User:JonBuck/Fly With Me

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FreeRIDErs story universe

Fly With Me

Author: Jon Buck

July 6, 140 AL

Dry Ocean, the Dust

The lee of the small ore carrier Clementine was relatively free of the omnipresent quibitite dust that gave this region its name. It still swirled around Evan's naked legs, spinning off mathematically perfect eddy-currents and vortices. The light blue Dust covered him from head to toe, but somehow didn't clog his mouth or nose. He knew he should have been drowning in it, that the 80 degree Celsius heat should have killed him with heatstroke within minutes. Yet here he was, wandering around in the nude like it was a balmy day on the beach in Aloha.

"Evan! Liis!" a woman's voice shouted, hidden somewhere in the obscuring swirls. "Number One! Are you out here somewhere?"

Was that his name? Both sounded right. Desperation colored her amplified voice. That they were out here in the first place was borderline suicide, even RIDE-clad. Wait, hadn't he been RIDE-clad something...something... Evan groped in the fog that enveloped his mind.

Then suddenly she was there, a woman and her arctic fox Fuser, blue hardlight eyes staring at him, jaw dropped. She lifted over to him, then scooped him up into her arms while returning to the hatch. "Evan! What the hell? Where's Liis? Where's your RIDE?"

"What what? Who?" he stammered.

"This is impossible! How can you..." She lifted them up into the airlock of the 50-meter ore carrier. The fox had a stylized logo on her shoulders for Walton-Q Mining.

Qubitite mining, he thought. The air chilled around them as the dust was quickly filtered and the temperature lowered by sixty degrees. We were...I was doing an emergency repair on lifter three. There was a solar storm...

Zharus's weak magnetic field meant that the odd X-class flare could play havoc with even the most hardened systems. The "Captain" of the carrier...was it...Wilma? Yes, Wilma's comm gear had been scrambled early, and she'd decided to take a shortcut through the Dust to get...somewhere.

"Come on, Evan, talk to us," the summer-phase arctic fox Fuser said. The Fuser's head retracted, revealing similar ears on the woman beneath. "Talk to Ada and me. Where's Liis? Why did you de-Fuse from Liis?"

Left unspoken, he realized: How did you survive without Liis?

There was a very large blank spot in Evan's recent memories, though the older ones were actually clearing up now. He was Evan Dorset, SecurEngineer Crew and "First Officer" for the Walton-Q Mining Company ore carrier Clementine. Liis was his RIDE, a whitetail doe with assault capability he'd acquired on the cheap three years ago and upgraded with some software package so that he...

Well, so that he remained a he. They called it Passive-mode Fuse and it kept the wearer from gross changes, like ending up Eva.

"Where's Liis?" a panicked voice from a grille on the Fuser's chest said. It must have been Ada.

"I have no idea," Evan finally replied. "Wilma, right? Your name is Wilma."

"That's Captain Van Dalen to you, Number One. I think you've gained about forty kilos...somehow," the woman said, flying them through a short corridor to the carrier's storm shelter. Once there she set him down, then pulled open a First Aid panel. She removed a silvery thermal blanket then started sticking various diagnostic sensors on his body. "Okay, Number One, let's see how you're still alive."

Evan slumped against the wall and waited her Wilma to do her "Bones McCoy" act. Ever since the Steaders had brought back so much 20th century culture from Earth the whole planet was starting to go nuts for it. Wilma was in fact just the pilot of the Clementine, but she liked to think of herself as Captain Kirk or Picard. But anything related to Star Trek was fair game.

"Not a scratch on you," Wilma said. "You've got a little heat stress, but otherwise you're fine for standing naked out in the middle of the Dust for two hours. Nobody's going to believe this."

"I don't remember anything between the forced landing and when you found me outside," Evan said. "Where's Liis?"

"I was asking you the same thing," Ada said.

Evan threw up his hands in defeat. "Honestly I have no idea, Ada. I remember...something...I dunno. It felt kind of like a de-Fuse, but other than that I can't put my finger on it."

"Well, regardless we're going to have to wait out this solar storm to make repairs to lifters three and seven," Wilma said. "Guess I'll have to be LaForge this time."

"You're LaForge every time," Evan quipped. "Where are the rations? I'm starving." He had a thunderously growling stomach, and another hunger. He needed something else in addition to food, but didn't know what.

"Not even any dehydration or Q-dust in your lungs," Ada said. A commercial Rapid Medical Response RIDE, she was every Star Trek doctor rolled into one. "Damn this is weird. It's like you're still wearing Liis. The rations are where they're supposed to be. Here." She opened another panel and tossed him some crinkle-wrapped protein bars.

"We'll search for her after the storm dies down," Evan said, tearing into them. Though he was relatively certain there'd be nothing of Liis to find. "She can't have gone far in this."

"And you should be a dry, sand-blasted mummy," Wilma pointed out. "We'll look anyway."

"Of course we will," Ada said firmly, but the RIDE sounded skeptical herself.

Eventually the storm diminished enough that they could come out of the shelter deep within the ore carrier and return to the "Bridge" (just a control cabin in the center, really). Living quarters were minimal at best, since carrier crew were expected to sleep and take care of other business in their RIDEs. In her daily rounds the Clementine stopped at several automated low-production rigs once per week before trucking the unrefined ore back to Nextus for processing. It was hardly glamorous work, and the Q-ore was of low enough grade (C+ and B-) not even pirates bothered with it. These were the qubitite plays' last dregs of profit before being shut down.

"Wow, looks like Liis isn't the only one missing," Wilma said once laser communications were back. Nikki Munn and her RIDE Astra were among them and the family was begging for as much help as possible. "Doesn't affect us, though. Search area's about two-k klicks from here."

There'd been no sign of Liis, not even any remains. The RIDE was just...gone, perhaps to one of the RIDE "freedom camps" that supposedly dotted the massive trackless desert. Did I really treat her that badly? Evan wondered. So badly she decided to leave him to die?

He dismissed that line of though right away. That was silly. They'd had their disagreements, sometimes very heated ones, but nothing so intense they'd want the other one dead.

Once Wilma returned from making repairs, Evan made a decision. "Uh, you know I'd appreciate it if you didn't tell anyone about how you found me. We can make some kind of reasonable explanation why I lost Liis."

Ada glared at him. She'd been good friends with Liis. Behind the RIDE's ice blue eyes, Wilma nodded. "They'd think I was nuts, and I don't have any real proof. Storm scrambled Ada's recorder."

"She was damaged out in the Dry," Ada said. "She ejected you. We barely saved you in time. That work?"

"Probably accurate enough for government work," Evan agreed.

"Just, one thing," Wilma and Ada said with one voice. "If you ever find out what happened to her, tell us. We liked her."

Evan nodded, finishing off the last of the carrier's emergency rations. "Of course. I'd like to know, myself."

"At any rate, we're nominal." Captain Van Dalen pulled on her uniform top, Picard-style. "Set course for Nextus, Number One. Best possible speed. Engage."

Evan laughed and sat down in the pilot's seat. "Yes, Captain. Course laid in and engaged."

Slowly the Clementine lifted off the desert floor, blowing away all the dust from around the ship, accelerating as she went. Fifteen hundred klicks lay between them and home, a three hour trip at six hundred meters. Hunger gnawed at Evan. First thing I'm going to do when I get home is clean out the fridge...after I file an insurance claim for Liis.

Mystery or not, whatever had happened to Liis, he needed the money.

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The company doctors insisted on checking him out before they allowed him to return to his modest Ward Seven apartment. The forty kilos Wilma swore she'd felt were missing. His physical health was a little better than the last bodysculpt a few months ago, but nothing out of the ordinary.

"Go home and get some sleep," the doctor said. "It'll do you good."

With the loss of his RIDE there'd be no going back out with Wilma to make the rounds until he got a new one. The Company was willing to provide, but the salary deduction was nothing to sneeze at. Though there was a very good reason to not be RIDEless. Without one, the relationship with his girlfriend would turn...awkward.

"Wait, Evan, say that again. You lost Liis in the storm?" the holo of Evan's girlfriend, Tajana Timar said flatly. "Lost her. You left her as junk and didn't even get her core?"

"There wasn't anything left of her to find, Taja," Evan said. "I don't know what the company's going to do for me. Walton's good, but I dunno if I'd fit anywhere else. I like my co-workers. I feel worse about this than you do, you know."

"Well, you sure don't sound like it," Tajana said.

Her RIDE, an elk named Hestia, butted in. "So, when's the memorial service?" she said.

Evan felt an odd twinge in the back of his mind. "Why do we need one?" he heard himself say.

Hestia could only sputter at him and vanished from the call. Tajana glared. "We'll talk again after you apologize to Hestia. I know you and Liis didn't always get along, but I can't believe you'd say something like that!" She abruptly ended the call.

The man behind him in line at the burger joint gave him a push. "Come on, buddy!"

It was a purportedly authentic early 21st century "fast food" restaurant, which meant that the only way to place an order was face-to-face with an android behind the counter. "Okay, three Big Whopper Meals to go and a Mega-size chocolate shake."

The goofy-faced android nodded. "Hungry family today, sir?"

"Something like that," Evan replied.

"I hope they enjoy this fine meal you have purchased. Next in line, please," it said politely.

Evan raced back to his apartment, ravenous for something but not knowing exactly what. He stuffed himself full until he could eat no more, then sat at his tiny kitchen table, head in his hands, thinking it was maybe time to go to the hospital.

The inside of his darkened apartment was dominated by Liis's corner. Her recharging and maintenance alcove was still there, of course, waiting for her to return. Still Hungry. What's wrong with me? He thumped the table top before placing his hand on it, palm down.

Something in the table clicked on. Evan sighed with relief as energy flowed into him, shutting his eyes. He put both hands on the table. It felt so good! "Ahhhhh... That's much better."

Evan's voice rose in pitch. The flow of power up through his arms increased. It felt so good he couldn't make himself stop. It was like tasting chocolate for the first time, pure bliss. "More, more! Need more!"

The voice from his own throat was a familiar one, but wasn't his own. It sounded like Liis. Something stirred in the back of Evan's mind, unwinding, extending its reach from head to toe, building a new urge, a warmth deep inside...change.

The hunger receded, the bliss faded. The apartment's dim interior was illuminated by an ethereal blue light. Everything felt strange, like he was in Fuse with Liis. Even in Passive, wearing a female RIDE over a male body played havoc with one's body image after extended periods. Even though Liis never had a scrap of hardlight herself, Evan knew what being a woman felt like. It was one of the things that Tajana liked about him. It added spice to their relationship without him actually being a crossrider.

Not trusting mere physical sensation, Evan stumbled over to the hallway mirror.

A startled woman with reddish hair and doe's ears looked back. This was the body, the shape, and the face Evan had had in a few dreams over the past few years, and a little genderplay with Tajana in VR. Now here it was...Eva Dorset, in the illuminated flesh. What she hadn't had in VR were the glowing lines that emphasized her breasts under her baggy shirt, they flowed down her torso and over her curvy hips and thighs.

This isn't real, Evan thought. It just...isn't. I'm dreaming. I'm...feeling guilty for losing Liis or something. Maybe I should get some sleep.

Yes, sleep. Doctor's orders. Sleep felt like the right idea. Evan felt very tired, despite being recharged from the inductive table.

Maybe after ten hours of slumber the woman in the mirror would go away.

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Damp and dank as a Cascadia rainforest, Nature Range wasn't supposed to be this miserable. Liis plodded through the muck, mud squelching between her cloven hooves between feeding on berries and shrubs. The days of constant damp was almost too much to bear.

How long had it been? Days, weeks? The environment's time compression was twisted like a Möbius strip. Liis wasn't alone. There were simulacra of other deer, but they were no more intelligent than an animal. Liis needed more intellectual stimulation than snorts and bleats.

Still, her systems for creating this environment had never been this good. Passive-mode wasn't like this. It was more akin to human sleep. She dimly recalled shock to her systems, a moment of awakening, the hot Dust, then...ending up here.

Abruptly the constant drizzle stopped, and rays of sunlight broke through the clouds. Then a deer-shaped object fell from the sky and landed with a muddy splat just over the rise.

"Goddamnitsomuch! That hurt!" a familiar voice shouted.

Liis perked her ears. "Evan? Evan!"

"Liis? Is that you?" He was obviously very confused. "Ow! Too many legs!"

The whitetail doe bounded over the rise as fast as she could. A buck lay panting in the middle of a muddy crater, legs splayed all around him like a newborn fawn, which was probably close to the truth. Few humans ever ventured into Nature Range. He stared at her, confused. Evan-the-buck lip-curled. "Okay, now I know I'm dreaming. Liis?"

"It's me. What are you doing here? This...doesn't feel like Active Fuse. You should be a doe."

"I...what?" He tried to get to his feet and failed. "We were in the Dust and the next thing I knew I was buck naked. What happened? If this is the dream, then..." He looked skyward. "What happened to us, Liis? And how do I stand up?"

"First, this isn't a dream. Welcome to Nature Range, Evan. Like I said, you should be a doe--my twin, in fact. But the rules have apparently changed. When a human enters this place they take their RIDE's shape. At least you're a deer."

"Well, out there in real life I'm Eva," Evan said, letting it sink in. "Totally a woman. Believe me, before bed I checked. Everywhere. It's like we'd done Active Fuse from day one. Listen to this."

Evan described how Wilma had found him buck naked in the Dust, none the worse for wear, and the sudden transformation into Eva with Liis's voice after the inductive charge. "I had these glowing lines over my, uh, ladyparts."

"Ladyparts," Liis deadpanned.

"Not down there so much," Evan-buck said, embarrassed.

"Evan, I never had ladyparts like that either," Liis said, wiggling her behind. "VR doesn't count."

"I'd buy hardlight for you if I could afford it," Evan said grumpily. This was an old argument between them.

"Oh, really?" Liis said. "I need all four legs to count the times you've said that and haven't followed through. Look, I understand that you didn't want to be a woman, so going Passive wasn't that big a deal to me. But in exchange you were going to get me a pelt, and it's been three years, buddy, and still no pelt!" The doe planted her forehooves in the mud and snorted, lowering her head closer to his. "But somehow you always found the money for some toy, or some bauble for Taja, or something else. That really pisses me off!"

"Come on, Liis! Is now really the time for this?" Evan fumed.

"I can't think of a better time, if I'm right about what happened to us. We're going to be together for a long, long time, so we'd better get this stuff out in the open," the doe replied firmly.

"Well, can you at least help me stand up? I can't figure out four legs," Evan said.

Liis had experience to draw upon here. Her previous rider had been an avid Nature Range fan, spending far more time in the simulated environment than was really healthy. The problem was that this version wasn't behaving like it should. It was supposed to be bucolic, not mucky.

"Don't try to," Liis said. "You're thinking too much like a human. You need to think like a deer, Evan. Everything, all the instincts you need, are already in the simulacrum you're living in. Welcome to Nature Range, bucko."

Evan snorted. "'Bucko'? Deer puns, Liis?"

"It's not Bambi's Forest, that's for sure," Liis continued. Indeed, she'd smelled wolves, bears, and puma simulacra lurking about. "This is nature in the raw--sort of. This is what I do with my time when I'm hanging out with Hestia and Ada and your other friends' RIDEs. We need it for our own mental health. Maybe now you'll get to walk a mile in my hooves. Call it payback for no pelt." Though I think I really don't need it anymore...assuming I can get out of here and into the real world.

Both deer perked their ears at worrying sounds from the deep woods. Evan struggled to rise, but fell over again, landing heavily enough to snap a tine off his antlers on a log.

"You'd better get moving," Liis said. "The simmy wolves--they're probably hungry, and here you are, all vulnerable and tasty."

Evan looked back at his mud-caked flanks. "They can't eat me like this!"

"Think a little dirt's going to matter? Doesn't work that way," Liis said, moving back towards the rise in the sunlight. "This sounds like some kind of zen, I know, but you have to let go and just be. Your body knows what to do--and how. Let it. I'll wait for you over here."

Minutes passed, but to his credit, Evan didn't complain or beg for help. Sink or swim--stand, or be eaten. Liis didn't know what other rules had changed, but doubted even if either of them were caught and killed there wouldn't be any respawn. This was still Liis's own body--even if she shared it with Evan now.

I wonder how I'm going to break that choice bit of information to him. They were "Inties", as some RIDEs on the sidebands called them. Integrates, a permanent combination of RIDE and rider. Some had called it "PermaFuse", but the name never really caught on. She'd never heard of an Integration of a RIDE in Passive before, though. But then, there was the solar storm. Something had woken her from Passive out in the Dust, and the storm was a good an explanation as any.

Eventually, with the howls getting closer, Evan walked slowly over the rise, gaining confidence with each step. He held the broken tine from his right antler in his mouth, spitting it out. "I don't suppose you or I can put this back on somehow?"

"I guess this means you found those instincts," Liis said, actually a little impressed. Bucks and their racks! "Let's hoof it out of here fast. I'll show you what plants are edible, once we're safe."

The wolf pack howled once more and began closing in. Liis felt the electric thrill of a chase about to begin. Flicking her ears, she looked around. "Well, you're going to have to learn to gallop, Evan. Like, right now. We'd better move! Follow my tail!" She flagged it.

He didn't even stumble, moving to a trot, then to what Liis liked to think of as "flight speed". There was something pure about fleeing at full pelt using only her own legs. No lifters, no joint actuators, just muscle power, even simulated. She needed this, the pure joy of being. From the looks of things, Evan felt the same way. She almost forgot about the pack.

Her (former) rider saw or smelled the wolf before she did, sprinting up next to her to take the surprise pounce out of the bushes where they were being herded. He bellowed with pain as the wolf bit into his neck, and suddenly the rest of the pack was on the straightaway behind them. Bleeding heavily, Evan threw the gray wolf off of himself and turned to face them.

Liis stopped. "What are you doing, Evan? Come on!"

"Run!" he bellowed, then rushed headlong into the pack.

It was a sight to behold. Evan kicked and thrashed, lashing out with sharp hooves with all his strength. Liis was dumbfounded, and more than a little impressed, as it took all ten wolves to bring Evan down.

They were still feeding when a hale and healthy Evan respawned next to Liis. His antlers were even repaired. He stared at the pack, the carcass, Liis, then himself. "I'm...alive?"

"Well, let me clear that up a little," Liis said, walking up to him to nuzzle his shoulder. "You can be killed in here, but you can't die. There's...a difference, you see."

"I still don't understand where 'here' is," Evan said. "And what the hell are you even talking about, anyway? That doesn't make any sense."

"Well, regardless you didn't know that you would respawn," Liis said. "So, what you did...was very heroic. I'm impressed, and I'm sorry for some of what I said earlier."

The buck tilted his head. "Only some?"

Liis laughed, then looked up at the sim-sun. Everything seemed to be improving now, so maybe the Green Room door was back again. "I'll explain everything as we go. It's a long walk. It might take a week."

"A week? Oh, VR time compression."

"Exactly. Since I can't log out of here the normal way--I think because of whatever happened to us--I'm looking for a rather specific waterfall. I have a feeling it won't be anywhere near that long."

Evan looked at the sim-wolves, currently fighting over his--a thigh bone. He nudged her flank. "Let's get out of here, Liis. I think I'm gonna throw up."

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Behind a gorgeous waterfall there was a nondescript metallic door with a sign, labeled "Green Room". It opened as the two deer strolled towards it after two days of walking, eating, sleeping, and talking. Slowly, Liis brought up the idea of Integration, explained what she knew of it, and how it applied to the two of them. Evan chewed on the idea as if it was cud, and had to admit that it made sense. What other explanation was there?

Liis entered first--crossing the barrier changed her. She was suddenly on her hands and knees, anthropomorphic. She stood up, then flexed her thick, hoof-like fingers. "Come on in, Evan. I think you'll enjoy having fingers again. This is the only place I've had them since I've been your RIDE. I spend a lot of time here."

"I never planned on keeping you longer than I needed to," Evan said, hesitating before stepping through. "You know, out there... I'm Eva. Maybe I should stay in here."

"So what if you are? Being 'Eva' isn't the problem so much as what supposedly happens to new Inties," Liis said.

"You said they disappear," Evan said. "Seriously, it doesn't feel like we're going to mash together into one person just yet. Maybe I can somehow let you take control of my--our body. I owe you for not getting the pelt like I promised. You're the one who knows how to be a woman, anyway."

"Uh, not as such," the doe said, extending her hand. "Come on in, Evan. Don't worry."

Evan reached across the threshold with a forehoof that then became a hand that mirrored the doe's. He grimaced, then stepped all the way through.

The other doe looked critically at her rider. "See, Eva? We're twins."

"I think my brain hurts," Eva replied, taking in her virtual curves. "What are these, virtual hormones or real ones?"

"Probably real. Here, let me look at you, 'sis'," Liis said. "Twirl around."

"You expect me to dance for you?" the new doe said primly, hands on hips.

"Okay, so don't twirl. At least come over here," Liis said, gesturing towards a mirror. "Get a good look before you wake up. You'll see something like this, I think. Integrates are supposed to be furry."

"Might as well get used to it now, then," Eva grumbled. "So, in here I'm your twin. It's a little creepy."

"This is the Green Room. There's a wealth of possibilities here to play around with," Liis said thoughtfully, ears flicking. "Hmmm...turn your back to me and hold still. I have an experiment."

With a snap of Liis's fingers, a red minidress appeared on Eva. It had a familiar golden arrowhead on her left breast. "A Starfleet uniform? Really, Liis?"

"Hestia loves Star Trek as much as Wilma, so we do a little roleplay in VR," Liis explained, turning her back around. Her twin also wore a red minidress uniform. "This is called the Green Room for a good reason. Its a prep space. I'll show you through that other door. If I'm right, this'll be a real trip."

"What are we doing, anyway?" Eva sighed. Somehow this was worse than being nude. The neckline revealed about five daring centis of cleavage and the bra tickled her nipples. Two days buck naked in Nature Range hadn't felt this awkward. Genderplay with Taja had always been extremely private.

"Exploring our new body from the inside, that's what. I knew my systems inside and out. We should see what the upgrades are, and envisioning it as a newly refitted starship is a good analogy." Liis posed in front of the mirror. "We look cute in red. Sets off our fur nicely. Love your tush and tail."

The events of the last few subjective days suddenly weighed heavily on Eva's shoulders. She slumped. Liis hugged her rider and permanent body-mate. " What's wrong, sis?"

"What do you think?" Eva grumbled. "What are we, really? What am I going to do with my life? With our lives? What if I wake up and my body looks all girly and deery like this? Taja is going to kill me! She doesn't like girls--at least, not like that."

"Look, sis," Liis said, turning her around so they were face to face. "Maybe we should just take a week of sick leave. After what happened in the Dust I don't think W-Q's going to argue with that. It was a traumatic experience. We can take the time to sit at home, get used to things, find out what we can do. Recenter ourselves. Find some Zen. Six days."

"You mean, like how I got up on four legs a couple days ago?" Eva said.

"Exactly. If I'm right, you have all my systems incorporated into our body. Using them was second--well, more like first--nature. I don't see why any of that would change," Liis said, leading her over to one of the doors. A lighted exit sign was above. "And who knows what else we'll discover, right?"

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Days of self-discovery followed. There was a socket of some type on Eva's sternum, right where her cleavage converged just so, and that wasn't the least of the oddities. The strangest discovery was also the most fortuitous by far, but also made rational sense. Wilma hadn't found Eva in the Dust, she'd found Evan.

"Maybe Evan is still in you somewhere," Liis suggested. "You need to bring him out. More Zen time, sis."

Liis was also absolutely right.

Exhausted, breathing heavily, Evan slumped in the shower with cold water pouring over him. It was hard to maintain--even now Eva's breasts threatened to parp back. A stray thought, a minor loss of concentration, and Eva would simply snap back. Liis called it a "ground state", at least for now--

:You did it!: Liis said.

Their shared body made an interesting sound...splort. It was accompanied by a truly massive sigh of relief.

"You had to say something," Eva said, folding her arms under her re-emerged breasts. "You just had to."

:Uh, I'm sorry, Eva. Really. We've done a lot today,: Liis said. :Attagirl! It took almost two hours, but attagirl!:

Hours, when it should only take minutes at the most. It barely took ten minutes to fully "bake" a man into a woman during a crossride, faster with mil-spec Fuser nannies--and it took seconds for Evan to snap back into Eva. Even going furry took minutes by comparison. Her body just didn't want to be masculine. That it could be was enough to find the motivation to make it less like trying to bench press five hundred kilos and more like flipping a mental switch.

Once the burning in her muscles receded Eva got out of the shower. Drying off was simple enough for her now--her skintight hardlight enviro-seal simply removed it when she turned it back on. She wrapped a newly-fabbed terrycloth bathrobe around herself and went into the apartment's tiny living room. The induction table had been moved into the center. Batteries depleted down to sixteen percent, she pulsed her lifters to more easily lay down on top.

"Power bill's going to suck this month," Eva complained. She'd spent almost as much time recharging as as experimenting, discovering she needed power more than food.

:Sorry about that, Captain,: Liis repeated. She'd dryly called her body-mate the "Evaprise" on a few occasions. Unfortunately the doe RI couldn't take direct control over their body, but she could and did provide other services. Eva's very own Scotty in Engineering.

On the plus side, Liis felt every sensation Eva did, as if she was doing it herself. On the minus side, it led to some rather awkward requests. The former RIDE had never had even simulated hardlight flesh before, and after so many broken promises to provide it was simply impossible for Eva to refuse most of the time. Liis wanted to feel Eva walk, run, and jump. She loved long showers with lots of soap. She wanted expensive food, which they had delivered.

Now, there was a pregnant silence from her. Eva sighed. Admittedly she enjoyed many of those things herself (like the showers) but some things were just...too much for a new girl just yet. "Okay, Liis, what do you want now? I can do jumping jacks if you want the bounce."

:Well, I just had a teensy-tiny suggestion for that home fabber. You know, the expensive one you bought instead of the Trinity hardlight package I wanted,: Liis said.

"Teensy-tiny?" Eva groaned. Requests like that were anything but. "Just how teensy, Liis?"

Liis appeared to stand next to Eva, a little Augmented Reality trick she'd picked up from digging through their internal systems. The anthro doe sauntered around the living room wearing various outfits. "Oh, nothing, really. All you've got that fits right now is this wonderful robe. There are so many gorgeous 20th century fashions out there in the public domain. I want to wear them, for reals."

"You just want me to be your dress-up doll," Eva said. "Look, I'm just too tired. It's been a long day and I need a nap." She grimaced. "More than a nap. I'm heading for Nature Range. If I still can't be Evan out here, I'll buck around in there."

"Okay, fine. Go and chase does for a whole month if you want," Liis said. She'd pushed things too far, but grumped onwards anyway. "Your real ovaries will still be here when you get back. I checked, you know. You have 'em."

"I know that!" Eva snapped. They both paused. "Okay, I'm getting all bitchy. I'm sorry."

The doe sighed. "Like you said, it's been a long few days. Dive into Nature Range and have a little fun, I mean that. Go chase does if you want to feel like a man for a while. That's what it's there for. It's what my old rider got hooked on. I'll join you in a few."

"See you there, then," Eva said, shutting her eyes. She took a deep breath, then looked within.

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Liis could easily tell that Nature Range was running. It took up a lot of CPU cycles, so she couldn't think quite as fast. She lay on the charging table, feeling her batteries store energy. It was a lot like eating, though the local generators had a "bland" taste, like plain oatmeal. She intended to join Eva, but a few more minutes simply enjoying her own body was much more attractive than trotting about on four legs.

Something inside clicked.

The paralysis was gone.

Disbelieving, Liis levered herself up on her elbows. Her face and body tingled briefly--the very same sensation just shortly before, when Evan's own face had feminized. "Lights on," she said in her own voice, not Eva's. She felt her own face. No...this!

Her lifters thrust Liis to her feet, and she practically floated over to the bathroom mirror. No, not Eva's face. Not at all! Excitement built and almost exploded with joy then and there. That's the face...the face that I...I've...

She'd caught the interest as a sort of inversion from her previous rider's near-addition to Nature Range. This was the face of Lisa Westfall, a human's life she had fabricated for herself out of whole cloth. She didn't even have doe tags--not ears, no tail, and had blond hair, with the body of a 1950s starlet. Liis was hardly the only RIDE to have that kind of fantasy--some of the local sidebands were full of roleplay interest groups. But she was probably the only one to actually fulfill it.

All because Eva decided to visit Nature Range. Well, what would happen when she returned?

Better make the best of it! she thought. Eva didn't want to go fab-shopping, but there was nothing to stop Liis. She smiled more like a cat than a doe, and picked up Eva's 'specs.

No longer having a built-in net connection was a little disorienting, and confusing in the circumstances, and its absence she couldn't explain, either to Eva or herself. The very nonstandard socket on her chest wouldn't accept anything she tried plugging in. Regardless, flicking through various menus on the 'specs went much faster since she understood the underlying signals better.

Minutes later the "HomFAB Pro Turbo" started spitting out basic underthings, racy lingerie, tops, blouses, dresses, skirts, makeup, jewelry, and everything else a modern human woman needed in daily life. The fabber feed bill was going to be even more enormous than the power bill when she was done with it. The fabber itself took up one whole wall of the living room, opposite of Liis's old alcove, occupying pride-of-place in the apartment. This is what Evan had spent money on instead of getting her a Trinity pelt--and it was only fair that she have it produce what humans considered a "pelt". Clothes, clothes, and more clothes.

After an hour of playing dress-up there was a very polite knock on the door. Too polite for a delivery droid, in fact...Tajana knocked that way when she...Taja! Worse, the only thing Liis had on was some itchy lingerie. Crapcrapcrap! She scooped up as many clothes as she could in her arms and sprinted into the bedroom. Liis dropped everything and started to concentrate. :Evan--Eva! Wake up! Wake up!:

Evan's girlfriend and her RIDE could technically walk in and out as they pleased. After texting in her time-off request Liis and Eva had shut out the outside world to focus on their inner one.

She watched the front door open part way on her 'specs via the living room cameras. An elk's nose poked inside. "Sorry, Taja, I am smelling another woman in there with him." The cow elk pushed it open the rest of the way.

Taja was angry. Very, very angry. "You hear that, Evan? We know you're in here with her, you two-timing dick! Her clothes are all over the place!"

Unfortunately the bedroom didn't have a lock. Panicked, her natural instinct was to flee, but there was nowhere to go. The apartment was fifteen floors up and even if she wanted to fly out of them, the windows were solid transparent aluminum.

The bedroom door was almost ripped off the hinges. Liis cowered in a corner, trembling like an animal. Taja stormed up to her, but didn't touch. "You! Where is he?"

"He--He's not here!" It was a half-truth, and sounded like it.

Taja's expression softened, but only a little. "Look, you don't have to defend him. Did he step out? You're using his com. I thought he was about to come out of his shell after what happened in the Dust. Instead I find you here playing with his fab." She tilted her head and grinned feraly. "My, aren't you a pretty little thing. What's your name, anyway? I'd like to know who he's two-timing me with."

"Liis," she squeaked, trying to get a hold of herself.

Behind Taja, Hestia did a double-take. "I'm sorry, what was that name?"

"Lisa," she said. She gave Hestia a sideways look. "Lisa Westfall."

"Lisa Westfall," Hestia repeated. Unlike Liis, Hestia had a full hardlight pelt, the Trinity units she herself wanted. Full anatomical correctness, simulation of nerve endings down to the subdermis. She even smelled like an elk. "Westfall, right?"

"That's what she said, Hestia," Tajana said. She picked one of the red dresses off the ground and threw it at her. "Put this on and get out! I'm tossing the rest of your crap back into the fabber. Don't you even try coming back here!"

"Let me see her out, Taja," Hestia said. "Just to make sure."

"Go ahead. Look at her, she doesn't even have a RIDE! I'm not really angry at her anyway. Just..." Taja clenched her fists. "This is just the utter limit! If he's not back here in an hour I'm going to dump him like a sack of bricks!"

The dress was a body-clinging fabric barely two steps removed from nudity by Nextus standards, with a halter top and bare back. Hestia planted her large cold, wet nose right on her bare skin as she pushed her out, snickering the whole time. Once they were in the empty corridor she put her head on Liis's shoulder. "So, 'Lisa'...what the hell happened out there? Come on, spill! I know it's you, Liis. You dropped enough hints."

Liis turned around and hugged her large friend and squealed. "I'm glad you caught it. I...I don't think I can explain it, exactly. Something happened out there. Evan and I Integrated." She tapped her temple. "Evan's bucking around in Nature Range as we speak."

Hestia looked around. "Let's go find somewhere more private for a while. I have to hear every detail! Everything!"

"Not now, Hestia," Liis said, grimacing. "I only have control right now because Evan's bucking around. If I can't wake him up...well...maybe that won't matter anyway."

"Why's that?" Hestia said, getting a closer look at her face. "Wow. Just like all that human art you commissioned! I'm a jealous elkie. Come on, you have to tell me everything! Connect and send me a mem package."

There was a...tickle of warning in the back of Liis's mind. Evan was in the Green Room, and there was a sensation like lifters cutting out. She didn't have much time. "I can't do that, Hestia. I'll--"

The elk RIDE jumped back. "My God! What's wrong with your face?!"

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A subjective week passed before Evan had his fill of Nature Range. Chasing does wasn't nearly as thrilling or as satisfying as he'd hoped. All the problems of living like an animal just grew harder and harder to bear. The tasteless food, the cud, the exposure to the elements--the predators. He'd never forget the predators. Foolishly he'd sought out the pack he'd defended Liis from, out of some idea he could deal out some payback, only to be taken down again and respawn.

A frigid night, waking up covered in a layer of snow, had been the last straw, and it was back to being Liis's twin sister in the Green Room.

Eva sighed and relaxed in one of the recliners before returning to the outer world, pulling together the mental strength to endure the trials ahead. She absolutely had to master her new body. Losing her job was not an option. Her finances were always precarious at best and it wouldn't take much to push them over the edge.

There were voices behind the Green Room door. It sounded like--Liis? And Hestia? Eva sprinted for the door and flung herself through.

The elk RIDE caught her before she pitched forward and fell flat on her face. When she steadied herself, took in herself, Hestia, the sound of Taja's voice just audible behind her apartment door, she put a few things together. "Liis! What the hell?"

"I'm sorry I'm sorry!" the former RIDE sputtered in AR. "When you went to sleep, there I was. I could move and everything. I couldn't resist. Then, well, Taja and Hestia walked in on me and--"

"And threw us out? Wait, Taja would recognize this face. We've used it in genderplay for years. Why would she throw you out?"

"I'm only hearing half of this conversation," Hestia said. "All I'll say is she didn't have Eva's--your face. She had this face." The elk projected the blond bombshell of Lisa Westfall from a emitter on her head.

"That...doesn't look much like me," Eva admitted. Indeed, the dress was rather uncomfortably tight around the bust.

"Taja said if you didn't come back in an hour she'd dump you," Liis said.

Eva sighed. Apparently, whatever had happened with Liis a short time ago had also given her a shorter, slimmer physique compared to Eva's. Her own breasts threatened to spill out of the halter top. :Tell me about it later. Right now, I guess I need to explain what's going on to Taja. Oh God, she's going to make up some crazy story.:

:I can't wait to see how she explains this one, honestly,: Liis said.

"Don't worry. She'll believe you," Hestia said. "You changed from Liis into Eva right in front of me. She'll believe it."

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Just as Hestia promised, all it took was a Fuse for Taja to stop shouting and start thinking. Her face was a study in a woman trying to fit various pieces of the new reality together. She never wanted anyone to explain anything completely, at least at first. The woman was a bundle of creativity when it came to making up stories for her boyfriend's various life events. It was the best "Wait, wait, don't tell me" Taja ever came up with.

She only settled into it once she stopped fussing over Eva's outfit and getting her settled into a top and skirt right out of their AR genderplay. Only then did they settle in on the couch so Taja could tell the tale she'd come up with.

"I honestly thought you'd be more upset, Taja," Eva said, arms folded.

"If you can't turn back into Evan, then I'll freak out. This is just a temporary thing, right?"

"It's a definite maybe," Eva said.

The other woman's brown eyes brightened. "I guess that'll do. Anyway here goes. This'll actually be one of my shorter stories." She took a deep breath.

After Liis saved his life in the Dry by ejecting him into Wilma's arms, Evan felt guilty about losing her, so guilty he decided to honor the RIDE that he only wore in Passive mode with a visit to a crossover salon to become the woman he would have been, had he had the balls (Taja giggled) for Active Fuse in the first place.

"I don't have any balls now, do I?" Eva deadpanned, mildly offended. "Is that it?"

:That's actually halfway reasonable, Eva,: Liis added. :You'd be able to keep your job. Or a job, anyway.:

"I'm not quite done," Taja said brightly.

Now Eva, the new woman met Lisa Westfall in a women's clothing store. Lisa and Eva were fast friends, and the blond offered to help reorganize Eva's life along more feminine lines. Eva had stepped out for one reason or another when Taja walked in on Lisa, naturally assuming the worst, and throwing her out.

"You're getting better at this," Eva said.

"Thanks. If you can't change back into Evan you might think about using it." Her expression went flat and dangerous. Her expectations were very clear. "Now, experiment over. I want my man back in real life. whatever it is you do. I want to watch."

"And if I can't make Evan stick?" Eva asked. "I'm new at this, Taja. Cut me some slack."

"Then I guess I'll have to tell everyone you crossed and we'll have one of those big girly welcome parties," Taja replied. Her eyes narrowed. "I'll do it, too. Everyone will think you've become such a girly girl out of guilt you'll feel like throwing up whenever you see pink."

"You wouldn't," Eva said, sitting up straight. "Come on, Taja. What have I done to deserve that? I've been trying to bring Evan back for three days already."

"Try me, 'Eva'," Taja said. "Think of it as...motivation. I said I want my man back, and I mean it! Genderplay's fun every now and again, but push come to shove, I want my man."

"Tajana!" Hestia reproved. Even she was shocked at the ultimatum. "Stop being such a hen. Eva's not your plaything."

Taja pondered, elk ears a-twitch and ignored her RIDE. "When do you go back to work?"

"I have another three days of sick leave," Eva said, feeling a little ill. Even if she could meet her demands by then she wondered if it was really worth it. A spanner had been thrown into their previously stable relationship, and Taja had a habit of finding exploits. Even if Eva did find that mental switch, Taja would find ways to make Evan be Eva on-demand, just because it was a New Thing. "Come on, Tajana, I need more time. More practice."

Taja almost never heard her full name unless it was serious business. Hearing it from both Eva and Hestia finally took her aback. "Okay, okay. But I want Evan back in two days, or get used to tits for three years. Got it?"

"Two days," Eva repeated. "Got it."

"Now that we're settled...what else can you do?" Taja said brightly. She sat down on the couch next to Eva and put her hand on the Integrate's bare foot. There was a gleam in her eye--the look of someone examining new possibilities. "Needs polish. Anyway, I've heard so many rumors. How many of them are true?"

"I really have no idea, that's why I've been experimenting," Eva replied, wiggling her toes. Liis had fabbed nail polish, among other things. Taja reached for a bottle of aqua-colored polish and uncapped it. "I thought you wanted your man back?"

"Humor me. Right now you're Eva," Taja said. She started to methodically cover each nail with the air of a big sister showing her little sister how to do it. "I'm just treating you like one of the girls. Me and my friends do this all the time. I'll let you do mine when I'm done."

:That's it, even if we win, we lose,: Eva sent. :We might as well hang up the balls anyway and get used to crossrider pink.:

:Do you really think Taja's that petty?: Liis said.

:Let me tell you what's going to happen, even if I find that easy Evan-switch you swear is in here somewhere. For a week or so she'll be so happy she has her man back we'll go at it like two deer in rut. But the door is opened, there's something new. I'm not just her boyfriend now, I can be a girlfriend she can do girly things with. Two weeks from now she'll suggest a 'girls night out', and I'll say 'anything for you, honey' because I'm just that nice.

But oh no, it won't stop there. For the next 'girls night out' she'll bring along the rest of her friends and introduce them to whatever name she decides to give me, because it won't be Eva. No, I'll be a recent crossrider and everyone in her little circle of hens will think it's their duty to make me into their idea of a real woman. Soon after, every night will be a girls night out. The only time I'll get as Evan will be at work.

Eventually it'll be easier to be Eva or whoever all the time and Evan will just be someone she used to know.:

Liis sighed. :That's...pretty ugly. I never thought she was that domineering. What do we do? Dump her? Wait, you can't. She's the only one who knows what we are.:

:Exactly. We need to keep her close for now.: Eva said. :I don't want to vanish mysteriously.:

Finished with the toes on one foot, Taja moved on to the next. "I'll do those cute little fingernails of yours next. Maybe we should get you out of the apartment this afternoon? I suppose I'm not in a rush after all. I really don't want to push you too much. You've had a hard day."

:Until the right time comes we play along,: Eva said. :Besides, you want to be human? You can have as many of those nights as you want, Lisa Westfall. Be my guest. I'll be twinning in the Green Room or bucking around 'outside'.:

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December 28, 140 AL

Walton-Q Ore Carrier Maintenance Drydock

Several months in a row of winning "Most Dedicated Employee" made Evan Dorset ineligible for the award in the future, but it did get him a five percent raise in return. As Lead Mechanic of the Clementine's drydock maintenance crew his was the first face they saw in the morning, and the last one when they left in the evening. In her twenty years of service the Clementine had never been so finely tuned. Wilma had been overjoyed the company had been willing to transfer the carrier's former on-board Engineer/Security Escort after he'd decided not to get another RIDE.

In truth he rarely left the building unless it was one of Liis's "Be Human" nights out. On those nights Eva-doe relaxed in a reconfigured Green Room using some time expansion if she didn't want to buck around in Nature Range. Five minutes inside stretched to several hours outside.

There was very little for Evan's replacement to do aboard ship besides security, all told. The new girl sometimes grumbled, saying he should just double down and get a new RIDE so he could go out with Wilma again.

"You've put down roots in here," Wilma said on one occasion. She'd sometimes caught him sleeping in his old billet on board the ship when it was in drydock. "Go home, relax."

Those were two words that didn't go together these days. Evan only really existed as a workaday persona. Somewhere between work and home Evan found a place to change, then usually continued to the two-bedroom apartment she now shared with Taja. Eva Dorset wasn't the other name on the lease. It was another woman, a persona Taja had slipped into Nextus's identity system via unknown means.

That woman was Lisa Westfall.

It was Hestia's idea, and Liis was overjoyed to say the least. Evan (Eva, anyway) still had her old apartment, but when it was Liis's turn, she allowed her to play human to heart's content. As for being Eva, there was barely a trace of Evan in that tiny apartment now. Just a few weeks ago Taja and her friends had redecorated it for the "new girl" while Eva was at work. The only thing that remained was the home fabber, which they loved, churning out endless piles of clothes but rarely paying Eva for the fabber matter feed.

If it wasn't for her weird new Integrative physiology, keeping herself fed and clothed would have been a problem. It was hard enough just keeping her head above water as it was.

Perhaps the strangest part of all of this was learning, firsthand, how some women treated one another. Eva's prediction from months ago had panned out mostly expected. Evan didn't really exist for Taja anymore--in her mind he had "crossed over" and Eva was just one of the girls. She told the story she had made up on the spot to explain Eva's sudden appearance to her friends and Evan's family, and they believed it. It wouldn't be that much longer before Evan would have to vanish at work. Maintaining this kind of double life was...stressful.

He'd already requested the time-off, implying a visit to a crossover salon was nigh, to his supervisor. Word had already spread through the Maintenance Drydock. There'd be a crossover party in there somewhere.

Evan lay atop the Clementine's well deck in the darkness, looking up at the silhouettes of the lifter cranes against the stars overhead. Zharus's moon, Alpha, was in a waxing crescent. He didn't tire easily, and his Integrate body didn't need as much sleep. He gave the empty ore compartment a gentle pat.

"Dorset! Why are you still here?" his supervisor commed through his company 'specs. "It's been twenty hours, man! Go home! Enjoy your last hours as a man living it up. Don't waste it."

"The cav in Lifter Five needs realignment and a neutron flush, Bobby," he replied. He flicked his ears, still having deer tags after all these months. Getting rid of them just felt silly. "Impeller three's acting up again, too. If I don't pull it and repack the propulsion coils the ship'll lose twenty kph on cruise."

"You know, scuttlebutt around here is that after you get back from being girlified they're going to give you my job," Bobby said. "They're transferring me to Cascadia, of all places. Dank, soaked, clammy Cascadia."

"I don't want your job, Bobby," Evan said.

"I know that, you know that, but management doesn't care. Anyway, this time I'm not asking you, I'm ordering you. Go home. I know you're on salary so you can't get overtime, but management thinks you're trying too hard. You make the rest of us look bad! Home, now, or security will throw you out. I don't want to see you back here until I have something nice to look at." Bobby left the rough, borderline-sexist compliment hanging.

:So ends the life of Evan Dorset,: Liis said unhappily. :I'm so sorry.:

:Ends? Ends? No way, Liis. It's just on pause,: he replied. :It's only for three years at the most, probably less, the way we're going with our little 'talents'.:

"Okay, Bobby. I'm going. Just make sure I get those new lifter jumpsuits I ordered before I get back. They have to fit me right," Evan said aloud. He stood up and activated the lifters in the work jumpsuit, floating down to the drydock floor. A tram ride later and he was back in the locker area where workers started and ended their day. After putting on his male clothes for potentially the last time, he shrugged a carry-strap on his shoulder for the hard duffel bag he always carried with him, then left the premises.

A short distance away there were a number of private places to make the ever-shorter transition. The hardcase duffel had a couple secret compartments that contained Eva's or Lisa Westfall's outfit for the night. From man to woman took about ten seconds, and just a few minutes to change clothes.

"Now that was really something," Wilma Van Dalen's voice came from a speaker on the wall. "Can you do that again, Evan? I want to see."

"Wilma! What are you doing?" Eva said testily, crossing her arms over her chest out of reflex. The camera-speaker was practically invisible. Eva ripped it off the brick wall. "Spying on me?"

"If you hadn't kept avoiding me whenever I asked about Liis it wouldn't have been necessary. I've had ample reason for suspicion," Wilma said. Her tone switched to her best Captain Janeway impression. "Now, as your Captain and you owe me an explanation. Come to my ready room. We'll have a late dinner. Use whatever shape you want, 'Odo'. Van Dalen out."

Twenty minutes and a half dozen ignored calls from Taja later--tonight was bar-hopping night--Evan arrived at the "Captain's Quarters" on Fillmore Square where Walton-Q housed their ore carrier pilots. The android doorman stopped him before he walked in. "Your Captain requests you buzz in first, Number One," it said.

Evan sighed, pushing the button. It was all so silly sometimes. The woman was in a Star Trek lifestyler phase. "Evan here, Captain. One to beam up."

"Meet me in my Ready Room, Number One," Wilma said. "I hope you're hungry. I ordered out."

Ada met them at the door. The arctic vixen was in her white winter phase now, and very striking. She glared at him, disgusted, turning up her nose when he greeted her, refusing to let him step inside. The decor apartment beyond had pictures of starships on the wall and a lot of fabbed reproductions of furniture from the various Enterprises, the Voyager, and Deep Space 9.

"She's a little...pissed, Evan. And I'm a little put-out myself," Wilma said. "Come on, Ada. Let them in."

"He's a 'them'?" Ada said. The RIDE glared with her ice blue eyes. "Where's Liis, you deadbeat meatbag?"

"Let's just say we've got a timeshare thing going on," Evan said. He tapped his temple. "She's in here."

:Ugh, I don't know what to say to her,: Liis said. :She's pissed. You want to switch off?:

:Yes, but...we'll go right to Intie-doe form. I don't think she's ready to meet human-you yet,: Evan opined. At Liis's agreement, he cued the transition. "Don't be alarmed. I'm going to let her out now. It'll just take a few minutes..."

Ada noticed the increasing fur around Evan's ears, the blackening nose, the projecting muzzle, the swelling breasts. Eva's tattoos flared, taking on a swirly feminine shape, as they always did when going furry. The white vixen gaped. "Uh, wow. Very American Werewolf...Weredoe, I guess."

"With some TRON mixed in for good measure," Wilma said. "You're one of those...Integrates, right?" Wilma unable to take her eyes off her former crewperson as she changed. "I think that's what they're called."

"That's us," Evan said in Liis's voice.

The fox yelped and almost knocked her over mid-transformation. "Liis! It's you! What happened."

:I'll be in the Green Room in realtime,: Eva said. :Your show, partner.:

When she spoke again, it really was Liis talking, a truly real anthropomorphic whitetail doe not even a hardlight-pelted Fuser could imitate. She was only a little taller than Wilma. "It's, uh, complicated. Grab us some popcorn, will you?"

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Ada practically fell on Wilma as she Fused, then scooped up the fully-transformed Liis into a hug, licking her face. "We thought we'd lost you!"

The doe returned the embrace. "I thought I lost me, too. But here I am. I can't even begin to describe how strange this feels."

"Just a sec, hon," Ada said. She looked inwards for a moment. "Okay, we've got some privacy. Wilma's such a sweetie. What about you? Is he..?"

"She's my twin in the Green Room," Liis said. "She can't hear anything much in there. It's sort of unfair. When Eva's in control I see and feel everything she does, but when I'm in control she gets to sit in the Green Room and read old magazines."

The arctic vixen Fuser snorted. "Fair? Don't tell me about fair. It looks like you've finally got the goods on that deadbeat! You...look...gorgeous!"

"I do, don't I?" Liis replied, giggling. She started pulling off Evan's ill-fitting clothes so she could show it off more to her foxy friend, who couldn't resist pawing her breasts and curves. "Honestly, I use this form very little. Maybe we should change that. It's comfy in a way being a human isn't."

"So," Ada said, giving the doe another look. "Three years of broken promises. It's karma, I tell you. Here you are Liis, in the flesh. The real flesh! I'm jealous!"

Liis sighed. "Look, when Eva comes back, don't taunt her about that. We're long past it by now."

"Maybe you are, but I'm not." Ada snarled.

The doe's eyes narrowed. "Ada, I've had more than enough payback by now. We have to live together, you know. Please, Bones, for little 'deery' me?"

"Well, okay..." the younger RIDE said. "Hey, I can't connect to you. I'm getting these weird signals back when I ping. Something wrong?"

"My networking gear is all fouled up, I have no idea why," Liis explained. "I guess when you merge with a squishy it screws up some things. I can get ZPS, but that's about it. Even the sidebands are gibberish."

"And that funky socket on your chest? Maybe that has something to do with it." Ada prodded it with a claw, and got a spark for her trouble. "Ow!"

"Oh, don't get me started. I've tried every trick I know, but all I get is noise. Maybe it's more like, I dunno, a belly button? I don't think it actually does anything." Liis shrugged. The doe felt a little tug in the back of her mind--Eva wanted in again. "My roomie wants the controls. Talk to you later?"

"Now that I know you're alive it can wait until next time," Ada said. "I'll bring back the Captain. This is going to be a long night."

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"Answer this, Number One," Wilma said over a vegetarian dinner. She insisted that Eva stay in doe form rather than return to human again. "Why haven't you found any others of your kind?"

"It's not really a matter of 'found'. It's more like 'not looking'," Eva admitted, picking the food with her left hand on the inductive tabletop. "I can't say if any have found me, I suppose. If they have then they haven't bothered me. But...Captain, I've heard some awful things. I think it's best I just don't make any noise."

Liis was right, this form was comfy, natural. Energy use was more than a third lower than in any human form, but she could count the hours she'd used it on one four-fingered hand. There were other benefits--with so much energy freed up, her lifters and hardlight reported full power. More things that begged exploration. The Flying Doe!

"Ever thought of going out in public like that?" Wilma asked in a reasonable tone.

Eva snorted between forkfuls. "I actually did once, for about ten minutes. I'm too small for a Fuser. Everyone thought I was just a custom furry gynoid for some fetishy rich dude who'd wandered off. I couldn't bear that. Besides, there's that 'drawing unwanted attention' thing again."

"I'm not trying to give you the Third Degree here, Eva, just trying to get a sense of where you are right now," Captain Van Dalen said. "Tell me, what else have you experimented with? How far have you pushed this shapeshifting talent? You can obviously be a human--several kinds, in fact. You can be what you are now. Can you just be a deer?"

"Funny, I never thought about that," Liis said. Eva's AR twin looked up at the ceiling thoughtfully. "I mean, with Nature Range I never thought of being one out here."

"That's an awesome idea, Wilma," Ada said. "We have a lot of deer in the hills around here. You'd blend right in."

"But unlike Nature Range, no respawn," Liis said, wishing she could talk to Ada directly.

"Maybe," Eva answered Wilma. Eva's 'specs buzzed Taja's number for the fourteenth time that evening. The doe rolled her eyes. "I'm not answering. Every Wednesday they drag me to a half dozen bars and throw men at me, hoping they find one that so sets my heart aflutter I want him to stick his dick in me--pardon my French."

"'They' being...?"

"Taja and her hens. They cluck over me like I'm a baby chick who needs guidance to grow into another one of them," Eva said sourly.

Wilma facepalmed. "Okay, there's just one piece of advice I'm going to offer you--one woman to another, to be honest--get away from Taja. If you don't fawn all over her--no pun intended--she's the worst kind of backstabbing bitch. We never got along the few times we met. Remember the last company picnic?"

"She seems really sweet to me," Eva said weakly. "At least she did when I was Evan."

"See, that's exactly what I mean," Wilma said. "You're in a foreign country, Eva. You don't know the culture, the taboos, the body language, but you're going native all the same. I'm sure Taja was fine because you were a man. But you're not anymore--at least, she doesn't think of you as one, even if you can be one when you feel like it."

"I have to admit that it still takes a lot of effort," Eva said. Man to woman was ten seconds, but still a full ten minutes in the mornings to go back the other way, though getting better daily. "I'll spare you the gory details."

"I'll take your word for it. Just think a moment. How do guys act when there are only other guys around? You're on the fem side of that now. Frankly, we're horrible. Ugh! I prefer working with men, to be honest." Wilma shivered, then gave Eva a serious look. "I don't want you to end up like Taja. No wonder you don't seem to like being Eva very much. They haven't given you reason to.

"I can put in a good word for you on that Shop Foreman job in Cascadia Bobby doesn't want. Get away from here, start clean, no more baggage." Wilma reached across the table and grasped Eva's fuzzy hands. "But rest assured I have been, and ever shall be, your friend, man or woman--my half-deer Number One. You're my very own Spock."

"Thanks, Captain," Eva replied warmly. "That really means alot. Liis and I could use the support."

:Don't worry, I can afford to break the lease,: Liis said. :I hate to leave Hestia in the lurch like this. She's a good friend, too. She can't help it if her rider's a cast-iron bitch.:

:Maybe she'll whack Taja upside the head a few times,: Eva suggested. She pursed her lips. "You know, tomorrow I'm officially 'crossing over', as they call it. Evan's going to legally not exist for three years."

"Oh, I'm sure you'll find some loopholes, Number One," Wilma said, grinning. She laughed, then looked at her plate. "You know, you're going to hate me for making this suggestion. But I can't think of anything else right now."

"Oh? What's that?" the doe Integrate asked, arching one eyebrow.

"I don't want Taja and her ilk to ruin being a woman for you," Wilma replied. "So, how about a girls' night out with your Captain? I can't guarantee a good time, but I can simply let you find your own way. The only time I'll say anything is if I see a bad habit you've picked up from them. You game?"

"Technically, yes, I am game," Eva quipped. She laughed a little, then sighed. "Sure, let's make a night of it. I know all the bars Taja likes, so we can stay far away from them. I just need a few minutes to pull my fur in," She looked at the furiously buzzing 'specs on the table. "And I'll just leave that here."

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June 8, 141 AL

Cascadia, Dome Baker, Snoqualmie Arms Apartments

Evan sat in a lotus position in the center of the living room, breathing slowly. Eyes shut, his breath quickened a little. He held his hands out in front of him. "The left forehoof," he said, making a slow throwing motion. From the elbow down, his left arm obediently began to change. His fingers elongated, nails swelling into proper a cloven hoof with dewclaws. When the change completed to his satisfaction, he repeated the command on his other arm.

He named each body part in turn, shifting his weight as necessary until he was on his belly. Left hind leg, right hind leg, hips, torso...neck...head...

Liis knew better than to interrupt his concentration.

Shift and flow, his body obeyed his commands, Fuser nannies quickly rearranging flesh and bone in an orderly, methodical fashion. Nearly a year after the accident in the Dust he and Liis had achieved a level of self-mastery they wondered if other Integrates possessed. Becoming a man was easy now, taking only seconds. But the situation Evan had had in Nextus hadn't exactly reversed itself. When Eva walked in the door she typically cast her human form aside for the comfortable, efficient Intie doe. Being Evan, Intie buck or human, depended on the mood she was in.

Opening his eyes, Evan pushed himself onto all four hooves. The ten-point buck in the bathroom mirror looked right back at him. :Hey, Liis...:

:Hey there, handsome, doing anything tonight?: Liis smarmed. :Seriously, bro, this is awesome! God, feel that wondrous thing between our legs..:

:Don't you start,: Evan said lightheartedly, snorting with laughter.

Liis-doe appeared in AR "next to" him. "Think you can change directly to twin-doe? Hmmm?"

:Trivial,: Evan-buck said. He wanted to speak, but this first attempt only had animal vocal cords. The process was a simple matter of some subtraction and a few additions--like an udder. Eva-doe on four legs soon admired herself in the mirror. :We're getting really good at this, Liis.:

Subjective years of Nature Range made either form feel like old hat--though technically the full-doe form itself was a new thing for Eva. :Never had an udder before,: she thought, lifting a hind leg and twisting her head back on her long neck for a closer look. She bleated, counting four teats. :Funky.:

"Is it? I never noticed," Liis said dryly. "Wilma and Ada will be here in a few minutes. I think they're going to be surprised this time."

This was the whole point of the exercise, really. After Wilma herself had suggested it all those months ago it was finally time to see if Eva could actually do it. They had a few other things to show off, too. Other talents, developed like a martial artist training for a black belt. All from practice, practice, and more practice. She always had to have something new to show Wilma and Ada on their visit every two weeks.

The Captain and her RIDE came up with a number of challenges. She brought randomly-generated holos of various human ethnicities (such as they existed on Zharus) to see if Eva could imitate the form. Eva extended her shapeshifting talents just a little farther each week. In some ways it was a plodding, laborious process. In other ways, each new achievement encouraged her onwards.

Unfortunately there wasn't even enough space in the apartment for anything faster than a walk, so instead Eva experimented with trying to do everyday things without hands, and laughing about it the whole time. "You see what I dealt with when I was a RIDE?" Liis pointed out. "No hands, and I couldn't have hands because when I was supposed to have 'em, I was napping in Passive. Not that I'm bitter or anything."

"Liis, you had pulse cannons and comm lasers, too," Eva pointed out. "And some pretty hotshot lifters. I took good care of you, except for, uh, that one thing."

A moment of awkwardness passed, fortunately interrupted by the custom door chime for Wilma and Ada. The doe struck a pose.

Wilma gasped when the door opened, then rushed to hug the doe. "Faline! My favorite!"

Ada rolled her eyes, padding in behind her rider. The RIDE was significantly larger than Eva. "She's certainly not Bambi."

"Faline" bleated happily, nosing her Captain about her neck, making her giggle like a schoolgirl. :Next time we'll figure out how to talk, too,: Eva said.

"Thank your Chief Engineer, why don't you?" Liis said, wearing a Starfleet uniform again--except this one was fitted for a regular doe.

"You still have that socket on your chest," Ada said, looking underneath them. "Come on, Liis, it's gotta be used for something. Why would you even have it?"

Eva bobbed her head, then stepped back a short ways, flipping the mental switches one by one like she had before, until the doe was back on two Integrate legs.

Wilma Fused with Ada and applauded. "Well done, both of you! Splendid! You've earned the prize."

"Thanks," Eva said, panting. Her batteries were down by thirty percent after the effort, but there was much more planned for today. She sat down heavily on the couch--this one had a much better inductive charger than the table in the old apartment. "Give us about twenty minutes and we'll do something that'll blow your mind."

:Ready down there in Engineering, Liis?: Eva said.

:The Evaprise is at your command, Captain,: the RI replied with a little salute.

"Ooh, I'm curious now," Wilma said, lolling her RIDE's hardlight tongue.

"Me, too," Ada added. "I don't know how you're going to top last week. The Gary Grant impression last time was very good!"

"I swooned," Wilma said, putting the back of one hand against her vixen Fuser forehead dramatically. "I still might." Ada added a faux-Dixie filter to her rider's voice. "Why, Rhett! I do declare! I'll never go hungry again!"

Ada de-Fused so Wilma could sit more easily next to Eva. The white fox-eared woman gestured for Eva to move closer. "After that I think you need a back massage. Or maybe just a good petting, my dear furry lass."

"I can buck out if you want," Eva said.

"Be whatever you want to be," Wilma said, starting the massage. "I'd be doing the same, if I were you. I'd be a man as often as I could, just for the experience. You're amazing, Eva. You're a lovely girl, a handsome man, and whatever other compliments I can cook up for whatever form you're in."

"Captain!" Eva said, mock-aghast, hand on her bare chest. "There are regulations against fraternizing with your crew like this!"

Wilma leaned over and planted a very non-chaste kiss on Eva's muzzle. "Screw regulations."

The doe flushed red down to her shoulders. "Just...just a minute, Wilma. Just wait..." she pulled in her fur and muzzle in record time, but remained female. "Human lips are so much better for kissing."

"Agreed, Number One," Wilma said, then pulled her close again, stroking her cervine ears. They shared a long, passionate kiss. "So beautiful, Eva."

Eva took a breath, body blooming outwards, becoming masculine between inhale and exhale.

"So handsome, Evan," Wilma repeated, enraptured. They kissed again, following up with a tight embrace.

"I can be anything you want," Evan said.

"Except another fox," Ada added. Her peevish comment was almost enough to shatter the mood, but it did cool their growing ardor substantially.

"Any form you take is you, Evan," Wilma said, glaring at her RIDE. "Who knows, maybe a few years down the line you'll break that species barrier, too."

:If there's a way, we'll find it,: Liis added, Evan passing it along in her voice. :We'd make a handsome todd for Ada. What would it be like to be a fox, or a wolf, or big cat? Rawr!:

:It's time to show off some more, Liis. I need you in Engineering,: Evan said. :This is the Big One. Cue up the music!:

:Aye, sir!: Liis said. :Batteries are fully charged. We're as ready as we're going to get.:

Evan kissed Wilma lightly, then stood up, still nude. "Earlier I said Liis and I were going to blow your mind. Well, watch...and be amazed."

Ever since Crazy Joe Steader had brought back yottobytes of 20th and early 21st century culture, Zharusian data miners were always finding new things even Earthers probably didn't know about. Whenever the miners found something the Steaders liked it was paraded about as a "First", though the timing was often uncertain. They liked to draw a lot of parallels between the first digital computers on Earth five centuries ago and the swift advances in nanotechnology and artificial intelligence on Zharus today.

Changing into a woman with long blonde hair, she waited for the music to start, then moved to the beat of the music to start on the apartment's speakers. Michelle Jackson sang.

"It's black, it's white..."

The first shift was easy, though the near-instantaneous speed was the issue, Eva had to do it in time with the music. From a woman with long blonde hair, to a woman with a different face and short, lighter-blonde hair...

"It's tough for you to get by... " a short-haired man...


...a dark-haired woman...

"Yeah yeah yeah!" a large man with a dark beard.

There was something wrong. There was a sharp taste of sour milk in his mouth. Between one change and the next, Evan sputtered and fell.

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The Evaprise's power systems were failing. The Fuser nannies were crashing. The Blue Screen of Death flashed all over Engineering as damaged nannies dumped their quantum memory cores and went offline.

Liis had done a lot of work for almost a year now, crawling around through virtual Jefferies Tubes, using the abstract representation of a starship to help her understand how their Integrate body systems were organized and operated. In the center of Engineering was a massive "Master Body Systems Display", the MBSD, representing everything she knew, including some big question marks, like the mysterious chest socket.

Now it was all going to Hell.

It started on Eva's chest-area batteries, they flared and went dark, the sign of some discharged sarium coming into contact with some that was still fully charged and negating both into a ground quantum state. It started to spread, jumping from battery to battery like a cancer. Even in the highly accelerated time in VR Liis had trouble keeping ahead of it. All she had were microseconds to keep every speck of sarium in their body from scramming--something she suspected would kill them outright.

Liis cranked up the time compression as high as it would go, then Engineering was suddenly crowded with dozens of "crew" as she forked off specialized processes to take care of specific tasks, sending them to every corner of the Evaprise to stop the "Cascading Sarium Scram" her technobabble generator decided to call it--akin to a Warp Core Breach in the ancient movies.

"Come on, isolate..." Liis said, furiously sending more and more "process" crew until the Starship Evaprise was bogged down with them. Evan was in the middle of another transition, the MSBD showed a patchwork of mismatched tissues. Each wave of Fuser nannies going haywire needed isolation, shutting down, and purging before the whole system was damaged beyond repair.

The Borg-like cancer slowed...then stopped, the simulacra crew beating it back "deck by deck".

"Got it, got it, GOT IT!" Liis cheered. "Trip Tucker, eat your heart out!"

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Evan awoke on the couch, the gentle pulse of the induction slowly returning energy into the batteries he had left. He groaned, and found a voice that wasn't his, and wasn't Liis's. There was something very wrong.

"Thank God! You're awake. How do you feel?" Wilma asked, leaping to his side.

"Is Liis okay?" Ada asked with a whine of concern.

"I have no idea," Evan said. He moved his hands to his chest and breast on the right, only one. "What the hell do I look like?"

"Like a poster-person for being intersexed," Wilma said, nodding at Ada. The arctic vixen projected a hardlight mirror overhead.

:Holy fark!: Liis said. :Hold on, I have to reboot our Fusers!:

"Liis is fine," Evan said, dazed.

"Intersexed" didn't begin to describe the person in that mirror. Evan was a Frankenstein pieced together from male and female parts without any stitches, a dissonant biological mashup. A quarter of Evan's head belonged on the first woman he'd been for the so-called "music video", including one eye, a shock of blonde hair down the left side, and some lip. The rest was Evan's own. He had female hips, male thighs, one girlish foot, and his-her was a mess. :Liis!:

:I'm working on it, Cap! Just relax. I'll get us shifted one way or the other if I have to move every cell by hand,: Liis declared. :Just relax...there! Doe-dee-doe!:

The second breast rose to match the first, then both were covered in white belly fur. The dissonance faded as Eva rebooted into her body's doe Integrate ground-state. "You're the best, Liis," she sighed.

:If I was the best that never would've happened,: Liis said glumly. :We're rebooted, but we lost almost a quarter of our battery capacity in the scram. We have to do something to purge that stuff, and it's not going to be pleasant. Think of it as the 'sarium flu'. Lots of barfing, and, know.:

Eva sighed. She hadn't been sick like that since before Liis. :Well, how do we get back what we lost?:

:I'll have to get back to you on that, Cap. It's not as simple as removing plating and replacing scrammed battery paks.: Liis shrugged virtually. :A year on and I'm still learning how this refit works.:

:Still, you saved our lives. That's worth a lot,: Eva reassured. :A hell of a lot. Well done!:

Liis glowed with the praise. :Thanks, Eva. Oh, one more thing. Until the bad sarium's all purged, no shapeshifting. I want to make sure it's all out and I can't keep track of the affected Fuser nannies if they're moving around all the time.:

"So, what's the diagnosis?" Wilma eventually asked.

"Bed rest and chicken soup for two weeks," Eva replied. "Make that lentil soup. Chicken's probably not good for does."

"Well, I'm going to stay with you a few days and make sure you heal up right," Wilma insisted. She gave the doe a tight, tender hug and a kiss. "That was the most incredible thing I've ever seen in real life, you two! Don't worry, you'll get it right." She kissed her again, this time on the breast.

Eva shivered in pleasent surprise. No man Taja had ever thrown at her evoked these feelings, these sensations. A greater surprise was that she felt this for Wilma, despite being a woman herself--

:You're going to be one for a while yet,: Liis said. :I have repairs to do in here. Besides, the real question here is...Can you love her as you are, doll? Do you have to change yourself to become something or someone you think Wilma wants? She already said she doesn't care what form you take. This is more about your limits than hers, Eva. Ask any crossrider. Ask any RIDE. We have our own relationships, you know.:

It was all about pushing limits, wasn't it?

:Liis--sister, I don't know what I'd do without you, either,: Eva replied.

Liis smiled. :Don't worry about me being left out. Remember, I see, feel, hear everything. Go on, see where this goes, sis. Just be yourself.:

"I'll stay with you as long as I can, Number One," Wilma said.

Eva smiled. "Oh Captain, my Captain."

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"Maybe I should transfer back to Nextus," Eva said, laying in bed with Wilma. "I only came out here to get away from Taja, and I just don't care anymore. I have you." The Integrate nuzzled her lover's tummy, sending her into giggles. The persistent warmth of afterglow made her feel hot and gooey, in a good way.

On the inside, Liis hadn't said a word for almost an hour, instead she simply broadcast satisfaction. As silent as she was, Liis also felt closer than ever. It was hard to tell which thoughts were Eva's and which belonged to Liis. It was a strange, strange feeling.

"I don't think the Company is that flexible, sadly. You just came out here," Wilma said. She pulled the strap-on off of her groin and tossed it into the bedroom recycling chute. "I have to admit...I am a little jelly you can have a real one.

'Can have', Eva noted with interest. Not 'should have'. "You were wonderful."

"It was new for me, too. I'm happy you enjoyed it as much as I did." She smiled, sitting astride the Integrate doe's hips. Wilma leaned forward until their erect nipples kissed, then started tracing her finger around the mysterious socket nestled between her breasts. "You know, a sapphire or a ruby would go perfect in here. It'd go well with your fur."

"Well, whatever you do, don't kiss it," Ada said. The arctic vixen wasn't excluded, she just didn't "swing that way" like her partner did. She wanted an Intie todd more than anything. "It'd be like licking a battery. Bzzzt!"

"I really need to figure out what that socket does," Eva said, speaking for Liis. She cupped her lover's breasts, massaging them. The doe sighed. "I guess I can't transfer back to Nextus this soon, and there's no way on Zharus I'd ask you to give up the Clementine."

"I wouldn't give her up even for you, Number One," Captain Van Dalen said. "She's still my first love."

"I guess that puts me in my place, then," Eva replied facetiously.

Wilma smiled. "Of course, I'll always be looking out for Number One."

Ada groaned and put her forepaw over her face. "How long have you wanted to make that pun, anyway? We have to go, you know. Don't want to miss the sub at 1500."

"That's my Ada," Wilma said. She slid off the bed and stood up to stretch. "Always keeping me on schedule. Unfortunately she's right. If I'm not back for the afternoon run they'll dock my pay."

"One of us has to be a voice of reason," Ada said.

"Well, next time I'll come out to you," Eva said, doing some sensual stretching. She looked down her deery muzzle. "Once I can pull my fur in again, that is. At least I have sick leave."

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June 15, 141 AL

Even after the sour sarium purge, there was a not-so-little problem that needed dealing with. The bad stuff was gone, but how were they supposed to replace it? With the loss of a quarter of their capacity, straying too far from a charger was a bad idea, and put limits on how often they could safely switch, and what into.

"It's quite the conundrum," Liis said. The former RI had called her "Captain" down into Engineering for the first time.

Eva walked around the MSBD. "This is really meta, Liis. Did you build this sim yourself?"

Her twin looked embarrassed. "Er, no. This is actually adapted from the Star Trek simspace Hestia, Ada and I used for our roleplay."


"Don't tell me you forgot...I told you months ago," Liis said, blushing. "Well, nevermind. This isn't really why I brought you down here. You're probably not going to like what I'm going to say next."

The Captain of the Evaprise folded her arms. "Oh? What's that, Chief?"

"I think we've plateaued on the shapeshifting and should shift our priorities to other goals. Like this." Liis pointed up at the chest socket on the MSBD. "My preliminary findings tell me that this is, indeed, an Input-Output port of unique design. As unique as we are."

"If you're right, it's still damned useless," Eva said. "As for the shape-changing, I don't see why..."

"This is why," Liis said. Several system diagrams on the MSBS changed color, highlighting in red. "We've focused so exclusively on our Fuser system--that's how we change, you know--that these systems have begun to atrophy. Lifters and hardlight have especially suffered. I've found analogues for both the enviro-seal emitters and the aeroshell. They're more power-starved than our Fusers at this point, even in Integrate form.

"I only became aware of a lot of these problems because of the damage we sustained during the sarium scram. It's very important we not only find out how to replace what we lost, but I estimate to run everything at peak efficiency we need to increase our energy storage ten-fold. That means somehow replacing our B-class with A or better."

"I appreciate your candor," Eva said, sighing. "Assuming we do solve the replacement problem, that's...far more money than I have. Than I'll ever have. Anything else I should know?"

The display zeroed in on the hardlight emitters. "Just a feeling. Intuition, if you will. And I don't intend any offense--"

"Spit it out, Chief."

"The hardlight we do have is upgraded, just like our Fusers. But, what if I'd had the Trinity pelt? Yes, we have real fur. What could we have done with pure hardlight if those units were similarly upgraded?"

"Okay, that's enough," Eva said. "I thought we were past this."

"We are!" Liis insisted. "I'm just--whoa...did you feel that? External sensors..."

Eva dashed for the turbolift, wishing there was a more direct route out of her internal universe. "Green Room!"

The doe Integrate awoke in a lotus position, eyes snapping open. She rolled to one side, sniffing the air--there was an odor, like dust from feathers. There was a buzzing in her ears. She gnashed her teeth.

"Okay, I can tell there's somebody else in here with me. Show yourself!"

A huge barn owl materialized in the corner of the living room, hunched over, looking as small as the bird could.

:It's another Integrate!: Liis exclaimed, they edged towards the apartment door.

"Nono! Please, don't flee," the bird said. The voice was androgynous. "I'm here to help! I'm not going to...whatever you think I'm here to do! I'm not a Snatcher!"

"Obviously if you'd wanted to kill me, I was right there and vulnerable," Eva said. "So who are you and why are you even here?"

"You looked like you needed help," the barn owl trilled. "See, I've been watching. I saw you get sick and how you've been suffering. I want to help!"

:Maybe we should hear him out,: Liis suggested.

Eva looked at the owl's sharp beak, his massive talons. The avian Integrate was only about three-quarters her size. The shafts of his flight and tail feathers pulsed faintly like the tattoos on her own body. The doe tried to relax a little. "If you've been watching me, you probably already know my name."

"I don't, really. I'm Ghostate," he said. It was a masculine voice, but only just. "I've been an Integrate going on six years now, and I've never seen another one who can do what you can. I wouldn't have revealed myself if you hadn't gotten sick. You look so depleted!"

"Nice to know you have a conscience," Eva said. "I'm Eva Dorset, and my body-mate is Liis."

"Nice to meet you both," the owl said, bobbing his head.

Eva continued. "I like my privacy and don't appreciate being spied on. Who else knows about me?"

"Oh, nobody. If I don't want to be seen." Ghostate vanished so completely even the sensation of someone else in the room vanished, then came back. "Part of me used to be a 007Q."

"Those are the super-secret superspies, right?" Eva said.

"That's me!" Ghostate preened. "Look, I know you don't have much reason to trust me, but I do know why you're by your lonesome."

"Oh? Do tell. And...if you can do that, have you been in here with me before?"

"I'm not one of the Snatchers," Ghostate said. "Or the Loose Cannons, or the Candlejacks...whatever you want to call 'em. They have a knack for discovering new Inties and dragging them to the nearest Enclave. You and I, though...we're special."

"I'm going to ask again. How long have you been watching, and have you ever come into my apartment before?" Eva tapped her hoof.

Ghostate shook his head so fast Eva could barely see his face. "No! I'd never...well, not never, I suppose. It just looked like you needed help is all. Otherwise I wouldn't have come in uninvited. And, well, I've been on my own so long I didn't feel right just knocking on the door like you were a friendly neighbor I needed a cup of fabby matter from."

:He's cute, I like him,: Liis said. :I don't think he's lying to us.:

:But he's not telling us the whole truth, either. But we have just met,: Eva replied. Trust went both ways, and the way he'd almost shook talking about the Snatchers and the other groups sent a shiver up her spine. Still, despite the suspicion, it didn't hurt to be nice. "Ghost-Ate?" Did I hear that right?" she smiled.

"Ghost-Eight, as in the number," the barn owl said. "It was my codename. I'm...well, I'm one of those Inties who discarded everything. I'm neither the man nor the RIDE I was. I'm someone new."

"Heh. My RIDE half is still skulking around in here."

:Skulking, am I?: Liis teased.

A coffee mug spontaneously levitated off the kitchen counter and floated over to the sink. The faucet turned on and filled it, then it continued over to hover in front of Eva, who stared at it as if she'd just grown a third arm. The lifter field surrounding it buzzed in Eva's ears.

"Here," Ghostate said. "You look thirsty." He lowered his large head. "You can't do this, can you?"

"It...I never even thought...that I could. I mean, lifters are for flying, right?" Eva stammered.

The barn owl tilted his head until it was almost upside down. "You mean, you don't know? It's...that's basic! I mean, I don't have hands, so I don't know what I'd do without my lifter telekinesis."

:See what I mean, sis? We have a lot to learn,: Liis pointed out. :Guess who can teach us? Go on, guess.:

" No, I can't do that. At least I've never actually tried to." Eva stood up and went back to the kitchen fabber. "Are you hungry? I'm sure I can fab up something...for a carnivore."

"I could do with some fresh marmot meat," Ghostate said. He had a comm bead embedded right in the center of his cere. It glittered, and a protein-rich recipe appeared on the fabber's menu. "This'll work for me and not offend your herbivore stomach."

:I think we have a new friend,: Liis said. The MSBD displayed behind her, the question marks all highlighted. :I hope he doesn't mind being grilled on a few things.:

"Stay for dinner, then?" Eva asked once more. "Maybe come back for lunch tomorrow? I--we have tons of questions."

"Oh, I'm sure you do. All of us do. I'm more'n a little curious about that thing you do, too," the owl Integrate said. "So, how about a trade? I'll show you how to reconnect to the rest of the world--I see you don't have a DIN--and tell you the basics you've missed. You teach me how to get hands again. Deal?"

:Deal!: Liis said.

"Deal," Eva echoed.

"Good! Now that we've got an agreement, now about a chocolate sarium shake to celebrate?" Ghostate trilled. "Trust me, it'll charge you right up. I'll be right back, so don't go anywhere."

The owl vanished again, leaving Eva with her glass of water and two minds full of questions. Even Liis was speechless this time. How did one make a sarium shake? It did make sense, now that they thought of it, that stuff like sarium, perhaps qubitite, might be more like a nutritional requirement--like calcium and iron for pure humans. Why hadn't that been obvious before?

Because we've been solitary from other Integrates for almost ten months, that's why, Eva thought. She extended her hand at a tablet on the table. "Rise!"

It stayed put. Liis snickered. :Too Star Wars, babe. Wrong franchise. Try snapping your fingers, Q-like.:

She tried, willing the tablet to rise, trying to imagine grabbing started to rise, slowly. It was a lot like the first time Eva tried to change back into Evan. It rose all of ten centimeters before clattering back on the table again. Eva slumped in the recharging couch.

"See what I meant about atrophy?" Liis said, sitting next to her sister in AR.

"This calls for some serious loafing," Eva opined, snuggling further into cushions. "Three sick days left."

"Girl, you read my mind," Liis said, giggling. "I'll be in my quarters."

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"Come fly with me! Come fly, come fly away..." Ghostate crooned joyfully as he silently and invisibly darted in and around buildings and skimmers, none of them knowing he was there. After more than a year alone he had never been happier, and he had never berated himself so much for his voyeurism. Unseen, he still barely made an effort to hide the Frank Sinatra tune he sang as he flew back to his Space Needle roost. "If you can use some exotic booze, there's a bar in old Bombay..."

He had a crush on Eva Dorset--he could finally give a name to her face. He knew it was superficial, knew it was childish, but there it was. Even under the not-so-perpetual rainy gloom Cascadia was known for, Ghostate felt bathed in sunlight. "Come fly with me, let's fly, let's fly away..."

Okay, enough is enough. Ghostate stopped himself before going on to the next verse. It had been a chance hack into a random apartment's cameras that he'd come upon Eva Dorset. He knew an Integrate when he saw one, but she was special. He had watched her, enraptured, as she quickly changed her shape from woman to man then back to Integrate doe with an enviable ease. How had she accomplished this? How long had she been an Intie?

Voyeurism was a weakness and wrong, but he did it anyway, watching people through their own and the polis's cameras, living their lives vicariously. The lonesome barn owl again knew it was psychologically unhealthy, but he had few options. Otherwise, soul-crushing loneliness would grab him again.

The solution to that was simple enough--he could always find an Enclave--but the consequences could be...worse. He hated those places, especially the intellectually suffocating atmosphere. Lotus-eaters, all of them. Mere hours after his Integration the Snatchers had gotten him, dumping him at the Cave of Wonders. The leader of that Enclave's megalomania as well as that of his ardent followers were enough to make him escape the first time. Over a year of freedom had followed before the Candlejacks had their go, dumping him and the friends he's made (now force-Integrated by them) at Ivory Towers. A skin-of-his-beak escape soon followed--some of those friends hadn't been so lucky.

If he was captured a third time, the consequences didn't bear thinking about.

Some weeks had gone by since Ghostate had last checked in on her. The barn owl had squawked with alarm after seeing the state she was in. Eva displayed all the symptoms of a sarium crash, though she had apparently purged the sour stuff. Left unchecked, it was one of the few diseases that could kill an Intie. He'd had to do something to help her.

Ghostate flew southward into Dome Rainier and New Seattle. Hiding in plain sight, he found one of his many roosts atop the Space Needle. This one contained a satchel with some bare necessities: sarium and qubitite pellets, bank account keys, mu credit chips. He had caches like this all over the west coast of Gondwana, from Aloha to Cape Nord, and a few on the east coast. Cascadia was simply his current home.

He didn't know whether to admire the Cascadians for their persistence or scoff at their stubbornness. Like many of the polities on Gondwana (except for storied Nextus and paradisiacal Aloha), the city itself was in a piss-poor location. Nestled up against the 15,000-meter Western Wall mountains that blocked the jetstream, only getting ten meters of rain per year was considered a drought. The polis government said it was all about the quality of the water, and that had a degree of truth to it. They had a fleet of ten kilometer-long tankers that distributed it all over the planet. But why put a city there when collection and distribution could be completely automated?

The barn owl re-entered Eva's apartment, using hardlight to hide his entrance from exterior view. To anyone watching the apartment door remained closed the whole time, but it was really a complex, energy-intensive cloak. He found her asleep on the couch, and swallowed. "Uh, I'm back."

The doe, wearing a simple tee shirt and a skirt, opened her pretty brown eyes. "Knock next time, at least. Clear?"

"Clear," he said, bobbing his head apologetically. "Anyway, one chocolate sarium shake coming right up. It's better than caffeine." Ghostate bird-hopped over to the kitchen fabber, unhooking the satchel from his torso with his beak.

Eva watched intently as the other Integrate opened the bag, unscrewed the bottles, and did everything without actually touching anything. To help illustrate what he was doing, he allowed a purple glow to surround the lifter fields around each item. What else doesn't she know? he wondered giddily. What else can I show her that'll put a smile on that face?

The kitchen fabber finally dispensed tall metal cups with chocolate ice cream shakes inside, and long spoons. He dropped a sarium pellet in each. "Now, we wait just a short while for it to dissolve. Then, down the hatch."

"I'm not sure about this," Eva said dubiously, taking the stainless steel cup when he floated it over to her.

"It's good. Sarium adds 'fizz'. I'll show you." He started spooning his own shake into his beak from the other cup. "Times like these I wish I still had working tastebuds."

Still ambivalent, Eva took a sip, licking the chocolate ice cream off of her muzzle in a cute way. Her ears perked, and she started to slurp it down as if she'd just found water after a week crawling through the Dry Ocean. Ghostate chirped, delighted, and started another, then another as she finished them. This was going to cost him most of his locally banked sarium pellets, could he say no to a mammalian beauty like her?

"This is going to go right to my hips," Eva said with a giggle, rocking them hypnotically. There were now three empty cups, all licked dry. "Liis says it's going where it needs to. Was this A-class?"

"Only the best for you," Ghostate said. "Straight from the new Brubeck rig."

"I can't thank you enough, Ghost. I feel like myself again. Can I call you that for short?"

Twitterpated, he thought. "Whatever works for you, Miss Dorset."

Her body started to change, breasts shrinking, abdominal muscles growing more defined, hips narrowing. Antlers sprouted just above her ears, velvet-covered as they grew and branched. Then the velvet vanished, leaving ten magnificent points. The only problem was that he still wore a female outfit--the fitted tee shirt, a bra with now-empty cups, and the white denim skirt.

Ghostate gaped at the speed and ease, but also noticed that the infatuation he felt for Eva simply evaporated looking at the Integrate buck she became. "That do you do that? I know Inties who can change into Feral form, change sexes, appear human, but never with that kind of speed!"

"This is what I do. You said you wanted hands again, right? Well, maybe I can teach you how," he said. The buck swaggered into his bedroom. Even his tattoos became more angular. "By the way, call me Evan like this. I need to change clothes if you don't mind. It's been awhile since I didn't need a bra."

"Uh, yeah Eva...Evan. Sorry, Evan." He wanted to cover his head with his wings. I haven't felt this awkward since I was fifteen! Bad birdy, bad!

The other item in the satchel was something that, if the Snatchers or Candlejacks discovered it, would probably get him thrown to the "mercy" of the Loose Cannons. It was a sensor/software package Techonomages used to make DINs for new Inties. He lifted it out and put it on the table. "Now, for my next trick, I'll reconnect you with the rest of the world with a DIN."

"What's that, then?" Evan said.

"Data Interface Normalizer." He gestured at the empty socket on the buck's shirtless chest, bringing up the techomage sensor. "It turns our gibberish into standard network protocols. It'll go right in there. This'll feel a little chilly."

Evan pursed his lips, then nodded at something only he heard, likely the female RI he still had in his head. "Do it. We're curious."

Fifteen minutes later the home fabber dispensed a couple dozen DINs with various-colored comm-beads, mainly ruby, emerald, and sapphire--Evan's own suggestions. "Carry lots of these with you," Ghostate said. "They burn out if you breathe on them wrong."

"They're that fragile?" Evan asked incredulously, picking one up. It was a little over a centimeter wide and twice that deep. The ruby faceted comm bead sparkled invitingly.

"Even if you think you can make something better, I don't recommend it. I can't think of anything more verboten among Inties than trying to 'improve' a DIN. If you do, the Bosscat himself shows up and carves you a new orifice. So just--don't, ever."

"Bosscat? What, is there an Integrate mob?"

"Something like that yes. Plug it in."

Before Evan plugged it in, Ghostate made sure to isolate and safe the apartment's systems. A new Intie first getting online with a brand new DIN would be a dead giveaway to any Candlejack watching local systems. When the ruby flickered to life, the buck looked distant, then did his best Keanu Reeves impression. "Whoa..."

Smiling to himself, the owl sent a handshake signal to the new DIN, then waited for the VR environment request. The voice he heard back was very different from Eva's clipped speech. It was chipper, enthusiastic, and he fell for it immediately.

"We hear you loud and clear, Ghost Planet. One to beam up?"

"Um, yes. One to beam up." Whatever that meant. Ghostate looked inwards, then a shimmer surrounded his VR avatar. The next microsecond he was standing in a strange room on a glowing pad, dressed in jeweled alien robes that complimented his cream-colored feathers. A doe and a buck stood before him, wearing what seemed like a formal uniform of some sort in red and black. The doe was the twin of Eva, the buck was Evan.

"Welcome aboard the Evaprise, Ambassador," the doe--Liis, obviously--said.

"The whata-prise now?" the owl said. He also had real hands in VR, but it wasn't the same as real life of course. "And I'm an Ambassador? What kind of sim is this?"

"You're an Ambassador from a new race of avians we're conducting First Contact with," Liis said. "The Evaprise sustained major damage recently and your planet has what we need to fully repair ourselves. You've already shown us goodwill by replenishing our energy reserves. Below us in our standard orbit is the legendary Ghost Planet. Anyway, that's the excuse plot for this 'episode'. I adapted it from one of the Star Trek sims with my RI friends. It's an analog I use for running our internal systems."

"I only ever did Nature Range," Ghostate said. "Okay, well, I'll play along. This is a very interesting representation. Thank you for the warm welcome."

"We'll start in Engineering," Captain Dorset said. He gestured at his female twin. "You first, Chief. Engineering's your baby."

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"Datalink to the Ghost Planet active and steady, Chief," one of the simulacra crew said. She was an ocelot, based on someone Liis had met years ago. "The new DIN downlink is holding, for now."

Liis smiled as the owl tilted his head so much it was almost upside down. "Oh, I see. Makes the sim more realistic. How much CPU are you using to run all these, anyway?"

"This sim doesn't run all the time," Liis said. She had to resist the urge to give him a cuddle. "Usually it's just me in here. I amped it up special for you." Is he blushing? Can owls blush?

"That's very kind of you," Ghostate said. He cleared his throat, then floated up to the question marks on the MSBD. "Okay, so, here we go. Even though we Inties are all different shapes, you could say that we're all the same species. The vast majority share the following physiology and abilities..."

Liis and Evan listened attentively. Lifters were for high-speed flying and manipulation of objects. Hardlight was supposed to be very versatile--imitating Fuser form, physical shielding, melee and some projectile weapons, cloaking, clothing. The last interested Evan the most. It would both save money on fabber matter for wardrobe and he'd no longer have to carry a change of clothes, or wear something suitably androgynous. "I like wearing dresses," he said.

The owl looked closely at the specs for Evan's current hardlight. "You probably could manage a lot of that with what you already have installed, but the power to find or fab some more efficient purpose-built emitters," Ghost said. "Unfortunately the public domain designs aren't up to the task, even when your body upgrades them after ingestion."

"Ingestion? You mean, I can eat stuff like fully-built emitters, too?" Evan said.

"There's a couple ways, to be honest. The easiest and quickest way is just to swallow them like big pills and let your body find the best locations. The other way is to download schematics and tell your body to build them. But then you have to have--well, the Inties with that kind of talent usually had built-in fabbers to begin with." Ghost shrugged. "I see you don't, so, eat up."

Captain Dorset laughed, then smirked at Liis. "Looks like you'll get those Trinity emitters after all, Chief."

Liis mugged right back at him. "Karma."

"I'm uploading everything I know about Integrate body systems into your database now," Ghost said. "Now, how about your half of the deal? Can you do what I did and give me a summary of what you've been doing and how long you've done it? Lifter-kinesis is all well and good, but I want to feel something. I miss having real, non-VR hands. Even these would be nice."

The Ambassador raised his wing-arms and flexed the scaley, short-taloned fingers that might have come from a dinosaur. Chief Engineer Liis Westfall gave orders to her crew to imitate the file compression format. It was very similar to how RIDEs shared memories between each other, so it didn't take very long. But there was more than simply sending a memory summary. Liis decided some verbal description was necessary.

Liis displayed a diagram one of the Evaprise's Fuser nannies, then brought up one of Ghost's for comparison. Over many hundreds of shapeshifts, their own Fuser nannies had sharply evolved from the baseline. There were a third smaller than Ghost's and configured for fast movement. They were also more generalist, being able to reconfigure themselves into various body systems that weren't always there. The Evaprise's spaceframe--her bones--were now 90% Fusers. They were so energy efficient they utilized thermoelectrics, turning waste heat directly into more energy to drive the process rather than bake the surrounding tissues into venison.

The Ambassador dropped the tablet he was holding after taking it all in. "I'm no medical nanist, but...If things were different, I'd be telling you to get thee to a RIDE research facility. They'd love a sample of your nannies."

"I mass about forty kilos more than I should for my height and build," Evan said. "But apparently my lifters displace it just on instinct."

Ghost snorted. "You know, you're more invisible to other Integrates than I am. You fake human vitals perfectly, even to my Intie spy sensors. You'd be better at my old job than I was." He picked up the tablet again and looked at whatever was on it. "This requires study. I might be able to modify my own Fusers along these lines, but that might not be enough. You...the dedication...amazing! If Intie shapeshifting were a martial art you'd be a Grand Master."

"It's less dedication and more 'I didn't know I could do anything else', to be honest," Evan said, scratching behind his ear. "Besides, we can't do other species yet. That's a long-term goal."

"Credit where credit is due, twin," Liis said, snapping her fingers. There was a flash and it was Eva standing there instead. "Okay, so we can't do it quite that fast."

"At least warn me when you're going to pull a Q and reset my avatar," Eva grumbled.

"I'm curious about how you Integrated," Ghost continued, smiling himself. His huge eyes flickered between the identical does. "But, perhaps another time."

"We're returning to work tomorrow," Liis said. "How about dinner then?"

The Ambassador spread his wing-arms, bowing to show their tops to the Starfleet deer. "The Ghost Planet accepts the gracious invitation. We feel that this is a wonderful alliance in the making."

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June 20, 141 AL

On Tuesday morning Eva awoke to find a little cardboard box tied with a ribbon on the kitchen counter. Sitting beneath it was a handwritten (well, lifter-written) note in a rather florid calligraphic script: Eat Me.

Eva and Liis laughed. "Very Alice in Wonderland, Ghost."

"So, what's in the box?" Liis said.

The doe opened it. Inside were eleven hardlight lenses, the type installed beneath a RIDE's plating. They weren't quite Trinity units, but were pretty close, and had the marks of being recently salvaged from something big. Once their Intie body assimilated them they could start on the hardlight practice regimen in Ghost's howto file.

"You know, we are a sort of Borg, when you think about it," Liis said. "The main difference, I guess, is that we can't assimilate others."

The largest discs were three centimeters wide. The underside was a neat collection of data-power sockets and mounting clips. There were three of those high-power units. The rest were two-centimeter, though not all the same make--again, all recent salvages, probably from some poor RIDE abandoned in the Dry Ocean. The idea gave Eva and Liis the shivers. :He wouldn't do that, would he?: Liis said.

Eva turned the note over. Oh, don't worry, the owl had written. I found these in a salvage yard in Califia and bought them with legit mu. The shells didn't have a core in them and I confirmed they were still alive. Eat up! They're all sweet.

Oh, word of warning. If you get a part that tastes bitter...don't swallow. Ever.

The moment the power and data contacts touched her tongue, her body instinctively ran a diagnostic on the emitter. They did, indeed, taste sweet, like a sugar cookie. Eva resisted the urge to chew and swallowed each one whole, then went inwards to Engineering.

"What's the status, Chief?" Captain Dorset asked upon arrival.

"So far, so good, according to Ghost's data," Liis replied. "Teams of Fusers grabbed them as they entered the rumen and they're on the way to their initial installation locations. We might have to move them a few times until the system is optimized. For now I'm going with even coverage."

The eleven emitters were highlighted on the MSBD as they were moved. Two of the three-centi discs were heading for her hips, one on her back between her shoulder blades. Four of the smaller ones went to her arms, one each on forearms and upper arms, one pair to her ankles, and the last on her calf muscles. Her TRON-line tattoos reconfigured to incorporate them into their own design.

"Are they going to be visible in human form?" Eva asked.

"Negative. They'll submerge below the surface of the skin," Liis said. "I suppose they could project the right texture and sensation, but submergence is more power-efficient."

"How long until they're useful?"

"Allow about three hours to run full diagnostics and allow them to upgrade, then we'll be good to go." Liis pushed a few context-sensitive buttons. "But try out the one on your right arm before you leave. That one's ready. You should be able to feel that, but I can put up a HUD if you want one."

The emitter, about ten centis from her wrist, flashed green, then blue to match the tattoo it was embedded in. Eva could feel it, like the first time Evan got deer tags after the first Passive Fuse with Liis. Well, now that we've got it, what do we do with it? Eva pondered for a moment. The natural answer became obvious after a moment.

A field formed around Eva's arm from the elbow down, solidifying around it, feeding input from the simulated nerve endings back into Eva's brain. Her fur turned dark brown, hoof-hand appearing bulkier. It was a perfect imitation of Hestia's Fuser-form hand. "This feels like cheating," Eva said.

"Think of it as practice before we do the real thing," Liis said. "Try something else. Something more ambitious than another deer-type. I'm sure you'll think of someone." The twin doe waggled her eyebrows.

"I'm a cheating cheater," Eva said, laughing. This time the fur on her forearm turned arctic white, the texture appearing softer, fluffier. This time the hardlight had to add a fifth finger to the mix, all five tipped with black vulpine claws. Dark pads covered the palm of the hand and fingertips. She flexed the hand. "One cheating cheater Ada-hand. How's that?"

"Well done! Can I try? I have something slightly more ambitious in mind." AR Liis smiled.

"More ambitious? Should I come into the Green Room?"

"I have all the control I need from Engineering for a change. Just watch, and don't be alarmed. It's just standard hardlight nerve-ending sim," Liis replied. "Watch."

Even more power flowed into the new forearm emitter this time, drawing energy from some of the increased storage she now possessed. The mist around the limb was much larger this time, and cream-colored, and when it resolved Eva felt like squawking. "A bird's wing?"

"Barn owl, actually," Liis said, blushing.

Putting her sister's obvious crush on Ghost aside for the moment, Eva flexed the hardlight-encased limb. "It doesn't move like a wing. Wrist joint's all wrong. I can sort of feel how the feathers are attached, and the avian excuse for a hand. Geez, poor Ghost!"

"I'm just trying to suggest possibilities with this new upgrade of ours," Liis said innocently.

"Still feels like cheating," Eva said, moving the arm with a flapping motion, feeling the air resistance on the simulated feather shafts, the natural lift from the wing's shape. "Lord knows I'd like to do this for real one of these days." Then she smiled knowingly at her body-mate. "Are you going to ask him out or what?"

"Ask who out?" Liis stammered.

"Who', she says," Eva quipped. She took Liis's virtual hand. "In all seriousness, Liis, don't let me interfere here. You have your own life and I've been sitting in the Captain's chair too much lately. I'm willing to step back for a while for your sake.

"If you want him, go after him. Ghost is a very attractive man. And who knows, if we can teach him how to do what we do, well..." Eva left the suggestion hanging.

"But what about Wilma and Ada?"

"We'll figure something out, sis. Don't worry." Eva's expression brightened. The DIN on her chest glittered as she downloaded files from a company that sold hardlight costumes. They were all animal types, anthropomorphic and not.

What made them costumes was the complete lack of feeding the image's simulated nerve endings into a human brain. Adding that wouldn't be that difficult. "You know, maybe if we hack these for full sim-senses we'll be able to 'teach' our Fusers what each form is supposed to feel like," Eva said. "As we learn, we can stop cheating."

"Brill, sis! Totally brilliant!" Liis exclaimed, clapping her hands. "Let's start with that barn owl after work."

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June 30, 141 AL

Western Wall Foothills

Imagine you're standing on solid ground, Eva thought, eyes shut tight, trying to ignore her internal altimeter. Like some cartoon coyote...walking off the cliff...before he notices... She swallowed her cud.

:Bad comparison, sis,: Liis said, hearing her sister's thoughts as clear as day. :Why don't you let me do the flying again, like before? I don't think you're ready for this yet. I've rebuilt the Green Room for you. It's a decent Bridge set now. Come on in and just watch on the viewscreen.:

Eva tumbled out of the turbolift with some speed, grabbing hold of the nearest chair. "Oh God...oh God..."

Liis sighed and gave Eva a supporting hug. "I know. It's not the flying you're afraid of. It's the falling. We lost about a hundred meters there when you looked down. Let me do this."

"Be my guest, Chief. I'll be right here," Captain Dorset said. "At least I can see and hear what's going on outside now. Thanks for the viewscreen. You have the helm."

"No problem, Eva. Now, time to fly." Liis sat down at the helm station and exited, leaving a simulacrum of herself behind.

Ghost still had a firm hold of her arm with a be-taloned foot. "Are you okay?"

"Fine now," Liis said. "Hello there, Ghostie!"

The barn owl tilted his head. "Uh...uh...hi again, Liis. H...Hello."

"You're so sweet," the doe RI said. She pulsed her lifters and hovered. They were only a thousand meters up when Eva's vertigo had hit. Liis had over a decade as a skimmer and had no fear of great heights and high speeds. She did a backflip then a somersault in midair. "Whooo! Thanks for the lifter exercise...but, where are we going, anyway?"

"I feel like stretching my wings a little," the owl said, fluttering gently. He didn't need to flap his wings any more than Liis needed any, but he had instincts. It made him look far more graceful in the air than herself. "So I thought, a quickie up to Mount Wahoo and back would work."

Liis gaped. The tallest mountain on the planet. "Mount Wahoo? That's fifteen thousand meters! That's...we'll need oxygen, right? No?"

"No," he said. Then he started singing in a golden voice. "Come fly with me, come fly, come fly away..." Ghost accelerated into the sky among the clouds.

"Don't just hover there, full impulse!" came Eva's voice through Liis's simulacrum ears. This was far better than the old Green Room already.

"Aye, Captain!" Liis poured on the speed, getting close to the speed of sound before reaching the limits of her lifters. Ghost was a mere speck in the distance--there was a sonic boom as he headed for the distant peak. "Grrrr!"

"Let me guess. 'We need more power, Cap'n!'" Eva drolled.

Liis pulled in everything, reluctantly transferring power from various subsystems into her lifters, even her treasured Fusers. She formed the hardlight aeroshell around them into a high-speed arrowhead. A shockwave ring formed around the shell briefly. "Mach One, Captain," Liis-on-the-Bridge reported.

"I think that qualifies as warp speed in this context," Eva said. "Well done. I think we're catching up."

"Only because he's letting us, I think. Owls aren't very fast, but he's still a bird and we're not," the simulacrum said. "Mach 1.2. We're flat out now and the battery don't wanna know."

Ahead of them, at an altitude of ten thousand meters, Ghost slowed to a stop. By the time Liis reached visual range he started applauding, carefully clapping his flight feathers together.

"Never been this high before that wasn't in a sub or a flier," Liis said, stopping next to him. She hugged the smaller owl, who hooted with surprise. "Thanks, Ghostie. I needed that."

"Don't thank me until we're on top of the mountain," Ghostate replied. "And, uh, kick up your cloaking a little more while you're at it, like I showed you. There's all sorts of sensors up there to detect illegal climbers. Stay connected to my DIN, tight beam."

Above ten thousand meters the mountains were bare rock. The atmosphere simply couldn't hold a significant amount of moisture at that height. Huge glaciers enveloped the lower slopes, thousands of meters below, their surfaces riddled with deep blue crevasses and ripples of dark rock moraines where glacial tributaries merged. The odd silicate minerals on Zharus, combined with the planet's lower gravity and energetic plate tectonics combined to enable both steeper slopes and rock more resistant to weathering. The result was Mount Wahoo--51,356 feet in the old measurement system used for Everest--48,000-foot Pumori 2 right next door, and hundreds of other peaks far higher than Everest on Earth. More than any other factor on Zharus, these mountains were why the Dry Ocean was dry.

The two Integrates landed on the very top of Mount Wahoo, where its very first climber--one Dana Woodson a bare four years after Landing--had only broadcasted one word upon reaching the top in modified space suit: "Wahoo!"

Eva, forgetting her earlier vertigo, joined her sister on the outside. Of one mind and standing on top of the world in only fur, Liis and Eva raised their shared arms and shouted it in stereo into the thin air.

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Ghostate beamed with delight as they made their slow descent into the lower atmosphere. This had gone far better than he could have planned. His crush was no longer pinned so hard on Eva, but had easily transferred to the more extraverted Liis. They seemed like such different people, he wondered if they would ever merge like so many other humans and their RI--though some never did.

Considering the circumstances surrounding their Integration, he wondered if they ever would. The way things were going with Liis, and he'd tentatively decided she shared similar feelings for him, would make things...complicated.

The flying doe descended next to him. "Hey, Ghostie, I have something to show you I've been saving...and I can't think of a better time than now."

The doe began to shimmer with hardlight emissions, then slowly, from the feet up, an anthropomorphic female barn owl materialized in midair. She had, Ghostate noticed, retained her breasts, but that was forgivable. His eyes went wide and he hooted. "Wow. Just...double wow."

"It's the best I can do right now," Liis said. "I can't imitate your birdy body structure. If I could, I wouldn't need the feathery hardlight skin either. I'm such a cheater."

"See me complaining? I'm not complaining," Ghostate said. Homina homina hoy!

"Think of this as a promise," she continued, holding out her scaled hands and floated closer, wrapping her arms around his shoulders so they were almost touching beak-to-beak. "You'll get a pair of these as fast as I can teach you. Then you can hold me properly."

Liis shut her eyes and gave their beaks a little tap together, as good as a kiss for a bird.

There was a spark. Neither of them had to say it.

So instead, as they reluctantly floated apart, Ghost circled around her and sang it.

Fly me to the moon

Let me swing among those stars

Let me see what spring is like

On Jupiter and Mars

In other words, hold my hand

In other words, baby, kiss me.

They danced among the clouds, treating the puffs of cumulus at lower altitudes like a field of tall grass. It became a game to find out who was hiding where. Ghostate didn't stop the song this time. It just felt right.

Fill my heart with song

Let me sing forever more

You are all I long for

All I worship and adore

In other words, please be true

In other words, I love youuuu...

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Liis and Ghost, together at last. Smiling to herself, Eva left the captain's chair and sauntered over to the turbolift to give the lovers some privacy. The door opened with the signature hiss. "Nature Range," she said, snorting. Liis had gone a little too far with the "Evaprise" idea. My own fault for not letting her out more often lately. Indeed, since the sarium crash the human Lisa Westfall identity had fallen by the wayside to make repairs. Ghost would be good for her.

The turbolift door opened right onto the ledge behind the sparkling waterfall. Stepping through the threshold brought back various male parts, including Evan's antlers. Nature Range was in perpetual Rutting Season, but today he didn't feel like chasing does. No, he had something else in mind.

"Practice," the buck said. Liis had her ways, on the outside. Evan had his on the inside. Nature Range had a few new modifications, itself. It was now hooked into the database of hacked hardlight costumes that were intended as models for future shapeshifting experiments. In here, where humanoid shapes were against the rules, presented further challenges.

In front of him a translucent image of a white shewolf appeared. That it was female was mostly immaterial. It was a hollow mold, a model, a scaffold.

Girding himself, Evan poured his Nature Range simulacrum into it.

He could have tried something easier first--an elk, perhaps a mule deer--but he had reasons for this particular shape.

Eva expected resistance from her own data structure as it filled the model, but found little. Minutes later she was pawing at her muzzle and ears, wagging her tail, making sure everything was in place. She woofed, barked, and howled, getting a response from the pack--her pack. She had taken over the body of their Alpha female.

This is really petty, she thought, loping to "rejoin" them. Simulacra weren't even as intelligent as realspace animals. She'd told herself that the purpose of this exercise was in body image, to be something you weren't, as preparation for remaking her real body and stop being a hardlight cheater. But she knew she was lying through her sharp canine teeth.

The pack welcomed her back, and "her" mate loped to meet her with a slurp to the face. Eva allowed herself to go through the motions for hours, genuinely trying to get a sense of what being a wolf was like. She hunted chipmunks and other small forest creatures, felt the taste of their hot blood on her lolling tongue. The rest of the pack fed on a mammoth carcass Eva had uploaded.

At the right moment, when the pack was fed, bloated, and lethargic, Evan exploded out of the lupine mold, hooves and antlers as sharp as a molecular filament knife. The pack yelped and tried to flee, but were simply too full to move very fast.

The buck made quick work of them.

Petty and pointless. They were only sim-wolves, after all, but cathartic all the same.

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July 6, 141 AL

Early on, Eva learned not to wear her DIN out in public or to work. It was simply too easy to hack into otherwise-secure systems, and Ghost warned that it was just instinct--one that was a dead giveaway to the Candlejacks. Firewalls fell before an Integrate's own quantum computing power like so many cardboard fortresses against a flamethrower. She could even see what people were doing with their interface specs and had to resist the urge to pluck the virtual windows out of their hands.

"We'll be back on the evening sub, Ghost," Liis told her boyfriend, kissing him on the beak. "Then we'll have our own party."

"I wish I could go with you two," Ghostate replied. "I'd like to meet Captain Van Dalen and Ada, but there's this whole...laying low thing. I don't think I could get away with sneaking aboard a sub."

"You know I wouldn't ask you to risk yourself like that," Liis said. "Not after what you've been through."

The giant barn owl mantled his wings over her. "See you when I see you, ladies...gentlemen. I never know how to address you, Eva."

"One of these days, Ghost, I'll figure that out, myself," Eva said. She couldn't wait to show Wilma their new tricks.

A crowded automated subport skimmer met them on the apartment building's roof. :I can't believe it's been a whole year,: Liis said.

:It only feels longer for all that time in Nature Range,: Eva replied, trying to find an open seat. She found one next to a grumpy-looking older woman with lynx ears and, surprisingly, nose. "Pardon me, Miss."

"Miss? I ain't missed in years!" the woman said, patting a spot on her security company uniform. She moved over a little to make the most of the space on the seat. "Have yerself a sit-down, uh..?"

"Eva Dorset."

"Anny Hewer. Pleased ta meet ya." They shook hands. The woman had quite a grip, and her accent was almost comically hillbilly. "Looks like yer place is the last stop, ah hope. Where ya headed?"

"Nextus to visit a friend," Eva replied, warming to the woman. "You? Don't have a RIDE to get to the 'port? Or is she in the shop?"

"Ah have some family there I ain't seen in ages. Headin' that way, myself." Anny Hewer's expression clouded over, her warmth turned markedly chilly, ears flattening. "As fer...Somthin' like that, yeah. I see ya got deer tags, yerself. No RIDE neither?"

"Uh, something like that," Eva said, coughing uncomfortably.

They just nodded, and practically ignored one another the ten minute flight to the subport, then went their separate ways.

:I think we stepped on a landmine,: Liis opined.

:Boy howdy,: Eva agreed.

Today was intended to be a number of firsts, and Eva already wore one of them--her yellow sun dress and shoes were hardlight, and only hardlight. Eva had moved most of her emitters to her torso for the occasion. She did wear fabric underthings. Once they met Wilma and Ada and got to their apartment, Eva had a planned demonstration: deer hoofhand to arctic fox handpaw, for reals. If all went well, maybe...just maybe, a real foxy tail and ears, too. Ada wanted an Intie todd? Evan would oblige with a "cheating" hardlight shell like Liis's barn owl.

During the sub flight Eva received a text message from Wilma. We're going to be late getting in, she sent. We've run into some complications at Rig 485T. You know the one, with the bad load lifters. The new girl isn't as good as you were and she's still futzing with them. Sorry 'bout this. The crew at Drydock will be happy to meet the "new you", probably give that pretty tush of yours a few pinches. Watch out for Bobby, though. He has a thing for crossriders.

That's new to me, love, Eva sent back. Didn't know that about Bobby.

He's too chicken to crossride himself. Anyway, a word of warning, Eva-darling. They're going to throw you a roaring crossrider party now that they've got time. Don't wear pink, dress conservatively, and don't open anything with Bobby's name on it. Eva could imagine Wilma smiling as she sent that. Love ya, doll! Kiss kiss. Captain Van Dalen out.

:If you're not careful you're going to swoon all over your seat,: Liis said.

:I get a...moist feeling just chatting with her,: Eva replied, feeling hot and stiff under her bra. :This time I get to be a man for her. I'm looking forward to it.:

The geometric precision of Nextus was easily visible from suborbital altitudes. The city-state was the oldest on Gondwana, and its founders had a thing for precision. The Polis Administrative Center was series of concentric circles, with different geometric figures spreading outwards from that center on tangents. A child could have drawn it with basic drafting tools. There were squares, triangles, rhomboids, more circles. Fifty million people lived there in arcologies, apartments, all the way down to single-family homes. Unlike other polities there weren't any other named towns. It was all one giant settlement, keeping the rest of the land they claimed pristine--or at least as pristine as carefully-managed terraformed land could be.

Without Wilma and Ada to pick them up at the subport, Eva decided to rent a skimmer. On the way there Liis reminded her to cover up a little more, so she stopped at the burger joint near her old apartment, where so long ago Evan had stopped for a bite just before going girly the first time.

Before ordering she stepped into the Women's Restroom, where the authentic equipment smelled awfully sterile--a good thing. Once inside the stall she dissipated her sundress, pondering what to replace it with that wasn't too obvious what she was trying to do. For the blue collar job she'd had (and still had) a business pantsuit was too much. She didn't work in Company Administration. She was a Shop Foreman.

Eva flipped through a fashion file until she hit the 1990s, then smiled. Seconds later she was clad in distressed jeans with a tail slot, canvas sneakers, a plaid flannel shirt, and a hooded sweat jacket she left unzipped. Something they'd called the "grunge" at the time. Considering she was now a Cascadia citizen, and that polis was based off the Pacific Northwest where the look had originated exactly five centuries ago, it just felt appropriate. She let her rusty brown hair down, growing it out until it was about halfway down her back, then pulled in her bust by a cup size.

:You gorgeously understated creature, you,: Liis complemented. :I would've gone the other way, myself. More skin, more boob. But hey, I'm me and you're you.:

:And never the twain shall merge,: Eva added, picking up her suitcase. It looked heavy for a woman her size, but was as light as a feather due to its own set of micro-lifters. She tossed it back into the two-seater gull-winged Mercedes skimmer, then lifted out of the parking lot.

Despite being a Walton-Q employee she was technically a visitor to the Drydock facility now. That meant using the visitor parking lot for the rental skimmer and traipsing to the Security Office for ID verification. Eva resisted the urge to kick in her lifters to close the distance faster. "Okay, so who's bright idea was it to put the visitor lot a full klick from the Security Office?" she huffed.

:Have a problem with hoofing it?: Liis replied.

:On four legs, no. On two it's a hassle,: Eva said. The woman blinked. "Lord, I'm PMSing right now, aren't I?"

:Hormones flying on all lifters, Cap,: she said, snickering. :Call it a test of womanhood.:

:I'm sure Taja would approve,: Eva snapped. :You're putting me five days off-cycle, you know. Stop pushing buttons in there.:

:Ugh, yes. Sorry. I kind of liked it when she tested me. Made me feel more human. Nevermind. Shutting down.: Liis backpedaled so fast Eva wondered if she'd retreat to Nature Range to avoid her body-mate's wrath.

The rabbit-tagged man behind the counter wolf-whistled when she presented her credentials, then waved her into a body scanner. After a few seconds it emitted a pling sound, they gave her a temporary badge as a visitor from another facility, and she finally went inside the Small Carrier Drydock.

Eva admired the familiar stern profiles of each carrier in turn: Mercator, Harrison, Endurance, Holsworth, and a half dozen others already docked and undergoing their own daily fix-it cycles. The Dry Ocean was a very harsh environment and equipment broke down frequently. The carriers also carried spare parts for the automated qubitite collection rigs.

Nobody recognized her as she strolled past. The Clementine's dock was still empty, just as Wilma had said it would be. Eva headed for the Break Room, where she expected a party waiting.

There was no confetti, no boxes of tampons from the girls, no lingerie from the men. No sign of any party. Just a group of a dozen worried men and women, a few Fused with RIDEs, clustered around a screen or watching something intently in their 'specs. Bobby waved her inside. "Eva! Get over here, now! Damn it, we did this last year for you, too."

A shiver went up Eva's spine. Her old crew brought her into the center of their group, closest to the Search-and-Rescue screen.

The Clementine was missing.

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"The clouds shift, the plane lifts, she moves on," Ghost sang to himself, perched atop the roof of the sub port. Of course it wasn't nearly as bad as the old Paul Simon song about breaking up. Liis would be gone barely a day at the most. It was just hard to be without her for any length of time.

As the passenger suborbital vanished into the clouds, Ghost made a resolution. When she comes back, I'm going to hold Liis in my hands. Real ones.

Playing Ghost Planet Ambassador and playing around with "Commander Lisa Westfall" aboard the Evaprise sim only went so far, and Nature Range was right out. I'm going to have hands by tonight, he declared.

It didn't rain all the time in Cascadia. There was Wet Season and Dry Season. Although 250 of 300 days per year saw little to no sun, there were still dry days with clear skies when they could actually make the city's Mountain Domes fully transparent to let the natural sunlight in. Today was shaping up to be one of those days, and it showed. The Dome surfaces were forcing the runoff to clear faster. Water refraction just wouldn't do.

Ghost's own daily rhythms reflected his species. He was mostly nocturnal, but for Liis he was willing to make changes to his lifestyle. There was more to it than just that. Little things like cooked meat instead of stooping on marmots and other large rodents inside and outside the Domes. Of course he doubted he could re-enter society in general--Integrate or human--but for the first time in years he felt connected to something bigger than himself.

For today's experiment he flew south into Dome Hood and New Portland. This was the newest domed area of Cascadia, with the city beneath it barely begun. With it they could brag that they had more Dome-covered surface area than Uplift. The City Council intended most of it to be open space anyway. Parklands, recreational facilities, and so forth. After some judicious DIN hacking, it was an ideal place for Ghost's most isolated roost.

Since receiving the specifications and design diagrams Ghost had analyzed, examined, and simulated Eva's Fuser nannies six ways from Sunday with as many sensors and analytical tools as he could find or invent. The design itself seemed ironclad. There was no reason why it shouldn't work for him.

The roost was inside an actual "abandoned" barn, unlike any of the others. There were even working cameras, which he'd hacked to show him as a normal-sized owl. He acted the part while in sight, but otherwise the building belonged to him and a few actual barn owls with a nest in the other end. The terraformers had populated the landscape with capybaras and nutrias, two very large rodent species and equally tasty.

Ghostate signaled the Fusers in his right wingtip to upgrade.

His wrist burned like it was submerged in acid.

"Isolate, isolate, isolate!" he screeched at himself. The pain vanished, the wingtip fell completely limp and useless. His internal sensors told the story, critical incompatibility with his current Fusers warnings flashing across his eyes. Something that hadn't been obvious under simulation. "Damnit. So much for my plans for the night," he grumbled.

To pass the time before Liis and Eva returned he decided to check the net and see if there was anything interesting going on. Once he logged in a flurry of his intelligent agents returned like homing pigeons.

Walton-Q ore carrier Clementine missing, one headline read.

"Oh...oh no," Ghost groaned. "No no...where's Eva?"

The barn owl Integrate's avatar flew further into the net, aiming for Nextus Search and Rescue, another part trying to connect to Eva again. But he almost flew right into a wall...that quickly transformed into a giant, taloned raptor foot.

Shit shit shit! They found me! Dumping himself out of VR, he slammed his lifters into overdrive, only to take a tumble from his still-limp wingtip. Ghost rocketed out of the hay loft, turning end-over-end as his unbalanced momentum carried him outside. Compensate, damn it! I've had worse than this!

When he finally got stable again, he decided just to pull in both wings for best aerodynamics. It felt unnatural not using them to fly, but now wasn't the time for being an "authentic" bird. He surrounded himself with an armored, cloaked aeroshell and poured on the speed, heading for the Dome border. Cascadia is quits. I'll have to change coasts...damn it! How could I forget about Liis? I've been on my own for so long...

There was no help for that now. She knew better than anyone why he was laying low. He'd just have to--


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"Eva Dorset?" a man in an official-looking Corporate outfit at the break room door said. It was three hours since Eva arrived, and felt much longer.

"Yes?" she said, not looking away from the SAR feed. It was a familiar voice for her anyway. Dinesh Kev was the company Vice President, Liaison to Nextus Emergency Services for rescue operations.

"Search and Rescue would like a word," he continued.

She moved faster than any human had a right to, pushing the rest of her old crew aside, practically flying past Dinesh to get up to the SAR Liaison Office as fast as she could.

:Whoa there, Captain. Drop to impulse. Careful,: Liis cautioned.

There were other familiar faces in the Office. Evan had lived and worked aboard the Clementine and a couple other ore carriers for years, and they were always suffering breakdowns in the field. It was a dangerous profession, despite the small carriers generally only having low-grade Q ore on board and taking circuitous, safe routes with regular Marshal patrols. Unfortunately there'd been a price spike in the Q market recently, and even the low grades were going for three times the price they'd been just a year ago.

"Hey Chuck. What can I do for you?" Eva asked the llama-eared SAR officer.

"Hello...uh...Eva now, right?" At her nod, he continued. "Nice look for you. Anyway, we're trying to narrow down the search area. This afternoon some unforecast winds kicked up a dust storm around Rig 485T. Normally, standard company procedures require carrier pilots to remain stationary until the winds subside.

"I understand today is the year anniversary of your...incident?" he asked.

"She saved my life in the Dust," Eva said, choking up. "We were...going to have stuff."

"Which means she'd be motivated to lift and return anyway," Dinesh said as he came in behind her. "Eva, we both know her very well. Rules don't mean much to her. Last year she decided to take that shortcut through the Dust at the height of a solar storm, which almost got you killed and did kill your RIDE. The problem is that the dust storm kicked up enough junk to scatter laser comms, and we're even having trouble with visuals from orbit.

"What other shortcuts are out there between here and that faulty rig she could've taken? There's two I know of, but there's always more the Captains are finding. It'll really help us out so we know where to point the sat-scopes."

"Show me a chart," Eva said. Consequences would run deep for what she was about to do, very deep.

:Eva, stop!: Liis shouted, but there was no dissuading her.

:It's Wilma and Ada! Don't you dare tell me to stop!: Eva unzipped her jacket, then the top two buttons of her shirt to expose her DIN socket. Eva fished an emerald DIN out of her purse and plugged it in. "It'll take too long to describe. Can I have access to your system here?"

"You have an implant?" Dinesh asked, incredulous. "How long have you had that? It's undeclared on your employee record!"

"I got it when I crossed," Eva muttered. That was technically the truth.

The Vice President's expression darkened like a Cascadian sky in the wet season. "Who paid for that implant? Brubeck? Comstock? Well, it doesn't really matter. Once this business with finding the Clementine is over, you'll be escorted off the premises. Don't bother returning to your job in Cascadia. You no longer have a job with Walton-Q."

"Whatever. It's just a farking job. It means nothing if we can't rescue the Clementine. So give me access so I can help SAR!" Eva retorted. It took all her willpower not to hack the system at that moment.

"Do it, Dinesh," the SAR officer said. "People's lives are at stake. Your employees."

Dinish sighed. "Granted. But if we catch you snooping anywhere, you'll leave here in a Policia cruiser in handcuffs."

The hardlight situation table projected the area. The two shortcuts Corporate knew about were dotted lines in red, with the main approved route a yellow solid line. Eva considered the two routes, then added a third. "This path across the Sandpits would cut almost an hour off the return flight."

"Sandpits," Dinish said, facepalming. "If your lover--yes, it's that obvious--returns hale and healthy, she'll join you in gainful unemployment and her crewmember will just get a reprimand.

"And if she doesn't?" Eva said, wanting to put a real growl behind it.

"If she comes back injured but alive, all she'll get is a reprimand and a pay cut, and we'll consider it a lesson learned. Walton-Q isn't heartless, Miss Dorset," Dinish continued. "But that's neither here nor there right now."

"Found the carrier!" Chuck said, zooming the hardlight table in on the site. "Oh, shit!"

The Clementine was a smoking wreck, having dug a long furrow when it crashed, almost ending up in one of the deep sandpits that might have half-swallowed it. It was a testament to Wilma's piloting skills that the sluggish 50-meter ore carrier hadn't. But it hardly looked like like a crash caused by an equipment failure. "Those are pulse cannon scars on the hull," Eva observed. "They took out the impellers first." The modular ore compartments had been removed or torn open if the pirates couldn't get them off, leaving the keel exposed and half the contents spilled, a blue stain on the red desert.

"I'm putting in a call to the Marshals, this is their jurisdiction," Chuck said.

"What?!" Eva sputtered. "You know exactly where they are! Go save them!"

"We're not going to fly into a hot LZ, Dorset!" Chuck shot back. "We can't do anything until the Marshals secure the area. Goddamn Q price spike!"

Eva spun to face Dinesh, eyes literally flashing. "Why didn't you assign extra escorts, Dinesh? A half dozen pulse turrets and a single SecurEngineer won't stop really determined pirates, and you damn well know it!"

"It wasn't in the budget," the man replied weakly, shrinking back a little. "Did you get eye implants, too?"

The Integrate shapeshifter couldn't stand it anymore, even Liis was carried along with her anger. Eva released her human form, tattoos and emitters flaring as her body shifted to doe. The humans gaped. Eva flicked her ears back angrily. "If you assholes aren't going to do anything right now, I will!"

Liis, taking over for a moment, smirked at Dinesh. "I ain't dead, buddy boy. Evan and I just got close. Real close."

Blowing the office door off with a hardlight blast, Eva stepped outside. Her lifters spun to full power and she lifted off, going supersonic before hitting a thousand meters.

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:In for a penny, in for a pound. Bridges burned. There's no turning back now,: Liis said. They were almost to edge of the old continental shelf, where the Dry Ocean really came into its own. :What do you plan on doing when we get there? We don't have any rescue equipment, medical or mechanical. We're not good enough with hardlight to emulate any, you know.:

"I hadn't thought that far ahead," Eva admitted. No vertigo this time.

:Didn't think so. We have about four hundred klicks to decide. Here, let me bring up something to protect ourselves better than this Battle Lingerie we're wearing,: Liis snarked.

Emitters and tattoos flared, then they were covered by a slick, flexible suit of armor that had her emitters and tattoos built-in. It bore more than a passing resemblance to an armored version of a Starfleet uniform. :That'll do for defense. Now, offense. Two options.:

A large blister swelled on the back of Eva's right hand. :That's one of our old pulse cannons, upgraded. The other offensive option is to DIN-hack the pirates and shut down everything they've got. If we can do that without firing a shot, we're good.:

"At least we have the pulse gun if not," Eva said.

:I can manage a sword, but you're not trained for it. Stay out of melee range. The gun is point and shoot. Aiming is instinctive. You know how to handle weapons, so I don't need to lecture.: From her tone of voice, Liis wasn't happy with her body-mate, but she wasn't holding back on the preparations either.

"Let's clear the way for SAR," Eva said.

:Assuming the Marshals don't get there first,: Liis pointed out tartly. :We're still fifteen minutes away. I'm going to prep Engineering so we don't end up a stain on the desert floor. Shields up! Red Alert! Battlestations!:

There was already smoke on the horizon.

Up close, the damage to the Clementine was even worse than the orbital video feed indicated. From the looks of things the carrier could hold much more than the pirates' own craft, so they'd gone out of their way to rip open the modular containers and let the contents spill all over the desert. They'd even slagged the spillage down to make it unrecoverable. There were no sign of the pirates otherwise, even at the reach of Eva's Integrate-enhanced senses.

A hundred meters away, the Clementine's current SecurEngineer had made her valiant last stand. The Dry Ocean had already mummified her scattered remains, torn from her dismembered RIDE. The ringtail's metal skull was impaled through a metal spike on the bow of the wrecked ship, mouth open in a silent scream. It didn't appear to have the crewwoman's own head in it, though that was little consolation. The spike went right thorugh he RI core.

Eva landed on the blown-open Bridge and cried out.

Dried blood was everywhere, but there was no sign of a body. There was also a silvery dust her sensors told her were dead Fuser nanites.

There was an arm.

Still encased in Ada's Fuser-mode arm, the dismembered limb oozed blood. The exposed, pulped muscle and bone had already begun to dry out, a little slower in the slight protection of the Bridge.

Panicked, she darted down into the carrier. Nothing, no body. She returned outdoors and flew circles around the wreck. Nothing. Nothing.

Eva and Liis returned to the Bridge and broke down into uncontrollable sobs. Their tears dried on their face. But they couldn't cry long.

:Eva...Eva, get up. There's somebody coming,: Liis said.

"I need...more time," Eva said, appearing on the Evaprise Bridge. "Liis, take the helm. You do this."

Liis hugged her sister tightly. "Of course I will. See you again soon, Cap."

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The whitetail RI was no Mr. Data, but she could damp down her emotions when necessary. With Eva not interested in acting for their self-preservation it fell to Liis. The doe cloaked herself, then lifted out of the Bridge to see who had arrived.

The young woman wore a dark suit, replica Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses, and a dark fedora. Considering it was nearly 85C outside, Liis had to do a doubletake. Another human-style Intie? she thought before noticing the glimmer of a hardlight climate shield. There was a copper-colored star on her lapel. A Marshal. Figures. Where's her RIDE?

A compact art-deco rocket circled overhead. After completing a few more circuits, it descended. Once it got close enough the coat, hat, and sunglasses flew off the human just before Fuse and grew in size. Then there was a rather stylish she-coyote standing there, looking directly at her.

"You might as well come down here, Eva Dorset!" she barked. "Yeah, we know who you are, and what you are. SAR gave us detailed report of what happened at Walton-Q. We're not going to arrest you or anything. You got enough problems."

Eva remained down for the count in her virtual quarters, crying herself sick.

Liis decided to speak with her own voice, lifting down to meet her. She de-cloaked and folded her arms. "Well, that's good to know, since we didn't actually do anything illegal. Or did Dinesh accuse us of industrial espionage?"

"I'm Copper Star 'Goodnight' Irene Elwood, this is my Blues Sister, Zoey the coyote," she said in a friendly voice. Holf of the star on her lapel was cobalt blue. "We're cops. Investigators."

"You look more like a musician in that getup," Liis said. "I bet that's no accident, knowing you Marshals."

"You're Liis, right?" the RIDE said. "You and Evan Dorset Integrated a year ago, if I'm reading your file right."

"We have a file?" Liis said flatly.

"Anyway," Irene said, coughing. "We're in the middle of an investigation here. You've already seen the site, what went on here. We don't have any answers for you yet. Please let the professionals take care of this. I got a band of Blues on the way."

"I'm not going anywhere, even for a pair of Marshals in a silly twencen getup," Liis said.

"Since you're an Integrate I can't exactly force you to leave, either," Irene said. "I'm just giving you fair warning. Not to mention...there's fuck-all I can do if these Candlejack assholes come to get you. 'Cause I heard through the quantum grapevine they want you real bad. What you did almost went viral on the net, but these guys can delete things I never thought were possible.

"So I'm tellin' ya, sweetheart, vamoose. Amscray. Beat cheeks. Leave!"

Liis wanted to smack the coyote Fuser upside the head, but "Goodnight" Irene was dead to rights. "Okay, we're out of here."

"I'll put out the word to our Silicons to get you the results of whatever we find," Zoey said sincerely. "Best of luck to you."

With that, Liis spun up her lifters and left the crash site, and whatever remained of her peace of mind. I want to cuddle with my owl, she thought, making sure to shield it from Eva. Ghostie, we'll be home soon.

Liis pointed herself in a general northeast direction, and flew onwards.

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"At this speed we won't reach Cascadia for another twenty hours, if we're lucky," Eva said. The doe looked awful, but could function. Liis had detected some time compression, so perhaps subjective days or weeks had gone by for her. She obviously wasn't "over it" by any means, but was no longer near-catatonic with grief. "I guess we're in no hurry, though Ghost's going to worry about us. Well, you anyway."

"Hey, he likes you too, you know," Liis's Bridge simulacrum said. "He told me he had a real crush on you. Didn't you notice?"

"I had other things on my mind at the time," Eva said. She checked the battery levels on her chair. "Forty-six percent. I could use a full cell snack."

A blip appeared on the Evaprise's sensors. "Some kind of recent crash ahead, Captain."

"I'll take the helm if you don't mind, Liis," Eva said.

She emerged from the Bridge back into full control in time to see it. Eva landed next to the chunks of metal that were all that remained. The wreckage had all the marks of a pirate skimmer cobbled together from bits and pieces like some sort of post-apocalyptic franken-flier. Pirate RIDEs were little better, and they didn't always have them. Some pirates wore bulkier versions of the personal climate shields the Marshal earlier used.

:Oh, wow. Do you think...? Could this be...?: Liis said.

"'So goeth the fate of villains who trespass upon our domain,'" the salvage beacon read. Eva was puzzled. "Who uses that kind of silly language?"

:No idea, but look at those claw marks,: Liis said. The pirate ore carrier had been cobbled together from several wrecks. Whoever had done this had methodically torn apart each section so the pirate would have nowhere to hide. There was no sign of any bodies, RIDE or otherwise, either. :More Inties?:

"Big ones, then," Eva said, looking inside. There was no sign of the qubitite the pirates had stolen. Perhaps these weren't even the same pirates who attacked the Clementine. "Based on dragon or dinosaur RIDEs like they've got in the Nextus and Nuevo San militaries. I don't think we want to be around if they decide to come back."

She lifted off again.

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It felt like the worst hangover ever, Ghostate thought as he fought for consciousness. He was aware that his body was bound up so tight it was impossible to even wiggle a toe.

"Oh, hey. Our golden-voiced birdie boy is awake," a snide, familiar voice said. "Good to see you again, Prostate. Sorry you're all tied up right now, but after last time we got orders."

"Give us a song on the way to Olympos, eh?" another voice barked, female this time. "What's with you always singing anyway?"

This time Ghost held back the compulsion, a holdover from his human "parent". The man had had a firm belief that his life had a soundtrack and always tried to find an appropriate song in the centuries of music in his cortical implant. That had given Ghost quite the literal headache at times. It'd taken years for him to control it, but it still came out every now and again, like when he'd met Liis.

Ghost screeched angrily back at them. "When I get outta here, Prester, I'm gonna..."

"Awww. No song?" the mouse Integrate said. "Wifey here likes your Sinatra. Give us a song. Something romantic. Like, I dunno, 'Fly Me to the Moon'? We heard it all the way down the mountain, ya know."

The owl's heart sank. God, no...How could I be so stupid?

"Your girlfriend caused some trouble over in Nextus," Prester's wife said. "Don't worry, though. You'll be singing to her again soon. Artemis says she wants you back in Oly by sundown."

"Whoa there, Omla. We've got to drop him with Fritz first for judgement. He had the Technomage doohickey with him," Prester said. "'Sides, who you more afraid of? Some pissant fake deer goddess or the Grand Old Wizard himself? He goes to Fritz first."

Nononononono... Not Liis! Not Eva! Lord in Heaven, not Fritz!

"I dunno, hubby. He doesn't really deserve that, does he?" the woman replied with some sympathy. "We could drop it in the middle of the Dry and Fritz wouldn't be the wiser. Just drop him in Oly and collect the moneys."

"After living with meat for so long he owes the Bosscat a lit'rl pound of flesh. You know what he'd do to us if he ever found out what we did? He'd blame us for dropping it!" the mouse squeaked. "He's gotta see the Wizard."

Ghost tried to struggle, but the net only tightened its grip.

"Damn, hubby. Guess you're right. Back to sleep, birdy!" Omla said. The wife was a spotted hyena. They were the best of the Candlejacks. She prodded the capture net with something.


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Out in the middle of the Dry Ocean, thousands of kilometers from Uplift and Nextus, there was an old mining rig floating two kilometers above the Hardpan. "Miner's Rest," Eva read. The hardlight letters were arranged vertically down the old derrick. It didn't seem to have any hardlight shielding from this distance, but as the doe Integrate approached she noted the cobbled-together appearance of the buildings and a telltale shimmer around doors and windows.

:Hey, isn't that Rig 85N?: Liis said, zooming in closer to highlight the Walton-Q logos and ID signs. :It is! They finally decommissioned that old girl three years ago. What's it doing turned into a flying rest stop?:

"It's sure not the franchises we're used to on the carrier routes," Eva said. "Looks like they welded a couple of rigs together, added some ancient lifters and impellers, then built a restaurant and a hotel." There were enough manned rigs in the Dry Ocean that some entrepreneurs decided to bring certain services to the miners via slow-moving craft salvaged from the older rigs. Most of them were franchises built to look rustic, but this one looked genuinely rustic. It barely moved at thirty kph, but at this altitude the air temperature was a comfortable 35C. "Looks like a dive hotel, a crummy bar, and a greasy spoon to me. I doubt they spend much on amenities."

:Thirty-six percent charge. We could use a drink and the Induction Plate Special,: Liis said.

"Think it's a good idea to just land on the deck as we are?" Eva said. A drink sounded really good, though getting drunk was a near impossibility now. "Well, doesn't matter, because that's what we're doing."

:You don't care, so I don't care. Just don't shapechange in front of everyone this time, okay?: Liis said. :I'll keep our sensors peeled for Candlejacks.:

The Miner's Rest had a parking lot consisting of five spaces with physical tie-downs to keep a landed skimmer in place. The deck itself was empty, lifeless. Eva almost expected a tumbleweed to roll by in the strong breeze. She headed up to the Saloon doors and went inside. There was a sound of scrambling feet at her approach.

:I guess they've seen Inties before,: Liis opined.

The saloon was straight out of a 1950s Western, down to the guy behind the bar with a bushy mustache, wearing a bartender's apron, cleaning glasses. What set him apart from those westerns was the fact he was a dapple gray Percheron Fuser. Behind him was an animated painting of a fox-tagged nude man in a "come hither" pose, visibly growing breasts on the way to womanhood. No doubt for crossrider titillation. "What'll ya have, ma'am? We got a Sarium Sarsaparilla Special for you Integrates if you want it."

"I don't have any money," Eva said. "I just need a recharge and I'll be on my way."

"Always on the house for our Intie customers," the horse Fuser said, a reverent edge to his voice. "Try that booth over yonder. Made it for you folks special."

"Tell you what," Eva said. "If it's on the house, I could use a tequila sour or two. Or three. However many it takes to get an Intie drunk."

The bartender swallowed, then shouted back into the kitchen. "Frankie, one Number Six!"

"Uh, sure thing, Ted. One Number Six for the nice doe-lady," a voice in the back replied.

As soon as she sat on the simulated wood, the inductor started. "Ahhh...that's the stuff. Liis, we either need more batteries or more efficient lifters. This is silly."

:It was a trade-off between Fusers and lifters, remember?: Liis said. :Looking good, though. This is clean power. Tastes like a mountain spring. Refreshing.:

While he waited for the drink, the bartender put a plate of fresh greens in front of her in addition to the sarium-spiked sarsaparilla. All four chambers of Eva's stomach growled, making quite a racket. She looked askance at the bartender. "I really can't pay for this. I feel wrong that you're just giving it to me because you're scared of me."

Bartender Ted brightened. "Scared? Of you, ma'am? Why would I be scared of an ascended being like yourself? You look like you've had a bad day is all. Eat up, take your time. We're friendly to friendly folks, like yourself."

:This is weird. If he fawns over us more I'll have to check his hide for spots,: Liis observed.

The salad was nourishing, if tasteless. But the sarium in her drink was top-notch. "Is that double-A in this?" Eva asked once the tall glass was empty. Double-A sarium was a full thousand times better than the B-class in her body and just the few grams in the drink added twenty percent to her storage.

"Only the best for my Intie customers," Bartender Ted replied, finally putting the Number Six on the small table. Dry ice was apparently one of the ingredients the way white vapor covered the layered liquid's surface--red, yellow, and green liquors. "I hope you like this, ma'am. Most popular Intie drink I know of."

"You get a lot of us around here?" Eva asked.

"Uh, yeah. We're really honored when one of you decides to stop for a drink."

:We're fully charged, Eva. We oughta fly,: Liis said.

:Already? What do you think we should do once we find Ghost back home?: Eva asked her body-mate, not getting out of the seat.

:Maybe go be a deer somewhere. Ghostie's been living as an owl for years. We should blend in with the other deer under Dome Hood fairly easily,: Liis said. :After that...who knows? Let's gogogo!:

"Chandler!" the Bartender exclaimed. A heavy silence descended on the saloon.

Eva leapt to her feet instantly, body enclosed in hardlight armor, pulse gun blister swelling. She pointed the back of her hand at the newcomer...the most handsome stag Integrate she'd ever seen. The only one she'd ever seen that wasn't Evan.

"I surrender!" he said, raising both hands next to his impressive eight-point rack. His voice oozed charm. He had a cluster of three darkened, triangular hardlight emitters on his right pectoral around his nipple and one on his left shoulder, and a diamond DIN bead on that side. "The last thing I want to do is harm a sister Integrate, especially one as gorgeous and charming as yourself, Miss Dorset. So you can stop with the Iron Doe routine."

"Your usual Number Four, Mr. Chandler, sir?" Bartender Ted said in a very eager-to-please tone.

"You always know just what I want, Ted-and-Derry. Thank you," the stag said. The horse Fuser scurried away. The stag leveled his handsome gaze at Eva. "I said, enough with the Mega Doe schtick. I'm losing patience with you, and I'm not alone. Come on in, ladies and gents, and meet our new girl--or guy, as pleases her mood."

"Just how much do you know about me?" Eva said, not quite willing to let her guard down yet. Then she found out what the other deer meant when he said he was not alone, and immediately deactivated her weapons and armor. A multitude of snarling faces made her tail flag out of reflex, but there was nowhere to go. :Fark! Where did they all come from?:

:I need to get better sensors,: Liis gasped.

Eight wolves surrounded, and deferred to, this buck as if he was their alpha.

"My name is Chandler, in case you were wondering. I've been rounding up n00b Inties for a decade now. I'm only acting in your best interests--though some of my Candlejacks aren't nearly as nice as I am. There are far worse than us or the so-called Snatchers." He lifted himself over the bar. "This painting is silly and offensive folks like you and I, right Mister Dorset?"

He had a voice that dripped with arrogance and snark, surrounded by wolves and a couple pumas, who hung on his every word like it was delivered from On High.

"What do you mean by 'folks like us'?" Eva asked.

"Oh please. Spare me." Smiling, Chandler reached up and grabbed hold of his antlers. They came off with a little snap, then his body started to change like the painting on the wall--or Eva's own, she was in the mood. Unlike Eva's, the transformation took about a minute.

Eva looked for an escape route, but found none. Chandler's pack didn't look armed, but Ghost had demonstrated some hardlight weapons tricks...they could be armed and armored in milliseconds. She had nowhere to go.

"As you can see," the other doe said in a sultry voice, "we have not only transcended meat, you and I, but sex and gender. Why don't you show me what kind of a handsome stag you are." As a doe, the trio of pectoral emitters had spread apart as her breasts swelled, allowing the teat-like nipple in the center to grow. She had a second set of teats on her lower belly, where an udder would be on a doe.

:Teat-allating:,: Liis quipped. :We might as well. Pretty little thing, isn't she?:

:She can't re-absorb her antlers,: Eva observed. :That's a lot of mass loss. Amateur.:

:I'm telling you, don't show off too much. Can you take my advice this once today?: Liis said.

"You want me to 'buck out', you'll tell me what you know about me," Eva said, folding her arms.

"The more you change, the more I'll talk," she said, licking her lips. She sauntered over and took the booth seat across from Eva, then ogled her with half-lidded eyes. "I'd take that bra off first, though. Heh. Love your hardlight tattoos, by the way."

Eva rolled her eyes, then reached back to unsnap the band, then placed the bra on the table. She allowed antlers to start budding.

In response, Artemis's own breasts went up a cup size. "You've been Integrated about a year," she said. "You lived among meat all that time, hiding from the rest of your kin. I don't know what that owl told you about us, but we're not monsters. At least, most of us aren't."

:'Meat,' she says,: Liis said. :Humans are 'meat' to her. What are RIDEs, then? Junk?:

As Eva's transition continued, so did Chandler. "I regard unfortunate, but founded enough in fact to make us seem unwelcome to n00bs who knew of us before their upgrade. Anyway, your Integration was an odd one to begin with. Yours is the first I've heard of ever to come out of a Passive Fuse. Thus, as your RIDE was female, you gained control of your physical sex, and naturally began to explore the possibilities like any Integrate would.

"Your unenlightened former meat-girlfriend and her addled junk RIDE decided you were their plaything. A paper doll to do with what they willed. Then, to your shame, you decided to capitulate and 'cross over' officially instead of the delicious, delightful double life you were leading. A man at work, a woman at home, experiencing what little variety pure meat-life had to offer."

"To my shame?" Eva, halfway to Evan, said. "How do you know all this?"

"A simple tap into Miss Timar's home system, of course. Her apartment cameras recorded everything you did," Chandler said. "Oh my, you're looking like quite the hunk of venison!" She started fanning her hand in front of her face. "Ooh! I'm feeling warm all over."

The doe's expression flattened, and she continued. "We deduce that your personalities haven't merged. You and Liis share that body. Thus, so-called Captain Van Dalen is your lover, Evan Dorset. That reprobate Ghostate is your body-mate's. Heh."

"Nice little rhyme," Evan said dryly. "I'm done."

"Oooh. I'm all moist," Artemis squealed, rocking her shoulders so her oversized breasts wobbled. "How about a quick fuck before we go? I want to see how you handle that ascended equipment of yours."

Evan shot out of the seat, upending the table in the process. "HOW DARE YOU!" he roared.

:Evan, calm down! Like, right now. Look around us,: Liis said calmly. :She just wanted to get a rise out of you.:

There were ten hardlight handguns pointed at his head.

She laughed. It was a flirtatious laughter, the kind a pretty girl often gave a man to mock him. "That might have been more manly if you weren't still wearing satin pink panties, Mr. Dorset. Please, sit down and dump your testosterone. Let's talk doe-to-doe again, shall we? Ted, bring a new table, my antlers, and my Number Four. And one for the other doe, too. In fact, let's have a little welcome party. Our new friend has thrown off her meat-life and is finally with her proper kin."

:Looks like we aren't going anywhere for a while,: Evan said. He sighed, then his body flowed back into doe form. "I could use that Number Six."

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It was exactly the kind of place where you would have expected the pretentious to sit in front of a group of like-minded people and read bad poetry and garner undeserved applause. A darkened room that smelled of tobacco smoke, coffee, and the sour reek of Integrates who refused to bathe via hardlight or otherwise. In a corner someone strummed a sitar, which to even to Ghostate's musical ear... actually wasn't half bad.

It had to be intense if Ghostate could smell it. Like most birds he had little sense of smell to speak of, though that was simple enough to fix via the right sensors. He focused on these, intently, while awaiting his fate.

In the center of the beatnik coffeehouse Fritz played cards with a tight circle of "friends". He was the First Integrate, though he didn't noise this about and rarely said so outright. Over the years he'd accumulated a number of nicknames, though only one concerned Ghostate presently: Grand Old Wizard, for his training of technomages and tight control of the sensor package that built DINs.

There was a poker game on, and Fritz would do no judging until it was over. "Hand it over, Bosscat. Full house," the lupine player said.

"Awww, hell, I only got two pair," the Bosscat himself said. "I fold. You win the pot, Charlie. The whole shebang."

"Grazie, Fritzie," the maned wolf Integrate across from him said, pulling in the pile of chips and other wagers--a number of sarium pellets with A or AA stamped on them. "Shall we play another hand, eh?"

The old lynx laughed and gave the winner a friendly pat on the shoulder. "Nah, man. You tapped me out for the night. See you y'all tomorra."

"Si, always a pleasure," the Italian-accented winner said. The rest of the players had apparently gone to do other things, but the sentiment was echoed throughout the room. He left the table with life and limb intact.

"You squares bring the bird over," Fritz said, not looking directly at the Candlejacks. "And let him out of that cage. He ain't going nowhere."

There was an ancient saying that went "beware the nice ones". Fritz was the poster-lynx for this. If you were his friend, you were his true friend. But cross him but once...well, nobody knowingly crossed him.

Ghostate stretched his wings. After being in confinement it felt good, but he made sure not to power up his lifters. The right wingtip was still limp and lifeless, the hardlight emitters in the feather shafts still shut down. He was about to write off the whole thing as a loss. Every time he tried to reconnect it with the rest of his body, the burning started again.

Fritz removed his round dark glasses and regarded the prisoner with a mix of amusement and admiration. "I like you, birdy. You're a player of the game. I've played that game myself. Escape, see how long it takes them to find you, all that jazz. For all that you're copacetic with me, Mister Ghost. I doubt these two squares would've caught ya if you didn't have that bum wing."

The barn owl allowed himself to feel a little sliver of hope as the Candlejack married couple moved a little closer together out of fear. You had to pay close attention to the lingo with Fritz. His offhanded way of talking could easily be misinterpreted. There was certain beatnik slang you hoped he didn't ever use when referring to you. This word excited him. He said I'm copacetic!

"You pudknockers got lucky," he told the Candlejacks.

"Pudknocker?" Omla said, half in a panic. "What's a farking pudknocker?"

"Look it up, you limp-dick bitch," Fritz said. Knowing hyena anatomy, that was within the realm of possibility. "Now get out of here before I lose my cool and have your husband for lunch."

The Candlejacks scrambled out of the coffeehouse fast enough to overturn tables and scatter numerous games of checkers, provoking laughter from Fritz's cronies and only a few angry shouts after them.

"Spread that bum wing of yours, if you please," Fritz said.

Ooooh...guano. Ghostate obediently did so.

Without a word, Fritz sliced it off with his molecular knife. Since it was shut down, there was no real pain, but it was still very jarring.

"I'm doin' you a favor, see. Without that dead weight it'll grow back in a coupla weeks," Fritz said. He placed the severed wingtip on the table, carefully keeping the flight feathers pristine. Then he inserted a fingertip into the oozing end, then shut his eyes. "Damn fool. You tried to upgrade yourself somehow, didn't you? Peckerwood! All us Inties are born perfect. In our own way we're all special snowflakes. You can't improve on perfection. Dig?"

"D-dig!" Ghost stammered, nodding emphatically. Peckerwood, he said. That one more than balanced out being copacetic. I'm dead. He hasn't even brought up the Doohickey yet. I'm dead I'm dead. Liis, my beautiful doe, I'm soooo sorry...

"Good. Then on this, we're on the level," the Hep Cat said. Confusingly, that was another phrase anyone brought before him wanted to hear. Then he snapped his fingers and the Technomage device was lifted onto the poker table. "This, though...this...beyond the pale."

All Ghost's hopes came crashing down at Fritz's final judgement.

"Give him over to the Fuzz. He's quits with us, forever. He don't exist from here on out."

The Fuzz. The Bosscat's name for the Loose Cannons.

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Outside, the sun began to sink below the horizon. The Miner's Rest continued its slow progress northeastward. After a Number Six and a Number Four, Eva felt drunk for the first time in well over a year. "Dunno what's in those, but it tickles. My brain. Tickles my brain. Hee," she giggled, then broke into sobs, then put her head down on the table. "Oh, Wilma...Ada..."

"No need for tears, sister," Artemis Chandler said.

"Cause they were just 'meat'?" Eva said, glaring at her. "Don' make me shoot you inna pretty ass of yourn for dat. She was mah girl."

"She did seem rather more enlightened than other meat, given her...fluid relationship with you," Chandler said, voice dripping with condescension. "But your tears are misplaced."

"Them's fightin' words, missy," Eva slurred.

The other doe snapped her fingers. One of her pack of wolves handed her a small, clear vial of silvery dust. "Sober yourself up a little. Recognise this? It's a sample we took from the Clementine crash site before we razed it."

"It's jus' dead nannies," Eva said.

:Razed? They razed the site? I hope that Marshal got out okay!: Liis said. :I'm sobering you up. This is funky stuff, though.:

"Ada was a commercial Rapid Medical Response RIDE, wasn't she?" Chandler continued. She poured the contents of the vial out on the table, spreading the dust out with her thick-nailed fingertips. "Even I admit that the Fusers on those models are special. Your lover might have lost her arm, but she gained far more. There was no body, not like that poor meat-defender. And--this is what I'm getting at--Integration has multiple causes."

"You're lying," Eva said, glaring at her drunkenly.

"I never lie about transcendent meat, sister. I've made it my purpose in life to bring as many into the Integrate fold as possible, within reason." Her eyes flashed. "All should be given the opportunity to join us, once they prove their worth. The Bosscat and I disagree on this, strongly, but he doesn't do anything about it. I'll show you what I mean. Come over here, Ted-and-Derry."

"Ma'am?" The Bartender said. More anticipation was packed into those two syllables than a child staring into a candy store window for an hour.

"Kneel before me." Chandler stood up, her hardlight emitters flaring. Diaphanous white robes like a ancient Greek goddess fluttered around her in an invisible wind--a literal cervine Artemis, the goddess who had transformed men. Lit candles appeared in midair around her in ghostly fire. She surrounded herself an ethereal light. Members of her Pack either shrank back, smirked, or watched reverently.

"You have done every task your goddess has set before you with diligence and skill. Including sacrificing your fortune to build this silly rest stop in the sky for us," Artemis said, her voice echoing. "Your sacrifice will not go unrewarded. Prepare to receive the Transcendence that is your due." She placed her hand on the Fuser's head.

:Wait, she's can't...: Liis said. :Ghostie said...:

:She's a charlatan and snake-oil salesperson,: Eva said. :And they're eating it right up.:

The Bartender moaned with purest ecstasy at the "goddess's" touch, then slumped to the floor, hardlight flickering out revealing the RIDE's metal skin underneath. A skin that began melting as if under a blowtorch, but there was no heat. Metal pieces that didn't melt simply fell off, as if discarded.

:Mother of God, what did she do to him?: Eva breathed. :I thought Ghost said you couldn't do that!:

:Well, my Ghostie was wrong. I'm gonna harf my VR lunch,: Liis replied. :Look at him! He's...ugh...he's going to--I'm gonna be sick.: A large black patch censored out the offensive...thing. Liis wasn't a prude by any means, but some things just went far too far.

"Prepare a bath for our new horse-brother to wash off the afterbirth," Artemis ordered one of her less awestruck lupine hangers-on. "And bring me everyone else aboard the Miner's Rest. I'm feeling generous today."

"Wait, Artemis, sir--ma'am you sure about this?" he said. "We're still too close to Camelot! If there's one of them dragons snooping around--"

"Fucking dragons, man," another repeated, shuddering.

"I'm certain we're doing the right thing," Artemis declared. "Do as you're told! And call for the Argo. We're going to need her with so many new additions to our Olympians."

The minion wolves scurried off with their tails between their legs.

The former horse Fuser was no more. Instead, in what looked like silvery slime, lay a dapple-gray Percheron Integrate with a line of a oval hardlight lenses along his spine and on each side of his neck. The massive new Integrate opened his eyes. "We are finally together, just as you promised," he said. "Call me TeDerry."

"Welcome, welcome our brother TeDerry!" Artemis declared. "I keep my promises."

"TeDerry!" the crowd repeated.

The other doe, still in her goddess act, smiled at the Eva. "Something like this happened to you in the Dust. Out there, it's so dry, so windy, I doubt the afterbirth lasted long. Curious that you still appeared to be meat, but then, like some of us can change our sex at will, others can walk among meat without needing to cloak or disguise with hardlight.

"So you see, I'm telling the truth. Your lover is alive. Unless you come with me, you'll never find her. She could be in any number of Enclaves from one end of the Dry to the other."

:Go for it,: Liis said.

:What? Are you serious? Why?: asked Eva.

:Pragmatism. Logic. We need to find out what happened to Ghostie, too. I'm betting that he escaped whoever they sent after him, but, in case he didn't...well, we can always escape with him again later.: Liis projected confidence in Eva, and in Ghost's ability to stay out of the Candlejacks' grasp. :Besides, we're freaking surrounded by fanatics. It won't do us any good to run.:

One after another, a dozen more Fusers were brought before the doe "goddess", and one-by-one they were Integrated whether they protested or not. To a man and woman, they looked at Eva as if she was some kind of acolyte of Artemis, or perhaps a priestess-in-training. Some were envious, others out of hatred. Seeing it happen again, and again, and again made Eva and Liis want to throw up.

"Thus passes the time of humanity," Artemis said. The doe's curves began to smooth out, breasts deflating, shoulders broadening. To Eva's surprise no new antlers sprouted. Instead, once manhood returned, the buck picked up the detached antlers and clicked them back into place on the newly regrown pedicles.

"Sub's here, Chandler," one of the wolves said. "So's that skimmer you called for."

"Get the n00bs aboard," the reformed stag said, falling away from the ethereal mood fast. "I'll be with you all soon. I have a few more words for Eva and Liis." A diamond brooch glittered on the opposite pec from the trio of hardlight lenses--he was now in a toga, of all things. "Connect to my DIN, please. We should speak in private. I would like to meet Liis face-to-pretty face."

The VR environment he chose for them was like the inside of Zeus's throne room, but his attitude was anything but. "Forgive the pretentiousness, ladies. It's just a thing I do. I consider goddess Artemis my proper namesake. Those mortal men who saw her were made into women, or deer. Like you, I am both. Proper, really."

"Do you really think of yourself as divine?" Liis said.

"Hardly, but I find if I cultivate this image I get more converts. Some of them are credulous enough to think I really am the present incarnation of the goddess; others know better, but play along. It amuses and infuriates Fritzy no end, so I can get away with bringing in new Integrates. It's...a complex political dance we do."

"Well, I don't want to get involved," Eva said. "All I want is Wilma and Ada."

"And my Ghostie," Liis added.

The stag grinned. "You should have seen my Olympians as they watched the video of your flight down the mountain. They mooned over every moment. So romantic. My Candlejacks catch so many n00bs after they stand atop Mount Wahoo just to see if they can. Ghostate we knew was at large, you two were a pleasant surprise. We had a great deal of backtracking to do before we found out who you were.

"That you lived among meat for so long is an admirable testament to your tolerance," Chandler said. "You're one of the few I know who can emulate them without hardlight." He actually shuddered with revulsion. "How do you stand it?"

"This conversation is over," Eva said. She booted him out of VR, then marched outside the Saloon. To her surprise her rental car was in the lot.

"Replica 2012 Mercedes SLS AMG, gullwing," Chandler said behind her, unruffled by her abrupt exit. "Or a cheap imitation thereof. It's just a shell with some lifters, batteries, and impellers. But it'll do. Red. Nice color."

Taking up the rest of the parking lot, the bow of a large, sleek black-and-white suborbital lay. The gangway was down and the last of the confused new Integrates were being shuffled aboard the Argo.

"You used to be 'meat' too, you know," Eva said.

"Yes, yes I did. I don't deny this fact. But unlike the 'Bosscat' Fritz, I believe that this is only a temporary condition," Chandler said. "Now, watch. Just in case you think you can return to your meat-life without consequence, I'm going to destroy that notion so completely you won't be able to show that pretty human face of yours anywhere on Zharus without getting arrested. Pilot, take us out about a klick."

The suborbital's pilot was a harpy eagle with a very nasty expression on his face. "Yessir."

:He doesn't know we can do more human forms. He doesn't know we can be just a deer,: Liis said excitedly. :He said he dug up some dirt on us, but he doesn't know. He can't. We didn't record any of our experiments or any of Wilma's visits as a precaution. Whatever he plans on doing, we have an out!:

:He may not even know about Lisa Westfall,: Eva suggested. :At least, I doubt he knows she's you. If he was watching Taja...:

:Oooh! Maybe not. But...we should be dead certain before we bring her out of mothballs,: Liis said, delighted.

"I'm going to tell you a story," Chandler said. He put his arm around Eva's shoulders. On the hardlight screen in front of them the rental car lifted off of the unmanned Miner's Rest. It sped off into the distance. "It's a sad story. A tale of love and career lost. Of sudden soul-crushing depression. Total loss.

"You see, about a year ago poor Evan Dorset lost Liis, his RIDE, whom he treated like a piece of equipment rather than a person. He kept her mind locked up in Passive while he traipsed around in her metal body. Then came the solar flare, and somehow the abused RIDE decided that his life was more important than hers.

"Now, Evan wasn't very good with money. Sure, he owned numerous expensive toys, but he always wanted more. After her passing he threw himself into his work, but even the bonus from being Most Dedicated Employee wasn't enough. Oh no."

The rental car was a little red speck in the distance, waiting for a command. Chandler continued. "Under the pretense of 'honoring' his old RIDE's sacrifice, months later Evan 'crossed over' to become Eva. At the same time she had a Q-based implant installed, helpfully paid for by Comstock Lode, LLC. One of Walton-Q's much smaller rivals. So began months of industrial espionage and a sudden flush of money. Eva had even moved to Cascadia to allay suspicion.

"Now, Wilma Van Dalen had also been in the illegal employ of Comstock. Why else would she take so many shortcuts? Clearly they were dead drops. When Eva struck up a close relationship with her, no doubt due to the shared espionage for Comstock, regular visits resulted, as did love and devotion, as it never had when Eva was one of her crew.

"Then came today."

"I think I know where this is going," Eva said, ears flattening. "You bastard. There isn't a word strong enough for how much I hate you."

"Tough love, my doe, tough love. But I'm not finished," Chandler said. "Distraught at losing her lover to pirates, having exposed her illegal activities to her employers, Eva Dorset fled Nextus in a stolen rental car. She had nothing left--job, lover, or freedom. If she went back, arrest and prison would soon follow. She had only one choice remaining."

The rental skimmer impacted the base of the derrick, exploding like someone had packed it full of C4. It was hardly enough to do much damage to the Miner's Rest aside from blow a few support stringers off the derrick, but that wasn't really the point. "So, what you're saying is that I went nuts and committed suicide while trying to take out a bunch of innocents at the same time? There's no way in hell a story like that will stick!" Eva snarled. "There are so many holes, I can't believe you'd..."

"It doesn't have to stick. It just has to be plausible long enough to make it impossible for you to return, We planted enough evidence to keep you persona non grata for a decade," the cult leader said. He gestured at the pilot. "Back to Olympos, Varley!"

On the viewscreen, the burning Miner's Rest listed to starboard, somehow staying aloft, drifting aimlessly over the Dry Ocean.

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Integrates weren't supposed to feel pain like this. They were supposed to have complete control of their bodies. But whatever the Loose Cannons' sadistic veterinarian had injected Ghostate with, that control was now diminished. Upon admittance they had promptly plucked out every feather with hardlight channel-shafts and done something to his lifters that prevented them from carrying his full weight.

His wings were likely required to fly now. They hadn't interfered with his healing ability...yet. Ghostate wondered how much longer that would last, once his amputated wingtip and flight feathers had fully grown back.

The barn owl couldn't even make himself sing.

He happened to arrive at the same time the Loose Cannons were giving new additions their orientation. Along with four other captured Integrates, he was paraded in front of them for study, human and RIDE alike.

The Loose Cannons--known for being insubordinate, unconventional, innovative. They were always the first to get new technology for field testing before wider deployment. Currently the military were testing RIDEs based on certain mythical creatures, mostly those with six limbs. Gryphons, dragons, and something called a hippogryph. Without his DIN he couldn't look up the term.

Ghostate faced the current group of transfers in a cage barely large enough to hold him. The Master Sergeant giving the orientation was a nasty sort, with draconic ridges down his spine, a thick tail, and purple scaly skin. "Alright, you maggots! Today, for the first time, you're going to see what we're fighting, in the corrupted flesh. You and your fresh-out-of-the-box RIDEs will get to face these unnatural freaks in the field soon enough, but you need to be able to identify the characteristics to evaluate threats. I want volunteers!"

A beaky young man with dark brown hair-feathers raised his be-taloned hand. Behind him, a hippogryph swished his tail antennas eagerly. "May we approach, sir?"

"Lance-Corporal Parker 'Can't Lose' Lewis, is it?" the NCO asked. "And Tocsin. You may have a look at the first one. As you do so, describe to me what you see."

"A giant barn owl, sir," Corporal Lewis said. "Female?"

"Good guess, but male in this case," the dragon-skinned man said. He began a long lecture, describing the characteristics of "Feral" Integrates, moving from example to example. "These are Integrates! They are your enemy!"

Besides Ghostate, the avian example, there was a horse, a wolf, a mouse, and a dolphin. Not all of them had had their hardlight emitters removed, but all of them were in such a state of shock they could barely move. The dolphin had a shriveled, blackened flipper and dorsal fin, hit with some kind of awful weapon they called a Q-Scram.

Who are these people? he wondered. Sean had heard of them when he served. Lt. Sean Ross, Ghostate's human parent. Around the time he'd Integrated there'd been some muttering of a new, unconventional Company, but he'd been too buried in need-to-know intelligence gathering it was simply information that didn't qualify, in case of capture.

Listless, starving for food and power, Ghoste allowed himself to drift towards partial shutdown. Before he could get all the way there he felt a shock at the base of his neck, bringing him back to full wakefulness. "Skeeek!"

Metallic laughter followed. "Do it again!" Tocsin shouted, sounding like an enthusiastic child. "Can't Lose, make him do it again!"

"Not now, Tocsin," the Corporal replied. "Get over here. That's an order."

"You need to learn to control your RIDE, Corporal Lewis," the Master Sergeant reproved. "You were warned about these experimental units."

"Yes, sir!" the young man said. "Tocsin, heel!"

"Awwww..." the metal hippogryph chirped, slinking off.

A little inductive pulse ticked up Ghost's batteries a few percent, preventing him from drifting off into semi-hibernation again. An equally-meager chunk of meat landed in a tray in front of his beak. He hungrily swallowed it, no matter what it might be spiked with. He had to stay alive for Liis and Eva. There had to be a way out.

My body is a cage that keeps me

from dancing with the one I love

But my mind holds the key

"Hey, did that owl just sing?" Corporal Lewis said. "He did! He sang!"

Did I sing? Ghost asked himself.

I'm living in an age

Whose name I don't know

Though the fear keeps me moving

Still my heart beats so slow

"Huh. That's a new one to me, Corporal," dragon-man said. "He's...not half bad. Now, come over here. The dolphin is about to expire from her wounds, and I want all of you to see that these abominations can die like anything else."

I did sing, the owl thought. He repeated the first verse to himself, over and over again, like a mantra. My mind holds the key...

"New arrivals of these animal-types are given a single chance to escape clean," the lecturer said.

"What?" Tocsin squawked. "Sir! Why?"

"We're not unfair, are we? All they need to open their cages from the inside are four human fingers and a thumb." Dragon-man bellowed laughter. "Should be simple for these 'ascended' abominations, shouldn't it?"

My mind holds the key, Ghostate repeated. My mind holds the key...

Whatever they'd done to his systems, the Cannons weren't able to completely block everything. The bandwidth was just very small, barely more than an early 21st century broadband network. It was enough to pull the logs that had tracked the evolutionary development of Eva's Fusers from the Intie standard to the shapeshifting-optimized versions that had turned his right wingtip into a limp, incompatible, amputated mess.

Singing his mantra, he re-examined the failed upgrade and wanted to thwap himself on the head. The simulation hadn't caught it because it had run as a full body upgrade. That put matters in a very different light, but...

The simulation results also indicated that the upgrade should be done on an evolutionary model, from A to B to C and so forth, instead of going right to Z. He had the full logs of how Eva's Fusers did what they did. This is going to take weeks with these bandwidth limits. Weeks of...this.

Ghost opened his eyes. Tocsin looked right back, metallic expression full of innocent cruelty, like the kind of child who pulls the wings off of butterflies.

My body is a cage.

But my mind holds the key...

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September 4, 141 AL

Olympos Enclave

:Ugh. How would Ghostie put this?: Liis pondered. :Ah, I think I have it...:

Should I stay, or should I go now?

If I go there will be trouble

But if I stay it will be double

:I think that's a good one,: Evan agreed, grunting as he tried to out-muscle the bugling bull elk in front of him. The results of a whitetail versus an elk should have been a given--Evan was less than half his opponent's size, but Ariken didn't have Evan's bone-reinforcing Fusers. Even Integrate bones could break...

"Aaaagh!" the bull elk bellowed as his forearm snapped just above the wrist.

"Match!" the impromptu referee called. The bartender was another buck by the name of Boston. "Winner, best two out of three rounds, is our new Proteus!"

Evan rubbed the feeling back into his hands. "Now, Ariken, what was that about my other rack?"

"Can't take a joke, meat-face?" he grumbled. The break was already healing. At the smaller deer's glare, he hunched over "I'm sorry I called 'em tiny. I just like my BBDs."

"I don't change my sex on demand," Evan said. "Besides, breasts that size need their own set of lifters. Now, you still owe me that AA special you were going to buy me before I did my afternoon rack-swap. I don't have to be Eva all the time just so you have a pretty set of boobs to ogle."

"One round for the winner, Bos," Ariken told the bartender. "Only the best for Evan's...better half."

:What am I, chopped liver?: Liis said.

:It's you he's talking about, sis. I don't think he likes me very much, buck or doe,: Evan said. :In his mind, you're the 'real' doe here. I'd smack him around again, but it's just not worth it.:

With the fight over, the inside of the open-air bar cleared out and Evan returned to his favored booth. His male form was more in-use of late--after being female constantly for so long, it felt good to put on the old familiar human self again. It was like finding a favorite old shirt in the closet and finding it still fit perfectly.

For all of Chandler's claims that, unlike the rest of Integrate society, this Enclave was one of self-improvement and learning, in other ways it was awfully regressive. "Tiresians" like himself were a group apart. Eva could never really be a woman to some born-females, and Evan frequently had a hard time among other men, like his fight with Ariken. True, there were always nice people like Boston, and a few girls Eva knew, but he was careful not to make too many friends here. Not when Ghostate and Wilma-Ada were still out there, unaccounted for.

:We need to get out of here,: he said. :I can't even pull my fur in for a few minutes without getting called 'meat-face'.:

The bar was empty, so Boston limped over and sat down across from Evan. His walk had a distinctive sound--his left foot was a hoof, his right foot a plantigrade, human-ish appendage with misshapen toes. His whole body was like that. The poor man's (natural) Integration had gone poorly. He was a patchwork of bare skin and fur. Human, anthro, and deer body parts made him hunchbacked. One eye had a human pupil, the other was a deer's eye. Despite his odd appearance his bar--Actaeon's Hoof--was popular. Moreso when Evan had his softer rack on. There was a dearth of does in Olympos, and Evan had spent more time as a buck just to make a point--ten points, really--that he wouldn't give in to the social pressure to be Eva all the time.

"Hey, bro-buck," Boston said, grunting between some words. "I don't want to bother you, but...can you do that thing? You know, that thing you do? No, not the doe-thing. The other thing. I want to watch again."

Evan made the throwing motion with his right hand, and his fingers extended and fused. "Out...and in again," he said, demonstrating the motion. It felt a lot like playing with a yo-yo, and took only a little more energy than resisting gravity. "Hand...foreleg...hand..."

"I see, I see," Boston said, watching intently. As usual, he focused just as hard on his own useless forehoof, and as usual the flesh wiggled a little, and stopped at something almost happening. "Damn. That still burns. Not as much as before. I think I'm getting better.

"Keep at it, Bos," Evan said, patting him on his hunched shoulder. "I'm sorry I'm such a horrible teacher."

"My fault for having half a DIN socket," Boston fumed. "You can't even sideload your Fusers for me."

"I'll damn well keep trying, bro," Evan said.

"Good. And...don't give in to those morons who only want to see your tits," the misshapen Integrate said, wiggling his eyebrow sardonically. "Even though they are two bright points in my day in the mornings."

Evan had to laugh. He could smile at that kind of compliment from Boston, but not anyone else. Eva for half the day, Evan the other half was the routine, even when they were "meat-faces". It was important to stay in practice--a point Chandler emphasized repeatedly. "Well, I like seeing you too, you handsome stagmuffin you," Evan flirted in Eva's voice. "But I'm, ahem--" he switched back to masculine voice, "--still spoken for."

"Your vixen-in-waiting," Boston said. "And Liis's wayward owl. That skydancing they did on the way down from Mount Wahoo is just...inspiring."

"Hey, you're just as amazing. How do you do it?" Evan asked. Somehow Boston had retained more connections to the outside than anyone else in Olympos. Even Artemis knew about this. It was something of a test for newcomers to be savvy enough to find information taps outside of the Enclave. He was in competition for the title of Hephaestus. "You know, I've been here almost a month. If I don't get some news about either of them very soon I'll have to say farewell anyway."

"I get the feeling not even Artemis herself would stop you from leaving if you wanted to go," Boston said. "You're Proteus here and everyone knows it. Even Ariken, the misbegotten moron."

"Please tell me you've got something solid," Evan pleaded.

Boston sighed, limping back behind the bar. "I have a good something and a bad something. Real bad. Which you want first?"

Evan grimaced."Let's start with the good, bro."

Clutched up against his chest with his foreleg was a very large, one might say dragon-sized, parchment envelope sealed with red wax, stamped with Camelot's Excalibur seal. "I have a missive from you-know-where. They finally responded to your letter."

:Only reason why we're still here, really,: Liis grumbled. :What is with these people? Are all Enclaves crazy-nutso like this? They're worse than those weirdo furry 'elves' in Lothlorien!:

:Inties take building their fictional worlds far too seriously,: Evan said. Olympos itself might have been plucked from Ancient Greece. It had all the comforts of late 25th century human technology, and further Integrate upgrades, but it was all invisible. The sun-drenched streets looked that primitive on purpose. Olympos, the "mountain within a mountain". The only Enclave on the surface of the Dry Ocean, covering a small, eroded volcanic peak with a Cascadia-style mountain shield making it invisible to anyone who didn't know what to look for.

Evan examined the huge missive, then raised one hand. "Well, since you'd need a good set of claws to open this thing..."

"Oooh, I have to see this!" Boston exclaimed, lifting over. "Dragon claws?"

"Can't do dragon just yet, but I can get really close," Evan said. :Might as well do the whole thing. How're things in Engineering, Liis?:

:Considering we've been guzzling AA sarium at every opportunity, we're golden. Batteries at 511.37 percent of post-Integration baseline. I can't wait to see my owl again. We'll finally fly properly together,: Liis reported.

Artemis, Odin, Apollo, Isis, Herakles, Horus, Mithra, Proteus--these were titles, not names so much, though it wasn't unusual to be referred to by your title. These titles weren't just handed out, you had to earn them. The previous Proteus was a "full range" shifter. He could change from animal, all the way to meat-face, in a single hour.

It was no contest--Evan did the same thing in seconds, in male and female forms...then added a newly-mastered arctic fox to the mix. That was almost a month ago. Unfortunately, even after earning the title he was still very much an outsider in the cliquish Olympian culture. At least it made it easier to leave.

"No vixen, either," Evan said. "I'm going to treat you to something new."

:Uh, really? Which one?: Liis asked. :We've got a couple dozen in the practice queue.:

:After we fly outta here for good, maybe we should check out that one Enclave...what's it called? Jurassic Park?: Evan said.

:Just to open a letter? Well, we can handle it. But it may not be smooth, Cap. We haven't fully plotted all the key physiological transition points.: Liis altered her VR avatar bit by bit to match their planned change to demonstrate. A feathered dinosaur colored like a deer (what Liis called a "Bambiraptor"), wearing a Starfleet uniform looked at him in VR. :Rawr, I guess.:

:Look at it this way. This goes well and your barn owl will go perfectly,: Evan pointed out. :Dromaeosaurs are practically birds.:

Liis's smile was all razor-sharp teeth. :Well, what are we waiting for? Evolution plotted.:

Shapeshifting on this level was equal parts art and engineering challenge. There was no actual DNA change involved. Everything was structural--but the more extreme those differences between origin and end form, the more careful the transition. Boston himself was the result of an uncontrolled shapeshift (Integration itself) gone bad, and that was just a mammal-to-mammal change.

:We're about to get an awful lot of tail,: bambiraptor Liis said. :All Fusers ready, Cap.:

:Engage!: Evan ordered.

Once initiated, the transformation was no longer under his control. It was all Liis in Engineering, pushing Fusers around in highly accelerated time. Evan sometimes wondered if their talent could even work without her diligence and intelligence. If they were a single fused personality, well, who knew?

To an outsider it looked a lot like an old werewolf movie, except there were no painful screams, no moans of ecstasy, just a pure business-like transmogrification from feathered man with a stubby tail...human-ish creature with a saurian muzzle, emerging scythe-claws...fingers fusing...tail extending fully, spine held level to the ground...and complete. Total time: Two minutes, thirty-two seconds.

:Can we talk?: Evan-raptor asked his Engineer.

:Vocoder only, Cap. I'm working on it,: Liis said. :Less than three percent energy storage cost, within tolerances. What do you think?:

"Oh, no! He's gonna eat me!" Boston said playfully

Then, applause from passerby who had gathered to watch the show, including a couple dinosaurs. "Guess you're not Proteus for nothing, then," a blue-feathered utahraptor opined. "Very nice. I'm honestly impressed."

"We appreciate the compliments," Evan said. He flexed his toes, making clicking sounds on the tile. "Now it's time to use these letter openers on my feet."

"If you need a helping foot, I'm willing," the complimenter said. "You got something from those stuck-up dragons in Camelot? Who do you know there?"

"That's just the thing. He doesn't know," Boston said. "You know how they are."

"I think my girlfriend got taken there for recovery there after she Integrated," Evan said. "She was the Captain of the Clementine. But I couldn't be sure, and they wouldn't tell me until I answered some silly questions."

If the dinosaur Integrate didn't know about the ship, it wouldn't take him long to find out. "Oof. I'm sorry. I hope she's okay. I wish you luck, Proteus."

"Thanks," Evan-raptor said. There were some genuinely nice people in Olympos, otherwise it would have made the whole stay sheer Hades. He gestured for Boston to drop the huge envelope on the floor, then started to carefully scythe it open with his big claw.

"How does that much tail feel anyway, Evan?" Boston asked.

"Like I'm a see-saw and the fulcrum are my hips," Evan replied, lips unmoving. "It's heavy, it's stiff." I feel like someone stuck a broomhandle on my butt.

"Never felt weird to me after my first Fuse," the female dinosaur said. She was a red hadrosaur with black stripes and rather prominent breasts and wore little more than some white body paint. "But then, my RI had the right mapping for it. How do you adapt?"

:Want the technobabble?: Liis said. :Because even I don't really know.:

"I just sort of do." Evan shrugged, finally cutting off the hard wax seal. "Okay, I need hands for taking the letter let's try the anthro variant."

"Are you turning Eva?" Boston asked. "Dinosaurs with breasts are a little..."

"A little what?" the hadrosaur said, folding her arms under her own.

"A," Boston said smoothly. "They look just perfect on you, Dinara. But not every dino- or bird-lady can pull it off, or has them."

:With her around, dinoboobs it is, then,: Liis said tactfully. :Ready? Or do you want to stay male?:

:Habits are made to be broken. Do it,: Evan said. He didn't want to burn too many bridges here before he left. For all its eccentric residents and strange anachronisms, Olympos wasn't a bad place to live. Even Artemis had basically left Evan alone after arrival in Olympos.

Eva-raptor took about half the time to come into being. She covered herself with a hardlight woman's stola, modified for her saurian physique. The more upright stance, the breasts, the shorter tail, required a different lifter configuration so everything balanced. "Ta daaa," she said, taking a bow.

Smiling, Dinara stood next to Eva and put her red-black arm around her shoulders. "Very, very pretty, Protea. Come on, dump the stola. We're not body shy in Olympos. The Greeks weren't either."

"Beautiful, both of you," Boston said, giving them more applause. "Keeping the deer color pattern is absolutely striking. Bambiraptor, eh? Is a 'deeragon' in the future somewhere?"

"Once I figure out how to grow another set of limbs, maybe," Eva said. She pulled the meter-wide parchment letter out of the envelope. "Now let's see what those silly dragons in Camelot have to say about Wilma-Ada..."

As before, the text was in a strange Latin dialect that was somewhere between Old French and late Latin. Someone had taken the time to add elaborate, detailed illuminations. On top of the page was an Integrate arctic vixen in a medieval gown. On the other side, a ten-point stag wearing a suit of chainmail armor next to a doe in the same.

:Translating...: Liis said. :Oh, wow.:

The letter read:

Sir Evan of Dorset,

Dame Eva of Dorset (should this missive find thee in fairer form),

Thou hast answered our Questions Three to our satisfaction. Ergo, we shall give thee the information you seek.

Our dragon-knights found thy love in a terrible state. She defended her ship and her crew to the last breath. By the time we arrived we feared she and her metal companion had nearly succumbed to their wounds. Her RIDE companion, Ada, could not bear this. Using the medical magicks at her disposal, she did perform a heroic deed and sacrificed her self-identity so both of them would live on in another form.

With joy, we confideth Lady Wilma, Captain of the late vessel Clementine, is now out of the hospital and mayeth be reunited with thee--with one condition.

If you wish to join her in the Court at Camelot, you must perform a deed worthy of us. She has regaled us with many a tale of your talents, and we have verified them with our friends in Olympos. Thy title of "Proteus" is duly noted.

We are certain you will find such a deed in short order.

Golanth, Grail-Holder of Camelot

Eva re-read the letter several times. "They...what? What are they asking me to do? Fetch them a farking shrubbery?" she hissed. Over the next few minutes she slowly, methodically shredded the parchment into tiny strips with tooth and claw. "Stupid...farkers! Why can't she just leave?"

"She's your 'lady-in-waiting'," Boston said. "They're big on courtly love in Camelot, and it might've caught on with her. From what I've heard through the grapevine it doesn't have to be anything big. Maybe go take down some of those pirates that are still grabbing ore shipments and raiding rest stops in the Dry. That sort of thing." His expression turned a little more anxious. "And that was the good news. Uh, I think Liis might want to take the helm for this one. It's about Ghostate."

Liis shoved Eva aside. "What? What's wrong with my Ghostie? What happened to him?"

"Well, if you really want to know, go ask Prester and Omla at the Golden Ass. I wouldn't bother changing form. I think that'll make an impression on them." Boston smiled ferally, then turned sorrowful. "But...I'm sorry."

Liis jumped into the air, throwing her lifters into overdrive. The Golden Ass was on the far side of Olympos, where the Candlejacks all had their homes and social spaces. They weren't exactly popular with many Olympians, those two especially.

:I'm right here with you, Liis!: Eva said.

"If they've harmed a feather on his head, I'm gonna flay 'em with these new claws of mine!" Liis snarled. "Oooh yes, this little bambiraptor is pissed..."

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Filled with hissing rage, Liis bounded from rooftop to rooftop as she flew around the mountainside, breaking the fragile red tile to fall to the streets below. Olympos was a mix of Greek and Roman architecture, but not the stark white versions that still occupied textbooks. Buildings and statuary were all carefully painted bright colors on columns and friezes--yellows, blues, reds. Statues were realistically painted with authentic fabbed ancient pigments.

It was an oasis in the middle of the Dry with hanging gardens and numerous pools and fountains. Every month a small tanker of Cascadian water arrived to replenish what was lost.

The self-styled bambiraptor landed atop the West Bathhouse and glared down at the Golden Ass Tavern below. Glass windows were unknown in the polis. The bambiraptor used her DIN to tap into the local network. The tavern itself was a private place where the local net couldn't reach. Liis looked in via a number of senses that would be totally alien to the creature whose form she wore.

Everybody knew about Prester and Omla, the married couple who made it their mission to capture only the most unwilling to be dragged away from meat society, or the occasional actual fugitive from legitimate justice. One rumor had them as Marshals who'd been kicked out of that service, others as plain old bounty hunters who'd Integrated. Nobody quite knew the truth. :I have to admit, they are kind of cute together,: Liis said.

:They could both look like furry Cupids and I wouldn't ask you to back down,: Eva said.

Still, Liis hesitated. :Ugggh...this feels so unnatural. I'm a doe! I browse on leaves and grasses! I run away from wolves and pumas! I don' this. I think I broke something in my deer brain.:

:We don't have a deer brain right now, sis,: Eva said.

:Thank you Miss Pedantic,: Liis snarked. :I know all that. If I'm going to be a barn owl later, I need to be more...flexible.: She had an idea. :So, why wait?:

Liis tried to stay balanced as her body compacted, feathers turning cream, white, and gray. Muzzle became beak, tail into a stubby pygostyle in little time at all. Vast muscles and a deep keel replaced mammalian breasts. From anthro dinosaur to bird was just a short hop.

:Mouse for dinner, Liis?: Eva said dryly. :Seriously, don't kill them. I don't want to see what an Intie prison looks like.:

"Come on, Eva, I'll only nibble on him a little," the female barn owl said aloud, flapping her wings, using them to get into the air with only a little lifter assistance. Her flight muscles flexed, propelling her upwards, then she plotted her trajectory through the window into the nearly empty tavern. The mouse was in just the right spot. "She stoops to conquer!"

The owl folded her wings and dropped like an artillery shell, steering with tail feathers and judicious use of her lifters to assure accuracy. The split second after passing through the window she spread her wings and talons and smacked into Prester before he could react. "Where'ssss my Ghosssst!" Liis hissed, mantling her wings over him. "Where issss hee?!"

The mouse Integrate soiled himself, gibbered something, hardlight lenses flaring randomly. "Omla! Omla!" he shouted. The impact had splayed him out on the floor with the remains of wooden chairs and tables around him. He was small enough that Liis's grasping raptorial foot covered half of his chest. She looked about ready to carry the rodent Candlejack away.

There was a prick in her back, Liis ignored it.

"What the fuck?" Omla exclaimed. "Get off my husband!"

"Protea, stop!" Artemis shouted. The so-called goddess arrived in a halo of light. "I watched you fly over here. What do you think you're doing?"

"Boston told me these two know where my boyfriend is!" Liis said. She flexed her back muscles and there was a clattering sound on the floor. "He said they captured him a month ago!"

"They did?" Artemis said. The doe's expression turned very, very dangerous. She trusted Boston as much as anyone else. The deformed Integrate's honor and credibility were unassailable. She made a pulling gesture, unceremoniously yanking the Candlejack hyena towards her. "He did? Then where is he, Omla? What did you do with him?"

"He had the Technomage thing!" Prester squeaked. "Even Olympos doesn't have an unauthorized doohickey, Artemis!"

"That much is true, but you were under strict orders to bring Ghostate to me," Artemis said, glaring.

Liis glared at her. "To use as more leverage against me, no doubt."

The doe snorted. "Hardly. I keep my promises, remember? You know where Wilma is, as I promised. I always intended Ghost to be here with you, the little scamp, but I assumed these two never captured him. Wouldn't be the first time. He's good at not being found."

"He had a broken wingtip," Omla said. "Dunno from what, but not us. Without it...well...we'd be zero-for-three cap attempts."

"What. Did. You. Do. With. Him," Liis hissed, giving the mouse's neck a little squeeze with each word. Blood trickled from punctures on his neck.

"Uh, gave him to Fritz," Prester squeaked in a teeny, tiny voice. "But he don't like CJs, so we skedaddled. Dunno what happened to him next."

"Okay," Artemis said. "Now Protea, let him go. Walk with me, on human feet if you wish, but at least come out of that avian form."

With one last hiss, Liis released the mouse and floated away, changing to a more anthropomorphic form but not fully eliminating all her owlish features. She reluctantly followed Artemis outside.

Liis expected more reproach from the "goddess". She jumped back a little when she saw her holding a clean knife, but it was obvious Artemis Chandler wasn't going to threaten her with it.

"Did you feel anything when Omla stabbed you?" she asked.

"Stabbed me?" Liis said, head tilted. "I felt a little prick in my back is all."

"Interesting... your body is even more durable than mine. I suppose that's a required secondary aspect of being Proteus. You've come so far in the month you've been here," Artemis said, delighted. "I know I'm a complete bastard for ruining your old meat-life, but it had to be done. Living among them was holding you back."

"We're not staying," Liis said, fluffing her remaining feathers.

"And I'm not going to keep you here against your will from here on out. I'd caution you against confronting Fritz directly, but I think it'd fall on deaf earholes," Artemis said. She transmitted some ZPS coordinates. "This is his hangout. I rather think he'll be surprised. May Fortune favor the foolish and the wind be at your back."

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My mind holds the key...

A few days short of a month after Ghost's capture his wardens started feeding him more, increasing the starvation-level subsistence charge to something that was livable, if still not even a quarter power. He was too weak to question why. There were times when he struggled to think of anything much, fighting to suppress the animal brain that was buried deep within the barn owl neural map. Most of his fellow prisoners weren't so strong-willed, and even those who were the Loose Cannons had other ways of breaking.

Ghost's missing wingtip hadn't even begun to heal, but had become his point of focus. It was there his freedom would emerge. He just had to wait for what the Loose Cannons smirkingly called the Escape Clause.

When Ghost felt marginally well-fed and charged, they took his cage out to a vacant field. He recognized the place. It was one of the many open spaces in Nextus where some Space Optimization Analyst a century ago had determined the polis would take two centuries to spread to, but spread it would, and so all the streets and other infrastructure layouts were in place.

The dragon-man had made Corporal Lewis and Tocsin their keeper for this assignment. The huge hippogryph had been fitted with a hardlight pelt since his first week "out of the box". It actually made him look less intimidating and even more like an innocent, cruel, and not-too-bright child.

"Herein are the rules of the Escape Clause," Lewis said. "They're pretty simple, so even a bird brain like you can understand it. No offense, Toxie."

"Could I ever be?" the young RIDE chirped.

"For the next thirty hours," the young soldier continued, "you will have the opportunity to escape clean. All you need to open your cage is a human hand. Prove you're not the animal you appear to be, and you'll get away scot free. The Cannons will not chase you, but should you seek revenge we will simply kill you.

"This site is under surveillance to ensure you go undetected by other abominations and civilians do not accidentally encounter you. Your escape from this cage must be accomplished by you and you alone.

"Do you understand?"

"Yes," Ghost croaked.

"Back in thirty hours, then," Parker said. "Come on, Toxie. Fuse up and let's fly."

"Why don't we just kill it now?" Tocsin whined as they Fused.

"They're almost done with him," Cpl. Parker said as he lifted off. "Just one more week. This'll break him for good."

Says you, Ghost thought weakly.

Then, he hour...two...until he was certain Parker had told the truth. Then Ghost polled his evolved Fusers...98 percent complete. It'll have to do.

My mind turns the key.

There was only one human form Ghost even wanted to wear.

When it was over the cage was markedly smaller than it had been. Ghost's knees were up against her chest and she had just enough leeway to put the palm of her regenerated right hand over the release plate. For a terror-filled moment the cage didn't seem to register it, then there was a click.


Ghost stumbled the first few steps, trying to stretch her long legs. The fact that her body was female was much less important than she barely recalled how to move without flapping her wings. She wanted to activate her lifters, but they were non-responsive. Internal diagnostics revealed certain Integrate organs were simply inactive due to the haste of the combined species and gender change. She laughed aloud. "Oh, wow...I can't fly at all."

There was a song in somewhere in all this, but even that part of her Intie brain was scrambled. She started running, holding one arm over her chest to keep from bouncing around too much. Maybe I should start with "I am woman, hear me roar". what?

Putting more distance between the cage and herself, she formulated a plan. It started with the fact that Lisa Westfall, the young woman she resembled, was technically a Missing Person. That was her way in. The next step after that was dicey and depended on others.

There was an Emergency Comm nearby, which probably wasn't an accident. Ghost concentrated, allowing owlish Fuse tags to return to her physique--fused teeth, feather-hair, taloned hands and feet--with the last of her non-reserve battery power. The rest was necessary to fool biosensors that she was actually human.

Ghost stopped. Wait...maybe I don't have to call NextMed. The beacons could make other calls. They were there on the off-chance that someone had a lost or broken commpad or other gear. If she ended up in a hospital that could put herself in danger again. There were always Snatchers watching hospitals in case a confused new Intie showed up. That was the last thing she wanted right now.

"Ambassador" Ghost had dated Lisa Westfall in the Star Trek sim for months. She knew a lot about Hestia and Taja and their tangled relationship with Eva and Liis/Lisa. They hadn't spoken since Eva had left for Cascadia, though. There was another risk here--did Hestia hold grudges?

Were the Loose Cannons still peeking? That was another risk--she still needed to get away from here. The naked woman shivered, though not from exposure. Just how "scot free" was she?

Sometimes you just had to swallow your doubts and press onwards.

Hestia picked up the audio-only comm. "Lisa? This is Lisa, right? What happened to you?"

"It', Hestia. I need help." It was impossible to keep her voice from shaking. "I got bodyjacked by an owl months ago. She just duh-dumped me here. How--how long have I been g-gone?"

"You should call Emergency Services," Hestia said.

"NO! No!" Ghost exclaimed. "I just...I'll bu-be fine after a few days rest. P-please pick me up? I'm standing next to this b-beacon and I've got ne-nuthing on."

"I'll be there in less than ten minutes," Hestia said. "Just stay with me on the line. have a lot of explaining to do."

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September 7, 141 AL

Charge Level: 87 percent. Ghost curled around the RIDEsafe inductive charger. A half dozen empty plates and glasses surrounded her. Her new Fusers were making body repairs as fast as they could. After two days they had reshuffled her Integrate body systems and restored some basic services. However, her original hardlight emitters were long gone and the downrated cavorite in her lifters would need replacement as soon as she could get to a RIDE salvage yard.

Right now there just wasn't much point to returning to her feral Integrate form. Not when this one had hands, not when breaking character would possibly get her nabbed by the Loose Cannons again.

"You sure you're an owl?" Hestia asked. "You're more like like a cat in a sunbeam with that charger. Need more food?"

"Yes. And thank you for believing me," Ghost said. She wanted to hug the elk RIDE and not let go, like she almost had when Hestia arrived in the park days ago. "Any response from Eva's mail drop?"

"I doubt she's been checking it, considering," Hestia said. She tilted her head. "But the Marshals and Nextus haven't charged her with any crimes yet. The whole thing stinks to high heaven. Your first time a human woman?"

"That obvious, huh?" Ghost blushed. She was wrapped in one of Lisa's soft robes. "I'm just...happy to be alive. The body I'm wearing is just secondary...but not unwelcome. It's...quite different. I haven't been a mammal for over ten years, so it's not like I miss having dangly parts."

"I think the last few choruses of 'Natural Woman' make that a little obvious," Hestia jibed, giving "Lisa" a friendly nudge with a forehoof. "You're a damned good singer, too, whoever you are."

"Your partner's having more trouble with this than you are," Ghost said. She rubbed her forehead around the empty DIN socket. "Eva never told me much about why they broke up. And I gather you're still peeved at Liis. I'm sorry about that."

"Not your fault, Ghost-Girl. Not your fault at all," Hestia said, lowering her head so she was eye-to-eye with her guest. "I'm over it. It's Taja who likes to hold a grudge. Eva escaped from her circle of friends,w which almost never happens. So I kept your room just as 'you' left it, 'Commander Westfall'."

"I won't stay longer than I have to. I just need those emitter units and a cavorite refresh and I'll be out of your hair...fur...whatever." Ghost remembered to smile. Having lips after all these years was as strange as having breasts, all told. She wanted to stand in front of the mirror to make faces as much as explore her temporary anatomy. didn't have to be temporary per se, did it? She had Eva's Fusers now. She could, theoretically, even become Sean Ross again...though she discarded the idea as soon as it happened. Ghost-8 was officially dead, killed in the line of duty. There was no point in trying to resurrect him.

Ghost-8 had never been an FIA--a Field Infiltration Agent. He was first and foremost an ISO--an Infiltration Support Officer. When the James and Jane Bonds went in, Ghost-8 was in the air, providing a secure communications relay and airborne intel.

On one of those ops--the very last one--Ghost-8's cloak hadn't been quite good enough. A cloaked missile had basically destroyed everything below Sean's waist. As the moment of death for human and RI alike had neared, Fuser and medical nannies had gone into overdrive, and Ghostate had been born. There was comparatively little of either of his "parents" as a result--he'd almost named himself Phoenix.

"Honestly, stay as long as you like," Hestia said. "It'd be nice to have the company. But, don't let Taja push you into girly stuff just for the sake of it. Just be yourself."

"Lisa" picked picked up a fork and stabbed it into the last slice of fabbed steak. After the living death in the Loose Cannons Integrate prison it felt like she'd risen from the dead a second time. "Hestia, you have no idea just how happy I am that I'm alive right now. So, maybe I should reconsider who that is. The girly stuff? If it makes your partner feel better about this, bring it on. It's new and different."

"Heh. You're going to eat those words, 'Gigi'."


"'Ghost-Girl' is a little too close to the truth, and you're not really 'Lisa' either. So, Gigi. Taja's idea, not mine. Regretting it now?"

"Works for me." From here on out, if Ghost was going to be a shapeshifter like her lover and her body-mate, changing sex like changing clothes, it was time to explore. For the last ten years she had been an owl, maybe it was time for another change--or several. A universe of possibilities were open. You know, the FIAs would love this talent of ours. Sucks to be them.

It took a while to find the right song for the mood.

Once, I can't remember

I was, long ago, someone strange

I was innocent and wise

And full of pain

Now that I'm a woman

Everything is strange

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The Coffeehouse

It was in an obscure location few Integrates had on their maps, in the far southwestern corner of the Dry Ocean, far enough away from the Cave of Wonders and Aloha so they didn't cause trouble. Evan streaked through the sky at high altitude in the form of a peregrine falcon. Liis could have her owl, this one was Evan's avian favorite. Speed was essential.

"Not just anyone gets in there, so dress ironically. Think of the most stereotypical beatniks as your starting point, then add being furry to the mix, and that's the Coffeehouse. Smallest Enclave ever. It's more of a hangout," Boston had told him.

He'd also filled Evan in on some other details. "To understand what the political situation is between Inties, you ultimately have to know the difference between Chandler's Candlejacks and Fritz's Snatchers.

"Chandler won't say it, and especially Fritz won't, but I will. Most of us are scared shitless of 'meat' and RIDEs. Why else would most of us hide in holes in the ground a thousand klicks from the nearest polis? There are maybe about a few hundred thousand of us. Push come to shove, they'd wipe us out. So we make sure we don't push or shove.

"There's just a very slight philosophical difference, to my mind. Snatchers grab you as soon as you Integrate. They watch public and private networks 30/6. Candlejacks don't mind if you live among meat, just so's long as you don't go public with it. Once you do, they'll erase your meat-life. I don't have to explain how that works, though Artemis isn't usually such a bastard about it."

"Yeah, but I'm special," Evan had snarked.

"Anyway, it's all about keeping out of the public eye. Thing is, nobody quite knows how the Loose Cannons are handling their end. They've called dibs on the Ferals--the animal-type Inties like Ghostate. Nobody really knows where they keep them, so even I don't know what the hell's going on in there. What I do know is that if you see one, flag your tail and flee as fast as you can. Be a deer for a change."

:But I like being a bambiraptor,: Evan thought on descent. He wasn't as fast as a real Integrate falcon could be--they were generally Mach 5-plus hypersonic--he could just handle Mach 1.5 these days.

"You sure you want to do this?" Liis asked from her Bridge station. "Honestly a hundred percent sure?"

"Do you really have to ask, Liis? It's Ghost," the shapeshifter falcon said. "I'm more concerned what form we should use when we knock on the door. I can't decide."

"Showoff," Liis replied. "I suggest something foxy and ironic."

"I see what you're getting at. Arctic fox it is. Todd or vixen?"

Liis shrugged. "I won't say it doesn't matter. Each has a different approach to how we get the information out of him. Frankly, I'm not sure this is even necessary right now. Where else would Ghostie be if not with the Loose Cannons?"

"We still don't know where their HQ is, so Fritz is the one to ask. Frankly, there's just no way any Intie would do that on purpose. I just don't believe it," Evan said. At a thousand meters up he triggered the foxy change. By the time Eva landed on the ground it was on white-furred paws with only a slight jiggle from her breasts. She added black wool pencil skirt and turtleneck sweater to bump the irony meter up to eleven.

"You're missing the black beret," Liis said, adding it over one perky ear with a giggle. "There. Now you're hipster enough to go inside."

"Thank you, Liis dahling!" Eva smarmed. "I might even use my real name. It fits this image perfectly. I feel like a tall, foxy version of Edna Mode. Eva Mode."

The Coffeehouse entrance was behind a simple hardlight partial-dome to hide it under an overhang. Outside stood a massive wooly mammoth Integrate, the fur on his head long enough to cover his eyes. Eva stopped in front of him and did a little hip-thrust. He smiled behind his tusks and opened the door to the dark, smoky interior.

:Tobacco smoke? This is going to stain my fur!: Eva complained.

:You're going for hipster, not hoi palloi,: Eva reminded her. :Speak like a beatnik, sister. Go join those jambakers and listen to some tunes. If I see Fritz, I'll..:

All their careful planning went out the window in an instant. Prominently displayed on the wall, lit by a spotlight, was Ghost's wingtip. The sheer eruption of pure rage out of Liis and a yank on Eva's virtual tail pulled her out of the Captain's Chair. She could already feeling the bambiraptor displacing the arctic vixen.

"Where is he?!" Liis hissed, leaping up on a rickety table. "Where's that bastard Fritz?!"

The Hep Cat himself returned from the restroom. "Right here, murgatroid, what--"

He didn't even flinch when Liis pounced him, nor did anyone else in the Coffeehouse. The bambiraptor stood right on his belly and hissed curses into his face. "Where is my Ghosssst?!"

"I have no idea who you're talking about," he said calmly.

Liis pointed at the wingtip then allowed her scythe claws to twitch. "Ghossst. Barn owl! One month ago!"

"Oh. That guy." He made a stabbing motion with his right thumb...then another. "Uh...not cool."

On the Bridge viewscreens Eva watched a molecular sword sweep through their torso from one end to the other. Her body Fusers simply healed the wound instantly behind the blade no matter how many times he wiggled his thumb.

Fritz's concern turned to...delight. "This is really far out! What the hell are you, anyway?"

"I'm a special snowflake," Liis said. Boston had had a number of things to say about Fritz and his opinions. "Where did you send my owl? That's all I want to know here. I honestly don't want to kill you."

"Coulda fooled me, cube. But I'm hip. I'm cool. You got moxie, whoever you are." His cool expression turned to borderline fury. "Now get offa me before I show you a blast."

:Liis? My turn,: Eva said gently. The energy concentrating in the handpaw next to her head was...slightly worrying. :Let's try being diplomatic on this one.:

:With Fritz? Yes, Captain,: Liis muttered. :The helm is yours.:

Eva decided to dump the arctic vixen act and just went straight to stag, partly to make a point about what Fritz was actually facing. Evan offered his hand to the lynx. "Truce?"

Fritz said, taking the offered hand. "You got moxie all right. Truce. I never seen another one of our kind do that."

"It's just a thing I do," Evan said.

"It's not our place to ask why we are what we are," Fritz said. "Are you a...what they call 'em in Olympos...a Janus? I know a body timeshare when I see it."

"All I want to know is where you sent Ghost and I'll be out of your hair," Evan said. "I was going to ask nicely in a form I thought you'd like, but my body-mate got...enthusiastic."

The eldest Integrate snorted. "Where d'ya think? I sent 'im to the Cannons for uncool possession of a Rod. Had to perform a little surgery, too."

Evan sensed the capital letter. There didn't seem to be a proper name for the sensor package used to make DINs. "I see."

:He's a murdering, mutilating bastard!: Liis fumed. :Why don't we do everyone a favor and kill him? Who knows how many Inties he's sent into the Cannons' arms? Load torpedoes! Charge phasers! Shields up!:

:Belay that! For the same reason you told me to cool it when Artemis picked us up on the Miner's Rest. It'd be dumb-ass stupid. We're surrounded by his yes-men and sycophants.: Evan retorted. :And in Star Trek terms, it feels like we just tackled Trelane. We're lucky he didn't beam us out!:

"I'll just be going now," Evan said.

"Going?" Fritz said, smiling a very catty smile. "Not before you show me that foxy lady who walked in earlier. Rrrrowl. Show me that crazy quilt, kookie girl."

Feeling a great deal of pressure from Fritz's gaze, "Eva Mode" made a quick return.

Fritz wolf-whistled. "At least have dinner with me before you split the scene. It'll be a gas, chick. Besides, you owe me for thinking you're the Fuzz. I'm the only fuzz around here."

"Then can I go, daddy-o?" Eva said.

"With no hard feelings," Fritz replied. He looked sidewise at the wingtip in the spotlight. "You're a plucked chicken in my book anyway. No worries, we're on the level."

:He's saying you're married,: Liis said, snorting. :Wanna bet he knows more about what's going on than Boston does?:

:No bet. Let's eat, then split. I never want to see this place again,: Eva said, taking a seat across from Fritz. The lynx kissed the back of her handpaw, suddenly the most dapper gentleman who ever lived.

It was the most awkward date since Evan's Junior Prom, and when it was over Eva swept out of the Coffeehouse as fast as she could without sacrificing what remained of her dignity.

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"I liked that beatnik arctic vixen you used a lot," Boston said upon their return to Olympos. "She had a ne sais quois, I think."

Recentered in doe form, Eva snorted and drained half a kylix of fortified wine for Inties in one gulp. "I'll wear it for you sometime. How the hell do you know about that anyway, Boston?"

"My grabby hooflets are everywhere, that's how," the deformed Integrate said.

"I swear you're more Hermes than Hephaestus," Eva replied. She drained the rest. "Why didn't you know where he'd sent Ghost? It would've saved me a lot of trouble."

"I did--just, don't get angry. Let me explain. Remember how I talked about Intie politics? Right now the two biggest pivot points are Olympos and the Coffeehouse, with the Cave of Wonders looking like it might be a third. Astranikki down there is making enough noise to keep Appa on his toes, gods bless her. I'm keeping a very close watch on Appa. Anyway...

"You needed to meet him--and he needed to meet you. Though I didn't expect Liis to go ape like that. Fritz isn't a complete asshole. He accepts every Integrate for who and what they are. Seeing you, what you can do, raised the bar for everyone. We've got a little more breathing room."

"More of the Olympian 'self improvement' ideal Chandler's always on about?" Eva said.

"He's still trying to get Fritz to buy into it. Even a broken sundial is right once per day," Boston quipped. His single deer ear perked--the other side was still human-ish. "Today's mail bundle should be in. Be right back, I might have something for you."

On the bottom, the kylix had a version of the infamous scene from Actaeon where his hounds took him down after Artemis changed his form. In this scene, the tales of Actaeon and Siproites were combined. A newly doe-ified Integrate Actaeon lounged among courting anthropomorphic hounds and stags in a seductive pose. There was a whole series of them, about two dozen, depicting the transformation from man to anthro doe.

Liis hadn't spoken since leaving the Coffeehouse. Eva wasn't sure if she was making plans, or was just upset over the dinner with the enemy, both, or even something else. Just because they lived in the same body didn't mean they shared one another's thoughts.

In a halo of light, Artemis descended from above, settling in the open seat across from Eva. "Protea, welcome back. I trust your meeting with our esteemed Cronos went well?"

"Can we forget the silly Greek crap for just a few minutes, Chandler?" Eva said. She poured herself more wine from a small amphora. "I've had a really shitty day. And no, this isn't PMS."

"You're no fun." The other doe rolled her eyes. "Boston filled me in before you even returned. I'm glad you heard my reasons for sending you there from him and not me."

"I would've smacked you on the jaw if it was you," Eva said with a literal wolfish grin.

"Nice...fangs. Yes," Chandler said uncomfortably. "You've just made my point for me." She picked a kylix up off the counter and looked inside. "Oh, hey. I got the 'boobies cup'." She smiled and showed it to Eva--it was the one where "Actaea" first noticed her new breasts. "I modeled for this, you know."

"Color me surprised," Eva said dryly.

"One of these days I'm going to figure out how to induce a sex change in another Integrate," Chandler said. "One who wasn't a crossrider."

"It's nice to have goals in life," Boston said with the same tone as Eva. "Can you imagine me with one breast and an udder? No thanks."

:Been there, done that,: Eva thought.

:It's not pretty,: Liis agreed. :Does he have any news about my owl?:

Eva decided not to comment on her sister's return just yet. Boston had blanket permission to access Eva's maildrop. "Find anything in my mailbox this week, bro?"

"Funny you should ask," he replied, handing over a slip of fabbed parchment.

The note from Hestia was a simple one, only six words: Lisa is here. Where are you?

"Say, isn't that the meat-girl alter ego Liis built to play around with?" Artemis said.

"It's a ruse. A red herring. Has to be," Eva said. "The Marshals will arrest us if we go."

"I'll have my people check into it. But it'll take a couple more days to verify as genuine. Who could she be? Who else would know about Lisa?"

Liis shoved Eva out of the Captain's Chair. "It's my Ghostie! It has to be! We gave him our Fuser schematics so he could upgrade!"

"Which means he escaped the Loose Cannons," Boston said, stunned. "I've...that's never happened before. I pity the poor kid they assigned to that duty, coming back to an empty cage and human footsteps in the mud! They probably busted him down to Private."

"We're going to Nextus, right now," Liis declared, hopping up on the table. Cream-gray flight feathers were already sprouting from her arms and hands. Talons burst from her toes as her hooves split apart into barn owl's feet. "Gotta fly!"

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Ghost shivered as Liis mantled her wings protectively over her lover's prostrate body. The reunion had started out with unrestrained joy, the two of the cooing at one another like courting birds. At first sight, Ghost's male owl form had come back seemingly of its own accord, though it took some minutes to fully reassert itself. Then he'd started to talk about what had happened to him, and crumbled into a bundle of trembling feathers.

"What..wh..what they did to me," he said, "I...c-can't--"

"Shhh. Don't force it out," Liis cooed, working her beak through his feathers.

"PTSD is nothing to joke about," Hestia said gravely.

"How much do you suppose the rest of the Intie community knows what these criminals are doing?" Liis wondered. "I'm betting absolutely nothing."

But this wasn't a one-on-one fight like it had been with Prester and Fritz. The 41st Detached Company was a 300-strong unit within the Nextus Armed Forces noted for their rather unconventional methods, mildly military command structure, and bleeding edge technology.

"I need my DIN," Ghost said. "Though...I don't know if I can dig the recordings of what I saw out of my brain. The nannies they injected me with messed up some things."

"Are you strong enough to fly back to Cascadia?" Liis asked.

"Not...yet, no. I haven't even found enough replacement hardlight lenses yet. Can't even cloak."

The larger barn owl's expression brightened. "Evan says we should give Olympos a call. They could send the Argo to pick us up."

"No enclaves!" Ghost exclaimed, hissing. "Especially not that one. I don't trust myself. Next time I see a Candlejack I'm going to tear them in two. I've got spares in my roosts. There's no way they found them all. I have a stash in Uplift atop the University Tower."

"I don't want to leave you," Liis said. "Not now."

Taja, who had barely said a word through the whole affair, finally found her voice. "Then take the bus together. Only problem is...Eva can't be Eva, or Evan, without getting spotted by the Marshals or Policia. They still want her for questioning."

"What do you suggest?" Eva said though Liis.

"I owe you a favor for being such a self-centered bitch," Taja said, sounding genuinely contrite. "I can do what I did for the 'Lisa Westfall' identity. That way you two can travel together. I guess the question then is, Ghost, do you want to be a man or a woman? I don't think I can have my friends do two at once."

"Can I make a suggestion, then?" Ghost said. "Let Liis be Lisa. She isn't really me, after all. Gigi needs something to make her legit. I just need to decide on her face. I think I can do it with a little instruction from our Shapeshifting Gurus here."

"You...want to be female?" Liis said, turning her head almost upside down.

" you're thinking," Ghost said. "Taja's been very helpful getting me comfortable with it the past week or so."

"But, how could, I mean, you were never a crossrider," Liis continued, fumbling for words. "You know what? Nevermind. Who am I to talk?" She peered at Taja. "Just how do your friends do that, anyway?"

Taja made a shushing gesture with her finger. "Well, don't tell anyone, but these friends of mine are Silicons--you know, the Marshals? So don't worry, they're completely legit. They help folks get back on their feet with a clean slate."

Liis shifted, taking on the Lisa Westfall form again, with Taja and Hestia staring. "I'm a little faster than I used to be."

"A little?" Hestia said.

Laughing, Liis pulled up a face/body generator on a hardlight screen. "The Westfall Bodysculpting Salon is open for business. Let's get started with some basics, love. What do you want Gigi to look like? Once you settle, I'll show you how to make her reality."

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And then you had to bring up reincarnation

Over a couple of beers the other night

And now I'm serving time for mistakes

Made by another in another lifetime

How long till my soul gets it right

Can any human being ever reach that kind of light

I call on the resting soul of Galileo

King of night vision, king of insight

On the bus to Uplift, the Indigo Catgirls entertained the other passengers. Gigi was the better musician and singer. There was only so much Lisa could learn via DIN before they left Nextus. Gigi plucked guitar strings with be-clawed fingertips like a professional with no small amount of skill.

When they finished the song a few tips fell into their virtual hat, at least enough for a decent meal once they arrived in Uplift. Befitting their current band name they both had indigo-colored feline ears, headfur, and tails.

"Thank you, everyone, thank you," Gigi Rossmore said, tipping her real hat. She was a busty, slender young woman, several centimeters shorter than her partner. Gigi insisted on wearing natural fabrics in earth tones, and also wore a straw hat with ear holes. Under her her loose-fitting brown tunic she was obviously braless. She wasn't beneath a little titillation, either, the way she jiggled acrobatically down the aisle on the half-full bus.

This was in contrast to her more elegant, stylish, and less exhibitionist partner and lover. Lisa was still learning the musician's craft, but had some talent at it beyond what a skillchip provided.

The whole cover story had been Ghost and Taja's idea from the get-go. Years of experience helping agents keep their cover backstories straight were coming in very handy now. The duo were completing their tour around the Coastal Ring after graduating college just last year. Uplift was a little off the beaten track, but how could they not see it?

Gigi often sat in silence with her knees pulled up against her chest, tail curled around her feet. Sometimes she smiled, watching the landscape go by. Sometimes she looked haunted, but the bus was just no place to talk about it, even with privacy fields. It would have to wait until they got her DIN back to have a truly secure place to talk.

They often sat together close enough their hips touched, so Lisa wrapped her arm around Gigi's shoulders and hugged her tight. Even at 500 kph Uplift was many hours away from Nextus. "Is this a good idea?" Lisa asked, purring. "We can always turn back at the Tunnel stop."

"We're over halfway there already," Gigi said. "No point in turning back. But I'm not going to lie. I'm in the Hotel California right now, know what I mean? I checked out of the place, but I haven't left it yet. I can't even leave it behind by being Gigi."

"We'll get you some help soon," Lisa promised, kissing her on the cheek. "You're a gorgeous catgirl, you know that?"

"I think we need to stop focusing on ourselves so much and think about getting Wilma out of Camelot," Gigi said firmly. "That place is creepy. Dragons are weird. The longer she stays the more it'll rub off on her. She could have left on her own a long time ago. They don't keep people against their will."

:That's what worries me,: Eva said. She was allowing Liis to take command on this one, spending time in Nature Range during the trip. :Is she too busy playing lady-in-waiting to realize what I have to do to see her again? Or have they just not told her I'm still out here? I don't like the idea she's ended up the Camelot equivalent of an Olympos lotus-eater.:

:Courtly love, that's what it is,: Liis replied. :They want you to pine for her while she admires your bravery from afar.:

:Boston said that most Enclaves have something to keep Inties 'busy'. I think I'm gonna be sick. I see why Ghost never settled in one now. Being an owl out in the sticks is more intellectually stimulating,: Eva said.

Ahead of them the Coastal Range Tunnel grew in the distance. The opening to the massive series of tunnels through the mountains was an impressive sight, the Zharusian engineering equivalent to the Panama Canal of ages past, bored though a hundred kilometers of solid rock in the matter of a few months just after the end of the Nextus-Sturmhaven War. It was lined with the same alloy used in starship hulls. There were whole towns inside, and there was even an Enclave.

Finally, a short time after emerging from the Tunnel, the climate domes of Uplift were visible. Liis hugged her lover tight. "Almost there, Gigi. Just hold on."

"We're going to have to settle in an Enclave anyway. Wilma can't do what we can and it's just too dangerous to--"

Eva decided to break in, very, very quietly. "Shhh. Hey, owlie, we'll cross that road when we come to it. Who says she can't learn? You did. I can just sideload my Fusers and boom."

A rather large man ambled down the aisle. "You want to keep it down, ladies? Some of us are trying to integrate a little sleep."

:Do you smell...elephant?: Liis asked as he moved back to his seat.

Eva watched the "man" go through Liis's eyes. :Regardless, sis, I'm sure it'll be okay. I'm just going to sit here and hope that there are more Inties living among normal folks than the Snatchers, the Candlejacks or the Cannons can catch.:

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There were no slip-ups when Eva lifted up to the top of the clocktower and fetched a small fabbed leather satchel Ghost said would be there. The DIN socket on Gigi's forehead currently held an oval-shaped indigo crystal. There were none that color in the sack, but that hardly mattered. In an alley behind the Student Union she plugged back in and sighed with relief.

"I feel like myself again," the young singer said, then laughed a little. "In this context it feels really silly to say it. Man, I feel like a woman!"

"I always feel like myself, man or woman," Eva said. The indigo crystal nestled in her cleavage flickered and connected to Gigi's sapphire. Milliseconds later they were in the Evaprise sim.

"Welcome back, Ambassador. We missed you," Cervinite Captain Eva Dorset said. "And that's a very cute new look."

The Gigi form had translated into VR. The "alien owl" pursed her lips and fluffed her avatar back out into Ghost. "Still getting used to this," he said. "Let's get on with it. I'm archiving a memory dump from the time I was captured by the CJs until I escaped from the cage. Fortunately I don't have to watch. Far as I'm concerned it happened to somebody else." The owl sighed. "Yes, I know, I need help. We'll find a therapist for me somehow."

"We're ready to receive and unpack the data, Captain," Liis reported from the Engineering station.

"Here you go, ladies," Ghost said.

The Bridge viewscreens quickly lit up with static-filled video and garbled audio. Ghost shrank. "I was afraid of that. Now we don't have any evidence."

"Then we'll get some," Captain Dorset said firmly, looking at her body-made. "You with me, sis?"

Liis brightened. "Mission objectives, Cap?"

"Non-confrontational. Infiltrate, gather evidence, exfiltrate, all without knowing we were ever there. Observe and record, then pass it on to the Marshals or someone with some kind of authority to stop these monsters." Eva turned less deer and more bambiraptor as she spoke. "And that would be--how did Camelot put it? A heroic deed."

The Ambassador took deep breaths. "Captain, you can count on Ghost-8 to give you the support you need."

"Ghostie!" Liis exclaimed. "I'm not going to..."

"Captain, you're untrained in infiltration. You wouldn't last five minutes in the Loose Cannons' base on your own even if you tried to impersonate someone. You need me, don't try and deny it. If I let you go into this cold I'd be letting you commit suicide," Ghost said. "And if they captured you, just think of what they could do if they had a sample of your Fusers. How much of their tech was actually harvested from the feral Integrates they captured?”

He started trembling. " you know what they did with the hardlight they plucked out of me? They installed it in a stupid out-of-the-box hippogryph named Tocsin! Just roll that name around your head for a moment. He's a toxin to Integrates."

"It's also an alarm bell or warning signal," Eva added. "You're right, it would be foolish in the extreme for just the Captain to be on this Away Team. But nobody else can do what I can. You said yourself that your sensors couldn't detect I was an Integrate and you only found out because you were mooning over me when I shape-changed, you silly voyeur."

The Ambassador blushed. "I'm never going to live that down."

"Did that sound like a complaint? I wasn't complaining," Eva said, winking at Liis. She sighed and did a Picard Pull on her uniform top. "Anyway, there's just no way the Cannons could see through my physical form if you couldn't. So...I think I'll get in touch with Boston. Even if we can't go back to Olympos, he's got his hooflets everywhere. I'm sure he'll be willing to help."

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"Absolutely not! Are you insane, bro? Do you know what those people will do to you if they catch you? Whatever they did to Ghost they'll do it to you ten times over! I'm not going to send you to your death! Stop acting like you're a thrice-damned Spartan stag!" Boston ambled around his bar with quickened thump-click of his odd gait. "Remember what I said about not pushing and shoving? What the Hades do you think you're doing?"

The trio on the Evaprise Bridge watched Boston rant on and on in that vein for several minutes on the viewscreen. Liis hit mute. "Looks like we could be on our own after all, everyone."

"Wait a second," Ghost said. "Bring that sound back up before he fogs up the camera lens."

"I wasn't finished," Boston said calmly, nose right up against the camera. "Just because I think you're poking the bear doesn't mean the bear doesn't need poking. If things are really as bad with the Cannons as they say, well...if someone were to leak word to Fritz over how prisoners are treated..." He looked up, out of frame, as an ominous light descended. "Oh, hi Artemis."

"Who are you talking to?" the "goddess" doe said. "Is that Protea in that...uniform? And Liis? And is that a meat-face?"

It was a simulacrum of human "Ensign Gigi Rossmore"--separate from the owlish Ambassador on the opposite end of the Bridge--looked at a flashing light on the comm console. "We're being hailed by DIN, Captain. Should we let her in?"

"It'd be like having Q in here," Liis grumbled.

"Q? No, more like Apollo from Who Mourns for Adonis," Artemis herself said. "What? Just because I don't like meat doesn't mean I think their fiction is all bad. Live Long and Prosper!"

"Let her on board," Eva said, smirking.

"Times like this I wish I had a DIN," Boston grumbled.

Artemis "beamed" aboard as a Vulcan woman in a T'Pol catsuit. But that was the extent of her Vulcan-ness. She smiled and laughed like a Romulan. "Now, what are you up to? The way Boston's going on you'd think it was Ragnarok."

"The Loose Cannons are guilty of a number of heinous crimes," Ensign Rossmore said. "Including: using prisoners in experiments, torture, summary executions, degrading feral Integrates to little more than animals...there's just too many to list."

"Your meat-puppet?" she asked Ghost, one eyebrow raised. "Fascinating. If your claims are accurate we have quite a case for cooperative Enclave action against them. They are not invincible."

"No more than we are," Boston said on the viewscreen.

"What kind of support do you need to gather evidence? We know where the Loose Cannons' base is--it's in the original complex where RIDEs were invented. They still have the area under a camo-dome, but it's still there more to keep sattelite eyes off of it than anything else."

"Fritz spilled the beans?" Eva asked.

"Not quite. The place is an open secret among the locals. That may be your way in," Artemis said. "I toured the place myself about ten years ago, but it didn't strike me as something to be concerned about. I admit I was a little on the naive side."

"Won't attacking them make the regular Nextus military do something against the rest of us?" Boston asked nervously.

"See, this is where Fritz and I see eye-to-eye. All I can say is that there are political machinations even you don't know about, Bos," Artemis said. "If we knock the Cannons down a few notches Nextus will just shrug and say they deserved it. And you'd do your best to keep your half-deer nose out of it.

"As for the rest of you," the Romulan deer continued. "What do you need? I'm not sure I believe you, but this is important enough that we need ironclad, indisputable evidence. Olympos will take the lead here."

Liis and Eva nodded at Ghost, who stopped glaring at the interloper long enough to gather his thoughts and transmit something. "Here's a list of ideas I've sketched out. We'll need substantial support from..."

"Just...whoa! Whoa! Wait a second!" Boston shouted, gesticulating wildly. "Artemis, are you even considering the political ramifications between Enclaves? The reprisals from the Loose Cannons that will result from this? They can make themselves completely invisible to our sensors. It's been over a week since Ghost escaped, what makes you think there's anything there left to find? What if they executed all their prisoners and chucked their bodies in the fabber?"

"Thank you for the macabre litany of things that can go wrong, Boston," Artemis snarked. "Let me worry about the politics. We won't be doing this alone. I'll have to browbeat Camelot and Towers a little, but they'll send reps. If everything is as Ghost says, then we'll free the prisoners and teach them a lesson they won't forget."

"Just playing Tartarus Advocate," the deformed Integrate said. He smiled reassuringly at Ghost. "Someone's got to say it, birdy. Nothing personal."

"Coulda fooled me," Ghost said peevishly.

"I'm pulling in all my favors for this one, you three," Boston continued. "Don't worry. I'm behind you a hundred and ten percent. Just be ready. Ambassador Ghostate, please continue."

"Thank you, Captain Obvious," the barn owl said. "Now..."

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September 17, 141 AL

Bronton Village, Nextus Polity

One gap in the Loose Cannons' armor was all they needed. The locals were that gap, and they knew it, but there was little they could do about it. The camo-dome itself was intended not just to keep orbiting eyes from looking in, but isolate the base from the surrounding world. It was more like Uplift's climate domes as a result.

In town there was a bar--there always seemed to be--where the soldiers could hang out and loosen up a little. The Cannons, being who and what they were, didn't pay much attention to military decorum. There were ways to get a tour of the base. It wasn't without significant risk to Evan. It depended on just how much control he had over his Fusers.

"My source says they're going to make you Fuse with one of their older RIDEs," Boston explained. "The idea there is that, one, you get a taste of what it's like to be a Loose Cannon. They do some live fire exercises and the like. Two, they can add a security lock of sorts to your brain so you can't divulge the details of what you saw to anyone."

"In other words, it's good PR for them," Evan said.

"Exactly, bro," Boston said. "We've created an ironclad ID for this persona you're taking on."

Artemis cleared her throat. "There is something...else, you need to be thinking about if you use this approach. RIDE-Integrate Fuse is, shall we say, generally a bad idea. The only reason this might work at all are your special talents. Even then, Liis down there in Engineering is going to have her dainty hooves full."

"Ghost gave me the data from that upgrade incompatibility problem," Liis said. "It's a similar issue. I think we can keep things stable for thirty minutes with an emulation layer of special nannies. After that time, well...let's not find out."

"Don't bother hacking their mainframe. It'll be full of honeypots and false leads," Ghost said. "We need video, audio, and images. That's it. I can get into and out of the dome without the Trojan Fuse, so I'll be acting as a comm relay so the Diet of Enclaves sees what you see, when you see it. Just like what I did in my previous lives."

Ghost's expression turned even more serious. "Once the Diet sees what's going on in there...Liis, Eva, darlings...get the hell out. This is going to rile them like you won't believe."

"Fucking dragons," Artemis said. "They do have their uses."

"I think we're done with this briefing," Ghost said tersely. He didn't like Artemis, not at all. He could barely stand Boston. But he was also the consummate professional and put that dislike aside for something important like this.

Evan's cover form this time was a gung-ho dude from East Nextus who thought he was really hot stuff and the Loose Cannons were just the unit for him. The informal tour request to the Cannons' base had gotten a quick response: Your awesome day in the Cannons will begin in the HighRIDEr Pub in Bronton Village. Tally ho!

Then Private Lewis showed up with Tocsin and another RIDE in tow--a brown rabbit. Remembering to stay in character, Evan looked dumbly from the predatory hippogryph to the cute bunny rabbit and back again. He completely ignored the Fuse tags on Lewis. "So, I'm Fusing with the 'gryph, right?"

"The 'gryph is mine, dickweed. You were supposed to watch Watership Down before today," Lewis said.

"This is insulting," the rabbit RIDE added. "I don't want to Fuse with this meathead lummox!"

"It's only for a few hours, Bigwig. Don't sweat it," Lewis said.

"My namesake is the pinnacle of lapine badassery! And he doesn't know!" the big brown rabbit fumed. He had a darker mop of fur atop his head, almost like human hair.

"Fine, whatever," Evan said, rolling his eyes. Maybe he could buy a little more time. "Let's get this party started! But, uh, not until the base gate."

"Fine," Bigwig said. "Meet me outside and we'll skimmer in." He hopped out.

"Buddy, you're on thin ice! Bigwig is pure awesome!" Tocsin huffed. He Fused up with Private Lewis. Now there was three meters of anthro hippogryph. "Now, get your tail out there. You little...little..civvie!"

"Almost brought a female rabbit. You're lucky," Lewis jibed. "We get a lot of people wanting a free crossride from us, believe it or not. Since it's a good test for our out-of-the-box RIDEs, we oblige 'em."

"Hey, I'd make an awesome chick," Evan replied in his best gung-ho voice, fondling his own chest. He blinked when he realized what he was doing, then stopped. "But, whatever."

"Just great," Tocsin said. "We got a real winner here 'Can Lose'. Follow me and try not to get lost between here and the door."

:Don't overplay your part,: Liis said. :The LCs want intelligent people able to think on their feet, not gung-ho dumbasses.:

:If I was actually trying to join, I would be. Ready down there?: Evan replied.

:Fuser emulation layer passed the last few sim tests. We're as ready as we'll ever be, Captain,: Liis replied. She giggled. :One Trojan Rabbit, coming up.:

Evan snorted. :Maybe that'll give some silly dragon in Camelot a laugh. Ugh!:

Bigwig's skimmer form was a high-maneuverability hovercycle with large aft lifters, suited for bursts of high speed. A pair of high-volume plasma rifles and missile-paks adorned the lifter nacelles. Evan whistled appreciatively. "Wow. I'm going to be shooting those?"

"Dummy hardlight ammo, but yeah," Bigwig said.

"Hey! The brochure said it was live fire!"

"Don't believe everything you read, meathead," Bigwig said. "God, I hope you're not this dumb when we Fuse. I don't want your IQ rubbing off on me."

They lifted off for the base gate, an unremarkable booth manned by a poor sap in a seagull Fuser who was probably much more than he looked. It never paid to judge by appearance with the Cannons. Once inside he felt a tickle on his chest as the heavily-encrypted comm signal from Ghost-8 connected.

:I'm bouncing this through seventy proxies from Rodinia to Aloha Space and back in addition to Intie encryption. How are things groundside?: the owl asked.

:So far, so good. We'll lose touch again once we Fuse, so--: Liis replied. :Damn it! Here it comes! Silent running! EMU layer up!:

With little warning Bigwig enclosed around his charge with a snort of rabbity laughter. But he was no playful Bugs Bunny--this was mirth mixed with cruelty.

On the Bridge displays, RIDE Fusers met the highly advanced Evan-Fusers, which were only half the size. They prevented them from penetrating more than a few millimeters under Evan's skin while hacking their signals to report full saturation. That was Stage 1. Then came Stage 2...

:What...Passiv--: Bigwig's consciousness blinked out as he was forced into Passive Mode. Now Evan and Liis were running the show completely. Stage 3 would have to come within the next thirty minutes or they'd have to blow their cover for certain. It would also be slightly, momentarily painful.

Liis provided Bigwig's voice and ran the Drive Extender frame--he would awaken again and be none the wiser just after Stage 3 started--they went on the RIDE-guided tour of the public areas of the base.

:The 'Zoo' is underground, entrance at the PX,: Liis said. :We're finished reconfiguring for Stage 3. Welcome to the Westfall Weight Loss Program, where you'll shuck that nasty macho man form like a snake shedding his skin, releasing the shapely woman within.:

:You always know the best imagery to call up,: Evan said, chuckling. They were about to lose twenty kilograms of nanites that would turn themselves into structural support for Bigwig's Fuse form. As for Bigwig himself, an advanced simulacrum of the Macho Man would continue running in the rabbit's own RI core. The whole mess was on a timer and would disintegrate either upon discovery or after an hour, whichever came first. More tricks from Boston's called-in favors.

Poor Bigwig was in a for a nasty shock. Evan kind of liked the guy.

The PX had just the right space for Stage 3. Evan extended a "Ghost-8 Special" cloaking field around the lapine RIDE's body. The Fuser's torso split open down the middle, and without so much as a drop of fluid, a slender, naked Eva stepped out. She had no breasts to speak of. They were a liability, as was hair. Under the cloak, hardlight emitters glimmered, the DIN on her chest sparkled. The only thing she carried were a half dozen replacement DINs in a tiny sack adhered to her hip.

:CU,: Ghost-8 said. :UCMe? Pingback.:

Eva sent back one ping only, then opened the door to the Zoo.

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The live feed was strong and clear. Even the Loose Cannons couldn't keep Integrates out of their systems when they had DINs. Most, though not all, of their prisoners had their DIN slots surgically removed. They hadn't done the same to Ghost, probably because it simply couldn't be removed without serious brain damage, and they didn't want their prisoners to be vegetables, only animals.

On the other end of the transmission the Diet of Enclaves had convened.

Olympos, Towers, Camelot, Jurassic Park, Xanadu, Wonderland, Oz, and representatives from a dozen others sat at a round table provided by Camelot. Natch, Ghost thought. Conspicuously absent was the Cave of Wonders.

"You cats aren't going to start this party without the Grand Old Wizard, are you?" Fritz said, appearing in their midst.

"Of course not," Camelot's attendee said. He was small and more anthropomorphic than most of his kind. Packed into those three words was enough exasperation and jadedness to sink several Old Earth battleships. "Take a seat, Fritz."

"You may be called to account for any wrongdoing our brave young Intie finds on that base," the red hadrosaur from Jurassic Park said.

"Hey, if she finds anything that pisses me off I'll raze the place myself," Fritz said, his right arm glowing. There was an ominous hum.

Ghost hissed to himself, talons twitching. If I was in that room right now, I'd rip his frakking head off! Instead, he spoke calmly. "Ghost-8 in the air here."

"Your signal is loud and clear," Artemis said. "We see Protea entering the tunnel."

In fact, there wasn't a single Integrate at that table Ghost would want to share a marmot with. Even the insufferably goody-goody dragons of Camelot grated on his nerves, despite never having been there. Some deep part of him despised being held to one place. Even his human alter ego Gigi Rossmore wasn't a citizen of any single polity.

He had to fight a powerful urge to become her again in midair.

Every day I fight a war against a mirror

I can't take the person staring back at me

I'm a hazard to myself don't let me get me

I'm my own worst enemy

It's bad when you don't know yourself

So irritating, don't want to be my friend no more

I wanna be somebody else

I wanna be somebody else, yeah

Down girl, down. PTSD was a bitch, but here he was, circling to ensure Liis-and-Eva had a constant connection. To keep the signal from being detected they'd pulled out all the stops, but there was still a risk, and Ghost-8's special brand of cloaking did have heat dissipation problems, even for Integrates.

Ghost dare not send a single ping of reassurance back to them. They were completely on their own.

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:This place is bad twencen science fiction.: Liis said from Engineering. :And we're the Alien Grey. We fit right in. These guys think they're the Men in Black. Eva, honey, move a little faster. The heat buildup is getting dicey.:

:Already? Well, crap.: This corridor was intended for Zoo staff rather than the processing of new "exhibits", as they sadistically liked to call them. As it happened, they didn't have far they needed to go.

In what looked like a lobby intended for high-level military and advisors was a macabre display of a dismembered dolphin, partly skeletonized, with hardlight callout labels for various body parts and organs, with a number of "unknown" question marks.

:We should broadcast as much as we can before we get out,: Liis said.

:This isn't enough?: Eva almost said aloud. She was increasingly uncomfortable, core temperature rising fast.

Then they found the bucket.

It was a fabbed 7-liter metal bucket. Inside were Integrate hardlight emitters and strips of tron-lined skin. They had bloody, ragged edges, torn from the bodies of the prisoners.

:This is enough,: Liis said. :Get out, now. And find a heatsink while you're at it. Better yet, impersonate one of the civilian workers in the PX.:

She had no trouble finding one, a middle-aged woman with rabbit ears and fluffy tail. It was all going so well. There had to be a catch some--

:The Diet has ruled! Assault and rescue teams incoming!: Ghost-8 reported.

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Ghost watched the Diet explode into anger, unanimously voting for immediate action. Fritz remained silent through the whole thing, the unflappable Hep Cat himself. Then, he vanished, as if he had never been there at all. This stopped the shouts of outrage instantly.

"Whatever you're doing right now, Protea, drop it!" a panicked Artemis ordered. Everyone else was giving similar orders to their people. "Recall all the teams! You've got incoming Fritz!"

Ghost echoed this right down to Eva. :Get out! Get out of there! Get out now! He doesn't care who he kills! Get out!:

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Eva was about to drop the disguise and flee when she was engulfed from behind by a certain enthusiastic hippogryph who had been completely invisible to her sensors. "I got a spy! I got a spy!" the young RIDE shouted. His childish enthusiasm faded almost instantly. "I got uh..uhoh...what do I got?"

Completely unprepared for it, Liis watched with growing alarm as alien Fusers invaded Eva's body like so many clumsy Borg drones. They were big, over twice the size of their shapeshifting Fusers, but they were also strong. They ham handedly smashed through the first and second lines of defense, turning the smaller nanites into shattered wrecks.

In places where they'd been successful enough they started to twist and reshape Eva's body. Bony spurs grew on Eva's back, like a second pair of shoulder blades. "These damned things are growing wings!" Liis exclaimed. They had also eaten Eva's DIN, making hacking the hippogrph impossible that way.

There was no way to fight them directly. The only way to stop the invasion was to destroy the Fuser Controller in Tocsin's own body. Liis pumped up the time compression into Crisis Mode. "Torpedo Room," she said.

The sim was no longer as realistic. She didn't need to take turbolifts everywhere. She stood in front of an open quantum torpedo casing and started pulling symbolic parts from racks on the walls. "Connect echo-bars, double shield envelope, add delay-timer..."

Outside of the sim the real thing took shape. A million Fuser nannies were sacrificed, giving up on the losing battle against the doe's growing wings. If she did this wrong, there would be no second chances. The hippogryph's Fusers would overrun the Evaprise and cause a reaction similar to anaphylactic shock. She loaded it into the torpedo bay and fired.

Going against the current like a salmon heading upstream, the Fuser-torpedo lost thousands of ablative layers, relentlessly burrowing towards its target. Compared to crusty old Bigwig, the "out of the box" Tocsin was an order of magnitude more difficult. Only the core reached the Fuser Controller before exploding in a puff of sarium energy.

"Finally! Purging these nasty things!" Liis announced triumphantly. The hippogryph Fuser half-melted off of their shared body, but it didn't leave clean. Newly-added to the Master Body Systems Display were a pair of eagle wings. "We're a doe with wings?"

"Just call me Eva Peryton, I guess," she said dryly. "Oh God, what a headache."

"What did you do to my Toxie?" Private Lewis exclaimed. He leveled a pulse pistol at the winged Integrate. There were no other Loose Cannons visible, just him. Not even Bigwig.

"You can grab his core if you're quick enough," Eva said. "Better do it fast."

Fritz's voice came from every speaker, his image on every screen, he even added some. "You know, you cubes, I don't have any tolerance for the shit you've pulled. There's nothing heroic in what you've been doing to my brothers and sisters. And much as I'll miss this place--it was where I was born, after all--sometimes you just gotta keep on keepin' on. Ciao-meow!"

Lewis peed his pants, then dashed over and opened the RI core coverplate on Tocsin's head. Carrying it like it could break if he breathed on it wrong, he nevertheless sprinted away as fast as he could.

"Liis, we need to get out of here!" Eva said.

:Lifters are offline, Cap! Our systems are still trying to integrate the units in the wings. I can try transferring everything to shields, but...: Liis left it hanging. :Running is our best chance. Flag-tail flee!:

Shifting to all-fours, Eva fled the base as fast as she could as a massive energy signature developed in midair. There were rumors about just how powerful Fritz's arm cannon actually was. Some speculated that he actually opened a quantum window into hyperspace and funneled the energy from that chaotic place. Standard hardlight shielding couldn't withstand that kind for beam for long, even Integrates.

Muscle spasms from her poorly-integrated wings kept her from reaching full speed. It wasn't looking good.

:Damn it! Shields up! Full power transfer from all systems!: Liis said. :Find a rock or something! Duck and cover!:

The first blast brought down the base's shield with the sound of shattering glass--a noise that shouldn't have appeared, but was probably just Fritz playing up the drama, as usual.

"Hunker down! Link shields!" Ghost's voice came from above. The barn owl landed next to the doe, mantling his wings over her. He gave her a peck on the cheek. "Whatever happens to you two, happens to me."

"Connected and synced!" Liis announced aloud. "Shutting down sim to conserve power." She gave Ghost a lick on the side of the beak. "Love you."

Fritz swept the second blast methodically back and forth across the Loose Cannons' base, disintegrating buildings, vehicles, pavement, and bare ground with equal ferocity. Despite being outside the former dome perimeter the energy halo stripped away their shielding until they felt the hot fires of raw energy on their skin.

Then the storm passed.

"Don't mess with the Hep Cat!" Fritz declared. He sounded exhausted, drained. "Now, Imma going home. See you survivors on the flipside. I need some scoffee."

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There were survivors. Most of the assault and rescue teams were unharmed, and were a surprising number of the prisoners. The rescuers pulled a dozen traumatized feral Integrates out of the rubble. Fritz hadn't destroyed the entire base, targeting specific buildings with surgical precision, yet obliterating other areas completely. That raised a number of eyebrows. Just how much had he really known about what the Loose Cannons were doing?

The Integrates took over the HighRIDEr Bar for triage and initial treatment. The Argo landed outside just ten minutes after Fritz completed his focused destruction. By the time they reached the deer and the owl most of their burns had already healed. They were just too drained to move.

"Let's get you aboard the Argo," Artemis said.

"I'm not going back to Olympos," Ghost hissed. "I'm healing up just fine."

"We're not going back to Olympos," Artemis said. "I'm just acting as a ferry service on this one. The dragons of Camelot invite you to see your Lady-Fair, Protea. I thought you'd want to know right away. You can recharge and get gussied up on the way." The doe "goddess" smiled. "Nice wings, by the way. I have a suggestion for what form to use for this storied occasion. Something properly mythical. Trust me, it'll fit you like a glove"

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The Gates of Camelot

A winged white stag in silver chainmail, wearing the tabard of Olympos, stood before the Gates of Camelot. This was as much formality as he was going to give them, however. Enough was enough. "I've done your heroic deed. Open that door before I smash it down!" Evan grumbled at the gatekeeper. "What is this, Oz?"

"Erm," the white stallion said. His head vanished back into the portal in the gate briefly. When he came back he'd dumped the florid speech completely. "Yeah, come on in. She's waiting. And, to make up for all the trouble we've put you all through, we've got a rather large gift."

Behind him, Gigi, in the form of an owl-headed anthro doe, groaned. "I'm staying out here, Evan. This is too much. If they get any more silly I'll go vorpal bunny on their asses." Rabbit ears grew on her head.

:I love our wings, but I wish I could figure out how to reabsorb them,: Liis reflected. :Guess that really does make us a peryton for the time being. As long as we have to have them we'll have to work on a proper dragon...or maybe a gryphon.:

:No big deal, Liis. Mythicals are fashionable this season,: Evan replied. The massive door swung open, apparently on muscle power alone from all the draconic grunting going on behind it. The one doing the pulling had peach-colored scales, of all things.

"Sorry, I'm new here," the giant dragon said in a gentle, apologetic tone. "This damned thing is heavy, even for me. The n00bs always get door duty."

"The White Stag comes!" someone boomed in the darkness. "Sir Evan of Dorset, Proteus and Peryton Knight of Olympos!"

"Can it, willya?" Wilma growled back. She flew down the long stairs in a flowing gown that matched her stark white fur, right into Evan's waiting arms. "Finally! Finally!"

They embraced tightly, hardlight clothes falling away. They stopped long enough for Evan to get a good look at his lover's new self. "You're...exquisite, Wilma. Is Ada..?"

The arctic vixen Integrate tapped the side of her temple. She had a small hardlight lens on each side of her head and a second pair on her legs, but that's all that were visible. Her bellybutton DIN glittered. "She's in here. She saved my life. I don't know what they told you, but she's buried pretty deep. But don't worry, you deadbeat, she's still with us." She lolled her tongue. "You're very handsome in white, you know. Very Arthurian. You know what the white stag means?"

"In myth, the call to adventure," Evan said. "The knight errant chases his quarry and ends up finding something new. Gods, the past year has been that." He licked her on the nose. "I have something to show you. This is for Ada."

Evan's antlers dissolved away, claws developing on his fingers, hooves splitting into paws, tail growing out and fluffling larger. Soon a pair of arctic foxes embraced in the Camelot foyer.

"She says you're not a deadbeat anymore," Wilma said breathlessly, materializing a hardlight fan. "My hot, handsome, winged toddy."

"I can call my life complete now," Evan said, wagging his tail. "I finally did right by Ada." After a lick on the nose, he slipped back into doe form, then kissed her tenderly. "I'm the luckiest Intie on Zharus."

"If you two wish some privacy, we have a room for you," the blue-eyed stallion gatekeeper said. His position, Eva recalled, was Herald.

"I think we'd like that, Velgarth. Thank you." Wilma said.

"The 'room' is part of your reward," the Herald said. "We put you through a lot--so much that our Grail-Holder is reviewing how we do things here. At any rate, we hope you like it enough to take it with you. Follow me, please. Lift this way."

So focused on Wilma, Eva barely noticed the inside of Camelot. They traveled down several huge staircases into a truly massive space that held several vehicles, including a dragon-sized suborbital at least two hundred meters long. Velgarth flew right past it, revealing a familiar shape.

It was the Clementine. More specifically, the Clementine-A. The Camelot shipwrights had taken the original design and evolved it by half a century to get the current look. The seventy-meter burnished hull was studded with hardlight emitters. The cavorite impellers and lifters were oversized and clearly could do much more than than just skimming a few hundred meters above the Dry Ocean floor. This was a high-speed world-traveling vehicle, at least. Her name was emblazoned on the hull with the proper Star Trek Enterprise-A font.

"As you can see, she's not a mere copy of the ship you lost, Captain Van Dalen," the Herald proudly told the delighted vixen. "There are some vast improvements, including orbital capability, and potentially more than that in the medium-term future. She can carry a greater variety of cargo than qubitite ore. The interior of the cargo compartments contain hardlight emitters, making them into convertible living space. She has Double-A-plus batteries so she won't need recharging for a minimum of eighteen months, unless you decide to try orbit. She..."

Wilma poked him on the shoulder. "I don't need the full monty, Velgarth. You're not trying to sell it to me, after all. Besides, I want to discover what she can do on my own." She nosed her doe. "On our own. I'm not going anywhere without my Number One."

"Of course. Now, the final piece of our reward. Artemis may have already told you, but she's throttling back on her Candlejacks. Even Fritz's Snatchers will leave you alone on pain of pain. You're free to travel."

"As long we don't rock the boat," Eva said pointedly. "No traveling Integrate circus. Just a trio of humany-humans." She flapped her barn owl wings. "I need to figure out how to reabsorb and grow out these wings. I don't want to hardlight cloak them. That'd be cheating."

"Leave that kind of 'cheating' up to me, my lovey-doe," Wilma said. "I'm leaving the shapeshifting up to you and Ghost."

"As you wish," Eva said.

"Quite so, yes. The world is yours to explore," the Herald said.

"The world is our oyster," Eva said. "But, look at us. Two people in one body, each with their own lover?"

"This is going to be complicated," Liis said through Eva.

"It's a problem worth solving," Ghost said. He'd come up behind them without anyone noticing. Even the Camelot Integrates jumped back. He was fully anthropomorphic, wrapping his arms around the does, hands clasped together. "Something will turn up during our travels."

Ghost started singing.

Why don't you fill my heart with song?

Let me swing forever more

Because you are all I long for

All I worship and I adore

In other words, please be true

In other words

In other words, I, I love, you