User:Jetfire/Spice Girls

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FreeRIDErs story universe
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Works by Jetfire on Shifti

Spice Girls

Author: Jetfire

Nujose, Laurasia. 147 AL

Nadia stood on the stage with the rest of the graduates of her class, half listening to the speeches being given. It wasn't that she didn't recognize the honour the speakers were giving her class; but the platitudes were ones heard by graduating classes for centuries. A wayward lock of curly red hair escaped from her hat and drifted down into her eye sight. She blew upward hopefully, but to her irritation, it didn't budge.

The speech ended and everyone started applauding. She clapped with everyone else, and quickly tucked the lock of hair back under her cap while glancing around, hoping no one saw her. To her embarrassment, Officer Benton was looking right at her, standing next to his EIDE partner, Sparky. Her cheeks turned as red as her hair when he winked at her and looked away.

An eternity later, the speeches were done, and she threw her hat in the air with the rest of her class. After the moment of chaos, the music started up, and they marched out of the hall. Outside, she waved to her friends while searching for her brothers and parents. Instead, an armored figure stopped her, his simple face smiling as he stepped in front of her and held up his hand. He chirped and waved in the air to someone she couldn't see.

Shortly after, Officer Benton was next to the EIDE. "Thanks Sparky. Cadet… Sorry Rookie Vert? Congratulations. You did great on your final tests."

"Thank you officers. It wasn't easy. The final tests were damn difficult."

"That they are. Full of hard choices."

She nodded and looked at Sparky. "So the rumour is, they'll be bringing more EIDE's into the force. Eager to have more friends on the force?"

Sparky flashed a smile and gave her two thumbs up. Gary grinned, "We are. It'll be good to no longer be the only one. We'll be able to pass off the ceremonial stuff like this to someone else."

Nadia laughed, "Makes sense."

"How 'bout you? Would you be interested in joining the armored cops division?"

"We all would love to join it. But there's a lot more senior folk who'd be ahead of us."

He nodded, "Sure but I'm not talking about everyone. Would YOU be interested? If you had the chance?"

She looked at him, puzzled. "I guess I might. Who wouldn't? It's not like those RIDEs on Gondwana, you still look normal and all that. Having your own armored partner who can protect you through anything? It'd be great."

He looked at her curiously and nodded. "That is true. Well, congratulations again. I'm sure we'll be seeing you."

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The graduates were given a week vacation before their first assignments came in. Nadia found herself assigned to a station in the industrial zones. She arrived early and waited, watching the quiet station go through its morning routine from outside. The zone was low crime, low activity so while the station was 30-6, the workload was virtually non existent.

She signed in at the appropriate time, and was lead to the captain's office. She was surprised at its occupants.

"Good morning, Rookie. I'm glad you're so punctual. I'm sure you remember Officer Benton and Sparky," the captain greeted her.

"Morning Captain. I do remember them. What is this about, if I may ask?" Nadia asked, standing in front of the desk, her hands clasped behind her back. She nodded to the iron man and his human partner.

"An opportunity. One you are probably beginning to suspect. Please sit down."

The captain motioned to a chair and waited for her to sit before he continued. "This precinct covers a good chunk of Nujose's industrial districts. Which means a lot of research labs and factories and similar. That includes EvoLimited, creators of our friend Sparky there.

"As you told Officer Benton, there are plans to expand the EIDE program. We have five new ones coming soon. But you were wrong about your chances to partner with one. These EIDE's are fresh, still very green, greener than you Rookie. So the current thinking is, if we're going to be training newbies, we might as well do it all at once."

Nadia held her breath a moment, not sure she was hearing right. "Wait, are you offering...?"

Sparky pointed to the Captain's desk and chirped. It lit up with the image of another armored figure, female, in gold and red. An image of Nadia appeared next to her, giving a sense of scale. The armored robot was just over two metres tall, broader than Nadia but not by much. Her body was made of red metal plates, segmented to allow flexibility. Where there were joints, primarily at the shoulders, neck and hips, gold sections showed. Her face was golden on a red head, with glowing eyes. The hologram started moving after a couple of rotations, the figure crouching, jumping, punching and twisting in the air. Her golden face flexed, the eyes and mouth moving and showing a surprising degree of expression for a metal face.

"This is Pepper, the next generation of EIDEs. If you're interested, we'll take you to EL and introduce you later this afternoon. She could be your new partner, if you agree to it," Gary explained. "Don't worry, they've figured out the voice box issue. She can speak perfectly fine."

Sparky growled and glared at his partner. Gary thumped him on the side, "No offense intended buddy, but not everyone is as eager to play charades as I am."

"Yes! I'll do it!" Nadia said, without hesitating further.

"I expected as much. Introduce yourself around the office. We've got to talk to four of your classmates to finish off this group, and then you can meet your new partners."

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Nadia sat in a small auditorium with four other Rookies from her class. The captain and Gary and Sparky were with them. A spot light lit up two doctors standing on the stage.

They were a study in opposites. He was short, dark-haired and -skinned, wore twencen-styled glasses. His clothes were the 1960s "Missile Man" style popularized by Kenyon Walton, fitting since his company biography said he was named after Farouk El-Baz, the Egyptian-American geologist who helped select the lunar landing sites for the Apollo missions.

His wife, Doctor Lucy Skye, was his opposite. Taller, busty, statuesque, with white-blonde hair that sparkled with diamond dust. Her clothing mirrored the era of her husband's, but with the exact opposite color scheme. She could have been any astronaut's wife.

The male doctor spoke first. "Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. I am Farouk Skye and this is my partner Lucy. Thank you for volunteering for this; you were carefully picked for this honour to partner with our next generation of EI's, blah blah blah blah."

"Farouk!" Lucy exclaimed, looking surprised.

"Look, we know why they're here, they know why they're here, and there's no one else around so why keep them waiting? We'll add in the inspirational speech in editing. Now clap everyone and we'll get on to what you really want."

The rookies were left in surprised silence, but Gary quickly started clapping, urging the rest to follow. Farouk smiled and bowed before moving to one side. The curtain on the stage pulled back revealing five humanoid robots, set up like on Family Feud. They ranged in sizes from slightly bigger than humans, to a big football-player sized one at the back. They stood still in a half circle on the stage, facing eachother arms around the shoulders of the ones next to them save for the two at the end. The metal men and women were slightly crouched, like they were in a football huddle, the biggest in the middle.

Lucy groaned and shook her head. "Another thing to fix in editing."

Farouk rolled with it as some twentieth century theme music started playing. "Meet the Iron Family! Jarvis! Whitney! Rhodey! Obadiah! Pepper!"

He waited a moment while the EIDE's started moving, breaking the huddle and celebrating. He nodded to them and turned to the seats. "Meet the Rookies! Jeremy! Michael! Nadia! Nicolas! Susan!"

Lucy was facepalming and shaking her head. "I swear if you infect me with another meme…. "

The rookies were frozen in their seats, glancing at each other, squinting into the spot light that suddenly lit them up. A couple clapped uncertainly, while Gary and Sparky tried to avoid laughing too hard. The precinct Captain just rolled her eyes and waited.

"It's time for the Rookies to Fuse!" Farouk finished, audience applause playing from the speakers, while the EI's moved to the edge of the stage, facing their future partners..

Lucy made a cutting sign in the air and the applause stopped. "Right, you know who your partner is. Come on up and meet them guys.."

Nadia looked at the EIDE, hearing but not listening to her companions greet their new partners. Pepper's frame was female, but practical; no boob armor, she was glad to see. Her face was golden and mobile, the metal flexing with her expression. In person, she had a weight to her that hadn't been clear in the hologram. She was flexible, but she looked strong enough to handle anything they might face in the city or beyond.

"Hello, Nadia. I am pleased to meet you," Pepper said, her voice sounding like a normal woman, with the hint of an accent Nadia couldn't place.

"So am I. I can't believe they're partnering us so quickly," Nadia said.

Pepper tilted her head in puzzlement. "So quickly? I have been waiting to be introduced to you for weeks."

"Weeks?! I only found out this morning."

"They clearly had different approaches in preparing you and I."

Nadia shook her head and looked at her partner again. She reached up a hand to her arm, "May I touch you?"

"Of course. We will be much closer than this eventually, after all."

"I suppose so," Nadia said with a small laugh. She finished extending her hand to Pepper's arm and felt the warm, armored panels on her arms. Her fingers tingled slightly at the touch as she ran them up past the elbow to the shoulder; picking up the hardlight field. Finally she reached up and touched Pepper's golden face, feeling the softer metal-light that made it up. "This is incredible. You can feel all this?"

"We have a full hardlight skin, so yes, I can feel it," Pepper replied. Nadia felt the metallic face move under her fingers.

Without warning, the tingle faded and Pepper seemed to contract slightly. The face plate grew harder, less mobile, with holes for the eyes, nose and mouth. The rest of her was still coloured gold and red, but it seemed less mobile, more robotic than before.

"This is who I am without the hardlight skin," Pepper explained. "They do try to match the hardlight to the underlying armor, so the appearance isn't too jarring."

"Well, don't expect me to strip naked too. But I'm sure you'll see me clothesless eventually." Nadia laughed and pulled her hand back as Pepper reactivated her skin. "So, fusing…" she added in the brief silence that followed.

"I can fuse with you when you are ready. The connection is similar to RIDEs I'm told, but not as strong. Our minds are not as compatible as RI minds are. Close enough, but there are some differences," Pepper said.

"What is it like?"

Pepper shrugged, "I have no idea. I have never fused with anyone before. Haven't you?"

Nadia shook her head, "Never. To be completely frank, the animal robots freak me out a little."

"And I don't?"

She looked the EIDE over and shook her head, "No you don't. You're normal-looking. Well normal enough. And you won't change me."

"There is that. Do you wish to fuse now?"

"Sure, we'll have to do it at some point. Might as well do it now while the experts are handy."

Pepper shifted her stance a little, her body expanding to make room for Nadia. Her arms and legs split open, revealing a silver lined space. Her face lifted up, while her chest and hip plates lifted away, floating forward.

Nadia ducked behind the floating plates and felt a force grab her. She lifted off her feet and twisted around, floating back into Pepper. Her skin tingled all over as the EIDE closed in, her world going silver before going dark.

Her body burned all over, her mind aching. She re-experienced her entire life, moments randomly coming to the front of her mind. Her thoughts sputtered, some rushing faster than she thought possible, others taking forever to form and spread through her consciousness. Finally, unable to take the strain, she blacked out.

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She felt something wet and cool on her forehead. The rest of her tingled, like the fuse sensation she'd felt earlier, but different. The coldness moved, and she heard people talking but had trouble focusing on them. She opened her eyes and the world snapped into focus.

Lucy sat next to her, wiping her forehead with a cloth. The world had a gold haze from a meddie field. The rest of the Rookies, the Captain, Gary and Sparky were in the room, looking at her worriedly. Farouk had a device connected by cable to Pepper, but they were both looking towards her.

"What happened?" she asked, starting to lift her head and getting dizzy. She decided to stay down.

"We're not sure. A hiccup with the first fuse routines we think. How do you feel?" Lucy asked.

"Dizzy. Feels like my mind's… I dunno… parts are still going too fast, other parts too slow…" Nadia risked raising a hand, then lowered it.

"That was the problem. The first fuse, it maps your mind out to make the links to the other intelligence. But Pepper's systems weren't properly prepared and caused some unexpected behavior. The timing routines were off, causing parts of your mind to race, and others to stay behind. There was no permanent damage done; you should be fine with a bit of rest. "

Farouk pulled the cable from Pepper, and wrapped it up. "And there you go my dear. You should be fine now." He nodded to Nadia, "I'm sorry you had to go through with that. If you wish to withdraw from the program, it would be understandable."

Nadia managed to push herself up and looked around, before settling on Pepper. The EIDE met her eyes for a moment before looking away. "It wasn't Pepper's fault, was it?"

"No! Not at all. I'm afraid it was my fault. The first fuse routines are quite mature now with RIDEs, and I assumed they would need little work with the Emergent Intelligences. I was wrong, but luckily only Pepper and you paid the small price for my bad assumptions." Farouk said, looking dismayed at what he had done.

"I'm sorry, Nadia. I didn't know what was going on was abnormal. As soon as you blacked out I aborted it and called for help," Pepper said.

"It's fine Pep. We're all learning now. I'll stay in the program, if you'll have me. It's like riding a horse, if you get tossed, you gotta get right back up in the saddle."

"Yes, but for your safety, we won't let you climb back up too fast. We'd like to keep you here for a few more hours under observation. And hold off your next fuse until tomorrow," Lucy cautioned her.

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The hours passed quickly. Once everyone else left, Nadia found herself exhausted. She slept away most of the rest of the day. Finally, she and Pepper were deemed fit to leave, and they could leave.

Nadia walked through the office with her new partner, thinking on what their future was going to be like. She watched the metal woman from the corner of her eye as they left the building.

"So uhm.. Have you been out much?" Nadia asked.

"We were taken on excursions often with my siblings. But none since we decided to follow Sparky's steps and become officers. Our time has been spent studying the laws of man," Pepper said.

"But you've been out. Good. Let's take a trip around town."

The armored woman paused a moment before nodding, "That is allowed. Should we call for a ride, or do you wish to ride me?"

"Let's ride; I want to see more of what you can do."

Pepper stepped down the steps to the roadway and fell forward, glowing wheels forming between her hands and feet, a hardlight aeroshell forming around her body. "I didn't disturb you too much did I?"

Nadia climbed on carefully, feeling a helmet form over her head and finding handgrips and a seat for her. "No, not at all. It was just our first fuse. I didn't know what to expect and it wasn't normal. We'll fuse properly tomorrow, and I'm sure it will be fine."

Nadia motioned for Pepper to proceed. The bike hummed and pulled out into traffic. At first the ride was quick and smooth, but soon Nadia realized Pepper was becoming hesitant.

"Something wrong Pepper?" she asked, pulling over to the side of the busy street.

"I'm not sure… We're cops right? We're meant to enforce the law…" the EIDE sounded uncertain.

Nadia climbed off and Pepper stood up again. "We are, though we aren't on duty. Well not full duty yet. What's the problem?"

"I'm having trouble with the laws. I'm seeing so many broken laws, I don't know what to do. Those teenagers are jaywalking. That man just littered. That skimmer ran a red signal. That delivery van has expired license…. How could we enforce all that?"

Nadia chuckled, "Simple. We don't. Not all laws are enforced equally. Humans and their laws are not simply black and white. There are many shades of gray involved."

Pepper paused and looked puzzled. "Shades of Gray? What does a 21st century story about bondage have to do with law enforcement?"

"Bondage?" Nadia checked her implants, doing a quick search. The top results were for an old book. "What the hell? Someone's messing with the optimizers again."

Nadia shook her head and picked up the pieces. "No, it's not a story. It's a more generic expression. It means you don't enforce everything equally. You prioritise, based on where you are, what you're doing, what else is going on."

"Then what is the point of the laws? If you don't enforce something, why keep it on the books?"

"Because sometimes they come in handy. Look up Al Capone I think it was. Big gangster on Earth in the 20th, caught for tax evasion. Or Calizar in the 23rd, notorious blackmailer. Captured for having an illegal Internet device. Sometimes the small laws are useful."

Pepper nodded slowly, "I think I'm getting it. How can you prioritize though? What is important and what can we let go?"

"That is what we need to learn. Which is why we're probies. We'll be working with experienced officers to teach us the ropes. We'll learn what's important to enforce where and when."

"That's going to be confusing."

"Give it time, we'll learn it eventually. Now, we've got something more important to figure out."

Pepper tilted her head, waving to a curious group of kids. "What would that be?"

"Apartment hunting. Now that I'm on the force, I can't stay in the Dorms any more."

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After the nearly disastrous first fuse, the actual fuse was anticlimatic. Nadia was a little nervous as they started, but they quickly formed the links and found a common ground. From there, they started working on how their lives would go forward.

Even with a bonus to take care of Pepper, it took them most of a week to find a new place they could afford. And even then, Nadia had to bring in a couple of friends to split the rent with on a three bedroom place overlooking a small park.

When not finding a new home, and moving into it, they trained, learning how to work together, fused and separately. By the start of the next week, they were paired with another cop, and put on traffic duty.

Late in the evening, they were parked next to a patrol skimmer. Nadia sipped a coffee while their partner relaxed. At 0200, he suddenly grew alert. "It's time, kids. You ready?"

Nadia stowed her cup in one of Pepper's compartments. "Sure are. Is it that bad, Joe?"

"No big holiday's around, so it won't be that bad. But it is a Friday, and the bars just closed. Now we get all the idiots who overrode their VI's, thinking it makes them cool."

"I'm tied into the traffic system now. There is a skimmer driving erratically and not responding to traffic control, three blocks away," Pepper reported.

Joe checked his own skimmer and sighed. "That's Jamie. Looks like she broke up with her boyfriend again and drowned her sorrows."

"I recognize her. That's Professor Frakes. She's an electronics prof. I never realized she was a problem." Nadia climbed into Pepper's saddle, and pulled out behind Joe's skimmer, red and blue lights strobing.

"That's part of the problem. She knows how to rewire her skimmer to fool the VI. Pain in the ass."

"She wasn't much better sober, to be honest. I eked out a C and was happy for it."

They caught up to the skimmer, and could see it drifting all over the road space. Traffic control had already isolated it from vehicle traffic, but the sidewalks were full of pedestrians. "It's your first one. Would you rather let me handle it and you grab the next?" Joe offered.

"No, we'll take it. I'm sure I'll be arresting more people I know eventually. And we weren't exactly good friends to begin with."

"Nadia told me about the shades of grey. What shade would this fall under?" Pepper asked.

"What are you talking about?" Joe asked, honestly confused.

"She means how hard do we throw the book at her? Pepper, we're close enough now. Disable her skimmer."

Joe stayed silent long enough for Pepper to pull ahead of him. A panel glowed on her front, and a pulse shot out. The targeted skimmer sputtered and slid to a stop.

"Normally, we'd just bring them in to sleep it off, but Jaime's a frequent flyer. She really should know better. So we'll throw it hard at her. Hopefully they'll take her license finally."

Pepper pulled up next to the downed skimmer, and folded around Nadia, fusing with her. The armored cadet knocked on the hull of the skimmer. "Lower the top please, ma'am," Nadia ordered.

The top opened up after a moment, showing a bleary eyed woman looking back. Her front was soaked from a half empty can of Sobre-Cola. She looked up at them and blinked. "What ken Ah do fer you- whoa, youse big Offisser."

Even without Pepper's analysis, Nadia could tell the professor was well over any legal limits. Pepper built up a list of charges and sent them to Joe for approval.

"Miss Frakes, you are under arrest for driving while intoxicated, disabling court mandated VI pilots, ignoring traffic control orders. Your vehicle is hereby impounded, and you will spend the rest of the morning in Precinct Six. Do you understand?"

The woman held her hands out, wrists together, "Yess off-hic!-ssser. I under-under- I got it."

"No need for that," Joe said. "The wagon's almost here to pick you up. Towers too. Just sit back ma'am and we'll keep you company until your ride gets here."

Jaime lowered her arms and yawned. She slumped back in her seat and started snoring.

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Nujose Downtown, 148 AL

"It's a lot busier than we're used to," Nadia noted. She and Pepper were walking a foot patrol through the city's downtown in the middle of a weekday.

"The petty crime is a lot greater too. But nothing worth stopping anyone for," Pepper noted, looking around. "Everything seems to go smoothly enough even with that."

"Exactly. Just keep your sensors open for emergencies. People shouting for help, Alarms, anything strange basically."

The morning was busy with different tasks from what they were used to. They helped a lost boy find his parents, stopped a shoplifter from a mall shop, and responded to a fire alarm that turned out to be false. Nadia grabbed a lunch while Pepper charged after the lunch crush, planning their route for the rest of their shift.

Without warning, the public network channels were flooded with a video. An animated Kraken appeared, floating in a blue sea.

"For a century and a half, my world has been at war. Guests arrived from beyond the stars, and instead of greeting us with open arms, they ignored us. They sent their machines, scraped our forests from the land, polluted our seas with foreign life.

"There has been little we could do. We were unprepared by the type of life arriving. So we were killed, slaughtered, pushed back to the corners of the world. Many of us are now extinct, or on the verge of fading away, forgotten and unknown on the galactic stage.

"Well no more. We now have an opportunity, if not for salvation, than for retribution. With the help of the invaders that have pushed us to the brink of destruction."

The Kraken morphed into the Zharusian globe. An automated voice took over, different from the Kraken's voice. "We are Zharus First. We have no problem with humans living on this planet. We do have a problem with how they treat it. It's time to restore this planet back to its rightful owners, starting here in Nujose.

"We have planted Zharus-forming bombs in downtown Nujose. When they go off, they will replace any Earth life with Zharusian life. You have four hours to clear this zone."

"Ah crap," Nadia mumbled, the signal being replaced by a ten square block section of Nujose. A four hour counter counted down.

"The signals being pushed back to a single channel to allow emergency notices to go out. Command is online, beginning to issue orders," Pepper reported. "We are near the middle of the zone they are projecting. We are to be on crowd control to start, but are to prepare to search for the bombs soon. They are sorting out tips now."

Nadia looked around, seeing the confusion beginning to shift to panic around them. "Let's fuse up and start leading."

Half an hour later, the evacuation was progressing well. Pepper and Nadia were pulled off of evacuation detailed and ordered to the roof of one of the towers. En route, they joined a briefing of the situation.

"Zharus First is your standard eco-group. Their roots are in the university community. We've had our eyes on them for awhile, but weren't expecting them to act like this. We believe this attack is a splinter cell within the group, perhaps tired of the lack of progress the main group was making," the captain informed the virtually gathered cops.

"We have reliable intel that there are only five bombs, set up in blind spots within these buildings. Some of you are already on your way to them. Unless you are bomb squad you are to look but do NOT touch. We need to find these devices and get what we can so the bomb squad can properly handle them."

Nadia raised her hand, realizing she was one of the bomb sniffers. "How dangerous are these bombs? Can they do what they claim?"

"We're not sure. We doubt they can do as much as they claim. But if they just blow up and scatter seeds, they can still cause a lot of damage. Approach the bombs cautiously, and don't touch anything without bomb squad's OK."

"Aye sir."

Nadia shifted her attention from the meeting to the real. The building floor the bomb was on, was being renovated which was how they had hidden the bomb; the building's sensors were partly disabled while the work was going on. They stopped just outside an open window fifty stories up in the air and looked into the open space. Nadia could sense eyes on her and Pepper; experts back in the station, or enroute to join them, piggybacking on Pepper's eyes to see what they were dealing with.

"I have eyes on the package," Pepper reported, seeing a covered device in the middle of the floor. Nadia reviewed Pepper's analysis of the situation and agreed with her assessment. "No sign of any traps so far. Deploying a probe to check the blind spots."

A tense few minutes later, Pepper determined there was nothing else in the room that shouldn't be there. Two more of the bombs were found in other buildings nearby and the viewer pressure started to ease a bit.

"Good job, officers," a voice spoke up, startling Nadia a little. "I'm Richard Jones, of the bomb squad. I'm almost at your location to help you out. You're doing fine so far."

"Thanks. We'll appreciate all the help we can get," Nadia said, sensing a bit of nervous amusement coming from Pepper.

"Rick Jones? I'm not sure I want my bomb tech to be someone whose namesake ran onto nuclear testing ranges unprotected," Pepper noted. She caught Nadia's puzzled thought and smirked. "I researched my namesake, along with the rest of the Iron squad's names. The name Rick Jones came up more than a few times."

Richard chuckled, "I'm not that foolhardy. And I was already deep in the bomb program when the Steaders mined that particular vein of TwenCen culture, else I would've looked at a different job, or a name change."

The bomb tech floated up the side of the building, joining them outside the open space. He was encased in an IDE frame, more armored than Pepper and without the extra guiding intelligence. "Wow, if you don't mind me saying, you EIDE guys look even better in person."

"Let's focus on the bomb first," Nadia pointed out.

It took a tension filled two hours to disarm the bombs, each step carefully coordinated with the people on the other bomb sites, always considering the big clock ticking down. Finally they were able to push it into a reinforced container, and activate a hardlight shell around the container. They lifted it out to another container on an automated cargo skimmer that took it and its four friends to a blasting range outside of the city.

"Squads are moving in to clean up the cell now," Pepper reported as the humans began to unwind. "Little resistance being reported."

"Was it as dangerous as it seemed?" Nadia asked, watching Rick pack up his tools.

He shook his head and pulled off his helmet, revealing curly blond hair. He wiped his forehead and closed his pack. "Probably not. We'll know more when the techs analyse them, but from what I could tell those things weren't much stronger than fire crackers. Would've cracked most of the windows in here, but that's about it. Still, it's not something you take a chance with."

"They picked up a black market blaster to spread their message over the comms, and bribed some folk to plant these around town," Pepper added, sorting out the reports coming in. "Since we're so close to the four hour mark, they're keeping the downtown evacuated until the time runs out. We're to stay on site and on alert. Should you have removed your helmet?"

Rick grinned at them and sat on the edge of the window, his armored feet dangling over the edge of the building. "Technically not, but I'm confident everything's under control now."

Nadia considered the situation a moment before making up her mind. "Pepper, let me out please."

:Are you sure? The scene technically isn't secure yet.:

:The bomb's long gone, the cell's being dissolved. I think the danger's past. Besides, you can hardlight all of us if something happens.:

Pepper hesitated, then opened up, exposing Nadia. She shivered a moment in the cool air that high up and moved to sit next to Rick. She peeked out, and had a moment of dizzyness, seeing the reflective building surface going down to the ground. Rick caught her arm in a firm grip.

"Easy there. You good?"

Nadia focused on his face and nodded, "I'm good. Just a moment of vertigo. Not used to being this exposed this high up without Pepper now."

"Well, I've got you, and I'm sure Pepper has you too. You ladies did great with that bomb. The way you handled that wiring was amazing. It was like you didn't have gloves on. Much better than these mittens I've got."

Nadia grinned, "Well we don't have gloves on. That's as good as hands… hell they are Pepper's hands."

"Interesting. So when you're combined, you feel like they are your hands?"

"Yeah, exactly like real hands. She's armored but she's still got a hardlight skin for tactile feedback. Just like RIDEs."

He laughed, "RIDEs yeah. Some of us boomers have tried them before. Didn't really work out right. It does for some of us, but none of us here."

She smirked, "How about EIDE's then? Any of you on the list?"

"Some are. I wasn't but I will be now. Probably take forever to get one."

"You never know. Graduating right from the academy, I never expected to partner with Pepper. But they decided to bring us together, and now I can't imagine being on duty without her."

Rick stood up and offered his hand to help Nadia up. "Well, that's been 4 hours. No Zharus shattering kaboom. So a job well done. Can I take you two out for a drink? It's traditional with the boomers to gather for a drink at Blue Bloods after a successful disarm."

"Well Pep doesn't drink, but I'm sure I can cover both of us." Pepper fused around Nadia after she stood and they started floating down.

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Nujose, Late 148 AL

Nadia lay in bed, trying to make the blissful half awake period between deep sleep and actually getting up last forever. She felt movement in the bed next to her, and fingers moving lightly down her side.

"Mmmm stop it," she mumbled softly, "You're going to wake up my roommates."

"They're already up. I heard Lois making breakfast already," Rick mumbled, nuzzling against her neck. "And Clark's trying to help her," he added.

Nadia giggled and rolled over so she could face him. "He is? I'm surprised the shouting hasn't woken me up yet. That man can burn a glass of OJ made with a fabber."

He kissed her and grinned, "In any case, they're up, you're up, and I'm really up…" he whispered, rubbing lightly.

Before they could proceed, the entire building shook. Alarms started ringing a moment later, ordering an evacuation. "Funny, that doesn't usually happens until after," Rick said with a smirk.

Nadia gave him a playful slap and rolled out of bed. "What was that? A bomb?"

"No, the vibrations are wrong." The building shuddered again. "Not an earthquake either. Almost feels like something is hitting the building." Rick rolled out as well and started pulling on his clothes.

Nadia didn't bother getting dressed, just grabbing her fuse coveralls. "Pepper! Fuse up. What's going on?"

Pepper walked into the bedroom, their roommates peeking in after the EI. "The building is being damaged. Someone has overrode the VI of a construction excavator and he's tearing into the first floor of our tower."

The EIDE opened up and Nadia slipped inside, the bundle of fuse coveralls dissolving with the nannies. She felt her skin tingling as Pepper reformed them around her body, and her mind quickened. A view from the lobby cameras showed a large bulldozer with a digging bucket on its other end sitting in the middle of the lobby. The digging arm was swinging wildly, banging and chipping away at the building supports.

"What's the point of having VI controls when they can be overridden so easily?" Nadia mumbled, already heading for the door. "Lois, Clark, get the hell out of here. Rick, you don't have anything here that would make a dent in that thing. At least nothing that wouldn't also bring the building down. Sign in with Control and help with evacuation. Pepper and I will go see who's knocking on the door."

"Aye Aye Ma'am," Rick said, saluting briefly then catching his pants before they fell down. Pepper opened the window, and the cop pair dropped a few dozen stories to the ground.

The main ground floor doors of their tower were gone, crushed under the treads of the construction equipment. The streets were filled with people in various stages of dress. Some were awake enough to try and direct the crowds away, out of the potential danger zone, but Nadia and Pepper were the first official police presence.

"Good work, citizens," Nadia encouraged them, her voice projecting over the crowd. "Stay calm and move away from the building. Do not use the main entrance. Help is on its way."

They lifted off the ground and walk floated into the lobby. The air was full of dust, but the excavator was hard to miss. It finished smashing through a pillar and was rolling to the next one.

:Any idea what's going on?: Nadia asked. :Or who it is?:

:Can't tell who it is. The cockpit windows are too smoky to see him. I've done some spectral analysis of the smoke. It looks like a variant of Califian Weed.:

:Weed? That stuffs hallucinogenic, but it also makes you catatonic. That much weed, he should be dozing, not dozering.:

Pepper emoted a shrug. :We'll have to sort it out later. Ideas?:

:We need to air him out. Clear the smoke so he'll start coming down, hopefully. Or at least giving us a way into the controls. Can you short it out?:

:Negative. It's war surplus, from Nextus.:

:Gondwanan War surplus? But I don't see any animal-:

:Pre-RIDEs. In any case, it's hardened to my zappers, and the windows are reenforced. We're going to have to get up close and personal.:

They moved in closer, waiting for a moment to leap for the cockpit of the vehicle. Seeing an opening, they broke into a run and leaped upward. Without warning, the vehicle changed direction, the digger claw swinging back and slamming into their side, knocking them against a pillar.

"Don't worry citizens! I will protect you from this evil villain!" a voice shouted from the cockpit. The plow lowered and began to push a pile of rubble towards the stunned cops.

"Citizens?" Nadia asked, feeling woozy from the impacts.

"There is no one else in the lobby besides us and the driver. The citizens must be part of his hallucinations," Pepper said, lifting them out of the way before the rubble buried them.

:Right, let's try this again. Can you ID his voice?: Nadia asked, switching back to internal as she recovered.

:Voice analysis says it is probably one Bruce Cormier. Former employee of Boyd Construction. They are building the tower next door. He was laid off yesterday for showing up unfit to work.:

:That explains alot. Let's try that again.:

More aware of the driver's skill with the machine, they hid behind a pillar until he seemed to forget them. When he lined up to attack the next support, they shot out. He caught sight of them at the last minute and began to swing the bucket, but they were ready this time, easily dodging it and landing on the cockpit.

"Unhand me evil doer! You will not harm these innocents!" the pilot shouted, but he could do nothing to shake them. The vehicle's arm could not angle close enough to grab them and there was nothing he could rub against to scrape them off.

Pepper put her hand on the edge of the window, and began analysing the air inside the cabin. At the same time, they looked inside, shifting wavelengths to cut through the smoke. They soon identified an unshaven man at the controls, surrounded by a few censers emitting greenish smoke. He looked out the window, but his eyes were unfocused, seeing a different world from reality.

:It is Califian. But there's something else there too that's inhibiting the paralyzing effect. That's why he's so active.:

:That's great, but how do we stop him before we have to find a new place to live?:

Pepper smiled and moved them to a panel just under the cockpit window. :That is surprisingly easy now. These construction vehicles are military grade, and meant to endure explosions and near misses. But they are significantly weaker from a focused attack like a fused RIDE, or in our case, a fused EIDE can do.:'

She studied the bolts holding the panel in place, designed to only be opened with a specialized tool. She held out a finger and the tip reshaped into a form that could grip the fasteners. Despite the shaking and rocking the driver put the vehicle through, Pepper removed the fasteners with ease and was able to throw the cover to one side. She reached inside and pulled some cabling, causing the excavator to rumble to a stop.

:We should probably leave him inside, and wait for the ambulance to get here,: Pepper mused, looking in the cockpit at the furious driver. They could tell from the tactical network that medical help was only a few minutes away.

:Maybe, but as long as he's breathing that crap, he's not going to calm down. And we being the only armored folk on scene, that means we'll have to handle him. Might as well do it now.:

With the vehicle stilled, getting into the cockpit was a simple matter. Pepper popped the access hatch opened and flooded it with extinguisher foam, putting out the censers and knocking the maddened man back against the window. Before he could recover, they shut the hatch again, leaving it open just enough for the smoke to waft out, but not enough for the man to reach out. They sat there, half listening to the man rant while waiting for the medics.

"Is it too much to hope this was a one time thing?" Nadia mused hopefully.

"It probably is," Pepper replied.

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Four weeks later, Nadia hopes were dashed into subparticles. Nujose was gripped in a wave of NuCalifian Weed cases. Most were relatively harmless, but at least once a week there was a case as bad as their first one.

They arrived home after one particularly bad case. The fused pair were exhausted, Pepper's body covered in soot. They banged into the door jamb of their unit before managing to get inside. Their roommates looked up and rushed to help guide the pair in.

"You guys look terrible. Was it that bad?" Lois asked.

Pepper opened up, and Nadia dropped out, slumping into Clark's arms. "Worse. Another fucking Weed incident. Took over a small sub and crashed it on the highway."

"We heard. Come on, sit down and rest a bit."

Pepper stayed where she was, still opened up. Her head tilted down, uncertain what she was doing next. "I… I'm a mess," she said, sounding puzzled. "I'm tired," she stated after another moment.

Lois took the EIDE's arm and tugged her gently towards her charging seat. "You're exhausted, like Pepper is. Come on, close up, sit down and charge up and take a rest. You can wash up later."

Clark offered Nadia a sandwich. She took a big bite and chewed it slowly. "Traffic's still a mess. Ground routes are still closed. But there was nothing else Pep and I could do, not in the shape we were in. We probably should've just crashed at the station, but we needed a comforting spot."

"Well you've got one here." Lois squeezed her leg comfortingly and offered a glass of juice.

"I just wish… Thanks… I wish we could get to the bottom of this new weed strain."

"We're trying. Every bio lab in the city with the clearance is working on it. But it's nasty. They've hybridized it with another Zharusian element, but we can't figure out which one. It's a tough nut to crack," Clark said.

"I know you guys are. We're all working on it. I just need some sleep."

"Finish eating first, then go crash out. You both need defragging badly."

"Yeah that sounds like a good idea." Nadia took another bite and fought a yawn while she chewed.

"And if you want to bow out of our trip tomorrow, we'll understand," Clark said, waiting until her mouth was empty.

"No! We're still on. We all need a break, a chance to defrag a bit from the pressure of the past few weeks. And who knows? We might stumble across something."

"The Wilderness has been combed thoroughly since this mess happened, especially Z-Valley. If there was anything to find, it would have been found by now. But if you think you're up for it, we'll still go."

Nadia left the rest of the sandwich on the plate and struggled to her feet with her roommates' help. "I'm up for it. But I'm gonna crash now. Thanks for the carbs."

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Zharus Valley was a unique feature of the Nujose region; a valley of native Zharusian life that, by a fluke of geography, had escaped the automated terraforming machines unleashed on the continent before Landing. When Nujose was founded, the valley was deemed protected, along with much of the territory around the island city. While it was left as untouched as possible, the hand of man still showed, in the various bio stations that dotted the landscape. Now, it was regularly visited and protected by the xenobiology students who would use it as the foundation of their future careers on Rhodinia or out in the stars.

Nadia knew the valley well. Early in her student career she had seriously considered the xenobiology path. The academy had lured her away eventually; but she still loved visiting the valley for its alien peace.

"It's been too long," she said softly, stretching and rubbing the smooth, shiny skin of a tree trunk.

"Too long?" Pepper asked. The EIDE was walking alongside her. Lois and Clark were on their own skimmers in ear shot, but otherwise following their own paths.

"Too long since I've come out here. A lot of people don't like the smell or the look of the plants or the way they move in the wind, but I love it. I love it all." She stopped at a tall tree, with spiny branches. It had large multcoloured fruit hanging from its highest branches. She easily shimmied up to a higher branch, near a large purple coloured orb. Pepper lifted herself up and hovered next to her partner, turning to take in the view.

"This is a gumdrop tree, one of the more curious elements of Z-life. I haven't kept up with the debate, but the Xenos are still trying to decide if it's a plant or an animal."

Pepper looked puzzled and examined the tree from top to bottom. "What is so confusing? It looks like a plant."

"Shh… Watch. I think I timed it right."

Nadia pointed to the large fruit. It's rind was translucent, with a shadowy something wiggling inside. Soon, the bottom split open, and a large purple insectoid crawled out, clinging to the rind as thick gel dripped down. It shook itself, spreading its wings which dried quickly. The wings began to vibrate and soon the insectoid flew away.

"It'll fly around for the next few months, feeding and mating and doing insect-like things. When the days start growing shorter, it'll find a clearing and dig its claws into the ground. After the snows melt, a gumdrop sapling will be growing from it. Years later, they'll be this size, growing fruit that will spawn more insectoids and the cycle continues."

"So is it a plant with mobile seeds? Or an insectoid with a plant-like chrysalis stage?" Pepper asked, following the purple insectoid as it flew deeper into the alien jungle.

"If you can answer that question satisfactorily, you'd probably win a Torkenov award."

They fell silent for a bit, watching more insectoids hatch from the gumdrop fruit and fly off. "This one is near the end of its cycle. By winter, it'll die and start rotting. It'll collapse, its body fertilizing the ground for the zharusian grasses and eventually providing a clearing for another Gumdrop Tree to grow."

"Do you ever regret it? Becoming a cop instead of a biologist?" Pepper asked, shifting the conversation.

"You know the answer to that; You've been in my head! Of course I do sometimes. But I made the right choices. As a cop, I'm helping people, in a more obvious way than the bios do. And by becoming a cop, I met Rick, and Jeremy and the rest of the Iron squad. And you especially. I can't even begin to imagine what my life would be like without you."

Pepper smiled back at her, then looked away. She suddenly tensed up, and began to start speaking with Clark's whispered voice. "Nadia? Lois? Come to my location fast. I found something."

"Well, Business calls. At least we had some quiet time. Remind me to come out here more often," Nadia said, standing up on the branch she was sitting on. She jumped to Pepper without hesitation.

The EIDE opened up and caught her with ease. She was flying towards Clark's position before the link settled.

Clark was at the edge of a large clearing. Coming in from above, it looked to be filled tall grasses, common to the valley. As they came in lower, they realized the grass began to look strange, hazy to their eyes. By the time they landed, it had changed, now neatly planted rows of the tetra leaved Califian weed.

"What the hell?" Nadia exclaimed, rising up higher again and seeing the plant rows blur and become grasses again. They landed next to Clark and looked at him for an explanation.

"There's a haze field over the entire clearing. From above, it looks like normal grass. Good enough to fool the sats and birds. You only tell the difference when you come in lower." He waved to his girlfriend as she came in, looking as confused as Nadia felt.

"How'd you ever find this?" Lois asked, landing next to the officers.

"Pure luck. A branch fell, interrupting the field over there. I noticed the change in grass colour and looked closer, and found this. But that's not it." He held out a freshly clipped bluish green leaf to each of them.

Pepper turned it over in her palm, letting her sensors analyse it and share the results with Nadia. "It's weed alright. But it's got some sort of fungus on it."

"Exactly. I've only checked a few plants, from around the edges of the clearing, but they've all got this same fungus. I'm thinking it's our antiparalytic."

Lois had her sample in her kit, doing some simple scans and checking the results. "That is a possibility. We won't know for sure until we can get it under better scopes."

"Which are back in the city. Pepper what's the status?" Nadia asked.

"Command has been notified. They want the scientists evacuated with some samples, including intact plants if possible. Once they're clear, we're to join the squad."

"You heard the lady, we've gotta move guys."

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Knowing what to look for, the police were able to identify numerous other grow fields and place them under watch. It didn't take long to find an automated harvester pulling in a crop, drying it and packaging it. Small drones picked up the packages, handing them off in a complicated pattern that eventually got the drugs to a warehouse on the riverbank.

A few more days of surveillance, and they were ready to move in. Nadia and Pepper arrived at the staging area, and wandered about before the setup call was given. They found another EIDE pair, the human adjusting a set of shoulder mounted minirocket launchers.

"Hey Jeremy, Obadiah, how are you doing?" Nadia greeted them.

Jeremy finished the check and stepped back, giving Nadia a quick hug. "Hi there Nadia. Hi Pepper. We're doing good. Great job cracking the grow fields."

Nadiah grinned and walked around Obadiah. The green and black armored man was bulkier than Pepper, with more weapon mount points; he and Jeremy were going down the SWAT path. "I was just the escort. It was my roommates who made the discovery. I'll pass along the compliments though."

"Thank you," Obadiah said, his voice a deep baritone. The launchers on his shoulders swiveled, tracking with his internal commands, before they collapsed back into armored holders in his shoulders. "I understand this is your first major bust?"

"The first outside sims, training and that emergency take down in my tower's lobby a few weeks ago," Pepper said. She was clamping on weapon packs of her own, wrist mounted stingers, and a backpack popup railgun.

"You'll do fine, I'm sure. We were made tough. I do wish we had more of the Iron Crew though. Word on SecNet is that there's two Califian RIDEs in there; a big boss and his muscle." Obadiah moved behind Pepper and helped her get the weapon pack locked into place.

"RIDEs? What types?" Nadia asked.

"Big boss has an Otter RIDE. Seems he really likes surfing and stuff. His muscle's got a bull. Big minotaur type guy. Special order DE's with exmilitary RI's, so we don't know what they've got, but whatever it is, they'll know what to do with it."

"And I guess they intend for us to take them out while everyone else handles the mooks?" Nadia said.

Jeremy grinned. "They won't officially say it of course, but it's a safe bet. Pit paired intelligences against paired intelligences.

"We'll that's no fair for us, we're short an intelligence," Nadia teased.

Jeremy took a moment to catch on. "What? Hey! I resemble that remark!" he shouted, giving her a playful punch on the arm.

"Wouldn't have said it if it weren't true," she replied, grinning back. They both got serious as the EI's became more alert.

"They just sent the suit up signal," Obadiah said, leaving Pepper and opening up.

Nadia fused with Pepper and ran through the set up tests with the weapons pods while listening to the briefing. Pepper and Obadiah were split up on different teams, but their teams were still the first to enter, one coming in from the north, the other from the south.

After the briefing, there was a quiet moment when they waited for the go signal. Nadia looked at her teammates, clad in armored IDEs for the most part. The bulky armored forms hid nervousness well, but it was there, in the shifting of the foot, or the constant checking of weapons.

:Leave the Minotaur to me. You try to catch the otter.: Obadiah sent on a side channel.

Pepper smiled at him from across the room. The slimmer EIDE forms, stood out in the crowd. :You think I can't handle the big guy?: she asked, smirking.

:No. I'm worried the little guy will slip through my big hands. Stay safe ladies.:

:You too, guys.: Nadia said. She closed her eyes and breathed slowly, trying not to let her own nervousness show. She could feel Pepper's comforting presence around and in her, but it wasn't quite enough.

Finally, SecNet activated and the commander spoke. :All targets are inside now. Blind them.:

A minute later, a new voice spoke up. :Spotters are blinded. Routes are clear. Building is shielded, we can't see inside.:

:All teams, move to position,: the commander ordered.

The squads moved out of the staging area smoothly. Soon, Nadia and Pepper were looking at the windowless concrete block wall of the drug warehouse. Another squad threaded past them and applied thermite to the wall, outlining an opening big enough for multiple team members to get through at once. Hooks were glued to the wall, and cables attached, so the wall could be pulled outward when the word was given.

:North entrance prepped.:

:South entrance prepped.:

:Activating jammers… Now. Go! Go! Go!:

Pepper felt the world get quieter as the jammers blocked out most comm traffic, other than their own secured network. The thermite flared, cutting through the wall easily. The cables grew taunt and the wall fell forward, shattering on the ground. A dark space was revealed.

:Shit! Something was against the north wall. The way is still blocked.:

:Not for long. Light it up.:

Rockets flew in from the squads, lighting up the blockade. It blew inward, bundles of dried leaves catching fire and billowing blue-green tinged smoke.

:Move in! Make sure your filters are in place. We want you shooting at the real bad guys, not your imagined ones.:

Pepper lifted off the ground and assumed the Superman flying position, one hand forward, the other along her side. Her back weapon pod expanded, the railgun barrels settling in place over her shoulders, pointed forward. She flew in, leading her squad through the smoke, filters trying to find a wavelength that could cut through.

Once through the burning wall of weed bundles, they had a clearer view of the layout. Dozens of palettes, loaded down with dried plants were lined up along the wall they were entering through. To their left was a closed garage door, and a truck that was being loaded up, along with a half dozen parked large personal vehicles.. To her right was the warehouse's office space, including a meeting area. Heat scanners showed a dozen people around a table in a big meeting space, including one in a RIDE. In the open space that made up the rest of the warehouse, there were dozens of security goons, most facing away from her team, firing at the squads pouring in from the opposite end of the building.

:Where is he?: Nadia asked, trying to find the other RIDE.

Pepper brought their other hand forward and fired their stingers from the wrist mounted pods, catching the back ranks of goons by surprise. :I don't know. I can't-:

A roar drew their attention back the way they came from. A palette half filled with weed lifted up in the grip of a minotaur, his eyes glowing red. His body was covered in reddish brown fur, only hidden by a kilt. He threw it at the cops coming through the hole, catching one square on and knocking her out.

:There he is. Damn he's big.: Nadia said.

:Even worse. He's on our side. That makes him our problem.: Pepper added, skidding in the air to turn to face the new threat.

:Sorry ladies. I really wanted to take him on. Take him out, we'll find the otter.: Obadiah sent.

As soon as she had a lock, Pepper fired her guns at the minotaur. The hypersonic slugs struck him square on the chest, knocking him back through another palette. She flew straight at him, shooting her stingers at him while waiting for the railguns to reload and recharge.

:Damn, I don't think we even dented him.: Nadia noted.

:Hopefully we rattled his human part a bit though.:

:Gotta remember the fur's just a hard illusion. It's armor and probably covering more armor. But look at his kilt. Think he's compensating for something?:

Pepper chuckled, and unleashed another pair of slugs into him. He grunted, but since he was already against the wall, he wasn't thrown back this time. She stopped her forward momentum a few metres outside his arm reach.

:I'm not sure we have anything heavy enough to take him down,: Pepper noted, beginning to doubt their situation. Some of their companions shot at the minotaur from afar, but the goons were regrouping around the meeting room, drawing the attention of most of the police.

:We'll do what we can. We've got numbers on our side.:

Her guns signaled ready and she fired a third volley at him. They struck his chest and didn't even make him wince.

"Silly gnats. You have no idea what you're dealing with," he growled, his horns beginning to glow.

Pepper felt a field surround her and begin to draw her towards the RIDE. She fought it, but his field was easily overpowering her own. She shifted the aim of her guns to his face, and waited the inevitable, watching the charge indicator and hoping it would top before he topped her.

"Now that's enough of that," the minotaur said, reaching up to the gun barrels, ignoring the stings from her wrist guns.

Out of desperation, Pepper overrode the guns and fired. One slug slide along his big hand and ricocheted away. The other shot true, hitting the right side of his face. He bellowed in pain, his other hand reaching up instinctively to cover his eye. The hardlight fur had shattered, exposing the armored head beneath. The eye itself was dark and immobile in the bull skull.

"That hurt bitch! But not as much as this will!" he shouted, recovering before the guns did. He crushed both barrels easily. Pepper kept shooting with what she had, until he grabbed her arms in his big hands. She and Nadia cried out in pain, his strong hands crushing the wrist pods and compressing their forearms. "Our only regret is that we don't have time to properly play with you."

Pepper and Nadia ran through various scenarios in quick time, but none seemed promising. In real time, he was pulling at their arms, and lifting them up, his muzzle near their face. "Bah, cheap wannabees. Barely worth my time crushing you." He snorted, sending hot air across their face.

:I've got an idea,: Nadia said, realizing their position. :It might hurt, but we'll see how much of that kilt is padding.:

Pepper smiled and nodded, catching onto Nadia's plan and making some quick adjustments. :I've got your feet.:

Nadia tilted their head away and grimaced. "Ugh, chew a breath mint, cud breath. You been snacking on the product?"

"You've run out of weapons so now you attack me with words? You really are desperate."

"No not really," Nadia lied. "But we are wondering. Is that a thermos in your kilt, or are you happy to see us?" she looked down, and he followed her gaze out of habit.

Pepper twisted in his grip and brought their feet up under his kilt, planting them on his furry hips. They both shuddered, having a brief sensation that the bulge wasn't just for show, before she activated the lifters in her boots, adding a gravametric twist.

The antigravity field normally tightly contained within the lifters expanded further than usual, grabbing a chunk of the minotaur and trying to push it away from the wall with Pepper. He bellowed in sudden pain, letting go just as her body started to move. Pepper corkscrewed through the air a few meters before straightening up.

The bull man was bent forward, hand at his groin, panting hard. Pepper couldn't tell if she'd done any actual damage with her trick, but she imagined he would be hanging more than a little to the left now if she asked. She twisted in the air, back into the Superman position and poured on the gas, shooting at the fused RIDE as fast as she could in the tight space, clenching her extended hand at the last moment. Sensing something amiss, he looked up, letting her land her punch just as she intended, in the centre of his bovine muzzle.

Even expecting it, the impact sent a blast of pain up their arm, human nerves and sensors screaming in pain. The bull's muzzle crunched inward, and his head snapped back, smacking into the concrete wall.

Medical scans started reporting in almost immediately, showing broken bones in Nadia's hand along with overstrained muscles. Pepper's own systems reported the mechanical parts of her hand were damaged, actuators not responding, armor plates dislodged.

:Sorry about this, Nadia,: Pepper said, landing lightly on the bull's head, her lifters, properly retuned now, keeping most of her weight off the RIDE.

:Don't be. I can bear a bit of pain for it. Do it.:

Hand protesting, Pepper reached down and grabbed one of the bull's horns. She braced herself and pulled hard. It resisted at first, but soon began to spark and screech, the hardlight fading revealing a metal horn that pulled away, revealing in turn a shorter real horn. She repeated the process with the other horn and hopped down in front of the stunned RIDE pair. On SecNet, she had time to check the situation, and found the fight was in its final stages. Most of the goons were down, and the cops were storming the meeting room for the lords and ladies inside.

She used one of the horns to tap the bull on the deformed muzzle. "Who's the wannabee now? Do you submit? Or shall we see what creative places we can insert these into."

He growled and glared at her with his remaining eye. She poked him again, in the dead eye. "I don't care who answers, but one of you better give me an answer now."

"We submit. We give up!"

"Good. Now just sit here chewing your cud. We'll get you out of here shortly. Any funny stuff and I'll crack you out of the suit the hard way."

She kept guard over him, while the chaotic scene slowly got organized. Meddies numbed Nadia's hand, and helped ease the human down from the adrenaline high of the battle.

Obadiah came over to check on them once the fighting was done. His own armor was scratched and banged up, and one shoulder rocket pod was missing, but he was otherwise unharmed. He looked at Pepper's prize and his eyes widened.

"You did this? By yourself?" he asked, a little surprised and proud at the same time.

"We did. Wasn't all that hard. How about you? SecNet says the otter lord slipped through your fingers."

The EIDE turned away and shook his head. "Yeah. They had a bolt hole down into the storm sewers. We caught the humans, but the otter fuse was too quick. Made it to the river and was gone before we could get him."

"Damn. But we cracked this op at least. And we know what goes into the NuWeed. That'll make treatment easier."

They moved out of the way of a squad that was claiming the bull RIDE pair. "There is that. All in all a good job I think."

Pepper shifted her grip on the horns and winced. Obadiah looked closer at her and took her arm gently. "Come on, let's get to the docs. You look like you're about to lock up."

"I'll be fine. But that's not a bad idea."

"So what are you going to do with those pokers?" he asked as they walked out of the building.

Nadiah chuckled, "Not sure. I'm thinking of having them mounted and hanging them on my wall."

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Nujose, 150 AL

Pepper flew into the apartment, giddy with her news. She scanned and found Nadia and her roommates there, with no one else. "Hi guys! I'm home!"

"We're in the kitchen, Pep." Nadia called back. She looked up as the EIDE walked in. "How was your check up?"

"It was great! Mom and dad say I'm fine. In excellent shape."

"Fantastic news. Always good to get a clean bill of health."

Lois smirked, "Though something tells me that isn't everything. You saw something, didn't you, Pep?"

"Am I that obvious?" Pepper asked, looking a bit dejected.

"You're floating ten centies off the floor and you're glowing more than usual. Did you see something while you were visiting?"

Pepper made herself land and twisted one foot uncertainly. "I did… but I'm not sure I should tell."

"Now now, you know the rules. You can't drop a hint like that and not tell. What did you see?"

She moved in and leaned on the table between them. "Ok, it'll be announced soon. I got to meet the new EIDE's."

"New guys? Neat! Who are they?" Lois asked.

The EIDE teams were popular in Nujose, since they were seen as a local product, a homegrown answer to the Gondwana and Laurasian RIDEs popular elsewhere. Since EvoLimited carefully limited their production and use, making sure each new emergent intelligence had a job and partner waiting for them, they were still rare enough that people considered it a treat to meet them. In the years since Pepper and her siblings joined NJPD, a couple hundred more EIDE's were released in small groups, mostly for other industries.

"It's a big group, twenty of them at once, and multiple jobsets. Cops, Fire, EMS, Ranger, Construction and a few others I didn't have a chance to find. I think one wants to be a taxi even, or tourism. Mom and dad are working like mad to get them all set up."

"Wow, that is impressive. But not quite enough to get you walking on air more than usual," Nadia pointed out.

"I know, I'm getting there. One of them's named Genis. He's got blue and black armor, and the longest fingers I've ever seen…" She shook her head and refocused. "Anyway, he wants to be a cop. To join the bomb squad."

Nadia's own heart flipped and she fought to keep her voice level. "Bomb squad? Do you think?"

"I don't know! They aren't telling the new guys who they're partnering with yet. But they interviewed you last week. And Rick's been interviewed a lot lately. He's gotta be on the short list. They asked me a lot about him and what I thought about him too."

"That's great news Pep. Wow… When will they be announced?"

"No idea. But they've got their DE's and they're walking around the compound, getting used to the Real. Can't be much longer right?"

Nadia stood up and started pacing. "Wow, this is so surprising. I don't know what to make of it. I almost wish you didn't find out Pepper. We've got a date tonight, how can I keep this secret? What if you're wrong and he isn't getting a new partner?"

"I'd say the chances are really good. I searched up the name. It's an outlier with the rest of the new crew, but I did find a reference, same culture group as mine. Another hero was named Genis-Vel, partnered with one Rick Jones."

"Really not helping Pepper."

Clark laughed, "I'll order another charging seat. Sounds like we'll regularly be having two of you metal men here now."

"Don't order anything yet. If this falls apart, we don't want to get hopes up too much, his or ours." Nadia stopped pacing and walked to her partner. "Open up. Pep. I need to get some air and clear my head. If we meet him tonight like this, he'll know something is up."

They fused out and headed out to the mall to wander. While they were off duty, they still ended up mobbed, especially by kids. She spent the rest of the morning and afternoon doing some window shopping and entertaining the young ones.

She'd all but forgotten Pepper's possible discovery, when Rick called.

"Hey Rick. What's up? Still on for dinner tonight?"

"Hi Nads. Pep. I'm sorry, but I have to put dinner on hold. Don't worry, it's nothing major; they just popped a surprise drill on my team. We're enroute to the testing ground now."

Out of habit, Nadia was checking the police band for alerts when he put the dinner on hold. She relaxed just as quickly. "Damn, I was so looking forward to it. What about later? We could have a late meal instead of dinner."

"Sounds good. We're getting on site. I'll give you a call when I'm done. Love yah."

"Love yah too."

As soon as the connection was broken, Nadia let out a long sigh. :Pep, pull in any and all favours you've got with your parents. We need to know the moment he and Genis are paired up for certain.:

:Are you sure? I'm not really supposed to know anything about it…:

:Look at his locator. He's at EL. I think we have less time than you estimated.:

The rest of the afternoon took forever to pass. Nadia picked out some things she wanted, but she didn't get anything until she knew for certain.

:Got something Nads,: Pepper said, her voice quivering with excitement. :He just left EL…. with a friend. Incoming call from him.:

Nadia struggled to compose herself and hide her own expectations as the call connected.

"Hey Nads, good news! The training session wrapped up early. Still got time for a slightly late dinner?" Rick asked. He sounded like he was trying to hide something as well.

"Always got time for you. Meet at my place in thirty? We need to get back and get changed." She hoped he wouldn't pick up that she was trying to hide something as well.

"Thirty it is. See you soon. Love yah."

"Love yah back."

As soon as the connection broke, Pepper defused and reformed into her bike mode. They took off for home as fast as they could. "I already called Lois and Clark. They're making up a cake and getting the place ready."

"Tell them to keep it in the kitchen. He wants to surprise us, so we'll let him. Then we'll surprise him."

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A few hours earlier

Rick pulled into the parking lot of EvoLimited and looked around. He had expected the rest of his squad to beat him to the site, but he was alone. Having a training session on site wasn't strange; many of NuJose's bigger companies made their facilities available during quiet times so the teams would have some familiarity with them. But being alone on site was strange.

He opened a connection to the secretary EI while unpacking his gear. "This is Constable Rick Jones of NuJose PD, bomb squad. I'm here for a training exercise."

"Yes sir. Building Five has been… Apologies sir, I just received an update. I'm trying to verify the situation." The EI sounded confused.

"That's fine, Anne. I'll take it from here," a voice said in the Real. The EI disconnected, leaving Rick to face Dr. Skye. He held out his hand to the police man. "My apologies for the slight subterfuge. Due to a scheduling mishap and gossipy intelligences, we've had to speed up our time table a little."

Rick shook the offered hand, and tossed most of the gear back into his skimmer. They started walking to the main building. "Speed up your timetable? If you didn't have such a long relation with the PD, I'd say that sounded downright super villain of you."

Farouk laughed. "It would have been a mighty long plan if it were. But no, there is nothing villainous with our plans."

He lead Rick into a meeting room near the entrance, with a view of the manicured lawns of the complex. They sat down at a table, and the doctor continued. "I do want to talk to you, privately for a bit. Some of my questions may be personal, feel free to decline any you don't feel comfortable with."

"Sure, I think I can handle that," Rick said. "Since we are getting personal, you can just call me Rick."

"And you may call me Farouk if you wish. Do you want a drink or anything before we begin?"

"I'm good, thank you Farouk."

The interview started smoothly, as the doctor asked about Rick's job, and what he felt his future with the force was like. It segued from there to his personal life, his hobbies, likes, dislikes and similar. Rick answered honestly, finding no reason to decline or lie to the doctor.

"How would you describe your relation with Constable Nadia Vert?" Farouk asked.

Rick was startled; Farouk didn't move but the question felt like it was more important than many of the previous ones. "My relation? Very close. We've been together as a couple for a few years now, but we aren't quite ready to make a jump yet. Luckily we're on different tracks, so there's no job related conflicts."

"And her partner, Pepper? How does she fit in with your relation?"

"Fit in? She fits like a glove. Nadia and Pepper are so close, I couldn't imagine one without the other. We're good friends and she doesn't get in the way if that's what you're fishing for."

"You don't feel jealous over their closeness?"

"Of course I feel jealous of it. Anyone who sees them would be jealous. But it doesn't drive us apart. Sure we get into fights occasionally, with Pepper or Nads. But we patch things up and keep on going."

Farouk nodded and seemed to think carefully on his next question. "What about emergent intelligences in general? Do you have any concerns about them?"

"Concerns? No not really. My only real concern might be that you aren't releasing enough of them for the demand. But looking over at the mess RIDEs cause over in Gondwana, I can understand your reluctance."

"So you would have no problem working with one?"

"None at all. I've wanted one since I met Pepper. Seeing her disarm that bomb, made me feel like I was working with salad tongs in my DE suit." Rick paused, the pieces clicking into place. "Wait--does this mean...?"

Farouk smiled and waved to the door. Farouk's partner walked in, followed by a large EIDE. He was huge, built like a rugby player, scaled up to three metres tall. Like most of the fuse-capable EI's, he had the Iron Man appearance, with navy blue armor on a matte black under armor. He had an expressive silver face that was grinning at Rick.

"Rick, this is Genis. Genis, this is Constable Rick Jones, NuPD Bomb Squad," Farouk introduced them.

Genis stepped forward and offered a hand. Rick hesitated before taking it, his own hand swallowed up by the mechanical one. "It's good to finally meet you, Constable," Genis said, his voice a deep baritone, fitting for his large body. "I have studied all of your cases, and I'm looking forward to working with you."

Rick chuckled nervously, not quite believing his situation. "Well, most of them weren't that important. Forgotten packages, or firecrackers and that. We don't usually get the big stuff…. Look this can't be real can it? Are you guys punking me?"

Lucy smiled and shook her head. "No punking. We've wanted to get the bomb squad an EI for awhile now, but the personalities never developed in that direction, at least not until Genis here. Luckily, his compatibility scores meshed well with yours too; due to your relationship with Nadia and Pepper, you were high on our lists as well when the right EI grew up."

"Thanks, I think. I'm getting the feeling this isn't your normal pairing process?"

Farouk laughed, "Not at all. But we messed up. We're only human after all." He and Lucy laughed harder at that.

"What he means is, Pepper's appointment was today and we didn't put two and two together. She met Genis, and she's more than capable of adding things up." Lucy explained.

"The EI's are more gossipy than Bingo ladies. Or teenage girls. Judging from all the messaging between her and the company, we're confident she's guessed."

"So to give you the chance to meet Genis without any unexpected expectations, we called you in now, before the girls do anything too rash."

Rick began to feel whiplashed from trying to follow the doctors speech. "So we're compatible?" he asked, feeling ten minutes behind in the conversation.

"As far as we can tell. We've gotten really good at pairing up humans and EI's, but sometimes it doesn't work out. Only twice so far thank goodness," Lucy explained.

"It's up to you, you can talk to Genis if you want. Or you can fuse with him. Fusing is usually the best way to tell if the choice is right. Have you ever fused before?"

"Once. Years ago, when I was still in school. Me and some buds caught a sub to Uplift, and took a tour out into the Dry. Fused with a nice stallion RIDE for protection. It was … different. Not unpleasant, just different. I stripped the signs before we came home."

"I'll try to give you a better experience than that," Genis said. "But I am new to this too."

"Well, let's find out. Let's fuse!"

Genis straightened up, his armored panels sliding and swinging open. Most obviously was his chest, lifting up at his shoulders and to his sides. Rick felt a field gently grab him and turn him around, pulling him in.

He quickly lost track of time as he was sealed inside Genis. :Testing… How are you doing Rick?:

:Hi Genis. I'm good, I think. Is everything working as it should?:

:As far as I've been told. We'll figure out an interface but for now…:

Light returned to Rick's world and the meeting space reappeared. The room wasn't very different, but he was aware of more knowledge of the room, suddenly aware of the composition of the air in the room, and electrical fields and other elements. He lifted his hand and turned it around, watching the armored appendage turning. He touched each finger to his thumb and widened his eyes.

"Wow, it's like it's my real hands. Just like Nads said."

"Well it is my hand after all," Genis said. "This is fascinating."

Lucy studied the pair and nodded. "Looks like another good match. We can give you some time to get used to it. We've even set up a training scenario in Building 5 for you if you want to try it out."

"I.. we? might take you up on that. Does Genis have to stay here after?"

Farouk grinned, "Technically, he isn't supposed to be released until the next wave next week, but in this case, we can make an exception."

Rick clapped his hands together, jumping a bit at the metallic clang it caused. "Let's go give it a shot, Genis, so we can make the rest of the squad jealous."

"And then?" Genis asked.

"And then we go salvage our dinner date with Nad and Pep."

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"Thirty minutes. She must be more ready for this than I thought." Rick leaned back in the hardlight generated seat. Genis's vehicle mode was a one man truck, hardlight tricks and armor flexpoints helped form the cabin and platform in the rear out of his humanoid form.

"I'm looking forward to meeting her. Pepper was very friendly when I met her, and from the memories of Nadia you shared, she seems quite the lady as well."

Rick chuckled, "That's something I'm still getting used to. Thank you for not prying too much. Still with traffic, it'll take us about thirty minutes to get there. Now when we do, you can let me off on her deck and wait for my signal. We'll see who can keep a straight face through this the longest."

"Straight face the longest? I don't follow."

"She knows about you, but she thinks I don't know she knows. So she's probably planning to surprise me, while thinking I'm going to surprise her. Don't think too hard on it, I don't want to have to take you back to EL to break a recursion loop too soon."

"Humans are strange."

"That we are. Hang a left here, I want to make a stop before we show up."

A half hour later, Rick stepped onto the deck and waited for Genis to drop down to an empty unit nearby. He rang the bell, and walked in. "Hey guys. Anyone home?"

"Coming!" Nadia shouted. She came out of her room, and Rick forgot all about complicated who knew what plans. His girlfriend was clad in a tight sparkling green party dress, that showed off her bare arms, legs and shoulders. Her curly red hair glittered with her dress.

"Way to make a guy feel underdressed," he said, hugging and kissing her.

"Well with how late dinner is, I figured we could hit a club after. Neither of us are on duty tomorrow after all. How was the drill?"

"Drill? What drill?... OH! Right. It was fine. We've got a newbie who learned an important lesson about fully tracing circuits."

Nadia giggled and whispered, "We aren't fooling anyone, especially each other. Call your new friend up, and we'll get the surprise out of the way."

He kissed her again and whispered back. "How many are there?"

"Just Lois and Clark…. And Pepper of course. Give me an opening."

"Sure." He stepped back and glanced at the door to the kitchen, seeing it cracked open. "Why don't you get Pepper, and I'll go freshen up and try to be a tenth as beautiful as you are," he said, speaking too loudly and not believably at all.

Nadia shook her head and grinned. "And that is why you're on the bomb squad and not a detective like me." She went to the kitchen while he rushed to the door outside and signaled to Genis to come up.

Genis floated up and transformed back to his walker mode. He crouched down and squeezed through the door. "Just play along," Rick whispered to his partner, looking towards the door.

"Sure." Genis whispered back, seeing the door open.

Nadia led the way, carrying a cake with sparklers on it, shaped in a classic TNT barrel. "Congratulations!" she and her roommates shouted.

Genis gasped, closed his eyes and clasped at his chest. He stumbled back a couple steps and collapsed backwards, crushing a couch, end table and lamp.

"Genis?" Rick shouted, rushing to the EI's side.

Genis turned his head slightly and partly opened an eye. "Was that playful enough?" he whispered.

"Sure it was," Rick laughed. "Come on, get up and meet the family."

Everyone relaxed once Rick laughed and the EI stood up again. Clark set the cake down on another table and shook his head, "Man, he's a big one."

"He's a gentle giant. Wouldn't harm a fly. Furniture though, better watch out," Rick said. "Guys, this is Genis, my new partner which you already seem to know of."

"Well, it is hard to get anything past Nancy Drew here," Lois said, nudging Pepper. "But I think we're going to need a bigger apartment."

"I'm sure we can work something out. Especially in light of this." Rick motioned to Genis, who dropped a small box into his hand. He knelt in front of Nadia and opened it up, revealing a gold band with an emerald surrounded by clear and black diamonds. "I had this made months ago, trying to build up the nerve to ask you, and to properly surprise you. Now feels like the right time. Nadia Vert, will you marry me?"

Nadia was speechless. She lifted the box from his hand and held it, not looking at the ring, but at him. Finally she found her tongue again. "Yes! Of course I will!" she exclaimed, hugging him tight.

He hugged her back, then looked at the EI's standing next to eachother. He winked at Pepper. "Sorry Pepper, I didn't know if I should get a ring for you too or not, but I don't intend to cut you out."

Pepper smirked and hugged Genis's arm. "As long as you keep coming around with a hunk like this, I don't mind."

"Right! Cake time then celebration time!" Lois said, pulling out a knife and offering it to Rick. "Care to do the honours?"

"Sure, but I'll do it our way." Rick motioned and fused with Genis. The pair's fingertips glowed, a hardlight emitter forming a blade that he used to carefully cut the cake into pieces.

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NuJose Museum, 151 AL

The human sized bobcat watched the museum from a building across the street. A gem at the base of his tail flickered as he studied it, figuring out the security system. The Integrate could dance through their security with ease, but that was too easy. Instead, he limited himself to what normals could do. It made each job more challenging, and it kept him off the radar of the Intie Enclaves.

The museum was hosting a travelling exhibit, with historically significant artifacts from all of the colonies, and from Sol. The thief was interested in all of it, but for now he was focused on the NeoRus Jewel of Muscovite. Once the museum was closed and mostly deserted, he activated an external hardlight cloak and made his way to the building's roof.

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"Thank you for responding so quickly. We called you in as soon as we realized it was a fake. Luckily we weren't open for the day yet, so not many have been around," the curator explained, leading Pepper and Nadia into the museum.

"How did you identify it was a fake?" Nadia asked.

"Spectral analysis. The jewel is actually a data crystal, with the first twenty years of NeoRussian history encoded in it. When we tried to read the gem, there was nothing in it. Otherwise it's a perfect match, weight, shape, orientation, all the basics."

Nadia stopped the curator and motioned for Pepper to move in to start examining the room. "Do you normally try to read the crystal?"

"Every day. It contains a lot of data, more than we expected. It's part of the reason we have the exhibit here."

"Can you think of any people or groups that might have been extra interested in that crystal? Have you verified the rest of the exhibits are real?"

"We're validating the collection now. So far everything checks out. As for who would want it? I don't know. There might be some who would want it, but they haven't shown themselves before now."

"I'm done Nadia. You may enter now," Pepper called out.

They entered the big room and walked over to the robot. "Find anything, Pep?" Nadia asked.

"Not much. He was very methodical. Very few traces left. But due to the exactness of the replacement and other elements, there must be a mechanical element. A RIDE or EIDE. More likely a RIDE since I can't imagine an EI doing this."

"Remember our lessons. Don't be closing off possibilities until you're sure they're impossible."

"Well, maybe this will help tilt it more towards the RIDE side. There is an impression of a paw here. Feline, but RIDE sized. Looks like a small feline, bigger than a house cat, maybe a lynx or a bobcat."

Nadia moved to the case with the fake gem in it. Pepper stood nearby, in a spot that wouldn't be trampled easily, and showed off the print she had found, highlighting it with hardlight. "Looks purposeful. A signature or a calling card perhaps."

"That's what I'm thinking. There was no reason for the thief to step there, but it did."

Pepper continued her summary. "The museum security was cracked through an unpatched flaw. Same with the case that held the gem. The thief had to be very skilled, but it was possible. It's a bit puzzling though, some of the flaws he or she exploited, they had to have some inside access, to get the timing exactly right."

"Okay. I'll start talking to whoever's here. Go through the lists, figure out who might have access to what was needed. Then look at the records over the past few weeks, find any Gondwanans or RIDEs that visited."

"The exhibit just opened, there were thousands of people through here, from across Zharus," Pepper noted.

"Isolate the felines first then, then all other Gondwanas. They were probably here to case the place." Nadia turned to the curator. "Is there an office we can use to interview your workers? I could use a drink too. I'm going to be doing a lot of talking."

"Certainly, detective. Come this way."

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One Month Later

Nadia virtually paced in the office space, the evidence and interviews on the stolen crystal case laid out around her. In the Real, she and Pepper only had a desk in the bullpen, but virtually she could spread her wings.

"It just doesn't make sense," she said, looking around at the familiar files. "Alibis have been checked and rechecked. everyone was proveably where they said they were, and couldn't have helped the thief."

She looked at Pepper, "I don't know what to do. I've shared this with everyone in the gumshoe department, and no one can make any progress on it. It doesn't make sense."

"If we apply Occam's Razor, it leaves the thief operating alone," Pepper pointed out.

"But that's impossible. He'd be the luckiest damn thief in the world to pull that off. To know the random timings of the sweeps alone. should have been impossible."

"The Captain wants to see us," Pepper said.

"Already? But our weekly briefing isn't till tomorrow."

The EI shrugged and disappeared from the virtual evidence room. Nadia looked around one more time and let it fade. She took her interface glasses off and stretched. "Any idea what the Captain wants?"

"No clue. Let's find out."

They walked into the Captain's office and waited until he turned to them. "Greetings Detective. I assume there's no new breakthroughs on the Muscovite case?"

"You assume correctly, Captain. If it hadn't happened, I'd say it was impossible. I even looked into the possibility of it being taken before, but nothing fits."

"Well, maybe this will give you another break. There was another theft, from the University's physics department. He stole an early model of a Q-battery, one of the earliest still around. It was on loan from Nextus."

"Another one? People aren't going to want to lend to us if this keeps up," Nadia said, receiving the data from the captain. "How similar is it?"

"We haven't found a paw print yet, but the rest is in place. He pulled it out of a secured room deep in the physics building vaults. No one saw anything, sensors glitched in suspiciously appropriate places and signs of hacked systems exploiting unpatched flaws.

"University security are on scene now. You consulted with one of them on the Muscovite case, and he noted the similarities so called us."

Nadia nodded and motioned for Pepper to follow her. "We'll go check it out then. Let them know to expect us."

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Pepper walked through a set of heavy doors, followed by Nadia and the head of the physics department The humans moved slowly, letting the EI do her scans. They were all dressed in isolation suits.

"Impressive facility, Professor. I don't think banks have this much security," Nadia noted.

"Few do. Considering what we keep in here, it's for the safety of the world. Undifferentiated nanite stock, raw qubitite dust, high powered hardlight emitters, and so forth. Most are used for grad student projects and studies, as well as projects by the other researchers here. Not in high quantities granted, but enough to cause a lot of damage in the wrong, or right hands."

"And you kept the battery prototype in there?" Nadia asked.

He nodded. "Partly for convenience for me, and partly for safety. The first few batteries you see were little more than wires stuck into chunks of raw qubitite with some resistors. The technology matured rapidly once they realized what they could do, but the prototypes like this one didn't really consider things like Q-dust containment and such."

They stepped out of the corridor into a clean room, with another vault door beyond it. A couple of Campus police investigators were still in there, inspecting the door. Pepper moved over to join them.

"What was the prototype doing here in the first place?" Nadia asked.

The professor blushed and looked away. "It seems a bit stupid now, but I asked for it. I know some people in Nextus, and I've got a grad student who's researching some theories on the batteries. He's gone back to first principles, so we thought it might be useful to look at some of the early prototypes, look at how it works in the simplest forms before all the modern tweaks get in the way. I thought his proposal was a good one, and made some calls and here it was."

"Could the student have done this?"

"No! Not at all! She's as devastated by this loss as I am. And the police say her alibi checks out."

Nadia shifted her direction slightly. "What about access? Who has access to this vault?"

"Not many. Just me, a few other senior faculty members, a few senior campus police… maybe a dozen people in total? Everyone else has to be accompanied by us at all times while working in the vault area."

"We'll need their names and to arrange interviews as soon as possible. Same for your grad student and anyone else who might have interest in that prototype."

"Sure, I can get that. But some of them might be hard to interview. A couple of the profs are up on Hali doing a research project. They've been there for months already."

"Then they should be easy to eliminate as suspects. But I still want to talk with them."

"Nadia! We found it!" Pepper called out. She and the other investigators were gathered around the wall near the access plate. Under a filtered light, a paw print glowed.

"What is it?" the professor asked, following Nadia over to look.

"Our thief's calling card. It's definitely related to another case we're working on. Have you found anything else out, Pep?"

"Brian may have found something," she said, indicating to one of the investigators.

Under the gaze of everyone in the room, he suddenly grew nervous. "Well, Ma'am, I'm not sure if its anything. It's barely visible with the scanners we have. If the room wasn't so clean in the first place, we'd never have noticed it."

"Noticed what?" Nadia asked, trying to urge him to get to the point.

"Trace particles. Ghosts of the past more or less, stuff that has degraded again and again until it's almost gone." He took a breath and continued. "I'm not sure what it is, but we've found a dusting of particles and Q-dust, indicative of decaying nanites and hoxels."

"Hoxels?"

"Hoxels. It's the fundamental meta-quanta-physical building block of hardlight," Pepper explained.

The investigator nodded. "Without the generator, they dissolve quickly into harmless sub atomic particles, fading into the normal background."

"Did you see any of these traces at the other site?" Nadia asked Pepper.

The EI closed her eyes and looked away a moment. "Possibly. There are a couple of spikes similar to this, but they were discarded as sensor noise."

"Get what you can from this site, especially with those traces. Professor, do you need to stay here?"

"Me? Uhm no, I suppose not. Sergeant Carlson's here; he has access to the vault and can lock things up after."

"Then can you come with me? I'd like to talk to the other key holders, and you can help with that."

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Two months later

"So how was Landing?" Rick asked. He and Nadia were getting ready for a party that evening.

Nadia adjusted the style of her hair, and examined herself in the mirrors. "Mildly useful. It was the Thief no doubt. Found his paw print, and got another read on the traces. But no sign of him. Or her. Or It."

"But you sure it's just one thief?" Rick asked, fiddling with his tie.

"Almost positive. There's no points in common between the three cases, so inside men have been factored out. He's just very lucky, or really good at hacking the systems. It could be a RIDE pair, in fact it probably is, but otherwise they're alone."

"And those traces? Did they get a clear reading?"

Nadia turned around in her emerald dress, admiring herself in the mirrors before turning back to her husband. "Hopefully. It degrades fast, but with what we got from the University, we might have something. The techs are trying to figure out a tracker. How do I look?"

He hugged her and kissed her. "Beautiful as always. I don't hear the buffers any more, I think Pepper and Genis are ready."

"Good. Let's go before we have to get ready again."

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Blue Bloods Bar

Blue Bloods was NuJose's cop bar. Located on the edge of the downtown district, it was decorated in hardwoods, with lots of sitting places and a big bar suitable for someone just off duty to unwind in the comfort of friends.

The place was already rocking as Rick and Nadia arrived with their partners. The place was crowded, with most of the force's Iron Man squad, other off duty police, and other friends of the party's guests of honour. Gary and Sparky were swarmed by well wishers when they arrived. Rick waved to them and lead Nadia and Pepper to the other nexus of activity.

"Nadia, Pepper, I'd like you to meet Amy and Irma from Califia," Rick introduced them.

Nadia smiled at the horned woman, and the hooved RIDE beside her. "Hello, sorry I missed your arrival."

"No problem, I've heard of your case. It sounds like a tricky one," Amy replied.

"More so since he's left Nujose now." Nadia smiled and looked at Amy's RIDE partner. "I'm afraid you've got me stumped, what type of RIDE are you?"

"I am a pronghorn. From the North American continent."

"Interesting. I don't think I've seen one before. You have nice horns."

Irma bobbed her head, "Thank you. We are not well known, though we are pretty common as far as animals go."

"How was Landing City? We haven't had a chance to get out that way ourselves," Amy asked.

"Not much to say. It's flat and got old buildings. And currently it doesn't have a colony ship data core."

"That's what he got? Yikes, rather brazen of him," Amy said.

"It matches his usual MO. Goes for the high cultural value targets. But that's about all we know about him. Or her. Hard to figure out what we can do to stop him. The random elements should stop him, but he's got them nailed down. Do you want to look at the case files?" Pepper asked.

"Sure, if you don't mind. I'm not sure how much use we could be, but any eyes may help. We're still so new here, we're just getting our legs under us."

"We'll share it with you tomorrow. In the mean time, enjoy the party. I see Gary and Sparky are free, let's go give them our farewells."

Gary's face lit up as Nadia and Pepper approached him. He hugged Nadia tightly before stepping back, "Welcome back. Glad you could make it in time."

"We're glad too. 'Course short of a hot lead, we'd have hopped back here for your party regardless. Looking forward to it?"

"Looking forward to the craziness of Gondwana? I'm not sure. Wish we could've gotten to one of the saner areas like Califia or Burnside, but Cape Norde isn't too bad."

Sparky chirped and hugged himself, shivering, making the others laugh.

"There is that. But their winters aren't that bad compared to ours," Gary amended himself. "So what about you two? You ready to take up the mantle of the oldest EI squad on the force?"

"I suppose we'll have to. Luckily we can spread the load around a bit to the rest of the Iron Squad," Nadia said, snagging a bottle of beer from the bar.

"We're common enough now that we can shove the ceremonial stuff down to the newbies. Though that's not without its challenges. Remember when Genis met the University President ..." Pepper said.

"... and he mistook the guy's antique pocket watch as a bomb timer?" Gary finished, joining in their laughter. Gary waved his bottle to the subject who had turned towards them from across the room. "Good thing he can reassemble as well as he can disassemble things."

"Well, Rick's no slouch in that respect either," Nadia grinned back. "We're gonna miss you two."

Sparky nodded, his face showing a sad frown before brightening up. He lifted his hand up in the classic call-me gesture.

"Sparky's right, we won't be gone forever. The exchange is just for a year, and we'll be hopping back in a few months for maintenance with the Doctors. Plus we're just a call away," Gary said.

"They're making you come back here for that? I'd think an RI Mechanic could handle us easily," Pepper said.

"Theoretically, maybe. But those Cape Norde folks don't know a nannie tuner from a qubitite gate. They have no respect for RIDEs out there. Just fix them enough for the mines and ship'em out," Farouk said, inserting into their conversation as he and his wife arrived.

Lucy put a hand on her husband's arm. "Now Farouk, they aren't that bad. We've already given you one or two that should be fine for emergencies. But EI's are different enough from RI's, we just want to keep a closer eye on you. Especially when you're in a new situation like that."

"And we appreciate it. Plus it gives us a ready excuse to come home for visits," Gary said.

"Still, couldn't you have picked anywhere else? Cape Norde? Of all the places on Gondwana, you had to pick that frozen hole?" Farouk grumbled.

"It could've been worse. It could've been Sturmhaven."

"Ugh, don't even joke about that," Lucy grimaced.

"What? You don't think Sparky and I could've pulled it off?" Gary grinned, "But in any case, Cape Norde was top on the exchange list for my skillset. Don't worry, we'll be fine."

Nadia smiled, "I'm sure you'd make a fine Sturmhaven policewoman. But the three year cooldown might be a bit much. Have fun over in Crazyland. We'll see you around, Doctors. Now if you'll excuse me, it looks like my husband is trying to shoot pool. I need to go help him before he pokes someone's eye out."

"Certainly, Nadia. Enjoy the party," Gary replied.

"Oh!" Farouk exclaimed, "Before I forget, we got your data from Landing. I think your idea is promising. We should know by next week if we can actually make a tracker for the thief of yours."

"Great! Thanks Docs. See you."

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Two months later

"Step on it, Pepper. We need to get to the Steader Complex before the signal degrades," Nadia said, leaning forward though it made no difference to the EI's speed.

Pepper, in bike mode, shot through the evening traffic, broadcasting her 'Make Way' signal, and flashing her strobes. "You think this might be Tom's doing?"

"He swiped one of the Terran SSD's that they used to flood us with all that TwenCen stuff. High Cultural value target. It's got his finger prints. We'll know for certain when we get there, assuming the Docs' scanners work."

They reached the complex and flew straight to the middle building. At the entrance, Pepper transformed, shifting and fusing around Nadia. They took the Iron Man flying stance and flew through the doors, slowing just long enough for the scanners to recognize and acknowledge their identities.

A security guard met them outside the open vault. "Good evening, detectives. We've left the scene-"

The fused detectives held up their hand to silence him. Pepper's other hand extended and a storage pod on her shoulder opened up, a complicated scanner device extending down her arm and up around her head. "Sorry, sir, but time is of the essence," Nadia said while Pepper brought the scanner online.

"Got the trace. It's Tom," Pepper said. She turned back the way they'd come, and a glow filled the air, a faint sparkling trail leading in, and a thicker one leaving. "Got his trail. More officers will be by to finish examining the scene, sir. But we need to go now."

The trail lead them through the city, in no particular direction. Tom seemed to be in no rush to get anywhere, but he wasn't trying to shake any tails either as far as they could tell. They managed to cut a few corners occasionally, where Tom had doubled back intentionally or unintentionally, but otherwise they had no clue how close they were to him. Pepper made sure to keep Central updated on their location, and to keep backup on standby but not following them.

:The theft occurred a few hours ago. We've gotta be getting close,: Nadia said as they rushed through a science park on the outskirts of the city. The Trans-Laurasian Highway to Landing was getting close.

:At least he isn't going near the airport. If he got on a sub we'd surely lose him. If he got on a bus to Landing, it'll still be harder to get him.:

:He seems to like Nujose. His cache is probably nearby.:

The trail ran to the edge of the highway and started following it, staying on the edge of the cleared roadspace. Pepper shifted to her bike mode to get more speed, the scanner becoming an antenna covered bulge in front of her windshield.

About fifty klicks outside the city, it jumped out of the roadspace and into the Terran forest. The detectives slowed down and started weaving through the trees to follow the trail, finally finding a cave overlooking a small river that fed into the Guadalupe nearer the city. The traces lead into the cave, which glowed brightly under their scanners.

"Wow, this cave is flooded with Tom's traces," Nadia said, looking at the display Pepper projected on the windshield. "Looks like some of its fresh too."

"I can see that. Calling for backup. We should fuse up for safety."

"Good idea, Pep."

Pepper opened up and started the fuse. Everything went as normal up until she started to close up around Nadia. The normally quick fuse slowed to a crawl. Pepper started a check, and felt her consciousness pull away from her body. She stood next to herself at the cave mouth, a man-sized bobcat facing her. Her checks returned, telling her she was in a virtual, at a temporal compression she rarely used herself, let alone could use with Nadia.

"Tom I presume?" she addressed the bobcat. Looking at him closer, she was a little confused; he looked like a RIDE in some aspects, but his movements were more fluid, and his fur looked real, or as real as a virtual environment could produce.

"It isn't my real name, but it will do. You and your partner have made my job challenging. Not that I'm complaining, it's good to stay on your paws, especially in my field."

"Your field? You're a thief!"

"And you're a cop. About to find all the little baubles I've collected. No matter, they are worthless for me. It's the challenge I'm after, and your little scanner device is proving to be quite the challenge to me."

Without meaning to, Pepper felt herself bringing up the details of the scanner, how it worked and how it locked on and traced Tom's traces. "How are you doing all this?" she asked in frustration.

"Curious. Fantastic work, especially for separated beings like you. How I do this? I'm an Integrate my dear. Human and RIDE permanently fused in harmony. This harmonious union is what lets me do things neither can do separately."

"Integrates? They're just myths."

"Sometimes myths have a nugget of truth in them. Just as most truths have an element of mythicness to them."

"What the hell does that mean?"

He shrugged, "No clue. Just thought it sounded good." He grinned and a virtual scanner appeared, starting as a wireframe floating in mid air between them.. "Still, as an Intie, the world is open to me now in ways you can't begin to imagine. Having this private talk with you while figuring out how you found me is but a trivial aspect of my abilities.

"You see, I've been holding myself back. Had I really wanted those trinkets, I could have gotten in and out with no trace at all. But that's no fun. Instead, I limited myself to the tools of the meat and mech, with a few slight exceptions. It was very invigorating."

"But how? How is that possible?"

"Once again, no clue. Not my field. Maybe you should ask your parents about it. Oh! You didn't know?"

"My parents? They're from Proxima. They aren't Integrates."

Tom laughed, rolling onto his side. "Proxima? Oh wow! You really don't know. I hate to spoil the surprise… No wait, no I don't, especially since you won't remember. But your parents are as native as you and I. Two rather famous Integrates for their specialities."

He looked to one side, and both doctors appeared for a moment. They started shifting, growing tails and ears, taking on animal traits. Her breasts shrunk while her shoulders broadened, gray and brown fur growing over her body. Her tail grew long, gaining white and black stripes. Farouk grew red fur and a long black tail as well, his shoulders narrowing, and his chest growing larger with breasts. Soon enough, a male ring tailed lemur and a female red lemur integrate stood there.

"That's not possible…" Pepper said slowly.

"It's very possible. You have no idea what is possible now." The scanner finished forming, and he plucked it out of the air. "Still, time is a-wasting, even when you're stealing moments between microseconds. I'd say au revoir, but I doubt we will ever meet again. So farewell detectives, it was fun playing with you."

"Wait!" Pepper shouted at the fading cat to no avail. She froze and snapped suddenly back into her body. The fuse completed and she stumbled.

:Pepper? Something wrong?: Nadia asked.

:I… I'm not sure. I think something happened but I'm not sure what. Feels like that took longer than normal.:

:Didn't feel longer to me. You running self checks? Where's the backup?:

:Backup is five minutes out. That's strange… My mental indices are off. Like I'm missing about five subjective minutes that I can't remember.:

:Any other problems? We can fall back, head to EL for a checkup.: Nadia was as concerned as her partner now.

:No other problems I'm good. Let's go inside. I've got a gut feeling it's safe, but Tom's long gone.:

:We'll wait for backup. If your gut's right, then there's no reason to go in. If its wrong, I want backup on hand. And call Control, tell them we're going straight to EL once this situation is contained.:

:OK, Done. and thank you for your concern, Nadia.:

:You're my partner. Gotta watch out for each other.:

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Nadia paced back and forth in the waiting room of EL, while the Skyes examined Pepper. As soon as the site had been secured, and some of the stolen artifacts identified, the pair had hightailed it back to the city to try and account for Pepper's missing minutes. That had been hours ago.

"Any word yet?" Rick asked as he and Genis walked in.

Nadia rushed over and hugged him tight. "Nothing yet. She went in as soon as we got here, and I haven't seen anyone since."

"What happened?" Genis asked, standing to one side as the humans sat down.

"I don't know. We approached the cave, and fused up. Soon as the fuse finished, she stumbled, and discovered she was missing five subjective minutes. I couldn't tell a difference, but she could."

"Excuse me," the secretary's pleasant voice interrupted them. She was actually an EI that watched over the entire complex. "The Doctors have finished their examination of Pepper. They wish to speak with you. All of you if you wish."

"Thank you Anne. She'll be right in," Rick said. He looked at his wife, "Do you want us with you?"

"Please," Nadia replied, holding him tight as they walked into the lab.

Farouk was still connected to a cable to Pepper's head while Lucy was checking results. They both looked concerned.

"Do you know what happened, Doctors?" Nadia asked without waiting. "I mean, I know it's just five subjective minutes. But the more I think of it, the scarier it seems."

"You're right to be scared, or at least concerned. It isn't something to take lightly. EI's and RI's are meant to have continuous thought, with no breaks, except for passive mode, and even that was quite a breakthrough when it happened. For an Intelligence to find an sort of gap in their memories is a concern," Farouk said.

"In Pepper's case, we believe we can blame the thief, Tom I believe you called him? He had… a device, that was able to pull Pepper into a highly compressed data state." Lucy picked her words carefully. "Were it not for other indicators, we would probably have just discounted it as a glitch; a concern but not this concerning."

"What other indicators?" Rick asked.

"Record access time stamps. While he had Pepper in that compressed state, he accessed her records. Not her memories, but the knowledge databanks she's built up so far in her life," Farouk said.

"We've found traces of that access in her logs, and can tell some of what he was after. We can't reconstruct the five minutes but we can tell what he was after." Lucy lit up a screen before continuing, a graph appearing at her commands.

"The bulk of the time was spent pulling out the trace scanner. He wanted to know how you were tracking him. That seems to be the main goal for what he did."

"The other notable section that was visited, was her records on… well, on us."

Farouk nodded, "He didn't spend much time on it, barely any longer than the rest of the random access he made while looking for his goal. But he did spend a statistically significant time on our own records."

"I don't remember any of that," Pepper said. "Are you in danger? Could he be coming after you next?"

Lucy squeezed the EI's shoulder. "It is possible. But unlikely. We don't have anything he seemed to care for. And we aren't without our own defenses."

"Still, we'll increase the police presence here for a bit, just to be sure."

"Increase it?" Farouk laughed. "If there were any more cops here, we'd be a full precinct. But we appreciate the thought, and if it makes you feel better, feel free to have some more people come hang out. We've got a new class of rookies that would love to pick their brains."

He disconnected the cables from Pepper's head and snapped the panels back into place over it. "As for you, young lady. You've got a clean bill of health. Looks like he was just fishing, not infecting."

"Is there anything you can do to keep that from happening again? It's not really encouraging to know someone can take an EI out that easily," Nadia pointed out.

"It was not easy by far. But we'll think on it. There are a few things we might be able to try; maybe call some other experts to consult. I wouldn't be too concerned about it. While the intruder had subjective minutes to operate, in the Real, only microseconds passed, too little time to do much significant against you. Newton rules and all that," Lucy said.

"We'll be in touch if we find anything else," Farouk added. "But don't worry, you're fine."

The cops left the lab and the building without a word. Rick broke the silence as they walked down to the street. "So what do you want to do now? Go meet your adoring fans back at the station for finally cracking the Thief? Or just head home and mull on this."

"We may have cracked the case, but Tom still got away. Partial victory at best. Still, up to you Pepper. What do you feel like doing?" Nadia looked to her partner for an answer.

"Let's head to the station, put this behind us, me especially. Partial or not, a win is still a win. Race you back to Central, Genis." Pepper shifted to her bike mode and took off as soon as Nadia landed on her back.

"Hey! No fair!" Genis shouted, transforming as fast as he could. Rick jumped inside and they took off, hot on Pepper's tail.

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NuJose University, 154 AL

Dean walked across the campus, feeling in a good mood, his black Labrador tail wagging. The Zharusian ecology exam he'd been dreading was behind him, and he had a date with Mary later on to celebrate it. He'd been a bit surprised Rover hadn't been waiting for him outside the exam building, but he figured the RIDE was busy. Rover had left a message that he was going to get them some extra money for the upcoming break.

The native Califian waved to friends in the halls of his dorm room, the spirits of the building on the rise as the pressure of exams faded. Already he could hear music blaring from open doors a few floors above.

"Hey Rover, you lose track of time?" he called out as he opened the door. "The exam-" He gagged and stumbled back from the stench that hit him. It smelled of a mix of burnt electronics, and burned flesh, with a bit of rot mixed in.

His eyes watering, he forced himself to look in again. "Rover? What the hell did you… Rover!"

In the middle of his dorm room was a large blackened mass. Dean recognized Rover's ear and tail, but the rest of the body looked liquified and mixed in with something else. He rushed in, and stopped short of the burnt circle in the laminate flooring. The mass was still, and cold, no signs of life in it.

"Phew! Dean what the hell were you cooking?" his neighbour asked. She looked into the room and saw the stunned Califian and the strange mass. "What happened? Is that?... I'm calling for help."

"Rover…" Dean said numbly.

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Nadia paused briefly in the doorway of the lounge, looking the young man over. He was sitting alone on a couch, hugging something to his chest. He had heavy fuse signs, clawed fingers, black furred ears that were drooping, and a long black furred dog tail that laid limply next to him. She knocked on the door and he looked up, his cheeks damp, eyes red, though he tried to hide his tears. She realized he had a plush dog held in his arms. She gave him a moment to compose himself more before walking in.

"Dean Chestermon? I'm Detective Nadia Vert. I'm sorry for your loss." She introduced herself and sat on the couch next to him, mindful of his tail.

"No you aren't," Dean said, sniffing and looking away. "You're Laurasian. You don't know what it's like to have a RIDE like Rover."

Nadia considered how she wanted to respond, and sent a signal to Pepper. "No I don't know what it's like to have a RIDE. But I do know how it is to have a close friend, a partner like a RIDE."

Pepper peeked into the room and Nadia motioned for her to enter. "This is Pepper, my partner."

He blinked and looked at Pepper, then back at Nadia. "You're an Iron Cop?"

"One of the first. Well one of the early ones. Thanks Pepper." Nadia waited for her partner to step back out before continuing. "Pepper's been my partner for six years now, and I'd be devastated if anything happened to her. How long were you and Rover together?"

"Fuh-Five years. My parents got him for me when I started University. A taste of home in a strange land." He let out a sad laugh and hugged the plush dog tighter. "The University here never knew what to do with him. Wouldn't let him officially take the courses, but they wanted to charge me for an extra seat if he attended with me. I'd never have made it through my courses without him."

She gave him a moment to recompose himself before going on. "Can you go through what happened today? Just tell me what you remember, don't try to decide if it's important or not."

"It was exam day. last one I had, in Zecology. Rover helped me cram last night and this morning, but he wasn't allowed in the exam building. I took the test, rocked it I think, and expected him to be waiting for me, but he wasn't there. I headed home, but I didn't call or anything, didn't think anything was too strange, and then I found him…."

"Did he send you any messages? Tell you what he planned to do while you were taking your exam?" Nadia asked, trying to back away from that moment.

"Just one. He was answering a post on the List. A chance to make some money doing something. I'm not sure what it was, but he said it'd be easy cash."

Nadia made a note to find the post on the local message boards, and stayed with Dean until a counsellor arrived.

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Pepper stood at the edge of the scene while the investigators made their scans. She monitored the data pools as they filled, but paid extra attention to what was said. She'd long ago learned that the comments the investigators made in passing could be as important as what got logged in the official records.

One of the investigators straightened up and stepped out of the isolation field they'd set up around the scene.

"Hey Bob. How's it look in there?" she asked.

"Ugly. Ugliest mess I've ever seen. Glad I skipped lunch."

"Any idea what caused it yet?"

He shook his head, "Not yet. It's a fuse gone bad, we've found human and RIDE remnants. Maybe it's a cross-fuse? The bio remains are a mix of male and female traces, and there seems to be a hell of a lot of nanny activity."

"You're not sure it is?"

"We don't have the expertise. I don't think anyone in the city knows enough about fusing to make a call one way or another."

Pepper paused and thought on that a moment. "I think I know of two people who might know enough. They are cleared as forensic experts too."

"You think they might be able to sort this out? Didn't think there were any RIDE experts this end of the planet."

"Well they aren't exactly RIDE experts, but they did make me after all. Would you like me to call them in? EL isn't that far away."

Bob nodded, "I didn't even think of them. Please, give them a call. If they can sort this out, all the better for the rest of us."

Pepper closed her eyes and opened a private comm channel. Farouk answered quickly.

"Pepper! So nice to see you. How are you doing?" he asked.

"Doing good, dad. No problems."

"Great!... This isn't a personal call, is it?"

"I'm afraid not. Is mom available too?"

"I'm here, Pepper," Lucy said, joining the conversation. "What's going on?"

"There's been an incident at the university. Looks like a bad fuse, with a RIDE and someone else. Our investigators don't have the fuse-expertise to sort it out, so we're hoping you might be able to shed some light."

"A fuse problem? How bad?" Farouk asked.

"A destroyed RIDE and a dead human bad." They both winced at her news. "I can send you what's been found so far. But it is very graphic."

"Please share it with us, we'll gladly help."

Pepper gave them the access to the scene information that had been gathered so far. Almost immediately, Farouk's avatar turned green and he looked away. Lucy's own expression turned grim.

"Looks like a cross fuse alright, probably activated too soon after another cross. But that shouldn't happen. Rover's a new enough RIDE that his fuser should have checks to keep that from happening. He should've booted her out before anything could happen," Lucy said.

"We're suspecting that as well. So it's either one of the most elaborate suicides I've ever heard of, or it's a combination of murder and property destruction," Pepper said. "Any idea on how we might narrow it down further?"

"Well, its hard to say, depends on who the human was. Could you get us cleared for the scene? I'd like to take a look in person."

"Us? Who said anything about us? No way do I want to see that mess in person. I'll do what I can to help Pep, but that's a line I can't go over," Farouk interrupted.

Lucy sighed, "Fine, then can you clear me for the scene?"

"Sure mom. Come over as soon as you can."

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Nadia stepped out of the lounge and closed her eyes to settle herself after the long talk with Dean. While informative, it was obvious Dean didn't have much information to add to the case, other than possibly closing off some avenues. She heard footsteps and opened her eyes to see Doctor Skye approaching.

"Good day, Doctor," she greeted her. "Pepper call you in?"

"She did. She wants to tap my expertise on fusing. Anything new come in yet?"

Nadia checked and found a few nuggets new to her as well. "Looks like we may have found the victim."

She shared the image taken from the drom's entrance cameras. It was an over sexualized woman with red fox fuse traces, a large bust and narrow waist. She was scowling and looked impatient as she waited for the elevator in the dorm building.

"A BBV fuse. Don't see them out this way often. Doesn't look like she's very happy," Lucy noted.

"Her name is Inara Serra. She arrived yesterday, on a train from Florencia. FPD's tracking her movements in the city now, while we're trying to figure out what she did here."

Lucy looked startled, "What was that name again?"

"Inara Serra… You know her?" Nadia watched the doctor carefully.

"No, not her exactly. I'd definitely remember someone like that. But the name is familiar; probably heard it in one of the flood of TwenCen stuff the Steaders pump out here. Which means it is probably an alias."

"I'll look into it. In the mean time, the body is in there."

"Bodies," Lucy corrected her quietly, before stepping into the room. She greeted Pepper and the investigators, and looked at the isolation field. "Any new developments?"

"Not many. We've isolated what seems to be three types of active nanites. Two seem to be standard fuse nannies, and the third is a monster that's already degraded past recognition. We're guessing at it based on the parts it's left behind."

"That's about the only way it could happen, if there was a third party involved." Lucy activated her own isolation field and motioned to the dome. "May I enter?"

Bob activated his own field and motioned for her to lead the way.

Inside, the field was centred on a scorched body. The RIDE's parts were melted in multiple places, only the parts least needed in a fuse remained somewhat intact. The chest had been cut open, revealing blackened bones with little meat remaining on them.

"What could do this?" Bob asked, more to himself than to her.

"A war could, inspector. In this case, a war for her body, that became a war for his body as well." She took out some devices and started scanning and sampling the bodies.

"War? What do you mean?"

"She was a recent crossride, a few weeks, maybe a month or two at most. Her body was still flooded with the cross-nanites to help it stabilize at its new normal. When Rover fused with her, assumably to cross her back to a male, his nanites started a war over her form. Normally they would just reject, but that third monster you found signs of, must have forced them to stay actively fused. How I don't know… It should be impossible."

"But the heat. How could that much heat be generated?"

"Very easy. RIDEs will usually run hot after a first fuse, but they can usually contain and dump it as needed. But the two sets of fuse nanites were changing and rechanging the body inside Rover. It would have gotten hotter and hotter, until it overwhelmed the heat sinks and Boom! I wouldn't be surprised if the monster had a hand in that too, maybe blocking the sinks so it would burn hotter."

Lucy crouched closer and examined Rover's finger tips closer. "Curious. Looks like some signs of integration as well, but they were stopped too."

"What was that, Doctor?"

She stood up quickly and closed her scanners. "Nothing, just musing to myself. Looks like towards the end, the fusers got confused about what was human and what was RIDE, mixing them together, not that it did any good. I'll need some time to review these samples and see what might be there."

"Of course, Doctor Skye. Is there anything else we could do for you?"

"I'd ask for the body, but Farouk would boot me out of the lab for a month." She chuckled and stepped out of the field. "That would be all for me. You might want to call in some experts from Gondwana to help with the autopsy. I can give you some names with the Marshals, or from Nextus, Aloha or Uplift."

Bob looked at the bodies and stepped out as well. "I think we'll appreciate it. Swanny's not going to like dealing with that case."

"No one is going to like dealing with it. Pepper, can I speak with you for a moment?"

"Sure Doctor."

The pair left the room and moved to a side room that had been cleared for the investigation. "What's up, mom?" Pepper asked.

"I'm not sure. This case is bad. It's a murder. Two murders really, counting Rover. I don't like the feel of it."

"I know, I can tell too. But we need to investigate it. We can't let a murderer go free."

"Of course you can't. But this killer is bad. I've never heard of anyone able to do that." Lucy motioned to the next room. "Just be careful and don't take any risks. He seems able to mess with fusing, which makes him dangerous to you and Nadia."

"Dangerous to me?" Nadia asked, walking into the room.

"Mom's just being a concerned parent," Pepper said. "Anything new?"

"A little. We found Inarra's post. She showed up on campus a couple of days ago, and posted a request looking for a male RIDE to cross her back. Rover was the only one who bit."

"And she bit him back," Pepper said, wincing sadly. "Anything else?"

"Not much. Florencia PD tracked her movements in that city. She was hanging out around their university, and made a similar post, but no one bit. Before that she took a bus from Landing, and did the same. Before Landing, she's disappeared. No trace of her at all."

"Strange. That implies that Rover wasn't the target; just an innocent bystander," Lucy noted.

"Exactly. Inarra may be a victim as well, but it's hard to tell until we can find who she was."

"Then what was the point of doing this?" Pepper asked, getting frustrated. "If they are both victims, why go through all this?"

"Good question. Answer that and we can probably blow this open. In the mean time, we should spread the word, warn RIDEs not to cross ride unless they know the person well. Maybe warn them against spur of the moment fuses too. Not that there's a problem with either," Nadia sighed and shook her head. "Can we get you anything else, Doctor?"

"No, I've got all I need. Thanks. I'll be in touch with what we find. Be careful out there."

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A few months later…

:Nadia,: Pepper sent. :The captain wants to see us.:

:We'll be right there,: Nadia finished her coffee and climbed onto Pepper's seat. They pulled into the morning traffic and were soon at their precinct. They were waved right into the Captain's office.

"Morning Nadia, Pepper. How are you doing?" he asked, motioning to the seat in front of his desk.

Pepper staid standing, but Nadia sat down. "We're fine Captain. What's up?"

The captain paused, as if uncertain how he wanted to say what he wanted to say. Finally he shook his head and began. "I take it, you haven't heard the news?"

"What news?" Nadia asked, looking at Pepper. Pepper scanned the news headlines but found nothing that might interest them. She shrugged back to her partner.

He opened a file and a scene appeared over his desk. It was eerily similar to one they had seen before, though the RIDE involved seemed to be a horse of some kind. It was hard to tell from the melting and scorching.

"Sturmhaven fire responded to a burning house call midafternoon local time. Inside, they found this. Police were called and are still processing the scene."

"That looks like the Rover case," Pepper said.

"Exactly like it. But I have bad news for you. You can't follow up on it."

"What?!?" Pepper and Nadia shouted in unison.

The captain shrugged, "I'm sorry ladies, but it is out of my hand. The Marshals have already linked the two cases, and they're taking it over."

"But it's OUR case!" Nadia exclaimed, trying to come up with a better reason.

"It was your case. Now it's the Marshals’. I know you take these personally, but they do have more expertise in fuse-related issues. You can stay on as a watcher, an advisor. But that is it. No trips to Sturmhaven, or anywhere else."

He tented his fingers and leaned forward, "And don't even think of the sudden vacation ploy. I will not approve it, and if you try to sneak off anyway, you'll be doing campus duty during Frosh week. Am I clear, detectives?"

Nadia fumed in silence for a moment before nodding and standing up, "Perfectly clear, Captain."

"Good. The Marshals have agreed you can review their findings and offer advice, but that is it. If I hear you are interfering, I will remove that access. In the mean time, I'm sure you have other cases you can handle, do you not?"

"Yes, sir. We do."

His expression softened, "Good. Don't take it the wrong way, Detective. It happens to all of us eventually, and it isn't a knock against your skills. The important thing is to get the case solved, and the Marshals are in the better position to insure that."

Nadia nodded again, "I understand. Is there anything else?"

"No, you're dismissed."

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"I can't believe he'd do that. Take our case right out of our hands." Nadia paced the waiting lounge of EvoLimited, her husband relaxing on a couch near her.

"Well it was going cold on you, and the new incident is way outside our jurisdiction," Rick pointed out.

"It doesn't matter! That new incident lit it right up. We should be on our way out there to help the investigation. Not here doing the annual check up. Pepper's fine, she could have put it off for a few more weeks."

A new voice cut into her rant, "I hope I'm not interrupting anything. Looks like you've built up quite the head of steam."

Both turned to the door, and saw a well tanned man, standing next to an older black and white coloured EIDE with a simple hardlight face. Both were smiling at them.

"Gary!" Nadia exclaimed, hugging him before pulling back. She blushed and held out her hand to him. "What are you doing here? When'd you guys get in?"

Gary shook her hand, then shook Rick's, giving him a back slap as well. "Just last night. We're here to talk to the Captain and figured it was past time for Sparky to get a checkup with his parents."

Nadia picked up the difference and smirked, "His? Who are you and what did you do with it's-just-a-robot Gary?"

Sparky chirp-laughed, and Gary grinned as well. "When you're surrounded by RIDEs all the time, it's a bit hard to see them as just robots, so my views of Sparky changed too."

"Glad someone managed to finally knock some sense into that thick skull of yours. Welcome back you two," Farouk walked in and greeted the pair, followed by Lucy. "What's this I heard of you guys voiding Sparky's warranty? Letting unauthorized mechanics work on him?"

Sparky uhohed and mock hid behind Gary. "We did have some folk down in Aloha check him out, boost up his internal shielding and stuff so he'd be Dry-certified, but they knew what they were up to."

Lucy smiled, "Yes, I'm familiar with Mrs Munn's work, though I haven't had the opportunity to examine it in person. Come to think of it, I believe we met her father and cousin a lifetime ago. Still, big boy, you're going right into the lab for a checkup."

Sparky stood up and slouched, lowering his head. He fell into step behind Lucy. She rolled her eyes and started walking back, "Oh stop that hangdog look. It won't be that bad." She glanced back at the humans, "Genis and Pepper should be done soon."

"Thanks Doc, no rush. I suspect we'll be catching up with Gary here," Rick called back.

"So how's Aloha been treating you? No problems by the looks of it," Farouk asked. "Been ages since I was down that way myself, beautiful place but man the crowds."

"The crowds can be daunting, but we're fitting in well now."

"And Montserrat? Hows that place doing now?"

"It's doing… wait what?" Gary looked surprised at the Doctor.

"What's Montserrat?" Nadia asked, looking puzzled.

Farouk winked at Gary out of sight of the other two, and turned back to them. "Could you please excuse us for a few minutes? I need to talk privately with Gary for a moment. Please, come to my office. We have some things to clear up."

Gary looked suspiciously at the Doctor, then followed him out of the lounge.

Rick looked at his wife, "What was that about?"

Nadia was distracted, her interface glasses on, her frustration redirected to a new mystery. "Not sure. There's no place called Montserrat on Zharus that I can find. Not even an Alohan resort. Just an old island on Earth, destroyed by volcano centuries ago."

He looked at her, then shrugged, "Well, let me know if you figure it out."

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Gary waited for the office door to click behind him before confronting Farouk, "How do you know about Montserrat?"

"The usual way we hear about anything. Friends of friends who have friends who helped with the rebuilding," Farouk said.

"So you know about Integrates." Gary slapped his forehead, "Of course! With your field, you must know of them."

Farouk laughed, "Know of them? We are Integrates. Well Lucy and I and a half dozen or so other employees here. Not as common as on Gondwana, but we help where we can."

Gary studied Farouk closer, "But you don't look like an Integrate…."

"We're shapeshifters," Farouk said. "It's, well, it takes a lot of practice. More like a regular human learning a musical instrument of training for a marathon. There's...well, I won't into it right now. But it's been a lot of work. Argon, Lucy today that is, regularly become each other to keep our skills up."

As he spoke, Farouk's shape began to shift, a tail growing out, ears rounding out. Brownish grey fur sprouted over his body, black around his eyes. The tail grew rings of white and black fur, curling around his body slowly as it lengthened.

Gary nodded and looked puzzled, "Don't tell me… I've gotten good at this… Lemur right? Ring tailed gives it away."

"Got it in one."

"Damn! We never suspected. All that work we did to figure out Inties in Aloha, and we never even thought there might be some back here."

"Well the ones in Aloha aren't shifters like we are. They can't hide as easily-" Farouk was interrupted by a loud siren coming from the labs. Building alarms soon followed it. "What the?"

"Sparky's Watchdog. Lucy must have poked something the wrong way." Gary was already running back out the door to the lab.

They ran from the office, nearly running into the cops. The quartet raced into the lab and tried to make sense of the sight. Sparky was crouched in an attack position, arm raised and pointed at Lucy. Genis and Pepper were frozen, half lifted from their examination seats. Lucy herself looked panicked, backed up against a table, a cable dangling from a device on her wrist.

"I'm sorry Sparky! Please stand down!" she called out.

"Sparky, it's fine. It's not a trick," Gary called out to his partner.

Sparky looked to Gary, then at his companions. He silenced his alarm and tilted his head, giving a puzzled beep. A moment later he lowered his hand and stood up.

"What's going on here? And who the hell are you?" Nadia asked. "What's wrong with Pepper and Genis?"

"Who is who-oh." Farouk looked down at himself and realized he hadn't resumed his human form. "Oh boy... Time for that talk."

"What talk?" Rick asked.

Lucy shook her head and cautiously approached Sparky, "The Intie talk. Sorry, Sparky, I forgot about the improvements you had made in Aloha. I think I'm gonna have to break some of my bad habits soon."

Sparky still seemed wary and glanced at Gary for clarification. "It's true buddy. They're the Doctors, but they aren't exactly from Proxima. Seems obvious in hindsight doesn't it," Gary said. "Why don't you unlock Genis and Pepper so you can tell the story once."

Sparky chirped and nodded, relaxing a little. Lucy smiled at Gary and waved her hand, the other two EI's finishing their interrupted movements. "We probably should have told you earlier, but habits are hard to break."

"Told us what? Where'd the last few minutes go?" Pepper asked.

Gary grinned, "Told you about the birds and the Inties. Its your mess, you clean it up. I'm gonna go call Ryan and Wanda, see if they can send up some Watchdogs. I suspect you'll be busy installing them soon."

Farouk sighed and nodded, "Yeah I suppose so. Shall we go somewhere more comfortable?"

"Gary?" Nadia asked, looking at the other officer.

He nodded, "It's fine, go with them. They'll set you straight. It's a tough story to swallow, and you'll be pissed at being kept in the dark about it, but they had their reasons. It's less of a big deal out here than it is back on Gondwana, but some of the things I've heard..."

"It is still a deal, at least back when we set up shop here after Olympus fell. You kept your head down and didn't make waves, which is what we've done ever since," Lucy added. She looked like she was dreading what she had to do. "The thief that got away a few years ago was an Intie. But that's the only Intie case we know of in the area. Most of us just want to live normal lives after all so they wouldn't come to your attention."

Rick took Nadia's arm and motioned to their EI's. "Come on guys, let's hear what they have to say before we do anything else."

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Nadia fumed, struggling to figure out what she felt about the revelation. The Doctors who had made her partner and one of her best friends, weren't who or even what they had said they were. Still, she had to look at the bigger picture that was revealed to them and the implications of it.

"So you don't need this equipment to look at our systems? At our EI's?" Nadia asked, forcing herself to be civil.

"We need some of it, most of it even; but a lot of the interfaces are just for show," Lucy said. She and Farouk had relaxed to their Intie forms, though they both admitted they'd been in hiding for so long it didn't seem right. Lucy said she was originally Argon, a red-ruffed lemur integrate. Farouk, now a ring tailed lemur integrate, said his original name was Luke.

"For me, I need a wired connection, but I hide it with pass through cable usually," Lucy explained.

"Right. What about activity here? You said the thief was an Intie, how do you know?" Pepper asked.

Lucy shrugged, "A guess mainly. But the signs match. He tried to avoid using Intie skills as much as possible, but the overall way he did those heists have the right finger prints. And then the freeze and wipe he put on Pepper. We really should have told you then."

"Any other cases?" Nadia asked. "What about that cross fuse case we just got bumped off of?"

"That isn't an Intie. Well it might be an Intie, but it could be a RIDE or a human just as easily. Nothing indicates one way or another," Lucy explained.

"But," Farouk added, "Whoever was responsible knew about integration. Whatever they did, they stopped the integration process too. It would've been a last ditch hail mary the RIDE system would have tried to do to save anyone it could, and even that was stopped."

"Great. That might've been useful to know, while we were still on the case," Nadia griped.

Rick put his hand on her arm. "Look, we know now. We'll come to terms with it later. In the mean time, they still have to service Pepper and Genis; that we can't avoid."

"You're right. What about that Watchdog thing Gary mentioned?" Nadia asked.

"As soon as we get it from Gary's friends, we'll add it in. We'll start spreading it among the rest of the EI's as fast as we can," Lucy said. "Inties are becoming too widespread to leave you unprotected much longer."

"BUT we won’t be telling them about Inties," Farouk added. "Not yet at least. It's too dangerous. The only reason we've been able to be here like this is because we aren't spreading the word. There are factions out there that are trying to keep the masquerade active by any means necessary. It's dangerous enough you four knowing now, but it's unavoidable."

"Could we be Integrated?" Pepper asked warily.

"It should be impossible. EI cores are too different from RI cores, there isn't enough overlap with human brains to allow integration. At least that's our theory," Farouk said.

"Fine. Get that Watchdog installed. If you excuse me, I need to go review my cases, make sure there wasn't something I missed in light of new information." Nadia stood up and started to the door.

The Inties stood as well and seemed to want to say something else. Rick shook his head and waited for his wife to leave.

Farouk sighed, "For what it's worth, I doubt she'll find much different. We've kept our eye on intie activity in the city, and there isn't much going on, other than outliers like the Thief. Most of the Inties work for us as is."

"That may be, but I doubt Nadia will trust you in that respect. I'm not sure I trust you. We're going to head back to the station. Pep, Genis, come back home once you're done."

"Sure Rick," Genis replied.

"Dont worry, we'll take care of them." Lucy tried to reassure him.

Rick turned to face Lucy, the anger he was controlling briefly showing. "Taking care of them would have meant giving them the protection they need to keep your kind from hacking them at will. Taking care of them would have meant not lying to all of us all these years."

The Integrates stayed quiet, letting Rick leave. Lucy sighed and stood up, looking to the EI's. "I'm sorry guys. We'll make it up to you somehow. But for now, Sparky just got the plans for Watchdog. We can have you out of here soon."

Pepper started to the lab. "The sooner the better. Let's get this done, Doctors."

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It took most of a week for Nadia to come to terms with the Integrates' revelation. Much of the time, she spent reading and viewing, finding everything she could about them, mainly using Gary's and Sparky's sources.

"All this is just so incredible. How could they have gotten away with all that for all those years?" she asked Rick over dinner a few nights after the revelation.

"Luck, of all sorts from the looks of it. Bad luck in getting such a loose cannon psychopath as the first Intie, compounded with layer after layer of paranoia that let him, and the groups that formed around him, operate with impunity. It's no wonder Luke and Argon came over here; the entire continent's insane over there."

"It certainly seems that way. But from what Gary was saying, it's changing. There are too many Inties now to be scared like they used to be. More and more are integrating back, and the purges aren't as common now. Surely the Doc's realized that and could tell us?"

"Why would they? I mean sure we're partners with Genis and Pepper; but we're just two out of hundreds here. They've kept it secret for so long they didn't even consider it I guess, at least not until they knew Gary knew."

"Argh! Stop being so damn reasonable!" Nadia glared at her husband, then laughed, "I'm trying to keep my hate on for what they did but you're making it impossible."

He grinned back, "Well, I hated it when I found out too, but after everything we've read, it does make sense. Even if its safer for them now, staying low key's just habit now. And we know how hard habits can be to break, Mrs Mocha Latte at Jim's every first Friday morning of the month."

She sighed and nodded. "I guess so. I'll try to be civil with them at least, for Pepper's case."

"How is she taking it? Genis has mostly come to terms with it."

Nadia looked at her partner, in passive mode in her charging seat. "Awkwardly. She's trying to figure out how she should feel about it, and I haven't exactly been helping. Still, if I can accept it, I'm sure she will soon. I suspect the Thief may have revealed them to her already, and it was blocked out."

"Makes sense. Speaking of the Thief, did you finish your review?"

"Yeah, everything checks out. He's been the only Intie case I've had. Everything else has been humans and RIDEs and that EI case a few months back. Jury's still out on Rover's case though."

They fell silent for most of the rest of the meal. Rick could tell there was something else on his wife's mind, but he waited to let her bring it up. He started gathering the dirty dishes before she finally broached the subject.

"There's something else, another reason why Pepper's getting so confused. She picks up on my moods so much, I didn't even think of what this would do to her."

"Which This?" Rick asked, setting the plates on the counter.

"This change in me that's making my own moods swingy." Nadia stood up and smiled, hugging her husband. "I was going to tell you sooner, but all this Integrates stuff made it slip my mind. Hell, I was planning to tell you and talk to the Docs about how it might affect Pepper, but Gary came in and threw those plans away."

"Tell me what?... Why would it affect Pepper?" Rick asked, beginning to suspect but wanting her to outright say it.

She took his hand and held it to her belly, "We're pregnant Rick."

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