User:Robotech Master/Play the Game Tonight

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FreeRIDErs story universe

Cougar Town: Play the Game Tonight

Author: Robotech_Master and Jon Buck (with Jetfire)

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

E.C.S. Steady Hand Landing Site
March 29, 159 A.L.

Janice Howard yawned, stretched, and drifted slowly back to consciousness. As usual these days, it took a moment for her to remember where she was.

The bed was nice and soft and comfy—really, it was almost too comfy, compared to the paper-thin futon she’d slept on back on Earth. It added to the disorientation. But it also made it easier to pretend, if only for a moment, that one of her secret fantasies had come true. Mmm, I married a millionaire…

Of course, she knew that wasn’t true. And really, in some ways, her reality was actually better than the fantasy. After all, if she had married a millionaire, she’d have had to get along with him. Pre-nups were a fact of life on Earth these days.

So, no, no millionaire hubby (or wifey). Instead, she’d been given the old heave-ho like the no-account bum she was. Bum-rushed right off the planet…and, as it turned out, right into the proverbial briar patch. Back on Earth, she’d just been existing. But here on Zharus, for the first time, she thought she could actually live.

Janice rolled out of bed, had a good stretch, and looked around at the small home that was hers. About the size of a studio apartment, with its single living/dining room, kitchenette, bedroom, and bath, it was nonetheless several times the size of the space that had been hers back on Earth. There might not be any millionaire partners in the offing, but she still felt rich.

In more than just her possessions. For what might have been the first time in her life since her grade school days, she had actual friends. Back on Earth, she’d always driven everyone away, just by refusing to engage any filters on what left her mouth. If they couldn’t deal with her, it was their problem. Her state-mandated shrink had been of the opinion she was pushing people away out of fear of rejection, a desire to keep from getting hurt again.

Maybe there was something to that. For all that she’d taken the lemons life gave her and made the most passable lemon squash out of them that she could, it still hurt to keep getting fired from job after job because people just didn’t like her. So she just pushed people away before they even had the chance to seem to like her, because it hurt so much to let her guard down.

She didn’t need friends. She didn’t even need Virtual Life—because you had to interact with other people in that, and who needed the aggravation? She had all the books and vid shows and stuff that she could read and watch, after all. She’d even put in the herculean effort necessary to get permanent UBI just because it was easier than facing another day of having to interact with other people.

Her shrink wanted her to come out of her shell, try to strike up some acquaintances and see where it led her. But fortunately for her, all she had to do to keep the UBI was visit the guy. She wasn’t actually required to make progress. It wasn’t that Janice was antisocial, exactly. She was more sort of asocial.

But then they’d shipped her off to Zharus, and…things had changed. In the first minutes since she’d woken up, she’d gravitated toward a pair of guys who’d woken up along with her and had caught her attention by speaking up. One of them had been here before, after all, and he might have some idea what they could do with themselves here. More than she had, anyway. She’d been nervous about it, but she was so far outside of her comfort zone already that a little thing like talking to people somehow seemed small by comparison. Without anything else familiar around her, she sought comfort in the one thing that was even vaguely familiar—other people in the same situation she was.

The one guy, Edward, didn’t seem to like her very much. But then, she suspected he was more than a little “asocial” himself—he’d spent all his time locked away in his apartment, working and playing virtually, which didn’t really seem all that different from a life with books and vids to Janice. But his friend, Larry, was a more outgoing sort. He was the kind of guy who had a knack for making friends, and was willing to meet Janice more than halfway if that was necessary to draw her out.

And…it seemed to have worked. Not only had they gotten along, but for the first time Janice could remember she actually caught herself not just blurting out the first thing that came into her head, but actually filtering herself to stay on better terms with the people around her. She had an irrational urge to tape an interstellar postal delivery letter to her shrink, just to let him know she was finally taking some of his advice.

Not that everything had started to approach normalcy. In some respects, her life had gone from weird to weirder. The same day they arrived, Edward had received a much-belated diagnosis of gender dysphoria, and spent a couple of hours becoming a much skinnier girl named Sonja. And Larry had gotten together with Layla, a cougress RIDE he’d met last time he was here, and was now Laura. In one fell swoop, Janice had gone from hanging around strange men to being “just one of the girls.”

And that wasn’t even going into how her estranged brother Daniel, who’d landed on Zharus and only sent two words back home to tell folks he was staying, was now a raccoon-girl named Danica with a successful agribusiness. When I thought maybe the reason we never heard more from him was that he’d “bought the farm,” that wasn’t what I had in mind. When Janice thought about it, she reflected that she’d fallen down the rabbithole good and proper, she had. Just about bloody literally. I’m sure there’s some rabbit RIDE or Integrate with a hole around here somewhere.

The day after that, Sonja had gotten a cougar RIDE herself—or else the RIDE had gotten her. Either way, they were partners now. Her name was Cassie, and she was a bright-eyed naive little thing, so new she squeaked. (Well, actually, the squeaking probably had more to do with being a cougar, as they had a fairly impressive range of cat vocalizations.) She and Sonja seemed to be getting along, which was good for them. For Janice, all that youthful exuberance made her feel old and tired just looking at her.

In the few days since then, Janice had wandered around the camp and surroundings, both singly and with the girls and RIDEs. She’d explored Greenglade, the small nearby settlement rapidly on its way to becoming a ghost town as its more reclusive citizens migrated away. She’d even hopped a sub flight to Aloha and back, to rubberneck at the space elevator and visit a party or two. But after a while, it was beginning to pall.

“Ugh, I can’t believe I’m bored,” Janice grumbled. “Never got bored back on Earth. Just read a book, watched a vid…” And she had even more books and vids at her disposal now than she ever had back on Earth. So why didn’t she feel like doing that now?

Perhaps the answer was that there was just so much more stuff available to do now. She didn’t really feel like doing any of it at the moment, but it was still there, luring her attention away from the world of books and flicks.

And if she admitted it to herself, now that she was used to having friends again, she was a little lonely without them. Laura and Layla were off doing whatever their soil monitoring job involved, and Sonja and Cassie had taken one of the free sub shuttle flights to look into one of the other polities or Enclaves or whatever. So she was on her own today, and at loose ends.

She considered calling Danica for a chat…and saying what, exactly? Hey, bro, how are the crops growing today? She snorted. Right.

She wanted…what did she want? A challenge of some kind. An intellectual challenge. Something that would engage her mind.

Not for the first time in the last few days, her thoughts turned to that Nextus Game thing. It sounded like it might be right up her alley. The question was, how to get into it.

Her researches over the last few days hadn’t turned up a whole lot of useful resources for beginners. At least, not ones that were easily accessible on the net. But that seemed to make sense. From what little she could make out, a lot of the point of the Game was to get you out of your house and physically to locations in question that would give you an advantage in play. So it stood to reason you might have to get out and go places to learn how the game was played, too.

It was possible a trip to Nextus might be in order, but it seemed like a lot of effort to go to when she wasn’t even sure it was what she wanted to do in the first place. But perhaps she could find an instructor who would come to her. She wasn’t sure what she could pay such a person with, but maybe they could work something out.

Janice absently fingered the feline ears she’d worn for the last few days, ever since a brief Fuse with Layla before Larry had worked up the nerve. It had been an interesting experience, for what it was worth, and she’d half considered asking Layla to do it again. But she and Laura were already pretty much an item now, and it didn’t seem like the done thing to horn in. Besides, she and Layla probably weren’t the most compatible personalities. Perhaps she should look into finding a RIDE partner of her own—if there even was one out there who’d match her own personality quiz scores.

Well, there were ways to start looking into that. “Hey, Informio.”

The ubiquitous EI’s avatar appeared on Janice’s apartment wall screen. “Yes, Miss Howard?”

“Could you search for a couple of things for me?”

“Certainly. What do you need?”

“Well, first I’m looking for a tutor in the Nextus Game. One who wouldn’t mind traveling out here, for preference. And also, who’d take payment some way other than cash—I’m not exactly flush right now. You think that’s likely?”

“I’m no expert in the Game myself, but it is my understanding that favors are the chief currency of Gamesters. An alternative form of payment to cash should not be a problem. Was there anything else you wished to find?”

“Well…I dunno…” Janice flicked one of her ears diffidently. “I’d kind of like to see if there are any RIDEs compatible with me. A cougar, for preference. An experienced one, not a newbie like Cassie. Maybe…we could see if we could get along.”

Informio smiled. “I will see what I can do. May I access your personality quiz profile, for purposes of search matching only?”

“Uh, yeah. Please do that. Thanks.”

Informio nodded. “I will let you know when I have any results.” He disappeared.

“Well, then,” Janice said. “Guess I’ll just go for a walk.”

The city was growing visibly on an hourly basis. The ship that had brought them to Zharus was now little more than some modules and floating construction barges dropping huts like hers, larger family homes, even apartment buildings ten floors tall in a matter of hours. There were also a few more modern machines brought in from Nextus or other polities, that were placing more modernized housing. In a few areas, some of the houses that had already been placed had been recycled, their material rebuilt into apartment houses or condominiums and the leftover vacant space landscaped into lawns or parks. It was shaping up to be a nice little city, and already the arguments were beginning over what it should eventually be named.

Janice presumed there’d be other buildings mixed amongst all the houses, once things really got going. Public services, commercial space, everything a city needed to actually work. On Earth, her hometown of Halifax, England retained some very ancient buildings and its population had never needed to move into the arcologies so common in most of the world. This city would probably be about the same way. But then, it seemed like most cities here on Zharus were.

She took a turn by the cafeteria building for a plate of breakfast, which she got in a to-go container to carry home. She could have just fabbed something at home, but the cafeteria’s fabbers seemed more specialized to food and had a wider selection of brands—including, she’d discovered, some of the more obscure staples of the hallowed English full breakfast. While they weren’t quite as good as the ones Danica had cooked herself, they did nonetheless scratch a little of the homesick itch. Eggs, bacon, scones, a little spotted dick (Janice sniggered at the name, as she always did), some bubble and squeak all promised to hit the spot as soon as she got them home—along with a steaming mug of proper Earl Grey tea. That was a breakfast. If she never saw another Soylent bar again, it would be too soon.

Janice was home chowing down when the wall again lit with Informio’s visage. “Miss Howard, I believe I have located the solutions to your problems.”

Janice raised an eyebrow. “Do tell?”

“A cougar RIDE of the proper maturity and a good match probability has expressed an interest in meeting you. Since the Nextus shuttle is currently free, I took the liberty of booking her a ticket on the next trip.”

“Oh, great, and you even matched my gender. I forgot to mention that part.”

Informio smiled. “I assumed that if you were interested in crossriding, you would have said so explicitly.”

Janine nodded approvingly. “Good deal. And the Game expert?”

“I also booked a ticket for a Game expert who is willing to discuss non-cash payment terms. Her record seemed promising, she has a great deal of experience, and she was interested in looking around the settlement as well. I gather that there are certain advantages to being one of the first Gamesters in when a new playing field opens up.”

“Well, good. I’ll look forward to meeting them. I guess the cougar RIDE will be obvious, but how will I know the Game expert?”

“She will know you,” Informio said. “I provided her with your photograph.”

Janice nodded. “Okay. When does the flight come in?”

“It will arrive at the aerodrome within the hour.”

“Great! I’ll just finish up my nosh and head down there to meet it. Thanks!”

Informio nodded. “I hope my solutions will meet your needs. Please let me know if you have any further questions.”

“I’ll do that.” Informio vanished, and Janice quickly finished the rest of her breakfast. She dumped the dishes into the recycler before heading out the door at a jog. She could just beat the shuttle in if she hurried.

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The aerodrome had gotten a little less makeshift over the last few days, as several polities had focused their attention on bringing it up to spec for what a growing city needed. They almost seemed to be competing with each other on how well they could build out the runways, terminals, and other infrastructure that were their assigned pieces. The only thing really holding them back was that it was still unclear just how big the settlement was going to end up being, so they had to walk the line between being sufficient to meet the polity’s current needs but still having plenty of room to expand.

There was an actual real terminal to wait in now, with comfortable seating, snack fabbers, RIDEsafe power plugs, and hardlight terminals. It was funny—now that she knew what to look for, Janice was seeing RIDEsafe power plugs everywhere. But it made sense—they were basically the RIDE equivalent of drinking fountains, after all. And what with RIDEs being fully recognized as people now, public structures were finally becoming truly RIDE-friendly.

Janice took a seat facing the runway, crossed her legs, and waited for the Nextus shuttle to land. She’d made it just in time, and only had a couple of minutes to wait before the bright and shiny jet streaked out of the sky, slowing and coming in for a nicely vertical landing on a nearby pad. A short taxi to the gate later, a number of passengers debarked—humans, Integrates, RIDEs, even an EIDE or two. Janice leaned forward on her chair, watching for any sign of an unaccompanied cougar.

It wasn’t too long before one appeared. She strode confidently through the concourse, simulated muscles rippling under the tawny fur coat. As she got closer, Janice could see that she was a good bit larger than even Layla. Biiiiig kitty. And that actually suited Janice just fine. If she was going to get a cougar RIDE like those other pikers, she could at least have the biggest one.

Not that she was going to “get” or “have” this RIDE, she reminded herself. RIDEs as possessions were things of the past, and they were now free people in their own right, able to choose who they wanted to be with. And that also suited Janice just fine. Now that she’d discovered the joys of friendship, she wanted to be with a RIDE who did want to be with her.

Beyond that…she looked pretty much like every other cougar. Really, cougars were a little boring in appearance when you got down to it. They all looked mostly the same, except for size. They weren’t even flashy, like a spotty jaguar or leopard. They were just…sort of beige.

But they were what her friends had—and besides, it was what was on the inside that counted.

The cougar had evidently spied Janice, as she adjusted her course to approach her. “You’d be Janice, right?” the cougar asked, in neutral tones. Her voice sounded like that of someone who brooked no nonsense, which Janice decided she liked.

“Yes, ma’am,” Janice said. “Who might you be?”

“I might be Mary, Queen of Scots, but I’m probably not,” the cougar said. “The name is Tawny.”

Janice noticed how careful she’d been to say “the name is” rather than “I’m”. Probably had her fill of jokers who thought they were being clever with gags like “You certainly are!” or “Isn’t every cougar?” I would, too. Would get on my last nerve bloody quick. Somehow, the thought made her warm further toward Tawny.

“Well! Jolly good to meet you, then, Tawny. I think we might just get along.”

“That’s what the quiz results say,” Tawny agreed. “I’m not sure how far I trust the damn thing, but I haven’t seen anything to make me disagree yet. You wanna go somewhere and we can discuss terms?”

“In a bit,” Janice said. She glanced past Tawny to the concourse, and frowned. The torrent of debarking passengers seemed to have dwindled to a trickle, but there was no sign anyone else seemed interested in coming their way.

“Still waiting on someone?” Tawny asked.

“Mm-hmm,” Janice said. “There was supposed to be a coach for the Nextus bureaucratic Game also on the flight. Wonder if they couldn’t make it.”

Tawny looked at her strangely. “Ah…the person who told you we’d both be on the flight…didn’t happen to be glowing and blue, did he? Name starts with ‘I,’ ends with ‘o’?”

Janice blinked at her. “Uh…yes?”

“Thought so.” Tawny chuckled. “That one likes to have his little jokes every so often. I’ll just bet that when he told you ‘we’ were coming, he phrased his answers very carefully.”

Janice peered at her. “What do you mean?”

“He didn’t want to give away that, through the magic of his algorithms, Mr. Incognito was able to kill two birds with one stone.” Tawny smirked. “I am, as it happens, both your prospective RIDE partner and your prospective Game coach. And Big Blue is probably watching us right now through one of the aerodrome security cameras, and sniggering at your reaction.”

Janice’s eyes widened. “Oh, really? You’re the Game expert? That is interesting.”

“It is an interesting tale, and I’ll tell it soon enough. And I was curious about this new city anyway. Thanks for not immediately assuming I’m kidding, by the way.”

“Look, I didn’t know a thing about RIDEs before Earth dropped me here. So no preconceptions.” Janice shrugged. “Still don’t know anything, really. But I’m doubly happy to meet you now. Informio, that scamp.”

The EI’s face appeared on the glass pane of the outer window next to them. “I will have you know I was not ‘sniggering.’ It’s unbecoming.” He smiled. “Apologies for the deception, Miss Howard. It seemed like a harmless enough prank.”

“If nothing else, it’ll teach me to listen a little more carefully, I guess.” She looked to Tawny. “If you want to follow me, I’ll show you where I live and we can talk about terms.”

“Sounds like a plan. Lead the way.”

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Janice walked back up the path toward the residential area with her house, occasionally glancing back over her shoulder to make sure the cougar was still following. Tawny was looking around, taking in her surroundings much as any tourist might.

“This the first time you’ve been out here?” Janice asked.

“I came to watch the ship land, but it’s the first time I’ve been back since,” Tawny said. “They’ve done a lot in just a week.”

“They have. But I thought that was normal for here?”

“I suppose it is. Still not something you get to see in effect that often. I doubt anyone’s built a city this big this fast in at least a hundred years. Even when Alpha Camp went legit they didn’t need nearly this much room.”

“As long as they keep waking people up to put in it, they’re going to have to sprint to keep up.”

At last they reached Janice’s block and walked down B Street to 227. “Well, here it is. Be it ever so humble, and all that.” She opened the oversized front door and waved Tawny through, noticing that the cougar’s girth made the door seem just about the right size.

Tawny looked around thoughtfully. “Well, this is a cozy little home, isn’t it?”

“Compared to what I had on Earth, this is a palatial mansion. I’ve been thinking about hiring help.”

“I think we’ll need more space if I’m going to stay. I can barely turn around in here. The door might be big enough for a medium frame like mine, but nothing else is. Informio?”

“Yes, Tawny?” the EI said.

“I need to request a home rebuild, pending Janice accepting the terms of our agreement. I can pay for the materials costs.”

“There is a constructor backlog, but I’m sure you’ll find a way around that,” Informio said. “Just let me know.”

“Thanks, Blue Eyes.”

Janice raised an eyebrow. “Speaking of the terms of our agreement, when do I get to find out what those are, exactly?”

Tawny chuckled. “Hold your horses, I’m coming to that. Let me lay the groundwork first, so’s you know where I’m coming from. Let me tell you a story.”

“Oh yay, story time,” Janice deadpanned.

“I came online back in 121 A.L. That would be 2471 A.D. as you Terrans reckon dates. What year were you born, by the way?”

“I didn’t realize RIDEs had been around that long. You’re about two years older than I am.”

“But you’ve always wanted an older sister, right?” Tawny smirked. “Anyway, make a long story short, I was a big bad battle cat, fought in the Nextus/Sturmhaven war, then got sold at auction ten years later for my trouble. Had a succession of frankly lousy human partners, until the last one got interested in the Game, which got me interested in it, which gave me a way to get free of human control once and for all. I’ll save the details for another time. But anyway, I’ve been free and playing the Game for over twenty years now. Well before humans finally got it through their numb skulls that we were actually people too.”

“Not that you’re bitter or anything,” Janice said. “Of course, I would be, too, some of the things I’ve read since I got here. The humans who made you-all sound like real prizes.”

“Actually, I’m mostly not bitter. Not anymore. A couple decades tends to put things in perspective. Besides, most of the really schmucky ones ain’t around anymore.” Tawny sneezed. “Irony of Emancipation is, the Game doesn’t seem like nearly as much fun anymore now that they recognize RIDEs as legit players. They put in some handicaps to level the playing field for those who can’t think so fast, and I don’t get the challenge of finding ways to pass myself off as human anymore.”

“So you’re branching out into other fields?” Janice said. “With the coaching gig?”

“Bingo. Thanks to the Emancipation settlements on top of what I’ve earned from Surrogacy over the years, I’m actually comfortably well off for money.” She snorted. “Among other things. They went and made me a Master Sergeant, retroactive-like, with a pension and everything. Even got some medals for times I got shot up in the line of duty. I have this urge to go and fab some boxes of Cracker Jacks to keep them in.

Anyway, my usual teaching deal is for something other than money. Instead…do you know what an indenturement contract is?”

“I can guess,” Janice said. “That’s when you temporarily sell yourself to someone else for a while, right?”

“Right, only my contracts work the other way around,” Tawny said. “My human student signs a one-month indenturement contract, and while I’m the boss of them I’m also teaching them the ins and outs of the Game.”

Janice frowned. “I’m not so sure I’m looking to become the slave to some RIDE, even just for a month.”

“Oh, it’s not like that,” Tawny said. “I’m not some young tom wanting to take my angry out on some hapless human. Like I said, I got over most of my angry years ago. It’s really more of a formality—just a way to make sure I’m not someone else’s slave, and that if there’s a disagreement over what we want to do while I’m the boss, I automatically win. Also, it’s a way of making sure anyone I teach is serious about wanting to learn, and isn’t some schmuck who’s going to waste both our time. It does include provisions for ending the contract early if it doesn’t work out, and third-party monitoring for abuses.”

“Uh-huh,” Janice said skeptically.

And, as a free sample of the kind of teaching I can offer, I’ll go over my contract with you, break it down to show you how it’s made, and help you change it to make it more fair to you. Then, after we’re done, you can have some time to decide whether you want to sign. Sound fair?”

“Let me get this straight. You’ll go over it with me, with no obligation on my part unless I agree to it afterward, right?”

“Right. And Informio can let you know if I try to pull a fast one. Or better yet, we can hire a third-party neutral Surrogate to proctor it; you pick them out and I’ll pay for the service.”

“You seem to like to toss your money around,” Janice said. “Offering to pay for the proctoring…or for rebuilding my house…

Tawny swished her tail. “Why not? It’s only money. It’s just a way to keep score, and not even the best way for purposes of the Game. And I figure if the contract works out, it’ll be worth it.”

“All right, fine. Hit me. Show me your contract. Informio, can you show me a list of people who’d be qualified to do the proctology thing Tawny mentioned?”

“There are over three thousand qualified individuals available at this moment,” Informio said.

“Just show me a big panel of thumbnails. Make them as small as you like, I don’t need to see their names.”

“As you wish.” A mosaic of tiny tiles appeared in the air in front of her.

Janice closed her eyes, waved her hand around, then stabbed her finger forward at the panel. “That one. Whoever that is, please explain to them what we need and hire them.”

“Very good,” Informio replied.

Janice nodded. “Now, about that contract…”

“I’m syncing it to that media tablet on your kitchen table.” Tawny glanced at the aforementioned implement, and the screen lit up. “Go ahead and read it over. I’ll wait.”

“Hello, my name is Anansi, and I am a licensed Nextus Surrogate,” a new female voice said. “I will be listening in, and will speak up if I hear a sour note.”

“Thanks.” Janice picked up the tablet, which now bore a document entitled “Tawny’s Contract of Training Indenture, v4.7.” She rolled her eyes expressively, but sat down and began to read.

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“…the hell is this? Party of the first part…part of the second part…ipso facto…” Janice looked up. “I dealt with Earth bureaucracy. This doesn’t make any damn sense.”

“Your first lesson is, Nextus contracts are usually written in plain, simple language, because we believe you shouldn’t have to go to university for eight years to be able to understand what you’re agreeing to—and besides, games are more fun when everyone’s on the same level playing field. If you ever run across a clause that seems to be written in gobbledygook, chances are it means someone’s trying to put one over on you. But there’s a service where you can request an officially valid simplification from a licensed Nextus ‘crat, at a standard hourly rate. Used to be it could cost you a few bucks, so you only wanted to do it for really important stuff—but now we’ve got EIs, RIDEs, and Integrates on the job, and fast-time subjective time rates are a lot more economical. Just tap the clause, choose ‘simplify’ from the context menu, and go through the billing terms.”

Janice looked up. “That right, Anansi?”

“I might have phrased it differently, but she is correct in her assertion,” the disembodied voice of the proctor said. “And the advice she offers is sound.”

Janice scowled, but tapped the buttons as requested. She blinked. “Wait…what? This says that any decision to renew or end the contract early is at your sole discretion. I’d be signing away my right to have any say in it.” She glared at Tawny. “Would that even hold up in court?”

“Depends on how libertarian the judge is,” Tawny said. “It’s kind of a crapshoot. But I don’t expect it ever to be litigated, really. It’s just in there as an example. The contract is open to negotiation—it can always be changed. There should be several replacement boilerplate clauses available to drop in. Pick one that looks more fair to you.”

“Hmph.” Janice frowned, but tapped the best replacement clause from the ones offered her. She kept reading.

The rest of the contract seemed more or less fair. It concerned her agreement to enter the employ of Tawny as a personal servant for a period of one Zharus month, with the agreement to be monitored by an external human-rights agency for abuses. In return, Tawny agreed to instruct her in the playing of the Zharus Game to the best of her abilities for the duration of that period. Thanks to the new clause Janice had swapped in, the contract could be extended by mutual agreement, or terminated early without penalty by either party if they felt the other wasn’t living up to their end of the bargain.

“Okay, I guess it looks mostly all right. Now what?”

“Well, you’re not quite done yet. Remember, these contracts are open to negotiation. If there’s anything missing you think should be there, add it.”

Janice blinked. “Like…what, exactly?”

Tawny gave her head an ear-flipping shake. “Like anything. You could even add a ‘rock star’ clause, like requiring me to present you with a bowl of brown M&Ms every morning. Of course, I’d have to agree to it, but nothing keeps you from trying.”

“Uh-huh,” Janice said.

“Also, there’s an index of sample boilerplate clauses you can bring up from the context menu. Use them as-is or modify to taste. I’d recommend adding clause IC-103, at least.”

Janice scowled again, but taped the tablet a few times to bring up the clause in question. “This says you can’t require me to do anything I find ‘morally or aesthetically abhorrent’?”

“I can’t order you to kill puppies or eat broccoli,” Tawny said. “A lot of people hold that to be implicit in modern indenture contracts, but I’m from the old school and think it’s a good idea to have it in print all the same.”

“I actually like broccoli, but point taken.” Janice taped the screen a few times to add the relevant clause, then looked through the rest of them. “There’s one here…limiting the amount of time per day we stay Fused? Is there something wrong with Fusing?”

“Meh,” Tawny said. “Jury’s kind of still out on that. Some people think it makes Integration more likely, but far as I know that’s never been proven. Biggest side effect I know of is that prolonged Fusing can make you a little fuzzy and more obviously kitty-faced, but that can be fixed with a little ‘sculpting. I won’t object if you want to add that clause.”

Janice considered, then tweaked it so she had the right to refuse extended Fusing but could choose to if she felt like it, then added it, too. “Now that you bring it up, it seems like half of these clauses are aimed at trying to wave the right magic wand to keep the Integration fairies away.”

Tawny snorted. “Yeah, good luck with that. I’ve got the anti-forced-Integration module that Dr. Patil came out with, but doesn’t seem like anything can keep it from happening naturally if it’s going to. People are just scared of change.”

Janice nodded. “Doesn’t seem like it’s necessarily a bad thing. My brother’s one, and she seems to be okay with it.”

“I see you’ve already picked up Zharus pronoun usage.”

Janice chuckled. “If the shoe fits…” She finished paging through the clauses. “Okay, I think I’m done. So now what?”

“Now…you can take some time to think it over.” Tawny chuckled. “Old geezer that I am, I’ve learned the value of patience. I’m not interested in a hard sell, or in pushing you to do something if you don’t want to.”

“Well, gee, thanks,” Janet said. “Why are you here, again?”

“Well, I am also here because you came up a 91% match in personality scores,” Tawny said. “That’s about as high as I’ve ever seen. Makes me curious, as I’ve never been all that compatible with any other human I encountered.”

Janice raised an eyebrow. “Really? I’d have thought as many people as are out there, you could have found one if you looked.”

“Never really had much reason to look. Not even sure I put much faith in the test; mainly use it as a way to work out how annoyed I’m likely to be with a prospective student so I know whether to charge more or avoid the commission altogether. Then Mr. Blue Sky there took a shot at those two birds with his one stone, so here I am.” Tawny flicked her ears. “I’m not opposed to staying on for a few days and Fusing with you with no obligations so’s you can see what it’s like, while you think it over.”

“Pardon me,” Anansi said, “but are you done with me for now? I am still billing you by the minute.”

“Well, one more question if you would, please,” Janice said. “Have you looked over the contract? You think the offer’s on the up-and-up?”

“Understand, I am not acquainted with Miss Tawny on a personal basis,” Anansi said carefully. “Though we may have crossed paths a few times over the course of the Game, I do not remember any such encounters immediately. So I cannot speak either for or against her personal integrity out of my own experiences. You may wish to ask her for a list of references and check with them. However, assuming she is acting in good faith, the contract terms are fair, leaving aside the one clause that was only included as a teaching tool. And such non-monetary contracts are not at all unusual where the Game is concerned.”

“Huh. Well, I guess that’ll be all, then,” Janice said. “Tawny, you can pay the woman.” She paused. “Or…female-seeming entity of whatever kind she might be. No offense meant.”

Anansi chuckled. “’Woman’ will do nicely, thank you. It was a pleasure helping you today; look me up should you have need of a Surrogate again.”

“Thanks, just might,” Janet said.

Tawny nodded. “Funds transferred. Thanks for the help.”

“Anansi has left the call,” Informio said.

“Thanks, Informio. Guess that’ll be all for now.”

“Certainly, Miss Howard. Call me if you need me again.”

“We’ll do that.”

They waited a moment, then Tawny let out a deep sigh. “Whew. Glad all that business crap is over for now. Maybe I should have waited until we got to know each other better.”

“Eh, just as well to get the cards on the table so there’s time to let it percolate a while. But if you don’t mind, can you tell me a little more about how this Game thing works? Nothing that would cost me anything, just…a general description of what it is you do. None of the stuff I’ve found online has been very clear.”

“Well, doing actual footwork is a fundamental part of the Game. In Nextus each Agency has its own manuals, wherein are the secrets to cracking the bureaucracy on that particular day. Often you have to obtain certain materials in the process, which aren’t available online. So more footwork. It’s all accounted for with the ‘Bureau Time’ Nextus citizens get each day.” Tawny licked the back of a forepaw. “Trust me. It’s more interesting than it sounds. The Game is designed to sharpen problem-solving skills with innovative thinking.”

“Mmm. Sounds kind of like the hoops I had to jump through back on Earth to get permanent UBI, but there wasn’t a lot of fun built into that process. So, color me intrigued. I’m certainly leaning toward curious enough to bite on your offer…but it’s not something I want to make a snap decision about.”

Tawny nodded. “Oh, for sure. If you want, once we’ve Fused some, we could go to Nextus and I could demonstrate how it’s done. For example, I’m pretty sure I could jump most or all of the queue on the constructor backlog—at least, on the ones Nextus is kicking in.”

“Huh. Not that I’m complaining, mind, but it seems kind of like cheating somehow.”

“Eh, not really. Most of the queued-up tasks are low-priority stuff that doesn’t need to be done right away. It could easily fit in between higher priority jobs at need. But they schedule all that stuff up front so that they can reward Gamesters with priority placement.” She flicked an ear diffidently. “I’ll give you odds that constructors from Uplift and other such places have better logistical planning in their schedulers so there’s not so much need to ‘cheat’ on them to get anything done. But those of us from Nextus think that just takes all the fun out of the thing.”

Janice cocked her head. “So you intentionally build obstacles in…because it’s fun to get around them?”

“Only for the unimportant stuff. Truly critical things like medical care and law enforcement get a bye, because you really don’t want to play games when people’s lives are at stake. And people who don’t want to bother with playing the Game themselves can pay Surrogates to do it for them. Which is a pretty handy way to turn a profit if you’re any good at the Game yourself.”

Janice nodded. “People keep telling me I’d make a good one, if I just knew how the game was played. It ain’t easy to get permanent UBI, let me tell you.”

Tawny chuckled. “You never know. We’ll just have to see how your training goes. Assuming you decide to go for it.”

Janice nodded. “Well, I guess those are all the questions I really have about the Game and all. So let me turn it around…I’m sure you’ve gotta have some questions for me. Being that I’m part of one of the newest hot human interest stories to hit the planet right now.” She paused. “Do they still call it human interest here? That seems kind of species-chauvinist.”

Tawny cocked her head. “Well…I have wondered. How much does the average person on Earth know about RIDEs?”

Janice snorted. “Not so bloody much. Mostly a bunch of crazy rumors, half of which disagree with one another. ‘Some kind of furry sex-change machines’ just about sums it up. At least, that was as much as I knew. Though I’ll grant I wasn’t really fussed to learn more, after my brother had been crazy about them and then he up and left for Zharus and never came back.”

Tawny smirked. “And what do you think of us now?”

“Now? Well…I think I can see why Earth is so interested in the tech. I don’t impress easily, but I’m pretty amazed by what I’ve seen so far. You’re real live thinky machines, the first ones anyone’s ever come up with. Next to that, all the other stuff is just window dressing. But I guess I can see why people make fun. Means they don’t have to deal with someone else having something they don’t.”

“What’s your guess as to why Earth suddenly dumped you off here?”

“Me personally? Don’t have to guess. I’m a bum. Permanent UBI. Drain on state resources. Probably cost less for them to ship me here than to keep feeding me for another year. But your fabber tech is so much better, it’s pretty much a non-issue here.” She shrugged. “Us as a whole, dunno. Don’t think I have any special insight into the matter that makes me more of an expert than all the pundits. Think I agree with the pundits I’ve read who say Earth’s getting ready to make a move on you, and wanted to rub your nose in the fact they’re catching up. Apart from that, dunno. Not really my beeswax.”

“I noticed you’ve already Fused with one of us. How did that go?”

“Oh yeah, with Layla, the cougar who ended up partnering my pal Larry-Laura. So she could enjoy some BBQ, since Larry hadn’t made up his mind to be Laura yet.” Janice shrugged again. “Wasn’t bad. Not really a real partnership, exactly. She wasn’t the sort of person I’d want to share brainspace with, so we kept it purely physical, with the meat-eating. But I liked the tags.”

“I see,” Tawny said. “And if you were to Fuse with me…?”

Janice cocked her head. “Huh. Dunno. You, I think, I could maybe get along with. If the sharing went both ways, might be interesting to see what makes you tick. So I guess if you show me yours, I’ll show you mine? I think I could deal with that.”

“Shall we find out?”

“Huh, I dunno.” Janice considered. “You sure this isn’t all part of some plot to kidnap me and steal me away to Alpha Camp? I read about that place. Seems to be popular among RIDEs who’ve had crummy luck with humans.”

Tawny laughed. “This place is a dozen times more interesting than Alpha Camp right now. I don’t think you have to worry about being stolen away.”

“All right, I’ll bite. Why not? Only live once, don’t you?”

“Then let’s go outside. Doing it in here would be like trying to change clothes in a porta-potty.”

“Fair enough.” Janice went and opened the door, stood aside as Tawny walked through it, then followed her outside.

Tawny turned to face her. “So, you ready?”

Janice held out her arms. “Hit me.”

“You got it.” The tawny furry hardlight winked out, revealing a beige-painted metal cat equipped with panniers of various sizes bolted along her body, before she split open and surged forward. For a moment, everything went dark, then Janice opened her eyes to find herself and a more naturally-sized mountain lion standing on the edge of a mesa. A few yards away, the mesa ended in a cliff, sloping down hundreds of feet to the desert below. Peering down, Janice could see the dust cloud of a stagecoach making its way across the dry earth, and farther off in the distance a steam train belched great clouds of black smoke as it ran along a track.

“As the saying goes, welcome to my world,” Tawny said.

Janice raised an eyebrow. “Well, this is different. Layla’s VR was a forest.”

“Nothing odd about that. Cougars are found all over South America, and all over North America up to some ways into Canada. Or at least, we were back in the day; don’t know about how things are now,” Tawny said. “So you’ll see us in a variety of habitats. I was First Booted here, in a sim based on the Arizona desert. I guess they thought it was supposed to give me more of an affinity for the Dry Ocean. So I’m a puma from Yuma.”

“Cute. So what now?”

“Well, in a moment we’ll drop back into the Real. But I thought I’d see if you felt like trading memories first. I’ll keep away from anything too personal, but I’m curious what life was like on Earth.”

Janice sniffed. “You’ll probably get the far better end of the deal. My life was boring. Yours sounds at least a little interesting.”

“I think we can agree our lives are both so different from each other’s that we’ll each find something worthwhile in the other’s.”

Janice shrugged. “All right, so how do we do this?”

“Like this—”

Janice was awash in a flood of memories not her own. It took a moment to get a grip on how to navigate them, but after a moment she had it. She remembered being “born” a fully-grown cougar on this very same desert mesa, surrounded by a number of other animals and people, including a kindly-faced South Asian Indian woman. She remembered being on the battlefield, hauling supplies amid bursting shells and enemy pulse fire, including one time she took a bad hit that knocked her completely offline. (The memories quickly jumped past that one.)

Then there was the auction block and civilian life. The memories flipped through a succession of disinterested owners, a couple of them originally male, who saw her as a cheap survival suit and equipment rig for getting in on the new fad of qubitite prospecting and mining. Then there was the one who thought he (and subsequently she) could make use of Tawny’s memory banks and rapid processing power to get ahead in the Nextus bureaucratic Game—but who still saw Tawny as a mouthy piece of equipment rather than a person. But Janice also remembered Tawny’s own awakening interest in the Game, and her realization that she could also play it for herself. All she needed was a fake human identity, and those were easy to come by.

Using her newfound expertise in the Game, and her inside access to her owner’s personal information, it wasn’t hard at all for Tawny to maneuver her owner into bankruptcy, and have her false identity buy herself at a bargain price. Then she was free to play the Game. Most of the details of the play were blurred out (no surprise there; Tawny wouldn’t undercut her own teaching contract), but she got the idea that it was complex, challenging, but also a lot of fun for a properly disciplined mind.

At last the rush of memories faded, and Janice once more opened her eyes to see herself standing in the real world again. Just as the last time she’d Fused, she was standing right where she had been, only a few feet taller.

Janice looked down at herself, comparing the view to what she remembered from the last time. “Well, you’re definitely bigger than Layla.”

“Most cougars these days are ‘Light’ frames. I’m a Medium. Technically, a Logistics armor. During the War I worked with the bigger African lions, taking reloads to the heavy artillery moose.”

“Isn’t that the wrong way round from how it’s supposed to work in nature? I thought it was the mooses who were supposed to feed you.”

Tawny chuckled. “Oh, they did, virtually, in Nature Range. Turnabout was fair play, after all.” She paused. “No offense, Janice, but you’re a little underfed. I guess they don’t feed you well on Earth, do they?”

“Not when you’re on UBI. The idea is you get enough to survive on…barely. I guess you’d have to fatten me up before hunting me in Nature Range.”

“Fatten you up nothing! I’m going to teach you how to hunt on four paws. For free, even,” Tawny declared. “Assuming the partnership works out, anyway.”

“I dunno if I’m ready for that, but I guess I could work up to it. Not that virtual hunting will help me much in real life.”

“I’ll put you on a high-protein, high-calorie diet for that,” Tawny said. “It’ll be easy enough when I’m the boss of you.” Janice saw an emoticon of a winking puma face for a moment.

“What happened to ‘no eating broccoli?’”

“Oh, I’ll just make sure to stick to foods you actually like. Some of the British cuisine you remembered seemed pretty interesting…though not those food bars. Bleah. Even the survival rations from my Army days tasted better than that.”

Janice wrinkled her—their—nose. “Believe me, I agree with you there. But I was a beggar. I couldn’t be a chooser.”

“Well, that’s over now.”

“Maybe not entirely.” Janice chuckled. “If I sign your contract, then you’ll be my chooser for the next month.”

“I’ll make sure to choose wisely.”

“Hey, Informio, could you see if Laura and Layla are free right now?” Janice asked. “Tell ‘em I’ve got a new friend I want them to meet.”

“They are on their way,” Informio advised her.

Separator k.png

It wasn’t long before the skimmer bike pulled up in front of Laura’s house, converting to Walker mode as Laura climbed off. They peered curiously at the cougar Fuser in front of Janice’s home. Laura waved. “Janice? And friend?”

“That’s us!” Janice said, waving. “This is my new friend, Tawny. We’re not necessarily partnered up yet; this is something on the order of a trial run.”

“Hello. I saw you two in Janice’s memories. Pleased to meet you. Janice, mind if we de-Fuse? I need to be able to rub noses properly.”

“Oh, sure,” Janice said. “Go for it.”

“Thanks.” The hardlight fur winked out and Tawny peeled away, reforming into her feline shape and re-rezzing the fur.

As Tawny padded forward, Laura raised an eyebrow, glancing to Janice. “Speaking of noses…now I feel like the odd girl out.”

“What?” Janice reached up and felt of her nose. “Oh…now I’ve got a kitty nose?”

After rubbing noses with Layla, Tawny glanced over her shoulder, and chuckled. “Yeah, you do. Just a little quirk of my model type. Being one of the first as I was, the tags were still a work in progress at the time.”

“Oh Mama Patil!” Layla exclaimed. “You’re a double-zero one! One of the first cougars! Wow. Just…double wow. Uh…I just want to say…thank you for your service.”

“I knew ‘Mama Patil,’ you know,” Tawny said. “She was there at my First Boot. Still weirds me out a little how later generations venerate her so much. She’s just…Mom to me.” She paused. “And…you’re welcome, I guess. Not like I had any choice in the matter.”

“Hey, I was booted as a rental RIDE from the get-go,” Layla said. “Generic civvie frame with no-name parts and barely adequate hardlight that was an extra renters had to pay for—and not all of them did. Fetters up the wazoo.”

“To make a long story short, your humans really just sucked,” Janice said.

“Could I…if you don’t mind…maybe see your skimmer mode?” Layla asked. “Curious what that looks like.”

“Don’t mind at all,” Tawny said. “Rather proud of it, in fact. Put a good chunk of the Emancipation settlement into bringing it back as close to original spec as I could—though with better batts, hardlight, and lifters, of course. A whole new shell would probably have been cheaper, but I like being a collector’s item.” Her hardlight winked out, and the cougar robot unfolded and reconfigured into a cougar-accented military-styled skimmer bike, the bolt-on panniers now seeming even bigger compared to Walker form.

“Cassie’s just gonna squeak when she meets you,” Layla said.

Tawny converted back to her Walker form. “I’m looking forward to meeting her, too. Been a while since I’ve met a newbooted.”

“Why don’t you give them a call?” Laura suggested. “Their shuttle home from Camelot should be back soon.”

“Meh, dunno,” Janice said. “Calling them won’t make the shuttle get here any faster. And they’re coming back here anyway. Might as well surprise ‘em.”

“’Surprise’ is going to be the word,” Layla said. “I hope you stay around. I’ve never met anyone of your generation before. I’ve got so many questions about what your early life was like, if you don’t mind talking about it.”

“I’ll be around for a few days, at least. And who knows? We seem to be hitting it off okay so far.”

“Speak of the devil,” Layla said. “Cassie just pinged me, they’re landing at the aerodrome now.”

“Well, good. Won’t be too long, then.” Janice grinned. “Tell you what, why don’t you just have ‘em knock me up when they get here? We’ll wait inside.”

“Uh…” Laura said. “…okay, no, I won’t make the obvious joke. You know that idiom means something entirely different outside of the UK, right?”

Janice blinked. “What? …oh.” She rolled her eyes. “You bloody know what I mean. We’ll just be in my house. See ya in a little.” She held the door open for Tawny, then followed her in.”

They didn’t have long to wait. “Wait until you girls see what I bought,” Sonja messaged with a wry smiley emote, a few minutes later. Then there was a knock on the door.

Janice chuckled. “I’ve got a surprise to show you lot, too.” She reached up to scratch the bridge of her nose so that her hand concealed it as she opened the door.

On the other side was Sonja, wearing an off-the-shoulder peasant dress—like one of the medieval serving wenches one might find in one of the many works of fiction about the period.

Janice snorted. “And what are you supposed to be, the St. Pauli Catgirl?”

Sonja actually chuckled. “All right, that was pretty good. Is something wrong with your nose?”

“Well, I was just gonna say it’s a good thing that, unlike those peasants, you actually bathe. ‘cuz, y’know, I could really tell if you didn’t now.” Janice lowered her hand.

Sonja raised an eyebrow at Janice’s new nose. “Well, if I’m the St. Pauli Catgirl, I guess that makes you a copycat.”

Tawny came up beside Janice in the doorway. “Except that my generation is the one who originated the nose tag. So who’s the copycat now?”

Sonja blinked. “Uh…hi?”

Janice grinned. “Sonja, Cassie, this is my new friend and maybe partner and coach, Tawny. Tawny, Sonja, Cassie.”

Cassie’s eyes went wide, she lowered herself into a pre-pounce crouch, but stopped before the buttwiggle. “Awww. There’s not enough space to pounce-snuggle. Hello, Tawny! I’m, um, new. To everything.”

“So was I, once,” Tawny said. “Unlike these newfangled creche-born we don’t get to ‘grow up’. We’re booted that way. It’s a little rough, but you’ll get the hang of it, Cassie.” She motioned with her forepaw. “C’mere, kitten.”

There was barely enough space for the two of them in the middle of the living room. Tawny laid down, then Cassie—the smallest of the three RIDEs—laid down in front of her. The elder RIDE then started to groom Cassie, exactly as if she was a kitten.

Predictably, Cassie started to purr.

“I actually have three kittens,” Tawny said. “Long story, but I had them in the original Q mainframe. Their dad died in the War, but we finally got our memories back that we were family a few years ago. We keep in touch.”

“Golly!” Cassie said.

Sonja peered at Janice. “I thought you weren’t interested in RIDEs.”

“Never said that. Just thought it might be hard to find one who was interested in me.” Janice chuckled. “It would be one of the first double-digits ever made. I guess I just have an old-and-crotchety personality type.”

“Well, I’m pleased to meet you, too,” Sonja said to Tawny. “Not to mention honored.”

“I really wish people wouldn’t keep saying that,” Tawny said. “I’m just another RIDE, really.”

“Well, I won’t argue with you about that,” Sonja said. “But you’re an eyewitness to the early days of RIDEs, and I’d love to hear more about those. Parts that you’re okay with talking about, anyway.”

“If I do end up sticking around, check me in a few days. Maybe I’d be up for that.”

“So this is just a trial match-up, then?”

“Something like that,” Tawny said. “I may end up coaching Janice there in the finer points of Nextus’s Game. I’ve made an offer, and she’s thinking about it. No rush on that—this place is interesting enough I wanted an excuse to stick around for a few days. At my age, anything really new like this is pretty rare.”

“You’re only two years older than I am, you know,” Janice pointed out.

“Yeah, but you don’t wanna know what that is in cat years.” Tawny stretched. “So how’s bout you all show me around the place? The less time I have to spend in one of these little shoebox houses, the happier I’ll be.”

“There’s not all that much to see, but sure, we can show you what there is of it,” Janice said. “You’ll probably be interested in the admin complex, it’s one of the only pieces left of the original ship.”

“Great, lead me to it.”

They all headed back outside, and Janice paused to get her bearings. “Every direction looks the same in this darned place. Okay, it’s that way. C’mon.”

“They are, eventually, going to have enough buildings you can tell apart so you can figure out where you’re going, right?” Tawny wondered.

Janice shrugged. “I dunno, they don’t tell me anything.” She led the way up between the rows of identical houses. “I dunno if building so many houses exactly the same was the best idea overall, but I guess it was meant to make setting up a fresh new colony easier. Get people housed ASAP so they can do what needs to be done from there. Which means throw simple houses out as fast as they could, bang bang bang.”

“Makes sense,” Sonja said. “I gather this was at least part tech demo, so they were showing what they could do, whether or not it was something they should do. Looks like there’s only three types. Huts like ours, single-family homes, and apartment buildings.”

“I have a feeling that most of what the Earth constructors do will get recycled, eventually,” Laura said. “Into something prettier, if for no other reason.”

“On a new planet, with no colonies already, this would be great,” Janice said. “All you want then is something to keep the rain off ‘til you’re on both feet. But there are feet to spare, here.”

“And paws!” Cassie put in.

A few blocks up the way, there was an open space where the ship had set down and extracted its own buildings. The main ones still standing were the administration center and the awakening complex, which was still having cargo pods fed into it like bullets into an autoloading gun. A couple of the cargo storage buildings had already emptied out and been disassembled, but there were still plenty remaining.

The line of freshly defrosted was as long as ever, but the path from the lounge to the Nextus administration people was now nicely paved, with benches and chairs to sit on. A few of the line-standers were carrying small camp stools, undoubtedly provided by the fabbers just as they had replaced missing clothes.

“Well, I don’t see any familiar faces,” Laura said, looking at the bewildered crowd.

“The names you asked me to watch for aren’t on schedule for another three weeks,” Layla said.

“Right, right. But there’s always a chance.”

“We can look in at the defrosting operation a little later if you like,” Sonja said. “They’re generally okay with it as long as you stick around to help welcome the current batch of newbies. They do like to have real people around, so it’s not all shrinks and counselors.”

“Eh…maybe I would like to see that. I’ll think about it.”

The command center was now embedded in an annex of new construction, providing a sort of anteroom containing terminals that accessed the ship’s passenger database and other public-access files. In fact, not much that had come on the ship was classified. It had been Earth’s intention to make it known publicly, and Zharus’s governments certainly weren’t going to keep their people from knowing just what kind of threat they were up against.

The command center itself was actually a fairly small piece of ship, considering. It was just large enough to house the half-dozen or so command consoles that oversaw the construction, smelting, and fabbing facilities that the ship had unpacked. At the moment, they were staffed by technicians provided by the Planetary Assembly committee who were overseeing things until the local government was on the ball enough to take over. (Or, indeed, until such a government existed at all.) The airlock bulkheads had been removed and replaced with glass doors, with an access lock to keep unauthorized people from coming in and messing with things.

The anteroom had been built large enough that there was ample room for several people and RIDEs, even with several people there already using the consoles. Tawny drifted over to peer through the door. “So that’s the actual bridge of the colony ship, huh?”

“Well, to call it a ‘bridge’ is a bit of a misnomer, because it was never actually used to fly the ship,” Sonja said. “As I understand it, it was just there for the shipyard technicians to use in on-board programming, and for us to use to control everything it built once it landed.”

“But it was the ship’s command center, so in that sense, yes,” Laura added.

“And this is where you can check the list of passengers and see if there’s anyone you know on board,” Tawny said. “If you don’t have RIDEs like us to do it for you.”

“And when they’re due to wake up, yeah,” Janice said. “But like Layla said, nobody interesting to us is waking up for a few weeks yet. That we know of.”

“Huh. Okay, so you were talking about the defrosting facility next?”

“Sure, if you wanna.” Janice shrugged. “Not thrilled by the prospect of being smarmed at again by that bitch of an Adjutant Donna the Ho, but I guess you might find the whole thing interesting.”

Sonja wrinkled her nose. “Ugh, yeah. What a thing to wake up to. I’m surprised they’re still letting that tape play out to the newly awakened.”

“It does, at least, give them the capsule summary of why they’re here, and gives them someone to vent their mad on who is safely light years away,” Laura suggested. “If they want to ‘shoot the messenger,’ they’ll need an awfully long gun.”

“Well, let’s go,” Layla said. “I haven’t seen that recording yet either, come to think of it.”

“Trust me,” Janice said. “You ain’t missing much.”

Separator k.png

“…please move through the door at my left to the revival lounge. You should find seating and refreshments there—and perhaps some of your new neighbors to welcome you to your new home.

“We of the United Terran Government wish you only the best in your new lives.”

“Huh.” Tawny sneezed. “There’s one I wouldn’t mind sharpening my claws on, if I ever met her.”

“Tell me about it,” Janice said. “Ugh, that woman.” They were standing in a cordoned-off corner of the room that had been set up for observers to come and gawk without getting in the way of the medtechs who were overseeing the awakenings.

At the moment, those medtechs were helping people out of their pods, and getting them oriented toward the exit. They’d done this enough by now that they’d gotten it down to a routine.

“We probably don’t know any of these folks, but if you want we can move on to the lounge and say hi,” Laura said. “Really, we probably should be down here more often doing that, as a pay-it-forward kind of thing. Those of us who’re good with other people, anyway…” She glanced meaningfully at Janice.

“Meh,” Janice said. “I dunno. I’ve never exactly been the sort to offer a friendly shoulder to cry on. Maybe I’ll just hang back and watch the rest of you do it.”

Sonja nodded. “Fair enough. C’mon, let’s go meet the newest newbies.”

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“And that’s…all there really is to do around here, I guess,” Janice said. “Until they get around to building more stuff.”

“Well, apart from all the booths and stands and things that various polities, businesses, and organizations have set up to promote themselves or their wares,” Sonja noted.

“I guess everybody wants to be here,” Tawny mused.

“We expect things to get a little more interesting as time goes by and people settle in,” Layla said. “Some people are already drawing up plans to replace the houses in less settled areas with rows of shops for business districts.”

“Before too long, we’ll be a real working polity with all the amenities,” Sonja said.

“So if you wanna look around, we can do that for a while, sure,” Janice said. “But I’m looking forward to you showing me around Nextus, while you show me a little more about what this Game thing is and how it works. Might just help me to make up my mind…”

Tawny nodded. “I sort of figured you might want to see that first. Sure, we can hop the shuttle to Nextus tomorrow and I’ll show you how things go there. Perhaps we can look into getting some constructor time scheduled, on a contingency basis.”

Sonja raised an eyebrow. “Constructor time?”

“Oh, yeah…see, my place is too small for the likes of her, so she was looking into maybe having it rebuilt bigger if I sign on with her.”

“A larger place would be nice,” Layla mused.

“I wouldn’t mind a little more space either!” Cassie said.

“How about if we built a single house big enough for all six of us?” Tawny suggested. “Assuming Janice wouldn’t mind…”

Janice blinked. “Uh…I dunno. I was just getting used to the idea of having, y’know, friendly neighbors. Housemates seems like a big step. We’ve barely known each other for a Zharus week.”

“I don’t mind rooming with Laura and Layla,” Sonja said.

“Me either,” Cassie added.

“Well, then we’ll get a design that has room for an addition if you decide to change your mind,” Layla said.

Janice blinked. “But…hey, wait a tic here. I’m the one who was getting the bigger house in the first place.”

“True, but you just reminded us just how easy it is to get a new one made here,” Sonja said. “I guess we were still thinking of how much it would cost back on Earth. But Laura has a job, and I’ve still got some cash from selling my implant, so we could make one just for us while you make one for the two of you.”

“Meh,” Janice said. “All right, fine, let’s just go with one big one, then. If I don’t like it, I can always move out. Like you say, construction is cheap around here.”

“Yay!” Cassie said.

“Of course, this assumes we do end up partnering up,” Tawny said. “But we can certainly schedule the constructors and cancel them if it doesn’t work out. That would make a most excellent way to demonstrate for you just what the Game can do.”

“Well, then I’ll be all ears.” Janice reached up and felt of one of her cougar ears. “So to speak.”

Tawny nodded. “Great, then that’s settled. Now, let’s go see who-all else has shown up.”

“I wanna see the booth where I came from!” Cassie said.

“We’ve already been back there three times,” Sonja reminded her.

“Yeah, I know, but I never get tired of visiting. All those RIDEs who are waiting for a new friend to come wake them up…maybe we’ll get to see it happen again!”

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“Wake up, Miss Howard.”

Janice started awake. “Ugh…” she muttered. For a moment, she had a hard time remembering where and when she was, or why someone was telling her to wake up. Then it gradually came back to her. Today was the Big Day, and she’d asked Informio to wake her promptly at 8 a.m. She literally couldn’t remember the last time she’d set an alarm to wake her at a particular time. Logically, it must have been when she’d had to be certain places at certain times to move up on the rolls for permanent UBI, back on Earth, but the specifics slipped her mind. She supposed it was because she’d tried her best to forget all the tedium inherent in worming her way through the bureaucracy, and had forgotten bunches of other things along with it.

It was ironic that she was going to be observing someone doing exactly that thing today, as she decided if it was something she wanted to learn to do for herself. But a new world called for new habits—or at least a return to old ones. But at least this time she didn’t have to make do with a thin gruel of synthetic nutrients to fuel her. She turned to the fabber. “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.” She fetched the teacup, inhaled the fragrance, and already felt herself starting to wake up.

“Tawny has asked me to let you know she’s waiting outside,” Informio told her. “She says that the next sub to Nextus leaves in an hour, so there’s just enough time for you to breakfast first.”

“Tell her I’ll be there in five minutes or so.”

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Not too much later, Janice sat in the cafeteria stuffing her face while Tawny waited. Janice had offered to Fuse for breakfast, but Tawny declined, saying Janice would be able to eat faster without and that way they’d have more time to catch the shuttle. So Janice nodded and happily dug in.

She still couldn’t believe how easy to get real food was here. Even now she was having a hard time not just giving in and gorging until she couldn’t move. She imagined she was going to gain weight—that she supposed Tawny would be able to get rid of for her, or she could have it done at a ‘sculpt clinic if they didn’t stay together. In any case, it was tempting just to settle down and live it up for a while—but she could already feel the edges of boredom starting to set in. So just as well to find a new challenge to work on now, while stuff was still shiny and new.

Finally, Janice pushed back her last plate. “All right. Let’s go, then.”

Tawny snorted. “Thought you’d never finish. You eat like someone’s about to yank the plate away.”

Janice shrugged. “If you’d spent the last umpteen years living on bread and water, you’d want to pig out, too.”

“I guess. Well, come on.”

Once they got outside the tent, Tawny converted to her skimmer form, and Janice climbed aboard. They headed for the spaceport, flying along one of the marked-off low aerial traffic lanes. Janice looked around as they flew. “You know, I could get used to this.”

“So you’ve said. And I won’t mind playing taxi now and again,” Tawny said. “But remember, while I’m teaching you, you’ll be at my beck and call.”

“So you’ve said. Well, I’m not too bothered.” Janice waved a hand. “After all, either one of us can terminate the contract at any time.”

Tawny chuckled. “I’m tempted to come out with something like ‘so you think.’ Just to screw with your head. But that would be casting doubt on my own teaching, which wouldn’t really help to sell it. So, no, you’re right. I’ll just have to be sure to provide enough value for you to want to put up with me.”

Janice grinned. “Starting with what you’re gonna show me today. No selective editing like you did with your memories?”

“Oh, no, I’ll show you everything I do, this go-round,” Tawny said. “I just won’t explain it. That part has to wait on accepting the deal.”

“And what if I guess something important?”

“That’s just the chance I have to take.”

They arrived at the aerodrome well ahead of schedule for the Nextus flight. They set down at the end of the line, and Janice dismounted while Janice converted to her Walker form. It wasn’t long before they boarded, and the sub launched a few minutes later. Janice watched the settlement recede through the video plate on the seat in front of her. Nextus was only a few minutes away.

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The demonstration began shortly after they touched down. As they entered the boarding gate from the Nextus Aerodrome, Tawny asked to Fuse up, and Janice agreed. Then she took a media tablet from one of her panniers, which was now a pouch on her belt. “They use the Game for everything here. Including setting up appointments at the offices where we have to go to play the rest of the Game. So we need to get right on it.” Tawny tapped the screen with a clawtip, paging through sections of text too fast for Janice to read. She tapped one link, then another, then another, jumping to new sections each time.

“What’re you doing?”

“Playing the Game,” Tawny replied with a smirk. “I may be limited to the speed at which I can read from this tablet, but luckily for me I can read just as fast as it can display.”

“Uh, great, but…do I get to see what you’re doing?”

“You’re seeing it now, aren’t you? Never said I’d do it slow enough for you to understand today—that’ll come iffenwhen you agree to the terms. Today’s about showing you results, not the process.”

“All right, fine, but can you at least tell me what the process is, even if you leave out the how?”

Tawny tilted their head. “Okay, fair enough. The way it works is, their hypertext Book of the Rules has certain secret shortcuts embedded in it. Exactly how to find them is something I’ll show you iffenwhen, but for now it’s enough that you know they exist. And using them can give you a jump on things.”

“Hm,” Janice said. “I thought that this involved actually understanding how to find loopholes in rules, like I did in the bureaucracy back on Earth.”

“That is part of it. But part of it is also an Easter Egg hunt. I guess the idea is to keep your mind sharp in general.” The pages of text flickered and linked to an appointment calendar. “Oh good, there’s an opening in about 45 minutes. We should be able to just about make that. We just need to stop by a stationery store.”

Janice blinked. “Wait, what? Stationery? Isn’t everything electronic?”

Tawny smirked. “Yes. Including the stationery. And we have to pick up some supplies for filling out forms properly at the appointment. Styluses that write in the right ‘colors’ of e-ink and such. My reading told me just which ones, so we’ll be set there.”

“Well, that’s good.”

“De-Fusing to skimmer mode as soon as we get out of the concourse; be ready.” As they left the building, Tawny reconfigured to her scooter bike form under Janice, and waited for her to get a good grip on the handlebars before pulling out.

Once they left the aerodrome grounds, the streets were arranged in an orderly grid, perfectly square right down to the degree. The architecture was almost as blocky, with bare concrete buildings in a style almost as stolid and boring as new construction back on Earth.

“Don’t go by outside appearances here,” Tawny said. “Nextus citizens save all their fancy stuff for the inside. That goes for architecture and the people alike.”

“Really? On Earth the insides are usually worse than the outsides,” Janice said, sniffing.

“But have you seen some of the new houses that the Nextus fabbers are turning out back at the new settlement?” Tawny said. “They’re built on similar principles. And a lot nicer on the inside than your shoebox. As you’ll come to find out for yourself after we’re done here today.”

They pulled into a commercial district, and came to a stop in front of a glass-fronted shop entitled West Closson Writers’ Emporium. “Well, here we are, then.” Tawny waited for Janice to dismount, then changed back over to Walker form. “I’ll show you what to buy.”

There was a peculiar fragrance to the shop Janice realized was a potpourri of various herbs. But nothing she could quite put her finger on. There were displays of actual dumb paper and ink pens—marked as stationery gift sets. In another part of the shop were the electronically-enabled pens and e-paper, where most of the customers were clustered. Bins of pens, stamps, and various other supplies were arranged in rows on shelves, which were themselves arranged in orderly rows.

“We need a Pearson Writing Implements Model E pen, and one of those emoji sealing stamps. The one with the house with a tree on it.”

Janice stared. “We need…an emoji stamp?”

“Because we’re getting a house built. Make sure you get the one with the tree—I guess because it’s going to be a fancier house.”

Janice rolled her eyes, but dutifully located the bin marked with a 🏡 symbol, and picked up a stamp out of it. Then she grabbed the aforementioned brand of pen.

“I don’t get it. With all this stuff here, why don’t you just buy some of everything and keep it on hand to avoid all this running around?”

Tawny chuckled. “Oh, they thought of that. For one thing, not everything is sold in any one particular shop—which reminds me, we’ll have to hit another shop a few blocks away for the right color of e-ink before we head to the appointment. For another, all the stuff is date coded, it expires pretty quickly, and they swap the requirements around week to week. There are loopholes and workarounds, but none of them are quite that simple.”

Janice rolled her eyes. “Almost as sadistic as the jerks back on Earth. Right bastards they were.”

“Oh, they don’t do it out of sadism here. More because most of the people here don’t want stuff made too easy for them either. When your society is pretty much post-scarcity, finding fun ways to spend your time becomes a lot more important.”

“I guess I can see that.” Janice shrugged. “Well, let’s get this stuff bought and move on, then. If we’ve still got one more store to hit before that appointment.”

Tawny nodded. “Go ahead, then. You may even want to set up an account here, if you’re going to be playing the Game regular. Or you can wait ‘til you’re sure, if you like.”

“Right…so I’m paying for this?”

“Well, it is for your house. And people on Basic get a big discount. It’s one of the perks of being on Basic—they make it cheaper for you to do what’s necessary to get you off it.”

“Ooh, rah. All right, fine. Guess I should get used to doing these things for meself anyway.” She approached the counter with her purchases. To her surprise, the process was remarkably simple. The comm she’d been issued on arriving also served as a sort of digital wallet, and it just took a swipe for its near-field system to hook up and run the charge across.

Tawny nodded as she returned with the bag of her purchases. “Well done. Now on to the next shop.”

“All right. And you’re going to explain to me exactly how one can buy a color of e-ink, right?”

“It’s pretty simple, really. You just go to the store and tell them which one you want.”

“That’s not what I bloody meant and you know it.”

Tawny chuckled. “Come on. I’ll explain on the way.”

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The second store stop went about as quickly as the first. Janice wasn’t sure she bought Tawny’s explanation that the “color” actually was just shorthand for a particular encryption key signifying they could use that color on the digital form, but she supposed it made about as much sense as anything in this crazy place. Anyway, if she was going to turn this into how she made a living, she supposed she just ought to get used to it. At least there actually seemed to be some rhyme and reason behind this scheme beyond just making things harder out of sheer bloody spite. That put it light-years ahead of Earth’s, as far as she was concerned—and she had mastered Earth’s.

After the store, it was time to go down to the Construction Fabrication Administration office. As Tawny explained it, the construction administration was firmly a second-tier establishment, located in the first ring out from the central government annex—it wasn’t directly involved with running the polity, but it was important to making sure that people and businesses had places to live and work.

“So how is it we had to come all the way up here to get this done, instead of doing something about it back home?”

“Your new settlement doesn’t quite have an actual government to be in charge of things just yet,” Tawny explained. “So a lot of administration is being done from in here. Not everyone has to come in to get stuff done, of course—they can always hire remote surrogates, and for something like this they’d probably come pretty cheap. Possibly even paid for by Basic, for doing something like adjusting housing. But this will be a great learning experience for you.”

“Yeah, if you’ll actually teach me anything before I sign that contract.”

“Hey, I’m teaching you a lot. Just leaving back some of the more arcane stuff.” Tawny chuckled. “You won’t see just how much more there is I can show you if you don’t know something about how the Game is played.”

“All right. So what we gotta do here, now?”

Tawny nodded toward the building in front of them, another example of Nexus’s default Brutalist architecture. “Go into the office and fill out a form.”

“We couldn’t have done that online?”

“Well, we could have, but it wouldn’t have been as effective. In the Game, you get the biggest advantage out of going out and doing in person. I think the idea is to get people out in the world, rather than letting them just sit around in a room all day.”

Janice sniffed. “Back on Earth where I lived, it was so crowded that they wanted you to sit around in a room all day, and not go out and get in everyone else’s way.” She considered. “You know, inconvenient though it is, I do think I like this way better.”

“Well, good. Let’s go inside.”

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On the inside, the office wasn’t exactly plain, but it was simple and straightforward—businesslike. There were a number of paintings or photographs of construction equipment on the wall, ranging from woodcuts of horse-assisted block and tackles up through 20th-century construction machinery and beyond, up to constructors very similar to the ones currently at work building houses in the settlement.

A short stroll through the lobby led to a waiting room that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a decent doctor’s office. There were magazines on the end tables—construction magazines, of course—and a table near the back with a number of media tablets neatly arranged.

Tawny nodded toward the tablets. “The forms we’ll need will be on those. Go ahead and grab one?”

Janice picked up the tablet and peered at it curiously. It seemed to be a fairly low-end public-domain-grade consumer tablet—the same sort of tablet you’d get ordering one through Basic Accommodation. Which made sense, Janice realized, given that it was basically filling in for a stack of plain paper forms. It had to be every bit as cheaply disposable.

When Janice tapped the power button, it lit up with a form that looked even more impenetrable than anything Earth bureaucracy had ever dreamed up. Janice stared at it, then glanced to Tawny. “…really?”

Tawny chuckled. “Intimidating, isn’t it? Don’t worry—all that’s just for show. Get out the stuff we bought at the store, and stamp the screen with the stamp. Doesn’t matter where, just stamp it anywhere.”

“All right…” Janice fished the stamp out of her pocket and stamped the screen with it. About half of the form faded away into the background, leaving only a few fields left.

“Now touch the pen to the screen.”

“Okay…” That banished about two thirds of the remaining spaces, leaving only a handful remaining.

“Now just fill those out. They should be pretty self-explanatory. Your name, comm code, place of residence…oh, and put ‘expedited reconstruction permit’ in the ‘reason’ field.”

“Okay, okay…” Janice scribbled. To her surprise, her barely legible scrawl was immediately translated to neat block letters. Now how’re they…? Oh! Janice chuckled inwardly as the answer came to her. Of course they had excellent handwriting recognition. They probably chartered the services of some EI, like Informio, who got his jollies from interpreting crummy handwriting. An electronic Mechanical Turk? Heh.

“When you’re done, just tap ‘send,’ and we’ll take a seat and see how long it takes them to call for us. And maybe I can tell you a little more about what we’re getting into.”

Janice grinned, tapping the button and bringing the tablet with her to a seat. “I’m all ears, kitty-sensei.” She wiggled her cougar ears.

“Right.” Tawny nodded, and padded up and sat on her haunches in front of Janice’s seated position, where she could face Janice with eyes on the same level.

“There’s usually several different paths through the Game,” Tawny explained. “One will be verboten to you as a Surrogate—though not for your personal BT if you like. That’s the Abeyance. It’s basically a forfeit. You get what you need, but no more than that.”

“Sort of the equivalent of Basic Accommodation, huh?” Janice said. “What’s the rest?”

“The more efficient the path, the better the payola. There’s usually three levels. At the surface is the ‘Plain Reading’ method. You do the entire procedure as written in the manual. Some Gamesters won’t do it any other way. You can get some unique benefits from this method since it’s so time-consuming—at least for humans. Since RIDE rights came in, and we have to register as our real identities now, we digital people get a hefty pay cut there because we can plain-read much faster.

“The Middle Reading is where most folks end up. Mostly people who can’t afford Surrogates, or just the average Gamester. You need to know some basic cryptography and have great reading comprehension skills. There’s sometimes multiple layers of this, depending on what the Game Masters want to accomplish. A Surrogate can still make decent money here.

“Then there’s the Deep Reading. Which is what I’ll teach you—assuming you have the aptitude for it. Based on what you did back on Earth, I’m pretty sure you do, but all the teaching in the world won’t help you if you don’t. Deep Reading offers the best payola and the best perks. Your pay comes from your client and from the polity.”

“And I don’t get paid if I fuck it up, right?”

“Most of the time. Sometimes you encounter a Procedure that’s a BUCU. A BUreaucratic Cock-Up. Sometimes the GMs can be too hard on the Gamesters. So when that happens, you submit a BUCU Challenge, and if that gets approved, you get a special BUCU Abeyance. But you have to be careful—sometimes what appears to be a BUCU is intentional. There’s ways to tell. We’ll get into that.”

If I sign the contract.”

“If you sign, yes. But let’s be honest here…this is starting to interest you, isn’t it? At least a little bit?”

Janice nodded slowly, almost in spite of herself. “All right…yeah, I’ll cop. It is starting to appeal. Just need a little more time to talk myself past the weirder aspects of the indenturement contract, I guess. But I’m starting to get there.”

“Believe it or not, it was never my intention to freak you out,” Tawny said. “But a good contract protects both parties, and some of the ways things are done here can seem a little strange to outsiders and new arrivals. Anyway, we RIDEs went without rights at all for so long, staking bold claims now is a matter of principle.”

“Ms. Janice Howard?”

Janice looked up at the woman who had just called her name. She was a slim woman of medium height, with plain post earrings. She appeared to be in late middle-age, with streaks of grey in her black hair. Of course, with the anti-agathics available on this planet, she could have been anywhere between forty and ninety.

Janice got up. “That’s me,” she said.

The woman nodded to her. “You can come with me.” She scowled pointedly at Tawny. “Your RIDE won’t be needed.”

:Oh, great. One of these.: Tawny subvocalized across the Fuse nanite link to Janice. “I have to differ, ma’am,” Tawny said. “I’m her Game trainer and advisor, as well as an accredited Surrogate.”

The woman gave her head a quick shake. “Oh, very well. Come along, then.” She turned and led the way back toward a door in the wall.

:What do you mean ‘one of these’?: Janice thought back at her. It was kind of weird doing silent comm via directed thinking, but she had quickly gotten the hang of it.

:There are still some, especially in Nextus, who think we free RIDEs are a bunch of overbuilt toaster ovens who got too big for our britches,: Tawny replied. :There’s not a lot they can do about it since the new laws and regulation changes, but they still like to make life as hard for us as they can, within what the rules allow. Sorry about this; I should have warned you that hanging with me might have a few drawbacks.:

Janice rolled her eyes. :Meh. Can’t be any worse than all the jerks back on Earth who looked down on me for being a professional bum. Successful professional bum, I should say, so there was some envy involved too. Looks like dealing with that kind of gits is something else we got in common.:

The door led to a corridor, which led past doors to offices and cubicle farms. Finally, she opened the door to an office, then stepped aside for Janice and Tawny to enter. The office was furnished austerely, for the most part, but there were still a number of personal touches on display—mostly family photos on the desk, and a few paperback books on a shelf alongside all the binders of regulations.

The woman closed the office door behind her and took a seat behind the desk. “I’m Tamara Pence, Sub-Commissioner of Housing Fabrication. I understand you’re requesting a permit for expedited reconstruction of a house at the Steady Hand colony site.” She held out her hand for the tablet Janice was carrying.

“That’s right,” Janice said. “We’d like to replace several single units with a larger shared house for some friends and us.” She handed the tablet over.

Pence glanced at the tablet, then put it down on her desk and steepled her fingers. “I’m afraid the legal status of your settlement precludes any swift action on my part. Although Nextus had claimed the region where the Steady Hand landed, the Administration has decided to cede it to whatever government the refugees decide for themselves. As such, permission for any alterations to Earth-constructed housing units should be directed to the administrators on-site before I can give final approval.”

“Ah, but until that ceding happens, those administrators are still under direct control of your office, and are subject to your authority,” Tawny said, licking the back of a paw. “And they’re working under the same rules that Nextus remote fabrication units work under anywhere. In accordance with the rules of the Game, that means our request has to come through this office. We’re not going to hop a sub all the way back there, only to get told by them that we need to come all the way back here again.”

Pence pursed her lips. “I assure you, miss, you are quite mistaken. This is strictly a matter for local authority, and I can’t override it.”

Really, now,” Tawny purred. “How about we get a Referee in here and see what they have to say about it?”

:Whozat now?: Janice asked.

:One of the people who judge BUCU calls,: Tawny sent back. :It’s not something you want to do unless you’re absolutely sure you’re right, because whoever’s wrong gets hit with big penalties.:

:But you are sure you’re right?: Janice replied. :I don’t want you getting in trouble on my account.:

:Oh, trust me. This is on my account,: Tawny sent back grimly. :She went and made it purrrr-sonal.:

Tamara Pence paled. “Now…I’m sure there’s no need for that,” she stammered. “Let me just…check again. It’s possible I could be mistaken…” She picked up another tablet from her desk and started paging through it.

Tawny smirked. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.

Janice frowned. “Lady, what the feck is your problem? You don’t like RIDEs, so you think it’s your business to give them the runaround?”

“It’s nothing like that!” Pence insisted. “We just can’t have people…jumping the line.”

“The way I heard it, the whole point of this bloody Game of yours is to find new and better ways to jump the queue,” Janice said. “Which makes me really suspicious when someone who should be a stepping stone decides they’re a stumbling block instead.”

“She’s just angry that we ‘people of Qubitite’ now have the same rights as a natural-born human, is all,” Tawny said. “Thinks we RIDEs should know our place in the natural order of things. Turns out laws don’t always change people’s minds.”

“That’s—that’s just not true!” Pence insisted. “I’m doing my best to help you, just as I would for anybody else.” She glanced down at the tablet. “Oh…it turns out you’re right. I do have the authority to issue an expedited permit in this case. I’ll just get that taken care of right now.” She pulled a rubber stamp out of a drawer—or at least a touchscreen stamp made to look like a rubber one—and stamped Janice’s tablet with it. The word “APPROVED” appeared on it in big red letters.

“See?” Tawny purred. “That wasn’t so hard.”

Janice reached out to take the tablet back. “Thank you kindly,” she said. “You know, you should see a shrink or something. You keep pulling this kind of shite on RIDEs, sooner or later one will call a ref on you, and where will you be, then?”

Pence didn’t reply as they turned and left the office.

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“So, that’s that, then,” Tawny said as they emerged back into the lobby. “We take that tablet to whoever’s running one of those Nextus building fabbers, and they’ll get us set up in the next available slot. Assuming you decide to go through with it, anyhow.”

“What an arse that Pence woman was,” Janice said. “And you have to deal with that shite all the time?”

“Ever since our rights came in and we had to register our real identities,” Tawny said. “Oh, not everyone is such a jerk, but enough people are that, well…is it any wonder playing the Game for its own sake has gotten a little bit less fun for me?”

“Yeah, I can see that.” Janice nodded. “Of course, back on Earth, if someone is an asshole like that, they’re not supposed to hide it. They’re encouraged to be the most assholiest of assholes all the time.”

“Sounds like such a fun place.”

Janice shrugged. “Meh. Gets tiring putting up with that, after a while. As I guess you know. So, what now?”

“Back to the settlement, I suppose,” Tawny said. “Unless…”

Janice raised an eyebrow. “Unless?”

“Well, there are a few other things about the Game I could show you while we’re here…iffen you were to want to accept the contract. If not, we can always come back later. We got nothing but time. Your choice.”

Janice frowned thoughtfully, as she considered the matter. The idea of an indenturement contract wasn’t exactly the most appealing thing—but on the other hand, after they’d gone through the terms of the contract, examined them and agreed on them, they didn’t exactly amount to slavery. And Tawny really didn’t seem like the kind of person to abuse them regardless.

And she did want to learn more about the Game…and who knew how long it would take to find another instructor—not to mention another compatible RIDE?

“Well…all right. Fine. I’ll sign the bloody thing. Not like it’s forever. And I can see that you do have a lot to teach me.”

“Great! Then, here…” Tawny’s hardlight winked out, and she Fused up over Janice in a couple of seconds. A moment later, Janice found herself on the mesa, holding a tablet and stylus as Tawny looked on. “Just sign on the dotted line, and we’ll be good to go.”

Janice chuckled. “Fair enough.” She scrawled her signature. “Now what, oh my mistress?”

“Now, we get down to business.” With a flicker, they were back in the real world, Janice seeing through Tawny’s eyes as they lifted into the air and headed for one of the traffic lanes.

“I hope there’s more to it than dealing with stuffed shirts like that Pence git.”

“We just had some bad luck with your first NextusCrat. Trust me, if the Game wasn’t fun for the ‘crats too, then nobody would bother playing it.”

“I’m eager to learn, so go ahead and teach me everything there is to know.”

“All right, sure thing.” Tawny chuckled. “You know, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

Janice peered suspiciously at her. “You’re quoting something, aren’t you?”

Tawny smirked. “We crazy Zharus people do that sometimes.”

Janice rolled her eyes. “Yeah, and then you make us Earth newcomers have to go spend all our free time watching stuff to catch up.”

“It won’t take you that long. Just a few years.”

“Says the one who can watch hours at a time in just a few seconds.”

“Is it my fault you’ve still got a squishy organic brain? Anyway…let’s go learn you some stuff.”

Janice shrugged. “Okay, I’m all yours.”

“I know.”


“Well, you are. Signed the contract and everything.”

“You’re not gonna make me regret that now, are you?”

Bickering amicably, the new duo flew off in search of more Game experience.

Preceded by:
Cougar Town: A Cougar Comes to Town
FreeRIDErs Succeeded by:
To Be Determined...