Jana announces she’s going back into the Star Stone.
“Absolutely not,” Drake declared.
“What he said, only doubled,” Tilly said. In case that wasn’t entirely clear, she added, “Absolutely, absolutely not!”
I paused between bites of breakfast, “I’m getting the feeling you’re against my idea.”
“After hearing what you learned while you were inside the Star Stone, getting rid of it makes perfect sense,” Tilly said. “It’s the idea of you interfacing with it again that we’re against. The idea is idiotic!”
“Don’t hold back, Tilly. Tell me what you really think of my plan.”
“Ha, ha.” With her face surrounded by hair the color of midnight, Tilly’s light-bronze skin made her dark eyes truly stand out. Those eyes were currently locked on mine and blazing with intensity. “By your own admission, you barely got away from the Star Stone last time, and that was by sheer luck.”
It was my turn to bridle. “Or, as I like to call it, deductive reasoning.”
“Ladies!” Drake’s voice cracked across us like a whip. “This bickering is pointless and it won’t get us any closer to solving the problem of the Star Stone.”
Tilly bit back whatever she was going to say next. The human mind works oddly in times of stress. Despite all the real issues we had to worry about, I found myself wondering if she could have kept the alliterative theme going. Nothing appropriate sprang to my mind, but Tilly was a smart woman. Who knows what she thought up?
“The argument is useless,” I agreed, “but my idea is extremely sound.”
Tilly shook her head emphatically, “That’s just your slicer pride speaking, Jana. You simply can’t bear the thought that the Star Stone beat you at your own game.”
“It didn’t beat me,” I replied through gritted teeth. “If it had, Jeanine would probably be dead and I’d still be inside the Stone, slowly wasting away to nothing.”
“Fine, the Star Stone didn’t beat you,” Tilly rolled her eyes. She leaned forward to emphasize her next words. “You slipped in and out of it like a digital wraith. You won. There’s no good reason to risk giving it another chance to capture you.”
“I can think of plenty of good reasons to take the risk.”
Tilly pounced on my claim, “Oh, really? Name just one.”
Tilly was silent for a heartbeat, then nodded, “Right. Objection withdrawn—on one condition.”
“What’s your condition?” I had a good guess, but Tilly might as well voice it, herself.
“I’m involved in everything—planning, execution, infiltration, all of it! And I get some kind of veto power against anything I decide is truly outrageous”
That was about what I’d expected, but I still raised an eyebrow and asked, “Does that mean you want in on recruiting, too?”
That drew Drake’s interest far more than our short-on-details negotiations had. “Recruiting was an important part of my job with the rebellion. What kind of people are you looking for?”
“Slicers, obviously,” I replied. “I’m planning on going back into the Star Stone, but I’m not going in alone if I can help it!”
Drake studied his hands for a few seconds, and then looked me in the eye. “You know that you’re the only top-level slicer we could convince to join the rebellion, right? Honestly, you’re the only top-level slicer we could even find!”
“I know, Drake. And, returning honesty for honesty, I went out of my way to make sure you guys found me. I wanted to join the rebellion, otherwise, you’d never have gotten close to me.”
“I’m not surprised, Jana. But, if we could only find you because you wanted to be found, how can the two of you have any hope of finding any of those slicers?”
“I know how a slicer thinks and how a slicer hides. I’ll find them because I’m one of them.” I smiled at Tilly. “And because I’ll have a kickass lady thief working with me.”
“I’m completely out of my depth in both your fields, but I trust you know what you’re doing.” Drake flicked on his data pad. “What can I do to help?”
“We’ll need money,” I said.
“Of course,” he replied. “How much?”
I ticked off on my fingers, “We’ll need specialized equipment—both for me and, I’m guessing, Tilly—and it will have to be untraceable. We’ll need secure, high-speed connections to the net. A center of operations. Transportation, including a spaceship at our beck and call.” I realized just how expensive this was going to be and finished lamely, “Um, let’s just say we need a whole lot of money, Drake.”
Drake tapped on his pad for a few seconds. “Can I assume you have an anonymous bank account I can send funds to? Jeanine’s finance people assure me they can move money around without leaving a trail. This is my first chance to test their claim.”
“Yeah, of course.” I called up an account number on my portable pad and showed it to Drake.
He tapped the number in and then looked up. “You never gave me an amount, Jana.”
Swallowing hard, I almost blurted the number I had in mind. Afraid to suggest such a large amount, I cut it by a third and said, “Twenty million?”
Drake didn’t ask me if I was crazy, which is certainly the first thing I’d have done in his place. He just stared at me for a few seconds and then said, “I’m going to bump that up to fifty million. I don’t want you worrying about a tight budget.”
Fifty? Million? Jana Ward, I thought, you are definitely out of your financial league!
Aloud, I asked, “Are you sure, Drake? That’s a lot of money!”
“Do you remember the part where Jeanine claimed two duchies? Neert is the single most prosperous duchy in the Star Kingdom. Gaunner is somewhere in the middle. Regardless, Jeanine’s governments earned a lot more than fifty million credits just during the time you’ve been in my office. At least, that’s what Jeanine tells me.” Drake caught my gaze and held it. “Money isn’t important, Jana, and fifty million isn’t even petty cash around here. Jeanine is all that matters to me, and I cannot put a price on her well-being. Okay?”
Tilly and I both nodded our understanding.
Seeing our heads bobbing in unison, Drake smiled, “Spend money like there’s no tomorrow. If you run through half of what you’ve got, alert me and I’ll transfer more. Is that clear?”
“As crystal, Drake.”
“Anything you need for this job—from high tech equipment to bribes to clothing necessary to fit in wherever you need to go—buy the absolute best you can get.”
“Got it!” Tilly and I chimed.
“Good. Was there anything else?”
“A spaceship and a trustworthy pilot? I mean, obviously we can buy a ship, but I don’t know anything about them and don’t know anything about hiring pilots, either. Any suggestions you can offer would be extremely welcome.”
Drake’s eyes lost focus for a few seconds, as if he was considering something. With a decisive nod, he looked down at his pad. “I can supply a ship and a pilot.”
“Great! Then I guess we should go pack.”
He shook his head. “It’ll take a least a day for Kelly to get here with the Rising Star. You should spend that time planning your next moves.”
My eyes flew wide in surprise. “You’re letting us use the Star? Your Star?”
Without a second thought, Drake said, “Yep.”
That, far more than the essentially unlimited line of credit, told me just how important our mission was to Drake. That ship used to be his life.
“Don’t worry, Drake,” Tilly said. “We’ll take good care of the Star.”
“More importantly,” I said, “we won’t let you down.”
What does Jana have in mind? Find out more in Chapter 5, coming Friday.