User:Robotech Master/Integrates

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FreeRIDErs story universe


by Jon Buck and Robotech Master

Part II: Integrates

July 12, 156 A.L.

It had been quite a night, Zane reflected as he rode his skimmer up the street after Rochelle. He hadn’t gotten a lot of sleep, but had gotten something a lot better. He glanced down at his DIN, still plugged into the socket on his left wrist, looking for all the world like an oversized designer watch. He was still amazed at the level of interface he had with the net now. He hadn’t had anything like this level of access even when he’d been Terry, a Reticulated Intelligence made to live on the ‘net.

At any rate, breakfast sounded good. He still had a bit of charge left over from the zap he’d taken last night, but it was starting to run low—and besides, he wanted to taste something again.

“Look out, comin’ throoooooough!

“Yeek!” Zane swerved to the side as Rufia roared past him, crouched low against her skimmer-mode RIDE Yvonne’s back. He swore he heard her voice doppler shift. “Hey, there’s a speed limit around here you know!” Luckily it was early enough there was almost no one on the street yet anyway.

“’Scuse us!” Kaylee said cheerfully as she and Rhianna followed a moment later. They pulled into the parking lot just ahead of him, next to Yvonne, Rufia, Uncia, and Rochelle who’d made it already. Then they skidded to a halt as Kaylee snapped into Fuser to kill their momentum, then melted back off into Walker form as they stopped.

Zane chuckled, pulling up a moment later. “Showoffs.”

Rhianna grinned. “Maybe, but we’re showoffs who aren’t going to get licked all over by Uncia.”

“You’re not gonna tell me she was serious,” Zane said.

“Hope you brought a towel!” Rochelle said cheerfully. Uncia peered thoughtfully at Zane and licked her chops.

“I think I’m gonna take a rain check on that,” Zane said. “I’m starving. Let’s get inside and eat?”

“Sounds good to me!” Rufia said, heading for the door.

“Works,” Rhianna said, following.

“Wait a moment,” Rochelle said. “Zane, are you going to put your ‘disguise’ back on?”

Zane considered it, then shook his head. “I’m about tapped out. If I look funny, then I’ll just have to look funny.” He followed the others and their RIDEs inside.

As with most businesses built after RIDEs went mainstream, Bea’s Breakfast Nook had double-wide aisles inside, as well as tables of varying heights where either humans or Fusers could sit, and there was space around the human-sized tables for RIDEs as well.

Zane knew what Rufia had meant about the décor being “girly”. The tables had blue and white gingham tablecloths with frilly lace edges, and each booth having its own cute theme: flowers, kittens, puppies, baby gators, and the like. That hadn’t stopped him from coming here a number of times when he wanted breakfast at odd hours after work. It was the nearest 30-hour breakfast diner, and they’d soon learned to cook his eggs just right. Terry had liked the place, too.

They’d just settled in at a human-sized table, the RIDEs taking up position behind their partners’ seats to plug in, when the waitress, Pamela, came over to take their orders. A matronly older lady with holstein cow tags, Pamela was the main waitress at this time of day. She peered at the four friends, and blinked. “Zane Brubeck, is that you?”

“Yeah, Pamela. I’ve kinda lost a few kilos,” Zane admitted.

“And a few dozen centimeters, looks like,” Pamela said. She regarded him curiously for a moment, then shook her head. “Your usual, then?”

“Yeah. Eggs over easy, hominy grits, biscuits and gravy, bacon…but double the order,” Zane said. “I’m starving. And black coffee.”

“And what can I get for the rest of you?”

“Waffles,” Rochelle said reverently. “Four of them, stacked. Real maple syrup and butter, lots of bacon. Oh, and black coffee here, too.”

“Soysteak, pancakes, hashbrowns, and burn ‘em real crispy,” Rufia said. “With greens. Orange juice.”

“Right. The usual, then. Uh…” Pamela looked at the remaining party member. “Oh, I forgot. What’re you going by now, Ryan? I haven’t heard.”

“Rhianna,” the lynx-eared woman said. “I suppose we’re far enough down the street the rumor mill doesn’t quite get this far.”

“Congratulations, it’s a girl,” Rufia said, smirking, mussing her old friend’s pony-tailed light brown hair. “Don’t worry, Pamela. We’re getting her all nice and settled in her new digs. And she’ll have what I’m having, right Rhi?”

“Sure, why not?” Rhianna said, giving Rufia a friendly slap on her shoulder in return. “But make that a real steak. Carnivore here.”

“It’s not like you can’t afford it,” Zane said, grinning—though he was sure they all knew he intended to try for the check at the end.

“Got it!” Pamela scurried off to put the order in at the kitchen, then came back with a coffee pot to fill Rochelle and Zane’s mugs and the orange juices for Rufia and Rhianna. As they waited, Zane looked around the place. It was still an hour or two before the main breakfast rush, so they had the place pretty much to themselves. Nobody at the other tables was looking their way.

Zane didn’t even notice the way his eyes seemed to slide right over the booth in the opposite corner at first, but then he spotted it on the second pass. Hmm. It was as if there wasn’t anything there…including that corner at all. Zane had the presence of mind to keep looking around rather than staring, though he occasionally came back to it out of the corner of his eye. Guess who, he thought wryly. Well, it looks like they’re at least going to let us eat in peace.

“So, you come here often?” Rochelle asked Zane. “You had a ‘usual’.”

Zane chuckled. “Yeah. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. So sometimes I have it for all four meals.”

“So Zane, here you are, surrounded by three beautiful crossrider girls for breakfast,” Rufia said. The wall video panels were currently showing verdant fields of wildflowers rippling in a light breeze. “Ever wondered what might’ve happened if Terry’d been female? Hmmm?”

“Well, Fusing with him—I mean, her—would have been a harder call, for one thing,” Zane said with a grin. “Almost like one of those bad stories you read in the magazines, you know? Where the writer basically just wants to write crossrider porn, so he sets up some impossible dilemma where the protagonist doesn’t have any choice but to give up his precious manhood.” He chuckled. “No offense—I just remembered I’m the only one here who didn’t do that.”

“Yeah, you just Integrated. Poor bastard,” Rochelle said. “The rest of us can change back after three years.”

“If we wanted to,” Rufia added. “Five years and counting, never going back.”

“Never?” Zane asked.

“Look, I’m not a woman of many words. But I am a woman. I’m going to have babies eventually. Not sure what else to say about it.”

“Then let me turn your question around. You ever wondered what might’ve happened if Yvonne had been male?”

“I’d be a hell of a bull elk,” Yvonne herself added. “I could add hardlight antlers if I really wanted to, you know.”

“I’ll bet you’d be a hit at stag parties.” Zane grinned.

“Already am,” she snorted.

Rhianna had a look on her face like she was trying to wrap her brain around something and it wasn’t quite working. “Rufia…I just…I can’t imagine you all pregnant and broody. I can’t imagine me that way either, for that matter.”

“I could simulate it for you!” Kaylee said helpfully. “It would be simple.”

“No. No no. No. Just no,” the mechanic said. “No.”

“You say that now,” Rufia said, “But someday you’ll meet some handsome man, and—oh, cool, food’s here!”

Pamela set the plates down on the table, unerringly placing each one in front of the correct person. “I’ll be back by in a few minutes if you need anything.”

“Thanks!” Zane said, grabbing a fork and beginning to inhale his eggs. Rochelle chuckled and attacked her waffles. The others similarly dug into their food, and conversation was sparse around the table for a while. Pamela came back by a couple of times to refill coffees.

At last, as the four diners were all putting their forks down on empty plates, Pamela approached again, this time looking somewhere between uneasy and disturbed. “Have you got our check?” Zane asked.

“Well, actually…they do.” She pointed over at the corner table, which had popped back into full visibility.

On the left side of the table sat a slim white unicorn girl in a gold dress, a yellow-and-brown feathered velociraptor, and a woman whose face seemed to be somewhere between human and feline, with red-yellow slit-pupiled eyes and iridescent green wings. She was wearing a pink felt skirt with a poodle embroidered on it, a “Bee-Gees” sweatshirt with shoulder pads, white linen bloomers, and combat boots. She had teased her hair up into a poofy red-and-pink hairdo. She was also holding the check.

“They…said they wanted to cover it,” Pamela said.

“That was nice of them,” Zane said with aplomb.

“But where did they come from?” Pamela wondered. “I never saw them come in, or anyone at that table.”

“That’s all right, Pamela,” Rochelle said. “They’re just some…friends we’ve been waiting for. I think those people at that table over there wanted your attention.”

“Oh, thanks.” Pamela hurried off, clearly glad to have something normal to attend to.

“Lord Lordy Lord,” Kaylee muttered. “Quinoa Steader. Figures. I’d prob’ly better let Sophie know about this just so Myla knows she’s here.”

“Zane, darling, so glad you could join us,” Quinoa called in a haughty gone. “Do come over. We have much to discuss.”

“Thanks for the invitation, but I think I like the company better over here,” Zane said.

“Then Quinoa can stay here and we’ll come over there,” the unicorn said, glaring at the sphinx. Even from across the room the acrimony between her and Quinoa made Zane’s skin prickle. The atmosphere there was distinctly two-against-one, with the unicorn and the dinosaur barely tolerating the oddly-dressed young woman. “I can’t believe you’re wearing a 1950s poodle skirt with 1910s bloomers, a 1970s sweatshirt, and a 1980s hairdo! And combat boots!

Quinoa looked genuinely confused. “What’s wrong with that? It’s all from the 20th century.”

Anyway,” the dinosaur said, taking a deep breath. “You’ve met the sphinx. My colleague and I aren’t from the same Enclave she’s from. In fact, we’re not too happy about these circumstances ourselves. We’re here to welcome you, Mr. Brubeck.”

“To Jurassic Park, no doubt,” Rochelle muttered.

The velociraptor Integrate looked slightly embarrassed. “Well, yes. But I didn’t name the place.”

Rochelle facepalmed. “I was joking. Why does the universe have such a juvenile sense of humor?”

“I’m Leah Sheryl Daye,” the unicorn said. “I’m from the other closest Enclave, Terrania.”

“Aaron Stinson, Jurassic Park. Again, not my idea,” the long-suffering dinosaur said.

The unicorn and dinosaur slid out from the table and moved over to take the empty table next to theirs. Quinoa remained in the corner booth, arms crossed, and looked grumpy.

“Pleased to meet you, Leah, Aaron,” Zane said. “I gather my reputation preceded me.”

“It does. More so than any other new Integrate we’ve put out the Welcome Mat for,” Leah said. A four-pointed blue diamond hung at the base of her horn, and closer examination revealed that it was connected to a port right at the base. Her horn glowed, probably acting as a single hardlight emitter like Zane’s own numerous dermal lenses. “I must admit, we were surprised when we heard. Your family’s neutral attitude towards RIDEs is well known.”

“Guess you don’t follow the news much,” Zane said. “Terry and I—I mean Zane and I—I mean, the two of us have been an item for months.”

“Generally speaking, it’s not considered a good thing in the Enclaves to pay too much attention to the outside world,” Aaron said.

“I guess you also heard I pal around with Rhianna and company,” Zane said. “Who you’ve probably studied up on after what happened with miss 20th century digital girl over there.”

“The Enclaves are a small community. Word spreads fast,” Aaron said. “We’ve met with Flint-Burke as well, helped him as much as we could. Towers…does things its own way.”

Zane snorted. “From what I’ve seen, that’s putting it mildly. Well, I guess it’s not much of a surprise if Quinoa’s involved. The Steaders always did things their own way, especially the ones who are spoiled brats.”

“I can hear you, you know,” Quinoa said from the other table, sticking out her tongue. The others ignored her.

“Indeed,” Leah said. “But you’re the corporate scion of interest to us now. Even though Quinoa’s her uncle’s heir, you’re actually in control of the seventh largest corporation on the planet. Brubeck personifies the qubitite revolution. Even Fritz would have a hard time making the son of its founder simply vanish off the face of the planet.”

“Normally we would extend the hospitality of our Enclaves, let you choose where you want to settle, but in this case that would be difficult at best,” Aaron said.

“Not that it really matters,” Leah asked. “We already know you’re not the type to hide away in an enclave somewhere.”

“You kidding? I’ve got a business to run.” Zane grinned. “No eating lotuses for this tiger.”

“Exactly. So what we can do is teach you a more efficient way to create a hardlight shell of your former Fused form,” Leah continued. “But we will need you to visit one of our Enclaves briefly, so we can make you a device we call a Data Interface Normalizer.”

“Oh, so that’s what it stands for.” Zane grinned. He held up his left hand. “You mean like this one?” He sent a quick handshake pulse to Leah’s to prove it was functional.

The glowing ornament at the base of Leah’s horn flashed then went out. Leah grimaced, then stared at him. She quickly replaced the DIN plug in the socket. “Well, I hope you have replacements, Mr. Brubeck. DINs are prone to burning out easily.”

Rhianna smirked. “Wouldn’t bet on that.”

Leah blinked at her. “What?” She glanced back to Zane again. “Where on Zharus did you have that made? It couldn’t have been at either of our enclaves.”

Zane patted Rhianna on the shoulder. “I know some very good mechanics.”

“Buh?” Quinoa said, unconsciously reaching up to finger the ankh hanging from her own neck.

“Took Rochelle and me all night,” Rhianna said a little smugly. “Kaylee, and Uncia too, of course. Couldn’t have done it without our partners.” She rubbed her lynx between the mecha cat’s tufted ears. Kaylee hadn’t taken her eyes off any of the Integrates.

“But it should go faster next time, now that we know what to look for,” Rochelle said. “We were thinking of hanging out a shingle. DINs-R-Us.”

“And one thing I can guarantee you is, it’ll take a lot to burn out,” Rhianna said. “As the one who built it, I know its specifications.”

Aaron looked like he was about to do a spit take. “You all reverse-engineered this in one night?”

“The spirits did it all!” Uncia said happily. “God bless us every one!” Rochelle bapped her.

“I’d ask to take a look at yours and see if I could figure out where your problem is, but I’m probably about fifteen minutes away from crashing hard,” Rhianna said, yawning. “Maybe another time.”

The two Integrates stared at one another. “We’re going to have to confer about this,” Leah said. “Suffice to say this is rather a shock to us for…cultural reasons, you could say.”

“You can’t do that!” Quinoa squawked. “DIN making is for technomages alone!”

“Abracadabra,” Kaylee said dryly, waving a paw in her direction. “Hocus pocus, an’ all that.”

“’Technomages,’ huh?” Zane said. “Sounds like you’ve got a whole Dionysian mystery cult thing going on. Or maybe it’s more like the Freemasons…”

“Something like that,” Aaron said uncomfortably. “He who controls the DINs…”

“Fritz. You can say his name,” Quinoa said, eyerolling. “You can even say it three times and he won’t jump out of a mirror.”

Leah facepalmed. “God, what a mess. He puts the ‘ingrate’ in ‘Integrate’.”

“Hey! Fritz knows what he’s talking about!” Quinoa said. She pointed at Pamela, who had retreated behind the ancient register. “They’re made of meat!”

“And if the likes of you are supposed to be some kind of advertisement of the benefits of an upgrade, I think we’d prefer to stay that way, thank you very much,” Rochelle said. “If the first Homo sapiens had your attitude, the rest of us would still be living in the trees.”

“So, please. Can we converse privately?” Leah said. “Without the sphinx. You can go home, Quinoa. We don’t need a rep from Towers on this. Or one of Fritz’s inner circle.”

“I’d like nothing more!” Quinoa said hotly. Then she deflated. “Except I…kinda can’t,” she mumbled. “The Council already gave Brena the boot. They’ll kick me out of the Enclave too if I come back early.” She did a pretty fair imitation of Col. Eduardo Grey. “’You caused the problem, now you’re going to be part of the solution…or else.’”

I think they just wanted to keep her away for as long as they possibly could,” Rufia stage-whispered.

“That, too,” Quinoa admitted, obviously having heard her perfectly clearly.

“Good old Eddie,” Rufia added. “I like him. He’s a card.”

“And I can’t get kicked out of Towers. Not after I got kicked out of Camelot and Wonderland, too.” Quinoa rolled her eyes. “Fritz is running out of places to put me, and I don’t wanna make him mad, too.”

“Well, then,” Zane said. “If you want to stay, lose the ‘tude. You used to be made out of meat too, you know. Or at least half of you did.”

Quinoa sighed. “All right, fine. I’ll be good.”

“For some value of ‘good,’” Leah muttered. Quinoa glared, but didn’t respond.

Kaylee raised her ears and sent what she hoped was a private transmission to Rhianna. :Myla’s awake now.:

:Does she know about Quinoa?: Zane asked.

The older RIDE was taken a little aback by Zane’s response.:Uh, that was a narrowcast laser…nevermind. She does. They’re heading for Qixi’s office now, so they won’t get in our way. She really is serious about avoiding Quinoa.:

“I don’t mean to be rude, Kaylee,” Leah said, “but if you’re going to be around us much, you probably ought to know that the only one who can scramble a transmission so that an Integrate can’t pick it up is another Integrate. We don’t mean to listen in, but there are so many different frequencies that it can be hard to tell which are meant to be private. Something in our heads just strips out the encryption so we don’t even notice it.”

“You can’t be getting that much out of just backscatter!” Yvonne exclaimed. She was built for communications. “That’s just crazy. I couldn’t even detect Kaylee sending anything, and I’ve still got mil-spec gear.”

“We don’t really understand it ourselves,” Leah admitted. “We haven’t had enough of the right kind of scientists or technicians Integrate to be able to study it, even if Fritz would let us. We may even be subconsciously picking up and interpreting EM pulses directly from your circuitry, as they used to do with Tempest back in the 20th.”

“It is a mystery,” Aaron agreed. “One among many.”

“Maybe we should go somewhere else and continue this discussion,” Rhianna suggested. “Crunch time is coming for Pamela here and she’s a little on edge. Hell, I’m on edge. I’m not going to risk Fusing around Quinoa, frankly.”

“I said I’d be good,” Quinoa said plaintively.

“Girl, I’m sorry but after your little performance back in the Towers, I don’t think you even know what ‘good’ is anymore,” Rufia said.

“We just did what we thought—” Quinoa began hotly, then remembered her promise and finished more quietly, “—was right at the time.” She sighed and mumbled, almost too quietly to hear, “Maybe it wasn’t.” Zane peered thoughtfully at her for a moment.

“C’mon, let’s go back to the garage, then,” Rochelle said. “We can talk there.”

“And I’d like to show them just how we reverse-engineered that DIN of theirs. I don’t often like showing off. In fact, more of a never. But I’m curious why we did so well working from first principles. I’m sure whoever invented these in your Enclaves worked it out somehow. Wouldn’t mind comparing notes.”

“And you want to rub their noses in it that we humble ‘meaties’ and ‘mechies’ can still teach Inties some tricks, huh?” Rochelle asked.

Rhianna and Kaylee smiled the same Cheshire-lynx grin.

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Quinoa Steader followed Leah and Aaron at a few meters of distance, as they in turn followed Rhianna, Rochelle, and the others. Rhianna made a cute girl, she had to admit. She was more than a little proud of her part in bringing about that transformation, even indirectly as it had been. But then, Ryan had been a little old for her usual methods, and already partnered anyway. Regardless, she loved seeing cute boys switch teams. It was just one of her “things,” she supposed. Need to get back to Cape Nord one of these days…

It was nice that she could enjoy something about this whole mess, Quinoa thought darkly, shaking herself out of her daydream. What a disaster! Who’d have thought mere meat and mech could suss out one of Integratekind’s greatest mysteries? Was it possible Fritz might be mistaken about something? Surely not. Rhianna and Rochelle just had to be some kind of exceptional idiot-savant talent, that was all. With emphasis on the ‘idiot,’ Quinoa told herself, smirking inwardly. Just wait’ll Fritz finds out…

Brrr. To be honest, Quinoa didn’t like thinking about that side of Fritz. She’d seen it so seldom, but she’d heard so many rumors. Fritz was surrounded by rumors, and to a great extent actually encouraged the spread of the more outrageous ones. The larger than life he was, he’d once told her, the more seriously people took him. Of course, it’s really not hard to be larger than life-size when your ‘life-size’ is only a meter-and-a-half tall, Quinoa thought, though was careful never to say aloud. But then, Napoleon had been a midget, too.

And Integrate-kind’s own “little emperor” had a wolverine’s temper. He was careful never to show it to her—Quinoa gathered he’d been good friends with her Uncle Joe, though he’d never gone into details—but she’d seen the memories others had posted to the Integrate data nets and had even been present a couple of times without Fritz’s knowledge when he’d delivered one of his “attitude adjustments.”

Given Fritz’s temper—which, again, he’d been careful never to show when he knew she was around—some of the rumors were all too easy to believe, when she let herself think about them. She halfway suspected that was why she’d always demurred when Fritz had invited her to visit the Coffeehouse, his own personal Enclave and crash pad. She didn’t want to see if those rumors were true. And as long as she didn’t see, she could tell herself they weren’t.

But that was okay! She shouldn’t be dwelling on all the bad things about Fritz, especially not now. After all, he only wanted what was best for all Integrate-kind. He was counting on her to observe and report everything that happened so he could know how best to prevent any problems. And that was the real reason it was so important to stay here in Uplift, and close to Zane Brubeck, for as long as she possibly could.

Although the Brubecks and the Steaders had been friends over the years, attending many of the same functions rich people did, Quinoa had never gotten close to Zane and his younger sisters. It was weird, but she’d always had this feeling like they were from different worlds—figuratively, as well as literally. Her dad and uncle were rich, but they’d gotten that money passed down from their folks. Clint Brubeck actually did something to earn his money, which from her point of view was…well, either pretty amazing or utterly beneath her, and she still wasn’t quite sure which.

All the same, she’d voraciously consumed all the centi-awful fiction about their famous explorer father Clint. There’d been the one time she’d tried to chat up Maddie about one of those books, but the conversation had just stopped dead. Making friends with Agatha had been right out—the older sister had had a very “Future Nextus Bureaucrat” air about her at a young age, which wasn’t the kind of personality Quinoa could get along with.

Zane, though…he’d been more than a little dreamy. But…he just felt like he was out of her league. Which was weird for a scion of the richest family on Zharus to think of someone about an order of magnitude less wealthy, but again, there was the sense his family had earned its fortune.

And from what she’d heard, Zane’s father had actually raised his kids as if he wasn’t rich, living in a small house and subsisting on average consumer goods for the most part. As a result, they felt like an entirely different sort of people than Quinoa’s usual crowd. It was like they were some kind of alien, resembling the “ordinary” people she knew but with all these little uncanny-valley differences.

In her darker moments, Quinoa sometimes envied them that. She wondered what it felt like to grow up “normal.” Between her early memories on the Star Circus’s enormous ship between the Colonies, then growing to adulthood on Zharus with her every want catered to, and now being an Integrate, joined to an exotic sphinx RIDE, what was “normal”? Her life had never been ordinary.

Fritz himself had called her a “special snowflake,” which was nice. But Quinoa also knew how hard it could be to tell the difference between a snowflake…and dandruff.

She sighed, and moved faster to keep up with the others.

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The Freeriders Garage was now the largest such business under the East Dome of Uplift. Rhianna and Rochelle depended purely on word of mouth rather than advertising to build their customer base. Zane himself had put in a good word on several review websites, as had young Lillibet Walton, and it had gone viral among the wealthier of Uplift society and, oddly enough, the children of a number of Nextus’s rich. (Those who didn’t have a curfew, at least.)

But there were no separate bays for those wealthy clients—Ryan had laid down that law from the start. A million mu RIDE could share a bay with a broken-down thirdhand war surplus Chinook AIDE. Nobody got preferential treatment, and any wealthy potential customer who didn’t like to sit in the waiting room with everyone else could take his business elsewhere. But almost none of them did. Enough of them were eccentric in their own way to be willing to accept this form of eccentricity from someone else. Zane was pretty sure they even bragged about it to their friends—which might have accounted for even more business.

The lot Rhianna leased was still about twice the size of the garage’s present structure, leaving plenty of room to expand—which simply meant adding on another prefabricated service bay module and some more equipment. Such modules were in common use by a number of businesses with variable needs. If business ever took a downturn, they could simply sell the module back to the dealer and contract again.

The only permanent buildings were now the office/waiting room and Rhianna and Rochelle’s private garage, which had been the original garage building when Ryan had been starting out. Rhianna and Kaylee’s home the upper level of that building, fitted out as an apartment. Rochelle had her own place by the park, though sometimes crashed on Rhianna’s couch.

It was into that private garage that Rhianna led the others now, after checking to make sure Myla and Sophie had already left. Aside from being the place where the work had actually been done, it was also somewhere private where the other employees wouldn’t intrude unless invited. Though it was a little crowded with three humans, three RIDEs, and four Integrates in it, there was still room for everyone to sit and have a good view as Rhianna demonstrated how she had determined the composition of Zane’s plug.

“We shouldn’t be seeing this!” Quinoa insisted. “This is forbidden knowledge! We’ve evolved beyond RIDE tech, beyond wetware—you shouldn’t even be able to work this stuff out on your own. We’re special snowflakes.”

Rufia snorted. “Who’s been selling you that crap? Ain’t nothing magical about you. You’re just humans mashed up with something humans built. Even that weird shit you do with our encryption is probably just from computing super-fast.”

“She’s right, you know,” Leah said. “There’s a lot we don’t know about ourselves, but we’re not gods.”

“But—” Quinoa stammered, then cut herself off, looking down at her feet.

“This really is remarkable,” Leah said. “The technomages simply plug a tool in, and a few minutes later have a replication recipe.”

“They’ve probably got some kind of design-system-in-a-box that runs the scans and things we had to figure out how to do on our own, then spits out a generic design,” Rochelle said. “Any one-size-fits-all solution will work, for some value of ‘work,’ but it’ll never be as good as a custom build.”

“I can see that,” Leah said, reaching up to finger her DIN again.

“Like I said, I’m way too zonked now to do another scan, or I’d see if we could get one done for you any faster,” Rhianna said. “Probably just need a little practice.”

“This is ridiculous!” Quinoa insisted. “You don’t make DINS with ‘practice,’ they come from the technomages alone!”

“Ahem,” Zane said, looking pointedly at her. Quinoa subsided, but could still be heard to mutter, “Made of meat,” under her breath.

“I’m sorry about her,” Aaron said to Rhianna. “In a way, you could say it’s our fault.”

Rhianna blinked. “Your fault?” she asked, the plug prototype in her hand temporarily forgotten.

“Of the Integrate community collectively, yes,” Leah said. “There are those among us who are convinced of their own superiority, and in some cases their mandate from heaven to replace ‘meaties’ and ‘mechies’ as the next stage in evolution.” She rolled her equine eyes expressively. “Most of us don’t feel that way, but for the longest time, those who do have been able to bully the rest of us into submission, and brainwash many of those who newly join us.”

“Let me guess. Fritz,” Kaylee said flatly.

“Among others,” Aaron said. “There are a couple more political powers like him, but Fritz is the worst of them.”

“Hey!” Quinoa said hotly. “You don’t talk about the Bosscat that way!”

“The…Bosscat?” Zane said, raising an eyebrow.

“Well, yes,” Leah said. “Until a few years ago, Fritz was…effectively ‘in charge’ of Integrate society. He made the rules about how we comported ourselves, and his gang of enforcers made sure everyone toed the line. He’s lost a good deal of power since, but is still a force to be reckoned with. A…fairly dangerous force.”

“You damn well betcha,” Quinoa said, crossing her arms.

“Well, that explains a lot,” Rhianna said.

“Fritz, huh?” Zane said. “That jerk of a lynx you mentioned from the Towers? Doesn’t sound so tough.”

“Don’t underestimate him,” Aaron said. “That’s the last mistake a lot of people ever made.”

“All right,” Zane said, though he didn’t sound convinced.

“I hate to change the subject,” Kaylee said. “But Fritz gave me this look, as if he knew me.” She broadcasted the memory to the Integrates. “See? Any insights?”

Leah shook her head. “It’s a mystery to me. But then, much about Fritz is. He was allegedly the first of us to Integrate, ever, so he pre-dates the times when others might have been around to learn his secrets.”

“Huh,” Rhianna mused. “And Kaylee was one of the first RIDEs ever built. Maybe there’s a connection there.”

“Maybe he’s your long-lost twin brother?” Quinoa asked, rolling her eyes. “He glares at a lot of mec—of people.”

“Hmm.” Zane thought for a moment. “Quinoa, after you guys are finished here, would you hang around a little? I’d like to talk to you, one on one.”

Quinoa blinked. “You would?” She brightened a little. “I—well, sure! If you want to…”

Now, if I could only ask Kaylee for a copy of her memories of that time in the Towers without Quinoa hearing me, Zane thought wryly. Hmm…maybe if I connect directly. He surreptitiously reached over and put his hand on one of Kaylee’s paws where he knew she had a dataport. :Hey, K-Spared, could I get a copy of your audiovisual memory of that time in the Towers? I’d like to see exactly how it happened.:

:Sure, if it’ll help you,: Kaylee replied, surprised. She downloaded him the memories, and he quickly assimilated them. He had mainly wanted to find out whether the details happened exactly as Rhianna had told him, and to watch Quinoa’s behavior. As it turned out, it was pretty much what he had expected. That could be useful.

“Anyway, after I finally finished mapping the connectors,” Rhianna said, “I turned things over to Rochelle to decrypt the signal. Your show, Shelley.”

Rochelle stood up, her hair bouncing and flowing around her with the movement. “Right! So I started out with this program I wrote, that I called ‘Enigma’…”

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After the demonstration was finished, Leah and Aaron expressed their astonishment at how well the DIN had been made. Zane put it through some benchmark tests, and the results astounded them.

“Goodness,” Leah said. “That outperforms any DIN I’ve ever seen. We have to carry a number of replacements with us because they fail so easily.”

“By an order of magnitude at least,” Aaron concurred.

“What? How?” Quinoa sputtered in disbelief. “Run those tests again!”

“I don’t think that’s necessary,” Leah said. “How remarkable. Perhaps we should return in a few days and have some of our own made.”

“I think it might be interesting to see if the results could be duplicated on other new Integrates,” Aaron mused. “Perhaps we should send the next one to appear in Uplift your way.”

“Well, since it turns out that most Integrates seem to be decent people, I don’t see why not,” Rhianna said. Quinoa glowered, but said nothing. “But call me back late tonight or tomorrow to discuss it? I don’t talk business on a sleep deficit. I learned that lesson with Qixi.”

At last, Leah and Aaron showed Zane some techniques for creating a better hardlight disguise that was impenetrable by scan and also used much less energy than his previous attempts. “Thanks,” Zane said, after he’d perfected it. “I’m sure that will come in handy, if I ever need it.”

“You are planning to go public, then?” Aaron said, feather crest rising to full height. “You could be taking an awful risk.”

“I’m not going to hide this,” Zane said. “I do appreciate your concern, but I don’t think that’s going to be necessary,” Zane said. “I have Integrated, and if I started trying to hide it I wouldn’t ever be able to stop. And I don’t think I have anything to hide.” He chuckled. “Besides, it would end up being a bigger scandal if I hid it for a few years and someone discovered me during a momentary lapse. This way I have more control to start with.”

“Pardon us a moment, Zane,” Aaron said. Leah and Aaron looked at one another again, conferring privately, and pointedly keeping Quinoa out.

“But…you’ll be hated! Feared! Hunted!” Quinoa insisted. “Or the army will kidnap you for experiments!”

“This is Uplift,” Zane said. “I don’t even think they have an army.”

“There’s a volunteer militia,” Kaylee said. “But I don’t think they’ve fired a shot in anger since…well, ever. The War never got this far. And they’re not in the business of kidnapping people.”

“Even annoying Ingrates, I mean Integrates,” Yvonne said, looking pointedly at Quinoa.

“I think most people around here generally have kind of open minds,” Rochelle said. “And for those that don’t—hello, seventh biggest corporation on Zharus? He can hire whole teams of bodyguards.”

“Could it really be that simple?” Leah wondered.

“I’ll make it that simple,” Zane said. “It’s worth a try, anyway. Someone’s got to do it, because the more mystery and confusion there is around us Inties, the more potential there is for misunderstandings. Possibly violent misunderstandings.”

“Well, we’re not ones to forcibly interfere in other people’s lifestyles,” Leah said. Again, nine heads turned in unison to look at Quinoa. “Mostly,” Leah amended.

“I said I was sorry,” Quinoa grumbled.

“So if you really want to go through with this…well, we’ll wish you luck,” Aaron said. “I’ll talk to my Enclave and see what they think. But, knowing my fellow ‘saurs in the Park, I can promise you’ll get support from us. How much, I can’t say. We’ll have to call a meeting. Leah? How about Terrania?”

“We herd herbivores are a bit more cautious in these things,” Leah said. “But I don’t anticipate too much trouble, after the initial shock wears off. We’ve been as annoyed at Fritz’s antics as anyone. And now that he finally seems to have lost his teeth, it might just be time for a change.”

“We know a few other Enclaves with the same bent, Mr. Brubeck,” Aaron said. “We’ve just been waiting for an opportunity.”

“I have to say, if you are going to public with something like this, Uplift is probably the right place,” Rochelle said. “Half the time our Consuls don’t wear pants to work. About the only spot more laid back on the entire continent is Aloha.”

“Yeah, I know,” Zane said. “If I tried it in Nextus…sheesh, I’d have to write a whole new chapter for the Game’s rulebook before I could even start playing.”

“Integrates have been an urban legend here for ten years and more,” Uncia said. “I did the research, I should know.”

“Fritz’s followers have done a great deal to keep us out of the limelight,” Leah said, glaring at Quinoa. “Even amongst each other.”

The sphinx gave her an indignant sneer and stuck her tongue out like a rebuked child.

“At any rate, I’ll put the word out about DINs,” Aaron said. “I know there’s a few of us out and about, not beholden to an Enclave.” He glared at Quinoa. “I suppose it’s too much to ask for you not to tell Fritz about this side business of theirs?”

“They’re just meat,” Quinoa said derisively, as if that was all the explanation she needed. “But I have to tell the Bosscat Stripes there is going public.”

“You do what you have to do,” Zane said. “That’s what I’m doing.”

Rhianna yawned, revealing her adorable pointed kitty canines. “I think my wakey pills are wearing off. Tired kitty needs her catnap. Leah, Aaron, it was great to meet you. Zane, glad to help you. Quinoa, don’t let the screen door hit your butt on the way out.”

“And I think I’m gonna crash on your sofa again,” Rochelle said. “Or maybe on Uncia. She’s sort of like a sofa.”

“I’ll see them all out,” Zane said. “And thanks again for the help.” He snapped his fingers. “Oh, and that reminds me. When you’re ready to buy your suborbital? Give me a call. I’ll put you in touch with the dealer we get all ours from and give you the company discount.”

Rhianna yawned again, stumbling up the stairs. “Thanks, Zane. Kaylee, remind me to do…um…whatever it is he just said. Dude, if I don’t go to sleep now I’m going to hit the floor.” She threw herself upstairs as quickly as she dared.

“I don’t think I can make it up the stairs,” Rochelle said, yawning. “Uncia, could you lie down, hon?”

“Sure thing, Shelley.” The snow leopard complied, and Rochelle settled into the curve of the spine on that broad furry back and began snoring.

Zane chuckled. “C’mon, you-all, exit’s this way.” He led the three Integrates and Rufia to the door.

Rufia chuckled. “I gotta admit, you know how to throw a party. Breakfast with several of Zharus’s greatest urban legends in the flesh. Too bad I can’t tell anyone…well, at least not until handsome there meets the press. Anyway, I got places to do and people to be. Check ya later!” She thumped Yvonne on the back, and the elk flipped over into skimmer mode. Rufia swung into the saddle and headed on up the street.

Finally, Zane turned to Leah and Aaron and shook each of their hands. “Thanks for coming, guys. Let me know when you’re in town again.”

Leah nodded. “We will.” Then she simply vanished, though now that he was watching for it Zane could see the way she actually used hardlight to bend light around herself before flying away with her lifters. He made a mental note of the technique, so as to try it himself sometime.

“The pleasure was mine,” Aaron said. He disappeared and flew off in the same way, leaving Zane alone with Quinoa Steader.

“So,” Quinoa said at last. “What now?”

“Walk with me for a bit. I want to talk to you about some things,” Zane said.

Quinoa shrugged. “All right. Let’s walk.”

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They headed up the sidewalk in the general direction of the Brubeck campus. Quinoa was using a hardlight illusion to hide her wings and feline features, making her appear to be a pretty young woman quite unlike the Quinoa Steader he remembered. “So…what did you want?” she asked uncertainly. She still seemed subdued, hadn’t recovered her old attitude yet. Good.

“I wanted to ask you a very important question,” Zane said. “I want you to think about it before you answer.”

“All…right?” Quinoa said nervously.

“When Rhianna, Qixi, and the rest ended up in the Towers…what did you do wrong?” Zane asked.

“But we didn’t—” Quinoa began angrily, but Zane held up a hand.

“I want you to think about it,” he repeated. “Take several minutes if you want. I can wait.”

Quinoa sighed. “I don’t need to think about it. They already rubbed it in good back then. How was I supposed to know yanking their fetters and giving them their skins was going to be a bad thing?”

“Can’t say I’m really fond of fetters myself,” Zane said. “Given that I had them on me for most of my life. My human side didn’t like the idea of them, either.”

“You see?” Quinoa said. “So what’s the problem?”

“Well, the whole ‘government job’ thing, for one,” Zane said. “You know, when you work for the government, you’re under some restrictions. More so if you’re a RIDE. But there’s always that incentive to buy out your RIDE when you leave. The problem is, RIDEs are pretty expensive for ordinary people. Especially when they haven’t had a lot of time on the job to build up their savings yet. And when you put someone like that in a situation where they have to buy out now…”

“Oh.” Quinoa frowned. Zane thought she looked a little paler.

“It’s pretty common for people from our walk of life to have a little trouble figuring out how much stuff costs for people who don’t have that much,” Zane said. “Which is part of why Dad raised me middle class, I guess. The problem is—”

Zane stopped, then looked up at a cloud of dust coming up the road. It looked familiar. In fact—it was Sophie, in her skimmer form, totally disregarding the speed limit. And then his vision zoomed in, showing Myla hunched low over the controls, tears streaming from her eyes. “Oh hell. Speak of the devil. Quinoa, could you get out of sight please?” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the sphinx-girl seem to blink out of existence. “Good enough.”

Then he sent to the onrushing skimmer, :Sophie? It’s Zane. Rhianna and Rochelle are both asleep, and Rufia’s gone. Can I help?:

:It…didn’t go well,: the fennec RIDE replied. :Qixi’s the worst kind of boss. I can’t imagine why she’s as successful as she is. We knew within five minutes it wasn’t going to work out, then spent an hour in pure hell. Qixi knew she had us by the tail.:

:What did she do?:

:Pulled a fast one on the so-called ‘goodwill loan’. Jacked up the interest rate she was going to charge. It wouldn’t have been a job so much as indentured servitude. It was all I could do to keep from chewing her face off myself. She said if we walked out she was going to send the bill to a collection agency. Well, we did. That bitch is screwing with the wrong vixen!:

:Pull up over here, Sophie. Let me talk to Myla. Maybe I can fix things.: He carefully didn’t look over where Quinoa had been standing.

Sophie slowed below the speed limit, her rider too inward-focused to notice. The duo went directly into fuse.

Zane approached the pair, and placed a hand on their shoulder. “Hey. I know we didn’t really get off to the best start, and this may not be a very good time, but I really need to talk to you. It’s urgent.”

The fennec’s head retracted to reveal Myla’s tear-stricken face. She looked a little better than before. Having Sophie share her misery must have put a damper on it. “What do you want, Mr. Brubeck? I really…well…what do you want?” Sobbing took over again. “Oooh noooo…they’re going to repo my dear Sophie…”

“No, they’re not. I’ve been repossessed, and I won’t let that happen to anyone I can help.” Zane shook his head. “What I want is to offer you a job. A real job, because I need talents you have—not a make-work or an indenture to pay off a loan you shouldn’t have had to take out in the first place.”

He paused to let that sink in. “But first, I wanted to show you something. I’m passing it to Sophie now. I know you saw the worst side of Integration back in the Towers. If you’re going to trust me enough to work for me, you need to see a better one. This is kind of personal…but it’s all I’ve got.”

He sent the memory packet through the link from his palm: two sets of memories, one beginning with a man limping through a desert, and the other beginning with a tiger RIDE trapped in a sinkhole. The memories played out over several months of friendship, culminating in an evening when two friends worriedly asked each other what they were going to become…and then became it. Then they woke up the next day, a new man.

:That was…beautiful,: Sophie said, stunned.

“Absolutely,” Myla agreed. “Thank you for sharing that with us. That…takes a lot of trust.”

Zane shrugged. “I trust Rhianna. Rhianna trusts you. I figure trust should Baconize.”

“I don’t know if something like that could ever happen to Sophie and me, though,” Myla mused. “At least, not now.”

“I wouldn’t want it to, before it was time,” Zane said. “Which is why I’d never try to force it on anyone. I just—”

And then there was an Integrate sphinx prostrated on the ground next to them. “Myla, I am so, so sorry,” Quinoa sobbed. “I didn’t…I never thought. Even when you mentioned that time I didn’t understand. But I…I do now. I never meant to do this to you. I never meant to…to hurt you.”

A fleeting expression of rage and anger, directed at Zane and Quinoa both, passed swiftly. The fennec de-Fused, turning her gaze on the sobbing woman-child, then up to her rider. “You…didn’t say that she was with you, Mr. Brubeck. But I’m not angry. At least, not now. Come here, kiddo,” Myla said, reaching down to give her a hand up off the ground. “You remember what I said to you about ‘contrition’ all those years ago? You were what, twelve?”

“Twelve and a half,” Quinoa said, half-smiling through her tears. “I remember. Inties remember everything.”

“After all that’s happened, do you understand now, little girl?” Myla said crisply.

“I…I do. I hadn’t thought it through. I just thought fetters were bad. And the others said the same…but now I understand.” She forced herself to meet Myla’s gaze. “And I’ll do…whatever I can to…to make up for it.”

“You know, this time I think she does get it,” Sophie said.

“I think so too, Sophie. Then she’s a big girl now, isn’t she? Quinnie, you’re on the road to being a ‘young woman’ now. Finally.” As she spoke the last words, her voice went from patronizing to genuinely pleased.

“I’m just so sorry,” Quinoa said again. “The others said…” She shook her head. “Why did I listen to them?” She shook her head.

“Quinoa, I might have some ideas about that, but I need to talk to Myla and Sophie alone for a little bit first. Could you wait for us here?” Zane sent her the coordinates of his apartment through his DIN.

“All…all right,” Quinoa said, sniffling. She lifted off her feet and vanished, and they felt the breeze of her passage as she zoomed off toward the apartment building.

“Sorry,” Zane said. “I honestly didn’t mean to spring her on you like that. We’d just been out walking and talking, when you came driving up. I’d asked her to keep hidden, but…”

“It’s Quinoa. She could never keep quiet about anything for very long.” Myla was starting to recover from the shock now, and her RIDE licking her cheek threatened to make her giggle.

“Anyway, it’s not quite her fault. Well, not entirely, anyway. I think there’s a couple pieces of the puzzle you’re missing.” He sent across another memory package, this one comprising their conversations with the Integrates from breakfast up through his talk with Quinoa and Myla’s arrival.

“Glad they’re not all assholes, then,” Sophie said. “I recognize the dinosaur’s name, too—one of the few bits of memory they didn’t dig out of me with a spork. AWOL from the army years ago after he lost his arm and a leg in a firefight while Fused. Command asked Materiel Recovery to look out for his RIDE.” She chuckled. “Something tells me they’re not going to get that one back.”

“And it’s nice to hear that Burke, or ‘Flint-Burke,’ is getting help,” Myla said.

Zane nodded. “So what I’m thinking is, I asked Quinoa to stay here in Uplift, put her up in an apartment nearby where I can kinda keep a big-brotherly eye on her, and where she won’t have that Fritz pouring poison in her ear. And that kinda brings me to you.” He looked directly at Myla.

The former Nextus MRS officer shrugged. “I’m open to suggestions. At least I know you’re on the level, unlike that bitch Qixi. Bitches, really. Her entire crew is almost as bad as she is.”

Zane nodded. “Yeah, we’ve contracted with them before, and I’ve met her once or twice. Not pleasant. Anyway, as you heard in those memories, I’m not going to be hiding under a rock—or a disguise. And I’m sure there are going to be plenty of ordinary people who are scared of me, and probably Integrates like Fritz who won’t want me upsetting their apple cart either. So what I need is a bodyguard. One with the kind of tenacity it takes to tough it out for months in a pastel pegasus pony RIDE if that’s the job.” He grinned. “Though I promise you won’t have to do that this time.”

“Why couldn’t they have found a Luna for me? Honestly, the worst part was the pastel blue ears and rainbow-colored hair and tail. After a while Dashie and I tolerated one another. But that’s neither here nor there. It’s this stupid loan I signed with Qixi. She damn well knew the emotional state I was in and took advantage of it!” She smacked her knee. “I want to kick her tail soooo hard!”

Zane chuckled. “Don’t worry about Qixi. I’ll buy your loan off of her outright, and throw in enough of a buyout bonus she won’t be able to say no. She won’t be any problem; she knows I can squash her like the obnoxious little stink bug she is if she gives me any trouble. And I just hope she gives me trouble.” He actually blushed through his fur. “I’m sorry, I don’t like playing the rich bastard, usually—it’s just not me—but loathsome little twerps like Qixi just make it too tempting to pass up entirely.”

Myla blinked. “You’d do that, for me?” Then she shook her head. “I’ve seen what kind of person you are from your memories, of course you’d do that. I…don’t know what to say.”

“The word you’re looking for is ‘yes’.” Zane chuckled. “And I know you’re of a type with Rhianna and Rochelle—you’ve got your pride, so I won’t even think about just trying to forgive the loan,” he said. “I know you wouldn’t go for that. I almost kind of wish you would, but then I realize that if you were that kind of person, you wouldn’t be the kind of person I wanted in the first place.”

“Thanks…I think,” Myla said. “So how are you going to want me to pay it back?”

“I’ll just figure up a payment at a reasonable interest rate and dock it out of your first few paychecks,” Zane said. “But I do plan to pay you enough that you’ll hardly even notice the chunk missing.” He grinned. “I’d do this for anyone, but especially for a friend of Rhianna’s. And I hope you’ll be my friend, too—both of you.”

Myla grinned. “It already feels as though I’ve known you for months.”

Sophie chuckled. “It does. Funny, that.”

“Then welcome to the team.” He held out his hand for Myla to shake and Sophie to lick. “Let’s go tell Quinoa the good news, then I’ll phone Qixi and you all can listen in. Should be fun.”

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The apartment building was a fairly classy downtown high-rise. It was easy enough to find, and the combination balcony and skimmer pad meant Quinoa didn’t have to go through the lobby, which was nice. She waved a hand at the security alarm on the balcony door, and it chirped happily and let her in. Not the droid you’re looking for, Quinoa thought.

She sighed. Well, this was probably the only alone-time she was going to get for a while, so might as well get it over with. Her DIN flashed as she opened a scrambled comm line.

“What’s the haps, Quinnie?” a cheerful Fritz said. “You scoped out our n00b in Uplift yet?”

“Uh…yeah,” Quinoa said. “Not drinking anything, are you?”

“Smooth Alohan ice latte with some sarium sweets,” Fritz replied. “But if you’re worried I’m gonna spit-take, I just put it down. So, make with the telling.”

“It’s Zane Brubeck,” Quinoa said.

There was silence for what must have been a couple fast-time hours on Fritz’s end. “Ol’ Clint’s kid? You’re shitting me! They don’t like RIDEs!”

“Well, turns out this one liked green eggs and ham, Sam I Am,” Quinoa said. “It was even in the news a few months back.”

A guffaw. “Oh, I just caught up. Zane’s a chip off the ol’ block, ain’t he? So, what’s the haps? You bringing him to Towers?”

“Not…at this point,” Quinoa said, trying to figure out how to break the news. “It’d raise too many eyebrows if the head of Brubeck Mining just up and vanished so soon after his old man died.”

“Got a point there. Since Clint and I had an understanding, I’m gonna do that tigger a favor and let him be for now, provided you teach him how to mask up and he keeps his lip shut. Keep your peepers on him for now, Quinnie. So, what did the nag and the gecko think?”

“They were pretty surprised,” Quinoa said. “I think Zane might be the most famous Intie we’ve had yet.”

“Yeah, I suppose so. ‘Til now that would’ve been…you,” Fritz said jovially. “Little sad he’s stolen your thunder?”

“I’m trying not to worry about it,” Quinoa said. “Anyway, they’ve gone back to Jurassic Park. I think Zane wants me to stick around a while.”

“You do that, chick. You do that. Show him what’s what, keep ‘im in line,” Fritz said. “Today’s been a ginchy day, and this bit of news just tops it off. You know that cube of an owly griffin back at Towers? No longer a problem.”

“Uh…how’s that, Bosscat?” Quinoa said.

“Pew pew pew! Wait, no. It’s more of a boom. Big bada boom,” Fritz said cheerfully. “Multipass. All that shit.”

Quinoa froze. But…I kinda liked him, she thought, careful not to let even a hint of that leak into the comm connection. “Well…that’s great.”

“Yeah,” Fritz said, too pleased with himself to take note of her hesitation. “When word gets around, I think the kind of static we took at Towers that time will be pure Herodotus. Ancient history. All the same, I’m thinking ‘bout cleaning up the other little loose ends. Next time I see that Qixi and her pack in the Dry…mmm, what Enclave you think might be a good spot for a pack of new wolfies?”

Despite the shock she’d just taken, Quinoa had to grin at that idea. She hadn’t liked those bitches much when she’d met them at Towers, and after the way they’d just treated Myla—

Myla. Oh crap. She’d be a “loose end,” too. So would the people from the Freeriders Garage. Better nip this in the bud right now.

“I know how you hate loose ends and all, but I think maybe you oughtta nix that plan, Bosscat,” Quinoa said after a few minutes of rapid fast-time thought. “They’ve already had time to blab it around. It’s such a wild and crazy tale as it is now, nobody’s likely to pay it much mind. But if they all suddenly vanish, hello Streisand Effect.”

“Mmmm,” Fritz said, half-growling. “Damn it if you don’t got a point there, Quinnie. A’least I can wait a year or two ‘til nobody would put the two together. Waited five years for Paulie, after all.”

I’ll take that. A lot can happen in a year, Quinoa thought. “Sounds like a plan.”

“Copacetic,” Fritz said. “Anything else, kitten?”

Quinoa bit her lip. She should tell Fritz about the Freeriders’ DIN, she knew that. But…she remembered his enthusiasm at cleaning up “loose ends.” Poor Paulie. She didn’t want to tip him back over into deciding it was a good idea after all. “Ah…not just now. I’ll let you know if anything else crops up.”

“Solid, Quinnie. Copacetic. I’ll let Ol’ Joe know you’re coming up roses,” Fritz said. “If you can extract the tigger from public life, I’ll even let you visit him.”

“Uh…thanks,” Quinoa said. “I’ll do my best.” Yeah, like that’s gonna happen. Ugh. Well, you never know.

“I know you will. Ciao!” Fritz dropped the line.

Quinoa let out the breath she’d been holding, and sank onto the RIDE couch in the living room. “Ugh.” Suddenly, being an Integrate didn’t feel like quite so much fun anymore.

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Zane, Myla, and Sophie got to the apartment to find Quinoa waiting for them on the edge of Zane’s living room sofa. She hopped up as they came in, eyes still directed at the floor.

Sophie peered thoughtfully at the sofa Quinoa had vacated. “That looks comfy. May I?”

The sofa was a bit of an oddity, as it was in some ways more like a mattress than a sofa. It was actually a combination RIDE bed and couch, intended for a large furry RIDE to arrange itself along one side and serve as a living sofa back for the humans who sat on the other edge. Zane had bought it in the first few days of his partnership with Terry, though they’d never actually ended up using it much, discovering that they preferred staying Fused most of the time.

“As long as you don’t mind us leaning against you, be my guest,” Zane said. “In fact, if you want I can have it moved down to your and Myla’s apartment, when we get one set up for you. I certainly don’t have a RIDE to use it with anymore.”

“Thanks!” Sophie arranged herself along the back of the sofa-bed with her hind and fore legs to either side of the seating space.

Myla chuckled. “She does look comfortable, doesn’t she? In more ways than one.”

“C’mon, let’s sit down.” Zane took one end, Myla the other, and he waved Quinoa to take the space in between them. “We had something we wanted to talk to you about.”

“What was that?” Quinoa asked.

“Well, for starters, Myla’s agreed to sign on as my new bodyguard,” Zane said.

Quinoa perked up. “Oh! She’s good at that! You know, I think my uncle still has Dashie around somewhere…”

“Nooooo thanks,” Myla said. “I’ve had enough pony for a lifetime.” She rolled her eyes. “Sooooo much pony.”

Zane chuckled, and Quinoa actually giggled a little.

“The other thing I wanted to talk to you about was, well…from what you said earlier, I got the impression that maybe you and the Towers Council could use some time apart,” Zane said.

Quinoa sobered up, and nodded once. “They…haven’t really been all that happy with me since last month. Especially in light of my association with Fritz.” She paused a moment, considering the conversation she’d just had a few minutes before, then sighed. “In fact…given, um, recent developments, I don’t think I can go back there now. Great, that’s three Enclaves in three months I’ve been chucked out of.”

“So here’s my proposal,” Zane said. “I find you an apartment here, too, and you stay for a while. You can teach me the things I’d learn if I were an Enclave newbie, and maybe we can talk more about Integrate philosophy. And you could tell the Council or whoever that you’re being all responsible and staying here to keep a closer eye on things.”

“And perhaps we could find the time to do some things together, just like old times,” Myla said.

Quinoa blinked. “You’d…do that for me? After what I said? And…” she glanced over her shoulder at Sophie “…what I did?”

“I won’t necessarily say all is forgiven yet,” Myla said. “But you’ve gone a long way toward getting there.” She smiled faintly, running a hand along Sophie’s fur behind her. “And as, well, devastating as it was at the time, I do have to admit you and your friends did some very good work with the upgrade.”

“Same here,” Sophie agreed. “It feels completely natural! Or, at least, what I’d imagine completely natural must feel like.”

“So thank you for that, at least,” Myla said.

“You’re…welcome, and I’m sorry again,” Quinoa said, looking down. “It’s kind of…dogmatic in some Integrate circles that any tethered RIDE must be freed. And I bought into it. I screwed up. I…think I know better now.”

“There’s still one more person you have to apologize to, you know,” Myla said gently. “The one who got hurt even more than we did.”

“I know,” Quinoa said. “And I will, when I get the chance. I’ll find out which Enclave he’s in, and go there. Maybe I can even get them to make an exception to usual policy and let you-all visit, as long as I keep the location secret.”

Myla thought about that for a moment. “I think…I’d like that. It might be nice to meet some Integrates who aren’t…” She glanced at Quinoa, then trailed off.

Quinoa smiled. “It’s all right. You can say it. I know what we were. ‘Total assholes.’”

“You said it, not me,” Myla said, and they all chuckled.

“Well, speaking of total assholes, now comes the fun part of the evening’s entertainment,” Zane said, leaning back against Sophie. He opened a comm line and piped the output through the apartment’s entertainment speakers.

A moment later a gruff female voice came over the line. “Qixi Wolfwood. What you want.”

“Hi, Qixi, this is Zane Brubeck. Listen, I’ve heard that in a moment of weakness you recently made a loan to an ex-Nextus Materiel Recovery officer. Since you’ve done a number of jobs so well for Brubeck Mining in the past, I’ve decided out of the goodness of my heart to take that loan off your hands for you…”

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“I…wow. That ‘n00b briefing’ didn’t go nearly as I thought it would,” Aaron said. He and Leah were sharing a VR session that was a cartoon version of the gazebo from Terrania. It was an easy way to chat while their bodies arced through the air at just barely subsonic speed en route to Jurassic Park.

Leah snorted. “You have a talent for understatement. What a can of worms! We can at least be glad this isn’t the old days.”

“Well, we still have a worm named Quinoa to consider. She’s likely to blab everything to Fritz. And if that beatnik finds out that non-Inties are making DINs, I don’t know if we can protect them.”

“Though I’m unsure if he would believe it to begin with,” Leah said.

“Depends on how much he’s come to believe his own press about being ‘superior’ and ‘special snowflakes’,” Aaron added.

“At least Quinoa is staying there,” Leah said. “If I had to put up with that girl for ten more milliseconds…

“Perhaps Brubeck could prove to be be a positive influence on her,” Aaron suggested. Leah stared at him. “It could happen!” he insisted.

When he and Leah arrived at the Enclave the gates were wide open, to Aaron’s surprise. Even more, the bombastic entry music was off and even the torches had been extinguished. “What on Zharus?” Aaron said as they touched down. He glanced to the gatekeeper, who’d come out at their approach. “Fred, what’s going on here?”

The heavy-set miniature apatosaurus shook his head. “Bad juju. We just had a delegation from Towers in a couple hours ago. We’re calling in reps from Wonderland, Camelot, and Terrania—so I’m glad you’re with him, Leah. We’ve toned down the meme for the guests.

“The Clever One wants to talk with you both as soon as possible. Get your tails in there.”

Aaron and Leah exchanged worried looks, then hurried on through the oddly silent gates. Aaron reflected on how, for all the times he’d wished they were silent when he passed through them before, actually having them be that way just felt…wrong.

The Enclave was an exacting reproduction of the first Jurassic Park movie’s buildings and jungle environs as much as possible in the constrained space belowground. The resort’s cafeteria had multiple functions, including meeting space. There were already a number of Integrates of all shapes and sizes milling around in it, including a large feathered allosaur.

“That’s Eddie Gray!” Aaron said. The larger dinosaur looked equal parts haunted and determined.

“Aaron! Over here!” the Clever One said, waving her wing-arms. She was a colorful archaeopteryx, dressed in a hardlight version of John Hammond’s white outfit. “Feed me what happened in Uplift, will you?”

“Sure thing, Kamilah,” Aaron said. He transmitted a summarized version to the Enclave’s elected executive.

“Having Quinoa involved in this complicates things,” Kamilah said, rustling her feathers. “We need to move fast on this. Fritz won’t rest on his smug laurels for very long.”

:The Red Queen and the Hatter are here!: Fred called out. :And Monty is just behind as Camelot’s rep.: There really were a remarkable number of Enclave representatives here, Aaron reflected. Even little holes in the wall from all the way across the Dry had sent someone. Chakona’s representative, a brown-haired tiger felitaur, was chatting with a small raccoon Integrate from Furcadia and a fox in a saffron robe from Shangri-La. About the only Enclave of note not represented was Fritz’s Coffeehouse.

“Gang’s all here,” the Clever One said. “Let’s make this a realtime meeting to avoid DIN burnouts.”

“What is going on?” Leah asked.

“I’m getting to that,” Kamilah said. “All right, pipe down everyone, I only want to explain this once.” The room abruptly quieted. “Okay, that’s better. Col. Gray, if you would honor us?”

The allosaurus took up a lot of space even in the enlarged cafeteria. “There’s no way to pull any punches here, everyone. About four hours ago Fritz murdered Paulie.” Gray transmitted the record of the assassination to everyone.

Aaron groaned. :I was wrong,: he sent across to Leah. :It is like the old days.:

:Or so Fritz would have us believe,: Leah sent.

“What are we going to do about this?” Monty, a white horse Integrate in a colorful tabard, demanded.

“We should take action!” someone else in the crowd said. “Show him who’s boss!”

“But who exactly is going to bell that lynx?” a winged deer in a Star Trek uniform asked. “We might be able to dogpile him, but that could result in a lot more fatalities first.”

“There might be another way, if we bide our time a little while longer,” Aaron said. “We just learned something…remarkable in Uplift.” He transmitted the same memory summary he’d just given Kalindra, with Leah adding her own POV. “I think Zane Brubeck is the answer to the question.”

“And so did Paulie, when he spoke to us before we went to meet him,” Leah added. “If there’s anyone who can bring us out into the open, it could only be someone with his power and resources in human society. Fritz simply can’t just disappear him like his Snatchers did so many others.”

“I’m more interested in what you saw of those Freeriders’ DIN work,” Monty put in. “We already know that bunch down in Aloha has done something in that regard, but Fritz and his crew keep trashing their ‘boards so it can’t leak out to anyone else, and they’re not in any position to rock the boat yet.”

“Yes, that is curious,” Gray agreed. “We should probably ascertain whether it’s a one-time fluke before we pin any hopes on that, though. Perhaps we should direct the next Integrate to quicken in Uplift their way and keep an eye on the results.”

“In the meanwhile, we should bide our time,” Kamilah suggested. “Prepare ourselves, but let Fritz think he has cowed us a while longer.” She grimaced. “And prepare to give this Zane Brubeck what support we might, should he need it.”

“Any of you who wish to stay for a while to keep an eye on things, we have extra quarters in Terrania,” Leah put in.

“And here as well,” Aaron added.

“And the rest of you will undoubtedly wish to return to your own Enclaves with this news,” Kamilah said. “Therefore, this meeting is adjourned. Take care on your way home.”

Aaron and Leah exchanged glances as the cafeteria began to clear out. :It appears our times just became a good deal more interesting.:

Leah rolled her eye, the white showing. :This kind of interesting, I can do without. I suppose I should return to Terrania and organize the surveillance. We need to keep a close eye on Uplift for now.:

:Agreed,: Aaron said. :Stay in touch. Things should start happening soon.:

Leah lifted into the air and drifted toward the exit, glancing over her shoulder before she left. :That’s what I’m afraid of.:

Authors’ Notes

R_M: Here we see the ripple effect of little changes begin. Aaron and Leah being told ahead of time who Zane was means they can no longer be surprised about it. Fritz no longer being a goofball in an enclave made up of goofballs, the Towers enclave…can no longer be made up of goofballs. Zane’s old man and Quinoa’s uncle being close, Zane can no longer be quite so disdainful of Quinoa as he once was.

Come to that, I’ve coined a new term: “Zanetification (n) - The tendency of Zane Brubeck to pontificate at people at the drop of a hat.” Tried to pare that down some here. His little speech to Quinoa went on way too long in the old version, and she should have been a little more clueful than she originally came off here.

We continued our expansion of the Integrate side of things with some more scenes from Quinoa’s perspective, forming a natural extension of the scenes we added in the first part. This afforded both the opportunity to react to new stuff from before, and lead into stuff we already had her doing later. [JonBuck: At this point I’m still anticipating we’ll have at least one important old story element we can’t easily reconcile with our changes. I don’t know what it will be, but I believe there will be at least one.]

Of particular interest is the change in Enclaves from being just private retreats to being completely secretive. The original version of this piece mentioned that most Enclaves that aren’t Towers are willing to have non-Integrated human visitors, which is very much Not A Thing in the rest of the series. Sheesh. In a way, I’m kind of glad we tended to forget the little details of what we wrote early on as we wrote in the later stuff, because if we’d let this early stuff constrain us we wouldn’t have ended up with as nearly as good a story in the end.

Other notes: the waitress here, named Pamela, who will also appear in “Impossible Things,” was originally “Paula.” But we realized that first we had a griffin named “Paul” (subsequently renamed to “Paulie”) in “FreeRIDErs,” and then we had Paul the mechanic show up in Rhianna’s garage. Too many Pauls! So Pamela she became.

Since we shoehorned a couple mentions of Aloha in here, I should probably remind folks that originally it was still several more episodes before Aloha was even a thing. Jetfire hadn’t joined our little cabal of authors at this point, and wouldn’t for several more episodes. By and large, our overall story concept had gotten a lot closer to its final form by the time he joined us.

This was also the point where we originally first introduced our two Integrates, Leah and Aaron. Jon came up with Aaron, and I invented Leah Sheryl Daye. She was an amalgam of characters I’d written and roleplayed in other settings, such as and Superguy Listserv. Her last name came from a character of mine whose first name was Summer. (What can I say, I like puns.)

I was later amused to find that one of the characters in Jetfire’s stories also completely independently had the surname of “Daye” (based, I gather, on some real life acquaintance of his). However, they can’t exactly be closely related, since Leah’s from Zharus and JF’s Ryan Daye is an immigrant from Mars! (And there’s another confusing confluence of names…)

A lot of fun elements in this story rose out of the give and take between us as we wrote. For instance, when Aaron the velociraptor said something about “welcoming” Zane, I found the idea of a velociraptor saying “welcome” amusing enough to toss in a “To Jurassic Park, no doubt.” And then Jon took that and ran with it, having Aaron say yes, but he didn’t come up with the name. (I’m almost a little sad we went ahead and added an earlier mention of the place in the first part, since it steals a little of the punchline’s punch, but oh well.)

JonBuck: We’ve used Google Docs for our writing process because it’s so easy to collaborate, both writing in the same file at the same time. This makes the process rather…reactive. Sort of like an instantaneous Round Robin on the sentence-level. R_M would write a bit of dialogue from Quinoa, and I’d respond with Fritz.

Another aspect is that one of us might fill in a scene very roughly, while the other goes in and tinkers with wording and fills in gaps in description while the other keeps on moving the story forward. Often it’s just how one feels at the time.

There are quite a few things I’d started with in early parts I realized didn’t quite work as I intended, so I changed in later parts knowing we’d go back and revise them later. Inties-as-outcasts was one, and related to that was the way their DINs were made. Originally they didn’t burn out so easily and R&R’s DIN was “just as good” as the ones made in the Enclaves. I didn’t finalize just how bad they were until Fritz was more fleshed out.

Such is the nature of worldbuilding. I’ve tried to keep it from getting near comic book-levels of continuity snarls and retcons.

The original version of this episode can be found here, or you can use the "History" function to get a better idea of what we added or changed.

Preceded by:
Integration Part I: All-Nighter
FreeRIDErs Succeeded by:
Integration Part III: RIDEgirls' Day Out