User:Robotech Master/Parallels Fleet

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Return to Totalia, Part Two: Parallels
Part Three: The Fleet

Author: Robotech_Master, JonBuck, & Jetfire
Author's Comments

This story can be downloaded in PDF, EPUB, Mobi (Kindle), ODT and RTF format from this website, as "Totalia Parallels.". Note that this e-book comprises Parts 1, 2, and 3.


Here at last is the final part of Totalia: Parallels. Remember that this story takes place simultaneously with the other two parts, though some parts of it take place after parts of the previous ones. As with the other two parts of Parallels, this picks up where Totalia: Prelude left off; you might want to re-read it to catch up.

This was one of the hardest parts for us to complete due to all the different continuity things moving around, and changes we came up with while we were in the process of writing it. Keeping track of when everything happened was more than a little trying. Also, we realized along the way that it didn’t make sense for the Great Western to arrive at Totalia ahead of its escort ship, so we arranged for them to rendezvous outside the system and then go in together. (This conflicted with a story Jetfire already posted, but he’s not inclined to go back and change it, so I suppose this will just end up as a “Canon Discontinuity” listing on the FreeRIDErs TVTropes page, whenever we get around to making one.)

The effort of getting this monster finished kind of burned us out on the Totalia saga for a while (it took me a couple of weeks even to get around to proofing and formatting it after we’d finished it), so expect us to write a few one-shots from other time periods before we return to this storyline. But we’ll get back to it sooner or later—we’ve got a lot more stories to tell!

Remember when you read the dates in this story that the Zharusian calendar consists of not twelve but ten months of thirty thirty-hour days each, named for Earth months but missing February (because it’s shortest) and August (because, really, who cares about August?). This has the side effect of making September, October, November, and December actually match up to the 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th months for which they were originally named. So just remember, on Zharus, March comes after January, and July jumps right into September.





January 4, 158 A.L. (Zheng He equivalent)
Great Western, Zheng He System Rim

She could hardly be called a proper ship. The Great Western was a thousand meters of superstructure, fuel tanks, fusion reactors, and drive systems. Her Eridanite builders—the best in human space—had been very reluctant to send her off in this state. The Western hadn’t even been officially launched, and here they were parading the ship through the Colonies to satisfy the investors and backers. Once she reached the Pharos system and its Colossus-Rhodes Shipyards everything else that made a ship a ship would be integrated, making her whole. At the moment, the Western was little more than a long, empty triangular tube with engines and power plants. While airtight, most of that tube was still airless. When work was needed, it had to be done in suits, or with air support domes.

At Rhodes, the rest would be added in; activating the life support, adding crew quarters and living spaces, a proper Bridge, and so forth. The Rhodes Shipyards would also be installing the rest of the weapons and shielding tech they had picked up at Kepler en route. Then there were the Bigtops, the Pinnaces, and Gillies—the actual Star Circus landers that would make her the Great Eastern’s little sister.

Docked to the superstructure was the Star Circus Pinnace King of Hearts, acting as crew quarters and bridge for the incomplete starship. OverEngineer Seamus Odell paced back and forth near the Great Western’s remote Engineering Console. The ship herself was fine. There was still some fine tuning to be done before the ship entered jump, but the Cyberdani had done their best work for the Circus as usual. One more stop, one more dog and pony show to put on before he could get down to real business of finishing the ship… of finishing his ship.

“Calm down a bit Seamus, won’t ya?” Dobbin, Seamus’s longtime RIDE partner, picked up his mood as usual. “You get any more upset, you’re going to start talking like you’re in a ‘Pat and Mike’ joke, and you know you hate when you do that.”

Over the nigh-on thirty years they’d been partnered Seamus’s features had gone from the normal tags to more than vaguely horsey. He could only speak with the help of a vocoder. That the duo hadn’t yet Integrated yet was something of a mystery to them. Seamus needed regular nanosurgery to keep his hands and feet from becoming hooves.

“Good point. Still, if this doesn’t make me feel like someone’s been stealin’ me Lucky Charms, I don’t know what does.”

Dobbin snorted. “I would think you’d be happy for the chance to give our ship a fitting shakedown cruise.”

“Right into a war zone? Sure an’ I’ve had enough of that in our last few passes through Kepler.” Seamus shook his head. By now the motion was more of an equine side-to-side shake than the ordinary human back-and-forth. “But let them say the two magic words, ‘wildcat colony,’ and it’s like waving a red flag in front of a bull, see if it isn’t.”

It had only been a few hours since word had come through that the Circus was considering loaning the so-new-it-squeaked Great Western to Zharus to transport a relief fleet to a rediscovered colony no one had ever heard of. The final decision wouldn’t be taken until after they’d arrived at Wednesday and had the chance to talk to Zharus’s representatives in person, but at this point they were inclined to be strongly in favor. Seamus had been reviewing the information packet, and the more he read about this place, the more it seemed like asking for trouble.

“I remember the days you’d have been excited to open up a new stop that had never even seen a big top before.”

“Those days were before I had responsibility for a whole brand spanking new ship of my own. A ship they want to hang a bulls-eye on before it’s even finished yet. Mark my words, this is going to mean trouble.”

“We’ll have the chance to speak to Isabella about it when we get to Wednesday.”

“Sure, but I expect her mind’s already long since made up.” Seamus sighed. “And it’s not as if I’m the Captain, who might actually have some say in the decision.” He stopped for a moment and took a deep breath. “Well, enough fuming about it for now, I guess. Walking around with a storm cloud over my head isn’t helping me prep us for jump. I’ll have plenty of time for that when we’re on the way.”

Dobbin snorted. “Yes, and I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to being stuck in a tin can with you in a mood for a month and a half.”

In spite of his irritation, Seamus couldn’t help grinning. “Hey, I’ll have you know that’s our ship you’re talking about.”

“It’s a very nice tin can, but it’s still going to be a month and a half inside without a can opener. It’s like being sentenced for drunk and disorderly without even getting to enjoy drinking too much whiskey and starting a brawl first.”

“Since when do you drink too much whiskey? Or even any whiskey at all?”

I don’t, but we do share everything, don’t we?”

Seamus chuckled. “All right, point taken. I’ll try to keep a lid on it. It’s not as if I’d be able to do anything about it until we get to Wednesday anyway, and I can’t say I’ll enjoy being angry the whole trip myself.” He returned his attention to the engineering console. “On the bright side, we’re looking remarkably good for a ship this big and new, and our lads down in Engineering are doing a fine job. We should be able to enter jump right on time. T minus two hours and counting.”

“So far she’s a far sight different than the ol’ Eastern.”

The Great Eastern herself was based on a ship nearly three centuries old. Though there was very little that could be called original anymore, her younger sister ship moved through subspace like a barracuda through the ocean deep. On the first stop at Ibn Rushd—just after Eridani—she had arrived days before the older ship. Much faster than anticipated. Only the presence of the heavily-armed Pinnace King of Hearts had kept the local pirates at bay.

Seamus brought up the specs for the Western’s future weapons loadout—the Calliope. The components for the Kepler-built pulse beam cannons had been shipped ahead, waiting with the rest of the fitting out at Rhodes Shipyards. “Without all this…I’m going to insist on some kind of escort. The King won’t be enough if we’re facing an entire space navy.”

“Won’t get no argument from me there. What all do you think they could send with us?”

“As I recall, they have a few mothballed ships near Xolo suitable for that. I’ll bring this up with Bella and Mikel when we see ‘em.”

“Have to make sure they leave good and early.”

“Tell me about it.” Seamus checked the status panel on his board and tapped an amber listing for a status report, then hit the intercom button to issue instructions to an engineering team. “Why don’t you start working up a list of requirements for an escort ship, given what we know about the situation? If we’re going to do this, we’re darned well going to do it right.”

Dobbin nodded. “I’ll have something for you by the time we’re in jump.”

“Good.” That settled, Seamus did his best to put it out of his head and turn his full attention back to engineering tasks. After all, this ship wasn’t going to jump herself.

Chapter 1

January 30, 158 A.L.
Toptown Spaceport

The jaguar Fuser stepped out onto the concourse of the Toptown spacedock, followed by the much shorter reddish sphinx Integrate. “Damn, Uncle Joe,” Quinoa said. “I just can’t get over seeing you like this. All those years of thinking you just didn’t care for RIDEs, like the Brubecks…”

“When instead, it turns out he was fuckin’ pining,” Julius put in.

“At least I wasn’t pining for the fjords,” Joe said. “Like someone I could name.”

“I’m really glad you’re part of the family now—or, rather, again,” Quinoa said. “It seems like I’m always finding out new things about Uncle Joe, even now.”

“People are just like that,” Joe said. “Anyway, the ship slip should be over here, if I remember right…”

“When’s the last time you went anywhere in it?” Quinoa asked.

“Well, there was that cruise we took to Xolotlan three years ago,” Joe said. “You should remember that, you were there.”

“No, when’s the last time you went somewhere out of the system? Somewhere you had to go FTL to get to?”

“Huh.” Joe considered that. “I don’t know. Maybe when I went to pick you up from the Circus after the divorce.” He shrugged. “What can I say, I’ve just been a big ol’ homebody these days. Hard to get up the urge to go anywhere when you’re perpetually shellshocked.”

“Well, that’s gonna fuckin’ change, anyway,” Julius said. “You know, maybe after this we can go some other places. I’d like to see for real some of those worlds you and Mikel visited in your memories. Maybe even old Earth.” He snorted. “No reason that bunch who still smell like durian should get to have all the fun.”

“Jules, there wasn’t any durian fruit in the crate they actually arrived in,” Joe pointed out.

“It’s the principle of the thing. After they caused you to stink up the whole fuckin’ mansion with that rotten shit, they still smell like fuckin’ durian to me.”

“How are those eight doing, anyway?” Quinoa asked. “Settling in?”

“We ended up creating brand new identities for them out of whole cloth,” Joe explained. “So, they’re ‘accidental crossride’ tourists from Ibn Rushd. The ones who actually did crossride, anyway. We’re going to give them jobs at Steader Entertainment for the moment, until they figure out what they want to do. Seems like the least we can do after a Steader sent them back to us.”

“Or what’s left of one. Sheesh.” Julius sneezed. “I still say there couldn’t have been that much of Harold left for that ‘Cheetara’ to do something so intelligent and thoughtful.”

“Uh, yeah,” Joe said. “I’m not even going to try to speculate. Harold could have wised up. It’s been known to happen. Rarely.” He shrugged. “Really, I kind of try not to guess about how much might be left of who in Integrations ever since…” He glanced at Quinoa.

Quinoa chuckled. “I’m pretty much entirely me, seems like,” she said. “Trust me, if more of me had been Quorra, I wouldn’t have been such an idiot about things right afterward. Quorra was nice…pretty quiet and shy, didn’t put herself forward a lot. But when she did say something, it was usually pretty on-point. That’s my biggest regret, I didn’t have more time to get to know her, and then she pretty much disappeared in the Integration. It takes some of us that way. Our understanding of the process is still so…imperfect.”

“Thanks to you-know-fuckin’-who,” Julius sneered.

“Yeah, yeah,” Quinoa said. “And I’ll admit, I helped. I was wrapped around his finger for months, until the Towers incident started everything rolling to the present.”

“Enough placing blame,” Joe said. “The important thing is, it’s behind us and we can move forward. It’s all behind us.” He grinned with Julius’s Fuser head, showing his RIDE’s sharp feline teeth. “And now we’ve got fun times ahead.”

“I still can’t believe I’m actually going to get to leave the fuckin’ system an’ fuckin’ go somewhere,” Julius said. “Except for that little ring tour of yours, I was basically stuck in Nextus—and, mainly, your penthouse—for all my short little life. Feels like whole new fuckin’ vistas have opened up before me.”

“We have a shade under four weeks to Wednesday from here at the speed the ol’ girl can manage,” Joe said. “I had the dragons at Camelot give the Steadfast an overhaul at Colossus-Rhodes. It’s been a long time since the family used the FTL.”

“Guess we’ll be watchin’ a fuckin’ shitload of stuff,” Julius said. “I still have a lot of that stuff you got unlocked after I bit the dust to catch up on.”

“There’s not going to be a lot else to do,” Quinoa said. “Unless Julius and I want to shut down to hibernation and Joe goes into cryo for it. Which some people actually do for trips like that.”

“I think they’re crazy,” Joe said. “When else am I going to have all that free time to watch stuff without anyone expecting me to do something useful?

The Zharus branch of the huge Steader family had an entire level of the Aloha Elevator just for their collection of starships, both in-system and FTL-capable. Not all of them were of Eridani make. The ship that still formally belonged to both Joe and Mikel Steader was the oldest, the largest, and still the fastest. The 250-meter Steadfast, named after one of the first colony ships from Earth, had a stark white hull and a vaguely whale-like shape. The brothers had obtained it on the same trip as when they had tracked down Clint Brubeck, then gone to Earth to dig up the Twencen Trove. Her technology had been kept current.

“She’s still a beauty, isn’t she?” Joe said. “Classic Eridanite design. Reminds me of the Minbari ships from Babylon 5.”

“Pretty fuckin’ cool,” Julius said. “Though I’m kinda surprised you don’t have a fuckin’ Millennium Falcon or something.”

“I’ve thought of one for intra-system jaunts, but never felt the urge to actually build one,” Joe said. “Besides, there’s already a couple dozen of them as touristy interplanetary transit shuttles.”

The Steader family had appropriate crew for their starships on retainer. They were met at the gangway by the nine spacer cyborgs, plus a few inspectors from ZITA—the Zharus Interstellar Trade Authority. Behind Julius and the Steaders a pair of songbird LRIDEs flew, recording.

Captain Faulkner saluted her be-Fused employer as they approached. “Long time no see, Joe,” she said. “And this is Julius?”

“Yeah, that’s me,” Julius said. “Pleasetameetcha.”

“Florence, it’s been a while,” Joe said. He eyed the ZITA representatives. “I guess we’ve got the all clear?”

“Since you’re on your way to Wednesday, Mr. Steader, our job is simple. You’re cleared for departure,” the first inspector said. “But I will say I still haven’t seen a lot of Integrates traveling openly yet. No doubt many have slipped by us in the past.”

“I’m aware of at least two,” Joe said. ‘Cheetara’ and a certain scout who reportedly shares my taste in movies. Maybe I can meet him when we get back.

“These restrictions are really fuckin’ stupid anyway,” Julius said. “Integrates are definitely legal people—leastways, half of each of ‘em are—and we RIDEs are at least sorta-kinda legal people. What fuckin’ right do you have to say we can’t go on a cruise ‘cuz of what we’re made of? Hell, you know damned well we just got four RIDEs back from Earth—it was in the report we sent you last month. How many others you think they’ve gotten ahold of by now? The fuckin’ horse has left the fuckin’ barn, and you’re just serving up the same tired old horseshit.”

“I’d tend to agree, for rather obvious reasons,” Quinoa said. “Now that these technological prohibitions affect people, you could make the case that it’s racial discrimination.”

The inspector held up his hands. “Believe me, I quite sympathize. But those decisions are well above my pay grade. That being said, I have no doubt there will be changes, and soon. Have a safe journey.”

The three ZITA inspectors gave everyone a respectful nod, then walked towards the elevator.

“Jerks,” Julius muttered.

“Well, with that bit of bureaucratic hell over, shall we?” Captain Faulkner said.

“All aboard!” Joe said cheerfully. “Captain Faulkner, make all necessary preparations to cast off. We’re just missing one last passenger, Socah Gates. She should be along within a couple of hours. Once she’s aboard, we’re good to go.”

“It’ll be nice to take the old girl superluminal again,” Captain Faulkner said. “With these upgrades we’re almost as fast as a scout ship.”

“I look forward to seeing that first-hand,” Joe said. “All our luggage was already sent up, so we should be able to cast off pretty soon. Anyway, I’ll see you on board.” He stepped into the boarding tube, ducking Julius’s head slightly to pass through it. Quinoa followed a moment later.

“Well, off we go. Time to slip the surly bonds of Zharus, or whatever,” Julius said happily.

“Technically, we kind of slipped those bonds already, when we flew the Pan-Am up here,” Quinoa pointed out.

“Don’t confuse me with the facts,” Julius retorted.

“Come on, I’ll show you around the living quarters, then we can set up a movie in the lounge,” Joe said. “What do you think, Sharknado? That’s always good for a few laughs…”

“I think it’s a bit early in the trip to be thinking about torturing us, Uncle Joe,” Quinoa said. “Maybe we should work up to it? Maybe start with Howl of AlphaWolf?”

“You wound me,” Joe said. “That flick isn’t that bad, is it?”

“Just a little melodramatic,” Quinoa said.

“I have to admit, Joe, that the fuckin’ ‘so sayeth me’ line just makes the whole flick,” Julius said.

“And it made AlphaWolf’s whole schtick,” Quinoa said.

“Anyway, this big room here is the lounge,” Joe said, waving his arm to encompass the big room with a huge display screen at one end and plenty of sofas and cushy seats. “Kitchen and dining room’s over there, with the fabber and access to the pantry. Sleeping quarters are on the other side…”

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March 1, 158 A.L.
Brubeck Mining Corporate Headquarters, Uplift

Zane Brubeck peered into the clutter of display panels before him as though, if he only looked hard enough, all the secrets of the universe would be revealed. Sadly, he actually thought he saw less there than usual, and was pretty sure he felt the beginnings of a sarium-powered headache coming on.

If he was honest with himself, he was probably fooling himself that taking a personal interest in things was actually useful at this point. They’d already assembled as much of the fleet as they could until Joe came back with the Star Circus’s ship, and that was months away. There wasn’t really much more organizing to do right now—at least, not Zharus-side, but he was still too useful as a figurehead here to go out to Cerberus and micromanage there. It was just a waiting game.

If he was even more honest with himself, he had to admit that he was probably still throwing himself into this work just so he didn’t have to deal with the more mundane mining business stuff Agatha would throw at him if he admitted he wasn’t as busy as he might be. His conscience and his boredom were at war, and at the moment the odds were pretty even.

“Sheesh, Aggie, what’s it gonna take to get you into this office and me out of it?” Zane muttered. “You’re the natural-born bureaucrat…”

Then one of the panels buzzed for his attention. Zane raised an eyebrow and tapped it. It was an instant message from Aggie—he had an unexpected visitor. It was that palomino mare Integrate architect, Melisande. “Well, that’s interesting. Sure, send her in.”

“Hello, Mr. Brubeck,” Melisande said a moment later. She stood, businesslike, before his desk.

“Hey, Sandy,” Zane said, banishing the display panels. “What can I do for you?”

“I’m here about what I can do for you, actually,” Melisande said. “I’ve already wrapped up all my business affairs, so I’m available to take part in your project at any time. And…well, I had some things I wanted to show you.”

Zane raised an eyebrow. “Oh? Like what?”

“Well, I was just doodling around…I know it’s silly to do work ‘on spec,’ but I figured that if you didn’t want these, I could just sell them to some other Q-mining outfit.” She summoned up a hardlight display panel of her own. On the display was a Q-mining rig, but subtly different than the ones in normal use throughout the Dry Ocean.

“Oh, now what have we here?” Zane said, leaning forward.

“It occurred to me, I’d never tried redesigning a Q-mining rig before,” Melisande said. “Most other types of Dry habs, yes, but not a mining rig. I was curious what I could come up with, so…”

“So how’s this an improvement over what we have now?” Zane asked.

“Well, the rigs currently in operation are based on old designs, which are in turn based on older designs,” Melisande explained. “’The way we’ve always done it,’ and such. It’s simpler—and cheaper—to reuse an existing design, retrofitting as necessary.”

“But not necessarily the best decision, eh?” Zane said.

Melisande shrugged. “I imagine the most important thing at the time most of these rigs were built was getting them working fast. They didn’t necessarily have the time for a fundamental redesign.” She smiled. “But then, as you well know, we Integrates are all about the fast time.”

Zane chuckled. “True enough. Show me what you’ve got.”

“If I apply the same principles to this as to the other habs I’ve designed, well, for starters I can bring your energy use down by about 30%, as well as implement a more efficient n-cavorite waste-heat venting system for the drill. They didn’t have n-cav when they made the original designs.”

“I can see that,” Zane said.

“And it will also be a more pleasant environment in which to live and work,” Melisande said. “Not luxurious exactly, but pleasant. Decreasing the size of the generators and drill support mechanisms provide 20% more living room from the same overall rig size.”

“And the overall cost to build?” Zane asked.

“Commensurate with the platforms you use now. Actually, probably about 10% lower given modern construction techniques,” Melisande said. “That’s not all I have to show you, though.” She flipped the image to a different habitat—a spherical shape, with an obvious airlock and clusters of attitude jets. “This is a refinement of one of the space habs I constructed when I was working out near the Rim. Of course, I don’t know exactly what you’ll need it for, so I kept it pretty generic. It’s based on a modular system, and different mission-specific modules can be swapped in as needed.”

“Interesting,” Zane said. “How long can it go without resupply?”

“With CO2 scrubbers and algae tanks, the air supply is pretty self-sustaining,” Melisande said. “Though you might have to swap in new scrubbing filters and algae every five months or so. Same for water recycling. The biggest limiting factor is food. Which is why these habs tend to be built in communities, with larger habs for community-centric resources like greenhouses or farms.”

“And I see they can be fabbed easily, just like any prefab building module,” Zane said. “Pretty clever. So…what do you want for the use of these designs?”

Melisande shrugged. “Whatever you think is fair. If I think your offer is too low I might bargain it up, but money’s not much of a concern for me at this point.”

Zane raised an eyebrow again. “Then what is a concern for you?”

“To be honest…boredom.” Melisande flicked her ears. “As I told you before, I enjoy doing new things. Since I’ve cleared the decks to be available for your project, I don’t have anything to do. And…well, I’d like something to do.”

Zane considered that for a moment. “Hmm. You know, I don’t think there’s any reason we couldn’t have you work a little more closely with us. As you say, you’ll need to know what we’re doing in order to adapt your designs to our needs. Maybe I could have you work with my sister, Maddie—she’s the one who knows the most about where we’re going, since she’s been there already.”

Melisande cocked her ears forward. “The scout?”

“That’s her,” Zane said. “I’ll have her fill you in on the details. Of course, you understand that anything we tell you, you have to hold in total secrecy. Don’t even tell your assistant—at least until the both of you are safely off-world.”

Melisande nodded. “I’ve worked on plenty of confidential projects.”

Zane chuckled. “None quite like this one. I hope you’re up for a challenge.”

“Always,” Melisande said firmly.

Zane grinned. “And who knows. If you keep on impressing me the way you have so far, maybe after all this is over I’ll see what you can do for the big rig.”

“Oh, now that would be an interesting project,” Melisande mused.

“Not half as interesting as the one we’re about to hand you.” Zane beamed over Madison’s comm code. “Tell Maddie I said hi.”

As Melisande left the office, Zane leaned back in his seat and propped his feet up. He had to admit, he enjoyed seeing people enthusiastic about their work. And Sandy seemed like a trustworthy sort of person, in addition to being competent. It would be interesting to see what she came up with when she knew more about what they were planning.

Then another display panel popped up in the middle of Zane’s desk. “If you’ve got time to put your feet up, you’ve got time to help me with this paperwork,” Agatha declared smugly, shoving another half dozen panels at him. “If you could get those back to me in about thirty seconds, that would be great.”

Zane groaned. “All right, sis, hold your horses.” With a sigh, he dropped into fast time. A CEO’s work was never done.

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March 2, 158 A.L.
Cheers Bar

Melisande stepped into the unfamiliar bar and looked around. She’d never been here before, but Madison had suggested it as a good place to meet. Melisande was given to understand it was something of a local Integrate gathering place, and she believed it—both the bartenders were Integrates, along with about half the patrons.

She looked around for Madison, searching for the leopardess she’d seen on the news. There were a few female leopard Integrates, but they didn’t have the right spot patterns. Was she early?

“Excuse me, miss.” Melisande glanced behind her to see a blonde-haired human woman in khakis. “Were you looking for someone?”

“Uh…just looking to meet a friend…” Melisande said. “I guess she’s not here yet.”

“There’s an open table over there,” the woman suggested. “She should see you when she comes in.”

“Thanks,” Melisande said, going to take a seat where the woman suggested. The seat was made with Integrates in mind, with plenty of space for her tail to go.

Then, as she was getting settled, the woman came and sat down across from her, and grinned. “Actually, scratch that, I did see you when you came in.” And then her outline blurred and expanded out into the familiar leopard shape Melisande had been expecting. “Sorry about that, but I just couldn’t resist trying it out. You’re the first new person I’ve met since I learned that trick. Hi, you must be Melisande?”

“Oh! I didn’t know you were a shapeshifter!” Melisande said. “I am—but call me Sandy.”

“All right, Sandy, call me Maddie,” Madison said. “And I actually wasn’t a shapeshifter until a month or so ago. It’s easier to learn than you might expect.”

“Wouldn’t be any point for me,” Melisande said. “I wouldn’t know what to shift to. I don’t have any memories of my lives before Integration.”

Madison’s eyes widened. “Oh! I’m sorry to hear that.”

Melisande shrugged. “It’s all right, I’m used to it. It just means I don’t have any old baggage to carry around, and everything’s new to me.”

“And you’re an architect?” Madison said.

“It’s interesting work, and something I’m good at.” Melisande sent over the same biographical information she’d given Zane. “I’m not sure what my function will be on this mysterious project of yours, but the designs I showed Zane interested him that he said I should speak with you and that you’d Tell All.” She glanced around. “Is it safe to talk about it in such a public place?”

“Diane has a lot of privacy safeguards…but I’ll put up a hardlight privacy field just the same.” Madison waved a hand and a translucent hardlight dome appeared, rendering the rest of the bar a confusion of blurry shapes.

Melisande nodded. “Very good. So what am I here for?”

“To be honest, a large part of it is we want you to demonstrate modern Zharusian architecture to…well, I’m getting ahead of myself.”

“Little green men?” Melisande suggested.

Madison chuckled. “Not exactly. Here’s another information packet right back at ya.”

Melisande dropped into fast-time to open and review the packet. She viewed with some surprise the Scout’s report on the new world of Totalia, and the extensive material and documentation she’d put together. “This is amazing! A whole new world, with a completely different architectural style…why do they put pyramids on the top of their buildings? Religious influence? Oh, I see…”

Madison chuckled. “There’s a lot that’s different about that world. For rather obvious reasons.”

“So I gather,” Melisande said. She read the report on the travails of Madison, Samantha, and the other scouts in escaping, the information about the coup that had kicked off as they left, then looked up as she ran across the details of the escape. “You Integrated on the way back? Then it’s only been a few months for you.”

“It’s all still pretty new, yeah,” Madison said, smiling. “I learned shapeshifting so I could go back without freaking people out…then it turns out the first scout they sent back to look in on things was an Integrate himself, and blew his cover in the process of rescuing some people. So much for that idea, heh.”

“I’m certain it’ll be useful,” Melisande assured her. “Life often doesn’t work out the way we plan. I’m sure whoever I used to be, I never planned on becoming who I am now.” She chuckled. “But it can be fun to learn new things.”

“True enough,” Madison replied. “’Mantha and I are really digging shapeshifting now, whatever we might want to use it for.”

Melisande took more time to review the documents. “How remarkable. To think a wildcat colony could have made it all this time without being found.”

“If that blows your mind, consider this…we have no way of knowing there weren’t others that decided to go just a little farther out, or in some different direction altogether,” Madison said. “But one crisis at a time. Assuming we’re able to get the right people back in charge, we’ll be needing to train them up in modern tech ASAP. We’re drawing in professionals from all fields of work.”

“And you chose me for architecture. I’m flattered.” Melisande smiled. “I suspect I might be able to learn as much from them as they do from me. I’ve never done much with pre-fabber construction.”

“That different, huh?” Madison said.

“It’s all in the construction materials, you see,” Melisande explained. “Modern superstrong materials and large-scale fabbers give me a lot of freedom—sometimes, one might think an excess of it. But the Totalians have limits that will be a challenge to work with. And then there are all the pyramid motifs and flourishes, too. It looks like fun.” She frowned. “Of course, there is the question of how willing they’ll be to learn from an anthropomorphic horse. I see their pop culture has plenty of ‘scary alien’ movies.”

“That’s something else they’re going to have to learn to get over,” Madison said. “Some of our experts are Integrates; others aren’t. Either way, you’re all tops in your fields, and they’ll just have to deal with it.”

A blurry brown presence appeared outside the privacy field. “Knock knock!” a cheerful voice said, voice slightly distorted by the field. “Was just wondering if I could get you anything? Given that you’re taking up a table and hadn’t ordered yet…”

Madison brought the privacy field down, revealing a deer Integrate. “Oh, sorry ‘bout that, Diane. Bring me one of those nifty Shangri-La double IPAs you just got in.”

“That sounds good,” Melisande said. “I’ll have one, as well.”

Diane nodded. “I’ll be right back with those.” She swept away.

“I think we’re probably done discussing secret things anyway,” Madison said. “At least until you’ve had more of a chance to review the information I passed over.”

Melisande nodded. “Then I guess it’s small talk from here on out?”

Madison smiled. “If you don’t mind. To be honest, I’m kind of curious…if you don’t mind talking about it, what’s it like to start all over from scratch like that? I realize it’s kind of a silly question, since you wouldn’t have any way of comparing it to something else, but…”

“It’s normal for me.” Melisande shrugged. “It wasn’t entirely from scratch. I still had basic language, reading, math skills. It’s just that I didn’t have any personal memories. As a result, I’m basically a citizen of Camelot, without that much experience in the rest of the world—or at least, the parts of it humans live in. This is all kind of new to me.”

“There weren’t any clues, like a wallet or purse or something? Or what the Candlejacks remembered?”

“I was dumped at Camelot pretty much as I was,” Melisande said. “We never even knew who the particular ‘Jacks were. There were some fuzzy memories that might have been them…but the images were too nonspecific for identification. I was just a big equine baby in a basket, you might say.” She chuckled. “Believe me, I’ve gone over every aspect of the experience, tried to hunt down any possible clues, time and again. I’ve looked at the lists of all the people who disappeared at about that time, but you can’t even go by that since the Snatchers made up plausible accidents for their victims as a matter of course.”

“Someone really didn’t want you finding out who you used to be,” Madison said.

“Honestly, you can’t even really say that,” Melisande said. “They wouldn’t have had any way of knowing I wouldn’t remember, after all.” She shrugged. “In the end, I’m kind of reduced to hoping that someday I’ll run into someone who says, ‘You know, you remind me an awful lot of my Great Aunt Matilda.’ But then, I don’t even know if my personality even resembles either of my halves.”

“Ugh,” Madison said. “Of course, now that Fritz’s operation has been dismantled and all his crew arrested, maybe you might be able to find something out from the records of their interrogations. I gather they actually read out the memories of the Snatchers they were able to get their hands on.”

“That might be something to look into, I guess,” Melisande said. “To be honest, by now I’m halfway afraid of what I might find. What if I was married, and my husband’s moved on by now? Would my family really want me coming back into their life after all this time, re-opening old wounds? Maybe it’s for the best.”

“Sounds to me like ‘sour grapes,’” Madison said. “Speaking as someone who’s lost both her Mom and her Dad, I’d be beyond delighted if either one of them walked back into my life. I’m sure your family would be, too. If you had one.”

“Maybe I’ll see what I can find out after the…ah, job is over,” Melisande said. “Oh, thank you,” she added as Diane put the two dark amber beers on the table on front of them.

“You’re quite welcome,” Diane said, nodding and retreating to the bar again.

Melisande sipped her beer. The mug had a specially-designed flange to work with a range of muzzle shapes. The beer hit the spot perfectly. “Ah, that’s good.”

“It is,” Madison agreed. “All the time I was out in deep space, it was one of the things I most looked forward to getting back to.”

“And that makes it my turn to ask what it’s like,” Melisande said, smiling. “What’s it like being a scout? Venturing so far away from home, all alone…”

“Well, you already know that I wasn’t all alone on this trip,” Madison said. “Thanks to a certain spotted stowaway…” She chuckled. “But it was…kind of nice, in a way. Lots of time to catch up on books and movies and things.”

“Or catnap,” Samantha added.

“Though sometimes I do kind of wonder what it would have been like to go it all alone,” Madison mused. “Would I have been able to cope with the solitude?”

“Doubt it,” Samantha said smugly through her mouth. “You know, I don’t think you ever did thank me for saving your sanity.”

“I suppose not,” Madison admitted.

After a moment, Samantha added, “Still waiiiiiting…”

Melisande laughed. “You two are clearly meant for each other.”

“Which is probably a good thing,” Madison said. “Given that we can’t exactly back out now.”

“But we’re getting by,” Samantha said. “Not a bad life I guess, even if I do miss the old bod sometimes.”

“Sometimes I wish I knew what it was like to have been a human and a RIDE,” Melisande mused. “Even apart from the whole issue of not remembering who I used to be. It feels like I’ve been cheated out of an experience. Two experiences.”

“Maybe you’ll get it back someday,” Madison said. “You never know.”

“True enough, I guess,” Melisande agreed.

“So, you live in Camelot?” Madison said. “Have you been around Uplift much?”

“I’ve spent a few days here and there looking around,” Melisande said. “Doing touristy things, mostly.”

“By yourself?” Madison said. “You know, you really get the most out of a place when you go around with a local. I’ve got some spare time. After we finish our beers, want me to show you some of the places tourists don’t know about?”

“That sounds interesting,” Melisande said. “I have to admit, I find Uplift a fascinating place in general. But then, this kind of habitat is my specialty. It’s always interesting to see your field taken to extremes.”

“Great! How’d you like to see where they keep the dome generators? I’ve got a few connections, I can get us in.” Madison grinned. “And ‘Mantha knows some great places in the tunnel, too…”

“Sounds like a good time,” Melisande said. She smiled. This was turning into quite a fun trip after all.

Chapter 2

March 21, 158 A.L.

The Steadfast emerged into normal space twelve light-hours from Woden, Wednesday’s hot, massive, luminous blue star. Woden was more prone to stellar outbursts than Pharos, sheeting the system in high-energy ultraviolet radiation. But even before humans arrived there was a planet with life here—the probes of centuries ago had not lied.

Circling its sun in a thousand-day orbit, Wednesday was a hot, dense ball of metal and rock with twenty percent higher surface gravity than Old Earth. It might have made a perfect mining station, but not for full colonization. Nevertheless, a century ago that had somehow happened.

Founded in the early FTL era, upon exiting subspace the colonists had discovered to their horror they were missing one ship of a million colonists, and that was only the beginning of their troubles. Catastrophe after catastrophe quickly followed, turning a colonial fleet of five million into one million within weeks. Cryosupport and navigation systems failed under Woden’s relentless beating and insufficient shielding. No Spacers had been sent ahead as was standard procedure to create the planet’s supporting infrastructure. The biosphere of the planet itself was toxic to Earth-based life, full of heavy metals.

But the survivors were nothing if not determined and ingenious. In the middle of one of the near-constant solar storms, the Bjornssens created the first hardlight projectors out of the cortinide nodes from the wrecked colony ships, creating a safe haven from radiation and room to breathe until help could arrive from Zharus.

Decades later, the fruit of hardlight technology was on display right from orbit. The cities of Uplift and Cascadia on Zharus had covered a few hundred square kilometers of desert and rainforest with domes. Wednesday had both of those city-states beaten by tens of thousands of square kilometers.

“They’re expanding,” Joe observed. “I’m impressed.”

“Fuckin’ A,” Julius agreed, tail lashing. “A for ‘amazeballs’.”

“Wow. That’s a lot of cubage,” Quinoa said. “Sooner or later, this planet’s going to just have one big hardlight field all the way around, isn’t it?”

“I always thought it was shameful what Earth did here,” Socah said. “For that matter, I think Earth did, too, afterward. At least they never tried something that blatant again. I’m glad they’re thriving now.”

“Turning the ship for alignment. Great Eastern visible on the portside,” Captain Faulkner reported. “And about a few hundred klicks further out, the Great Western. Docking complete in three minutes.”

The surface of Wednesday turned out of view as the Steadfast made final adjustments, then settled on the docking clamps on the hull of the massive Star Circus core ship. The Steadfast was shorter than one of the Circus’s Pinnaces, so easily slotted into the vacant docking pad.

“Nervous?” Joe asked his niece, feeling more than a little, himself.

“Can I even touch Dad?” Quinoa worried. “Q and C don’t really get along. I’ve made sure there isn’t a speck of the stuff on my pelt or in the air here. I’ve been very thorough. But on the other hand, I’m partly made of the stuff.”

“You’re not the only one who has worries,” Socah said. “But we’ll get through it. I remember Mikel was rather more level-headed than Joe when they were young.”

“Boy is he gonna be surprised,” Joe said, chuckling. “He’ll think he knows what’s coming, but he just has no idea. I always did love it when I could get him good. Oh, that reminds me.” He took an orange knit cap with ear flaps out of his pocket and pulled it on, hiding his jaguar ears, and tucked his tail down one of his pants legs. “Wouldn’t do to give the game away too soon.”

Quinoa giggled. “A Jayne hat, Uncle Joe? Really?”

“Hey,” Joe said. “A man walks down the street in this hat, people know he’s not afraid of anything.”

The Steadfast approached the Great Eastern docking pad, then a series of clangs and thumps vibrated through the ship as the docking tackle made contact and the Steadfast settled into place. “We have contact,” Faulkner reported. “Linkup complete; matching air pressures now. Looks like there’s already a welcoming party just outside the ship lock.”

“Great! Let’s go meet the neighbors,” Joe said. “We’ll do it just like we planned, okay?”

“Got it!” Julius said. “Go get the door.”

Quinoa’s wings shivered. She grasped her uncle’s hand. “Mom and Dad in the same place…”

“Dogs and cats living together. Mass hysteria,” Joe said. “Let’s go. They tell me it only hurts for a little bit…” Joe passed his hand over the control plate to open the docking corridor.

The door whisked open, and…there they stood, close together but not touching. The years and bleeding-edge anti-agathic treatments had been kind to Isabella Brunel. She appeared to be about 40 years old, with some character lines around the corners of her eyes. She wasn’t wearing her Ringmistress getup, which she’d always disparagingly referred to as “that monkey suit”. Instead, her outfit was a comfortable red blouse and slacks with boots. Her long black hair was nearly down to her waist.

Mikel Steader might have stepped off the bridge of the Enterprise-D. The prominent Steader nose combined with a Starfleet-esque Cyberdani outfit only made the resemblance to a completely bald Captain Picard that much more obvious. Joe couldn’t resist and did his best John DeLancie. “Jean-Luc, mon capitan, so nice to see you again!”

Mikel didn’t miss a beat. “Q! What the devil have you been up to, you cosmic reprobate? And…why are you wearing that ridiculous hat?”

“All shall be revealed,” Joe said, before breaking character. “Seriously, come on in, make yourselves at home. There’s someone here who hasn’t seen you in forever.” He stepped aside for Quinoa to come forward.

Father, mother, and daughter regarded one another, the tension palpable. Isabella strode forward first to embrace her daughter. “Oh my God, Quinnie, you really have inherited the Steader Crazy.”

Quinoa mantled her wings around her mother. “Oh, I have so many stories to tell. You’re not going to like a lot of them, but…” she looked at her father, who had half a scowl on his pale face. “Dad…”

“I’m not precisely angry with you for being an Integrate,” Mikel said. “Just look at what I’ve done to myself the past forty years. I’d be a damned fool hypocrite if I criticized you.”

“We’ve had Integrates in the Circus for over twenty years,” Isabella said. “I have to say, the colors do look stunning on you, Quinnie.”

Quinoa grinned. “I don’t suppose you’re hiring right now?”

“You’ll have to ask the new Grand Ringmistress,” Isabella said. “I’m officially retiring once we arrive at Zharus.”

“I still find it hard to believe you’re retiring,” Joe said. “I always thought show business was in your blood.”

“Oh, I’ll probably put together some kind of small show on Zharus if I get bored,” Isabella said. “A traveling circus in the old tradition, that just goes from place to place on one world. But I’ve had enough of spending most of my time between the stars.”

“And I’m going to be back on Zharus for good, myself,” Mikel said.

“A little weird you’re settling on the one planet in the universe that you’re actually allergic to, but I’m not complaining,” Joe said.

“I have some new hardlight implants, maybe as good as my daughter apparently has ‘naturally’ now, that’ll keep the big bad Q out of my systems,” Mikel said.

“Oh, really?” Joe said, grinning. “Picard never had any such luck in the show.”

“I can say with confidence that Q will never get under my skin again,” Mikel said. He turned to his daughter and spread his arms. “Quinnie?”

Quinoa sniffled. “Good…I’m glad.” Then she embraced both of her parents at once, with wings and arms. Then she smiled like a fox. “I’m glad that I’m not a child anymore, because once you hear about the stuff I’ve been up to…”

“Enough standing in the doorway. Come in, see what I’ve done with the old ship,” Joe said, standing aside and making a sweeping come-in gesture with his arms.

“The Steadfast looks in top shape,” Mikel said, looking around. The laser transceivers on his head flickered. “Systems are in good health. 42x Drive? Zharus is getting better at shipbuilding, I see.”

“Oh, we have some surprises in store for you Cyberdani,” Quinoa said, letting them go. She walked between them like she had as a little girl, hand-in-hand. “Maybe even more so after this business with…well, what we need the Great Western for is finished. But we can talk about that later.”

Joe led the way down the corridor and into the living room. “Anyway, I’m glad to see the two of you together again,” he said as they walked. “Glad and a little surprised.”

“It’s not likely to last, long-term,” Isabella admitted. “But then, it always was a matter of how willing we were to overlook each others’ faults. We’ve both mellowed a little with age, I suppose.”

“It’s like one of those twencen rock bands we read about in the archives,” Mikel said. “They might have broken up in acrimony, but every so often they’d put aside their differences for long enough to do a reunion tour. You could say this is our reunion tour and our farewell tour.” He glanced at Joe. “You seem a lot more…cheerful than you’ve been the last few times we spoke. I’m glad to see it.”

Joe waved a hand airily. “Oh, you know. Even I can’t mope around forever. There’s only a finite amount of booze on the planet. A man can only wear out so many livers.”

He brought them into the lounge where they’d watched movies through the trip. The couch was there, with a big jaguar taking up most of it. Joe flopped down on the couch, leaning back against it.

“Finally!” Julius said, tail lashing. “I’ve been keeping this fuckin’ thing on pause.” The image on the media wall unfroze, then the opening movement of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” were struck as 2001 began playing.

Joe pulled off his Jayne hat to reveal his jaguar ears. He resettled himself in Julius’s curled body to free his own tail. “Ahhh…much better. Popcorn, anyone?”

Mikel facepalmed.

“Fuckin’ classic Picard meme, bro,” Julius said.

“Julius, I take it?” Isabella said dryly.

“The one and only!” Julius said. “Pleasetameetcha.”

“You’re a very handsome cat,” Isabella said. “Joe told us all about you and your sacrifice. But, we thought the damage was irreparable?”

“Turns out he was only mostly dead,” Joe said. “Some good friends put Humpty-Dumpty together again, not too long ago.”

“And that would be why you’re finally yourself again,” Mikel said.

Julius got to his feet and slinked over to Mikel, then headbumped the Eridanite cyborg. “I know so damned much about you. Hope you don’t mind I call you bro.”

“Any brother of Joe’s is a brother of mine,” Mikel said, hugging the jaguar’s big head.

“Isn’t that kind of redundant, Dad?” Quinoa said.

“You know what I mean.” He chuckled. “I’m still amazed at you guys. Even the Cyberdani have never quite managed to crack true synthetic intelligence yet. They think Celerite just has some natural limitations in that respect; something about quantum randomness that Qubitite has and Celerite doesn’t.”

“We’re a fuckin’ miracle, no doubt,” Julius purred.

“So, join us for a movie?” Joe suggested. “Doesn’t have to be this one, I can show any flick you want. Not sure if I have anything you haven’t seen yet, though.”

“I suppose, now that we’ve gotten all the surprises out of the way,” Mikel said. He was just getting settled on the sofa when a harsh new voice sounded from behind.

“Mikel Cornelius Steader! I swear, I’ve never seen anything like this in all my days. You were supposed to be the ‘sensible’ one, and here I find that not only have you done God-only-knows-what to your body, you’ve actually run off and joined the Circus! I swear, I have no idea what I’m going to do with you boys.” Mikel jumped right up off the sofa again, spinning around to stare as a woman in an old-style Earth military uniform stride into the room, wearing a regulation buzz cut and an expression of exasperation in her steely eyes.

“Cap…Cap—” Mikel stammered. He pointed at her with a shaking finger. “Captain Ther—ah, I mean Captain Gates!”

“Short circuit in your servos, Mikey?” Julius deadpanned. “I see your jaw flapping but nothing’s fucking coming out.”

The finger of accusation turned to point at Joe. “You…little…”

“You’re reminding me of our Dad when you do that, Mikey,” Joe said.

Isabella raised an eyebrow. “This would be your old minder from the Earth expedition? I wouldn’t say this about most Earth military officers, but I do believe I’m pleased to meet you. Especially if you have any embarrassing stories to tell.”

“Long since ex-military, by this point, and I certainly do,” Socah said, grinning. “Of course, when it comes to doing God-only-knows-what to your body, I suppose you don’t have anything on me,” she admitted, the hardlight flickering out to reveal her G.I. Jane in its original plasticky finish. Then she brought up her preferred outfit, the flapper dress and bobbed hair. “But it does have its advantages.”

Isabella whistled. “Nice look! Very stylish. That’s a Jane 8, isn’t it? We have some other ex-soldiers in the crew.”

“Okay, everything just stops right now,” Mikel said. “Got any more surprises for us, Joe? Because I’m done playing.” He sat down on the floor with an audible thud and crossed his arms.

“Okay, Mikey, I give,” Joe said. “No more scheming.”

“He always used to do that when Joe went too far with his schemes when they were kids,” Julius informed Socah. “Sit down and grump until Joey gave in.”

“And it’s all the same eighty years on,” Mikel said.

Quinoa giggled. “It’s nice we can still surprise you.”

“Well, I have some surprises, myself. Some good, some bad, some in between,” Mikel said, getting up again. “But we don’t have to spring them on you right now. The Western is refueling and won’t be ready to leave for a Zharus week, so we have some quality time to catch up.” He glanced at Socah. “What are you doing here, anyway?”

“My family moved to Zharus. And we took the opportunity to look up some old friends. It’s a long story; I’ll tell it later. I don’t want to interrupt your family time.”

“I get the feeling they’re a little more than just ‘friends’ now,” Isabella mused.

Joe blushed. “Uh, well, yeah.”

“You waited a long time for her, didn’t you?” Mikel said.

“Well, not intentionally.” Joe put his arm around Socah’s waist. “But you know, it’s hard to do much of anything from the bottom of a bottle. Happily, all that’s behind us now. But like she said, family time.” He waved to the comfortable chairs scattered around. “Have seats. Talk, catch up. Can I get you anything? Food, drink? Got a deluxe fabber and a well-stocked bar.”

Joe made a point of serving everyone their requests, as the gracious gentlemanly host. He settled for a ginger beer while Mikel took his regular gin and tonic, Socah her gimlet, Isabella a pinot noir, and Quinoa a sarium stout. Julius Fused up with Joe so he could have a taste, himself.

Once the mood relaxed enough, Isabella broke the ice. “The first thing I want to hear from you about, Quinoa, is how this 20,000 kilometer orbit dive happened. You wouldn’t believe the rumors we’d heard on Proxima about Integrates, somebody named Franz or Fritz?”

“The fog of misinformation from Zharus beyond Wednesday is very thick,” Mikel said. “Integrates see to that. We’ve met a few traveling the spaceways.”

Quinoa cued up the media wall. “Two years of summary coming up, then.”

“Makes a fuckin’ good movie if you ask me,” Julius said.

“It’s more Michael Bay than Stanley Kubrick, but yeah,” Quinoa agreed.

“I would’ve said Masamune Shiro,” Joe added. “It’s a helluva lot more Ghost in the Shell than Transformers.”

“Roll film already, Quinnie,” Mikel implored, gesturing with his glass. “You’re the projectionist here.”

Quinoa laughed. “Well, for me it all started the day Uncle Joe decided I could partner a RIDE…”

Separator k.png

March 29, 158 AL
Bjornssen Technical Institute, Wednesday

The most important building on Wednesday was a squat, nondescript concrete blockhouse, constructed to serve double duty as a shelter against cosmic radiation in case the hardlight shields failed. Standing before it was a four-meter bronze statue of an older man with arms outstretched, like Moses beholding the Promised Land.

It was symbolic, of course. The man was Dr. Lars Bjornssen, who had sacrificed his own life to ensure the safety of the surviving Wednesday colonists during a particularly harsh solar storm. He had hand-calibrated the resonators for the first hardlight dome while everyone else huddled in the shelters that wouldn’t protect them for long enough without it. The docudramas liked to depict him trapped outside the dome, hands held up against it in that pose, as he said goodbye to his beloved wife Enid through the transparent shield. Joe sometimes wondered if it was a distant subconscious racial memory of that scene from The Wrath of Khan.

The reality was more prosaic, of course; he’d been able to get back inside before raising the dome, but he’d taken such a dose of radiation that nothing they could do would save him, and they had no more working cryotubes. He had opted for euthanasia as soon as he knew the rest of the colonists were safe, and spent his final minutes alone with his wife.

There was a significantly newer statue of Enid by Lars’s side. She’d insisted she needed no monuments other than the hardlight dome over their heads, and her wish had been honored during her lifetime—but the sentimentality of Wednesday’s citizenry toward its citizen-heroes had overcome it after she’d died ten years ago. A cunning sculptor had integrated her statue with her husband’s, so she stood by his side with one arm around his waist.

The blockhouse was still used—in fact, it was the administrative center of the Bjornssen Memorial Technical Institute. Although it had been one of the first buildings on Wednesday, Enid’s wish had been that it stay in use rather than be set aside as a monument like other historic buildings elsewhere. Her motto had been “Wednesday has no room for the useless,” and that had certainly been true for most of her life. Even now, when space was much more available, and verdant grass, flowers, and trees grew in the plaza in front of the building, they kept it in use to honor her memory, and probably would at least until all the people who’d known her personally were also gone.

The very first hardlight emitter still generated its light-fountain. Like the one in Bifrost Park on Zharus, it was still functional as a climate dome generator. (“No room for the useless” again.) In fact, if the other generators failed, it could still protect an area the size of the original colony, which is why the Institute was the designated emergency shelter zone for the entire surrounding area.

It had been a long time since Joe had last trod these grounds. The original building was unchanged, but the surrounding campus had effectively doubled in size over the years. Part of it was an industrial annex in which the most advanced fabberies on the planet operated. Manufacturing on Wednesday had always been nationalized in the interest of survival, though there was increasing agitation to launch more private industry now that the colony had found a solid footing. Joe wondered what the DINcom would do to the trade balance, given that Wednesday currently imported from Zharus most of the luxury goods and technical equipment that it couldn’t or wouldn’t make itself. A working FTL communication link even within the system would send ripples through the commodities market.

The rest of the complex, and where he was headed today, was for education, research, and development. The Institute was Wednesday’s preeminent university as well as its government research division. As with the nationalized manufacturing, Wednesday had heretofore simply been too small to separate the functions out. The planet had twenty million citizens, and only allowed immigrants that had been cleared at Zharus first.

A fountain in the center of the plaza splashed merrily. A plaque stated: Donated by CascadiaPūr Water Systems, LLC.

“I still have realtime comm to the Eastern,” Mikel said. “Getting a two-second echo from radio pings, but this doohickey of yours…it’s like I’m right there. God almighty. I wish I’d had this between Centauri and Proxima. I might have been able to delay that damned referendum another year.”

“Glad you approve,” Joe said brightly from minimus-Fuse, an anthropomorphic jaguar strolling alongside Socah and his niece. “Socah’s granddaughter is an amazing young woman.”

“I’m very proud of her,” Socah said.

“Unfortunately, they still haven’t licked the problems of longevity, and of getting working units through FTL jumps,” Joe said. “You’ll probably lose that link in a few hours or less, depending on how much bandwidth you put through it.” Joe patted the briefcase he was carrying. “Of course, I’ve got more, but they’re meant for the Institute.”

“Since Rhianna empowered me to negotiate a license on her behalf, it’s possible they’ll be able to fab their own by the time we’re done here,” Socah said. “We’ll have to see.”

Julius wasn’t the only RIDE around, nor was Quinoa the only Integrate. They weren’t as common as on Zharus, but they weren’t unknown either. The people, since they lived and grew up in higher gravity, were generally more muscular and shorter to support their weight than the average Zharusian.

The spartan decor and landscaping had begun to give way to more “frivolous” art, and there was finally enough water to go around that installations like the plaza fountain were even permissible. The full terraforming of Wednesday would take many centuries, even with a dozen colony-built Neumon Formers doing the work.

Head Researcher Dr. Shareen Gross had the practiced skeptical look of a woman who had seen a lot of crazy bullshit proposals in her life. The fact that said potential bullshit was about to be demonstrated by one of the richest people in human space, his distinguished Cyberdani brother, and accompanied by the most famous bullshit artist in human space, apparently didn’t give credence to Joe and Socah’s presentation. For the sales pitch Julius had switched from furry to business suit mode. He and Socah made quite sharp-looking pair.

“So, what you’re saying here is that a woman on Zharus invented the holy grail of faster-than-light communications in her garage?” Dr. Gross said.

“That is exactly what we’re saying, Dr. Gross,” Socah said respectfully. “It was one of those accidental discoveries that are so frequent in science. She has spent nearly two years, working with a number of notable specialists in subspace physics, to improve on that discovery to practical levels. What we’ve produced for you here are examples of pre-production prototypes. The final versions will be released for market on Zharus in just a few weeks.”

“You expect me to believe that?” Dr. Gross said.

“No, actually I expect you to take these prototypes and test them, since that’s what scientists do—they test hypotheses,” Socah said. “Then I expect I’ll either hear from you, or I won’t. And if I don’t, I expect it’ll be your loss.”

The stout woman pursed her lips. “We’ll require two days—that’s forty-four hours—for initial testing,” Dr. Gross said. “I’ll need to call up some specialists to verify the claims in these papers and produce some test units on our own fabbers.”

“You do what you have to do,” Socah said. “But the fab schematics don’t go beyond your lab without a license agreement.”

“Of course, Mrs. Gates,” Dr. Gross said. She blinked a few times, sending commands through her ‘specs, and returned several files to the petitioners. “There, I’ve signed your scientific testing agreements. The sooner we get started the sooner you’ll have your answer.”

“You can leave the briefcase, Joe,” Socah said. “Thank you, Dr. Gross. We look forward to hearing from the Institute sooner rather than later.”

As they walked out of the lab, Joe glanced to Socah. “You think you will hear from them?”

Socah chuckled. “Oh, I expect so. After all, you and I already know the effect is real. I’m sure that somewhere in the institute there’ll be someone who’s not so in love with the stick up their butt they can’t see past their own nose.”

“You’re mixin’ your fuckin’ metaphors there, y’know,” Julius pointed out.

“Yes, but she does it so well,” Joe said.

“The Circus will definitely be wanting to license,” Isabella said. “It’ll be useful when we’re spread out all across one system even if no one ever licks the cross-jump problem.”

“Oh, we were taking that as a given,” Joe said. “The Circus being the haven for new technology that it is and all.”

“We can discuss terms when we’re back on the ship,” Socah said.

“Speaking of which, we should probably show you around our ship,” Isabella said. “Both of them, in fact.”

“I’d like that,” Socah said. “I’ve been wondering about it since I caught your show on Proxima Gamma thirty, thirty-five years back…I guess it would have been in ‘72. There were rumors you’d taken out a whole Kepler pirate fleet some years before that.”

“Oh, we did,” Isabella said, flashing a feral grin. “It’s a personal failing, but the Circus makes sure to remind them to leave us be every time we stop there. Between the Eastern herself and the flotilla we carry, we’re a veritable fleet by ourselves. It’s because we’re so secure that the other Colonies entrust us with some of their most bleeding edge technology.

“We’ve been popular enough the last two rounds we decided to add a second core ship and flotilla,” Isabella said. “So the Great Western was born.”

“And now we’re bogarting her for the next couple of years,” Joe said.

“Every ship needs a shakedown cruise,” Isabella said. “This one will just be longer than most. The Circus tends to take the long-term view, anyway. With the King of Hearts along you’ll be getting a couple hundred Circusfolk in the deal.”

“Great! Maybe they can put on a show for Totalia City after we get the government thing straightened out. I’m sure they’d love that,” Joe said.

“I don’t know, a single Pinnace seems a bit small to cover a settlement of three million people,” Mikel said. “You’d want at least a Bigtop for something like that. Maybe two or three.”

“Assuming we’re successful in Totalia, maybe the Circus should make it their first stop after Zharus?” Quinoa suggested. “Give ‘em a taste with the King and then bring in the rest if they’re a hit.”

“It might actually be too small for a full engagement at this point, but that’s something to consider,” Isabella said. “Would at least be worth another Pinnace.”

“Me, I want to see what the Eastern looks like now,” Quinoa said, rubbing her hands together and grinning like a child. “I have Intie-recall, so I remember everything from when I was maybe two years old. I wonder if my old hiding spots on the Bridge are still there…”

“So this is the troublesome little girl that my mother warned me about,” Captain Alfonso Perez said. Like his mother, and like Mikel, he was a bald, pale Cyberdani with a crown of laser transceivers. “You’re a little large to hide under the Helm now.”

“Just a tad,” Quinoa confessed. “It’s funny, everything looks so much smaller than I remember.”

“You present quite the colorful figure,” Perez said. “We Cyberdani have worked to prevent the bleaching effect Celerite has on our bodies, but alas…”

“Your problem is, you backed the wrong fuckin’ horse,” Julius said cheerfully. “Q’s got it all over that celery stuff.”

“Is that so?” Mikel folded his arms. “We’ve had a couple decades of friendly competition between Integrates and Cyberdani in the Circus, Julius. Far as we can tell we’re neck-and-neck in this race.”

Julius smirked. “Not from where I’m sitting.”

Mikel laughed. “Well, we can banter more later. We should head over to the Western and the King of Hearts soon. Seamus is the Western’s OverEngineer, by the way.”

“That’s wonderful!” Joe clapped his hands. “Can’t wait to see him and Dobbin again.”

“Yes,” Captain Perez said. “He and Dobbin have been with her since her keel was laid. He’s understandably a little antsy about taking her into a situation like this, but…”

Joe grinned. “But excited to show off what she can do, too, I’ll bet.”

“That is Seamus to the proverbial T,” Perez agreed.

“Well, the day’s not getting any younger. Come on, we’ll show you the rest of the ship.” Mikel led the way toward the exit at the rear of the bridge. “There’ve been a few changes since last time you saw her…”

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April 12, 158 A.L.
Starbucks, Uplift Mall Food Court

It was a pleasant spring day in Uplift. Rufia sat at one of the food court tables at the Uplift Mall, with Yvonne lying behind her. Rhianna had commed and asked for a meeting here, but hadn’t exactly said why.

Not that she was complaining, of course—especially since Rhianna was buying. She sipped from her gourmet coffee as Rhianna sat down across the table from her with a cup of hot chocolate. Kaylee was accompanying her, but not Fused this time. This suggested that it was going to be about business, then—they preferred to have those discussions face to face.

Rufia glanced speculatively across the coffee at her friend. “So, Rhi, what’s up?”

“Oh, just…things,” Rhianna said, a mischievous little grin playing across her face. “Rufia, is your tour business at the point where it could run without you for a while?”

“How long a while are we talking, Rhi?”

“Oh, say, a year or so?”

Rufia sprayed a fine mist of coffee over the table in front of her. “What? A whole year, are you nuts?”

“Well, I know how bad you felt about getting left out of kicking Fritz’s butt last year,” Rhianna said. “I thought you and Yvonne might want to get in on the ground floor of our next little adventure.”

Rufia eyed her suspiciously. “A year-long adventure?”

“At least.”

“So what’s it about?”

“I can’t say just yet—at least, not in a public place,” Rhianna said with a suspiciously cat-like grin, made all the more cat-like by her lynx nose. “Sworn to secrecy. But you’ll be away from Zharus for a year.”

“Away where? In space? Doing what?”

Rhianna made a zipping motion across her mouth. “Can’t say. But the Brubecks are involved.”

“Oh? Well, then, if they’re involved, sure, I’m in,” Rufia said. “There’s got to be a lot of money in it. Maybe I can save up enough to buy myself back from Yvonne.”

“I heeeeeard that!” the elk in question caroled from across the room. “You should be putting your business propositions to me, you know.”

“Besides, Zane’s getting cuter every day, and sooner or later I just know you’ll say yes when I ask about a threesome.” Rufia winked.

Rhianna swatted her. “Keep dreaming. Tigerboy’s all mine. Rowr.”


“Anyway, I bring it up because there’s something connected with it we’re going to be needing you to do here on Zharus in the next couple of weeks,” Rhianna said. “We’re getting a couple of…very special tourists who’re going to need to be shown around. And since you’ve already agreed to help us sort out the Crate o’ Cousinage, we figured we could probably just shuffle them in.”

“Hooboy, have you got a full plate,” Rufia said. “Isn’t your comm thingy almost ready to go to market?”

“My cup runneth over,” Rhianna agreed. “Not going to talk about it here, Rufe.”

“Speaking of you and Tigerboy,” Rufia said, smirking. “Come on, what’s the deal between you two? Serious? Playful? Just friends with benefits? Is he going to propose? Are you going to propose? What?”

“And that’s another thing I’m not going to talk about here,” Rhianna said, nodding at the sole remaining media floater that still followed her around. It was the absolute cheapest model the paparazzi could buy, just a helium-filled balloon with a camera, a transmitter, and a lifter for propulsion. It probably cost a single mu. Kaylee eyed it like a housecat stalking a flying bug.

“Awww, c’mon, be a sport,” Rufia said. “You’re supposed to be ‘one of the girls’ now, so make with the gossip! Dish, dish! Kaylee, pop that damned thing if you have to. I want something juicy out of you, girl.”

“With pleasure!” Kaylee purred, leaping into the air and popping the balloon with the swipe of a claw. She crunched the camera and transmitter in her jaws for good measure. It would take another few minutes before they could rotate another one in.

Rhianna blushed and took a sip of her drink. “Serious. And…I think if for some reason I did want to be Ryan again, he’d turn femme for me.”

“Y’all should see how they go at each other while dreamin’,” Kaylee said, grinning. “Always switchin’ around.”

“Well, dreams are one thing,” Rhianna said. “But Rufe…I want to have his babies.”

Rufia leaned so far back in her chair it almost fell over before Yvonne reached over and gave it a nudge with her head to tip it back. “Oh…my…God! You’re going to do that before me? Damn, girlfriend! When you go girly, you don’t mess around! When you gonna pop the question?”

“I…really have no idea,” Rhianna said. “Maybe sometime…before we… Maybe he’ll actually do it first. I don’t know.”

Rufia laughed. “Well, whatever you do, don’t let him get away. Or if you’re going to, let me know so I can move in on the rebound.”

“Not a chance,” Rhianna said. “Mine. Rowr.”

Chapter 3

April 1, 158 AL (Wednesday equivalent)
Wednesday Orbit

The Great Western hung over Wednesday like someone had left a thousand-meter candlestick floating in space. In sharp contrast to its larger sibling, which sported landers, ships, and modules all over, the Western was almost completely naked—little more than a drive core and a single Pinnace-class ship serving as its temporary bridge. Nonetheless, it was still a pretty impressive sight as the Steadfast approached.

“How long has it been since you last saw Seamus and Dobbin?” Mikel asked.

“We got together the last time the Circus hit Zharus. That was…what…six years ago?” Joe chuckled. “Funny…he was talking about retirement, then. But he always seems to be doing that.”

Mikel nodded. “He was OverEngineer of the Eastern for about fifteen years. Before they needed the Western, he really was going to retire. Changed his plans to be OE on her for at least her first rounds. Felt the Eastern and the rest of her flotilla had a lot of design flaws. They still had their share of troubles after the big refit forty years ago.”

Joe nodded. “I can see the appeal of reengineering the whole thing from the ground up.”

“Kind of like you did for Zharus society, eh Uncle Joe?”

Joe grinned at Quinoa. “I decline to answer that on the grounds it might tend to incriminate me.”

“We are cleared to dock,” the Steadfast’s helmsman reported. “ETA, five minutes.”

Captain Faulkner nodded. “Proceed.”

With a series of pulses from lifters and maneuvering reaction thrusters, the yacht reoriented itself to dock with a port on the Great Western’s broad expanse of docking areas. In fact, the entire surface of the ship was docking area, with all but one slip unoccupied. The Steadfast latched into place at the head of one of the two empty faces, occupying the same position as the King of Hearts on the face just to the left.

Joe rubbed his hands together. “Well, here we are, then. Let’s go say hi.”

Entry into the Great Western was through a ladder leading down through the Steadfast’s ventral docking hatch into the ship itself. The core of this area had a triangular cross-section, with grav plates providing surface gravity to each face of the triangle. There were ramps every so often that would allow people on one face to move 120 degrees around to one of the others. Waiting on the face below the Steadfast’s docking ladder were an Eridani in a Captain’s uniform, and a horse Fuser showing the OverEngineer rank insignia.

The horse snorted, and spoke in Seamus’s voice. “Joe Steader. I might have known you were behind this nonsense.”

“Guilty as charged. I’m behind a lot of nonsense, I’m afraid. It’s what I’m known for.”

“Fuckin’ A.” Julius was the last to exit the ship, dropping in on his lifters to land on all fours on the deck. “You must be Seamus and Dobbin? Julius. Heard fuckin’ loads about you.”

Dobbin cocked his head. “We heard you were dead.”

“I get that a lot.”

Mikel nodded to Seamus. “Good to see you again.”

“And you. You’re looking remarkably…shiny these days.”

“Well, you’re looking remarkably horsey, so I guess we’re even.”

Captain Xun cleared his throat. “Welcome to the Great Western. Captain Armand Xun.” He offered his hand. “I’ve heard a great deal about you, as well, Mr. Steader.”

Joe took it. “Pleased to meet you, Captain. And glad to see the two of you are still doing well. I knew you’d be a great team, all those years ago.”

“Yes, well…” Seamus faltered. “The ears suit you.”

“Thanks!” Julius said. “Made ‘em myself.”

Quinoa waved. “Hi, Seamus! I don’t think you remember, me, but…”

The horse waggled his ears. “Well, as I live and breathe, Quinoa Steader. Don’t you still owe me a few hundred mu for that bank of Sarium batteries you shorted out because you wondered what that red button labeled ‘DO NOT PRESS THIS UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES’ did?”

Quinoa blushed. “Ah. You do remember me.”

Joe laughed. “Face it, Quinny, you’re pretty much unforgettable.”

“Why did they even have that button, anyway? It just shouted, in big neon letters, ‘here, push me now!’”

“They weren’t designed to be toddler-safe. But then, what is?” Seamus snorted, then held out his arms and de-Fused, revealing a wiry redhead with traces of grey, with the equine ears and slightly elongated face of someone who’d spent a lot of time in Fuse. “It is good to see you all…even if I have three or four bones to pick over this addle-pated idea of taking my ship into a war zone.”

Captain Xun cleared his throat again. “A few other people do get a say in that decision, Seamus.”

“That doesn’t mean any of them collectively have the sense God gave a grapefruit amongst ‘em.” Seamus laid his ears back and scowled. “Oh, fine, I’m resigned to this foolishness. Doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

“We wanted this ship because it’s the best, Seamus.” Joe waved a hand encompassing the area around them. “You’ve done a hell of a job with it so far. We want this to be as safe as possible for everyone.

“Yes, well…” Seamus mumbled, mollified. “Don’t we all.” He sighed. “But I don’t know if you understand just how incomplete the Western is right now.” He tapped a wall and it turned transparent. Behind the wall, lights turned on, illuminating a long empty prism. Every few hundred metres, reactors were set up, connected by catwalks to the shell.

“Where the fuck is the rest of the ship?” Julius asked, looking up and down the revealed space.

“Orbiting Colossus, waiting to be installed,” Seamus explained.

“It’s very… Star Warsy. The catwalks over the bottomless chasms are a nice touch,” Joe noted.

Seamus nodded. “So as you can see, there is still a lot to do.”

Dobbin nickered. “What my partner wants to say is, we could use some time to fit out the ship with as much protection as we can, in the time we have.”

“As I understand it, most of the parts for that are already at the C-R shipyards, and there’s still a few months before we’re set to leave. Jules just sent our preliminary plans to Dobbin. I’m sure he’s been able to review them.”

“Hooboy, I have.” Dobbin projected everything on the non-transparent wall—schematics for the Great Western herself, the four industrial ships, and all of the smaller craft and modules scheduled to dock to the Circus ship. “What we got here, Seamus, is a puzzler. We’ll have to leave the rest of our flotilla at C-R. That’ll raise suspicion unless we come up with some cover story.”

Seamus shrugged. “Not so much of a problem. Stands to reason we’ll want to test the big ship by herself before we risk hooking up the smaller craft. We may want to snag a few of ‘em if there’s leftover space once everyone else is aboard, though. You never can have too many ships.”

“There won’t be any trouble getting the necessary stuff done in that time, will there?” Mikel asked. “The shipyard can do this kind of fast finishing work?”

Seamus nodded. “Aye, with ease. It looks empty, but that makes it easier. We get to Rhodes, they split us open at the seams and slot all the hab modules and backup battery levels and stuff in like Lego, and seal it back up. Won’t take long at all. We may not be able to get everything in, but should have enough time to hit the high points.”

“Well. Looks like we’re good, then.”

Julius licked the back of his left forepaw. “Fuckin’ A.”

“But of course you don’t want to spend all your time standing around here. Come along; we’ll show you what there is to see.” Captain Xun gestured toward the corridor leading around the ship to the next docking face. “Starting with the King of Hearts.”

Seamus waved a hand. “We’ve seen it already, so Dob’ and I will be back in Engineering making sure everything’s ready. We’ll see you when the tour makes it back that far.”

“Great!” Joe nodded to Captain Xun. “By all means, lead the way.” As the man and horse headed astern, the rest of the party followed the Captain laterally.

“These three corridors run from the bow to the stern of the ship.” Captain Xun waved a hand at the broad empty space around them. “I use the word ‘corridor’ loosely, of course. Right now, it’s all open space, with the docking ports for each side all opening onto a single flat plane, but they’ll put in separate corridors at the shipyard.”

“They don’t build them like this anymore.” Joe looked down the center.

“Actually, given that they only just now fuckin’ built this one, they kinda still do build ‘em like this anymore, Joe.”

Joe snorted. “You know what I mean, Jules.”

“The core ship style fell out of favor once active colonization stopped about fifty years ago,” Xun explained. “It’s perfect for attaching cryosleep modules by the tens of thousands. Most of the core ships left are in mothballs around Eris in the Sol system, and they’re three to five times as long as the Western. Real monsters.”

Quinoa nodded. “It is kind of a specialized class. They don’t even move that much cargo from one place to another anymore since most colonies are self-sufficient.”

Joe scratched his chin thoughtfully. “I wonder if Earth would be willing to sell one or two of them? Might be useful if we need to found a new colony on Barsoom.”

Julius snorted. “Getting a little far ahead, isn’t that?”

“Hey, if you don’t think a few moves ahead, you can’t win the game.”

“Before you go looking to Earth, you might want to check your own backyard. The Shipyard construction frames are already big enough to handle those old monsters and then some. Seems like someone might be getting ideas in Pharos for the future,” Xun noted.

“True enough, but there’s something to be said for buying off-the-shelf rather than spending resources banging something new together. ‘Recycle, reduce, reuse,’ as they used to say.”

Just ahead, a square outline of black and orange hazard piping denoted a cargo elevator. Xun led the way into it. “As many of us as there are, we’ll go up this way.” As they all stepped into the square, Xun made a quick gesture, then tapped a command onto the hardlight panel that appeared in response. A square of hardlight rose out of the floor, carrying them with it, as a hatch slid open overhead.

They rose through the hatch into a much smaller space—a cargo receiving area with diamond-deck plates, catwalks, and lifter cranes. Uniformed crew paused in their tasks to salute as their Captain rose into view. “Welcome aboard the Pinnace King of Hearts, temporarily serving as the Great Western’s command module.”

“Nice!” Quinoa looked around, eyes sparkling. “It’s so great to be back on Circus ships again. Is this one fully-crewed? Including the troupe of performers?”

Xun nodded. “Considering how many of us crosstrain, why shouldn’t it be?”

Joe nodded. “That should come in handy. Maybe you could put on some shows out at Cerberus while the ship’s being completed.”


“The fleet’s top secret staging base. As I understand it, that’s where the personnel, supplies, and ships are being assembled for loading onto the Western once it’s ready.”

“I see. That sounds like a great idea. Keep their skills sharp, stave off boredom, and bring a boost to morale at your isolated base. I’ll pass that suggestion on to our Ringmaster so he can work something up during the jump. He may ask for further details later on.” Xun nodded toward the bow of the ship. “The bridge is this way.”

After the wide open space of the docking plane, the standard-sized corridors of the King of Hearts almost felt cramped. The layout was standard, the same as the pinnaces Joe had visited before. The corridor went right up the heart of the ship, with others branching off. Finally they reached the reinforced bulkhead that unsealed to admit them onto the bridge.

The Pinnaces were FTL-capable ships by themselves. The King of Hearts had actually been constructed by Colossus-Rhodes Shipyards during the refit the Steaders had financed four decades before. The Bridge still retained the same layout, with the helm front and center before the viewscreen, surrounded by only a half dozen other stations necessary to navigate the ship. The Bridge itself was deep inside the ship rather than in a vulnerable place near the hull.

Quinoa brightened on seeing it, her dermal hardlight lenses actually glowing, then dimmed again, deflating. “Oh, yeah. I…well…Intie memory, you know? Dad?”

Joe looked at his brother. “What’s she talking about?”

Mikel coughed. “Back when things were getting rocky between me and Bella I made the King my home. Quinnie visited often, of course.”

Quinoa nodded. “Now that I can remember pretty much everything, it doesn’t seem like such a happy time. It just didn’t make sense to a four-year-old.”

Julius nosed her leg. “That bites.” Quinoa reached down and scratched him behind an ear.

Joe raised an eyebrow. “How’d it happen to get picked for this duty?”

“She has the most recent system upgrades of any Circus ship, and some of the most experienced senior crew. Just what you need for shepherding a new ship.” Xun shrugged. “It’s not really my place to speak to the personal matters of my superiors, but I doubt they were even a consideration. The competition for the berth was pretty fierce.”

Mikel nodded. “There are only so many ships in the Circus, and I’m sure I have some kind of history with at least half of them.”

“Well, I can get over it.” Quinoa smiled. “One of the good things about being an Integrate is that I can lock unpleasant memories away and literally not think about them. I’ll still know what they are, but it takes some of the immediacy away not having to relive them.”

Mikel frowned. “But not actually erase them, right?”

“Of course not. Fundamentally, our memories are who we are—the good and the bad. If you lose any of that, how are you even the same person anymore?”

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April 15, 158 AL
Fleet Launch: T-125 Days

I’m taken by this feeling and I’m losing the fight
I’m falling, feeling, faster we go.
Surrender to this moment like the day to the night
I’m falling, falling, faster we go.

“Thanks for the ride, Gumdrop!

“No problem, Sandy. Have a good trip in.”

Melisande drifted free from the airlock, smiling down at the uneven planetoid kilometers beneath her. She could have ridden the ship down to dock, but it was heading to the wrong dome and she preferred to “walk” the last leg anyway. The dance beat from an old early-21st century song played in her inner ears as she kicked the lifters and headed downward. She’d run across the song while doing a report on the Brony movement for a history of pop culture class, and kept coming back to it since it seemed to be speaking directly to her.

It’s your life
And it’s the only one that you’ll ever get
Do you feel alive?
And are you making the most of it?
It’s your life
And you’re the only one that you’ll ever be
Do you feel alive?
And can you handle Zero Gravity?

She could, in fact, handle zero gravity, due to the customized deep space paks made in her home Enclave of Camelot. She hadn’t used them since the Halley Enclave project years back, but she was glad she’d kept them in storage since then. Waste not, want not.

She smiled as she drifted toward one of the three kilometer-wide domes on the planetoid beneath her. She had known for as far back as she could remember that this was probably the only life she would ever remember. And after she’d spent her first few months mourning the loss of whatever had come before, she had been able to accept that this life was “the only one that you’ll ever get,” and to try to make the most of it.

And right now, that involved jetting out to a tiny little pebble in the outer reaches of Zharus’s solar system to get a head start on organizing her project, now that she knew what the goal actually was. Her assistant, Valerie, was wrapping up the last of her Zharus-side commitments and would join her in a few weeks.

Melisande still found it hard to believe she was going to be among the first of her kind to travel to another star system—and not just any star system, but one that wasn’t accustomed to having visitors itself. And she’d be helping them learn to use the modern building techniques the rest of the galaxy had invented…but she didn’t doubt she’d be learning just as much from them. It was absolutely her dream job, and she was champing at the bit (so to speak) to get started.

So here she was at an iceball its inhabitants called “Cerberus.” It was an appropriate name, since the outpost effectively had three “heads”—separate dome settlements some wag or wags had named Lassie, Pluto, and Scooby. Twencen pop culture would have its way. Her destination was Pluto, where the local spacers lived and the fleet was being organized. Lassie was for the Rangers, the branch of system law enforcement that counted outer space as its bailiwick. The Scouts had a base there, too. Scooby was where Zharus expatriates lived while they waited for shipboard berths.

Melisande expected she’d end up visiting all of them before she was finished getting her project together, but her first destination was the fleet HQ at Pluto. She brought along with her orders signed with Zane’s personal encryption key authorizing her to do whatever was necessary to the commission of her duties. She didn’t expect they’d be necessary, but it was good to have them just in case. It would really be a hassle to have to wait hours for a response every time she had to go over some petty bureaucrat’s head. (Of course, there was the DINcom chip in the tablet in her luggage, but that was to be used for text mode comms only, and that only at direst need to avoid burning it out.)

The space nearby was cluttered with cargo pods, arranged haphazardly in parking orbits. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to them, they were just stuffed in any old non-intersecting orbit. Farther out, Melisande sensed one of the large industrial ships. She frowned, considering it. She was no expert, but she’d learned a few things about deep space cargo handling when she’d ordered in materials for building Halley. There was no way that single ship could handle even a quarter of the cargo waiting here. What was going on?

She tossed her head and put the thought aside as she traveled onward, beginning to feel the first light stirrings of Cerberus’s weak gravity well. She’d be sorry when the trip in was over. It was kind of nostalgic being out here, so far away that the sun was just a far-brighter star. It reminded her of those days overseeing her first zero-grav construction project, putting together a truly self-sufficient deep space home.

It was a pity Halley was nearly halfway around the system rim from here; she’d have liked to drop in and see how things were getting on. She’d heard they’d already spawned two daughter Enclaves, Shoemaker-Levy and Ikeya-Seki, using the same construction techniques she’d taught them. Well, perhaps in a few weeks, when her project was well on the way to being ready and she had some time to spare, she could treat herself to a ride out there with a Ranger patrol.

Cerberus’s weak gravity definitely had her in its grip now. She adjusted the vector of her lifter thrust. Shortly she’d switch directions to cushion her landing, but right now she’d be better off to work with gravity rather than against it if she wanted to arrive sooner than a couple of hours.

She was getting close enough now to be noticed by the dome’s traffic radar. Sure enough, a comm laser painted her a moment later, and she maneuvered her DIN to accept the beam. “—is Pluto Control. Is this Melisande I’m talking to?”

“Sure is!” she beamed back. “You have an approach vector for me?”

“As it happens, we’ve got a lot of them, and you’re very nearly on one of them already. Adjust your course by about ten degrees to starboard and you’ll come right onto…yeah, that’s close enough for government work. See you when you touch down.”

A few minutes later, Melisande alighted gracefully on the landing pad. It had been an easy target to hit, given that it was sized for shuttles. A single Integrate could barely even be seen. As soon as she had landed, she used her lifters to let her bound swiftly to the airlock without gaining too much altitude in Cerberus’s naturally-low gravity along the way. Her mane stirred in the breeze as her hardlight atmo-shell collapsed in favor of station air, then dropped back into place as the dome’s artificial gravity took hold of it.

“Hey, pretty lady!” A chimpanzee Integrate waved from the security station across from the lock. “Welcome to the ass-end of nowhere. Hope you enjoy your stay.”

Melisande flipped her mane back out of her face. “With a welcome like that, how could I not?” She frowned. It seemed like there really should have been more than one person on security duty here. Especially with that person leaning back in his seat with his bare feet on the counter. What with this and the laxity of the cargo handling, she was beginning to sense a theme. “What’s going on around here? Your orbit is…a little cluttered, isn’t it?”

“Ain’t my orbit, lady. But yeah. There’s just a little tiny shipping pile-up. Command said they’d get it straightened out, but that was two months ago.”

Two months ago? “I think I’d better get down to the command office and check in. It was nice to meet you, Corporal…?”

He tossed her a jaunty salute without bothering to get up. “Ratliff. Give my regards to the big boss. Or, better yet, don’t. Anyway, good luck with that.”

Melisande caught the unspoken “You’re going to need it,” but only nodded in return and turned to travel up the corridor in the direction of the dome proper. She paused to stow her deep space pak in a convenient locker, then was on her way.

Superficially, the three domes of Cerberus looked like igloos sitting on the planetoid’s surface. They even used ice in their construction. The domes were geodesic composite frameworks. The tops of the domes were only 250 metres above the surface, high enough for all the headroom they would need inside. Ice from Cerberus itself had been carved out to fill in the spaces of the framework, before insulation was sprayed inside and hardlight fields inside and out were turned on for the final steps.

Inside, the domes contained four broad avenues that converged on the center. Circular streets linked the avenues to each other to get around easily, theoretically. The outermost rings were dedicated to warehouses intended to store supplies until they could be shifted to the Great Western and other ships on the Totalia expedition. The next section inward contained living spaces for the dome inhabitants. Generators, environmental systems and the command center were all hosted by a prefabbed tower in the center of the dome.

Theoretically, getting to the command office should have been a simple matter of stepping out of the airlock, onto the avenue and a straight run to the middle. What Melisande found instead was very telling. Cargo from around the system clogged the avenue, completely blocking it in some places. Were it properly organized, the warehouses of the outer ring should have had more than enough room to hold it all, if anyone bothered to put it away.

She tapped the local network for a map, and so was able to find the way to the command office through alleys and side routes without too much trouble. She wasn’t terribly impressed once she got there. The desk of the staff sergeant receptionist was piled high with the reusable data tablets used for paperwork deemed too sensitive to transmit over networks, but the sergeant in question—a tagless human with cap pulled down over his face—seemed to be more interested in catching up on lost sleep than dealing with them. Even the metallic clop of her hooves on the deck plating as she approached seemed insufficient to wake him. And she was pretty sure she smelled something alcoholic about him that was closer to cheap gin than aftershave.

Melisande frowned, then raised her hoof and stomped down hard, wishing it could have been on the sergeant’s foot. But the resounding CLANG did the trick. The sergeant jerked awake, cap falling off in his haste to sit up. “Wha? Who?”

“Project Chief Melisande, from Brubeck. Here to see Colonel Nguyen.”

“Uh…just a sec. I’ll see if he’s available.”

“Fine.” Melisande took a seat in the small reception area. For want of something better to do, she pulled up her penetration testing software suite. She wasn’t any better of a hacker than the average Integrate, but she had to know how to do it to make sure that her own buildings were at least reasonably secure. She set it against the command computer, not really expecting to get in with DINsec being what it was.

But to her surprise, she found herself with full access to the network after only about three minutes. The installed DINsec was at least five months out of date…and the suite’s dandruff sniffer notified her that at least two other Integrates had bypassed the DINsec recently. They had to be intruders, because legitimate Integrate logins would have gone through another module.

Melisande dropped into fast-time to do a thorough examination of the network and the files therein. Her accountancy and audit modules immediately located the duplicate sets of ledger books—the ones detailing that progress was proceeding according to schedule, and the hidden set listing how things were really going. She snorted, nostrils flaring. Why, there had hardly been any progress at all since the project had begun! This can’t be right…

She downloaded the files, to analyze at her leisure, and as an afterthought set a trace that would alert her the next time those other Integrates logged in. Then she dropped back into the real world as the sergeant said, “Uh, ma’am, Colonel Nguyen is in a meeting right now. I can have him get back to you—uh, ma’am?

Melisande strode purposefully toward the office door. “That’s all right, Sergeant, I’ll just let myself in.” She threw out a hand and directed a lifter pulse at it, slamming it open in front of her. In for a centi-mu, in for a mu.

In the office, an untagged older man with a slight Asiatic cast to his features jerked and stumbled—right in the middle of a swing with a five-iron at a teed-up golf ball. Instead of hitting the hardlight capture field of his office golf simulator, the ball flew directly toward the office door. Through a quick blip of fast-time, Melisande was able to plot its trajectory so she could casually reach out and pluck it out of the air. “I believe you’re supposed to call ‘fore’ first, aren’t you?” She tossed the ball aside.

Colonel Nguyen wobbled and dropped the golf club, but managed to recover his balance with a hand on his desk. “What is the meaning of this!” he demanded.

“Well, well, well.” Melisande projected confidence and authority as she swaggered into the office, operating in full-on “alpha mare” mode. “Colonel Nguyen. I have to admit, I didn’t believe things could possibly be as bad as the reports we’d been receiving.” Not that there had actually been any, as far as she knew, but anyone this bent had to be paranoid of being found out, and she could use that. “Congratulations. You’ve managed to exceed my expectations. Just what kind of Mickey Mouse operation do you think you’re running here?”

Nguyen opened and closed his mouth like a fish gasping in the air. “I…I’m sure I have no idea what you’re insinuating!” he stammered, though the way his face paled gave this contention the lie.

“Insinuating? After what I’ve seen just on my way in? It’s no insinuation when the evidence is right before my own eyes!” Melisande hit the Colonel’s desk with her fist, making the handful of tablets on it jump. “We are mere months from launch! Weeks away from the Great Western’s arrival! The Fleet’s preparations should be far more advanced!”

“We’re on schedule!” Nguyen insisted. “You should be getting regular reports saying so!”

“Now, Colonel. You know and I know that those reports aren’t anywhere close to true. If it hadn’t been for the irregular reports, I hate to think what might have happened when Zane got out here in a few months. By which time you would have been long gone, I imagine.” Melisande sniffed. “This ends here and now.”

Nguyen seemed to recover a little of his aplomb. “By what authority?” he demanded.

“By this authority.” Melisande tossed the plastic plaque bearing her orders onto the desk. “Go ahead, run the tamper-checks and verify the seal encryption. I’ll wait.” While she continued to project the authoritative attitude that would have surprised Zane and everyone else on the Totalia project she’d ever met—except for Valerie, who’d seen her straighten out mismanaged construction projects before—she inwardly thanked her lucky stars that Zane had taken it on himself to smooth her path a little.

The day before she was to ship out, he had called her into his office to present her with the orders. “All right, listen up,” he said. “I got word about who’s in charge out there. One ‘Colonel Nguyen,’ an old-school Nextus ground-pounder. Came up through the ranks in the Sturmhaven War and all that. I have no idea what he’s doing in charge of putting a space fleet together, but Nextus moves in ways that can mystify even people like me who grew up there. And if I want Nextus’s support for the whole Totalia shebang, I have to keep them happy by letting some of their military officers play in my sandbox.” He waved a hand. “Anyway, what with you being new meat from the Home Office with orders of her own, that sort is likely to see you as a threat to his authority. And odds are pretty good he’s an experienced player of The Game, which means he could give you trouble if he felt like it—especially since you not only aren’t from Nextus as far as we know, but you’ve only got a few years of life-experience dealing with that sort of thing. No offense.”

“None taken. What do you suggest?”

“Well, I’m going to cut your orders in a really broad sort of way. Give you lots of wiggle room. There are plenty of ways a seasoned Nextuscrat could interpret orders to prepare an architectural education division that would have you tied up in knots. So I’ll just have to give you carte blanche. Authority to do whatever is necessary in pursuit of your orders…and not mention exactly what those orders are. You know your own business best. And that means they can’t put up as many roadblocks to stop you.”

Melisande blinked at him. “Are…are you sure about this?”

“Well, you’re not exactly someone who just came in off the street. I’ve had your background thoroughly checked out, and talked to all my people who know you, and everyone reports you completely trustworthy.” Zane grinned at her. “Still, if I get out there and find you’ve completely taken over the whole operation, then I think we’ll have Words.”

In the here-and-now, Melisande sighed inwardly, and wryly resigned herself to the necessity of future Words.

Nguyen looked up from the comm on his desk, face even paler. “This…this checks out. But…but they said—”

Melisande stepped up to the desk, and a quick lifter pulse jerked the plaque back into her hand. “Who said? Said what?”

“I…I think I’d better not say anything else without a lawyer.”

“Now that could be the first smart thought you’ve had in months.” Melisande snorted. “Pity it had to happen now.” Her DIN flashed as she accessed the computer and transmitted the credentials from her plaque into it, receiving an acknowledgment of her authority a moment later. She sent a request for project security to come to Colonel Nguyen’s office immediately.

“Step away from the desk, plea—oh, come on.” Another lifter field knocked the pulse pistol out of Nguyen’s hand before it even cleared the holster. “Please. Let’s see what else you can add to the list of charges for your court martial. Maybe you’d like to try for smoking in a no-smoking office? Littering? Jaywalking? Spitting on the sidewalk?”

Nguyen stood there and glared at her, and was still in that posture when a Fused German Shepherd RIDE with a security armband entered the room. He glanced uncertainly at Melisande. “Ma’am? What is the situation here?”

“Sergeant, I have arrived to relieve Colonel Nguyen for gross incompetence, dereliction of duty, and possibly treason. If you want to verify my orders, here they are.” She offered the order plaque. “Please arrest him for dereliction of duty, insubordination, and—” she nodded at the gun on the floor “—attempted assault. I’ll beam the particulars over shortly.”

The RIDE peered at the plaque. “Seems genuine.” He detached a set of handcuffs from his belt. “Come along, sir. Sorry about this, but rules are rules.”

“I’ll—you—you haven’t heard the last of this!” Nguyen sputtered.

“That’s for sure. I won’t have heard the last of it until the court martial’s over.” Melisande snorted. “Take him away.”

As soon as the office was empty and the door closed behind them, Melisande walked around to the back of the desk, adjusted the chair for a large Integrate frame, and sank into it. And to think I only got a C in acting class back at Camelot U. She tossed her head, ears flopping around, and blew a long sighing snort that peppered the desk in front of her with equine snot. “Oops. Damn. Haven’t done that in a while.” She must be more shaken than she’d thought.

Melisande took a deep breath and tried to calm down. “Right. This job just got a whole lot bigger than advertised. Well, the fastest way to ‘done’ is through ‘begun,’ so let’s light this candle.” She pulled up the desk’s hardlight displays, linked in through her DIN, and got to work.

Separator k.png

April 20, 158 AL (Wednesday equivalent)
The Great Western, Wednesday orbit

The next few days were filled with frenetic activity as everyone rushed to get the Great Western ready to jump out to Zharus. Systems needed to be inspected and re-tested, supplies needed to be loaded, and paperwork had to be completed. After a couple of days, Isabella joined them, taking up residence in a stateroom aboard the Steadfast.

Joe made himself useful where he could, applying a little Steader elbow grease to the bureaucratic wheel here and there. He was a lot more familiar in Wednesday than his brother, and easily found his way through the simplistic (by Nextus standards) Woden Space Authority to smooth their departure. Once the Is were dotted and the Ts crossed, the Great Western and her older sister ship were ready to depart.

Joe spent his free time looking over the specs for the new ship. There were several puzzlers, so he decided to make a bother of himself and ask Seamus on the Engineering Deck. It was the only finished space on the great ship, and like most modern technology, was automated enough to only require a small crew of a few dozen to monitor and maintain the machinery. Many of them were Eridanite engineers, still making adjustments.

Joe buttonholed Seamus at the main drive console while Julius sniffed around the rest of the bay. “So, Seamus… how fast is she in subspace? The docs are kind of vague about it.”

“The entry nodes and Drive Rings are barely broken in yet, Joe. We don’t even know for certain yet. But it’s at least 55c, possibly over 60.”

“On one of her faster trips, fifteen years ago the Eastern made it between Ibn Rushd and Neorus at 70c. I’m sure this girl can do better than that.”

Dobbin nickered. “That would be telling.”

“And I’ll go ahead and tell him. We have some control over how fast we transit subspace. It’s an Eridanite trick they keep to themselves.”

Joe whistled. “That would be convenient, for sure. Especially if you were careful to stay at the slower end of the range until such time as you really needed the speed.”

“We can’t go too fast or we’ll outpace the escort ship you’re supposed to provide. If it’s the ship I’m thinking of, it’ll have to leave at least two weeks before the Western does even if we take our time.”

“I’m sure that can be arranged.” Seamus smiled equinely in Fuser. “We’re about five minutes from jump. Perhaps you’d like to throw the lever yourself?”

“If you’re willing to trust me not to throw it the wrong way and jump us back to Zheng He by mistake.”

Seamus chuckled. “I think we’ll take that risk.”

“So…how have the two of you been? I’ve heard about all the surgeries. You’ve been together a pretty long time.”

Dobbin nodded. “Ayup. Ever since you brought us together, back in the day.”

“I don’t know what I’d do without this old nag.”

Dobbin snorted. “Probably look a lot more handsome.”

“Eh, you saw me before we first Fused. I wasn’t exactly God’s gift to the ladies even then.”

“So, why haven’t you two Integrated, anyway? Any ideas?”

Seamus shrugged. “It’s not like there’s a timetable, is it? I’ve looked into it, and there’s no small number of long partnerships that just don’t. We’re just one of them, that’s all.”

Joe scratched his head. “Forgive me if this is too personal, but have you ever considered…having it done? One of the Circus Inties could probably…”

“We’ve considered it, but…” Seamus shrugged again. “We like being able to de-Fuse. An’ no guarantee the mental changes would be something we’re comfortable with.”

“If it ever gets to the point that the nanosurgeries aren’t effective on him anymore, or we’re in some kind a’ life-threatening accident-whatsit, then we’ll see.” Dobbin snorted. “For now, why borrow trouble?”

“Seems like a sensible philosophy.”

“It’d be kinda unhandy if we ended up feral.” Seamus grinned. “I have enough problems with that as it is.”

Joe chuckled. “Fair enough.”

The comm at the engineer’s station went live. “This is Captain Xun. Status update, please?”

Seamus tapped the comm panel. “All systems ready. Standing by for jump on your mark, Captain.”

“Very well. Please initiate jump when ready.”

“Aye, sir. Engaging jump in ten seconds from…mark.” Seamus grinned to Joe, and nodded to the lever. For all their high tech cybernetics and starships, the Eridanites still preferred physical controls where practical. “Nine…eight…seven…”

“Fuckin’ one already.” Julius reached up with his forepaw and pushed the lever forward. The engines’ thrum intensified, and for a moment the engine room was awash in brilliant white light. The thrum plateaued, and then the noise level in the engine room was back to normal.

“Er…jump entered successfully, Captain,” Seamus said. “Just…a little early.”

“Hey!” Joe smacked Julius on the head. “What have I told you about premature activation?”

Chapter 4

April 17, 158 AL

It took the better part of a day even to begin to get a handle on the logistical mess Nguyen had made of the preparations. It was nearly a catastrophe, and Melisande wasn’t certain if she could get everything back on schedule. By far the most important request that had come in on an unexpected message torpedo, double-underlined in red, was the need for hefty escort for the Great Western. A number of well-armed smaller craft were scheduled to be docked to her, but apparently some people felt it wouldn’t be enough.

Melisande called her assistant in fast-time. “Valerie, do we have a DINcom link to Xolotlan?”

“Not yet, but I think I we can feed one through home base on Zharus if it’s important enough.”

“It is. We need to talk to home base anyway. We’re going to need a crew to run the escort ship. The one we need is in mothballs. We need to pull strings as fast as possible.” The Integrate mare combed her mane back with her fingers. “If we can find her old Captain, that would be ideal. Public records say she retired to Cape Nord about six years ago.”

“Cape Nord? Really?” The ocelot blinked at her.

“Don’t ask me, kitty. I’ve never been there. Get the ball rolling, will you?”

“On it, boss-hoss.”

It was another day before Melisande felt she could relax and try to regain some equilibrium—and pointedly try not to think about what she’d just gotten herself into. But then, as she was lunching on an oat salad at her desk, the tracer she’d left for the mystery Integrates pinged. She jumped up again, grateful for the distraction. They hadn’t noticed her tracer, and it was closing in on their location. Half the dome eliminated…then half of that…then half of that…and so on.

She strode out of the office to where the sergeant was now doing more than just trying to look busy. He’d actually reduced the number of stacked tablets by about a third. Not a patch on what an Integrate like Valerie could have done, but still, a creditable effort for a human slacker. “Good work, Sergeant. Carry on. I’m stepping out for some air.”

The officer swallowed. “Uh…yes’m. Thank you, ma’am.”

“Now, where’s the armory? Oh…never mind, I have it.” She proceeded up the hall and opened the security door with a code she’d taken from the computer. Since the domes were expected to be peaceful, there wasn’t much in the way of weapons—and anything too powerful or long-ranged could lead to dome punctures and loss of pressure. But there were plenty of shorter-range weapons like plasma shotguns. It would have to do. As she made her selection and checked the weapon’s charge, her tracer locked in on the exact location of the Integrates—a warehouse on the other side of the dome. Good enough.

The dome was small enough that it only took a couple of minutes to get there via the cargo lanes. She cloaked as she approached the warehouse. No need to give herself away early, after all. She tried to ignore the way her heart was pounding as she approached. She’d had the basic self-defense courses Camelot offered, but she wasn’t a soldier. If these Integrates were…maybe she should call for backup? But there might not be time for that. Well, even if she didn’t confront them, she could at least see who they were.

The warehouse was almost completely empty—another element of the very same wrongness she’d seen coming in. All that cargo in the streets and in orbit, or at least a significant portion of it, should be filling this warehouse from floor to ceiling, waiting on the arrival of the ships for which it was destined. Instead, it only had a pair of Integrates in it, hunched over a comm at the other end of the room.

The two were an interesting pair, a female brown bear and a male pronghorn antelope. The project records identified them as Fran and Newlin. Apparently they had a history together. According to the project records, they had been scouted as a pair for their logistics expertise at a Xolotlan shipping company at the beginning of the project. They’d been shipped out right away, and had been here ever since.

Melisande wasn’t sure why, but at the sight of them she suddenly felt a deep and burning nausea, as if half her sarium batteries had just gone bad all at once. But they all reported perfectly fine—so what was the problem? She dropped into fast-time to puzzle it out. She’d never seen them before…had she? She ran a pattern search on her memories but came up empty. So why did she…?

No…surely not. It couldn’t be. But…Melisande removed the interlocks on a set of memories she didn’t often look at anymore—the first fragmentary memories of her life, before all her systems had fully Integrated and she’d been able to think clearly. Her birth moments, they’d been. The memories felt so wrong that they made her physically ill, but even so she’d been over them dozens of times to try to find any clues they might have to her past identities.

And…there they were. Blurry, but unmistakable. A bear, an antelope, leaning in and looking down at her. Lips moving, but no intelligible words and too distorted to lip-read. Although they hadn’t been clear enough to identify without candidates, there was no doubt when compared to the two Integrates actually present. It was them! Melisande couldn’t believe it. It was really them. She blocked off the memories again before doubling over, retching.

Fran perked up, muzzle in the air. “Hey…did you hear something?”

Newlin’s ears swiveled. “Dunno…maybe we better check?”

Melisande shrank back against the wall, cradling the shotgun in her arms. The nausea was passing quickly now that she knew its cause. She took a deep breath and let it out again as quietly as possible. The smart thing to do would be to call for backup, possibly to wait and confront them later. After all, she knew who they were, and it wasn’t as if they were going anywhere…

…unless they were considering running like their erstwhile boss Nguyen couldn’t, now that he was under arrest. And there was that little personal matter to consider. If these were the Candlejacks who’d Integrated her…they’d have to know who she had been, wouldn’t they? This could be her one chance to find the answers she’d been after for so long.

If they were responsible for the project being so far behind, it was her duty to bring them in. And if they had destroyed her life—both her lives—then it would also be her pleasure. Payback, she thought. At last.

She hefted the shotgun, threw up a hardlight shield…and charged.

Newlin was her first target. He’d be easier to take down, which would leave her with only one enemy to deal with. Three plasma pulses were going his way before she was even five meters into the warehouse. Of course, as an Integrate himself he was able to throw up a shield of his own in time, but the plasma blasts still drained its energy considerably. The third one rattled him. But by then Fran was moving to shield him.

Good enough. Melisande continued to fire, but also continued to accelerate, putting her shoulder down and throwing more power into her shield—as well as her lifters to add to her acceleration. She covered the distance across the warehouse floor in just over a second—just enough time for Fran to start to realize what she intended, but not enough to do anything about it before Melisande slammed straight into her, sending her staggering back into Newlin, then both her and Newlin slamming into the wall behind them. Their hardlight shields fizzled and collapsed under the pressure. Melisande slammed into the wall with them, of course, but a bear and an antelope provided plenty of padding to take the shock.

Melisande was back on her feet before either of them, and she covered them with the shotgun from just far enough away they couldn’t kick it out of her hands. “Don’t. You. Move,” she said coldly. “You bastards. Who am I?”

Fran rolled onto her back and groaned, gazing up at Melisande and her gun and spreading her hands. “I…I’ve never seen you before.”

“I’ve sure seen you.” Melisande knew she must look a sight right now. Gun shaking just a little in her hand, whites of her eyes showing, hardlight lenses flaring… “You’re the first thing in my life I do remember. Both of you. You did this to me…to us. Force-Integrated us. Wiped out all our memories. Now I want to know everything you can tell me about who we were.”

“Oh, noooo…” Newlin moaned. “Crap. It’s from those years, isn’t it?”

Fran bit her lip. “We…we don’t remember you. Honest.”

“Oh, come on. Integrates have perfect recall of everything that happened in their Integrated lives, if they want to.”

Newlin shook his head. “Not if they…erase it.”

Melisande tried to keep the gun from shaking any more than it was already. The eyes of bear and antelope followed the muzzle as it wavered. “You…what?

“We…well, we guess we erased all our memories from back then,” Newlin said quickly. “From when people tell us we…from when we must have been Candlejacks. Otherwise they’d have read it out at the trials.”

“We don’t even remember why we erased them,” Fran said. “It’s just…one big blank. We…kind of wish we hadn’t, now.”

“You expect me to believe that?” Melisande demanded. But inwardly, her heart sank. There had been news stories at the time, she remembered. Members of Fritz’s inner circle, even down to some nth-level subordinates who turned out to have missing memories of the things they’d supposedly done. It did make it harder to prove the crimes when they couldn’t read out those memories, not that this had necessarily availed them when plenty of other people had reliable memories of what they’d done.

Ironically, from the records, neither Fran nor Newlin had ever been arrested, much less tried for their part in Fritz’s reign. Apparently nobody they’d done over was still around by the time of the trials—or at least, nobody who cared enough to make a fuss over something that far in the past. They mutilated their own minds for nothing, Melisande reflected. I’ll bet that’s real easy to live with. At least my blank spots aren’t my own fault.

“It’s the truth! Really!” Newlin insisted.

“All right, fine.” Melisande tossed her head. “But there’s still the matter of you hacking into a protected computer system. I think you can give me some answers there, unless you’ve just erased your own memories of the last five months, too.”

Fran winced. “No, I…look, we can explain. We were just trying to…”

“Nguyen’s been running this project into the ground,” Newlin said. Melisande tried not to stare. He actually sounded indignant about it. “Our first real chance to get out of this system, and he’s treating it as his retirement account. We were…I dunno…trying to find some evidence we could use against him.”

“Or some way to get the word out,” Fran said. “He had all comm channels locked down. Helps keep the Press contained over at Lassie.”

“So you’re just poor little misunderstood sheep who’ve lost your way, huh?” Melisande snorted. “I’m supposed to believe that?

“Look,” Newlin said. “We know—by inference, at least—that we’ve done some things in the past we weren’t proud of. But…this was going to be our chance to make a new start. We figured we could slip away when we got to Totalia, make new lives for ourselves there. If we’re going to do that, why would we want to make it harder for that to happen?”

“If you’re the reason Nguyen just got arrested…well, we’re on the same side,” Fran said. “Look…we’ll give you root. You can scan our memories. We won’t hold anything back.”

“All right, fine. But if this is some kind of trick…”

“It’s not. Honest.” Newlin shook his head. “And if after that you want us to hibernate until we can be brought up for trial…well, we will.”

Melisande sighed, and took possession of the proffered root keys. She put both Integrates into hibernation for the moment, then slung the shotgun and went into their minds to scan their memories. It was just as they’d said, on both counts. They’d come to Cerberus in the hope of making a new future for themselves together…and been upset when Nguyen was doing nothing to move the project forward. They’d tried to get word out, but the comm lines were blocked—and enough of the people in authority were in on Nguyen’s scheme, or at least benefiting passively from it, that it was hard to tell who to trust. They’d obviously all been sending false reports. Well, horse puckey. It looks like I’ll need a bigger broom.

And as for the other matter…they both had gaps of several years, starting right after they’d each met Fritz and ending some time after they’d moved into Towers Enclave together. The blank period neatly overlapped the time of her own birth. There was something else weird about it, but Melisande couldn’t quite put her finger on it.

Then she had it. She woke them back up again. “Your missing memories…they include the time when you two must have first met. As far as you know, you met each other for the first time when they start up again in Towers.”

Newlin nodded sadly. “Yeah. They do.”

“Then why are you…why did you stay together after that?”

Fran shrugged. “We looked at all the stuff in the room that had both of us in it and figured out we must have loved each other.” She smiled softly. “So we spent some more time around each other and figured out why.”

“We keep hoping that we were smart enough to set up a time-capsule email with the missing stuff in it,” Newlin said. “But we just don’t know. If we’d allowed ourselves to know, it would have defeated the purpose of erasing it all.”

“If we did, it probably would have been set for years ahead,” Fran said, eyes downcast. “We wouldn’t have had any way of knowing what kind of a witch hunt there’d be.”

“So we can’t wait around for it. We’ve set our mail accounts to store and forward, so we’ll get it wherever we are if it comes.”

“And so here you are. Great.” Melisande glared at them, but somehow she couldn’t find it in herself to be more than irritated. After all, when you got right down to it, she was still the same person she’d always been. Even knowing a name wouldn’t have magically unlocked those missing memories. And you’re the only one that you’ll ever be. “It doesn’t mean you’re any less responsible for what happened to me. But…holding a grudge won’t get me any answers.”

“For what it’s worth, if we ever do get them back…we’ll tell you anything we can remember,” Newlin offered.

“Damned right you will,” Melisande growled. “But for now…I’m going to need some assistants to help me get this program back on track. Given you’re about the only people I know for sure I can trust right now, it looks like you’re elected.”

Fran got slowly back to her feet, then helped Newlin up. “We won’t let you down.”

“See that you don’t. Your first job is to give me a speedy audit of what we have and what we lack. Report to me at Nguyen’s ex-office when you’re done. I’m in the process of cleaning house, but it’s going to take a while.”

Melisande sighed as she left them in the warehouse. Who’d have thought the people who forcibly Integrated me would be the only ones I could really trust? Of course, given the excision of their memories, it was arguable that they weren’t really the same people anymore…and they might revert to being those other, less likable people if they got those memories back. Though this led her in turn to wonder whether she’d be a fundamentally different person if she got her own memories back, and if so, did she really want to…and that was a rabbit hole she’d been down often enough over the years to realize it led nowhere in the end.

She tossed her head and cracked her knuckles. “Right. Well, let’s get this show on the road. First order of business…find more cargo ships from somewhere…”

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May 2, 158 AL
Pluto Dome, Cerberus

They had plenty of warning the ship was coming. Given its size, the first ghostly pre-images showed up hours ahead of time. For all of that, Melisande had the urge to throw up her hands and cry, “Wait! Wait! I’m not ready!” But then, that was how she’d felt pretty much continuously over the last couple of weeks. At least we’re more ready than we would have been.

Finding three more industrial core ships in the space of a few weeks had made her pull her mane out a few times. They had to meet minimum haulage specs and their crews needed thorough background checking. One had had to be pulled out of mothballs from the Xolotlan Boneyard and a crew put together from scratch. Fortunately, by that time Melisande had been able to call in favors from Halley and its daughter Enclaves, and several dozen seasoned Intie spacers had shown up to help. And Valerie’s arrival via the Rangers’ fastest available ship had been another lifesaver.

At the same time, the ZNS Rickenbacker had also been pulled from mothballs, and against all odds Valerie had managed to dig up her former captain after all. Melisande had been too busy (and a trifle too timid) to ask for the whole story, but as she understood it the woman had “retired” to Cape Nord for some masculine pampering after a very stressful last tour. Melisande didn’t know exactly how Zane had cajoled or coerced her into returning, but she had—and had brought her Nordie he-man with her. Given what she’d heard about Cape Nord, Melisande wondered if their relationship would survive the trip—but Captain Souza was a professional, so she had little doubt the Rickenbacker would.

Now, the Great Western herself was arriving, en route to the Colossus-Rhodes Shipyards for as much fitting out as they could manage in a few weeks, before leaving again for “further FTL shakedown”. The timing was going to be tight, but she’d seen Intie spacers assemble habs in one quarter the time they were “supposed” to take, and the Shipyard Spacers were supposedly just as skilled, and eager to show up other builders. Considering they’d been literally waiting years to get this job done, she had little doubt they were ready for the Great Western’s build.

As for the rest, they were falling behind. She was still trying to figure out how to configure the cargo manifest to match the mission specs that kept changing every time someone on planet had a bright idea. Finding and building enough ships to slap onto and into the Western to carry the people and cargo was their responsibility—or, more accurately, her responsibility.

The latest bright idea, a joint proposal from NuJose and Punta Sur representatives, was a genebank. The idea was valid enough, and the Spacers had dozens of genebanks cached around the system ‘just in case’, so grabbing one was easy enough and would normally fit in easily anywhere on board. But the planetary council had bigger plans. They wanted something to show the Totalians more than a freezer of frozen flora and fauna. They had designed a multizone space where a variety of garden biomes could be set up to give the Totalians some living gifts right off the bat.

She skimmed the specs and realized whoever had put it together had a couple of brain cells at least; the biomes and supporting structures would exactly fit within one of the already-built Big Top landers with a little room to spare. NuJose’s ‘contribution’ was an EI to watch over it; the module would be completely self-contained once built. Melisande’s problem was figuring out where to put all the rest of the highly important supplies and people this ark project was displacing.

And then there had been that message torpedo from the Clementine, including, of all things, a list of personality quiz results from crewmembers of a Totalian space cruiser and asking for best-match RIDEs for all of them. Fortunately, this was another thing she didn’t have to worry about personally. Valerie just grinned at her and said, “On it, boss-hoss,” and that was that. Melisande wondered how she had enough brain to handle it all. Valerie had said something about “thinking in parallel” once, but hadn’t ever explained it further. I wish I had three more of her.

The mare sighed and scrolled up the listing of more than two dozen different ships, cargo module manifests, and personnel that would be attached to her for the journey. Her DIN winked as she sent the list to Fran over in the quartermaster’s office, with a query attached as to the status of all the parts and pieces, along with the authorization to start the Ark module project.

For all their efforts, there was still a decent amount of cargo in orbit; secret stuff and important stuff that had to be kept out here, supplies to support the people waiting around Cerberus, and stuff that had been sent out before someone realized the Western had to go to the shipyards before stopping at Cerberus. Perhaps if they could locate the right bits up there, they could send them directly to the Western when she returned without having to land them first. Meanwhile, they could see about pulling in and stowing all the supplies meant for the base rather than ships in orbit.

Melisande groaned as an all-too-familiar ping came in from the Ranger Science Ship Heart of Gold. Golden Heartburn, more like. “Yes, Dr. Z-B. What is it now?”

“We insist for the sake of Science! on witnessing the arrival of the Great Western in person,” Zaphod said. “That vessel has the newest version of the Eridanite FTL drive—”

“And notarizing it, too!” his other head interrupted.

“Don’t be ridiculous, you don’t notarize ship arrivals…”

“Well, if you witness them…”

“No, no…that’s not it. I mean, since when are you a notary public?”

“I took a correspondence course.”

Melisande still wasn’t sure how much of the patter was Integrate meme infection and how much of it was calculated to annoy everyone they came in contact with into leaving them alone as much as possible. Either way, it was certainly working. “All right, fine. Just stay out of the way—and out of the marked danger areas, too.” It was probably uncharitable for her to want to suggest that the danger areas were likely to be the very best spot for witnessing the arrival. Of course, they’d probably think that anyway. “You can follow it in to Rhodes and then go help with re-tuning the Rickenbacker’s forward nodes.”

“Re-tuning forward nodes? Do we look like mechanics?”

“Would you have Einstein re-tune forward nodes? Would you have Stephen Hawking do it?”

“Einstein and Stephen Hawking don’t want to come along to Totalia with the rest of us,” Melisande deadpanned. “Any Integrate scientists in the area who would like to see a new star system, and get their paws on two new meta-materials, should probably consider making themselves as useful as they possibly can. I’m just saying…”

There was a long period of silence. Then, “That’s dirty pool, you know.”

“Effective, though.”

“…yes. Yes, it is. Very well, Melisande. We will assist in fine-tuning your blasted forward nodes.”

“Who knows, perhaps we can coax an additional few percentage points out of them with those new experimental modifications we were working on for Goldie’s future FTL retrofit. We hadn’t considered applying them to normal ships…”

“Yeeeees. We could do that. It would be a marvelous opportunity…for Science!

Melisande cleared her throat. “We need to make sure the carrier can keep pace with the Western in subspace—” and doesn’t implode or something, she added with a silent prayer to whatever powers might be listening “—so I’m counting on your FTL drive expertise. Science away, gentlemen.” And please, please stop talking to me.

It wasn’t all bad news. For a few minutes, now and then, Melisande allowed herself to relax and take pleasure in her accomplishments. In fast-time, those minutes stretched to hours, which was useful for playing Nature Range. “Kill me, please,” Melisande would moan to Valerie on particularly stressful days. And so she would, upgrading her ocelot body to a leopard or lioness in order to be able to take down a full-sized horse. But it didn’t help, because the work would still be waiting when they both got back to the real world.

But in her more cheerful moments, Melisande could at least take heart that things had improved considerably around the dome. The most corrupt officers had been shipped back to Zharus for disciplinary action, and replaced by better ones. The others had seen which way the wind was blowing and gotten their acts together. Even Corporal Ratliff was now standing at attention and saluting properly, rather than slacking. The sergeant who had formerly manned Valerie’s desk had sobered up and was now happily driving a forklift. Miracles never cease.

Melisande arranged to be in Pluto’s flight control center when the Great Western finally materialized for real. It was a frankly impressive sight even on the monitors, and Melisande regretted she couldn’t have been on one of the ships out watching it directly. Even if it had to be—she suppressed a shudder—the Heart of Gold. But there was just too much to do to be that far away from the office, even with DINcom.

It started with a shimmering in the area where the pre-echoes had appeared, and a brightening of the general area of space. The brightness took on the colors of the ship, and then the shape and definition. At first gradually, then suddenly, an immense starship was there.

A comm signal came through the same DINcom link that was relaying the imagery. “Great Western to Cerberus base. The Eagle has…uh…materialized.”

A woman’s voice. “Joe, get off the mic.”

Melisande laughed. “Great Western, this is Pluto Dome Control. Boy are we glad to see you. We were starting to worry we’d been stood up. We’re beaming over the latest cargo manifests and mission updates for your consideration, as well as berthing information for Colossus-Rhodes. The Rangers precleared your arrival in system. Your route is clear, so you can make for the shipyard at your best possible speed.”

“Captain Xun here. We are receiving, Control. No time to waste at this point—we’re already on our way. I’m sending our final haulage specs. We’ll work up an on-loading plan and have it ready within ten hours so you can start moving everything into position for when we hit you on the rebound. At this point we don’t know how long it will be before we do get back your way, but no reason to waste any time.”

“Great! We’ll be ready for it.” Melisande closed the link and headed back to her office. There was still so much more to do!

Melisande supposed she shouldn’t have been surprised to find a small entourage waiting at her office the next day, composed almost entirely of Steaders. Not needing to accompany the Great Western to the shipyards, the Steadfast had detached and proceeded to land at Pluto Dome. Now that the local day shift had started, here they all were. The large tawny jaguar RIDE politely sniffed at her as she passed to walk to the door.

“I was told you were in charge here?” Joe Steader asked politely. “When I left, I gathered I’d be reporting to Colonel Nguyen.”

“The good Colonel is on vacation for the next five to ten,” Melisande said as she unlocked her office door. “For my sins, I’m in charge of this mess.”

“What sins might those be?” That was the borged-out Eridani with Joe—Mikel Steader, she guessed.

“Mainly, the sin of kicking his no-good ass to the curb and taking over so something would actually get done around here.”

“Well, this is a horse of a different color,” Joe said.

The Terran-military-uniformed woman with him smacked him, and Quinoa Steader groaned. “Uncle Joooooe…”

“Don’t make me fuckin’ bite you,” the jaguar grumbled.

“Sorry, force of habit.” Joe grinned. “Well…anyway, we figured it would be better to keep out of Seamus and Captain Xun’s hair while they hammer the Western into shape, so we thought we might as well try to make ourselves useful here. Get our orders straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were.”

The jaguar growled at Joe. “I will fuckin’ bite you. Don’t think I won’t.”

Joe ignored him and continued. “My brother’s very good with figures, Isabella—this is Isabella Brunel, by the way—used to run the biggest circus in the galaxy, Colonel Gates has some logistical and command experience, as well as being in on the planning stages of the expedition proper, and Quinoa and I are…good at talking to people, I guess.”

Melisande snorted. “Circus, huh? You might be more qualified for this job than I am.” She shook her head. “If you talk to my executive assistant, Valerie, she’ll probably have some good spots where skilled volunteers would be a help. As for you, Joe and Quinoa, I’m thinking maybe you could head over to Scooby and play PR for some of the press? Give them something to take their minds off things; they’ve been penned up long enough to start going stir crazy.”

Joe grinned. “I know how that is. I’ll be glad to give ‘em a little of the old Steader soft-shoe.”

The jaguar snorted. “Stepped-in-something-soft shoe, you mean.”

“And I’ll be glad to help.” Quinoa smiled. “I’m sure a few of them would still love to have a chat with the Integrate who was crazy enough to dive from the top of the Alohavator.”

“She gets that from your side, you know,” Isabella said to Mikel.

The ‘borg raised a hand. “I wouldn’t dream of disputing it.”

Melisande cocked her ears forward. “And you’re sure you want to help out, rather than going off to tour Colossus or something while the rest of us finish up?”

“I’ve done enough of that kind of thing in my life,” Joe said. “Everyone else is doing their best, so how can I do any less? This isn’t the time for horsing around.”

Quinoa groaned. “Uncle Joe…”

“Sorry, sorry. Ow! Julius!”

“I fuckin’ warned ya.”

Chapter 5

May 5, 158 AL

Colossus-Rhodes shipyards were set up at the L2 point of the gas giant-moon system on the far side of the moon. From Rhode’s dark side, it wasn’t much to look at, a few glittering satellites and habitats sparkling in the darkness.

Closer up, the scale of the shipyard was more obvious. Huge frameworks, tens of kilometres long floated in space. They mainly provided a place for stuff to be kept until it was needed. They also helped provide orientation guides in space. At the moment, a half dozen scaffolds were set up around the Great Western, three at each long edge of the prism, and three more gathered over the Side A. The King of Hearts had already disconnected from the ship and was docked on the Alpha Frame.

On board the King, Captain Xun, Overengineers Seamus and Dobbin and the rest of the command staff watched the work start with the anxiety of expectant parents. They were joined by the Shipyard’s Chief Overseer, a heavily borged out Spacer named John Masters.

“Side A disconnection complete. Pulling it free now,” the Overseer said, sounding calm and unaffected by the tenseness on the bridge. For the crew of the Great Western, it was the start of the next phase of the ship’s construction. For the Overseer, it was simply a Tuesday.

Out in space, the Alpha Frame was connected to the A-Face of the ship. Thrusters fired, pulling the frame and face away from the rest of the Western, revealing the dark interior of the great ship.

Once the face was far enough away, dozens of thrusters lit up on the Beta and Gamma frames on either side. Modules that looked tiny against the big frames, but were actually as wide as the faces of the Western detached and flew towards the ship.

The Chief Overseer turned to the Western’s crew. “Everything is looking good so far. Measurements match up as expected. First stage is building the decks around the midship reactors.”

“No more catwalks over bottomless chasms,” Dobbin noted.

John nodded, a smile showing on the hardlight face he projected inside his helmet. “Exactly. After that, we’ll start slotting in the rest of the modules. If you wish to change the order, please let me know within the hour. I understand a quarter of them are still undefined?”

“That isn’t changing, we don’t have time to change them. So we’ll just load blanks in, and when we figure out something to do with them, we’ll update them. For now, they’ll probably just be bulk storage anyway,” Captain Xun said. “We’ll cluster most of them in the forward third.”

“The Bridge we’ll put midship, with the secondary flight deck in the forward third as well. Main engineering is in the aft and can also serve as a flight deck if needed, so everything’s balanced,” Seamus said.

“Right. I understand you don’t want the bridges fully activated yet?”

“Not yet. We don’t have time to do the full shakedown. Hook everything up so we can use it as a backup if the King has to detach, but the King will remain as the effective bridge most of the time. How long will it take?” Xun asked.

The Overseer looked away a moment. “We understand you want to be going out again as soon as possible, so we’re working around the clock with all teams on deck. All of the interior modules should be in place by next week. We’ll have the Side A hull replaced in a few days, and then three weeks or so to finish all the internal hookups and systems integration testing. We’re putting priority on offensive and defensive systems, per your request.”

Seamus looked at the view outside, and tried not to look too impressed. “Great work as always. It’ll be good to see her filled up and complete.”

“A ship such as she is never truly complete, not until the day she is decommissioned. But she will be ready enough for her mission when we are done.”

Captain Xun shook the Overseer’s hand. “Thank you. Let Seamus know if there are any wrinkles we can help smooth out, or any schedule slippages. If you’ll excuse me, I have another meeting to attend.”

“Of course. I will remain on the King to coordinate.”

Xun paused, “One quick question. How experienced are you with EIs? How difficult would it be to integrate one into our systems?”

“Fairly trivial, for the Western’s controls. It’s a common adaptation for our modern designs, so we plan for them from the start. Even for the King, we could do the retrofit within a few days. Do you have an Intelligence in mind?”

“We may have some candidates that I’m considering. If we pick one, or some, we’ll send them your way.”

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May 15, 158 AL

Captain Xun barely had time to sit down in his office, when the door chimed. A window opened on the door, showing the guest. He was an android, with a much more human appearance than the shipyard’s Overseer, but Xun knew this body held no human mind. The man was dressed in a simple civilian suit—slightly overdressed for the circus, but not too much.

Xun stood and tugged on his own shirt and glanced down. His desk was crowded with tablets and the remains of breakfast, but there was no time to straighten it up. He mentally kicked himself for his own procrastination, and shoved the dirty plate and glass into a drawer. “Enter!” he called out.

The android walked in, looking around briefly before settling his optics on the Captain. He approached the desk and offered his hand. “Greetings, Captain Xun. I am Astrogon.”

“Hello Astrogon, welcome aboard. Please, have a seat,” Xun said after shaking the hand. When both were seated, he started. “I’ve read your records, and I’ve been reading up on EIs. You do seem very capable.”

“I have been simming in Space since I was a sprout. I am also licensed as a pilot for Zharus and Colossus space. I am fully versed on FTL theory, and modern space combat techniques, as well as a few new strategies I’ve developed based on the Western’s specs.”

“I see. And you want to offer yourself as an EI for the Great Western. Why? Why do you want to run off to the circus like this?”

Astrogon clasped his hands on his lap and took a carefully timed moment. “I don’t know how familiar with EIs you are, but my brethren tend to have a greater multitasking ability than our RIDE cousins. We enjoy helping large projects run more smoothly. That is why we’re showing up in so many places around the system.

“When I came online, and was able to decide on my own dreams; the Stars were one of those dreams. FTL ships are still off limits to us, but I quickly realized the loophole. The Circus has long been on the bleeding edge of technology for all of the colonies. The Great Western would be an ideal place for me to reach my dreams, and for you to continue the Circus tradition.”

Xun crossed his legs and leaned back, contemplating Astrogon’s proposal. “It is intriguing. But are you up to the task? The Western is a big ship, and her first cycle is going to be extraordinary.”

“I have been briefed on the Totalia mission. If you do not accept me for the Western, I am ready to travel with you in my current shell, or other appropriate shells if needed.

“As for my capabilities, I am a quick learner and a quicker adapter. It will be easiest if I’m involved from the beginning, so that I may get used to the capabilities as quickly as possible.”

“I don’t know,” Xun said. “Putting a novice in charge of that much power, in an untested frame.”

“I will be subordinate to you, of course. And manual controls will still function. I’ll just be another set of eyes and hands, ready to follow your orders.”

“I see.” Xun frowned. “Before I can give you a final decision, I believe you should present your proposal to Seamus Odell and Dobbin, our OverEngineers. By rights, they should be involved in this decision as well.”

“Of course. It would not be proper otherwise. Do you wish me to contact them?”

“I’ll call them in shortly. But first…you said you’ve simmed some battle strategies for the Western? Let’s go into Sim space and take a look, see what you’ve come up with.” Xun closed his eyes and sent an invitation to the EI. Astrogon joined him in a simulation of the Western’s bridge in FTL mode.

Xun sat down in his chair in the middle of the bridge and nodded to the android. “First test, coming out into the Kepler system from FTL. You have the controls. Let’s see what you can do.”

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July 1, 158 AL.
Fleet Launch: T-50 Days

“Mmm.” Of the two lumps under the covers, the smaller one on the left shifted position first, purring contentedly.

“Mmm.” Now it was the right one’s turn.

Mmm,” both voices said in harmony. One arm from each of them pushed the covers down, revealing a human woman with lynx ears and nose cuddled up against a furry tiger-man.

“Morning,” Rhianna murmured.

“Mmm,” Zane said, licking the back of Rhianna’s ear. “Morning. Big day today.”

“Yeah. Guess we should get up.” Rhianna yawned, ear twitching. “Eventually.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

Neither of them seemed particularly inclined to want to move. They yawned some more, and snuggled into each other’s arms a while longer. But wakefulness gradually worked its way in, along with random thoughts that had gone through their minds in days before. “Zane?” Rhianna said drowsily. “You think you’ll ever learn to shapeshift, like Maddie?”

“Eh…someday, maybe.” Zane shrugged. “I can’t say it wouldn’t be fun to kiss you with human lips, but…for now, I kinda painted myself into a corner, really.”


“Yeah…as I’ve been telling you all over and over again every time this comes up, the whole Integrate Rights movement was based on, ‘Hey, we can’t help looking like this, accept us as we are.’ And if I, the poster boy for the movement, suddenly go, ‘Oops, I tell a lie. We can help looking like this after all!’ then how’s that gonna look?” He chuckled. “Besides, we sibs were always a bit competitive. I think it’s best to let Maddie enjoy being unique in the family for a while. Don’t want her to think I’m a copycat.”

“You always have to be so reasonable…”

Zane grinned. “Hey, what can I say? I gotta be me.” He grinned. “You think you’ll ever go back to being a guy?”

“To be frank, I can’t imagine not being Kaylee’s partner,” Rhianna admitted. She nodded toward the lynx, who slumbered in passive mode in the charger at the other end of the room. “I’m not going to say never, and Kay knows that, but…” She shrugged. “Then you’d have to learn ‘shifting. I know, I know. ‘People, not plumbing’, but…”

“We can discuss that if it ever happens.” Zane closed his eyes and smiled. “So…I guess we should go down and meet your folks now.”

“And I should put on something a bit more covering than this chemise.” Rhianna smiled cutely, then purred before getting out of bed and stretching. “Wake up, Kay. Time to change the world.”

The lynx opened her eyes and affected a yawn. “Mornin’. Sleep well, for whatever value’f ‘sleeping’ you did?”

“We’re…rested,” Zane said. He yawned, himself, then rezzed some casual clothes. “And I’m dressed.”

“Cheater,” Rhianna teased. She took off her chemise and tossed it so it woud land over Zane’s head, then quickly dressed in her regular Rosie the Riveter style. There would be time later for more fancy clothes for the press conference. “Shall we?”

Zane held out a hand, and the Zane Cane drifted across the room into it. He offered the other arm to Rhianna. “Let’s do.”

They met Rhianna’s grandparents in Bea’s Breakfast Nook. The couple had already occupied their usual table, in a corner by the window. Over the last few months, they’d become something of a fixture at the place, given that the food was good and they could amply afford it. Grace and Darby Gill Stone were Rhianna’s father’s parents, academics from Earth with long experience in administration and the sciences.

She would be tapping that experience while she and Zane went on their year-long private “interstellar cruise”.

“Good morning, honey,” Grace said, standing up to greet them. “Zane.”

“Ma’am,” Zane said.

“Hi Grans, Gramps.” Rhianna gave Grace a hug, then slid into the seats across from them with Zane. Pamela came by and offered menus, but Rhianna hardly needed them by now. “We’ll just have our usuals.”

People like Grace and Darby were the reason why there was a market for organs on Earth. Rhianna doubted there was much in the way of original equipment on them besides their skull and brain. Earth had had perfect zero-rejection organ transplantation for almost three centuries, and only the cost of cybernetics had gone down faster in the last hundred years.

Apart from similar tastes in academe and entertainment, Grace and Darby had also shared a disdain for cybernetic enhancements not uncommon in their generation. When body parts had given out, due to ill health or accident, they had spent the extra cash to replace them with transplants instead. That they were effectively chimeras wasn’t generally obvious when they had clothes on, apart from one of Darby’s hands being a different skin color than the other one, but the cryo techs who’d overseen their awakening had gotten a surprise.

Darby nodded to her. “Looking forward to the big day?”

“I’m no Steve Jobs, but I think I’ve got it covered. This isn’t the first time I’ve released something like this.”

“So we’ve heard,” Grace said. “You know, we’re very proud of you, even if you did give us quite a shock at first.”

Darby chuckled. “Good thing our tickers are about fifty years younger than the rest of us.”

Some of the rest of you,” Rhianna retorted.

“A point of fact, yes,” Grace said crisply, dabbing the corners of her mouth with a napkin. “But today of all days, we should avoid argument. Especially in public like this.”

The waitress started bringing out breakfast plates, which provided a nice way to defuse a traditionally divisive issue for the family. The arguments between Socah and Grace were the stuff of legend. The argument had resumed with the same heat once Socah had revealed she hadn’t gotten an organic body. And Rhianna had always been a little closer to Socah than to her other grandparents.

But for all their faults, there was nobody else Rhianna trusted to run the new communication hardware company in her absence.

“So, what did you decide to name the company?” Darby asked. “I recall you were making your final decision last night with your business partners.”

“Well, we decided against any kind of fruit,” Kaylee said.

“Doesn’t seem right to name it after just me, or even just me and Shelley, since it was a team effort. We considered something taking from all four of our names, like RKRU, or RhiKayShelUn, but it just looked either inscrutable or silly.” Rhianna shook her head. “If I’d known it would be this much trouble coming up with a name for the company, I don’t know if I’d have invented the darned things.”

“So, we’re stickin’ with Freeriders,” Kaylee said. “An’ sticken ‘Comtech’ on the end. Freeriders Comtech.”

Zane nodded, cutting into his breakfast steak. “Good plan. You’ve built up a lot of brand equity in that name, so why not use it?”

“’Brand equity’? Really?” Kaylee wrinkled her nose and sneezed expressively. “Save us from marketroids and bean counters.”

“Hey, every field has its jargon.” Zane grinned. “Anyway, I’d think RIDEs would be very good at counting beans, or anything else.”

Rhianna laughed. “I think we’re all going to need to learn to count some beans. And I’m really glad we’ve got an expert on that kind of thing so close to hand.”

“Yeah, me too,” Zane said. “I don’t know what I’d do without Aggie around either.”

Rhianna rolled her eyes. “Yuk it up, tiger boy. I know where you sleep.”

Zane grinned. “Because you often sleep there, too?”

“Well, yeah.” Rhianna reached over to put her hand on his. “Really looking forward to the cruise.”

“I know. Me too.”

Darby sipped his coffee, and regarded them over the mug. “Seems like odd timing to go on an extended pleasure cruise right after launching your business.”

“Well, it’s not exactly a ‘pleasure cruise,’” Rhianna said. “The main goal is to do some DINcom testing in the field. Far afield. I’m still trying to figure out why it won’t survive an FTL trip.”

“But since we’re going that far out anyway, we figured why not pop in at a few ports a’ call an’ such,” Kaylee added. “Do some a’ what stripey there would probably call ‘market research.’ Fab and hand-carry samples to peeps who might want to license ‘em. After all, we’re gonna be selling ‘em more places than just here.”

“And if we can enjoy ourselves a little along the way, why not?” Zane said. “Multiple birds, single stone.”

“Even so, we would have put it off a few more months, but…” Rhianna shrugged. “Sometimes things just happen and you have to change your plans.” She felt a little guilty that Grans and Gramps weren’t cleared for knowledge of the true nature of the mission, while Nana Socah was, but Socah was helping with the prep and coming along. All things considered, her other grandparents didn’t really need to know more than the “space cruise” cover story—though she imagined she’d have some apologizing to do once the facts of the matter finally came out.

Grace gave Zane one of her appraising looks, as she frequently had since they’d met. Dr. Grace Stone didn’t hold much with cybernetics in general, but the technorganic Integrates were something entirely different. Zane smiled back pleasantly, or at least as pleasantly as a two-meter-plus humanoid tiger with a maw full of pointy teeth could.

“You’ll take good care of our granddaughter, of course,” Grace said.

Zane nodded. “Believe me, there’s nothing else I’d rather do.”

Rhianna rolled her eyes. “Graaaans…”

“So, Grace and I are pondering ways we can show we’ve ‘gone native’,” Darby said. “Being such fresh arrivals.”

“You could always pair up with a couple of RIDEs,” Zane suggested. “Lot of Earth folk have too much metal to do that as soon as they land, but that won’t be a problem for you two.”

“Says the man whose family used to be dead-set against us,” Kaylee put in.

Zane grinned. “That just shows how awesome you-all are.”

Rhianna considered. “If you should want to, I’d be happy to help you find some you could get along with. There might even be some at the museum you’d like to talk to.” She shrugged. “That being said, you should only do it if you want to, not because you feel like you ought to.”

“Oh, we have something else in mind, young lady,” Darby said, winking. “You could say you gave us the idea.”

Rhianna’s eyes widened. “Wha…no! You’re not…you are!”

“We had arranged for a deep cellular regeneration at the clinic with Eleven. So we decided, why not do the old switcheroo at the same time, since it’s so much easier than back on Earth?” Darby said. “Can’t let you youngsters have all the fun.”

“But…” Rhianna stammered. “I just can’t imagine…I mean, Nana’s going to…oh.”

Grace smiled. “I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit tweaking Socah a little was a consideration.”

“Granted, we did ponder partnering with one of your RIDEs,” Darby said. “But to be honest we’re not really there yet. No offense meant. We’re simply uncomfortable with how closely they delve into memories as part of the Fuse process.”

“You can lock that out,” Kaylee said. “But, I think I understand.”

“We’re old. There are some things we’d like to forget,” Darby said. He tapped his temple. “Having someone digging in here could be uncomfortable for both.”

“You might just find you have that in common with some of the bunch at the museum,” Kaylee said. “They’re old, too, as we count it…and as war vets, lot of them also have some things they’d like to forget.”

“Huh.” Rhianna puzzled over the idea that her grandparents would balk at a little mind-to-mind contact while thinking nothing of altering the structures of their entire bodies. I guess everyone has their own comfort zones. “Well, I hope you’ll be happy that way.”

“We have you and Ivy as examples,” Darby said. “The well-adjusted young women you are.”

“That’s true. But this is one hell of a new trick for you old dogs to learn.” Rhianna tried, and failed, to imagine old Darby as a woman and Grace as a man. Her brain just couldn’t call up the imagery. Between this and her younger cousin Raynor’s parents pressuring him to crossride… :Just what have I started, Kay?:

:A new family tradition?: Kaylee teased.

“But learn we will,” Grace said firmly. She grasped her husband’s hand in much the way Zane had held Rhianna’s. “Now, enough about us old fuddy-duddies. Let’s finish our breakfast. Big day today.”

The RIDE museum on the Brubeck campus was considerably more full than usual. All the RIDE inhabitants were on their pedestals to leave floor space for the invited guests and human members of the press. There were also enough press drones floating near the ceiling to make it look like there was a mass balloon release planned.

“It’s a little odd we’re doing this announcement thing in museums, isn’t it?” Uncia said. The presentation would be holocast in realtime all over the planet, and via the very thing being announced, to all of the major habitats and colonies across the Pharos system.

“I think it’s perfect,” Rochelle said. “What better time to make sure we remember the lessons of the past?”

“Plus the first versions of this tech are already on display here,” Rhianna said. “How are the long-range connections looking, Kay?”

“Good all the way to Xolotlan, Rhi,” the lynx mecha reported. “This is going to blow ‘em away.”

In addition to themselves, there were others who had worked on the project and helped proved beyond the shadow of a doubt it was what they thought it was. Dr. Rose deHavilland, a highly respected figure in subspace physics and FTL research, would explain how it worked to the audience in layman’s terms. Speaking for the Marshals was the Qube, Reed Mosley himself, to give testimonial of the last two years they’d spent beta testing the hardware.

After the main presentation the media would be allowed access to various transceivers to verify that it worked, and demonstrator comm gear would be sent home with them to test to their satisfaction and review. They’d made sure that Xolotlan had a big bank of DINcom transceivers prepped and ready for some extended demonstrations.

Rhianna cleared her throat. “Well…let’s get this show on the road.” She stepped up to the podium. “Ladies and gentlemen, organic, inorganic, and in-between. Thank you all for coming out today. You’ve all heard a lot of crazy rumors about what we’ve been working on the last little while. Today, you’ll get the truth.”

“Which is actually crazier than some’v the rumors,” Kaylee put in. “You tabloids are really gonna have to start working a little harder.”

“Now, a little story. Nearly two years ago many of you had gathered on the Brubeck Mining main platform for its restarting. On that same date, Kaylee and I made a chance discovery.”

“Y’all recall just how furiously everyone was updating the DINsec hardware we’d released to the public domain,” Kaylee said. “We were lookin’ over some a’ the ones in the rig, an’ we found some that were actually working better than they shoulda. So we checked to find out why, one thing led to another, and here we all are.”

“Science more frequently goes ‘hey, that’s funny’ than has Eureka moments,” Rochelle said.

“Exactly, Shelley,” Rhianna said. On the wall screen behind them a series of historical images displayed, starting with the first commercial transistors, the Altair 8800, the iPad, the D-Wave quantum computer, progressing further through various firsts. Locally, sarium batteries, spherical RI cores, and their cubical EI variants. “Now, one thing to keep in mind here is that this will be the first commercial product of this technology, much like you see behind me. It will get better. But we think you’ll still be amazed at what we have now.”

Rhianna held out her arms so Kaylee could Fuse, and Uncia did the same with Rochelle. As the hardlight image of the DINcom 1.0 transceiver materialized overhead, all four spoke together. “We give you, DINcom. The first viable Faster-Than-Light communicator.”

The auditorium went silent while the specs and evidence were forwarded to various media and scientific institutions. No doubt Integrates, EIs, and RIs were looking at the documents from every angle, several times, at extremely fast time compression. A second later, the room erupted with skeptical shouts and gaping mouths.

“You’ve all been given access to the system-wide FTL network we’ve established so you can verify our claims,” Rhianna said.

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” Uncia added. “Say hello to Xolotlan in realtime.” She gestured at the screen behind them and brought up the stunned press room of the space habitat, several light-hours out. “Good morning! I think the press in our audience knows James Jacobs of the Xolotlan Press Bureau…”

“Um, good morning,” the stunned reporter said. Then he waited…

“We’d like to ask you some questions, if you don’t mind,” Rochelle said. “What is…” She held up a couple of dice for all to see, then rolled them on the table and peered at them. The screen next to the one showing Jacobs displayed the dice so the audience could see Rochelle was reading them correctly. “…two times six?”

Jacobs frowned. “Uh…twelve?”

“Right, twelve!” Rochelle grinned. “Of course, we could have pre-arranged this using trick dice…so you-all will be able to ask your own questions. Use your own dice, if you want! Or decks of cards, whatever.”

“Don’t be shy, say hello to Uplift,” Uncia continued. “Ping away! Verify! Talk with your colleagues! This is a live link!”

“My God, it really is,” someone said.

Rhianna picked up the unit they had brought with them, holding it between her and Kaylee’s shared fingers. “We used the imagery earlier for a reason. This unit is the Altair 8800 of this technology. Just think of where the future may lead us.”

Kaylee laughed. “Come down to it, I’m something of an Altair 8800, myself. Or maybe an Apple II.”

“Next, some nuts and bolts,” Rhianna said. “We’ve been very methodical about this. I’d like to introduce Dr. Rose deHavilland. Doctor?”

Once the Doctor was on stage, the foursome retreated into the green room at the back of the stage. Rhianna’s heart was pounding. “I think it’s gone pretty well so far, what do you think?”

Rochelle grinned. “They’re eating out of our hands.”

“I’ve been monitoring the comlink to Xolotlan,” Uncia reported. “The reporters seem to be at least moderately convinced we’re not faking. Bandwidth is holding, too. Lost only a couple units so far.”

“I think it’ll be a few hours an’ the reg’lr radio transmission of that side of the communication coming back from Xolo before they’re really convinced,” Kaylee said. “But we’re gettin’ queries from potential investors already. And I’m talkin’ billions.”

“But I’ve still got dibs, right?” Zane grinned. He was leaning against the green room door as if he’d always been there.

Rhianna smiled back through Kaylee’s Fuser face. “On my company and on my heart.”

“Who could want anything more?”

Rhianna wrapped her arms around him and licked his nose with a hardlight feline tongue. “Of course, we still have something else to announce, don’t we?” she purred.

“So we do.” Zane nodded. “We’re on as soon as the good Doctor finishes, right?”

“That’s right. Should just be a few more minutes.”

“Great!” Zane stepped back, putting his arms on Rhianna and Kaylee’s shoulders and looking down at them. “I can’t wait. My only regret is that we’re all going to have so much work to do on the way we won’t have that much time to enjoy our ‘cruise.’”

“Oh, I’m sure we’ll find time to relax,” Rhianna said.

“Yeah. But not as much as everyone’s going to think.”

“That’s their problem.”

Kaylee broke in. “Looks like Doc deHavilland is winding down. Better get ready.”

“She really knows how to hold an audience,” Rochelle said. “A regular Carla Sagan.”

“She’s going to be a hard act to follow,” Rhianna mused.

Zane nodded. “We’ll just have to be extra-entertaining.”

Rhianna straightened up. “Well, once more into the breach…”

As Dr. deHavilland bowed to the audience and stepped back from the podium, Rhianna and Kaylee stepped up. “Hello again, everyone. We know you’re eager to get down to playing with the DINcom demonstrators we’ve set up, so we’ll keep this quick. We just have one more thing to say today. It’s not exactly related, but since we were announcing stuff anyway, we just figured why not.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Okay, Zane, come on out.”

The crowed roared as the familiar khaki-clad tiger strode out on stage, carrying his well-known cane. “Hey, everyone.” Zane waved. “Thanks for inviting me, Rhi.”

“You’re always welcome, of course,” Rhianna said. “Now, remember there’s still a little problem. We haven’t figured out how to make DINcom work over interstellar distances. No matter how many unit-halves we send to Wednesday they always fail to connect. So, we’ve chartered a ship. A sort of working vacation. A year away from Zharus with some very smart people traveling with us.

“We’re certainly not the only interested party in getting this to work. The Scouts have agreed to cooperate and provide support. As you all know, too many scouts have disappeared without a trace. We’ve been very fortunate that some made it back to us.” Rhianna nodded at Madison and Marcus Trenton and his RIDE partner. “Even a simple SOS might have…”

As Rhianna spoke, Zane patted the breast pocket of his khakis, then the other pocket. He frowned and checked his hip and then back pockets. Then a yell came from the audience. It was Agatha Brubeck, standing on a podium with her RIDE partner Annie. “Hey, bro, go long!” She threw something forward, overhand.

Zane reached up a hand and snagged it in a lifter field, fingers closing around it. “Thanks, Aggie!” He turned to face Rhianna, at the same time Kaylee suddenly de-Fused and stepped back. “Hey, Rhianna…?”

Interrupted, Rhianna blinked and turned to face him. “Um…yes, Zane?”

“I realize this is kind of sudden, but…” Zane went to one knee in front of her and offered the object—a ring box, now open to reveal a sparkling diamond-qubitite ring. “Will you marry me?”

The auditorium went silent once more, aside from a doubled gasp from Rochelle and Uncia. The proposal had caught Rhianna so completely off guard her entire train of thought derailed…but only momentarily. She held back a happy sob and embraced him, forgetting where she was, her world contracting to just the two of them. “Yes! Yes, Zane! Of course I will.”

“Oh, good,” Zane said. He embraced her, shaking a little. “Very…very good. Wow. Thank you, Rhi. Wow. I can’t even…”

Agatha and Annie had Fused and made their way to the stage. “I think Zane’s at a loss for words for once,” Agatha said. “Congratulations.”

“Well, I didn’t expect that,” Uncia quipped.

“Hush,” Rochelle said.

“Getting the proposal right now, I mean. Not that she said yes,” Uncia said.

“Of course, we’ll have to wait on the ceremony ‘til we get back from the cruise, so this won’t technically be a honeymoon,” Zane said. “But it’ll give us something to look forward to. And give the folks back here some time to plan it.”

“My family would never forgive me if we got a quickie Aloha wedding anyway,” Rhianna said breathlessly. “It’s going to be the full deal, with a fancy dress…” She was trying to recover some aplomb and utterly failing, with tears of joy streaking her makeup. The media floaters surrounded them like a school of fish. She sighed. “We’re going to be engaged for light-years.

She and Zane stood up together. Rhianna sniffled then they faced the crowd, speechless again. “Well…something for the celebrity feeds, then,” Zane said. He waved at the media, and the public watching the feeds.

“Well, we’re gonna have to close on that note,” Kaylee said. She padded up to the front of the stage. “Give us a while to pull ourselves together after this lil’ surprise, won’t you? Thank you.”

Chapter 6

July 16, 158 AL
Cerberus, Pluto Dome

Over the last couple of months, afternoon meetings between Melisande and such members of her senior staff as were free had become a daily event. They helped make sure everyone was on the same page, and it did help relieve some of the stress to share the load. At the moment, Joe Steader, Julius, and Socah Gates were the sounding boards she had available.

Melisande peered at one of the hardlight displays floating above her desk. "We're still missing a Sampo MR6 fabber? Where the hell is it?"

Julius sneezed. “Someone stole a Sampo? What, did the Earth fuckin’ freeze again or somethin’?”

Melisande snorted. She was used to Julius's quips now. The jaguar's early life had been filled with riffing bad movies while being Joe Steader's bodyguard during the war. She smiled. "I understood that reference. But, it's just one of a handful of items still unaccounted for."

"Maybe the Clementine grabbed it when they came through in January?" Socah Gates suggested. "It would fit their mission profile."

"Possible. They didn't mention anything in their last message torpedo. Maybe they didn’t think it was important enough." Melisande felt another headache coming on. Trying to keep everything straight, even with Valerie's multitasking help, was the biggest problem by far. This project dwarfed any of the large construction she had ever done. "Fact is, we're still behind schedule."

"It's the Rickenbacker, isn't it?" Joe said. "I thought Mikel cleared things up with the Eridanite engineers. Between them and those Ranger mad scientists…"

Melisande winced. The meme-infected Integrate Rangers spent at least as much time irritating the Eridanites as they did her. There was no way the Rickenbacker could be made as fast as the Western even at the low end, but with the "black box" tech Mikel had wrangled out of the Eridanites to speed her up, she'd reach the rendezvous outside the Ra system with a good safety margin if they left at least three weeks before the bigger ship.

"The way things are going, the Rick needs at least another two weeks of testing before Captain Souza will be confident enough that the engine mods work to her satisfaction. Which means delays." Melisande sighed.

"On the bright side, Seamus will be happy to get that extra shipyard time," Joe said. “And it’ll give you more time to make sure you’ve got all your ducks in a row, too.”

"True. Still, Zane isn't going to be happy about this."

“Meh.” Julius flicked an ear. “It’s been months already. Few more weeks won’t be the end a’ the world.”

"Julius, a few weeks on Totalia is the concern here," Socah said gently. "You know what war is like."

The jaguar mecha's ears drooped. "Uh, yeah. Fuckin' sucks."

"Nevertheless, I understand why Captain Souza is so cautious. Something goes wrong in subspace with your drive, and…poof."

“Well, I’m sure they’re getting it done as fast as they can. They know what’s at stake as well as we do.” Melisande shook her head. “And it’s true, we’re not exactly at peak readiness here either. I think a missing fabber is really the least of our worries right now.” She tapped the display panel and pulled up another report. “I’d like to focus on the cargo pallets located in the three inner orbits, and explore our options for breaking out the specific crates we need to bring down here and then shifting the remainder to one of the outer orbits for easier on-loading to the Western…”

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July 27, 158 AL
Colossus-Rhodes Shipyards

Unretired Captain Esmeralda Souza, a tall, willowy woman with short brown hair, walked the corridors of the ZSN Rickenbacker with the horse Fuser who was nominally in charge of the Great Western’s refit, but had also found the time to help put the storied escort ship back to full spaceworthiness. The ship had only been mothballed six years, but the “Rick” had never been a fast ship, intended to keep pace with slightly slower cargo ships in subspace. What trade there was between colonies tended to be high-value goods that needed protection against pirates—Keplerian and others. The Rick would be sent in first to clear the way, and would then escort the cargo ships in normal space into and out of jump. For cargo routes, the escorts tended to work in pairs, so another ship could leapfrog ahead in alternate systems. The one escort protected the cargo ships until jump, and then arrived a few days behind to swap out with the other while the trade ships were still shifting cargo. For this one-way trip, just the one ship would be needed.

The Rick was five hundred meters long, with fore and aft Drive Rings, a cluster of five gravitic engines capable of 580G of acceleration, facilities for up to two hundred fighter-class ships, and weapons blisters with full coverage of all firing arcs. It was neither the heaviest- nor the lightest-armed escort ship, but was exactly what the mission required.

The Fuser walking beside her was a couple old friends, Seamus Odell and Dobbin. The Great Eastern had proved repeatedly that it hardly needed escort, but sometimes the tiny Zharus Space Navy had felt the need to show the flag and greet the massive Star Circus ship on arrival.

“The Rangers sent some rather oddball Integrates to squeeze a few more lights out of the old girl,” Captain Souza said.

“Fringe Division. We’ve met them before, last go-around,” Dobbin said. “I’ve never met another two-headed Integrate. I thought about convincing them to join the Circus, but…”

“Frankly, sometimes I think I could have done without meeting the one.”

Seamus snorted. “I gather they have that effect on people.”

“But between them and the Integrates from the comet Enclaves—which is another new one on me; all these years coming in and out and I had no idea they were even there—I have to keep pinching myself at every progress report. I feel like Rip Van Winkle. I go to sleep at the end of my shift, and the next time I wake up, there’s another week’s worth of progress.”

“I hear that. We’re rather more used to Integrates and their ways—we’ve had a few of them in the Circus for decades—but it’s still amazing what they can do when they work as a team without any need to hide their abilities.” Dobbin whickered a laugh. “We’ve had a number of them apply to join our crew after the refit is done.”

“As have we. And after seeing what they can do, I’m certainly not going to object.”

“Though, speaking of objecting, I get the feeling a certain someone’s doing enough of it for both of you.” Seamus flicked an ear back, and Souza knew who he meant without needing to turn her head.

She sighed. “He’s still back there, isn’t he?”

“Ayup.” A dozen paces behind them, a muscular man of the Cape Nord variety followed them, barely managing not to glower.

“Honestly, I don’t know what to do with Eckhard. He insisted on accompanying me as my ‘bodyguard,’ but I’m afraid the poor dear is quite out of his element. It’s so hard for him seeing his little ‘delicate flower’ wielding the full authority that should by rights belong to a man.

“I ever tell you about my first experience in Cape Nord?”

“Either three or four times, I forget which. Iphigenia Rose, wasn’t it?”

“Well, I still can’t believe you retired there, Esme.”

She chuckled. “The funny thing is, I retired there because your story made it sound like it might be a fun place. After years of having to be strong, dealing with pirates and worrying about little lost cargo sheep, I wanted to be pampered for a while. And I was happy. Still, when Zane Brubeck called up and asked me to take the reins of my old ship for one more mission, it seemed like a nice change of pace.”

“So much for domestic bliss?”

Souza smiled and shook her head. “No, no, I was happy. And am. We renewed our marriage contract twice, and we were thinking about making it permanent. Which we still might, if it survives this. Eckhard isn’t too thrilled, but he couldn’t exactly say no when I was asked to ‘serve my polity and my planet.’”

Dobbin snorted. “Patriotism is Manly, after all.”

“Indeed. But he didn’t want to just sit around and wait for me, either. He’s a sweetie, but he’s pretty protective.”

“It’s a Man’s duty to protect his wife!” Eckhard said, sounding every bit the stereotype of the Cape Nord “Man”.

Seamus snorted. “He’s going to end up in the brig before this mission is over, isn’t he?”

Captain Souza rolled her eyes. “Don’t tempt me. I think that’s actually worth Man Card points.”

“Yeah. It would be.”

She smiled. “But in all seriousness, he’s not at all a bad man. Or a bad Man. I’ll be quite happy to have him along if he can just learn to respect my authority outside our stateroom as much as I respect his inside it. We’re still working on that.”

Seamus cleared his throat. “Ah, well, whatever floats your boat. Good luck with that, and I mean it.”

Souza chuckled. “Thank you, old friend. And good luck getting your boat floating, too.”

“As you say, with the crew we have here at the shipyard, that’s not going to be a problem for either of us.”

“Indeed.” Souza nodded. “Well, this could be the last we see of you before the out-system rendezvous at Totalia. The de-mothballing is complete, and we’re most of the way through final systems testing now. We could be moving out within a few days. A few short jumps out and back for calibration, then we’re up for the big one.”

Seamus nodded. “We’re not too far behind that, ourselves, but from what we’ve been hearing out of Cerberus, the final loading stages could be a literal circus. Integrates are great for repairs and building stuff, but when your cargo is split across several orbits in drifts hundreds of klicks apart…oy. Not so much even the Intiest Intie can do to speed that up.”

“So I hear. We have a few things to pick up there ourselves, even if the shipyard quartermaster did handle most of our supply issues.” She turned to shake hands with the horse-man. “We’ll see you there.”

“Sure. The first beer on our first shore leave is on me.” Seamus paused to glance over his shoulder at Eckhard. “Or the first frou-frou cocktail with a little umbrella in it, whatever the case may be. I wonder if they have those on Totalia.”

“If they don’t, that’s just another thing we’ll have to teach them how to make.” Souza chuckled. “Clear sailing, spacer.”

“And a safe trip to you, too.”

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September 2, 158 AL

Steadfast Dining Room, Cerberus Spaceport

The voyage from Wednesday had been a tense one for Quinoa. She vividly remembered her early childhood—the great flaming rows between her mother and father over what to do about Earth, how to run the Star Circus, what to have for dinner, and worst of all, the recriminations after young Quinoa inevitably went off by herself to explore the giant Great Eastern and her flotilla. Unlike with the King of Hearts, she couldn’t just block out all the unpleasant memories—she’d effectively have to give up most of her childhood.

Still, the dinnertime banter between her father and her uncle put a smile on her face. Adding Julius and Socah to the mix, it was all she could do to keep herself composed. There was so much dry wit concentrated in one place it didn’t take much to catch it on fire. Though when Isabella entered the dining room, Quinoa sometimes felt a chill down her spine. She normally took a seat next to her daughter, and never next to Mikel. Quinoa was once again a buffer, and with her wings, a more effective one than a human five-year-old child.

For all that dinners were sometimes awkward, they nonetheless had gotten into the habit of eating together in the Steadfast, which they continued after landing on Cerberus. In contrast to the voyage, when it had been hard to get away from each other, now it was the only time they were all together.

“I’ve decided to represent Eridani on the Totalia mission,” Mikel announced.

“As well as the Steader family, no doubt,” Isabella said, with a slight chill to her tone.

“Actually, my brother will be handling that part.” Mikel grinned. “I’ve gone so long representing Eridani, I don’t even know where I put that silver spoon I was born with.”

“Probably pawned it, like I did,” Joe said helpfully. “Our expedition to Earth needed extra funding.”

Now seemed like a good time to bring up her own decision. “I…I’m going to be staying on Zharus, everyone. I don’t think it’s a good idea if both Uncle and I vanish. Again, I mean.” She smiled across the table. “Besides, Uncle Joe and ‘Captain Thermopylae’ deserve some time together without me getting in the way.”

“And I’d like to spend time with my daughter,” Isabella said, putting her arm around Quinoa’s shoulders. “We’ve spent so little of it together over the years. We have a great deal to catch up on.”

Quinoa blushed outwardly and felt chilly inwardly. So what’s Dad, chopped liver? It’s not like he got to see me more. “I…I’ll be glad to have you, Mom. Are you settling in the Circus Village? You’re free to use any of the Steader homesteads.”

“I haven’t decided where I’ll end up yet. I appreciate the offer, but I think I’d rather find my own situation.”

Mikel nodded. “You usually do—without thinking how they affect anyone else’s situations.”

Isabella bristled. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

At the end of the room, Julius stood up. “You know what? I’m fuckin’ sick of this. Every time you two assholes are in the same room, you put Quinny between you and send death stares at each other across her. If that’s what her childhood was like, no wonder she ran away from the circus. Get the fuck over yourselves, why don’t you?” Not waiting for an answer, he padded out of the room, tail held high.

Joe regarded his brother and his ex-wife coolly. “You know what? I’m with him.” He dropped his napkin on his half-finished meal, then pushed himself back from the table, then stood up with his own tail in the air. “Feel like a movie, Socah?”

“A comedy,” Socah said primly, likewise standing. “I’m tired of the drama here at the dinner table.”

“I’m coming too,” Quinoa said, pushing her chair back, not looking at either of her parents, with the door closing behind her. Mikel and Isabella were now alone in the dining room.

“Well,” Mikel said mildly. “They sure told us.”

“We have been walking on eggshells since we met at Zheng He,” Isabella said. “For Quinoa’s sake.”

“I think the walking on eggshells is the problem.” Mikel turned his chair to face her. “Seems like we were walking on the same eggshells right up to the divorce.”

Getting married in the first place had been a mistake. They both knew that, even if neither said so out loud. Their relationship had arisen from Mikel saving the Star Circus from a decade of horrible business choices and just plain bad luck. But gratitude had only carried Isabella and Mikel so far. Even the Great Eastern hadn’t been large enough to give them distance in the end.

“Well, what are we supposed to do?” Isabella said.

Mikel shrugged. “Maybe just try to get along with each other without the eggshells? To be honest, I don’t know what we’re even still angry about.”

“Endurance,” Isabella said. “It was downhill from there. We weren’t even married yet, but I’ve thought about this a lot. The disagreements started there.”

“And they can stop here,” Mikel said. “Those arguments are moot now. If they weren’t, you think we’d have both been so okay with Colonel Gates? She was at Endurance barely two weeks before I got there with the King of Hearts. Two bloody weeks! If I’d met her again just five years ago I would have done…I don’t know…something awful to her.”

“I thought you were the one who just favored keeping your head down and letting it pass,” Isabella said, though without the rancor in her voice that might have tainted the statement before.

“Just because I thought it was the best course didn’t mean I was happy about it.” Mikel shook his head. “If I’d thought we could get away with standing up to Earth back then…instead of ending up just like Endurance…well. Things are different now. Now we’ve got RIDEs, and EIs, and Integrates…and soon we might have two new metamaterials that Earth hasn’t gotten its hands on yet. And the other colonies are finally starting to figure out that paying the Danegeld doesn’t mean the Dane’s been gelded.”

“Zharus is the only world that has a hope of mounting an effective defense, just due to population,” Isabella said. “Because Earth will come calling, sooner rather than later now. The twencen ‘bumpkin’ cultural gambit we started with your brother is wearing awfully thin.”

“It lasted as long as it needed to. To be honest, I’m surprised we got this much time out of it.” Mikel smiled. “Look, I’m not about to say we should start dating again, or anything like that, but…I think we ought to have more to agree about than argue about now. We should let those differences stay in the past, for Quinoa’s sake and for Totalia’s sake.”

“Totalia…” Isabella said. “To be honest, I still want to stay with Quinoa on Zharus.”

“And that’s fine. She ought to have at least one of us with her, after so long.” He sighed. “I’d like to stay, too. God knows I’m tempted to let Eridani send someone else. But…well, this is the culmination of what I’ve worked all those years for. If I don’t see it through, then what were all the other years I didn’t spend with her for?”

“I have to admit, I do respect that you backed up your arguments with years of hard work.” Isabella shook her head. “If I’d tried to practice what I wanted to preach…or even just preached it out loud…”

“You wouldn’t have gotten very far.” Mikel nodded. “At least diplomats are less likely to get assassinated than dissidents.”

The Star Circus had taken on a few Earth political dissidents over the years. As neutral territory it was often the only place they could go. But Isabella had known that any overt political stance would have endangered that neutrality, which would have in turn endangered the whole Circus. It had galled her that it was necessary to hold her tongue publicly…which had probably been another of the factors that drove her and Mikel apart.

“Maybe that’s why I’ve been so angry with you. You were able to put your money where your mouth was, while I…”

“While you did something that was just as important,” Mikel said firmly. “You think my diplomacy would have done any good without the Star Circus to demonstrate Earth wasn’t the only center of culture in the galaxy?”

Isabella cocked her head. “Are we…starting to argue about why we’re arguing, now? Are we really that far gone?”

“I think we should declare a detente,” Mikel said. “We both agree on what we want the future to look like, so let’s just let the past stay in the past.”

Isabella considered that. “It might be hard. I’ve been…annoyed at you for so long, the sniping’s become a habit.”

“I’ll forgive your occasional slip-ups if you’ll forgive mine,” Mikel said. “As I said, we don’t need to start dating again—we don’t even need to be best friends. Or even, well, friends. We just need to do something more than barely tolerate each other. I really don’t want Quinnie to regret that we’re back in her life, do you?”

“When you put it that way…” Isabella smiled, and offered a hand. “Let’s go give them the good news.”

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September 10, 158 A.L.
Fleet Launch: T-10 Days
Scout Headquarters, Uplift Aerodrome

On the outside, the Daydream Believer bore a few recent modifications, altering her outline with a couple additional small missile bays, two pulse cannons, and hardlight cloaking emitters. It was hardly a sneakship like the Satellite of Love, which had already departed for its berth on the Western, but it would do. Madison was hardly going to be by herself if she went into combat.

“She’s a beauty, Maddie.” Zane leaned on his cane, the faint breeze from the Uplift dome wind generators ruffling his fur and stirring the scout khakis he wore. “She’s your General. Like Dad’s first ship.”

“Yeah.” Madison grinned. Her khakis matched Zane’s in all particulars except for having the rank badge of a Scout Captain, whereas his were rankless. “I still can’t believe how lucky I am to have her. Only wish Dad could be around to see it.”

“And you lived on board by yourselves for months at a time?” Rochelle said. “I think I’d go stir crazy in a space that small.”

“It’s not for everyone. But still, it’s roomier than it looks. Come on.” She led the way up the ramp. “I’ll give you the full tour once we’re underway—there’ll be plenty of time. Right now, I just wanna get us off this rock before someone finds something else they need me for.”

The Daydream Believer’s Maintenance Chief, making his final checks in the Garage that normally held a Scout’s exploration gear, met them and handed Madison a tablet. “She’s all yours, Maddie, ‘Mantha. Just need your final sign off.”

Madison took the tablet and scrawled a signature with the stylus. “Here you go. Hold onto that autograph, it might be worth something someday.”

“That’s what y’all say,” he said, smirking. He waved with the tablet and quickly walked back down the ramp, which immediately started to close.

“Ship’s starting to come alive,” Rhianna said. “She’s stretching like a sleepy cat, waking from a long nap.”

“We’ve done all the preflights,” Madison said. “Used to take a full hour to do the systems check and reactor startup. Not anymore.”

Zane grinned. “Someone’s in a hurry.”

“Come on up and strap in.” Madison headed up the corridor toward the bridge, where a couple of RIDE acceleration couches had been added behind the pilot and co-pilot stations. She gestured for her brother to take the co-pilot seat. “If you’re going to be an honorary Scout, Zane, that’s yours. Don’t touch anything.”

Zane snorted. “Gee, thanks, sis.”

“Just to keep it fair, I won’t touch anything either.” Madison waved a hand toward the instrument board and it lit up. “You all ready?”

Rhianna and Kaylee Fused and settled into the acceleration couch and latched into place. “Ready!”

Rochelle and Uncia took the other couch. “Same here.”

“Great! Then off we go!” The ship thrummed with the vibration as Madison brought the engines up, then with a faint lurch it lifted into the air. Madison pushed a hand forward, and the throttle moved forward of its own will. The Daydream Believer’s engines fired and it streaked for the sky.

Of course, launching to orbit wasn’t the end of it. They had to wait in orbit until the local space traffic control was satisfied their flight path out was clear. It gave them time to catch up on recent events, given that the last few stages of mission prep had had them all running in different directions at once. Now here they were, stuck in a tin can together with nothing to do but talk. Madison supposed it was a prelude to what the longer trip was going to be like.

“So.” Madison turned to Rhianna. “I gather you announced the greatest technological innovation since the integrated circuit…and you still managed to upstage yourselves at your own press conference. Dish!”

Rhianna blushed faintly. “I think your brother bears some of the blame for that.”

Zane waved a hand airily. “Hey, I just wanted to make sure she couldn’t back out at the last moment is all. So I needed a few witnesses.” He grinned at Rhianna. “It’s possible I may have miscalculated, as it suddenly occurs to me I’m going to be in a position to pay for that for a long, long time.”

Madison laughed. “Well, you made your bed. Luckily, it sleeps two.” She turned to Rochelle. “So, when are you and what’s-his-name going to get busy? Where is he, anyway?”

“Chet and Nils took Maxima out to the fleet last month via cargo freighter. As for the getting busy thing…I dunno. We haven’t exactly had the most normal relationship so far. I’m not even sure you could say we’ve had a relationship at all. It all happened out of order thanks to those damned wacky nanites.”

“Nextus Nano’s taken them completely off the market until they can redo the interaction studies,” Uncia said. “It’s not even supposed to be possible to make them…do what they did. Ugh.”

“We started out copulating like bunnies, then we got to know each other.” Rochelle shook her head. “Now we’re not sure whether we want to start up again, because we’re both too afraid we might be ‘taking advantage.’ I tell you, Maddie, don’t have relationships out of order. It doesn’t, uh, begin well.”

“Well, you’ll have a couple of months to get to know each other again on the trip,” Madison said. “Maybe you can date.”

“I suppose we can try it. There won’t be much else to do.”

“Outside of drills and strategy sessions and stuff, anyway,” Zane said. “We’ll have weeks and weeks to worry ourselves sick about how badly we’re going to mess up when we get there.”

“Now don’t you start.” Rhianna poked Zane’s shoulder.

“Start? Who said anything about starting? I’m continuing. Maybe in a couple of years I’ll be able to stop.

“No wonder you want Aggie to take the business off your hands.” Madison shook her head. “You always were a worrier.”

“They both were,” Kaylee put in. “’course, I gave Terry plenty to worry about.”

Madison cocked her head, then swiveled her seat to look back at the control panel. “Oh…looks like our departure clearance just came through. Next stop: Cerberus. I’ll lay in the course…there.” She turned back to face the others. “So! Who’s up for a ship tour?”

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September 12, 158 AL
Fleet Launch: T-8 Days
Pluto Dome, Cerberus

“I did say, did I not, that if I got out here to find you’d taken over the whole project on the trumped-up authority of those orders I cut you, we’d have Words?” Zane said, grinning at the horse Integrate seated comfortably behind the desk.

Melisande bowed her head. “Yes, sir, you did.” Of course, it wasn’t exactly the surprise Zane’s words had suggested back then, either. She’d actually contacted Zane via Cerberus’s DINcom installation shortly after dealing with Nguyen. He’d been most helpful in sending along additional resources, such as Valerie.

“Those words are…‘well done.’” Zane shook his head. “We really flubbed this one. We even had a note from the Clementine back in January that things seemed a bit too disorganized out here even then and ought to be looked into.” He rolled his eyes. “It got stuck in my spam filter.”

Melisande shrugged. “These things happen.”

“Yeah. Well, anyway, if I’d known you had that kind of talent for organization, I’d have given you a bigger job at the outset. You even managed to get the architecture school together at the same time as you were fixing everything else.”

“That was mostly Valerie. She’s like my emergency backup brain, handling the little things while I sweat the big stuff. Don’t know what I’d do without her.”

“Even so,” Zane said. “I’m definitely giving you both big raises—and seats in my command center with my other closest advisors.”

“I’m flattered,” Melisande said. “But really, it’s not all that different from overseeing any big construction project. Maybe it was bigger than all the other ones I’ve done, but that just means more people to delegate stuff to.”

“Well, congratulations. You just became one of my people to delegate stuff to.” Zane grinned again. “Insofar as it doesn’t interfere with your architect duty.”

“Oh, that thing.” Melisande chuckled. “Going to make me work for a living, huh? Well, you’ve got yourself an alpha mare.”

“We’ll work you pretty hard,” Zane promised. “Won’t give you time to brood during the trip. After all, I don’t think you want to be a broodmare.”

Melisande tossed her head. “Ouch. Don’t quit your day job.”

“But this is my day job.”

“I’m sooo sorry.” Melisande laughed. “Well, I guess this is it, then. Time to finish packing and board the train?”

“Wagon train to the stars, pulling out real soon.” Zane stood. “And it’s time for me to go run around like a headless chicken some more. See you on the ship.”

Melisande nodded. “See you there.”

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September 14, 158 AL
Fleet Launch: T-6 Days

Fitting everything in and on to the Great Western was a giant three-dimensional puzzle. Her triangular central docking superstructure had seven hundred fifty meters of cargo clamps on its thousand-meter length, plus a hundred twenty-five meters wide. Big cargo hatches that would eventually be covered by ships, were still open, providing access to the empty modules inside the ship. The King of Hearts took up much of Side A, with the RSS Heart of Gold behind her. Also due were the Scout ships Daydream Believer, the Turbinia, and the Satellite of Love. Although FTL-capable themselves, it made better sense to take them along this way so their crews could mingle with those of the other ships.

And then there were the non-ship components that had to be fitted in. The Ark containing the genebanks and biosphere gifts for Totalia; the two carrier modules for the smaller in-system ships (one specifically for the Rangers, one for Spacers and other flyers). War materiel and supplies were being hauled within the superstructure to save on exterior docking space.

The bright side to the delay was that each day it took to load cargo widened the gap between the departure of the Rickenbacker, which had jumped out two weeks earlier. The Western would leave in one more week—assuming they could get the cargo loading finished by then. Given the differences in speed between the two ships, they should reach the rendezvous point just about simultaneously.

The final stages of preparation were out of Melisande’s hands, directly. The ten Cargomasters knew their jobs better than she did, and supervised the loading of the Totalia Relief Fleet and the Barsoom Mining Fleet. Including the Great Western herself, a total of ten ships. Three were departing for Barsoom to mine Nullifite and investigate the archaeological evidence for intelligent alien life.

Zane considered this, watching the playback of the Mining Fleet’s departure in the Pluto command center with Madison, Melisande, and the other Fleet planners. “If it wasn’t for Totalia, I think that would be the news of the day. Even if they’re a billion years gone, actual proof that there have been other civilizations…”

“Yeah.” Madison chuckled. “Though you never know, maybe they’re not as gone as we think. Maybe the qubitite remembers.”

Melisande snorted. “Well, that’s not creepy at all.”

“We still don’t know what natural process could actually create the metas,” Rhianna added. “So they might be entirely artificial.”

“What if there weren’t any? What if they are all completely artificial?” Madison grinned. “If they were natural, you’d think we’d find them in more than one star system each. Cavorite, that’s probably natural since it’s all over, but the others? One spot each, no exception we’ve found yet. It’s weird. Almost like they built meta factories, one per star system.”

“Could be, could be. It’s been long enough that most every sign of production facilities is gone, at least. Except for maybe those oddly regular caves of yours. Just what they made left behind, recycled with each planet’s geology.”

Melisande snorted. “Though that doesn’t explain why there are Totalium rocks all over that star system.”

Madison grinned. “What if it’s the remains of a Totalium Dyson sphere?”

“Oh, now that’s just crazy talk.” Zane laughed. “And of course, we’ll never know for sure, barring some alien archives popping up.”

“You never know, they could exist. Probably not on a planet, though, or even near one. But if they built any interstellar outposts like the pirates do, out in the empty spaces between the stars where there’s nothing to smack into or erode them…”

Rhianna nodded. “Yeah, but as Dr. Dent would say, ‘Space is big. Really big. You won’t believe how vastly, mind-bogglingly big it is.’”

Madison chuckled. “True. Even positing that such a thing might exist, we could put every person in every colony in their own scout ship and send them off into space in all directions and still never find it. But we can dream!”

“I’m more interested in dreaming about what these new metas will do for us. And dreaming up ways to get as much Nullifite as quickly as we can.” Zane waved a hand. “I’m glad we were able to keep Nullifite and Barsoom out of the diplomatic briefings, but I’m sure word will leak sooner or later. I doubt we’ll be able to keep Barsoom to ourselves if Earth or even Kepler come calling.”

“I suppose this will give more ammunition to the people who’ve been saying we need to build up our militaries again.” Rhianna sighed. “On the one hand, I wish it weren’t necessary. On the other…”

“…it’s kind of going to be necessary pretty quickly.” Zane pursed his muzzle. “Even if it weren’t for Nullifite, we’ve fooled Earth about Q just about as long as we could. I just hope they give us enough time to get experienced folks back from Totalia to help train up more people here.”

“Let’s not borrow tomorrow’s trouble when we’ve got enough to keep us occupied today.” Melisande tossed her head, shaking her mane. “We’ve all still got a lot of work to do.”

“Yeah, I hear you,” Zane said. “Our two Totalian Ambassadors are squeezing as much out of their time here as they can. They’ve had some very good luck during their stay with us, but until they get here safe and sound it’ll be a claw-biter for me. Never can tell.”

Rhianna grimaced. “The Mads want to keep picking my brain over the DINcom FTL-break problem. I can’t think of an excuse not to this time, so I’d better…”

Zane purred. “Oh, I think there are other…activities we can do to pass the time, Rhi.”

“I’m just sure you’re talking about giving Chauncey one last check-up before he’s loaded up for shipping, rather than something of a more personal nature.” Rhianna looked at him. “Aren’t you.”

Zane tried his best to look as if he hadn’t swallowed any canaries lately. “Oh, of course! No other thought in my mind! Scout’s honor!”

Madison snorted. “Can an honorary Scout really claim Scout’s honor?”

Rhianna rolled her eyes and turned to Melisande. “You see what I have to put up with?”

“That you haven’t yet skinned him for a rug speaks volumes for your restraint.”

Zane stood up and tugged on his khaki shirt. “As always, send a ping if you need us, Sandy.”

The mare nodded. “See you soon.”

Chapter 7

September 20, 158 AL
Fleet Launch: T-0 Days
Bridge of the King of Hearts

This was it. The day, the hour, and soon the minute. The rear of the bridge was filled to capacity with minor celebrities—the Scouts who’d started the affair, the Steaders, Melisande, Socah Gates, and others. The lower level, where the actual work went on, was clear of outsiders, of course—except for the one person actually in charge.

For the two dozenth time, Zane paced from one side of the bridge to the other. You’d think he was just about to have kittens or something, Captain Armand Xun thought wryly. For the two dozenth time less one, he considered putting him into one of the emergency acceleration couches and engaging the restraints. Probably wouldn’t go over too well, though.

“Calm down, Zane,” Rhianna Stonegate said. “Slow down your time compression if you want to speed this up a little.”

“Time compression? Who says I’m using time compression?” Zane shook his head. “I just keep having this feeling like we’re forgetting something. But what? I’ve already gone to the bathroom…”

“I felt the same way the day before I left Earth,” Rhianna said. “It’s just jitters.”

“A whole star system depends on this. Maybe more than one. What if I screw it all up by…well, being me?” Zane facepalmed. “Argh.”

“This is on all of us, Zane,” Darrek said.

“It’s on me more. I’m the one in charge.” He sighed. “I need a drink, a tranquilizer, or a Vulcan Nerve Pinch. Or maybe all of the above.”

Rhianna put an arm around him and stood on tiptoe to kiss him on the cheek. “Just remember what you did to Fritz,” she said. “If you could do that, you can do anything.”

“Yeah, I guess so.” Zane shook his head. “I didn’t have so much time to think about Fritz, though.”

“We’ll reach the jump point in three minutes, everyone,” the King of Hearts’ EI announced. “LRF established. Subspace nodes charging. Ready to submerge.”

:Thank you, my friend,: Captain Xun sent. The Eridanite Captain was delighted with this change to the 40-year-old Pinnace. EIs were masters of automation, and Astrogon had had weeks to get used to his new shell.

:No problem, Captain. You should see this. Everyone’s glued to the viewers. Then again, it’s my first FTL voyage, too. I have every sensor peeled.:

Zane chuckled. “So, what is it I’m supposed to say? Second star to the right, and straight on ‘til morning? Do I maybe point at the screen and say ‘Engage’?”

Rhianna shook her head. “You’re not bald enough for that, hon.”

“I guess you’re right.” Zane paused. “Huh. I wonder if that’s why Cyberdani captains tend not to have any hair?”

The Captain laughed. “Something like that, Mr. Brubeck.”

“We’re going to kick Raph Clark’s ass!” Teenette added emphatically.

“For the restoration of our true government,” Darrek said. “Hopefully the people you sent ahead will make our job easier.”

Zane nodded. “It’s going to be a while before we find out.”

“They seemed like good people to me,” Madison said. “Looking forward to seeing them again.”

“Jumping…now,” Astrogon announced shipwide. “Welcome to subspace. Time to exit, about eighty-seven days.”

“Well, time to get comfy,” Madison said. “What’s for dinner?”

“How about dinner and a show?” Captain Xun suggested. “This is still the Star Circus, and this Pinnace is one of the Eastern’s best, if I do say so myself.”

Zane grinned. “If they can keep us entertained for fifteen weeks, they’ll be amazing.”

Rhianna laughed. “Well, you can’t say they don’t have a captive audience. C’mon, let’s get off the bridge so we’re not in Captain Xun’s way.”

“Right.” Zane nodded. “You know how to reach me if you need me.”

Captain Xun nodded back. “We do indeed, Mr. Brubeck. Go and enjoy yourselves.”

“We’ll do that.” Madison smiled at him. “Thanks for your hospitality, sir.”

“We’ll try not to make too much of a mess,” Zane said.

“Go enjoy yourselves,” Captain Xun said. “As the old adage goes, ‘leave the driving to us.’”

Captain Xun breathed a sigh of relief as all the VIPs filed off the bridge. He couldn’t exactly complain given that they were paying his salary, but things always flowed easier when only the people who were supposed to be there were around. But at least they seemed to know that, too. He settled back into his chair and relaxed. “Well, that’s it,” he mused. Nearly three Zharusian months in subspace ahead and thousands of people aboard to keep entertained.

Xun smiled. This was the Star Circus, after all. Entertainment was their calling. He had plans to make for Totalia. Once hostilities were over, the formerly-lost world was in for a hell of a show. '

Separator k left.png TO BE CONTINUED… Separator k right.png
Preceded by:
Parallels, Part Two: Clementine
FreeRIDErs Succeeded by:
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