Jana and Nathan enter the Star Stone.
I was ready for the maelstrom between the net and the Star Stone and had done my best to prepare Nathan for it, as well. Even knowing what was coming, I found the currents and swirling colors disorienting. I stayed as close to Nathan as the maelstrom allowed, hoping my presence would ease the effect it had on him. Just being close to him made my second trip through the interface a lot easier than my first time. I could only hope I did the same for Nathan. Eventually, we emerged into the impenetrable darkness of the Star Stone.
I still had nightmares about my first time here, my struggle to see or feel anything, and remembered the relief I felt when I saw that first window showing what someone else was seeing. The darkness was just as bad this time, only I was trying to find Nathan, now. As before, the darkness was so complete that I could see nothing. I flailed about me, hoping I might find Nathan. Hoping I could hold onto Nathan if I found him.
I didn’t find him.
I couldn’t see him.
“Nathan? Can you hear me? Are you there?”
I listened intently for a reply but heard nothing.
Had he come through with me? Had the interface routed us to different…facets? If only I could see something!
Then I remembered forcing those windows into order during my last visit. I remembered imposing my will on what I saw inside the Star Stone. And I found myself wondering why I was spinning around in the darkness when it should be within my power to turn on the lights.
Pushing down my fear of the darkness and of being alone, I drew on my experience as an elite slicer and said, “Let’s have a little illumination!”
And just like that, there was light. And with that light, I saw Nathan. He wasn’t that far away. From his wide-eyed expression, I could tell he hadn’t cared for primal terror blackness, either.
“There you are,” he said. He tried for a nonchalant tone but completely missed it. “I was about to light things up, myself. Thanks for saving me the trouble.”
I arched my left eyebrow. “Do guys really think women believe them when they say things like that?”
“The smart ones know better but we say stuff like that, anyway.” Nathan shrugged, “It’s a guy thing.”
“Whatever. On a more important topic, can you see it?”
Just in case Nathan was still a little disoriented and had forgotten what ‘it’ was, I made a kissy face.
“Um…” Nathan craned his neck, “I think so?”
I shook my head, “That’s not good enough. If you can’t give me a definitive ‘yes’, then we need to leave right now.”
Nathan stopped moving and took a moment to bring himself under control. When he looked my way again, his eyes were calm and his countenance was collected. Once again, he looked around himself. This time his eyes tracked something back toward the maelstrom.
“Got it.” He looked my way, “Not being able to…you know…is odd.”
“Yes, it is. Now it’s time to find—”
“Miss Ward, what a pleasant surprise.” The Star Stone, still appearing as the nondescript man I’d seen during my last visit, suddenly stood before us. “And you brought a guest. How very thoughtful of you. I hope you told him he’ll never leave and will fade away to nothing within a matter of days.”
“I told him more than that, Star Stone, though I also warned him of the consequences if he can’t get away. Fortunately, he can.”
The Star Stone smiled, “Are you so certain, Miss Ward? After your unexpected departure, I have been very busy working out how you did that. Would you believe that I’ve succeeded and can now block your departure?”
I folded my arms, tapped my foot — which seems a little odd since I was basically hanging in space, but it worked — and said, “You’ll excuse me if I don’t believe you?”
“What reason have I to lie?”
“You might want one of us to trigger a return while you’re watching for it. You probably hope you can figure out what we’re doing if you watch closely enough.”
“That’s a very reasonable guess, Miss Ward. But why are you so resistant to the idea that I might have figured it all out?”
“You had thousands of years to figure out how that religious guy got away and couldn’t do it. Am I supposed to believe that you managed to do it in a matter of weeks after I got away?”
“When the time comes, Miss Ward, you’ll discover your belief has no power here.”
Nathan chose that moment to join the conversation. “If you have figured it out, tell us how she did it.”
The Star Stone regarded Nathan askance, “Why should I share my secrets with you?”
“You won’t be sharing a secret with us,” Nathan said, “since we already know it. You’ll just be proving to us that you know it, as well.”
The Star Stone clapped its hands slowly, “Bravo. That’s very logical of you. I can see why Miss Ward chose you to accompany her this time. I believe the three of us are going to have quite a good time — until the two of you fade away.”
“Well threatened, sir,” Nathan riposted. “We are both quaking in terror.”
“I suppose that will do for the opening pleasantries.” The Star Stone clasped its hands together as if in supplication and asked, “What may I do for you, Miss Ward?”
I thought about claiming we were only interested in learning more about such an ancient, alien artifact, but knew the Star Stone wouldn’t believe me. Instead, I told the truth.
“We want to learn what your ulterior motive is. Why did your creators give you to humanity? What did they hope to gain and how can you help them achieve their goals? Oh, and where are they? Humanity has expanded a lot since you showed up and we haven’t found any ancient alien races.”
“What is it the characters say in those insipid adventure vids you humans seem so enamored of?” the Star Stone asked, drifting closer to me. “Oh yes, I remember. I could tell you the answers to all your questions, but then I’d have to kill you.”
Nathan snorted, “I thought you were going to kill us, anyway.”
The Star Stone stopped right in front of me, so close our noses almost touched. Without taking its eyes from mine it answered Nathan, “I’ll certainly kill Miss Ward this time, but must simply hope you prove incapable of utilizing her escape method. If that is the case, I’ll kill you next.”
Suddenly, the nondescript body the Star Stone wore morphed into something shapeless and black. Before I could trigger my return, it enveloped me.
What is the Star Stone doing? Find out in Chapter 31, coming Friday.