Jana, aka Dreamwalker, and Tilly, aka Smoke, wait in The Club for Fox, the galaxy’s best slicer.
It wasn’t a long wait. Within seconds, a serving bot appeared at our table with two drinks.
“Compliments of the gentleman at table one,” the bot announced as it placed two filled shot glasses on the table.
Smoke, obviously curious about the possible effects of virtual alcohol, reached for the glass before her. Catching her hand in mine, I waved a hand, invoking one of my own bots. A full shot glass appeared on the serving bot’s drink tray. “Give that drink to the gentleman at table one, offer my compliments in return, and invite him to join us.”
As the bot left us, Smoke gently pulled her hand free from mine and asked, “Why don’t you want me to try the drink? It’s just an image in the net—it can’t be poisoned, right?”
“No—at least, not the way you’re thinking. Nothing in the net can harm your physical body. It could install a tracer or a logger in your avatar, though, which would let Fox track our avatars back to our real-world location or send him a record of everything we do in the net.”
Smoke nodded her understanding. “So, The Club is just like a real club—you never accept anything from someone you don’t know extremely well.”
“It’s not that bad. I made sure your avatar had my best detection and destruction software installed in it. Only a few slicers in the galaxy are good enough that they might get something past the filters. Fox is at the top of that list.” I ran a quick scan of slicers currently in The Club. “None of the others are here, so you should be fine if anyone else offers you anything.”
Smoke made a face. “I think I’ll pass. Besides, what’s the point of a drink that doesn’t have any effect on you?”
“Oh, it’ll have an effect, just not the one you’re expecting.”
“Most of the drinks invoke a bot that sends signals straight to your brain’s pleasure center. The weakest ones will give you a mild euphoria. The strongest ones… Let’s just say you want to work your way up the drink list before you even think about trying a Screaming Orgasm.”
“It’s that good?”
As if in answer, two ecstatic cries rose above the crowd noise. At the same time, the mob between us and table one parted. A handsome male avatar strode out of the crowd and toward our table. He was tall and dressed impeccably in a form-fitting suit. Warm blue eyes regarded us from below neatly trimmed black hair and above a mouth that quirked up on the left side, giving the impression of a man who found the world around him amusing in ways you’d never quite understand. He held the drink I’d sent in his right hand.
“Wow,” Smoke whispered, “now that is a man who can give me a screaming orgasm any time he wants.”
“First, he can hear you,” I said. “Second, you’ve just given away something about yourself — specifically, your sexual preferences. Third, remember that Fox designed that avatar for this effect. Chances are, Fox looks nothing like that.”
Keeping my eyes on the table, I whispered, “Isn’t that right, Fox?”
Laughter bubbled up from the middle of our table and a deep baritone said, “Indeed, Dreamwalker. Are you going to introduce me to your charmingly voluptuous friend?”
Smoke looked at the table and covered her face with her hands, obviously embarrassed. “God, let me die now.”
“That’s no way to act,” Fox said, sliding into the chair across from me. “I, for one, found your comment refreshingly open and honest. You find so little of that here in The Club.”
Waving a hand in Smoke’s direction, I said, “This is Smoke. As you might’ve guessed, Smoke has never been to The Club before.”
Fox reached across the table and gently pried Smoke’s right hand from her face and kissed it. “I am charmed, Smoke, to make your acquaintance. I might add, you have good taste in friends.”
Fox and I always got along well. We mostly knew each other from The Club, where we respected each other’s privacy and each other’s skills. It helped that Fox had a sterling reputation among slicers and, as best I knew, only accepted jobs that met his high ethical standards. High for a slicer, that is.
Fox gestured to the glasses before Smoke and me. “You haven’t touched your drinks.”
I motioned to the glass in Fox’s hand. “Nor have you.”
“Would it help if I swore to you that I put nothing in those drinks?” he asked.
“About as much as it would help if I swore I put nothing in your drink,” I replied.
Fox grinned, “Do you so swear?”
Returning his grin, I said, “I swear I put nothing in your drink.”
To my surprise, Fox drained the glass in a single gulp. A slow, satisfied smile spread across his avatar’s mouth. “That is good! Is it your own creation?”
“Yes. Would you like a copy of the bot?”
“I’m not feeling quite that trusting, yet,” Fox replied. “However, I also swear that I put nothing in your drinks.”
I knew this was coming, but I wasn’t particularly happy about it. Fox had displayed trust, which would be vital if we were going to work together. But, I’m not sure I could slip anything past his filters. Meanwhile, I remain positive he could slip something past mine.
The question was, did I trust Fox?
No, that wasn’t the question. The real question was, did I have any other choice but to trust Fox?
Raising the glass, I said, “To trust.”
Then, I also drained the glass in a single gulp. Smoke followed my lead, and we both smiled at the pleasant feeling spread through us.
“Excellent, Fox—not that I expected anything less from you.”
“I’ll happily match your offer and give you a copy of the bot that created the drink.”
“Perhaps I’ll accept it sometime in the future. If we end up working together, I’ll definitely accept it.”
Fox raised one immaculate eyebrow, “Before we do the job?”
Considering what I was going to ask Fox to do, I thought that was a pretty reasonable request. “Yes, before the job.”
Fox’s other eyebrows rose to join the first. “This job must be truly important to you.”
Nodding, I said, “It’s important to me, to you, to Smoke, and…oh…everyone else in the Star Kingdom.”
“Now you have me really curious, Dreamwalker. Please, share the details.”
“May I deploy a privacy shield, Fox?”
“By all means, please do. May I add my shield to yours?”
Fox and I concentrated and two shimmering bubbles surrounded my table. All sound from The Club cut off as if someone had flipped the switch.
Waving a hand, I said, “Opaque.”
My bubble turned white, blocking anyone outside from seeing inside. Fox studied this new development briefly and then nodded in satisfaction.
I had spent days considering what I would say to Fox. None of my ideas were particularly satisfying. In the end, I decided to go for direct simplicity.
“I want to gather a team of the best slicers in the galaxy for a very dangerous job. Specifically, I want to raid the Star Stone’s database—or whatever the hell that crystal abomination uses for data storage—so we can figure out how to remove its bots from everyone who’s been Recognized. After that, I want to steal it and drop the damned thing in the nearest star.”
Fox regarded me for a few seconds—that’s a really long time in the network—before saying, “I can’t tell if you’re serious or seriously insane.”
“Believe me, I understand your reaction,” I replied, “but, I am absolutely serious. I’ve already interfaced with the Star Stone and, after what I learned, consider it the single greatest threat to humanity in the galaxy.”
Fox grimaced, “See? That sounds crazy!”
Smoke glared at Fox, “Dreamwalker is telling the truth, and you should listen.”
Fox glanced at Smoke. “Well, Dreamwalker, you’ve obviously convinced someone that you’re not crazy. Convince me.”
I could only think of two ways to convince Fox. The easiest, but least likely to succeed, was to simply tell him the full story of my trip inside the Star Stone. The problem is, I’d have to give away far too many details about myself as part of the telling. After hearing it, I doubted it would take Fox more than a couple of hours to figure out my real identity. Was I ready to have the galaxy’s best slicer know everything about me?
Conversely, the best way to convince Fox would be to take him into the Star Stone. He would definitely believe me after that, but could I teach him how to escape the Star Stone before we ever entered it? How could I teach him to find his soul’s connection to his body without having the actual connection there to find? If I waited until we were inside the Star Stone to teach him, I’d also be telling the damned Star Stone exactly how I got away from it. Could it use that information to block us from getting away again? I had no idea, but I didn’t like the idea of revealing that secret to the Star Stone.
In the end, it all came down to who I was willing to put at risk to get Fox’s help—me or him. And, considered from that point of view, there was only one choice.
I met Fox’s gaze and said, “My true identity is Jana Ward.”
Has Jana just made herself a thrall of the galaxy’s best slicer? Find out in Chapter 10 of The Recognition Resistance.