Thanks all! This was an amazing ride, and I thank you all for your incredible support. Thank you. Here is the last page of this chapter--tune in for the next :)
The sky was just beginning to show a false dawn as Pistil and Stamen returned with fresh coffee refills from the automated coffee station.
Stamen was putting her charm away, showing her long v-neck, inviting glimpses into a barely-there curve of cleavage.
She pursed her lipstick-full lips at Thorn, who was still going over the MD Foundation rules for the Spark Prize. Thorn looked away from Stamen’s posing and showed them the port screen.
As they read the rules silently for a few minutes, Thorn wiped the remains from the tomato and pickle off of Potent’s claws, careful not to get any finger caught between those maws. The hermit crab scuttled back inside the opened backpack and Thorn gently rearranged the other possessions to make sure that the crab was on top and not harming anything—or that anything was harming it. Pistil reached over to the next table and dumped that table’s powdered creams and sugars into his coffee, stirring the by now super-saturated solution.
“You ready to enter on Tuesday?” he asked, almost too casually. Thorn nodded and sipped the fresh coffee, black, feeling the caffeine tingling nerves, telling them that it was ok to wake up and face a day—even without sleep.
“You don’t think you could…enter Pistil’s Spark as well?” Stamen leaned over, her hand cradling the side of her cheek, her body arched to provide the best view of a flawless neck.
“How many accounts do you think I can get?” Thorn snorted a bit. “I had enough trouble finding just the one.” Thorn was already a bit worried about the tracers that could be on that GoldenEagle account, as it had not been active for so long. Salting with false data and dates could only go so far, but the thin trail would stand up to some basic scrutiny. Doing that again on short notice would be difficult, and they all knew it.
“We’d pact with you. Give you the cash you’d need. We can spange a lot over the next few days—and Stamen has some tricks up her sleeve. Also, sleeping alone isn’t very wise. We’d watch your back through the whole Spark Prize. Make sure nobody messes with either of us. You’d be crazy to go through this alone.”
Pistil urged and traced an I: ingroup, team on the table with some of the spilled sugar.
Thorn sat for a while, considering. The dangers of someone else stealing that Spark were pretty high, and having someone awake, watching the lines, watching the tracers they could put on the accounts, monitoring traffic for any hint of a stolen idea or identity made sense. It would be worth it. “
How long have you been running?” asked Thorn, as if the pact also bestowed the right to know. Stamen shrugged. “Little over four months. We ran together—ain’t no way the families would let us stay together at 16. We are both jail bait. Both SOs now, just from age. And it was more a matter of I quit you are fired, if you know what I mean. The families…” here she glanced at Pistil and touched his hand as if to ask permission to continue, “didn’t approve of us, of who we really are, of what we wanted to become.” She held out her wrist, which showed diagonal scars, and Thorn did not ask where these had come from.
Pistil traced the word: Love (L love, o wonderful, v value, e now and forever) under the I: ingroup.
Thorn then turned the e on now and forever into an if then statement: If there is this now, then the future you want will come.
Without taking his eyes from the tracing of the “e: if then of a potential future,” Pistil asked, “Why did you run? What were you escaping from?”
Thorn drained the cup and set it down. “I never ran. I was never registered to begin with. The brass catches me and they’ll get themselves a nice blank slate to throw away. My patterns aren’t in their database. My mother died hiding me when I was eight and I have been on my own since then. But I’ve had…” the break was long enough for Thorn to assume a defiant posture, setting shoulders back, stomach in, “a friend or two show me the ropes. I know what I’m doing. I can cover our tracks.”
“And I’ll watch our backs.” chimed in Pistil, miming guns.
“Deal then?” returned Stamen, and the three put their hands out on the table, covering the I: in group. Team. Family.