User:Robotech Master/Down on the Farm

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FreeRIDErs story universe

Cougar Town: Down on the Farm

Author: Robotech_Master and Jon Buck (with Jetfire)

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This story can be downloaded in PDF, EPUB, Mobi (Kindle), ODF, and RTF format from this website as part of the file "Cougar Town".

Cheers Bar, Uplift
March 25, 158 A.L.

The bar with the big orange “Cheers” logo had an unassuming facade, but on the inside was handsomely furnished in comfortable-looking polished hardwood. It was fairly full, too, with humans, RIDEs, EIDEs, and Integrates of all descriptions. A deer Integrate and a clouded leopard Integrate shared the space behind the bar, while a few lupine RIDEs kept order.

Clashing just a little with the decor were a number of hardlight display panels projected up around the wall, like TVs in a sports bar. But unlike sports, these panels were showing various views of the Steady Hand settlement site, replays of the ship’s landing, news commentators, and…was that them? Sonja, Laura, Janice, and Layla, sitting around the table at the Milk Bottle a half hour earlier.

Sonja blinked, then stared. “What the hell?”

“Oh hey,” Janice said. “They got my good side.”

Then the leopard behind the bar glanced their way, and then did a classic double-take. “Welcome, Steady Handers!”

“Hey, you two.” A privacy field around a corner booth flickered out, and Laura waved from it, Layla right beside her. “Looks like we’re famous. Get over here and I’ll turn this thing back on before you get mobbed or something.”

“Holy…I didn’t even think about that!” Sonja exclaimed. “It’s just been that kind of day.”

“Well, you were from the very first group awakened, then you crossed over within just a few hours, so the press has naturally taken a shine to you,” the doe said. “You’re a great human interest story. Now, shoo. Get into the booth. I’ll be in soon to take any orders.”

“You know, I might be more upset about this if I were actually from somewhere that gave a rip about the concept of personal privacy,” Janice mused, as she accompanied Sonja to the table. “But not only is Earth a surveillance state and all, you pretty much have to live your life under glass when you’re on UBI. So I’m actually used to being ogled by strangers.” She considered. “But being famous and being ogled? That bears thinking about.”

“Because you could parlay your fame into even more freebies, huh?” Sonja said weakly as she took a seat.

“Well, yeah…and, actually, no.” Janice shrugged, as the privacy field flickered back on. “I mean…if I’m famous, I can’t do anything that looks bad. I don’t give a rip if I look bad to you bums, but people who like me and don’t even know me? You’ll say it’s kind of dumb, maybe, but I kind of feel a…well, a responsibility not to let them down.”

“Ladies and gentlemen—well, ladies who were gentlemen—the perennial moocher discovers her conscience,” Layla said. “Don’t applaud, just throw money.”

“Pssh.” Janice rolled her eyes. “So yeah, maybe I’ll have to change my ways a little. Maybe I should check out that ‘Game’ thing I’ve heard about in Nextus. I did a little reading up, and it sounds kind of interesting. I never heard of a fun bureaucracy before, but I’d kind of like to try it.”

“Well, I hope that works out for you, Janice,” Sonja said with sincerity. “It would probably be a new experience for you to get to do something productive you couldn’t be fired from.”

“Yeah,” Janice mused. “And the whole ‘surrogate’ thing…I mean, earning money for something I actually did? I can’t remember the last time that happened.” She shrugged. “Maybe I’ll hop a flight to Nextus tomorrow and look into it. Given that the flights are free and all, it’d be dumb to pass up the chance. Right now, though…I think I wanna beer or something.”

“Then you’re in luck,” the deer said, stepping through the privacy field. “Beers we got. And since you’re from the Steady Hand, your first one is on the house. All the ones after will be full price, though. Hello, everyone; I’m Diane, by the way.”

“Nice to meet you, Diane. I’ll have a black and tan,” Sonja said.

“Whatever your most expensive beer is,” Janice said.

Sonja rolled her eyes. “Naturally.”

“Hey, I got a reputation to maintain,” Janice said. “Don’t worry, you can buy me something cheaper for my next one.”

“So,” Diane said, looking at Laura and Sonja. “You both crossed within hours? That’s…no, actually, that’s not a record of any kind on Zharus. You wouldn’t believe the number of disbelieving tourists over the years who did it all unknowing within fifteen minutes of setting foot here. Some of them are still regulars at my bar.”

“I did a couple of those when I was a rental,” Layla said. “I was fettered up so I couldn’t talk very freely. But no matter what the rental agency said, they didn’t believe it until they had their own boobs. Of course, by then they’d signed the waiver, and it’s just an absolute mess.”

Sonja hugged herself. “I’m still finding it a little hard to believe. I haven’t even slept yet since they unfroze me—well, except for the surgical anaesthesia for the biosculpt—and my life has changed completely. Next to that, finding I’m also a nightly news story is almost…not even worth considering.”

The doe Integrate…smiled, she guessed. It was more how her ears were set than the corners of her mouth. “I can make an educated guess why, the way you carry yourself. It’s different than how most crossriders do—no offense, Laura.”

“I’m good,” Laura said. “None taken.”

“I’m also glad you have a good friend you’re doing this with,” Diane continued. “Speaking from personal experience, not being alone in the change helps a lot.

Sonja blinked. “You mean, you used to be…?”

“A couple decades ago I swapped so I could make better tips doing bartending,” Diane said. “I did, but the switch was rough at first. I was in college, so I spent a few months with a therapist while I learned the ropes. The one piece of advice I give new crossriders—don’t be afraid to get that professional help. It’s not as easy as some make it seem.”

“That’s…one heck of a reason to crossride,” Sonja said weakly.

“Seems perfectly reasonable to me,” Janice said.

Layla chuckled. “Yeah, I guess it would.”

“And then stuff happened, I Integrated with Faline, yadda yadda. Now I own this bar with my partner Serena—the leopard—and here I am. And here you are. Rejected by your own world, changed by your new one. You can completely leave your old selves behind here, if you really want. The men you were yesterday? Irrelevant. You’re someone new now, if you really want to be. Your choice, ladies.”

“Then I choose…whatever your favorite beer is, for my free drink,” Laura said. “Show me something new.”

“Mmm. Today I feel like my favorite beer is…a Salvator doppelbock,” Diane said. “Right. So that’s one black-and-tan, one my-most-expensive—which is a Dogfish Head 120-minute, and usually wouldn’t be included in the first-one’s-free offer, but I’ll stretch a point given your celebrity—and one Salvator. Coming right up!” She stepped back out though the privacy field.

A few minutes later, she returned with a tray and glasses. There were bell-shaped snifter-style goblets for the doppelbock and IPA, and a pint mug for the black and tan. Diane set each glass down carefully. There were also three large glasses of ice water on the tray, and Diane made sure they each got one, too.

Sonja peered at the mug in front of her. It actually had two separate and distinct layers of differently-colored beer in it—a light brown layer on the bottom, and a darker one on top. “Huh. I’d read about those, but hadn’t ever expected to see one. The fabbed versions could never get it right.”

“Not quite one of the ‘impossible things’ some people say you’re going to keep seeing around here, but at least a little improbable.” Diane smirked. “Now, kiddies, listen up as Mama Diane lays down the law. You—” she pointed at Sonja “—have lost ⅔ of your body mass. You—” (Laura) “—haven’t lost quite that much, but you’ve got a stronger beer. And you, missy, are still just the same as you ever were, plus tags, but you’ve also got a beer that’s about as strong as four regular beers. So, in all probability, you’re all going to be completely wasted by the time you finish your single respective drinks.

“Since it wouldn’t look good for Zharus’s newest celebrities to throw up and pass out on my floor, here’s some advice. Sip, don’t gulp, your beers. Then gulp, don’t sip, your water. Repeat until you run out. Or pass out. Capice?

“I like her,” Janice said. She saluted. “Yes, ma’am. Understood! Will do my best to take it easy!”

“And feel free to order some fatty food to coat your stomachs. Highly recommend the cheese curds; the milk comes from the same dairy that supplies the Milk Bottle. Also, I’ve got complimentary sober-up cans or shots at the bar for when you leave, if you want. Otherwise, use your car’s auto-drive, or let your ‘designated RIDEr’ handle it.” The deer-woman smiled. “Now enjoy your booze. After what you all have been through, you deserve the chance to get wasted. Page me if you need anything.” And she slipped back out through the field.

“Probably helps that we had ice cream before we came here,” Laura said.

“Yeah, but not that much.” Sonja sipped the beer tentatively. “Hmm. That’s good beer. A stout on top, I guess.”

“Mine’s not bad either,” Laura said. “Nice balance of bitter and sweet.”

Janice sipped hers. “Oh wow. If this beer were any stronger, I’d have to chew it before I swallowed it.” She tried another sip. “That’s good stuff.” Then she took a couple of gulps of water. “So, what you think? Wanna order something?”

Sonja sipped her beer again. She was already feeling a buzz. “I think those cheese curds sound like a good idea.”

“I could go for some cheese curds…” Janice looked at Sonja expectantly.

“…if I’m buying, right?” Sonja said. She waved a hand. “Sure, go ahead. Cheese curds for everyone, on me.”

Janice grinned. “Thanks, Son. You’re a pal.” She tapped the intercom ordering button. “Oh, garçon…”

Sonja raised an eyebrow. “Son,” is it? That beer must be strong if a couple sips of it is enough to mellow Janice out like that. She looked down at her own glass. We are going to get sooooo wasted…

Laura glanced over at Layla. “Oh…do you want to fuse up? Since you like human food and all.”

“Heh. I honestly don’t like the feeling of my partner being drunk. So I’ll pass on this one,” Layla said. “But enjoy yourself, you deserve it.”

“Okay, fair enough.”

Janice took a couple of big gulps of water. “Whew, this beer. Maaaaybe I shouldn’t have asked for the ‘most expensive,’ but how was I supposed to know she’d actually give it to me?”

“It is pretty good beer,” Sonja admitted. “Wish I could drink it like I used to.”

“Eh. You’ll still build up some tolerance. Just enjoy the taste and the buzz,” Laura said.

This time the server who stepped through the privacy field was the clouded leopard who had greeted them when they arrived. She placed a plate of cheese curds and a cup of marinara dip in front of each of them. “Hello, everyone. I’m Serena—you all doing all right? Anything else I can get you?”

“I think we’re good at this point,” Sonja said. “Thanks.”

Serena nodded. “Well, just push the button if you need us. And welcome to Zharus.”

“Thanks,” Janice said. “Think we might just like it here.”

After Serena left, they lapsed into a companionable silence, nibbling cheese curds, sipping beer, and drinking water. Serena came back by with a pitcher full of ice water for refills.

Then came a red alert from Sonja’s bladder. “Uh…’scuse me. Gotta pee.”

Janice opened her mouth, raised a hand, then stopped and just shrugged.

And so Sonja left the booth, hopefully not looking as sloshed as she felt, and lurched towards the restroom. The bar only had large unisex restrooms, so at least there was no entering the wrong one. But when she got inside a stall (with the privacy field on max) and realized she needed one of those how-to diagrams mentioned earlier. It took a few tries to call up the right one on her implant. But at least now she wouldn’t make a mess of herself.

Craaaaaaazy craaaaazy… Her corner of GVL hadn’t included things like this. There are so many…practical things I dun…dunno.

When she finished, she flushed the toilet and walked (not staggered, she insisted to herself) out of the bathroom and back to the table. As she approached, she noticed a female raccoon standing nearby, looking around, biting her lip as if uncertain of herself. Sonja nodded to her, and stepped back through the privacy field to their table as the raccoon woman went over to the bar to speak to Diane and Serena.

As Sonja settled back into her chair and took another sip of beer, the table intercom pinged. “Janice, there’s a visitor here for you,” Diane said. “If you feel like seeing them.”

“Well, imagine that,” Janice said. “The wanker’s here. Let ‘im in.”

The same raccoon woman stepped through the privacy field. She was dressed in a pair of dirty farmer’s coveralls and smelled like fresh soil. “Oy, Janice. It’s me.”

Janice stared, uncomprehending. “Who?’

The woman smacked herself on the forehead. “Whoops. Left me fur and me boobs on. Just a sec.”

The Integrate’s shape…flowed. Within seconds there was a human man wearing the same coveralls, who did share a certain family resemblance to Janice.

You wanker!” Janice exclaimed. She pushed her beer away, only half-finished. Red-faced and angry, she got out of her chair and moved to punch him, but was a little too wobbly on her feet to make the swing connect.

David kept her from falling…presumably. Janice simply hovered at a 45-degree angle before she was set back on her feet. “So, uh. Yeh. Nice to see you again, sis. Uh, I was in the middle of some meditation when this little bird showed up…”

“Save it,” Janice said. “And get me a can of that sober-up stuff. You’ve got some ‘splaining to do, Dave. Two words? Two fucking words?”

“Well…things got complicated,” David said. “Now you’re here, with some new friends?” He looked at the beer his sister had just pushed away. “You gonna drink that?”

“If you drink it, you’re paying for it,” Diane said, bringing over cans of sober-up. “Just so you know.”

“I can afford it,” David said, shrugging.

“Before you chat any further, go clean yourself off,” Diane said. “I don’t want any more dirt tracked on my floors.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he muttered. “Uh, back in a few.” He hurried off.

“Whatinell is he? Her?” Janice sputtered.

“A stupid Intie trick,” Diane said. “Former crossrider and all that. Sometimes they can do that after they Integrate.”

“This planet…even my own brother…sister…what the fuck ever…” Janice mumbled, and reached for the can of sober-up.

“That was a thing that happened,” Laura said.

“I fully agree it was a…a thing,” Sonja agreed. “More beer? I think I need more beer.”

“You haven’t halfway finished the one you’ve got yet,” Laura pointed out.

“Good point.” Sonya assayed a gulp or two of beer. Gonna be a complete wreck tomorrow…maybe a few weeks. But tonight, good beer, good friends.

A moment later, a much cleaner coverall-wearing human slipped back in, sat down next to Janice, and glanced questioningly at her beer. Janice rolled her eyes, and slid it over to him. “Now talk, you bum. Explain.

“Explain…what, exactly?”

Everything. You know what? You just start explaining, and you go on until I tell you to stop.”

Before he started, he gulped down half of the remaining beer. “Oooeeee. That really hits the spot. Now…guess I’ll start just after I sent the family that short message.”

“Start with the short message. Two words, you wanker. Two. Bloody. Words.

“Well, what’s a guy to do after he Fuses a fem RIDE on a dare?” he gulped the rest of the beer. “I honestly didn’t believe what the rental guy told me. Lucky for us, Mollie and I got on so well. Really well. I mean, yeh. We aren’t separate people anymore, either.”

“Well, that figures. And you weren’t there to welcome me when I woke up because…?”

“I was off the grid. Meditation, you know? I like to shut myself off sometimes. Stops the noise.”

Janice rolled her eyes. “This bloody planet, I have no idea whether you mean that figuratively or literally.”

“I was on me farm just over in Terrania, so I got here right quick when I got your birdie,” David said. “And…well…yeah. I can do this.” His body flowed into a female version of himself. “Sisters, eh?”

“You’re about two bloody hours too late to surprise me with that, you know. Fecking wanker.”

“So, yeah. I’m a wanker,” she said, shrugging. “Just call me Danica like this. Anyway…this bloody Steady Hand business is just incredible. You ain’t a furry, Janice. Why’d they even send you here?”

“I thought it was because of you. They’re sending whole bleeding families of furries over. You know how their bureaucratic minds work. Root, branch, et bloody cetera.” She sighed. “But turns out, you were just a footnote. Real reason is, I’m a bum.”

“A professional bum,” Danica corrected. “You were always really good at it. Me, I had a goal to get off that goddamned rock and get here, so I worked my tail off…” she looked behind herself and laughed. There was a fluffy raccoon’s tail. “Well, I got a new one, anyway. Always said you could be anything you wanted if you’d just put your mind to it, Janice.”

“That’s just what I bloody did,” Janice said. “I was on UBI, thank you very much. And so they threw me off their goddamned rock.”

“Well, now you can live off of BA for the rest of your life,” Danica said. “Good for you. I’ve got a farm. I grow things and sell them for a lot of money.”

“Well, ain’t you just the salt of the earth.” Janice considered. “Do they still call it ‘earth’ here? Salt of the Zharus?”

“Sarium salts of Zharus,” Danica said. “Now that I’m an Integrate.”

Janice rolled her eyes. “Bleedin’ comedian, you are.”

“Now, introduce me to your tipsy new friends. I guess you met ‘em after they unfroze you.”

“Yeah. And they were a couple guys this morning,” Janice scoffed. “That’s Sonja, and that’s Laura.”

“Then they got the old Zharus Welcome! All new naughty bits to enjoy. Happy to meet you both.” Danica raised her now-empty glass. “Oh, one second. Gotta have a proper toast.” She tapped the intercom button. “Could I have one of my usuals, please? Oh, and put their beers on my tab too.”

Their beers are free,” Diane said.

“Then give ‘em their next beers free instead. These are on me.”

“Well, I won’t ever say no to money. You got it. One sarium porter, coming up.”

“Thanks, sweetie. You’re a dear.”

“Oh, really? You thought I hadn’t noticed?”

Diane brought in a mug of something dark and rich that also seemed to sparkle just a little in the depths more than mere carbonation could account for. “Thank you, luv. Bill me tab at the end of the month as usual, yes?”

Diane flicked an ear. “I know you’re good for it. That’s why I put up with you.” She retreated, and Danica turned back to the table.

“Now, where was I…oh yes. A toast.” She raised the mug. “To new friends, and new naughty bits. To the Zharus you now call home. Cheers!”

“Cheers!” everyone repeated, clinking their glasses together.

Danica drained half of her beer off in one gulp. “Ahhh, that’s got a nice kick to it. For one of my lot, anyway. The sarium salts, y’see. Integrate metabolism.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Janice said.

“Now, do you have a place to stay tonight? Terrania isn’t that far away and I have room on the farm,” Danica said.

“Just a hotel room, but I’m easy,” Sonja said. “Don’t even have any of my own stuff there. I can cancel it from here. Shouldn’t pass up any learning ottorp—opport—any chances to learn new stuff.” Sonja peered at her beer, feeling her eyes go a little crossed. “I think I’m gonna need a can of that sober-up stuff.” Janice slid one across to her.

“I’d like to see what an Integrate farm looks like,” Laura said. “Professional interest. I’m a Soil Restoration Technician.”

“Sounds pretty interesting,” Layla added.

Janice crossed her arms. “All right, ye bloody great wanker, I guess I’m outvoted. I’ll tag along and see what yer doing with yer time.”

“Brilliant! Then finish up your beers, luvs. I’ll go rent a flier to take us all there while you’re about it.” She guzzled the rest of her beer, then got up, expanding back outward into her furry raccoon form as she went.

“Your brother is very…impressive,” Laura said.

Sonja chugged the last of her beer, then followed up with a gulp of sober-up so it wouldn’t leave her on the floor. “That’s a word I’d use.”

“Well, man, woman, or furry, he’s still a wanker,” Janice scoffed. She finished her sober-up. “Mmm. Grapefruity.”

Sonja sipped from her can. “Seems like a waste to get drunk and then immediately wash it away.”

Janice shrugged. “Well, we didn’t pay for the booze, so you could say we got what we paid for. There’ll be lots more times you can come get drunk.”

Laura finished her beer and reached for a sober-up can. “It’s been a fun experience, but now I’m looking forward to yet another new experience—seeing how an Integrate farms. And the day isn’t even over yet.”

Sonja nodded. “This has certainly been an education, I’ll give it that.”

The raccoon woman poked her head back through the privacy field. “All done? Great! Come along, then—I’ve got the flier on standby at the aerodrome. If you’ve got a car, I can give you directions there.”

“Sure, the car’s mine.” Sonja scooped up the last handful of cheese curds from her plate, then got up and left the booth. The others followed them out of the bar.

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The flier turned out to be a Cessna Caravan—or at least one of the myriad twentieth-century replicas that seemed to be all over this planet. A closer look revealed the propeller was actually a hardlight or holographic replica; the actual motive power for the plane came from cleverly concealed lifters.

Danica took the pilot’s seat, activating the controls with practiced skill. Janice stared at her. “Oi, what’s this, then? You’re a pilot now?”

“Mollie was, thanks to a skill chip. So now I am too,” Danica explained. “Really, it’s pretty easy. You probably wouldn’t even need a chip to learn it. Not that there’s really a whole lot of piloting to do, thanks to the auto-drive.” She flipped a final few switches. “Now, if I really cared about staying true to the whole twencen nonsense, I’d taxi us down the runway, just as it was done in the old days. But…” She pressed a button and shoved the throttle forward, and the plane launched straight up. “…I don’t, really.”

“Eek!” Sonja said, as her stomach lurched. “Warn a girl, will you?”

“Sorry, sorry. Sis will tell you, I’m a terrible showoff.”

“He is,” Janice muttered. “Bloody great wanker…”

Once they reached altitude, Danica adjusted the controls again and they started moving forward. “Terrania’s just a few dozen klicks away. Practically right next door, really. It’s where a lot of folks stayed who didn’t want to be too far from Uplift, back in the bad old days.”

“Bad old days?” Laura asked.

“Back before Domefall, and the end of Fritz’s reign,” Danica said. “It’s an Integrate thing. Check the news wikis on those new implants of yours. Suffice it to say, we used to have to be a lot more…well, circumspect in how we interacted with you mundanes.”

“It was the last big news story to break on Zharus,” Layla said. “Before your arrival.”

“Brought about a lot of changes in our society. Societies.” Danica waved a hand. “We didn’t have to hide anymore. We could come out into the open, and finally deal with humans as equals. It’s pretty much why I was finally able to get a farm, and raise food to sell to humans.”

“Yeah, about that…” Janice said. “Even accepting that you are my dear brother, I’m having a hard time seeing you as the farming sort. You didn’t exactly have a green thumb when we were growing up. I remember the time you tried to grow cress in a napkin, as a school biology project. Didn’t come out well.”

“Well, before things improved, we Integrates had to find something to do with our time. Many of us developed a kind of super-okaku OCD with certain kinds of media franchises. Usually something from Steader E. I ended up obsessed with simulation games. Trucking, auto mechanic, farming, goat—”

“Goat?” Sonja said. “Simulated raising goats?”

Being a goat. Some kind of joke sim. It’s complicated and silly. There was one for being a goose, too, but I just couldn’t get into that one. Anyway, I ended up stuck on farming. Ran the whole sim on my internal systems. So you could often find me in a corner of the Enclave curled up and drooling while I grew soybeans in my head. Then one day they woke me up and said Fritz was gone.

“Honestly, I had no idea what else to do with myself. But I’d spent virtual decades farming, so naturally I decided to bring it into the Real. I think I’m quite good at it, really. The sims were quite detailed—kind of like instructional material. They gave me the knowledge; all I had to do was put it into practice.”

“That’s…rather amazing,” Laura said. “When we get there I really want to get my hands dirty in your fields.”

“Is that what they’re calling it these days?” Janice wondered.

Danica ignored her. “Sure. It’s not a huge farm. I have a half dozen employees, since we try and use some ‘authentic’ methods. Mostly in the planting and harvesting machinery.”

“Do you rotate your crops? How do you keep the soil fertile?”

Danica smiled. “Patience, my new friend. There’s plenty of time. Right now I think I should ask when the last time you slept was. You’re not going to be on our thirty hour day yet.”

“Well, technically the last time we slept slept was…I guess must be a couple of years ago by now,” Sonja said. “We just woke up on Zharus…uh…wow…twenty hours ago. Of course I spent four hours getting new naughty bits installed in a med tank. Maybe that’s why I’m not that tired.”

“I had the new naughty bits installed, too, but didn’t go to sleep for it,” Laura said. She ran her fingers through her blonde hair. “I suppose I’m kind of running on adrenaline. It’s just been that kind of day.”

“Well, here we are. Of course you can’t see anything in the dark, so the tour can wait until the sun is up,” Danica said, pushing the yoke forward. “There’s plenty of room to sleep in the bunkhouse, as well as RIDE chargers for your partner. If you need toothbrushes or necessaries, there’s a fabber, too. I’ll get you set up there, and we’ll show you everything tomorrow.”

Sonja yawned. “Sounds good to me.”

“Hey, cut it out with the yawning, you’ll have me doing—” Janice interrupted herself by yawning, and Laura quickly followed.

Danica chuckled. “Yes, I think it’s definitely bedtime for you lot. Will have you on the ground in just a tic.”

They really couldn’t see much of the area as they landed. There were a number of lights around, a village or two nearby on forested hillsides, and what looked like, of all things, the castle from the Walt Disney logo (or at least one very similar) in the distance all lit up by spotlights. Then they were down past the treeline, settling onto a round landing pad near a cluster of buildings. One was warehouse-sized and from the open doors contained farm equipment. The second was a white wood-clad farmhouse, and the last was likely the bunkhouse.

“Send your size to the fabber and it’ll make you some night clothes. And if you want to get your hands dirty tomorrow, some field coveralls, boots, and gloves,” Danica said. “Sleep well. I need to check the south forty. Wheat’s almost ripe.”

Janice stared around. “This is…quite some little operation you’ve got going here. When you said you had a farm, I expected…well, I don’t know what I expected, but something smaller than this.”

“It’s about eighty acres of grain crops, plus some greenhouses where I grow some special things. Tiny by Laurasian standards. Just enough for a few people to make a living.” Danica shrugged. “It’s Enclave land nobody was doing anything with. Plus we need legit income anyway. I’ll show you more tomorrow.”

“Right. We’ll see you then.” Sonja led the way into the bunkhouse, which was…not exactly what she’d expected. The word “bunkhouse” conjured up images of sleeping quarters with bunk beds in rows and relatively little privacy. But what they had here were “bunks” in about the same way that their flier was an “airplane.” They were more like capsule hotels—sealable beds with canopies, independent air conditioning, and what looked like media players and such built in.

Sonja’s implant pinged, superimposing a carat mark over one particular capsule, and when she looked in she noticed a set of pajamas laid out, still warm from the fabber, as well as a toothbrush and toothpaste. The others were making similar discoveries. There was a bathroom nearby, with curtained-off areas to change. It didn’t take long for them to brush their teeth. Sonja found that changing into her pajamas, however, was another adventure.

Finally, she carried her clothes back out into the bunkroom, and found a drawer open under the capsule to receive them. She climbed in and tapped the button to close the privacy canopy. The air conditioning started automatically. Now, the next challenge…I wonder if there’s a ‘sleeping with your new breasts’ guide…yeesh. There was, of course. Laura was probably having a similar moment in her pod.

But for all of that, as full as the day had been, it was actually surprisingly easy to drift off to sleep. Sonja was never quite sure when it happened, but she soon slipped into a deep slumber.

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When Sonja woke, she had a sense in the back of her mind that she’d had unsettling dreams, but nothing that had stayed with her past waking. She experienced a moment of confusion at seeing the glass privacy shield over her, briefly wondering if she was back in a cryo-capsule again. Then her memories came back, and she remembered everything that had happened the day before. She looked down at herself, seeing the way her pajamas rose in twin hills she’d never had before—and yet, even with them in the way, she could still see her toes. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen her toes without having to bend over.

It wouldn’t have been an exaggeration to say she felt like a whole new person. But it seemed fitting. A whole new person, for a whole new planet. Guess I should get up and see what it looks like in the daylight.

Laura looked a bit of a wreck—with bags under her eyes, hair in extreme bedhead, and a distinctly grumpy expression. “I’m glad one of us slept well.”

“Wow. What happened to you, Laura?”

“Well…I sleep on my stomach. I’ve got sore boobs like you wouldn’t believe.” She rubbed one carefully. “Kept waking up after rolling over.”

Sonja nodded. “You’re probably going to have to form new habits.”

“I’m going to suggest she Fuse-sleep tonight,” Layla added. “Or maybe a Fuse-nap later.”

“Sounds good, Layla,” Laura said. She yawned. “Maybe I’ll just do that from now on.”

“It’s always bloody capsules on this world,” Janice muttered, climbing out of her own. “Cryo capsules, medical capsules…bloody sleeping capsules.”

“But you slept well?” Sonja asked.

“Oh, sure. I slept like a hollow log.” Janice stretched. “But in a capsule.” She yawned and stretched. “Well, guess we might as well get our clothes on and go hunt up that brother-sister of mine.” She opened the drawer under her capsule. “Oh, huh. They cleaned and pressed them while we slept.”

“Or recycled and re-fabbed them,” Laura said. “Which amounts to about the same thing, on this world.”

Sonja opened her drawer. “You’re right. Well, let’s get dressed, then, and go see what’s for breakfast. Maybe they have a cafeteria or something.”

As it turned out, they did. The next building over had a dining area, where a few Integrates and humans had already gathered at one of the tables. There were fabbers, but there was also an attached kitchenette, where Danica was busy with pots and pans. “Hey, ducks. Was wondering when you’d get up.” She nodded toward the empty table next to the kitchenette. “Take a load off, I’ll have food ready in just a tic.”

“Food sounds good,” Janice said. “My second real breakfast in as many days. Back on Earth, it’d be a nutri-bar and weak tea.”

“That’s UBI for you. How long’s it since you’ve had a full breakfast?”

Janice sniffed. “A full breakfast? You mean…?”

“Bacon, eggs, bangers, scones, fried tomatoes and mushrooms…even have some bubble and squeak cooking.” Danica grinned. “All of it made with human-safe ingredients, of course. We don’t usually dine this fancy, but…I thought you might like a little taste of home.”

Janice sniffed appreciatively. “I haven’t had that kind of breakfast since…well, since me school days, I guess, when we were living home with Ma and Da.” She cocked her head. “You’re not trying to butter me up for something, are you?”

“Oh, no, perish the thought! But it’s been so long since I’ve seen you…just thought I should do something nice.”

“Hmph.” Janice shook her head. “Well, you’re still a wanker…but I guess you’re not such a bad ‘un.”

Danica smirked. “Praising me with faint damns? Well, that’s you all over. So, thanks.” Janice stuck her tongue out at her.

“So let’s dig in already,” Laura said. “This looks as good as last night’s BBQ.”

“Here you go! Bon appetit!” Danica set plates down before them all, before taking a dish of her own and joining them. Conversation came to a halt for a couple of minutes as they all occupied themselves in the business of stuffing their faces.

“This is delicious,” Sonja said. “Can’t say I’ve ever eaten much English cuisine before, but it’s good.”

“So, what do you think will happen our second day on Zharus?” Laura asked.

“We’ll get fed!” Janice said around a mouthful of food. “Maybe even more than once!”

Danica chuckled. “I see your sense of priorities is still intact.”

Janice swallowed. “I’m a woman of simple tastes, okay? And…this really is good, bro. Guess you were paying attention when Ma did the cooking.”

“Thanks. I do miss the comforts of home sometimes, so I do me best to reproduce them. It’s nice to have it properly appreciated.”

As they cleaned their plates, Danica looked up and waved to the other table. “Oi, you lot, get on over here and meet my sister!”

There were four of them, two Integrates, one human, and a young woman with skin the shade of milk chocolate and the glowing eyes Sonja had come to associate with EIs.

Danica pointed to everyone in-turn as she introduced them. “These are my employees. Frisco—”

“Howdy,” the large horse Integrate said.


“Happy to meet you,” the female brown rat said.


The brown-haired human man nodded.

“—and Moonray. She’s an EI.”

“Happy to meet you,” the EI said. Except for the eyes, she looked like flesh and blood—Sonja decided it was probably hardlight.

“Everyone, this is my sister Janice and her friends Layla, Sonja, and Laura.”

Sonja waved. “Hi.”

“You’ve got employees, even?” Janice said. “Wow. Uh…nice to meet you all. How’d you end up working for this wanker?”

Frisco snorted. “Wanker, eh? Well, Amira an’ me were already her friends here at the Enclave. So when she decided to start the farm, we decided to join her.”

“We often joined her sims so she’d have company,” Amira said. “So you could say things stayed exactly the same, only we couldn’t speed up the time scale anymore.”

“What about you, Jake?” Janice said.

“Me? Nothing special. Just responded to an ad,” Jake said. “Though I admit I did want to live in an Enclave.”

“Jake here is still looking for his ideal RIDE partner,” Janice said.

“Yeah. And I’m having a bit of trouble on that score. No idea why,” Jake said.

“You take the personality assessment?” Sonja asked. “It seemed pretty complete to me.”

“I don’t hold with tests like that. So I do it the old-fashioned way. No crossriding for me, either. Just not a thing I’m willing to do. Uh, no offense.”

Sonja shrugged. “Takes all kinds, I guess. Good luck with it, anyway. There’s a new RIDE waiting for me when I get back home.”

Jake nodded. “Hope things work out for you two.”

“I wouldn’t mind some of those scones,” Moonray said.

“I made enough so there’d be leftovers of everything. Dig in if you’re still hungry,” Danica said.

“I’ll hafta pass. I’d better get working on cultivating the Back Forty,” Frisco said. “Nice meetin’ all y’all.”

Janice blinked at Moonray. “Wait…you eat? Aren’t you a, uh, robot or something? “

“I’m wearing what we EIs call a ‘meat suit’. Basically a full-body replacement frame for humans. It’s as close as we can get to being flesh and blood—at least without fiddling around with clone bods and core-to-brain downloads, which we EIs aren’t really compatible with yet anyway. And I happen to like it.”

“Oh, brave new world, that has such people in it,” Laura said. “And you ended up a farmer?”

“I work in the greenhouse, mostly. But yes. I guess that came out of the way we EIs are ‘born’. It’s more…plant-like, I think. A codeseed cultivated on the Grid. I won’t go into the boring details. I’m sure Informio will give you a full course on the process if you ask.”

“That I will,” Informio said from a projector on the wall. “Hello, everyone. Now, back to work…” the projector shut down again.

“That could get creepy really fast if he’s always listening like that,” Janice said. “I thought I left that shite behind on Earth.”

“He’s not, exactly,” Layla said. “There are ‘dumb’ systems that just listen for his name, and ping him with several seconds of context if they decide a mention of him is something he actually needs to address. If you don’t want him to hear you, just don’t ever say his name.”

“Huh. Okay.” Janice shrugged.

“Anyway, it was nice to meet you,” Moonray said. “But we should finish eating and get to work now. This farm will not run itself.”

“And I’ve got some things to show them before I join you all,” Danica said. “I’ll be with you lot soon.”

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Sonja and the others followed Danica out of the dining hall. “So, where are we going first?” Laura asked.

“As it happens, since you’re so interested in the soil, I’ve got one field we just finished harvesting out and plowing under, so you can see it in its natural state. It’s just over this way.” Danica led the way past the buildings to a field just beyond them, all raw furrowed dirt from end to end.

Laura bent down and scooped up a double handful of dark soil, rubbed it between her fingers, then smelled it, taking deep breaths. “Oooh, now that’s the stuff. Smells just about right for cultivation.”

“We’ve got a dirt connoisseur here,” Janice snarked.

“I’m passionate about my work,” Laura said. “It’s taken centuries to restore all types of soils. Smells like you’re not completely using ‘antique’ farming methods.”

“Hell, no! Too destructive. Got modern agri-nano in the fields and the greenhouse, to break down the plowed-under plants a little faster than nature, and also nitrogenate the soil. Never need to fertilize. Even the replica equipment’s on lifters so we don’t compress the soil.”

I really need a career change to go with everything else being changed, Sonja thought. The layers in a landfill could be very interesting in their own right, but after a while Sonja knew exactly what she’d find for a given decade. She didn’t even have the benefit of doing landfills on other continents, just Old United States. And there were so many unpleasant, and sometimes horrifying, things buried there. Dead pets thrown in the garbage, even dead people.

For every lost piece of jewelry, there was far more literal shit.

“You’ve got a thinky look,” Janice said.

“I have a lot to ‘thinky’ about,” Sonja said. “I’m a mixed-up mess right now. Turns out I’ve had a woman’s brain for my entire life, now I have a body to match. What do?”

Janice smiled. “Sounds to me like you have some catching up to do. If it were me, I’d just chuck everything I used to be into the rubbish bin and go native.”

“Well, I don’t know if I can do that,” Sonja said. Though it did have some appeal, it didn’t seem particularly psychologically healthy.

“There must be stuff for you to do with yourself here,” Layla pointed out. “This planet fetishizes the era you spent your life digging through the garbage from. There’s got to be a way to take advantage of that.”

“Well, maybe. I did take some archeology courses some years back, because garbage dumps are perfect for finding out how people lived. Some dumps I could tell you exactly when the plastics became consumer goods.” Sonja shrugged.

“There are companies here that will pay through the nose for that kind of experience. But hey, no rush. You only just got here. You got time to smell the roses.”

Danica snapped her fingers. “Speaking of roses, we should visit the greenhouses. I’ll bet you’ll like those.”

“You got roses?” Janice said.

“Well, just a few,” Danica said. “They’re mostly for herbs and veg, but the odd flower’s nice to brighten up the place. Come along, I’ll show you.” she led the way back toward the buildings, skirting the edge to a row of oblong glass buildings on the other side. “Now don’t be throwing any stones…”

She opened the door to the first building and gestured everyone inside, stepping in and closing the door behind them. Inside, the greenhouse was quite spacious, as well as several degrees warmer than the outside. There were tables along the edges and up the middle, where vegetables and herbs of different kinds were growing in neatly ordered rows.

Janice whistled. “Well, isn’t this a swell set-up.”

Larry felt a pinch of the soil in one of the plant beds. “Well, that’s some nice, rich dirt. Nanites again?”

Danica nodded. “They help a lot. Though you might also be interested in a couple of the other greenhouses which are set up for hydroponics. I have some herbs I breed special for restaurants in Uplift.”

Sonja finally put her finger on something that had been nagging at her for a while. “How is it worthwhile to grow all this stuff when food can be fabbed from the molecules up so cheaply that they can afford to give it away free for Basic? How can you stay in business?”

“There’s a market for ‘naturally’ produced foods—air, sunlight, nutrients. Some people say they’re no different from fabbed, but there are a lot of people out there willing to pay a little more for stuff that was verifiably grown or raised the old-fashioned way. Plus, there’s a market for new things that are protected by patent and copyright. Earth still has some nutso laws there compared to Zharus. Development costs are pretty low because the public domain is so big, so I have enough time to make bank on my creative work. My Uplift Mint will be out of patent in seven years, then into the pubdom for someone else to improve on. Economics, right?”

“Well, I guess you would know,” Sonja admitted. “I’m still trying to work out how all this fits together.”

“Would any of those herbs you’re raising be of the, ahem, pharmaceutical variety?” Janice teased.

“You mean like cannabis?” Danica shook her head. “Nope. A lot of the softer recreational drugs like that are legal most places on Zharus—especially down Califia way—but there really isn’t that much money in them since they’re legal. And we’re doing well enough from growing legal herbs and veg that it’s not worth breaking the law to try to get a little more. Besides, we don’t need to tempt any weaker wills around here to bust up the place looking for a cheap high.”

Danica led the way through the greenhouse, then out and into the next one, and the next. She pointed of the various plants with pride, invited them to pick a strawberry or two from the growing trays, and plucked a sprig of mint to crush and offer around for the scent. She clearly took a lot of pride in her accomplishments.

“Okay, raccoon lady, what have you done with my brother?” Janice fumed. “Seriously. David never was so enthusiastic about anything.”

“You should know better than anyone how Earth has no shits to give anymore,” Danica said. “So I didn’t either, until I lived here a few years. Even after Integration I was the same little pisser you knew.” She shrugged. “After that…well, I found my niche. Maybe you will, too.”

“Suuure,” Janice sniffed. “And pigs might fly.”

“Around here, they often do,” Layla pointed out. “Lifters, you know.” Janice just rolled her eyes.

The last couple of warehouses were the hydroponic gardens, full of pipes and tubing and liquid gurgling merrily as it flowed here and there. “Took us a while to get this set up, and it’s a spot of bother sometimes, but in the whole, worth it. Some crops just prefer the hydro over soil.” She plucked a radish from a nearby tray. “Here, try this.”

Laura accepted it. “Mmm, crunchy. You don’t happen to do subscription produce boxes, do you?”

“At present, the restaurants buy everything we can grow. But that might be something to think about if we ever expand.”

As they left the last warehouse, Danica nodded toward a battered farm pickup skimmer truck. “Now, if you all want to climb aboard yon lorry, I’ll run you a quick tour around the acreage before I take you back home in the plane.”

“We’re supposed to trust your driving?” Janice asked. “I remember that time back on Earth with Da’s car…”

Danica chuckled. “I have gotten better since then. But no, all Zharus vehicles have auto-drive and I’ll use it for the tour. After all, I’ll need all my attention for pointing out the sights.”

They all climbed into the pickup bed, and the truck (or “lorry”) lifted into the air and headed up a dirt track leading between two plowed fields. They were full of full-grown, bushy wheat, gently waving in the breeze. “See, these are those ‘amber waves of grain’ you always hear about,” Danica said. “Sometimes, I like to wave back.” She waved.

Janice rolled her eyes again. “Yeah, you bloody well are my brother. Nobody else would think that was funny.”

“Is it a lot of work to keep it up?” Sonja asked. “It seems like a lot for just four people.”

“We don’t do it all the old-fashioned way,” Danica said. “There’s a lot of automation. All our combines and harvesters are self-driving, for example. In some ways, it’s still more like simming than doing it ‘for real.’ Of course I can hop right in and do it myself if I want.”

“Do you do all wheat? What other crops do you grow? Do you rotate crops, and if so how often?” Laura asked.

“I grow what’s most marketable. Rotation isn’t really necessary with the agri-nano.” Danica shrugged. “Right now, it’s looking like emmer wheat is going to get even more attractive thanks to the big population bump we just got from a bunch of Earth trailer trash showing up here uninvited…” She grinned at Janice. “It’s the basis of almost all baked goods in the Western tradition, after all, and bread is a staple food. The naturally-made stuff will still be a staple food to people who can afford the real kind—not to mention all the fancy pastries that also use wheat. We might just have to see if the Enclave will let us expand to another few dozen acres. If we hired a couple more people, we could probably swing it…” She stared off into space for a moment, then shook her head. “I can run the numbers later. Anyway, this is what we do right now.”

Well, that’s a job offer if I’ve ever heard one. “I imagine it’s a lot of hard work?”

Danica chuckled. “Weren’t you listening just now? It’s not, really. I mean, we don’t tend to do too much of the physical labor, and when we do, those of us who are Integrates can use our hardlight and lifters to help shift heavy things. A lot of it is just sitting at a desk or the virtual equivalent, monitoring and directing equipment through telepresence rigs.”

“Hmm,” Sonja said. “Back on Earth, I spent most of my time monitoring and directing equipment through telepresence rigs. Taking ancient landfills apart and such. I wonder if the experience would translate over to what you do?”

Danica considered. “You know, at least some of it might. And I must say, you do have impeccable references—getting thrown off Earth shows you’re just the kind of person Zharus needs. And also, you’ve hung around my sister for several hours without going stark raving nuts, which speaks volumes for your mental stability.”

“Hey!” Janice protested.

Sonja nodded. “I’m still not too sure what I want to do yet, but if you should decide you want to hire someone else on, maybe check with me and see.”

Danica nodded. “Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind.”

The rest of the tour was pretty uneventful on the whole. Danica navigated them along the winding road between and around the various cultivated fields that made up his farm. Most of them were in wheat, but there was a little soy and another grain that Danica said was sorghum. Occasionally they caught glimpses of the castle on the hill, which Danica said was the center of the original Enclave, and still their seat of government.

The sun was a little higher in the sky by the time they returned to the cluster of buildings and the flier landing pad. “And that’s my humble little garden plot,” Danica said. “Maybe it’s not exactly glamorous, but it’s a living, eh sis?”

Janice snorted. “Meh. It’s…something, anyway.”

Danica chuckled. “It’s actually reassuring to know, given how much else has changed in my life, that you’re still exactly the same. Plus or minus the cougar tags.”

Janice rolled her eyes. “All right, all right. I am bloody impressed, okay? And a little intimidated. If this planet could turn these two guys into women, and turn you into a raccoon-woman, and a successful one at that, I shudder to think what it’s going to do when it gets its hooks into me.”

“I think it’ll be good for you,” Danica said. “It certainly was for me. You should definitely check out Nextus. Get involved in the Game. I think it would suit you.”

“That’s what people keep telling me.” Janice shrugged. “I dunno. I guess I could stop by there one of these days.”

“That’s the spirit.” Danica nodded. “Anyway, climb aboard and I’ll take you all back to the Steady Hand. Or somewhere else if you’d rather.”

Steady Hand works for me,” Sonja said. “There’s a new friend I need to go wake up.”

“Yeah, and I’ve got a job to do,” Laura said.

We’ve got a job to do, now,” Layla said. “Looks interesting. I’ll be happy to help.”

“And I’ve got…to go take a nap or something, I guess,” Janice said. For the first time Sonja could think of, Janice actually sounded uncertain about her loafing around. Sonja had a sneaking suspicion that net search inquiries pertaining to the Game would start emanating from her flat shortly after they touched down.

“Well, then, let’s be off.” Danica nodded to the open doors on the plane, and they all climbed aboard.

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It was a quiet flight back to the new settlement. Everyone seemed lost in their own thoughts about what they had seen and done over the last day. In fact, the first thing anyone had to say was when the settlement hove into view, and Sonja stared. “Hey, is it just me, or is that place a lot bigger than when we left?”

It seemed like the size of the settlement had nearly doubled, with neat rows of houses filling a significantly larger portion of the clearing around the landing site. The constructors were clearly still hard at work, pooping out one new house every fifteen minutes, and there seemed to be even more of them going than there were before—building bigger houses in some areas.

“This could be the fastest a polity has ever been built from scratch, even Alpha Camp,” Danica mused. “They sure are going at it, aren’t they?”

“I hope we can remember where our houses even are,” Janice muttered.

“I’m sure Informio can tell us,” Laura said. “If we ask him.”

“I have the ZPS coords of my hut in my implant,” Sonja said. “I can lead us there.”

Danica landed the plane neatly at the aerodrome, which was starting to look a lot less makeshift than it had the day before. “Well, this is it, then,” she said, climbing out with the others. “Everyone, it was nice to meet you, and I hope you’ll be able to make places for yourself here. Sis…I know we’ve had our differences, but I’m really glad you’re here now. You ever need any help, you’ve got my comm code.”

“Uh…yeah,” Janice said. “Uh…it’s weird seeing what you’ve turned into, but I guess you’re still you, somewhere in there…so maybe this world doesn’t change people all that much.”

Danica chuckled. “Coming from you, that means a lot. Take care, sis. Don’t be a stranger.”

“And you don’t be any stranger than you already are right now,” Janice replied. “You wanker.”

Danica laughed, and climbed back into the plane. Sonja and the others moved back so she could take off again.

Sonja watched the plane rise back into the sky. “Well,” she said. “That was…certainly a learning experience.”

“I think I like your brother,” Laura said. “She’s a nice girl. And seems to have picked up some business smarts from somewhere.”

“Yeah,” Janice said. “Might even forgive her for that two-word message. Someday.” She shook her head. “Well, anyway, let’s get on home.” She nodded to Sonja. “If you bums will lead the way…”

Sonja grinned. “All right, follow me.” She led the way toward the rows of houses. She was glad she had access to the ZPS. The landmarks had already changed considerably just in the last day.

Their houses were only a few minutes’ walk. As they approached their homes, Sonja noticed a few crates waiting just outside her door. The largest of them was floating on built-in lifters. She peered at them thoughtfully.

“Did some shopping?” Laura asked.

“Yes…but…that was before my little diagnosis.” She opened the smaller crate of clothing. “There was enough of the old me to make three of the new me,” Sonja said, holding up one of the shirts she had purchased. It was a nice wine red polo. “I could use this as a tent.”

“It’s nano-motile fabric, isn’t it?” Laura said. “You could just have your fabber turn it into three smaller shirts. Or a dress or something.” She grinned. “Or a tent.”

“I’ll see what I can do with it. As for this big crate…”

The big crate was from RIDEalong, with her personality match in a neat compact form about the size of the fridge/fabber in her hut. There was a big green button on the front, blinking an invitation.

“Huh,” Layla said. “So that’s how they boot them these days. Hope you two get along.”

“Yeah, me too,” Sonja said. “I guess I’ll go…read the manual or something. And psyche myself up to turning her on.”

“Call us when you’re ready,” Layla said. “I want to go Nature Range hunting with my new little sister.”

“Oh, I will, Layla, Laura. Even Janice, if you want. Don’t worry. See you all for lunch.”

Sonja pushed the crate into the middle of her living room, and picked up the media tablet attached to the top that contained the user manual and quickstart guide. She took a seat on her sofa and began to read.

Preceded by:
Cougar Town
FreeRIDErs Succeeded by:
Cougar Town: A Cougar Comes to Town