Betty was certain that this person was part of the same group her uncle had told her of, but Christine thought she was jumping to conclusions and that there was no evidence of who they were or even that the bogey men in that tale actually existed. Betty had grown increasingly annoyed with Christine during this disagreement, until she stormed off, leaving Christine alone in the bush.
Christine sat down on the rock, listening to the comforting sounds of the bush, unwilling to think further about the problem, just wishing it would go away. After a little while she realised she'd better be getting home, so she pulled out her phone to call her parents to come pick her up at Betty's road, but just looked at it in her hand, then put it away again. It would be better to walk home. She knew she really should think about the problem of who these people were. Betty seemed to be right about that, at least. Walking often helped her to think, and the two hours alone would give her plenty of time for that.
Most of the way home she tried to puzzle out the situation, but no matter how she approached it she couldn't see that there was anything she could do about it. Eventually she decided that she didn't have enough information to make any kind of decision, and that even if she had more information, what could a mere schoolgirl do about it anyway? The only kind of firm conclusions she came to were about her personal safety. It didn't matter who these people were, nobody could do anything to her against her will. She could physically prevent any person getting close enough to touch her, and if she ever got in a really bad situation she could always just fly out of harm's way.
By the time Christine walked in the front gate and down the long, winding, dirt driveway she was feeling pleasantly relaxed and generally happy. The events of the day seemed distant and irrelevant to normal life. She walked in the front door, through the entry area and to the livingroom where her mother was sitting on the lounge reading a book. Her Mum looked up and smiled, "Hello dear. Have a good time at dancing? Did you show them your new ideas?"
"Um... It was an interesting day." Christime smiled back a little uncomfortably. "No, I'm not ready to show it to anybody yet."
"Your friend Betty phoned. She left a message to say she's sorry for being so hot-headed, and she told me you were walking back. Is everything okay?"
"Yes, I think so, Mum. Walking is so good for clearing the head. Betty and I simply had a disagreement about someone else. She thought they were bad and I said we didn't know enough to judge." She felt rather uncomfortable leaving out so much and longed to confide in her parents, but it still didn't feel like it was time yet. "I guess I should ring her back."
In her room once more, Christine rang Betty. The younger girl answered the phone almost immediately, "I'm really sorry Christine. I shouldn't have got angry at you like that. I'm so stupid sometimes."
Christine gave a small laugh, "Don't worry about it. I think I understand why you felt tense. I thought about the situation all the way home."
Betty interrupted, "Can we talk about it tomorrow, at school? I think this is something we should discuss face-to-face."
"Sure. Are you okay?"
A little pause at the other end. "Yes. I think so."
"Betty, just remember that nobody can touch you if you don't want them to. Think on that and you'll feel better."
Another pause. "Thanks Christine. You're right of course." She sounded relieved. "I have to go; I'm helping Mum with dinner. Talk tomorrow."
Christine lay back on her bed for a few minutes, looking up at the ceiling, then got up and went to talk with her Mum. They hadn't been talking much since this whole flying thing had started, and Christine missed that.
The next day Christine was walking to school, soaking up the morning sun and enjoying her surroundings. The trees and birds singing in them, the flowers and the hum of insects servicing them -- it all brought a feeling of calm pleasure. Once again she was deeply grateful that she was being schooled in such a beautiful place. This gorgeous morning and the fun she'd had last night -- talking and playing scrabble with her parents -- it all made her feel normal again.
She rounded the corner and the school gate came into view. Anita was there. She spotted Christine, waved and ran to her. Christine felt a pang of guilt for having barely spoken to her old friend during the last few days.
"Christine! Have you heard the news?"
Christine looked puzzled. "What news?"
"Joan Sittreitch is talking at the university tonight!"
This was amazing news. The renowned Nun, Sister Joan Sittreitch, would be standing in for an old friend of hers, Father Memble who'd been unexpectedly taken ill. Sister Joan would be delivering the night's talk instead. Anticipating a very large turnout due to Sister Joan's high profile, the university had changed the venue to the largest hall on campus. The school was buzzing with excitement.
Taking out her phone, Christine called her mother. "Mum, I just found out Sister Joan Sittreitch is talking at the university tonight. May I go?" She looked at her friend watching expectantly, then smiled. "Thanks Mum. See you after school." Putting her phone away, she told Anita, "Mum and Dad can't come, but it's okay if I take the train there and back."
Anita clapped and bounced up and down, "Yay! I'll see you there."
They walked on into the school grounds. Everywhere people were talking about the big event -- definitely the topic of the day.
At lunch she found Betty and they strolled to a less-populated part of the grounds to eat. "Are you going to the talk tonight?"
Betty looked a little annoyed, "I asked my brother to drive me, but he won't be home in time."
"I'll be going by train. Want to travel together?"
Betty brightened. "That'd be great. Mum won't let me go alone."
"It should be a terrific event. Sister Joan is the best!"
Betty agreed, then after munching on a sandwich for a little while asked, "Have you thought anymore about the people who were spying on us at the cave?"
Christine nodded. "But I haven't been able to come up with anything useful. We don't know enough yet to be able to draw any conclusions."
"True." She looked at Christine pointedly, "We need to find out more about them."
"How can we do that?"
Betty didn't answer, but continued looking at her friend.
With unease rising, Christine shook her head, "No. No way. We are not going to eavesdrop on them."
"It's the only way. If they are the bad guys my Uncle told me about then we're in great danger."
"If that's who they are, then spying on them puts us in great danger."
"C'mon, Christine. You yourself said that our abilities make us safe."
She didn't answer. She had indeed said that, but nevertheless the prospect worried her. She didn't want to listen in on those people or know about them. She didn't want anything to do with them. In fact she wanted to stay as far away from them as possible. Not looking up from her half-eaten sandwich, she said, "I think we should avoid them. If we leave them alone maybe they'll leave us alone." But as soon as she said it she realised how wrong that was.
After a few minutes of silence they changed the subject. Betty told of some tests she'd been doing, putting a little bit of clear plastic tube on the end of the snorkel to hide it better. She'd also been trying fading just her mouth in so that she could breathe without the snorkel. It worked, but was far easier to see than the transparent tip of the snorkel. Another, more successful thing she tried was to fade in a pair of tiny gaps, just in front of her eyes inside the goggles, so that she could see while she was invisible. She'd practiced in front of the mirror and the two little dots were almost completely unnoticeable. The snorkel had also got her thinking about being able to hear and she'd been able to put short lengths of flexible plastic tubing in each ear and fade in just the tips. It was tricky though. When she miscalculated slightly the low pressure hurt her ears awfully.
This made Christine very uncomfortable. She had no doubt as to why Betty was doing these particular experiments. Refusing to get pulled into that, Christine told about the pleasant evening she'd spent with her parents last night. It was the first time she'd been able to feel normal since this whole thing had started and it made her realise just how much she had missed it. She loved being able to fly, but she wanted even more to be a normal girl and to be able to confide in her parents. She hated not telling her parents about this. It was tantamount to lying and made her feel awful.
More silence. Then Betty changed the subject again. "What time should we meet at the train station this evening?"
It was still daylight when her Dad dropped Christine at Nambour station. She thanked him as she was exiting the car, then waved as he drove away, the soft hum of its electric motors not audible above the racket made by hundreds of raucous birds preparing for the evening in the tall trees dominating the small town. Before Unification this was a fairly ordinary town until it had been remodeled for comfort. All the shops had moved underground, even the ones near the creek. Nambour became a very pretty, shady, park-like environment, remaining relatively cool in even the hottest summers. The sounds of cellos and violins drifted distantly to her from somewhere down near the creek, obscured by trees. Open-air performances were often held here. Nambour was now a major cultural center.
Christine walked up over the lip of the station entrance and down into the cool, well-lit foyer. Skylights beamed the daylight in at the moment, but later, the cultivated phosphorescent algae in the curved, arching walls would give this place an ethereal, glowing beauty, aided by sprinklings of strategically placed LED lights like bright little stars. Being several minutes early, she paid her fare, went to the platform, and sat on a bench, taking out her book for the wait. There was a surprising number of people on the platform -- perhaps twenty. She wondered how many were going to Sister Joan's talk.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Betty's voice whispered in her ear, "Go to the ladies room, now." Christine jumped a little, looking to the side just in time to see Betty's lips -- only her lips -- disappear. She wondered how long Betty had been here, invisible.
When Christine entered the women's toilet, Betty was already there, frowning and putting her snorkel and goggles into her little backpack. "The bad guys are already here and waiting for us. Let me show you." She came and stood next to Christine. "Make your air-holding bubble."
Annoyed, Christine looked at Betty, not sure if she wanted to go along with this.
"Well? Wouldn't you prefer to know which of the people out there is watching you?"
Grudgingly she agreed. She sighed, created the shell and put out her hand to indicate where it was, then Betty made everything go black except for a faint, small, fuzzy area before their eyes. Pointing up and to the side, her hand barely visible in the dimness, Betty said, "Fly us up, into the main platform ceiling. We can look down from there."
Christine did so, and from that vantage point Betty pointed to a slender, unremarkable, slightly balding young man wearing glasses and dressed in brown shirt and long gray pants. He was standing, talking on his phone and, Christine noticed, was watching the area that included the entry to the toilets.
The faint view shrank to a small, coin-sized hole and brightened to full light. Betty whispered, "I've completely unfaded that hole. Can you match it with--?"
Before she finished the question Christine had opened a hole in the bubble at the same spot and the girls could hear the man speaking in a low tone. "...train arrives while she's in there we'll need to leave the platform to avoid exposure." There was a pause while someone on the other end of the phone spoke. He answered, "No. Only enter the toilet if the train comes."
Christine sealed off the bubble, cutting off the sound. Even so she whispered, "He's talking to a woman."
Betty faded the area back to dimness and enlarged it. "Yes. I've been watching her too. She's up at the other end of the platform." She pointed out a smallish woman with graying hair, and wearing a plain cut, short-sleeve gray blouse, calf-length pale blue skirt and light gray sandals. She and her clothes were quite forgettable, but that was likely the intention.
Christine realised Betty must have been observing these people for some time. "How long have you been here?"
"I got here about an hour ago and saw the three of them arrive about a quarter of an hour after that."
"One's outside, watching the entrance. There might be more that I don't know about, though. They're very good at blending."
Christine flew them up through the thick ceiling, into the daylight above, and Betty made their fuzzy-edged view onto the world even dimmer. From the outside, their viewing region would be almost completely unnoticeable. They stayed close to the ground, where their viewport would look like a faint shadow.
"Where is he?" Christine wanted to know.
Betty pointed, "Over there behind those shrubs."
Christine flew them around in a wide curve to take them in behind the third man. They looked up at him sitting on a bench leaning back, with a book on his lap. He looked like he was simply enjoying the late afternoon while chatting on his phone. When Christine moved them around to where they could see his face it was clear that he was watching the entrance of the station through the sparse foliage of the shrubs. They watched him for a little while. He was listening on the phone, but not speaking.
Christine sighed heavily, then flew them back down toward the ladies room at the station. "Okay, the train will be here soon. We need to reappear... or at least I do."
"Wait, you're not still going to the talk, are you?"
"Well, that is why I'm here. I want to see Sister Joan. I don't want to miss her talk."
They were in the restroom now, but Betty kept the invisibility up around them. "Oh come on, Christine! Her talk will be on the radio and TV and downloadable from the net. You couldn't miss it if you tried. This might be our best shot at finding out who these bad guys are."
That made Christine angry, "Fade us back in. I don't want to know who these people are. If we leave them alone they'll probably leave us alone."
"But they aren't leaving us alone. How do you think they knew you'd be here? I listened to them talking. They have people watching our homes. Don't you think it makes sense to know what they intend to do?" Betty suddenly realised she was using the wrong approach. She shifted direction, putting her hand on Christine's arm, and saying more gently, "How would your parents feel if something happened to you? What if you could avoid it by knowing what the bad guys are up to?"
Christine digested that, then gave a little growl. "Alright, but we don't do anything dangerous. We just try to find out who they are and what they want."
"Agreed. Can you fly us back out onto the platform so we can listen to that guy again? He seems to be coordinating things here."
Christine flew them back out. This time down low, under the platform. When they surfaced slowly their viewport was an imperceptibly darker area of ground, part of the man's own shadow, and their listening hole would be just one of many small dark spots.
They didn't have long to wait before the train arrived almost noiselessly. The man told the woman to check the toilets and he moved closer to the train, looking along its length, intently watching all the people. He spoke on the phone to other people who he called idiotic names, like Beta 2, Gamma 1, and Delta 2. Betty explained that his group here at the station was Beta group, and the Gamma and Delta groups watched their homes. She was pretty sure the Gamma group watched Christine's home. Earlier, before Christine arrived, the man had spoken to someone in Alpha group who seemed to be in charge. Betty had no clue yet where he was.
The man growled on the phone, "Well, she has to be here somewhere." He pressed a button on the phone and said, "Alpha 1? She has somehow evaded us. I don't think she boarded the train, but there's a remote possibility that she did, obscured by other people." He listened for a few seconds. "Yes sir." Then he pressed a button on the phone again and said, "Gamma and Delta, maintain watch for the target. Beta, we are rendezvousing with Alpha at the University after we complete a sweep of this area."
Betty closed the listening hole and said, "Well, now we know where Alpha is. You might get to see Sister Joan after all. Want to fly us there?"
Christine nodded, then dipped them back down into the darkness of the platform and out to the sunken track the train floated on, then flew them into the dimly lit tunnel. There was nobody here, but just in case, she raised them to the top of the arching tunnel to make them less noticeable. They passed the train it its first stop, and arrived at Sunshine Coast University station well before it.
The station was large, curved, and well-lit, with the usual pearly, glowing walls and glitter of LED lights. There were close to a hundred people moving from the platform up the stairs and ramps to the surface.
"Good," Betty said. "Now we look for people on phones who are being watchful."
It didn't take long. This man didn't intend to fit in. He stood apart from the few people waiting for the next train, and he looked quite unusual. He wore a suit and dark glasses. "Oh dear, somebody watches too many old-time spy movies," said Betty, and Christine laughed.
They moved to the ground under him and opened a tiny listening hole. Suddenly he stiffened and looked all around him. He said on the phone, "All teams, she's here. She just arrived. I can't see her. The other target is with her." He was still looking around, seeming puzzled. Then, in reply to something said on the phone, he snarled, "Well, she flew, obviously."
They closed the listening hole and immediately his attitude changed again. He looked even more puzzled, and ceased looking about him.
"He can sense us somehow," Betty said.
"It must be something else. People don't sense one another. That's ridiculous."
"You mean ridiculous like flying and moving through things?"
They remade the listening hole and the man suddenly stiffened again and said into the phone, "They're back. How are they doing that? And they're quite close, yet I didn't feel their approach. This is very odd." On closing the hole once more, the man's body language changed yet again.
Christine said, "Okay, I'm convinced. But I don't like this. He's scary."
"On the bright side," Betty said, "It looks like he can't sense us when we're faded."
"And that helps us, how exactly?"
"I don't know. I need to think for a minute. In the meantime, let's keep an eye on Mister Arrogant."
Christine said, "Maybe if we talk with him and ask why they're chasing us."
"We know why they're chasing us: our abilities. And I don't think I trust him."
Christine persisted, "What can we lose? He can't touch us."
"What can we gain if he lies to us?"
"Well, it's useless to evesdrop on him because every time we try, he can feel we're here..."
"And he'll be on his guard," Betty finished the sentence. "Yes."
They both fell silent, deep in thought, til Christine said, "Hey, I just realised something. He said that we were here and that he didn't feel our approach. That means his ability to sense us is limited by distance."
Betty didn't understand, so Christine explained further, "When we were at Nambour station there was nothing in their phone conversations about us being there or not. He can only sense us when we're close by."
"Oh. I see what you mean. Pity we don't have some way to evesdrop from a distance."
"The phones!" they both said at once.
"So, next problem," Betty said. "How do we get a phone without revealing ourselves? From what I've seen so far, they're always holding onto them."
"I could trip one of them over by stopping his foot briefly, then when he falls we take his phone. He'll think he's just dropped it."
"Unfortunately they stay in groups. We'd need to move him away from the others for a while so he couldn't tell the others his phone was missing."
Christine frowned, "That could be seen as aggression. They might not feel like being nice afterwards."
"They're already being the aggressive ones if you ask me." Betty grouched.
"Maybe, but we need to calm things down, not increase tensions."
They both went quiet again for a while.
Christine said, "Look, this is getting us nowhere. Why don't we just reveal ourselves to him and ask what he wants. If we're reasonable then surely he will be."
Betty looked doubtful, "I guess... if we stand together, then what can they do?"
"Exactly. You can fade us in to where we look solid, but can't be touched. I'll keep the air bubble around us and we can talk through a larger version of the listening hole we've been using. Also I'll be ready to fly us out of there. They know I can fly, but they might not know what you can do. It would be safer to keep that information to ourselves."
Betty suggested they go into the tunnel, out of sight so they could become visible, then walk back to the platform to talk to Mister Arrogant, as she continued to call him. That sounded good to Christine.
As soon as they had organised the porthole for speaking they heard Mister Arrogan't voice grow excited. "They're here again. Everybody alert."
They walked out of the tunnel, looking for all the world like two normal kids, solid and vulnerable.
Christine felt shaky, but was surprised to hear her voice steady and normal, "Looking for us? What do you want? Why are you stalking us?"
Many of the other people on the station turned to look at Mister Arrogant suspiciously.
He smiled. Unfortunately it looked predatory rather than appeasing. "We just want to talk to you. We want to make you an offer."
Christine noticed that two people were sneaking around behind the other people, trying to move closer. "Okay, make your offer."
"In public? Come with us and we can discuss this in private. I guarantee no harm will come to you." He gave an oily smile.
"With you in private? I don't think so." Christine looked around at the bystanders. "Is there anybody here who would trust this man in private?"
There were some chuckles and a sprinkling of "No way" and "Nope". Mister Arrogant looked annoyed.
One of the two who'd been creeping around behind the people jumped down onto the tracks and started walking slowly toward the girls. Betty called out for him to stay back.
Christine said, "We haven't done anything wrong. Leave us alone."
Suddenly several things happened at once. Betty sagged, unconscious, which suddenly faded them back to solidity with a loud whomp! sound. Christine caught Betty as she started to to fall. The man on the tracks and the other man who'd snuck around to their side both fired tazers at Christine, but were stopped by the bubble she used to hold air in while faded. Somehow realising that Mister Arrogant had rendered Betty unconscious and that she was probably next, she threw him halfway across the platform into one of the glowing, ceramic walls. Then, cradling the now weightless Betty in her arms, she ran back into the tunnel. As soon as she was in shadow she flew as fast as she could away from there.
Seconds later, at Maroochydore station, three stops past the University station, she carried Betty up onto the platform and out as unobtrusively as possible. Up on the surface, Maroochydore was brightly lit even though night had fallen. Christine found a dark corner between two buildings and sat Betty on the concrete against a wall.
"Betty! Wake up!" She tried softly slapping her cheek repeatedly. "Wake up." Christine was quietly panicking. What if Betty had been put into a coma and couldn't be brought out of it? What if the bad guys started searching Maroochydore. She hadn't taken them far from the station. What if Mister Arrogant took the train to Maroochydore -- how close did he need to be to sense them?
After several minutes, when Christine had given up trying to wake Betty and was sure that the bad guys would show up any tick of the clock, Betty groaned and stirred. "Oh! My head! I have a gigantic headache." She peered though slitted eyes to Christine, who nearly swooned with relief.
"They attacked us and I flew us away. We're in Maroochydore, but we need to get somewhere safe. There's too much light here. Can you make us invisible?"
Betty held one hand to her head and the other hand against the wall to help her slowly, painfully to her feet. "I think so."
Christine stepped next to her and put out her hand to indicate where the air-containing bubble was, and everything went dark. A moment later a dim viewport appeared before them.
"Are you alright?" Christine's voice was soft with concern.
"I will be, I think. Thank heavens for all our practice. It's easy to maintain this now." They were already speeding through the air. "Ummm... where are we going?"
"Oh... home... but we can't really go there, can we?"
"It'll be the first place they look." Betty's voice sounded bleak.
"Let's sit on the beach for a little while and think about what to do next. Maybe the sea air will help your head."
"The headache is easing a little. It's just pounding instead of searing."
Christine got out her phone. "I think we should turn off our phones in case they can track these things when we're not faded."
"Good idea." Betty did the same with hers.
Christine landed them on some rocks at the south end of Coolum Beach, out of sight of anybody so they could return to solidity. They picked their way across the rocks onto the sand where Christine took off her sandals, hooked them on her fingers, and wiggled her toes in the sand. Betty took off her shoes, tied the laces together and hung them over her shoulder. The recently risen moon, nearly full, was still low over the water. They walked down the soft sand to where it was hard, shining and damp, near the waves, and started walking away from artificial lights into the night, along the length of the ten or more kilometers of beach, discussing what to do next.