User:Robotech Master/All Nighter original

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FreeRIDErs story universe


by Jon Buck and Robotech Master

Part I: All-Nighter

Covered in grease, Rhianna Stonegate took a break from crawling inside the engine service compartment in the old Deuce skimmer that was the replacement for the one the Nextus military had slagged. It was even older than the destroyed one had been, found in a salvage yard. It needed a lot of work, but before she could even get started the antiquated turbine powerplant needed ripping out, along with its fuel tanks. Kaylee had already designed the replacement Sarium battery pack. With the new tech replacing the old, they'd nearly double the classic skimmer's cargo space and triple its lifting capacity.

She rested beneath the behemoth turbine, unwilling to squeeze herself through the tight space to get out again. The ceiling-mounted crane had the old turbine in its firm grasp, but the corroded mounting bolts needed a little nanolathe help to release before it could come out. :Sat in the middle of a Dry Ocean junkyard for forty years and still managed to rust solid. I'm going to have to just cut these mounts,: she sent to Kaylee.

:Company, Rhianna,: her RIDE replied through Rhianna's implant, sending a camera feed along with her voice.

"Hello the garage! Hello!" Myla Wilson's voice came from the entrance.

"I'm over here, Myla!" Rhianna shouted back, folding her arms under her bosom. She heard the sound of boots on the skimmer's wings. The fennec-eared woman looked inside the engine compartment. Rhianna smiled warmly. "You're looking well. Qixi treating you right?"

"She's going to start my training tomorrow. I just got into town today," the former Nextus officer said. She was holding a cardboard box under her arm. "I'm just sorry I wasn't here for your crossing-over party, but… I've been busy. Here, I have the traditional gift from a born-woman to a crossed-over one."

"I'll add it to the dozen or so other boxes of tampons I'll never use," Rhianna said good-naturedly. They were mostly gifts from friendly, good-humored customers. From the other crossriders a year's worth of "No Periods, Period" nano-treatments made them unnecessary, but tradition was tradition. "Do you need a place to live?"

"You offering?" the former Nextus officer asked eagerly. She was about the same height as Rhianna, with a slightly slimmer build, and sand-colored hair that matched her fennec RIDE, Sophie. The huge fox padded in behind her with the mechanic's tawny lynx, Kaylee. "I guess I need one for a while. I don't want to impose."

"No problem at all, Myla. After what we've been through it's the right thing to do." Deciding there was no help for it, Rhianna squeezed herself between the turbine and the edge of the open compartment. Three weeks ago this would have been no problem. But three weeks ago she hadn't been the full-figured woman she now was. She endured the scrape-and-squeeze with only a little grimace. A little grease-b-gone nanite lotion cleaned her hands, then she had her jumpsuit go through a self-cleaning cycle as well. The grease simply sloughed off, carried into the garage's recycling drain.

Kaylee padded up next to her and gave her now-clean partner an affectionate headbump underneath her breasts. "I can still bring those in a cup size if you want," she said. "I sort of got carried away."

"No, I'm fine with them this way. There's just all these little things that really nag at me. After a while it's always the tiny differences you notice more. At any rate, I'm glad I live in Uplift and not, oh, Sturmhaven, Burnside, Nuevo San Antonio—"

"Or Nextus," Myla added matter-of-factly, folding her arms across her chest, giving the newly-female mechanic an appraising look. "They look good on you, Rhianna. Kaylee did an expert job on the bio-sculpt. The combat nannies I gave you might have helped with that, I hope."

"No maybes there. Made the whole process smooth," Kaylee added. She and Sophie looked like they were deep in conversation in the sideband communication the RIDEs had access to. The way the fennec mech's huge ears were drooping the RIDE looked very depressed. "Partner, I'm going to take Sophie here up to see Shelley. When they discharged her the Service took a chainsaw to her memory banks when they needed a scalpel. Almost worse than they did with me. She needs a defragment and some reconstruction."

"You don't need to ask, Kaylee. Go ahead."

"I can't pay for that," Myla said, alarmed. "I can barely afford to keep myself fed and Sophie's batteries charged until I get my first paycheck, and Qixi gave me half of that for a loan at ten percent interest."

"Look, don't worry about us getting paid. I know how much it cost you for you to buy Sophie from your former bosses." Rhianna knew this would be the case. The circumstances around Myla losing her MRS commission were harrowing and complicated.

Myla and her qubitite-based partner radiated desperation. The RIDE emancipation organization Rhianna had recommended hadn't completely paid the difference of Sophie's purchase price from what Myla had already saved. "Her generosity only stretched so far," Myla grumbled. "Why do you think I jumped at your offer for a place to live?"

"Yeah. That's the Qixi Wolfwood we all know and love," Kaylee said dryly. "She stiffed us on that job offer she gave us, you know. She wanted too much--a seventy-thirty split in her favor. Yeah, right! Rhianna should've sent her a bill for the fix to that sub.

"If you're hungry there's a Proximan food place at the food court down the street. We were just about to head to lunch, in fact." She looked appraisingly at Rhianna. "You need a break, boss," the mecha lynx said pointedly. "Stress, stress, stress all the time isn't good for a new woman's healthy homeostasis."

Ever since their first Active-mode Fuse—the one that had made Ryan into Rhianna—the two of them were more closely linked than ever, with Kaylee monitoring her partner's vital signs a little too close for comfort. "Yes, mother," she said, tossing a rag at the cat. She looked back at Myla. "Feel like a short skimmer trip? I don't feel like walking. Kaylee?"

"Sure, boss. Back in a few." Kaylee took Myla's partner to Shelley's part of the garage.

"I'm not interrupting anything, am I?" Myla asked. "Skimmers or RIDEs that need fixing?"

"I've hired about six new employees to help out with all the work I'm getting these days, so I had the afternoon off anyway for this salvage skimmer project of mine. Shelley's hired a few on her side of the biz herself, since she bought in. But I'm boring you with details. As soon as my kitty gets back, food, food, food." Rhianna rubbed her hands together, provoking a bark of laughter from Myla. "What?"

The fennec-eared woman covered her mouth. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. It's just that with that feline nose and tufted ears of yours, you're adorable when you do that. You should hear what you sound like."

I know what I sound like, and I don't like it much, Rhianna thought, looking at Kaylee as she returned. The lynx padded into the center of the garage, then unfolded into a small ex-military skimmer-cycle in desert camouflage. Unlike many RIDEs, due to Kaylee's thirty-year age her vehicle form looked much less animal-like aside from the catseye headlights. She was one of the first RIDEs produced for the Nextus Materiel Recovery Service, their version of Internal Revenue, only with pulse guns.

The Nextus Polity took tax evasion seriously.

"Okay, now I'm sure Kaylee was my aunt's partner when she was in the Service," Myla said, eyes widening, voice heavy with nostalgia. "Do you remember me at all, Kaylee?"

"I… don't know, Myla. My early memory blocks are still pretty scrambled. Not even Shelley's been able to recover all of them. I think your aunt and I were involved in some pretty high-level stuff back then," the skimmer-mode RIDE said. "Thirty years ago it was just me and… uh… another feline RIDE. I don't remember who. Everyone else in the department still used AIDEs—or even ancient IDEs. I don't know who any more. We were the only RIDEs in the Service for about five months. A little more than half a year."

The former officer nodded, fully immersed in her memories now. "That fits with what I know about her. It's just that I'm a little disappointed they even excised the times Aunt Anny took me for ice cream on you. Do you still have those neat old-style helmet projectors?"

"She does, but only because I restored them. She was pretty parted out when I got her," Rhianna said, feeling some nostalgia herself, resting one hand on Kaylee's handlebars. The RI had been traumatized by something she had no memory of, just the emotional echoes. "Not even her shell, no paws, no tail. Missing a lot of critical parts. I don't know what could have happened that turned her into a RIDE they cannibalized for parts without transferring her RI core to a new body. Nextus folks don't normally waste experienced workers like that, human or not. There's got to be a story there, but Kaylee doesn't remember."

Myla looked thoughtful. "You know, why don't we get in touch with my aunt Anny later? Would you like that, Kaylee?"

The RIDE hesitated a little. "Sure. I'd like that. Thanks."

Rhianna mounted, Myla squeezing behind her on the pillion seat, putting her arms around the mechanic's waist. Myla Wilson had a child-like smile on her face, making Rhianna break into a grin also. She manually toggled Kaylee's lifters; the antigrav started with a thunderous growl as the skimmer rose a meter over the garage floor. The sound quickly faded as the lifters spun up.

"Those aren't her original lifters, are they?" Myla asked as the noise quieted. "The old ones did that, but..."

"Simulated for authenticity," Kaylee said cheerfully. "Aero-enviro shields up, and don't forget your helmets, ladies." The emitters on the instrument panel flickered, materializing an old-fashioned open-faced MRS helmet--minus the logo--on each of them. The helmets themselves were symbolic more than anything. Open skimmers had long used hardlight to protect their riders from the elements and collisions. Since Kaylee could reach almost four hundred kilometers per hour they were a necessity. At speed a rider wouldn't feel so much as a light breeze. "Nice to see a smile on your face, Myla," the mecha-cat continued.

"I just can't help it," Myla said. "I feel like a little girl again."

"Then what say we skip lunch and go right to the ice cream?" Rhianna suggested on a hunch. "I know this great place downtown that sells the real stuff. Imported Laurasian milk from the Grand Valley. That is, if 'mother' here approves." She tapped Kaylee's engine compartment with the side of her boot.

"Just this once," Kaylee said in her best motherly tone. :Let's take the long way around on our way back. Our new arrival needs a tour,: she said to Rhianna privately.

:Great idea!:

The polis of Uplift had grown organically from a research outpost founded by Dr. Roberto Martinez, a Laurasian geologist who had made the study of the Dry Ocean his life's work. Martinez hadn't worked alone, always having a group of fellow researchers and graduate students with him. Even that early on the nascent city had a hardlight dome for climate control and protecting against solar storms. The supercontinent's thin-to-nonexistent magnetic field left it vulnerable to coronal mass ejections, leaving radio communication inviable. The Dome had changed all that and deserved the capital letter it got, and had simply been expanded upon as the city grew.

The ice cream place was in Bifrost Park, where the last functioning example of the original house-sized Dome emitters sat at the center, surrounded by trees, fountains, and grass. Unlike modern units, this one projected what the Tourism Board called a "beautiful Fountain of Light" that really lived up to the claim. It was a sparkling, shifting rainbow fountain that rose three kilometers to reinforce the Dome itself. The hemispherical emitter had four crystalline prongs at ninety degree angles on the top from which the hardlight fountain sprang. The park was busy, full of children, local workers, Walker-mode RIDES, and Fused people. Myla got a plain vanilla cone while Rhianna Fused with Kaylee and got a Fuser-sized three-scoop bowl of Death by Chocolate.

"She's a very naughty girl," Kaylee said between sandy-tongue licks. "But she's got the best taste buds around."

"These combat nannies need an extra helping of chocolate for proper operation. It's what they like best," Rhianna added, smirking with Kaylee's feline lips.

Myla laughed, having licked her own ice cream down the the waffle cone. "Thanks for this. I really needed some cheering up. The last three weeks have been just sheer hell. And... hey! Just got a call. Sophie's on her way, says not to leave her out of the ice cream party. She sounds a lot better, too. This partner of yours works fast."

"Well, when she gets here, do you fancy a skimmer tour around your new home? We're not quite as organized as Nextus in our layout. We're more like Old Boston on Earth."

"Never been to Earth," Myla said. She bit into the cone, chewed, then swallowed. "I'd love to visit someday, but it's still a year's round trip travel. Then I'd have to spend another year touring the planet to make it worth it. Tiny planet, though. No wonder humans had to leave it."

"Lord knows I haven't looked back," Rhianna said. "It's just a husk now, even after five billion people--maybe half the peak population--left for the Colonies over the past three centuries. There was some kind of controversy about 'terraforming' the homeworld in the UE Senate about the time I left seven years ago. You can imagine the uproar over even suggesting it."

"Well, that's why Earth sent so many people here, wasn't it? We were very far away, especially at sublight speeds, but good old Zharus didn't need terraforming, is biochemically compatible, and has no native aliens so there's no moral dilemma. Perfect, except for distance. That's why we have over three billion here and the other eight Colonies combined just barely match us. They kept sending fleet after fleet even before Landing!"

Rhianna was delighted to find someone as interested in her new homeworld's history as she was. The whole story was incredible. A habitable super-Earth almost twenty light-years from the origin world found by a probe moving at half the speed of light. The first Colonization Fleet had almost ten million people in coldsleep on a journey of thirty-five years at sublight--with even larger fleets sent at five-year intervals. A huge risk that had paid off handsomely for crowded Earth and the Zharusians themselves.

Sophie announced her arrival by doing a boosted forward-flip while changing into Walker form and landing softly in front of her partner. Myla embraced her. "That's my girl! Glad you're feeling better."

"Oh, so much," the mecha fennec said, her hardlight fur almost twitching with excitement and relief. "Rochelle is soooo good at what she does! The holes are still there, but I feel like myself again. Can we Fuse up and get another ice cream? I can almost taste it." She sniffed Rhianna-Kaylee's nearly empty bowl. "And I'll have what she's having."

Their first stop after ice cream was Founders Plaza, which contained the original tiny research station near the edge of the continental shelf, now part of a larger museum to Martinez's work and Dry Ocean mining. The city-state had actually remained rather small until someone finally made qubitite into a very valuable commodity. The sarium batteries and RI personality cores that now underpinned the vehicle and RIDE technology on Zharus were made from it. Since the Q Rush, starting in 112 After Landing, the modern city exploded from an outpost of a few hundred academics, engineers, prospectors, and support staff to its current form fifty-four years later, the year 156 AL.

Before she knew it, Rhianna had a new friend--two, really, counting Sophie. An afternoon of sightseeing and trying to cheer up a woman who had recently had so much stress and heartbreak made Rhianna feel good. Whether that was new feminine empathy or just being a good person didn't really matter. They did do a few girly activities like linger in a few jewelry shops, a couple clothing stores, in the city's more touristy spots where people who were from Earth could gawk at their RIDEs and themselves when Fused.

Uplift was a city of over fifteen million, counting the suburbs in their own smaller climate domes. It was actually one of the smallest city-states on Gondwana because it was a little more expensive than most, even Nextus. The Dome Maintenance Tax accounted for that, but the pleasant climate it created was worth every penny-unit, in the mechanic's view. Seen from space there were multiple Domes, connected together like so many soap bubbles tens-of-kilometers wide.

Their last activity after an afternoon of fun was a ride along the Sunset Skimmerway just outside the Dome. They flew along side-by-side as the sun went down over the Dry Ocean hardpan and the one-kilometer drop just to their right. Kaylee had some trouble keeping up with the much newer fennec RIDE, but put up a good fight.

:You know, I think I do remember you now, Myla,: Kaylee sent to her.

:Oh? That's good to hear! What do you remember?: she replied.

The mecha lynx stayed silent while sharing the memory with her rider, who was trying not to laugh. "Sure you want to know?" Rhianna said over laser link.

"Do I? Yes!"

:You probably don't remember on purpose. It was your very first ride. You were maybe five or six years old. When your aunt got up to about one-fifty, you, uh... peed your pants.:

The silence was golden. Then Myla laughed so loudly Rhianna had to turn her volume down.

Rhianna received a text message waiting for her as they re-entered the Dome. Radio worked just fine on the inside. :Hm. Haven't heard from Zane in a while.: she thought.

:He's been busy running one of the largest mining companies on Zharus,: Kaylee said. :I don't think he even knows you crossed over, unless he's heard something in the local rumor mill.:

:I've been meaning to tell him and Terry about what happened last month. I still can't believe it myself,: Rhianna replied.

The message simply read: Can I meet you at the garage after hours?

"That's funny," Rhianna said, looking again. "The signature says it's sent from his personal commpad. He usually sends these through Terry's net link."

"Who's this you're talking about?" Myla asked.

"Zane Brubeck. Owns a big mining company. Headquartered in that ten-story building you can see from the garage," Kaylee said, pointing at it. The building itself was always open. Running the company was a 30/6 job and the employees set their own schedules. Some people never adapted to the planet's 30-hour day.

"Wait, that Brubeck?" Myla said, incredulous. "The one that ripped his business out of Nextus a few months ago, after some of my colleagues all got bonuses from his paying more back taxes in one lump sum than an entire year's worth? The one who delivered half of his own Board of Directors to the D-O Marshals via an arranged bodyjacking? That one?"

"Bet you were really sorry to lose his company," Rhianna said as the duo approached the Garage.

"Administration offered him all sorts of tax breaks to make sure Brubeck Mining stayed in Nextus, but he had nothing of it. From what I heard, Clint Brubeck was the same kind of no-nonsense, salt-of-the-earth kind of guy his son apparently is. Thing is, Clint always paid his taxes. We never needed to visit him. That's what made the company Board's embezzlement so shocking. Probably explains why they were never audited either, come to think of it."

:Now Zane's being all mysterious and mum about something. I'll ping him back that the door will be open for him. We've got his biometric key,: Kaylee said. There was a short pause. :Er... nevermind. He said he'd rather not use biometrics.:

"Does he think someone's after him again?" Rhianna wondered.

:We'll find out in a sec. Home and home.: It was just before 2600 hours. There were still four hours left in the day, but Uplift was far enough north to get long daylight hours in summer. Sunset was barely past. Streetlights near the Garage cast pools of yellowish light around them, with a few neon signs from open restaurants and shops advertising their wares and services. Some wag had stuck a glowing sticker that said "Cross" over the "Free" part of "Freeriders Garage". Rhianna hadn't bothered to take it down yet because she still found it amusing. Between herself and her partner Rochelle Seaford (formerly Roger) it was pretty much dead-on.

The duo went to the loading dock around back where large deliveries were made. This was where, months ago, Zane had delivered his father's non-functioning Intelligent Drive Extender (IDE), Chauncy, for Rhianna to work on. She saw the Fused tiger sitting on the edge of the loading dock next to his silver non-transforming skimmer, illuminated by the hardlight sign overhead.

He jumped up as soon as he saw them. "Rya--" He paused, then blinked. "...Ryan?" His voice sounded slightly off, but Rhianna couldn't quite put her finger on it.

"'Rhianna' now. Long story. What's going on?"

"You finally went Active? That's great! K-Sp--ah, Kaylee, you must be so happy!" He grinned at her.

:His voice is... odd. It's like Terry's and Zane's got stuck in a blender. And he almost called me 'K-Spared'. That's 'verry Terry.': Kaylee said, switching directly from Skimmer to Fuser mode. Myla did the same thing with Sophie, but remained silent.

"It's certainly a far cry from that time back in the remember? Right after Roger had gotten you booting, but hadn't noticed you weren't going full into Passive for downtime..."

Kaylee nodded, involuntarily recalling a set of memories she'd carefully kept hidden from Rhianna until now. Inside their shared feline shell, Rhianna grimaced, feeling the RI's dance with near-insanity for the first time. It brought a lump to her throat.

Back when Ryan had first been rebuilding Kaylee, Terry had been racked up right next to her in the garage--it had been a lot smaller back then--halfway through the re-skinning that kid had gone into hock to pay for. She hadn't had a working vocoder at that point, and hadn't been able to tell anyone she wasn't shutting down properly when they stopped work on her for the night. But Terry had noticed--and though his fetters wouldn't let him say anything aloud, either, he could still talk to her on the RIDE-only machine-language sidebands. And they talked for hours.

She'd taken to calling herself "K-Spared" at that point--a pun on K Squared, the fact that she'd been used for spare parts, and the fact that she'd then been spared from being junked by Ryan buying her. She could hear everything that went on around her. She knew Ryan had no idea yet she was female, and she was scared, so desperately scared, that when he found out he wouldn't want her anymore. :You can't tell him!: she'd insisted to Terry, on the edge of hysteria. :Promise me you won't tell him!:

:I promise,: Terry had said calmly. :Not like I can tell them anything anyway, or I'd have told them two nights ago you weren't shutting down properly. But I don't think you've got anything to worry about. Ryan doesn't strike me as the kind of person who'd do something like that. Trust the man.:

Not long after that, Roger had finally noticed Kaylee's problem, cursed himself for over nine thousand different kinds of idiot, and spent three long days finalizing the personality defragment that recovered Kaylee's personality and sanity to the greatest extent possible. (He'd gone entirely without sleep during that time, and had been a bit less than rational himself by the time he'd finished.) Of course, by then Terry had been picked up by the kid, and she'd heard later that he'd been repossessed, so he hadn't gotten to learn the end of the story until the time a few months back when they'd caught up again. He'd been very concerned to hear that she was still going Passive when they Fused--more so than he'd let on to Zane or Ryan at the time. But she'd insisted she was happy with their partnership, and so Terry had let it be.

Rhianna was amazed, after integrating all these memories, to find that only about three seconds had passed. :I told you Active Fusing was amazing, didn't I?: Kaylee said, her own inner voice a little unsteady itself from the recollection.

The new woman embraced her partner in virtual space. :I'm so, so sorry I didn't do it sooner, Kaylee. What's going on with Zane and Terry? I'm getting some oddly familiar readings from your sensors. That's a hardlight shell he's wearing, but not really a very good one.:

Kaylee agreed. :I don't know what's going on, but we're not in Laurasia anymore, Rhianna:

"Er...I'm sorry," Zane said. "I didn't mean to bring up bad memories. I'd just...Terry had just been so worried about you." He stepped forward and hugged Kaylee and Rhianna. "I'm so glad you're okay."

The Fused feline duo received a message and some telemetry from Sophie. :He's—they're—Integrated,: the fennec declared. :I've still got a better sensor suite than you do despite what they removed, Kaylee. He's doing a very clumsy job--in my view--of maintaining it. It must have justhappened. Must be taking a lot of concentration for him--them:

:Lordy Lord Lordy,: Kaylee said, virtually facepaw-ing. :That explains a lot. I keep trying to connect to Terry and I get nothing. He's not radiating any comm signals either. It's like he's a hole in the network. That explains why he used a commpad for the text.:

:He's obviously here for your help,: Myla added.

Rhianna took a deep breath. "Okay, Zane--and Terry. Or should I say 'Zane slash Terry'? We've figured it out. Come inside." :And Kaylee? Ping Rochelle. She's going to want to know about this.:

Separator k.png

Terry followed the two Fusers into the garage, and as soon as the door closed behind them he seemed to lose half a meter of height and twenty kilos or so of bulk. He resembled a slightly-sleeker, more human-scaled version of their previous tiger-man Fuser form, with the addition of round hardlight lenses inset into his fur in a regular pattern that followed his black stripes--actual-not-hardlight fur no less. He wore a pair of shorts for modesty, but was otherwise as naked as his Fuser form had been. "So, uh, hi," he said.

Before Rhianna could reply, Rochelle practically fell down the stairs in a rush, her curtain of hair (peach-colored today) swirling around her. Rhianna marveled at the way that girl could make even stumbling and falling look erotic. It was as if the picture only required someone at the bottom of the stairs to catch her and sweep her up into a passionate embrace. For that matter, given Rochelle's past preferences, the catcher could very well be she—Rhianna shook her head to clear it and muttered dark imprecations at whoever had designed Uncia's fuser nanos.

"Well, I don't have an examination table like a doctor's office, so can you have a seat over near the diagnostic station, Zane? Zane-and-Terry? Uh, ZaneTerry? What should we call you?" Rhianna said, gesturing politely.

"Call me whatever you want, just don't call me late for dinner," Zane said tiredly. "Speaking of which, hey, power outlet. Cool." He reached down and held his right wrist against the socket for a moment. The lights flickered and dimmed for just a second, then Zane stood up straighter. "Wow, that's better than coffee." He sat down in the proffered seat, glancing bemusedly at his wrists. The power socket was right where he would have worn a watch if he'd worn it right-handed. There was another socket of a different design in the same place on his left wrist.

"Well, isn't that interesting?" Myla said. "Quinoa just used induction, didn't she? I guess some of them have power plugs too."

Once she had her diagnostic gear on, Rhianna looked almost like a feline mad scientist about to do some work. The nanolathe gloves were rather intimidating, but most of her "patients" never complained. A backpack full of supplementary sensors, nanolathe fabber matter and extra processing power completed the look. "I'm not sure where to start. You don't have any standard ports any more."

"You don't seem too surprised at what you see," Zane said, still in that odd mixture of Zane's and Terry's inflections. It was almost as if Zane was trying to impersonate Terry's voice, or Terry trying to impersonate Zane's. The faint Nextus-upper-crust accent Zane had mingled oddly but pleasantly with Terry's street cant.

"I had this Dry Ocean salvage job a few weeks ago. That's how I met Myla here and it's why I'm 'Rhianna' now. That reminds me. Zane Brubeck, Myla Wilson, formerly of the Nextus Materiel Recovery Service."

"Pleased to meet you, Miss Wilson," Zane said, extending a handpaw. The fennec-suited woman took it carefully. "You were a revenuer? My Dad actually liked you guys. Loved watching you go after some of his tax-dodging 'friends'. I tell you I got a laugh myself when I saw Joe Steader go to prison. Kinda confused he's already out, though."

"I wasn't in on that raid, Mr. Brubeck. But I can tell you everyone in my command wanted to be," Myla said through Sophie's fennec mouth. "I don't work for them anymore, though. It's all part of that story Rhianna here wants to tell."

The lynx nodded. "So why don't I tell you about it while I try and figure out what makes you tick? Shelley, do you have anything that can plug in that dataport of his?" Rhianna flexed her fingers like a pianist warming up.

Rochelle tossed her head, hair flowing back out of her face in slight slow motion. She sighed and ran a hand through it, and it pulled itself back into one of those twisted-up bun styles whose sole purpose is to come undone in shampoo commercials. "There, that will buy me some time. Um...let me see. I think that's going to need a custom design. We could use nano-memory paste to explore it and determine what connectors it has. That's more your department than mine, though."

Rhianna extended a nanolathe tip from her right index finger, then approached Zane. "Let me know if this hurts or anything. I don't know how this port of yours is connected to the rest of you. I don't know a hell of a lot here, in fact. It's just going to be guesswork and some very detailed I/O analysis."

"You probably know more than I do." Zane shook his head. "This is all new to me. I woke up this morning in a puddle of silver snot, with Terry inside my mind. Part of my mind."

Myla looked pained at Zane's description. Rhianna patted her Fused shoulder after injecting the paste. The foxy duo decided to de-Fuse. "Where's your living room? I don't think I'm up for this."

"Upstairs, turn left. Go relax, okay?" Rhianna said, putting her handpaw on Myla's now-human shoulder. "Use my bedroom if you want to sleep. I've got a cot down here. This is Shelly's and my personal garage."

"Thank you. I had a very nice afternoon sightseeing, Rhianna, Kaylee. Thanks for the warm welcome. And... nice meeting you, Mr. Brubeck."

Zane frowned. "Um...same to you, Miss Wilson. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to upset you."

"I know, Mr. Brubeck. We just need a few. Come on, Sophie," Myla said. The pair of them headed up the stairs Rochelle had nearly fallen down.

Rhianna watched them go, then turned back to Zane. "Rochelle's already heard this, but let Kaylee and I tell you a little story about a Dry Ocean salvage job gone sour, a Nextus Military dragon, a pack of four stingy wolves, a falcon, a sphinx, and a dinosaur named Eduard."

The analysis took some time--as did the story. The nano-probe reported a very complex, utterly non-standard connector shape and contact points that included significant traces of pure qubitite and neodymium. Once she felt she had enough data she fed it to the shop's fabber to work on. The first prototype was ready in minutes.

When Rhianna's story was finished, Zane whistled. "Wow. Those Enclave jerks sound like real prizes. And Quinoa Steader? Damn, who'd have thought it? Dad always told me to stay far away from that branch of the Steaders. Said that there was rich-crazy, and there was crazy crazy, and he made no bones about which of those they fell into. Guess the apple doesn't fall far from the tree."

"Poor Myla kept watch on that girl for two years in a pony RIDE that couldn't transform." Rhianna-Kaylee shuddered. She picked up the prototype connector from the output tray. "Let me see if this works."

"Then it'll be my turn." Rochelle rubbed her hands together and cackled evilly, a femme fatale in custom-fitted coveralls. Zane grinned appreciatively at her.

"Ready for this?" the lynx asked. At Zane's nod, she plugged it into the socket on his left wrist. She got absolutely nothing out of the datastream--not even the same confused buzzing noise Quinoa's had. "Anything at all, Zane?"

"Nothing. Silence," the Integrated tiger replied.

Grumbling, Rhianna unplugged the offending piece of hardware, then tossed it back into the fabber's recycling receptacle. "Try, try again. I must've missed some contacts on the first scan."

Rochelle sighed. "Might not be my turn for a while."

"I spent the day down at the library, running searches on Integrated. With a keyboard." Zane rolled his eyes. "Didn't find a lot of solid information. In fact, I think I learned more from what you just told me than I did all day there. So this DIN thing is going to let me hook up to the net again?"

"It basically allowed Quinoa to control Qixi's suborbital like it was a laser-controlled car you buy at a toy store," Rhianna said. "Kaylee, maybe if we..."

"I have a theory that Integrates' bodies are sort of natural supercomputers," Rochelle said as her business partner got more involved in her work. "All that qubitite can be locked in place in the most optimal configuration, without having to worry about getting disrupted every time you mode switch. If that's true..." She shook her head. "What couldn't they do? Apart from, well, talk to the 'net, anyway."

Zane whistled. "Now I'm really looking forward to playing with my new toy."

"Mm," Rhianna said thoughtfully, fiddling with her scan, showing the same kind of focus on her work as she had on Chauncey's rebuild.

Zane watched her work for a moment, and the silence stretched out into a minute. "Listen. It's...not what you think it's like. At least, not what it must have been like for Burke."

"That was... horrible. I can't really think of it without shivers." Rhianna hugged herself and shook a little.

"For us, it was just...the logical next step. I mean, you know we were basically 30/6 Fused the last few months, right?" He chuckled. "I don't know if you knew, but half the time we ever said anything, it was really Terry using Zane's voice." He waited to see if anyone looked shocked, then shrugged and continued.

"Crazy thing is, I--Zane, that is--didn't really know it either, 'til today when we did a little mental review. I'm sure you've known people who finished each others' thoughts. Well, we started and finished each other's thoughts. And we were happy that way. From there...well, Integration wasn't that far away."

"Silly question I guess, but are you still happy?" Rhianna asked. It could have been Kaylee asking the question, or both of them at once. Ironic, given the situation and the question. Zane had seen the recording of Flint-Burke's forced-Integration on a video screen.

Zane nodded. "I am. I'd say 'we are' but really we're an 'I' right now. If you want, I can split him out in my head and both sides of me can say it for themselves. Of course, you'd only have my word for it that we really were, rather than me just 'doing' our voices. But if that doohickey you're making works, I can show you our memories of it sometime, if you want."

"I... we don't know if we could follow through with that," Kaylee-Rhianna said. "That's actually more frightening than watching it being done to someone and seeing the results."

"Yeah, we weren't exactly keen on the idea either, just after we met," Zane said. "Even right up to the end, we were both kind of scared when it became obvious it was going to happen, but we also knew we were on the edge of something wonderful. I know this probably sounds kinda creepy, K, but if you ever Integrate naturally, I think you'll be ready for it by the time it happens. And if you're not ready, you just won't Integrate."

"Then it won't be for a long while," Rhianna said. "Kaylee and I just started Active Fuse."

Rochelle spoke up again. "Is it really worth it? You wouldn't ever go back?"

Zane nodded to her. "It's early to tell, but...I think so. I guess I can't say I have no regrets. It's a little sad to know I'm never going to look over and see that gorgeous tiger or that handsome young man again except in my memories. But if I had the choice of giving it up...well, it would still be giving up a lot. I guess it's never easy being born, and it doesn't get any easier the second time."

Watching Rhianna silently, carefully, methodically working through a problem was in some ways a test of Zane's patience. She hardly said a word, moving between nanoprobe and a multi-colored 3D hardlight representation of the dataport on his left wrist.

Kaylee was used to this. It was how her partner worked. Now that they were actively Fused, it was even easier to tell what she wanted, so the RIDE helped nudge it along. Rhianna's thought process had no words--just images, equations, even the idle scribbles of an architect considering a problem then throwing the mental paper away, unsatisfied. Sometimes they barely moved, fully focused.

"Wish she'd be a little more...demonstrative. I never know what she's thinking of," Rochelle said. She watched the slow refinement of the prototype's image drawn from her simulations. It had already been taken apart and put back together several times, with different combinations of materials. "Gotta love the results, though."

It took six hours, as many physical prototypes, and a hundred times that many simulated. It wasn't just the shape of the connector, it was what it was made out of. Aside from the actual physical versions she had Rochelle funnel the possibilities into her simulation software, ruling out most of the standard materials. With each new prototype more and more data flowed down the wire. No computer in the diagnostic kit could make sense of it, but at least it was coming.

The final prototype came out of the fabber at three in the morning. "Want to know the gory details? You won't believe what this is made out of," Rhianna asked. "I double-checked the math myself. You don't want to know that much, though."

Zane nodded. "Shoot."

"It's layers of graphene and qubitite salted with more neodymium and even some nanoscale sarium battery bits, all in very precise locations--down to the micron. If this really does work--and I'm sure it will this time--I've got the design and can fab more pretty easily. But it's not cheap. I think I went through about ten thousand mu of materials and fabber time just making this one."

Zane sighed theatrically. "Guess I won't be ordering another diamond-studded swimming pool this week."

"Your home fabber should be able to make spares, too, once you have the materials. If this one doesn't work I'll eat my hat." Rhianna plugged him in and got the expected strong but unintelligible data flow. Then she stretched and yawned, de-Fusing from Kaylee in the process. "All yours, Shelley. I need some coffee. Be back down after I've cleaned up a bit. I'm not going to bed until I see how this turns out."

"Yay, my turn!" Rochelle ran her hands through her hair, shaking it out and letting it fall into place around her again as Zane watched in clear appreciation. She whipped out a pair of interface specs, then paused in the process of putting them on. "Oh. Rhianna--before you go for coffee, I need to ask you something. Something serious."

Rhianna blinked. "Buh?" she asked tiredly. Now that the task was finished her mind was already going into full-relaxation safe mode.

"You know my normal procedure for working through an unknown involves lots of net searching, right? I never know what's going to give me some clue I need to break through."

"All right...?" Rhianna said.

"Thing is, I've been thinking 'bout this," Rochelle said. "And if I were an Integrate, I'd be monitoring net searches for any suspicious activity relating to Integrate--since probably the first thing any new Intie's gonna do is try to google his condition, and I expect that's one of the big ways they look for their poor confused brand new little lost lambs."

"Lambs, tigers, deer, bears, oh my! I get it."

"Now I'm gonna bounce through every proxy server, anonymizer, and relay this side of Laurasia, but if these Integrates are really All That, it'll probably just make them more interested. And that's not the worst part."

She paused, waiting for a reaction, but only encountered Rhianna's blank, tired stare, shrugged, and went on. "If their community's as small as it sounds, they've probably all heard about Quinoa's little furball last month, and who was there, and it's not exactly a secret where you-all live and work and stuff. So when they notice every fragment of Intie lore on the net is being sucked down to here... well." She shrugged. "I'll try to go it without if you'd rather. Up to you." She nodded to Zane. "And you, of course."

Rhianna thought about that, coming out of "safe mode" for a while. "Zane, you already did a lot of searching at the library, didn't you?"

"Yeah. I didn't see anyone odd, but...maybe the place was too public. Or, well..." Zane shrugged. "Have you seen any invisible four meter dinosaurs around lately?"

"And there is kind of an important little difference between a public library and a certain private garage," Rochelle pointed out.

The cat-nosed woman looked thoughtful, rubbing her nose, then peered at the power plug Zane had used to recharge. Rhianna had a very flat expression Rochelle knew all too well, even on her new face.

It was the expression that the inevitable was going to happen, so there was no reason to delay it. "They probably already know you're here. The way the lights flickered when you recharged like that... Another thing they look for. A new Intie's power drain on the grid." She sighed deeply. "I need coffee and one of my non-sleeping pills and I'll think more clearly. I need some food, too." The woman sniffed herself. "And a shower."

"She always gets cranky after a long session like that," Kaylee explained as her partner retreated up the stairs at a clip. "Didn't do that as a man, though. Hunh. Hormones, what can you do?"

"So I guess that was a 'go ahead, burn up the net all you want,' right?" Rochelle said. "Didn't sound like a no, anyway."

"For my part, I'm okay with it," Zane said. "The sooner I get a DIN, the sooner I can pull my weight if they do show up. Wonder what 'DIN' stands for, anyway?"

Rochelle nodded. She opened her interface specs with a flick of her wrist and put them on, then waved at the arrangement of monitors and workstations nearby to load her specialized programs into them. "Oh, Uncia, darling?" she called into the next room. "I might need you here in a few."

The snow leopard padded in and sat down nearby. "I live to serve!"

"Goody goody." Rochelle cracked her knuckles sexily. "Let's get to work."

As her rider got started, Uncia padded over to Kaylee and gave the older lynx an affectionate headbutt. "You're in a good mood, big sis."

The snow leopard was almost twice Kaylee's size in Walker mode. Kaylee returned the affection, purring up a storm. "It's been a very good day. One of the best since Rhianna and I went Active. I think she's settling in, finally." The older, smaller RIDE padded over to a socket herself and extended a charging plug from her stubby tail. "Stripesy there had the right idea. Did so much high-speed skimming today I'm half down."

"I had a long sideband chat with Sophie. I like her. Introduced myself with a pounce and a good licking," the larger snow leopardess mech said. "I just love her lickable ears!"

"I'm sure she just loved that," Kaylee said dryly, having been at the receiving end of that kind of grooming a number of times. It was hard to say no to that kind of aggressive affection from someone who (inexplicably) idolized you and was technically less than a year old.

Rochelle glanced over. "Okay, Un-hon? Time to light up the 'nets. Search package Alpha, subject: 'Integration' as it pertains to RIDEs. Weight it for relevance toward any appearances or uses of DIN interfaces. I'll be in there in a few minutes to see what you have for me."

The snow leopardess nodded. "Running the search protocols now. Rerouting through proxies and anonymizers. Found two terabytes of material so far. Five. Nine. Sorting." She sat on her haunches and started to scratch furiously behind one ear. "Why is data searching always so itchy?"

Rochelle slipped her hands into a pair of data-manipulation gloves and started augmenting her eyeflicks with gestures. She waved at a sensor unit on the ceiling and it swivelled around, orienting its cluster of tubular sensors on Zane like the barrel of some enormous cannon. She made a lifting gesture with her other hand, and it began to light up, with a faint bass undertone and rotate slowly. "Don't worry, it's harmless. haven't had any dental work recently, have you?"

"Er..." Zane said.

She grinned. "Juuuuust kidding! Hmm...okay, recording brainwave patterns, cross-referencing timestamps with data reads from that data port...let's see if we get anything interesting off that bat. Hmm...Fibonacci sequence maybe? No?" She shook her head. "Okay, run program 'Enigma'. We'll let it get started, and I'll swap the process over to Uncia's onboard hardware for more speed once I've reviewed the search results."

Zane allowed her to do the scans, fascinated. He had never seen them work before. No wonder Chauncey had come out of the Garage in much better shape than the old IDE had come in. Rhianna, Kaylee, Rochelle, and Uncia all had great passion for their work that didn't make it look like work at all. It was the kind of passion he wished more of his employees had. And it didn't hurt, either, that Rochelle was perpetually gorgeous, and she practically glowed with the energy she threw into her work.

Of course, he knew why she was so gorgeous, and a part of him felt guilty at appreciating it so much. He knew the nanite infection had not been her decision, and she spent hours every week at Nextus Nano's labs working on a cure. He rather hoped she found it. But in the meanwhile, guilt or not, he didn't see the harm in enjoying the view.

A damp-haired Rhianna came back downstairs with a half liter mug of steaming coffee and a plate of a half dozen toaster pastries, dressed in a blue terrycloth bathrobe a little too small for her, and especially not built for a woman's curves. Not with that much exposed cleavage. "Do you still eat, Zane? After you plugged in like that..."

"I'm pretty sure I do. And I could go with some coffee right now myself, I think."

The lynx-eared and -nosed woman looked at the plate of "food", reconsidering her choice of sustenance. "You can have this mug. I'm going to order some real food from that all-night Proximan take-out. You know the one. Ah. Kaylee's already ordered. Hope you like noodles and seafood stir fry." She put the mug next to Zane, went up and got another, then had a seat.

Rochelle stroked the air with her gloves, and began humming. The tune was recognizable, one of her favorite songs from the classical 20th century pop minstrels. After a while, she was singing under her breath. "I'm so tired I can hardly think, so I feel instead and let you loose inside my head…"

She spun around, then moved over to Uncia. "Cue up the most relevant search results, and all memories you got from Kaylee, Yvonne, and Sophie having to do with Quinoa using her DIN and any scan data they got, then open up, please, hon!" Uncia Fused up over her, then the eight-foot snow leopardess turned back to the scans. Her body language was still unmistakably Rochelle, just with the addition of fur. Her tail swung wide as she half-danced in place. She waved a hand in the air and hardlight display panels blossomed in place behind it like time-lapse flowers opening.

"Let's see, there's a lot of shaky-cam footage here of rather blurry Integrated zapping things and blowing them up, or otherwise holding glowing doohickies." Rochelle threw different clips up on all the screens. "Geez. It's been hundreds of years since they invented image stabilization. Why do we still get shaky-cam? Hm. And none of these images are particularly sharp, either. I'll bet the Integrates are doing something to mess up the recording just enough that you can't really identify them." She tapped another screen. "And what's this? Oh, cute. 'Brown vs. Board of Education.'" She chuckled. "Snow kitty will have her little joke." Uncia giggled. "I'll keep looking...there's got to be some clues here somewhere..."

"She's in her manic stage right now," Rhianna half-whispered to Zane. "Enjoy it while it lasts. In about ten minutes she'll have cycled down to frustrated, and in half an hour she'll be banging her head against the wall."

"I'll have you know I heard that!" Rochelle sang out, peering thoughtfully at the contents of the screens she'd opened and collapsing half of them. "I don't make fun of your process, you know."

"Hey, whatever works," Zane said, grinning.

"Let's pull that 'Enigma' process over here, Uncia darling, you've got some spare cycles," Rochelle said. "And let's see what happens if we switch to hexidecimal., still doesn't make sense. What if we try..." She trailed off, finally remembering to switch her dialogue to internal.

Over the next few hours, the pattern repeated several times. Sometimes Rochelle manically jumped, dashed, or danced around the private garage, fluffy tail threatening to knock over small objects or occasionally people. She would Fuse or de-Fuse seemingly at random, muttering instructions to Uncia as she examined her screens or interface specs again. Other times she stood in one spot, tail lashing, growling at a hardlight display or her glasses, daring them to show her what she thought she was seeing. And sometimes she did, indeed, stand in the corner banging her head against the wall and moaning, "Why, God, why?"

Early on during one of her business partner's outbursts Rhianna pointed at a poster on the wall that said "Bang Head Here". "That's what I do when I get frustrated," she explained to Zane. She'd moved closer to him in order to get a look at the hardlight lenses embedded in his skin. "I'm no doctor, but can I have a closer look at those?"

"Go ahead. I'm curious, myself. Wondering how I ended up with real tiger fur, for that matter. I don't think I had any natural DNA coding for it," Zane said.

:I've given Yvonne a ping,: Kaylee said. :Once we figure this out he's going to need some kind of comm gear and we don't carry any of the good stuff here. Rufia's bound to have spares she can part with.:

At last, during one of her lowest depressive phases, when Rochelle was in the middle of lying sprawled out face-down on the hard concrete floor, right beside a similarly-sprawled Uncia, fluffy tails twitching in the air in unison, she suddenly lifted her head, blinked, and then rolled over into Uncia, Fusing and continuing the roll to her feet.

She spun around and waved a hand, scattering hardlight displays in the air again, then she grabbed one by the edges with both hands and pulled it closer to her. "Yes! that's it! That's IT!" For a moment, music blared from unseen speakers: "International bright young thing, now you know for sure that you make the world swing…"

"Hunh?" Zane, who had been dozing, woke up--in time to be grabbed and kissed on the mouth, with hardlight tongue, by a snow leopard. "Mmmph!"

"That's it!" Rochelle said again, dropping him back onto the table. "REM sleep! I think...I've found the key at last!"

"Can we do that again?" Uncia asked plaintively.

Rhianna awoke from the cot she and Fused Kaylee used during their own all-nighters. "Finally got it, snowgirl?"

"Yes! While he was in REM sleep, the encoding changed completely--and Enigma suddenly had enough data to start working out what was what. Gimme a few minutes and I'll have you doing tricks."

"The kissing, I mean," Uncia said. "That was fun."

Rochelle was lost in her own little world again. "...and configure, and make! Okay, five minutes, tops, and then it's say hello to ZaneOS 1.0."

"So no more kissing?" Uncia said sadly.

Rhianna slid a standard qubitite firmware crystal into the writer in preparation. A minute later everyone heard the familiar bass thrumming of Yvonne's tuned-up lifters outside. "Gear's here, Shelley. We've almost got all the pieces."

"Awesome!" Rochelle stretched, and Uncia melted off of her back into her snow leopard form. Rochelle fell onto her back, arms crossed behind her head, relaxing into the curvature of Uncia's spine. She yawned. "Boy, glad that's done." Then the beep sounded that signaled the end of the compile, and she was on her feet again, hair flying. "Build's up!"

Fused Rufia-and-Yvonne entered. The pair of them could come and go as they pleased, more or less. The female elk carried a box under the crook of her arm, but dropped it upon seeing Zane. "Whooo wheee! You're handsome, short stuff."

Zane grinned at her. "Not that short where it counts, big gal."

"Hey, now. I saw him first!" Rochelle said, grinning.

Rhianna picked the box up off the floor. It was dirty and appeared to have been sitting on a shelf for several years, but the four-centimeter lens, embedded in a slightly larger bezel, looked suspiciously military with no identifying marks. "Rufia, where did you get this?"

"Oh, you know. Around." She cleared her throat, then put on the manner of a used skimmer salesman. "This is the Kinnison Lensman 'Second Stage' communications and self defense unit, straight from Sturmhaven DefCom Tech. It combines a self-contained sarium battery, ultrafast laser and wifi comms, hardlight defense shields, and will burn your attacker's head clean off."

"Operators are standing by?" Zane asked.

"And you can have it for the low, low price of... absolutely nothing. I just gotta see how all this turns out," Rufia said, her elk RIDE's face smiling with more than a little lust.

"Why is it that nobody around here knows enough to pad their bills when they're dealing with rich people?" Zane wondered.

"Money don't buy happiness, you handsome putty tat."

Zane grinned. "No, but it will sure rent a lot of it. Well, all right, if you insist. But I reserve the right to return the favor, when you least expect it. I'm good at that, just ask Rhianna."

"Oh, he is. He really is!" she replied.

Compared to the hours and hours of making hardware and software, putting the final pieces together took less than a minute. The "ZaneOS 1.0" crystal went into Rhianna's custom interface plug, the plug into the much-ballyhooed Lensman unit, then the unit itself was handed to their customer on one of Rochelle's red velvet pillows Kaylee had fetched from upstairs.

Zane picked it up in his right hand. "All right, let's light this candle." He snapped it home into the plug in his wrist. A moment later, it lit up, and Zane grinned. "Hello, world!"

Rhianna pointed around the room. "There's network points, wifi and laser, all over the garage here. You should be able to--"

Zane grinned. "Got it! Ah, good ol' 'net..." The lens on his wrist gleamed as laser pulses suffused the garage. "And that reminds me." He held up a hand, hardlight emitter in the heel of his palm facing Rhianna and Kaylee. A plane of light appeared in front of them and swept over them, tingling where it touched, then vanished.

"That was for..?" Kaylee asked.

Zane grinned. "Well, I still haven't gotten you your crossrider present. Oh, and for that matter...I missed yours, too, Shelley." He pointed his hand at her, and she got the same treatment.

:The traditional present from a man who's a good friend to a crossed woman is...: Kaylee said internally, bringing up photo after photo of women of her build in racy lingerie. :Yeah. This.:

"Well, the measure of good lingerie is how it looks on the floor, so just keep that in mind, my handsomely-striped friend," Rhianna said, putting on her best faux 'come hither' look. "Wow! What a night."

"And...I think there's something else I can do for you, Rochelle." Zane held up his wrist, and the lens scintillated, bathing her in laser light. Her eyes widened, and suddenly her appearance...changed. Her hair stopped animating and fell limp. Her posture sagged slightly, and for the first time her face showed the hours of work she'd just put in.

Rochelle blinked. "Did you did. You deactivated my nanites."

"Yeah, you're 'cured,'" Zane said.

"Huh." Rochelle considered that. "Okay. That's nice, and I really appreciate that and all, but...could you put them back exactly how they were?"

Zane blinked. "But...why? You said you didn't like having them on all the time. Now you can control them, so you could crank them back up yourself when you want--"

"That's true, but..." Rochelle shuffled her feet and looked down. "It's really not so bad having them stuck on...but more importantly, as long as I'm trying to find a cure, I get access to the latest nanotech at Nextus Nano. I've really been learning a lot lately. Besides, this isn't really about me. I can't let anyone else 'catch' it."

Rhianna chuckled quietly. :She suffers for her art,: she sent to Kaylee.

"And besides, if I show up with them magically cured, they might think I was faking it all along and sue me to get the settlement money back."

"She's got you there, Zane," Rhianna said.

"You know, I could just buy Nextus Nano," Zane said. "I could give it to you as a present."

Rhianna-and-Kaylee stared slack-jawed, but Rochelle looked skeptical. "Really?"

Zane chuckled, then shook his head. "Well, okay, not really. Their market cap is almost as high as Brubeck Mining's. Lot of money in rich-people nanos. But I could make good the settlement money. If you'd let me. But of course you wouldn't let me."

Rochelle snorted. "No offense, but I'm not gonna be anybody's kept woman or trophy girlfriend."

He grinned. "All right. I'll put it back. But you gotta do one teeny little thing for me in return."

"And what's that?" Rochelle asked.

"Go out with me tomor--tonight?"

Rochelle looked at him. "Did you even hear what I just--"

"Seriously. If you want, I'll even let you buy."

Rochelle blinked. "Wow, that's an original approach. You want to prove how much you care for me by letting me buy you dinner?"

Zane grinned. "It does sound kind of funny when you put it that way, doesn't it?"

Rochelle chuckled. "How can a gal resist an offer like that? You're on."

"Awesome! Pick you up at 2400?" He bathed her in laser-light again, and she reverted to her former hyper-attractive self.

Rochelle grinned, running a hand through her once-more-animated hair. "We'll be waiting."

"It's like being in a soap opera," Rufia said, delighted to have played a part. "Anyone for breakfast? Coffee and pastries on me."

Zane snapped his fingers. "That reminds me. I need to settle the bill."

"Oh, the bill," Rhianna said, knowing full well what was coming. "Zane, it's been a privilege to--"

Zane raised his hand, suddenly serious. "No. I let you get away with this for Chauncey, because that was obviously a labor of love for you, and you felt like I was doing you a favor for letting you work on him. That touched on your honor. You felt obligated." He shook his head. "It's my turn to be in those shoes.

"You've just stayed up all night for me when you should have been sleeping, putting your best effort into reverse-engineering a completely new technology you'd seen in action for maybe five minutes, used by people who really creeped you out. And you totally saved my sanity by keeping me from going into net withdrawal. So now I feel obligated, that touches on my honor, and I'm not gonna let you get away without being paid fairly for services rendered."

"Well, okay. Our standard 'need it yesterday' overtime rates..." Kaylee called up the numbers. It was a pretty hefty sum.

"Let me see that." He reached out a hand, and the tablet floated out of Kaylee's hands and into his. "Hmm. No. This won't do." He waved a hand over the tablet and floated it back to her with a new set of figures on it. "That's my standard rates--or, rather, Brubeck Mining's standard hourly fee schedule for cutting-edge technology contractors. Well, actually standard plus 25%, because we leave the base rate low so there's room to negotiate. Plus invention bonus. In the interest of fairness, I actually cut the bonus in half, because the normal use of it involves compensation for signing patent rights over to the company, but somehow I suspect there's too much prior art in this case. And materials at 50% mark-up, rather than cost."

Though she was Fused with Kaylee, Rhianna still looked weak in the knees. She passed the tablet to Rochelle. "Even after snowgirl here takes her half... I... I... I could buy a full factory refurbished redstone... Not a big suborbital, but I don't need Qixi's kind of gear... 'Scuse me. I need to lay down." She sat down heavily on the big cot.

Rochelle peered at it. "Hell, we're partners. I could throw in and we could get one of those downgraded ex-Nextus Army drop shuttles that just came on the market again." She looked at Zane. "Are you sure this is right?"

Zane nodded. "I absolutely swear to you that these are our standard consulting rates and not a penny more. I'll make our accountant available to you if you don't believe me." He put a hand on her shoulder. "Look, I know I like to throw money around. It's about the only thing it's good for. But I already know better than to try to give you anything you don't think you've earned. I respect you too much for that. Both of you."

"Okay, you win," Rhianna said, almost gasping. She stood up and extended her handpaw. "Just this once, it's a deal."

Zane grinned. "Don't worry. The next time I ask you to do anything where you might risk getting paid what you're actually worth, I'll make you sign a contract ahead of time so you see it coming."

Rhianna frowned thoughtfully as something that had been niggling at the back of her mind all night finally came clear in her head. "Speaking of contracts...and throwing money around...I wonder if I might ask a favor of you, on behalf of a new friend who I hope will still be my friend after she learns what I'm asking."

Zane raised an eyebrow. "What's that?"

"Well, it's Myla," Rhianna said. "I told you about how she signed on with Qixi because she really didn't have anywhere else to go. But the more I think on it, the less I think those two are going to get along."

Zane nodded. "You said Qixi floated her a loan to help buy back Sophie. Yeah, that's not a real good way to begin with a new employer at the best of times. And we've contracted with Qixi a time or two ourselves. I think I see what you're getting at." He grinned. "I'll bet there are plenty of jobs in my company she could fill, and probably some she'd even like doing. Of course, she'd still have to be willing to work for me." Zane glanced upstairs. "After what happened with Burke, I wouldn't blame her if she didn't want to see another Integrate ever again."

"Kaylee and I spent the afternoon with her yesterday. She's a very open-minded woman. Fun to be with. Even volunteered to show me some 'genuinely feminine' things men still can't do. Stuff like that. I think if you talked to her for a while..." Rhianna trailed off.

Zane nodded. "I will. Hell, I owe it to all the Integrates who aren't assholes to try to redeem our reputation. I'm sure there must be some, somewhere."

The sound of employees starting to arrive interrupted them. Rhianna checked the time. A full fifteen hours had passed, but it felt more like days.

"So, someone mentioned breakfast?" Zane said.

"That would be me, hot stuff," Rufia said in her most dulcet tones.

"Know any good spots?" Zane asked.

"There's always Bea's Breakfast Nook down the street. The decor is kind of girly, but I'm just in that kind of mood right now, handsome."

"Last one there gets groomed by Uncia!" Rochelle sang out, straddling her leopard and dropping neatly into the cockpit as she flipped to skimmer form and took off.

"Does Zane even have a skimmer form anymore?" Rhianna asked, looking at the Integrate tiger.

"Just the one we bought after we got tired of having to de-Fuse to ride Terry's," Zane said. "I parked it out back; I'll go get it. See you at the diner!" He waved and dashed for the back door.

Rufia and her elk RIDE left next, roaring off loudly enough that it probably woke up the entire street.

Rhianna chuckled. "Looks like we might be in for a grooming."

"Oh, like that's anything new," Kaylee said, de-Fusing to skimmer form beneath her. They headed out of the garage, just stopping to let the arriving day shift manager know about their all-nighter and that they'd be in later that afternoon.

As they followed the others up the street, Rhianna couldn't help glancing over her shoulder. "What is it?" Kaylee asked.

"If Shelley's right, we sent up a signal beacon to any Integrates on this quarter of the Coastal Ring," Rhianna said. "Just wondering where they are."

"Who knows, maybe they'll meet us for breakfast," Kaylee said.

Rhianna snorted. "Then all I can say is, they'd better be buying."

Reflecting on the craziness of the last few hours, Rhianna wondered if she was going to wake up any minute now and find it was all a dream. Zane Integrated? She and Rochelle, Integrated-tech reverse-engineers? Wealthy Integrated-tech reverse engineers, at least by their own standards? When had the world gone crazy without her noticing?

But perhaps things would look more rational after breakfast. She revved Kaylee into high, and did her level best to earn Rufia and Yvonne an Uncia grooming.

Preceded by:
FreeRIDErs Succeeded by:
Integration Part II: Integrates