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User:Robotech Master/RIDEgirls Day Out

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FreeRIDErs story universe


Integration

by Jon Buck and Robotech_Master

Part 3: RIDEgirls’ Day Out

At the top of the stairs, just inside the door, Rhianna’s body finally gave out. She slumped to the floor asleep, almost face first. Kaylee’s rider had inherited a cat’s ability to sleep almost anywhere to go with the rest of her tags. But the lynx RIDE couldn’t allow Rhianna to sleep like that. She’d awake with a horrible crick in her neck sleeping with her stubby tail in the air.

The lynx mecha gently grabbed the scruff of the crossrider’s jumpsuit with her teeth and slowly pulled the sleeping woman towards the living room couch, trying not to wake her. Tired as she was, Rhianna would wake up very cranky if she pulled too hard. Kaylee knew her rider.

Kaylee felt very possessive over her. The months and years the RI had literally dreamed about going Active only made making Rhianna’s transition worth it to her all the more important. Okay, K-Spared, she’s not going to put you back in the Shed, she reassured herself for the 127th time. She knew that, deep in her being from Fuse, yet the irrational fear persisted.

The thought of going into Passive again scared her. It was too much like shutdown. Too much like being forgotten in the Shed, being used for spare parts until there was nothing left but her chassis and RI core. Not going to happen again.

Kaylee’s forelegs started trembling. There were still shadows of events in her fragmented memory core. Past catastrophes, the flavor of which had survived, but nothing else. Sometimes she had a flash of a heavy firefight with something or other. Other times, she saw the face of a young woman that could have been Myla’s aunt, but no certainty. The RIDE-techs had even excised her earliest memory during final decommissioning. The first time she’d booted up, one of the most cherished things an RI had. Even that was gone.

She gently licked her rider, made a decision, then Fused over her slumbering form. Before getting up she made sure Rhianna was in a deep, restful sleep. Rhianna had taken to calling her “mother” lately, and for good reason. She felt just that broody and protective. Kaylee had spent months designing a female body she felt her rider could live with. The feline nose hadn’t been in the plan, but…

This was the first time she had dared Fuse while Rhianna was sleeping. Most of the RIDEs she knew did it at one time or another; Fuse-sleep was common out in the Dry. Despite being based on animal neural maps, they were at least as intelligent as humans and very much knew the advantages of walking on two legs and having thumbs. She decided to make some use of the time and clean the place up a bit—some domesticity to take her mind off unpleasant subroutines.

The Freerider Garage had had very humble beginnings. Five years ago, when Ryan had a stroke of good luck and met someone willing to take a risk on his business skills, the Garage itself hadn’t even been inside the East Dome. The expansion schedule was known well in advance, of course, which was probably why their landlord didn’t want to sell the plot, to anyone. But he had been willing to rent it out to a small entrepreneur trying to make good in the world.

The memories stood out in Rhianna’s mind as some of the happiest of her life. It was the end of a very hard first year on Zharus, soon after migrating from Zharustead to the tiny western polis of Burnside. Ryan and Rufus had been hitchhiking on the foggy, forested Northwest Ring Skimmerway, trying to get anywhere but that tiny burg. Then they’d encountered their future landlord broken down on the side of the road and fixed his skimmer with little more than a keen mind and a few bits of twisted wire.

There were earlier memories, of course. Childhood and young adulthood on Earth, Ryan’s need to stand on his own and make a life apart from his family, and his eventual emigration to Zharus, but Kaylee felt those were more private, so let them be.

Kaylee put in a call to Sophie on the RIDE-specific sidechannels. ~QUERY: Current domicile or comm address of Aunt Anny?~

~RESPONSE: Negative. Whereabouts unknown to this unit. SUGGESTION: Ask Myla. End of Line,~ was Sophie’s terse reply. :Look, Kaylee, just call me normally. I hate that machine-talk. I know this is a lot slower, but that makes me feel like a freaking stupid Ad-I.:

:Sorry. Old habit, I guess.: Kaylee replied. Sophie was a sister-in-arms of the Materiel Recovery Service, so she had more respect for her than usual. :I’m really, really an oldie. I guess s’why I’m so curious about Myla’s aunt. Have you ever met her?:

:Once. We had lunch soon after Myla joined the service. Here’s how she looked. Ring any bells?: The fennec sent over a memory package. It had quite a few gaps from the ham-handed decommissioning process, but it was enough.

Memory blocks Kaylee had thought were unrecoverably dead sparked to life again. Annette Hewer and the three others in her squad—one woman, two men—posing for photos at the RIDEs’ induction ceremony. She was a short, dark-skinned woman with a bright, broad smile.

:Sophie, I really want to get in contact with her now,: Kaylee said excitedly.

:Sorry, kitteh; it’ll have to wait. Let your rider get her beauty sleep. It’ll keep, so don’t worry. No need to be an impatient kitten.:

Kaylee snorted aloud to herself. :You’re right. It’s waited this long. Chat at you later, vixie.:

:Later, kitteh.: Sophie closed the connection.

Kaylee finished tidying up, and stood back to satisfy her handiwork. Not bad at all. It was really too bad Rhianna hadn’t picked up the stereotypically feminine tidiness habit along with the body. She still dropped her laundry wherever it fell, and Kaylee was always finding socks in odd places. Though she heard from Yvonne that Rufia was even worse. She suppressed a shudder, not wanting to risk waking Rhianna up.

Now that the work was done, she supposed she should tuck Rhianna into her bed and take herself downstairs for some charging time. But…on the other hand…after all those times she’d put herself to sleep while Ryan used her body like a badly-fitting Halloween costume…could Rhianna really begrudge her a little “me” time with the shared body as long as she got her full night’s sleep?

It only took a few moments for the lynx to come to a decision. Making sure Rhianna was still deep in REM, she tiptoed downstairs, where Rochelle was still snuggled into the crook of Uncia’s spine.

As she passed, Uncia raised her head. :Hey, sis, what’s up? I thought Rhianna was sleeping.:

:She is,: Kaylee said.

:Ooooooh!: Uncia said. :I see! You’ve put her in Passive mode!:

:I guess you could put it that way,: Kaylee admitted. :Just thought I’d go out and do a little shopping or something.:

Then a moment later she regretted mentioning it as Rochelle’s sleeping body sank into Uncia, who shifted around and stood up in her own Fuser form. She spoke aloud now that Rochelle could no longer be disturbed. “Hey, great! I wanna come, too!”

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Kaylee traveled along a half meter above the street at 45 kph, arms crossed, a mildly annoyed expression on her face. Oblivious, a sixty-centimeter taller snow leopard zoomed along right behind her. “There’re these great stores in the mall I saw when Rufia took Rochelle shopping. There were even a couple of RIDE fashion places! Y’know, where we can buy clothes sized to fit us that we can wear in Fuser if we want instead of these metal bikinis!”

“Never saw much need for that sort of foolishness,” Kaylee muttered. “They’d just get torn up if we had to work in ‘em.” Why had she had to come along? Kaylee had been looking forward to a little quiet time to look around on her own, not having to babysit a teenaged sportsRIDE.

Uncia giggled. “They won’t get torn up. They’re dress designs we can download and display from our hardlight projectors. Anyway, they’re not for working in, silly! They’re for showing off in! I mean, we’re people, too. Why should we go around naked all the time?”

“Hmph,” Kaylee said. She still didn’t really see the point.

Uncia zoomed around in front of Kaylee, flying backward up the street in front of her. “Aha! I know what it is! You’ve never had the chance to dress up! They frown on that kinda thing in Nextus, and you were never awake when Ryan was wearing you! That explains it!”

“Watch where you’re going, why don’t you?” Kaylee grumbled.

Uncia darted forward and seized Kaylee’s arm. “That’s it! Sis, you’re coming with me, and I’m not giving up until we’ve found you the purrrrrfect dress! C’mon!”

Kaylee yelped in surprise as Uncia dragged her into the nearest entrance to the mall, and the door swung shut behind them.

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If anyone had been paying attention, someone might have noticed a slight anomaly in the eastern hardlight dome. Not that anyone would have been paying attention at any rate; there were dozens of such anomalies per day, generally caused by a fluctuation in one of the dome’s dozens of industrial power supply units. They were logged but largely ignored, since most of them were no kind of threat to the dome’s structural integrity.

This particular anomaly, though, was caused by a cloaked lynx Integrate parting the structure of the dome just long enough to slip through. After pausing to take his bearings, Fritz drifted down to street level, then cruised up the sidewalk toward the jumble of temporary building modules that made up the Freeriders Garage.

When you got right down to it, Fritz wasn’t entirely sure why he was even here. He’d just talked to Quinoa, after all, and he trusted her to do her job. But something about it still itched at him. Something about her. Some things, he needed to see for himself.

:So, are you actually concerned for her wellbeing?: Jiminy asked.

:Is it any of your fucking beeswax, Blast HardCheese?: Fritz retorted.

:Oh, don’t mind me, I just live here,: he replied in his most infuriatingly pleasant tone.

Fritz rolled his eyes. :Would you please just can it for once? I need to think.:

:Think? Really? What, you taking up a new hobby in your old age?: the voice in his head needled. But it also subsided, for the moment. Fritz supposed he should be grateful for small favors.

As he sidled up to the garage, Fritz noticed two Fuser forms slip out of it and hover away. It was Kaylee, and a larger, swanky snow leopard RIDE with her—the one that belonged to Kay’s human’s partner. What’s this? he mused. A light touch of their systems confirmed that both their humans were in REM sleep. He chuckled. While the meat’s away, the mechs will play, eh? He tagged them with a tracer so he could follow up later, but for now he was more interested in having a look at their digs.

It was basically a run-of-the-mill skimmer and RIDE garage, nothing really special on first look. Skimmers awaiting repair sat in the middle. Fritz snorted, then noticed there weren’t any RIDEs “parked” anywhere, unlike the majority of places like this, as if they were mere machines like the skimmers. His curiosity piqued, he tapped into the garage’s security feeds.

The garage modules devoted to RIDEs had a different, almost clinical feel to them. The cradles had plenty of space, and the floors were kept neat and tidy—no grease spots, or tools left in disarray. There were only a few occupied cradles or powered down RIDE units; Fritz already knew that Freeriders tried not to run a large backlog if they could help it. Fritz had to admit, it was nicer than most facilities he’d ever been serviced in back in the day. He almost felt like he could let himself, well, like this meat, before he shook himself and moved on.

:It’s all right to be human once in a while, y’know,: Jiminy put in. Fritz ignored him.

Yeah, looks like that chickie found herself a good home all right, Fritz mused. He felt…he didn’t know, annoyed? Relieved? Envious? Some combination of the above? After all, she was getting to live a life he’d only ever wished he could—and it was thanks largely to him, when you got right down to it, that she was here in the first place. Damn that meddling Doctor Jerkwad Clemens anyway.

Realizing where his train of thought had led him, Fritz paused, waiting for the cutting remark that was sure to come from his unwanted passenger. But Jiminy was silent for once, and the moment passed. Well, whatever.

It occurred to Fritz that this might be a good place to send a certain little package he’d had in storage for a while. Have to see about that, if I can find the right way to slip it in. Look more into that later. Fritz shook himself. Yeah, seen enough. Time to blow this joint. He slipped back out of the garage. A moment later, he was gone.

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A couple of minutes later, Kaylee stood amid the aisles of “Bourne to Be Wild,” a RIDE boutique which specialized in fashion accessories designed for them. Kaylee couldn’t say she particularly liked that one whole wall was made up of dominatrix attire, including spiked collars, leashes, and various kinds of harnesses. But to be fair, the rest of it did look like it had some pretty decent outfits, save that she didn’t think she could see herself in any one of them.

“Of course, you can customize any one of these—pick whatever color goes with your fur and eyes,” Uncia said. “Just take the storage chip for any you want into the dressing room and take off your metal bits. Then you can project it over you from the chip. If you want to buy it, you pay them at the counter and they’ll give you the decryption key to copy it down.”

“I know how data purchases work,” Kaylee grumbled. She knew Uncia wasn’t going to give her any peace until she picked out something, so she supposed she might as well look. Still grumbling, she started flipping through designs listlessly.

“You’re thinking about this all wrong,” Uncia said after a moment. “I know you don’t care about looking good for yourself.” She leaned in and whispered. “So instead, maybe you could think about what will make Rhianna look good when you’re together. Maybe you could find something that will make her want to be you to some social event instead of going ‘naked.’” Uncia watched her for a moment, then giggled. “Are you blushing? I think you’re blushing!

“I am not blushing!” Kaylee said hotly, as her cheeks burned. Nonetheless, it did cause her to start considering the dresses in a different way. What might Rhianna think about being her in one of these? Which ones would appeal to her taste? For that matter, did she even have a taste, apart from “Easy Fuse” jumpsuits? Nothing too feminine. I just don’t know how far to push it…but I still want her to enjoy being a woman for its own sake. I don’t want it to feel like the same-old, same-old.

Uncia was busy looking through dresses herself, looking thoughtful. “Hmm. Maybe this one…or I dunno, this one. I want to make sure Rochelle looks fabulous in me for her date tonight…’cuz she can’t custom-tailor dresses when I’m on her. And it’s so rare I get the chance to surprise her.”

“I’ll bet ‘she’ was plenty surprised when you first met,” Kaylee said.

“Well, yeah,” Uncia admitted. “I don’t think I’m ever quite going to be able to top that one.” She giggled, then sighed a little. “I can laugh about it now because she doesn’t really mind so much. I’m still kind of sorry about it, though. Oooh, that ‘Amontillado’ virus. It must be nice to be human, and not have things be able to mess with your head so easily.”

“Except when you’re around Shelley,” Kaylee pointed out.

Uncia laughed. “True.” She selected a couple of chips and slipped into the dressing room. “Be right back.” A moment later she came out, the armor pieces covering her private parts replaced by a dark blue dress that emphasized her height and cleavage.

“Have to admit, the blue looks great with gray-with-black rosettes like yours,” Kaylee said.

Uncia twirled. “And it goes with my eyes!” She grinned at Kaylee. “For your tawny fur, I think you need something a little warmer. Something that contrasts but doesn’t clash. Maybe something in…hmm…yellow? Or maybe brown.”

The lynx’s early memory blocks were still sparking from earlier, provoking her own defragmenter to work on them. She remembered…some kind of…test? A desert tan MRS uniform over her fur. But they didn’t give us hardlight pelts back then! She thought. “How about tan?” She shook her head. “Once Shelley gets up let her know I could use another memory defragment, okay?”

“Hmm. I think that could work, as long as it didn’t blend too much into your fur.” She cocked her head. “Are you all right?”

Kaylee folded her arms. “More or less, little sister. It’s just the past few weeks are shakin’ a few things loose from the bad old days. Something stirring in the old memory blocks.”

Uncia leaned down to give her a hug. “It’ll be all right. Who knows, maybe those jerks weren’t as good at erasing stuff as they thought.”

“I suppose not remembering my First Boot makes me a little more ‘human.’ Rhianna doesn’t remember hers. Humans are so strange. They can actually forget things—not on purpose, I mean.” Kaylee made a face. “Lordy, you should see what my rider’s dreaming right now.”

Uncia giggled. “Probably not any worse than mine. You know what would be funny? If we crosslinked their dreams so they met each other, and…”

“Ride giant bananas while chasing down Burnside Bill and Nextus Nellie with a licorice lasso?”

“Oh, I wasn’t thinking about those kind of dreams.” Uncia grinned wickedly.

Kaylee facepawed. “I don’t think that’s a wise idea. First, crosslinking like that is really in bad taste. Second, Rhianna’s got her lucid dreaming implant, so she wants to chase legendary outlaws on a giant banana.”

“Well, yeah. I’d never do it, at least not without permission,” Uncia said. “But it’s fun to imagine.” She giggled. “A giant banana, huh? Someone’s got issues.”

“I suppose. Funny thing is that she’s wearing a frilly cancan girl’s outfit, too. Corset, hoop skirt, feather hat, the whole works. The sleeping human brain is a strange, strange place.”

Uncia snorted. “Anyway, why don’t you try something on now?”

The lynx mecha regarded her “little sister” with a half smile. “Okay. You win. I don’t think she’ll mind if I buy her a few things out of petty cash, either. After that dream, these outfits will be subdued.”

“Why don’t you let me get it for you?” Uncia asked. “I can afford it. I’ve still got the several hundred kilomu Lilli set up for my repair fund, and I’ve been adding to it a bit by dabbling in the stock market. I came with the best financial modeling programs money could buy, and that was before Rochelle tweaked them, so I’m pretty good at it.”

“Okay. I’m not one to turn down an offer of generosity. At least while Rhi’s asleep. Just don’t tell her or Shelley?”

Uncia grinned. “They don’t need to know. And I like being able to give people presents. Because people do that for each other. Not things.” Her eyes grew hard and distant for a moment, with a look that almost broke Kaylee’s heart to see on the face of someone who acted so young and cheerful most times. But then the mood passed. “So go on, try something on, big sister. I wanna see what you look like in a dress.”

After taking several chips from the rack, Kaylee went into the fitting room that was mostly a polite formality to the humans in the store, except in the case of those RIDEs like Uncia whose hardlight skins were anatomically correct. Kaylee had always been Barbie-doll smooth, so it wasn’t as if she needed it.

Though come to think of it, she supposed, it did help keep a little of the “mystery” by letting smoothies like her pretend that there was something underneath. If you were going to the trouble of wearing clothes in the first place, maybe that was meaningful after all.

After taking a moment to make up her mind, Kaylee stepped out in a pleated khaki skirt with a matching beige halter top. The top was similar enough to the muscle shirts Ryan had sometimes worn in the past that she thought she could get it past Rhianna without too much trouble, and the only really “girly” thing about the skirt was that it was one. It did complement her fur and eyes nicely, she thought.

Uncia grinned. “Hey, that’s a nice casual look for you. But how about something a little more fancy?”

“I’ll be right back.” Kaylee stepped back into the changing room for long enough to switch chips, and stepped back out in a yellow cotton sundress.

“Huh.” Uncia considered that, and made a little circular motion with her finger. Kaylee obligingly turned around for her. Uncia nodded. “That’s better. But c’mon, you’ve got to have at least one thing that’s really fancy. Even if you could never get Rhianna to be seen in it, you deserve it for you.”

“Well…” Kaylee said. “There was one I was thinking about.”

“Go on, try it.” Uncia grinned. “I’ve got to see this.”

“All right. Hang on a minute.” Kaylee stepped back into the dressing room. “I don’t know if this is really me, but…” She stepped out in a cream silk evening gown. It wasn’t done up in fanciful ruffles and flounces, but had almost a stark simplicity to it. As a dress should be, it was tight where it needed to be tight, and loose where it needed to be loose. It swished appealingly around her legs as she walked, and belled out just enough to show a tantalizing hint of calf when she did a turn.

Uncia beamed. “It’s you all right! So help me, if you don’t buy that, I’ll buy it and have Rochelle upload it into you next time she defrags your memory. Oooh, you’re blushing again!”

“Am not,” Kaylee said, though she knew she was lying.

“Just a sec.” Uncia ducked back into the fitting room, and came back out again with her metal armor pieces. “I think I’m going to wear mine for the rest of the shopping trip.” She pushed the pieces against herself and they melted back into nanofluid and merged into her body through the hardlight dress. “What about you?”

Kaylee looked down at herself. “I dunno.”

Uncia giggled. “Dare ya! Double dare ya!” Kaylee still looked doubtful, and she added, “C’mon, it’s only hardlight.”

“Well…I guess.” Kaylee went to retrieve and reabsorb her own metal pieces, then they went to the counter for Uncia to pay.

The gazelle Fuser behind the counter smiled at them as they came up. “We think you both look fabulous,” she said. “Thanks for shopping here!”

“The pleasure’s ours!” Uncia said.

“Yeah, thanks,” Kaylee mumbled.

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Fritz slipped invisibly into the mall, following the trace he’d put on Kaylee and Uncia. He arrived in time to watch them go into a fancy clothing store. A quick tap of the cameras crossed with his own Integrate sensors, and he could watch them as they tried on various hardlight outfits. When Kaylee came out in that cream-colored little number, he had to clap his handpaw over his mouth to keep from wolf whistling. Damn, Kaylee, you’re lookin’ fine.

:It’d be nice to have the bandwidth to see outside this box for once,: Jiminy said. :Wait, you’re not going to…:

Fritz had known how to make new Integrates since shortly after the end of the War. What he didn’t know was why it worked. It was “just” a series of Fuser assembler codes that would put the tiny beasties into overdrive. The rest, as they said, was blowing in the wind.

All it would take was a little mental twist, and Kaylee, the queen snowcat, and their meat would join the rest of Intie-kind. He reached forward, milliseconds from pulling the trigger…and stopped himself. No…I can’t. I’d feel like a stupid pudknocker if I did…and that ain’t copacetic.

:Well?: Jiminy said. :Lost your stomach for it, have you?:

:Relax, poindexter. Now’s not the time for her to join us,: Fritz replied, evading the question. If there was anyone who deserved to be an Integrate like him, it was Kaylee and whoever her meat was. But Quinoa had reminded him that the timing just wasn’t right. From his newsfeed watchdog reports they hadn’t even been blabbing about their visit to Towers. But if any of them vanished, the others probably would go public before he could get to them too.

That was what he told himself, anyway. But Fritz was also uncomfortably aware that it had been years since he’d enforced the old “no witnesses” dictat that used to be the Snatchers’ standard M.O. whenever someone Integrated in a public place. Maybe Jiminy was right. He had lost his stomach for it.

:So what’re you even doing here?:

:Hey, no harm in looking.: Fritz sauntered invisibly along after them as they headed on to their next store.

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As they walked through the mall to the next store, Kaylee was startled, and perhaps a bit embarrassed, to notice the appreciative looks she and Uncia were getting—from humans and from other RIDEs. “I didn’t know people even cared that much ‘bout RIDE clothes,” Kaylee muttered, trying not to blush again.

“Sure they do,” Uncia said. “It’s a perception thing. When you’ve got clothes on, you’re saying that you’re a person and you know it. If you’re naked, you’re just somebody’s Fuser suit.” She paused at Kaylee’s look. “I’m not saying I believe it. I’m just saying that’s how human nature works. Anyway, people like looking at pretty things, and you have to admit, that’s us.”

“You, maybe,” Kaylee mumbled. She paused, then turned and glanced around.

Uncia looked over at her. “What is it?”

Kaylee shook herself. “I don’t know, it just felt like…someone was watching me.”

“Kaaaaaylee,” Uncia said. “I just got done telling you, everybody’s watching us.”

“I guess,” Kaylee said, glancing over her shoulder one more time.

Uncia changed the subject, pointing to another store. “C’mon, sis. This is one of the places Rufia took Shelley. You’ll find some great stuff for Rhianna here.”

Rhianna’s crossrider party shopping trip, as well as the one with Rufia just after her change, had resulted in some rather flamboyantly sexy outfits Rhianna promptly put into boxes after wearing them once for her gathered friends. But Kaylee was much more practical-minded and knew what sizes and styles to buy. The items included some night clothes, one of which she promptly pulled into herself after purchase, then spitting out the jumpsuit. It took a lot of concentration, but you could undress and re-dress someone while Fused. Wouldn’t Rhianna be surprised?

Other purchases included feminine variants on Rhianna’s old male clothes, as well as some “girlier” outfits like dresses and camisoles, but nothing that pushed the envelope too far. A lot of new crossriders went all-out stereotype and bought the frilliest, sexiest, laciest clothing they could and ended up regretting it.

Uncia didn’t buy much herself in these stores—but she explained that was because Rochelle had already bought all the dresses she needed when Rufia had brought her here. “And I ended up carrying all of them,” Uncia said. “By the time we were finished, I wasn’t there anymore—just a big pile of bags, with legs and a tail. A tail that had a couple more bags hanging from it.”

Kaylee snorted. “Well, you do have the frame for it. I’m the compact model. Not so much use as a beast of burden.”

“C’mon, there’s another place I want to hit before we go,” Uncia said, leading the way to a RIDE upgrade store. “Time to get a little something extra for ourselves.”

Kaylee stopped at the threshold. “This looks a bit too rich for my servos,” she said. The store wasn’t the kind of gear and fittings hardware store where she usually shopped, where everything was simple but functional. This was a more upscale place that sold top-quality but expensive merchandise, like genuine Donizetti parts. Not just a “module’r,” but a “mod-jeweller.”

Uncia glanced over her shoulder. “I said I’m buying. C’mon. Pick you out just one thing you really want. In fact…” She leaned in and whispered to the human behind the counter, and he nodded—and all the price transponders on all the merchandise went blank to Kaylee’s perception as the store edited their “view” permissions to exclude her.

“Hey!” Kaylee protested. “How’m I supposed to see what stuff costs now?”

“You’re not!” Uncia said. “I said I’m buying. Now pick something out and don’t worry about how much it is. I’m good for it.” She grinned. “And if you need to know what anything is, let me know. Remember, I’m built out of this kind of stuff.”

“Huh.” Kaylee snorted. But she started looking over the displays all the same. The mecha lynx knew all the brand names and models, of course. Many of Rhianna’s wealthier clients demanded gear of this level. But she’d never even considered getting any of it for herself, any more than Rhianna would have bought a 10,000 mu mechanical watch rather than a 30 mu discount store wrist chron.

“Isn’t there anything you’ve ever wished you could do?” Uncia asked.

There were ultra-high-grade sarium batteries that would triple her endurance. Super-lifters and impellers that would rev up her skimmer speeds to nearly supersonic. And in one corner, “special” hardlight emitters whose intimate purpose was obvious at a glance. When it came down to it, she remembered the morning’s race to breakfast, and the narrow loss to Yvonne. And she recalled the hard time she’d had keeping up with Sophie the day before. She pointed at the lifters: Donizetti RIDEworks Corridore R-6. “Those.”

Uncia impulsively hugged her again. “Oh, I was hoping you’d pick those! Now we can race!

The older RIDE smiled despite herself. “I’m an old girl, but it’s great I can still upgrade. I have an awesome 001-series overbuilt modular chassis. It was almost all that was left of me, you know. But it turned out to take just about anything Rya—Rhianna wanted on me. We double-ought-ones are flexible like that.”

Uncia made her own selection—a set of those special hardlight projectors—and took their purchases up to the counter for checkout. “Would you like me to have these lifters sent to the garage?” Uncia asked. “We can have Rhianna put them on you. We’ll say they’re from a secret admirer.”

“You know what? Let’s. I’m feeling a li’l rambunctious.”

Uncia giggled. “Excellent! Just one more place I’d like to stop, then we can head home.”

The young leopardess led the way to the food court at the end of the mall, and ordered herself a giant chocolate malt. “I know it’s a little sneaky of me, but I’ve just got to taste something for myself while I’ve got the body. Something non-alcoholic, this time. Besides, with those nanites going all the time, Shelley needs the calories anyway.” Even though Rochelle was sleeping, Kaylee knew, Uncia could control their shared body well enough that she could drink it without any risk of her partner choking—or waking up. For that matter, so could she, if she wanted. “Can I get you anything?” Uncia asked.

Kaylee pondered, digging into her sluggishly defragmenting ancient memory blocks. The woman she was now sure was Annette Hewer—Myla’s aunt—had loved a certain food above all others. “Pizza. And a malt for myself, too. Rhi needs some eats, herself. Getting on toward lunchtime.”

“Ooooh! I haven’t tried pizza yet, but I’ve heard it’s good! Everything on it?”

“Plain old pepperoni.”

“Right! One double-pepperoni pizza, coming up!” Uncia sent her order via a sideband, and a few minutes later a coyote Fuser brought it to their table. They each seized a slice and happily dug in.

As they sat there enjoying their food, Uncia said, “Have you ever thought about just…staying Fused all the time? I don’t mean like I tried to do with Amontillado, but like…well, Zane and Terry did. They seemed so happy together…” She looked almost wistful.

Kaylee’s hardlight skin visibly shivered. “That’s good for them. I love Rhi very much, but the very idea of Integration gives me the willies. I just can’t stomach it, since I have a stomach right now.” She took another bite of pizza, chewing slowly with Rhianna’s mouth, enjoying the texture of the cheese, the spicy flavor of the pepperoni. A few crushed pepper sprinkles made it just how she now remembered it.

“Yeah, I don’t know if I’d like that part either,” Uncia said, finishing her second slice of pizza and putting the crust aside. “But I have to admit, it’s nice being so close to someone you like. It’s nice having someone to like. When I think about what it was like back in Nextus…sitting there in that showroom, day in and day out, nobody wanting to buy me, AlphaWolf’s flunkie yammering at me every day…and then months as Lillibet-the-self-absorbed’s phone booth. And that’s not even as bad as it could have been.”

They both knew well, from discussions on the RIDE-only web boards, how hard it was to find a good personality match even if you didn’t belong to a slave-driver. There were so many RIDE-human pairings whose personalities rubbed against one another like a rock on a cheese grater. Personality clashes where both parties knew intimately just how deep their mutual dislike went were pure soul-tormenting torture.

“And Terry had it even worse than I did. I guess when you’ve had that kind of life, it’s not hard to want to swing hard the other way,” Uncia continued, as she finished the last slice of her half. “Maybe Terry was so happy he’d finally found someone good he just wanted to spend his every living moment with him?”

“Don’t feel like guessing, frankly,” Kaylee said, tossing her last crust onto the table. “And…” she felt Rhianna stirring. “Ugh. I’m getting ‘indigestion’, if you know what I mean.”

“Yeah, I think Shelley’s getting on toward wakefulness, too. Think we can get them back to the garage?”

“I think they’ll be asleep that long. Better skim!”

Uncia nodded, picking up the now-empty malt cups and the pizza box full of crusts and dropping them in a convenient waste receptacle. “We can switch back from the dresses in the parking lot.” She offered Kaylee her hand-paw. “Shall we?”

Kaylee grinned. “Let’s.” She put her hand-paw in Uncia’s, and together they walked through the mall’s swinging glass doors.

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A few minutes later, Rochelle opened her eyes. She was still lying nestled into the curve of Uncia’s spine, against the small of her back, and she felt extremely well-rested. And…oddly full. She belched, and put a hand to her lips…and found pepperoni grease on it when she took it away. Underneath her, Uncia started snoring. Loudly.

“Oh, Uuuuuuncia?” Rochelle asked. “You can drop the act, I know RIDEs don’t snore in sleep mode.”

“Huh? Wha?” Uncia said. “Oh, Shelley! I had the most amazing dream! You were there, and Auntie Em…”

Rochelle made a fist and gently thumped Uncia between the ears. “Silly kitty. Took me out and enjoyed yourself?”

Uncia hesitated, then said, “Uh-huh.”

“Wanna tell me about it?”

Uncia considered. “Nope!”

Rochelle grinned. “Good. Live your own life.”

Uncia glanced over her shoulder. “You…don’t mind?”

“Un-hon, we made you RIDEs to be slaves, so you couldn’t even act like people without our help. As far as I’m concerned, if you want to use my body for that while I’m asleep, you do it. It’s my little way of evening the score. Just…don’t get me drunk again, okay?”

Uncia rolled her eyes. “I’ve learned that lesson the hard way.”

Rochelle grinned. “Good.” She bounced back to her feet, hair swirling around her. “Now…augh! The time! We need to go home and get ready for our date tonight!”

Uncia grinned a feline grin. “We’re gonna knock ‘em dead.” She flipped to Skimmer mode, Rochelle climbed aboard, and a moment later the garage was empty.

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Meanwhile, upstairs, Kaylee disgorged Rhianna gently into bed. She was close to waking now. The RIDE went into her recharging alcove and plugged in, waiting for the expected reaction and smirking to herself.

The new woman slowly sat up in bed in the dark room, her hands patting her chest as she often did these days, as if confirming her breasts were still there. Her hands encountered the slick satiny fabric of her new nightie and matching panties. The lights came on. Rhianna looked at her RIDE, while Kaylee examined something really interesting on the ceiling. The reaction the lynx hoped for materialized as Rhianna left her bed, then came over to hug her partner tightly.

“It’s really cute,” the new woman said. “Very…me. Girl-me, I mean. I’m glad you had fun out shopping with Uncia.”

Kaylee blinked. “How would you know that? Wait…” Her cortical implant memory buffer, of course. It had been set up so Kaylee could easily absorb the memories from Passive without any blocks. The data flow apparently could go both ways. “I…I hope you didn’t mind that we, that I—”

“If I did, I would’ve said so just now,” Rhianna pointed out. She stroked Kaylee’s soft hardlight fur. “Hon, you have my blanket permission to go have fun while I’m in ‘Passive Mode’ myself. It’s only fair, my dear, after what I put you through. I trust you completely.”

She grinned. “Now, I think it’s time to go get those lifters from that ‘secret admirer’ installed. I think Rufia and Yvonne are going to get a teeny, tiny surprise when we meet up tonight.”

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Fritz stood across the busy street from the garage, considering it thoughtfully. He already knew he wasn’t the only Integrate watching it; he’d picked up traces of others peeping through its security systems. Probably those Terrania or J-Park schmucks. He supposed it figured; the garage people were pals with that Zane guy, so naturally the local Inties would be wanting to keep an eye on things. Well, let ‘em. Everybody needed a hobby.

:So, what do you plan on doing, now that you know Kaylee is out of the Shed?: Jiminy asked. There was barely enough bandwidth between them to voice chat. Decades of being in a little box in Fritz’s mind somehow hadn’t driven him insane. There were times when even Fritz had to admit his former rider made sense.

:Look, Stump Chunkman, listening to you for five years is what got us into this ‘go public’ malarkey. I’m through with that!: Fritz huffed. Still… :I’m gonna let her be. I…:

:So, you don’t want her to Integrate the way we did,: Jiminy said. :You want it to be natural.:

:I still think that was accidentally on purpose,: Fritz said, evading the implied question. :Maybe I’ll give Dr. Squarehead Clemens an early visit this year. And then there’s the rabbit…:

:Going to check in on Quinoa while you’re here?:

:Nah. The kid can take care of herself.: Fritz shook himself. :Eh, the hell am I doing hanging ‘round this nowheresville anyway. I got other fish to fry.: He glanced back at the garage one more time, and then he was gone.

Authors' Notes

JonBuck: Obviously the biggest change here is the addition of the Fritz sections. It just seemed like a natural addition so we get to know the villain, a little of his past with Kaylee, and his Jiminy. The difficulty with making revisions like this is dropping too many hints of what comes along later. We need new readers to have some surprises, after all.

This episode we kept the focus on the two RIDEs, since at the time their personalities hadn't yet had much elaboration. Up until this point I was still having trouble thinking of them separately from their riders—they were just the means for Integration, which was something I originally wanted to have happen to Rhianna sometime in this arc. I didn't want to dwell on Kaylee and the others too much. You could say the RIDEs became people here for me the first time, so I decided to let them develop further.

R_M: Shopping!

Although I didn’t finish up and post it until a month later, I had “Rochelle & Rufia: R&R” about halfway written at this point, including most of the shopping part—so when Uncia talks about Rufia taking Rochelle shopping, that episode is what she’s talking about.

Not every chapter has to be about something important. In covering a shopping trip, this episode serves as a kind of breather between the drama surrounding the first couple of episodes (more so now than ever, what with the added Integrate scenes) and the additional drama of the next episode and what comes afterward. I’d like to be able to say we planned it that way, but…well, hey. I can still say it whether it’s true or not. So yeah, we planned it that way!

Sometimes you write something and when you look back on it months later, you wonder what you were thinking. That’s the case with a paragraph we excised about how gender roles on Zharus had gone over the last hundred and fifty years. It came off as remarkably stilted, awkward, and unnecessary when we looked at it again…so away it went!

Apart from that, the drop-in Fritz scenes, and a few detail tweaks, not a whole lot really changed here—presumably because we didn’t actually touch on anything important. We did take note of some things we mentioned early on and forgot about later, such as Anny’s love of pepperoni pizzas. We’ll have to see about sneaking some pepperoni pizzas back in when we write later parts with Anny in them. And we also dropped in a couple more mentions of Donizetti parts to unify with when the brand comes up later on.

Preceded by:
Integration Part II: Integrates
FreeRIDErs Succeeded by:
Integration Part IV: Dating Games