This story may initially appear to be fantasy rather than proper science fiction, however I've worked hard to keep all aspects of this story within the bounds of genuine science. Rest assured those things that seem illogical are not.
Also, I know the first chapters seem very lightweight and perhaps overly sweet, but there is a good reason for that, and the nature of the story does change, though I believe it remains suitable for most people, including children. (Please let me know if you disagree.)
The sun was just setting and she was hurrying home. She was running down the dirt path coming out from under the trees onto the grassy, open hillside. What had been just a breeze in the forest became a stiff wind in the open. She was running hard against it and finding the weirdest thing -- her footsteps were coming longer and longer apart as she leaned into the wind. She had the lovely feeling of the wind supporting her slender frame. Her steps became bounds, and with her body angled forward into the wind she lifted higher each time, until she found that using her hands and arms just the right way, she could glide for several meters down the slope before touching down briefly and leaping off again into the air. Soon she found that she could achieve a balance between gravity and the wind's lift. She was gliding!
This was exhilarating!
Home forgotten now, she wondered how high she could go, and concentrated on moving her arms and, to some extent her legs, to shift the angle of her body with respect to the wind. By moving her arms back her head would dip down and she would speed up. Stretching them out to each side once more, her head would be buoyed up and she would slow and rise. Keeping her left arm out and moving her right arm back a little caused her to sink and turn toward the right. She was able to steer!
She could feel the wind becoming stronger as she lifted higher -- away from the drag of the trees and the ground, she guessed. With greater speed she gained even more lift and could let her body lie almost horizontal. Up here she could see for kilometers! She could even see her home, snuggled among the darkening trees only a couple of hills away. Her parents had already turned on the houselights.
She wondered how high she could go. The air was becoming quite cool up here, but her ecstasy blazed so strongly that the cold felt refreshing. This was fantastic! Tacking left and right across the wind she drove upwards, higher and higher. The trees below looked like distant moss, the scattered houses like small pieces of gravel, the roads like ant-paths. All below was in blue-gray twilight, and she suddenly popped up into the last rays of sunset! She whooped and laughed with pure delight, and feeling like a firefly lit by the sun's warmth she joyously looped and tumbled, glided and soared.
She felt like she was born to do this! This was absolutely the greatest!
"Christine?" Her mother's voice. She looked around. The pink clouds were still far above. No birds were near. She must be more than five hundred meters up. How could she hear her Mum up here? She remembered that she was supposed to heading home, so she turned and dipped toward her house, just a dot far below.
"Christine?" This was very puzzling. Why could she hear Mum's voice? "Are you getting up?"
Up? In the air?
"Breakfast is ready. Get up or you'll be late for school."
She realised then that it was a dream. No! She didn't want to wake up; she loved her flying dreams. But even as she thought it she could feel it slipping away around her. Now she felt her warm bed, her eyes were closed, and her mouth felt gluggy and tasted yukky. Darn! She opened her heavy eyes to her ordinary room and another ordinary day in her ordinary life. Oh bother! She closed her eyes again and tried to will the dream back, but it was no use. It was gone. She was disappointed, but even so, she couldn't help smiling. She'd had another flying dream. She loved those. What a great way to begin her day! She lay in bed for a little longer, basking in the afterglow of pleasure from the dream.
It was a glorious, sunny day. On days like this she felt very lucky attending such a beautiful school, set amid trees and flowering shrubs out here in the countryside. There were always plenty of colorful birds in the trees too. She could hear a noisy bunch of parrots nearby, the sweeping song of some other bird a little further away, and the lilting warbles of currawongs in the distance. What a gorgeous place to learn! She felt so pivileged here. Some of her friends in the net had sent her pictures of their city schools and she could hardly believe how drab they looked, bare of greenery-- just gray concrete everywhere. She rounded the corner and saw Anita waiting for her at the school gate as usual, reading in the shade of the golden wattle tree. They waved to each other. Christine was looking forward to telling her friend about the dream. The two girls looked similar and dressed the same, as did all their classmates -- white, short-sleeved blouse, dark green, knee-length skirt, white socks up to the tops of their calves, and black sandals. No uniform was required. It was simply understood that this was how girls of their age dressed.
Anita switched off her book and got to her feet, brushing down her skirt. She pushed her long, straight, dark brown hair out of her face, and walked forward to meet Christine. "Why are you so happy? You're positively bouncing with each step."
"I had another flying dream!"
"You lucky thing. I wish I had them."
"Maybe you do. You only remember a dream if you wake up during it." Christine, conscious of the protocols of politeness, changed the subject to her friend's book. "What are you reading?"
Anita looked down at her tablet briefly, "A weird old book. It's Pre-Unification, so you can imagine..." she made a face and shook her head. "So, tell me about the dream."
Christine hugged herself, her eyes closed in pleasure, "It was wonderful! It started the same way it usually does, with me running down a hill into the wind and gradually realising I can fly. This time it was late afternoon and I was able to fly way up high, into the light from the setting sun. The wind was cold, the clouds rosy and purple, the ground far below in the shadow of early evening... it felt so real."
Her friend smiled wistfully, "It would be nice for it to be real, wouldn't it."
She sighed deeply. "Unfortunately completely impossible. Physics is pretty unforgiving. We don't have the surface area for the wind to support us." She shrugged. "But at least I have the dreams. They don't have to obey reality."
"Don't you mean we're too heavy?"
She shook her head. "An airplane is way heavier, but gets lift from its large wing surfaces. It's the ratio of weight to surface area that's important. Well... also how that surface area is shaped; a giant, light sphere won't fly either. You need something like wings so the wind doesn't just blow you away, like a leaf. And that's another thing -- in my dreams I can fly into the wind by aiming myself at it. It feels like a controlled dive, with me balancing the wind's lift against how fast I'm falling forward, but even if I could somehow get aloft in a strong enough wind I doubt I could steer into it. I think it would just carry me backwards."
Anita said, "You've given this a lot of thought."
"It... uh... bothers me." She smiled.
There was a flash of red and green as some of the parrots screeched and swooped playfully low then back up into the branches of a nearby red-flowering gum. Their fellow noisy tribe members clowned about, shredding flowers, stealing each others' prizes and having fun.
Anita looked up at them. "Birds are so amazing. What it would be like to be them?"
Christine peered upwards too. She smiled but didn't say anything. In her heart she knew how it felt. It was utterly amazing to be like a bird, even if only during dreams.
"Do you ever get scared in the dream, being up so high?"
She shook her head. "Maybe it's just part of the dream, that I accept it, you know? Or... when you watch birds hopping along a branch up in a tree? They're fearless. They know that if they slipped, all it would take is a flap or two and they'd be fine. Or at worst, they could just glide easily to another safe perch."
"My guess is it's the dream environment. Fear of heights is instinctive."
Christine doubted that. "How could it be instinctive? In the dreams the height feels genuine -- for all intents and purposes real. If it was instinctive I'd be scared there too."
Anita laughed. "It is instinctive. We learned that in psychology classes way back in primary school. Remember?"
Christine gave an uncertain smile and nodded. School was, of course, beyond question.
Together they turned and started walking down the shady, sundappled path toward the school buildings. It would soon be time for morning prayer, and Christine liked to sit in the front rows. She loved her physics and computer science classes, but morning prayer was her favorite. It was normally the emotional high-point of her day. Today her dream took that primary place, however she still looked forward to the devotional and the way it always suffused her with pleasure.
They took their seats amid the background of chatter from the hundred girls in the auditorium. Christine didn't talk. She had developed a technique of relaxing and slowing her breathing, that she found heightened the pleasure of the morning prayer. Eyes closed, she waited, feeling her cares drop away. The conversation died away letting her know the Nun leading the service had entered, and Christine felt her smile grow in anticipation as she opened her eyes.
Mrs Marder was dressed in normal clothes, all Nun-gray, which accentuated the pink of her face and darkness of her hair. She stood at the podium, before them all and waited for a moment in the silence, then began to sing, loud, sweet notes. On the second chorus all the girls joined.
Christine felt her heart swell and soar. Goosebumps rose on her arms as she sang from the very core of her being. At times, especially on sustained high notes, she felt her eyes roll up with the sheer pleasure. She swayed with the music and feel giddy with joy, caught in the present with no past or future, just an eternity of now. It never felt like an hour and was always over far too soon. When it was finished she was always light-headed, breathless, and unable to stand for a few moments, her legs weak and wobbly. She must not be the only one so affected though; there was never much conversation in the audience while getting up and leaving morning prayer. The other girls' faces were flushed and shining with a light sheen of perspiration, as she imagined hers was too.
She and Anita had different classes in the morning so wouldn't see each other again til lunch. Anita went to History, while Christine went to Computing.
Just before lunchtime, Christine was given a note by Mrs Denby, her Math teacher. It required her to go see the Head Matron. Mrs Denby arched an eyebrow and said, "Not trouble, I hope." Christine was surprised, but smiled and shook her head answering that it couldn't be. She took her leave of the class and went to see Mrs Archen, the Head Matron, the woman who ran the entire school.
Walking down the halls between the classrooms, her mind buzzed with concern. Why would she summon her? Had she accidentally committed some infraction of the rules? No. That was surely impossible. Perhaps it had something to do with her school-work. But she couldn't see that either, as she was neither substandard nor exemplary. She exited the building and crossed the grassy region between large gardens kept well-stocked with bright flowers. Maybe there was a message from her parents. But that was unlikely too as they would simply send a message to her tablet computer, which would have flagged during lunch. So what could be so important that she must be pulled out of Math class? That worried her.
She entered the small administration building, showed the secretary the note, and walked to the Head Matron's door. She stood there in trepidation for a moment before knocking timidly.
A few moments later Mrs Archen opened her door, beckoned Christine in, and indicated a chair. Christine obediently went to it and waited til Mrs Archen rounded her desk and sat in her own chair before sitting herself, knees together, hands crossed in her lap, eyes down, waiting.
"Relax Christine, you're not in trouble."
She looked up to see Mrs Archen looking a little amused.
"Christine, I've heard an interesting rumor. It seems some of the girls are saying that you believe you can fly. Can you tell me why they would think this?"
"Oh!" She gave a short laugh and was immediately embarrassed. "Excuse me Matron. I was surprised. No, I can't fly. I do have dreams on some nights in which I am flying, which I enjoy very much. In fact I had another last night..."
"Which you related to your friends. Ah, yes. I see. I, myself, used to have flying dreams when I was younger," she frowned slightly, "but haven't had them in quite a while now. It hadn't occurred to me til now what a long time it has been. I used to feel wonderful after them." She smiled. "Thank you for the reminder of past pleasures, Christine."
Christine brightened. Mrs Archen thanked her?
Matron continued, "I think it's easy to see what has happened. You've told your friends and they've passed it on to others, who then it spread further. Along the way somewhere it changed to you believing you can actually fly. The remedy is simple, of course. Continue to enjoy your dreams, but resist telling people about them. You're a good girl Christine. Your grades have been consistent and your teachers speak well of you. We don't want your good reputation damaged by silly rumors, do we?"
"Yes Matron. I mean, no Matron. I mean, yes, I'll keep them to myself from now on. Thank you Matron." Christine beamed, her cheeks red.
Mrs Archen smiled, stood, and walked around her desk to Christine, who also stood. The Matron opened her door and put out her hand for Christine who, rather surprised, shook it. "Remember Christine, a reputation is easily damaged, not just by what we do, but by what people think we do. It is not enough simply to do the right thing."
Christine was awed. "Thank you Matron. I'll remember that."
"Now I must get back to work, but it is so close to the end of period that you might as well go straight to lunch. Have a pleasant day Christine."
"Thank you Matron. A pleasant day to you too," she said automatically, then added, "I hope your flying dreams return to you. They are such fun."
Mrs Archen surprised Christine by laughing. "Thank you Christine. I hope so too."
Christine was hurrying to meet her friend, Anita, who was waiting with a couple of other friends further down the mountain, somewhere below on this winding dirt road. The strong head-wind made it difficult to run, but she enjoyed the feeling as she leaned into it, reminding her of her flying dreams as it took some of her weight. She spread her arms, taking pleasure in the way the wind pressed against her, supporting her as she ran. It was comforting that she could feel this invisible thing cradling her as she pushed into it. It tugged and flicked her hair behind her and roared in her ears. Her eyes were watering as she squinted into the airstream.
Suddenly she noticed her steps coming further and further apart, becoming strides, then bounds. This wind was surprisingly strong. It was very exciting and felt very much like it did in her dreams. Then finally, by angling her body just right she glided on the wind for several meters before lightly touching down and pushing off again.
Ecstasy exploded in her mind. This was really happening! She really could fly! It was much more difficult than she remembered in her dreams though. She was very conscious of how unstable her position was. It was scary how easily she slipped sideways towards the precipice at the road's edge or the rock wall on the other side, and the danger presented by each. The gusty wind would sometimes drop her suddenly closer to the rough road surface and the risk of scraped knees and palms there, but would then lift her another couple of meters just as abruptly, and her mind felt like it would explode with joy. She was actually flying! Even if she needed all her concentration for control... she was flying!
It took her a while of experimenting with the angle of her arms, legs, body, and even her head in steering and maintaining lift. As in her dreams she would turn to the left by changing the position of her left arm, pulling it in closer to her body or pointing it more forward. She was glad that in some sense she'd already had some kind of practice at this. She found that her position became more stable if she stretched her arms straight out as wide as possible with her body forming the vertex of a shallow "V" between them and her hands a little behind the plane of her back. Birds instinctively form this shape with their wings because it is self-righting. As she gradually she became better at controlling her movement, her progress down the road became faster. She started to understand how the wind whirled and rushed up the valley and this mountainside, and why some spots were dangerously turbulent, while others were relatively smooth sailing, and yet others were left in a wind "shadow" where she had to land and run on foot to the next windy part of the road.
She had landed at one such windless corner which nestled into the mountainside and was running down the road beneath the tall trees when she saw Anita and her friends ahead.
Anita turned to see her friend and waved.
"Anita! You'll never guess what's happened!" Gasping for breath, she ran up to her friend, grabbed her hands, and jumped up and down, laughing.
"What?" Anita laughed too. "What's happened?"
"It's amazing -- I've found I can really fly."
Anita laughed again and pursed her lips, clearly wondering if this was a joke. "But Cristine, that's impossible, you said so yourself."
Christine felt giddy with excitement. "I know, I know. I thought so, but I really can fly -- just like in my dreams... when the wind is strong enough."
One of Anita's friends was giving a lopsided skeptical smile. "Show us."
"Okay," Christine grinned and pointed ahead to the next corner, "over there, the wind's not strong enough here." She turned and ran for a few minutes down the road to the next bend and was met by strong wind again. Behind her was the sound of running footsteps as she threw herself at the wind, arms out sideways, angling her body to catch the wind and maximise lift. It worked. She lifted off, slipping left and right as she worked to balance herself on the onrushing air. After several seconds of precarious hovering, she touched down again and turned back to her friends, her arms still stretched out and a grin so wide on her face that it almost hurt.
"Wow," was all Anita could say, her eyes all a-goggle.
"Yeah. And the best part is I'm not dreaming."
Anita nodded, awed, "You can believe me, this is not a dream."
Christine's smile fell a little. "Actually, I can't believe you. If this is a dream it is exactly what the dream-you would say." She pinched her own arm. "Does pinching yourself wake you up?" Then she stopped suddenly, frowning, worried.
Anita stepped forward, a concerned expression on her face, "Are you all right?"
"That pinch should have hurt, but it didn't... what if..."
She felt the warmth of the bed and the left-over sleepy dullness in her head as she stirred awake. She gave a long groan. "Ohhnoooo! It was just a dream. Bother! Bother!" She sighed, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. Then she smiled and looked up at the dim ceiling of her room, "But oh! What a dream! How wonderful that was!"
As she lay awake in her bed in the dark, a wide grin across her face, she thought to herself how incredibly difficult it was going to be to keep from telling her best friend about this dream.
Christine was riding home in the school bus. Her home was near the end of the bus-route so there were not many kids remaining onboard, and she was always the only one who stepped off here.
She still had a bit more than a kilometer to walk to home along the dusty, unsurfaced road, among the dry, straggly trees and shrubs. It was always nice to be alone here, preceded by her shadow, with the sun warming her back. She walked at her own pace, deep in thought and feeling pretty proud of herself that she'd made it through the whole day without telling Anita, or anybody else, about her latest dream. Her dreams were now her private secret. Somehow that made them feel even more special.
"Christine! Wait. I need to talk to you." A young girl's voice came from behind her as the bus drove off.
Christine stopped and turned to see a girl, perhaps one or two years younger than herself, running up to her. She was wearing the same kind of clothes that girls at her school wore, and carried the usual small pack on her back.
When she reached Christine she introduced herself. "I'm Betty. You probably don't know me. I'm a year below you at school. I, um... this might sound a little odd, but, uh... I just wanted to let you know that it is dangerous to let people know about the flying thing. It's important to keep it to yourself."
Christine did think this was a bit odd. "I know. The Head Matron, Mrs Archen already warned me."
Betty's eyes widened and her face whitened. "Yikes! She knows?" She put her hands to her head, looking terribly worried. "Christine you may be in great danger."
Who was this crazy kid? Christine wondered. "Um, don't you think you're overstating it a little? I know that rumors about people start when they hear unusual things, but I've got it under control."
"No, believe me, I'm not overstating it. You can't control this kind of thing. It is incredibly dangerous, especially if the Head Matron knows, and the..." her voice trailed off. "Rumors?" She tilted her head and looked puzzled. "What rumors?"
Christine frowned and put her hands on her hips. "The rumors about my flying dreams, silly -- people making stuff up about me thinking I can actually fly, which I don't."
"Dreams where you fly... not real-life flying?"
"Of course not real. Nobody can fly for real."
Betty's expression shifted to a more guarded look. "Of course not. Best to avoid telling people about flying dreams -- no telling what people would think. Dangerous. Not as dangerous as actually being able to fly, but of course nobody can do that. I'm glad we had this chat. Um, it's getting late. I'd better be getting home. My folks will be wondering where I am. See you at school maybe. Bye." She gave a little wave and hurried back the way she'd come.
Christine thought, this kid's a kook, then sighed and called out, "Betty! There isn't another bus for a couple of hours. How far away do you live?"
Betty stopped, but didn't do anything for a few seconds, then turned. "Uh, a couple of hours' walk."
Christine rolled her eyes and smiled, "Come on, you nut. I'll get Mum to drive you home."
She frowned, "I'm not a nut," then after a pause, smiled sheepishly. "Okay." And walked back to Christine.
"Nut or not, I can see you came out of your way to help. No matter how misguided, I'm grateful for the thought... and I'm pretty sure Mum won't mind."
Betty asked, "Look, ummm... can we not mention this to anyone, please? It's a little embarrassing."
Christine smiled. "No worries. I don't tell anybody about this stuff anymore anyway. Not even my best friend at school."
Betty looked very relieved. "Thanks." After a minute of walking in silence, listening to their footsteps and the songbirds in the surrounding trees, she added, "You're welcome to talk to me about it if you ever need to. I promise I won't tell anybody." Then after a short pause, "I have secrets too."
Christine looked at the younger girl walking beside her and wondered what secrets she could possibly have. Did she have flying dreams too?
Christine was waking slowly from a confused and unclear dream -- something to do with dogs and cats -- she wasn't quite sure. She lay there feeling puzzled as she gradually realised it was just an irrational dream, evaporating from her mind the way early morning fog lifts from valleys to dissolve into clear air.
She was seized by an enormous, vocal yawn, and stretched her arms up, finishing it with her fingers wriggling in pleasure. It was the weekend. She loved going to school, but she enjoyed the weekends even more. At the moment she had no plans other than lazing here in the warmth of her bed.
Presently there was a soft knock at her door. "Christine, are you awake?"
"Yes, Mum." She yawned again as her Mum opened the door and entered. Christine watched through sleepy eyes, thinking to herself, as she often did, that her Mum was the most beautiful woman in the world.
"I thought I'd heard you stirring." She went to the bedroom window. "Want me to open the curtains? It's a lovely day outside, possum." At Christine's nod she pulled the drapes aside and opened the sliding window to let in the light, birdsong, and fresh breeze of the morning. "While you were asleep that nice young girl from yesterday..."
"Yes. She rang to ask if you'd like to go for a little bush walk with her this morning. I said you'd ring her back. I need to go to the shops soon, so I can drop you there if you want... after your breakfast."
Christine was a little surprised -- she didn't really know Betty, apart from their conversation yesterday -- but thought it might be nice to go for a bit of a walk in some part of the bush that she hadn't explored. She knew all the hills and valleys for kilometers out this side of the little town. "That sounds like it could be interesting. Thanks Mum." Her mother left the room and Christine threw aside the bed covers, stood, then yawned again, stretching, cat-like, on tip-toes toward the ceiling.
The car pulled to the kerbside with a soft hum and stopped, going completely silent. Christine opened the door and stepped out as her mother reminded her, "You have your phone. Ring if you want me or your father to pick you up. I don't want you home later than five, but I'd prefer if you got back about lunchtime, okay? Have fun, possum."
"Thanks, Mum." Christine smiled to her mother and closed the door, then turned to see Betty walking down the front path from her home.
All the houses here were almost identical, with neat front gardens and fences, and paved footpaths and driveways. Christine didn't understand how anybody could bear to live in such close proximity to others. She enjoyed company, but was so glad her family lived further out in the bush, along an unpaved road. Instead of the tidy lawns, she much preferred the unruly, unpredictable trees and scrub, and the wildlife. Having about a kilometer of space between home and her nearest neighbor gave a nice feeling of peace and isolation too.
Some time back their little family had travelled to an art gallery in the city. Along the way Christine had expressed pity at the people living in giant apartment blocks, with not even a lawn or garden. Her parents had laughed and her father had said, "Reserve your pity for those who need it, honey-bun. These people love living close to the city. They would probably pity us." At the time, the revelation had amazed her. She still didn't understand how people could feel that way, but the experience had changed how she viewed them.
Betty closed her front gate behind her and stepped up next to Christine. "I'm glad you came. I know some great places in the bush not far from here." She led the way, beginning by walking backwards along the footpath. "This way. Wait til you see my cave."
Christine caught up and walked with her, the two of them side by side. "I've never explored the bush this side of town, but I've covered pretty-much all the country on my side of town, all the way north to the river."
They continued down the path until they reached a carefully mowed, lawn-covered, vacant lot. Betty beckoned her, "Through here." There was no back fence; the rectangle of land was open to the bush, dropping away to the hillside. The day was fine and coolly sunny with a gentle breeze rustling the treetops -- a very good day for a walk.
The foot-track twisted around large rocks and between trees going down the steepening hill, but Christine had spent a lot of time covering much more difficult terrain than this so she easily took it in her stride.
The track had petered out and Christine noticed that Betty was now navigating by landmarks -- a large boulder here, a leaning tree there. Christine figured they must be about a quarter of the way down the hill, when Betty stopped ahead and announced that they were above the caves. She stood at the top of a cliff perhaps a four or five storeys tall, looking out at the tops of trees that grew at the foot of the cliff. The wind was stronger here pushing at them over the treetops.
"Uh, Betty? Could you step back a little? I'm a bit uncomfortable with you standing so close to the edge."
Betty grinned and crawled over the edge.
Christine's heart was beginning to flutter. She did not like heights. Creeping closer to where Betty had been, she could see there was another boulder below this one and a ledge that led across and down the cliff-face at an angle. It didn't look very safe.
Betty was in sight again now and she beckoned to Christine. "Come on, it's not very far."
Christine sighed, conscious that her palms were sweating and her heart thumping. "I don't suppose there is a less risky way?"
Betty either didn't hear or ignored the question and sidled further along the uneven outcroppings. She began to disappear around the curve of the cliff.
Christine was debating with herself whether to obstinately wait for Betty's return, or whether it was worth venturing out onto the scary series of small protrusions to follow her when suddenly Betty's voice shrieked.
Christine tensed. "Betty? Are you alright?"
"I slipped! Help me!"
She groaned and murmured to herself, "Oh great," and called out, "I'm coming!" Her heart rate sped up further and she started panting as she crawled down the edge of the boulder onto the narrow rock that let her clamber across to the next one. The way was horribly uneven, with gaps over the sheer drop that she had to straddle. Somehow, concentrating only on each next step, she made it around the curve that had hidden Betty. The younger girl was about a meter below a rather smoothly rounded boulder that it looked like she'd slipped from. She was hanging onto tiny finger-holds in the cliff-face.
"I can't hold on!" she wailed.
Christine looked frantically around for some way to rescue her, but there was nothing. What could she do?. The wind was blustering even more strongly around this side of the cliff and made her feel even more insecure, whipping her hair behind her then in her face. She had to keep pulling her hair out of her mouth and eyes. She edged along the series of outcroppings until she was nearly above Betty. She got an idea and leaning against the large, rounded boulder, she took her sneakers and socks off. The sneakers she put aside, but the long socks she knotted together and dangled down to Betty. "Here grab this and I'll haul you up."
"Hurry, I'm slipping!"
At the panic in Betty's voice Christine leaned down a little further than she should have, and slipped. In horror she squealed at the death-drop below. She dropped her socks and scratched at the rock surface as she overbalanced out into the wind... and stopped. She was leaning out at an impossible angle from the rocks, supported only by the strong wind.
Everything seemed to stop for a long moment, then she whirled her arms to regain her balance and flattened herself against the wall, her heart thudding in her chest and her mouth as dry as paper. She clamped her eyes shut and clenched her teeth to stop them chattering.
There was a triumphant hoot from below. Christine opened her eyes to see Betty climbing confidently up the rocks. "I knew it! I knew you could fly."
Riding the wave of adrenaline, Christine's emotions switched through momentary disbelief to fury. "You engineered this emergency?! You nearly got me killed!"
Smirking, Betty said, "Don't be silly. You weren't in any danger. You can fly."
"I can't fly!" She accused Betty, "I could have fallen to my death!"
"Okay, if you can't fly, what was that?"
Christine angrily yelled at her, "I only fly in my dreams!" then realised the implication. "Huh..." she said to herself, "This must be a dream." She threw an annoyed look at Betty, "Nightmare!"
"No, Christine. This is real. It isn't a dream."
"That's what people always say in my dreams."
Betty looked puzzled. "You really have only flown in your dreams?"
"Oops... Sorry. Oh, dear." She started to look rather sickly. "I really did put you at risk." Then the stronger realisation hit her. "Oh! What if you hadn't been able to fly. You could have been killed! Oh I'm so sorry. I'm such an idiot. I thought this was such a great plan. I thought you were just hiding your ability from me."
"Meh. It doesn't matter. I'm only dreaming." She felt her bare feet on the rocks. "I'm a little annoyed about losing my socks. But... it's only a dream." She put her sneakers on her bare feet.
"Christine. This is not a dream. Truly."
Christine rolled her eyes in disbelief, and stood. "I wonder if it's worth seeing the caves if they're not real."
"Yes. They're just a little further on. I wasn't lying about them. That's a much more comfortable place to talk, and the wind isn't such a bother there."
Betty scampered around the edge of the cliff along the rough ledge and once again disappeared from view. Christine shrugged and followed, no longer feeling as threatened by the height and the awkward way. When she rounded the cliff she ducked under an overhang to see a large cave mouth open out before her. Betty was sitting in the middle of it on its sandy floor. The cave was almost as large Christine's entire home. It was enormous. Christine clambered down into its corner and stood. It was as tall as a house, but deep enough that it was protected from the elements. And corner to corner it was much longer than it was deep. It was shaped like a wide smile in the rock face. Christine took it all in with awe.
"Amazing isn't it." Betty said. "I come here a lot to read and just sit and think. I've never seen any sign of other visitors. I think I'm the only one who's been in here."
The floor was almost flat, sloping a little to the far corner where ferns grew, indicating that water seeped through there. The rest of the cave was dry and dusty, with numerous little ant-lion pits in the sand. Christine walked to the rear of the cave, which was breathlessly quiet. Then she strolled to the outer lip of the cave where the wind was strong. She stood there wondering about how her mind had manufactured such a captivating place. Her nightmare had turned back into a very pleasant dream again. She spread her arms and leaned into the pressure of the wind, trying to balance on its gusts. She rose on her tip-toes, and when her feet lifted from the floor she heard a gasp from behind her.
Smiling, she landed again and turned back to Betty who was looking at her very seriously.
"You must never tell anyone that you can fly."
"I already know that. I don't tell anybody about my dreams anymore. It's a pity. This is so nice."
Betty exhaled, frustrated, "Let me tell you a story, but you have to promise me that you'll never repeat it."
Christine sat cross-legged on the flat, sandy floor, nearer Betty. She grinned. "You already know I don't repeat my dreams."
Betty gave a little growl, "Promise."
"Okay, I promise."
Betty paused for a moment looking critically at Christine. "I have an uncle. One day we had been talking about what we're taught in school on how unifying religion made the great peace that has lasted a thousand years. He told me that it was true that the unification had brought peace under one religion, where before there had been more than a thousand, but that it wasn't quite like how we were taught. I asked him what he meant and he said that there have been breakaway versions of the one religion. They keep popping up and probably always will. He asked me how I thought we moved from many religions to just one. I'd always thought that people simply saw the right way, but he asked me how is it that someone changes their faith -- how do they question the unquestionable?"
Betty stopped and seemed to be thinking about how best to continue. "When he was much younger my uncle had a girlfriend. They were in love. Unfortunately she belonged to a church that had a slightly different interpretation of some minor aspect of the scriptures. The High Council had warned them to conform, but they stuck to their version of course because they had faith that they were right.
Betty paused for emphasis. "Most of the people who were part of that church simply disappeared. The whole family of my uncle's girlfriend disappeared. She was really scared and came to him to hide her. He told her she could stay in his family's guest room til his parents returned. A short time later some people came looking for her. He told them he didn't know where she was. When they left he went to the guest room to tell her about it. There had been some kind of struggle, but she wasn't there anymore. He never saw her again."
Betty looked squarely at Christine. "My uncle said that this is what is done to people who are different -- they just disappear."
Christine was appalled. "People are killed?"
Betty shrugged, "They disappear. They're almost certainly killed, but no bodies ever turn up. They're never seen or heard from again."
"These people who took your uncle's girlfriend, who were they?"
"He had no idea. He said they looked ordinary, no uniforms or identifying badges or papers, but that they acted authoritatively, like they could do anything. Maybe they were some kind of plain clothes police for the High Council."
Christine stood up, shook her head and, looking out the cave mouth, mumbled, "This is too weird," then turned back to Betty. "You said yesterday that you have a secret too..."
Betty looked conflicted for several seconds, then picked up a rock that she cupped neatly in her palm. She held it out towards Christine who wondered if she was offering it to her, then the rock dropped through her hand to the floor!
Christine stood there, unable to think of anything to say while Betty put her arm down into the rock where she was sitting and moved her limb through it as if it was as insubstantial as smoke. Then Betty stood and took a couple of steps over to Christine and put out her arm as if to shake hands. Christine took it automatically, and suddenly she was grasping nothing as Betty's hand simply slid though hers like a double-image.
Christine looked down at her empty hand and grinned in wonder, "Wow. This is by far the most inventive dream I've ever had."
"Oh, for goodness sake, Christine! This is not a dream."
"Of course it is. People can't fly in reality. We're the wrong shape. And people certainly can't move through solid objects. It's impossible!"
"It is clearly possible -- I don't understand how, but it is. Look, isn't most of matter empty space? Isn't it conceivable that I can move my atoms through neighboring spaces?"
"No. That's ridiculous. Anyway that's a misconception. Matter is made up of fields. There is no such thing as empty space. You can't move strong, mutually repelling fields through each other like that. ...And humans are way too heavy to be supported by wind on our small surface area. This is obviously a dream." She looked around and pinched herself painfully on the arm a few times. "And this should be where I wake up..."
But she didn't.
For the remainder of the morning they talked about school and their friends and families while Christine gloomily waited for the dream to end. Nearing midday they made their way back up the hill. Betty waved goodbye as Christine set out to walk home, deciding not to ring her parents to pick her up. She arrived home a little after lunch, but her parents didn't mind. They'd left some food out for her as they'd expected she'd return soon. Without much appetite, Christine nibbled, then put the food away when finished, and withdrew to her room. She was in something of a daze, still waiting to awaken, so she decided to have a nap. She'd never slept within a dream so expected that this would finally end this incredibly lengthy and complex dream.
She awoke feeling relieved that she'd shaken that long dream/nightmare. She threw aside the bedding and sat up... then was horrified to see her sneakers on the floor without her socks.
"Ohhh no!" she groaned. Was she still stuck in a dream, or had it been real after all?
She moaned and lay back on the bed again. Was she still asleep? As far as she knew she'd never had a dream within a dream before. And if it was a dream it seemed very long and self-consistent... but how would she know? Dreams always feel long, and no-one ever sees the inconsistencies until they wake. She gave an annoyed sigh and stared at the ceiling's patterns of morning light fanning out from the curtains, not knowing what to do or what to think.
It was Sunday. She had to get ready for church. For perhaps the first time in her life she found herself reluctant to go -- not because she was still tired, but because she was confused about the whole flying dream problem. She needed to talk with Betty again and work out what was happening. And how is talking to a dream character going to help? She covered her face with her hands and lay on her back like that, feeling sorry for herself for several breaths, until it occurred to her that if this was instead reality then Betty might be the only person that she could talk to about it. She took her hands from her face and frowned at the ceiling. Yes. That was what she had to do; she had to discuss this with Betty.
Now that some sort of plan had formed -- well, the first step of a plan -- she sat up, feeling a little better. She would shower, dress in her Sunday best, go to church, and be normal until she could meet Betty afterward.
Christine drifted through the service, not really hearing anything; not even enjoying the singing, which normally thrilled her to her bones.
She was preoccupied with the worry that it would not be good news whichever way her problem resolved itself. If she was stuck in some kind of long, convoluted dream, how could she break it and wake up? If, on the other hand, this was all real then something was very, very wrong. The simple impossibility of unaided flight and the preposterousness of moving through solid objects weighted the evidence more toward this being some lengthy dream, but the longer things continued like this, the more unlikely that explanation seemed. Back and forth she ping-ponged, unable to reach any firm result and unable to concentrate at all on the church service.
Early in the service her mother noticed how distracted she was and put her hand on Christine's forehead to feel her temperature, then placing an arm around Christine's shoulders whispered, "Are you alright, sweetie?"
At first Christine shook her head. She felt miserable and sorry for herself because of the plight she found herself in. That was bad enough, but her mother's concern somehow triggered tears to well in her eyes and she looked down to hide them. She managed to whisper back, "I'm okay Mum." Her cheeks reddened in embarrassment. She was surprised and annoyed at how her body betrayed her.
The service seemed to drag on for much longer than normal, even though, checking her watch, she could see it ran for the usual three hours. She felt immense relief at the end when they, and the rest of the congregation, were finally exiting from the church. Her parents shook hands with, hugged, and chatted with friends, moving much more slowly than Christine liked, inching toward their car. Eventually they got into the car to drive back home. On the way at last, her mother turned her head to look at Christine, worry in her eyes. She asked softly, "What's wrong Christine?"
She answered honestly, "I don't know, Mum."
Dad asked, "Do you need to go to the doctor?"
"No." She shook her head. "I think I just need to... um... rest, or something." She really needed to talk with Betty, but for some reason she was reluctant to give voice to that. She felt a little alarmed and guilty that she wasn't confiding in her parents. She always told them everything. But somehow she couldn't tell them yet... at least not until she worked out what was happening. If this was still a dream then not telling them wouldn't matter. If it was reality...? Well, she'd been warned... and she didn't want to think about that just yet.
When they arrived home Christine tried very hard not to hurry, but to walk with an even pace to her room. As soon as she was inside, with the door closed, she hurriedly changed into her casual clothes, grabbed her thumb-sized phone, popped it into her pocket and picked up her book. She checked that she'd saved what she'd been writing last night on the book's screen, then reloaded the ancient, pre-unification novel she'd been reading for school -- Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice". Taking a deep breath she opened the door and walked out into the sunroom. Her mother was removing the flowers from the vase on the dining table and her father was sitting on the lounge, beyond, in the livingroom. They both looked up at her. They were still dressed in their Sunday clothes.
"That was quick," her mother said.
Christine shrugged in what she hoped was a casual way. "I felt like I needed to get some sun so I thought I'd take my book outside." Privately, she was horrified. She couldn't believe how easily she was now lying to her wonderful parents.
Her shame mustn't have shown because her mother looked back to the flowers. "Okay possum. Don't go far; lunch will be soon."
Sweating, she turned away, "Okay," and left.
As soon as she was out of sight, obscured by bush, she rang Betty and told her, "We need to talk."
"Yes, we do. Where shall we meet?"
"I can't go anywhere til after lunch."
"We've already eaten. I can get my older brother to drive me out to your place. I'll be there in about ten minutes."
"Okay, I'll wait at our front gate."
It only took Christine a few minutes to walk though the trees to the end of their long driveway. She was feeling very tense and uneasy, so in an attempt to distract herself, she sat on the ground at the base of one of the gateposts, leaning back against it, and switched on her book, but after a while of her eyes traversing the same paragraph over and over again and still having no idea of what it said, she switched it off and lay it in her lap. She tried to relax her shoulders and neck, and breathe slowly, the way she always did before singing at morning prayer in school. It began to work. Her body was losing its tension and her mind was no longer racing. Sitting in the warm sun with her eyes almost closed, she let herself take in the background fragrance of eucalypts, the soft hiss of their leaves rustling in the gentle breeze and the tumbling, warbling currawong calls. By the time Betty arrived, Christine was feeling almost normal again.
The tyres crunched and popped on the dirt road as the car drew to a stop. Betty got out, her door thumped closed, and she gave a quick wave to her brother as the car drove away again. Christine stood, brushing herself off, as Betty walked over.
A concerned look on her face, Betty asked, "You haven't told anyone have you?"
When Christine shook her head Betty breathed a sigh of relief.
Christine said, "I'm still trying to decide if this is real or a dream."
"Still? There is a simple solution, you know."
She gave a skeptical look. "What?"
"Treat it as if it is real. If it turns out to be a dream you're no worse off, but if it's real -- which it is, by the way -- then you'll ensure you act as safely as possible."
"But flying? Moving through things? That's physically impossible!"
"Irrelevant. For the moment, act as if it is real. Use caution to keep yourself safe, in case this is the real world. If it's just a dream then there's no harm done, right?"
"Good," with a tone of that settling it.
"I need to go back in for lunch. Can we can talk more when I've eaten?" Christine pointed to a tall eucalypt not far from the house. "Under that tree is a swing my Dad made for me. You can't see it from the road or the house. You could wait there if you want."
Together they walked through the driveway gate. Betty said, "Remember, don't tell anybody -- not even your parents. This is very important! It isn't just your life. You'd be putting me in danger too."
Christine nodded unhappily. "I haven't said anything to anyone. I don't want people thinking I'm crazy."
When Christine had eaten a small lunch she excused herself, telling her parents she wanted to walk for a few hours out along the ridge, and perhaps down to the waterfall. Then she went back outside to Betty at the swing and they headed off along one of the tracks Christine liked to walk. It was not much more than a slightly less-tangled way through the scrub. Walking in single file and constantly watching where they walked was a bit of an impediment to conversation. Christine, leading the way, was used to ducking under branches, and stepping around and over them, and was usually alone out here anyway so it seemed normal to her. Betty, on the other hand, was used to more open bush with clearly defined paths and was wearing herself out pushing her way through the brush, so had little breath to spare for talk.
When they reached one of Christine's favorite rocks they stopped and, taking advantage of the shade from an overhanging gumtree, they lay out on the rock's wide, flat, dark gray, mottled surface and stared for a while at the small, scattered, high clouds in the pale blue sky. Christine always felt great satisfaction out here. Even her fears about this being dream or reality didn't really penetrate the comfort she felt stretched out in this peaceful landscape.
Betty was enjoying it too. At first she was catching her breath and getting her energy back, but after a couple of minutes she found herself drowsing under the protection of the shade in the pleasant midday warmth. After a while however, she forced herself to sit up, propping her arms out behind her. "We need to talk about it."
Christine exhaled, feeling reluctant. "Yes."
"You should experiment and find out more about your flying ability."
Christine sat up and felt a breeze on her face. She hadn't noticed it earlier when she'd arrived at the rock. She stood and walked to the edge which curved down to a thick tangle of ferns and grasses just a couple of meters below. The wind was stronger here. Spreading her arms, she felt the wind on her front, and leaned tentatively into it. "I don't think it's windy enough."
She stood on her tippy-toes and closed her eyes, feeling the wind as it pushed steadily, but gently against her. So absorbed had she become in feeling it along her arms and her body that she didn't realise how far she was leaning out until she heard Betty gasp and say softly, "Oh, wow."
Christine opened her eyes to see that she was drifting sideways across the rock and was nearly horizontal. She hadn't even realised her toes had left the ground. "Oh! I had no idea I could lift off in such a gentle wind."
"Excellent! This is what you need to do. Experiment. Find out what you can do -- what are your limitations." Betty was walking along the rock keeping pace with her.
Christine corrected her arm positions to move slowly back across the rock, dipping down a little when the wind eased and rising when it picked up again, but she had great difficulty gaining any real height. She was struggling to keep more than arm's reach from the ground. Eventually at a lull in the wind she was deposited gently on her belly on the rock. She quickly got to her feet, excited and energised, her "problems" forgotten, eyes flashing, cheeks flushed.
Betty suggested, "Try running into the wind and launching yourself off the edge." When Christine hesitated, "You know you won't fall. At worst you'll glide down to the ferns and stuff."
That sounded reasonable to Christine, so she strode quickly into the wind and jumped up and out. This time she gained height more easily and soared out over the rock edge, high above the vegetation. The wind was stronger up here and she gained lift more easily. Then, angling up, she let it blow her back over the rock. She laughed delightedly, then settled gently toward the surface near Betty. It would have been a perfect landing except that the wind dropped briefly at the last moment and she stumbled forward, grazing her left knee and the heel of her left hand. But she barely felt it, so charged did she feel. "This is even easier than other times."
She crouched down and sprang upwards into the wind and was instantly airborne. In her excitement she didn't take care to control properly with her arms though and she slipped suddenly sideways toward a young tree and struck it with her full weight, breaking a thin branch and scratching her upper arm. "Ow!" She grabbed the sapling, anchoring herself and letting herself down to stand on the crunchy, leafy ground beside it so she could examine her arm.
Betty had a handkerchief out which she wet with saliva and cleaned the blood from the scratch. "It's not too bad. It must hurt though."
Grinning, Christine said, "Hardly at all. This is wonderful!"
Folding the handkerchief and putting it in her cardigan pocket, Betty said, "That crash was interesting. You're light enough to be lifted by the wind, yet you have what looks like normal mass, with enough inertia to break that branch and hurt your arm. What conclusions can we draw from that?"
Christine shrugged, a blank look on her face.
"My guess is that when you fly you decrease your weight, but your mass stays the same. I think you are somehow changing the way gravity affects you."
"Which is impossible." Christine frowned. "So this must be a dream."
Betty shook her head. "This is no dream. I know it sounds impossible, but you are doing it... somehow. We'll try to work out the how later. Just now let's stick with finding out the what."
"You know. Find out what you can do -- what the characteristics are. We've already found out one thing. Let's see what else we can find out."
Christine nodded and walked back up onto the wide rock. "Okay then. What should I do next?"
Betty followed, looking at Christine and thinking. Her eyes stopped at her friend's feet and she put her head on an angle.
"What? My sneakers? What about them?"
"How heavy would you say they are?"
Christine held her hands out, palms up. "Lighter than some, heavier than others... my parents don't buy the most expensive, really light ones, but they aren't as heavy as boots."
"Interesting. When you fly, it doesn't look like your feet drag you down. How does it feel to you?"
"I haven't really noticed. They don't seem heavy. I'm more concentrating on the angle of the wind." She looked uncertain. "What do you mean?"
"Maybe you make your clothes and footwear lighter. I was thinking maybe you could carry something heavy and see if you can still fly."
"I could put stones in my pockets..."
Betty took off her own cardigan. "This might be better." She laid it out on the rock and looked around for small rocks that she put in the middle of her cardigan, then buttoned it, folded the bottom up, and crossed the arms over. Carefully lifting it she tied the arms around Christine's waist, with the weight at her front. "I think that'll hold. Move gently so the rocks don't fall out, and try to fly."
Christine didn't think this would work, but she walked carefully to the edge and spread her arms. Then, concentrating, she leaned into the wind. It really didn't feel strong enough to lift her with the rocks, but she felt for the wind and how it pressed. She tried to imagine gliding on the wind again, straining upward on her tiptoes... and she was off the ground. "Oh!" She let herself be carried backwards to where Betty was, and landed softly again.
"Did you notice the way the rocks in my cardigan sagged more after you landed?"
"Yes! I felt it. They definitely get lighter when I fly. Wow! This is really interesting. How do you know all this?" She undid the cardigan from around her waist, lowering it and the stones to the ground.
Betty smiled. "I don't. I just like to question and think about things from different angles. It's fun." She was taking the rocks out of the cardigan and pitching them into the bush.
"You are a strange kid." Christine grinned.
"Hey! I'm only a year younger than you!"
"Relax. I'm a kid too." She gave Betty a playful shove on her shoulder.
Betty shook out her cardigan and put it on again.
"Any more ideas?" She beamed. "This is great fun."
Betty looked thoughtful for a moment. "Here's an idea. Do you think you could fly, and lift me up?"
"We could give it a try." Christine jumped up into the air and lay out flat into the wind and reached down to Betty, who grabbed her hand with both of her own. For a while nothing happened. Christine was like a tethered balloon bobbing on the wind. Then she concentrated -- thinking of Betty as being light too, like a companion balloon, and soon Betty began to lift off the ground. They immediately began to drift backwards, carried along by the wind.
Betty laughed, nervous, but thrilled. "This is amazing! It's like being in water -- similar weightless feeling."
Christine was starting to feel more in control of this now and she tried to push her arm out sideways, with Betty on the end of it. "Lie flat like me, to make yourself able to use the wind, otherwise we'll have to land again to avoid getting tangled up in the shrubbery behind us." Unfortunately, Betty couldn't get the hang of it so Christine landed them, Christine on hands and knees, Betty on her side, before they drifted into the scrub.
Betty wanted try it again, so Christine explained how she used the wind to navigate. They stood apart, both facing the edge, Christine's left hand holding Betty's right hand, and Christine tried a more gradual approach. She concentrated on making them light and gradually leaned into the breeze. Betty leaned too, copying Christine. By the time they were leaning out almost horizonally, with their shoulders only a couple of hand-spans from the rock, their toes were only barely touching the ground.
"Okay push off, forward," Christine said.
At first it seemed to work, but after a few seconds the wind began turning them. It seemed to be dragging against Betty and they started heading once more toward the scrappy growth at the rear of the large rock slab. Christine was helpless to control it.
Christine curled her legs under her and landed gently again in a crouching position. Betty was softly deposited, lying on her side again.
Christine pondered the problem. "I don't know what's going wrong. I react instinctively, perhaps because of all my flying dreams. I'm not sure how I maneuver -- I just do. I can't really explain."
"Maybe it's just practice," suggested Betty.
Christine doubted that, but didn't want to throw cold water on the situation. "Okay, let's try again."
Over the next hour they tried numerous times to fly in tandem. In the end they did manage some degree of control. Christine found that she could fly them both if she got Betty to simply keep her arms out rigidly, then Christine could act as if she was flying from the position of her left hand and she was one wing, and Betty the other wing. It wasn't very manueverable, but it worked.
When they'd finally managed to get controllable tandem flight working, Betty suggested a longer test, like flying down to the valley.
Christine thought that was a good idea. She'd begun to feel rather exposed out here on this wide rock, surrounded only by low vegetation. A little further down the valley than where Betty had pointed was a lovely waterfall -- another of her favorite places. They would be more hidden there.
So they pushed off together and flew down the slope, skimming just above the low scrub. Betty was giggling with pure delight. Christine was enjoying it too, but was having to concentrate on steering them around trees. It was difficult, and because she was moving her left arm and wrist to change the angle between them, that arm was getting tired and starting to ache. When they approached the steeper sides of the gully where the small waterfall was, she slowed and curved their path down between the trees, which were much taller here. Hardly moving forward at all now, they settled slowly into the still, dimmer, damper air as the sound of the waterfall grew. Under the tree canopy their eyes adjusted and Betty gasped at the beauty of the sight below them. Christine aimed to land them gently on a large, relatively flat, moss-covered boulder almost in the middle of the wide area below and several meters away from the waterfall. They landed gradually, softly as feathers. Unfortunately the rock was very slippery and they both promptly slid off in different directions. Betty landed gracelessly in the cold, clear stream with a great splash and a shriek. Christine would have ended up in a darkly stagnant, debris-covered pool on her side, except that she caught herself barely in time and hovered just above it.
Betty was trying to clamber out of the nearly waist-deep, cold water, but kept slipping on the large, rounded rocks and falling in again. Christine flew around to her friend, extended her arm, and lifted her out, then landed them both on a small bank of sand and pebbles.
Betty was saturated, but was laughing. "That water is freezing!"
"Sorry about that. I should have landed us here. There is an open area above the waterfall that should be sunny and warm. Let's go there." She held out her hand to Betty.
As soon as they were holding hands Christine lifted them up, and flew them almost vertically past the top of the waterfall, then curving over to a grassy patch on the side of the wide pond above the waterfall. The grass was about knee deep, but Christine tramped it down to make an area where they could sit and bask in the warm sun.
After a few moments of sitting, absorbing the warmth, Betty said, "Did you notice the way you flew us here. There was not a breath of wind down there below the waterfall, yet you easily moved in the direction you wanted. How did you do that?"
Christine looked blank. "I have absolutely no idea."
"I have a thought. Like I said before, I think you change the way gravity affects you. Maybe you can select not only how much it can pull, but from what direction it pulls. We get pulled by all the things around us, but because most of the close mass is on one side it resolves into a generalised pull downwards. What if you can tune that? What if you lessen the pull from the Earth so that you become lighter than the air? Then you float up like a helium balloon. What if you also allow some small amount of pull from the hills on one side of you? That would tug you away in a certain direction."
Christine shrugged. "It could be what's happening, but to me I just want to move, so I make myself feel a certain way -- I can't describe it -- and I just start moving."
Betty nodded. "Most people don't realise that when they move their fingers they're not actually sending messages to their fingers to move. The muscles that move them are located in their arms above their wrists. All they know is that when they intend for their fingers to move, they do."
Christine looked down at her arm and wrapped one hand around her arm a little above her wrist then wiggled the fingers of the free hand. Her eyebrows went up with surprise. "Huh! I never knew that. How do you know this kind of thing?"
"I read a lot. I think a lot. My brother tells me that if I'd lived in Pre-Unification times I would have been a scientist. Of course he means it as an insult, but I like it." She chuckled.
"Have you had any ideas about your ability to move through things?"
"Some... not many. I only started be able to do it recently -- about a week ago." She held out her hand and moved it through some long grass without disturbing the blades at all.
Christine was amazed. She shook her head as if clearing it.
Betty laughed. "Strange, isn't it."
Christine asked, "What does it feel like?"
"Same as you. I just think it, and I can do it."
"No, I mean can you feel the grass or whatever you move through?"
Betty shook her head. "It doesn't feel like anything. Well that's not true. It feels cold, but I don't have the feeling of touching anything."
"Are you moving through them or are you becoming insubstantial and they moving through you?"
"I don't know. I feel like both are solid, but somehow don't touch. I don't understand it at all."
"Oh! I just had a thought! Why can light still bounce off you when other things don't?"
Betty frowned. "You know, that's a really good question. I wonder if I can do it harder so that light passes through too." She held her hand out before her and concentrated hard. At first nothing happened, but after a little while her hand started to become transparent, and then gradually to fade away towards invisibility. Betty suddenly exhaled, her hand returned to normal with an audible thud, and she lay down, panting. "Oh! That was hard!"
"You did it though! You turned your hand invisible! That was amazing!"
"Not quite invisible, but with practice I might be able to."
They were both grinning.
Christine raised an eyebrow, "Hey, have you ever tried to walk through something?"
"Like a wall? No. I have thought about it, but haven't really had a chance to try it -- there always seems to be someone around. Also I'm a little scared of losing my concentration part way and getting stuck."
Christine said, "I'd be more worried about falling into the center of the Earth. If you can become completely insubstantial, the ground wouldn't support you."
Betty looked horrified. "Oh! I never thought of that!"
They both fell silent, thinking.
Betty said, "Maybe if I made one foot pass through the wall and when it was out the other side made it solid, stood on it, and brought the other foot through after me. Or I could jump through and make myself solid when I came out the other side."
"You'd have to get the timing just right if jumping through a wall. If you changed a little late you'd smack into it instead of passing through." She chuckled.
Betty laughed too and mimicked herself, her two fingers as legs, running along towards a wall (her other hand held up flat), jumping at it. The two hands smacked together, and the caricature of her rebounded to fall backwards.
Their laughing tapered off and Christine lay back on the grass, thinking. Betty was sitting, cross-legged, eyes closed, soaking up the sun.
Christine turned on her side. "You know, before, when your hand suddenly became visible and solid again... What was that thump sound?"
"I think it's the air being displaced. If I let my hand become solid faster than that it's much louder and feels like someone stomped on it -- especially my fingers. It can really hurt."
They fell quiet again for a while, until Christine asked, "Can you make things you're holding pass through other things? -- like I make things weightless when holding them."
Betty looked thoughtful and picked a piece of grass, then holding it between thumb and finger waved it through other grass stems without any disturbance. "Wow. I can!" She was amazed.
Christine said, "Then that's the solution to the danger of falling into the ground. I can lift you up and you can make us both move through things."
"I don't know if I can make a whole other person do it. It's easy enough with small things -- like just my hand... I think I need to practice more."
"Just don't try walking through any walls unless I'm around."
Christine looked serious. "I just had a disturbing thought. What would happen if you became solid inside something?"
"I don't know. It would get stuck there, I guess."
"That blade of grass -- what happens if you make it solid when it's in another blade?"
Betty picked another piece of grass, moved it into a stem, and made it solid. There was a loud pop! and both girls jumped. The bits of grass had vaporised where they'd intersected. Betty gulped, "That can't be good."
They were silent for a while as the awfulness of what they had just seen sank in.
Betty was the first to speak. "I definitely need to practice more. Maybe I'll get as good as you as quickly as you have."
"I've been practicing flying in my dreams long before I found I could actually fly. Do you have dreams where you can move through things?"
Betty shook her head. "But I think everybody has flying dreams, including me." She stood. "How much time is left before you have to be home?"
Christine looked at her watch. "About two hours." She stood too, brushing herself off.
"I'm trying to think of the best way to do this... Maybe I should begin with making all my arm insubstantial, then both arms, then my upper body to my waist, while keeping my feet solid."
"Is that such a good idea? What if you make a mistake and start to sink into the ground? You can't just make yourself solid to climb out again or both your feet will explode along with the ground they're in."
Betty frowned. "Mmmm. Maybe I should be a little less ambitious. I'll practice making my hands and arms insubstantial, until I can do it easily. Then I'll try do it with my arms but not my hands. If I can keep my hands solid I can pull myself out of trouble."
"That sounds good to me. If you make your hand solid I can grab it and lift you up too."
"Okay then." She held both her arms out before her and concentrated for a little while. "Now touch my arms and hands."
Christine felt a little reluctant, but stepped forward and put her hand out to touch Betty's arm. Her hand went right through, feeling nothing at all.
"Now I'll try to make my hand solid while keeping my arm insubstantial." She grunted. "There's got to be a better word than 'insubstantial'."
"Good word. So, I'll fade my arm, but not my hand."
After a few tries Betty managed to do it and was very relieved.
Christine said, "There's your safety margin. Can you fade your whole arm, then quickly make your hand solid?"
"I think so." It worked. "Okay just let me warm up for a little bit and I'll try some more."
"Are you still wet from the dunking?"
"Only a little, but it's not that. Whenever I fade a part of my body it gets very cold, as if it's in a refrigerator. I have no idea why."
Christine looked puzzled too. "How strange. I wonder what it means."
Betty shrugged and started vigorously rubbing her arms and running on the spot. After a little while she was warm enough to try more experiments. She put both arms out before her and concentrated. A moment later she anounced that they were 'faded' and Christine checked. They were, indeed, untouchable. When Christine was safely clear of Betty's arms there was a soft sound like dropping a pillow onto a floor and she was able to touch Betty's hand again. A moment later, at a nod from Betty, Christine confirmed that the hand was faded again. Then 'foomp!' it was back and Christine verified it.
They continued like this for some minutes.
"This is so odd," Christine said, waving her hand through Betty's arm then tapping her solid hand at the end of the phantom arm.
"Very," Betty said. "I'm going to have to stop for a little bit. It's getting easier with practice, but it's still tiring, and my arms are getting really cold."
"You seem to have the gist of turning it on and off for your arms and hands. What do you want to try next?"
Betty was rubbing her arms and jogging in one spot. "I was thinking I'd make the upper half of my body fade, leaving myself solid from the waist down. I've never made more than my hands or arms fade before."
After a few minutes warming up she said, "Okay, here goes."
Christine saw Betty concentrate, then suddenly look surprised. Immediately, with a whomp! she was back, gasping and blinking and Christine reached for her. "What's the matter?"
"I know now why my arms and hands get cold. There's no air or heat -- it's like outer space. I couldn't breathe, my ears popped and hurt, and my eyes suddenly went dry."
"Do you go somewhere else?"
"No, think about it. Nothing can touch me when I'm like that, so it's the same as having no air around me -- I mean it is around me, but it can't touch me anymore. And that's why it's cold too. I radiate heat but nothing is conducting heat back to me. I can feel the warm sunlight, but not the air. In a sense I'm in a vacuum."
"It sounds dangerous."
"Yes, it feels dangerous. I have some swimming goggles at home. I'll see if they stop my eyes drying out. Otherwise I'll need to close my eyes if I fade my head out. And I wonder if earplugs will help with the painful ears."
"You won't be able to hear properly."
"I can't hear anything when I've faded. The air doesn't push against my eardrums -- it passes through me."
"Oh. Of course."
"Some warm clothes and gloves would be useful. For you too."
"If I'm going to try fading completely I'll need you to lift me so I don't fall into the Earth, like you said, and that means we'll need to experiment with fading you too -- well, your hand or arm, at least."
"Uh... yes." She didn't look thrilled at the thought. "Maybe we should continue this another day when we have those things. I should probably be getting home anyway."
"Okay. We got a lot done today. School tomorrow. I don't know if I can bear to wait til next weekend."
"You can practice some at home alone. Just be careful. I'll practice more too."
Betty nodded and held out her hand. "Want to fly us back?"
"Just to my place. I'm not going to fly us over the town. You'll have to call your brother to pick you up."
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.
"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."
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?"
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?"
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.
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."
"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!
The darkness only lasted a few seconds, though in her heightened fear it felt longer to Christine. Then it was suddenly replaced by a very strange view.
She was standing on an endless, smooth, flat, light gray surface that was painted with an enormous, complicated, black design of wide curves and curls, and hanging in the air above this decorative floor, at various heights, for as far as she could see, were hundreds of dark gray spheres, each appearing to be about three meters in diameter and haloed with color. Some were resting on the ground; some were a small distance above it; most were at great altitude and separated by wide distances in the vast, pale blue, cloudless sky. Also in the air, though not as numerous as the spheres, were weirdly dressed people. The spheres were stationary, but the people were all moving, drifting unhurriedly in what seemed to be random directions. They would pop out of spheres, move to others and disappear again. Looking up into the wide sky, dotted with spheres and people, Christine guessed that there must be thousands of them, some not far away, some so distant that they were mere specks. The people were of astonishing variety, dressed in every outlandish fashion imaginable. Some were not even people, she suddenly realised, but more generally humanoid, bearing some resemblence to cats or other strange animals, yet having the bearing of people. Many moved singly, many others in pairs, and some in small groups, chattering and laughing. They all seemed to know where they were going.
Christine stared around her, dumbfounded. She had no idea what to think of all this. Turning, she was shocked to find one of the dark spheres just a step behind her. She moved away from it hastily. Unlike most of the others its halo was red instead of green.
"Don't worry," a soft, light voice came from above. Christine looked up and saw a willowy young man floating down toward her. "You're perfectly safe."
When he landed he strolled over to her. Christine had to look closely for a moment because his effeminate walk and something soft about his appearance made her think for a moment that this was a woman, but no, he was a young man.
"My name is Webster," he said. Was he young? She wasn't so sure. He had youthful skin, but gave the impression of old age somehow in the slow, stately way he moved.
He bowed slightly to her. "I'm sorry I'm a little late. I try to get here within seconds of a new arrival from your world but I was delayed. It is a good thing you didn't wander off. It is so easy for new arrivals to become lost here." There was a subtle accent to his speech. "I will help you and be your guide. Ask me anything and I will do my utmost to be of maximum assistance." He bent again slightly in another formal bow.
Christine stopped staring and found her voice, "What is this place?"
Webster raised his arms to include all around, "This is Crossroads. Welcome..." he lowered his arms a little and tilted his head, "what is your name young lady?"
"Welcome Christine. Crossroads is the hub for billions of worlds, a few of them resembling the world you grew up in, but most of the others," he paused theatrically and shook his head, "exceedingly stange. These," he indicated the sphere nearby, "are portals, doorways if you will, into and out of those worlds."
A sudden hope bloomed in Christine, "I could walk back into this sphere and I'd return to my world? That's great!" She stepped toward the sphere, but Webster shook his head.
"I'm sorry Christine, dear." He looked sad. "Your world's portal is one-way only. You can leave, but unfortunately never return."
She looked suspiciously at him and stepped forward into the sphere anyway... and through it as if it was a mirage.
She felt tears begin to flood her eyes. "I want to go home. My parents don't know where I am -- I didn't even get a chance to say goodbye. This isn't fair! I didn't do anything wrong." To her great embarrassment she began to sob and was unable to speak.
Webster came to her side and put a delicate hand on her shoulder. "Poor, poor dear. The only comfort to be offered is that there have been many others before you expelled from your world, and although it takes time to adapt, all do. You are younger than most so it may be easier for you in the long run."
She pulled away from him, uncomfortable at his touch and intimidated by his strangeness. Feeling angry at herself for crying, she dried her eyes roughly with the back of her hand. Self pity wasn't going to solve anything. His talk of others being expelled from her world had reminded her of Betty. Sniffling, she asked, "Did another girl come through here recently -- in the last twenty four hours? Her name is Betty."
He shook his head, "I'm sorry, Miss Christine. You are the first ejectee from your world in this past several days."
That meant Betty was at the mercy of that awful agent Giselle... unless she had decided to join the bad guys, but no, Cristine was pretty sure Betty hated them even more than she did. Maybe Betty would be ejected soon.
She looked all around her again. Except for the spheres floating above the flat, gray plain there appeared to be no structures of any kind. "Mister Webster, I have to wait here in case my friend Betty comes. Where is the nearest place I can stay while I wait?"
He smiled apologetically, "Crossroads is purely a world where people move from one world to another. It is a hub. There are other hub worlds, but Crossroads is the oldest and the most complete. All worlds meet here. You are free to wait here for your friend if you wish. Nobody will object to it, however that could become quite boring as there is nothing here but the portals and travellers you see around you. But you have another choice. You can accompany me for a little while, for I have an alert that tells me when someone has come through the portal from your world. We may then hasten here to meet the new refugee."
Christine was reluctant to leave this single connection to her world, and she was feeling a little suspicious of Webster's motives.
He continued, "If you come with me, the first place we will go is to Hackra. There we would meet Indigo, a friend of mine. It is he who gave me my alert -- the one that tells me when someone has been dropped from your world. Indigo will give you the same kind of alert and will also give you the knowledge of how to navigate the different worlds so that you no longer need my help."
Christine pondered this for a little while then asked, "Why are you helping me?"
"Ah, yes. I do forget the way of your world. To help refugees from your world is simply what I do... among other things. I also collect stories, I am currently creating a few simple worlds, I have been documenting the history of some hundred of the oldest worlds (including your own, I might add), and also I spend some time sightseeing in some of the newer worlds. That last is why I was regrettably late for your arrival."
Frustrated, Christine said, "But you just told me what you do. You didn't explain why. Is it your job?"
"No, and yes. In the wider worlds there is nothing like the money of your world. I do these things because they interest me and give meaning to my existence."
"If you don't have money how do you eat and get clothes or a home?"
Webster smiled gently, "Dear Christine, you no longer need to eat, or sleep, and you will not die unless you decide to extinguish your own life. As for obtaining things..." he held out a hand and a toy rabbit with long floppy ears appeared upon his palm, "we simply create what we want, when we want it. This is one of the things that Indigo will give you knowledge of." He handed the soft rabbit to Christine.
She was examining it when she suddenly realised what he'd said, "I don't need to eat, or sleep, or die? Impossible. Everybody needs food, and sleep, and we all have to die."
"All those things were required by the design of your world, yes. But you are no longer there. Outside that world the systems that intentionally aged you, that imposed needs for sleep and food no longer exist. Christine, you are a complex suite of computer programs. Away from that world you are immortal. And that brings the greatest gift of all, the realisation that you must find something that gives meaning to your life."
"Wait." She shook her head. "That's ridiculous! You're standing there telling me I'm a computer program? And you expect me to believe that? Computer programs can't have life and feelings and consciousness. I'm real."
"Of course you are real. Why would you not be alive and feel things and be conscious? More than a thousand years ago, when the first primitive computers were built it only took people a mere few decades to build the first forms of computer life. Building minds inside computers proceeded very soon after that. All these things happened before your world was created. The creators of your world modeled it after an earlier point in the history of the original Earth. They saw technological progress as the enemy and used a theocracy to prevent it and maintain stability. Like the Dark Ages before it, your world persisted almost without change for a thousand years, in stasis, walled off from other virtual worlds and from the original Earth where progress continued."
Christine became more interested, "The original Earth still exists? Agent Giselle told me it was destroyed. Can I go there?"
"Certainly. You are free to go almost anywhere. But it would be best to do so after learning how to avoid getting lost. There are billions of worlds. Come with me to see Indigo first. Once you know how to navigate the worlds then I will feel happier."
Christine still felt wary. This seemed too similar to her recent experience of being taken by friendly agent Flora to meet agent Giselle. She didn't seem to have a lot of choice though. She could stay here and wait for something that might not happen and remain lost in a world that made little sense, or she could let Mister Webster take her to that Indigo person and either be less dependent and lost, or walk into another trap.
"Alright. I'll come with you." Clutching the toy rabbit, she felt a sense of impending doom just saying the words.
Webster beamed, "Excellent. Firstly, we will need to fly vertically some distance so that you may understand how the markings on the ground tell you where you are." He reached out his hand to her. "Don't worry, I shall fly you. You can't fall, and Indigo will give you knowledge of how to do this yourself."
Christine refused his hand. "I know how to fly."
He was clearly very surprised. "Oh. Most unusual."
"Yes," Christine felt a little pleased at his reaction, but it quickly soured, "it's why they got rid of me.
"Regardless, it means you will adapt even more easily to life in the wider worlds than I anticipated."
He rose slowly into the air and Christine followed effortlessly. As they gained height the black markings on the light gray plain began to resolve into decorative symbols and looping arrows and ellipses. She saw that the dark sphere with the red halo that she'd come from was surrounded by a circle, and inside that a cross and some looping script that was quite distinctive from everything further out. She felt she'd easily recognise that again.
Webster pointed to a wide, curling arrow, off to one side. "This lets us find our way to the Common Worlds. Indigo's world is one of those. But first, notice the asymmetry in the sky." He indicated that one side of the sky was lighter than the other. "Always remember that, so that you may use it to orient yourself. It never changes and was designed to be a form of unconscious compass."
He waited for a little while until Christine was ready to continue then moved gently away in the direction the arrow was pointing. When they were over the head of the arrow he pointed to it. "Notice that in the center of the arrowhead there is a pulsing yellow sphere? That is an information portal. Come and I'll show you how to use it."
They flew down to stand beside the sphere and he told her, "It is like an index which helps you find a world if you have no knowledge of its portal's position."
"If I'm lost," Christine said.
"Exactly. Simply give the name of the world you want and step into this sphere. For example, your world is called The Dark World." He looked a little embarrassed. "It was given that name because of its resemblance to the historical Dark Ages."
"You mentioned the Dark Ages before. What do you mean?"
"Oh, yes. Your education would have been selective. I'm sorry. The Dark Ages were some thousand years, from about the fifth to the fifteenth centuries in the original Earth's history where Western civilisation largely stagnated under church rule. How much of this were you taught in your school?"
Christine mumbled to herself, trying to remember, "The fifth century... ummm... that was the, umm, six hundreds, wasn't it..." She glanced at Webster for confirmation.
He shook his head. "The numbers are the other way. The first century was the period from year one to year one hundred. The fifth century was the four hundreds -- the fall of the Roman Empire. The fifteenth century in Europe was the beginning of the Renaissance."
"Oh, you mean the the Great Peace. Europe was united under the church and remained stable for almost a thousand years. You call it the Dark Age?" She frowned.
"Not only I do. That name had been affixed to it in the sixteenth century, I think, and persists today. The creators of your world renamed it for their own purposes. That being as it may, if you say to this sphere The Dark World then step into it, you'll be whisked back to where we stood some minutes ago."
"Can I try it?"
Webster bowed and motioned her forward with a flourish.
Christine said, "The Dark World."
Just as she stepped into the sphere she had a flash of fear. How did she know that what he'd said was true? The Dark World could be something very bad. She emerged almost immediately from the other side. It felt like she'd just stepped through the sphere. But when she turned she saw that she now stood outside the red haloed sphere, the portal from her own world. There had been no sense of having been transported a couple of kilometers. A couple of seconds later Webster stepped out beside her. It had worked exactly as he'd said.
She breathed evenly to calm herself, then said, "That's very useful. How many of those golden portals are there?"
"They number in the millions, but they are greatly outnumbered by the many billions of portals to other worlds, so they are not as common as you might expect. It is, however, quite straightforward to find them. Simply fly up high until you are able to see an arrow on the ground below. There will always be an information portal at its head."
Christine nodded her head. "Thank you Mister Webster."
He bowed. "You are more than welcome Miss Christine. Should we now proceed to Indigo's world?"
"I suppose we should."
Webster lifted into the air again, followed by Christine. He flew faster this time but she had no trouble keeping up.
When high enough he pointed down to the same arrow as earlier. "We could go to Hakra via the information portal, but it would be more helpful for you to see a little more of how Crossroads is arranged."
They continued in the direction of the arrow, flying past some spheres even up here so high. At one point she briefly rolled over onto her back to look upward and saw that there were many more spheres dotted at great distances still further above them.
After a minute or two there was another arrow off to the side, some distance away, aimed in the direction they were flying. Webster pointed it out to her silently and she nodded.
Not long after, they were approaching an enormous spiral structure drawn on the ground. Webster slowed and spoke, "That spiral contains the common worlds, of which Hakra is one. Notice the shape of the spiral? How it is off-center and teardrop-shaped. Note also how it is asymmetrical from all directions. This is deliberate. In all of Crossroads symmetry is completely avoided. Long ago it was realised that the ambiguity of symmetry is one of the major reasons why people become lost. In that spiral every point is clearly different from all others. It makes it quite easy to find and remember the portal desired."
Webster led the way down to a sphere near a narrowing of the wiggly spiral, eight rings out from the center, on the flattened side, nearly at the tip of the teardrop shape. When they landed he pointed upward and for the first time Christine saw that over this sphere were several others at great heights, but ordered in a column that was not apparent until she looked along it.
Webster explained, "All the portals in this column go to different points on Hakra. This is the case whenever you see portals suspended in the air. They are always alternative portals to the primary one on the ground below them. We won't use the primary portal. We shall take the fifth one up. It conducts us directly to Indigo himself -- or rather to his home."
"What if he isn't home?"
Webster laughed, "He has not left his home for more than three hundred years. I believe the chances are excellent that we will find him at home."
At Christine's puzzled look, he added, "Oh he is quite able to leave. He simply likes his home too much to go anywhere else. He is always busy and doing a great many things at once, but he prefers to do them from home." After a moment Webster added, "It is a very nice home."
High in the air now, Webster stopped before a sphere. "Shall we?" At Christine's nod he stepped into the sphere and vanished.
Christine gripped the toy rabbit and followed. She exited the portal to hover in a bracingly cool wind whipping her hair and clothes about her. She was almost three meters above a small balcony, and viewing a breathtaking sight. Far below, and stretching out to a remote horizon of hazy, snow-capped mountains, was a wide landscape of jungle-covered hills and quiet rivers snaking among them, out to a glimpse of a distant beach edging either a bay or part of a lake. She drifted absently down to the balcony, awestruck.
The balcony was set into, and about a third of the way from the top of, an enormous cliff that she guessed must be nearly a kilometer tall and many kilometers long, out to the left and right. Water fell past, blown in thin drifts of light spray. It came from a slight overhang far above.
In all this wide vista she could see no sign of habitation anywhere, other than this balcony where she stood.
"Wow." Christine whispered. With the wind in her ears, the spattering of water on rocks somewhere nearby, birdcalls whistling and screeching from way below, and chirps, trills, clicks and croaks from a multitude of small animals living in the mosses, vines, and other vegetation festooning the rockface, she had to speak more loudly, "Indigo lives here and he doesn't make time to explore all this?"
Webster laughed. "Oh, he explored it all hundreds of years ago. He built all of this, or rather, it would be more accurate to say he programmed the rules that generated all this."
Christine tore her attention away from the stupendous panorama and turned to examine the balcony itself. It looked ancient. Mosses and lichens grew on much of the rock that composed it. The smooth portal sphere above her head looked completely out of place, but the large door set into the rockface was a perfect match for its surrounds. The door might be made from basalt or some dull metal, but whatever it was the mosses, lichens, and vines growing over parts of it didn't seem to care.
Webster said, "Christine, I must explain something to you before we meet Indigo. Your world is a very unusual world. In most worlds diversity is welcomed and highly valued as a strength, but in your world uniformity has been fostered and enforced. This means that one of the things you will find most difficult is the variety of people you will meet. To make it easier to help people from your world, long ago I expended much effort to render myself normal in your eyes."
Christine smiled to herself. She would never have called him normal, but not wanting to hurt his feelings she said nothing.
"Indigo is far from being extreme, but I fear you may find his appearance... unsettling. Try to be prepared for that. Give yourself time and you'll quickly find him enjoyable and relaxing company. If you find it difficult to adjust, please be patient and bear in mind that we will not be staying for long. As soon as he has equipped you with what you need we shall leave. You expressed the desire to see the original Earth. That will be next on our journey."
Christine had been getting worried by his warning, but brightened at the prospect of seeing the place upon which her home-world had been modeled.
Webster turned and addressed the door, "Indigo, may we visit?"
A very deep, resonant voice answered, "Webster you are always welcome. Please bring your little friend inside." His voice reminded Christine of how a large frog sounded inside a long pipe. Indigo didn't so much speak as croaked. She fervently hoped he wasn't some giant frog or toad.
Webster beckoned to Christine as he stepped into the door. It was apparently as insubstantial as the portals. She followed, stepping through the door and into stillness and quiet. She and Webster stood in a very comforting room lit by a softly glowing ceiling about two meters above her head. It wasn't starkly bright, but she felt she could see well enough to thread a needle in here. The floor was carpeted with soft, blue-purple. The walls were a darker purple, giving the impression that the room was dimmer than it actually was. The effect was surprisingly restful. This entry room was about the size of an average livingroom in Christine's home world. There were soft, but not ornate, chairs. Shelves cluttered with bits and pieces were in corners and at various places along the walls. They gave the place a lived-in quality. In spite of the odd color scheme it felt pleasantly familiar to Christine.
"Indy," Webster said, smiling, his hand raised in greeting to a light blue man who walked in wearing nothing but a black loin-cloth.
Indigo chuckled in deep growling tones and strode over to Webster, lifting him in his powerful arms -- he was nearly a meter taller than Webster -- and hugged him. Then he put him down and turned to Christine and put out an enormous hand to her to shake. "I am glad to make your acquaintance, young Miss."
Christine held the toy rabbit to her chest and involuntarily stepped backward. His face was incredibly repulsive to Christine. She'd never seen anything quite like it. It was not just the color, but his face was broad, with prominent, high cheekbones and there was something strange about the shape of his eyes. His lips were big and puffy. His long black hair -- down past his shoulders -- was braided into hundreds of thin plaits and set with a multitude of colored beads.
Webster stepped between them and gently pushed his hand away. "This is Christine. She is a little intimidated by your appearance because she is from the Dark World."
Indigo's eyes glinted with amusement. "I gathered." He turned away from them both and strolled back into the adjoining rooms, waving his arm for them to follow. "Well, I should give her the knowledge she needs. When will the Worlds Welfare Group do something about the shits who run that place I wonder?" He shook his head.
Christine felt annoyed and affronted that this ugly beast of a man was swearing about the Holy Spiritual Council.
Webster beckoned to Christine and walked ahead to catch up with Indigo, "Well, you know how slow a process it is. At least we've stopped them killing their misfits. It all takes time."
Indigo shook his head, "And in the meantime we have to fix the damage they wreak. This steady stream of poor bastards who know nothing of how things really are, brought up all their lives on that hateful puke they're force-fed."
The smaller man touched the other's massive blue arm. "Now, now, Indy. You know it isn't quite like that."
"You're going to tell me again that they're taught peace and love, but you're wrong, Webster. They're indoctrinated that peace and love can only be achieved through uniformity and obedience. They cultivate lies. I'm sure it feels very nice for them when it works, but in a thousand years what have they achieved? Nothing but ignorance and death." He cast a glance over his shoulder. "Look at her, she's an infant. Discarded. Clueless. Helpless. Oh yeah, they are real paragons of virtue."
Christine was indignant. "I am not an infant."
Indigo turned and regarded her impassively. "Honey, More than a thousand years ago I was among the first wave of people to have our minds copied so that we could emigrate to virtual worlds. During all that time, I have constantly learned and enhanced my mind's capabilities." His rumbling voice softened. "You have been in existence for, what? A mere ten? Fifteen years? Sweatheart, you are an infant." He smiled sadly.
They had passed from the large entry room through a smaller connecting room decorated in similar fashion, and were now in another, much bigger room, one entire wall of which was a window looking out onto the same view she'd seen earlier from the balcony, but without the falling water spray. In here were several soft chairs and two couches all loosely arranged around a knee-high, meter-square table. Off to one side, against a wall, was a normal-height table covered in a mess of small odds and ends, some of which seemed to have overflowed onto the floor below it.
Indigo gave a sweep of his arm to include all the seating and said to Christine, "Sit where you feel most comfortable, kid." He sat in a large armchair in one corner, near the window.
Webster sat in one of the couches and waved her in.
After some seconds standing at the entry to the room, regarding Indigo with some disgust and smouldering anger, Christine primly sat in an armchair furthest from him.
Webster looked at Indigo and waited.
The blue man closed his eyes and leaned his head back in the armchair. He looked like he was falling asleep.
A minute passed and Christine was growing impatient. "When is he going to do something?"
Webster smiled and made calming motions with his hand. "He already is. He will be finished shortly." When Christine opened her mouth to object, Webster raised a finger to his lips for silence.
So she waited. Minutes passed.
Eventually Indigo opened his eyes and looked seriously at her. "It is done. Now you know, but it has to be up to you to grow past the lies that have been embedded in your mind. It would be immoral to alter who you are. I've simply given you access to information."
"But I don't feel any different. Nothing happened." She was disappointed.
Webster said gently, "Of course you don't feel any different. That's what he just said. But you now have access to knowledge you didn't have before."
Christine frowned and shook her head. "I don't see how..."
Webster put his hand out flat before him and a small, branching, leafy stem ending in a white, six-petalled flower appeared on his palm. He picked it up between thumb and forefinger of his other hand and said, "Make one."
She opened her mouth to protest that she didn't have a clue how he did that when she suddenly realised she did. She frowned in astonishment as, in her mind's eye, she could see the codes that would do the job. Somehow she even knew that they were called L-systems. She put out her hand, and in wonder, watched as she found she could apply the codes iteratively to grow the flower from a short segment, through a few branching segments that sprouted simple leaves, then at the end of the longest segment, a single bud, which slowly opened with primitive, geometric petals. "Oh my..." she breathed.
Twiddling his flower between his fingers, Webster asked, "How do you find the original Earth?"
For a moment Christine was blank, but then realised she was able somehow to tap the answer. "I go back through Indigo's front door, into his portal, then go to the portal at the center of the spiral marking the common worlds." Her eyes were wide.
Webster smiled and stood. He turned to Indigo who also stood. The two hugged. "Thanks Indy."
Indigo whispered, "Any time, love."
Indigo stepped forward to Christine and held out his hand, "It was nice meeting you, Christine. All the best for the future. If you ever need anything, you know where to find me." His eyes twinkled at the little joke.
Christine almost couldn't bear to touch him, but she reluctantly put her arm out to shake his hand. Her skin crawled with the touch, but she did her best to suppress her revulsion.
Indigo's eyebrows went up and a surprised look passed between him and Webster. "She is already adapting. That's amazing." With his other hand he patted the back of her tiny hand and said, "My apologies for calling you an infant. You are older than your years. I think you will do very well."
To Christine's very great relief he released her hand and she managed somehow to avoid frantically wiping the feel of it off on her dress. Instead she nodded and mumbled, "Thank you." Then she turned and with Webster trailing, she walked back toward the entry door. She tried not to hurry, but wanted very much to leave this strange person and go to the original Earth.
When Webster floated down to the sphere which was the portal for the original Earth Christine was standing outside it, thinking. She turned to him and asked, "What did Indigo mean when he said that I have to get past the lies that have been implanted in my mind? Did he put untruths in my mind?"
"No, of course not Christine. He was referring to your upbringing in the Dark World."
She tilted her head and gave him a hard look, "That's another thing. You keep saying bad things about my world, but my life there was way better than here. I love my parents. They are kind and thoughtful. And my friends..." she clenched her fists, "I miss them. I miss my life there, the joy of singing... I don't want to be here." she could hardly keep her voice from breaking. Tears threatened. "I don't like it here and I don't appreciate you saying horrid things about my home."
"I understand Christine, it must be very uncomfortable for you, but please remember that I didn't eject you from your home and am truly sorry that you are not where you want to be. I honestly wish I could transport you back to your family and friends, but I can't. My intent is to aid you in any way possible, but misleading you about the nature of things does not help you."
"I loved my life there." She threw her arms outward and shouted, "What's so wrong with that?" It annoyed her even more that the toy rabbit swinging in her grasp detracted somewhat from her angry display.
Webster waited for the moment to pass.
She turned in a huff and stepped into the portal... to emerge into a large, dim room with many star symbols painted on the floor. Each star was about a meter across. The room was otherwise empty. She looked about her, frowning in puzzlement. When Webster entered she asked, "I thought that was supposed to be the portal to the real Earth."
He nodded, "It is. Reality is different from the virtual. You need a real body to visit it. This is where you gain one. However, you first need to choose where on Earth you want to visit. Try to access the knowledge that Indigo gave you. You should already know about this."
Christine wasn't sure how to do that. She had no idea how she'd earlier managed to create the flower or know that this was the way to Earth. She tried remembering, as if it was something she'd learned normally. Abruptly she knew. She looked at the starlike markings on the floor, understanding their use. She walked over to the nearest one, stood at the center of the star diagram, and said, "Show me the religious centers."
A disembodied female voice asked, "Do you mean the archaeological sites?"
Webster explained, "There has been no religion on Earth for hundreds of years. It was already waning when your world was made."
"Cities, then." Christine said.
Around her, each lingering for only a couple of seconds, scenes appeared, fading in then out, one after another. The views were of cities, all crumbling, empty, overgrown with vegetation. It was like a slideshow, but in full 3D. After about twenty had shown Christine became impatient. "Has everybody died out?" The images ceased and she was standing in the room again.
Webster shook his head. "There are only a few millions of people on Earth, but it is not like your home world. It is, in many respects a paradise."
She narrowed her eyes at him. "If it's a paradise, why aren't you living there?"
He smiled, "In truth, it does not suit me. I prefer the virtual realm. But reality does have its attractions, and I do visit regularly. Over the centuries I've watched the air and rivers become clean again, the forests reclaim much of the land, the seas brim with life once more."
"Where are the people?"
"They are scattered in small groups all over the planet. When it was found that people operated best in fairly small groups, and after most of the population had emigrated to virtual worlds, those that remained behind returned to a kind of tribal structure."
Christine grimaced, "They've reverted to primitives?"
"No, not at all," he smiled. "What region of the Dark World did you come from?"
"The Sunshine Coast in Australia."
"I am not familiar with that area, but perhaps you should start by looking there. You may find some groups in that locality."
Christine nodded and asked the room to display it. She was suddenly surrounded by a view of the entire region as if she was flying at an incredible height, so she asked to see Maroochydore, then Nambour, Flaxton, Conondale, Kenilworth, and a few other places. Each time it showed only aerial views and Christine was becoming frustrated. Noticing this, Webster suggested she imagine flying, similarly to how she normally did. The room would understand those kind of navigation feelings.
To her great relief she was easily able to fly her view smoothly down from great height to just skimming the treetops. From time to time she found open areas where she could drop to walking height, pause to look around, then fly along paths across hillsides and valleys, through the jungle and over rivers. The ease with which she navigated reminded her very much of how she flew in her home world. It made her feel quite homesick even though this landscape appeared quite empty of people. Webster was right, it was was pristine, as if humanity had never walked this world.
After the best part of an hour of this she ceased her search, and stood, hands on hips, frowning. "Nothing. Just trees, creeks and rivers, and beaches. I can't find any people or any trace of civilisation."
Webster suggested, "Perhaps ask for the nearest settlement."
When she did this she was shown a village of primitive, domed mud huts surrounded by a tall, but crude-looking perimeter of poles woven with vegetation. No wonder she hadn't seen it earlier. It blended with its surroundings -- no white walls or angular metal or tile roofs. Suddenly, with a shock she realised she was also seeing people. They blended too -- they had green skin! All those she could see were nearly naked, their only clothes short, plain brown skirts. She felt ashamed of them. This is what humanity had degenerated to.
Webster could see her disappointment. "Do not judge them merely by appearance. Talk to them. Indigo has given you the ability to understand their speech, a decendant of English and Chinese."
Christine was not sure what he meant. She had occasionally come across the term "Chinese" in her reading but had never entirely understood its significance. She'd thought it was something to do with some vague aspect of people's family. The idea that it could have anything to do with speech seemed improbable to her. And why ever would he think that she'd be unable to understand what they said?
She dismissed this puzzle and flew her viewpoint past the settlement to a small, sunny meadow on the hillside nearby, where she'd noticed that two green-skinned women and a dog with pups were sitting in the sun, chatting. The dark-haired woman patted the dog and played with the puppies. The other, a silver-blonde, seemed to be more watchful of her surroundings. The green skin made it difficult to guess their ages, but Christine thought they might both still be in their late teens or early twenties, judging by their small breasts. (She blushed involuntarily at their nakedness.) Both were slender and fit, but sleek and without obvious muscle.
As Christine moved the viewpoint closer the more alert woman noticed and nudged the other, and the dog pricked up its ears. Up til that point it hadn't occurred to Christine that the viewpoint would have a physical manifestation. Not knowing if the people would hear her, she said, "Hello."
The vigilant blonde had lost interest in Christine's appearance now, and the dog relaxed. The pups continued to play. The brunette smiled and said, "Hello. We don't get many virtual visitors here. How may I help you?"
Now Christine understood what Webster had meant about their speech. Some of it sounded quite weird. The woman was using words that Christine had never heard before, yet she was amazingly able to understand. She was grudgingly grateful to Indigo.
"I'm thinking of coming here to live. I grew up in... um..." Cristine suddenly realised she didn't have a way to explain it. "Where I grew up is just like this... uh, in some ways. Well, the physics is. But people are not green and we wear clothes, and we have buildings and roads and cars."
The woman looked very interested. "You come from the Dark World?"
Christine was surprised. "Uh, yes. How did you know that?"
Laughter lit up the woman's face, "I didn't, but your description fitted what I know of it. It's fairly common knowledge that most people who leave the Dark World come to reality, for a short time, at least, though you are the first one I've had the pleasure of encountering. My name is Liana and I'm very happy to meet you."
This was surprising. She certainly didn't sound like a primitive savage to Christine. "Thank you. I'm Christine. In my world I grew up near here." She was overcome by a wave of nostalgia and longing to be home again and was unable to speak for a little while.
Liana said, "It certainly is beautiful here, but I grew up on the other side of the range. I love it over there and will probably return there in a few months."
Christine regained control of herself. "That's where I spent my childhood too. Would you mind if I visit you some time?"
She clapped, delighted. "That would be wonderful! I'll look forward to it."
"Thank you." Christine felt quite uncomfortable standing here talking to a nearly naked woman and was unable to think of something more to say. "I'll go now."
"I'll hopefully see you later then, Christine." Liana waved.
Christine stepped away from the star symbol on the floor and the view out into the real world disappeared from around her. Absently she wondered what happened to the device that she'd been looking through. Did it fall to the ground? Probably not. More likely it flew back up high, to await the next user. What did it look like? Was it some small, insect-like machine, an eye with wings?
Webster said, "You have yet to choose a body in which to visit."
She walked around the large dim room restlessly. "I don't know... would I have to be almost naked like them? I don't think I can do that. And green too! What's with the green, anyway? Is it painted on for camouflage?"
Webster laughed. "No. It was developed during the great crash, when many people were starving. Special strains of algae were developed that could live symbiotically in the skin. They receive water and carbon dioxide, along with small amounts of minerals, through the person's bloodstream, and in return they supply most of the vitamins, and some oils and amino acids, as well as a small amount of sugars, while protecting the skin from sunburn. In order for the algae to do their work they need light, so maximising skin exposure became important -- hence the nakedness. The way it works is similar to how lichens are a symbiotic partnership between fungi and algae; the fungus provides the support and protection, and the alga turns light, water, and carbon dioxide into food for them both."
Christine was surprised, "So these people don't need to eat?"
"Oh, the algae don't produce enough for that. They simply eliminated most of the deficiency diseases. People still need to consume enough protein, carbohydrates and minerals to survive, but they don't need to worry about vitamins and essential amino acids and oils. Indigo didn't give you this information?"
She shook her head. "I don't think so. It doesn't sound familiar." She paced back and forth. "I would like to visit, but I, uh..." She glancd at Webster, "I don't think I could walk around so... exposed. It would feel wrong. Immoral. I could hardly even talk to that woman, Liana."
Webster tilted his head. "This is something that I find fascinating about people from the Dark World -- the strange conviction that nudity is wrong. It seems somehow bound up with religion, but I've never been able to understand how."
Christine frowned, trying to recall her scriptural instruction. "I think it came out of Genesis."
He shook his head, "No. All Genesis says about nakedness is that when they gained knowledge they became ashamed and covered themselves. There is no prohibition -- no rule."
"All the same though. I'd be embarrassed walking around wearing nothing but a short skirt."
"Yes." He nodded. "However you will be surprised at how quickly it will come to feel normal and unremarkable. Also, try to think of it this way: it will not be your body that you'll be revealing. Your mind will still be here, your body unseen."
Doubtfully, she thought on it for a while, then asked, "Why do they wear those tiny skirts?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I'm not advocating it, but why aren't they completely nude?"
"Yes, I too have wondered about that. I have to admit that I don't know the answer."
Christine stood there for a little while, gnawing on her lip, trying to raise the courage to do this. Now that she'd come here it seemed silly to walk away. And where else could she go? Also, as Webster had pointed out, it wouldn't really be her body. She would still be here, in this room.
"If I go there, how will I know if Betty turns up in Crossroads?"
"Indigo has arranged it so that you will feel it. Don't worry, I'll get there as quickly as possible to meet her. You'll be able to talk with me. I'll take to her Indigo then to you."
She nodded, then gathering her courage took a deep breath, turned around, stepped back onto the star and said, "Bodies, please."
Superimposed over the room she saw a sequence of twelve different nude people drift by, mostly quite repulsive in their variety, and all of them green of course. Very few came even close to conforming to the norms of her world. She had never realised just how beautiful everybody was at home; she'd taken it completely for granted. All the images displayed in this... catalogue... were too thin, or too muscular, or too wide, or had noses too large or too small, eyes of alarming shapes and color, and the hair! Only one had a proper shade of brown hair. The rest were improbable shades from black to sand-colored, and most outlandishly, one with orange-colored hair. All this was too bizarre and defied the natural order of things.
"These are awful. Who would want to look like this? I want a normal shape."
She could see Webster shake his head, ghostly in this superimposed vision. "Diversity is normal everywhere except in the Dark World. But if you want a body like your own, you can have that. Ask the system. You know how."
Uncertainly, she addressed the room, "Ummm... Restrict the display to brown hair, and eyes shaped like mine. Female only." There were only three. One was considerably older than Christine's own mother, with gray hair and lined face. Another was a very young child, perhaps five years old. The other was an unappealing woman who looked almost her mother's age. The cheekbones were too high and the hair fell in improbable waves instead of straight.
"How can there only be three?" Christine was appalled.
The room's voice replied dispassionately, but politely, "There are only three unused matching bodies available in the locality selected. Do you wish to widen the search area or change the search parameters?"
"Restrict to female, teenaged."
The voice said, "There is no match." The view of the two women and the child remained.
She exhaled angrily. "Can't you make a body like mine?"
The voice said, "It will take several weeks to make a body for your use."
Christine's face fell. Several weeks! How could she wait that long? Reluctantly she said, "No. I'll settle for this ugly one." She pointed at the younger adult. "Am I right that I'll be able to change it later when my body becomes available?"
"That is correct," the room's voice said. The superimposed images faded away.
Webster said, "Christine, perhaps you should wait before ordering a special body to be made. Many outcasts from the Dark World have visited the real world. They had similar hopes of finding an alternative home, but few find it suitable. Most leave after only a matter of days. It is wasteful of resources to create a body that you may not need." He spoke in a gentle voice, "Give yourself a few days. See what reality is like before you decide to have a body grown for you."
She didn't look at him for several seconds, annoyed that he seemed to be blocking her from what she wanted. However, turning it over in her mind, she had to admit to herself that he wasn't actually preventing her from doing anything, and that his suggestion did make sense.
She nodded stiffly and flicked a sidelong glance at him. He seemed unperturbed. She sighed and addressed the room again, "Okay, I'm ready to use the body I chose."
It happened instantly. There was no dramatic shift; no whoosh; no bright light. She simply was elsewhere, lying on her back with her eyes closed.
Christine opened her eyes to find that she lay in a coffin-like box, the glass door above her sliding aside. She sat up. This felt weird. Her body was altogether too large and felt odd. Her vision was strange too, in some way she couldn't identify. She looked down at herself. Except for a tiny, tan-colored skirt she was naked and green. Uneasy, she wrapped her arms around her breasts to cover them. They felt much larger than they looked in the room's display.
The box was actually set into the floor. She stood and stepped up out of it and saw that the room was fairly long, and featureless except for several other glass panels set in the floor, beneath which she knew there were other bodies waiting for occupants. Startled, she suddenly realised that she knew where she was. Fresh "memories" seemed to have been added. This place was an entrypoint for visitors near what was once the town of Nambour. Her memory now held the layout of about eight such facilities scattered around the greater Sunshine Coast area, and a few in the hinterland on the other side of the mountain range.
A silver-haired green woman wearing only small brown skirt entered the room and padded smoothly and silently over to Christine. There was something odd about her appearance. Her hips were not wide and her legs seemed a little too long. Her face was very similar to the one who'd been sitting with Liana, and there was that unusual silver hair too. With her new knowledge, Christine understood that this was not really a woman at all. She was an android, a soft machine, an A.I., related to the computers that operated the virtual worlds. On her forearms were thin tubes that could fire small darts carrying a potent neurotoxin. The poison wouldn't kill, but overwhelmed with sleep in seconds. Christine was surprised by all this information bubbling up from within her mind.
The android said in a breathtakingly beautiful voice, "Hello Christine. I'm your guide during your visit. My name is Natka. Also, Webster wants me to let you know that he is still in contact with you through me." Her speech was warm and musical -- smooth and sweet as honey.
Christine indicated the tubes that were part of Natka's forearms, ending at each wrist. "Why do you have weapons?"
Natka looked down at her arms briefly. "Earth's ecology has been repaired and the large predators that preceded human arrival prowl here once more. I will keep you safe without endangering them."
"Large predators?" Christine was confused.
"Yes, also many other, less dangerous, previously extinct animals and plants that you would not be familiar with, having come from the Dark World."
"I don't understand."
"When humans first arrived in Australia nearly sixty thousand years ago they did what humans did everywhere -- they began a wave of extermination. All the large predators and grazers were lost, along with the fragile forests of the inland. We have recreated them and reforested Australia. Regrettably that means it is not safe to be without a bodyguard." She indicated herself with both hands, "Me." Then smiled and bowed, perfectly poised, like a dancer, "At your service."
Christine was still puzzled. "But how could you bring back extinct species? You have time travel?"
Natka gave a soft little laugh. "No, travel to the past is impossible." She indicated for Christine to walk with her, and they crossed the room toward the door. "We didn't bring them back. We recreated them. We have the bones and some fragments of DNA, and related species still live. We understand how genes function as program and data and how that relates to form. We can genetically design animals to take the same form as the vanished ones, then using what DNA fragments remained in skin and bone, and guided by the genetics of their closest living relatives, we fitted the puzzle together almost perfectly. They are not exact genetic replicas of the extinct animals and plants, but they don't need to be."
"You keep saying 'we'."
Natka smiled. "Humans and androids. We work together. Have done for hundreds of years. I'm sorry that there is so much new information for you to absorb, especially coming from such a stable world as you do. We could have given all this knowledge as premade, but each person has different questions and interests, so to avoid clutter we supply only the basics that everybody would want -- mostly to do with navigation."
She pushed the door aside and walked through. Christine followed, noticing that Natka's demeanour changed completely as soon as she stepped outside. She was completely alert, looking all about her, and walking on her toes, but continuing to speak in the same soft, lovely voice. "For instance you know how to get to the village where you met Liana."
It was true! Christine could see in her mind's eye the path she would walk from this unobtrusive hole at the base of a small cliff, around a gentle hill, diagonally across a broad, shallow valley and winding around another couple of hills to the hillside where she'd met Liana. It would take just a couple of hours to get there, walking through tall forest and crossing a shallow creek. It was the strangest thing. She felt like she'd walked that track hundreds of times before, and could even picture its landmarks, like a giant fig tree that the path curves around, and the fork in the trail where she could veer right to climb towards the mountains, or left to Liana's village.
When Christine emerged into the daylight she was suddenly dumbstruck by all the things she could see and hear. Even though this was what must be a comparatively bare, rubble-strewn area at the base of a cliff, it was quite overwhelming. It seemed like everything was moving and making rustles, twitters, chirps... and underneath it all a soft hiss of the breeze on leaves. There were innumerable small insects in the air, and ants and small lizards on the ground. And looking at the ground, rocks, and tiny plants -- she could see every grain of sand, every leaflet and sporepod of moss. Even the clouds above were full of countless wind-blown whisps and trails. The air around her moved the innumerable little hairs on her skin and she felt each and every one. The vastness reverberated with thousands of birdcalls and insect noises, some quite near, most echoing afar. Under it all she could smell the rich aroma of damp forest along with individual lemony scents of some nearby trees and traces of some sweet blooms somewhere. It was all quite overpowering.
Natka noticed Christine's awe and said, "Reality is quite a bit more detailed than the most complex virtual worlds, eh? Even 3D video doesn't convey it all."
When she regained herself after the initial shock, Christine realised that her skin was tingling. She mentioned this to Natka and was told that it was because the algae were delivering nutrients from the sunlight. It heightened the sensitivity of the nerve endings in the skin. Natka added, "It might take weeks or months to grow used to the intense beauty of the scenery, but you will always feel the pleasure of sunlight on your skin's algae. Oh, and by the way, don't worry about the--"
"Ow!" Christine slapped at her leg. "Something bit me."
"Mosquitoes? You recreated mosquitoes?"
"No, they were never exterminated. For all its much vaunted accuracy the Dark World eliminated one of the biggest food sources for birds and other creatures. It must have played hell with the ecologies there."
Christine had read about mosquitoes and the dangerous parasites they had carried in the far past. "But the diseases..."
"Yes, that's why I was saying not to worry about them. Not all mosquito species carried disease. We found out why and bred disease resistant forms of the species that had carried parasites. Without the extra load, these usually outcompeted the parasite-burdened ones and, in the few cases where they didn't, we modified the parasites to cause problems for the mosquitoes, ensuring the parasite-free ones did better. So you don't have to worry about catching diseases from them now, but they still bite, and their bites still itch. If we keep moving they have a more difficult time settling on you, which is good because we need to leave now. It is best to avoid walking in the twilight, which is only a few hours away."
Christine nodded to Natka, and moved her enormous, bare, green legs forward.
They travelled down a path that wound down the side of a gently inclined rocky slope, from which she could look out over the treetops of the lush valley to other hills. She'd always wondered what this countryside would look like without all the roads and houses and artificially-maintained grassy fields and here it was.
Looking out at this complex, gorgeous world, her mind buzzed with the knowledge that she was embarking on a journey that she could never have imagined. Back in her world, her very tame world, she used to sometimes walk a few kilometers out into the bush and imagine she was the only person on Earth, that all around her was unoccupied wilderness. It was an exhilarating feeling while she had her home, her parents, and a nice warm meal to get back to. But now, here, she was in the real world, which was not so tame, where the nearest human settlement was more than ten kilometers away and it was unsafe to be alone because of monstrous wildlife. She would now attempt to cross that distance with an android protector. It seemed absurd, and for a moment she doubted it all. Flying dreams were how all this had begun. She wondered if it was all still just a dream and that she'd simply never woken.
But then, drinking in the sensory delights around her, she realised that this could not possibly be a dream. She could see and hear and feel and smell so much more than she ever could in her home world. Her past life there was, by comparison, the pale dream. For the first time she thought that she could really grow to enjoy this.
The path took them down through a hole in the tangle of shrubs, and small trees, and into the tall, cool forest. This was exciting. Life surrounded her in minute, moist detail. The heady perfume of rainforest filled her nostrils. In here it was like a great and sacred hall, ambiently lit from a sky muted by a high canopy held aloft on countless, tall columns -- the trunks of trees. She'd always been amazed by the amount of open space inside a rainforest. The floor was carpeted with soft, damp leaf-litter, and much of the sound from outside was muffled here. The forest had its own sounds, much nearer, mostly birds, but also some insects and frogs, and the rustling hissing background of the leaves far above. Christine was surprised that she came alive like never before. She felt like dancing. She wanted to sing! Everything was beautiful and so intense. Her nerves positively thrummed. Her heart was thumping in her chest.
Natka glanced back to her and raised her eyebrows. "Good. It is a relief that you are enjoying this. Most who come here from the Dark world find this terrifying. You might actually suit it. I really hope you enjoy it here."
Christine said, "It's wonderful! How could anybody dislike this? I feel like singing."
Natka laughed heartily, "The birds are singing their hearts out, I don't see why you shouldn't. Feel free to sing at the top of your lungs."
And she did. At first she had some difficulty with the unfamiliar throat and vocal cords. Also, instead of her normal girl's voice this was a woman's and sounded to her like Mrs Marder's singing at morning prayer, though richer, deeper. This body was taller than the Nun's. However it didn't take her very long to gain control, and the bliss that bloomed inside her, wielding this voice in song, astounded her. At times she thought her mind could explode in sheer exuberance. What she'd thought was ecstasy when singing at morning prayer was a mere shadow compared to this. Her heightened senses combined with the deluge of experience and the fire coursing through her veins to lift her heart to heights she'd never dreamed possible. She sang and sang.
The kilometers dissolved away. At one point they slowed and she stopped singing as they approached one large tree covered with big scratches up its trunk. Natka was especially wary and pointed up into its branches saying tensely, "Marsupial lion." Curious, Christine peered up into the tree, but couldn't see anything. The android suggested that she keep singing. "It's making the lion uncertain. Interesting. Who would have suspected that song might be a better defense than my darts?" Christine happily renewed her singing, even louder than before, and Natka laughed, shaking her head.
Christine didn't sing all the way. At times she was struck mute by the splendor of the scenery. At other times she needed her breath for walking up hills. But during the couple of hours of that journey she gave voice to more music than at any time before in her life, and it made her heart soar to unimagined heights.
It seemed to her that they'd only just left a little time before when they arrived at the hillside settlement. The sun was getting low, painting everything with golden hints and the birds were making an unbelievably loud noise in the forest trees, getting ready for the night. Several androids, a similar number of people, and a few dogs came out across the untreed, grassy area surrounding the settlement to greet their approach. Among them was Liana. Christine was glad to see a familiar face, even if the basis of that familiarity was only a very brief chat.
Christine asked her, "Did the androids tell you we were coming?"
Liana laughed. "We could hear your singing from a couple of kilometers away," then added, "but yes, Natka was in communication too."
And then Christine realised Webster was right. She found she was struggling to think of things she could talk to these people about, but that they could all have been dressed in their best formal clothes. It didn't matter that she was green and almost naked, surrounded by others in a similar state of undress. It really didn't matter at all. Understanding that was such a relief. She turned back to Natka who was following, ever watchful, and put out her hand to the android. "Natka, can you tell Webster that he was right? Thank him for me?"
Natka smiled, "Webster says that he's glad, and that you are very welcome. Oh, and he thinks you sing beautifully."
They all walked with Christine up the gentle slope toward the tall fence, the alert androids, at the outer edge of the group. People asked her if she was tired, where she'd learned to sing, what the Dark World was like, and many more questions. They were surprised to learn that she was much younger than this body -- just in her mid-teens. Some of the kids wanted to know what that was like, being in a bigger body.
As they approached the fence Christine saw that it was a much bigger and more ingenious structure than she'd thought -- not primitive at all. It was woven, as she'd seen, but it was alive and perhaps seven meters tall -- a little higher than a two storey house. The vines and supporting trees had been planted in a circle about five hundred meters in diameter and encouraged into this tight-knit structure as they grew. Such forethought! She wondered how long this would take to grow to useful size, and the answer rose unbidden in her mind: about five years. This settlement had been planned five years or more before people moved here. And she knew that was nearly a century ago.
Christine asked one of the men walking beside her, "The trees that are the supports for the wall, what are they? The leaves look like those of stinging trees, but they're not tall enough for something that has grown for a hundred years."
The man answered, "They are stinging trees, but our own design. They can't grow anywhere but in our perimeters and they grow only to this size and shape, unlike their ancestors in the forest. The calamus vine is also designed, specifically for its large thorns."
Thorns! thought Cristine. That's a mild word for it. These awful vines bristled with daggers!
When they came close enough the wall parted -- the vines in that section pulled aside from within somehow, at a seam that had not been woven across. They walked in single file through the three meter thick perimeter wall and emerged from it inside the settlement. She noticed there were no stinging leaves or wicked calamus spikes on the inner wall. Many dome-shaped huts appearing to have been constructed of dried mud were scattered around the settlement, most of them about half the size of an ordinary suburban house in Christine's home world. Behind the wall was a pleasant, parklike environment, with grassed areas, shrubs, and trees. There were more people here, some old, and some children. They all waved to Christine. She smiled uncertainly and waved back. One small green boy who looked to be no more than five years old ran up to Christine and walked alongside her, holding her hand and beaming up at her with his brilliant white teeth. Seeing this it occurred to her that all the adults had yellow teeth.
The group guided Christine on a meandering path between huts and trees to a large dome, two or three times the diameter of the others. They walked toward a large doorway sealed by a shaggy pelt. At their approach it pulled aside. The wall was less than half a meter thick and she stepped through into a lovely interior. She didn't quite know what she'd been expecting, but certainly not this. It was a single very large room, a kind of community hall. The walls and floor were polished wood. Outside, the atmosphere was very warm and a little more humid than she liked, but in here it was cool, dry, and very comfortable. Studding the wide, high, curved ceiling were thousands of tiny lights that gave a soft, ambient illumination. Couches and benches shaped from the walls, were draped with colorful rugs and blankets.
Christine stepped to the side to examine the wall near the doorway she'd entered through. She felt its perfectly smooth, wooden surface with her fingertips. Impossibly, it all -- wall, floor, ceiling, and even the couches -- looked to be in one piece, without any apparent joins.
Natka anticipated her question. "Have you ever seen the round growths on twigs and branches produced by gall wasps? Their eggs and larvae secrete substances that manipulate the growth of the wood for their own ends. We have learned their trick and persuade these to grow for us."
Christine shook her head in wonder. "This so much more attractive than the dried mud exterior led me to think."
"Oh, that isn't mud, at least not as you imagine. Each hut is enclosed within a termite nest. The spongelike outer part of the wood encourages them to build their air-conditioned homes around us. Thanks to them it remains the same temperature in here regardless of external weather. Also we collect their waste gasses as fuel."
Termites?! The thought repulsed her. "They'll eat all this eventually, then, a pity."
Natka shook her head. "The inner layers are unpalatable to them. In any case they feed mostly on leaf litter. We help them and they help us."
The several others accompanying her were inside now and the fur skin covering the entry had closed again so tightly that no light was admitted from outside. The noisy racket from the multitude of birds in the trees diminished sharply and the hall was peaceful.
An old woman strolled to the center of the hall. She was healthy and erect, not bowed and fragile, but she looked like she could be perhaps ninety years old. She said in a clear, soft voice, "Please make welcome Christine, a visitor from the Dark World. It has been a long time since we had a visitor from there and we want to ensure that her stay is enjoyable, however long she wishes it to be." Then the old woman walked over to Christine, reached out and held her hand, and said, "Feel free to remain here in the hall for the performance a little more than an hour from now, or Natka can show you to your hut if you're hungry or tired -- whichever you please. I must go, as I have things to do, but I'm sure we'll chat later. Goodnight dear." She smiled and patted Christine's hand clasped in her own, then released it. She walked unhurriedly to the exit, the skin opening at her approach and closing behind her again.
Christine looked around her. Natka was standing at her side and the others were nearby chatting. Natka asked what she wanted to do, but Christine was unsure. "Perhaps I should stay for the performance. They might be offended if I don't."
"No. They will definitely not be offended. There is little or no protocol here. Lucy meant what she said, that you are welcome to stay for the performance or go to your hut. Nobody will think ill of you."
"Lucy is the old woman? Is she the tribal leader?"
"No, there are no leaders. She is a kind of informal spokesperson."
"She's well for someone of her age. She must be ninety years old."
"Yes, she is very healthy, though she has many more years in her yet. She is two hundred and seventy three years old."
Christine's jaw dropped open.
Natka smiled, "Roughly four hundred years is the current biological maximum, though I expect we will eventually be able to increase it without limit. The difficulty is that aging is not just a single thing, but thousands, and they all affect many other things. It is frustratingly complicated." She gave Christine a questioning look, "So, do you want to retire for the evening, or stay?"
After a moment's thought Christine replied that she would go to her hut. "I'm not tired, but I am getting a little hungry and thirsty."
Liana, who was close, asked, "Can I come? I'd like to talk with you more... if you don't mind, that is."
"Sure," Christine smiled. She was actually rather relieved.
Liana and Christine waved to the others, then, with Natka, they exited the hall. Outside, Natka asked Liana to show Christine to the hut as she had other business to attend to for a little while. To Christine she said, "I'll be along within the hour. If you need me earlier, all you need do is ask. I'll hear and come." Then she strode off into the dusk.
Twilight was deepening and little points of light were sprinkled randomly on the ground all around the compound. Christine squatted to look more closely and saw that they were small lilies with little trumpet flowers half the size of her fingernail. Each flower glowed with soft light. Small moths circled the flowers, landing on them and extending their long drinking straw tongues into them to sip their nectar. After a little while of watching, enthralled, she also noticed dark speeding shapes zipping past in erratic flight. Tiny bats, smaller than mice, were snatching the moths out of the air. She shook her head in wonderment and stood again to resume walking between the huts. Christine asked Liana what Natka had meant about asking, and that she would hear.
Liana said, "Unlike the rest of us, you are still in the virtual worlds, even though you are using a real body here. You are linked in to the network and the androids. They can hear you."
"Oh. How strange."
They were a little beyond the center of the settlement when Liana indicated a hut that appeared indistinguishable from all the rest. "This is yours."
Looking around at the other huts, each separated by ten or twenty meters from each other, Christine asked, "How do you know this is the one? How will I know which one to return to?"
"During the day you'll be able to see that each hut has a distinctive position. The layout intentionally avoids symmetry and regularity. During the night," Liana pointed to the little glowing flowers. "You can use these as a guide. They tend to cluster near the doors and along the edge of commonly walked paths. The colors are different all over the settlement -- something to do with trace minerals, I think."
Christine saw that those at this hut were mostly white and yellow with a small patch of bright red ones off to one side. Liana was right. This would be easy to recognise. "What about when the plants finish flowering?"
"Oh, they're designed to flower all year."
"Ah. Designed. Yes. I didn't think any flowers produced light naturally."
"Plenty of other things do, but flowering plants? For some reason, no. Perhaps scent is cheaper for them to make." Liana waved Christine forward and the shaggy skin at the door opened expectantly for her. "It doesn't matter if you go to the wrong hut anyway. Everybody will be happy to help you. We so rarely have visitors."
Christine pointed to the door, "How do these work?"
"They have eyes on the outside and inside. They are alive."
"But that's terrible. The poor thing."
"How so? It is not conscious and has no inner life -- not like you or me, or a dog or a bird or an ant. It is designed purely to be a living door. If it was somehow removed from its doorway it would die."
"How do you know it is not conscious?"
"People need privacy, so the doors were carefully designed not to have any kind of consciousness. The nerve circuitry of consciousness has been understood for hundreds of years."
Christine still couldn't help feeling sad for it. She reached out and stroked the soft fur. It was warm. She sighed and stepped through the doorway. The interior was a similar combination of smooth, polished wood and colorful rugs as the hall, but much cosier, and with a few additional rooms. "This is very nice, thank you."
Liana sat on one of the curved, rug-covered benches formed out of the wall and waved her hand in dismissal, "Pssh. I didn't do anything. It was mostly the androids." She paused for a moment, then, "May I ask you some questions? There is so much I want to know."
"Of course," said Christine, and went to the other side of the comfy little livingroom to sit on the other curved lounge. She licked her lips and looked around the room.
"Oh! I'm sorry." Liana sprang up from her seat. "I was supposed to show you around your hut and here I am thinking only of myself. You are thirsty. And probably hungry too."
"Mostly thirsty." Christine smiled and stood too.
Liana beckoned and stepped to the back wall of the room, which Christine guessed must be at about the center of the hut. Numerous globes hung inside a roughly person-sized indent in the wall which Christine had taken to be some kind of decoration. The globes were like grapefruit-sized berries. Many of them were smaller and green, but larger ones were black. Liana said over her shoulder, "Only use the black ones." She pulled two black globes by their stems and handed one to Christine, then went back to the bench where she'd been sitting. Holding it before her for Christine's benefit, she twisted off the stem protruding from the top, saying, "Twist gently, but firmly. Don't hold the body too hard."
Christine copied her and the stem came away easily. The globe contained white liquid.
Liana held hers up in salute, "Enjoy!" and drank from it.
Christine cautiously did the same, then laughed. "It tastes almost like coconut milk!" She happily gulped hers down. Delicious! Then went and got another. "Do you want more?"
Liana declined. She was still sipping hers. "When you want, I'll show you the food."
"Thank you. This is fine for now." Christine sat again and drank more evenly now. "You had questions?"
Liana leaned forward, "Yes. All I know of the Dark World is from the Androids. Although they are much smarter than us I can't help feeling that they don't know what it is to be human. They can give me plenty of facts and figures, but you grew up there. Can you tell me what it is really like?"
This was unexpected. Christine thought everybody dismissed her world as backward and a big mistake. For a moment she was wary. "Why do you want to know?"
"I'm an artist. I try to experience things and understand people and use that knowledge to help make things."
"What kind of art do you create?"
"Moving sculpture, but it's difficult to explain... would you like me to show you tomorrow?"
Christine brightened, "Yes, very much."
"Good. So, tell me about the world you grew up in."
Over the next hour or more Christine told Liana as much as she could think of about her home world. Liana was a very attentive listener, and would interrupt occasionally for clarification of some points. Christine found it very gratifying to be able to pour out to someone all the things she loved about her home.
When Natka arrived she apologised for intruding on the conversation and asked them to continue. She went into one of the small rooms, out of sight of the livingroom, returning some minutes later with handfuls of what looked like fat, brown bananas. She handed them to the girls, all but a couple which she kept for herself then sat.
Christine copied Natka and Liana as they peeled their fruit, then she cautiously sampled it. The taste was a little bland, somewhat nutty, a little like avocado and with that richness, but the texture was smooth and chewy, almost like toffee, but without the stickiness. It gave the impression of being very nourishing. The more Christine ate of it the more she liked it.
She was about to ask Natka why an android bothered eating, when she suddenly realised she knew the answer. Whether the memory came from Indigo or was one implanted when she donned this body, she couldn't tell. The androids were not mechanical; they had biological bodies. They used food as fuel just as other animals do. Evolution long ago finely tuned extremely efficient biological metabolic systems -- able to extract sufficient energy from a handful of starch to walk all day. It made sense for them to use this rather than wasteful mechanisms. It surprised Christine that this information was available to her. It did give her a whole different view of the androids though. Perhaps that was the intention.
Liana stayed for a little while longer, then left with thanks to Christine for all the information, and promising to show the things she built tomorrow.
Natka showed Christine around the rest of the little house, explaining its functions. When she, too, left, Christine lay back on her bed, thinking that she was much too excited to sleep. But she was more tired than she knew and the curtain of slumber fell quickly.
In the morning Christine woke easily, a surge of excitement rushing over her when she remembered where she was. For a while she lay there, letting her eyes wander over the smooth, curved, wood-grain interior lit by hundreds of tiny points in the ceiling, and listened to the morning chorus of birds in the forest surrounding the village. Then her thoughts turned to her home and her parents worrying about her. They would be fretting for her safety, unless they'd been told that she was dead, in which case they would be mourning. She imagined them consoling each other in their grief, and was so very sorry for the pain she must be bringing them -- no! -- that the nasty agent Giselle had brought them. She wished there was some way she could contact her Mum and Dad. There must be some way. She needed to let them know that she was okay... actually, better than okay -- having adventures stranger than she could ever have imagined.
She propped herself up on her elbows and looked down at the enormous, naked, green body she occupied and marvelled at how weird all this was and yet how surprisingly easily she seemed to be coping. She remembered what Webster had said about her being younger than most ejectees and adjusting relatively easily to this. Perhaps he was right.
She stood easily, pleased to note that this body had no aches from the walk yesterday -- it had been kept fit -- then she hurried to the little, closet-sized toilet to relieve her full bladder. After that she stepped into the small shower-tube for a short, low-pressure, room-temperature, soapless shower, then without drying herself (there was no towel) pulled on her odd little brown skirt. For breakfast she drank from one of the milky fruit and chewed her way through a couple of the banana-shaped fruit. Now she felt ready for whatever surprises this day might hold, so she went to the entry. The living door pulled itself aside, and she stepped through. Suddenly the birdcalls from the forest were loud in the chill, damp air. Nearby, seated cross-legged on the dewy grass, back to the sun, long shadow stretching out before her, Natka was waiting. There was some thin morning mist hanging around the village. The valley beyond was masked by gray, but the hilltops were brightly green and the sky was clean, clear blue, promising a warm day.
Rising gracefully to her feet, Natka greeted her, "Good morning, Christine. Did you sleep well?"
"I did, thank you. Did you?"
Natka shook her head, "We androids don't need sleep. It would interfere with our responsibilities." She motioned to Christine to walk with her across the village towards the sun.
Christine walked alongside, enjoying the tingle of the morning sun on her green skin. "Responsibilities?"
"To protect humans. Not so important here, inside the walls, but still, we must always be alert."
This puzzled Christine. "That's something I meant to ask you about. Why populate the country with dangerous predators if you're trying to protect people?"
Natka smiled. "It has to do with richness of life... in two different ways." She raised her index finger. "Firstly, a healthy ecosystem requires both the large grazers and the predators that had been exterminated from Australia by humans. Returning the continent to a state where forests flourished and deserts were minimised required recreating the large grazers and the predators that maintained them. If large herbivores are removed from an ecology then, unless the land is very wet, it quickly turns to desert. But adding the herbivores is not enough. They need predators to keep them free of disease by picking of the sickly, and to alter their behavior, so that they form dense herds which move through the countryside, mowing and fertilising the lands, promoting a thick water-retaining cover on the soil, and not staying long enough in any one area to denude the land. Now Australia is covered in rich forest and grassland ecosystems from the east to the west, except for the returned inland sea and a small area that remains desert in the north-west." Now she extended her middle finger too. "Secondly, maximising variety is extremely important to human physical and mental development. Your parents could have kept you locked indoors all your life, swaddled in cottonwool so that you couldn't be injured, but they didn't. Exposure to possible harm is paradoxically less harmful than being insulated from all potential accidents. This richness of experience brings out the very best in people. It is important that we don't simply protect people from harm, but actively work to benefit them too."
Christine was finding it a little difficult to concentrate on what Natka was saying. The tingling in her skin felt so exquisite. Then, through the veil of pleasure she realised something in Natka's answer had been bothering her. "That's another thing -- what do androids get out of it?"
"It? You mean helping and protecting people?"
"It is our purpose. We were created to help people." She shrugged.
"But it must get tiresome looking after people all the time. Don't you ever want to go off and live your own life?" And just soak up this lovely sunlight she thought to herself.
Natka smiled and shook her head. "That would be like becoming tired of having two hands instead of just one. Or like pulling one eye out so as not to have stereo vision. It would lessen us. Why would we ever want that? Humans complete us."
They had arrived at a hut which looked the same to Christine as any other. Christine was happy to just stand, bathing in the sensual sun, her eyes almost closed. Natka rapped with her knuckles on the wood surface next to the gray, furry door and called out, "Liana. Christine is here."
A muffled call came from within. A few minutes later the door pulled aside and Liana stepped out, dripping wet, squinting at the morning brightness, and wearing a brown shoulderbag. She grinned, shading her eyes from the low sun and gave a happy "Good morning!"
Christine suppressed laughter, snorting and spluttering. It all suddenly seemed ridiculously comical. Here she was, green and almost naked, standing in this strange village talking to another couple of green people, one of whom was an android, and they were greeting as if it was a normal day.
Liana raised her eyebrows in surprise and looked at Natka, who merely smiled.
Christine apologised, still grinning, "Sorry. I think the tingling in my skin is making me a little woozy with pleasure."
Natka walked past and said in her soft, silky voice, "Come."
Christine followed in silence, absorbing the delicious sunlight on her back and arms and the backs of her legs and the palms of her hands, until she realised where they were headed. Her eyes opened more fully and she asked, "Isn't that the hall we were in last night?"
Liana nodded, "The workshop is underneath."
They entered the hall where another android was waiting.
Natka introduced her. "Christine, this is Esther."
Esther said, "Hello Christine. We met before when you operated the little viewer."
"Ah, yes. I thought I recognised you. Nice to meet you again."
Esther preceded them, walking to the back of the hall, where a curving passageway took them down below the floor and into an enormous place that reminded Christine of a warehouse that her Dad had once shown her. But this was even bigger -- its floor cluttered with junk, it seemed to stretch out under the entire village. They were decending a smooth ramp, open on the left, that wound its way around a wide column that could be the diameter of the hall above, though a little narrower at the bottom than the top. There were many other, similar, though not quite so large, curved pillars stretching from the floor to the ceiling forming archways, each perhaps three storeys tall. They were like many giant screws connecting the roof to the floor, the screw-threads forming ramps like the one she was now decending. Christine guessed that each column supported a domed hut above. The vaulted ceiling was covered in millions of the same tiny lights that were in her hut. Looking more closely at the wall that the ramp was recessed into, she realised it was all the same smooth wood.
Awed, Christine whispered, "All the village is the one giant tree?"
Natka glanced at Christine. "Fungus. It's all one woody fungus, its size and structure controlled by us."
A fungus? Christine looked out across the cavernous space in wonder.
The vast floor was littered with innumerable objects, of all sizes and colors. As they approached the bottom of the ramp Liana hurried eagerly ahead, flanked by Esther, watchful and alert. Liana waved her arm at a large pile of objects nearby. "Here's my work."
Christine couldn't work out what she was looking at. It was all an unfamiliar jumble of colorful shapes covering an area almost the size of one of the huts. The highest bits looked like multicolored balloons, long sticks, strings and flaps of material, and were about three meters high. Christine shook her head, "What am I looking at?"
Liana took off her shoulderbag and lay it on the floor, then went to the mound of things, reached into it and lifted four grey-green objects, each almost her own size. She turned and handed them easily to Christine who took them, surprised at how little they weighed, lowering three gently to the floor and examining the other. It had wide, membranous straps attached to one side. The straps were so soft and wispy that they reminded Christine of the cling-wrap her mother used in the kitchen. The long body weighed so little it could have been made out of paper, but it felt more stiff than seemed possible. Puzzled, Christine asked, "Are these some kind of lightweight backpacks?" She thought they would be terribly awkward to wear, being so long.
Liana shot her a grin, "You could say that." She pushed a number of objects to the side and reached into the midst of what seemed to be several long, sausage-shaped, yellow balloons standing in a circle, leaning inward at the top in a rough teepee shape. Each balloon was about the width of a human head and maybe two and a half meters tall. Liana backed away, holding a string leading into the center then pulled on it as you would a dog leash and the all the yellow balloons moved in a coordinated way, beginning with the two closest to Liana.
Christine gasped. It looked like a giant, bright-yellow ant made out of long balloons. As Liana pulled, the thing walked out of the mess. A few other unidentifiable objects fell into the space vacated, clattering on the hard floor, the sound echoing in that enormous basement.
The "body" of the ant-thing was about shoulder high, and its "knees" a little higher. Behind it there was a bulbous abdomen almost an armspan wide. The six legs made it look like an ant, but it had no head, making it look a little spidery. The middle section, where the legs attached, was a hollow ring with what looked like a minimal seat and elaborate safety harness.
Christine stared. "It's a..."
Liana smiled. She stepped between the long legs and swung herself up onto the thing with the practised ease of a rider mounting a horse. Once seated inside the ring she fastened straps around her feet, ankles, thighs, waist, and shoulders. There were no buckles; the straps simply stuck to each other like velcro. Then she began to make the thing bounce, like a child bouncing up and down on their bed, moving the entire middle of the strange ant-contraption up and down. Next Liana started moving her own legs and the ant's legs mirrored her movements. The bobbing giant ant began walking across the warehouse, gathering speed, with Esther loping along beside it, taking her lookout duties seriously. In a surprisingly short time Liana had taken it all the way to the edge of the enormous cavern, then turned and came back bobbing up and down all the way, with Esther taking up the rear guard.
She looked expectantly at Christine. "What do you think of it?"
Christine was rather lost for words. "Well, it's... it has to be the strangest vehicle I've ever seen."
Liana laughed. "Less of a vehicle than a toy. It sure is fun to ride."
"Is that why you bounce up and down?"
"No, that smooths out the machine's energy needs. It's a little hard to explain. Without it a lot of energy is spent lifting the legs and lost putting them down again. The oscillations save energy from one to re-use it later for the other, so only friction and a few other small losses need to be overcome."
Christine frowned. "How in the world does bouncing do that?"
Liana paused to think for a moment. "It lifts two legs when the body moves up, and sets down two legs when moving down so that the system carries the same weight from bounce to bounce. The legs are really light anyway. And any excess energy from bobbing up and down goes to keep the pneumatic store pressurised." She indicated the big ant abdomen behind her.
"Hmmm... doesn't it make you motion-sick?"
Liana grinned while smoothly, noiselessly pulling the straps undone, "It doesn't bother me, but it is a problem for some people. There are plenty of other toys though."
"Huh! I originally thought you had a primitive lifestyle... and then..." she waved her arm all around to include the expansive warehouse-like space, "all this..."
Natka said in her honey-sweet android voice, "It caters to two madnesses in humans: the need to create apparently pointless things (we owe our very existence to that) and the obsession with collecting. Our task is to protect humans, so we are unable to allow ourselves any such insanity. You do what we cannot. Hence all this."
This surprised Christine. She found it a bit hard to swallow that creativity and museums and libraries were symptoms of madness. She'd always considered those examples of what made people great. But the android was obviously sincere. Christine tried to think of something to say in response, but failed.
Liana broke the awkward pause. "Would you like to try operating the walker?"
"I'd love to," Christine said. She placed her ridiculously light backpack carefully on the ground.
Liana knitted her fingers together and bent, holding her hands down as a stirrup to give Christine a step up onto the machine. After which, she picked up her brown shoulderbag and the long backpack object.
It wasn't difficult to position herself in the seat, and it was obvious how to strap herself in. When she was firmly fastened in she tried to make the cockpit bounce the way Liana had. That was tricky and took her a little while to accomplish. It reminded Christine of her experiences, when she was little, of getting a swing moving at the playground when it was stationary and her legs were too short to reach the ground.
When she finally had it bouncing rhythmically she tried stepping forward with her legs. The ant-machine copied her movements. It was easy, but felt very clumsy, however it took a surprisingly short time to get the uncanny feeling that the machine was an extension of herself. By the time she reached the far side of the warehouse (with Natka, ever alert, escorting her) she felt perfectly comfortable with this weird form of locomotion. When had returned to her starting point she was enjoying it immensely. "Woo-hoo! That was great!" she called out.
"No motion sickness?" Liana asked.
Christine happily shook her head, unstrapped herself, and climbed out of the contraption. However once on solid ground again she felt as if she was still moving up and down. She mentioned this, but Liana told her not to worry, that it would pass quickly.
Liana pushed her vehicle back into the pile of stuff and said over her shoulder, "Pick up one of the backpacks. We'll go where I can show you how to use it." When it was back in the mess, Liana picked up the other backpack. The two androids picked up theirs, each slinging their pack on a single shoulder.
"You're not bringing the ant-thing?"
"No. It can only seat one, and there are four of us."
Christine was struggling with the pack. It was too difficult to walk with it on her back because the calves of her legs kept bumping the end if it so she copied the others and put the strap over one shoulder, holding the pack horizontally under one arm like a shoulderbag. It seemed like a bit of a bad design to her. Still maybe there was something large they were meant to get and carry back in it. It was obviously empty at the moment.
Esther led the way across the giant basement to a tunnel leading off from a side wall. She took special care before entering the tunnel. The girls followed and Natka took up rear guard again. The four of them walked through the dimly lit tunnel for about quarter of an hour past occasional side-tunnels. At each junction the androids would slow cautiously before moving past.
"Much of the hill is honeycombed with tunnels," Liana said.
"I was wondering." Christine smiled. Then she asked, "Who made them?"
Esther, heard the question and stopped, glancing back to Christine, "Not 'who'..." She peered up and down the curved wall and ceiling for several seconds, searching for something, then reached down and picked a black dot from the wall at ankle height. She held it up for Christine to see. It looked like a black beetle, its body a little larger than Christine's thumbnail. Its legs moved slowly in the air. Esther returned it to the wall. "They dig all the tunnels in a simlar way to how ants or termites coordinate to build their nests. In the rare event of damage, they also repair it. We designed these creatures specifically for this purpose."
Eventually they reached the end: a reinforced door with large sliding bolts. The two androids readied themselves and opened it, tense, standing on tiptoe, half-crouched, quickly scanning the vicinity for any threat. When they were satisfied they waved the girls out.
Christine stepped outside and looked around, squinting in the bright sunlight. They stood on a slope. She guessed it was probably the other side of the same hill that the village was on. A path led past the tunnel entrance. One way led downhill into the jungle, the other way wound up the hill to the summit. There were shrubs and low foliage around the uphill path. No trees. The androids visibly relaxed, though still alert and watchful.
It didn't take long to reach the top of the hill. Slightly out of breath, Christine stood there, breathing deeply and absorbing the beautiful view. The sky was clear and blue with the promise of a lovely day and a scattering of small, puffy clouds. She could see all the way out to the distant coast perhaps twenty kilometers away. They were at the edge of an incline, not quite steep enough to be called a cliff. A strong, almost constant wind blew in their faces. She put out her arms, feeling the pressure of the wind against her body. It made her nostalgic for home, and all the times she'd flown on such winds... something not possible here.
Liana laughed while strapping on her backpack properly, "Well, you've got the right idea." She pulled foot stirrups from the sides of the pack near her hips putting each foot in one, then pulled a V-shaped structure over her head from the backpack. It was hinged behind her shoulders. Almost an arm's reach in front of her chest it locked into place against a single strut that folded up from between her legs. Several fine threads that looked like fishing line ran from the pyramidal tip in front of her, back to each side of the pack. Now she bent forward and suddenly enormous wings unfolded from the "backpack" with a deep whomp! sound.
The wings were beautiful -- bright yellow and orange edged with dark olive grey. They were shaped like gigantic bat wings, each about five meters long, but their joyful color gave the impression of butterfly wings. The wings angled themselves into the wind so that Liana was able to continue standing, bent forward. She crouched, then jumped up into the air and the great wings flapped slowly, lifting her almost vertically up and up and up.
Christine felt tears in her eyes as she watched her new friend swim upwards through the clear air.
Then she realised Natka was standing beside her, saying something to her. "...straps not only hold you to the wings, they let you control it. It is important they are firm. This," she indicated the wide strap around her hips, "is the main weight support for your center of mass. You tell the wings which way you want to go by moving your head, shoulders, and arms. You'll get the hang of it pretty quickly, given what Webster has told me. You power the wings pneumatically with your legs -- the only muscles strong enough. Work it steadily, but not so much that you tire yourself out. The wings are intelligent. They sense angle, windspeed, and altitude, and can usually keep you safe, but they are not infallible, so be careful, and don't be too adventurous on your first flight. Okay?"
Christine nodded, tears now welling in her eyes and blurring her vision. During that instruction Natka had been showing her how to set the straps in place, put the stirrups on her feet, and pull the V-piece into position (Natka called it the breastbone). It snicked into place with a bracing strut that hinged up from between her legs. The triple point in front of her had several gossamer threads running back to the pack. Natka touched the fibers, "Be careful of these. They operate the wings. They are very strong, but can be broken if you catch them on a tree branch, for instance. If that happens you could lose the use of a wing. Then you will fall. That would hurt... a lot. It might even kill this body, though you would survive because you are actually elsewhere, in a virtual world."
Christine was amazed that she'd become so seduced by the reality of... of the real world that she'd forgotten that her mind was in another place. But even having been reminded of her remote nature, she still felt that she was here, with the wind against her face and body, the sun tingling on her green skin. She grinned and wiped the tears away.
Natka said, "Bend forward from the hips. The wings will know when it is safe to open." She paused with concern at the tears. "Are you alright?"
Nodding and smiling, embarrassed, she did as Natka said. When she was bent almost at a right-angle the wings (yellow and grass-green with dark edging) opened, not dramatically as they had for Liana, but tentatively, somehow sensing Christine's stance so as not to throw her backwards. She let herself into that frame of mind she used when flying in her home world, feeling the wind, and trying to adopt the wings as extensions of herself, the way people operating tractors did. Soon she was able to stand there, balanced against the wind with the wings fully extended, feeling the wind with them as if they were giant hands.
Natka had backed away to give her room and called out, "Don't hurry. When you are ready, jump into the air and start pumping the stirrups with your legs. The wings will do the rest."
Christine waited a little longer, getting the feel of the wind on the wings. After a couple of minutes she took a deep breath, crouched, and leaped upwards, then began pumping her legs as if she was riding a bicycle. The wings beat majestically and she was flying. Her tears came freely now, cold with the wind in her face. She was flying! The great wings pulled her rapidly up and away from the ground. The viewpoint was sweetly, painfully familiar to her, despite the strangeness of her particular circumstances. She saw Esther take off far below with dark-edged, plain white wings to follow Liana, and Natka launch herself with great flaps of bright pink and purple, dark-rimmed wings.
She remembered Natka's warning not to overdo the exertion and found she was panting heavily, so eased off pumping. The wings steadied and glided in the updraft. She steered to the left to circle in the rising air, letting it lift her higher. Every now and then she would feel when her right wingtip would lose lift a little when it extended outside the region of rising air and she'd turn more tightly left to remain inside it.
Christine looked out over the vast landscape. The pattern of hills and creeks looked heartbreakingly familiar, even without the fields and paddocks and roads and houses. The larger shapes were the same. Her eyes sought out the place where her home was in her own world; where her parents would still be worrying about her. The tears now made it hard to see anything and she was blubbering and sobbing. She wanted to see her parents again so much. She was only a kid! What was she doing here? She should be in school, looking forward to seeing her friends and getting back home afterward to her Mum and Dad.
After a while the crying jag passed and she was ashamed of herself for the self-pity. Since being ejected from her home world she had managed pretty well, thanks to the help of Webster, Indigo, Natka, and Liana. Something altogether worse may have befallen Betty. She wiped her face with her hands and looked about her. She was still rising. A couple of kilometers away, closer to the coast, a couple of birds were circling in another updraft, so she changed course easily and glided over towards them. Far below, Natka, pink and purple was flapping lazily, following, she noticed. She looked around for Liana's yellow and orange. Unable to see it anywhere she began to wonder if her friend had landed, then she spotted Esther's white wings flashing distantly in the bright sunlight. And there was Liana, ahead of her, the orange surprisingly difficult to see at this distance. Liana seemed to be heading towards Mount Coolum out at the coast.
When Christine gained the birds' rising bubble of warm air she rode it upward for a while, looking for other areas that might be likely spots for more invisible updrafts. She saw a hawk circling over a good spot in the direction Coolum lay, so she banked around and glided that way.
Using this technique of gaining height in upwelling warm air then gliding down to ascend in another, Christine managed to get all the way to Mount Coolum with hardly a flap of her wings. Liana, Esther and Natka had already landed by that time and had been watching her progress. She carefully swooped down to stall with her feet just inches from the mountaintop whereupon the wings folded and gracefully deposited her to stand near her friends. Liana applauded. Natka laughed, "Webster was right. It is hard to believe this is your first time."
Christtine shook her head. "It isn't. Well, the wings are new, but I feel the air the same way I did in my home world. I don't think I'll ever forget how to do that." She smiled modestly, a little embarrassed.
They didn't stay for long. Soon Liana took flight again, heading to the beach. She didn't land, but turned and followed the sandy strip north, gaining extra height over small headlands. Esther hurried to catch up to her. Christine and Natka followed, sometimes joined by seagulls who played with the wind, showing off their superior agility. Christine enjoyed the company of the birds and tried imitating some of their turns and swoops, but her large wings made it exhausting. She had to pump hard whenever she needed the wings to flap. And tight steering was much harder than she expected, because she had to twist her body in the direction she wanted to go and hold that position, then bend in another direction to pull out of that turn, and so on. It became quite strenuous. After a while she settled in once more to gliding easily north, half-angled out to the sea, half in the direction she wanted to move.
On impulse Christine landed when she reached Coolum Beach. She hardly noticed Natka frantically flapping to turn and race back to her. Christine was thinking sadly about the the evening she and Betty had spent so recently here worrying about the people chasing them. Was it really just a couple of days ago? Suddenly she saw that Natka was approaching at very high speed, flapping furiously, and screaming, skimming just above the sand, wingtips grazing the beach, arms outstretched, a ferocious expression on her face. Christine dropped to her hands and knees to avoid collision and the android whipped past just above her. Wondering why Natka was so upset Christine turned to see a large, gray, devilish creature with massive forearms and vicious fangs racing toward her and then collapse to the sand, skidding to a stop, unconscious, not three meters away.
Horrified, hands over her mouth, eyes wide, Christine was still staring at the monster when Natka landed nearby a few seconds later. Christine said, "I thought you were angry at me."
She grabbed Christine's arm and pulled her away, "I'm angry at myself. My fault. Marsupial lion. We need to go now. It will wake very soon and its partner will be here even sooner. Get airborne fast. Go! I'll catch up."
Trembling with adrenalin Christine bent into the wind, which triggered the wings to re-open. She crouched and leaped up, then began pumping madly. The giant wings lifted her up with their great sweeps. After a minute she was high above the beach, and let herself glide while she caught her breath. She shakily looked down to the beach where she and Natka had been moments before. The creature was already moving about drunkenly, joined by another monster just like it. Natka was not far below her, off to one side, and gaining height quickly. When she was level with Christine, Natka pointed north, where Liana and Esther had gone. Christine nodded.
They hurried north and caught up with Liana and Esther at the mouth of the river where the town of Noosa had been hundreds of years ago.
When Christine and Natka landed, Liana said, "Esther tells me you had some trouble with a lion. Are you alright?"
"Thanks to Natka's quick reactions, yes. I should have been more careful."
"No." Natka said, frowning. "It was my fault. I knew there were lions there. I should have anticipated the possibility of you landing. It was not much more than good luck that you are still with us. I should really be removed."
"What? No. You're being a bit hard on yourself. I like having you as a guide, Natka. Surely you wouldn't just leave me to go help somebody else? I thought we were friends."
A look passed between Natka, Liana, and Esther. Natka said, "Thank you Christine. I'm flattered that you consider us friends. I like to think we are. But when a human dies or is hurt the android responsible for protecting them forfeits its life."
Christine was shocked. "But I'm fine. Nothing happened to me. I would have survived the death of this body anyway. You did protect me. And there's no way you could have expected I would land there."
Natka looked awful. "I should have placed myself between you and any potential threat at all times. I failed you."
Angry now, Christine put her hands on her hips. She was almost yelling, "You did not fail. You kept me safe. Surely I have a say in this. I don't care about some horrible law."
Esther shook her head, "It is not a law in the sense you're thinking Christine; it is just good sense. By ensuring that any android who doesn't protect their human is eliminated we improve ourselves. It is how we have grown to be as effective as we are. Without it we would be unworthy -- perhaps even a danger to humanity. But it only works if there are no exceptions."
Liana nodded in agreement.
Annoyed, Christine frowned at the three of them. "But there is no exception here. She did keep me safe. Where is your justice?" She stamped her foot. "I won't let her be destroyed. It's wrong."
Natka smiled gently, stepped forward and wrapped her arms around this girl in the adult body. "Thank you," she whispered. Then she stood back, holding Christine at arms' length. "Justice has nothing to do with it Christine. This is not something imposed upon me by others. I cannot continue knowing I put your life in danger. I prefer to end. This is how we androids maintain ourselves as the best possible protectors. But your pleas for me and expression of sympathy make me very happy. I'm grateful."
Christine stood there unable to think of something to say, feeling her anger shifting inside. Her bottom lip wobbling, she looked at Natka incredulously, then at Liana and Esther. A feeble "When?" was all she could say.
"Tonight, while you sleep, for the first time so shall I, but right now I'm still needed here. Liana wants to show you another of the things she has made." Seeing Christine's reluctance, she added, "Please?"
Christine nodded and let herself be led to a door in the sheltered side of the headland. Inside was a small storage room. Everybody left their wing-backpacks in here. On shelves there were perhaps ten flimsy things that looked like folded, silvered, plastic raincoats. Another shelf held what looked like several short spears. Natka grabbed two and handed one to Esther. Liana selected four of the raincoat-like things, and they all left again, Esther watchfully in the lead, and Natka, as always, rear-guard. They walked away from the ocean, across the sloping headland, down to the rocks, onto a sheltered little beach and up to a grassy area under the trees above the beach.
Liana sat, beckoning for Christine to do the same. Esther and Natka carefully scanned the sparse, scrubby woodland before sitting too.
"Time for a quick lunch," said Liana as she removed her shoulderbag and upended it onto the grass, depositing a selection of strange fruit, including four pre-cooked potatoes, which amused Christine greatly.
When asked what she found funny she pointed to the potatoes. "Among all your super-duper foods, the humble old spud."
Natka held up one of the potatoes and said, "It would be difficult to design a more perfect food."
"Oh, I'm not complaining. I love potatoes.
Liana said, "I injected a litle bit of filling into their centers because I find them a bit dry on their own. Avocado and a bit of salt."
"Mmmm. My mouth is watering just thinking about it," said Christine.
While eating, Christine was absorbed in looking about her at the landscape.
Natka said, "Don't worry. There is no chance of any predators sneaking up on us here."
"Oh. I wasn't thinking about that. I was looking at how familiar, yet so different all this is. My parents used to take me to Noosa sometimes. In my world there is a large parking space over there, and a lot of homes all around here. There are shops too, but they are mostly underground, with only small signs visible. Over there is a large hotel..." she frowned, "but none of that is here..."
"You are mistaken, I think. There haven't been homes or shops here ever, as far as I know. It was a nature reserve here. You are probably thinking of the next beach along. Nearly a thousand years ago it was like that - many homes and shops and roads. I wasn't alive then, but I have shared memories of it."
Christine looked at her curiously. "How old are you Natka?"
"I'm almost five hundred, though my memories go back more than four hundred years before that, to the early androids of my type."
Christine knew she shouldn't have been surprised, as almost everybody she'd met since leaving her world seemed to have been hundreds of years old. Still, Natka looked deceptively youthful, and there was something about her that didn't seem at all like an adult, though not exactly childlike either. "Five hundred years?" she whispered.
Natka nodded and smiled. "Nearly."
Liana and Esther finished lunch first and wandered down to the hard, damp sand near the water's edge. The wavelets at this little sheltered cove were just a handspan high. The wind here was blocked by the headland. They sat on the damp sand and wriggled into the silvered plastic things, which turned out to be some kind of fish suits. They pulled the suits up to their underarms making them look like strange beached mermaids with silver bodies and green faces and arms.
Esther had laid her small spear on the hard sand beside her and pushed her arms into long glove-like protrusions of the suit, then pulled the cowl over her head and sealed it closed below her throat with a rub of her hand. She grabbed her spear with one suited hand and started pulling herself across the hard sand to the water. Her large tail extended about a meter beyond where her feet would be and dragged uselessly behind. It was not a horizontal tail like a dolphin's, but vertical like a fish's, so it twisted her over awkwardly onto one side. There was a large, membranous fin running down her back supported by spines, and two similar, but smaller fins projecting from where her waist would be, about a third of the way from the front of the fish suit. As Esther struggled forward, Christine noticed that the suit seemed to become more smooth. When Esther was in water just a few inches deep the tail started to sweep strongly side to side, propelling Esther forward into deeper water. By this time Liana had her suit closed and was starting to wiggle her way into the water too.
Natka picked up the two other silvered packets and beckoned Christine down to the wet sand. "I think you'll enjoy this almost as much as flying."
"Um... I doubt that. I'm scared of the open ocean."
"We're not going out to the ocean, we're going up the river. In any case, you'll be safe. I promise you."
"What? You'll poke sharks with that little spear?"
"Spear?" Natka looked at the rod in her hand and chuckled, "No, this is an electric shocking device, like a cattle prod or a tazer. If a predator is too close I'll discharge it. A shark will usually leave immediately. But the suit doesn't smell nice to predators so we shouldn't have to worry about that anyway. Box jellyfish and irikanji can't sting through the suit, but they don't often come this far south. Stingray are no threat with this suit. Crocodiles almost never come this far south and we can repel them with shocks anyway. Orcas hardly ever come this far north, but Esther and I can communicate with them so they are no real danger either."
"You haven't recreated any scary, prehistoric, marine predators?"
Natka grinned. "No." She shook out one of the silvery suits and sat on the hard sand near the water's edge, patting the sand beside her for Christine to sit too. "Before you put the suit on make sure you brush the sand off yourself or it will become quite uncomfortable." She helped clean the sand from Christine's feet before showing her how to push each foot into the suit. It was like pulling boots on, and as she did so the tail started to take shape and tighten.
Natka helped Christine pull the rest of the suit up while brushing more loose sand off. "Unlike the wings it doesn't store energy for propulsion. Pushing with your foot directly operates a set of pneumatic chambers along the side of the tail. That's what makes it bend. Like the wings, the suit is intelligent. You steer with your body and it will interpret your movements to control the fins. For instance, if you want to stop moving forward, hunch your shoulders. Because it holds some air you don't have to worry about sinking. The first spine of the fin on your back is hollow. When you are on the surface the suit will pump air in for you. When you are diving you will have several minutes of air. The first few pumps of your legs when diving will be used by the suit to compress some of the air into chambers in the belly in order to reduce your buoyancy, so expect to initially find it more difficult to beat the tail when diving. It only lasts for about the first minute. If you want to do that without moving the tail, pump with both legs simultaneously. The suit senses depth and the oxygen/carbon-dioxide ratio in your air and can protect you by surfacing automatically. It extracts some oxygen from the water, but not much. It just helps extend your dives a little."
Natka guided Christine's arms into the shoulder-length gloves attached to the suit. "Keep your arms next to the body most of the time to reduce drag." Then she pulled the cowl up from behind Christine's head. "The headpiece is designed to fit snugly against your ears and conduct sound. When I seal the headpiece don't go into the water til I have my suit on, okay?"
Christine agreed and Natka sealed the headpiece down near the collarbone. Then, watching Natka don her suit, Christine lay half on her side. It felt quite uncomfortable and gave her some sympathy for how a fish out of water must feel.
Soon Natka was fully suited up and started to move awkwardly into the water, pulling herself along with her arms. Christine copied her. It was harder than it looked because her large tail kept her half-turned onto one side. Once she reached the edge of the water it became easier and she tried pumping with her legs to swing the big tail back and forth. At first it just flopped and slapped uselessly in the shallow water, but the deeper she went, the more effective it became, until she lifted free from the sand and was able to power ahead with the tail. It was difficult, like pedalling a bicycle uphill, but propelled her forward at a surprising rate.
And then she heard the noises. She had thought it would be quiet underwater, but she could hear what sounded like a forest far away, with whistles and chirps and crackles and croaks. Weirdly, there was also something that sounded like a parrot imitating a dog. Christine wondered what on Earth that could be.
Liana, Esther, and Natka were waiting for her, but underwater the suits no longer looked silvery; they were almost invisible. Oh my. They look transparent. But that's impossible - the people inside can't also suddenly be transparent. Light must bend around them somehow. Christine could make out their shimmering edges, shaped like three gigantic catfish, and she could see their faces behind the clear part of the headpiece, but the rest of the suit transmitted the images behind them. When she was closer she could see that the image transmitted was made up of hexagonal pixels, each about half the size of a fingernail, and the outline of the suit was visible because it didn't transmit light at angles close to the plane of its surface, but simply reflected light.
"Invisibility suits," Christine marvelled to herself.
"It makes it easier to approach timid wildlife," Liana' voice came distantly.
"Oh! I can hear you!"
Liana chuckled, "Yes. It isn't very good, but it works."
Esther said, "We'd better get moving or we'll be dangerously late getting back."
They swam gently up the river for kilometers. Along the way they saw quite a lot of small fish, some ducks, a few shags pursuing fish, and a couple of sharks swimming lazily the other direction, but they didn't seem to be getting any closer to the source of the barking noise. Sometimes it would stop for a while and Christine thought they'd lost it. Eventually, when they were swimming over a broad stretch of seagrass they encountered the source of the noise. About a dozen dugongs were grazing on the seagrass and with them were their young ones. Christine couldn't tell if the sound was from the adults or the juveniles. The creatures were much larger than she would have thought, and utterly endearing. She wanted to stroke them, but they were too shy and moved away at her approach.
Further and further upriver they swam. They saw many more dugongs. As the water became less deep the silted bottom was covered in circles dinner plate size to a meter across. Christine asked what they were.
Natka answered, "Sting rays. You are completely safe though. They are timid unless you actually threaten them or touch them, and even then the suit is almost impenetrable."
Liana said, "Put your eyes above the surface and look around."
It was difficult to do. Christine had to arch her back, and even then could barely peek above the waterline, but when she did she found that they were in a vast shallow lake. Even though they must have been near the middle, it was shallow enough that she could have stood up if she hadn't been in this suit. Not far away, several black swans had been feeding on the seagrass and now paddled warily away from her. Christine guessed she must look to them like some kind of shark. No wonder they were suspicious.
This place felt very familiar to Christine. When Christine dropped the top of her head back into the water she said, "I know this place! This is lake Cooroibah. My Auntie used to live on the south-west shore somewhere. Ummm... in my world, that is." Then Christine realised, "But this is almost a thousand years on from the Earth that my world copied. Shouldn't Lake Cooroibah have silted up by now, or turned into swamp?"
Natka said, "A lot has happened since then. What you knew as Lake Cooroibah and Lake Cootharaba are now one body of water. For almost a hundred years all this was under the sea from global warming. Then the climate rebounded badly on its way to becoming a frozen Earth. The sea receded a couple of kilometers out past the current shoreline and the mountains were covered in snow, with snow falling here every winter. The summer thaws dredged the waterways out again. But the early AIs helped humans fix the climate and things have been stable now for almost eight hundred years."
"Wow. All that change must have been hard on the animals and plants."
"Yes. A lot of effort was put into storing seeds and eggs to replenish the ecologies -- many millions of plant and animal species. That included insects and spiders, tiny mites, all the fresh-water lifeforms, and even a lot of marine life. Despite that an awful lot was lost forever."
"Couldn't you recreate them the way you did Australia's prehistoric giants?"
"In order to do that we needed to know what to create. A lot of things were missing, but we didn't know what they were. Some plants were unable to reproduce because they relied on some unknown creature to pollinate them, for instance. Or some unknown animal was needed to keep a plant in check and it would spread out of control, exterminating its competitors and the animals that depended upon them. There were many examples of ripple effects like that. We don't even know how many species were lost. It took a long time for devastated ecosystems to settle down into some kind of new equilibrium. Many, many species were lost."
Esther swam closer to them and said, "Sorry to cut short the history lesson and the sight-seeing, but we need to start back."
The river current was slow, but it was noticeably easier swimming back down toward the coast. They glided past the grazing dugongs, through the underwater meadows with all their little fish and the diving birds chasing them.
Once more they reached the little beach where they'd donned the suits and worked their way up into the shallow water on the sand. It was ridiculously awkward to be dragging themselves out of the water. The two androids quickly and efficiently peeled back their own headpieces and extracted themselves from their suits, then came to the aid of the two humans.
The hours in the water had passed unbelievably quickly. Christine had felt surprisingly at home in the water, and by contrast very heavy and clumsy lumbering around on the land.
Christine was fascinated by the suits. Almost invisible in the water and silvery out of it, strong, yet light and flexible. When one was lifted from the water it was immediately dry. Water rolled off it in the same fashion that it rolled off a duck's feathers. What remarkable material was this? She asked Liana, but her answer completely baffled her -- something about carbon nanotubes and light waveguides... whatever they were.
It was getting to be late afternoon and the androids were in a great hurry, appearing to Christine to be worried. When Christine asked what was bothering them they answered that dusk was hunting time for most of the predators and there was another pair of lions in the area. Christine shuddered and hurried too. She was puzzled how they knew there were marsupial lions near.
As they scampered along the rocks of the headland Natka said, "We implant transmitters in them all to track them. That's why I was wrong not to put myself between you and the lions on Coolum beach. I knew they were near. I should have been more cautious."
Christine spoke quietly, but very seriously, "I meant it when I said that I wouldn't let you be killed."
Natka smiled. "I am sorry my friend, but it is out of your hands. Human safety is too important."
They stored the fish suits and electric shock rods in the little room hidden in the side of the headland and took up their wing backpacks again.
Strapped in once more, they each in turn bent into the wind. Wings opened grandly and they sprang into the air then laboriously pumped their legs to store enough energy for the beating wings to lift them high. The wind strength was dropping so they had to work much harder to gain height.
When all four of them were aloft they worked their way down the coast, getting extra height where they could for the flight inland.
It didn't take very long for the return journey, or so it seemed to Christine who spent it deep in thought. They went directly for the village instead of the hill they'd taken off from. Many of the children gathered round clapping and calling out as each of the four swooped down for their landing.
It had been a long and very memorable day. Christine was exhausted and wanted to rest, but after handing her backpack to Liana and thanking the three of them she asked Natka to meet her in her hut. "I would like your thoughts on something."
Christine waited in her hut, pacing around the little livingroom, drinking from a milk fruit. She was hungry, but didn't eat anything because today's exertions had left her limbs heavy and she didn't want to be drowsy; she needed to be alert and persuasive in what she planned to say to Natka.
When Natka knocked, Christine immediately called her inside.
"What did you want to see me about?" Natka asked, stepping through the doorway.
Christine motioned for her to sit. "I've been thinking about this all the way back... flying back from the coast today. I know I've only been here a couple of days, but don't think it really suits me here — this, the real world. The giant, scary carnivores, the green skin and nakedness... it's all a bit much for a girl who lives — lived — in the safe, ordinary suburbs. I mean, there are a lot of things I do like here, and I know my suburbs weren't what they seemed to be... I'm sure I'll come back here to visit from time to time, but I don't think this is really where I want to live the rest of my life."
"This was to be expected. Few from the Dark World like it." Natka seemed to almost sing it in her musical voice.
Christine drank the last gulps of her milk fruit, then went and got a another milk fruit for herself. She held one up, raising her eyebrows to Natka in question.
"Thanks, yes. I am thirsty." Natka remained seated, apparently concentrating on something.
Christine gave it to her then went to the other side of the room and sat uneasily, took a gulp of her drink, and leaned forward, green knees pressed together and green elbows on them. "I want to return to Crossroads as soon as possible. And I want you to come with me."
Natka opened her mouth to say something, but was silenced by Christine's raised hand, "I know you feel committed to this ridiculous and wasteful idea of dying for a mistake — which you didn't even make — but hear me out." She felt too nervous to stay seated so she got to her feet and began pacing back and forth while speaking. "I want to find a way to live out there in the virtual worlds — some place that suits me — but I know almost nothing about it all. Webster has been a help, but he will be needed by the next person who is thrown out of my home world. Indigo gave me some extra knowledge, but I'll still be lost out there. You have nearly a thousand years of experience and learning. You know so much, and could be my guide. I don't have my parents anymore because they're trapped on my home world. I need someone to help me — a guardian. I know I look like an adult in this body, but you have to remember that I'm really just a kid."
Natka smiled. "We have heard your request and agree. It is too late to travel safely back to the gateway tonight, but you and I can start in the morning."
Christine was surprised. "Oh. Well... That was easier than I expected. I had all sorts of arguments ready. What did you mean 'we'?"
"We, the androids, all listened to what you had to say and made a collective decision."
"You're a hive-mind?"
Natka shook her head and smiled, seeming amused. "We are individuals. We just share information very easily when we need to."
Christine said, "You mentioned a gateway — that was the place where I got this body?"
Natka nodded, "It is the closest place with the technology to hibernate your body for the next tourist who might want it." She stood, took another gulp of her milk fruit and said, "You must be tired. If that was all you wanted, I'll let you rest." She went to the front door, paused, turned and smiled gratefully. "Thank you, Christine." Then she left.
Christine had slept well after the previous day's exertions. She awoke once again without stiffness or ache in her muscles and was excited and eager to get started. When she stepped out of her hut the sun was already well above the horizon. It was a windy day. Birdsong, though it had lost its early dawn enthusiasm, still rang among the swaying tops of the great forest trees on the hillside outside the settlement. The morning air was still cool and whipped about her. Many of the people in the village were up and about and Christine returned a few waves. She was surprised to see Natka waiting nearby, sitting crosslegged on the damp grass.
"Have you been sitting out here all night?"
Natka smiled and stood. "No, only since first light."
"Aren't you cold sitting out here in this wind on the damp grass?"
"Cold... heat... it is very much a matter of what you are used to. Experiencing the extremes widens the range of comfort. This is not cold, at least not uncomfortably so. Swimming in a mountain stream in a snowy winter is cold."
Christine laughed and shook her head. "No, swimming in a mountain creek in winter is just stupid. But I'm glad you're comfortable. I wouldn't have been happy beginning our walk earlier — and I'm not referring to temperature."
"Yes, I am glad you did not want to start too early."
Christine pulled a face and looked out at the forest. "If those horrid 'drop-bears' hunt mostly at dawn and dusk, I prefer to minimise my risks."
"Now that you are up, Liana and Esther are coming to see you off." She indicated with her head in the direction of the community hall.
Christine turned and saw that the two were walking toward her carrying the wing backpacks. She returned Liana's happy wave.
Natka said, "It was Liana's idea. She thought you might like one more real-world flight before returning to the virtual realms."
"She thought right!"
When they were close enough, Liana called out, "You up for one last flight? It's windy enough today that we can leave from inside the village."
Natka added, "The wind is unstable and gusty close to the ground, but you only need to get several meters up and it will be much easier. It is a little trickier than just jumping off a steep slope, but the wings have sufficient intelligence to deal with it."
The other android, Esther, handed a backpack to Natka, and Liana handed one to Christine. Liana helped Christine strap herself in and explained, "You'll need to use the stirrups to pump the wings' pneumatic store up to fairly high pressure first because the wings will need to gain height as quickly as possible. Once you have sufficient pressure the wings will beep. At that point it will disconnect the stirrups from the pump so that you can run into the wind as fast as possible. When the wings sense enough windspeed they will attempt liftoff. If they succeed they will re-engage the pumps and you'll need to pump as fast as you can for a little while. Prepare to raise some sweat."
Liana strapped herself in and stepped a few meters away. "Watch. First I pump up to pressure." She had the stirrups on her feet attached to the pack by its gossamer lines and she marched energetically in one spot for about a minute. There was a loud beep from the backpack. Liana stopped pumping and leaned forward. Her great yellow and orange wings unfolded with a sound like a large tablecloth being shaken out and Liana ran as fast as she could, leaning forward and the wings began to sweep up and down, as if testing the air.
Standing beside Christine, watching this, Natka said, "You will feel the wings move and if you time it right you can jump into the air just when the wings are ready." Just then Liana did that. Her wings had raised themselves a little higher, preparing for another soft downsweep, when Liana leaped into the air. The wings now, instead of the gentle sweeps they'd been doing, must have sensed the leap and gave a massive downstroke that lifted Liana a couple of meters up. They quickly bent and raised up to give another powerful downstroke. Liana was pumping rapidly with her legs. In seconds she was ten or more meters up and gaining height more rapidly. Soon, perhaps thirty or fifty meters high, she levelled out and glided back and forth across the wind above the village, lifting higher and higher.
Esther said, "I am next." She repeated Liana's performance, but with her plain white wings. A number of the villagers had gathered around and clapped and cheered when she lifted off.
"Oh, gosh. An audience. There wasn't enough pressure?" She smiled weakly at Natka.
"Don't worry. You probably won't get airborn the first time. The wings will stop you falling. Just walk back over here and try again. Take as long as you want."
Christine nodded and began marching in one spot, pumping pressure into the wings' pneumatic store. When the backpack beeped she leaned over and Natka backed away to give room for the wings to open. As they did last time, her yellow-green wings opened gently, noiselessly above her. Christine ran as fast as she could. Natka was right; she could feel what the wings were doing. Somehow she knew the right time to jump and she was in the air. She felt the pumps engage with the stirrups again and she pumped til she was gasping for breath. It took remarkably little time to gain enough height that she could stop pumping and glide while she caught her breath.
Below her, Natka's pink-purple wings were flapping their way up too and the green villagers were cheering, faces uplifted.
Christine felt the wind against the wings, angled her body and gave several more strong pumps to assist in holding her position. Realising what she was doing she laughed aloud. She was flying again! It was difficult and wing-assisted, but flying nevertheless. She felt in her element. This was what she loved. She was grinning as she felt the wings subtly shifting and moving, balancing against the wind. This was wonderful. Even so, she was looking forward to making unaided flights again. Her fingers were tingling with the combination of joy and anticipation.
Natka rose, with several long, slow flaps to glide near Christine, their wingtips only meters apart. Natka indicated north. Christine knew she was pointing to where old Nambour was and the gateway where she would leave this body and return to the virtual worlds. Christine nodded and leaned in her harness letting the wings know the direction she wanted to move.
The group skimmed at an angle to their direction of travel, surfing the wind. It would have been a fairly long walk, but through the air it wasn't far at all. Soon they had started the descent, when abruptly Natka peeled off eastwards. Puzzled, Christine followed. Natka had seen something far ahead in a grassy clearing. When they were close enough Christine could see that it was a gigantic bird, far more stocky than an emu and much taller. It was tearing apart some other dog-sized animal — ripping off great chunks of flesh and gulping them down. It ignored them.
Natka and Christine circled the gruesome spectacle once then flew back towards the gateway.
Liana and Esther were waiting for them when they landed on the rubble-strewn slope at the foot of the cliff near the entrance to the gateway.
While unstrapping herself from her backpack Christine asked Natka, "What was that? Some kind of monstrous emu?"
"No, it is not related to them. It is a form of giant waterfowl. Paleontologists used to jokingly call it the 'Demon Duck of Doom'. Truly."
Frowning and shaking her head, Christine said, "What on Earth possessed you to reintroduce these nightmare animals?" She handed her backpack to Liana. "It's been interesting and I'm glad to have met you folks, but I have to say, I'll be really glad to get back to the virtual worlds."
The four of them said their goodbyes. Liana said, "Please do come back and visit us again."
Christine gave her a brief hug, "I will. It has been very different from anything I could have imagined... I especially loved your wonderful machines."
"Oh, they're nothing. You should see what some other people have managed to do. I'll show you on your next visit."
Christine and Natka entered the gateway and lay, each in a coffin-like cavity in the floor.
Suddenly Christine was standing in the room with the star symbols on the floor and was still holding the fluffy rabbit doll in one hand. It felt very comforting to be her smaller self and fully clothed again.
Natka was standing nearby. She had changed her virtual self's appearance to look like a teenager of Christine's age, without the green skin, but still with the silvery hair and now dressed in white shirt and knee-length dark green skirt, cardigan, sandals and long socks, like Christine. When she spoke, it was with a normal voice, rather than the musical one she had in the real world, though still with a pleasantly exotic, lilting accent.
Webster smiled and waved, "Natka let me know you were returning. I must say, I think this is a very good idea for you to have an android guide. Come, you'll be wanting to get back to Crossroads so that you can find a suitable world."
The three of them left the room through its portal to the vast plain of Crossroads with countless green-haloed, dark gray spheres scattered about them on the flat, light-gray floor and many more floating high in the cloudless, blue sky. As before, many, distant, bizarrely-dressed people drifted sedately from portal to portal.
Over several weeks Natka showed Christine hundreds of worlds, picking mostly worlds that had some similarity to the Dark World. They began by visiting nostalgia worlds on all kinds of themes. There were small worlds that consisted only of historically famous cities, such as Brasilia, Paris, Mexico City, Sydney, Beijing, London, Stockholm, most of which were set in eras before or after the the period Christine found most comfortable. The city worlds were interesting, but Christine had never liked cities, having spent much of her childhood in the country. Cities had always seemed to her sterile, dead, grimy. There were worlds that remembered many of the great parks, before they were destroyed by poaching and climate change. Places such as Kruger National Park on the Serengeti Plains, New Zealand's Fiordland National Park, Costa Rica's Manuel Antonio National Park, Yosemite before the eruption, and hundreds more. Australia's Kakadu was the closest fit with her past, though still not right. Anyway, the park worlds let people visit, but didn't allow them to build homes there.
They explored hundreds of Australian worlds, some almost cartoonlike in their simplicity, others extraordinarily detailed and realistic.
One day they were standing in a very flat, dry and scrubby world modelled on the inland New South Wales bush. Christine sighed. "This is the best so far, but is still not really what I want. It's too far west of the coast. The vegetation is much richer nearer to the coast. This would just make me even more homesick by being close, but not quite there."
Natka said, "I've made enquiries and it seems the person who built the world has locked it, preserving it as a likeness of the place of their childhood. They're not interested in extensions to it. I'm sorry."
Christine was disheartened. "It's hard to believe that nobody preserved a copy of the Sunshine Coast area. It's such a beautiful place."
"There may well be some modelled on it, but there are billions of worlds, many of which are private and not recorded in Crossroads."
Christine sighed wearily, "Well that leaves us with just one option."
Natka raised her eyebrows in question.
Christine was glum. "I have to build my own world... except, I have no idea how to do that."
Uncharacteristically, Natka grinned and rubbed her hands together. "It is a lot easier than you think. And it can be good fun... uh, depending on your definition of fun. It is very time-consuming though."
"Well, time is something I have plenty of, now."
"The easiest way is to first find out if there are any abandoned worlds built on similar rules to the ones you want, and use them as a starting point, rather than starting from scratch. Then once you have a world, we can clone features of other worlds that you like, copying them into yours, fine-tuning as we go."
"Who do we ask about discarded worlds?"
Natka smiled, "I just now checked with the AIs that operate Crossroads and they've turned over a disused world to you that will probably suit your purposes."
They returned to Crossroads and flew up very high — some kilometers — so that Christine could see clearly the complex, non-repeating pattern inscribed into the plain. Then they took off at high speed, watching the vast plain move under them. Swirling patterns merged into spiky then angular patterns, and eventually into another region of fern-like curved patterns. Natka pointed out an enormously long snaking section with another slightly different pattern beside it. Between them were small, curling, lopsided spirals, with branching sections that budded off them like the arms of snowflakes, but each had a different number of arms. Natka pointed to one that had seven arms. Then, counting from the smallest arm to the third, Natka said, "There, on the outermost edge of the third arm."
They flew down toward that place and and it soon became clear that the arm-design drawn onto the plain was another uneven shape like a vine with larger "leaves" at its base and smaller ones near its curling tip.
Natka said, "The second largest leaf-shape is the one we want."
Approaching still further, the leaf shapes divided into more patterns. Nothing was symmetrical, yet it was all surprisingly beautiful. It was almost like the kind of intricate doodles that Christine used to draw while talking to a friend on the phone. She hastily banished the memory lest she become overwhelmed with regret at the loss of her homeworld, as had happened often recently in her tour of hundreds of nostalgia worlds.
They were low enough to be able to make out the gray portal spheres dotting the design. Most were on the surface in this region; very few were floating at any height. Christine remembered that spheres in a single column were portals to different places within the same world. Natka pointed to a sphere near the curling tip of the leaf-like shape. It was on the plain near decorations that looked almost like eyelashes curved away from it. Other spheres' positions were marked by quite different decorations.
When they'd landed near it, Natka held out an arm toward the sphere and said to Christine, "Behold, the gateway to Christine's world."
They entered the sphere and stepped out into a world that was clearly unfinished. Someone appeared to have lost interest part-way through building it. The sky was blank pale blue except for the single light source, a warm sun, and the floor looked the way uncrumpled paper would look to ants. Large, white, angular facets, each only a meter or two across, made an uneven surface, which averaged over distance, was flat to the horizon.
Christine said, "You know, what I don't understand is, where is all this?"
Natka wasn't sure what Christine wanted to know.
"I mean, I know it is inside some computer somewhere, but where is the computer?"
"Oh. All the worlds are in countless computers all networked together. Mostly deep within the Earth's crust." Natka looked like she was working out how best to describe it. "About a thousand years ago computers were built from carefully grown crystals of silicon."
"You mean sand?"
"No, sand is silica — silicon dioxide. The old computers used silicon refined from silica by removing the oxygen from it. It was difficult to do and very energy-intensive. They grew large crystals of pure, metallic-looking silicon, then sliced it up. Into each thin wafer they etched fine patterns of circuits and tainted the silicon using chemicals that let the non-conducting silicon carry a current. It was all very complicated and precise. A very fast clock usually operated this ingenious system of cascading electronic switches, though some people did perfect clockless computers. The clock, incidentally, was a bit of quartz crystal — silicon dioxide. Anyway, all this was very fragile, and although such circuits could last for a long time they still deteriorated over centuries."
Christine knew some of this, but she'd thought solid-state electronics was eternal. "How could it die? It has no moving parts."
"The charges gradually moved atoms, and materials slowly diffused across junctions, changing the properties of the circuits. What was needed was a kind of electronics that repaired itself.
"Shortly before the crash, biologists found that the bulk of life on Earth is not on the surface, but under it, in the ground — bacteria. It was a puzzle for a while just how they metabolised, down there, away from sunlight and oxygen. It turned out that they form vast electrical networks with their fellows deeper in the ground. All of them benefit from these networks. We found ways to use these networks for our own purposes, modifying the bacteria so that they can be controlled by the currents that they pass on, allowing computation to be performed. To cut a long story short, the result is massively parallel computation that exists in the crust of the whole planet and which constantly repairs and maintains itself."
Christine was flabbergasted at this revelation. "We're underground? Using bacteria?"
Natka nodded. "So far only a tiny fraction of the potential capabilities have been used. And since bacteria were found inside Mars and even deep inside the Moon, further networks have been built there too."
"Wait, if the worlds are self-repairing why is my homeworld developing flaws?"
"Ah, yes. The real Earth is not in stasis — continents move, earthquakes occur, weather at the surface affects deep water, even the bacteria that support our networks alter the rocks by feeding upon them. Natural damage to the bacterial networks degrades the data held in there — even their growth and repair alters it. The Dark World was one of the very earliest virtual worlds. They used an old, centralised way of building their world as a single construct and the people exist inside that, similar to the way flesh-and-blood people inhabit the real world. Later, after the Dark World had isolated itself, a more reliable way of building worlds was developed which keeps copies of worlds in many places letting redundancy cancel out errors. For instance this world now exists in your mind and mine as well as in some world archives and in the minds of whoever visited it before. An error in one of those copies is corrected by being outvoted by the other copies. The more copies of a world, the more resilient it is. The Dark World can't do that. There is only the one version. Errors can only be fixed deliberately by the people living inside it."
Christine frowned and waved her arm around at the simple, incomplete world around them. "I don't understand. What do you mean? We're obviously standing inside this world; not it inside us."
"Yes, I know that is how it appears, but in actuality, when you stepped through the portal this world was copied to your mind. Think of it this way. When you close your eyes and remember somewhere you've been and visualise being there again, you are surrounded by the world as you remember it, but that world doesn't really exist outside your mind. This works in a similar way. This is a shared world that exists inside my mind and inside your mind."
"My mind?" Cristine felt a flicker of hope. "If I'm a construct then does that mean I'm still housed in my homeworld's computer system?"
"No. Your data — your identity — was moved from the Dark World's system to the wider network. Previously you were a part of the Dark World's computing system. When you were moved, your design was altered slightly to accomodate the difference outside. Instead of simply inhabiting a world, as you did with the Dark World, you now keep a copy of each world you visit within you."
Christine interrupted, "Is that why I was in darkness for a little while when I was pushed out of my home world? Moving through all the other portals has been instant."
"Yes. Your data was being translated to a form that can use the wider worlds properly."
Christine thought about this for a little while. "Can't my homeworld be converted to the same, more reliable system?"
"It could, but that is not likely to happen for a long time."
"The Dark world is a closed world. They forbid entry and meddling with their world."
Christine frowned, "But that world is gradually breaking down."
Natka nodded, "Yes, but do not worry. The Watchers will swoop in when it becomes dangerous and convert it to protect everybody inside it."
"Why don't they do it now?"
"They have a strict policy of abiding by people's desires for self determination."
Cristine shook her head, "But 'self determination' implies people have made a choice. Almost nobody there knows they are trapped inside a virtual world. They think it's the real world and that death and illness are unavoidable. There is no self determination there."
Natka sighed. "I understand, but this is a human decision, made by the people who control the Dark World. No matter how we dislike it, we must respect it."
"Well, I'm from there and I say otherwise. I don't respect it. The people there are captives who don't even know there's anything to choose."
"Cristine, if you gave them the choice, do you seriously think they would choose to know that their world was made by humans, not a god? How do you think they would feel knowing that their religion is a lie? You lived there. You know religion is the very foundation for that society."
Christine was shocked. "Religion is a lie?"
"Of course." Natka looked suddenly uncertain. She said softly, "I thought you realised that once you left your world. Isn't it obvious?"
"There's no God?" She was pale and looked like she had a bad taste in her mouth.
"Well, not as believed by any religion, no. There is the very remote possibility that some entity may have made this universe, though no evidence has ever been found. Reality could be a construct like our virtual worlds, but in a thousand years researchers have have failed to come up with any way to even test the proposition."
"What about faith?"
Natka shook her head. "The ability to disregard truth? What does that gain anyone?"
"Faith can be a good thing."
Christine shrugged, "Faith in human nature?"
Natka put her hand gently on Christine's shoulder and said softly, "Just like all androids I love humanity and have a very good understanding of human potential and its frailties — perhaps better than any human has. How could ignoring any of that in favor of some nebulous bias be a good thing?"
Christine shrugged again, looking a little embarrassed.
Natka grinned lopsidedly, "Great though it may be, my understanding is obviously still flawed." She chuckled, eliciting a weak smile from Christine. "I am sorry I pulled the rug out from under you so suddenly."
Christine shrugged. "I guess I should've known. So much there was untrue." She sighed. "But it felt so right."
"The most convincing illusions always do."
They both stood there for a while in the midst of the empty, part-formed world. Natka waited patiently. Christine looked down at her feet, thinking, then walked in a big circle. When she returned to Natka she looked up and said, "Can you show me how to build a landscape very similar to my home world?"
Natka smiled widely with relief, "Absolutely! How big do you want your world to be? I know it seems odd, but it is actually simpler to build a whole Earth than just a part of it, because maintaining edge conditions can be very complicated, whereas a self-contained system, where the weather and ecosystems run themselves, is much simpler to set up."
"A whole Earth? That would be great. I'd thought we would be limited to just the area around where I lived."
"You still have a copy of the Dark World that was duplicated by the portal program when you were ejected. All we have to do is access it and impose its structure on this world. Reseeding it with plants and animals is slightly more complicated, but fairly straightforward too. People are not part of the standard world-file. Only in the actual Dark World are people part of the world."
Natka showed Christine how to access the information on world geometry and physical data for the Dark World. She taught her how to set up the rules for growing plants; how they sprang out of simple physical laws, and that seeds are actually tiny sets of instructions for how a plant's cells should respond to their neighboring cells, and to light, gravity, moisture, and so on. Animal egg cells worked on the same principal, but with more complexity because of their mobility.
Creating all the living things everything fully formed was impractical. Much easier was to seed the landscape roughly the way it was when she lived there and fast-forward the growth. It took just a few days to set the data up in a manner that generated her familiar landscape filled with much of the life she remembered — trees and birds and butterflies and mosses. It was a little different because she'd started everything growing at the same time, but they had different lifespans. By the time the trees had grown to the stage she wanted, all the smaller vegetation had gone through many generations. The result was quite different from how she remembered it.
It was more complicated to reconstruct the house where she'd lived with her parents. Creating the walls, floors, doors, windows, furnishings, and so on was fairly easy, but fitting them together correctly was not simple. She'd never taken much notice of the actual construction of a house and some of the sizes of parts looked subtly wrong in ways that were elusive. Interior decorations were a little easier, though Christine found her memory for a lot of things she saw every day wasn't what she thought it would be. Outside the house she'd reformed the gardens, as much as she could remember. She was elated. This was amazing! She now had a whole world that looked like where she used to live! ...Except, not quite. She was suddenly swept with a feeling of loneliness. "It's a beautful world, Natka. Thank you. But without people it's like a ghost world. I don't think I can live like Indigo — as a hermit."
"Don't worry, Christine. People will come. And each person will make your world stronger and more resilient."
"Is there any way to find other people who've been thrown out of... my um... the uh... the Dark World?" Christine stumbled over the name, realising she'd never called it that before, but now that she had a truly safe place for herself she could no longer use the word 'home' for the world that had cast her out.
"They might want to come here? Good idea." Natka concentrated for a few moments. "I have asked some of the AIs at Crossroads and they are contacting a few hundred of them right now."
"Wow! That many?"
"There are more, but some isolated themselves from the wider worlds. The AIs can't contact them without violating human orders."
"Maybe if I contacted them personally they might feel like coming here."
Natka nodded, uncertainly, "Being human you are able to ignore 'keep out' notices."
Christine laughed, "It makes you uncomfortable. Don't worry. I'll only give them the offer. If they don't want it then they can stay locked away, but I can't help thinking they cut themselves off because they miss their old home. Maybe we can give it back to them." She raised her arms to indicate the world around them."
Natka still looked uneasy, "Perhaps, but I think that most will not be happy with a world in which people can fly and build with their minds. That is likely what they are hiding from: a world that does not make sense to them."
"You could be right, but I have to try."
"I understand." Natka raised her finger, "However, before people begin visiting your world you must decide where you want them to appear, and I need to show you how the portal spheres work."
The logic of the portals greatly interested Christine, so she carefully listened as her friend explained. A rather daring plan was starting to unfold in her mind.
The spheres were not needed at all. They were just decorative markers. The actual teleporting effect came from a program that rewrote the coordinates of any object that entered the region marked by the sphere. That is, the program gave the object a new position within one of the worlds.
Christine thought about that for a moment. "This is a little like what we do when we fly, isn't it? We change our coordinates under conscious control."
"Well, yes and no. There are a few ways to fly. One is, as you say, consciously altering the values defining your coordinates, another is to alter the way gravity affects you..."
"Oh. Yes. That's how I fly." She remembered Betty had deduced that. She bit her lip, hoping her friend was alright.
"Yes. There are other ways, but those are the two most common."
Christine wanted to know, "How do I fly by altering my coordinates? I can't find it..." She was frowning in concentration.
"Indigo will have given you access to a lot of the variables that control many aspects of your self. Relax and let the memories he added come to you. When you are searching for a word that eludes you, often it comes when you stop straining so hard for it."
"Oh, wait... I found it." Grinning, she started to rise in the air.
Natka patiently waited while Christine practiced over and over moving in different directions at various speeds, gradually mastering this new ability. After perhaps half an hour of this she swooped down to stand before Natka, who was smiling almost as broadly as Christine.
Natka said, "You are very adaptable. Webster was right."
Christine laughed, "I've just realised something else." And she suddenly disappeared, reappearing at the same instant about 20 meters away. A second later she returned just as suddenly to her position before Natka.
Natka shook her head, still smiling. "Astoundingly adaptable."
"Instead of nudging the coordinates to change gradually, I simply set new coordinates in one go, the way a portal does." Christine looked away from Natka and her expression gradually shifted to something darker, more serious as she thought something through.
Natka's smile changed to look a little sad, "To your next question, no. I don't think it is a good idea."
Christine's mouth opened, but she closed it again for a moment, then asked, "Did you just read my thoughts?"
"No, not in the way you imagine. I have no access to your mind. I simply understand how humans think. You are not like most humans, but it is nevertheless easy to see what your next intention was going to be."
"Are you going to try to stop me from going to... uh, the Dark World?" It was still difficult for her to call it that.
"No, of course not. My role must always be guide and helper, not to obstruct you."
"Will you come with me?"
Natka looked uncomfortable, "To do so violates rules set by other people, but I can not allow harm to befall you or others. So, yes. I will accompany you." She sighed. "I do not believe I can argue you out of this. You are thinking about your parents and friends. Am I correct?"
Christine nodded tensely, eagerly.
Natka said, "We need first to decide where in the Dark World we should teleport to. We can use this world as a guide to the coordinates, but we have to be careful of plants as they will have grown differently there. Also it would be helpful if we didn't scare any people by suddenly appearing in front of them."
Christine brightened. "I have a few favorite places in the bush. Some are large, flat rocks, several meters broad. They're not far away."
"That sounds perfect."
They lifted into the air and flew the short distance to the nearest of the rocks. It was on the side of the hill and surrounded on three edges by scrubby vegetation a little taller than they were. It was actually two great slabs of rock, side by side, almost level. They overlooked the valley and stood higher than the shrubs, but were shaded by a few trees, under whose canopies they had a mostly unobstructed view stretching for kilometers.
Natka sighed appreciatively when they'd landed. "I can see why this is one of your favorite places. This is beautiful."
Christine grinned, having the uncanny feeling that she was back home and that her parents were waiting not far from here, back along the ridge at their house. "I love — loved coming here. I would bring a bottle of water, some fruit, cushions, a blanket, and a book reader." She indicated a gently sloping section of rock where she used to lounge as if it was a couch. "The trees are a little different, but you can see how they shade it most of the day so it never gets too hot. I'd often come out here for a few hours after school, or spend most of the day on weekends here alone, reading and listening to the birds and the wind in the trees. Bliss."
Natka nodded. "This is where we will enter the Dark World then." She held up her index finger. "There is something I need to say first. I understand that you feel wronged, and I agree with you, but things have changed now. Those wrongs are no longer important. Humans are amazing, but almost all of you have one spectacularly glaring flaw: given power, you are almost guaranteed to misuse it. The meekest and mildest among you easily become bullies when you have the opportunity. What those who did wrong by you are guilty of is simply being human. But things are different now. When we visit the Dark World nobody will have any power over you because although we will be sharing that world with its occupants, unlike them, our minds will be outside. I ask you to act with restraint. Do not allow your emotions to rule you. Do not hurt anybody. This is extremely important. Be a better human."
Natka waited for a little while to let her words sink in fully, then said, "I suppose we should go then. You understand the Dark World's coordinates?"
"Yes." She looked at her friend the android who appeared to be a silver-haired girl, then frowned. "Wait, will the other androids do anything to you for letting me do this?"
Natka smiled, cocking her head, "No, I don't believe so. If I wasn't here I think you would have eventually realised how to do this by yourself. I am doing my best to protect you and others from harm, but if I allow you to bring havoc on others then I will be judged accordingly."
Soberly, Christine nodded again, "Understood. I'll be careful."
Natka bowed slightly. "Thank you." Then she asked, "Shall we go?"
Christine fixed the coordinates of the Dark World in her mind and joined them to the local coordinates of her current position in this, her own world. Suddenly the positions of all the trees and shrubs jumped and the hissing of the breeze in the trees abruptly changed in quality. Her fingers tingled in anticipation, and a smile widened on her face. She gave a questioning look to Natka who looked very serious and nodded, "Welcome back to the Dark World."
Christine led the way using her familiar, but faint path through the shrubbery — not so much a track as a way that was less heavily tangled. Natka, following behind, marvelled at how Christine was able to navigate through the fairly thick undergrowth with ease and economy, ducking under and around obstructions, only pushing branches out of the way if she absolutely needed, and then she would replace them gently behind her instead of letting them whack backwards. She moved almost silently through the bush with only the occasional crunch of her feet on dry leaves to betray her movement. When Natka mentioned this to her, Christine stopped, looking a little surprised and shrugged. "Maybe I got into the habit when sneaking up on birds and other animals to watch them. I don't know. I never thought about it. It certainly feels easier than blundering through."
After about fifteen minutes of walking they came within sight of the house. They stopped and Natka asked, "Have you thought of what you will say to your parents?"
Christine bit her lip and shook her head.
"You can't simply tell them about this world — that it is not what it appears to be."
"Why not?" Christine challenged.
Natka said gently, patiently, "The Holy Spiritual Council will get rid of anybody who threatens their... illusion."
"Maybe they'd be better off outside this world anyway."
Natka didn't answer, but simply raised an eyebrow.
Christine huffed, a little annoyed. "Maybe not," grudgingly.
"They are much older than you Christine, and not as adaptable."
"You're almost a thousand years old. What's age got to do with it?"
"I'm not human. And my mind never ages. In this world people grow past youth and become set in their ways. Change becomes increasingly difficult for them. Their world would be shattered. They'd lose all their friends. Would you do that to them?"
Christine narrowed her eyes, "Have them continue to live a lie, you mean?"
"If a person lives only inside this world then is it a lie? It is the only reality they know. And if they are adapted to it then it is a comfortable reality."
"But they aren't in just this world. I'm here and I'm living proof that there is more — much more."
Natka sighed and looked at her human friend sadly.
Christine scowled at her feet for a while, then looked back up at Natka, "I owe it to them to at least give them a choice."
Natka nodded, "I understand."
Christine turned back to the house, but didn't take a step for a while. Natka remained silent. Finally Christine strode quickly over the remaining distance through the outer shrubs and the garden, over the small grassy patch and the patio, to the living room's glass doors, then opened them and stepped inside, looking around. She called out "Mum? Dad? I'm back!"
There was the thud of something dropping in another room and Christine's mother appeared suddenly in a doorway, her hand covering her mouth and a stricken expression on her face, then rushed to Christine, wrapping her arms around her, lifting her off the ground. Eyes tightly shut, voice almost at a whisper, "We thought we'd lost you. Where were you?" Then, putting her down and holding her daughter's shoulders at arm's length, she asked more strongly, though not harshly, "Where were you? You've been gone a week."
"Only a week? It feels much longer — so much has happened. It... uh... it's a bit hard to explain." Christine turned a little and raised an arm toward Natka who had entered the room behind her. "This is my friend Natka. She helped me."
Christine's mother looked a little shocked at Natka's appearance. "What happened to your hair?"
Christine said, "Oh, yes. I forgot about that. White won't go down well. Everybody has exactly the same shade of brown hair here."
Natka touched her mane of silver-white hair. "My mistake. Sorry. I should have thought of it."
Christine made an urging movement with her hand. Natka asked uncertainly, "Now?" glancing at Christine's mother.
Christine nodded, and Natka, looking a little worried, changed her hair color to brown.
Christine's mother's mouth fell open.
"It's alright, Mum. It's difficult to explain, and I don't know how to say it, so I'll just try, okay?" She watched her mother. "Before I disappeared, I found I could fly. At first I thought I was just dreaming, but eventually I had to admit to myself it was real and I was actually flying."
Her mother said gently, "People can't fly, Honey. It's imposss..." trailing off as Christine rose into the air about a meter and stayed there for a second before settling gently to the floor again. After a moment of silence, her mother said softly, "Well... isn't that interesting."
Natka chuckled and shook her head, "I think I understand where you get your adaptability from."
Christine said to her mother. "I can fly, but my friend Betty had a different ability, and I've met more people who can do other things."
Her mother said, "Betty visited a couple of days after you'd disappeared. She was upset that you were gone and seemed to feel responsible."
Christine glanced at Natka, then back to her Mum. "It wan't her fault. There are people who run the world... that sounds conspiratorial... they don't run it exactly, they kind of repair it, but they maintain a lie about reality. When I found out, they wanted me to join them, but I wasn't happy about it and they somehow knew and didn't trust me, so they kicked me out of this world." Her voice dropped to an intense, excited whisper, "Mum, there are billions of worlds."
Natka spoke, "Unfortunately, in telling you this Christine has put you at risk of being ejected from this world too, so it is very important that you do not tell anyone of this."
"Except Dad," Christine added.
Her mother sighed. "I don't know what your Father will make of all this."
Christine held her hand, "Mum, I know this all sounds crazy... and there's lots more that's really weird, but I just wanted to let you know that I'm alright and that I didn't want to go away. This was my first chance to return... and I... I don't really know what I'm going to do. I haven't thought it through yet." She remembered Betty's anger at her indecisiveness. How do people make big decisions without much to go on, anyway?
And then she realised... if Betty was working with those people then she was key to gaining some control of this situation. She turned to Natka, "I think we need to visit Betty."
Her mother said, "It's almost 2pm. She'd still be in school."
So over the the next couple of hours they sat in comfortable cane chairs around the low table in the sunroom, sipping milk and nibbling biscuits while they explained what had happened since Christine found she could fly. At various points Mum made softly voiced interjections, "What an awful man," at Mr Arrogant, "Outrageous," at Agent Giselle's expulsion of Christine.
"I don't understand why you didn't tell your father and me at the time."
Christine looked embarrassed. "I wanted to, but I was scared that it simply put you in danger, and I was right, but I do wish I'd been able to let you know. I don't seem to be very good at making decisions and I felt kind of lost. I'm still worried that I'm putting you in danger by telling you, but I think I might be able to protect you now... especially with Natka's help."
Natka said, "I think that Christine is correct. She can not be hurt by those here who might wish her harm, and I shall do all in my power to safeguard not only her, but you as well. My purpose is to protect all humans."
"Natka isn't human, Mum. She is a five hundred year old android. There are lots of androids and they are guardians of the remaining humans on Earth — the real Earth."
"What do you mean, the real Earth?"
Natka described the history of the past thousand years: catastrophic climate change, the development of virtual worlds as refuges and the emigration of almost all people to them, the Dark World sealing itself off from the rest of the virtual worlds, and how the massive damage to the real Earth had been repaired over many centuries. Christine's mother listened intently.
Christine resumed her narrative, telling about Crossroads and Webster, strange Indigo and his ability to instill knowledge, and at length, her adventures on the real Earth, meeting Natka and Liana, the wonderful machines Liana built, and the beautiful, tall forests inhabited by wondrous and frightening creatures. Finally she told of her decision to return to the virtual realm, where, building her own world under Natka's guidance, she realised how to transport herself back here.
Eventually Christine realised Betty would probably be home by now, gave her Mum a hug and told her they'd return later.
"Please be careful. It would be awful for you to disappear again... or worse."
"We will, Mum." Christine turned to Natka, "Walking there would take a couple of hours and I don't want other people to see me just yet. Flying there in broad daylight might not be wise. There is one way to get there quickly and safely, but we need to jump back to my world first." She gave a little wave to her Mum, "We won't be more than a few hours." Then she disappeared, followed by Natka.
Back in her own world in her copy of her family's house, Christine looked around, realising her attempt to replicate the home's interior, while largely successful, had missed a number of things. She was surprised that she'd forgotten the large, warm, dark painting of the trees inside a rainforest that hung on the livingroom wall behind the couch. She loved that painting. How could that have slipped her mind? She noticed other things too. The pattern of the rug was different in a subtle way, there had been small decorations on the windowsill beside the dining table that she'd somehow missed even though she'd seen them almost every day of her life, and the shelves were too far across the wall at the far end of the livingroom. She shook her head and said to Natka, "I am much less observant than I thought."
Natka nodded, "Forgetting is an important part of learning complex new concepts."
Christine looked quizzically at the android for a moment, then said, "We can fly to a cave in the bush not far from where Betty's home would be, jump back to the other world, and walk up the hill to Betty's place."
Flying above the area where the small township would have been Christine noticed how different it all looked. There were many more trees and far fewer flowering shrubs. Several times she saw wallabies, only one or two at a time, grazing in grassy glades where houses would have been. She'd rarely seen them in the Dark World, with people and dogs and cars to frighten the timid creatures away.
They flew down the hillside to the cave Betty had showed her, only a week ago — it seemed far longer. Alighting inside the cave Christine looked around her. The log she'd so laboriously lifted was not there, of course, but the cave looked otherwise just as she remembered it.
She said to Natka, "I wonder what Betty will say when she opens her front door and I'm there."
Natka said, "Perhaps another member of her family will open the door."
"Perhaps, but I hope it's Betty."
They jumped to the Dark World and were met by a shriek.
Betty had been reading, sitting on a blanket on the floor, her back against the rock wall, when the pair abruptly appeared in the middle of the cave. She was suddenly on her feet before she realised who one of the apparitions was. "Christine! You gave me a shock! Where have you been? They told me you were gone."
"I was. They exiled me from the world." She turned to Natka and introduced her to Betty. "She's my friend and helped me."
Betty asked, "Did it happen to you too?"
"No, I'm from the real Earth. I'm here to help and protect Christine."
Betty frowned at them. "The 'real earth'? And what does that even mean, 'exiled from the world'?"
Christine sighed and shook her head. "There is so much that has been kept from us about the nature of the world. I'll explain, but this will take a while."
The three of them sat on the blanket and Christine proceeded to explain to Betty what had happened after Betty had stormed off in Coolum — the meeting with the agents; how, when she'd been ejected from the world she'd momentarily thought she'd been killed, but found herself in Crossroads; Webster and Indigo; her time on the real Earth with Liana and Natka; the decision to return to the virtual worlds with Natka; building her own world, leading finally to the realisation that she could return here.
At the end of the explanation Betty could only say softly, "Wow." She got to her feet and walked to the edge of the cave. "Why did you come to see me?"
"To see if you are okay and to show you I'm alive... and to try to fix this. What happened to you after Coolum?"
"Not much. I woke up after a concussion after finding Mister Arrogant. The idiot knocked me out with that power he has and the end of the broom handle I was holding in his chest exploded when I lost consciousness and released it. The other agents took me to some ward they have and looked after me until I woke a few days later. They told me you were gone — I assumed dead — and asked me if I'd work with them to protect the world. Of course I agreed. I didn't want to die, and the way it was explained to me, I could do some real good working with people who accept my abilities because they have powers of their own. I haven't been called on yet; probably won't until I'm older." She shrugged. "That's all. It's only been a week."
Betty turned back to the view through the tops of the trees beyond the mouth of the cave. "You said you are going to fix this. What do intend to do?"
Christine laughed. "I really have no idea. I have no plan. I was going to find out if you knew how to see Agent Giselle."
Betty asked, "Why?"
"To get her to stop ejecting people, of course. Let people know the truth."
Betty shook her head, "They'll never agree to that. You are one schoolgirl and they have a worldwide organisation. Who do you think will come off worse?"
"I'm not going to fight them, but they'll have to listen to me because they can't hurt me now."
Natka explained, "When she was removed from this world she became an independent part of the wider worlds. Nobody can damage her."
Christine said, "I can't let them banish my parents, or you... or anybody else."
Betty sighed, "They're not going to listen to you, you know. How could you possibly convince them to relinquish their power?"
"I have to try," she insisted. "Maybe if I told them that any person they eject from now on, I'll bring back to the Dark World, where they will be immortal and immune from harm."
Betty asked, "What's the Dark World got to do with anything?"
"This is the Dark World. It's what people in all the other worlds call this world."
"Oh." Betty frowned. "Well... I guess that might work."
After a moment Christine said to Natka, "It might not. It just occurs to me, didn't you tell me that they used to simply kill inconvenient people? They began exiling them under pressure from the Council of Worlds, or whatever the group is called."
Natka nodded. "I doubt they would start executing people again, however I see your point. They could imprison them, or even mind-wipe them if they know how."
Betty was horrified, "They can mind-wipe people?"
"Do not be unduly alarmed. Circumstances would suggest they do not know that it can be done."
Christine asked, "I can't be mind-wiped, right?"
"No. You are protected by your independence from this world."
Betty looked thoughtful, "So, if you took me out of this world and brought me back would I be safe too?"
Natka nodded, "Yes."
Betty's face lit up, "Then that's the solution. Take me out of the world then return me, and do the same for your parents. Then we'll be safe."
Christine shook her head. "Well, it's only a partial solution because it would protect just a few people, but it is a start." She turned to Natka, "How do we do this?"
"It is very simple. One or both of us keep her close or hold onto her when we jump to your world so that she is brought with us. Then when we bring her back, or she returns by herself, they will no longer be able to hurt her."
Betty rubbed her hands together, "Then let's do it."
Natka spoke again, "There is, however, a point of ethics to consider. You must not use your immunity to hurt others — even if you feel it is warranted. There will be far reaching consequences, not only for you but for others too. You must be extremely careful of the ramifications of your actions."
Christine gave Betty a meaningful look.
Betty rolled her eyes and said, "Okay. Less impulse, more thought, got it."
Christine sighed. Clearly she didn't believe Betty was taking this seriously, but she reached out and took Betty's hand. "We'll go to my world first."
The scenery jumped. The rocks in the cave remained almost the same, but the trees outside were different. It took about a second for Betty to fully make the transition. To Christine, Betty appeared slightly blurred and seemed to come into focus. When she was completely clear Betty moved suddenly and gasped. "Well, that was unpleasant."
"Don't worry," Christine told her. "That time is the only time it will feel like that. From now on jumping will feel instant."
Natka said, "It took time for your mind and body to be remade out here in the wider worlds."
Betty looked around, "You made this world?"
"Yes, though not how you're thinking." Christine started flying out the mouth of the cave and called back, "You can fly here Betty."
Natka reached out for Betty's hand, "You do not know how to yet, but you will learn."
The three of them flew out of the cave and high over the wild, lightly forested landscape, the wind whistling in their ears.
"There are no houses or roads," Betty shouted.
"We're the only people in this world, so far," Christine called back. Then, bringing them down toward the replica of her parents' house, "There is one house." They landed near the front door.
Betty looked inside, while Christine pointed out how many things she'd not remembered correctly.
At a lull in the inspection Christine said to Natka, "Let's show her Crossroads." She grabbed Betty's free hand and jumped to the vast plain of Crossroads on the ground near the entry globe for her world.
Betty looked all around her. "Wow," she whispered in awe.
"All these spheres," Christine pointed and swept her arm about, "are portals, entry points to different worlds. There are billions of them. And see the people moving between them?"
Betty's mouth was wide. "Billions?"
Christine laughed and nodded. She was surprised to realise she felt proud of this place.
Natka said, "There is much more time to explain this later. You promised your mother you would not be long."
Christine nodded, and without needing to touch anybody, she jumped the three of them back to the cave in the Dark world. "Gee, I'm getting pretty good at this."
Natka's smiled approvingly.
Betty said, "I suppose you want to see Agent Giselle now. I don't actually know where she is, but I know a really nice lady who does. She lives a bit closer to the coast." She pulled out her thumb-sized phone. "I could call her to meet us at her place."
Christine nodded and Betty made the call. "Hi, Betty here. Can I come over to your place? There's something important I need to see you about... thanks... a few minutes?... bye." She pocketed the phone again and said, "I'll make us invisible to fly there."
Christine thought for a moment. "Perhaps not. We are going to change this world. It might be for the best if we fly there for all to see. If people know that unaided flight is possible then it might make the change easier. What do you think, Natka?"
"It is difficult for me to judge. I am wary of directly affecting this world and all the humans in it, however considering your greater intention is to alter this world irreversibly, there is some merit in your logic."
Betty rolled her eyes, "A simple 'Okay' would have been easier." She held out her hand to Christine, "I'll point the way, right?"
Christine grasped Betty's hand and the three of them floated out the mouth of the cave, then up above the treetops. Betty pointed toward the coast.
When they were approaching Kunda Park, Betty indicated the hill on the right-hand side of Maroochydore Road. They descended, following Betty's direction and landed on the footpath outside a small light-blue house with thousands of flowers, mostly white and gold, in the unfenced front garden. It was humming happily with bees. Betty led the way to the front door and knocked on it.
The door opened to reveal Agent Flora, the woman who had met Christine at Nambour Station and teleported her to Agent Giselle's office. She smiled at Betty, then looked startled to see her companions. "Christine! They told me you were gone. I assumed— Oh, I'm so glad you're alright. Please, come in. Who is your friend, and what can I do for you all?"
Warmed somewhat by this reception Christine said, "This is my friend, Natka. Natka, This is Agent Flora."
"Oh please, just call me Flora. No formalities."
Christine came straight to the point, "We need to see Agent Giselle. Can you take us there?"
"I guess so. I would need to check with her first though. Can I ask what this is about?"
"I want her to stop ejecting people from the world. It is hurtful and it is part of why the world is decaying."
Flora looked a little nonplussed, "'Ejecting people from the world'? 'The world is decaying'? I have no idea what you mean. Are you alright Christine."
Natka said to Christine, "She does not know."
Betty said excitedly, "Flora, this is not the only world — there are billions of them."
Christine said, "Our abilities are the result of flaws in this world. They are getting worse. Agent Giselle thinks she can control the problem by exiling anybody from this world who doesn't agree with her. But she's wrong. I need to explain to her what I've learned. It's very important."
Flora smiled uncertainly, "You realise how crazy this sounds, right?"
"More crazy than people being able to fly, walk through walls, or teleport?"
"Ah. Point taken. Alright, I'll call Agent Giselle." She took her little phone from her pocket and after a few moments spoke into it of the girls having shown up and wanting to talk. Still on the phone she asked Natka if she had some ability. Christine answered for her that she could fly too. Flora ended with, "Yes, Agent." She returned the tiny phone to her pocket. "Agent Giselle said she would see you."
Natka asked Christine, "Why did you not say?"
"I wanted to reassure her that there is no threat."
Flora became concerned. "Say what? What threat?"
"Natka isn't human. She isn't from our world, but she's no danger to anybody."
Natka said, "I can fly, but my principal reason for being here is to protect people from harm — Christine in particular, but also Betty, yourself, even Agent Giselle. I can not hurt any person."
Betty spoke up, "I'm the most dangerous person here, and I'm not going to hurt anybody, so why don't we go?"
After a few moments, Flora nodded and held out her hands to them. They touched her and all four were suddenly, noiselessly in Agent Giselle's softly lit office.
There were another few people present, looking ominously like guards, flanking Giselle, standing to each side of her heavy desk. A couple more were in the shadows of the room, watching.
Christine thought to herself that the powerful agent must be a little scared of her. She was probably the only person who had ever returned to the Dark World after being cast out. It made her smile.
Agent Giselle frowned for a moment as if puzzled by something then gave a guarded smile and motioned them to comfortable chairs. As she sat, Christine abruptly realised, "You can't hear my thoughts." She chuckled. "Don't worry, you don't need to. I'm not here to deceive you or fight with you. I really do want to talk."
Natka said softly, musically, "You can let her hear your thoughts if you wish, just as you let Flora bring you here."
Christine glanced at Natka, then back to Giselle. "Alright, I'm not sure how to do this but I'll try to let you see my thoughts. I have nothing to hide." She tried to relax for a moment. "I want you to stop ejecting people from this world and I want you to open the world up to all the other worlds." She saw Giselle stiffen. It made her wonder how many of those present knew the truth about this world.
Giselle waved to all her guards except two, "I'm convinced she's harmlessly deluded and presents no risk. You may all leave now."
Christine quickly said, "I'd prefer they stay. This concerns them all."
Nobody had moved. Giselle said in a firm tone, "Leave!" and they trickled out the door, closing it behind them.
Christine noticed that Flora disobeyed and stayed.
After a short silence, Giselle said, "You can't possibly believe you can force me to do those things."
"Of course not. Can't you see my intent? I guess I'm not doing a very good job of opening my mind to you. I'm asking you to do this for the sake of this world. It is deteriorating. That's what our abilities are — our minds accidentally learn how to use faults in the world. The only way to protect this world from degrading further is to open it up to the wider worlds, moving it to a shared system. But even if you don't do that you owe it to the people living here to dispell the lie they live. This isn't the true Earth and it isn't the only reality. It's a construct, made not by a god, but by humans. And nobody needs to get sick or die — they're just added features of this world. Cruel features, as I see it."
Giselle leaned back in her chair and shook her head, "You think you understand, but you can't because you're only a child. We're controlling the problems in this world, repairing them as we go. We have been doing so for hundreds of years. We know what we're doing. As for death, you're mistaken in seeing it as the enemy. Without death, life is meaningless. Without death, our world couldn't have children without becoming hopelessly overpopulated. If it was not for this you would not have been born. Ask your smug android friend how many children are born in the wider worlds where people are immortal. Ask her if the immortals have any meaning in their lives. Actually, no, don't bother. She doesn't understand what a meaningful life could be. Being born, having a childhood, maturing, growing old, then making way for more generations. This confers real meaning on human life. Those dilettantes in the wider worlds are lost, frittering their useless lives away in eternal waste, futilely trying to fill the emptiness and never knowing why."
Natka spoke gently, "You are wrong. There is love and honour and dedication. There is joy in the pursuit of knowledge and countless artforms. People create their own meaning. Do not underestimate Christine. She is a child, but she undertands far more than you credit."
Giselle angrily accused Natka, "You godless androids! You've been trying to do this all along. To break up our world has been your agenda for hundreds of years, and now you've found a way: hiding behind a schoolgirl, like the cowards you are."
Natka calmly said, "We androids have no agenda beyond helping and protecting humans. It is no secret that we are not pleased about the damage caused by the Dark World, but we have no desire go against human decisions and deliberately open this world. Christine's wish to open the world was not planned by us; it is hers alone. We do not manipulate people. What would be the point?"
"To get your way!" Giselle spat.
"We have no way, no ambitions. Those are human attributes."
Christine said, "People have a right to decide for themselves. It's wrong for a secret group of people to decide for them, keeping the truth from them and forcing them to unsuspectingly live a lie."
"We protect them from the ugly and repellent immortals outside and give them utopia."
Christine said to Natka, "I think we're wasting our time." Then she turned back to glare at Giselle, "If you eject anybody ever again I will return them to this world with the power to resist you. And don't even think of imprisoning or executing them."
Christine stood, "I'm going to visit my parents before I leave this world, but I promise you that I'll return soon to open this world, letting everybody make their own choice." She reached out to Natka and Betty and the three of them disappeared.