|FreeRIDErs story universe|
|Works by Jetfire on Shifti|
Introduction: Nuevo San Antonio
"What a mess," Michael mumbled. The officer was doing crowd control outside of the Grand Circuit Bus Tours' NSA station, making sure there was a route cleared for ambulances and other equipment.
From his spot on the road, he could see the framework of the new building being built next to the station. Despite it being the middle of the day, construction had been halted. In the parking lot of the bus station, two buses were squashed under a smartcrete panel.
Michael pushed the spectators back further to make room for the leaving ambulance. His HUD lit up with an updated status. No more casualties. Seven more bodies to recover.
"What a mess," he repeated to himself and sighed.
Marshal Offices, Central Police Station, NSA
Marshal Constantino "Tino" Saleno rubbed his virtual eyes and sighed. Around him was a boardroom sized table, completely covered in file folders. "That's the worst thing about breaking open the case of the century... You have another century's worth of paperwork to clean it up after."
"It's not that bad," his partner said. Tycyn was a bronze scaled wyvern RIDE, perched on a stand beside the table. "A few years, top, with my help."
"We didn't even do all that much in the end. It was all Rescue's doing after all was said and done."
"Now now, don't sell yourself short, Marshal." A new voice joined them, a scaley woman phasing into their virtual space. "You did a lot to get everyone to the point of rescuing Rescue and the rest of the victims."
"Captain!" Tino stood up and saluted her. Tycyn straightened up as well.
"At ease. I come bringing good tidings," Captain Andrea Morris said. "May I?" she asked, indicating the table.
Tino waved his hand over table, clearing it off. "All yours."
She shrunk the table to a more normal office size and sat down across from Tycyn. "I figured you might want a break from this Shah mess, so there's a Jay Doe case downstairs I want you to look into."
"A Jay Doe?" Tino asked, puzzled.
On the table, a video file opened automatically, expanding into a holographic view of a construction site next to a bus station. "This happened just before noon today. We pieced this together from numerous surveillance cams around the scene," Andrea explained. "As far as we can tell, it was just a freak accident. No Intie tricks, no sabotage, just bad luck."
As she spoke, a bus pulled into the lot and stopped in a slot under a canopy. Another bus was loading up next to it. Further away, a wall panel was lifting up to the fifth floor of the under construction building. Tino noticed it shaking as it was lifted, like the AG lifters couldn't handle the load. Before he could speak up, the panel stabilized, then shot up and away from the building, leaving the construction safety zone in the blink of an eye. It stopped over the bus canopy and the lifters shut off, dropping the multi-tonne wall section down.
The leading edge smashed through the canopy like tissue paper, missing both buses. Faster than people could react, it tilted over onto the pair of buses, squishing both of them.
"Thirty-three injured, three critically injured. And twelve deaths," Andrea said.
"And it was just an accident?" Tycyn asked incredulously.
She nodded. "The investigation is still preliminary, but there are no signs this was intentional. The NSA Police are handling that side of it."
"So what do you need us for Captain?" Tino asked.
The video shrunk away, replaced by a dozen floating heads. Eleven heads were standard ID shots. The twelfth was obviously generated from other sources. He was cleanshaven, with an effeminate cast to his face. His ears were spotted jaguar RIDE-tags and his eyes had a feline cast to them. His orange hair was short, with similar dark jaguar spots showing.
"Eleven of the victims were as you would expect; people with standard IDs, mostly visiting from Nextus or Sturmhaven. The last, as you can see, is different. No ID on record, the bus company says they boarded in Sturmhaven and paid with a Mu card."
"Different how? Aside from the lack of ID?"
Andrea grinned. "Well, aside from the lack of ID, Jay Doe there isn't in any system on the planet. We're still waiting to hear back from upstairs, but the basic searches came up with nothing. As for the rest, seeing is believing. Why don't you head down to the morgue and see for yourself?"
"I don't see-"
"Trust me. Just go see. This is a weird one, something right up your alley. Besides, you could use a break from the Shah case cleanup. That stuff will wait." With that tease, she faded out of the virtual space. The case file closed up and locked itself behind her.
Tino looked at the file on the table and sighed. "Great. I was worried about that."
"About what?" Tycyn asked.
"About becoming this. We've become Those Guys. The ones who handle the strange and weird cases."
"Is that so bad? Someone has to handle them. If we have the experience."
"It's the experience I don't want. All that crap we saw on Shah's island. Everything in her records... All those atrocities. We'll be catching more of them now." Tino sighed and triggered an exit. "Let's hope we don't get popular."
In the real, the fused bronze wyvern stirred. He was perched on the railing at the top of the tower that housed the NSA police and their Marshal detachment. He spread his arms wide for a moment, savouring the wind blowing over his body, catching on the wing membranes attached to his arms and sides. Reluctantly, he hopped down to the roof and headed to the elevator.
The morgue was shared by both law enforcement agencies. It was in a subbasement of the complex, filling the level with freezers, operating rooms and storage rooms. The pair checked for any warnings before walking into the sterile examination room. Inside, a scaley man was studying a screen while a raptor RIDE was straightening up some tools.
"Hello, Marshals. The Captain said to expect you," the RIDE said, his voice having a hint of a scottish accent.
"Greetings Doctors. She did say we might be interested, but I'm not sure I want to get caught in another quagmire. How bad is it compared to Fred?" Tino asked, repressing the flashback to the frankensteinian mishmash of man/woman/monkey/fox he'd seen in this room a couple of years before. Compared to what he saw after, Fred was fairly tame, but he-she had the distinction of being his first.
Doctor Donald McCallum pushed back from the table and scratched his chin. "Funny you should mention that. Appearance-wise, Jay's pretty tame compared to Fred. But upon closer examination, they were more similar than you might expect. Doctor Palmer, if you would please."
A privacy field turned off, revealing the naked 'Jay Doe'. The body had been cleaned from the debris, showing numerous scratches and punctures from being buried. One foot was separated, sitting in a pan next to his body. The cause of death was obvious from the crushed back of his skull.
"Our Jay Doe came through the accident surprisingly intact. Caught in a cavity formed from the bus and the falling panel, Jay was killed when a piece of the canopy crushed the back of the skull," Donald explained as the four converged on the table.
The wyvern's focused on the head and face first, seeing it surprisingly peaceful compared to what his last seconds had to be. He looked over the rest of the body, noting the man's breasts were larger than normal; large enough to be mistaken as a woman if he couldn't see the man's penis in the same view.
"So what's the fuss about?" Tycyn asked. "Seems like a regular person to me."
"Down here," Palmer said, the raptor indicating the body's groin.
The Marshals moved closer and took a step back in surprise. They'd seen a similar view before, with who became their first Shahrazad victim, but this view somehow seemed more natural than Fred's mishmash had been. Nestled between Jay Doe's balls, which themselves were somewhat smaller than expected, was a female cleft.
"What the?... Is this another Shah victim?" Tino asked.
"We haven't eliminated that possibility, but I am doubtful," Donald said. "From what I can tell, Jay Doe here has been like this for years. Sie doesn't show any signs of trauma from this modification."
"How complete is uhm... sie?" Tycyn asked.
"Completely complete," Donald said. "We found viable sperm, of the normal sort, in our examination. We also discovered sie was ovulating. Normally the hormones for either of those should make the opposite impossible, but Jay here is special."
Over the table, a screen lit up, showing a blood sample. Mixed in with the normal cells were flecks of silver barely visible until zoomed in further.
"Jay Doe is filled with highly advanced nanites. They help control hir biological processes, balancing the male and female aspects throughout hir body," Palmer explained.
"More nanites. Great. Any idea where they were made?" Tino asked.
The view zoomed in to show the nanoscale machine in more detail. It almost seemed organic that close in. "No clues. This is a generation or two beyond anything I know of. It might be Integrate derived, but that's about all we can tell you so far," Donald said.
"Well, that and that they have a half life of a couple of weeks. Hirs are still pretty active, but their complexity shortens their lifespan considerably. I'd say they could only last a couple of weeks before dieing out, and they don't show any signs of self-replication," the raptor explained.
"What would happen then?" Tino asked.
"After three weeks or so, when their levels are too low to help balance hir body? Severe hormonal imbalance, likely eventually leading to death if untreated."
The wyvern winced. "So her-hirs are still fresh, updated recently likely. And sie's been like this for years you said? So sie may have been trapped by whoever is doing this until recently. Can you tell if sie was male or female before?" Tino mused as he pieced the story together.
"Not yet. Probably female, but almost impossible to tell."
"Let us know if you find anything more. We need to review the case, see if we can figure out where sie came from and where sie was going." The fused pair nodded to the doctors and headed for the exit.
Saint Mary's Hospital, NSA
Tino waited by the nurses station, adjusting his stetson and making sure his vest hung right; the wing flaps under his arms were constantly pulling it in the wrong direction.
"Marshal Saleno? Miss Roberts is ready to see you now," a nurse said.
"Thank you. How is she?"
"Perfectly fine for someone who had her legs amputated. We're growing her new ones now and she'll be walking out in a couple of days."
Tino nodded, touching the edge of his hat. "That's good to hear."
He walked down the hall and stopped outside a partly opened door to a private room. Inside, a tag-less young woman sat up in a bed connected to various machines, tapping on a tablet. The sheets were incongruously flat below her waist. He knocked on the door and waited.
The woman looked up and smiled, waving him in. "Hello Marshal. I'd stand, but...."
Tino grinned back at her and walked in, stopping at the side of her bed. "That's fine, Miss Rogers. I know NSA PD have already talked to you, so I won't take up much of your time."
"Please, call me Gina. And you can take all the time you want. I'm not going anywhere any time soon." She tapped the flat sheets below her waist and grinned.
"The nurses tell me you'll be back on new feet in a couple of day. The wonders of modern medicine."
"The wonders indeed. Still, it does mean I've got a few long days of vid watching and game playing. Or other work if I can find it. In any case, I've got all the time in the world. The nurses say you want to talk to me about someone on the bus?"
Tino took out his own tablet and set it on the edge of the bed. A hologram lit up over it, showing an image generated from the bus's cameras and other sources. Some of the records had been damaged in the accident before they could be uploaded into the cloud, limiting what the authorities had to work with. They showed Jay Doe sitting in a window seat near the middle of the bus, the seat next to hir empty. Gina sat in the seat behind hir. "This is who I'm looking into. Do you remember them?"
"Of course. A bit strange, and quiet, but friendly enough. He was already on when I got on in Sturmhaven. What happened?"
"Sadly, he was one of the ones killed in the accident. He had no ID on him, and the bus company doesn't collect names for cash passengers. Did you talk to him much?"
"He's dead? Oh my, that's so sad. So much death.... I didn't talk much but a little. His name was... uhm... Jessie. Yeah Jessie. He was going to Uplift to meet someone I think he said."
Tino mentally took down notes, sending information to Tycyn. "Jessie? Did he give a last name?"
She closed her eyes and scrunched up her forehead in deep thought. "Nuh-... no. No he didn't. I don't think he did. He didn't say who he was meeting either."
"It was worth a shot. Did he have any gear with him? PADDs, specs, backpacks? notebooks?"
"He had a tablet. I saw it in the seat pocket in front of him, but he wasn't using it much."
Tino sent a request to the scene to try and find the tablet and shifted his questioning. "What about Jessie himself, how was he? Did he seem nervous? Uneasy? Worried?"
"A little, but not in a bad way if that's what you're getting at. He looked like my brother when his friends set him up on a blind date." Gina laughed. "He also seemed a bit amazed by Sturmhaven, like he wasn't used to a big city."
"But he wasn't fidgety? He didn't seem worried about someone that might be following him? Concerned about strange things?"
"No, no. Not at all. Other than being a country bumpkin, he seemed very relaxed and eager for the new experiences. A shame about the accident; it's so refreshing to see someone seeing things for the first time."
"A shame indeed. Thank you, Miss Rogers. You have been extremely helpful," Tino said, picking up his tablet.
"Glad I could help. I hope you can find his family and friends quickly. Not knowing what happened, that would be just horrible."
"Horrible indeed. All the more reason for me to find who he is. Take care, and heal well."
"The Docs say I'll be up and kicking the football in no time. Which would be great because I couldn't kick worth a damn before." She grinned at him and winked.
Tino laughed and nodded his head, touching his hat brim. "I look forward to seeing you on the sports field then. Good day, ma'am."
"Well that was productive. You get much from it?" Tino asked Tycyn as he headed for the elevators.
"Evidence has five tablets recovered from the scene, all damaged with unknown owners. The Techies are trying to pull what they can from them.
"Bus company has confirmed that Jessie boarded the bus in Sokovia. It's on the southern edge of the Sturmhaven polity, home to an old terraforming factory and where they had a science base back in the war days," the RIDE reported from his perch on the roof.
"I remember my history lessons. They're using it as a tourist trap now right?"
"They are. There's not much else to see around there otherwise. Only connections are to Sturmhaven itself and a long trip to Nautilus. The bus company is still checking records to see if sie came from either of those places. Or sie could have been dropped off by someone else."
Tino stepped out of the elevator and walked outside to the landing pad. Tycyn fused around him in mid stride and the pair took off.
:Contact Uplift PD with Jessie's pics. Have them hang out around the bus station, see if they can find who was going to meet hir.: Tino said.
:Done. What are we going to do?:
:Book a flyer. We're going to head down to Sokovia. See if anyone local recognizes Jessie.:
Shahrazad Task Force, SecureNet
The flyer flew along the Coastal Skimmerway towards Sokovia. With a few hours to kill in transit, the marshals connected to SecureNet and entered a familiar place. The original rooms had multiplied multiple times as more cases had been connected to Shahrazad and her followers, each room documenting another aspect of the atrocities she had committed. With Shahrazad captured, the task force's main job was putting together everything they had done to provide a proper accounting for the trials.
Tino took his usual spot in a side room, just outside the door to Apu's case; the case that had ensnared him in the mad RIDE's case in the first place. He unpacked what they knew about Jessie Doe's file and tried to figure out where he might start.
"Whatcha got there?"
Tino jumped and almost disconnected in surprise. He saw Tycyn smothering a laugh under his wing before turning to the speaker. She was a 'normal' looking human woman, normal aside from her bald head and ebony skin that seemed etched with glowing circuitry. She wore a simple uniform with the NuJose PD badge on her shoulders.
"Rescue! You startled me!" he exclaimed, beginning to calm down.
She laughed and pulled a chair out from the table. "Sorry, it was Tycyn's idea. So whatcha got?"
Tino sat down as well and shrugged. "Not sure. A Jessie Doe case from the accident yesterday. I'm trying to figure out who they were so we can contact Next of Kin. And figure out why Jessie is a herm."
Rescue's eyes widened a bit. "A herm? Interesting twist. You thinking Shah?"
Tino offered the files to the e-Intie and shrugged. "I'm not sure. My head says it should be; Shah's crew has played in that body mod space. But my heart says no. Jessie's been like that for too long, and everything we can find about hir says sie's too well adapted to have encountered Shah... No offense intended."
"None taken. It's a good distinction to make." Rescue flipped through the file slowly. "You sure it isn't just a fad? There are other herm-types out there, like the...what are they? Chaks? Something like that?"
"Possible. But my M.E. says Jessie is different. Something about the usual herm method cycles the hormones, so they have a male and female phase, usually with the RIDE moderating between them. Jessie was more unified somehow, being both at once. I admit I didn't get it completely myself.
"So, while I fly into a village on the edge of Sturmhaven, I figured I'd see if there are any connections in here that might enlighten me."
Rescue hmm'ed to herself and suddenly she was standing next to herself. "There might be something. We've barely made a dent in Shah's data, but something I saw in the first indexing is ringing a bell," the standing Rescue said. "I'll be right back with what I find."
Tino watched Rescue leave the room, then looked back at the sitting officer. She grinned up at him. "I know. Freaks me out sometimes, but it's a neat trick."
"It is. So how are you doing? We haven't really had much time to talk lately."
"I've been doing well. I'm cleared for desk and cold case duty now, but nothing outside. It's just as well, Mom and Dad, that is, Luke and Argon, are still working me over and putting me on the publicity circuit so I don't even really have time for desk duty."
"I'm sure it will settle soon," Tycyn said. "They figure out how you were made yet?"
Rescue shook her head, "Not quite. Lots of theories, but it's hard to do any practical experiments."
"What about the family side? Between EvoLimited and the PD and the Task Force, are you giving time for Rick, Tony and Genis?"
"Of course I am!" Rescue exclaimed. "Sorry, I know where you're coming from, it's just, every head shrink on the planet has asked the same thing. But I am making time for them, and trying to get things back to normal.
"Tony's back to school now. He hated leaving me again, but the routine is good. Rick and Genis are back on full duty too which helps. It means I actually do have time to spare for EL and my desk duties. As for the Task Force, I usually do them at night. Seems I don't need as much sleep as I used to, so it fills the night." She paused and looked puzzled a moment, "Or you could say I need more sleep than I used to now. Depending on how you look at it. This still confuses me a bit."
"I can't even imagine. My head's confusing enough without Tycyn's in there too," Tino said.
Tycyn chuckled, "It's probably the main thing that keeps us unintegrated as is."
"Well, for now, I'm still one of a kind. Not sure if I'm looking forward or dreading the day when there are more e-Inties. It'll happen eventually; that genie's out of the bottle now."
"Out of the bottle and in the hands of some nasty guys. Any new leads on where Frank'n'Stein went?" Tycyn asked.
"We're positive Appa's got them; some base called Lake Laogai. But that's about it. Getting anyone into Ba Sing Se safely is a pain in the ass, and even when they are there, it's hard to find anything."
"And in the mean time we're all doing record sifting. Ain't life grand," Tycyn said.
"True. Well it's not too bad. We're giving a lot of families closure. The big challenge is figuring out what to do with the good stuff. There's a lot of good discoveries made in very unethical ways. Now that we know them, we can't just throw them away, but using them feels icky."
Tino nodded. "I've glanced in on some of the debate discussions. Lots of talk about what was done with the Nazi research in the Twen, and the Saronia research in the TwenSecond. The solution seems good."
"You mean the support pool? Yeah. The Spacers are already improving their vac-skin methods with some of the things Shah did, and paying into the pool to support her victims and their families."
"Making the best of a horrible situation," Tycyn agreed.
"Of course, there are other things. I've noticed some things going missing. Some of her projects are disappearing into war lockers. The things that are too dangerous to use, and too dangerous to know about. Not sure how comfortable I am knowing that that exists, but nothing I can do about it," Rescue said, hugging herself and shivering.
"Got something!" Rescue said, coming back in and waving a thin file folder. "It isn't much, but it might help." She put the folder down in front of Tino and sat down on herself, fusing back together.
"It's the notes from Pascal's journal, from before she hooked back up with Shah," Tycyn said, processing the new data. "She has her eye on a new Intie to recruit; a bird type that was fascinated with uniting the sexes."
"That could be it. How much do we know about this person?" Tino asked.
"Not much," Rescue said. "Pascal's still missing, so all we have is the data she shared with Shah, like these journals. The Intie was a phoenix type avian, but Pascal felt sie was putting on airs to look like a firebird. Probably a gender shifter that kept hirself in a middle form. No names, and either she never recruited this person, or the pairing didn't match; there's no other mention of hir later on."
Tino packed up the new data, "It's more than we had before. Thanks for your help, Rescue."
"Any time. Be careful out there. It doesn't feel like it, but Shah left a lot of traps out there, virtual and real."
"You're right, it doesn't feel like a trap, but we will be careful."
Tycyn followed Tino towards the exit. "And we've got eachother's backs, thanks for the concern."
Sokovia, Southeast Sturmhaven
Sokovia was a small village of a few hundred people, located on the southern border of Sturmhaven in a jungle valley. It's main claim of fame was historical; a neumonformer daughter had stopped working in the valley while processing the continent. A century later, during the war, Sturmhaven had reactivated the daughter and used it to dig a series of tunnels into the mountains which they outfitted with various science labs to experiment with sarium and the new RIDE tech. The War Council rightfully figured that its distance from the front lines in the Dry and the other polities would help protect it from attacks. While Nextus and NSA had occasionally managed to probe its defenses during the war, the labs worked uninterrupted through the war and beyond.
Today, the labs were mothballed and left as a tourist attraction. The village survived off of the tourist mus from people visiting the labs, and by being known as the "Start of the Grand Coastal Skimmerway." The highway itself was a full circle around the continent, but the south eastern corner was basically just a line on the map; no services other than a navigational beacon every few hundred klicks. At Sokovia (and at Nautilus if you were going the other way), the route became more than just a line on the map; it became a proper highway with ground-vehicle stretches, service centres, tunnels through high mountains and more.
The NSA flyer landed in the parking lot of the service centre. It contained everything anyone would need to get across the southern expanse; a garage, charging stations, a bus station, a hotel, a greasy spoon restaurant and a small store. At the southern end of the lot, a sign was put up: Next Service Area: 5000 km.
A woman with greasy overalls wandered out of the garage, looking the flyer over. A name badge on her breast said 'Toni'. She wiped her hands on a greasy rag and watched the fused Wyvern climb out.
"NSA eh? Don't see many of your type down this way. You turnin' around or pushing onward?" she asked.
"Neither. We're here on a case," Tino said, tapping the Marshal badge on their fused chest.
Tycyn held up his hand and projected a holo of Jessie Doe. "Do you recognize this person? Grand Tour records indicated they boarded the bus here a couple of days ago."
Toni barely had to glance at it. "That's Jessie. I saw her a couple days ago. Did something happen to her?"
"There was an accident at the station in NSA. I'm sorry to tell you, she was killed. We're trying to identify her so we can notify her next of kin. Did you know her well?"
"Dead? Oh my!" Toni gasped and let the rag drop. "Uhm... I didn't know her well. She'd come in every few months, sometimes with friends, usually alone. She'd catch the bus into the city and come back a week later or so. Yesterday, she was so excited for the chance to go to Uplift."
"Do you know where she came in from? Are any of her friends around now?" Tino asked, trying not to be too eager.
"It's a place called Unity. I don't know where it is; somewhere out in the unclaimed lands. There's lots of little hovels out there, usually founded by people who can't handle civilized society. And no, none of her friends are in town at the moment."
"It's more than we had before. Is there anything you could tell us about her and her friends? Did they seem nervous? Anxious maybe? Watching their back?"
"No, nothing like that. They always seemed eager for the chance to head into Sturmhaven, and glad to be heading home on the way back." Toni snapped her fingers. "There is one thing. They all have cat tags, jaguar tags, but I never saw a RIDE. They'd be dropped off from an ancient flyer; damn thing can barely lift itself, let alone its passengers."
Tycyn closed his hand, dismissing the hologram. With a flick of the wrist, he made a card appear and offered it to Toni. "Thank you for your help, you've been very helpful. If any of Jessie's friends come in, please contact us immediately, day or night."
"No problem, Marshals. I'm sad to hear that about her; she was very friendly. Are you going to be staying long?"
"We're planning to poke around for the rest of the day at least. Maybe someone knows how to contact this 'Unity' place," Tino said.
"Well, be careful if you go into town. Out here, we're used to dealing with all kinds, but in town they tend to be a bit less welcoming to your kind."
"My kind? A male?" Tino asked.
Toni laughed and shook her head. "No, no. We got no problems with men. This place survives on supplying the survivalist men out in the Unclaimed. I mean your scales. There are a number of war vets in town, and NSA scalies tend to make them nervous."
"We'll keep that in mind," Tycyn said. "Thank you for your help."
A few hours later, the Marshals sat at a table in the diner, reviewing the results of their work. They'd questioned everyone at the service center's businesses and gotten a similar story from all. Jessie and her friends were from a place in the Unclaimed called Unity. Their dual aspects were unknown, but some suspected there was more to them than was obvious.
"Could we be assuming too much? Maybe Jessie was unique for some reason," Tino pondered while stirring a puddle of ketchup with a fry.
"I'm processing surveillance video from the area and identified four other people from Unity," Tycyn countered. An emitter glowed on his chest showing Jessie and four other people. They all had jaguar RIDE tags and a somewhat androgynous look. "While their clothing makes it difficult to be certain, their movements and builds do match Jessie's. I am fairly confident all five are herms."
"Well we have a bit more information. Next we need to find this Unity. Any hints?"
"Limiting to just the Unclaimed region, there are five communities listed named Unity. Three are defunct, and the remaining two do not match what we know," Tycyn said.
"The defunct ones, maybe someone resurrected them?"
Tycyn shook his head. "One was lost in a tsunami of 124, another was buried in a landslide and the third was subsumed into another community. It's unlikely any of them have been resurrected in any meaningful ways."
Tino muttered a curse under his breath and fell silent, trying to come up with other angles they could attack. "Their skimmer seems pretty old. Probably can't go too far safely. Maybe five hundred klick range? Toss the range into the think tank and see how many possible colonies they can find on the sat views."
"We could query the flyer's ZPS logs; that would help narrow down the search region too," Tycyn offered.
"Yeah! That would really help... but we don't have access to... the... logs...." Tino trailed off as Tycyn showed a new view, of a skimmer landing next to their own flyer. Two jaguar tagged people climbed out, not giving the NSA flyer a second glance. "You bastard. How old is that footage?"
"Just a few minutes ago. They are heading to the bus stop. There isn't a rush; the next bus isn't for a few hours."
Tino gulped the last of his drink down and stood up. "No point in waiting."
The newcomers were talking with Toni at the bus stop. The shorter one was about 160cm tall with broad shoulders and shoulder length black hair. Hir cat ears were dark furred as was hir tail, both more panther-like than jaguar. Sie wore a t-shirt that was tight enough to show hir small breasts without being Alohan, and jeans that were loose enough not to show anything else. Hir body was muscular without being too masculine, almost dwarven in style and build.
The taller one had shorter, blond hair and matching ears and tail. Sie also had whiskers and a slightly upturned nose. Sie wore a blouse and skirt, and had a larger bust size than hir companion. Where the first was dwarven, sie came off as elven. Sie seemed a bit more self conscious about hir appearance, constantly tugging at hir skirt and looking around. Sie spotted the wyvern marshals first and tapped hir companion's shoulder.
"That's them," Toni said, sensing the shift in focus. She waved at the marshals and approached them. "Andy, Chris, these are Marshal's Tino and Tycyn. They have news about Jessie."
The shorter herm held out hir hand, "We heard about it. That's why we're here. But we didn't expect to meet the Marshals here about it," Andy said, shaking Tino's hand. Hir voice was deep, a low tenor almost a baritone.
"You aren't easy to find. Shall we take a seat to talk? Tycyn can make a privacy field for us."
"That would be useful," Chris said, hir own voice a pleasant alto that squeaked higher unexpectedly, like sie was going through puberty.
Tino sat on a bench across from the two Unitizens in the empty bus station. Tocyn sat near them, in the centre of a faint dome that surrounded all of them. Andy was relaxed in hir seat, legs slightly spread, one arm across the back of the benches. Chris shifted uneasily in hir own seat, smoothing hir skirt and crossing and uncrossing hir legs.
"I'm sorry about what happened to your friend. It was a bad accident," Tino opened, leaning forward to try and be comforting.
"We know. We didn't hear about it until last night. Jessie was so excited for a visit back to Uplift too," Andy said, sighing sadly. "I take it from the privacy field, you know what we are?"
"It was rather obvious to our Coroner. Considering how sparse information on Unity is, we're just a little curious. Especially in light of other recent events," Tycyn said.
"Other events?" Chris asked, looking confused. "What other events?"
"Tycyn and I were involved in capturing Shahrazad, if you know of that RIDE. When there are instances of extreme body modification now, well we tend to be a bit concerned."
Andy laughed, "You think we might be linked with that mad-RIDE? Euclid would never tie in with that crazy lot."
"That seems obvious, but I'd like to learn more. For the record, you are both herms?"
"We are," Andy confirmed. "I united a few years ago. Chrissy here united a few months back. This is hir first trip out of Unity since then."
Tino made some mental notes as sie spoke. "And Jessie? Was this hir first trip?"
Andy laughed, "Not at all. Sie's been to Sturmhaven numerous times before. But it was hir first trip back to Uplift since uniting. Sie united years ago, before me even."
"And why was sie going, if you know?"
"It was partly for the trip, a class reunion with hir university class, but mainly it was to pick up a new Potential," Chris said.
"New Potential?" Tycyn asked.
"A Potential is someone we've decided might be a good fit to join us, someone who might Unite someday." Andy smiled, "I know it sounds a bit cultish, but we mean no harm. While we try to maintain a low profile, we are not a secret exactly. We hang out on the 'net, looking for kindred spirits. Some come, some stay away, it's up to them. Some even leave after uniting, but they do need to divide first. Due to our nature, we can not live away from Unity for long, but we're doing our best to fix that."
"Interesting. I take it you're. I take it you're here to replace Jessie, to go get the Potential now? Tino asked.
"Sie is. I'm just here to bring the flyer back with some more supplies," Chris said.
"When we discovered what happened to Jessie, we called the Potential to update our plans. I'm going to Sturmhaven to meet him and bring her back," Andy said.
:How's the interest in the share?: Tino asked his partner while asking the Unitizens more questions.
:Very interested. A lot of the task force is watching live, trying to make connections and find more info on these guys. Lots of other interested folks too,: Tycyn replied. :Consensus seems to be we need more first hand information.:
:Agreed. Which leads to my next proposal.:
"You said you don't have anything to hide, and I admit, I'm impressed with how open you are," Tino started to say.
"Thank you. We try not to flaunt our nature in general, hence why they think we are women here. Still, there is no reason to hide it or lie about it if someone asks."
"I appreciate it, it's very refreshing. So what about visitors? Other than potentials? Would Tycyn and I be able to visit Unity and see it for ourselves?"
Chris looked startled, but Andy seemed to anticipate his request. "Of course! We have nothing to hide and regularly have visitors come by. It is a good time to visit too; two potentials will be Uniting tomorrow."
:And the boards light up! Lots of requests to join us now, but Command's stamping down. We're keeping lead on this, for the first pass,: Tycyn laughed.
:Lucky us. We do seem to be picking up the fun cases now,: Tino smiled. "In that case, instead of waiting for the bus, can your own flyer make it to Sturmhaven?"
"It can. It's old but it's not in that bad a shape. We were going to take it into the city for a tuneup soon anyway," Andy said.
"Then let me return Chris and whatever supplies you need to Unity, while you take your own flyer onward to pick up your potential. It beats waiting for the bus after all."
Andy and Chris exchanged whispers while the Marshals waited. Chris seemed nervous, but was reassured.
"That sounds like a good idea. You don't mind taking me back?" Chris asked.
"Not at all. Now that we know about Unity, there is a lot of curiosity about it."
Andy nodded, "And I'm sure Euclid will be interested in clearing the air about any confusion we may have caused."
Unclaimed Lands, South-Eastern Gondwanaland
The unclaimed lands stretched around the south eastern corner of Gondwanaland. It was marginal land; rocky and mountainous, and still largely Zharusian. The Zelda Neumonformer would have finished converting it before the colony was founded had it not broken down around Punta Sur. Now, Terran and Zharusian life were mingling slowly, vying for the same niches. Unlike Rodinia and the Z-Valleys, the unclaimed lands were not protected.
Tino turned away from the vista outside and looked at Chris. Sie was looking out the window, relaxed, no longer self conscious like she had been in town. "So this was your first trip away from Unity?"
Sie turned to him and smoothed hir skirt, suddenly nervous again. "It is. I wouldn't normally go out so soon, but with Jessie's death, Andy decided to bring me out."
"If you don't mind me asking, where are you from originally?"
"Burnside. I was just a farmer out there, but got tired of the same thing year after year. I was a woman back there."
Tino chuckled, "I can tell. You're not used to the package."
"Not at all, it's just there, in the way so often."
"Takes awhile to build up a life time of muscle memories. Do you regret it?"
"Nope! Seeing how everyone else at Unity handles it, I know I made the right choice."
"So you just hung out in some virtuals and they approached you to come here?" Tino asked.
Sie nodded, "That's about it. There are a few hundred more we'd love to invite, but we're limited by Yin and Yang. Since we need to restabilize every few weeks, Unity is limited to at most a hundred citizens until we can extend our stability period or find more RIDEs that can handle the process."
"Judging by who's listening in, if willing and able RIDEs can be found, I suspect they will be."
"What do you mean?"
Tino pointed to Tycyn. "My partner and I are maintaining a link back to our superiors. In light of recent events with a certain tigress RIDE, there is a lot of interest in people examining the extremes of fuse-mods."
Chris looked confused, "But we aren't that extreme, we just have both genitals."
"One more set than most people have. Considering what we saw, it isn't extreme, but socially, it's quite different. In any case, a lot of people are wanting to find out more. You'll probably have a lot more visitors soon."
They talked about more neutral topics for the rest of the flight, until Chris tensed up again, looking out the window. Sie pointed to a lake among the purplish jungle. "There it is, on the shore there."
Outside, the village's location was obvious once they knew where to look. The lake was about fifty klicks inland from the ocean shore, connected by a broad, lazy river. Where the river and lake met, there were signs of human habitation on the northern shore. Floating docks reached into the lake with a couple of boats tied up. Dozens of buildings, mostly temporary quick-fab structures outlined a grid pattern marching inward away from the shorelines. The Zharusian jungle had been cleared off the north face of the hills across the river from the settlement and solar collectors had been set up. Tino checked and verified they were just past the equator, a stone's throw away from the dry Great Southeast rift valley that lead into the Dry Ocean. At the top of those hills was an array of dishes and antennas, providing the village's connections to the rest of the world. North of the village, more vegetation had been cleared away, replaced by the brighter greens of Terran grasses and gardens.
"You can land down there," Chris pointed to a parking spot next to a short story building. It was easily big enough for four flyers, though it was empty at the moment.
:Is it just me, or do you feel like we're about to meet one of those lost tribes of the Amazon or one of the lost Asteroid colonies or something?: Tino asked Tycyn privately.
:It's not just you. Doesn't help that most of them are going topless and are so well tanned.: Tycyn noted as he brought the flyer down to the parking spot.
The new vehicle had been noticed from those on the ground, and people were coming out in droves. Most wore little more than loincloths and had their skin darkened to handle the tropical sunlight.
:Sensors pick up around a hundred folk down there. 95 humans, including 8 children ranging from newborn to about five or six years old. Another ten RIDEs and eight Inties. They're querying us,: Tycyn reported.
:Assure them we come in peace, and just want to learn about their village is all. No one is in trouble. Tell them we're here to provide closure for the death of one of their villagers.:
:Done. They are relaxing a little, but are still wary, as would I be in this situation.:
There was a soft thump and a slight change in the air as the flyer landed. The growing crowd approached, but kept their distance from the machine. Tino scanned the people, noting most had the jaguar tags and bare breasts. While the breast sizes varied, the smallest were still bigger than male pecs. Tattoos, piercings, even other body mods were common in the crowd. A fused male horse RIDE and a fused female rottweiler RIDE were moving through the crowd from opposite ends of the community.
"What should I do?" Chris asked, suddenly nervous for other reasons.
"Don't worry. You've done nothing wrong. We're just here for a meet and greet. Gather up your stuff and head on out. I suspect Tycyn and I will be meeting Euclid and the rest of your leaders," Tino reassured hir.
Sie nodded and gathered up a few shopping bags while Tino lowered the steps. He also opened the hatch to the cargo bay for the bulkier purchases Chris had made. Hot, humid air blew through the flyer. Tino looked out at the curious crowd one final time while adjusting his uniform. Satisfied there was no danger, he followed hir towards the hatch. "They look friendly, Tycyn. Let's go down separate."
Chris stood at the hatch and paused, looking out at the crowd. Tino could hear the tone changing a little, relieved to see a familiar face, but also confused.
"Hi guys," sie called out. "I uhm... I got a ride back with some new friends. They... They have news about Jessie."
"We know," the fused stallion said quietly, just loud enough for hir to hear. Both RIDEs were at the base of the stairs. "Andy called in after you left. Euclid is making arrangements for Jessie's body."
Tino checked his backlog and found a note about the secondary contacts waiting in his inbox. :You could've mentioned they were already talking around us.:
:It didn't come up. Besides, you were doing fine on your own.:
Chris made hir way down the steps, and Tino moved into the doorway, feeling dozens of eyes lock onto him. He could feel Tycyn's presence behind him, close enough to fuse if needed. He could sense the crowd was expecting something, but wasn't sure what to say.
"Introduce yourself," the canine RIDE whispered.
"Right. Good idea." The scaley man coughed to clear his throat. "Greetings," he called out to the crowd, his two syllables silencing them. "I am Marshal Constantino Saleno, but you may call me Tino. This is my partner, Tycyn." He moved a few steps down the stairs so Tycyn could come into view. "We come with sad news of one of your friends, Jessie Simons." He stopped at the bottom of the steps and paused, realizing he had talked himself into a corner; his news wasn't the sort that was appropriate to shout out at a crowd from a stranger.
"Relax Marshal, and take your foot from your mouth," the rottie said. "Word of Jessie's fate has already reached here, and hir friends and family are mourning elsewhere."
"Thank goodness. I really stepped in it," he mumbled back. "We've come to offer our condolences for your loss, and to offer what support you might need to move forward," he addressed the crowd again.
"Thank you, Marshals. We appreciate your gifts, and for bringing Chris and hir supplies back so quickly," the horse-fuse responded for the crowd. He motioned to the cargo hatch and a half dozen people climbed aboard. "Euclid would like to meet with you as soon as you are ready."
"Well, there's no time like the present. Please, lead the way."
Unity was a village still in its initial growth phase. Most of the buildings were quick-fabbed single story buildings; empty boxes with plumbing and power hookups that could be refined for the building's needs. Gravel roads weaved between the buildings, handling foot and cart traffic and the occasional skimmer.
"I am Russell, in Braveheart," the stallion broke the silence once they were clear of the crowd. "That's Shelly in Sophia."
"Nice to meet you all," Tino greeted them. They walked for a few more steps, just long enough for the silence to bear down on them again. "Nice enough village here. Still a bit rough around the edges."
Shelly laughed, "You could say that. We're growing faster than we planned; we can barely build fast enough, or afford what we need."
"Afford?" Tycyn asked.
"The potentials tend to sell most of what they had, to buy in here. Family members like Shelly and I can come along and we chip in what we can, but it takes a lot to start a town from scratch. We aren't looking for an Aloha or Uplift, but even getting up to a Nautilus level will take decades," Russel explained.
"Well, despite how they sell it, Aloha wasn't built in a day. Feels like you have a good foundation to start from at least." Tino looked around again, and decided his next question. "So you two aren't potentials?"
"Nope. They can go for that, but I like being just one type of person," Russell said. "Our spouses though, they yearned for more, and when they got the opportunity, we followed them.
"Sam united almost two years ago, when he decided he wanted more, but didn't want to give up everything. It certainly does make things interesting."
"My Michael came here last year. I... had my doubts at first, but we're making it work," Shelly said.
"Well, male, female, or united, we're all human," Tino noted. "Some relationships work better than others."
"I know, Mike loves being United, but I just can't wrap my mind around it. Still, we have things to do here, and the weather's a lot better than Cascadia."
They quickly reached the village square, a block sized empty space in the middle of town. A stage was being built in one corner, near one of the largest buildings in Unity. The heart of the building was a half dozen quick fab cubes, joined together and further expanded.
"This is the heart of Unity for now. Not quite a town hall, but the next best thing. Euclid has hir offices and labs here," Russell explained.
Shelly pointed to the opposite end of the square, where a classic-looking town hall structure was being built. "As you can see, we are planning for the future. When we finish building that, we'll elect our mayor and be a proper town. Euclid says sie can't wait to shed that mantle."
"I can imagine. Running a town isn't for the faint of heart."
The RIDEs lead the Marshals into Euclid's building, where a united human in a blouse and slacks, was working at a desk in a front lobby. Sie looked up and stood up quickly when sie recognized the arrivals.
"Greetings! Greetings! Welcome to Unity. I am Clarence, Euclid's assistant. We've been eager to meet you both."
Tino shook hir hand.. "Thank you, we've been looking forward to meeting you as well. Especially as we've found out more and more about Unity. Is Euclid busy? We'd like to meet hir as soon as convenient."
"Sie's in the lab with Yin. Adam's getting hir update and sie's testing some adjustments as usual. Euclid thinks sie can get a few more hours of stability from the nannies."
"Sounds exciting. We can wait somewhere handy until sie's less busy," Tycyn offered.
"Nonsense! Euclid left standing orders to bring you in as soon as you wanted. Come this way please." Clarence walked around the desk and lead the way down a short hall. Two closed doors lined the left side, a third closed door was on the right. Clarence led them to a bigger set of doors at the far end.
The doors opened to reveal a modern lab. An avian integrate with bright red feathers was focused on a sensor display attached to a transporter-style scanning device. Hir back was to the door, with separate wings that were slightly spread and further hid hir body. On the platform, a female jaguar RIDE was fused to someone. A couple of other Integrates and an unfused jaguar were watching. The unfused jaguar's colouring was reversed, black hardlight fur with orange and white spots.
"Unity nanites are stable. How are you doing Yin?" a minotaur integrate asked.
"Doing fine, doesn't feel any different for me," the fused jaguar said.
"Nor any different to me," she said, her tone shifting slightly.
"Good. We're done for now. You can defuse if you want or go wandering. Yin's next appointment isn't until tomorrow," the avian said. "In the mean time, I have guests." Sie turned to face the rangers.
Euclid looked like a falcon integrate that had changed hir feather colouring to reds and oranges. Sie wore a simple vest and shorts that did little to hide hir nature, including mammalian-style breasts. "Good day, Marshals. I hope your visit has been pleasant so far."
"Very pleasant. We're sorry to interrupt you," Tino said.
"It is no interruption. Just normal maintenance with some tweaks that will hopefully pay off."
Tycyn looked around the lab. "I take it you're trying to improve the longevity of the nanites?"
Euclid nodded. "Right. We've got them lasting for about three weeks now, but it's not a viable solution. My goal is to make them self sufficient; so that a United person could go anywhere and not need to worry about hir body failing. At least no more than anyone else has to worry."
"Honestly, I'd be satisfied if we could just get them working in a regular fuse chamber, no offense intended Yin," the person inside the fused jaguar said. "That would at least let us travel more, maybe find permanent RIDE partners if we wanted."
"So this process doesn't work with regular RIDEs?" Tycyn asked.
"Nyet. The Unity nanite colony is very special. Only Yin and Yang can grow them," the bull integrate explained. "We're trying to grow them elsewhere, but instabilities develop and colony fails."
"I realize it's not really my place to say anything, but have you sought out help from other experts?" Tino asked.
Euclid nodded and paused. Yin split open, revealing her passenger. Sie looked more female than male, dressed in a fuse safe blouse and skirt with spotted ears and whiskers. Adam stretched a little and smoothed hir skirt. "Thanks for the update, if we're going to have a Joining tomorrow, I need to go help get things ready."
"Right, it nearly slipped my mind. Why don't we go to my office, Marshals, where we can be more comfortable."
Euclid's office was located just off the lab, with a second door leading back to the hall. It was full of furniture and mementos gathered through the years. Sie poured a couple of glasses of brandy and offered one to Tino. The marshal politely declined and took a seat sideways on a couch. Euclid sat down at the other end, relaxing hir wings and sipping hir own drink.
"Now where were we? Asking for help I believe? It is something I could do, and am trying to do. Oscar is my most recent recruit. My problem is overcoming years of habit. You see, I integrated long ago, and realized my interests in United sexuality soon after that. But research by Integrates was very frowned upon. Especially research with the lesser races, RIDEs and humans."
"I've heard of that. One of the enclaves was destroyed because of that wasn't it? Asgard or Valhalla or Olympus or something right?" Tycyn said.
"Olympus, right. That was one of the reasons for its downfall. That said, research wasn't completely stopped. Appa's crew tended to allow it under specific conditions, and I spent some time with him, but it was a bad fit. In the end, I went my own way.
"So you see, I've had years of working alone, not trusting others. Opening up my project is hard, something I'm working cautiously towards."
Tino smiled encouragingly, "Well, now might be a good time to seek help. Fuse-related research is booming thanks to Shahrazad. Not that I want to thank that monster for anything, but her records are providing lots of insights, there might be some things that could help you. And even if there isn't, there are lots of people looking to help find the next big breakthroughs."
Euclid tensed at the mention of the mad-RIDE and looked away. "I've heard of Shahrazad, both before and after you took her down. I don't doubt that there are some insights I could gain from her work, but the cost...."
"The cost has been paid. If some good can come from it, then it won't be wasted," Tycyn said, also watching the phoenix carefully. "Besides, you've already benefited from her work, haven't you? At least you've benefited from Pascal's work."
Euclid winced like sie'd been slapped. Sie looked away and downed hir drink in one gulp. "You... you know?"
"We suspected there was a connection. How much of a connection we don't know," Tino confirmed.
"Still, Yin and Yang are pretty obvious once we saw them. They aren't normal RIDEs, are they? Did you work with Pascal to develop them?" Tycyn asked.
Euclid shuddered and looked away. "In a way, I did... I try not to think of it, but all this wouldn't be possible without that." Sie sighed and focused on a corner of the office.
"It starts years and years ago. I'd just broken free from Appa's enclave and was trying to decide what I wanted to do next, to decide if there was some place I could do my research and studies without risk. In that moment of weakness, Pascal found me. The porcupine made some propositions that intrigued me and appealed to my desires. We took over an abandoned mining platform and I started working on the Unity process while Pascal did her own thing. She made sure I had everything I needed and I didn't ask questions at the time.
"A few months later, she brought in a few more Integrate 'scientists', and I began to realize Pascal's true colours, but I was in too deep by then. I wasn't doing anything bad, but I was close to some breakthroughs in cross-fusing that Pascal was very interested in. At the same time, I was realizing what she and the others were doing, and becoming disillusioned. I retreated, masking my own studies and trying to pretend I couldn't see or hear or smell what else was going on."
"Eventually, I couldn't hide any more. My work needed a proper fuse chamber to experiment with nanite longivity. I had to go to Pascal and as if she knew, she had two available. Two jaguar RIDEs of opposite sexes, with 'Dry-damaged cores'."
Euclid paused and the brandy floated over to refill hir globe. "For my own sanity, I tried to believe her story. Yin and Yang themselves were in a bad way, their cores barely functional. Many times, they had crashes that I thought would be the end of them, but somehow they recovered. Their personalities, their pasts were gone, wiped clean by the 'Dry-damage' Pascal told me. I forced myself to believe that, to not see the truth. The obvious truth that Pascal had been mixing their cores somehow, linking and breaking them in strange ways. By the time she passed them on to me, she'd had her fun and was curious to see if I could do anything with them. I told myself all I needed was the chambers, and for awhile I believed myself.
"After few weeks working with them, they started to mend. To this day, I don't know who they were before, but they regained some personalities, and I couldn't ignore what was done to them; what I was doing to them.
"By then, Pascal was ready to move her base to a more permanent location. I took that opportunity to escape once again, this time with the jaguars. They headed south, I took a skimmer and headed north, eventually holing up in the tunnel outside Uplift. I think Pascal might have been glad to see me go; she certainly didn't waste any effort trying to stop us.
"A few months later, when I... when we were sure Pascal had no interest in us, we moved on. Word on the Intie nets was that Fritz didn't like Inties being in the Tunnel; it was too close to Uplift and Nextus. So the three of us headed to the Unclaimed lands and set up camp near here.
"At first I tried to put Unity behind me; my research in it was tainted by Pascal's touch. Yin and Yang convinced me otherwise. Their recovery was based on the process, and they were as convinced to make Unity possible as I had been. They wanted to help unite the sexes, for those that wanted it at least. We set up a simple comm unit and sought out similarly minded people, and that's how Unity was founded."
The avian finished off the bottle and lowered it to the floor. Sie looked exhausted, but relieved to share hir burden.
"That... That was more than I was expecting," Tino said. "Usually we have to dig more to get a confession."
"Not that we were looking for one in the first place." Tycyn rubbed his muzzle with a wing claw. "We just wanted to know what your connections were, if any."
"I promise you, I never did anything directly to any unwilling participants. I'm willing to share my own memories and you can check the timestamps and watermarks to verify. But I was working with Pascal, so in that respect, I'm tainted."
"A blemish, if what you say is true. Mostly offset by what has gone on since then. We'll need to verify your story, but if it all checks out, we'll want you as a witness, not a criminal," Tino said.
"Ricardo's going to be bringing Jessie's ashes down here tomorrow. He can start processing your story more thoroughly," Tycyn explained. "In the mean time, don't delete anything, and don't go anywhere."
"I won't. You have my word. I've got a village depending on me now after all."
"In the mean time, I think Tycyn and I will need to do some record gathering. You caught us off guard, but we have our own procedures."
The gem on Euclid's forehead glowed a moment. "There. You have full access to Unity's infosphere. And I've locked myself down to normal user. Look whereever you want and ask whatever you want."
"Wow, I wish all our cases were this easy," Tycyn said, his own eyes unfocusing as he scoped out the new access.
"Technically, we don't even have a case yet. Thank you for being so open, we'll try and sort this out as fast as we can."
Unity, The Next morning
Tino yawned and stretched, feeling the tug of his wing membranes on his sides and the heat of the tropical morning sun. He and Tycyn had set up shop in an empty building near Euclid's office and labs. He scratched at his side and fabbed up a mug of coffee from a portable fabber, before thumping the immobile RIDE in the middle of the single room structure.
"Rise and shine, sleepy struts. A new day dawns and reinforcements are coming."
Tycyn stirred and shook out his own wing-arms. "I'm awake. What are you doing up so early?"
"Couldn't sleep any more. Sun was in my eyes. Find anything new?"
"Still processing. I'm focusing on the early days. Hir story is still consistent, and the timestamps and watermarks show no sign of tampering. Events also match what we have in Pascal's journals."
"Did you figure out what the mining platform was?"
"I did. It was a three-pair platform, presumed lost in a sandstorm around when Euclid and Pascal showed up. Two of the pairs were jaguars."
"Yin and Yang?"
"Highly likely. I'm going to keep that under my hat for now; we aren't trained for that sort of revelation."
"Good plan." Tino yawned and stretched again. "It's strange to have this much access. Euclid's practically begging us to find something on hir."
"I know. Every few cycles I have to stop and double check for any trojans. It seems too easy, but sie seems sincere. That will bode well for hir."
"How far out is Ricardo?"
"A few hours still. He met up with Andy and they are formation flying here."
"In that case, I'm going to do some more wandering. Ping me if there's any trouble, or you just want a break."
Tino wandered the village, offering his help where he could. Life was surprisingly normal for a fast growing settlement. Fields were tended to, buildings constructed, equipment repaired, children tended to and all the other little things that were needed to turn a colony into a home. As a Marshal, Tino had no reservations about helping anywhere he could, and it gave him the opportunity to get a sense of the community.
When Tycyn warned him the flyers were on final approach, he joined the crowd at the landing pad.
:So what's your gut saying?: Tycyn asked.
:My gut's saying that Zharusian Razor Fruit is best fresh off the vine. And this village is about as normal as any other on Zharus, United and all.:
Tycyn fused around his partner, and the two lifted above the gathering crowd for a better view. The RIDE turned them towards the north. He zoomed in, and two flyers came into focus, the older style one they'd seen at Sokovia and a modern Marshal Dry-rated flyer. Minutes later, the vehicles were on the ground along with the wyverns.
"Interesting looking place. Friendly looking folk. Are they all herms?" Ricardo sent on a private comm channel.
"Most of them are. The rest are potentials, children or friends and family of the United," Tino explained.
"Gotcha. So they don't unite the children?"
"No. the plan is to wait until a year after puberty for children of united. The process hasn't been around long enough to put that plan in action yet."
"So the kids are normal."
"Normal enough. Jack and Diane are the strangest. They are the same age and have the same parents, but one's mother is the other's father. They're only a couple of years old."
In the real, the Unity flyer opened and Andy stepped out, escorting a young woman. The woman looked a little overwhelmed, but seemed happy enough. A couple came out of the crowd and greeted her, before escorting her away. Andy made hir way over to Euclid at the head of the crowd and whispered to the avian leader.
"I believe that's my cue," Ricardo noted. The Marshal flyer opened and a flying squirrel integrate floated out, carrying a pewter urn. Instead of the usual Marshal stetson, he wore a pilot's cap with goggles. He looked around briefly, spotted Euclid and fly-walked over to the phoenix to present the urn.
"On behalf of the Marshals, and the NSA PD, and on my own behalf, I am sorry for your loss," he said.
Euclid accepted the urn and held it to hir chest for a moment. "Thank you, for all you have done and for bringing hir home." Euclid turned to the crowd. "Jessie is home now. Sie will rest in the Lobby under the care of hir friends until tomorrow, available for anyone who wishes to pay their respects. We will say our final goodbyes to hir tomorrow, at dawn."
The integrate paused for a respectful moment, letting the silence linger. When sie spoke again, sie tried to sound more cheerful, "In the mean time, we have two Unifications planned for tonight. Michelle and Nicholas will be Uniting!" The crowd cheered and a man and woman blushed at the sudden attention.
"So please, go about your day, and be sure to make sure our new potential, Lisa, and our honoured guests from the Marshals are welcomed. I look forward to seeing everyone tonight."
Andy took the urn from Euclid and passed it on to another person who was obviously trying to look happy despite the tears in hir eyes. The crowd gradually dispersed, leaving the Marshal's mostly alone.
Ricardo looked around again, and leaned against his own flyer. "The Taskforce is still assembling a proper investigative team into Euclid's past, but the feel is that whatever sie may have done in the past, it wasn't extreme enough to bother with too much. There might be a figurative slap on the wrists, but we have a lot more high profile guys to go after."
"Good. Taking Euclid away would probably destroy this place. I've been observing carefully, and while it does have some cultish elements, everyone seems to be here willingly. There's no signs of coercion.If anything they do their best to dissuade people from joining without being impolite."
The squirrel integrate chuckled, "That goes well for them too. So this Unification tonight, I take it that's how they turn men and women into herms? How the hell does that work?"
"It is, and I don't really know. It's basically a straightforward fuse with Yin or Yang, but beyond that, I'm stumped," Tino said.
Tycyn took over. "I believe I've sorted out some of it. Yin and Yang's fuse nanites are very customized. That makes them extra fragile, but also makes them more persistent. The Unification fuse is basically a standard crossride that they stop halfway. The fuse nannies then persist, keeping the body stable in that state."
"So they are constantly in a mid-cross state?"
"Exactly. That is why they need to re-fuse so regularly, to refresh the nanites, and correct any imbalances that may build up. Considering they are constantly rewriting their biology on the fly, the number of successful pregnancies is frankly, amazing. The village records indicate the miscarriage rates are four times the planetary average."
The fused wyvern motioned for Ricardo to follow him, and started a tour of the village.
"There's mention of people leaving right? How does that work?" he asked.
"It works by finishing the crossride. Anyone who wants to leave for good will finish what they started, and then have the three year cool down from there."
"Well, guess I should get to work, lots to do before tonight."
A temporary stage had been finished in the town square in front of Euclid's labs. After dinner, as the sun lowered over the mountains to the west, the villagers gathered to witness the event. Once the last rays faded away, a spotlight lit the stage up, revealing Euclid, Yin, Yang and a man and woman in white robes.
The Marshals had spoken with the stars of the show in the afternoon, making sure they wanted what was happening, and that there was no outside coercions. Both passed the checks easily, and were eager to Unite.
Michelle was from Sturmhaven, almost a local. She was a valkyrie type, standing proudly on the stage. Nicholas was from Cape Nord, with a decently full man card. Both of them had similar reasons for Uniting; they were tired of the gender politics of their homes, and were curious to see if they could grow beyond them.
The crowd grew silent as Euclid stepped forward and spread hir wing arms a little. Barely visible hardlight flames flickered around hir.
"Good evening everyone, thank you for coming. While we mourn the loss of Jessie, we also acknowledge that life goes on. We welcome Lisa, our newest potential. May sie find what sie is looking for." Euclid nodded to the woman who still looked a bit shell shocked, before continuing. "Most importantly, the reason we are all here tonight are these two. We are here to witness the Unifications of Michelle of Sturmhaven and Nicholas of Cape Nord."
"I found something curious about Yin and Yang today," Ricardo said privately as Euclid continued hir speech.
Tino waited, and realized Ricardo wanted him to ask. "What did you find?"
"Their cores, are not normal. Take a look."
In a virtual overlay, two spheres appeared. Unlike normal RI cores, these ones were wrinkly, and almost divided into two hemispheres.
"Those are different," Tycyn noted. "Almost look like brains."
"Exactly," Ricardo said excitedly. "No one designs like that. No one can make them like that. So how could two RIDEs from a decade ago have cores like that?"
"Pascal?" Tino guessed. "But what did she do?"
"I wasn't sure, so I looked deeper in what makes them special. Their fuse colonies. The nannies are quite complex and very fragile, verging on Intie-levels. And that's when everything fell into place."
"They're Inties!" Tycyn virtually shouted.
Ricardo nodded, "I don't know how but their cores.... their brains, are Intie minds. Their DE's are still standard, but with very non-standard cores."
"It had to be Pascal. The victims of the platform. She somehow integrated just the brains and cores, then put them back in the DEs," Tino said. "Damn, is there anything she wouldn't do?"
"The Taskforce has already added it to the long list of her crimes. As for Yin and Yang, the originals are long gone now. I doubt there is anything we can do for them but leave them as is. It's probably for the best."
Tino sighed sadly. "That probably explains why Euclid's having such a hard time duplicating their abilities. It might really be impossible."
"It's not really our problem, but we can probably point them to some who can help them, one way or another. I think they're about to start," Tycyn said.
On stage, Nicholas was burning his man card while the crowd cheered. He dropped the remains on the stage and stepped back. Yin, the normal coloured jaguar RIDE, reared back and engulfed him in seconds. Michelle rolled her eyes and seemed tired of the attention. She spread her own arms and nodded to Yang, getting similarly engulfed by the RIDE.
The fused jaguars stood motionless on stage for a long moment.
"Looking at their records, it seems that men tend to want to Unite more than women. For actual Uniting, they're running a three men for every two woman ratio, to ease the strain on Yin," Tycyn noted. "The actual waiting list is more like five to one. And you can't Unite if you're on a cross-cooldown. Still, some of the newer potentials are crossing to get on the shorter list. They figure the cooldown will be gone by the time they can actually Unite, and it lets them get a taste of their future."
On stage, Yin moved forward and showed signs of beginning to defuse. A cloud of mist engulfed her, hiding Nicholas as sie stepped out. The mist blew away, revealing the new herm in hir naked glory. Nicholas was still muscular, but hir body lines were softer, hir hips wider, shoulders narrower. Hir nipples were larger with dark areolas on firm but small breasts. Hir hair was shoulder length, partly hiding the feline ears.
Nicholas ignored the crowd watching hir, hir clawed hands running over hir hairless body unabashedly. Sie squeezed hir penis and balls a moment and then felt further back, jumping a bit in surprise. Yin nudged hir from behind, giggling. "Later, Nicholas. This isn't Aloha."
"Sorry!" Nicholas gasped, hir voice cracking. Hir hands went to hir neck and sie coughed a bit.
On the other end of the stage, Yang stepped forward. A similar cloud of mist engulfed him, hiding Michelle's new appearance at first. The Valkyrie appeared quickly, ears twitching, nose wiggling. Whiskers twitched on hir cheeks. Sie ignored the crowd, hir hands touching hirself, starting at hir pointed ears. Hir hair went down to the middle of hir back, spotted like a jaguar. Sie rubbed hir neck a little, hir chin a bit squarer than before, more masculine. Sie rubed hir breasts briefly, the mounds smaller than they had been before but still womanly. Sie looked down below, and squeezed the new equipment visible between hir legs.
"Some of my best work, I think," Yang commented.
"It feels... strange," Michelle said, trying not to react to the lower pitch of hir voice.
Two Unitizens offered the newly United fresh robes to put on. Once they were covered up, they stepped up to stand on either side of Euclid. The Integrate spread hir wings behind them and hugged them. "Everyone, please welcome the newest United, Michelle and Nicholas!"
The crowd cheered while the newly united waved. When the applause quieted down, Euclid continued. "As we all know, the next few days and weeks are key to adapting to their new United bodies. Please, help them adjust, and make them feel welcome, and normal. And for those of you still waiting for your chance to be united, please be patient. Your day will come."
There was another round of applause, and Euclid helped both of the new herms down to the ground. Bottles of wine were popped and shared in celebration.
Unity docks, Morning after Unification
A smaller group gathered on one of the floating docks leading out into the lake. At the far end, a wooden raft had been made, not much bigger than a life preserver ring. A wreath of flowers surrounded a wooden box on the raft. Hovering over the water behind the raft and facing away from the dock, Euclid gathered hir thoughts. Yin and Yang similarly hovered over the water near the phoenix, while the end of the dock was crowded by those who couldn't fly. The Marshals observed quietly from the shoreline.
"Jessie Simons," Euclid said, starting the makeshift ceremony by turning to face the mourners. "Jessie was a dear friend to me, to all of us. Hir loss is felt by all, the first of the United to pass on as a United. A passing that came all too soon but for Murphy's random hand. But I do not want to dwell on that. Instead, I would rather remember another first. I met hir in Uplift, while sie was still in University as a student from Ibn Rushd. Sie was female at the time, but wanted more, more than just a simple crossride. From the first times we stumbled across each other on the networks, to when I first met her in person, hir spirit was clear. It lit up the room. When I invited her to visit Unity, there was no doubt, no hesitation.
"After that first visit, I had no doubt either. Still, it would be another year before she could be United. A year she spent finishing her studies, and helping find more potentials. When sie passed, sie had a nearly perfect record." Euclid paused and wiped hir eyes. "Many of you are here now because of hir. But beyond that, sie was a friend. Someone who helped me when I had doubts, who helped save many lives in the hurricane a few years back, and who made sure we rebuilt and didn't give up."
The avian crouched down and put a talon on the box. "Farewell, Jessie. The day is darker without you, but I promise you, no matter what the future brings, Unity will continue."
Euclid plucked a feather from hir chest and laid it next to the box, holding hir position silently for a few minutes. Finally sie straightened up and floated a few metres away, motioning for the next person to speak.
Everyone who wanted to speak was able to. Some spoke long on a friendship that would never end. Others barely got a few words out before sobbing into another's shoulder. Many added momentos or flowers to the raft, until the box was barely visible. The dark jaguar, Yang was the last to speak, sharing some of her memories of fusing with Jessie. There was a long moment of silence when the RIDE finished. A silent cue was given, and the pair of RIDEs grabbed towlines on the raft and towed it out into the lake.
When the raft was far enough away from the shore, Euclid flew out to it. Sie circled it once, flames flickering in hir talons. Finally, sie raised hir flaming hands and sent a stream of fire at the raft. It caught quickly, burning bright in the morning sun light. Euclid put hir hands on the RIDEs and watched it until it sank below the water.
After the ceremony, a brunch was set up in the village square. Tino filled a plate and offered his condolences to the mourners as he worked his way back to Ricardo and Tycyn.
"I wish I had a chance to know hir after what everyone said this morning," he said to the other Marshals.
"Sadly, the only reason we met anyone here is because of hir tragic accident," Tycyn noted.
"That is true. And just as tragic. Hello Euclid."
The phoenix integrate nodded to Tino and the other Marshals. "Good morning, gentlemen. I just wanted to thank you once again for what you did."
"It's part of our jobs. Not one we like to do, but part of it nonetheless," Ricardo said. "I'm sure you would have realized what happened soon enough."
"We did. That's why Andy and Chris were in Sokovia. But we weren't sure how we would explain things. You really smoothed her return for us."
"Glad to have helped. Hopefully in the future you won't be as shy to reach out."
Euclid smiled. "We are not exactly shy, but you made a good point. Just the insights you have made from our past open up new lines of thought I had never considered."
"We have a small team coming in tomorrow, including a chakat and some crossriding specialists. With what you have done so far, there's some ground breaking advances here that I'm sure will have a lot of people interested," Ricardo said.
"Even if they are tainted? I was so naive back then. If I'd only known what Pascal was... And what she'd done to Yin and Yang...."
Ricardo put his hand on hir arm. "It's the past, and they're happy now. Without you, Pascal would have finished her experiments and terminated them. In a way, you saved their lives. What you've built since then, is just incredible; something to be proud of."
The avian sniffed and wiped hir eyes. "Thank you. Things are changing so fast, even I'm having trouble keeping up. It does seem that Jessie's death did bring about some good.
"Is it true that you are planning to leave us, Marshals?" sie asked, shifting hir gaze to the wyverns.
"Regrettably, it is true. Tycyn and I need to get back to the mountain of Shah case data waiting for us. We'll be leaving this evening, once we're sure Ricardo's got everything he needs."
Euclid held out hir talon, "While I'm sure I'll see you before then, let me just say thank you again. And please, come back any time. We'll make sure to keep a room ready for you."
Tino shook it and grinned, "I'll keep it in mind. Never hurts to have some bolt holes ready to run off to."