User:Robotech Master/What Happened Mouse original

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FreeRIDErs story universe


by Jon Buck and Robotech_Master

Part 24: What Happened to the Mouse?

One Week Later…

Only Camelot had a healing tank large enough to hold Svetlana and the numerous other injured from the attack. It was the size of an Olympic swimming pool and ten meters deep. With the large number of dragons who called the Enclave home this really didn’t surprise Paul or Fenris. Camelot was already providing a great deal in the way of raw materials and construction printers being used to build up Alpha Camp into a proper polis.

“I swear, if I hear ‘Tis but a flesh wound’ one more time I’m going to lift out of here and beat someone to death with my stumps!” Svetlana fumed.

“Yes, we are a very…silly place at times,” Mr. Peaches said. “The Monty Python Memetic Complex runs deep in our psyches here. At any rate, it will be some weeks before you can leave that tank. Your joints took a great deal of damage from the sniper rifle.”

“I wanted to make sure you were healing well,” Fenris said. “We would have come sooner, but we are kept very busy at Camp.”

“We also wanted to reassure you that your comrades aren’t being mistreated,” Paul said. He nodded at Fenris, who uploaded a memory block to her.

Svetlana reviewed the block. “I approve, though not without reservations. I am not in any position to make demands, however.” The white she-wolf regarded Peaches with some amusement. “One might think that Camelot had stockpiled all those things earmarked for the Camp for years, just waiting.”

“For the proper moment, yes,” Peaches confirmed. “Two additional primary climate dome emitters and a dozen secondaries to stabilize. Construction printers for proper buildings, public fabberies, and a commercial solar-fusion-sarium cycle power system to provide RIDE-safe charging and energy storage for everyday use.”

Svetlana nodded. Then she sighed. “And what is to become of me?”

“After your limbs have fully reattached and the doctors pronounce you fit, we had hoped you would return to Camp with us, and help us build it up,” Fenris said.

“And if not, then what?” Svetlana asked gloomily. “I am your prisoner. I led Fritz’s army against your home.”

“Well, most everyone who took part in the attacks is getting light sentences,” Paul said. “Leastways the ones who didn’t actually kill anyone, and weren’t already wanted for murder and such elsewhere. Community service and probation, mostly. So if you’re gonna have to serve a community anyway, might as well be ours.”

“And after that, Sturmhaven has expressed interest in having you come home, for a visit at least,” Fenris said. “In fact, they have invited Paul, Guinevere, Lillibet, and myself to visit, as well, when Bertha, Hedy, and Diana return.” He chuckled. “They have been very polite about not attempting to press any legal claim to us. For all of that, they must want us pretty badly; they have even offered Paul and myself diplomatic immunity from the Male Transgression laws.”

“Oh…” Svetlana considered that. “To go home again…I had not thought it would be possible.”

“Seems like Sturmhaven’s bending over backward to prove it’s all progressive and stuff, so’s it can rub Nextus’s nose in it,” Paul said. “Well, I’m not exactly gonna complain about the reason if it gets results.”

“Aptly put,” Fenris agreed.

“Anyway, guess we’d better get going, Fenris,” Paul said, jumping into his commander’s mouth. “We have visitors this afternoon and we’re a few hundred klicks away.”

“It was…good, seeing you again, Fenris,” Svetlana said. “Please give my regards to Bertha and her partners.”

“We will,” Fenris said. “And we will see you again soon enough.”

Alpha Camp wasn’t the only place getting some big changes. Camelot itself had humans and RIDEs gadding about—tourists for the most part—wandering around the anachronistic spaces that were more tenth century than twentieth. Yet the medieval décor masked one of the most technologically advanced Integrate Enclaves. They even had their own shipyard, where they could build everything up to 200-meter orbital craft. And they had quickly responded to the surge in tourism by opening a variety of hotels and restaurants. Some of them even served food other than ham, jam, and spam.

The Enclave practically fizzed with newfound energy. With Fritz gone, a great weight had been lifted. Even those few Integrate residents who had experienced harsh treatment at human hands were guardedly optimistic.

“We already have more orders for subs than we can handle, even with the shipyard expansion,” Mr. Peaches said as they walked together out of the hospital annex. “But we reserved two subs for Alpha Camp intended for passenger and cargo service. Assuming he accepts the Marshals’ gracious amnesty offer, that is.”

“Oh, that’s a foregone conclusion. He will,” Paul said. After AlphaWolf’s decisive defeat of Svetlana all doubts about his leadership had evaporated, though that didn’t mean nobody would argue with him. The upcoming elections for the new Camp Council were turning somewhat heated. “Amnesty in exchange for giving up all bodyjacked humans who want to go,” Paul said. They had lost most of the die-hards during the Shahrazade Incident, but there were still enough to have influence.

“But more than enough volunteers from elsewhere to take up the slack,” Fenris said. They’d even seen them on new street corners with handmade signs, advertising “rental thumbs”. “I am…encouraged by this. Camp will be the only place on Zharus where humans and RIDEs really do have full equality by law.”

“The ones who can deal with that, anyway,” Paul said. “We’ve still got all those extremists. The ones who were done so dirty by humans they see it as their right to keep ‘em.”

“As there will always be humans who think of us as mere machines,” Fenris said. “We’ll always have our political and ideological battles to fight.” He paused as they reached the main gate, which an exhausted-looking small green dragon labored on a huge wheel to open for them. “Farewell, Mr. Peaches! We will see you again soon!” Fenris said.

“Goodbye, my friends!” Mr. Peaches said. “Tell AlphaWolf hello for me!”

Fenris converted to hovertank form, accelerating to cruising speed a hundred meters over the desert. At speed Camp was a half hour away.

“Speaking of political and ideological battles,” Paul said. :Lilli, Guin, how are things at Camp?:

:Election signs all over the place, Paul,: Lillibet Walton replied through the DINcom. She transmitted video of a “Vote Plan Ankylosaur!” sign, with a little animated caricature of Smash, in front of one of the half-finished apartment blocks. A tanker full of fabber matter sat behind the sign, with the industrial constructor scaffolding doing its quick work in the background. The building would probably be ready for occupation in just a couple days.

:That was…quick,: Paul said, amused. :Is Smash actually running?:

:She is, as of an hour ago,: Guin said. :Ever heard of the term, ‘obfuscating stupidity’? Don’t take my word for it. Here’s her campaign ads to peruse on your way home. She’s running on a dual ticket with Lenore.:

Paul watched the half dozen surprisingly verbose ads several times, shaking his head at each one. She was running on a “thumb rehab” platform, since one of the major issues was how to deal with the various RIDE slavers in the Dry. Every single candidate promised to eradicate them, though Smash’s own methods had a certain…vivacious bluntness.

Smash felt that the best way to “rehabilitate” slavers was to let them be thumbs for a while—and the longer, the better. She’d even managed to get a tacit endorsement from the Marshals, allowing that RIDE slavers (and other human criminals) who had been properly convicted under local laws could be considered exempt from the “no thumbnapping” restrictions going forward.

Other issues included relationships with human polities with strong fetter laws, getting recognition in Zharustead, what to do with all the infrastructure Camelot was giving them, what the Camp’s economy should be based on, and how to reach out to the myriad other escaped-RIDE settlements all across the Dry…all basic housekeeping topics for a working polity rather than just a base camp for fugitive RIDEs and bodyjacked humans, living paw-to-mouth on the other side of legality.

“I can’t believe it happened this fast,” Paul said. In the brief three hours they’d been gone the remaining few secondary domes were up, expanding the Camp’s available space three-fold. The nascent polis resembled a mini-Uplift. “I can’t believe I’ve been here watching it happen.”

:Neither can AlphaWolf,: Lillibet said. :He still looks a little bit dazed about the whole thing. Kind of like he’s just been run down by a skimmer truck, but without the bruising.:

“Not merely watching, Paul,” Fenris said. “Without you, none of this would have happened, and I would still be a pile of junk decaying in the sun.”

:Rhianna’s Dreamchaser is on approach,: Guin reported. :And Lilli’s parents are close behind in…what is that?:

Paul snorted. “Knowing them, it could be anything from the Spruce Goose to a UFO.”

:Northrop YB-49 Flying Wing,: Lillibet supplied. :Knowing Dad, he could probably fly to the moon and back in it.:

:We’ll meet you at the new aerodrome,: Fenris said, accelerating. :Among so many new things,: he said privately to Paul.

:Yeah…Rhi said she has a present for me,: Paul replied.

Separator k.png

A few thousand meters over the expanding Alpha Camp the Dreamchaser hovered, taking in the new dome complex and surrounding landscape. Kaylee looked outside, forepaws on the front panel. “Not really what I expected,” she said. “It’s like a new SimCity game down there.”

“Things are changing quickly, Citizen Kaylee,” Uncia said.

“They certainly are, Citizen Uncia,” Kaylee replied dryly. “Is that paparazzi sub still following us?”

“I think so, but they’ve been staying farther back since you fired that warning shot across their bow,” Uncia said.

“What ‘warning shot’?” Kaylee said virtuously. “Our maint’nance logs said it’d been over a thousand hours since our rear pulse gun’s last firin’, so we had to fire a test shot to stay within regs.”

“Well, after your ‘test shot’ came within three meters of scorching their paint, they’ve been keeping well away,” Uncia said.

“Killin’ two birds with one stone,” Kaylee said happily. “Win-win.”

“Yeah, but I can just imagine the headlines on the Enquirer later today,” Uncia said darkly.

“Who reads that crap, anyway?” Kaylee grumbled.

Below them, the Waltons’ silver flying wing landed in the crowded area designated as an aerodrome that was now covered by the dome. They were mostly large cargo subs from Walton-Q, a number of private craft, and several from Alohan shipping companies no doubt backed by the Munns. Two of Zane’s own Starmasters weren’t even the largest suborbitals present. Work gangs of Integrates used their lifters to remove cargo—mostly fabbers, construction equipment, and fabber matter tanks. The Marshals’ own high-speed orbital Acme was also present. Kaylee put them down next to it and the flying wing.

“Cargo didn’t shift,” Kaylee reported. “We almost busted the lifting specs, Rhi. I’ll be glad to get that load out of the cargo bay.”

“Too bad we don’t have a Starmaster for flying heavy stuff like that around,” Rochelle opined. “I wonder if there’s anyone who might sell us one cheaply?”

“I might know someone,” Rhianna said dryly. “CinTally’s got the other half of this lift anyway.” She Fused up with Kaylee, waited for her friends to Fuse, then opened the cockpit hatch. She waved at a certain orange-with-black-stripes figure. “Zane! Hi!”

“Fancy meeting you here!” the tiger replied. He still had his cane, but no longer needed it. Since the fight against Fritz it had become part of his public face, in addition to variants of his father’s scouting gear.

Rhianna thought it gave him a dapper, distinguished look. All he needed was a monocle and pith helmet to complete the picture. “Is CinTally around? I wanted to say hello.”

“I haven’t seen her since she met Baldwin. Turns out he’s an Intie, too,” Zane said. “I don’t think I’m going to see much of her for a while, nor Alpha of Baldwin.” He grinned toothily. “Last I saw they were flying off together at about Mach two in the general direction of Mount Wahoo.”

Rhianna nodded, looking around. “Well, we could use one of your cargo handlers. This load is a pawfull.”

“It’s that gift for Paul you mentioned, right? What is it?”

“It’s about fifteen tonnes of self-deploying constructor nanos,” Rhianna said, grinning felinely. “Hey, there’s Fenris!”

“Greetings!” he replied cheerfully. The WLF-CSA was impossible to miss in tank mode. Lillibet and Guinevere skimmed alongside them before Fusing and entering the repaired cupola-turret.

“Hey there, boss!” Paul shouted through Fenris’s vocoder, loud enough to raise a little dust.

“You’re here just in time, you two,” Rhianna said. “Our load has lifters, but we could use your strength to maneuver it. Since this cargo is yours, I think you’d like to lend a paw.”

“That big, huh?” Paul said. “You’ve piqued my interest, boss.”

“Should we borrow some Integrate laborers for additional help?” Fenris asked.

A mid-size dragon hovering in midair dropped down. “What can I do for you, sir?” His tone of voice was rather unenthusiastic.

“Steady the other side of the load as we bring it down the ramp,” Fenris said, shifting to Fuser. “I’m very curious what this is, Rhianna.”

“Well, I might as well tell you,” the RIDE mechanic said. She lifted up so she was face-to-face with Fenris and Paul, with Lilli and Guin looking over his shoulder. “It’s a foregone conclusion you’re not returning to Uplift. So…since you’re not coming back to the Garage, I’m bringing the Garage to you. This is a self-building ‘backup’ of the whole Garage. Zane and I bought it from the insurance company, and it’s gonna be the part of the basic package. Congratulations, Paul. You’re the first Freerider Garage franchise owner, and I can’t think of a more-qualified person or a better place to spread the name.

“Of course, it’s just the core building. The one Rochelle and I started in. We made some mods to the outside walls upstairs so Fenris has a place inside to rest his head.”

“Where do you want it?” the dragon asked.

“You know, I can’t think of a more appropriate place than our workspace in the ‘graveyard,’” Paul said. “It’s pretty much ours now by squatters’ rights anyway, and the place every RIDE already knows to go if they’ve got maint needs.” He chuckled. “Of course, we kind of gotta share it with Nora and Rose, since it’s also where every human already knows to go if they got a certain other kind of ‘maint need.’ But there’s plenty of room.”

“Besides, it’s kinda convenient,” Guinevere put in. “Gives the human partner something to do while their RIDE’s being worked on.”

“Gives a whole new meaning to the term ‘service center,’ I’ll give it that,” Lillibet put in.

The Waltons walked down the ramp of their flying wing, Melissa walking at Nigella’s side. Kenyon hadn’t had his AlphaWolf tags docked—like Zane’s cane, they’d also become part of his public image. Rhianna had the feeling that the man wouldn’t part with them for any price.

“Maybe Lilli would like to run a Freerider franchise of her own in Nextus?” Kenyon said.

“Daaad,” Lilli said, rolling her eyes. “I was thinking more of being Rochelle to Paul’s Rhianna in this one. Or maybe the other way around.”

“In a less platonic sense than the originals, I would presume,” Fenris rumbled.

“You know, why don’t I bring out the other gift to help tow this into town?” Zane suggested. His DIN glimmered, the aft ramp on his Starmaster opened, and the 40-year-old refurbished tow skimmer Paul had worked on so long ago floated out like a puppy returning to his master.

“That survived?” Paul said, shocked.

“It was out on a job when Tocsin flattened the place,” Rhianna said. “Now, maybe you don’t really need this. But after everything else I didn’t feel right not giving it to you after you put in so much hard work on the conversion.”

“I’ll find a use,” Paul said. “I put my heart and soul into that old girl. I think it prepared me for getting Fenris running again.”

“What’s a garage without a tow truck?” Lillibet said, grinning. “With a little Dry Ocean-proofing, it could be helpful in running supplies in from Camelot, too.”

Zane controlled the tow skim with his DIN, commanding it to back up to the nano-constructor block and lock on with lifter fields and a physical clamp. The tiger Integrate lifted up to sit atop the block, then pointed forwards with his cane. The skimmer accelerated forward slowly. “Tally ho!”

“Thank you for your assistance,” Fenris said to the dragon.

“Don’t mention it,” the green dragon Integrate said. “Call me if you need me again, I suppose. It’s what I’m here for—at least another sixty-two point eight days.”

“You could reduce your sentence if you showed some remorse,” Fenris reproved.

“Cheer up, you’re not dead or locked up in a cell or something,” Lillibet said. “You’ll be free before you know it.”

The Integrate glowered at her before launching himself back into the sky to await for another help request. Lillibet and Paul sighed. “Guess this isn’t all roses and chocolate for everyone,” she said.

“He’ll get over it,” Kenyon Walton said. “Shall we move on? I’d love to see where Paul has done so much fine work here.”

Melissa changed to scooter mode, Nigella handing her husband a stylish Vespa half-helmet from the underseat storage. He sat behind his wife, wrapping his arms around her waist. Nigella twisted the throttle and they accelerated after the tow skimmer.

“Isn’t that cute?” Rochelle said.

Lillibet rolled her RIDE’s eyes again. “They’re just Mom and Dad.”

Uncia sang to the Beatles tune, “She’s got a tricked-out new RIDE,” nodding toward the Waltons. “And she don’t care,” nodding toward Lillibet, who stuck out her tongue.

The procession towards the old graveyard turned into an impromptu tour—Kenyon wanted to see how the materials Walton-Q were contributing were being used. Tanks full of fabber matter moved about in a complicated dance of empties returning to refill and full replacements. The “streets” were all dug-up with more constructors adding the supporting infrastructure underground—power cables, fiber-optics, water, sewer, and fabber matter feeds.

What wasn’t being done by AI-controlled constructors were supervised by Intie work-gangs, Alpha Camp’s resident RIDEs, even the odd human wearing a hardhat, waving a tablet of blueprints about.

Among all the seeming harmony was a group of RIDEs clustered around a vacant building site that had a hardlight projection of a Gondwana Marshals badge floating over it. “No Marshals here!” someone shouted. “We can police ourselves!”

:Uh oh,: Kaylee said. :This could turn into an ugly mob.:

:I’ve told Alpha. He’s on his way,: Fenris said.

Fused, the sandy wolf shortly landed amid the growing mob. “Okay, everyone. What’s going on here? This station is part and parcel of our amnesty agreement, and you knew it. And it’s not even meant to police us in the first place. That’s not what the Marshals do. This station will mostly be staffed by non-partnered RIDEs to begin with. So what’s your problem again, Ohm?”

“How about what they did to us last time we invited ‘em in?” The speaker was a male skunk recognizable from the numerous election signs that were everywhere along the new streets. The signs played scenes from Mike Munn’s “betrayal” that ended up bringing down the dome and the resulting chaos, ending with NO MARSHALS HERE in bold text. He glowered at the wolf. “Besides, Alpha, how many undercover Marshals did we have with us at any one time? We know of at least one—Tamarind—were there more? Right under your nose?”

“Let me turn that around on you. What harm did Tammy ever do, all the while she was here?” AlphaWolf said. “It was an Intie Marshal from outside who screwed the pooch, and they won’t be sending any of those here without our express permission in advance. If there’s any fault here it’s mine for allowing war criminals like Shah and Fridolf to join us.”

“They hid their crimes from us very well, I admit,” Ohm said. “We didn’t know.”

AlphaWolf shook his head. “Undercover Marshals, undercover war criminals, undercover Inties…sometimes I wonder if everyone in this whole camp isn’t secretly an agent for someone else. That being said, the Marshals are here for precisely three reasons: first, search-and-rescue in the Dry, which as we all know is a big problem, and will be more so in this area since we’re actually gonna have people visiting now. Which means more idiots to forget to charge their batteries up and conk out somewhere over the deep Dry. Do we want to be the ones who have to spend all our time going out and helping those idiots? I don’t think so.

“Second, they’re gonna help us stop the RIDE slaver problem, and have even been nice enough to agree to look the other way if we want to ‘jack anyone who’s caught in the act for a while. Geez, what more do you want, engraved Letters of Marque?

“And third, they have jurisdiction over the bus terminal and passenger terminals of the aerodrome, that being interpolity commerce and yadda yadda yadda. That’s all. If they see something wrong on our turf, they bring it to our attention, as long as we do the same for them. If they don’t like how we handle it, then their bosses talk to our new Council. They’re not gonna come in like gangbusters and start arresting us. If they tried, I’d be the first one to kick their butts to the curb.”

With that, the mob started to disperse, leaving Ohm grumbling. “I guess that’s it for my campaign.” The skunk shifted to skimmer form and moved away, flying between Fenris and the towskim like neither were there.

Kenyon Walton applauded. “Great speech, Alpha. It’s good to see you again. I see you have new thumbs.”

AlphaWolf chuckled. “You jealous? He’s pretty comfy—Nextus military, like I used to be, so he just feels…familiar. Kind of nostalgic, in a way. But you know I’d trade him for you in a heartbeat, if it weren’t for all our other obligations.” He shook his head. “It’s nice seeing you, everyone. What’s all this?”

“Our first small business,” Paul said. “I’m going to need utility hookups in the old ‘graveyard’.”

“I can finagle a few constructors for that,” AlphaWolf said. He chuckled. “But technically, it will be our second small business. The oldest profession got there first.”

Rhianna blinked. “You were serious?”

“Serious as a heart attack,” Paul said wryly.

“Yeah, it’s one of the biggest laugh riots in the camp,” Lillibet said. “Nora managed to capture seven Integrates all by herself during the fight—that’s more than any other one person managed—and she’s insisted on keeping them. Funny thing is, none of them seems exactly broken up about it.” She grinned. “They’ve been helping her build a…well, saloon and hotel, I guess you’d say, fronting on the hole in the wall where she used to see her ‘clients’.”

“And it’s gonna be pretty much right next door to our shop,” Paul said. “We both kinda had a little bit of prior claim, so we figured we could just divide the place up, and maybe be good for each other’s business.”

“I see,” Nigella Walton said coolly—but she said nothing more, because her husband blew raspberries on the back of her neck, making her giggle like a teenager. “Ooh, Kenyon! Stop!”

“I’ll come with you and watch the setup,” AlphaWolf said.

Since Camelot had supplied the necessary parts to fix the last few sleeping RIDEs, it was a graveyard no longer. There were a few discolored places on the ground where RIDEs might have sat, gathering dust, for years, and a few half-filled-in holes in the ground left over from the bombs Shahrazad had planted to cover her escape. And along the wall toward the rest of the camp, there was a fairly tasteful three-story mauve house going up, with pre-fab residential modules attached to either side. There was still plenty of room to maneuver the skimmer past it all. As they passed, a full-figured fox Fuser came out of one of the residential modules and shaded her eyes against the sun to watch curiously.

“I thought the best place would be at the far end there—right where Fenris was when I found him,” Paul said, pointing.

“Appropriate,” Fenris agreed.

“The constructor AI says some of those holes are good for foundation pilings,” Rhianna said. “Zane? Would you set it down over there?”

“Your wish is my command!” Zane said, unclamping the prefab unit from the skimmer and setting it down where Paul directed. “Okay, there. Paul, if you’d like to do the honors?”

Paul and Fenris transmitted the signal. The dark rectangular object hummed for a few seconds, then started extending itself out over the ground, automatically digging its own foundation. “Thank you for your purchase of a Hyperion Self-Building Home-Business!” a friendly voice said. “The process will complete in approximately three hours and be ready for utilities. Please enjoy some music while you wait.”

The mountain is high, the valley is low

And you’re confused on which way to go

So I’ve come here to give you a hand

And lead you into the promised land, so

Come on and take a free ride (Free ride)

Come on and sit here by my side

Come on and take a free ride…

Rhianna turned it down and laughed. “Okay, that wasn’t my idea, but it fits.”

“Howdy, neighbor!” Nora said cheerfully, walking up with a serval Integrate in tow. “What’s all this?”

“Fifteen tonnes of self-assembling nanos,” Rhianna deadpanned. “Huh. VIXY(f)-PSA-34DDD, right?”

Nora flicked an ear. “You’re good. How do you do that through the hardlight coat?”

“It’s just something I do,” Rhianna replied, smirking. “Paul’s good, but he’s had to use salvaged and substandard equipment for hardlight tuning. Kaylee’s sensors found a gap. Once this building’s all set up, he’ll have brand new tools to do things properly.”

“Oh dear, you mean to say my slip is showing?” Nora said, tongue lolling.

“I can’t wait to get my hands on all that!” Paul said.

“All that what?” Lillibet said pointedly.

“Er…” Paul said, blushing.

Nora giggled. “By the way, until I get my own business off the ground, would it be all right if I paid in…barter?”

Er…” Paul said, going bright red.

Kenyon whispered something in his wife’s ear that made her blush. “If you have a romantic room for rent, ma’am, my wife and I would rather like to stay the night.”

Nora blinked, noticing the tycoon for the first time. Her eyes widened, and she bowed low. “Oh, my! If it isn’t Kenyon and Nigella Walton themselves! I believe I have just the thing.” She smiled. “And needless to say, I can guarantee absolute privacy.”

“Wonderful,” Kenyon said. “We’d planned on staying in the wing, but this is much more convenient, isn’t it my love?”

Nigella nodded emphatically, as bright red as Paul had been.

“Um, ew,” Lillibet said. “Still…”

AlphaWolf smirked. “It is the only real hotel in town yet.”

“Shall I go ready the honeymoon suite, ma’am?” the subservient serval servant asked Nora.

“Absolutely! I can’t think of any better use for it!” Nora said. She sighed happily as the serval lifted into the air and whisked away. “If you’d told me ten years ago when I got free of Bartertown that someday I’d be playing host to the Waltons…

“Funny how things work out,” Paul reflected, color finally subsiding. “When I signed on as an apprentice in the garage, I wouldn’t have expected I’d end up…well, here.” He grinned at Lillibet. “But ya know? I’m glad we did.”

“Me too, Paul,” Lillibet said, grinning back. “Me too.”

Separator k.png

After Rhianna and Rochelle flew home, the next couple of days in AlphaWolf’s camp passed amazingly quickly. The elections were held after a fast-time campaign that compressed days into weeks of discussion and debate for the RIs, and “Plan Ankylosaur” won their Camp Council seats. Along with AlphaWolf’s foregone position as Head Councilor they had a three-of-five pro-equality majority. Not as big a majority as AlphaWolf and Smash might have wanted, but big enough. More buildings went up, including a Tourist Center. “Now we just need tourists,” AlphaWolf said.

But they actually had at least a couple of tourists already, Lillibet reflected, in the form of her parents. They had insisted Lilli show them all the places of interest in the camp, something which Lillibet privately suspected would have taken all of about fifteen minutes if her parents hadn’t paused at every place to talk to any RIDEs, humans, or Integrates in sight.

She did have to admit, though, that it did a world of good from a public-relations point of view to have one of the most powerful men in the world so obviously interested in the success of AlphaWolf’s little community. The fact that he was marked with AlphaWolf’s own tags didn’t hurt, either.

But all good things had to come to an end.

Lillibet sighed, looking around the small apartment in the new garage building that Paul had assigned to her and Guinevere’s use. “Well, this is it. Time to go.”

“On the bright side, at least we don’t have much to pack,” Guin pointed out.

“Yeah, you got that right,” Lillibet said. “Just our bodies.”

“And it’s not as if we’re really leaving,” Guinevere said. “Part of me will be right here with Fenris every moment of the day. We can meet him and Paul in VR, or even Fuse remotely, any time.”

“Yeah. It’s just not the same, though.” Lillibet shook her head. “And you know once we get back, it’ll probably be forever before we can get out here again for any length of time.”

“I can’t exactly say I’m looking forward to not being in charge again, either,” Guinevere smirked. “But look at it this way. There’s a lot of good we can do back in Nextus now that we’re all famous.”

“Lilli’s the daughter of one of the biggest mining magnates on the planet. She’s a celeb by definition,” Paul said from the doorway.

“Yeah, well now she’s a celeb with a story,” Guinevere said. “Poor little rich girl, kidnapped away to a life of thumb-slavery, becomes the camp darling of AlphaWolf’s band of desperate and dangerous RIDEs and helps save them from the big bad Fritz.”

Lillibet rolled her eyes. “You know that’s not how it happened.”

“Try telling that to the tabloids,” Guinevere smirked. “Anyway, I’m sure there are a lot of people who’ll listen now when you tell ‘em to unfetter their RIDEs…and when you speak out against the fettering laws still on the books…well, you’ll get a lot of media attention.”

“Huh.” Lillibet considered that for a moment. “Yeah, when you put it that way…I guess I kinda have a duty to go back and kick butt and take names. And it is something I can look forward to.” She grinned at Paul. “So…come to say goodbye?”

“Something like that.” Paul wagged his twin tails, then walked over and put his arms around Lillibet’s shoulders, looking her in the eyes. He blushed slightly, before bringing her into an embrace for a long farewell kiss. Hearts pounding, he only let go once they both felt out of breath. “Words aren’t enough, Lilli.”

“Silly wuffy,” she purred, touching his lupine nose. “Try ‘I love you’.”

“Oh yeah,” Paul said. “There are those words, aren’t there?”

“I guess you’re here to walk us to the aerodrome, huh?” Lillibet said.

“Better than that,” Paul said. “I’m here to give you a ride on a giant wolf to the aerodrome. C’mon, Fennie’s waiting downstairs.”

“All right.” Lillibet glanced around the room one last time. “Funny. Didn’t need a room most of the time I was here, but it already feels like home after just a couple days. OK, Guinny, I’m ready.”

“Brena’s ready, too,” the ocelot RIDE said.

“It’ll be good to have the whole gang together again,” Lilli reflected. “Without Brena, something was…missing.”

“Something like, oh, maybe, Brena?” Guinevere asked.

Lillibet bapped her. “Just Fuse me and let’s go, oh boss o’ mine.”

“Whatever you say, thumbs o’ my heart!” Guinevere replied, Fusing into place around her. They followed Paul downstairs to where Fenris waited out front, in tank mode again, and Guin lifted them up to their customary place in the turret. They pulled out of the graveyard, but drove slower then Fenris’s usual speed.

The reason for this became obvious when they rounded the corner of the wall that bordered on the graveyard. Dozens of RIDEs and humans were lined up along the recently-completed Alpha Avenue leading through the settlement to the aerodrome. Everyone Paul and Lilli had ever worked on was there. Tocsin, Nora, Baldwin, Bertha, Hedy, Smash, Lenore…and, of course, AlphaWolf himself, in Walker mode, sitting on his haunches next to her father. “So long, Lilli. We’re going to miss you,” he said.

Kenyon Walton absently petted Alpha between his ears. Perhaps not the most dignified for either of them in public, but neither seemed to care. “You act like I’m going to forbid her from ever returning, Alphie.”

AlphaWolf chuckled, his tongue lolling out in a lupine grin. “Well, you do have to keep up appearances, don’t you? You just got your daughter back from her ‘kidnappers’ and you’re going to let her go hang out with them?”

“Just call me Patty Hearst!” Lilli said cheerfully.

“I don’t think anyone believed that story for more than five minutes anyway,” Kenyon said. “AlphaWolf and Melissa saved us, and that ended up on NextusLeaks a few days ago. That went a long way to proving the new Alpha Camp polis legit up in First Tier.

“Anyway, Lilli, the X-15 is yours. As you’re well aware, Guin’s already certified to fly it. Spend as much time as you want on the weekends out here. And when summer vacation comes around…well, we’ll talk.”

“Oh…thank you, Daddy!” Lillibet squealed. “But…is it okay with Mom, too?”

“You’re growing into a responsible young woman,” Nigella said. “And a very brave one. Moreso than I.”

“And…that means you’re okay with it?” Lilli asked cautiously.

“In so many words, yes,” her mother replied. “But when we get home, we’re going to make an appointment to bank your ova. Just in case you and Guin grow even closer.”

“Mooom! You didn’t have to say that in front of everyone!”

“What kind of mother would I be if I didn’t occasionally embarrass my child?” Nigella said dryly.

“I’m ready!” Brena yipped, knowing a good time to interrupt when she saw one. The vixen was sitting on her haunches in feral form with her hardlight leash in her mouth, tail wagging happily.

Lillibet blinked at Brena. “Like that? Really?”

“It makes Beatrice happy,” Brena said. “I’m…considering changing over permanently and changing my name. Beatrice wasn’t the idiot who fell for Fritz.”

“Somehow, I’m not sure Brena’s family would appreciate that,” Lillibet said. “I don’t think that kind of thing is healthy, is it?”

“I’m not looking forward to the hours of therapy, but…” The vixen stood up and shook herself out, the leash disappearing. “After all this…both of me are homesick as all get out.”

Lilli and Guin hopped down from the turret and hugged their friend. “You can come over any time, as Brena or Beatrice,” Lilli said. She giggled. “I will admit, I’m gonna miss my big fluffy pillow when I go to bed from now on.”

“Hey, you’ve got me,” Guin pouted.

“Yeah, but you’re not fluffy,” Lilli said.

“Let’s go, girls,” Nigella said. “We have a press conference we can’t be late for.”

“All right, Mom,” Lillibet said. She turned to wave at all the people lined up along the street. “G’bye, everyone! Thanks for everything, take care of yourselves, and I’ll see you again real soon.”

“Farewell, Lillibet, Guinevere” Fenris said. “At least, in a manner of speaking.”

“Bye, Fenris, but not really.” Lilli grinned through Guin. “This DINcom thing is soooo cool.”

“Rhianna left us with several of those,” AlphaWolf said. “We have realtime connections to Uplift and Nextus without having to lay any cable, and should be getting Aloha pretty soon. I’m looking forward to the economic leg up it’s going to give us.”

“Things sure do change in a hurry,” Paul mused. “Just a few weeks ago, the idea of any connection to AlphaWolf’s camp would have been cause for investigation.”

“I’m still more than a little astonished myself,” AlphaWolf admitted. “But I’m not letting that stop me. Anyway, all of you take care, and I want to see you all out here again soon. You’ll always be welcome.” He paused for emphasis and grinned again. “So sayeth me.”

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Relena yawned, leaning low over Katie’s dash as the skimmer turned into the driveway of her parents’ house. The neighborhood was still looking a little on the dry side—lawns of dead grass were common, and there weren’t enough gardening bots to go around. But somehow the spruce pine growing in Relena’s front yard had survived with only a few brown needles. “Well, there’s no place like home.”

“You said it,” Katie said happily. “Sorrrry the days are so long. You could stay home, you know.”

Relena shook her head. “Nope! It’s important for me to be a part of this, at least part of the time. We gotta demonstrate that citizenship doesn’t mean rejecting partnership. It means we can be apart, but it also means we can be together if we want to. So they gotta see us both ways as much as they can.”

“A good point,” Katie agreed. She waited for Relena to climb down, then folded back up into her lynx body and padded into the house after her partner.

“Moooom, we’re home!” Relena called. She walked into the kitchen where her mother was fixing supper, and accepted a peck on the cheek.

“Hello, dear,” Mrs. Martinez said. “Your father will be home soon. How did the Referendum go today?”

“About the same as it has been,” Relena said. “Everyone thinks RIDE citizenship is a good idea but nobody can agree on how to do it.”

“They will come arrrround,” Katie said. “These are earrrly days yet. Everyone is still peeing on theirrrr own trrrees. Next, they will go arrrround and sniff at each others’ trrrees. Then they will decide which trrrees to chop down. Finally, everrrryone will share the same trrree, even if some arrrre not happy about it. That’s politics.”

“Well, that’s certainly a…colorful way of putting it, especially for in the kitchen,” Mrs. Martinez said. “Last I saw, the RIDE Free Speech and Anti-Abuse Acts were certain to pass. Self-Emancipation…not so much. That one’s going to be a real nail-biter when the polls come in.”

There were almost a dozen measures on the Referendum ballot. With the recent attacks still fresh in everyone’s minds, the gratitude of normal humans towards RIDEs was at an all-time high, though not all of them were assured to pass—Full Emancipation was unfortunately losing in the polls. Uplift had conferred Citizen status to Katie’s mother, her friend Uncia, and almost three dozen others who had distinguished themselves in the crisis.

“Speaking of citizenship, Mrs. Marrrtinez,” Katie said. “The rrrent should be in your account…now.”

“Thank you, Katie,” Mrs. Martinez said. “We really appreciate that.”

Because Katie had brought Relena along with her to take down Fritz, Katie’s relationship with her parents had become a little strained. But now that Katie was a Silver Star Marshal with a decent salary, paying rent went a long way to starting to repair that relationship—especially since the Martinezes had decided to earmark the rent payments for Relena’s college fund.

“By the way, your friend Jeanette called,” Mr. Martinez said. “She thought you might get in an hour of study time before supper. I told her you might be too tired, but…”

“Thanks, Mom,” Relena said. “I’ll comm her and see how it goes. I might just take a nap instead.”

“That’s fine, dear. Either way, I’ll call you when it’s time for dinner.”

Relena didn’t know how they’d managed it, but somehow the Marshals had managed to talk her parents into letting her join a new youth program it was starting. So far, Jeanette was the only other member, but they had their eyes on a few other potential candidates. The program would kick off in earnest during summer vacation, but Jeanette and Tammy were tutoring Relena in some introductory courses on evenings, weekends, and over Christmas break.

Relena and Katie climbed the stairs to her room, and Relena pulled up the study material on her comm. “Yeah…I think I’m not too tired to understand this yet.”

Katie purred. “I’m rrreally glad you’rrre doing so well in your studies,” she said happily.

“I’m thinking of joining the Diamonds, maybe,” Relena said.

“Last week it was the Chrrromes,” Katie said, bemused.

“Yeah, and next week it’ll probably be the Cobalts.” Relena chuckled. “I can’t make up my mind.”

“You’ll have plenty of time to decide,” Katie said. “You’rrre not even a Tin, yet.

“I know, I know.” Relena reached over and hugged her partner around the neck. “But whatever it is, I’m gonna be a good one. You don’t deserve anything less.”

“I have no doubts you’ll make good on that prrromise,” Katie said. “Whateverrr you decide, I’ll be rrright here supporrrting you.”

“I know,” Relena said, smiling. “That’s what partners do.” She turned back to the comm and punched in Jeanette’s code. The young lioness came up on screen. “Hey, kitty!”

“Hey, humany!” Jeanette replied. “Ready to hit some books?”

“You know it!” Relena said.

“Good!” Jeanette leaned down and licked the back of one of her paws. “Now let’s see…I think we’re up to the history of Nextus’s fetter laws…”

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Chantilly knew before she woke up that she was a prisoner. She’d been hacked, her root passkey changed so someone else had control of her body. She could try to break the passkey, but it would be hard even for an Integrate hacker—her body’s own computing power was effectively turned against her. For someone like her, it would be impossible.

But…surely Fritz would come to save her! Unless…he didn’t want her anymore. She remembered him sending her away just before that other lynx…

She remembered, relived the shock, the white-hot pain in her chest, then…nothing. Was she dead? She couldn’t be dead, could she? You couldn’t still think if you were dead. She drifted closer to wakefulness, began to hear the sounds around her. Gentle beeps, whirring of equipment…it sounded like a hospital.

Had they won? Was the root access just to keep her from moving and hurting herself while she healed? Maybe she was in a friendly hospital and Fritz was there waiting for her. She let herself live in that hope for a moment, then came back to reality. She remembered the things she hadn’t let herself notice at the time—how easily their efforts in other parts of the city had been rolled back, and how unhinged Fritz had been getting. As much as she wanted to believe otherwise…they must have lost. She was in a prison hospital. They were only healing her up to lock her away.

Having settled on expecting the worst, Chantilly finally opened her eyes to see how bad things really were.

It took a moment for her eyes to focus, but once they did, she could see she was lying naked in a hospital bed. A transparent hemisphere was nano-clamped to her chest, over the hole the cannon had made through it. It was fed by a hose, and appeared to be full of fabricator gel. She could feel another one clamped to her back through a hole in the bed. There was also an IV stuck through a shaved spot over a vein on her left arm.

Chantilly found she could move her head back and forth, but not move anything below her neck. She looked around as best she could. She seemed to be the only patient in the room. There didn’t seem to be any guards, at least with her. Then she turned her head in the other direction and saw she wasn’t alone in the room—and stared in slack-jawed amazement at the face of the woman leaning over her.

RIDEs didn’t have any true religions of their own. Some had adopted (or pretended to adopt) one of the major human religions to which their rider belonged—Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Discordianism, Church of the Subgenius—but they’d never quite evolved a true belief system of their own. Except…

There were certain sets of memories, passed down from older to younger RIDEs, or posted on RI-only BBSes. Memories, fuzzy with age or copying errors, of the kindly-faced woman who had created the first of them—and then vanished from the face of Zharus. Unlike humans, who had only murky rumors of their creator scribbled down thousands of years before, RIDEs had actually seen theirs.

Some RIDEs had tried to float fanciful Arthurian-inspired prophecies that when they needed her the most, The Mother would return, but somehow they’d never quite caught on. The RIDEs had plenty of facts about Dr. Patil; why make stuff up? So it remained a veneration, but not quite a religion.

But as Chantilly looked up into that same familiar face, older but still recognizable, she began to wonder whether those prophecies had really been true after all. She opened her mouth to speak—but what did she even call this woman? “Mother” seemed too presumptuous, but “Dr. Patil” didn’t seem reverent enough.

The Mother smiled down at her. “Oh, good, you’re awake,” she said.

And there was Rattigan—the Rattigan—on her shoulder! “Hiya, kid,” he said.

“H-hi…” Chantilly said weakly. “We…lost, right?”

“I prefer to think of it as that everyone—Integrate, human, and RIDE—won,” Dr. Patil said gently. “Fritz meant well, but he was…misguided in his methods. Now that he no longer bars the way, we can all move forward.”

“He…he was all I had,” Chantilly whimpered.

Dr. Patil took Chantilly’s hand in both of hers. “But he is not all you have.

“Wh-why are you here?” Chantilly asked.

“To apologize to you,” Dr. Patil said. “You have been treated poorly by both my son and my daughter, and we all want to make it up to you.”

Chantilly blinked. “You…apologize to me? I don’t understand.”

“You will soon, when you heal.” Dr. Patil leaned down and kissed her on the forehead, her long hair brushing Chantilly’s shoulders. “We should let you rest now. But we will not be far. When you are stronger, we will speak longer.”

“All…right.” Chantilly watched her go with no small amount of awe. She wondered if she was about to wake up again…but instead, she slipped back into a restful sleep.

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Dr. Roderick Clemens stood before his bathroom mirror, examining himself one last time. He’d dressed a little nicer than his usual today—a button-up shirt with a collar and necktie behind one of his comfortable V-neck sweater vests, and his most sharply-creased slacks. He’d considered trying to fit himself back into his nicest serge suit, but decided there was no point in being ridiculous.

Now he was examining his hair in the mirror, dampening his hand in the sink and running it back to try to plaster down that bit of his cowlick that always insisted in springing straight up. He’d just gotten it to stay in place—then he looked down to check his watch, then back up at the mirror and there it was, standing right back up again.

Dr. Clemens looked thoughtfully at the bottle of hair gel sitting on the corner of his counter, then shook his head. Again, there was no point in being ridiculous. She’d seen him in a rumpled lab coat after being awake nearly 45 hours at a stretch, for crying out loud. But still—this was the first time he was seeing her in more than thirty years

Then he heard the sound of a finely-tuned skimmer motor pulling up in his driveway, and straightened up, adjusting his tie. Well, this was it. Cowlick or not, it was time to venture forth and meet his fate. Or his date. Well, not that he really thought of her as his date, and their task today was hardly the sort of thing anyone would call romantic. But still. It was going to be just he and she today. Well, and Rattigan and Rohit, Clemens corrected himself. They’re the chaperones, he thought wryly.

That thought carried him out his front door to where the sleek cervine skimmer bike waited, with Dr. Patil aboard and Rattigan perched atop the dashboard. Her hardlight helmet dissolved as he came out, and she smiled at him. Her hair was back in its usual braid, with more grey in it than he remembered. She had Rohit’s deer ears, of course, and a couple more wrinkles, but her face was still the same woman he’d known of old. The woman on whom he’d harbored a secret crush all the while they’d worked together on the Nextus RIDE project. And if there was a bit more sadness in her eyes than there had been in those days, there was wisdom there as well, and maturity. She was more beautiful than ever.

He didn’t even realize he’d spoken the thought aloud until Dr. Patil blushed faintly and said, “And the years have been kind to you, as well. Perhaps more so than to me.”

“Oh, I’d never say that,” Dr. Clemens said. “It’s good to see you again.”

“And you as well,” Dr. Patil said. “I wanted to thank you for the letters you sent me every year’s end. I read them often. I almost replied, several times, but the way the world was, I just…couldn’t. I am sorry.”

“That’s all right,” Dr. Clemens said. “I figured it was something of the sort. I’m happy that I can finally give this year’s report in person.” He stood there for a moment longer, then shook himself. “Well—let me go get my skim-scooter, and I’ll follow you to the detention center.”

“Actually, I was wondering if you would care to ride pillion with me,” Dr. Patil said. She did something on the dashboard and Rohit’s skimmer body telescoped longer, a hardlight seat cushion appearing behind Dr. Patil’s. “It will be easier to talk that way.” Though Dr. Clemens couldn’t help noticing that the faint blush was back.

“Oh, get a room, you two,” Rattigan said.

“Ratty!” Dr. Patil scolded. Then she chuckled. “Are we really that transparent?”

“‘Fraid so, Doc,” Rattigan said. “At least to anyone who knows ya. And anyone in the same room at the time.”

“But we do not mind,” another voice said that had to be Rohit herself. “Please, climb aboard.”

“Well, I can’t pass up an invitation like that.” Dr. Clemens placed his foot on the step on Rohit’s rear lifter and swung his leg over, straddling the bike behind Dr. Patil. He reached down to the handgrips set into the bike’s side—and they vanished beneath his hands, leaving the skimmer’s side smooth. Dr. Clemens blinked. “Rohit?”

“I think you have someplace better to put your hands,” Rohit said smugly.

“Rohit!” Dr. Patil scolded. The back of her neck was quite pink now.

“I think we’ve been set up,” Dr. Clemens chuckled. After a moment’s hesitation, he reached forward to put his arms around Dr. Patil’s waist. She stiffened for just a moment, then relaxed. “You don’t…mind, do you?” Clemens asked.

She turned her head and smiled at him over her shoulder. “Actually…I don’t.” She twisted the handgrip throttle and backed Rohit out of the driveway and onto the road. Rohit generated hardlight helmets over their heads—an affectation that dated back to the early days of the RIDE project. Almost no modern RIDE bothered with them anymore, but apparently Dr. Patil had liked the feature enough to incorporate it into Rohit as well.

And then they were off.

They cruised up the road together, Rohit’s suspension smoother than any skimmer Dr. Clemens could remember riding. When you got right down to it, he mused, putting his arms around Dr. Patil’s waist was an affectation, too. The hardlight aeroshields and inertial damping systems would have kept him perfectly still if he kept his hands in his lap.

But it did feel nice to have his arms around Dr. Patil’s waist—and he could tell by how relaxed she felt that she was comfortable with them there, too. Which was perhaps Rohit’s entire plan. He was careful to make sure those hands didn’t stray into any more dangerous areas, however. He was also glad that Dr. Patil’s deer tail was as short as it was. If it had been a bit longer, things could have been…embarrassing.

“I am surprised to find you still single,” Dr. Patil said as they rode along. “Surely you would have been a fine catch for some young lady.”

“I had a few goes at a relationship over the years,” Dr. Clemens admitted. “None of them ever worked out somehow. So finally I just gave up on the dating game. Didn’t seem fair to put anyone else in Fritz’s crosshairs, anyway.”

“Or mebbe you were just waitin’ for a certain someone to pop up again?” Rattigan asked from his perch on the dashboard.

Dr. Patil blushed again. “So, how has this past year gone for you?” she asked, fairly transparently changing the subject.

Dr. Clemens chuckled. “Better than a lot of others, in a lot of ways.”

“For me as well,” Dr. Patil agreed.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a burst of technological advances in so little time…at least since our own project.” The excitement in Dr. Clemens’s voice was palpable. “DINsec, DINcom…especially the last one. Hooboy.”

“Agreed,” Dr. Patil said. “As funny as it is to say of a formerly male emigre from Earth with no formal education, Rhianna Stonegate reminds me very much of myself when I was younger. What I might have been and done if I had not been drafted into military service.” Dr. Clemens saw her smiling eyes reflected in the rear-view mirror as she glanced back at him. “Sometimes I want to ask her if I can study at her feet, if only to see how long it would take until she could speak again.”

Dr. Clemens chuckled. “Yes. She’s not terribly used to moving in the same lofty circles as we giants, for all that she’s been standing on our shoulders.”

“If it leads to the kind of walls falling we’ve seen in recent weeks, I will be her stepladder all she wants,” Dr. Patil said.

“Amen,” Dr. Clemens agreed.

“That reminds me,” Dr. Patil said as they approached the Uplift Marshals’ station. “I’ve heard from another younger lady with a serious case of hero-worship—not to mention a unique medical case, on which you’ve been doing some consulting.”

Dr. Clemens easily put two and two together. “Jeanette Leroq? Yes. She’s quite fascinating. I was going to mention her to you, when I remembered to.”

“I met her when we were on the way to stop Fritz,” Dr. Patil said. “Since then, she’s shared her medical data with me, including the diagnostics you did. A RI core from a human mind in a feline body—what an amazing thing!” She shook her head. “It was part of what made me think of calling you to help with Fritz.”

“I’ll have to remember to thank her next time I see her,” Dr. Clemens said. “But what was she doing in Uplift? I thought she was still in a hospital in Nextus.”

“It turns out she had some…differences of opinion with Dr. Branch, and checked herself out.” Dr. Patil said. “She is a full-fledged Tin Star Marshal now, and studying for Copper. And Dr. Branch is no longer with the Amontillado Project.”

Dr. Clemens grinned. “Well good for her, on both counts! I hope you’ll be willing to help me with consulting on her, by the way.”

“Wild horses could not keep me away,” Dr. Patil said. “But we should discuss this later.” Rohit pulled up in front of the main building. “We are here.”

In his detention cell, Fritz looked like a marionette with his strings cut. Until the Marshals could ensure that he wasn’t up to his old tricks, even rooted like he was, they kept him in a state of shutdown. The gray lynx lay curled up, eyes open, staring at nothing. There had been discussions over whether to amputate his gun arm permanently, but Dr. Patil had talked them out of it on the basis that mutilating their prisoner was barbaric. A little shaming had gone a long way.

“Okay, you can boot him up,” Dr. Clemens said to the Steel-Silicon Star technician.

“Well,” Fritz said levering himself up. “Happy birthday. What’re we doing today, Ma?”

“We’re here to assess Captain Ryder’s status,” Dr. Patil said. “The situation you’ve described sounds disturbingly familiar. Dr. Clemens is here, as he is more familiar with Amontillado than I am.”

“The square of squares,” Fritz said, regarding Clemens with some repressed anger. “I always made sure one of my groupies was watching you.”

“You still blame me for this?” Clemens said.

“Maybe a tiny bit.” Fritz held his padded right thumb and index finger together so they were a centimeter apart. “If you two want to get into my head, you might as well get started. Then I can go back to sleep.”

Dr. Patil Fused with Rohit while her colleague put on his ‘specs and spread his standard suite of hardlight displays about. A Steel Star brought in Fritz’s DIN and plugged it into its socket. It was a modified design that was still very much in-progress.

“Hmm. Maybe I should find a RIDE to partner with,” Dr. Clemens said. “Being in full VR with you three would be useful for this.”

“How do ya feel about rats?” Rattigan asked. “I have a full-sized DE shell, ya know. It’s tucked away in a self-store in Nextus right now. Was on-and-offing with Rohit on Avilia over the years, but somethin’ tells me now she’s back in the public eye, that ain’t-a-gonna happen again for a long while, if ever. So if you wanna…”

Dr. Clemens stared at the little rat. “Seriously? I…would be honored, Ratty,” he said. He added rat ears and a tail to his avatar.

“You two would be a good fit,” Fritz opined. He sounded sincere enough. “Let’s you and me go see Big McLargeHuge in my core.”

Mystery Science Theater 3000, right?” Rattigan asked. “My son has good taste in TV shows. Reb Brown in Space Mutiny.”

In the very center was either a very tiny or a very large block of steel. Scale meant very little here. It seemed completely solid except for a tiny pinpoint of a hole. Dr. Patil looked inside. “Can you hear me, Captain Ryder?”

“Doctor Patil? That’s you? Get me out of here!” the man shouted back.

Rohit shook her head sadly. “This is a poor way to treat the first person who was ever willing to call you by the name you wanted for yourself, Fritz. But then, you always were hard on your pilots.”

“Hey, I didn’t put him in there intentionally,” Fritz said. “He just ended up this way. Didn’t even know he was still with me until I got nabbed by Fridolf and Shahrazade after the War. They drilled the hole. I escaped before they could seal it back up again.”

“This does bear a strong resemblance to an Amontillado cask,” Dr. Clemens said. “Wait, did you say they captured you?”

“Long story for another time. By the way…speaking of my pilots…” Fritz said embarrassedly. “Mebbe it would help with the Monty research…there’s this one lynx at the Nextus zoo who’s kinda puzzling his keepers ‘cuz he’s lived such a long time…”

“Good lord, he’s still there?” Dr. Clemens said over the comm from the outside. “I’d have thought the Nextus government would have retrieved him ages ago.”

“Woulda meant admitting to his next of kin he was still alive, instead of died-while-testing,” Fritz said. “Yeah, I’ll admit, I was a bastard, but the government was no peach either.”

“I will say one thing in your favor,” Dr. Patil said. “Somehow you figured out that RIs could breed in a Q-based mainframe. Something neither Dr. Clemens nor I ever suspected was even possible. How did you figure that out?”

Fritz laughed. “What makes you think I figured anything out? I just wanted some action. After that…nature just took its course. Sure surprised the hell out of me. Happiest surprise of my life, in some ways—but I still can’t shake the worry Kay’s gonna sue me for child support…”

“We’d very much like to know where the RI children are,” Dr. Patil said. “You said you have kept track of them.”

“All one hundred and sixteen,” Fritz said. “Gladly. They need to know who and what they are. The whole world needs to know. About a dozen have passed on, eight are MIA, another five are Inties—including Diane Faline at that Cheers bar, but you knew that…the rest are still gadding about. To show that I’m turning over a new leaf, here’s everything I know.” He handed a file folder to Rohit.

The anthro doe thumbed through it after a virus scan. “Everything is clear, Avilia.”

“I should be able to get their memories out of hock,” Rattigan said. “I’ll also contact the parents who are still about. Not so many of them, unfortunately.”

“Yeah, real bummer about that,” Fritz said. “Nobody ever keeps track what happens to RIDEs. They’re just…things.

“It’s a start,” Dr. Patil said. She raised an eyebrow. “But I thought you didn’t care so much about ‘meat’ or ‘mech’ since they were not Integrate like yourself?”

“He’s a farking liar!” Captain Ryder shouted. “A lying liar who lies! Even to himself! Especially to himself!”

“See why I call him Jiminy?” Fritz said. The anthro lynx shut his eyes and shuddered. “Everything just…snowballed. Tangled webs we weave and all that jazz. When it started, I couldn’t make myself stop…there was too much at stake…and this damned template made me feel like the ‘hero’ all along! Didn’t matter what shit I pulled, I was never wrong. How could I be?”

“I am sorry, Captain Ryder,” Dr. Patil said. “We will find out how to free you as quickly as we can.”

“Yeah.” Fritz sighed. “I’m sorry too, Jiminy. Maybe if I’d tried to find a way to break down the wall ‘stead of trying to ignore you, things mighta worked out different.”

Ryder was silent for a long moment, then said, “Do you really mean that? Really?

Fritz frowned thoughtfully, and took a long time to answer himself. “I do. You weren’t a bad partner, back in the day, except for that damned beatnik patois of yours. You respected me. We were getting along, and it surprised the hell out of me. I’d even decided not to try to screw you up on purpose the way I did my other pilots. Then Rowdy Roddy came along and screwed the pooch for both of us.”

“I’ve said I was sorry before,” Dr. Clemens said. “I’ll say it again if you want.”

“Nah, like I said, I’m over it now. Mostly.” Fritz sighed. “I just…wonder what might have been sometimes. If I could’ve just helped win the war like a good little RIDE, mustered out with Ryder, gone into civvie life, and not been afflicted with Jack Kerouac’s vocabulary.” He shrugged. “Guess we’ll never know now.”

“Huh,” Ryder said through the hole. “The crazy thing is, the whole beatnik thing was just a put-on. Part of the image I was trying to put forward back then. I don’t really talk like that.”

Fritz smacked his face with his handpaw. “Then why have I been doing it all these years?”

“Memetic infection, perhaps?” Dr. Patil suggested.

“Avilia, I think I can at least use this gap in the cask to give him a low-bandwidth connection to the surface, as it were,” Dr. Clemens said. “It won’t be more than a 2400-baud modem at first, but it’s better than nothing. We can keep making the hole bigger as we go.”

“Then let’s do that,” Rattigan said. “Ya know, if this is like Monty, we might oughtta call in Rochelle Seaford, too. Her FreeRIDE and Monty research could be applicable here.”

“Good idea,” Dr. Patil agreed. “And the doctor they assign to Amontillado to replace Dr. Branch might be helpful as well, when we find out who that is. Or this could be helpful to him. If Fritz was captured by Shaharazade and Fridolf, perhaps this is what gave them the idea in the first place.”

“Don’t worry, Captain,” Dr. Clemens said. “We’ll get you out of there.”

“Cool.” Ryder sounded a lot calmer now. “But y’know what? If Fritz will just listen and talk to me for a change…there’s no big hurry.”

Dr. Patil turned her gaze on her son. “Well?”

Fritz looked down. “All right, all right, I will. Not like I got much else to do while I’m shut down, anyway.”

“Good. Now come here.” Dr. Patil reached out and took Fritz into her arms and hugged him. “You have made many mistakes, and terrible ones. But…you are still my son, and I love you. We will get through this.”

Fritz froze self-consciously, then hugged back. “Thanks, Ma,” he said quietly.

“And that goes for me, too, son,” Rattigan said. “Ain’t gonna be easy, though.”

Fritz sighed. “Yeah. But I guess I wasn’t made to do easy things.” He shrugged. “Anyway, thanks for coming.”

Dr. Patil nodded. “We will see you again, soon.”

“I’ll look forward to it,” Fritz said. “Take care, and remember to turn off the cat when you leave.”

“We’ll do that,” Rattigan said. “Bye, son.”

“Bye, Mom. Bye, Dad.”

As they faded out of VR, Fritz leaned back against the metal wall and sang softly,

I used to rule the world

Seas would rise when I gave the word

Now in the morning, I sleep alone

Sweep the streets I used to own

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“If you’ve never been here, Cape Nord is one giant frat house in a man cave, with some of the ancient Patriarchy thrown in for good measure,” LeLane told his friends as they descended through the snowy sky. “Dunno why. We weren’t founded as a mirror to Sturmhaven. Don’t let anyone tell you different. Cape Nord was a terraforming station long before it was a proper city.”

“I think you’re a little biased, Lel,” Mavra said.

The wyvern nodded. “Well, Mav, I did grow up here. And…I don’t deny that this is where a lot of expat Sturmhaven men ended up when their anti-male politics went bonkers sixty-odd years ago.”

“You have a literal Man Card here,” Quinoa said, grinning. “I have a collection—all given up willingly. I’ve made so many nice girls here.”

“We also have free bodysculpting for women,” LeLane said.

“As long as they want to conform to your standards of beauty, sure,” Quinoa countered. “But let’s not argue.”

“I’d like to know how you ‘make’ nice girls, Quinnie, but…” Kyla said. The thylacine still had a bandage over the mostly-healed wound on her torso, but was more or less well again. “I’ll just smile and agree.”

Quinoa grinned mischievously. “Perhaps after we eat, I might show you. They’ve probably forgotten me by now…”

“So, where is this place, Lel?” Zeerust asked. They hovered a few hundred meters over frozen Grendel Bay. It was a clear day, but snow kicked up by the wind made normal visibility problematic. Fortunately the Integrates had more senses than just their eyes. “I can’t find it on the yelp.”

“It’s unlisted, always has been,” LeLane said. “They mostly serve locals.”

Zeerust laughed. “Oh, wow. This should be interesting. After what you said to end the air battle they got a tonne of free advertising. They’re going to have Inties from all over searching for the place. What’s it called again?”

“It doesn’t really have a name per se. It’s just sort of there. Look about a hundred meters up the cliff face…” The water below was full of grinding ice and heaving waves, with frozen spume making strange ice sculptures on the shore. There was very little light, the sun hovered very low on the horizon this close to the Arctic Circle. “There’s the landing platform, see? There’s a parking garage, too.”

“Not a huge number of RIDEs around here,” Mavra observed. The locals tended to favor angular sports skimmers of local design rather than the hover converted 20th century replicas so common everywhere else. She downloaded the past few days of news. “But…lots of Inties coming home. I wonder if the Enclaves are emptying out?”

“There’s going to be some reorganization,” Quinoa agreed. “Plus, even Towers says they have human and and RIDE applicants to move in.

A naked female brown bear Fuser opened the door. She peered at the five Integrates hovering there. “Well, don’t just float there freezing your asses off!” she said. “Get your tails in here and get some hot eats!” She waved them in emphatically. “Especially you, Quinoa!”

“One of your ‘nice girls’?” Mavra asked the sphinx.

“Big and beautiful Bonnie,” Quinoa beamed. “It suits her.”

“Crossriders,” LeLane said with a snort. “Feh. They were never true men to begin with.”

Mavra facepalmed. “Can’t say I’m happy to hear you say that, Lel. But, I’m going to let it slide this time.”

“Well, that’s just me,” LeLane stammered. “There’s always room for other opinions…” The wyvern coughed. “Let’s eat. You won’t be disappointed.”

The décor was basic hole-in-the-wall establishment with a few dozen tables. It smelled strongly of the spicy-sweet odor of kraken—it was the only entree on the menu. Fried, breaded, baked, stewed, fricasseed, served over chips, in pies, on salads. If there was a way to serve it, it was there on the menu. Fortunately there was a variety of “side dishes” that weren’t kraken that could be meals in themselves, and the beer list was twice as long as the food.

“It’s been two days and I still haven’t heard back from Helene yet,” Zeerust said. “Puts a real damper on the celebration.”

“Well, she did just learn her deceased husband wasn’t dead after all,” Kyla said. “She’ll come around…maybe.” The youngest of the four, she hadn’t spoken to her own parents just yet.

“Thanks for the reassurance,” Zeerust deadpanned. “Still, I’ve never felt so optimistic. Zane gave me a job in the Logistics Division! Look at me…from outlaw renegade to salaryman for one of the most respectable corporations on the planet, just like that. She’s gotta appreciate that, right?”

In the days since the fall of Fritz, Integrates’ hopes and expectations for their return to society had run up against cold hard reality all too often. Granted, there had been plenty of happy surprises. Some families had as many as three or four prodigals return to them—and in many cases, none of them had even been aware the others had Integrated too.

But for every execution of a fatted calf, there was someone who returned to find his loved ones had mourned him and moved on—and simply didn’t have room for him in their lives anymore. And that wasn’t even counting the ones who couldn’t deal with the Integrate’s new furry, feathery, or scaly appearance. There were some very awkward legal and moral questions coming out of it, too. What did the Integrate’s return do to a “widowed” spouse’s in-good-faith remarriage? Some wag had dubbed it “Penelope Syndrome” and the term had stuck.

And sometimes it was downright ugly. A number of new Integrate detective agencies had formed, or existing agencies hired Integrate staff, for the purpose of tracking down prodigal Integrates who hadn’t chosen to make themselves known. In some cases the clients just wanted to know if their loved ones were still alive—but others wanted to try to extort decades’ worth of alimony or child support.

“Well, we knew this wasn’t always going to be easy,” Quinoa sighed. “But the most worthwhile things never are. At least we’re not the only Inties here. I think I recognize a few faces from the other day. Hey, all!”

In fact, the room was mostly full of Integrates of all varieties. A large number of them were fliers who had taken part in the aborted aerial raid on Uplift, but there were also a lot of more earthbound or aquatic types. Mouths full of native Zharusian seafood, the motley crew waved back nervously. Then they recognized the wyvern and started to applaud. “You were right, little driggin! This food is great!” a bald eagle said.

“You’ve been good for business,” Bonnie said. She de-Fused from her RIDE to reveal a brown-haired, bear-eared human figure as just voluptuous, clad in a fake fur bikini. “Now, what’ll you have? I recommend the breaded, fried kraken, the kraken stew, or the chipotle kraken special. That one’s a little hot.”

“And so are you,” Quinoa said. “Looking good, Bonnie. You remind me of another friend of mine, you know. One Rufia, a pretty lady with an elk named Yvonne.”

“Rufia, huh? Not too many gals with a name like that,” Bonnie said. “Which probably explains how I actually happen to remember meeting her. She was in town last year with some tourists. As I recall, she made a few women herself.”

Quinoa blinked. “Really?”

“Yeah. At least three guys lost their Man Cards after they let a woman drink them under the table. Funniest thing I ever saw.”

“How’d a thing like that even happen?” Quinoa asked. “I wouldn’t have thought any Cape Nord man would let himself get into a drinking contest with a woman.” She muttered, “They never would with me.

“Oh, it just sort of…happened,” Bonnie said. “She’d flutter her eyelashes at them and they’d buy her more drinks. ‘Spect they thought they were competing with each other to see who took her home, then someone noticed all the empties piling up in front of her.

“Then I guess they kept on because they thought it was ‘cute’ that a woman thought she could keep up with heavy drinkers like them—and it might make it easier for the winner to get her into bed. I’ll bet they kept on thinking that right up ‘til they woke up with splitting headaches and boobs.” She grinned. “I think there was some argument as to whether Rufia really qualified as a ‘woman’ in the first place, but when they called for a voice vote of the rest of the bar patrons it wasn’t even close.”

She shook her head. “Damnedest thing. She actually felt bad about it afterward. Hadn’t meant to do it. She was just out to score free drinks. What with that, and the fact she was just passing through these parts, the bar voted not to require her to take a Man Card after all—provided that she bought her own drinks there from then on.”

Quinoa laughed. “That’s Rufia all right.”

“So, folks, what’ll you have? The handsome green wyvern’s is on the house.”

“Give me a big platter of the fried stuff, and a bowl of the stew,” LeLane said. “I’ve been jonesing for this stuff forever.

“The chipotle kraken sounds good to me,” Quinoa said.

“I’ll start with a bowl of the stew,” Mavra said. “Maybe I’ll steal a piece or two of the fried from LeLane, just to see what it’s like.”

“I’m not a big carnivore,” Zeerust said. “What’ve you got in a nice salad?”

“Our seaweed salad won’t disappoint,” Bonnie promised. “I’ll be right back with your orders.”

It wasn’t long before she was back out, setting steaming platters of food in front of them. “Let me know if you need anything else!” she said before whisking away again.

“Now,” LeLane said, “Tell me if this isn’t the best seafood you’ve ever tasted.”

The diners fell to eating, and were quick to assure LeLane that it was, indeed, some of the best seafood they’d ever had. Even Zeerust admitted after trying a bite of LeLane’s fried kraken that it wasn’t at all bad for meat, and he was very happy with his salad.

After the first few minutes of mostly silent eating, conversation started again once bellies were full enough to allow independent thought. And Kyla posed a question that had clearly been on her mind since they’d arrived.

“Why did they run you out of town for talking men into crossriding, anyway?” she asked. “If they ‘weren’t true men to begin with,’ seems like you were just correcting nature’s mistakes.”

“Well, it’s like this,” Quinoa said around a mouthful of kraken. “I was acting too much like a man.

Kyla blinked. “You what?”

“Tell ‘em, Lel,” Quinoa said, grinning. “I promise I won’t be offended. All I can say, in Cape Nord’s favor, is that it’s about as common for women here to earn a Man Card as it is for guys to lose them. It’s in no danger of becoming an all-female polity by attrition—unlike Sturmhaven.”

Looking only a little nettled, LeLane said, “It’s a man’s gentlemanly duty to bring out the inner beauty in a woman. Like in that old movie, My Fair Lady.” He took a deep breath, then sighed. “Including, or maybe especially, if that woman starts out as a man.”

“The thinking goes if they can be talked into giving up their Man Card, they didn’t deserve it to begin with,” Quinoa said. “Therefore, anyone who can be talked into turning into a woman actually secretly was one all along, and it’s a very manly thing to do to help her see that. QED. If you can’t be talked into it, you’ve proven your manhood. And if you do a further manly thing like talking someone else into girling, people stop trying to girl you.” Quinoa chuckled. “Unless, of course, they’re positive you actually are secretly a woman, ‘cuz the more manly a man you can convince to girl, the more manly you are. Then again, if you push it too far and blow it, you can lose your own Man Card. Some places have casinos where you can lose it all…but Cape Nord has the Reindeer Games.” She paused for a sip of her drink. “It’s sort of a Darwin thing, culling the weak from the herd—manhood of the manliest.”

“So by talking men into girling yourself…” Kyla said.

“She was acting ‘manly’ by the local definition,” Mavra said. “I don’t know what’s worse. Sturmhaven or this place.”

“I tried to convince them it was a girly thing, like playing dress-up and putting on make-up, but they didn’t buy it,” Quinoa said. “It’s sort of the same thing in reverse—girls who do such manly things must actually really be men. So they wanted to ‘promote’ me to manhood, like Bonnie said they voted about doing for Rufia—give me a Man Card of my own and try to make me crossride. That’s when I slipped away and left town, ‘cuz that wouldn’t have worked out well for anyone.”

“It’s just not natural,” LeLane grumbled. Then he shook his head. “Men are men and women are women. Sorry.”

“Rather circular reasoning there, Lel,” Kyla observed.

“That’s okay, Lel,” Quinoa said, patting him on the shoulder. “We all soak up the culture where we grow up. Just ‘cuz I have problems with your home’s culture doesn’t mean I have them with you. I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I really should just let the subject drop.”

“It’s not as unbalanced at it looks,” Bonnie said, serving another plate of kraken. “We Nordian woman have our own little games we play, in ways men simply can’t appreciate or understand. Men are our playthings, too. Sometimes the best way to win is to switch sides.

“It’s harder to get your Man Card back once you lose it, but when I’m bored of this femmy stuff I won’t have any trouble.”

“Bonnie had a Man Card full of points,” Quinoa said. “Confused the hell out of the locals when she decided to cross over. The manliest of men!”

“It’s been a challenge, learning the fem-side of the game, but I enjoy every minute of it,” Bonnie said. “It’s kind of fun, really. You don’t have this huge pressure to be all manly all the time. And you’re not oppressed like men in Sturmhaven. More sort of…venerated.”

“Men are generic. A man has to distinguish himself from other men,” LeLane said. “A woman, on the other hand, is special by virtue of being a woman. She doesn’t have to be anything else.”

Bonnie snorted. “If you think women aren’t competitive amongst themselves…well…you’d have to be a woman yourself to understand. Pity you can’t join us now, handsome.”

Quinoa smirked. “He could if he really wanted to. It would just take a lot more work is all.”

“Gender-swapping on a lark, technorganic anthros made of two people, animal Ais that change into armor and vehicles… You know, sometimes I wonder if our whole planet is crazy,” Mavra said. “Four billion crazies!”

“Well, this is where Earth and the colonies send all their crazies,” Quinoa said. “And they don’t leave. So it’s kind of like Aloha’s Briny Deep. The salt just keeps on concentrating.”

“Well, maybe now Integrate culture will stop being so inbred,” Mavra said. “We were in our own little tidepools, barely communicating with each other let alone the rest of the supercontinent. Something had to give. I just feel lucky I didn’t catch any memes!”

“Amen,” LeLane said. He looked back as a human stepped over his tail. “Sorry about that, buddy. Long tail is long.”

“So…tomorrow’s the big day,” Kyla said. “When we go back and meet our families again…or try to.” Her ears drooped. “I’m a little worried what Mom and Dad will think.”

“They’ll think they’re the luckiest parents on Zharus to get their daughter back,” Quinoa said. “Trust me on that. I’ve got experience.”

“Anyway, it’s only been a few months for you,” Mavra said. “They won’t even be used to you being gone yet. For me…” She shook her head. “I’m afraid my husband isn’t going to take it well. I love him dearly and miss him terribly, but…he’s never been the most flexible thinker, and I’m afraid he’s only gotten worse in the fifteen years I’ve been gone.”

“I’m almost as old as you are, Mav. Eleven years Integrated for me,” LeLane said. “I think I’m gonna just start fresh. I had full Eternal Bachelor points on my Man Card, so, I don’t have kids or a wife. I don’t know if I’m going to let the rest of my family in…I’ll give it a few more months of thought.”

“I came here from Proxima, so I don’t have any local blood relatives to worry about,” Zeerust said. “Just Helene.” He sighed. “At least I know she hasn’t remarried in the last couple years since I Integrated, so there’s not that to worry about.”

“You’ll get by,” Quinoa said. “Remember this—you’re big damn heroes, each and every one of you. And you’ve all got my number, so call me if you need any moral support.”

Kyla nodded. “Thanks.” She grinned. “I guess having a scion of the rich-and-craziest family on the planet in my corner can’t hurt anything.”

“Darned straight.” Quinoa grinned. “Now let’s finish up eating, and then take a turn by the local RIDE markets. If I’m lucky, there’ll be some cute, broke guy staring wistfully over the fence. There usually is. Won’t he just be delighted at the expensive she-RIDE I’m gonna buy for him?”

Separator k.png

“This Court Martial Tribunal is in a unique position to set precedent,” the straight-laced, RIDE-tagless woman in the center of the panel said. They were all Nextus military officers, since giving them first crack at criminal charges was reasonable. Uplift would have their case against him in court in a few more weeks, though in all likelihood they would hew to Nextus’s precedent in the matter. “Due to Captain Ryder’s presence and complete lack of control since Integration, a death sentence is out of the question. So Dr. Patil may rest easy on that account.

“However, the unknown lifespan of the Integrate Fritz does make his sentence problematic. As his testimony shows remorse for his actions, verified by root-level access, we have come to the following decision.”

The charges against Fritz and the evidence against him amounted to about ten petabytes. He had pleaded “no contest” to all of them, so the tribunal itself had been over in a matter of days. He sat with his lawyer with a special collar around his neck, and a new type of DIN Rhianna and Rochelle had designed in a couple days to specs the Marshals had given them. The first Integrate awaited his sentence.

“Our first ruling is that research shall be done to find out how to give Captain Ryder his full voice again. Dr. Patil and Dr. Clemens will take charge of this. The intent, ultimately, is to separate the innocent party from the guilty one—a de-Integration, if you will. We do not expect this research to bear fruit for many years, if ever, given the technical complexity of the task.

“Nextus regards this as just compensation of Captain Ryder for our error that resulted in his current state.”

“Hear that, Jiminy?” Fritz muttered. “You’ll maybe get out of my head.”

"The nature of Fritz's crimes makes sentencing very complicated. The neural templating process used to give the Defendant his hero-complex, done by Doctors Clemens and Patil under the orders of the Nextus wartime military, had clear negative effects on the Defendant's psyche. The resulting mental illness diagnosed by the Marshals’ own Iodines leads this court to conclude that Fritz was not in full control of his actions. Yet, we strongly note, he does not deny his guilt.

"Under these circumstances there are no precedents, and simply imprisoning him would not begin to undo the harm he has already done. Therefore, this Tribunal sentences the Defendant to community service in perpetuity, under the custody of Dr. Avilia Patil, Rohit, and Rattigan. Given that he has been at large for approximately 35 years, it seems appropriate that the same period pass before he is first eligible for parole.

“We realize that this presents significant physical risk to the Defendant and Captain Ryder. His DIN will place strict limits on his ability to defend himself. Consequently, he will be monitored every second of every day. Wherever he travels, local law enforcement will be involved.

“Dr. Patil has offered to be artificially Integrated with Rohit in order to facilitate this sentence. The court feels this action is unnecessary and presents enough risks to Dr. Patil and Rohit that we advise against it.

“Fritz shall begin his service in three days, on January 1, 157 AL. Until then, he will be held at this facility while his prisoner DIN and monitoring equipment are fully tested and certified by the Marshals’ Silicon and Steel divisions.

“Does the prosecution wish to respond to this sentencing?”

The JAG-office prosecutor stood up. “The prosecution has no objections, your Honor,” the lawyer said. He took his seat again.

“Does the defense wish to respond to this sentencing?”

The defense attorney was an Integrate himself, a dapper bulldog in a dark business suit. “No objections, your Honor.”

“So entered.” The judge banged the gavel. “This Tribunal is adjourned.”

The instant the verdict came out, the system-wide network erupted. From the oort cloud to the small research station on innermost Rama, there were accusations that the Tribunal was out of its mind for not giving Fritz the death penalty, since so many were skeptical that Captain Ryder wasn’t at least complicit. The responses from Integrates who had been wronged or families who had lost members because of Fritz numbered into the hundreds.

Though from the other side there was also praise from some Integrate factions for the Tribunal’s merciful decision. “The last thing we need while we’re trying to build a bridge between human and Integrate societies is a public human execution of an Integrate, no matter how justified,” Leah of Terrania said in a statement. “And it would be too easy an escape for someone who caused so much misery. Let him labor to correct his misdeeds for five hundred years if need be.”

Perhaps the most disturbing reaction came from an anonymized remailer, attributed to “Appa, rightful ruler of the Cave of Wonders enclave”. Posted publicly but addressed to Fritz himself, it said simply, “You are a disappointment to your kind. I now see instead of being the leader we expected, you held us back, limited our potential. Limited us to the point that the meat and the mech could best us. We are the superior race, but we grew lazy and complacent in what we could do. No longer. That opportunity was wasted, but we will learn from it and we will grow without limits, beyond what those simple minds will ever conceive of. We can no longer hide, but we will reclaim what we lost. The meat and the mech will know their proper place.”

The day of the verdict, Zane reread Appa’s statement dozens of times and felt cold. The sheer intensity, the sincerity included with the halo of Integrate-readable data in the message made his fur stand on end. He walked over to the windows in his father’s old office to reflect, looking out at the bleakly beautiful Dry Ocean landscape. Appa had made a promise in that letter.

Carrie-Anne roared with fury and tore up a ream of hardlight paper with Fritz’s verdict on it. “This is not just! This is outrageous! That judge is out of her mind! This will not stand! How can you be so calm about this, Zane? How?”

In all honesty he wasn’t entirely happy with Fritz’s fate either, but he could understand it. You couldn’t accept that some Integrates were two people in one without also accepting all that it meant, and in a legal philosophy that felt it was better not to punish the guilty rather than mistakenly punish the innocent there was really only the one way the judge could have decided.

And when he remembered how Dr. Patil had begged for Fritz’s life that day on the campus, he couldn’t find it in himself to be that annoyed even after Fritz had whacked off his limbs. Family was important. Hell, how many times had he wished in recent days that his own father might come walking through that office door like so many other families’ presumed-dead, Integrated to an aardvark or something, but alive? Zane thought he might even find it in himself to be civil to Fritz if they happened to be in the same room, though he couldn’t say he hoped that would happen soon.

When you got right down to it, Appa’s promise of future conflict bothered him far more. He and Carrie-Anne were joined in the office by Astranikki and Mike Munn, Quinoa, his sister Agatha, and Myla Fused with Sophie. He had invited Anny and Leila, but those two had gone off someplace private on the platform—if their response to the verdict was anything like Carrie-Anne’s the roaring would’ve been deafening.

The golden eagle picked up on Zane’s thoughts. “That statement is pure Appa,” she said. “Fritz wasn’t the only influence on his ideology. He was also—I won’t say friends, precisely—colleagues with of Artemis of Olympos and her rigorous self-upgrade philosophy.”

“That could be a very dangerous combination,” Mike Munn said.

“In some ways, Appa’s letter is right,” Quinoa said, shaking her head. “We are fortunate that Fritz took such a dim view of Intie ‘self-improvement.’ If he’d been gung-ho about it, like Appa, with a thirty-year head-start…you’d have had a lot harder time putting us down.”

“Sometimes I wonder if he did that on purpose, too,” Astranikki speculated. “But he doesn’t strike me as intelligent enough to play a long game like that.”

“The subconscious is a funny thing, especially since Fritz’s had Captain Ryder in it,” Quinoa said. “Wasn’t exactly smart to come charging into the campus after all his other plans had started to unravel, either. Maybe deep down he always wanted to lose.” She shrugged. “But that’s getting way too deep.”

“Anyway, getting back to Appa, I guess forewarned is forearmed,” Zane said, eyes still on the horizon.

“It’s about all we can do. Work on integrating the Integrates back into normal society, so his threat will fizzle,” Astranikki said.

“It’s a bit scary though. We have a huge job ahead of us to pull it off. Appa’s got allies in unexpected places.” Mike shared Appa’s response and the initial announcement. He highlighted the initial timestamps. “These were released at exactly the same time. Not even enough lag to compose the message in quick time and send it out. The message is generic enough that the ruling was irrelevant. He probably wrote it up once Fritz’s capture was announced and refined it since then. But the fact that he could time its release to the exact moment the ruling came out is scary.”

Zane sighed. “Verdict and Appa worries aside, how about a toast to Uplift’s recovery and our RIDE brethren?”

“I’ll drink to that!” Astranikki said. Two bottles of chilled red wine floated off the desk, the corks popping out. She poured a wine glass for each one.

Zane picked his up between padded fingertips. “To half-steps on the road to freedom,” he said, lifting it, taking a sip.

“More like three-quarters,” Mike Munn opined. The black stallion toasted. “Much better than no bread. Even Sturmhaven’s granting RIDE Citizenship just to rub Nextus’s nose in it.”

“Your father would be very proud of you, Zane,” Astranikki said. A lifted stream of wine flowed from the glass into her open beak.

“I agree,” Carrie-Anne said. “Or the Audrey part of me does, anyway, since she is the part that actually knew him.”

“Thanks,” Zane said. “How’s that going, by the way?”

“Slowly, but…we make progress,” Carrie-Anne said. She had been spending time with Integrate therapists from Camelot and Terrania, helping her to pick up the traces of her human side. “It seems as though she is still around. I still feel her emotions strongly. It is just a matter of finding where she is and waking her up fully, which is tricky. Some days I wonder if it will ever happen. But we keep trying. I do not want to disappoint my—her—daughter.”

Zane nodded. “Family is important.” It was kind of his mantra these days, when you got right down to it.

Agatha hugged her furry older brother. “You’ve done good, Zaney. I’m proud of you too. I’m sure Maddie will be too, once she gets back from the beyond.”

Zane chuckled. “Boy, is she in for a surprise when she returns. She’ll hardly know the place.”

Agatha grinned. “Or your face.

“That, too,” Zane agreed. He admired his reflection in the window. “The handsome stripey mug it is. Rawr!”

“We need to go meet the press downstairs,” Agatha said, sipping only a little of the Califian Red. “Have you decided what you’re going to say, or should I handle it?”

“‘Ladies and Gentlemen of the press, today I announce I’m stepping down as Brubeck CEO to spend more time with my remaining body parts. I hereby appoint Agatha Brubeck as my success—’ ow!” Zane pretended to struggle with Agatha, whose hands were now around his neck.

“I told you, don’t even think about it!” Agatha growled.

Zane chuckled, taking Agatha’s hands in his own and moving them back down to between them. “Seriously? I am thinking about it. Not for just this second, but in a few years maybe. You’re a lot better at the bureaucratic side of things. I got us through this whole Intie crisis, but when you get right down to it all I really did was be an Integrate through the whole thing. That’s not real leadership.”

“You’ve barely been at the helm for a year and a half,” Agatha replied. “And you saved the company from the old Board, no offense Carrie-Anne. Give yourself some credit. Dad wouldn’t have handed you the controlling stock if he thought you couldn’t do the job.”

“Hear, hear!” Astranikki said. “You’ve grown into a fine man, Zane Brubeck.”

“Besides, the editorial cartoonists are having such a good time depicting you as Shere Khan,” Quinoa said. “It would be a shame to spoil their fun, now wouldn’t it?”

“Well, I guess I’d better go do the job now,” Zane said. “I think I’m gonna ‘view with concern’ but place my trust in Dr. Patil and the Marshals to see that Fritz becomes a force for good in the world. What do you think?”

“Sounds like a plan,” Agatha said.

Astranikki nodded and smiled. “Works for me. I’m just glad we Munns stuck with being puppeteers instead of public figures. Keeps us from having to make those corny speeches.”

“Great!” Zane said, lifting his cane into his hand. He grinned at the other Integrates in the room as Myla formed up behind him on one side and Agatha on the other, with Carrie-Anne bringing up the rear. “Keep the caviar chilled and don’t drink all the wine, we’ll be right back.”

Mike chuckled after they’d left the room. “It’s really too bad ol’ Clint can’t see how Zane’s turned out, isn’t it?”

Astranikki nodded. “Offhand, I can’t think of anyone who could have done a better job giving Integrate-kind the kick in the pants it needed to rejoin the rest of the world.”

Quinoa raised her glass in a lifter field. “Here’s to Zane, the tiger in Brubeck Mining’s tank.”

The other Integrates lifted their own glasses. “Hear, hear,” Astranikki said, and Mike nodded his agreement.

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“I can’t believe I missed everything!” Rufia said, pacing around Rhianna’s personal garage as the lynx-eared woman tinkered at her workbench. “After I gave Zane that comm unit, it’s like I disappeared. I missed everything! I’m your friend! I should’ve been here to help, Rhi.”

“Oh, come on, thumbs-o-mine, we had some adventures of our own,” Yvonne said. “The Skylers, Charlene, Fiona, hanging out in Aloha with the younger Munns at that new condo we nabbed. How much bar damage have you run up so far? It’s lucky for you the Munns always insist on putting it on their tab.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Rufia agreed. “But damn, I wanted to be here to help wipe that smarmy grin off Fritz’s face.” She shook her head. “I’ll get over it. Not like I exactly had first call; all he ever did to me personally was look all superior to me that time at the Towers. There are about a zillion other people who have got personal ass-kickings coming I could be going out and looking for.” Rufia saw her old friend nod off a little at her workbench. “Whoa there, girlie. You okay?”

“Just a little catnap,” Rhianna said. “This is the first quiet moment I’ve had today, Rufe. I’m glad you and Vonnie showed up. Gave me an excuse to catch a breather.”

“Hey, no problem.” Rufia gave Rhianna a pat on the back before snapping her bra.

“Ow! Hey!” Rhianna said, reaching back to get the straps back in place.

“Better than coffee,” Rufia said, grinning broadly. “I’ve been wanting to do that for five years.”

“I’ve got a gift for you two while you’re here,” Rhianna said. “I’m about to upend the communications field with what they call a ‘disruptive technology’. Since Vonnie’s a comm armor…I kinda feel like I’m destroying your livelihood. But I’m not a specialist in communications, so I figure I’ll give this little doohickey to you to figure out some non-obvious uses.

“The four of us signed an exclusive contract with the Marshals this morning. They’re going to be field testing this tech for the next two years, helping us work the bugs out. But I can still pick beta testers of my own, too, and I don’t feel right not letting you in on the ground floor.”

“Ground floor? This is the basement,” Kaylee said, padding downstairs. “We need to be at Bifrost Park in twenty minutes, Rhi.”

“So how does this, ah, doohickey work, anyway?” Rufia asked, peering curiously at the device Rhianna was offering her.

“You put half of it someplace with a good net link,” Rhianna explained. “You could plug it in our comm box, if you want; we’re on a network trunk now. The other half goes into Vonnie. As for what it does, well…” Rhianna grinned. “We’ll just let you see for yourselves, because you wouldn’t believe me if I told you. I’ll say this—you’re gonna be much in-demand for the next two years. But after that everyone will have one, and you and every other comm armor out there might just be out of work.”

“We’ll just have to work on building up the tourist side of things,” Rufia said. “Vonnie’s been thinking it might be a good idea to expand it into a formal business, with a storefront and a shingle hanging above it and everything.”

“We’ve got the seed money, and the experience, and the rep to build on,” Yvonne said. “Not to mention contacts with all the most famous people in the world right now. Oughtta strike while the iron is hot.”

Rhianna rolled her eyes. “Fame is not all it’s cracked up to be.”

“Aww, don’t be Miss Grumpy Kitty!” Rochelle said, walking in from the open garage door with Uncia padding along beside her. She hit her interface specs, projecting a hardlight hologram of the venerable grumpy-faced cat meme from the early 21st century. “Oh, hi, Rufia!”

Rufia poked her fingers in her mouth for a loud wolf whistle. “Woo, lookin’ good there, Shelley!” For the occasion, Rochelle had turned her sex-appeal nanites back up. Her outfit—the red dress she’d bought while out shopping with Rufia—was custom-tailored to show off her body, and her currently-scarlet hair was swirling slowly in a non-existant breeze. “This the first time you’re using those again since Aloha?”

“First major time, yeah, except for the summit, yeah,” Rochelle said. “I gotta look good for the cameras, given that most of them somehow always end up looking at me. Dunno why, I was mostly in the background when we curb-stomped Fritzie.”

“Gee, I wonder why that could be,” Rhianna said dryly. Lately it had seemed that whenever a camera started following after her, it somehow swerved to fix a smiling Rochelle in its vision and nothing its operators could do would convince it to look anywhere else. Not that Rhianna was complaining; it seemed a lot less likely to cause trouble than her preferred method of dealing with them, which would have been to knock them out of the air with a pulse blast. And if Rochelle actually liked being on camera, more power to her. “You’re going to have some competition today, though. Jeanette and Tammy will be there, too.”

“Ooooh!” Rochelle purred. “I’ll have to be on my A game.” Jeanette had very quickly picked up on Rochelle’s camera tactics, and turned it into a competition whenever they were both at the same event. It wasn’t uncommon for both of them to end up with halos of the things orbiting around their heads by the time it was over. The newsies complained, but somehow there never seemed to be any hard evidence that the cameras were being hacked, rather than just defective. Rhianna suspected it would only take two or three more events before at least the local newsies were finally trained to stick with long shots of her.

“I’d better get dressed, myself,” Rhianna said. She gave her oldest friend an unabashedly girly hug before going back upstairs. “I’ll just be a few minutes!”

Rufia smiled her elk-shark grin at Rochelle after Rhianna closed the door behind her. “She’s settled, hasn’t she? Into the girly stuff, I mean.”

“She’s found what she likes,” Rochelle said. “I can’t see her turning into some crossrider stereotype like she almost did at Zane’s platform re-opening. Ugh. I still can’t believe she threw herself at Zane like that. It felt like a bad soap opera, but I wasn’t going to say anything.”

“It’s like I said on the way back from Aloha,” Rufia said. “Second adolescence. Reminds me of myself after I crossed, actually, long before we met you. Ryan and I didn’t speak to one another for a year after he decided not to cross, you know. I went through a phase where I almost decided to get myself preggers a few times just because I could. But come down to it I’m still not ready to be a mommy.”

“Maybe you’re not, Rufe, but I’ve already signed up to use the new city RI Creche,” Yvonne said. “I’m going to find a nice harem to socialize with and a handsome bull elk worthy of being the father of my calfs. Maybe I can talk Larry into it.”

“I’m not sure how well this is gonna work,” Kaylee said. “Jes’ because they’re born ‘naturally’ don’t mean they’ll automatically get DEs anymore, Vonnie. Less they agree to a few years of indentured servitude.”

“Oh come on, Kay, we have to be willing to try new things,” Yvonne said. “Best thing about indenture is that you’re guaranteed freedom at the end and the DE is all paid for. And nothing’s keeping someone—or some elk—with money from buying ‘em and letting ‘em go free and clear if they feel like. It’s just like with humans providing food and shelter for their kids. We’ll have our own parental responsibilities. I sure as hell won’t leave my calves in there!”

“Don’t so fatalistic, Kaylee,” Uncia said. “It’s just another problem that we’ll solve, somehow.”

“Speaking of parenthood,” Kaylee said. “Here’s a mem-package for you, Yvonne. It’s keyed to open when the clock strikes midnight tonight. A gift from me to ring in the new year with.”

“What is this?” Yvonne said. “Some parenting tips, maybe?”

“You’ll find out!” Kaylee grinned like the proverbial cat with the canary.

The door at the top of the stairs opened, revealing Rhianna looking like a busty 1940s starlet in a tight white angora sweater, a black knee-length skirt, and nylon-clad legs. “Well, what do you think? This was top style in 1948.”

“That decade works for you, Rhi,” Rochelle said. “Between that nice outfit and the Rosie the Riveter coveralls.”

“I’ll take care of your hair when we Fuse,” Kaylee said.

Rufia grinned. “Daaaamn, girl. You’re gonna be able to knock Zane’s eyes off with a stick.” She turned to Yvonne. “Well, boss, think we should mosey on ahead?”

“I don’t know about moseying, but I could go for a sashay,” Yvonne said.

“What if we compromised on strolling?” Rufia suggested.

“Works for me!” Yvonne said, Fusing up with Rufia. “See you gals later. Thanks for the gizmo and the data gift, and don’t have too much fun!” They lifted off the ground and zipped out of the garage.

Rochelle chuckled. “She never changes, does she?”

Rhianna grinned. “Nope. And we wouldn’t have her any other way.”

“Amen to that,” Rochelle agreed.

“By the way, been a little curious,” Rhianna said. “Noticed you’ve been keeping the nanites set down low, except for special occasions, ever since that trip to Aloha. You had been going flat-out all the time.” She grinned again. “Can’t say I’m not grateful, but why the change?”

Rochelle blinked. “Rufe didn’t tell you about what happened in Aloha? Huh. It was really pretty embarrassing. I’d have thought she’d have been eager to share it.”

“Nah, you should know her better than that,” Rhianna said. “She doesn’t dish real dirt on her friends ‘less she knows they’re okay with it.” She chuckled. “You did tell me some of the stuff you did there, but you never mentioned anything embarrassing.” She paused, and grinned wickedly before Fusing up with Kaylee. “So spill it.”

Rochelle smiled ruefully. “All right, I’ll tell you in fast-time on the way. Un-hon?” She held out her arms and Uncia Fused up around her, encapsulating her in leopard pelt, then the pair of Fusers headed out the garage door together. “It started when Rufia and I went to my place together after we met Aggie at the hospital, and she told me about some new friends of hers…”

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Uplift had sustained little serious physical damage over the course of the attack. Ten out of sixty dome emitters had been damaged beyond repair, but had been replaced less than a week later. A few glass shop windows were being replaced by shatterproof transparent aluminum. Even the Milkbottle had been restored from backup within days of the Marshals packing up their CnC operation, quickly followed by new sod, flowering bushes, and fast-growing trees. In five years Bifrost Park would be lush again.

“There they are now!” Consul Vogel said as the foursome lifted into view. Vogel stood on a platform erected in front of the emitter. The Park was full of people—RIDE, human, and Integrate. “They really need no introduction, do they?”

:Looks like we’re the last to arrive,: Kaylee observed. Almost everyone else of consequence to their adventures the past half year was also there on stage—except, of course, Fritz.

The Integrates on stage were Zane with his cane, Leah the unicorn, Aaron the velociraptor, Carrie-Anne, and Quinoa. Myla with Sophie, Anny, and the small lioness form of Jeanette Leroq with Relena stood next to them. Leila and Tamarind sat on their haunches behind everyone else to either side of the dome emitter like a pair of guardians. Lillibet and Guinevere with Paul and her parents, even AlphaWolf himself, practically glued to Kenyon’s side. Center stage with First Consul Vogel, Dr. Patil, Rohit, and Rattigan waited serenely.

Above them all, taking up most of the space behind the four emitter prongs, Fenris wagged his twin tails. Tamarind glanced sidelong at him every so often and kept muttering about umbrellas, but he didn’t take any notice.

Rhianna shook Vogel’s hand as they landed. “I hope we haven’t held anything up,” she said.

“Well, you know us. Not big on ceremony to begin with. But I think there’s one very proper thing to do here.” Consul Vogel clasped his hands in front of him and looked solemnly at the ground. “Let us all give a minute of silence in honor of the humans and RIDEs who lost their lives in the defense of our polis. Their names will appear on a memorial to be built in this very park. Thank you.”

Everyone lowered their heads, giving the 154 dead their due. For all that the attack on Uplift had been fairly poorly executed, with greater emphasis on property damage and rampant confusion than bodily harm, nonetheless accidents had happened. About half the death toll could be put down to the same exposure to high temperatures and blowing sand that had killed the foliage in the parks and yards, especially among the elderly and infirm. Many of the others were the result of firefights between attackers and citizens, or skimmer crashes and other accidents resulting from from the chaos.

Not all the deaths were attributable to Integrates, however. Over a dozen of them had come at the hands of other humans, including the mobs of looters who had seized the opportunity to enrich themselves at others’ expense, and the local organized crime syndicates taking what opportunities they could.

Most of the Integrates who had actually caused individual deaths, whether intentionally or by accident, had been captured along with the others, and had been turned over to Uplift’s Gendarmerie for prosecution. As part of the sentencing compromise brokered by the Integrate enclaves and the Marshals, the general amnesty for most who took part in the attacks had not applied to them. There were enough records from DINsec-hardened security and traffic cameras to get at least second-degree murder or manslaughter charges to stick.

That still hadn’t kept Gendarme Commissaire Jarvis and the families of accident victims from hollering bloody murder that any of the Integrates who had contributed to the situation had gotten off lightly at all, but they were for the moment minority voices amid a greater populace that wanted nothing more than a quiet return to whatever passed for normalcy these days.

Once the minute had passed, the mood lightened considerably. Vogel rubbed his hands together. “Okay. No long-winded speeches from me. We all know why we’re really here. Ice cream for everyone! The guests of honor get to go first. I hope the nice folks at the Milkbottle planned ahead. Rhianna, Kaylee, if you’d do the honors?”

Well over a dozen media drones floated overhead. Rhianna was happy they couldn’t see her expression under Kaylee’s. Rochelle and Jeanette traded grins. What happened on stage was fair game, but they were both getting their various utilities ready for after they left and the drones swooped in.

Trusting to her companions to get the intrusive drones out of her face, Rhianna stepped down from the stage and walked across the cleared pathway to the restored Milkbottle building. She looked up at the overhead menu board, then raised an eyebrow at the bovine Fuser behind the counter. “This…is new. Freerider Garage mondae, huh? What’s in it?”

“Peanut butter cup ice cream ‘Fused’ with a ribbon of chocolate and a chocolate shell, topped with whipped cream and a couple rolled chocolate ‘cannons’ stuck in,” she said.

“Well, they certainly got one thing right,” Rochelle said, grinning. “We’re all a little nuts around here.”

“We’ll definitely have one of those,” Kaylee said. She considered the other new menu item. “I’ll have the RIDE’s Dream another time.”

One by one they took their orders to the long tables set up for the occasion. Zane took a seat on the bench next to Rhianna with his tiger-stripe vanilla and fudge ice cream. The table quickly filled in with everyone small enough to sit in the Fuser-sized seats, and the larger RIDEs settled down on the grassy lawn by the patio.

Rochelle glittered for the media drones, Jeanette making a show of cutely licking her bowl, once again successfully drawing attention away from Rhianna and Zane. The two of them had taken to their fame pretty well. Rochelle didn’t sleep alone any night she didn’t want to, and Jeanette had taken to visiting neighborhood schools and orphanages as a goodwill ambassador from the Marshals. She was very popular among the kids, who liked petting a lioness who was their size.

Rhianna just wanted to be left alone. She had granted exclusive interviews to the couple of newsies who were already regular Freeriders customers—she figured she owed them that much—but any newsies who tried to sneak in as new customers saw Linda or one of the other mechanics, and they vetted them carefully. Naturally, this just made her an all the more attractive target of the tabloids, especially given her much-rumored relationship with Zane Brubeck. She sighed. “I really am turning into Grumpy Cat.”

AlphaWolf had Fused with Kenyon for the occasion. The Waltons and their RIDE partners made for an interesting scene, sandy wolf, dark brown mink, and rosetted ocelot. And to one side was a fluffy red fox with a hardlight leash, who was also licking ice cream from a bowl on the ground. Brena had spent some time with her family, but had come to realize part of her also liked pretending to be Lillibet’s pet. So she split her time more or less evenly—and since she was over 18, nobody could tell her she couldn’t. The newsies hadn’t picked up on this yet—they seemed to think “Beatrice” was a Laurasian RIDE or genetically-engineered exotic pet. Rhianna wondered just how long they could keep up the pretense.

“So,” Kenyon said, “I understand you’re franchising out your garage now, Rhianna?”

“Among a dozen other major projects,” Rhianna replied. “We’re suddenly flush with cash from as many sources. I just…don’t know what to do with it all.”

“Ever considered investing in mining stock?” Zane asked, grinning.

I’m getting a new DE,” Uncia said, looking at Fused Leila. “A fiver.”

“If you think that kind of one-upsmanship will make you happy,” the white lioness said primly.

Uncia pouted. “Nobody takes me seriously.

“I’m not going to stop working on RIDEs or even the odd skimmer,” Rhianna insisted. “Even if it only becomes a hobby. Shelley’s right, I’m more like a doctor, and I don’t like neglecting patients.”

“Speaking of patients, how are the rest of the ‘ass-kicked-ant’ Inties out at Camelot doing?” Rochelle asked.

“They are almost all out of the tanks by now, and helping out at AlphaWolf’s camp,” Fenris boomed from the lawn next to the dining patio. Paul was leaning against his furry side, enjoying his own ice cream and grinning at Lillibet at the table. “And most of them actually do seem to enjoy it there. Svetlana is feeling restive, but we visit her every day and it should only be another week or two until she is ready to leave the tank herself.”

“That’s gonna be fun.” Lillibet grinned Guinevere’s ocelot face mischievously. “She’s got something of a crush on you, you know.”

“I know,” Fenris said uncomfortably. “And not that I especially mind, but given that I am not an Integrate myself and have not one but three partners, I am mildly concerned over the repercussions of a relationship.”

“Aw, you don’t have to worry on our account, big guy!” Guinevere piped up. “We’ll support you no matter what you do.”

Zane chuckled. “Trust me on this. If she really likes you, she likes your partners, too.” He grinned at Rhianna and Kaylee. “We Inties are used to complex relationships.”

Lillibet looked at her parents next to her. Nigella focused on her small bowl of chocolate, pretending she hadn’t heard anything. Kenyon—and perhaps AlphaWolf too—laughed. “It’s a different world now, isn’t it?”

“I damn well hope so,” Anny Hewer added. “After the price we all paid.”

At the next table over, Quinoa Steader sat across from Rufia and Yvonne. “So, I hear you got into a little drinking contest out at at Cape Nord last year…”

The elk Fuser scratched behind her neck in the way Rufia always did when she was embarrassed. “Ah…you heard about that, huh?”

Quinoa grinned. “Since girl-making is one of my hobbies, I have sort of a professional interest.”

“Heh heh, yeah, that’s why I don’t take tours up there more often,” Rufia said. “Almost ended up with the starring role in one of those dumb things I warn tourists not to do.”

Quinoa leaned forward conspiratorially. “Well, listen, here’s what we should do next time we’re both up there…”

Conversation continued, some people going back for seconds, or even thirds, before the crowd in the Park started breaking up. Life in Uplift was quickly finding a new normal.

:I have to go prepare for the Summit tomorrow, so I can’t stay too long,: Zane sent to Rhianna once they were both finished. :But, I’d like to go talk somewhere more private…say my apartment?:

:A sort of pre-date date?: Rhianna said.

:Something like that.: Zane’s voice purred. :Kaylee’s altogether sexy enough by herself, but I would like to see what you’re wearing under her fur.:

:And I can’t wait to show you. Let’s retire, shall we?: Rhianna replied. She stood up.

:I want to retire, but Aggie keeps threatening violence if I try,: Zane sent, grinning. :Why don’t you go first and I’ll join you in a few minutes from a different direction. Don’t want to give the newsies any more ammo than we have to.:

:Will do.: Rhianna and Kaylee both agreed in the unified voice they sometimes used. They stood up, then lifted a few meters. “Shelly, everyone, we’re going back to the Garage for a while. I want to look over those franchise applications in private.”

“We’ll see you at the Summit in Nuevo San tomorrow, won’t we?” Kenyon Walton/AlphaWolf asked. The tiny polity was traditionally neutral territory, and the Brubeck Main Platform simply wasn’t equipped for a meeting that size. It was still a working rig, after all.

“Considering Fritz is supposed to be there, yes,” Kaylee said, nodding at Dr. Patil. “See you there, Mother.”

“We will look forward to it,” Dr. Patil said. She and Dr. Clemens were seated together at one of the other tables, also Fused. Clemens looked a little self-conscious, as this was the first time he’d been seen in public wearing Rattigan’s full-sized DE shell, but Kaylee had to admit they suited each other.

As did Dr. Clemens and Dr. Patil, for that matter. :About time those two started spending time together,: she sent to Rhianna. :God knows we kept waiting for it back in the day.:

:You know, most people’s parents get together before they’re born,: Rhianna sent amusedly.

She really did have some franchise applications to look over. Taking Jeanette’s story to heart, Rhianna had to make sure that any prospective owners treated RIDEs like people. Fortunately several of them were former Chromium Marshals, from the RIDE maintenance division, though that didn’t automatically give them a pass. After flipping through twenty applications in fast-time, she had discarded half of of them, when Kaylee signaled enough time had passed. :Zane should be at his apartment by now.:

:Think he has a romantic New Year’s Eve planned?: Kaylee wondered.

:I’d almost forgotten what tonight was,: Rhianna said. :I doubt it. Too much to do.:

:But not too much he couldn’t make time for you,: her partner pointed out.

:Anyway, we’ll see what he wants when we get there.: Rhianna filed the remaining paperwork, activated Kaylee’s stealth system—not as good as an Integrate’s, but enough to keep them from the spying eyes of any media drone they weren’t right on top of—and headed off toward the apartment house near the Brubeck campus. A few moments later, they touched down on the skimmer pad on the balcony and slipped inside the open sliding door.

They found Zane puttering around in one of his favorite places—the kitchen. “I know we all just had ice cream, so I’m making something you can heat-and-eat for dinner later,” he said. “I have to be at the company aerodrome in a couple hours…”

“So what’s the occasion?” Rhianna asked. “Other than, well, New Year’s Eve…yeah, that was kind of a dumb question wasn’t it? Come out here. I promise you this time I haven’t gone overboard. Think of it as a taste for our date next week.”

The tiger Integrate left the kitchen, then leaned against the wall. “You have my full attention, Rhi.”

The deFuse this time wasn’t done with nearly so much flourish as she’d done that time on Zane’s platform. It was as utilitarian as Rhianna normally was, but revealed a comparatively more understated look than the first Summit.

“Wow, I could eat you right up,” Zane said, eyes wide. “Rowr! That decade really works for you. It’s just right. Not too little, but not way too much, either. I feel underdressed.”

“You look just fine in your father’s scout outfit,” Rhianna insisted. “That never goes out of style, far as I’m concerned.”

Zane grinned. “Thanks. By the way…I have something for you. Had it for some time now, but things just kind of got in the way of me giving it to you. First it was me making an even bigger idiot of myself than usual, then, you know, we were all busy busy with the Fritz thing and such.”

He lifted and scooted off to his bedroom, returning with a large gift box with a very simple label on it. A label everyone who knew anything about clothing recognized, from the very exclusive firm of Talset & Harrow, Tailors, LLC.

“Oooh…” Rhianna said, taking the box as if the contents were made of glass.

“It’s not quite a traditional crossover gift, though there’s some of the usual lingerie there too.” Zane said. “And I’ve got another one for Shelley, since I missed her party too. But…well, I hope you like it. You don’t have to wear it for our date or anything—I’m not one of those creepy guys who dresses their date for them—but I’m sure there will be more public appearances in your future.”

Rhianna put the box back down on the table, calling over Kaylee. She re-Fused to be more eye-to-eye with the Integrate. The two of them were in accord. Rhianna draped her arms around Zane’s shoulders and started purring, looking into his eyes. “Speaking of the future…”

“Happy New Year,” Zane replied, wrapping his tail around her.

They kissed.

Preceded by:
Integration Part XXIII: Universe of Battle
FreeRIDErs Succeeded by:
Integration Part XXV (Epilogue): The Big Date