User:Claude LeChat/Return to Alpha Camp

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FreeRIDErs story universe

Return to Alpha Camp

Author: Claude LeChat
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The deadly desert sunlight filtered through a weather dome, then a set of Venetian blinds, before illuminating a quiet office divided in two by a massive, yet plain and functional, desk. The visitor, a small man in a bland business suit, sat nervously across from a humanoid wolf, maybe three meters tall and correspondingly massive, wearing a metal kilt by way of modesty.

"Welcome to Alpha Camp, Mr. Grey. How was the flight from Nextus?" asked the wolf, with the air of someone still learning to be social.

"Fine, thank you," said the man in a voice as small as himself. "Er... forgive me, but who am I talking to?"

"My name is Rafe. I'm a RIDE, as you can see."

"Indeed. But there's a human inside you, is there not?"

The wolf's voice changed abruptly to a youthful one that didn't match his body. "I'm right here, Mr. Grey. Alex Hunter, by the way. But it's really Rafe you want to talk to."

"I'm not sure I understand, Mr. Hunter. You mean your RIDE is in charge here?"

The wolf sighed on two voices at once. Then he got up from the desk and walked to the middle of the room. As Grey watched, his furred host melted, his real metal body showing for a moment before he reformed into a stunningly realistic arctic wolf. Next to him stood a young man of average height, in jeans and a T-shirt, sporting ears and a tail identical to those of his companion.

"Yes, Mr. Grey, Rafe here is in charge. And I'm his human, not the other way around," the young man explained, rather coolly.

Of course, humans hadn't been slaves at Alpha Camp ever since the small polity's pivotal role in the Integrate War had earned it a federal amnesty (even though RIDEs were still slaves mostly anywhere else on Zharus). But old hands still described themselves as "belonging" to their RIDEs. Outsiders were quick to invoke Stockholm Syndrome. Alex chose to call it loyalty.

"This is unnerving," wheezed Grey, wiping his forehead with a paper towel.

"We get that a lot. You'll get used to it. Now if you'll excuse me..."

"Wait, why are you leaving?"

"Because as long as I stay, you'll be tempted to address me rather than Rafe, and we'll get nowhere fast."


"Don't worry, he won't eat you. Probably." With that, Alex closed the door behind himself.

"Now that the introductions are out of the way," the wolf spoke again, "let's get down to business."

There was a receptionist's desk in the hallway outside the office, and Alex sat himself down behind it unhappily. It couldn't compete with the accelerated time in a RIDE's virtual reality, but a human with a computer workstation could still do some useful work. And there was plenty of it to do, between his job as the local agent of a construction company in Aloha and the secretarial work he insisted on doing for the wolf. The young man ached to grab a screwdriver and do some physical work for a change, but administrative issues seemed to have no end.

It was an hour before Rafe saw his visitor to the door. Grey looked very much relieved, either from the result of the talks or because he could finally put some distance between himself and the sapient machine whose presence troubled him so.

"So, how'd it go?" asked Alex once the man was on his way.

"You won't believe what they want from us."

"Try me!"

"Join me for a spell first?"

In the street, the wolf took the third shape any light RIDE had: that of a sleek, but solid skimmer bike with soft, organic lines betraying its true nature. They hadn't needed to travel like that in the old days, but in the mean time Alpha Camp had grown from less than two hundred RIDEs and humans to over two thousand, and it didn't show any signs of slowing down yet. The main street had lengthened considerably, and was now the backbone of a larger grid. Right in the center, a park had grown around the venerable communal well, also engulfing the old commissary, now only used for the occasional potluck or other event. Abovehead, a faint shimmer tempered the hazy blue of the sky; in the distance, one could see the lethal desert wind blowing sand against the hardlight domes that kept the town alive in the harshest climate on the planet, thousands of klicks from any other sign of civilization.

The clinic was representative of the current boom, a squarish yet elegant two-story building with a small yard next to it, similar to yet different from any other in town. Rafe hovered to a stop in front of the main entrance and waited for Alex to dismount before morphing back into his animal self.

"Let's see if the doctor is in," he said, and they entered together.

At 25, Alice Chapel was only a few years older than Alex. She had red hair, a face full of freckles and more kilograms than was healthy. But most importantly, she had a deeply seated fear of RIDEs, which was probably why she had chosen to do her internship in such a place: it was like learning how to swim by jumping in at the deep end of the pool.

"Hello, Alice," Alex greeted cheerfully, making sure to stand in front of Rafe. "How are things?"

"Hairy," she deadpanned. "I have more Integrate than human patients, and what I learned in medical school doesn't help so much."

"Gotta think on your feet, girl," said the brown she-bear who was just entering the door behind Alice. She had a funny hat and a collar tag that identified her as Nurse Helga.

Alice froze in place, conspicuously avoiding to look down.

"I keep telling her we should just Fuse once," said Helga with a hint of reproach, "then she'd see there's nothing to fear. Anyway, what brings you two here?"

Alex looked at Rafe. The wolf looked back at the humans. "You'd better get a drink," he said, "this is going to take a while."

They were sitting face to face in the waiting room, the smell of hot coffee from the cups in their hands mixing with the overall whiff of disinfectant. To either side of them were the RIDEs; Alice still wouldn't look directly at them.

"They want us to do what?!" she asked.

"You have to understand where they're coming from," said Rafe patiently. "Between the Integrates going public and RIDEs bodyjacking humans in the open, people in many polities are afraid to work with our kind anymore. And all too often, they have no other way to do their jobs."

"But we don't snatch humans at random anymore," pointed out Helga.

"Tell that to someone who's only ever heard of Alpha Camp in the news."

Alex nodded slowly. "Why don't they give their employees a trip to Uplift instead? They have a meet-and-greet RIDE museum there. Even a RIDE creche -- whatever that's supposed to mean."

"I'm not about to look the gift skimmer in the engine compartment," said Rafe. "This could mean some real income for the town. Question is, can we do it?"

"Well, I'm no therapist," mused Alice. "I can't even fix myself," she laughed nervously. "But I can place a few calls."

"That's all I ask. Oh well, back to work." He got up. "Thanks for having us, Alice."

"You're welcome," she said, eyes firmly pointed at the wall behind Alex.

A dozen men and women were gathered in a windowless room, sitting in a semicircle. Most of them were pushing middle age and dressed with various degrees of formality. Curiously, not a single one sported the animal ears and tails that came from partnering with a RIDE -- a statistical anomaly even in Nextus. Then again, such tags could be removed as easily as a tattoo.

"This concludes today's session," said the man in the center of the group as he stood up. "See you next week."

They scattered every which way once outside. One woman, with white stripes in her raven-black hair and deep lines on her face, stopped to take in the boulevard, with its reassuringly uniform buildings and neatly ordered traffic. That's what she liked about Nextus: even trees in parks were perfectly aligned into decorative patterns. Unimpeded by a dome, the architecture often reached dizzying heights.

"Carla!" she heard, and turned to see a man waving as he came towards her. His short blond hair and round face made him appear a lot younger than he was likely to be.

She hugged him. "Daryl! You came!"

"How else?" he said. His smile faded. "What's wrong?"

"Therapy isn't helping."

"Give it more time, dear."

"I gave it enough, Daryl!" she screamed. "I can't get it out of my head! Any of it! Being a prisoner in my own body! Not knowing what was going to happen to me! All the other humans there -- tortured, broken. Or worse -- accepting!"

He'd heard it all a hundred times before. "But what else can we do?"

She took a deep breath. "I must go back to Alpha Camp. Just once. There's this new program at the institute..."

His face contorted upon hearing the name. "We should bomb that place into oblivion."

"Seriously, Daryl? They crushed an Integrate army. What makes you think the Nextus military would fare any better?"

"We invented RIDEs," he said darkly. "We should damned well be able to smash them to pieces."

"Ah, Daryl, you're such a child sometimes. Help me do this, please. For my sake?"

"I don't really have a choice, do I?" He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and they walked away.

The charter suborbital taxied to a stop right in front of a small airport terminal, dropping off less than two dozen passengers. Half of them Carla knew from a distance; the other half were businesspeople, even more boring than her and Daryl's companions. Further afield, towering humanoid shapes were unloading containers from cargo aircraft.

"Are those people in RIDEs?" asked a nerdy looking guy, in clothes that Carla found overly casual even for the present circumstances.

"Actually, RIDEs are people," somebody answered from behind the group. "At any rate, those are Integrates. Humans permanently Fused with their RIDEs. Don't worry, that's a very rare occurrence, and doesn't happen by accident."

It was a humanoid Komodo dragon, sitting behind the wheel of an open platform skimmer with passenger seats in the back, which already contained their bags.

"My name is Padar," he continued, and I'll be your guide for the stay. Climb aboard, if you will."

"Oh, I know!" chirped an anorexic girl as they gave course to the invitation. "Some Integrates are good guys, right?"

"Indeed," confirmed the guide. "Those you see there are from the army that attacked Alpha Camp a while ago."

"I don't get it," Daryl piped in. "Are they sentenced to community service or something? In Nextus we'd have just executed them."

And that's why you have no friends, the lizard's expression seemed to say. The actual answer was more polite: "That wouldn't have brought back our own dead. Or caused the tyrant who forced them into battle any regrets."

He revved the lifters and drove them towards the town at a leisurely pace. "But let's enjoy the visit. Alpha Camp was founded two decades ago. At the time, RIDEs had only existed for fifteen years, and the vast majority were military models. Hence our tradition of..."

"That'd odd," a stolid-looking woman interrupted him, eyeing the construction bots busily printing out a new building by the roadside. "I thought it would all look like a concentration camp."

The guide emitted a strangled sound.

"It was never a concentration camp," Carla found herself saying. "More like a village, really."

The older woman stared at her. As a matter of fact, everyone else did, too.

"Indeed," resumed the guide, sounding very grateful. "For the longest time, opportunities for expansion were limited due to our unofficial status..."

He droned on in the same vein as the vehicle made a detour, then entered the town proper through one end of the main street -- the one opposite from their hotel. Even Carla was shocked at how normal it all seemed now, a happy little town with colorful storefronts advertising various businesses. It could have been orbiting any of the large city-states on the continent, but for the fact that RIDEs dominated the pedestrian traffic, either Fused with humans or by themselves. And since their primary role was that of power armor, even those based on smaller animals had to have enough internal space for a human body. Which could lead to the surreal sight of a pony-sized badger padding down the street, carrying a pair of shopping bags balanced on its back.

Which was exactly what happened as they were disembarking in front of the hotel and grabbing their luggage.

"Melinda?!" exclaimed Carla.

Several things happened at the same time.

The badger stopped, ears drooping, and hesitantly looked towards the group. Daryl reached for the gun holster under his jacket. "That's her?" he shouted. "I'll kill that monster!" Then Carla grabbed his arm, yelling "No!" just as across the road a Fused wolf in a metallic kilt got up from his seat at a hole-in-the-wall fast food and covered the intervening twelve meters in a single, standing leap, landing in front of the pair. The badger bolted.

"Melinda, wait!" and with that, Carla ran after her. Daryl moved to follow.

"I'm not leaving you alone with that... that..." He was stopped by a huge arm covered in fur.

"Hand me your gun first."

Daryl had to tilt his head backwards to look at the wolf. "Who're you?" he asked, suddenly mellow.

"A concerned citizen. I can't let you play judge, jury and executioner. Especially in my town."

Hesitantly, the man did as requested. "I'm sorry," he said.

"No harm, no foul," shrugged the wolf. "I'll give it to Carla when she comes back."

"Wait, you know my wife?"

The wolf nodded. "I'm from the old guard. Name's Rafe. I don't suppose she ever mentioned me."

"She might have. She mentioned many things. But really, I should..."

"Walk with me," Rafe interrupted him.

They took a few steps, while the guide recovered from the shock enough to herd the rest of the group into the hotel.

"I don't understand," complained Daryl. "What could they possibly have to talk about?"

"Closure. Believe it or not, Melinda isn't proud of what she did. We need humans, just as they need us, and it was the only way back then."

"Is that supposed to make things better?"

Rafe shook his head. "No."

"Have you ever... you know..."

"Bodyjacked a human? Yes, once. His name is Alex."

Daryl inched away from him. Rafe hung his head in shame.

"It's not the way you think. We're still together."

The man looked more carefully at the humanoid wolf. "Oh!"

"You figured it out," said Rafe, and his hardlight fur flickered off before he unfolded with a fluid motion, then reformed into his quadrupedal stance, leaving Alex to stand in his place.

The two men shook hands.

"This may seem hard to believe," said Alex, "but it wasn't all bad. Despite the... circumstances. But it was different for everyone."

"I don't get it. How can you talk so calmly about having been a slave?"

"That's funny," answered Alex, hugging around Rafe's neck. "Carla once asked me a similar question."

"I can talk calmly about having been a slave," Rafe pointed out, "and I've been one for years on end, not just months."

"Sure," said Daryl, "But you were..."

"Built to be a slave? Yes. Didn't make it any easier to be one."

They walked in silence for a while. Far ahead of them, the woman and the badger were still chatting.

"You know, Daryl," resumed Alex after a while, "I think you're focusing too much on the 'how' when the real question is 'what'. We're happy now, what matters the past?"

"The scars matter," pointed out Daryl.

"I guess," said Alex. "It wasn't easy. But I found it in me to forgive Rafe for taking me away from my life and friends. In turn, he forgave all humans for treating him like an object. Everybody won."

Daryl nodded thoughtfully. "I see now. Do you... do you think Carla will ever be able to forgive Melinda?"

"One can only hope," mused Rafe.

Elsewhere in town, a she-bear RIDE and a redhead girl Fused for the first time. It wasn't easy for either of them, and they had plenty of catching up to do.

Separator stars left.png THE END Separator stars right.png

Separator stars left.png Bucharest, 2013-11-20 Separator stars right.png
Preceded by:
Alpha Camp
Alpha Camp Succeeded by:
The Wolf and the Father