Jana, Tilly, and Kelly settle in on Xapreathea.
When I set up shop in a new place, it’s a pretty straightforward process. My burglary tools are small, easily concealed, and always with me. That means I just unpack my clothes, install a little security, and I’m ready for business. Jana, on the other hand, needs an amazing amount of stuff to set up her slicer lair. Okay, so it’s really just a big apartment, but I like the sound of ‘lair’ better. It’s more mysterious, and mystery appeals to a burglar.
Of course, Jana couldn’t personally buy any of the stuff she needed, or even rent the apartment. As she put it, “Fox will track down any ID tied to me and he doesn’t need any more advantages than he already has. Since he’ll probably track Tilly down through me, we’re going to need you to take care of all of this stuff, Kelly. He might connect us through Jeanine, but we’ll just have to take that risk.”
Kelly grinned, “I’ve already got that covered. Jeanine had official Neert IDs set up for each of us. We had to scramble a bit for Tilly because she wasn’t part of the crew until a week or so ago, but they should hold up. I mean, they are real government IDs issued by a real government. It’s Jeanine’s government, but it’s plenty real.”
I felt an unexpected tingle of warmth inside. “I’m part of Jeanine’s crew?”
“Well, Drake’s and Jeanine’s crew,” Kelly clarified, “but hell yes you’re part of the crew. Anybody who puts their life on the line for those two is automatically ‘good people’ in my book. And, in case you’re wondering, it’s a pretty damned thin book.”
I blinked rapidly for a few seconds while watching Kelly closely. She was remarkably guileless — I could read everything she was thinking right from her face. I am just not used to that kind of open honesty from people. Okay, I do travel in criminal circles where honesty is usually in short supply, but I grew up around nobles and the elite commoners who hobnobbed with them. That crowd could teach criminals a thing or two about dishonesty. So, I’m totally unprepared for life as part of Jeanine’s crew of honest folk. And Drake’s — I don’t want to forget him with Kelly around.
It’s going to take a serious shift in mindset for me to fit in with these people. Fortunately, I’ve gotten some practice at it with Jana. She’s more open than the criminals I know but plays things a lot closer to the vest than the revolutionaries Kelly hangs out with. And, yes, I realize just how odd it is to think members of a rebellion are less secretive than Jana and me. Anyway, it’s given me some practice at being sort of open and sort of honest. Believe it or not, I sort of like the feeling.
So, we let Kelly rent the apartment and buy all the equipment Jana needed. Jana told her exactly what to buy, but Kelly paid for stuff, signed her real fake name on all the documents, and arranged for all the services Jana needed — stuff like net access and subspace connections and the like. This left me at loose ends for a while, so I renewed a few contacts in the Xapreathea underworld. If we have to go underground, I want to know we’ve got ground to go under.
I have a good reputation among criminals — well, among the nonviolent criminals. I don’t know what the psychos and sadistic bastard killers and hitmen think of me — if they even know who I am — but other thieves are usually willing to work with me. That includes the thieving support staff — getaway drivers, fences, gear suppliers, people like that. They know I’ll keep my end of the bargain and, equally important, usually have a line on very profitable jobs.
It dawns on me that makes me sound downright honest — for a criminal, I mean, since I doubt those I’m stealing from particularly appreciate the theft. Unless they’re really strapped for cash and want to collect the insurance money on the stuff I steal. Then, they love me. I’ve done more than a few jobs along that line — having people hire me to steal their own stuff — and admit those are choice assignments. Nothing makes a job easier than knowing the full layout of the house, having the schematics for the security system, and personal assurances from the ‘victim’ that nobody will be home when I break into the house. On the other hand, those are not particularly exciting jobs, and any burglar who tells you they aren’t in it for the thrills is lying.
Anyway, two days after we landed on Xapreathea, we had everything in the apartment and Jana was happily ordering Kelly and me around. She told us what to open, what to put where, what to connect to what, and what to leave alone, because Jana didn’t trust us with the truly technical stuff. Even the stuff she thought was nontechnical turned out to be pretty damned technical to me. More than once, she told me to do something or other with the whatchamacallit and plug it into the dohickey after inserting the dongle and… You get the idea.
Most of the words Jana used in her directions were normal ones. I understood each of them perfectly well. It’s the way she combined them into sentences that confused me. I’m a smart woman — stupid thieves don’t last very long, particularly with the kind of jobs I usually pull — but Jana could make me feel dumb without even trying. I think Kelly feels the same way.
More than once, Jana would finish giving us instructions and Kelly and I would exchange glances, trying to remember whose turn it was to ask for clarification. Then, one of us would ask, “Would you say that again, Jana, and this time use a language we understand?”
Jana always rolled her eyes, muttered curses about working with normies — I think that’s slicers slang for normal people, you know, ninety-nine point nine nine nine and a lot more nines percent of the human race — then she would explain again, using small words.
Eventually, everything was unpacked, installed, connected, and working to Jana’s extraordinarily exacting specifications. Kelly and I wanted to go celebrate at a bar. Jana wanted to celebrate by slicing. Since she was going to The Club to meet Fox, I decided to skip the bar. There was no way in hell I was letting Jana face that man without her wingwoman watching her six.
I guess Fox felt the same way because he had another guy with him when he joined us at Jana’s table. “Dreamwalker, Smoke, this is Braincase.”
The other guy, whose avatar looked a lot like a male version of my over-sexualized avatar, screwed his face up in distaste. “You know I hate that name! Dammit, N—”
“Fox!” Fox snapped. “I’m Fox. Got it?”
“Then you can call me Enigma.”
Fox and his companion glared at each other for a few seconds. “Fine. Ladies, this is Enigma.”
“Thank you, Fox,” the newly renamed Enigma said. Turning to us, he added, “And I’m pleased to meet you both. I’d know you, Dreamwalker, without the introduction. Fox talks about you a lot.”
“Does he now?” Jana the Dreamwalker asked, cocking her head and regarding the other slicer. “What does he say?”
“Lately,” Fox said, cutting off Enigma before he could speak, “I’ve been telling him what you told me last time. About the Star Stone, I mean. Nothing else.”
In other words, Fox had kept Jana’s identity secret. Or, he claimed he had, anyway.
“If it’s true,” Enigma said, “it’s a fascinating story and—”
“It’s true, Enigma,” I snapped. “Every. Last. Word.”
Enigma turned his attention on me. “Were you with Dreamwalker?”
“Sort of.” That sounded lame, even to me.
“Smoke kept watch over my body while I interfaced with the Star Stone,” Dreamwalker said.
Enigma nodded. “I’ll want to hear your side of the tale after Dreamwalker is done.”
“If you don’t mind sharing that information, Smoke,” Fox clarified.
I shrugged, “Sure.”
“And,” Fox said, turning to Dreamwalker, “assuming you don’t mind telling your tale again. Be forewarned, Enigma will probably have a lot of questions.”
In response, Dreamwalker began the tale. Enigma interrupted with questions now and then, but he paid rapt attention to her tale and did the same for my much shorter story. He got a faraway look when we both fell silent, obviously mulling over our stories.
“Well?” Fox finally asked.
“Hm?” Enigma surfaced, as if from a deep sleep. “What was that, Fox?”
“What do you think of their stories?”
Enigma shrugged, “My opinion is informed by a combination of educated assessment and a far less logical — but no less valid — gut instinct. You see, I had to consider the factual details of—”
Venting an exasperated sigh, Fox asked, “Do you believe them?”
Enigma looked at Dreamwalker and me, then turned back to Fox. “Absolutely.”
Fox gave that response careful consideration, then looked at Dreamwalker. “We need to meet in person.”
“Perfect. If you’re at home, Smoke and I can be in your building’s lobby in about twenty minutes.”
Fox and Enigma both raised their eyebrows in surprise. “You’ve figured out my identity already?”
“Not yet,” Dreamwalker replied. “I’ve got it narrowed down to eight people in your building, though. Assuming you live at eight thirty-six Strathmore.”
“I’ll be damned.” Fox shook his head in obvious admiration. “You are impressive, Dreamwalker!”
“Wait until you meet her,” I said.
“I can’t wait. And, yes, I am at home. Enigma is visiting. How will we recognize you?”
“That’s easy,” she replied, “just look for the gorgeous brunette. I’ll be the blonde standing next to her.”
Can Jana and Tilly trust Fox and Enigma? Find out in Chapter 16, coming Monday.