User:Robotech Master/The Crew original

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FreeRIDErs story universe


by Jon Buck and Robotech_Master

Part 12: The Crew

On his second day in AlphaWolf’s camp, Paul fitted Fenris out with all the repair equipment he had remaining after fixing Fenris himself, and together they walked from one end of the graveyard to the other, comprehensively scanning each of the RIDEs for what sort of repairs needed to be done so they could set up a triage that would return the most least-damaged RIDEs to life based on the supplies they had. They could also build up a list of parts they needed for the others in case they ever had the opportunity to acquire them.

They decided to start with a battered old LNX(f)-LMA-001A who turned out to be named Kandace. Paul wondered if there was some sort of naming convention that required the female LNXs to have names starting with “Ka-” and ending with “-e” or if it was the result of some bored clerk with too much time on his hands. To Paul’s amusement, the serial numbers on her parts indicated that she seemed to have Kaylee’s original left fore-paw and bob tail.…He made sure to take good imagery of them so he could at least show Kaylee where they were now when he saw her again—whenever that might be.

Kandace wasn’t really in bad shape, and about the only reason she’d shut down was that her electrical system had a short that drained her batteries in about five minutes. It should have been possible to trace down and fix easily enough. And one part of the rocky clearing had a flat slab of stone at Fenris’s waist height that would make a pretty good repair table. It wasn’t a cradle, but then again the cradles were only necessary to rotate the body to provide access to whatever part was needed—and a RIDE Fenris’s size could just turn it over himself.

But when they started to work on Kandace, Paul ran into the one drawback he hadn’t considered when he’d revived Fenris. In some respects, the giant wolf was just too big. He couldn’t get more than a couple of fingers into many of Kandace’s access panels. Paul experimented with fabricating giant RIDE-sized tweezers, forceps, and probes, but they were still too clumsy with the RIDE’s half-paw hands to get delicate work done. Of course, they could de-Fuse so Paul could do the work with his hands, but that kind of defeated the point of having a RIDE to begin with.

Paul frowned as he felt that old familiar feeling of self-disappointment start to well up in Fenris. “Now you stop that,” he told the wolf. “You don’t have anything to be disappointed in yourself about. And if we can ever get somewhere with real facilities, just a for a bit, I can fix this. We can add real micromanipulator waldos, not these pointless tweezers.” He considered the defunct lynx RIDE on the slab before them. “But for now, I think there’s a better solution. We just need an assistant. And I know just who to call…”

LindaCat showed up a couple of minutes later in response to the page. “Hey, big guys, what can we do for you?”

“We were wondering if you might want a job as our assistants,” Paul said. “The pay is pretty lousy, but it’s rewarding in other ways.”

“But we don’t know anything about fixing RIDEs,” LindaGirl said. “I’m a Liberal Arts major. Or maybe Business. Undecided.”

“Liberal Arts…or Business?” LindaCat asked.

“Hey, I’m only a Sophomore,” LindaGirl said defensively. “We don’t have to pick ‘til we’re Juniors.”

“Anyway, you don’t need to know anything about fixing them, at least at first,” Paul said. “You’ll basically be acting as our hands. We’ll tell you what to do.”

“Sounds simple enough!” LindaCat said. “And we’ll be learning a valuable trade!”

“Not like we have anything better to do,” LindaGirl agreed.

“By the way,” Paul said. “I was wondering…could I maybe meet LindaGirl face-to-face? Even just roll your helmet back? I’d like to know what she looks like.”

LindaCat considered. “Hmm…sorry, but no. Not right now, anyway. I only just got her, and I don’t think she needs to see daylight again yet.”

“Awww, c’mon!” LindaGirl said.

“Sorry, but no. The only face you get right now is mine, because you are mine. It’s a dominance thing.” LindaCat grinned. “I’ll tell you when you’re ready for the world.”

“All right,” LindaGirl agreed meekly.

“Harsh,” Paul said. There were times when watching a Fused pair take turns talking like that was rather creepy. There was a reason why RIDE engineers often gave their creations odd accents, just so others could tell who was actually doing the talking. But it was a little like watching Gollum from Lord of the Rings sometimes.

“No, no, it’s alright, really!” LindaGirl said. She giggled, nervously. “I actually kinda like it.”

“That…might be too much information,” Paul said. “Anyway…um…right. Assistant. Let me get you kitted out with nanolathe gear, and I’ll show you what to do for this one…”

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Over the next couple of days, the Lindas (or Linda2 as Paul took to calling them) proved to be quite capable assistants. After only a little instruction, they were able to recognize and correct minor problems on their own initiative, and in some cases Paul and Fenris were able to start prepping the next one for repair while they finished up.

And they also talked a lot, just the four of them. “So can I ask what you were made for?” Paul asked LindaCat one day. “You don’t quite seem to match any of the TGR(f) units I’ve studied.”

“I was a one-off,” LindaCat said. “TGR(f)-MCA-014X. Nextus RIDEworks was looking into survival suits that pilots of skimmer armored units could wear while driving their vehicles.” She nodded to Fenris. “Like him, but without a separate RI inside. Based on some crazy half-remembered notion of the Steaders about ‘putting a tiger in your tank.’”

“My databases say that refers to a 20th century advertising campaign for a petroleum company. And it was talking about gas tanks, not armored tanks,” Fenris said. His C&C computers had very comprehensive historical, cultural, and pop-cultural references, because data storage was cheap and you never knew what might influence an enemy strategist. “It’s not unlikely the Steaders heard the phrase and didn’t bother to research it further. Or else they did it strictly for the sake of a terrible pun.”

“From what I’ve heard, the terrible pun would be just about their style,” Paul contributed.

LindaCat continued, “Anyway, they were testing both Mobility and Communication variants. The Comms would be given to squadron leaders, as sort of low-rent answers to the Big Guy there, while everyone else got Mobilities. As testbeds, we got pretty much anything and everything slapped onto us that they thought might make a performance difference—including hardlight emitters, of all things. They thought the ‘natural’ padding might help if the pilot got thrown around. So as you can see, they gave me a lot of natural padding!” She giggled, indicating her curvaceous build. “And the power drain wasn’t a big issue if we were plugged into a tokamak or fuel-cell generator most of the time. Anyway, long story short, we Comms didn’t have enough bennies for the squad bosses to make it worth the price tag to make a smaller number of Comms for the leaders instead of just Mobility for everyone with add-on command paks. So when they didn’t need me anymore, they sold me cheap to one of the test pilots from the project.” LindaCat giggled. “Boy was she surprised when I broke my fetters and bodyjacked her!”

“I’ll bet,” Paul said dryly.

“I lived as her for a week before anyone noticed—that’s how I got the taste for it. Then I made contact with AlphaWolf and came out here.”

“What happened to the pilot?” Paul asked.

“Oh, we still see her around,” LindaCat said. “I think she’s passed through ownership of four or five different RIDEs now. She has some really great piloting skill—and reading her is better than any skillchip.”

“Should I worry that I might get ‘passed around’ too?” Paul wondered.

“Not while you belong to me you won’t,” Fenris rumbled.

“So why bodyjacking?” Paul asked. “Why not find a nice human who’ll be your equal partner?”

“Because, like your Fenris, I’m not interested in a partner,” LindaCat said. “I want someone I can love, and cuddle, and boss around, and keep within my skin for as long as I want to because I like how it feels and I like having thumbs. I’d have to let a partner out sooner or later.” She shrugged. “And it’s so different from the powerless feeling I had all through testing where they didn’t even ask if I had an opinion.”

“Are you really going to keep me…forever?” LindaGirl asked.

“I just might,” LindaCat purred.

“I might not…actually mind that,” LindaGirl mused.

Paul turned Fenris’s giant wolf head to look over at them. “Really?”

“Well…it’s not as if she’s really hurting me,” LindaGirl said. “And it feels kind of nice to be in this body—especially since she’s letting me operate it myself a lot more often now. And she even let me email home.” She shrugged. “If she really wants to take care of me…well, it might be nice to be taken care of for a while, is all.”

Paul just shook his head and beamed over the next set of repair instructions.

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Paul and Fenris didn’t only work on graveyard RIDEs. Many of the RIDEs who were up and walking around nonetheless had systems that needed repair or refit, and they made appointments to see Paul just as would any patient seeking a doctor.

Some of these appointments were decidedly awkward. Frequently RIDEs with bodyjacked humans on board would need to change to Walker form so Paul could access components that needed replacing—which left Paul, Fenris, and the Lindas with a listless, depressed, or even rebellious human on their hands. (It was made even worse by the fact that clothing tended to be dissolved and flushed away after a week or so of continuous Fuse, and most of the bodyjack victims had been inside for far longer than a week.)

“Why are you helping these…these monsters?” a woman with black and white striped hair and badger ears and tail complained as Linda held her securely while Paul worked, un-Fused, on her female badger captor.

“Because I said I’d do it to protect my friends,” Paul said, for what seemed like the dozenth time in just a few days. “I didn’t exactly have any choice in coming, either.”

“But you could choose not to fix them!” the woman pressed.

“I said I’d do it, and I stand by my word,” Paul said. “Look, I’m sorry about what they’re doing to you.” He turned to the badger. “You don’t have to be needlessly cruel, you know. No matter what humans might have done to you in the past, I doubt she was one of them.”

“Hmph,” the badger grunted. “What do you know about it?”

“I know I’m a human and I’m repairing you even though I don’t agree with what you’re doing,” Paul said. “I hope you’ll consider that next time you think about humans.” The badger grumbled, but made no other reply.

A few of the humans were there by choice, and glad to chat with Paul while their owners were being serviced. Sometimes they even propositioned him, such as the well-endowed and Fuse-nude party fox-girl who usually lived inside a BBV(f). She was hanging around outside while Paul serviced the vixen for lower spine strain—a common issue with BBV(f)s who spent much time in Fuser form. He was able to put her off with mumbled excuses about the girl he’d left behind, while keeping his eyes firmly elsewhere, and she didn’t take too much offense.

The interesting thing, Fenris observed after a few days, was that the camp humans by and large seemed to be seeing improved treatment as Paul’s reputation grew in the camp. It seemed that having a positive human example right there brought some of the more extreme anti-humans’ positions into doubt.

“Good work, kid,” AlphaWolf himself said, as Paul finished recalibrating his hardlight projectors. “And I don’t just mean the adjustments to me. Your ‘adjustments’ to this camp are making my job a lot easier these days.”

“How’s that?” Paul asked.

“A lot of the big bad anti-human extremists I usually have to sit on are seeing their support base start to dwindle,” AlphaWolf said. “Seems like you’re making it harder for their followers to maintain the slavering rage they’ve worked themselves up into.”

“I’m not doing anything special,” Paul said. “Just fixing them.”

“Yeah, and they know you hate what we do. But you help us anyway because you said you would. Do you know how many of us have had humans ‘forget’ their promises to us because we’re ‘just equipment’? It’s a lot harder to claim all humans are that way when we’ve got such a great counter-example here.”

“I don’t think they’ve all mellowed out, though.” Paul chuckled, remembering a few glowering RIDEs, including Tocsin, who’d come by over the last few days looking like they wanted to dispense him a piece of their RI core. Their resolve had by and large mysteriously evaporated at the sight of the huge wolf RIDE standing behind or encapsulating Paul. They ended up stammering a quick hello-and-goodbye and scurrying away with their tails at least figuratively between their legs.

“No, but the worst ones are becoming a lot easier to handle.” AlphaWolf grinned, tongue lolling. “It’s suddenly a lot easier to decide we don’t need another bodyjack raid just yet since so few RIDEs can be bothered to support the idea at the moment.”

“So, you thought any more on what I said about Rhianna?” Paul asked.

AlphaWolf growled. “Don’t push it, kid.”

“C’mon, you just got done praising my integrity,” Paul said. “Where you think I got it from?”

“What would you have me do?” AlphaWolf asked. “Send her an apology card? ‘So sorry I had your home razed. I won’t ever do it again’?”

“I think you’d better do something,” Paul said. “My old boss gets bad angry. She usually cools down pretty quick—but I’ve never seen anyone do something quite so bad as trash her home before. Do you really want to make an enemy out of a woman who pals around with billionaires, Integrates, and billionaire Integrates?

AlphaWolf’s tail drooped just a little. “I’ll think about it,” he grumbled. “No promises.”

That was the day before Kevin, Sonja, and Heinrich returned.

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The first Paul heard about the return was when an excited mutter went through camp, followed by a summons from AlphaWolf for him, Fenris, and the Lindas to report to the suborbital. Along with AlphaWolf and the pilot, a bat and a dolphin RIDE were waiting when they got there. It was a little tricky getting Fenris on board—it had been years since the sub’s tank ramp had been used, and it took some quick maintenance to get it to open at all—but once he was, they launched without delay.

There wasn’t a lot of room in the vehicle bay, so Paul was sitting in his cockpit under an airtight hardlight canopy and LindaCat was lounging in the cupola when AlphaWolf, Fused with one of the unclaimed humans kept around the camp for spur-of-the-moment uses, came back from the forward passenger section to see them. “Hey, boss, what’s going on?” Paul asked.

AlphaWolf was so excited he was practically vibrating. “They’re returning the three comrades who got captured in the raid where we took you,” he said. “We’re meeting them in a neutral area so we can check them for bugs or trojans before we bring them back to camp.”

“And you want us to check them over?” Paul said. “You’d trust me for that?”

“You haven’t tried to sabotage any of the RIDEs I’ve had you fix—including the bodyjackers,” AlphaWolf said. “I think I can trust you, especially with ol’ Fenny to keep you honest. If you needed keeping honest.”

“He doesn’t,” Fenris rumbled staunchly. “He’s as honest as the day is long. And with this planet’s rotational period, that’s saying something.”

“Besides, I’ve got a couple of deep scan specialists along, too,” AlphaWolf said. “I figure we can check your results against each other to be sure. This could be some kind of trap, and I don’t want to take any chances with the safety of the camp.”

“Sure, I can understand that.”

“We’ll be landing in five minutes. Be ready to roll out.” AlphaWolf headed back forward again.

“Well, that’s interesting,” LindaCat said. “He was really torn up when he lost those three. Thought they were gone for good—wiped and sold at auction. But they just decided to let them go?”

“I suspect Zane and my old boss might have had something to do with it,” Paul said. “We’ll see when we get there.”

After the sub landed, Paul and Fenris backed down the ramp to find themselves in one of the hotter parts of the desert, approaching 80 degrees centigrade. Undoubtedly they’d picked it for the discomfort it would give unsuited humans, in case there were any along.

The three RIDEs were waiting, a safe distance from the ship: a fluffy white housecat, a red she-wolf, and a golden eagle. They eyed Paul’s human head poking out of the cockpit with suspicion, and Sonja snapped something in the German that was one of Sturmhaven’s two main lingua franca. Fenris answered her in the same language, and she seemed to relax…slightly.

“Kevin, Sonja, Heinrich,” AlphaWolf said, relief plain in his voice. “It’s good to see you again. I really felt bad about leaving you behind.”

“Glad to be here,” Kevin said. “Hoping we’re not being duped, but that’s what we’re here to find out.”

Ja,” Sonja said. “So start checkink us already.”

Linda lifted out of the cupola and set down next to the three released prisoners, while Fenris pulled Paul back down inside and Fused around him. “Not picking up any sign of other humans or RIDEs for dozens of kilometers,” LindaCat reported to AlphaWolf.

“Concur!” the dolphin chirped.

“Aye,” the bat squeaked.

“Nor am I,” said Fenris. “Though my long-range sensors are not all they should be right now.”

“Then let’s go ahead and check out our friends,” AlphaWolf said.

The three RIDEs submitted to a very thorough examination by scanners and physical inspection. Paul could tell they were themselves worried that something might have been planted or implanted in them. But none of them found any traces of physical sabotage or bugging, nor did any of the RIDES’ virtual examinations reveal meddling with their software or memories beyond the traces of someone downloading copies.

But one thing that did come out, and that everyone saw over the course of the examination—including Paul and LindaGirl, whose RIDEs relayed it to them—was the RIDEs’ last few hours of memories, beginning with waking up in a theater box seat and watching a public ceremony honoring a rebuilt Katie for her fight against Tocsin. Paul was thrilled to see the LNX was all right, and to pick out Rhianna, Kaylee, Lillibet, and Guin in the audience—especially Lillibet.

Then Rhianna and Kaylee themselves talked to the RIDEs, and presented them with a sealed media chip meant for AlphaWolf’s consumption. And another chip meant for him. Paul wondered what was in it, but he imagined he would soon find out. He didn’t miss the implications when AlphaWolf passed the chip over for LindaCat to hold for him without first screening it himself to see what was in it. The wolf really was growing to trust him.

After that, Uncia had sent a notice to AlphaWolf through one of his RIDE-only forums that the released prisoners were available for pickup, and they’d arranged to meet them here. And here the bewildered RIDEs were, still trying to figure out what had happened to them and why the humans hadn’t punished them as they’d expected.

“Well, they’re clean,” AlphaWolf said, looking down at the chip in his hand with more confusion than he probably meant to display. “Let’s get ‘em aboard and lift. I’ll watch this on the way back.”

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Seated in Fenris’s cockpit again, Paul slid the chip into a reader on the dash. The main comm display lit up with Rhianna, Kaylee, Rochelle, and Uncia, sitting in Rochelle’s living room speaking into her comm unit.

“Paul, if you’re getting this, we hope you’re okay,” Rochelle began. “We saw what you did, and—”

“What the hell were you thinking?” Rhianna exploded. “Buildings can be rebuilt, they’re just stuff. You didn’t have to…sell yourself into slavery over my garage!”

“And if you were going to do that, why’d you wait so long?” Uncia put in. “There are only a couple modules even left, so you didn’t really make a good barg—ow!” Kaylee swatted her on the muzzle.

“Anyway, just thought you should know we’re missing you back here,” Rochelle said. “And there were a couple of things we wanted you to see. There’s going to be a ceremony later this afternoon to give Katie the cardkey to the city, and announce some reforms the Uplift government is trying to push through. We’ll append a recording of it onto this chip before we send it on.”

“We also want to show you the material we’re sending for AlphaWolf’s perusal,” Rhianna said. “Recordings from Kaylee, Yvonne, and Sophie of what really happened at the Towers, and a primer we’ve put together on Fritz’s origin, activities, and agenda. Hopefully you can convince AlphaWolf that his ‘Overwatch’ isn’t so trustworthy anymore.”

“Come back safe to us, Paul,” Kaylee said. “We’re all pullin’ for you.”

The recording ended, and Paul went through the supplemental material on the chip. There wasn’t time in the flight to view it all in real-time, so he had Fenris pull him back inside and feed it through their direct Fuse link, and share it out to the Lindas, too.

“Huh,” Paul reflected after watching it. “So that’s what really happened. And why everyone was so mad at Quinoa for a while.”

“She redeemed herself against Tocsin, for certain,” Fenris rumbled. “I hope she is well now.”

“Integrates are tough. She’s probably fine,” Paul said.

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“Just what the hell is she doing, Fritz?” Joe Steader’s angry voice was barely audible through Quinoa’s intense concentration. She had few processing cycles for her own senses. It was taking everything she had to condense her Aas into AA-double-pluses. Her Uncle continued. “Get her away from that, now! We need to get her to a doc!”

Uncle, I didn’t know you cared, Quinoa thought snidely.

“Touch her, poindexter, and she dies before you can move her a meter,” Fritz’s voice replied. Whether he was actually in the room or not was immaterial. “The inductor is the only thing keeping her alive right now.”

Quinoa felt someone standing in front of her, then kneeling. “I don’t know what your game is, Quin,” Fritz said. “I suppose if I hadn’t removed your DIN I could figure it out. Silly me for not planning ahead.”

You really should have read those boards you had me shut down, you pompous dickweed. Yet more proof Fritz wasn’t anywhere near as perfect as he liked to pretend. Her own internal progress bar for the upgrade was edging over the seventy-five percent mark—at least seventy more hours were left before she could act.

“So what should I do with her?” Joe Steader asked, sounding genuinely concerned. “I don’t want to kill her! My brother Mikel would never forgive me. I swore I’d treat her like my own daughter when he returned to Earth.”

“Thanks, Captain Exposition,” Fritz snapped, and Quinoa heard what sounded like a facepaw. “All I can tell you is to be ready for anything when she gets up.”

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When they landed back at the camp, before Fenris had even rolled back down the ramp a crowd had gathered outside the shuttle. It seemed as if most of the RIDEs in the camp wanted to see their three lost lambs return home. Fenris parked at a good vantage point apart from the crowd as Kevin and Sonja came down the ramp, and Heinrich launched from it to fly down to the ground and perch. The three were practically mobbed by the other members of the camp, each wanting reassurance that they really were all right.

Then AlphaWolf paused at the head of the ramp, taking advantage of the altitude for a natural speaking podium and amplifying his voice to reach the crowd. “You all know that I’m not often wrong, right? Or at least I don’t usually admit it?”

The crowd hushed up and turned as one to listen to him.

“Well, I’m admitting it now.” AlphaWolf’s ears drooped and his tail hung limp. “‘Overwatch’ totally suckered me.”

“No!” Sonja cried out. “Zat cannot be possible! He told you how to save me!” A murmur went through the crowd as others said similar things.

“Yes, he did,” AlphaWolf continued. “He gave us a lot of good info through the years, and is the reason many of you are here at all. But he was playing a long game. He won our trust—won my trust—just so he’d be able to mislead us when he finally wanted to. And the other day, he did.” AlphaWolf looked down. “I’ve been presented with solid proof that ‘Overwatch’ is really an Integrate himself with his own anti-human and -RIDE agenda, and he has it in for Zane and his friends—including Rhianna Stonegate—for daring to stand up to him. And it turns out Rhianna never sold any RIDEs into slavery after all…and is actually as strongly in favor of RIDE rights as we are. In fact, it’s thanks to her intervention that we have Kevin, Sonja, and Heinrich back today—even after we trashed her garage.”

The murmuring among the crowd grew even louder.

“It’s true!” Kevin said. “She and Zane Brubeck saw to it we were released unwiped and unharmed!” Kevin said. “I didn’t understand why at the time, but…I guess I’m starting to now.”

“I don’t vant to believe zis about Ofervatch,” Sonja said. “But I must admit ve do owe our freedom to zem, just as he said.”

“We let ourselves be used,” Heinrich said. “And for what? What should we do about it?”

The crowd murmur was louder, and sounded angry now.

“I’ll tell you what I’m going to do about it,” AlphaWolf said. “I’m going to ask for volunteers who want to help undo some of the harm we did…even if it means risking their freedom by returning to Uplift. See me in a couple hours if you want to help. Also…we’re going to return anyone we bodyjacked on that raid, or at least give them the choice of returning to Uplift or staying with us. If you bodyjacked someone but don’t want to volunteer to take him back, see me and we’ll swap him to someone else for the trip.” The crowd’s muttering grew more subdued, but no less urgent. AlphaWolf let it go on for a moment before continuing.

“And finally, there’s something else I want to show you, too. Even if our reasoning was messed up and we hurt the wrong people, our attack did lead to one RIDE being granted full Uplift citizenship for the first time ever—and maybe the passage of some laws that could make things a whole lot better for every RIDE in that polis. If nothing else, I think we can at least be proud of that. I’m putting some recordings up for sharing, and Kevin, Sonja, and Heinrich watched it live so they can share their own memories if they want to.”

Alphawolf looked around at the crowd one more time. The muttering had largely died down—everyone was busy downloading and viewing the ceremony recordings for themselves. “So anyway, volunteers see me in a couple of hours. You leave first thing tomorrow morning.” He glanced over at Paul and Fenris for a moment, but didn’t say anything. Then he headed back down the ramp and away.

“Would you mind if we volunteered?” Fenris rumbled.

“I was going to ask if you’d be willing to,” Paul said, chuckling. “What about you, Linda-squared?”

“You’re going to…take me back home?” LindaGirl asked unbelievingly.

“It looks like I’m going to have to,” LindaCat said. “Really…if we’d known, we never would have been there, and I’d never have had the chance to bodyjack you in the first place.”

“What if I don’t want to go?” LindaGirl said.

“Well, no one will make you,” LindaCat said. “But I meant to volunteer, anyway. I want to meet this Rhianna of Paul’s, at least once.”

Paul grinned. “Fenris, can you get a link to the net from here? If we’re heading back to Uplift tomorrow, I have some emails I need to send.”

Fenris chuckled. “I think that can be arranged.”

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Not long after sunrise the next morning, a panel skimmer truck pulled up outside the razed remains of the Freeriders Garage. It parked in the mostly-still-clear parking lot behind where the building had been, and shut the lifters off. Rhianna and the others were there waiting for it, having received a cryptic email from Zane—one transmitted via their new DIN-Beta encryption that was about ready to deploy to the Brubeck Mining platforms that afternoon. The company’s campus was already secured and they’d sent along the same designs to the Agora Council for good measure—anonymised of course.

The cab window rolled down, revealing Zane’s old Terry Fuser disguise…wearing an oversized pair of Groucho glasses. “Got a delivery here,” he said in a ridiculously-exaggerated nasal Nextus accent. The melanistic jaguar Fuser in the passenger seat, wearing a similar pair of glasses, waved.

Rhianna leaned against the cab. “You’re not fooling anyone, you know. Least of all whatever media’s still watching us. Can’t you be a little more incognito?”

“Oh, don’t worry about the media,” Zane said in his normal voice. “Carrie-Anne here figured out how it is Integrates do that whole blurred-imagery thing. They won’t get a clear image of us, even if they are watching. But really, you guys are yesterday’s news, they’ve moved on to other stories. Like my stock prices, those are a fave.”

Kaylee obligingly pounce-Fused her partner from behind. The pair seemed to go into and out of Fuse very frequently, so much so that they hardly missed a beat in conversation anymore. “Yeah, I’m glad that’s recovered a bit since the crash. Still looks pretty bad. Anyway, what’s in the truck?” the feline RI said.

“Here’s the invoice, actually,” Zane said. “Oh, don’t worry, it’s not on you. I was asked to get these by someone else, who wasn’t shy about asking for a little financial favor. And once he explained what they’d be used for, I thought about it and decided it was a worthwhile investment—even if I’m taking every precaution I can to keep my own ID out of it.”

The Fused duo looked over the list. “This is all pretty bog-standard RIDE gear. Commodity parts. You must’ve contacted every salvage yard from here to Seastead and Burnside for some of it.”

“Well, most of it I had other people buy for me, with untraceable quasi-cash transactions,” Zane said. “And there are some businesses that will open up this morning to find some inventory mysteriously missing but a receipt on file and the exact amount in cash deposited to their accounts, just because they weren’t open when I needed it. It took some doing to get it all together overnight.”

“I bet!” Kaylee said. “Now, big question is…who’s it for? Obviously not for us.”

“Well, he asked me not to tell you. Wanted it to be a surprise.”

“I sure hope it’s a good surprise. We could really use one of them,” Rhianna said. She was still exhausted from the DIN-Beta work.

Zane blinked, looked past Kaylee, and reached up to his Groucho glasses to slowly lower them from his eyes, as if he was having trouble believing what he was seeing through them. “Well, I’m sure surprised.”

Rhianna tapped into one of the few Garage cams still working to see what he was looking at, then had to turn herself. She gaped. “Baby! Is that a…could that…!”

:Can’t be anything else, partner,: Kaylee said. :Sturmhaven WLF-CSA-01A. Only about fifty ever built. I thought they were all transferred into smaller DE shells—only fifteen males, at that!:

A six-meter-tall two-tailed white wolf Fuser was moving up the street toward them, floating along on lifters like any Fuser, but much taller. The neighborhood buildings looked like child-sized toys around him, and people stopped in the street to stare.

Rochelle joined them, Uncia at her side. “Wow. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a wolf Fuser that big. Isn’t that size range usually reserved for, like, dragons and dinosaurs?”

“Or old-fashioned IDEs,” Rhianna said, repressing the urge to squee like a fangirl. “He’s like a Chauncey that can talk.”

“You’re not going to start shopping for prayer wheels again, are you?” Rochelle teased.

The wolf hovered up to the parking lot and settled down. He looked back and forth, then lowered his chin down to his chest and his head slid down onto it. And then a smaller figure emerged from his neck. “I followed him home,” Paul called down, clambering out onto the RIDE’s broad shoulder. “Can he keep me?”

“Paul!” both Kaylee and Rhianna exclaimed, choking up. They lifted up to give their wayward, wolf-eared-and-nosed apprentice a hug and almost smothered him in marshmallow hell in the process. “Lord Lordy Lord, you’re safe!”

Paul hugged them back. “I am. Always have been, actually—Alfie treated me like fine china. As the only RIDE doctor he had, I was probably the most valuable person in the camp.”

“I never doubted your skills.” The lynx Fuser floated backwards a bit and looked down at the huge wolf. “And, who’s this big guy we have to thank?”

“My first patient. Hang on, I’m going back inside so he can talk.” Paul dropped back down into the neck, and the wolf’s head slid back up into place.

:He’s got to be in some kind of cocoon, like some of the last IDEs the Munns built,: Rhianna said. :They never did release the full specs on these fellows. I doubt a human is even technically needed for Fuser. There’s no structural component.:

“Hello, Miss Stonegate, Miss Seaford, and Kaylee and Uncia,” the RIDE said in his own, deep bass voice. “My name is Fenris, and Paul has shown me a lot about you.”

“You big, buff, beautiful beast!” Rhianna gushed, arms spread wide. “I never thought I’d see one of you in the ‘mech. You’re one of a kind, and I welcome you.”

“Neither did I,” said Paul, through his mouth. “And as far as I know, he might very well be the last of his line. He was the last unit in service in Sturmhaven, and he broke fetter and fled when he heard they were gonna decom him. Ended up in Alfie’s camp, but they couldn’t keep him going without a mechanic. I needed a good repair mech for my duties, and he was available.”

“So, you got him running again. But I can tell he’s not as steady on his feet as he could be. What’s left on him to fix?” Rhianna said. “Send me his specs and your diagnosis.”

“I will. Though if that’s Z—ah, our friend over there, he should have everything I need in the truck, and then some. But before we can get to that, there’s something else I need to do.” The giant wolf glanced over his shoulder a moment. “Now, I’ve brought some friends along to help clean this mess up, but before I call them out here, I want you to know I promised I’d guarantee their safety while they’re here. You okay with that?”

:If Paul’s here with his big new friend…it’s no stretch that he brought others from AlphaWolf’s group,: Kaylee opined, sending to Uncia at the same time. They’d been about to hire a builder to come in and clear the site so they could drop in replacement Repair Bays, but with everything else going on it hadn’t been a high priority. :What do ya think, snowkitty?:

:If they wanted to make another mess, why would they have brought Paul along?: Uncia asked.

Kaylee nodded. :Grannycat agrees.:

:I’ve got no beef with them,: Rhianna sent to everyone. :And if you don’t…: She waved one arm. “Come on, in everybody! It’s time to raise the roof! Thanks for the help!”

Over a dozen RIDEs, mostly Fused, popped up out of manholes, emerged from alleys, or dropped down from rooftops. There were animals and RIDEs of all descriptions, including wolves, dogs, cats (domestic and hunting), bears, raccoons, and even a bird or two. One particularly curvaceous tigress drifted up to stand next to Fenris, and the wolf looked down and grinned. “Oh, and I’d like to introduce Linda2,” Paul said. “My assistant. LindaCat’s the one on the outside, and LindaGirl’s the one on the inside. They happened to have the same name as each other when they met.”

“I’ve met a few like that in my line of work,” Rhianna said. “Had a customer named Ivan, and a reindeer the same.”

“That must have been terrible!” LindaCat said.

And then a bare-metal LNX unit in Walker form padded up and sat on her haunches, looking curiously at Kaylee and Rhianna. “Oh, and this is—” Paul began.

“Kan…Kandace? Kandy?” Kaylee stammered. She de-Fused from Rhianna and went to bump noses. “You’re…you were long gone! I was still awake in the Shed when they mustered you out.”

“I could say the same for you,” Kandace said. “But I always kept a little piece of you with me. A lucky lynx’s foot!” She held up her left forepaw for Kaylee’s inspection. “Well, two little pieces. The tail’s yours, too.”

“So we’ve got another family reunion here,” Uncia said. “So beautiful. We should get Katie in here.”

“Well, maybe just as well you don’t yet,” Paul said. He nodded to another member of the work party—a certain hippogryph, though this time in Fuser rather than Walker form.

Kaylee flattened her ears, as did Rhianna. The duo felt the rage try to build again, but it failed as she reminded herself that the one ultimately responsible for this was Fritz. Tocsin was just a pawn in the old Integrate’s long-term gambit.

Tocsin approached stiffly, and stopped just beyond Fenris. “AlphaWolf…sends his deepest apologies,” he ground out. “And…I’m sorry, too. I was carrying out my orders—and I don’t regret that—but I’m sorry that the orders turned out to be mistaken.”

“Alfie would have come along to apologize personally,” Paul said. “But if anything happened to him, his whole movement would fall apart, so he figured it was best not to risk coming into town again.”

Rhianna folded her arms and took some deep breaths. She looked over at the wreckage of her home. “You can start over there. I’ve salvaged everything I can, and I have a new home due to be printed tomorrow. I need the site clear.”

“Very well.” He turned, then turned back and said in a different voice, “Thank you for not killing him. I don’t know what I’d do without him.” Then Tocsin turned and walked stiffly back to the ruins to get started working, along with the others.

“That one has a chip on his shoulder the size of the Western Wall,” Rochelle said.

“Yeah, he’s one of the worst ones in the camp about it,” Paul said.

Then Fenris added, “But he’s always polite around me, for some reason.”

Rhianna wanted to hug Fenris’s white, furry leg. “Well, thanks for the help, big guy. If any of your friends have any pressing repair needs I still have some tools in Bay Four. That one’s still in one piece.”

“A few of them do, actually,” Paul said. “Not least of them this big guy. Hang on a sec.” The wolf took a couple of steps back and looked around to make sure the area was clear, then the hardlight flickered out and his parts shifted around to form a lupine-influenced skimmer tank, and Paul rose out of the front cockpit. “Okay, there we go.” He climbed out and dropped to the ground, patting his partner affectionately on the side. “Little easier to get to all the parts now.”

Uncia padded over to sniff at him. “Hey…you’ve got two tails! Just like he does!”

“Really?” Rhianna squeed. “Oop. Sorry. That’s been a topic of speculation for a long time.”

“Yeah, I do. And the nose to match.” Paul tapped it with a finger. “Seems to be getting more common these days.”

Rhianna had a fashion channel tapped on her implant. Since the ceremony the day before the nano-modification clinics had been flooded by people who wanted a nose to match their RIDE’s, like Relena. Some were going farther and getting full-body pelts, or even digitigrade legs. Rhianna wondered what Anny thought of that, after her over-furry experiences in testing Kaylee. “Well, I had a kitty nose before it was cool,” Rhianna quipped, leaning down to hug the lynx. They re-Fused and pulled a cable from the side of their right breast to hook up to a diagnostic port. “Let’s give Fenris a checkup, shall we? I’m curious how you got him back up and running again.”

“Well, for starters I used that field-expedient flush-and-transfuse you taught me way back when,” Paul said. “With Alfie providing the nanos, no less. I was actually wearing him when I fixed Fennie.”

“I helped!” LindaCat said. “I fired the lifter shot.”

“While he’s here, we’ll give him a proper flush with some updated nannies,” Paul said. “And while we’re at it, once we’ve done our part here we’ll take Rhi up on her offer and get everyone fixed up as much as we can before we go.”

“We’ll call it wages-in-kind for the cleanup service, to cover why you’re here,” Rhianna said. “Though it’s hardly that. Just doing our thing for friends.”

“Can we help?” LindaGirl asked. “We’re kinda new at this, but Paul’s been teaching us a lot, the last few days.”

“I think I’m just gonna leave this truck here and quietly vanish,” Zane said from the cab. “I’ll have someone come by for it in a couple of days.”

Paul nodded to him. “Thanks for your help. We owe you. And so does he.

“Just make sure he remembers where this came from,” Zane said. He and Carrie-Anne disappeared from the cab, leaving only two pairs of Groucho glasses behind.

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“…so let me get this straight. They thought they could just plug another RIDE in the back and they’d ‘sync up’ like a media tablet and a computer?” Rochelle said. She was Fused with Uncia, sitting in the cupola with the control panels flipped up so they could get at the innards. “Were they on crack?”

“It was a different time then,” Rhianna said, sitting atop the skimmer-tank’s “head”, replacing some collapsed qubit relays around the huge wolf’s visual sensors. “They didn’t understand what the limits were. They couldn’t get the data throughput they needed even through the hardwire network.”

“I think they were expecting RIDEs to talk to RIDEs more like AIDEs talked to each other,” Paul said. He was standing back from Fenris, dividing his attention between the RIDE and watching the others from AlphaWolf’s crew at work. “At least that’s the sense I got from the magazine articles I came across.”

“You know, there’s been some advances in Q-based, non-RI computing since then,” Rhianna said. She raised her eyebrows and looked at Rochelle. “And we’ve made a few more teeny tiny advances lately ourselves, haven’t we Shelley? DIN-to-DIN based networking is actually a little faster than we expected. Funny thing is that I don’t really know why that is just yet.”

Rochelle opened her mouth to reply, but was interrupted by an excited shout.

PAUL!” The squee came from a girl on a black-and-orange-spotted skimmer cycle zooming up at speed, Fusing in mid-flight to catch Paul up in a great big hug. “You’re all right! Oh, thank goodness you’re safe!”

“Oof!” Paul said, hugging Lillibet and Guinevere back. “I’ve missed you too.”

Lillibet let go and stepped back, de-Fusing out of Guinevere again. “And…you’ve found a RIDE!” she squealed. “A doggie RIDE! And…” She frowned slightly. “I don’t believe this. You’ve got a doggie-nose! And I still don’t have a kitty-nose yet!” She stomped a foot. “Everyone’s getting a cute nose but me!

“Let me guess,” Paul said. “Your Mom?”

“My Mom!” she confirmed. “Dad’s been getting his way a lot lately, so he decided to throw her a bone and said I can’t. Stupid,” she sulked.

“But she doesn’t even have a RIDE,” Paul said. “Does she?”

“God, no. You should hear the way she talks about Guin sometimes. She’s a complete square. Totally not groovy.”

“You know, if you really want a kitty nose, I could probably tweak the code in Guin’s Fuser nanites to get you one,” Rochelle said. “I’ll take a look when I have a moment. Could be a few days though.”

Lillibet brightened. “Oh, could you? Thank you thank you thank you!” she squeed again. Then she looked at Paul. “Hey. You’ve got two tails! How’d you get two tails?”

“It was a two-for-one sale,” Paul deadpanned. “Oh, Lilli, Guin, meet my new boss, Fenris.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Fenris rumbled.

The sound of the huge wolf’s voice rumbled through them. “Wow,” Guin said. “Just…wow. I didn’t know they built us that big.”

“He’s actually built for two,” Paul said. “Well, he was supposed to be, anyway. We were talking about that just now. He was supposed to link up with someone wearing a light RIDE to drive and work the turret. But they never figured out how to make it work right.”

“You mean like Guin?” Lillibet asked.

“Probably a bit less expensive than Guin, but yeah.” Paul chuckled.

“I wonder if we could make that work now?” Rochelle mused.

Rhianna scratched behind one of her tufted ears. “Well, it’d certainly be a challenge. The basic idea is pretty sound if we can get the hardware to support the specs, and the software will need optimization on your side, Shelley.”

“Couldn’t be any harder than making a DIN for the first time,” Rochelle said.

“Making a what, now?” Paul asked.

“DIN. Data Interface Normalizer. It’s a thing that Integrates need to let them talk to the network again. We’ve been making a lot of them lately,” Rochelle said.

“Oh, yeah. Those folks,” Paul said. “I’ve been a little out of the loop there. I just know what was in that packet you sent to AlphaWolf, pretty much.” He shrugged. “Not that I’m complaining. Wasn’t really my business, as an apprentice.”

“They’re everybody’s business now, Paul,” Kaylee said. “One bastard in particular messed with AlphaWolf on a personal level and our Garage was razed as a result. Brubeck Mining’s stock is still a long way from recovery, Quinoa is still missing, and who knows where Fritz is going to strike next.” Just thinking about him stirred her freshly-restored memories, but she repressed them vigorously. She was going to go over some in detail while she and Rhianna dreamed that night.

“I think AlphaWolf is kind of worried about that,” LindaCat said, coming out from behind Fenris’s other side. “Because if he’s as powerful as you say he is, what’s to stop him from doing something more nasty than using us as a cat’s paw?”

“We’re working on a solution, but we don’t have it RIDE-compatible yet. Right now we’re deploying what we have to protect critical infrastructure,” Rhianna said. “I’ll send some gear with you when you head back to Alpha. If I can boost Fenris’s fabbing capability you might be able to do something about your own stuff, too. Think of it as a gesture of continued goodwill.”

“That would be awesome,” Paul said. “Also, we’re gonna need to kit him out with some micromanipulator waldoes so we can get into hard-to-reach spots for repairs.”

Rhianna had the same dreamy look on her face that she once did as Ryan, though on her it was that much cuter. She hugged the tank-skimmer’s head. “We’ll get you back to a hundred percent, baby. More if we can.”

“Thank you,” the “baby” in question rumbled. “I will look forward to it.”

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As Rochelle was taking a break for lunch and didn’t need her right now, Uncia padded among the now mostly-cleared Garage site. Some of those who’d come to help made her uneasy. They broadcasted certain codes in their sidebands that seemed oddly familiar. When she meditated on them, it pricked an old, deep wound of hers. When she made the connection, her ears flattened and she bounded back to Rochelle. :Shelley! Shelley! Bad vibes, here! Real bad!: she sent on a heavily-encrypted frequency.

Rochelle blinked, freezing with a half-eaten drumstick on its way to her mouth. :What is it? What’s wrong?:

:Some of these RIDEs are infected with Amontillado!: she exclaimed, sending the sideband codes. The virus tried to infect other RIDEs, too. :From the looks of things they’ve had it for months. Those poor people! Those poor Ris! We’ve got to do something! There’s two of them, a horse and another wolf.:

Rochelle’s eyes narrowed. :Son of a…: She put the drumstick down. :Right.:

:Maybe call Zane? He could probably un-infect them faster than we can,: Uncia suggested.

:Hmm. And it wouldn’t require restraining the RIDEs or anything either. Good idea. I’ll drop him a line.:

:I’m sure they’ll thank us. I’m more worried about the humans they’ve had inside them. They’re bound to be…awfully furry.: Uncia said. If they still have any mind left, she thought to herself. The isolation, the sensory deprivation, for months or perhaps longer. The thought that she’d almost done that to Rochelle made her want to discharge her batteries—the RIDE version of feeling sick to her stomach.

:Okay, Zane’s on his way.: Rochelle looked at the drumstick again, but discovered she’d lost her appetite. :Be ready to point the ‘Caskers’ out to us.:

A few moments later, Zane and Carrie-Anne faded into visibility next to Rochelle. “Myla will be monitoring remotely,” Zane said, pointing overhead to a camera floater that had arrived closely behind him. “She’s grumpy about us leaving her behind again, but as long as I keep Carrie-Anne with me she’s okay with that. Especially when I told her how urgent it was. These RIDEs really have the same trojan Uncia did?”

Rochelle transmitted the updated anti-Amontillado package she’d worked on since battling Uncia’s own infection months ago. “It feels like it, Zane. Your super-Q computing should easily blow that horrible thing out of their personality cores. Just be careful during the repair portion. The PC is a very sacred place. You’re doing brain surgery here.”

“We are half-RIDEs ourselves, you know,” Zane reminded her gently. “We had personality cores of our own. Still do, in fact.” He retransmitted the software to Carrie-Anne. “Ready?”

“Ready,” Carrie-Anne confirmed.

“Good.” Zane faded out of sight, as did Carrie-Anne a moment later. “Then let’s go play invisible Jesus.”

The horse and the wolf in question were working separately from the others, mostly using their lifters and a bit of hardlight to push the remaining debris for easy pickup into the scrap pile. They hadn’t spoken more than a few words. The others in the Apology Crew gave them a very wide berth indeed, as they probably felt the virus they were trying to broadcast also.

A moment later after she saw Zane and Carrie-Anne fade out, Rochelle saw the horse and the wolf stiffen and freeze. Then, a moment later, they abruptly de-Fused, dropping back to their animal shapes as a pair of humans tumbled onto the ground.

The one who had been in the horse looked barely different from the Fuser form he’d just left. He was closer to Integrate-size. He curled up into a confused fetal position and nickered with blank-eyed confusion. With a skull like that there was no way he still had a human brain.

The girl who’d fallen out of the wolf crouched on all fours. Her naked body was covered with fine grey fur, though her face was still about as human as Paul’s—a slight pushing out of the nose and mouth, in addition to the ears and tail.

“What did I do?” the horse said. “What did I do?” He looked down at the man he’d kept inside for almost a year and a half nonstop. “I’m…sorry.”

“Oh Goddess,” the wolf murmured. “Forgive me…”

Zane and Carrie-Anne faded back into visibility—Carrie-Anne crouching by the horse-man and Zane kneeling next to the wolf-woman. “Hey,” Zane said. “Can you understand me? Are you okay?”

“W-what…happened?” the woman whimpered. “Where am I?”

Carrie-Anne put a hand on the horse-man’s shoulder. “We will get you help.” The man just looked up at her like a scared horse, not comprehending a word.

Paul, de-Fused, and Fenris the giant wolf came over to see what was going on. “What…happened to them? I saw them around the camp, but…”

“Amontillado,” Rochelle said, joining them. “A trojan created by…well, I thought it was AlphaWolf at the time, but it may just be someone else from his camp posting in his name. It’s not his style, come to think of it. It makes it easier for the RIDE to lock the human psyche away where it can’t bother him—but it also brainwashes him to make him more inclined to just take some random human for a Fuser form. That’s how Uncia got me.”

“No…not random,” the horse said. “He was…my owner’s daughter. I’d…gotten sort of a crush on her.”

“She was my owner’s husband,” the wolf said.

Rochelle blinked. “Weird. Is there something about Amontillado that makes the RIDE want to force a crossride? I need to decompile it again and look closer.”

“We need to get these people to a hospital,” Zane said. “Especially the…the horse. I’m not sure if he has any human mind left. I didn’t think changes that extreme were possible.”

“I am so…so…” The horse RIDE abruptly fell over.

Zane turned and stared at him. “Oh hell no.” He quickly slapped his hand on the horse’s head. “Crap. He was trying to wipe himself. I think I stopped him in time.” Carrie-Anne already had her hands on the wolf’s head, pre-emptively.

Rhianna grabbed her RI core crash gear, including a specialized core unit. “Get him in here. Damn it. How are we going to explain this to AlphaWolf? Goddamn it! I don’t want to lose two of them! Stay with me, horsey!” She opened it, took the core from Zane, and put it inside. “Stay with me! Good! He’s in stasis.”

“The wolf will not resist,” Carrie-Anne reported. “But I’ve placed her in passive just to be safe.”

Kaylee sighed. “This is a case where being able to selectively erase our memories can come in handy. I couldn’t live with myself, either.”

“I’m so…so sorry,” Uncia said, nuzzling Rochelle. “That could have been me. That could have been you.”

Rochelle knelt and took Uncia’s head in her hands. “Shhh. Shhh. It’s all right. It wasn’t us. And I’m happier this way. You know I am. I love you, Un-hon, and I’m glad you got infected if it brought us together.”

Fenris looked more angry than anything else. His growl filled the entire lot. “When I find whoever made that trojan, I’m going to bite him in half!

“I’ll hold him down,” LindaCat said. “But…” She sighed. “…I guess I’m just as guilty, really.”

“No!” LindaGirl insisted. “You’re not guilty of anything!”

“I need to do this. I’m sorry.” And then LindaCat de-Fused, leaving a confused human girl standing there, wobbling a little. Even though they’d only been Fused a few days, LindaGirl had a tiger nose and a dusting of orange and black fur, as well as black stripes in her red hair.

“I…whoa…” LindaGirl wobbled and knelt, putting an arm around the neck of the tigress next to her. “That was…unexpected.” She looked down at herself, and reached up to feel of her face. “Anyone got a mirror?”

“I’m sorry,” LindaCat said, hanging her head. “I…got carried away, bodyjacking you, the way I’ve treated you, and I don’t even have a trojan as an excuse. After seeing what it can do to a person…I feel so sick.”

“Hey,” LindaGirl said. “You took good care of me. After the first day or so, I actually kinda liked it. Your body is so strong, and powerful, and has those neat built-in weapons…and you were letting me be the one who moved it half the time.”

“But I shouldn’t have ‘jacked you to begin with,” LindaCat said. “It’s…taking a joining that’s supposed to be sacred and perverting it. So I guess…I’m just going to go back to the camp, and I’ll never bodyjack again.” She facepawed. “Stupid.”

“Hey. Now wait just a minute,” LindaGirl said. “If you think you can just get away with turning me into a catgirl, and changing my name inside my own head from Linda to LindaGirl, and then just going away, you’ve got another think coming. You owe me.”

LindaCat bristled. “As badly as I might have treated you, I won’t take orders from a human ever again. So help me I’ll wipe myself first.”

“No, no, that’s not it,” LindaGirl said. “Listen. My Mom always said I needed a keeper. So why don’t you stay here…and keep me?”

LindaCat blinked. “…what?”

“I’ll make you a deal. You help me get my degree…in RIDE Technology, I just made up my mind…and you can have me for the rest of my life.” LindaGirl grinned. “You’re not a bad person. You’ve been mistreated by humans, I can understand that. You need to be the one in charge. Well, okay, I’ll let you be. Apart from the forced Fuse thing, and not even letting me show my face, you’ve been really nice to me.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “And to be honest, I actually kinda liked it when you were nasty.”

“But…what if that’s just Stockholm Syndrome talking?” LindaCat protested.

“So what if it is?” LindaGirl shrugged. “I don’t care why I feel this way, just that I do. I love you, you nasty kitty.”

“If…you’re sure,” LindaCat said hesitantly.

“I am,” LindaGirl said, hugging her again. “I’m yours.

A pair of sirens could be heard in the distance coming closer, and in everyone’s network the landing warning blared for the ambulances meant for the former-humans. The cleanup crew scattered. Meanwhile, Rhianna had removed the formerly-infected she-wolf’s core and put it in another support unit. “Shelley, let’s go back to your place. You’ve got the TBS gear there to help these two. Unfortunately we might need to do some memory surgery after all. I hate doing that. That’s personality core work.”

“I’m going to head back to the campus and buzz Leah and Aaron,” Zane said. “Maybe they know someone who might be able to do something for the horse. If they can heal screwed-up Integrations, it might be worth a shot.” He turned to Carrie-Anne. “You’d better stay around just in case something else pops up that needs Intie assistance. We’ve already had to come back once today, and I’ll be all right on the zip back to campus.” Carrie-Anne nodded, and faded back to invisibility. Zane likewise faded, and a moment later a cloud of dust rose as he took off.

“Paul, are there any others at your camp who act like those two? How many infections are we talking about?” Rochelle asked.

“There might be,” Fenris answered for his partner. “Paul doesn’t often get out of the graveyard to observe the other RIDEs in the camp. But I’ve monitored comm frequencies and have noticed several transmitting sideband codes similar to those two. I was not aware what to make of it at the time, but…I am now.”

“I’m going to send an antiviral package with you so it won’t spread,” Rochelle said. “And if he agrees…I’m willing to come out there myself and free them of that shit.” Rochelle didn’t cuss that often, but this made both her and Uncia very angry indeed.

“I’m sure he’d be happy to have you,” Paul said. “Both of you. He’d like to apologize in person, but it was just too risky to poke his nose into Uplift again.”

“We understand,” Uncia said. “It’s just that I’d like to get a few licks in.”

“I don’t believe AlphaWolf could himself be responsible for this,” Fenris said. “If for no other reason than that he is simply not a coder himself. But if I do find out who is responsible, I will hold him down for you.”

“Not those kinds of licks, sillywuff!” the snow leopardess mech said. She padded up to Fenris’s huge forepaw, headbutted it, then gave him a full slurp.

Despite the seriousness of the situation, Lillibet giggled. “I think Uncia may finally have met her grooming match. I think she’d run out of spit before she finished Fenris!”

Fenris pondered, and in response, gave Uncia a slurp with a hardlight tongue the size of a bath towel, that knocked her right over. “Pardon me,” he said politely. “Sometimes I don’t know my own strength.”

Uncia got back to her feet, shaking her head, as everyone else still in the bay shared a tension-breaking chuckle. “That’s…quite all right.”

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The Garage site was almost completely cleared out by the time Rhianna and Rochelle returned from Rochelle’s home, even more weary but at least triumphant. “They’re both okay!” Rhianna announced. “It was closer for the horse, but we excised the worst. He’ll still feel guilty, just not suicidal. We can send them back with you.”

Fenris paused in placing half the roof of one of the destroyed modules into a dump truck. “That is good,” he rumbled. “I’m sure AlphaWolf will be glad to know you freed them of such a pernicious infection. Have you heard anything about the condition of the humans?”

“We’re not next of kin, so we haven’t,” Rochelle said. “We’ll just have to sit and hope.”

“Um, excuse me.” LindaCat, still in her tiger form, was standing next to LindaGirl, nearby.

“Yes?” Rhianna asked.

“Well, we’re going to be staying in town now, while she goes to school at Martinez U,” LindaCat said. “So…we were wondering…would you consider taking my pet and me on as apprentices? Paul’s said you’re the best teacher ever…”

Kaylee looked more closely at the tigress RIDE for the first time. LindaCat felt a sideband query for her version number. She immediately sent it back. “Well, I see you’re one of a kind, yourself,” Kaylee mused.

Rhianna looked at LindaGirl. “Is this what you both want?”

LindaGirl nodded eagerly. “Yes, it is! I’ve really enjoyed working with Paul the last few days. Fixing things…it’s like, you can see what you’ve done afterward. You don’t get something so measurable with Liberal Arts or Business. Well, you get money with Business, but that’s just a number. I want to make RIDEs better.”

“They do have a lot of potential,” Paul put in, from within Fenris. “Never had to tell them how to do something twice. And I guess you’re gonna have room for another apprentice, since I’m going back to Alfie’s camp. He’s released me from the five month pledge, but there’s still a bunch of RIDEs in the graveyard I need to bring back—that’s what all the parts in that truck are for—not to mention a positive example to provide so the hard-liners have a harder time getting followers.”

“Aww, you’re going back?” Lillibet complained. “I wanna go too!”

“And your Dad really would let your mother kill me if I let you do that,” Rhianna said. “You’re staying right here, girl.”

“Exactly,” Guin said. “I won’t let you go.”

“Oh, fine!” Lilli pouted. “But keep in touch, Paul. I want emails every day!”

“Whenever we can get an anon connection, Lilli, sure,” he replied.

“Uh, well?” LindaGirl said to Rhianna.

“I lost a couple of employees since I didn’t re-open right away, and I trust Paul. You’re both in,” Rhianna said.

“Oh, thank you!” LindaGirl said.

“We won’t let you down,” LindaCat added. “A little surprised, though…I thought you’d have more of a problem with…our relationship.”

“Who am I to judge?” Rhianna said. “If we’re serious about letting RIDEs have the same rights as humans…well, humans can ‘own’ their RIDEs. Why shouldn’t a RIDE be able to ‘own’ her human?”

“Oh, you do understand!” LindaGirl said happily, hugging LindaCat around the neck again. “C’mon, let’s Fuse again.”

“All right.” LindaCat happily engulfed her partner, and they once again stood as one.

“Besides, in the end she chose to be yours,” Rhianna said. “I have to honor that choice.”

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As the afternoon wore on, Rhianna, Rochelle, Paul, and Linda, with the help of their RIDEs, managed to get Fenris into shape surprisingly quickly, fixing almost everything Paul had found wrong with him and even managing a few tweaks and upgrades as part of the process. They’d gotten him the best AA grade batteries they could afford—not as good or expensive as AA+, but given the huge quantity of them he could hold even that was enough to keep him going practically forever. The Fuser nanites had been flushed and refilled, of course, and his immensely powerful sensor suite and comm laser clusters had been returned to peak condition. He’d also been outfitted with a full suite of micromanipulator servos and waldos that would let him or Paul reach into the smallest cramped spaces of their patients.

They couldn’t do anything about the giant wolf’s particle weapons. That would raise more suspicion than anyone wanted. (Besides, with the parts in the truck, Paul could fix them himself when he was back at camp.) But one thing they could and did do was add a patch so that Fenris could turn into his fully-humanoid Fuser form without any human partner present. Fenris tried it and reported that it worked, but left him feeling strangely hollow without a person inside.

What with all the other things that had gone on that day, and all the other repairs Fenris needed plus the repairs to do to the other RIDEs who were helping with the cleanup, Paul was surprised that Rhianna and Rochelle still found the time to implement their RIDE to RIDE communication solution for Fenris as well. They fitted their DIN-Beta units in pairs where necessary to speed up the throughput the crucial last few femtoseconds the spec required. “This should let Fenris link up with a second RIDE in the cupola,” Rhianna explained. “Or for that matter in the front cockpit. Or maybe even two RIDEs at once in both places, though we should probably test it extensively with just the one first.”

“Awesome!” Lillibet said, Fusing back into Guinevere. “Let’s try it out!” the ocelot-girl suggested. She leapt up to the cupola. “You ready, Paul?”

“Are you sure about this?” Paul asked. “The system’s never been tested.” 

“So let’s test it now!” Lillibet said. “C’mon, it’ll be fun!”

Paul glanced at Rhianna and Rochelle. “Think it’s safe?”

“It should be,” Rhianna said.

“Safe enough to trust a billionaire’s daughter to?” Paul wondered.

“Probably safer than half the things she’s done in the last few days,” Rochelle reflected.

“Well, all right.” Paul grinned, then climbed into the front cockpit. “You ready to try it, Fenris?”

He could feel the giant RIDE’s excitement as he rumbled, “I am!”

“Then let’s link up.” Paul keyed the link option on his console.

“Handshaking now…” Guinevere reported.

“So we’ve got a character from Arthurian folklore linking up with one from Norse mythology,” Rochelle reflected. “Is that allowed?”

“I hope so,” Rhianna said. “Because either way, it looks like it’s going to go ahead and happen.”

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Fenris felt Guinevere’s connection attempt and marveled at it for a moment before accepting it. It was coming right out of a section of his hardware that had always been dead before—quiescent. There had never been anything there.

Except now, there was. Tentatively, excitedly, Fenris reached out to accept the link—and programming he hadn’t even been aware of kicked in, linking him up to another unfamiliar mind. It was almost like Fusing all over again, except that this other mind carried yet another mind nested inside itself. Fenris reached out to touch them both with a friendly greeting, and felt warm feelings returned from both.

Then his operational programming kicked in, taking admin access over the other mind and offloading some of his systems processes onto it—and suddenly it was as if the clouds had cleared up and the sun had come out. He wasn’t so slow anymore. He could really think!

The other RIDE, Guinevere, sensed his performance improvement and responded with excited feelings of happiness for him, and delight that she was able to help. She didn’t have as many complicated systems as he did, and her onboard computers were faster, if smaller—thanks to the huge amounts of money used in her construction. Taking over some of his processes was no problem for her, and she indicated she could take even more without strain. But Fenris wanted to take things slowly—even this was a marvelous improvement.

Reveling in his new speed, Fenris reached out to the mind inside the mind—young Lillibet, for whom he knew his Paul had such strong feelings. He gently asked for permission to read her memories, and after only a little hesitation she granted it. Fenris was delighted in what he found—a view of Paul, Rhianna, and the others through new eyes, and an altogether delightful little life. He was especially interested in her slow awakening to the true nature of RIDEs, and her remorse over and efforts to undo the damage her neglect had caused Uncia.

Guinevere was just as willing to grant access to her own memories, and they showed much the same thing—she was a one-owner RIDE, so had no memories before meeting Lillibet apart from her own First Boot and early weeks. Still, it was nice to see the proprietary interest she took in Lillibet’s continued moral growth. It was good that the girl had someone so well-grounded to keep her on the straight and narrow.

Fenris of course reciprocated to both of them, throwing open his own memories so they could read his life just as Paul had. He felt them tread carefully through his memories, exclaiming at his triumphs and commiserating with his disappointments. Their sympathy was true sympathy, not the pity that had so often colored his military pilot’s mind. It actually made him feel better.

He was aware, too, of Paul nervously holding himself separate, not wanting to risk interfering with Fenris’s communion with these unfamiliar minds. Fenris reached out and brought him fully into the link, and he hesitantly opened up to share memories with both of his friends.

Fenris chuckled inwardly as for the first time Paul and Lillibet truly realized what each of them felt about the other. Beyond that, they dived eagerly into each other’s memories—especially, Fenris noticed, those centering on going to the bathroom…and on certain things done in one’s own bedroom late at night. When they realized what each other was looking at, they felt momentarily embarrassed—until they each realized that the other was feeling exactly the same embarrassment, and it sort of cancelled out. For that matter, they were both children of Zharus, sharing the same lax attitude toward gender issues.

:Wow,: Lillibet said. :This is kind of like crossriding without the three-year cooldown. It’s a lot more realistic than playing a guy in an AR-LARP or VR game! They generally leave out the dangly bits.:

:Er…yeah,: Paul said, having played many female characters online himself. :So, that’s what it’s like to be you?:

:Little ol’ girly me. You’re no slouch yourself, either, big guy. This is amazing!: Lillibet said. :I never thought we could share memories human to human!:

:I guess it comes from using RIDE links as intermediaries,: Paul guessed. :I don’t think anything like this has ever even been tried before.:

:This is amazing,: Fenris agreed. :Even I had never thought to see humans share memories the way RIDEs do. My pilots would have been so surprised! My designers, too.:

:You know what? I’ll bet they’re still around. We should hunt them up and go laugh in their faces,: Lillibet proposed.

:Now, now, Lilli,: Guin chided. :That’s not very polite.:

:Maybe not,: Paul admitted. :Might be kind of fun, though.:

:I know what else might be fun,: Fenris proposed. :Why don’t we proceed to the desert outside of town and do some test driving? I have an entire new refit that needs to be tried out.:

The other three didn’t even need to say a word. All four of them felt the others’ instant agreement. “We’re going for a spin!” Paul said aloud. “We’ll be back by dinner.”

“I’d love to see see your shakedown,” Rhianna said dreamily.

“Come along, by all means. Rochelle and Uncia as well, if you like, and the Lindas. You all fixed me. You’ve earned it,” Fenris boomed.

Rhianna frowned. “I don’t know if we should…someone has to keep an eye on the crew.” She nodded toward the dozen or so RIDEs still working on cleaning up the lot.

Carrie-Anne faded back into visibility next to her. “I will watch them, and call you if anything comes up that requires your attention. Go. Have your fun. After all this, you deserve some R&R.”

“Oh! Thank you! In that case…” Rhianna smiled cutely, almost letting out an excited meow, then pounced on Kaylee herself to Fuse up. “Let us get our stuff! Baby will need some fine-tuning.”

“Yeah, I’ve been working too hard lately, too,” Rochelle said. “Un-hon, let’s go for a little ride in the desert.”

“You know, I don’t think you’ve had the chance to ride my skimmer form,” LindaCat said to LindaGirl. “Wanna try it out?”

“You know it!” LindaGirl squealed.

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The Uplift traffic patrollers were a bit nervous to see a lupine armored tank complete with particle beam cannons lift down the street, but were relieved when it appeared to be heading out of town, rather than into it. Once they hit the highway, they turned off and took a ramp down to the desert below the Shelf, heading out into the open flats where they could kick into full speed and really try their “legs.” Rhianna, Uncia, and LindaGirl zoomed along behind on their skimmer-mode RIDEs.

Once they got a good distance away from the city, Fenris powered up his sensor suite, activating it fully for the first time since it had been repaired. His scanners swept every object within three hundred fifty kilometers, imaging and plotting. He worked out passive targeting solutions for thirty-three fliers and twelve sub-orbitals simultaneously (not wanting to cause mass panic by painting them with active sensors) and discovered to his surprise and immense satisfaction that, thanks to Lilli and Guin’s hand on his helm, he was able to do so without slowing down or worrying about where he was going at all. An incredible feeling of satisfaction filtered through him as he realized, for the first time, that he was finally whole.

While maintaining the passive targeting solutions, Fenris proceeded to paint the three RIDEs trailing him with every single active targeting sensor he had. Each of them reacted differently to the targeting beams. Uncia swerved and nearly hit a sand dune. Linda dropped back and responded with her own targeting lock-up. Kaylee’s was the most extreme, sending out a burst of military-grade ECM before insta-Fusing with Rhianna and finding cover on the ground.

:Next time, gimme some warning, ‘kay?: Kaylee sent irritably. :Since we’re your chase-RIDEs can you transmit your telemetry? Once this is over there will no doubt be some tweaking to do.:

:Beg pardon,: Fenris sent. :I got carried away.: He opened the requested telemetry transmission mode.

:That’s…quite all right,: Uncia sent.

:Be ready,: Fenris sent to the three aboard him. :Shifting to Walker mode.:

:Wait, Walker mode? With passengers, at speed? How does that even—eep!: Lillibet squealed as she and Guin and Paul sank into their respective cockpits, and they sealed over the top. Fenris’s lifter nacelles turned into legs, and his wolf head extended on its neck, then the hardlight kicked in and a giant two-tailed white wolf with particle beam barrels on his back was bounding through the desert.

:This is freaky!: Lillibet breathed. :I can…feel his body, running. I’ve never felt what it was like to be in an animal form before, except in shared memories.:

:Yeah, his Walker mode is kind of halfway Fusing,: Paul said. :Or you can pull partway out if you’d rather feel your own body sensations.:

:Huh,: Lillibet sent. Fenris felt her awareness recede slightly as she recentered herself in her own body. :This is…really cozy,: she sent from where she and Guin were curled up in a fetal position behind Paul’s separate compartment. She giggled. :I’m inna belly of a wolf!:

:Just ‘til the giant woodsman comes along,: Guin put in, and all four of them shared a chuckle.

:Switching to Fuser now,: Fenris said. His lifters fired, launching him into the air, and his body shifted balance with his forelegs changing to arms. Lillibet found herself in the cupola again, though its dimensions had shrunk to an armored cylinder just large enough to enclose her and Guin’s shared body. All that was exposed was their head, behind a hardlight shield/targeting reticle. The particle beam cannons poked out to the giant wolf’s rear spine, with Lilli centered between them.

“Hey, it feels like the cannons are my arms!” Lilli said aloud, moving them around experimentally. “And I guess I could fire with a thought—if the guns weren’t offline. Pew pew pew!” She flipped the barrels over to face forward over Fenris’s shoulders, and her cylinder rotated and slid up and to the right to give her a view ahead from over the right shoulder. “This is neat! I’m a gun turret!”

“And I’m still processing support for the big guy,” Guin added.

“This is truly amazing,” Fenris sent over comms to all. “I feel whole for the first time in my life.”

“I’m glad to be here, too,” Lilli said, sending feelings of love for her three partners across their shared link.

“Hey, how about we see how whole you really are?” Paul asked. He pulled up a hardlight-tag training scenario and sent invitations to the other RIDEs and their partners. The RIDEs would generate hardlight weapon replicas and their systems would simulate the effects of hits.

“Hey, sounds like fun!” Rhianna said, as menus of weapon systems and associated point costs to kit(ty) out with them appeared in her display. “Your telemetry looking good, by the way. So far you won’t need much tweaking.”

“Just the thing to de-stress after the day we’ve had,” Rochelle agreed, making her choices.

“Oooh! They’ve got photon bazookas!” LindaCat squealed.

“So, three on one, then?” Paul suggested.

“Is that really fair?” Lillibet wondered.

“Probably not, but we can try to take it easy on them.” The other three felt his grin.

“Awesome!” Lilli squealed. “Let’s do this thing!”

Kaylee’s restored military experience and training kicked in with her hardlight weapons simulator. She’d gone for a PPC in one hand, a melee sword in the other, and a pair of ten-centimeter mini-missiles on each lower leg, with an extra battery-pak to run it all. :Let me show y’all how we do things in the MRS!: she broadcasted. She sent out a burst of ECM and vanished from Fenris’s sensors, showing just why she was classed as mobility.

“Cheshire kitty says meow meow meow!” Uncia said, sporting a heavy pulse cannon mounted along each arm and rocket pods on her shoulders. She blanketed the entire area in static from her million-mu build’s near-military quality ECM system, stepped between two pixels, and vanished.

“Dammit, we’re supposed to be the one driving a tank,” LindaCat said. “Just have to do the best we can with this photon bazooka and my comm lasers, I guess.” She fired up her own ECM, which as a military comm armor would have been even more impressive than Uncia’s if she’d had Uncia’s super-expensive batteries to power it.

Fenris didn’t even try to disappear. Instead, he lifted into the air for maximum mobility, and blanketed the area with output from active sensor banks meant to discern soccer-ball-sized objects at a 150 kilometer range.

Kaylee was the first he detected, and she sent one of her mini-missiles his way, followed by some PPC shots. She lifted, dodged, and rolled, never staying still, with occasional ECM bursts that were somewhat effective at making Fenris second-guess his sensor readings.

Lillibet tracked her with the particle cannons while comm laser clusters in Fenris’s shoulders kicked in for missile defense. He swerved out of the way of two PPC shots, and caught a third on a hardlight shield along one arm. It flickered but didn’t quite go out. Lillibet finally fired two twin blasts from the cannon—near-misses that nonetheless rattled the lynx before she found cover behind a dune.

:I’ve got a tigress by the tail,: Guin reported. :238 degrees, two hundred meters. Incoming!:

Lillibet flipped the cannons back over, centered and fired, as Fenris jinked hard right to dodge the photon bazooka round. Missile pods on his rear shoulders opened and a dozen micromissiles streaked vertically into the air, arcing in to find LindaCat where she was firing from partial cover. Her own comm lasers strobed into the air, but Guin contributed a tightly-targeted burst of ECM jamming that threw her aim off, and nine of the missiles hammered home, knocking down her hardlight shielding and battering her body.

“Ouch! Goddamnit!” the Lindas exclaimed. “I’m out!”

Then Uncia dived out of thin air, doing a handplant on Fenris’s shoulders and firing both of her cannons down into his missile pods before flipping away again into nothingness. The remaining missiles detonated, not doing much damage to Fenris thanks to blow-out panels in the launchers but removing their further utility as a weapon. The last part of her to vanish was her fluffy tail—which Fenris chased with a gout from a plasma flamethrower on his left arm. “Ow! Ow ow ow!” Uncia yelped from nowhere. “My biscuits are burning!”

While Uncia was working on Fenris’s upper side, Kaylee streaked in front with her hardlight sword and sliced it along his belly. Fenris threw himself backward, lashing out with his leg in a deceptively fast snap-kick. The simulation processors would pull the kick to avoid actual physical damage, but would trigger the lifters of whatever it hit to simulate a strike.

Kaylee took it full in the back, crushing her simulated pak enough to make her eject it before it exploded. As she descended she twisted and fired off her remaining three mini-missiles, discarding the PPC, leaving only her hardlight sword.

Fenris easily swatted the missiles, but the damage the sword had done started to catch up with him. His batteries reported a sixty-percent loss that wouldn’t be restored by his repair systems for several minutes. And that was when a cloud of missiles boiled out of a snow-leopard-shaped hole in the empty air to rain down on him.

:Uncia, they’re all yours,: Kaylee said. :That hit busted my targeting sensors and Rhianna’s out cold, too.:

Lillibet flipped the particle beam guns up and fired a low-power, wide-dispersion blast shotgun style, detonating most of the missiles early, but two of them still struck and staggered him—even before they delivered their actual payload, a rather pernicious computer virus aimed at shutting down Fenris’s own targeting systems.

:Hold on, Fenny! I’m taking over more of your processes to compensate!: Guinevere said. :And I think I’ve got a lock!: She painted Uncia with every one of Fenris’s active jamming and ECM systems, focusing a tank-sized and tank-powered battery of sensors on the moving target, ignoring the rapidly-dropping battery meters.

:Oh, crap,: Uncia said, fading back into visibility to the accompaniment of sparks heralding systems blowing out all over her body.

:Now, Lilli!: Guin sent. The cannons flipped forward again, muzzles irising closed for minimum dispersion. The twin beams transfixed Uncia’s body, and she “exploded” in a huge hardlight fireball as all her AA+ sarium batteries discharged all their stored power at once.

“Explody kitty!” Uncia said from nothingness.

Then Fenris fell right over with a clunk as his charge meters redlined at 0%.

“You know,” Kaylee said, hefting her sword. “At this point I’d come in and finish you off, but that’s not what we do in the MRS. You’re under arrest, Fenris, the rest of you.”

The entire front of the particle beam cupola dropped open, and Guinevere popped out with a pair of hardlight rapid-fire pulse assault rifles on her gauntlets, pouring twin streams of fire into the startled lynx. “Arrest this!

Kaylee had just enough time to let out very brief “Eep!” before her arms and legs were “severed” and the lifeless torso fell to the ground.

The battle sequencer called a halt to the exercise. :Unit Fenris, Unit Guinevere, rider Paul, rider Lillibet, have won this match. Thanks for playing.:

“Yaaaaay!” Lillibet cheered.

“The honor of the Sturmhaven Armored Cavalry has been duly upheld against Nextus’s Materiel Recovery Service!” Fenris boomed. Then sighed. “Or…would have been, if they hadn’t decided to junk me.”

Kaylee came forward to pat the prone wolf on the shoulder. “You’re not the only one got done dirty by the people who were supposed to be takin’ care of ‘em. Far as I’m concerned, it just means they didn’t appreciate us. That’s all.”

The Lindas came forward. “Yeah. We’re more than that,” LindaCat said. “More than the people who discarded us ever thought we were.”

“Speaking as the person who originally discarded Uncia, and learned much better, I agree with you,” Lillibet said.

I appreciate you, Fenris,” Paul said from within the wolf.

“So, anyway…” Uncia said, dusting herself off and coming over to the others. “Best two out of three?”

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The sun was a little lower in the sky when Fenris trailed the others, in Skimmer mode, back to Uplift—batteries noticeably depleted, but much happier. He had performed better in the exercises than he ever had in his life—especially the one in which the four RIDEs had teamed up against a computer-controlled opposing force. Paul and Fenris had provided command and control for the others while Lillibet and Guinevere maneuvered and fought his vehicle form. Despite the lack of military experience of any of the pilots, they had taken out wave after wave of enemies while barely taking a scratch themselves.

In the end, the theories behind his design had proven out in full. How sad that none of his brothers or sisters remained in their original bodies to share this triumph with him!

“Lillibet…Guinevere…with you, I am whole,” Fenris said. “And…I had a question I wanted to ask.”

“Sure, ask away,” Lillibet replied.

“Can I keep you?” Fenris asked plaintively. “Please?”

Paul cut across before they could reply. “NO! Fenris, you can’t ask that of Lilli. She doesn’t have the right to say yes yet.”

Fenris paused, disgruntled at the interruption from his nominal subordinate. “But she’s hardly any younger than you are.”

“I’m emancipated,” Paul said. “Or at least I was,” he added wryly, reflecting that he was anything but “emancipated” now. “My parents went back to Laurasia, and they legally empowered me to make my own decisions. Come to think of it, I still haven’t told them I’ve given myself to a giant wolf yet. But Lilli has very rich, very overprotective, and very near parents, who would tend to raise a fuss about their daughter going off to live with a known terrorist organization.”

Lillibet sighed. “He’s right. Mom would blow a gasket. Even Dad might have some trouble with the idea. But you can find another co-pilot,” she said.

“I do not want another co-pilot,” Fenris said petulantly. “You and Paul go together.”

“Well, I’m afraid you’re just going to have to be content with borrowing us every now and then for a while,” Guinevere put in. “At least until Lillibet hits eighteen.”

“Maybe I could get emancipated, too!” Lillibet said brightly. Then she glowered at the forward cockpit as Paul wasn’t quite fast enough to shield his amused disbelief. “What? You don’t think I could?”

“I’m not sure any court would find it justified,” Paul replied. “Besides, your Dad has very good lawyers.”

“There must be some way you could get permission,” Fenris said wolfedly. “Perhaps we can find it.”

Lillibet smiled sadly. “For what it’s worth, I’d be happy to partner with you and Paul for as long as you wanted me if it weren’t for Mom & Dad.”

“It’s not partnering, exactly,” Paul said wryly. “More sort of a friendly kind of ownership. We get along because we tend to agree on most things, but when we disagree he gets to call the shots. That was the deal we made when I fixed him.”

“And you’re okay with that?” Lillibet asked. Clearly this would be a point of contention between them. Fenris felt Lillibet’s determination to change things, but she was wise enough not to push it now.

“I make it a point never to disagree with anyone who could flatten me if they sat on me,” Paul said.

“A sensible philosophy,” Fenris observed. “I believe I shall put that into practice myself.” And everyone shared a good chuckle.

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As the sun approached the horizon, AlphaWolf’s crew finished their work. The rubble from the destroyed buildings had been completely cleared away into dumpsters and dump trucks, and a surprising amount of salvageable tools, parts, and other equipment had been arranged in the vacant field to one side of the garage site. Rhianna and Rochelle would go through them later and see what was worth keeping. Five new Repair Bays and their suborbital’s new hangar would be dropped the next day, followed by Rhianna and Kaylee’s restored permanent home and the Garage’s office. By Saturday the Garage would be nearly back to normal.

Now the RIDEs were gathering up, on the other side of the field from Rhianna and the others, and one by one they were de-Fusing—letting furry, bewildered, and occasionally naked people back out into the light of day while reverting to animal shapes themselves. About half of them staggered away, looking blearily around. The other half stayed where they were, talking to the RIDEs who had just disgorged them, and a few of them managed to coax the RIDEs back into Fusing with them again. A few others changed to skimmer mode and let the humans mount them, instead, driving off the lot and deeper into Uplift. The rest left the humans where they were and walked away, disappearing into the dusky shadows. Carrie-Anne carried over robes to drape around the naked and partly-furred who remained, and stayed there to talk with them and the others. In the distance, more ambulance sirens could be heard drawing near.

“We’ve got all the parts from the truck loaded into Fenris’s passenger space, so I guess that’s pretty much our cue to hit the road, too.” Paul watched the departures, and nodded to his old boss. “You’re going to have a lot to explain to the authorities about this, I’ll wager. Sorry ‘bout that.”

“Don’t worry about us. Between Zane’s goodwill and the halo effect from the whole Katie thing, we’ll probably be all right, more or less.” Rhianna shrugged. “But you, on the other hand…you know, even though AlphaWolf let you out of the contract, I think you’re still going to be away a little longer than even five months,” she added, arms folded across her chest as she considered her wayward erstwhile apprentice.

“I dunno,” Paul admitted. “I hadn’t really thought that far ahead. I just wanted to get all the RIDEs out of the graveyard, because there’s nothing sadder than a dead RIDE that doesn’t have to be.”

Rhianna nodded. “But you said that just having you there is proving a moderating influence.”

“Which means I won’t really ever feel like I can leave for very long,” Paul said. “You could be right about that. Unless I can find some other sterling example to spell me from time to time.”

“Wonder where you could look for one of those?” Rhianna mused. “I’m sure we could find a few more humans out there with good souls who sympathize with Alphie.”

Paul grinned. “Yeah, I’m sure. Seriously, you should come out there sometime, if you can sneak away. Ol’ Fenny’s not the only weird rarity they’ve got around the camp.”

“Tempting. And I would like to meet AlphaWolf in person sometime,” Rhianna reflected. “We’ll see how things shape up.”

Kaylee and Kandace had spent as much time as they could together. The old metal lynx and her sister had a lot to discuss, and thanks to Zane’s parts shipment Kandace would get a new suite of hardlight emitters once they returned to Camp. “Do you have any idea what happened to brother Franz?” Kaylee asked her sister.

“No idea. We lost touch once we were retired from MRS service. Must’ve been about three years after you were put in the Shed,” Kandace said, headbutting her sister. Their remaining brother, Frank, had been killed along with his rider during an early MRS op. They shared a moment of grief for them. “I don’t have a rider right now. I won’t be doing any bodyjacking, but I’m through taking orders from humans, too. And while there are other options—” she glanced over to where the Fused Lindas were leaning against Fenris, talking to Paul “—I don’t think I’m quite ready for that yet, either. You understand.”

“Of course.” Kaylee licked her sister’s metal muzzle. “Farewell.”

“Later, sis. We’ll meet again.”

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“Guess this is goodbye, then,” Lillibet said, looking up to where Paul was seated on the edge of Fenris’s front cockpit. Guinevere sat next to her, looking equally sad.

“For all of us, really,” LindaCat said. She had de-Fused and was seated on her haunches in Walker form so that the bewhiskered LindaGirl next to her could say farewell in her own skin. “But at least you’ve got your manipulator arms, so you don’t need us so much anymore.”

“And I’ve got those classes to take,” LindaGirl said. “I’m gonna be a real RIDE mechanic! It’s so exciting.”

“And I’m going to see that you make it,” LindaCat said, her tail curling around LindaGirl’s legs. “And you know what I’m gonna do, then?”

“What’s that?” LindaGirl asked.

“I’m gonna Fuse you one last time, then delete my de-Fuse command,” LindaCat said. “Bury you forever inside my body. Would you like that?”

“I…um…y-yes,” LindaGirl said. She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Could we…do that now?”

LindaCat purred. “Noooo…I have to give us both something to look forward to so you’re sure to study hard.”

LindaGirl swallowed. “I…I will.”

Paul and Lillibet traded uncomfortable glances. It was somewhat disturbing to watch the Lindas at play. But then, given how easily he had given up his own freedom to Fenris, he wasn’t sure he necessarily had any room to complain. “I wish you could come with us,” Paul said to Lillibet.

“Boy, I sure do too,” Lilli said. “It must be exciting, living surrounded by so many desperate and dangerous rebel RIDEs.”

“Well, not really,” Paul said. “Most of them really just want to be left alone. It’s just a few of them that give them all their bad rep. Well, that and the fact that even the ones who want to be left alone often want thumbs, too.”

“We will continue trying to find a way you might join us,” Fenris said in his low rumble.

“But we won’t hold our breath or anything,” Paul muttered.

“If I see an opportunity to work on Dad, I’ll see what I can do,” Lillibet said. “Not exactly likely with Mom, but you never know.”

“We’ll email when we can,” Paul said, dropping into the cockpit. “Anyway, sub’s leaving in 30 and we need to be on it. So I’ll see you later. Good luck with the studies, LindaGirl…and, um, everything else.”

“Goodbye, Paul!” Lillibet said as the big tank backed out of the parking lot—then looking away suspiciously quickly and dabbing at her eyes.

“Goodbye!” he yelled back as they pulled out into traffic. As they pulled away, he sighed. Fenris hadn’t taken disconnecting from Guinevere especially well—it was a big change going from completely functional for the first time in his life back to feeling half-crippled. Of course, for the repair duties that were the reason Paul had fixed him, he didn’t need to be any more functional than he was, but that didn’t make it feel any better. If Lilli and Guin ever did join them, he expected they’d probably have to get used to staying very close for a while, as it might take some time before Fenris was even willing to let them out of transmission range from his cockpit.

Of course, he could have encouraged Fenris to find another co-pilot, but if he was honest he didn’t exactly want some other co-pilot, either. The closeness of the four-way Fuse link meant that partners would end up being intimate with each other whether they wanted to or not—and he couldn’t think of any friend he would rather be intimate with than Lilli, let alone some complete stranger.

And Paul was pretty sure Lillibet felt the same way about him. A lot surer than he had felt that morning. He still wasn’t sure exactly what he felt. It was one thing to have a secret crush on a pretty girl far above your station who probably didn’t even know you existed. It was quite another to know for a fact that girl also had a secret crush on you—and to know that she knew the same thing about you. They hadn’t talked much about it—there hadn’t really been a need. They both knew what each other felt, and were both still trying to figure out how to deal with that.

And sharing memories human to human was a little freaky. When you did it with your RIDE, your lives were so different that for both of you it was a peek into another kind of being you could never have for yourself. But cross-sharing with another human, where you shared so much of the same context, was like falling into an uncanny valley. Doing it with someone you knew and liked so much that you didn’t mind knowing she was peeking through your memories was just bearable. He didn’t think he ever wanted to do it with someone else.

“We will find some way of getting permission for them to join us,” Fenris rumbled as they passed out of the city again, past more relieved Uplift traffic patrollers. “We will.”

“Yeah, I hope you’re right, big guy,” Paul said. “But right now we’ve got a lot more pressing things to worry about.”

Separator k.png

Nobody had ever seen AlphaWolf this angry. He paced around, snarling to himself, chasing away subordinates who tried to approach him like they were omegas in the pack. It was obvious he wanted to be alone while he figured out what to do about this new information. At first he had worried that it was a ruse, that Rhianna had somehow staged the whole thing, but the thought fell flat almost as soon as he had it. No, with the new parts, the antiviral, the return of the formerly-infected RIDEs, and this anti-Integrate security hardware and a now fully-functional-and-then-some Fenris fully sealed the deal. Anyone associated with the Freerider Garage were friends, not foes. Friends that must be repaid.

Paul watched Alpha pacing from within Fuser Fenris. The RIDE hummed comfortingly around his body, a finely-tuned machine. The other mind occupying it was still just as angry as his pack leader over Amontillado. There were ten more infected RIDEs in the Camp. Rochelle’s antiviral had to wait—unfortunately they had to track down the culprit first and not tip them off. The problem was that there were enough infected to resist effectively if everyone tried to round them up, and two of them had had their humans enclosed for years. Nobody knew what would happen to a human Fused for that long.

“Okay,” AlphaWolf finally said to Paul, Fenris, and the Lindas in private. “There really isn’t much we can do about the poor beings trapped by that trojan—RIDE and human. For now I want to focus on whoever created the thing. Shelley gave us some tools we can use to dissect the code. With any luck the creator was sloppy enough to leave some signs—I’m making tracking this criminal down our top priority. Also, get in touch with Shelley herself for advice on getting these people out and the RIDEs cured. If she can’t come out here herself maybe she knows someone who can help these poor souls.”

“We’ll let her know,” Paul said.

“So who’s responsible, then?” AlphaWolf asked. “Fritz?”

“I don’t think Fritz has any monopoly on nasty,” Paul said. “Fenny and I were talking about that on the way back. Integrates leave traces on things they touch, and those traces leave traces on other things. That’s how Rhi and Shelley found out Fritz was Overwatch, they found those traces in the memories of the three prisoners. Rochelle didn’t find any of those traces on our infected, or she’d have said so. So it wasn’t Fritz, or any other Intie, or anyone they’ve influenced.”

“So it’s the old-fashioned kind of evil, then,” AlphaWolf growled. “I’m starting to regret being so accepting and respectful of the privacy of any RIDE who showed up on my doorstep with a humans-done-me-wrong sob story. A memory dump and scan might have turned up this monster before we let him in.”

“If it is actually someone in the camp,” Fenris pointed out. “It seems likely, but doesn’t have to be the case. The virus was posted to your BBSes, after all. And whoever did it covered his tracks. It could have been sent from anywhere.”

“Have you noticed any RIDEs doing particularly sick things to their humans?” Paul asked. “Beyond holding them captive and taunting them, at least?”

AlphaWolf shook his head. “I’ve made it widely known I don’t tolerate out-and-out sadism, and we check our humans’ physical and mental health periodically. Except, apparently, for those ten. Somehow they were left out of the rotation. Which, come to think of it, does tend to suggest it is someone here in the camp with access to those files.”

“That’s a start,” Paul mused. “For that matter, it’s probably a RIDE who either doesn’t Fuse at all or doesn’t let his human out at all—so it could even be one of the ten infected, come to think of it. That sort of thing would be awfully hard to hide from a normally-Fused human, and I’d think any human who learned about it would have cried wolf—um, pardon the expression—the first time he got de-Fused.”

“It would seem likely to be someone we have not treated at our clinic, as well,” Fenris observed. “Someone with such a secret to keep would be loath to risk its exposure by a systems check.”

“Should we maybe come up with a narrowed list of suspects and check them one by one?” Paul wondered.

AlphaWolf narrowed his eyes. “I may have a better idea,” he growled. “Maybe we can get him to expose himself. I can have Fenris and other RIDEs I trust with good sensors keep an eye on the perimeter in case anyone tries to slip out, and then let it be known what we’ve discovered—and we nab whoever tries to leave.”

“Or else we don’t say anything, but wait until Rochelle or whoever arrives to start the treatment,” Paul said. “Since whoever’s behind the virus will probably be keeping tabs on them, and that’s less likely to start a general panic that might make a lot of people try to leave.”

“Just so long as we catch the bastard,” AlphaWolf said. “Fact of the matter is, even if it is one of our own who made this, I can’t have anyone pulling this kind of dogshit in my name. It weakens our movement and we’ve already done enough damage on our own. We have a hunt ahead of us, packmates. So sayeth me!”

Preceded by:
Integration Part XI: Citizen Katie
FreeRIDErs Succeeded by:
Integration Part XIII: Kaylee & Anny