Difference between revisions of "User:Jetfire/The Power"

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|series= The Touch
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[[Category:Jetfire]] [[Category:Story]] [[Category:FreeRIDErs]] [[Category:Robots]] [[Category:Space]] [[Category:Virtual Reality]] [[Category:Cyborg]]
[[Category:Jetfire]] [[Category:Story]] [[Category:FreeRIDErs]] [[Category:Robots]] [[Category:Space]] [[Category:Virtual Reality]] [[Category:Cyborg]]
{{DEFAULTSORT: The Power}}
{{DEFAULTSORT: The Power}}

Latest revision as of 10:02, 22 March 2016

FreeRIDErs story universe

Works by Jetfire on Shifti
Author's Comments

Events in this story happen at the same time (and relate to) the events in: Return to Totalia, Part Two: Parallels, Part One: Visitors.

Pharos Outer System


The sleeping man floated in the cabin, a velcro strap helping hold him stable against the air circulators. He was a classic Spacer; hairless and a metre and a half tall. His unmarked skin had a silvery tint, the result of the vacuum resistance added to it when he was younger. A good Spacer was never too careful about the vacuum outside, even with modern safety gear.

"Yuri, wake up. Don't make me turn the gravity back on."

The man stirred, stretching out. He pulled on the loop to drag himself to a wall and grabbed a hand hold. "I'm up, Sky, I'm up. What's going on?" he asked, interrupting himself with a huge yawn.

Skyfire's holotar appeared on the opposite side of the cabin, at the door. She was a white holographic gynoid with red markings, slightly larger than Yuri. "I'm getting a tachyon burst a couple of ZAU away. Looks like the Pineapple Express is a bit early, but within its window."

"A bit early? Any earlier and it would hit the wall instead of the window." Yuri pushed off the wall and swung into a shower cubicle. "How's the timing?"

"Timing is fine, if we leave soon. I've already started packing."

Yuri closed his eyes and activated the shower. Vacuums started up, followed by water jets. He scrubbed down his hairless, silvery skin and was done within a minute. "Good... Just don't pack me up with it."

Skyfire chuckled, "No worries, I've got your spot all warmed up and waiting."

Yuri finished his cleaning and pulled on a pair of shorts. He grabbed a bubble of coffee and a meal bar, and left his quarters. The man kicked off the wall and floated down the corridor as he ate. All around him, the air and walls vibrated as Skyfire packed up the living space and prepared to take off. The corridor was already shrinking, collapsing into its travel configuration.

He shot through a hatch that closed behind him. Ahead, there was a normal pilot's seat and a clear canopy showing the star filled darkness of the outer system. Yuri stopped himself with the back of the seat and looked out at the points of lights all around them.

"All packed up. Ready to go when you are," Skyfire announced. The vibrations stopped and Yuri could sense the power building up in their craft.

He gulped the last of the coffee and tossed the empty bulb and wrapper in a bag for the recycler. At his feet, behind the pilot's seat, a panel slid open, revealing a silver, man-sized chamber. The air inside sparkled in the light of the cockpit. Yuri pushed himself towards it, and tractor fields took ahold of his body, pulling it in. The panel closed up, and his skin tingled. His mind linked up with his old friend, and the universe opened up to them.

Their combined body came into focus. A forty-metre red and white space plane alone in the darkness of space. A panel on its back was just sliding shut as the last of the inflatable habitat stowed itself away. In the years since they had moved to Colossus, it had changed little; mainly with upgrades and experiments to improve the links between the three nested aspects of Skyfire's multi-layered body. The bulk of the outermost body, the Caravan, was engine, fuel, and power generation, needed to move quickly around the emptiness of the Pharos system.

On the edge of his attention Yuri sensed Skyfire busily preparing to change orbits. Their engines warmed up, pulling in power to push them on to their next destination. He shifted his focus from inward to outward, and studied the outside world. Visual and gravity sensors picked up a whole lot of nothing; this area of space was empty, beyond a few pebbles that were barely worth noting. It was in an orbital path of a few plutonian planetoids that kept it clear on their centuries-long orbits around Pharos. A few Zharus AUs away, the tachyon sensors picked up a disturbance, a surge of exotic particles that heralded a future gateway to subspace and the arrival of a FTL passenger liner.

"Ready when you are," Skyfire said.

Yuri's focus shifted again, pulling into the cockpit that suddenly had room for two to sit side by side. Skyfire sat on his right, in her human avatar mode; alabaster skin, red hair, red painted nails, and blue eyes. She wore black slacks and a red blouse with the Ranger emblem over her right breast.

The cockpit was a virtual space; an easy way for Yuri and Skyfire to interact while fused. It compressed Skyfire's capabilities into a format the enhanced human could handle easily.

Yuri leaned over and gave her a quick kiss, "Then let's get going," he said, taking the controls and pushing them forward. The engines fired, digging into space-time fabric and launching them towards the disturbance.

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A few hours later, they were close enough to pick up other signs of impending arrival. The shrinking discontinuity zone in the local Higgs Field indicated the arrival was close. Visual and other sensory fragments of the incoming ship could be picked up; harmless ghosts from the future. Skyfire gathered all the fragments she could find, and gradually built a view of what was incoming.

"Everything looks normal," Yuri noted. He and Skyfire were standing in space on either side of the assembling ship. "No subspace transit damage, and it looks like the Pineapple."

"I concur. I caught a glimpse of their star drive and it's within the norms. Then again, it is just coming from Wednesday; if it wasn't normal I'd be worried." Skyfire chuckled and zoomed in on a crew lounge. A hardlight banner was set up, saying "Hello Pharos Rangers".

"Seems we're expected," Yuri chuckled as well. "How much longer before we see her in person?"

"Not long." Skyfire showed the space around them in a false light. "Spatial-Temporal readings have gone hyper. They should arrive within the hour."

Three quarters of an hour later, the cruise ship arrived. One moment the space was empty, and in the next, the half klick long cylindrical ship was there, exotic particles shooting off and degenerating quickly from its forward spars. It had a modular design, so that disks could be added or removed as the trip demanded, propelled by an engine disk at the rear, and the FTL drive ring at the front end. If an observer squinted and used their imagination, it might look vaguely like a pineapple.

"Automatic IDs check out. No SOS subsignals. She looks good," Skyfire said.

"Then let's greet them," Yuri replied. He looked to the arriving ship, and called out to it. "Greetings Pineapple Express. Welcome back to Pharos. This is Pharos Ranger SF-001-X. Rangers Yuri Shephard and Skyfire here to greet you."

A few seconds later, the channel expanded and a holographic image of a uniformed woman in a chair appeared. "This is Captain T'Val, reporting all clear on board. Greetings Rangers, and may I say, damn you two were quick."

Yuri grinned back, "We were lucky to be in the area, that's all. How was your trip?" In part of his mind, he picked up the manifest and passenger list from the other ship and left it to Skyfire to process. On a side channel Skyfire sent back permission for the two ships to start heading inward, but not at full speed yet.

"Trip was smooth as silk, as usual. The Chief's complaining about some strange readings on one of the spars, but it didn't cause any problems."

Skyfire highlighted some flight time information for him and he whistled. "Maybe you should tell him to take a closer look at that spar. We just finished syncing up frames. You managed to cut half a day off your flight time. No wonder you got here on the edge of your window."

"A half day you say? That is good. I'll have the Chief take a closer look to see if we can figure out where we got the speedup."

"Sounds good. In other news though, I'm afraid I need to ask for permission to come aboard for a looky-loo. Seems your number came up for a cursory inspection. Permission for us to come aboard?"

"I wouldn't be much of a host if I didn't invite you over in the first place. Come on over, Rangers. I look forward to seeing you in person shortly. Pineapple out."

Skyfire brought them in close to one of the Pineapple's airlocks. Since it wasn't going to be a long visit, she extended hardlight grippers to snug them up against the other ship's hull. Once they were in place, a hatch slid open on the Ranger ship, briefly revealing a smaller ship within. That ship opened up as well, and an armored woman disconnected from it and flew to the waiting airlock.

Inside, Captain T'Val awaited them with a couple other crew members. Skyfire stepped out of the airlock and approached her, holding out her own gauntleted hand. "Hello Captain. You didn't have to meet us in person."

"You're the first new face we've seen in weeks. I'm pulling rank," T'Val answered, grinning. She looked around the armored figure, looking puzzled, "Us?"

Skyfire grinned, then her expression froze. Her hardlight shell flickered off, showing an enamelled metal body in similar colours. It opened up, and Yuri stepped out. Skyfire closed up beside him, noticeably shorter now.

"Ah, you're a fused pair. But I thought..?" T'Val started again.

"We're a rarity. Cross-gender pairings usually lead to someone getting changed. But it's a full fuse that we've made work."

"Right then; it wouldn't be Zharus if we didn't find something strange. Welcome aboard to both of you," the Captain recovered quickly. She introduced her crew members.

"This is just a standard inspection," Skyfire explained once the introductions were done. "We'll take a look around, and clear you on to the rest of the system at whatever speed you want."

"We know the drill, and we have nothing to hide. Feel free to look around anywhere you want," T'Val said starting to lead them deeper into the ship.

"It shouldn't take long. Scans showed most of what we needed already. We'll be out of your hair in no time."

"Hopefully not too fast. I insist as the host that you stay for dinner at the Captain's table."

Yuri grinned, "Well then, if you insist I suppose we could stay that long. See you for dinner Captain."

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"So do you think we'll ever be able to do that?" Skyfire asked, watching the cruise ship accelerate towards Pharos, on its way to Zharus. For the Rangers their next stop was Xolotlan Hab for some R&R and new orders. They'd piggybacked on the Pineapple Express for a boost inwards, and now were flying under their own power.

"Do what?" Yuri asked from the other seat in the virtual cockpit.

Skyfire gestured at the stars. "Go FTL, see the stars and all that."

"It's possible. Though we probably will never see it directly. We'd probably just be cargo on a cruise going to Wednesday or something. Still, if we could do it, I'd jump at the chance."

"Of course you would; so would I. That's why we've got that exchange request in for the Woden Rangers." Skyfire sighed, "Still, if we could strap a drive to the Caravan and just go, like the Scouts, wouldn't that be nice?"

"It would, though getting you out would be tricky. Especially after that scout came back Integrated."

"She's been pushing hard to loosen those regs since she came back. Pointing out how useful the RIDE was, and how the embargos are meant to minimize exposure to other colonies, which Scouts rarely encounter.

"And besides, I'm an EI; we don't have that Integration risk."

Yuri chuckled and shook his head; they'd often run through a variant of this conversation every time they came back in from border duty. He let the subject drop and brought up their activity wheel. "In any case, it's a long trip back in to Xolotlan. Care to do the honours?"

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Like the core of Rhodes Station, Xolotlan was built off of one of the original Spacer habitats to arrive in system, making it, at over 250 years old, one of the oldest human objects in system. As originally planned, it had set up in free orbit around Pharos beyond the orbits of the outer planets to help coordinate Oort operations. From there, it barely grew at all, at one point getting effectively shut down due to Rhodes handling most of the outer system traffic. When FTL travel was discovered, with its need to arrive/depart beyond the big gravitational sources, Xolotlan saw a minor resurgence, boosted further by a clan of Integrates setting up shop to escape the Planetary and Integrate politics of Zharus.

An O'Neill-type station, Xolotlan was a cylinder almost five kilometers long and two hundred meters in diameter. Gravity generators had been installed around most of the core so it no longer needed to spin to provide gravity. The station was busier now than it had been, but still nowhere near capacity.

Fused up in her innermost armor mode, Yuri and Skyfire cycled through the Rangers airlock of the old station. :It's good to be back in for a bit,: Yuri commented. :Not that I don't mind your company...:

:...but sometimes it's nice to have someone else to talk to.: Skyfire finished. :Time to go report in and clock out for our R&R.:

They both detected the disturbance at the same time; a sense of movement even though they both were standing still. :The Caravan!: they mentally exclaimed in unison, already turning back to the airlock. They'd left their outermost shell in parking orbit around the station, while they took the Angel in to dock directly. Now, their data link was reporting the Caravan was unexpectedly moving, in the grip of an unknown craft. Yuri sensed Skyfire querying TraCon for what was going on, while he handled the physical moving of their body back to the airlock.

"Rangers, welcome back. There's no need to be alarmed," a voice called. Yuri stopped and looked at the two-headed rottweiler Integrate who was running towards them. "I'm afraid Goldie may have gotten a bit impatient to get started and grabbed your outer quarter already. Don't worry, it's in good hands with the Heart of Gold."

"Started with what?" Yuri asked. "Who are you and why is your ship grabbing our ship?"

"Our apologies again. We are Zaphod and Beeblebrox, Ranger Fringe division." As the two-headed Integrate spoke, Skyfire received his credentials. "You are about to receive new orders, if you chose to accept them, to participate in a Grand Experiment!"

"Don't worry, you'll still get your two weeks leave. It'll take us that long to get your outermost shell prepped," the second head added.

Yuri felt like his own head was going to split in two, following the Ranger scientist's conversation. That it was Fringe division made him even more worried. :Uh, Sky?:

:Talking to Command now. Our next orders are to cooperate with the Fringe squad on a top secret experiment. Details will be provided by Zaphod and Beeblebrox. We may decline if we want to. The details will remain confidential of course, whether we accept or not.:

:Sounds like fun,: Yuri noted dryly. :Do we?:

:We still get our vacation. He's knocking on our door.:

With Yuri's permission, they dropped into a simulation of Iacon they ran locally. Yuri took on his Jetfire look with a red-blue palette swap, while Skyfire used a Macross-derived VF-19 Excalibur form. They activated a spacebridge and sent the scientists an invitation. Almost immediately, the bridge flared and the two-headed Integrate walked through it.

"Wow, I feel a bit underdressed," the integrate said, looking at the two mecha.

"No worries, we've adjusted our Grid code. Naturals are allowed, so you don't need to bot out," Skyfire said. "You have a briefing for us? And an explanation for stealing our body?"

The Integrate's two heads twisted in opposite directions, taking in the sights. "Never visited a Grid before," the left head--Zaphod by the nametag--said.

"Your DINsec is out of date. You might want to update," the right head--Beeblebrox by the name tag--added simultaneously.

"We'll take care of it soon. Ops said you have something to tell us?" Skyfire prodded again.

"EIs, such a fascinating creation. Your creators really did something amazing. It's no wonder they were Inties," Zaphod noted.

The hand on Beeblebrox's side lifted and slapped Zaphod's muzzle. "Watch it, we've been warned remember? No Intie superiority talk. Humans, RIs, Inties, EIs, we're all just people," the second head said, glaring at his body mate.

The slapping hand rubbed the first head's cheek. "Yeah, yeah, I remember. Wise guy."

"Can we get on with this? You're eating into our vacation... and our outermost body," Yuri said impatiently.

Beeblebrox looked around. "Right. Uhm, may we take over the sim? Pictures always make things better."

Skyfire sighed and lobbed over a glowing ball. Soon after, the simulation faded into a black spacescape.

"How much do you guys know about FTL engines and the theories and practicalities of how they work?" Zaphod asked as an opening.

"The cortinide nodes open a gap in the Higgs Field, and create a gateway into subspace," Skyfire said. "The 'Drive Ring' maintains a bubble of Einsteinian reference frame around the vessel to insulate it while opening a portal to subspace."

"Current understanding is FTL speed is determined by how 'slippery' the bubble is where it interacts with subspace," Yuri supplied. "So, you could say the Drive Ring actually is propulsive, though passively."

"Then at the end of the trip the nodes work with the drive ring to exit subspace and re-synch with normal spacetime," Skyfire said.

Beeblebrox nodded, "So you have the layman's explanation. Good enough. What we've been working on could be revolutionary. You know why you have to go so far out right?" Around them, Pharos flared into being, and they shot away from the star, zooming past the rest of the planets until they were in the outer system.

"To get out of the gravity well, or at least most of it. Believe me, I know all about gravity," Yuri said.

"More or less. The reality is, it all comes down to Mathematics, interactions with the local Higgs field, gravity waves, frame dragging, that sort of thing. You could open a gateway over the star itself, but you'd have no clue where you'd end up, and you'd only be able to squeeze a stream of particles through it."

"The second part, we're still working on solutions for, but our frame generators and shields have more than enough durability to move in closer," Beeblebrox pointed out.

"As for the first part, to work out where you go when you have all those fields requires a lot of complex math." Zaphod continued. Around them, equations lit up the space.

"The more gravity wave sources you have, the harder it is to work out. You get more infinities and singularities and other nasty artifacts that make solving the equations difficult. When you go that far out, you can treat all the big masses as a single point source. It gets rid of a lot of the junk in the equations and brings the problem space down to something a regular supercomputer can handle. You are aware that after the drive and frame shielding, the biggest component of a FTL system is the computer hardware right? It crunches the equations to figure out the exact properties you need to safely enter subspace the way you want to go."

Yuri tapped his metal chin. "So you've done what? Made a bigger computer for the drive?"

Zaphod shook his head, "Nah, we need a few more Moore's Law orders of magnitude improvements to pull that off. So we're bypassing it. We've reworked the fundamentals, and if they work, we've knocked out enough of those pesky div-zeros and lazy eights that we don't need as much computing power."

"We're hoping to shave a few light-hours off the minimum safe jump distance for a given stellar mass--Pharos, in this case," Beeblebrox said. "Among other things. Most of the mass still needs to be behind you; but if you happen to have a few gas giants beside you, you should be able to handle it,"

Zaphod waved his hand and they zoomed back towards the star, skimming past Tantalus. "And you guys get to be our guinea pigs for this. Isn't it exciting? You'll be at the bleeding edge of Science!"

"In a month we'll be ready. You'll go inward to Tantalus, close by it."

"Too close by conventional FTL thinking. It'll be incredible!"

"And then you'll do a jump. Just a micro jump really, a light-hour or so, just to prove the concept works, but it will be incredible."

"You've been doing unmanned tests, right?" Yuri asked trying to stop the tennis game between the heads.

"Oh, sure," Zaphod said flippantly. "A few dozen torpedoes. Spare message torps the Scouts had gotten and weren't using any more."

"Only a half dozen failures. But we want the live reaction to tell if it really works. Our last dozen torp tests were successful and we've been cleared for full manned testing."

"It does work. We just need to make sure it's safe. Using a fused pair should help hedge the risks. Your experience as test pilots with EvoLimited makes both of you highly qualified for this experiment."

"Just let us know soon if you want to back out. Goldie's taking your Caravan into her spacedock for modifications and we need to know so we can get started installing the FTL sled. Okay?"

"I can't wait to see how it works. We've tweaked the nodes a little too, hoping to make them more efficient. Really we've looked at the whole faster than light process, and made improvements. This will truly be a Grand Experiment!" Beeblebrox exclaimed.

"Alright already," Yuri grumbled, trying to sort out the implications and risks.

"You'll have our answer in a few hours," Skyfire added, unable to hide the hint of excitement in her own voice.

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Tantalus Orbit

The Caravan was barely recognizable. Normally, Skyfire and Yuri generally tried to keep it looking like a larger version of the Angel mode spaceplane. The additions the Fringe group added almost ruined it; spars made out of exotic materials stretched from the tip of the nose, frame shield generators and batteries were packed along the top and bottom, and even more gear wrapped around the middle of the space plane.

Fused deep inside, Yuri and Skyfire went through their preparations. Technically the experiment was already started. Ford, the rockhopper penguin Integrate piloted a shuttle shadowing them at a safe distance. He had been broadcasting a simple clock signal towards their destination for the past few hours. The intent was to find the signal as soon as they could after returning to real space to tell how far they had travelled.

:I'm a bit nervous. No one has gone FTL like this. This is our body after all, not just a ship we ride in,: Skyfire said, virtually pacing in space.

:I'm sure that part will be fine. I'm more worried about where we are going.: Yuri lit up a diagram with their location, the ice giant Thanatos, and their planned destination. A huge red blob covered the space next to their destination.

"Are you sure we should be going there? It's really close to that No-Fly zone," Yuri sent to Ford. "The NotSpam says that you need Classified clearance over there."

"Well we're Rangers, we all have Classified clearance," Ford answered.

"No, I mean you need Classified clearance just to ask what classification clearance you need to find out how classified the permission is... I think I broke a logic gate," Yuri rubbed his forehead and shook his head. "In any case, it's clear no one wants people going in there. Rangers, Spacers, COTS, ZOTS, Zharus PAC, the Intie Council, the Nextus Better Business Bureau for some strange reason, and more groups that I don't even know of, have all signed off on it; They're all staying mum on that area other than to say Stay Out. Do we have ET's out there? That's about the only thing I can think of that would make them close off that much space AND get everyone to agree to keep it closed."

Ford's sim waved a hand, "Don't worry about it. It's all part of the plans. The numbers are rock solid for your destination. We'll put you down exactly where we want you to go. The Notice To Spacemen is exactly why we are going there; it makes sure that area is deserted and cuts down on extra variables."

"Right. If we're arrested, or probed by Little Green Men, I'm blaming you. How do we look Skyfire?"

"Sarium batteries are all charged up. Everything looks clear. Do the batteries have enough power to do a jump?" Skyfire reported.

"Normally not. But we're just doing a quick jump. The batteries can easily hold enough charge for twice that. I'm sending you the final numbers now. You can start charging for the jump." Ford tried to reassure them while doing his own final checks.

Skyfire looked a bit doubtful, then shrugged. "Syncing with Ford's time clock. We're ready to go."

In one corner, a click ticked. 13:14:10... 13:14:11... 13:14:12....

Yuri gave his partner a skeptical sideways look. "Clock confirmed. Charging nodes now. Subspace gate is active."

Ahead of the ship, spacetime stretched slightly, developing a shimmer on one side and a solid surface on the other, the precursor effect to virtual matter. For deep space jumps, the surface was usually almost invisible. This one however was more visible, waves of blues and greens pulsing across the surface.

"That's normal," Ford assured them. "There seems to be a spectrum to those gates based on gravitational effects."

"Drive Ring ramping up," Skyfire said. This was the most modified part of the sequence. Normally this close to a large mass the Higgs Field pressure from the normal spacetime would just crush them into a singularity, but so far everything was green. "Pulsing impellers, closing the Local Reference Frame…"

"Still here," Yuri said, grinning.

"So far," Skyfire said. "So we can confirm that their refined activation equations work. Now, the hard part."

They entered the gate, vanishing from Einsteinian spacetime. Subspace was timeless and theoretically non-linear. They had to carry their own minutes with them inside the bubble maintained by the Ring. Through their senses, they could see the Universe, and they could see nothing. Their lives were all in the tiny bubble Skyfire's Caravan was generating. The jump itself would only take a few minutes, but those minutes were an eternity.

:There's a surprising amount of pressure on the reference frame in here. Well within limits, but more than others have reported. Uh oh... Power is dropping fast,: Skyfire noted. :Caravan batteries are losing their power. Ramping up the Toka and connecting Angel batteries.:

:How much longer? Do we need to crash out?: Yuri asked. Theoretically they might be able to drop back into Real Space in an emergency, but it was mainly just a theory. He couldn't remember any stories of such a crash working. Usually ships just disappeared in subspace if there were failures.

:Two minutes more.... Angel batteries are crashing. I've never seen this before. Toka is connected, picking up the slack,: Skyfire was beginning to sound worried. Yuri kept quiet, sensing and watching the same things Skyfire was sensing innately. The seconds took forever to go by.

:We need more power. LRF is starting to falter and the Tokas aren't able to cover it. I'm connecting the Armor to it.:

:But that's keeping us alive!.... No nevermind. Go for it.:

:Already done Yuri. Angel batteries are showing the same problem. Trying to connect in sequence but we don't have that many spares. Exit coming up.:

Darkness fell and the world went silence. Yuri wondered if this was what death was like, until he heard his own breathing and his heart pumping slowly. His eyes saw flickers of silver that steadily brightened until he felt the sense of fusing happening again.


:I... I'm here. I blacked out for a moment. We have one battery left in the armor. The rest are dead.:

:Dead? Dead how?:

:No clue. I've managed to connect to the Caravan's remaining Toka. It's almost burnt out. Trying to charge the Caravan and Angel batteries... They aren't holding anything. They're soured; it's like they were charged with themselves.:

Yuri took a mental breath to steady himself. :Right, we're still alive at least. Assess, stabilize, recover. What do we have? We have a strained Toka in the Caravan and a single battery in the armor. We'll need the Toka to keep the battery charged, so for now we're a single body.:

:We're pretty stable otherwise. No real damage. It's mainly dealing with a holey power network and trying to get the power back to the crashed systems.: Skyfire added.

Yuri nodded, sensing with Skyfire the state of their body. The trick now would be getting power to the important things, while keeping enough to keep them alive. He briefly considered defusing, and realized that the life support in the fuse chamber was less of a power drain than powering a suit.

:We've assessed the situation. We're stable as we are now. We know that Goldie is out there somewhere, hopefully somewhere close unless things went REALLY wrong. So next step is recovery. Comms and Eyes first; we need to see where we are and talk to whoever's out there. Oh and an SOS beacon.:

Skyfire chuckled, :Already dropped that. It was released automatically once we reentered real space and the frame shields died.

:As for the rest... I'm routing power where I can. Got the radio receiver online now... Wow!:

They could read the beat of the signal Ford had been broadcasting for the past few hours from their departure point right away. 12:10:31... 12:10:32... 12:10:33....

:We left at 13:15 and change.: Yuri said. :And arrived here at 13:20 by our clocks... we're basically a light hour away from where we left!:

:One light-hour. We went a light hour in a few minutes.:

:Just think about it. If we had our eyes, we could look back where we left and see ourselves getting ready to leave. We won't see ourselves leave for another 50 minutes from here.: Yuri noted.

:Faster than Light makes things weird, doesn't it? We're basically in two places at once from some points of view. In any case, we did it!: Skyfire let herself have a moment of happiness, then refocused on the rest of the work.

:Now to figure out where we are. I'm getting the nav system up now.... We're getting signals from Tantalus and Colossus and Zharus... Triangulating... Oh crap.:

Skyfire lit up the Pharos system map. The map space showed them surrounded by red all around. The deep red of a strict no fly zone.

:Well, let's hope ET is friendly,: Yuri sighed.

The next few minutes passed silently as they worked on getting the comm system back up. Receiving the radio signals and positioning signals were simple enough, but they needed heftier systems to send and receive regular communications. Until then, they could only detect indecipherable encrypted messages sent at them.

"-ming guys. Hang tight!" Goldie shouted at them as soon as they managed to get all the right pieces properly powered up and connected. The Heart of Gold's chipper EI had been one of those Sprouts who followed her into space after becoming a Ranger. "Skyfire! Yuri! Hang tight. We're coming. Please respond!"

"Unidentified spacecraft. This is a restricted space. Power down and stay put for rendezvous. I repeat. Unidentified spacecraft. This is a restricted space. Power down and stay put for rendezvous." The second message blared as loud as Goldie's message and was chilling.

"Power down? If we power down any more we'll be an asteroid," Yuri grumbled.

"Eyes coming up now. Voice should be soon after that." Skyfire said, prioritizing what she could. The simulated redness mostly faded away to the blackness of space. Two ships on high burn trajectories were coming at them, The Heart of Gold coming from outside the red zone, and a stranger coming from deeper in the restricted space. By cosmic coincidence, their trajectories would converge on Skyfire at almost the same time.

"Goldie will reach us first, in about 25 minutes. The stranger's ETA is about 27 minutes," Skyfire reported. "He's a Black Ranger; I wondered where those guys went."

The incoming Ranger received their SOS beacon and changed his tone immediately. "Ranger ship Skyfire, standby for help. Keep sensors to minimum. Heart of Gold, stand down and leave the restricted zone."

"No way! We'll be there first. Skyfire has important information on a major experiment. We'll take care of them."

Yuri virtually facepalmed and looked around while their rescuers argued. "Great. So how boned are we?"

"Pretty badly. We're deep in the restricted area. If our eyes were better we might even see their flying saucers. As is, I'm picking up some movement but nothing I can get clearly."

Skyfire paused and considered her words carefully. "I also noticed something else. Ford said they knew exactly how the numbers would work. I also looked at Goldie's position, considering where we were supposed to be."

"And?" Yuri asked, waiting for Skyfire to continue.

She sighed and looked at the approaching Fringe ship. "To be where she is now at the speed she's at now, she'd have to leave before we arrived. I also looked closely at Ford's numbers and he's right. We're exactly where we should be. Just not where we expected to be."

"In other words, we've been had. Damn those meme-infected Inties...." Yuri rubbed his virtual forehead and considered their options. "At least it's all in house. Zordon shouldn't be too annoyed."

Skyfire chuckled, "You know Spectrum doesn't like us calling them that. They claim it shows too many Zharusian influences."

"It's not my fault; they're the ones who picked the colour departmental scheme." Yuri grinned.

"In any case, I can get us a little bit of thruster power now; Who do we want to be rescued by?"

Their power levels were lower than either liked, but stable, powered off the drained Toka. Doing nothing, Goldie would pick them up well before the Ranger Security ship would get them. But they could also direct some of the Toka's power to the engines, enough to make it a tie at least.

"Let's go to the Black Ranger. He might have more answers for us than Zaphod's crew will have, one way or another."

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"Hey Zack, long time no see," Yuri greeted the incoming ranger. Both ships were still fifteen minutes away from Skyfire, but they'd just managed to get their comms repowered enough for proper two-way voice communication.

"Yuri, you old dog. What the hell are you two doing out here in restricted space?" the other Ranger answered. On the other bands Yuri and Skyfire could tell Zack and Goldie and Zaphod were still arguing over who would rescue them.

"Running an experiment for the Fringe group you're arguing with there. We're thinking we were set up. But since we're here now, when can we meet the aliens?"

"Aliens? What do you mean?" The connection was voice only, but they could hear the honest confusion in the Ranger's voice.

"Well why else would such a big and remote territory be closed off with the support of anyone and everyone with any amount of power in the system?" Skyfire asked.

Zack laughed, "Well, ETs would probably be one reason. But it's not Aliens, it's for the inv-" he cut off quickly, all of his transmissions ending abruptly.

"in? In what?" Skyfire asked.

"No clue. He's stopped talking to us and Goldie, but it seems like he's talking to someone further outsystem. Goldie's knocking on the comm," Yuri noted.

"Let her wait. They'll both be here soon."

Yuri nodded in agreement and scanned over their settings, "Fine with me. Any luck on getting anything back up?"

"We don't have the power to spare for anything else. Toka's strained enough as is; if we add anything else it might be the draw that breaks the Toka's back. Zack's knocking again. He wants to talk to us with Goldie."

"Let him in; let's see what's going on."

"Yuri and Sky? Sorry about that. Loose lips and all that. You and Goldie have been cleared for a briefing. Goldie, head to these coordinates, I'll take care of Skyfire," Zack said once everyone was linked in.

"It's about time! You sure you don't want a lift Skyfire?" Goldie asked.

"We're fine Goldie. Zack's got us in good hands I'm sure. It's just some power issues," Skyfire replied.

"They can hear us! What happened Skyfire? Power issues? What's going on with your batteries?" Zaphod interrupted.

Skyfire sighed and shook her virtual head. "I don't know what happened. All our batteries are just dead. They aren't holding a charge any more. Burned out one of our Tokas just to get back into Real, and the other's at 50% output. We're using it to charge my armor battery to keep the Fuse up and what other systems we can power. No other damage otherwise that I can tell."

"Huh," Zaphod pondered. "You know, there haven't been any problems with operating sarium batteries in subspace before. The Star Circus's Great Eastern has them for emergency power."

"But this is the first time I know of that they were directly linked to a Drive Ring," Beeblebrox added. "Even the Scout probs use reactors, not batteries. A shame, it would have been so useful to have sarium powered FTL sleds."

"Don't count it out entirely. We don't know what happened yet. Still, sarium's always had a quantum element that shorts itself out. Maybe direct exposure to subspace causes similar problems? It's definitely something for more experiments," Zaphod theorized.

"We should see if anyone else may have run into this before. Most people do long jumps. If they were using batteries and they shorted out, they were probably lost."

"True. Ford, start checking the records. Surely someone on a Wednesday run has used sarium batteries before," Zaphod asked.

"Ford's a light hour away, remember? And don't call me Shirley. In any case I've checked what I have locally," Goldie said. "No official ships run with sarium, everyone uses Tokas and other reactors, due to battery limitations and sarium export limitations. But there are five private ships that have disappeared on a Wednesday run since sarium batteries entered public use at power levels suitable for ships. And possibly one Scout ship that seems to match those criteria."

"You guys can hash that out later in person. Goldie, you're still going in the wrong direction," Zack interrupted them. "Skyfire, prepare for docking and combining. Open up some power points and I'll start boosting your energy level. We can get you new batteries out at the assembly point."

In space, the dark coloured Ranger ship stopped just above Skyfire's Caravan. It was an older ship, predating the bird-like Milano style that was becoming popular. Instead it was more cylindrical, with rotating and sliding modules that could expand and retract as needed. It began to reconfigure itself to prepare an opening for the EIDE, then gently boosted itself toward the other ship. Using what little power she had available, Skyfire moved some power points close to Zack's ship. When his ship contacted her, power immediately started flowing.

"Ahh that feels good," Skyfire said, using the extra energy to cautiously power up the rest of their bodies. Once she was able to, she reconfigured the Caravan to better link up with Zack's ship.

In virtual, the scout was able to appear with them, dressed in a black uniform. His avatar didn't wear a helmet, showing a hairless head with a VISOR-style eye replacement.

"Configuration looks good. Load balances are optimal. Slaving the caravan's engines to you Zack," Skyfire reported. "But I'm keeping the FTL ring off line. No point in risking any more problems."

"Confirming configuration and control. Initiating boost to Cerberus," Zack said.

Skyfire and Yuri both instinctively looked back as the engines lit up, lifting them towards the outer system. "Cerberus? Never heard of any place like that," Yuri noted.

"It's a local name for PLU-1854. The Zharusian part of the fleet got there first, so they got to name it," Zack explained.

"Fleet? What fleet?" the puzzled pair asked.

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Cerberus was a rocky iceball five hundred klicks across with no moons of its own. Its three hundred year orbit tilted almost 45 degrees off of Pharos's orbital plane. Currently it was climbing away from the star and above the plane, putting it in the general vicinity of the Totalia arrival point.

Its surface was charcoal black with a few shiny spots of exposed ices. What little atmosphere it had was condensing back to a solid as it climbed away from the star. Three habitat domes had been set up on the planetoid early on in the Fleet's development phase. As humans are apt to do, the dome's habitats quickly separated into cliques. Scooby became the home of displaced Zharusians (mostly reporters and other snoopers), Lassie the home of the hybrid Scout/Ranger base, and Pluto for the rest of the Spacers hired and otherwise brought out to prepare the fleet.

The fleet itself was gathered in the planetoid's shadow, away from any eyes that might glance its way. There was a relatively steady stream of supply ships arriving, carrying the material for building the fleet from the Colossus and Zharus factories and shipyards (with suitably obfuscated shipping information; much of the equipment had stopover points in Nyktos, Ashoka or Xolotlan.)

Zack ended up being drafted into being a tour guide for the new arrivals. He hooked up a habitat module to his ship, and loaded the Fringe group into it for a quick spin around the neighbourhood. Yuri and Skyfire rode along, fused in their Armor mode, and even Goldie hung out with a golden ovoid probe. They had done a quick spin over the tri-dome complex on the surface, and were now climbing up towards a chaotic mixture of vac-storage modules, pushers, and other ships. One ship dominated the area.

"This is where we're gathering material for the actual Fleet. Until the Great Western arrives from Wednesday, we're using the Rickenbacker as the anchor." Zack explained as they approached. He brought up a diagram of the two main ships of the fleet.

"The actual fleet composition is still being sorted out. Since the fleet has so many existing smaller ships, fitting them on the Western is one of the biggest challenges we're handling. A lot of the work is just figuring out who is coming in what ships, and how to fit them together. The Heart of Gold was one of the first picks everyone agreed on. Your spot has already been allocated, Goldie. About amidships on Side A, just behind the King of Hearts. The engineers will be sending over the specs on the docking clamps and so forth once we get settled." Zack explained.

"My spot?" Goldie asked, her probe tilting a little and 'looking' at where Zack indicated on the diagram.

"You and the Fringe group were always on the short list to be invited along. Between Totalium and Nulflite, they wanted to make sure there was enough science brains around to handle any surprises. You weren't expected to show up so soon is all."

"So soon? When were you going to invite us?" Dent, the meerkat integrate, asked.

Zack chuckled. "Some wanted to kidnap you and leave you in standby until the fleet was enroute."

Zaphod and Beeblebrox bristled, "What? This is an outrage! We should have been informed as soon as the new materials were brought in system!" Zaphod exclaimed.

"How much progress, how much Science! have we missed due to this delay?!" Beeblebrox added.

"And how much would this have been blabbed over the Pharos darknets if you'd been informed earlier?" Zack asked.

"What?!" "We'd never!" The two heads sputtered over each other, protesting their innocence.

In response, a side screen lit up, showing a scene in an icy cavern. A huge white dragon Integrate filled most of it, partly curled around large hardlight eggs. The scene sped up to show figures moving around, helping as the eggs hatched. All of the faces were blurred, but Zaphod Beeblebrox's twin headed form was obvious, as was Ford's penguin form.

"That video, along with Naggy's cesarean section egging, were released on the Zharus science nets months before Revelation. The Intie filters kept it from making too big a splash, but it did raise a lot of uncomfortable questions," Zack said.

"We blurred the faces. No one could know it was us!" Ford protested.

"Right, as if no one would recognized a rockhopper penguin, or a two headed canine..." Skyfire started to say dryly.

"That could be any two headed integrate!" Zaphod shouted. On the screen one of the blurred heads turned to the camera and ducked down, below the blurring. Zaphod waved at the camera before the blurring dropped down to cover his face again.

"Even without that 'glitch' and with the blurring, Lady Vox is rather recognizable," Zack said. "In any case, the higher ups decided you were too much of a security risk to bring in too soon. But since you're here now, you'll be given access to all our information on the new metamaterials, and you can propose experiments on them to the meta-committee."

"Proposals?!" "You expect us to propose our experiments?!" "How..." "How.." "Denigrating!" "We're not simple students!" "We are full blown Scientists!" "Just give us samples and watch us crack the mysteries of the universe," the two headed integrate spoke over himself.

"We have very limited supplies of both materials...." Zach sighed, "Nevermind, just take it up with the committee."

Yuri and Skyfire, fused up, tuned out the Fringe group's arguments. They watched the traffic around the Rickenbacker. One ship caught their attention, looking familiar, but before they could focus on it, it disappeared behind the bulk of the mother ship.

:Probably just seeing things,: Yuri said. :The Milano class is pretty common after all.:

:Yearning for familiar faces and all that. What do you think they'll do with us?: Skyfire asked.

:No clue. Until our bodies are fixed up we aren't going far. But we're Rangers, I'm sure they won't keep us here.:

:I hope not. But I also hope they'll let us go with them when they leave.:

:So do I.:

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Rhodes Station, Colossus

Rhodes is down... Yuri chanted to himself. The Ghost, as usual, twitched at the thoughts, but didn't have to do anything; the Rhodes approach was familiar enough that Yuri could do it without the familiar presence. In this case, neither had to do anything as Skyfire was bringing them in to the docking hatches.

Leaving his partner to work on her own, he shifted his attention elsewhere. Their caravan was expanded to hold a half dozen VIPs, coming in from Cerberus to check in on the status of various projects happening around the system. Four of the six were Grounders, ground pounders from Zharus, but all were used to working in space. They continued working in various virtual spaces, oblivious to their arrival at the large station, the even larger moon and the largest planet in the system. In the Real, they sat in their seats, hands moving occasionally, their eyes hidden behind VR specs, or closed over optical implants.

Yuri shifted his view to the public VR mesh, and found more activity there. Various diagrams and charts, some of them fuzzy with encryption, floated in the space between the six. Two RIDE avatars watched next to their partners, the physical DEs clinging to the caravan's underside.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Yuri said, pausing a moment to catch their attention. "We are now arriving at Rhodes. Airlocks will open in five minutes. Thank you for flying Air Autobot, and we look forward to your return for the next leg of your trip."

The passengers looked suitably surprised, and quickly began to pack up. Yuri peeked over Skyfire's shoulder at the externals and saw and felt the grapplers take hold and pull them tighter to the station's airlock. The RIDEs were stirring as well, collapsing their hardlight cocoons and detaching, kicking off for the secondary locks.

Soon enough, the Caravan was empty, save for the automated cleaners. The nose of the ship shifted slowly, panels and components moving in a complicated dance to reveal an armored woman. She floated next to the ship, looking it over before entering the station through the same locks the RIDEs used. Once inside the station proper, she split open, and Yuri stepped out. He took a deep breath and began to stretch.

"Ahh, never thought I'd say this, but it's good to be home."

Skyfire put on a show of stretching as well, her blue glowing eyes sparkling a little. "True it is. I never thought I could get tired of travelling, but this is beginning to strain my own patience. I hope the Fringe group can figure out how to duplicate the rig soon, so we can get off taxi duty."

While the pair hadn't done any further FTL tests since the initial experiments, when the Fringe group had examined the results, they made some other discoveries. With a few minor and reversible tweaks to the FTL sled and ring, it would partly encase them in their own isolated frame of reference. Skyfire's engines could push that frame through Real space faster than normal. While not faster than light, it still let them zip between planets quicker than just about anything else in system, shaving hours, sometimes a day or two off the trips, as long as it was in a straight line. They'd quickly discovered that a mobile bubble of space time had a turning radius that could charitably be described as 'orbital', if you were being generous. The Fleet, not wanting to waste resources, immediately put the pair to use as the VIP taxi and courier service for when DINCom wasn't good enough, while commissioning the Fringe group to duplicate the effect as soon as possible.

They came out on an upper level of the Grand Concourse, and paused to look around.

"So many people.... And RIDEs, and Inties and EIs now," Skyfire noted. "Cerberus space is busy, but you don't appreciate how few people are actually out there until you come back here."

"Just wait till we get back to Z-space," Yuri chuckled. "Colossus is busy, but it's empty compared to Zharus." He leaned against a railing and looked around. "Those are new," he said after a moment, pointing.

At every major entrance, on every level stood a statue on a pedestal. It was an athletic man with metallic blue skin. Each one had curly hair and a crown of spikes emitting blue flames around his head. The statues wore a sky blue cloak and a simple loin cloth and sandals.

Skyfire looked around at them, puzzled for a moment, before she smiled happily. "Rodney! What are you doing here?"

The closest statue stepped off his pedestal and walked over to the pair. He hugged Skyfire before speaking. "Hello Skyfire, I was hoping I would catch you soon. But your last few trips have been so quick, we didn't have time to talk."

"We've been run off our thrusters a lot lately. Sorry, where are my manners? Yuri, this is Rodney, an EI brother. Rodney, this is my partner, Yuri."

The men exchanged greetings before Skyfire interrupted again, "What are you doing here?"

Rodney stood straighter, his crown of flames glowing brighter. "I'm trying to bring order to this piecemeal contraption you call a space colony." He grinned and relaxed a bit, "Seriously. With so many of us heading upwards, I figured it wouldn't hurt to try and get ahead of the pack. Rhodes - Rodney, the link seemed obvious, so I made a proposal, and station accepted. I am now Rhodes station's native genius loci EI."

Yuri quirked his head, a little surprised. "They relinquished the station to you?"

"Not entirely. The way it was grown and expanded through the years prevents that. I don't have as much control like Polestar does on the Alohavator, but I'm in the newer sections, helping keep it running smoothly while making plans to update the older stuff eventually. I hope you don't mind, I've been updating the local Grid space."

"Not at all. It's shared space after all. We'll take a peek later and see what you did. So what's it like, taking over a hundred and fifty year old station?" Skyfire asked. She took Rodney's hand and started leading him to the entrance to Quarks.

"Well first of all, it's not a hundred and fifty years old. Its a lot older than that," Rodney said.

Yuri nodded, following the EIDEs. "True. Rhodes was built around one of the original Spacer colonies. Its core came from Sol and it was probably old even back then."

Rodney nodded as well, "Old enough. I've found some modules that are still running Microsoft Space OS." He grinned at Skyfire's mock terrified gasp. "Don't worry, they are safely isolated. Once we can extract them, they will be exorcised, purified and shot into Pharos."

"Nuclear fire, it's the only way to be sure," Skyfire agreed.

"So what have you two been up to lately? I thought you were on border patrol, but I noticed you were dropped off that roster."

"We... We've been busy, on other stuff. A lot of VIP transport mainly, between the orbitals and planets and stuff," Skyfire said, trying to skirt around the truth.

Rodney smirked, "Oh right, I see. Yeah, the trips out to Cerberus must be quite the haul."

Both of them stopped and looked at the station EI. "I don't know what you're-" Yuri started to say.

"Relax, I know about the Fleet. It's part of the reason I was accepted onto Rhodes. With everything we're shipping out to Cerberus, they wanted someone who could tirelessly keep an eye on what's going on around here. A local little dutch boy with lots of fingers to plug the leaks as they developed." As Rodney spoke, he sent an encrypted clearance pack to the pair, vouching for his clearance.

"Well, that certainly makes things less awkward. Look, I'm already feeling like a third wheel; Why don't you two go off and get caught up while I do squishy human things at Quarks," Yuri said, pointing towards the bar.

"You sure? I don't want to leave you out," Skyfire said.

Yuri shoved his partner towards Rodney. "Go! I insist. We've been fused more often than not lately; some alone time will be good for both of us."

Skyfire leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. "You're right. Go have some fun. We have lots of time to spare."

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Yuri sipped his Raktajino, savouring the sweet chocolate and coffee liqueur drink's taste, and surveyed the crowded bar from his table. He was trying to decide on what he was in the mood for and how much work he wanted to put into getting it. Quarks advertised itself as having the largest selection of companions available, this side of Aloha, and most seemed on duty today. He gulped down the last of his drink and flagged down a red headed waitress for a refill. As she walked back to the bar station, he studied her swaying hips and decided to see if she was available for later.

A pair of arms sneaked around him while he was distracted. "Still a man I see," a familiar voice said, pinching his nipples through his thin shirt at the same time.

Yuri yelped in surprised pain and lept to his feet, knocking the other man backwards, onto the floor. He looked down, and saw the Spacer laying on the ground, laughing his ass off.

"Neil! What the hell are you doing!?"

"Greeting an old friend," Neil Hadfield said, offering his hand.

Yuri reached down and hauled the giggling man to his feet. Other bar patrons, sensing a fight wasn't about to break out, returned their attention to their own business.

"Sorry man, I couldn't resist, considering your better half and all that. Speaking of which, where is Skyfire?"

"She's hanging out with Rodney. We need some time apart."

"Ahh, I see." Neil took a seat and smiled at the red haired waitress bringing over Yuri's fresh drink. He ordered a drink for himself before continuing. "Everything good between you two?"

Yuri rubbed his sore nipples a moment. "We're fine. We've just been spending a lot of time together, and she just met Rodney; I figured it would be easier to let the EIs be EIs and the humans be humans."

"Gotcha. Makes sense." Neil looked askance at the drink in front of his friend. "You sure you're still a guy? That's quite a girly drink you've got there."

"Oh just drop it. I likes what I likes. What are you doing here? Still mining your claim?"

"Nah, I'm letting it go fallow for a few years. The market's too unstable; the demand charts are all over the map. Only the big guys are making a profit nowadays."

"That sucks. What are you doing in the mean time? Did you build up a big enough nest egg?"

"I've got a decent enough egg, and the Apollo 11's in good shape, but I'd be bored out of my gourd if I hung around here all the time. So I've taking up transportation. I'm shuttling material from Colossus out to the outer system; the courier business out here is booming."

Yuri nodded, knowing both why the demand charts were so out of whack and why so much was being shipped out. He looked at his friend curiously, trying to get a read on if Neil knew more than he was saying, and decided to drop it. "Well at least you're keeping busy. Going to be here long?"

"I've got a couple of days before my load's ready to go."

"Good, my schedule is clear for the next few days as well." Yuri signaled to the red head and smiled at her. "Shall we see what we can find for companions for our time, and I can show off just how much of a man I still am?"

Neil downed his drink in one shot and slammed the glass on the table. "That sounds like a great idea," he said, his eyes roaming the bar. He caught the eye of a black haired waitress with feline tags and waved her over. "Let's see what fun's available for a couple space crazy guys."

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Lassie, Cerberus

The Angel separated from the Caravan high above Cerberus. Automated tugs grabbed ahold of the ship and hauled it to a space dock for servicing. In plane mode, the Angel landed on a flattened parking area between the domes, and the Armor headed to the Lassie dome.

"Finally, some down time," Yuri said, defusing as soon as they were in atmosphere. "One more trip in system and I'd be ready to boot it to Wednesday the long way."

"Well, we need the break, and the Fringe crew want to rework the power system a bit. So it all works out." Skyfire lead them down the utilitarian corridors.

Close to the airlocks, the station's rooms were mainly devoted to storage and meeting space. The barracks, cafeterias and other living spaces were gathered closer to the middle of the dome. As the pair passed one storage room, Yuri stopped dead, hearing a familiar voice. He looked in the room, but couldn't spot the speaker.

"What?" Skyfire started to ask before he held his finger to his lips.

The Ranger slipped into the room and quickly spotted two people standing at a desk, going over reports. One wore a Cerberus uniform, while the other was more casually dressed. Even from behind, Yuri recognized the other spacer.

Smirking, Yuri stepped out from behind a pile of crates. "Hands up! You are in a restricted area. Clasp your hands behind your heads and wait for further instructions," he called out in his best police voice.

Both men raised their arms quickly, clearly surprised and automatically obeying.

"What is the meaning of this?" the Cerberus worker asked, starting to turn instead of clasping his hands.

"Stand still! I did not say turn around," Yuri snapped. "Clasp your hands behind your heads now!"

The other figure's shoulders were shaking as he lowered his hands. "Or what? You'll cross us with your beautiful partner?" he said turning around. "Put your hands down, Robert. It's just a friend," Neil said, already stepping towards Yuri. "Granted, if I was to be crossed with someone, Sky's certainly one of my top choices."

Yuri grasped his friend's hand and pulled him into a backslapping hug. "I should've realized you were in on this when you said you were in the delivery business. How long have you been doing this?"

"Since near the beginning. I was on the short list of trusted couriers apparently. I don't usually come all the way out to Cerberus though. Only when they need something sent quickly and directly. You? How long have you been at this?"

"Long enough. Unlike you, We were drafted thanks to some mad scientists. Like I told you at Rhodes, we've been on VIP transport ever since."

Neil nodded, "You'll have to tell me about it. After I wrap up here. Oh! Sorry, Robert? These are Rangers Skyfire and Yuri. Guys, this is Robert. He's in charge of receiving for Lassie station."

The men exchanged handshakes.

"Sorry for the fright. No hard feelings I hope," Yuri said.

"No hard feelings. But I may charge you for the extra milage on my ticker," Robert replied.

"Robert and I need to finish up these invoices, but after, why don't we get together, clear the air?" Neil suggested.

"Sounds good. I'm sure you'll be able to find us. We'll be in dome."

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"Hey Neil. Grab a bottle and pull up a chair. We're all friends here," Yuri called to his friend. They were in one of the smaller cafeterias, that had become a semi-official pub for the Spacers in Lassie dome.

A dozen Spacers were scattered across multiple tables, all in the same discussion. Most were Rangers or Scouts, and a few had RIDE tags. Aside for Skyfire, the only other Intelligence present was a small green dragon RIDE sitting on the scaled shoulders of her partner.

"Hey guys," Neil said, pulling out a chair next to Yuri. "What's the topic du jour?"

"The usual. Totalia and the Fleet. We're trying to figure out why there's such a big response for such an isolated colony," a Ranger said from a side table.

"Sure, they have this magic meta that no one else has. But they're way behind the curve in everything else. That Intie ship will probably have taken over the planet before we leave," another pointed out.

"You guys are being idiots," the dragon lady pointed out. Ajax leaned forward to look at the first speakers. "We aren't going to Totalia to take over. We're going there to gain an ally. To get them up to speed before anyone else can warp them into something else."

"An ally against who though? We haven't found any ETs out there yet, and we're all humans," a Scout added. "We're all on the same side, we're all human... or human descended," he added quickly, nodding to the dragon.

His naivete earned a round of laughter from the room. "If we're all on the same side, why don't you swing by my home on Kepler. If you're lucky you'll reach the planet with your space suit," one Ranger shouted.

"So who do we need the ally for?"

"Who do you think?" Jadia asked. The green dragon looked at a central spot of the room and an image of a blue and green globe appeared. The room filled with surprised gasps and denials.

"Why do we need an ally against Earth?"

"Because Earth's about to upset the board," Ajax said. "For the past couple centuries, she's been shipping people off planet. What's left are the old fogeys dreaming of power and realizing the centres of power are shifting. Zharus, Centauri, Eridani, even Kepler in its own way, they're all beginning to dwarf Earth in real power. And the guys back there don't like it."

"Let 'em come! We can handle anything they toss our way and then some," a Ranger shouted from the back of the room.

"You mean the RIDEs? Zharus's big secret? The one every Solar 'tourist' for the past thirty years has brought back info on? Earth knows all about them. Thing is, basic RIDE tech isn't that dangerous to Earth's guys. Not enough to retaliate against at least. Zharus pretends they are hiding them, and Earth pretends they aren't seeing them, and everyone's happy," Ajax explained.

"There's always sarium. It's not just RIDEs, it's everything else," someone pointed out.

Yuri shrugged, "sarium is big, but it's limited. Gives us better burst power, but it has no endurance. Not enough to go to war over in any case."

"So what's changed?" Neil asked. "Why are you sure Earth's making a move now?"

"I don't know. I do know Sol's being militarized. When I left, Earth was ramping up production in system and doing a lot of new shipbuilding around Jove," Ajax said. "If I'd have to guess though, I'd say you are the reason." She pointed at the only Integrate in the room.

Saba was a white tiger Integrate Ranger. He looked up in surprise. "Me? What did I do?"

"You exist. What's worse, you exist publicly now, so Earth knows you now. As I said, RIDE tech is a game changer, but something they can handle. sarium too. But Integrates, you're superweapons on two legs. You guys can tear through ICE and Firewalls like they don't exist, and hide all evidence of it. Hell, more and more of you are shape shifters to boot, so they could be anyone and Earth wouldn't know it; Earth has no protections from it. That probably upset the applecart, and we're just seeing it rolling inevitably towards us."

"Comparing time cones can be difficult, but based on Ajax's memories, it does seem that Sol tightened up soon after word of Integrates would have reached them," Jadia noted.

Ajax laughed, "I can just imagine the spymasters on Earth getting their first reports on Inties. 'Wait, you mean they have these shapeshifting super cyborg hackers with enough on board power to shield against anything we throw at them, or decimate anything we have... If they don't hack control of them first? Oh shit. Oh Shit. Oh Shit!'"

Saba chuckled. "And then the report on Zane and Fritz's fight shows up. Yeah, there'd be more than a few bricks shat when that got around."

"Enough bricks to rebuild the Great Wall of China," Ajax said.

The room fell mostly silent as the thoughts and consequences sunk in.

"So what does that mean for the Fleet?" Saba asked, breaking the moment.

"A lot of things," Skyfire noted. "A lot of things that make sense in that light." She started ticking off her fingers.

"It gives Zharus a reason to build a proper protective fleet. Not just a few picket ships to fight off the odd pirate.

"It gives us a chance to train that fleet away from prying eyes.

"Nulflite and Totalium are an unknown metas to anyone but Zharus, a pair of aces in the hole.

"It's an unknown human colony, a safety zone in case Earth gets really antsy."

She stopped and looked around. "Totalia is both irrelevant, and the key. Without it, who knows what we would be doing. But with it, we'll be in a better position for when Earth's fleets come visiting."

"Heavy thoughts... I need another drink. Anyone else?" Yuri stood up and counted raised hands and bottles. A few others stood and helped him fetch new bottles.

"So how much time do you think we've got? Long enough for Blaze and I to get out again?" a scout asked. He had fresh equine tags. "Once they let RIDEs out, we're gone."

"Then you probably have enough time," Ajax laughed. "Earth won't come here first. We're too strong and their fleet will be too green. Ours will be pretty green too, but we have home court advantage. Of course, when word of Nullflite and Totalium leaks out they may speed up. For now, they need to take their time and work the new bugs out.

"I suspect, they'll play the isolation game first. Grab Proxima and Centauri first probably, and the smaller, more isolated colonies to try and weaken us by cutting us off from everyone else."

"Wednesday is ours," Saba said. "We're too close."

"Wednesday is weak. Barely a Ranger presence in Woden system. They'll support us, but a small Kepler pirate squadron could take the system over if there was anything worth taking," another ranger countered.

"Kepler is the wildcard. They'll sell to both sides, and mug you on the way out."

"Yeah, but we know Kepler a lot better than Earth does. They'll hit us for show, but in the end they know who the winner will be."

The night quickly dissolved into an analysis of the rest of the Colonies of Man and who could take out who. From Keplerian "Pirates" to Eridanite shipbuilding and Cyberdani hackers, every colony seemed to have something they thought would give an advantage over all of the others.

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"Zyberdani 'Ackers will beat Keplar Pah-Pah-Pirates any day," Neil slurred his words as he stumbled down the corridor with Skyfire next to him.

"Uhuh. Hackers can't hack a ting. Woden Knights are the secret. They'll win all," Yuri countered. He leaned heavily on Skyfire as she escorted them to their beds. "Right Sky?"

"There are no such thing as Woden Knights, Yuri. I told-"

"No! There are Woden Knights! They're the aliens that hid during Ragnarok. When we restore the planet, they'll wake up and save everyone."

The EI sighed and managed to get them into the barracks, keeping a steady hand on Yuri's shoulder. "Sure Yuri. They'll save everyone. Now climb into bed and mama Skyfire will tuck you in."

"Thanks Sky..." Yuri blinked and looked around, having a moment of clarity. Instead of getting in bed, he stumbled to the next bunk, landing on it next to Neil. "I ever tell you, you da best Neil. Da best bud I ever had."

Neil snored loudly in response. Seconds later, stereo snoring came from the same bed. Skyfire picked each man up carefully and tucked them in.

* * *

Alohavator, Zharus

"Man, who kicked the beehive?" Yuri noted. He and Skyfire were threading their way through the traffic approaching TopTown station.

"It's Naming Day down in Aloha. Everyone's coming to visit," Skyfire replied, listening to Polestar's directions. "Good thing we have priority clearance, or we'd never be able to get close."

"All because the Totalian ambassadors wanted one last fling." Yuri stretched in his virtual seat, "Well, I'm not complaining too much. One last trip before we hit the stars."

"Bad news guys," Polestar spoke up. "I can't clear a berth for you just yet, not even with your clearance. I can put you in a parking orbit nearby, and when your slot opens, bring you in for your pickup."

Yuri glanced at his partner and shrugged, "Works for me. We can park the Caravan here and jump down to see what the fuss is about."

The EIs worked out the details, and soon enough the Caravan was in a parking orbit nearish TopTown. The pair disconnected and dropped down in jet mode towards the planet. In short time, they were over the Dry, feeling the first hints of the atmosphere.

:Ready?: Skyfire asked.

:You betcha!: Yuri grinned back.

The plane transformed and tilted forward, the humanoid robot falling face first towards the planet. The wings on the back, normally folded to be out of the way, expanded enough to give them a bit of stability on the way down. By the time they started feeling the reentry heat, they could see the mountains that separated the Dry from the habitable areas of the continent, multi-kilometre tall peaks squashed flat by their altitude.

"Woohoo!" Yuri shouted as the wind sounds picked up. He twisted the wing and banked, bringing them further south. He felt a moment of vertigo, and his ghost twitched, but he managed to keep his bearings. Beside him, he could sense Skyfire keeping an eye on their path, making sure they stayed out of the main traffic routes. To the north, he could see the strand of the Alohavator, along with a hint of the actual city.

Ten klicks above the ground, he released the controls to Skyfire. "Your turn!" he called out to her.

"Oh sure, leave me the hard part," she retorted, her presence taking over their body.

The freefalling figure folded up, regaining its plane shape. Yuri felt the air catching on their flight surfaces as they shifted to a proper configuration. The engines at his feet powered up and kicked in, pushing them towards the ground a moment before they arced upward, gaining altitude. Over the almost empty lands between Aloha and Punta Sur, Skyfire lived up to her name, lighting the sky up with the excess heat stored from reentry. At hypersonic speeds, she took them through a twisting, rolling random path, trailing a stream of fire from their heatsinks.

"Phew! I don't think even Ghost could keep up with that," Yuri gasped once she levelled off.

"I know! Just had to show I still had it," Skyfire responded, her virtual avatar's face flushed with excitement. In their virtual space she sat back and fanned herself, grinning back. "I hope it was as good for you as it was for me."

Yuri laughed and kissed her. "Even better. We've gotta do this more often."

She held the kiss a long moment, then let him go. "Right, well, Aloha ATC is screaming at us. Guess we should square up with them before they have us walk in from Punta Sur."

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Yuri climbed slowly back to consciousness, his mind groggy, the night and most of the day before a muddled mass of almost remembered events. It took him a few attempts to finally decide he was actually awake and that he had to figure out where he was. He could feel he was laying on something warm and fuzzy. He could also hear the breathing of many people, dozens he estimated.

He cracked his eyes opened, and blinked, trying to sort out what he was seeing. The room was outlined in fluorescent greens and blues, but most of the light came from the mass of people, RIDEs and Inties scattered around the floor. All of them were glowing in some way, reds, blues and greens being the main colours, with an occasional orange and yellow. Some people just had bioluminescent spots and stripes, others with more extreme patterns, akin to the Tron lines Inties often had. His mind managed to find a few of the missing pieces and figure out what happened.

Aloha, especially on Naming Day, was big enough that all fads were active somewhere at any time. If you wanted to do something, you could probably find a group doing it. He and Skyfire had stumbled across this light-fashion group, and fit right in. He remembered having a blast with them, but what actually happened still escaped him.

"Should probably get going...." he mumbled to himself, trying to decide what to move first. He heard a clatter behind him, and his ears twisted to better focus the sound. A second later he realized what happened and his hands shot up, feeling rounder, more mobile ears perched higher on his head. "What the?!"

"You like?" a new voice close to his head asked. The furry side he was leaning against shifted a little. "I do like how you turned out. Don't worry, as promised, it's all purgeable."

Yuri turned his head and blinked, finally focusing on an equine head. It had white hardlight fur, with glowing rainbow stripes. The focus also made Yuri realize his vision was different from what he was used to, mainly from a slight muzzle in his lower field of view.

More of the evening clicked into place, a dare from Skyfire and some of their new friends, and the sensation of a strange fuse. "Marty?" Yuri asked, finally dredging up a name.

"You remember! Excellent." The zebra RIDE stood up carefully and shook, hardlight fur rustling naturally. "That's the problem with these holiday jobs; my clients often have a hard time remembering what they asked for and who did it. A challenge for a struggling artist like myself."

Yuri half listened, trying to reconcile what happened to what was. He was sitting up now, and could feel muscles twitching and something moving against his rear. Looking down, he could see his arms and chest were marked in a blue stripe pattern, mostly following his body's curves. The stripes themselves glowed in the dark, a rich turquoise similar to his Grid avatar. It was hard to tell in the darkness, but the rest of his skin seemed to have been darkened to black.

Marty moved closer and lifted a hoof. "Need a hand? Be careful standing up."

"Why? Oh!"

Looking down further, Yuri saw more changes. With no shorts, his maleness was obvious; larger and reshaped to a strange human-equine hybrid. Further down, the glowing angular stripes ran down to his feet that now ended with a pair of turquoise hooves. He could see the tufted tail twitching beside him.

Hesitantly, he reached out and gripped the offered forehoof. The RIDE was rocksteady, providing the grip he needed to stand up. He leaned heavily against the RIDE, feeling like he was standing on his tip toes. The tail relaxed automatically, dropping down behind him, brushing the back of his legs.

"This is stranger than when Sky went through her high heels phase," he mumbled, trying to fight the urge to try and push his heel down. "Are you sure this is reversible?"

Marty snorted and bobbed his head. "Entirely. I do hundreds of these a year. Half an hour in the defuse tank and you're back to what you were before."

"Yuri! There you are! You look great!" Skyfire stepped carefully among the stirring glowing people, earning a few angry glares for her early exuberance. Her red parts were glowing, while her white panels had gone dark. She grabbed him in a hug and kissed him.

"What did I do?" he asked once he could recover.

She rubbed his ears and tugged his tail playfully. "Nothing that can't be undone. But seeing you almost makes me want to get a horse form of my own... Almost. Here, take a look."

The EI clapped her hands and a glow emitted from her palms. It quickly expanded into a life size view of a zebra-man. It took Yuri a moment to recognize himself in the figure. Unlike Yuri's first impression, he realized the stripes were very angular, more like a Tron pattern than a zebra pattern. The exception was on his upper chest, where the pattern swirled more, becoming complicated with rings and dots. It took him a moment to realize it was a stylized Ranger symbol, surrounded by the Pharos planetary system. The pattern repeated itself on the figure's upper back.

Yuri reached up and touched his face, feeling the slight muzzle and the rounded ears. The figure matched his movements. The broad nose was a matching blue but didn't glow as bright as the rest of the markings. He felt a hand on his chest and saw Skyfire tracing some of the markings.

"Fabulous work Marty. It's fantastic," she gushed, smiling at the RIDE.

Marty bowed down, flicking his tail, "My pleasure. I hope you enjoy it as well."

"It's... different," Yuri said cautiously, still trying to tell how he felt about it. As long as he didn't think of it, standing on his toes wasn't difficult. "It's very impressive. I might add the chest to my Grid avatars. Not sure I'm as big a fan of the hooves."

The zebra nickered. "It is an acquired taste. Some like them, some do not. My work was seen, and I am happy, even if you remove it right away."

Skyfire took his arm and grinned, hugging and supporting him. "No need to rush. We'll get breakfast first at least."

Yuri checked the time, his implants finally coming back online. "Well, brunch maybe. I can give it a bit of time before we head back upstairs. Could you handle the detagging with a fuse, Sky?"

She looked doubtful, pondering a moment. "Possibly.... The nannies are almost identical. But I have many special limits to keep you from crossing. Using them to detag... well, It would probably be better to use a dedicated detagger."

Around them, more were stirring and getting up, the room lighting changing as the sources moved. Yuri looked around again and took a few tentative steps with Skyfire's support. The room lit up brighter from other sources, chromatic strip lighting giving it a Grid-like appearance.

"Closest we can get to the Grid in the Real probably," he noted.

"Close, but not the closest. Still, gotta love their spirit, and how much is done biologically." She snagged a bottle of water from a passing floating tray and offered it to him.

"Thanks. Let's see how we can kill the rest of the day."

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:Over here,: Skyfire sent, with a directional ping. Yuri looked around, lost among the crowded beach and soon spotted the EI on the Boardwalk. He waded through the crowd, only stumbling a couple of times on his hooves, and fell against her. He kicked on the wood of the boardwalk, his feet itching from the sand.

"Thanks Sky. It's been a blast, but the G's are getting to me. It time to head home yet?"

"Almost. Gotta take care of your tags. Unless you want to keep them? I'm sure I can adjust to them."

"No! No. One day on my toes is enough." He shook his hoofed foot and grinned wearily. "Where's this detagger booth?"

She lead him towards the entrance of Atlantis. "All the big resorts have a detagging clinic. I made sure to look it all up before Marty designed you."

Soon enough they reached a quiet clinic away from the main casino floor. The attendants took care of Yuri right away, guiding him to a man sized box, similar to a cryobed. He climbed into it and soon felt a familiar tingle of the fuse. What was unfamiliar was the presence behind it. Fusing with Skyfire opened up the universe to him; with this bed, there was just a simple, silent presence. It had power, but no personality. He felt his body begin to tingle, his feet especially itching, before he fell asleep.

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He woke slowly, his body tingling all over, nerves waking up. He kept his eyes closed at first, waiting for the tingling to ease. He experimentally wiggled his toes and could feel multiple digits. He tried to wiggle the tail and found the muscles missing. His ears also proved immobile again. He opened his mouth and licked his lips, finding it seemed normal again.

"Yes, you're back to you. How do you feel?" Skyfire asked.

He grinned and opened his eyes. He blinked the brightness away and saw his partner looking down at him. "Feel like I'm back to a hundred percent. How much time do we have?"

"A few hours before we're supposed to pick them up. The Angel's fully powered and ready for take off."

He climbed out of the bed and stood on his tip toes for a moment before remembering and lowering his heels to the floor. He rubbed his arms, finding his skin clear again. "Ahhh that's good. Yeah, let's get going. I think I've had enough of this Gee-field."

Skyfire opened up and engulfed him. The familiar linkages lit up, and they lifted off the floor, defying the gravity that had held them down for the day. "Sounds good to me. Off we go, into the wild blue yonder!"

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The red spaceplane shot through the skies, heading over the Tethys sea and leaving Aloha and its traffic behind. It gained speed and altitude steadily, the blue sky quickly fading to black. With the merest hints of air brushing their wingtips, Skyfire sat back.

"Now we wait," she announced, glancing down at the dark mass of Rodinia below.

"Not for too long I hope," Yuri said. The Angel's power indicators were low, but still well in the safe zones. They knew its limits well and weren't concerned.

"I've got the Caravan on remote. It's already inbound.... There we are."

Ahead of them, a star appeared, rising from behind the planet. It grew quickly to the familiar shape of their outer shell. Skyfire flipped them over and started the complicated dance that would match the two parts together. Yuri watched, letting her manage it, absentmindedly scratching his shoulder. Soon enough, the two ships were once again one, and Skyfire was negotiating the route back up to TopTown.

"Can you start expanding the caravan? I'll make sure everything's ship shape for our guests." Yuri said, a little annoyed about the itch, and wanting to do something.

"Sure. Something wrong?" she asked, glancing at him.

He shrugged and lowered his virtual hands. "Nothing. It's probably just a phantom itch from the detagger."

The virtual space faded, and he found himself in the sparkly fuse chamber, Skyfire's Armor mode expanded to let him out. He reached up and hoisted himself into the caravan's cockpit space. The chamber closed up below him while he took a moment to orient himself.

To his annoyance the itch persisted. He gripped the back of the real seat and scratched while looking around. The cockpit gave him a clear view of the space around the planet, but there was a faint blue glow he wasn't used to seeing. Looking down revealed the source.


The EI's avatar popped up, as if she was expecting it. "You like? Marty gave me the fuse designs and they looked so good on you, I just had to do it."

Yuri closed his eyes and counted to ten slowly. Opening them up again, he studied the changes his partner had made. He was still untagged, but she'd restored some of the glowing tattoos Marty had added the day before. He rubbed the glowing line on his arm and couldn't feel anything different; the line was a natural part of his skin. Or as natural as a glowing stripe could be. In the faint reflection of the cockpit windows, he could tell they didn't go over his head. What they did do was swirl on his upper chest and back, matching Marty's design.

"You could've asked me before," he pointed out, bringing up a mirror field to study it closer.

"And ruin the surprise? It looks good on you." She stood up and her avatar adjusted its own markings to match his in red. "Now we match."

He chuckled and shook his head. "This might make sleeping a bit difficult. I prefer starlight or darkness."

"It's photoluminescent. It'll dim once its out of the light. Or a quick fuse and I can turn them off, or make them bioluminescent if you want them on all the time. Marty showed me a lot of neat tricks you can do with fusetooing."

Yuri stayed quiet a moment longer, turning and looking at himself. In the end, he smiled. "Yeah, I can live with this. Looks good.... No it looks great. Thanks Sky. Just don't do any more changes to my body without clearing first."

She jumped over the seat and hugged him. "Of course. I'd never do anything permanent, or long term to you without asking."

"I know you won't. So has Polestar figured out how many we're carrying yet?" He made his way back to the expanding living space, looking around and trying to decide on an appropriate layout.

"Nope. Could be as few as four, or as many as eight. We've definitely got the two Totalians, but how many handlers we get with them is still up in the air. Polestar's got their luggage and figures eight's the most. Possibly up to two DEs."

"Gotcha. Standard layout. We can probably expand enough to hold the DE's if they want to come inside. Be better if they rode outside...." Yuri mused to himself, standing in the middle of the space and mentally reviewing the options.

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"Incoming cargo and passenger manifests guys. Looks like final total is 4," Polestar sent. Skyfire was on her final approach to the anchor station's airlocks.

"Got it. Two Totalians, one RIDE and... is this correct?" Skyfire replied.

"Absolutely. Is something wrong?"

"No, nothing at all. That sneaky...."

Yuri opened his eyes. "What is it, Sky?" he asked. The discussion between EIs had taken microseconds, but he had picked up a minute change in his partner.

She appeared next to him, holding a tablet. "Polestar sent over the manifest and passenger list. You won't believe who's on it."

He waited a moment for her to continue, then realized she really wanted him to guess. "Who is it?"

"Guess," she taunted him, hiding the tablet.

He sighed and rolled his eyes. "Fine... Let's see, if I have a chance of guessing, it'd have to be someone we know. Probably an EI judging by your reaction... is it Skidz?"

"Skidz? That groundhog? He doesn't like going up elevators, let alone into space."

"One of the Constructicons then? Gonna be a lot of work on Totalia for their type."

"Good guess, but nope."

He looked at his partner and sighed. "You're going to make me go through everyone we know, aren't you? Is it Andrew? Audrey? Amideo? Arcadia? Arca? Astaire?... wait Arcadia?.... Arca?"

Skyfire nodded enthusiastically and unlocked the manifests. "Yup! My sprout-sister Arca! She's here! Of everyone, I never... Why didn't she say anything?"

"Compartments? This Totalia mission is so locked down, no one knows who knows and who doesn't know. Look how long it took me to realize Neil was involved. Besides, when was the last time you talked to her?"

"She's probably still in that meat-suit, so she mostly keeps herself off the Grid, like a human," Skyfire said. "Maybe a year or so in the Real."

"Exactly. The Fleet wasn't even happening a year ago. I suspect we'll have a lot of surprises on the Western when we leave and see who all are actually going." Yuri laughed. "Who knows, maybe the Constructicons really are going."

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Fused, Yuri and Skyfire waited in the crew area for their passengers to arrive off the elevator. In the background he could tell Skyfire was busy overseeing the cargo load out. In front of him, their route floated in a Real overlay. Zharus, Colossus and Cerberus were effectively lined up. It wasn't a perfect conjunction, but it was close enough that Skyfire's route had a kink in it. They would be shooting off the ecliptic to avoid Colossus's gravity well, before looping out to Cerberus.

:Feeling a little homesick?: Skyfire asked.

:Just a bit I guess. In a week, we'll be leaving Pharos. Might've been nice to swing by home before we leave. But, we've got a job to do.:

Her head appeared in the virtual and looked over the system map. A floating hand appeared and rubbed her chin, power and time estimates appearing.

:We do have a job. But that doesn't mean we don't have some freedom.: The hand tugged on the route, pulling it down until it met with Colossus. The estimates spun while Skyfire reworked the numbers. :We'd be a little later, but only half a day or so. Figure a day if we 'refuel' there. What do you think?:

Yuri tried not to seem too eager. :It would work. If they'd go for it. They've been travelling so much, they may just want to get out to the fleet and get home.:

:Well, it's all in how they phrase it. Worst comes to worst, I'll ping Goldie over the DINCom, and see if she can arrange a pickup at Rhodes. They'd never know the difference.:

He studied the route and laughed, :Yeah, that'll work. If they're tired of the tourist thing, they can just stay on board. Finalize and submit the flightplan, Sky and we'll see if we can convince them its their idea.:

:Think fast.: Skyfire defused from him. "Cuz here they come."

Yuri took a quick moment to adjust his shirt and shorts. He glanced at his arms and legs. Skyfire's markings ran down the inside and outside of his arms in broad blue lines. They ended with round dots on his palms and the back of his hands, similar smaller lines going down to his fingertips. The main part of the markings was hidden by his shirt.

A chime echoed, and a screen showed the passenger door opening, letting three people in. He quickly corrected his count to four, seeing the large lioness Fuser walk in, barely fitting through the door. The man was basic human male, so standard it was almost an anachronism compared to the zoo they were part of down on Aloha. The woman looked normal enough, but her movements and style was just a little different from the human norms to hint at something more. She needed no introduction for him.

"-'m going to be the first of my kind to set foot on your world. Or one of the first, anyway," the woman was saying as they walked in. "I'm looking forward to that."

"One of the first indeed," Skyfire countered. "Who knows, I might beat you down there."

"Sky!" Arca squealed, rushing to her sister. They hugged and spun a little.

"Arca!" Skyfire shouted back. "Good to see you. How have you been? Still in the meat suit I see."

"Still in it. I did borrow a page from your book. Just wait till you see what's in my luggage. What are you doing here?"

"We're your ride out to Cerberus," Skyfire said. She let her sister go and looked at the other three passengers. "My apologies for our reaction; I just had to greet my sister. I'm Skyfire, and this is my partner Yuri. We'll be taking you out to the Fleet."

"Wonderful to meet you, Skyfire. Arca speaks highly of you," Darrek said. He offered his hand to Yuri. "And you're her partner...sir?"

"And not a woman, yes," Yuri added, answering the question that most people had upon meeting the two of them. "It's complicated."

"Actually, to use the vernacular of some acquaintances of ours, it's Science!" Skyfire corrected him. She looked between Arca and Darrek and smirked. "Mom and Dad might want to look closer at our seeds. We both picked cross partners it seems."

"Cross partners?" Darrek asked, then reddened a little. "Ah, I see what you mean."

"What do you mean? I've got a meat suit. I can't-"

Skyfire brushed between her sputtering sister and her sister's stunned partner, and held her hand to the fused pair. "Greetings. I assume the other Totalian is in there somewhere?"

Teenette shook the hand, the lioness paw-hand engulfing the EI's. "I am. Teenette Clarke. Good to meet you."

"Scout Captain Barbaretta Hansom," the lioness said.

"A pleasure to meet you both as well," Yuri said, his own hand getting similarly shaken. "I'm afraid the Caravan isn't the most spacious way to travel in system, but it is the fastest. Most of the time RIDEs ride outside, but since it's just the four of you, I'm sure we can squeeze you inside," he said, addressing the RIDE.

Barbaretta nodded, the Fuser's stance shifting. "It is just the four of us. Everyone else has other transport arranged. I would have offered to take them out myself, but since my ship didn't make it back from Totalia, and they really wanted to see Naming Day, you helped make everything work out. If it is too cramped, I can ride outside; I'm a Scout, Space doesn't bother me. Especially not in this body."

"We've got room, just need to pump the balloons a bit bigger." Yuri looked at her puzzled. "I didn't think RIDEs were Scouts yet, let alone coming back from Totalia. Or rather Samantha was the only one to come back, sort've."

The lioness grinned. "Oh, I wasn't 'born' a RIDE. I've opted to upload, for various reasons. We can go over it enroute, I'm sure."

"Upload? You--" Skyfire said. She blinked, looking distant for a moment while catching up on the implications of that term. "Oh. Wow! Well. You'll have to tell us about this during the trip out." Speechless for a few microseconds, Skyfire looked back at Arca, "You...you said something about your luggage?"

"Yup! I've got my own armor, it's a modified multi-mode lightrunner. I couldn't completely give up the speed after all. Designed it myself."

Darrek coughed. "I can vouch for that."

Arca grinned and looked at the Rangers. "Is it here yet?"

"All your luggage came up earlier. It's stored down below. If you need anything now, you might want to get it; once we're going, it won't be as accessible," Yuri explained.

"No, we've got it all," Darrek said. "At least enough for a day trip. You can really get to Cerberus in time?"

"Fastest man-rated ship in system," Skyfire said proudly. "We'll get out there before you know it."

"Another long story we can cover en route," Yuri explained. "Getting out in time will be a bit tight, but well within our capabilities."

"We've been in and out so often, we're going to open a burger franchise," Skyfire said. She saw the puzzled looks and shrugged. "Tough crowd. The Zharusians get it."

"Usually we go Cerberus to Rhodes and back. Even with DINCom, the Engineers don't like virtual. They aren't satisfied until they touch steel. And with the amount of material going out for the Western and the fleet, that's a lot to touch." Yuri continued.

He motioned to the airlock. "If you'll come this way, I'll show you the Caravan."

He led them through the airlock into their outer body. Most of the expanded space was open living space, with a couch and kitchenette. One door lead towards the front. A short hall had two side doors and a door at the end. Yuri turned to start pointing things out, but was interrupted by the lioness pair.

Fused together, the lioness was a tight squeeze in the space. She had to duck and turn sideways just to make it through the locks, and even inside she couldn't stand fully upright. Realizing the problem before Skyfire did, the Fuser opened, releasing a young woman with lioness tags. But rather than dropping to four legs, the RIDE compressed herself and remained bipedal. "There. More headroom," Barbaretta said, standing fully upright, her ears a few centies from the ceiling.

"Neat trick," Yuri said after a moment. "I didn't think that was possible."

"My understanding is that it was partly adapted from EI Fuser armor frames," Teenette said.

"Makes sense. Those limits you had seemed rather arbitrary to me," Skyfire said, the airlocks sliding shut behind her. "In any case, as Yuri was about to say. Cabins are on either side of the hall. Both are identical, so take your pick, two bunks to a room. Head's at the back. Cockpit's up front. That area's off limits supposedly, but knock first and we can let you in if you want to see."

"I'll be spending most of the trip fused, or in here being a host. If you need anything, just ask," Yuri added.

"So are you going to do one of those sneaky escapes with us and tell us we're already away?" Darrek asked.

Yuri triggered a few views on the walls. One showed they were still connected to Toptown. "It was tempting, but we figured we'd give you the chance to cast us off."

"Besides, Polestar hasn't given us clearance yet. It'll take us about an hour after that to get far enough out to kick off, and traffic over Aloha is a nightmare," Skyfire explained.

"You know, Totalia is going to need a space elevator," Darrek said, wandering to a screen and looking at the view of the elevator. "if we're going to get serious about space."

"Well, cavorite makes them moot more or less. Aloha's elevator, they mainly use it to bring things up, and to power the polity. Coming down, it's faster to just drop it on an A-G sled. Still, it is great for the tourists," Skyfire said. "There we go, we're cleared to cast off. Care to do the honors?"

Teenette and Darrek looked at eachother, then at Barbaretta. "Honors?" Teenette asked.

"Take us out, Captains," Barbaretta said as explanation.

Skyfire snapped a salute to the lioness. "Aye aye. Releasing from Toptown, and breaking orbit.."

"I think I'm jealous," Arca said, smirking at Skyfire.

"It loses a smidge of its excitement when you've do it dozens of times in the last few months," Yuri noted.

The only hint of movement was from the screens. They pulled away from the station and started climbing. Space was crowded with moving objects, most too small to see as more than a point of light.

"So what way are we going? Just straight to Cerberus?" Darrek asked once they were well on their way.

"We have a little side trip planned. Our speedy engines have some specific requirements. We can't get too close to gravy sources. Zharus, Colossus and Cerberus are in a close enough alignment, we can't go direct." Yuri explained. The lights dimmed and a model of the Pharos system lit up. "Even though Cerberus is off the ecliptic, the direct route is close enough that Colossus is in the way."

Skyfire nodded and a line lit up, heading away from Zharus, not quite going towards Cerberus. "So we're doing two jumps basically, heading away from everything, and then taking a direct route to the Fleet."

The Totalians and Arca nodded, while Barbaretta looked curiously at the Rangers. Darrek spoke up before she could ask anything.

"Arca mentioned you're not from Zharus right? From Rhodes?"

"That I am, from a spacer family going back to Earth's original orbitals."

"I wish we could have been able to make it out there. There's just so much here to do and so little time to do it in. The scale of everything here is so big, it's hard to wrap your mind around."

"Size, distance, number of people, it has been quite daunting. Still, we did our best to get a slice of culture to bring back home with," Darrek said.

"Did you spend any time off planet? Z-Space has a lot to see by itself, even if you can't leave orbit," Yuri asked.

"Not since we were picked up. Barbaretta was in rough shape so we came right to the planet and didn't leave until now." Darrek saw Yuri's expression and continued quickly. "I see now it was a mistake. A bad mistake. Back home, we only have a few tens of thousand people living in space. Most of them aren't even permanent spacers. You've got millions of people out here, people who have never tasted open air. It's a slice of culture we didn't realize we missed."

"Damn right it's a slice. We built this planet-"

"-on rock and roll. Calm down Yuri, it wasn't intentional. There's only so many hours in a day, even one as long as Zharus's." Skyfire interrupted, trying to calm her partner.

"It's a shame we didn't make it out there. You've still got your original space stations right? I think I read that Rhodes is one of them," Teenette asked. She sighed wistfully. "Be nice to take a look at it. Might feel a bit familiar to see something that came from Earth around the same time we did; tech with the same Sol-roots."

Barbaretta laughed. "If you're looking for that at Rhodes, you're in for a big disappointment. It's been rebuilt and rearranged through the centuries; now it's just a glorified space truck stop.

"Now, if you want a classic station, you want Xolotlan. That place was mothballed for decades and is barely touched now. Sadly, even Skyfire's speeds can't make that sort of side trip in the time we have. It's on the opposite side of the system we're heading towards."

"You've been peeking, haven't you?" Skyfire grinned at the lioness. "And yes, Xolotlan is way out of range. I'm just trying to see if I can crunch the numbers for a flyby of Colossus at least, but orbits might not work out."

"If you can make it work, please do," Darrek said. "We still have a few days, and seeing Colossus up close would be a great send-off. And partly fill in a gap in our culture report."

"Oh yeah!" Teenette said.

"I don't know, are you sure you want to see a 'space truck stop'?" Yuri asked with more than a hint of bitterness.

Skyfire shook her head and bumped her partner as she headed to a door to the cockpit. "Ignore him. His home-station pride is showing. I'll go put on my bodies and see what I can work out with TraCon."

Barbaretta smirked to herself and stretched out on the couch she had claimed. "Sure you need to work something out. Did you even bother going towards that fake route?" she whispered to Skyfire.

"And waste the fuel? If they hadn't asked, we had an ace up our sleeves; Goldie was going to send in a pickup request to justify the diversion. Technically this is a slower route, even if we don't stop, so we did need some justification."

"But practically, it makes no difference, and now they have some more for their reports. How long can you give them at Rhodes?"

"A few hours at most, maybe half a day. Takes longer to coast in and push out of Colossus compared to Zharus."

"That'll do for now. Quark's still rigging the Dabo tables?"

Skyfire laughed, :They're still as bent as space around a black hole.:

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Rhodes Station, Colossus

"Colossus is the industrial heart of the Pharos system. Given how metal poor Zharus is, we supplied a lot of the material needed to build its infrastructure. Now, thanks to Neopitts' and Cape Nord's mines, the planet is more self sufficient, but we are still processing a lot of raw material, both for our needs and for the planet." Yuri explained, slipping into tour director mode. They were approaching the huge planet, its moons large enough to see unenhanced.

"Millions of people call this mini-system home. Most live in Rhodes and the other big stations, mainly helping serve the miners, processors, Rangers and Scouts."

Skyfire highlighted a spot on the planet that was just coming into view. "Aside from Rhodes itself, one of the biggest highlights is the Syphon. We built it a few decades ago, to draw volatile components out of the brown dwarf, filling in the elemental gap that we can't as easily get from asteroids and comets and moons. On top of providing the air and hydrocarbons we need, it's also famous for the syphon surfers. If we had more time, I wish we could take you surfing."

"I'll put that on my must-do list for the next visit," Teenette said. "Wow. We have a pair of gas giants back home, but neither have this much activity around them."

"I daresay Isis is a bit more colorful than Colossus," Darrek said.

Yuri chuckled, "Most gassies are more colourful. But few are bigger that aren't stars. Colossus makes old Jove look tiny."

"Perhaps this is an aspect of Zharusian technology that your people could share with us, that we couldn't get from the planetary polities," Darrek mused. "I have little doubt that our own spacers could use resources from Isis, were they able to obtain them safely."

"That is part of the intention of the Fleet. The Western and Rickenbacker are going first, but there are four industrial ships coming too. I understand their engines aren't as fast, so they'll show up later, hopefully in time to celebrate the peace and usher in a new era for your colony," Skyfire said.

"You're doing that too? That's too much, just for us," Teenette said.

"New markets, new faces, new opportunities. It's practically the Spacer motto. Usually we show up in systems first before the colonists. Since we're late, we have some catching up to do," Yuri said.

"In the mean time, I've sent you specs on the industrial fleet to bring you up to date and we'll see if we can put you in touch with some of their backers here for a proper briefing," Skyfire said. "A few hours is too short for in-depth negotiations, but you can at least hit the preliminaries, and make sure we don't miss the mark too much."

"Thank you. We've been so busy learning about you, I guess we lost track of what's being prepared for us as well," Darrek said.

From afar, Rhodes' evolution was obvious. The station was more or less spherical, with multiple layers and levels built up at random through the centuries. Skyfire brought them in to the Ranger docks. A blue steel skinned avatar with a flaming spike crown waited for them just outside the airlock.

Rodney hugged Arca before she realized who he was. "Of all the EI's I know, I never thought I'd see you out here," he said, kissing her before stepping back. "Great to see you again."

"I never thought I'd be here, either. And now, I'm going to visit another planet. A planet not Zharus or Wednesday!"

Rodney smiled at her. "Amazing times indeed. Maybe soon we'll even be able to visit Earth."

"Cutting it close, aren't you Skyfire? The fleet's leaving in a couple of days right?" he sent privately, sharing it with Arca and Barbaretta.

"A little close, but given our guests, I doubt they'll leave without these guys," Skyfire answered.

"Good point."

He shifted his attention to the others and bowed to the Totalians. "A pleasure to meet you, even for so short of a time. Welcome to Rhodes; I am Rodney, the local genius loci."

Darrek bowed back to the grecian styled Avatar. "Our pleasure to meet you. You certainly are getting around. Enhanced Intelligences that is."

Skyfire smirked, "No, Rodney gets around too. Just wait and you'll see."

Rodney grinned back at her. "That said, our flexibility and stability is making us more and more sought after. I doubt there will be a major site in system that won't have an EI soon."

The group passed through the Ranger offices and out onto the Promenade. Skyfire, Barbaretta, and Yuri kept their charges out of the main flow of traffic until everyone got up to speed.

"Are those all you?" Teenette interrupted, noticing the other statues around the Promenade.

"They are. We haven't had time to put a full HL network through the station, so these Avatars help me handle the needs of the inhabitants and visitors."

The lioness inhaled deeply and let out a happy sigh. "See? I told you, it's just a glorified truckstop."

"A truckstop with three five star restaurants, and an Interstellar Class resort," Rodney corrected her. "Come, this way. We can take a trip through the museum decks before dinner. I've arranged a special Rhodes-classic meal for you at one of those restaurants."

A flash of blue light caught their attention. One of the avatars was standing in a shop, the flames of his crown glowing almost too bright to see. "Don't mind me," their Rodney said. "I'm just laying down the law with a seller hawking fake DINComms.."

"That been a problem lately?" Skyfire asked. "If we weren't leaving system, I was going to pick up some myself."

"The fabbers can't keep up with the demand. And even if they could, we don't have the rack space yet for all those pairs. We're ramping up as best we can, but there is a gap. A gap hawkers like them are more than willing to take advantage of."

Rodney waited a moment longer, then lead them deeper into the station.

"You know, it's a bit of a relief to have a moment to relax. For the past few months, it's been VIP tour after VIP tour." Darrek said.

"And this isn't? You are being escorted by the Station's own Genius Loci," Rodney said.

"Something that anyone could get just by asking any one of those gaudy statues you've got set up all over the promenade," Skyfire countered with a grin.

"In any case, it's a refreshing break from meeting after meeting with PR folk, politicians and captains of industry and so forth. Just a simple outing with old and new friends," Teenette clarified.

"We knew we wouldn't have much time here, and frankly, I have no patience for politicking, so we asked Rodney to keep your arrival on the downlow, even among those who know about the Fleet," Yuri explained.

The blue man looked a little uncomfortable. "That all said, unlike you guys, I need to stay here and deal with the fallout. So I did do a bit of preemptive damage control. At the dinner after the tour, there will be a few other guests, depending on who responds in time. Station leaders construction company folk, guys and gals who've put a lot into building the Fleet. That also includes the backers of the industrial ships you asked to meet up with."

Darrek nodded, "That's understandable; a small price to pay for the folks that are providing so much for our colony. We'd love to meet and dine with them."

Rodney looked relieved, "Excellent. I did make sure they know you are on a very tight time schedule, but just a chance to meet you will go a long way to smooth some ruffled feathers."

"Literally if Snow Squall's there," Yuri noted before explaining. "Snowy's a griffin integrate who's in charge of Talon Enterprises. One of the main contractors out here for Fleet work."

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"Cerberus Control to SF-001-X. It's about time you guys showed up. You're running late. Everything okay?"

Yuri looked around a moment, taking a last look at the fused view before responding for them. "This is SF-001-X to Cerberus Control. Everything's fine. We just stopped for dinner at Rhodes. Didn't you get the amended flight plan?"

"Please hold SF-001-X," the voice on the other end said. Yuri couldn't recall who was manning Cerberus Control, whether it was human, EI or RI. Usually Astrogon, the EI on the King of Hearts, handled traffic control since most of it was directed towards him, but this sounded like someone different. It wasn't Goldie, and while he wasn't familiar with the Ark's EI, Noah, it didn't seem like him either.

"Cerberus Control to SF-001-X. I found your amended flight plan. It was still in the input queue. Everything looks good. Where do you want to drop off your passengers?"

"Unknown, I'm about to go ask them. Give me a few minutes and we'll figure it out," Yuri said.


"So who's manning the con?" Yuri asked before the connection broke.

"I'm Benji, a RIDE," the voice said. "Astrogon is busy trying to figure out how to put himself together, so I volunteered to help. It's... a bit more complicated than I anticipated."

Yuri chuckled, "Well you're doing fine from what I can see. We'll be in touch shortly. SF-001-X out."

"Thank you. Cerberus Control out."

"Friendly enough fellow," Yuri said.

"Yup, he is. I met him a few times. A little overeager to help, but otherwise a good fellow," Skyfire noted. "You heading out?"

"Gotta see where they want to be dropped off," Yuri gave her a quick kiss, and faded out of the virtual space.

In the cockpit, he hoisted himself out of the fuse chamber and stretched. The trip had been uneventful, mainly a story time for everyone, to learn what the others were up to. Skyfire and Yuri had especially listened closely to the stories about the Totalian situation. They'd read the reports on the system they were able to find out about, but hearing it straight from the Totalian mouths filled in a lot of gaps they hadn't realized.

He entered the darkened cabin and looked around. In the middle of the cabin, Cerberus floated with its three life domes glowing. Around it, mostly to scale, glowing models of ships floated. Four pairs of eyes turned to him.

"The time has come, to talk of many things; Of shoes--and ships--and sealing-wax--... Okay mainly to talk about ships. We'll be around Cerberus soon and we need to know where to drop you off," Yuri said.

Arca giggled, and looked at Darrek. "Your call I believe."

"What are our options?" he asked.

Yuri took a seat and looked at the display. "Well, most everyone is living down on Cerberus at the moment, in one of the head domes. So you could go there if you want.

"Or you could go to the King of Hearts; it's the control centre for the Great Western, and where most of the VIPs are probably hanging out.

"Beyond that, the Western isn't assembled yet, so all the ships and carriers and landers are all floating out there. The Satellite of Love is here if you have friends you want to meet, or if you're crazy, you could go visit the Fringe group on the Heart of Gold."

"What about the Ark? Could we go there?" Teenette asked.

Yuri looked puzzled and expanded the view, centred on a boxy module. Its windows were covered up by protective panels, hiding the greenery within it. "You want to visit this?"

"Ever since you first described it," Teenette said. "I'm curious what a gene bank and biome carrier looks like."

"Sure, it's as good a place as any. Sky?"

Skyfire's voice spoke from all around them. "On it. Benji's cleared our destination and sent the route. We'll be there in half an hour."

"Thanks Skyfire," Darrek said. "We should get ready. Could you let Zane know where we're stopping?"

"Of course."

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Great Western, Cerberus

"CGO-1547, is there a problem with your nav system? This is the second time you've drifted out of formation. Get back in line!" Skyfire growled at the wayward cargo hauler.

The Great Western and the other core ships were a beehive of activity. Launch was two days away, which meant everything had to be loaded onto the big ship, or the other ships that would accompany it. Ships, equipment and supplies that had been parked in storage regions had to be inspected, catalogued, sorted and brought on board the appropriate ship. Anything missing they would have to do without, or fab en route. Goldie, Astrogon on the King of Hearts, and the Ark's Noah were all roped into traffic control. They were working at full capacity, herding cats and directing the final loading and linkups.

Once all smaller ships were docked with the core vessels, a half dozen starships would be on their way to Totalia. Only two of them were actually considered military: the Western for who and what was docked on the circus ship's spine, and the 650-meter ZSS Rickenbacker, an anti-pirate escort carrier brought out of mothballs months ago and retrofitted with a new FTL drive to keep pace with the bigger ship. The other four were purely industrial ships about the same size as the Great Western, bringing the wherewithal to help the Totalians bootstrap themselves as quickly as possible. They were much slower than the Western and the Rickenbacker, and wouldn't arrive for weeks after. Hopefully enough time to make sure they had space superiority.

:Not so loud Sky,: Yuri groaned. Scooby and Lassie had been officially shut down the night before, and most of the humans were still in recovery mode. It was part of the reason the traffic lines weren't as straight as they should be.

:We're fused up. I could purge those side effects easily,: she noted.

:Nah. I earned this hangover. You handle the flying, I'm gonna snooze it out.:

A few hours of traffic control later, it was their turn to board. The Caravan was going to ride out with the Heart of Gold, to give the Maddies more time to work on the drive and power. Their official berths, where the Angel would be docked, was on the Ranger carrier module, nicknamed the Megazord. Skyfire checked in and slotted the Angel next to Zack's ship in the landing bay before waking Yuri up.

:Wassup?: Yuri asked blearily, part from the hangover and part from his grogginess.

:Time to wake up. There's just a few stragglers left outside and everything inside is more or less where it should be. Goldie says the Caravan is fine.:

Yuri yawned and triggered a defuse. He stumbled a moment and stretched. "This is it then? All that work, all those runs around Pharos, and we're finally about to leave."

"Well, there's still a day for last minute stuff, but everyone should be on board. Goldie, the Ark and the Megazord are already hooked up; just a few more to go and the Western will be complete for the first time ever."

He nodded, and looked around. A couple dozen Ranger ships, mostly the modern Milano style, were on deck, lined up along the wall in their slots. The Angel was a bit out of place, having a more classic spaceplane style, and being smaller than most of them; their slot had more than enough room for the Caravan if it had been needed.

"Guess there's nothing else for us to do for now, is there?"

Skyfire chuckled. "There's lots to do. Just nothing we would want to do."

Yuri grinned back, "Good point. Come on, let's go find Neil before someone finds something else for us to do."

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T-35 minutes, Great Western

All eyes were on the screens, watching the escort carrier. There wasn't much to see as the Rickenbacker prepared to jump; a glow from its spars, a faint shimmer more imagined than real as its fields powered up. In the corner of the screen, a clock ticked away the final seconds. In bars and eateries across the Great Western, some folk started shouting out the seconds as the last ten wound down. At zero, the Rickenbacker was gone.

"Rickenbacker has gone FTL. All readings normal. Moving into position," Astrogon broadcast across the conglomerate ship, barely heard over the cheers and clanking of glasses. Going FTL was hardly a reason to celebrate, but with Rickenbacker's departure, the mission to Totalia was officially begun. The counter on the screen reset to 30 minutes and started counting down.

"So what's it like?" Neil asked, setting down a refilled mug in front of his friend.

Yuri took a sip and looked puzzled. "What's what like?"

"Going FTL. Of the two of us, you're the only one who's been in two places at once."

"Well I wasn't really in two places at once. And Skyfire and my experience isn't exactly normal. The experiment was only a partial success."

"Still, you've gone faster. What's it like?"

Yuri looked at his friend. "Why? Are you nervous? There's nothing to be nervous about; not with a ship like this. Billions of people have broken the light barrier."

Neil sighed and shook his head. "No, I'm not nervous. I'm curious. And we have time to kill. So spill. What was it like?"

Yuri took a moment to compose his thoughts. "It was... It was scary as hell to be honest. Not something I want to do again. Going into subspace, it's freaky. And there's a pressure. I don't know where it comes from but it's all around you, trying to squish you. You know you don't belong there and that universe wants to pop you out.

"On top of that, we had the power problems. Sarium batteries just die in subspace if they aren't protected. So all that was keeping us from becoming a blast of subatomic particles was our two Tokas. Not a good feeling to say the least."

Neil nodded, "But you are doing it again."

"The Western is different. I know it's got a lot of power behind it, and we're in a more normal configuration for a jump." Yuri sipped his drink and shrugged. "Okay, I'd be lying if I wasn't a little nervous, but it's tried and true tech. Not something ZeeBee threw together after a dream or something."

He looked up and saw the last minute was ticking down. The screens were split with various views, some from the Western, others from drones watching from outside the ship. There was a shimmer in space in front of the ship, barely perceptible, as it prepared to jump.

"Well, here goes nothing," Neil said, joining in as the mob of people counted down the last seconds.

"Five!... Four!... Three!... Two!... One!"

Yuri couldn't tell if the shiver that went down his spine was real, or just his mind. The outside views of the Western all disappeared. The views from the ship's own cameras showed nothing. No stars, no nebula; just the blackness of subspace.

"Injection complete. We are now in subspace," Astrogon announced calmly. The timers reset to 87 days, 27 hours, 35 minutes, and started counting down.

"To Totalia!" someone shouted, raising a mug in the air.

Neil and Yuri raised their mugs with everyone else. "To Totalia!" they shouted, joining in the toast, before the room dissolved into a raucous party.

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Preceded by:
The Touch
The Touch Succeeded by:
All Hell's Breakin' Loose