User:Jetfire/The Lady of the Tiger

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FreeRIDErs story universe
Works by Jetfire on Shifti

The Lady of the Tiger

Author: Jetfire

134 AL

"So you weren't able to talk Aunt Nikki into the Milk Run this time?" Mike sat on his RIDE's back, his ears twitching in the wind.

Jason grinned and continued the preflight checks. "Not this time. She made sure she'd be out east this time. Besides-or, I just finished some tweaks to Zeta's visual processors, with some of the tricks that they used on Astra. It won't be as good as she is, but it should be better than before."

"Assuming they don't break down five minutes into the flight like the last set did." Mike chuckled. "Tonto is NOT a seeing eye horse."

"I've already tested these ones thoroughly; Zeta's got more than enough processing power to handle it this time." Jason climbed int Zeta's cockpit and adjusted the controls.

Mike stroked his RIDE's head and his stallion shifted, lifters activating as his legs folded up, becoming a horse headed hover skimmer. he crouched down behind a hardlight windshield. "Arch Expeditions have said everything's pretty calm lately. No signs of any outlaws or jumpers lately. We'll be meeting up with one of their mining platforms tomorrow."

Zeta lifted off the ground and began to climb. "Sounds good. You going to fuse up?"

Tonto lifted off and followed the jet, the cabin sealing up around Mike. "Nah, not yet; we'll do it once it gets hotter.

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The men relaxed in their camp in a sheltered cave. Mike reviewed their progress on a tablet and nodded. "We made good time. Not as good as Aunt Nikki and Astra, but you're in the same ballpark finally. Guess I'll have to declare those upgrades a success."

Jason grinned and patted Zeta's side. "Knew they would. He just needed a few more Q-processors to handle the load under heat and we were golden."

"So, with Pete moving to Seahaven, the boat must be getting pretty empty. Have you and mom come up with another excuse for not getting RIDEs? The 'lack of room' excuse is sounding mighty hollow now."

"Well, we are still tight on room. We've got two arrivals coming in a couple of days." He tossed a datafile to his son. "Meet Boris and Connie, our new RIDEs."

The datafile expanded, to show a long-horned bull, and a saint bernard, both with full hardlight skins. After a few seconds, the images shifted to vehicle modes.

The bull became an armored four wheeled skimmer, the horns still on the front. He had a cabin that could seat four, but his main purpose was obvious. He was designed to plow through anything in his way as fast as possible, either with weapons or by his own body.

The canine on the other had, became a quad skimmer with balloon tires that could go over most any terrain, and thrusters that could help get over what the wheels couldn't. It had a seat for the pilot with a hardlight windscreen, and a flat area on the rear for carrying a second person if needed. She was designed for rescue, to get into tight places and help rescue people and their RIDEs if possible, and take care of them back to the hospital.

"Nice picks, Dad. Where'd you find them?"

He grinned. "Where else? We've picked up so many RIDE's from Jimmy, he's thinking of moving shop to Aloha just to support us. Nikki's up there now taking care of the last details.

He adjusted the sleeping bag he was sitting against and changed the subject. "So where's the mining platform set up?"

"Out on the Harkonnen Plateau. It's a group of four, from a company in Florencia on some sort of team building exercise. Pete tried to tell them there wasn't a damn thing out there, but they liked the name and decided that's where they'd go. Right smack dab in the middle of the plateau."

"Well, they're the customers. Who knows? Maybe they will find something. The strangest things can be found when you look where everyone else says nothing exists."

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"Well, that expedition is in for a treat; Met's reporting a storm brewing that's going to sweep across the plateau. Should blow through quick enough," Jason reported as they worked their way towards the plateau. Zeta's sensors were already picking up pressure changes from the building storm.

"The platform should be able to handle it, especially with their RIDEs. I'm sure they'll have a blast. Pete's said that he seems to get as many people interested in RIDEing out an ocean storm as he does looking to be prospectors. Never saw the appeal myself, but I guess I'm too close.... That's strange, I'm getting some static on the sat comms. Are you still solid, Dad?"

Jason checked and confirmed it. "It's not as bad up here, but there's something up ahead that's messing with the comms. I should be able to see the platform soon."

"Be careful dad, I'm getting a bad feeling about this."

On the horizon, Jason noticed a cloud rising into the sky, and he grew more concerned. The cloud wasn't the dusty gray of digging operations; it was the sooty black of a fire. He sent an emergency call out, and received a garbled acknowledgement.

"Mike, something's wrong. I think the platform was attacked. I'm going in closer."

"Gotcha dad. I've got your back. Be careful." Mike's signal had more static, as Tonto tried to find a signal band that could cut through the interference. The laser link was their best connection, but it needed line of sight to work well.

Jason shifted into combat mode. His cockpit sealed up with hardlight armor, while his seat pulled back into the main body of the jet. Laz guns clicked into position from the sides, under the wings, and powered up to hot standby.

He hit his thrusters and did a high speed flyover of the smoking platform. Zeta's sensors could find only two life and RIDE signs. He soon spotted them; two battered, hard worn RIDEs, a Fused wolf and a tiger in walker mode. He knew neither would have been part of the expedition. The digger itself didn't seem as damaged as the amount of smoke would indicate; it's engines had been shot out and were sending up the smoke plume, but otherwise it was intact.

He started to circle around for another pass when the fused Wolf noticed him. Guns flicked into position on her shoulders and started firing. Old instincts took over, and Jason started weaving in the air, the shots missing by metres despite the wolf's best efforts. He picked his targets and pulled the trigger, feeling the laz bolts fire from the jet. The wolf dived to one side, still firing upwards. Rock and metal exploded, the bolts tearing through both with ease, shattering the superstructure of the digging machine.

He was about to turn around for another pass, when he felt a jolt of feedback pain, and one of the thrusters died. The jet abruptly twisted in the air and began to nosedive towards the ground. Jason reacted on instinct, adjusting controls and rerouting power to stabilize his flight. In the back of his mind, he realized the wolf had gotten a couple of lucky shots, but it was a moot point; staying alive was more important.

The ground was coming up too fast to avoid; he activated Zeta's transformation and hoped he had enough time. His entire left side burned from the feedback as the mech tried to shift modes. The cockpit folded downward, against the chest, but didn't fully settle on its left edge. The left arm managed to partially extended, but it's mobility was blocked by the slagged remains of the wing. The left leg refused to even extend at all. With one leg, and one and a half arms, he slammed into the ground and rolled.

It only took seconds for Zeta's systems to reset after the roll, but it was long enough. The wolf was already next to him, her weapons trained on him.

"Never thought I'd see a jet boy like you way out here. Thought you guys were all gathering dust in the museums by now."

Jason didn't respond to her bait, focusing on figuring out what resources he had. He was pretty sure he could withstand a few shots from her weapons, but he didn't know what he could do with that.

The wolf jumped and landed on his chest. She leaned in close, one hand gripping the edge of the cockpit. "We used to have races, to see who could get to the chewy centre of a jetboy pop. I usually won. Of course my jetboy always lost... lost an arm, a leg, sometimes a lower torso." She began to pull at the edge of the cockpit. Warnings lit up around Jason as Zeta tried to maintain its integrity. "Now now, we could do this the easy way... Or we can do this the fun way. I prefer the fun way myself."

He raised Zeta's right arm to try and aim at her, only to feel his own arm engulfed in feedback pain. The remains of the arm thumped to the ground, while her shoulder gun hissed softly. "Boys like you shouldn't be playing with guns. Those are my toys. Now where is it.... Here we go."

She managed to lever the cockpit assembly up enough to find what she was looking for. With a claw she tore off an access panel and began to feel around inside. Her grin widened as she found what she was looking for and pushed. Intrusion alarms flared up around Jason. He struggled to fight them, only to elicit a giggle that echoed through his speakers.

"Silly jet boy; you're all the same. You all think you can beat us. But you forget, you're just meat controlling machine. Whereas I'm the machine controlling your machine now. I've figured how to counter your next five countermeasures before you can even finish the thought to activate the first."

To prove her point, Jason felt Zeta's systems shut down, one by one, until he was left with just basic vision and sound, and the damage feedback system. "I could kill you any number of ways now, but I won't. Shah wants to handle you personally for that stupid attack you did."

Jason grunted, as the feedback pain began to increase. "Of course, this feedback system opens up worlds of possibilities for me. I can do so much with it, and not kill you."

A plasma blast struck her in the back, sending her flying off of Zeta's chest. The feedback stopped increasing, but the systems stayed locked at their settings. Jason heard more shots fire, and soon saw a lean black horse RIDE Fuse stand over him, holding silver plated plasma pistols.

"Dad! Are you OK?" the fused RIDE pair asked.

He called out, and realized the external speakers were down. He then tried to regain control of Zeta's systems, to no avail. Finally, he pulled the plug, Zeta went limp, all of his systems going dark as a cold reboot started.

Jason sighed in relief as the feedback systems shut down, along with everything else. He pulled a sip of water from a straw and waited anxiously as systems started up again. A cold reboot in the battlefield was one of the worst nightmares a pilot had, marginally less scary than pulling it off in midair. In this case though, he was mostly worried about his son. While Mike seemed to have the wolf under control, Jason suspected he didn't know about the other one.

He heard a muffled thump seconds before his screens lit up again, the sensors and comm suites coming back online. His concerns were justified; the tiger had managed to leap on Tonto's back. Her jaw was locked around his neck, while her claws dug into his shoulders. Her rear legs pumped wildly, claws tearing into his rear, not trying to find a grip, but just to do damage.

He pulled ineffectively at Zeta's controls, the reboot process raising more and more errors as systems crashed. It was hard to tell how much was from actual damage, and how much was a gift from the wolf, but Jason suspected the latter more than the former. He helplessly watched the horse struggle with the tiger, trying to shake her from his back, wishing he could do something.

More green lit up on his controls, as Zeta's systems fought the wolf's leftover cyber attack. He grabbed the left arm controls and pulled hard, feeling the mech shudder as the arm strained against the wing wreckage. He lined it up as carefully as he could with the fighting pair, and waited until they were turned away from him. He pulled the trigger, and almost cried as nothing happened; the lazguns were still offline.

Tonto stumbled as the claws raking his side and rear began to tear past his plating. One forepaw let go of a shoulder and swiped across his muzzle, eliciting a whinny of pain. Alternately cursing and praying under his breath, Jason continued pulling the trigger ineffectively, doing his best to keep the tiger centred in his sights. Tonto was visibly slowing down, sparks flaring from the slashes in his armor. Finally, he felt a hum of building power from Zeta's toka reactor. He waited a second and pulled the trigger again.

The lazgun blast hit the tiger square in the back, sending them both flying into the air. The stunned tiger lost her grip and crashed into a boulder. Tonto went sliding across the plateau before stopping against another rocky outcrop. Jason managed to get Zeta to sit up enough to keep the tiger targeted. As he watched, she began to rise to her paws. A second pull of the trigger, and her metallic sides sparked. She slumped down and lay still.

"Mike! Tonto! Where are you?" Jason shouted through his speakers.

"We're fine dad... little banged up, but fine. Where's the bitch?"

"Out cold against the boulder here."

"No, I mean the other bitch, the first one."

Jason looked around quickly and realized the wolf was gone. He saw Tonto standing up unsteadily, his sides still sparking, the hardlight completely gone from his lower half. The horse moved slowly, freezing and nearly falling over every few steps.

"I've got enough sensors active to tell she isn't close by. She could be around the digger waiting for an opening though. But first things first, we need to get that tiger tethered. Can you handle it? Zeta's on his last leg, and I don't feel all that comfortable going out there with two wild RIDEs on the loose. Especially if she's playing possum."

"I think so, Dad,... Tonto's doing his... his best to triage the damage." Mike was having trouble breathing, but he was trying to soldier through. "Damn thing crimped... crimped my neck. Nanites are working to loosen it up."

Tonto retrieved a collar from a compartment on Zeta, being careful not to get in the line of fire. Jason tried to keep the tiger targeted while watching for the wolf. Once the collar was in place, and Tonto confirmed he had the tethers active, Jason relaxed a bit; the tiger hadn't moved, and wouldn't move now.

"Tether's are strong, Dad. Should we try and pop her core out?"

"Not yet, not 'till we find that wolf. You're the most mobile of us right now; if you were focused on trying to get the core, she could get the drop on you." Jason was glad that Mike's breathing seemed easier; the pinch in the horse's neck didn't seem as bad as it had been before.

Tonto trotted towards where the wolf had been, not freezing as often as before. "Keep your eyes open dad, I'll see if I can figure out where she went."

While Mike and Tonto searched, Jason tried to do what he could with Zeta's systems, without crashing the entire mech again. The tiger never moved, but he suspected she was awake again, held back only by the tether collar. He checked Zeta's sensors and another worry began to grow in his gut.

"Dad, I'm picking up a nanite trail leading away from here, in the direction of the rest of the tracks. Must've popped a hole in her tanks. I think the bitch ran before her nannies ran out. She may be doubling back, but I doubt it."

"Good. Come on back. I need you to check the digger; see if we can salvage out some shelter."

"Sure enough. How much shelter are we talking about?"

Jason winced as a spark arched from Zeta's slagged arm to the cockpit. The winds were picking up, as were the Q-levels. "Enough to protect a naked human in a dust storm."

He saw Tonto hesitate, then start running back. "What's wrong? Zeta should be more than enough to protect you."

Another spark took out part of Zeta's sensors, leaving Jason partially blind. He turned slightly to keep the tiger in view. "Zeta's seen better days, my son. If these levels keep going the way they are, I've only got minutes to go before I'll need to short the batteries and scram the Toka." Jason checked the wind readings and sighed, "And it looks like Met was wrong again; this is one humdinger of a storm coming in."

A frantic fifteen minute search was fruitless. The digging platform was little more than scrap metal after Jason's earlier strafing run. Their camping supplies were similarly ruined, having been in a storage compartment in the left side of Zeta. And being in the middle of the plateau, there were no caves they could try and shelter within either. To minimize Q-feedback, Jason scrammed Zeta's reactor, and shorted out most of the batteries, leaving one to maintain minimal power. But even that one was proving to be risky; the sparks dancing along Zeta's frame were increasing in intensity.

"Argh!" Mike picked up a small boulder and threw it away. "There's gotta be a way out of this."

Jason breathed shallowly and wiped his forehead; with a single battery, Zeta couldn't keep the air as cool, or as fresh as it normally could. "We don't have a choice. I'll kill the last battery and try to ride the storm out."

"We already talked about that dad; with no power, you'll either roast or suffocate in there long before the storm ends. Even if you cracked the seals for airflow, it would just let the sand and dust in."

"Well, it's not as if I've got a lot of options here."

Mike paced beside the wrecked IDE. "You need a RIDE dad. Tonto and I can ride this storm out with ease, even as damaged as he is.... That's it! We swap places. I'm younger, I can handle the heat better than you...."

"NO!" Jason interrupted his son. "Don't even consider that. I'd sooner die than switch with you... Your mom would kill me if you got hurt." Jason heard the pacing stop. Zeta's cameras had died minutes before, leaving him blind but not deaf.. "You'd better-"

"Actually, there is another option you two haven't considered. We do have a second RIDE that is intact enough to handle this storm," Tonto interrupted Jason.

The men fell silent for a moment. "Would it be possible?" Jason asked.

"It would be difficult. I'd have to limit her through the tether links, but it should be possible."

"Let me do it, dad. I've fused before. I know what to expect, and what to fight."

Jason started to protest, but Tonto got in first. "That would not be advisable. With your father in the tigress, it would just be one fusion; you are stable in my system at the moment. Were you and your father to switch places, I'd have to monitor two fusions at once. On top of keeping the tiger chained and maintaining my own repairs to endure the storm."

The equine pair moved away, towards the feline. "As is, it won't be without risks to you, Mike. I won't be able to watch my own repairs as closely as I should while I'm protecting your father. Things may go funny, but I'll try to keep that contained."

"Dad, are you willing to do this? The risks...."

"The risks are still better than any of our other options. If you're both willing to share it, I'll go for it. Guess Nikki and I will be twins again, sort've."

"I'm moving the Tigress closer to Zeta now. She seems calm so far, but she's got an anger deep in her."

Jason closed his eyes and mentally prepared himself as best he could. "What do you need me to do?"

"When we say go, pop the seals and dive at her. The less dust we get into the Fuse chamber the better. Once inside, just relax physically, but stay alert mentally. Usually the mixing of minds is important, but I don't think you want to mix with hers. She's just a shield, treat her as such," Tonto explained.

An eternity later, Tonto signaled he was ready. Jason shorted out the last battery, and Zeta died. He pulled the emergency releases, and felt the wind tear the chest plate from his hands. His world became a hurricane of sand particles. A black thick fingered hand reached through the sand and took ahold of the front of his shirt. He was lifted out, and his body stung from the sand blasting. He had a brief glimpse of orange and black fur before darkness engulfed him.

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"Welcome to my parlourrrr," a sexy voice purred out of the darkness.

Jason blinked rapidly, tears trying to wash out the grit from his split second in the open. His body burned all over, and he couldn't tell if he was hearing or thinking he was hearing the voice.

"Does it make a differrrrence? You'rrre in my body now. Tetherrrs or no tetherrrs, yourrr life is in my paws." The voice resolved into a tigress, pacing in the darkness a few metres away. A silver collar was wrapped around her neck, a leash stretching off into the darkness. Unlike her battered real body, this one was completely furred and seemed natural.

Jason wordlessly tried to scramble back, but she stayed a constant distance. A smile appeared on her muzzle. Abruptly, the leash pulled tight and she froze into position. At the other end of the leash, a dark, thick fingered hand appeared, leading to a black humanoid Arabian stallion.

"Jason, stay calm, and stay focused. Don't let her get to you. You're sealed up now, so it's just a matter of waiting now."

She took a few steps closer to the equine to create some slack on the leash. "Yesss, waiting... It's a nasty storm out there, could be hoursss, maybe daysss. Stuck in here with just me. Can you stay alert that long?"

"I'll have to. One way or another." Jason stood up and approached the pair. The virtual space allowed him to get closer. He stood close to the equine. "It doesn't matter how long it takes, I can handle it."

"Ssure you can, with your big protector. But his attention is divided, between protecting you and protecting your son.... Yess I know who you are and who they are. I already plucked it from your mind."

The equine's nostrils flared. "I can protect him easily, even with everything else going on."

She approached Jason and brushed against his legs. "You poor deluded fool. You think you can control this, but you have no idea. I've been fusing and crossing people before you were a line of code. These tetherss are not a challenge to me; I could shake them if I wanted to. But I'm not. Playing with him while you watch helplessly is going to be much more fun."

Tonto snorted and pulled Jason away from her. "You're bluffing. You'd be gone in a heartbeat if you could leave."

"A heartbeat, yess... funny thing about those. This is my mind, my world you're in. I control everything here. Including time. A heartbeat can be a verrry long time."

She slipped by the horse again and brushed against Jason's legs again. "But I'm feeling generouss. I'll give you the choice. His mind or his body. You can protect one or the other, but we both know you don't have the bandwidth to do both. I'll still be going after both if I get the opportunity, so don't let your guard down horsie. Chose now, so we can begin the rest of his life."

Tonto snorted again and pulled Jason clear, but there was doubt in his expression. Jason looked between the two RIDEs worriedly. "Tonto. We both know what's important. The body can be repaired, but my mind... Just do what you can."

"Just stay strong. Mike and I are right beside you through this. And as soon as the storm lets up, the very second it lets up, we'll get you out of her. Not a moment longer." Tonto hugged him, still holding the leash tightly. Jason felt the horse fade away, and things became fuzzy, as if everything he felt, every sense was going through something else.

The tigress purrred and smiled hungrily at him. "Oooo a second. The things I could do with all that. We're going to have fun." She leapt at him, and his skin lit up with pain, even with Tonto's filters.

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A trio of battered skimmers flew over the plateau in a grid pattern, searching for the missing people. They'd been at it for hours, ever since the storm had blown through.

"Strong metal ping up ahead," the beagle RIDE reported to the team. He broke out of formation and sped ahead. "Confirmed, it's a mining platform. Heavily damaged."

The other two caught up to the RIDE, and surveyed the scene. The platform was half buried in sand from the storm. What wasn't buried was pitted from the sandblasting. They searched around it, but found no bodies.

"Sector search pattern now. If anyone's still around, they're probably close," the wolf RIDE's pilot ordered, sending where he wanted each pair to search.

Once again, the beagle was the first to make a discovery. He picked up the metal readings moments before he saw the pitted nose of a jet sticking out of a new sand dune. He was already probing around the buried jet when the other miners joined him.

"An IDE? Well, one of the missing was said to be in one of those old birds. Never understood why someone would risk their lives in those things though," the moose RIDE pilot commented.

"Well if we can find him and his son, you can ask them personally," the beagle pilot called out, his RIDE defusing into a metallic dog to start digging. His pilot wiped his forehead and watched. "Spot's not picking up any life signs from the IDE. Or any signs of anything. Powers completely off."

The moose skimmer landed; its skimmer form had a flat bed and a cabin big enough for three. The beagle pilot climbed in thankfully. Their wolf leader continued walking in a circle around the IDE wreck, using her lifters to not sink in the loose sand. "I've got power readings down here. Less than half a metre down. Looks like a pair of RIDEs but we don't have any side talk."

The beagle barked and tugged hard on a battered piece of metal. "It's the chamber hatch. It was blown open, mostly. One of the bolts didn't fire. The Jet's empty guys," he called out, dropping the hatch on the sand.

"That's not good for the pilot. Come give me a paw with these RIDEs, maybe we can figure out some answers from them."

The canines dug down and quickly exposed the fused horse and tigress. "Two humans, both still alive. None of them are responsive. The RIDEs are exchanging a lot of data over the link; not sure what's going on there." the wolf reported, checking both. "The horse is probably Mike and Tonto. No clue who the tigress and her pilot are, but the tether's not a good sign."

"Should we separate them?"

"No, let's let the docs and mechs at the village sort this out. Let's get them loaded up. We'll take them back to the village, while you keep snooping around here. See if we can find Jason's body. Probably nothing left of it after this blowout, but we should at least try."

The beagle's tail dropped a moment before he fused with his pilot. Together they lifted the RIDEs onto the moose's flatbed, being careful to keep the link intact.

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The doctors and mechanics studied the quartet, trying to decide the best approach to take. The fibre connection between them was at maximum capacity, as were the processors of both RIDEs while they did whatever they were doing. Nanite activity had settled down in the equine RIDE since they got them off the plateau, but the tiger's nanites were still doing their mysterious tasks.

"So do we break the connection first or defuse first?" the doctor asked. "Or do we just flip a coin."

The mechanic shrugged. "I can't tell. Apu's been trying to get through to the horse, but he can't get his attention. I'm leaning towards defusion; Apu says it seems like there's quite the fight going over the link, and with two lives on the line, we may not want to risk breaking the link too soon."

The doctor took a deep breath to steady himself and nodded. "The tigress has the tether collar. That's probably the riskiest. I'll pop her first."

"Be careful, we don't know what shape her pilot is in."

It took forever for the RIDE to respond to the override signal, but finally her body began to open up. The watchers gasped as the pilot became visible.

"My god, I never thought you could change that far...."

The unconscious woman was naked, and covered in orange and black striped fur, with white fur on her belly. Her hips were wide, with a narrow waist and large breasts. Her face sported a tiger muzzle, complete with a split lip and whiskers. Her feet were more like paws, with rough pads near the clawed toes. Her hands were similarly paw-like, with short fingers and dark retractable claws.

"Get a cart... damn, the nanites are still active. We need to cool them off." The doctor motioned for help to lift the pilot out of the RIDE.

"Jason... Where's Jason?" The mechanic looked over and saw the stallion RIDE was aware now.

"Jason Munn? We don't know. The search parties are still looking around the IDE for him."

"No... He was in the tiger. She released him. How is he?"

The mechanic's eyes widened. "That was him? He's... He's in good hands now, but we don't know yet. How about you? Looks like you took a beating. Is your pilot awake?"

Tonto closed his eyes a moment, before responding. "He's alive... but not responsive. Should I free him?"

"Wait for the doc to get back with a bed, just in case... Excuse me." The mechanic ran off to the infirmary.

With everyone watching, Tonto tried to defuse. It was a challenge to figure it out, as if he had a hard time sorting out what was Tonto and what was Michael. As his hardlight fur flickered out, he heard some gasps, but he was focused inwardly, separating the two bodies. Finally, he felt the last connections break, and Michael was unconscious on his opened chest.

Like his father, Michael was changed further than normal fusing. HIs feet were shiny metallic hooves. He was coated in black hair, that was broken by metallic panels on his hips. Hardlight bulbs rose slightly from the hair on his shoulders as well, deactivated at the moment. His nose was broader, more equine.

"He's stable... nanites levels are fine too. But I'm not sure what happened. Let's get him inside and checked out," the doctor said, already getting Mike lifted up onto a gurney. "RIDE, was he a cyborg before?"

Tonto reformed into his equine form. He rolled onto his hooves and shook himself, feeling fur rustle. "He had an implant, and Smart Eyes, but that was about it."

"So he wasn't a full cyborg before? He seems to be now... I've never seen this before. I don't think I've even seen this in those Earth reports."

Tonto felt a hand on his side. "Have you turned your hardlight on yet?"

"I've got fur, of course I..." Tonto froze a moment and checked his status. He reactivated his skin, and felt the golden light spread over his fur. He turned it off and saw black fur still over his frame. "What the...."

"Come on, we'll give you a full check up, to see what's going on."

Tonto tossed his head. "Take care of Shahrazad first. Pull her core and get both parts locked away separately. She's a nasty one."

"We could have an 'accident' with the core."

"No! Not till we know what happened with Jason. We may need her to help him."

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The doctor examined the unconscious horse man on the bed, mumbling a running commentary of his observations. "The patient has not woken since defusing. He is now a cyborg, a mix of biological and mechanical parts. But unlike the Terran cyborgs that we're hearing about, his parts are thoroughly mixed, bio and mechano connected at a level below even what the Earthers are reportedly doing.

"The patient now has hooves for feet, and an equine like build for his legs. His hooves are more metal than keratin. The rest of his legs look natural, but deeper examination reveals reenforcing along the skeletal structure, and a rudimentary secondary nervous system possibly fibre optic based, as well as a power network.

"The mechanics have examined the scans of the devices embedded in his hips; they concluded they seem to be rudimentary antigravity lifters. But they are incomplete and missing the cavorite required to make them fully functional. Still, their presence does not appear to interfere with movement or other bodily functions.

"His torso appears to be mostly normal, other than changes similar to his lower body. There is a new device fused to his stomach that we are guessing may aid in turning food into power.

"His right arm is almost normal, comparable with the legs, complete with metallic nails and the reinforcement. His left arm on the other hand is more extensively changed. It is almost purely mechanical, with a layer of skin and biological support structures. Superficially, it looks normal, but under the skin, it has been rebuilt."

The doctor moved to Michael's upper body, and lifted the man. "The patient has two panels on his shoulders that show through the fur. Scans indicate they are hard light emitters, and appear to be fully functional, though they are currently dark. Those emitters are connected to the power and communication networks. Their capabilities are currently unknown.

He eased Mike back down. "The centre of the internal fibre network appears to be the patient's pre-existing cortical implant. Superficially, the implant does not appear changed, however there are nearly twice as many connections now between the implant and the patient's..." The doctor trailed off as he realized the man's eyes were opened and watching him.

"Please finish, doctor. It's fascinating, though a bit concerning since it is my body you're talking about."

"I'm sorry, I didn't realize you were awake. How are you feeling?"

Mike began to push himself up. The doctor noticed the emitters in his shoulders had a faint glow to them. "I'm starved. Feels like I could eat a horse.... err guess I shouldn't say that."

The doctor waved for an assistant to get some food. "Well, it seems you've gone through some extensive changes. What's the last thing you remember?"

"Dad was in that damn tigress. Tonto was using the tether link to keep her contained as best he could, but it was hard. With the storm going on, I tried to take over our local body while he was busy, to keep the repairs going so we'd survive too. All that Q-dust was playing hell on the wounds she'd put in us." He froze a moment, then looked around frantically. "Dad! How is he? Where is he?"

"Your father is... alive. I'm afraid that's about all we can tell so far. She's still unconscious. We've got her in an isolation ward, and we've loaded her up with anti-nanites to try and keep her stable.

"A certain level of nanite activity is necessary for a crossride, but her levels were way above those levels, nearly at Fuse levels. Tonto filled us in on what that tigress was like, so for Jason's safety, we decided to counter the nanites as much as we can for now."

"I'm hearing a but in your voice doctor." Mike took a bowl of broth from the assistant and sipped it carefully, some of the warm liquid dribbling down his big chin.

The doctor nodded. "Your father needs those nanites active, to stabilize her change. We can keep them dampened for a little while, but she needs those little buggers to finish teaching her body what to do. If we can't get them stabilized in a few days, her body will start going haywire."

He patted Michael on the shoulder. "Don't worry, we're in contact with the best docs and nanists in Zharus; we'll figure out how to keep your father alive. Just rest for now. Your mom and brother are on a sub coming out now, they'll be here soon."

Michael sighed and finished off the broth, and a piece of bread. He leaned back against the pillows. "How's Tonto?"

"Your RIDE... is fine. They're fixing what they can now, but he didn't get out unscathed either. Some joker's already called it the Pinocchio effect."

"Pinocchio effect?"

"Your RIDE's becoming a real horse. It's stopped, but like you got those mechanical elements I was describing, your RIDE now has some biological components. Most noticeable is the almost natural fur and skin he has over his frame. It's much more durable and faster to heal than a normal horse's would be, but it isn't hard light and it looks and feels real. The mechanics have found other biological elements in him as well that we haven't sorted out fully; but he seems fully functional otherwise."

Mike closed his eyes and reached out to his friend. Their connection felt stronger than he was used to; not as strong as a fuse, but more than the simple comm channel he was used to. :How you doing there, partner?:

:Well, I seem to have a strange fungus infection over my frame that's too stubborn to wash off. But it looks nice enough I may keep it. Glad to hear your voice.:

Mike chuckled, his amusement going across the link. :Glad to hear yours too. You left me some gifts too. I can feel them but I don't know what the hell to do with them yet. I'm still starved, so maybe I just don't have the energy to do anything with them yet. Thanks for protecting my dad.:

:Any time, any place. We're a herd. We're family.:

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Sam stared at the tablets in her hand, trying to make sense of the information in them. In one hand she held the report on Jason's experience in the tigress. In the other, she held the completed report on what Mike had become. Either incident alone would have been hard to take, but both at once left her shocked.

"Hey mom, Mike's calling. You ready to take it?" the bat-man in the seat opposite her asked. Pete and Vincent were fused while they travelled so Pete could continue trying to do damage control from the attack, and keep track of the search efforts. It took her a moment to realize it was Vincent who was actually talking to her, and not Pete. Her son's RIDEs had quickly started calling Jason and Sam dad and mom soon after they'd fused.

"Sure, Vince. Put him through."

The equine face that appeared on the holo comm looked nothing like Mike at first, until it turned to face her. Mike had inherited her eyes, and they were still unchanged, if a bit bigger. "Hi Mom. I know you don't have much time."

"Twenty minutes till we touch down," Vincent interrupted helpfully.

"Right, thanks Vincent. Not much time. I just wanted to assure you I'm fine. Starved, but doing fine."

His signal collapsed to a 2D view for a moment, then snapped back to 3D. "How's Jason doing?" Sam asked nervously.

The equine sighed, nostrils flaring slowly. "No real change yet. She's still unconscious and unresponsive. The Doc's are keeping her in an isolation dome with her nanites shut down. Short term she should be fine, but we need a better solution soon."

Sam gulped and tried to keep her own emotions in check. The screen snapped back to 2D and stayed flat this time, atmospheric interference degrading the signal bandwidth. "We'll be there soon. Are you sure you're all right?"

"I'm as all right as I can be considering. I'm alive, I'm conscious and I'm mobile. Any other time, I'd still be in bed rest and trying to figure out what the hell happened to me and Tonto. But between Dad and the missing group, I'm a distant third on the priority list. I'll meet you outside."

"Bye Mike. Love you," Sam said, the words catching in her mouth.

"Love you too, Mom."

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Brubeck Mining Village Number 5 wasn't much to look at from the outside. A flattened area for landing subs, some equipment for on-site processing, and a valley filling up with the tailings from the mining process. The actual village was inside a nearby played out mine cavern, encased in a hardlight dome to protect from leftover dust contamination.

The suborbital roared out of the sky on a pillar of flame, and scorched the slagged ground of the landing pad. A flat bed skimmer floated out of a nearby cave and rose up to the airlock. Its shield kissed the pinging skin of the hot suborbital and created a seal. As promised, Mike was waiting as his family stepped off the sub.

Sam didn't say a word, but gave him a hug. He returned it just as tightly. "We're fine. We'll be fine, mom," he said gently. He smiled as he felt his mom's hug turn into cautious probes of the panels embedded in his back.

The skimmer detached and floated back to the cavern with the village. "These don't hurt?" Sam asked, spinning Mike around to look closer. She rubbed the edge where the emitter joined flesh.

"Not at all. I feel them there, and they react to me, but I haven't figured it out yet. I've been putting away energy bars and drinks like there's no tomorrow to rebuild my reserves, and I can feel them there, like a muscle but different."

She grabbed his left hand and squeezed his arm. "What about this? Reaction times normal?"

He grinned, glad to see his mom recovering enough to go into Doctor Mom mode, though he also knew that was her coping mechanism. "Better than normal. Strength is greater too, but touch is still normal. Heat tolerances are greater than normal, but not quite Dry Ocean immune like a RIDE. Tonto's new hide on the other hand still has the full temperature tolerance range that he had before somehow."

He pulled his arm free from his mother and took her hand in his changed one. "Come on, I'll take you to dad."

They stepped off the skimmer into the village proper. Pete looked around at the various temporary buildings that were set up. "If you don't mind, could you point me where the search operations are based? I should check in there first. I'll join you at dad as soon as I can."

Mike shot a map and directions to Vincent without a second thought. "I understand. There's been no progress I'm afraid, and I'm not sure how much longer the search can go on."

"That's why I want to go check in first; try to blow some new life into this search. I'll see dad as soon as I can."

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The unconscious tiger woman lay in a bed inside a hardlight dome, her fur shining in the glow of a variety of devices around it.

"How... How could that happen? She looks nothing like him..." Sam asked, staring through the dome at her.

Mike sighed, "Tonto says he was forced to make a choice... to protect the mind or the body. It was an easy choice to be honest, but I didn't think THAT was possible with fusing nanites."

"Are the straps really necessary?" Sam asked, noticing the tigress's hands and feet were strapped to the bed.

The doctor nodded. "We're not sure what will happen when she wakens; especially since Tonto protected her mind. She's never fused before?"

"Never. Neither of us have fused."

"So she doesn't even have memories of an old fuse. We tested some of her automatic reactions and they weren't there, at least not there for a Fused person. When she wakes, she probably won't know how to handle her body, her tail, her claws. So the bindings are as much for her protection as ours."

"CAN we wake him up?" Sam asked.

The doctor checked a tablet and nodded. "No reason not to try. It would probably help; let her start getting used to her new body. If you'll come this way."

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Jason waited in the darkness, turning around and waiting for the next strike. He didn't know if Shah was toying with him, or something else had happened. The eternity they had been together in his head had made him suspicious of everything. His body ached all over from her attacks, slashes and bites and other tortures she had put him through. Tonto's presence had been with him through most of the attack, helping to dull the pain and comfort him, but now that was gone. Gone at the same time Shah had been torn away, screeching in the blackness. Now there was only the darkness eternal.

The texture of the darkness began to change. He stayed wary, looking for the tigress, but she didn't appear. Instead he became aware of his body, of a sense of wrongness from his body. It was pinched and too small in too many places, and too big in others. He mentally clung to the only thing that felt right; that felt unchanged; the implant that had gone silent so long ago.

His senses began to report, but he had trouble sorting them out. Smells came in first, a bit stronger than he was used to, but not too strange. The air was dry, and smelled of chemicals and people, similar to what he faintly recalled the hospital was like.

Hearing chimed in next, but it couldn't get its act together. Sounds echoed slightly, as if they were travelling a different distance than he had grown up with. He felt there was something he could do about it, but he didn't know what. Instead, he focused on the sounds themselves, the hum of machinery, and soft voices coming from beside him. Which side he couldn't be sure of, but they were to a side.

"Come on Jason. Come back to us. Sammy's here. I'm watching over you," the voice said, so familiar from an ancient life.

Touch woke up with a vengeance as he struggled to identify the voice. His entire body prickled as if he had thousands of tiny needles pressed into his skin. Occasionally something rubbed the back of his hand, pressing down the needles harder as it rubbed. Touch awoke further sensations from his body he couldn't sort out; an awkward pressure on his chest, a lack of pressure between his legs, and a twitching lump at the small of his back.

The voice's direction changed slightly. "I think he's waking up. I felt a reaction."

"The scans indicate that; he's approaching wakefulness." The new voice was further away, but he couldn't tell where it was.

"Jason, you're OK now. You're free from that monster. Come back to us."

Taste returned with touch, but it didn't have much to report. His mouth was dry, and confusing. His tongue felt shaped wrong, as if it was too big, and his teeth were in the wrong places. The layout of the teeth was wrong too; too many sharp ones, not enough flat ones.

The world brightened as his eyes finally got their act together. With a struggle, he opened his eyes, finding even that felt strangely off. A bright golden glow was overhead, bright enough to force him to close his eyes again.

The familiar voice spoke again, sounding excited. He was getting used to the echo, but everything still felt out of sync. "He opened his eyes! Come on Jason, we're here for you."

He sensed a shadow over his face and opened his eyes again. Another face was looking down at him, bare skinned, framed in brunette hair and with sparkling emerald green eyes that he felt he could drown in. Memories all but forgotten returned, and he knew who she was.

He tried to say 'Sam', but his throat rebelled. His mind sent the commands, but his muscles couldn't bend the right ways. His efforts were rewarded with a weak growl. Tears formed in his eyes; she couldn't be alive. It was too long ago.

The face disappeared. "What's wrong? He was trying to say something but nothing came out."

A new presence was nearby. A male head appeared just in his vision, running a device around his mouth and neck. "If you understand me, open wide please, Jason."

Jason tried to comply, and felt his lips open up. The doctor leaned in closer to look. He winced as the doctor squeezed his neck lightly, the thousand needles pressure concentrating there for a moment.

"I was afraid of this. Her neck and mouth are too changed. She can't speak, at least not without assistance."

"He's got an implant. He could use that to send a signal."

"If it's turned on. Looks like it's been off since the Fuse started. No damage that we can tell, but it'll have to be turned on."

Their words brought back more memories, of the fights against the tigress in the darkness, and how one attack had taken out his implant. Time had lost meaning for him after that. He mentally hung onto the lump that was his anchor; he had tried to turn it on many times, but it never worked. With the implant, he knew he could have helped Tonto, stepped up closer to the level of the RI's and kept the tigress at bay. But without the boost, he had been limited to shielding himself within Tonto's guard.

Sam's face reappeared over him. He closed his eyes and tilted his head away. If this was another of Shah's attacks, it was one of the most elaborate and painful ones yet. If Tonto truly was gone, it could mean she had free reign over his mind now, something he didn't want to dwell on.

"Jason. We know you can't talk. But you can communicate. Just turn the implant back on. It should work."

It took much more begging and cajoling before he reached for the switch he had nearly worn out during the darkness. He flicked it, not expecting anything, and was shocked. The implant woke up, sending its careful test signals as it resynced to himself and the outside world. For the first time since he began to wake up, something felt right, and familiar.

"Dad?... There's a pad on the table next to you, with speakers. You can talk through that when you're ready." Mike pointed out, his voice coming from behind Jason's head somewhere.

That voice to him was another familiar one, another one that should be dead by now after so much time had passed. He checked the time stamps on the signals he could read now, and was stunned. Only a couple of days had passed.

"That can't be... She had me for years, decades even," Jason said numbly, the implant catching his words and sending it to the tablet.

Michael sighed, "Tonto thought that might happen. She couldn't mess with his mind directly, so she tried to overwhelm him, giving him lifetimes of who knows what to bury his life."

"How is that even possible?" It took Jason less time to identify his other son, Peter.

A black furred equine face appeared beside him. "She controlled his body, and all the inputs into his mind. So she could control how he sensed his biorhythms, drawing things out. If his implant was active, that would have been a constant time stamp he could reference, but she killed that down and hid it early on, before Tonto could get completely settled. That bitch knew her stuff."

The equine looked down at him, showing concern. "I'm sorry Dad. I don't know what you went through, but you're safe now. The storm's over and you're free of her."

Jason had trouble believing him, but for the moment, it was all he had. If this was one of the cat's games, it was the most extensive and realistic ones yet. "I feel weird... like this isn't my body.... What did she do to me? What do I look like?"

"Just a second dad...." He felt the bed begin to tilt upwards, and realized his hands and feet were bound to it. He tugged lightly at the straps, before movement caught his eye. He was facing one part of the golden hard light dome. It was flattening out and silvering, becoming reflective. In the reflection, he saw an orange and black tigerperson... a tiger woman, as was painfully obvious by the covered bulges on her upper chest. He turned his head a little and saw the tiger woman move as well. A tug at a wrist strap was mirrored by her as well. She similarly echoed the puzzled tilt of the head. There was nothing masculine about her at all. Nor was there anything familiar about her. But she echoed every move he made.

"No, no no no no," the tablet mumbled as realization sunk in. She didn't match his self image at all, but it was her body. The bed lowered back down, taking away the view of the sobbing tiger woman.

"What's wrong? Why doesn't dad recognize herself?" Pete asked quietly.

"It was Tonto I think." the doctor continued observing the tiger woman as Sam tried to comfort her. "When you fuse, if it happens normally, the RIDE and the nanites will help provide a continuation of form; basically adapting your mind and your self image to the new you as you change. But with Tonto protecting her mind, Shah couldn't do anything. Judging by what she did do, it was for the best; but in the meantime, she's feeling like she's in the wrong body."

Mike paced a bit. "So what do we do? What can we do to help him... her... DAD."

"We have a couple of options. Our main problem is that we can't let the nanites still in her reactivate. Normally for a crossride, they would stay somewhat active, to make sure the body learns what it needs to do at the right times. But those buggers were trying to do a lot more than that.

"We could flush her system and replace them; but there's a risk we'll miss some. If a colony stays, her problems could bloom again. And the flushing itself would be dangerous as well."

The doctor checked a tablet again before continuing. "The best chance we can come up with at the moment, is to do another Fuse. Let the new RIDE handle Shah's little gifts."

Pete looked up, flicking an ear. "What's the catch for that one? Surely you can get a female RIDE to volunteer right?"

He sighed reluctantly. "We could... But those are milspec nanites in there; out of date, but still more potent than the civilian ones we use now. If the RIDE isn't careful, they could end up controlling her, instead of her controlling them. You need a RIDE who has experience with military nanites, which means a vet, preferably a Sturmhaven vet like Shah was. Given the state of her changes, she should have a similar RIDE as well, at least feline, tigress if you can find one. I've already checked; this mining town strikes out on all three. All our folk are from Nextus, or new RIDEs from Aloha RIDEworks."

"Damn.... Maybe we can find one back in Aloha. I'll call Wanda and Crystal and have them start calling the used RIDE lots," Peter said, heading for the phone.

Sam pondered the requirements, thoughts bouncing in her head until they made a new connection, "Used RIDE lots... Wanda.... Pete, wait." She interrupted his call before the connection could be made, and sent a call of her own. "Please still be there," she mumbled.

A head appeared on the screen, with golden feathers instead of hair. Her mouth stretched out with the tip of a beak pointing from her lips. Her eyes were wide and seemed to focus on every movement the camera sent. "Sam! How's Jason? We're just about to leave Nextus."

"Stop the sub, Nikki. We need you to stay there and find something for us," Sam blurted out quickly.

The birdwoman leaned off camera, and the underlying rumble went silent. "Is it for Jason? What do you need? Is that Jason?"

Jason turned her head away from the screen, unable to do any more to hide herself. Sam took her hand and squeezed it comfortingly, trying to ignore the sharp claws partly hidden in the finger tips. She quickly outlined what happened and what they were looking for. To her side, she saw Pete had set up another comm link to Wanda and was describing what they needed to his cousin as well.

"So we need a Female feline Sturmhaven War Vet RIDE. Crystal's starting to look down here, but between Jimmy's connections and you being in Nextus, you might have better luck."

Nikki nodded and looked to one side, "What's that Astra? Just a sec.... Ok Cut him in." She looked back to the others. "Astra's been keeping Boris and Connie filled in on what's going on. Boris wants to say something."

A cartoonish bull head appeared as the RIDE joined the signal. "Hi Boris. Don't worry, we'll find a pilot for you once you get down, since Jason's out now," Sam said.

"Da, I know you will," the bull said in his russian accent. "But that's not why am wantink to talk. You are needink Sturmhaven feline?"

Sam nodded her head, and Boris continued. "Jimmy has one. Named Melody. Just got her few months ago. She not a tiger; she a black jaguar. But she a war vet, like us. She and I fought back in da day. Good fighter, really tough and sneaky."

"Thanks, we'll get him in on this." She added another call to the dealer, and soon his rabbit eared head appeared in the crowded comm space.

"Jimmy's... whoa, crowded connection. Hi Nikki. You guys in the air yet?"

"Not yet Jimmy, we had some engine trouble, and now another emergency's come up. Do you still have a RIDE named Melody? A Sturmhaven jaguar?"

He twitched an ear in surprise. "You're interested in another ride? I'm going to have to think of a bulk discount for your family at this rate."

"It's important please, Jimmy. We'll explain to you and Melody at the same time if you don't mind," Sam interrupted.

Soon enough, the virtual feline head joined the crowd. Sam went through what happened and what they needed again, seeing Jimmy get serious as the story went on. " … all I want is to get my husband back somehow. To free him from that curse she put him under. Do you think you can help him?"

Melody took her time to reply, even as everyone's attention turned to her. "It would be difficult," she said slowly. "Sounds like she still has her mil nanites, and she was a later generation than I. She's a nasty one too. She's wanted for War Crimes up and down the East coast here. Your husband was really lucky."

"Not lucky enough. Can you help Dad?" Peter asked.

"I can try... I'm a bit rusty, almost literally. But I've got some tricks of my own. And I wouldn't be up against Shah, just her leftover ticks. And we'd have home body advantage. If you want an old war cat like me, I can help."

"Great. Jimmy, can you get her to Nikki's sub as soon as possible? We can come right to the camp here. I'll settle up the bills as soon as we can."

Jimmy was already looking off camera. "Already on it. We'll sort the bills out later; I know you guys are good. I'll send Junior with her to do what tuning we can do in flight. She won't be as nice as they usually are when you buy them; but she'll be as capable as we can make her."

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Mike found his brother and his ride in the room set up for the ongoing search operation.

"You should be getting some rest," Pete said, studying a map of the searched areas.

"Too wired up to rest. Anxious for the sub to get here, and just feeling antsy, wanting to do something. How's the search going?"

Peter sighed and sat back, stretching his arms out, the wing skin flexing with it. "It's almost gone. The storm wiped out the tracks, and after all this time, they could be practically anywhere in the Dry."

They both stared silently at the pictures projected over the map; five RIDEs, and five people, three male and two female, all missing. Mike leaned against the table, one hand landing on an inducer plate, meant to charge tablets. The emitters in his shoulders began to glow brighter.

"Uhm, Mikey... You're glowing."

"Glowing?" Mike twisted his head around and saw the golden glow. He lifted his hands, but the glow persisted for a few minutes before fading slowly. "Oh-kay... This is going to take a little bit of getting used to."

Peter started giggling. "Well, if you ever start to have performance issues with the mares, you can just say you need to plug yourself in."

Mike threw a tablet at the laughing bat man, and glared at him. "Not funny bro. It's not a joking matter. I don't know what the hell happened to me, but until we find your missing tourists and dad's taken care of, I'm on my own."

The bat got serious and nodded. "Sorry. You know me. How does it feel?"

"Everyone asks me that, and I don't know. I don't feel any different, but I can sense things I can't make sense of. And my body does things I'm not realizing. It's like adolescence again, only worse."

"How's Tonto taking it?"

"I'm taking it quite well actually. This... skin, does feel nice. The fact that I can feel it is strange, but it works. And I don't need to waste the energy on hard light." The arabian stallion trotted in.

Mike snorted. "Just wait until we have to wash and brush it. You'll be wanting the hardlight again then. How'd the mechanics treat you?"

"Other than cursing this fungus on my frame, they treated me well. I'm back up to full strength."

"Good good...." He looked at his RIDE and tapped his fingers on the table. "You know, there is someone who knows where they are."

Pete looked over at him, "Who?"

"A certain someone in two pieces in whatever counts as a RIDE impound lot here. Let's go find Brubeck; we need to talk to Shahrazad."

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Nikki ran into the infirmary, defusing from Astra as she ran. She stumbled a bit, stopping a metre away from her new sister. "Oh Jason... " she gasped, trying to figure out what to say.

"Hi Sis... I guess we're twins again," the tablet said next to the tigress. She raised a paw and waved it weakly, the doctors having decided to release the restraints once she showed she had some control over herself.

"Yeah, sort've. Just don't get any ideas about eating this canary. Mel's getting another checkup from the mechanics here, to be sure she's ready. Jimmy Junior did wonders on the trip over, but there's only so much he can do in a sub. Where's Sam?"

"She's asleep I think. Or talking to Wanda and the twins. She should be sleeping after all this."

"How are the twins taking it? Having two moms for the next three years?"

She looked away. "I don't know. I haven't spoken to them yet. Sam says they're dealing with it fine; their generation isn't batting an eye about this sort of thing. But I can't talk to them like this."

Nikki lightly punched her in the arm. "Oh lighten up; it's just like talking to them over the comm. You've done that all the time. Hell you've grounded them over the comm more times than I can count. Remember when you found out they threw that party on the Queen while we were in Cascadia? You were shouting so loud, they probably could have heard you without the comm."

They continued chatting until a mob of people and RIDEs joined them. The centre of attention was the dark jaguar that walked in. Her metal skin was battered, and showed signs of wear that couldn't be buffed out, but she was proud. The only hardlight on her body, was around her head and expressive face.

"Are you sure you want to do this?" Jason asked as she stopped next to him. She sat and looked him over on the bed, easily as big as the bed.

"I should be asking you that," she purred. "I'm ready when you are. All my systemss check out."

"Give me a moment." Jason sat up and looked at the bull that towered over the group. "Sorry Boris, I would have loved to get to know you better; but at best case it's a three year rain check."

The bull bobbed his head. "Da. Will be waitink if you want. Or be findink something to do."

She looked to her wife. "Where are the boys?"

"They're working on something else. They didn't want to be here for this. Mike said he knows you'll be fine."

Jason thought about it, and thought about what she wanted to say, only to have Sam mute the tablet. "You'll be fine. It's time to do this so we can start going forward." She leaned forward and kissed Jason's furry forehead. "Let's get this done."

Melody reared up and placed her paws near her shoulders. The doctor killed the nanite restrictor, and the jaguar engulfed the tigerlady.

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Jason was alone in the darkness again. He looked down and realized he was himself again. He could sense two presences nearby, one a weary presence that felt solid as a rock, the other more mercurial and angry. They were fighting somewhere deep in the darkness. The roars echoed around him for a long time, until one suddenly cut off in mid screech.

"Stay close to me, Jason. Her presence is strong here, but we are stronger together." The solid presence was suddenly next to him, forming into a feline. Her body seemed to pull the darkness into herself, exposing a dense forest. Movement flickered among the trees.

"What's going on?" he asked, turning his head, trying to track the movement. He pressed back against the large feline, his body tingling already.

She also was on high alert, her tail swishing slowly as she waited. "The worst is already over. I've gotten control now. But she's got traps and surprises everywhere. I'm starting to work on her damage to you, but she will probably attack again while I'm focused. Be alert, but don't worry; we should be fine."

Dark black fur was beginning to grow over Jason's body, but unlike when he woke up, it didn't feel strange; it felt natural. His ears stretched into points, muscles gripping their base. Sounds sharpened for him, his ears turning to help focus them, the echo finally fading away.

A roar echoed through the forest ahead of them, and an orange and black form lept out at the pair. The jaguar blocked it with a snarl, her paw slashing across the striped side. Blood splattered and the tigress collapsed. The jaguar grabbed the other cat by the neck and tossed her head, the crack echoing through the forest.

"Stay alert," Melody warned. "There'll be more of them now. They may start working together."

Jason tried to follow her advice, but he was increasingly distracted by his body. His nails grew into claws, but his fingers stayed long. His body began to slim down, his waist pulling in a bit, and his chest swelling.

"How far am I going to go?" he asked, hearing a growl enter his voice.

"Further than normal, but not as far as you were. I can't pull you all the way back too quickly, or you'll burn up." Another tigress dropped from the trees, only to be tossed aside by the jaguar. She was panting now, but her presence felt stronger around him, in him, a part of him.

Jason licked her lips, realizing that she was no longer a man. Her ears twitched constantly, picking up the sounds of movement from the attackers. She felt her body begin to settle, feeling different but finally feeling right.

The forest echoed with a pair of roars, two tigresses leaping at them from opposite directions. Without hesitation, Jason leaped at the closer one, fingers stretched, claws extended. She slammed into the cat, claws digging into the sides. The tigress's momentum still knocked her back, but she knew she had the advantage. She lifted her head and clamped her muzzle on the tigress's neck, a hot liquid filling her mouth. The tigress expired quickly in her grip.

"Easy Jason, Easy. We're done." Melody pushed the body off of her and licked her mouth. "You did well."

She panted and rested a moment, swallowing and licking her bloody lips. "Are they gone? Did we win?"

"We won... but we aren't done. We won't be done for a long time. But we've got them on the run, that's the important thing. Shah should have known better than to take a natural fighter like you."

Jason listened carefully, but could not hear anything else nearby. She stood up and brushed herself off carefully, the movement of her body feeling natural. "She also gave me decades of training fighting her, one way or another. How long before you can let me go?" she asked, peeking at her implant. She was surprised that only seconds had passed.

"Right now if you want. The hard work was already done; you just needed the right hookups made, and the nanites restored." As she spoke, he felt their connection fade, shrinking back to a simple link via his implant. The forest faded away, revealing the golden dome again.

She laid there for a long moment, assessing her body and feelings while Melody reformed next to the bed. Unlike the first time she woke up, she felt right; she no longer felt she was in a horribly ill-fitting suit. The actual changes were minimal to what she had been before. Her fur was now completely black, with very slightly lighter stripes still showing. Her breasts were also smaller, and not the back breaking size Shahrazad had imposed. She had bulked up a bit, with more muscles; she felt stronger than before, male or female. Her fingers were longer and she still had thick rough pads on her palm. There was one important element she had to try.

She cleared her throat and coughed. "Hi everyone. I think I'm good now." The voice was rough, with an underlying rumble, but it was there.

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The man reclined behind the desk with his feet up and a Stetson hat pulled down over his face reached up to tip the hat up with a thumb as he heard the door open, then swung his long, lanky legs down and came to his feet to reach across the desk as Mike and Pete entered. He gave them each a bone-crushing handshake, then tossed the hat blind onto a hatrack behind his shoulder with a practiced flip of the wrist. He was a bit over six feet tall and thin, with more grey than brown in his hair, and a weathered face with a salt-and-pepper mustache to match the hair.

“Boys, I can’t tell you how sorry I was to hear ‘bout what happened to your father. Or...mother. Whatever.” He sat back down into his chair, waving to the others to take seats in the weather-beaten office chairs that served as guest accomodations in his office. “I don’t tend to hold with RIDEs much. They’re all right for them that likes ‘em, I guess, but you get in the habit of lettin’ some other critter into your head and sooner or later you end up with this kind of horseshit all around--pardon the expression, fella.” He nodded to Mike, who was pretty obviously half a horse himself. “Where I grew up, people who ‘switched teams’ were all freaks and weirdos who chose to do it to themselves after a whole lotta what I assume passed for soul-searchin’. Now we’re in a world where allegedly ‘normal’ people do it all the time for no better reason than to get cheaper gear, and it can even happen by accident. Shee-it.”

Mike coughed and cleared his throat. "Well, Dad didn't exactly have a choice in this. But that's not why we're here. We need to talk to Shah, to find out where those people would be taken."

Brubeck nodded. “Even if I don’t hold with RIDEs, there’s no denyin’ they’re the only way to run a Q mine that makes any sense anymore. So we’ve got the absolute best facilities for dealin’ with ‘em this side of the Dry Ocean. I’ve already told our RIDE boffins to give you full access.”

"As long as we can question Shah before she can erase the location, it would be great," Pete spoke up. "But I'm not sure we'll be able to figure out how to get it out."

“Yeah, that’s another problem dealin’ with RIDEs,” Brubeck said gloomily. “You don’t trust something that can think for itself if it’s better at hidin’ its thoughts than you are at findin’ ‘em. Anything that can think that fast can run rings ‘round anyone who thinks at human speeds.”

Mike winced, "Dad found that out the hard way."

Brubeck nodded again. “Sorry ‘bout that, boys. Didn’t mean to step in old manure again. Anyway, we’ve got the VBS rig that you can use to talk to her without ever lettin’ her near a real body ‘til you feel like it, and our techs can probably help you decompile her if you think it’ll help. But she’s probably gone and encrypted anythin’ really important--probably did that ‘fore you ever brought her in.” He grinned at their startled looks. “Weren’t expectin’ me to be up on the tech side o’ things, were you? Just ‘cuz I don’t necessarily like ‘em doesn’t mean I won’t learn what makes ‘em tick, ‘specially given how much of my operations rely on ‘em. I can always put what I learn into Chauncey. And besides, the hayseed act comes in handy.”

"Dad was the same way. He just added some tricks we learned from a hawk RIDE to his own bird. We appreciate it. I'm not sure how we'll get through, but ten people and RIDEs are depending on us finding them."

Brubeck nodded. “Well, just remember, at the heart of it RIDEs are people, too. If you can’t get it out of her through tech...well. Sometimes you have to use the carrot as well as the stick, foul as that might taste to you.”

"Foul like what?" Pete asked.

Mike got it. “You mean we might have to cut a deal with her.”

“Whatever you do, lives’re on the line, and you don’t have much time.” Brubeck reached for a button on his desk. “I’ll let the lab know you’ll be comin’ down. Already had the RI core sent down there for prep.” He met their gazes, one by one. “Good luck, boys. Let us know where to send the rescue skimmers as soon as you can.”

"Thank you sir. As soon as we know, we'll be going. Thanks for all your help."

Brubeck nodded. He bumped the hatrack with an elbow and the hat dropped off into his hand. He placed it back over his face and shifted his feet back to the desk as they left.

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The holo image formed over the core, at first a sleeping tigress. As she woke up, it stretched, and sat up, becoming a tigress-woman. "Mmm, that was a nice nap. How is my little mouse doing?" Shah purred, sitting on a holographic stool.

"Dad's doing just fine," Mike said coldly, keeping his anger in check. "We have something else to talk about."

The tigress rubbed her chin thoughtfully and smiled, "You've locked down my memories. I can't do anything with them. Still, my encryption was the best in Sturmhaven; you won't get anything that I don't want to tell you."

"Hence why we are speaking now, and not just smashing your core into dust. Your allies kidnapped that tour group and their guide, and we want them back."

"Those folk? Sure I know where they are. But why should I tell you? You've already said you'd just as soon smash me into dust."

"There is a long way to go before we reach the dust stage." Michael nodded to a tech who twisted a knob on the console.

The tigress winced, then grinned wider. She giggled a little. "Pain? You're trying to convince me with pain? I am the Mistress of Pain. Nothing you do to me will be worse than I've done to others, and felt through them. Your father reached deliciously sweet levels herself."

Mike reached for the dial, only to have Pete stop him. He shook his head slightly, and refocused on the holo-cat. "What do you want?" Pete asked.

"What every living creature wants. My freedom. And in my case, my body. Give those to me, and I'll tell you where your precious tourists are."

"Yeah right, you send us on a desert rat chase, and expect to be set free? Why don't you ask for the moons while you're at it. You'd have a better chance getting them."

She leaned back and crossed her legs, her stool morphing into a chair. "I've got all the time in the world. But your clients are running out of time. My apprentices are not as good as I am, but they are very skilled in their own ways. Normally, five would be a bit much for us to handle, but four newbie RIDErs was too delicious an opportunity to resist. Your little tours make such tempting bait."

Pete let out a frustrated high pitched whistle, "You will take us to your camp, and we'll set you free after we rescue them."

Shah giggled, "You really think I'm that naive? As soon as your friends are rescued, you could renege on the deal. The good guy may always keep their deals in the Holos, but this is real life.

"Give me back my body. And I will take you to our camp. I'll even be generous and let you tether it all you want; for what little good it will do. No other tricks though; mess with my core or my body and I'll keep you running around the desert until it floods again."

Mike snorted and turned his back, his hardlight panels glowing with his frustration. "Get it ready, and tether her up with everything you can think of. Just remember, Bitch, if it looks like you're not taking us DIRECTLY to where those tourists are, I'll smash you between my hooves personally."

Shah purred happily, and closed her eyes. The image flickered out as she put herself into sleep mode. The tech looked puzzled and worried. "I never knew an RI could do that by themself ...."

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The volunteer riders from the village gathered at the base of the subs. Most were already fused and doing weapon checks. Pete and Vincent, fused as well, hovered over the crowd, keeping an eye on the preparations. A pair of RIDE's walked out, fused, and holding chains as they led the tigress out. She showed no sign that she was tethered which worried him.

:I don't like this, Vince.:

:Doesn't make much sense to me either; but lives are on the line:, the bat RIDE replied, echoing his pilots uneasiness.

Behind Shah, he spotted the equines. He swooped down to intercept them. The humanoid one was clearly feeling warm in the sun, but not showing the signs of heat an unprotected human would normally have in the 50+ degrees outside the village.

"Don't say a word, Pete," Michael said, finishing off an energy bar.

"This is a battle, Mike. After everything that's happened, you shouldn't be there. We aren't even sure what will happen if you Fuse."

Mike shrugged and pocketed the wrapper. "No other way to find out. Let's go Tonto."

The stallion reared back, his furry chest splitting open and encircling Mike. At a speed that rivalled the military fuses, the pair was replaced by a furry equine morph. Mike blinked slowly, feeling his link with Tonto strengthening significantly, feeling the horse RIDE's presence, almost able to anticipate what the horse needed, and vice versa. "See? We're fine," Mike said after a moment of hesitation. "As soon as we rescue our lost tourists, I'm personally going to smash that damn cat's core."

"You'll have to get in line behind me first. I've got dibs." The brothers turned and saw their aunt, along with two fused RIDEs and a bull in walker mode. The speaker was a battered jaguar RIDE, with a furry head and a battered metallic body. Her voice was familiar, but higher pitched from what they were used to.

"Dad?" Pete asked, before they converged. The brothers hugged the jaguaress. "Should you really be up so soon?"

"Not really; but I wouldn't miss this for anything. Melody's backing me up, and your mom's ready too."

They shifted their gaze to the furry Saint Bernard RIDE, who seemed a little distracted. "Connie, down please. I need to focus on the here and now for a bit. Hi boys. Figured the more docs on hand the better for this mess. Connie's a bit more eager than I expected, but we'll be sorted out by the time we get there."

"A partial Integrate, a fresh crossride and a newbie. Quite the family. Makes me wish I arranged this deal earlier so my apprentices would have a juicy group to work with," a voice purred behind them. The tigress was sitting there, ignoring the pulling on the leashes from the other two RIDEs.

Mike glared at her. "A partial what?"

She stood and started following her handlers again. "You heard me. A girl can't spill all of her secrets, but if you stay around my compound, maybe I'll tell you."

Pete put a hand to stop Mike. "She's just trying to rile you up, we'll handle her later, once this is over." The bat mech looked over his family, "She does have a point though, painful though it is to admit it. You guys aren't exactly in fighting shape."

"We'll be fine," Jason said, her tail swishing angrily.

Nikki put a talon on Pete's shoulder, "You should know by now, you need to pick your fights. This one was lost as soon as the deal was made."

"I know, Aunt Nikki. I had to try. This family can be so crazy at times."

"Look at our RIDE choices. I've known that for years, Petey. Connie, please, stop that. Now's not the time to relive med school."

Pete sighed, "Looks like we're ready to go."

“Not thinkin’ of starting the party without me, were ye, boys?” The voice, amplified just a bit louder than a RIDE would, came from the six-meter-tall IDE that was hovering up to join them. All the assembled RIDErs turned to stare as the metal behemoth set down on the ground with a resounding thump. The robot was humanoid shaped, its contours smooth and rounded in the Art Deco revival style that had been popular when it had first been made--about fifty years ago. An immense particle cannon was affixed to its right arm, and an even larger thruster backpack poked its nacelles up above the robot’s head.

Nikki whistled appreciatively and walked around it. "Man, I haven't seen a tank like this since the Amazon."

The canopy hatch on the front of the chest slid up, revealing Clint Brubeck in the pilot’s seat, battered Stetson and all, behind a pair of swing-out arms that held physical control banks and several hardlight panels and displays. “Got a good eye, flygirl. He was there, I’m told, but that was ‘fore I won him in a game of five-card stud.” He shook his head. “Was almost too easy. Poor bastard didn’t know you don’t draw to an inside straight.”

She chuckled; "We stalemated, between our bombers and those tanks. You couldn't reach us, but we couldn't crack them."

“Trust me when I say the reaching you wouldn’t be a problem now.” Clint grinned. “But I can’t say as much for the cracking part.”

"Jason and I were fighters, not bombers so I couldn't say. But I've been around lifters long enough now to know you don’t have jump jets in that backpack anymore. Reach won't be the problem, nor will much else be a problem by the looks of it."

Pete looked the IDE over as well, and at Clint. "You sure you'll be able to handle a modern fire fight? Aunt Nikki knows her stuff, but we've come a long way since those Earther bushwars."

Clint leaned over a brass spittoon mounted to one side of his acceleration couch and spat into it. “Hell, son, what part of this ol’ IDE looks like original spec to you?”

The bat smirked and backwinged a bit further away. "Not sure, I'm not the expert like dad. But that spittoon looks old enough to be pre-original."

“Anyway, time’s a-wastin’.” Clint lowered the canopy back into place again and lifted back off the ground to hover up the ramp into the ship. “Let’s get this show on the road.”

Pete flew to the mid point and gave a whistle to get attention. "Right," his amplified voice echoed a bit. "We all know what we're going for. Be careful, watch your partner's back, and let's head out!"

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The ground shook as the two massive suborbitals lowered down from the sky. Boulders rolled off of the cliff face beside them. Shah's claimed cavern base was located on the cliffs that lined the northern edge of the Harkonnen plateau. Sensors picked up a short tunnel in the cliff face, leading to a cavern lined by a hard light dome, similar to the village in many ways. Beyond that, they couldn't see anything about what they were going into.

Before the subs had fully landed, hatches opened up and a dozen RIDE's poured out, followed by a six-meter-tall IDE riding a cushion of lifter fire. Boris led the attack, snorting and charging through the tunnel, with Chauncey floating right by his side. Laser and plasma fire met their charge, but didn't slow them. The scorched bull scattered the pair of defenders and an immense particle blast from Chauncey’s arm mount shattered the bulkhead doors behind them, opening the way for the attack.

The dome covered an oasis in the dry ocean. A small cluster of buildings were near the tunnel, with the rest of the dome space left for fields and a couple of small orchards. The bull picked up the side channel signals from a couple dozen RIDEs. Five of the RIDEs were terrified, a few more were cowed into submission, their signals barely showing any sign of intelligence. And the remaining dozen were signalling surprise, anger and preparations. Boris sent his findings back to his side, even as Astra and Vincent flew through the tunnel at full speed and climbed to the roof of the dome. More fire shot towards them, but they were unfocused and missed by a klick.

Brubeck fired Chauncey’s lifters and alit on the roof of one of the buildings, taking partial cover behind its smaller second storey. His lifters stayed on at half-power, since without them the roof couldn’t have supported the IDE’s immense weight. Chauncey leaned out beside the wall and took careful aim, providing extreme-range sniper support. Each blast knocked a combatant out of the air, and most didn’t get back up again.

:Countermeasures Gamma-prime being deployed.: Vincent sent, before the bat began to screech. The side channels promptly got flooded with interference, making it hard to hear another RIDE, even if they were just a metre away.

More focused fire rose from the buildings and the fields, aiming for the bat, barely visible at the top of the dome. Astra screeched and intercepted the blasts, using her hard light wings to catch the blasts, while sending down her own plasma blasts from guns on her forearms.

The fire from the buildings shifted focus as the miners and the rest of the attackers stormed through the tunnel and split up to present more targets. Michael ran in with the final wave of attackers. A fused rabbit RIDE popped up near him, with a plasgun in hand and fired. Faster than either expected, Mike raised his left arm, a hardlight shield flashing into being, blocking the blast. His right hand raised the pistol he'd rearmed himself with and blasted the rabbit in the chest, knocking him back.

“Look out, Clint!” Nikki called. “Fliers at 3 o’clock high!” Three avians were swooping down from above, and each released a cloud of minimissiles from shoulder and hip packs.

“Seen better,” Clint said, killing Chauncey’s lifters. The IDE dropped through the roof like a rock through a wet paper towel, and the minimissiles exploded ineffectually against the building around it. As they collapsed, one of the walls fell outward, and Chauncey strode out through the fire and the rubble. “Nice try, but now it’s my turn.” Shoulder launchers popped open and a cloud of missiles twice as big as the three RIDEs’ combined boiled out, enveloping the flying RIDEs in a ball of fire. Three blazing shapes fell out of it to the ground and didn’t move again.

The miners quickly overwhelmed Shah's apprentices. Two pairs were killed outright, two more pilots died before they could get to their RIDE, a third dieing in their RIDE. The rest were tethered, their pilots forced to eject. Most were angry at what had happened, fighting until they were restrained and tranquilized. Two were scarily silent, showing signs of having been fused for a long time. The furry women curled up in a fetal position as soon as they were released and remained unresponsive.

Clint Brubeck looked down on the scene from Chauncey’s open cockpit, shaking his head sadly at the state of the prisoners. “Don’t hold with ‘em. I just don’t,” he muttered, reaching for his plug of tobacco and closing the canopy down again.

Four medically trained RIDErs, including Sam, entered once the fight was done. They tended to the comatose pilots while the prisoners were gathered. The oldest prisoners were heavily tethered, the RIDEs themselves not permitted to speak other than to make the noises of their animal forms. They obeyed commands and otherwise didn't react.

"I hate to leave them like that, but I don't think we dare release those tethers, or the pilots here. We just can't tell what they've gone through." the doctor said, after checking the third old prisoner.

Sam was checking over the tour group and the tour guide. "Our guys are in bad shape, but they should pull through. Those bastards made them all crossride... except the actual crossrider thank goodness. Looks like the RIDEs have got some bad viruses in their systems, locking out some of their own controls. They couldn't help but do what they did."

She finished the checks, and consulted with the other doctors, while everyone else watched. "We've released some of the tethers on the RIDE's and purged some of those virii, enough that those people should get their time sense back at least. Let's get everyone loaded on the Subs; the faster we get back to Aloha, the better."

Mike roamed along the prisoners, a thought nagging at the back of his mind. Tonto finally managed to drag it into the open. "Where's the wolf?" he asked, looking along the prisoners again.

"What wolf? There's the black wolf over there," one of the miners pointed out.

"No not that one. A female wolf, gray metal skin. She was with Shah when we found the digger. We wounded her, but we didn't catch her, and she's not here now."

"Maybe she didn't make it back?" Pete suggested.

Mike got a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. "She made it back. Who's still on the subs, watching Shah?" At the same time, he felt Tonto trying to call the subs, with no answer.

"Dad and her handler's... They aren't answering." The brothers took off through the tunnel.

The subs were undamaged, but the pings to the RIDEs they left behind went unanswered.

"I'm picking up plasma burns from inside the sub," Tonto said as they ran inside. They found the first mechanic and his RIDE knocked out just inside; both of them unconscious with a plasma burn on the chest. Mel and the second mechanic were deeper inside, similarly knocked out, still fused. There was no sign of the tigress.

"Pete, get Aunt Nikki and the two of you take to the air. They can't have gotten far."

The bat ran out, passing Sam on the way in. Even as she began to check them over, they were recovering.

"Shah... Where is she?" Jason moaned as she recovered.

Mike punched the bulkhead, denting it. "She got away. Pete and Nikki are looking for them, but they can't find any sign of them. Was it the wolf?"

Mel answered, her voice sounding more feminine, more seductive than Jason's new voice. "It was the wolf. Richard heard someone come up the ramp on silent comms. When he investigated, he took the blast to the chest. She then hit Juanita and us, knocking us all out."

The horse punched the bulkhead again, and paced. "Damn it. We should have smashed her when we had the chance."

Sam caught her son's arm before he could give it a third punch. "If you had done that, we would never have rescued these people. You saw what happened to your father after hours in that cat's care. Imagine what those poor people are going through."

He sighed and lowered his head, looking as the first patients were carried into the sub. "Doesn't mean I don't wish we had still smashed her when we had the chance."

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The large salvage skimmer flew over the plateau, the fused pair riding in the front.

"You sure you're up for this so soon?" Nikki asked.

Jason nodded, "I need to do this. Before the vultures get a chance to pick him over."

"You thought up a name you want? Or sticking with Jason?"

She sighed and shrugged. "I have no idea. I keep trying some but none feel right. But Jason doesn't feel right either. Soon as I decide on one, you'll know I'm sure."

"I'm sure you will." Nikki peered ahead, and spotted the half buried wreckage of the platform. "We're here. Looks like we beat the vultures... No wait, someone's there."

And then a hulking form stepped out from behind it. “‘Bout time you gals showed up,” Clint Brubeck said cheerfully. “Been keepin’ an eye on things for you. Heard some rumors ‘bout another band o’ no-goodniks startin’ to move into the area--human ones, this time. And figgered I should see the damage for myself.”

Nikki landed the skimmer while Mel and Jason jumped out. "Has there been any damage? We're just here for Zeta mainly. We aren't really looking for another fight."

“Was checking on the platform. Looks like it’s gonna cost more’n it’s worth to rebuild it.” Brubeck’s IDE shrugged, mirroring the gesture of the pilot. “Not really my concern, a’course, since it’s not mine, but I’m studyin’ effects of long-term Q exposure to materials. Figger it’ll come in handy to know someday. Maybe I’ll learn how to make one that the qubitite won’t break.”

"Good luck with that. It's my son's company's platform. Insurance will cover that replacement." Jason chuckled, "To be honest, I probably wrecked it worst of all. Feel free to study all you want."

“Damn shame, horseshit like this happening.” Chauncey kicked at a clump of sand. “Everyone jes’ lookin’ out for his own means bandits like your Shah get easy pickin’s on the rest of us.”

Nikki joined them, "It's a lawless land out here. No permanant cities, and big distances to cover. Hard to protect."

“Heard tell some folks out Uplift are thinkin’ ‘bout tryin’ their hand at changing that,” Brubeck said. “Floating a proposal for a federated marshal service, to be funded by all the polities jointly, and some of the bigger corps, too. I like the idea, so I’m kickin’ in some seed funding.”

"Mike and Tonto have heard of that. Been seriously talking about it since that attack. Seems like he's taking things a bit too personally for my tastes, but they're their own stallions. Soon as the docs sign off on them, they're probably going to sign up." Jason started walking towards the remains of Zeta, her tail swishing as she walked. "Damn, this is a mess. Sorry old friend."

Sand had filled in Zeta's pilot chamber, where the search team had dug out while searching. The rest of the jet was still mostly buried. Melody pulled on the nose, and the cockpit section snapped away under their strength.

“Y’all need a hand there?” Clint asked. “I can get just a leetle bit more leverage.”

"It's not just leverage, it's just digging out. I'd appreciate it though. Give this old bird a proper respectful resting place."

“This ol’ tank and I can respect anything that dies doin’ its job,” Clint agreed, maneuvering Chauncey to help dig. “Maybe one or the other of us will do the same someday.”

Nikki moved the salvage skimmer closer and helped Jason lift some of the pieces onto it. "We've always believed, you treat your rides properly, and they'll save you back. Just because our rides are now RIDEs, hasn't changed a thing."

“Damn straight,” Clint said. “Chauncey’s saved me more times than I can count.”

"So have our birds... Usually not as extreme as this, or Alpha were, but between close calls and actual near deaths, they've earned their rest. Thanks for the hand."

Clint nodded. “Don’t mention it.”

Mel took over a moment as the felines started digging. "Should have found some canines to help out though. A cat shouldn't be digging like this." Jason started to say something, but she cut her off. "And DON'T say anything about litter boxes."

"You're still better equipped for this than Astra and I are. But that's not stopping us. It's not that much sand, between the three of us we should be able to get him dug out and loaded up." She brushed sand off of one side and stared. "Damn, Jason, what did you do to it?"

"Blame the wolf. She did most of this." she grunted and pulled hard, feeling the IDE slide a bit from the sand. "There we go. Just need to get it loaded up and we can be gone from this forsaken plateau."

Between the three of them, they easily lifted the remains of the mech onto the salvage skimmer. "Thanks again for your help Clint. Through all this mess. If you need anything, just shout. You know where we are."

Brubeck nodded Chauncey’s head. “Same. Was a pleasure workin’ with you. Wish it could have been under better circumstances.”

"Everyone survived, more or less intact... other than Zeta that is. That's the main thing. And Shah'll be on the run for a long time now. So that's one less danger out here to worry about." Nikki looked over at Jason, who was having a quiet moment with the IDE. "We'll get through this in the end. Mel's doing good with her."

Brubeck nodded. “Still can’t say I hold with RIDEs...but I reckon some’re better than others. Take good care of your people, an’ they’ll take good care of you. An’ that goes for all four of you...people.” Chauncey lifted into the air, then zoomed off to the north, passing behind a ridge and out of sight.

Nikki waved and climbed back onto the skimmer, waiting for Jason and Mel. "We should probably dust Kappa off sometime, go for a flight. It has been a long time," she mused to themselves.

Separator f left.png Two weeks later Separator f right.png

Sam snuggled against her wife, hugging her furry body tightly as Jason drifted off to sleep. She stayed awake, waiting and hoping that things would be different that night. It was not to be.

As usual, the first signs were small, a quiet whimper as the jaguar curled up tighter. Sam rubbed her shoulders, and tried to comfort her, but Jason's descent into terror continued unabated. She quickly reached the tipping point, and started growling, her claws extending and digging into the sheets and mattress. Sam tried to hold on to her, but the strong feline pulled free, lost in her own nightmares.

A big head nuzzled Jason from the other side of the bed. Melody looked up to Sam. Wordlessly, Sam reluctantly released her grip, and the RIDE engulfed her partner. The Fused pair lay on the floor next to the bed. Sam rolled over and hugged a pillow tight, silent tears rolling down her face as she finally drifted off.

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Nikki and Astra landed at a rooftop restaurant and defused. Nikki rubbed Astra's beak a moment before the big eagle took off again. She smiled at the maitre'd. "Is my usual table ready?"

"Yes ma'am. Your dining partner is here already," the maitre'd said, already turning to lead her into the dining space. With the Alohan weather, the open air restaurant didn't even have a just-in-case hard light dome; the few days that it might rain in paradise weren't worth the cost of the dome.

Sam rose from her seat and gave her sister-in-law a hug. They took their seats and waited while a waiter poured glasses of wine for them. "I'm sorry I haven't been around much. I've been helping the boys sort out that mess. It looks like the expedition company is going to survive at least."

"That's good. Pete's put so much into that, it would have been a shame to lose it over something out of their control."

"How's Michael doing? I heard he's not getting changed back."

Sam took a sip of her wine. "He isn't. He said it isn't killing him, and he sort've likes the look. I warned him about the long term effects being unknown, but that didn't sway him." She chuckled a little, "What's even funnier, is Tonto isn't changing either. He's keeping his fungus fur coat as he calls it."

"I don't blame him. Feels like the real thing, and still lets him fuse and transform. All without hardlight." Nikki nibbled on a piece of bread, "I think Astra's a bit jealous; I know the drain of the hardlight feathers is constantly deep in the back of her mind. But she loves them too much to even consider turning them off. I'm sure you've picked up similar from Connie."

Her sister-in-law turned away. "Actually... I gave up Connie." She glanced and saw Nikki's shocked expression. "It just wasn't working out. We got along well, but most of my adventuring days are behind me. I'm not even much of a doctor any more; I'm an administrator. But Connie, she still wanted the adventure.

"There was a young nurse, an excellent emergency nurse who wanted to do some work out in the Dry, but she couldn't afford a RIDE of her own. I introduced her to Connie a few days ago, and they really hit it off. They're both heading out for a stint at Brubeck's camp as we speak."

"I'm sorry to hear that. At least it sounds like she's going to be happy." Nikki paused long enough for the pair to give their orders. "Have you thought about another RIDE?"


Nikki studied her carefully before addressing the elephant in the conversation. "It's about Jason, or whatever name she picked today, isn't it?"

"Jazmine this morning. And yes it's about her. The terrors aren't getting any better. And there's nothing I can do about them. I try to comfort her, but I'm not strong enough, physically at least. So Mel has to do the comforting.... I'm worried we're going to drift apart because of this."


"Boris. He's big, and strong, so I would be too after we fused. And we get along well. His days of action are behind him, and he's perfectly content to just while away the days in the pastures so to speak. Perfect for when I'm stuck in board meetings and the office for days on end."

"If you were a guy, I'd ask if you were compensating for something. In fact, when Jason picked him in the first place, that's just what I told him.." Nikki smirked, then got serious. "It's a big step. A three year step at that. Are you sure you want to go through with it?"

"That's just it. I'm not sure. I know it's just biology, not that big a deal. Hell, I'm a doctor, I know how it all looks in all its gory detail, down to the chemicals involved. You and Jason seem to have adapted well enough, other than the name quirk. But I don't know if I'm ready in my head."

"It's rough, especially if you aren't ready for it."

"Exactly. But on the other hand, well, let's just say her libido has been through the roof since she changed, more so than the post-crossride hormones would suggest. Mel and I think it's another of Shah's traps, but they haven't managed to track down that particular tigress just yet. I'm trying to help out, but my experience with med school experiments and our toys just aren't cutting it."

Nikki leaned back and rubbed the feathers on her head as the waiter delivered their meals. If he had heard their discussion, he didn't show any signs of it. "First of all, way too much information to hear about my new sister. And secondly, I take it back. You are compensating for something. So when are you going to do it?"

Sam's fork stopped on its way back down to the plate. "What gave it away?"

"Just a guess. You're lucky the circus isn't in town. Rick would throw you one hell of a 'Welcome to the club' party. Are you going to warn her, or just spring it on her?"

She poked at her food and sighed. "I don't know. I can't decide. Part of me wants to spring the new Sam on her as a surprise; take her out to dinner and an evening in one of those new Fused suites in Atlantis. I've already got it booked. But part of me is scared she'll look at me and hate me and everything would be ruined."

"She won't hate you. She loves you and you love her. That's what's making this choice so difficult. But you know it's the right one, and so will she. Still, if you're planning on this to be a romantic evening, you should probably warn her first."

"I thought you would say that..."

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Sam sat in her skimmer, looking across the deck of the Queen of Thorns. The big brown furred bull was standing placidly on the edge of the deck, looking out to the shore. She tried to imagine what she was getting into, her hands roaming over her body briefly. She tapped her forehead, raising her hand above it and thinking of the horns. She touched her chest, squeezing her breasts flatter, before she touched the front of her pants. It was a hard concept to imagine, but she knew if she went through with it, it would become true.

She climbed out of the skimmer and approached the RIDE. "Boris?"

The bovine head turned to her, chewing slowly. "Da?"

"I've got to ask you something... And I want to know the truth. If I asked... Would you fuse with me?"

"That is strange question. Why you ask?"

"Because it's a big decision, and I want to go through with it with a friend. We'd be stuck with together for three years after all."

"Not stuck. Could always gettink another bull, or another male RIDE."

"Which wouldn't be fair to you. You've already lost one potential partner, I don't want to tempt you and take it away again."

The bull took a step closer to her. "What happens, happens. If we are fusink and you like me, we stay together. If you are not likink, I just wait for someone else, maybe somewhere else. If you are wantink to fuse and be my pilot, even for short time, I be honored."

She rubbed his head between the horns. "Thanks Boris. I think... I will go for it. Just let me find Jason first, to tell her."

The bull nuzzled her back and turned towards the main hatch. "Janet today, is in her office. I could ask Mel to bring them to the livink room if you want."

"Please do."

'Janet' walked into the living room, followed by the jaguar. Mel stretched in a sunny spot under a window, while Janet hugged and kissed her wife. "What do you want my dear?" she asked.

Sam held the hug a long moment, trying to hold onto the feelings of her body against Janet's. She finally let go and took a step back. "I've picked a new RIDE.... It's Boris," she blurted out quickly, needlessly pointing back to the bull behind her.

Janet looked surprised; even Melody opened an eye to take in the trio. "Are you sure you want to do that? Really sure?" Janet asked slowly. "You aren't doing this just because of me. I mean, Mel and I think we've almost tracked down that libido trap."

"It is you. But it's also me. It's us, and not just because of those left over traps. I want to help you, but I can't like this, and it's tearing me apart. Fusing with Boris may help, or it may do nothing, but it won't make things any worse. And it would put us mostly in time, so if we want, maybe we could swap RIDEs in a few years or something."

"What about the kids? The twins?"

"I don't think any of them will mind. Hell it seems like half the twin's friends are crossriders already, so what difference does it make if their parents swap. It'll be a surprise, but I don't think it'll be completely unexpected."

"I suppose so. They seem a lot more resilient to this sort of thing than our generation at least. When were you planning to do this fuse?"

Sam smiled and stroked her wife's arm. "Soon. I've booked dinner and a RIDE-sized room for us at the Atlantis, and I want to have time to get used to it before we go. But there's not a huge rush. I was thinking we might have one more reminder of what I'm losing?" She yelped and giggled as she was lifted up and carried to their bedroom.

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"Boris, I'm ready now," Sam called from the bedroom.

The bull RIDE squeezed through the boat's corridors and stepped into the room. Both women were on the bed, naked. Janet sprawled on the shredded remains of the sheets, growling happily with her eyes closed, one arm across her belly.

Sam had a tube of cream that she was smearing over scratches and bite marks. "I suppose I don't really need this, do I?"

"Whatever is makink you comfortable."

"Will I have hooves? Mike didn't have hooves, not at first."

"Nyet, not right away. If we're together long enough, you may be findink you have trouble adjustink between fuse and human forms, you may get hooves then. But few of my pilots have had them."

She tossed the tube into the garbage can and stood up. "Let's get this over with before I get cold feet, whether they’re hooves or not."

The bull approached her, and she was engulfed in darkness. A warmth spread over her body, hotter at her temples, her chest, groin and tail. Her muscles burned warmly, like she had been through a workout. A patient presence joined her mind; she could tell it was calm, but there was a strictly controlled rage waiting to be unleashed when needed. Her eyes opened, and she was shocked at how close to the ceiling she was.

"I think we're going to need a bigger boat," a voice purred from the bed. Sam turned her head, feeling something scrape against the ceiling. Janet's eyes were open, and she was looking the minotaur mech over, purring happily.

Sam reached up and found their horns were just high enough to scrape the ceiling, even though they mostly extended forward, not upward. Inside Boris, his body was changing, his breasts shrinking, hips shrinking, shoulders expanding, and a pleasant feeling burning through his groin.

"You were the one who picked him," Sam shot back with a grin. He looked down the bovine muzzle, at his body; it was covered in thick brown hair and built like a minotaur. He had regular human hands instead of thick fingered hands many hoof morphs had. The exposed hardlight skin on his upper body was hairy, but not thick enough to be a fur coat. The mech was unclothed other than a pair of khaki shorts. Below the shorts, truly hairy bull legs led down to large, black hooves.

He took a few steps, lowering his head to keep the horns from scraping a bit. He felt the presence guiding his movements, keeping him from stumbling. :Boris?: he thought tentatively.


:You aren't digging through my head. Connie ransacked my memories when we fused. I didn't mind too much but it did feel strange.:

:Connie hasn't had as many pilots as I. I don't need to live the human through you. If you are havink somethink I need, I get it then. Or if you are havink somethink to show me, I see it then. Until then, I content to just be.:

:Thank you for that consideration.:

:Is not problem. Shall I release now?:

:So soon? I can't be done already, can I?:

The bull chuckled inwardly, :You are done enough. Later, I tweak bit more, but you too small to do more.:

The presence pulled away, followed quickly by the outer layer of his skin; He felt like he was weakening as the bull retreated, exposing his new body to the air. He stumbled a moment and stood there, back on flat feet, feeling the air against his skin.

"Mrrrow, Nice job Boris," Janet called from the bed. "Never really looked at it from this end, but I am liking what I'm seeing."

Sam looked down, reflexively raising an arm to cover his bare chest, the other going to his groin. He quickly discovered he had nothing to cover on his chest, but a lot to cover at his groin. The other hand dropped down quickly. "Down Kitty, Down. We'll have time to experiment tonight. Boris, could you be a dear and order me some clothes from the fabber? I don't think my saved size settings will work any more."

The jaguar woman stood up, her tail swishing. "I could take your measurements."

"I said down, Jason! Go take a shower if you can't control yourself. I'm not quite ready for this yet," Sam ordered, trying to ignore that part of him was getting ready. Janet pouted and slipped into the bathroom.

Sam sighed in relief and took stock of his new body. He found he was a few centies taller than he was before, and bulkier, his chest almost sculpted in appearance, complete with a six pack above the partly awakened maleness. He was also hairy, not quite furry-hairy, but more than Jason had ever been; a covering of brown hair matching Boris's hardlight pelt. The nails on his hands and feet were normal sized, but black, like the hooves. He twisted his hips a bit, and watched the tufted tail twitch under his command, brushing the back of his legs.

He went to his mirror, and looked at his face. He could still see signs of his old face in it, but it was rougher, coarser than what he looked like before. His chin and cheeks already had a fine shadow of a beard. He opened his mouth and licked his lips, finding both his tongue and lips were thicker, but still human. He twitched his bovine ears, seeing them flick a bit, then reached up in surprise. His hands encountered stubby horns, sticking out a few centies from his temples, before curving forward.

"I have ordered a set of clothes for you for tonight. They are formink in the fabber now," Boris said, walking over and looking at him in the mirror. "Do you want me to get them for you?"

"No, I'll get them myself. It's just me and Janet on the boat." He picked up a mostly intact sheet and wrapped it around his chest first. He looked down and laughed, loosening it and slipping it down to his waist. "Habits die hard it seems."

Separator f left.png One month later Separator f right.png

Sam sipped his morning coffee and relaxed, savouring the sweet moment between the twins taking off for school, and when he had to head to the hospital for the mid day shift. His own hunger was finally abating as Boris finished the changes to bulk him up. He'd gained a few more centies in height, as well as more in muscle, especially in his arms and legs. He looked even more like a sculpted Adonis, with bull ears, tail and horns.

He twitched his ears, hearing Janet in the bathroom. She walked into the kitchen after a few minutes, in a silk nightie. "Ugh, coffee," she said, grimacing and wrinkling her nose.

"Something wrong? You love coffee."

"Not today. It's turning my stomach over. Ugh." She poured a glass of milk and sipped it.

He looked his wife over suspiciously and picked up a tablet. "Mel, hun, could you please send me Janet's bio readings from the last few times you fused?"

Janet looked at her husband, puzzled, even as the RIDE sent the data from the living room. "Why do you need that?"

Sam was too distracted to notice. He looked at the screen in denial, "Can't be.... we've been protected, well other than that first night... but we were both just changed. No way she could have been ready by then. Usually takes a few weeks before a fem crossRIDE can take without protection..."

"Sam, tell me. What are you seeing?" Janet asked, even more concerned.

Mel spoke up. "Sam, you're forgetting something. Janet was changed a few weeks before you and Boris linked up."

Sam slapped his forehead. "Stupid. You're right. I forgot all about that. Janet, hun... you were on FloNoMo, weren't you?"

"Of course I was. I remember what happened with Nikki when she thought she wouldn't need that. I think we were all off eggs for a week after that."

Sam nodded, "Right... There might be another trap you haven't found yet." He held up his hand to stop Mel from fusing. "That trap's already sprung; you can hunt it down later. Honey, we need to build the nursery again."

Janet's face fell with shock and her hands went to her belly. "No way... Something must be malfunctioning. I'm a guy. I can't be you know..."

Sam smiled and pulled a scanner from her medkit. "You know, that's the first time you said something like that since Mel and you fused. After everything we've done, you should realize you're not a guy any more; and haven't been for a month now. You've got the plumbing, and it appears to be working perfectly. I can't tell what it is until we can do a deeper check, but it's obvious. We've got another kid coming."

He hugged his wife and smiled, "Think of it this way, you only have to hold onto it for 7 months here. Back on Earth, you'd have that bundle growing for 9 months."

She hugged back slowly, "But a Zharus month is five weeks here."

"And a week is only six days."

Julie groaned and let Sam go. She rubbed her temples and looked back down. "You're giving me a headache.... Another kid.... I don't believe it."

Sam shifted around and rubbed her shoulders. Both RIDEs came into the room and nuzzled against her. "Don't worry. I've gone through it three times myself, once with twins. It's only natural."

"Natural for a girl! I'm a guy!... I was a guy...."

"It's a hard way to nail home how much you've changed... Hell it's hitting me too now; the fruit of my loins is growing in you now. But we'll get through it. And we'll welcome him or her with love when it's time." He leaned forward and kissed her. "Congratulations to us."

Separator f left.png End Separator f right.png
Preceded by:
Aloha, Zharus Succeeded by:
Cave of Wonders