The attacks targeted seven cities around the world that openly showed support for the TWB (Teachers Without Borders) cultural exchange program. But even with 30 dead and 150 severely injured, Chicago suffered fewer losses than any other target, despite being hit by a force larger than those in the other cities combined. The toll could have easily have been ten or even one hundred times or more higher if not for Cheshire.
The young lady has been credited with directly saving over 400 lives and indirectly assisting in saving hundreds more. Recordings of her actions at the new Buckingham fountain stayed in the top five most watched clips for a week. Not bad for someone on her second day after her breakthrough.
I drifted to awareness at the touch of a warm breeze that was rustling grass and the sound of a brook happily burbling in it’s banks. My head was on someone’s lap and a gentle hand was stroking my forehead. Opening my eyes I could see the hand belonged to a beautiful Japanese or Chinese woman with long flowing hair.
“Greetings young lady, I am Kannon. Since you were resting I asked Kitsune to show you the way to this place in the High Plane of Heaven so we could talk face to face.”
I blinked, “Kannon? I have a friend named Hana that has talked about a Celestial Kami by that name.”
She smiled down at me, “In answer to the question you haven’t asked. Yes, I am that Kannon. If you are in China I am also Quan Yin.” chuckle, “You can ask Astra about it after you wake up.
“Now, while you are here, what do you say to getting to know each other better.”
Wide eyed, I spun up onto my knees to face her. A chance to talk with a very powerful resident of an Otherland? Yes please. She smiled at the excitement in my voice as I answered, “Yes. Please! I would like that very much.”
After that we spent the time asking each other questions. I asked her about her home and other “spirits” like her and she asked me about my studies and how, or even if, I was thinking of using my powers in the future. It was a little strange but I suppose with my breakthrough, strange was going to be par for the course.
It was a long time into our conversation when I noticed Kitsune had joined us as a seven tailed fox. I went to bump noses with him in thanks for bringing me here… and ended up tripping on my yukata. Why? First, I hadn’t even realized I was wearing a yukata. Second, I suddenly had two left, and right, feet. Puzzled I rolled onto my back and held my paws/hands in front of my face as I switched back and forth between biped and quadruped. The transition was smooth and effortless. Had I “leveled up”? Or had my body just finally adapted?
I turned to ask Kannon if she knew and ended up with a petal from a cherry blossom on the end of my nose. A cherry tree stood where Kannon had been kneeling and petals were falling from the branches in a steady stream. My vision let me see that Kannon and the tree were one and the same so after rubbing my cheek against her trunk I went full cub/kitten and started trying to catch the petals as they fell. Her laughter floated on the breeze like an echo of the brook as she watched my antics.
I’d captured about dozen when Kitsune nuzzled my shoulder and whispered, “All right Koneko. It is time to wake up. There are people here to see you.”
I let out a wide yawn as I stretched before rubbing the sleep out of my eyes with my paws. Paws? A mixed chorus of Awws, giggles and chuckles broke out as I peeked between my paws to see Daddy, Grandma, Astra, Shell, and Quin. I was just about to change to biped when I realized my gown was bunched up under the blanket. I let out a “Meep!” and ducked under cover to a burst of laughter.
I shifted my form under the blanket and had just gotten my head and arms through the appropriate holes when I felt Kitsune, above the covers, get up and thump to the floor. I shifted back to full size and peeked out in time to see him, in a very nice suit, walking around the end of my bed to join Astra.
I double checked to make sure I was presentable before pulling the cover back and sitting up. Then I remembered last night and why I was in a hospital bed. My ears went back and I started sobbing. “I-I’m s-sorry Daddy. Y-you and Grandm-ma Alice just got m-me back and I al-alm-most…”
I didn’t hear the others leave as Daddy and Grandma Alice wrapped me in a hug. “Shhh. It’s okay my Rionnagh. You are safe now.” Grandma crooned as she stroked my hair. “I won’t pretend you didn’t give your father and me a few new gray hairs but you did nothing wrong.” She hugged me close and kissed me behind the ear as I continued to sob. “Oh my sweet little Rionnagh it is not fair that such a hard choice fell to one so young. But you made that choice and you chose to save all of those people. And with a little help, that is what you did.” Grandma Alice drew a ragged breath before continuing, “We are very proud of you.”
After a few more minutes and several wet hiccups I was calm again. “Sniffle. They’re waiting for me aren’t they?” I asked.
Daddy nodded, “Yes sweetheart they are.” He nodded to the pile of clothes on a chair next to the bathroom. “How long do you think it will take you to get ready?”
I thought for a moment, “If the water pressure is good 15 minutes?”
He nodded, “We’ll wait for you in the hall.” Seeing my look he added, “Don’t worry. There are chairs.”
With another kiss and hug to both of them I went to get scrubbed down and changed. I wrapped the blanket around me for modesty and checked the clothes on the way to the shower. They were one of the sets Donna had done, a dark blue skort with liner, a blue blouse and the sandals with the decorative greaves for footwear. I frowned, the look would say grown up or professional. Pbbbt, maybe I could keep from fidgeting long enough to pull of the look, maybe.
I’d closed the door and hung the blanket on the hooks provided and was working on the gown when I caught sight of my tails in the mirror. Tails plural. Two of them. Whether Kabe knew it or not he’d been right, Neko kami, cat spirit. I tried merging and separating the tails to prove to myself I could. I didn’t know if I should be puzzled or pleased at that I could do one or two without effort but not three or more at all. I sighed and then shrugged and continued getting ready, I’d figure out what to do later.
I managed to shower in record time, but I ran into an issue with my Skort due to my tails. The base of my twin tails was just enough thicker to be uncomfortable. I growled softly, “Darn it. It couldn’t wait until I’d had the clothing for a few weeks?” I huffed a bit before a thought struck me. “Wait if my clothes adjust with me when I change size then maybe….” I merged my tails to one so the skort fit properly and then visualized the skort adjusting when I split them into two again and, “Yes! Perfect fit.”
I tried it a few more times to be sure I had the method down, but left them merged before stepping out and rejoining my family. After grabbing a few more hugs to fortify myself I took their hands and followed Tim as he led us to the assembly room.
I watched as Rionnagh gaped a bit at the number of people as she was introduced. Blackstone, Chakra, Astra, Shell, Ozma and Quin were here. Along with Tommy Brannigan, Alex Chandler, Dr. Beth, Dr. Mendel, and Dr. Harte.
Once they were settled Blackstone stood up to address them. “Thank you for joining us young lady. On the behalf of the Sentinels, the Guardians and the city of Chicago I extend our gratitude to you and Tygeara for saving our city and our lives. Without the two of you many if not all of the heroes in the city would have been dead when the Kaiju reached the harbor, making them unopposed as they burned the city to the ground.”
Rionnagh interrupted, “But…. but I didn’t do that much. I just opened gates. How did that protect the heroes?”
Blackstone laughed, “Didn’t do that much? My dear girl you detected the Kaiju almost the moment they were portaled in and transported Tygeara within striking distance, and keeping them from reaching the city where stopping them would have done considerable damage. Then you portal more than twenty vehicles and their passengers to safety, removing them from danger and thereby keeping the terrorists from using them as bait, enabling my teammates and the other guardians of the city to concentrate their efforts on shutting the attackers down. You finish up by catching an airbus with over 300 people on it and ghosting it in for a safe landing.
True, you had help but NONE of it could have been done without you. You and you alone were the difference that kept this from being a complete disaster.”
By the time he finished Rionnagh’s ears were flat against her head. She’d gone from embarrassed straight to scared. She managed to not stammer when she asked, “With all of the people recording what happened the leaders of the terrorists know that don’t they? Is my family in danger?” She paused, “Will, will I have to give up the cultural program?”
I felt for the kid. I could see she felt guilty asking about the program but I knew from looking at her records it was one of the few things that brought her stability over the last two years. According to Ms. Hunter, the school counselor, as Sydney she’d had trouble making friends because of her mother’s Humanity first affiliation. Students from both sides shunned her because, after an article damning the conviction of a “normal” vigilante, she’d made the mistake of asking, “If non-breakthroughs shouldn’t be held accountable for an action, why should a breakthrough be punished for the same action?” Apparently neither side liked being reminded that no one was above the law.
I made a mental note to send Ms. Hunter a donation for her efforts. She’d created a place that taught children that discourse, not arguing, was what helped solve problems. I brought my attention back to the room as they continued.
Blackstone’s tone was grim when he answered, “It is likely they know, yes.” Then a twinkle entered his eye as he continued. “But Dr. Harte tells us that NU Inc. is willing to hire your father on as an on sight financial consultant. And your grandmother is going to get that bakery she’s dreamed about. Both will be well protected by the security already in place.”
I watched as she turned those wide eyes of hers on her father, “Daddy?”
I hid a grin as Mr. Scott explained the whys and whats of the offer to her. As he talked Rionnagh’s ears came up and her eyes just sparkled. Turning my attention to Alice I could see where she got them. As far as Alice’s bakery went I was glad I’d be able to spread out the consumption, because the samples she’d whipped up in the Sentinels kitchen last night to calm her nerves had been Goooood.
Blackstone stepped back in, “As for the cultural program? Not only do you get to keep participating, but there is talk of making you a guest of honor at the opening ceremony for this weekends conference.”
There were smiles around the table as Rionnagh’s eyes grew even wider. All she managed to squeak out was, “Me? Why?”
Blackstone smiled wryly. “Just something to do with saving the lives of three of the most influential supporters of the program. You may have heard their names, Fuji Ehara, James Anderson and Nicholas Hadid? Between them they brought a granddaughter and two nieces.”
I could see Rionnagh’s eyes misting up as she replied, “Elspeth and Marion were on that plane? Do, do they know it was me?”
Blackstone nodded, “I suspect they do by now. They do have suites adjoining Hana’s at their hotel after all. You will get to see them if you want but before that we have quite a tangle to sort out.” He nodded to Legal Eagle and Mr. Chandler, “Gentlemen if you would?”
I watched as Legal Eagle went over the labor laws and what they meant for Rionnagh. He emphasized that they were getting a pass on the events of yesterday only because she’d volunteered, and no one had known the extent of her ability. No one was in trouble but once Rionnagh’s age came out critics were going to scream child endangerment and child labor very loudly anyway.
Then Chandler made his pitch. Since she’d been wearing her Astra inspired costume he offered her a position as Kid Mascot to the Sentinels. Brannigan and Chandler were pros and they’d have all of the i’s dotted and t’s crossed but I worried about how the publicity would affect her. I kept getting glimmers of a haunted look in Rionnagh’s eyes. She hadn’t been a breakthrough for two days yet but she was already set to be world famous.
Dr. Mendel must have seen something as well because she broke in to ask Rionnagh if she was alright.
Rionnagh gave a shaky smile, “Honestly? Part of me wants to hide away for a week or more and pretend none of this happened. But that won’t solve anything and knowing that just makes it worse. I know I need to face everything but there is so much so fast.” She pulled her feet up into her chair and hugged her knees to her chest as tears started to flow. “I n-need Ruth. I n-nne-eed.”
Astra rushed around the table to get to her. As she got close, Rionnagh unfolded, shrank to four feet tall and clamped her arms and legs around Astra while hiding her face in her shoulder. Mr. Scott held the chair still so Astra could sit with Rionnagh on her lap as the girl trembled with quiet sobs. It was no wonder she’d wanted Ruth. Judging by how her grip was compressing Astra’s costume Rionnagh was holding on for all she was worth. Anyone with less than D class toughness would have been crushed.
Astra held me until my breathing became deeper and smoother, “Thank you Astra, I really really needed a solid anchor and with Ruth not here…”
“Shhh it’s okay,” She told me. “I was almost twice your age when I broke through. Realizing that my new strength meant much of the world was very breakable still hit me hard.”
I was shifting my grip to be over Astra’s shoulders instead of around her chest when I realized that being this short meant I couldn’t feel much difference between hugging Ruth or Astra. My thoughts made it as far as, “All Astra would need is a coat of fur and..” before I suddenly I broke out in giggles.
Astra tried to look serious as she took my face in here hands. “Rionnagh? Are you okay?”
“Snerk,” I wiped tears from my eyes as I tried to explain. “Oh oh. I’m sorry. I just had the thought that with me at this size, Andrew would just have to make a furry jacket for you and I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between hugging you or Ruth.” I paused to gasp for breath. “And and sud... suddenly I could see you in a fuzzy head.. head to toe Tygeara sleep jumper with just your face showing. You were not happy.”
Chuckles and outright laughter broke out around the room. A red faced Astra gaped at me until she got out, “Why you little….”
“Yeeeek, no!” I squealed as Astra started tickling me. I squirmed and kicked my feet but I was laughing too hard to get away. I heard a thunk just before I gasped out, “Uncle! uncle, uncle, uncle, UNCLE!!”
Astra stopped and as I gasped for air I looked over to the other side of the table to see Shell’s chair was empty and spinning slowly. Her howls of laughter were coming up from the floor.
Astra looked at me, “Well? Are you feeling better now?”
I giggled and sighed, “Yes much better thank you.” Astra hugged me one more time before setting me down and walking back to her chair. Meanwhile I returned to my full height and turned to Blackstone, Legal Eagle and Mr. Chandler, “I’m sorry about the interruption.” I glanced over to where Astra was looking down at Shell. “Ummm, should we retrieve Shell from the floor first or shall we continue without her?”
Shell managed to pull herself up into her chair as Legal Eagle went down the basic list in greater detail. The hug and laughter had done a lot to let me step back and process everything as it came in and I found myself putting mental notes behind some of the examples.
Until I was sixteen I could only work from 7am to 7pm (9pm during the summer) and I was limited to 3 hrs a day during school days, 8 hrs non school days and 24 hrs (40 during the summer) per week. It could also not be shown that any work I did interfered with my education. (“Keep my grades up. Got it.”)
I was currently limited to Acting (Publicity shoots, Pr events or actual acting. “Scary, but maybe fun.”), Delivery (newspapers, baked goods and other light items), and yard work (raking leaves, shoveling snow, “getting kittys out of trees”).
At twelve I could work in an agricultural jobs such as the orchards in New Underland.
At fourteen the jobs I could do expanded to things like clerical workers(“Yawn”), cashiers(“Meh”), cooks (in limited capacities)(“Baking is fun”), cleaners(“ick”), kitchen workers(“Dishes? Bleh.”), artists, creatives,(“Those are kind of the same aren’t they?”)or intellectuals(“Thank you for inviting me to speak today. Hmmm maybe.”)
At sixteen I could participate in CAI activities that involved dangerous situations. Fires, Floods, Landslides, Earthquakes, etc. and I could work in manufacturing, mining, or construction(“Maybe I could work with The Crew as a mover.”).
I had to be eighteen before I could be knowingly deployed into a hostile situation where there was a real chance of injury or death. (“I might talk to SaFire about this. Websites say she’s an EMT.”)
Legal Eagle looked up from his notes. “Now Ms. Scott I stress that this isn’t an exhaustive
list but does cover most of the points. Do you have any questions?”
I thought back through the information to what I could legally do now and a light went on. “Mr.
Brannigan, do the laws prohibit using breakthrough powers to make deliveries?”
I could see Quin’s and Dr. Harte’s eyes light up as Legal Eagle answered. “The only guidelines in place state the youth doing the delivery must be able to carry the item or items to be delivered. A bicycle or cart is an acceptable aid and...” He smiled as he realized, “Why you clever little kitten.” He turned to Dr. Beth. “Dr. Beth could you give us a quick rundown of Cheshire’s abilities? Just how strong is she?”
Dr. Beth gave a wry smile. “Her lift capability is low C, about a medium or large moving van. Given her age it is quite probable that will increase to solidly, or even maximum, C. Flight and toughness are solidly C. Senses are a variant of Atlas. Hearing, smell and visual acuity are the same, but instead of seeing a broader spectrum, Ozma has informed me that Cheshire can see, smell and hear magic. Which means she senses it more acutely than Astra could during the Villains, Inc. incident. Given that she has displayed two alternate physical forms and can change her size I’d say she has C possibly B class Metamorph capabilities. Finally, as a Jumper she has displayed more raw capability than I’ve ever seen. Definitely A class. The two things we don’t know is why she needs what Ozma calls ‘sympathetic gates’ and what her range is when she isn’t catching a plane to get there.” Dr. Beth’s dry humor elicited smiles and chuckles around the table.
I just smiled and gave a bashful shrug before we continued. I was much more confident now that I had an idea of the limits I needed to work within and enjoyed going over the options with Quin and Mr. Chandler. By the time they called a stop we had drawn up a schedule of training and testing for the next two weeks, Including three or four public appearances and interviews. I was going to argue for continuing but my stomach reminded me I hadn’t eaten since last night before the attack and it was almost eleven now. I did pause at that as I was hungry but not the hungry that I’d been since my breakthrough. After yesterday I’d’ve though my stomach would’ve been roaring but I was just getting grumbling of the “You missed breakfast.” kind.
I thanked them for their time before we left to go to the Young Sentinels common room where Willis had a buffet ready. Despite all of the greetings and congratulations I received I managed to get my food and begin eating. In the background coverage of the aftermath of yesterday played on the big screen.
I was just finishing my second plate when they began to replay clips of Tygeara’s fights. I left my last bites on my plate as my fork fell from my trembling fingers. I’d been too tired. I hadn’t seen how badly she was hurt last night. Her fight against the last Kaiju hadn’t gone well. It was half again taller than her and while she was fighting it the submarine had ambushed her with missiles, hitting her in the arm, side and leg.
After we watched her check on me and vanish, I rose to my feet and stumbled to my room, not hearing the questions and calls of concern. Barely remembering to be careful, I fumbled my epad on and logged into my accounts. I held my breath as I found and opened a new message from Ruth. Her tired human face greeted me as the message started playing. “Hey Cachorra I hope this message finds you well. I can’t hold this form long yet so I’ll have to be quick. I’ve healed most of the damage from my fight but it completely drained my reserves. So despite consuming my larder as fast as it can renew itself I still have about a day to go before I’ll be fit for ‘civilized’ company. I’ll find out from Tokki where you are when I’m ready, until then be good and say hola to Danilo for me. I love you Lucecita, take care.”
I sagged in relief and rested my head on my arms for a few breaths before drying my face, recording my response letting her know I was okay, and sending it. I checked my other messages and answered texts from my exchange partners using the new avatar Shell had made for me, my star and disappearing eyes on a dark blue background. Passing my fingers over it I looked at it in a new light. Even if I couldn’t go to active zones until I was sixteen I could still do a lot of good. The rear assembly areas should be secure enough for me to volunteer for “nonprofit” reasons.
A blinking message from Shell caught my attention. “Hey you doing alright?”
The icon indicated she was live so I turned the audio on. “I’m okay, I was just really worried about Tygeara. Thank you for asking and thank you for the avatar. I’ll be right out.” I took my epad with me as I left my room pulling up the page for the conference this weekend. The opening ceremony was actually tomorrow night.
“Well hello there.” The cheery voice startled me enough to make me jump. The big screen had been switch to a video conference and a blonde woman with a mischievous twinkle in her eye was looking at me. “You must be the cannon’s little sister.”
I blinked “Cannon? Oh. Right. Malcom.” He was standing by Astra rolling his eyes. “Umm, yes I am. Given his expression I take it he’s had repeated exposure to you?”
The woman, Astra and Shell broke out laughing and another woman appeared in the background to see what the mirth was about.
Malcom’s tone was wry when he answered, “You could say that. A recent joint exercise with Boeing gave me renewed interest in space exploration and survey. Wifflebat and Pinky decided to designate themselves my ‘liaisons’.” On screen the two women stuck their tongues out at him. “They called to check on me and I had to tell them Dr. Beth put me on reserve for a week, so the next step is on hold.” He turned toward me and my ears went flat. His left arm was in a brace.
I set my epad on a chair so I didn’t drop it, before shrinking down and wrapping my arms around his waist in a hug. “Hey, easy squirt. It’s just a wrenched shoulder. I heal faster now remember?” he assured me as he hugged me with his good arm. “I’ll probably be done with the brace by tonight. Dr. Beth just knows better than to trust the common sense of any member of this team.”
I snuggled in tighter as his thumb stroked the nearly faded scar on my forehead, “Sniffle. Don’t care. After the last two days I worry the world isn’t going to let us make up lost time.”
I felt him wince as he held me tighter than he should have with his injured shoulder. “You don’t have to tell me twice. It’s a good thing I had a chance to see you resting last night before I saw footage of them pulling you out of the plane or it would have given me more gray hair than dad has.” He relaxed when I giggled.
I looked around. “Where are Daddy and Grandma Alice?”
“They didn’t get much sleep last night so I’m giving them a chance to rest. They promised to be back in an hour or two.” After giving me a squeeze he grasped my chin and raised my eyes to his. “Hey, someone in dark clothing mentioned a creation involving dark cocoa and dulce de leche. Would you be interested?” I barely remembered to not squeeze his injured shoulder when I popped back to full size and hugged him. “I’ll take that as a yes.” He chuckled as he hugged me back. Kissing my forehead he gave my shoulders one last squeeze before directing me to the kitchen where Artemis was waiting.
As I picked up my epad on my way over I heard Wifflebat complain, “You brat. Did you have to say it that loud? You do know she ruined the coffee shops up here for us don’t you? The only ones that compare charge forty bucks a cup and even with my job I’m not paying that.”
“Forty bucks?!” Artemis caught my thoughtful look as I walked into the kitchen and sat at the counter taking glances at the screen.
“All right you fuzzy ray of sunshine out with it.” She ordered as she leaned on the counter and looked at me. “You look like someone that’s up to something.”
“Artemis? Where are they right now?” I asked her as I glanced behind the women to their kitchenette where I could see two cups sitting in front of a propped up epad.
“Shell said Boeing’s Skyreach station. It’s on the outer edge of LEO (low earth orbit) about 1200 miles up. Why?” She asked. Her mouth twitched in what could have been a smile when she noticed where I was glancing. Handing me a stand for my epad she moved to ready more ingredients.
Typing away I pulled up Boeing’s website and went to the page for the station. Their PR department had helpfully provided a locator that depicted the stations general location from the user. “Just curious. I’m always wondering what it would be like to see the world from another person’s point of view.” “Okay I’m here and they’re about there. Deep breath and feel for an area that ‘looks’ like where they are and..” “Seeing it from a physical as well as a cultural point is an exercise Ms. Hunter would encourage to promote discourse and understanding.” I finished as I handed her the two cups. Then I pulled my feet up on the stool and rested my chin on my knees as I watched her performance, it was like watching an artist create a masterpiece.
“This Ms. Hunter sounds like a wise woman.” Artemis commented as she mixed the drinks, two mochas and a hot chocolate. ”I’d like to meet her some day.”
I took the two mochas she handed me and silently put them on the counter where I’d found the empty cups before tapping my screen to bring up the conference page. “If you have time this weekend you may have a chance. She’s supposed to be part of Saturday’s panel to promote the exchange program here in Chicago.” I accepted my cup and took a sip. “Mrrrrrrrrrrrr.” I purred as my tails unfurled and started flicking back and forth together. It was like sipping a caramel oreo dipped in cream. One tail just wasn’t enough to show my appreciation. “Thank you Artemis. This is wonderful.”
Artemis laughed, “You’re welcome ‘Cheshire’ but in private or out of uniform it’s Jacky, or Aunt Jacky if you want to be formal.” She booped my nose with her finger. “Got that Fuzzy Ray?”
I set my cup on the counter and threw my arms around her shoulders. ”Yes Jacky. I got it. Thank you.”
She hugged me back hard enough to squeeze air from my lungs before letting me go. “Alright you, enough. I have a rep to maintain.” She reached up and gently tweaked my ear as I retrieved my cup before I went back into the common area. Another sip and I resumed my purring.
Wifflebat gave my drink a wistful look. “That looks so good I can almost smell it.” Then she sighed, “So Cheshire what do you plan to do now?”
“If I want to use my abilities my age kind of limits my options. Outside of supervised non-profit volunteer work I’m basically limited to acting, getting kitties out of trees and deliveries.” I sipped my drink as I paused, out of the corner of my eye I could see Shell trying to hold it together. “Quin and Mr. Chandler are working on ideas for the first two, but I was thinking of trying a delivery service and was wondering if you had any advice for me.”
Wifflebat looked surprised, “I’m not sure we’ll be much help. What do you need to know?”
I shrugged, “I assume it’s based on range, frequency and load capacity, but there isn’t much information on what the going rate for a jumper is. I was wondering if you were allowed to tell me.” I pointed to the counter behind them. “FYI your mochas are getting cold.” Their cups were thermal so I was exaggerating a bit but the drinks deserved to be enjoyed as fresh as possible. Besides I was worried that Shell was going to short out her shell if I made her wait much longer.
I sipped my drink with studied interest as Shell doubled over laughing, Wifflebat and Pinky spun around and stood staring at their cups sitting on the counter with vapor rising up from their contents and Astra spun to gave Jacky a disbelieving look. Ozma just gave me a wink and a barely perceptible nod from where she sat sipping tea.
Malcom hugged me one armed and stood grinning like a fool as he watched the women cautiously pick up their cups like they were handling unstable ordinance and take a sip. Wifflebat looked up from hers and fixed her gaze on me. “Okay you adorable scamp, you have our attention, but we need a few more details.” She counted them out on her fingers as she listed them. “How did it feel opening the gate, maintaining it, and making the transfer? Do you know of any obvious limitations to your ability?”
I collected my thoughts before I answered. “Once I used the stations webpage to get a general location I reached out and ‘looked’ for a space that ‘felt’ like what I was looking at on the screen.” I said pointing at the one she was displayed on. “Kind of like being in a dimly lit room where you can make out the general size and shape of an item but have to touch it to confirm detail. After I opened it I guess it felt like walking down an uneven sidewalk? Or maybe the top of wall just wide enough to walk on comfortably if you paid full attention? As far as the transfer went it was next to no effort. If what I did yesterday is any example I might be able to do twenty tons or more per jump before I start to ‘feel’ it.
“As far as limitations? Ozma thinks I need a sympathetic portal, Epad to epad in this case. Door to door, mirror to mirror, archway to archway, water to water. I need to experiment but I get the feeling that any two things that could be considered entryways might work as long as they are of the same type and a similar size to each other.”
Pinky looked up from her epad. “Let me make sure I have this right. Did you just say that opening a bridge to a location over nine thousand miles away was only ‘starting’ to get difficult?”
Despite myself that took me a moment. “Umm I guess?” I shook myself. “Sorry. Hearing someone else give the number kind of brought it home. Am I going to have to go into hiding?” I focused on not crushing my cup as I waited for the answer.
Astra was wary as she answered, “If you didn’t need someone to have ‘been’ there before you? Quite possibly.” She turned to Shell. “What do Quin and Blackstone say?”
Shell wasn’t laughing as she answered. “To not mention ANYTHING about Cheshire being able to bridge any further than she demonstrated yesterday. Safe responses are. ‘For legal reasons due to her age we cannot discuss details of her power set.’ or the old standby, ‘No comment.”
She turned and looked at Wifflebat and Pinky, “He told me to assure you that you two will be credited with the recruitment but asks that you use the same responses if questioned.”
Wifflebat nodded. Looking at my flattened ears she explained. “Even with your limitation you’re in the top ten percent of jumpers, maybe even the top one percent. Sorry munchkin.” She looked at Malcom. “You keep her safe Megaton. I want the hugs I get from her to be because she’s glad to see me, not relieved to. Do I make myself clear?”
Hugging me close Malcom smiled at her, “Crystal clear Ma’am.”
Wifflebat nodded, “Then we’ll sign off so you can get to it. We’ll do what we can from here and contact you tomorrow.” Pinky nodded from over her shoulder. “God speed.” They cut the connection there.
I sat down on a chair and sipped my drink while doing breathing exercises. Moving to Oregon hadn’t ended mother’s preoccupation with new agey “stuff”. Mara Lynne, the instructor mother settled on, was a longtime friend of Aunt Beth. One night when I’d had a bad week at school, and after mother had dropped me off to go to a Humanity First meeting, Aunt Beth had asked Mara to come over to talk to me. She’d walked me through some exercises to help me focus and “let go” of tension or worries. She’d revealed she was a “soft” breakthrough and I’d secretly revelled in that fact since.
All I needed was something to focus on and Jacky’s creation worked very well. Inhale. Sipp. Focus on how the bitterness of the dark cocoa was conterpointed by the dulce de leche. Exhale, let the discordant notes of tension and troubles to fall away. Inhale. Sipp. Observe how the heat of the drink allowed the richness of the cream to balance everything into its appealing whole. Exhale. Feel the strum of the love and care of those around you and let it fill you with its light. Repeat.
After the third time through I was starting to purr at the flavors again. I opened my eyes to see everyone staring at me in bemusement, including Chakra who was standing in the doorway watching me.
Chakra spoke first, “Well young lady Blackstone sent me down to see how you were holding up. I must say I’m impressed at how well you executed that technique. Though I’ve never seen it done with hot chocolate before.”
“Any drink made with care by a proper artist is a symphony.” I quoted. Purring, I finished my cup and set it on the table. My tails swayed lazily back and forth as I continued. “Mara used tea most often because it was the simplest for casual students to get right on their own but she had a.. ‘knack’ for adapting her techniques so they worked for those that had access to higher skills.
She never had me try coffee or alcohol obviously but when she wasn’t teaching meditation she gave classes on mixology. Her students work at or own over half the cafes and bars in Oregon.”
“FYI we are not going to do a competition between her and Jacky. Not without the judges signing a consent form.” I received confused looks, “Well we shouldn’t be held liable if they expire of bliss should we? Or suffer withdrawals?”
I took a deep breath and released it as I waited for the laughter to die down. I knew the danger hadn’t gone away but looking around I knew I had people I could trust to help me face it.
After the last 48 hours the rest of that day and most of the next were relatively uneventful. Resistance training, self defense evaluation, exhaustive scholastic placement tests, an interview with Dr. Mendel and Protocol and procedure manuals filled in the time between the press conference, the interview with Terry Reinhold, and dinner both nights with my friends in the exchange program. A private one hosted by Hana’s mother and the donors dinner after the opening ceremony.
Andrew had made me a fancy version of my Astra based costume in a beautiful sky blue that included a full skirt and an opalescent white sash fastened by a clasp with my crest in glittering crystal on a dark blue background that gathered it at my waist. It was so beautiful I was terrified to wear it. Quin assured me that, despite the feel, I could spill motor oil on it and it would wipe completely clean. A little food and drink would be no match for it.
Quin and Astra had worked with me on my expressions, getting me to cooperate with my ears instead of fighting them. So I managed to make it through the ceremony with reasonable poise. Daddy and Grandma looked more at ease than I expected as they joined me at the table with the families of the other students in my group. Hana and her grandmother Fuji Ehara in green and gold. Elspeth in red with a tartan sash and her uncle Father James Anderson, and Marion in silver and green with her uncle Father Nicolas Hadid.
Through the meal the four of us mostly exchanged looks or answered questions from one of the adults when their discussion was directed at us. However after the dessert course each of us were handed cases by our parentals. Each one contained three charms and a necklace braided from nine different chains. And each charm had a crystal vial with seven strands of our hair braided into a flat ribbon with a half twist joined at the end and then folded to resemble a fan.
Once each of us had ours we presented them to the other three. Mine were smaller versions of the clasp at my belt. Elspeth’s resembled a shield with crossed weapons on it as well as mechanical engineering symbols in the quadrants made by the crossed weapons. Marions was a disk with symbols for fire, water, wood, stone and metal arranged around the edge and a prism in the center. I started a bit when Hana handed out hers. They were faced with a cherry tree on the peak of a hill and backed by a very detailed bust of Kannon.
I had just finished placing the charms on the necklace when Kitsune asked from behind my shoulder. “Why that particular order Koneko-chan?”
I’d put Hana’s in the center with Marion’s to her right and Elspeth’s to the left. I put the completed necklace on as I answered and held my hands on the charms. “Ever since I was introduced to them all this is how I’ve seen them. Hana was my first contact in the exchange program, and when I look east to her home on Hokkaido, Marion’s home is to the right and Elspeth’s is to the left. That, that way when I watched a sunrise it reminded me of the light they brought into my life when I needed it.
“Mara lynne, Aunt Beth and Ms. Hunter could shelter me from to time to time but I still had to go back out into the dark alone.” I took a shuddering breath and dabbed away my tears. “I’m sorry. That world can chase me all it wants, it is behind me now.”
Elspeth, Hana and Marion solemnly put their necklaces on. I almost started crying again when I saw the placement. My three friends, no my sisters had placed my charm at the center of their arrangements.
Marion held up her hand between us, “We will be the light to banish the darkness and reveal the divides separating people.”
Elspeth added her hand, “We will be the engineers that bridge those divides and connect the people of all worlds”
Hana added her hand, ”We will grow understanding between people and cultures providing gateways to a future where all may flourish and grow.”
Finally I added my hand, “We will join other champions in defending these gateways against all who would tear them down and return us to darkness.”
We finished together, “We shall stand by the side of each other, and those who join us as long as we draw breath, to uphold this concordance for this generation and all that follow. This do we so swear.”
None of us heard the crack as Astra broke the stem on her glass.