While the Queen and Princess feel unease about Jana, what is Jana up to?
“Tell me everything,” Jeanine said.
I looked across the low table at my…duchess. It dawned on me that I should feel strange thinking of Jeanine in such noble terms. I mean, I’m a rebel—and I don’t mean that in the same way as someone who goes against social norms does. I mean that in the ‘take up arms to overthrow a despotic and uncaring government’ way. You know, the kind of rebel who risks a hell of a lot more than social embarrassment if her side loses.
So, I should think of Jeanine as a compatriot of the cause, a fellow rebel, even a rebel leader. I should not look at her and see a woman I would happily crown queen of the galaxy and serve for the rest of my life. The rebel commanders wouldn’t be happy if they knew I was thinking like this. Hell, Jeanine would be royally pissed if she could read the thoughts running through my head. Or maybe she’d just be nobly pissed, since she was of the nobility instead of the royalty. Anyway, I pushed aside thoughts of Queen Jeanine—dammit, it even rhymes, so you just know she’d be perfect on the throne—and answered her question.
“The first thing you have to know is that the Star Stone is a whole lot more than the mystic, gift-from-God rock that all the stories say it is. It’s some kind of ancient, alien artifact. It’s an AI of some sort.”
“And you got all of this during the six or seven minutes you were…what, interfacing with it?” she asked.
“Yeah, though it wasn’t hard to figure out. Hell, the Stone, itself, told me as much.”
Jeanine’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “The Star Stone talked to you?”
I nodded. “If you ask me, the thing is pretty lonely. I don’t think that’s something its designers built into it, so I’m guessing it learned loneliness from humanity.”
Jeanine’s eyebrows came back down and lowered even further, either in confusion or disapproval. “And you feel sorry for it?”
The Star Stone’s plans to let me fade from existence rose, unbidden. As a result, my response was more vehement than I intended. “Hell no! I do not feel sorry for the damned thing, at all! Given half a chance, I’d drop it in the nearest star and cackle with glee as it tumbled toward its fiery doom!” I paused to think for a second and then nodded. “In fact, that’s not a bad plan. We should definitely do that.”
“You’re not making much sense, Jana,” Jeanine chided. “Why don’t you take a deep breath, and then start from the beginning?”
“Right,” I agreed, realizing I had been babbling. “I’ll do that.”
I took several deep breaths, managing to regain control of my emotions and order my thoughts. “A lot of what happened to me inside the Star Stone is hard to explain, especially to someone who wasn’t there. But, after I drifted in darkness for a while, I managed to assert some control on the…view? Environment? Or maybe the Star Stone figured out what I was trying to do and did it for me. Anyway, I ended up in something that looked like a monitoring station. It had thousands of vid screens showing life through the eyes and ears of people who have been Recognized. The Star Stone said it could also monitor a lot of their children, too.”
Jeanine stiffened and her eyes widened in alarm. “And I was one of those people?”
“You’ve been Recognized,” I replied, shrugging. “You’re also the child of someone who was Recognized.”
Jeanine’s tone went quiet, but intense. “What did you see and hear?”
“Uh, when the Star Stone showed me your screen, you were in a room with Colin. I heard him force you to choose which of the Holder children would be kidnapped. That’s when I knew I had to leave the Star Stone and make sure the Holders were taken to safety.”
“Drake told me that much. I’m just glad you were able to leave without any problems. Drake told me about the Queen’s warning.”
“Jeanine, I didn’t just up and leave. The Star Stone was intent on keeping me for as long as possible—until I faded into nothing, if the Stone didn’t lie to me about what happened to the others who came before me.”
Jeanine blinked at me a few times, her face a mask of horror at my words. “I don’t understand. I thought you slicers just return to your bodies if your connection is severed.”
“The Star Stone is different. The interface I went through… I don’t know exactly what it did, but the Star Stone said it stripped the essence of what makes me ‘Jana’ and left an empty husk behind.”
Involuntarily, I shuddered at the memory. Concern written all over her face, Jeanine rushed around the low table and enveloped me in a hug. “My God, Jana, you shouldn’t have taken such a risk for me!”
Blinking away unwanted and unexpected tears, I shook my head. “I had to. It was the only way to find out where you were!”
“I’m not worth—”
“Don’t you dare put yourself down, Jeanine!” I pulled back and glared into her eyes. “You are totally worth risking my life for. Besides, it was the Star Stone! The ultimate slicer challenge!”
“Well, I thank God the Star Stone decided to let you go. I’d never have forgiven myself if—”
I shook my head vigorously. “That damned Stone didn’t let me go. I escaped!”
“Escaped! And I’ll bet the Star Stone is hopping mad that I did, too, because it has no idea how I did it.” I stifled a giggle. “It will probably never guess, either! I just—”
Jeanine clapped a hand over my mouth. “Don’t tell me. Don’t ever tell me! If you do, you’re also telling the Star Stone.”
My eyes widened in shock at what I’d almost done. “Oh, crap! I can’t believe I almost did that!”
Jeanine got a thoughtful look. “Since I’m nothing more than a direct line to the Star Stone, I don’t think you should tell me anything else about the Stone or any plans you have for it.”
“Um, okay, but how can we coordinate—”
“Stop right there, Jana! Say nothing more about the Star Stone when I’m around!” Jeanine thought for a moment, then her expression cleared. “Drake hasn’t been Recognized and his parents are commoners. He can speak with my voice and, of course, I trust him implicitly.”
“You want me to tell him about all of this?” I asked.
Jeanine nodded. “Definitely. Go to his office right now. I’ll call ahead and tell him the situation. Along the way, grab anyone you need to help you plan and get busy. Just don’t ever tell me what you’re doing. Clear?”
Nodding, I let Jeanine bundle me out of her office. Deep in thought, I went in search of Tilly. I had no idea what we could do to get rid of the Star Stone, but I felt certain I was going to need as much help as I could get.
What can Jana and Tilly hope to do against the Star Stone? Find out more in Chapter 3, coming Monday.