By Max Fauth, Mathieu Roy, Jeff Skagen, Michael Surbrook

January 2039

Vivian glanced around, but saw only pensive, thoughtful expressions on the other's 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?"

"Plans...." Shion said thoughtfully. "The question is more complex than that, Vivian. What plans should we make? How should we go about acting upon them? Do we wish to be militant in our actions and actively oppose the multinationals? Or do we work more covertly, hiring ourselves out to the corporations and then using their money against them?"

She paused and then stood up, shaking her hair free from her shoulders. She gestured to her fellow espers and began to pace, talking to the room more than anyone one person. Vivian caught Raven's expression and felt this seemed to be out of character for Shion, who was probably far more self-assured under more "normal" conditions. Then again, she was advocating basically taking on the whole world to defend the rights of espers to control their own destiny. Heady stuff no matter how you looked at it.

"I would be lying if I said I felt I could stand up to the multinationals on my own." Shion started, carefully avoiding eye contact. "Allen, Raven, Azumi, myself, we are some of the most powerful espers on the planet, but we are fools to think we can fight megacorporations and win. We are too few, even with our esper talents, and even a small megacorporations has far more resources than we can ever hope to amass. At least, right now." She stopped, turned, and started back the way she'd come, causing Vivian to start. It was like watching a tennis match.

"By the same token, we need to stand up to them at some point. How long will we submit, or allow our fellow espers to to be pawns and playthings for corporate and even national powers? We need to act... we need to make it possible for espers like us to make their own decisions as to their fate. We need...."

Shion stopped suddenly and then spun on her heel to face Raven. "We need you, Raven."

"Me?" Raven said, looking up at Shion incredulously. The black-haired esper waited for Shion to explain herself.

"We need your clinic, school, whatever you want to call it. We need a place where we can train espers to use their powers, to become comfortable with them, to enable them to defend themselves and take control of their lives before the corporations do. We also need to act politically, to encourage pro-esper views in different governments. To convince people we are not monsters, we are simply... different."

"Well, it's not so much my 'place' as it's Auntie Lydia's," Raven said. "I could ask her to help out, again, but I don't want to impose on her after all that she's done for me and the kids already. Sometimes I wonder how she manages. But the idea is a good one; someplace where we can educate and teach. And the Outback, either Lydia's place or another, is a good idea." She hesitated. "A 'school' will be useless without people to act as teachers, though."

"There will be funding Raven." Shion nodded to Allen. "We've already agreed on that. As for teachers... I taught you didn't?"

Raven nodded with a sly grin. "Sure you did. But trust me, raising esper kids is full-time work. I'm still flabbergasted by the amount of work Lydia put in."

"I don't think we are going to be raising them." Shion replied. "I have no desire to deal with infants and the like. We should be working with older espers, at minimum preteens. As for training.... Azumi, could we hire you to assist?"

Azumi glanced up, looking just a touch startled at the request. "Assist? How?"

"As an instructor." Shion answered. Continuing quickly before Azumi could voice a protest. "Not in esper arts, but in self-control. I think teaching some of the basics of the martial arts, as well as dance, the bow, even calligraphy and the tea ceremony, might help in giving some espers a better peace of mind and better control over their talents." Shion paused, looking as if she didn't fully trust her own proposal. "Or may be I'm being too optimistic."

"And maybe you're not," said Vivian softly. "It's worth trying. I practice with my powers all the time, but even so my control has never been all that I've wanted it to be. Maybe a broader training regimen, like you suggest, could help me too?"

Raven smiled and nudged Vivian. "I have all my sculpting materials at home if you want to try." She nodded and added, "I've only ever sculpted with my powers, but you're having me wonder how much the art has helped versus the power. Maybe more than I'd think."

Vivian shrugged. "Maybe. I sketch with my powers instead of sculpt—or at least I try to—but so far it hasn't seemed to help me all that much. If learning martial arts or dance or the like might help me learn to focus better, then I think I'd like to try it. That is.... if you don't mind, Raven." She glanced at Azumi. "And, of course, assuming you decide to accept Shion's offer to teach students like me, Azumi."

"So ka..." Azumi said softly. "By helping young espers achieve an inner peace though meditation, skill with the brush, the yumi, the naginata, or though the simple steps of Cha-no-ryu ... I may enable them greater control over their powers?"

"Exactly," Shion smiled.

Azumi returned Vivian's glance. "I find the idea intriguing. Provided the student is willing."

"You bet I am!" said Vivian, nodding. "I'll try anything you think might help my self-control. I've wanted to start practicing a martial art for a while now, as it happens, and I wouldn't mind trying most of the other skills you named. Especially calligraphy. I'm a decent sketch artist, so that's something I'd like to try my hand at—no pun intended."

She paused and glanced apprehensively at Raven. "Are you okay with this, Raven? You know I don't have any complaints with your training, right? I'd never have made it even close to this far without you. I wouldn't have nearly as much control as I do without you, and my power levels and versatility are way better thanks to your care. It's just that I've been in a bit of a rut lately in terms of furthering my control, and I'm hoping this might shake me out of it, y'know?"

Raven laughed. "Hey, that's fine by me. Things have worked out well so far but they've plateaued a bit, so you might as well try new stuff. Actually, I'm tempted to try it myself. It's a different approach and I'm curious to see just how much difference it makes."

"Hey, that'd be cool!" said Vivian, smiling in relief. "We could be her first two students. Thanks for understanding, Raven."

"Quaint," was the first word that escaped Allen's lips. He broke his contemplative silence, glancing over Raven and Vivian in turn. "I appreciate your desire for self-improvement, but we do have more important issues to worry about here."

Vivian looked slightly taken aback, and then dropped her head. "Sorry," she said, sounding abashed. "You're right. Please, continue."

"We've discussed training," he began, nodding to Azumi. "Funding and representation are cleared as well," he continued, inclining his head towards Shion. "We have a location, hopefully, where we can train those who would follow us." With this, he nodded once more to Raven. "However, there are certain matters of form and presentation that are equally important."

He looked over the assembled espers in the room with him. "Between us, we represent some of the cream of esper talent in the world. Nonetheless, the question often emerges as to who will succeed us in terms of capabilities. We know that new espers are emerging every day, and inevitably some will come to rival or surpass even us." With this, he fixed his gaze on Shion, gauging her response.

"Perhaps," was her measured reply. "I am one of the most powerful of my generation. And even the weakest of us in this room is far beyond the powers of any esper from fifty years ago. The abilities of individual espers are growing with each generation. Who knows what the future may hold?"

"Maybe this individual has emerged already," Allen turned from Shion to regard Vivian and Raven coldly. "And under the tutelage of a 'dangerous' fringe group with rather narrow goals, nonetheless. I know," he raised a hand abruptly to ward off argument, "That is hardly the truth of the matter. But that is how many people will see the issue. You have already raised some... Fifteen? Twenty students this way? How many more before people take notice?" Here he paused once more, watching the assembled group as his words sank in.

"In short: Those in power will see a growing army of potent weapons with dangerous ideas. How do we present ourselves—No, how do we operate, even on the most basic levels, to avoid that perception?"

"We need a face," Shion answered. "We need someone to use as a public image. Someone who people can identify with and not feel intimidated by. Certainly not me... or you, Allen. Or even Raven, I think. Someone young, innocent, and non-threatening. Someone to be our spokesperson, to explain our ideas and needs to the rest of the world. We also need to operate in the same fashion as any other rights group, be it animal or replicated human, with a net presence and political lobbying groups. We may even need to establish an official office, and file with whatever local governments we need to Finally, we need to create an agenda, to establish what we want to accomplish and how."

Raven frowned thoughtfully at Shion's suggestions. "We've gone from an underground railroad for esper kids to a political movement, now. Both are worthy pursuits, to be sure, but we need more than the people in this room to do one, let alone both of them." She shrugged, and added, "Unfortunately lobbying governments may not be that successful, because we can't match the economic power of the corporations who'll oppose us. I'd love to have public opinion on our side, but to effect real change it's the corps we need to pressure. And they only understand the language of money."

"Then we incorporate ourselves. We become a business they must deal with if they want to work with espers." Shion suddenly looked tired. "I just fear we will become what we are fighting against."

"Distasteful though it may seem, it is the most practical option." Allen gave a remarkably casual shrug. "We fret over the power that corporations wield; in fact, it is the very crux of the problem we face. So why not turn such power to our own advantage? Certainly, I see no reason we cannot retain our goals and ideals in such a structure." A wry smile crossed his face. "Those students of ours can even work as hired operatives under our guidance. In providing such a service, we become less a threat."

"I'm not so sure about that", Raven objected. "It's one thing to form an association, which is really all that a corp is—it's quite another to act for profit, especially if we try to monopolize the esper weapon market, so to speak. If we're 'just another corporation', we'll automatically become 'the enemy' to a lot of the people we're trying to help; how many of us here are naturally distrustful of 'the corps'?" She chuckled, "The problem is that if we're for-profit we lose our high ground and if we're non-profit we lose the economic clout. We need to get creative."

"Start a religion."

Everyone turned to look at Azumi, who continued to sit calmly and drink her tea. "It worked once before, if I recall correctly. And it certainly would server to bring like-minded people together." She set her tea cup down and gave a slight shrug. "Not that I think it would be the right path for us to take."

"A corp or a religion" Raven said with an amused grin. "I think we need another idea. I also think we don't want to set up a huge organization up front, or can anyway. Let's just start small and see how things grow. An informal group to start with."

"Such as your..." Shion paused mentally searching for the right word. "Students? Refugees? Children?"

"Children," said Vivian softly. "Or family. But definitely not refugees. Not anymore."

"I like to think of them as siblings," Raven said. "I'm a little young to be a mother just yet."

"Perhaps we should all think of them as our siblings," Shion replied. "A family not related by blood, but by power."

Allen drummed out a staccato on the mat with one finger even as he pondered the matter. "In many ways... Yes..." His voice trailed off, and he nodded to himself. "That does seem the simplest option. We already have examples, if you like - Your family, who can show how we can proceed; simply, along the same path."

He nodded once more, an enthusiastic grin spreading across his face. "It may be that we were simply getting ahead of ourselves. Raven, Vivian, I assume you are still in contact with your fellows?"

"Of course," replied Vivian. "They're family, or as close as makes no difference. Some have stayed in closer contact than others, of course, but we haven't completely lost touch with anyone yet."

"And then how do you think they would feel, leading the way as it were for us?"

Vivian scrunched up her nose, looking uncertain. "Honestly, I'm not sure. You've got to realize, they've all moved out and are settling into new lives of their own now. Some would probably be willing to help, but others, I'm sure, would not want to disrupt their lives." She glanced at Raven, as if to see if she shared her opinion. "How many would choose to help probably depends on precisely what it is you want them to do."

“Espers are an individualistic lot, as I’m sure you’ve noticed,” Raven said with a wry smile. “Even in a close-knit familial group like ours, it was a lot like herding cats. It won’t just depend on what we decide to do, it’ll also be in how it’s presented. Some of them have a beef with authority figures.”

Shion nodded. “We need to make them want to listen to us... not force them to listen.”

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