User:Robotech Master/Paws Up

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FreeRIDErs story universe

Paws Up!

by Jon Buck and Robotech_Master

Separator k left.png April 3, 157 AL Separator k right.png

“So what do you think?” Ivor said, gesturing to the metal frame clamped in the RIDE maintenance cradle in the middle of the bay. Silvery chrome with only a couple of scuff marks, and a Sturmhaven RIDEworks lupine logo stamped into one of the struts, the frame suggested the shape of a canine or vulpine body—albeit one with no legs, tail, or head. “I got a really good deal…and the brand matches the head we got in Aloha.”

Cira cocked her head, peering at it. “Brrrr…”

“What's wrong?”

“Imagine I was building a human from the ground up, starting with a skeleton,” Cira said.

“Oh…right. Brrrr.” Ivor shrugged. “But other than that?”

“Well…I guess it looks all right,” Cira said. “You know more about these things than I do. As long as it goes fast, I’ll be happy.”

“How much did you pay for it?” Rhianna asked. Ivor turned to see her leaning against the doorframe of the garage module, with Kaylee just behind her.

“Fifty-two mu,” Ivor said. “According to the certificate, it belonged to one of the RIDEs your beau’s rescue project dug up, who used the 10k payment to buy herself a new shell and sold the old for whatever she could get. I looked at some of the rest of its parts, but this was about the only bit of it left worth buying as anything other than scrap.”

Rhianna nodded. “Not a bad deal. So what can you tell me about it?” She often questioned him this way about the RIDEs that entered their shop—just as she did her other apprentice mechanics, Ivor had noticed. She was going out of her way not to treat him any differently than she did the others, and he found he could respect that.

“Well…it’s not got the benchmark Sturmieworks put on their military lines,” Ivor began hesitantly. “So it’s not an authentic triple-ought or double-ought-one. But the age and construction is right to be one of the first civ models that used a version of the same frame, before they came up with cheaper-built civvie-only designs. The onboard firmware updated without a problem.”

Rhianna nodded. “I think you’re right.”

Ivor raised an eyebrow. “You ‘think’?”

Rhianna grinned. “Okay, you are right. And for what it’s worth, I think you really did get a good deal on it. Sturmieworks made some top-quality stuff back then.”

“And I’m sure you know lots more about it that you’re not telling me,” Ivor said without heat, grinning back.

“You know it,” Rhianna replied. “I’m sure you’ll have a lot of fun doing the research. I know I did when I was working on Kaylee. I wouldn’t dream of depriving you of one fascinating moment.”

“Now if I could just figure out how to get that discount vixen head I bought in Aloha out of mode-lock,” Ivor pondered. “It'd just plug right in.”

Rhianna cocked her head for a moment, considering. Ivor knew that look. It was the look she had when she was trying to decide whether the hint she was considering dropping him was more than she might have given to any other apprentice. “You might be thinking about it the wrong way,” she said at last. “I know the clerk told you that particular head was faulty…”

“I know, I did the research. The company recalled the whole line due to a design flaw,” Ivor said. “I'm sure I can make it work, though. If I can't I'll just chalk it up to a learning experience and find a different one.”

“Good for you, bro,” Rhianna said. “How’s the other job going, by the way? You’ve been spending a lot more time over here lately.”

“It's not much of a challenge, really,” Ivor said. “Jerry tells me: fix these skimmers. So I do, but I'm finished in half the time they think it should take. Fortunately they pay by the unit or complexity of the job. You should see the looks some of my coworkers give me.”

“You'd think his boss would give him as much work as Ivor's willing to take,” Cira said.

“He tried that. It just pissed off everyone else,” Ivor said. “Made me some really decent cash for a week or two, though.”

“I just tracked down a tail and forepaws,” Cira informed excitedly. “And I didn't go overboard this time.”

“Great!” Ivor said. “Shoot the details to my implant.”

“So, you're getting the core chassis completed first before the internals?” Rhianna asked.

“No point in doing otherwise.” Ivor shrugged. “The chassis is simple compared to the support systems. Wow, the shop manuals on those. There are so many tiny hardlight emitters embedded in the plating. I didn't even think about that part.”

“Enviro-seal,” Rhianna said.

“I know,” Ivor said. “What allowed them to work in the Dry.”

“You saw what happened to IDEs in the Munns' garage,” Rhianna said. “Raw Q is nasty, nasty stuff. Killed thousands of wildcat miners before the war even started.”

“I know,” Ivor repeated. “I’m still amazed the solution turned out to be so simple.”

“It’s only simple in retrospect,” Rhianna said. “Originally it was just supposed to make for a cheaper environment suit seal. They didn’t even expect it to keep out Q, they just wanted to make the whole thing cheap enough to be disposable after the dust got to it. That’s why the core housing was modular from the beginning—they wanted to just pop it out and pop it into the next shell at need. It’s also why the first RIDEs to hit the open market were so cheap—Nextus built up a huge surplus of ‘spares’ during the war that they turned out not to need.”

Kaylee nudged Rhianna’s leg. “You’re lecturing again.”

“Yeah, you're right, Kay,” Rhianna said. “I don't want to bore you, Ivor.”

Ivor chuckled. “You’re not. The more I learn about RIDEs, the more they fascinate me. No wonder Donizetti changed trades.”

“Well, keep at it,” Rhianna said. “If you need me I'll be in my workshop.”

“Later, sis.” He turned his attention back to the RIDE skeleton, then examined the parts Cira had found. “Go ahead and order these, Cira.”

“Yay! Thanks,” the vixen cheered. “Done and done.”

The faulty vixen head was suspended in a lifter field. Ivor went over to examine it for the umpteenth time. It was stuck in Fuser mode and wouldn't change at all. Recalled due to design flaw. Now, where could that be…Let's start with the nano-motility firmware.

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“So,” Kaylee said, once she was sure they were beyond the range of Ivor’s hearing. “Just out of curiosity, you planning to tell him that’s a BBV chassis he’s got there?”

Rhianna chuckled. “Nope. If he’s thorough, he’ll find out himself.”

“‘Thorough’ as in visits the Sturmhaven RIDEworks offices to go through their physical archive, since they pulled all records of their BBV lines off the net after the Valks got in a snit about them making femme RIDEs intended to pleasure males?” Kaylee asked.

“Like I said, thorough,” Rhianna said, grinning.

Kaylee snorted. “Yeah, good luck with that. Like they’d show any of those records to a mere male even if he thought of going to check.”

“They showed them to me,” Rhianna said innocently.

“They showed them to Kaylee Cross,” Kaylee corrected.

“Is it my fault I forgot to de-Fuse?” Rhianna said. “Besides…if he still has that silly idea about ‘out-girling’ me, I can’t think of a better way to start him off.”

“You’re really evil when you want to be, you know?” Kaylee said admiringly.

Rhianna smirked. “I’m a big sister. It comes with the territory.”

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“Son, put down those shop manuals for a few minutes and come to the table to eat,” Arlene Gates called from upstairs. “You didn't hear the bell, did you?”

“What bell?” Ivor said, putting away the VR book. He was sitting in the basement workshop he shared with his grandmother, and checking the chron on his implant he noticed he'd completely lost track of time again.

“The bell that shook the house!” Cira said. Her paws were still over her ears. “I've gotta learn to turn the ears down before mealtimes. Wow.”

“I've almost got this mode-lock problem licked,” Ivor said. “Just a couple more hours.”

“You need to come eat,” Arlene said. “Bring your work with you, I don't mind.”

The vixen head in question sat on the workbench, surrounded by a number of diagnostic tools. It was partly disassembled now that he was confident enough he could put it together again. “It's not the motility firmware,” he muttered. He had programmed his Q-enhanced implant to simulate the sequence from Walker-head to Fuser-head, over and over again. The design was an elaborate one, intended to impress onlookers when the hardlight was off.

Without hardlight and even ears, the vixen head had numerous feminine sweeps and curves, so there was no mistaking it for a mere male head. That fit with the Sturmhaven cultural design philosophies he'd researched. Women are complex and mysterious. Men are simple and open. Ivor snorted derisively. It also meant that the female civilian RIDEs sourced from there tended to have needlessly complex transformation sequences.

In this case, the vixen head had 56 moving parts sliding against one another. The older parts he'd purchased were thankfully less complex and more utilitarian. I'd hate to think what a whole DE this complex would be like to maintain.

Upon further examination, it turned out that the majority of those moving parts were simply cosmetic flourishes that made no difference to the overall operation of the unit. In fact, there were only about twelve major parts that were really necessary to the transformation operation. Most of the rest of them just served to obscure those twelve. And it seemed like the problem came about when some of those decorative bits worked at cross purposes to each other. The trick was going to be working out exactly which ones those were and how to tweak them without making the problem worse, or even just breaking the thing permanently by accident.

“Cira, I think I'm going to make some gross physical changes to this design,” Ivor said. “God, this thing is like one of those twencen puzzle games that everyone’s always playing with…the ones where you have to move all the colored bits around on a cube.”

“I’m sure you’ll do whatever’s best,” Cira said, wagging her tail. “You rescued me from the creche, and you’re building me a great body! I’ve got faith in you!”

“The forepaws and tail were great finds, so I've got faith in you, too,” Ivor said. “And I really should eat something if I'm going to keep this project on track.”

“I'll just damp down that dinner bell in my own sensors next time, shall I?” the silver vixen said.

The bell rang a second time, in its no-nonsense don't-make-me-come-down-there warning. Cira winced. “I'll…just go tell them you're coming.” She trotted up the basement stairs, caroling a jaunty little tune. “I've been leaving on my things…so in the morning when the morning bird sings, there's still dinner on my dinner jacket 'til the dinner bell rings…”

Ivor chuckled, set the head aside, and followed her. There'd be time to finish it later.

Separator k left.png April 19, 157 AL Separator k right.png

“Did you degauss the flux capacitor before you pulled the IGR?” Ivor pointedly asked his co-worker. The part in question had been mounted in one of the ubiquitous flying DeLoreans decked out like the one in the Back to the Future franchise. The makers of this particular model were probably laughing all the while because there was an actual working part with the name of the device that allowed time travel in the films. In this case, it regulated graviton flux through the cavorite.

“Uh, no. I didn't,” skimmer mechanic Dave Perkins replied sheepishly. “The shop manual didn't say anything about having to do that, Ivor. I don't know why it's not working. I reinstalled it to spec.”

“Which is why we called you, Ivor,” the owner of Jerry's Skimmer Service said. The shop only serviced skimmers and was proud of it.

:Cavorite sure is funny stuff,: Cira sent.

Cavorite, the metamaterial discovered on mankind's very first colony, was to gravity what magnets were to magnetic fields. The similarity went even further than that, since cavorite melded gravity and electromagnetism. Running an electric current through it enabled the manipulation of local gravity and inertial mass. To top off a bonanza of technological advances, cavorite was made of common elements arranged in a chemical lattice easily reproduced with the molecular printers of the time.

“You didn't check the DeLorean enthusiast boards. This lifter is custom, not a factory spec unit. You almost fried the IGR when you hooked it back up,” Ivor said. “We'll have to pull the cav from that left front wheel-lifter, do a graviton flush, then repack it.”

Jerry focused on the wheel in the lifter field. Although he hardly looked it, Jerry Usinov was an Integrate. It wasn't due to the hardlight disguises Inties used to need, either. He was what some of his fellows derisively (or enviously) called a “meat-face”, with a default shape as human as anyone who had never Fused.

The lifter field shut down, but the spoked alloy wheel remained floating. Jerry's eyes glowed yellow as it was slowly, carefully disassembled into its thirty component parts, all the way down to the solid cavorite torus that encircled the rim. Jerry put the metallic silver metamaterial back into the lifter field. “All yours, Ivor. Perkins, watch the master at work.”

Half the calls Ivor seemed to get these days were to fix the screwups of the other employees.

“Cira, I need…” Ivor started.

“Already have it, partner,” the silver vixen replied. She held the graviton flush tool in her mouth, dropping it in his hand. Cira sat down on the work table. “I'm going to visit some friends in the VR creche while you work, okay?”

“Have fun with your friends,” Ivor replied, petting the nape of her neck. “Once we're done here we can get back to your new chassis.”

“How much longer 'til you're using the Ladies Room, then?” Jerry asked with his characteristic smirk.

“Just a few more days. Plating should arrive tomorrow,” Ivor said. The graviton flush tool hummed as he spun the torus around its emitter. “I'll be done here in two shakes of a lamb's tail.”

Vixen's tail, thank you,” Cira said, eyes coming alight for a moment.

“What she said,” Ivor added.

“Let me know when you're ready for reassembly,” Jerry said, giving Ivor a friendly slap on the shoulder. “Now I have a few things to do.”

“Will do, boss,” Ivor said. He watched Jerry leave, then got to work.

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“Well, here they are. The 'breastplates',” Ivor said, opening the box. For the plating he'd decided to buy new for the most critical areas, mostly the torso. They were normally shipped in Walker configuration, but someone had a sense of humor and these were in Fuser mode. “Breastplates,” Ivor repeated.

“And you're gonna fill them out,” Cira deadpanned, floating in the air next to the workbench where each of the pieces were carefully laid out. “Don't worry. They won't be too much of a good thing. I'll make sure of that.”

“Well, thanks.” Ivor picked up each piece in turn and put it in a lifter field, then sent a test signal to have it change to Walker mode. Since he hadn't settled on a skimmer final design yet he avoided testing that. “This nano-motile stuff is amazing. It looks like a solid piece of metal, but…”

Upon sending the signal, the plating turned pliable and changed shape, the breast-bump smoothing out into something more fit for a quadruped's torso. It wasn't something you could fix by just breaking out a hammer and pounding it. Every individual plate had its own systems and subsystems. A dozen millimeter-diameter hardlight lenses were distributed over the inside of the left breast.

“I guess so,” Cira said. “You gonna wear the breastplates like you were doing my head?”

“Now that would be silly,” Ivor replied. “Besides, they wouldn't stay on.”

“I've been keeping track. All you need to do now is add lifters, batteries, and hardlight pelt emitters, then you can attach the plating, and you're done,” Cira said impatiently.

“There's more to it than that. There's system integration tests and good batteries. I'm not going to plug in your core unless I'm sure it's going to all work the first time,” Ivor said.

“This is taking too loooooong!” Cira slumped in the air and retreated under a workbench to sulk. Then she yipped. “And my parents are at your house, and wondering where we are! Crap! I forgot they were coming today!”

Ivor blinked. “You forgot to tell me, too,” he said unhappily. Outside the apprentices' service bay, the Lilac-painted VW van hummed to life at a signal from his implant. It lifted off the ground, wheels retracting (a new modification of his) to make it look more at home in the air. Ivor spent nearly as much time on the van as he did on Cira's new shell. It wasn't the same used “tourist fabber special” the family had paid 142 mu for the day they'd been thawed out. It now sported a pair of impellers that added thrust and could easily push 1000 kph, closing in on the speed of sound, legitimately this time. The van's original owners had hacked the speed governors and fried the old lifters in the process. Conventional lifters “rolled” their grav-field almost like wheels to provide forward motion. A cavorite impeller was akin to a jet engine, dedicated to forward thrust.

What he hadn't told Cira was the lifters he'd bought for the van were also compatible with her new DE shell, though not without some mods he was confident he could do. The only outstanding items remaining on the must-buy list were A+ grade batteries so they could hit that target Mach 1.1 he wanted.

“Let's get moving, Cira,” Ivor said, getting into the driver's seat. The little RIDE zipped over his shoulder and took her normal seat next to him.

Fused Rhianna/Kaylee came out and waved at them as they left. “Good idea! You've been at it for almost ten hours, you two. Even I've learned to take breaks.”

“Cira's parents are waiting for us,” Ivor said.

“Oh…well, good luck,” Kaylee said, grimacing.

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They made it to the house in record time, somehow without getting a single citation for speeding along the way. “Uh, hi everyone, we’re home!” Ivor called cheerfully as they entered the front door.

“Come on in, son, Cira!” Roy called from the living room. “We’ve got some guests, but I expect you already knew that.” He and Arlene were sitting on the sofa, across from two silver fox RIDEs sitting politely on their haunches, tails curled around in front of their legs.

“Hi Mom, Dad,” Ivor said. “And Mr. and Mrs….um…I mean…” Ivor trailed off, entirely uncertain what formal greeting to use for people who only had first names.

“Uh…hi, Mom, Dad,” Cira said to the foxes. “Sorry we’re late. I kinda…forgot the time.”

“We're down to the wire on her new shell,” Ivor said. “In a week or less it'll be ready for testing.”

“Glad to hear it,” Darrik said. “But we were mainly interested in finding out how well she’s getting on with your family so far.”

“She’s getting on really well,” Roy said. “She’s a little high-strung, but that’s to be expected from someone her age.”

“I know both Ivor and Olivia really like her,” Arlene added. “In fact, she helped inspire Livy to apply for a job at the creche.”

Valda peered at Cira, and Cira glanced back for a moment, obviously exchanging data over sideband frequencies. Valda nodded. “I gather Olivia has partnered with a RIDE from the creche herself.”

“Yes, a skunk named Lilac,” Roy said. “They got off to a bit of a rocky start, but they’re doing all right now.”

“We know her parents,” Darrik said brightly. “And she was one of Cira’s friends from inside. I’m glad to hear she’s found a good place, too.”

“We wanted to give our daughter some space, which is why we didn't visit before now,” Valda said. “She's shared the work you've done on her new shell with us. We're very impressed.”

“Uh, thanks,” Ivor said. “It’s been a learning experience all around. I’m looking forward to finishing it up soon.”

“And you’re still planning on crossriding with her when it’s finished?” Darrik said.

Ivor blushed. “Er…well, yeah.

“Why?” Valda asked.

He was unprepared for the bluntness of the question. “Burning curiosity? Seeing my brother-now-sister a very happy woman and wanting a taste of that? Maybe it'll make me a better man if I swap back in three years? Take your pick. I suppose I always felt a little guilty that I wasn't Livy's sister, too.”

Valda nodded. “The sort of thing most crossriders say. And good enough reasons, I suppose. I’ve just known too many crossriders who discovered it wasn’t what they thought they wanted after all, and who then took it out on their RIDE.” She regarded Ivor coolly for a moment. “You can understand we don’t want to see that happen to our Cira.”

“I do, of course,” Ivor said. “I know I'm asking you to put a lot of trust in me. I'm giving her the DE shell when it's finished, free and clear. And whether she’ll still have me as a partner after that will be up to her.”

“And it’s gonna be awesome, Mom!” Cira said. “Even better than the one…well, the other one.”

“The one you totalled,” Darrik said, though his eye was not without a twinkle.

“Yeah, that one,” Cira said, ears drooping.

“But this one won’t have a cracked lifter core,” Ivor said. Honesty compelled him to add, “I’ve been stress-testing the ones I’ll be giving her in my microbus. They’ve taken that crate to a thousand KPH without faltering, so I know they’ll do right by her.”

Cira goggled. “You have? I’m getting those? Oooooh…with the lower mass, I could get supersonic out in the Dry…” She trailed off, stars in her eyes fit to rival Zharus’s night sky.

“As long as it's out in the Dry you can go as fast as you want,” Darrik said. “We have these things called ‘speed limits’ in the polity…”

“I knoooow,” Cira said, rolling her eyes a little. “Wow do I know.”

Roy chuckled. “I remember when Ivor got his first car…”

Now it was Ivor’s turn to roll his eyes. “Daaad…”

Valda turned her attention to Ivor’s parents. “Now that all your children have RIDEs, have you given any thought to finding some yourself?”

“The thought has crossed our minds,” Arlene said. “Though technically we'd be leaving my own mother out of it…though she’s not exactly RIDE-compatible in her current body anyway.”

“I'm sure she'll make the jump out of that brainbox sooner rather than later, hon,” Roy said. “She can hardly leave the house without someone making her an offer for it.”

Arlene smiled slightly. “True. She’s been wishing for a real body again for so long that being presented with the opportunity to have one has basically stumped her.” She shook her head. “But we’re wandering off the topic.”

“We’ve been thinking about it, like my wife said,” Roy said. “It’s just been a little tricky to find the time to do anything about it. And it might be a little harder for us than for our kids, because we need to find a pair of RIDEs who’re compatible with each other, too, not just us.”

Darrik and Valda exchanged glances. “As it happens,” Darrik said, “we’re between human partners ourselves.”

“And we’re impressed by how well you’ve done adapting your family to this new world in such a short time,” Valda said. “Including how well you’ve treated our Cira, and other RIDEs.”

“So if you would care to take on a pair of battered old foxy RIDEs on a trial basis…” Darrik said.

Cira groaned. “Oh no, you're not…”

“We are,” Valda said primly. “If Mrs. Gates and Mr. Stone are agreeable, we could at least Fuse to see if we’re compatible, and see where to go from there.”

“My wife has always been a foxy lady,” Roy said. “What do you think, hon?”

“This is…unexpected,” Arlene said. “I’m honestly flattered.” She smiled. “Sure, let’s give it a shot.”

Cira buried her face in her paws. “I thought I was getting away from my parents…”

“I'm going to have to speed up the shell build,” Ivor said.

“Pfft. You think so?” Cira grumbled.

Ivor grinned. “Sure. If we’re not careful, you might just end up part of one big happy family.”

Roy and Arlene got up from the sofa, giving each other’s hand a squeeze, then moved to stand before their counterparts. The two adult foxes looked at each other, then their fur flickered out and they leaped forward, splitting apart and recombining around the two humans. Then their fur came back on, and the two humanoid foxes turned to face each other.

The room was entirely silent for a moment, as the two new Fusers got to know themselves, and Ivor and Cira awaited the results. “Oh, so this is what it’s like…” Arlene said at last.

“I think this is going to work out,” Roy decided a moment later.

“My life is over,” Cira declared, burying her face in her paws again.

Separator k left.png April 21, 157 AL Separator k right.png

Two days later, the last Walker-mode plating clicked into place on the Drive Extender's torso. A headless metallic vixen the size of a small horse lay in the cradle, connected to external power. This wasn't the final assembly, the reconditioned A-plus-class batteries still needed installation. This was just a test to make sure the plating all snapped into place correctly.

“So, are you going to put my head on the neck or what?” Cira said. “It's going to look funny when you run through the hardlight test if you don't.”

“Okay, okay.” Ivor picked up the completed head in question. It easily latched into place on the spine, making the vixen mecha finally look complete. “Ta daaaa! What do you think, Cira?”

Cira wagged her tail happily. “I’ll take it! When can I move in?”

“Once all the systems integration tests are complete. I'm going to do the Fuser mode-switch first,” Ivor said. “We'll get an idea of what we'll look like. For now, let's warm up the hardlight emitters.”

“Oooh, let's!” Cira said.

Kaylee padded inside, then jumped up on top of a large suspended platform to lay down. It was technically her spot to watch over things anyway. She started licking her forepaws. “Oh, don't mind me.”

“Cats,” Cira said, rolling her eyes. It was hardly the first time Kaylee had come to watch.

“Starting pelt calibration cycle…now.” Ivor sent the command.

There was a little hum before a test pattern snapped on, running through a chromatic sequence, then a basic texture package.

“You know, your parents actually look pretty neat with foxy tags,” Cira said conversationally. “We silvers aren't nearly as popular as the reds or the fennecs.” For all that she’d complained about her parents joining the Stonegate family, she was also quite proud of them, and relations hadn’t actually been as strained as her complaints had suggested.

It helped that both Roy and Arlene had business or other interests that kept them out of the home a lot, especially since they now had their own extremely personal transportation. Arlene was looking into RIDE-rights organizations with whom to affiliate, while Roy was busy researching Laurasian law so he could pass the bar there so as to take Charlene McClaren’s case. Lately it was as rare for Cira to see much of her parents as it was for Ivor to see much of his.

Test cycle completed, Cira's pelt pattern came up on the DE. Silver foxes were technically melanistic, with black skin and fur, with white guard hairs extending beyond the insulating coat and a white tail tip. Her parents had a different take, with the reddish coat replaced with gray. They'd wanted their first kit to be a true silver fox.

“That looks just like me!” Cira squealed.

“Gee, wonder why that could be,” Ivor said.

“Okay, okay. I'm acting kinda childish. I'm sorry. It's just really exciting.”

Ivor chuckled. “Yeah, I know. Feels just like that barebones racing skimmer I put together on Earth.”

“Okay, looks like it passed the hardlight tests with flying colors. I just need to run it through the mode-change testing, then hopefully those reconditioned A+ batteries I ordered from Nujose Sarium Recycling will get here…”

“If you want to field test everything in the meantime we have some decent B-plusses knocking around that'll fit that frame,” Kaylee said. She was a great, tawny-furred lump on the platform, forelegs splayed over the edge. She half-opened her eyes, then glanced at the microbus. The skimmer was up on blocks, pending new cavorite cores. Fortunately the stuff was cheap.

“Let's have it change to skimmer mode first,” Cira said.

Ivor nodded, sending the command. The chassis and plating combination had given them a few options. Cira had decided on an enclosed single-person “flier” to improve on overall aerodynamics for even more speed rather than the standard skimmer-cycle. There was a significant motivation to look very different from her parents, though she wouldn't admit it to herself.

“Sweet!” Cira said, padding around the cradle to peer at the shell from all angles. “That’s gonna be the fastest thing this side of the Dry! I’ll be challenging Katie to races!”

“Not unless you can get avian-spec lifters…” Kaylee said. “Just sayin'. I'm not winning any races with my daughter either.”

“Yeah, they're not Donizetti-spec lifters, but I've managed to squeeze some extra kph out of 'em,” Ivor said. “Now…the big one, for both of us. Fuser mode.”

“Oh, hey, there you are!” Linda purred, stepping in through the same door Kaylee had used a few moments before. She’d was in Fuser form and had shucked her coveralls, which meant she’d quit for the day. It also meant she was effectively nude, since she usually left off her modesty plates when no one else was around. “Ready to knock off? Oooh, shell’s looking fiiiiine, Cira! Really sleek and fast.”

“Thanks!” Cira said happily.

“Why don’cha go ahead and slap those spare batteries we have in there for now and put her in?” Linda suggested, hugging Ivor from behind and peering over his shoulder. “Then we can go out and celebrate while she acclimates!”

“Ooooh!” Cira said, her entire hind end wagging. “I like that idea!”

“Hmm,” Ivor said, trying not to be too distracted by the warm tigergirl body behind him. “We could do that, yeah.”

“I can do that! I can do that!” Cira insisted earnestly.

“I have some errands to run while Rhianna Fuse-naps,” Kaylee said. “I'll mosey along with you, Cira, if you don't mind this old lynx.”

“I'd love to spend the evening with you!” Cira said. “You two did save my life.”

“I’ll go fetch the batteries,” Linda said, pausing to nibble on Ivor’s ear a little before slipping back into the other section of the garage. Ivor rubbed his ear and glanced thoughtfully over his shoulder after her. A few moments later, she came back toting one of the metal storage lockers the garage used to store spare parts and tools. “There you go! Not what you’d want to run a race with, but purrrrfectly adequate for banging around the garage.”

Cira danced from paw to paw. “Ooooh! Put ‘em in, put ‘em in!”

After returning the DE to Walker mode Ivor detached the plating to either side of the spine just forward of the hips. The batteries plugged in with a little wiggle room, which he filled with some shims. The connections firm, he buttoned the vixen back up again. “Time for a little brain surgery.” He looked up at Kaylee.

“Oh, it'll work just fine,” the lynx said. “Core housings are made for handling with sticky fingers.”

Cira trotted up to him, then the light in her eyes winked out. A moment later her head slid forward, revealing the core housing in its socket.

“She did that so casually,” Ivor said with a little shiver. He opened the core compartment on the vixen head he'd been wearing off and on for the past few weeks. There had been some interesting reactions to that habit of his from customers and the other apprentices, though so far none of them had topped what his sister’s skunk RIDE Lilac had done when he’d startled her with it. Even weeks later, he still caught traces of lilac odor in the garage now and then.

The head was missing about a dozen of the unnecessary parts that had caused the mode lock, but it still looked quite feminine. Ivor carefully plugged Cira's core in and secured the top of the skull after getting green diagnostic lights. “Okay, booting up…”

“Hello, world!” Cira said cheerfully. Her pelt flickered on from nose to tail. “Ahhh…”

“Just a second, let me unlatch you from the maint cradle,” Ivor said. He sent the command sequence. “There! How's that?”

The huge silver vixen carefully lifted herself out, landing on the ground. Her claws clicked on the concrete floor as she walked in place experimentally, then she shook herself. “I’m big again!” she said happily, her voice louder and slightly lower but still mostly the same. “Yay!”

A small crowd had gathered, unnoticed. The other apprentices and Rhianna herself. “Congrats, bro, Cira! Your first DE shell build!”

“Still not a hundred percent,” Ivor said. “Need those A-plusses and Fuser nannies. I won't call it a complete success until I cross.”

“It’s good enough for me!” Cira said. She padded over and gave Ivor a big slurp on the face. “Thank you. It feels great! I can't wait to Fuse.”

“You did good, ‘prentice!” Linda said happily. “Now c’mon!” She went up to him and gave him a big hug—then turned her back on him, and a moment later he was seated on LindaCat’s skimmer form right behind LindaGirl.

“See ya later!” Cira giggled as Linda pulled out of the garage before Ivor quite knew what was happening.

“Hey, what’re you—” Ivor said.

LindaGirl glanced over her shoulder at him. “I told ya, we’re gonna celebrate!”

“It’s a special occasion tonight,” LindaCat added. “Could be your last night as a guy.” She sighed theatrically. “Such a loss. Not only is there gonna be one guy fewer to go around, there’s gonna be one gal more to divvy up the rest with.”

“So like we said, celebrating,” LindaGirl finished, giggling. They pulled onto a street by a park and cruised up toward the house at the end.

“Hey, isn’t this where Rochelle lives?” Ivor said as they turned into the driveway.

“Uh-huh!” LindaGirl said. Then the bike pulled itself out from under him, and before he could recover his balance Linda had turned around and converted his backward momentum into a dip, after which she pulled him back to his feet and planted a kiss full on his mouth.

“Mmph!” Ivor said.

“I don’t suppose you’d mind not shutting his brain off before we’ve had the chance to talk to him?” Rochelle asked dryly. She was standing in the doorway of her house, wearing a robe over Uncia’s minima shell.

“Aww, just thought we’d get some licks in early!” Linda said brightly.

“Looks like you were doing just a little bit more than licking!” Rufia said, looming from behind Rochelle.

Linda giggled and released Ivor. “C’mon. The spoilsports want a chance to bore you to death ‘fore we get to have any fun.”

“Come on in, Ivor,” Rochelle said. “Have a seat on the couch. It’s time we all had The Talk.”

“‘The Talk’?” Ivor asked. “I already know about the birds and the bees, you know.”

“The Earth birds and bees, maybe. But you don’t know about the Zharusian bird RIDEs and bee nanos yet!” Rufia said cheerfully. She and Rochelle retreated to the living room. Ivor and Linda followed them in, Linda pulling the door shut behind them.

In the living room, Rochelle and Rufia had a couple of easy chairs pulled up across from the couch. A coffee table in the middle had four cups and a carafe on it, from which Rochelle proceeded to pour coffee as Ivor and Linda seated themselves. Yvonne was lying on a RIDE mat in the corner, legs tucked under her body.

“So, this is the part where we talk to you about what you’re about to get into,” Rochelle said. “Now that you’ve finally got Cira’s new bod finished and all.”

“We’ll have your crossrider party the same day you cross,” Rufia said. “So consider this the anti-party.”

“That’s where we try to bring you down instead of cheering you up,” Linda supplied helpfully. “We'll go over the pros too, so you can make a good decision.”

“Assuming, of course, you didn’t already make your decision weeks ago,” Rufia said, adding lots of cream and sugar to her coffee and slurping it noisily. “Aaaaanyway. Crossriding is a lot like becoming a nun,” she continued. “It’s a big decision that’ll change your life for a long time, and you don’t get to back out of it easily.”

“But on the bright side, you’ll get more sex than most nuns,” Linda added.

“Stay on message, people,” Rochelle said. “Ivor, have you seriously asked yourself why you want to do this?”

At a loss for what to say, Ivor decided to start with what he'd told Cira's parents. He pulled it verbatim out of his implant memory. “Curiosity? Seeing my brother-now-sister a very happy woman and wanting a taste of that? Maybe it'll make me a better man if I swap back in three years? Take your pick. I suppose I always felt a little guilty that I wasn't Livy's sister, too.”

“Bullshit, kiddo,” Rufia said pleasantly. “I knew you for a few years before coming here, ya know. You weren’t one a’ those people pining that you couldn’t cross over without the gum’mint having a cow. Far’s I know, you hardly bothered with it even in VL beyond the obligatory ‘looka me, I’m a gurl’ phase everyone goes through. And then here you are, feet still frozen from cryo, suddenly deciding you don’t wanna be what nature made you anymore?”

“Hey, now!” Linda protested. “At least he has a reason other than ‘it was cheaper that way.’”

“Ooh, touche!” Rufia acknowledged. “Yeah, he has a reason. I don’t think he’s told himself what the reason really is yet. Everything that’s come out of his mouth so far sounds like something he invented to justify it to himself.”

“All right, so what do you think my reason is?” Ivor asked testily.

“Ain’t it obvious, kiddo? You always did hafta try to be better than Ryan at everything,” Rufia said, gesturing with her half-empty coffee cup. “Now you show up here, he’s gone and girled himself, and he’s—she’s—happy that way. And you just can’t stand there being something you can’t outdo him—her—at. It was cute when you were a teenager. Now…less so.”

“Now wait just a minute here,” Ivor said. “You’re acting like that’s the reason for everything I do.”

Rufia shrugged. “Well, isn’t it? That’s why you got into fixing skimmers back then, and fixing RIDEs now. And probably why you had that big crash I heard left you mostly cyber even before you came here.” She shrugged. “That being said, I’m not gonna try to talk you out of it. Not only would it not work, but the whole experience will pro’lly do you some good anyway, though maybe not for the reasons you think it will.”

“It’s nothing like you think it will be, you know,” Rochelle said. “Have you ever been…I dunno, so drunk you couldn’t think straight—”

“Yep,” Rufia said happily. “He has!”

“—and then afterward you couldn’t remember what it felt like? It’s like that. Whole new state of mind. VL, those silly hardlight suits, can’t really prepare you for it. You’re gonna be disappointed…and you’re gonna be ecstatic. At the same time.”

“And that’s why I’m doing it,” Ivor insisted. “I want to…experience that. And I do want to give Livy the sister she never had. Another one, that is.” Between Rhianna and Olivia's RIDE Lilac, she already had three.

“You tell yourself that now,” Rufia said. “But are you still gonna be telling yourself that in a few months when you still got more than two years to go ‘fore you can change back?” Rufia shook her head. “Well anyway, I’ll get to say ‘I told you so,’ so it’s kind of a win-win for me either way. I just think you oughtta know what you’re getting into, kiddo. This is Sydney all over again.”

“I was twelve,” Ivor sputtered.

“And you're over twice that now,” Rufia said. “But I have yet to see convincing evidence you’ve actually grown up any.” She put her cup down and stood up. “Anyway, I’ve said my piece. And once you’re ‘Ivy,’ I’ll be happy as the rest to take you shopping and stuff. Just don’t say I didn’t warn ya.” She nodded to Rochelle and Linda, and grinned. “Hope you two have fun with him. He’s too much like family for me to wanna stick around for the rest.”

“See ya later, Rufe!” Rochelle said. “Thanks for coming by.”

“Thanks for the coffee.” Rufia nodded to Yvonne, who hopped up and trotted over. They Fused up, then let themselves out.

Ivor watched her go, then turned back to Rochelle. “…‘the rest’?”

Rochelle loosened the cinch of her robe, and grinned. “Well, this is the part of the night where we either talk you out of crossing by reminding you what you’ll lose…or wear you out so badly you want to cross even more out of self-defense.”

Linda licked her chops. “We do hope there’s enough of you to go around.”

Rochelle chuckled. “Oh, don’t worry on that score. With my pheromones…there will be.”

Ivor grinned at them. “Well…if this is gonna be my last night as a man for three years…let’s make it one to remember.”

Rochelle slipped out of the robe, and reached back to shake out her hair. “Oh, trust me, you’re not gonna forget this for a good long time.” She took one of his hands, and Linda took the other, and together they led him into her bedroom and closed the door.

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“I want you to understand a few things about my brother, Cira,” Rhianna said, leaning against the maintenance cradle. “Now, I'm not trying to say you shouldn't crossride him, but there's just…a few things you oughta know.”

“Like what?” Cira said. The silver vixen sat on her haunches, her head level with Rhianna's. “I've known him for a few weeks now. He's a good friend—my first real human friend, too. What's left for me to know that I won't get by Fusing?”

“That's the thing about Fusing, youngun,” Kaylee said from her platform. “You learn things about a person maybe even they won't know or admit to themselves. You also tend to pick up bits of their personality—and they yours. Ivor may think he wants to be a girly girl like you, but who knows how he'll react if he picks up some of your genuine girliness?”

“He wants to be what he thinks a girly girl is—which is not necessarily the same thing as what a girly girl actually is,” Rhianna said. “He may be in for some disappointment.”

“I ain't no girly girl,” Kaylee said. “And Rhianna sure ain't either.”

“And my brother wants to outgirl me,” Rhianna added. “That's just the way he is.”

It started to dawn on Cira what the duo were trying to tell her. “But, I don't know how to be a human girl. Does AnthroVille count? They try and simulate a full human-ish society in there.”

“I had a look-see in there, meeting some young'uns in a classroom. It's close enough for guv'mint work,” Kaylee said. “You're going to have to help 'Ivy' along, try not to let her hormones run away with her. Rhi here had that problem, too.”

“The thing that Ivor just doesn’t understand is that there is no real way of ‘being a girl,’ human or otherwise, in any sense apart from the physical,” Rhianna said. “There’s just being. The rest is just…cultural window dressing, as Ferris would say.”

“That much I suppose I understand,” Cira said.

“And, of course, you will be gaining access to his memories,” Kaylee said. All of his memories.” She rolled her eyes. “Every time I help a Creche-born RIDE partner with an adult, I feel like I’m corrupting a minor.”

“Too late,” Cira said. The silver vixen smirked. “I already crashed my first shell doing something stupid. Anyway, do you really think I don’t know about the birds and the bees? I’ve got Google. I've been reading and watching a lot of crossriding testimonials. I took gobs of human psych courses in AnthroVille school. I think I know what to expect.”

“Maybe you do. But…one more thing,” Kaylee said, jumping down from her platform. She headbutted the Creche-born vixen affectionately. “There's also a simple fact that, once he crosses and finds out it’s not what he expected, Ivy may decide it was the exact wrong thing to do. This ain't a slight against ya, young'un. So, please don't take it as one.”

“When you get right down to it, Ivor really isn’t so different from a lot of people his age, back on Earth. Something about modern Earth society just makes them stay immature longer. He's almost thirty and still doesn’t really know what he wants out of life, and doesn’t realize that he doesn’t know what he wants.” Rhianna rolled her eyes again. “So he latches onto the first thing he can think of, and goes for it with all his might, and when that doesn’t do it, he moves on to something else. He’s going to have a lot harder time moving on this time.”

“Can’t rightly say as I blame him, too much,” Kaylee said thoughtfully. “For fixating on Ryan, at least. He just took the wrong lesson out of it. Only reason Ryan did so well for himself was that he just got out and did something original. But instead of doing something original himself, Ivor always thought he needed to do exactly the same thing Ryan did.”

“Doesn't matter what I tried, he'd always copy-cat me,” Rhiainna grumbled. “Age of majority is twenty-five on Earth. I was out doing 'charity work' when I was twenty. It really took some convincing so Mom and Dad would let me. But, it got me away from him.”

“Okay, okay. I get it!” Cira said testily. “Now can we go do something fun? I want to try my skimmer mode.”

Kaylee laughed. “Okay, young'un. Let's see what those hotshot lifters can do out in the Dry. Remember you've only got B-plusses installed, so I don't recommend more than 500 kph.”

“Don’t worry, I learned my lesson about racing,” Cira said. “Boy did I ever learn my lesson about racing.”

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It was late morning before Ivor was able to drag himself back to consciousness. He opened his eyes to find himself nestled between two furry bodies, neither of whom showed much inclination toward moving. As he shifted experimentally to see if he could extricate himself with a minimum of embarrassment, Rochelle opened her eyes and yawned Uncia's feline muzzle. She was in Uncia's full-sized shell, which was odd; she'd started out in the minima skinsuit and Ivor didn't remember her changing up. But then, there were quite a few things he didn't remember about last night, including the present location of his pants.

“Ready to go again, lover?” Rochelle purred playfully.

“Er…” Ivor checked his internal chronometer. “Actually, I think I'd better go, period. Cira's gonna be waiting for me.”

“Awww…well…hold on, let me call you a taxi…” Rochelle said, yawning again.

“All right…” Ivor said.

“Ivor? You're a taxi.” Duty accomplished, Rochelle rolled over and went back to sleep.

On Ivor’s other side, Linda stirred. “Ladies and gentlemen, our hostess. She’ll be here all week.” She yawned and stretched, her body moving in interesting ways against Ivor’s back. “Well, I suppose we had better see about getting you back to the garage.” She rolled out of bed to make room for Ivor to get up. “I think your pants are over there.”

“Thanks,” Ivor said dryly, gathering his clothes and pulling them on.

Linda regarded Rochelle, still snoozing right along in bed. “Watch this,” she murmured to Ivor. “Ahem. 'Well, I guess I'll go fab some coffee…'”

Rochelle sat bolt upright in bed. “Not in my house you don’t!” She paused. “…oh.” She glowered at Linda. “That’s dirty pool and you know it.”

“Well, come on!” Linda said. “Since you’re up, you can make coffee.”

Ivor dragged himself into the kitchen after the two girls, feeling considerably less than rested. In fact, he was starting to suspect he knew the origin of the old stories about succubi who drained their victims' life essences through intercourse. “Drained” just about summed up how he was feeling at the moment.

“I know what you need!” Rochelle said cheerfully, shoveling the freshly-milled grounds into the Mr. Coffee. Rochelle's kitchen was a study in the numerous methods to make coffee. There was everything from a Keurig single-cup, a percolator, three different espresso machines, a French press carafe, in addition to the classic Mr. Coffee. Most of them didn’t actually seem to see much use, as Rochelle thought the simple ways were the best. But she kept them all around, much like an antique skimmer collector who didn’t actually drive most of his cars.

“Let me guess. Coffee, right?” Ivor asked skeptically.

“Actually, I was going to say you need to Fuse so the Fuser nanos can flush the fatigue toxins out of your bloodstream,” Rochelle said. “But coffee will do in a pinch.” She put the coffee on to brew.

“Rochelle’s coffee is almost as good as Fusing,” Linda said. “Mmm, smell that!”

Rochelle poured for them, and all three sipped their steaming cups together. “Well, that’s that, then,” Rochelle said, smiling. “Your last night as a man, at least for a while. What did you think?”

“I think it’s a good thing that’s my last night. Another night like that just might kill me,” Ivor said wryly.

Linda giggled. “We’ll have to try harder next time.”

“So, any regrets?” Rochelle asked. “Things you meant to do as a man, but never got around to?”

“I can’t think of any off the top of my head,” Ivor said. “Before last night, I might have said ‘be used to exhaustion by two beautiful women at the same time’ but I think I can mark that one off my bucket list.” He grinned. “Now there’s just one girl on my mind, and I think it’s high time for me to go meet her.”

“Well, I'm interested in meeting her, too,” Linda said. “We'll have a lot of fun. We'll give you a real crossrider party.”

“I feel exhausted already,” Ivor said.

“But before we get started, there’s just one more thing I should go over with you,” Rochelle said, seriously. “Have you ever really wanted something, and then been really disappointed when you got it and it turned out not to be like you thought it was going to be after all?”

Ivor rolled his eyes. “Right, right, I get it. Crossriding is going to be nothing at all like I expect it is, I’m going to hate it and want to die. Blah blah blah.”

Rochelle shrugged. “Just trying to make sure you go in with realistic expectations is all. I hope you’ll enjoy it every bit as much as you think you will. And I’ll be behind you all the way after you’ve done it. Seeing life from a woman's perspective is worthwhile.”

Linda put her empty coffee cup down and stood up. “Well anyway, let’s get this show on the road.” She took Ivor by the hand and led him out the front door to the driveway, where she once again turned around in front of him and de-Fused into skimmer form with him riding pillion behind her. A moment later, Rochelle and Uncia followed suit. Together, they pulled out of Rochelle’s driveway, and headed back toward the garage.

So, this is it, Ivor thought. My last hour as a man…maybe. He could barely admit to himself that Rochelle's and Rufia's words had sunk in even a little. This was the road ahead, for three years at least. He'd hardly had time to adapt to his new world, now…this? Still, other former Earthers had done the same, either by accident or on purpose—including the VL rights activist Aleka Petrovna. So why shouldn't he?

They pulled up to the garage to find Cira waiting outside of it, pacing back and forth impatiently. “There you are! Geez, don’t you ever check your messages?”

“I was just a little busy, Cira…” Ivor said as Linda once again Fused out from under him. He was ready this time, and didn’t lose his balance.

Rhianna and Kaylee came out of the garage a moment later, nodding to the others as they arrived. “Well, this is it Ivor,” Rhianna said, grinning. “You ready?”

Ivor gave her a searching look. “Aren’t you going to try to talk me out of this, too?” he asked.

“What good would it do? Every time I’ve ever tried to talk you into or out of something, it’s always made you all the more eager to do the exact opposite.” Rhianna chuckled. “So, my lips are sealed. This is something you’re just going to have to work out for yourself.”

“Good luck with that,” Kaylee added.

“Am I too late? Have I missed it?” Olivia came riding up on Lilac’s skimmer form. “Oh good! You’re still a guy!” They pulled to a halt, fusing up into Lilac’s lilac-colored Fuser form. “Okay, carry on!”

First thing was installing the Fuser nannies. The uprated batteries were still on backorder, but due for delivery by tomorrow if not sooner. Ivor gestured for Cira to come over. He gave her a welcoming petting around her neck. “You ready for this, Cira?'

“I've had a lot to think about, but yes,” the silver vixen said cheerfully. She shut down the hardlight over an access panel on her left shoulder. “I hope you'll like it.”

Fuser nannies were fussy little beasts. They weren't as robust as other nanite types, and needed precisely-controlled environments in order to function properly. They sparkled rather dramatically inside their clear reservoir container—just five centiliters were enough. He popped open the access panel and plugged them in, then shut it again. “Okay, Cira. Heat 'em up.”

“While I'm doing that, why don't we all head home? Doing this here…doesn't feel right,” Cira suggested.

Ivor considered that. Change sexes in front of the family instead of a group of co-workers and garage patrons? “Not a bad idea.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Rhianna said. “Though of course Rochelle, Linda, you-all are invited too.”

“All right then, let’s go!” Olivia cheered. “I’m paging everybody to let them know to be there. Once you're done Lilac and I'll help you girl up your bedroom!”

“Uh, thanks, sis,” Ivor stammered as Cira changed to her sleek, wedge-shaped skimmer mode. I think. “Happy with that mode, Cira?”

“It's fast, even with the Bs!” Cira replied, revving her impeller. “Vroom!”

“Then I guess I should mount up,” Ivor said, climbing into the single-seat cockpit. The hardlight canopy deployed, making the whole thing resemble an enclosed, aerodynamic motorcycle. In fact, the intent was to make the whole thing as small and streamlined as possible to eke out as much impeller power as he could. The overall shape suggested a vixen's narrow-muzzled head, complete with stabilizing winglet “ears”.

“Lead on, bro,” Rhianna said, mounting up on Kaylee. Olivia, Linda, and Rochelle’s RIDEs also returned to skimmer mode, and the impromptu convoy headed for the Stonegates’ residence.

:Centi for your thoughts?: Cira asked in her 'trying to be mature' tone. :I'm not going to hold anything against you if you decide not to follow through. We'll always be friends, Ivor.:

:Aw man, not you too!: Ivor replied. :I am absolutely going to go through with it! Period! If I backed off now, I’d be curious forever. Even if this is yet another mistake, it’s a mistake that can be fixed in three years. I only wish that were true for every mistake I’ve ever made.:

:Then let's do it!: Cira said. :Infracells up! Dynotherms connected! Fusers are go! Just say the word.:

“Better have everybody come outside, Livy,” Ivor said aloud. “I’m not leaving this cockpit while there are still four letters in my name.” The canopy flickered out as they pulled up in the driveway, so Ivor was clearly visible for the last time.

The parents—Ivor's and Cira's—came outside, followed by Socah. A moment later, Rufia pulled up on Yvonne, followed by Ferris on Franklin. “Looks like the gang’s all here,” Rufia said.

“And I'm about to be the solitary Stonegate son,” Ferris said. He looked rather stately with his antler stubs and dark brown elkish ears—and a black, textured nose to match. He and Franklin were rarely seen apart.

“Speech! Speech!” Uncia cheered.

“I really have no idea what to say,” Ivor said. “Cira?”

“Sorry, Uncia. I got nothing,” Cira said. “Well, any words of wisdom from the 'rents?”

“Any words I have can wait until after Ivy joins us,” Arlene said. “They're not for male ears.”

“Oh, one of those things, huh?” Roy said. “I suppose that's what you and Rhi chatted about?”

“Yes indeed,” Arlene replied.

Moved by a sudden impulse, Ivor unfastened his pants where nobody could see, and reached down to feel within them one last time. Like most parts of his body, it was intimately familiar to him. He knew every centimeter by touch. What was it going to be like to have something completely different there? Or, rather, not there? One way to find out. Say goodbye to the little soldier…

:Okay, Cira.:

Before Ivor had even finished speaking, Cira had begun to shift and contract around him, going from skimmer vehicle to form-fitting suit of powered armor. Moments later, he was standing there, covered in silver-black fur, with a big bushy tail sticking out behind and a long vulpine muzzle sticking out in front—and breasts. Oh Lord, were there breasts.

The Fusers were busy, doing what they were designed to do. He couldn't feel, exactly, what they were doing, which was a blessing after he gave it some real thought. It was like being immersed in a carbonated spa. His flesh…fizzed. In hardly any time at all, Ivy was being born.

:This will take about ten minutes to bake.: Cira said. :Why don't you say hello to everyone? What do we look like, anyway? Some of the Fuser control firmware has some rather interesting features.:

“So, Ivy, how do you feel?” Olivia asked.

“Strange,” Ivy said, in Cira’s voice. She paused. “That sounds weird.” She looked down at herself. The fur was to be expected, of course; it was exactly the same fur Cira had in her walker shape. She should, she supposed, have also expected the breasts. After all, women did have them. They did seem rather large, though that might just have been a trick of perspective—she’d never looked down at breasts on her own body before, outside of VL at least. She lifted her hands, examined them front and back. They were feminine hands, furry on the back, with paw pads on the palms and fingertips. The nails were halfway between fingernails and vulpine claws. Her legs were digitigrade, with something closer to canid paws than human feet.

Ivy glanced over her shoulder at their tail—essentially the same tail Cira had in her walker form. She wagged it back and forth experimentally. “Well, that’s certainly new. Never had one of those before.”

“There's our girl!” Valda said excitedly. She had Fused with Arlene in the excitement. She embraced her child. “Oh, your first Fuse! You always remember your first.”

“Three daughters and three 'adopted' daughters,” Arlene added. “What am I going to do with all of you?”

“Go shopping?” Rufia suggested.

“The first Fuse is a big rite of passage for Creche-borns,” Olivia said. “I've been learning a few things.”

“Guess that makes me the odd woman out,” Socah said. The old woman was now the solitary un-Fused human in the front yard. She had taken to dressing like a 1920s flapper girl, with a bob haircut rather than the mohawk she'd previously sported—though since it was all hardlight, she could look however she wanted at a moment’s notice. “She looks…good. No mistaking a body like that for male.”

:Oh. I found the operator manuals for this chassis,: Cira said. :They were in a memory location that only unlocked on Fuse.:

:Really? Let me see. Maybe it’ll finally tell me what model number you are.: Ivy pulled up the first manual to take a look, then stopped and stared. “Welcome to your new Sturmhaven RIDEworks BBV-PSA-001A Pleasure Support Armor!” it began.

:What’s a “Pleasure Support Armor”? I’ve never heard of…: Cira paused as she reached out to the network for more information. :…oh.: Then she paused a lot longer as she digested it. At last she said, in a much smaller voice, :…I really don’t think we ought to tell my parents about this.:

Ivy turned to gaze suspiciously at Rhianna and Kaylee. :You knew about this all along, didn’t you? Is this your idea of a joke? I know you were all about letting me make my own mistakes, but this…:

Rhianna sent across an emoticon of a lynx grinning like Miyazaki’s catbus. :Relax, little sis. It’s not like you think. RIDEs are versatile—just because it’s a BBV doesn’t mean you have to use it for “that.” Lots of people and RIDEs get BBVs just because they like the feature package. Anyway, that one’s from Sturmhaven, where everything they do is about women first, so it’s not as ridiculous a design as most of them are.:

:Trust us—if we’d thought it would be a bad bod for Cira, we would have said so, for her sake,: Kaylee added. :We're confident you both can handle it.:

The sensation of flesh-in-motion started to slow, and Ivy knew that the gross physical changes were complete now. There were only the fine details left.

:So, how big you want 'em?: Cira asked, giggling. A vitruvian woman-style diagram appeared in Ivy's vision. :I have about half an alphabet’s worth of options, not to mention hips and derriere…so, what's your pleasure? I can make you busty and curvy like Rhianna, athletic and pettanko like Olivia, or anything else, really.:

:Let's just…go with something…uh…normal for now. Average.: Ivy stammered. :If I want to change it later you can do it then, right?:

:Can do! Just gimme another minute and you'll be ready to come out of the oven,: Cira said. “She's almost ready, everyone!” she announced.

“Why don't we all go inside,” Arlene said. “I don't think my new daughter would want her 'coming out' on SNN tonight.” She pointed at a media floater hovering about a hundred meters off.

“Good idea,” Rochelle said. “Though you can bet it’ll be in the gossip rags already.”

Everyone shuffled indoors and put the living room windows on privacy mode. Rufia and Ferris cleared away the furniture so Ivy and Cira would have the space to themselves.

“Stick a fork in her. She's done,” Cira said. “Ready, Ivy? This is the big one.”

“I don’t think I could get any readier,” Ivy said warily. “Let’s see it.”

Cira's Fuser form peeled away slowly, retracting, folding, compacting back into Walker as it left the new woman behind. Arlene raised her vixeny eyebrows and looked at Roy. “Well, she looks a lot like you, doesn't she?”

“It's the black hair, I think,” Roy said. “Though might be something in the face, too. Funny, that. Ivor looked more like you than me.”

Her first impression were curves, and breasts that were only just large enough to be obviously there under the re-tailored gray work coveralls. Further down were other sensations that, perhaps, were best ignored for now. She glanced over her shoulder just as she had in Fuser to see her new bushy tail. And her ears twitched, which was actually more distracting than her new ladyparts.

Before Ivy could get a second look, Olivia de-Fused and hugged tight. “Hey there, sis! Three's a magic number for girls, you know.”

“I guess so,” Ivy replied. She resisted the urge to clear her throat. “How do I sound?”

“Like a mix of Mom and Livy,” Rhianna said. “So…how does it feel?”

“Not…wrong, I suppose,” Ivy replied, letting Olivia go.

“It's not supposed to,” Cira said. “You're supposed to feel like a girl, totally, in the brain an' all that.”

“Hmm,” Arlene said. “Very curious how that works, but I won't be swapping Valda for Darrik anytime soon.”

“Maybe someday,” Roy said.

Ivy nodded, feeling a little lightheaded. She put the palm of her hand on her forehead. Her skin felt so smooth. Everything, so smooth. “If you don't mind, I think I need a little time alone.”

“Don't take too long, Ivy,” Rufia said with her elk-shark grin. “We have a party planned for tonight.”

“Before then, we need to replace your wardrobe,” Olivia said with an equally sharky grin. “No home fabber on this one, doll.”

“Is that a promise or a threat?” Ivy quipped. “Only if Rhianna comes, too. We're doing this together.”

“Sure thing, little sisters,” Rhianna said.

“Excuse me, everyone.” Ivy fled for her bedroom. :Nothing against you, Cira. I just…need a few.:

:I think I know how you feel,: Cira said. :I've never done that before, either. I…think I'm going to go lay down for a while.:

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Cira was awash in Ivor’s memories, feeling disconnected and adrift among the years of experiences that had just been dumped upon her. She had never felt anything like this before in all her virtual years of existence. There had been memory downloads from other RIDEs, but they had all been carefully sorted and indexed. But human minds didn’t have that orderly arrangement. She felt…she supposed the closest analogue was “hung over.” It seemed to fit, judging from the memories of all the times Ivor had been.

In the midst of it all, a VR invitation from her parents and Lilac caught her attention. She seized on it like a lifeline. A few seconds later, the vixen RI surged into the homey VR environment, a pleasant clearing with a picnic table in the center. Her parents and Lilac were in anthro form, just like AnthroVille. It was a comfortably familiar scene after all the strangeness in her core.

“Have a seat, dear,” Valda said. “I've rezzed cheddar mouseburgers. Your favorite.”

Comfort food, she thought. Since she hadn't gotten a taste of food in the Real yet, she rushed to the table, tail wagging. “Thanks, Mom!” She peered at the skunk, who was busy behind an easel. “C'mon, Lil. Come eat.”

“Can't talk. Painting,” the lilac-colored skunk said. She looked from behind the easel, holding a brush between her teeth by the handle. “And no offense, Valda, but after eating for reals I don't think I can do virtual food anymore.”

“Awww,” Cira said. “Your loss. Mom's rez-ipe is the best.”

“Enjoy it while you can,” Lilac said. “Boy have you got something to look forward to.”

Cira's parents waited long enough for their daughter to eat before they brought up the last hour of realtime.

“You always remember your first Fuse,” Darrik said. The elder fox regarded his daughter with empathy. “Human minds aren't built like ours.”

Cira nodded emphatically. “I can't even index what I have properly! I have a headache…I think. All of a sudden I know what it's like to be a human man. It's really funky. If being Fused for ten minutes does that to me, what happens when, well…maybe we're out in the Dry and we stay that way for a couple of weeks?”

“It can be a little tricky sometimes,” Valda agreed. “Especially since you don’t have the benefit of the preparation that the factories gave us.”

“Try keying onto major events in your partner’s life—her greatest successes or failures, the things she remembers most vividly,” Darrik suggested. “Don’t try to examine them too closely, just do several passes, linking the memories that are the most connected, then the ones connected to those, and so on. Build chains, and eventually all the chains will link together into a single timeline, more or less.”

“It’s like a puzzle game,” Lilac put in from behind the easel. “Gets you ready for the bigger puzzle, which is trying to figure her out after you’ve got all her memories in order.” She snorted. “Good luck with that. Livy still confuses me from time to time.”

“How’re you getting along with Ivy’s Mom and Dad these days?” Cira asked her parents.

“I can't say Roy and I are a perfect match,” Darrik said. “We've had a few rather strident arguments over some cases he's taken. But we get along.”

“It's much the same with Arlene and myself. Sometimes that's all you can hope for,” Valda added. “Romantic notions of finding one's 'other half' aside.” She shook her head. “But the important thing is, they’re good people. They don’t treat us like objects—quite the opposite. If we’re not head-over-heels in love with each other, we can still be friends. Good friends. So there is that.”

Since Cira had been a kit, her parents had discussed Fuse on numerous occasions with varying degrees of success. Her friends had talked about it in hushed tones, like adolescent humans gossiping about sex. Lilac had tried to describe the experience, but there was really no comparison to actually doing it.

“Hey,” Valda said, putting her handpaw on her daughter's shoulder. “Are you going to be okay? We can spend a few virtual days in here if you want.”

“No, I think I can cope,” Cira said. She scanned the memories she'd indexed for significant events. “There's…let me see, two major life events that she…oh wow. Sydney.”

“I'm not actually surprised,” Valda said. “I remember that incident from Arlene's perspective.”

“Mom, you don't understand,” Cira said breathlessly. Her virtual burgers felt like lumps of concrete in her stomach. How to describe it to them? Worst of all, Ivy still didn't really realize the gravity of what almost happened there. Cira was often thought of as immature, reckless, even childish. In AnthroVille there was never any real danger of death. They did simulate serious injury and realistic recovery times just to keep Creche-borns from getting too reckless, but there was only so much.

Twelve-year-old Ivor had had none of those safeguards, armed with nothing more than a naïve idea that he'd join his older brother wherever he was and help him out in whatever he was doing. The world outside the wealthy arcology where the family lived was a dangerous, unfriendly, and often lethal place. Young Ivor just didn't get it.

All he could think about was how he'd really show his idol that he could do what Big Brother Ryan could, and better! It didn't matter what Ryan was doing, he'd do better! Except, these feelings had been tucked into Ivor's subconscious. What he told himself was that he was just going to visit for a day or two and head home again. There was just the little matter of hiding what he was doing from his parents…

The emotions young Ivor felt were more important than the specific events, though a few images stood out very starkly. The friendly-looking man at the Sydney airport after Ivor had called Ryan—the way the man smelled, like a musty old leather coat that had never been washed. Ivor had never seen real leather before. The man was just so friendly.

The next thing in Ivor's memory was a huge, muscular man giving his new friend a monster uppercut.

Cira replayed this sequence to herself over and over again. The man was built like a brick and all muscle—he was the future Rufia. As Rufus, he reminded Cira of Wreck-It Ralph, or maybe Ryu from Street Fighter II giving a dragon punch. Shoryuken! Wow!

Ivor's memories and emotions after that monster punch were too scrambled to make further sense of. She'd have to remain Fused for several hours next time. But she was pretty sure that neither Ivor nor Ryan had ever told their parents exactly what had happened that day.

“You don’t understand,” Cira said again. “Ivy makes me look like a stable, mature adult. Even after that crash…ugh. The crash.”

Lilac squeaked and dashed over to hug Cira from behind. “Wow! You smell rattled, Cira. What's wrong?”

“But the crash wasn’t completely your fault—” Valda began.

Cira shook her head. “No, not my crash. His. The one that gave him all those metal parts. No wonder he was so sympathetic to mine. Compared to his, mine was rear-ending someone in a parking lot.” She shrugged. “Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration. We both nearly died. But at least I was just racing. He was…grandstanding in that skimmer race. Like he was trying to be Speed Racer. Trying to outdo his absent brother Racer X—I mean Ryan. I mean, what he imagined Ryan would be doing had he stayed. Racing barebones skimmers.”

“I did get that sense from Roy’s recollection of the event,” Darrik said. “But he seemed to have learned his lesson.”

“That’s the thing,” Cira said. “He…what he was feeling and thinking then…it’s the same as he’s been ever since he got here and saw Rhianna. It's like he suddenly became that twelve-year-old kid who showed up in Sydney again, or the twenty-year-old who lost three limbs.”

“Regression, then. I see,” Valda said. “I will admit, we did expect something like this was going to happen, from the time we first met Ivor.”

Cira blinked. “You did? Why didn’t you…say anything?”

“Because this is something you have to learn to deal with,” Darrik said. “With every partner you take, you’ll learn the things they never tell anyone else—themselves included. Remember the courses in human psychology you took—neuroses, denial.”

“I think I'm really seeing why they're required now,” Cira said.

“We often end up as counselors by default,” Valda said. “Because we are literally the only ones who can know the full extent of our partners’ problems. And Ivor’s problems seem…fairly tame, as humans’ problems tend to go. I once Fused with a woman who had paranoid schizophrenia. I had to take some rather extreme measures to protect my personality core. Now, though, I can choose who I Fuse with. So can you.” She smiled, foxy tongue lolling. “Your father and I think you made a good first choice.”

“Not least because it led to us finding quite decent partners ourselves,” Darrik said.

“I have such a headache,” Cira moaned, resting her head on the picnic table. “But…”

“But…?” Darrik asked. “But what, dear?”

“I'm not letting this stop me,” the young vixen said firmly. “Ivor—Ivy—really needs a wake-up call. And it looks like I volunteered for the job.”

“It's worth it, Cira!” Lilac said emphatically. “Every minute of it.”

“That's our girl,” Darrik said proudly. “All grown up.”

“Now I just have to see that my partner gets there, too,” Cira sighed. “Well…maybe she’ll get some of it out of her system at the party tonight.”

“We can only hope,” Lilac agreed.

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Okay. Okay okay okay. Ivy shut the bedroom door behind her, locking it. She even disconnected from the net except for a return ping if someone was concerned. That done, she sat down on her bed across from the dresser mirror and took some deep, calming breaths.

Okay. She pulled down the zipper on her coveralls all the way to her groin. Breasts, cleavage, mons, cleft, and all were right there. Every soft, curvy centi. What's the right reaction here? How would Rhianna have handled it?

She didn't know what the right reaction was, just how she felt at that moment. It was…strange, even a little depressing, like Christmas just after all the presents were opened. Weeks of anticipation were suddenly gone, replaced by a vague feeling of unfulfillment. Ivy twisted around to see her bushy, black, white-tipped fox tail. Almost forgot about that for a minute.

Her reflection was the expected fox-eared young woman who did bear a stronger resemblance to her father than her mother now. It might have been the long black hair, or some conceit of genetics the Fusers picked up. But there was no doubt she was a Stonegate. Ivy stood up and let her coveralls fall to the floor. Cira hadn't fabbed a bra.

Somehow, taken together, it was less jarring than having her cyber parts replaced with new flesh. This just meant that Cira was right, the Fusers had done their work to her brain. She had a female brain that recognized this shape as the right one.

I suppose this is where I'm supposed to make sure all my new parts are there, but… There would be plenty of time for that. She pulled her coveralls back on and went back downstairs, trying to summon some enthusiasm.

“Well, Ivy? What do you think?” Cira asked hopefully. Everyone else awaited her answer.

“I think it's just fine, Cira. Thank you.” Ivy wagged her tail, then looked at her sisters. “I wouldn't mind a little family help with the new wardrobe.”

“You can count on me!” Lilac promised. “I love to sew!”

“Don't forget the crossover party tonight, m'girl.” Rufia said, putting her hand on Ivy's shoulder. “You're gonna love it.”

“Or love hating it,” Rhianna said, grinning. “Grand old Zharusian tradition, designed to deliver the maximum possible embarrassment at one time. Get it out of the way all at once, pull-the-bandaid-off-quick kinda thing, so it doesn't get strung out forever.”

“I can hardly wait,” Ivy said dryly.

“First things first. Let's find her a nice dress,” Rhianna said. “Something stereotypically girly. Then we'll go from there.” She nodded at Kaylee, who Fused up.

“And I'm going to get a few meters of fabric!” Lilac said. She Fused with Olivia. “You have to let me make you some outfits, Ivy.”

“Uh…yeah, sure,” Ivy said. Cira asked if she could Fuse, Ivy nodded.

Now that all three Stonegate sisters were Fused, Olivia put her furry skunk arms around the lynx and the silver vixen's shoulders. “Now this is what I'm talking about!” she cheered.

“Well, you girls have fun,” Arlene said. “Shop and celebrate. I’m not going to step on your Big Day. But sometime soon, Ivy, we're having a little chat. This is the same chat I gave Rhianna a few days after we landed, and the one Olivia got at age sixteen.”

“And I imagine it's similar to the one I gave you and your sisters at the same age, Arlene,” Socah said, eyebrow raised.

“What's this talk about?” Ivy asked.

“Oh, just things Man isn't meant to know,” Arlene said.

She was trying to hide her discomfort, but with Cira's enhanced senses it was obvious to Ivy. Even Roy and Ferris were sweating a little.

Rufia chuckled. “One teensy problem with that. The categories are malleable here. At least every three years they are.”

“I'd say that was a positive effect if it wasn't for places like Sturmhaven and Cape Nord,” Arlene said. “The mere existence of those polities sets back gender equality centuries.”

“I’d differ with you on that just a teensy bit,” Rufia said. “Those places are like roach motels for sexists. They can go there and be happy, and then they don’t bother the rest of us while we get on with life in the real world.”

“One crusade at a time, dear,” Roy said gently. “Anyway, like your mother said, you girls go have fun. Don't stay out too late.”

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“Ivy? Ivy? Which dress do you want, girl?” Olivia's voice broke through her new sister's navel-gazing. Ivy's little sister held two of them—a 60s psychedelic pink gogo dress and a red “fire coral” 2010s strapless dress. “Well? You are one distracted gal.”

“The first few hours are, Livy,” Rhianna said. “Give her some time.”

“Psychedelic doesn't really do anything for me,” Ivy said. She paid for the strapless and some panties with her implant then took it inside the dressing room. It felt good to shed the coveralls, and the new silk panties felt good. She put on the dress, then picked up the makeup mask she was borrowing from Rhianna, adjusting it to a casual setting before putting it on for the five seconds it needed.

:Thanks for getting the hardlight version, too,: Cira said. :Hey, are you okay? You haven't said much for a half hour.:

:I've got a lot to think about right now,: Ivy said, posing in front of the dressing room mirror. She decided she looked almost as good as Rhianna had when she'd first seen her, wearing that blue evening dress…except, there was something missing. :When we Fuse, bump me up a cup size, will you? I need to fill this out better—a little more jiggle.:

:Will do. Wanna do it now? I want to see how I look in that,: Cira said. She stuck her head into the dressing room. “Oooh, you're pretty! I've got the rest of that ensemble. You humans need shoes.”

“Come on, Ivy! We want to see before you and Cira Fuse up,” Olivia said. Rhianna had barely said anything through the whole shopping trip.

After giving Cira a hug, Ivy made her entrance, spinning around so the skirts fluttered.

“You look great, sis!” Rhianna said. “I don't have a strapless in my closet, myself.”

Ivy smiled. “Oh, you don't?”

“My turn!” Cira exclaimed. She Fused, and when their pelt came back on it included the hardlight version, then twirled around herself. “Oooh, I love it! Love it!”

“I have some ideas for outfits for you both, myself,” Lilac said.

“Sounds like a good idea to me,” Ivy said. Ivy felt a tingle on her chest as Cira did as she asked. She looked sideways at Rhianna's chest. :And…make them noticeably bigger than hers.:

:Really? What happened to ‘make me average’?: Cira replied.

:You can change me back later,: Ivy said. :I won’t know for sure how large I want to be ‘til I’ve tried different sizes. And I want to fill out this dress right now.:

:Well, okay, if that’s what you want,: Cira replied, not sounding entirely convinced. The tingle intensified a little more. Then she de-Fused.

“Uh…” Rhianna said, blinking. “They're very, uh, nice, Ivy.”

“What the hell?” Olivia deadpanned. “Your boobs looked fine before, but I guess it's natural to want to experiment. I'd never ask Li to give me boobs that size. Yeesh. My back aches in sympathy.”

“Mine are annoying enough working in tight spaces,” Rhianna said, arms folded. “But, okay. Just step lightly in that dress. What do you want now? I saw some great jeans…”

“No pants,” Ivy said firmly. “Skirts, dresses, are all fine. But this time, no pants.”

Rhianna and Kaylee shared a look, sharing something private.

Even Olivia was taken aback. “Oooo-kay, then. No pants or shorts. How about a long dress, then?”

“Works for me,” Ivy said. It felt like there was something inherently girly about wearing a garment that really only stayed up because of her breasts. “It's…if I'm gonna do this, I'm going all-in, okay?”

“That's what a lot of crossriders say, right at first,” Rhianna said. “And you might look back and regret it, later. But, I'm not going to say no. I did it, too. Later I'll tell you how I threw myself at Zane wearing a dress 'girlier' than that.”

“Estrogen is a helluva hormone,” Kaylee deadpanned. “Let's get it out of your system.”

Ivy smirked at her older sister. It was a familiar expression. Rhianna was now on notice.

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After shopping was finally finished, Rhianna and Kaylee left Ivy to preen and pose with Cira in front of her bedroom mirror and headed for Cheers, where the crossrider party was planned in a private room. They met Rufia and Yvonne, who were already there setting up. The Party Room looked like an estrogen bomb had gone off inside. There were beefcake images on the walls, lacy pink tablecloths, and a growing pile of gift boxes on one table.

“So, don't tell me,” Rufia smirked at Rhianna. “Second adolescence, right? A little bird told me she came back from shopping about three cup sizes larger than when she left.”

Rhianna facepalmed. “Tell me I was never that bad. I don't think you were ever that bad, were you?”

Rufia chuckled. “I didn't let you see me at my worst. Apart from that time I made a pass at you, anyway.”

“I'd forgotten about that,” Rhianna said. “But you had a worst, really?”

“There are four dresses hanging in my closet,” Rufia said. “I don't think I've worn any of them more than twice. Ugh.”

Rhianna grinned. “Now that I know that, I'm going to make you go out with me in one of them sometime. Maybe a double-double-date with you and the elkbois and us and Zane…”

Rufia shook her head. “Oh no. No, you're doing nothing of the kind. Trust me, it's not a pretty sight.”

“Oh, c'mon,” Rhianna said. “There's nothing wrong with you that you wouldn't look nice in a dress. You're tall and brawny, yes, but you've also got great curves. Now I really want to see you in one.”

“Speaking of dresses, what about Ivy's wardrobe?” Rufia said, hastily changing the subject. “Strapless dresses, right?”

Rhianna rolled her eyes. “Almost all of them. And the assets to hold them up.”

Rufia chuckled. “I wonder if she'll even be capable of being embarrassed at the party tonight. We'll just have to see.”

“You should've seen the look on her face after she put that first dress on,” Rhianna said, sending her an image. “Look familiar?”

“Lordy Lord Lordy,” Kaylee added.

“That's the same smug bastard expression Ivor had when he showed up in Sydney,” Rufia said. “You remember, from right before we pounded it through his head what had almost happened to him at the airport…” The elk-eared woman sighed. “We'll hafta be really careful here, or she's liable to do something really stupid, like get herself preggers just 'cause you haven't been.”

“Well, I doubt she's…” Rhianna paused. She wiped her hand across her forehead. “Forget it. She just might be that stu—enthusiastic. I just hope Mom gives her the Talk very soon. There's just no way she's going no-periods.”

“Yeah. She's gonna need those tampons. So…what did you buy her as a crossriding present, anyway?” Rufia asked with her sharky grin.

“Oh, I figured she'll get enough lingerie. So I got her something else,” Rhianna replied, returning the grin. “Maybe not quite traditional, but the spirit's the same.”

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In the months since the Great Reveal, Diane’s Cheers bar had become a considerably more popular night spot, or rather all-day spot, than before. Between the actions of Diane and her staff on Domefall Day and the overall cachet of having been run by a secret Integrate for years, it had gone from being a cozy little hole in the wall few knew about to a sometimes-crowded place where even reserved rooms had to be booked days or weeks in advance.

Even her own employees were pestering her to expand, but the doe Integrate wasn't ready for that yet. She still insisted, “All this will blow over and we’ll be back to normal soon, mark my words.” Rhianna privately thought she was grasping at straws. It had been months since Domefall and business had shown little sign of slacking.

Fortunately for the prospects of Ivy’s crossover party, Diane always kept a room or two back for her closest friends. Even if she was prone to grumble from time to time about how much busier they’d made her life lately.

The room was only medium-sized but still large enough to hold everyone expected to attend. Outside of the garage staff who’d worked with Ivor over the last few weeks, Rhianna had limited the invitations to family and close friends, with the media definitely excluded.

Even then, not all the family had been interested in coming. “The last thing she needs is her parents around making her feel even more awkward,” Arlene had told Rhianna. But Socah had decided to attend, in her new public persona as a young-looking woman. She was very interested in Gondwana’s RIDE and RIDEr culture, and saw this as an interesting opportunity to learn more before she became eligible for it herself.

Even before the Reveal, Cheers had been a popular place for crossover parties and was likewise very crossrider-friendly, even by Gondwanan standards. Over the years Diane had seen it all, from the flamboyant to the new girls (or guys) who were so reluctant they'd fled on seeing the party décor—only to be dragged back bodily.

Rhianna and Rufia and their RIDEs were talking with Diane and her clouded leopardess co-bartender Serena on the other side of the room as the door slid open and Ivy swept in.

Ivy might have stepped out of a Sam Spade novel, a dark-haired femme fatale wearing a slinky red strapless dress and high heels that clacked on the floor as if they were hooves. Kaylee whistled via her rider's implant and fed her something from a blog post five hundred years gone that was perfectly appropriate. Her fluffy tail and fox ears somehow completed the ensemble, like a fur stole but in a different position.

“They’re the kind of dames who can wear floor-length gowns and look completely naked,” the blogger had said. “The kind with hair piled up on their head like compliant serpents, or falling down in smooth lustrous waves. Dames with hard faces and mocking smiles and eyes that sized you up and found you wanting…but you’d do, for now.”

Cira, tongue lolling happily, strutted in behind Ivy as if it was just a day at the beach, apparently unaware of the effect Ivy had on the crowded bar. A few genuine wolf-whistles broke the sudden silence before everyone went back to what they were doing.

“Hello, boys,” Ivy said in a sultry tone she had probably practiced for the last few hours. “Hello, Rhi, Kay.”

“Hey, foxy lady!” one of the wolves called back. “What's your sign?”

“Wow,” Rhianna said. “That's…”

“Pure fanservice?” Kaylee quipped. “Jessica Rabbit would be green with envy. She's more of a Forties pinup girl than you are.”

“I'm shocked and amazed,” Rhianna said dryly.

Diane's ears flicked back and she wrinkled her cervine nose as if she could smell the estrogen in the air. “Oh great, this is going to another one of those crossrider parties, isn't it?”

“Seen enough to get sick of them?” Rufia asked the deer Integrate.

Serena smirked. “It's not that, precisely. More that it brings back bad memories for her—or at least embarrassing ones.”

“Sereeeena…” Diane said warningly.

“She'd like you to believe she took it like a trouper, but the truth is she got into it a little ‘too-too’ much,” Serena said, carefully emphasizing the words.

Diane glowered. “One more word out of you and you're staying after hours.” She rolled her eyes. “Oh, all right. Since this blabbermouth spilled the beans, I might as well show you.” She sent across a clip, seen through the eyes of a RIDE just off-stage, of a blonde human woman dancing the lead on stage while music from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake played. Her feathered headdress didn't quite hide the cervine ears poking up out of her hair, and her face wore an expression only describable as pure feminine bliss. “Go on, laugh,” Diane dared them. “I know you want to. It took months to learn those moves, even with Faline helping. We hoofers are natural ballet dancers, you know. Always tippy-toe.”

Rhianna shook her head. “After the show I put on at the summit, I'd be some kind of a hypocrite to laugh.”

“It's nothing to be ashamed of,” Rufia said. “All those weird new hormones do funny things to a brain that isn’t used to them before you sort yourself out. You live all your life on DC current and then suddenly switch over to AC, you're bound to blow a few fuses.” She snorted, elk ears flicking. “You should see the macho crap new guys think they have to do to feel 'manly'. Heh. It's all in good fun, mostly. That’s one of the big reasons for crossover parties—tell them, ‘In a few months, you’re gonna be embarrassed as all hell about all this, but it’s okay. We’ve all been there, so we won’t laugh. Too much. Though we reserve the right to say 'I told you so' a few times.'”

“Hey, I'm standing right here!” Ivy grumbled.

“Yeah, just like in Sydney,” Rufia replied flatly. Then her expression softened, and she smiled. “But I gotta admit, you look gorgeous in that getup. If you're going to go completely femme, now is the time to find your comfort zone.”

“I hope that strapless number is comfortable,” Rhianna said. “I never liked them.”

“And those heels,” Rochelle put in. “Wow. How on earth did you learn to walk in them so quickly? If I didn’t have my nanites overriding my body language, I’d never be able to stay on my feet.”

“She had help,” Cira said proudly.

“Oh, of course.” Rochelle grinned. “Well, good for you. That’s a great look. Come on back, the party's waiting for you two.”

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On the outside, Ivy was beautifully composed, moving with Fuser-instilled grace. On the inside she was a mass of nerves and a roiling stomach that threatened to derail the whole evening. Only her tight self-control didn’t let it show—but she got the uncomfortable feeling that everyone else saw through it anyway.

The one problem with the look was it required Ivy to keep up the facade…because the facade was all it really was.

:It's not something I did, is it?: Cira whimpered.

:Not at all,: Ivy reassured her as Rochelle guided them to their seats at the table of honor. :Just butterflies. I’ll get over it.:

Cira nosed the small of her rider's back with a large cold and wet nose, almost making her jump. :I hope so, Ivy. I'd feel really bad if it was more.:

“First order of business,” Rufia announced. She took a huge twencen wireless microphone from a stand set up on the stage. “Karaoke! Time to exercise that new girly voice of yours, Ivy. Take a look at the song list. All selected to make best use of a female voice. What's your fancy?”

Lilac's eyes lit up and the skunk Fused with Olivia. “Ooh! Ooh! Me first! Please? Please?

“This is Ivy's party, Lilac,” Olivia said gently. “We can go after her. Hand her the mic, Rufe. I wanna hear my sister's new voice singing…I dunno…what's traditional here? I can think of a few holotunes from Earth…” Olivia smirked through her RIDE's skunk muzzle.

“In that femme fatale getup she could go full Jessica Rabbit,” Rufia said.

“Okay, I'll do it. I'm a good sport,” Ivy said nervously. “Queue up that…Jessica Rabbit song. Who Framed Roger Rabbit, huh? I'll add it to my growing must-see twencen movie list.”

Get out of here,

get me some money too.

You're sittin down and wonderin what it's all about.

If you ain't got no money, they will put you out.

Why don't you do right,

like some other men do?

Ivy's singing was off-key, even with the help of her implant, and her attempt to dance seductively threatened to make her break into giggles, even as most everyone else tittered at the new woman's nervousness. But no one made a big deal out of it. It was simply par for the course for a party like this.

Unable to finish the song in the sultry tone of voice, she gave in to the nervous laughter, only to get a comforting hug from Olivia and Rhianna in turn that released a few tonnes of tension.

“They made me sing 'Girls Just Want to Have Fun' at my party,” Rhianna said. “I'll never live that down. I'm a horrible Cindi Lauper. Don't worry. It's all in good fun. I think you'd have a great singing voice with a little training, though.”

“Hey, it’s karaoke. You’re supposed to sound terrible,” Rufia said. “If you can actually sing, you should be doing Gondwana's Got Talent.”

“Can I go now?” Lilac said.

Ivy handed the microphone over. “Knock yourself out.”

After Lilac, Olivia, Rochelle, and a couple of others had their turns, Rufia took the microphone again.

“All right, so this kind of party is supposed to be about embarrassing someone half to death,” Rufia said. “Well, I've decided it's kinda cruel not to spread the embarrassment out a little, take on some of it myself. So with that in mind, I'm gonna do the song they made me sing at my crossrider party, as close to how I did it back then as I can remember how.”

Rochelle blinked. “Oh my. I've heard about that, but she didn’t do it at my party.”

“Not too surprising. We do tend to go a little light on the embarrassing stuff when the crossing wasn’t entirely by choice,” Rhianna said. “But ‘Ivy’ is getting it out of both barrels.”

“Back when I crossed, this song was all the rage for new female crossriders,” Rufia said. “Mainly 'cuz it gave 'em an excuse to try to be as girly as they could, and what new girl doesn't want that? So let me see, how did I do it back then…” She reached up to pull some of her hair forward to hang in front of her face in a peek-a-boo style, and cued a cheesy 1980s synthesizer and drum machine riff.

The song was about wanting a “man-size” love, with lines like “passion in control of my tenderness,” “bring me your action of passion,” and, perhaps most amusingly considering who was singing it, “show me you're a man-size man.” Scenes from an '80s buddy cop movie, featuring Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines in a car chase on Chicago's elevated train tracks, showed on the wall display behind Rufia as she sang.

Rufia performed the song with ridiculously-exaggerated “girly” body language, moving back and forth to the music, casting smouldering one-eyed glances at the audience. It provoked plenty of giggles—including a few nervous ones from Ivy, who got the feeling she was being subtly ridiculed.

Cira snorted in the back of her mind. :You call that ‘subtle’?:

Rufia finished the song and took a deep cleavage-exposing bow, her hair flipping forward and back as she came upright again. “So, who’s next? Anyone?” She held the mic out for a moment, then when there were no takers put it back on the stand and stepped down from the stage.

“I don’t think anyone wants to follow that,” Rhianna said. “Now I really want to see you in a dress sometime.”

“Hey, whoa, what?” Rufia said. “Didn’t you see how ridiculous I looked up there?”

Rhianna chuckled. “I saw you girling it up, yeah. But there’s a difference between bad acting and good but hammy acting. You have to be good to be that hammy.”

“Curses, she’s seen through my clever subterfuge!” Rufia said. “Quick, where’s the flashy-thing?”

:I can’t believe even Rufia is more girly than I am,: Ivy grumbled.

:Give it time,: Cira said. :She’s had years to practice.:

But the good news from Ivy’s perspective was that Rufia’s performance closed out the karaoke portion of the evening as nobody indeed did want to try to follow it.

:Wow, I'm glad that's over!: Ivy admitted to Cira.

“Preeeeesents!” Rochelle sang.

Ivy's stomach twinged again. :Spoke too soon.:

:Looks like it,: Cira replied. She gave her rider a affectionate virtual slurp on the side of the face. :Hey, don't worry about the presents. There's no way they'll—:

:Don't say it,: Ivy said. :Don't tempt Murphy. Watch as I turn red all the way down to my nipples.:

“I always love this part,” Rufia said, grinning. “The ‘traditional’ gifts are fun and all, but the best part is seeing the nontraditional ones people come up with.”

A set of pink tools from the Garage staff, from Olivia a twencen makeup kit that depended on the skill of the user rather than just putting on a mask, a selection of racy lingerie—lacy, velvety, satiny textures—and from Rufia, a red licorice bra-and-panty set. Next to last was a rather suspiciously plainly-wrapped box from Rhianna. “Do I really want to open this now?” Ivy asked.

“There's nothing in there that'll make you blush—probably,” Rhianna said, grinning.

“That's not an entirely trustworthy look on your face, sis,” Olivia said. “Open it, Ivy. I gotta see.”

The contents actually gave Ivy her first genuine smile. “Hey, I remember these dolls!”

“You should. We played with them together for months when we were little,” Olivia said. “Rhi walked in on us that one time and you got all embarrassed.”

“I was seven,” Ivy said. “Little boys aren't supposed to play with dolls, even in the twenty-fifth century. I was just…being a good sport and playing with Livy.”

“He never did that again after you found us, big sis,” Olivia said reprovingly. She stuck her tongue out at her oldest sister. “We had a huge, flashing Keep Out marker on the door for a reason.”

“Mom asked me to check on you two. Why do I get the feeling that there's a little more to this than I thought?” Rhianna asked.

Ivy decided that if there was any time to come clean about something potentially embarrassing, it was at this party. “I was being Livy's pretend sister,” she said sheepishly. “For the Zharusians in the room, that was before we could get Virtual Life cyber-implants, so we couldn't both be girls in VL at that age.”

“Here I thought Earthers were cybered up from birth,” Rochelle quipped.

“No complex implants until age fifteen, barring special circumstances like serious injury,” Ivy said, taking one of the Cutie Pie dolls out of the box. Unlike most popular toys they were just dumb synthetic rubber—a lot like the Barbie dolls that were once again popular on their new homeworld.

“So wanting to be a girl really goes back that far for you?” Rufia said. “Not just a spur of the moment welcome-to-Zharus thing?”

Ivy shrugged. “I didn't say I ever wanted to be a girl. I was just being a good big brother and playing with my sister, you know? Little kids don’t really know what they want, but they pretend a lot of things. I think it was more that I didn’t like her feeling bad about not having a real sister.” She glanced over at Olivia. “Well, now she does, twice over.”

Rochelle smiled. “Well, welcome to the club.” She leaned in close and whispered. “All right, I know this is going to be like a red flag to a bull, but seriously, I’d reduce those.” She glanced down at Ivy’s overly-generous chest. “Added to all the other little ‘tells’ you’ll have for a while until you’re used to girling, they’re the biggest possible ‘used-to-be-a-guy’ giveaway. You don’t want that kind of baggage when you’re meeting new people in your first few months. Trust me, I know about unwanted baggage.” She rolled her eyes. “You decide you really like ‘em that big, go back to it after you’ve gotten rid of all the other signs.”

“I’ll…think about it,” Ivy said, looking away. Okay, maybe she has a point. Livy isn't any less girly with her figure…

Anyway, I'm going next,” Rochelle said in a louder voice, passing over a small gift-wrapped box. “Now, if I were being traditional, I’d be giving you some ‘No Periods, Period’ nano-treatment,” Rochelle said. “But something tells me you wouldn’t be using it anyway. And besides, after the nanotech study I’ve put in, I can do a little better than that.”

“You've caught my interest, Shelley,” Ivy said, smiling again. “What is it?” She opened the box and held up a tube of silvery fluid.

“It’s sort of a ‘training wheels’ version of the Fuser nanos I’ve got,” Rochelle said. “Just the programmable body language part, basically. It'll make your movements more natural.”

Ivy blinked. “Really? That’s great!” She paused. “Though I wouldn’t say no to the part that makes your hair act like that, either.”

Rochelle chuckled, tossing her head to set her long white hair swirling around her in slow motion. “I know, and I did consider throwing that in, too, but I decided not yet. You should get used to your body the way it is before you start changing it up. I didn’t have that option, and I think it actually set me back a few months in learning to deal with the change.” Rochelle ran a hand through her hair, stilling it again.

Ivy blinked. “Set you back…wait. You’re not telling me you used to be…?”

“I used to be ‘Roger,’ yes.” Rochelle smiled again, her dimples showing. “And now I’m not. Maybe I ‘cheated’ a little by not mentioning it, but the point is that I want to be defined by who I am now. Not who I used to be, since I’m not him anymore and probably won’t ever be again. And if you find you like your ‘new’ self, you can have that too.”

“You're the girliest girl who ever girled,” Ivy said, gawping at Rochelle. She remembered how she’d been in bed, the night before—every bit as feminine as if she’d been born that way. “I never…”

“That's partly the nanos,” Rochelle said. “As for the other part…well, you’ll pick it up in time. The secret is not trying too hard.”

Ivy shook her head, then pushed away a lock of her wavy black hair from around her fox ears. “I just…don’t get it. You were one of the people I wanted to be like. I never thought that…”

“That you could be even more like me than you thought?” Rochelle grinned. “Look. No matter what I tell you, it’s not going to help. Nobody can tell you what being female is, it’s something you have to experience for yourself. But for me, the moment came when I fully realized I didn’t have to try to be the girl that I’d have wanted to date when I was a guy, and should just instead relax into being whoever the hell I actually was instead.”

“But I’m not trying to…” Ivy began.

Rochelle waved it off. “I know. You’re not trying to do anything, you just can’t help it. My working theory is that you have to be a girl long enough to start forgetting what being a guy was like for it to happen, at least the first time. That’s why second adolescence always lasts for months. Don’t worry about it. Enjoy yourself. You’re only a girl the first time once. From what I’ve seen, you should figure it out on your own sooner or later. We usually all do.”

“All right…if you say so,” Ivy said. She didn’t sound convinced.

“Anyway, check back with me in a year or two if you still even want the rest of the nano-perks, and we’ll talk about it then.” Rochelle shrugged. “A lot can change in a year.”

“Works for me,” Cira added. “The Fuser firmware I have isn't bad, but there's a few things it just can't do well. I had to ham-handedly write that sultry walk of Ivy's into her muscle memory.”

“You didn't do badly, Cira,” Uncia complemented, patting the silver vixen on the shoulder with a forepaw.

“The ones Uncia has are bleeding-edge, expensive out of all proportion to their usefulness. If she hadn’t been a rich girl’s toy, I’d never have gotten anywhere near them.” Rochelle chuckled. “I’m just glad the patents expired a couple of months ago, so Nextus Nano can’t sue me for making derivatives.”

“Body language is one of those things most crossriders can't master right away without some Fuser help,” Rhianna said.

“You do want to be careful with it, though,” Rochelle said. “Walking around with suggestive body language on can be…well…suggestive. Except for special occasions, the biggest thing I use the mod for these days is to keep from falling over and braining myself in high heels.”

“C'mon, girls. Less talk, more booze,” Rufia said. She looked at the scantily-clad horse-tagged waiter who was busy serving them. “Hey, studmuffin! Gimme a Long Island Iced Tea. In fact, make it a double.”

“Oooh! Can we have one of those?” Uncia said. “After all, they’re just tea, right?”

Rochelle snorted, then reached out to stroke the top of the snow leopardess's head. “You’re incorrigible, you know that?”

“And who’s the one who keeps incorriging me?” Uncia replied.

“I could do with some incorriging,” Cira said, swishing her tail, looking at her rider plaintively. “Can I try some? Pweeeze?”

After the night's events so far a stiff drink sounded good to Ivy right then. She nodded “Sure, Cira. Fuse up.”

:Hey, thanks Ivy!: Cira said once she did. :You're the best.:

:Just remember I'm the one actually getting drunk here,: Ivy added. :And I don't know how much tolerance I still have. Probably not much. And…uh…:

:What?: Cira asked. Though the Fuser link she figured it out. :Sure, I'll drop you a couple cup sizes. Kinda heavy, aren't they? I was going to suggest a lifter bra.:

Clothed in RIDE, Ivy let herself feel some relief once she had her own cocktail in their handpaw.

As the party wore on, the lights gradually dimmed. By the time anyone noticed it, a spot light lit up the door to the main bar. The doors opened up and two short, muscular men in chef's coats wheeled in a cake with sparklers. The cake was three tiered, with white icing and pink frilly swirls that upon closer inspection proved to be rather adult. The top tier was topped with a fabric top hat.

“Another surprise?” Ivy asked, looking around the room.

Rhianna, Rochelle and Rufia exchanged looks, then shrugged. “Not one of ours,” Rochelle said. “You guys didn't make any calls, did you?” she asked the RIDEs. The RIDEs shook their heads.

The introductory riff of an upbeat Sinatra version of “The Lady is a Tramp” began to play as the Chefs stood on either side of the cake. A light glowed under the hat, flattening out into a hardlight sheet that cut the cake in half. It flared a few more times in time with the intro music, dividing the cake into quarters, and then eighths. The still sizable pieces slid outward, letting the hat drop down onto an orange and black striped head that was rising up. The figure rising from the cake started singing the first verse as he was revealed, a tiger striped cat, dressed in a tuxedo.

“Scratch!” Ivy shouted in surprise, moving to the front of the group.

The integrate grinned and winked at her, not interrupting his song. The Chefs held up their hands to support him as he stepped between the cake slices and off of the table. He approached her, not missing a beat when he tipped the top hat onto her head. Behind him, the chefs pulled out a hatrack and set it up in front of the cake.

He backed up to the rack and hung up his walking stick, before pulling off his gloves. He hung up the coat on the last verse of the song, before the beat changed, becoming faster. On the first crash of symbols, he tore open his shirt, revealing a sequined tank top underneath, and he started dancing around the hatrack in time with Robert Palmer's “Simply Irresistable”.

By the end of the song, he was hanging off of the pole, upside down and naked, grinning at the cheering women around him. The music stopped and he dropped down, landing lightly on his feet.

“Scratch! What are you doing here?” Ivy asked once the crowd calmed a little. Diane and the studly waiter were further divvying up the cake for everyone.

“After our night in Aloha, you didn't think I would miss this, would you? I've been on standby for this for weeks,” he explained, grinning like the proverbial cat who caught the canary. He leaned against the new vixen Fuser and daringly rubbed the base of her new tail before presenting her with a box. “My gift, for you and your friends here,” he announced.

Ivy opened the box up curiously, and a flock of fireflies flew out of it. Each fly sought someone in the room and landed on her shoulder. The biggest landed on Ivy's nose before flattening out into a ticket.

“Tickets to the Chippendales show at the Gold Coast for everyone,” Scratch announced with a wave of his arm. “And for the NeoFemale, seats at a table front and centre of the stage, in perfect range to look and touch, for you and as many as you can fit around said table.”

“I don't know what to say,” Ivy stammered out in surprise.

Scratch put a claw to her lips. “Don't say anything. Just enjoy this sample of what you'll be able to experience.”

While they were distracted, the cake table had been rolled to one side, and the chefs had changed clothes. One was now in a red and gold hawaiian shirt and shorts, the other had a leather coat, whip and fedora on. They had taken up positions next to a pair of poles that had been set up, waiting for the signal. Both of them had chipmunk RIDE tags that were just visible.

Rufia grinned and waved at them, getting a wave back. “This is going to be good! I thought I knew those guys from back in Aloha!”

“‘In the Biblical sense?” Rhianna asked dryly.

“They invited me backstage after one of their shows, and, well.” Rufia chuckled. “I sort of stand out in the audience, and big men like that do get tired of tiny little women…”

Scratch stepped back from Ivy and raised his voice while swinging his arm to the men, “Direct from Aloha to your party lounge. I introduce to you to the stars of the Chippendales show. Chip! And Dale!”

The music kicked off and the men started dancing to the whistles and cheers of the admiring and aroused women. Watching them, Ivy swore she felt her ovaries thumping with the beat. Scratch had been a good dancer; but these men were professional.

:You want to know what your hormones are doing right now?: Cira asked in a smarmy tone. :Humans! Always in heat!:

:Oh…nono. Please don't get technical about this,: Ivy replied. She'd had a single strawberry-lemon sangria cocktail and the buzz it left behind was just enough to loosen her up. She felt hot, tingling all over. “Just let me enjoy…oh, wow.”

The party simply ended after Scratch and the two dancers did their routine. There was nothing they could do to top that, and it was well after midnight.

Scratch had extended an offer to Ivy to “try out her new equipment,” but he hadn’t tried to force the issue, and after a moment’s temptation Ivy had asked for a rain check. It was still too soon, and there would be plenty of time. Scratch had just nodded like he’d expected it, and told her to call him anytime she wanted a no-commitments night of passion. From the pair of hungry looks he was getting from Rufia and Rochelle, Ivy suspected Scratch wouldn’t sleep alone tonight in any event.

:Home at last,: Cira sent through Fuse. She landed them smoothly on the front lawn. :I can help you get rid of all this booze in your system, you know.:

:No, I'm okay. The whole point of being drunk is to enjoy it as long as it lasts. Anyway, got a lot to think about,: Ivy replied. :You've—:

:Dropped you to a C-cup, yes,: Cira said primly. Her voice shifted, taking on a surprisingly motherly tone. :You want me to put you to sleep? You've had a day and a half, Ivy.:

“Ah, sleep. Sleep sounds good,” Ivy said aloud, then giggled drunkenly. “You know how comfy you are, Cira? Good night…”

Separator k.png

Ivy held a cold can of hangover cure against her forehead. Breakfast could wait until the sight of sausage didn't remind her of last night's dancers. It was only her mother and herself at the table this morning. Cira was recharging in her bedroom alcove and the RIDE's own mother, Valda, was doing some morning errands for the household.

“It can't help if you don't drink it, honey,” Arlene said gently. “Did you sleep well? I remember how hard it was when I was a teenager having to adjust to my breasts. And I remember the effects of the wild sorority parties in college.”

“I Fuse-slept, Ma,” Ivy said. She finally popped open the can and drank half of it in one swig. She started feeling better almost immediately. “Nothing felt squished, if that's what you're getting at.”

“That’s good,” Arlene said. “We do still have that Talk to go over…” She watched her new daughter squirm uncomfortably for a moment, then relented. “But we can save that for later when you’ll be less distracted by a hangover.”

Thank you,” Ivy said with feeling. A call came in on Ivy's implant from the skimmer garage, marked urgent. Ivy picked up. “Jerry. Good morning,” she said, trying to sound like a cheerful, well-adjusted young woman. “What can I do you for?”

“I've got something that needs your magic touch, Ivy,” Jerry Usinov replied without missing a beat. “Can you come in early? This is a rush job.”

“It must be bad if even you can't fix it,” Ivy said, perking her ears. She signaled Cira and brought her into the call. The silver vixen indicated she was coming downstairs. “We're on the way. Details?”

“You'll see it when you get here,” Jerry said, smiling.

“You've piqued my curiosity,” Ivy said. “We'll be there soon.”

“Let's go!” the vixen said excitedly, jumping up and down. Ivy followed her outside where she changed to her sleek skimmer mode. Jerry's Garage was only a few minutes away. They Fused on arrival so Cira could fab her rider's new work coveralls.

Ivy saw it before they even landed. It was a positively ancient Earth skimmer, dating from the time when cavorite was still extremely expensive and could barely do more than make a skimmer gravitationally neutral. It was so old it had a small gas turbine for power and four vectored-thrust ducted fans for propulsion that retracted into wheels on the ground. She knew it on sight.

“It's a 2370 Ford HoverLux Model 100,” Ivy said. “This was one of the first real skimmers!”

“I'd call it the Model T of skimmers, myself,” Jerry said. “The owner brought it from Earth when she immigrated. All original parts and kit, until recently in working order. It's got a problem I just can't pinpoint, and I'm not gonna take anything apart with lifter kinetics because I don't know if I can put it back together again.”

“All original parts?” Ivy asked, hands itching to pop open the engine compartment in the back.

“Yes, and that's the rub,” Jerry said. “They made these things ragnarok-proof, but there's something wrong with the lifter balance I can't even simulate. I don't want to replace the cav if we don't absolutely have to.”

Ivy tapped into the garage's diagnostic systems and downloaded everything Jerry had on the HoverLux, cross-referencing with the hundreds of skimmers she had repaired or restored on Earth. Although the HoverLux was over a hundred Earth-years old its computing systems were largely the same as those still used on the homeworld. It was made to handle as much like a ground car as possible, complete with GPS “freeways in the sky”.

“The owner dropped it off here about three hours ago. It's on its way to the Nextus Concours d'Elegance,” Jerry said. “I, uh, promised it'd only take four hours to fix. He wants it ready for the car show this afternoon.”

Ivy and Cira both stared at him. “You what?”

“So, yeah. I should've called you when it arrived, but didn't want to bother you after your party last night,” Jerry said sheepishly. “If there's anyone who can fix this classic in an hour, it's you.”

In Ivy's implant, she examined the problem from all angles, with Cira watching over her virtual shoulder. “It's not the cav causing the imbalance. Cav this old has a lower grav-resonance by design. They were being really careful not to overcharge and fracture it. It's why this stuff lasts for so long.”

:It's probably the Quantum Graviton Stabilizer,: Ivy told Cira. :The QGS on these models were really finicky with their power feed connectors. They replaced them with Integrated Gravitic Regulators in the cav torus about fifty years ago.:

:I'm not sure I understand what the difference is,: Cira said. :But you're the expert here. What do you need to do to fix it?:

Every skimmer shop manual and enthusiast magazine ever published (at least up to when they’d left Earth) were in Ivy's implant, even the antiques. Not even the Zharus planetary skimmer database had what she did. Still Fused, Ivy opened the engine compartment and extended a camera stalk from Cira's fingertip. “Ah hah! Thought so. The power connector looks firmly attached, and it reports that way to diagnostics, but it isn't. See that gold bit? You shouldn't be seeing any of the contact.”

Every employee in the garage clustered around Ivy and Cira. Jerry looked puzzled. “I've never seen a setup like that before.”

“That's because it's all Earth-sourced parts. There isn't a lot of extra space in these antiques,” Ivy informed them. “The QGS is in a rather inconvenient spot, on the other side of the turbine. Normally I'd have to pull the whole thing out, but…we don't have the time. It looks like the power feed is just loose enough to destabilize the whole ventral lifter assembly.”

“Well, damn,” Jerry said.

Cira de-Fused. “Don't worry, Jerry. Ivy's got a plan,” the vixen said. “My handpaws are too big, but Ivy's new slender arm should juuuust fit.”

All Ivy had to do was reach behind the turbine with her new delicate fingers and…squish her breasts a little against the turbine…just to wiggle the power cable that had come loose into a more secure seat. She felt it click. Ivy dusted herself off, left breast all sore from the squish. Ow…owow… “Try it now, boss.”

The lifters' powered-up harmonics were like nothing on Zharus. The four cavorite toruses under the passenger compartment energized slowly, emitting a deep, warm hum.

“It's not lifting off,” one of the other employees said.

“Neutral buoyancy, remember?” Ivy said. She placed a hand under the front bumper and tugged gently upward, and the car rose half a meter. Ivy stepped back to consider her handiwork, and grinned. “I think she'll be good from here, Jerry. You get to keep your rep as a miracle worker for now.”

“My girls, you just earned your pay for the week and then some,” the human-form Integrate said. “I never woulda figured that out in a thousand years of fast time.”

“Well, if that’s the case, maybe I should take the rest of the day off,” Ivy said. “I hear there’s a car show this afternoon?”

Jerry chuckled. “You go enjoy yourselves. After what you just pulled off, you deserve it.”

:The car show's in Nextus,: Cira said as she converted to skimmer mode. :With the new batteries we should make it there in a couple hours if I go flat out…:

Ivy sat down and closed the canopy. :What are we waiting for? Let's burn cav!:

Separator k left.png April 27, 157 AL Separator k right.png

A few days later, Ivy pulled her torso out of the chest cavity of the passive-mode WSL-LSA(f)-013 and wiped her forehead with a convenient sweat rag. So much for the Big Change, she thought wryly. What had been supposed to be a Major Life-Altering Event had…well, not really altered much at all. She was still working part-time at Jerry’s skimmer shop and her sister’s RIDE garage, though she was starting to wonder if she should cut back on her time at Jerry’s to put all her focus into learning RIDEs thoroughly. About the only thing her new body had changed was making it harder to fit into tight spots. Even reduced to an A-cup for business hours, it was still a tight squeeze into some spaces. How on Ear—Zharus does Rhi manage with those water balloons on her chest? Ivy wondered for the dozenth time that day.

“Uh, Ivy?” Cira spoke up from across the bay.

Cira had been very chatty lately, ever since that first Fuse. Maybe she felt more comfortable making “girl talk” now. But Ivy really wasn’t in the mood at the moment. “Shush, Cira, I’m trying to work right now.”

“But I really think—”

Cira…” Ivy said, tossing the rag aside and reaching for a number seven hydrospanner.

“So sorry, am I interrupting?” a female voice asked from behind her in the liquid accent of the subcontinent—just in time to startle Ivy as she poked her head back in the hole, and make her bang the back of it into the edge.

“Ow!” Ivy yelped.

“Tried to warn you…” Cira murmured.

Ivy pulled her head back out, rubbing the back of it, and turned to glance at her interlocutor. She was a fairly short woman, with dark hair stranded with silver and red deer tags. She seemed vaguely familiar, but Ivy couldn’t quite place her. She opened her mouth to voice an angry retort, then bit it back. Rhianna didn’t let just anyone into the inner garages when work was going on. “Uh…not really?” Ivy said. “Was just kind of absorbed in the work is all. Um, hi. Ivo—ah, Ivy Stonegate.”

The woman dipped her head in a nod. “Call me Avilia. Your sister tells me that you are quite the up-and-coming RIDE mechanic.”

“Uh, well, I’m doing my best,” Ivy said self-consciously. “It’s not so different from skimmers in most ways.”

Avilia smiled, dimples showing. “A very sensible philosophy! So many RIDE gearheads I know act as if RIDEs are some sort of sacred calling and are insulted if you dare mention skimmers in the same breath.”

Ivy snorted. “That’s dumb. They use the same power plants, same anti-grav, mostly the same avionics and actuators. Only real difference is the transformation systems and the RI core. Anyone who pretends otherwise is just fooling themselves.”

Avilia chuckled. “Quite so. Well, I did not wish to pull you away from your work. I was just here to visit Rhianna, and she asked if I might be willing to give you a few pointers in RIDE principles sometime. After speaking with you, I find that I indeed would. Do call me when you have some free time.” Ivy’s implant registered the receipt of a V-card with contact information.

“Uh, thanks,” Ivy said. “I will,” she added, that being the polite thing to say even if she had no intention of doing so. At the moment she was a little ambivalent, but since sentencing herself to three years as a woman, she’d started to realize the value of not burning bridges.

The deer-tagged woman nodded. “I will allow you to return to your work. It was nice to meet you!” She nodded to Ivy again, and stepped lightly back to the door to the rest of the garage, where a red deer RIDE awaited her.

As she watched the woman go, Ivy happened to catch sight of Cira, who was staring after her in sheer amazement, her optics open the widest Ivy had ever seen them. Ivy blinked. “What’s with you?” she asked.

“Do you…do you know who that was?” Cira said after a moment.

“No, but she sent me her V…card…” Ivy glanced at it and trailed off, pausing to stare at the now-empty doorway herself, and master the undignified urge to run after the woman. Avilia…Doctor Avilia Patil! Only the inventor of the whole idea of the RIDE…and she just offered you some “pointers.” And you didn’t, like, fall down on the ground and grovel like she deserved! Idiot. On the other hand, she hadn’t seemed offended…

A moment later, the other import of the offer hit her. My sister is on do-me-a-favor terms with the inventor of the frickin’ RIDE! That’s like…like being close personal friends with Signor Donizetti! I’m never gonna top that!

:Then maybe it’s time you stopped trying?: Cira sent. She sat on her haunches and put a forepaw on her rider's knee. “Sorry, didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but when you think so loud…” She tossed her head. “Look, I’ve seen your memories, I know how far back this whole sibling rivalry thing goes, but…look—Ivy, I'm telling you this as your friend. Your close friend who knows more about you than even your own family. This is just too much.”

“You don’t understand…” Ivy said weakly, realizing even as she said it how untrue it was. “I’ve…I’ve got to be better than hi—her—at something.”

“You already are,” Cira said. “She’s not half the skimmer mechanic you are, she’s said it herself. You've had three job offers from local skimmer shops you've turned down. You could write your own ticket! Find a job anywhere on the planet!”

“But she doesn’t care about skimmers!” Ivy said. “They’re just a…thing she did.”

“But you do care about skimmers. That’s why you’re better at them,” Cira said. “Do you really think you can beat her at something when you care more about the beating her than about the something? That’s what this whole crossriding thing was really about for you, wasn’t it? You wanted to out-girl your sister. That’s why you wanted bigger boobs than she had, until you found out how it felt to carry them.” She sighed. “I guess I shoulda figured that was all you really wanted me for.”

“Now wait just a minute!” Ivy said. “That’s not…I wasn’t…I’m not…”

“I guess it should make me feel a little better that you won’t ever be able to beat her at that, either, because she doesn’t see it as a contest. She’s just…who she is, and happy that way.” Cira shook her head. “But in the end it’ll just make you more frustrated, which won’t feel good when we’re Fused, so I don’t get to have that either.”

“That’s not what I wanted you for!” Ivy insisted. “I don’t know how you can even say—”

“Do I really have to dredge up some painful stuff?” Cira said, looking away. “Sydney. Your brother and his friend saved you from who knows what. All you were trying to prove was that you could be a world traveler just like him. You were a sheltered twelve year old kid traveling alone in a crapsack world.” The silver vixen shuddered. “Did you even understand what was happening when that pedo creep tried to kidnap you?”

“I was twelve!” Ivy cried.

“Guess what? You’re still acting twelve now,” Cira said. “God. I should totally bodyjack you and run off to AlphaWolf’s camp, where I’d have legally-recognized ownership rights. It would just serve you right. You keep getting rescued from your screw-ups and you don’t learn anything. Just like how you ended up three quarters metal, Mr. Six Million Dollar Man.” She sighed, her ears flopping back. “Like I’m one to talk after you rescued me from my screwup. Yeah, go on and say it. We really do go together. Just like a pot and a kettle.”

“Okay, I will! How did you become all Miss Wisdom of the Ages all of a sudden?” Ivy sputtered. “After all the crap you pulled in AnthroVille!”

“Something about getting twenty-some extra years of experience shoveled into my head, I guess,” Cira said, less stridently. “Just because you didn’t learn from it doesn’t mean I couldn’t. Look…I’m sorry, just forget what I said. It’s not my place to be scolding you.”

“No takebacks!” Ivy said hotly. Then her eyes widened at just those two petulant, childish words. She facepalmed. “Oh, shit. What the hell. I haven't said that since I was ten! Shit.” She dropped the hydrospanner on the floor, where it made a clatter, then sat down in a worn metallic chair.

Cira cocked her head, considered that for a moment, then apparently decided it was best not to respond. She laid her head between her paws, peering up at Ivy from her vulpine eyes, waiting.

Blaming that outburst on being a more emotional woman felt like a copout in the extreme, a childish excuse that didn't befit an adult. Ever since her decision to cross, everyone had been on her case about it. Most glaring was Rufia's lecture the night before. She'd been right—the deciding factor in her decision to become Ivy was that Rhianna had done it, too. Even the horrible experience in Sydney hadn't made Ivy the least bit introspective about her own motivations.

“I am such a ditz,” Ivy said. “A thoughtless, bubble-brained ditz.”

“You're not exactly an introvert, no,” Cira pointed out gently. “We're a lot alike, Ivy. But a huge difference between me and you—I've learned from your mistakes.”

“Puts you one up on me, then,” Ivy said. “Maybe I should let you bodyjack me and go off to Alpha Camp. At least then I’d have someone in charge who knows what they’re doing.”

“That’s just more running away from the problem,” Cira said. “Although, that being said, it might be a good idea to go somewhere Rhianna isn’t, so you’re not always trying to measure up to her all the time. Just saying.”

“I guess it would be a good idea to move out of my parents' house,” Ivy admitted. “Since I started catching up on that twencen stuff, I keep running across the cliché of living in your parents’ basement being mentioned like it’s a bad thing…”

“You shouldn’t let anyone else run your life for you,” Cira said. “Not your parents, not your big sister, and not me. You.” She paused to lick at the back of one of her paws, then wagged her tail slowly. “So…”

“Gimme a few,” Ivy said, trying to cool down more. She'd had plans for the next few weeks about how to out-girl Rhianna that were now utterly meaningless. She used her implant and sent some cancellations for a few clothing orders. She stood up and tapped into a garage camera to get a look at herself.

Three years as a woman, Ivy thought. Where did that leave her? There was a surge of regret, but nothing that lasted. It was hardly permanent, and could even be fun for its own sake. What kind of woman should I be, then?

“Whatever kind of woman you want. If you want to be a Girly Girl or the ultimate Tomboy, go ahead. But…I think you're a wonderful Wrench Wench already,” Cira said cheerfully, picking up on her surface thoughts through Ivy's implant again. She shut off her hardlight, revealing her chassis. “I have you to thank for this, after all. You have some real talent with RIDEs, but I still think your heart is in skimmers.”

“You might be right,” Ivy mused. “Maybe I shouldn’t drop them entirely after all. But…you really think we should go to Alpha Camp?”

“Uh, well…” Cira scratched behind an ear, embarrassedly. “I was just talking from my mad. But…”

“But it is the newest ‘in’ place to be,” Ivy said, cascading several browser windows across her implant’s head-up display. “Growing by leaps and bounds, business opportunities all over the place…”

“Yeah, but humans get kind of a raw deal over there. Like, well, RIDEs always have everywhere else,” Cira said. “And there really isn’t much call for skimmer maint out there since almost every human’s got a RIDE…and if they don’t, a RIDE will soon have them.”

“Which means that maybe one skimmer mechanic would be enough for the whole place,” Ivy pointed out. “I already know skimmers. Sounds like there’s no better place to learn more about RIDEs.”

Cira sighed. “Ivy, you're not…do I have to spell it out? Skimmers have always been your passion. You're good with RIDEs, I admit, but that's not where your heart is. We could always go to Aloha, Burnside, Califia, Cascadia…the entire west of Gondwana still loves skimmers, to say nothing of Laurasia.”

“Yeah, I know,” Ivy said. “I just…don’t like leaving anything half done. I want to be at least as good with RIDEs as Rhi still is with skimmers, and it doesn’t feel like I’m there yet.”

“What, because you don’t know everything there is to know about us?” Cira said.

Ivy shrugged. “I don’t have to give up skimmers to want to learn more about RIDEs. I guess I can do that anywhere. I just…want it to be somewhere you’d like being, too.” She looked down at herself. “I’ve been selfish enough lately.”

Cira came over to poke at Ivy’s side with a cold wet vulpine nose. “I’d like being anywhere you are—especially if it’s somewhere my parents aren’t. We don’t have to go to Alpha Camp for that—I don’t think you’d like it there—though we could still visit it if you wanted.” She thought for a moment. “You know, Livy keeps talking about going to Burnside for a while with Lilac for all the artsy stuff they do there. I’ll bet she’d love to be able to keep doing the sisters thing. You could be roommates.”

“No more being 'pretend big sister',” Ivy said, smiling. “By the time she's done with me…” She started to laugh.

“There's also Califia to the south of Burnside. It's a lot like California,” Cira said. “Skimmer culture and all.”

“Knowing this place, it’s probably more like California than California is,” Ivy said.

“Wherever we end up, if you want to keep doing RIDE stuff too, well, a lot of the Freeriders franchises still have skimmer sidelines,” Cira pointed out. “And even the ones who don’t would probably start one if you were there. So that’s not a problem.”

“Well, wherever we go, I know one thing,” Ivy said. “This weasel’s not fixing herself. So if the distractions are out of the way for now…” Ivy turned back to the deactivated RIDE and peered into the open access panel again.

A few hours later, Ivy was tracing the weasel's stubborn Fuser-mode transition errors when Cira nosed the small of her back.

“Uh, Ivy?” Cira said.

“Not now, Cira,” Ivy said. “I need to run a hardlight calibration seq—”

Perdonami,” a man said behind her in a thick Italian accent. “Are you busy? I can come back…”

“Ow!” Ivy bashed her head against the support arm of the Fuser-mode maintenance dummy. She bit back another angry reply as she drew it back out and turned around again. The kind of day I’m having, that’s probably Donizetti himself.

Oh my God, that is Donizetti himself…

Separator k left.png THE END Separator k right.png
Preceded by:
FreeRIDErs Succeeded by:
The Saints Go Marching In