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by Miriam English

7 - penultimatum

The girls walked and talked for a couple of hours. They mostly discussed the problem confronting them, but the depressing nature of it and the difficulty in seeing any way to resolve it meant they also went off on tangents, talking about school and family and friends. Unfortunately that just made it even more depressing each time the topic came back to their quandary. They couldn't go home, or to school, or see their friends. And each time they came back to the problem Betty was a bit more angry. Her throbbing headache was making her increasingly irritable.

Around 9pm they brushed the sand off their feet, put their footware on again, and flew inland to the mountains so that they could turn their phones on and call their parents without giving away their real location. They knew that if they told what had actually happened it would put their parents in danger, so they simply said they'd be back tomorrow. It was a lie, but perhaps the bad guys would leave their parents alone if they thought they might show up soon. And they couldn't think what else to say. Then they switched their phones off again and flew back to the beach, landing once more at Coolum. Neither of them felt much like walking anymore. They were depressingly aware that they still hadn't reached any sensible solution to their problem.

Christine sat on the rocks at the start of the beach and looked out to sea, tired and brooding.

Betty was pacing restlessly back and forth. "We have to find out who these people are, and retaliate against them. They have no right to attack us. These people assaulted us without provocation"

Each time Christine tried to calm her down, "So you want to provoke them? We need to work out what to do, but retaliating against them is like poking a vicious dog with a stick. These people are too dangerous. We need a way to be safe."

"Safe?!" she yelled. "We aren't safe. It doesn't help that you're too scared to make any kind of move. It just means we procrastinate until they finally track us down."

Christine stood and angrily said, "Yes, I'm scared. With good reason! You didn't see your friend suddenly black out. You didn't have tazers fired at you. You weren't the one in a blind panic, worried that her friend had been put into a coma with the bad guys closing in."

Betty's anger softened a little, "I'm sorry. You were in a bad position there, and I owe you for that."

"No. You don't owe me. But I get the shakes just remembering it. I really don't want to tangle with these people again."

They both sat on the rocks again. After a while Betty turned to Christine. "I think I have a plan."

Christine was hopeful, but was a little worried at Betty's grim expression.

"Together we can track down Mister Arrogant again. I've worked out how we can threaten him into telling us what this is all about. I'd need a long stick, like a broom handle. I would fade it into his chest so that if he makes me go unconscious then the stick will suddenly unfade and explode inside his chest."

"Betty, that's horrible."

"Not really. If he doesn't try to hurt me then he'll be completely safe."

"That's a terrible plan, Betty. You don't know what other abilities he or his people have. And what would this achieve? Do you honestly think it will stop them and make us safe? It'll probably make them more determined, so that next time they use bullets instead of tazers."

"We have to defend ourselves! We can't just sit here at the beach feeling sorry for ourselves! Where will that get us?"

"We don't know yet. We need to think more about it instead of doing something reckless that could escalate an already dangerous situation."

"I want to go home and be with my family! I want to stop these nasty people from coming after us."

"Do you think threatening them will make them likely to leave us alone?"

"Do you think sitting around being indecisive will?" then she stormed off in a huff.

Christine got to her feet and walked a few steps to follow her, "Betty, don't go." She watched as her friend marched away to Coolum station. Conflicted, she continued to stand there for some minutes, feeling that she should go with Betty, yet too fearful of the bad guys. Then she went back to sitting on the rocks, contemplating the moonlit ocean, feeling more depressed than ever. The air was beginning to cool. She realised they should have snuck back home to get food and blankets. It would have been easy to escape detection with Betty. Alone, she felt too exposed and scared to go anywhere near home. She felt hopeless and miserable.

Christine awoke feeling stiff and cold and damp. For a moment she was confused, wondering where she was. Waves pounded on the rocks several meters away, seagulls called, and there was some sparse, early morning road traffic above the beach. Although it was quite light, the sun hadn't risen yet. The sky had that blue-gray glow that precedes dawn on a fine, clear day. A few people were strolling along the beach and a couple of brave souls were swimming.

Her mind turned once more to her predicament from last night. She still had no idea what to do, and now that Betty had left she had even less options open to her. Putting her head in her hands, she moaned, feeling sorry for herself. Then her thoughts went to Betty. What had happened to her? Was she still alright? Christine turned her phone on and called Betty. Her phone was still switched off. Maybe that was a good sign.

She stiffly stood, turning her own phone off again, and wondered what to do next. She couldn't stay here, and she didn't want to fly in public, though she wasn't quite sure why anymore. Her eyes fell on the train station entrance Betty had left through last night, and without any conscious plans, she walked despondently in that direction.

A short time later she was emerging from the train station at her home town without much sense of having travelled here. She'd been so numbed and distracted she hadn't even intended to get off the train here; it had been automatic. This was probably the worst place she could be. The bad guys would almost certainly be waiting for her. She stopped and almost turned around, but she desperately wanted to see her parents. She started walking again. Maybe they could help her think of a way out of this. She would show them that she can fly and tell them about the people pursuing her and Betty.

At that thought she stopped walking, horrified. What was she thinking? She couldn't do that! Betty's uncle said a whole community had been disposed of. She couldn't put her parents in danger like that.

She wanted to turn around and go back to the station, but she couldn't think of anywhere to go. Standing there, unable to work out what to do, she realised that Betty was right, she was far too indecisive. Hunger intervened. She hadn't had breakfast. There was a fast food store next to the station so, relieved to have something definite to do, she went to get some food.

Seated at one of the tables outside the shop she switched on her phone to try calling Betty again. This time on the second ring it picked up. But the woman's voice on the other end was not Betty. "Please don't hang up, Christine. I need to talk to you."

"Where's Betty? What have you done to her?" Her heart was suddenly racing.

"We haven't done anything to her. She had a small accident while threatening the stupid agent who attacked you girls last night. We're hoping you can talk some sense into her. We want to make you both an offer -- a very generous offer, I might add."

She was angry. "Why should I trust you?"

She sighed, "After last night's fiasco I don't blame you for mistrusting us, but I give you my word that we will not hurt you."

"How do I know what your word is worth?"

"Christine, if I wanted to hurt you I could have done it easily by now. Look at the man buying food at the counter." The man turned to look at Christine and gave her a salute. "Now, look at the woman at the window of the shoe shop." A youngish woman turned and waved to Christine. "The young man sitting, reading on the park bench." Over the other side of the road a young man smiled and held up a hand in greeting. "There are a few more scattered around. All have strict instructions not to bother you, but simply follow and observe."

Christine was trembling, but tried hard to keep her voice steady. "What is this offer?"

"We want you to work with us. Use your abilities for the good of society. We can help you, and you help us. If you don't voluntarily agree then I promise you we won't force you."

"I want to talk to Betty."

"So do I dear, but I'm waiting for her to wake up. I'm glad you rang before she woke."

Christine didn't say anything. She was trying to think.

The woman on the phone said, "Take your time. Think it over. When you want to come in, you know how to contact me. There's no pressure, but I would like you here when Betty wakes. I don't want her to do anything hasty."

"My parents..."

"They're safe at home and know nothing of this. We prefer it to stay that way. That's the one thing we absolutely require. You must not tell anyone of us or your ability. It's extremely important. You have no idea of the ramifications."

Christine was quiet.

"Dear, I know this is an awful lot to absorb right now, but if you help us then you can be back with your parents and at school again within the hour."

"I... I guess I really don't have a choice," she sighed.

"Christine, you always have a choice. When you're ready, beckon Flora over -- she's the one near the shoe shop. I'll talk more to you soon." The phone connection closed.

She looked over to the shop window where the woman, Flora, was waiting and signalled her to come.

Flora walked over, pulled out the other chair at Christine's table and sat. "I'll wait while you finish eating."

Christine looked at the milk and the sultana bun unenthusiastically, "I don't have any appetite."

"That's just nerves. Your adrenalin suppressed your appetite -- fight-or-flight reflex. You'll be hungry later. Also you'll think better if you've eaten." She smiled encouragingly at Christine.

Christine gave a weak smile back. "Thanks. I am very nervous." She picked up the bun to try consuming more.

"That's understandable. I heard about what happened last night with agent Ezekiel. We're not all like him, thank heavens."

Her voice muffled with some dry bun in her saliva-less mouth, Christine covered her mouth with her hand to avoid spraying crumbs and said, "Betty and I referred to him as Mister Arrogant."

Flora burst out into a full, loud laugh. "Thank you, honey. You've made my day."

Christine took a swig of milk to help the food down. She couldn't help liking Flora and she was starting to relax a little.

When Christine had finished her breakfast, she took the plate back to the counter and thanked the person there, then turned to Flora, "Are we going by train or car?"

Flora smiled and walked toward a maintenance corridor motioning for Christine to follow. When she was certain nobody could see them she said, "My ability..." and the environment suddenly switched to a quiet, soothingly lit, luxurious office.

"Let me introduce you to agent Giselle," Flora indicated someone else behind Christine, "Agent Giselle, Christine."

Christine turned to see a quite ordinary woman with graying hair standing behind a desk cluttered with a couple of computer screens and various bits and pieces.

Agent Giselle was leaning across the desk with her hand out to Christine. "I'm very happy to finally meet you young lady. We spoke earlier."

Christine shook hands with her uncertainly.

The woman indicated a comfortable chair, then sat in her own swivel chair. She nodded to the other woman, "Thank you agent Flora."

Flora touched Christine on the shoulder and said, "It was nice meeting you Christine. I expect we'll see each other more in the future." And suddenly she was gone. No sound, no change of light, just not there anymore.

Christine was awed that Flora made such an impressive ability seem so easy. Whenever Betty appeared suddenly there was always a whomp! sound. At that thought Christine turned in her chair to look at agent Giselle. "I'd like to see Betty now, please."

"In a moment, dear. I'd like to explain a few things to you first. It won't take long and it will help you understand everything. It's quite important."

Christine hesitated for a moment, then nodded.

"A little more than a thousand years ago, decades before the Unification, people had ruined the climate and wrecked the ecologies of Earth. There was mass starvation and many armed conflicts over water and other resources. The leaders of the major churches formed the Spiritual Council. They could see how things were going to continue to deteriorate, so they decided to save as many people as they could by creating an alternative that would work -- no strife, no division, no war. They used middle twenty-first century technology to build an almost perfect replica of the Earth from just before the beginning of the world crash -- a time that is considered to have been the high-point of human civilisation. This is that world. And it worked, Christine. We have had no wars or strife in more than a thousand years. We are all united under one religion." She paused, watching for reaction.

"I don't understand. How could they copy the Earth? Where would they put it? Where did they get the materials?"

Agent Giselle nodded. "I'm sure you have played computer games that act like a window into a three-dimensional world. Well, imagine the characters in that game having an independent existence and not knowing that there is anything beyond their virtual world. That's similar to what was built here, though this is far, far more complex, and way beyond the complexity of any game world. Much of the financial resources of the world's churches were pooled to create this. We are in a paradise, a refuge for the faithful, while people in the original Earth degenerated into a kind of hell of their own making."

Christine was beginning to dislike this. If it was true, and it was a bit hard to swallow, then she and everybody else lived a lie, while others suffered. How could that be good?

Agent Giselle frowned slightly, perhaps realising that she had not put that as well as she might have. "This world is almost perfect, Christine. But it has some flaws and we have to work hard to maintain the balance. We will not let the world deteriorate the way people did to the original Earth. Some of the flaws are like bugs in a computer program, and some rare people unconsciously learn how to exploit those bugs. For instance you are able to manipulate the force vectors that are gravity. It gives you the ability to fly and to levitate other things. Flora can change the position coordinates for herself and some things near to her. We are not quite sure how Betty's ability works. We didn't even know about her until yesterday. The point is, we must use our abilities to help maintain order in the world. It is extremely important that other people don't find out what we can do. That would damage irreversably the integrity of the world."

"Integrity is a strange word to use, agent Giselle. I know you mean the wholeness of the world, but integrity can also mean truthfulness and trustworthiness, but this world is a lie." Christine could feel herself starting to shake. What was she doing challenging this woman like this?

"No Christine, this world is real. Yes, it exists inside a computer, but it is still real. We have a good world here, a valuable world, a world of peace and goodwill such as people have never before managed. It falls to us, the ones with special abilities to ensure this paradise, this monument to what humanity is capable of, is able to continue. Will you join us Christine?"

Christine looked down at her hands in her lap. They looked and felt like hands... but of course they would. At least she understood now why she could fly. It didn't conflict with reality like she'd thought. In a strange way she really was caught in a dream -- everybody was.

"Will you join us Christine?" The request had changed from something like a rallying call to a soft plea.

It felt wrong to Christine -- like all the people of the world were being held captive in a dream. She nodded, "Yes. I'll join you."

Agent Giselle looked sad. "No. You won't. You'll pretend, but as soon as you can, you'll start unbalancing the world. My ability is hearing thoughts. I'm sorry Christine. I can't let you do that."

Suddenly everything went black and Christine was swamped with fear. She's killed me!

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