Jana and Nathan — aka Deamwalker and Fox — leave The Club for Jana’s interface with the Star Stone.
Fox was quiet after we left The Club. I expect that’s because he’s used to being the one making the decisions, the one choosing the route through the network. Slicers of our stature rarely give up control, even in such a minor way as Fox had. I couldn’t even remember the last time I linked to another slicer’s avatar and would probably share Fox’s unease if our situations were reversed. When Fox broke his silence, it was for an excellent reason.
“Slow down when you get close to your interface with the Star Stone. From the story you’ve told, you didn’t do anything to hide or camouflage the interface. Am I right, Dreamwalker?”
“You are. That’s why I’m not sure the interface is still in place. Queen Charlotte knows I set something up, and she doesn’t strike me as the kind of person who likes leaving loose ends lying around. In her place, I’d have had the Royal Guard search for it and, when found, remove it.”
“I’d have done the same, but Queen Charlotte is probably fifty times more devious than us. What if she left it in place but had network traffic sensors and alarms installed?”
I pulled to the side of the data stream for a moment and considered Fox’s question. It made sense, especially when viewed from Queen Charlotte’s point of view. It wouldn’t take a vast intellect or any great leaps of logic for her to figure out who had tripped any alarms her slicers set. Once they determined we weren’t using a subspace connection — something any reasonably competent slicer could do — she would know I was on Xapreathea. It’s a big planet with a huge population, but I’d really rather not pit my ability to hide against the Royal Intelligence Agency’s ability to find me.
“Okay, Fox, you’ve raised a valid concern. Why didn’t you bring this up earlier?”
Fox’s avatar shrugged, “Because it just occurred to me. I let myself get caught up in the excitement and the mystery of the greatest slicing challenge of all time and only considered the deeper implications of your story while riding in your wake.”
Had I let my concern for Jeanine override my caution as a slicer? Did I really need to ask? I most certainly had been acting with a haste and lack of caution atypical for me, or any other elite slicer.
“I have been pushing for action, haven’t I?” I asked. “I still believe quick action is required, but not at the expense of caution and safety. Should we return to our bodies and consider other options?”
“Not yet, Dreamwalker,” Fox replied. “We’re already here, so let’s see if your connection is still in place and scout for alarms and sensors at the same time. At the risk of sounding immodest, I can’t imagine Queen Charlotte has anyone good enough to fool both of us when we’ve got our guard up.”
“So, we scout but we don’t enter the Star Stone?” Fox nodded, and I continued, “I agree. And, I’m damned glad I have you along. I might have blundered right into Queen Charlotte’s trap.”
“I don’t know, Dreamwalker. I think your slicer sense would have reasserted itself when you got close to the interface.”
Fox linked his avatar to mine, again, and I set off toward the connection. Shortly, I found myself automatically slowing down and concentrating on the environment around me. I guess Fox was right about my slicer sense.
“Fox, stay linked to my avatar. That should let you turn all your attention to finding sensors and alarms.”
“That was my plan, Dreamwalker.”
For the most part, I let myself drift with the data current. Like the first time I entered this data stream, everything flowed toward the connection with the star stone. Wordlessly, I pointed out the Star Stone’s odd data packets flowing with us, but otherwise left Fox to his own devices. It didn’t take me long to find the first alarm — a simple affair easily avoided. The next sensor and alarm were better camouflaged, but only the most optimistic slicer would think I couldn’t bypass them easily.
All told, I found eight sensors and twelve alarms. Several of them were cleverly hidden inside other sensors and alarms. One alarm was actually three alarms, one of them embedded in the external alarm, and another one embedded in that internal alarm. I’d seen work like that before, but not often. Whoever Queen Charlotte had working for her was good — very good.
I stopped short of the interface between Xapreathea’s network and the Star Stone and waited while Fox studied it. After a bit, he nodded and we returned to our bodies.
Disconnecting the network cable, I sat up. “How many sensors and alarms did you find, Nathan?
“Eight sensors and twelve alarms. They were all good work, but not good enough.”
“Yeah, I was particularly impressed by the three layer alarm.”
Nathan nodded, “That one was impressive. What do you think the whole aim of that level of security is?”
I’d been thinking about that. “At the very least, tripping one of those alarms or sensors would tell Queen Charlotte that I was on the planet. If she really wants to capture me, she could turn the DIA loose. They’d find me, too. They have too many resources not to.”
“You’re probably right, Jana, but what if her goal is protecting the Star Stone, rather than capturing you?”
I hadn’t considered that possibility, but felt a chill running up my spine at the thought. “If she waited until we passed through the interface and into the Star Stone, she could destroy my interface and effectively trap us inside the Star Stone.”
The horror that idea evoked made me draw my knees up to my chest, wrap my arms around my legs, and begin rocking in agitation. I rested my forehead against my knees and closed my eyes, trying to regain my composure.
Suddenly, two arms wrapped themselves around me and held me still. “Hey, Jana, it’s okay. Whatever you’re worrying about didn’t happen. Would it help if you told me?”
In a whisper barely loud enough for Nathan to hear, I told him. “I think Queen Charlotte may have wanted to trap me inside the Star Stone. I’m the only person she knows of who interfaced with the Stone and returned. If she knew I’d passed through that interface, she’d also know she could destroy it and block my only way back to my body.”
Voicing that thought made me shudder again. Nathan’s embrace tightened, and I felt his breath tickle my ear as he whispered, “But there have to be other data feeds into the Star Stone. It would just be a question of finding one of them, right?”
“Maybe,” I replied. “But the separation caused by going through the Star Stone’s interface isn’t like anything else. What if severing that network connection also severs your mind’s connection with your body? What if there’s no way back after the network connection is severed?”
“I guess we’re just going to have to make sure we have way into and out of the Star Stone that no one else knows about. You told me you brought Tilly along for just this sort of thing. Is she some kind of network engineer?”
I couldn’t help it, I burst out laughing, and, God, did it feel good. I released my knees, stretching my legs out before me and feeling my fear of being trapped in the Star Stone recede. “No, Tilly is not a network engineer. I’ll leave it to her to explain further.”
Nathan’s arms loosened, though he didn’t let me go. “Are you okay?”
I looked up into his eyes and nodded. “Thank you.”
He gave a lopsided smile and caressed my back. “Anytime.”
Then, Nathan kissed me.
When we broke apart, I asked, “Didn’t you tell me you weren’t looking for a new girlfriend?”
“I wasn’t,” he replied. “But I found one, anyway.”
“Don’t I get a say in this?”
“You already did, Jana. If you weren’t interested, you wouldn’t have returned my kiss.”
“I do love a smart man!” Then I kissed Nathan, and he returned it.
Meanwhile, has Olivia done anything with the names William gave her?