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FreeRIDErs story universe
Works by Jetfire on Shifti


Author: Jetfire

129 AL : Aloha

The Glorious Thunder, part of the third colony fleet, was notable because it didn't arrive with the rest of the fleet. Due to a malfunction in its engines, it ended up arriving with its million corpsicles seven years after the rest of the third fleet, two years after the fourth fleet. It had been presumed destroyed and stood as the worst colonization disaster until it finally showed up,

Tracy Munn laid on a bench against the railing on the patio of his house, trying to focus on the report he was writing for history class. It was the last essay before the term's final exams, and he had to do well on it to keep his marks up. Of course the argument between his sister and his cousin wasn't helping his writing focus.

"The building is perfectly fine. Sure it doesn't look as nice as Costa del Sol, but it's in perfectly good shape. Considering the housing crunch we're in, why should we tear it down?" Peter argued.

"Because a deal's a deal. They had a 10 year lease on that spot, that was already extended twice. But enough's enough. The Atlantis consortium's going to walk unless they get the land now. The jobs it creates and money it brings in afterwards will more than make up for a few hundred displaced people. Hell, we both know those condos should never have been built there in the first place," Wanda countered.

Tracy growled under his breath and collapsed his research and writing displays. Experience told him that asking them to shut up would only get him dragged in on one side or another. And while the Aerie was a great house, its open concept made comfortable quiet spots almost impossible to find. He glared back at the house, and flicked a note onto the house's mesh. Gone swimming.

The Aerie was Nick Munn's family house. Located on top of the southern cliffs that formed the straits leading to the Bay of Tranquility, it offered an extraordinary view of the growing city, the bay and the straits. The other half of the founding family lived down on the bay, on the Queen of Thorns, the ship that the brothers had based their explorations off of.

Tracy stood up and made his way to the far end of the balcony, and looked down at the deep blue waters hundreds of metres below. He stripped off his outer shorts and shirt and tucked them in a box under the rail his father had built for him years ago. From the same box, he pulled out a set of wrist and ankle bracelets and slipped them on, feeling them activate and link up to his own systems. He wrapped an AG belt around the waist of his swimming shorts and activated it, feeling it lift him slightly and then pull him down to the ground as it quickly calibrated itself. Finally, he pulled out a rebreather sheet and pressed it to his lips and nose. The sheet melted and the nannies sealed his nostrils and lips. He took a deep breath and wiggled his nose and mouth to make sure the seal was tight and the air flow was steady.

Prepared, he glanced back at the house, still hearing the argument going on. He backed away from the railing and started running. With a form born of practice he leaped over the railing. One foot briefly landed on the railing and gave him an extra push into the air. He spread his arms and the hardlight emitters lit up, Golden light spread over his outstretched arms and flowed back, forming wings. He held his legs together, those emitters glowing and forming a tail.

Tracy's fall turned into a glide, leading him across the straits. He shouted greetings to other cliff divers, joining in at the laughing as a newbie lost control of her hardlight wings and fell, only to be caught by her AG belt. Finally he reached the spot he wanted and brought his wings forward. He twisted so he was diving, his hardlight wings reforming into a spear.

Water exploded around him, the spear melting away as his momentum carried him deep into the strait waters. The lenses on his eyes flickered, adjusting to the light and pressure changes. He spotted a native Kraken pulled its feeder tentacles back into its cave in surprise at his sudden appearance.

At the bottom of his dive, the hardlight lit up again, reshaping into flippers for his feet. He kicked along the bottom, the AG active enough to counter his body's buoyancy. Around him, he began to hear the sounds of the sea; the growl of the latest cargo lifter and the higher pitched whines of the water skimmers from the resort. Under the man made noises, he picked up some of the wildlife sounds, the clicking of crabs, the rustling of the krakens, and the chirping of the Tethyan sea crickets. And providing the background for all of it, there was the unending, peaceful rumble of the ocean hitting near and distant shores.

He reached a shallow cave, barely a few metres deep, but clear of wildlife. He sighed in relief at the familiar peacefulness, the rebreather releasing the air slowly enough to keep it from creating distracting bubbles. After a moment of meditation, he triggered his implant, reopening his notes in virtual space in front of him and continued his research.

He reread the start of his page on the Glorious Thunder, and tried to continue. "presumed destroyed, and stood as the worst colonization disaster until it returned."

The period it arrived turned out to be an important period in Zharus history. Previously, when a new ship arrived, the planetary council would try to distribute the corpsicles evenly among the settled cities. When the Thunder limped into the system, its systems were held together with spit and duct tape. The corpsicle freezers were on their last legs, meaning that they had to be woken as soon as possible, if not sooner. As it was, a thousand people were already awake, woken over the final two years, because they couldn't keep the freezers active, further straining the ship's already limited life support systems.

With a million corpsicles on the verge of waking up whether they were ready or not, and most of the cities still helping the Wave four colonists adapt, the Council was in a bind. They decided to speed up construction of Florencia, and placed most of the ship in there. The city was a huge success, and made the council reconsider their previous guidelines.

Tracy skimmed through the historical records, expanding on the history of Florencia, as well as the sources of problems with the Glorious Thunder. He was just pondering his conclusion, when a familiar rhythmic pulsing brought him back to the real world. He cleared his workspace so he could see the cave again. Glowing red eyes in a white head were looking in at him.

"Hey there, you doing OK in there?" the head asked. He could just make out the humanoid shape of the mech the head was attached to. The words were actually a tight beamed message.

"Hi Dad. I'm fine. Peter and Wanda were getting into it again, and I just needed a break from it to get this report done."

"Think you can finish it back home? I'll send those two down to the Queen if they haven't stopped yet."

"Sure, I could do that. I've just about got the first draft done now. Why? What time is it?" The clock expanded and his eyes widened. "OH! I'm sorry. I didn't realize. Mom's gonna kill me."

The mech chuckled a little, and the water began to churn. The head folded back as a cockpit lifted from the chest. The arms and legs bent inward and wings twisted out from the back as it shifted to flyer mode. "You're not quite dead yet. She sent me down to make sure you got back up in time though."

Tracy stretched, feeling the stiffness from being motionless for so long. He swam out of the cave and into the open cockpit. Hardlight glass slid back into place, sealing it in, and the water quickly drained away. "Thanks Dad," he said, deactivating and wiping off the rebreather mask.

Nick's VR head appeared on a corner of a hardlight display. Somewhere back in the chest, he was safely encased in a gel-nanite cocoon, similar but different from RIDEs. "Going up!"

The nose of the jet lifted upwards and it quickly burst out of the water. In seconds, it landed on the Aerie's balcony. The cockpit top slide back again, letting Tracy out. Underneath, hard light and metal panels slide aside, letting an older man drop out with a smoothness born of long practice.

"Thanks Dad!" Tracy yelled, grabbing his clothes from the box and running to his bathroom to get changed.

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Tracy groaned and rolled over in bed, holding the pillows over his ears. He'd been up late, partying on the north cliffs with his diving friends, celebrating the end of the school term. Other than for some off-term projects, those that were still in school were free for the month, which meant it was party time. He couldn't quite remember how he made it across the straits to the Aerie, though he vaguely recalled someone saying he owed them.

"Tracy!" his mom shouted again. The room brightened up as the windows de-tinted, letting in the morning sun. "It's time to wake up. We've gotta be at the Grandstand in an hour for the parade.

He rolled over finally and blinked, looking around the room. He spotted his mom at his room's door and tried to bring his eyes into focus.

Hannah Munn was a Qubitite scientist from Nextus originally. She was dressed in finest day dress, considerably overdressed for Aloha, even on Naming Day, but it was her preferred style. Her pale skin glittered in the house lights.

"I'm up, I'm up," Tracy groaned, half falling to the floor as he got out of the bed.

Hannah tossed a can onto his bed. "Drink this. They'll help clean you out," she said, smiling sympathetically before letting the door close.

He fumbled for the can of SoberUp!, and popped it open. He gulped down the liquid and felt the detox nannies set to work, scrubbing his insides. The fuzziness in his head cleared away, and a very pressing need replaced it. He ran for the bathroom to take care of the need, and the rest of his morning wakeup routine.

Half an hour later, the family was climbing into their flitter. Tracy tugged at the collar of his polo shirt, and the legs of his pants. Hannah insisted the family dress up for the Naming Day parade, even if the rest of the city treated it as a party day. Nick, looking as uncomfortable in a suit and tie as his children felt, took the flitter controls.

"Jason and his crew are already at the Grandstand," he reported as he powered up the machine. "They're waiting for us in the parking lot."

Traffic over the small city was busy; Naming Day was the biggest holiday for the city, even bigger than Landing Day. Landing Day was for the entire planet, but Naming Day was just for the Alohans. The Munn's credentials were enough to clear a VIP path through the traffic, to a landing spot near the grandstand.

Jason and his family waved as the flitter landed. Tracy noted jealously that while they were dressed nicely, they were dressed appropriately, in hawaiian shirts and bermuda shorts. Mike, the oldest, was helping his mom, keep the twins under control.

"Hey Uncle Nick, Aunt Hannah. Wanda," the middle son, Peter, greeted them as they climbed out. He tried to hand Tracy an empty drink cup. "Here you go, Jeeves. Be a good chap and drop this in the bin for me."

Tracy crossed his arms and refused to take the cup. "Ha. Ha. Very funny, Peter."

Peter's eyes widened in mock surprise. "Trace! Is that you? I didn't think you had a pair of pants in your closet!"

Tracy rolled his eyes and stepped past his cousin. Jason clasped a hand around his shoulders and grinned at him. "I don't think I've ever seen anyone take to pants as badly as you. You really are an Alohan aren't you? Ready for tomorrow? Sixteen's a big day, full of surprises."

"I know, I know. I can't wait for it. So what am I getting?"

Jason's eyes twinkled in amusement. "Can't say. Spoilers." he said with a smirk. "Ashley! If you're done with your ice pop, put the stick in the bin. Not on the ground... and not in your pocket!" He rushed to take care of the female half of the terrible twosome.

Tracy sighed and shook his head, falling into step with his sister and cousins. He was getting something big for his Birthday, but his parents, aunt and uncle had been mummer than usual about it. The older cousins and Wanda had found out about it about a week ago, and gone just as silent. He couldn't even find anything on the mesh about it; everyone kept the encryptions up to date, and in the past couple days, the IDE garage had gone completely off limits to him, both physically and virtually.

They found their reserved section of the Grandstand and started settling in. Peter and Tracy took charge of the twins, while their parents mingled. Marching band music echoed in the distance, but there was still plenty of time before it wound its way to the Boardwalk.

"So what do you want to see?" he asked Aaron, holding the twin up at the railing so he could lean out and look where the parade would come from.

"The circus! I want to see the animal people!"

"So do I, kiddo. So do I."

The Nextus-Sturmhaven Peace Circus was started soon after the war ended. Made up mainly of ex-military folks and their RIDEs, it was a way to show that the two sides were serious about the peace they had settled on. It did a regular circuit around the cities and towns around Gondwana, with occasional visits to Laurasia including a Landing Day show in Landing City.

"I See them! I See them! Aaron shouted, leaning further over the railing. Tracy made sure he had a firm grip on the back of his cousin's shorts, and looked as well. The marching band was just coming around the corner.

A series of floats, sponsored mainly by businesses and clubs in the city rolled by, interspersed with more bands and skimmer trick riders. The parade's founders had decided to borrow a page from the old Rose Bowl parade on Terra and dictated that all visible surfaces on the floats had to be covered in plant life of some sort. This gave the floats a traditionally primitive look, compared to the flashy floats of Landing Day and the Neo Disney theme park.

The crowd roared, and the circus came into view. A dozen men and women with tails and animal ears and noses, dressed as clowns and tumblers walked, ran, rolled, and handwalked down the boardwalk. Mixed among them, were skimmers with animal features, or large animals, mainly wolves and big cats. Occasionally they would pause, and many of the skimmers and animals would direct spotlights on a particular pair of man and machines. The human would leap at the machine, who would rear back, panels opening up to accept them. The panels would close around the man and seem to melt a bit, leaving a humanoid animal to wave and urge the crowd on.

More people, dressed as clowns but with none of the animal features of the main acts, ran along the edge of the crowds, tossing out candies and plastic coins, useable at the circus fair grounds for various discounts on food and rides.

The Ringmaster brought up the rear of the parade, with the parade's Grand Master riding with him. They stood on a deck built on the back of a large, gray coloured military skimmer, that still had a pulse cannon on its front. The Ringmaster was a lion RIDEr, fused with his ride and towering over the Grand Master.

The skimmer stopped in front of the grandstand and the ringmaster defused, leaving a man with a wild head of golden hair and a thick beard, along with two cat ears and a tufted tail. He grinned and motioned the Grand Master to the large lion that had formed next to him, hardlight fur rustling in the sea breeze. The parade's noise was too loud to hear him say anything, but the Grand Master shook his head again and again.

The lion suddenly leaped at the Grand Master, knocking him onto the decking. He pinned the man with one paw, opened his mouth and lowered it over the man's head. The crowd gasped in shock at the sight.

After holding the position for a long moment, the lion lifted his mouth away from the Grand Marshal and stepped away. The marshal stood up unsteadily, wearing an obviously fake lion mask. He waved uneasily to the crowd, which erupted in laughter and cheers.

Peter laughed and leaned close to Tracy to be heard. "I don't think Piers expected that to happen when he was elected Marshal."

"Why not? It happens every year."

"Yeah, but he clearly expected to be the exception this year. Serves him right," Peter laughed and looked back out.

The gray skimmer's cannon had lifted into the air, taking aim over the grandstand. It fired with a puff of smoke, launching a brightly coloured package high over their heads. It burst open, releasing shiny confetti, paper streamers and foam coupon coins.

Ashley's screams of delight brought the family's attention back to ground level. They saw a large, gray skinned man with huge ears and a metre long trunk for a nose in front of her. He had plucked one of the falling streamers from the air, and was gently looping it over her shoulders while she laughed and clapped. Not wanting to be left out, Aaron ran to his sister, and received a pat on the head from the trunk. The elephant-man then turned to the rest of the family, and used his trunk to lift his top hat from his bare head. He bowed to them, before waving with a hand and continuing on further down the grand stands.

"He touched me!" Aaron squealed happily.

"He touched me more!" Ashley countered and stuck her tongue out.

Peter shook his head and grabbed his siblings by their hands. "Come on you two; parade's over. Let's go get some lunch, then we'll go to the circus grounds."

"Yeah! Circus! Circus!" The twins jumped and started straining in Peter's grip.

Tracy looked around and saw the rest of the family were already heading for the exit. He hopped over the barrier instead, earning the evil eye from the Polis watching that section of the route.

"Where are you going?" Peter called out.

He pointed to Costa del Sol, down the boardwalk. "I need to find a fabber and get some real clothes. Meet you at the restaurant!" he shouted, already running to the resort.

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The midway was attached to the circus, and changed rides depending on the theme of the year. This year, they were doing late 20th Earth Amusement parks, with 'guaranteed authentic' rides. Tracy somehow doubted that claim though, since he wasn't sure 20th century tech could do rickety wooden roller coasters with high-G loops.

He was back in his usual swimming trunks and tank top, with the evil pants and button shirt safely in the recycler back at the resort. His mother had given him looks that could have melted a colony shuttle heat shield, but the comfort was worth it.

Once on the circus grounds, the family scattered. Michael and Wanda were on twin duty, while Peter and Tracy did their rounds of the rides.

"Ugh, I shouldn't have had that hot dog," Peter groaned, holding onto a bench for support. They had just gotten off the Scrambler.

"Why? That wasn't too bad. I get spun worst than that in the updrafts at the foot of the cliffs."

"Maybe for you. But I don't go cliff diving like you. My feet prefer to be firmly on the ground."

Tracy grinned, "You just need more practice, that's all. Race you to the Zipper."

Peter urped and ran for the nearest bin instead. Tracy left him behind, heading for the next ride.

On the way, he spotted his father, greeting the leonine ringmaster like an old friend. Nick rubbed the big lion's mane and they started talking. The music from the rides drowned out their words, but he could see their lips easily.He loaded up a lip reader and tried to keep them both in view.

"-umper.. sorry Jay settling in at your place?" the ring master asked.

"Yeah, though he's getting a bit anxious. Only another day. We're lucky his heads in the waves, and not in the mesh like his sister or we'd never have kept it mum this long." Nick sipped a drink and nodded to the ringmaster's lion. "You see something, Lance?"

The ringmaster looked down at the lion who had nudged him. Tracy realized the big cat was staring right at him. "Looks like the booths have eyes," the ringmaster said with a grin.

Tracy tried to duck away, but his father spotted him and waved him over. "Rick, this is my son, Tracy. Tracy, this is an old friend of mine from Nextus. He's the one who introduced your mom to me."

The lion man held his hand out to him. Tracy took it, feeling the rough padding on his palms, and the light pressure of claws against his own palm. "Good to meet you, sir."

"Rick's fine. We're all friends here. This here is Lance, my RIDE. So you're the birthday boy?"

Tracy waved to the lion who rumbled softly in reply. "Tomorrow, yes si-. Yes."

"Sixteens a big age. One of the first big ones you hit. Make sure you enjoy it." Rick rubbed Lance's ears again and nodded to Nick. "Good to see you again Nick. I'd invite you to stay after the show, but I know you've got some big things to take care of."

Nick nodded and stepped back. "I know, we'll be in touch. Hannah and I will take you out for brunch or something if you can spare the time."

"We'll find the time somehow. Now if you'll excuse me, it's time to drum up some business."

Lance reared back on his rear legs, his hardlight skin flickering off, revealing a metallic lion with red painted panels. The panels in his chest slide open as the head pulled backwards. Tracy could just see the sparkle of the nannie field inside before the lion engulfed Rick and started sealing up, still on two legs. The hard light fur flicked back on, leaving the morphic lion standing there.

"Enjoy the show guys. And here Tracy."

Tracy sensed a card land in his internal mesh. It showed the lion's head, and the title, Rick Jacobs, Lion Tamer Extraordinaire, Peace Circus, along with his contact information.

"I know you've got plans for tomorrow, but we're here all week. Give me a call, and I can give you and your friend-ends a behind the scenes tour if you want," Rick growled to him.

"Thanks. I may take you up on that."

They watched the ringmaster walk away. Nick shook his head and chuckled. "Who says Nextus doesn't have a sense of humour? Someone had one when they set up that Lion RIDE squad."

Tracy was lost in thoughts, adding a complete stranger to the list of people that seemed to know more of what was going on than he did. "What did you say dad?"

"Rick just took over the Circus this year, from his squad mate. Leonard and Pidge decided it was time to retire and settle down. Pidge was his RIDE." Nick clasped his confused son around the shoulders. "Come on, let's go rescue your sister from kiddie land, so she can have some fun before the show starts."

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Tracy tossed and turned in bed, trying to slow his mind down enough to sleep. Having a birthday the day after the excitement of Naming Day was the worst in that respect. Sixty plus hours of constant excitement and sleepless nights played hell on a body. The secrets from his family made it even worst this year.

Giving up on sleep, he rolled off the bed and padded out to the kitchen in only his shorts. He overrode the motion detectors to keep the lights off and poured himself a glass of juice.

"I'm still not sure of this. We don't know what the side effects will be..." Tracy heard his mother speaking in the living room. He moved closer to try and hear clearer.

"It'll be fine. He's a good kid, he'll follow the instructions until we know more," his father reassured her.

She sighed, and the couch creaked with movements. "I don't know why we couldn't wait longer. Till he was older and we knew more."

"Rick was insistent; you know how hard he is to ignore. But I don't see why we have to wait. Jason and I had ours at his age."

Tracy wondered what the ringmaster would be so insistent about gifting to his parents, but there were too many possibilities. He also tried to remember what his dad may have had at his age that would be so concerning for mom. Distracted, he leaned sideways only to realize he was a few centis off centre from his anticipated target. He grabbed for the corner of the breakfast bar before he fell to the floor. His momentum turned into a twist that caused him to bang into a stool and tip over his juice.

"But you were on Earth; That hellhole had to use child- What was that?"

The dining room and kitchen lights came on while Tracy grabbed for a towel to keep the juice from dripping over too much.

"Couldn't sleep, kiddo?" his dad called out from the living room. He appeared in the entryway and quickly took in the scene.

Wiping off the counter and trying to stop the drips from reaching the floor, Tracy look up and put on a brave face to cover his embarrassment. "With everything that's going on? I'm way too excited to sleep."

His mom appeared behind Nick, and stepped past him. She had a concerned expression that she hid about as well as he hid his own. She gave him a hand wiping up the last of the juice and smiled at him. "Well, there's only a few hours left. You really should try and get some sleep."

"Sure mom."

She kissed him lightly on the forehead and looked around the kitchen. "Well, we're all up. Can I make you anything to help you sleep?"

Tracy faked a yawn and smiled. "No thanks mom. It'd probably just wake Wanda up. I think I'm about to crash actually. I'll see you in the morning. Love yah."

"Love yah back." She smiled as he backed away, nearly tripping on a chair.

His father ruffled his hair in passing, despite his attempts to duck away. "Big day coming. Don't sleep in too late."

He partly closed his door and laid on his bed, listening to the house while his mind tried to figure out what the hints meant. He heard his parents finish cleaning the kitchen and signal the lights to go out. They spoke too quietly to be overheard, and soon disappeared into their bedroom.

A tease message from his sister poked into awareness. :I know what you're getting. And I'm not telling.: It had a timelocked picture attached that he couldn't crack. The jealousy meta tags almost hid the message.

He clasped his hands behind his head and composed a response. :Come on, tell me. Pleeeeeeaaaaasssseeeee:

The response was prompt. :No chance. You and your clumsiness woke me up. I ain't telling you anything.:

He sighed. Puberty had left him one final growth spurt as a gift. When he concentrated it wasn't a problem, but one slip of his focus, and it tended to become a literal slip, something Wanda had no qualms to use against him.

At the same time, he knew that she wasn't sleeping. Her best friend was visiting family in Neo Francisco, and she had spent every evening chatting while she was gone. :Fine. Be that way. I'll just crack the time lock and show you.:

:Fat chance of that. Bought that one just today. Guaranteed uncrackable for at least a week.:

He groaned and set some of his agents on the challenge and left her message unanswered. He closed his eyes, still pondering what he had overheard, but not figuring out any answers.

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The smell of frying bacon woke him up. He checked the time and cursed, stumbling out of bed and grabbing a clean shirt and shorts. Wanda's time locked picture stubbornly remained uncracked in a corner of his virtual headspace, the remains of broken crackers scattered around it. He stepped out to the kitchen to find his family already up.

"Morning sleepyhead. Happy Birthday. You missed one hell of a party," Nick said, flipping the bacon in the pan.

"Very funny, and thanks Dad." He gave his mom a quick hug and sat at the table. Through the dining room, he could see the living room door was closed with the windows opaqued. Nick placed a plate of breakfast in front of the birthday boy and returned to the stove.

Tracy wolfed down his food, but his parents refused to let him leave the table until they finished their own meals at an agonizing pace. Wanda smirked at him, but stayed quiet to torment him further.

The humm of a flitter landing was his excuse to leave the table and run to the front door. He was annoyed to see the other entrance to the living room was equally covered up. He opened the door to greet the crowd coming in. "Hi Uncle Jay, Aunt Sam. Come in guys, come in,"

Sam gave him a hug and grinned. "Great, we didn't miss it. Happy Birthday Tracy."

Jason clasped his hand in a firm handshake, "I told you we'd be on time. You're gonna love it."

"Does everyone know what I'm getting but me?" Tracy asked, exasperated.

Mike mirrored his father's handshake, his green eyes matching his mother's. "Pretty much. I think there's a few tourists down on the boardwalk that don't know too."

"We don't know! We don't know!" the twins, Aaron and Ashley, chimed in unison.

Peter held their hands, keeping them under control. "You'll find out soon enough. Is everything ready?"

His mom called from the living room. "We're ready. Bring him in."

Jason opened the door and lead the way in. Tracy saw the living room decorated with banners and balloons. Most of the furniture was pushed tight against the walls to make room for a massive shape covered in a blanket.

"Go ahead. See what it is," Nick urged him.

Tracy pulled the sheets off, the twins rushing in to lend him a hand. The shape was quickly revealed, a torpedo shaped metallic gray skimmer. It floated just off the floor, about three metres long with side fins. On the top, there was an enclosed cockpit that a pilot could lay in, with controls near the bow. The actual bow extended further ahead of the controls, with a pair of forward facing lights and a protrusion that he couldn't figure out the purpose of.

He looked around the room, confusion fighting with disappointment at he looked at the grinning faces around him. "It's a sub-skimmer?" he said tentatively, having trouble figuring out what all the cloak and dagger tricks had been about. The twins laughed excitedly and ran to the machine, only to be stopped by Peter and Mike. The rest of the family were grinning, and trying not to crack up.

'Gotta be something I'm missing,' he mused to himself, looking the sub over closer. One of the headlights glowed momentarily, then went dark again, making it look like the sub winked at him. More details began to click into place; the strange shape of the rudder assembly at the rear, the curve of the fins, the shape of the bow protrusion, all gave it a dolphin-like shape. His eyes widened as he realized what that meant.

The sub seemed to sense his realization. Blue hardlight lines lit up along the sub's sides, some following panels, most of them forming a random tribal pattern. The cockpit began to fold inward, the sides closing in, causing the centre of the sub to thin. Panels slide up, forming a dorsal fin, while the rudder assembly slid back and curled downward a little, forming flukes. Its skin flickered and appeared to change texture, taking on a shiny, rubbery sheen that still showed the blue pattern through it.

"Hello. My name is Jay. Nice to finally meet you, Tracy," the floating dolphin greeted him, his voice sounding normal with an undertone of clicks.

Tracy struggled to handle the realization. "A RIDE... You got me a RIDE..." he mumbled. Jay floated closer on his lifters and nuzzled his hand. He rubbed the dolphin's melon, amazed at how soft and warm the hardlight skin was.

"Well, we were going to get you an IDE, but you kids nowadays want your rides to talk back to you. Don't see the appeal of it myself, but this old pilot can tell which way the winds are blowing," Jason said, laying a hand on Tracy's shoulder.

That helped wake Tracy up. "Thank you... Thanks everyone!" he said looking at everyone gratefully. His mom had a strange expression he couldn't figure out, but it left his mind as the twins broke free and ran to touch the RIDE.

"He's a war vet. Served and saw action; but it's all still classified. We can't even find out what happened to his last partner, and he's been wiped and blocked so he doesn't remember much; but he is a pleasant chap to talk to." Nick explained, also moving in closer. Everyone surrounded the dolphin, except for Hannah, who busied herself pouring glasses of punch.

"We've all spent a long time talking with Jay here, telling him about you and finding out about him. We all agree that you two should be a good match, but that's up to both of you," Wanda explained.

"Right, matching personalities is important. If you don't click with your ID- With your RIDE, it can be dangerous for both of you. Your life is in its hands, so if you can't trust it, if you can't get along with it, it can all fall apart when you need it the most," Nick continued.

Tracy felt the weights of responsibility and expectation settle on his shoulders. His father and his uncle had taught their children lesson many times before, but Tracy was now beginning to understand the full implications. "I get it Dad. Great Power equals Great Responsibility and all that. I'm just having a hard time believing this is real. That you would do this for me. Someone pinch me."

He felt a sharp pain on his arm and yelped. Looking down, he saw Jay backing away, chittering happily. "What? You asked someone to pinch you," he said, with an undercurrent of laughter.

Tracy grinned back, rubbing his arm. There was a red mark there, but no blood or even tooth marks. Aaron and Ashley yelped happily, hanging off of Jay's fins as he lifted up and down in the air.

"Don't forget the fusing," Hannah called out from the food table.

Nick nodded. "Right. You know we don't like fetters. Those damn things always get in the way and can kill you if they keep your ID- your RIDE from acting or warning you.

"But fusing is still a new technique. Most of the ins and outs of the process are still classified, especially for the dolphin form. This form isn't even available for civilian use yet.

"All we know is the physio changes are more than normal, and that's got us worried. We're pulling all the strings we can to find out what will happen. But until then, Jay's fusing capabilities are fettered."

Tracy rubbed Jay's melon again and thought about his father's warning. It made sense, even if it meant he couldn't experience the biggest thrill he'd read about RIDEs yet. "I understand dad."

"Good. Now go blow out your candles so we can have some cake."

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Tracy sat on the patio railing, sorting out some of his other birthday gifts; a new AG belt from his aunt and uncle and new hard light wings and fins from his cousins. They paled compared to the gift floating just behind him, but he appreciated them nonetheless. The family party had ended soon after the cake and gifts. Everyone could tell that Jay was the focus of his attention, and they finally left him alone.

"I can't wait to introduce you to everyone. They're gonna flip. None of us have a RIDE yet," he told Jay while adjusting his new gear.

"I'm eager to meet them too. I've watched you and your friends from your father's IDE hall. You're all quite accomplished fliers and swimmers from what I could see."

"Hey small fry. Aren't you forgetting something?" Wanda asked, coming out on the patio.

Tracy did his checks. "AG belt, rebreather sheets, Hal fins and wings, Jay..... No I've got everything."

She tapped the side of her head. "Not that stuff, fish head. This stuff."

"This stuff?" An alarm went off in his head as the time lock expired. The picture came into focus, showing Jay floating in Nick's hall of IDE's. Alpha's scorched frame and Gamma's crushed remains were in spots of honor, while Kappa was hooked into the standby cradle. Tracy noticed something amiss, and realized that Jay was on top of a wrapped box. He tapped the box, and felt his local mesh slow down as it processed the gift.

"Dad's good. But I'm better," Wanda said quietly to him after glancing back towards the Aerie. "You heard what he said about fetters, but he isn't practicing what he's preaching."

The processing slowed down and condensed into a red box with a glass front. Written on the glass was the phrase *In Case of Emergency, Break ICE.*

"That should snap the Fuser fetters, if you need it. It'll take some time to chew through Dad's work, but it will get him freed."

Tracy's eyes widened as he realized what his sister had given him. He raised his hand and she took it. "Don't crack it until you're ready to use it. Once the fetters go down, Dad's going to get an alarm, and I can't keep it silenced."

He pulled his sister into a hug and held her tight. "Thank you. Thank you so much."

She returned the hug and smiled. "You're welcome. Just don't screw it up. Our future is riding on you."

He broke the hug and stepped back, feeling Jay come up beside him.

"Seriously. If you two mess up, the rest of us aren't going to get our own RIDEs until we're old and gray. Now go. Show off to your friends."

Tracy grinned and took his leap. Jay flew through the air a few meters away as he activated his wings and caught the updrafts. Immediately the diver message space lit up.

: 'Hey! This is a natural fly zone! No vehicles!':

: 'It's OK guys, he's with me. It's my new RIDE, Jay. Send Hi Jay.': Tracy sent, answering the biggest reaction.

: 'Hi Jay' : Jay sent, followed by a dolphin chitter-giggle. : 'Seriously, hi everyone. I'll be careful out here.' :

A chorus of greetings called back to them. The pair flew over the straits for half an hour before Tracy pointed to a ledge. He landed with Jay.

"This is the Ledge, where we hang out, when we aren't in the air or in the water," Tracy explained. Three fliers landed soon after Tracy, dressed like most cliff divers, in minimal clothes, or in one woman's case, dressed in nothing but the hardlight emitters. Tracy carefully kept his gaze away from her.

To Tracy's discomfort, the naked one walked up to them, giving Jay and then Tracy a close look. "So you're Tracy's RIDE? Doesn't look like he's got a RIDE. Where's the traces?" she said coolly.

"Take it easy, Nancy. I just got him... I just MET him today. We haven't Fused yet... We aren't even allowed to Fuse yet," Tracy bristled.

Nancy gave Jay a long stare, then her face lit up with a smile. She turned back to Tracy, grabbed him and gave him a kiss. "It's fine. Happy Birthday, Trace. Don't let your new friend there dull your skills too much."

Tracy sat down on a boulder to hide the quivering in his legs, and his body's other reactions.

: 'That looked like fun. Can't wait to try it when Fused, if she's interested,' : Jay sent privately.

"Not helping," Tracy mumbled and sent.

Nancy moved so she could address the three flyers at once. "All right guys, now that that is out of the way, are we ready to start today's training? Birthday or not, the race is in five days, and RIDEs are not allowed. Sorry Jay."

"That's OK. I'm just here to watch mainly. And meet Tracy's friends."

"Well, that's Ryan. That's Rose, and I'm Nancy. We're the Ospries; the best relay diving team in Aloha." Nancy swung back to face the team. "And as I was saying, we have five days till the big race. I'm uploading today's course to you now. Everyone's on their usual legs. Let's get to our positions. Run starts in 15."

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It was a couple of days before Tracy recovered enough to take Rick up on his implied invitation. After meeting Jay, he knew just which friend he was meant to bring. So just before lunch, Tracy was outside the gates of the fair grounds, watching the workers wake up and clean up from the previous night.

"Maybe you should try calling him again?" Tracy asked, turning back to Jay. Jay chittered in surprise and floated back a metre, looking over Tracy's shoulder.

Turning back, Tracy saw a wall of gray flesh facing him. He fell back a couple of steps, and managed to take in the sight of the massive elephant man waiting at the gates, his skin patterned with tattoos similar to Jay's only in orange instead of blue.

"How can something that big move so quietly?" Tracy mumbled.

He twitched his big ears and chuckled. "A lot of people asked themselves just that question. Usually moments before I smashed them into the sand. You must be Rick's pals. Come this way please."

He lifted the gate with his trunk and stood to one side for them. Eyes wide, Tracy stepped back on the fairgrounds, followed by Jay. "I could have done that. But I don't want to," Jay said with a dismissive flick of his flukes.

The elephant man chuckled and set the gate back down. He motioned for them to follow him as he walked across to a portable office. Lifters hummed softly, keeping most of his mass from touching the ground. He knocked on the door, causing the entire trailer to shake.

"Show off! Send them in, Gav," Rick shouted from inside.

Gav opened the door with his trunk and motioned for the pair to enter.

"Thanks," Tracy said, climbing into the trailer. It was a simple portable, big enough for RIDEs to get in and out, but not much more. Rick was cooking up breakfast, while Lance did his impression of a sofa against the far wall.

"Hi there. Don't mind me. We tend to start late and play late here. Find a seat. Hope Gav didn't startle you too much, he loves to show his strength."

"I heard that!" Gav trumpeted from outside.

"I know you did. You hear everything. Now go find something to lift before I send Micky after you." Rick shouted back.

The trailer shook a moment, and then they heard steady stomping away. "Strongest guy here, and he wouldn't hurt a fly any more. Swore off it after the war, to the annoyance of MilInt, but not much you could do about it. He's great here at the Circus, and he loves it here too. Can I get you anything? Bite to eat? Something to drink?"

Jay floated over and looked down at Lance. Lance looked back up and growled softly, sending Jay back a few decis. Tracy watched the RIDEs, and pulled out a chair at the table. "No sir, I'm good. We ate before we left."

"None of that sir stuff. We're friends, or at least I hope we are. We're at least RIDErs." The lion man set his plate down and sat as well, his tail sliding through the back of the chair. "So, I take it you had a good birthday? Lots of surprises?"

"One big one, but it was the best." Tracy smiled proudly at Jay, who flicked a fin and rolled over in the air. Lance lazily lifted a paw and placed it on Jay's beak, giving him a shove backwards. The dolphin bumped into a window and turned sideways to watch everyone in the room.

"I take it you are the reason we got him?"

Rick speared a slice of ham with a claw and studied it. "Bingo. I couldn't let a friend of a friend head to the shut down pile, so your dad and I pulled all the strings we could and snuck him clear." He swallowed it in one gulp and grinned. "Legally of course, but we used every loophole we could find, and tore a few new ones while we were at it."

"So you knew Jay before? Could you tell me what he was like? What his RIDEr was?"

He held up a paw-like hand. "Whoa there, slow down. I said I did it for a friend of a friend. I never met Jumper... sorry Jay, till we were collecting him from surplus. Tell me, how much do you know about the war?"

"Not too much I'm afraid. It was far away. As Uncle Jason says, Zharus is a big world. Your spat never really did anything down here. And it was a long time ago."

Rick sputtered in surprise, "Long time?!? It was only...." he sighed and recomposed himself. "Way to make an old soldier feel old. Keep that up and maybe I will make you call me sir.

"Anyway, the Dolphs were one of Nextus's secret weapons. Espionage and InfoWarfare specialities. They weren't a big squad, but they played hell on those bi- on Sturmhaven's infogrid. Part of the reason they sent up those damned birds in the end; The dolphs kept them from trusting what they pulled from the sats.

"After the war, the common forms, the dogs, the lions, and so forth, were released for civie use. By then both sides had similar forms out, and there were enough shells and RI's out there that they couldn't be kept under wraps.

"But the specialist forms, the dolphs and some of the others I can't say, they weren't mass produced. Not yet at least. So when the war ended, Nextus decided to mothball the special ones. Sent them to an island or something if they were still paired, and shut down the ones that weren't paired. They're just machines after all." He growled, and Tracy heard it echoed by Lance.

"That's where your father and I came in. But wait, I have to back up a bit. The Dolphs, they worked in teams during the war. They were paired with a RIDEr, who fused with them, and they had an unfused partner, who could get places the fused pair couldn't dare travel to.

"So when I say a friend of a friend, I really mean your third teammate, Jay. We'd met out there somewhere, on some mission I can't speak of, and kept in touch through the years, as good as you can in a war situation. When word came out the dolphs were being frozen, she called me to see if I could do something. And I did."

"Where is she now? Could we call her?" Tracy asked excitedly. Even Jay floated closer, fins twitching.

"Whoa boy! Not so fast. Part of the deals to cut you free was that you do nothing to risk thawing those blocks. That would include meeting your third. So I can't help you there. Besides, after I sent confirmation that you were safe Jay, she disappeared. No clue where she is. The romantic in me is hoping she ran off with your first RIDEr and they're living happily somewhere. I never met him, but I had the impression that she and him were … you know.

"Of course, the paranoid in me says she's sitting at the bottom of Chessie Bay with a pair of cement galoshes. Or maybe mind wiped and she's now a McClone, serving fries in the mall. But I try not to listen to him."

Tracy shuddered, and then sighed. "Thanks for the information, Rick. It's good to know where Jay's coming from. I guess I half hoped you might have some info about Fusing. Mom and Dad won't let us fuse until they're sure it's safe."

"I heard about that. It's a tough break. The only thing worse than not having a RIDE, is having a RIDE and not being able to Fuse.

"I gave them everything I knew; which wasn't much. Not sure why they'd let Jay go but not release anything about Fusing, but that's military paranoia for you.

"Just give it time though. Your parents are smart people, and they still have some strings to pull I'm sure. They'll release those fetters before you know it. But trust me, from what I can see with you and Jay there, you are RIDErs. Even if you don't have your ears yet."

"Thanks. That does mean something, especially from you," Tracy admitted.

The lion man stood up and tossed his plate into the recycler. "Right then. Now that that's out of the way, I believe I owe you a tour. Wake up lazy bones. Time to go make sure those clowns haven't turned the cotton candy machine into a still again."

Tracy and Jay left the trailer to give the lion pair room to get ready. Tracy glanced askew at Jay while waiting. "Jumper?"

Jay flared a bit and turned away. "Jay. The name's Jay. Jumper doesn't exist. Never existed even. I'm just glad I wasn't the first one at least. I can't remember him, but I'm pretty sure he got stuck with Flipper."

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"I can't believe you can be so patient about this," Tracy griped. They were swimming in the Tethys, along the southern cliffs of Gondwana. Or rather, Jay was swimming in skimmer mode, and Tracy was riding in the sub's cabin with the hatch open so he could feel the water around him.

"I'm having fun, even if we can't Fuse. And your parents will get the information they need soon and remove the fetters."

"Yeah, if you say so. But there's only two weeks left 'till classes start again, and I thought something would have happened by now." Tracy didn't outright say it, but he was beginning to have doubts that his parents would ever find what they wanted. Just the way his mom acted around Jay seemed to hint at that.

"Our time will come. Just wait. We've got a whole planet to explore. How about we start with this cave system I'm picking up now? Care to take a look?" A display lit up, showing the cliffs and the entrance he spotted.

"Yeah we might as well. Maybe we can find a sea dragon lair."

"I thought those were a myth?"

Tracy shrugged, "It's a big planet, you never know...."

A few hours later, they were deep in the caves. Tracy swam separately from Jay, admiring a large cave they had found. "This thing goes on for klicks. It must be one of those pockets dad said infest this rift valley."

"That would match my own analysis," Jay said, swimming half a klick away, using his lights to illuminate the chamber. "No good mineral veins though, just a big hole in the-" He stopped suddenly. When he restarted, his voice was full of urgency. "Tracy. Swim back to me. Now! I'm picking up a rumble; it's coming from the ground."

Tracy looked around again and started swimming to his friend. "What? Whoa...." he started to feel the vibrations, amplified by the water. The lights became more diffuse as dust rained down, followed by increasingly larger rocks. "I'm coming... OW!" A heavy boulder slammed into him, barely slowed by the water. He tried to push away from it, only to have another rock crash into it, pinning his arm momentarily. Pain flared from his arm, the snaps sounding louder than the rocky rumble.

The water surged over him and he felt a presence suddenly between him and the falling rocks. "Stay with me, Trace. I need you to climb into the cockpit; then I can shield you."

Tracy shuddered in the pain, trying to keep focused. "It hurts, Jay. It hurts."

"I know it hurts. But I can't do anything until you're in the cockpit. Just straighten out and pull that arm in."

Tracy adjusted his position as best he could, almost blind in the stirred up water now. Bone ground painfully against bone as he pulled his arm in, against his side. The water pressure changed slightly as the cockpit sealed him in.

"Hold tight," Jay warned before his lifters kicked in harder, "Trying to get to the exit. Feels like this chamber's coming down on us." Tracy didn't respond, his vision fading to black. Each twist Jay needed to make sent another wave of pain from his arm. The water inside the cockpit was taking on a reddish tint from blood.

"Meddie pack," Tracy croaked out, fighting against the blackness.

"Just a sec. I'm draining the cockpit. It's to your left."

The water bubbled as Jay pulled it out of the cockpit. Tracy called out in pain as his injured arm got pinned under his body, and blacked out for a second. When he pulled himself back to the light, he saw a flashing panel popped open, with a package of pills.

"Dissolvable packaging. Just bite off the number of meddie pills you need. I'd advise all of them. Can you manage that Tracy?"

"I... I think so." He carefully got his uninjured arm and reached for the opening, trying not to move the rest of his body. His vision went black, but he didn't pass out.

His fingers caught the package and he raised the whole thing to his lips, only to find his lips blocked by the rebreather sheet. He rubbed his lips until it released enough to get his pinky under an edge. He pulled hard and his lips burned as it tore free, just another trumpet in the pain orchestra he was feeling. Leaving the sheet hanging from the corner of his mouth, he stuffed the entire sheet of meddies into his mouth. They dissolved quickly and he drifted away, hearing Jay's voice congratulating him.

Awareness took its time returning to Tracy. After many false starts, he finally stayed awake long enough to assess his condition. He was on his belly in Jay's cockpit, the padding sticky with drying blood. His broken arm was still pinned under his body, but the meddies had cut off the nerves to that part of his body; all he felt was a numb mass under his chest. The rest of the aches he felt, the nannies didn't dull much. Lifting his head, he saw dirty water, reflecting the blue glow of Jay's hardlight lines.

"Welcome back. You gave me a few scares there, bud."

"How long was I out? Why are we still underwater?"

Jay swam slowly in the dim water. "A few hours. I've got some bad news. Our entrance is no more. Good news though; I got an emergency call off with our location. I'm pretty sure it got through. And the rest of the cavern is stable now, so we're safe enough for now.

"The actual centre of the quake was further offshore and to the south, so they probably didn't even feel it back home. There's probably some gnarly waves out there we're missing."

His voice changed tone, becoming more serious. "How's the arm?"

Tracy rolled carefully to unpin his arm. Numbed, he was shocked to see it bending in places it shouldn't be, but was relieved to not see any bone shards sticking out. "Not looking good. Can't feel a thing, but it looks painful."

"The Meddies are signalling that it needs to be splinted before they can do much more. Think you can manage it? There's an inflatasplint in the kit you got the meddies from."

"Give me a sec. Sorry I'm making a mess of you."

"You're alive, and I'll wash out. That's the important thing. Take your time." Jay stopped moving and floated to make sure his movements wouldn't hinder Tracy's efforts.

Tracy rolled back onto his hurt side and winced in sympathy at the sound of bone grinding on bone from his arm. The meddies kept the actual pain from getting through, but the sympathy pain was almost as bad.

His other hand freed, he fumbled in the kit, and found the folded plastic. He shook it out, and looked from his dead hand to the deflated tube, trying to figure out how to bring the two together. "If we could Fuse, this wouldn't be a problem, would it?" he grumbled as he fumbled with the splint. He managed to get the opening of the tube down to his fingertips and lifted his numb hand to try and push it in the opening.

"If we could Fuse, you probably wouldn't have been hurt in the first place," Jay admitted. "Even if we were swimming like we had, I could have gotten to you and Fused before anything big enough to hurt reached us."

Tracy suspected it was partly just a boast, but he didn't call Jay on it. He managed to get the sleeve over the first breaks in his forearm and was trying to get it over his elbow for the upper arm break. "What about now? Wouldn't Fusing help us now?"

"Perhaps. But Wanda's cracker would take hours to finish. You need that sleeve on before then. Just keep at it, you're almost there."

He groaned and focused on the task at hand. Eventually his dead hand popped out the other end of the sleeve. "All this tech and they can't figure out how to have a motile splint. Remind me to mention it when we get back, it might be worth something to look into."

"So noted. Inflate it and we can move on to the next phase."

Tracy pressed the spots on the sleeve, and it began to expand slightly, and tighten up. He heard and ghost-felt more bone grinding with the sleeve pulling his arm straight. "I'm... I'm good now. What now?"

"Now we keep looking for a way out. I can't get any comms out, so I can't be sure if rescue is coming or not." Jay reactivated his lifters and they moved through the murky water. Sonar and Gradar painted an image of the chamber and subchambers.

"Some of these aren't that far from the cliff face. Don't you have something that could punch through?"

"I used to, I think. But not any more. They stripped me to the frame when they decomissioned me. "

"But you still have your listening gear. You listened in on Wanda's chat with Carol last night.. Why didn't they take those too?"

Jay paused as he thought it over. "I think they did. But they couldn't get it all. Too much was baked in."

They swam back towards the entrance. "So what options do we have? Neither of your forms can break through, and I'm short an arm. No digging for me," Tracy mused.

"You couldn't move those rocks anyways. But we've got air and I've got power, and I'm sure a rescue party will be along soon."

Tracy looked out at the rockfall that blocked their exit. "It's only a few tens of metres, loose rock. If you had hands, we could probably be able to dig out." In his VR space, he looked at the emergency box Wanda had gifted to him.

"No Fusing. We don't know what will happen to you. Especially with the meddies already in your system."

"Well we've got to do SOMETHING."

"Let's check the chamber again. Maybe we missed something we can use to get out."

"We've been through this place three times already. There's nothing left to find here."

Jay started swimming in a wide circle. "Rescue will be along soon. I'm sure of it. Get some rest and let the meddies work on you."

Tracy sighed and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, the water was clearer, Jay's lights reflecting off the rocky walls now. He did a mental survey of himself, and decided he felt better, but his arm was still numb. "Any change?" he asked, taking a sip of water from a straw near his mouth. He pondered a bite of the Don't Ask rations, and decided he wasn't that hungry yet. A glance at the time showed a night had passed.

"Good morning. There's no change. Your meddies have done what they could, but they can't finish your arm. I don't have enough supplies for them to repair the damage to your arm. They're keeping it stable for now for when we're rescued."

"And are we about to be rescued?"

Jay sighed. "Not yet. No sound of it at least. And no other escape routes either."

He mentally pulled the gift back to the forefront. "We have to consider all our options then."

"Now let's not be hasty. It takes time to scramble rescue teams and find where we are."

"It's been a day, Jay. And you said yourself Aloha wouldn't have been affected by the quake. It shouldn't take that long to come after us."

"But fusing underwater. The risks...."

Tracy pulled out his ICE-pick tools and set them against the gift. "We have to take the risk. It's the only option we have left."

Before Jay could object again, he activated the tools. Wanda's ICE melted quickly, showing a dense program. Tracy grabbed it and tossed it to the link with Jay. "Jay, catch!"

Jay froze a moment as the program briefly overwhelmed him. It spread quickly, seeking out the Fetters and attacking them as it found them. "Wow... your sister... doesn't mess around does she?" He asked as he managed to pull back some control. The program refused to die once it started, to his annoyance.

"No, she doesn't. Are you OK?"

"Yeah, just caught me by surprise. I can feel the fetters weakening already. Gonna be a few hours at least, if not longer."

"So we've got time at least. "

"More time than you might expect. My tanks are empty. Even if I wasn't fettered, I don't have the nannies to- ... Oh clever girl. Clever clever girl."

Tracy drummed on one of Jay's panels with his good hand, waiting for an explanation.

"Sorry. Wanda seemed to think of that. Her program found my stem-nannies and it's reprogramming them and reproducing them. They won't be as good as normal fusers, but they'll get the job done... once we have enough of them."

"Wanda got mom's smarts. She doesn't show them often, but when she does, big things usually happen. So now all we have to do is wait."

"Exactly. Oh and I found your father's alarm signal. Went off as soon as the fetters were attacked. Since we're incommunicado, it didn't go anywhere. And now that I know what it is, it's now silenced."

Tracy pulled out a virtual deck of cards. "Well, we've got time. Care to play?"

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"Did you hear that?" Jay asked suddenly.

Tracy paused and looked up from the game selection. "Hear what?"

Jay amplified the sound. A high pitched whine coming from the cave in. "It's getting closer," Jay explained.

"Rescue? Have they found us?"

"It would seem that way. The fetters are weaker but still in place. Fuser tanks are only at 5% full."

"Guess our ace in the hole stays in the hole for now."

It didn't take much longer for the drill to punch through, pulling a cable with it. Jay quickly connected to it.

'We're here. We're trapped. But we're fine.' he sent.

'What? Who?... Hey! I found them!' The voice cut off quickly.

Nick's voice replaced it. 'Tracy? Are you OK? We came as soon as we could.'

'I'm OK Dad. There was an accident. Well an earthquake. I broke my arm, but I'm good now. The meddies are taking care of me.'

'We've got a mining platform down there. Elaine will have you dug out in a jiffy. Just stay calm.'

The first voice came back on the line. 'Hi Tracy, I'm Elaine. Jay's already sent the layout of the cavern and the cave in from your side to Gracie. Shouldn't take us long to get through. Stay back and stay in Jay.'

'Thanks Elaine.'

Jay carried them back to the far end of the cavern. A rumbling noise echoed in the cavern as the platform's diggers began to clear the tunnel. Eventually the rockfall shuddered and collapsed outward, bright lights shining through the dusty water. The platform pushed into the chamber, revealing a female husky RIDE at the controls, her hardlight fur floating in the water.

The digger shut down, and the chamber went silent other than the crash of falling rock.

"Well I'll be. A Dolph. Didn't think you guys were on the market yet," the husky said, floating off the digger and swimming towards them. "You guys were the bane to our InfoSec."

Jay swam towards the husky. "We aren't. Nextus is keeping us close, but Tracy's family's got connections.... Your InfoSec? You were Sturmhaven?"

A new voice spoke up, similar to the husky's but subtly different. "Both of us were. But there are no hard feelings. Sand under the arch. I bought out Gracie and signed on with the Brubeck crew after the war."

She looked around the cavern. "Nice place you've got here. A few lights, some air, a bit less water, and it'd be perfect."

Tracy grinned from within Jay. "Yeah, it's gonna be our bachelor pad when we get it fixed up. But it's time for a fabber run for the next phase. Thanks for the rescue."

They swam out of the cavern and surfaced. A carrier flitter hovered there, with a skimmer parked on top. Jay landed on the platform, and was rushed by the waiting people. Tracy felt himself lifted out of dolphin-sub, and set on a gurney. Aunt Sam looked him over and barked orders to the other attendants.

"You'll be fine, Tracy. The meddies just need a boost to finish the job."

"Thanks Aunt Sam. Hi Dad. Sorry for the trouble."

Nick took Tracy's good hand and looked at him. "You're alive. That's the important part. Let's get you home so you can get some proper rest."

Tracy sat up carefully. "Sounds good. Where's Elaine and Gracie?"

The husky-woman landed on the platform. Her hardlight fur turned off showing the metallic canine. Panels slid and pulled away, releasing a woman with brunette hair, triangular ears, and a furry tail that curled up to the small of her back. The canine dropped down on all fours, the panels closing back up as it lost its bipedal form.

"Thanks for the save," Tracy called out to them.

She grinned and gave him a salute. "Any time. Us RIDErs have gotta look out for each other. Maybe you'll be able to return the favour sometime... Or pass it forward."

"Will do. I certainly will do that."

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Hannah hugged her son tightly as he stepped off the flitter. The rest of the family gathered around him as well, the mob slowly making its way into the living room.

"You had us so worried. Never do that again, you hear me? Never!"

Tracy winced and hugged her back one armed. Feeling was starting to return to the other arm as the meddies worked. "I'm fine mom. I'm fine. Jay kept me safe."

"Jay?... Jay! You wouldn't have been in there in the first place if it wasn't for that thing."

"No, but I would have been somewhere. It was an accident. An act of Zharus. I could just as easily have been cave diving with Ryan or Nancy. But they wouldn't have been able to save me like Jay could."

"You were three hundred klicks away. You wouldn't have been that far with Ryan or Nancy."

The family stood there uncomfortably as they watched mother and son fight. Peter took the twins by the hands and led them to the kitchen, despite their weak resistance.

"We've got skimmer licenses. We could have gotten that far easily if something caught our eye."

Nick tried to intervene by taking his wife's arm. "Let's not get caught up in what if's. The important thing is, is that he's alive."

"Alive no thanks to you." Tracy was too fired up to pull his punches. He glared at his father and rolled onward. "You told us the fetters could get in the way at the worst times. Well that's just what happened." He waved his arm in the cast. "If we could have Fused, I wouldn't have been in danger. He could have Fused and got me clear in no time. Instead, he had to catch me and do some other stuff and THIS happened."

Nick was stunned for a moment. "Well... it was just bad luck is all... that happens sometimes," he stammered, before Hannah interrupted.

"No, you are NOT going there. The fetters stay. I'm not having my son become one of those."

The patio went silent, all eyes on the trio.

: 'This is probably a bad time to say success. Fetters are down, and the tanks are full enough.... Oops, your dad's clever too. Had a secondary alarm set. Silenced it, but I was a bit slow.': Jay sent to Tracy.

Tracy stepped away from his parents, seeing his father's expression begin to change. : 'No, it's a perfect time. DO IT!':

Jay's lifters glowed and he lifted up on his flukes. His shiny skin turned off, but the hardlight lines along his body glowed brighter. Panels on his belly began to separate, while his head flipped backwards. Opened that way, he flicked his flukes and leapt onto Tracy's back.

The panels closed in around his torso. The fins split apart and moved around to engulf his arms. More panels began to slide down from his hips, encasing his legs. The head flipped back over Tracy's head, the beak facing forward now.

: It's itchy,: Tracy said internally, trying to hold still.

: Jury rigged civie nannies. Sorry. Not ideal, but they're doing the job. Your vitals are stable, how are you feeling?:

Tracy considered the question carefully. His ears felt stuffed, his skin itched all over, and he was getting a strange sensation from his rump, but otherwise he felt fine. : Good so far OUCH!:

: Sorry, meddies don't like the new guys. Gotta mediate peace so your arm stays intact.:

The pain faded away and new sensations entered his awareness. Sounds became deeper to him, echos containing more information about what they bounced off of. Tracy sensed another mind, inside but outside his head. It held depths that were frozen solid in ice, while other thoughts flowed around the chunks.

:Are those your memory blocks? Of what happened before?:

:Yeah. If I could thaw them I'd remember, but so far, no luck. I'm using your implant to help bridge our systems. When things are calmer, we may want to look at some upgrades.:

:Thanks Jay. One step at a time. Can we talk to the others yet?:

:The initial stages are done. We are presentable.:

The blue lines traced out the metallic morphic dolphin, some lines practical, most just decorative. His tail twitched a bit, the flukes even with his knees. The grey skin flickered back on between the lines.

The fused pair stood in the living room of the Aerie, the earlier silence extended. Nick had taken a step towards Tracy, his mouth open, but no words came out. Tracy barely noticed, excited from their first fuse and trying to take in everything that was available now. All eyes were on them now, for better or for worse. He soon noticed that while all eyes were on him, their focus tended to drift lower than their head.

He looked down, past the delphin beak that covered his mouth, to the light grey hardlight flesh on his chest, with the glowing blue lines, and then lower....

:JAY!: he sent, his body brightening with embarrassment, which only drew more attention to his condition.

:It's our body; It's just reflecting our inner feelings.:

:Just DO something!: A hawaiian patterned pair of hard light swimming trunks appeared around their waist. The bulge was still obvious to Tracy's eyes, but crouching helped hide it.

"There," he started to say, and paused, surprised at the sound of his voice. It was his normal one, but it had Jay's underlying click to it. "There. It's done. You can stop arguing about it."

"Jay! Stop that! Release him now!" Hannah cried, starting to run forward. Nick grabbed her arm and hugged her to hold her in place.

Tracy felt his lips move without his control, "Sorry Ma'am, but I can't do that. Even if I were fettered, I can't release him. The first fuse takes longer, and releasing him too soon would be dangerous," Jay told her, more serious than Tracy had ever heard his friend speak before.

"I don't care! Sam's here. She can heal him. Just let him go!"

His aunt shook her head slightly and stayed silent. Tracy could feel his body tingling as the nannies worked, feeling his control of the tail increasing as something grew to sync up better. He took control of his lips again. "Mom, I'm fine. Just let it finish. I knew what I was getting into. I WANTED to get into this. I'm still me, and I'm Jay too for now. But we can separate once I'm done. And I'll still be me afterwards."

:Of course we'd be done by now if I still had my mil-nannies,: Jay said privately.

Tracy mentally looked at the sea of icebergs, looking for any differences. :You've broken your memory blocks?:

Jay internally shook his head. :No, but it's the impression I have. I couldn't tell you how long a mil-nannie first fuse should take, just that I'm sure it would be faster than this.:

Nick comforted his wife as best he could. "He's still our boy, just enhanced. It'll be fine." He flashed Tracy an 'I'll talk to you Later' look, and led Hannah out of the room. The tension drained away with them. Peter brought the twins back in who stared at the Fused Tracy, mouths wide open.

Tracy let out a sigh of relief as the rest of his family converged around them. He stood up straighter and was surprised at how much smaller the living room felt now that he was bulked up. Everyone seemed to want to touch him.

"What does it feel like?" Wanda asked. He could feel her hand on his good arm.

He shook their head and wiggled a bit, getting used to the feel of Jay around him. The RIDE amplified just about everything about his body, and gave him some new senses and abilities that he still couldn't quite make sense of. "It's hard to describe. It's my body, our body. I can feel your hand and everything, but it's so much more than that too."

Sam took hold of his broken arm and was inspecting it closely. "What about this? Jay, did the medical nannies cause any problems?"

Jay took over their voice. "For a moment, before the fuse nannies co-opted them. I've got control of them now and am letting them finish their job." The hardlight on the arm turned off leaving bare metal and emitter lines exposed. The metal panels softened and slid back, revealing shiny gray hairless skin. Tracy realized that that was his normal body now, a hint of what he would be.

"The fuse will continue as long as we're in contact, but I can pull back from here to let you check the breaks," Jay explained.

"Aaron, get mommy's kit from the dining room please. It's on the table," Sam ordered, her fingers already carefully touching the exposed arm. Tracy watched her, and wondered what the rest of him looked like now.

:Is it going to take much longer?:

:Patience, Sea Cricket. It'll be a little while still. You ever do something for the first time a second time? That's what this is like for me. I'm going slow because I can't remember what it's like to fuse, other than the impression that some paths are wrong and some are right.:

Sam fished a device out of the bag Aaron brought her, and scanned the arm. She nodded to herself and put it away. "You can cover up again Jay. Thanks. The breaks are almost fully mended; fusing seems to be good for broken bones."

Jay covered up the exposed flesh and the hardlight skin flickered back on.

Mike thumped him on the shoulder and grinned. "So what can you do now that you couldn't before?"

He mentally felt his body, vaguely familiar senses and controls giving him hints of what he could do, but in a way he couldn't quite explain. His mental touch brushed across something and he knew what he wanted to do. "Well, there is this." Tracy pulled, and had the quick impression of Jay laughing his head off before there was a loud crash and the world went dark.

With Jay swimming around in the back of their mind, still laughing silently, Tracy let go of the lifter controls. Gravity slowly reasserted itself as the pods at his hips cooled off. He felt a little strain on his neck before there was a crunch and he fell back down to the floor, in a shower of drywall and smartcrete dust. Jay twitched the lifters just enough at the last second to keep them from damaging the hardwood floor as well.

Coughs sounded from the dusty room. Mike straightened up from where he had grabbed Ashley to protect her. A quick look around showed no one was hurt. "That certainly is something."

:The lifters need a light touch, especially if you're in the air. They're overpowered compared to normal ones, so we can cut through water easier.: Jay explained, still snickering.

:Well, thanks for the warning,: Tracy sent back dryly, the only things damaged were the ceiling and his already wounded pride. :What's that?: he asked, realizing he could just hear something else.

"What was that?!?" He heard his father ask, though it wasn't out loud.

"Your son decided you needed a new skylight in the dining room. Too bad he misjudged. Your spare bedroom now has a trapdoor," Jason sent back. "Don't worry, everyone's fine."

"I'll just make it into my office instead. I always wanted one of those trap doors leading to the crocodile pit."

The connection muted just as quickly as it went active. :It's a private comm channel. Sorry, I didn't think you could pick that up.: Jay explained. :I was designed as a surveillance RIDE after all. It's in my nature to snoop.:

:That's OK. Just thought I was hearing things for a sec.: Now that Jay had pointed it out, Tracy became aware that he was sensing more. With a little effort, the Real View was overlayed with a data flow view. The house mesh appeared, surrounding them in glowing blue lines of open access, with nods indicating more private areas. Some lines glowed brighter than others, indicating how active they were, including a bright spot on the ceiling as the house analysed the damage. Multicoloured threads connected the mesh to each person in the building.

Each person in turn had another mesh, their private cloud of data. The older folk had a thick mesh, centred on their implants, dark with personal security protocols, with lighter colours indicating increasingly public information and connections.

:The colours indicate how easily I, well we, could crack in, and how noticeable it would be. Black means we have no chance. Red means we might get something, but alarms would be raised. It goes up the spectrum to blue which is public access. I have a feeling that back when I was milspec, there was a lot less black out there,: Jay explained.

"Zharus to Tracy. Come in Tracy," Wanda's voice cut through his introspection. He felt something flick his beak, and the sensation, and the realization that he had a beak now, brought him back to the real world.

"Sorry, got lost in our thoughts a moment," Tracy said, focusing on his sister. The data view showed a bright, thick thread going from her to the house and beyond. It was only slightly encrypted, and he couldn't resist peeking.

Inside he found a video record. A dolphin man was standing in a quasi-anonymized room. The blue lines around his hips, partly hidden by the swim trunks he wore, lit up brighter. He shot up in the air and smashed into the ceiling up to his shoulders. A moment later the glow faded, and the figure fell out of the hole and back to the ground.

"You didn't!" Tracy shouted, taking a half step towards his sister.

She laughed and flicked his beak again. "I'm your big sister. I'm legally obligated to publish your embarrassments to the world wide mesh."

He checked her account and saw that was the second video she had posted recently. The teaser for the first one, labelled First fuse excitement was all he needed to see. The lines of their body lit up bright enough to cast shadows in the dusty room.

Wanda grinned back at him. "They weren't my best works, to be honest, but I was rushed. Had to get them published before the competition got theirs out." She nodded to Peter who tried to look innocent. Tracy's check on his accounts proved it was all just an act.

"You guys are despicable," he told them and tried to stamp out of the living room to the patio. Jay, still laughing hard, caught their movements and calmed them enough to be a proper stamp, and not the hat trick scene of Tracy's First Fuse collection.

He felt small hands grab his own hands. Looking down he saw the twins looking back up at him. Their meshes were simpler, orange and yellow coloured and only connected to their parents' meshes.

"Are you really in there Trace?" Ashley asked.

He picked them both up and settled them on his shoulders. "I really am. Jay's in here too."

"You look strange," Aaron said.

"Not as strange as I'm going to look when I get out of this. But it's still going to be me, no matter what I look like."

:I could pull the head back to give you a hint of what happened,: Jay suggested.

:Let's leave it for the big reveal.:

He chatted with his family further while curiously snooping into the house mesh. Most of it was normal stuff, but he soon found his parent's mailboxes. The messages were too encrypted for them to dare cracking, but the indexes were easy to find. Nick's had normal business and personal stuff, including a thread with Rick about Jay. His mom's mailbox was more telling. What jumped out at him was a forwarded report on the fusing effects of the Dolphin chassis. The date was two days before Naming Day.

:They knew. They knew from the beginning,: Tracy mumbled.

:Now, now, don't jump to conclusions. We can't see the actual message. Maybe it was redacted so much there was nothing useful in there.:

:Doesn't matter. They knew from the beginning. They said they were going to wait until they got that, and they had it all along. How could they do that to us?:

The patio doors opened again, and Nick walked out. Tracy turned to his father and glared, his eyes glowing brighter. Jay preemptively lowered the twins back to the ground.

"You KNEW. You had it all along and you didn't tell us. You made us WAIT for no reason at all," Tracy roared angrily.

Nick looked confused, "Knew what? I didn't know anything. The Dolphin fuse forms are still classified. Your mom's been trying-"

"She's had it all along! Report after report on Dolphin and other Fuses. It's all in there, in her mailbox." Tracy threw copies of the indexes to his father and turned away. "Stay away from us. I don't want to see you, or mom, or Kappa, or Anyone!"

He pushed on the lifter controls, jamming them to their virtual stops. The lifters at his hips whirred and he shot into the air, knocking the closest family members to the ground. Hundreds of metres in the air, he let them go, and arched into a dive position, arms flat at his side, legs tight to his tail. The wind brushing past him abruptly changed into a massive amount of churned up water, his beak cutting through the tropical waters. He spread his arms, and felt Jay extend the tail so the flukes extended past his legs, bringing them parallel to the sea floor. They swam out into the Tethys.

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"So, any idea where we're going?" Jay asked as they swam.

"Away. Just away. I need some space."

"Well we're going the right way for that. Granted if we keep going this way, we'll end up in Rodinian Restricted Waters."

"Seriously?.... No we won't. We're still hugging the Gondwana coast."

"Well, that got you a bit more focused at least. How are you feeling?"

"Pissed off. Angry... How could they do that to me? To us? It nearly killed me!"

"I'm sure they only had the best in mind for us. But speaking of near death, look where we are."

Tracy started paying attention to the waters around them. There was a large shadow hanging over the water near the cliffs, and mechanical sounds echoing over the crashing of the waves.

"'It's the cave. Where we were rescued. But why are there still people here?"

"Two people. Sort've. Elaine and Gracie. They're working on the digging platform. Let's go say hi."

Before Tracy could object, Jay took control. They surfaced near the digging platform and hovered half out of the water. The cover was off one of the AG lifters with the husky bent over working on it. "Ahoy there! Permission to come aboard?" Jay shouted.

There was a clang and a curse, followed by a splash of something landing in the water. In the back of their minds, they followed the heavy object as it sunk in the sea. The husky looked over the edge, still cursing before she shouted out, "Who's there?"

"A friend. Just a second." Jay kept control and dived down to the ocean floor. He found the piece that had been dropped, grabbed it and shot back to the surface. They shot out of the water and he flared their lifters enough to land lightly on the digger.

"Jay?... Tracy? You're... You're Fused."

Tracy took over and handed over the shiny piece of metal. "Yeah, we're Finally Fused. Rough story. What's wrong? I figured you'd be long gone by now."

"Thanks. Yeah I would have been, but one of the AG's blew on the digger. A seal wasn't as tight as it should have been and water got in where it shouldn't have been. So now I can't get it high enough load it onto the flitter. Figured I'd try to fix it before calling for a lift." She set the part back down and looked at the dolphin. "You look good like that. Never saw a fused Dolph before. You guys were too sneaky." Elaine was speaking, as far as Tracy could tell.

Jay took over, "I wish I could remember. They blanked me out pretty thoroughly. Sounds like I would have had some good times... For a war."

"It had its moments, but War's nasty. Glad that whole thing is over," Gracie answered.

Elaine took over again, "So you see the new you yet Tracy? First time's always the best."

"Not yet. Jay says I'm still cooking. It's part of that rough story."

She chuckled, "Well he knows best. How about the rest of it? Done any experimenting yet? Fused form is great."

"Especially the thumbs," Gracie added.

"Not much yet. It's still pretty new. I did put a new hole in the living room ceiling."

She chuckled. "When RIDEs became popular, they quickly learned that sats be damned, it was better to do the first fusing outside. Until they learned that lesson, we nicknamed that building Swiss Cheese. No matter how many safety's the eggheads added, the newbies somehow they managed to over blast the lifters, or trip over their blasters, or otherwise not realize their new capabilities."

"Granted, the RIDEs often had a hand in that too. having a partner for the first time is fun!" Gracie added.

Elaine looked pensively at them, then back at uncovered AG casing. "We don't have enough power to lift this beast up by ourselves. But with your help, it might just work. And it'd be a chance for you to feel what you can do, how much you can lift."

Tracy looked at the large, heavy machine uncertainly. "We could lift something like that Jay?"

"Not by ourselves, but with the remaining AG and Gracie's help, not a problem."

She moved both vehicles into position, then showed Jay and Tracy a good spot to hold onto.

"Gracie's right. Thumbs are great," Jay said, chittering softly. He let go a moment and flexed Tracy's fingers.

Gracie and Elaine took position on the other side of the AG lifter. "I'll count us down. On Three," Gracie called out.

On three, they amped up their lifters, while Gracie triggered the remaining ones on the digger. The machine began to tilt at first, until Jay increased power, levelling it out. Once it was high enough, the flitter slide in underneath, and they were able to lower it back on the carrier.

"Phew, I'm actually feeling tired from that," Tracy said, staring at the large machine he had just helped lift up.

"Well I have been doing a lot over the past few days, without a decent chance to charge. I'm down to about 25 percent," Jay replied.

The husky leaned against the digger. "Thanks for the hand. Saved me from having to call someone to come all the way out here. We're heading back to Aloha; you're welcome to tag along, steal a charge."

:Is 25% dangerously low? It sounds low.: Tracy asked internally.

:It's a little lower than I'd prefer normally, but not dangerously. Ten's about as low as I'm comfortable going.:

"Thanks for the offer, but we... I'm not ready to go back yet. Family issues. Glad to pay back a little of what I owe you for the rescue."

"Well, when you get back to Aloha, if you need a break, come on down to the Mane and Tail. It's a RIDEr bar, common with the Dry Ocean crowd."

Tracy backed to the edge of the cargo flitter. "I'll keep it in mind. See you around Elaine." He flipped backwards and splashed into the water. They stayed under while the shadow lifted higher and disappeared along the coast.

"I can tell you don't want to go back yet. Want to see something else?" Jay asked as they swam slowly down the coast, away from the caves.

"Your sister's cracker was better than she expected. Knocked out a couple of blocks I hadn't realized I had. Turns out, when they stripped me to the frame, they didn't take everything."

He turned them to face some fallen rocks at the base of the cliff. "Pick a rock, any rock, and push the big red button."

Tracy was puzzled, but looked around until he picked a rock a couple dozen metres away. He focused on it, and pressed the button. He felt power surge in his body, to his head, concentrating in his beak. He opened his mouth and let out a screech that was followed by a pulse of power. A glowing mass caused the water to bubble as it travelled. It hit the boulder and it shattered.

"Concentrated plasma pulses. Range is better in the air, but it means we aren't completely defenseless."

"Whoa, I didn't think we could do that."

"We've got 15% to play with. Let's have some fun."

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Nick flew along the coast, watching Kappa's sensors for any sign of Tracy. Inside, he was fuming, both at his son, and at his wife, but concern for his son's safety was dominating everything. He was just glad Elaine had called in once she got back to Aloha, concerned about the pair. It gave them a place to start searching from.

An alarm flashed for his attention; Plasma fire detected on the clifftop. He pulled back and increased his power, climbing faster in the air.

*One source. Unknown target. No return fire.* Kappa reported as they got closer. Nick triggered the transform, shifting back to mech mode and drawing Kappa's own guns. He kept below the cliff edge level until he drew even with the figure. Kappa's sensors recognized Jay's energy signatures.

He rose slowly over the edge of the cliff, into a war zone. Further inland, the land was pockmarked with craters, shattered trees and boulders still smoked from the energies pumped into them. And facing him, eyes and muzzle glowing with barely contained energies, was a humanoid dolphin RIDE.

"I told you to stay away. I don't want to see any of you!" the figure shouted.

NIck raised Kappa's hands, letting the guns retract. "I just want to talk, Trace. Man to Man."

The RIDE didn't move, the power levels staying steady, focused on Kappa's chest.

"I'm coming out. I'll understand if you don't want to. But I just want to talk. We... I am worried about you." He slowly lifted Kappa the rest of the way over the cliff edge and landed safely inland. He popped the seals and dropped out of the chest cavity, skin tingling from the lingering nannie connections. He held his hands up and walked away from the IDE, before sitting on a tree trunk.

The dolphin's glow faded and he walked over to stand between Nick and Kappa. "Trace, grow up. I'm NOT going to be the in between for us. If you want to speak with him, YOU speak to him," Jay said, speaking aloud, but meaning it for his partner.

Its stance changed slightly, the smiling beak turning down into a scowl. "Fine, Dad. I'm here. Say what you want. Explain why you tried to kill me, after your big 'fetters are dangerous' speech."

Nick bristled and forced himself to count slowly to ten before speaking. "I'm sorry, Trace. I never expected any of this to happen. I.. I honestly didn't know what was going on."

"You and mom locked out Fusing. I almost DIED dad. You had the information before you even gave Jay to me."

"Yes, I'm sorry. It should never have gotten that far, ki- Trace. I honestly didn't know about those reports. I still don't know about them. Mom's going to have to explain herself when we get home."

The dolphin sat down, some of the anger starting to fade, fatigue starting to catch up to him. "Getting... Meeting Jay was one of the best days of my life. Fusing should have been another great moment. And it was... but it's also verging on the worst."

"I'm sorry-"

"Stop saying you're sorry! Just say what you wanted to say."

"I'm-" Nick paused, and reconsidered his words. "Look, it's been a long, very stressful few days. Why don't we head home. You're probably starved, Jay's probably starved too for that matter. I promise, I'll leave you alone, and keep mom away. But everyone else wants to see you, to make sure you two are OK."

Tracy turned away and looked out at the sea. "If mom says or does anything... ANYTHING, I'm gone." He lifted off the ground and took off back towards Aloha.

Nick climbed back into Kappa and took off after Tracy. "Trace? You there Trace? If you don't mind me asking, how did you break the Fuse fetters?"

The silence lasted long enough that he thought his son was ignoring his comm. "I'm not going to say how. She doesn't deserve to be punished for doing what's right."

"She?... Wanda gave you the means? That's my girl."

"It was fine work, sir. Even took down some of my other blocks, as you may have noticed," Jay chimed in.

"Make sure you tell her that when you get home."

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The Aerie was brightly lit when the pair returned. Jay landed first and walked towards the living room door to make room for Kappa. Wanda was pacing the room, alone now.

She ran out to greet him and gave him a hug. "Welcome home. You had us worried sick... You had ME worried sick. Did the present work well?" she greeted him.

"Perfectly. Thank you," he whispered back.

She lead him into the living room, their dad following them after a few moments. They awkwardly stared at each other.

"So uhm.... are you done baking yet?" Nick asked.

"Hours ago. If we baked any more, we'd be one," Jay answered with a laugh.

"Well, could you show us then? Unless you'd rather do it in private...."

Tracy shook his head. "No time like the present. Jay, let me go."

The world dimmed, as his connection with Jay's systems faded to just a link to his implant. The hardlight skin turned off and panels loosened over their body. The armor around his feet and legs retracted, pulling upward and half melting into Jay's body, leaving shiny gray skinned legs behind, his feet unchanged other than the skin texture. Blue tattoos, similar to Jay's, swirled up his legs.

The head flipped back, and Tracy blinked, seeing normal light again, without the overlays that Jay provided. His head was hairless, his skin matching the texture and grey of his legs. His ears were just a pair of holes on either side of his head, and his mouth and jaw were slightly extended by a centi or so.

The fins retreated from his hands and arms, releasing the nailless hands and arms covered in the blue tribal tattoos. Panels opened under the tail and the flukes lifted up. Tracy felt the movement and reflexively pulled down, feeling something bump the back of his thighs; his new flukes flexing in the air for the first time.

The torso panels finished retreating, and Jay glid backwards, standing on his own flukes. The panels quickly began sliding and melting back together, restoring him to his dolphin shape. Tracy's chest was shiny gray skin, with the same tattoo markings, swirling back to a stubby dorsal fin in the small of his back.

"Cool look bro, but you might want this." Wanda proclaimed, reaching to the couch and tossing the blanket to Tracy.

He looked down and yelped in surprise, quickly wrapping the blanket around his waist, over his tail. "Jay! Where are my shorts!?"

Jay flicked his tail and dropped forward to float behind Tracy. "Jury rigged nannies. Guess we overwrote the clothing settings. Sorry." He connected to a power outlet and dropped to the ground with a happy sigh.

"Good idea. I'm starved. Excuse me." Tracy slipped past his family members, and started looting the kitchen.

"First thing in the morning, we'll head down to the garage and fix that. Get Jay a proper tank of Fuse nannies," Nick promised, watching his son wolf down a sandwich. "We'll have to figure out some chair designs that you can fit in too, and get the fabber cooking them up."

"Short designs too. That tail's gonna be in the way." Wanda tossed one of Tracy's swimming suits on the chair next to him. "When you get tired of the kilt look, you can try and put that on."

"There's no need for that. I've called Doctor Simpson and booked an appointment for you tomorrow, Tracy. To start getting you back to normal."

The room went silent and all eyes turned to the hall. Hannah stood there, pointedly not looking at Tracy. "I've also prepared something for the machine too. To make sure this won't happen again."

She had a pad in her hands. Tracy felt Jay give it a scan, and a shiver of fear go through the dolphin. :Fetters Tracy... Much tighter than before. I don't think I'd even be able to talk!:

The plate smashed to the floor, and Tracy stood up. "Jay, we're going."

Nick moved to intercept Hannah. "No, please stay Trace. At least finish eating. Hannah, please, we need to talk."

"We've talked enough, Nick. It's time for action. To get our son back."

"Your 'son' is right here. And he's happy with how he is now. You're not going to muzzle Jay!"

Nick half heartedly tried to stop Tracy as he left the kitchen. Jay was already at the door to the patio.

"No, you're not leaving again! Come back here, Tracy Alexander Munn!" Hannah called out, the door sealing under her command. Before he could order Jay to blow open the doors, the locks flashed again and went down. Wanda mouthed 'go' to him, while looking horrified. He and Jay were out the door and over the patio railing in a flash.

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Wanda watched her father pace the skimmer pad on the deck of the Queen of Thorns. He hadn't been sleeping lately, and it showed. Nights he returned to the Queen, while during the day, he was usually back up at the Aerie, talking, or rather fighting, with her mother. Jay and Tracy had fallen off the face of Zharus, as far as anyone in the family could tell, and that wasn't helping Nick's situation either.

She sighed and carried a tray with a mug of coffee and a couple of slices of toast out to him. She knew coffee was the last thing he needed; but he drank nothing else.

"Thanks Wanda," he said tiredly. His eyes continued scanning the waters.

"Are you going back to the Aerie to talk to mom?"

He was silent for so long, that she wondered if he had fallen asleep. "No, not yet. I need to get some paperwork from Aloha first. And I need you to do something."

She looked at him, hopefully. "Sure. What do you need?"

"I need you to find your brother, and convince him to go to the Aerie, maybe for the last time. I hate to drag you two into this, but it is about you as much as it's about your mother and me. And you're both more than old enough to be present."

"Present for what?"

Nick's voice was so quiet, she could barely hear it over the waves of the bay. "Present for the last time we'll be together as a family." He turned back to her. "Just find your brother, and convince him... convince them to go to the Aerie. As soon as he's en route, call me and I'll meet you up there. We'll go in together."

"I'll see what I can do," she said, already sending a 'We need to talk,' note to Tracy. "But he hasn't been all that eager to talk to me eith-" She blinked in surprise as a response popped up almost immediately, with a location and a time half an hour away.

She signaled her skimmer to power up and lift off of the water next to the Queen, and ran to the edge of the deck. "Gotta run, Dad. Trace is in a talkative mood today. You'd better do what you're planning on soon."

Nick waved a weary hand to her and watched her take off across the water. "Good luck," he mumbled.

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The geo coords she'd been sent turned out to be a wild mango grove on the jungle side of the bay. She reached them with minutes to spare, and sat in the saddle of her skimmer to wait. At the appointed hour, she heard a splash, and saw her brother rise out of the water, standing on Jay's back. He hopped off, on to a mangrove tree root that stood in the water.

Tracy lifted his flukes and sat down on the root, arms crossed. "You wanted to talk, so talk. I owe you that much, sis."

Wanda took a deep breath and reran through all the ways she had thought of to ask what their father wanted. She settled on bluntness. "Dad wants to see you. Or rather, dad wants you to be there, at the Aerie, when he does something."


She waited for him to continue, but he stayed annoyingly quiet. "No? NO?! How can you say No? No to Dad!"

"It's easy. No." He looked away a moment before continuing this time. "Dad had his chance. He's had multiple chances. And he's let us down."

"No he hasn't!" she paused a moment to calm herself. "Look, that night, he was on your side. He was trying to help you, to stop mom. And he was heartbroken when you left. But he's trying. He's trying to help you still.

"Every day since you left. We've been fighting with mom. Practically from dusk to dawn, trying to fight your fight. It isn't easy without you there too, but we've been trying."

She nudged her skimmer closer to him. "But that doesn't matter now. I realize, and HE realizes, the fight won't be won. So he wants you there... He wants US there, All of Us including you Jay, for the next stage."

"What next stage?"

She sighed and looked away. "He wouldn't say, but it was obvious. He's going to divorce from Mom." The silence drew out for a moment before she continued in a rush. "It could be something else of course, but I can't imagine what it might be. And he wants us to witness it."

"Why? So he can blame me for breaking the family apart? Or blame Jay? We are what we are."

"RIGHT. He knows that. He won't blame you. But he does want us to be there."

Tracy stayed quiet after she ran out of steam. He stared at her, then at Jay. "Fine. I'll go. But not for him, definitely not for mom. This is for you. As thanks for what you gave us. If anything happens up there, I'm gone. From the Aerie, from Aloha, possibly even from Gondwana."

Wanda sighed in relief and slumped in her skimmer's saddle. "If dad tries anything... and he won't, but if he does. I'll be following right behind you. Let me send the message, and we'll head on up."

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They were halfway across the bay before Wanda broke the silence. "You know, I've been looking for a RIDE of my own. Well, I've always been looking for one, but since you Fused, I've really been looking."

There was a long pause before Tracy answered. "I take it you haven't found one yet?"

"No. There's been a few maybes, but everyone's telling me not to pick a RIDE when angry, and I'm trying to follow that advice. But when you're angry all the time...

"Anyway, most of the RIDEs available around here are exMil, or mining types, usually both, and no offense Jay, but that's not the sort of baggage I'm looking for."

Jay flicked his flukes, jumping over Wanda's skimmer in mid air. "None taken. Not everyone wants to handle that. Have you looked at some of the companies out east? They're making new RIDEs for civ use; brand new RIs."

"Yeah, I've looked at them. They're so expensive...," she sighed and pointed her skimmer upward for the final climb to the Aerie. "Maybe if we can ever get back to normal, we can look that over sanely."

Tracy didn't reply as they rose over the patio railing and landed. He slipped off to let Jay switch back to walker mode.

"We should wait out here, for dad," Wanda said, watching her brother wander over to his box and poke at the gear inside. "Hard to believe it's only been a month. School starts up again in a few days. Were you going to go?" she asked, trying to fill the silence.

"I don't know. I don't think I thought that far ahead," Tracy replied.

Silence settled over the patio again, finally broken by the whir of a skimmer. It landed next to Wanda's, and Nick climbed down. He turned and faced his son. Tracy put a hand on Jay's melon for support.

"You're... You're looking good," Nick said.

Trace looked at his father, seeing the man shaking from fatigue and stims, noticing the heavy bags under his eyes. "You're looking horrible."

"I know. But I'll be better soon. Seeing you is helping." Nick smiled, "I like the tattoo designs. Were they your idea, Jay? I finally saw some of your first fuses and he didn't have any tattoos."

Jay did a flip in the air and chittered happily. "Thank you. I had a lot more control of the nannies, and since we're pod-mates, I figured he should look right."

"Well, why don't we head down to Aloha, and get you that nannie flush and tuneup I promised you. Maybe look into replacing more of the gear you lost too." Nick looked down at the terminal in his hand and the little lightness that had filled him promptly faded. "After I do this. Thank you for coming."

"Right. Let's get it over with." Tracy dropped the cover back on his box and approached his father. Nick nodded appreciatively and turned to the patio doors. Wanda fell into step beside Tracy, with Jay floating between them.

Hannah was waiting for them in the living room, looking as tired and haggard as Nick. "Well well. Look who's finally come home. Have you seen reason?"

Wanda grabbed Tracy's arm, feeling him tense up. Nick cut Hannah off. "Hannah, Stop. We aren't here to argue."

He stepped forward and handed her the terminal. "I've filed for divorce. The winds of change are blowing, Hannah; Trace and Jay, they're part of the future that's coming. I can see that now. But you can't. And we both know you're so stubborn that it would break you long before you could accept it."

She refused to take the terminal, forcing him to place it on an end table next to her. "The lawyers will be in touch in a few days to start dividing things up. You can stay here in the Aerie if you want, until we figure who gets what. We... well Wanda and I, will stay down on the Queen.

"I'm sorry it had to come to this; but it's for the best I think." Hannah deflated as his words sunk in, aging ten years at once. Nick gave her a final look before turning back to his kids. "Come on, I owe you a tune up."

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Wanda and Tracy sat on the Queen of Thorns's launch platform, watching Jay give the twins rides.

"So how was the first day back to classes? You must have had the best 'What did you do over the break?' story."

Tracy laughed, listening to his cousin's screams of joy from the water. "You'd think that, but there were a few others that beat getting a new best friend and becoming a dolphin man."

"I find that hard to believe."

"I'm serious. You remember Louie Marcone? He's part of the Strato club. They rented a sub, flew over to our space elevator and tagged a few dozen klicks of it before jumping back to Zharus. Just because they could.

"And unless they can get the nannies cleaned off before the cable lands and opens, anyone going past the Hundred to Hundred Twenty range will have their comms filled with the entire Strato club mooning them."

Wanda covered her mouth to stifle her laughter. She wiggled her toes in the water, and looked out again until she recovered enough to speak. "So, do you think you'll be ready to come home any time soon?"

He leaned back, rolling partly on his side for his dorsal fin bump, and looked up at the sky. "I don't know. The Queen is big, but it's not that big for all of us."

"That's not what I meant. Dad and mom just settled."


"Mom's leaving Aloha. Heading back to Nextus, and cutting all ties here, with Aloha, with dad, with us.

"Since she is leaving so much behind, her vultures claimed most of our savings and on hand cash. Dad's company connections are intact, but between the alimony and the first chunk she's getting, well, Jay's tuneup is probably the last big splurge we'll have for awhile."

Tracy followed her implications and frowned. "So that means no RIDE for you."

"Right, no RIDE for me. At least not yet. Maybe in a year or two when we've managed to rebuild our savings.

"But that also means that the Aerie is ours again. Mom's packing up and moving out by the end of the week, and we can go back as soon as she's gone."

"Jay and I will have to talk it over. I can't say one way or another."

"I know. But we, dad and I that is, really want you to come home when you're ready. Give us all a chance to try and rebuild what's left of this family."

Tracy rolled away a little, on the other side of his dorsal fin, and closed his eyes. "We'll see. That's all I'll say about it one way or another. It's still a few weeks and a lot can happen in a few weeks."

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Aloha, Zharus Succeeded by: