User:Robotech Master/Many Meetings

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FreeRIDErs story universe


by Jon Buck and Robotech_Master

Part 18: Many Meetings

September 16, 156 A.L.

Several days after the get-together at the bar, Rhianna and Kaylee relaxed in the pilot’s seat of the Dreamchaser as Kaylee’s expert hand steered the sub in toward the landing pad of Zane’s main mining platform. Today was the Big Day. The platform was ready for its official recommissioning.

As Brubeck’s head of security, Anny and Leila had been on the platform ever since Rhianna and company had retaken it, overseeing its restoration to something resembling operational status. Zane and Aggie, along with Myla, Sophie, the rest of the remaining bodyguard team including the newly-retrained Flint-Burke, two Sevens of Marshals, and even Dr. Munn and Quinoa Steader had flown out the day before on the Starmaster.

Since Carrie-Anne had shown signs of steady improvement, Dr. Munn and Boris would be going on to Aloha from there, assuming Zane didn’t suffer a relapse. His wife was on her way out to meet him for the trip back. They would spend a week at home taking care of accumulated practice business, then the doctor would fly back to be on hand when it was hoped Carrie-Anne would awaken.

Rhianna wasn’t sure exactly what had gone on between Zane and Aggie over the last few days, but apparently she’d decided to take a position as his personal secretary for at least the duration of his recovery, and emailed in her resignation to the Nextus Administration. Rhianna took that as a good sign.

:You’re acting awfully girly today, Rhi,: Kaylee said. The lynx herself had helped out with her rider’s hair and a little extra bodysculpting. Rhianna wore a mini-dress fit for the occasion, as well as high heels and hose, a qubitite pearl necklace, and earrings. Kaylee put her paw over their nose. :Too much perfume, though.:

“I want today to be perfect,” Rhianna said aloud. She couldn’t wait to de-Fuse in front of Zane and see how he reacted.

“You owe me a Fuser flush after this is over,” Kaylee said in VR. The anthropomorphic cat folded her arms. “Lynxes are not supposed to smell like lilacs on the inside!”

“Oh, no problem, partner.” Rhianna stood in VR space and twined her longer hair around her fingers, smiling at her body-double “reflection”. She’d spent hours on finding just the right look for Zane.

Rochelle poked her head in from the passenger space. Since returning from her trip to Aloha with Rufia, she’d been considerably more subdued in her appearance than usual. She hadn’t gone into why, but she’d switched off the sexy body language and hair motion enhancements that she had been keeping on continually—but she had turned them back on for this special occasion. Her hair, light blue today, was piled high in an elaborate ‘do which would, as usual, release at just the right moment to fall alluringly around her, and she wore the red dress Rufia had picked out for her on their shopping trip so long ago. “Oh, I’m sure it’s going to be perfect. The perfect target for Fritzy.”

“Are you kidding? There’s Marshals everywhere and the Uplift Militia’s sent a couple platoons,” Kaylee said. “We have Sturmhaven troops and Nuevo San patrols. The MRS is here, there’s even an infantry unit from Aloha. Not to mention Integrates from a dozen friendly Enclaves. Camelot, Jurassic Park, Wonderland, to name a few. This is the most secure place against Fritz on the planet right now.”

The sub was guided in to land, and park in the temp space reserved for VIPs. The mining rig had a number of modular multipurpose platforms that could be deployed as temporary space, and it seemed they were all in use as parking lots today. The Dreamchaser landed next to an X-15 replica.

“That’s Kenyon Walton’s personal sub!” Uncia said. “Sweet.”

“Everyone who’s everyone is here,” Rochelle said. “And maybe a few people who aren’t even anyone.” She slid on her interface specs and tapped into the platform’s security network via the DINs they’d patched in. A moment later hardlight panels popped up from Uncia’s projectors showing views of the crowd. “Shall we get out and join the crush?”

Rhianna smiled and opened the aft loading ramp from the pilot’s seat. “Oh, this is going to be fun.”

Waiting at the base of the ramp were a pair of familiar Integrate faces from the assault on the platform—Ianau the golden retriever and Flint-Burke the bear. “Welcome to crazy-ville,” Ianau said. “Joint’s really been jumping the last day or so.”

“Zane says hi,” Flint-Burke added.

“Hey, doggie! Hi teddy-bear!” Uncia said happily. “Good to see you!”

“Good to be seen,” Ianau said. “If it weren’t, we’d be invisible. And I’m so tired of that.”

“So which way to the VIP seats?” Rochelle said, grinning.

“Over here,” Flint-Burke said, nodding toward a bulkhead hatch that led into the platform’s superstructure. “Zane’s in his office. Said to bring you up.”

“Walk this way,” Ianau said, prancing over to get the door.

“I can’t walk that way,” Rochelle said. “My legs don’t bend in the right places.”

Rhianna looked around. The platform looked and felt like a vast beast, slowly awakening from deep slumber. The hardlight shielding was already operating, of course. A slight vibration from already working machinery came through the paws she shared with Kaylee. The last time she’d felt anything similar was on the Spruce Goose just before it left Earth orbit. She’d studied the platform’s various systems for some time, worked on the great machine itself in simulation, prior to the assault. It felt like a stallion, rearing to go.

The hallway was narrow and rounded, like a space station or starship corridor—which, of course, it was; the same modular components were used in both to cut down on expenses. This wasn’t one of the wider, more public causeways that the civilian guests would use, but one of the narrow byways that weren’t quite Clint’s “secret passages” but were still separated from the madding crowd by a lot of “authorized personnel only” signs.

“We’ve been helping out in the cleanup and reactivation,” Ianau said. “Mainly Q-dust decon, so that all the people who would have been doing it can repair stuff instead. Though we help with that, too. Without us and the other Inties, this place wouldn’t have been ready for months.”

“We’re showing how much we support Zane,” Flint said. “Fritz doesn’t scare us.” There was a note of regret in his voice. The bear had still been away at his bodyguard training during Fritz’s attack.

“And it pays well, too,” Ianau said. “A decent salary and all the Q we can eat. What more could you ask?” He led them up a narrow diamond-deck staircase to another passageway. “Almost there.” He slapped a pressure plate next to a large hatch and it slid open, revealing a cargo elevator. “In we go.”

They rode the elevator up a hundred meters, then the floor rose up through an opening in the ceiling, leaving its walls behind, to sit level in a nicely but not excessively-lavishly-furnished living space beyond. The steep angular ceiling betrayed that a roof was overhead, and the transparent aluminum windows all around gave an excellent panoramic view of the entire surrounding mountainside.

They weren’t alone, either. A number of Marshals or bodyguards were standing or sitting unobtrusively around the room. A couple of them nodded to the new arrivals. At the far end, near a stone fireplace, stood Zane, Quinoa, Myla, and Sophie. Zane was actually wearing a tuxedo, which clashed just a little with the fuel-cell satchel on his back, and leaning on a fairly plain cane. He waved as they approached. “Hey! Welcome to my party! Glad you could make it!”

“Happy to be here, Zane,” Rhianna said, deciding now was the moment. Taking her time, Kaylee de-Fused from head-to-foot, revealing the RIDE mechanic in a strapless, ruffled blue dress and heels. She wanted to squee at his reaction. “Well?”

Zane’s eyes widened and he leaned more heavily on his cane. “Ack, I am betrayed!” he gasped, grinning. “I thought you wanted to help me recover, but you’re really trying to give me a heart attack.”

Rhianna blushed a little, not sure if she should be embarrassed in front of all these people, or complimented.

“That’s a nice look!” Quinoa said. “I don’t know if I could pull it off, myself, but it looks great on you.”

“Thanks, Quinoa. That means a lot from you,” Rhianna said.

Quinoa grinned. “Think nothing of it. And as far as I’m concerned, Mr. People-Not-Plumbing here deserves any heart attacks you might send his way.”

Zane rolled his eyes. “Thank you, Miss Memento Mori.”

“Water under the bridge,” Rhianna said quickly, bestowing upon Zane a look of pure adoration. Behind her back, Myla frowned and caught Quinoa’s eye. Quinoa nodded, biting her lip a little.

Even Zane looked a little uncomfortable for a moment. Then he stared off into the distance for a moment, and blinked in surprise. “Oh! Hang on. Hey, guys?” he called out to the assorted marshals and guards. “Nobody be alarmed, okay?”

“Zane?” Quinoa said, as several bodyguards sat up straighter and a couple of Marshals hitched up their gun belts. “That’s not exactly the most reassuring thing you’ve ever said.”

“Sorry. Just figured I should give you a little warning.” He turned and limped over to the fireplace, where he counted a number of bricks up and over and then pushed one, then hobbled back. The fireplace swung out on a hinge revealing a small staircase, out of which stepped a young man with white wolf ears, a black doggie nose, and a pair of tails. He turned around and offered his hand to help an ocelot Fuser in. They were followed by a fluffy red fox wearing a hardlight leash and collar. The end of the leash was in the ocelot’s other hand.

“Paul? Lilli?” Rhianna exclaimed. She forgot her crush on Zane for the moment and rushed up to embrace both of them, managing not to trip over her own feet in the heels. “I didn’t expect to see you two here!”

“Uh, great seeing you again too, boss,” Paul said, staring for a moment at his former employer’s outfit. He wrinkled his canine nose at the overpowering lilac perfume.

“We’re about the only people Alfie could send as ambassadors who aren’t on someone’s arrest-on-sight list,” Lillibet said. “Fenny’s down in the parking lot—he was just a leeeetle too big to squeeze through the passage—but he’s sharing Guinny’s sensory feeds.”

“Greetings!” Fenris’s deep voice boomed from the ocelot’s vocoder.

Rhianna rushed to the window and waved at the huge two-tailed white wolf below. “Hey, Fenris. You’re looking good, baby.”

All the while, Quinoa couldn’t take her eyes off the fox, who was calmly sitting on her haunches and scratching behind one ear as if she did this sort of thing every day. “Is that…? Is that who I think it is? How did you..?”

“Oh, this is my new pet foxie, Beatrice!” Lillibet said happily, kneeling to hug her around the neck. “Isn’t she just gorgeous?” The fox wagged her tail and winked at Quinoa.

“Very pretty,” Quinoa agreed. “Fluffy. Umm…yeah.” The fox glanced at Quinoa for a moment, and some silent communication seemed to pass between them. Then Quinoa nodded, and leaned down to pat Beatrice on the head herself. “Glad to see she’s found a good home.”

“Is my Dad or Mom here somewhere?” Lilli asked.

“They’re down circulating,” Zane said. “Schmoozing, I guess. It’s what we rich folks do at someone else’s party. I can ask them to come up here if you want.”

“Please. I’ve got to really meet Melissa!” Lilli said. “I hardly even got to see her back home before we had to go clobber that dragon. And I gotta see their new tags.”

“And it prob’ly would be best to do it in private,” Paul said. “Folks see Lilli out and about, they’ll think it’s funny she doesn’t go back home with her folks after.”

Rhianna raised an eyebrow. “You’re not going home?”

Lilli shook her head, pursing her lips in a serious expression. “If Fritz is gonna pull something, I think Alfie’s camp is a target after how we smacked down his raiding party and caught ourselves his number-two foxie.”

“Yeah,” Paul said. “Even after we (mumble mumble mumble) I still think we need Fennie at full strength if an attack comes.”

“Sorry, what was that, Paul?” Rhianna asked, one tufted ear perked forwards.

“He said, ‘Even after we installed DIN-betas in every RIDE in AlphaWolf’s camp who would let us,’” Fenris boomed helpfully. Several of the Marshals nearby perked up at that piece of news, while Paul winced.

“Does that include Tocsin?” Rhianna said.

Paul blushed. “Er…”

“I still want a piece of his hide,” Kaylee said.

“He’s really not so bad once you get to know him,” Guin said.

“Almost killed me, you know,” Quinoa added.

“Well, okay, he actually kind of still is that bad once you get to know him,” Guin admitted. “But you get used to it.”

“And Fennie and I saw much worse at the camp ‘round the uncasking,” Paul said darkly. “Tocsin doesn’t much like humans, but he won’t torture ‘em for his jollies—and he’s never killed any for fun, either. I’ll give him that.”

Rhianna nodded. “Well, then. Good. With fighters like him protected, the camp should be safer if Fritz does show up.” She chuckled at Paul’s startled expression. “You thought I’d be mad? Why? Everybody’s going to have this sooner or later. Maybe the sooner the better. As for Tocsin, I don’t have to like him, and I probably never will, but I can be happy he’s helping keep you safe.”

“You know, we got a saying in the Marshals,” Bastian said. The lemur tugged on the brim of his Stetson. “Personal isn’t the same as important.”

Paul muttered something that sounded suspiciously like, “Try telling that to Mike Munn.”

Kaylee appeared to take a deep breath. “Okay, okay. I’m just glad he’s pointed at an unfriendly Intie for a change. Moving on. Guin, can you give me a memory summary of what happened at your house?” Kaylee asked. “I’m damned curious about Fenris’s combat data, too. I’m giving you the DIN 1.1-spec right now and the 1.2-beta.”

“And could Fennie shoot us what happened with the uncasking?” Uncia said. “We haven’t heard more than scattered reports. Even out of the Marshals.” She gave Bastian a meaningful look.

“Sure thing!” Guin said. “Dumping now.”

Rhianna looked around at the Marshals in the room. “Well? What do you folks think about all this? Me and mine are going to be helping AlphaWolf. They’re our allies in this fight. After what they’ve done for us, I’m not turning my back on them.”

An unassuming man with white fox ears, only a little taller than herself, wearing a shimmering bluish star on his brown leather duster, approached. “I think I can speak with some authority on this. For the duration, the Camp has amnesty, so’s long as they focus on helping us against Fritz and his ilk. So sayeth the Qube.” The man wiggled his white eyebrows and waggled his ears.

“I saw what you did there,” a voice said from the fireplace stairs as a sandy-colored wolf padded out into the room. Half the bodyguards’ hands twitched toward their weapons, but most of the Marshals seemed fairly unsurprised.

Zane grinned. “Didn’t I say not to be alarmed?”

“Alpha?” Paul said. “You said…”

We invited him after you left Camp,” the short Marshal with the qubitite star said. “The way the get-together was shaping up, it was too good an opportunity to pass up. After I personally apologized for Marshal Munn’s behavior and guaranteed safe passage for him and his, he decided to come along after all.”

“This is turning into a summit,” Quinoa observed. There were a couple of Uplift’s Consuls, as well as several Nextus high officials even though the company was no longer based there, contingents from Cascadia, Aloha, Sturmhaven, Cape Nord, even little Burnside and Nuevo San. “In fact, maybe it should be one.”

“Conyers is here,” Kaylee said. “He can get the last few pieces of my memories I’m missing.”

“Precisely, Miss Kaylee, Miss Steader,” the Qube said. “If I’m any judge, the endgame’s just ‘round the bend.”

AlphaWolf nodded to those present, then padded up to stand before Rhianna. “A big reason I accepted is that I wanted to apologize to you in person about what I ordered done to your garage. Fritz totally had me suckered. Sorry about that.” He turned to Quinoa. “And to you as well, for nearly getting you killed. I wish I could convince Tocsin to do the same, but, well…he’s Tocsin.”

“Oh, we’ll have a rematch at some point,” Quinoa said. “Nonlethal, of course.”

“Tocsin thinks of nonlethal combat about the same way Rochelle there thinks of decaffeinated coffee,” AlphaWolf said. “But I’ll pass it on.” He turned to Zane. “And, of course, I’m sorry for interrupting your press conference. If there’s anything I can do to help that security guard, or any of the other people we gender-jacked, please let me know.”

Zane nodded. “Thanks. Cecil’s getting along all right for now, but I’ll tell him what you said. And I’m sorry I called your pack a ‘band of idiot escaped RIDE hippies.’ Heat of the moment, you know.”

Rhianna faced the horse-sized sandy wolf. “I accept your apology. I know Paul’s in good paws now. We’ll give you any material support you need.” She looked at all the Marshals present. “Assuming that means I won’t get hauled off to prison myself.”

“If you were hauled off, you’d be in some pretty decent company,” Kenyon Walton said as he, Nigella, and Melissa rose through the cargo elevator at the other end of the room. “Afternoon, Reed.”

The Qube rolled his eyes good-naturedly. “’Lo, Kenyon. All it needed was you.” He doffed his Stetson to Mrs. Walton, and nodded to Melissa. “Ma’ams.”

“Daddy!” Lillibet dropped Beatrice’s leash and de-Fused from Guinevere, then ran forward to catch her father in a hug. “Mommy!” she continued, bestowing the same hug upon her mother. “Ooooh, your mink ears are so cute! And hi, Melissa!” She hugged the RIDE next.

Kenyon waggled his sandy wolf ears in amusement and looked to the others. “It might interest you all to know, I’ve already made Alpha an offer of extensive support contingent on ending all raiding practices and reorganizing as a legitimate and open RIDE settlement.”

AlphaWolf nodded. “It’s going to take a while, though. Probably years. We can’t just change overnight. As long as polity RIDE laws remain ass-backward, we have to be somewhere the militant RIDEs can feel welcome, so I can keep some kind of a leash on them. And that means I have to let them off the leash in little ways from time to time.”

“And maybe we can be laying the groundwork to get some of those militants to de-militarize after the laws do change,” Paul said. “Swords to plowshares and all that.”

“The Marshals support that idea, Kenyon,” Reed said. “It’d mean one less worry for us. AlphaWolf, I can’t promise full amnesty for everyone in your Camp should you follow through, but after the Amontillado debacle there ain’t many left there worth arrestin’.”

“If we’re eventually going legit, we’d like a Marshals presence—as long as it’s not Mike Munn,” AlphaWolf said.

“Easily done. We’ve got some unattached RIDEs—civvy Hollows and Silver Stars—who’ll be happy to set up a precinct station. No humans attached to make your folk uneasy,” Qube said.

“But that’s still some years down the road,” AlphaWolf said.

A soft tone came from the wall speakers. “Attention everyone. The recommissionin’ ceremony is about to begin. Get yer asses down there afore yer late. Hewer out.”

As Zane and most everyone laughed at Anny’s brusque announcement, he felt a tug on his left elbow. As everyone else had been chatting, Rhianna had crept around and now stood close enough he could feel her body heat. She was stroking his left arm, trying to make it look like the DIN was what interested her. He wondered why he hadn’t smelled her perfume, then realized that his mind had simply filtered it out to protect itself.

“Uh, hi, Rhi,” the tiger said. “Um, nice dress.”

“Thanks,” Rhianna breathed, angling just so he could see down her cleavage. “I wore it just for you.”

“Erm,” Zane said. “Uh, listen, can we talk for a moment?” He drew her over to a corner near the fireplace as most everyone else headed for the cargo elevator or other exits.

Rhianna glanced down at the cane he was using. It had a bright brass haft, a matching handle molded to fit Zane’s hand, and not a lot of ornamentation. “Nice cane. Does it have a sword in it?”

“Something better.” Zane shifted his hand to show the ruby rod that protruded up from the haft through the brass of the handle, level with the top. “Turns out the collimation rod from a satellite comm laser was just the right length. If I pump some energy through that, I could cut through battleship steel at fifty meters.” He shook his head. “Of course, it probably wouldn’t do a damn thing to Fritz, but it makes me feel better.”

He propped himself up in the corner and looked down at Rhianna. “So…um…Rhi? Listen.” He leaned the cane up and put his hands on her shoulders. “I guess I must have thrown a pretty big scare into you with what Fritz did to me, and you thought you might lose me or something. I’m sorry about that. I know you care for me.” He grinned a little. “Boy do I. I mean, wow, just look at you.”

Rhianna looked like she was about to explode into a puff of surging hormones, or maybe swoon in his arms.

Then Zane’s grin faded a little. “But honestly, Rhi, as flattered as I am—and as ecstatic as Terry is—you’re kinda starting to scare me a little. It’s like one of those cartoon episodes where someone does drugs or gets possessed or swaps bodies or something and then starts acting all weird. Uncanny valley territory. This isn’t like you.”

The expression on Rhianna’s kitty face first turned to denial, then confusion, then she seemed to shrink a little. “Well…” she stammered. “Uh. I just thought I…”

“I know,” Zane said. He smiled. “And like I said, I’m flattered. Really. And Terry’s all in a panic trying to get me to shut up and not ruin everything. Silly cat.” He chuckled. “The thing is, I’ve seen where this kinda thing leads. If I take advantage of your raging hormones, the morning after you’ll wake up hating me, I’ll wake up hating me, and we’ll both be miserable.”

Kaylee padded up to them. “Rhi, you know he’s right. Granted, I’m not human, but I know you. This isn’t you. I’ve been trying to find some way to change your libido, but I don’t like the idea of messing with you like that. Dial it down, girl! You’re twitterpated as hell and not thinking straight.”

“But…our date,” Rhianna said dumbly.

“Is absolutely still on.” Zane grinned. “Why the hell wouldn’t it be? I’ve only been planning it for months. And what happens after that, happens. But I want it to be with the Rhianna who gave me that takedown I deserved when I got too big for my britches. I want to win your heart, I don’t want you to just hand it to me.”

Rhianna looked conflicted to say the least. He wasn’t rejecting her per se, he was…completely right. But she had to admit, if it’d been just him saying so, she would have been heartbroken. His voice added to Myla’s and Kaylee’s was enough to shock her rational mind back into action. Regardless, some part of her felt a bitter taste of defeat. She let go of his arm and sighed.

“You’re right, you’re right. All three of you,” Rhianna said, folding her arms. “Feels like I’ve made a right fool of myself the past week.”

“On a relative scale of self-fool-making, I rate you at no more than two hundred milli-Zanes,” Zane said. “Not even close to me on my best worst day. Which you were also there for, right before you gave me that chewing out I deserved.” He chuckled, then carefully knelt, taking the weight on his good leg. “Now c’mere.” He put his arms around her and gave her a big hug—a little more than brotherly, but not quite over the line into lascivious.

Just a few minutes ago, Rhianna would have taken the opportunity and stolen a kiss. Now, she just returned the embrace like an old friend—and potentially something more, with time.

“Zane! Get yer ass down there!” Anny said over the PA.

“My master’s voice,” Zane said wryly.

“Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s turn this big mother back on,” Rhianna said, the smile Zane had last seen when the mechanic was working on Chauncey reappearing. “I want to see what she feels like.”

“Works for me. C’mon, Central Control’s just down here.” Zane led the way down the fireplace stairs.

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Not far away, the suborbital from Cape Nord was on approach for landing. Aboard it, a number of humans and Integrates peered out the viewports at the desert scenery.

Desilu shivered. “I haven’t been out of Cape Nord in thirteen years.” The mouse Integrate glanced pensively out one of the viewports at the desert sand below.

Kisa glanced over at her. “Are you okay with it? When you’ve spent so long living in somewhere closed in like that, you can develop a touch of agoraphobia.” She smiled wryly.

“My sister’s right,” Jade said. “Case in point, I had a bit of a hard time adjusting, after I first landed on Zharus. Everything was just so…open. But I got over it by the time I got to Cape Nord.”

“I’ll be okay with it,” Delilu said firmly. “I’ll have to be. This is what we’ve wanted for so long—to get to leave the Enclaves and finally mingle in the open with humans and RIDEs. It would be silly to let those open spaces scare me away.”

Tallyhawk stood at one of the other ports, staring down at the desert. The mining rig was visible a few klicks away, slowly rotating as the sub banked around to line itself up with the landing pad. “I’ve always wanted to see this place, but never really had an excuse before.”

“It’s pretty impressive,” Jade said. “You know, we Integrates probably all have at least some Q in us that came from here, originally. In a way, you could say this is like we’re coming home. Or at least parts of us are.”

By unconscious accord, the Cape Nord diplomats had all drifted toward the forward end of the compartment as the Hellir contingent gathered at the rear. It wasn’t that they hadn’t gotten along on the flight down—in fact, the Cape Nord bunch had all enjoyed the episodes of their self-produced “Show” the Hellir group had screened, and a good time had been had by all. But now that the flight was ending, it was time for the respective parties to exit on their own. That didn’t keep Higgins, the “Dudebro” representative, from catching Desilu’s eye across the room, waggling his eyebrows suggestively, and winking.

The suborbital finally made its final turn, and the platform moved forward and disappeared from view behind the front of the plane. The tone of the lifters changed as they switched over to vertical thrust, and a moment later there was a bump as the suborbital craft touched lightly down.

“Daaayum, this place is huge!” Higgins said, gawking at the enormous, expansive network of pipes and other machinery. The rig was almost a kilometer from one end to the other, with an even larger spread of wellheads.

“Indeed,” Scoresby said. “But you know what they say—it’s not the size that matters…”

Jade rolled her eyes. “Boys will be boys, won’t they?” she muttered.

Tally chuckled, replying just as quietly, “That’s life in Cape Never-Never Land.”

“Wouldn’t that make us the Lost Boys?” Ubu asked.

Desilu smirked. “I think you’re stretching the metaphor a little too far.”

“In any event, they’re bringing the ramps up,” Tallyhawk observed. “Looks like they’ll let us disembark separately, one party through each hatch.”

Desilu nodded. “Looks like that settles the question of precedence, then.” She stepped up to the hatch as it swung open. “Well, shall we?”

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In the platform’s main control center, no one was really surprised when a section of blinkenlight wall panels swung out and Zane stepped through, followed by Rhianna and Kaylee. In fact, Anny and Leila had been standing right in front of it, Anny impatiently tapping her foot. “’Bout time you showed up.”

“Did you warm them up for me?” Zane asked. “Everybody loves a good lion-taming act.”

“It doesn’t work very well,” Leila deadpanned in her cultured voice. “I always run out of chairs before I can get Anny to behave.”

Zane looked around the space. It was about twice as big as his apartment, but a lot of the room was taken up by consoles lining the walls and in a couple of islands in the middle of the floor. The Marshals and guards from upstairs were here, as were Rochelle and Uncia, Myla and Sophie. Absent were AlphaWolf, Paul, the Waltons, Qube, and many of the polity dignitaries.

:The Marshals are rounding up a lot of pols and VIPs for the impromptu summit,:Rochelle sent. :When they see something needs doing, they don’t wait around.:

Walking slowly and letting his cane take his weight, Zane crossed the room to a door out onto an elevated platform that had been attached for the occasion. He approached the podium at the edge, and waved to the crowd. Above and behind him, a giant hardlight projection made him easier to see. “Hey.” The crowd below broke into a roar of applause.

Rhianna glanced out at the crowd and whistled. :Would you get a load of that? Look at all those Integrates out there with the humans and RIDEs.: A number of them were sprinkled in amongst the crowd, their expressions ranging from nervous to relaxed, worried to triumphant.

:Nice to see so many of ‘em out in the open,: Kaylee said. :We all started something good.:

Zane waited patiently for it to die down, then grinned at everyone. “It occurs to me I haven’t been having such good luck with these press appearances lately. Hopefully, third time will be a charm.” He chuckled. “Or then again, who knows, maybe AlphaWolf might show up again or something.”

The crowd laughed appreciatively, though there was a slight edge of nervousness to it, and Zane didn’t miss the way some people kept looking in all directions as if expecting an Integrate attack to materialize at any moment. Zane didn’t blame them. He kept having to fight the urge to do the same thing himself.

“Anyway, we’re officially here to restart this big beautiful machine my father built. I remember when it was finished, back in 140. Dad had me, Aggie, and Maddie out here, and he had me throw the switch. He said at the time, ‘It’s gonna belong to you someday anyway, so you might’s well get used to running it.’ From the time I threw that switch up to just a few weeks ago, this rig never had a single idle day. Sixteen years isn’t a bad record.” The crowd broke into applause again, and he waited to let it die down.

“Of course, that streak got broken when Fritz decided he didn’t want me going public with who and what we Integrates are. He shut this rig down, just like he tried to shut me down a couple weeks ago. But in the long term, he didn’t succeed at either. So last month some of my friends and I came and took it back.”

The crowd broke into a standing ovation, louder than any of its applause before. Zane grinned and enjoyed it, then after a minute held up his hands for silence. “As I say, we’re officially here to start the ol’ gal’s ticker up again. But unofficially, there are a few people I wanted to recognize. All the brave humans and RIDEs, not to forget the other Integrates, who helped kick Fritz’s ‘Integrate Descendants’ off this rig.” He grinned. “And the nice thing about having all these bodyguards and Marshals around is that if they’re too shy, I can just have them hauled out here. So come on out, Rhianna Stonegate and Kaylee!” He looked over his shoulder and beckoned to them to join him on the platform.

Blushing furiously, with Kaylee giving her a nudge in the small of her back, Rhianna came forward. Zane grinned and put an arm around her shoulder, raising the other with his cane in it to signal for louder applause.

“Rochelle Seaford and Uncia!” Zane continued, and they came out to stand on his other side. Rochelle’s hair picked exactly that moment to come loose and cascade around her. She blushed and tossed her head to settle it back into place behind herself, and waved to the crowd as they applauded again.

“Myla Wilson and Sophie!” Now it was the fennec pair’s turn to face the crowd, and they did so with their own share of self-consciousness.

Zane continued naming names until almost all of those who had been along on the raid joined them on the platform—even CinTally, looking even more self-conscious than Rhianna. Then Zane added, “But two of those who helped us that day are no longer with us. Marc Flores and his RIDE Cernos both perished during Fritz’s attack on me. I’d like to ask for a moment of silence to remember them, as well as the other casualties of that day—and everyone who’s paid with their lives to keep Fritz’s nasty little secrets.” Their names appeared, with photos, on the hardlight screens around him. Zane gripped the podium and bowed his head, and for a minute the only sound was the hot dry wind scouring the desert beyond the hardlight climate shields.

“This fight isn’t over yet. We’ve made progress, but there’s more pain to come. But we will beat him, and his followers. I know of at least two very close to Fritz himself who have had their opinions changed—one of whom saved my life, and who knows how many others, at great risk to herself. Thanks, Quinoa.”

“I’d do it again in an instant,” the sphinx said, joining the others at the platform’s edge.

“Now you all might know my Dad wasn’t so fond of RIDEs in some ways,” Zane continued. “But you might not know he also made sure RIDEs got a fair shake as long as he was running the company, because that’s the sort of man he was.

“So today, as we rededicate my Dad’s old platform, I’d like you all to bear that lesson in mind. Even if you don’t like what someone is, remember they’re still a person. That goes for humans who don’t like RIDEs or Integrates, Integrates who don’t like humans or RIDEs, and RIDEs who don’t like humans or Integrates. If Dad were here right now, he’d say—well, actually he’d probably chew me out for running off at the mouth.”

“So just push the button already, brother-mine,” Agatha said with a half chuckle.

“Right. Anyway. Everyone out there who just wants to get along—this one’s for you.” Zane flipped the safety cap off a big red button set into the podium, and slammed his fist down onto it.

Rhianna took off her heels so she could feel the machine awaken. She connected to the rig’s network, examining each DIN in turn, making sure there was nothing wrong—no hidden hardware hacks. It only took fractions of a second to make the final check, but there was nothing that could impede the restart. The repair crews had outdone themselves.

The great machine thrummed to life, a symphony vibrating through Rhianna’s feet. She wondered if anyone else felt it this way. Tonnes of raw AA qubitite flowed through lifter-pipes into a 150-meter ore freighter at the loading dock.

The crowd waited to see if anything unexpected would happen. As seconds turned into minutes without any signs of trouble, they almost seemed to grow disappointed. Zane grinned. “I’d like to thank you all for coming. But don’t leave yet! There’s going to be a reception downstairs, and guided tours of the rig, and I’ll still be around here and there, at least until my keepers put me to bed again. See you soon!” He nodded to the others on the podium with him, then turned to hobble back inside as the crowd roared its approval one final time.

“That went well,” Zane said as he stepped back through the door. “I half expected Fritz to try something.”

Rhianna struck the listening pose she used when thinking about some problem. Something felt…off, but not in a bad way. Somewhere in the orchestra of machinery there was an instrument tuned a little better than the others. Most engineers would leave that be—after all, why bother? But Rhianna couldn’t.

She Fused up with Kaylee. “Zane, we’re going to go do our own inspection, if you don’t mind. I’d like to see what this marvelous beast feels like at full bore.”

“Most people wouldn’t want to spend time with a full bore,” Zane said, grinning. “Or a hungry one. But sure, knock yourself out.”

The Fused lynx hugged the tiger. “See you in a few, Zane.”

“So what now?” Uncia asked, watching Rhi and Kaylee wander off.

“I think I’m gonna go scope out the reception,” Rochelle said, sweeping her hair back up into another self-destructing coiff. “Thought I spied some old friends in the crowd, or maybe I could make some new ones. Wanna tag along?”

“Sounds like a plan.”

“Elevator downstairs is that way,” Zane pointed. “Knock yourselves out. I’ll be down a little later. Might have a nap first…or maybe check in on some of our other friends.”

“Comm if you need us!” Rochelle said cheerfully, and headed for the elevator with Uncia.

Myla grinned and picked Rhianna’s forgotten high heels off the floor.

Zane chuckled. “Find me the princess who can wear those, why don’cha?”

“Oh, I don’t think you need to worry about losing track of that one,” Myla said. “Just follow the moving parts.”

“True.” Zane grinned at Myla, Sophie, and Agatha. “So what do you think? Shall we go see if AlphaWolf and the Nextus ambassadors have torn each others’ throats out yet?”

“That could be entertaining,” Myla said.

“My money’s on AlphaWolf,” Sophie added.

“You know what? Mine too.” Agatha grinned. “I think I’d pay good money to see it.”

“Go have yer fun, kiddies,” Anny said. “We’ll buzz ye if anything comes up.” She chuckled and shook her head as the tiger and his bodyguards left the room. “I remember being that young, once,” she said to Leila. “Seems like a long, long time ago now.” She idly rubbed the white lioness on the head and turned her attention back to the security console in front of her. Now that she thought about it, she was rather curious how matters were going there, herself. “What’cha think, Lee, should we abuse our authority? …yeah, why not.”

“I’ll make the popcorn,” the lioness said primly.

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The Hellir crew hadn’t quite managed to make it into the control room for the re-launch ceremony, but as Tallyhawk understood it very few people of any importance had—which left out most of the Cape Nord delegation, too. It was just too small to be a public space. But there had been a huge crowd standing in the open space on the platform below to see Zane when he’d come out to give his speech.

The presentation was reasonably inspiring. Zane made sure to name everyone who’d helped take the platform back—human, RIDE, and Integrate, making it clear that in his eyes they were all people. Then he’d reactivated the platform and excused himself.

As the open space started to clear out as people excused themselves to head to the reception, Desilu sent a quick comm ping to the others’ DINs. “I just messaged Zane, and he wants to greet us personally. He sent along a map; follow me.”

The Hellir Integrates threaded their way through the crowd to a hatch in the side of one of the structures marked “Authorized Personnel Only.” Desilu opened the door and they slipped through, then up several flights of metal stairs and into another hatch into a corridor. They moved down the corridor, turned a corner, and nearly ran right into the tiger in question, along with his sister Agatha and his foxy bodyguards Myla and Sophie, who had been introduced as part of the speech.

:Wow. Are those two partials?: Desilu said privately. :I think they are. Sophie looks a little squishy.:

Zane grinned. “Hey, you guys! Nice to meet you in person!”

Tallyhawk nodded. “Nice to see you’re back on your feet.”

“Nice to be back on ‘em.” Zane lifted his cane. “Even if I have to use an an extra one. So what do you think of the place?”

“It’s pretty impressive,” Kisa said. “We don’t have anything remotely like it back on Neorus.”

“Neorus, huh?” Zane raised an eyebrow. “As I understand it, you-all do your own metamaterial mining out there. Dad mentioned it in his travel journals. You know very much about that?”

“I’m a TerraTech by profession, so I don’t know that much about the refining aspects. But it’s a common neoquartzite in raw form—we have entire mountain ranges of it. Making it useful as information storage? Closely-kept secret.”

Zane nodded. “I understand about keeping your own metas a secret. Pretty much everybody does, including us—though we tend to be more open about it if you actually hoof it all the way out here to see for yourself. We’re going to have to see about fixing that sometime, if people like your friends and I are ever going to go a-touring ourselves. Anyway, as I understand it, terraforming has its overlaps with both mining and scouting, and I’d be happy to talk about anything you can talk about, sometime when we all have more time.” He grinned again. “Speaking of which, we’re just on the way to a meeting of the minds, and I was wondering if you might care to come along. A couple of you, anyway—it’s a pretty small room, and it’s a heads-of-state kind of thing. You want to nominate a couple of yourselves to join us?”

“Desilu, I think that’s you,” Tallyhawk said.

“I’d like you to tag along as well,” Desilu said.

“Great! Oh, by the way—if you’d like to set up a screening room for some episodes of your show later on, I’ve reserved a conference room for you starting a little later—after this main meeting’s over. It’s not a very big one, given how many other meetings are going on—this place wasn’t exactly made to be a convention center and all—but at least it’s something. I’ll have Aggie beam you the details and when you can go in to set up.”

“I suppose Dolores, Jade, and I will go mingle somewhere until then,” Kisa said. “That reception sounds promising.”

Jade nodded. “Sounds like fun. I wonder how many of our fans will be there? Good thing I’ve got plenty of pens, just in case I get mobbed for autographs.”

“Do you mind if we shoot some stock footage around the platform while we’re here?” Ubu asked. “Well—given that we’re all effectively living cameras, we’d do it anyway, but do you mind if we incorporate it into our shows down the road? It’ll make a great virtual set.”

“Be my guest,” Zane said. “I’d say something about the parts of the platform that are ‘top secret’ being blocked off, but given that Fritz’s lackeys had the run of the place for weeks I don’t think any of that matters. The patents are all expired anyway.”

“Lots of interesting camera angles around here…” the black dog said. He held his hands in front of him, using the time-honored method of using thumbs and first fingers to frame a scene. “Indeed. Lots of possibilities.”

“Heck, if you want to shoot actual footage here down the road, with actors and stuff, give me a call and we’ll work something out.”

Agatha cleared her throat. “Tick tock, Zane…”

Zane chuckled. “My master’s voice. Right. Follow me, you two, and we’ll see the rest of you later.”

Desilu nodded. “Don’t get into too much trouble without us, you-all.” The two groups parted ways, with Zane and company plus Desilu and Tallyhawk heading on down the hall, and the others following the arrows toward the reception downstairs.

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The Boardroom had been restored just like the rest of the platform. They had extended the long table with hardlight, but it was going to be a tight fit for everybody. All the major polities had representatives here, even Burnside and Nuevo San Antonio. There were also Integrates from the Enclaves that had opened themselves up and declared they were rejoining the rest of civilization—Wonderland, Camelot, Cave of Wonders, Jurassic Park, Terrania, Hellir, and Xanadu, with one or two other representatives that didn’t have a specific Enclave. AlphaWolf by himself was here for the independent RIDE settlements in the Dry—and sat as far away from the Nextus contingent as possible. They glowered at each other across the table.

As the designated neutral party, Chief Marshal Reed Mosley presided. “Thank you all for coming here today on such short notice. We’re here to share intel that will help us end this conflict before it gets any bigger.”

“So, why don’t we start with where this clusterfark all started?” Uplift First Consul Vogel said. “With Nextus and the RIDE program itself.”

“You already know a great deal of what should be classified information,” Administrator Dema Morgan said crisply. At least the polity had sent someone from the top level of their bureaucracy, the First Tier. “Courtesy of NextusLeaks and this…Kaylee. She was there at Fritz’s ‘birth’. All you have to do is review her data.”

“She’s not the only one,” Anny added over speakers. “You folks could pony up some of the telemetry I remember y’all have.”

“If we could find Dr. Patil, we might have her perspective as well,” Mosley said. “But she’s done a remarkably good job of disappearing. Hard to blame her, considering.”

“Yes, it’s amazing how many of our early units and personnel have ended up associated with Mr. Brubeck,” Morgan said. She let the accusation hang there, so listeners could draw their own conclusions.

“Dad always used to say you could judge a man by the quality of the company he keeps,” Zane said, hobbling into the room. “I’m pretty thrilled with mine. Can you say the same?” He and Agatha slid into seats closer to AlphaWolf than Nextus, while Myla and Sophie joined the other guards and Marshals along the wall. Desilu and Tallyhawk slid into a couple of vacant seats halfway down the table, across from City Fathers Rupert Scoresby and Fred Higgins from Cape Nord. Higgins gave the mouse Integrate a friendly leer, then “oofed” as Scoresby elbowed him in the gut.

“Okay, let’s start with the obvious,” Mosley said. “What do we know about Integration itself? What causes it? What are the triggers?”

“Integration is caused by the dangerous combination of hardlight skins and the Fuser process,” Morgan said haughtily. “This is why we discourage the use of hardlight in Nextus.”

“Are you really going to keep up that fiction?” Quinoa said. “If you actually thought that was the case you’d outright ban it instead of having an ‘energy surcharge’.”

Aaron of Jurassic Park rolled his eyes. The utahraptor clicked his toe claws in annoyance. “Yeah, right. I was completely metal-skinned and so were most of the dinos in my Enclave. There goes that theory.”

“So was the first member of my crew to Integrate,” said an arctic fox Integrate in a red Starfleet captain’s tunic. “The hardlight angle has always seemed like a coincidence to me.”

“And there are many more hardlight-skinned, Fusing RIDEs who’ve never Integrated than there are who have,” Leah of Terrania noted. “If that combination were the primary cause, it seems they should be dropping like flies. In point of fact, it seems like if anything, size difference between RIDE and pilot is a much more apt predictor of Integration—yet you lot still keep cranking out your dragons to this day.”

“Camelot concurs,” a white horse Integrate in a tabard put in. “Given that we’re where most dragon Integrates have been ending up over the last couple of decades, we ought to know.”

“We have no hardlight restrictions in Uplift and our Integration rates are no higher or lower than yours,” the Consul said. “As far as we can tell, at least.”

“Aloha has even fewer,” AstraNikki said. The golden eagle was representing the polity she had helped found almost fifty years ago and was technically the eldest at the table. The laid-back city had taken the revelation of Integrates with a celebratory White Russian and a shrug. “You’re full of guano and you know it.”

The other polities and Enclaves chimed in with similar facts, backing Nextus into a corner. Sturmhaven was the last to speak.

“Sturmhaven admits that, if we had had a woman like Fritz at the time, we would have used her during the war in the very same manner,” the woman said. “To deny this fact would make us hypocrites. Our first Integrate did not appear until after the war, and she remains the perfection of Sturmhaven womanhood.”

“Can the propaganda, woman!” Higgins said. “You forgot to mention that Inties can’t have children! What kind of ‘perfect’ woman is that?” He winked at Desliu. “Besides, I’m curious how you can know your ‘first Integrate’ is still the perfection of anything, given Fritz always grabbed ‘em after it happened.”

Zane stood up. “Okay, everyone, okay. We’re not here to grind axes against one another, or score points. We have a big problem to solve, so let’s focus on the subject at hand: Fritz and his followers. I have to admit, Administrator Morgan did have a good idea there about reviewing the data.”

“I’d very much like to see Fritz’s ‘birth’ from Kaylee’s perspective,” Mosley said. “As well as Anny Hewer’s. You hear me up there, ma’am?”

“Eeeyup, I hears ya,” Anny said. “I’ll page Kaylee and Rhianna and be right down.”

“And find Secretary Conyers,” Mosley said. “He was involved with this, too. Might as well have all the players here.”

“Gonna get really crowded in here,” Myla said.

“We’re gonna need a bigger boat,” Zane agreed. He glanced over at the wall to his left and made a “shooing” gesture with his hand, and the wall slid back another ten meters. “There. Bigger boat.” He slid his hand along the top of the table and it extended to fill the space, then he slid the seats of the rest of the delegations on one side of the table down three meters to make more room next to the Nextus party. “Okay, we’re good.”

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There were some familiar faces among the rig workers. Before the assault Zane had brought in people who actually worked on the platform for a living. Rhianna knew that you couldn’t depend on schematics or blueprints. Over its sixteen years there had been additions, repairs, and more additions. Network nodes had been moved, design changes made in the field.

“Kaylee, Rhianna! Good to see you,” a triceratops Fuser said.

“Oliver, Igthorn, how’re things up here?” Kaylee asked.

“Coming up roses, ma’ams,” Igthorn said. “What can I do for you?” the dinosaur said.

“I’m looking for junction DIN-JCP-8CP-4,” Kaylee said.

“Oh, that new networking gear of yours,” Igthorn said. “Uh, up two levels, in the modular pipeline flow regulator. Need help?”

“Thanks, but I can find my way there,” Rhianna said, moving onwards. “See you two around.”

The suspect coupling was located in one of the very last places repairs were being completed, and the work was a little sloppy, but functional. The “instrument” in question was a DIN-coupling intended for modular equipment.

:This oughta be good, Rhi,: Kaylee said. :Look at these speed tests. Just a few femtoseconds too fast.:

:Same gear we installed in Fenris, right? We got the same results then.: Rhianna said. They closed in on the piece of equipment in question, a non-critical pipeline flow controller taken from another rig and retrofitted. She opened an access panel to look at the cables inside.

There were supposed to be three redundant data/network couplings inside to connect the controller to the pipe’s lifters. Only two of the three couplings were plugged in. :I’m getting clear data throughput from all three, Rhi,: Kaylee reported.:It’s just the one that’s a teensy tiny bit faster.:

:Run more speed tests,: Rhianna replied. The couplings were designed to be snap-together mirror images of one another because redundancy was necessary at this stage, and in the network coupling’s case, added that much more security. She pulled on both cables, holding the uncoupled ends apart about ten centimeters.:Data still flowing?:

:As fast as ever, boss,: Kaylee said. :This is a puzzler. What have we got here?:

:Something big,: Rhianna thought. Really, really big. No matter how far apart she held the ends, to the limit of their slack, the data still flowed like there was no gap at all, and Kaylee’s hand sensors detected no emissions between the ends. As a test, she made the connection, waited, and then disconnected it again. Then on a hunch, she disconnected a second plug. All the plugs were field retrofits not original equipment. They were fabbed coupled together and only separated during the retrofit.

:Both still there, boss,: Kaylee reported excitedly. :You know what this is? I know what this is! Lordy Lord Lordy!:

“Hey, Rhianna, Kaylee!” Anny Hewer’s voice came from a nearby speaker. “They need you two up in the Boardroom. They wanna talk to you and me about Fritz.”

In other circumstances she would have investigated further, but there were more important things to worry about right now. On a lark, Rhianna left the coupling disconnected, and filed away the memory with a high priority in her implant. “We’ll be right up.”

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In keeping with the makeshift theme of the event, the reception room was an empty mech bay, with portable tables, chairs, and even fixtures like a bar at one end and a stage at the other brought in for the occasion. The stage had a small Integrate trio on it—it looked like a winged deer and a cheetah girl with a guitar and a bass, and another deer playing the drums. Rochelle thought she’d seen them somewhere before, but wasn’t sure.

She definitely recognized the bartenders, though—Diane and Serena, all the way out from Uplift. She grinned and greeted them as she went over to take a drink from one of the trays they’d set out.

Rochelle spent the next few minutes sauntering around the reception, a slight smile on her face and a flute of champagne in her hand as she moved among the crowd, her feline ears swiveling to pick out individual conversations. For once, she thought, she actually wasn’t the only super-gorgeous person in the room. She’d spotted at least three other women and two men who were running the same super’sculpt Fuser nanites she was—including one who’d accidentally left her pheromones on until a quick override from Uncia fixed it.

Even so, there weren’t too many people around that Rochelle knew. A moderate crowd had gathered at one end of the banquet hall around a woman with extensive tiger tags—an Integrate from the Hellir Enclave, Rochelle gathered, and star of a popular TV show that had just started streaming. Uncia said it was enjoyable, but Rochelle hadn’t gotten around to watching it yet. She thought she spotted Rufia and Tom in another part of the room, but it was so large that she couldn’t be sure, and by the time she got there they might have migrated to another part of it anyway, so she didn’t see too much point in trying.

On the other hand, there were a number of handsome young men about. And if some of them were pretty clearly attached, there were others who weren’t. There was one coyote-eared young man with a mostly-copper star on his Marshals blue shirt filling a plate at the buffet who looked like he might have possibilities. Rochelle watched him make his way to an empty table for two in a corner, where he would have a good view of the room and no one would be able to slip up behind him.

So Rochelle instead slipped up in front of him, arriving across the table as he was looking down at his plate. “Is this seat taken?” she asked, letting her hair tumble down around her in slow motion again. Uncia padded over to a RIDEsafe power socket nearby and plugged in, watching the proceedings with interest.

The Marshal’s eyes widened, but then settled into an expression of sardonic amusement. “Well, I guess it is now.” He seemed to be attempting a Clint Eastwood-style rasp, to match the little scruff of beard on his face, but the effect was spoiled by the upper-class Laurasian accent that he couldn’t quite eradicate.

“Quite an interesting little party, isn’t it?” Rochelle asked. She wondered why he wasn’t more impressed. Most of the time she wasn’t crazy about people falling for her, but it always seemed the few times she was interested the other party was immune to her charms.

“Been fun to watch so far,” the Marshal agreed noncommittally.

“I guess you’re here with the rest of the contingent guarding the place and helping watch over Zane,” Rochelle said. “Off-duty right now?”

“On my lunch break,” the Marshal said. “But not exactly off-duty. A Marshal’s never really off-duty.”

“If you have any free time later on, I could show you around the platform,” Rochelle offered, leaning forward a little to expose a better view of her cleavage. “I could show you some spots few outsiders get to see.”

The young man chuckled. “I’ll just bet you could, Miss Seaford.”

“You pretty clearly have the advantage of me,” Rochelle said. “But I guess after Zane’s speech, just everybody knows who I am.”

“Oh, I’ve known about you for a little longer than that,” the Marshal said, grinning. “The name’s Rusty.” He paused for a moment. “Rusty Seaford. Pleased to meet you…’cuz’.”

“Ooooh, burned!” Uncia put in from her vantage point by the wall.

Rochelle blinked, then sat back in her chair. “Oh. I…guess I should stop trying to pick you up then.”

Rusty chuckled. “Oh, don’t stop on my account. I think we’re only third cousins. It has to be first cousins to be illegal, and even then that’s only in Nextus and Sturmhaven.”

“It’d still feel weird to be coming onto someone with my same last name,” Rochelle said.

“Just think, if we got married and hyphenated our names, we’d both be Seaford-Seafords,” Rusty said.

“Yeah, which is really crazy when you consider…” Rochelle paused, then shook her head. “Never mind. Take too much explanation.”

Rusty grinned again. “You were gonna say, ‘when you consider we really should all be named McClaren anyway’?”

Rochelle stared at him. “How did you know about that?”

“Oh, we Marshals have our ways,” Rusty said nonchalantly.

“We ran into Charlene McClaren out in the desert,” a voice spoke up from nearby. Rochelle glanced over to see a coyote RIDE with a matching copper star to Rusty’s pinned to a neckerchief. Uncia waved a paw, and the coyote nodded to her.

Rusty nodded. “Trips here happened to overhear her talking to her friends about why she didn’t want to tell me about it, and so Fiona filled him in. I didn’t believe it myself ‘til I did the research and found the same things you did. That’s crazy. I never knew our family’s origin was so screwed up.”

“You want screwed up, consider that it seems pretty likely ol’ Gary Seaford didn’t take so well to being pre-marriage cuckolded by a popsicle,” Rochelle said. “I didn’t have the time to dig deep, but I found some hints that he had several affairs and at least a couple of bastards. So here we have a family named Seaford with no Seaford genes, and a number of other families that do have Seaford genes without having the Seaford name. Unless they’ve ended up marrying back into the Seafords, in which case some Seafords do have Seaford genes, but they came from outside of the family.”

“I think you’re putting too much importance in genes, and also ‘Seaford’ sounds kind of silly when you say it so many times that close together,” Rusty said. “Anyway, it’s a lot weirder to me that our great-great-however-many-greats grandfather is alive, about our age, and rattling around somewhere with the RIDE who crossrode him. Her.”

“Aloha, apparently,” Rochelle said. “Still living with the Skylers.”

Rusty nodded. “Good she’s got some friends, anyway. Can’t be easy being all alone in the world like that.”

Rochelle nodded. “So I guess you’re from the Laurasian Seafords, huh? Colloquially referred to by my bunch as ‘those rich bastards’?”

“You got me pegged,” Rusty admitted. “And you’re from the broke-ass prodigals who were born too late to get any money from their folks and came looking for it over here.” He shrugged. “You haven’t done too badly for yourself, I guess. We use FreeRIDE a lot in the Marshals, you know. Our partners can’t be fettered. It’s a thing.” He ruffled Trips affectionately between the coyote’s ears.

Rochelle nodded. “And most of you even pay for it, too. Which I think is pretty cool.”

Rusty shrugged. “It’s the right thing to do, and we’re all about doing the right thing.” He glanced down at his plate. “Which includes eating this before it gets cold.”

“Go on, eat, eat,” Rochelle said. “I should get a plate myself. These nanites don’t run on zero point energy. It was nice meeting you.”

Rusty chuckled. “Go on and bring your plate back here. They won’t be needing me for a while, so maybe you can show me some of those ‘spots few outsiders get to see’ when we’re done.”

Rochelle grinned. She slid her chair back and got up, gathering her hair and draping it over her left arm like a stole. “You know what? I’d love to. I’ll just be right back.”

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:Here comes the mob,: Jade sent to her sister, Dolores, and Ubu.

:Nothing against you, Jade, but I’ve always been happy to be behind the camera,: Ubu said.

:I’m glad nobody knows who I am yet,: Kisa sent. :They’ve got a great buffet here. You should come try it if you ever get free.:

Jade sent an “eyeroll” emoticon. :I am soooo writing you into the next episode when we get back home, just you wait.:

A dozen Integrates quickly made their way through the crowd towards Jade, and a few curious humans and RIDEs trailed behind. She took a deep breath and forced a smile, putting herself firmly into the “publicity mode” that she’d previously only had occasion to use when Integrates from other enclaves came to visit. Having to use it in such an open setting was a new experience for her. Time to pretend a stranger is a long-awaited friend.

“So, I guess Zane decided to invite some folks from Hellir after all. And JadeCat herself, eh?” It was a female archeopteryx. She had a pattern of white, pink, and gray feathers.

“That’s me,” Jade said. “Though JadeCat is technically just a role. It’s just Jade. Happy to meet you, Miss..?”

“Coriander, Jurassic Park rep. As if you couldn’t tell.”

“And I’m Corey-Barkley,” a German Shepherd behind her spoke up. “Cave of Wonders. I’m your biggest fan!”

“It’s nice to be able to meet fans out in public like this,” Jade said. “For the longest time I never thought it would be possible to come out in the open like this—or at least, come out in the open and admit I was more than just extensively biosculpted like JadeCat.”

“J-Park’s been thinking about it for a few years,” Coriander said. She seemed unimpressed about the celebrity in their midst. “To tell the truth, I’m less interested in gossiping about the Show than learning how Cape Nord is dealing with your presence.”

“That’s still a little up in the air,” Jade admitted. “The flight down was…interesting. We shared a plane with the Cape Nord delegation. But I think we’re going to get things straightened out fairly quickly. All of this—” She waved a hand around encompassing the rest of the reception room. “—is going to be a big help when it comes to normalizing relations.”

“We’ve had some issues with Nuevo San, ourselves. They seem to consider us either ‘stolen property’ or ‘deserters’ from the military.” Coriander snorted. “Well, I suppose the latter is technically correct for some. They’re more inclined to prosecute than any polity so far.”

“They’re just making noise,” Ubu put in. “It’s what windbags do when they spring a leak—the hot air makes squeaky balloon sounds as it whooshes out. I’m confident sanity will prevail and those court cases will be thrown out—once the whole Fritz thing blows over, anyway, if not before.”

Jade shrugged. “As I understand it, there’s a conference going on even now between polity and enclave diplomats. The first chance they’ve all had to sit down together and talk things out. Fingers crossed that’ll lead to greater understanding all around.”

Coriander nodded. “From your lips to Mother Patil’s ear.”

“Excuse me, but…did I hear right? You’re JadeCat? Or—you play her on video?” The question came from a cheetah-tagged human, whose RIDE was padding along at his side. “I’m Jason, and this is Prospero. We saw your show kick off the other day, and we’ve been binging it ever since. It’s great!”

“It’s very rare to see original programming that’s worth anything these days,” the cheetah said. “Seems like the only good stuff is the ancient pop culture from the Steader Archives. But you’re changing all that.”

Jade smiled. “We certainly hope we are. Nothing against Crazy Joe—we’re big fans of the stuff he dug up, ourselves. But we can’t keep living in the past all the time. Even if the stuff we do is, admittedly, derivative of a lot of the old shows, there’s nothing new under the sun and at least we’re finding new ways to spin it for the present-day.”

“That’s exactly right!” Jason said. “That’s why I love it. I’m a crossrider myself, you know—I used to be a Jane. Which is almost like a Jade, I guess. Anyway, for all that the twencen stuff is great and all, they didn’t have crossriding back then so they can’t really tell stories about it. That arc with Johnny crossing into Joanna was like a godsend, y’know? Granted that it went the opposite direction of me personally, but a lot of the adjustment issues are the same. It’s like you guys made a show about me.

“We’ve heard that a lot from our fans,” Jade said. “We’re looking at doing something that goes the other way, too. It seems like you always hear about the male-to-female crosses but nobody ever writes about the other direction. Maybe it just doesn’t appeal to them.”

“I had an idea about that, if you want to hear it…” Jason said. “There’s this girl, Josephine, and she gets dumped by her boyfriend…”

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Rhianna and Kaylee were strolling down the Boardroom corridor when the mechanic felt a sudden surge of anger from her partner. Before she could react, Kaylee had de-Fused and pounced on a brown rabbit Integrate.

Conyers allowed it to happen. On his back on the floor, he stared up into Kaylee’s snarl, as if he’d expected this for many long years. The lynx RIDE held out her forepaw and materialized a hardlight bottle of Tabasco. “You put me in the Shed!” she roared. “You deleted almost everything that made me who I was, then you had the balls to lock me in purgatory for twenty-five years!”

“It was either the Shed, or the recyclers,” Conyers said. “Kaylee, I’m sorry. I’m sorry for everything I did. I can’t even begin to express. But the alternative was to have you destroyed. In the Shed, there was at least a small chance that…well…you’re here now because that chance panned out, thanks to some creative red tape and Miss Stonegate.”

Around them, the Marshals hadn’t even drawn their weapons. The lynx’s snarl slowly eased back, the bottle vanished. Kaylee backed off slowly, forepaw over her face. “Lordy Lord Lordy. You’re still a bastard, Conyers, and your little bunny too. What about my kittens? What about the other RI children? What did you do to them?

Conyers propped himself up on one elbow. “They don’t know what they are, exactly, but we didn’t do more than some very selective memory management. Dr. Patil wouldn’t let us put them in stasis permanently, and the postwar government was a little too squeamish about their ‘birth’ and personhood status to do anything too harsh.” He slowly got back to his feet, still facing Kaylee. “They entered military service during the war, and we lost track of them afterward like so many others, but we still have their original memories filed, as with yours. We should be able to get copies for you, in case you find them again.”

“We can at least account for one, Kaylee,” Rhianna said, coming to stand next to her. She put her arm around the RIDE’s shoulders.

“I’m going to blow this wide open, Conyers,” Kaylee snarled. “Let’s go inside, Rhianna. Time for some show n’ tell.”

“It’s long past time for that,” the rabbit Integrate said. “I believe Anny’s already inside.”

The enlarged Boardroom was a surprise for Rhianna. The capability must have been added during the restoration. They entered with the shaken Conyers before them. Conyers himself took a seat about a quarter the way around from the rest of the Nextus representatives, with the Camelot Integrates.

“Well, that was an interestin’ show,” Anny said.

“Don’t tell me everyone was watching that,” Kaylee said.

“Ayup. Kittens? You had kittens?” Anny asked. “How did that happen?”

“It’s…a little complicated,” Kaylee said. “I’m sure Dr. Patil could explain how it works.”

“I’m rather interested in this, myself,” Aaron said. “As are the rest of my Integrate brethren.”

“This is a…surprise,” Morgan said.

“Sure it is,” Mosley said dryly.

“No, I’m being honest here. I had no idea this was even possible. I’m not told everything,” Morgan insisted.

Anny walked over to her first RIDE. “Kaylee, honey, can we Fuse one more time? There’s things that’ll only come clear iffin we do.”

The lynx looked at Rhianna, who nodded. “Go ahead, Kaylee. It might spark some more useful memories.”

“Leila sez you can Fuse with her if ya want, Rhi,” Anny said, pointing at her giant white lioness.

“Ah…thanks, but that’s just too much tail for this catgirl,” Rhianna said.

Kaylee padded up behind Anny, then, with some flourish, Fused over her once more. Watching, Rhianna folded her arms and sighed. She did feel uneasy having Kaylee do that again, but it was necessary. If nothing else, it was a novel experience seeing how Kaylee’s Fuser form looked from the outside.

“I’d forgotten just how small you are, Kay,” Anny’s voice said good-naturedly.

“You’re used to that big hunk of lioness, that’s why,” Kaylee said, picking up a little more of Anny’s twang.

Hardlight screens appeared in front of each representative. “Okay,” the Qube said. “Let’s review the day in question, ladies.”

“I’ll start with the PR visit the day RIDEs were revealed to Nextus, when you took me to meet little-girl Myla,” Kaylee said, nodding at the woman in question. “Hope we don’t embarrass you too much.”

“It’s for a good cause,” Myla said.

“Then we were called back to HQ for an emergency,” Anny said. “An’ that was when the whole thing started.”

The recording started to play.

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“So now that we’ve eaten, I did promise you an exclusive tour.” Rochelle grinned at her distant cousin, then led Rusty to one of the exits marked “Authorized Personnel Only.” Uncia and Trips followed along behind. “Don’t worry, I’m authorized.”

“Well, good to hear,” Rusty said. Trips followed him, claws clicking on the metal deck plates. “Knowing the ins and outs of this place could help us do our job better.”

“I saw a lot of this place last month when we took it back from Fritz,” Rochelle said. “Studied the plans for the rest.” She led the way to a stairway up. “Seems that Clint Brubeck designed a lot of it personally, and he liked his secret passages.”

“I read a lot about Clint Brubeck when I was a kid,” Rusty said. “It’s why I ended up out here, patrolling the Dry as a Marshal. He wrote so much about his experiences in his later years. Sparked a wanderlust in me something fierce.”

“That’s why he’s here and not in some cushy Florencia or Zharustead executive office,” Trips said.

“I ain’t the type to stand still,” the Marshal added. “You know, I saw some of the after-action reports you folk gave us. It’s not going to be that easy next time.”

“Yeah, I guess not,” Rochelle said, turning down a narrow corridor. “There’s going to be a first time for everything.” She pointed. “Down there’s one of the access nodes where we installed some of the DIN hardware we used to lock down the network. Not one of the main ones, but every little bit helped.”

Rusty nodded. “We’ve had those installed in all our RIDEs and other equipment.”

“You know, there’s one thing I’m kind of curious about,” Rochelle said. “I gather that most mining rigs and camps have a Marshals presence—not for policing the rig itself, but as a base of operations for the surrounding region. But this is the original and still the biggest mining rig out there, but there wasn’t even an office.”

“Blame ol’ Clint’s former Board for that,” Trips said. “This is still private property and we almost never establish an office or cache uninvited. Let’s just say the old Board didn’t renew our lease after he died. We were in negotiations to re-establish the station when Fritz fried the shields.”

“Don’t think that’s going to be a problem now,” Rochelle said. “I imagine the Qube will be discussing it with Zane face to face while they’re here.”

“I still talk with my family up north. They think Gondwanans are all a little crazy. So did I, at first. Took me a few months living here to jolt myself out of that,” Rusty said, taking off his hat. The young man’s coyote ears moved in contemplation. “I dunno. Guess that makes me a lot crazy. If my old friend Henry Rollins were here, he’d tell you. But they’ve got him and Seabiscuit in Califia right now.”

“I think we are all a little crazy.” Rochelle grinned. “A lot of folks around here think Laurasians are all a little stuck up. Or a lot stuck up.” She led them around the corner to a small elevator.

“So, where are we headed?” Trips asked, ears perked. He and Uncia walked side by side, the coyote looking smaller than he probably was next to the snow leopardess.

“Thought we could head up to the roof. A lot of the fighting happened up there during the raid.”

“Should be a nice view from up there,” Rusty said. “The Dry Ocean’s a gorgeous place if you know how to look at it.”

“Yeah. There’s some great scenery out there…and the place feels like it’s full of opportunity.” Rochelle opened the elevator. “It’s a little small, but we should all fit if we’re friendly.”

“Oh, I can be very friendly. Trips’ll back me up,” Rusty said cheerfully.

“Oh, I always back him up,” the coyote said, tongue lolling. “Kitty goes first since she’s the biggest.”

Uncia padded into the elevator, settling into the back. A moment later, Trips followed, leaving just enough room for the two humans to squeeze in. Rochelle grinned at Rusty. “Going up!”

The roof covered most of the west side of the structure. The other side contained the massive ore holding silos next to the freighter dock. Under the west side were control rooms, employee residences, the Boardroom, the RIDE garage, and various platforms for skimmers and fliers. Today every platform was in use for the recommissioning. It made the rig look more like a popular tourist attraction rather than a working ore platform.

The surrounding desert shimmered beyond the protective dome. Summer was over, but step outside that dome and a human would sizzle in 65-degree Celsius heat. There were surface veins of qubitite around the mountain, but not the level of purity Clint Brubeck had discovered. Underground, the rich veins of AA-grade went on for thousands of meters, every direction but up.

The mountainside rig was actually the collection point for hundreds of small automated mines scattered around the region, using specialized lifters to pulverize and then remove the soft, talc-like metamaterial mineral. Some people called it “Brubeck’s Island”.

Visible in the distance to the west was the great depression called the Trench, the lowest point in the old ocean. At the north end of that trench was the Integrate Enclave called the Towers, where Rhianna’s part in this whole mess had begun.

“Just think, we wouldn’t even be out here if it wasn’t for our RIDEs,” Rusty said.

“Dunno, Rusty. If we hadn’t come along it would’ve been something else,” Trips said. “But I’m a pragmatist.”

“I’m glad one of us is,” Rusty said.

Rochelle and Uncia watched the banter. The duo carried themselves with the more-than-friends air of a truly perfect match, each strengthening the other where they were weak.

“Of course, our RIDEs wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for out here, either,” Rochelle pointed out.

“The power of Q flows through me!” Trips announced, adding a little echo to his voice. The coyote looked around the roof. There were still a few cosmetic signs of the battle. Some scorched-but-intact roofing, scuff marks, claw marks. “Lots of cover up here. You apparently had a good weapons loadout and didn’t go into this unprepared.”

Rochelle nodded. “Yeah. I wasn’t one of the ones who fought up here, because I was too busy scurrying around securing the network. But we all did our best, in different ways.” She took a seat on one of the air conditioning units and flipped her hair back. “It’s really kind of crazy how this whole thing just blew up out of nothing. A couple months ago I was just some guy who liked hacking on RIDE software in a little garage in Uplift. Now I’m in the middle of a war.”

Rusty sat down next to her, unable to keep his eyes off her bodysculpted perfection. “’Just some guy’. I flipped a coin to see if I’d add crossriding to the experience. Came up ‘stay’. Decided if I was going to stay a man I might as well be a man’s man.” He set his face in a classic Clint Eastwood expression.

Rochelle grinned. “You’ve got the look down pretty well. Unlike you, I didn’t exactly decide to be like this. Any of this. It just sort of landed in my lap. I’d been planning to save up for a RIDE, but hadn’t planned to settle for a cheaper female.” She patted Uncia on the head. “Then I ended up with an expensive female instead.”

“In case you’re wondering, I’ve got counters to that nanny cloud you’ve got,” Rusty said. “All Marshals do. I’m glad. Now I can see you for yourself. You’ve got the body of a pop star, you know, and if I’m any judge, the mind of Alan Turing to go with it.”

“Yeah, well, I can’t exactly take credit for this body,” Rochelle said. “That’s all Uncia’s doing. And I’ve toned down my behavior a whole lot, most of the time—I don’t even use the pheromones anymore except just a touch here and there. I really don’t like messing with people’s heads. Well, not pharmaceutically, anyway.” She grinned. “You’re a little too kind comparing me to Turing, but I appreciate it.”

Rusty nodded. “I’ve heard about your work on Amontillado, so I’m gonna guess it started with you getting bit by it?”

“I was aware of it before then, but yeah.” Rochelle reached down to pat Uncia again. “Turned out to be blessing in disguise, though. I’m very comfortable with the new me.”

“I can see that,” Rusty said. “So…not that I’m not grateful, but why did you bring me up here, anyway?”

“Well, originally I thought this would be a good make-out spot,” Rochelle said, grinning. “And you’re kind of cu—ah, ruggedly handsome, after all. But then I found out we were related.”

Distantly related,” Rusty reminded her.

“Well, yeah. Still, it put me off a little. But then I found you’re an interesting person, which put me back on, and it turns out this is a nice sit-and-talk spot, too.”

Rusty smiled ruefully. “Oooh, burned. I’m ‘interesting,’ so let’s just talk.”

Rochelle chuckled. “I’m not opposed to making out, too, but I just had a reminder today from one of my friends that it’s usually not good to move too fast if you’re looking for more than a quick roll in the hay.” So how on earth does Rufia do it?

Rusty raised an eyebrow. “Now we’re talking about commitment, on the first date? Hey, way to scare a guy off.”

“We’re talking about being friends.” Rochelle paused. “Which…sounds worse, doesn’t it? But that’s just the cliché. I’m talking about being friends first, and staying that way after. If we ever even decide to go there.”

“Sounds good to me,” Rusty said. “A man can use all the friends he can get.”

Rochelle grinned. “Well, good.” She offered her hand, and Rusty took it. “So tell me about the Marshals. I had the impression you were just a bunch of guys who fought claim-jumping out in the Dry, but I’m starting to get the idea there’s a lot more to you than that.”

Rusty nodded. “It’s not too surprising you’d think that, ‘cuz we don’t advertise a whole lot of the other things we do. But it’s like this…”

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“That was a classic autoimmune-triggered Integration,” Leah said once the memory replay was complete. The white unicorn projected a hardlight image from her glowing horn, showing a chart with one column highlighted. “Maybe one in a thousand happen that way, if that much. It’s one of the few causes we’ve studied closely.”

“Explain?” Consul Vogel said. “Seemed like hardlight was a factor to me, Leah.”

“With all due respect, it had nothing to do with the new hardlight, Consul,” Leah continued. “It had more to do with the defective Fuser nannies. Fritz and Captain Ryder must have been extremely high on the mind compatibility scale. In these cases, the Fuser nannies can no longer discern between minds and react to certain stimuli with Integration, as we saw with the then-experimental emergency de-Fuse signal.”

Rhianna shivered. “That was worse than what I saw in Towers months ago.”

“It looked worse than what I felt in Towers months ago,” Flint-Burke added.

“Indeed,” Leah said. “The fact that he identifies himself as simply ‘Fritz’ and the only outward sign of Ryder’s personality is this beatnik speech pattern further tells me that Ryder himself is otherwise completely submerged.”

“He’s all Fritz, pretty much,” Kaylee said.

“Fritz himself was no prize before Integration, either,” Conyers said. “But that’s not completely his fault. His RI was specifically programmed to find problems with his DE chassis. He did that very well, often taking huge risks with his riders. This is why he went through so many. The fact there were no more Integrations until the early 130s bears that out.”

“Beg to differ, Secretary,” Aaron said. “We know of at least one that happened during wartime because of certain…experiments.” He glared at the Sturmhaven contingent. “You knew about Fritz during the war, didn’t you Sturmhaven? You tried to make your own.”

“The one who’s ‘still the perfection of Sturmhaven womanhood’?” Higgins jibed.

“Let’s not get off track here,” Mosley said, banging a makeshift gavel.

“And yet the men of Nextus allowed Fritz to run wild,” the Sturmhaven pol said. “All your attempts to hold him failed sooner rather than later. Though he always claimed to be a ‘hero and patriot’. Yet he is guilty of treason in Nextus, is he not?”

For the first time Dema Morgan looked upset. She wrung her hands nervously. “For a while, it wasn’t a matter of ‘allowed’. He did what he pleased, even if we removed his interface plug. Fritz killed at least as many of our own soldiers as he did the enemy. He would allow a bad situation to apparently spiral out of control, only arrive in the ‘nick of time’ and save who was left and win the battle, all in secret to the troops in the field. As long as Command pinned medals on him afterwards he was satisfied. On one occasion he left a bomb active after defusing a dozen others. The explosion killed almost a hundred civilians and Nextus government officials.”

Uplift’s First Consul Vogel stood up, face red with anger. “Including almost yours truly, Nextus. Excuse me, I need some desert air to clear my head.”

“Yes, let’s take a break and cool off,” Mosley said. “We’ll reconvene in an hour.” He banged the hardlight gavel.

Anny and Kaylee de-Fused, leaving the former MRS officer with lynx tags, and a feline nose like Rhianna’s. The RIDE looked up at her former rider, and gave her an affectionate headbump. “Just like old times,” Kaylee said.

“Just like ‘em. I think we’ve got one more. Everyone’ll wanna know about…”

“Yeah, I know,” the lynx said. “See you in an hour, Anny.”

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“Does everybody have their own idea for a new show?” Jade rolled her eyes a little as she dipped a baby carrot in ranch dressing. It had taken most of an hour, but she’d finally managed to extricate herself from the growing crowd of fans long enough to get a plate from the buffet and claim a table with the others to enjoy it. At least the fans were respectful enough to give them a measure of privacy to eat it.

Kisa grinned. “I think it’s kind of sweet.”

“It was to be expected, really.” Ubu gestured with a pretzel stick. “Think about it. Most of the other shows that have been really popular the last few decades were made generations ago. We’re the first bunch of actors and showrunners they’ve met who are actually still alive. So naturally we’re going to be showered in adulation. And ideas.

“We can’t do it all ourselves,” Jade said.

“Won’t have to. Never needed to. There’s already groups in other polities working on their own Shows. They may even stick this time, now that there’s a larger potential audience for them.”

Jade shrugged. “I’ll believe that when I see it. It’s hard to believe this crazy planet could just change overnight like that.”

Kisa laughed. “Is it really? Look at you. You’re standing here, in the middle of a mixed crowd of humans, RIDEs, and Integrates, with no one raising a fuss—and that wouldn’t have been possible even as short a time ago as I landed here. I think overnight changes are on this planet’s agenda at the moment.”

“I think she’s got you there,” Dolores said.

“Could be.” Jade grinned. “Can’t say the changes that have come about so far are ones I’m exactly uncomfortable with. May they all be that way, fingers crossed.” She glanced up. “Hey, I think I see a familiar pelt behind the bar. Isn’t that Serena?”

Kisa turned to glance over her shoulder. “From the bar back in Califia? I think it is. Let’s go say hi. I could use a drink anyway. Think they’ve got any vodka from back home?”

“Wouldn’t hurt to ask.”

The two of them pushed their chairs back and gravitated over toward the polished walnut bar that had been set up at one end of the room, with Serena and a deer Integrate behind it. As they got closer, Jade recognized the deer as Diane, who had guest-bartended at Hellir a few times. “Hey, I didn’t know you two knew each other.”

Diane looked up. “Well hello, Hellir! I wondered when you’d drop by. Nice work getting the Show out. It’s a popular choice to show on the big screen in our home bar.”

Serena nodded. “Diane and I run a place back in Uplift together when one or the other of us isn’t guesting out somewhere. As I was when the two of you got back together. Glad to see you’re still hitting it off.”

Kisa gave her sister’s shoulder a quick squeeze. “We’re family. Why wouldn’t we?”

“Some folks don’t take the double-whammy of their loved ones getting crossed and then Integrated all that well,” Diane said darkly. “Or even just one or the other. We’ve seen happy reunions, but also more than our share of divorces and disownings over the last few weeks.”

“Not gonna happen here,” Jade said. “So what’re you two doing here? I know Zane was inviting a lot of Integrates, but he even knew enough to get Integrate bartenders?”

“Oh, we’ve been friends of the family for a long time.” Serena polished a glass and picked up another. “Ol’ Clint gave us our start going independent, at one of his mining camps. After that, he helped set us up in business in Uplift.”

“But how’d you keep the place once you Integrated?” Kisa asked.

“Oh, this was after we’d Integrated. And Clint was fully in on it.” Diane chuckled. “It’s a long story, and a busy day here, so drop by the Cheers bar in Uplift sometime and we’ll tell it to you. So what’ll it be—White Russians, heavy on the Neorussian Blue? We’ve got genuine Kahlua imported all the way from Earth, and cream from the Milk Bottle.”

“Sounds like just what the doctor ordered.” Jade chuckled. “We kitties do like our cream.”

“Coming right up!” Serena dropped ice into the glasses with lifter fields as she poured from a vodka bottle in each hand, then dropped them. They floated back to the table as two bottles of Kahlua levitated into her hands. “It’s nice to be able to work without holding ourselves back.”

Kisa nodded appreciatively. “I’ll bet.”

Serena levitated two globs of cream through the air and dropped them carefully into the glasses. “Ta-dah!”

Jade smirked. “Oh, now you’re just showing off.”

Kisa applauded. “And it’s working! Very nice!”

Serena bowed. “We aim to please!”

“If you can get free later on, we’re going to be screening some episodes of the Show upstairs,” Jade said. “Feel free to drop by.”

Diane nodded. “Thanks, we’ll keep it in mind.”

Jade and Kisa took their drinks back to the table. “It really is like old home week. I wonder who we’ll run into next?”

“We’ve already run into just about everyone I know on the planet.” Kisa grinned. “Seems like a good start, anyway. We’ll just have to see how the rest of the day goes.”

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With so many people roaming the halls it was hard to find a private place to relax for a while, but Rhianna and Kaylee found it in one of old Clint’s many secret passages. “It’s a wonder Fritz didn’t make this place his own personal Enclave,” Rhianna said. “It’d be a great supervillain fortress. Or a superhero ‘Fortress of Solitude,’ if that’s how he thinks of himself.”

“Meh.” Kaylee snorted. “He hadda know we’d take it back sooner’r later. He didn’t ‘zackly try very hard to keep it. Didn’t even station any decent fighters here. He didn’t want a drawn-out battle over it. It was just more ‘sending a message’ bullcrap.” She rolled her eyes. “Typical Fritz.”

Rhianna shot her a sidelong glance. “You okay, partner?”

“Fusing with Anny again was…harder than I thought it’d be,” Kaylee said. “I got to see everything afterward from her side. They put me in the Shed, and they might as well have put her there, too. They bought her off, though technically it was compensation for the detention. Even then, she didn’t touch the money for decades—until she met up with Leila. Then she spent it all on Leila’s shell, not a ceni-mu for herself. Felt like it was blood money.”

Rhianna raised her eyebrows. “From what Lee said after Fritz shot us into space, I’m thinking…at least three mil? What detention?”

“More like five. She didn’t get Leila right away. Anny spent five years in what was basically a step above a prison. It’s for people who are high security risks who aren’t technically guilty of any crime.” Kaylee growled. “They had her runnin’ scared, boss. That’s why she rarely spoke to Myla, that’s why she was so scared of ending up in prison if she misspoke. That’s why they gave her so much mu when she got out.”

“What about Leila?” Rhianna asked, petting Kaylee around her neck. “Is the lioness her keeper?”

The lynx cocked her head. “No. She’s a genuine pairing. She really is worth three mil, but they’ve only been paired five years. Took Anny that long to get over losing me—and even then it wouldn’t have happened if she an’ Leila hadn’t ended up in a RIDE pirate camp’s jail together and had to fuse up to bust out.” She snorted. “For all a’ that, an’ for all I had more’n a leetle touch a’ jealousy seein’ her with another RIDE, I gotta admit I’m kinda glad it did happen that way, though. They deserved each other, the sitches they’d both been in. An’ it’s nice knowing Anny’s got someone to look out for her now we’re together.” Kaylee batted a piece of litter down the corridor angrily. “Frack! This is such a colossal fuckup, Rhianna. I don’t know how much more I can take.”

Rhianna hugged the lynx mecha tightly. “Hey girl, I’m here for you, too.”

Kaylee put her forepaw around the woman’s shoulders and purred. “That makes all the difference, Rhi.”

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There were a number of RIDEs and paired partners mingling through all levels of the platform, from the reception in the main room to a number of side conferences being held in addition to the main summit event. But one RIDE in particular was too big to fit into any of it. Fenris contented himself with sitting on one of the parking platforms and watching through the platform’s security cameras, with Zane’s explicit consent.

He saw a few familiar faces from time to time, and occasionally commed one to say hello, but for the most part simply watched. He had no desire to draw too much attention to himself. After all, someone might remember that he was arguably still Sturmhaven military property—Paul had a common-law Fuser’s claim, but they hadn’t actually registered the new partnership anywhere yet.

Then one of the security cameras monitoring the approach to the parking deck caught something interesting. Oh, bother, thought Fenris as he noted the approach of a statuesque young woman in the uniform of a Sturmhaven Oberstleutnant. Grey wolf ears peeked through her long dark hair, and a light scout wolf RIDE matching the ears trotted along behind her in Walker form. And she was approaching Fenris as if drawn by a magnet.

Guten tag, Fenris,” the woman said, continuing in Sturmhaven’s native German. “I am Oberstleutnant Diana Fuerst of the Sturmhaven Army’s RIDE research division.”

“Hello, Lieutenant Colonel Fuerst,” Fenris said, choosing to stick to English. “Is there some reason you are out here bothering me?”

Fuerst switched to lightly-accented English without batting an eye. “We have seen footage of your battle at the Waltons’ estate. You were seen to fight paired with another RIDE, in the way you were designed to do but none of your line ever achieved. How did you do it?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Fenris said lightly.

“We would like to know,” Fuerst said. “You must tell us!”

“Oh, must I?” Fenris said.

“You might have left our service, but surely you must realize you still have a duty to your Motherland—” Fuerst said.

“Oh, do I, now?” Fenris boomed, lowering his huge head to look her in the eyes. “What did my Motherland ever do for me, other than make me a second-class citizen from the day I was first booted, then destroy my line one by one instead of refitting us?”

“At least we made you at all,” Fuerst said, a touch of color coming to her cheeks.

Fenris growled. “And I should thank you for that?” His glare was such that Fuerst jumped backward, and her RIDE Fused around her to keep her from falling over. Fenris snorted. “Go back to your delegation and leave me alone.”

“Please, Fenris!” Fuerst insisted, her voice modulated by her RIDE’s vocoder. “If we knew the secret…we could revive your line. We still have three of your class’s DE shells in storage, and many of your line are still with us in lesser shells. We could rebuild them!”

“And you’d do this out of the goodness of your hearts, I’m sure,” Fenris growled.

“Of course not,” Fuerst said. “We would do it because it would give us an advantage in the field. But does the reason matter in the end? We could bring the WLF-CSA class back to life!”

“Go away,” Fenris said. “I’ll think about it.”

The wolf Fuser nodded, and started to back away. Then her active sensors went live as she started to ping Fenris with a full-spectrum scan.

“Oh, now that is just the far side of enough,” Fenris growled, hitting the RIDE with a burst of ECM that blinded all her sensors. Then, while she was reeling, he used his highly-advanced computer banks to backdoor her and slip inside.

:Oh, dear,: he sent privately to the RIDE. :It appears someone has left all sorts of restrictive fetters all over you. How careless. Let me just clean those up…:

:But…really? You’d do that for me?: she stammered. Fenris learned her name was Hedy, only recently off the assembly line. :Oh, thank you, big guy! You can be my Alpha any day!:

:What are you doing? Stop this right now!: Fuerst protested as her RIDE suddenly stopped responding to her commands.

:You’re welcome. I’d suggest either asking the Marshals for asylum or waiting in our suborbital for a ride to AlphaWolf’s camp. You should probably drop your human off first, though.:

:This is mutiny! Treason! You can’t do this!: Fuerst sputtered. :You have just…destroyed my career!:

:Next time, learn to take “no” for an answer,: Fenris suggested.

After the newly-freed RIDE had taken herself and her erstwhile owner away, Fenris smirked. He supposed what he’d just done might cause some trouble down the road, but he couldn’t feel too badly about it on the whole. And it might at least send a message not to trifle with him.

If they bother me again, I’ll unfetter every RIDE in their entire delegation, he decided. A decidedly smug giant wolf RIDE turned his attention back to the security cameras again.

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The office had apparently been passed over as uninteresting during the Integrates’ brief occupation of the platform, for it was still kept just the way it had been for many years. Scarred wooden desk with two precisely-placed scuffs in just the right places for the heels of a six-foot-plus man’s cowboy boots as he relaxes with his feet up. Hat rack behind and to the right, with a weatherbeaten old Stetson hanging from it. Battered teak office chairs in front of and behind the desk as places to sit.

The only unusual thing was the humanoid tiger sitting behind the desk, absentmindedly running his padded fingertips over one of the old boot scuffs. Aggie sat in one of the chairs on the other side of it, looking around. “You really kept Dad’s office exactly the same all this time?”

“Since he died, yeah,” Zane said. “Though it always stayed the same even before that. Dad hardly ever used it after he passed on the day-to-day running of the business, but they always kept it the way he’d left it for when he did show up. And it’s not as if we’re gonna run out of space on this thing, so I figured…well, it’s the next best thing to having him still here. If I want to, I can pretend he’s just stepped out and will be back in a little…”

Zane had to stop talking as he got choked up for a moment. Then he shook his head, regaining control. “Since hardly anyone ever comes in…I can still smell him, really. Especially from this chair.” He shook his head. “It’s weird, because I couldn’t have told you if he smelled like anything when I was just human, and of course Terry never even met him. But smelling with Terry’s tiger senses, it just smells so familiar. Let’s hear it for the subconscious, eh?”

“I almost…wish I could,” Aggie said. “It would at least be some way to…connect to him, I guess.”

“If you do get a RIDE, I can share the memory with you,” Zane said.

Aggie shook her head. “You can ‘share the memory.’ Geez, Zane, would you listen to yourself? That just sounds so weird. How can you get used to that kind of thing?”

“We’re human beings,” Zane said, without any trace of irony. “We can adapt to just about anything. That’s why we’ve survived so long as a species.”

The door opened again, admitting Quinoa Steader. She paused on the threshold, looked around, and nodded. “This is…just the kind of office I’d have expected ol’ Clint to have.”

“You met him?” Zane asked.

Quinoa nodded. “When I was much younger, and Joe would drag me to society events. Clint often showed up there, too.”

Zane blinked. “He dragged me along to some of those, too. Did we ever meet, you think?”

Quinoa shrugged. “Maybe. I wasn’t old enough to pay much attention to boys yet, you probably didn’t care about little girls six or seven years younger than you were, and neither one of us was all fuzzy back then. Maybe we could compare memories sometime and see if we recognize ourselves. Anyway, I kinda got the feeling he mainly bothered to show up ‘cuz he was bored but he thought the rest of us were hilarious.”

“He did.” Aggie chuckled. “He used to say going out to those balls and things was cheaper than seeing a movie, and more entertaining. We kids thought he was crazy at the time, but…”

“As with so many things, it makes more sense in retrospect,” Zane said.

The door opened again, this time admitting two people—or at least one person and a fox. Lillibet Walton came in, Fused with Guinevere, with “Beatrice” still on her leash. “Hey, you wanted to see us?” Lilli asked.

“Yes. Thanks for coming,” Zane said. He looked at the fox, then at Quinoa. “I’d hoped to get some insights into Fritz’s character from you two. What drew you to his ideology? That sort of thing. He honestly didn’t seem that charismatic to me.”

“Know thy enemy,” Aggie said. “Are you certain you weren’t being hacked by him?”

The sphinx snorted. “If only I could say it was mind control, but I can’t. He honestly didn’t seem like a bad guy. Whenever an Enclave kicked him out, he’d honor their demands. He always treated other Integrates with the utmost respect. Or so I saw. There were always…rumors about his temper.”

The fox glanced to Lillibet, and Lilli nodded, dropping the leash. It disappeared, and a moment later Brena stood back up into her two-legged form. She stretched, working the kinks out.

“Wow,” Agatha said. “That’s…impressive.”

“I’ve seen some Integrates who do that,” Zane mused. “Wonder if I could learn.”

“You haven’t had much opportunity to try,” Quinoa said. “Considering how strong Terry is…well, let’s not get off track here.”

Zane nodded. “Hi, Brena. Nice to meet you.”

“And you, Mr. Brubeck,” the vixen said formally. “Quinnie’s dead-on here. Before our…uh…apostasy, she and I were his right-paw lieutenants. He pulled me even more closely into his orbit after he put Quinoa up in space.” She trembled. “Your going public changed him, Mr. Brubeck. For the worse. On reflection, I honestly doubt he thinks Integrates are actually superior.”

“Not like he was exactly honest about it. But it makes sense when you think about it. I think he’s afraid that the opposite is true,” Quinoa added. “When you think about it, we lose an awful lot compared to humans and RIDEs.”

“Like, I dunno, fertility,” Brena said. “And our human faces. I still miss the old me sometimes.”

“Well, there’s no doubt there are things we can do much better than regular flesh and metal,” Zane said. “The Nextus rep said he was dangerous even without a DIN. She implied he basically did anything he wanted.”

“At the time he would’ve been a Superman,” Brena said. “And if we’re being brutally honest, he did win the war for Nextus. But it’s been thirty-five years. Times have changed, but he hasn’t. He’s only become more rigid. We’ve had enough new Integrates the past five years or so that his ideology was diluted faster than we could get new converts.”

“It can be traumatic, falling off your pedestal,” Zane reflected. “And from what I’ve heard, it doesn’t sound like Fritz was exactly tightly wrapped at the best of times.”

“Well, now that we know the cause of his Integration…” Quinoa said thoughtfully. “Combined with the fact that he was the first, and probably didn’t meet another Intie for years…well, draw your own conclusions.”

“So do you think there’s any chance at all we can…maybe, negotiate with him somehow? Talk him down?” Zane asked. “I can’t say I wouldn’t rather see him get his butt kicked, but…innocent people are gonna get caught in the crossfire of any fight. Like they already have.”

The guilt in Zane’s voice was palpable. Quinoa put her hand on his forearm. “It was going to happen sooner or later, Zane.”

“I found out very recently that others had tried to go public before you,” Brena said. “They were…disappeared. And not all of them by Fritz’s bunch, either.”

“Things have changed fast among Integrates the past few years,” Quinoa said. “More and more of us weren’t living in any Enclave. AstraNikki Munn returned home six years ago after being ‘dead’ for a decade, and that opened the floodgates. There were too many n00bs to stop everyone anymore.”

“I could have waited a few more years,” Zane said. “Built a support base. Discredited him—”

“What do you think you’ve done the past eight weeks, Zane? Would Brena and I be here if you hadn’t?” Quinoa said. “Do you think Fritz was going to die of old age? No matter how long you waited, something like this would have happened in the end. It’s not your fault.”

“A week ago, I was completely under Fritz’s spell,” Brena said. “He…well, he found me right when I was the most vulnerable. I’d become something other than human, been shot, and narrowly escaped being kidnapped by my own polity’s army. I’d lost everything. He gave me something to believe in. I never stopped to think whether it was something I should be believing in until…well, until it turned out not to be true.” She shook her head. “I’ll bet he got a lot of Integrates that way. We’re at our lowest point right after it first happens. Easy prey.”

Quinoa facepalmed. “I can’t even claim any of that kind of trauma to make me vulnerable like that. He knew I was a Steader from the get-go and sweet-talked me based on that, and I fell for it. Psh.”

Zane shrugged. “If I’d gotten Terry and Integrated ten years ago instead of now, I might have done the same thing. Teenagers aren’t exactly notorious for their clarity of thinking. Um, no offense, Lilli.”

Lillibet shrugged. “After how I first treated Uncia, I can’t be offended. It’s too true.”

“To answer what you asked earlier, Zane, about negotiating…I just don’t know.” Brena shook her head. “It doesn’t seem like there’s anyone in the world he respects enough to listen to. He’s too much an egomaniac.”

“So I guess it’s going to be all-out war then,” Zane said, sighing. “What the hell crawled up his butt and died, anyway? Why does he think the world would be better off the way it was?”

“His ego,” Brena said. “As long as Integrates are the proverbial small pond, he gets to be the big fish. But when we’re part of the larger world…well.”

“The die is cast,” Quinoa said. “We have the upper hand for now, but I fear what he’s going to do next. I think whatever Anny and Kaylee have to show us next might give us further insight.”

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The impromptu summit reconvened with a few changes to the Nextus delegation by suborbital before the hour was over. Dema Morgan was replaced with someone a little higher up within Tier One, and more recognizable than one of the polis’s many faceless bureaucrats: the Roving Ambassador for External Affairs, Olav Roberts. In tow were a number of people involved in the early RIDE program, including Dr. Roderick Clemens (Q-mainframe engineer), Dr. Geena Rosenthal (Fuser specialist), and now-Col. Meredith Reese, Kandace’s original test rider.

“It’s good to see you again, Anny,” Reese said, giving her former superior officer a warm hug. She wore a much-decorated dress uniform that jingled when she moved. “Been far too long.”

“Ah’m pleased as punch myself, Meredith,” Anny said. She looked at her squadmate’s current cougaress tags. “You’ll have to introduce me to yer partner.”

“Be glad to.” She turned to Kaylee. “And Kaylee! Really glad you’re in working order again. I hear you’ve seen Kandace lately? How’s she doing? We were separated when the program ended. Not as bad as what happened to you, but…we never were able to get in touch again.”

“She’s alive an’ well an’ living in Aloha with a teenager,” Kaylee said. “I can give you her comm code if you wanna call her.”

“Reunions later, ladies, please,” Roberts said airily. “Let’s get on with the airing of dirty laundry.”

“Speaking of dirty laundry, as of now, I’ve resigned my position as Secretary of Material Resources,” Conyers announced. “What you’re about to see, I’m not proud of. I did what I had to do, but it still fills me with shame.”

Kaylee growled at the brown rabbit. “Oh, it should, bunny. It really should.” The lynx RIDE nodded at Anny. “Let’s do this. One last time.”

As they Fused, Kaylee noticed Rhianna fidgeting uncomfortably. The crossrider was out of the clingy blue dress. In the last Fuse Kaylee had replaced it with her regular blue jumpsuit and red bandanna tying up her longer, tawny hair.

“What you folks are about to see,” Anny said, “should wreck any notions of ‘Integrate invincibility’ ya might have left. I just want to point out that no matter how many times Fritz escaped custody we always recaptured him, and we had to get better and better at it.”

“I’ve never held that illusion, myself,” Leah said. “But by all means, please begin.”

Authors’ Notes

R_M: One of the fun things about writing this series is that it was so big and expansive that it often spun off ideas that would later get reincorporated right back in. For example, the “More Foxed” stories started as spinoffs, but characters and situations in them got referenced later. In a few episodes from now, you’ll see Jeanette Leroq and Tamarind from “Second-Hand Lioness” make an appearance.

While we were still in the process of writing the Director’s Cuts, Jon had an intriguing idea for a new Enclave situated within Cape Nord, that made its own TV shows. This idea became the “FADE IN” trilogy. Of course, the way the setting worked, this new story idea was too big for its events not to have been noticed within the main story arc—but fortunately, we were still rewriting the main story arc, and we were just coming up to the perfect point for that story to feed back in. So we wrote 8,200 words of new scenes to go into this episode and the next one, incorporating the characters from those stories, as well as revised key scenes to work those characters in.

If the new scenes had been a stand-alone story, in keeping with the camera-direction names we’d been using, we could have called it “PAN RIGHT”. (Because it’s on a mining platform, you see, and people used to pan for gold, so you wouldn’t find anything if you panned wrong…) It’s kind of too bad to waste such a good name (and bad pun), but it couldn’t really be helped because the scenes work best in context with the others here so it couldn’t really stand alone. Maybe I should rename the episode “Many Meetings (incorporating PAN RIGHT)” or something?

Another instance of stand-alone story characters making an appearance has to do with the bartending duo of Diane and Serena, one or the other of whom seem to keep showing up everywhere these days. We had a valid reason for bringing them back here, given that a story we wrote later established them as old, long-time friends of Clint Brubeck, starting from right around when they first Integrated. Of course, we didn’t know any of that when we originally wrote this episode, but the Director’s Cut also allowed us to go ahead and slip that back in.

Other things we added involved elements from other stories making their appearance, though more of those happen in the second part than this. Still, it was good to be able to add them back, and make the connection between stories stronger than it could have been before those stories existed.

At the very last minute, I decided to stick in a couple of cameo appearances by the Clementine’s crew, too. Actually having them do much interaction with people would have required even more rewriting than I wanted to do, and anyway they always seemed like the sort to stay in the background as much as possible early on. But putting them in the vicinity helps set up for their mention later on as participants in the final battle against Fritz—which we also need to write more scenes for down the road.

Anyway, perhaps the most surprising thing is just how much we didn’t have to change in what was here to work the new stuff in. The plot was already multi-threaded, with lots of things happening in different places at once; all it really required was to add another new thread to it, and sprinkle in dialogue from the new characters into the meeting scenes. And there you go.

But enough with the new. Let’s get back to the episode as it originally appeared. I forget who had the idea—probably Jon, as he’s the one who planned the basic framework of the story—but the plan was to use the opportunity of having diplomats in attendance for the platform reopening as a chance to have a sort of impromptu meeting of the minds.

It kind of snowballed from there as we realized this was the chance to get a lot of major story motivators talking to each other for the first time—including AlphaWolf himself and the Gondwana Marshals. It was also the chance to round up Nextus representatives to pry loose the exact circumstances surrounding Fritz’s ascension, Kaylee’s scrapping, and the RIDE prototype program’s bitter end.

And, of course, there were little subplots to move forward, such as Rhianna’s relationship with Zane, and Rochelle meeting one of her distant relatives. There was the chance for the Waltons and AlphaWolf to meet everyone else. (It’s funny that at this point we still thought it might be years before Alpha Camp could join civilization as a law-abiding polity of its own.)

One subplot element I had to retrofit was Rochelle’s decision to stop using her nanites’ sexy effects except for special occasions—a decision which she came to as a result of the visit to Aloha in “Rochelle & Rufia Redux.” That story happened right before this episode but actually hadn’t been written yet at the time we originally wrote this, so I didn’t know she was going to have this epiphany—but it made sense for Rochelle’s character development to realize that she was still being a trifle immature in how she dealt with the change.

This is, incidentally, a realization that Rhianna has to reach in this episode. You’d think Rochelle would have said something about it to Rhianna when she saw her getting dolled up for the event, but perhaps she knew from experience that it was simply the kind of thing Rhianna would have to work out for herself and getting in her face about it would be counterproductive.

Here we also laid seeds for future plots, such as the serendipitous discovery of what will eventually turn into DINcom. As we’ve pointed out elsewhere, many scientific discoveries don’t happen intentionally, but with someone noticing something odd and saying, “Hey, that’s funny.” As it happens, that’s just how it plays out here.

Other funny things: Rhianna dousing herself in lilac perfume unintentionally foreshadows the way that scent features in “Skunked!” some time later. (I swear I wasn’t thinking of this when I wrote it!) Also, Leila’s line about lion taming takes on a different shade of meaning when you consider how “Pride of Lioness” ends.

And a character whose name represented something of an in-joke makes her first appearance here: Diana Fuerst, Sturmhaven officer. She was here with a specific purpose in mind, and would later play an important role in events focusing on Sturmhaven. Do you recognize the joke inherent in her name? I’ll let you ponder on it for now, but will reveal it in the author’s note for the next part.

The funniest thing is that, given how much happens here, I really can’t think of a whole lot to say—whereas I’ve gone on for pages and pages about previous episodes. I guess part of the reason is that much of the story-stuff that happened here was Jon’s, given that he was the architect of Kaylee’s past.

JonBuck: Here we see Rhianna exhibiting some of the tropes I mentioned in the previous author’s note. She went whole-hog into the “Girl Things”, totally besotted (perhaps twitterpated) with Zane. Even after all the advice from Myla and probably Aggie, too, she still goes far overboard. Now, I imagine this kind of personal reinvention works for some crossriders. Rufia is pretty much the antithesis of this, though. Nothing changed about Rufia but her form.

Zane and the rest snap Rhianna out of it and she goes back to her tomboyish Rosie the Riveter style, which really suits her. All told, she’s only a few steps further on the “girliness” scale compared to Rufia. Rochelle is the really Girly Girl here, and later on her brother-then-sister Ivor/Ivy really embraces it. But this is a society where you can remake yourself inside and out, so why not?

Anyway, FADE IN and the rest. Since what happened there was so important, we needed a major revision in this part and the next to make sure they were included in the summit here. We included Desilu and Tallyhawk in the proceedings, and they didn’t need that many added lines.

This part and the next represent the start of Act 3 in the Integration saga. It ended up ballooning enough to need two separate parts to cover everything that needed to happen. It also represents some crossover with many of the other storylines we had worked on in parallel, like the Marshals, and now FADE IN.

The Summit scene itself…

Since that flashback was already done, we didn’t really describe it. But it reveals a lot of important things to the attendees. I think one thing that we underplayed was the fact that Ris could breed in the Q-mainframe Nature Range environment. This is huge and we really don’t deal with it. But there were so many other threads going on here that it simply wasn’t relevant to the rest of the story.

I admit it was fun to needle Nextus about the whole thing. I wonder if word somehow got back to Dr. Patil about this summit, and she started pondering returning to Gondwana at this point.

Techy stuff. Discovery of FTL communication! The “defective” DINsec units create a tunnel through subspace, and transmission is essentially instantaneous. But the tech also needed limitations—especially early on, so soon after discovery. At this point it’s a Chekhov’s Gun.

Preceded by:
Integration Part XVII: Family Matters
FreeRIDErs Succeeded by:
Integration Part XIX: Meetings Completing