Azumi Kiribayashi paused in her sweeping to listen. The shrine was quiet, the city just a murmur. She could hear the faint sounds of engines and police sirens, typical noise for a Friday evening. On a bad night there might be a pillars of smoke marking burning cars or buildings, the sky full of police helicopters tracking down battling biker gangs. Such was life in the middle of Mega-Tokyo.
But here, in her shrine, surrounded by dense stands of pine and cryptomeria, Azumi felt a measure of peace. The torii at the shrine entrance served as more than just symbolic gates, they served to remind passersby this was a place where the ancient Shinto beliefs were not forgotten, where tradition meant something, where the old ways were still practiced. Most who passed by didn't give the shrine a second glance, to them ancient temples meant nothing when compared to the glitz and glitter of the "cyber" age. But there were a few, a precious few, who found value in the peace of mind the shrine offered. It was for them, and for herself, Azumi kept things in order.
In truth, she had no desire to leave. Here she had everything she needed—her life might be a simple one, but it was satisfying. But, of course, one couldn't live completely apart from the modern world, and Azumi, for all her traditional ways, was a realist. Thus, she taught the art of the bow, the naginata, of dance, and calligraphy—among other skills—to the children of many a corporate executive. They seemed to think having a thin veneer of traditionalism would allow their offspring a better chance to get ahead in Japan's corporate world. Azumi, who saw the absurdity in this still accepted students—for there were times when a child found pleasure in learning what Azumi had to teach, and applied themselves, seeking to better their skills through diligence and practice. It was at times like this she felt she'd accomplished something.
Returning to her sweeping, Azumi had scarcely touched the broom to flagstone when she felt the sudden pulse. It echoed through her brain, a quavering shock wave that announced the arrival of another esper with pinpoint clarity. Pausing again, she looked up, into the darkness of the night sky. A guest, a fairly unique guest in fact, had arrived.
Although she couldn't see the approaching esper, she could feel the incoming signature in her mind. It was a powerful signal, growing more so with each passing second. For some, such a feeling of power might have made them apprehensive, even fearful; Azumi simply stood quietly, letting the gentle breeze blow through the strands of her ankle-length fall of hair.
There. Her guest had landed and was making her way (for she now recognized the signature and who it belonged to) up the path to the shrine proper. Azumi debated putting the broom away, but then decided against it. Instead she resumed her sweeping, brushing scattered pine needles off the path. No visitor, not matter their political, corporate, or esper power, was going to interrupt her duties.
The sound of boots on stone announced the arrival of her sky-sent guest. Azumi paused a third time, standing straight and carefully leaning the broom against a stone lantern before turning around. "Greetings, Empress. I trust you are well?" she asked with a short bow.
"Yes..." replied Shion, "As well as can be expected." If she felt any annoyance at the nickname, she didn't show it, but instead bowed in return. "I am the first?"
Azumi nodded. "You are. Tea?"
Thank god buying her a new wardrobe had been one of the first things they'd done after arriving in Hong Kong! If Shion had issued her invitation to Raven just a week earlier, Vivian's introduction to The Empress would probably have occurred while wearing patched old jeans with holes in the knees and a faded, frayed old blouse. Now, thanks to a shopping spree at Raven's expense, she at least had a reasonable selection of stylish new clothes to choose from—not that that had kept her from agonizing over what to wear. After all, just what does one wear when invited along to a meeting of some of the world's most powerful and important espers?
She'd asked Raven what everyone else was likely to wear, and had been informed that Azumi would of course wear the red and white robes of a Shinto shrine maiden, while Shion might appear in anything from battle armor to a silk gown, the only certainty being that whatever she wore would be very expensive. Other than that, Raven hadn't even been entirely sure who else would even be present. She had finally suggested that they should try to appear "casually dressy"—whatever that meant.
Grabbing her new jacket from the closet, she slid it on and took a quick look in the mirror at the outfit she'd finally assembled. The simple lines and dark colors of her black slacks and thigh-length leather jacket contrasted nicely against the pale-yellow of her button-down dress shirt. But... she frowned at the untucked shirttails. From what she'd seen, leaving them out seemed to be the current fashion, at least among others her age, but it just looked messy and unkempt to her eyes. Grimacing, she unzipped her slacks long enough to tuck the dangling shirt back in and checked herself again. That was better... and besides, she realized glancing at her watch, there was no more time for her to make changes; they had to leave very soon or be late.
She quickly stepped into the living area, and finding no sign of Raven there, headed toward the older espers bedroom. "Raven, you dressed yet? We're gonna be late if we don't go now!"
Raven came out, fussing with her hair, which was silky-smooth and falling down her back like a sleek waterfall. She wore a purple tunic, high-collared and buttoned down in the front on her left side, much like an old army uniform, part of the latest retro-modern fad, over black designer slacks. "I'm coming, I'm coming." She checked her makeup in the mirror, then turned to Vivian. "Y'know what the bad thing is about long-range teleportation? People will invite you to meetings thousands of miles away with one day's notice and expect you to be there." She grinned and looked Vivian over. "Awesome outfit. You're handling this like a pro. Thank goodness you're not going for that sloppy tails-out look."
"Oh... thanks!" Vivian briefly glanced away, blushing slightly. "I wasn't sure, y'know? I thought about wearing one of the skirts you bought me, but given the chill, it seemed like a skirt might be kind of... drafty. Anyway, I'm glad you think I chose well. And you look pretty sharp too, by the way." She paused, then sighed. "Well, no point waiting any longer." Stepping forward, she lightly embraced Raven for the teleport. "I'm ready when you are."
"All right. I think a skirt would have been okay with good stockings though. Besides I doubt we'll be outdoors. But what you have is fine." She smiled and took hold of Vivian's shoulders. "I'm going to double-jump. Alley in Mega-Tokyo, then the shrine, so I don't mess it up." She closed her eyes and moved....
Vivian had likewise closed her eyes for the jump, but in her head she could feel the twin spikes of Raven's esper power as she teleported, and could hear the two crashes—the second much smaller, owing to the much shorter distance being jumped—from the psychokinetic shockwave that invariably resulted from a teleporting espers arrival.
Opening her eyes, she found she had to let them adjust a few moments to the relative darkness before she could see clearly. Looking around, she saw that they were outdoors, standing on a neat stone pathway directly between a pair of statues of lion-like creatures on short pedestals, one standing proudly, the other seeming to roar in defiance. On either side of the path were a number of well-groomed trees, many with folded paper charms hanging from ropes tied around their trunks. Most of the dim light seemed to be spillover from the city outside the surrounding walls, although a number of paper lanterns hung from branches augmented the occasional stone lantern in defining the pathway ahead of them. The soft glow of the lanterns was too steady to come from a candle flame, revealing that, as natural and old fashioned as this place felt, at least a few small concessions to modern technology had been made even here.
Vivian took a few extra seconds to glance over the guardian statues and the torii behind her, ensuring that she would have no difficulty remembering this place well enough to teleport herself here in the future, should the need arise. Admittedly, that didn't seem too likely at the moment—if nothing else, she had no intention of teleporting herself much of anywhere until she'd learned to externalize her psychokinetic field enough to at least bring her clothing along with her—but it never hurt to plan for the future.
"This way," Raven said. "Azumi'll have felt that, for sure." The black-haired esper didn't come here very often, had rarely cause to, but she always enjoyed doing so. She wasn't a Shintoist, yet there was something soothing, something spiritual and pure, about the shrine, something she could connect to. Something that reminded her of Auntie's clinic, or the home she'd built in the Outback—it always seemed everything was in its place even with twenty kids in there, there was calm even in the fiercest tempest.... She strolled down the illuminated path, towards where shrine proper.
As they moved down the path, Vivian realized that Raven wasn't the only esper she was sensing in the area. Another signature—no, two signatures—were further down the path, coming toward them. She wondered if Raven were wrong and this meeting was going to be held outside after all, or if they would later move into the buildings she could see silhouetted further back along the path.
Moments later, she spotted two women approaching them in the dim light of the lanterns. The shorter one was wearing red and white, and had black hair that fell nearly to her ankles. From Raven's description, that was surely Azumi. The taller one, with white-hair almost as long as Azumi's, could only be Shion Nys.
Vivian's realized that she was about to meet The Empress herself, and found herself dropping back to follow a step behind Raven. Which would be worse, she wondered, for Shion to ignore her or for Shion to pay attention to her?
"Welcome." Azumi said with a bow. "No difficulties I presume?" Her English was flawless, albeit accented.
"No, none at all. I've been here a few times, enough to have a clear picture for teleportation," Raven replied pleasantly, bowing back with a careful correctness rare among Westerners. "Azumi, please meet my adoptive sister Vivian. Vivian, this is Azumi-san."
Azumi bowed again, "Welcome to Sakai shrine, Vivian. I am Kiribayashi Azumi, the miko who maintains these grounds."
Vivian returned the bow, rather more clumsily than had Raven. "I'm Vivian Lau. It's a pleasure to meet you. You're shrine is lovely."
Glancing past Azumi and Vivian, Raven gave Shion a nod. It had been a while since she'd seen her, though she still considered the infamous esper as a good friend. She had some trepidation about the Empress calling this meeting, but at least she seemed to be taking some of Raven's advice: there were only so many espers in their league, and they should socialize together some. Although perhaps, she realized ruefully, she had ought to incite Shion to socialize with other people, as well.
Any further conversation was cut short as Azumi, Raven, and Shion all looked up. A moment later Vivian turned around, the four of them staring down the path and the torri that marked the shrine's entrance.
"He's here," Shion announced. "And I'd expected him to be early."
"Nonsense," Raven smiled, "He's simply fashionably late."
From so high up, London was magnificent. A broad window looked out over the glimmering lights of the darkened city. Down below, the Thames could be clearly seen, snaking its way through the built-up streets, criss-crossed by bridges that, even at this hour, carried frantic traffic throughout the city. Innumerable aircraft crowded the sky, their own navigation lights further decorating the view.
Allen Schwartzkern absent-mindedly watched the view, carefully tuning out the noises from his own penthouse apartment. The main room was comfortable and warm. Warm-coloured prints decorated one wall, facing a well-packed wooden bookcase. A heavy wooden table sat in the middle, an empty glass and closed book resting on it. A soft leather couch against the wall gave an excellent view to the broad window opposite.
"You're not listening, are you?"
He turned, half-surprised to see the room's other occupant. Cristophe Taylor, a stern-faced young man tapped his foot with irritation as he watched Allen. "I was reminding you not to take too long, as you have a meeting in ninety minutes in Beijing."
"Call it off," Allen said with a sigh, and turned back to his view of the city.
Cristophe started, then noisily cleared his throat. "Might I remind you that the employer has already deposited over-"
"Return it," Allen said simply. "This meeting is important for our kind, and I don't want to rush it."
Unseen, Cristophe frowned at the reference to 'our kind.' Since receiving the invitation, Allen had been brooding on the apparent division between espers and normal people. "You'll clean it up, won't you?" he said absently.
"Yes sir," Cristophe replied. A quiet beep sounded from the PDA in his hand. Wordlessly, he offered forwards the royal blue coat draped over his arm. "Sir, it's time."
Allen nodded and turned to face him. Cool blue eyes met Cristophe's own brown, and he could read the troubled expression on the esper's face. "I know you have your doubts, my friend. But this is more than a gathering of acquaintances." He took the coat and draped it loosely across his shoulders, then drew out his waist-length blond hair to let it hang down his back once more. "Things will change, for good or ill. And we are at the point to determine how."
Allen stepped back and gently rose into the air. A faint wind rose in the confines of the apartment, billowing his coat and hair out from his body. Cristophe stepped well back and found himself gripping the doorframe behind him. Without another word, Allen vanished from the air, leaving a sudden rush of air that died down as quickly as it had begun.
The room settled, leaving Cristophe with his thoughts. It was so like Allen to basically ignore him, but he was well paid nonetheless. As he had on many occasions, he decided it was simply not his business. He turned to his office and set off with a sigh. Many long hours talking to an irate warlord loomed ahead of him.
A sound like a thunderclap accompanied a sudden burst of air outside the gate of Azumi's shrine. Allen appeared in mid-air, floating a couple of feet off the ground, his royal blue coat and long blond hair billowing around him. He drifted forwards and downwards, landing mid-step and setting off up the stairs at a brisk pace. As he strode up the long steps, he straightened the ornate navy blue vest that he wore over his white dress shirt. He slowed his pace as he mounted the final steps and stepped into the courtyard to greet his fellow espers.
Easily as tall as the Empress, if not taller, although seemingly of a lighter build, Allen came to a halt as all eyes turned to him. He bowed slightly in greeting, his narrow face and chiseled features beaming confidence. "Azumi, Raven, Shion... Apologies for my tardiness."
"Good day, Allen. It's nice to see you again," Raven replied politely.
"And who is this?" Allen asked, straightening up and stepping towards Vivian.
"Allen, Shion, please meet my adoptive sister, Vivian. Vivian, this is Allen Schwartzkern, and Shion Nys." Raven smoothly resolved the issue of introductions.
"Charmed," he simply said, gently kissing her hand.
Vivian blushed, and briefly averted her gaze. "Oh, um, likewise. I'm...Vivian. Vivian Lau. It's a pleasure to meet you, Allen."
She glanced over to Shion as he released her hand, nervously tugging at the bottom of her jacket. "And, uh, I'm pleased to meet you as well, Ms. Nys."
The tall esper settled for simply inclining her head. "Greetings, Vivian. You're Raven's student, correct?"
"Well yes, I guess, but..." she hesitated, wondering how best to explain. "There's more to it than just that. She saved me five years ago, and we've been together ever since. I think of her as my sister now."
"Sister?" Shion replied, her expression hard for Vivian to read. "Since you're now in Hong Kong, perhaps you might meet mine."
"Please, I have tea inside, where it is warmer." Azumi gestured back down the path. "If you will come with me?"
"Shion has a sister?" Vivian stared at the retreating backs of the other espers for a moment. "Hey! Wait up!"
They sat in a loose circle on the cedar floor, some, such as Azumi, kneeling in the traditional style, others, such as Vivian, adopting a more relaxed pose. Cups of tea, provided by Azumi, steamed gently and helped fight the winter chill. Thick mats did as well, as the floor was cold, despite the warmth of the room.
Shion sat at the head of the tiny group, gazing down at the tea cup held in her hands. Her long hair fell over her face and down her shoulders, creating a veil of sorts. Vivian found herself unable to stop staring at the older woman, her initial trepidation at meeting the legendary "Empress" replaced with a bizarre fascination with the woman's hair. Was it naturally that white? How did she take care of it? Did she ever cut it? Come to think of it, how did Azumi deal with her hair? It fell to her ankles when she was standing, and now that she was kneeling, lay in a long line across the floor. And then there was Allen....
Vivian paused and blinked, here she was surrounded by some of the most powerful esper weapons in the world and all she could think about was their hair? Granted, her fellow espers all had luxurious flowing tresses that more than put her short locks to shame, but still....
With a sudden start, Vivian realized Shion was saying something, and might have been speaking for some time. Sitting up straighter, she glanced over, determined to pay attention.
"...I had wished there could have been more of us, but as you know Oniko was killed when we took down the Yozora-ryu, Paterson refused to come, and Ran...."
"And Ran?" Allen asked.
"Ran seems to have abandoned the Neo York Zero Zone."
Vivian's eyes widened at this. Ran's left the Zone! My god, if he goes on another rampage, in a populated area, in a major city—is that why we're here? Is Shion trying to recruit us to preemptively take Ran down?
Raven, for her part, shrugged. "That's happened before. He gets bored or something and lays low or goes away from a long while. He always comes back." She shrugged again. "I wouldn't read too much into it."
Putting her cup down, Shion pushed her hair back away from her face and sat up straight. "I..." she paused and seemed to almost be groping for the right words to say. "I asked all of you to come because of something I discovered recently. Something that I think we've all known about, but most of us have ignored for one reason for another. But I don't think we can ignore it any longer."
Allen gave a faint sigh, and absorbed himself staring into his tea. Eventually he looked up, fixing Shion with a grim regard. "This was in the Zone, wasn't it?"
"Yes...." Shion paused for a moment and then continued. "A few weeks ago I visited the wreck of the Yozora-ryu we destroyed. I had heard some rumors about it, and wanted to check them out for myself." Shion paused for a second time and then reached into a pocket, producing a small holoprojector. She set it on the floor and pressed a switch. "Deep inside I found a room. A room containing... this."
Vivian stared at the projected image, trying to grasp what she was seeing. A small room with dark metal walls, the floor scattered with jumbled debris and—bones, she realized. Her eyes wandered over the carnage, spotting skulls, ribcages, and other recognizable parts of skeletons. A grizzly find, yes, but she didn't understand why the Empress seemed to be so disturbed by it. Surely Shion hadn't imagined that all the crew had survived the crash...
Raven looked at the picture in detail and gasped as she saw the size of the skeletons. She blanched and sat back in her chair, visibly shaking. "They had... children... on that plane?" she asked in a weak, trembling voice.
"Children and teenagers as near as I can tell. A group similar to the ones you rescued." Shion glanced a Vivian as she spoke. "I wondered how they knew we were there so quickly... apparently Jinsei thought having some esper sensitives aboard would serve as an early warning system."
"There were more of us. That's a cell. They died in there." Vivian's jaw clenched against sudden nausea as she remembered another small, dark metal room, crammed with of squalling, terrified children. She finally looked away, eyes haunted, and glanced to Shion. "Did you...do you know how many?"
"Does it matter?" Shion replied with an edge to her voice. "They had enough."
Allen spared a quick glance for his companions. He nodded slightly, eyes closed. "We had always suspected there were others, but we couldn't confirm.... But why onboard the Yozora-ryu?"
"They wanted to be warned if we attacked. They wanted hostages. They..." Raven trailed off. Her hands were shaking, her skin pale as death. "We killed them." She spoke the words in a shaky voice, but it had a finality to it.
"Vivian," Shion asked abruptly, turning her gaze to the young esper. "You were taken by Jinsei. Did they ever tell you what they wanted? What you were expected to do once you were taken out of the Zone?"
The young esper shook her head. "Not in any detail, but then I was only in their custody for a few days. They did claim that we were going to go live in an arcology. Told us how much better it would be there, with warm clothes, a soft bed, and plenty of food we could eat. Kept saying how we'd eventually come to appreciate how much they were doing for us." She shuddered and hugger herself. "But no, they never told us just what they wanted from us. To be their pet corporate espers, I suppose, like Shiroko-Tsuhi tried to do with Raven."
"Like they've done with a lot of espers." Shion said with a gesture. "Give them what they want... a clean bed, good food, a little money, some luxuries, and all they ask is to be not afraid to use their power when the time comes." She shook her head, "Hell, I know some offices will bring in esper sensitives merely to sense if another esper is in the area. They usually are used a receptionists...." Shion paused, "Or as an early warning system for a Yozora-ryu."
Abruptly Shion stood and began to pace, the wooden floor creaking under her stockinged feet. "I was there when the first Yozora-ryu arrived. I remember watching it come in... and seeing its topside guns train on me. And I knew why it was there... Because Jinsei was searching for espers." She paused and looked at the small seated circle. "All the corporations are, because we are the one thing they can't produce. Sure, they can try to make some, but even now that's not reliable process, so the only real option is to recruit them." She paused, then continued in a low voice, "Or steal them."
"We are nothing more than another commodity to them. Something to be bought with promises of shiny trinkets. Barely one step above synthetics if you think about it." Shion stopped pacing, spun on her heel and then settled back down, her hair slowly settling around her body. "We need to do something about this."
"Or at least, those that want to leave," Raven added evenly, a quiver still evident in her low voice. The skeletons hadn't sat well with her, however hardened she was by life as a Zone kid, auxiliary nurse, and esper weapon. "For Zoners, the offer of good food and a warm bed is worth a lot, Shion. Enough that they might be willing to overlook the rest, at least at first." She shrugged. "Pulling them out of a situation they're content with isn't much better than what Jinsei's been doing." Her voice hardened. "But yes. Those that want to leave, those that are caged... we should help them. Get some sort of underground railroad going." She was reminded of a certain episode involving a ticked-off supervisor, an escaped esper kid, and purple hair. "The good thing about being a hot commodity—you can yank chains and they'll let it slide, because they can't afford not to have you or worse, have you going to the competition. Maybe we can somehow set the rules by which the corps will have to play. It won't be perfect, but..."
"But it will be better than what we have," Allen answered. "Shion is right, we need to do something for our kind."
"Like what?" Vivian asked.
There was a moment of silence as the gathered epsers considered the question.
"If I may speak..." Azumi's quiet voice broke the silence. "I was first taught the ways of the miko when I was very young. The names, rituals, dances, and songs one needed to know to carry out one's duties. Can we not do the same for young espers? Teach them to understand and control their powers before the corporations take them?"
"I've got some experience with that," Raven pointed out, turning to Vivian. "It's a very worthwhile thing to do, but it's an adventure. No two espers are alike in temperament or ability and that makes it a challenge to teach each of them to his abilities. I've had to come to Azumi for advice with telepaths, for example. And you'd better set up some place out of the way with nothing too breakable nearby. Experimentation is the mother of learning, but experimenting with throwing cars around can make a mess." She smiled warmly at younger esper. "It's exhausting, but it's rewarding."
"Could we use your location in the Outback?" Shion asked. "It is both isolated and open, two things we will need."
"I think a larger problem would be that of recruitment," Allen interjected. "We can hardly force anyone to join, and with the revelation of Jinsei's efforts in the Zone, I suspect many young espers would be very cautious about who they reveal their powers to." He pondered the matter for a second more as he sipped his tea. "In essence, it becomes a matter of finding the individuals before the corporations do." He ended with and elaborate shrug, and simply asked "How?"
Raven shrugged. "The corps find espers with sensitives—we have a leg up on them there, since we have plenty of those. They also skim the newsfeeds for awakenings, again something we can do with the right resources."
"Speaking of resources, one thing we need to think about is funding," Shion said thoughtfully. "And I have a proposal. We, and by we, I mean myself, Raven, and Allen, if he so wants, will look into making investments to help pay for the costs this sort of project will accrue. I know I can put up sufficient initial funding, and with the help of certain financial advisors I know, should be able to turn that into even more over time." She paused and gave the others a small smile. "And time might be something we have plenty of."
Allen nodded. "I would be more than happy to contribute in that way." With a smile, he added, "Being fair, I was half-way looking for a reason to keep in the business. I doubt either of us are exactly short of funds."
"I'll contribute, but I'm not going to be able to put as much as you people," Raven said. "I haven't been "working" as much as you over the last few years."
"Every little bit helps. And as I said, we may have more time to develop this plan than we think." Shion glanced at the youngest member of the group. "How old do you think I am, Vivian?"
"I'd guess..." Vivian hesitated, concerned that the wrong answer might offend the Empress. "...maybe 25 or so?"
"I'm nearly 40. Do I look it?"
"Are you serious?" Vivian looked Shion over again. "That's pretty hard to believe, I mean... you obviously keep very fit, so I'd expect you too look good for your age, but still...."
"A good point," Shion replied with a shrug. "But over New Years I spent time with my sister and her wife and I noticed something... Marta is 35, and starting to look her age. It's not easy to see, but there are hints, especially in her face and around her eyes. Ling Ling, meanwhile, still looks like she's in her mid-twenties, and she about five years older then me. Evidence is starting to point to genetic upgrades aging at a slower rate. Upgrades... and some espers."
"I had noticed much the same," Allen replied. "Although, I must confess, not to quite the same degree." He chuckled slightly, flashing Shion a roguish grin.
"If it makes any difference," Azumi said softly, "I entered my fifty-first year in August of 2038."
The circle of espers fell silent and as one, turned to look at the miko.
"But you look so young," Vivian finally managed.
"There is a good chance most of us in this room, as well as several others I can think of, are equally blessed," Shion said with aplomb, having recovered her composure. "With some estimating life-spans nearing two hundred years... or more. There are rumors... rumors, mind you, that Ran hasn't aged at all since he first appeared in the early twenties, and some say he look younger now than he used to." Shion paused and took a breath. "But no one can say for sure."
Vivian glanced around, but saw only pensive, thoughtful expressions on the others faces and wondered if she dared be the first to speak up.
"Okay," she finally ventured when nobody else chose to break the silence. "So we might be nigh-immortal and have all the time we could ever want to plan. But other espers may not have as long, so maybe we should just get started making our plans, oh say, right away?"
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