Jana has Kelly set a course for Xapreathea, a planet where they have little protection and many enemies.
Tilly insisted on coming with me to meet the Fox, even though it was an entirely virtual meeting. I could have refused, but after our terrifying high-rise escape from police the last time we were on Xapreathea, I felt as if I owed it to Tilly to give her a good look at my world. In preparation, I crafted an avatar for her and taught her basic slicer manners and protocols. She found the latter fascinating and the former, well…
We connected to the Star’s onboard network and my avatar appeared next to Tilly’s default one. I wore my usual avatar—a stylized primitive woman, someone whose look matched my name, Dreamwalker. I drew bits and pieces from the lore and history of a hundred different planets, ensuring no one could determine my home world just by my avatar’s appearance. I also took a cue from virtual games and added a bare midriff, a push-up halter that showed lots of cleavage, and a slit skirt that showed lots of thigh.
“Damn, Jana, you look hot in that avatar!” Tilly declared. “I bet all the boy slicers drool over you.”
“Most of the boy slicers think I’m a boy, too,” I replied.
“Say what? Why would they think that?”
“Because a lot of guys wear female avatars, and their avatars are usually straight from sex-fantasy central casting. Mine is kind of subdued in comparison, the kind of thing a high-end slicer would craft once he got past his porn star phase.”
“Uh, why do a lot of guys wear hot-girl avatars? Are they trying to attract another guy or something?”
“I think most of the male slicers are interested in women, but I’ve got no idea why men wear female avatars. They just do.”
“It never occurred to you to ask one of them?” Tilly asked.
“That would be a dead giveaway that I’m a woman.”
“And that would be bad, because…?”
“Because it’s knowledge about my true identity. It’s not much knowledge, but you never know what other slicers already know about you. If any of them ever figures out who I really am, they’ll turn me into their thrall.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“I’m deadly serious. Trust me on this.”
“Wow, and I thought thieves were paranoid!” Tilly looked thoughtful for a moment, then said, “If your identity is so secret, how come so many people know who you are?”
“Most of the people who know who I am do not know what I am. But, I also have the protection of one of the most powerful women in the galaxy—Jeanine—so I don’t have to be quite as secretive as many of my fellow slicers.” I flashed a conspiratorial smile at her, “Besides, how do you know ‘Jana Ward’ is my true name?”
Tilly’s default avatar actually looked hurt that I might not have given her my birth name, so I added, “I was just kidding, Tilly. I gave you my real name when we met. But, when we’re in the net, you must always refer to me as Dreamwalker. And never, ever use pronouns that include a sexual identification—scrub things like ‘Jana’ or ‘she’ or ‘he’ from your vocabulary the second you enter the net.”
“Maybe I’ll just keep my mouth shut and watch the mistress in action,” Tilly said. “Enough of this, though. Let me see my avatar!”
“Okay, but remember what I said about guys and their avatars,” I warned. “Especially guys who are new to the net.”
Tilly’s default avatar got a suspicious look on its face. “What did you do, Ja- um, Dreamwalker?”
I deployed Tilly’s new avatar over the default one. “See for yourself.”
Honestly, I was quite proud of my work on the avatar. It was an exaggeratedly sexualized woman, with voluptuous curves, enormous breasts, long, curly, blonde hair, and barely enough clothes to cover the essentials.
“You cannot be serious!” Tilly exclaimed. “This avatar is ridiculous!”
“That’s the idea,” I replied. “Anyone competent who sees it will assume you’re a newb, a guy, and not worth their trouble to mess with. You might get hit on by some other newbs, but I’m confident you can handle those.”
Tilly sighed. “Fine. We’re in your world now, so I’ll defer to your judgment. Once I get the hang of the net, though, I want a better avatar!”
“You can have a better one as soon as you can craft it, yourself. Until then, you’re stuck with that one.”
“Have you picked out an equally embarrassing name for me? Titanic Tits, or something even worse?”
“You can pick your own name, but I reserve the right to veto it if I think it’s too revealing.”
Tilly gestured to her avatar’s mostly-naked form, “You gave me this and you’re concerned about revealing stuff?”
“Stuff about who you really are, Tilly. So, avoid any name that refers to thieves, thievery, burglary, or anything like that.”
She thought for a while, then asked, “How about the Pick? I know I’m referring to picking locks, but it’s generic enough that it won’t be obvious to others.”
I grinned, “It’s great, as long as you don’t mind other slicers making jokes about picking your nose.”
“Blech,” she shuddered. “Okay, how about…um…how about Smoke? As a thief, I can go just about anywhere and I’m impossible to catch.”
“Better. You’ll get jokes about being smoking hot, and slicers will offer to ‘smoke’ you, but that’s about it.”
“Are slicers really that juvenile?”
“The ones who are juveniles are,” I replied. “And a lot of the more experienced slicers will make those jokes, too. I don’t know if it’s just a guy thing or if they’re using the jokes to further hide their true identity, but don’t expect a lot of sophisticated humor from the slicer community.”
“Got it. I can handle the jokes, so I’m going with Smoke. Assuming Dreamwalker approves.”
“It’s fine by me, Smoke.”
“Great! Let’s go find the Fox.”
“We’ll never find the Fox, just like the Fox could never find me.”
“Then, what’s the point of this whole exercise? If we can’t find the Fox, why—”
“I can’t find him—or her—but I can arrange a meeting at The Club.”
“The Fox would meet us in the real world? That seems like a risky proposition for a paranoid slicer.”
“The Club isn’t in the real world, Smoke. It’s a virtual location that’s modeled after real-world clubs, down to the bar, the dance floor, loud music, and private rooms. It’s the one place in the net where big-name slicers can meet without fear of discovery.”
“Isn’t it overrun with star-struck newbs looking to meet their slicer heroes?”
“Nope. The Club is one of the best-secured sites in the net. It takes real skill just to find it, and a lot more skill to get inside. By the time a slicer actually joins The Club, they’re usually beyond hero-worship. There’s still plenty of respect shown to the best of the best, but that’s about it.”
“How am I going to get in?”
“I’ll bring you as a guest.”
“The mighty Dreamwalker has spoken. Smoke will obey. How do we send a message to the Fox?”
“We’ve all got message drops at The Club. I sent a meeting request to the Fox as soon as I entered the Star’s net. By the way, remind me to thank Drake for adding a subspace communicator to the Star next time we see him.”
“When can we expect an answer?”
“It depends on how often the Fox checks his message drop.”
The Fox replied within minutes and proposed an immediate meeting. It’s what I’d have done in the Fox’s place. Why give a potential opponent more time to prepare for your arrival than necessary?
I showed Smoke how to hitch onto my avatar and then we headed for The Club. We flowed past the crowd of insider wannabes, those who had found The Club but couldn’t get inside. We slid through the security and wall and entered The Club.
I think my reception startled Smoke. Many of the avatars bowed as I passed. Others simply offered respectful nods. All of them cleared a path to my table.
“Good God, Dreamwalker,” Smoke hissed, “you really are slicer royalty!”
I just smiled and settled in to wait for the Fox.
Will the Fox help Dreamwalker? Find out in Chapter 9, coming Monday.