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by Miriam English

5 - fire

That Sunday afternoon, after Betty had left, Christine became quite obsessed with fine-tuning her ability. She stayed in her bedroom and practiced well into the night, until she could effortlessly float, turn, and somersault in the center of the room.

On Monday Christine and Betty saw each other only briefly at school. They agreed to talk on the phone each evening and to meet again after sport on Wednesday. Because various sports were held some distance away, everything ended early on Wednesday. But since Christine had dancing in the school hall, and Betty was on the swimming team at the local pool, they always had lots of extra time after sport, which would make Wednesday a great chance to practice more together.

For most of Monday, Christine was so lost in her thoughts about flying that she hardly heard anything in her classes. As soon as she got home from school she shut herself in her room and practiced more. She tumbled and swooped and danced in the air, often breaking into song out of pure joy. She no longer cared about the increasingly distant possibility that this might be a dream and had surrendered to living in the moment and enjoying this for what it was.

When she came out of her room for dinner that night she was out of breath and flushed with pleasure. Her parents were amused and asked her why she was in such good spirits.

"It's wonderful! I've been practicing a, uh, new way of dancing," she said, half-truthfully, her cheeks warming with embarrassment at keeping things from her parents.

Her Mum and Dad smiled, proud of their daughter, mistaking her blush for modesty.

"Will you give us a performance?" her Mum asked.

"Um... I have a lot more work to do on it. I don't know when it will be ready for showing." Momentarily imagining her parents being horrified on showing them she could fly. She found she was sweating, and not just from the exertion. She hated skirting the truth with her parents.

Her Dad said, "Well sweetie, much as I'm really happy that you're throwing so much energy into your dancing, don't forget your normal studies."

Relieved with the slight shift of focus she smiled weakly and nodded.

During the rest of dinner she was distracted with thoughts about her weekend experiments in tandem flight with Betty and her success at lifting rocks. It occurred to her that she didn't need to be holding objects in order to fly them. Thankfully, for most of dinnertime her parents were involved in conversation about grownup things, like work and bills, so didn't seem to notice how preoccupied she was, or if they did, they didn't show it.

At the end of dinner she requested to leave the table and at her parents' nod she hurried back to her room, eager to try out some ideas. She closed the door and looked around her room for something small, light, and soft; something that wouldn't be damaged or make an alarming noise if it fell. Her fluffy horse, a soft plush toy, little more than a handspan tall, was perfect. Grabbing it from its place on the bookshelf she placed it in the middle of her floor and sat before it, then touched its nose and imagined it to be light. To her delight she was able to raise it into the air with just her fingertip touching it. Next, with the little horse hovering before her she carefully pulled her finger away, while concentrating on the toy being weightless. It stayed there. How marvellous! Gradually rising to her knees, intending to stand, her concentration lapsed for a moment and the toy pony fell to the floor as if a string had been snipped. She tried again and found it a little easier to draw away from it while keeping it floating, but losing it again when her eyes involuntarily flicked away for the briefest instant. Over and over she practiced. Each time finding it easier, and able to increase the distance and duration.

When she was satisfied that she could hold it in the air with hardly any effort, she tried lifting the toy from the floor without being near it. To her great surprise, this turned out to be much easier than expected. She could even throw the fluffy horse and "catch" it in the air on the far side of the room and return it to her hands. Perhaps an hour was spent sitting on her bed playing with the horse in various ways -- throwing it and sending it back to herself from the other side of the room; flying it around the room faster and faster, in mad circles; bouncing it upwards as if from some invisible tennis racquet each time that it fell back toward the floor.

When she felt she'd mastered that, she wanted something else, something a little more difficult. How many objects can I lift at once? she wondered. Still sitting on the bed, keeping the fluffy pony suspended in the middle of the room she began carefully making other soft toys and dolls lift from her shelf. About five items at once seemed to be her limit -- at her current level of practice, anyway. She had great difficulty holding any more than that number in the air. When she'd try to get another object, one or more of those already suspended would fall. After a while of fruitlessly trying to overcome this limit, she lowered them all to a pile on the floor and thought about it for a little while.

Perhaps considering the various toys as groups instead of individual objects might help. It took some getting used to, but she was able to do this. She could pick up object after object and add them to the cluster held in the air in the middle of the room. In perhaps half an hour she found was becoming quite good at this and was able to manage about twenty objects with hardly any effort at all, even spreading them out in the air, so long as she could group them together in her mind. Taxing at first, it became quite exhilarating when she'd mastered it.

Looking for another challenge, she sent all the toys, one by one, back to their proper places on the shelf and leaned back on the bed to think of something that might stretch her further. Her eyes settled on her wardrobe. She could lift small, light things. How much weight could she manage? She concentrated on the wardrobe the way she had with the toys. Nothing. She tried harder. Nothing. Wait, did the mirror on the front show movement when she let go? This time she concentrated as intensely as she could. A long minute passed and she began to see little white blotches before her eyes. She let go of the wardrobe. There was a loud crash at the same time as she fell back on her bed. Panting for breath, she realised she must have lifted the wardrobe, but had been too faint to see it.

Her Mum knocked on the door then opened it, asking if she was alright.

"Yes." She was still puffing. "Sorry Mum. It was the wardrobe."

"Oh." She frowned a little, glancing first at the wardrobe, which seemed intact, then at her daughter. "You're looking exhausted, honey. No more dancing now. You should get ready for bed soon. Be fresh for school in the morning."

"Okay. I'll be out in a minute."

Her mother left, closing the door, and Christine settled her gaze on the wardrobe again. Was there an easier way to do this? Instead of pushing so hard, maybe if she just concentrated on it being light, without trying to force it... If Betty was right that the flying was accomplished by changing the way gravity affected things then she should simply concentrate on that. Betty had also noticed that mass seems to be unchanged. That meant that the wardrobe would have a lot of inertia and would move only slowly. If she was more patient, might she achieve more?

She purposely relaxed this time, and concentrated once more on the wardrobe, without forcing... just taking her time...

After maintaining this for a few minutes she was happy to see that the wardrobe was creeping almost imperceptibly upward. Continuing for some minutes more she realised she could now clearly see it slowly lifting, inching upward. A few centimeters off the floor now, she decided to reverse and set it back down again, as softly as possible. Painfully, gradually, it lowered. She had to apply a lot of concentration just before it touched down to ensure it didn't make a noise. A perfect landing! It settled soundlessly. Christine felt proud of herself, but very, very tired.

Weary, but happy, she went and showered, kissed her parents goodnight, and returned to her bedroom, where she rang Betty on her phone and proudly told her what she'd been doing. Betty was impressed. She had been busy too, practicing fading with swimming goggles and earplugs. She'd also had the idea of using a snorkel to breathe through when she was faded. By fading all but the tip of the snorkel she was able to breathe air from the room, which meant that she could stay faded for as long as she wanted. Betty had earlier in the day asked the swim-team coach if she could learn scuba diving. At the time the negative response had upset her because she'd thought breathing tanks were the only way she'd be able to breathe while faded, but her trick with the snorkel turned out to be much better; tanks needed to be refilled and only lasted maybe 45 minutes.

Betty had also been thinking more about the environment that she faded to. "I think there's air there, just at lower pressure than here, like on top of a high mountain. At school today one of the more slutty girls was showing off the hickey on her neck her boyfriend gave her. I got to wondering why I wasn't bruised like that all over after fading. It must not be a vacuum -- just not enough air for me to breathe."

Having practiced all evening, Betty had become quite adept at fading and could now easily fade any part of her body instantly, at will. After making absolutely sure nobody was around she'd gone out to the backyard garden shed and stepped in through its wall, taking great care to make her feet solid at the appropriate times so she wouldn't fall into the ground. She was still having difficulty fading all the way to invisibility, but she was improving. "Practice makes perfect," she said.

Betty was intrigued by Christine's experiments in making objects fly without touching or being near them. She decided she'd try extending her ability to fade things to objects some distance from her.

Eventually the tiredness from all she'd done overwhelmed Christine's excitement and she had to end the phone call. She slept very heavily that night.

Tuesday at school was like Monday. Christine was preoccupied with thoughts of flying and hardly noticed her classes. When she got home she went to her room and resumed her experiments with lifting heavy objects. It was a very long evening, broken by a quick dinner then back to her room. She succeeded in lifting both her bed and wardrobe simultaneously and moving them ponderously about the room, but it was arduous, glacially slow work. She wasn't used to sustaining that level of concentration for so long a duration. By bedtime she felt utterly worn out. After her shower, and bidding her parents goodnight, she trudged to her room and fell into bed.

It may have been seconds or hours later that she was pulled from depths of sleep by a phone call from Betty, in which she bubbled excitedly of her discoveries, but Christine hardly heard through her fog of weariness. Betty had tried making things fade at some distance from herself, experimenting with making things fall through a table onto the floor below. Most of the objects were balls, and she was becoming very good at it until she tried doing it to a dinner plate and it didn't work. After puzzling over it for a while she realised what had happened. She had inadvertently faded a part of the table under it as well. The table remained fixed to itself of course, so the plate couldn't fall through -- the faded plate was still sitting on a faded part of the table.

It had taken only a moment for Betty realise the importance of this discovery. When she faded herself she could fade part of the ground under her feet too and not have to worry about sinking into it. It would support her. She'd been experimenting with it and it worked perfectly.

Christine could hear in Betty's voice that she was a little miffed at the lack of enthusiastic reaction to her wonderful news. "I'm sorry Betty. I'm so worn out. Tomorrow I'll probably be just as excited as you are by your news, but right now I can barely stay awake."

They ended the call amicably and sleep immediately reclaimed Christine.

Wednesday was sport day. Normal classes would end early for lunch and sport, which would also end early so that children whose activities took them far afield could get home at a reasonable hour. Christine eagerly looked forward to meeting Betty for an afternoon of trying out their new-found abilities together. Unfortunately this made the morning seem to crawl by.

Eventually lunch came and she was able to speak to Betty briefly. They decided that the cave would be a good place to meet after sport.

Normally Wednesday's dancing was one of the high points of Christine's week, but now it seemed quite drab, gravity-bound, and clumsy when compared to the graceful and sinuous acrobatics her flight made possible. She could hardly wait for the end. Dancing seemed to drag on even more slowly than the morning had, but it, too, finally came to a close. She grabbed her things and ran almost all the way to Betty's street, then through the vacant lot, down the steep bush track, then followed the landmarks away from the track to the cliff where, without pausing, she dived over the edge and swooped through the air around to land inside the cave.

Betty hadn't arrived yet, so, panting from the run, she waited as patiently as she could. After some minutes she had caught her breath and was fidgeting and pacing when Betty arrived. It seemed like she'd been waiting the best part of an hour, but a glance at her watch showed, incredibly, that it had only been ten minutes or so.

Betty's entry was less dramatic than Christine's. She'd simply made her way along the ledge as usual. They were delighted to see each other. They laughed their greeting, embraced quickly and got down to business.

Betty first. She unslung her little backpack. "After talking to sleepy-head last night I kept experimenting. I worked out how to make a part of something fade inside a larger solid object so I can... it's difficult to explain... here, I'll show you." She grinned and opened her backpack, pulling out a pair of little swimming goggles, donned them and pulled something out of her pants pocket then inserted them in her ears. Now, with another wide grin she started walking across the cave, gradually sinking into it as if walking down a staircase. A moment after her head had dropped completely out of sight inside the sandy rock floor, she re-emerged, as if walking up stairs out of the ground. When her head was fully above the floor, still walking upwards and removing the earplugs and goggles, she said, "Pretty amazing, isn't it? I make the rock fade where-ever I want to put my foot. I don't even need to see it. I know where my foot is and I make a region fade just under it so I can step onto it. And notice the control I have now? I can quickly fade in or out any part of me any time I want -- hardly any attention needed."

"Wow! That is amazing. I'm so sorry I was unable to talk last night. I was really, really tired."

Betty waved it away. "Don't worry. I know. I could hear it in your voice. Watch this!" She walked to one end of the cave where there was some rubble. Selecting three rocks somewhat smaller than tennis balls, she said, "I bet you didn't know I could juggle." Then she started to throw the rocks, one after another, up from one hand to arc in a parabola down to the other hand. She was juggling. She gradually increased the height she was throwing them til the rocks passed into the rock ceiling of the cave and back down, where she caught them and sent them up again, each in turn. "I got the idea for this after you told me about moving things at a distance. I'm not faded, and the rocks are faded only just before they hit the ceiling til just after they come out again."

She dropped the rocks and went to her backpack again. "And here's something I've been itching to show you." She pulled out a snorkel, put it in her mouth, put the goggles on again, and inserted the earplugs. She laughed, which had a funny pipe-distorted sound, reached up with her hand to feel the top of the snorkel for a second, then suddenly she wasn't there.

"Wow," Christine whispered in awe, peering at the spot where Betty had been. Suddenly she yelped and jumped in surprise when she was tapped on the shoulder.

Betty was there, standing behind her, snorkel no longer in her mouth, and giggling at the reaction. "Sorry," she said.

"No you're not."

"No. I'm not. I've been planning that all day." She laughed again. "It was great value."

"How did you move without leaving footprints in the sand?"

"I walk a little under the surface. Good trick, huh?" She was obviously very proud of it.

"Very," Christine agreed.

"Okay, I've been taking all the limelight. (Huh... what exactly is limelight?) Anyway... time for you to show off." She bowed and curtsied to Christine, then laughed again.

Christine smiled. She bowed back, tucked the hem of her skirt into the legs of her panties to stop it flapping about, then lifted gently into the air. For the next few minutes she flew, tumbling, swooping, and turning like a bird, faster and faster. She danced and swung through the air, around and over, using all the space in the cave, circling Betty at a speed that would have made her dizzy if not for all her dancing practice at school. Finally she swooped to a graceful finish, standing just above the spot where she'd started, then settling slowly to the floor. She bowed again and Betty applauded.

"And I can juggle too, though not as well as you." As she cast her eyes about the cave, rocks lifted into the air. They made a circle orbiting the two girls, some breaking away to move independently about them in other directions. At its maximum Christine was managing thirty or more rocks, some mere pebbles, others basketball-sized, though she was always careful to maintain no more than a few groups. The ring of rocks was one group, and the others were arranged into two groups. Then she lifted Betty into the air while all the rocks were still orbiting. Finally she set everything down gently.

Betty clapped. "That was great!" She looked more closely at Christine. "You're sweating."

Christine wiped her brow with the back of her hand. "It's suprisingly taxing." She smiled.

"No doubt!"

"I have one more trick." Christine walked to the edge of the cave, looking down to a large log she'd seen there before. She noticed that her long socks were still on the ground off to the side, close to the rock wall. She fixed her attention on the log. It was about three meters long. Remembering to relax and not force it, she concentrated. After a little while it was evident that the log was rising. It began moving toward the cave. "We could do with some seating in here, don't you think?"

Slowly, ponderously, the log moved in to the cave. Christine positioned it gently, near the back, leaving plenty of floorspace.

When it was settled she exhaled loudly and sat on the floor, breathing heavily for a little while.

Betty was awestruck. "I can't even imagine what that must weigh! How can you lift something that heavy?"

Christine was still sitting on the floor, but breathing a little more evenly now. "I don't. You told me how to do it when you figured that I was modifying how gravity affects things. It's slow because the log's mass gives it a lot of inertia. It's getting easier to do each time I try. I think I have to stop pushing and just make it fall where I want it to go. I know that sounds weird."

"No, it kind of makes sense." Betty walked over to the log, then suddenly squealed, dancing backwards away from it. "Centipedes! The log has centipedes!"

Christine got up to go have a look, and laughed. "Millipedes." She turned back to Betty. "They're harmless. If you try to hurt them all they do is curl into a ball and poop out a stinky liquid as a defense. They're vegetarians."

"Well, they're creepy."

Christine chuckled, "Actually, I always thought they're kind of cute." She was squatting down near the log and beckoned to Betty. "Look at this one. It looks like it's concentrating so hard on where it's going, its cute little bent antennae out the front, head bowed as it motors along."

"Changing the subject away from creepy-crawlies..." Betty said. "I've got an idea and I want to hear what you think."

Christine got up and, still smiling, walked back to Betty. "Okay, tell me."

"Can you hold air in a bubble around you the way you held those rocks?"

Christine thought for a little while. "I don't know. Maybe. I'm not sure. Why?"

"Well, if you could contain a large bubble of air around us then I wouldn't need the snorkel when fading."

Christine was quiet for a bit, thinking. "You'd need to fade to a bit outside the bubble. We could give it a try."

A smile lit Betty's face and she rubbed her hands together. "Excellent!" She lifted her backpack onto one shoulder.

Christine levitated them both into the air and felt above her with her hand. There was some resistance there. "Okay, I think I have a bubble, roughly spherical from a few centimeters above our heads and below our feet. Be careful. I'm not sure if it will hold."

Betty nodded, then grinned. "It's working it's keeping the air in. Yay! Let's go for invisible." Everything went black til Betty turned on a torch she must have pulled from her backpack. They could see nothing in the darkness beyond. "Okay, let's go for a flight. I say take us straight up through the rock."

"I'm game."

There was no sensation of movement, just weightlessness. When Betty made them visible again so that they could see the world outside, they were hundreds of meters up in the air -- far above the tallest trees. Betty hastily made them invisible again.

"Oops, sorry," Christine said. "I didn't realise I took us so high. It's a real problem not being able to see when we're invisible."

"Mmm. I don't think there's any way around it either. I can't make light come in and not go out."

"What if you make part of the faded bubble less invisible than the rest, like a window?"

Betty was thoughtful. "I wonder how I might do that."

Christine shrugged. "Try it." Then she waited patiently for a some minutes while Betty clearly struggled with some kind of mental gymnastics. A couple of times they flicked briefly into visibility, still hovering at great height.

Eventually a small region in the darkness in front of them began to show light, then it brightened to a view of the clouds and horizon. "Got it!" Betty was triumphant. "I couldn't work it out. I'm still not quite sure what I'm doing, but I think I can do it repeatably." She dimmed the window so that it was less transparent. "This will be less obvious if people down below look up."

Christine said, "Okay, hang onto your hat, let's go for a ride." And they took off, quickly gathering speed. The landscape flashed past beneath them. It was a very strange feeling, as if the images were being projected on a screen before them. There was no feeling of moving. There was no wind -- the envelope around them prevented that, and there was no external sound.

Christine swooped them low, close to the treetops, then through the trees and then plunged into the hill itself. Both girls laughed, partly out of nervousness. This was way beyond anything either of them could have dreamed of just a week ago. They zipped out the other side of the hill,and shot across the valley, moving at incredible speed.

Christine slowed them and brought them down to near the trees at the top of another hill. "Can you make us visible again? I want to get my bearings."

Betty unfaded them and Christine let go of her bubble too while keeping them suspended among the treetops. They could hear the birds and the hiss of the wind in the leaves around, and smell the bush.

Christine frowned and pointed toward the far hills, "Smoke. A bushfire."

Betty wanted to go see it, so they set their bubbles, one inside the other again, and flew, mostly invisible, onward toward the distant, growing column of smoke.

As they approached it they were astounded at how much bigger it was than it had first seemed. At its base was a ferocious ring of fire, less so on the downhill side, but hellish on the uphill side, and it was advancing up the slope at quite a rate, trees above it suddenly flaring into flame. Pointing, Christine said, "That's why you don't run uphill away from a bushfire. They generally move up slopes fastest... unless blown by wind in another direction. You escape downhill and into the wind."

Betty smiled, "We don't have to worry about that though. Nothing can touch us here."

To prove Betty's point Christine flew them through the thick smoke. When they came out into a clear zone she pointed down, "Is that a person?"

Betty squinted, "Yes. Looks like a boy. Oh no! He's trapped!"

They looked at each other, immediately understanding the situation. By saving him they'd be revealing themselves. This was dangerous.

Betty said, "I can't think of any way to help him without showing ourselves."

Christine shook her head. "I can't either."

"We'd better do something soon, or the fire'll have him."

Christine growled in annoyance. "No choice," and flew their bubble down at him.

Just before reaching him Betty unfaded them and Christine let go of her bubble of air. The heat was suddenly fierce and the noise was a frightening roar. The boy was coughing, staggering blindly through the smoke. The girls came in behind him, grabbed him, and sealed up the two bubbles again. The searing heat and torrent of noise instantly cut off, though the bubble was now filled with choking smoke, stinging the girls' eyes. Christine zoomed them away towards the rear of the fire, gaining height and looking for a road or some sign of civilisation where they could drop the still spluttering and wheezing boy. Actually, up close they could see that he was more a young man than a boy.

As soon as they were clear of the smoke Christine and Betty momentarily interrupted their bubbles to exchange the smoke-contaminated air for fresh. The sudden blinding light when the darkness of near invisibility was briefly interrupted caused afterimages of the landscape and bright sky to dance before their eyes in the darkness. Christine was pleased and surprised that both of them were able to coordinate this entirely without words.

Betty kept them almost invisible and both girls peered out into the dimmed world. They saw a building not far away and sped toward it, swinging around to the side and keeping to the treetops and hoping that anybody at the house was looking at the fire and the smoke column.

The boy was trying to croak out some words, still bent over coughing, and having difficulty breathing when they spilled him out on the side lawn near the house. Betty instantly turned them nearly invisible again and Christine backed them away til they were amid shrubs watching the silent drama as the people were alerted by the boy's hacking coughs and came running to his aid.

"He's safe," said Betty. "Let's get back to the cave."

Christine flew them up high, curving over towards home. "What do you think he'll tell people?"

"Whatever he says, I doubt they'll believe it. They'll probably dismiss him as being delirious."

"They won't be able to explain it though, and that's a little worrying." Christine persisted.

"Well, whatever happens, there's not much we can do about it now." Betty sighed.

They flew more sedately back over the hills and valley, maintaining invisibility except for a small, nearly invisible region so that they could see where they were headed. Neither spoke, glum that what had started out as a fun ride had ended in potential exposure.

When they were decending toward the hillside where their cave was Betty said, "At least we saved his life. And, really, who could link it to us? He didn't even see our faces. He was bent over coughing the whole time."

Christine nodded. "That's true. We're safe."

"Yes... for now. But we need to think about ways that we can deal with emergencies without revealing ourselves."

Christine was flying them in on a more shallow angle than the one they'd taken out of there earlier. They were coming obliquely down the hillside, through the trees, when they both saw a man near the edge of the cliff, some distance from the cave. He was speaking into a phone while peeking around the edge of a tree toward their cave.

Betty said, "We must be completely quiet. I'll unfade a portion in front so we can hear what he's saying. You'll need to do the same to the front of the air bubble, but only in the middle of the part I open. Can you do that?"

"I'll try."

Floating a couple of meters above him, the girls opened a region in front them that wouldn't be visible from below, but through which they could listen.

"...since I heard any voices." He paused, listening to his phone. "No sir. I've had a camera watching the mouth of the cave since they arrived. They could not have flown out without me seeing them. I'm wondering if some hidden exits from the cave might have been missed in our earlier sweep. I'll observe until dark. If they don't show before then I'll go in and search for other ways out." Another pause. "Yes Sir." He ended the call.

Betty pointed up to Christine, who nodded and flew them away silently to a spot around the hill, well beyond sight and sound of that man. They carefully looked all around them before landing, then Betty unfaded them and Christine settled them on a large, flat rock.

Christine was frankly scared and began pacing back and forth nervously. "They already knew about us. How?"

Betty was frowning. "The rumours at school about your flying dreams? Someone seeing us in the bush? Some special way of detecting abilities?" She shrugged. "What we need to consider is, what do we do now?"

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