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The Shell Game

By Dawn Vogel in Issue One, November 2021

Severina planned to wear her replica Top Diva tiara for her performance at the Galactic Gala, but my augmented vision indicated we'd already diverged from that. The diva, whom her team often referred to as the Princess, was wearing the real deal as we prepped her wardrobe in a locker room that was generally devoted to an entire team of athletes. The large open space had been transformed with bright lighting, a makeup chair, and a rolling wardrobe with Severina's dresses, plus the collection of custom portable cases for her jewelry, makeup, and other sundries. The facility staff for the arena had brought in a couple of mismatched couches, but no one had time to sit as we readied Severina for her five minutes in the spotlight.

"Bryce, what happened to the replica?" I asked.

Bryce, the head of wardrobe, rolled his eyes, sighing dramatically. "The realer-than-real 16K test footage made it look exceptionally fake, so the Princess insisted we swap it out before we left Zesoria."

Well, shit.

My sibling, Robin, was currently on Zesoria, Severina's home planet, in order to steal the actual tiara. I was in Severina's entourage for the Gala on Gabiobos to ensure Robin would know exactly when we were expected, giving them enough time to break into the vault where the tiara should have been. We had a buyer lined up who could dismantle the prize and sell the real, Earth-grown diamonds individually. The payment for those diamonds would finally net me and Robin our own ship. We'd be able to go to the jobs we wanted to take, not just rely on whatever we could find locally. We could take on the high-paying smuggling operations we'd dreamed of since we were kids.

If we got caught, we wouldn't need a ship while we rotted on a prison planet. So we didn't plan on getting caught.

The good news was that Severina's change in plans meant I had access to the real tiara. Up close and personal, in fact.

"Li," Severina whined, beckoning me. She gestured to the tiara. "Do your trick to get this thing to stay straight on my head."

"Of course."

I was indispensable here, clearly, relegated to fixing the Princess's barrettes so the tiara's weight was evenly distributed on her head and wouldn't pull her hair. It wasn't my fault she'd become accustomed to wearing the marginally lighter replica with a slightly different configuration of clips. Stupid 16K cameras.

At least my job was as mindless as it was thankless, so I could consider how to salvage the plan. The bad news was I was the social one, not the sneaky one.

So I'd have to do things the social way.

"As soon as you're done with your performance, come backstage, and we'll switch this out for something more comfortable." I eyed her ensemble. "The woven silver and ruby flower crown would match your outfit."

Severina wrinkled her nose. "Flower crowns are at least six seasons ago."

"Sure, but if you wear one, they'd make a comeback."

She shrugged, but the gleam in her eye suggested she was considering my suggestion. She loved to be on the cutting edge of fashion, and bringing back a trend was sure to win her a couple of magazine covers that she might not have otherwise claimed.

As she paraded out of the dressing room, the rest of her entourage relaxed. I pulled out my comm, pretending to be engrossed in some messages I'd missed.

In reality, I loaded up everything I needed to send an encrypted location ping to Robin. I was supposed to meet them on Zesoria tomorrow, but if I sent coordinates tonight, they'd come straight here. My message might even save them the trouble of cracking the safe. If they made good time, I could replace the real tiara with the replica version they'd planned to leave in its place, and no one would be the wiser. The real one was heavier, but it wasn't noticeable unless you were the uneasy head who wore the crown.

I didn't tuck my comm away until the message was marked as sent and received. Not expecting an immediate response, I started prepping for a quick change from the tiara to the flower crown.

Severina stomped back from performing her single song, her forehead creased. Her expression said everything--she didn't get the applause she had expected.

Immediately, the entourage swarmed her. Her personal chef, Jacques, was at the head of the group, presenting her with a plate of bite-sized morsels of what looked like baby food artistically arranged on crackers. It was probably asparagus mousse again, based on the color.

As soon as she'd sampled one, the makeup artists moved in, adding more bronzer and glitter and contouring, as though they could turn her into an entirely different person. If only.

Severina grabbed a second cracker before Jacques retreated, and once it was swallowed, presented her lips to the final makeup artist for a touch-up. Then it was my turn to slide into place for the headpiece swap.

She rolled her neck and shoulders to loosen them once the lighter crown was in place. "Bryce, you're in charge of the tiara. It gets packed last, and you have eyes and hands on it until then."

"Of course," Bryce replied.

Well, shit.

As soon as Severina strolled out to mingle with other attendees and watch the remaining performances at the Gala, Bryce tucked the black velvet tiara box into the middle of a stack of similar boxes for other pieces of the Princess's large, flat jewelry, and sat facing the stack, his arms crossed over his chest. Waves of smugness rolled off him. Yes, Severina had chosen him for the responsibility. He was head of wardrobe. None of us were surprised. Or impressed, no matter how much he wanted us to be.

I stayed behind him, my eyes on the box too. Seven boxes, and the one I needed in the middle. I considered my options as I started packing up other bits and bobs. We'd need to be ready to leave on a moment's notice. If Robin arrived before Severina was ready to depart, I'd have even less notice.

I had a retractable grabber claw in my purse. I could use it to snag the box, but it was single use and a little clumsy to operate. My timing would have to be impeccable, so I'd be running straight from here onto whatever shuttle Robin had acquired to get here from Zesoria on short notice. The landing bay, sadly, wasn't right outside the dressing room.

I'd need to try a different approach.

"Bryce, I know Her Highness said the tiara is going to be the last thing packed, but we need to get everything else ready to go. Then all you have to do is throw it into its bag the minute she's done with the Gala. You know she'll throw a fit if she has to wait even a second." The other members of the entourage were packing; only Bryce remained motionless.

He at least had the decency to wince when I said, "throw a fit," but he shook his head, nonetheless. "I have my orders, Li. I'm not taking my eyes off that box."

"Your funeral, then," I muttered.

I approached the stack of boxes with a dark eyeliner pencil palmed and marked the middle box on the side facing away from Bryce. The black on black wasn't visible to anyone else, but with my augmented eyes tuned to the right light frequency, the mark was plain as day to me. And the low-tech solution meant others weren't likely to notice my mark unless they were specifically looking for something so mundane. I removed the top three jewelry boxes from the stack and slotted them into the shelves of the packing case.

Now for the riskier part of my plan.

I dropped the eyeliner pencil to the brushed steel floor of the dressing room, giving it the smallest spin before I released it. I held my breath waiting to hear if it would land the way I hoped.

It clattered on the floor, but it didn't sound like the fast-moving stiletto heels I'd hoped for.

"What was that?" Bryce asked, his gaze not wavering, but his shoulders growing tighter as though he'd just realized he'd only know where Severina was if another member of the team mentioned her imminent return.

"Dropped an eyeliner," I said, crouching to pick it up. I glanced at Bryce to see if he was looking at me now instead of the box, but no such luck.

I needed some if I was going to snag the tiara before it got put into one of the packing cases. I'd already tried seeing through those with my augmented vision and found they had enough shielding that I wouldn't be able to track the right case unless I marked it, too. And since Bryce was following Severina's instructions to a T, the only way he'd do something different was if she gave him new instructions.

I froze, still half crouching. Wait--that was it.

Leaving Bryce and his sentinel duty behind, I made my way to the door that led into the Gala. I didn't recognize the performer on stage, though I likely should have.

Craning my neck like I was oohing and aahing over the spectacle, I loaded up a voice modulator app on my comm. There was plenty of downloadable content that let you make your voice or text sound like the voice of a celebrity. Severina was popular enough that her content was at the top of the page without even searching.

I set a delay on the sound file and typed in the faked instructions. Then I tucked my comm into a nook in the hallway, knowing that even they had amazing acoustics that would carry Severina's programmed "command" straight into the dressing room.

I returned to where Bryce was sitting, picking up a few more jewelry boxes, and right on time, the app did its thing.

"Time for us to go!" Severina's voice announced. I hadn't anticipated her sounding angry, but beggars can't be choosers.

Bryce's gaze shot toward the entry to the dressing room as he scrambled to get off the couch.

I moved the box holding the tiara to the bottom of the stack in a smooth motion. When Bryce looked back, I pointedly lifted the box that was now at the top and tossed it in his direction. "Better hold onto that. Don't want the Princess to have your head."

Thankfully, the velvet jewelry boxes had enough weight to them that it was virtually impossible to tell what, if anything, they contained. He caught the box, not even bothering to check that it was the right piece of jewelry.

I forced myself not to smile as I tucked the other boxes, including the tiara, into their case. I hauled it over to where the others were lined up on a large dolly. Instead of lifting it to join them, I moved my own case, an identical match to Severina's legions, to the dolly in its place.

A quick peek out the stage door, followed by a panicked expression to the rest of the entourage, was enough cover to get my comm from where I'd stowed it. No one questioned me as I grabbed the handle of "my" case and headed out the exterior door of the dressing room, where we'd all be expected to board our ground transportation.

With no one else watching, I paused near the front of the hired vehicle, checking my comm for messages from Robin. They'd arrived in the system and were en route to the landing dock. We might just get away with this.

"Li?" Bryce called after me, his tone sharp.

I paused and turned back. "Yeah?"

"Wrong box." He flipped open the jewelry box he was holding and showed me one of Severina's necklaces, the one with the sapphires and giant star opal in the center. The one even Severina had deemed far too gaudy for this season's fashion.

I tamped down my panic before it got hold of me. "You're the one who was supposed to be keeping eyes on it. Did you check the other boxes?"

His shoulders slumped, his forehead knitting in confusion. I think he'd been hoping to catch me red-handed, for my expression to give away my guilt. "Which case did you put them in?"

"It was third from the end when I loaded it on the dolly, but it probably got moved." It was technically true. My empty case that I'd loaded onto the dolly had been in exactly that spot. I hesitated; I didn't want to delay my departure, but if I didn't say something conciliatory, I'd look extra suspicious. "Do you need my help looking for it?"

Bryce grimaced. Admitting he needed anyone's help, let alone mine, was not his style. "No, I've got this."

"Great, then I'm going to enjoy the fresh air till we leave." I returned my attention to my comm, which was still awaiting a message from Robin.

Bryce returned to the dressing room, bracing for Severina's wrath that would scorch him as soon as he admitted he didn't know where her Top Diva tiara had gone.

As soon as his back was turned, I was in motion again, glad I'd worn comfortable shoes as I ran toward the landing docks, glancing between my path and my comm.

There it was. The message from Robin. Landed.

I tossed my comm into my case and sprinted the rest of the way to the docks. I could catch my breath on the way to our buyer.

As soon as I spotted my sibling's shock of dark hair, my face split into a wide grin. Home free. On our way to a home of our own. All thanks to a little sleight of hand and social engineering.

They crossed their arms and raised an eyebrow. "So, you had it all along?" Robin asked. "Figures."

"Not exactly," I admitted.

"But long enough that I've spent way too much time flying shuttles with no autopilot," they said. "You're driving now."

"Fair enough. But you can't nap right away, lazybones." I moved into the pilot's seat, adjusting it to accommodate the size difference between me and my lanky sibling, and keyed in the sequence to take off.

"Ugh, fine."

"At least you didn't have to deal with some princess and an incompetent wannabe prince," I replied. "I'll tell you all about it once we're out of the atmosphere."

© Dawn Vogel

Dawn Vogel

Dawn Vogel writes across many sub-genres of speculative fiction, depending on what mood strikes her. By day, she edits reports for historians and archaeologists. In her alleged spare time, she runs a craft business, co-runs a small press, and tries to find time for writing. Her steampunk adventure series, Brass and Glass, is available from DefCon One Publishing. She is a member of Broad Universe, SFWA, and Codex Writers. She lives in Seattle with her husband, author Jeremy Zimmerman, and their herd of cats. Visit her at http://historythatneverwas.com.

Fiction by Dawn Vogel
  • The Shell Game