Jana plans to offer herself to Olivia in exchange for Tilly’s freedom.
The response from everyone else in the car made me feel warm and well-loved.
“Absolutely not!” Kelly protested.
“Tilly wouldn’t want you doing this,” Mark claimed.
I’m biased, but Nathan’s was the sweetest protest. “How can we spend the rest of our lives together if you’re stuck in a Royal dungeon?”
“I appreciate everyone’s concern — especially yours, Nathan — but it’s my fault Tilly is in trouble,” I replied. “If I’d finished reading the report before telling her about the chemical analysis of the Star Stone, she wouldn’t have put herself at risk.”
“Time was running short — is running short,” Kelly said, “we didn’t have time to wait for you to wade through the whole report. You know It. Tilly knew it. She also knew the risks.”
“Besides,” Nathan added, “we need you for the Star Stone hack. If you give yourself up—”
“I won’t give myself up until after the Star Stone is… Is ‘dead’ the right word?”
“Won’t destroying the Star Stone kill the whole deal?” Mark asked. “Why would Olivia bother keeping her end of the agreement if it meant she’d already lost the Stone?”
“How will she know?” I countered. “The Star Stone is only active during Recognition ceremonies. They won’t figure it out until Tilly is long gone and maybe even after Jeanine has negotiated my release. Now, would you all please shut up and let me finish updating the data analysis of the Stone?”
To my surprise, they did as I asked. By the time we reached Nathan’s third safe house, I had a document any slicer or hacker could understand. And, once we had a working data rig, I connected to the Network and headed for The Club.
As I’d expected, the slicers were still there waiting for more information. Most of the hackers had gotten bored and wandered off. At my request, those who waited called those who left.
I added, “And invite anyone else you think would enjoy getting in on the single most important hack in human history. That goes for you slicers, too.”
That got their attention — enough so it got the slicers muttering among themselves. Finally, Scoop voiced the slicers’ concerns.
“Just thinking about a large, coordinated slice like the one you’re planning sends shivers up my spine. But, darling, your friends and colleagues in The Club find your lack of exclusivity extremely vexing.”
“Yeah,” someone hidden in the crowd called, “we don’t need help from that bunch of byte trash!”
Angry shouts rose from the gathered hackers. Equally angry shouts from the slicers answered them. Great, I’d barely said anything and my potential allies were already at each other’s throats.
I tried shouting over them, “If you’ll just quiet down, I’ll explain.”
I’m not even sure anyone heard me over the din. Hell, I couldn’t hear myself. Certainly, no one responded to my request. Having no other choice, I took drastic measures and activated one hundred and eighty-six versions of my isolation routine — one for every hacker and slicer in meeting with me. A nanosecond later, all was silent. The crowd still shouted but no one else heard them.
I watched the avatars before me, waiting for the realization to sink in. It didn’t take long — idiots don’t master slicing or hacking. As faces turned my way, I said, “You can hear me but this isolation routine is one-way. I can’t hear you unless I choose to. You can either sit quietly and listen to what I have to say or you can leave. My routine will delete itself as soon as you leave The Club.”
My gaze swept over the avatars before me, giving any who wanted out time to leave. No one did. I smiled, “Good. Before I tell you about this job, I’ll address Scoop’s concern. Fox and I included hackers because their skills are perfectly suited to this particular job. Our goal is nothing less than the utter destruction of a data system unlike any you’ve ever seen.”
I saw the hackers’ eyes quite literally light up at that. Apparently, glowing red avatar eyes were a thing in the hacker community. Combined with their more monstrous avatar designs, it actually looked badass. I grinned at the hackers, showing I appreciated their enthusiasm.
Not to be outdone, the slicers closest to hackers made on-the-fly adjustments to their own avatars. Scoop was the first, and I had to admit smoldering white eyes gave his avatar a menacing demeanor. Shortly, a sea of bright white eyes stared back at me. More importantly, the hackers nodded and grinned at the slicers, forging a tenuous link between the two groups.
“I’ll get to the details of this job in just a minute. First, I have one more extraordinary thing to add.” Activating my avatar’s most solemn expression, I said, “Some of us could die doing this job. And not because we’re breaking into a heavily secured system with deadly, brain-melting feedback, either.”
As I’d intended, that drew a laugh. We’d all seen the adventure vids where the slicer’s head explodes because of a new and fatal security system. It’s a load of crap, but one we in the community let stand. It buffs our reputations as daring risk-takers, lets us charge more for our services, and discourages those who don’t have the dedication required to learn the trade.
I only let them laugh for a couple of seconds. “But this job is potentially deadly. I know we’re all familiar with the theory that a person’s…essence, soul, whatever you want to call it…is nothing more than electrical impulses working within an organic operating system. And that it’s theoretically possible to draw that essence out of a person and trap it somewhere else.”
I had their undivided attention now. A few avatars nodded but most just watched me, waiting for what came next.
“It’s not just a theory. The system we’re attacking does that to everyone who passes through its interface. I know this from personal experience. I’ve been inside this particular system twice and barely escaped with my life each time. Fox was with me the second time and I’d never have escaped at all if it wasn’t for him.”
Once again, I let my gaze sweep over the crowd. Most of the avatars were thoughtful. A few were dubious. In truth, I’d expected more doubters. Obviously, I’d underestimated Fox’s and my reputations.
“I see some doubters among the crowd and don’t blame you for that. Even for someone like Fox or me, it’s a fantastical claim. If there’s nothing I can say to convince you otherwise, I must ask you to leave now. Your doubt might hamper your ability to successfully return to your body at the end of the mission. I will not have that on my conscience.”
To my surprise, that simple statement convinced some doubters that I wasn’t delusional. Most of them, though, did as I’d requested and left. I sealed our gathering area after their departure, blocking them from returning. And, since I definitely had everyone’s attention, I dismissed the individual isolation bots.
I still had a hundred and fifty-seven hackers and slicers after the departures. But I had one more winnowing to perform.
“This next question won’t immediately make sense to you but if you can’t answer ‘yes’ to it, I want you to leave. Once again, it’s for your own safety. Do you all agree to this?” Avatar heads nodded all around, so I continued, “Do you have someone you love at least as much as you love yourself?”
Startled expressions appeared on most avatars and then morphed into puzzlement. Realizing I couldn’t just leave it at that, I said, “Love for another is the key to a rapid escape from this system. Whatever gives us the capacity for love is not included in the part of you that will be drawn into the target system. When you’re inside it, you’ll have complete access to logic and intellect. You’ll also feel fear since that’s usually a rational response to a threat to your existence. What you won’t feel is love of any kind. That ability will remain within your body but also forge a link to your logical self. You can use that link to pull yourself back to your body.”
I let that sink in for a few seconds. “So, I’ll ask again, do you have someone you love at least as much as you love yourself?”
Only six avatars left this time. Less than I’d expected. Once again, I sealed our meeting area so no one else could enter.
Smiling, I asked, “Have I piqued your curiosity with this lead-up? Are you ready to learn about our target?”
Heads nodded and since I’d removed the isolation bots, a lot of them called, “Yes!”
I raised my hands, calling for silence. To my surprise, I got it immediately.
“Our target is the Star Stone.”
How will Jana’s and Nathan’s attack on the Star Stone go? Find out in Chapter 57, coming Wednesday.