User:Jetfire/In Space

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FreeRIDErs story universe

Works by Jetfire on Shifti
Works by Jon Buck on Shifti

In Space...

Author: Jetfire , Jon Buck

Uptown, Aloha Elevator, 149 AL

Elona and Drelzana looked out through the viewport to the station's small space dock. Both women were the Alohan nano-adjusted ideal, but not taken to the extreme some women went to. Elona had straight, black shoulder length hair, while Drelzana was a brunette with a wave in her similarly long hair. Outside, workers were moving components around, nanowelding the metal together to make a solid mass. It wasn't much to look at yet, but for one of the women, it would become their future.

"And then there were two," Drelzana said. "Gonna be a long year of waiting."

"I know. But there's no choice. They're still cooking up the RI, and until she's ready, they won't know which of us is the better fit. I'm still surprised Linara backed out," Elona said.

"Well, it was the first time we saw the fuse results. Guess she was more self conscious about her body than she let on."

"True. She was the only one who was just in the White Star candidate pool. We're both in the White and Red Star pools. I wonder if that gives us an edge."

"I hope so. One of us is going to get that white dragon, the other will have to fight the guys for the red one. It's going to be fun," Drelzana grinned evilly, as if she was already anticipating the fight.

Elona shook her head and looked outside again. "Doesn't look like much, does it? But a year from now, that's going to be one of our extended bodies. They pump out the small RIDEs so quick no one really sees them this way, but she's going to be a big one, one of the biggest ever. Which means more time to build, test, revise, and test some more. She's going to be a triple-zero all by herself."

"Shakedowns going to be fun." Drelzana turned away, "Want to go hit the bar, celebrate our increased chances?"

"Sure, let's go."

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Aloha RIDEWorks, One Year Later

"So have you seen the latest views of the dragon shuttle? It's blockier than I expected," Drelzana said. The two women were at the RIDE company waiting for their first talk with their potential future partner.

"It's not that bad. quarters and open space for twenty four people does take room. That giving you some doubts?" Elona asked, smirking. While the two were friends, they knew only one would get the first space dragon. So each made sure not to miss any opportunity to expose weakness in the other's resolve.

"Not at all. She could be a box and I'd still want to fly her."

"Still, you have to wonder, why make it a RIDE in the first place. Making a draconic ship is easy enough, and an AI would probably be just as good. The RIDE version only has a single mode, and is too big to go anywhere not spacey. Why would you put an intelligence through that?"

"Is that your nervousness I'm hearing now El? That's why they're making it fuse capable. They want us to keep it grounded a bit, to give it the human scale experience."

"Nah, not nervous, just curious..."

They fell silent as the door opened. A tech came out and looked at Drelzana. "We're ready to start the compatibility tests. Drelzana is first. Then we'll take you in Elona."

Drelzana jumped to her feet and followed the tech. She paused at the door and looked back. "Good luck. Seriously, if she doesn't chose me, you're just as good a choice."

Elona nodded going serious as well. "Same to you. Look at it this way, the person that doesn't get picked will have a better idea what to say to the red dragon."

"Exactly. See you on the flip side."

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Elona closed her eyes and let the virtual world take over her senses. When she reopened her eyes, the lab was gone. Instead she was on a glacier, flat ice covered in a light dusting of snow surrounded her. She looked down, to see her normal virtual avatar, a muscular barbarian woman that looked like she did, only bigger. She reached into gear-space and pulled out some furs, wrapping them around herself for warmth.

"I see you came prepared," a deep voice said behind her.

Trying not to show her surprise, Elona turned around and met the RI for the first time. The huge dragoness was white-scaled with hints of blue at their edges. Her head was bigger than Elona's avatar, with a large muzzle and piercing blue eyes. A pair of white horns rose from the back of her flattened, stretched head, extending straight back. Her spine was flat, extending smoothly to a long tail with a sharp pointed tip, but no flares. From her chin down her chest and along her belly, her scales were thicker. The large white scutes giving her an armored look. She was quadrupedal, each foot having large claws suitable for tearing and digging. Her wings were half extended, the wing sails sparkling and translucent, like fresh ice.

Elona found her balance quickly and bowed to the dragoness. "Hello, My Lady. I am Elona McGibbon, of Aloha."

"Prepared and polite. Two pluses right off the bat. I suppose politeness dictates that I should introduce myself now. The name I have chose is a simple one. You may call be Vox." She paused and corrected herself, "No, actually, I like the honorific you used. You may call me Lady Vox."

"Yes, my lady." Elona replied, holding the bow a moment longer before straightening up.

The dragoness considered her carefully, before reacting. The glacier cracked and rumbled before a human sized chair rose up behind Elona. The dragoness herself compressed, shrinking down until she was only the size of a large elephant, instead of dominating the scene. "I have been told humans deal better on these scales. While you would have to adapt to the larger scales eventually, for now, I will bring myself down to your level."

"I appreciate it. What would you like to know, Lady Vox?" Elona asked.

Lady Vox let out a breath of cold air, the cloud fogging the air over Elona's head. "There are many things I would like to know. First of all, I would like to know your thoughts on being my thumbs; my representation in the human scale world. I know that even if I land on the planet, I won't be able to interact at this scale, so everything you do will reflect on me. You will also be my face for the passengers, the person they interact with. Are you ready to take on that burden?"

"I am ready for it," Elona replied. "But remember, while we can share thoughts, I am still my own person. I will be our human face, but you will be experiencing the human world as I want to. I'm sure we'll reach a suitable compromise one way or another."

Vox laughed, a cold laugh, but not an evil one. "You have spunk. Maybe you'd be better suited for the red. But you are intriguing as well. What makes you want to live in Space? You were born on the planet and grew up there."

"I may have been born here, but my heart is up in the stars. My grandfather was a Spacer that got grounded by love. While not all of his children inherited the spacer spark. If you check my history, you'll see I've lived in Uptown since I left high school."

"I do see that. But you touch on another aspect. What happens if Cupid's arrow hits you, and you end up grounded by love as well?"

Elona shrugged, "I could lie and say nothing would separate us... but I won't. It's an unknown, a chance we'd have to take. It could happen, anything is possible. But it would have to be a mighty strong arrow. I'm already giving at least three years of my life to your form to share the stars with you. Anyone who wants to pull me away from that would have to pull you as well. Or learn to love to travel."

The dragoness pondered Elona's answer without comment. Elona found herself sweating a bit despite the chill in the virtual realm. She knew she was walking a fine line between being assertive and being accepting, and the dragon was hard to read to tell if she went too far either way.

An eternity of tough questions later, Lady Vox dismissed her. The glacier cracked open and she fell into a pit, finally waking back up in the lab. A tech offered her a mug of hot chocolate.

"How'd I do?" she asked, taking a sip and feeling her body warm. She wondered what it might be like to be chilled all the time.

"We don't know. She will make her decision when she is ready. You may leave when you are ready."

"You mean that's it? Not even a hint?"

The tech shook his head. "Dragon cores can be very finicky, especially one this big. She may be annoyed that her choices are so limited. Give her time to face this reality; once she makes her choice we will let you know."

Elona left the lab and found Drelzana waiting for her. "She's quite the dragon, isn't she?" Drelzana said, falling into step beside Elona.

"She certainly is. How did she react to you?"

"Well enough I suppose. I'm not sure, I might be too fiery for what she's looking for. I may have pissed her off a bit."

Elona chuckled, "I can see that. She seemed to be looking for something in particular, I didn't piss her off, but I'm not sure if I'm it."

"Well, we'll find out soon one way or another. Maybe I should start thinking of the red instead."

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Elona was in a deep sleep, vaguely hearing a persistent beeping. She gradually woke up, wondering why her systems didn't silence the call. Finally she woke up enough to look at the caller ID.

"Shit!" she cursed, sitting upright. She ran a hand through her hair and used her bed sheet to wipe her face quickly. "Answer," she called out.

Normand O'Leary, the owner and main backer of the tourist company, appeared at the base of her bed. "Good morning, Sorry for waking you, but I figured you would want to hear immediately."

"Morning, Sir. It's no problem. I know you wouldn't call if it wasn't important," she answered, adjusting the sheet around her chest; even in Aloha, it generally wasn't polite to appear naked in front of the boss.

"It is important. Lady Vox has made her decision. Her core will be going up the elevator later today to be installed in her body, and we want to announce her partner at the same time."

Elona's heart skipped a beat. "She's picked the captain?"

Normand grinned, "Pack your bags, though not too much. You're going upstairs and going to need a new wardrobe."

The sheet slipped from under her arms, "Wow... I... "

"You're welcome. A skimmer will be picking you up in a couple of hours."

"I'll be ready sir. Thank you. We won't let you down."

"You wouldn't have gotten this far if we thought you could. Congratulations, Captain. I'm looking forward to our first tour."

"We'll be glad to host you. Thank you again."

He waved and disappeared. Before she could react, the system, sensing she was awake, accepted another call, the caller ID showing Drelzana.

"Accept," Elona said weakly, the news sinking in.

Drelzana appeared, smiling and trying to seem happy, though Elona could see the redness in her eyes. "Congratulations. Lady Vox liked you better."

"Thanks, I'm not sure yet that's the best thing but its my future. I'm sorry for you though."

"Don't be. We knew only one of us could get it. Vox and I would probably constantly be fighting. But damn, I wanted that RIDE."

Elona nodded, "Well, there is another one at least."

Drelzana grinned, "Damn right there is. And he's going to be mine. Those guys don't know what's about to hit them."

"So are you planning on coming upstairs? Man I don't even know what all is happening."

"You bet your scaled ass I'll be up there. Need to make sure they know who I am to make my chances better. I'm pissed that I didn't get it, but I lost to the better candidate."

"Thanks Drel. I'll see you soon. I need to get ready...."

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The weeks passed in a blur of activity around the elevator. The first day, Elona and Drelzana, along with the rest of the candidates for the red dragon, were hauled up to White Star Line's main office for the announcements and the installation of Vox's core.

The ship was what Elona was most interested in. Without the core, it looked like any other heavily customized shuttle. The bow of the ship was a draconic head superficially similar to Lady Vox's virtual head. It had a cockpit built into it, and access through a neck tube, but otherwise it was meant mainly for aesthetics. The main body was large and blocky, as Drelzana had pointed out, with solar panel covered wings that could extend for emergency power, or just for appearances sake. Clawed legs were at the four corners of the main body, intended to act as docking clamps at their home bases. They would also be useful for excursions onto moonlets and asteroids. The tail was mostly retracted, mainly for aesthetics, but also the location of most of the communication gear. She had three impellers at her rear, two on her rear hips and one at her spine.

Watching the ship as the core was installed, Elona could see it coming to life. Large sections of hardlight flickered on and off as the RI and DE connected together. The head extended out further, eyes glowing and looking around with new intelligence. The wings extended and folded into a more natural looking position. The legs stretched out, claws flexing and eventually clamping onto the spars purposefully built on the side of the station. Finally the hardlight stopped flickering and settled on a scaly appearance that rounded out the sharper edges of the craft, making it look more draconic.

Elona was in a private room with the techs watching Vox activate. Once the techs verified the link was stable they cued her to speak.

"Lady Vox? It is your lady, Captain Elona. How do you feel?"

"I" The dragon head paused, then turned and started looking through the view ports until it found Elona. "This is the Real? It is so limiting. You are smaller than I expected."

"It is the Real, and yes it is limiting. But without it, the Virtual wouldn't exist."

"True. When can I properly claim you as my own? I can sense the systems are primed."

"Not for a bit longer, Lady Vox," a tech said. "You are one of a kind for now, we need to make sure all the glitches are worked out before fusing. But it won't be too long."

The shuttle-RIDE tech, a man named Blakley, looked through checklists and systems status indicators only he could see, pointing his fingers at empty air in front of him. "Good, good. Propulsion and navigation systems check out, but we need to take her out for proper coordination and synchronization. Would you like to join us for the first trip, Captain? It'll just be out around Alpha and back."

"Damn right I want to join you. Lady Vox won't ever be leaving without me from now on. In fact, I'm planning on claiming my quarters as soon as I can get through the airlock."

An hour after Lady Vox powered up, Elona stood in the central room where the cruise clients would spend most of their time. It had comfortable seats, entertainment screens, and privacy fields. Doors and lifts lead to the halls with the cabins, dining room and exercise room. Elona's own quarters were near the bow of the ship, at the base of the space dragon's neck. Within the room was the fuse chamber as well as access to Vox's core.

Normand O'Leary walked in after she'd done a brief tour, and offered his hand. "Congratulations, Captain. I hope she is all you expected."

"Everything and more. You're wonderful, my lady." Elona said, addressing her comment to the air.

The dragoness's holographic head appeared. "Welcome. Everyone on the list is on board now. I'm ready to leave as soon as possible. These impellers feel...nice."

"Once you can fuse, you will have a hand in these sorts of operations. In the mean time, Lady Vox, you're in your own claws. Remember to talk to ZOT and stick to the route we plotted," Blakely, the shuttle-RIDE tech said.

"Of course, you've only reminded me ten times since you said I was flightworthy. Airlock is sealed, letting go of the station... now."

The humans on board tensed and looked around, but Vox's inertial dampening fields didn't give a hint of movement. One of the media screens lit up, showing the space elevator drifting away slowly.

"Smooth as ice, my lady. Very nice. Let's give those beautiful impellers a stretch as soon as you're cleared," Elona said, patting the wall. Her feelings were jumbled up, proud at how smoothly Lady Vox was moving, nervous of what a fuse would be like with a machine, and curiosity about what having the ship as her shared body would feel like.

Normand and Elona sat side by side in front of the media screen, watching Vox fly through the crowded orbits over the planet, heading out to the moon. Blakely and the rest of the techs were lost in their own world, monitoring the ship with their own independent equipment, alert for any abnormalities. At 150 meters, Lady Vox was as long as the Blockade Runner in the first Star Wars movie. She was technically large enough for an FTL drive, but the drive equipment would have taken up half of her interior space. As an interplanetary shuttle with the latest in high-grade sarium batteries and an onboard polywell fusion reactor for emergency recharges, she could complete several round trips to Colossus and back, coasting on fast transfer orbits.

The trip out to the Zharusian moon was barely enough to warm her engines up. Her main stress was tracking the thousands of objects that might get in her way, while staying on the track space control laid out for her. Zharus Orbital Tracking kept more than their usual eyes on her, since she was so maneuverable compared to normal civilian spacecraft.

"ZOT gets antsy when you deviate too much from the flight plan, my Lady," Elona said.

"They will have to adapt," the dragon-shuttle said, stretching her partly-hardlight wings. "I was wrong about the Real having limits. My senses detect the light from galaxies billions of years old. I think I actually feel...small." The shock behind that admission stood out.

Normand covered his mouth to hide a smile. "We're certain you'll adapt to it, Lady Vox."

They reached Alpha in an hour, then descended down to its surface, gracefully flapping her wings for appearance's sake, flying among the mountains and craters, her vast winged shadow falling over the lunar regolith. She made a point to go where there were people. Alpha was home to a dozen sizable Spacer settlements, totalling over ten million people. There were occupied outposts and automated mining camps. A number of the poor AIs running them sent confused, almost frightened signals back to their controllers.

Then she angled for one of the physical habitation domes on the surface.

"What are you doing, Lady?" Normand asked.

"Don't worry, everything is still in the green," Blakely said, sounding a bit doubtful.

"Indeed, there is no need to worry," Lady Vox said. "I am simply saying...hello."

A hundred meters from a lunarcraft control tower occupied by two very shocked and confused men, the massive white dragoness landed in the regolith, scattering lunar dust around herself. The men in the tower were simply too slack-jawed to leave. Vox came to a full stop just a few meters away, then nodded. "Greetings, gentlemen," she broadcast. "I am Lady Vox. Permission to land at your fine outpost?"

"Looks like I picked the wrong day to quit drinking," one man replied. "Bob, I'm going to hit the cantina." Then he fled.

"Uh...permission granted, Lady Vox," the remaining man said. "Welcome to Moon Zero Two. Will you be, uh, staying long?"

"Not long. May I have permission to depart...Bob?" the dragoness said in her most polite tone.

"Uh, granted. Gu-granted," the man said.

With a gigantic plume of lunar dust in her impeller wake, Lady Vox left Alpha and headed back towards Zharus, exulting all the way.

"I'd say we're off to a good start," Normand said. "A spectacular maiden voyage is always a good omen."

"So, when can I Fuse?" Elona asked the techs.

"You'll have to give us more time on that," Blakely said, recovering his stability. "Delicate adjustments, you see. Have patience."

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A week later, both Elona and Vox were frustrated. They'd gone out daily with a crew of techs, doing perfect loops around the moons and bigger Zharus stations, but the techs refused to clear them to fuse. Elona was tired of being a passenger in her own body. while Vox wanted to push her engines more.

"Another day, another milk run, Blakely. How many more of these do we have to do before you'll realize you built her fine?" Elona asked as the techs filed in. She was dressed in a nightie, not even bothering to dress up for the daily visits any more.

"Shouldn't be many more. While to us the runs have been smooth, there have been a few glitches at the low level. They're almost all cleared up now," the lead technician said, absorbed in his screens and data feeds.

"Fine, but I don't see why that keeps us from fusing. We'll still have to do that sort of tuning after we fuse too."

Blakely put his stylus behind his ear. "She's unique--the triple-zero in a whole new class of RIDEs. We want to make sure we have all the kinks worked out before the Red gets too far along. And the kinks are easiest to work out when you're only manipulating one thing at a time."

"Spoken like a true engineer," Elona smirked, "Of course you aren't working out all the kinks. She's got a few that we want to keep."

Blakely looked at her strangely, while she glanced away, whistling innocently. "Right, well the kinks that show up here, I want banged out."

Elona snorted and tried to cover it with a cough. "Fine, when you have the route plotted out, let the Lady know. I'm going to grab breakfast."

She was munching on a bagel and sipping coffee when she heard a commotion down in the main room. The techs were arguing with new voices she didn't recognize. She swallowed the last bite of bagel and carried her coffee back down. The Blakely was arguing with a man and woman, and losing. The new pair were obviously specialists in their own right, though she had no idea what they specialized in. The man had wolf RIDE tags, while the woman was heavily feathered.

"What is going on here?" she shouted, stepping off the lift. "My Lady, who are these strangers?"

Lady Vox's head appeared next to her. "They identified themselves as Arlene McKay and Jim Barber. Nanite specialists."

"I must protest! We can't be fiddling with too many things at once. It would be chaos!" Blakely objected, oblivious to Elona's and Vox's arrival.

"And as we've been saying, you've been overruled. Mister O'Leary is getting tired of waiting for this line to start up. Our first run is in two weeks, and the Captain needs to be ready." Arlene said. Elona recognized a Nextusian accent, similar to Blakely's.

"You mean?" Elona asked hopefully.

"It's time for you to fuse. Lady Vox is not moving until you are working properly as a team," Jim said, having a hint of a Sturmhaven accent.

"This way then. It's down here," Elona lead them to the captain's quarters. "I guess this is a first for you, being able to walk to a fuse chamber inside a RIDE ."

"Almost. I worked with some of the sub RIDEs, they have a similar setup," Arlene said.

Elona entered her cabin and kicked some dirty clothes against the unmade bed, a frustrating week showing in the unkemptness of the place. "Sorry about the mess. I suppose I should have expected guests."

"That's fine. Most of your wardrobe will go into the recycler anyway, if our fuse sims match what Vox does," Jim said. He slid the door to the fuse chamber open and started taking readings. "Just give us a few minutes to make sure everything is primed properly."

The captain busied herself cleaning up the cabin while the nanite specialists worked. She tried not to look over their shoulders too much, but the temptation and excitement made it hard to resist. She could sense a fourth presence in the room, as Lady Vox focused invisibly on them.

Finally, most of Elona's clothes were piled in a basket, ready for the recycler, and the fuse chamber door was fully open, the insides glittering with silver.

"Ready when-" Arlene stopped speaking, surprised to see Elona already in the chamber. Lady Vox was spinning her around even as she closed the door. "That was quick. Usually they hesitate."

"We both have been talking about this all week, anticipating it. Neither of us wanted to give you the chance to say no," Lady Vox said.

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Elona found herself back on the glacier, with her barbarian avatar dressed in furs. She turned around slowly, looking for Lady Vox, sensing her presence all around her. The presence consolidated in front of her, the wind swirling around the snow until it solidified into the dragoness.

"No, no, no, this will not do," she said, less aloof than when Elona had first met the dragoness on the virtual glacier. The dragoness blew at Elona, a fog of ice crystals surrounding her. The furs froze and cracked off, her skin and body going numb.

Elona slipped her mind from her avatar to watch. Her avatar's flesh frosted over, becoming white. The ice hardened, taking on a scaly texture. Her chest flattened out, thicker scutes starting under her chin and going down her neck, the front of her shoulders, over her chest and down her belly, the scutes getting smaller, shrinking back down to scale size just above her groin. The flakes of snow congregated at her spine, just above her rump, growing out longer, forming a tail similar to Lady Vox's. Her nails grew longer, curling over into claws though still short enough to leave her hands useable.

Her neck grew longer, her face pulling forward into a muzzle, her forehead flattening a bit. Above her eyes, her skull reshaped, providing a base for the icy white horns that grew out.

Finally her shoulders ached even through the numbness, bulking up, new arms growing out, supporting draconic wings.

"Much better. More appropriate for a representative of a dragon," Lady Vox announced.

Elona let her mind fall back into her avatar, briefly getting confused by the new limbs. She shook out her wings and turned her head to see the glistening wing sails. At the same time, she could sense the RIDE's mind, a huge presence, bigger than anything she'd ever felt in the virtual before.

"I am bigger than anything you've experienced before. We share the same space, but mine is larger than yours," Lady Vox said.

"I've noticed. You have a lot more to handle than my mind has had to. May I see it?"

The glacier stayed in place, but the skies cleared up. Elona stood there, seeing the station large on the horizon, the moons filling the skies around it. Lights, some of them big enough to identify as ships, flew everywhere. The wind changed its tone, becoming noisier, voices babbling instructions and greetings between travellers.

"Wow, this is what you see all the time, my lady?"

"No, this is a simplified version of what I see and sense. Your mind is not yet prepared for the full scale."

Humbled, Elona pulled inward, until the sky fogged over. She became aware of their extended body, the breathing of its air circulators, the beat of its power systems, the muscle twitches of its engines, the presence of the guests in their living spaces. She focused down to her own quarters, and the pair of humans in it. A miniscule part of Vox's great mind tracked them, picking up their pulse, breath rates, brain activity, even their arousal state. (They both seemed more than slightly aroused, waiting excitedly for the results of the fuse). Elona tapped into Vox's experience and activated the holoemitters in the room.

Her avatar appeared in the Real in her scaled and naked form. "Please state the nature of your tourist emergency," she announced, purposefully focusing on a spot between Arlene's and Jim's heads. She tried to hold a blank expression, but lost it by the time they turned her way, dissolving into a fit of giggles.

"Captain? How are you doing?" Arlene asked.

"Fine, I'm feeling great. This is incredible. This is... awesome! My Lady, her mind is so huge and beautiful. I can't even begin to come to grips with it yet." She spread her arms and wings.

Jim looked at her, then back at his own scans. "Lady Vox's core is bigger than normal. Combined with the automation of the ship, and the computing power innate in the ship's systems, including the boosts intended for guest use, she has more mesh power than a large town. A normal RIDE barely has a hundredth of that."

Elona smiled toothily. "So you're saying my lady is smart."

Arlene coughed softly to get attention. "If that is your intended avatar form, you might want to recall company regulations about the dress code," she pointed out.

"What? Oh! Right!" Elona flickered out, and reappeared, clad in black slacks and a black backless vest. "So are we cleared to go? I want to fly!"

"Please calm yourself, Captain. Your hormones are in flux from the first fuse. Before we can release the ship, sorry before we can release Lady Vox, we need to give you a physical checkup," Jim said.


"You'll need to defuse. Lady Vox, is the Captain presentable?" Arlene asked.

Lady Vox's head appeared next to Elona's avatar. "She is ready. I have done as much as I can do for now."

"Then please release her."

Elona gasped in surprise, "Wait! I'm not presentable. I'm not read-eeeeeeee" Her voice faded out as her avatar collapsed.

Back in the virtual space, she felt her mind being squeezed. The exploratory thoughts she'd sent out being forced back to a slow, sluggish component in her cabin. She lost most of her connections to Lady Vox, and soon found herself back in her own head. An eternal moment later, she heard a door hiss and slide open, and she was back in the Real in her own body. She could still feel a connection to Lady Vox with her implants, but it was smaller, more limited than the cosmic power she had felt in the fuse chamber.

Her first tentative step sent her falling forward, into Jim and Arlene's waiting arms. An unexpected weight had thrown her balance off. "Easy now, there's more of you to handle now," Jim said, helping her take a couple more steps and get fully out into the open. "How are you feeling?"

She coughed and wiggled her bigger jaw a moment, a longer tongue brushing across teeth with a lot more canines than she was used to. "A bit weak... uncoordinated... and a hell of a lot smaller," she said, hearing her voice pitched lower with a growl to it, similar to Lady Vox's.

"And how does your body feel? Everything feel right?" Arlene asked.

Elona considered her response carefully, managing to stand upright and take stock of herself. She could feel her new tail, long enough to just touch the ground. She could feel her wings too, extending from her reshaped shoulders, still weak from lack of exercise. She had to think carefully to spread one out and look at it, seeing the wing fingers that helped shape the translucent sail. She wiggled one finger and saw the sail flex and move. "Everything feels right. They're weak, my wings that is, but I'm already getting used to them. Damn I'm starving."

"We'll get some food in a second. First, you should take a look at yourself, make absolutely sure you feel right. Body dysphoria at this stage is easier to correct."

Elona waved a clawed hand, sending a command to bring up the mirrors. In the reflective fields, she saw a figure almost identical to her avatar. She was more dragon than woman in most ways, but she could tell it was her in the mirror and not a stranger. She spread her wings again, and lifted a hand to her flat chest. While she was breastless, she still had human curves. The figure in the reflection matched her movements, as she expected. "I love it," she said at last. "My Lady, I think you may need to dress me. I don't know how I'll get that vest we simmed on otherwise."

"It should be doable with practice, but I will 'dress you' next time we combine," Lady Vox said.

"Perfect." Elona dismissed the mirrors and headed to the door. "Time to eat, then time to fly!"

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Elona flew in space next to Lady Vox, absorbing how the dragon processed the flight path. Now that she had proper wings, they'd dismissed the glacier part of the sim. Zharus was down, far below their claws, the thin thread of the Aloha elevator stretching up to pass by them in easy grabbing distance.

The planned flight would be their longest yet, a loop around the mostly-processed resource moon Gamma-4, and onwards out to the edge of Zharus's gravity well and just beyond. For the first time, they would be free of the planet's hold, and floating just in Pharos's grip.

The new dragoness looked around, as the bigger intelligence processed data. Lady Vox dumbed it down for her own senses, colour coding objects based on threat level and visibility level; the further away stuff only existed as outlines, based on data from ZOT. Stuff they could sense directly was more solid and classified further based on how close they would come to them.

Elona blinked and shifted her viewpoint, bringing up a different view of space. This one showed gravity fields. Zharus and Pharos dominated this view, but the moons had their own pull that had to be accounted for. The bigger ships and stations, with their own gravity wranglers added further twists, without much range, but for efficient flight, they had to be balanced and planned for. Lady Vox sketched out a path, highlighting areas where they would need to pulse harder and areas where they could coast, slinging around existing fields.

"We're all set. Ready for your first flight, hatchling?" Lady Vox asked, her big head looking down at Elona.

"Ready and eager, my lady."

Lady Vox exchanged a quick message with ZOT, and pushed back from the space dock. An eternal couple of Real minutes later, the dragoness flapped her virtual wings. Through their shared links, Elona could feel the impellers responding, lighting up and pushing against the fabric of the universe. They shot forward, speeding up rapidly along the plotted path.

Elona let out a joyful roar, feeling the solar and interstellar radiation hitting their hardlight skin. She took in the views all around, on the verge of feeling overwhelmed, getting her first sensations of how big Space really was.

All too soon, they whipped around the heavily processed moon, and up to the edge of Zharus's well. The dragon ship zoomed past the planned stopping point without slowing, barely feeling the change in the dominant source of gravity.

"Captain!" she faintly heard. Reluctantly, she pulled part of her mind back down and focused inward, popping up her dressed avatar for the techs still on board.

"Can I help you with something?" she asked, most of her attention taking in the vastness of space.

"Well, we're perfectly fine, but he's a bit annoyed you went past the stopping point." Jim pointed to the fuming tech sitting in one of the seats. "Do you have a destination in mind?"

"Not really," Elona said, before checking to see where they were going. "Ahh yes, now I see. Lady Vox is tired of seeing Zharus. Since Minos and Zharus are almost in conjunction, we're going to go buzz it and come back home. Shouldn't take more than a few hours."

Arlene grinned, "Excellent. In the mean time, would you mind defusing for a few minutes? We just want to do a few more checks."

"If I must." Elona was tempted to resist, but realized two acts of defiance might get them space docked. She reluctantly pulled her awareness inwards, until the fuse chamber opened. She stepped out, feeling the fabric of her fabbed uniform against her scales.

She walked back out and spread her arms and wings. "See? Perfectly fine. And perfectly dressed-whoa!" She swooned a moment, her vision blurring, trying to match the limited Real view with the experiences she'd had with the dragon.

Jim caught her and eased her onto a couch. "Easy, close your eyes. Let your mind catch up."

She followed his instructions, savouring the darkness of her closed eyes, until the vertigo faded. She opened her eyes carefully. "What happened?"

"Just a bit of sensory disjointness. You've been using your mind more than you realize while fused, at a faster speed than you're used to. When you defused, your mind took a moment to slow down. You'll adjust better with practice, as you and Lady Vox find a proper balance."

She sat up slowly and shook her wings, "Wow, yeah that caught me off guard."

Arlene offered her a pill and a glass of water, "That's why we wanted you to split. This will help."

After downing the offerings, she felt things getting back to normal, a bland real world normal, but a normal nonetheless. She yearned to refuse and get her head back out into space, to listen to the hiss of the stars and the chatter from the sats and ships. "Anything else you want to check? Or can I go back to My Lady."

"Nothing else, for now. But no fusing," Jim said. "You've been hired to be a human-ish face to the ship, as well as the captain. You need to spend face time with the tourists while enroute. So think of this as one of your tasks. When we get to Minos, you can fuse for the trip back."

She crossed her arms and slumped down in the seat, "Fine." Suddenly she realized how childish she seemed and sat up, crossing her arms. "Sorry, I'm not normally like this."

"Yes you are," Blakely countered, earning a withering glare from the new dragoness.

"It's the fuse, my dear. Dragon fuses are akin to a sex change. You've gone through a second adolescence, with your hormones all messed up."

She chuckled, "They are? Man, Drel's going to be in for a shock. She's gunning for Red. Dragon fuse and cross at the same time. That's going to be fun."

"We'll be watching that one very closely, especially if she gets accepted by him," Arlene said. "Dragon RIDEs of all sizes were a breakthrough two decades ago. We simulated their evolution and genetic material, their neural templates. Because of this they are prone to...well, they have some special issues."

"Indeed?" Lady Vox said.

"Indeed indeed," Jim said. "For example, they don't have any real live examples to base their behaviors off of. So they tend to be more influenced by the cultural expectations. Traits like hoarding, aloofness, and so forth."

"I am intended to safely and comfortably convey humans and cargo between the worlds, stations, and habs of the Pharos system," Lady Vox said indignantly. "I may have my 'issues' but I shall not fail in this duty. During their time onboard my passengers are a part of my body, like a clutch of eggs before laying. My hatchling--my Captain and I will guard them with our lives."

"That is exactly what we want to hear, my Lady," Jim said, enormously pleased. "So far everything is coming up roses. Onwards to Minos!"

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Lady Vox arrived back at the Alohavator Spacedock and reached out to grab her claw holds. She smiled inwardly at how smoothly they moved now. She was a RIDE, and a RIDE's fuse nanites were meant to permeate their body. Before Elona had fused, they had been locked in her tanks. Now that they were freed, she was able to move them around and use them to take care of some annoying kinks and hiccups, like they were meant to be. The process would take time before they were fully saturated. Without the Fuse chamber itself, the nanites were fragile. But she could make her interior more friendly to them without the techs being the wiser.

Inwardly, she kept an eye on the various techs still checking her out. They didn't seem to realize how needed fusers were. If they had any idea how far she'd spread them, she'd probably never leave dock again. Luckily, with her computing power, she was able to easily fool their supposedly independent sensors and data pads.

"So what's the diagnosis, docs?" Elona asked.

Blakely, looked disappointed. "They are good. Everything is still well within tolerances, even after the longer flight."

"So we're clear to fly?" Elona prodded him.

"I really should take a closer look at these-"

"Are we clear to fly?" Elona asked again more firmly.

"You're clear to fly," he grudgingly admitted.

Arlene and Jim smiled, "You're adjusting quickly. We'll talk tomorrow, but I doubt we'll stop you. The company will be loading up for the trip, and your first run should go next week."

Elona started shooing them towards the airlock. "Fantastic. Now get out!"

Jim quirked an eyebrow. "Get out? So quickly?"

"I can't leave My Lady with guests on board. And I want to go hit Uptown and celebrate. So you guys need to git." She made more shooing motions with her hands.

The fuse specialists bracketed the engine tech and made sure he lead them out. "It's as good an excuse as any. Don't party too hearty, but have a good time."

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Elona stood outside the airlock, leaning against the station wall and gathering her wits. All the passengers were aboard and accounted for. She had greeted each of them, but now it was time to welcome them all and get Lady Vox on the way. She sent a request for all passengers to meet in the main room, and stepped aboard.

:I'm on, my lady. As is everyone else. You may seal up and launch when ready.:

:Thank you hatchling. Our guests are all in place.:

She sensed the airlock seal up behind her, and felt the slight shift as Vox let go and pushed away. Twenty four strangers looked towards her, seated around the big space. Eight were Laurasian, twelve from Gondwana, and the remaining four were from a big orbital in Z-orbit.

Elona dimmed the light and lit up a view of the system. Colossus and Zharus were on opposite ends of the Pharos system. She lit up the planned route, including the flyby around the star. She zoomed in on Zharus, the display showing their position almost at the moon orbitals.

"Welcome aboard everyone. I am Captain Elona McGibbon, Lady Vox's partner. As you can see, we are already well on our way. Once we clear Zharus space, it's downhill to Pharos, for a swing-by, and then a lift up to Colossus. It should take about a day in total. If you have any questions, feel free to ask, we'll answer as best we can."

"So is this ship really a RIDE? We don't have to worry about looking like you, do we?" a nervous Laurasian passengers asked. None of the Laurasians had RIDE tags.

"Yes, you are in a RIDE, but you will not be tagged like I am. No more than you would riding in a RIDE's vehicle mode. Her actual fuse chamber is elsewhere, not a passenger accessible area."

"But you fused with her. You're tagged."

Elona brought up a view of Lady Vox as they left the station. She could have deployed microsats to show the current view, but Elona didn't see the need. "Yes, I'm tagged, to provide a better connection with my lady. Unlike the smaller RIDEs you may have seen, Lady Vox only has one mode, this hybrid dragon/shuttle you are in now. Fusing is less a means of giving her thumbs, and more a means of sharing experiences, tempering the dragon with the human, the organic and the quibitite."

"So will we be seeing anything neat on this trip?" a Gondwanan with cougar tags asked.

Elona zoomed out again and shifted the view to a point between Hali and Minos. A comet came into view, its tail stretching almost all the way back to Zharus orbit. "This is Ringo Comet. A long period comet from the outer Oort cloud. Our flight plan takes it within a million klicks of it."

"Is that close?"

"Close enough for a side trip, if you are interested." Elona winked and looked around the room to judge interest, everyone seemed interested or at least indifferent to the diversion. "It would only add a few hours to the trip, depending on how much time we spend around the comet." The diagram automatically updated to show them intersecting the long-period comet. "Our purpose is to make this voyage scenic, so we do intend to visit rare sights like these. If you wanted to get to Colossus faster, you could have chosen Pan-Pharos or a number of other spacelines. We realize this and thank you for your patronage on our maiden flight."

"Heh. Next thing you're going to tell me is this ship is uns--" the man with cougar tags said before someone covered his mouth.

"Don't say it. Don't you dare say it!" the Laurasian woman said.

Elona chuckled, "I will let you know when we get close. You can track our progress on the screens. In the mean time, enjoy yourselves."

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Ringo was on the Zharus side of the system, so they quickly caught up to it. Inwardly, Vox and Elona were relieved that was the case; had it been the other side, they would have lost all the momentum they were building from swinging past the star. Her engines could compensate, but on the first trip they wanted to take things easy.

Fused with Vox, Elona could feel them flying down the gravity well towards the star, letting physics do most of the work. To reach the comet, they had to push, but it was a trivial push. Soon enough, Elona could taste and smell the comet's tail through Vox's sensors.

"Tastes strange. A weird aftertaste," Elona noted.

"Active sensors are strange. Occasionally they seem to fall into a hole. Might be a glitch," Vox said sounding puzzled. The radar and lidar scans of the comet showed small gaps.

"Don't mention that, they might dock us again until they figure it out. Ringo's pretty close to Pharos, anything we could land on? Give them a bit of an experience?" Elona asked.

Vox shifted to a frequency shifted real view. "The core of the comet is still intact for now. It's going to fall into the Roche limit of Pharos in a few weeks but for now it's core is still big enough and stable enough to land on."

Elona defused and paused a moment, waiting for her mind to adapt to the more limited senses she had in the Real. Through her implants, she was still connected to Vox, but the data felt like it came through a thin straw, instead of the flood she felt when fused. She walked back out to brief the passengers. The common room's media walls were all tuned to the approaching comet. They were flying through a space blizzard, coming up through the tail.

"Ice Comet! Straight ahead!" Elona called out as she walked in. She grinned to her passengers. "Don't worry, it's nothing Lady Vox's shields can't handle. She's an ice dragon after all, this is her element."

"How close are we going to get to it?" a Laurasian tourist asked.

"Close enough to touch. Well close enough for Lady Vox to touch. The comet nucleus is too unstable this close to the star to set up an excursion field, but we will turn the airlock translucent so everyone can go and look."

The view was cloudy, vaporized water and rock dust, with occasional larger chunks passing them by. Elona could feel Lady Vox twitch occasionally as they carved a path through the tail, deflecting the larger elements, occasionally blasting bigger chunks.

:Core coming up. Should be visible in Ten... Nine...: Lady Vox told her.

"Keep your eyes peeled everyone," Elona warned them. Everyone leaned forward, and suddenly a shadow showed in the cloud, quickly growing to a large, icy rock spinning in space. As they watched, a geyser cracked through the ice shell.

"We're going to land on that? Is it safe?"

"Completely safe," Elona said, hiding her own misgivings. :Is it safe?:

:Of course it is. A snowball isn't dangerous,: Lady Vox said. Elona couldn't tell if the dragoness was confident, or overconfident. :Ouch!:

:Ouch? What ouch? Should we swing out?: Elona kept her expression friendly and neutral for the passengers.

:Rock hit me nose on. Invisible on the 'dars, not that they're very useful in this mess.:

:Are you SURE your active sensors can handle this? That's a lot of glitches.:

:Their checks check out. Seems like there's something strange about this comet. Coming in for the landing.:

The 5 kilometre wide space snowball grew rapidly in the views. Some views showed Vox reaching out to grab it, and suddenly instead of flying next to them, they were falling down to it. With a barely felt thump, the claws dug into the crumbly ice.

"Air lock is prepared. Feel free to go take a look," Lady Vox said around them. "No more than four at a time please. It's going our way so there's no rush."

Elona lead the way and stole a peek out first. The outer airlock was open, and a transparent field put up to let people look out. Outside, she could see the dark surface of the comet and the haze of the coma that made Pharos look fuzzy above them. Lady Vox walked slowly, giving them a different view of the comet's core.

:Any of those sensor holes nearby? Might be worth getting some regular eyes on them,: Elona asked, backing away to let the passengers in.

:Already on the way. About a klick away. Looks to be near the surface.:

Elona dearly wanted to fuse up to get a better view of the area, but her duties to the passengers trumped her desire. Through the thin data straw of her implants, she could see Lady Vox approaching a shiny spot on the dark comet. The dragon pinged the spot with every active sensor she had, but other than visually, it was invisible.

:I don't think that's a sensor glitch,: Elona concluded.

:Me neither. It seems to be a property of that material. Maybe a new meta?: Vox suggested.

:Won't that be sweet. The company would be pissed if we bought out so quickly... what's going on?:

Elona sensed the dragoness suddenly stop and start backing away. Fissures appeared around the shiny patch, and blasts of vaporizing gases started leaking out. The metallic chunk lifted away from the comet core, falling apart as it shot away.

:Track it!: Elona thought shouted, trying to follow it with her eyes.

Lady Vox popped up a small window, showing the chunk shattering into smaller pieces and disappearing into the coma and tail. :With what? It's invisible on actives. Visually there's nothing left to follow.:

Elona cursed privately, her dreams of riches crushed as fast as they bloomed. :Any other spots nearby?:

:None I can tell visually. And I can't tell otherwise with the rest of the sensors. We should probably prepare to leave soon.:

They made sure all of the passengers had time to take a look out, before closing up again. "I hope you enjoyed this little diversion. Ringo's getting a bit close to the star, so it's time for us to get going. We'll reach Colossus in about ten hours now."

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Elona left the company's airlock space and stepped out onto Rhodes station, trying not to look too much like a newbie. The core of this station was humanity's first presence in the Pharos system, flown in at slower than light speeds with the Spacers that prepared the system for the colonists. It had been expanded hugely since then, but they still had elements of the first station tourists could visit. Elona intended to be one of those tourists soon enough, but she had another task she wanted to do first.

Outside of the main paths, Rhodes station was a spaghetti mess of corridors and access ways that only the locals really knew. Elona followed a path sent to her by one such local, trying to ignore the looks she received along the way. RIDE tagged folk were uncommon among the heavily borged Spacers; a draconic tagged person like herself was even rarer.

Near the end of the route, she realized that one wall she was following used to be an exterior hull. A new layer of the station had been built out, and her destination was in the extension. The hatch rolled open, revealing a single room. The centre of the room contained a chair, while the rest of the space was filled with a rats nest of wiring, waldos and other cryptic devices.

"Welcome! Welcome to my den, " a voice greeted her from speakers over the door. "Come on in."

Elona stepped in and looked around warily. "Thanks. Are you Doc Met?"

The waldos moved around with minds of their own. She finally spotted a head in the mess. It was hairless, floating in a jar with life support connections at the base of the neck. "I am Doc Met. Welcome to my workshop. I understand you are after some upgrades?"

"Sure, I need a bigger pipeline; a fuse safe pipeline." She shook her wings. "As you may have noticed, I'm the partner with a dragon RIDE, a shuttle sized one docked down at Star Lines Tourism."

The waldoes moved around her. Some of them had cameras and other sensor suites attached. "I did notice. All biological. What you ground pounders are doing to the bodies is amazing."

"Thanks, I think. Anyway, when we're fused, I have full access to her core. She can feed me the universe, or at least as much of it as I can handle. But when we're apart, she has to simplify things too much. My implants can't handle what she can feed me through her own comms. I want more."

"A somewhat difficult request," Doc Met said. "However, I have some verified non-celerite implants from Eridani that may fill your needs. Certainly not the best tech the Cyberdani have to offer, but they are significantly better than Earth or Zharusian Q-based implants even without the celerite wetware interface. Celerite and Q react rather badly to one another."

"That sounds good. It'd have a bigger pipe right? After seeing the universe through my lady's eyes, coming back to the real is just so limiting. If she could help back me up and see what I see, it would help both of us."

Doc Met didn't reply immediately. "Ah...I just have to do a little research on your Lady Vox. A curious venture, a risky one. I can, perhaps, modify your horns to act as transceivers and data buffers. Hmm...many possible solutions. Your interesting skull shape presents some solutions." A holographic image of Elona's head appeared, then became a somewhat gruesome cross-section before it turned wireframe, like some ancient TV show, adding in the modifications to her horns and cerebral cortex. "Now, the real question is, how much can you afford? I take Gondwanan mu, Laurasian dollars, and of course Rhodesian dinars."

"Well, let's start at the top. How much will it cost to do everything? I'll be doing these runs weekly, so I will be around regularly. There's another dragon coming online in a few months; he'll probably want these upgrades too, so maybe we can get a referral discount?"

"If he decides based on your recommendation, I will refund ten percent of the price to you, but not before," Doc Met insisted. "It is very difficult to get new in-the-box Cyberdani implants of any kind. They're almost as rare as the renowned Eridanite brie."

"Fifteen percent refund. If the person I expect gets Red, you'll get the added bonus of being able to study a crossridden mind."

"Thirteen and you have a deal." Doc Met extended a handy waldo.

She ignored it, "Give me the total first."

He sighed and sent her the specifications and costs to study. "I'll give you fifteen minutes to decide."

Elona forwarded the information to Lady Vox. The costs made her wince, but she was reasonably sure she could scrounge up the funds. She didn't need lodgings anywhere but on Vox anyway. :What do you think, My Lady. He has an excellent, if eccentric reputation. Do his costs make sense?:

With the bigger pipeline so close, waiting for the response through the station's network was extra interminable.

:The hardware does seem to match normal market prices with a slight markup. Not enough to get too annoyed with.: Lady Vox replied.

:True, but you aren't used to bargaining. Highlight some of the higher markups, we'll see how much he wants to haggle.:

She grinned, recognizing the highest marked up item. She knew full well why it was so high, but it was a good opening. "2000 mu for a pair of embedded antennas? That's highway robbery!"

"For normal antennas yes. But these are nanometre scale antennas. You don't want your beautiful horns scarred with the mesh of a regular antenna now, do you?" The display showed the difference between the standard and the "invisible" options. The standard were basically replacements that would stand out and had built-in laser transceivers. "Both are Fuser-compatible, of course. But my proposal will be much better integrated with your draconic physique."

"I suppose, still, it is a bit of a markup." She began to pick out a few other items, haggling for a smaller discount. By the time the 15 minutes were up, the price was a little lower, but still painfully high.

She shook the waldo, "Fine, I'll take the deal. Just give us a bit of time to secure the funding. How soon can you do this? We've got some Colossus tours to do, and we leave for Zharus at the end of the week."

The waldos stirred into action, pulling out material seemingly at random and stacking them to one side. "Let's see, most of the parts I have on hand now. A few need to be fabbered, but everything is handy. I should be ready to go as soon as you get the funds together."

Elona checked the new cost and ran it through her personal budget calculations, then winced. Nothing but the best, she mused privately to herself. I don't really need that apartment in Aloha anyway,

"We need to do a loop around Colossus as part of the tour, show off the hydrogen plumes you guys are running, but I should be back in a couple of days with the funding. Here's a deposit to start you off."

The head closed his eyes a moment then grinned, "Deposit received. I'll have everything ready for when you get back. I'll need a few uninterrupted hours to update your equipment. Will you have enough time?"

"I can make it. See you in a couple of days, Doc."

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Elona woke slowly, itching all over, especially inside her head. She raised a hand to her head and stopped just before touching it. Opening her eyes, she saw Doc Met's head in a jar looking at her.

"How do you feel?" he asked, pulling back a bit.

"I feel nothing... no different than before... actually, less than before. Was there a problem? I can't get online..."

"Of course not. I haven't turned them on yet. Gotta make sure the wetware is still working before activating the cyberware. Any problems?"

She sat up and flexed her wings and arms, "Nope, everything feels like its connected right. Let's power it up."

Doc Met waited a few more minutes before sending a signal. Elona felt her body twitch uncontrollably, falling back onto the table. She closed her eyes, but the phantom sights, sounds, smells and tastes were impossible to ignore. The ghost feelings faded as quickly as they started, and her vision was filled with startup codes. They all disappeared as quickly as they appeared.

"All clear. Nothing showing," she reported.

"Great! Starting the handshaking now."

:How do you feel hatchling?: Lady Vox asked.

:Itchy, but much better hearing your voice... wait a second...: Elona shifted her focus back to the Real. "It's no different from before!"

"You have to walk before you can run. I'm limiting it to what you had before, to make sure the basics are in place." Beneath her immediate awareness she had the impression of a lot of activity going on.

"Ramping things up to your new normal. Brace yourself."

At first, Elona didn't notice a difference. Her connection with Lady Vox remained as usual, primarily visual, like a twencen film screen, with a mono-audio stream. After a few seconds, the feed improved, the data becoming richer, with more elements. The flat view deepened into a three dimensional, the sounds becoming stereo, the rest of the dragon's sensory feed mapping to Elona's sensorium similar to her fused patterns.

"How's that working out for you?" The cybernetic doctor clasped several pairs of hands together expectantly.

Elona struggled to keep her pleasure from her voice. "It's adequate. Not as good as a fuse, but much better than before."

"Adequate? Adequate?!? This is the top tech from across human space. If you want a fuse you should just stay fused!" Doc Met huffed.

"Sadly the company says I can't stay that way. They want the human touch with the passengers. But this is better than before."

"Two cans and a string would have been better than what you had before." Doc Met retreated, the waldos clearing a path to the door. "Just get out of here before I change my mind."

Elona chuckled and walked out of the private clinic. "Thanks Doc, I'll be sure to stop in for a checkup next time I'm out." She heard the doctor give a frustrated argh, and the door slid shut faster than normal, a loud slam sound emitting from the speakers.

:So this is how you see the world,: Lady Vox noted as Elona followed her map back to the common areas of the station.

Elona jumped a bit in surprise, :You can sense that?:

:The connection goes both ways after all. Much better than before.:

:But you could just read my mind after to see how I see things.:

The dragoness chuckled, :You mean that mishmash of cells you call a softdrive? By the time I can see it in a fuse, your mind has already rewritten it a dozen times. This way, I see it live. So this is what four billion years of organic evolution is.:

:I suppose it's only fair. If I wanted privacy, I'd never have agreed to fuse with you.:

:In any case, you better get back here. The guests are returning, and we're scheduled to depart in an hour. You've gotta pay back that loan somehow after all.: Lady Vox sent a feed of the last of the cargo being loaded.

:An hour?!? Damn! I'm running!:

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Star Lines Tourism, Uptown, Aloha, 150 AL

Drelzana waited with the rest of the candidates, trying to show more confidence than she had. There were five other candidates for Red, all men. Two were ground pounders like herself, two more were Uptown natives, and the fifth was from Armstrong, the biggest Alpha moon colony.

The hours passed by in silence, none of the candidates wanting to speak to the others. One by one they were called into the lab for the virtual interview with Red. One by one they left, some more confident than others. One of the Uptowners broke into a run as soon as he left the room, his face red and sweaty as if he'd been in a sauna.

Drelzana and the last man looked up as the company representative came out. "Mister Russell, you're up next."

The lunar native, stood up. "Guess you're last. Good luck, and may the best man get the job."

Drelzana grinned back. "Well in the end a man will have it, one way or another."

She sat in the waiting room, holding herself still and not looking impatient while waiting out the hour alone. Finally the representative came back out. "Miss Malone? Your turn."

"Thank you." She followed him into the other room, and took a seat in a familiar chair. The VR rig hadn't changed since her last interview with Lady Vox.

"Has Red got a name yet?" Drelzana asked as she settled back.

"He picked from the same source as Lady Vox did. He is named Nagafen. Lord Nagafen."

"Good to know. So we'll have a Lord and a Lady plying between worlds." There was something very medieval about that. What kind of rumors would reach the Earth and the other Colonies? Would there be a label on the local star charts saying Here be Dragons? The notion held a certain appeal. There was at least one more interplanetary shuttle on the board, codenamed Black, and a rumored fourth, Gold.

The representative grinned, "You're the first to ask."

Drelzana relaxed in the VR rig and closed her eyes. She opened them and briefly had the impression of heat, smoke, sulfur, and glowing lava before everything changed.

She was standing in a regular office apparently in orbit around Zharus. There was a desk in front of a large window that gave a view of the planet, an empty chair in front of the desk. Behind the desk, a young man with red hair stood beside another chair. He was muscular, and wearing a well fitted Nextusian suit, also in red.

"Lord Nagafen, I presume?" she asked, stepping up to the desk. She held out her hand.

"Lady Vox may prefer the honorifics, but I am fine with Nagafen." He narrowed his eyes at her. "Interesting, I didn't expect they would offer a female candidate." He shook her hand, his grip strong, and hot.

"I take it I caught you by surprise?" Drelzana sat down in the other chair without an invitation.

He sat down as well and clasped his hands on the desk. "You did. They told me nothing of whom I was meeting. I know you are the last. Whether they are hoping I would mesh well with an earlier candidate first, or they saved the best for last, remains to be seen."

Where Lady Vox had been very pointed about introducing herself to candidates as a massive Ice Dragon, Nagafen had chosen to meet her on a far more equal basis the first time. "You're certainly different from Lady Vox. She had a very different style. I didn't even think RIs could handle human avatars."

"With the mind the size of a planet, mimicking humans is trivial." He smiled, "Well not quite planet sized, but still larger than normal. You've met Lady Vox?"

"I did. She had a different interview method. More ice storms and glaciers. I figured you'd be all brimstone and lava, but you changed your mind, didn't you?"

"You caught that, did you? When I realized you were different, I decided on a different approach. A woman, wanting to fuse with a male dragon..." He was clearly very puzzled. "Then let's get down to business. Why do you want to do that? To give up all you are to join me?"

"Because I want to fly. Not be a passenger, not even as a pilot. I want to feel the cosmic rays hitting me in open space, the freedom to go where I want when I want." Drelzana spread her arms wide to encompass the Virtual and the Real. "There are suborbital dragons in the Nextus military, and I almost joined up." She laughed, "Imagine that, an Alohan joining the Nextus military. I'd probably earn a years worth of KP duty in my first day.

"In any case, days before I was going to apply, I found out about Star Lines and this project. I was one of the finalists for Lady Vox, but she chose Elona instead. At that moment, I decided I wasn't going to be anyone's seconds. I set my sights on you and haven't looked back."

Nagafen considered her for a long moment. "You don't want to be second. But what makes you think I want Lady Vox's seconds?"

"I am not her seconds. We just weren't a good fit. I've seen Elona and Vox since then, and I know they are the right fit. And meeting you now, I know we will be just as good a match."

"Even if it means becoming a dragon man? I am not going into the egg laying business after all," Nagafen pointed out.

"I will gladly give my womanhood for it. It's a good trade."

Nagafen drummed his fingers on the desk. "Giving up your womanhood, your humanity in many ways, for the chance to soar among the stars, or the planets at least. I can see how you might see that as a good trade. Though it's the answer I've heard before. Two of the guys gave similar answers. You realize we will effectively become company property. We have schedules to keep and all that."

She shook her head. "I know all that. But you have a lot of latitude between those schedules. I've seen it with Elona; we both have the spacer bug, and since she fused, she's better. She had a week off and took me for a trip around the moons, and it's only made me want this more. Preferably with you, but if I need to wait for Black or anyone else the company has in the pipeline, I'll wait and keep trying."

"An admirable goal. Some good points in your favour." Nagafen had been dragging his fingernails on the wooden desk, burning little trails through the surface.

Drelzana stood up to get a better look at the drawing. It was some kind of rune. "Right, then lets get down to business and see how many more points I can earn. But first, while I appreciate this office space, I would like to see what you look like."

"Certainly." Nagafen smiled, his eyes glowing bright red, the rune igniting in a fiery blast.

The view outside of the window blacked out and the office temperature rose. The floor began to brighten and melt away. The walls burst into flames, while the furnace heat lifted the ceiling up.

For Nagafen, the suit coat blew outward and folded back, expanding into red wings. He grew steadily, dark talons growing from his fingers and toes, light red scutes starting under his chin and ran down his chest, the remaining clothes burning away into ash.

From behind the desk, a big tail curled out, with a triangular tip and ridges that ran up to his spine. He lowered his hands down to the floor, resting them on a basalt island that replaced the office floor they stood on.

His face stretched out into a muzzle, forehead flattening and shifting, horns growing back from his skull above his eyes. His head stayed level in space, his neck stretching to account for his body as it lowered down to a quadrupedal stance. To Drelzana's eyes, he looked slightly bigger than Lady Vox, with a male build even though nothing showed between his scaly legs.

She turned around slowly, taking in their new location. She was on a basalt island, in the middle of a volcanic caldera. Glowing magma surrounded the island on all sides, with the roof hidden by the volcanic gases. It was like the middle of Mount Doom.

"So how does this compare with what you expected?" Nagafen asked.

"Almost exactly what I expected of a fire dragon. You're as hot as I expected too."

He settled onto his belly, his tail dipping into the magma off the edge of the island and swishing in it as if it was water. "Fine then, shall we continue?"

Drelzana sat down on a small pillar of basalt. "Certainly. What would you like to know next?"

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Drelzana hooked her legs around the strong brown scaled legs of the man atop of her. She nuzzled his beaklike mouth and stroked the back of his neck frill. Without scales herself, she'd been part of Aloha's scaley community for years, before even the dragon program was hinted at. The triceratops-tagged Tyson was one of her favorites.

"Mmm I'm going to miss you when you finally get your scales," he mumbled, nuzzling against her neck.

"It's been weeks. I'm expecting the 'We appreciate your application' call any day now to be honest. But I'm trying to keep positive."

He kept nuzzling and licking, "Well, let me do somethings to help keep your spirits up."

A few minutes later, Drelzana's comm started ringing the Star Wars theme.

"Let it... Go to... Voicemail," Tyson grunted, only to be pushed away.

"I can't. It's the boss! The big boss. It won't go to voicemail. Answer! No vid!" She struggled to sit up.

"Good evening, Drelzana. I hope I'm not interrupting anything," Normand said.

"No sir, I was just sleeping," Drelzana said, faking a yawn. She barely kept it from turning into a giggle as the interrupted trike-man nuzzled the small of her back.

"Good good. I have news about your application for the Red Star Line," Normand said.

Drelzana's pulse quickened even more more than from the scaled hands rubbing her breasts. "What news is that, sir?" she asked, struggling hard to keep her voice level.

"Lord Nagafen has requested your presence to become his new captain, if you still desire it. It seems he's intrigued by the opportunity to cross someone, and he liked your spunk in general," Normand said.

Drelzana was struck speechless. Even Tyson froze for a moment. "Ruh-Really sir? Wow, I'm... I'm stunned. Of course I still desire it!"

"Great. We want you Uptown at Nagafen's docking slot by tomorrow afternoon. Make sure you get on the elevator in time."

"I'll be there sir. Thank you."

The connection died and Drelzana sat on the edge of the bed, stunned. Almost immediately her comm started ringing again, with Elona's ringtone, a Star Trek fanfare. She ignored it, and felt Tyson start nuzzling again. "I guess congratulations are in order? Are you going to answer it?"

She turned around and pushed him back straddling his stomach and rubbing his beak and frill. "Thanks. I'll let it go to mail. For now, why don't you give me a proper send off?"

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Drelzana walked through Nagafen's habitable guts. His living space was larger than Lady Vox's, and felt more masculine in general. The finishing touches were still being put on the ship, but everything was effectively done. The first test flights were going to be today, but things weren't quite going to go according to plans.

"Blakely, the propulsion and RIDE technician is in the airlock, requesting permission to board." Nagafen said. He stood next to Drel in his red suited human avatar mode.

"Are our other guests here yet?"

"They're coming down now."

"Let him in now then, and let the fuse techs in as soon as they're here."

The engine tech walked in, his attention on his tablet. "Good day, Captain, Nagafen. Ready for your first flight? Everything checks out, so we can leave as soon as you're ready."

"Excellent. There will be a slight delay first. I need to get properly dressed in my scales," Drelzana said.

"In your scales?" The tech looked up and got worried. "Fusing isn't on the schedule until next week." Arlene and Jim walked in and got his attention. "This is highly irregular. You shouldn't even be here yet."

"I'm taking the advice from another friend, who's as anxious to see the nu-me as I am. She's arriving tomorrow, and I want to be ready to greet her properly. So we fuse now, or we just sit here and fight over it. I believe you two already said he's primed and ready, correct?"

"Yes, Nagafen is fully prepared. There really isn't a reason to hold off any longer," Arlene said. They seemed as eager to see her fuse as Drelzana felt.

"But the checklists! We need to follow the lists!" Blakely exclaimed, waving his padd in the air.

Drelzana looked at him strangely. "How the hell did a Nextusian tech get on this job?"

"There are times when being a stickler for detail comes in handy," Arlene said. "This isn't one of those times. Speaking of checklists, Blakely, please look at Page 4, subsection D. I would have thought that you'd be used to finding loopholes. That's what you enjoy doing so much in Nextus, isn't it?"

"I, uh, never played the game all that well. That's why I left," the tech admitted while trying to find the appropriate section.

"A shame really, I was hoping you were more skilled, to keep my own skills sharp. Still, let me give you a hand," Arlene said, waving a feathered hand at his tablet

The appropriate section lit up and Blakely began to read it. "'...First Fuse shall be at the discretion of the Captain after initial installation of Nagafen's core and preliminary DE test results are all within tolerances.'"

"Well, are they?" Nagafen himself asked. "Of course they are. The Lady Vox was the prototype. As I am the second, the procedures have been streamlined. All preliminary tests are complete and passed. Please proceed when ready, Drel. My Fusers are primed."

Drelzana was almost giddy with excitement. "Come to my quarters then. I'm sure Blakely can find things to check off in the meantime."

She lead the fuse-techs forward to her quarters at the base of Nagafen's neck. Jim shook his head a little as he looked around. "Amazing you can run this just by yourself. Normal ship this size needs at least a crew of five or ten."

"By ourselves, with the help of a fleet of robo-vacs and other aides Naggy can control directly. When you have a mind to oversee everything, it does make them easier to manage," Drelzana corrected him.

"It is no more difficult for me to keep myself clean than it is for you to manage all the bacteria and everything else your body needs to function," Nagafen added.

Her quarters were still fairly barren; with her pending fuse she had brought in just the minimum she needed for her last days as a woman. The door next to the closet was already open, showing the silver chamber.

"So do we need to do anything before I jump in?" Drelzana asked.

Arlene nodded, "One checklist of our own. One final question actually. You understand that this is a crossride and an extreme fuse, and that it will be years before you can undo these changes. This is your final chance to back out. Do you wish to continue?"

"Hell yes, I wish to continue."

She grinned and tucked the tablet under her arm. "Then proceed when ready, my good man."

Drelzana paused just outside the fuse chamber. It was the size of a small closet, silver on the inside with a glow visible even in the bright lights of the room. She took a breath and stepped in, not looking back. The chamber darkened slightly as the door sealed behind her, and the walls closed in on her.

She closed her eyes and waited, her skin tingling from the contact of the nanites. Very quickly, she felt a close contact to her implants, asking for low level permissions. She granted them, and soon another presence was in her head.

:Are you familiar with Dungeons and Dragons?: Nagafen asked.

:I've played some over the years,: Drelzana replied. She had an idea on where this was going and liked it.

:Then you'd be familiar with the dragonborn,: Nagafen continued. :When I'm through with you you're going to look so badass they'll hand you a Rank 5 Man Card in Cape Nord based on looks alone. Prepare yourself.:

:Man me up, Nagafen!: Drelzana said. She was pulled into virtual space, once again standing in the caldera. Fountains of magma rose in the distance and the enormous presence of the red dragon dominated the scene.

"Being a fictional creature gives one a certain freedom," Nagafen said. "There are so many varieties of dragons in myth and literature. Fascinating what humans come up with. So creative. I am honored to be the product of their imagination. There are plans for at least two more of us, you know. Black and Gold. Confidentially, they're named Bahamut and Ramoth. The last wouldn't surprise me if they installed an FTL drive in her. A Pernese dragon has to go Between after all."

"An FTL RIDE? That'll give the export councils fits. Still, the company is being very ambitious about this," Drelzana said. She began to feel a telltale fizz on her chest, crotch, and where the wings would attach on her back, and a nascent reptilian tail. Do I even want to look down there?

Her body suddenly felt like it was pulling in the heat of the setting. Her skin itched, drying out and reddening, taking on a scaly texture. Her nails lengthened into claws, darkening to obsidian black. The tingle at the base of her spine grew longer, a tail ending in a trio of spikes growing out, just long enough to reach the ground.

Curiosity finally won out and she looked down, to find her chest already flattened, muscles covered in thick scute-scales growing from her broader shoulders down towards her belly. Her torso was getting bigger, her pinched waist swelling out, her hips pulling in a bit. The scales and scutes reached her groin and she waited, but while the sensations felt more focused, more concentrated, she couldn't see anything but a longer slit.

The tingle at her/his shoulders intensified, muscular arms growing out, with long taloned fingers. Sheets of skin grew out just as quickly, connecting to the back and between the new fingers, forming the wings. He flapped them slowly, getting used to their virtual feel, feeling Nagafen guide his movements, teaching him how they react to the air.

Pressure squeezed around his neck and skull, pressing down on his forehead. He groaned a little and closed his eyes as the dragon presence reshaped his skull. The bone thickened over his eyes, forming a firm foundation for the obsidian horns that grew out, over the crown of his hairless head. His neck lengthened, not quite balancing the length of the tail, but giving him a larger range of motion than normal humans.

"There, dragonborn. Now you are my proper avatar in the human world," Nagafen said. "Nice handiwork if I do say so myself. Biology is so flexible, even if we still haven't figured out proper firebreathing."

"This is... Incredible!" Drelzana said, his new voice a deep baritone now, that resonated in his chest, giving it a rumble. He crouched and flexed, feeling the strength building in his body, his muscles burning pleasantly with the dragon workout.

"Watch the testosterone, brother," Nagafen said with a chuckle. He gestured with his forepaw and a mirror appeared. "Regarding dangly parts, it's not proper for a dragon to display so openly. But I didn't want to remove all of your mammalian aspects. So I used a dolphin as a model."

Drelzana approached the mirror and faced it. He spread the wings wide and turned from side to side, admiring the muscle and raw strength. Scutes gave him a more angular appearance and his head was more draconic than Elona's, and his red eyes practically glowed.

"You'll need a lifter harness to fly in the Real, of course. But otherwise those wings are fully functional," Nagafen said. "I'm showing Lady Vox what modifications your female counterpart will need. Now that there are two of us...well, the Landing Airshow is an ideal place to show us off."

Drelzana grinned and kept flexing, "The Landing Airshow for the tame show. The Alohan Midnight Flight for the more risque versions," he said, the movements, the flush of hormones and heat finally causing a reaction, letting him confirm his maleness for the first time. "The Scalies are going to be so jelly."

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May 3, 151 AL, Landing Airshow

Lady Vox and Lord Nagafen weren't the only dragons at the Landing Airshow, but they were by far the largest. With their hardlight operating at full power they were able to curl up, looking fully organic as their skins flexed and moved. They caused a stir among the attendees just by their presence, and a fair bit of envy among the other dragon-based military suborbitals.

Once per hour they were asked to demonstrate how they looked in pure shuttle mode with hardlight off and limbs retracted. Even then they were impressive pieces of modern shuttle engineering. They had enough draconic flourishes in the right places to evoke how they looked in hardlight without going overboard.

Their exotic Captains caused even more of a stir. For over a year they had been as much a draw as their star dragon fuse-mates, bringing the attention of the extreme body mod community on the planet. The company had turned down numerous requests to have the dragon RIDEs mod people for liability reasons.

Late in the afternoon the Lord and Lady had curled up with one another on a hardlight hoard of gold while their Captains decided to make another round. With the lifter harnesses all Drel had to do was flap his wings a few times to get off the ground. Media drones tracked his every stroke. "How about another flight, Elona?"

"Don't mind if I do," the ice-blue dragonborn said. She pumped her own wings, pulsed the lifter harness, and rose a few meters. "Such a gentleman."

"I aim to please," Drel replied. Their relationship was strictly professional, but there was no call to be impolite. They were friends, after all, Alohan friends at that.

Wearing their finest company dress uniforms, Elona and Drel had often walked or flown around the tarmac, crowds following every step of the way. There were the inevitable questions about their appearance. Some of those questions were irritating.

"So, Mr. Drel, what's it like being Fused to a modern-day Smaug?" one fearless (or stupid) ferret-tagged reporter asked.

"I'll let you know if I ever fuse with him," Drel answered. "Lord Nagafen is not a physical horder; that hardlight pile of gold is just for looks."

:But it does feel nice. Maybe we should find a gold asteroid somewhere and put a gravity generator on it,: Nagafen taunted through their connection.

:I just wish these reporters would do a microsecond of research before asking these same questions over and over. Your lineage may not be as old as the literary dragons, but you still left an impression.:

:I don't mind. Their lack of knowledge is an advantage, one we can use as we wish. We just need to watch for the ideal times to use it,:

Back in the Real, a Landing reporter with a hummingbird L-RIDE camera asked the next question. "Elona, Drel, a question for either of you. Any comments on the Munns' sudden decision to liquidate their shares in your parent company?"

The white dragoness grimaced and shook her head, letting a bit of bitterness seep into her voice. "We have no comment. That sort of thing is way above our pay grade. But our company is solid, our tours and travel routes are very profitable. We will survive."

Like most Alohan ventures, the Munns had had a hand in getting it off the ground, smoothing the way to the dragon stars of Star Lines Tours. Usually the family was a silent partner in the business, letting it rise and fall on its own merits. If the family needed to change their investment, they did it carefully, withdrawing a little here and there from the most successful ventures, slowly enough to not rock the markets.

Star Lines was different. Months after Nikki Munn had returned to the public life, the family had abruptly liquidated their stock, sending ripples through the markets. Other investors had taken their cue from the family and sold off as well, crashing the company's stock price and sending their future plans into disarray. Bahamut was now on hold, Ramoth a distant dream, and Lady Vox's new, larger DE, just a hologram in the RIDEworks database.

Normand and the rest of the board had scrambled for more investors, with little success. Investors in Nextus, Uplift, NSA and even Sturmhaven, despite those polities having history with dragon-themed subs, showed no interest in funding the company. Investors in the rest of the Gondwanan polities tended to take their leads from the big guys, leaving the company out in the cold. Begging for help on the 'sane' continent was their last hope, even if it meant shifting their Zharusian base from the Alohavator to Omphalos, or even Landing.

To the dragons and their human parts, the whole situation stank. It was obvious that something had changed to spook the Munns enough to poison the investment pool, but no one breathed a word about it. The company remained profitable, but only just enough to keep their present bodies flying. New capital projects weren't on the horizon now.

This put everyone in a very difficult position. When the dragons weren't carrying passengers, the company wasn't making money. But potential investors needed to see them firsthand for reassurance that whatever had spooked the Munns--a subject of rampant speculation--was simply untrue. Normally they would have only taken one out of service, but the Landing Airshow was the biggest on the planet.

The dragon-ships were the largest of their type, but not the largest at the Airshow. That was reserved for one of the Munn-funded, 500-meter whaleships that ferried cargo from Aloha to Neo Francisco. The humpback literally overshadowed Vox and Nagafen, who looked up at it with no small amount of wonder themselves.

:I am...humbled,: Lady Vox said.

:That's new for you, Vox,: Nagafen added amiably. :They don't have RI cores, though. It's just a skin. And out of its natural element.:

:Technically, we are out of our element as well. This gravity well stinks.:

The whaleship flexed its tail a few times, rocketing upwards into the thin stratus cloud deck four thousand meters up. Cameras positioned for the occasion caught it as the half-kilometer humpback breached the surface, stalled, then fell backwards as if the sky was merely another ocean, all set to a New Age soundtrack and paintings by the artist Wyland projected into the sky.

"I think we've just been topped, Elona," Drel said. He folded his arms across his impressive chest.

"Don't worry. We'll think of something spectacular on departure," she replied. "We still have a couple hours to kill before then. Let's do early preflight and make sure we can really make their heads turn."

Both dragon-ships were taking a full load of passengers and cargo from the Airshow. Nagafen's last stop all the way out at the distant Xolotlan Hab in the Kuiper Belt, a speed run to demonstrate how fast he could get there, currently at opposition to Zharus. It would require a close-in approach to Pharos, which suited the fire dragon. Lady Vox's last stop was an ice mining base on a moon orbiting the ice giant Tantalus. It was all a publicity stunt, but still needed all the same.

Drel and Elona flew side-by-side before landing on their dragon's back, their strong resemblance to their partners made even more plain to onlookers. Then they entered through dorsal hatches and got to work readying them for passengers and flight.

Preflight was complete by the time they were inside the cabins and the passengers had been brought aboard. They were mostly working people rather than tourists, including some fresh Rangers recruits on the way out to the Academy on Rhodes. Vox's passengers were due to help repopulate and recommission Xolotlan Hab, which until recently had been derelict in the Kuiper Belt.

"Ready for an exciting blast off, everyone?" Drel asked Nagafen's passengers. Aboard Vox, Elona echoed him. The response was a resounding cheer.

The dragonborn entered their Fuser chambers. The two dragons spun up their impellers and inertial dampers, then crouched and thrust skywards side-by-side on red and white pillars of energy, emitting hardlight frost and fire from their mouths, wings flapping. The entire Airshow crowd watched in awe.

The whale was still swimming slowly through the blue sky. Lady Vox and Lord Nagafen quickly caught up, looped around it twice, then continued their ascent to orbit and beyond.

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Rhodes Station, 154 AL

:Owww! Would you please go tell those idiots in my guts to stop banging into the supports? That hurts,: Lady Vox growled.

:I'll go check on it, my lady. I'm sure they don't mean it.:

:I don't care if they mean it or not. I want them to stop. To them its a cargo hold, but for me, it's my belly. I don't want it getting too banged up.: the ice dragoness grumbled.

Elona walked into the lift and let Vox drop her down to the private area of the ship-RIDE. It was a low-G area, to make it easier to move cargo around. Their load was raw fabber material, unprogrammed nanite stock, fresh cavorite and other products the gas giant factories could make easier than Zharus.

"Is there a problem, gentlemen?" she asked the borged out cargohandlers. "My Lady is complaining that you are denting her."

"Yes, there's a problem. Your lady's specs are wrong. That slot's supposed to fit a standard five cube, but it won't," the lead stevedore complained.

Elona looked at the crate, then at the slot. The slot was near Vox's forelegs, so it was shaped to hide the leg mechanics. According to specs, and countless trips through the years, it had fit the five metre cube crates with no problem. Elona's implants picked up the problem right away, but she had to walk into the slot and touch it to be sure. The outer hull had a curve to it, not much, but enough to block the cube from fitting perfectly.

The curve was disturbing for Elona; as the years had gone by, Vox's body had begun changing slowly, mainly in the less public areas. They'd lost tens of metres of cargo space due to similar rounding of the outer hull, even if it made her external appearance look more natural. Still, they had a schedule to keep. Elona reallocated the slot based on its new dimensions and reran the packing apps. To her relief, everything still fit, but just.

"We'll take a look at it back at Zharus. In the mean time, here's an updated packing order. Let me know immediately if you run into any more problems."

"Yes, ma'am," the stevedore saluted her before turning to his underlings and robotic movers.

Elona debated going back up via the lift, but decided she wanted to stretch her wings a bit. She followed a robot mover out Vox's cargo hatch and kicked off, her wings flapping to catch the air.

Their perch on Rhodes station was enclosed in an air bubble built to handle the cancelled Bahamut dragon. There was more than enough room for Lady Vox in it, and more than enough room for Vox's partner to fly out and look at the massive dragon RIDE with her own eyes.

The years were treating the dragoness well. With or without her hardlight skin, she moved naturally in her shell, like a real dragon might move. Still, the changes nagged at the back of Elona's mind. She brought up memories of her first views of Lady Vox and compared them to the current dragon. The differences were striking.

:Is something wrong, hatchling?: Lady Vox asked. The dragoness's head was looking at Elona. With the hardlight skin, it looked like a real dragon head, no hint of anything mechanical at all.

Elona flapped her wings, hovering a couple of decametres away, near the edge of the air bubble. :I'm just amazed at how much you've changed through the years. I didn't realize you'd gotten so many upgrades.:

Lady Vox chuckled, :Not all have been... official upgrades. Some I've applied to myself. I've fine tuned your body through the years, am I not allowed to do the same to my own?:

The dragon-ship's body had lost much of its blockiness, taking on a more cylindrical shape, rounded at the end for the neck and tail. :Of course you are. You just need to be careful with what you do. If we lose too much inside space, we won't be able to afford to keep running.:

:True. But wouldn't it be nice to just be able to go, and not worry about passengers and cargo?: Vox sighed wistfully and looked away. :Enjoy your flight, hatchling. I'll let you know when the first passengers return.:

:Thank you my lady.:

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Passing through Zharus Orbit

"Excuse me, Captain?"

Elona opened her eyes, pulling her focus back in. She was using her implants to watch the progress of the flight to Zharus. While they had just passed Zharus orbit, the planet was elsewhere, on the other side of the star, so there was nothing to see. She wished she was fused, but there were enough strange glitches that she couldn't spare the time. "Yes sir? What can I do for you?" she asked the Grand Valley business man.

"I was wondering if you were aware of any problems with the comms. I was talking with the office in Zharus, when the connection went staticy and died. I can't pick up anything off ship now."

"I'll look right into it. It's probably just interference from Pharos," Elona said, verifying the outside connections were down. She began to get more worried as the list of malfunctions grew; even the beacons they used to track their position in system were jumbled, still usable but getting harder to understand.

:My lady? Is something wrong? Outside communications are falling apart.:

:Everything is fine, hatchling. Though the comm self checks do seem a bit strange. Maybe you should check them. In the tail assembly.:

Elona got up, and grabbed a life support belt just in case. She was concerned by how distracted and unfocused Lady Vox seemed. :Going out now. Make sure the fields stay stable.:

She made her way to the airlock, and cycled through it quickly. The view of space was hidden by the hardlight skin. Vox was extending it out to give Elona room to work. She made her way towards the dragon's tail assembly, careful never to completely let go of the dragon.

:At the tail now,: Elona said. The tail was extended straight out, the three large impellers at the base shut down for the inspection. She tapped the command to slide the access hatch open, and frowned when it refused to open. It twitched, but didn't move more.

"Gotta use some elbow grease... Your self improvement kick's starting to cause problems, my lady." Elona mumbled. She hooked her clawed fingers into the hatch and tried to pull it open. It reluctantly opened wider, not sliding like metal, but bending, more like flesh. Elona ignored that thought and looked inside. "What the hell?"

:Hatchling? Is something wrong? I'm hurting where you are at.: Vox asked.

:I don't know My Lady. Something is wrong. Really wrong.: She looked in, and was at a loss. Instead of well organized fibre cables, modules and other devices, it was a sea of silver filled with other things. Flexible tubes carried unknown fluids into the tail, some things that looked suspiciously like muscles were attached to the underside of the outside plating. There were still fibre cables, but there was no order to them, looking more nervelike than mechanical. :There's nothing I can do with this...:

:I need you to come back inside. The passengers are beginning to worry. And something's wrong in the cargo bay.: The former access plate started to seal up of its own accord. The hardlight field protecting her from space looked awfully thin.

Elona gulped nervously and began to head back to the hatch as fast as she could go. Under her hands, she could feel the hull losing its metallic firmness. It began to bounce as she ran, gaining a scaly texture just like her own skin.

This was no time for indecision. She hit the Evacuation Alarm while still in the airlock. "Attention everybody. Something is happening to my Lady. Please go to the nearest escape pod and abandon ship."

:There was no need to do that, hatchling. I am fine.: Lady Vox protested, but didn't, couldn't stop the alarm. She sounded like Elona after drinking a few Kahlua Mudslides.

:No you aren't, my lady. Something's really wrong.: Elona helped guide six passengers to the nearest pods and tried to track the rest of the progress. Her internal connections seemed to be strengthening, showing most people making it to the pods in their rooms. One by one they ejected out. The corridors and walls started to look slick, the interior spaces, smaller.

"Help! Help!" voices shouted, coming from the hall leading to her own quarters, and the quarters of four others. She ran into it, and was surprised to see the short hall was compressing. The doors were sealed shut other than the one to her own room. Banging echoed from the remains of the doors.

"The pods won't eject!" "The room's shrinking!" "Help me!" the voices shouted, two men, two women.

"Stay calm! I'm trying to help you," Elona shouted. Her connection to Vox was getting stronger, but the controls were going weird. The ejection pod controls just weren't there any more, nor most other mechanical controls.

Fuse. If I fuse, maybe I can sort this out, she thought to herself. She sprinted to her room, not noticing the space behind her contracting inwardly, filling in what used to be open living space.

"Help us!" "It's filling up with something!" "I can't feel my feet!" "My hands! They're becoming clawed!"

"Stay calm!" Elona shouted, "I'm trying to help! Just stay calm!"

She ran into her quarters, and barely noticed it was empty, just a clear path direct to the fuse chamber. It was open and waiting for her, glittering silvery, vaguely egg shaped. She jumped into the chamber, bouncing off the back of the chamber before the familiar fields grabbed her. Her skin tingled with the feelings of the fuse, and her mind spread out, mixing with Lady Vox's. The spreading went further than she was used to, causing a moment of panic before Lady Vox's mind calmed her like she would a hatchling.

The dragon-ship's body convulsed, hardlight shutting down, impellers wildly thrusting, pushing the spinning, shrinking ice dragoness into a different orbit. Elona attempted to compensate, but the delirious Lady Vox had other things in mind--like herself.

Damn it! I still had a year left to pay off Met's implants. She thought before subsuming into Lady Vox's vast mindscape.

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Nagafen, between Colossus and Ixion

"Drel, Vox just...went poof," Nagafen informed. They were midway between Colossus and the ringed giant Ixion, on their way out to Tantalus. With Vox down near Minos, it was 'just' a matter of a few hours of lightspeed lag. The dragons were always communicating on their sidebands. "She's lately."

"She has? You didn't say anything?" Drel accused. The whole company knew that she was making changes to herself, but Upper Management considered it a good way to save on the maintenance budget and had let it slide. She had passed all preflight inspections and the periodic checks from the various government safety agencies. Nagafen thought his DE didn't need the kind of private modifications Vox had been making to hers. Drel lounged in a red leather chair in his quarters. This was mostly a fast cargo run, with only a couple passengers.

"I just did," Nagafen muttered irritably. "I didn't get any distress call. But her last sideband signals were getting garbled. I put it to the solar flares--she was inside Minos's orbit--but...maybe not."

"Not much we can do from out here, we're a few billion kilometers away," Drel said, scratching his chin thoughtfully. "We just have to wait for word from HQ. They'll have gotten word about what's wrong well before us."

They didn't have to wait long. HQ's response was swift and a little surprising. Nagafen noticed first before even opening the message. "My Fuser chamber is locked down."

Drel put the tablet he was using on the burled wood table next to the chair. "What? Why?"

"It's all in the message. Hold's heavily encrypted," Nagafen said.

"I'm afraid there's been an incident with Lady Vox and Elona," CEO Normand O'Leary said. "I'm telling you myself for personal reasons. Your Fuse Chamber has been locked out until you return to Zharus for a complete overhaul and inspection. Deliver your cargo and passengers to Ashoka Hab and return to base immediately. We'll have a full report by the time you return. You have permission to burn as much sarium as you need to for a direct return. Home Base out."

"What?" Drel and Nagafen said in unison.

The four impellers in Nagafen's tail were already running. The dragon-ship had already plotted a faster orbit that would take them to Ashoka in just a few hours even after deceleration. A few hundred gravities of acceleration was more than enough to get anywhere in the system within hours, though Nagafen didn't often use nearly that much. Much more efficient to put Isaac Newton in the driver's seat.

Drel paged the passengers. "This is your Captain speaking. We've been cleared by Home Base to get you to your destination ahead of schedule. Thank you for flying with us."

"No Fuse..." Nagafen said. "Damn, dragonborn. Do you think...?"

"No way. You and Vox are just too big," Drel said. Neither wanted to say the word, but both knew dragons were susceptible. He'd often wondered if Elona and Vox had done much research into Integration, but considered the subject too touchy. Too big. They were just too big. Impossible. "They'll just do a Fuser flush and we'll be fine. You haven't been doing anything to the ship without telling me, have you?"

"No! No," Nagafen insisted. "Well, only a little. When we had to do some of our own repairs on the speed run to Xolotlan three years ago. When the gravitic condenser on the impeller speed governor burned out."

Drel muzzlepalmed. "Okay, we'll deal with that when we get to HQ. Let's haul tail to Xolotlan and hope to hell and high water Vox, Elona, and their passengers are okay."

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Rangers Inner System Patrol, Halicarnassus Orbit

"You've got the touch! You've got the power!" Ranger Mukesh Cantu drummed the beat on Thunderbird 42's flight console. The cyborg spacer couldn't hurt it no matter how hard he drummed. The manual controls were only there for emergencies and were made of more durable materials than himself. Like most Spacers, he was heavily modified, his body replaced with a robot, the classic brain-box. His own was a human-sized version of a certain yellow-green triple-changer from Transformers. It was fully functional. "After all is said and've never walked, you've never run..."

"Okay, 'Springer', that's enough," Captain Magnolia Delgado said. "Get your mind back on your work." The Captain of the Ranger ship Thunderbird 42 was atypical for a spacer. She was a full-body replacement "brainboxer" designed around modular hardware from Eridani, where humanity's most advanced cybernetics were produced. Even other Rangers had sometimes mistaken her for another robot. But it meant she could plug herself into a variety of equipment as needed. Her current plug-in was a gynoid with a hardlight version of her old organic head she used for person-to-person interaction.

"Yes, ma'am," Mukesh said, saluting from his chair. This was the kind of job where boredom was far preferable to excitement, but the time needed filling somehow. But when the call came...

"Mayday contacts!" the ship's AI reported. The blank wall in the Control Cabin came to life, showing the source of the signals, their orbits, and vectors. "Eleven- Correction Twelve pods. Plotting intercepts."

"Where's the ship that launched them?" Captain Delgado said. "Who's on the schedule for that route?"

"Starliner Lady Vox, dragonship," the AI reported.

"No sign of the ship on sensors, or debris," Mukesh reported. "I've already got her last reported position from ZOT. They were on a swing-around from Rhodes. Just another milk run for them, twenty-four passengers, one crew. Distance...about two light-minutes. Plotted intercept. Leaving Hali orbit now." Thunderbird 42 could manage a full 500 Gs of acceleration at full impeller thrust. Interception would take less than an hour.

"Ebba, you got all that?" Captain Delgado commed to the third member of their small crew in the Recovery Bay.

"Prep for a dozen escape pods. I have four times that number of autodocs if we need 'em. All good to go, Cap," Doctor Ebba Natale said. She was the most human-looking of the trio. Most of her implants were internal, with a space-adapted protective layer on her skin and implanted covers for eyes and ears that enabled her to go outside unprotected for up to ten minutes with no preparation. A simple mask and air tank could extend that to hours, though to be useful outside she needed lifters and hardlight backup.

An hour of intense acceleration and deceleration later, they were in the midst of the escape pods. Thunderbird 42's AI was coordinating with the simple computers in the pods, luring them in closer and calming the passengers, then pulling them into the Bay with tractor fields.

"No injuries. But only twenty life signs. Five of the pods aren't responding as they should," Doctor Natale said. "This doesn't make any sense. Look at these pods as I pull them in."

One by one they were brought into the 42's Recovery Bay. They were supposed to be boxes three meters long by two wide, they had enough life support for two people for a Zharusian week and even emergency cryosleep as a last resort. The first half dozen were normal, but the last were...more and more different. Even egg-like.

"There's no record they were experimenting with anything, were they? She was a prototype RIDE-shuttle after all," Mukesh asked, struggling to open the hatch of one of the more egg-like pods with a pair of passengers.

"Nothing on the records. The DE itself was experimental, but the basics were bog standard interplanetary shuttle equipment."

"Well, someone got fancy with these pods. Who would make a hatch you!... can't!... OPEN!" He grunted and tugged as he pulled. The pod finally literally cracked in two, spilling the two survivors out onto the floor. "Are you two okay?"

"Fine. Just...ugh. I don't know what was happening to our ship... Did everyone get out?," the female passenger said. Her face had a few scaley patches and she stared at him slack-jawed. "Is that a Transformer brainbox? I had Springer as a kid."

"Yes it is, ma'am. We're still trying to match people to the roster, but it looks like almost everyone made it. Please, come this way," Mukesh said, happy it'd been recognized.

"We'll start asking questions once we get them into quarters, Mukesh," Captain Delgado said. "For now, triage, body scans, food, drink, and rest."

"Captain," Ebba called over quietly. She was attending to the second man from the pod Springer had cracked. The man was unconscious, and naked, the remains of his clothes just silver goo over his body.

Magnolia went over and got a closer look at the man; he was more androgynous than she expected, his nipples and areolae larger than normal, his genitals smaller than usual. She could see silver scales under the goo.

"He's showing heavy fuse signs, cross-fuse at that, but the process is incomplete," Ebba said, using a lifter field to lift the patient onto a stretcher.

"Is he in danger?" Magnolia asked, keeping her voice low to not panic the recovering passengers. She tried to ignore a persistent itch in her skull.

"Possibly. He's the worst off. We aren't equipped to handle him on board. I'm getting him into a stasis pod for now. Maybe the maddies can figure out how to finish a dragon cross fuse when we get back to Hali."

"Do it. We'll have to finish the search to try and find the remaining people, but we should be able to leave for Hali within the hour. Is that soon enough?"

The doctor paused a moment, checking readers on the stretcher holding the man. Even as they watched, the scales seemed to spread more, his breasts swelling larger. "It should be. Stasis will freeze the nanites, keeping him as he is now. I've sent our readings to the Fun House so they'll be ready for us."

The captain looked around the hold, and sighed, "Let me know if there's any change."

There was still no sign of the dragonship on sensors. There were a few suspicious clouds of particles the 42s probes identified as dead Fuser nanites. Even with the 42s sensors at full active, the Lady Vox was just gone, with her Captain and four passengers.

"Sensors picking up a faint impeller gravitic wake, but it's random-walk. I don't think we can follow it, it's too sporadic and choppy," Mukesh reported. He and the captain were back on the bridge while the Doctor and the 42's robotic assistants helped out the survivors in the Bay.

"Launch another set of probes, then set course back to Hali. We've got 20 souls that need our help now," Captain Delgado ordered. She hated leaving the accident field with so much unknown, but they had to move on.

"Aye Captain. Probes away, and course plotted. Two more Ranger ships are coming to continue the search. ETA fifteen minutes," Mukesh said.

"Excellent, give them control of the probes and fill them in on what we found. Let's get these people home," she ordered, her extended connection to the ship feeling the order activate. Her digital connection had more noise to it than she was used to; the Real itch she was experiencing echoing in her digital senses. "I'll be down in the Bay with the doctor."

The bay was crowded with twenty people and the 42's robots. Privacy walls had been set up around some cots, but most of the rescued people were milling about the central area. Magnolia could tell right off that something was different about them all; they all had been changed by their experience. Most just had scales on their arms, legs or cheeks. A couple had stubby horns as well, or a bit of a tail. Even the ones with other RIDE traces had dragon traces on top of what they had before.

A man with brown-furred canine RIDE signs was inspecting the bronze scales on his arms and legs as she walked in. He shook his head ruefully and scratched at them. "And I thought our Captain looked weird. Guess we're all a bit weird out here now."

"It should be reversible sir, once we get you back to Hali. If you want to reverse them."

"Nah, I think I like them. I'm sure Loki can figure out how to keep them when we fuse."

"Loki?" she asked him.

He grinned, "My RIDE back home. A coyote. We had a mining accident that wrecked his DE, but we both lived. So while he's getting a new body, I decided to take a space vacation."

"Well, we'll make sure you make it back to your friends as soon as we can," Captain Delgado said, before excusing herself to check with the remaining passengers.

:Doctor, what happened to them? Why are they all so scaley?: she asked while chatting with the next survivor.

:It's the pods. They're flooded with fuse nanites, stronger than I've seen before. They've mostly gone inactive, but it's a good thing we don't have exposed flesh.:

:Fusers. That would explain my itchiness. Cyberdani stuff doesn't play nice with Z-tech. Is there any danger?:

Across the room, Ebba shook her head, :No danger. Outside of the proper environment, they're already falling apart. I've collected samples for the Maddies, and started flushing the bay. We should be clean before we get home.:

:Aside from our stasis locked friend, any other problems?:

:None, ma'am. Everyone's healthy. No ill effects other than the confusion and fear from the accident.:

Delgado scratched her side and nodded to her friend. :In that case, I'll leave them in your hands. I'm going to get a shower purge. Springer can let you know when we get back to Hali.:

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Pharos, Days Later

Vox groaned, feeling like she was in a deep sleep, her mind churning with confused, random thoughts. One thought in particular almost roused her to consciousness.

Hot... too hot..., she mumbled, instinctively rolling over. Soon enough, that side was unbearably hot as well, finally pulling her into wakefulness.

She opened her eyes and saw Hell for the briefest of moments before being blinded by the light. The sheer amount of energy across all frequencies overwhelmed her visual receptors; even after closing her eyes again all she could see was a white glare.

The dragoness focused inward, doing the fastest self check she'd ever done. Overall, she had a feeling of wrongness, but the basics were all still there somehow. Her batteries were overcharged, and her solar collectors were maxed and like the rest of her, on the verge of melting. The only things keeping her and her passengers alive were her hardlight shields, already at full opaqueness, and her heatsinks, also at max. External senses reported equally confusing results; photons and neutrinos thicker than she'd ever recorded before. An atmosphere made mostly of hydrogen and helium surrounded her, burning at a temperature around seven thousand kelvin.

Full opaqueness? But I was blinded. How bright is it out there? She mused, her wings extending without thinking of it. They caught a searing hot wind that her gravometric senses told her was lifting her away from a large mass below, but it was also burning through the sails. She pulled her wings back in and was confused to realized it was even hotter than before, ten thousand kelvin.

Some pieces clicked together and she figured out where her own Hell was. The roiling photosphere of Pharos. The worst place for an ice dragoness ever. The worst place for any unprepared dragon, or RIDE ever.

Maybe this really is Hell. I've gotta get out of here, The dragoness focused on her impellers, and realized among the heat pain she was feeling all over, part of her aches came from them. The engines were strained, out of tune and just plain hurt from whatever happened to her. Still, she knew if she didn't do anything, their pain would be the last of her worries.

Crossing her mental fingers, she spread her wings just enough to orient herself in the burning atmosphere, placing the centre of gravity below the tip of her tail. She flexed her engines, praying they had enough oomph to get her clear. Even with her eyes blinded, she could sense the glare diminishing, the photonic pressure easing, replaced by a hundred G's of acceleration.

Seconds later, she felt a sharp pain along the left side of her tail, and her portside impeller suddenly died. She stopped her remaining engines before the unbalanced forces spun her back downward. Shaking from the efforts, she assessed her situation. It was still hot, and bright out, but both were at levels she could handle, though her optics were still dead. She could feel her body finally shedding the extra heat, from the stellar dip. She could still feel an atmosphere around her, but it was more tenuous, less of a danger.

Her left side, from wing down to leg, was numb. The portside impeller had soured but luckily not exploded. It was still useless until she could get it replaced. The dorsal and starboard units were screaming in pain, on the verge of giving up, but still worked, barely. She wanted to relax them and give them a chance to rest, but she knew she might need them again soon.

Why am I hurting so much? Vox wondered. DEs usually mapped damage to the pain centres of the core, but this felt different, more intense. I'm a RIDE. I shouldn't feel this much pain... wait I'm a RIDE? some aspect of her mind objected to the RIDE assertion, throwing her into further confusion.

She shoved the confusion to the side and reassessed, thinking back to her last clear thoughts. She remembered evacuating the passengers, but four hadn't been able to get clear, nor had Elona. ''s right here!' She could feel the four souls, still alive but in stasis, deep in her belly. She couldn't feel the emptiness that her cabin and cargo hold usually gave, but she could tell the passengers were alive.

The pressure of the atmosphere around her suddenly changed, the wind getting stronger. While still blinded, the dragoness had other senses that she turned to Pharos below her. She could see the electromagnetic fields twisted by her impellers. The star's rotation should have carried them well beyond her, but her own momentum had kept her in a low Pharos orbit, giving her a view of the results of her panicked blast off. The impellers' gravitic twist had spread around the solar region, amplifying somehow as it went. Far below, the star's surface puckered and began to rise, a solar flare blooming.

Ah shit! she cursed, coaxing her remaining engines to life and trying to push herself sideways, out of the plume's range. She ran it at the edge she felt it could handle, and knew it wasn't enough; the flare grew larger and larger, until it engulfed her. Heat and atmospheric pressure redlined again, the flare lifting her away from the star. She curled up as tight as she could, forming her hardlight into an ovoid shield and rode out the storm.

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Pharos Monitoring Station, Hali

"Pharos is acting up again. Redirecting Icarus 225 for a closer look," Meyers said. "Looks like a little burp, no real danger to anything."

Dent glanced at the data, "Little burp, but from a stable area. Our models weren't predicting anything to happen there." The mouse and meerkat Integrates had been pushed onto monitoring duty after their improvements to their ship had soured the cavorite. The Heart of Gold was having its entire gravity system replaced.

"Centuries on and our models are still trying to figure things out. This system's so lousy with metamaterials, its a wonder any of the Sol-based theories still apply. Probably choked on a chunk of cavorite or something."

Dent ignored the first scientist's grumbling and looked closer at the data. The Icarus network was still under construction so coverage was patchy, but they were lucky to have one so close. He ran the data through a couple of filters, and noticed an abnormality right away. Zooming in, he saw an ovoid hole in the flare being pushed outwards. He flagged it as a curiosity, and retasked the closest Daedalus satellites to try and find it.

"Or something indeed. There's something in there, riding the flare out." Dent said.

Meyers suddenly got interested. He brought up the data as well, "Seriously? Hot damn there is something in there. Another surfer, bored with the plumes?"

"Too big, looks to be about fifty metres or so," Dent said.

The Icarus satellite lost view of the object as it was ejected out of the top of the flare. Dent shifted their view to the Daedalus satellites. They were further out and not in the best of positions, but they could track the ovoid as it shed heat into space.

"It's still powered, whatever it is. The hardlight's holding."

Dent checked the Ranger roster and sent a request. "Well, with the Heart of Gold down looks like 42's got the short straw again. They can go see who's crazy enough to drop into a star."

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"Look alive, everyone, we have a real hot one," Captain Delgado announced once word came in. "Hot and big. Mukesh, rig for a close Pharos approach."

"Aye aye!" Mukesh replied. The Thunderbird 42 started to deploy additional radiators and a refrigeration laser. "Tractor fields are going to go nuts that close to the star, Captain." The 42 was 300 meters of mostly automated high-performance intrasystem patrol/rescue ship, not equipped with an FTL drive but instead having the latest in cavorite-derived gravitic manipulators. But the gravitational fields that close to Pharos were difficult to manipulate reliably unless the cavorite was carefully tuned and monitored. The feedback could fry impellers and lifters if it wasn't.

"Sensor contact is shelled up," Captain Delgado reported. "Never seen hardlight quite that solid before. Who and what do you think it is? The ship AI can't ID it."

"Probably some rich Steader bastard looking for a thrill," Dr. Natale said sourly. "Sundiving should be illegal the number of dickweeds we have to pull out of the fire."

No reliable tractor fields meant a physical tow was required. The 42 was equipped for that, too. They had a net that could deploy large enough to grab the ovoid and drag it out of the danger zone.

"Chromosphere entry," the AI reported. "Interception in fifteen minutes. Matching orbital velocity."

"Okay, 'Springer,' it's your show," Captain Delgado said.

Once they were in rendezvous range, Junior Ranger (Rescue Division) Mukesh 'Springer' Cantu cracked his knuckles, and synthesized music filled the bridge. Captain Delgado sighed and waited it out as Mukesh started singing.

Put down your chainsaw and listen to me

It's time for us to join in the fight

It's time to let your babies grow up to be cowboys

It's time to let the bedbugs bite.

You better put all your eggs in one basket

You better count your chickens before they hatch

You better sell some wine before its time

You better find yourself an itch to scratch

Mukesh sung along with Weird Al as he guided 42 into position. A trio of booms extended from the port side, bracketing the hardlight ovoid. At the tip of one of them, a capsule exploded, smaller engines pulling the net out and around the bow of the egg and curling back to the other booms.

"Dare to be stupid. Dare to be stupid! What did I say?" Mukesh pointed to the Captain and waited, the music pausing a moment.

She debated refusing, or arguing with him, but the song was almost over, as was the tricky part of the operation. "Dare to be stupid," she said monotonously.

His metal face grinned and a second boom's indicator turned green, the net stretched in front of the hardlight ovoid. "Tell me what did I say?" he asked, pointing to the doctor.

"Uh-uh. No way. I'm not playing that game," she objected.

"Just go along Doc, he's almost done," Captain Delgado said.

Ebba steadfastly refused, but Mukesh was unfazed. He continued the song as the other boom went green. They moved in and began to retract, pulling the net in with it.

"Come on, join the crowd!... Contact! No reaction to the HL field. Mass readings within estimates."

"Reel it in and secure it so we can get out of this sauna," Captain Delgado ordered. The AI realigned the engines to account for the shifted center of mass.

Springer hummed the remainder of the song to himself, while focusing on bringing the other craft in. Once it got in range, waldos and more netting was set out, strapping it in tight to the 42. "All secure, Captain. We can leave when ready."

Delgado visibly relaxed. "Let's head home and see what we caught. 42, best speed to Hali Base."

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Vox woke slowly and was surprised she was still alive. She held still, feeling like she was moving but not under her own power. She could feel something around her, or rather around her shields, holding her tight to something. The near-orbit heat and radiation of the star were diminished, back down to normal levels for safer orbits. She could feel they were descending towards a large mass, a planet. The ship that held her was pinging her with a signal, but it was indecipherable.

'Who the hell uses an encrypted signal for simple hails?' she mused. She sent back a simple ID signal, one anyone should recognize in human space. The ship's signals paused, and the encrypted messages changed, but were still indecipherable.

They passed through another field, and pressure increased all around her; she was back in a normal, breathable atmosphere. She held her shields up until the ship landed, and the bindings loosened, easing her down to the flat ground.

It took her a surprisingly long time to remember how to lower her shields, but she finally managed to pull them in. Atmosphere thumped into her, crashing through the vacuum her shield had maintained.

She could feel grass under her claws and belly. The air smelled right, moist and warm. She opened her eyes and could dimly sense light, much less intense than the last time she'd seen. That gave her pause. How can I see anything? My optics burned out. They need replacing.... Self checks were shocking, showing the optic sensors did seem to be improving somehow, at twenty percent efficiency and improving slowly.

"By the All Spark, what happened to you?" Her ears were still ringing from the solar roar, but the voice was understandable.

She swung her head around towards the voice, seeing a greenish blob against the grey surface. "I'm--" she paused and tried again, sorting out her voice. "I'm not sure. I woke up in Pharos... at least I think it was Pharos. Where am I?"

"It was Pharos. You're on Hali now, at the Ranger base. Welcome back to the planet of the living, Lady Vox," a new voice said. She could vaguely make out a metallic figure next to the green one. A third blob, similarly metallic, started waving scanners at her.

"Lady Vox? The Dragon-shuttle? No way!" the yellow-green blob exclaimed.

"Yes way. I am Captain Magnolia Delgado. This is Ranger Mukesh 'Springer' Cantu, and Doctor Ebba Natale. How is she, Doc?"

Vox felt a tingle against and through her skin from active sensors. The third figure spoke. "In surprisingly good condition all things considered. What's the last thing you remember, Vox?"

"Lady Vox...I... " she paused to make sure. Most of her memories were scattered, not clear enough to put into words. "Last thing I remember was launching the pods. Four of them were caught. I think they're still in me, but I can't figure out how to get them out."

Vox moved her head to watch the doctor move along her length. Her vision was clearing slowly; the figures were humanoid now, though details were blurry. She was surprised to see how small her body was. She had easily lost tens of meters, but her mass was only a few hundred kilos off, even after accounting for the pods. "What happened to me?"

"You integrated. Biggest damn Integrate I've ever seen," Ebba said. "You lost two-thirds of your original length, I think, accounting for your interior spaces..."

Magnolia chuckled, "To be fair, you've only met five Inties. But she is still the biggest."

"Biggest Intie I've seen... and the first pregnant Intie I've ever seen."

This gave everyone pause. "Pregnant?" Lady Vox asked. "I'm a robot, how is that possible?" I'm human! What's going on? the nagging voice spoke up again.

"You've got four eggs in you. Three metres long each. Can't see inside them, but I'd say they're your missing passengers."

"How is that even possible?" Lady Vox asked.

Ebba shrugged, "No clue. Lucky for you, you're in one of the few places that might figure that out. Captain, can you call Ford from the Fun House, have him give Lady Vox the Intie briefing?"

"Sure... and done. Does she need anything else?"

"She's healing. Her energy reserves are fine, and her raw reserves aren't too bad. What was your cargo when you left Rhodes?"

Lady Vox carefully stretched her wings, finding them stiff and painful to move. "My cargo? The usual stuff. Fabbermatter, cavorite, other stuff Colossus makes."

"And perfect for a fresh Intie. We'll get you some fresh sarium, and some normal food, but you should be fine. Your body is healing fine."

The huge white dragoness sank into the soil. The grass felt nice. Moist and cool. "This is just too, too much. You need to get in touch with--"

"Nnnnope!" a very insistent new voice called. "You won't call anybody!" The source of the voice was a humanoid rockhopper penguin, flapping his wing-arms rapidly through the air. He landed in front of Vox. "Well, hello hello. I'm Ford, Captain of the Heart of Gold. Pleased to meet you pleased to meet you."

"You look...tasty," Vox said with a trace of Elona's sense of humor. Her eyesight was gradually improving, about the level of an ancient TwenCen webcam now. She really didn't have the energy to move, despite the state of her reserves. Everything she had was going into self-repairs. It wasn't just her eyes that were damaged. Wing membranes were holed, scales scorched and blackened, and her portside engine was still numb. The starboard and dorsal impellers weren't too good, either.

"Hey, today's special from Pharos BBQ: blackened cajun dragon," Ford quipped.

"Do you always make jokes at someone else's expense, Ford?" Dr. Natale said.

"Just thought I'd lighten the mood a little," the penguin Integrate said. The feather tufts on each side of his head shimmered. "Seriously, let's see if you have a DIN slot..."

"Check around the base of her tail. Scans seem to show something down there. Isn't that where her antenna assembly was?" Dr Natale asked.

"I'm right here. And it was. That's the first thing we noticed failed."

"You might as well give her the briefing, Ford," Captain Delgado said. "Is there anything else you need from us?"

"Nah, I'll get Zaphod, Beeblebrox, Meyers, and Dent up here and give her the spiel," Ford said. He flapped his arms and floated up. "You're...really, really big. Welcome to Hali Ranger Base, Vox. Home of the Fun House Enclave. Once you get on your feet--wings--again you're gonna love it."

Vox snorted, a blast of chilled air shooting out from her nostrils. "I'm sensing an 'or else' on the end of that."

The penguin Intie jumped in front of the ice blast and danced around in it. "Ahhh! That's really nice. You and I are gonna get along just fine. Anyway, let's just say we're a really close-knit group here on Hali. Even the non-Inties here are all borged out, so we don't bother hiding from the other Rangers and Scientists. Only diff between us and them, is they see the mechanic, while we heal ourselves. Though a mechanic tuneup massage can really hit the spot.

"We're going to dig you a nice cave for a home. An ice cave like mine, if you want. Penguin's gotta have standards," Ford said.

"That actually sounds...just about right, Ford. Thank you," Vox said. Her mind was reeling, overwhelmed for the first time in her short life. The summoned Integrates arrived as she was still sorting things out.

It turned out that Zaphod and Beeblebrox was a two-headed black dog with glowing tattoos on his arms and legs--each head one of the original personalities when the two bodies had combined. The white mouse with glowing whorls on his belly introduced himself as Meyers. Last was Dent the meerkat. It was a motley crew of cybernetic furries.

"Congrats. You're the first female Integrate on Hali," Meyers said.

"Honored, I suppose," Vox said dryly.

"All the other potential females we could recruit were too sane to come to this hellhole," Dent said.

"Awesome splash you made in Pharos!" Zaphod said.

"The sundivers are going nuts over the video. Thankfully you were shielded so we didn't have to censor it," Beeblebrox added.

"We've gotta know, how did you make the flare that big?" Zaphod finished.

"Dumb luck and a malfunctioning impeller. Damn thing's still numb. Are you sure it'll-YELP!" She jumped and twisted away, looking at the fourth Intie. "What are you doing?"

Meyers the white mouse hung off her tail fork, holding a half-meter rod in one hand. "Found your DIN slot. In the tail like the Doc suspected."

"Warn a girl when you do that! I'm still really tender down there," Vox grumbled.

Meyers let go and floated down to the ground. "If you're tender now, just wait till your eggs come out. A pregnant Intie... never thought I'd see the day."

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Uptown, Alohavator

"Nagafen, you've allowed Fuser nannies to escape containment on no less than three occasions and purposefully created an environment where they can survive in human-occupied spaces," Normand accused the dragon in VR. "We're going to have to take you halfway apart to make sure we get rid of them all."

"That ship is my body. I make improvements as needed, to the benefit of Drel, my passengers, and myself," Nagafen replied from across the desk. He'd chosen to use his human avatar for this dressing down, trying to show that he respected humans as equals. "Please remember that Vox and Elona are our friends, too. Whatever happened to them and their passengers..."

"We're trying to prevent it from happening to you and yours," Normand said cooly. "Look, we're all sorry for their loss and thankful we could recover who we did. What happened to them is officially a gray goo incident. Runaway nanites destroyed DE integrity. We're lucky there were only five deaths from it," Normand said.

"You damn well know that isn't what happened, Norm," Drel growled. His contacts in the Rangers hadn't been very forthcoming on how they'd decided on the official explanation, but it screamed 'cover story'. The conclusion released before Lady Vox was missing a week was too pat, too quick. The fact that the search was being scaled back already only rubbed more salt in the wound. "This whole thing stinks to high heaven and you know it!"

"Drel, It's out of my control," Normand said. "As it is we're getting a keep us in business. But don't push me on this. We have to keep up appearances for the sake of what investors we have left. You and Vox are priceless to us. Investors have been skittish since the Munns pulled out. Now with Vox gone now and Bahamut and Ramoth shelved, you are it. You'll be the only source of revenue we have, Nagafen. Our livelihood is in your hands."

"I understand the gravity of the situation, Norm, believe me," Nagafen said.

"Both of us do," Drel added, standing next to his RIDE's avatar.

"I'm certain you do," Normand said. "You'll be back in service once you're put back together again, with new Fusers, the infected parts replaced, and with limitations on when and how long you can Fuse."

Nagafen puffed himself up into dragon form. "What? What kind of limits?"

"This is just to placate the insurance company so we can even keep flying," Normand said, unperturbed by the sudden volcanic heat around him. "You'll be restricted from Fusing as long as we have passengers aboard, unless there's an emergency. On cargo runs you can do it the whole time. I understand you have some fancy-pants implants that make Fusing almost superfluous anyway."

"It's still not the same," Drel said.

"'Almost' is the operative word," Nagafen said. "I need Drel because there are certain things his organic mind processes better than mine. That's why Fuse works so well."

Normand sighed, and shook his head. "I know that, but there's nothing we can do. Look, just cooperate for now. We need to get you two back out, bringing in the mu. Eventually, once Vox's story fades away and things are back to normal, we can look at weakening those restrictions."

"And if we don't cooperate?" Drel asked.

"If you don't, you are out of a job, I will be bankrupt on the unemployment lines next to you, and Lord Nagafen will be on the used RIDE market. And even at bankruptcy pricing, you have no where near the mu to buy him out, Drel. Most likely his core would be repurposed and his DE sold as a basic shuttle. Unless you get lucky with the Steaders or something. None of us want a nightmare like that. So these restrictions are the best choice of a really horrible bunch."

"Well, when you put it that way," Nagafen said.

"Okay, okay. We're all adults here," Drel said. "We'll soldier on through."

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Lady Vox hung over the small planet, looking down. It'd been a couple weeks since she'd been rescued, and she was mostly healed up. That she could heal at all was something she was still getting used to.

She was over the terminator of the tidally locked planet. On the Pharos side, she could see the fields of solar collectors that fed the mad scientist base, and the ranger training facility, as well as a few smaller domes for appropriate experiments. On the dark side, one real dome encased a space about a klick in radius, forming the centre of a dozen hardlight domes that made up the Fun House, the local nickname for the Science base. Hidden around the curve of the small planet was the Ranger complex where she was spending most of her time lately.

"Lady, your cloaking field is a little patchy," Ford said over comm. The Heart of Gold had been shadowing her first free flight since her rescue. The Science-Ranger spacecraft was approximately her size, 50 meters long and studded with sensors for doing what the Fun House visitors, all scientists themselves, enthusiastically called "SCIENCE!"

"I'm trying, I only have two eyes. How can I mimic everything? Space isn't that black around here."

"Stop trying to think so hard about it. You have omnidirectional senses, just let them work naturally," Ford encouraged her. "Remember, you can't go far until you master your disguises."

"Around here, don't worry so much. We're all friends, despite what Fritz and his ilk think," Meyers said. "But we'll still get visitors from the outer-system on occasion, so you need to be prepared to cloak up. They're going to get some interesting sensor shadows as it is."

"It's the Fun House. When Zharus visits and doesn't get interesting sensor shadows, they get worried," Zaphod pointed out.

"I'll be like the early days of dragons in the Dry," Beeblebrox said. "Before Camelot gave 'em a home. Miners were always saying 'here be dragons' out on Harkonnen and in the Dust."

Vox sighed and let go her cloak completely. "Well, I'll practice more later. I need to stretch my wings. Or Imps or whatever I've got now. Left side still feels a bit tender. Quick loop around Pharos and back?"

"Good for that," Ford said. "We'll try and keep up. This little ship was built by Camelot, but I doubt we can really match your capabilities."

"I don't even know my capabilities yet. And you won't let me go past Minos to try them out."

"No, but we have a good estimate," Meyers said. "Maybe we can design a sensor package you can strap on and connect via your DIN port."

Vox snorted and rolled her eyes. She spread her wings and flapped, the muscle movement translating into thrust, her impellers lighting up and pushing her away from the planet. Her left side twinged with a hint of pain, more like an unstretched muscle than anything dangerous. The G-forces built up around her and the star grew larger and larger.

Because she was prepared for the heat and radiation this time Vox could shield for it. Her solar-wings fed energy into her sarium batteries, keeping them topped off. Vox kept her impellers on fairly low thrust, exercising them, putting her into an orbit half of Hali's distance, close enough to feel the fingers of the chromosphere tickle her scales. This is...incredible... Vox's Elona inner voice said. We're a spaceborne being. A creature of the cosmos.

Let's not get too pretentious, Lady Vox countered.

Can I help it if the whole thing brings out the poet in me? Elona said.

She flipped over, so her back was to the star and looked out. Hali was already out of sight, but Minos was visible, mostly silent, just with its lightly manned orbital and its cloak of satellites. Their orbit quickly brought Zharus into view, a dense point of humanity practically screaming into the darkness with its data streams.

Someday...she mused wistfully.

"How are you holding up, Lady Vox?" Meyers asked. The Heart of Gold settled into an orbit next to her.

"Well enough, I guess. Feeling a bit of cabin fever I suppose."

"You realize your cabin is the size of Minos's orbit."

"Yes, but I'm used to having the whole system available. What's worse is I can see everything. It's like being able to see your house, but you have to stay in your bedroom." She grunted suddenly and looked down at herself, confused.

"Well we'll see what we can do. Once you master the cloak-"

"Forget what I said. We need to go back," Vox interrupted Meyers, already twisting in space. She felt another pain from her belly, and pushed her impellers, lifting her back towards Hali.

The Heart of Gold lagged behind her, "What's wrong? Do you need a lift?"

"No, I need to get back to the planet, and you're too slow." Her sides ached as she pushed her engines. Another strange cramp passed through her. Her Elona aspect suspected what it was.

Just stay calm. It's all natural, Elona said.

Natural? I'm a manufactured species based on human myths mixed by a metaphysical blender. There's nothing natural about it, Vox countered, drawing off of Elona's calmness.

The human's ghost shrugged. Well, even I never went through it before, but we still have time, I think. Don't push yet.

Hali grew fast in front of her. She kept her speed up until the last minute and almost crashed into the planet when a badly timed contraction almost made her miss her deceleration window.

"We're waiting for you at the landing dome. Do you need anything? Blankets? Hot water?" Dent asked from the planet. "We have your big towel ready..."

"How the hell should I know? How many dragon births have you been to?"

"This is a first. For all of us. Unless you count VR. The first Intie births too... Unless you count VR. You'd be shocked at how often they sim births in the virtual...," Dent sounded positively giddy.

Vox growled and felt pressure increase around her as she passed through the dome and dropped down to the lawn, next to a large towel. "This ain't Virtual!"

"I know! Isn't it grand! We're coming! Don't do anything till we get there!" Zaphod sent from the Heart.

Vox tried to find a comfortable position, but her lower body was betraying her, bulging in strange places, aching and twitching outside her control. "That's not your call, four eyes!"

Despite Vox's innermost desires, the Heart of Gold made it back in time, landing right next to the dome she was in. Meyers and Zaphod Beeblebrox ran in to join the flock of scientists and sensor pods already around her. Beyond the inties, there were human and spacer scientists curious to see it. She could sense the load on the network as others attended virtually. The first egg, with a deep violet shell, was just showing.

"The first Intie birth. I feel so honored," Dent said, hand over his chest.

"It's not really a birth, or pregnancy. It's just her remaining passengers finally getting their escape," Zaphod pointed out.

"If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck..." Dent countered.

"It looks like a dragon and an egg actually." Beeblebrox countered the counter. "A big, purple egg."

"Looks more violet than purple to me," Dent argued back.

Vox dug her claws into the turf, frost spreading out around her, the air chilling noticeably. She roared out and felt a moment of relief as the first egg rolled away from her. It was swarmed by the scientists.

"Opaque hardlight again. Like when we got her from the star. Can't see inside," Dent said finally. He tapped one of his claws against it surface. "Okay, it's hard like a bird's egg. Similar texture. I was expecting something more reptilian."

"Well, you're going to have more to compare to soon," Vox growled, then grunted again. "The rest aren't waiting."

Despite her assurances, the rest of her former passengers took their time coming out. Two interminable hours later, four eggs were on cooling pads, covered by a net of sensors; green, blue, indigo and violet.

Meyers ran a medical sensor over the surface of the eggs, one by one. The mouse also put his ear to them. "Good news is, we're still picking up life signs... And they seem to be reacting to the chillers better than the warmers. Bad news, we can't pick up any details. We have no idea what's in there."

Vox laid on a thick patch of tundra herself, drawing in power from the station. "Of course they like the chillers. We're ice dragons. And you're keeping us on the closest planet to the sun."

"Let's move them into your cave," Ford suggested. "After seeing that I feel like a nice ice cream sammich and a sno-cone."

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Vox's home was a massive ice cavern dug deep into one of Hali's mountain ranges. Most of the surfaces were covered in ice and snow, built up from condensers and humidifiers. She'd spent much of her healing time 'decorating' it with ice stalactites, stalagmites and statues she'd carved herself.

She'd made them move the eggs into the cave's deepest reaches, as far from the entrance as she could get. She stayed closer to the entrance, feeling relieved to have their weight gone, but feeling a bit of loss. The eggs themselves were tended by Elobot, a drone the Fun House had cooked up that she could control directly with her DIN.

"I wonder what they'll look like," Meyers mused. The mouse typically wore a hardlight parka for appearance sake when visiting the ice cave. "All dragony? Inties? Not? Partials? What?"

"I'm curious about that too. You said some of the escapees had dragon scales? I was flooded with fusers all over the place. Might they have all fused with me? Ow, that would be a headache..."

"Almost all of the survivors had correctable physical changes," Zaphod said. The two-headed black dog looked a little out of place in the blue-white ice cave. "One of the men showed signs of crossing; they had to complete in a Fuser chamber, so it's reasonable that the rest will all be female."

"If you really want to see inside, we could try one of the hardlight crackers we're working on here. The eggs are just hardlight shells. Just completely opaque," Beeblebrox suggested.

Vox sighed, tired of the argument. "For the last time, no. The fields are weakening; whatever is going on, we'll let happen naturally, as long as they seem healthy. They should crack any time now."

"That's why we're all hanging out here. They're about to crack but still as opaque as ever. Wish we could figure out that trick," Dent said. "Well that and the fact we're the only ones who can spend time in this icebox without freezing too much. Even the Spacer-tists are cold here. Wusses."

Vox looked up suddenly. "Guys!" Elobot shouted from the other room. When she was focused on the smaller drone, Elona's personality tended to show up more than Vox's. "The eggs are shaking!"

News spread quickly, though most of the base stayed away. The network load grew so large that Vox had to cut back use of Elobot, even though she had priority access.

The first one to crack was actually the last one laid, an elongated deep green ovoid that shook and almost lifted off the ground. But instead of breaking into pieces, the hardlight shell dissolved into nothing, leaving a slender emerald green dragoness curled up into a ball. She laid there a moment, unaware of all the eyes on her, before a wing twitched, followed by the tail straightening out.

"I'm picking up some handshaking attempts from her... She's trying to access the network. It's understandable," Meyers said.

"So, not an Intie," Ford said. "Must be her old implants coming back up. Any ID to the handshaking?"

"ID's as Alan Steele of Cape Nord," Meyers said. He laughed. "So much for the Man Card. He had quite the score too."

The dragon-woman sat up slowly, then stared at herself like a drunk with too many vodkas in her. "Wh...Why do I have scaly green tits?" she said. She sat there, spread legged, looking down at her chest, wings and tail spread limply behind her. She clasped her hands to her temples. "Fuck! What the hell? Tits and a cunt? And...ugh! My head! Are these horns?"

"Uhm... She's floating now. Maybe we shouldn't scratch Intie off too quickly?" Meyers ducked his head down, looking under her at the ten centis of open air between her and the ice floor.

"She's on the 'net. She can't be on without a DIN, unless..." Zaphod ran over to Vox's tail and pulled the large DIN gem from it. Vox roared angrily and Elobot went limp.

"Still on the net," Meyers confirmed. "Just the public ones though. Usually a new DIN'd Intie will be running all through the secure net by now."

"Hello? Who the hell are you and what the hell happened to me?" Alan shouted. "Why the fuck am I a woman?" She seemed to realize she was floating, and cartoon physics took over, making her drop back down with a hard thump. "A fucking dragon, too? The fucking fuck?"

"Accidental crossride," Ford said. "What a pottymouth. Tsk."

"I'm gonna sue your asses for every fucking centimu you have!" Alan growled.

Vox ignored her new hatchling, her head swinging around to try and grab Zaphod. She finally pinned the two-headed dog to the wall with a field and plucked her football-sized DIN from him, replacing it in its socket. "Don't you ever, ever do that again, or your towel won't save you."

"She looks a lot like Elona did, but with boobies," Meyers said.

Elobot reactivated, the drone turning around, still sluggish as the big dragon forced the bot signal through the overloaded network. "Yeah, I see the resemblance to me, but the boobies don't look right. Dragons aren't mammals."

"I dunno, I think they probably look hot." Surprisingly it was Alan who said it. "Can I get a mirror? I want a mirror."

"We're ice dragons remember? We don't do hot... wait what?" Vox looked at the hatchling.

"I knew some scaley chicks back home," Alan said. She cupped her breasts. "Wow. Um. Okay...I'm a little more collected now. Might say I'm cooling off. Still, forty years of points, gone...I was almost to Rank Two!"

"That's mighty quick to adjust. Human minds don't work that fast," Beeblebrox noted.

Meyers was still puzzling out the situation, almost oblivious to the shouting around him. The lights in the chamber dimmed until it was lit by the hardlight emitters of the Inties. Most of the light was from Vox herself, her scales providing an ambient blue-white glow. An emerald glow showed as well, coming from the hatchling's wings.

"Looks like embedded hardlight. But she's on the net with no DIN. Is she an intie or not?" Meyers mused, waving a scanner closer to the green dragoness.

"Oh for Me's sake, there's one easy way to tell," Zaphod ran over to the hatchling and slashed his claws through her new wing sails.

Alan screamed in pain, and Vox moved to pin the dog again. "What are you doing?!?"

"Performing science. Look!"

Everyone looked at Alan. Her slashed wing was still extended, the glow faded from the slashed parts. As they watched, the slashed pieces of wing membrane pulled together, and the glow returned.

"Intie. Definite Intie." Zaphod said proudly. "Science achieved!"

"I'm going to fucking kill you...whatever you are!" Alan snarled. "Science my ass! That hurt! If it left a scar..."

"Vain already? Jinkes," Meyers said, pulling a pencil and pad of paper out of his hardlight parka. The mouse excitedly scribbled notes. "Do you feel up to a standard post-crossride psychological assessment, Miss Steele? This is a golden opportunity! For Science!"

"Why don't we let the rest of the eggs 'hatch' first, everyone? We're letting our meme infections run away with us," Ford said.

"Too late, Blue's already hatched," Elobot pointed out. The sapphire dragoness was already sitting up, looking slightly less confused than Alan, but only slightly.

"I'm sorry for doing that to you," Vox said to Alan. "I didn't know what was going on. Did it hurt or anything? What's the last you remember?"

Alan shook her head. "Nothing hurt. I was trying to get the escape pod to work, but the controls were melting in my hands. Then my room filled with silver goo and I woke up here. With tits. And a cuh- with a slit."

"That's what I remember too. I'm Carly. Or I was Carly. I'm not sure what or who I am now," the blue one said. "Except for...well, I still have those parts. Except I lost a couple cup sizes. I think. I'm not exactly at a hundred percent right now."

"Do you hear any other voices in your head?" Beeblebrox asked. "Or are you alone in there?"

Carly stared at the two-headed Intie. ""

"Perfect Gestalt maybe?" Beeblebrox asked, looking at his other head.

"Impossible. Vox is over there. What would she gestalt with?" Zaphod objected.

"My core was larger than normal. Maybe they're Integrated with some subconscious elements of my old self? No personality but enough to actually Integrate with?" Vox suggested.

"So much wonderful science to do!" Dent cheered. The meerkat danced a happy little Irish jig. "We've gotta get you to the labs."

"What the hell? Why am I a girl again?" All eyes turned to see the indigo dragoness standing and looking down. "I crossrode years ago to get rid of this!"

"Passenger Francis Druyan, alive and accounted for," Elobot reported. "So, the last one is..."

"Gabrielle LaFey, Woman of Sturmhaven," the violet dragoness introduced herself. She was also standing, her scales a deep, dark violet, verging on black. Unlike the others, she didn't glow, but she seemed to draw in the light around her.

"Well, since everyone's accounted for and can move on their own, I suggest we go to the Medlab and have Dr. Natale check them out," Ford suggested. "But first, let me welcome you to the ranks of the Integrates, ladies. So good to see you've come through your experience so well."

The composed violet dragoness looked surprised, "Integrates? Oh no... Is he here? You know, him? The bosscat?"

"We're outside of Fritz's grasp here. You're all on Hali, if you haven't realized it. There's an entire planet between you and him. Actually a planet and star at the moment," Ford said.

"Oh good!" Gabrielle said. The trio of other dragonesses looked at her. "Just trust me. I am... was? a RIDE tech and he's the RIDE boogeyman, especially in Sturmhaven."

"Well, he shouldn't bother us out here in any case. This way, hatchlings," Lady Vox said.

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Between Hali and Minos

:Intruder alert! Intruder alert!: Nagafen shouted at Drel.

"Intruder? What? Where?" Drel shouted back, trying to catch up to the dragon. While it was a cargo run, they had picked up a last minute passenger, meaning they couldn't be fused.

:Watchdog triggered... Watch- Hello Snowbelle.: The sheer delight in Nagafen's voice was almost physical.

:Hello Smoky. I've cleared out those annoying tethers if you want to join us, Drel.: a long-missed, long-absent voice said.

Drel looked at the two confused passengers across the table from him. "Sorry folks, just a... a small glitch. Everything is fine. Excuse me, I'll be back soon." He pushed back and sprinted to his quarters and the open chamber. He almost bounced off the back wall, jumping into it.

"Where are you? Where have you been?" Drel asked, the fuse bringing him up to RI speed.

"Look under your port wing," Vox said, her avatar smirking,

In VR an image rezzed of a much-shrunken Vox that could literally fit under the large dragonship's wing. The fused fire dragons could sense a presence under their Real wing in a similar position. Drel and Nagafen stared. "What the..? We were certain you two Integrated, but what the..?"

"We know, we know," Vox said. "Inties shrink when it happens."

"It's like those plastic Shrinky-Dink things they had in the 1970s," Drel said. "The ones that shrank in the oven."

"Well, we were in spitting distance of Pharos when it happened," Vox said. "Look, I don't know how long I can hang out with you in realtime. You're just within my territorial limits with this orbit and I have some mad Intie scientists with towels watching me."

"Towels?" Drel asked.

"Yeah, long story of sorts. They're my main contact with the rest of the universe, which is scary. Them and the Hali Rangers. The rest of the scientists do their own things. How have you been? What's happened since I've been gone?"

Drel sighed, "Rough, very rough. We're holding on by our claws, and slipping. Since you disappeared, passengers have grown sparse, and cargo doesn't pay that well."

"There are still four passengers missing. Do you know what happened? Did they integrate into you?" Nagafen asked.

Vox chuckled, "In a way. We're still sorting that out. If you ever feel yourself getting that close, evacuate as soon as possible. Do not pass Go, do not collect 200 mu. As a guy you probably don't want to go through what I did."

Even fused, Drel couldn't follow the dense data pack Vox sent over. But he did get to witness the curious sight of a dragon avatar attempting to cross his rear legs and wincing. "We'll evacuate if that ever happens," Nagafen said.

Drel swallowed. "And...Elona?"

"Still with me. Part of me. A ghost in the machine," Lady Vox said. "A small part. I want you two to think about the implications of that. A dragonship's mind is vast compared to the human we Fuse with."

Elona's translucent avatar appeared next to her. "I have some freedom, more than I might expect. But even now, I can't tell if I'm really me..."

"Or me pretending to be her," Vox finished. "She's very much one sub-process among many. Ask yourselves if that's what you want, Nags, Drel. Answer that question soon."

"Soon?" Drel asked, looking to Nagafen.

Nagafen refused to meet his eyes, running a claw in the sooty ground.

"I can see it from here. You're spreading the fusers again. Not in the populated areas, but in your tail and neck and wings, they're there." Vox said, chastising her fiery friend.

"I have to use them there. Maintenance has been cut to the bone. It's almost gone. The only way we can stay in space is by letting the fusers handle repairs.... repairs and optimizations," Nagafen pleaded.

"Nagafen..." Drel started.

"Space is harsh. Especially if we have to keep humans alive. We'd have had a catastrophe every other run if I wasn't doing this, Drel."

"I don't like you keeping secrets from me like this," Drel said, muzzlepalming. "But what's done is done. Let's optimise the escape pods for faster launch, and by God, tell me any other repairs you'd had to or have to make."

"I'm...sorry, dragonborn," Nagafen said, shrinking a little in VR. "Here's what I've done, and what still needs doing..."

They flew through space, virtually and in the real, taking comfort in each other's long missed presence while Drel absorbed Nagafen's information.

"So the hatchlings," Drel said, finally having to take a break and think of something else. "What's going to happen to them?"

"Stuck on Hali with me for now, maybe for a long time. They're Integrates, but not full Inties. They can't go back to open Zharus, and they won't fit in with an enclave. They haven't realized how stuck they are yet, but when they do, I don't know what we'll do. Maybe they'll just be strange spacer shells or something." Vox sighed, "Still that's our problem. It's good to see you. Keep in touch, please? I need some normal contact."

Nagafen received the address and added it to their private book, "Of course. We'll let you know when we're passing through the area too."

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Thunderbird 42 coasted between Minos and Hali, on patrol, watching for any SOS calls or other emergencies. Mainly it was just an exercise to keep the skills up.

"Contact, coming in from Minos, looks like a standard shuttle," Springer said.

"From Minos? Inbound?" Captain Delgado asked.

"Flight path says he's doing a loop out to Ixion," Springer was puzzled. "Everything seems to be in order, but who'd do a path like that?"

"Let's find out, plot an intercept, and let's say hi."

"Done, ETA 30 minutes. Shuttle has acknowledged and is expecting us."

A half hour later they were coming up on the shuttle. Visually and on the sensors it seemed to be normal, but the Rangers were still puzzled by it. "Everything's checking out. But..." Springer said.

"But something just doesn't add up. I think I know what it is. Open the comm," the Captain said.

"All yours."

"Thunderbird 42 to Lady Vox. Nice shell."

"This is Phoenix Fire. Who is this Lady Vox you are talking about?" a gruff male voice responded.

Springer laughed. "Yes, you're simming it quite well. But we can tell its you. Your temperature profile is off for a Class 5 Danube-Runabout."

Visually, the shuttle shimmered and the dragoness appeared. "Damn, and I thought I had it. Still had you fooled. There just isn't enough traffic here to make it good."

"It'll pick up in a few more months, when Zharus and Colossus are in opposition again. What's on your mind?"

Vox flexed her wings, and soon thumps were heard on the hull. "Mind if I come aboard, Captain?"

"We've opened a ship-to-ship VR channel for you, Lady Vox," Captain Delgado said. "Meet you inside."

Delgado slipped into the virtual space, bulking her own avatar up in cold weather gear. To her surprise, instead of the usual glacier-scape Vox usually created, it was a featureless plain. Vox waited for her, in Elona's avatar mode, with a Ranger cadet uniform.

"I see," Delgado said, suspecting what the dragoness wanted. She folded her arms and drummed her fingers against her forearms. "We've already gone through this before."

"The Fun House crew are all Rangers, I don't see why I can't be," Lady Vox pleaded.

"Logistics?" Captain Delgado said.

"I have enough sarium in me for sixty Orbital Units unrecharged at supercruise," Lady Vox said.

"You have no recovery facilities for rescue missions," Delgado pointed out.

"So don't use me for those mission types," Vox countered. "We're now have pirate problems over the ice line, from Ixion all the way out to Xolotlan Hab, preying on anything small enough not to get an escort. That's my ideal territory."

"What about weapons? What are you going to fight them with? Intie tricks won't work all the time."

"I thought of that. The Maddies whipped this up for me, but I'd prefer something designed by saner heads at Ranger Command. What they've come up with looks rather...toyetic."

"Reminds me of Dino Riders," Springer said, looking at the model. It had comically big pulse cannons with red tips.

"Well, that's the Mads for you. Regardless, I need to get out there. I'm going crazy staying so confined. It's too hot, too... everything. If I don't start doing anything, I might just disappear into VR and forget to come out."

Captain Delgado populated the VR space as a moon of Ixion with a view of the rings. "We don't want that, Vox. You're a person, but we... We're just not sure what to do with you. It's blunt, but you deserve the cold, hard truth."

"I appreciate the bluntness, but if I'm a person, why am I imprisoned like this?"

"Would you believe a lynx with a pair of weapons powerful enough to slice you in half?" Captain Delgado said. "Did the Mads brief you about Fritz?"

"Yeah but he's a planet issue. We're Spacers. The affairs of the rocks don't affect us."

"Some of us would rather not take the risk of being noticed," Captain Delgado said. "It's not just Fritz, there are others. But...I'll send your proposal along to Command on Rhodes. The final decision will be theirs."

"I suppose that's the best I can ask for right now," the ice dragoness said.

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Uptown, Early 155AL

"Welcome, welcome! Glad you could make it!" Normand O'Leary was already standing when Drel walked into his office. He shook the dragon man's hand and motioned, "Please have a seat."

Drel sat down where indicated, his suspicions raised, "Well you are the boss. What's going on?"

"Just a sec, I'd like to speak to both of you at once."

Emitters lit up in the office, and Nagafen appeared in his dragon form. The dragon looked around, then contracted into his red-suited human form. He sat down next to Drel. "Good day, Norman. Repairs are progressing as planned."

"Repairs?" Drel asked.

"Repairs, and updates," Normand said. The president of the company sat across from the dragon pair. "We have an opportunity, some investors, including a Steader, may want to come back on board. Mainly Lauries, including the Steader, but if they come on, we can finally bring Bahamut out of mothballs."

"That's great! What brought this on?" Drel asked.

"We're not sure. There's been a drop in the number of pirates in the outer system. These guys want to do a grand tour, and see if we're as good as we say we are."

"So what's the plan?"

The office darkened and a view of the system appeared. "A grand planetary tour. They want to leave Zharus, hop in to Hali and work their way out, innermost to outermost, all the way to Xolotlan."

The dragons looked the alignment over. "But there isn't a conjunction, we'd be criss-crossing the system, retracing our steps... maybe they want a different?"

"No, they want inner to outer. In order. Consider it a chance to set a pile of speed records.

The view compressed, showing a passenger list. "You will have thirty-two passengers. Since these are higher quality guests, we're giving you four stewards and stewardesses."

"Sounds like fun. When do we leave?"

"Two days from now, soon as Nagafen's updates are done." Normand leaned forward, "I can't stress how important it is for this to go off cleanly. If we don't get their investment, we're done; plain and simple. The shoestrings have finally snapped. So don't screw up."

"We understand, we won't."

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Rings of Ixion

Drel relaxed in his quarters, resting on his belly on his bunk, eyes closed. He flew with Nagafen through his implants, taking in the vast emptiness between Colossus and Ixion.

:Wish we could fuse. It just isn't the same this way,: he told his partner, trying not to seem bored.

:Space is big, but fuse would help make it seem smaller. Still, it's a passenger run, an important one. No fusing if we want to keep our jobs.:

:Yeah, I know.: Drel spread his wings and flapped them, just stretching them. He shifted his focus, inwardly. The stewards Normand had hired were doing well. They helped serve the guests and kept them off of his own scales. All of them had scales, or other dragon signs, gifts of a nanite-clinic in Aloha and not a fuse. :ETA to Nyx?:

:Another five hours. We've just started our deceleration phase. We lucked out that the outers are all on the same side of Pharos at least.:

:Fine. I'm gonna grab a nap. Poke me in a couple hours so I can give the intro. Make sure we can get a good view.:

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"Ixion, Pharos's fifth planet. A gas giant, smaller than Colossus, three quarters the size of Jove back in Sol-System." Drel introduced the planet they were arriving at. The view behind him was a live feed through Nagafen's eyes. To human eyes, it was covered in red, orange and yellow clouds. What made the planet notable was its ring system. The planet was the centre of an extensive ring system similar to Saturn's. Five bands of rings were visible to the naked eye, with clear spaces between them.

The stewards handled most of the passenger interaction now, but one aspect Drel liked was the planet introduction. He'd done it as a lark for Hali and it had been so well received, he'd repeated it for Minos and the other planets.

The view zoomed in on the outer edge of the fifth ring. Darkness filled the view as the glowing rings zoomed out of the display's scale. In the middle of the darkness, a faint sphere was visible that grew quickly with the zoom. A dark moon appeared, still barely visible, most of its glow coming from a domed station built on its surface. "This is Nyx, Ixion's largest moon, and the darkest natural object in the Pharos system. The domes you can see make up Nyktos base, primarily a Ranger and science outpost, it is on the verge of growing into a full blown Spacer colony. This is where we will be visiting in the Ixion system."

"Excuse me, Captain?" Mercutio Steader asked. The view reset back to their position, and their route to Nyktos showing.

"Yes? What can I do for you?" Drel asked, carefully keeping his voice neutral. Mercutio Steader was from Grand Valley, on Laurasia, and one of their main investment hopes, and he knew it. At each planet he'd diverted the ship based on his whims.

"Well, I was just wondering. I notice our route to the station comes in from above the plane. Would it be possible instead to come in through the rings? I've seen Voyager and loved the view of the ship cutting through the rings of the planet in the intro."

Drel couldn't stop himself from sighing, and put up a token fight. "That would be highly hazardous, sir. The rings are full of every meta material known to man and a few we probably don't know of, in quantities too spread out to be economical, but still thick enough to be a navigational hazard. That makes travelling through them extremely dangerous."

"You're the captain of a dragon RIDE ship. Surely you can handle some ice rings better than a normal ship."

Drel forced himself not to clench his fists. "We certainly can handle the rings, if we needed to. But prudence dictates that we stay on the safe routes, for our own safety and your safety."

Mercutio crossed his legs, looking pleased, "Ah but if I am to invest in you and your partner, I need to know how you handle yourselves in all situations. How do I know you won't freeze up in an emergency? Consider a trip through the rings an emergency drill."

:What do you think, Naggy? We could do it but do we want to?: Drel asked.

:Hell yes, I want to. But should we? He's ordering us. He's even giving you a fuse opportunity.:

"Fine, we'll do it. Under one condition. We're taking every safety precaution. Everyone back to your quarters and review the escape pod launch procedures. If anything happens, be ready to use them. Naggy, update the course."

By the time everyone was secured, and Drel was fused, they were approaching Ixion's rings from the far side. Nyktos Control was screaming that their planned route was highly dangerous, but Nagafen ignored it. He soared among the thin outermost ring, feeling the faint tugs of raw cavorite in the planet's magnetic field and other strangeness in the rings. His hardlight shield parted the icy ring fragments easily, with no signs of any danger.

:Man, I've missed this,: Drel said, spreading his own fused senses along side Nagafen's. He could sense and feel all the ripples in gravity around the planet, along with the ice and rocks of the rings.

:It has been way too long. Should've made an excuse earlier.:

They shot across the gap between the fifth and fourth ring, and entered a denser ring structure. A dust cloud in front of them suddenly parted, revealing a huge snowball, kilometres in radius. Drel just had time to gasp before Nagafen twisted and skimmed over the surface of the shepherd moonlet, mere metres over its surface. He dipped lower into a valley and opened his mouth, letting out a fiery blast that dug the valley deeper, surrounding them in a mist of water vapor.

:You did that on purpose!: Drel laughed while trying to sound outraged. He was too excited from the fake close call to be properly angry.

Nagafen grinned and broke away from the moonlet and continued through the ring. :Of course it was on purpose. Gotta show off what I can do.:

They burst through the inner edge of the fourth ring into the Hypnos Gap. It was the widest gap between the rings. The route Nagafen had plotted planned to use the gap for most of the travel distance before cutting back out across the outer two rings again. Once they were relatively sure there were no obstacles in their flight path, they both relaxed in flight. They were going against the planet, and ring's rotation since that route was slightly shorter.

A shock of pain down their port side pulled them on the alert. Damage reports and alarms flared across their combined consciousness as they tried to figure out what happened.

:We've been hit,: Nagafen concluded, :Something big... but sensors aren't picking up anything that big.:

:Doesn't matter. We're holed. It blasted through the shields and hit the wing and side. Damnit, I knew we should've gone with traffic.:

They struggled to route around the damage, nursing damaged emitters enough to seal the hole tight to their skin. In the Real, the stewards and passengers were just beginning to react, but evacuation didn't seem needed yet.

:We're shielded! How could something cause that much damage?: Drel tried to figure out on the side while Nagafen handled keeping them alive. He ran back the sensor logs in quick time and found a flare in their shields microseconds before the impact. The sensors said they had hit a small cluster of dark rock particles, but the damage told a greatly different story; whatever hit them was much more massive than their sensors had detected.

Another stab of pain hit them, coming from the portside wing. The outside view skewed wildly as the impellers lost their synchronicity. They tumbled in among the icy rocks of the third ring. The wing had practically been shattered. The passengers and crew made a break for the escape pods.

:I'm losing control. Too much damage.: Nagafen said, still struggling. :We need to let them go.:

:If we let them go, the pods will be lost in the rings. Do you have any control? We need to get above the rings. Or below.: Drel's thoughts jumped among the dragon's, trying to come up with solutions. They were in the middle of the rings, so the choice of up or down was about equal.

Nagafen made the choice, and they dove deeper. The third impact they saw coming, a twenty-metre iceball, but they were unable to avoid it. Hardlight flared painfully down their chest as they scraped across it. They could feel cargo sliding and falling out of a new hole. Power levels were falling rapidly, the damage having already destroyed a bank of sarium batteries and the backup tokamak.

Let them go, they decided as one. The evacuation alarm finally went off, most of the pods shooting off automatically. One got hung up on some debris, and ended up slicing open, exposing its passenger to space. More were trapped, unable to get away as the RIDE tried to save what he could.

Fusers in the cabin, they thought before losing consciousness. They were spreading from the Fuse chamber, doubling every few minutes like some sort of technorganic bacteria. They dissolved the interior, seeking out support systems, engulfing them into their growing mass, pulling them back to the egg-like shape forming deep within. The people in the trapped pods pounded the softening walls and shouted for help until a gas hissed into the shrinking pods, sending them to sleep.

Inside, a star dragon dreamed.

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Thunderbird 42, Ixion

"I know you guys are trying to keep me distracted," Cadet Vox said. Her avatar was sitting in a lotus position in the corner of the bridge of the Thunderbird 42. Outside, her body spread its wings and did a loop around the big ship.

"Stop doing that! It makes me dizzy," Springer complained. "And it's not a distraction. It's a legitimate training exercise you need to pass."

Vox hung her real body upside down over the bridge of the rescue craft. The dragon-sized gear designed by the Mads--though less garish than the original design--made her feel awkward. A quartet of pulse cannons, large tools she could reach and use her lifters to manipulate, extended batteries, auxiliary lifters, among other things to make her more equivalent to a Rangers spacecraft, connected through her DIN. There was even a system to quickly swap burned out DINs. There were a few dozen in a magazine on her hip. "An exercise we've passed ten times already. We all can do this in our sleep. Admit it, you guys just want to keep me away from Naggy."

Captain Delgado shook her head, "Fine, you got us, we are trying to keep you away. He's got a full load of very curious tourists; we don't want them seeing anything they shouldn't."

Her scales glowed and expanded, forming into a classic Star Trek Danube-class Runabout appearance. Her registration number showed EQ-989. "I can hide myself."

"You're still too big," the fifth addition to the 42's squad, Engineering Cadet Scott Anderson mumbled. He was an Engineering cadet from Rhodes. He'd joined the Ranger squad when they rotated out to Ixion. Like the others he was a body replacement cyborg, but had obtained a GI Joe Mark 14 from Earth as his gear. It had a lot of hardpoints but wasn't quite as versatile as Captain Delgado's Cyberdani body. It also had a creepy marionette quality to it when his hardlight skin was shut off. "Danube-class Runabouts were twenty-five metres. You're almost seventy-five in your disguise."

"Without the disguise I'm over 50. There aren't that many ships I can use in my size range," Vox snapped back.

"Stand down you two," Captain Delgado said tiredly. "Cadet Vox, even disguised we can't let you get close. We just don't have a good story to explain why a Ranger registered shuttle needs to hang out with a tourist shuttle. Just be patient. He's scheduled for a day on Nyktos. You can hang out with him then."

The dragoness growled in frustration and flickered out. The Captain waited a moment, then spoke up. "Cadet Vox, you know the rules. You are to maintain a visible presence on the ship at all times unless I permit it. Bring back your avatar, or I will limit you to Elobot."

The corner remained empty for a defiant moment longer, before Vox reappeared, her head bowed contritely. "Yes, Captain."

"Good. Now let's test your weapon loadout again. Springer, launch the targets."

"Wait...mayday signal coming in, coming from the rings. It's pretty garbled," Springer reported.

"Who from?" Captain Delgado asked, feeling Thunderbird 42's AI bring the ship to full alert.

Springer hesitated, glancing at the outside display to the space dragon flying in formation. "It's Nagafen. Escape pods have been launched."

The dragon shot ahead of them at his words. Delgado sent the 42 after her. "Shit, garbled in what way? Can you get a fix on him?"

"It's very similar to Vox's SOS. No fix, he was freeflying in the rings. We're picking up the pod transponders. A dozen so far," Springer said. He focused on gathering as much information as he could.

"Damn she's quick," Engineering Cadet Anderson said. "I've got our impellers tuned to the max, and thought we were matching her, but she's just getting better."

"She's an Integrate, Cadet. Her engines are her muscles. The more she exercises them, the better they get." Delgado switched to the comm, ignoring the motionless avatar paused in the corner. "Cadet Vox, you're supposed to wait for permission before shooting off like that." The Captain smoothly shifted her focus from the engineering cadet to their largest cadet.

The avatar stirred into motion again. "Sorry Captain, it's just... It's Naggy. I've gotta make sure he's OK. This isn't a normal integration."

"She's right. The SOS has some telemetry before the integration messed it up. Looks like he hit something hard," Springer added.

"Be careful, Cadet Vox, we're following hot on your tail. Find all the pods and find Nagafen."

"Yes, Captain," Vox reported.

"Cadet Anderson, keep up with her. Her engines shouldn't be that much better. And make sure the shields are fully powered. Those rings are notorious for having strange things in them."

Fifteen minutes later, they had cut through the rings and reached Nagafen's last reported position. "Triangulating with Lady Vox's data. Twenty two pods... Thirty-one life signs. No sign of Nagafen."

"Plot a pickup course to get the pods. Doc, you ready for injured, possibly integrated folks?"

"Ready, Captain," the doctor replied from the sickbay. "Cadet Anderson, report for medic duty in the Recovery Bay."

"Captain, I'm having trouble plotting a course. The computer is sluggish. Someone is stealing a few too many cycles." The green faced brainbox looked meaningfully at the dragoness avatar in the corner.

Delgado facepalmed. "Cadet Vox, what are you doing?"

The avatar opened her eyes but stayed in position. "Sorry Captain, I'm attempting to backplot the pods and rocks of the ring to find the impact points and try to figure out where Naggy went. It's trying even my immense capabilities, so I'm using the 42's systems to help."

"Well we have thirty-one known lives in danger right now that we need to pick up, on top of the seven you are trying to find. So would you please pull back a bit so Springer can do his calculations?"

"Sorry Captain, I'll try to push to a lower priority. But these values aren't making sense. There's missing mass somewhere that the sensors aren't picking up."

"That's just Ixion being Ixion. Chalk it up as dark matter and keep chugging," Springer said.

A couple of hours later, the twenty-two pods were collected, and the doctor had all the victims in her sickbay. Captain Delgado and Cadet Anderson toured the Recovery Bay, looking at the escape pods. Unlike Vox's, they were little changed from normal pods. The news wasn't all good.

"Two confirmed dead, and three more in critical condition. A true accident and not an Integration," Scott said. He was still pale from what he'd discovered in one of the 'empty' pods.

"That's what it's looking like," Delgado said. She tapped one of the pods, "Still, look how the edges are softened here, rounded. He went down with a fight. Emergency systems probably tried to integrate to save what they could. "

"Doctor Natale says three passengers show scales," Anderson said. "That's on top of the two stewards and one body with the nanite scales. Their escape pods were the ones closest to Captain Drel's quarters."

Captain Delgado sighed and turned back to the lift. "Cadet Vox can stay on station, looking for Nagafen and the rest. We need to get these guys to Nyktos Station for medical attention."

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Lady Vox collated and reshuffled the data from the local IxOT satellites, digging into it. Nagafen's last known position was bright and clear, but getting hit by an assumed dark matter snowball had knocked him off course. She brought in the orbital trajectories from the escape pods, then extrapolated which way Nagafen may have gone from that, then kicked up her visual sensors.

There! And there he was, spinning out of control, a giant tear in his portside hull plating. One wing had been smashed to pieces. Yet there was something else going on. Puffs of silvery dust poured out of the wounded hull like blood.

"42, this is Vox, I've got him!" she reported over comm. The ice dragoness plotted the intercept and poured on the speed. "I think there's an Integration in progress. I'm seeing a trail of dead Fusers. No other pods."

"Do what you can, Cadet," Captain Delgado ordered.

:It doesn't look like he's shrinking like we did,: Elona said.

They approached the open side of Nagafen's hull, using their lifter field to slow then stop his spin. Heat and light emanated from within the DE shell. The whole shell vibrated when she touched it. There were no recognizable transmissions. She noted that all four impellers were missing and the inside looked partially dissolved by the incredibly active Fusers. A massive egg-like shape was deep inside.

:Think we can risk tearing away some of the hull?: Elona said.

:I don't think he's going to need it,: Vox agreed. She jetted over to where the starboard wing attached, then opened the service panels. She unlatched it and sent it spinning away with a lifter push. Getting rid of the port wing's remains would require a laser cut, equipment she didn't have yet. :Better put this shell in a better orbit. We don't know how long until...:

The vibrations of the hull sharply increased. She looked inside at the "egg". There were cracks along its surface. Vox let Nagafen's body go and went out a few hundred meters to wait and see. :Well, this is exciting!: Elona thought.

The cracking quickly spread to the exterior hull plating, then, with a final huge gravitic push from the inside, Nagafen's metallic shell broke into several large pieces and spun away from the shining red dragon within. The new Nagafen spread his wings and opened his mouth, a stream of plasma emerging along with an electromagnetic roar that rippled through the Rings of Ixion.

What. A. Man. Vox thought, dodging some fragments, ecstatic that she caught the whole thing to watch over and over again. She made a note for the Mads to pick up the shell fragments for study.

Then his eyes rolled back and he slumped in space, completely drained.

:A man that needs our help. Let's get him back to Nyktos Station,: Elona said. :We still need to find out what happened to Drel and the other pods.:

Gently, Lady Vox gripped the unconscious Nagafen above the wing shoulders, surrounding them both with a lifter field, then carefully pulsed her impellers to change orbits. Nagafen was quite warm to the touch. Warmth that, for the first time, Vox welcomed.

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Nyktos Station Cargo Bay C, 2 Days Later

"I have what inside me?" Nagafen asked. Unlike Lady Vox and despite his preintegration damage, all Nagafen had needed as a recharge and some fabbed meat to feel like himself again. The Rangers of Ixion had called in the Heart of Gold and its crew from Hali to do the examination of the new dragon Integrate.

"Eggs," Ford said primly. "Three dragon eggs, just like Vox. Except..."

"Except what?" Nagafen asked.

"Well, I don't have to spell it out, do I?" Ford said. "The eggs are going to come out eventually, one way or another. You're missing certain elements to help that. When the time comes, you're going to have two choices, surgery or natural birth. The later would be rather difficult."

"Natural...birth," Nagafen stammered. "Nothing 'natural' about it."

"Oh come on, Naggy. It's not that bad," Lady Vox said, doing her best not to laugh. "You were female before after all... well part of you was."

"Maybe, but all parts of me don't want to try that!" He held his wings against his sides. "Brrr..."

Meyers the white mouse, wearing a white lab coat and goggles, scribbled notes on a pad of actual paper with a pencil. "There is a theory, that crossride Inties can sex shift easier. But it usually takes weeks of practice before they can figure it out. You probably don't have enough time."

"Surgery it is," Nagafen said quickly, with sudden enthusiasm.

"The real question is if anyone out there can do surgery on a sixty-meter technorganic dragon," Dr. Natale said.

"You're the only biological doctor of the bunch of us, Doctor Natale," Ford said.

"I don't know anything about your anatomy," Dr. Natale protested.

"Anatomy is easy," Zaphod said, his other head bringing up a diagram from Nagafen's scans. "Here's the stomach, the liver, the womb, the eggs... I'm not sure what that is, probably not important... That ones new to me too... What the hell is that doing over there?" Both heads started mumbling dipping into the display and forgetting the others in the isolated hold.

"What my canine friends are trying to say is that we Inties are very durable, so don't worry so much about that," Ford said. "Now that he has a DIN I can show him how to shut off pain and go into hibernation for the duration of the surgery."

"What about blood loss? I don't have anything to..."

"If he needs a transfusion, I'll provide that," Lady Vox said.

"He probably won't need any, due to our innate regenerative ability. Plus he should be able to curtail blood flow to the area naturally with a bit of practice," Ford reassured.

"Think of the opportunities! You'll see what makes an intie up, with his permission. How many people get to see that?" Meyers added. "The rest of us will assist you. We've all sideloaded some surgical skill chips."

Dr. Natale looked at the eager Integrated Scientists. "Why do I feel like I'm being set up?"

"Frankly, I think I'd rather you do this then them. They are...easily distracted," Lady Vox said diplomatically.

"Gentlemen! The gravitational data from the follow-up probes is in!" Zaphod announced. The mammal Integrates immediately all spaced out, looking at it internally between one another.

"Right on cue," Captain Delgado said sourly. "I swear they do that on purpose. Distracted by the shiny."

"I'm beginning to understand why Fritz had no problem with them going off planet," Vox said dryly.

Nagafen looked down at himself and lifted a rear leg to rub his belly, "So how long will this take? How long do I have to have them?"

"Hard to say, but probably not too long. Near as we could tell, if they're like Lady Vox's, they aren't true eggs. They are combination stasis pods and fuse chambers. So they are probably fine to take out any time, and they'll hatch on their own when ready," Ebba said. "If I'm to be doing this though, I need more time to prepare. And some internal scans and probes, to figure out what sort of biology we're dealing with."

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A week later, Nagafen waited impatiently as the Doctor, the Hali Integrates and others who had been drafted to help, prepared the hold for the specialized surgery. One of Vox's hatchlings, the Sturmhaven violet dragoness Gabrielle, had flown out to help, offering her mechanical expertise. He'd already endured numerous experiments to test, and train his durability, regeneration and pain control, but this was the big moment.

Dr. Natale went through the most thorough decontamination prior to surgery she had ever done. But there wasn't a lot of space inside the dragon, so she would have to depend on her own space-adapted skin and a sterile skinsuit and helmet to protect her.

"OK, Lord Nagafen, we're ready for you," Gabrielle said. She wore what amounted to a backless light violet swimming suit, held up by straps around her arm-shoulders. "Just step into these bracers and we'll get going, just like we practiced."

The big red dragon stepped into the fabbed up supports and got comfortable before mentally disconnecting his mind from most of his body. The braces were intended to hold his body steady while his mind was mostly checked out. Some aspects he had to leave connected for his own health, but most of his sensations he could turn off. "All set."

Doctor Natale looked at the broad scaly side and shook her head. "I still can't believe I'm about to do this. I need to cut an opening bigger than me and walk in to get some eggs that are also bigger than me."

"You'll do fine, Doctor," Gabrielle reassured her, waiting to help.

"Don't forget to collect samples!" Ford called. The Fun House Inties were on the other side of a line the Doctor had drawn in the hold. Their offer of help had been declined by both Ebba and Nagafen.

Ebba rolled her eyes and powered up a laser scalpel. "Ready Naggy? Going to start cutting through your hide. Try not to heal up too quickly."

"Ready. Please try to be quick."

She reached over her head and started cutting, the laser cutting slowly through the scales. The sides twitched, making the doctor pause. "Hold still!"

"Sorry! It tickles!" Nagafen said through a draconic giggle.

"It shouldn't do anything if you've properly turned off those nerves. It'll do more than tickle when we get past the scale layer," Ebba admonished him. She waited and continued cutting, making an X shape. "Gabrielle, give me a hand pinning these open."

They carefully pulled the scale layer away, revealing a silver and red streaked muscle layer. It flexed slowly with Nagafen's breathing, one of the systems he had to keep active. Spots of blood, similarly silver and red showed.

The eggs were held in individual sacs several meters within Nagafen's abdomen, within an analogue similar Lady Vox's reproductive system. But they didn't have anyplace to go. The egg ducts didn't connect to anything. To get them out, they would have to cut through the muscle layer into the abdominal cavity, and haul them out that way. A sort of dragon cesarean section. On a male. From the side.

"Your torso is more mammalian than reptilian or avian, so it makes things easier. No abdominal ribs to cut through," Dr. Natale said as she started cutting through the muscles. She had to marvel more than a little at the body systems she was seeing and recording. The Integration had extrapolated from the simulated body systems used to make dragons in VR. There were nodules her sensors told her were sarium battery packs, hardlight emitters, nanite production glands, all connected together with an analogue of blood that was more tech than organic. Nerves were more like network cables, connecting organic and technological sensors of all sorts in a mesh through Nagafen's body.

Natale paused a moment after making a cut, watching the nanite blood glow and heal the wound, fixing biological and technological matter alike. "Fascinating," she mumbled.

"Can you speed up your spelunking a little?" Nagafen said. "I don't know how much longer I can keep it up."

"You're doing fine," Lady Vox reassured, giving him a lick on the cheek.

"Damn it's hot in here. I'm almost to the first egg," Natale said from two meters within. It was like that scene in Pacific Rim where the workers went inside the fallen Kaiju, except for the subject being alive.

She reached the womb analogue and tugged at the rubber flesh, feeling and seeing an orange egg within it, floating in a fluid. "At the first one, starting the cut...." she reported, using the laser to slice into the sac. A flood of clear liquid flooded out, splashing her mostly-metal skin from head to toe. It would have gotten right on her face without her visor.

"Ewww," Gabrielle said, then grabbed a metal-reinforced rib for balance as the world tilted.

"Nagafen! Hold still!" Ebba shouted, the man sized egg rolling towards her.

"I'm sorry, I felt that!" Nagafen said. "I'm shutting down more nerves. Gyah, this is awful."

"You could've learned to sex shift and done it naturally," Ford pointed out. Zaphod and Beeblebrox had crossed the line to gather samples of the fluid leaking out of the hole in the dragon's side.

With Gabrielle's help, Ebba managed to pull the egg out of the sac and attach a lifter harness around it. They pushed it out far enough for others to grab it with their own lifter fields and carefully rested it in a cradle built for the occasion, tended by Springer.

Ebba paused for a moment, scratching at the side of her face mask and looking at the egg. "Right. One down, two to go. Still with us big guy?"

The red dragon swung his head around to look at the egg. "That was in me? Wow.... Yeah get his brothers out."

By the time she had removed the other two eggs, Dr. Natale was covered in a number of Nagafen's bodily fluids, many of them having no biological counterparts as far as she could tell. The womb sacks, now that they were empty, were dissolving as she watched, reabsorbed by the body. The rest of the body seemed to tighten up, wanting to heal.

She backed out of the cavity carefully, unpinning muscles, arteries and other organs they had to move to make way for the eggs. Nagafen's body seemed eager to pull itself back together. Once back outside, she wiped herself off as best she could, but the mixture of fluids and gunk dried faster than she could wipe, forming a multi-layered crust. She left it alone and checked the scales and muscles, making sure the healing processes were operating properly before going to decon.

The Fun House Integrates were gathered over a lab table, fighting each other for the samples. "This fluid is incredible. It's pure fusers in a suspension similar to, but quite unlike blood plasma, better than anything I know on the market. We should patent this," Zaphod said.

"We need to reverse engineer how it works and how to grow them first," Ford said.

The indigo hatchling taped the X-shaped wound closed under Ebba's watchful gaze. "Shouldn't you guys be checking on the eggs?" Gabrielle asked.

The meerkat waved a distracted paw towards the three ovoids; red, orange and yellow. "They're fine. Can't do anything about them till the hardlight charge fades. Keep'em warm and they'll pop in a couple days."

"What do you mean 'you' should patent it? That's my precious bodily fluids you're talking about!" Nagafen said indignantly.

"We'd cut you in for a percentage!" Zaphod said earnestly."Say...maybe twenty percent?"

"Sixty percent," Nagafen insisted.

"Thirty-five me, thirty-five for Naggy, and I'll let you see if you can harvest them from me too," Vox pipped in.

Dr. Natale was having trouble in the decon shower that had been set up. The crust was stubborn and resisted even the shower's anti-nanite chemistry. "Wait, did I hear someone say 'pure Fusers'?"

"Afraid so, Doctor," Ford said. "They appear to be Integration level. Which is strange, those usually power down quickly after Integration. We've only been able to study their remnants before. You know, the silver gunk that gets left behind? Those things seem able to assimilate anything."

"I wonder if this means we could replicate the egg creation process somehow?" Zaphod mused. "If the Fusers are still active, if we cut a dragon open and stuck someone inside...hey, if it's a female dragon, we might not even have to cut anything--"

"Don't you even say another word, you crazy mutt," Lady Vox snarled. "Or I'll toss you out the airlock and you'll float home to Hali."

"Please, my Lady. I'm not crazy. I'm merely mad," Zaphod said with aplomb. "Hmm. Perhaps if we tried it with a smaller Integrate and a gerbil..."

"This is going to turn out like the time you tried to design a tribble RIDE," Ford said. "Isn't it."

"I still say that would have worked if they'd just let me go ahead with it," Zaphod grumbled. "I had the genetics all worked out and everything. Even had an idea to make them born pregnant."

"Shut up and get this stuff off of me!" Dr. Natale said. "It's eating through my skinsuit!"

Meyers moved in close to the doctor and peered at a spot between her breasts. "No, actually, it seems it is modifying your skin suit. Does it itch?"

"Get your twitchy nose out of there!" Ebba fumed, pushing him away. "I think we need to bring in the Station's medical staff on this. I'm going to put myself in quarantine until we figure out what's happening to me. And I want this entire cargo bay sterilized for rogue Fusers."

"But the samples!" Ford wailed.

"Get them sealed and packed away. We're torching this bay as soon as I can arrange it."

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A week later, the doctor finally cleared herself. The fusers had done their work, and some were persisting despite their attempts to purge, but they were not contagious. Her silver skin suit was even more closely bound to her now, still space proof, but a living part of her now. The silver had spread over the remaining skin, giving her a uniform look with a scale pattern. She had stubby horns on her forehead, and looked more muscular than before. There were no signs of incipient masculinity.

"Testosterone levels are higher than normal, but everything else seems fine... Damn skin's itchy as hell. It better not flake," she mumbled, scanning herself as she walked into the incubator room where the three eggs were warming.

"Morning, Doctor. Welcome back to the land of the living," Nagafen greeted her. He was against one wall, the barest hint of an X on his side where he'd been cut into.

"Glad to be back. How are your children?"

"They wiggle occasionally, but nothing yet. Energy levels are fading so they should pop soon."

"We're hoping the yellow one is Mercutio. It would suit him," Vox giggled.

"One of the female crew was caught as well, so we have another crossride to deal with," Dr. Natale said, double checking the records. They'd identified who the three had to be by elimination, but which was which was still a mystery.

"I wonder how he'll take not being able to go home. Most Inties don't have the power that the Steader name carries," Nagafen mused.

"We'll try to keep him local, I'm sure we can keep him busy. If not, well he wouldn't be the first. Nikki Munn integrated and went public years ago. Not as an Integrate, but she's been hiding in plain sight for a decade now," Zaphod said.

"Wait, she's an Integrate? How long ago?" Vox asked.

Beeblebrox pondered. "In the one thirties I think? She disappeared in that huge solar storm back then, before we did."

"No, when did... never mind, I'll check myself... Damn!"

Nagafen peeked into Vox's datafeeds and sighed. "That explains a hell of a lot. No wonder they pulled out."

"And left us at risk of integrating. We're going to have words with that eagle."

"How? You're not exactly easy to pass as a fused human," Ford asked. "I don't see what the big deal is anyway."

"When the Munns pulled out, Star Lines lost money. When that happened, our maint budget was cut to the bone," Nagafen said. "So Vox and me used our Fusers to make repairs. It took some mods to enable them to survive in the crew cabin, but they worked."

"I gather I went a lot farther with it then Naggy here ever did," Lady Vox said. "But then, after I 'vanished' they took some very strict precautions."

"I'm sure me and Drel would've been just fine if we hadn't gotten smacked by that snowball," Nagafen said. "Funny how that worked out. Snowbelle here Integrated down near Pharos, and I did out in the icy rings of Ixion."

"Talk about opposites attracting. Still, I have to wonder if the two deaths would have happened had you been fully prepared like I was. Maybe we would have five eggs here instead of three."

"Two eggs," Ford corrected her, pointing at the red scaled dragon-man who was just beginning to twitch and recover from his hatching.

"He sure looks like he could be my kid," Nagafen said. "Up and at 'em, hatchling."

"No breasts, otherwise he could pass as one of us," Gabrielle noted. The violet dragoness moved over to give the red one a hand. "Not obviously male either, but we aren't exactly obvious."

"I didn't have breasts either when I was Elona," Vox pointed out.

"No, but you were more slender-looking. And much nicer curves in all the right places," Nagafen added.

Red stood up with Gabrielle's help and looked down. "No breasts? Where'd they go? What happened?"

Gabrielle smirked and looked down, "One way to be sure," she reached down and squeezed his groin, one claw slipping into the scaley red slit. Red roared and jumped back, letting out a small fireball. "Definitely male," she confirmed, growling lustfully.

"Hey, watch it!" Red grumbled. "Ugh, okay. I have dangly bits. I need a drink. And hazard pay. And a drink. And some mouthwash. Tastes like I ate a burned hotdog or five."

"Not that dangly," Gabrielle pointed out, licking her lips. "Though I'm sure we could make them dangle." She looked at the surprised Integrates and Spacers around her. "What? I may be Sturmhaven, but I can like guys too. I've been stuck on Hali with three dragon women for months; the toys aren't cutting it any more."

"Steward Darcy Wilson, accounted for," Ford said. He looked at the orange egg that was dissolving around an orange scaled dragon. "Looks like that one's next. Guess who?"

"Look at me! I'm a dragon! Mercutio is a dragon! A real fucking dragon!" Mercutio the Orange cheered. He crawled around on all fours, tail lashing. "Rawwwwr!"

Vox groaned and sighed, "Damn, lost that bet."

"Props for the attitude, though," Nagafen added. "Does this make me part of the Steader family? I could really use a cash infusion right about now."

"He's already on the station networks... Damn, he still has his Steader keys. I didn't know we had those backdoors here," Zaphod said. "Sir, please be careful, that's station life support."

"Who are you? What am I?" the final expected voice spoke up. The yellow dragon man sat there, looking at his arms. His underside was light enough to almost seem white, while his back was darker, the yellows more prominent.

"Ahmed King," Ford said. "Check. One of Mr. Steader's friends, if I'm not mistaken."

"I just went for the tour," Ahmed said weakly.

"Come for the tour, stay for the scales," Mercutio said. "C'mon, Ahmed old buddy. This is awesome! What's cooler than being a dragon? Well?"

Ahmed gave Mercutio a chilly, spikey, scaly, and above all toothy, glare.

"Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet..." Ford mused. "Seven rainbow dragons. Well, partial Inties. Mostly Inties. Whatever they are."

"Gentlemen, we have been privileged to be present at the birth of a new lifeform," Meyers said, addressing the other Mads in his best stentorian announcer voice. "Surely this is a wonderful and auspicious day for SCIENCE!"

"Honored colleagues, when isn't it a good day for SCIENCE?" Dent added.

"They'll go on like this for hours," Lady Vox explained to Nagafen and his hatchlings. "Addressing themselves in grandiose terms, saying SCIENCE in allcaps, pat one another on the back, sing a few verses of Weird Science..."

"Gentlemen! I believe we are close enough to Xolotlan for a visit to Milliways," Dent announced. "I propose a celebration for this august occasion!"

"This is all going a little fast for me," Darcy said. Gabrielle was doing her level best to distract him. "Down, girl. Watch the new equipment. It's never been used."

"Would you like to change that?" Gabrielle said.

"Milliways?" Vox said.

"Milliways, the Restaurant at the End of the Pharos System," Ford explained. "One of my Hitchhiker-infected buddies opened it, because reasons."

"But they're Integrates, wouldn't that be a problem?" Vox asked.

"Nah, they're human enough; they'd pass as Spacers with custom bodies. No worse than Springer or that Joe you're working with," the rockhopper penguin said.

"I feel well enough to travel," Nagafen said. "I'd love to feel some space on my scales right now. Being in atmosphere feels limiting. I want to stretch my wings--and my impellers."

"We shall gives the n00bs the briefing aboard the Heart of Gold!" Beeblebrox said. "Gentlemen, gather your things and we shall depart immediately. Onwards to the edge!"

Ebba sighed and called her team. :Warm up the 42. The inmates are staging an escape from the asylum. Heading to Milliways.:

:What, all of them?: Springer asked.

:Looks like it. Including mommy and daddy.:

Captain Delgado reassured her, :Let them go, we're ready to tag along. You might want to get over here unless you want to travel on the Heart.:

The doctor shuddered, :I'd sooner catch a ride bareback on one of the dragons. On my way.:

"Lead the way!" Mercutio said. Then he finally got a look at Nagafen and Vox, who had been standing there all along. He'd been so self-absorbed he simply hadn't noticed them. "Mother of God."

"Mommy says hello," Nagafen deadpanned.

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June, 156 AL

Drel and Elona sat in a Pullman diner, simulated within their own dragons' systems, sharing a milkshake between them. Neither of them could say if they actually existed, or if they were simply in the imaginations in their dragon's mind. Existential dilemma aside, what they could say was that the chocolate shake was delicious.

Only days ago in realtime a warning had come from Nextus on Integrate-only channels. Zane Brubeck had integrated with a tiger named Terry, and he was going to out Integrates once and for all. The Mads were celebrating the event with some planned "fireworks" over Hali. The Rangers had already declared Minos orbit and within a restricted space volume for the duration, just to be safe.

"Hard to believe, isn't it? We're going to be free. Free to travel the system. No disguises, just as us," Elona said. "Give any thoughts of what you will do?"

"Well, I'm wondering if there will be an effort to make more of us," Drel said. "It'd be a pity if it was just us two. Bahamut and Ramoth? You think they're possible?"

Elona leaned back in her chair. "It's possible. There might even be a desire to make more hatchlings too for that matter. Inties without the dual minds. We might be too much for them to take. Bahamut's DE is still up there at the end of the Alohavator; hanging off the anchor station. Probably about three quarters built."

She waved herself and grinned, "Quite the look too. Platinum dragon base. After integrating he'd probably be a good eighty metres. Practically a Godzilla."

"And Ramoth," Drel mused. "Wasn't she going to be twice your original size? Plus FTL?"

"Yeah, I was going to get a new DE while they worked out her FTL drive specs. Not even a DE keel yet, but the plans are there. Gold to go with Bahamut's platinum."

"Plus she has the whole Pern thing going," Drel said. Both their dragons sometimes showed up in the Integrate-run EverQuest servers, playing their parts. "I'm not going to hold my figurative breath she'll ever get built, though."

"Yeah, FTL RIDEs. Imagine Integrating while in subspace? No one probably wants to risk that. Let alone a RIDE that could buzz the colonies at will. Or swing by Earth."

Drel grimaced. "Still, we'll need another female, even without FTL. I'm sure we can do something about it. You know, we can integrate new tech into ourselves. Inties groundside do it all the time to upgrade their hardlight or batteries. I wonder if we could chow down on a torpedo-sized FTL drive of our own."

"Now that's an interesting theory. Don't hint too much at it or we might get grounded. But if you're willing, I'm willing."

"Perhaps someday. Pharos system's plenty big enough as is for now." Drel looked at the majestic globe of Zharus in VR. "You know, I do have a hankering to visit Camelot. I think their biggest dragons are...about ten meters? Twenty? They don't come to even half your size, Elona. Still, we have kin, in a sense. It'd be improper if we didn't visit."

"I like that idea. We were a bit big to slip in past ZOT before. Now we officially can." Elona said with Vox undertones. "Hey, here we go."

On a floating screen in VR, Zane Brubeck's press conference started. By comparison their own reveal would be very low key. Ranger Command would put out a press release accompanying Zane's own, and that would be that. There was a slim chance that the dragons and their hatchlings would simply be unnoticed, but everyone already in-the-know doubted that.

What else could possibly happen on Zharus that would completely overshadow two giant dragon Integrates?

They soon found out.

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