User:Robotech Master/Family Matters original

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FreeRIDErs story universe


by Jon Buck and Robotech_Master

Part 17: Family Matters

A couple of days had passed since Zane had first awakened. Now that he was out of the woods, Rhianna felt she could spare a little time away, to see to the needs of the shop and further her and Kaylee’s cooperation with the Marshals in their investigation into Nextus and its connections to Fritz.

But she and Kaylee still spent a good five hours a day in the hospital ward. She would talk with Zane when he was awake, which was still a minority of the time but growing, and watch him and Carrie-Anne while they slept, while taking care of as much shop business as she could virtually. Every so often, she looked up from her work and spent a few moments fondly regarding Zane. Who knew he could look so cute when he slept?

:You know, he looks the same’s he’s always looked when he slept,: Kaylee pointed out dryly. :Just gooier. Which describes you, too, come to think of it.: Rhianna chucked a virtual nerf brick at her.

But as she returned to her work, Rhianna’s attention was drawn by a commotion at the door.

“—restricted, the patients need their rest,” the orderly was saying.

And an angry woman’s voice said, “I’m his sister, you idiot. Look!”

A woman was standing in the doorway, holding out something to the orderly—a wallet, apparently. The orderly stared at it for a moment, then blinked. “Oh. Um…right. That checks out. Sorry, Miss Brubeck. Go right in. Your brother does have some other vis—”

But she was already striding into the room, her heels clicking on the tile floor. She was a few years younger than Zane, in her early to mid twenties, with carrot-colored hair pulled back in a tight braid, green eyes, a tweed skirt, and white blouse. Her businesslike demeanor and slightly nasal accent bespoke the same Nextus origin as Zane—though where Zane had minimized the influence, she seemed to revel in it. Her human ears and lack of tail indicated she’d either never Fused a RIDE or had erased all traces if she had. Her face had the freckles her orange hair suggested she should, which seemed at odds with her businesslike appearance.

:Every bit the stuck-up Nextus bureaucrat,: Kaylee opined. :Well, almost, anyway. Not seen so many bureaucrats with freckles.:

She drew up short to find the room was already occupied. “Who are you?” she asked. Her tone was mostly startled, though with perhaps a touch of hostility.

“I’m Rhianna Stonegate, and this is Kaylee,” she said, but she didn’t know how to explain exactly why she was spending so much time here. Saying she was Zane’s girlfriend seemed presumptuous at best and gave her an oogie feeling. “We’re…friends of Zane’s,” she decided.

“Oh.” The woman tilted her head, her braid swinging with the movement. “I’m Agatha Brubeck. Nextus Administration, Second Tier, Mineral Resources.” After a moment’s consideration, she offered her hand.

Rhianna knew that a simple handshake could communicate a lot. She took Agatha’s hand in a firm grasp, but didn’t squeeze. “Nice meeting you, Agatha. I have to admit, your brother hadn’t talked about you.” Not at all, really, Rhianna thought.

Agatha returned the handshake as firmly as it was offered, then seemed to deflate. “I guess not. We’ve…kind of not been speaking since he moved the HQ here months ago and cost me a promotion.” She looked down. “And then with that Integration thing, God, the press—I’ve been holed up in seclusion in the house, not checking mail or anything.” She sighed and looked back up. “I…only just found out Zane had been hurt. I guess I should thank you for being here for him.” She mumbled, “Like I should have been.”

“Cost you a promotion?” Rhianna asked, puzzled. “That sounds petty, somehow, even for Nextus folks.”

“Oh, they didn’t say it in so many words. But keeping mining companies fat, dumb, happy, and, most importantly, in Nextus was my whole job. If I couldn’t even do it for my own family business…” She shrugged. “And now with that whole crazy Integrate thing he started, I don’t even know how much longer I’m going to have a job at all. Everyone knows whose sister I am.”

“I know what it’s like to be targeted like that,” Rhianna said. “Well, not exactly like that, but I know what you’re going through.”

Agatha shrugged. “Well, when you get right down to it, on the trip over I had plenty of time to decide I’d rather have a brother than a job. So…anyway, I guess you can call me Aggie.”

:The ‘Aggie’ that liked to tinker with her father’s IDE?: Kaylee asked, bringing up the old magazine issues where Clint Brubeck had sprinkled in a few family anecdotes with his articles.

:Must be,: Rhianna said. “Well, Aggie, I’m glad you’re here.”

“I should have been here days ago.” Agatha sighed. “What must he think of me?” She moved past Rhianna and Kaylee, looking at the tank with the sleeping tiger in it. “Is that…him?”

“Yes. I…well, you wouldn’t recognize him, of course. The first thing he did after he and Terry Integrated was come by my Garage. Things kind of snowballed from there,” Rhianna said sheepishly.

She stood there, staring into the tank. “I only met…Terry the one time. He was friendly enough, and I was glad he saved Zane’s life, but…I just don’t seem to get on with RIDEs. Too much of my father in me, I guess.”

“Old Clint didn’t ‘hold’ with RIDEs, I know,” Rhianna said, deciding to admit a little more of how much she knew. She folded her arms under her breasts. “I kept up on what your father wrote about Chauncey. He always insisted IDEs were getting short shrift.”

“It wasn’t so much that, really,” Aggie said, placing a hand on the tank. “He actually kind of admired RIDEs, in his way. Insisted they be treated right as long as he was in charge. Even learned some engineering tricks from them for Chauncey.” She turned to face Rhianna, glancing from her to Kaylee. “But he just thought the price was too high. Let something else mess with your body and mind, and who knows what you’ll turn into.” She sighed and looked down. “Oh, Zane.

Inside the tank, Zane stirred, opening his eyes partway. “My ears are burning. Someone must be talkin’ bout me. Hey, Aggie,” he said through the tank’s speaker. His voice wasn’t the rasp it had been when he first woke up, but wasn’t quite back to full strength either.

Agatha spun around to face Zane again. “Zane!” she cried. “Oh, Zane, what’s happened to you?”

“The best thing to happen to me for months,” Zane said. “My baby sister’s come for a visit. Hi, sis. If I’d known it would take me getting carved up like a Landing Day turkey to get you to visit, I’d have arranged for it to happen months ago.” The words could have been accusing, but Zane’s tone made it clear he was making light of his own condition, not his sister.

“Oh, Zane.” Aggie sighed, bumping her forehead against the tank just as Rhianna had done a few days ago. “I’m sorry I stayed away so long. I got over being mad months ago, I just…”

“Takes two to tango,” Zane admitted. “I didn’t exactly try calling you either, after the first month or so. Thought about it when I got this new fur coat, but then things just got so busy…”

“I thought about it, too, when I heard,” Aggie said. “But then the reporters started showing up…”

“Guess Maddie’s the lucky one here,” Zane said. “Out in deep space somewhere in her scout ship, blissfully unaware of how screwed up things are back here. Boy is she in for a shock when she gets back in a couple years.”

“I dunno, Zane. After some of Dad’s hair-raising stories of facing down Bronze Age aliens in a chunky IDE, she’s going to end up shocking us,” Aggie said.

“Dad knew how to spin a tall tale or two,” Zane agreed.

“He told a few in those trade mags. I gather Brubecks never do anything halfway,” Rhianna said.

Aggie shrugged. “I’ve resigned myself to living in Dad’s shadow. But, honestly, I don’t feel comfortable discussing it.”

“Come on, Aggie, don’t be so fatalistic,” Zane said.

“So, when will you be out of there?” Aggie said, changing the subject. “That stuff looks horrible.”

“It’s really not so bad,” Zane said. “In fact, you could say it’s downright fab.”

Aggie groaned. “Okay, that didn’t sound much like Zane. That’s Terry, isn’t it? Smartass tiger.”

“Fraid so, sis. But really, he’s enough of a part of me that it’s hard for me to tell the difference sometimes. I haven’t lost my individuality, I’ve gained a snarky sense of humor. And to answer your question, maybe another day or two.” He traced the nearly-healed lines of separation on his left arm, and shuddered. “I’ve been flying by the seat of my tail through all this. I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing.” He paused as Rhianna glared at him. “Okay, okay. I am doing the right thing, but I still feel like a fuckup doing it. Dad spent decades building this company and I’m ruining it in a couple months.”

“Hate to be brutal, Zane, but those two board-of-directors chuckleheads in prison right now almost did that under your Dad’s nose,” Rhianna pointed out.

“Okay, that’s fair,” Zane admitted. “If I’m gonna ride this company down like Slim Pickens on an A-Bomb, at least it’s for a good cause.”

“Come on, Zane, don’t be so fatalistic,” Aggie said, smiling slightly.

“Ow. Touché,” Zane said.

“Should I leave you two alone? You obviously have a lot to catch up on,” Rhianna said.

That was when they all became aware of another commotion at the door. “—was told my mother is in here, and I want to see her!” another woman was loudly haranguing the orderly.

“I don’t understand who you could be talking—” the orderly said. “—oh. Um. Doctor Munn isn’t around right now, and he really wanted to speak with you first about—”

“Is she in there or not?”

“Well, technically yes, but—”

“Then I’m going. Out of the way, please.”

“I…well, all right,” the orderly said, standing out of the way.

The woman who walked in was older than Zane, perhaps older than Rhianna, though the anti-agathic nanites made it hard to judge age by appearances. She had short blonde hair, pursed lips, and a no-nonsense expression on her face. Like Agatha, she still had her original ears. She pulled up short as she saw the others in the room, then looked from tank to tank in confusion. “I don’t understand. Where is she?”

:Well, awkward,: Kaylee sent.

Zane sighed. “Um…hello, Karen. It’s me, Zane Brubeck. Remember, from the company picnics? You used to get stuck baby-sitting me, Aggie here, and Maddie.”

The woman blinked and stared. “I saw on the news, but…I thought it was some kind of hoax.”

:This is really bad news,: Rhianna replied to Kaylee. :Zane told me that Audrey sort of, uh…submerged in Carrie-Anne.:

:And C-A’s not even going to come to for a week and a half at best,: Kaylee said. :Well, crap.:

“It’s not a hoax,” Zane said. “When you Integrate, you combine with your RIDE. Like I did with Terry.” He closed his eyes. “And like your mother did with her RIDE, Carrie-Anne. That’s them over there.”

Karen slowly turned to face the other tank with the comatose black jaguar woman in it, oxygen mask attached to her face and power cord clipped to the tip of her tail. As with Zane, the molecule-thick slices where Fritz had severed all her limbs and her head had healed to invisibility. Her vitals were steady, if weak. Dr. Munn had said her brain was in a similar state to an RI core in shutdown, waiting for the body’s nervous system to heal enough to support it.

“But…that’s not…that can’t be her,” Karen insisted. “My mother isn’t furry!”

“I didn’t want my brother to be furry either,” Agatha said quietly. “But it turns out he is.”

Karen turned on Zane, her voice rising to a shout. “What did you do to her, you…you freak!

The orderly, who had heard the shouting, brought in a couple of the security guards. Bastian de-cloaked next to the door, looking cool and collected in his Marshals uniform. “I’m sorry, did someone say ‘frink’?”

The orderly cleared his throat. “Okay, ma’am, Mr. Brubeck here is recovering from serious injuries and I can’t let you stress him or your mother. Dr. Munn would have my hide. If you can’t calm down you’ll have to leave.”

“But he—it—” Karen sputtered.

“I didn’t do a thing, Karen,” Zane said quietly, his eyes still closed. “Your mother did it mostly by herself. And they’re happy that way. I’m sure they’ll tell you so when they wake up. We just have to wait.”

“I don’t understand,” the woman said plaintively. “That’s not my mother. That can’t be.”

Bastian tipped his hat. “You’ve just had a shock, ma’am. I’m an Integrate myself. Perhaps we ought to chat for a while.”

“I think that would be a good idea,” Zane said. “And we’ll put you up at the Corporate HQ center while you’re in town, of course. I’ve sent an email, they’ll make it so. Rhi…Kay…hate to bother you, but could you take Aggs for ice cream at the Milkbottle? Think’m gonna sleep now…”

“Okay, everybody out,” the orderly said.

“I think we’ve all been given our assignments,” Rhianna said bemusedly as they let the orderly usher them out. “Can’t argue with the CEO.”

“Oh, sure you can,” Agatha said. “I do it all the time. He enjoys it. But only when he’s awake. So show me to this Milkbottle place of yours. If it’s that good he had to spend his last breath telling you to take me there, it must be something.”

Rhianna grinned. “Oh, trust me, if you like ice cream at all, you’re in for a treat.”

Separator k.png

As they stepped out into the hospital parking lot, Kaylee dropped her hardlight and unfolded into her skimmer bike form. “Oh…” Agatha said.

Rhianna raised an eyebrow. “Not even been around RIDEs much?”

“Well…yes, but kind of at a distance,” Agatha admitted. “It’s still kind of startling when they change right in front of me like that.”

Rhianna swung into the saddle and patted the seat behind her. “Oh…you don’t have any problems with riding one, do you?”

“Oh, no, not at all,” Agatha said, climbing on behind her. “It’s just the idea of Fusing that bothers me.” She accepted the hardlight helmet that Rhianna passed back, and pulled it on. “No offense meant to either of you, but I just can’t see how you can stand it. Sharing your mind with…well, a complete stranger.”

“We don’t stay strangers for very long,” Kaylee said through her helmet speakers as they pulled out onto the road.

“Yeah…that’s the problem,” Agatha said. “What if you get a complete jerk? Or worse, get snatched by a bodyjacker?”

“If it’s a jerk, you write off the experience and try again,” Rhianna said. “At least, that’s what friends and acquaintances who’ve had them tell me. Including RIDEs who’ve had jerky humans, so it goes both ways.”

“But they’ve seen all the secret stuff inside your head,” Agatha said.

“And no offense but most’ve it’s pretty boring,” Kaylee said. “What do we care if some total stranger’s sleepin’ with some other total stranger? We can’t even do much with your bank account codes or credit numbers ‘cuz most banks have gotten smart with their biometric authentication. Trust me on this, most RIDEs and people who don’t hit it off forget most of what they ever learned ‘bout each other within a week, tops.”

“And bodyjackers are a whole other issue,” Rhianna continued. “Which…really doesn’t have a lot to do with choosing to share your mind with a RIDE. It’s like not wanting to drive because you might get hit by a skimmer when you cross the street.”

“Y’know, if you wanted, we could probably find you a nice, friendly RIDE who could serve as transport an’ personal assistant without ever Fusing ‘til you felt ready for it,” Kaylee offered. “There are plenty of nice metal an’ fur people who could use a nice human partner t’ keep ‘em safe ‘til their personhood rights come in.”

“You never know. If you do end up Fusing, you might find you really like it,” Rhianna said. They were approaching the park now. The original dome projector’s fountain of light was just ahead.

“That’s…kind of what I’m afraid of, really,” Agatha admitted. “If I do Fuse and share my mind with something—someone else, am I still the same person afterward?” She sighed. “And then there’s what happened to Zane…and Carrie-Anne. Exactly the sort of thing Daddy was afraid of. What would he think of Zane now?”

“I never met the man,” Rhianna admitted. “And I may be out of line here. But I’d like to think he’d be proud of Zane for standing up for his principles, no matter what he thought of the changes in his body.”

“Yeah,” Agatha said, and Rhianna caught a glimpse in her rear-view of a small smile behind the helmet. “I think he would, at that.”

“The line’s halfway around the block today,” Kaylee grumbled.

“They’ve turned up the heat under the Domes, that’s why,” Rhianna said, pulling over into a mode-change space. “They do that every so often, so every day isn’t just like every other day. Or maybe the ice cream shop lobby gets to them. Whew! It’s hot, hot, hot.”

After she and Zane’s sister dismounted Kaylee changed back to Walker form, and they got in line.

“I don’t understand this polis,” Agatha said, looking around at the eclectic architecture. The vast majority of buildings did without lifters built into the floors. As cheap and reliable as they were, something in the polis character kept Uplift architects from using them. “Everything is so…untidy. And the Domes are just an incredible extravagance! You pay what, a ten percent Goods and Services Tax just to maintain them? This polis shouldn’t even be here.”

“Aside from Nextus, Aloha, and maybe Sturmhaven, you could say that about most of the cities on Gondwana,” Rhianna countered. “Cascadia and Uplift couldn’t exist without climate domes, Burnside has to funnel away the lava from their settlement platforms, Cape Nord is too damned cold, Califia has those big quakes, even Sturmhaven knows they can’t depend on statistics forever. They’ll get hit by a Category Seven hurricane sooner or later, so they’ve planned for it. More domes like ours.

“Admit it. You’re spoiled in Nextus. Your founders had first pick of the best climate, the best location, the best magnetic field, the best all around. All neat and tidy because you didn’t have to expend energy on other things. Most of us don’t have the energy for the kind of bureaucracy you folks thrive on. We put it into other things.”

“Like making sure you don’t get instant heatstroke stepping outside,” Agatha said. The line steadily moved forwards as they talked, with Kaylee finding a shady spot in the park. There was a veritable pile of resting RIDEs of various species lazing about—felines, canines, cervines, rodents, equines, mustelids, a number of birds on concrete roosts made for them, snuggled together. Zane’s sister took one look and chuckled. “I’ve never seen them do that before. They look so content.”

“Nextus RIDEs rarely have hardlight pelts,” Rhianna said, leaving it at that.

“They waste energy,” Agatha said. “Or…so they say.” She looked thoughtful. “Come to think of it, I’ve always thought it was kind of weird to worry about wasting energy on that scale, as cheap as energy is now. We levitate entire buildings, but we don’t like fuzzy RIDEs? But try to bring that up to anyone and they just shut right down.”

:No guesses on why that is,: Kaylee sent.

:Smells like Fritz,: Rhianna agreed. “I’m sure they have their reasons,” she said neutrally. “Probably not good ones, but…”

“Maybe it’s just easier to think of them as ‘just machines’ that way,” Agatha reflected.

“I think that’s not too far off the mark,” Kaylee said, her hardlight flickering off, then back on again to make the point. “Frankly, it makes us RIDEs a little unbalanced without it, so that doesn’t help the impression we give much.”

“Why were RIDEs even allowed in the first place?” Agatha wondered. “I mean, no offense, but the kind of changes you can make in people even by accident…let alone some of the things the more twisted ones like to do on purpose.” She shivered. “Some of the things he saw gave Dad nightmares. Just hearing about them from him gave me nightmares. Ask Dr. Munn about her husband sometime.”

“I, uh, will,” Rhianna said, wondering how open-minded Agatha actually was. “But most of the time these changes don’t happen by accident. It’s a choice—mostly. Oh, hey, we’re at the order window.”

Agatha ordered a mint chocolate chip cone, then stepped aside and started in on it while Rhianna ordered.

“A chocolate mondae in a waffle cone,” Rhianna said. They liked to say that there were “no Mondays on Zharus”. They only existed in ice cream form.

“This is really good!” Agatha said, already with the makings of an excellent ice cream mustache to go with her freckles. “I might just have to start making the trip from Nextus more often just for this.”

Kaylee padded up and casually Fused with her rider before they started noshing theirs down. “A lot’ve folks do,” Kaylee said.

Agatha blinked at the sudden change, but didn’t otherwise react. “But admit it. You expected me to order ‘plain vanilla,’ didn’t you?” She grinned.

“Miss Brubeck—Aggie—I’m an old Nextus RIDE and I know you folks are hardly ‘plain’ anything,” Kaylee said. “The researcher who made me and my kin, for instance, had her head in the clouds. That’s just the face you show outsiders, and I ain’t no outsider. Why hell, look at Zane, or that sister of yours you said went into space. You call that shallow? You call that boring? Nah!”

“I guess that’s a fair point,” Agatha admitted. “When you get right down to it, I’m really not even that good at showing the stone face to outsiders. People keep giving me grief about keeping my freckles, but I had to draw the line somewhere. Wouldn’t feel like ‘me’ without them.”

There was a pause in the conversation as the trio focused on keeping their ice cream from melting too much. Rhianna felt Kaylee’s thoughts turn to something with a little more gravity. :I hope the gov’s been thorough getting our new gear installed everywhere,: she said, looking at the Bifrost Fountain emitter.

:If they are, they aren’t being obvious about it,: Rhianna said. They had sent the DIN 1.1 encryption standard to the Uplift government via the Marshals just yesterday, but who knew if they’d actually install it everywhere it was actually needed. :They’re already ripping the Consuls to shreds in the press over not capturing Fritz and not putting enough pressure on Nextus. He’s still out there, and the alpha and beta units aren’t that strong. A good Intie hacker could take them down in a few minutes.:

:We’ll just have to trust,: Kaylee said.

“Can I ask you a personal question?” Agatha said once half her cone was gone.

“Sure, I guess,” Rhianna said.

“How exactly did you and my brother meet? Are you…more than friends?”

Rhianna almost choked on her ice cream. It would only take a few minutes, if that much, to find out who she was—and had been. The crossride was a matter of public record. “Well, we’ve known each other for less than a year. Mainly it came through Terry—you know, when he was a RIDE. I installed the tiger’s original hardlight at my Garage.”

Agatha nodded. “Okay, so how does Zane come in?”

“Uh, Zane brought Chauncey to me after he broke down in the Dry,” Rhianna said. “Terry talked him into it.”

“But wait, he said that was—” Agatha blinked and stared. “Oh my God…I just put it together. You’re that ‘Ryan’ he couldn’t stop talking about, back before the move. Kept telling me what a great job you did on Chauncey.”

“I still look in on him over at the MMU Engineering School. I’m technically his conservator. The students there are as much in awe as I still am.” Under Kaylee’s fur Rhianna blushed quite red. She knew she shouldn’t feel embarrassed like this, but this was Zane’s sister after all.

“Huh. That’s pretty cool,” Agatha said thoughtfully. “I’ll have to go by while I’m here. I liked ol’ Chauncey a lot. Dad would have left him to me, but he was a little disappointed when I decided to go into government instead of tinkering. ‘Sides, without the corporate income Zane got, I couldn’t keep him up.”

Rhianna relaxed a little once she realized Agatha wasn’t making her crossriding an issue. It must have told in her body language, because Agatha suddenly grinned. “Now I know you’re from Earth. As if the accent wasn’t enough of a giveaway.”

“I was about to say as much,” Rhianna said.

“I won’t say it doesn’t weird me out a little, what you used to be,” Agatha said. “But I’m sort of in the middle. Born on Zharus, raised by Earthers with funny ideas. I can usually talk the Earther part into just going with it, most of the time.”

“Fact is that you’re actually seeing the more open-minded of Earthers here,” Rhianna said. “They’re sending all their deviants here, you know. ‘Recolonizing’ them. Earth still considers us their territory, the bastards.”

“Yeah, but you still have the cultural baggage you were raised with.” She shrugged. “Same as me, in different ways.”

“I guess that’s true enough,” Rhianna admitted, only cringing inwardly a little bit as she remembered how Zane had expressed something similar that one time.

“Anyway, as far as I’m concerned, if you’re girl enough to fall for my brother—don’t try to deny it, I saw how you were looking at him in there!—you’re girl enough to be allowed to.” Agatha grinned. “He’s a big boy, but he still needs someone to keep him in line sometimes. You might just have what it takes. Especially since you’ve been a guy yourself and so already know any ‘secret guy tricks’ he might try to pull.”

Rhianna laughed. “I never had any of those—left them all to Rufus. I just don’t know how to handle things on the fem-side. A friend of mine, Myla, one of Zane’s bodyguards…we had a girl-to-girl chat about it. Your brother has a crush on me something fierce. And I’m kind of…well….getting to like it. How did Zane treat his girlfriends when he was younger? Wait…” Rhianna sat up. “Maybe we shouldn’t talk about that just yet. Not here.”

Agatha actually giggled. “Oh sure! We need to have a slumber party where we can let our hair down and give each other facials and talk about guys. I’ll pencil that into my appointment book.”

“I think I could get Myla to join us,” Rhianna said, giggling. “You’ll want to meet her and Sophie anyway. And of course Rochelle and Uncia.”

“And Rufia and Yvonne,” Kaylee suggested. “They like to girl out sometimes, too.”

“So many ‘ands,’” Agatha said. “I guess Sophie, Uncia, and Yvonne are RIDEs, too?”

“Myla and Sophie are…special. Rochelle is my partner in the garage, and a very good friend. And Rufia’s an old friend from Earth,” Rhianna said. “We came over on the Spruce Goose together. Rufus crossrode five years ago and never looked back. And, well…when you find a RIDE that matches a friend that well it’s hard to think without the ‘ands’. I won’t call it sexual attraction—can’t emphasize this enough—because for most folks it just plain isn’t.”

“A good match is like…how can I describe it?” Kaylee said. “I guess Integrates are the best example of how well it can work. Your brother and Terry seemed to work together so well, complemented each other so well, even before they merged it’s like they were already one person. The perfect bromance.”

“Mmm.” Agatha nodded. “You know, what I said earlier, about RIDEs and changes,” she said. “I’m not really a prude about it, honest. It’s just that it’s something that totally redefined our society over here. Horrified the Laurasians, made us something between a laughing stock and a Bohemia in the rest of the galaxy…and any rational product safety commission would have been insane to approve something that could just change your entire body so easily. How could it have happened? It fascinates me, in a can’t-look-away-from-a-train-wreck sort of way.”

“I was there almost from the beginning, and I don’t rightly know,” Kaylee said. “But if I had to guess, I’d say that I am what I am because of wartime needs. The Nextus military needed a transformable set of powered armor that wasn’t dumber than the rocks they were trying to claim. To get one that worked quick, they had to take a ‘fast and dirty’ approach, take shortcuts they’d never have done if they hadn’t been pressed for time. One thing led to another, ‘for want of a nail,’ and so on. And I’m the nail, or one of them.”

“Call it a trigger effect,” Rhianna said. “A confluence of various things. After the war ended the tech was a known quantity and had already spread around Gondwana, it had a foothold, it was useful in the Dry Ocean. Couldn’t put the genie back in the bottle. There’s been safety refinements over the years—fetters and Passive-mode Fuses, that sort of thing.”

“And you’re not really as down on RIDEs as your daddy, are you?” Kaylee asked suddenly. “You try to hide it, but you’re downright fascinated by us.”

Addie sighed and smiled faintly. “Guilty as charged,” she admitted. “I just…it’s like what I said about not being me without my freckles. I’m just worried whether I’d still be me with ears and a tail, and someone else sharing brains with me.”

“Of course you would,” Rhianna said. “Ears and a tail? I traded my family jewels for, well, these.” She hefted her breasts. “And I still feel like me.

“How can I explain this? Share your mind, alter your body—you’re still you because you’re the sum of all your experiences. There’s continuity before and after. You’re no more a different person after Fuse than you are waking up in the morning after dreaming you’re Alice in Wonderland.”

“I think you’ve got a point, Rhianna.” Agatha chuckled. “Look at us, getting all philosophical over ice cream.”

Rhianna gestured with her claw-tipped thumb. “There’s a coffeehouse over yonder if we want to get pretentious about it.”

“I don’t think that would work out,” Agatha said. “I have it on good authority I look terrible in a beret.”

Rhianna considered something for a moment. “Seriously, how about I make you an offer. As often as you can spare the time, come down to my garage. If you’re still interested in a little tinkering, I can show you more about RIDE tech. No pressure, just a chance to get acquainted.”

Agatha blinked, then nodded. “I think…I’d like that. And I may soon have free time in spades the way things are going.”

:This is becoming a habit for you, Rhi,: Kaylee said. :’Here, stranger, let me show you what makes our new friends tick. You’ll just love ‘em.’ Worked with Lilli, worked with Charlene, maybe you oughta try it on Mrs. Walton next.:

:It works, doesn’t it? It’s a knack,: Rhianna said. :Besides, you lovable ball of fur, who can resist this adorable kitty face of ours?: “Can I also suggest a giving a guest lecture at MMU? The Engies there would love to hear any stories about Chauncey you have. They’re talking about reinstalling one of those new compact tokamaks just to see if they can.”

“Oh, really? Dad played around with that some back in the ‘40s. Thought it might be feasible, but by then he didn’t have the energy for big projects anymore.” Agatha grinned. “I wouldn’t mind at all, but they gotta let me drive him some.”

“As Chauncey’s conservator I think I can convince them. I wouldn’t mind learning how to drive him, myself,” Rhianna said, delighted.

“Me, too,” Kaylee added. “A human in a RIDE in an IDE? Sounds fun.”

“Like the mecha equivalent of a turducken?” Aggie asked, grinning. “I think I’d like to see that myself.”

“You have time right now?” Rhianna asked. “They’re probably not going to let anyone back into Zane’s room for a while, so I could at least show you Freeriders.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Agatha said, finishing off the last of her cone. “I’ve been curious about the place ever since Zane couldn’t shut up about it.”

A few moments later, they sped away from the park on Kaylee’s skimmer form. Behind them, the Bifrost Fountain merrily continued to churn away, spewing its dome energy into the sky.

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The visit to the garage went well. Agatha followed Rhi and Kaylee attentively from shiny new bay to bay, nodding and making appreciative comments as Rhianna showed off points of particular pride. She was at first more than a little intimidated by Rochelle’s perfect skin, slow-motion hair, and fluid body language, until Rochelle learned who she was and promptly emitted a loud “Squee!” It is impossible to be intimidated by someone who squees. Agatha wasn’t entirely a neophyte to RIDE technology, as some of it had been incorporated into Chauncey over the years, but was fascinated by how much more there clearly was to learn.

“And this is the main garage, where walk-in or drive-in customers come in,” Rhianna said. The main door was open to the street, though only a couple of bays were in use at the moment. It was a slow day. But as she glanced up, she saw a skimmer bike turn into the driveway, heading their way. She took in its art-deco curves, reminiscent of a twentieth-century Vespa scooter, and her implant identified it as a MNK(f)-LUX-010 luxury model RIDE. Not in quite the same price bracket as Uncia or Guinevere, but still easily into six figures new, and a bit of an oddity this far from Cascadia.

The rider was a woman whose ping-pong-ball helmet, bell-bottomed slacks and angora sweater matched the Vespa design for vintage. She pulled to a halt and doffed the helmet, revealing elaborately-styled blonde hair surmounted by two pointy mink ears—and an unpleasantly familiar face.

“Is that Nigella Walton?” Agatha exclaimed in a whisper. “My God, it is!”

Mrs. Walton dismounted, revealing a long furry mink tail poking through the slacks, and placed the helmet on the seat. It flickered and vanished as the dashboard hardlight projector cut out, then the scooter folded up into a furry brown mink.

Despite who it was, Rhianna looked critically at the RIDE. Even from a distance she could tell her hardlight was definitely out of tune, the RIDE moved stiffly with dust contamination, and probably had a baker’s dozen of serious problems that would only become clear after half an hour in a diagnostic cradle.

“I suppose you’re surprised to see me,” Nigella said coolly. “Well, get over it. I can have a RIDE if I want to.”

The mink gave her a stern look. “Nigella, be good. You promised.

Mrs. Walton sighed and seemed to shrink a couple of inches. “All right, Melissa, all right.” She looked to Rhianna. “Sorry. Right. Well…I’d appreciate it if you could look at Melissa.” She hesitated a long moment, as if trying remember how to say something, then finally added, “Please.”

“Happy to, Mrs. Walton,” Rhianna said honestly. “This way if you please, Melissa.” She put in a call to Rochelle. :Going to need your personal attention down here, Shelley. Hope you’re not too busy with Sneaker 1.2. We’ve got a live one.:

:A live one, huh? In that tone of voice? This ought to be good,: Rochelle said. :We’ll be right down.:

“Oh my, is that little Aggie Brubeck?” Mrs. Walton said, mink ears twitching. “This is a surprise. I was so sorry to hear what happened to your brother. I hope he’s recovering well?”

“Thank you, Mrs. Walton. As far as I saw this morning, he seems to be.” She peered thoughtfully at Melissa, then back at Nigella. “I can’t say I ever expected to see you with a RIDE.”

The zillionairess shrugged. “I can’t say I ever expected to be with one, dear. But it’s the most remarkable thing. Now I can’t imagine being without her.”

“Huh.” Aggie considered that. “You know, I think the ears and tail do kind of suit you.”

“Thank you.” She chuckled. “You should see my husband. He didn’t end up keeping his RIDE, but he has the most dramatic lupine ears and tail now. He’s quite refused to have them fixed; he says he rather likes them. They do make an impression in the Boardroom.”

Rhianna was already putting in parts orders for an overhaul. The more she saw how the mink moved, the more she realized just how badly out of tune she was. She didn’t worry about the cost, knowing Nigella would insist on top-flight gear anyway. The mink lifted herself into the cradle like a human patient sitting down on an exam bed, latching herself in, then shut down her hardlight.

The mink’s plating was covered in scratches and dents, and once Rhianna plugged in a diagnostic cable she got a very large shock—Melissa had a DIN-beta installed. The watermarks told her it was the designs she’d given to Paul. And Melissa’s maintenance logs indicated Paul and Fenris had done a very thorough memory defragment a few days before. :There’s a story behind this, and I want to hear it sometime,: she told Kaylee.

:Why don’t you invite Mrs. Walton to oversee Melissa’s overhaul?: Kaylee suggested archly. :Put that knack to the test?:

:That’s tempting fate,: Rhianna replied. :But why not?:

Kaylee de-Fused for this one. Rhianna wanted to speak to the woman with her human-ish face. “Mrs. Walton…how would you like to see what’s caught your daughter’s interests so intensely? I’ve often found that once a rider knows some of what makes their companions tick, they develop a closer bond.”

“Well…I suppose I wouldn’t mind,” Nigella said, a little of her usual persona reasserting itself. Then, after another brief struggle, she added, “Thank you.” She moved closer to the cradle, followed by Agatha, just as Rochelle and Uncia came in from the next garage module over.

“Okay, Rhi, what’s up with…” She blinked—receiving Melissa’s diagnostics at the same time as she saw who her owner was. “Whoa.” :Okay, I wasn’t expecting that. Nigella Walton? Seriously?:

:You owe me five mu,: Uncia sent smugly.

Rochelle recentered herself—after sending her RIDE her money—by looking at Melissa’s logs. Her jaw dropped. “Holy…Rhi, this is…”

“She needs the Patented Rhi-and-Shelley All Natural Overhaul,” Kaylee said, grinning.

“She sure does! Well, most of it anyway. Paul’s done a damned fine job with the memory defrag. I couldn’t have done much better myself,” Rochelle says. “And boy did she need it. She still needs some follow-up treatments, but Paul did most of the work there.”

“I see his grubby paws all over her,” Rhianna agreed.

“So, you were saying your husband now has wolf tags?” Agatha asked as they stood to one side.

“Yes, he does. Caused quite the commotion,” Nigella said. “The military insisted on holding him for a whole extra day. They feared he might have been ‘suborned.’” She sniffed. “As if. Knowing my husband, any subornation would more likely have been the other way around.”

Rhianna’s ears perked. :This just gets better and better, Kaylee.:

:We’ll have to get the story out of her somehow,: the lynx agreed.

Rhianna shook herself, bringing her attention back to the matter at hand. “Parts are almost here. Let’s get ready for a makeover.”

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Aggie watched with no small amount of interest as Rhianna put Melissa into passive mode for the repairs, then started removing access plates and other parts, pointing out what each one did and why it did or did not need replacement. Mrs. Walton at first regarded the procedure with barely concealed tedium, but somewhere along the way started paying more attention almost despite herself.

“The strange thing here is that the Fuser systems show a lot more wear than I’d expect compared to all the other parts,” Rhianna mused. “It’s like they’ve gotten several years’ more wear than everything else. By comparison, the lifters are almost brand new.”

“There’s a reason for that,” Mrs. Walton said darkly. “Have you heard of…I think they call them RIDE salons?”

“No, but I don’t like the sound of it,” Rhianna said, removing the component that kept the nanites fed and stable in the holding tank. “This stabilizer is almost completely shot. Fuser nannies are pretty fragile and keeping them alive has pretty tight tolerances.” She accurately tossed it into a recycler and replaced it with a unit just short of a Donizetti in quality.

“It turns out that buying a few cheap RIDEs and changing their nanites not to add ears and tails costs less than buying actual biosculpt equipment,” Mrs. Walton said. “Then they can style and sculpt dozens of people per RIDE per day and turn a tidy profit.”

Rochelle stared at her. “That’s just…sick!”

Kaylee and Rhianna were so horrified it left them speechless.

“Wait, what?” Agatha said sharply. “That can’t be legal, even in Nextus! The regulatory people I know in Third Tier would never approve that kind of use.”

“I gather there are loopholes to everything,” Mrs. Walton said. “But believe you me, Kenyon and I will be seeing about that.” Her tone of voice brooked no contradiction. “My poor Melissa…”

“No wonder she needed a defrag so badly,” Uncia said. “That’s terrible! What about humans? It can’t be healthy for them, either.”

Rhianna called up a few journal articles on the topic and scanned them. “Ugh. You don’t want to know. Humans can get fragmented personalities, too.”

“And the people who move in our circles aren’t exactly the most stable of personalities already,” Mrs. Walton agreed. “But it seems to be the latest fad.”

Agatha frowned, putting on her ‘specs. “Fuser nannies of that type are not licensed for bodysculpting! I’m getting in touch with some friends in Administration right now. Mrs. Walton, if we can add your name to the list of backers of this Official Inquiry, I think I can push it through fast. It looks like they’re exploiting a loophole that allows them a business license under ‘short-term RIDE rental’. It may be my last act as a public servant, but it’ll be nice to go out this way.”

“Sign me up, dear,” Mrs. Walton said. “This old battleaxe will be delighted to chop down that vile business practice.”

Zane’s sister shared a conspiratorial grin with Mrs. Walton. “My pleasure. Ever in the public service, me.”

“But she didn’t get some of these scars from a beauty salon,” Rochelle observed.

“Ah…therein lies a tale,” Nigella said.

“And a pair of ears, too, I’ll bet,” Uncia said. Rochelle swatted her.

“We’d really like to hear it, Mrs. Walton,” Kaylee said. “We know your home was completely destroyed—and the Marshals told us there was Integrates involved somehow, but they were very thin on detail.”

“I didn’t see most of it,” Nigella said. “But I gather your ‘Fritz’ decided we would make excellent hostages against your good behavior, and sent several of his bully-boys and girls to round us up.” She shrugged. “The first I knew of it was when Guinevere paged us out of the blue and told us we simply must retire to our panic room. Then we heard gunfire from the direction of Lilli’s room, and Kenyon decided we should take her advice.” She sniffed. “I’m sure I don’t know where Lillibet managed to acquire military assault rifles. Not that I’m terribly upset about it in retrospect.”

“Your daugher is very resourceful,” Rhianna said. “I suppose I’ll have to ask her about it, next we see her.”

“That could be rather a while. My husband has seen to that.” She rolled her eyes a little. “Regardless, we took shelter in the saferoom, and it was not long before the door came under attack, in a rather disturbing way. We armed ourselves and waited, and gave a fair accounting of ourselves when they smashed in the door. A raccoon and a dog, I believe they were.” She shrugged. “They disarmed us, and were in the process of demanding we surrender ourselves, when a vicious wolf and the most darling little mink caught them by the throats and forced them to the ground.” She smiled a fairly unladylike grin at the recollection. “As Lillibet would say, scratch two Integrates.”

“That just makes my day,” Kaylee said, her grin echoing Mrs. Walton’s.

“The pair of RIDEs were just coming in to greet us when the ceiling fell in. Apparently the Integrates had a dragon, who was more than a little peeved at our rescuers.” Mrs. Walton paused, clearly relishing telling the story. It probably wasn’t the sort of thing she was going to be able to relate at her next fancy soiree, Rhianna supposed.

“I’ll make sure Melissa feels like she’s just off the assembly line before you leave,” Rhianna said, patting the somnolent mink on her metal cheek.

“Thank you, dear,” Mrs. Walton said. “The next thing we knew, I was wearing mink, and my husband was a wolf in wolf’s clothing. And then we were buried under tons of rubble.” She smiled warmly at the memory. “Melissa was horrified, and certain that I would have her melted down for scrap for daring to Fuse with me without permission. And then I learned about her background, and…the poor thing, I simply had to…well, adopt her.”

“That’s it. I’m emailing Paul,” Rochelle said. “He has to have been involved in this, too.”

“As it happens, the next thing we saw was the largest wolf we had ever seen in our lives,” Nigella remarked. “He lifted the rubble off of us, and then went out to slay the dragon. I gather that his pilot is indeed the young man my Lillibet is sweet on. I had been somewhat skeptical that he was a suitable partner for her, but now…well, I will still have to keep up appearances, of course.”

An automated delivery skimmer arrived and carefully placed the mink’s new parts on the floor. Rhianna gave it her public key to sign for them, then sent it away.

“Then the military and police finally sent someone to check on us, and Kenyon thought it might be best all around if he sent our rescuers on their way—and Lillibet, as well, to spare her the tender mercies of our own Administration. Since their own shuttle had been demolished on their arrival, he arranged for them to ‘steal’ one of his. And away they went.” She shrugged. “And then, of all things, the military decided to take us into custody! For our own protection, they claimed.” She sniffed. “Our own interrogation, more likely.”

Rhianna sighed. That sounded awfully familiar. On Earth she had kept out of the DHS’s eye by not making noise. She didn’t have a Virtual Life, unlike most of her friends and family. She wore “everything on her sleeve”, as the government expected—at least until she’d met Rufus. Once their friendship grew she became increasingly dissatisfied with Earth. A little research had made it obvious those in power had taken cues from the East Germany playbook, and it wouldn’t be long before they were keeping people in instead of encouraging them to leave.

Being invisible and useful had actually played against her emigration. Her starliner ticket had cost easily three times Rufus’s. She’d almost had to sell her liver to buy it.

“I’ve spent a few hours under interrogation lights, myself,” Rhianna said. Six hours of questioning her reasons why she wanted to leave—and outright bribes for her to stay. “I know from government paranoia.”

“I never knew how paranoid our government could be. We’re supposed to be better than Earth.” Mrs. Walton shook her head. “Just because Kenyon did a trifling little thing like Fuse with AlphaWolf for a few minutes, they practically treated him like a war criminal.”

Rhianna chewed on her lip. “AlphaWolf himself, huh? Nothing surprises me anymore. No wonder Mr. Walton didn’t ‘keep’ him.”

Mrs. Walton nodded. “It would have been mildly awkward figuring out who was supposed to keep whom.” She smiled wryly. “But their mutual respect does not surprise me.”

“You know, I think I’d like to meet AlphaWolf, myself,” Kaylee said.

“Mr. Walton interested in finding a RIDE partner now?” Rhianna asked. “I’m sure Mr. Donizetti could help you out there.”

Nigella Walton smiled. “I have little doubt he could. But I think my husband has his own ideas about where to look. He never was terribly in love with the trappings of class, at least for their own sake.”

Work on the mink progressed quickly, as her chassis was well-built with easily-swappable parts, like most in her price range. Other than the new Fuser gear all she really needed were a few replacement hardlight emitters and plating. Agatha wasn’t able to pay as much attention to the work as she liked, since she’d decided to focus on getting those illegal salons shut down.

Then it was Rochelle’s turn, as she Fused up with Uncia and connected up for the remedial defragmenting work, shifting around sectors of memories that hadn’t quite had the chance to settle during the original work. Along the way, she was unavoidably exposed to some of the memories that turned up, and she shuddered at the recollections. “Those bastards need to go down, hard.”

“Working on that,” Agatha said, glancing at a virtual display with the latest responses to her chats. The look on her face bespoke her success. “Happy to report I’ve successfully gotten the ball rolling. You know how sh—dung rolls downhill? Wait until it hits those shops!”

Mrs. Walton looked thoughtful. “Agatha, make sure you let your people know that the Waltons are willing to take in the RIDEs that are confiscated. They’ll need proper treatment and I won’t have them sold off to someone who won’t care for them. If we can’t get their—Drive Extenders, I think—we can get the cores.”

“The Core is the important part here,” Rochelle agreed.

“Will do. Having your name in this is helping, Mrs. Walton,” Agatha said. She smiled like a tigress on the hunt. “Annd…they’ve just dispatched some MRS teams to close them down. Congrats! We’ve cut through the red tape.”

“Isn’t that your Polis sport?” Uncia said dryly.

“I suppose you could say so,” Agatha said. “It’s a big game to some people. There’s a large amount of game theory involved in setting up the various Administrations and Bureaus.”

“Just how many of these salons are we talking about here?” Rhianna asked.

“Fortunately, fewer than fifty,” Agatha said, removing her ‘specs. “And with that, I’ve used up all my favors. First they’ll put me on ‘administrative leave’ then I’ll be out with a punitive severance package. But, hopefully what I’ve just done helps balance out the petty vindictiveness of some of my coworkers in Administration.”

“You’ve not used up all your favors, dear,” Mrs. Walton said. “You have at least one rather large one remaining. I can’t wait to tell Melissa when she awakens!”

“I guess if I am out, I could always go work for Zane,” Agatha said. “He’s been after me to sign up, but I didn’t want to take advantage of any nepotism.”

“Hold on,” Rochelle said. “You wanted to avoid nepotism…at a company named Brubeck?

“I just said that’s how I feel, I didn’t say it had to make sense,” Agatha said.

“Okay, she’s ready to button up,” Rhianna said, starting to replace the mink’s exterior plating.

“So soon?” Mrs. Walton said. “My, you are swift at your craft, Ms. Stonegate.”

“Rhianna, please,” the lynx-eared woman said. “It’s more the way she’s built than my skills, really. Some RIDEs are harder to work on than others, and as a general rule the more they cost the easier they are to handle.” She paused. “You know, I may be out of line here, but I’m a bit surprised you didn’t just get a Donizetti DE shell to replace this one outright.”

“I did make the offer,” Nigella said. “But Melissa said she’d prefer to keep the body she knows for now. And if it makes her feel better, the poor dear, I’ll gladly be seen in her no matter what any of my peers think.” She smiled slyly. “Indeed, it might provide ever so many more opportunities to indulge my ‘public persona.’”

“Mmm,” Rhianna said, nodding. “Well, she’s ready for reboot. On your word, Mrs. Walton.”

Mrs. Walton nodded. “Please.”

The mink’s optics blinked on, quickly followed by her hardlight pelt, section-by-section from nose to tail. Melissa wiggled in the cradle and let out a comfortable sigh. “Oooh…I never realized just how out of tune I was.”

“We aims to please!” Rochelle said, grinning. Uncia padded up to rub noses with the mink.

“I’m so glad you’re feeling better!” Mrs. Walton said happily.

Rhianna released the latches on the cradle to let Melissa clamber down. The mink hopped to the floor, then trotted over to Mrs. Walton and Fused in one quick and fluid motion. “Thanks, Rhianna!” Melissa said. “I haven’t felt like this since I was new!

The humanoid mink moved an arm and twitched her tail experimentally. “This does feel remarkably more flexible,” Mrs. Walton said. The mink smiled at Rhianna. “I know we…haven’t exactly gotten along in the past, but I am very grateful to you now. Please don’t hesitate to bill me as you might have before.”

:You know, I think mink does fit Mrs. Walton,: Kaylee said.

Rhianna ruffled the lynx’s ears virtually. :I think you’re right. It’s beautiful when there’s a good match.:

Aggie watched thoughtfully, but kept her own counsel.

“Oh, everybody gets the same billing here, Mrs. Walton. In fact, you may notice some familiar faces from the Nextus hoi palloi in the waiting room on the way out if you go through the office,” Rhianna said. “You’re fortunate this was a slow day, or you would’ve had to wait.”

“I’m sure that would have been just fine,” Melissa said cheerfully. “Nigella can be very patient.”

Rochelle glanced over at Rhianna and raised an eyebrow. Rhianna just shrugged virtually.

“I believe we shall pay our bill in the office, then road test these new repairs,” Nigella said. She smiled serenely. “I think I will let Melissa do all the talking. I suspect word of our partnership will not have leaked far, yet. It might be fun to observe them all unsuspecting.”

Rhianna remembered her days of being “Kaylee Cross” as Ryan, using Kaylee in Passive-mode Fuse. Man inside, woman outside, she’d known all about ‘observing the unsuspecting’. At the time it was just strange, and enlightening, seeing how women were still treated differently firsthand. If that’s how Mrs. Walton wanted to show her face to the public, she had no problems with it at all.

“Oh, trust me, it’s very liberating to be behind a mask sometimes,” Rhianna said. “Have fun with it.”

“We will!” Melissa said. “It can be liberating to be the mask, too!” They waved, then skipped off toward the office.

Aggie watched them go. “Well, that was certainly…remarkable.”

“Good word,” Rochelle said. “Very good word for it, Agatha.”

Then Agatha’s comm beeped, at the same time as a new message hit Kaylee’s inbox. Agatha checked it. “Oh! Dr. Munn’s in, and she says she thinks Zane’s about ready to come out of the tank!”

Rhianna and Kaylee looked at one another. Rhianna cleared her throat. “Well, that’s great news! Let’s get over there quick. But, about Dr. Munn…”

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It only took a few minutes to get to the hospital, but there were already others there. As they were admitted by a much-chastened orderly, Rhianna noticed that Myla was seated near the door, with Sophie on her haunches next to her. Myla resembled Sophie just a little more strongly after her healing—the biggest change were digitigrade paws instead of human feet, and black pads on her hands and fingers. Otherwise, she was a little more furry, with her face yet untouched apart from the ears and cold wet nose she already had.

The only noticeable change in Sophie was that she smelled like a fox now. The partly-organic RIDE seemed a little embarrassed about this around her metal peers.

Several of the other surviving members of the bodyguard team shared the background with the ubiquitous Marshals. And Quinoa Steader was standing near the tank watching a small crane attached to the harness lift the unconscious Zane slowly out of it and bring him over a grated platform set up to collect the fabber runoff.

Agatha looked at the gathered visitors nervously, especially Quinoa Steader. Dr. Munn gestured for her to come over as the nurses started rinsing off the fabber goo.

“My brother the tiger,” she said. “Nice to, um, see you again, Dr. Munn. Hadn’t realized you were back in your male phase. How is B doing?”

“It has been a while,” Dr. Munn said, chuckling. “Boris is up on the roof, watching the dome fields.” He turned towards his patient, “We’re ready to wake him up. Quinoa, would you oblige?”

Rhianna wanted to squeal like a lovestruck teenaged girl. Now that he was rinsed off, Zane was just so cute, and handsome. Handsome and cute! And handsome!

Kaylee gave her a look in virtual. :Your estrogen levels are spiking. Don’t get too twitterpated with him, Rhi. This is new for you.:

The sphinx Integrate plugged Zane’s DIN back into the socket on his left arm. There were no signs left of being severed, at least on the surface. She held her ankh-shaped DIN next to his for a moment. “And…that should do it. Strong connection,” she said. She leaned down and spoke into his ear. “Wake up, sleepyhead.”

“Nrgh…five more minutes, Mom…” Zane murmured.

“I know tigers sleep for what? Twenty hours a day? Don’t think you’ve had enough?” Agatha said cheerfully, putting her hand on his right arm. “What would Mom say?”

Zane blinked his eyes open and looked around. “Oh. Um…hi.” He looked down at his fur, still slick with water and replicator gel. “Wow, deja vu.”

“I guess you feel freshly Integrated?” Quinoa said.

“Well, I’ve just had a few body parts freshly re-integrated to the rest of me. Thanks for that, Doctor, Quinoa.” He flexed his left hand experimentally. Little readouts flickered through his mind, not precisely in his field of vision. Error rates to the DIN and fingertips were a little high, but within tolerances. His limbs reported some sarium depletion, but nothing a pack of batteries wouldn’t fix. He was going to need some raw Q to eat, too. The fabber-base environment had done a lot to help things along, but he needed fine-tuning under real-world conditions.

“Still feel a little weak, though.” Zane wobbled, and Quinoa quickly caught him by the arm. “Or maybe a lot weak.”

“You’re going to need a constant power feed, Zane,” Dr. Munn said. “We’ll get you a fuel cell backpack so your batteries stay topped off. Also, until your condition has stabilized further, limit your use of lifters to 25% of your body weight. No flying. You need to devote all your energy to healing.”

Zane rolled his eyes. “Literally, it seems.”

“Until then, I recommend the age-old expedients of a lifter chair, a walker, crutches, or a cane.”

“Hmm,” Zane said thoughtfully. “A cane has…possibilities. Three legs at night, huh Quinoa?”

The sphinx laughed—not a young girl’s giggle, but a mature woman’s chuckle. “Well, you’re hardly an old man yet, Zane.”

“If you’re only as old as you feel, right now I’d give Methuselah a run for his money.” Then Zane looked over at the last occupied tank, where Carrie-Anne remained. Silent, unmoving, the black jaguaress looked almost dead floating in the goo. “How’s she doing, Doc? And please, don’t pull punches.”

Dr. Munn looked away for a moment. “Truth is that we’re not sure if she has brain damage or not. It was fifteen minutes before an ambulance even got to her. We just won’t know until she regains consciousness. We have so little information to go on about Integrate body systems.”

“I’m pretty confident she’ll be okay,” Quinoa said. “But I can’t be a hundred percent certain. We’ve got her in the most ideal conditions possible. It’s all up to her, now.”

“She’s a fighter,” Zane said. “She’ll come out of it all right if anyone can.”

“About the only way to kill one of us for good is to blow our brains out,” Quinoa said. “And even then, I know a few Inties who’ve tried to distribute their brains more evenly throughout their bodies. We’re still experimenting, despite pressure from Fritz and his stupid technomages.”

Zane looked thoughtfully at Quinoa. “‘Nowhere near in Fritz’s league,’ huh?” he said bemusedly, quoting the conversation they’d had on top of the Uplift dome after he’d critically blown his “suave” skill check with Rhianna. “‘I know my own limitations, and I don’t do anyone any good if I end up a bug on Fritz’s windshield’?”

“Remind me to memory-share what happened up on Uncle Joe’s station,” Quinoa said with some gravity. “But not now. It’s a little heavy for the occasion.”

Zane shook his head. “I’m starting to feel like a 40-kilo weakling in a pro wrestling tournament. Quinoa Steader is a better fighter than I am.”

“Seriously, Quinnie, how did you do that?” Myla asked. “I’m impressed, I’m proud, but how did you do that?”

“Integrate equivalent of adrenaline, more or less. I’m still pretty depleted right now,” the sphinx said. “I upgraded my batteries…one of them went bad on me on the way down from orbit. Then I curdled another upgrade getting from the suborbital to here and throwing skimmers around, and my internal analysis isn’t giving me good vibes on my remaining AAA-battery. No more super mode for me except in dire need. Fortunately if I lose the last one it won’t kill me.”

“So how do we stand up to Fritz just as we are?” Zane wondered.

“We’re improving daily,” Rhianna offered, wanting more than anything to speak with him again. “We’re up to DIN-1.1, 1.2 is in the works. It’s that beam of his that worries me more than anything he and his cronies can hack. Holy crap! How did he get something like that? I didn’t even see any emitter.”

“Whatever it is, it didn’t take him long after first Integrating to learn to do it,” Kaylee said darkly. “Looks like it’s improved since then.”

“I don’t know exactly how he got it—no other Intie I know of has anything close. But he won’t be firing it again for a while yet,” Quinoa said. “Bastard didn’t retrieve the limbs I carved off. He’ll have to regrow them from stumps.”

“Who has them now?” Kaylee asked.

“The Marshals have the arm and leg—we had to let the Nextus military have something, so we gave them his tail,” Quinoa said.

“We’re doing everything we can do to prepare for the next confrontation, Zane,” Myla said. “Via the Marshals, we’ve got other polities in on getting the anti-hack gear installed in critical infrastructure. Since he lost here in Uplift, Fritz’s supporters are making some noise in Burnside, Cape Nord, and Sturmhaven. They’ve also taken over some of the little mining towns in the Dry Ocean. The Marshals have their hands busy hunting them down.”

“It’s not open warfare,” Quinoa reassured. “Fritz has fewer and fewer open supporters.”

“Not since you kicked his tail and sliced it off,” Myla said. “We’re trying to get the wherewithal to keep them on their toes and counter-strike where we can. We’ve got official support from Uplift after the Government Center attack. They’ve finally realized what we’re fighting against.”

“Took ‘em long enough!” Kaylee said.

“Quin, could you help me to a chair?” Zane asked. “I feel like sitting down.”

Nodding, she helped the tiger Integrate—Rhianna felt a stab of envy as she watched the sphinx. His tail swished behind him, and he curled it around his waist to see if he could. After he sat, an orderly brought over a satchel fuel cell and plugged it into the socket on his right arm above his wrist. “Ahhh. Thanks.” Agatha pulled a chair over to sit down next to him, patting him on the left arm. He smiled at her, then glanced over to Myla. “I’m…so sorry about Marc and Cernos. I really liked them.”

Myla choked up. “Just…gone. Like that.” She snapped her fingers. “Not just them, either.”

Zane nodded. “Anyone who died, or got injured in that fight…I’ll pay medical bills and death benefits to next of kin, if I go bankrupt doing it.”

“Maybe you won’t have to,” Myla said. “The Main Platform’s almost ready to go again. A small victory.”

“I’ll take any victory I can get,” Zane said. He really looked at Myla, and rubbed his eyes. “Oh, God. Myla, your legs…”

“Natural high heels,” she said, bouncing from paw to paw. “I could say the same of you, tiger. I’m fine.”

“I’m supposed to have them. You…” Zane sighed and closed his eyes. “I did that to you.”

“What you did was save our lives,” Sophie pointed out, rubbing her real-fur cheek against Zane’s knee, then licking him. “Without the extra power in Myla’s batteries and the other partial-Intie bits we would’ve been vaporized like the others were.”

“I’m glad that didn’t happen,” Zane said, opening his eyes. “I just wish…well, I don’t know what I wish.”

Zane’s sister tugged on his handpaw. “You remember that story Dad told us? Wait, I’ll have to get more specific. He told us a lot of stories. I think it was…what…Sigma Draconis or something like that? The FTL on the Allison was busted—it couldn’t move something that size into subspace anymore. He had to bodge together a small message drone with what did work FTL and then wait six months for rescue.”

“But he never said he wished he was somewhere else,” Zane said. “Dad was like that. Never mattered how bad things got. Didn’t matter if he was going through Hell.”

“He kept going,” Agatha said.

“Yeah, well, he was Dad,” Zane said. “Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever be even half the man he was.” He chuckled. “Or maybe a quarter the man he was, since I’m half tiger now.”

Agatha hugged him. “You’re still my brother, kitty cat, and Dad’s son. You’re doing him proud.”

Zane smiled wryly. “I’m glad one of us thinks so.”

“Maybe the rest of us should leave and let you have some family time,” Quinoa suggested.

“Time with my sister, you mean,” Zane said. “As far as I’m concerned, you’re all family.”

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Not too long after Rhianna and the others left for the hospital, a caribou doe Fuser slipped into the Freeriders Garage and looked around for a moment, then shimmered and became a female lynx. “Whew,” Relena said from within Katie’s furry form. “Looks like we made it.”

“Hoorrray for us,” Katie said. The one drawback of Katie’s sudden rise to fame, they had discovered, was that any time she went out in public as herself, she invariably got mobbed by crowds of fans, well-wishers, and camera drones. This had been entertaining at first, but it rapidly got old.

Fortunately, the “skunkworks” mods in Katie’s new body included a hardlight disguise system that would be the envy of any Intelligence Fuser out there, and the ability to swap transponder codes to seem to be someone else. With a little help from Lilli and Zane, she and Relena had concocted a set of cover identities that wouldn’t hold up to prolonged legal scrutiny but would at least let her go around town privately when she wanted to. All Relena needed was a cap and a pair of sunglasses—fairly ironic given that human celebrities tended to use RIDEs to disguise themselves.

Katie and Relena headed in to the office to see if Rhiana or Rochelle were around. It had been a while since they’d dropped by, after all. Unfortunately the visit wasn’t just to be cordial—Katie was having trouble finding a job. Her fame worked against her, and a surprising number of businesses simply turned her away even as a customer. Katie felt bad about living off Relena’s family. She was supposed to be an example of how RIDEs could be good citizens, after all.

The Freerider Garage was basically Katie’s last resort. The citizen RIDE knew that the Garage was likely under a lot of scrutiny from many corners, but she had to ask her mother and Rhianna if they had something for her and Relena.

As they came into the office, a kangaroo RIDE was just stepping out the door, leaving a mink Fuser waiting on the bench the only customer left in the office. From behind the counter, a tigress Katie and Relena didn’t know waved. “Hello, can I help—hey, aren’t you Katie and Relena? We’re Linda! We’ve heard a lot about you.”

The mink perked up. “Why, so they are!” she said. “Hello, dear.”

“Hello,” Katie said. “Are Rhi or Kaylee around? We wanted to talk to them.”

“Oh, I’m sorry but you just missed them,” Linda said. “They went over to the hospital to see Zane.”

The one person more famous than Katie right now. Well, that figured. “Oh. Do you know if they’ll be back?”

“They didn’t say. Want me to comm and ask them?”

“No, that’s all rrright. It’ll keep,” Katie said, turning to go.

“Hey, you don’t have to leave so soon!” Linda said. “You look like you’re kinda troubled.”

“Well…it’s been heavy since I became Citizen Katie,” the lynx RIDE said. “Everybody wants to give me advice, or get an autograph, or any number of silly things. Nobody wants to give me a frrreaking job. I’ve got a powerrr bill to pay, and this Donizetti chassis of mine isn’t cheap to maintain even with the healthcarrre stipend.”

“And I can’t be with her all the time,” Relena added. “She’s like a big sister to me, but we have our own lives. I can’t be Fused when I’m in school, and I don’t want it to look like she’s too dependant on me, either.”

“Mm, that is a problem,” the mink said. “What kind of job can an un-Fused RIDE hold down? I suppose you could hire out as a taxi or shopping mall porter, but those seem a trifle beneath you. Apart from something like that, the only thing that comes to mind is…hmm.”

“You know, these RIDE engineerrrs are paranoid bastards…parrrdon my French,” Katie said, gnashing her teeth in frustration. “By all rights we should be able to run standarrrd waldoes for a pair of hands, but we just can’t do it. We have to Fuse. That’s gotta be intentional.”

“Don’t sell yourself short, dear. As Melissa tells me, you have computers inside your head better than most any outside of it. You don’t need hands for a thinking job.”

“I’ve always been more a doerrr than a thinker,” Katie said.

“Really? Are we going to need a bigger litterbox for all the ‘lynx do’?” Relena asked.

Katie playfully batted her partner in virtual. “Silly girl.”

“As it happens, I can think of one place that might find a use for you,” the mink said. “For thinking or doing. In fact, they might just be able to turn your fame to your mutual advantage. My husband plays regular golf with their boss.”

“Oh?” Katie said, raising one eyebrow. “Who’s this?”

“The Gondwanan Federated Marshals, of course! They’re not all gung-ho law enforcement, you know; they have a fairly sizable bureaucracy. I understand they’re one of the largest employers of RIDEs in the world, including those without human partners. And you might just fit in well at their public relations arm.”

“I think it’s worth a try, Katie-kitty,” Relena said. “Maybe they could even swing an internship for me.”

“Never even thought of ‘em beforrre now,” the old lynx admitted. “It’s worrrth a try. ‘Sides, I’ve got some law enforcement experience underrr my belt, myself. Thanks, uh…?”

“Wait a minute, your husband plays golf with the boss…of the Marshals?” Relena asked.

The mink’s head retracted, revealing the immaculately-coiffed head of Nigella Walton. “Yes, the ‘Qube’ I believe they call him. I do believe he lets my husband win, but then almost everybody does.”

“You’re Lilli’s mom!” Relena said. They’d met at Katie’s citizenship ceremony. “I didn’t know you had a RIDE!”

“She does!” Melissa said, the helmet-head coming back on. “And I have her!”

“A long story, with a happy ending,” Nigella said.

“I’d like to hearrr it sometime, Mrs. Walton,” Katie said. “But…time’s money. Thanks forrr the tip.”

“Think nothing of it, dear. Do come over for dinner next time you’re in Nextus.” Mrs. Walton had Melissa IM Katie a comm code to use. “Good luck!”

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After Dr. Munn concurred with Rhianna’s suggestion to give Zane more time alone with his sister (or at least “alone-ish,” given all the bodyguards and Marshals who would be staying around), Rhianna passed Aggie the address of the Cheers bar in case she wanted to come down later. Then she led a small exodus to the place to be in Uplift if you were on good terms with Inties.

The bar was close enough that there wasn’t really any point in converting their RIDEs, so they trooped up the sidewalk, talking cheerfully as they went. But Rhianna couldn’t help noticing the sidelong glances Myla kept sending her. Finally, as they approached the bar, Myla flashed her a quick private message. :We need to talk. Inside?:

:Uh…sure,: Rhianna replied.

Quinoa Steader looked around as they entered, raising an eyebrow at all the openly Integrated inhabiting the bar, sharing space with humans and RIDEs, both Fused and not. “Well, this is new.”

“Well, hello there!” Diane said from behind the bar. “If it isn’t the girl who kicked Fritz’s ass and almost sliced it off. You’re not paying for any drinks tonight.”

Half the bar looked at her in awe, while the other half raised their drinks in toast. For some, their awe was tinted with obvious fear. Here was an Integrate who had done things few of them would ever contemplate. The old Quinoa would have played the fame up, probably with a dance number. The new Quinoa shied away from the praise as a space was made for her at the bar.

“What’ll you have, hero?” the doe Integrate asked.

“I’m no hero. But I’ll have a Florencia Sunset, with a twist of orange cham-fruit,” Quinoa said. The fruit was a genetic cross between an orange and a species of rare fruit from Neorus, a colony all the way across human space. It tasted like orange cream.

“I think we’ll find a table,” Rochelle said. She looked around. “If there are any to find. Looks like you’re pretty busy tonight.”

“I think we’ve got a party just about done over there.” Diane nodded toward a table along one wall, where a group of humans and RIDEs was getting up and thumbing tips from their wallets. “I’ll have the girls bus it for you.”

“Great! You should be done by the time Rhi and I get done powdering our muzzles.” Myla took Rhianna by the arm and led her off in the direction of the ladies’ room.

“What? Again?” Rhianna joked as they entered.

“’Fraid so, Rhi. More girl-talk,” Myla said. “I don’t want you to end up heartbroken.”

Rhianna folded her arms. “Okay, I’m listening.”

“You’re like me when I was a sixteen-year-old full of surging hormones, but precious little sense how to deal with them,” the fennec-woman said. “You remind me of those squealing teenaged girls who fawn over the lead singer in the latest boy band. Yes, I know part of being a woman is being more connected to your emotions, but this…this crush on Zane isn’t healthy, Rhianna.”

“Am I that obvious?” Rhianna muttered.

“Yes, and acting like this is a crossrider stereotype, you know,” Myla said. “Our last chat was about how to handle Zane, but after seeing you today, I’m sure you just don’t know how to handle yourself, either.”

Rhianna’s ears flattened. “Hey, I’ve been female for months.”

“Months, years, a lifetime…doesn’t matter. I’ve known born-women who never really grow out of the phase you’re in,” Myla admitted. “But being female doesn’t mean being a slave to your emotions, either.”

“Look, I’ve read a ton of research papers on this,” Rhianna said.

“A lot of words that, come down to it, doesn’t mean a thing to you as you actually experience this for yourself. You can’t think your way through this, Rhi, you have to use that new woman’s intuition,” Myla said. “I just don’t want to see you hurt yourself so bad you never date as a woman again. In the MRS I knew a number of voluntary crossriders who had just that happen and became self-hating emotional wrecks who couldn’t wait to cross back.”

Rhianna sighed. “I’ll be careful. What else can I say? I don’t really know what I’m doing, here.”

“Just keep that in mind, my girl,” Myla said, giving her a sisterly hug. “I can’t ask for anything more.”

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Rochelle watched Myla lead Rhianna off for a heart-to-heart and silently wished her luck. She’d noticed Rhianna acting a bit odd lately, but didn’t really feel it was her place to say anything about it. If nothing else, coming from a crossrider who had gone all the way to the sexiest possible extreme, telling her to cool it would have seemed a little hypocritical.

So she led the three RIDEs over to the table and pulled out a seat for herself. She was just sitting down when a familiar wolf-whistle behind her made her freeze. “Well hey there, sexy! What’s a pretty gal like you doing all alone in a place like this? Come over here why don’cha? We got an extra seat!”

Rochelle slowly grinned, and turned to see Rufia sitting at the next table over, along with a half-dozen or so other men and women and their RIDEs. Some she recognized, others she didn’t—but those she did know had all been among Rufia’s many conquests, so it was a pretty good bet they all were. “Oh, so this is one of those get-togethers, huh?”

“Yeah, this is a ‘me’ night,” Rufia said. “Since my boss over there doesn’t need me right now.” She nodded to Yvonne, who was curled up on a RIDE mat soaking up power from a RIDEsafe socket. A bull elk with a dreamy smile, his eyes closed, rested his head on her back.

“Your ‘boss,’ huh?” Rochelle said. “You’re still keeping up the pretense?”

“Who says it’s a pretense?” Yvonne said. “She’s my hands, always and forever! Or at least until she asks for a raise. Then pfft, onto the bread line she goes, and I hire someone else at minimum wage! …oh, was that my out-loud voice?”

“Cruel,” Uncia said, grinning.

“By the way, I’d like you to meet my newest boy-toys.” Rufia nodded to the slightly-uncomfortable-looking brown-haired man seated to her right, sporting elk ears and antler stubs. “Captain Tom Clark of the mining ship Rocky Comfort. His co-captain Larry the Elk is over there with Vonnie. Their ship’s in town for the weekend, so I told ‘em to come on down. Tom, my gal Shelley.”

“Uh, pleased to meet you,” Tom said.

Rochelle nodded. “Same.”

“So did I just see Myla dragging Rhi off to the lady’s room?” Rufia asked. “What’s that all about?”

Rochelle smiled and shook her head. “You’ll have to ask them. I gotta work with Rhi in the morning, so I don’t tell tales out of school on her.”

“Aww.” Rufia stuck out her bottom lip and pouted. Then she grinned. “You know, I think I will! Later.” Then her smile faded. “So…how’s Zaney doing? I hear he got busted up pretty bad in that fight with Fritz.”

“He’s doing better,” Rochelle said. “They just let him out of the goo tank today. His sister’s in town keeping him company.”

Rufia blinked. “Really? He’s got a sister?” She grinned again. “Is she as cute as he is?”

“Cuter,” Rochelle said. “Don’t know if she swings that way, though.”

“Could you ask her?” Rufia wondered.

Rochelle snorted. “You’re never gonna change, are you?”

“Not ‘til I can get around to doing my laundry again!” Rufia said cheerfully.

Rochelle chuckled. “So…doing anything after dinner?”

“Didn’t have any plans,” Rufia said. “Tom’s gotta pull out right after dinner, poor thing.” She stage-whispered. “I think I wore him out a little last night.” She glanced at Yvonne. “Of course, it depends on whether my boss wants me for anything.”

“Mmm,” Yvonne said thoughtfully. “Tell ya what. I’ll let you have my hands for the night if I can have your kitty-cat.”

Rochelle glanced at Uncia, who nodded emphatically. “Looks like it’s a deal.”

“Great! We can make the trade later,” Yvonne said.

Rochelle looked up and saw Rhianna and Myla making their way over. “Hey, you two! Look what the elk dragged in!”

“Rufiaaa!” Rhianna said, sounding a little like a teenaged girl greeting an old friend. “It’s been weeks! What’ve you and Vonnie been up to?”

“This and that. I’ll share later,” Rufia said, looking at her oldest friend. Rhianna was in snug, breast-hugging red top and short skirt, and had obviously spent some time with her makeup mask. “So, broken Zane’s heart yet?”

“What? No!” Rhianna said indignantly. “We haven’t even had our date yet. It’s been…busy.”

“I’ll bet,” Rufia said. “And probably not gonna be any less any time soon. But when you do get around to it, let me know how it goes. Maybe I can catch him on the rebound!”

“As if! He’s mine,” Rhianna taunted, smiling like a hunting lynx.

Rufia gave her a confused look. “Rhi, is that really you, or just an incredibly girly simulation?”

“She’s surfing a wave of hormones,” Myla said, taking a seat in the booth. “She’ll get over it. Soon, I hope.”

Rufia shook her head. “Daaaamn. I know I wanted this for years, but now that it’s here…that’s kinda scary.”

“Why Rufia dear, I thought we were supposed to have so much fun we wouldn’t miss our dangly parts,” Rhianna said playfully.

“There’s not missing your dangly parts, and then there’s thinking with your new ones instead. But…whatever.” Rufia shook her head. “And speaking of weird changes in people…” She nodded to the bar, where Quinoa was having a conversation with Diane over her half-finished drink. “What’s with her?”

“Not to go into too much detail…she’s had several brushes with death recently,” Myla said. “The hippogryph almost killed her, then her uncle kidnapped her with Fritz’s help, then she had to escape by jumping naked from orbit and was chased by a giant, nasty one-eyed cat Intie, then…well, you saw the news.”

“Mmm,” Rufia said, a rare serious expression on her face. “I can…kinda relate to that. Should tell you sometime about the Skylers and our ‘three hour tour.’” She snapped her fingers. “Oh! That reminds me, Charley sends her regards. She and Fi are in Aloha now.”

“I hope that works out for them,” Rhianna said, taking a seat herself, with Kaylee padding over to a free charge plug next to her. “Aloha’s a great place to get started. We were heading that way before we met the guy from Uplift at that rest stop, you know.”

“We should go sometime.” Rufia grinned. “You’d look great in a hula skirt. But then, probably everyone at your table would.”

“I think I’d just look silly,” Uncia said, wiggling her behind. “Okay, maybe the grass skirt would work, but the coconut bra is right out.”

“Who said anything about a bra?” Rufia said. “Aloha doesn’t have nudity laws.”

Over at the bar, Diane was mixing a Snakebite for Quinoa. She filled a pint glass half full with hard cider, then placed an upside-down tablespoon over the rim and poured a dark stout over it so that it formed a separate layer on top.

The sphinx took the glass and nodded her thanks, then sauntered over to Rhi and Shelley’s table and took a chair, mantling her matte green wings around her friends. She seemed a little tipsy. “They keep wanting me to send them memories of my ad hoc orbital dive. Frankly, it’s not something I want to re-live.”

“There’s no video,” Rhianna said. “But I saw what happened to the Steader space station. Geez.”

“Lost a whole lot of childhood memories when that station came down,” Quinoa said, sniffling. “Poor Rosie.”

“Have you been in touch with Joe since then?” Myla asked.

“Still pissed at him,” Quinoa said, taking a swig from her glass. “But he’s the reason why I could escape at all, so I don’t think that’ll last much longer. He’s wise enough to know I need space right now. But, once things cool down I’ll give him such a hug.” The homesickness was clear in her voice.

“So what happens now?” Rochelle asked. “How long is it gonna take laughing boy to, ah, re-arm?”

“I can’t give us any longer than two weeks, if I’m being optimistic. It’ll probably be half that. Before then, he’s going to be delegating to his followers. Fortunately I know nearly every single one of ‘em and I’ve already given the Marshals dossiers. They’re going to run interference while we bulk up defenses around the Ring.” She picked up her DIN by the chain and looked at the blue ankh. “By the way, this is the longest I’ve ever had a DIN that didn’t burn out on me. Thanks, you four.” She nodded at the Freerider Garage partners.

“Hey, no problem,” Rochelle said. “And so’s you know, that thing’s got a lifetime warranty.” She sighed. “I just wonder how this is all going to end. Fritz doesn’t seem likely to take this lying down. And if his past behavior’s any guide, he’ll escalate. Do Integrates have weapons of mass destruction?”

“Not…really,” Quinoa said. “We’ve always been able to just shut anything down with barely a thought. We’ve had no need to develop weapons we didn’t already have installed on us when we Integrated.”

“Fritz was ‘born’ in wartime. Different circumstances,” Rhianna added thoughtfully. “Who knows what weapons he had installed at the time he Integrated.”

“And if we’re in a war again, wars breed arms races,” Rochelle said. “I mean, just look at our DIN hack-protection tech. We’d never have made it if we hadn’t been the butt of Fritz’s attacks. What are they going to do now that we’re smacking them around? I don’t like to think about Inties turning their techno-knacks toward that kind of thing.”

“I’m trying not to think too hard about the unintended consequences of our tech,” Rhianna said, pinching the bridge of her feline nose. “But we can’t really control how it’s used. I’m sure it’s already been reverse-engineered six ways from Tuesday by Nextus, Sturmhaven, Cascadia, just about any company that makes or maintains RIDEs, networking gear, or anything else.”

“I still think you should have patented it,” Uncia said.

“They’d just ignore it for polity security reasons,” Rhianna added. “So I did the Dr. Jonas Salk and polio vaccine thing.”

Quinoa snorted. “I’m sure Fritz would just love being compared to an infectious disease.”

“Far as I’m concerned, that ‘Integrates Ascendent’ ideology of his is an infectious meme that needs stamping out,” Kaylee said.

Myla shook her head. “An Integrate-supremacy movement, polities arming up for war…how did we even get into this mess?”

“I can tell y’all how it started,” Kaylee said. “In fact, I think we should get Anny in this, too. Maybe she can fill in some gaps when she wasn’t Fused with me. Lord knows I want to grill Conyers.” She growled. A low, dangerous sound. “I want that rabbit’s hide, with Tabasco.”

“And you were so friendly with him before,” Rhianna said, stroking Kaylee’s head. “Why the change?”

“I’m still missing some pieces,” the old lynx said. “All I’ll say is that he’s why I ended up in the Shed, and not even Dr. Patil and Anny could get me out.”

“So, who wants drinks?” Diane called as she approached the table with menus. “And we’ve got some great dinner specials tonight.”

“Beer here!” Rochelle said happily. “I want to try that new coffee stout of yours.”

Diane’s ears flicked placidly. “Sure thing. I think you’ll like it. Anyone else?”

“Strawberry daiquiri,” Rhianna said with a girlish grin. “I think I’ll try something new.”

“Good choice!” Diane said. “We just got a batch of fresh strawberries in from Califia.” She glanced at Myla and Sophie. “And for you two? Maybe an appetizer?”

The giant fennec scratched behind an ear with a hindfoot. “Uh…I don’t know. What tastes good, Myla? I’m still not used to eating.”

“Chipotle steak bites for me and my partly organic partner,” Myla said. She winked at Sophie. “They’re a bit spicy, but you’ll like ‘em.”

“Sure thing! Can I get you something to drink?” Diane asked.

“Whiskey, neat,” Myla said. She smirked at Rhianna. “Something to balance out your girl-a-tude.”

“Bourbon, Canadian, Scotch, Wednesday? Blended, single-malt?

“Whatever’s manlier,” Myla continued, poking Rhianna with her elbow.

“Ah. Well,” Diane said, putting on a bad brogue, “if it’s not Scottish, it’s crap! One Glenlivet coming up.” She grinned at Sophie. “Would you care for something? ‘Hair of the dog,’ so to speak?”

“Har har, but no. Ethyl alcohol doesn’t agree with this weird digestive system of mine,” Sophie said. “Besides, I’m driving.”

“We can do virgin drinks, too,” Diane said. She considered the women at the table, then turned to look at Rufia, who was grinning at her. “Not like there’s a lot of demand for those among this crowd.”

“Chocolate shake, then.” Sophie licked her lips.

“I’ll get your drinks and give you some time to consider your food orders.” Diane bustled off to begin mixing.

Another kind of mixing had been going on for over a month at Cheers. Diane was always welcoming the curious, the skeptical, the doubting, inside. Whether they were RIDE, Intie, or human, the crowd was everything Fritz didn’t want to happen. Integrates being people rather than the haughty “superior species” he claimed they were. And other people coming to accept them as people. Rhianna took it all in and smiled. “When I look at things around here, I think he’s already losing.”

“I’ll drink to that,” Quinoa said, draining her pint glass in a single gulp. She put her head on the table and sighed happily.

Preceded by:
Integration Part XVI: The Integrate Raids
FreeRIDErs Succeeded by:
Integration Part XVIII: Many Meetings