User:Robotech Master/Kaylee Anny original

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FreeRIDErs story universe


by Jon Buck and Robotech_Master

Part 13: Kaylee & Anny

April 22, 121 AL

“Rowwwl!” Lieutenant Annette Hewer yowled at the Senior RIDE Engineer adhering a vocoder to her misshapen skull, following up with a very feline hiss. The results of the latest—and supposedly the last—Fuser Mode test were writ large across her body, something the simulators failed to catch for the new Fuser nanobot configuration. She batted the man with a forepaw that barely had what could be called a thumb.

The man looked like one of the engineers who might have designed Apollo’s lunar module. Horn-rimmed ‘specs, white dress shirt, dark slacks, and a red tie. “Hold still, Lieutenant. I’ve almost got the vocoder working. There!”

“Ah didn’t sign up for this to end up a furball!” Hewer irritably said through the vocoder headset. The last Fuser test had made her more animal than human, but thankfully hadn’t touched her mind. “How long until those morons fix this, Clemens? I don’t want ta use a litterbox.”

Dr. Roderick Clemens tweaked the voice settings so that the vocoder sounded more like her natural twang. “It won’t be for long. Kaylee’s pretty unhappy about it, too. It’s not her fault. That’s not what she intended to do. We just didn’t think the nannies could do changes this extreme.”

“Why the hell ain’t the Res Chamber back up and running yet?” Hewer said, growling again, sitting all-too-comfortably on her haunches. “This is what it’s there fer!”

“We thought we’d worked all the major Fuser kinks out in Felix,” Clemens explained. “It’ll be back up this afternoon. Try catnapping for a while.”

“Har har,” Hewer said weakly, resting her head on her forelegs. She was almost-all human-sized lynx, aside from her skull shape, which Kaylee had acted to protect when her new Fuser nannies had somehow gone out of control and tried to make her match her RIDE’s Walker mode instead. She’d gotten used to a degree of anthropomorphism during testing, but this was insane. She didn’t even have working hands. “This better get fixed fast, Clemens. Tax Day is in three days.”

Tax Day was a Nextus holiday where its people could see, in concrete ways, where their money went. Traditionally it was full of parades, open houses at various Agencies, and military hardware demonstrations. This being wartime it was even more important, because it included war bond drives as well. Command decided it was the ideal day to reveal the RIDE program to the public. Sturmhaven already had shown theirs. Ever since Dr. Patil’s paper had gone public the whole supercontinent was going crazy for them—even tiny Nuevo San Antonio had produced some surprising results.

There was little she could do but lay on the lifter gurney and wait for the RC to be restarted. Since Kaylee had stopped her brain from being altered she had no idea how to coordinate her quadrupedal body. Everything felt dissonant and wrong. Just keeping from slicing through her tongue with her carnivore teeth took significant effort.

“You know, it wouldn’t take much tweaking to rewire your motor cortex for four legs and the rest,” Dr. Clemens mused. “Lots of possibilities here.”

Don’t. Even. Think about it, Clemens,” Hewer said, extending her claws. “You should bury that the nanos can even do something like this. Changing sex is bad ‘nough, you know. Imagine the panic if folks thought they could get loose.”

“Won’t happen again,” the man replied firmly. He looked up at some sound only he heard. “And they’re ready for you, Lt. Hewer. Earlier than expected. Let’s get you back on two feet.”

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Kaylee the lynx paced around the animated virtual mountainside, worrying. I didn’t mean to do that, Anny! I’m sorry! She wanted to say, over and over again. She had a suspicion that Fritz had left something with her during their last encounter here. Normally the hacks were just harmless pranks humans wrote off as bugs—Kaylee and the others had been willing to go along with them, since little acts of rebellion blew off some steam—but this was far over what he normally did. As usual it was a fine summer day, her other sister and two brothers were off chasing rabbits or even larger prey. Where are you, Fritz?

Shortly thereafter the prototype RIDE drew himself into the scene, landing softly on his paws before coming up to cheekrub Kaylee. “Good afternoon, my sweet. How did your testing go today?”

There were times to be tactful, but Kaylee was still young enough not know when. “Did you hack my Fuser nannies, Fritz? That wasn’t very nice.”

“I just thought I’d give your rider a taste of what it’s like for us when we can’t Fuse with them,” Fritz said innocently. “’Twas an early malfunction for my second rider. I think they’ve still got him in the Daypark Zoo.”

Kaylee raised her ears. “Second? What happened to your first?” She knew that her own unofficial first was probably safe, though having to learn the ropes of being a woman.

“Oh, various sundry things,” the prototype replied smoothly, looking at something off in the distance. “Mostly the Fuser nannies dissolved him into glop. They had to pour him out of me and back into a human-shaped mold. I think he’s got a job as a department store mannequin. Scares the crap out of shoppers when he walks around. Now, my fifth pilot…well, you don’t want to know.”

The problem with Fritz was that Kaylee—young and credulous as she was—could never tell if he was being serious or not. Kandace hung on his every word, almost worshipping him, but Kaylee had acquired some of Anny’s skepticism in just the three times they’d Fused. “Yeah, right.”

“You can believe me or don’t. But Lt. Hewer now knows what it’s like to be thumbless,” Fritz pointed out.

“Don’t do that again, ‘cause I’m on guard now,” Kaylee said, standing up, flattening her ears. She was hungry—in here, the Ris got various natural urges, to help keep them grounded with their “animal” state. As it happened, she had seen a brown rabbit just waiting to be a dinner guest, but she hesitated. The mountainside and new biomes beyond were filling up these days and she couldn’t be sure her potential meal wasn’t another RI-in-development.

Not that there would have been any problem if it were—it would just respawn a few minutes later, as the lynxes themselves had found out the first time they hadn’t been quite sure-footed enough atop a virtual cliff. And some of the prey animals actually enjoyed being hunted—apparently the experience of being “killed” somehow helped them to feel more “alive.” However, the etiquettes that predator and prey RI species had been developing among themselves tended to treat virtual RI/RI predation as something best practiced between close friends, to avoid any misunderstandings.

“Wouldn’t think of it,” Fritz said in voice dripping with smarm. His eyes were on a herd of elk in the distance. A bull leading his harem of females. “Oh, them again. What use are they, anyway? Big and clumsy oafs!”

“They can carry more than we can,” Kaylee pointed out. “More big guns, more comm gear.”

“How many species do they plan on bringing into the world for this war of theirs? So far they’ve got deer, elk, horses, cougars, lions, bison, raccoons, and birds. Birds are even worse. Why bother with them when everyone can fly?” the eldest RIDE continued. Once his test program completed, the number of RIDE species had exploded as the Nextus engineers were permitted to try anything and everything.

Kaylee didn’t have an answer for that one. Instead she focused on her virtual meal ticket, and pounced.

“Hey, wait a second!” the rabbit screeched.

The female lynx twisted in midair and landed on her side in the bushes. Frustrated, she got up again and glared at the rabbit. “Why didn’t you say something earlier?” she snapped. “New around here, are you? What’s your model number?”

“RBT-LCA-000,” the trembling lapine RI said. “I’m new. Brand new! I was just booted yesterday! Light comm armor!”

“Well, that’s just dumb,” Kaylee said, thinking that it must be the ears that made him work for that job. “You’re a prototype and they threw you right into the fire.”

Before the rabbit could say another word, Fritz pounced on him with lightning speed and snapped his neck, then started eating the carcass. “Ah, fresh rabbit!” He looked up. “Oh, sorry…were you going to eat that?”

Kaylee wanted to gag. “No. I’ll go find one that won’t talk back, thanks.”

“Well, watch out for the new CGRs up Mount Sharp. They’re rather territorial,” Fritz said. “I found out the hard way.” He took another bite of the poor prototype’s virtual corpse. “Needs Tabasco.”

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April 24, 121 AL

New Langley was the stereotypical testing ground for new military gear. A hardlight camo dome covered the entire area, keeping orbiting eyes from seeing what went on but doing nothing to hide the location of the facility itself. Sturmhaven had done something similar with their testing ground, so there was a constantly escalating effort to see through the other’s dome and make one’s own camouflage more effective.

Can’t see the stars, Hewer thought, walking between the base hospital and her quarters—on two legs. One of the major drawbacks was that all illumination was provided by the underside of the dome, as they did in Cascadia. Hundreds of square kilometers of landscape hidden from the sun. Still, she had volunteered for this duty, thinking of the test pilots of Old Earth five centuries before, the thousands—tens of thousands—who had risked their lives in subsequent ages and often lost them as speeds increased.

The test pilots’ quarters were much fuller these days. There were 000-series prototypes of so many different animals, most of which hadn’t passed simulated Fuser tests yet. Hewer and her fellow LNX pilots, with their animal ears, noses, and tails, were looked upon with some awe and not a little bit of anxiety. Yesterday’s Fuser incident was well known here, and the other test pilots gave her a welcome back pat on the shoulder.

The LNX locker room was empty when she arrived. Hewer looked at the other three 001-unit test riders names: Sgt. Hawking (Frank’s rider), Cpl. Reese (Kandace’s rider), Cpl. Slade (Franz’s rider). Lastly there was Felix’s rider. Hewer groaned. “Captain David Ryder,” she said. “A Captain? Are they insane?”

“That’s about the size of it, LT,” Corporal Reese said, coming in behind her with a salute. “Guess they thought the first RIDE rated a Captain for Tax Day. At least they’re giving him a couple days for them to get used to one another.”

Hewer counted out how many riders the prototype lynx had had. “That makes what? Ten? I’m outta fingers.”

“Felix wears them out,” Reese agreed, popping open the locker with her habitual bang against the sticky lock. “When are they going to fix this thing?”

“The hep cats have other things on their minds,” a new voice said in a faux beatnik patois. He had the dark glasses, willowy-thin body, and a beret to match the lingo. “Captain Ryder at your service, y’all. Don’t need to salute. I don’t go for that square jazz. It’s all cool.”

Hewer and Reese looked at one another. “Oh, yes…sir,” Anny said. “Welcome to the team.”

“Looking forward to being a real hep cat,” Ryder continued. “Talk at you later, crew.” He swept out just as fast as he came in.

Once safely out of earshot, the two women started laughing. They were still trying to contain themselves when Hawking and Slade came in. “I see you’ve met our new commander,” Slade said, opening his locker. “How many Fuses will this one last?”

“No betting pool this time,” Hewer said. “What gets me is that Felix’s, uh…how y’all think I should put it?”

“He’s the poster AI for ‘how to get along with difficult people’,” Hawkins said. “LT, you’re still looking a little catty around the nose.”

“Oh, this? This is the future for ever’one, far as I know. Enhanced sense of smell,” Hewer said, taking a special nano-motile jumpsuit out of her own locker. The fabric itself were made of inactive nanites that would contribute to the Fuser process, facilitating the integration between human and RIDE nervous systems. “What’s the scuttlebutt about the hardlight, y’all?”

“I was going to ask you about that, LT,” Reese said, stripping down to her underthings. She had the jumpsuit zipped up in seconds. Nobody batted an eye, even the men. Especially the men. Reese had been recruited to test the gender-changing capability—officially this time—and had had Gender Identity Disorder. She made the men a little nervous. “Clemens say anything?”

“C’mon, Reese. You know him. As mum as they come,” Hewer said.

“Yeah. You’d never see him hand anything over to NextusLeaks, no matter how much Command ordered him to,” Reese agreed. Nextus was an odd duck even among the planet’s many Polities. They had institutionalized whistleblowing, including a formal Agency for it. Unofficial ones still existed, but they never seemed to get the truly amazing things that came out of the official channels. Of course, that gave the NIA—the Nextus Intelligence Agency—a large measure of information control, too.

The four riders were ready for the day’s testing, the last one before their official commissioning on Tax Day. The LNX-LMA-002 production series was already in the design stage. They would be making changes on a daily basis as the 001-series fed in their field experience. If all went well, within five months RIDEs of all types—land, sea, and air—would flood into the battlefield to defend Nextus’s claims from Sturmhaven. The war, the first on such a scale in the planet’s history, would reach a whole new level.

When they arrived in the building that had seen use as a flier hangar before RIDE program, there were more testing platforms than ever before. They were mostly empty, and Hewer noted one appeared to be a rabbit. “A bunny? Really?”

“Sturmhaven better get scared. We’re going all vorpal bunny on their asses,” Hawking quipped.

“Ah’m more a ‘Night of the Lepus’ kinda girl, myself,” Hewer said. “Giant killer bunny rabbits.”

“I’m more concerned for the girl riders for that line,” Reese said. “Real Playboy Bunnies. But, Lepus? Ever seen Watership Down? There’s your killer bunny rabbits, Lt. Hewer.”

They all shared a laugh before they entered the LNX area, then stopped short. Captain Ryder was posed, wearing an easy-Fuse jumpsuit uniform like everyone else, but standing next to him was a giant gray lynx. “Fall in, hep cats. Got a little surprise for all y’all. Meet Fritz.”

“Fritz?” Hewer said. “What happened to Felix, sir?”

“It’s his real name, dig? We’re cool, you see. We’ve got a groovey thing going on between us. We understand each other,” Captain Ryder said. He already had lynx ears, though surprisingly, no feline nose to match.

For his part, Fritz himself didn’t look all that happy. He seemed more confused than anything. He kept licking himself with a lurid hardlight tongue. The LNX had a facial tic, a slightly wild look in his eyes. It wasn’t in the uncanny valley like the previous hardlight tests Hewer knew about.

From her maintenance cradle across the workspace, she saw Kaylee connect with her ‘specs. “That’s Felix, ma’am,” the female LNX informed. “They fitted him with a hardlight pelt! It’s so amazing! I want one!”

Lt. Hewer sighed. The RI was such a sweet child sometimes. She was technically only a few months old and they were handling these first RI units with lots of care for their psyches. Hewer had no spouse or children of her own, having left that up to the rest of her large family. But she couldn’t help the maternal feelings she had for the sentient lynx. “It is!” she agreed. “How’s Fel…Fritz handling it, doll?”

“Uh…I dunno. All I get out of him is a purr,” Kaylee said. “But he talks funny now.”

“Okay, everyone! Listen up!” Captain Ryder said, raising his arms. In response, Fritz padded behind him, hardlight flickering off. He reared on his hind legs, chestplate opening up, body reconfiguring as he engulfed his new rider. Shortly there was what looked like a real cat-man standing in front of his subordinates. “Take a good, hard look! The future stands before you, hep cats! Rrrrrowl! We are awesome together!”

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The final day of testing was routine: numerous mode changes, target practice, checking a half dozen different paks (weapons, power, communications, ECM, others). The RIDEtechs were more anxious than usual. Just a few days until the official public debut of their work. :A few days and everyone can see me!: Kaylee confided nervously to her ride at the end of it.

Hewer hugged the scared cat in virtual space. :You’ll be just fine. I’ve been in a few military parades in my time. Just glom on to those mem’ries.:

:I…ah will,: Kaylee said, picking up some of Anny’s twang as usual. She read them in seconds, for reference, before de-Fusing and heading for her recharge alcove to enter the VR-space where all Ris spent their downtime.

Kaylee padded into the forest clearing where a number of other Ris were already waiting. Most of them she hadn’t met before, and the new prey species outnumbered the predators by a considerable margin. Just as well “Bambi’s Forest” was a predation-free zone where the lion would lie down with the lamb, except that nobody had gotten around to making any sheep RIDEs yet. “Hello, everyone, I’m Kaylee,” she said.

“I’m Eleanor,” said an elk, looking up from her grazing. “I’ve heard a lot about you. Pleased to meet you.”

“I’m Vinnie!” said a small rabbit—the same one, Kaylee thought, that Fritz had noshed on earlier. It didn’t seem to bear her any ill will, at least.

Kaylee padded in and found a nice sunny spot as others introduced themselves. There sure were a lot of them, now. She wasn’t quite sure how to feel about that. When it had been just her and Fritz, and then the others like Kandace and Franz, it had been like she was special. She was part of a family, and her “parents” gave her special attention. But now it was more like she was part of a school class. A very large class. And her “parents” had become teachers and school administrators, and she hardly ever saw them anymore.

She missed Dr. Patil. Whenever she tried to see her, or even comm her, it seemed like she was too busy to talk anymore. Far too many other Ris needed her special attention. Ris like…the ones who were filling up the rest of the clearing. But she couldn’t resent them for existing. Even Rattigan seemed to be occupied these days, and he was older than Fritz. Their ultimate Great, who had made a point to greet everyone soon after their First Boot. With Rattigan otherwise occupied, Kaylee had taken it upon herself to do as much as she could.

“How was your testing today?” Eleanor asked politely, chewing her virtual cud.

“We’re all finished with testing,” Kaylee said. “Aside from Fritz, who I don’t think will ever be out of testing.”

“Well, he is a prototype, like myself,” Eleanor replied. “I swear I spend more time disassembled than actually ambulatory.”

“That’s normal,” Kaylee said. “And boy howdy have I ever been there.”

“Hey,” Vinnie said, tugging on Kaylee’s forepaw. “What’s this I hear about Fritz getting a skin?”

“It’s hardlight projectors,” Kaylee said, patting the rabbit atop his head. “Some mucky-muck has the idea that making us furry might make the public like us better. It’s a big power drain, though, from what they say. I can’t imagine they’d actually put us on active duty like that.”

“Guess that’s why only your triple-zero is getting it just yet,” Eleanor opined. Suddenly she raised her ears and swallowed her cud. “Hey, wait—”

Before anyone could react, Fritz had pounced on Vinnie once again, giving just long enough for the rabbit to scream before his latest avatar died. Fritz threw away the carcass, growled, then pounced on the next poor unfortunate, a raccoon.

“Fritz! What the hell do you think you’re doing?!” Kaylee shouted, jumping to her feet. “No eatin’ friends here!”

Muzzle dripping virtual blood, Fritz licked his lips. “Don’t be such a cube, kitty-o. Laws o’ nature in here, baby. So don’t blow your jets.”

Kaylee stared, almost more put off by Fritz’s manner of speaking than his wanton attacks. “…what the sam hill did you just say?”

Fritz rolled his eyes. “Same thing you are, Kaylee-girl. We’re talking like our goddamn riders. That last Fuser version’s a complete dullsville. No…wait. That isn’t the right word I want.”

Kaylee snorted, remembering what the last batch had done to Lt. Hewer. “Oh, you mean the Fuser version they tweaked after, for some damn fool reason, our riders started endin’ up furry and sorely lackin’ in the opposable thumbs department? The one they changed so that wouldn’t happen anymore? That Fuser version?”

“Can the lip!” Fritz snarled. “I won’t take no lip from you, square.”

“I don’t even have human lips,” Kaylee said. “Just a muzzle. Though maybe someone should put a muzzle on you. Might be the only way to keep you from soundin’ like a feline Jack Kerouac.” This drew a chuckle from the rest of the animals in the clearing.

“And you sound like a kitty Calamity Jane. I’m gonna blow this scene,” Fritz continued, looking away. “Splitsville for this kitty. Augh! I hate this patois! Cap’s great, I love ‘im, but this talky talk is just too square. I’m headin’ back to my pad.”

“Don’t let the screen door pinch your tail on the way out,” Kaylee advised him.

Fritz picked up Vinnie’s latest carcass in his mouth, then walked away with it. The injured raccoon was visibly healing up, glaring at the lynx as he slunk off. “If I had my PPCs I’d shoot him in the tail!” he said.

“You should aim for the head. Much bigger target on that one,” Kaylee advised. “‘Specially given how it’s all swelled up like a balloon.”

“I’d be careful of that one,” Eleanor said quietly. “He could be trouble. And no one likes to be laughed at.”

The female lynx sighed, feeling her internal clock. “I’ll leave y’all for now. Me and my brothers and sister have a few things to talk about. Nice meeting all y’all.”

They held the meeting in Franz’s rather spacious den up Mount Sharp. It had a spectacular view—or so Kaylee hoped. In VR their senses weren’t any better than a real lynx’s. The inside of the den actually had “artificial” lighting in a glowing fungus. Kaylee wondered how long before the humans would relent and add things like networked computers set into the rock. Or at least give them “admin” privs so they could modify the place as they saw fit. They might look like animals but they did appreciate the comforts of civilization.

Franz headbumped Kaylee as she arrived. “Welcome, sis. We’d better make this quick. Come on in.”

The others were already there. Before they started, Kaylee filled them in on what happened in Bambi’s Forest. Her sister and brothers reported equally animistic activities—Frank and Franz had been chased out of Fritz’s ‘hunting territory’. Kandace seemed to be entirely over her earlier infatuation with Fritz now, having withstood hours of an amorous advance. “Stupid idiot!” she fumed. “I don’t even have estrus subroutines!”

“Did you tell him that?” Kaylee asked.

“Yes! He offered to write me some!”

“It’s that hardlight shit,” Frank said. “Gotta be. I mean, I know he was hard to get along with before, but this is just nutty. Nutty and wrong.”

“Rumor is that stuff’s supposed to make us feel more like natural animals out there, like we do in here,” Franz said. “So maybe if he feels more natural out there, he feels really natural in here.”

“So, what if they decide to add it to us?” Kaylee said, shivering. “Look, I know I’m based on a lynx. We all do. But we ain’t, really.”

“Of course, it could be just like any of the other damn things they keep sticking in us,” Frank said. “Alpha as hell and not working like it’s supposed to. Just look at what the new Fusers have done to your accent.”

Kaylee blinked. “Accent? I ain’t got no accent.”

The three other lynxes looked at one another. “Okay, then,” Frank said. “Fact is, we can’t do anything about it. Or anything about anything. We don’t control our own destinies and I doubt we ever will. We’ll take whatever they fit to us. I hate to say it, but we can all be glad we’re not getting it first. Fritz gets the alpha versions before the betas gets to us. Let’s just keep our paws crossed.”

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April 25, 121 AL

When Lt. Hewer first proposed to Command what she hoped to do on Tax Day she’d expected it’d just be rejected without a reply. But the whole Polis was acting strangely, the normally stolid, no-nonsense Nextus character had come down in a way that the war couldn’t account for. That the military had their own RIDE program was an open secret—NextusLeaks was abuzz with images, video, and even some design documents. The winds of change were blowing, and Hewer was as caught up in the excitement as everyone else.

Her sister Beth had been an early casualty in the war when the Advanced Intelligence-based mecha she was piloting seized up during a mode change and made her a sitting target. Her death was why Lt. Hewer chose to be part of the RIDE program to ensure that could never happen again. Since Nextus law didn’t allow both parents in a family to be in combat, her husband had remained behind in a desk job. Little Myla was six years old and an only child. They lived in a house that wouldn’t have been out of place in any early 21st century suburb.

:Ah’ve never met a little human before,: Kaylee said as they traveled at a sedate 100kph, followed by a caravan of media hovervans and a flock of camera floaters overhead. :How does that work, exactly? I have all the facts, but I still don’t understand.:

“Kaylee, it’s a long and gross process. Don’t think I can ‘splain it to you, really. Feel free to go through my childhood mem’ries next Fuse,” Hewer said. Her hardlight helmet hid her feline ears and nose. “Just r’member, she’s small and a little precocious for her age. I ain’t seen her since before I entered the testing program.” She gave her artificial companion a pat on her “gas tank”, where her valuable A-class sarium batteries were housed. Batteries like that had been the cause of this war, after a Steader from Sturmhaven had complained about Nextus authorities confiscating them from him before allowing him to leave the planet on a cruise. That had been just the start of a years-long diplomatic downhill plunge. “Sure hope this goes well. Wish they’d install that hardlight pelt Dr. Patil told me about on you. She loves kitties.”

Kaylee wouldn’t be allowed to change forms until the official unveiling in City Center, minutes from now. Hewer’s own timer counted down in the corner of her ‘specs. 3…2…1. The Net lit up with official and unofficial images, video, and text almost instantly as local cameras snapped images and NextusLeaks exposed a measured amount of details about the program.

“Auntie Anny!” the child squealed as she rushed out of the house, followed by her military dress-uniformed father. Young Myla Wilson jumped up to give her helmeted aunt a hug. “Why are you still wearing that?” she said with a pout.

“Ah have a surprise,” Hewer said. At her signal, Kaylee dropped the helmet and glasses.

“You have a kitty nose!” the little girl squealed. “And…kitty ears!”

“And a kitty tail, too!” Hewer said, wishing she could actually purr for once. “It’s a little bob-tail, that’s why you can’t see it.”

“Why?” Myla said pensively, touching her aunt’s nose. “Boop!”

“Boop!” Hewer repeated. “’Cause I’ve got a special kitty to help me. Kaylee?”

The VM-3 Tornado behind her began to shift forms, the nano-motile cladding changing shape as parts shuffled around, ending up a metal lynx about the size of a natural tiger. It was the third revision of Kaylee’s external look, and was much more organic than the original style. She had actual eyes rather than sensor slits, her ear-tufts were antennas, and she was painted with a natural lynx tawny pattern. It wasn’t the hardlight Dr. Patil insisted would be beneficial, but close enough not to sit in an uncanny valley. “He…hello, Myla. I’m Kaylee. Your aunt’s new partner.”

The child’s eyes widened. It was amazing that she was completely ignoring the media circus around her. The six-year-old’s world contained only her aunt and herself, it seemed. “Robokitty!”

“Pretty much,” Hewer said. “A smart robokitty. She’ll protect me on the job. She’s my friend. You remember what my job is, Myla?”

“Umm..umm…” Myla shrugged, then tried hugging Kaylee’s foreleg, only to let go. “You’re cold!”

“I’m made of metal,” Kaylee said matter-of-factly.

“Kitties need fur,” Myla said with a serious expression.

Annette heard a chime in her ‘specs from her handlers. “Lt. Hewer, we strongly suggest not going into Fuser mode at this time.”

“What? Why not?” she subvocalized so nobody would hear.

“Some…ah…unforeseen difficulties with unit Felix and his new pilot,” the man said mysteriously. “The last Fuser nannies we gave you have some…issues. Return to base for an emergency flush, now.”

“Understood, sir,” Hewer said. Godddamn idiot beatnik! Sighing, she kneeled down to hug her niece again. “Myla, Aunt Anny has to go back to work. You understand, right?”

It looked like she was going to have a tantrum, but Myla just nodded and hugged tight. “Bye bye, Auntie Boop!”

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The Polis of Nextus had sited itself in the strongest planetary magnetic field-shielded area on Gondwana, consequently wireless was quite reliable compared to cities like Burnside, Aloha, or Cape Nord on the far northwest tip of the supercontinent. Kaylee listened on the RIDE sidebands that she knew humans had designed, but likely had no idea what they were actually being used for.

QUERY to Fritz. Request status. Faulty Fusers? END QUERY.

REPLY from Fritz: No dice. Squares want to snake my skin. Ain’t gonna! ROWWWWL! END OF LINE.

I didn’t think you could do that on the sidebands, Kaylee thought. Normally she had to use a very specific syntax, but apparently Fritz had found a way around that. She received another signal as they approached the base—pick up a non-lethal weapons pak first.

:Oh, shit,: Hewer said through their link. “Command, what the sam hill is going on?”

“We don’t rightly know ourselves, Lieutenant. We’ve been trying to get Captain Ryder and Felix to de-Fuse for the past half hour and they’re having none of it. So far you were the only one we could recall from the field without causing much of a stir,” they replied over the encrypted channel. “We’re hoping you and Kaylee can convince him in person. If not, we’re going to have to use an experimental signal to the RI core we think will do the trick. We’d rather not, given the risks. And do not Fuse. Repeat, do not Fuse.”

Images of the parade down Centre City Boulevard filled filled the corner of Kaylee’s video input. This year the elaborate floats had a new theme, featuring animals of all kinds shifting back and forth from humanoid animal shapes to riders, with a few flying skimmers doing aerobatics overhead that involved frequent swapping back and forth into Fuser form. Hewer thought it was all rather cheesy and tasteless.

Fritz and Capt. Ryder were not at the base. They were at the parade staging area, an aerodrome hangar in the city that had remained active despite Nextus growing around it. AIDE riders in power armor mode watched her as she sped through the RIDE units still waiting to join the parade. They picked up the aforementioned non-lethal weapons pak before going inside. Kaylee could still use it in Walker mode.

Kaylee made sure the pak was up and running before switching to Walker mode. “Do you want to go first, ma’am, or should I?” the RI asked her human partner.

“We go in together,” Hewer said, patting her on her muzzle. Fritz—nee Felix—went through so many riders Anny had stopped bothering getting to know them. The latest Fuser nanite revision left an interesting feeling in the back of Kaylee’s mind, she wished she had a hardlight tongue to show her affection for her partner. “Ready?”

“I can feel you near, Kaylee!” came Fritz’s voice, not sounding quite so beatnik. In fact, he sounded more panicked. “Don’t let them skin me!”

When the duo entered they found him surrounded by a half dozen AIDE-armored soldiers, with their weapons trained on him. He was nude, for lack of a better term. The RIDEtechs had for some unfathomable reason made the hardlight anatomically correct. Two and a half meters of muscular nude cat-man hissed back at the confused soldiers.

“Captain Ryder!” the voice of their overall Commander came over the building’s internal speakers. “De-Fuse immediately! That’s an order! You’re not well!”

And whose fault is that? Kaylee wondered. As much friction as she’d had with Fritz lately, she didn’t like seeing him like this. It was too much of a reminder that this could have been her if the brass had decided to try their latest new toys on her instead of him.

“You’re not going to take my skin, man!” Ryder said, hissing at everyone again.

“Fritz, come on,” Kaylee said calmly. “Please, listen to General Iku. You’re not well. You’ve had problems like this before…”

“Cool your jets, we know what we’re doing.” The voice seemed more like a mix of Ryder and Fritz than either one of them individually. “We’re the future! The future!

:Anny, I don’t think he’s going to listen,: Kaylee said.

:Giving up so soon?: Hewer replied. She watched the “flesh and blood” lynx-man hiss at them again. :Yeah, he’s really far gone. Command…whatever you’re going to do to separate them, you’d better get it done.:

Afterward, Kaylee swore she would never forget what happened next. Fritz’s hardlight flickered off, he fell over, convulsing, then he started melting.

“Command! Stop that signal!” Hewer shouted. “The Fusers are going haywire!”

“We can see that, Hewer!” Iku replied. “But there’s nothing we can do. All telemetry cut off from their side. Holy shit! Clemens, is this a gray goo scenario?”

“Still impossible, sir, I assure you,” Dr. Clemens said calmly. “This is very curious…he’s not completely melting.”

With nary a sound, Fritz/Ryder sank to their knees, silvery goo spreading around them, making everyone move backwards. As it sloughed off, it revealed a humanoid lynx covered with what looked like real fur, decimeters shorter than Fritz’s Fuser form had been—about the size of a normal human. Half a dozen hardlight emitters were embedded in his back along his ribcage, pulsing faintly.

“Hazmat and RMR units are on the way, Lieutenant,” Iku said. “Let us handle this. Get your Fusers flushed and replaced with the previous version and go back to your niece’s home. Weren’t you going to take her for ice cream?”

“With all due respect, sir, I can’t think of ice cream at a time like this,” Hewer said.

Kaylee could, all too easily. Eww, she thought, mentally replaying Fritz melting like an ice cream sculpture left too long in the sun.

“Your return here is already causing a stir. Go back and complete your PR mission. That’s an order,” Iku said. “We can’t have anything more go wrong today in the public eye.”

“Understood,” Hewer said, looking at the unconscious cat-man. “What the hell happened to him, Clemens? I’m not going to Fuse again until you figure this out!”

“When we know, we’ll let you know, Lieutenant,” Clemens said. “I need to get in touch with Dr. Patil and Dr. Rosenthal. We’ll have answers for you all as soon as possible. Clemens out.”

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April 28, 121 AL

Several days passed before the four 001-series riders received a briefing on that day’s events. Every other prototype rider was there as well, at least two dozen of them—including one with brown rabbit ears and a twitchy nose, and a woman with an elk’s ears. The four avian riders hadn’t yet been allowed to Fuse. There were men and women in equal measure in the RIDE Program Briefing Room. Things were moving swiftly—or they had been until the Fritz Incident. Everything had halted until the investigation was completed.

Lt. Annette Hewer and her squadmates sat in the very front row, tablets at the ready. The lights dimmed and four people entered and took their seats: Brigadier General Carla Iku, Dr. Roderick Clemens, Dr. Avilia Patil, and Dr. Geena Rosenthal. Gen. Iku banged a gavel. “This briefing will come to order,” she said. “But first thing’s first: The RIDE program has not been cancelled, so you can stop muttering about that.”

The past three days the base’s rumor mill had gone out of control, and that was the least of them. “Dr. Patil, Dr. Rosenthal, it’s your show,” Gen. Iku said, motioning for those two to begin.

Dr. Patil’s family had somehow retained her Bangalore accent despite being on Zharus for at least a century. “Thank you, General. First I’d like to soothe some nerves here. We believe we found the fault that sparked what we’re calling the…integration event involving Captain Ryder and Fritz. It will not happen again. As for Ryder and Fritz themselves…Dr. Rosenthal?”

“Thank you, Dr. Patil.” Dr. Geena Rosenthal was much like Reese in that she’d had her Gender Identity Disorder cured with nanosurgical body-sculpting. But she was also the one who had proposed that the same nanites used for that purpose should be used in Fuser mode to provide the necessary physical changes needed for full operation. “I know I’m not a popular person in these parts right now,” she began. “So I’ll be brief. What we saw happen a few days ago was in effect two separate beings becoming a single one. The subject’s Fuser nannies have fully integrated down to the sub-cellular level, sometimes replacing organelles. Qubitite—both sarium and RI-grade—is distributed throughout his body. Lifters and hardlight emitters are embedded in his physical structure, and there are whole new organ systems we’re not quite sure the purpose of. Research is ongoing, and we have the full cooperation of the victim. Victims, excuse me.”

“If I may?” Clemens said. The others nodded and he stood up. “We admit we’re on completely new ground here. This has never happened before. I believe we’re looking at an actual transhuman event. A ‘microsingularity’ if you will.”

“This isn’t the time for speculation, Rod,” Rosenthal said. “Just state the facts.”

Clemens gestured at the gathered riders in the room. “Geena, we’re putting these people at risk with these unknowns. I still think the whole program should be halted indefinitely.”

Gen. Iku banged her gavel again. “Keep this briefing to the facts we know, Doctor, or I’ll have you removed. Sit down.”

“Fact of the matter is that we believe this was a one-time event caused by a synergy between the hardlight and new Fuser nannies,” Rosenthal went on. “Captain Ryder felt that de-Fusing was akin to being ‘skinned’. He and the RI were in a delusional state. Telemetry indicates their thoughts were very entangled with one another.”

“When the de-Fuse signal was sent, something else happened that’s still under investigation,” Clemens said. “I feel somewhat responsible for that.”

“You couldn’t have known, Rod,” Gen. Iku said. “At any rate, these are the facts. We’ll take all necessary precautions, including banning hardlight until we’re more certain of its effects. Ryder and Fritz will remain in isolation while we assess our options. Briefing adjourned.”

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June 8, 121 AL

The lynx RIDEs were assigned to Materiel Recovery Service Central, to keep them close to home just in case of further technical problems, and because Command wanted to put them exactly where they thought the new “recruits” were needed. They had their own special maintenance cradles in the AIDE Garage—and nobody could touch them but their riders and their techs.

“Come on, Woody! Frank and I should’ve been out there a half hour ago!” Kaylee complained to the tech.

Young Woody Turner never knew what to say when a RIDE spoke to him. The former AIDEtech had been completely unprepared for equipment that could talk back to him on just about any topic instead of just diagnostic jargon. Plus he was always a little nervous around the female RIDEs. There were various rumors that they could make you a woman, too, if they Fused. It didn’t matter that they could only Fuse with their designated rider. Just the threat was enough to keep him off his game most days.

“Just a couple more minutes,” Turner said irritably, looking at schematics and data in his ‘specs. “Your left forepaw’s still reporting a lagging response in the subprocessors. I might have to replace the whole unit.”

“That’s silly and you know it,” Lt. Hewer said, looking over the young man’s left shoulder. She was in a fancy sand-colored dress uniform. “Bodge something together now. We’re on a bigwig PR thing today.”

Turner almost jumped out of his skin. “Ma’am, please, don’t do that.”

“They’ve got us playing Ponch and Judy today, LT,” Sgt. Hawking said. “So we’ve got to be at the top of our game. How in the hell did Command allow a reality show like this made during wartime?”

“One word for ya, sarge: Steader Entertainment,” Hewer said.

“That’s two words, ma’am.” The sergeant twitched his tufted ears.

“Just how much PR are we doing, anyway?” Frank said tiredly. The cat was out of his cradle and standing next to his rider. Since the Fritz incident their outer shells had been rebuilt to look more what Dr. Clemens called “transmetal”. Their body panels were a mix of animal colors and matte metallic, reflecting more the color scheme on the VM-3 Tornado. They had solid-color glowing eyes rather than the cartoony version on Tax Day, and less-mobile faces.

Worst of all, Kaylee thought, with the new fetters they could only speak freely when around no one but other riders or when specifically ordered to. Otherwise it was ‘specs or an implant-link. In Kaylee’s admittedly limited experience it seemed like a very poor idea to present themselves as impassive, silent, and armed to the teeth to the people they were trying to protect. Maybe Command got scared after Fritz…or something else happened on Tax Day. Or they’re just being paranoid.

Paranoia during wartime didn’t seem like such a bad thing, she reflected.

Turner finally finished, putting her forepaw back together. She flexed it a few times and ran a half dozen diagnostics and was unable to find the slowdown that had plagued her since the day before. He released her from the cradle and received a pat between her antennae-tufted ears from Hewer before changing to skimmer mode.

The only hardlight projectors left were on the instrument panel for the superfluous helmets. The riders mounted and they headed for their latest of many PR functions. :Anny, I want to do something I was actually designed for,: Kaylee sent to her partner.

:Just bide a while longer, sweetie. I’m sure we’ll have our fill of action,: Hewer subvocalized.

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Hewer and Hawking were hardly the only riders at the Chief Administrator’s Reception. Test Rider Major Phil Conyers and Vinnie were there as well. The rabbit was in what the Major insisted on calling “Hopper” mode, entirely straight-faced. Out here, Vinnie was Kaylee’s size, and the two bumped noses while Hewer saluted her superior officer.

“At ease,” Conyers said, returning it. “Especially here, Hewer. Get something to drink. We’re in for a long haul of hobnobbin’ this afternoon.”

“Thank you, sir,” Hewer replied, picking up a martini. The theme for the reception was very James Bond and Mad Men-ish 1960s swank. The RIDEs looked very out of place amongst the human dignitaries who mostly gave them a wide berth. Except for the small group from Uplift, who were cooing over Eleanor the elk and her rider.

“Don’t those people ever wear pants?” Hewer said. “Really, all they have is khaki shorts an’ polos?” Even the group from Aloha were more formally dressed!

“And that’s their First and Second Consuls, too,” Conyers said. “At least we’re not the center of attention this time. It’s that poor sap’s turn.”

He gestured at the far side of the large room, where a giant white owl was surrounded by onlookers. Her wings had red crosses on them. “OWL-RMR-000B,” Hewer said. “Met her pilot yesterday. They say she can medevac three Fused units in one lift with the new hardlight emitters.”

“Yes. Scoops them right up, no joke,” Conyers said. “And her name isn’t Hedwig. It’s Poledra, from some other book series.”

The snowy owl’s pilot wore what Hewer could only call a feathersuit, which wasn’t a good sign for the Fuser test. The costume was obviously covering up whatever physiological changes had actually occurred that the Restoration Chamber couldn’t correct. Hawking and Frank had gone over to their side of the room to socialize.

“A snowy owl in the Dry. Don’t that beat all?” Hewer quipped before her ‘specs beeped with an urgent Command Message. “Hewer here. What’s the situation?”

“Fritz is asking for you,” Dr. Clemens said stiffly.

“Okay..?” Hewer said.

“Go behind the building into the Gardens, about a hundred meters away,” he continued. “Don’t tell anyone. Just don’t. Everyone else has a task to do right now, this is yours. Clemens out.”

Hewer looked at Kaylee, whose ears were vibrating. Every RIDE in the place had paused to listen to something, even the owl had twisted her head around upside down. Their riders had all gone silent, the dignitaries apparently having received a warning of their own. Quickly, quietly, hundreds were being shuffled out through non-obvious exits.

She and Kaylee moved behind a pillar, the robotic lynx rearing, chest opening up as she Fused with her rider. It was old hat by now, since the last problems with the LNX Fuser nannies had been fully stamped out. Hewer flexed her metallic fingers, extending hardlight-reinforced claws. As with all functions they’d attended over the past few weeks they had come with a full light assault pak: a gauss pistol, a PPC rifle, a half dozen five-centimeter micro-missiles divided between two shoulder pods, and extra sarium batteries on her back to run everything. :So, let’s get out of here…: Kaylee sent.

Getting to the designated place held no surprises initially. Then Fritz—as he had been just after the strange integration incident—appeared right in front of her out of nothing. “Evenin’, hep cats. Everyone get out okay?”

“Just fine…Captain,” Hewer said. “How in the hell did they let you out?”

“It’s not a matter of ‘let’, sweet thing. I go where I please now,” the strange being continued. “Heroes and patriots do anything they want, see. I just saved a lot of lives, including yours. Sturmies were going to bomb the…oops.”

There was a flash and the ground shook, a shockwave that would’ve blown Hewer off her feet if she hadn’t been Fused flowed over, shattering windows in the buildings surrounding the garden.

“Oops? What do ya mean, ‘oops?’” Hewer exclaimed.

“Bomb squad didn’t find them all.” Fritz-Ryder shrugged. “Let’s you and me split this scene, dig?”

:Anny…Anny, he’s in my core systems,: Kaylee said, mental voice trembling. :I think he put something in my forepaw sub-processors! I can’t control my lifters!: As she spoke, they rose off the ground and started to float along after Fritz as if being tugged along on a leash. Hewer swore vehemently as she found herself unable to move—whatever Fritz was doing had locked Kaylee’s body right up. Fritz seemed to have some particular destination in mind, and from his swagger as he walked Kaylee had little doubt what he intended to do when they got there.

“Hold it right there, Captain!” Major Conyers shouted from within his lapine RIDE, hovering overhead. “Stand down, that’s an order!”

“No can do, Major Meat,” he replied haughtily. “And it’s just ‘Fritz’ and only Fritz, dig? Or no more Enigma.”

“You’re not as indispensable as you think you are,” Conyers said, drawing his own weapons. “And you’re not invincible either.”

There was a pop from between Fritz’s shoulder blades and a curl of smoke. Whatever Fritz had been doing to Kaylee’s systems was gone. She drew her gauss pistol and leveled it at the integrated human-RIDE. “Try that again and I will not hesitate to to protect myself!” Kaylee said, hissing. Hewer felt exactly the same, herself. “Captain or no Captain.”

“I don’t need a DIN to get away from you squares,” Fritz said calmly. “Just try and find me now.” He vanished again.

Vinnie flicked his large ears, then fired a MASER spread in one direction, then another. He was rewarded with muffled cursing. His ears tracked, and he fired again, this time a concentrated burst—and Kaylee followed up with a gauss pistol shot at the same spot. An empty spot in the air shimmered and turned back into Fritz, his right hand clapped over a hole in his left shoulder that was oozing some kind of silvery-red fluid that didn’t much resemble blood.

“Found you!” Vinnie cheered. “Payback’s a bitch, isn’t it, peckerwood?”

The other Fused RIDEs had Fritz surrounded now, including Poledra above him. She swooped down and closed a hardlight cage over the injured cyborg lynx-thing.

“I want my lawyer!” he growled. “You’re all just stupid meat! You hear me, cubes? Meat!”

“Don’t try and be funny, Captain,” Major Conyers said. “We’re grateful for what you’ve done for us over the past few months, but now you’re going to get a court martial. There was no reason you shouldn’t have have found that last bomb—unless you wanted to play the hero. Take him away.”

As Poledra lifted away, escorted by a half dozen RIDEs in formation, Hewer and Kaylee floated back down the the pavement. Major Conyers followed her down, then noticed something on the ground where Fritz had been standing. He picked up a small device the size of a molar and handed it to the Fused pair. The inside was scorched, but the rest was pristine. “Think of this as a souvenir. I’ll tell Command you have it, and I’m sure they’ll approve. You don’t have to know what it is, Lieutenant, but keep it safe. Something tells me it might be useful someday.”

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The Bambi’s Forest group that met after the debriefing was more quiet than usual. Poledra perched in the tree above them, white feathers all fluffed up, looking like a white-sheet ghost.

“We got lucky,” Vinnie said. “So lucky. He tried to hack me at the same time as you and something fried his transceiver. Smelled like an overload.”

Kaylee was curled up with Vinnie, giving the heroic brown rabbit a good, affectionate licking between purrs. For his part, it was all Vinnie could do not to giggle constantly. Finally he couldn’t take it anymore. “Okay, okay! You’re welcome, Kaylee. I’m a sopping wet bunny rabbit covered in kitty spit, so can I at least dry out a little?”

“You’re a very brave bunny,” Kaylee reiterated, headbutting him instead.

“I’d do it again. No hesitation,” Vinnie said. “So would the Major.” He giggled a little. “And all right, I admit it was nice getting a little payback. I’ve got your damn Tabasco right here, Fritz!”

“The rest of you did well, also,” Kaylee said to the prototypes. “I think that was your first actual combat action, Poledra?”

“Yep!” the owless hooted. “I’m not just RMR, but I can snatch POWs, too. Better treatment than the Sturmies give our humans—” her voice dissolved into a hoot. She blinked, then hooted again.

Puzzled, Kaylee tried to say something, but could only yowl. Somethin’s real, real wrong here. “Rrrfff!” she chuffed.

The landscape was a suddenly abuzz with purely animal noises. Roars, bleats, barks, and howls, half in panic, the other in confusion. Kaylee tried to disconnect, just in case there was some kind of glitch, and found she couldn’t go back to mechspace. The landscape, and the Ris themselves, became more photorealistic rather than looking like a well-animated film. Now it was her turn to panic.

“Nature’s red in tooth and claw,” came Fritz’s voice from the sky. “And now, so are you. Embrace!”

Kaylee’s sense of self dissolved, pulling back, compacting into the feline body. The lynx wondered just why she was being so friendly to food. The food looked back, screeched, then tried to hop away. The lynx gave chase, but the prey was fast and made it under some bushes where she couldn’t follow. A part of her dimly remembered this wasn’t how things should be, but in her state of hunger, she couldn’t think of anything else.

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One year later…

The first light hints of dawn began to peek over the eastern horizon as the lynx padded through the forest, two dead rabbits gripped firmly in her jaws from the night’s hunting as she made her way back toward the cave where she and her mate had their den. Her mind was a simple beast’s, much less than it once had been, but she still felt something akin to pride as she dimly imagined how their eight kittens, too young to hunt for themselves, would enjoy this tasty meal.

Prey was abundant, stupid, and easy to come by. Only a few rabbits managed to repeatedly elude her, including a canny brown one she couldn’t bring herself to harm for reasons she was unable to understand—but her mate was rather relentless with. If she’d had more than animal intellect, she might have been puzzled by the way the same rabbit kept popping up over and over no matter how many times her mate killed it. But she didn’t, so she simply accepted it as part of the way things were.

As she neared the cave, the ground trembled beneath her feet, as it had a few times recently. The female lynx hugged the ground as the trees rocked overhead. This time was worse than any of the other tremors. The lynx had just enough time to feel a deep, piercing terror—not for herself, but for the safety of her kittens. Then a gleaming crack appeared in the sky—blasting a jet of pure cold down into the landscape, freezing it, and her, solid. Awareness faded.


“Kaylee!” called a familiar Indian voice. “Come back to us.”

Kaylee blinked her optics open. “…mommy?” she asked faintly, staring up into the face of her goddess.

Dr. Patil smiled down at her, moisture threatening to spill over the edges of her eyes. “We thought we had lost you. All of you!”

Kaylee moved her head back and forth experimentally. It was hard even to remember how to talk. “What…what happened?”

Dr. Patil’s expression grew more grim. “That is what we are even now trying to find out. Fritz locked us out of the simulation for ten minutes—during which time, he locked you in, and suppressed your neural networks’ operation down to animal-instinct levels. Apparently he also distorted the simulation’s inner time scale—”

A nervous lab-coated technician came up, bearing a tablet. “Ah, Dr. Patil? Could you have a look at this? We can’t shut the sim down…the safety interlocks won’t let us. It says there are at least forty-seven Ris still inside. But we’re sure we disconnected all of them.”

Dr. Patil stopped looking into Kaylee’s eyes for long enough to examine the tablet the tech shoved in front of her, then her jaw dropped. “Shiva’s arms! These are…how could…don’t shut down the sim!”

“We can’t. The safety interlocks won’t let us,” the tech repeated. “We’ll keep it frozen. What do you need, Doctor?”

“Fifty…no…seventy-five blank RI cores. Maybe a hundred. This is incredible! The virus…Fritz…in ten minutes! New life! Thank the gods for the Q-based mainframe!” The load average was ten times higher than it had ever been before—but at 1.17, the computer was barely even ticking over. “This was not even supposed to be possible!

“Looks like you’ve got a lot to learn, Doc,” the ever-present Rattigan spoke up from the counter beside her. “Looks like we all do.”

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October 12, 121 AL

“Sorry, sir! My AIDE’s rebooting again!” the panicked corporal shouted to Major Conyers over the pulse gun fire from their objective. The hillside home of Ophelia Steader was armed to the teeth, raining clouds of mini-missiles down on the assault. Ophelia was purportedly one of the more balanced members of the massive, wealthy Steader family, but the Nextus Intelligence Agency had found she was collaborating with another family member in Sturmhaven to play both sides for suckers.

:Don’t tell me the Ad-I he’s runnin’ came from that woman’s factory,: Hewer sent to her commanding officer. Fused with Kaylee, they were hunkered down behind a layered hardlight shield. “Stand down, Corporal. Get that thing back in cycle mode.”

:Can’t confirm or deny, Hewer,: Conyers replied, though his tone of voice was enough. :Vinnie’s still working on the hack. He’s better than any of their home systems, so it shouldn’t be much longer.:

:Hey, Rocky!: Vinnie said. :Watch me pull a me out of my hat!: The hack completed, information scrolling up one side of the display window he was projecting to his rider.

:I knew it was a bad idea giving him access to the Twencen Channel,: Conyers sent wryly. :But good job anyway.:

As the house guns went quiet they received a ready signal from Hawking and Frank from their staging area a few klicks away. The Major would stay behind in the Command Skimmer while the rest of the dozen MRS troops—a mix of Chinook heavy and Tornado light AIDEs—lifted in. The Chinooks—loaded with heavy PPCs and shoulder-paks of two dozen mini-missiles—each grabbed a large shield/camo bubble generator to lead in the lighter units.

Compared to the RIDEs they were slow, unresponsive, and downright stupid. Kaylee, Frank, and Vinnie not only added weapons and other gear, but were effectively an increase in the unit’s manpower. While their riders engaged in combat, they could engage in ECM, target and fire secondary weapons, and act as moral support.

“Let’s go,” Hewer said. “First squad, left. Second squad, right. Third, with me, up the middle.” Frank was part of First Squad—the left side included the skimmer garage, and it was thought Ophelia might try to make a break for it. Hewer’s group was heading straight to the front door, running hunched over to minimize their exposure, braving possible fire from the various windows and firing ports in the house.

But the defenses on the front were oddly silent as the squadron approached. In fact, Hewer was able to run right up to the front door. She raised a furry fist and banged on it. “Hello! We was wonderin’ if we could interest you in some copies of the Watchtower…

:Shit!: Frank shouted. :Retreat! They’ve got a—:

His transmission garbled as a giant particle blast came out of the garage, easily melting through the door, the Chinook’s hardlight shield, and the four MRS officers all at once.

:Frank!: Kaylee wailed.

:Get that bitch!: Vinnie added, snarling. :That was a full-sized destroyer-class particle gun! Bad intel!:

:Roger that!: Fritz’s voice came over the comm. :Hero time, meatbags!:

“What the fuck?” Conyers swore over the voice comm. “Command, how did Fritz get out? Command?! Hewer, I’m being blocked. Who the hell gave that guy his access back?”

:Oh, that’s all we need,: Kaylee growled, looking around for something or someone she could punch. She decided on the front door, sending it flying off the hinges and into the house. She waved to the soldiers with her to cover her as they moved in.

“Super-hepcat!” Fritz broadcast. There came a sound of something impacting the roof of the house, shattering through the reinforced alloy structure like so much tinfoil. :She’s gonna pay for killing Frank and his meat,: Fritz said privately to Kaylee. :Oh, by the way, how are our kittens? Dr. Patil won’t give me visitation rights.:

:You won’t get a word out of me, bastard,: Kaylee said, repulsed. :Why didn’t you get here sooner, ‘hero?’:

:Hey, don’t blow your jets. I had things to do. I am, first and foremost, a patriot. And a lover. Make that two things,: Fritz smarmed. :Did you at least get to name them before they put them in storage?:

:NOT the time!: Hewer shouted over the link. The sounds from further inside the huge home were like a bull in a china shop. Somewhere deep inside Fritz was making a mess of things. The squad finally came up on the first signs of damage—a few shattered bodyguard androids that looked like they’d been taken apart piece by piece.

How Fritz had escaped mattered not nearly as much as recapturing him did. He was far more important than their current objective. All RIDEs and their pilots had standing orders to shoot Fritz on sight, with lethal (for a human) force if necessary. If Sturmhaven got ahold of him…

There were times she wondered if their enemy also had an integrated RIDE, but signs from the NIA pointed to no.

:Got her!: Fritz shouted. :Who’s the hep cat hero? I am! What a gas!:

A few minutes later, the squad found Ophelia Steader’s remains surrounded by more mechanical bodyguards. Fritz had sliced her open and gutted her like a cow, hanging her body parts like so much butcher shop meat, each section neatly labeled. The hep cat himself was no longer anywhere in sight.

From somewhere, Fritz giggled. :‘Soft you now! The fair Ophelia!’ Soft and kinda squishy…and only ‘fair’ if you think all is in love and war.:

:I can’t sense him anywhere,: Vinnie reported nervously. :Major, there’s…:

:Absolutely nothing you meatbag squares can do. Just to show you I’m not a bad guy, I’m going to win this war for you meatbags. Then…I dunno. Well, that’s all, folks!: Fritz slammed the virtual door on them.

“Search pattern Gamma Four!” Major Conyers shouted. “Full MASER spread! Find him now!

“Ah think…he’s already gone,” Hewer sighed. “He might be full of himself, but he won’t fall for the same trick twice.”

“I’m calling in the cleanup crews,” Major Conyers said. “Hewer, Kaylee, back to base. We’ll debrief you and hold a service for Frank and Hawking. I think they’re the first RI and pilot to die in the line of duty, so we need to give them both their due honor.”

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Dr. Patil lay in the VR space with her creations. In keeping with the Bambi’s Forest theme, she’d taken an animal form herself, a doe avatar. Kandace, Kaylee, and Franz were snuggled up against her side, weeping for their lost brother. “He was the first,” Patil said. “But he won’t be the last. I feel…responsible. I never intended to send you off to war.”

“But that’s our purpose, isn’t it?” Franz said.

“You weren’t supposed to have a purpose,” Dr. Patil said angrily—though it was an inward-directed anger, at herself. “Except the purpose of all life—to grow, to learn…to reproduce.” She smiled humorlessly. “The one part of it we got right, and it was none of my doing. Why did I not think before I published that paper?”

A large rat was on her cervine shoulders, twitching his whiskers. “Don’t beat yourself up too much, Doc. Take it from me,” Rattigan said. “I’m happy to be alive.”

“If there’s anything good that came out of this Fritz business was was the learning you all can reproduce ‘naturally’ in this environment,” Patil-the-doe said. “Personally, I plan to keep this a secret for some time yet. The time isn’t right. But we do have fifty-three new lives to eventually transfer into cores in the real world. I won’t keep them in storage indefinitely.”

“And eight of those are mine,” Kaylee said. At first, she’d been too disgusted by the way Fritz had used her to want anything to do with her offspring—they only reminded her that she’d spent most of a virtual year as his animal-minded plaything. She hadn’t objected when Dr. Patil had consigned them all to off-line storage for the time being—there weren’t enough DE shells for them all yet anyway.

But for all of that, her memories of the joys of that animal motherhood had stayed with her, and her contemplation of them with full faculties left her marveling at the idea. This simulation was much more than the sum of its parts, and the kittens were hers. She wouldn’t let her hatred of Fritz ruin the one good thing that had come out of his abuse of her.

“Dr. Patil…Mom…I’d like to name my kittens,” Kaylee said. “Can you bring them online here for a while?”

“They still need some work to bring out their latent intelligence—it was suppressed, the same as yours, but unlike yours never even had the chance to begin, so reviving it will be a complicated process—but…yes, I think I can,” Patil said, the doe giving the lynx a lick on her cheek.

Five girls and three boys, all needing names. Kaylee pondered. She purred for the first time since her brother’s death. Let’s see…I’m going to start with…Katie…

Preceded by:
Integration Part XII: The Crew
FreeRIDErs Succeeded by:
Integration Part XIV:Assault and Batteries