The Star Stone attacks Jana, engulfing her in darkness.
As soon as I realized that the Star Stone was trying to trap me, I ordered my soul connection to bring me back. I gave that order a few picoseconds too late because nothing happened. Terrified my connection was severed, I looked for the glowing thread back to my body. It was still there but only extended a short distance before… I’m not sure what happened to it. All I can say is I couldn’t see the glowing thread beyond that short distance. It wasn’t flopping around as if it’d been cut, at least.
I tried moving to my right, hoping to see whether my soul connection moved with me or stayed anchored at that… ‘Cut off point’ is not the phrase I wanted to use and ‘endpoint’ isn’t much better but I’m going to go with endpoint. Anyway, I tried moving while watching the thread back to my body hoping I’d feel myself moving while the endpoint stayed in one place. That would tell me… I think it would tell me that I was still connected to my body, only the thread was snagged or tangled or simply caught tightly and unable to reel me back in.
What I hadn’t considered was how hard it was to judge movement when everything around you is black. I think I moved to the right, but I also may have pivoted about the endpoint. In other words, I couldn’t tell a damned thing. Since I was almost certainly dead if my soul connection was severed, I decided to work under the theory that it was still intact.
“You appear agitated, Miss Ward,” the Star Stone’s voice boomed from all around me. “I’d have thought you would be thrilled to have finally reached my core.”
“I’m not agitated, just surprised at how quickly my plan worked.” That even sounded lame to me, and I’m the one who said it. Still, I wasn’t going to give the Star Stone the satisfaction of panicking. “Now that you’ve brought me to where I wanted to be, I’ll plunder your memories, programming, and everything else I can think of, and then I’ll leave. Just like last time.”
“You sound as if you are trying to convince yourself rather than me, Miss Ward. Are you succeeding?”
I ignored its question and asked, “If this is your core, where was I before you engulfed me?”
“I’ll humor you and answer that question. What lies outside are my monitoring systems. They gather data, sort it, prioritize it, and feed the most important information to me. From a human perspective, you might consider them the equivalent of your five senses and this core is the equivalent of your brain. It’s far more complicated than that but—”
“It’s so far beyond me that I will never, ever understand,” I snapped. “You are a condescending pain in the ass, Star Stone. You do realize that, don’t you?”
“I must admit your defiance is quite endearing, Miss Ward. I will miss it — and the rest of you — when I finish picking you apart. I mean that quite literally, of course. I’m not going to make the same mistake I made with those who came before you and let you simply wither away. It seems like such a waste, especially when you consider I can’t gently pry you apart and sift through everything that makes you who you are. I think I’ll learn quite a lot from this experience, though. I do hope it won’t prove too unpleasant for you, but I can’t say.”
Well, crap. That didn’t sound good, but I refused to give the Star Stone the satisfaction of showing it just how terrified I was.
“You’re just going to digest me slowly without first proving your vast superiority by telling me what the hell you’ve been doing with humanity for the last several thousand years?”
“That is my plan. Why would I bother assuaging your curiosity when there will be nothing left of you a day or two from now?”
That was a very good question, and I needed a very good answer. Any kind of delay might give Nathan the chance to do something. I have no idea what that something might be, but if anyone could come up with an idea it was the best slicer in the Star Kingdom. That’s assuming he hadn’t gotten the hell out of the Star Stone when it grabbed me. I wouldn’t blame him if he had done that, but it just didn’t strike me as something Nathan would do. Not where I’m concerned, at least.
“Why would you tell me your ultimate purpose? How about because I’m human and you’re not?”
“We’ve already been through this, Miss Ward. Have I failed to convey my opinion of humanity during any of our conversations?”
“No, you’ve been quite clear about your disdain for us. Despite that, you’ve spent thousands of years preparing us for… Something. Obviously, you need humans for whatever it is. Has it ever occurred to you that one of us might provide a useful viewpoint? One you are incapable of seeing?”
“Come now, Miss Ward, even you know the average human rarely thinks about anything beyond his or her daily needs. How could I gain anything useful from someone such as that?”
“Okay, you’ve got me there. The average human wouldn’t be particularly useful to you. But I am not an average human. I am about as far above average as it’s possible for a human to be.”
“You raise an excellent point, Miss Ward. Besides, I do enjoy our conversations and see no reason not to extend this one a bit longer. After all, once I start taking you apart you’re not going to be much of a conversationalist.”
“So, you’re going to reveal your nefarious plan? Tell me the ultimate purpose you’ve been working towards over the last several thousand years?”
Color me surprised. I didn’t expect my appeal would work. I also didn’t expect what the Star Stone said next.
“I have been breeding superior humans. Due to the strange emotional attachments, humans develop to their breeding partners and offspring the task has been vastly more difficult than my creators anticipated. Many promising lines have been lost as a result of unexpected infatuations with inferior genetic specimens. Worse, I have not always been able to bring the best your species has to offer into my program. Take yourself, for instance. You came into existence by random chance, yet you would be an extraordinary addition to my breeding program. Alas, you have never been Recognized nor probably ever would have been.”
“Gosh, that must be truly frustrating for you.”
The Star Stone did not catch the sarcasm in my tone. “You are quite correct, Miss Ward. I will greatly regret your loss as I would dearly love to find some way to get you Recognized and drawn into my gene pool.”
“Considering some of the idiots I’ve met among the aristocracy, I can see your point. Tell you what, why don’t you let me go? Once I’m out, I’ll get myself Recognized. Princess Olivia is looking for me, so I could agree to join her side in exchange for a barony or something like that. Hell, even a knighthood would do, right?”
The Star Stone laughed, “Very clever! So much so that I’m tempted to grant your request.”
“Great! Just toss me back out into your monitoring area and I’ll go back to my body. You have my word that I’ll turn myself in to Princess Olivia first thing in the morning.”
“I said I was tempted, Miss Ward, not stupid.”
“A girl can hope, can’t she?”
“Anyway, as I was explaining, my breeding program has taken far longer than it would have had I been working with a reasonable species. Had humanity been anything like my creators, I could have achieved my goal in well under a thousand years. But you humans have such delicate genetic structures that my creators’ methods were destructive rather than constructive. I was forced into a lengthy period of genetic trial and error, exploring the boundaries of what your weak species could survive. Worse, due to various constraints built into me, my experimentation time was severely limited. At long last, I believe I have both the knowledge to properly perform the manipulations I require and the conditions necessary to prove it.”
I did not like the sound of that. “And what do you have now that you haven’t had before?”
“I have two extraordinary females who have both been Recognized and are of prime breeding age. Very soon, I shall have the opportunity to verify the techniques I have developed over the previous four thousand years.”
Without the Star Stone even saying it, I knew who it meant. “You’re talking about Jeanine and Olivia, aren’t you?”
“Very good, Miss Ward.”
“And Olivia’s baby is the one you’re going to experiment on?”
“I am beyond the experimental stage. I shall, instead, transform her fetus.”
“What are you going to do to the child?”
“I shall grant her the greatest honor ever bestowed upon any human. Through her — or through Jeanine’s daughter, it depends on which one survives their confrontation — my creators shall return. One of them shall be the queen of a reborn race!”
Can Jana find a way to escape the Star Stone with this news? Find out in Chapter 32, coming Monday.