Jana and Nathan meet at The Club to discuss entering the Star Stone.
Hundreds of virtual eyes watched us enter The Club together, tracking our movement across the floor towards Fox’s table. We left silence in our wake as fellow slicers speculated what our arrival together meant. Low voices erupted as we settled into the seats at Fox’s table. With a wave of a hand, Fox invoked a privacy bubble, cutting off all sound. I made a small gesture with my hands and a second, opaque bubble blocked us from sight.
“Is there any reason we’re meeting here, instead of going straight for your connection with the Star Stone?” Fox asked.
“Yes. You’re not ready, yet.”
Fox bristled at that comment. “I’m as ready as you were when you entered that thing!”
“I wasn’t ready, either. But I didn’t have any other choice.”
My admission mollified Fox enough that he gave a quick nod of acknowledgment. “Fair enough. You’re the one with experience in this, so I’d be a fool if I didn’t pay attention to what you have to say. What do I need to know?”
I sighed and combed a hand through my hair, “Something I can’t teach. The best I can do is tell you how I discovered the way out of the Star Stone and put you in the right frame of mind to discover it for yourself.”
“Does this have something to do with that soul stuff you mentioned?”
“Yes, and it’s not a load of crap. I don’t know if ‘soul’ is the right word, but it fits as well as any.” I leaned on the table, bringing my virtual face within inches of Fox’s virtual face. “Do you have someone in your life you love?”
Fox snorted and sat back. “Don’t tell me Tilly and Mark were right and you’re just trying to lure me into bed. If so, I can save you a lot of time, Dreamwalker. I’m not in the market for a girlfriend right now.”
“I’m going to ignore your comment and your tone because you have no idea what you’ll be facing if you follow me into the Star Stone. There’s a good reason I asked that question and it had nothing to do with hooking up with you.” Taking a moment to calm myself and douse my anger, I continued, “When the Star Stone told me I would never leave and, much worse, would fade away to nothing after a few days, it took everything I had to avoid panicking. While the Star Stone blathered on about its previous prisoners, I racked my brains trying to figure a way out.”
Even now, more than a week after that encounter, the terror I felt in that moment was still raw and painful. As I’d programmed it to, my virtual body reacted the same way my real body would and gave an involuntary shudder. I closed my eyes and tried pushing the fear back into the dark recesses of my mind where it came from.
I felt a hand enveloped mine and Fox asked, “Are you okay?”
“Is it that obvious?” I asked, knowing the answer was yes. Why else would he ask?
“I’m sorry I was so dismissive, Dreamwalker. Even a clueless guy like me can tell something frightening happened to you inside the Star Stone. I never noticed it in the past because you always glossed over it. Why?”
“I was afraid I’d get the exact reaction I got from you. I know how odd my story sounds, how unbelievable talk of souls and having your entire consciousness pulled out of your body sounds to anyone who hasn’t experienced it. I kept a lot of details to myself because I was certain you’d never have met with me, otherwise.”
Fox shrugged, “You’re probably right. But, having met you face-to-face and watched you here in The Club, I think I believe you. So, I will sit back, keep my mouth shut, and listen to your entire story.”
“Thank you. Where was I?”
“Talking about love.”
“Right. What put me on the right track was wishing I had my parents around to talk to. I used to talk my problems through with them when I lived at home. I still do it sometimes when I visit. They don’t always understand what I’m talking about — especially if I’m talking about slicing — but just telling them helps me see my problems in different ways. Asking them for advice makes it easier for me to find answers on my own.” I gave a wan smile. “I quite literally thought about how much I would love to discuss escaping from the Star Stone with my parents. That made me realize that my desire to speak with my parents was entirely logic-driven. I felt no love toward them. I felt no need for them beyond how I might benefit from having them around.”
“And you made the leap from that to realizing love was your way out of the Star Stone? That’s an impressive chain of reasoning!”
I shook my head, “It’s not as impressive as you think. The Star Stone had already told me of one man — a religious leader — who entered the Star Stone and got away. He’d have no trouble believing in his soul or searching himself for it. The ones who stayed and faded from existence were all scientists, people whose thoughts wouldn’t extend beyond their logical observations of the real world.”
“So, the religious man believed and escaped, while the rational men didn’t believe and died.” Fox considered that for a moment, “Yeah, I can see why you kept that to yourself until now. Even after reading the truth from your real eyes and your virtual eyes, I have a hard time accepting that.”
“Try living through it,” I muttered.
Fox gave a rueful laugh, “Point taken. Anyway, to answer your question of a few minutes ago, yes, I have people I love. They’re my parents, my baby sister — who would like you — and, hell, even Mark. He’s been my best friend for as long as I can remember.”
“That’s a good list – better than mine was. But, before we try entering the Star Stone, I want you to think very carefully about the risks involved.”
Fox burst out laughing, “What kind of slicer would I be if I worried about the risks?”
It was my turn to take Fox’s hand. “I’m serious, Fox. Yes, we slicers take a lot of risks and, if we screw up, may face long prison sentences. If you enter the Star Stone, you’ll be risking your life. If you can’t find that connection back to your body, I don’t know if I can pull you out using my own connection back to my body.”
Fox captured my gaze with his, “And you’ll feel guilty if I don’t come back.”
“I wasn’t going to mention that, but since you did… Yes, I’ll feel incredibly guilty if we go in and only I come out. So guilty, I’ll immediately turn around and go right back in after you. And I’ll keep coming back after you until you come out with me or neither of us comes out.” I offered a tentative smile, “See? I can play the guilt card, too.”
Fox returned my smile, “Then, I guess we both have to come back safely. Now, is there anything you can tell me about this connection to your body? Something that’ll make it easier to find or easier to see?”
I shook my head, “You’ll know it when you see it. It’s hard to miss, just like it was hard to find.”
“Good enough. I’m ready when you’re ready.”
Was I ready? Yes, I decided I was. Much as I didn’t want to return to the Star Stone, I felt as if I didn’t have a choice. I owed it to Jeanine, to Drake, to William, and, hell, maybe even to Olivia.
I stood and waved away my opaque bubble. “Link your avatar to mine and let’s go visit the Star Stone.”
Is the connection to the Star Stone still open? Find out in Chapter 19, coming Monday.