|FreeRIDErs story universe|
|Works by Jetfire on Shifti|
Aloha, late 158 AL
The Marshal sub landed in a remote corner of the Alohan airport, but that only bought them seconds from the relentless flock of drones the Press sent their way. The Sub's point defense grid powered up, and sharpshooters deployed around it, setting up a twenty metre perimeter around the sub, to give the ambulances room to enter and leave the sub's hold.
Rescue, armored up in red and gold, stood near the edge of the hold, watching the movement. She rubbed a feral pitbull Integrate's head as an improvised cold sleep tube was loaded in one bus. She could just make out the androgynous person with a fox tail asleep inside, his face frozen in the terrified pain he'd been experiencing before being frozen.
A fused bronze-coloured wyvern walked up to her, following her gaze. Wyverns were relatively rare as RIDE types, since they were mythical and they had wing-arms, like bats. Most wyvern pairings refused to separate the wings and arms even while fused, claiming it made them dragons, not wyverns. Fused, the pair stood upright, the wingsails pulled back to the elbows to give them proper hands. The tail was still long, with spine ridges going down to a spade tip. The wyvern's head was stretched into a slight beak, and no visible ears. Their dominant colouration was bronze, with light and dark tiger striping on their sides, neck, arms, legs and tail.
"I found her myself," Marshal Constantino 'Tino' Saleno said. He was the human half of the wyvern fuse. He nodded to the cryocell. "We're not sure we can do anything for her, but we aren't going to give up hope for them,"
Tino and his RIDE half Tycyn had joined Rescue's task force a few years before, when a victim was found near their home base in NSA. In Shahrazad's dome, they had discovered Rescue and stayed close to her for the trip back to civilization.
"That's all most of them...of us have now. Our own hopes, and the hopes from others," Rescue noted.
"These are the last few buses. You sure you don't want to go out with them?"
"I'm sure." She nodded to an approaching Marshal, wearing the Iodine badge of the medical section. She crouched to the pitbull and looked him in the eyes, her helmet and facemask dissolving away to reveal her silver face and black, circuit covered head. "It's time for you to go, Rex. These people are going to try and help you. Don't worry, I'll check in with you as soon as I can."
He whined reluctantly, and licked her face. She nuzzled him back and smiled, "Be a good boy. For me, okay?"
He woofed and watched her step away. The Iodine looked from Rescue to Rex and paused uncertainly.
"His name is Rex. He's harmless," Rescue reassured him.
Rex woofed again and walked over to the Iodine, nuzzling the hand. He took the human Marshal's hand in his mouth and tugged him towards the ambulance.
"I couldn't have done it without him," Rescue noted as the bus lifted up. "He rescued me, multiple times."
"He's in good hands. If there's anything of who he was left, we'll find it. And if there isn't… he'll have a good home," Tycyn said, the RIDE half of the fused wyverns. "There's still time to back out. Hell you could stowaway on board here for the trip to Cape Nord. I'm sure we can redirect Rick's sub again."
Rescue laughed, "Rick would kill me if I bounced him again."
The last ambulance left, and the hold began to fill with the Marshal's that would be getting off. Many glanced at Rescue, recognizing her, but trying to give her space. Few knew what she really was now, but she was sure the grapevine was ripe with rumours. Through the DIN she wore on her chest, she could pick up curious pings from the Inties and the RIDEs, but none opened dialogue.
At one end of the hold, a hardlight stage lit up, lifting a fused smilodon marshal, wearing a new Platinum Star. He cleared his throat and waited for the eyes to focus on him.
"I know you are going to hear this a lot, but you've earned this. That means those of you here that I am addressing directly, and our compatriots still at the Dome or on their way back to the Dome. You're all heroes. Congratulations on helping take down one of the biggest monsters to come out of the War. Seeing the victims may make the victory feel hollow, but take solace in knowing that a long nightmare is over. Shahrazad has been captured, and won't be creating any more nightmares."
As he continued, Rescue picked up a comm message from him.
:Detective? I understand you have comm access now. May we have a word?: Commander Palmer asked.
:Certainly, sir. You can call me Rescue. Or Nadia, or Pepper. Whatever you are comfortable with.: She closed her eyes and slipped into the offered VR space. They were at the edge of an arboreal forest, a herd of wooly mammoth wandering the plains nearby. The stout smilodon relaxed on a rocky outcrop, while a human tagged with cat ears, a stubby tail and prominent fangs sat with him.
"And you may call me Suresh. I'm sorry Smiley and I haven't had a chance to speak to you before now. Things are understandably hectic," Suresh said.
"Of course, sir--resh. Thank you for your quick response when it counted." She did a double take and looked at the RIDE. "Your name is Smiley?"
He yawned and licked his fangs, "It seemed appropriate. Though I know two other Smilodons named Smiley too. I think they forgot to make us imaginative or something."
"It's a fine name," Rescue said quickly, grinning back at him. "And I'm sure you're quite imaginative."
"No, not really," Suresh said, slapping his partner playfully. "But I'd want no one else on my back when it counts.
"In any case, we should be thanking you for that beacon to follow. It really highlighted a blind spot we didn't know we had. We never even considered she would be off continent."
"It caught me by surprise too. Nearly ran right off a cliff into the ocean," Rescue said.
"So, just so you know, since we couldn't talk you into going with the buses, and I doubt I can convince you to come with me to Cape Nord, this is what is going to happen. We need to feed those vultures out there. We've set up a stage outside the hatch, and let the reporters gather there. The Marshals and yourself will be on stage, to answer questions. Answer only what you want, and when you have enough, let Tycyn and Tino know. They'll get you to the limo and away to the Aerie."
"The Aerie?..." she asked, surprised. Memories from the year before overcame her momentarily.
"Yes, the Munn complex just outside the city," Suresh explained, misinterpreting her question. "Mike has his uses sometimes, even if he's a pain in the ass most of the time. Your husband and son and their group will be lifted up there as soon as they land as well. It's probably the most secure place on Aloha, at least from the Press. Not to mention they are the experts who are best ready to… uhm..." Suresh faltered, unsure of how to say what he wanted to say.
"Best ready to examine me and find out what the hell I am," Rescue finished for him.
"Right. Don't worry about hogging the spotlight; that's partly why I'm giving this pep talk now. Or rather why Smiley's giving it. Gotta love fusing."
"Bah, I'd still rather be hunting. Too much talkie, not enough walkie," Smiley growled.
Suresh grinned and rubbed Smiley's ears. "They know they've done good, and there's plenty of fame to go around. And they know you're why they have this fame. So take as much as you can stand, and get out of the way."
"I can probably take more than you might expect," Rescue said, trying to sound braver than the cybernetic butterflies in her stomach indicated. "I and…" she paused, having trouble figuring out who she was going to say next, then gave up. "We were in that spotlight a lot back home in the early days."
"Fair enough, though as a fellow expert on these feeding frenzies, keep your answers simple. Leave the details for the private interviews later. These guys only want the vinebytes anyway, so don't make them work harder than they have to." Suresh glanced to one side and stood up. "Time to get this circus on the road. I'll go out first, say a few words about Shah's capture and then signal for you and Tycyn. But take your time; we can stall for as long as you need."
The scrum went much as Suresh promised. He led the Marshals out onto the stage and gave a quick speech, outlining the operation in broad strokes, from the reception of Rescue's SOS signal, to the cleanup still ongoing back at the island. He asked for questions, and handled them deftly, giving non-answers when needed, and highlighting the actions of the other Marshals, both present and elsewhere.
"Right, we still have a lot of work to do, so I'll stop these questions for now and introduce the true Heroes of all this. We'll have a few more questions for her after she comes out, but I remind you, that not only are they heroes, they are also victims. They spent months in Shahrazad's sadistic paws. They have family to reunion with, privately, and their own specialists to see. So question period will be kept short."
The sabretooth marshal glanced back to Rescue, hidden just inside the entrance to the hold. She nodded back, ignoring the nervous quivers in her stomach.
"So without further ado, I present to you the Heroes of the Dome. Nujose's finest detectives, Nadia Vert and Pepper!"
The Marshal's stepped to one side, opening up a path for her, with Tycyn and Suresh at the end. Marshal and reporter alike applauded as she took her steps out into the open, seeing and sensing the camera drones buzzing around the stage to get the best angles.
Habits built up from her early years when the Iron Man squad was new, came back up, helping her address the crowd easily. "Thank you for that introduction. But I was just the stone that started the avalanche. If it weren't for your quick response, the results would have been much worse." She nodded to Suresh, waved to the other Marshals, and clapped, urging another round of applause from the reporters and onlookers.
She looked out at the sea of faces, human, RIDEs, fused, and Integrated alike and waited for them to quiet down. "Thank you for coming," she repeated herself. "I know you all want to hear my story, but that will have to wait. As the Commander mentioned, I have other priorities ahead of you. But you will hear it soon, I promise you that. In the mean time, I will try to answer some questions."
Tycyn and Tino took over, picking the reporters to ask questions. The questions were surprisingly lightweight, with easy answers she could give without thinking hard, or having to give long responses to. She wondered how someones from NSA could handle an Alohan press scrum so easily, when she realized Tycyn was getting signals from someone else. Tapping in, she briefly listened in as the wyvern was given hints from a Marshal Press relations officer in the sub.
The easy questions were exhausted quickly, and they started to get into trickier ones. She fielded them fairly easily, relaxing into old habits and nodding encouragingly to Tycyn. The wyverns smiled back and looked for the next reporter, picking quickly before the press officer could choose.
A mouse Integrate, wearing a fedora with a cartoonishly big Press card stuck in the band, pushed his way to the front and waved for attention. Tycyn pointed to her to ask away.
"Michelle Souris, AHN. A question for the detective. Is there any truth to the rumour that you were Integrated with your EI partner? How is that possible?"
Rescue froze, her mind locking up a moment as she tried to come up with an answer. The rest of the crowd of reporters fell silent and seemed to press in closer, eager for her answer.
"I have no idea how that might be possible," Rescue said carefully, trying not to lie, while dancing around the question. "I'm sorry, this is just too much."
Tycyn motioned to a waiting limousine at the side of the stage. "That's enough from Nadia and Pepper. As the Commander mentioned, you need to remember that while she is a hero for alerting us to the true location of Shahrazad's base, she is also a victim. She needs time with her family, away from these pressures. The rest of the Marshals will be available for interviews at our base. In the mean time, this scrum is over."
The Wyvern pair and a couple of other Marshal's surrounded Rescue and lead her to the side of the stage, ignoring the follow up questions shouted their way. They shielded her while she got into the limo. Tino and Tycyn defused and climbed into the spacious interior.
"Phew," Rescue said, slumping back in the couch. "Forget what I said earlier. That was nothing like the Nujose guys."
"Well you have to admit, we softened up the Nujose guys for you," a new voice said.
Rescue yelped, realizing the limo was occupied by more than just herself, Tino and Tycyn. Gary grinned at her, while Sparky waved, chirping. :Hi Rescue,: Sparky said on a sideband.
"What are you two doing here?" she asked, before leaning over to hug Gary.
"We were out of town when the scramble alerts went out, so we missed both subs. By the time we got back, you were on your way here. Figured you might want some familiar faces, and since we're already familiar with Aerie, we can help be a bridge between you and the Munns."
Sparky hugged her and chirped. :We've been briefed on what happened. We're here for you.:
Rescue shook her head and smiled at Sparky. Part of her was shocked at how vocal the old EI was compared to what she was used to; the other part didn't see anything different about it at all. "Thanks. Both of you. I really appreciate it… Sorry, I'm just a bit overwhelmed. Sparky can talk?"
"Of course he can. He's always chattered away on the side bands with the EIs and RIs… and my implants. Guess you can pick that up now?" Gary grinned.
"Yeah, I guess I can. Well as long as I've got one of these. This one's holding up a lot better than Stein's did." She tapped the DIN embedded in her chest armor.
"Marshal DINs. They're working with all the specialists to make sure Marshal Inties get the most durable DINs they can make," Tino said.
"Better than Stein's. His cracked when I blew on them hard."
Rescue leaned back in the seat and sighed, letting her helmet dissolve. Gary and Sparky twitched in surprise at her appearance, but didn't say a word. She smiled thankfully at them, and looked out the one way windows as the tourist city passed by. Flying in formation with the limo was a squad of APD skimmers, most of them RIDEs. She could sense chatter going between them, but it was encrypted in a way she couldn't crack, even with the DIN.
A klick away from the headland complex, the press drones that had trailed them abruptly peeled away. Sparky opened one window and leaned out, waving at them.
Gary smirked. "They know better than to get within the no-press zone. Most of the time Wanda and Astranikki just shut them down, but when they get in a playful mood… well, the last guy who snuck on the property thinking they'd score a big break, ended up Truman Showed for three months."
"Truman Showed?" Rescue asked, part of her mind querying the reference.
"Every second of his life, broadcast on the mesh for everyone to see. Complete with highlight shows. He didn't realize it until a month in. Then he asked for the third month, but his ratings plummeted once he knew."
The limo came in and landed on a landing space near a big building. Most of their escort wiggled in salute and flew off, back to the city. The lone remaining escort landed, the RIDE shifting into a golden retriever after a similarly tagged man climbed out.
"You might want to cover up. While the drones are kept away, and we're high up, that doesn't stop the telescopic lenses," Gary suggested.
"How many people know? Officially know so far?" Rescue asked, her helmet and mask digitizing over her head.
"These Munns, us, and Suresh and Smiley. Others suspect, especially after Michelle's stunt but we won't confirm until you're ready… or we can't keep it under wraps any more," Tycyn said.
She nodded, and climbed out of the limo. Ryan and Rex nodded to her, "Welcome back to civilization, Rescue. You're welcome to stay here as long as you want."
"You and your family. We have the space to spare," Rex said.
"Thanks guys, I'll try not to impose too much, but the time will be good." She smiled at the lab. "I owe my own escape to another Rex. Seems like the name bodes well for me."
He wagged his tail, "It is a good name."
She lead the group to the house, walking in the open door. The living room showed signs of rapid cleaning, toys tossed in a big box in a corner. She sensed the datasphere around the complex, denser than she was used to. She mentally poked at it, finding most of it encrypted, with a few unlocked areas.
:It's impolite to poke around someone else's data,: a crisp female voice cut into her wandering. She retreated in surprise, but felt a presence following her, then pulling her into a simple virtual space.
A golden eagle integrate appeared in front of her, watching her sternly. "Around here, it's more for your safety as much as anything else. With our fame, we wear a lot of targets, so we have a lot of protections. You almost fell into a NeoRussian Honeypot before I stopped you."
"I did? Uhm, thanks… I'll watch my step… in fact, I'll back out completely." Rescue felt the eagle's gaze on her, feeling like it was seeing her in extreme detail.
"That would probably be safest, at least until we can show you around and get you the proper credentials," Astranikki said.
A new presence joined them, a fused snow leopard. She looked at the duo and sighed, "Dad. What have I told you about this? Rescue's been through enough, she doesn't need your bird degree."
"Yes Wanda." The bird bowed to Rescue, and the virtual field dissolved back to the Real.
The living room was crowded. She stood next to the couch, facing the golden eagle Integrate. The snow leopard tagged woman watched from the other side of the room. The magnificent eagle woman held out her hand, "Hello Rescue. I'm sorry I missed your last visit here. I'm Astranikki."
"Hello," Rescue squeaked out, a bit awed. "Thanks for having me."
"Don't worry, we'll help you get settled. Please have a seat, try to relax. I understand you've been going since you were saved."
Rescue took a seat and sighed, "Since I was kidnapped really. I don't think I can remember how to relax."
"Well, when you're ready, I know some masseuses that could turn bedrock into sand with their fingers… and they're just human," Astranikki smiled encouragingly and moved away.
"Inside here is completely secured. No one will see anything we don't want them to see." He hugged the snow leopard tagged woman and kissed her. "Any problems?"
"None. They tried to send a few drones across the border. Dad booted them down to feed Kaos," Wanda said, smirking. "Should get some good shots of a kraken gullet."
"The girls around?" Ryan asked, falling into a family pattern Rescue found comforting.
"I had Nick take them down to the Queen. Figured things would be busy enough without them underfoot." Wanda paused and looked thoughtful. "Still, they might have been handy to keep Tony busy."
"I can go get them again if we want them," a new voice said. A fused blue scaled dragon walked in, not much bigger than a normal fuse. Rescue sensed something off about him, and slipped to a digital view. Instead of the dense data core she was used to seeing with RIDEs, the dragon RIDE's data disappeared in midair emitting from his back between his wings.
"Nick, I asked you to stay with the kids," Wanda glared at the pair.
"They're fine. And I wanted to see what's going on. It's not as if we can't keep secrets too you know." The dragon defused, leaving a similarly scaled young man, and a quadrupedal dragon the size of a small pony.
"It's not your secret to nose in on," Wanda countered. Ryan moved in to support her as the family slipped into argument mode.
Rescue half listened to them, sensing frustration from all sides as they covered familiar family topics that were foreign to the guests. She found it relaxing nonetheless, reminding her of some of the fights Tony had set up between her and Rick. Even at a young age, he was proving to be quite the diplomat.
A chilled mug held by a taloned hand was shoved in her face. She twitched in surprise and looked up at Astranikki. "Here. It's a Sarium shake. My own recipe. It'll help fill in what you lost while Integrating since I'm sure those monsters had no idea what you needed."
"They were Inties; I'm sure they knew what I needed. Whether I got it, was another matter." She took the mug, letting her face mask dissolve, revealing her face. She sniffed the drink cautiously. "Sarium… Real sarium… I guess I need this now?"
Astranikki chuckled, "You certainly do. At least until your new body stabilizes more."
Rescue sniffed the drink again, then took a deep gulp of it. She felt the thick liquid sizzle in her mouth and down her throat, before landing in her belly. A warmth began to spread through her systems. "Whoa, you were right."
She realized the argument had fallen silent and looked over, seeing the dragon and Nick staring at her. Both looked away quickly, Nick's scaled cheeks turning a deeper blue. "Look all you want. I know I'm going to have to get used to it eventually." She winked at the dragon man. "Looks like I'm not the only one who's gone through a lot of changes since I was last here."
The young man turned back to face her and approached. Rescue could sense him sending around some questions and decided to head them off. "I'm Rescue. We met briefly last year, when I was Nadia and Pepper. And when you were Nikki. You may not remember me, your head was pretty deep in VR at the time."
"Buh-buh-buh…" Nick's eyes widened again and he stammered. The dragon nudged him, giving him an out. "Uhm Hi there. Yeah I remember you… err the old you…. This is Sevalak. Well MiniSevalak. His main body is up on the roof."
"Main body? They're making Russian RIDE's now?" Rescue asked, looking puzzled.
Wanda laughed, "Sort've, I guess. It was a birthday and fusing day gift from some family friends out east. Not common yet, but they're sure to be a hit with the big RIDEs, and the RIDEs that dream big."
Tino and Tycyn stood up. "Seems more hassle than it's worth. Maintaining two bodies and all that. But it is nice to see a dragon smaller than me for a change," Tycyn grinned and fused over his partner.
"The Nujose sub's on final approach now. I'm going to get the limo down to the field to pick them up before the press sniff out who's on board," Tino said.
"Already?" Rescue asked, her stomach doing a flip. "I didn't think they'd be here so soon."
"They're late actually. The bounce in Punta Sur took longer than expected, since they got drafted to bring in more specialists. Be back soon!" The wyverns waved good-bye and left the house.
Nervousness hit Rescue harder. She put the empty mug down and stood up. "I… I need to freshen up," she said. "Where?"
"Down the hall, third door on the left. If you need anything, just signal," Wanda said.
"Right and how long do you think I have?"
"An hour easily. The sub's still on final approach, and it's easily half an hour to get from the field to here. Take as long as you need, we can stall," Krystal, Wanda's snow leopard RIDE said.
Rescue left the crowded room and found the bathroom as directed. She walked in and closed the door behind her. Taking in the room, she smiled, spying the bath toys and other signs of the family's twins. She looked at the sink, having only intended to wash up, but the lure of the shower became too tempting. She realized she hadn't had a proper cleaning since her final fuse.
:Krystal, do you think anyone would mind if I used your shower?:
:Use whatever you want… Other than the bubble bath in the blue bottle. That's Christine's, and she gets annoyed when other people use her stuff., The RIDE answered quickly.
Rescue let her armor dissolve away, and turned the water on. She held one hand under the water and adjusted the temperature, trying to get it hot enough. The controls beeped at her, indicating they were at the max before then, startling her. The display indicated it was maxed, at 50C, while her fingers told her the water was only pleasantly warm.
Her metallo-organic skin was subtly showing its mettle. "Of course, that makes sense," she mumbled to herself, shifting the flow to the shower heads. She climbed in and relaxed for a long moment, feeling the water pelt her from all sides. After a good rinse, she soaped up and rinsed off again, briefly lamenting the loss of her hair.
An eternity later, she turned the water off, and made sure the temperature reset back down to safe levels. She stepped into the full body hot air dryer, and dried off. Finally she grabbed a towel and finished drying, realizing after a minute she was buffing more than drying.
"Ok, now what are you going to do?" she asked herself, looking herself over in the mirrors, using the towel to shine up a few remaining spotty areas.
The body looking back at her was still a stranger, but she was getting used to it. Fully powered, and cleaned up now, she admired herself. She was human in shape, with no animal traits like normal Integrates. At a distance, the silver parts of her body made her look like she had a one piece bathing suit, with knee high boots with toes, elbow length gloves and a silver face mask. Up close, the silver skin was clearly skin, showing her breasts and nipples, as well as her genitals.
"We may be in Aloha, but there's no way I'm going to walk out there naked," she chuckled to herself, shifting her attention to the darker parts of her body.
The black parts almost sparkled now that she was cleaned up. She was as dark as deepest space, with the strange circuitry patterns providing the only contrast. She killed the lights in the bathroom, and realized the circuits gave off a faint light, almost unnoticeable except in complete darkness. The patterns also shifted slowly and randomly as far as she could tell.
Rescue turned the lights back on, and reformed her armor. The hoxels appeared all over her body, slightly blocky at first, but quickly softening and forming into a smooth surface. She studied the pattern and adjusted it slightly to get closer to Pepper's original configuration. "Wonder if I can get some fabber time to make some new clothes? Don't want to walk around like this all the time," she mused to herself.
Satisfied with her appearance, she turned to leave, when a memory hit her. She recalled how her armor had melted and reshaped during her escape. With that in mind, she closed her eyes and tried to repeat it, picturing her desires and trying to force them out.
After a moments hesitation, she felt her armor changing, softening and pulling back slowly, the texture feeling different on her body. When she opened her eyes, she was stunned by the difference. Her armor was gone, leaving a normally dressed human; other than her strange appearance. Over her chest, she wore a well fitting light blue t-shirt with the NuPD shield over her left breast. A blue ball cap with the same insignia was perched on her head. Her hips and legs were clad in loose fitting blue jeans, and a pair of sneakers covered her feet.
"Wow," she mumbled, touching the shirt and pants, finding the texture just like she remembered it. She looked at the two shields in the mirror, and willed the one on the shirt away, morphing it into a plain short sleeved blouse instead, keeping the light blue colouring.
"I'm going to save a fortune on clothing," she mused to herself, grinning.
Cleaned, with a full stomach and full batteries, she felt almost normal. She walked back to the living room. Her updated look caught everyone's attention.
"Looking good Rescue," Gary grinned.
"Yeah, you look great," Ryan agreed. "But I didn't hear the fabber going…"
"No fabber. I'm making all of this on the fly," Rescue said, feeling a bit self conscious. "It's my armor, remade. I'm not sure how I did it but it feels right."
Wanda came over and after looking for permission, she pinched the fabric of the blouse, rubbing it between her fingers, then leaning in to look closely. "Incredible. It feels like real silk. And I can see and feel the threads in the fabric. Is this hardlight? That's incredible control if it is. Can you feel me touching this?"
Rescue chuckled, "A little, but it feels like clothes to me. If I willed it, I could probably make it feel like skin but I don't want to. As for what it is? I have no clue. It acts like hardlight and probably is, but there's more to it."
She took her ballcap off and hesitated, not sure what would happen, but suspecting. "Catch!" she called out, tossing it to Gary.
The cop caught it easily, then fumbled it when his mind realized what it was. "What the hell? You sure you didn't fabber this?"
"I'm sure. Made it myself."
Krystal fused over the surprised Wanda and the snow leopards peered at the cap, then at the new Integrate. "There's a faint signal between them. But not enough to really be powering it…" Wanda mused, "Rescue, I know you just escaped the labs, but I suspect you'll be spending a lot of time in them from now on."
Rescue sighed and sat on the couch. "I know. As long as they won't be testing to destruction like Frank'n'Stein wanted, and as long as I can go home to Rick, Genis and Tony each night, I'll help where I can."
She glanced at the cap and snapped her fingers. The cap dissolved into energetic cubes that faded before hitting Gary's lap. The hat itself reappeared on her head. Gary reflexively brushed his hands and lap, brushing the dissolving hoxels away.
"Speaking of family, the limo's arriving," Rex noted, looking out the window.
Rick sat in the chair of his cabin, holding his sleeping son Tony on his lap. He was exhausted, but too wired up to sleep. Months of fear and anxiety, had given him many sleepless nights. Now, he knew Nadia was alive; he'd actually spoken to her, but he could tell something was wrong, keeping his anxiety level high. He and Tony had watched the Marshal interview live from Aloha and seen the fused Pepper and Nadia address the reporters, which helped calm some of his concerns, but not enough to let him rest.
A soft chime echoed through the sub, causing a stir. Rick's EI partner Genis, and Tony's RIDE minder Otto both lifted their heads.
"The sub just signaled, we're on final approach into Aloha. Landing in the next few minutes," Genis said. He was a large EIDE, built like a scaled up football player, his armored skin coloured in blues and blacks.
"Do you want me to take him?" Otto asked. He was a Laurasian style german shepherd RIDE, little bigger than a real dog.
"No, I've got him," Rick said, standing up. He felt Tony stir in his arms and ruffled the boy's red hair. "Wake up kiddo. We're here."
"Mommy?" Tony asked sleepily.
"Not yet. But soon. We're back in Aloha. You remember Aloha right? All the beaches?"
The boy yawned hugely and adjusted his grip around his father's shoulders. Rick rubbed his back briefly and nodded to Genis. The four stepped out of the cabin and made their way to the sub's first class lounge, where their personal exit was.
The rest of their little party was already there, watching the outside view of the tourist city grow large as they descended. Lois and Clark were married biologists, and Nadia's best friends. Rick knew he would not have made it through the past few difficult months without their support.
The other two in the room were a pair of lemur Integrates. He was used to them in more human forms, when they had founded and ran EvoLimited. Luke and Argon, as they called themselves in their Integrate forms, had created EIs, including Genis and Nadia's partner Pepper.
"Morning guys," Rick greeted them.
"Is it morning?" Clark asked, covering his mouth while he yawned.
Lois grinned, "I see sunlight. Morning's close enough for me. Just don't ask me what day it is. Right now I'm feeling like I found Zharus's first Monday."
"That's not true," Argon pointed out. "The first five years after colonization, they went with the Earth calendar, until the early colonists could agree on how they wanted to break up the days and weeks and months. So Zharus has had quite a few Mondays. Just not recently."
The ship chimed again, and they felt a quiver in their stomachs as the energy fields shifted. Looking at the outside view, they saw they had landed on a remote landing pad. A number of buses and cargo skimmers were waiting for the ship, along with a large limo.
"Think we'll be able to get off this time?" Clark asked. "Maybe she decided to hop over to Nextus instead."
"If she did, she can hop right back here to meet us," Rick grumbled. "I'm almost positive she's here though. Maybe not here here though."
They waited impatiently until the door opened, revealing an elevator to bring them to the ground.
"At least they remembered the elevator this time. Not all of us can fly," Clark smirked, stepping out.
"You didn't like the Lemur express?" Luke asked, smirking back at him. They got on the elevated platform and floated down to the ground.
"Tino! Tycyn!" Rick exclaimed, letting Genis move in to give the wyvern pair a hug.
"Hi everyone. Welcome to Aloha. I hope you had a pleasant flight," Tino said. The wyvern marshal stood next to his RIDE partner, wearing a simple over the shoulder vest to leave room for his wing sails.
"It was a flight," Lois said. "Though being in the first class cabins was a nice touch. I might be spoiled now."
"You'll be more spoiled after this. The limo here is for you, to take you all to the Aerie. That's where Res--Nadia and Pepper are waiting for you," Tino said, quickly correcting himself.
"They aren't here to meet us?" Rick asked, trying not to sound disappointed.
"We didn't let them be here. She's the hero of the hour. The press are trying to get all they can find about her, especially how she is now. So for her safety and our own sanity, we got her to one of the few places the press can't get to."
"They were in Shah's paws for a long time… Did they do anything?" Genis asked.
The wyvern RIDE Tycyn opened the door to the limo with a signal, and hop-walked to one side to let them go in first. "They did… something. But she's fine now. Let's just get you guys back together first. Come on, I think those vultures are beginning to realize there's more to this sub than just a Punta Sur run."
Rick climbed in first, with Tony, and sat down in a corner where they could look out the window. Everyone else got in after Tycyn assured the Doctors their equipment would be shipped up later. The limo lifted off the ground and joined the traffic heading towards the city.
"Look Tony. You remember Aloha?" he asked, pointing to the skyscrapers steadily growing bigger.
Tony yawned and nodded, "Sandy," he mumbled, half awake.
"Yes, it was very sandy," Rick chuckled and looked over. He noticed Lois getting more excited.
"The Aerie? You said we're going to the Aerie? THE Aerie?" Lois asked.
"Yes, it's the safest press-free place in the region. I didn't know there were that many Aeries to need to specify," Tino answered her.
"Actually, there are one hundred and seventeen businesses registered in Aloha with the name Aerie, and twenty seven buildings and building complexes with that in the name." Tycyn added.
"Yes, but there's only one called THE Aerie. Oh My Gee Oh Ess Ehsh! Clark, you realize where we're going?" Lois bounced with excitement.
Her tired husband looked at her. "The Aerie?"
"It's the Munns' house! The guys who started this. It's like meeting the Steaders! Man, I'm a mess… I should've cleaned up before we got off." Lois grabbed her tablet out of her purse and turned on the facing camera to fuss over herself. "Oh, geez…where's my makeup mask? Oh, it's still in my luggage!"
Rick watched the view outside, nudging Tony awake again to point out things. "I don't see what the big deal is. We went up there last time we were here. They're really nice people, not that strange, especially for Gondwana."
"You've MET them?!?" Lois shrieked, causing the rest of the passengers to wince.
Clark rummaged in his bag and pulled out a can. "Here dear, you've been up since we left Nujose. You're exhausted and way too excitable. You need to decaff a bit."
"No no, I'm fine," Lois said, slumping back in her seat. To everyone's relief she did take the offered can and calmed down noticeably after the first few sips. She was dozing, half asleep when the limo landed.
Luke chuckled softly, "Probably a good thing I didn't mention we know Mike and Astranikki from way back."
Rescue trailed behind the group as they left the house. Before stepping out, she paused and looked down at herself. Her clothes melted and thickened, reforming into Pepper's armor style. The mask closed in over her face, completing the look. She stepped out just as the limo touched the ground and came to a stop.
Tino and Tycyn got out first, and stood to one side. Luke and Argon hopped out next, their eyes looking around and locking on her quickly. She could tell from their expressions they could tell something was off. They sent some status queries which she didn't respond to, causing them to look even more concerned.
Lois and Clark followed them out, looking exhausted. Clark saw her and waved cheerfully, before pulling his wife to one side. Lois was too tired to even wave, her eyes half closed. Genis and Otto left next, the Limo rocking a bit as the big EI climbed out. Rescue felt their gaze land on her and sensed some puzzled queries sent her way.
:I'll explain soon,: she broadcast to them, including the Integrates in the loop, but leaving them hanging on that cryptic note.
Tony climbed out, the sleep melting away from him with each step. Rick got out last, but Rescue barely noticed. Her eyes were locked on her young man. Tony squinted in the bright light, while the crowd separated, leaving a clear path between him and Rescue.
"Mommy!" he screamed joyfully, running towards her.
Rescue crouched down and caught him, lifting him up and hugging him tight. Unnoticed, tears ran down her armored cheeks. Familiar strong arms engulfed both of them moments later, followed by metal arms. The reunion was completed by a cold hardlight nose, nuzzling between them happily.
The family held their position long enough for the watchers to get uncomfortable. Finally, Astranikki looked at Luke and Argon. "Good to see you again. It's been ages. Why don't I show you down to the workshop where you can set up your equipment."
"We don't have any equipment. It's back at the -Ooof!" Luke started to say before Argon elbowed him. "Sounds great, lead the way," she said.
"You guys look exhausted. Why don't I show you two to the guest bedrooms where you can grab forty winks," Wanda said to Lois and Clark. "I'm Wanda, and that's Krystal."
"Clark, and this is my wife Lois," Clark introduced himself. "Guest rooms would be great, before my wife becomes more of a mess," he added, smiling and supporting his groggy wife.
Ryan looked around as the others left and sighed, realizing who was left. "Figure, they leave the cops to break up the crowd," he said to the wyverns, Gary, and Sparky.
"They left us too," Nick noted glumly.
"In any case, I'm sure we can find something to keep busy. But first, we should get them out of the open," Gary noted.
Ryan tapped Genis's shoulder, and the family reluctantly loosened their hold on each other. "Why don't you go into the living room? I'm sure you have a lot to talk about. We'll give you all the privacy you'll need," he said.
Rescue sniffed and nodded her head, "Guh-Good idea. Let's go inside guys. I… I've got something to tell you."
They made their way inside and sat on a couch. Rescue held Tony on her lap, with Rick at her side. She looked at her husband and son, trying to figure out how to break the news to them.
:Sorry to interrupt, but Luke and Argon are asking some rather pointed questions. May I tell them what happened?: Astranikki interrupted her thoughts.
:I… I don't know. In a way, they're my parents. But this is my family. I don't want to keep them in the dark longer, but having them here doesn't feel right…:
:It's your call. I do understand your reluctance. Tony's your flesh and blood, you've spent more time with him and Rick then you have with the Doctors. But they're family too.:
:They are, but they deserve to know. Tell them please. And apologize to them for me. I'll speak with them soon enough, but I need to be with Rick and Tony and Genis now.:
:Will do. And for what it's worth, I think that's the right choice.:
She gave Tony another hug and looked at Rick, her thoughts threatening to get stuck in a loop again. "I'm… I'm not sure where to begin," she said finally.
"We can wait if you want. The important thing is you're here, you're safe now," Rick reassured her.
"No, I need to do it now. Before you find out another way. I owe you that." She looked away from all of them, out the window, watching the birds fly around the bluff on the opposite side of the strait.
"You know I was kidnapped… Captured by monsters," she said finally. She looked down at Tony, trying to explain it in terms he might understand. "They were very bad people, who did horrible things to other people."
"Did they kill anyone?" Tony asked. He turned around to face her, kneeling on her armored lap.
"They killed many people. Over many years. But they were hidden, so we couldn't find them for a long time.
"So those bad people kidnapped Mommy and Pepper. And they did stuff to us. They didn't hurt us badly, but they… " she paused, trying to figure out how to say what she had to say.
She glanced at Rick, and could tell the confusion and worry on his face. Genis and Otto were giving similarly worried sounded comments on the side bands.
"You… You know how it is in some of the stories we've read lately? Where the human and RIDE heroes have to fuse to save the day… and then they have to permanently fuse to stop the big bad guy?" she asked, shifting gears slightly.
"They Integrate," Tony nodded, carefully sounding out the big word.
"Right," she said. Genis and Otto's sidebands lit up as they caught on.
"Honey…" Rick said, suspecting.
She nodded to him. "They… They did that to Pepper and I. We… We're still here, we still love you dearly, more than anything. But we can't separate any more. Pepper and I are one person now."
Her integrated mind ran at top speed, simulating all the reactions Tony might have, and how she could react to them. His face lighting up in a smile was one of the ones she hadn't really expected. "So you're a Superhero now?" he asked.
His reaction helped lift the weary weight she'd been carrying mentally since she was kidnapped. She ruffled his hair and grinned, "I guess I am. But I'm still your mommy, got it?"
"Got it!" The sheer delight in his voice buoyed her further. She could just see the light in his eyes, what he must be thinking: Mommy's a superhero!
She stole a glance at Rick, seeing his concern and confusion. "Right. Now when that happens, when two people Integrate, they look different than they did before. You know that right? Mommy, under this armor, she looks different. But I'm still me. Do you want to see?"
Tony bobbed his head, "Sure!"
She pondered how best to show her new face to them, and decided to keep it simple. Her mask cracked down the middle and began to slide back, before dissolving away behind her head. She smiled down at Tony, her silver face and space-black head revealed. Rick gasped in surprise, but didn't move.
:Sorry guys, I'm not ignoring you, but Tony's got all my attention. We'll talk when I can spare a few cycles,: she sent to Genis and Otto, sensing their own confusion and surprise.
"So how do I look?" she asked, smiling at Tony.
He reached up and touched her cheek curiously. "Wow.. You're shiny… and full of stars, mom!"
She laughed and kissed him, "I guess I am. Sort've." She let her armor soften, reforming it into the clothing she'd experimented with earlier.
:Pep...er...Nad…: Genis stammered over milliseconds. :Nevermind. Just...wow. You're full of stars.:
:Rescue now, at least for the public.: she answered, slipping in a data packet.
She looked at Rick, and knew she had more questions to answer. Ones that would be harder than dealing with Tony. :Otto, Krystal, could you take Tony to his room? Rick, Genis and I need to have an adult talk. Feel free to listen in Otto.:
:Sure Rescue, it's all ready for him.: Krystal sent.
Otto barked and wagged his tail, :Yes ma'am!:
Tony looked at Otto, then back at his mother. Rescue dearly wanted to hold onto him forever, but other needs took precedence. "Tony… God, I hate to do this. But Daddy and I have to have a long talk. Otto will take you to your room for tonight, and we'll be together later."
"Do you promise?" Tony pleaded.
She held up her hand and stuck out her pinky. "Pinky swear promise. The bad guys are all gone now, and we're completely safe here. I won't go anywhere without you."
He finished the pinky swear and slid off her lap. Otto barked and ran to the door. "This way, Tony!" he called out.
They watched the pair run out. Rescue turned back to Rick to find he had slid away slightly, to better face her. "Rick…"
"Nadia…" he said at the same time. "How? Pepper's an EI. Integrating is impossible. The Docs have always said that."
"I don't know. Astranikki is telling Luke and Argon what happened now. Maybe they can make some sense out of it. But those two monsters pulled it off. Took them weeks, and they practically tore me apart in the process… the Pepper me mostly, but they worked Nadia me over too. In the end, they did it." Rescue threw up her hands. "I don't understand it, but I have to. This is us--me--now."
There was a moment of silence as Rick processed it. "How… How do you feel?"
"Fine now. Better than ever now. But not completely human," She laughed, trying hard not to let it get into the crazy maniac range. "I'm coping."
"But who are you?" Rick asked. He was coming to grips with the situation but it kept slipping from his grasp. "We've known a few pairs that turned Intie, and they're just...not the same."
Rescue sighed, "That's the million dollar question. Or mu I guess considering where we are. I'm me, I remember everything we did. Everything Nadia did. And everything Pepper did. It's all up here." She tapped her skull then paused, "Or wherever an Intie's memory storage is. But I'm not just Nadia any more. Nor just Pepper. I'm both now. And I will be for the rest of my life."
He nodded and they stared for a silent moment, then broke eye contact. "A long… long life," she added with a nervous quiver, the implications beginning to sink in.
His arms pulled her in suddenly, in a familiar, tight hug. She cuddled against his neck and sighed, taking in his acceptance.
:Ok guys, you can stop with the busy work. It's safe to come in again,: she sent. Rick still held her tight, but the first moment was successfully past.
:Busy work? Do you have any idea how much paperwork your rescue has generated? The southern Dry's gonna be lawless for months with everyone filling out reports!: Tycyn sent.
:Considering how many dens you guys have cracked open in the past few months, the Dry should be safe enough,: Genis countered.
The room gradually filled back up as people wandered in. Rescue averted her eyes when Astranikki lead Luke and Argon back in. She forced herself to look back at them. "Hi… I'm sorry I didn't tell you directly…" she started.
Argon took her hand, "It's OK dear. You had a much harder, and much more important job to do first."
Luke took her other hand, "We'll figure this out, one way or another," he reassured her, holding her hand tight.
Argon gave a double take seeing Luke holding Rescue's hand up close to his face, his eyes practically bugging out. She slapped Luke's hand. "Luke! We promised! No science till tomorrow. This is Rescue's personal time."
"Sorry! Sorry!" he exclaimed, dropping her hand like a hot potato. "I couldn't help myself. You're just so intriguing..."
"Rescue?" Rick asked.
"It's… It's the name I picked. As you said, Integrating changes people. Going by just Nadia feels like it forgets Pepper, and vice versa. Rescue, is what Pepper's namesake went by when she was armored up."
"I see…" Argon said. The red-ruffed lemur pondered what to say next.
"You can still call me Nadia though. Or Pepper… Or whatever you want," she finished, trying not to sound desperate.
Rick grinned and leaned in to kiss her. "I can think of a few other things to call you. But they're not polite to say in public, even in Aloha," he whispered playfully.
"Oh my," Rescue whispered back, her silver cheeks darkening with a blush. They kissed for an eternity--she drew it out as long as she could.
"Your lips still feel the same," Rick said after their embrace. "It's you, Nads. My silver-starry girl."
The door to the kitchen banged against the wall, making them jump apart. Wanda came out, her arms loaded with a big tray of meat. "Ryan, you're on steak and burger duty. We've got an army of guests to feed and you're it," she called out.
"Yes ma'am!" Ryan shouted, taking the tray from her and giving her a kiss.
"Nick! Sev!" Wanda called out. "Get your bigger half to stop spooning the AC unit. It's time to bring your sisters home. And invite up anyone who's down on the boat. Might as well make it a proper feast."
"Mom!" Nick and Sevalak called out in unison. "He's not spooning it." "I'm just getting some sun!" The dragon pair fused up and ran out, leaping up once they were clear. A large shadow passed over the patio seconds later, and the dragon dove down to the bay far below.
"The rest of you, if you're Alohan, get in the kitchen. You're on veggie duties. Nujose folk, please stay seated and send Krystal your drink requests."
Gary flopped on a couch next to Tino. "Saved by the dual citizenship." he grinned, followed by a yelp of pain.
Krystal lowered her paw, her claw tipped with a drop of red. "Dual Alohan citizenship. In case you miscounted, you're the only other Alohan in here. So into the kitchen you go," she growled. "Can I get you something to drink, Tino?"
"Just a beer, thanks," he answered. He smiled, but his eyes showed his own fatigue from the long days.
"Coming right up!" Krystal's thumbs said. Wanda swept back into the kitchen.
The Aerie hummed with comforting domesticity, the sound of dishes being readied, meat sizzling on the grill outside, fizzing soft drinks and beer, and people talking about normal things. Rescue's senses took it all in and finally started to relax.
Rescue sat on the edge of the bed in one of the Aerie's guest suites. Tony and Otto were asleep in a room down the hall, while Genis charged in one corner. When Rick and Nadia had been dating, they had left their partners out of the room, but quickly realized how silly it was when the EIs could read the actions from their memories later. They'd quickly lost their inhibitions over having Genis and Pepper in their bedroom.
She listened to Rick brush his teeth in the attached bathroom, and experimentally shifted her clothes into her favorite nightgown.
"Wow! So… are you actually really wearing anything?" Rick asked, his mouth full of toothpaste and water.
She jumped and turned, floating in mid air to see him leaning against the bathroom door jamb, toothbrush in hand. "Of course I am… I just make it out of hardlight. Something I share with the furry types."
"And you fly too. You're full of surprises, my little Tinkerbell." He ducked back into the bathroom and quickly rinsed his mouth.
She floated back down to the bed and watched him come back out, dressed only in boxers. "Are you sure you're okay with all this? With me?"
"Of course I am. I've told you that already."
"But that was in public. Now…" She was silenced by a sudden kiss.
"There's one way to be sure, if you insist on asking me that all the time," he whispered.
"What way's that?"
He nuzzled at her neck. "I'll show you mine if you show me yours."
She eeped and jumped to her feet, giggling a bit. "Fair enough, I guess."
She remotely adjusted the room's lights so they lit her up more. Then she let her nightie dissolve, starting at her legs. The Hoxels fell off slowly, dissolving into electronic noise before they hit the ground. Rick's eyes followed the disappearing clothes up her legs, over her hips and up her chest, until she stood there naked.
"How do I look?" she asked tentatively, turning around slowly.
"As beautiful as you ever did. Come over here my lovely."
She sat on the bed next to him and smiled. She felt his hand on her thigh but didn't break eye contact. "God, I feel like our first time again," Rick said.
"It is in many ways." She kissed him back and whispered. "You promised," she said, tugging at his boxers.
He stood up and let his shorts drop down, "That I did. Lights on or off?"
She smiled and quivered a bit, admiring her husband, remembering how long they'd been apart. She could tell he was remembering it as well. She sent a signal and the lights faded. "Lights off."
They fell back on the mattress, hugging and kissing each other eagerly, the feel of flesh on intie flesh igniting old feelings. She felt him pause suddenly and froze, worried she did something wrong.
"Nadia," Rick whispered. "You're glowing."
She opened her eyes and looked, forcing her visual frequencies to the human range. She realized she was indeed glowing, the faint circuitry lighting up in her dark areas. "I can try to dim it," she said.
"No don't. It's incredible. You're incredible," he whispered back before continuing his exploration. Her skin was smooth, but warm and not at all metallic. The circuit lines and multicolored glowing nodes shimmered like the stars in the night sky. "My wife. My starry universe is home at last."
Rescue laid awake in the bed, her hands smoothing the sheets a little. Beside her, Rick slept deeply, a happy smile on his face. They'd started off frantic at first, each wanting to prove to the other and to themselves that nothing had changed, while fearful that something had. But very quickly, habits reasserted, and the missing months melted away. By the end, they were both certain their love was truly in place.
'I should be exhausted. I should be as deeply asleep as Rick is… but I'm not...' Rescue mused to herself, basking in the afterglow. She did feel a deep, pleasant body fatigue, but her mind was as active as ever. She thought back to the dark days just ended, thinking of her sleep periods. She realized they were shorter than usual back then, but she'd just assumed she was staying alert for escape. Now, she was confused.
:Having trouble sleeping?: Genis asked.
She opened her eyes and looked across the room. Her eyes automatically adjusted, shifting to infrared and picking him up easily. The big EI stood silently in the corner, his hardlight face turned off, leaving just his face mask. The rest of his bulky body glowed faintly with a thin hardlight field, enough to let him feel but not the fully powered version he used when awake. Rescue could see the enamelled blue and black sections of his real body, the metal panels covering and protecting the complicated joints and sliders that let him operate independently, or to fuse with a human.
:I am, and I can't figure out why. That should put me out like it did Rick, but I just can't doze off.:
:Maybe it's because you don't need as much dozing. You aren't human any more, you can sort out your day's thoughts more efficiently now.: The male EIs transmission carried more than just words, but an undertone of pure digital information Rescue's mind understood instinctively. Only milliseconds passed in the Real.
:I suppose so. But I still need some sleep. Later I guess. I'm sorry, I guess I've been ignoring you. I didn't mean to. You've lost a close friend too:
:No I didn't. She's still here, laying in the bed next to my partner.:
:But I'm not Pepper. Not fully. Maybe less than I'm letting on. There's stuff she should know that keeps catching me by surprise.:
Genis was silent for a moment. She could sense him thinking hard, though his DINSec protected thoughts were encrypted from her browsing, not that she would pry.
:I think I may know why that is. Now admittedly, I don't know much about Integrates, but think of it. Physically, Pepper is younger than Nadia. But EIs, and RIs, we operate at a different speed than humans. Orders of magnitude faster even. So while Pepper has fewer years than Nadia, she's experienced centuries to Nadia's decades.
:In that time, she's spent a lot of time with Nadia, learning Nadia's mind, how she thinks, what she remembers. But Nadia, her mind is slower, biological. Most of Pepper's experiences remained a mystery, something Nadia never considered, never thought of much. No slight against you, but how could she? We can pass decades in minutes, at full acceleration. Our parents designed our neural grids to need that time to mature. Unlike our RI cousins, they can't just slap in a prebuilt neural template and call it a day. Our minds are...grown, rather than built.:
Rescue listened, following Genis's thoughts and beginning to suspect he was right. :So, we're more like the creche-born RIs?:
:You know, come to think of it, I think you're dead on with that assessment. Anyway, now you're together forever. Both of your minds are still there, trying to combine both your lifetimes of experience. Pepper's mind has already handled Nadia's, so that combination is stronger and comes out easier. Pepper's mind, her experiences, I suspect you're still coming to grips with. They're there, and they'll come out, but you need more time to bring them in.:
Rescue sent a virtual nod. :Thanks… I don't know if you're right or not, but it does help…. You said your partner was still here. Did you mean Pepper?:
:Sort've. But also Nadia. The others don't really notice it but you were different when fused. In fact, in my experience, most EI-human pairs tend to be different fused compared to their separate persons. Rick and I certainly are when we're together. We're 'naturally' gestalts. Rescue, you're very much like when Pepper and Nadia fused. The best of both worlds. So really, I haven't lost anyone. You're still there after all.:
:Thanks Genis.: His confidence in her warmed her technorganic heart. :Between you, Tony, and Rick, I think I'm a little more grounded now.:
They fell silent, Rescue's thoughts still spinning. She was feeling more peaceful, but still not tired. :Genis, what do you usually do while we sleep?:
The EI chuckled, and sent an invitation. She accepted it, and the room dissolved into columns of ones and zeroes. When her senses stabilized, she was standing next to Genis on a glowing platform. Dark buildings outlined in neon reds and blues rose around them.
"Rescue, welcome to the Grid, my little corner of Cybertron." Genis spread his arms out wide. "Well, more TRON than Cybertron, but still."
"Grid? Cybertron?" Even as she asked the question, memories came back to her. She, in bike mode, racing through the streets of a city of robots, light cycle racing in the Grid like she was now, or just wandering around the toon-like buildings of Mainframe. "I remember them now. Man, I'm quite the racer aren't I?"
"You certainly are. Most bike-based EI's tend to be racers at heart, no matter what they really do. If you want to continue, the Moebius race tracks will be opening soon."
"I'll have to give it a try, once I figure myself out more." She looked at herself and was surprised. She was human, a woman, dressed in a tight black suit with glowing red lines. Genis was a man, a footballer, in a similar suit with blue lines. He wore Rick's face and had a glowing blue disk on his back. She reached back and felt a similar disk on her own back.
"This place is quiet," she said, getting over her surprise. She rubbed her head, feeling fingers run through hair for the first time in months. She plucked a strand of hair out and saw it was as red as the lines of her suit. Fluorescent red, not the natural red of Tony's hair.
"Cybertron is our equivalent to Nature Range. Since we don't have the animal base RIs have, we tend to the more… artificial environments, built from human culture. RIs don't like it here because of it. They're forced into more robotic forms, even in more humanoid zones like the Grid.
"Back home, it's usually packed full, since we have so many EIs around Nujose. Down here, fewer EIs and reluctant RIs, means a quieter space. We could jump over to the Nujose section if you want, though the lag would be killer on your race times."
"Maybe later, I'm still getting used to this for now. Reintegrating Pepper's memories of all this. There are a lot of them." She was surprised they hadn't simply overwhelmed Nadia's experiences completely during the Integration process, but Rescue could dimly remember Pepper doing everything she could to keep that from happening.
"Take your time, you've got all the time you'll ever want."
"Time… OH!" Rescue paused, her mind making a random connection. "That's what I meant to do!"
Genis looked puzzled, "What did you mean to do?"
"I was talking to mom and dad after dinner. They want to do a preliminary checkout tomorrow, and then announce what happened. First to the EIs, and then to the world."
"That's going to cause quite the storm. Fortunately we don't have an AlphaWolf of our own to make it even more dramatic than it needs to be." Genis laughed.
She nodded, "I know. But they don't want to hide it, like Fritz was hidden. In any case, I told them I wanted to tell the Captain and the rest of the Iron Man Squad first, so they won't be caught by surprise. I was going to do it tonight, once Nujose time was at a decent hour, but it slipped my mind."
"Slipped your mind… Right…." Genis grinned and winked at her.
Rescue deflated a little. "Okay, okay. I was dreading the call and putting it off."
"Well, it's late morning back home, no time like the present." He pulled out his disc and held it up over his head. A glowing light shot down and struck him, spreading around him. He held out his hand to Rescue. She took the offered hand, and the glow widened to engulf her as well. Her world went white.
As they travelled, part of her could peek behind the curtain. She could sense the complicated, automatic handlers that routed their data personalities across the planet. She ignored that part of her mind and shouted in joy as they shot through a glowing tunnel.
The end arrived too quickly. The glow faded, and she found herself standing on the end of a metal bridge. It hung over the lip of a canyon, a glowing arch at the very end of it. She looked around, and realized she was in a metal world now. Everything had a metallic shine to it, made out of iron, gold, silver, and more.
"Welcome to Iacon," Genis said. She looked at him and saw he had changed. He was bigger, bulkier, his body more angular. He also had wheels on his forearms and at his ankles. His face was an expressive metal mask, and he had the NuPD shield in red on the middle of his chest.
She looked at herself and saw she was similarly changed. She was bigger, and more angular, but not much bulkier. Wheels were attached to her shoulders and she had the same shield on her chest. She noted she had a hint of the shape of breasts, but no actual breasts. Basically...a fembot.
"Wow," she said, feeling Pepper's memories filling in the gaps. She held them off a bit, experiencing the virtual world for the first time, reveling in the newness. She turned around slowly, taking in the golden city, feeling its movements. It was much livelier than the Grid space Genis had taken her first. She also felt an annoying hiccup in her movements, a slowed reaction time that she hadn't noticed before.
"That's the network lag. Still takes time to get from one side of the planet to the other," Genis said. He stepped off the bridge and motioned her forward. "Come on, the Station's entrance is this way."
He spread his arms and his body started to shift, the transformation a bit blockier than his normal transformation mode, accompanied by shifting electronic tones. In his pickup truck mode, he rolled forward a few meters and waited. "Coming?"
"This better not happen in the Real too," Rescue said, feeling Pepper's memories of what to do. Relying on those instincts and hoping she hadn't changed too much, she jumped forward and stretched her arms out. The wheels slid from her shoulders, one hooking in between her ankles, the other settling between her hands. Her legs tucked up to her belly, while her chest opened up to let her head swing down and tuck inside. She landed and wobbled on her wheels before finding her balance.
"Whoa… That felt strange… and a little hot," Rescue admitted, carefully spinning her wheels and getting used to rolling. She stopped next to Genis and 'looked' at herself in the mirror, surprised she could see, apparently through her headlight just under her windshield. The reflection showed a red motorbike, with animesque stylings, much like Kaneda's from Akira.
"Hot? That must be your human side talking," Genis chuckled and set off down the road.
Rescue could sense others around her, but the roads Genis lead them down were deserted at first. A few blocks into their trip, that changed. They came up behind a trio of green construction vehicles; a crane, a dump truck and an excavator. They all had stylized purple Decepticon symbols on their sides.
"Hey guys, coming through," Genis called out, pulling to one side.
"Hey Genis, Hi Pepper," the dump truck in the middle responded, pulling to the opposite side to make more room. He almost rear ended the leading crane, having to transform into a bulky robot to stop in time. The excavator, Genis and Pepper stopped as well.
"Pepper?! You're back!" the crane exclaimed.
The dump truck robot, 'Long Haul' Pepper's memories informed her, thumped the back of the crane. "Of course she's back, Hook. Haven't you been reading the news feeds?"
"No, I've been busy. That tower's not gonna build itself you know." Hook transformed as well, his boom shifting to rest over his shoulder.
Genis rolled forward a bit. "Great to see you guys again; we'll have to get together soon. But we have an appointment to get to."
"Of course!" Hook said, stepping out of the way.
Rescue pulled out behind Genis, "Thanks guys. And you might want to watch the news closely. Big news coming."
"Good news I hope," the untransformed excavator said. She didn't need Pepper's memories to recognize Scrapper, though she hadn't seen him in months. Not since he had discovered the Cleaver victim.
"It's… News." Rescue said cautiously. "Just keep your ears opened."
They left the constructicons behind and soon reached a big building with the NuPD shield on its doors. They transformed back into robot modes, and walked through the doors. Rescue felt a tingle as they went through, and the world changed again.
"We're not on Cybertron any more are we?" she asked, looking around at the familiar sight of the virtual police station.
"Nope, this is the real virtual station. We tried to leave your office untouched," Genis pointed to the hall leading to the Detective's wing. He was back in his normal EIDE form.
Rescue looked down and realized she was in her stargirl mode, with none of her armor. She quickly armored up, looking like Pepper used to. Old habits, a bit rusty from lack of use, came back quickly.
"I sent the Captain a message. You want me to go with you?" Genis asked.
Rescue received the invite in Pepper's mailbox. "No, I think I can handle this… I hope. Just stay handy."
She accepted the invitation and followed its path through the virtual station. As she went, she slowed herself down to more virtual-human speeds, the annoying lag becoming less annoying but still persistent. She knocked on the door to the Captain's office.
"Come in!" the Captain said.
Captain Angela McNally's virtual office matched her real office almost exactly, from the medals and certificates on the wall, to the desk and chairs near the door, and the more comfortable couch and seat in one corner. The captain herself was already walking around the desk to greet her.
"Pepper! It's great to see you! We're so glad you two made it. How are you doing? How's Nadia?"
"I'm fine, Captain. It's good to see you. We're still in Aloha, and probably will be here for the next little while."
"Of course. Genis mentioned that in his message. He said you had something to explain?"
Rescue moved to the couch and sat at one end, with the Captain at the opposite end. "Yes. As you may know, Doctors Farouk and Lucy are down here now as well, to examine me. I'm going to be getting a checkup tomorrow, and then we'll be making an announcement. The nature of the announcement, it's going to affect the EIs. All of the EIs, especially the EIDEs."
"That sounds heavy. What happened Pepper?"
"I'm getting there. Because of what I'm about to tell you, I figured it's only fair to give you a bit of warning, to give the Iron Men a bit of warning, in case anything goes wrong."
Angela looked at her old friend, staying quiet, concern on her face.
Pepper dove in fully. "They managed to Integrate us, Captain. Don't ask how, but it was done. And yes, I know it's impossible. I'm not just Pepper, I'm Nadia too… and I go by Rescue now." As she spoke, she let her armor dissolve, melting into her humanoid uniform, while letting the rest of her look like she did in Real.
The Captain's virtual form flickered a moment as she absorbed the news. She stabilized and stared a long moment before finding her voice. "Integrated?... That's… right you said that. Is there a danger? To the rest of the EIDEs?"
"A slight, almost nonexistent danger. That's one thing mom and dad are going to try and confirm tomorrow… Well tonight for you. But it took those monsters months of work to figure out how to Integrate Pepper and Nadia. I doubt that random fused Iron Men will be integrating in the street, at least not any time soon."
Angela got up and walked to her desk. She picked up a Rubix cube and started twisting it in her hands. "That's quite the bombshell you've dropped on my lap. Your instincts were right, we need to be ready for this. We're cops, we're supposed to be ready for this sort of thing, but when it breaks over the regular EIDEs, there's going to be a lot of confusion."
Rescue nodded. "Yes."
"And we know humans. Some of them are going to react badly. Not just with EIs; there are going to be L-RIDEs abandoned all over the place again, just like when Inties first came out."
"I figured we could get the Iron Men together, fill them in so they have a heads up," Rescue suggested.
"Good idea. Catherine!"
A new figure materialized in the office. She was blue, similar in design to Pepper's original look but less angular, taking advantage of the decade of advancements from when Pepper's DE was made--more of a gynoid than a blocky metal woman. Rescue could sense there was a full personality behind the avatar; that it wasn't just a virtual aide.
"I hope you're ready, we're going to hit the spotlight sooner than we expected," Captain McNally told her partner.
Catherine nodded, "I've been ready for weeks. I just wish it was under better circumstances." She turned and held out her hand to Rescue. "Hello Rescue, I'm Catherine, Angela's new partner. Nice to meet you, finally."
"You're getting an EIDE sir? Congratulations," Rescue said, shaking the hand.
The Captain grinned and put the cube back down. "I'm only the captain of the largest station in Nujose with the most EI-paired officers in the city. Figured I was way overdue for my own metal friend. We've been training together, secretly, for months, since you disappeared."
"Sorry to force your hand like this. Your announcement should have come at a better time."
She waved her hand, "Bah, it happens when it happens. For now, we have to keep the band together so to speak. Catherine, send out a message please, to all of the Iron Men. A mandatory meeting in an hour... Can you stay around for that, Rescue--was it?"
"Yes, Rescue. I can wait that long easily. Rick and Tony are asleep. If you don't mind, I'll go back to my office and see what my new insights might give to my backlog." Rescue laughed, "Lag between here and Aloha's a bitch though. Most of it I'll just download and work locally."
"I guess you can tell that more than you could before. If you don't mind me getting personal, how are Rick and Tony? How did they take it?"
"Better than I had dared hope. I'm Tony's Superhero now."
The Captain smiled, "From what I hear, you're the Superhero to a lot of people right now."
Rescue blushed and turned away a moment. She held out a folder. "This is my preliminary report, that I made for the Marshals. Outlining what happened to us and me. I wouldn't read it right away though, and not on a full stomach… But, you deserve to know it."
Angela tentatively picked up the folder and set it on her desk. "I'm not sure I want to know. And how's Rick?"
"Doing well. It'll be a long time before we're back to anything normal, but he's already more relaxed." Rescue couldn't help but giggle. "Sorry about that. Private matter. But when we get home, I'm sure he'll be raring for duty."
"No rush at all. But we'll take all of you back with open arms. See you in an hour."
Rescue, again disguised as Pepper, entered the meeting and was momentarily stunned by the sight of a hundred EIDEs and almost as many humans gathered in one spot. She'd known how many EIDE cops had entered the system through the years, but this was the first time most of them were in one place at the same time. She silently queried around and found most of them were with their partners, either fused up or side by side. All generations were represented, from the first generations like Sparky and her classmates, up to the newest models like Catherine.
She purposefully entered the space from the rear and walked up to the front, hearing the reaction of her arrival spread through the crowd. She nodded and smiled at her closer friends, sending quick 'later' messages to their queries. Genis and Sparky slipped out of the crowd and walked with her to the stage where the Captain waited with Catherine.
The three greeted the Captain and moved to the back of the small stage. Catherine and the Captain stepped up to the podium and waited.
"Greetings everyone. Thank you for coming so quickly, especially for those of you from other districts and cities. You have probably started to hear rumours of what's coming; this is to set the record straight and to prepare ourselves for the cultural bombshell that is being dropped tomorrow.
"This meeting is under the highest secrecy levels I can squeeze out of you. Our DINsec is stretched to the limit. Don't breathe or tweet a word of this until the news breaks. You'll know when that happens. If anyone doesn't agree with that, please leave now."
She waited, looking around the room, but no one disappeared. "Good. First now, this part is not under secrecy, but the implications with the secret news will be obvious. I'd like to introduce you all to my new EI partner, Catherine. We have been working in secrecy with EvoLimited to train her and prepare her to share in my duties as Captain, and while not all the i's are dotted and t's are crossed yet, we are confident enough to make this announcement now. Please, take a bow Catherine."
The blue gynoid bowed to the crowd, while most of them applauded. She stepped up to the Captain and they virtually fused together, leading to more applause. :Reality is, we've been fused since Rescue's meeting,: Catherine sent privately to the three on the stage. :But Angela's a good showwoman.:
Once the crowd quieted down, the armored Captain continued. "Thank you all for your congratulations, and your invitations, but now it's time to get serious. I remind you this is under top secrecy for the next day or two at least, if not longer."
She spoke to the crowd, describing the Marshal operation of the previous day, and Rescue's role in it. Rescue quickly realized that the Captain had to have read the report she'd provided, or at least the summary, to get the details she was giving, while still dodging the key point.
"That brings us to now. As you see behind us, the best news of all is true; our sister is back with us, and reunited with her family down in Aloha, but soon to return home; that polity isn't going to grab another of us, let alone two of them." She smiled and winked at Rescue and Genis before getting serious again.
"But there was a high price to her return. A cost that will reverberate through the EIDE community for ages to come. From the beginning, before we even knew of Integrates, there's been a rule about EIDEs. They can't Integrate. The EI mind and human mind are too incompatible for that to happen.
"That rule, has been firmly broken." She quickly muted the room to continue speaking, but the reaction through the crowd was immediate, and confusing. A couple of fused pairs flickered out and reappeared separately. The Captain soldiered forward and motioned for Rescue to step forward. "While we got our sister back, we did not get back Nadia, nor Pepper. Instead, we got Rescue back, their gestalt."
Rescue hesitated a moment, then dissolved her armor, revealing her body, dressed in her uniform. More in the crowd flickered, more fused pairs splitting apart as if repelled by magnets.
"The details are still sparse on how, or even if this might be doable to others. That's why we're waiting. But I can assure you, what happened to me is not easy to do," Rescue tried to reassure them. "You won't be Integrated walking down the street, like happened with some of the RIDEs."
The Captain continued from Rescue's lead-in. "Still, if you have concerns, speak with me and I'll try to handle them. If you are not under my command, I'll bring it up with your superiors as needed.
"For now, we do know this is not being kept a secret for long. When the news goes out, EIDEs and their partners are going to react. It is our job to make sure things don't get too crazy because of it. Just be ready, keep an eye out for your friends and be ready to help them. Especially those of you in cities without as many EIs as Nujose. I'm sure EvoLimited will be standing by as well to offer all the help and support and reassurances they can offer."
The meeting dissolved into pockets of conversation. Rescue moved among them, trying to ease any concerns and telling her story. A couple real hours later, the last EIs had left.
"Thank you for the heads up, Rescue," the Captain said as they stood in the empty virtual room.
Rescue yawned and covered her mouth, suddenly feeling true exhaustion. "Sorry. No problem. Dropping this on you with no warning at all wouldn't have been right."
"You did drop it on me. But in a more manageable chunk. When was the last time you slept dear?"
She yawned again, "On the sub back from the Dome… I grabbed a cat nap but it wasn't a deep sleep. I didn't get much before then, since I was too busy getting my arm vivisected, escaping, sending a frantic plea for help, and then being tortured by a crazy RIDE."
Angela shuddered and looked to Genis. "Get her home. Even Inties need sleep from what I understand."
"We're on our way. Good-bye Captain, we'll be in touch."
Rescue waved, feeling her mind already rushing away through the network back to Aloha. She briefly saw the bedroom in the Real before her eyes closed and her mind slipped into dream mode.
Despite her late night, Rescue still woke up before Rick. She rolled over and studied his sleeping form, admiring her husband, drool and all. She gave him a light kiss, too light to wake him up, and floated above the bed. She held a finger to her mouth to keep Genis silent as she floated to the bathroom. :Thanks for the help last night.:
:You're welcome. I'm usually around any time you want an explorer partner.:
:I'll keep that in mind.: Discovery Cyberton anew had an appeal. A new world to explore for her Nadia half.
She quickly washed up, trying to keep the noise down, and formed a new set of clothes over her body, shorts and a tshirt, but bare feet. She floated back through the bedroom and made sure Rick was still deeply asleep. :Let him sleep. He needs it.:
:I was planning on it. We'll be up later.:
She didn't touch the floor again until she was in the hall, closing the door carefully. She moved down a few doors and peeked into Tony's room. He was cuddled up tight against Otto, who lifted his head. :How is he?:
:Deeply asleep. First time in months. No nightmares either for a change.: Otto answered, wagging his tail.
:Good. Don't wake him. I'll just be out in the kitchen.:
She blew a kiss to Tony and was surprised when his bangs ruffled. He grunted and cuddled up tighter. She smiled at Otto, and closed the door, heading for the kitchen.
"- Grand Valley this week. He's got an appointment with Doctor Helmen tomorrow, so I'm already enroute," she heard a female say in the kitchen. She could sense it was coming via a comm channel.
"And everything is holding? No hiccups?" Ryan asked.
The female voice sounded disappointed. "None at all. Everything's holding and self-reinforcing. Once he leaves Grand Valley, he'll be going back to Landing and up to the Grace."
"Guess we did a good job." Ryan sounded as disappointed as the woman did. "Give us a call when you're done."
"Will do. See you Ryan."
Rescue sensed the comm connection break. She waited thirty seconds, then floated in, yawning. "Morning."
"Morning Rescue. Coffee?" Ryan asked. "Scratch has a sarium blend he says is great."
"Sure, I'll take a mug of it. And some power." She sat at the table and watched him. "I hope we aren't being too disruptive."
"Not at all. This family's always got a lot of balls in the air. With you, and that wildcat colony stuff and other things… and the normal everyday stuff, we're kept busy."
Rescue's detective instinct couldn't resist poking. "Like sending a friend back on a ship to Earth?"
Ryan froze and turned around slowly. "Something like that. He's my best friend, from Mars. Goodbyes are hard."
She dropped the subject and put a hand on a charge plate, feeling the power flow into her. "So, anyone else up yet?"
"Luke and Argon are up. Their gear finally got here, so they're setting up in Astranikki's workshop. I'm sure they'll want you to head down as soon as you're ready." He set the mug down in front of her.
"I'll head down after eating. You're up early," she realized, glancing at the time. "On duty today?"
"Nah, things are messed up but no, it's my weekend time still. I just had an early call with that friend. Time zones suck."
"That they do… I just filled in NuPD about what's coming down the line, hopefully they'll stay ahead of it. Damn this hits the spot. I'm saving on food, but I'll be spending a fortune on Q supplements. "
"It's not so bad. You're craving a lot because you're new. Scratch and Astranikki just use a dusting now and then for taste."
"Good to know." She fell silent, enjoying the drink and the power, feeling it hitting the spots. Finally she sighed and pushed back from the table. "Guess its time to face the inevitable. Let Rick and Tony know where I am please, when they wake up. They needed the sleep."
"Of course. Try to have a good time."
Humming happily to herself and feeling the best she'd been since before being captured, she made her way down to the Aerie's workshop to meet two Integrates who were effectively a second set of parents. Argon Noble and Luke, shapeshifters, spouses, inventors of the Evolved (or Enhanced) Intelligence. Even after a decade and a half they still argued over exactly what to call their creations. Argon favored Enhanced, while her spouse preferred Evolved. But they arguments were never heated, just for fun. Their alter-egos, Doctors Farouk and Lucy Skye, had been necessary cover until just a couple years ago when Zane Brubeck had outed Inties to the world of Zharus. Nowadays, they still used the Skye identities back in Nujose where people were familiar with them, but outside the city they usually reverted back to their original Integrate forms.
"When I find whoever did this to you, Rescue, I'm gonna…" Luke balled his hands into fists.
"Calm down, honey. That isn't helping. In point of fact, we need to find out exactly how they did this," Argon said. She started taking equipment out of travel cases via lifter fields, the portable scanning and analytical gear floating around her head. "Not our best gear, but it'll do until we return to EL."
"And most importantly, make sure it can't be done easily to others. None of us want to see our friends Integrated on the streets," Rescue added.
"I know. It's just so damn frustrating. Brings me back to the bad old days. It's something we never wanted to put you through," Luke said.
"You didn't," Rescue pointed out "Others did. But let's go forward. I've sent you everything I can remember about how they did this, but I'm afraid it isn't much; the code seemed to dissolve as soon as they pushed it to me."
"Run-once code. Tricky to do, but good for keeping secrets. It does leave traces, but I don't know if we have time to dig them out," Argon said. "Thank you for the report. I always loved your style. I'd credit it on your cop background, but we have Genis's grunt reports to disprove that theory."
Rescue chuckled, "The captain made me their official ghost writer just so she'd have something legible for the official record."
"In the mean time, why don't we start with some of the basics, and try to see what you're capable of. I'm especially curious about your hardlight capabilities. Can you spawn your armor plating for me?" Luke said.
Rescue's clothing thickened and hardened, the hoxels barely showing as the fibres of her clothes solidified into their metallic counterparts and spread over her remaining skin, other than her head. Practice was making the process as easy as breathing.
"Those aren't ordinary hoxels," Luke said. He picked out one of the scanners orbiting Argon's head. It made a sound like a Star Trek tricorder. "No, definitely not. The virtual particle decay rates are a hundredth of even the best hardlight from Wednesday. You've got my attention, Rescue."
She grinned and pulled her gauntlet off, exposing her silver hand and handed it over. "If that didn't, this certainly would have." She raised her hands and back up a few steps. "Look Ma! No hands!"
"Oh...wow," Argon said, focusing on Rescue's actual hand. "I thought having hardlight emitters embedded in my skin was borgy."
"There's a few of us who have gone metal, but not like that," Luke added.
"Focus, dear. We don't have the stuff here to do a full physical analysis," Argon said. "Examine the gauntlet. How far from it can you go and still maintain it?"
"I have no idea. I kept the whole set active from twenty metres or so without realizing it. Those idiots never even thought to check it after I integrated. Granted I never considered it was all part of me either, but you think they would have noticed. They just tossed it all on a table and forgot about it."
"So, let's start with something simple," Argon said. "Spawn a one-centi sphere of a single element, say iron. We'll put it on a drone and see how far it goes before it poofs. We can move on to more complex items as we go."
"Sure. Coming right up." Rescue paused a moment, then focused on the gauntlet in Luke's hands. It crunched up by itself, losing its colouring and compressing down. Soon it began to shed hoxels as it reached the solid one centimetre radius. "Did I get it right? Never tried to make just a single element before."
"Never seen hoxels decay like that," Argon said, sweeping the sensor through the air at the dissolving cubes. "The iron is...elementally pure. Take a look at this, Lucy!" The duo had used their alter egos for so long they still used those names without really thinking about them.
Rescue smiled bashfully. "I have no idea how I did that. I don't even know what elementally pure iron would look like… Well, Pepper would know, but Nadia wouldn't.... I guess I would know in that respect."
"That's how being an Intie generally works, yes," Argon said. "Our internal processes are mostly out of our direct control, like normal humans and their organ functions. It's simply what we are." She put her hand on Rescue's shoulder. "What they did to you was horrible--"
"Ah, Farouk dear, correction," Luke interrupted. "It wasn't what they did, it's how they did it that was so horrible. Now that we know it can be done, I know a few EI-human pairs who'd love to be Inties themselves. So we have to find a better way or they might do something stupid."
Argon nodded at the ringtailed lemur Integrate. "Okay, you got me there. So we'll find a better how, now that we know it can be done."
"Frink! I still want to go all Fritz on those...monsters," Luke fumed. The drone arrived to take the little sphere. Luke picked the sphere up between his fingers and placed it inside. "But there's science to do first. Good science, not mad science. We're going to slowly move this drone away, up to a kilometer. That's the current record for a complex hardlight object on Zharus."
Rescue nodded. "I can still feel it. Not anything from it, just that it's there."
The drone obediently lifted off, then out of the Aerie's workshop, over the Bay of Tranquility. "Still there? Feeling any strain?" Argon asked.
"I'm getting an uptick in her power usage," Luke reported. Indeed, the "stars" and circuit patterns on her space-black skin were a little brighter. "Okay, that's one klick. Pausing. The sphere is still there. Rescue?"
"Just a little lightspeed lag," Rescue reported. "I still feel it. You can move it out farther."
"Fact that she can still feel it indicates there's something more than just hardlight there," Luke mused. "Maybe a microscopic version of a projector Intie's globe…" He started the drone moving again, then watched Rescue's power use start to increase. "Logarithmic increase. We're at three klicks--I think you've hit Wednesday's record! Should I stop, Rescue?"
"I've got enough charge to push some limits. I'm actually enjoying it," Rescue said, grinning.
After the sphere poofed into a cloud of cubic hoxels at eight kilometers it became a morning of increasingly complex hardlight challenges, culminating in showing her other set of parents how she had escaped from the Dome. She stood in the center of the workshop and spawned her hardlight-cycle. "You see, I retain my vehicle mode."
"Really?" Luke said. "I never mastered machine forms, myself. I end up looking like a furry motorcycle. Can't get the metallic textures down."
Rescue thought of that image and giggled, balancing easily on her hardlight wheels without a kickstand, "Yeah, that's a problem the EIs don't have at least. We seem to love our vehicle modes judging from Cybertron."
"I have a sudden urge to watch the TRON trilogy again," Argon said. She blinked. "There! Love that franchise. You're a living lightcycle, looking like that. Scans say...you have all the mechanical parts in the right places, made of your own super-hardlight. I don't even know if we can call it proper hardlight after all the data we've gathered. What do you think, Luke hon?"
"We're going to drag something positive out of this somehow," Luke declared. "We can send you over to Realtec Hardlight in Nujose, and with your permission Rescue, I'll submit all this preliminary data we've gathered to them to chew on. They'll want to give you more tests once we get you home, but no pressure. They'll have to work with this until you feel you're ready."
"Everyone keeps saying no pressure, but all it's doing is putting me under pressure." She stood up, shifting back to human and grinned. "I want to know who I am now, and what I can do. The sooner I figure that out, the sooner I can get back to work and try to find a new normal. As long as I can go home, do what you need to do. And if I can eke out a few patents out of my natural abilities, all the better."
"Fair enough my dear. We'll try to take the pressure off… sorry. When we get home, it shouldn't take us too long to get you cleared for regular duty again at least."
"Thanks. You know, there is another thing you might be forgetting about. You're so fixated on the hardlight, there's something else I can do that might boggle you."
"We're all ears," Luke said. The shapeshifters' ears extended to rabbit-length.
"Good, because I'm missing a pair myself." She reached under her shirt and pulled out the DIN gem, its glow fading as she hovered it over her palm. In her head, the crisp understanding of the surrounding mesh dissolved into an annoying cacophony of noise. "This isn't mine. I borrowed it from a Marshal on the way back. And did nothing to it to use it."
"You...you're saying that you innately decoded a DIN's hardware and software encryption?" Luke said.
"It took some time, but essentially yes," Rescue said. "I couldn't pick up one of yours and use it right away, but give me a few minutes...."
"Well, I've never had a DIN, myself," Argon said, showing the network socket on the back of her right hand. "Luke? Do you have a spare?"
"I haven't needed to carry any spares for years," Luke said. "But we can have the fabber in here make some DINs for her to work on."
"Right. I haven't been fitted for a DIN myself yet, not sure if I can be. They didn't find a slot, and believe me, they looked. I just take one and things slowly start making sense. Once I've mastered it, I can use it as easily as the owner can."
"The fabber records have a bunch of DINs, for Astranikki, Scratch, Mike, Clarissa, and a few other Inties. Let's start with a few blind challenges. You can't read the fabber right?"
"Not without a DIN. It's all noise to me," Rescue said.
"Good. Give me a few minutes and we'll start," Luke said.
Soon enough, Argon had identical looking DINs lined up on the table, unmarked saved for generic identifying symbols. "Here you go, we pulled these out of the fabber records, which have been blanked. They're unique, but that's all I'm telling you. Let's see what you can tell me about them."
"Might as well start at the beginning then," Rescue picked up the first. The noise immediately started to make sense. It took a few minutes, but she gradually deciphered the noise into clear signals. She had an impression of watching the noise from above, being able to focus on them with hyperclarity when she wanted to.
"Got it. It feels different from the other ones I've tried… I think this might be Astranikki's."
Argon tried not to look excited. "What makes you say that?"
"Just how it makes me look at everything. Like I'd imagine a hawk or eagle would look at it. I have an overview of everything, and when I want to look at something specific, I zoom right into it."
"So, a DIN has a sort of 'personality' to it based on the Intie it's intended for," the female lemur said. "Let's try number two then."
She let the first DIN go and the noise returned. She picked up number two and waited, her automated system deciphering the DIN. Her impression of the mesh shifted, feeling like a vast plain, signals as scents and noises carried on the winds. "Must be Mike's. Or Clarissa's. They're both horses right? Not sure which."
"Perhaps…" Luke tried to be cryptic but his voice gave him away.
They went through the rest quickly. Two, she couldn't get any reads from at all. Another clicked almost immediately as the eagle again, though she could tell it wasn't as strong as the first. She played with the mesh like a kitten playing with a ball of yarn, leaped from signal to signal like a lemur, and horded signals like a dragon.
"Eight for eight. Wow," Luke said when she was done.
"I never noticed the flavour before, but now it's obvious. I take it the two eagles were both Astranikki's?"
Argon nodded, "Different versions, about a year apart according to the timestamps. You adapted to it faster than the ones you didn't know."
Rescue picked up one of the ones she couldn't read. "And these? Completely unattuned to anyone right?"
"Procedurally-generated blanks," Argon said.
"Another curiosity. Wonder how much is me and how much is common with my type now?"
"Considering we only have a sample of one, who knows?" Luke said. He shrugged. "Once we figure out how to Integrate humans and EIs safely, we'll have more to work with. Until then, you're a unique being. Like...well..."
Rescue sighed. "You were going to say 'like Fritz', weren't you?"
"The circumstances around Fritz's Integration have been studied thoroughly," Argon said. "I'd say you're his inverse--the anti-Fritz. You were Integrated under insane circumstances, by insane-but-determined scientists. You're extremely sane and level-headed. Fritz and Captain Ryder were Integrated purely by accident and he ended up psycho right off the bat."
"Well, I've got a lot of people to help keep me grounded. If anything happened to them, I might slip into that psycho territory yet."
"And on that pleasant note, here I am with a message for Rescue," Nick said. The draconic man grinned and knocked on the open door before walking in. "Sorry to interrupt. But Rescue has some guests arriving."
"Guests? Who's left to show up?" Rescue asked. She plucked a few scanning pads off her arm and reformed her shirt.
"Your mom," Nick said, trying to hide a smirk.
"Mom? But Mom's right here… Oh shit!" Rescue facepalmed. That half of her family had slipped her mind.
Despite his best efforts, Nick let out a laugh. He squelched it as fast as he could and tried to look serious again. "She just came in on the NeoFran sub with your brother Jeremy. Dad's gone to get them. You've got about ten minutes I'd say."
Rescue got over her stun and started running to the door. "Crap! I forgot all about them. She's going to be so pissed…" She stopped and looked back. "Sorry Docs, but I've gotta do this."
"No problem, we've got more than enough for some initial conclusions. Enough to hopefully calm the other EIDEs when we announce this. Do you have any other family that needs to be told?" Luke asked.
Rescue shook her head, "Timmy moved out to Wednesday a decade ago. Mom and Jeremy are all we have left in system."
"Good. Go fill them in. We have a press release to make up," Argon said.
Rescue followed Nick back upstairs to the landing pad. She considered armoring up, but decided to stay in her normal clothes; if pseudo-hardlight generated independent constructs could be considered normal.
"You must be getting used to this by now, the reveal. This will be what? Your fourth? Fifth?" Nick asked as they walked upstairs to the outside.
"Too many. And each one heartbreakingly difficult," Rescue replied. "This should be the last at least. Other than the message to Timmy." She paused and sighed, "And a call to Rick's side. It never stops does it?"
"Probably not, but I don't have much experience to tell one way or another."
They stepped out of the door of a shed that hid the entrance to the underground workspace. Rescue's eyes adjusted quickly to the bright sunlight, spying her family playing in the grass near the house.
"Mommy!" Tony shouted, running to hug Rescue. She hugged him back and lifted him up.
"Hey there Iron Man. Sorry I wasn't there when you woke up. I got up early, and you both looked like you needed the sleep."
Rick came up and gave her a kiss on the cheek. "It's ok. We've gotten used to getting ready by ourselves," he said. She winced inwardly, not sure if she just imagined a hint of bitterness in his statement or not.
"The next few days… few weeks… few months… " she sighed as the scale of her change hit her again. She shook her head and continued. "... are going to be crazy, just figuring out what this new me can do. And some of it doesn't make sense. Like DINs. I seem to be able to adapt to anyone's DIN… but give me a blank, unattuned DIN, and it does nothing. Why? What's the difference? There shouldn't be a difference but--"
Rick silenced her frustrated rant with a kiss. "We know. It's a lot to get used to. But that doesn't mean you can't have some fun doing it at least."
She laughed, "Yeah, you're right."
Nick coughed and pointed upwards. "Not to be a party pooper, but you're rather out in the open. While the Aerie's anti-paparazzi defenses are good, the telescopic lenses and minisats are still better out in the open. Maybe you should armor up?"
"No. I'm done armoring up. This is me now, like it or lump it. Besides, we're revealing this afternoon, so they won't have much time to run with it."
"Warning! Incoming ride! Warning! Incoming ride!" Sevalak called out suddenly, his voice taking a temporary mechanical hint to it. Everyone looked up at the big dragon that seemed permanently camped on the roof of the main house. As they watched, he swung his wings forward and his back opened up. A smaller dragon climbed out and jumped down to the ground with the crowd, while the main form reset to normal.
Rescue shook her head, "Those mini forms are strange. Wonder if they've tried them with Lauries yet? We could get Otto a big body to fuse with Tony, but he could keep his smaller form for the house too."
"Fuse? You'd let me fuse?" Tony asked eagerly.
Rick chuckled, "Not yet, puppy. When you're older."
They turned to the landing pad as the Munn's family skimmer settled to the ground. Rescue stepped closer to Rick, putting an arm around him while holding Tony on her shoulder. She sensed Genis and Otto coming up behind her, giving her more support by their presence.
"Ready to see Grandma Louise and Uncle Jeremy?"
Rex hopped off the back of the car and landed next to the door. He looked over, saw Rescue and looked puzzled. Rescue sent him a quick message explaining her feelings. He nodded briefly and returned his attention to the door.
The door of the skimmer slid open and Ryan stepped out and did a double take at Rescue's appearance. Everyone else stared expectantly at the open door. The people inside were out of Rescue's line of sight, but she could hear them talking quietly inside.
"They said she was okay. Why isn't she out there with everyone else?" she heard her mother say.
"I don't know, mom. Maybe she's inside. They have been hiding something," her brother, Jeremy said.
"And who's that next to Rick? Is that Pepper? She looks nothing like she did yesterday."
"Maybe they had to put her in a new body. Who knows what they did to them out there. Nadia's safe now, that's the important thing. And we're not going to find anything out sitting in here."
Rescue gulped and squeezed Rick's hand for support until he winced. There was movement from the vehicle as the two finally climbed out; the family's red hair shining bright in the equatorial sun. They had the same strained and concerned looks that Rick had only recently lost.
"Hey guys, good to see you again," Jeremy said as he and his mother walked towards them. "We came as soon as we could, but some of us didn't have the advantage of a Sarium Credit Card to pay for our ride."
"Sorry man, I didn't think to ask for a trip for you guys too. I just had to get here as fast as I could. And even then I still went to the wrong place. Plus, I didn't want to impose on the Munns too much," said Rick.
"It's no imposition," Ryan said, smiling. "For catching Shah, we'd have paid to fly you in from Earth if needed. At the very least when you're ready to go home we'll cover you."
Rescue half listened to the men banter, her eyes locked on the woman following Jeremy. She looked no older than her late forties, but her eyes belied her 80 years of experience. She stopped a few metres from Rescue. "That's… a new look for you, Pepper. Where's Nadia? I expected her to be out here."
Tony torpedoed any carefully crafted reveals Rescue could come up with. "Don't be silly Grandmama. Mommy's right here. She's a superhero now."
"A superhero?" Louise asked, looking up at Tony, before her eyes drifted back to Rescue.
"Yup! She In-tah-gray-ted with Pepper to save everyone. She can fly and hack and transform and make stuff out of thin air," Tony babbled on.
Rescue chuckled nervously and patted Tony. "That's enough. I swear your ears are still better than mine. Why don't you go to your father and head inside? Mommy needs to talk to Grandma and Uncle Jerry."
"Can you make me fly mommy?" Tony's eyes brightened with hope.
"I can try…" Rescue concentrated carefully, focusing on the boy on her shoulders, not noticing her circuitry glowing brighter. The weight lifted from her shoulders but she could still feel it on her mind. The boy squealed in delight as he floated over to Genis. She released him once she was sure the boy was in the EIs grip.
Rick gave her a hug. "Give a shout if you need us."
"Any problems getting them?" Rick asked Ryan once they were inside. He couldn't resist the urge to look back outside at the reunion there, but they were still at the awkward staring stage.
"Not too many. I nearly had to have Rex break out the blasters to cut a path through the flock of newsies on the border, but once we were at the airport, we lost them in the terminal. Lois and Clark caught a bus downtown to do some touristy things while they're here," Ryan explained.
"Good. It's their first time here, and since things are going so well, I told them to go have some fun while they had the chance."
They watched Otto and Tony play a bit. "I told them to head down to Central in the afternoon. That's where the Marshals will have the next big press conference on the case, and where the reveal will be," Ryan said.
"I would have thought they'd have their own facilities to do that here." Rick folded his arms, watching his son.
"Not in Aloha itself. Their main base in the polity is out in Seahaven, to give them better access to the Dry. But with the big city handling so much of the aftermath of this case, they're borrowing our facilities for now."
"I see." Rick fell silent and watched Rescue through the window. He found it strange watching her lead them through the same emotional stages she had led him through so recently. Confusion, denial, a brief moment of anger, pleading, sadness and finally acceptance. He knew well that this was only the first pass through those stages, but as they hugged, he was hopeful they would get through it.
Rex perked up and looked out. "Rescue asked if there were any rooms left for her brother and mother to freshen up in."
"Of course, we'll take them over to them." Ryan walked to the doors as the trio walked in. "Please, come this way. We'll show you a place you can freshen up and leave your things."
Rick let out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding, and turned, jumping in surprise to find Rescue behind him. "Hi hun. Went well I take it?"
"Well enough. Neither really paid much attention to fusing, RIDE or otherwise, nor the Integration stuff. But I think they've got the basics now. Now come on," she grabbed his arm and began leading him back to their room.
"Uhm, where are we going?" Rick asked.
"To our room for some privacy."
His pulse quickened, along with his step, both of which Rescue picked up right away. "Get your mind out of the gutter. While I wouldn't mind another romp, we've got more important things to do. YOU'VE got to call your parents and tell them what to expect before it gets blasted over the evening newsfeeds. The faster we get this over with, the better."
He almost tripped, slowing down again. "Oh right. That would be a good idea I suppose."
She smiled, her voice taking on a lusty growl. "And if you explain good enough, there might be a treat in it. Not as if we have anything else to do before the conference."
The Nujoseian biologists climbed out of the taxi in front of the big casino and looked around, momentarily overwhelmed. The relatively light mid-week mid-morning crowds flowed around them without stopping.
"I can't believe we're here. We've always dreamed of coming here," Lois said, turning and taking in the sights.
Clark nodded and lead her into the casino entrance, "I just wish they were under better circumstances. Do you think we should have left them like this?"
"Nadia'll be fine. They need some alone time. Now that we know she's out safely, they don't need us getting underfoot. We'll be back for the conference, and I'm sure there will be more things they'll want us all to do. But for now, let's take the us time. What do you want to do first?"
"I don't know… It's a bit early for the casinos, and I'm not really in a beach mood just yet…." Clark trailed off, his eye caught by a gaggle of young women dressed in only in air and sky.
Lois snapped her fingers, eventually getting his attention back. "Don't make me get the little red pill, Mister. You know they're all nannied up," she snapped.
"Sorry, just not used to all--" Clark paused and waved his hand in front of his wife's face. She blinked and shook her head, looking away from the man on the pedestal between the card tables. He was a naked Atlas slowly moving a large boulder around his shoulders. His skin and hair were a stone grey, patterned like marble, while his body was sculpted to the Greek ideal. "What's good for the gander is good for the goose. That's all nannied too," he pointed out.
"Oh shut up," she said, giving him a playful slap. "Hey, I see something we can do."
She pointed to a booth set up near the door. It was a ticket booth, selling tix to shows, buffets and tours for discounted prices. An embedded VI picked up her attention and sent an e-brochure to their implants.
"Dry Arch tours?" Clark said, warming to the idea. "See the Arch from both sides, and visit the Dry itself. That sounds like like fun. And we should get back in time for the conference."
Lois gave him a shove towards the lineup in front of the booth. "Exactly. I found it, you can buy it. Go get our tickets."
"And what are you going to be doing?"
She grinned and sat down in front of a slot machine, and tapped her wallet to its reader. "We're in Aloha, I'm going to try our luck. Just on the centimu slots."
"That's how they get you, you know," Clark said. They were standing at a bus stop, waiting for their lift to the tour's platform.
"What?" Lois asked, grinning.
"They give you a 'Beginner's luck' big win, hoping you'll toss it all back in and then some."
"Aww, you're just bitter you wasted fifty bucks and didn't get a thing." Lois smiled feraly and poked her husband's shoulder.
"Excuse me," a voice interrupted them. They turned to the voice behind them, spying a mouse integrate. "Michelle Souris, AHN news. Are you Clark and Lois McLane?"
"We are," Clark said cautiously. "What can we do for you?"
"Public records list you as friends with Detectives Nadia Vert and Pepper, of Nujose. You came in yesterday on a private sub that came here by way of Punta Sur, with the Detectives' family. I would like to ask you some questions about them."
"What?!" Lois shouted. "No way in hell. Get lost!"
The reporter persisted, ignoring the demand. "They are the heroes who helped capture Shahrazad and bust her latest operation. They are trending highly right now. Could you tell me, have you seen them defuse since they returned?"
"No comment," Clark growled, trying to turn away from her. She paced them to stay in front.
"There are signs she may have Integrated. That's supposedly impossible. Can you confirm those rumours?"
"We said No Comment. Get lost you vulture!" Lois shouted, looking around. She saw their ride approaching.
"How are the Detectives handling their freedom? Has their captivity changed them?" the mouse said, pushing the old-fashioned microphone into their faces.
"What the hell do you expect? Get out of here," Clark growled.
The reporter was momentarily interrupted as the bus arrived. The couple tried to push back the Integrate to get on board.
"Just a few more questions. Have you seen any other victims? How would the Detectives compare to them?"
"Get lost!" Lois shouted, slipping around the mouse Integrate and getting on board. Clark slipped around the opposite side.
Michelle tried to follow them, only to be stopped by the driver's arm. He was human, but he was big and muscular. "Ticketed passengers only," he growled, glaring at her.
She paused, stunned a moment. "Sure! I have a ticket, just give me a sec…"
"Tickets may only be purchased in person at accredited booths. Now get off. I have a schedule to keep."
He leaned forward from his seat, his own nose practically touching her muzzle. "GET OFF!"
She stumbled back far enough to let him close the doors. She stood there, stunned a moment, before the press badge in her hat started glowing and flickering. She yelped in pain, tearing it off, ears pressing back.
"Damn press-intie. Got bit by Watchdog. She really should know better," the driver said, lifting the bus off the ground.
Clark slumped in the seat and looked at Lois, making sure she was fine. "Thanks for the save. We really do have tickets."
"No problem if you didn't. I hate bullying reporters like her. How's your trip been so far?" the driver said.
"Fine fine. It's our first time here, on Gondwana, and the tour caught our eye," Lois said.
The man nodded and grinned, "Well you're going to have a good time. We keep the groups small for the personal touch. Looks like you got Clifford, he's a great guide." The driver landed in a lot inland, away from the resorts. It had a simple office and waiting room, and two platforms with seats.
Clark helped Lois out, then left the man a decent tip from Lois's winnings. "Thanks for the rescue."
"Any time. Have a great trip!" He saluted them and took off again.
Inside the waiting room, they found eight other people. Most noticeable was a silver skinned woman, wearing just a grass skirt.
"Welcome to Dry Arch Tours. The 10:00 tour is on schedule. 10 of 12 tourists have arrived. We will be boarding in 10 minutes. Please feel free to mingle. Thank you for choosing Dry Arch Tours," a VI sent to their implants.
"Well that's handy. Guess most of these people are on the trip with us. I wonder if she's our tour guide?" Lois mused, nodding to the silver skinned woman.
"Maybe, but she doesn't look like a Clifford to me."
The silver woman sat there, oblivious to the glances she was attracting. Her eyes were closed, lost in her private world, tapping her foot to music only she could hear.
Five minutes later, another taxi arrived, letting out a young couple. They rushed in, looking embarrassed at their near-lateness. "Sorry!" the man called out to no one in particular. "We oversexed-SLEPT! We overslept!"
The door to the office slid open and a feral dog Integrate walked out. He was the size of a pony, with bright red fur, both of which made his breed hard to tell. He smiled at the young couple. "No problem, you still made it on time."
He looked around the room taking in the waiting tourists. "Welcome everyone. My name is Clifford, and I will be your guide on this adventure through the Arch and into the Dry. We have quite the group coming with us today, including three from Wednesday?"
He looked around, until a trio waved their hands for attention. Two heavyset men and a woman, they had the pale look of people who'd lived under domes all their lives to shield them from Wednesday's harsh star. Spotlights in the ceiling momentarily lit them up.
"I hope you are enjoying your visit to our fine star system. There are no export restrictions for Wednesday, so feel free to buy lots." Clifford winked at the trio, then started looking again. "We also have a famous spacer, from Zeus Station out by Colossus, Ms Nora Rider, the Silver Surfer?"
The silvered woman looked up as the light hit her. She smiled and waved briefly. "Loved your film on surfing the Typhos plume." Clifford resumed his search, and a pair of spotlights lit up Lois and Clark, along with another couple on the opposite side of the room.
"Next we have a pair of Laurasian couples, on opposite sides of the room, and from opposite sides of the continent. Welcome to Aloha guys, I hope you're having a good time."
The lights stayed on long enough to let them wave, before shifting to the remaining people in the room; a fused Cow and Bull pair, and the nearly late couple. "And finally, the locals, of a sort. Newlyweds from Uplift, and ranchers from Baltica, with their RIDE partners. We're giving them a discount as long as they only take up a seat each." The fused pair reluctantly waved, while the newlyweds kissed, earning a round of applause.
The lights flicked out, then back on, highlighting the big, red dog by a door leading to the field. "Thank you for my little indulgence. If you'll come through here and find a seat on the first platform, we'll get going."
They followed him out to the indicated platform and found seats; the cattle RIDEs at the back and the surfer at the front, near Clifford. Lois and Clark sat behind the other Laurasian couple. Almost immediately the other couple turned to face them.
"Bob and Debbie Toya, from Neo Fran," the guy introduced them.
"Lois and Clark McLane, Nujose," Lois responded, shaking the offered hands.
"Nujose? Wow, a small world. We just flew in on the red eye this morning. The lady and her son in front of us were originally from there," Debbie noted. Her face fell, "They were coming in to meet her daughter. Apparently she was one of the victims of that monster RIDE that hit the news yesterday."
"Hair red enough to stop traffic?" Clark asked.
"Yup! How'd you guess that?" Bob asked.
Lois laughed, "Small world indeed. We're old friends of that daughter. Thankfully she got out of that mess more intact than others. If she wasn't in good shape, we certainly wouldn't be here."
"Well that's good. We worried for her. We don't have children of our own, but anyone can feel for those strains."
The air crackled as a dome appeared over the platform. Their stomachs dropped as it lifted into the air, revealing a skiff-like underside with cavorite lifters. Clifford stood at the bow of the platform and cleared his throat.
"Welcome aboard everyone. This tour is expected to take five hours, taking us over the Briney Deep, through Seahaven, to scenic outlooks of the Arch. We will then go through the arch and out into the Dry. If the temperatures and rad levels are low enough, you might even get a chance to step out onto the sand. We'll do a loop through the Dry, and stop at some Dry-side lookouts of the Arch and Dry itself, and return here."
The skiff continued to lift into the air until it hovered well above the buildings of the city. Mid morning traffic flowed around them without pausing. It turned to the east and started flying slowly.
"Before we go too far, Alohan Regulations require me to point out the safety features of this ship. And yes, Aloha does have regulations. While we don't restrict your fun, we do want to ensure you're fun is as safe and, well fun, as we can make it.
"This skiff is outfitted with a Class Five Aerodome Hardlight shell. That means with a full charge it can last five days in the Dry, protecting all of us inside. In case of emergency, your seat cushions are equipped with Class 1 Hardlight/AG belts. They will encase you in a small life support shield, protecting you from the Dry for up to one day. Or you can use them as antigravity flyers to turn your fall into a gentle drop.
"Finally, at the front and back of the skiff are two emergency 12-person Class 3 Dome generators. Pull them out, push the button and you'll handle the worst the Dry can throw at you for up to three days. They also contain emergency rations and air recyclers. All of the emergency equipment contain an activatable screamer, and a more normal pinger. The screamer is to be used if there is too much interference for the pingers to reach out.
"Are there any questions?" He grinned at the surfer and then the RIDEs, "Of course, some of you are already Dry or better prepared, but I have to go through this stuff anyway."
The tour skimmer flew above the large dunes common to the south western end of the Dry. Most of the tourists stood near the dome, checking out the views. Clark sat next to Nora, half under his wife's watchful eye. Clifford laid on the platform near them.
"A gas giant surfer? This must be pretty boring compared to your day job," he said, striking up a conversation.
She grinned, "Boring isn't necessarily bad. But yes, this place is so small compared to Colossus, it blows my mind. Still, it does have its moments."
"Like what? Clifford asked.
"Like the water waves outside Califia. I tried water surfing and couldn't keep on the damn board. Too heavy, and I just couldn't find my balance with liquid waves. The other surfers got a kick out of it," Nora explained, with no trace of bitterness. "I'd love to surf some of your storms instead, but nothing's come up yet."
"You should try the east coast. Sturmhaven's got protections to keep the big ones out to sea, but they do get some humdingers rolling up and down the coast," one of the newlyweds added in. "But they might be wetter than you're used to."
"I might try that. In the mean time, I'm just seeing how you primitives live; still living on the rocks and stuff." She shook her grass skirt. "Like wearing clothes that aren't vacuum or rad rated."
Clark smirked, "Well we aren't likely to open a door into vacuum down here. And the rads only really count out here in the Dry. Mainly we just need them for comfort. And temp control."
"Speaking of temp control, we're here," Clifford announced, catching everyone's attention.
The skimmer stopped on a flat rocky outcrop, standing above the dunes. Nozzles extended out and began spraying a clear liquid over the rocks. The liquid evaporated almost immediately, forming a cloud that dissipated away quickly. The skimmer lowered to the ground and landed with a thump. Part of the dome discoloured, indicating an area people could walk out through.
"There. A quick blast of LOX and they should be cool enough to walk on. Local rad and Q levels are in the green, so if you want to go out and say you walked in the Dry, feel free."
One of the Wednesday tourists was first to go out. He paused at the edge of the ramp leading from the skiff, then stepped out on the baked rock. He turned slowly, then took a few more steps and crouched down to touch the ground. "Yeouch! That's hot!"
"LOX doesn't cool it down that much. But without it, your hand would have been fried," Clifford said.
"What's it like?" one of his companions asked.
"Hot. Hotter than the city. Hotter than back home too. And dry. I'm getting thirsty just standing here."
The rest of the tourists climbed out and confirmed his analysis. Nora spread her arms and turned around to face the sun. "Wow, this feels neat. Never thought I'd feel this on a rock. Feels like I'm skirting a plasma torus back home… but not as strong."
"The Q affects the atmosphere over the Dry, weakening the already weak magnetosphere, letting in more of the hard stuff. No clue how, it's just the Dry as far as we're concerned," Clifford said. "Don't worry, short term exposure isn't harmful."
"Clifford, could you come back here a second?" the cow fuse from Baltica called out innocently from behind the skiff.
"Excuse me a moment. I'll be right back," Clifford told the rest of the tour. He padded to the rear of the skiff. "Can I help you?"
She pointed at the skiff. "I don't know if you noticed, but it's been bugging Dale and I all trip. I think one of your hardlight strips is going sour and letting off some bad harmonics. I think I've traced it to in here."
"Really? I hadn't noticed. This skiff was just inspected and overhauled." Clifford jumped up and put his forelegs against the side of the skiff. The DIN in the collar around his neck flickered and the panel opened up.
While he was distracted, Dale disconnected one of his horns, revealing a natural horn underneath. He attached a handle from a compartment and walked up to the dog.
"Are you sure you can't feel it? We felt it the entire trip so far. It's hit us like a sharp pain to the neck," the cow said, her voice hardening. Dale stabbed downward with his horn, the tip shattering the DIN and tearing the socket wide. Silvery-red blood started spurting as Clifford gasped in shock. Dale twisted his horn dagger in the dog's neck, and squeezed the hilt. A shock caused the Integrate to stiffen a moment then go limp. Clifford slid to the ground, eyes open, blood still pumping around the dagger.
Dale pulled his horn free and cleaned it on the dog's fur. "Ready Clara?" he asked, taking the handle off and clicking the horn back into place.
Clara, once Clifford was neutralized, had been busy, assembling a pair of blasters from parts on her body. She stepped past Clifford and replaced some parts inside the skiff. "All set. No one but us can use the comm booster. Time to send the message. You don't mess with the Mistress."
Dale grinned and built a couple weapons of his own. "Can you believe our luck? Of all the tours we could have gotten, we got the one with the friends of the bitch who took down the Mistress's base. That's gotta be worth something."
"Something if we play our cards right. Let's go."
The pair stepped out from behind the skimmer, quickly covering the remaining tourists with their weapons. "Everyone freeze. No one try any funny stuff and no one will get hurt… much."
"What's going on here?" Bob asked. Clark grabbed his arm to hold the Laurasian back.
Dale carefully kept everyone covered while Clara moved back onto the skiff. "You're all now part of a message. A message being spread across the continent. Don't mess with our Mistress."
"Your Mistress? Who the hell is that… You don't mean that damned Tigress do you?" Lois asked.
"Yes I do. Don't speak of the Mistress that way. Now everyone back on the Skiff."
"Or what? You'll shoot us?" Bob asked.
"Why waste the energy? We'll just leave you behind. With no supplies. You can feel the temperature already increasing. By nightfall you will be dead. You have until I get on the skiff," Dale explained, taking a step to the ramp.
The tourists gulped and reluctantly headed to the ramp, covered by both fused RIDEs. "Not you, missy," Dale said as Nora approached the ramp. "You're too borg for our tastes. You can stick around with what's left of the doggy."
He backed up the ramp once everyone else was on board. The dome flickered, sealing up again, and the platform lifted off the ground, leaving Nora behind. She saw Clifford as soon as he was out of the shadow and ran over to check on him.
"Clifford!" she exclaimed, seeing his injury. The silver-red blood had stopped pumping out of the wound, but there was a thick, sticky pool around his head.
To her surprise, the Integrate's eyes opened. "What happened?" he asked, his voice sounding more artificial from before, his lips and mouth not opening.
"The RIDEs did. Looks like the bull stabbed you in the neck. I don't have any supplies but my board. What can I do?"
"Am I bleeding?" Clifford asked. "Feel a bit light headed…."
"Not any more. I only have my simple board, but I think it can carry us both. Comms aren't working."
"Ships gone. No booster to get through the interference," Clifford said. "Bleeding stopped, I'll live. Did I hear something about a Tigress?"
"Yeah, they said they were doing this to serve some Mistress. What's that all about?"
"Bad news. The rest of the tour is in deep deep trouble. Can you follow them? The Dry is dangerous for non-RIDEs and non-Inties."
"The Dry is nothing. I can free dive into Colossus's atmosphere down to a hundred klicks. Deeper with equipment."
Clifford twitched, his legs kicking. Nora could see the wound slowly closing up, bio-mechanical structures in his neck slowly healing. "The Dry isn't nothing. Q changes everything. If you don't have the right protections…."
"I have those protections. I've got hardlight implants same as you. Only difference is, mine don't heal like yours do."
Clifford let out a mechanical sigh. "Fine. Don't have a choice. They're getting away. This spot is on the route; the company will find me once they realize we're missing. But the RIDEs are going off route. Need you to follow them, leave markings so we can follow you, and don't let them get away. But don't be a hero either. No rescues, just help us follow them."
Nora nodded, closing her eyes. The strange pattern on her back disconnected, silver rods and sheets falling to the ground and snapping together automatically, until a silver board floated at her feet.
"Neat trick," Clifford said. "Which way did they go?"
"North east, into the Dry." Nora stepped onto the board. It wiggled in the air, but she moved with it instinctively. "You sure you'll be fine here?"
"Yes, I'm sure. We can't let them get away. Watch your power. Abandon the search if you don't have enough juice to get back here. It'll be a couple hours before they realize we're missing."
Nora reluctantly kicked the board up higher in the air and looked to where the skimmer went. "I've got solar cells too; power isn't an issue. Come after me as soon as you can."
"We will." Clifford called after her, lifting his head enough to watch her glide off after the skimmer.
"We have a problem," Ryan announced, looking around his crowded house. Most of the family and the guests were in the living room and the kitchen.
Rescue and Rick looked up, worriedly. "What problem?" Rescue asked.
Rick's hand bobbed in the air as he redid his count. "By my count we have eighteen people here, four of them vehicle RIDEs. The van only seats four. How are we going to get everyone to the station?"
The tension drained from the room and a few people laughed. "That's the sort of problem I don't mind," Jeremy, Rescue's brother, said. "Isn't that the ancient riddle, with the fox, chicken and bag of grain at the river you have to cross?"
"That was easier than this. I suppose we can always call for a limo again if needed. Let's see how many seats we actually need. Hands up, who's going to the conference?"
All of the adults raised their hands, along with Genis and Tony. Otto sat back and raised his forepaw. "If Tony goes, I'm going."
Wanda lowered her hand after a quick look around. "I've got some work to do on our other projects. And we shouldn't bring the girls into that mess. I'll stay home with them."
Nick lowered his hand and sighed. "I want to go… and Sev and I could go ourselves I guess no problem. But Spot's been bugging us to make sure his new DEs are made right. We should head down to the RIDEWorks and check that out."
Astranikki shrugged, "Goodness knows, I've got more than enough to keep me busy. Especially with all Rescue's hinting at. But you two, you're going." She pointed at Luke and Argon.
"Yeah, we sort've have to, giving a speech and all that," Luke said.
Rescue looked at Rick, "I'm not sure we should bring Tony down. It's going to be chaot-"
"No! I'm not leaving mommy!" Tony shouted. He glared at Rescue, daring her to leave him.
"We're going, we can keep track of him," Louise offered.
"Sure, that can work," Rescue said, feeling relieved. "But that still leaves us with too many bodies, doesn't it?"
Ryan did another count and nodded. "I can ride Rex, and Genis could take one of the RIDE perches outside. But that's still 6 adults, one kid and one Lauride. Rex can take another adult with me, but we're still tight."
"I could take a couple," Krystal offered.
"No need. Genis is a two seater too. Otto and Tony fly with us all the time. Ryan pairs up with someone, and that leaves four for the van. Perfect," Rick pointed out.
"I'll go with Ryan," Jeremy quickly volunteered, only to have his hand slapped down by his mother.
"Age before beauty, young man. I want to ride with that fine looking officer."
"Mom!" Rescue and Jeremy shouted in unison.
Louise grinned, "What? Your father died years ago. I'm not celibate, and I certainly can admire a fine looking man, even if I can't touch." She winked at Wanda.
"I would be honored to escort you to the station, my lady," Ryan said, bowing to Louise, his tail wagging.
"Great! Then it's all settled," Louise said, ending further objections like a grandmother can.
The mob made their way to the van. Genis and Rex shifted to their vehicle modes. Rick, Tony and Otto climbed into Genis's cab, while Ryan offered his hand to help Louise into Rex's second seat. Jeremy and Rescue found themselves side by side in the back seat of the van.
"Man, does this bring back memories," Rescue chuckled. "Remember the road trips to Landing we used to do?"
Jeremy grinned and held his hand just next to Rescue's cheek. "Not touching you. I'm not touching you."
Rescue laughed, "Mom! Make Jeremy stop not touching me!" she called out.
Argon glanced back, "Jeremy! Stop not touching your sister this minute… wait that's not right."
"You heard mom!" Jeremy reached in and pinched Rescue's cheek. He pulled his hand back in surprise, amusement changing over to surprise. "Whoa… that felt weird."
Rescue's own face fell. "Weird in what way?"
"It's hard to say… it's… harder, more solid than flesh. Could you feel it?"
"It's my flesh, of course I can feel it. It just didn't hurt, not like a normal pinch." Rescue sighed and looked out the one way window. "Sorry, this keeps sneaking up on me. I have a moment when I feel normal, human… and then some little thing happens to remind me I'm not any more."
Argon leaned around the seat to take her hand. "It's okay. We all go through that. Hell, I still go through it sometimes. Not as much now, but it surprises you. Cherish the moments though, they help remind you of who you are. Not were, are."
"I suppose so."
The dashboard lit up, Rex and Genis's heads appearing. "Here's the plan guys," Rex said. "I'll take the lead and clear a path through the drones. Genis, will be in the middle, with Luke bringing up the rear. Since we're going to the station for the press conference, we aren't anticipating any problems. Just remember, do not stop until we're in the station garage."
The trip passed by uneventfully, and they landed among the police skimmers and vans of the APD garage. Rescue climbed out and looked at herself. She concentrated a moment and morphed her clothes into her old dress uniform.
Otto and Tony hopped down from Genis and ran over to her. Genis collapsed around Rick, fusing with him a moment, before defusing, revealing him dressed similarly. "Gotta love the fast fuse dress unis," he said, giving Rescue a quick kiss. "Though you may have me beat now."
"Thank you for the ride good sir," Louise said, stepping out of Rex's cabin. "It was very smooth and pleasant."
Rex collapsed around Ryan and stood on two feet. He knelt before Louise and took her hand, giving it a quick kiss/lick/nuzzle. "You're very welcome ma'am," Rex said.
He defused from Ryan, revealing the cop was uniformed as well. "There's a lounge behind the press room. That's where we'll prepare and anyone not on stage will wait. Trust me, you don't want to be in among the wolves. To get there we'll have to go through the public part of the station. Are you up for that Rescue?" Ryan asked.
The E-Integrate shrugged. "Sure. It shouldn't be that big a deal."
Ryan lead them into the station, through a lobby half crowded with people of all sorts. Rescue found her appearance often earned a double take, but little more attention than that. In a place like Aloha, humans with strange skin patterns were just too common to raise much attention. Little did people realize that her strangeness ran deeper than her skin.
They followed Ryan behind a counter, into a hall and finally into a room with snacks and drinks on a table. A hardlight screen showed another room with a podium and some seats. Flags for the Marshals, Aloha, Punta Sur and Nujose hung behind the seats.
"Punta Sur?" Rick asked curiously.
"It's in recognition of their help in the cleanup," Ryan explained. "We're first, so we have some time to kill. Feel free to help yourself to the snacks."
Rescue stayed near a wall and closed her eyes, using the permanently borrowed DIN to slip onto the station's mesh. She was getting used to tapping the mesh for data while acting in the Real, but for deep diving, she still found it easier to block the Real out.
She handled some messages from home, and looked over the alerts and watches she had agents on. She was surprised to find one tagged to her name and Lois's and Clark's names. It was a report from Michelle, and it knocked her off the mesh. "What. The. Hell?" she said out loud, catching Ryan's attention.
"Something wrong?" he asked.
"This is wrong," she growled, waving at the screen without thinking of what she was doing. The view of the other room changed and a video started streaming.
It started with a closeup of the mouse Integrate reporter. "This is Michelle Souris. I've got an exclusive interview with the childhood friends of the Hero of the Island of Horrors."
The video continued, showing Lois and Clark, obviously ambushed on the street. Their responses were clipped and jerky, cut together from different answers. It ended with Michelle promising more later.
"Ugh, none of that was right. Hell, they aren't childhood friends of mine; we didn't meet till University," Rescue growled, fuming.
"And the Island of Horrors is a lie too. It's really an Isthmus," Rex mumbled, smirking back. He killed the video and restored it to the outer view.
Rescue blinked, "What? No, it's really an… oh one of those references."
"We know about Michelle. She has… issues," Ryan said cautiously. "She's gotten some bad newsie memes, but won't get them treated. This might be enough to get her AHN credentials pulled at least. They don't have many standards but they have some when you dig deep enough."
"I hope so. That was just horrible."
"Speaking of the awesome twosome, shouldn't they be here by now?" Rick asked. "This is when you asked them to be here right?"
"They might be running late."
Rescue closed her eyes again and opened a comm, trying to reach her friends. She only got their answering agents. "They're not answering."
"Maybe they're having some private time and lost track of the hour," Rick said.
Rescue shrugged, "Maybe. Still it's strange for them... Hey Tycyn! Tino!"
Nora easily followed the path of the skimmer. While it had long left her amplified eyesight, it left a trail of particles from her lifters that she could easily follow. It was something she did often in Colossus's atmosphere, following a trail left by fellow surfers. In the much smaller and more two dimensional area of the planet surface, she could almost follow it with her extra senses blinded.
A couple hours flight later, the path dipped down into a sinkhole and didn't come back out. She rose higher, and could just spot the skimmer resting on the crumbled rocks at the bottom of the hole. She dropped back to ground level and with her board only a few centis from the ground, approached the sinkhole. A few metres from the edge, she dropped down to lie flat on the board and used her fingers and toes to pull herself to the edge. The furnace heat of the land made her wince, but it was just tolerable. Once she just had a clear view, she pushed back again, then edged forward enough to watch what happened below.
The captured tourists stayed quiet, huddled at the back of the skiff under the bull RIDE's watchful eyes. The view outside passed by unnoticed, as they waited to find out what would happen next.
"Signal's active. The other cells have started making their moves," Dale said. They had parked in the sinkhole and stayed quiet for a long time, letting their prisoners simmer.
"Wish we could've convinced more of them to take different routes. Some of those actions are just gonna get them killed," Clara grumbled.
"Have gotten them killed. Still, our turn is coming up. Picked who you want to start with?"
Clara smiled, her eyes going over the crowd. "Well, while the friends of that damned detective are tempting, I want more time with them. So we'll start with… You." One of the men from Wednesday was in her gaze. He tried to back away, but the dome over the platform flickered, separating him from the crowd and shoving him closer to the fused cow.
Dale grinned at the terrorized man, "Don't worry, your troubles are going away. When ready, Clara."
Clara approached the man, a compartment in her side opening. She pulled out a plastic container filled with milk. "Care for a drink to calm yourself? It's completely safe. Chilled and pasteurized and very fresh."
The man shook his head almost hard enough to shake it off. She giggled and set the jug down. "Suit yourself. I guess you'll have your own supply soon enough."
She turned to a drone hovering near the bow of the ship and started addressing it. "Good day, Aloha and other polities watching in. As you are probably hearing from Cascadia and Sturmhaven, the followers of Shahrazad are pissed off over the invasion of our Mistress's home. And like a hornet nest that's been poked, we are poking back. But, since my companion and I have no interest in dying, we've taken a different approach.
"Behind me, you can see nine tourists. Among them are friends of someone you consider a Hero. Wave to Nadia and Pepper please." Clara looked at Clark and Lois. They glared back at her, until Dale fired a shot at their feet. Reluctantly they waved to the camera drone.
"Our demands are simple. Release Shahrazad intact and unharmed, and we'll release these prisoners. Oh and release Fridolf as well and anyone else you captured.
"If you don't, we'll start building a herd out here in the Dry. And since a milking herd doesn't need many bulls, I'll be very busy with all these fine young men. One per hour until we receive word from Shah herself that she is safe and free."
"Who are we to make such demands you may ask? I am Clara, and my partner is Dale. We've taken up development of Amontillado since it was 'cured' years back."
She paused and opened up. The human inside fell out onto the deck, covered in black and white fur. She had a bovine head with stubby horns and a tag in her ear, along with a big nose and muzzle filled with flat teeth. What remained of her fingers were stubby, tipped in thick nails. Her legs were full bovine, with big hooves. Instead of breasts, she had a large udder, straining with internal pressure, her teats swollen and dripping a bit. She blinked and mooed softly, pushing herself up slowly, eyes showing only a flicker of intelligence.
"Who he was is irrelevant, other than the first of our herd," Clara said, landing on four hooves next to the changed human. "But understand this, in reality, I've used his thumbs for a week. In his mind, a full year has passed. A year spent seeing and doing only what I allowed him to see."
She walked over to the Wednesday tourist. The man's eyes were wide and he was pressed against the hardlight shield, unable to avoid her. "In an hour, I can't do as much, but I can start a lot. And if we run out of tourists before Shah is released, well, Dale and I have a long list of things we'd love to try while we look for more hostages."
The man screamed as Clara reared back, opening up. His arms flared in the air, unable to stop being pulled into the cow's fuse chamber. She closed back up, once more on two hooves and looked back at the drone. "We'll be back in an hour to see how our second addition to the herd is making out. I suggest Shah be freed before then."
"And you're clear. Excellent job my dear," Dale said. He moved in and nuzzled Clara. "How are the new thumbs?"
"Mmmmm, Still struggling. I love when they struggle. Oops! He just felt his new udders. I love the milking addition we made."
"Let him go! Let us go!" The RIDEs turned to see the other man from Wednesday pounding on the dome. "You've got no rights to do this to us!"
"Sorry, your friend's not done cooking yet. But if you're so eager, you can be the next one. Volunteers do make things so much easier."
Clara kicked a garbage pail over to the edge of the dome, and the fields reconfigured, putting the changed cow-woman and the pail in with the prisoners. "In the mean time, you can make yourself useful learning a new skill. You'll all need it soon after all."
"Signal's sent. We should leave before they figure out where it came from."
"Soon as the lifters warm up again, we're gone."
Nora watched the scene below, shocked. She'd seen the tagged people all over the continent, but she hadn't realized how far a RIDE could take a person. She could sense them sending a signal out of some sort, but the angle didn't let her receive enough of it to read it. As the cavorite lifters warmed up again, she tried to shove back from the edge of the sinkhole, only to hear a crunch of rocks rubbing against her board.
"Shit!" she cursed, looking closer at the board. Its power cells were dead, shorted out while she had been watching the skimmer. She used some of her own power cells to try and power it up, but the lifters only sparked ominously and refused to power up. Silvery blue dust sparked around the edges of the board, an addon she'd installed before going planetside identifying it as Q-dust.
Fuming, she ran a quick internal check and was relieved to see she was still sealed and protected, even if her board was dead.
"Now what do I do?" she mumbled, looking from her board to the skimmer below her. She could feel the AG fields building up, her time to react rapidly disappearing. Throwing caution to the wind, she stood up, backed up a few steps, and ran to the edge of the sinkhole. She turned a jump into a dive, trying to get to the bottom as fast as she could. She hit the ground hard, her spacer-reinforced body redlining, but she managed to tuck into a roll that took her under the skimmer.
She untucked and laid on her back, limbs twitching as her systems reset, some of them still showing strain warnings that she knew would require time in the body shop to clear. Her eyes scanned the bottom of the skimmer, placing the lifter pods and looking for anything she could use. The platform wiggled and begin to lift, cutting back her choices. She stood up, her systems screaming for more time to recover, and ran to the closest pod. She grabbed one of the supports and pulled herself up, hooking her feet near the emitters and holding tight.
The ground dropped away, the platform and the Spacer lifting up. Her stomach was queasy from the unbalanced gravimetric forces near her, but she was still with the captives. She just hoped she could figure out something to do to help them before too much more happened.
Both rooms filled rapidly as the time of the conference approached. Rescue recognized most of the arrivals in the backroom as Marshals involved in her rescue. Some were surprised at her appearance, but most just checked on how she was doing.
The room fell silent when the fused Smilodon walked in. "At ease," Commander Palmer called out, spying Rescue and heading her way. "How are you doing, Detective?"
Rescue hugged Rick's arm. "Better. Amazing what a good night's sleep, a good meal and the presence of friends and family will do."
"Love your look. Ready for the conference?"
"Not really, but as ready as I will be. Mom and- err Luke and Argon are ready to break the news officially." She smiled, "And I'm not armoring up."
That gave Saresh pause. "You're not? You want to show yourself right away?"
"I'm done hiding. This is who I am now. It'll give them something to chew on at least."
"Right, I can work with that. We'll head out in a few more minutes. I've gotta go check on a few others."
Rescue nodded. "Sure, Commander."
He left her and checked on a few other Marshals. Rescue wandered over to her family. "Here goes nothing. Mommy's going to be on TV," she told Tony, giving him a hug.
"No secret ID?" Tony asked.
"Nope. I'm a cop. I'm supposed to be the Hero. No secrets." She winked and morphed into her armor. "But power-ups are fair game." She shifted back to her uniform and ruffled Tony's head while he giggled.
A few minutes later they filed out into the press room and stood in front of the two rows of chairs set up behind the podium. Those with RIDE and EIDE partners were fused to save space. As Rescue anticipated, her appearance and uniform caught attention right away. Camera drones zoomed in on her, and the encrypted messages flying around the room doubled in density.
Commander Palmer stepped up to the podium and motioned for them to sit. They waited for the press to settle down, ignoring the questions tossed his way. "Settle down please," he called out after giving them a few moments. "Settle down so we can begin."
"Welcome everyone," he greeted them once the room quieted down. "I am Commander Suresh Palmer based in the Cave of Wonders. I am in charge of the operations dealing with Shahrazad's capture and the dismantling of her base near the south pole. I am here to give you an update on the status of the operation and the victims."
He then introduced the rest of the people with him, starting with the Marshals in the back row to the frustration of the press. Rescue could sense them tensing up, waiting to hear how she would be introduced. He faced her and winked, skipping her and Rick. "Doctors Luke and Argon, the creators of EIDEs like Genis here. They will address you in a moment.
"Finally, we have this interesting lady in the middle. You may suspect what happened. She is Detective Rescue, the hero who got the message to us that exposed Shahrazad's base and lead to the events of the past few days."
Rescue sensed the signals from the reporters double again with her introduction. She waved to them, staying seated. Suresh started his briefing once he got the reporters calmed down again. Rescue admired how he directed the reporters, keeping them focused on what he was saying. Before he could get far though, she noticed people getting distracted.
:Check the alerts on the police bands. From Cascadia,: Genis said to her.
:Thanks… Oh crap!.:
The alert started with a message from a quartet of RIDEs. They were all 'extreme' forms, a cardinal, a turtle, a stego and a drake, standing in a clearing of a jungle. The drake spoke for the group, "Our request is simple. Release our Mistress. Release Shahrazad and the rest of her people. Do that, and we will retreat back into the Dry and leave your polities alone. Keep her imprisoned, and we, the Acolytes of the Tigress, will continue our attacks. No one will be safe as you are about to see."
The scene shifted to a waterpark inside the Cascadian domes. The pools and slides were crowded with people, mainly teenagers and young adults, enjoying themselves. Shortly after the scene shift, the terrified screams started and people started running. Fast moving RIDEs appeared out of nowhere, dropping cloaks and snapping up random people in a fuse.
A voice over started, a popup indicating it was a Cascadian officer. "Today is a school holiday in Cascadia, and a popular one to visit the theme parks. This park was operating at near capacity when the attack happened. Local security responded first and oversaw the park evacuation. Reinforcements arrived after 20 minutes, at which time the Acolytes tried to retreat. Three escaped capture, while the fourth, the stegosaur, was trapped within the park. Cornered, she destroyed her core while still fused. Her victim was comatose when she was extracted and is in the hospital. All told, there were thirty eight force fusings, sixteen of them crossrides. Being mythicals, all of the victims have a two to three year wait before they can fuse with common RIDE types now."
:Those poor people…: Rescue sent to Genis.
:It's getting worse. A report from Sturmhaven. A pair of stallions tuned their hardlight and IDs to look like mares. They crossed a Valk politician and a well decorated General at a photo op. And… Oh no…:
The Alohan police network lit up, orders spreading out. Rescue caught the public broadcast and her blood chilled. "How did that happen?"
The briefing, already falling apart from the incoming news, fell silent, all eyes turned to her. Rescue didn't notice, her attention focused on the Alohan police networks, trying to find more information on her captured friends. "This is all my fault. They wouldn't be here if it weren't for me," she mumbled.
:Rescue, you're speaking in the Real. Don't worry, they'll find Lois and Clark in time…. Where are you going?: Rick was surprised to see Rescue stand up.
:I can't just sit here. I've gotta do something,: Rescue sent. She stepped past the fused Commander and fell forward, feeling her uniform reshape into an aeroshell, glowing wheels forming between her hands and lower legs. She shot down the middle aisle and out the door into the crowded hall. Part of her mind ransacked the Alohan network, using Nadia and Pepper's IDs to pull out the information as it was gathered.
"Rescue! Nadia! Wait!" Rick shouted. Genis stood up and the pair took off after the bike EI.
Rescue dodged people in the hallway, before giving up. She gunned her lifters and flipped over, driving along the ceiling, aware of Rick and Genis following her. The station's network was slow to react to her actions, eventually locking her off the secure network, but not before she pulled the address of the tour company out of the initial reports. She burst out the doors of the station and flipped back around, sounding a siren and weaving through the traffic, ignoring the orders to stop.
"I thought Integrates were slower post-integration," Rick mused as he and Genis struggled to keep up with Rescue.
"Our girl must have missed that memo. It does make sense though, most Inties don't keep a vehicle mode," Genis replied, sounding distracted.
:Rescue, please. Calm down. It's not your fault. It was just dumb luck.: Genis sent to the racing cycle.
:Not my fault? It's all my fault. Those people in Cascadia and Sturmhaven, and now Lois and Clark. They wouldn't be in danger if it weren't for me.:
:No, but hundreds of other people would still be in much worse danger if it weren't for you. Please, calm down. What do you expect to do? They're out in the Dry, we're in Aloha...:
:APD has already identified the tour company that was captured. I was going to go, see if we can find anything about those Acolytes, or the skimmer or anything at all that might help.: Rescue's voice was strained, as she struggled to justify herself. She slowed down slightly, enough for Genis to get closer.
:We're guests here, Rescue. It's not our jurisdiction. If we can help, if there's anything we can do, they'll ask us. But they have to ask us first.:
Rescue finally killed her siren and pulled over to the edge of the road. Her aeroshell contracted around her, the wheels disappearing, earning curious looks from the pedestrians. Genis landed and let Rick out beside her. He pulled her into a hug.
"I feel so useless! It's my fault they're down here. It's my fault they're in danger," she said, fighting not to sob.
Rick rubbed her back, hugging her as tight as he could. "No it's not. If anything it's my fault. I brought them here after all. But in the end, they are adults and they came of their own choice. It's just bad luck they got caught up in this. Don't worry, they'll be fine. We'll get them freed in time."
"I… I hope so. I'll never forgive myself if they get hurt."
They silently stood on the sidewalk, a small crowd gathering around them. They didn't even react when a golden skimmer landed, and Ryan and Rex stepped up next to them.
"Any news?" Rescue asked, finally acknowledging the Alohan cop.
Ryan nodded and sighed. "Two more incidents, one in Cape Nord, another in Nextus. We're all on the alert now, so they aren't as damaging as before, but we're still stuck just reacting."
"And Lois and Clark?"
"No news yet. We're still fifteen minutes until the next promised announcement. And our own detectives are talking with the Tour company. They'd already reported the boat as late and had started retracing its route. The Marshals are aiding their search now, and everyone in the Dry is watching for it. Why don't we go back to the station and wait it out together?"
Rescue stayed silent, calming herself and forcing herself to recognize that Ryan was right. "Fine… Let's go back. But no more conferences. I'm in no state to deal with them."
"I don't think any of us are. Suresh is keeping them busy somehow and helping them tie things together, but I think its safe to say we've been bumped to page 2."
The platform extended its landing legs and settled on a rocky plain, exposed all around. Underneath, Nora groaned and dropped to the ground. Forty five minutes that close to the active end of a heavy duty repeller had played hell with her insides.
She gave herself a minute to recover, to let the world stop spinning and for her stomach to settle before pushing herself up. "Gotta do something Nora. No one knows where we are but me," she told herself. She crouched under the platform and started checking access panels. A kernel of an idea came to her; dependent on her managing to bypass the protections meant to keep her from doing what she wanted to.
"Kor!" the woman from Wednesday shouted, rushing to the changed man as soon as he was released.
Unlike the rancher from Baltica, she still looked mostly human, just with heavy RIDE tags, and a large, full udder on her belly. She coughed and licked her nose a moment before managing to speak, her words slurred by a changed mouth. "I'm… I'm fine, Lynn. Where's Sven? How long was I in there?"
"They took him already. It's only been an hour."
"An hour? It felt like days… damn, what happened to me?" Kor looked down and touched her udders. "I… man this is embarrassing."
Behind the captives, the RIDEs finished their broadcast and queued it up to send out. "How are you holding up?" Dale asked Clara.
"I'm doing fine. These are a lot of fuses to do in one day, but nothing I can't handle."
"Good. The broadcast is done, let's get going. We're way too exposed out here."
"Sure. Next time, let's pick one of those Nujose folks. I can take the guy, then you take the girl after that. Gives us both lots of time to play with them."
Dale smiled, "Perhaps. I did want to save them for later, but we can toy with them now and give them the full experience later. Yes, I'm liking that idea. Powering up the lifters."
The platform hummed softly, then started bouncing. Half a minute later, the power died completely, the bouncing stopping and the protective dome flickering out, the heat slamming into the humans like a brick wall.
The newlyweds reacted first. "Get the belts on!" Steve shouted, running to the nearest seat and flipping it open. He snapped it around his waist and powered it up, his feet lifting off the deck a little as he was encased in a humanoid hardlight shape. He powered it down to keep his mobility and ran to the next chair, flipping it up and tossing it back to the captives. He glanced at the RIDEs but they were ignoring the captives, trying to figure out what happened to the skiff.
Lois caught one of the belts and snapped it on. Before she powered it up, she looked at the other controls. "Didn't Clifford mention something about these belts?" she asked. "An alarm or something?"
"A squawker! Pull out the red pin," Steve's wife, Jamie called out. She was tossing belts from the other seats.
"Don't you dare!" Boris shouted, finally remembering the humans. He was way too late. Everyone who already had belts pulled the pins at once. A half dozen powerful signals went out, drowning out the comm bands. Everyone with any sort of comm system winced in pain from the feedback.
"Dale, what's going on?" Clara called out, coming out of her own checks.
The bull cursed, "They just revealed our location, that's what's going on. What the hell happened to the- Stop pulling those damn pins!" He glared at the captives but was too confused to threaten properly. "What happened to the lifters?"
"I don't know! They're dead. Everything's dead. I can't connect to anything to even find out what happened."
"I happened to the lifters." The RIDEs turned to see Nora pulling herself over the edge of the platform, her silver skin scuffed. The woman tried to look confident, but her movements were sluggish and she looked sick. "Wasn't that hard in the end. Just looped the power feeds back from the batteries into the charge ports. When you lit them up, you tried to charge a q-battery from a q-battery."
"You! Where did you come from?" Clara shouted, taking a step towards the spacer.
"I stowed away. Someone mind tossing me a belt. All this q-dust is starting to get through even my stuff."
Jamie tossed her a belt. Nora grinned and made a show of pulling the squawker pin before putting it on.
Dale snorted in frustration and dropped his passenger. The man, like Clara's first victim, was heavily fused, a man-sized bull that could barely stand upright. "Clara! We need to go. We're too damn close to the Cave, they'll be on us in no time."
Clara dropped Sven and approached Lois and Clark. They both powered up their personal shields as fast as they could. "Fine. But I'm not leaving empty handed."
"We have to! They'll just slow us down. Besides, they're shielded. We can't fuse them even if we wanted to."
Clara stomped over and stood over Clark. He looked back, the personal dome flickering from the RIDE pressing against it. "You're damn lucky this time. Knew we should have done you first." She turned, slamming her rear into him, knocking him over. She transformed into her own skimmer mode and lifted off the deck. Dale changed as well, and the pair took off to the south.
Steve and Jamie made sure everyone had belts on, and saved the last few squawkers. "Everyone OK?" Steve asked, doing a headcount, his own shield active again.
"Think so. These things are hard to move in," Lois said.
"You aren't supposed to move in them. They keep you alive and that's it," Jamie said. "But there are two bigger ones right?"
"One in the bow, one in the stern," Nora said. She flicked her own shield off. "Give me a few minutes, I'll get them set up."
"You sure? You've done so much and you're not looking so hot," Lois said.
"I think the repulsor knocked some of my own hardlight out of alignment. Made some openings for dust to get in. But I can handle a few more quick trips without shields." Nora grabbed a handle in the floor at the bow of the skiff and pulled up. "Someone want to give me a hand with this? Looks pretty standard."
Rescue paced the meeting room, waiting for more news. The rest of her family waited with her, Luke and Argon's part of the diminished press conference still going on. Most of the reporters were focused on the acolyte retaliation, but Rescue's dramatic exit kept a few around to find out about e-Integrates. She had no patience to deal with them herself, so Ryan had taken them to an upper floor conference room to wait out of the way.
"The Cave's reporting multiple emergency squawks. They match the ones that were on the platform. Marshal's are scrambling to see what's going on," Rex said suddenly.
"Really? How far out are they?" Rescue asked.
"Not that far from the Cave. Shouldn't be long to get there. Too far for us to go out and be useful."
"This would be easier if you gave me back access," she pointed out.
"Not after that stunt. You're too close, and you're too much of a wild card. You've been through a hell of a lot and you're still running on instincts. It's time to step back, learn what you are now, and retemper those instincts into the cop you were," Ryan comforted her. "Besides, there's no way we can get out there in time to do anything."
Rescue forced herself to sit down. "Fine. I'll wait."
The survivors huddled on the platform under the cover of the emergency domes. Nora, Steve and Jamie managed to combined the two domes to give them more space. It almost covered the whole skiff. Everyone wore the belts too, just in case.
"You think anyone heard us?" Bob asked. He was standing at the edge of the dome, peering out at the horizon.
"Someone should have. Wide open area, low rad levels. Almost ideal conditions. All depends on where we are and how fast they can scramble," Steve replied.
"Hopefully it's soon," Clark said softly. They all looked at the stern of the skiff, where the three cow-women and the bull-man were huddled.
The changed men from Wednesday huddled under survival sheets, trying to ignore their new udders, and other changes. Their third companion, Lynn, had taken charge of all four fused people, tending to their simple needs. Embarrassingly, on top of making them lactate, Clara seemed to have left all three cow-people in heat, and the bull-man was determined to service them. Sven and Kor were managing to keep their hormones mostly in check, but they were forced to tie the pair from Baltica apart to keep them from acting on basic instincts no one wanted to see. The rest of the former captives gave them space, staying near the bow.
Clark made his way to the other clump of survivors. The silver skinned spacer was laid out on some seat cushions. After rescuing them and getting the domes combined, she'd collapsed, barely coherent before falling unconscious. They'd done what they could for her, but the qubitite damage was irreparable with what they had on hand.
"Any change?" he asked Lois, looking at Nora worriedly.
"Nothing. She's still unconscious, and we don't even have the equipment to tell if her implants are still working or not. Any sign of help yet?"
"Ahoy there, people on the skiff. Is everyone all right?" a voice called out from the ground.
Everyone raced to the side, to see an anthro horse integrate. He lifted up until he was level with the edge of the skiff. "I'm Marshal Mike Munn. We got your signal. What help do you need?"
"Mike Munn! I don't think you know me, but I'm Clark McLane, Rescue's friend. We're staying at your cousin's place. Are you ever a sight for sore eyes. We need all the help you can get," Clark called down, babbling a bit in relief. "We've just got two survival domes, four crossfused people fused by Shah's acolytes, and a Spacer Hero suffering bad Qubitite contamination."
"Rescue?" Mike shook his head and focused on the immediate. "Help's coming in fast. Are you safe otherwise?"
"Yes it's safe. Shah's Acolytes ran off scared half an hour ago. Didn't anyone tell you about Rescue? That's what Nadia and Pepper are calling herself after Integrating."
Mike waved and a half dozen more marshals appeared around the Skiff, mainly Integrates. They landed just outside the dome, which Steve adjusted to admit them.
"Nadia and Pepper. Right, I remember them mentioning you. You and Lois are fine right?" Mike said, while the rest of the marshals tended to the others. A sub landed next to the skiff, dwarfing it.
"We're fine now. A few close calls though. They wanted to play with their food so to speak, so Lois and I were spared. Didn't you know Rescue integrated?"
"No! When did that happen? How could that happen?"
"I was sure you knew. It happened on the island, Tino said you were there."
"I was grounded in the Cave sub before she was found. I haven't seen her or Tino and Tycyn since then, but I was relieved they were safe. Guess I should've looked for the full story."
Clark checked the time and shrugged, "Well, the full story will be going out over the newsfeeds soon, so I can tell what I know of it…"
"On the way back to Aloha," Lois interrupted him, giving her husband a hug. "We've both had more than enough of the Dry to last us a lifetime."
"Certainly," Mike said. He offered his arms, "I can cover both of you over to the sub, if you want a lift?"
The Nujose couple took his offered arms, and they were soon floating over to the Marshal sub. Clark sighed, "First a Lemur, now a Horse. Doesn't anyone on this crazy continent make normal transports?"
Mike chuckled, "What was that?"
"Nothing, just amusing myself."
The tri-hulled ship was permanently anchored a klick off shore, near the middle of Aloha's strip. While it wasn't a house boat, the Queen of Thorns had a lived in feeling that proved it was a home. Rescue finished loading a tray of drinks from the bar built into the wall, and carried them out.
"Here you go. Beer for Rick and Lois. Martini for Clark, and a Sarium Rum and Coke for Mike and me," she said, the drinks floating off the trays to their respective owners.
"Thanks Rescue, just like you always made it," Clark announced after a sip. "And don't say it."
She sat next to Rick and cuddled into his arms. Tony and Otto were playing with Wanda's twin girls closer to the bow of the ship. "Say what?"
"Say you're sorry. You've been apologizing since we landed. It wasn't your fault. They didn't even know who we were till we were out in the Dry. Or at least over the Briny Deep."
"Fine, but you wouldn't have been-"
Rick put his finger over her lips. "You heard them. No more sorrys."
Mike chuckled and sipped his own drink. "Mmmm, tasty. You missed your calling, Rescue."
"Well, I was a biochemist before taking the detective path. Since I was mixing chemicals already, working the campus pub was a natural side step. Loved the mixing, hated the drunks, but it helped my tuition."
He nodded and sipped again. "I still can't believe you integrated. How are the EIs taking it?"
"Surprisingly well. Mom and Dad... err Luke and Argon have always said we're the gossipiest intelligences they've ever seen, and I guess I proved that this morning. Despite the Captain's Top Secret qualifiers, the news leaked out long before the press conference. But everyone thought they would be sneaky and not let on they knew it."
Rescue laughed, "By the time it officially went public, they, the Doctors that is, had twelve requests to Integrate already. Including one from Anne."
"Anne is one of our Complex EIs. No DE, she's been running the place practically since we founded the company," Luke said, wandering over to join them. "We're still trying to figure out how to handle that request, since she doesn't have a body, let alone a partner to Integrate with."
Rick chuckled, "Yeah that would be tricky. What would an Integrated building look like?"
"I have no clue, but you should see her in Cybertron. She gives Metroplex a run for his money," Rescue smirked.
"What about the other side? Any breakups because of this?" Mike asked, getting serious again.
Luke nodded sadly. "About the same number as want to Integrate; about a dozen want to split up. We're hoping we might be able to salvage some of them. Still, with thousands of EIs, the numbers both ways fit what we expected. Honestly, we expected more would break up, but the news is still young."
"We've got another one! Eight o'clock high!" Wanda shouted from the other side of the deck. "Who's up?"
"I am!" Rescue shouted back eagerly. She gave Rick her drink and stood up, looking in the direction Wanda called out. Her eyes automatically adjusted against the dark sky, finally spying the camera drone's energy field. She lifted her hands and glowed a little, a rifle appearing in her hands. She lined up her shot, following the drone's movements, and pulled the trigger. The crack of the shot echoed over the water, and the drone sparked, then fell into the water.
Without needing to be asked, she passed the generated weapon over to Luke for the scientist to peer at eagerly. "A crossbow next time," she mumbled to herself. She closed her eyes and sensed the bullet sinking in the wreckage, and willed it to fade away.
"Good thing you're already a good guy. Imagine the headaches you could cause yourself if you were evil?" Rick asked as she settled back in his arms.
"I'm getting a headache just trying to parse that sentence. Now shush, the fireworks are really starting," she said, pointing to the shore. The resort lights were dimming, while the skies lit up with the nightly show.
Nora rested in her hospital room, her mind skimming over the local mesh, trying to ignore the Real. Despite her hardened systems, qubitite had gotten into almost all of her implants and borg parts. They'd decontaminated her as much as possible in the Cave of Wonders before transporting her to Aloha. There, to be sure they got all of the contamination out, most of her implants and borg parts had been removed. Spacer specialists were being rushed in from Colossus, but they were still a couple of days away. In the mean time, she was basically a collection of brains and organs in a sealed life support vat with Mesh access.
The hospital's AI let her know she had guests in her room. She pulled herself away from the clouds of Colossus and activated a holotar over her life support cask. The room held three people. She recognized Lois and Clark from the tour and was glad to see them. Most of the tour group had visited her since they'd shipped her to Aloha, to offer their gratitude in person.
The third person was strange. She was a woman, as tall as the man, but her skin was space black with the hint of something deeper in. Parts of her skin were covered in silver, similar to Nora's old skin, but more livelier somehow. As Nora watched, she could see it flex and move with the woman's movements like natural skin. The sky surfer was immediately jealous.
"Hi there. Please excuse the avatar, I'm a bit lacking in the body department at the moment," Nora greeted them.
"It's no problem. We're just glad you can still greet us, even this way. How bad is it?" Clark asked.
Nora chuckled, "Well I'm a pile of organs in a metal casket. So in that respect it's pretty bad. But most of it was just precautionary; my own shielding kept most of it out. Once Doc Rocks gets down with my new shell, I'll be better than new."
"That's great news. After all that, anything less would have been horrible. We all owe you so much, our lives, our minds, our bodies," Lois said.
"Well, subscribe to my surfing streams and we'll call it even. Who's your friend there?"
The strange woman stepped forward. "Hi there. I am Rescue. I… I'm afraid I'm the reason all that happened to you. Lois and Clark are old friends of mine; I owe you as much as they owe you. More even."
"Fine, you can buy two subs to my surfer feed. What do you mean you're the cause of this?"
"It's a long story…"
Nora's holotar pointed to the metal cask. "I'm not going anywhere."
Rescue laughed, "True. But I'm afraid we are. We're heading back to Nujose soon… Still, it is a private Sub and we do owe you big time for saving Lois and Clark; I guess we can make the time."
Nora sat on the edge of her cask and leaned forward, "I should hope so for what you apparently owe me. Love the skin by the way. Wish mine was half as lively as yours is."
"This? It's all natural now," Rescue pinched her cheek and smiled. "How I got it is part of the story, but I'm getting ahead of myself." She closed her eyes a moment, then opened them. "Okay, I let them know, we've got a few more hours before we leave."
She moved to an empty spot in front of the holotar and concentrated. A comfortable hardlight couch appeared, pushing the less than comfortable hospital chairs to the side. She sat at one end, while her friends took the other end.
"Wow, colour me impressed," Nora said. "Is that as real as it looks?"
"It is. One of the perks I got. Now, where to begin. I guess it all started with a crazy RIDE. You probably didn't hear of her, but she was a monster…."
Cat Scratch Fever
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