User:Robotech Master/Spaceflight of Fancy original

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FreeRIDErs story universe


by Jon Buck and Robotech_Master

Part 10: Spaceflight of Fancy

Along the edge of this airfield
The old prop-shaft airliners stand
Altimeters reading zero
Formless memories lingering

Less than thirty minutes after the press conference had been disrupted, Zane was in the hallway outside his apartment, with the still-Fused Myla and Mark at his heels and an invisible Carrie-Anne somewhere in the vicinity. However, it was not his own door he knocked on, but one door down.

“It’s open!” a cheerful voice came from within Quinoa’s apartment. Zane pushed the door open and stepped in to find CinTally roosting on a sofa in front of a big-screen video display, big bowl of popcorn at her side. The screen was playing aerial footage taken over one of the parks just a few minutes before, showing rogue RIDEs falling onto fleeing citizens and letting them up a moment later, changed. The camera angle changed to show a flier landing on a 20th-floor balcony, changing into a tigress, and pouncing on and enfolding a frightened red-haired girl. Some pundit was speaking over the footage. “…should arrest Brubeck and hold him until we know what his role in all this was—” The info-banner said Brubeck Mining stock had flash crashed almost thirty percent.

Then the audio muted as the Cooper’s Hawk Integrate turned her attention to Zane. “Was wondering when you’d show up. Hell of a show you put on. What’re you doing for an encore?”

“Well, I thought I’d totally flaunt every traffic control law on the planet and take a little jaunt into orbit,” Zane said casually. “Got some friends to rescue up there. We could use a good—no, wait, sorry, that would be an insult. We could use a fantastic pilot. Was wondering if you’d like to come along.”

CinTally tossed a kernel of popcorn into the air and snapped it up with her beak. “Tempting…but what’s in it for me adding myself to the hitlist of this Fritz insaniac of yours? I’m even n00bier than you guys, and you guys don’t seem to be doing a hell of a job keeping the chaos down.”

“I could say the chance to be on the side of right and justice,” Zane said. CinTally snorted, visibly unimpressed. “Or I could say the chance to get a billionaire owing you a favor.”

“Yeah, right. Like I care about that kind of thing,” CinTally said.

“Yeah, I sort of figured.” Zane grinned. “But I’ll bet I can actually get you entirely on our side with just four little words.”

CinTally looked skeptically at him. “Yeah? Try me.”

Zane leaned in close and whispered, “I’ve got a Starmaster.”

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Nights are cold on this airfield
I sit alone and watch the radar
Locked on the wavelength, caught in the beam
Falling slowly into the screen

“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” CinTally muttered as she slid into the pilot’s seat of the same McDonnell-Nextus C-217 Starmaster that had taken Zane and Myla to Eden and back. “But daaaaamn, this is one sweet bird. I’ve never flown one this big before!” On the panel before her, switches flipped themselves, controls arranged themselves into proper configurations, and flight computers powered up and reprogrammed with the proper intercept trajectory calculated and recalculated down to the millimeter. A 21st century Yes song from CinTally’s internal playlist, something about airfields and flying, was audible over cockpit speakers.

Carrie-Anne turned visible and slid into the co-pilot’s chair, busying herself with her portion of the pre-flight checklist. Zane took the engineer’s seat behind CinTally. “Nothing you can’t handle, right?”

CinTally snorted. “I can fly anything from a paper airplane to a generation ship. Well, theoretically for the ship, but there’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to.” She looked at the controls again, the comm blister DIN on her back sparkling as it communicated with the spacecraft. “Aw, dammit, this has the new fourth-generation q-based fly-by-wire upgrades. I’d always wanted to fly a ship with those so I could see how they handled. Just my luck when I finally get to do it I can fly it with my mind.

“You could always…not fly it with your mind and use the controls?” Carrie-Anne suggested.

CinTally shook her head. “No, now any physical controls seem like wading through mud after what I can do as an Integrate.” She waved at a panel next to her, and it lit itself right up.

“Then…perhaps you could simply enjoy flying the ship with your mind instead?” Carrie-Anne suggested.

CinTally rolled her eyes. “You don’t understand!

Myla poked her and Sophie’s Fused head in from the passenger compartment. “Just got word that the gendarmes have taken those three misguided RIDEs from the conference into custody.”

Zane sighed. “Right, good. I really didn’t want to let them go before Rhi had a chance to examine them, but…”

“I know, but there’s only so far we can bend the regs this time,” Myla said. “The Uplift Agora is going to be breathing down our necks, you know. The USEC already wants a look at our finances to make sure you’re not shorting your own stock. Shall I go on?”

Zane gritted his canines. “I know, I know. I’ve already put in a request to have them transferred over to corporate security after the police are done with them, in their current state, so we can ‘run our own investigation.’ And as much funding as we’ve given the gendarmerie in the last few months, I figure there’s a pretty good chance they’ll come through. For now, give the polis all the access they need. I want as much transparency here as we can even if it tanks the stock further. It’ll recover.”

“I don’t suppose we’ve actually got clearance for this little jaunt yet?” Myla asked Zane.

Zane shook his head. “Haven’t heard anything yet. But I expect we’ll have it by the time we get back.”

Myla rolled her eyes. “Terrific.”

“Hey, don’t worry about it,” Zane said. “It should be a few more hours yet before my fortune collapses. That clearance should squeak in under the wire. Or if not, I’ll have so much other trouble to worry about it’ll hardly seem like anything else on top of it.”

Really terrific,” Myla said, and withdrew.

“Launch in T minus five,” CinTally reported. “Have you filed our flight plan with the tower?”

“Check,” Carrie-Anne said. “But they report four birds in queue ahead of us. It could be fifteen minutes before we’re cleared.”

“Oh, screw that,” CinTally said. “If we’re gonna hang for a lamb, let’s hang for a sheep.” The navigation computer flickered and the flight pattern altered—aiming their course directly for a solid wall of the Dome, toward an area that the natural flow of flight patterns around Uplift avoided because approaches and departures to other polities went in other directions. “I’ve been doing a little reading about this stuff, and if we can’t drop that wall in time to pass with three Inties on board, we deserve to crash and burn.”

“Speaking of reading…” Carrie-Anne said. “I have been studying the Integrate forums and chat rooms whose addresses Quinoa passed me. There has been much said about us, and more is going up millisecond by millisecond.”

“Nothing good, I hope,” Zane said.

Carrie-Anne smirked. “A statistical analysis of the traffic shows approximately 20% are with us, 22% against us, with a margin of error of plus or minus 5%, and the rest are undecided. Though it is unclear how many of those on any side are ‘sock puppets’ for others. Integrates seem to excel at creating false net identities. The only Integrates I am really certain of are those I have personally met.”

Zane nodded. “Well, tag anyone on ‘our’ side who looks promising and give me a rundown after we get back. Maybe we can get in touch later. Right now, we’ve got a sub to catch.”

And then each of the trio devoted his full attention to preparing the craft for flight. As CinTally readied the cargo sub, Carrie-Anne reached out to the traffic control computers and effortlessly penetrated them, planting traffic redirection orders to clear the skies along its course at precisely the right moment with a smoothness no one would ever see until it was too late.

And Zane went back to the passenger quarters to check on Myla/Sophie and Mark/Cernos. They were both strapped into the same conference chair shock couches that Zane, Myla, and Quinoa had used on their flight. But there wasn’t going to be any rolling the bird over for a lovely view this time.

“Feels just like that Old Smokey op, doesn’t it sarge?” Marc said.

“That it does, LT,” the former MRS officer said. She looked up at Zane. “How’re things going up there? We can’t connect to the network. No bandwidth.”

Zane blinked, then checked. “Ah…sorry about that. I think our pilot’s a little overzealous about getting to know her new craft. And she’s a new Integrate, so probably…”

“We need access to do our jobs, Zane,” Myla said impatiently. “Fix now, explain later. That’s how we did it in the Old 51st.”

The tiger Integrate nodded, then returned to the flight deck. CinTally swallowed. “Oh…um…oops? Sorry, throttling my bandwidth use back some.” She shook her head. “Anyway, once we lift, we’ll be in orbit in about twelve minutes. Intercept in another hour or so on this trajectory. They ended up in a higher orbit than I thought possible for a sub that size. Fritz must have burned their batts to the dregs.”

“Are they on STC sensors now?” Zane asked. The avian Integrate was still taking up so much network space it was hard to connect. It was as if the Starmaster was an extension of her body.

“That’s right, they are. But no comms. I’m sure they Fused up and are just waiting it out.”

“When we get in range we can hit them with short range comms on RIDE frequencies, or maybe a laser. Or heck, even flash lights at them in Morse Code or something.” Zane fastened himself securely into his seat.

“Something. But…‘boss’, have you considered sending STC a copy of that message? We are engaging in a rescue operation. No need to be secretive, right? Especially since your friends’ sub is on their sensors now.” CinTally tilted her raptorial head, red eyes flickering.

“I sent it first thing,” Zane said. “That’s why I expect we’ll have clearance by the time we get back. In rescue operations where there’s no immediate danger, the wheels of bureaucracy grind slow but fine. Whereas I just want to get up there and back before anything else can happen, because we need all our allies where we can reach them ASAP.”

A chime from the instrument board signaled that the final checks were complete. CinTally turned her attention back to it. “Then we’re not waiting one more second. Here we go!”

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Every day that you wait
Is one more that you’ve lost
When you wake up
I see you there
On display
Lights the final point of no return
Taking us there from here

It had been a trivial exercise of Zane’s authority to order the airfield cleared. With the main platform down, the private aerodrome had not been seeing much activity at all over the last couple of days, so there had been hardly anything to clear away.

And now, with the airfield empty before it, the Starmaster was free to choose whichever direction it wanted to accelerate for takeoff. It could have lifted vertically, but CinTally’s calculated course relied on building up as much speed as quickly as possible, and it was just as well to do that along the ground. In the cockpit, CinTally didn’t move a muscle, but the throttles slammed forward to their full extent, and the hardlight aero shielding adjusted for minimum drag.

The gigantic cargo suborbital began to move, slowly at first but building momentum very quickly, and under CinTally’s control it leaped into the sky at exactly the right moment, on a wildly accelerating course through suddenly mysteriously clear airspace—heading straight for the hardlight dome. Somewhere an air traffic controller squawked angrily, but they had no time to pay attention.

Seconds before impact, the three Integrates raised their arms together and pushed an impulse outward, and and a hole appeared in the dome for exactly long enough to let them through before closing again. And then the control yokes pulled back, the aero shielding readjusted, and the variable-geometry swing-wings swept back to their full orbital configuration—and the Starmaster streaked for the sky.

And we can fly from here (we can fly)
And we can fly from here (we can fly)
And we can fly from here (we can fly)
Into a sky that’s clearing
Look back we’ll dry the tears
For those once held so nearly
And love will never disappear
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Uplift to Nextus was a very short route for a suborbital, but Lilli and Guin didn’t relax for a moment as they guided the X-15 along a least-time course between the polities. There really wasn’t any time to lose. When she thought about what she was going to have to do…

She sighed. There really wasn’t anything for it. :Guin, I need you to send a message to my Dad for me.:

:Nnngh?: Guin still wasn’t completely back up to peak performance after the battering she’d taken, and it was taking much of her remaining concentration to fly the sub.

Lillibet steeled herself. :Tell him I’m declaring ‘Code Creosote’.: It was a private family emergency code, meant to be used when time was at a premium and access to more money than usual was critical. However, after the emergency was over, she would be called to account for everything she had spent, with the others in her family closely scrutinizing every expenditure.

Guin sent the message. A moment later: :He says, “Understood.”:

Lillibet released the breath she didn’t know she’d been holding. :Good. When you can spare the cycles, put together a summary of events since the shuttle left and zap it to him. He’s gonna need to know.: She glanced over her shoulder at Relena, who was still quietly sobbing in the back seat. Wonder if I should tell her…hmm…nah, let it be a surprise.

Rather than her parents’ mansion’s landing field, Lilli had Guin park the sub at a public aerodrome near her destination. The moment it came to a halt, she had the canopy up. Not waiting for a ladder, she put her arm around Relena’s waist and boosted them both down to the ground with her lifters. Then she stood in front of the girl and had Guin unfold to Skimmer underneath them. Then they were on their way again.

“Where are we even going?” Relena asked.

“Somewhere important. You’ll see.” Lillibet hunched low over the handlebars—silly given that Guin’s hardlight aeroshields meant it would not make any difference to air resistance, but an ingrained habit all the same—and raced the motor. However, she kept her driving considerably tamer than she had used in Uplift, because her destination was only a few blocks away: Nextus RIDEworks, where Uncia and Guinevere’s builder had his facilities.

Katie was about to get a well-deserved upgrade.

When they arrived at the RIDEworks campus, Lilli passed by the showroom and the ordinary maintenance bays, heading for a secluded section at the end of the lot protected by a tall wall and a metal security gate. She didn’t even slow down as she approached. The gate read her identity from Guin’s transponder and opened for her before she reached it.

Beyond it was a smaller complex of buildings. The landscaping style was the sort of understated elegance that Nextus did so well, in contrast to the rest of the complex’s industrial chic. They pulled up in front of a small building with no obvious sign, and Lilli helped Relena down from the bike before Guin changed back to walker form. Then Lilli gave her furry friend a tight hug. “You’re the best, Guinny. We’ll get you fixed up quick, too.”

As the two girls and a battered ocelot stepped in, the man sitting behind the single room in the desk looked up. His bored expression changed not one iota. Not too surprising; if they had been able to pass the gate, then they deserved to be there.

Without preamble, Lillibet flipped open her wallet and placed it on the desk in front of him, so he could see the screen, displaying her ID and her available cash balance. “I’d like to see Signore Donizetti please.”

The man barely glanced at it. “Certainly, Miss Walton. He’s with another client right now, but I will let him know.” He gestured toward a table along one side of the room with a gourmet food fab set up. “Please, help yourself to refreshments. It will only be a few minutes.”

“Thanks, we will.” Lillibet led Relena over to the table.

“What are we even doing here?” Relena hissed. “If you’re wanting to get me another RIDE, I don’t want another RIDE. I want—”

“Shhh. I know. I know,” Lillibet said. “Just trust me, okay? C’mon, let’s get something to eat. It’s been a long day.” She had the fabber make them ham sandwiches and Italian sodas, and they sat and ate them and waited for a few minutes until a short, balding fellow in a suit hurried out into the room, looked around, and spied them.

“Ah! Signorina Walton!” he said cheerfully in an Italian accent—the man actually was from Italy on Earth, so it was genuine. Back on the homeworld, he had been a renowned designer of high-priced sports skimmers, and his Terran designs were still in production and regarded highly both there and in the colonies. But he had grown bored with mere skimmers and come to Zharus in search of a greater challenge—and had found it in RIDEs, where his designs were now every bit as prized as his sports skimmers had been on earth. “I’m glad to see you’re all right.” He glanced at Guinevere, and his expression grew more serious. “What have you been doing to my bambina, eh?”

“It’s not what we were doing, Signore Donizetti, it’s what the people who tangled with us did. I didn’t exactly get off unbruised, either,” Lillibet said, just a little irritated. It was a little personality quirk that Donizetti cared more about machines than people. Usually, it was endearing, but sometimes it could be decidedly annoying.

“So you brought her here for repair, eh?”

“No—well, yes, but that’s not the main reason I’m here.” Lillibet fished into her pouch and produced Katie’s RI core.

Donizetti’s eyes widened. “Is that from the one who…with that lifter dive…?”

Lillibet nodded. “I want the best body you can build for her. Something as close to a LNX(f)-LMA-002A as you can get, only with the absolute best parts you have.” Behind her, Relena gasped.

Donizetti raised an eyebrow. “You wish me to build an ‘Ahnuld’?”

“No, I want something better than an Ahnuld,” Lillibet said. “I want a skunkworks. This is a Code Creosote, and I’m going to have to account for every penny to my Dad when this is done, so might as well get the best.” Donizetti was an old family friend, and her father was one of the chief investors in Nextus RIDEworks, so he knew exactly what it would entail and what it meant for her to invoke it.

She handed the core over to Donizetti, who took out a digital loupe and fitted it into one eye to examine it carefully, treating it like a work of art. “Mmm. No visible damage, this is good. But I can’t guarantee all of our skunkworks technology will be compatible with a RI core this old,” he pointed out.

“Just give her the ones with a 60% chance and up of working then,” Lillibet said. “Also, I’d like your very best milspec LMA weapons kit for her. And one for Guinny, too.” She considered. “And give Guinny whatever skunkwork upgrades you can while you’re at it. Hmm…and send a light and a medium kit to Rhi’s garage.”

“Very well,” Donizetti said. “Anything else?”

“Well…I want Rhi and Shelley to get certification to work on your stuff, so they won’t void the warranty if they have to keep Katie up. Can you send them the necessary technical docs and paperwork?” Even if they’re probably gonna kill me when they find out.

Donizetti bowed. “It shall be done.” He turned to go, then paused. “You know, I had heard that you were becoming a credible RIDE technician yourself. Your father is quite proud. Would you care to accompany me? And your guest?”

Lillibet grinned. “I thought you’d never ask. C’mon, Relena. Let’s go make a friend.”

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Rhianna’s emotions warred with one another, tangled together like so much matted fur: Fear. Was Lillibet okay? What would Paul’s parents do, sue her? What about Quinoa? Frustration. Why her garage? Why her home? Revenge for that blasted incident in the tunnels? Anger. I want Tocsin’s head on a pike. On this, she and Kaylee were so harmonized neither was sure who that bloody-minded vindictive thought had come from. I want to pluck his feathers one by one. I want to disassemble him by degrees and make him watch. And I want his boss’s hardlight pelt on the wall of my new home.

Thinking was one thing, acting on those thoughts something else entirely. Rhianna had read in a book once, a phrase that had stuck with her since childhood: Personal was not the same as important. She and Kaylee wanted to do all sorts of horrible things to AlphaWolf and his band of merry RIDEs. She could make things intimately painful for them. RI neural maps contained the location of every body part of a flesh-and-blood counterpart. Some of them were simply not used, but she knew how to reactivate them. She could even strip away their sentience—not that any researchers had, but there were always a few RI cores that didn’t bake perfectly. Her personal network had—had, she reminded herself—contained hundreds of journal articles on the theory behind how it all went together. It wasn’t that hard to understand.

The surprisingly dark thoughts made her sick to her stomach.

“So how in the Briny Deep do they eat and breathe?” Uncia said, confused. “How does the Satellite of Love even work? I mean, hamdingers? Hamdingers? And without the net to search, I don’t understand half the references they’re making.”

Rochelle watched the show in virtual. “Is it me, or does Joe Don Baker look a lot like Crazy Joe Steader?”

“S’more attitude than looks,” Anny said. “But I’ve seen him in that plaid suit. Lord, the 1970s were an ugly, ugly decade.”

“All this waiting is pissing me off!” Rhianna snarled.

“Well, what else can we do?” Rochelle said, hand on her friend’s shoulder. “I’m sorry I burned out the comm blisters.”

“You did what you had to do, Shelley and Uncia,” Rhianna said. “I’m just spinning my wheels here and I can’t stand it.” Would I be reacting the same way were I still a man? She threw up her arms. “I can’t even sit back and relax to watch the show.”

:Earthers. It’s not because you’re a woman, Rhi. Stop second guessing yourself,: Kaylee said, sensing her train of thought. The lynx headbumped her rider beneath her breasts anyway. :You only do this when you feel powerless.:

:Well, maybe I want it to be,: Rhianna replied, momentarily feeling an odd stubborn streak. Then she started laughing. :Okay, now I’m just being a crazy wo—a crazy person. I’m so tangled up right now. It’s all gone, Kaylee. Even if I can rebuild the Waltons are going to sue us into poverty for child endangerment.:

Anny pursed her lips, looking at the floor, the wall panels, thinking about something. “Rhianna, darlin’, I’ve got something here I think I can give you without ending up in the hoosegow for a nickel. My instincts are tellin’ me that it might have something to do with all this mess. One of my superiors gave it to me for safekeeping and didn’t explain what it was, ‘sactly. But I trust my gut with these things.”

The older woman opened her jewelry case again, then reached inside. A small secret drawer slid open. On first glance it looked like somebody’s molar without any roots. Before taking it, Rhianna Fused with Kaylee again, then Anny put it in their handpaw.

:You know what this is, right?: Kaylee asked rhetorically. A DIN plug, an old one, without any OS chip. The first known Integration happened twenty-six years ago, but the RIDE program had been around for nine years before that. Quinoa and the Towers Inties said Fritz had been that way for “at least thirty years”. Fritz himself was a former LNX unit. The idea that Fritz was her brother left a bad taste in Kaylee’s mouth, but it was looking likely. :I don’t remember any RIDE named Fritz, but that doesn’t mean much. I had a lot of ‘brothers’ and ‘sons’ with names starting with F. All my sisters started with K, even into the 002-series.:

:You know, we don’t have any direct evidence yet, but there’s that whole blank area of classified memories. But is it possible Fritz is that very first partner you can’t remember? Do you remember that ugly look he gave us at the Towers?:

Kaylee virtually facepawed. :Rhi-girl, I…really can do without the speculation right now. But if this is an early DIN, we’ve got enough data for Shoelace-Alpha.:

“I’ve got something coming up on sensors,” Leila reported. The lioness’s batteries were holding up well, though she was panting with the effort. “It’s big. Really big. And it’ll be overhead in just a few seconds.”

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Nextus RIDEworks was a typical deceptively-simple Nextusian name that covered up much deeper complexity. The company had a dozen major brands—from skimmers to RIDEs, even AIDES—and a few small, exclusive ones such as Donizetti’s. After putting Katie’s RI core in a stabilization unit, the Terran immigrant led the girls towards the Engineering and Design Department. Inside, men and women sitting in front of video paper drafting tables created everything from literal workhorse RIDEs costing less than 20k mu to million-mu specials like Uncia. But there was yet another design space.

Signorina Walton, Signorina Packard, I ask your indulgence,” Donizetti said. “With your permission, I will place Katie’s design in the hands of one I trust more than myself for a project of this importance. My most talented apprentice. Will you trust my judgment?”

Lillibet and Relena looked at each other. When the world’s most brilliant and renowned RIDE designer asks you to trust his judgment, what can you say? “Uh…of course we will,” Lillibet said. Relena nodded agreement.

Donizetti bowed. “Grazie mille. I have already sent ahead to her so she will be ready.” Lillibet knew that as an accomplished technician from Earth, he had the same sort of implants as Rhianna that let him interface with computers without speaking. “I will show you to her now.”

Donizetti led them to a small room, where a brown-haired woman with an otter’s tail and ears sat, focused on the design table in front of her, eyes flickering through her ‘specs. “Just one moment…Master Donizetti, please hand me the core in question, if you please. We need to make sure that heroic lynx is still with us before we continue.”

Her words made Relena whimper as she took the support unit from Donizetti. With the same care a surgeon would treat an exposed brain, the engineer carefully removed Katie’s core and put it into yet another socket in her desk. Only once it was in did she relax. “Good to see you again, Lillibet.”

Lilli tilted her head. “Wait…Harold? You crossed?” She had met Harold Rourke in person shortly after Guin’s fetters were removed to give him a piece of her mind over how restrictive they were. Fortunately after that outburst he’d remained friendly. When she wasn’t at Rhianna’s Garage, she’d been asking Harold over virtual about various aspects of RIDE design.

“Helen as of this morning, but yes. We have many customers who cross, not to mention our natural-born female customers, so to better serve them I thought the experience would be valuable. Besides, I met the most charming little otter RIDE…But this isn’t about me. I need a little time to set up the TBS.”

“Total Body Sim?” Relena said brightly.

Helen smiled at the other girl. “Precisely. I’m going to set up her old body in virtual space so we can interact with her and ensure her personality core is undamaged. It’s the same thing we do when we bring a brand new RI online for the first time ever. I want her input on what she wants for a new Drive Extender as much as yours, young lady. You are her companion, are you not?”

The teenaged girl nodded. “Is she okay?”

The drawing board retained its paper-like appearance as various parts floated in, assembling themselves into a familiar lynx shape, much like the girls had seen Quinoa do in real life. This was much less impressive. Last to go in was a virtual core. “Her core went into stasis lock successfully,” Helen reported. “There’s a little fragmentation, but that should be fixed shortly. Katie is fine.”

Relena hugged the newly-female RIDE engineer. “Oh, thank you! Thank you thank you!

“I’m happy too, young Miss!” Helen said, smiling. “Say hello, Katie.”

“Hello, Katie,” the animated LNX said dryly. “I’m rrreally happy to see all of you again. I feel strange. I’m just a little unsurrre where I am.” The lynx looked around herself. “Other than experrrriencing deja vu. It feels just like my Bootday.”

“You’re almost right,” Lillibet said, buoyed by Relena’s relief. “This is your Reboot Day. Helen, let’s get started.”

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A shadow fell over the Dreamchaser as the larger ship came between it and the sun. And then a deep voice intoned, “A shadow shall fall over the universe, and evil will grow in its path. And death will come from the skies.”

“Sorry!” Uncia said. “Hit play on the media player by accident.”

“Accidentally on purpose,” Shelley said laughing. “That’s not one of Anny’s movies.”

“Whatever it is, it’s matching velocities with us,” Uncia reported. “Hang on, I’m picking up something on short range comms.”

Zane’s voice came over the speakers. “Hey, you folks look like you could use a tow. I think I can get you as far as the closest filling station.”

Rhianna started laughing. “Zane, it’s great to hear your voice. Did you-know-who tip you off?”

“Well, someone did.” Myla’s voice this time. “And when we checked with orbital traffic control they confirmed it. They were still working on pulling their heads out when we launched.”

“Hold tight. We’re opening bay doors now, going to tractor you in.” Lines of light appeared in the shape overhead, then expanded into a brightly-lit rectangular opening. Then the opening started to come closer.

“You know, there’s about fifty movies from Star Wars all the way to the end of the Oil Age with that exact image,” Anny said.

“I’m not really thinking of ancient scifi movies right now,” Rhianna said. “I want to find out what happened at the Garage after the video blinked out.”

“Lord Lordy Lord,” Kaylee said. “What was Katie doing? We lost it just as she attacked.”

As the shuttle rose up past the hull, out the front windows they could see Zane leaning against a railing around the hatch, wearing a translucent hardlight spacesuit. “Hey, really nice little sub!” he said cheerfully. “I should pick one up for my toolbox.”

“She’s a sweet ride. I can’t wait to make her better,” Rhianna said. :Shelley, we’ve got more work to do.: She sent some preliminary Shoelace quasi-DIN plug designs she’d been toying with.

:No rest for the wicked,: the other crossrider said. :Looks like we won’t be sleeping anytime soon. At least we’ll get the chance to redesign the Garage systems from the ground up.: A thump vibrated through the Dreamchaser’s hull as the bay doors sealed beneath it. Leila extended the landing gear.

“We’re repressurizing the bay now,” Zane said. “Give us about five minutes and it’ll be safe to come out. Or you could Fuse up and join us now if you’re impatient. But meanwhile, here.” He pushed across a bundle of media files. “You can get the whole thing later, but there’s the curated ‘good parts’ version. What happened ground-side after someone decided to star you in a bad 1980s TV movie.”

“Thanks, Zane. We’ll review quick,” Rhianna said.

They started with the remainder of the attack on the Garage. Quinoa’s attempt at keeping Tocsin busy was a surprise, and they all felt a lump in their stomachs when the hippogryph took her down. Lillibet and Guin were obviously more successful than Quinoa, but then they were taken down too. Katie’s selfless sacrifice made Kaylee yowl in sadness and anger. Finally they watched Paul sacrifice himself to keep the entire Garage from obliteration. “I told him I was counting on him to make sure I still had a garage when I got back,” Rhianna murmured dazedly. “I didn’t mean it that literally! Fuck the Garage! It’s just a thing!”

“He was probably more concerned about the people in it at the time,” Rochelle pointed out.

Rhianna was near to tears. “God. Fucking. Damn it. I don’t understand.”

The bay finished pressurizing, so Leila opened the aft door and disconnected herself from the sub’s power connector. The Dreamchaser was truly dead now, and Rhianna wouldn’t bring it back to life until she knew it was Integrate-hack-proof. She started feeding some of her preliminary Shoelace ideas to Shelley.

Zane dissolved the hardlight suit. “Welcome aboard. You might be interested to know, this is the exact Starmaster sub I so misguidedly attempted to push off on you. Wish I could have you aboard her under better circumstances.”

Rhianna extended her hand to the tiger Integrate. “Right now, that hardly matters. Think of what might have happened had I accepted.”

Zane clasped her hand. “True dat. Anyway, c’mon. CinTally tells me we’re going to have to go around the block a couple of times ‘fore we can get into the proper approach for an Uplift landing, so we might as well use the time for a pow-wow.” He led them out of the bay into a nicely-furnished executive conference room with wide viewports in the walls and ceiling and a wood-finished conference table with comfortable chairs rigged to double as acceleration couches. Carrie-Anne, Myla and Sophie, and a man with a stag Fuser they didn’t recognize were there already.

The newcomers de-Fused, their RIDEs plugging into the RIDE-safe fuel-cell-fed charge ports behind the seats of their partners. As Zane waved the humans all to seats, he said, “There’s some other stuff I didn’t push to you in that packet because I wanted to discuss it with you face to face. You’ve met everyone here except Marc Flores and Cernos, a couple of Myla and Sophie’s old comrades and part of my bodyguard team.”

“Small world,” Rochelle said, smiling at the deer-eared man. “Next time we’ll make it harder for a debacle like that to happen again. Zane, as your official Integrate researcher I need access to your systems. I have some good news on the anti-hacking front I’d like to share with everyone. I forced Fritz out of the sub’s systems, for all the good it ultimately did.”

Zane’s eyes brightened. “Really? That’s wonderful! And I have news for you, too. Carrie-Anne and I were able to get a few minutes alone with the three RIDEs we took prisoner at the press conference. We took complete memory backups for review before handing them over to the gendarmes,” Zane said.

“What’s in them, in a nutshell?” Rhianna asked.

“There are gaps,” Carrie-Anne said. “AlphaWolf made sure to cover his tracks, so we do not know where his camp is. But it did contain some references to someone he calls ‘Overwatch’.”

“And therein lies a tale. Seems this ‘Overwatch’ is a highly-trusted source, who’d given AlpoWoof good leads on freeing a number of RIDEs over the last few years,” Zane said. “And this time, he fed that mangy mutt a line about an evil Integrate who plans to raise an Integrate army to capture him and his people and force them to merge with humans. And he also happened to mention that Woof could pull off a two-fer and get revenge on the evil woman who sold a dozen Nextus military RIDEs back into slavery at the Towers last month at the same time. Naturally, he bought it hook, line, and sinker.”

“Give me a look at that,” Rochelle said, gesturing with her hands. “Gimme, gimme.”

“I’m making the files available,” Carrie-Anne said. “And to save time, a list of date codes for the relevant memories. You can review them in full later.”

It only took a split second as Rochelle reviewed the data in her specs. She looked at Uncia, who nodded agreement. “Even without the actual messages from this ‘Overwatch’, these still have a bit of Fritz’s DIN halo. I’ve seen it up close, you see. Inties can’t help leaving traces of themselves everywhere. It ‘sticks’ to anything they touch, or touches them, even through several file copies. I doubt he himself even knows about this drawback or he’d take steps to prevent it.”

Zane blinked. “Wait, you mean…we’ve got Integrate dandruff?

Carrie-Anne made a little brushing motion on his shoulder. “You need a better Integrate dandruff shampoo.” Zane snorted, and Carrie-Anne flashed one of her blinding-white grins.

“Makes sense,” Sophie said. “This whole Fritz thing, I mean. Back at the Towers, I didn’t exactly get the sense he liked ‘mechies’ any more than he liked ‘meaties.’ So if he could get a couple factions of them fighting each other, well, yay for him. AlphaWolf may be a hot-headed idiot, but he gets a lot of respect among the owned RIDE population.”

“Indeed,” Cernos put in. “Especially the most fettered ones, to whom he symbolizes the freedom they desperately long for. He’s Santa Claus and the Promised Land rolled up into one.” He wrinkled his cervine nose. “Nobody ever accused RIDEs of being any smarter than humans.”

“I remember when he used to come and broadcast at us in the showroom,” Uncia said. “He sure suckered me into believing.” She glanced at Rochelle. “Sorry ‘bout that, again.”

Rochelle hugged her. “Water under the bridge, hon.”

Rhianna had been drumming her fingers on the table for several minutes as the conversation moved on around her. Kaylee nosed her, so the lynx-eared woman started petting her partner thoughtfully between her ears. With that new information, she knew it didn’t make sense to be angry at AlphaWolf and his group—they had been duped into destroying her Garage. Their goals were largely the same—RIDE emancipation—but their methods differed. But no matter how she mentally wrangled things, she couldn’t make the offense go away completely. She couldn’t forgive, not yet.

“Anyway, the gendarmes will probably take their own memory backups of the three we turned in, review them, go, ‘Damn that AlphaWolf, he is so naughty,’ and then shrug, throw up their hands, and toss them in the impound lot.” Zane said. “I’ve already put in a request to have them returned to me in their original state, ostensibly for a Brubeck corporate security investigation. I was actually thinking I might turn them over to you, since you lost a lot more out of this than I have so far.”

“I don’t know about that, Zane. Brubeck stock is down by a third. Your company’s now the twentieth largest on the planet instead of the seventh,” Myla said.

“Maybe so, but taken as a percentage of my overall assets, I still lost a lot less than they did,” Zane pointed out. “So anyway, Rhi and Shelley have more right to ‘devise brave punishments’ for those three than I do.”

“I need to think. I need to cool down. And I need to do something so I don’t crack up,” Rhianna said, her voice strained and almost breaking into a sob.

Rochelle patted her on the shoulder. “I know,” she said softly.

“If there’s anything I can do to help, let me know,” Zane said soberly.

Rhianna took the old prototype DIN plug out of her pocket and put it on the table for the Integrates to see. “Thanks to Anny, at least now we have a physical lead. Right now I think we’re on the edge of making our hardware unhackable to you folks—no offense. I get the feeling that Fritz wants us meaties and mechies to think he’s some sort of god, keep us ignorant how Integrates work. We’re going to stop him so hard. Soooo hard!” She hit the table with her fist so that the DIN plug jumped. “Bastard won’t know what hit him. Then we’ll spread it far and wide. Spam the planet if we have to.”

“Please count us into your plans,” Carrie-Anne said. “Fritz will have it in for us as badly as you.”

“This is going to need more resources than the Garage can really provide,” Rochelle pointed out, speaking carefully.

“Not enough resources? The garage? Really?” Uncia muttered. Rochelle elbowed her. “Ow! Sorry.”

“I don’t know how long I’ll have any resources left myself, but as long as I do they’re at your disposal,” Zane said. “I’m…really sorry I brought this down on you guys. Maybe I should have gone to an Enclave or something after all.”

Rhianna stood up and walked over to Zane, then turned his chair to face her. “Stop it. Stop with ‘should-haves’ and ‘could-haves’. Just don’t. Move forward. After what I saw in the Towers, Fritz has enemies among the Inties as well. We need to exploit that.”

“I have some possible leads,” Carrie-Anne said. “People who posted in support of us on Integrate net forums.”

“Best place to start, right?” Rochelle agreed. “Remember Leah and Aaron? I’m going to send them an invite to meet us soon. Let’s start with who we’ve met. Maybe even Col. Gray at Towers, and what about that owl griffin that went beak-to-muzzle with Fritz? Can’t say he was afraid of him.”

“And what about Quinoa?” Uncia asked. “Is she alright? She’s kind of a hero, too.”

“When we left, she’d been taken to Uplift General by ambulance,” Carrie-Anne said. “The doctors were not entirely sure what to do, but we advised them to set up inductive chargers to feed her as much power as she could take.”

“That n00b sheet said we can recover from some pretty bad damage,” Zane said. “It’ll just take time. I wonder what the media’s saying about her.”

“Missing wealthy young heiress reappears defending a RIDE garage in Uplift from RIDE terrorists. That’ll bring her Uncle Joe running,” Kaylee said.

“That reminds me. CinTally reported we passed a full-scale Pan-Am spaceplane on the way up, inbound from Nextus on a suborbital hop,” Zane said. “Not many people fly those. It was broadcasting ‘Also Spake Zarathustra’ and ‘The Blue Danube’ in a loop over short-range comms. That’s gotta be Crazy Joe.”

“You know, I wouldn’t want to be Quinoa right now,” Rochelle opined.

Rhianna facepalmed. She imagined Joe Steader and Kenyon Walton—or more likely, Nigella—arm-wrestling for who would get first dibs on her carcass. “I don’t know if I want to be me right now. The Steaders, the Waltons…who exactly are they going to blame for this?”

“We’ll get it all sorted out,” Uncia said. “Kenyon seemed like a reasonable man.”

“Katie…” Kaylee whimpered. “Brave, brave Katie. She didn’t have to do that.” Rhianna glanced at her with concern. Kaylee was still desperately worried, but at least she seemed to be on a more even keel since she’d seen Lillibet remove her daughter’s RI core and speed away with it—and with her daughter’s partner. The videos were all over the newsfeeds in the bundle Zane had sent them, especially her little speech about humans.

“She’s an MRS RIDE through and through,” Sophie said proudly.

“If I know my Lilli, she’s probably at Nextus RIDEworks right now, frantically getting a new DE slapped together for her before her father can find and ground her,” Uncia said. “She’s got a good heart. Katie will be fine, and I’ll bet you’ll hardly even know her next time you see her.”

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Katie was just a lynx-shaped outline on the faux-paper screen with a spot on her head occupied by her core. The first thing Helen had done was trash the old RIDE’s chassis. “This…feels…I can’t quite descrrribe it,” the confused, animated RI said.

“Like Daffy Duck in ‘Duck Amuck’?” Lillibet supplied. The 20th century nostalgia craze had extended to its media, including the most famous cartoons that could be found in constant rotation on the kiddie channels with set schedules, like ancient TV.

“I guess this means I should say ‘you’rre’ dethphicable’, but you’re cerrrtainly not,” Katie said. “Unless you give me a new body as bad as the one Daffy got.”

“Do I look like a vindictive Bugs Bunny to you?” Helen quipped, chuckling to herself. “To start with, a 001-series style nano-motile chassis. Versatile. Infinitely upgradable. I’ve never been one for specialist armors either, so you’ll remain an LMA of course. We have plenty of paks available that will fit you.”

“Of…of course,” Katie said as the chassis—her skeleton—took its place within the animated lynx outline. It bore enough of a resemblance to an actual lynx’s that the effect was rather spooky.

“We’ll be using a new series of alloys we’ve been developing for use in the next series of Nextus military RIDEs in the skeleton and armor plating,” Helen continued. “It offers about 10% better structural integrity than the current state of the art—let alone your original version—with 10% lower weight.”

Helen went on, paging through other components, putting each one in place as she named them. “Triple-A Rio Grade sarium batteries—that’s the same qubitite grade RI cores are made from. You’ll have more storage capacity than an ordinary Heavy Support unit—and you’re going to need it, because your lifters will be something especially new. We’ve found a new configuration that will increase their thrust output by something like 20% across the board over what had previously been thought possible. They should be ready for commercial applications in about two years. Your top speed will be somewhere around two thousand kph—you’ll be a flier in all but name.”

“Imprrrressive,” Katie said.

“Likewise, we’ve managed to cut the power requirements on our hardlight projectors by nearly 10% over current state of the art,” Helen said. “And we’ve reduced their size still further, so we can pack in as many extra projectors as you’d expect to see on your average Heavy.”

Relena had gone from wildly ecstatic to suddenly depressed. “This is already worth more than my parents’ house, Lilli.”

Lillibet patted her on the shoulder. “Trust me, okay? It’ll all be all right.”

Helen nodded. “Chassis, lifters, hardlight, and batteries are the major internal components here. The next step before we move on is to determine her skimmer form. The 001-chassis and the nano-plating that will go with it gives us a few options. We can go with the skimmer-cycle she had before, a version with an enclosed cockpit, or even a hardlight-winged flier.”

“What’s yourrr recommendation?” Katie asked.

Helen smiled. “I said those were our options. With the hardlight tech I have at my disposal we needn’t choose between them. The base will remain the cycle mode you’re so familiar with, but we can build alternate modes completely out of hardlight. Hence the Rio batteries.”

More hardlight projectors were added to the layer, as well as optics, ears, and various other minor components that made Katie look like a RIDE anatomical drawing with muscles and organs exposed. She looked at her virtual self. “I haven’t looked like this since component integration testing back in ‘24.”

“She’s nekkid!” Lillibet giggled.

“Indeed,” the designer said. “Now, the environmental seal emitters. I needn’t bother you with too much detail here. We use the same emitters and across all our lines because the technology reached a plateau some years ago. It reassures our customers that they get the same protection no matter how much—or how little—they spend on a chassis.”

“Also saves a little money since you can make ‘em in bulk and not have to do smaller runs of specialized parts,” Lillibet said.

“I already spoke of the plating, so that goes on next,” Helen continued. The “naked” LNX unit took on the more familiar metallic appearance of most Nextus RIDEs, but looked markedly different than how Katie had been on the maint cradle.

“What about the Fuser nanites?” Lillibet asked. “What have you got up your sleeve there? She doesn’t want the super-sexy biosculpt ones Shelley got.”

“Of course not!” Helen said. “That would be inappropriate to say the least. We’ve taken those off the market until they can be patched, in any case.”

“If it’s so inappropriate, how did they end up in the first RIDE I got?” Lilli asked.

“It was a dealer option,” Helen said. “They were the ones who put those particular nanites in, before the RIDE was ever sold to your father.”

“Hmph,” Lillibet said, mollified. “Well, anyway, what do you have?”

“I believe mil-spec medical is appropriate. This will enable swift self-repair for Katie and young Relena will never get sick. They will remain in your body even out of Fuse. There is a small side effect with these nannies, but merely cosmetic. An artifact of using a 001-type chassis. I can change the type if you wish, but I think a more combat-oriented type isn’t appropriate here. You’ll have a feline nose and the appropriately enhanced sense of smell.”

“Just like Rhianna?” Relena asked. “That’s not too bad.”

“Hey! Why is everyone else getting kitty noses but me?” Lillibet grumbled. “I want a kitty nose, too!”

“Ah, I’m afraid that’s not possible, young Miss. Guinevere is not compatible with this type of Fuser nanny.”

“Hmph. I’ll get a kitty nose somehow, just you wait,” Lillibet grumbled.

The animated Katie’s hardlight came on, revealing what on the face of it didn’t look much different than she would have had all her emitters been working at the Garage. The virtualized RIDE paced around the faux-paper, breaking into a run, then switching to skimmer mode, enclosing herself in a flier-shaped hardlight shell and accelerating quickly past the speed of sound.

“Your hardlight emitters have an armor mode similar to what you saw Guinevere accomplish earlier and you’ll be given the appropriate pak for even further defensive enhancements. Given the circumstances I have decided to focus on the defense of the rider and RIDE alike. Until I know what else I can do regarding the legality of minors owning weapons and the desires of the young Miss’s parents in Uplift, this will have to do. When I do, I will simply send along the appropriate weapons pak.”

“I guess that’s fair,” Lillibet said. “But I wanted her to have one of the standard LMA weapon kits available. We don’t know if the people who attacked the garage will be content with that, or if they might come after the people who were seen hanging out there.”

“We can hold one in reserve to send if her parents give their consent,” Helen said. “But that’s the most we can legally do.”

“Fine with me, Lilli,” Relena said, looking more than a little dazed at the whole thing.

The next thing Helen did was bring up a simulated girl Relena’s size and body type. Katie obligingly went though several Fuser-Walker-Skimmer cycles to test the transformation sequence. There were a few kinks in the Skimmer-Fuser transition that needed changes to Katie’s plating, but the problems were quickly solved. With the virtual testing complete, Katie—Fused with the virtual mannequin—posed fully-furred.

“Girls may I present LNX-LMA-002-SKW, our heroic Katie,” Helen said.

“You’re gorgeous, Katie!” Lilli said, a sentiment Relena quickly echoed.

“I can’t wait to be the rrreal thing, girls,” the old RI said.

“Just hold that thought.” Helen tapped an icon on the drawing board. “We’re going to put you back under for just a couple of minutes. When you wake up, you’ll be real.”

“Then nighty-night, and see you soon,” Katie said. Helen tapped the icon again, and the display powered down.

With the same care she’d taken when she inserted it, Helen deftly removed the core from the socket. “Follow me, you two.”

Helen led them into the next room, which held what appeared to be a large metal table, with a matching table upside-down on the ceiling. Both tables had multiple cut-outs and hatches in them, and there were similar panels in the surrounding walls. Helen carefully slotted Katie’s core into a socket on the lower table, which sucked it inside and closed the panel. Then she picked up a handheld control unit that had one large red button on it, and handed it to Relena. “If you would care to do the honors?”

The teenager didn’t need any prodding. She pushed it with a nice, firm click. Then all the panels on the upper and lower tables slid open, as well as panels on the walls, and a small forest of manipulator waldoes slid out of the smaller ones. Then parts began rising out of the lower table, or lowering out of the upper one, and waldoes took them and joined them together.

First came the nano-milled empty chassis, arriving already assembled. Then lifters, batteries, projectors, and other components were slotted inside. In just a few short minutes, Katie took recognizable shape in the air, hanging there in the grasp of the arms, occasionally rotating onto her side or back so a particular piece could be fitted.

“I love watching this part,” Helen confessed. “It’s just like magic.”

Lillibet nodded. “Yeah. Though you should have seen how Quinoa fixed up her old body—it was just like this but without the robot arms.”

Helen blinked. “Really? That sounds…amazing,” she said, sounding politely dubious.

“It was,” Lilli said. “I’ll have Guinny download you the playback.”

Relena just stared raptly, not saying a word.

At last, the metal lynx was effectively complete, held upside-down—and one last manipulator rose out of the lower table with her core in its grip. It socketed the core snugly into place, then closed the compartment. The arms rotated Katie right-side up, lowered her to the table, then put themselves away.

Then the lynx’s eyes flickered to life, her hardlight came on, and she shook herself. Her gray fur and simulated musculature underneath moved even more realistically than Kaylee’s finely-tuned emitters. The mecha lynx blinked, and looked back at her hindquarters. “I’m…all there. I mean, all therrre.”

“Yes, you are as complete as a flesh-and-blood animal, of course,” Helen said. “We’ve utilized full TBS where appropriate. In Fuser form as well, so bear that in mind.”

“You’ll need to add some strategically-placed metal bits,” Lillibet said. “I’m sure they can fit you out with the traditional armorkini ‘fore we leave.”

As she jumped down from the construction platform, Relena embraced her. The older RIDE put her big light gray paw around her companion’s back and licked the girl’s tufted feline ear, sending her into a torrent of relieved giggles, bob-tail swishing like crazy. Katie’s purring filled the whole room.

Lillibet watched and grinned. “This is the kinda thing that makes it all worthwhile, y’know? I can’t believe what I was missing all that time I just used Uncia as a phone booth.”

Helen nodded, her own eyes suspiciously bright. “This certainly does beat making yet another boring Ahnuld for someone who only wants it as a status symbol.”

Lilli chuckled, then lowered her voice. “So, Helen, can I maybe get some of that stuff retrofitted into Guinny while I’m here?”

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There was little more to do on the orbiting Starmaster than wait for reentry. Zane had given them a tour of the sub from front (where CinTally was flying it without touching anything, much as Quinoa had run Qixi’s sub back at the Towers) to rear (where the re-entry capsules were located in case of emergency), but that had only taken about fifteen minutes.

Eventually, the various Dreamchaser rescuees had drifted apart to different parts of the sub—Rochelle and Uncia to the front to try to study how CinTally was interacting with the spacecraft’s flight systems, Anny and Leila to the conference room to talk with Myla and Marc…and Rhianna and Kaylee back to the cargo bay where the Dreamchaser sat, to lean against the railing and brood.

Since joining the female half of the human race, Rhianna had spent as little time thinking about the cross as she could, always keeping busy with one project or another. Brooding over something wasn’t normally in her nature, but now she wondered, and all the old arguments with Rufia over crossriding came back.

“Ryan, I’m still me,” she had said over four years ago. “I’m the same person you met in Seattle, the same person who roomed with you for ten months before we left Earth. I’ve just got tits and new plumbing. You’ll be the same way, trust me. We’ll be hot chicks together and it’ll be awesome.”

That much Rhianna didn’t deny, but most of the other crossriders she had met over the years seemed changed on a deeper, personality-level than Rufia ever could be—including Rochelle, who had so naturally taken to being a girly girl it only gave Rhianna more cause for worry about herself. Over years she’d delved into crossrider psychology research articles, not as deeply as the ones about RIDEs, but not enough to remove her doubts over crossing.

Now there was nothing to do but navel-gazing introspection. And in order to do that, she had to come face-to-kitty-nose with her own cleavage. The question always popped up at the worst times: Am I doing things the same way I would’ve as Ryan? Kaylee constantly reassured her that she was, but even her own RIDE, who knew her better than any human ever could, couldn’t erase that self-doubt.

Kaylee headbumped Rhianna’s left hand. “I keep telling you not to brood about this, but I guess we should deal with it more directly. I know what you’re afraid of, partner.”

“You might as well tell me because I damn sure don’t know,” Rhianna said, voice trembling with frustration.

“You’re scared of losing yourself…of, I guess…being submerged in a female identity,” Kaylee said. “You’re afraid of doing girly things, of losing the flavor of your life as a man. Am I right?”

“How am I supposed to feel now about all those girls I dated and had sex with?” Rhianna said, gesticulating wildly. It all came out in a rush. “I’m not like Rufia. I’m straight. Does that make me a straight woman? I don’t know! I just can’t reconcile the idea that I’m supposed to be attracted to men now, with the man I was before. And this ‘adorable’ kitty face of mine isn’t helping, either.”

Rhianna whimpered. “Why am I even thinking about this now? I have a home and a business to rebuild, not to mention that bastard Fritz almost killing us for a prank.”

“Because you’re on the sub that Zane offered us a few days ago while he was also being a tactless git about you just being ‘attracted to plumbing’,” Kaylee said bluntly. “And speaking of said git…I called him down. You need someone else to talk to about this other than me, and he’s it. Maybe this time he had his tact flakes this morning.” She looked across the cavernous cargo bay to the other railing.

“Tact and humility flakes,” Zane said. “So, um, hi. This is me, um, standing in that minefield I mentioned last time and flipping over the little cards like crazy but having a hard time reading the numbers in the dark.”

“I’m on new ground here too, Zane. Don’t know where my own mines are buried anymore,” Rhianna said, shrugging. “I don’t want to be a bundle of crossrider stereotypes—clinging to your lost manhood is one of those. So’s going all fru-fru girly pink. Somehow Shelley managed to go all girly without being girly girly.

Rochelle herself appeared at the top of the ladder to the crew deck, sliding down, her currently-off-white hair swirling about her in slow motion as she landed. “Sorry…I was tapped into the sub’s security systems and overheard. I know I’m barging in, but there’s something I have to say.”

“She’s pregnant,” Uncia said glibly, poking her head out the door above her rider. She dodged as if something had been thrown at her, then giggled.

“No, I’m not,” Rochelle said with a sigh. “Rhi, we work together and we haven’t said a word to each other about this. Can I give you a native Uplifter’s point of view?”

Rhianna nodded. “Sure.”

“The thing is that I grew up here,” Rochelle said. “And so did Zane. I heard about what he said to you last week, and there was a teensy little element of truth in some of it, but he really could have put it better. Rhi, the reason I adapted so easily is that I was half-adapted already. I mean, for you changing gender would have been a major life choice if you’d stayed on Earth. But here it’s much more casual…it can happen by accident. I’ve had uncles who became aunts and vice versa, cousins who flipped and sometimes flipped back…from my standpoint it was kind of like getting a tattoo or a piercing, or I’d imagine like deciding to getting a cybernetic implant would be for someone from Earth. On that subject, I’m more into computers than you are, but sometimes when I let myself consider that you actually had someone cut into your skull and stick some bits of metal into your brain…you know it still freaks me out a little, right? I mean, ugh.

She shook her head. “But anyway, the point is, it wasn’t something I planned on—but I always knew it might happen to me, and not intentionally either. I could buy the wrong gender of RIDE like you did and go active-Fuse first thing like you didn’t, or I could get genderjacked like all those poor people AlphaWolf’s RIDEs did today, or I could even have a million-mu sports RIDE with a trojan infection decide I’d make a great drinking buddy…who knows what might have happened? So from pretty early on I was always thinking about what I might do if it happened to me. You know, kind of role-playing it out in my head. I think a lot of us Zharusians do it, whether we admit it or not. I guess it gives us a little extra mental flexibility.” She shook her head. “I’m not sure that’s going to help you where you are now, but at least maybe you can sort of see how I did it.”

“There were cyber-enhancement storefronts all over the place when Rufus and I left Earth. Getting modded was no big deal. There were corner shops in strip malls,” Rhianna admitted. “Of course, it was mostly one way. Once you sold your body off to an organ market you were pretty stuck with a prosthetic body. A cousin of mine ended up a brain in a box on wheels and a pair of manipulators for hands.”

“See? You do know where I’m coming from,” Shelley said, hugging her. “You sure know how to paint an image, though. Ugh. Aren’t you glad you left?”

“Yes! Almost sold my liver for the starliner ticket, until Rufus made up the difference,” she said. “Okay, Shelley. You make some sense here.”

“And that’s kind of another thing,” Rochelle said. “I’d never talk about ‘people, not plumbing’—” Zane facepalmed audibly. “—but I guess a lot of us native-born folks don’t put quite the same emphasis on some things as non-Zharusians do. I mean, just as we know it can happen to us, we also know it could happen to anybody else. We do a lot of thinking about that kind of thing. What we’d do it if happened to someone close to us. Someone we were involved with.”

Rhianna folded her arms. “Well, what if I want to try being a straight woman for a while? What if that’s what I naturally am? That’s okay?”

“Sure it is,” Shelley said. “It’s all okay, that’s the whole damned point!” She grinned. “The restrictions are a little more loose here. If you’re married and your husband gets genderjacked by AlphaWolf tomorrow, are you gonna divorce her ‘cuz you’re ‘not les’?”

“Well…no. I’d ‘switch teams’ as you like to call it around here, and move on,” Rhianna said. “That’s how a straight Uplifter might do it, right?”

“Yeah. Or they might just decide they’re ‘gay with one person but not with anybody else,’” Rochelle said. “As they’d kind of have to do for at least a while anyway if it had been less than three years since they last flipped. I think that’s what Zane was trying to get at, as lousy a job as he did of getting it across. We can make distinctions that fine and no one will tell us we can’t.”

:And that’s the other thing,: Kaylee sent. :You want to try it. You’ve really, really wanted to try being a woman, but you’re afraid to, even though you are one now. Remember what Rufus said just before he Fused with Yvonne the first time?: Kaylee sent.

“I’ve been a man for twenty-some years, I’ve done all the things a man can do, so it’s time for a change and see what kind of chick I’ll be. It’ll be fun! It’ll broad-en my horizons,” Rufus had said, chuckling at the pun he’d made. “Vonnie’s got the gear I want for the job I want to do, she’s damned cute, I love her sense of humor. You know me, bro. How can I pass this up? But we gotta do this together, sister. Lemme buy you a girl-RIDE for yourself. We’ll have so much fun we won’t miss our dangly parts.”

“Kaylee…you’re right. I’ve wanted to try it ever since that day, and here I am.” Rhianna said, laughing a little. She remembered Myla’s offer to show her some things that remained exclusively female. Rufia had often said that if there weren’t still “boy things” and “girl things” there’d be little point to switching to begin with.

“Look, you want my advice? You want to ease into this, don’t go out with some random jerk you meet in a bar. Go out with some jerk you know.” Rochelle grinned a canary-eating cat’s grin at Zane. “I don’t think he would have made such a complete idiot of himself last week if he didn’t like you.”

“Gee, thanks…I think,” Zane said.

Rhianna folded her arms, practically hugging her breasts. “Well Zane, you handsomely-striped ‘jerk’, you,” she said good-naturedly. “Is that offer still open?”

Zane grinned. “Absolutely, if you can put up with an idiot who blunders through minefields without being able to read the little cards.”

“Then it’s a date.” She theatrically blew a kiss at him, using her implant to send a little heart-shaped image his way, just like a cyber-enhanced girl would do on Earth who wanted to date someone she was interested in.

He grinned and beamed back an image of the same heart with an arrow through it—and a private comm number. :Something tells me things might be a little too busy over the next few days for us to get together, but call me when you’re ready.:

“I don’t get it. What’s the deal with the little cards, anyway?” Uncia asked Rochelle.

“It’s a Steader thing.” Rochelle rolled her eyes. “They’ve got the idea that, on Old Earth, minefields always had cards with numbers on them laid out in a grid over the field, each one telling how many mines were near it. I’ll tell you why later.”

“Coming up on reentry in ten minutes, everyone. Get to the windows if you want to see!” CinTally said excitedly over the intercom.

“You know,” Zane said jokingly. “I could still sell this monster on the cheap if you really want it.”

“Oh, I don’t know, Zane,” Rhianna replied. “I suppose I could’ve used it as a sort of giant mobile garage. But, frankly, I think you’ll have some trouble giving it to anybody the way CinTally’s got her talons around it.”

“That could be true,” Zane admitted.

“Besides, it’s just as true for suborbitals as it is for so many other things,” Rhianna replied with a grin. “Really, it’s not the size that matters, it’s what you do with it that counts.”

“Mine!” CinTally screed over the intercom. “MIIIINE!”

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After the assembly, there wasn’t much left to do. Helen insisted on running Relena and Katie through a Fuse test, at the end of which Relena showed off her new kitty-nosed face and they all four agreed it was, in fact, the cutest thing in the world (though not without a certain amount of envious grumbling on Lillibet’s part). They also fitted Katie out with the obligatory private-parts-protecting metal bikini, which was more for the protection of public decency than any actual armor value.

All three of them thanked Helen again and again, and then moved outside where they were joined by Guinevere, who looked completely shiny and new again and told Lillibet she felt much better. And she’d also had a few new systems of her own put in, though they’d been limited by her prior construction in what they could do. She didn’t have the weapons kit Lillibet had asked for either, though. “They said you needed permission from your Dad,” Guinevere said.

“But if I’m gonna help fight Fritz and AlphaWolf, I need firepower!” Lillibet pouted. “If I’d had real weapons at the garage instead of those pop guns I might have taken Tocsin down!”

“Take it up with your Dad,” Guinevere suggested. “You’re gonna have to talk to him about your Code Creosote anyway, you know. Not to mention nearly getting killed at the garage.”

“He’s gonna ground me ‘til next Landing Day,” Lillibet said gloomily. She glanced over at Relena cuddling a loudly-purring Katie in Walker form, still completely lost in each other, and grinned. “But you know what? Totally worth it.”

Finally, she walked over to the pair of them and cleared her throat, chuckling at the same embarrassed expression mirrored on both kitty faces as they looked up. “Whenever you gals are ready, you can just head on home up the highway. Katie should have the maps in her GPS.”

“You’re not flying us back in the X-15?” Relena asked.

Lillibet shook her head. “I’ve gotta go beard my Dad in his den.”

“But your Dad is clean-shaven,” Guin said.

Lillibet rolled her eyes. “You know what I mean.” She grinned at Relena. “Anyway, you two should enjoy the chance to try out your new souped-up Skimmer form. Remember, if you stay with the highway, keep it subsonic. Sonic booms are rude and get the highway patrol mad at you.”

“Uh…okay,” Relena said. She glanced at Katie. “Supersonic? Really?”

“That’s what Helena said,” Lillibet said. “I wish I could be with you when you tried it out. But anyway, you enjoy yourselves—and if Rhianna’s back by the time you get there, tell her we say hi, and ask her not to be mad at me for buying her stuff.” Lillibet snapped her fingers. “Oh! And speaking of buying stuff, here. Almost forgot.” She pulled out her wallet and tapped a button on it, and Relena’s own wallet beeped.

Relena pulled it out and looked at it. “What’s…oh!” She looked up, then glanced over at Katie. “A lifetime property tax waiver on your new body!”

Katie purrrrred, then licked Lillibet’s hand. “Thank you! That will be verrry helpful!”

Lillibet grinned. “See, I told you it would all work out. Anyway, you two enjoy yourselves. I’m gonna go see Dad now.” Guin obligingly flipped to skimmer form, and Lillibet mounted up. “Wish me luck. See you in a few years when I’m ungrounded again.”

“Good luck!” Relena said. Then she came over and stepped up onto Guin’s running board to hug Lillibet. “Thank you so much! You’ll always be welcome at my home.”

“Hey, you’re welcome. Don’t get any speeding tickets now.” She winked, and Relena laughed before jumping down and moving back to stand by Katie.

Guinevere kicked in the lifters and roared away, taking a deep breath to steel herself for what was to come. This…wasn’t going to be pleasant. Code Creosote was meant for emergencies when a need for ready access to cash right away overrode considerations of patiently waiting for her allowance. But after such an emergency, she could expect to have her every expenditure scrutinized by her father, even down to the last pack of gum.

She thought she could get away with what she’d done for Katie, but the improvements to Guinevere might be a little trickier. But given that she was already going to be in trouble for attacking Tocsin, she figured things couldn’t get that much worse. “Come on, Guin,” she sighed. “Let’s go see how much trouble we’re in.”

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“I don’t believe this. I don’t believe this!” Rhianna said on seeing the the ruins for the first time. “I didn’t think you could get that kind of range out of hardlight weaponry yet. It’s sliced down to the atomic level, clean through!” She was torn between wanting to take Tocsin apart for the damage he’d done, and wanting to take him apart to find out how his projectors had been put together so he could do it.

The insurance adjuster, examining the site via a floater similar to the news cameras, was going over the site centi-by-centi. A million and a half mu of damage so far, and the assessment was only half done. Rhianna walked over to her home and started looking for surviving memorabilia.

“I have to admit, he was pretty thorough.” Still Fused with Uncia, Rochelle wandered through the rubble that was all that remained of the tangle of temporary buildings that had been their place of business and Rhianna’s home. “You know, Rhi, you and Kaylee can sleep over at our place until we get something set up here for you. I’ve certainly crashed at yours enough.”

“I appreciate it, Shelley. We’ll take you up on that. Maybe I’ll absorb some of your natural girliness, too.” Rhianna put her hands on her hips. “Well, at least I’ll have something of a clean slate for my life as a woman, right? Thank God for offsite backups for everything else.”

“I’m just glad I was too lazy to move my stuff in,” Rochelle said.

The destruction wasn’t entirely uniform. Through whatever fluke of trajectories, not everything had been destroyed even in the otherwise-completely-obliterated sections. The odd bit of furniture or fixtures survived—a table in one area, a refrigerator in another. And in the section that had been Lillibet’s, a workbench stood along with a chunk of wall behind it, completely untouched by the destruction around it. It even had a set of four battered lifter modules sitting on it—Kaylee’s original parts, that Quinoa had pulled from Katie when she’d swapped the newer ones in.

Rochelle picked one up and examined it, turning it over in her hand. She’d been entertaining thoughts of having these bronzed, like baby shoes, and mounted on a plaque to decorate Rhi and Kaylee’s home. Of course, she still could, but it seemed like kind of an extravagance now. Idly, she had Uncia open a link to the lifter’s embedded microprocessor…and froze.

Due to the cheapness of processors and the ubiquitousness of computing in the 25th and 26th centuries, every component that needed an embedded processor usually ended up with considerably more processor than it actually needed. It was cheaper to give everything from a media tablet on down the same type of system-on-a-chip than it would have been to design and build a separate lower-capacity chip for things that needed less. So the embedded qubit processor of a lifter or hardlight projector might have perhaps 10% of its onboard storage taken up by the firmware it needed to run; the rest was available space that could be accessed and used for other things if you knew how.

Rochelle liked to investigate the contents of these chips on any used components she came across, because sometimes programmers or developers liked to fill the extra space with various Easter Eggs—their favorite books, music, videos, or software. She’d found a lot of neat things that way, including some of her current favorite albums. Sometimes the RIDE owner or the RIDE itself would also use it as secret “external” storage for things they weren’t supposed to have in main memory—like her very own FreeRIDE jailbreaking software.

But what Rochelle was finding now was not movies or music—at least, not as far as Rochelle could tell. It seemed to be a very large encrypted file—in a format that was very familiar. She put the lifter down with hands that felt like they should be trembling (but weren’t, of course, due to Uncia’s steady physical control) and picked up the next one. Same thing. The other two lifters had the same type of files on them, too. Rochelle quickly copied all four of them into Uncia’s onboard storage.

“Kaylee?” Rochelle said in a remarkably calm voice. “Could you come over here a moment, hon? I need you to unlock something for me with your decryption key.”

Kaylee padded up next to her. “What is—are those my old lifters?”

“Yeah. Handshake with me here a moment.” Kaylee raised a paw and offered it to Rochelle in the classic dog-shaking-hands pose, and Rochelle snorted. “Very funny.” But she took the paw and used it as a point of physical contact to interface with Kaylee’s built-in encryption chip—the “trusted computing” hardware used to certify her fetters and other onboard software. She fit that key into the lifter data files’ lock—and the encryption obligingly opened up. And Rochelle’s eyes widened as she looked over the file directory. She’d seen this kind of file before, and very recently too.

Rochelle quickly scanned the indexes of the files, and compared them to another set of files she had in onboard storage. “Oh my. Kaylee, you’re a genius. You’re a certifiably clever and conniving kitty-cat.”

Kaylee sat on her haunches and scratched a persistent itch behind one hardlight ear with a hindleg. “That’s nice. You gonna stop praising me and tell me why?”

“The processors on these lifters contained files, locked to your key. They’re RIDE memory files. And the date/time indexes almost exactly match the missing chunks from Anny’s infodump. I’m integrating them into the index I have from your most recent defrag now. Good thing I kept those files in Uncia.”

“Whatever was in these, you must have known it was too hot and they’d never let you keep it,” Rhianna said wonderingly, coming over to join them. “So you tucked it away in your parts so you could find it again. The MRS wouldn’t have known of that trick back then.”

“But by the time they sold me, all those parts were gone,” Kaylee said. “No wonder those other RIDEs thought they were haunted. They had bits of me in ‘em.”

Rochelle reached out and took Kaylee’s paw again. “Un and I aren’t going to look at these files yet—you deserve first crack. Feeding them back to you now.”

Kaylee received the download, and integrated the memories. And her eyes widened. :Rhi, doll, get that little gift of Anny’s. I want another look at it.: The old LNX unit padded over and scanned it. “Felix…Fritz…you magnificent bastard! We’ve got your DIN!”

Preceded by:
Integration Part IX: Stockholm Vacation
FreeRIDErs Succeeded by:
Integration Part XI: Citizen Katie