User:Robotech Master/The Big Date original

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FreeRIDErs story universe


Integration

by Jon Buck and Robotech_Master

Part 25 (Epilogue): The Big Date

One Week Later…

For the fourth time that afternoon, Rhianna stopped in the middle of her work and stared off into space, rather than at the hardlight emitters of the JKL(m)-LSA-011D powered down and opened up on the maintenance cradle before her.

:Oh, fer crying out loud,: Kaylee sent privately. :Give it up, Rhi. The later it gets, the less useful you get. Just let Linda finish this up. She’s almost as good as you normally, and a hell of a lot better than you right now. And new girl listens to her better anyway.:

Rhianna sighed. :I think you’re right,: she admitted. :I don’t know where my head is at right now.:

:Somewhere that’s orange with black stripes, no doubt,: Kaylee replied dryly. Then she spoke aloud. “Chantilly?”

“Eep!” the cougar Integrate dressed in orange Easy Fuse coveralls squeaked in startlement, glancing worriedly at the Fused duo. With Rhianna’s mind wandering, she’d let her own attention drift as well.

Kaylee rolled her eyes. “Take it easy, girl. I keep telling you, I’m not gonna eat you.” For all that Rhianna and Kaylee did their best to make the cougaress feel at home, it was hard getting past Chantilly’s flinch reaction sometimes. When she looked at Kaylee, especially in Fuse, she saw the angry demon-cat who had casually blown a hole right through her chest. Kaylee couldn’t say she blamed the girl, but it made trying to teach her anything a lot more difficult. “Go get Linda, would you? We’re lettin’ her take over this job.”

“Oh! Um...sure thing, right away!” The cougar scurried off in search of the tigress.

Kaylee sighed, and Rhianna chuckled. “Don’t worry. She’ll come around, sooner or later.”

“I damn well hope so,” Kaylee grumbled. “Getting my ass handed to me by Mom of all people was bad enough. It’s a pain being reminded again every time she sees me. But I sowed my own wind.”

Rhianna stretched and stepped away from the cradle as Linda came back in, the Fuser filling out her own hardlight jumpsuit in interesting ways. Chantilly followed her, three steps behind. “Hey, Lindae. Could you finish up here for us? It’s...a little hard keeping my mind on things.”

“Sure thing, boss!” LindaGirl said. Or was it LindaCat? It was a little hard to tell them apart when they were Fused; their voices had gotten so close together. Rhianna would have been worried they might be on the way to Integration if they hadn’t been so scrupulously careful to spend a lot of time un-Fused, too. “You might wanna go on up and get dressed. It’s only about three hours ‘til your date shows up!”

“Oh, ha ha,” Rhianna said, but grinned nonetheless. “Anyway, keep on showing Chantilly the ropes.”

“You got it!” Linda said happily. Almost as soon as the shy convalescent cougaress had arrived, the boisterous tigress duo had taken her under their wing. They did well with someone to mother, Kaylee thought, and Chantilly seemed to be responding well to the treatment. It was good she had someone here to make her feel comfortable, because Kaylee sure as hell couldn’t do it herself.

“C’mon, pard,” Rhianna said. “Maybe she’s right. I still haven’t picked out what I’m going to wear yet.” She chuckled. “Three hours might not be long enough!

As they climbed the stairs, Rhianna asked, “Decided whether you’re gonna come along yet?”

“Mmm,” Kaylee said. “Not this time, I think. I know he likes us both--both halves of him like us both--but you’re the one who’s crazy about his more visible half. I think you deserve some alone time at the start.” Rhianna felt Kaylee grin. “I still haven’t decided how I even feel about the idea of romance. There are reasons I never had you make me anatomically correct.”

“Yeah, I know,” Rhianna said soberly. “Reasons that start with ‘F’ and end with ‘z’. When your one exposure to the idea is a lunatic throwing himself at you, and then taking advantage of you...”

Don’t remind me,” Kaylee grumbled. Then she softened a little. “Still...when I think of Katie, and the others...I guess I can’t hate him completely. At least one good thing came out of that nightmare. Eight good things.”

“Given any thought to finding a nice he-kitty and visiting the Creche?” Rhianna teased. “You’d actually get to raise this litter. I think you’d make a great mommy.”

Kaylee snorted. “Let’s see about locating the rest of my first litter, first.” She de-Fused from her partner as they got to her room. “So what’re you thinking?”

“Zane said we weren’t doing anything too fancy tonight,” Rhianna mused. “He suggested to dress on the nice side of casual.” She considered the contents of her closet speculatively, and frowned. “But...how nice is ‘nice’?”

Kaylee chuckled. “This really is gonna take three hours, isn’t it?”

Separator k.png

“Hey, Rhi! Your date’s here!” Linda shouted up the stairs three hours later.

“Noooo! I’m not ready!” Rhianna moaned. Most of the intervening time had been spent trying on one outfit, liking it, then deciding that it was just a smidge either too nice or not nice enough and talking herself out of it, then trying another outfit and repeating the cycle.

By her fifth go-round, Kaylee had padded off to check on what Rochelle and Uncia were doing. They’d been poring over Donizetti catalogs lately, making plans for Uncia’s promised 5-million-mu DE shell. They wouldn’t be building it any time soon--while they had gotten a few million mu for the Marshals’ two-year license, they weren’t yet at the point where they could just spend five out-of-hand--but they were having a lot of fun doing planning and prototyping. The really big money would only come when the private sector got involved in two years, and Uncia was counting the milliseconds.

Now she padded back in. “Oh, fer crying out loud, just pick something at random if you have to. He’ll be too busy staring into your eyes to notice what you’re wearing anyway.”

Annnd...I’m acting a total stereotype again. Rhianna sighed. The crossrider on her very first date, fussing over what to wear like a fifteen year old girl on her first date. Second adolescence, she thought.

When it came right down to it, she wanted to dress in something that made her feel like herself. That still didn’t mean dresses, for all she’d worn one for Zane on New Year’s Eve. If they were going to be out and about for hours, comfort was key. Dresses were just too drafty to wear for very long.

Rhianna pulled a clean Rosie the Riveter-style denim overall from the closet and a nice red ruffled blouse, put her red bandanna over her hair, and a pair of comfortable sneakers. She used her implant to configure the makeup mask for some lipstick and other minimal applications, then put it on. Looking at her reflection for one last time, she smiled. Taken together, it was just feminine enough to make her feel like a woman...after she unbuttoned the blouse enough to show a little cleavage.

“He’ll love it,” Kaylee said, headbutting the small of her back. It quickly turned into a gentle push to get her out the door.

“Hey!” Rhianna protested weakly.

“You look purrrrfect!” Kaylee insisted. “Don’t stress! This isn’t a blind date, and not even your first one! You’ve already kissed, for cryin’ out loud!”

“With your kitty lips,” Rhianna said.

“Can’t say I didn’t enjoy it, myself. But go, have fun! Be a woman! Crossing is supposed to be fun!”

“All right, all right!” Rhianna said. She headed down the stairs, the weak feeling in the pit of her stomach growing stronger with every step downward, as if she were a scuba diver swimming ever deeper. She paused halfway down and looked back, to see Kaylee peering pointedly at her from the top of the stairs, tufted ears directly forward. She grinned and headed down the rest of the way herself.

Zane was waiting down in the garage, dressed in his usual scouting outfit and leaning on his cane. When he saw her come out of the door, his cane slid out from under him and he nearly fell right over before catching himself with his lifters. “Wow! I swear, you’re more gorgeous every time I see you.”

“Thank you, Zane. You’re a handsome, stripey kittyguy, yourself.” Rhianna smiled, the butterflies in her stomach starting to dissipate. She connected with his DIN and sent a virtual kiss on the cheek. “And that’s how a girl starts a date on Earth.”

Zane grinned. “I could grow to like you Earth girls and your strange, heathen ways. C’mon, our ride’s outside.” He offered her the arm that wasn’t holding his cane.

She took it, holding his elbow. “I’m curious, since Kaylee’s sitting this one out, how we’re getting around.”

“Like that.” Zane pointed to the cherry-red two-seater topless sports skimmer car hovering in their driveway. “I will admit, it’s a rental--it’d be kind of silly to buy the thing just for taking cute kittygirls on dates--but hey, it’s fast and it’s comfy.”

“Donizetti Volante,” Rhianna said. “I see he brought one of his classic designs from Earth.”

“And I see you know more than just RIDEs,” Zane said, holding the passenger-side door for her.

“Such a gentleman.” Rhianna took the seat, it was even designed for RIDE-tagged people. No sitting on her tail this time. “You know, on Earth I was as zealous about skimmers as I am about RIDEs. I knew all the major and minor makes and could fix them just as well. And, well, it’s Donizetti.”

Zane grinned. “That makes sense.” He went back around to the driver’s seat, tucking his tail through the hole in the seatback with the ease of long habit. He checked the rear-view and the traffic radar, then pulled the car out into the road and goosed the throttle to zoom on up the street. “So,” he said. “I was really on the fence about where to go for dinner. I ended up changing my plans two or three times over the last couple months.”

“We’ve had a lot of time to think about this.”

“Yeah.” Zane grinned. “And honestly, when I was first planning it, I didn’t expect that we’d both end up stalked by paparazzi everywhere we went.”

“There’s a couple floaters following us,” Rhianna observed via tapping into traffic cameras.

“Already? Geez.” Zane shook his head. “And they’ve even got DINsec. Hoist by your own petard, eh Rhi?”

“Hmm...it’s even 2.1-beta. Not that I’d dare suggest you hack it...” Rhianna smirked. “Freedom of the press.”

“You didn’t happen to put anything like a backdoor in the design, did you?” Zane asked hopefully.

“Some of the conspiracy-minded sites think we have, and there’s nothing you can say that’ll sway them otherwise. But it’s a firm, unequivocal no.

“Pity.” Zane leaned his cane casually over the seat back behind him and placed his hand over the handgrip. One after the other, the floaters sparked as a hole burned through their housings. They bounced along the blacktop for a few meters before coming to a stop, smoking. “How about now?”

“Splash two floaters,” Rhianna said, giggling. “Can you really get away with that?”

“Eh. They expect it. Those things are disposable. And as open as we are with them on most things, they don’t mind too much. Brubeck Mining has a slush fund where we pay out to replace lost equipment when ‘accidents happen.’” He grinned. “So anyway, I decided for our first date, we’d eat somewhere we could be sure the press won’t intrude and spoil things. My place. I’ve got a beef stroganoff in the oven that should be just about ready to come out by the time we get there.”

“I can almost smell it. Looking forward to smelling it for real.” Rhianna leaned over and pet his near handpaw.

Zane grinned at her as they pulled into the parking lot next to his apartment building. “You won’t have long to wait. Upsie-daisy!” He shoved the lift lever to maximum and the car rose right up the side of the building. He gave the steering wheel a nudge and the car drifted over to settle onto the skimmer pad on his balcony. “There we are--door-to-door service.”

The mechanic opened her own door and stepped out. The Volante was very low to the ground, so it was like getting out of a reclined easy chair. She resisted the urge to have Zane pop the hood to see the inner workings.

“I hope you don’t think I’m being too forward, inviting you to my place on the first date.” Zane grinned. “No lascivious intent, I assure you. I just like playing the host. And we’ll be going right out again after dinner, ‘cuz my Big Surprise awaits.”

“You’ve really piqued my interest now,” Rhianna said. She followed him into the living room, where a dinner table was set with two places and a ceramic casserole-pan trivet in the center.

“Well, good.” Zane rubbed his hands together excitedly. He actually seemed more than a little nervous himself, Rhianna noticed. Twitchy. Just then, the “ding!” of an egg timer emerged from the kitchen. “Ah! Hang on, I’ll go get the food.”

“That smells wonderful to my kitty nose.” Rhianna took a deep breath. “Hungry kitty, too.”

“Well, good! Chef kitty likes diners with a big appetite.” Zane came back out of the kitchen, a steaming pan floating in the air before him. “Nice thing about being an Integrate--you never have to worry about misplacing your pot holders. Oh--” He reached behind him, and a serving spoon floated out of the kitchen into his hand. “There.” He set dish and spoon down on the table, and reached again, with both hands. A bottle of red wine emerged next, with two glasses. Zane stood back and grinned, a slight look of concentration on his face as the meat and pasta dish served itself and the wine poured itself at the same time.

“Dinner and a show,” Rhianna said, delighted. She took her seat.”I have to admit, despite everything that’s happened I have fantasized about being an Intie, sometimes.”

“You’ve got a lot to look forward to.” Zane chuckled. “And ‘using the Force’ is the least of it. But you’ll get there sooner or later. Sometimes we wish we could be separate again, just a little. Grass is always greener, hey?” Serving finished, he slid into his seat.

Rhianna picked up her fork. “There’s an Integration Clinic going up about a block down Hayward Street.”

Zane nodded. “I know, we’re helping sponsor it.” He chuckled. “All the protesters picketing, like it’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers all over again. If only they knew the whole point of the place is to talk people out of trying to Integrate before their time.”

“Well, when it happens to Kaylee and I, it’ll be natural.” Rhianna smirked. “Such as these things are. Quinoa told me it normally doesn’t happen unless both partners actually want it to, deep down.”

Zane nodded. “As for me and me...we just couldn’t imagine being apart any longer, and then it just happened.” He chuckled. “Well, dig in. No point in letting it get cold.”

They ate slowly, looking up at one another frequently to look in one another’s eyes. There was nervousness there, some trepidation. They had known each other for months, now their unresolved sexual tension was starting to relax, and so were they.

Partway through the meal, Zane chuckled. “What’s funny?” Rhianna asked.

“Oh, I was just remembering--from both sides--back when I first recommended your garage to me,” Zane said. “Funny to think about it now. We were both--all three--such different people then.”

“I still feel bad about using Kaylee in passive Fuse for five years. She never complained, but once we went Active and I found out how much she hated it...” Rhianna shivered. “Just some lingering guilt.”

“Yeah, but I can tell you, speaking from experience, it’s a thousand times better even to be run in passive than to be...well, not wanted at all,” Zane said. “The Terry side of me will always be grateful to you for that.”

“Terry kept Kaylee sane,” Rhianna said. “I swear, I’ve never seen a chassis as messed up as Kaylee’s, before or since. But she’s the reason why I’m as good fixing them as I am. Just about everything that could go wrong during the restoration, did. Adding Terry’s hardlight was easy by comparison.” She smiled. “I remember how he--you--purred during calibration.”

Zane chuckled. “So do I.” Then he grinned. “As long as we’re on the subject of feeling grateful for things, I’d like to tell you how honored I feel that you’re spending so much time now with someone who’s only 50% RIDE. That’s only about half of your average.”

“If you don’t count New Year’s Eve,” Rhianna smiled wryly, “the last real date I had was on the Spruce Goose. Once we landed on Zharus I was just too busy keeping Rufus and myself above water.”

“And I suppose having your best friend switch teams could put a damper on things, too, especially being from Earth and all.”

Rhianna sighed ruefully. “Until we reconnected after the Towers incident--and I’d crossed myself--we barely spoke to one another after she crossed. I can’t really explain it. It just felt...oogie, seeing my best friend in the galaxy as this big, beautiful girl. Rufe is Rufe, no matter what. But every time we ran into one another she’d try and convince me to join her. We just...grew further and further apart.”

“But you’ve adapted pretty well since then,” Zane said.

“I’ve assimilated the local culture, finally. I just never had as flexible a mind for these things like Rufe does. But...” she hefted her breasts. “Things change.”

Zane held up an arm and glanced at the fur on it. “Yeah, they sure do.” He chuckled. “We seem to have done sufficient damage to our dinner. Time for dessert!”

“Bring it on, tiger,” Rhianna purred.

“Righto! Be right back.” Zane slid back his chair and headed into the kitchen with the empty stroganoff tray, coming back a moment later with a steaming pan of brownies and one of the Milkbottle’s take-home tubs of vanilla ice cream. “People think billionaires are supposed to eat all kinds of fancy food, but Daddy raised me to appreciate the simple things.” He turned back and summoned plates and serving utensils from the kitchen, and busied himself with placing a square of brownie and dollop of ice cream on each one. “Here ya go!”

“And that’s a scoop of heaven right there,” Rhianna said, picking up the spoon. She cut down through the scoop, making sure to get a chunk of brownie before taking a sensual bite. “You sure know how to keep a new girl happy.”

Zane grinned. “When you find a good thing, you stick with it.”

“I like to think things taste different,” Rhianna said. “As a woman, I mean. Maybe it’s more being part lynx, though.” She flicked her ears, touched her nose. Her fingertips had developed the feline pads over the past half a year of active Fuse. “When I think of all those years I pretended to really be a girl under Kaylee’s passive mode...”

“Maybe someday I’ll see if that’s right.” Zane chuckled. “Quinny’s been teaching me all sorts of stuff about Intiehood, but she’s barely even scratched the surface of what’s possible. I met some Inties on my training cruise who’ve developed shapeshifting to a fine art. Instantaneous change, even gender shifting. They say any of us can learn to do it, but it takes a lot of time and energy. Which I don’t have to spare right now, but maybe if I can ever talk Aggie into taking over the company...”

“So, it’s like learning a martial art or something,” Rhianna said, pondering. “Well, you’d make a gorgeous tigress.” She smiled a rather Rufia-like sharky grin. “I love this planet.”

“The Terry part of me wouldn’t mind going four-footed again, but...” Zane shrugged, then reached out to take Rhianna’s hand. “Having hands has its compensations.”

“And there’s always Nature Range. Kaylee wants to introduce me to it soon. Sounds interesting.”

“Heh. It’s...different, I’ll give it that.” Zane grinned. “I should invite her to a game, come to think of it. I’ll bet she’d be fun to hunt with...and maybe groom each other afterward.”

“Meow,” Rhianna said. “It’s a date. Kaylee has me curious as a kitty.”

“Well would you look at that. My brownie seems to have vanished.” Zane grinned down at his empty plate. “Yours too, I see.” He waved his hands and floated them off the table into the kitchen. They clinked as they dropped into the sink, out of sight behind the corner.

“Magic fingers, do your thing,” Rhianna quipped.

“And that means it’s time for...the Big Surprise.” Zane grinned, standing up and pulling his cane to him. He was actually nervous, Rhianna noticed. It was a little thing, but he was having more trouble standing still than usual, and his hands kept fiddling with the cane. She tried not to fidget in sympathy. A feedback cycle of mutual anxiety could put an end to the evening really quick.

Rhianna left the table and headed back out to the skimmer to admire it. “You know, I’m a little curious. It’s fortunate that you did, of course, but why did you have Chauncey with you when you went out to confront the old Board? Six meters of IDE is a lot to haul around, even in a Vanguard sport-hauler.”

“To be perfectly frank, he was kind of a security blanket,” Zane said. “Dad’s death still stung--it still does now--and having him with me kind of felt like still having a little piece of Dad around. I could try to say it was because I was afraid the Board was going to pull something and wanted to be prepared--but the truth is, I took Chauncey with me when I went to the grocery store, when I went out for pizza, when I went to see a movie...kind of silly, really.”

“Silliness that saved your lives,” Rhianna pointed out. “Hmm...calling up some celeb news sites from the time, they thought your hauling Chauncey everywhere you went was just one of those eccentric rich people things. Compared to the Steaders, it was mild.”

“Rhi, it was ‘one of those eccentric rich people things.’ That’s exactly what it was.” He chuckled. “After all, I could only do it in the first place because I was rich enough to afford the battery charge prices and licensing and quadruple-parking fees on the hauler.”

“Pity some other salvagers got to the Vanguard wreck before you could...” Rhianna mused. “That’s a sweet line of big skimmers. Donizetti uses them for RIDE delivery and pickup for maintenance.”

“Eh, if that’s the worst loss I took that day, I pay it gladly,” Zane said. “I’m just glad nobody got to Chauncey. I’d have had to pay a small fortune to get him back once they found out what he was worth.” He shook his head. “You know, it’s kind of funny. If I’d had Chauncey better maintained, with the hardlight integrity field fully working, I could have made it all the way back in him instead of conking out partway. But where would Terry have been then? And where would I have been without him?” He chuckled. “Somehow things just worked out for the best. Maybe we do live in the best of all possible worlds. I’d like to think so.”

“So would I,” Rhianna said. She allowed Zane to open the door for her again before he got in himself.

“In the end, after Terry and I found each other, I found my new friend and partner meant I could finally let go of the security blanket. Hence, the placement of Chauncey with Martinez U,” Zane said. The Volante’s lifters rumbled to life. “Anyway, now for the Surprise.”

Instead of lowering the car to the street, Zane simply drove it on a downward slope through the dome over the Brubeck campus next door, circling around to a fairly large building in the northeast corner where a new gate had been installed through the campus wall. It seemed to be a public-facing building, as there was a parking lot right inside the entrance. There were signs, but they were all covered over with tarps, and the RFID broadcasts Rhianna could have read with her implant were all disabled.

As they landed in the parking lot next to the building, Rhianna was surprised to notice a familiar old skimmer bike pulling in through the gate. :Kaylee? What’re you doing here?:

:Beats me,: Kaylee said. :Zane commed just now and asked me to come over. Said his surprise was for both of us.:

Zane grinned. “A little selfish of me, I know, but I wanted your first thought to be about how awesome it is, not that you wished Kaylee was here.”

Kaylee perked her ears. “This’s really gotta be sumthin’ special, then.”

“Foregone conclusion it’s RIDE-related,” Rhianna said.

“You could say that,” Zane said. “And I have a bit of a proposal for you, too, though worry not--it’s not the kind that involves bended knee and a jewelry box. That can come later.” He winked.

Rhianna laughed. “Well, Zane, you know the way to this wrench wench’s heart. Lead on.”

“It kind of started when we found poor ol’ Merle on the auction block, after his last owner just ditched him in the desert,” Zane said, unlocking the door. “Got my nose rubbed good and proper in the Nextus use-’em-and-lose-’em attitude toward RIDEs. It was only after I kicked the old Board mostly out that I realized my company had been run for the last few years by a bunch of no-goodniks with that exact same attitude. That, plus what almost happened to ol’ Terry when we met, led me to suspect there might just be a lot of abandoned RIDEs still out there.”

“Many thousands, at the very least. Nobody’s ever done a count,” Kaylee said. “The Dry Ocean swallows them whole like the real ocean did to fisherman in the old days. Q is hard stuff to mine.”

Zane led them down an entrance hallway hung with pictures of Dry Ocean scenery and Brubeck mining rigs. “Anyway, for the last few months I’ve had Brubeck folks working on an important side project. It was pretty expensive, but when I pitched it as a way to head off potential costly litigation down the road, and said I’d front half the costs out of my own pocket, the board gave me the go-ahead. It helped that ol’ Merle was on my side, naturally.” He grinned, and paused in front of the door at the end of the hall.

“So I’ve had people going back through our records, survey records, scan records, records we bought off other mining companies...trying to find every case where we--or anyone else who’d talk to us, for that matter--ever abandoned a RIDE in the desert so we could go dig ‘em up. Also, checking old sales records, salvage records...trying to find out what happened to every RIDE we ever let go, or who got salvaged out from under us in the Dry. We’re working with the Marshals on this one, offering a bounty on every one found. They already had a similar program, but this one just accelerates things.

“After we found all of ‘em we could, I got in touch with all of ‘em personally. The ones who were in a happy relationship--or out at AlphaWolf’s camp--we congratulated; the ones who weren’t we bought back. And every one of them got a personal apology from me, and a 10,000 mu cash account quantum-locked to the RIDE’s use only. Not much compensation, but it was the most I could swing out of our budget, better than nothing, and most of it came from my personal funds anyway.”

“You talked to each one personally?” Rhianna asked. “There must have been thousands of them.”

Zane grinned. “Took months in fast-time VR. But I figured I owed it to ‘em. Even the ones from other companies, I could apologize as a human being. Well, half a human being now, but anyway. And I didn’t make ‘em sign waivers or anything, so they can still sue for mistreatment down the road when their rights come in--but most of ours were happy enough just to get the apology, I don’t think they will. Though I think a few other companies might just have to do some fancy legal dancing when the time comes.” He chuckled. “If they should want to sue us, I asked ‘em to get in touch with me first and we’d work something out.”

“Practical, Zane. Very practical,” Kaylee said.

“Yeah, well, pitching it like that got the board on my side. But in a way I couldn’t do anything else,” Zane said. “I felt a responsibility to all the RIDEs we’d ever owned--Daddy raised me that way. But how could I draw the line at just helping ours if some others were out there to be found and we were out looking anyway? Daddy raised me that way, too.” He shrugged.

“As for the ones we dug up or bought back, we’ve been trying to place them somewhere they’ll be happy. A bunch of ‘em came back to work for us, or the Waltons or some of the other companies that have been getting RIDE-friendly lately, and a lot of others joined the Marshals. As for the rest, well...”

Zane pushed the door open, revealing a long room with display pedestals along both walls on which stood a couple of dozen inactive DE shells of all ages and descriptions, behind hardlight glass. There were deer, elk, cougars, horses, mules, bears, eagles, and examples of every other major workhorse RIDE over the last thirty-five years. “A lot of ‘em agreed to let me put their old Des on display here while we look for new situations for them. We’re making it sort of a museum of the history of qubitite mining through the history of RIDEs, or vice versa. It’s been on hold for a little while--we were only able to set up the museum proper once we knew Fritz was safely out of the way. And now...here we are.”

Zane led them through the room, along the displays. The hardlight shields seemed to incorporate a firewall, so Rhianna couldn’t ping them with her implant. There were nameplates below each one, giving the name and background of the RIDE who had used it. For example, the plate beneath a pair of Kodiak bears gave their names as “Big John” and “Queenie”. Back in ‘37, John had buttressed a collapsing mine tunnel to allow dozens of men and RIDEs, including his own partner, to escape. Queenie had gone back in alone to try to rescue him, but then the tunnel had collapsed, trapping them both.

A button press brought up a screen that turned into an interactive history of the event, and how the crushed DE shells were recovered. The bears’ cores were intact. The screen showed Big John doing some salmon fishing in Nature Range and Queenie with a trio of cubs. Gondwana, and even most RIDEs, had yet to absorb they could reproduce in a Q-based mainframe.

“These RIDEs are all heroes,” Rhianna observed. Each one had done something selfless in their years of service, no matter how their human partners treated them.

Kaylee sat in front of a magnificent bull elk. “It’s Franklin,” she said. “He’s Yvonne’s father!”

“Awesome!” Rhianna exclaimed. “Ping her.”

“Already have, but she’s not pinged back yet,” Kaylee replied. “I can’t wait...”

“I was going to ask you to be a part of it from the beginning, but after the whole Starmaster thing I was afraid you might get the wrong idea, and you kind of had enough on your plate as it was. But the most important reason was that my RIDE maint guys wanted their own chance to shine. I think they’ve got reason to be proud, don’t you?”

“Hell, yes they do!” Rhianna exclaimed.

“It was really hard for them to keep the secret while they were working with you before we took the platform back,” Zane said. “They really wanted to talk about it, but they knew how much it meant to me so they kept mum. I made sure they all got big bonuses.”

At the ends of the rows were several displays with darkened, polarized hardlight and plates that read “Coming Soon”. There were silhouettes inside, but nothing that could be clearly seen. At the far end of the room was a three-meter scale model of Chauncey, surrounded by pictures, illustrations, diagrams, and holos detailing how the ancient IDE had been fitted out when it was new, and how Clint and Zane had modified it. There was also an account of how it had helped Clint defend his claim and hence found the Brubeck Mining corporation.

“Hey, come over here and look at this,” Zane said, beckoning them over to the Chauncey display. “What do you think? Spot any obvious errors in the docs? Want to be sure this is up to snuff when we open to the public next week.”

“Okay, I see something right here. Chauncey wasn’t actually a Block 2. Well, that’s not quite true--he has a Block 2 serial number. He was in the late production phase when the Block 3 upgrades came out, so they had to mod his frame. The Block 3 units mounted the first pulse beam cannons rather than a gauss. They had an uprated mag-pinch ‘barrel’ fusion reactor rather than a toka or poly. The Block 2s had a pair of polywell spheres instead of the barrel. The beam cannon needed a higher peak output to charge the weapons capacitor and two polys just couldn’t deliver.”

Zane leaned in to peer closer. “Huh. You’re right. Don’t know how we ever missed that.” His DIN twinkled, and the display corrected itself.

“Oh, don’t worry about that. It’s rather obscure, really,” Rhianna said.

And then something--a noise, a movement out of the corner of an eye--drew Rhianna’s attention behind them. She turned and froze in place, staring. The hardlight glass had vanished from all the displays except the blacked-out “coming soon” ones--and all their occupants now powered up and stepped down from the daises, most bringing up hardlight pelts as they came.

Zane grinned. “Oh, snap! I forgot to mention--they said we could display their RI cores here with their DE frames. Hello, everyone!”

“Evenin’, Zane!” Big John boomed, his rumble plainly audible over the din of everyone else saying hello at once. “And hello to you, too, Miss Rhianna and Miss Kaylee!”

“Does my heart good to see everyone up and running again!” Rhianna said. She reached out to pet Kaylee. “My partner here knows a lot of what y’all have been through, lost and forgotten like that.”

“Believe me, we know, sugah,” Queenie chuckled, her voice an octave higher than her mate’s but still deep, and with a touch of Louisiana Cajun accent. “We’ve been watching you on the news. We’re all very proud of you both.”

“No one could possibly be any prouder,” Big John rumbled. “Exceptin’ possibly...okay, you three, come on out.”

The black hardlight over the “coming soon” displays dissolved...and three lynxes stepped down to join the others.

Franz?” Kaylee said, slack-jawed. “Keiko...Annette...my kittens! If I could faint...”

The male lynx stepped forward to rub cheeks with Kaylee. “Hiya, sis,” he said. “Been a while. At least a while for most of you. I’ve still got a pair of original-spec lucky lynx feet.”

“Ye...yeah. Bits of me ended up in all of you. Kan...Kandace is in Aloha...” Kaylee stammered. She swallowed and sniffled, looking at her kittens. “I...don’t know what to say. Now that I remember raising you...”

“We remember you, too, Mom,” Keiko said, in the faint Japanese accent she’d been inspired to adopt by her name. “Zane came through with a FoIA request as soon as he found out who we were.”

“I was going to tell you as soon as I found out, Kaylee, surprise or no--family is important--but they actually talked me out of it,” Zane said.

“We’d waited thirty years already, we could wait a few more weeks,” Franz said.

“And we liked the idea a’ being part of a big surprise,” Annette said, sounding surprisingly like her namesake.

Kaylee blinked. “You didn’t used to talk like that.”

“She didn’t use’ter know who she was named fer, either,” the original Anny said, leaning against the wall near a door next to the Chauncey display. She’d slipped in while Rhianna was distracted by the reanimated RIDEs. “An’ I’d just like to say that’s a hell of a thing t’ ferget t’ tell someone, that y’ went and named a daughter after ‘em.” She sniffled a little. “I’m touched, I really am.”

“It was the right thing to do, Anny,” Kaylee said.

“Kaylee has good taste. I would have done the same,” Leila said. The giant white lioness entered and lay down next to the door. “And if I find the right Panthera leo, I probably will.”

“How do you feel about party animals?” another familiar voice asked, as Kandace padded in from another door. “The Munns have a leo friend in Nextus who’s famous for them. So what’s all this ab--” She stopped and stared. “Franzie?” Behind her, a teenaged girl with lynx tags leaned against the wall and watched, grinning.

“In the hardlight flesh,” Franz said. He sniffled, then padded over to give Kandace a lick on the cheek which she quickly reciprocated. “This is the best day ever.”

Zane grinned. “I couldn’t leave anyone out of this. The nice thing about being rich is being able to back up your good intentions.” He chuckled. “Kaylee Stonegate...this is your life!

Kandace looked at the other two lynxes. “Are...those..?”

“My kittens, Kandy,” Kaylee said. “We’re still missing...well, five of them. But they’re out there somewhere.”

“Our two are still around, Kandy,” Franz said. For all they considered themselves brothers and sisters, there was no real “blood relationship” to preclude intercourse between any RIDE--at least, not until the forest time and now the breeding creches. “We’ll find them. I’m just...I know how Kaylee feels, seeing you again.”

“Hey, I heard therrre was a family rrreunion going on,” Katie said from the rear of the room. “Sorrry I’m late, trrraffic was murderrr. Grreetings sisterrrs, uncle Frranz, aunt Kandace!”

“I see you still purr your Rs,” Keiko said dryly.

“Mark my words, sis, I’m gonna get myself an Ahnuld frame like yours!” Annette said. “I’ve watched what you did over and over again...daayyum, you’re good!”

“She was always very good at pouncing,” Keiko added. The three sisters gathered together and butted heads affectionately, then fell to a pile of tawny-gray fur and started some mutual grooming, while the older trio came together a little more sedately. Various “oohs” and “awws” came from the audience of the other RIDEs from the museum.

One of them was the stately bull elk named Franklin. He still had his 000-series chassis, having been shut down in a Nextus Army Museum display himself for the past ten years. That museum had been hastily emptied of RIDEs that still had viable cores. Franklin had been practically thrown out on the street with just half-charged batteries and not even an apology.

“There is still a great deal of work to be done to recover all of us,” Franklin said in a stately voice that matched his bearing. “I feel fortunate, Miss Kaylee, that you gave my daughter Yvonne her missing memories as a gift in such a timely fashion. A joyful happenstance, as it turns out.”

“She...found you?” Kaylee said.

“We have not yet met in person, but yes. I had already been ‘removed from exhibit’, let’s say. She tracked me down virtually--more like a cat than an elk, really. Pity her mother can’t be with us just yet. But, such determination! Her partner is a riot, too. They make a splendid pairing.”

“Speaking of partners,” Kandace said. “I want y’all to meet mine. Jenni, c’mon up here.”

“If you’re sure it’s all right,” Jenni said, coming forward. “I don’t want to interrupt anything.”

“As far as I’m concerned, you’re family just like they are. So come meet your extended family,” Kandace said.

“Uh...hi,” Jenni said shyly. Keiko and Annette headbutted her left and right hands, and she giggled.

“I would have brrrought my own parrrrtnerrr, but she’s busy with herrr studies rrright now,” Katie said. “I’ll brrring her by anotherrr day.”

“It would be an honor to meet such a brave young woman,” Franklin said.

“So anyway, needless to say anyone who’s here is here because they want to be, and they can leave whenever they want,” Zane said. “The idea is the place is gonna be a kind of living history museum, and RIDE meet-and-greet center, where people can talk to ‘em in some other context than buying and selling. They’ve all got stories to tell, and most people never have a chance to listen to them. Hard to see someone as a person if you only ever see ‘em as a product.”

“The ramifications...” Rhianna mused. “Thirty years ago, Dr. Patil and Dr. Clemens created not just true AI, but artificial life.

“Dunno about that, Rhi,” Kaylee said. “Maybe once someone figgurs out how to turn a fabber into a sort of womb. We’re only partway there.”

Zane chuckled. “Also, at least some of our ‘exhibits’ will be keeping an eye out for anyone who might make a good partner for ‘em, since they’re gonna have the right to choose their own. Down the road, we’re looking into partnering with the city creche to host at least some of their new births here, too.”

“We have cubs!” Queenie said proudly, chuffing at Big John. “Cubs! I’ve never felt so fulfilled. After spending an eternity in that dark hole, we so needed something bright.”

“Three somethings, in fact,” Big John added. “They’re almost ready to pick partners of their own. Uplift’s buying the first generation basic Des to get ‘em started in life.”

“If they want better ones they’ll have to find a job and earn the mu,” Queenie said. “Lucky thing Brubeck’s still hiring.”

Zane chuckled. “Yeah, it kind of is lucky. You know, not that I’m complaining, but the whole RIDE citizenship thing is going to be a big economic hit to anyone who employs a lot of RIDEs. Suddenly they’re having to double their salaries.”

“Not to mention the ‘healthcare’ plans,” Anny Hewer said, looking at Leila. “You good-for-nothin’ money pit!” Anny grinned.

“A girl can’t help being worth as much as me,” Leila said primly, swishing her tail. “Despite a certain leopard’s opinions to the contrary...”

“Won’t be a hit for long,” Rhianna said. “Our partners will have money to spend. Ultimately it’ll grow everyone’s economy. Just think of the human-RIDE matchmaking services. There’s already a half dozen startups.”

“As it happens, I think we’ve already got at least one possible match-up ourselves,” Zane said, grinning. “Aggie’s been spending a lot of time with Annette lately. They haven’t Fused or anything yet...”

“But I’m hopeful!” Annette said happily.

“And I hope it works out, just for the alliteration value. Aggie and Anny,” Zane said.

“Works fer me,” the human Anny said. The lynx RIDE version smiled back at her. “Could get a mite confusin’ in meetings, though.”

“I can go by Annette if you’d like,” the lynx offered.

“Which won’t help when Leila names one of her kittens that,” Kaylee said.

“These are the kinds of problems in life one wants to have,” Leila opined. “All my life, I never even dreamed I was capable of motherhood. My maternal instincts are on the prowl. One Panthera leo...or I’ll even take a tigris. She winked at Zane.

“He’s all mine,” Rhianna said, standing in front of him. She gave a little feline hiss. “Mine!”

“Hey, he’s part mine, too,” Kaylee purred. “But then, so are you, so it works out.”

“When I was fresh off the Goose from Earth, I never would’ve considered relationships like this were even possible,” Rhianna said. She walked over and hugged Kaylee tightly. “I don’t think there’s a real word for the kind of partnerships like ours are--though we can see the results of a perfect match right in front of us.” The two smiled back at Zane.

“It’s good to be wanted,” Zane said, grinning back at them. “Well, unless you’re wanted by the Marshals...”

Now that Rhianna and Kaylee had been properly welcomed, the crowd of RIDEs broke up. Some of them climbed back onto their daises and watched, though they remained in active mode. Others moved to greet and speak to the other newcomers. As the only complete stranger, Jenni came in for a lot of attention. A dolphin and a cormorant engaged her in a discussion of what Aloha was like to live in these days.

Zane came up to Rhianna and put his arm around her shoulder. “So what do you think?” he asked quietly.

“I’m happy that Kaylee is so happy,” Rhianna said. She sniffled, teary-eyed. “You’ve done something amazing. I have no doubts that eventually every one of the original RI parents and children will be reunited here.”

Zane nodded. “A few of the other parents and children are among those who took placement elsewhere, though no one closely related to Kaylee or the rest of your friends. I’ll pass along the complete records now that it’s no longer a big secret.” His DIN twinkled as he sent the records across to Kaylee and Rhianna’s implant.

“We’re still looking for my Eleanor,” Franklin said glumly. “She mustered out with her original partner, then they both moved out of Nextus and left no forwarding address, and her partner hasn’t answered her e-mail. But I’m very confident in Mr. Brubeck.”

“We’ll find her no matter where she is,” Rhianna said. “That’s a promise.”

“Now I did say I had a proposal for you,” Zane said. “So here it is--would you be willing to serve as a co-curator of this place, along with the heads of Brubeck’s RIDE maint division? I know you’ve got a lot of stuff on your plate already, but that’s why we’ve got the others to take up the slack.”

“There just aren’t enough hours in the day, Zane,” Rhianna said. She smiled. “Kittygirl’s gotta sleep sometime. DINsec and DINcom are keeping us so busy. But...” She looked around the room at the RIDEs socializing with one another. “I can’t say no to this, either. People are more important than things, and I don’t see a single thing in this room.”

“That’s why we’ve got a co-curatorship,” Zane said. He grinned. “The others can do most of the work until you’ve got more time freed up, and we get to trade shamelessly on your reputation in the meanwhile. Annnd, it gives you an excuse to hang around the campus more often.”

“I don’t need any excuse but you,” Rhianna said. She stood on her tip-toes and hugged Zane tightly. “Let the tabloids spew. We’re public figures now. But we’ll still do what we want.”

Zane grinned, and hugged her back. “I like the sound of that.”

She gave him a playful little kiss. Since money was no longer an issue between them with Rhianna’s self-earned wealth, a source of great stress was simply gone.

“Hey, Anny, why don’t you take Jenni for a bite to eat?” Zane suggested. “I’ll bet that Kaylee’s family, Leila, and the rest of the crew here could get a terrific game of Nature Range going.”

“Or Bambi’s Forest,” Kaylee said. “With fast time, we could pack a lot of catching up into an hour or so.”

Zane grinned at Rhianna. “And we could pack other things into an hour or so. Or longer.”

“Sure thing,” Anny said. She took Jenni by the hand. “C’mon, Jenni, let’s go see what kinda trouble we can get ourselves inta.”

“All right, Miss Hewer,” Jenni said. “I am kinda hungry...” She glanced back at Kandace.

“Go on, girl,” Kandace purred. “I’ll be here when you come back.”

“Y’know, they could be at it all night,” Anny pointed out. “There’s a guest room in my apartment, if ye like.”

“Oooh, a real bed?” Jenni said. “I can’t remember last time I slept in one of those.”

“Hey, I’m not that bad,” Kandace chuckled.

“Oh, I didn’t say I minded sleeping in you!” Jenni giggled. “You’re very comfy. But it’s nice for a change. See you tomorrow?”

“We’ll be here,” Kandace promised. Anny gave Leila a pat on the head as they passed, then they headed out the door together.

“Nice girl,” Kaylee said. “Funny, Kandy, I coulda swore you said something ‘bout not wanting to Fuse again for a while.”

Kandace rolled her eyes good-naturedly. “Yeah, rub it in why don’cha. I can be just as wrong about things as the next kitty.”

“So she’s the one we have to thank for Dr. Patil coming back,” Rhianna said.

“Yeah, I guess that’s right,” Kandace admitted. “She’s the one who made me write Mom that letter. I wonder if she’ll ever know how much that means to us?”

“Maybe, but...she’s young,” Rhianna said. “Although there are probably a few things I’m missing here. You’ll have to tell Kaylee and me how you two ended up together. Sounds like quite a story.”

Kandace nodded. “And kinda ironic that her own Mom’s outta reach for right now. But anyway, you two oughtta get going.”

Zane chuckled. “I sense some subtle hinting going on.”

“So, where to next?” Rhianna asked. “Have any place in mind?”

“Well, first we need to stop by my office,” Zane said. “There’s something I wanted to do while we’re here.” He waved to the RIDEs. “See you guys later. Don’t have too much fun!”

“We will take that under advisement!” Franklin said cheerfully.

Zane led Rhianna out a back entrance and across the parade ground to the main Brubeck building, opening the door with a flash of his DIN and leading her to a private elevator. “Well, that was fun,” Zane said, grinning. “I’m totally spoiled for giving people Christmas presents now.”

Zane led the way past Agatha’s vacant desk, through the door to his office. It was a comfortable room, with a lot of little personal touches--a photo of human-him and Terry on a wall, one of his Dad’s old Stetsons hanging on a hook--and a top-of-the-line personal fabber in one corner. Zane nodded toward the fabber. “Hey, Rhi, could you do me a solid? Fab me...oh...three of your latest spec of DINcom?”

Using her implant, Rhianna fed the specs to the fabber. Within seconds the three requested units were in the output tray. “With my compliments.”

“Thanks.” Zane separated the three DINcoms, placing the halves in separate groups on his desk. Then he picked up one group and swallowed them one by one. “Huh. That’s odd. They’ve actually got different flavors.”

“Well, I hope they taste good.”

“Yeah, they did,” Zane said. “That’s how we can tell if a part’s broken or not. Quinny taught me about that on the cruise. ‘If the taste is bitter, it’s a spitter.’” He grinned. “The first one was peppermint, then chocolate, then raspberry. My body’s way of keeping the different pairings separate, maybe?” He picked up the other halves from the desk and touched them to the tip of his tongue, one by one. “Huh. Yeah. Same flavors.” He stared into the distance for a moment. “Okay, they’re all hooked up and showing green. Good.”

“This is fascinating stuff. I’m going to have to study Intie physiology in my copious free time.”

“Well, if you Integrated you’d be able to use fast-time a lot better,” Zane pointed out.

Rhianna rolled her eyes. “Don’t tempt me. I’ll upgrade my Q-implant again. There’s this modder community I’ve heard about from Jeanette...hmm.”

Zane took one of the three remaining halves and reached under his desk to plug it into his comm there. “And...we are on line, woot! When I route the connection through my DIN, I’ll have an always-on net link even in the middle of the desert. That could come in handy.” He dropped another one into an envelope, and coded the label with a quick flash of his DIN. “This one’s going out to the main rig, to hook into the network port out there.” He tossed it in his “Out” box. Then he picked up the last one. “And this one...the minty-fresh one...this one’s special.” He grinned. “I want you to have it.”

Rhianna blushed. “You might want to keep spares around, Zane. Our current failure rates are pretty bad, and we don’t really know what’s causing the signal loss. I’m still looking for an FTL physicist who will actually believe me. I’ve had to start learning the math myself. We’ve been trying to build a subspace ansible for over a hundred years, you know. I only stumbled on this.”

“Then I’ll make me a few more.” Zane grinned, and blipped his DIN so the fabber’s “repeat last order” button triggered. “I’ll snack on them for redundancy. But as far as I’m concerned, the only important ones are the ones I give you. Put ‘em in Kaylee, if she’s willing to host ‘em. Or if there’s some way to get them added to that box inside your head, do that. Maybe you could put a DINsec on it at the same time. You don’t know how tempting...” He shook his head and grinned. “Dangling cheese in front of a mouse, really. Aaaaaanyway...I’m setting aside a little bit of my own runtime, just for you and Kay. Your very own little Zane shell account. Properly sandboxed and everything, but no matter how busy I get I’ll always pay attention there.”

“And I’m always connected to Kaylee, though I don’t want to bother her right now.”

Zane nodded. “You can shut the connection down at your own end for privacy, but I’ll always keep my side open.”

“I’m game. I promise I won’t bog down that Intie Q-brain of yours with FTL comm simulations.”

Zane grinned. “Oh, feel free to run whatever you can get away with. It’s a load-limited space, the only runtime you’ll slow down is yours.” He chuckled. “Honestly, I’m tempted just to give you my root password and be done with it, let you have all my computing power to do whatever you want with, but the board would scream bloody murder. So it’ll have to wait ‘til I can con Aggie into taking over.” He winked.

Rhianna looked poleaxed. “You trust me that much?”

“I’d trust you with my life,” Zane said. “Literally. Half of me already had for years before the other half even met you. Every RIDE you fix puts the same trust in you.”

“I’m still not thinking of myself as a doctor. I honestly have no idea why,” Rhianna grumbled. “Thank you, Zane.” She smiled, then laughed. “Just a few months ago I would’ve been appalled and offended at all these things you’re giving me. But...this feels different.” She moved closer.

“Do you feel the estrogen surging through your veins?” Zane quipped.

“You could say that,” Rhianna said.

“I did say that.” Zane grinned down at her. “You know, the night is still young, and suddenly I feel like dancing. How ‘bout you?”

“Nothing too fancy,” Rhianna said.

“Oh, of course not,” Zane assured her. “I was thinking that place our ‘deer friend’ runs sounds just about right to me.”

“The one where everyone knows your name?” Rhianna said.

“That’s the place,” Zane said. “What you think?”

“I think that sounds wonderful.” Rhianna grinned. “I have some dating demons to exorcise.”

Zane’s DIN twinkled. “I’ll just get the car.”

Separator k.png

More media drones followed them from the campus to Cheers, where they kept their distance. With so many Integrates around, a number of them working together could hack DINsec, so they backed off a hundred meters from the parking lot. The bar continued to be the go-to place for normal people to meet, and gawk at, Integrates. Diane made sure to create a genial atmosphere where it was okay to ask just about any question. Mostly they came from human/RIDE duos who wanted to Integrate themselves. Rhianna suspected the bar was doing a better job of fostering human-Integrate relations, and talking would-be premature Integrates out of it, then any professional Integration clinic ever could.

“Zane! Rhianna!” the doe called from behind the bar. “Come on in!”

“Do you ever sleep, Diane?” Rhianna asked. “Even before you came out, every time I came in here, at all hours of the day, you were behind that bar.”

Cheers is my life,” Diane replied. “And I do sleep, but only for a few minutes at a time. It’s an Integrate thing.”

“Well hey, lookie who the cat dragged in!” Rufia called from a table where she and Yvonne were seated, separately. She was in a chair, and Yvonne was resting on a RIDE pad with her legs tucked under her and a RIDEsafe power connector plugged in. “This couldn’t possibly be...The Date, could it?” Rhianna could hear the ellipse and the capital letters.

“Oh, you know it is, girlfriend” Rhianna purred, kissing Zane on his furry cheek. Rufia clapped and whistled, and a number of the other patrons who were familiar with the pair joined in--though not the stag Fuser who was seated nearby with a doe on each side. Rufia tugged on his sleeve. “Hey, Ronno. Look who’s here.”

The brown stag looked back a little, saw Rhianna and who she was with, then snorted, giving his does his full attention.

“So that’s him?” Zane murmured.

“That’s him,” Rufia said. “In hindsight, he’s just not Rhianna’s type. I knew Ryan’s taste in girls, but you know, it’s hard to transpose that accurately across genders.”

“He’s certainly not impressed with me,” Zane said. “I really shouldn’t be petty. I shouldn’t, like, buy his apartment complex and evict him, or get his skimmer truck repossessed, or have him audited by Uplift’s Revenue Service...though it would be sooooo easy.” Zane shook his head. “No. Bad Zane. Keep away from the Dark Side, you must.”

“So, what’ll you two have?” Diane said. “I’ve restocked my bar from that...that philistine’s vandalism. Can’t replace that Jim Beam, though.”

“She had a funeral for the bottle shards,” Rufia said.

“You can’t ferment that stuff on Zharus properly. There’s something missing in the soil,” Diane insisted. “You certainly can’t do it a hundred years back in time.”

Zane chuckled. “I’m so sorry for your loss. As the proximate cause of it, I promise I’ll find some way to make it up to you.”

“Well, if you can find a replacement bottle, I’ll be amazed. But good luck,” Diane said.

“Anyway, I’m feeling dangerous and debonair tonight,” Zane said. “So how about James Bond’s classic martini, the Vesper? That’s when you take three measures of Gordon’s--”

“I know the recipe,” Diane said. “You do know that ‘Kina Lillet’ hasn’t been made since 1986, right?”

Zane chuckled. “Just come as close as you can.”

“A challenge,” Diane said. “I like that. What about you, Rhi?”

“Long Island Iced Tea,” Rhianna said. “I’ve never had one.”

Diane grinned. “Ah, your partner’s RIDE’s favorite drink.”

“Uncia swears by it, so I figured, what the hey.” Rhianna took the barstool next to Zane and scooted up so they were thigh-to-thigh. Zane grinned, and put an arm around her shoulder.

“Now that’s what I like to see!” Rufia said. “You go, girl!”

Zane glanced over his shoulder. “Oh, hey. Yvonne?”

The elk glanced over at him. “Yes, Zane?”

“If you and Rufia can spare each other for a couple hours, you might wanna head over to this address. Here’s the key code to get in the door.”

Yvonne cocked her head. “What’s this?”

“Go and see.” Zane grinned. “You can take Rufia by tomorrow or some other time, but right now it’s RIDEs’ night.”

“Okay, now you’ve made me curious,” Yvonne said. “You mind, thumbs-dear?”

“Not if you advance me enough mu for a couple more hours of drinking!” Rufia said cheerfully.

“Oh, just go. I’ll cover her tab the rest of the night,” Zane said. “Unlike most of the people here, I can actually afford it.”

Rufia stared at Zane with stars in her eyes. “If you weren’t already taken, I’d kiss you myself.”

“Better all around if you don’t try it,” Zane said, as Rhianna growled.

“I’ll be backs later, then!” Yvonne said, getting up and detaching from the power plug. She trotted out the door, converting to her skimmer bike form in the parking lot, and headed away.

Diane chuckled. “The museum?”

Zane nodded. “The museum. She doesn’t know Franklin’s there yet.”

“Oooh,” Diane said.

Rufia raised an eyebrow. “Her Daddy? That Franklin?”

“That’s the one!” Rhianna said.

“Ooooh!” Rufia said. “This calls for...another drink!”

Everything calls for another drink with you,” Rhianna said.

“Can I help it if everything is alcoholic?” Rufia said. “Seriously...Rhi, I don’t think I’ve had the chance to thank you for what you gave Yvonne. I’ve never seen the girl so happy. She actually cried.” Rufia shook her head. “All along we believed the official story that she’d been core-damaged in her first deployment, which was why her early memories were so spotty. We never even thought she might be one of the forest kids even after you told us Kaylee’s story.”

“Even Kaylee didn’t know the names of all the others at the time,” Rhianna said. “She got to name her own, but otherwise...”

“I think Vonnie’s going to start calling her ‘Aunt Kaylee’ now,” Rufia said, grinning. “At least until Kaylee gets annoyed enough at it to smack her. Care to place bets on how many times that will take?”

“Maybe I should be calling her ‘Aunt Kaylee’ myself,” Diane said, placing Zane and Rhianna’s drinks in front of them. “Of course, I’ve known since shortly after we Integrated, since back in the day nobody knew how to harden Nextus’s computers against Integrates, and we were really curious about those missing memories.”

“Did you ever look for the other children?” Rhianna asked.

“No...I didn’t really look too hard, just in case. I think there are three other deer? I’m not sure now. Since we were all single births, I didn’t really feel any sisterly closeness.” She shrugged. “I did happen across a couple I was pretty sure I recognized, apart from Kaylee and Vonnie, but they seemed happy enough as they were. Didn’t feel like opening a can of worms. Did pass on everything to Dr. Patil, after.”

Rhianna sipped her drink, getting lipstick on the rim of the glass. It felt good to be out with Zane. Dating the girls on the Spruce Goose had never felt this deep. Those were mainly one-night stands, but being out with Zane had substance. Before then, Ryan had spent too much time traveling from job to job around Earth, and his disinterest in Virtual Life meant it was nigh impossible to maintain a relationship. So there was just a simple joy in being in Zane’s company that felt mutual. Were these womanly feelings? Or did that even matter? She decided it didn’t, in the slightest.

Zane tried his own drink. “Mmm. This tastes...very Bondian. Heck of a job, Diane.”

“We aims to please. You two look wonderful together.” Diane picked up a glass from the sink and dried it with a towel.

“Hell, yeah!” Rufia said, raising her foamy beer stein. “It’s about time you got some action, Rhi!”

“If she really wants that kind of ‘action’,” Zane purred.

“We’ll see,” Rhianna said. “If it happens naturally...tiger. Mrowl.”

“Still, don’t push it,” Rufia said. “Sometimes all you need is a good cuddle with someone warm and fuzzy. So, just do what comes naturally. It’s no different from being a man there, you know. There’s a lot of differences, but some things just don’t change.”

“Much as I’d like to wax philosophic about gender differences and the benefits of seeing another point of view...” Rhianna said. She took a long sip of her drink, and had started feeling a pleasant buzz.

“Hey, I’m happy just to be lucky enough to be sitting next to the most all-around gorgeous woman in the room--no offense, Rufia and Diane--right now,” Zane said. “If we go our separate ways after we’re done here, I’d still call it a win.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Rhianna said playfully. “You can’t get rid of this kittygirl that easily.”

“Glad to hear it,” Zane said, finishing his drink. He nodded to the area in front of the jukebox where a number of patrons were dancing even now. “So, shall we dance?”

Earth girls weren’t generally a passive bunch. Rhianna took Zane’s handpaw and pulled him out of his seat. He’d engaged his lifters and allowed her to pull him along through the air. “I guess that’s a yes?” Zane said dryly.

“You’ll have to excuse that I haven’t danced since...”

“Since ‘Kaylee Cross’ busted a move here about a year ago?” Diane supplied. She sent a recording of Kaylee dancing by herself to the duo. “You were pretty good in Passive, Rhi.”

“Oooh, yeah!” Zane said. “But I’ll bet you’re even better now.”

“Well, now these curves are real.” Rhianna smiled and looked at the floating Zane. “Why don’t we test that hypothesis?”

“Let’s just.” He nodded to the jukebox as the last song ended, and Blondie’s “Rapture” began to play.

The crowded dance floor made room for them, Integrates, Fusers, humans and RIDEs all moving together to the music. For a fast disco-style song like this, the dancing was mostly done without contact, across from each other. Zane pulled some moves he’d gotten from eighties videos, and Rhianna danced some Earther beats from before her emigration.

“Hey, I know that one!” Rufia said, raising her latest stein. “New Boston, our Adios Earth Party!”

“Where the rumors about Zharus came thick and fast,” Rhianna said as she rolled her shoulders.

Rufia giggled. “And after the party, so did we! Though our dates certainly didn’t complain. Nice girls, wonder what happened to ‘em.”

“Last email I got from my ‘rents was what? Five years ago?” Rhianna said. “Oh, well. No gloomy thoughts tonight!”

“Hear hear!” Rufia said. “Diane, my stein’s empty!”

“Can’t have that, can we?” the doe Integrate said, floating over a replacement.

As “Rapture” ended, Diane said, “All right, everyone, time for a slow dance! And this one goes out to the cutest couple in the bar right now. I think we all know who that is.” “This Night” by Billy Joel began playing.

Zane chuckled. “I think they’re playing our song.” He opened his arms. Rhianna came forward and clasped one, putting her right hand on his shoulder. Zane smiled down at her, putting his arm around her in return, and they danced together, enjoying the closeness.

“You smell like a man,” Rhianna said. “I’m really feeling those pheromones. They tickle my kitty nose.”

“You sure that’s not just my Old Spice?” Zane said. He grinned. “I’m glad you like it. Just remember, I like you for who you are, not what you are, ‘kay?”

She hugged him close. “I know, Zane. I know. I just have some old Earth mindset to shake out. It takes a long time to go native, but I think I’ve gotten the hang of it. If you ever decide to try tigress, I’ll still be here. It’s a new world.”

“I know. I just don’t want to see you lose your self,” Zane said. “But you’re one of the most sensible people I’ve ever met, so I shouldn’t worry.”

Rhianna nodded. “I know you’re remembering how I was out at the summit...I guess I might sound a little like that now.” She smiled. “But it’s different this time. Back then, I was...all feeling, no thinking,” she explained. “Now...I’ve been thinking, believe me I have. I’ve had plenty of time to do it in. But I want to feel, too. Even men aren’t made of stone, of course.”

“As long as you know your own mind,” Zane said. “I like you, a lot, and I want to make you happy. I don’t want to take advantage of you.”

“I’m not pushing it. I’m finding my way. Trust me this time.” She smiled warmly. “But, if you see me backpedaling, feel free to make an example.”

Zane nodded. “Fair enough.”

The song ended, and segued into The Beatles, “Happy Just to Dance with You.” Zane chuckled. “Get the feeling someone’s sending a subtle message?”

“I guess we should just hush and dance the night away.”

“You won’t get any argument out of me,” Zane said. “As long as she keeps playing the slow dances, anyway.”

“I think I’m going to be danced out soon, anyway. I’ve had a wonderful evening, just so you know. So far it’s been more than I hoped for.”

“Same here,” Zane said. “You’re fun to be around.”

The Beatles tune was the last slow dance. When the new set started--by a local band named Doubledown Derp, whatever that meant--both felt it was time to leave the floor. “So what do you think?” Zane asked. “Hang around a bit longer at the bar? Or...?”

“I hear you have some marvelous...etchings, back at your place,” Rhianna purred.

“I miiiiight,” Zane said. “They’re not necessarily to everyone’s taste, though. You consider yourself an art aficionado?”

“I don’t know art,” Rhianna said. “But I know what I like.”

“I imagine I could be...persuaded,” Zane said. “But fair warning...going through all of them might take a while. In fact, it could take all night.”

Rhianna petted Zane’s handpaw. “Oh, I have oodles of time.”

Zane pulled his cane into his hand from where he’d leaned it up next to the bar stool. “Then maybe we ought to go get started.”

As Rhianna and Zane headed for the door together, they were met by two elk trotting in--Yvonne, and her father Franklin. “Rhi! Zane! Glad we caught you!” Yvonne said. “Thank you soooo much, both of you!”

Rufia blinked at her partner’s entrance. “Vonnie! Is that...?”

Franklin trotted up to the table and bowed his magnificent crowned head to her. “I want to thank you for taking such good care of my little girl. She’s told me what you did for her when you first met.”

Rufia blushed, rubbing the back of her neck. “Aw...shucks, sir, it was the least I could do. Far’s I’m concerned, she’s taken a lot better care of me since than I’ve ever done for her.”

Franklin chuckled. “All the same, thank you.”

“I thought you’d be gone at least another hour or so,” Rhianna said. “Why’d you come back so soon?”

“I wanted to drop Rufia off back home,” Yvonne said. “Then I can go back and hang out with Dad, Aunt Kaylee, and the others all night.”

“Aww, but Zane was gonna cover my tab!” Rufia said.

“Why don’t you just get a six-pack to go?” Zane suggested.

Rufia considered. “I guess free beer is free beer no matter where you drink it. Diane?”

The deer chuckled. “Coming right up.”

Rhianna grinned. “I’m glad you all are getting along.”

Yvonne nodded. “Thank you, Rhi--you and Kaylee, and Zane, gave me something I never imagined I’d ever have. My family.”

“Hey, don’t mention it,” Zane said. “Family is important. You all enjoy yourselves.” He grinned over at Rhianna. “Rhi and I have somewhere else we gotta be.”

Yvonne nodded. “See you later, and thanks again!”

As they stepped out into the parking lot, Rhianna sighed longingly.

“What is it?” Zane asked.

“This just gets me thinking about who I left back on Earth. I have a moderately-sized extended family. Parents, two brothers, grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins. It was really hard leaving them, but they knew I had to go.”

Zane nodded. “I hear that. You ever hear from them by starship mail?”

“Not for years, though I have sent them a couple missives. Just some low-res video, showing them my Garage. I had to be careful about what I said about RIDEs and such, so what they ended up seeing were the skimmers.” Rhianna grumbled at the censorship. “Planetary security, huh?”

Zane held her door for her. “Yeah. I wonder how effective it can really be, myself. Surely Earth’s spies will have told them everything by now.” He shrugged. “But inertia is what it is.”

“Well, something’s gotta give.” She got into her seat and waited for him to lift overhead to the other side. “What with the rumors we hear about places as far away as Neorus. They supposedly have some kind of VR tech better than Earth’s or ours. Word does get out.”

“Yeah, but that’s something for wiser heads than ours to talk about some other time.” Zane climbed into the driver’s seat and revved the engine. “Right now, speaking of inertia...let’s go see about becoming a couple of bodies at rest.” He reached over to take Rhianna’s hand in his.

“I’m in the mood for a good physics lesson, and maybe physiology, too.” She used her free hand to squeeze his.

Zane chuckled. “Or maybe I should say bodies in motion. Lots and lots of motion.”

“Mrrrowl,” Rhianna purred.

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It was the wee small hours of the early morning, when the Cheers bar emptied out except for a small group of second- and third-shift workers coming in before or after work or on their lunch hour--the time of day Diane usually devoted to cleaning up, inventory, and other such chores.

It generally wasn’t the usual time for a cheetah-furred courier to show up, but there one was entering the bar, gingerly toting a wooden crate that Diane recognized immediately. Her Catholicism had lapsed decades before, but she still felt a strong impulse to cross herself as what could only be one of the few holy relics of bartending entered her presence.

“Sign here, ma’am?” the cheetah said, carefully placing the crate on the counter.

“Sure thing, ProsChet.” Diane knew the courier as one of her regular Integrate customers, who’d been taking advantage of his extreme short-distance sprinting speed to work as a short-distance courier even before the great unmasking. Now that he was free to use his Integrate abilities to their fullest extent, he was in even greater demand, frequently among rich and powerful who saw his ability to run at barely subsonic speeds as the best way to get pricey items from place to place without being intercepted.

She took the clipboard and scrawled her signature, never once taking her eye off the box as if she thought it would vanish at any moment. “You got a few minutes? Stay and have a drink. On the house.”

ProsChet blinked. “Really? Well, sure, if it’s on the house. Are you sure you’re feeling all right?”

“If this is what I think it is, I just might buy a round for the house.”

Diane carefully lifted the lid off of the crate--using her hands, because some things you just did the old-fashioned way. Within was a teardrop-shaped bottle she’d only ever seen in photographs--The Glenlivet 95-year-old single-malt cask strength reserve Scottish whiskey. And a handwritten note:

Diane:

It’s not quite hundred-year-old Jim Beam, but it’s the best I could come up with on short notice.

As you know, Dad was more a Scotch man than bourbon. He ordered this from Earth the year before he died--one of the few luxuries he allowed himself--but he was gone before it got here. I don’t like the stuff enough to want to drink it myself, and it feels wrong just to sell it, but every time I see it I just think of him, and I do that enough already.

Anyway, I know he thought the world of you, so if he couldn’t drink it himself, I’m sure he’d have wanted you to have it. And since I indirectly caused that schmuck to break your Jim Beam, I want you to have it, so we’re in agreement there.

Whether you drink it, serve it, or just treasure it, I hope you enjoy it. Thanks for everything.

Zane

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The morning sun was plainly visible through the dome to the east as Rhianna and Kaylee pulled into the garage under her home, where Rochelle and Uncia were already waiting for them.

“So, Rhi-girl, spill!” Rochelle asked.

Rhianna chuckled. “We had a good time. Zane really knows how to treat a gal.”

“Well, yeah, I already know that.” Rochelle grinned. “But what base did you two end up on?”

“I’m not sure what they map to, exactly, but maybe second or third,” Rhianna said.

“Really? Why’d you stop there?” Rochelle asked. “This wasn’t a ‘Paradise by the Dashboard Light’ thing, was it?”

Rhianna snorted. “Hell no. If you must put an eighties song to it, try ‘One Heartbeat at a Time.’ We just didn’t feel like rushing things. Once you’ve reached a base, you can’t go back to the last one.”

“You can if the umpire says you have to,” Rochelle pointed out.

Rhianna snorted. “You’re taking the metaphor much too far.” She smiled. “When I look back on the night, I’m happy with how far it went, not sad it went too far or frustrated it didn’t go farther. As far as I’m concerned, that means we got it exactly right.” She put on a reedy impersonation of an old woman’s voice. “You young Zharusian whippersnappers can take it fast if you want, but we old maids from Earth have to ease into things.”

Rochelle laughed. “Okay, point taken. So how was he as far as you went?”

“A purr-fect gentleman,” Rhianna said. “There was a point where if he’d pushed just a little bit, I might have gone further than I wanted, in the heat of the moment...but he didn’t. In the end, we just snuggled up and went to sleep.”

“Aww, that’s sweet,” Rochelle said.

Rhianna giggled. “If you want sweet...I woke up in the middle of the night when he started grooming my face in his sleep. I don’t think he even realized he was doing it.”

Rochelle echoed Rhianna’s giggle. “What did you do?”

Rhianna smirked. “I just sort of distracted his tongue with my own for a while ‘til he went back to sleep.”

Rochelle grinned. “Good strategy.”

“So...if it’s not too personal, I was wondering,” Rhianna said. “You went out with him once. How come you didn’t again?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t have minded going out again, and I expect neither would he,” Rochelle said. “We had a good time and all. But that’s all it was--a good time. When I noticed he was actually interested in you, rather than just looking for another good time...well, I can have good times any night with anyone. Relationships are something special. And while we can be kind of casual about open relationships around here, I know you Earth folks are usually more conservative.”

Rhianna smiled. “Well, then thanks. I still don’t know how much of a relationship we’ll have in the end...but it’s sure worth a try.”

“So Diane commed me this morning,” Rochelle said. “Seems like right after you two left, a courier turned up with a bottle of 95-year-old Glenlivet and a note from Zane.”

Rhianna nodded. “Yeah, he told me about that.” She chuckled. “I was a little ambivalent at first, but he did feel responsible for that schmuck smashing up one of Diane’s greatest treasures, and had personal reasons for wanting that bottle out of sight and out of mind. So I guess it’s not another Starmaster.”

“I think we can trust him not to make that mistake again,” Kaylee said from her alcove. “Just make sure you don’t get too close to that infatuation event horizon--at least not ‘til you’re sure you’re ready to go all the way. You don’t have his self-control so much. You didn’t before you crossed, either.”

“I know, I know. Just a little weakness of mine,” Rhianna said.

“She also mentioned Yvonne’s Dad had shown up,” Rochelle said. “And she told me about Zane’s museum. What a surprise! I want to get over there sometime today myself.”

“Wasn’t nobody more surprised than me,” Kaylee said. “My brother...two of my kittens...and Kandy back to visit! She and her girl are staying in town for a bit, by the way. Told her they could crash in our guest room if they wanted. They’ll be by later today.”

“Cool! I never got to meet Jenni when I ran into her out at Aloha,” Rochelle said. “Looking forward to meeting her today.”

“Well, let’s see how much work we’ve got lined up,” Rhianna said. “I expect we could run by this afternoon sometime.” She reviewed the day’s appointments with her implant. They included delivery of three more maintenance bays, filling up the last of the lot’s available space. She delegated Kaylee to handle signing off on them. VR meetings with the franchisee applicants were forthcoming, then there were four hours minimum delegated to just doing the work she loved, fixing RIDEs.

“We have a couple of Donizetti DE owners who want your personal touch, Rhi,” Kaylee said. She looked at Rochelle. “And they want yours on general RI core maintenance, too.”

“Be a good kitty and give the new hires their orientation, Kaylee?” Rhianna said.

“A’course, partner.” The lynx stood up and stretched before padding out through the hardlight door.

“Wow. I don’t think we’ve ever been this busy,” Rochelle said. “We’ll have to add another shift for a while.”

“Fifteen minutes of fame, Shelley,” Uncia said. “Enjoy it while it lasts, hey?”

There was so much to do. On top of the list was trying to get in touch with a researcher at Martinez-U in the FTL Physics Department to she could find someone who could determine how the DINcom actually worked. The field data coming in from the Marshals had some worrying problems she had no idea how to fix. Marshals often had to carry a dozen of them just to ensure they had a reliable connection to base, which took up DE space that could be used for other things. She felt like a 19th century inventor. Trial and error ruled the day rather than more scientific testing--it couldn’t even be simulated. Worse, the math was absolutely impenetrable.

:Relax, Rhi. You can’t do everything,: Kaylee said.

:It’s okay. I know I’m a wrench wench more than anything,: Rhianna replied. :I need somebody more ‘thinky’ to figure this out.:

:So, put it down until you can. There’s a RBT(m)-LSA-005V out here with your name on it.: Kaylee sent her the feed. :Take a look at these diagnostics. Think we can save the DE?:

:Wait, a V? There are only three of those I know of. They called ‘em “velocirabbits”. Faster than a hawk with better inertial damping.:

:And this one has some interesting problems. Come on, someone else can take care of the Donizettis.:

Rhianna rubbed her hands together. “Hey Shelley, interested in fixing up a poor abused velocirabbit?”

“Sounds like a challenge,” the raven-haired woman said. “I’ll be right down.”

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A few hours later, the worst of the velocirabbit’s problems had been put well to rest, the Donizettis were done, and Rhianna had identified three more likely franchisees. It really was tricky figuring out where to put them, quite apart from deciding who was worthy to run them. Rhi didn’t want to harm the business of a number of other decent garages that were already in operation in the other polities. Some of them were decades older than her own, she was on friendly terms with a number of them, and the RIDE mechanic community was pretty tightly-knit in general.

Her decision to franchise out was already causing some unwanted friction, but she was managing to keep it minimized by concentrating mostly on setting up franchises in areas where no garage was currently within easy reach--communities that had only just started up, such as Alpha Camp or some new mining towns in the southern Dry, or where starting a new garage was deemed too financially risky to get backing. They were even planning a franchise or two in some of the major cities on Laurasia, for servicing the small numbers of Gondwanan RIDE-users there as well as working on the smaller Laurasian type.

But after an hour or two of that on top of her normal repair work, Rhi was starting to feel pretty intellectually drained as well as physically hungry. Then she heard a very familiar set of skimmer motors just outside the garage.

“Hello the garage! Hello!” Myla Wilson’s familiar, friendly voice came from the entrance. “Hey, anyone feel like some lunch around here?”

“Myla! Come on in,” Rhianna said, getting up out of the chair. She met the part-Integrate halfway and gave her a sisterly hug. “You’re looking good. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.”

“Sophie and I are taking some vacation time. Now that the crisis is past, Zane doesn’t need us so much at the moment, and after all that’s happened we need it,” Myla said. “So I thought I’d come by and see how you and Kay were holding up. There’s all sorts of rumors buzzing around the office about you and Zane.”

“Only rumors?” Rhianna asked, grinning. “I’m disappointed. I thought he’d have put us in the corporate bulletin by now.”

“The bulletin nothing. There’s a half dozen tumblrs and blogs devoted to speculating about you and him,” Myla said. “All sorts of shipping going on. You have a lot of Zane’s fangirls having fits.” Myla laughed. She was looking ever-more furry the more time she spent Fused with Sophie, who was taking on more organic aspects at the same time. “Anyway, I thought we’d hit St. Joseph’s BBQ for lunch. You and Kay free?”

:Hungry for some pulled chicken, Kay?: Rhianna asked her partner.

:Om nom nom!: Kaylee replied eagerly. :Be right there, pard. The new bays’re up and running, by the way. The Lindae already claimed Bay Ten for their own. That’s the big one with the office.:

The way they’d left LindaGirl and LindaCat on their own over the past few months--usually unannounced due to some emergency--the duo had quickly learned how to manage the Garage effectively. They weren’t quite as good natural mechanics as Paul had been, but they were already trained up to Freerider standards and continued steadily improving. They were also doing quite well at keeping their university studies up while working at the garage part-time. It might not be too long before they were ready for a franchise of their own.

In a few moments, Kaylee padded into the garage, and converted over to her skimmer form for Rhianna to climb on. Myla watched appreciatively. “Remember back when you took me out to the Milkbottle while Shelley was defragging Sophie?”

“You’d just offered to teach me the nuts and bolts of being female. I can’t really forget, can I?” Rhianna said warmly. “After you got Sophie back, we went cruising all afternoon.”

“And when we got back, Zane was waiting for us, fresh out of Integration,” Myla said. “And the whole crazy adventure kicked off. Hard to believe it was less than six months ago. Feels like years.” She chuckled. “As busy as things have been, I didn’t end up with too much time to show you the ropes after all. But you seem to have found your own way okay.”

“Second adolescence,” Rhianna said. “Thanks for the compliment, Myla.”

“Before we go, I have something to show you.” Myla furrowed her brows in concentration, then jumped up three meters and did a forward somersault, before floating down like a feather. “I have working lifters! Well, one anyway. I can’t actually lift off the ground yet.”

Kaylee chuffed. “That gets a ten from the Uplift judge,” Kaylee said from her dash speaker.

“You couldn’t do that before,” Rhianna said. “Think you and Sophie are going to...?”

“Well of course we’re going to. Eventually.” Myla shrugged. “Integration seems to be a one-way street, and we’re already several blocks down it. I expect most folks and RIDEs who really care about each other will get there sooner or later. Sophie and I feel lucky to be able to do it gradually instead of all at once. Less of a shock that way, I expect. Right, Soph?”

“It’ll happen when the time is right and not before,” the partly-organic fennec RIDE declared. “Let’s go eat! I’m starved.”

“Works for me.” Rhianna and Kaylee pulled out of the garage, and Myla followed on Sophie. They headed up the road to the small suburb where the hole-in-the-wall barbecue joint Zane favored awaited. Since Zane had taken Rochelle there on their date, Rhianna and the others had started going there fairly often. As anyone partnered with a carnivorous or omnivorous RIDE quickly discovered, it only took one visit to get hooked.

“I’m still amazed that you’ve got a RIDE who eats by herself,” Rhianna said to Myla as they traveled along.

“Yeah, well, I’ve also got the only RIDE I know of who needs to carry a pooper scooper in one of her panniers,” Myla said, chuckling. “So there are pros and cons.”

“Hey! I’m not that bad,” Sophie protested. “It was just that once, and anyway, it was an accident!”

“And I’ve got batteries to keep charged, or I feel lethargic,” Myla added. “Try explaining how you need a second RIDEsafe socket for yourself sometime and see what kind of looks you get.”

Rhianna chuckled. “That does sound trying.”

They pulled into the parking lot of St. Joseph’s, which was about half full as usual for this hour. The interior was also about half-full, as the barbecue place had been seeing a surge in popularity among the local Integrate community based on Zane’s recommendations. Chet St. Joseph, the proprietor, nodded to them as they came in.

“Why don’t we get this to go and take it to the picnic tables in the park?” Myla suggested.

“Good idea,” Rhianna agreed. The park was only a couple of minutes away. “And dessert is right there.”

Myla grinned. “That was kind of why I suggested it.”

They picked up their bags and headed back out to the parking lot, and a couple of minutes later were seated on one of the Fuser-strength picnic tables on the park lawn. It was looking even better than it had on the day of the ceremony. The grass was lusher, and the trees were all a good half-meter taller and showing signs of new foliage. Rhianna and Kaylee were Fused up, but Myla and Sophie were separate. Myla was seated across from Rhianna, and Sophie’s dish was on one end of the table so she could sit on her haunches and eat from it.

“So, any gossip about Zane you’d like to share? Hmmm? I’m all ears.” She twitched her oversized fennec ears to demonstrate.

Rhianna smirked. “You certainly are.” She considered. “Well, he does know how to show a girl a good time.”

“A tiger in bed as well as in the office?” Myla grinned predatorily and drank some cola through a straw.

“I’m not sure I should comment there.” Rhianna grinned back. “He was a purrrrrfect gentleman with me.”

“Ooooh,” Sophie added.

“I can vouch for Rhi having a nice evening, night, morning, breakfast...” Kaylee said, giggling. “I had a good couple of months last night myself.”

“Oh, that’s right, Zane was finally going to show off the museum.” Myla grinned. “We all had such a hard time keeping quiet about that. But it was worth it.”

“I’ll say,” Kaylee said. “Nature Range and Bambi’s Forest with family...hunting down Yvonne and her Dad, among others. I can’t remember last time I had so much fun.”

“I’ll join you next time,” Sophie said. “I’ve got some almost Intie-grade Earth desert biomes we can play in.”

“Oooh,” Kaylee said. “Sounds like fun.”

“I’m not sure exactly where my relationship with Zane is going to go from here,” Rhianna said. “It was a good first date, but one swallow doesn’t make a summer.”

“I’ve known him long enough now that he’ll follow your lead,” Myla said. She started laughing. “You know, the tumblrs are digging up all that video of you at the first Summit? Rhianna, doll, you did look stunning in that dress. And you’ll look even better in the one he gave you.”

Rhianna raised an eyebrow. “You knew about that?”

“I am his chief bodyguard,” Myla pointed out. “And while I shouldn’t spill all my client’s secrets, there’s one other thing I think you ought to know.”

“You’ve got my curiosity.”

“It’s standard Brubeck Mining policy that any employee who’s going to be spending much time in the Dry has to bank reproductive tissue first, just in case of accidental irradiation,” Myla said. “I had to do it myself--and I’m certainly glad I did now. And Zane is nothing if not a stickler for regulations.”

The mechanic put two and two together, then put her hand on her belly. “Uh...”

“I’m not saying you two have to get busy or anything,” Myla said. “Just wanted to let you know that avenue’s still open--so you don’t have to feel like you’d be ‘missing out on part of the experience’ if you go with Zane. If you get around to it before you Integrate, anyway. Maybe you should bank some tissue, too.” She grinned. “It’s suddenly all the rage these days.”

:Dream a little dream, eh?: Kaylee sent, smirking. Rhianna’s implant allowed her to dream lucidly, and she hid nothing from Kaylee. :Nothing wrong with being curious. I can simulate being preggers for you.:

:Dreams will do,: Rhianna decided. :Real life? Not yet.:

“I’ll file that little fact away for safekeeping,” Rhianna said aloud.

“I hope it works out for you, I really do,” Myla said. “You make a really cute couple.”

“It’s the tufty ears,” Rhianna deadpanned, flicking them.

“And kitty noses,” Kaylee added.

Rhianna laughed. And that was when she really felt it. Life was at last returning to normal. Granted, it was a normal that she wouldn’t even have recognized before that adventure in the Towers, or her first trip for ice cream with Myla--but it was “normal” for some value of “normal.” There were no impending crises, no sense that some new disaster lay just around the corner. There was her relationship with Zane to sort out, but that promised to be the exact opposite of a disaster.

At least for the moment, life was good. The way her life had been going lately, Rhianna reflected wryly, that peace and quiet might end at any time--but that just made the calm parts all the more precious. She resolved to do her best to enjoy them as they came.

:You said it, partner,: Kaylee sent, flooding her rider with feelings of mutual affection. “Now how ‘bout we go get some ice cream?” she said aloud. “They got that new ‘RIDE’s Dream’ mondae we haven’t tried yet.”

Rhianna grinned. “I’ll go fetch us three of them.”

Separator k left.png The End Separator k right.png
(for now)
Preceded by:
Integration Part XXIV: What Happened to the Mouse?
FreeRIDErs Succeeded by:
Impossible Things