Jana and Tilly follow Nathan into his lair. Well, his apartment, anyway.
Fox’s — make that, Nathan’s — apartment was the only one in the basement. That’s a smart move for a slicer since privacy is extremely important to our work. The door looked normal at first glance, but I gave it a closer examination and realized it was anything but. The door was reinforced metal, held in place by a reinforced metal frame, and was probably surrounded by reinforced metal walls hidden behind standard paneling. I spotted two obvious security cams and two more hidden ones. If Nathan was like me, he had one or two other cams I missed. I didn’t look for alarms. They’d be embedded in the door frame and the door. That didn’t count the motion sensors I was sure we’d find inside the apartment.
Nathan pulled out an old-fashioned mechanical key and unlocked the door. That opened a hidden retinal scanner, which read his retina print. With a soft whoosh, the door slid to one side.
“After you, ladies,” Nathan said, half bowing and waving his arm toward the apartment.
I caught Tilly’s arm and said, “No, no, please lead the way.”
Enigma laughed and walked through the door. I released Tilly’s arm, and she followed him. Nathan and I eyed each other for a couple of seconds before sidling through the door together. It was a surprisingly intimate thing, facing each other and being forced well inside each other’s personal space.
Watching us, Tilly said, “You two are going to have to trust each other sometime, or this is never going to work.”
“I’ve already trusted Nathan,” I insisted. “I told him my true identity.”
“Then, I met you in person and invited you into my home,” Nathan countered.
“And I willingly entered your home,” I shot back.
“Only in the hopes of convincing me to follow you on a slicing mission into the Star Stone,” Nathan snapped. “You know how much trust that involves.”
I crossed my arms and met Nathan’s building glare. “That only counts if you actually come with me into the Star Stone.”
He crossed his arms and leaned in toward me. “Why do you think I invited you here?”
“You’ve decided to come with me into the Star Stone?” At his nod, I leaned in towards Nathan, “So you expect me to use your slicing rig? That level of trust makes your level of trust look ridiculous!”
“Oh for God sake,” Tilly cried, “go into one of the bedrooms and screw each other, already! Once you’ve cleared the sexual tension and established trust, maybe we can get on with the mission.”
I felt the heat of a deep blush while also watching Nathan’s face turn red. “Tilly! I can’t believe you said that!”
“I can’t believe she had to,” Enigma said.
Nathan growled, “Mark! You’re not helping.”
Tilly glanced at Nathan’s friend, “So, your name is Mark. I like that more than Enigma.”
Mark grinned back, “I chose that name because I thought women liked men of mystery.”
“Now, who needs to find a bedroom?” I asked.
Tilly flashed a wicked smile and purred, “Now there’s an interesting idea!”
Mark nodded, “Tempting, but I am here to make sure Nathan stays safe.”
“I’m fully capable of taking care of myself, Mark,” Nathan retorted. He waved toward the back of the apartment, “Go have fun. I don’t care. Besides, I know I can trust Jana.”
“You do?” I asked.
“Of course, I do. You told me your true identity, for God’s sake! How can I not trust you?”
Tilly made a face. “Is it just me, or have things suddenly gone sickeningly sweet?”
“It’s not just you,” Mark said. Turning his attention back to Nathan, he asked, “I guess this means you and Jana are going slicing together?”
“Yes, but only after she’s had a chance to examine my equipment.” Tilly and Mark burst out laughing, and Nathan blushed again. “My computer equipment, dammit. And you both know that’s what I meant!”
I felt heat climb my cheeks, again, as I suddenly caught the joke. “I knew what you meant, Nathan. And my mind stayed out of the gutter, unlike certain companions of ours. Where do you keep your slicing rigs?”
Nathan pointed down the hall and led me in that direction.
“That reminds me,” Tilly said, “we’ve got a heavily armed friend in the lobby — just a precaution in case you turned out to be woman-grabbing psychos — who’s waiting for a call from me letting her know everything is okay. Do you mind if she comes down here?”
Mark looked at Nathan and raised an eyebrow, “What do you think?”
Nathan shrugged, “As long as she leaves her weapons at the door, I don’t care. Mark, do you think you can handle two women at once?”
Without waiting for an answer, he turned and headed toward a room at the end of the hall. Inside, he had an entirely normal-looking network connection. Knowing that was just a cover, I waited for Nathan to show me his real equipment. Slicing equipment, I mean. Damn Tilly and Mark and the thoughts they put in my head!
Nathan did something against the far wall. I couldn’t see what it was because he blocked it with his body. I respected his professional privacy and didn’t crane my neck to see around him. A second later, a section of the wall slid aside and revealed a slicing rig that would be the envy of anyone in the galaxy — including me. Nathan stepped to one side and motioned for me to inspect the setup.
I took my time, started up the machines, checked the displays, ran a few commands, before pulling out a data stick. Holding it up, I asked, “Do you mind?”
Nathan picked up an old junker of a data pad — interestingly enough, it was the exact same model I’d given to Drake and Jeanine the night I first met them — and said, “Load it on this, first.”
Appreciating his caution, I did as he asked and then handed the data pad back to him. “Check the code for yourself. Run the commands, if you want, and ask me anything about them.”
While Nathan checked out the data pad, I heard the door open and close. A third voice joined the two already out in the main living room. Obviously, Kelly was out there, now. Ignoring them, I turned back to Nathan. He had his own data stick out and loaded his own commands into the data pad. His software analyzed my software. After a few minutes, it delivered a satisfactory result to him.
“Nice work, Jana. Your code is elegant. More importantly, I have no objection to loading it into my system.”
I did just that and my software analyzed his software. And, thanks to Tilly and Mark, my mind went right to the gutter after I thought that. I pulled my thoughts back to the task at hand and waited for the results. As expected, Nathan’s system was pristine and had no booby-traps.
Withdrawing my data stick, I said, “Let’s do this.”
“Do you think your connection to the Star Stone is still open?”
“The one Queen Charlotte authorized? Not a chance. But, Tilly and I set up our own connection shortly before we had to leave for Gaunner. If Her Majesty isn’t too paranoid, it might still be in place.”
“And if it’s not?”
“Why do you think I brought Tilly?”
“Okay… Where should we meet on the inside?”
I thought for a second and said, “Let’s meet at The Club?”
Nathan nodded and handed me a network cable. We both plugged in and entered the net.
Is the way into the Star Stone still open? Find out in Chapter 18, coming Friday.