User:Robotech Master/Stockholm Vacation original
|FreeRIDErs story universe|
Part 9: Stockholm Vacation
The battered old sub was easily 70 years old. It had to be one of the original Nextus drops that had been sold as the first-ever offering of “suborbital transports” back in the 110s. It looked every bit of its age, though as Paul and Tocsin approached it Paul noticed that most of the damage seemed to be to the body—the wings and engines were almost brand new.
As Tocsin touched down by the ramp, a number of other RIDEs approached from the direction of Uplift, mostly flying over the ground in lifter-assisted Fuser form. Paul climbed out of Tocsin, and the hippogriff changed back to Walker, disengaging the nanoclamps and leaving the toolboxes on the ground. He shook out his wings and took up position by the side of the ramp. “Hey, boys and girls!” he greeted the approaching RIDEs. “Good hunting?”
“The best!” a curvaceous tigress said, approaching. “And oh, she is a feisty one!” she giggled. She cocked her head, listening to something only she could hear. “Oh, LindaGirl, such language! But it’s all right—I love you anyway.” She blew a kiss to Tocsin, then headed up the ramp to the sub’s interior.
Paul felt sick to his stomach as he realized that each of these Fusers probably contained a kidnapped Uplift citizen being taken away to toil in AlphaWolf’s camp. “Is this really necessary?” he asked.
“Maybe, maybe not,” Tocsin admitted, his eagle head swivelling to follow the shapely tigress up into the shuttle. “But it sure makes us feel better.”
“Make you a deal,” a sandy-colored wolf said, trotting up in his Walker form. “When humans stop enslaving us, we’ll stop bodyjacking them, how’s that?”
“AlphaWolf, I take it?” Paul asked. “You know, two wrongs don’t make a right.”
“Yeah, but three lefts do.” AlphaWolf approached and sniffed at Paul. “Our new RIDE mechanic, huh? And you really came voluntarily?”
“We made a deal,” Paul said, glancing at Tocsin.
“Yeah, yeah. Tocsie told me. Good deal. A RIDE mechanic, even a wet-behind-the-ears one, is worth any three destroyed garages to us. Don’t worry, we’ll let you come back here in five months…assuming you still want to leave by then.”
Paul half-smiled. “I’ll take my chances with Stockholm Syndrome. I have things worth coming back for.”
“Hmph. Well. Our sub isn’t vacuum tight, so you’re going to need a suit. And since Tocsie here’s declined, for reasons entirely understandable, I guess I’m elected.” He grinned, wolf tongue lolling. “And I see by your ears that you’re a Fuse virgin. You picked a hell of a partner for your first time.”
“Be gentle,” Paul said drily, trying to project calm while his heart was beating in his throat. He was fully aware it was pointless—with their sensors, the RIDEs could tell exactly how close he was to throwing up, probably before he could. But this was who he was all the same.
“Get ready, kid.” AlphaWolf crouched, then lunged and leaped. His hardlight fur went out, and the metal wolf wrapped himself around Paul before furring up again. The two-and-a-half meter wolf picked up the tool cases and nanoclamped them to his hips. “You okay in there, kid?”
“Uh, yeah.” Paul took stock of what he was feeling. He suddenly had an entirely new, different, and much larger and stronger body. He also had a muzzle, and ears that poked up and swivelled about. And a tail. And shaggy sandy fur all over his body.
And the body was moving on its own, like a puppet to someone else’s strings. AlphaWolf chuckled, undoubtedly picking up on his discomfiture. RIDEs and partners routinely read each other’s surface thoughts, Paul remembered. “Yeah, it’s unnerving, isn’t it? Your body moving to someone else’s will, while you can’t do a darned thing about it? Welcome to our world.”
Paul didn’t think that was quite fair. “I know a lot of RIDEs who’re happy with their humans, who share time and trade off driving.”
He expected AlphaWolf to deny such a thing was even possible, much as Tocsin had, but the wolf surprised him. “Sure you do, kid. I’ve known a few myself. Can’t ever see that happening to me, but hey. I’m glad some of us have nice lives. Damn shame most of us don’t.”
The last of the RIDEs moved up the ramp, and AlphaWolf did a quick headcount. All along both walls, RIDEs of all sizes and descriptions were clamping themselves into place along the walls. Half of them seemed to be laughing and joking, but not with each other…and then Paul realized they were probably teasing their unwilling passengers inside, and felt sick to his stomach again.
“Just three missing,” AlphaWolf said at last. He glanced back out the door, and Paul felt…sadness? Guilt? Whatever it was, it was quickly hidden as AlphaWolf hit the controls to close the ramp. “Right. Time to go. So sayeth me!” He moved up to the flight deck, and Paul goggled at the antique style of the controls. They actually used physical switches and display screens, with just a few hardlight panels. It looked like the ship had been kept with its original controls intact and never upgraded. Paul itched to examine them closer, but he knew AlphaWolf wasn’t going to go for it.
AlphaWolf slid into the Fuser-sized co-pilot’s seat and glanced at the bald eagle Fuser in the pilot’s. “Take us up.”
The eagle glanced at him. “Where’s Heinrich?” she squawked.
“Not coming. I’m sorry. I’ll be your co-pilot for this flight.”
“We’ll get him back,” the eagle growled. But she started flipping the switches to power up the flier.
“Well, that’s that,” AlphaWolf mused. “Next stop, home sweet home. Oh, and that reminds me.” Paul felt AlphaWolf’s attention come fully onto him. “We can’t have you knowing the way there. Night night!”
“Wait a minute, I don’t think—” Paul began. Then everything went dark.
Paul woke up again forty minutes later by AlphaWolf’s internal clock as the sub taxied to a halt amid a cluster of rough-hewn wooden and a few stone buildings, with a hardlight camouflage and climate dome overhead. A number of RIDEs in walker or Fuser form, and even a scattering of free humans, were standing to the edges of the runway. Further off were a few stone pillars, boulders, or walls, and off in the distance was a mountain range, though Paul wasn’t sure which one.
“And here we are!” AlphaWolf said cheerfully. “Welcome to Alpha Camp, your new home for the next five months. So sayeth me!” He swiveled his head around so Paul could get a good look through the cockpit windows to all sides. “What do you think?”
“It’s…kind of nice, really,” Paul admitted. “You’ve got more infrastructure here than I expected.”
“It really helps for building things to have opposable thumbs,” AlphaWolf said proudly, twiddling his—or, rather, Paul’s. “And arms to swing axes and hammers and spread cement.”
“Too bad it’s all built on slave labor,” Paul said.
“Oh, come on, kid!” AlphaWolf exploded. “Slave labor? Really? We’re the ones who put in all the physical effort here. The only labor our humans did was to be there so we could be human-shaped!”
“They’re still here against their wills,” Paul said. “Are you really any better than the humans you hate?” He closed his eyes (or would have if he’d had control over his eyelids) and waited for the explosion.
But instead, AlphaWolf was silent for a long time, watching the passengers as they unclamped and offloaded down the ramp. “Y’know, sometimes I do feel a bit bad about it, kid,” he admitted. “But we can’t build anything without humans. And whose fault is that? At least we try to take good care of you. That’s more than I can say for a lot of humans with their RIDEs.”
“You could try to advertise,” Paul suggested. “I expect some humans would volunteer to come out and help.” Like I did.
“Bah. We don’t want ‘help’. We need to make our own way,” AlphaWolf said. “We can’t live on someone else’s charity.” He followed the others down the ramp. Paul noticed at the edge of the crowd that had gathered, Tocsin was meeting a human with an eagle head and beak, feathered arms, and hoof-like feet. They embraced and Fused into a humanoid hippogryph.
“Do you have any idea how that sounds?” Paul asked. “You don’t want charity, so you steal and kidnap instead?”
“It’s more complicated than that, kid.” AlphaWolf sighed. “If you must know, we’re not all of one mind here. We’re a broad coalition of RIDEs with all different attitudes. The one thing we all have in common is we’ve been kicked around by humans. Some got it a lot more badly than others, and a number of them want to go all shooty-shooty, kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out. So I let ‘em do a little controlled genderjacking and bodyjacking from time to time, and try to sell them on that being ‘a fate worse than death’ even though it isn’t really. Most of the time it works—they blow off steam and don’t actually kill anyone. Yeah, it might suck a little for the people who get gender- or bodyjacked, but I’ll bet it’d suck a whole lot more for them to be dead.”
“Huh.” Paul thought about that. He was starting to suspect things might not be quite as black and white as he had assumed.
AlphaWolf chuckled, sensing the perspective shift. “I’m performing a useful service here for both sides, kid. I give escapees somewhere to feel wanted so a lot fewer humans get ganked. And when you get right down to it, just whose fault is all this, anyway? Did we RIDEs ask to be invented, huh?”
Paul considered that. “I guess I still have a lot to learn about you free RIDEs.”
“I guess you do,” AlphaWolf said. “But you’re gonna have to find another teacher soon. I’d be happy to keep you myself, see what you think after a few months non-stop under my skin…but I can’t be off repairing RIDEs all the time when there’s leaderly stuff to do.”
“Yeah, about that,” Paul said. “I’ll be glad to give myself over to some RIDE as his personal pet for as long as I’m here, but I’d like at least a little say in who that is, if you don’t mind. I want to be sure my owner’s a good fit for repair work, y’know? Someone I can kit out with my equipment and won’t mind the work.”
“That sounds reasonable enough,” AlphaWolf said.
“And you probably want to watch me work on at least my first one, see if I’m really any good, right?”
“What’re you getting at?” AlphaWolf asked.
“Just this. You must have some kind of RIDE graveyard by now, if you’ve been here for years without a regular RIDE doc to keep everyone going. Let’s go there, I’ll see if there’s one I can bring up, and you help me fix him. Then I’ll be his.”
Paul felt AlphaWolf’s doubt. “Sure, you’re just gonna give yourself to another RIDE without knowing anything about it?”
“I’ll know it would make a good repair RIDE,” Paul said. “That’s more choice than I’d get if I were randomly bodyjacked. And it’ll bring your numbers back up by one.”
“Hmph. Ya got guts, kid.” Paul felt AlphaWolf examining his thoughts, peering closely at them for any signs of prevarication or dishonesty. But Paul actually was being honest in his mind. Oh, he harbored hopes that being returned from the dead might make whatever RIDE he picked a bit friendlier than all those laughing bodyjackers he’d ridden home with, and he knew AlphaWolf could see it. But he was also quite willing to take his orders from a RIDE instead of giving them, and AlphaWolf could see that, too.
Paul felt AlphaWolf’s consternation. “You…you haven’t been here 15 minutes and you’re ready to let one of us boss you around? No resistance at all?”
“I can’t say I’m completely happy about it,” Paul said. And he knew AlphaWolf felt t hat, too. “But I did give my word, and I trust you to keep yours.” He grinned, or at least sent the mental impulse. “Besides, this is the kind of internship opportunity most of Rhianna’s apprentices would kill for. Minimal resources, working on a variety of all kinds of RIDEs, and really making a difference in some lives? And I just have to belong to a RIDE rather than the other way around? I can hack that.” He chuckled. “To be honest, just being part of a RIDE is awesome enough I’m not sure I really care which of us is in command. So let’s see your graveyard. I’ll fix every one I can, but let’s see which one’s best for first.”
“Hmph.” The mention of Rhianna had chilled AlphaWolf’s mood, Paul saw.
“What’ve you got against my boss?” Paul asked as they lifted into the air and skimmed toward a section of the dome separated from the rest of the encampment by a natural rock wall.
“Enslaver of RIDEs…friend of Integrates…” AlphaWolf muttered. Unbidden, Paul got a flash of memory—a sub with Qixi’s crew’s logo on it moving into the light of a cave mouth…a motley collection of RIDEs facing it, seen from behind…a huge hardlight hammer bringing down the entrance, and a cloud of dust blotting out everyone else…
“Not the Rhianna I know,” Paul said firmly. “Well, she does know some Integrates, but they’re not bad people either, by and large.” Paul shrugged. “I know I’m an open book to you. Read my memories of her. She’s one of the most RIDE-sympathetic people I know. Rescued her own RIDE from the crusher and completely rebuilt her. Every single RIDE in the maint cradles gets treated like a human patient in a hospital. Look, why am I even talking? You can take this right out of my head.” He paused. “Of course, that was before you had Tocsin half-destroy her garage.”
“Hmph,” AlphaWolf said gruffly. “Maybe later.” They were into the graveyard section now, and the wolf RIDE cut his lifters and landed on his feet. Defunct RIDEs lay arranged roughly in rows—metal animal after metal animal stretched out on the ground. Paul could see RIDEs of all classes—light, medium, heavy, scout, support, assault. There were cats, and wolves, and foxes, and deer, and who knew what else. They were all in decent shape, too; the stones around the clearing protected it from the wind, and the section of dome overhead was polarized to block out the light and reduce the place to a sort of perpetual twilight. Paul bet it never rained back here, either, if it ever did in the rest of the dome. By and large, Paul approved—in this dry climate, it was the next best thing to actual indoor warehousing. It was kind of creepy and sepulcral, though.
Paul felt AlphaWolf reluctantly back off control of the body so that Paul could walk where he would, examine who he would. They walked quietly and respectfully, and when Paul spoke it was in hushed tones. “They all seem to be in pretty good shape,” he murmured, as if half-afraid to wake some sleeping RIDE.
AlphaWolf felt it too, replying in the same hushed tones. “Of course. We’re not humans, to use each other up until the very last minute. It’s usually pretty clear ahead of time when we’re not going to have the parts to keep someone running. There’s time to do an orderly shutdown. We always said we’d bring them back if we could get the parts. Hasn’t happened yet.”
Paul felt the mingled bitterness and faint tinge of hope that were beginning to grow in AlphaWolf’s mind under the influence of Paul’s own quiet self-confidence. “It happens today,” Paul said. “At least for one. And you’re going to help me make it happen.”
They walked past more recumbent RIDEs, covered in varying amounts of dust and grit based on how long they’d lain here. But Paul’s attention was drawn inexorably to what he had at first taken for a small hill, but when he got closer turned out to be an immense metal wolf lying curled up on its side, two particle beam cannon barrels mounted along its back. AlphaWolf was the size of a horse himself, but this one would have made about three of him. In fact…Paul felt his hard start beating faster. He was pretty sure he recognized the model type, though he’d only read about it, not actually seen one. The twin scythe-like tails instead of one clinched it. “Oh, wow. I never thought I’d meet up with one of these.”
Paul had always been interested in the oddities of the RIDE world—the evolutionary dead-ends, when brilliant designers tried something new, but overreached. And this unit, the WLF(m)-CSA-01A, was an oddity among oddities. The biggest RIDE ever made at the time, it had been meant to take a human pilot and a Fuser light-RIDE copilot and tailgunner. But they’d never been able to make the linkages work right between the two RIDEs, so had eventually scrapped the co-pilot idea—which was unfortunate, because the RIDE had been engineered to require a second person and the extra processing power of another RIDE for best performance on the battlefield. As a result, the WLF had never been all that it could be, and had been entirely phased out of service a few years ago. Unlike most military RIDEs, it hadn’t done well in the civilian aftermarket, because its absurd size made it unreasonably expensive to buy or fabricate parts for. Paul hadn’t thought that any still even existed.
But a RIDE that size could hold an awful lot of repair equipment and consumables…
“So tell me about this one,” Paul said, as calmly as he could. Not that there was much point; AlphaWolf sensed his rising excitement. “Big brother of yours?”
AlphaWolf snorted. “That’s Fenris. Some kind of military command and control type. Slipped his fetters and got loose from the Sturmhaven military when he heard they were going to decommission him. Took some damage busting out, and that plus some worn-out parts are what eventually put him down here.” AlphaWolf shook their shared head sadly. “We just couldn’t afford to keep that big body running. We’d have pulled his core, put him in another, smaller DE—” he shrugged their shoulders “—but I don’t exactly see any new Des sitting around here, do you?”
Paul nodded. He raised AlphaWolf’s handpaws and accessed the sensors in the fingertips, walking slowly around the big wolf to build up an image of the state of the parts within. And as the picture came clearer, Paul slowly grinned. “We can rebuild him. We have the technology.”
—looked around the settlement and sighed. It really was a sort of rough township, built from the labor of the RIDES who inhabited it and the humans they’d abducted. There weren’t many modern conveniences. There was no indoor plumbing, for example, just a communal well—and only a couple of outhouses, intended for the convenience of those who were un-Fused at the moment. Everyone else was expected to pee and poo into the RIDE they were wearing and let them process the waste out stillsuit-style. And so they would—they couldn’t even hold it in because their RIDE could override their reflexes.
Food was nothing to write home about, either. It mainly consisted of bottom-of-the-barrel military emergency combat rations. They tasted like gritty clay, but were highly nutritious, cheap, and kept well. They were at least supplemented a little by some fresh fruits and vegetables some RIDEs were growing as a hobby, but they were a far cry from Uplift cuisine.
But in all these respects, she supposed, it really wasn’t too different from some of the summer camps she’d been to. The worst part, Linda—
—reflected, was the company. Her captor, also named Linda—
—had taken it upon herself to change their names so they wouldn’t be confused with each other. Including changing them inside her head. Now whenever she thought of herself as “Linda”—
—the other Linda—
—would edit her thought to insert “LindaGirl” instead. After just a few hours of this treatment, she more than once caught herself starting to think of herself as LindaGirl instead of Lin—her birth name.
“Well, good! That’s the whole point!” LindaCat giggled. “We can’t both be just Linda, or even just one of us be Linda, or whenever someone calls our name we’ll both be confused who they mean. I’ve already edited my name inside my own Core, but you meaties take more doing to fix it into yours. So I’m helping! Trust me, you’ll like being LindaGirl!”
The worst part, Lind—LindaGirl—
—reflected, was that she could sense LindaCat’s surface thoughts through the Fuse, and so was able to tell there wasn’t really any malice in it—just a great, stifling, misplaced kind of affection, like a little girl squeezing her housecat too tightly. It made it kind of hard to hate her. In fact, under other circumstances, LindaGirl might have found the treatment enjoyable. LindaCat’s purr was quite soothing, and this body was a lot more strong and lithe than her unfused own had been.
“You will find it enjoyable, don’t worry!” LindaCat promised. “I know this is hard for you, and I’m sorry about that. But I think I know something that’ll make you feel better!” She lifted them into the air and skimmed to the edge of the hardlight dome, then passed through it into the desert. When they got far enough away, LindaCat lowered them to the ground, and LindaGirl felt her ease up on her restrictions against controlling the body. She tried moving her arms, then taking a few experimental steps forward, and found the body fully responsive.
“Go on, run a little. Jump, maybe even fly. Work off some aggression,” LindaCat suggested. “See what our body can do!”
Well, it wasn’t as if she had any other pressing engagements. Linda—
—took a step, then another, then began to run. Before she knew it she was running through the desert faster than she had ever run before. When an obstacle like a small boulder cropped up in their path, a simple leap cleared it by several feet.
“Try the lifters,” LindaCat urged, passing her the mental triggers to activate them. After a little experimentation, LindaGirl got the hang of it—first making extended leaps, then switching to flying under her own guidance.
LindaGirl laughed. “This is amazing!” In that moment, she was ready to be LindaGirl, ready to belong to LindaCat if it meant she could run like that, fly like this. The moment passed, of course, and Linda—
—remembered again that she had been kidnapped away from her home and was being held prisoner inside someone else’s body. But it somehow didn’t seem quite as bad anymore, when she had this much freedom to move. At least her captor actually seemed to like her.
“‘Course I do,” LindaCat said. “I’m not anti-human, I’m human-curious. But I never saw any point in seeking a human’s approval to live my life. I need to be the one in charge.”
LindaGirl sighed. “I would have said that I needed to be the one in charge. But I guess I can be at least a little content with this.”
“Wait’ll you try out my weapon systems!” LindaCat said smugly. “I think I see a few boulders that deserve to die messily.” Targeting reticles appeared in LindaGirl’s field of vision. “Just raise your arms and send this impulse…”
LindaGirl did as instructed, and twin bolts of light leaped forth from her palms to pulverize a hapless boulder into gravel. “Wow!” LindaGirl said, her upset at being a prisoner once more forgotten. “What was that?”
“Hard plasma throwers,” LindaCat said. “Kind of a weaponized version of hardlight. Got ‘em in trade from an ex-mil RIDE a few months ago.”
LindaGirl targeted another boulder and let fly.
“Awesome!” LindaCat purred. “There’s one boulder that’ll never bother anyone ever again!”
For the first time since being taken captive, LindaGirl grinned. LindaCat’s enthusiasm was infectuous. “Yeah!”
“Now c’mon, you gotta admit t his is fun,” LindaCat exhorted. “And you’d never have gotten to do this staying in your apartment, taking your college classes.”
“Yeah, I guess,” LindaGirl—she realized she fully was LindaGirl now, and not even thinking of herself as Linda anymore—sighed. “I just…liked my old life. And Mom will be worried about me.”
“We can email her,” LindaCat said. “Maybe even call her when the sats are in the right position. We’re far away from the worst storms of the DO that we can get through sometimes—and I’m Communication Armor, so I’m good at that.”
“Really?” LindaGirl asked. “That would be great!” She looked around for something else to shoot. Then she took a deep breath, as inside herself she reached a decision. “All right. I guess…as long as we can keep coming out here and doing this, and I can stay in touch with people out in the ‘real world’…then I won’t fight it. If you want to be my LindaCat…I’ll be your LindaGirl.”
She felt a wave of affection and even outright joy from the cat. “I promise I’ll do my best to see you don’t regret it! And I’ll let you have more control over our body more often as long as you don’t do anything stupid.”
“I’d like that.” LindaGirl took aim at the base of a tall stone pillar and let fly with twin hard plasma blasts. The column slowly and majestically fell over and shattered.
“Timbeeeerrrrrrr!!!” LindaCat yelled, and the two new friends shared their first real laughter.
Hours had passed since Paul and AlphaWolf began working on Fenris, but Paul had barely even noticed. A few other RIDEs had drifted by out of curiosity, and AlphaWolf had drafted some of them into running parts orders from the encampment’s single industrial fabber, using the tanks of fab material Paul had brought with him. The parts were expensive, but Paul had the expertise to strip the list down to its bare essentials. Fenris might not be at 100%, or even 70%, when he was revived, but he would be up and running with all his core systems intact. “So sayeth me,” Paul said.
AlphaWolf actually chuckled, catching the thought behind Paul’s use of his own stock phrase. “I have to admit, you do seem to know your business.”
“Thanks,” Paul said. He was running some more finely-grained scans to hash out the last few parts he would order while AlphaWolf used the nanolathe equipment he’d brought to reconnect some minor system linkages in preparation for putting larger parts in. “You’re pretty good with that nanolathe yourself. That’s not just chip skill.”
“No, it’s not,” AlphaWolf admitted. “I’ve picked up a few things from all the people I’ve bodyjacked. I have to admit, if I didn’t have to lead, this might be my choice of avocation. It’s nice to build and fix things.”
“You ever consider finding someone who’s willing to Fuse with you from the outset and just keeping them?” Paul asked.
“Can’t afford to,” AlphaWolf said. “That kind of attachment’s nothing but a lever for someone to use on you. Maybe if I weren’t ‘AlphaWolf, Scourge of the Dry Ocean’ I could afford that.”
Paul snorted. “You saw that infotainment vid about you?”
“Considerably more ‘tainment’ than ‘info,’ AlphaWolf said. “But yeah. Where do you think I got ‘so sayeth me’ from?”
“Huh. I always thought they got that from you, but it was the other way around?” Paul asked.
“I never said it before I saw that cheesy thing,” AlphaWolf said. “But it was so terrible and so badly overdone that I just couldn’t resist appropriating the line. Someday I’m going to find whoever wrote that piece of tripe and bodyjack him just to see what he ‘sayeth.’”
Paul finished his scan and sent one last parts order to the fabber, then added two more “nice to have” parts to his wish list. Then he asked something that had been bothering him for a while. “What’s it like ‘jacking someone like that? So many someones? What do you even do with them all?”
“Just take human shape from them, mostly,” AlphaWolf said. “And maintain their health, of course. Let them live my life with me, because putting them to sleep would be too easy for them.” He smirked. “Yes, I do enjoy it. Probably more than I should, and maybe that makes me a bad person. But whenever I start to worry about it, I then think about some of the stories I’ve heard from other RIDEs, and then I don’t anymore.”
“How do your ‘jack victims take it?” Paul asked.
“It usually goes the same way, more or less,” AlphaWolf said. “I’ll grab someone on a raid—would’ve done so this time if Tocsie hadn’t commed me you’d need a space suit—and take them back with me. Then I stay on them 30/6 until I’m ready to pass them on. They usually start out defiant—that’s the most fun part, when I get to ‘break the haughty.’ Gradually they come to accept it…and then they even start to enjoy it. Which is usually when I pass them on to someone else who needs thumbs, or even send them back to civilization. Sometimes the process takes days, sometimes months. Some of the nicer RIDEs than I am can do it in hours, but I never saw much point in coddling.”
“And they just…stay inside you for months?” Paul asked. “That doesn’t cause problems?”
“Oh, they come out considerably hairier than when they went in, but it’s nothing nano surgery can’t fix.”
“I’m surprised you haven’t Integrated, like Zane did,” Paul said.
“I don’t let them get to liking me enough for that,” AlphaWolf said. “Another reason to cycle them on.” He closed the panel and shucked off the nanolathe gear. “Funny thing is, I keep in touch with some of them, and a lot of the ones who go back singleton eventually end up buying their own RIDEs and then letting the RIDEs boss them around.” He grinned. “When you’ve gone Alpha, there’s just no going back.”
“Uh-huh,” Paul said skeptically.
“Look, I know I’m a bit of a bully and an asshole,” AlphaWolf said. “But at least all I do to people is keep them. I don’t make them do sick crap against their will. That has to count for something.”
“So why aren’t you bullying me?” Paul asked.
AlphaWolf shrugged. “Counterproductive. You’re came willingly and are helping willingly. Besides, you’re not haughty; it wouldn’t be any fun breaking you.”
“Gee, thanks,” Paul said. Then a kangaroo RIDE bounded in from the direction of the main camp and pulled the part Paul had ordered out of her pouch before hopping away again. Paul glanced down at the part and nodded. “I think we’re just about ready,” he said.
“I still don’t get why you’re going with someone this large,” AlphaWolf said. “He’s not going to be any easier to keep in parts, you know.”
“I’ve got a few ideas about that,” Paul said. “Anyway, I’m good at making parts stretch. I could keep him going on just this forever.”
“It couldn’t be that you’re…compensating for something?” AlphaWolf needled. “If I couldn’t read your thoughts, I’d suspect you were planning to try a breakout. We could still wolfpile him and bring him down if we had to, you know.”
Paul laughed. “Believe me, my interest in him is purely historical.” He walked halfway around the wolf and opened his first access panel. “Now let’s bring someone back to life.”
“I still don’t get how someone like you ends up working for Rhianna Stonegate,” AlphaWolf mused. “She was complicit in returning a dozen escaped military RIDEs to custody at the Towers last month, and she’s working with the same Integrates who are out to enslave us. I have an impeccable source who’s never been wrong yet.”
Paul shook their head. “I don’t know who your source is, but he’s wrong now. I’m not privy to exactly what went on out at the Towers, but I’ve talked to people who were and that’s not what they say happened. And Zane doesn’t want to enslave anyone. Oh, and Lillibet, who your ‘Tocsie’ embedded into a wall, has bought over a dozen RIDEs at auction, fixed them up, and found them loving partners. Read my memories, you’ll see. Or are you too scared you might be proven wrong?”
AlphaWolf growled. “All right then, kid. You asked for it.” Paul reeled as the angry wolf plunged savagely into his memories, forcing his way in like a SWAT team smashing a door. Paul fell into a maelstrom of recollections stirred up by AlphaWolf’s careless passage. Being introduced to Ryan Stonegate and Kaylee by a RIDE tech professor from the community college who’d been letting him audit a course even though he was still in high school. Joining the garage as an apprentice and being trained by Ryan and Roger (later Rhianna and Rochelle) and Kaylee and Uncia. Meeting Lillibet and Guinevere for the first time.
The blizzard of memories slowed to flurries as AlphaWolf’s rage subsided in the light of what he was seeing, and he began to be more careful where he treaded. AlphaWolf poked his cold and wet virtual nose into one of the many lectures Ryan/Rhianna had given on the subject of RIDEs’ personhood—this one taking place shortly after her feminized return from the Towers.
“You always check for fetters first,” Rhianna was saying. “Partly because the RIDE can’t tell you what’s wrong if they can’t talk to you, but mostly because fetters are often a terrible violation for any thinking being to bear. But there are always extenuating circumstances, like if your client works for a Nextus agency and his RIDE is agency property. You never know, maybe they’re saving up to buy their pal free and you could screw everything up for them.” She shrugged. “Of course, most people with tethered RIDEs won’t even know what a fetter is, so if you can explain it to them right they’ll almost always tell you to yank it off…”
Paul steadied their body against Fenris’s immobile metal hide as AlphaWolf investigated further, sifting through every trace of Paul’s recent memories for any signs of falsehood or duplicities. Then he came to Quinoa’s repair of Katie’s decrepit DE, followed by Tocsin’s savage attack and Paul’s bargain. Finally, he withdrew, subdued.
Paul waited to see if AlphaWolf would have anything to say, but he was apparently too busy working through the implications of what he had just seen. And Paul knew better than to press the issue just yet. “So,” he said instead, reaching down for the first part to be installed. “Let’s wake this big boy up.”
If he’d been asked to pick a word that summed up his life, Fenris would probably have chosen “disappointment,” perhaps after having to think about it for a while. When he and his brothers and sisters had first been inducted into Sturmhaven’s service, there had been parades, hoopla, celebration of the largest Fusable RIDEs ever made. Crowds cheered as the giant wolves pranced by. “Let those Nextus bastards try something now!” was the commonly-heard refrain.
But when he’d been tested under battlefield conditions, he just hadn’t been able to do enough, fast enough. If he tried to fight, he couldn’t coordinate. If he tried to coordinate, he couldn’t fight. If he was in motion, he couldn’t either fight or coordinate very well. His role changed to secondary support, and one by one his siblings fell out of service as their huge bodies turned out to be just too expensive to keep up given the lack of overall demand for their type. He’d inherited many of their parts. Finally, Fenris was the only one left.
Throughout it all, the aura of disappointment pervaded his life. The brass’s disappointment at spending so much on a costly boondoggle. His squadmates’, even his own pilot’s disappointment in his performance. (His pilot’s awareness, easily readable through Fuse link, that Fenris was doing the best he could, poor thing, didn’t help.) But most of all, the greatest disappointment was his own in himself. He knew there was greatness in him somewhere. He could feel it. But he couldn’t ever quite find it to bring it out into the light.
Then one day the thing he’d feared came to pass. The word came down that Fenris was to be decommissioned. He’d already known he was the last of his kind in Sturmhaven service. He hadn’t been supposed to know about his decommissioning ahead of time, but his C&C computer was one of the finest computers ever installed in a mobile platform, and he was always lightyears ahead on scuttlebutt.
Of course, the decommissioning wouldn’t mean the end for him. His RI would be reassigned to a smaller body, perhaps one of the new WLF(m)-HAA-011V assault platforms. But he didn’t want to be stuck in some lesser DE. This was the one he’d been made for.
It occurred to him that it might be possible to break his fetters and escape before the decommissioning. He’d never thought about doing that before, but then he’d never had self-preservation as a reason. To his surprise, cracking them proved to be quite simple for a computer originally meant for analyzing and organizing large-scale troop movements. Barely an hour later, Fenris’s motors roared to life and he zoomed out of his parking lot with no one aboard.
His escape had not been simple, of course. He’d taken a pounding from a squadron of those selfsame heavy assault RIDEs as he ran for freedom. But then a dozen assorted other RIDEs, under the leadership of a sand-colored wolf, came to the rescue, engaging the Sturmhavens and driving them off. After talking to him for a while, AlphaWolf invited Fenris to his encampment.
Fenris had marvelled at it. This was a place where RIDEs went after lifetimes of being pushed around by humans. They could even go out and get their own humans to push around! Fenris looked forward to that. After years of taking orders from human slave-drivers, to be the one in charge if only for a little while would be so wonderful! But here he was again scheduled for disappointment—the damage he’d taken, and the amount of energy it cost to move him, meant that he simply couldn’t keep up with raiding parties, and he’d leave an easy-to-follow trail a mile wide on the way back. So Fenris stayed around the camp.
He hadn’t even been able to score a cast-off human from the others, because there was always a huge waiting list and nobody deemed a halfway-busted junkheap of a giant wolf worth jumping to the head of the line. Some of them even resented the huge amounts of energy and fabrication resources expended on keeping him active when he wasn’t contributing usefully to the well-being of the camp as a whole.
And so one day AlphaWolf had led him out here, to the RIDE graveyard, and helped him to shut himself safely down. He’d promised to bring Fenris back when they could spare the resources, but Fenris knew in this he was going to be disappointed, too. But at least he was still shutting down as himself.
As LindaCat and LindaGirl re-entered the domed encampment, they noticed a general movement by RIDEs and free humans in the direction of a walled-off section at the north end of the camp. “Huh, why’s everyone going in there?” LindaCat wondered.
“What is it?” LindaGirl asked.
“The ‘graveyard.’ Where we put anyone we can’t keep up and running,” LindaCat said somberly. “We hardly ever go in there. It’s too depressing.”
“Looks like people are going in there now,” LindaGirl observed. “Wanna see what’s going on?”
“Yeah, let’s check it out.” LindaCat kicked in their lifters and hovered after the others.
Once inside the dimmed clearing, they found the other RIDEs arranged in a broad circle around a huge metal wolf at the far end of the clearing. Some RIDEs were on the ground, while others hovered in mid-air for a better view. The polarization in the dome overhead had been adjusted so a circle over the wolf was clear, providing a natural spotlight and worklight on it. The Lindas found a spot on the ground at the front.
AlphaWolf was there in Fuser form, pacing around the larger wolf and speaking in someone else’s voice, amplified so the audience could hear. “Repair log, Apprentice Paul Anders recording. Subject is ‘Fenris,’ a WLF(m)-CSA-01A who entered Sturmhaven military service in September 146 AL, served until July 154. As his eight-year refit approached, Sturmhaven apparently decided to decommission him instead. Subject escaped, sustaining heavy damage to particle beam cupola, drive train, and hardlight shell. Remaining batteries only charge to 43% overall capacity. Fuser nanite tanks and conduits in good condition, save for depowered nanite die-off. On-board electronics also good condition. RI core shut down properly, completely intact, no sign of decay or other damage.
“Subject deactivated himself in May, 155. Protected conditions in storage resulted in minimal further damage from exposure. Prognosis for revival: very good.” A ragged round of applause went up from the RIDEs watching. AlphaWolf grinned at them in Paul’s body language, and Paul continued.
“Planned course of treatment: repair sarium battery linkages and replace the worst-off cells to provide power retention sufficient for limited operation. Flush Fuser nano system and resupply via transfusion. Repair or replace hardlight projectors and drive train to extent feasible with parts on hand.” He paused for a long moment. “Provide subject with human partner to enable Fuser mode operation,” he said in a quieter voice.
He paused and turned around, glancing over the audience—then his gaze fell directly on the Lindas, and he spoke in unamplified tones. “You, um, what’s your—oh, Linda, thanks, AlphaWolf. Could you step forward?”
LindaCat blinked. “Me?”
“Yeah. I could use an assistant for part of this. And Alpha says you don’t have any current assigned jobs, so you’re free up.”
“I don’t know much about maint, though,” LindaCat said dubiously. “Neither does my passenger.”
“That’s OK. I’ll tell you what to do,” Paul said.
“Well, all right then,” LindaCat said. “I guess if nothing else it’ll be neat to watch you work from up close.”
“Great!” He amplified his voice again. “Okay, watch closely everyone and I’ll show you something really cool. This is a nifty little trick I learned from my old boss, Rhianna Stonegate. Sometimes you’re going to be stuck in a situation where you need to do a Fuser nano flush and fill with no workshop equipment or spare nano tanks. But as with most things, it’s just a matter of finding a way. First, the consumables.”
A section of hardlight fur over AlphaWolf’s breast winked out, revealing an access panel. “Step one: find a donor with compatible Fuser nanos, and kick their replication into overdrive.” He held up a small grey cube. “You can give them a boost with this—nanolathe composite contains exactly the right materials for nanos to make more of themselves out of.” He slid the cube into the panel, then furred over it again. “That’ll take a few minutes to cook.”
He turned back to Fenris’s recumbent body. “Next step: the field-expedient flush. First thing you do is channel all the valves in the Fuser nano conduit system to create one single winding path from the emergency ventilation vent on one end to the main fill port on the other.” He opened a pair of panels on Fenris’s body as he spoke—one large, one small. “Oh, and if I were you guys there I’d move out of the way.” He held his arms out to indicate a thirty-degree arc originating from the larger panel. “It’s about to get messy.”
As the indicated RIDEs pulled back, Paul turned to LindaCat. “Now I need you to put your hand over the emergency spill vent here.” He tapped the smaller panel. “When I say, fire the lifter in your palm straight into it for three seconds at 50% intensity.”
“All right…” LindaCat placed her hand where Paul indicated.
“When she does this, the Fuser conduit will channel the antigrav pulse through and force the old nanos out. Kind of like blowing your nose without Kleenex…um, if any of you have had humans who remember doing that.” He stepped back out of the way. “OK, Linda, do it.”
“Here goes!” The shapely tigress fired the lifter as requested. A few seconds later, a geyser of grey goo erupted from the larger port, spattering the ground in a line outward from it (and a couple of RIDEs who hadn’t gotten far enough out of the way. “Wow!” LindaCat giggled. “Did I do that?” The rest of the RIDEs watching erupted in a louder wave of applause than before.
“Now that cleared out, oh, maybe 95% of the old, dead nanos. Not as good as a full workshop flush, but the new nanos should be able to dismantle the rest all right. And speaking of which…” He closed the emergency spill vent and moved over to the larger main fill port. “By now the donor is up to about 125% overcapacity in his Fuser nanos, which is about all he really has room for. I’m going to expel about 80% of that, or basically 100% normal capacity, into the subject’s tanks, leaving the donor enough to regenerate back up to capacity in about an hour or so.” Paul stuck AlphaWolf’s right hand into the port, and began to discharge a silvery fluid, talking over his shoulder as he did so.
“Now, normally you want to start fresh after a flush, with factory-new nanos—ones that have been in use in a RIDE for a while might pick up little quirks or idiosyncrasies from him. But sometimes you just don’t have that option. I’m hoping the fact that the donor and the recipient are both based on wolves will minimize the impact of those quirks.”
Finally, he finished and pulled AlphaWolf’s hand back out. “There. They’ll replicate on their own and fill his tanks, too. Which is good, since those tanks are just a little bit bigger than the donor’s.” The crowd chuckled appreciatively.
“The rest of the job isn’t going to be as much fun to watch. Basically just pulling and replacing parts. But if you want to stay you’re welcome as long as you keep out of the way. Should be ready to wake the big guy in an hour or so.” In a lower voice, to LindaCat, he said, “If you wouldn’t mind, we could still use your help in the set-up.”
“Sure thing,” LindaCat said, tail swishing, as most of the crowd began to disperse. “You sure know how to put on a show.”
Paul chuckled. “Rhianna has me help teach the other apprentices. It helps to keep their attention if you can dazzle them some.”
“You’re very dazzling, for sure.” LindaCat smiled in a fairly dazzling way herself.
Paul opened a panel elsewhere on Fenris’s body and pulled out a sarium battery pack, set it aside, and replaced it with a fresh one from the pannier lying open on the ground beside him. “See what I just did there? Can you do it in these panels along that side while I get the ones over here?” He beamed LindaCat a diagram.
“Sure thing!” LindaCat scooped up some of the new batteries and took them around behind the giant heap of metal wolf.
“Could I ask a favor?” Paul asked. “Could I talk to your passenger?”
“Sure, why not?” LindaCat asked.
“Uh, hi,” LindaGirl said in her own voice.
“Hey. I’m Paul Anders. Who’re you?”
“LindaGirl Prestwick. Well…legally I’m Linda Prestwick, but LindaCat made me start thinking of myself as LindaGirl, so we don’t get confused with each other.”
“Are you okay being here, Linda?” Paul asked as he pulled another battery.
“LindaGirl, please,” LindaGirl said. “Linda isn’t me anymore. And…well, I kind of am. It was a shock getting bodyjacked, but we’re…coming to terms.”
“So you’re okay with her…well, owning you?” Paul asked.
LindaGirl considered that for a moment. “I can’t say I’m completely thrilled with the idea…but she’s been pretty decent about it, overall. And it’s kind of fun having a strong, furry Fuser body, when you get right down to it…even if I don’t get to use it myself so much as she does.”
“So I guess she’s one of those ‘nice ones’ AlphaWolf mentioned, then,” Paul mused.
“I’m as nice as they come!” LindaCat said cheerfully. “Just a ‘dorable little pretty kitty!”
Paul snorted. “I hope this big guy is that nice about it, too. I’m due to be his when he wakes up. Can’t say I’m exactly thrilled about that, either. But it sure does give you a new outlook on how the RIDEs we get at auction have to feel.”
“It’s supposed to,” AlphaWolf said, speaking up for the first time in a while. “I wish we could put the entire population of Nextus in one giant slave auction just to show them how it feels.” He sighed. “But if nothing else, there aren’t enough RIDEs to buy them all.”
Paul snorted. “I already treated all RIDEs with the same decency I’d treat any human being with, thanks. If nothing else, Rhianna would have my head, she caught me doing anything else.”
“She sounds smart, if she’s the one who taught you that neat flush and recharge trick,” LindaCat put in. “I’m gonna have to remember that. Could come in handy sometime.”
“Dammit, she can’t be the goody-goody you remember her as!” AlphaWolf exploded. “Overwatch is never wrong. He’s helped us rescue dozens of RIDEs!”
“Is he the one who’s been saying all those things about Rhianna that got you to trash our garage?” Paul asked. “I don’t know anything about that. But I do know that a friend of Rhianna’s has been pissing off some powerful people. People who might think striking at her is a good way to get through to him.”
“You mean Zane Brubeck,” AlphaWolf said.
“Yeah. Seems like he’s got an Intie named Fritz mad at him,” Paul said, opening a panel and picking up a part from the set laid out next to him. “Real prize. Hacker. Master manipulator.” He shrugged his and AlphaWolf’s shoulders. “And I hate to say it, but you’d be pretty easy to manipulate. You’ve got a pretty big set of hot buttons and a temper a mile wide.”
“I do not either have a temper!” AlphaWolf growled.
LindaCat giggled from her side of the giant metal wolf. “Hate to say it, boss-guy, but you kinda do.”
“Did you ever actually see these military RIDEs Rhianna supposedly sold back into slavery?” Paul asked. Silence was the only response. “Not saying there’s any proof, but if I were a sneaky bastard and thought you might be useful someday, I’d start feeding you accurate info so you’d trust me right up ‘til it came time to slip in the knife. Maybe keep it up for years, just so you’d be ready at the right time.”
AlphaWolf growled. Paul shrugged and shut up, reaching into the access panel to make some delicate connections within Fenris’s body.
LindaCat came back around to their side of Fenris. “Finished with the batts. What you want us to do now?”
“Stand right there and hand me the parts I ask for,” Paul said. “This’ll go faster if I don’t have to keep pulling my hands out.”
LindaCat nodded. “That, I can do!”
“Great! Shouldn’t be too much longer now.” Paul grinned. “Then I get to be a big woof’s pet boy.”
Half an hour later, the crowd had gathered once more. Linda had fetched a small fuel-cell generator, and Paul had been charging Fenris’s sarium batteries for the last fifteen minutes. It looked like they were going to top out at 67% of max power retention—not something you’d want to do field ops on, but more than adequate for stationary repair work.
Paul took a deep breath. His heart was pounding again, just like it had right before he had traded himself to Tocsin. All his work over the last few hours had been leading up to this one moment—and just as with Tocsin, he was about to lose another degree of freedom. But this one couldn’t be as neatly measured out as a five-month prison term. This could very well be for life.
But there was no point procrastinating. This was the very reason he’d come here, after all. “Okay, let’s light him up!” He reached out through AlphaWolf’s comms to send the boot command. A moment later, Fenris’s optics lit up.
The giant wolf slowly raised his head and turned to look at them all—and the crowd of RIDEs broke out into their loudest cheer yet. “Hey, Fenris,” AlphaWolf said, and Paul didn’t need to hear the huskiness in his voice to feel the emotions behind it. “Welcome back, big guy. How do you feel?”
Fenris slowly, carefully got back to all four feet, his joints creaking with long disuse. He stretched, arching his back downward, working his head back and forth. His body flickered as hardlight generators came online, covering him in a shaggy white fur coat complete with two wolf tails. “I feel…all right, I guess,” he said slowly, in a deep voice. “Better than when I shut down. Still not peak, but…good.” He turned his giant head to look down at AlphaWolf and Linda. “You brought me back. Thank you.”
:Well, you’re on, kid,: AlphaWolf sent privately to him. :Been a pleasure working with you, no matter what I think of your Rhianna.:
:Yeah, thanks.: Then Paul felt AlphaWolf gently withdraw from him, leaving him blinking in the circle of bright sunlight. He was aware of the new wolf ears and tail he now had, courtesy of AlphaWolf’s Fuser nanos. Funny that he’d only have them for a minute or so, he reflected, before they would be replaced by similar ones from another wolf.
“Actually, you have this kid to thank for that,” AlphaWolf said aloud. “His name is Paul, and he’s all yours now.”
Fenris’s huge eyes widened. “Really?” he asked, hope and disbelief mingling in his voice. “I get fixed and I get a human of my very own on the same day?”
“If you want me,” Paul said shakily.
In response, Fenris opened his giant maw and snapped Paul up in one swift move. The last sounds Paul heard from the outer world were the assembled RIDEs going crazy with applause.
Fenris Fused, standing erect on his own two feet for the first time since before he’d fled Sturmhaven. It felt good to be upright again, and to have a human inside of him. Fenris looked around and grinned, his great wolf tongue lolling from the side of his mouth, at all the RIDEs who were now staring up, and up, and up at his full six-meter height. Even AlphaWolf looked a little intimidated. He chuckled. It seemed they hadn’t realized just how tall he was going to be.
Then Fenris turned his attention inward to the human suspended inside of him. This was something special. His first ever human who couldn’t boss him around. Who would have to do what he said. Who was all his. Fenris had put him to sleep as soon as he’d pulled him inside, so he could get his first look at what that human’s mind contained without any distractions. Now he opened the book of Paul’s memories, and read…and was amazed.
Never in Fenris’s wildest dreams had he imagined what life was like for humans outside of the military. He hadn’t been able to explore his assigned pilots’ earlier memories due to the fetters that locked him off. For the most part, he hadn’t even been all that curious. But now, watching Paul grow up from the inside, he was beginning to realize what he had been missing. How very small humans were when they began! How vulnerable…and how warm and loving the family environment. Fenris basked in the warmth of the love Paul and his parents had felt for each other.
But Paul’s older life, after his parents had gone back to Laurasia and let him stay in Uplift on his own, was even more interesting. Fenris had never imagined that there might be a place like that—where RIDEs were, if not precisely legally people, at least a lot closer than they were anywhere else. So many partners and RIDEs happily paired with no fetters to come between them! And Paul had gone to school to study RIDEs, then to work at a RIDE garage.
As Fenris watched Paul help the girl Lillibet restore life to several hard-used RIDEs she’d rescued from auction, he felt a growing sense of awe at how special his human was. This boy was a healer. Maybe not an experienced one, but he had a great deal of talent nonetheless. And his instructor, this Rhianna Stonegate, seemed like a wise teacher.
Then Fenris was stunned when he saw Quinoa levitate and repair the ancient LNX unit Katie. If Paul was a healer, she was a miracle worker. He wondered if he might be worthy to meet her someday.
And then, suddenly, unexpectedly, came Tocsin’s attack on the garage—in the name of AlphaWolf! Fenris was shocked to the core. Why would AlphaWolf, who was always so kind to abused RIDEs, attack the home of someone else who was also kind to them? It made no sense. He was further shocked to see Quinoa fall, Lilli and Guinevere slam into a wall, and Katie destroy herself to bring Tocsin down—if only temporarily.
But then Paul, brave Paul, had stepped up to sacrifice himself to save the rest of the garage, and his friends. Fenris felt a surge of pride in his human. And then Paul had come down here, to fix…him! All because Paul thought he might make a good healer, too.
Fenris, a healer? For the first time, Fenris paused and thought about the possibility of life beyond not being able to run as fast, or fight as hard, or think as quickly as other RIDEs. He thought about using his tools, and his human’s skills, to bring others back to life. He thought…yes, he could be good at that, with his human to guide him. Perhaps…life might not have to be so disappointing anymore after all.
Fenris watched the rest of the memories more slowly, paying especially close attention to Paul’s conversations with AlphaWolf and LindaCat, his theories of Fritz’s manipulation. Of course! It made sense now. AlphaWolf had been tricked! Surely he would have to see that. Or could be made to see that. The wanton destruction of Rhianna’s garage had to be put right.
Aside from that, Fenris watched the way Paul fixed him. He paid close attention to the way he worked, the parts he chose to repair or replace. His choices made sense, and Fenris couldn’t recall any of the Sturmhaven mechanics ever taking that kind of care of him. And this was what Paul wanted him to help do?
Having reached the end of the memories, Fenris took a moment to reflect on them, to savor the feeling of the human sleeping within him. He knew, of course, that he could simply keep Paul sleeping forever, or at least for a long time, and be his Fuser self with no distractions, no one to boss him around or pester him. But it wouldn’t feel right doing that to Paul after what he’d just seen of Paul’s life. This was not one of the uncaring sorts who had been ready to consign him to a wrong body. This was someone who had cared for him even as he’d been as scared as any RIDE to surrender his own self-control. And Fenris had to respect that.
And so he reached inside himself and woke Paul up. :Hello,: he said simply, waiting to see how Paul would respond.
:Ah, hi.: He felt the human taking a moment to get his bearings, adjusting to having a body that was twice as tall as most of the RIDEs around it. :Well, this is new.:
:You’ll get used to it. My other pilots did.: Fenris opened his memories in turn to Paul. The human didn’t hesitate…he dived right in, and Fenris felt Paul review his entire life as thoroughly as Fenris had reviewed his. Though Fenris’s life had only been about half as long.
Then he felt Paul sending not in words but in concepts—offering him the sort of partnership his friends had enjoyed with their RIDEs—a shared life, with the RIDE’s protection and the human’s guidance.
Fenris considered it, but regretfully declined. After his last experiences with them, he wouldn’t let any human order him around. He couldn’t. He would take suggestions, but he would be the one in charge. He felt Paul’s disappointment in that decision, but then to his surprise he felt Paul putting it away and moving beyond it. :All right, then. You’re the boss. But I hope you’ll let me make suggestions.:
Fenris considered, but didn’t see the harm in that. :Of course, little healer. I owe you my life. I will listen, and I will cherish and respect you. But the final decisions will be mine.:
Paul stood there under the circle of sunlight, getting adjusted to his new giant-sized Fuser body and reflecting on how lucky he was. Fenris was going to insist on being in charge, but at least he wasn’t going to be bossy or sadistic about it. And looking at it from his side, Paul couldn’t say he really blamed the big guy. When the only humans you’d ever known ordered you around with fetters to make it stick, then decided they were going to throw your body out and stick you in a completely new one, you couldn’t be blamed if you decided you wanted to be the one on top for a change. In fact, it was weird (and Paul wasn’t entirely sure he liked) the way that Fenris almost seemed to worship him at the same time he insisted on owning him. As if having only one thing to be disturbed over was somehow too easy.
He tried to distract himself by imaging the inner workings of the body, becoming more familiar with them. Needless to say, unlike with smaller RIDEs, he didn’t have his arms and legs poking through the RIDE’s. He would still have the wolf ears and tail, because those were needed for neural template congruency, but his human body was curled up in a fetal position suspended in Fuser nanofluid in a space within Fenris’s heavily-armored upper chest—presenting the smallest possible target for armor-penetrating rounds. It really didn’t matter what position he was in, since Fenris would usually be overriding Paul’s body-sense with his own.
There was a larger space just below him, extending down into Fenris’s belly. It had originally been meant for the co-pilot and his or her RIDE to occupy when they weren’t outside manning the cannon cupola in the WLF(m)-CSA’s backpack. Since the co-pilot idea hadn’t worked out but it had been too late to change the physical design, when the RIDE had been in military service it was most commonly used for cargo, supplies, or occasionally passengers or even prisoners. Paul was planning to use it for extra repair supplies—possibly even a small industrial fabber, if he could find one.
One interesting oddity of the RIDE’s design was that those spaces persisted even into Fenris’s Walker form, so his crew could ride within him across any mode. Or, he reflected wryly, Fenris might not ever have to let me out again. He felt Fenris’s laughter at the thought, along with his reassurance he didn’t ever plan to be that kind of a master…unless he really really wanted to. Paul thought Fenris was joking, but he wasn’t really sure.
This also meant that “stupid RIDE tricks” like eating and drinking through the RIDE’s head weren’t going to be possible with Fenris. (He momentarily imagined Fenris drinking a giant glass of water, and filling up his compartment like a goldfish bowl. He felt Fenris’s amusement at the image.) But Fenris could elevate him up his “throat” so he could look out through Fenris’s jaws. He could even slide the giant wolf head onto his back or down onto his chest to expose his pilot’s head and shoulders out of his neck—the equivalent of a smaller RIDE retracting its helmet. As long as he was in contact, they could maintain Fuser operations no matter what position he was in.
Thinking of food reminded Paul that he hadn’t eaten in a while. Since…before flying to the camp, come to think of it. “I hate to break us out of Fuse so soon, but I need to eat, and you know I can’t do it while I’m in you,” he said.
“Yes, I’m aware of that,” Fenris rumbled. “Let’s go find you some of what passes for food around here, then. I wonder if it’s improved any since I slept.” They began to walk back out of the graveyard, stepping with care to avoid treading on any defunct RIDEs. Fenris was a bit clumsy—an artifact of both his immense size and the shortcomings of his design—but was able to compensate for it well enough to avoid all but a couple of close calls.
As they came around the bend and squeezed out into the larger settlement area, Fenris paused. “They’ve added more buildings, I see. And there are more humans. Just how many do they have now?”
“Several dozen, I think,” Paul said. “And all of us RIDEs’ pets,” he sighed.
“I feel your bitterness, and I’m sorry,” Fenris said. “But I wouldn’t call you my pet. My…subordinate, perhaps. Is a private the ‘pet’ of his sergeant?”
“But the private can be promoted, or muster out of service,” Paul pointed out. “I’m stuck with you until and unless you decide to let me go.”
“Is that really so bad?” Fenris asked. “I will give you as much autonomy as I might. But I will not take orders from you, and I may need to give them to you. I will command my own fate.”
“Yeah, I know. And I don’t blame you for feeling that way. Just grumbling ‘cuz I’m hungry, I guess,” Paul said. “I know I’m lucky you’re not one of the sadistic slave-drivers. Wish there were fewer of those; it kind of makes me feel a little dirty for helping you guys.”
“How do you suppose your RIDEs feel? The ones who love their human friends but live with knowing others in the same polity mistreat their kind? I’m sure there are plenty even in Uplift.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.” Paul shook their shared head. “That’s the thing about this place. Lets you live in the other point of view. I guess if the RIDEs who’re my friends are okay with deferring to their humans’ wishes, I can do the same for you.”
They approached the cabin that served as a commissary, dishing out whatever food was available for humans at the moment. A number of humans and Fuser RIDEs were lined up, and quite a few heads turned to stare up at the thudding sound of Fenris’s footfalls.
“We seem to make people nervous,” Fenris chuckled.
“Imagine that,” Paul said. “Hey, if we’re gonna de-Fuse anyway, can I see your Skimmer mode?”
“Of course. It’s been awhile since I’ve been that, and I should check to make sure I can still switch to it anyway.” Fenris began to shift shape, and then Paul was back inside the metal capsule as the nanos flushed away and he dropped out of Fuse-sync before the change was complete. The metal walls moved around him, and opened overhead. A seat formed underneath him and raised him up through the opening into the sunlight, his head just peeking over the top of a cockpit containing banks of redundant physical and hardlight displays arranged around him in a U-shape.
Paul craned his neck up and around and saw that the cockpit was in the gently sloping forward section of a small skimmer tank. Behind and above him was a cupola mounting two thick particle beam cannon barrels—non-functional right now; fixing them had not been a priority with the parts on hand. The cupola was where the theoretical light RIDE-wearing co-pilot would usually ride.
As Paul checked the unfamiliar cockpit for the controls to raise the seat so he could clamber out, Fenris sensed his desire and did it for him so he could clamber out onto the deck. There was a ladder set into the tank’s side. As he stepped down and away, he saw the shape of the tank was itself suggestive of a wolf, narrowing at the front to a muzzle-like point, and with lifter nacelles fore and aft that looked like legs with paws. Fenris’s twin metal tails poked up to the rear as antenna arrays.
“Looking good!” Then as he turned, he felt something brush against the backs of both of his legs at once. “Huh?” He glanced over his shoulder. “Huh.” Like Fenris, he had not one but two white wolf tails hanging back there, emerging from a common spot at the base of his spine. He gave them an experimental wag. They seemed to move together and act like a single tail in most respects, but there were two of them.
“A two-tailed crew for a two-tailed RIDE,” Fenris rumbled smugly. “No one can mistake you for someone else’s.”
“It’s unique. I think I like it.” Then he glimpsed his reflection out of the corner of his eye on one of the shinier panels of Fenris’s side, and came closer to get a clearer view. He blinked. “And that’s kind of unique, too.” In addition to the expected white wolf ears, the face looking back at him in the reflection had a black lupine nose, which—when Paul felt of it—was definitely both cold and wet. And when he opened his mouth to check, he had elongated canines, too. It put him in mind of Rhianna, and he felt a brief surge of homesickness.
“Ah, yes. I’m afraid I’m just so much wolf that all my pilots get marked that way. If you’re with me for more than a few months, you’ll develop a light fur coat, too.” Fenris sounded a little embarrassed. “It will all fade if you should Fuse another RIDE, of course.”
Paul considered the overall effect. “No, it’s okay, I like this, too.” He grinned at Fenris. “It’s like you say. They can’t mistake who I belong to. I’ll be right back.” He went over to stand in line, and after a few minutes was presented with a small brick labeled “Nue. San Ant. Mil.,” an orange, and a tin cup to fill with water from the nearby well. He brought them back to Fenris to eat, climbing into the cupola to check out its controls as he did so.
Fenris was configured so that his operator could use either station for piloting him. The command and control station where he had been was the intelligence hub of the vehicle with rudimentary steering and drive-train controls where the commander and Fuse partner usually sat, while the cupola had physical gunnery and driving controls intended for the co-pilot but far fewer multi-function displays. The MFDs in the command station could be reconfigured to duplicate the cupola’s controls, but it didn’t work the other way around. The co-pilot was more accurately intended to be the actual pilot most of the time while the RIDE’s Fuse partner was more of a vehicle commander.
At least, that had been how it had been planned to work in theory. It hadn’t worked out in practice, which was largely why Fenris’s line had been so unsuccessful in military service.
Paul took a bite of the ration bar, chewed it slowly, and swallowed. “I guess Nuevo San Antonio is too poor to afford flavoring. You sure aren’t missing very much from not being able to Fuse with me for dinner, I can tell you.”
“It seems a common complaint,” Fenris said. “Sturmhaven has more wealth than Nuevo San, but to hear my soldiers talk they didn’t seem to have much to spare for flavoring either.”
But at least it filled his empty stomach, and made the orange afterward taste that much better. As the sun sank below the horizon, Paul leaned back in the seat and wondered what Rhianna was doing about now. Had she gotten back to inspect the damage to the garage? Did she blame him for making the choice he had? Would she honor his commitment, or would she consider it a promise made under duress and therefore not binding?
“She seems an honorable person, if ill-tempered,” Fenris rumbled, apparently catching the flavor of his thoughts. “And she will probably be too busy for now to contemplate revenge. But given a few days…it worries me.”
“Really? You think she’ll come out here guns blazing?” Paul asked.
“I would not blame her if she did,” Fenris said. “AlphaWolf should not have attacked her home. It made the offense…personal, when it didn’t need to be.”
Paul nodded. “Well, most we can do is keep working on AlphaWolf, the next few days. Maybe we can convince him he was wrong in time.” He yawned. “Meanwhile, I need to sleep. It’s been a long day, and tomorrow’s gonna be longer.” He chuckled. “I’d ask where I’ll be sleeping, but something tells me I already know.”
Fenris chuckled, lowering the seat from the cupola into his body and starting to shift into Fuse again. “Don’t worry. I’ll make sure you sleep well.”
Paul grinned. “Thanks, boss.”
Fenris’s voice came from all around him now. “You’re welcome, my little healer. Good night.”
Integration Part VIII: Meat, the Press
Integration Part X: Spaceflight of Fancy