hard,” Rhianna said, feeding Rohit her line of reasoning. “The only custom gear you’d need is to miniaturize a basic fabber/recycler for that little rat chassis. Can you extract any chemical energy, Rattigan?”

“Not ‘nough room for all that,” the rodent RIDE said, between bites. “And I don’t need it anyway, with sarium. But I can use it as fab matter for making stuff. I can eat ice cream and crap integrated circuits!”

Kaylee laughed. “A rat of all trades.”

“He’s very convenient for my work,” Dr. Patil said. “Since most of it involves nanoscale parts anyway, it avoids the awkward questions that going through more public fabbers might sometimes cause. There’s one in Rohit, as well, though not as finely-tuned—useful for frame parts and other things that don’t require as much precision.”

“That’s really clever,” Rochelle said. “I wonder why more RIDEs don’t do that. You could put something even more effective in something the size of Rohit, or Uncia.”

“Some of those larger Support Armors do carry fabbers for field repairs for larger platoons,” Kaylee pointed out. “In fact, doesn’t Uncia have space for one?”

“Yeah, though I pulled it out for more storage space ‘cuz we never used it,” Rochelle said. “Huh. I guess they never just hooked them up to RIDEs’ alimentary canals because…”

“‘…they’rrrre just RIDEs, why do they need to eat stuff?’” Katie said, looking at the others’ ice creams with undisguised envy.

“You know, I’ve got one of those,” Leila purred. “But then, I have a bit of everything.”

“An’ even she doesn’t have her throat wired into it,” Anny noted.

“Though I could,” Leila said thoughtfully. “It would just take some internal reconfiguration. Modular construction—all the cool kitties have it.”

“I think I hate you,” Uncia said. “Are you a Donizetti, Leila? Who built you?”

“Who says I didn’t simply evolve ex nihilo from the primordial nano-slime?” Leila purred.

“I always thought there was something slimy about you,” Uncia retorted.

“Ooooh, catfight!” Rattigan jeered.

Rochelle sighed, picking up her chocolate shake from the window. “Settle down, Uncia. It’s not her fault she cost three times as much as you did.”

“Rub it in, why don’t you,” Uncia muttered.

“Tell you what, after we patent the you-know-what and make a fortune, I’ll get you a new DE costing at least five million, how’s that?” Rochelle said.

“Yay!” Uncia cheered. She then stuck her tongue out at Leila, who studiously ignored her.

“Speaking of, uh, engineering challenges, there’s a couple things I’d like to share with you, Rohit,” Rhianna said. “Here’s the latest DINsec specs—2.0-beta. We’ve made some vast improvements with some input from your old colleague Dr. Clemens, and Wanda Munn.”

“Oh, thank you!” Dr. Patil said. Rohit’s eyes flicked back and forth in sympathy with her rider’s as she scanned the details. “Oh, very good.” She smiled. “I meant what I said, you know. This is brilliant work. If I had discovered the principle myself, I do not believe I could have developed it any better. I did make a few minor tweaks in the version I put into Rohit, based on your prior implementation—some of which I see you have found independently already—but I honestly cannot think of any major way this could be improved upon.”

“I honestly don’t know what to say,” Rhianna said. “Coming from you, that’s all the praise I ever could’ve hoped for.”

“I mean it sincerely,” Dr. Patil said. “And after all this is over, I would be honored if you would allow me to work with you on further improvements—and if you would work with me on refining some of the other things I have made over the years.” She smiled wryly. “I have been keeping much to myself, because filing for patents would necessarily mean reminding the world I still exist. But perhaps the world and I are almost ready for each other again.”

“We need you, Mom,” Kaylee said plaintively. “We really, truly do.”

:Should I tell her about DINcom? Or wait for later?: Rhianna asked the other three, with a little fangirl squee.

:Less public venue might be good,: Rochelle pointed out.

:Yes, it can wait until we can show her the working examples back in the Garage,:Kaylee said. :Extraordinary claims and all that jazz.:

For a few moments, there was silence as the four Fused humans and one rat RIDE ate their ice cream, and Katie watched longingly. Then an errant gust of wind blew Rhianna’s napkins off the table. Her feline reflexes weren’t quite up to the task of snagging them in time. It was only after she’d scooped them up from the ground and disgustedly pitched them into the nearest trash bin that it twigged. “Wait…a breeze? Today wasn’t scheduled to be windy!”

Rochelle frowned. “And it’s coming from the wrong direction. The breeze generators are at the edges of the dome and blow inward. The gusts shouldn’t be coming from city center out.”

A video feed from the Garage called for attention, so Rhianna pulled it up. The neighborhood the Freerider Garage was located had only been under the Dome for four years, and the systems told her some emergency hardlight systems had snapped on. Tocsin’s attack hadn’t damaged the underground mini-dome emitter that had protected the building in those older days. Now it was back on again, covering the lot. The area around the Garage…it was hard to see with all the dust suddenly kicked up. There were a lot of newer buildings that didn’t have an emergency hardlight seal.

City klaxons started blaring.

“Well, crap,” Rochelle said eloquently. Rhianna said nothing aloud, being too busy dispatching messages to the Lindae to get everyone to the emergency shelter in the Garage’s basement, and to Paul and Lilli to be on the alert for a possible attack on AlphaWolf’s camp as well.

“We warned you, over and over again, to leave us alone,” Fritz’s voice came from every speaker. “Now, you got consequences. Let’s see what happens when you let the meat roast a while. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, meat! And your little scraplets, too!”

Authors’ Notes

R_M: I’ve said before that FreeRIDErs is “family reunion porn.” (Not “porn” in the sense of literal pornography, but in the slang meaning, a work with a lot of that particular element in it.) By that token, this is one of the most “porny” episodes of the entire series, as we have multiple family reunions taking place. Bertha and Diana, Carrie-Anne and her partner’s daughter, and—my favorite—Kaylee, Rattigan, and Dr. Patil (with a side order of Katie and Anny). This is one of my favorite episodes to come back and reread, just to watch the Dr. Patil scenes play out. I usually get sucked into binge-reading the next few episodes just to watch the final battle. So at least I’ve had plenty of chances to think about things that need to be updated!

I think I’m the one who had the idea of bringing Dr. Patil back this way, but it’s hard to be sure at this late date—especially since Jon and I seem to think so much alike when it comes to storytelling and inspiration. I do know that I set up for it as early as “Kandace and Jenni: A Beautiful Friendship” wherein I had Kandace write the email to her that kicked the visit off. I also know I’m the one who had the notion of giving her a red deer named Rohit, and the rationale for it. I’d recently been watching Sita Sings the Blues a lot, so had been interested in Indian mythology—and when that association popped up while I was googling to find out what kind of deer they had in India, the name and what it meant were impossible to resist.

Oddly, it turns out now that I misidentified the kind of deer—probably on account of the Wikipedia entry on deer in mythology saying that Rohit turned into a “red deer.” I assumed that was the kind of deer, so I described the RIDE Rohit as being one—but in actuality the red deer isn’t native to India, but the sambar is. So, presumably the Wikipedia entry simply meant a deer that was colored red. Correction made herein!

When I had Rohit be a highly-advanced RIDE with a tech level beyond almost any other, I was simply remembering that Dr. Patil was the scientist who had invented the RIDE, so thought naturally she’d know more than anyone else about making them. However, on reviewing the flashback episodes, I realized that she was strictly focused on the RI portion, and hadn’t had all that much to do with building the DE shells—which required a quick dialogue retrofit to explain how she could have gotten so good at building them, too.

But then again, Dr. Patil is a genius-level intellect who has had thirty-five years to learn everything she could about that side of engineering, too, and she worked closely with the original design team that created them in the first place—so it’s not too much of a stretch to say she was able to pick a few things up along the way. [JonBuck: Plus, Rohit fits with the “Ace Custom” trope you frequently see in anime. She’s a singular creation, as is Rattigan’s custom LRIDE shell, and probably his Gondwanan DE, too.]

Then there’s the question of Bertha and Diana. Wow. Bertha’s more than a little domineering here, to a somewhat disturbing extent. It makes a statement about the lingering aftereffects of the kind of abuse RIDEs have received as their intelligence wasn’t accorded the respect it deserved, that they turn around and seek to have the same kind of control over their human partners when they can. [JonBuck: Gave me the heebie-jeebies.]

On review, I thought it might have been a bridge slightly too far myself, and I did teeter on the edge of taking it out or cutting it back as part of the Director’s Cut review but in the end I decided to let it stand. As later visits to Sturmhaven demonstrate, a similar attitude of the strong strong-arming the weak tends to crop up there among humans, too. This is something they’ll just have to work through.

Also, Fenris was kind of the same way with Paul, originally. But then, we did show Fenris’s attitude soften over time toward Paul, and I think Bertha’s did the same way toward Diana but I’m not sure we ever made that explicit. I might have to retrofit something, as I did for the Lindae. I’ll have a look at “Wolves in the Fold,” the next time we revisit those characters after the big battle, to see if I need to add anything there. Or maybe “Alpha Strike” would be a better opportunity to put something in. We’ll see.

Rochelle’s hair is chartreuse this time. It was kind of supposed to be a running gag that her hair color was different every time she showed up, since she could change it instantly with the nanites whenever she wanted, but I don’t think I really made enough of a thing of it for people to notice. Her “default” is a sort of greyish white, with darker-grey spots optional, to match a snow leopard’s pelt, but of course even that’s a bit of an artificial color given that shade isn’t exactly natural. Another generally-neglected running gag is that she usually halfway-falls down the stairs.

This episode represents the last major appearance that Carrie-Anne makes in Integration. She shows up briefly here and there in subsequent episodes, but never really gets a character focus again. As I mentioned in an earlier note, the subplot involving Audrey and Karen never really went anywhere. We simply set up so many potential subplots and introduced so many different characters that we just weren’t able to follow them all up.

One thing still conspicuous by its absence in this portion is the space training cruise that Zane and friends undertake so Zane can Take A Level In Badass via a Training Montage and be more evenly-matched against Fritz when he comes to town. When we were writing this, we recognized that it needed to happen, but it was one of those things that had the potential to develop into a full story of its own that would slow us down and get in the way of writing the final confrontation—which we were eager to get started in the next episode.

At the time, we thought that the training cruise might make a good side story to write up—but we just never got around to writing it. We’ve had a few ideas for it every now and again—possibly involving the deep space Enclaves mentioned in the Totalia stories and at the end of Oh My Darling Clementine—but they never really jelled. In any event, it’s not something we could clear up with just a scene or two here, so we left it alone. Maybe we’ll get around to it someday.

And one more little tweak: about the time we were writing this, we forgot for a while that Katie rrrrolls many of her ‘r’s—most notably in this episode and the next. We’ve corrected those.

JonBuck: Our original idea for Dr. Patil was that she was a Greta Garbo-style recluse, surrounded by the RIDEs she’d purchased away from slavery. But it’s hard to resist a good Walking the Earth Trope, and I love the scene when Rattigan pops out of his carrier to get her to reveal herself, and him getting pounced-and-purred upon by Kaylee.

Of course, Dr. Patil’s RIDE had to be a deer. In this case, a sambar deer. She’s quite a wonder by herself. As Dr. Patil said, she’s had a great deal of time to learn all aspects of RIDE engineering. I’d forgotten until I reread this part that Dr. Patil was a serial crossrider. But that also makes sense. Given her later relationship with Dr. Clemens, I wonder if she’ll persuade him to swap.

We’ve added a few scenes here. One with Joe and Quinoa at home, a new Enclave Lair based on James Bond tropes built in a volcano with Quinoa doing her thing, Chauncey getting his upgrade, and then Fritz’s reawakening. The “show, don’t tell” rule of storytelling. However, there’s still some things that happen offscreen, like the Space Training Cruise. Perhaps a story for another time.

In the next part we introduce some new characters. I’ll leave the majority of that commentary there, but here I wanted to say that we were tempted to introduce some of them early in this part, during the revision. But when we tried, we found it ruined the flow of the story. So, the lesson when doing editing of this nature is to keep it to a minimum, smooth out the narrative, and don’t mess it up by introducing characters earlier than they naturally arrived.

With these parts and the next we started getting some significant crossover with the other side stories we’d worked on. This is Bernie Thompson’s first mention outside of “Marshals.”

And last, the “DINcom” gets used. We made some changes here to reflect how the early models work. They burn out easily, so Fenris and Guin need an array to keep their connection up with enough bandwidth.

R_M: So how about that? We’ve managed to work our way through 80% of Integration in Director’s Cuts so far. We are so far over the hump. (Or maybe just over the hill…) Onward to the last five episodes!

Preceded by:
Integration Part XIX: Meetings Completing
FreeRIDErs Succeeded by:
Integration Part XXI: Enemy Lines