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User:Robotech Master/ggt uplift

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FreeRIDErs story universe


The Gondwana Grand Tour, Chapter One: Uplift and the Tunnel

Author: Robotech_Master and Jon Buck


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This story can be downloaded in PDF, EPUB, Mobi (Kindle), ODF, and RTF format from this website as part of "grandtour".


Chapter One: Uplift and the Tunnel

May 24, 151 A.L.

“Thar she blows,” Joe said, as the nose of the spaceliner dipped below the horizon. In the distance ahead, a twinkling object stood out amid the desert, just to the west of the Eastern Coastal Range. “Uplift, that toddlin’ town. Jewel of the Eastern Shelf, and so on.”

“It looks like one,” Julius admitted. “Shiny domes, huh?”

“Yeah. I remember when it was just a little research station, way back when I was in college. They had nothing there. Then the hardlight domes went up, more people came to do research, other people came to sell them stuff, more domes went up to make room for more people, and before you know it, boom. Polity.” He shook his head. “God, I feel old.”

The edge of the Domes skirted the foothills, stopping just a few kilometers short of the Traverse Tunnel mouth to the east. “Wow, I can’t fuckin’ believe that’s visible from all the way up here,” Julius said. “I mean, it was fuckin’ big when we went through it, but still.”

“Can be hard to get a sense of scale when you’re right up next to something,” Joe said. “I remember when they dug that thing. Finally gave up on the idea that this crazy Uplift thing was a passing fad, so they managed to get the one last working Neumon Former on the planet going long enough to burrow it out.” He chuckled. “It conked out for good right after it finished, and it took four times as long to dismantle it as it did to dig the tunnel. But on the other hand, it sure did provide the fabberies with a lot of useful raw material for shoring it up. Kind of like a build-your-own-tunnel kit.”

“So why don’t they just connect the fuckin’ Dome to the fuckin’ Tunnel? It’s right there,” Julius said. “That would give them what? Two hundred klicks of city?

“Local politics. Why else?” Joe shrugged. “Remember that twenty-first-cen Canadian mayor from all those Youtube memes? The one who admitted to taking drugs, but only in one of his drunken stupors? He basically got elected because the province had slapped some extra cities onto Toronto as part of a political thing, and those extra cities were the ones who voted him in. I gather the tunnel people are afraid of that kind of thing happening to them if they get merged to Uplift…and the Uplift people are afraid of that happening to them if they get merged to the tunnel.”

Julius snorted. “Human politics is fuckin’ nuts.”

The twinkling jewel grew larger and individual bubbles became distinguishable as “Bolero” changed key for its triumphal conclusion. Joe pulled out his comm and tapped in a quick text to Socah advising her of their imminent arrival.

“Uplift Center to Pan-Am one-niner heavy, enter southeast suborbital approach at five thousand meters at two zero zero knots,” the ATC AI said. It wasn’t strictly needed, but was part of the twencen atmosphere.

“Affirmative, Uplift Center,” Joe replied. “Coming onto final approach now. Pan-Am one-niner heavy.”

“This bitch flies really smooth,” Julius said as he turned the yoke.

“Damn right she does! Hope you enjoyed the experience.”

“Pan-Am one-niner heavy, cleared to land at Pad Four at South Aerodrome,” ATC said.

“I bet the Earth tourists think we’re all a bunch of Space Amish who want to do everything manually,” Julius said.

“Maybe,” Joe said. “The ‘no hidden depths’ rubes, sure. Anyway, there’s no runway here, so we’ll have to do a…”

“Vertical landing.” Julius tapped the side of his head. “You know, sometimes I think you forget I’m not made of meat. I take that as a fuckin’ complement.”

“Well, thanks,” Joe said. “I think. Braking thrusters…”

The domes grew and grew, spreading out before them. Individual blocks, then individual buildings and streets, became visible. Joe easily picked out the street on which the Freeriders Garage resided. Then it was time to see to the business of actually landing the plane. They passed over the garage, making a sweeping turn to come around to the bubble where the Uplift South Aerodrome was located while shedding momentum, then passed through the dome wall as they throttled back and redirected lifter thrust downward.

“Pad Four in sight,” Julius said.

Joe let go of his yoke and folded his arms. “The helm is all yours.”

“This ain’t the Enterprise, bro. Or are you planning to build that, too?” Julius quipped.

“I don’t know,” Joe said. “I get the feeling it’d be a long road, getting from here to there.”

“At least do the hard rock theme from the Whedon Trek series. Berman! Yech!” Julius stuck out his tongue. “Braga! Pleh!” He took the controls and carefully maneuvered the plane over the pad and lowered it to the tarmac. “All right, there. The jaguar has landed.”

Joe pushed the pilot’s seat back away from the controls and patted Julius on the shoulder. “Well done! Socah’s in the Aerodrome Lounge waiting for us. Why don’t we Fuse up?”

Julius got up as well. “Works for me. Which bod you wanna use?”

An image of Socah all gussied up in her flapper outfits gave Joe an idea. “Let’s go with the bike for now, but…download a Gatsby look for the mini, won’t you? I feel like a mint julep.”

“Sort of wet and sticky?” Julius said. “Right, let’s go.” He stepped up behind Joe and Fused over him. A couple of minutes later, they walked down the ramp to find Socah waiting. As usual, she had on one of her long dresses, her hair in its usual bob.

“You’re looking…amazing,” Joe said, giving her a feline grin with Julius’s muzzle. She’s pure class. Pure class.

:We’re still talking about the woman whose usual way of saying “hi” was asking what the hell damn fool thing you’d gone and done this time, right?: Julius sent, with overtones of amusement.

:It’s been almost sixty years. I think I’m entitled to a reassessment, Jules,: Joe replied.

“Is that a Donizetti you’re wearing?” Socah said. “Or are you just happy to see me?”

“Well, it ain’t Bugle Boy jeans,” Julius said. “God, I fuckin’ love this new bod.” He flexed hardlight muscles. “That looks so badass, doesn’t it?”

“You’re both a very handsome kitty cat,” Socah said.

“Anyway, Julius here hasn’t seen much of Uplift apart from the Freeriders Garage,” Joe said. “So I was thinking we might start by showing him around some.”

“Damned good idea. What turns your fancy, Jules? Anywhere you want,” Socah said.

“Dunno. Surprise me,” Julius said. “What do you think a RIDE who just woke up from a fuckin’ thirty-five year nap would wanna see ‘round here?”

“Maybe the Creche,” Socah said. “Or the University? My grandson Ferris and his partner Franklin are adjunct faculty there. A number of RIDEs have elected to learn some topics that way rather than purely by skill chips.”

“I remember hearing something about a museum, too,” Joe said. “Never actually been myself. Until a week or so ago, it would just have stirred up painful memories.” He sighed happily. “I still can’t believe this…every time I wake up, for the first couple of minutes I’m sure it’s all just been a dream.”

“We’re still working on that,” Julius said.

“PTSD is no joke,” Socah said solemnly.

“Yeah, that was the diagnosis, way back when,” Joe admitted. “It’s funny…I thought PTSD was something you had to be in actual combat for months to have. Not something you could get in thirty seconds.”

“It just takes one traumatic memory,” Socah said. “You’re not alone. I saw plenty in fifty years in the Army that almost turned my brain to mush.”

“War sucks,” Julius said. “So, anyway, let’s beat feet. If there’s some fun places to see, let’s fuckin’ see ‘em!”

“Right!” Socah said. “Next stop, Uplift RIDE Museum, and after that, the Creche.”

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“Well, that was fuckin’ weird,” Julius said as they left the creche building.

“A good weird?” Joe asked.

“The jury’s still out,” Julius replied. “I’m still getting used to this shit. I take a nap for a few seconds, and boom. I’m living in a whole new fuckin’ world.”

“Don’t you dare close your eyes?” Joe suggested.

“Don’t you start,” Julius growled.

“I thought it was interesting,” Socah said. “Of course, this isn’t the first time I’ve been to the creche. My granddaughter—my only natural granddaughter—works there.”

“RIDEs having kids,” Julius said. “What the fuck’s next? Having jobs? Holding political office? Yeesh.”

“I’d think you’d want those things,” Joe said.

“I’m still trying to deal with the idea of people not thinkin’ I’m fuckin’ equipment anymore,” Julius said. “Yeah, you think you fuckin’ know what you want, but then you up and get it just handed to you…yeah, yeah, I know, years of hard work an’ all that shit, but I wasn’t here for that.”

“Give it some time, bro. Relax,” Joe said. “Anyway, I thought the museum was pretty cool.”

Julius snorted. “Yeah, right. Like the world needed a fuckin’ retirement home for RIDEs.”

“You did meet a few people you knew there, though,” Joe pointed out.

“Ones I’d chatted with from the sidebands,” Julius said. “Which woulda been cool if they hadn’t all been all about how many fuckin’ years they spent mining, or whatevs. Some of us didn’t get years.” He snorted. “They sure were impressed at getting a visit from Joe Fucking Steader, though. You’d think he’d paid for them getting invented or something. Oh, wait.”

Joe cleared his throat. “I think we were going going to Martinez U next?”

“You don’t really seem like the scholarly type, so I thought we’d see what Rhianna is doing instead. I’m sure Julius would like to see her again, and maybe show off a little.” Socah winked. “She should be done for the day and on personal things now.”

“Hell, yeah!” Julius said. “Let’s go!”

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“There’s nothing like the new Donizetti shell smell,” Rhianna said. She whistled as she examined Julius’s cycle shell with his hardlight off. “And it’s a work of art, as usual.”

“Watch this!” Julius said, de-Fusing into his Walker form. “This is an amazing body.”

“It really is,” Socah said with a note of envy.

Rhianna chuckled. “Wishing you were a RIDE now?”

“I suppose I’ve started feeling left out,” Socah said. “But I like my Zharus-modded Jane. I’m practically unique. That’s not something I want to lose.”

“Hey, watch this!” Julius dropped the hardlight on the shell, then opened the hatch in the back and jumped out in his Minimus form. “I’m a mini-me!”

“Nice,” Rhianna said. “Uncia’s got one of those. Looks like Signor Donizetti made some more improvements to the last prototype.”

“We don’t really use the Fuser mode that much, but it’s nice to be able to swap between the bike and the larger shell,” Joe said. “Not that we use the larger shell that much either, but we’re planning to hit the road in it soon.”

Rhianna blinked. “Larger shell? You got more than one?” She facepalmed. “Of course you got more than one. You’re Joe Steader.”

Crazy Joe Steader, and don’t you forget it.” Joe grinned. “Wanna see it? I’ll call it with the auto-drive.” He pulled out his comm and tapped in a code.

“Just like in that silly Super Force show, huh?” Kaylee said. “’Press the star if you want the suit’ and all that?”

“I’d have said Iron Man, but yeah,” Julius said.

“It’ll be a few minutes before it gets here,” Joe said. He had been looking around Rhianna’s workshop, impressed with the tools and the bits and pieces laid out on workbenches. “I’ve always been a tinkerer, myself.”

“You’re in good company, then,” Socah said. “Sometimes I think I’m in a family of tinkerers. My granddaughters tinker with RIDEs and skimmers, my grandson tinkers with scholarship, and my daughter and son-in-law tinker with the law.”

“Back on Earth I was in the Reclamation Corps,” Rhianna explained. “We had to make the best out of the equipment they gave us, so I kept my contingent running on a shoestring.”

“That’s…the NGO that tore down and recycled abandoned towns, isn’t it?” Joe said.

Rhianna nodded. “Millions of people emigrated from Earth yearly. That kind of depopulation does things to towns, cities, and infrastructure. Even with most people living in arcos. We’d go in, evaluate the site for historical value, tear down anything that wasn’t and move anything that was into storage. Even whole buildings. When equipment broke down—lifter tractors, bulldozers, anything—I fixed it. Pretty much my entire job.”

“Wow. I might just have to go back there someday and see if I can have a look around where they put the historical stuff,” Joe said. “I wonder if they’d consider selling any of those buildings? Could rebuild them on Zharus brick by brick.”

“Rhianna dear, I always said you should have gone into engineering design of some kind,” Socah said. “You have a gift for putting mechanical things together.”

“I have a gift for improvisation more than original design,” Rhianna said. “Put me in front of a blank drafting table and most of the time I’m flummoxed.”

“You did pretty well with the mini shells, though,” Kaylee said.

“Well, there’s a few exceptions, but I’m no Donizetti,” Rhianna said. “That’s why we’re working with him. He sees design flaws that I just don’t.”

“Maybe you’re more a MacGuyver,” Joe said. “Anyway, I’ve got to say between all the stuff I’ve heard, especially from Quinny, and the stuff I see here, I’m really impressed. Not least that you-all and Zane managed to knock some sense into her. I’d just about given up all hope.”

“If you want to thank someone, you should probably thank Tocsin,” Rhianna said. “He’s the one who drove the lesson home.”

“If we stop in at Alpha Camp, maybe I’ll do that,” Joe said. “Oh hey…car’s getting close.”

A moment later, the sleek shape of the Jaguar replica cruised up the street and slid to a halt inside the garage. The garage lights played on its gleaming surface like a liquid, and the motor’s noisemaker purred a deep rumble.

“Ohhhh,” Rhianna said, approaching it like Indiana Jones beholding a sacred relic. “I’ve seen his original skimmer designs, but this is something else. Reproducing a twencen design almost to the letter, but fitting in modern tech too…wow! And…this is a RIDE, too?”

“Like the meme says, let me show you it,” Julius said, springing onto the hood, then sinking in. A moment later, it unfolded into its giant jaguar cat shape.

“Baby!” Rhianna exclaimed. Julius lowered his big head down and she hugged him.

“Yep, she’s in love,” Kaylee observed. “Sometimes I wonder if I gotta get me one of those big ‘uns to get her full attention. But I wouldn’t give up my double-o-one for anything.”

“Your ought-one’s probably a bit too small to use a mini-shell with,” Rhianna said over her shoulder. “But I’ll bet we could tweak it so you could treat it like a mini-shell and hook it into something Fenris- or Tamarind-sized. Um…if you wanted to, I mean. What can I say, I just love the big iron.” She stepped back and peered up at the big jaguar. “Wow. You’re like one of the heavy heavies from the war.”

“It takes a little getting used to,” Julius said. “Everything looks smaller than it ought to.”

Socah shook her head. “Seeing all these miraculous machines makes me long for the good old days. I don’t know how long it’s been since I was last in the cockpit. I’m almost tempted to go back to a human body just so I could work a RIDE myself.” She chuckled. “Unless there’s still some old IDEs floating around that would work with my hardpoints. They didn’t yank them when they decommed me, just erased the firmware, and I’m sure that wouldn’t be much of an obstacle for you techie sorts.”

“Oh, I’m sure I could…” Rhianna trailed off, looking distant.

“I know that look,” Kaylee said, headbutting her partner on the chest.

“I’m sure Shelley will have no problem with the firmware,” Rhianna mused. Her expression brightened like a rising sun. “Nana, this is going to take some time, but—I can build you something. It won’t be a RIDE qua RIDE, though I think I could adapt a shell to the purpose. But it should have similar functionality. With what we’ve been doing with the mini and maxi frames…”

Socah clasped her granddaughter’s hand. “I trust you, Rhi. I’m sure you’ll come up with something I’ll just love.”

“Nana, do you want a female jag, or some other cat, or even something…else?” Rhianna asked.

“I have…no idea,” Socah said. “You know me as well as anyone. Surprise me.”

“Like I said earlier, I’ve got a warehouse full of old IDE-style mecha projects based on various anime,” Joe said. “When we hit Nextus on our tour, or maybe afterward, I’ll be happy to take you there. I’ve even got an N-1 replica.”

“I’ll look forward to that,” Socah promised. “I think we destroyed the last ones on Earth that day in Cornwall.”

“Kaylee…” Rhianna said. Her partner padded over and Fused up. “Oh, I’m getting ideas. I’m getting ideas… So, Nana, before you leave, we need to do a few things for Shelley, and I’m going to start looking into junk DEs that I can break for testing once we get a rig up…”

“But we still have a few things to show you,” Julius said, sounding uncharacteristically petulant. She patted the RIDE on the foreleg.

“Forget it, Jules. I know that look,” Socah said. “She’s in the zone.”

“Nana, have a seat and shut down your hardlight. I need to take some readings from the hardpoints.” Rhianna graciously gestured towards the chair they used for making Integrate DINs.

Joe grinned. “The master at work, eh? Um…if you’d rather Julius and I wait outside…”

“No way, Crazy Joe,” Kaylee said. “Come over here, you two. We want your questions and your contributions.”

“That’s…not really why…” Joe stammered.

“Bullpucky,” Socah said. “There’s nothing to see with the skin off.”

“It’s not that,” Joe said. “I was just worried you might be…well, sensitive about not looking human underneath.”

Socah snorted. “I got over that a couple of years after I got the damn thing. Hell, you should have seen me before we got here. I was a goddamn Barbie doll. Still am, underneath.” She slid into the chair and continued, “Much’s I like this new hardlight, I’m no wilting violet ashamed of the ‘real me.’ If I should want a new ‘real me’ Eleven has a slot reserved for me down at the hospital. Still ambivalent about that.”

“It’s got its pros and cons,” Rhianna said. “I’ve chatted with people from both sides, and ex-metal folks getting reacclimated to life in ‘real bodies.’ I understand that having to go to the bathroom all the time again is one of the hardest things to get used to.”

“Ugh,” Socah said. “I have to admit, that’s one of the things I don’t miss. Once a day is enough for me.”

“Uh…that might be too much information…” Joe mumbled.

“I sure am fuckin’ glad I don’t have to bother with that shit,” Julius declared. “I tried enabling the ‘realistic poops’ option in Nature Range for a day or so, and it was just…how the fuck can organics spend so much time that way when they could be doing something useful?

“We all manage to get by somehow,” Joe said.

“It wasn’t the having to do it that was so annoying, it was spending several minutes afterward kicking dirt over it,” Julius muttered. “Couldn’t override it. It was instinct.”

“You hardly notice it if you grew up that way,” Joe said. “Or…well, you notice it but you put up with it because there isn’t a reasonable alternative.”

“I can’t say I would have gone to this ‘Jane just for getting rid of having to go to the bathroom,” Socah said. “But I do have to admit, it’s one of its better points.”

“That’s one of the things people like about RIDEs, too,” Rhianna said. “They make the process…simpler.”

“And for some reason, we don’t seem to mind when people take a crap in us,” Julius said. “Funny how that works.”

Way TMI,” Joe muttered.

Socah smiled, then her skin turned off, leaving her with the unsettling Barbie doll looks she had explained. Rhianna probed specific locations on the surface of her skin on her arms, legs, back, and head with a diagnostic probe. Then the points she had examined irised open into peg holes about two centimeters wide. She packed the same nano-gel into each hardpoint they used to get the contact layout for Integrate DIN slots.

“Everything looking good here, Nana,” Rhianna said, closing them up again. “Shelly should be able to build the new firmware from these test results. You can skin up again.”

“Good.” She resumed her more organic appearance. “So when can I expect to hear from you?”

“At least a couple of weeks. I have to build Fuser test rigs based on your hardpoints, then start prototyping…I should have something testable on you by then.”

“We can fly back here from wherever we are at that point easily enough,” Joe said. “And then fly back again to carry on.”

“Wherever you are?” Rhianna asked, raising an eyebrow.

“We’re thinking of taking a coastal tour,” Socah said. “Seeing the sights all the way around Gondwana.”

“Sounds like fun,” Kaylee said. “We should do that ourselves one of these days, pard. I want to see the stretch of road where you met the landlord sometime.”

“There’s really not all that much there except redwoods and rain,” Rhianna said. “Which was kind of the point, I guess. But yeah, we should go sometime. When we can take some time off anyway.”

“So, say, twenty years or so?” Kaylee said dryly.

“I’m not that bad,” Rhianna said, chuckling. “…am I?”

“You inherited the family workaholism, no doubt about it,” Socah said. “In fifty years in the military I can count the number of leaves I took on both hands. But it’s never really been ‘work’ for us, so to speak.”

“I, on the other hand, never had that problem,” Joe said.

Julius sneezed, twice. “Oh, gimme a fuckin’ break, Joe. You’ve worked harder than damn near everyone on this planet. Only difference is, you made it look like playing so you could claim it as the moral equivalent of a tax write-off.”

“Well, false modesty and all that,” Joe said. “All this money has to be good for something.”

“We don’t seem to have any shortage of billionaires around who feel that way,” Rhianna said. “You, Zane, the Waltons…you’d think there’d be at least one robber baron around, but no, we’re a planet of philanthropists.”

“Anyone who isn’t ends up someplace like Bartertown,” Kaylee said. “Rhi and I went through there, once, about four years ago. But, that’s a story for another time. Y’all had some other tricks to show us before we got sidetracked?”

“Oh, yeah!” Julius said. “Get a load of the upgrade hardpoints on this baby…”

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A half hour later, the jaguar car was heading out of Uplift, with Joe and Socah in its two seats. Julius’s skimmer bike shell followed along behind on autopilot. “So what do you think?” Joe said.

“About what?” Socah asked. “There’s so many possible answers to that simple question. I think my granddaughter will come up with something just perfect for me. Maybe not on the first try, but she’ll come through. Once she broke free of Arlene spoiling her rotten she became a fine man…” Socah coughed. “I still can’t say something like that with a straight face.”

“You just need more practice, that’s all,” Joe said. “But I actually meant about the car. This is your first ride in it, after all.”

“The car is wonderful, as I expected it’d be,” Socah replied. She patted the dashboard. “Thanks, Julius.”

“No problem,” the RIDE said, looking back at her through the dashboard. “So, what’ll we do next? Back to Nextus to show Socah the big mecha hangar?”

“I’d love to play with Joe’s toys,” Socah said. “But not right away. I’m more interested in experiencing…and doing.”

Julius smirked. “’Socah Does Nextus’?”

Joe rolled his eyes. “Juuuules…stop trying to break me any more than I’m already broken, okay?”

“Hey, what have you got to worry about? You’re not drinking anything.”

Socah chuckled. “Right now, I’m most interested in this.” She waved a hand toward the tunnel entrance coming up ahead. “I’ve been through it once or twice—and the first time, our car actually broke down in it—but I’ve never actually seen it. Why is it even here to begin with?”

“I was telling Julius about that earlier,” Joe said. “When Uplift was founded, nobody thought it would last, and they didn’t really make any provisions for traffic. You had the old Nextus-Uplift Skimmerway, but given that it cut through a corner of the Dry to get here, it wasn’t really the friendliest route, especially if you broke down on the way. So, once they realized the place was a going concern, they cut this tunnel to link up with the Coastal Ring Highway.”

“’So they cut this tunnel,’ you say,” Socah said. “As simple as that.”

“Heh. Well, no. They used the last Neumon Former to dig it. You know how huge those things are. It took two years just to make it functional enough to do the job. They just don’t make ‘em like that anymore. Old tech, but incredible. Of course, by then Uplift was rich enough to pay for it out of pocket, so the main issues were political. It was a museum piece, after all. The whole museum, you could say.”

“And then it conked out completely once it was done, and they chopped it up for raw material,” Julius said.

“That was part of their original design intent,” Joe said. “They were built to be recycled after they’d done their job, because who wants big old rusting machines sitting around on your newly terraformed planet?”

“I hear some Inties made one of the daughter machines that conked out in the Dry into one of their Enclaves,” Julius added. “Fuckin’ brilliant if you ask me.”

“Anyway, someone had the bright idea that a hundred-klick-long tunnel would be a good place to live, and it developed into this,” Joe said. “One long rest stop and charging station, with hotels and resorts on top by the ventilation shafts.” He grinned. “You know, we could stop over for the night at one of them, continue on to Nextus tomorrow. I don’t think I’ve actually spent much time in the tunnel myself.”

“I gather it’s one of those places where people are from rather than a place to go to,” Socah said. “It’s no New York City, I bet.”

“Maybe, but I hear the resorts do a fairly decent job trading on the novelty of vacationing on top of a tunnel,” Joe said. “It’s just that I was always vacationing on top of a space elevator or the bottom of the ocean or somewhere else extreme like that.”

“So we’re going slumming now! Got it!” Julius said.

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The towns inside the Tunnel were universally long and narrow, so their names reflected this. Longmire was the largest, about a third of the way inside from Uplift. They were also multilevel, built not just on the tunnel floor but also along multiple ledges and shelves that ran along the walls, connected by ramps and catwalks. Protective hardlight generators were spaced at intervals along the walls, to be activated by proximity sensors should a flier or skimmer go out of control.

“You know, I’m getting a Super Mario Bros. vibe from the layout of this place,” Joe said. “It’s all the narrow ledges. Like it’s built for sidescrollers. I could put up some lifter-supported question blocks over there. Maybe some Metroids floating here and there, or…”

Socah laughed. “That’s not something I thought of, but I haven’t been swimming in twencen for fifty-odd years. I’m going one decade at a time and I’ve barely gotten to Betty Boop.”

“I think it’s an acquired taste,” Joe said. “But somehow, I seem to have managed to get the whole planet to acquire it.”

“And he pins the blame for the whole damn thing on me,” Julius said. “All I ever did was fucking die. He’s the one who did all the work.”

“Never would’ve happened if Fritz hadn’t ‘loaned’ me some of his Integrates to swim through that massive, fragmented database,” Joe said. “Then we released newly decoded stuff to the RIDE sidebands first. Everything else seemed to follow.”

The avatar of Julius’s face in the dashboard rolled its eyes. “I still can’t believe how that guy turned out. What a whack-job. I mean, he was a little bit nutso even back in the day, but what kinda fuckin’ crazy you gotta be to make a whole fuckin’ society in your own image?”

“Uh…” Joe said. “I plead the Fifth.”

“Of vodka, no doubt,” Julius snorted.

“I went through three livers in thirty years,” Joe said. “I’m not proud of it or anything.” He sighed. “So, where do you two want to stay? There’s the Longmire Inn, or the Best Western Motel.”

“I’m a sucker for a good twentieth century name,” Socah said. “Let’s go with Best Western.”

“Sure, why not?” Julius said. “Only the Best Western for us. Not some fuckin’ mediocre one.”

“Righty-o! Take the exit to that lift shaft there.” Joe pointed. The sports skimmer pulled smoothly out of traffic, then directed its lifters down to rise up through a shaft in the wall near where one of the vent shafts cast a patch of sunlight on the tunnel floor. They emerged in a small clearing that had been made on the top of the mountain by dumping the stone debris from the tunnel around the shaft and then smoothing it level. A few buildings clustered around the shaft mouth, which had a safety railing and observation platforms for tourists. They headed for the building with the familiar late-1960s Best Western hotel sign and parked, then Julius popped his mini-shell out and followed Joe and Socah into the lobby.

In keeping with the twencen “everything is manual” theme, the hotel actually had a staff. The oblivious woman behind the lobby desk didn’t even look up from her paperback book and spoke in monotone. Metal keys were haphazardly left out on the counter. “Welcome to Longmire Best Western. Please sign the register and take a key. I don’t care which. We have a free non-fabbed continental breakfast…”

Joe looked at the book she was reading. It was one of those novels where the name of the author is three times the size of the title, none other than a saucy Iphigenia Rose book. “The Lilac Garden. You know, she was still a ‘he’ when that was written.”

“Uh huh,” the young woman mumbled, turning the page without looking up.

“We apologize for interrupting your reading,” Socah said testily. “We’re only customers.”

Joe grinned. “Actually, I think it’s part of the place’s charm.”

“Eh, give her a break,” Julius said. “It’s not as if you’re fuckin’ Joe Steader or anything.”

“Yeah, he usually gets better service,” Joe said. “C’mon, let’s leave her to her book.”

“There’s no need to be rude about it,” the clerk muttered as they took their key and headed up the hallway.

“You know, places like this are basically gone on Earth,” Socah said. “VL—Virtual Life—takes care of the need for personal meetings. That place you stayed at your first days on Earth was one of the last of its kind.”

“So I gather,” Joe said. “Kind of sad, really. It’s so much nicer to be ignored in person.”

“Think she knows who you are?” Julius said. “Wait, who am I kidding? She was probably keeping an eye on you the whole time with implants and cameras.”

“All part of the surly non-service atmosphere,” Joe said. “Our room is 115. Here we are…”

“It’s…clean, at least,” Socah said. There was a bathroom door just on the left of the short hallway, then along the wood-paneled wall was a wardrobe and a modest-sized CRT television right out of the mid-1980s. The air smelled stale and mildly of disinfectant. A wall-mounted air conditioner rattled under the picture window that looked out on the parking lot with the Jaguar parked in view.

“I see they went the extra mile with the aircon,” Joe said. “That rattle is hard to get right.”

Julius slunk up to the offending unit and batted it with a forepaw, only to make it louder. “I think that’s a real fan in there and not a fuckin’ noisemaker.”

“Nothing but the best worst for Joe Steader,” Joe said proudly.

Julius sneezed. “I think you’re off your fuckin’ nut.”

Socah sat down on the edge of one of the double beds, only to have it sag under her weight. “Well, this is embarrassing. I might have to get Rhi to install an offset lifter in my ‘Jane. I suppose I don’t really need a bed anyway.”

“One thing I’ve learned in all my years is never to say anything about a lady’s weight,” Joe said.

“Probably wise of you,” Socah said dryly.

“Well, if you don’t need the bed…” Julius said. He jumped up next to her and promptly flopped down, easily taking up the entire space with his forepaws over the edge. “Mine.

You don’t need any sleep at all,” Joe pointed out, his own tail twitching.

Socah reached back and stroked the jaguar’s hardlight pelt. “You do make a fine cushion, Jules.”

“I aims to please, Socah,” Julius said, giving her an affectionate headbump. “You wanna see my Nature Range? You’ve got the bandwidth. We could hunt each other…”

“Jules…” Joe said warningly.

“Actually, I do believe that sounds like fun,” Socah said. “I hope you won’t feel too left-out, Joe.”

Joe waved a hand. “Eh, that’s all right. Nature Range never really did anything for me.”

“That’s because you don’t know how to play it right,” Julius smirked. “But then, you weren’t never in the army.”

“I’ll just be over here, sleeping,” Joe said, sitting down on the other bed. “Alone, I guess.”

“Oh, you poor, poor thing,” Socah said dryly.

Joe shrugged. “You can tell me how it goes in the morning.” He unstuck the TV’s remote control from the velcro on the side and picked up the issue of TV Guide next to it. “Let’s see what’s on the ol’ boob tube. It’s Saturday, maybe there’ll be something on the Wide World of Sports.”

Separator k.png

May 25, 157 A.L.

Joe was awakened by the brush of whiskers against his cheek. He opened his eyes to see that he was nose to nose with a jaguar. “Well, good morning,” he said. “I actually slept well for once. I think those anti-PTSD mods you’ve been running on me are finally starting to work. How was your night?”

“Joe, you fuckin’ gotta keep her!” Julius said. “She’s just the best!

Joe raised an eyebrow. “Do tell?”

“She killed me with a spear!” Julius said happily. “A fuckin’ spear! With, like, a flint speartip!”

Joe wasn’t entirely sure how to react to that. He finally settled for, “Really.”

“Yeah! I mean…I offered her her choice of weapons, all the way from, like, a twencen assault rifle up to a modern-day gauss gun. And she was like, ‘No, just make sure your physics model is realistic and there’s flint around, and gimme a few hours to get ready.’ And I’m like, ‘Dafuq?’ but hey. And so then I wait a few hours, and I stalk her, and there she is, but right as I pounce she turns around and brings up this spear, and boom! Right through my chest!” Julius sighed happily. “I think I’m in love.

“Ooookay…” Joe said.

“And then she skinned me and tanned my hide!” Julius said. “Just like the Aztecs or Mayans or whoever would have done! What a woman.”

“What can I say? I enjoyed my survival training back in the day,” Socah said. “Enough that I did some research into how the primitive tribes did it. Even learned how to knap flint in real life. Never imagined it would actually come in handy.”

Now I see why you called her ‘Captain Thermopylae,’” Julius said.

“Uh…” Joe said. “I’ll tell you this much, it wasn’t because I thought she was capable of taking down jungle predators with a spear.”

Socah smirked. “You’d be surprised what I’m capable of when I put my mind to it.”

“You have a stronger stomach than I do, Socah,” Joe said. “I was never a very good hunter in Nature Range as a jaguar.”

“He never bit down hard enough to actually kill the prey when he did catch ‘em,” Julius said. “Fuckin’ newb.”

“Well, if you don’t mind me, I’m going to take a shower,” Joe said.

“The hot water’ll cut out before you’re halfway through,” Julius said. “Did you see the size of those towels? You’d need to sew four of them together to get close to anything in your bathroom at home.”

“I know,” Joe said. “Isn’t it great?”

Julius sneezed. “You’re fuckin’ weird, Joe.”

“Yep! And you wouldn’t want me any other way.”

“’Course not, bro.” Julius rubbed against Joe’s legs. “Now get a shower. You stink.”

“I’ll bring back breakfast from the lobby,” Socah said. “I think they have some kind of waffle machine.”

“Oooh, waffles. Sounds good.” Joe went into the bathroom and shut the door. A moment later, the sound of slightly asthmatic plumbing could be heard rattling through the paper-thin wall.

“They made the place look like it hasn’t been remodeled for twenty years at least,” Julius said. “Gotta admit that’s some impressive attention to detail. What’d you think the food’ll be like?”

“Can’t be worse than the rat bars from the service. Let me tell you, it was the only time I was glad I’d lost most of my sense of taste in this thing,” Socah said.

Julius rolled over on his back on his bed. “I’ll be waiting here. You tired me out last night.”

Socah reached over and rubbed his belly. “All right, kitty. See you soon.”

By the time Socah got back, a slightly damp Joe was sitting in a worn terrycloth robe at the room’s small table. Julius peered at the plates of waffles and sausage as Socah set them down on the table. “I don’t get it. Why make real food that’s fuckin’ worse than what you could fab? It’s like this whole damn planet took crazy pills while I was sleeping.” He glared at Joe. “And you were the pharmacist.”

“It’s not really ‘worse,’” Joe pointed out. “Just different. And as close to authentic as they can make it. Granted, sometimes the authenticity is sometimes a little overdone, since some of what they’re aping was just that way because they didn’t have anything better at the time. But it was a different style of doing things, and people want to see what it would have been like back in the day when some of the best shows and movies were made.”

“Well, I’ve got the best tastebuds—not hardlight—technology can produce now,” Socah said. She pulled the cover off of the syrup packets and poured on several. “Smells decent enough. I hope I left ‘em long enough in the iron. It was a little dodgy.”

“It’s a nice change from the everyday,” Joe said. “Remind me to take you by a Waffle House sometime. Crazy little place. Half the songs in the jukebox are about Waffle House itself.”

“All right, I guess I would like to try that stuff, then.” Julius looked at Joe expectantly.

“Right. Be right back,” Joe said. “C’mon, cat, let’s go get dressed.” He went back into the bathroom, followed by Julius. A moment later he came back out again, covered in yellow and black fur, and a black pair of shorts.

Socah raised an eyebrow. “So that’s what the mini-shell looks like Fused?”

“This is it,” Julius said. “Feels a little like I fuckin’ shrunk in the wash, but hey. Any USB port in a storm. Now…someone said somethin’ about waffles?”

“Dig in. They’re getting cold,” Socah said. She sliced off a corner with the edge of her plastic fork, with a little difficulty. “Nice crunch, at least.”

Julius and Joe took the chair opposite and picked up their own fork, slathering on the butter from a packet, then adding as much syrup as they could squeeze out of the meager pouches, which wasn’t all that much. They waited for Socah to take a bit. “Ladies first,” Joe said.

She nodded, then took the bite off the fork. “It’s…well, you taste it. I think I overdid them.”

“Looks underdone here,” Julius observed. He wrinkled his nose. “Well, it isn’t meat, but with Joe’s belly I’m no fuckin’ ‘obligate carnivore’.”

“I never can remember,” Joe said. “Are you able to taste sweet stuff or not? I thought I heard all cats were genetically incapable, or something.”

“I’m using your taste buds, bud,” Julius said. “So yeah. I kinda get a free pass on the whole no-sweet-taste-buds-because-of-genetics thing. I kinda like sweet stuff, in fact.”

The waffle put up a lot of resistance to being cut by Joe’s fork. All the butter and syrup had turned it rubbery. He picked up a plastic knife and sliced through the corner, revealing uncooked dough. On a hunch, he sliced through the opposite end, to find it overdone and still crispy.

“Sorry about that,” Socah said. “We could go get another.”

“Let’s see what’s edible here and we’ll go get another helping,” Joe said.

“And some bacon, sausage, scrambled eggs,” Julius added, picking at the waffle. There was only a narrow strip of edible waffle they finished in only a few minutes. He dumped the rest into the garbage can.

“Mine ended up a little overdone,” Socah said. “I can’t explain what happened to yours unless they were trying for that ‘genuine twencen’ atmosphere again.”

“They exaggerate and Flanderize sometimes, but it’s all part of the game,” Joe said. “And I guess if I’m honest, I tend to get it a little worse than most. Some of my ‘fans’ either have a weird sense of humor, or else they think I do.”

“No, really? The man who fuckin’ made Zharus into a twencen paradise?” Julius said. “Why would he have a weird sense of humor? Apart from bein’, y’know, fuckin’ crazy an’ all.”

“Crazy is as crazy does,” Joe said. “Now, I don’t want to break the atmosphere here, Jules, so could you…”

“Way ahead of you,” the jaguar said. Their feline appearance flickered away into a rumpled gray terry cloth bathrobe and fuzzy jaguar-paw slippers. “How’s that, bud?”

“Perfect! A bleary-eyed traveler,” Joe mussed up his hair to complete the look. “I could use some coffee, too.”

Socah laughed, but remained her immaculately-dressed, morning-person self, then she opened the motel room door.

About twenty people—humans, RIDEs, and Integrates—were crammed into the hallway. They wore telltale brown coats, or Alohan shirts, or knit caps. A few of them wore all three. The surly woman who had checked them in was right at the front with a scowl on her face. “Where’s the rest of Firefly?” she fumed. “The Longmire Browncoats would like to know.”

“Ah,” Joe said. “My adoring public. C’mon, guys, isn’t it a little early for this? I haven’t even had any coffee yet.”

“We wanted to be sure we caught you before you left,” the clerk said. “Now, c’mon, we know you’re holding back.”

“I’m not holding back anything. There was only one—just one—season,” Joe said. “I’d like to think we Zharusians have more than made up for that failing, Miss, what with actually building the Serenity and making three more seasons.”

“It’s not the same,” she said, pouting.

“Well, short of building a time machine and going back and changing history, there’s not a lot we can do about that,” Joe said. “Look, I know the rumors that go around about some secret ‘Al Capone’s Vault’ of stuff that I’m holding back for a rainy day, but I promise you there isn’t one. I’ve already given out everything I had. I’m sure ol’ Joss would be happy how his show has lived on.” He shook his head. “Now could you lot clear out? Please? I really want some coffee now.”

“I broke out the Keurig machine for you, Mr. Steader,” the Motel employee said with a sincere smile. “We hope you’ve enjoyed your stay at the Longmire Best Western.”

Separator k.png

The Firefly fan club had a few more questions for Joe as he worked through breakfast—an actual good breakfast, this time—but dispersed before he was finished. Topping their stay, the motel employee showed off their manual credit card swipe machine, the type that took an impression rather than used a magnetic strip. “Carbon paper and everything,” she said. “This copy’s yours.”

“Gone the extra mile. I approve,” Joe said.

“Can we use that endorsement?” the canny woman said.

“Consider it on the yelp,” Joe said.

They gathered their few things and went out to the parking lot. Longmire was just on the eastern slope of the mountains that separated the Dry Ocean from the Thalassic—high enough that without the climate dome the low air pressure would have taken their breath away. The vehicles detached from the recharging station as they approached.

Julius peeled away from being Joe’s clothes, then hopped up on the hood of the Jaguar, opening the doors for them. “Fuckin’ beautiful morning.”

“Good day for a road trip,” Joe agreed. Underneath he had put on a pair of slacks and a polo shirt that could have fit in any number of decades in the Twentieth.

“I was just doing a little math,” Socah said. “One trip around Gondwana is comparable to circumnavigating Earth.”

“Sounds about right,” Joe agreed. “But in this case, we don’t have to get our feet wet.”

“And it won’t take us eighty days to do it,” Julius said. “We could do it in eight in this motherfucker.”

“Technically, it wouldn’t have taken eighty days even in Verne’s time, but he thought ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ had a certain ring to it,” Joe said.

Socah chuckled. “’Around the Continent in a Couple of Weeks’ just doesn’t sound quite the same, does it?”

“I think we can take as much time as we please,” Joe said. “Okay, Jules, take us away. Next stop: Nextus.”

The car revved up, and they pulled out of the hotel parking lot, then they dropped back into the Tunnel entrance. “And awaaaaay we go!”

Separator k left.png TO BE CONTINUED Separator k right.png
Preceded by:
The Gondwana Grand Tour, Prologue: Shell Game
FreeRIDErs Succeeded by:
The Gondwana Grand Tour, Chapter Two: Nuevo San Antonio