Author’s Note: After much discussion and much consideration, your author has decided to make some retroactive changes to the previous several chapters. When he rewrites the book, the following changes will be implemented:
– The Star Stone has been unsuccessfully experimenting with genetic manipulation for most of its time in the Star Kingdom.
– Emotions – particularly love – confuse the Star Stone and have greatly complicated its task.
– For reasons not yet revealed (depending on the story, they may never be revealed), the Star Stone still needs two extraordinary women to begin the rebirth of his creators’ race.
– Humans have proven genetically ‘fragile’ and he has had to learn how to successfully modify genes by sporadic trial and error. Due to its ‘programming,’ the Star Stone still requires two prospective mothers before it can do any kind of genetic manipulation. That restriction has hampered the Star Stone’s ‘progress’ with the project.
– The Star Stone thinks it finally has everything figured out. It’s just waiting for Olivia’s baby to reach the proper stage of development so it can begin modifying the future royal heir. This invalidates the whole ‘make sure the first child is healthy’ bit in the original.
The story will proceed from these changes.
The Star Stone has Jana trapped when a sudden golden light blinds her.
Insistent banging on my bedroom door pulled me out of my dream. The images in my head melted away, leaving behind nothing but a vague feeling of unease. I didn’t need those feelings to tell me I’d had a bad dream — the sheen of sweat covering my body told me the same thing. Ignoring that sticky-sweat sensation, I climbed out of bed.
The door slid aside, revealing Kelly standing in the hallway. “It’s Jana! Come on.”
I tried to make sense of Kelly’s words, but she turned and hurried down the hall before I could speak. I trotted after her, calling, “What do you mean? Is something wrong?”
Kelly didn’t stop or look back but she replied, “I think so. Jana sure as hell doesn’t look okay.”
“Where is she?” I asked reflexively since the answer was obvious once my brain got itself in gear. “I thought she and Nathan weren’t doing any slicing until tomorrow.”
“You and me, both,” Kelly said. “It’s pure luck I found her. An uneasy feeling woke me up, so I decided to do a security sweep of this place.”
She led the way into Nathan’s and Jana’s slicing lair. That’s what Jana has taken to calling it, so I’m just copying her.
Kelly moved to the side so I could see Jana and Nathan, “This is what I found.”
Nathan looked perfectly normal, comfortably reclining in his seat and connected to his bleeding-edge equipment. Jana was reclining in a seat and connected to the equipment, as well. That’s where the similarities between her and Nathan ended.
Sweat covered Jana’s face and, from the damp patches on her clothes, the rest of her body. Her eyes moved rapidly beneath her eyelids, her head jerked back and forth, and her knuckles had turned white from the force of her grip on the chair arms. Jana’s legs twitched spasmodically and a soft moan escaped her lips.
Kelly’s hand moved tentatively toward Jana’s connection with the equipment, “Should we disconnect her?”
“No!” I leapt forward and slapped Kelly’s hand down. “We might lose her forever if you do that!”
Kelly’s eyes widened, “I had no idea.”
“I know,” I sighed. “Jana and I should have told you all about this days ago. It’s just been… A bit hectic, lately.”
Kelly waved her hand vaguely at Jana, “What should we do?”
I scrubbed a hand over my face and shrugged, “I don’t know if there’s anything we can do besides wait. If Nathan comes out of it, maybe he can tell us something. Or maybe Jana will just suddenly come back.”
“I haven’t felt this helpless since Drake and the rest of us patrollers came back to our mining colony and found everyone dead,” Kelly muttered.
God, I’d forgotten Kelly had been part of Drake’s crew. I couldn’t even imagine what it must have been like for them, excited to be heading home only to find their home’s dome slagged and all their family and friends slain.
I gave Kelly’s shoulder a squeeze, “Jana is really good at this stuff. We’re just going to have to hope she’s good enough to take care of whatever is doing this to her.”
As if on cue, Jana gasped and sat up. Her eyes flew open and darted wildly back and forth. Shaking hands reached for her connection with the network, “Get this off of me! Get it off! Off, dammit!”
I caught Jana’s fumbling hands will Kelly disconnected her from the network.
“Sssh! It’s okay, Jana,” I said in what I hoped was a soothing tone. “Kelly is disconnecting you now. You’re home. Do you understand? You’re home.”
Jana’s eyes swung my way, “Is it really you, Tilly? You’re not some kind of Star Stone trick?”
I had no idea what Jana was talking about but replied, “Yes, it’s really me. If you’re not sure, just ask me something only you and I would know.”
Jana shook her head, “No, I don’t need to do that. You feel too real to be a network construct — even one created by the Star Stone.”
“What happened to you? Your whole body was quivering.”
“The Star Stone had me and was about to… I don’t know, I guess ‘devour’ is the right word for what it was going to do to me.”
I pulled Jana into a hug, “My God! How did you get away?”
“I didn’t. There was a sudden flash of golden light and then I was here. I guess Nathan—,” she broke off and looked at the other chair. “Nathan! Why isn’t he back?”
I thought that was a very good question, one I didn’t have a very good answer for. But I could feel Jana’s body tensing so said, “I’m sure he’s fine. He’s looked just like that — normal — the whole time. I’ll bet he’s just giving that Star Stone a piece of his mind.”
I regretted saying that as soon as the words left my mouth. Jana told me how those who entered the Star Stone before her had just faded away or been absorbed by the Star Stone. Now I had stupidly put that idea in Jana’s head.
She gave a short sob and said, “No, Nathan, don’t sacrifice yourself for me!”
“Well, if you insist, Jana,” Nathan said. He quickly disconnected himself from the network but his eyes stayed on Jana. “Are you okay? Did that thing hurt you? Did it take anything from you?”
Jana shook her head, “No, I’m fine. Was that golden light you?”
“I guess,” Nathan said.
Eyes wide with wonder, Jana asked, “What did you do?”
“When the Star Stone swallowed you up, there was nothing left but this big, roiling darkness where you had been. I know everything already was dark, but this thing was darker than dark. That doesn’t make any sense but—”
Jana waved that off, “Don’t worry about that.”
“I tried going into the roiling mass, but I just bounced off of it. I couldn’t grab it, either. Honestly, I was at my wit’s end when I felt something tugging at my back. It was the lifeline back to my body. Although from what you said about it, maybe I should call it my love line. Anyway, without any conscious thought, I grabbed hold of my line and pulled.”
“Nathan! You could have broken it and stranded yourself in the Star Stone,” Jana cried.
“What would be the point of coming back if it meant leaving you behind, beautiful?”
Nathan said that with such simple and deep sincerity that I found myself blinking away tears, even though he been talking to Jana. She was doing the same thing. So was Kelly.
Oblivious to the effect he’d had on the three women present, Nathan continued, “The lifeline or love line or whatever you want to call it stretched. I reeled in a lot of extra line and started whipping the roiling darkness with it. Somehow, the lifeline affected it. The line stripped away layer after layer until you appeared. I flicked my line at you. It wrapped itself around you and I yanked you back toward the Star Stone interface. Once you vanished into it, I followed.”
“But why didn’t you come back at the same time I did?” Jana asked.
“My lifeline had a lot of slack in it. It took a little while to reel it all in.”
Jana pulled free of me, went to Nathan, and gave him an extremely passionate kiss. After a few seconds, Kelly and I grew so uncomfortable that we just stared at each other.
A few seconds after that I folded my arms and said, “There’s a room with a great big bed in it. If you two want to keep this up, I suggest you move it in there.”
The two slicers broke their lip lock. Jana, her cheeks reddening a bit, said, “I wish we had time for that.”
“What’s the rush,” I asked. “Have you and Nathan got someplace to go?”
“No, Tilly, you do.”
My eyebrows rose in surprise, “I do?”
“Most definitely. It’s going to be dangerous, it’s going to take a lot of planning, and you’re going to need my help.”
“What am I doing — stealing the crown jewels?”
Jana shook her head, “I wish it was that easy.”
My mouth fell open, “What the hell do you want me to steal?”
“A sample of Princess Olivia’s blood.”
What does Jana have in mind? Find out in Chapter 34, coming Wednesday.