An excerpt from
A Virtual Reality
Part Five: Intended Solutions
There were no more storms to delay us and no more avalanches to detour around yet it still took us another week to get through the worst of the passes, each night checking the direction and steadily increasing strength of the nearest key’s signal. Heading down the eastern side of the mountains, the trail took a southward turn. The signal was more to the north following the branch of the mountains that stretched to the east. It was time to inform them of our change in direction.
“Remember the encryption keys I’d mentioned?” I asked when I returned from the latest direction check after we’d make camp. Jethrik met my eyes, but remained silent; the others nodded and replied positively. “I’ve located one.”
“I’d been wondering about that,” Jethrik said, a partially-raised eyebrow the only indicator of his interest.
As there’d no longer been any keys in the vicinity, I hadn’t been able to demonstrate my connection through the box to the keys before we left Tor Sylonia. I could now. Taking the box out of my pocket, I held it out on my open palm. Partially disengaging the vision filters, I saw the executing code through the thin curtain of my visual senses interpreting that code. I felt the signal pulling me to the north. I wavered a little and a hand reached out to steady me—Tiru. A sudden flashback to the last time someone touched me while I was searching for a key sparked an idea.
“Some people are sensitive to the interactions between what is seen and unseen, some are not.” I wanted no more surprise reactions to the box’s power. The signal was still relatively weak. It was the perfect time to test my companions’ reactions. “Place your hand over mine and the JSA box,” I instructed, “and tell me what you feel.”
He glanced at Jethrik who nodded his acquiescence. Tiru placed his large hand over mine and looked at me. “I feel the warmth of your hand and the smooth wood of the box.”
“Thank you, Tiru.” I nodded and he withdrew his hand.
“Marko? Will you try?”
“No.” He threw a quick look to Jethrik who glared at the little man, almost daring him not to touch my hand and the JSA box. “Okay,” Marko amended. “Any excuse to touch a beautiful woman, right?” He barely touched my hand and then jerked back, his eyes wide, clutching his hand to his chest as if it had been burned “Same as Tiru, nothing.” His voice was a little breathless.
The moment his hand had touched mine, I saw into him. He was the team’s expert at getting into places that weren’t open to them. He’d also had quite an extensive freelance career before that. Marko followed Jethrik because he had saved him from a certain hanging. “Care to revise that answer, my hanged thief?” I asked, still reeling from the swift influx of information.
“What are you?” he hissed. His eyes narrowed.
I smiled. I guessed it wasn’t reassuring because his eyes widened as he stepped back. “Do you really want to know the answer to that, Marko-Allyn Aurella of Kastenella?”
“No,” he said quickly and backed away as far as he could without leaving the heat of the fire.
To be fair, his full name and origin were in the file that Anna Soraka had given me about the tracker team, but I had also seen it when he touched my hand. Most of the things from Marko’s past that I’d witnessed during the brief contact with him, however, were definitely not in that file.
Krista looked to her brother and leader, approaching me only after he nodded. I sensed her trepidation, especially after Marko’s reaction, but she moved forward smoothly and laid her long-fingered hand on mine. Relief flashed through her pale eyes. “Nothing but a very warm hand and a warm, wooden box.” She stepped back and resumed her place between Marko and Jethrik.
I watched Jethrik as closely as he scrutinized his sister for the truth in her statement. Looking at his code, there was something a little different about him from any others I’d seen in this way, but I couldn’t decipher what it was without a thorough examination.
“Are you going to brave my touch, Jethrik?” I asked. In the short time I’d known him, he did not touch anyone casually. He kept to himself physically as much as he did emotionally. When I looked back on that moment, I never could discern why I had challenged him like that.
“The real question is, Gillian,” he whispered yet every word reached my ears as clearly as if he’d been standing next to me, “are you ready to brave mine?”
It was the first time he’d used my given name since we’d met right before embarking on this adventure. It raised my curiosity a great deal.
“Oh, yes,” I answered, a shiver of anticipation ran down my spine, sparking a slow burn low in my abdomen. I raised my other hand toward him. “I am ready.”
In my periphery, I noticed Krista looking back and forth between us and edging back. The men did the same, alert, slowly reaching for weapons, as if not wanting to draw attention to themselves. Interesting.
Jethrik’s fingertips brushed mine. A buzzing energy sizzled up my arms and spread throughout my body. The fingers in my empty hand curled around Jethrik’s hand as his other hand cupped the JSA box between our hands. His pale eyes steadily held mine, not releasing them, no matter how much they wanted to roll back while I savored the feel of what his touch was doing to me.
“I feel the pulsing through my entire body,” he said so softly I wasn’t sure anyone but me heard him. “It pulls to the north. Is that where this key is?”
“Yes,” I agreed, though I wasn’t sure I’d have disagreed with anything he said just then. In a moment of lucidity, I reached out digitally and pulled Jethrik into the ether with me, leaving our bodies where they stood.
“Where are we?” His voice was steady, revealing only a trace of interest.
“In the Spirit World,” I answered. “You are safe here with me.” We might have left our bodies behind, but the buzzing energy remained.
“My safety is not my concern.” His voice caught as the sensations rushed through us both.
“It is mine.” I was beginning to doubt how safe either of us were.
“You have an interesting talent, Gillian Lawrence.” If we were in our bodies, I’d have sworn he nuzzled my neck.
“Now you see why Anna closed my file.” Heat burned through me.
“There are some secrets that are not anyone’s business but one’s own.”
“I assume this is personal experience speaking.”
“What were you told?” He immediately pulled away a little, like a wall had gone up between us and the sizzling energy between us lessened.
“Nothing beyond you being the best tracker.” I reached for him. “When I saw you with eyes that also saw the Spirit World, I recognized there was something different about you, something more.” Jethrik didn’t answer, resisting the power dancing between us. “You are aware of this addition.” I considered him in return, letting him maintain his distance. “I trust you will tell me if there is a true need. Otherwise, it’s your secret to keep or share as you choose…as are mine.” Though his face did not change, he relaxed with my acceptance of his difference without demanding an explanation.
“Let’s return before my people react to our absence as a threat,” Jethrik suggested.
“To them, we never left,” I said. For no reason other than a deep need to release the energies building between us, I relinquished control, letting our digital signatures overlap, entwining our executing code. The energy encompassed us completely. When I thought we could take no more, the intensity subsided and we slipped back into our bodies.
I awakened to Jethrik’s arm around my waist, holding us as close as our coats allowed, and his firm lips upon mine. With the vision interpreters reengaged, there should have been no signal from the JSA box but it was there, faint but definitely there. Jethrik opened his pale eyes and eased back from me, his hands trailing down my arms until only our fingertips touched. A slight movement and our contact broke. The signal was gone.
“In the morning, we go north,” he announced and returned to his seat by the fire, ignoring the stunned expressions and questioning looks of the others. Throughout the remainder of the evening, I often found his eyes on me with a deep intensity that hadn’t been there before.