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Aberrant: Children of Quantum Fire - Tour of Duty

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Date: January 2028


The newsreader directed everybody’s attention to N!’s on-site reporter. Given that ‘everybody’ were a captive audience by definition – TV being what it is – everybody paid attention.

,,

“This is Mei-Hua Chang, coming to you all live from outside the Project Utopia facility in Langxiang, where a confidential document leak has sparked a maelstrom of rumours about the recent absence of Team Tomorrow’s primary lineup, and secondary questions about the presence of Caestus Pax. Three days ago, top secret documentation was leaked to the press suggesting that Team Tomorrow’s First Team, led by the young prodigy Glory, has in fact been sent into space to battle an alien threat.”


Those watching were better informed. They knew the rumours to be true.


Meh’Lindi lay back on the couch and sighed. Her body crackled and creaked as her bones shifted under the surface of her skin. She had been feeling nervous since Darion first spread the ‘good word’ as he called it. She preferred to be in her larger forms when her nerves were taut, but the environs here would not accommodate her. She’d bring the house down, and that would make many people rather angry.


Snow sat on a cushion on the floor, her rainbow-coloured hair falling free down her front. She leaned back into the distorted mass of Prudence’s body. Her torso groaned as tentacles writhed within. Seven long, serpentine arms jutted from the mass, seemingly at random places, and seven long necks coiled. Four of her heads were focused on the TV. One kissed Snow’s neck. The other two, in conjunction with four of her arms, were reading books.


“This is awesome,” Snow said, in a surprisingly casual tone.

“Exciting, maybe,” Prudence answered, “but I’m now sure ‘awesome’ fits it. If Utopia are hushing it up they’re probably re-running Independence Day, or some other alien disaster movie.”


Meh’Lindi let them talk. It devolved fast into a collection of movie references. She did not watch movies herself. The science of taint occupied her mind the most. That and anger at the children who had advanced everything so far and then taken all their knowledge with them when they left. Chang
was right to be cynical about the potential of our progeny,
she thought, with utmost bitterness.


Most of the remaining Anavasi were former Pandaimonion or Casablancas. Plenty of those left with Puck as well. Few had done their time with the Harvesters, as run by Geryon, or the Primacy or Nova Vigilance.


She remembered all the good talk from back then. She remembered sitting in one of the sewer meeting points talking with her fellow Harvesters about the bright future awaiting them when the children grew up. They’d been waiting for Throwback and Case to return with the next batch of humans for a game of Zip Hunters on the particular occasion she was thinking of.


‘The zips will know their place then’, had been a common sentiment. ‘No more sewers, no more hiding’ had been another. ‘The rise of the One Race’ had been a rallying cheer. She had dined on human flesh and bones that day, and dined well.


What fools we were.


Nobody imagined that the children might take one look at the state of the world, turn around and declare ‘we really don’t care. Bye.’ Ironic, given that many Harvesters expressed that exact sentiment themselves. And they were all half-breeds, weighted down by human memories and half-broken relationships.


Mei handed them back to the newsroom, and the special continued. Speculation, mostly, mixed with some careful information leaks. Meh’Lindi suspected Starling and her friends to be behind this leak. Utopia would never want the world to know that Team Tomorrow was undermanned right now. That was probably the reason for Pax staying behind. It also meant that they were confident in Glory’s ability to fight off an alien invasion.

Quite the frightening thought, all considered.


“You’re being real quiet, Lindi,” Prudence said, turning one flawless bald head her way. She always wore a face that artisans would dream of. Her vanity as one of Narcosis’s fops had carried over into pride at her new appearance and form. She continued to grow more beautiful, more alien, and to expand as time passed. Meh’Lindi suspected that her form would fail soon. It took enhanced sensors to hear it, but sometimes, when Pru had stretched her tentacles out as far as she could, her flesh sounded like tearing sails. What would emerge when it did? She was looking forward to it.

“If Chang isn’t around to look miserable, someone has to take up the mantle,” Meh’Lindi said. Her voice emerged as a guttural, animalistic growl. Her long, razor teeth clacked together behind her veil of black silk. “I’m just thinking, Prudence.”


“About?”


“The past. The present. Where the two meet. And no, I’m not developing precognition.”


“You say it like that’d be a bad thing,” Snow laughed. She was quite hard to see at the minute. Prudence had shifted her tentacles to forcibly stretch her body half around Snow. Snow turned and rose up on her knees, then rested on her friend’s body. “Don’t you think it’d be interesting to see what Chang sees?”


Interesting, but I fear not pleasing. Chang was more sombre than ever since she developed the ability to ‘hear’ future echoes. It no longer seemed to be a point of philosophical correctness. Though the standing theory was that she just missed Lucrezia, or even that Lucrezia had somehow ‘addicted’ Chang to her, Meh’Lindi felt that there was something more behind Chang’s malaise. Only Sakura’s children seemed to motivate her.


“The phrasing you’re looking for is ‘hear what Chang hears’,” Meh’Lindi said, “and yes, but we are as we are. That is not my way, nor do I think it ever will be. I am a changer of shape, like many of us, but I am still half a monster.” At least. “Chang never was a monster.”


“And me?” Snow said, and batted her long dark eyelashes.


“And me?” Prudence said, turning all seven heads Meh’Lindi’s way. Tentacles licked around her lips from the inside. Her elongated throats took on a rope-like appearance from the writhing within them.


Meh’Lindi rolled her eyes. “Snow is, yes. You’re still a vain, preening starlet at heart, Pru. It is indicative that your first use for seven heads was to have six of them kiss each other while the seventh watched.”


Snow laughed.


Prudence raised one flawless finger. “Objection! Anyone that looked this good would do the same.”


“They really wouldn’t,” Snow said.


The two began to bicker, though in a manner so good-natured it could only raise smiles. Meh’Lindi always seemed to grin. She had no skin around her mouth. Her long teeth were visible from the front to the back. A reminder even in this seemingly human shape of what she truly was.


She thought about Sakura, and Sakura’s children.


We need to raise them better than the last ones, she mused. Maybe this lot won’t abandon us. But what a problem that poses! Without a connection to the world, why would they not? And how can we connect them when they must hide?


Though perhaps, with Utopia distracted, an option presented itself.


Sakura’s life over the last three months had consisted of nothing more than motherhood. It was what she was born to, after all, and what her life had been building up to. But the stress was wearing her down.


“We should become babysitters,” Meh’Lindi said.


Snow and Prudence stopped talking. As one, they turned to her. “Excuse me?” They both said, in unison.


“We. The Anavasi. We should become babysitters.”


“You’re not serious.”


“She’s serious.”


“I’m serious,” Meh’Lindi said. Behind her veil, she smiled for real.


***

,,

Darion Mográine looked between the three Novas, searching for signs of mockery. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”


Snow and Prudence nodded. Meh’Lindi did not need to. In fairness he suspected they all were from the start. Prudence was walking humaniform at the minute, with the normal number of limbs, breasts and heads, and not a flicker of tentacle movement under the surface. Plus, she’d come wearing a flattering business suit. Snow, who he would normally believe needed to be nailed down with spikes and forcibly made presentable, had come dressed in a smart shirt and trousers, with a loose tie. Prudence wore the butch look better, naturally.


He leaned forward and rested his elbows on the desk. “It’s not a bad idea. Sakura’s overworked though she’d never say it. Three nova children, none of whom have their second parent around, are a handful for anyone.”


“We can be their family,” Meh’Lindi said. “And perhaps correct the mistake made in the Nursery.”


“Which is?” Darion studied her.


“The Nursery made it so that the children were a family unto themselves. Even now, the remains of the Children of Teras are focused internally rather than reaching out to the larger Teragen. The experiment was, ultimately, a colossal error. Our children aren’t our children at all, they don’t know or care about us. The attempt to keep them ‘safe’, in the end kept them safe from viewing us as at best old people with outdated ideas, and at worst as completely irrelevant to their lives.”


Darion chuckled. “A bit harsh, but in fairness, very few of them got far past their teenage years. I think we all went through that stage before we erupted.”


“We didn’t found our own universe.”


“Would have if we could have,” he replied, smiling. “Though I think you’re being a little histrionic, Meh’Lindi, I do think the idea’s sound. At the very least, a Nursery structure isn’t going to work because we don’t have the people to take care of it. Mal and Scripture are still dark. Bounty left with Puck. No
surprise there, she wants to be with her kids. There ain’t gonna be a second generation without Sakura.”


Nobody needed to state, or have stated, how grave that fact was. As a general rule people tried to avoid bringing politics up around Sakura, but she’d gone from important to critical. The Starling network was buzzing with information that strongly suggested Sakura was now top of Project Proteus’s shit list. The sterility retrovirus, so close to being removed from the board several months ago, was now doing its job again. If they put Sakura on ice, Proteus would have the nova race back at square one.


He hated that all of this was falling on her shoulders. She’d been making eyes at him for a couple of months now, and probably before that, but he kept shrinking back. He felt compromised by his position. She wasn’t just a kind, gentle, intelligent, charming, beautiful, desirable nova woman… she was also a political weapon of enormous power. You didn’t seduce that sort of person. Or let yourself get seduced by them, either. You protected them.


Still… when opportunity knocked…


“I’ll float the idea to Sakura when I see her next.”


“When will that be?” Prudence asked.


Darion shrugged. “Depends on whether her kids have found a way to fold their mother into another dimension while they run riot yet.”


“Aren’t they three months old?” Snow said.


Darion nodded. “Yes, Snow. They are.”

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An insistent scream echoed over the small satellite island Sakura currently called home. It was close enough to main Anavasi island that a baseline could have made a liesurely swim of the distance, but ever since the An had discovered she could be much louder than her sisters, Sakura had thought it best to have some distance from where at least some of the Anavasi slept. The green-gilded nova mother blinked herself a little more awake and hurried into the nursery, where her middle child was currently demanding attention in her crib.

,,

Cyndi had made the cribs after the girls had, one by one, decimated the ones the Sakura had grown for them. The nature nova simply couldn't figure out a way to grow wood that was strong enough to withstand the flailing limbs of little godlings while still being thin enough to function as a crib and not a reinforced crate. So, they had cribs made of a translucent material with the strength of Vitrium but a more lustrous, diamond-like effect. Sometimes the rainbows that would play across the cribs would keep them entertained for a minute or two. An was not entertained at the moment. She was hungry and wanted her mother's attention right now.

,,

Sakura scooped up her daughter and held her to her chest, letting the infant situate herself and settle down to feeding. She did a quick look to make sure the other two where nearby - Jun was giving her older sister an annoyed look and then went back to smelling the different colors playing across her crib. Zara was not in her crib. Sakura's heart skipped a beat and she began searching the nursery for her eldest daughter. This wasn't a new experience for her, but every time Zara decided to go exploring, Sakura's mind told her that she couldn't be far away and her heart practically stopped completely in fear that she'd been taken or hurt herself. She wasn't on the ceiling this time, or webbed under one of the cribs. Taking An with her, Sakura extended her search into the hallway, her own bedroom, and out into the living room.

,,

Sitting in a pile of dirt and using her silk to wiggle around in it, Sakura's eldest smiled when her mother came into the room and cooed happily at her. The carpeting for most of the room was ruined; beyond the large hole Zara had managed to rip into the floor, there was a mix of dirt, sand, and seawater settling into the lush cream-colored fibers. Sakura had a moment to sigh before Zara's hair-silk reached out and attached to her hip. The muddied infant pulled her way up her mother's side and latched on to her other breast, weaving her tendrils around Sakura's midsection such that she had her hands free and her torso covered in children.

,,

She was still trying to figure out what to do to salvage her living room - or at least figure out a Zara-proofed version - when her OpPhone rang from the surprisingly undisturbed end-table. After the first two attempts at bending down in some way to pick it up without disturbing the two infants, she gave up and extended a tendril of her own silk to pick up the phone. She smiled when she saw the caller ID.

,,

"Hello Darion," she almost managed to not sound exhausted. She brushed some of dirt off of Zara's head in a vain attempt to keep herself and An at least somewhat clean. "How are you?"

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"I'm fine, Sakura. Coming to you with something of a proposition."

,,

There was a moment of silence on the other end. "Oh. What is it?"

,,

Smooth, Darion. Smooooooooth. "A-hem. Maybe not what you're thinking. I recently had an interesting talk with Snow, Meh'Lindi and Prudence. They seem to think that you're a little snowed under dealing with the children. To cut a long story short, they think we should help you babysit, 'we' being the Anavasi. We're still rebuilding after Puck departed, the Nursery's essentially non-existant, Bounty left... the Nova race - earth division - is back to square one. It kind of restarts with you." He felt awkward saying this. She wouldn't particularly want to hear it. Sakura had bigger things on her mind right now.

,,

"I see," she said. There was a hint of frost in her voice.

,,

"We're not trying to drag your children into Teragen politics. Rather, we want to help socialise them better. It's no good to just hide them in a box for the first however many years of their lives. They need to meet other Novas, and other Novas need to meet them. As a people we know nothing about father and motherhood, and that needs to change. And I agree that you're snowed under. If you had a babysitter or two that you could trust, then maybe you could get out of the house now and again. You know, go out for a meal or something. Go sightseeing." Go on a date with me. He couldn't say that, though. I should just retire. Make things much easier.

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Her eyes roved over the ruined living room as Darion made his proposal, an eyebrow going up at that unexpected list of names. "Snow, Prudence, and Meh'Lindi. Want to babysit?" She skirted the hole and the seeping dirty water and sat down on the couch, her mind still processing that. "I....mhm....have they ever watched children before? I mean, the girls are still very young, but I can't keep Zara in her crib - or apparently above ground," she muttered the last bit to herself, "and An can deafen someone when she's in a bad mood. Jun is pretty quiet and mostly stays put, but...."

,,

Above ground? He knew the worried and bone-tired sound. Every new parent had it, especially by three months in, and that was just when the children were baselines and really only waking you up every couple of hours. And one was enough to do it to two parents, let alone three ganging up on their mother. "Sakura, you need a break," Darion insisted carefully. "Trust me. You need to have some time to yourself, to relax and to keep your sanity, and the girls should get to know the people they'll be growing up around." He took a calculated breath and offered, "How about a compromise?"

,,

"Compromise?" While the couch wasn't as comfortable as Chang, it was plush; An and Zara had both settled down after feeding, napping against the warmth of her chest. She had to focus on the phone and Darion's voice to keep from drifting off herself, ruined carpet and hole in the floor halfway forgotten already.

,,

"We'll come over, spend some time with the girls with you there. Let them get comfortable with the new people and let you get comfortable watching everyone together. Then we'll go out," he winced at the sort-of slip of the tongue and pressed on, "just for an hour or two. Somewhere close, so if there's an issue we can get you home quickly. How does that sound?"

,,

"Come over?" The hole wasn't forgotten now and Sakura blushed at the thought of her friends seeing her home in such a state. "Um, well, maybe tomorrow? There's a...um....it's messy. I should clean up, first."

,,

Tomorrow and then tomorrow and then tomorrow. "Sakura, you have triplets. Is there really a time when it isn't messy?"

,,

"Uh, well, not like th-"

,,

"Okay, then a change. We'll come over, help clean up, and then start the babysitting trial." He wasn't letting her cut in and make another excuse or spend the day trying to clean up after three nova children. He could hear how tired she was and if the place was a complete disaster zone, it would let Snow, Pru, and Meh'Lindi know exactly what they were getting themselves into. If anyone backed out or didn't pull their weight just cleaning up, then they certainly weren't ready to actually watch the kids. "We'll be over in a few minutes."

,,

The line cut off and Sakura sighed, knowing he'd pushed so she wouldn't keep putting it off and knowing she would have if he hadn't. She sighed again and pushed herself off the couch, delicately unlacing Zara from An and herself as she headed back to the nursery. She managed to get them both settled in their cribs without waking them up - a minor miracle itself -, checked on Jun, who peered cautiously at the sleeping forms of her sisters and gave her mother an inscrutable look before closing her eyes. Sakura thought for a moment that she'd fallen asleep, but her breathing didn't measure out like a sleeping infant's. Whatever she was doing, though, it was quiet and not destroying the house, so her mother left her to it. After all, she apparently had company coming.

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"Consider yourselves on trial," Darion said as the four of them climbed towards Sakura's abode.

,,

Snow pouted at him. "I don't like your tone."

,,

"I don't like a lot of things but have to put with them anyway. You'll live and learn." Darion gave Prudence and Meh'Lindi a glance, but neither seemed about to weigh in on Snow's behalf.

,,

"Why aren't you on trial?" Snow made to kick him.

,,

Darion gestured with his hand, flared a little quantum, and moved all the momentum from her kick to just beneath a loose rock underneath her. It bounced up and collided off her backside, and Snow yelped. "I'm not on trial because I've been a father once already, and I'm a lot more aware of the responsibilities that come with raising a child. You have to be endlessly patient, you have to understand that a baby - especially a baby - doesn't give a shit what you need, it cares about it's needs, and you have to be willing to put everything aside to care for it. Teras, bless its cotton socks, does not breed good parents. We've seen that. It breeds selfishness in the majority, and self-interest in all. Sometimes that makes for a good parent. Most of the time it doesn't."

,,

"Which left us with Bounty, Mal and Scripture being the parents to all of our children, while the rest of us frittered away our future arguing about things that would be irrelevant inside a decade," Meh'Lindi growled. "You have to admit, it's a problem."

,,

"One we need to correct, starting today."

,,

"It seems a bit... off in some ways," Prudence said. She sounded almost reticent. "Not trying to pull out or anything. It just feels weird using Sakura's kids to make ourselves better parents. Like it's some sorta training ground."

,,

Darion didn't answer. He was well aware of those angles. But what else could they do? Jesus christ. No wonder Chang always bitches about being in charge. All the second guessing, the random guilt, the constant doubt. He was being a little harsh to suggest she 'bitched', too. Chang stated her self-doubts and went on with leadership as stoically as ever. And really she was being worn down by the lack of her wife than by anything else. She needed emotional support. A chrysalis, pretty thought it might be, couldn't provide that. Especially given some members of the Teragen had entered chrysalis and never come out. Just recently they found a sort of mausoleum deep under a mountain in Tibet. More than a dozen Terats were there, and had been for years.

,,

They approached the door. A bellow emerged from within. "Wow. That's a set of lungs," Darion said, recalling his own baby, long ago and far away. It still hurt to hear a child's cries. "You all ready?"

,,

"As we'll ever be," Snow said, with a grin.


Darion knocked on the door.

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"Just a minute!" came Sakura's own cry from inside. As usually, the peace had lasted for about ten minutes before An had woken up. She wasn't hungry again, but that didn't mean she didn't want attention and entertainment - and if the other two had been asleep, they certainly weren't now. She'd had enough time to grow a lattice of roots over the actual hole in the living room and get some of the water soaked up, but the room was still a mess. She pushed her home-related vanity aside and scooped An out of her crib, settling the darling but trying infant in the crook of one arm. Zara had retreated to the ceiling at her sister's bellows, but skittered down and followed after her mother as Sakura made her way to the front door.

,,

She was still divinely radiant when she opened the door, but it was tempered by a bone-deep weariness. She smiled at the gathered Terats and waved them in, yelping in surprise as Zara pulled herself up her mother's backside and popped her head over Sakura's hair to get a look at them. The green-skinned daughter of Anteus grinned and cooed at them before ducking shyly back behind her mother; she was cocooned in her own silk, the tendrils moving her around like a living, spider-inspired, stroller. Darion heard the familiar quiet sigh of amusement, frustration, and tiredness that spelled out new parent more elegantly than any words ever could. "Please, come in. Sorry for the mess, but Zara decided to dig her way from the nursery to living room earlier."

,,

The four stepped inside; Snow eyed the covered hole and stepped carefully around the muddied areas of the carpet. "She can dig?"

,,

"And climb and skitter. She hasn't figured out walking yet, but..." Sakura shrugged, "she pretty much goes wherever she wants." The pink-haired cherub in her arms peered curiously at the others, still trying to decide if she was okay with the strangers or not. Sakura sat on the couch and motioned for the others to follow suit if they wanted. She lifted An up, rubbing the infant's cheek against her own. "An, on the other hand, simply deafens you until she gets what she wants."

,,

She nodded to Prudence and gave her an encouraging smile, "I don't mind helping others learn if and some of how to be parents, if it means they'll be better parents with their own kids." She chuckled, the smile finally actually lighting in her eyes. "I don't know if it'll actually help or just send you all running for the hills, though."

,,

She felt Zara let herself back down to the floor and make her way to the nursery, ducking behind furniture where she could to stay out of sight of the strangers; a moment later she slithered back in on the ceiling, her other sister held in a second silk cocoon and looking vaguely annoyed. Zara lowered them both down on nearly invisible strands until Sakura was surrounded by her children on the couch. Once she was on something solid again, Jun wriggled and cried until Zara released her; the mobile infant plopped onto the cushion next to Jun, looking pleased with herself. Sakura looked at each of her guests, ending with Darion, and asked with a pleading note, "So, are you all sure you still want to do this?"

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"Is this where I make a blues brothers reference?" Prudence said with a grin.

,,

"Mal had nothing to do with our being here, so no, it's not," Darion replied. "They're as sure as they'll ever be, Sakura, and I was born ready, as the saying goes."

,,

Even saying that, there lay a tension in the air as Meh'Lindi, Snow and Prudence looked between the three children, estimating them, and quite possibly being estimated in return. It was like one of those staredowns in the cinema. And there was parity there, too. In some ways these babies were looking at iterations of their own future, different expressions of the quantum forces that had birthed them. But they had a chance at a better, cleaner start to their lives, they deserved it.

,,

Everyone sat, not knowing what to say. Darion made the first move.

,,

He knelt down in front of the couch where Sakura and her progeny were ensconced and looked for Zara. Jun and An both seemed more curious than anything else, but Zara seemed nervous. That could turn ugly. "Hello, there," he said to the baby girl, "I'm Darion. What's your name?" He smiled, knowing - or at least assuming - that she wouldn't be able to give him a coherent answer. A visit or two to the Nursery back in the day had shown him you could never make assumptions with Nova babies. His glimmering silver hair fell down around his shoulders in a flowing wave.

,,

Behind him, the three Anavasi watched, feeling a mixture of emotions all-too familiar to infertile women confronted by the perfect little babies of their imagination.

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All three babies turned to watch him, An from the safety of Sakura's arm, Jun curled up against her mother's side, and Zara with next to Jun. An was the first to react, reaching out with a chubby little arm to tangle her fingers in Darion's hair; she hadn't yanked yet, but he could feel the inhuman strength as she open and closed her hand, little gurgles of happiness coming from her as she played with the new shiny. An looked at him with eyes far too serious and knowing for a three month old and solemnly declared, "An. Da-on."

,,

Zara pulled back on the couch, almost scooting behind Jun, but her tendrils trickled down the couch and nervously poked and tugged at him, as if unsure if he was really there or what he was. While Sakura gently saved his scalp - and possibly his spine - from An's curiosity, Zara continued her exploration, her verdant-green vines travelling over his legs and arms until she decided he was both safe enough and now attached enough to move. She swung herself up over Jun, who gave a huff and irked "Mha!", and landed, only a little awkwardly, against Darion's chest. The vines slithered over him and pulled her farther up until she was leaning against his shoulder, peering at the three women behind him. Like she had with Sakura, she quickly duck back behind his shoulder, then stuck her fist in her mouth and blinked up at her current carrier.

,,

An, miffed at the loss of the shiny silver hair and the attention on Zara, scrunched up her face and let out a deafening cry of protest. Sakura quickly formed a cluster of little silver-hued feathers from her own silk and tickled the infant's face with them; at first, An refused to be consoled, letting out another ear-shattering cry, but the feathers were too pretty and the tickling too much fun, not to mention the attention from her mother, to keep her in a foul mood for more than a moment. Sakura gave Darion a questioning look, asking both if he was still up for this and if he needed rescuing from the green-skinned baby slowly turning him into a vine-mummy.

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Darion's ears rang from the scream. The second one might even have been louder, because he winced in pain. Oh glory be to quantum-enhanced perceptions, he thought, with a grimace.

,,

Meh'Lindi was the only one unaffected. Her body adapted, instantly insulating her ears against the extremes of the noise.Snow and Prudence both clapped their hands to their ears and stared at An in disbelief.

,,

He watched Sakura cradling An, flashing back to the time he spent with his own baby. Not a quantum-wielding mini-monster, but still curious, still fond of pulling his hair. He smiled at the sight, and at the warm, fatherly feelings that stirred in his breast. It had been so long. He looked down sharply at the first probe of Zara's tendrils, but did not pull back. He watched the infant and let her prod and poke, until with sudden energy she launched herself onto him. Her tendrils continued to snake around his body. She reminded him of a rock climber mooring herself before setting off.

,,

"Hello," he said softly, as she climbed up to his shoulder and peered over it at the other Anavasi. "Safety first, right? You're going to be a climber, aren't you?" Zara continued to suck on her own fist and watched him with wide curious eyes. "I'm Darion, little green," he said, and touched her nose. She went cross-eyed and his smile turned into a grin. She'll probably remember that and take revenge when I least expect it thirty years from now, he thought mildly. The dynamics of Nova parentage were going to be very different, he thought.

,,

Darion caught Sakura's look. That mix of fear and hope that came with a tired new mother, the hope of help, the fear that her children might be hurt if she picked the wrong sitter, or in this case, that the children might hurt the sitter. Fortunately, of the four of them he was by far the most fragile. Mentally he checked off what he'd seen so far. An showed signs of enhanced strength. It would probably be a good idea to stay clear of her. Meh'Lindi would have no trouble with her, though.

,,

He answered her worry with open eyes and the softest of nods.

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Sakura stood up and regarded the three Anavasi women, finally settling on Meh'Lindi with the same logic Darion had. "Lindi, would you mind holding An?"

,,

The scientist stood up, eyeing the pink-haired infant with both wonder and worry. Sakura deftly made the exchange with her, eliciting another frown and in-drawn breath from Corbin's vociferous daughter; Sakura plucked several blooms from her hair this time and dropped them on An's face. The petals were soft and ticklish, like the feathers had been, and the Blossom Princess motioned for Meh"Lindi to tickle An with him just as Sakura had done with the faux-feathers. It took longer for An to accept someone else's attention, but she only kept her face scrunched up instead of screaming. After a few tense moments she let out a loud giggle and grabbed for the blossom Meh'Linda was holding.

,,

Sakura let out a relieved sigh and turned to Darion, now mostly immobilized by Zara's tendrils. Zara had watched An being handed off with curiosity, constantly looking between Meh'Lindi and Darion and moving herself around him like a tree she had climbed for a better view. Some of her tendrils were painfully wrapped around arms or legs or pulling at him in unnatural and very uncomfortable ways. Sakura stepped in front of him and smiled; something in her expression communicated to him her suspicion that this wasn't his first time handling children - and a sympathy for the melancholy she'd sensed in him as well.

,,

She wrapped an arm around Zara herself and began slowly but insistently pulling back the tendrils of green-tinged "silk". "Now, be polite," she murmured to her verdant daughter. "No climbing on someone unless they say it's okay and you have to be careful with them. You don't want to hurt them, or they won't want to play with you anymore." Slowly the pressure on his body eased as Zara leaned back against her mother and giggled at him. "Would you like to meet Pru, Zara? She can have many heads and wriggle around with you. That's even better than playing ground hog with the floor, I promise."

,,

Zara looked up at her mother and laughed, clumsily clapping her hand together and flailing around in the baby body speak of excitement. Sakura tucked her in her arms and made her way over to Prudence, who was watching the entire exchange with wide, nervous eyes. Sakura laid Zara in her lap and advised, "If she gets too... attached, or it gets painful, just say something. I can pull her off, or if you tickle her, on the belly or the sides, she usually loses strength in her tendrils while she laughs. Okay?"

,,

Pru swallowed and nodded, watching Zara with hesitant fascination and waiting for the infant to make her first move. Sakura turned back to Jun, still laying on the couch and watching the room with wide, blinking eyes. "Snow?" She motioned her over to the couch. "This is Jun. She's very quiet and she's the only one trying to speak so far. Perhaps you could read to her?"

,,

Once all three infants were paired with one of the Anavasi women, Sakura pulled Darion off to the side of the room where she could speak to him and still keep an eye on everyone. "Are...are you okay, Darion?" she asked softly.

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Darion's composure did not break. He read where her question would go before she spoke it, in the more guarded body language, in the sense that what she said ought to be said in private. As private as you could be in a room with three other Novas who all had enhanced perceptions, anyway.

,,

He gave her a smile. "I'm fine, Sakura." He turned his eyes to the children in the arms of the three terats. "I made peace with my dead long ago."

,,

Sakura could probably have controlled herself as easily or more so, but she'd always worn her emotions on her sleeve. Her eyes filled with sympathy, and maybe a little horror. She seemed uncertain on whether to ask further, so he decided to answer. Most of it was old news, after all, and with things as they were now, mostly irrelevant to anyone but him.

,,

"It's surprising how few Novas have a family before they erupt. The majority are single, Some very unlucky ones accidentally kill their families during eruption. That's more common than you'd think, up to twenty per cent of eruptees have accidentally killed a family member. And of those, most end up killing parents, wife, girlfriend. That sort of thing. I was a slightly different case. I had a wife and daughter. An old enemy from my past, one I thought I'd left back in the States, tracked me down in Japan and decided to settle the score. I erupted. They died. I had the power to save myself, but not them. But by then I'd been happily married for ten years. But that was thirty years ago now."

,,

All lies. But he could hardly tell the truth. It had been a family of Terats who had raped and murdered his wife and daughter. And it had been Darion who hunted down and murdered them in turn in order to put those ghosts to rest. Though the exorcism had come at cost. He still had nightmares of the things he'd done to them, one by one as he tracked them down across the globe. But they were nightmares he'd earned and suffered with pride. The things they did could not go unpunished.

,,

Her eyes said a lot. His reminiscence had caused a fraction of the practiced mask to slip. She probably suspected something. Nothing I can do about that.

,,

"That must have been horrible," Sakura said, and put a sympathetic hand on his arm.

,,

Her touch held a very natural sort of electricity. "It was," he said. Though not half as horrible as it was for the bastards who killed them. I am so lucky telepaths find me hard to read. He could have put together a list of Terats fifty strong that would kill him just for the fact he'd killed a Nova child, irrespective of reasons.

,,

Of the ladies, Prudence was having the most fun. Zara had quickly learned that she was a flexible sort, and that meant full-on shenanigans time. Vines were constricting and twisting around her limbs and necks and squeezing to the point they would have killed most people. Prudence was treating her to half a dozen different funny faces and smiles. They'd be fine, he thought.

,,

"Want to go somewhere a little more private, or would you rather stay here in case something goes wrong?"

,,

"I believe we can handle it," Meh'Lindi said. Her throaty, inhuman growl did not seem to bother An, who'd grown rather curious about the texture of Meh'Lindi's skin, and was poking and prodding her.

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Sakura watched the girls for a moment, trying to figure out how to respond to Darion's story and seeing how well the little ones and bigger ones were doing together. Her expression softened as she watched Zara make friends with Prudence in a way she never would be able to with Sakura herself. She nodded to Meh'Lindi and decided that leaving the room might be better for Darion, at least for now. Old wounds bled deep, especially with matters of family.

,,

"Perhaps we could take a walk around the island, as a test-run?" She wasn't ready to be out of at least earshot of the girls yet, but she was trying.

,,

Darion had to put an arm around her waist and actually lead her to the door to get her to leave, but they made it all the way outside and even got the door closed. He could feel her vibrating with nervousness, her nova-level perceptions still zeroed in on the house and her children. He took her by the hand and led her away, down the path towards the beach. "They'll be fine, Sakura," he said softly as they passed the treeline and stepped out onto sugar-fine sand. "And An will let us know if anyone's unhappy. Especially her."

,,

He smiled and she tried to relax. "You're right. It's just..." She closed her eyes and sighed, visibly making herself relax. "My mother abandoned me. Twice. And my father hated me. All of his family hated me. I guess....I just want to make sure things are better for them. That they have a real family, like my mom and dad gave me after...." She let her head drop onto his shoulder. "Sorry, I can't seem to get out of....of, I don't know, the past and the future, all mixed up together."

,,

She was starting to relax now, he could tell by the change in her scent from cloyingly, overpowering honeysuckle smell to a light, airy tulip-like smell. Some people have mood rings. She's got mood flowers.

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Darion walked at Sakura's side. One of the most beautiful women in the world, all to myself. Oh, temptations temptations. Of course, lust was hardly far away as one of the Anavasi. Between knifing the Pandaimonion in an alleyway and stealing its lunch money, and raiding some of the Casablancas, the group had plenty of pretty to go round. But Sakura was in that rarified upper tier, the ones who broke the ceiling and stood above the pack. You never got used to being around men and women that perfect, that beautiful, though you could get used to the taint. But you did learn to hide your reactions. It was hard around Sakura. His nostrils twitched, drinking in her scent.

,,

"I don't really know your story," Darion said. A partial lie. He'd looked extensively into Sakura's past via Starling. There were gaps, though, things nobody knew. She'd more or less popped up out of nowhere, and without many friends, there wasn't anyone they knew of and talked to that knew Sakura's whole story. "Want to share?"

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Sakura did not reply immediately. He figured that she trusted him, liked him. They'd been wrapped up in events for half a year now, and that was hardly slowing down with Chang being so hands off of late. You need to get out of your hall of mirrors, Chang. We don't need a new Mal. The old one was annoyingly distant enough for a hundred Terats. We need a friend, a leader, and by god we need inspiration. That especially.

,,

They walked some distance away from her chosen home and began to circle the island, taking in its untamed, natural scenery. Or was it tamed? Who knew how much Sakura might have sculpted when nobody was looking.

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The honeysuckle smell briefly returned and he could feel her tense, but after a moment she relaxed again. The smell wasn't de-stressing tulip this time, though, it was darker, more like orchids. They stepped out onto a long stretch of pale yellow sand; it could have been a postcard or commercial for that 'paradise vacation': the breeze rifling through their hair, the ocean rolling in and out of the beach a dozen yards away, and the pair of nova's to make the whole scene entirely surreal.

,,

"I wasn't born here," she said quietly as they walked. "On this Earth. I came from a different one, one where novas started appearing earlier. Between the World Wars. My mother, she was a powerful nova, maybe the most powerful nova, but she was a woman. So when she started fighting, she got in trouble with the government. She was American. They locked her up for three years and when the war was over they let her out with a pat on the head like some puppy that had misbehaved because she just couldn't know any better. So she left, went to Japan to help with the rebuilding there. The people there loved her. In the States, they'd called her Lady Victory, for the victory gardens women were supposed to grow to help with," she waved a hand, "y'know the food stamps and that sort of thing. She could grow entire crops in days....anyways, in Japan, they called her Freedom, because she made it so that all the restrictions and laws the States put up to keep Japan pacified didn't matter."

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She stared out over the waves for a moment, lost in the dim memories of her childhood. She hadn't been educated, not formally, but she'd learned how to listen and pay attention and she'd always been smarter than everyone around her, so it hadn't been hard to learn about the wars and about her mother. Not that knowing about her mother was any replacement for actually knowing her mother. She shook the thought away and continued on, "So the Emperor, he decided that he wanted the blood of the Kami no Nigen, novas here, in the Imperial bloodline. He told his eldest son, the heir, to court Freedom and marry her. He did. He didn't love her. He thought she was a gaijin freak, but he would not disobey his father." She drew idle lines in the sand, following them with her eyes and not looking up anymore. "He was good at lying or my mother was terrible at understanding people. Maybe both. She fell in love with him and they were married. When she was pregnant with me she found out about his mistress and my half-brother. He was four at the time."

,,

"She changed me, to spite my father and grandfather. They'd wanted a Kami no Nigen to take the Chrysanthemum Throne some day and make Japan a powerful nation again. So she'd made sure she conceived a boy when she got pregnant. When she found out about Mutsuko and Daichi, she changed me to look female. There's a condition, um, complete androgen insensitivity syndrome. It means that you're male, but your body is completely immune to testosterone, so you develop like a female, only sort of more so, since women have some testosterone in their systems." She shrugged a little, still not looking up. She didn't know how much, if anything, Chang or Lucrezia had told the others about her, but she knew that gender and sex were very touchy subjects for most people and she didn't want to see if she was creepy Darion out right now. "She was pretty much full term when she found out, so she induced labor and then left. Without me. She'd given her husband the male heir he'd wanted so much and the daughter he wouldn't be able to use that way."

,,

"My family hated me. They couldn't deny I existed, but the Emperor granted Father a divorce and Mutsuko was...I'm not sure the word for it. Cleansed, I guess. Her family history was altered so she would be acceptable as Father's new bride and Daichi was recognized as his legitimate first-born son. He might not have been Kami no Nigen, but he didn't have flowers growing out of his hair or weird colored lips and he wasn't a useless girl-child." She snorted at the memory of her father's ignorance and added, "I only learned what CAIS was here, when I was older, so everyone there just thought I was a girl. I was moved to a room right next to the servant's quarters and the Empress, my grandmother, she made it quite clear that she hated me, mostly by beating me whenever she was angry about something she couldn't change. The servants, they learned that no one would care if they hit me, too."

,,

The pain was old and tempered by years of loving adoptive parents, but there was still that little girl inside her that lived in a world of hate and pain and fear; it was that little girl that had formed the seeds of her kindness and her protectiveness, though. "When I was six, the Emperor and Father finally found a use for me. They betrothed me to a cousin. He was....an insult and a way to keep Kami no Nigen blood in the family. He had just enough royal blood and just not enough pull to get out of it. He also had a mistress and several illegitimate children. The arrangement was that I would go to his household when I was thirteen and be kept there until I produced a proper heir for him, then I'd be exiled to some country estate where no one would have to deal with me anymore. And he'd keep his family the way it was, marriage or no."

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She shrugged, still not looking up, but continuing on. He'd asked for the whole story, after all. "My mother heard about it somehow and came for me then. She...I didn't see everything, but I heard the screaming. I'm pretty sure she killed my father, maybe the rest of the Imperial family as well. Then she brought me here, to this Earth and to a man named Shen. A Eastern-style monk-like man. She left me with him and then disappeared. When she didn't come back after a while, Shen found me a new family. They were baselines, but their son had erupted. He was killed by Michael Archangel fanatics, so I guess I was like a second chance for them. And they became Mom and Dad. We lived pretty far out in the country, in the mountains, because there wasn't a way to really hide what I was and I didn't always have control over what I could do. Or I did have control, but I was a little kid and I threw tantrums just like all little kids do. So we were out where I couldn't hurt people on accident and they couldn't hurt me on purpose."

,,

"When I got old enough that I would just be another erupted nova, if a teen one, and I'd learned enough control not to be a danger just because something annoyed me or I got startled, I started going into the small town closest to our house." She smiled a little, remembering her first excited forays into the village, riding the bumpy truck with her dad and watching the people watching her. "I met a boy there, Willem. We became friends - he was the only kid there really close to my age and that would actually get over my strangeness enough to come talk to me. He asked me out on my sixteenth birthday. He was going to propose to me after he graduated high school, but when we slept together on my eighteenth birthday...." She sighed, "It triggered my Apotheosis, which gave me an understanding of what my mother had done to me as a fetus. I could change myself, make myself just the girl I'd always looked like, and go on without telling anyone, but...but that wasn't fair to me or to Willem. He'd never be able to get over the truth if I ever told him, and I didn't want to destroy a part of myself. I made it so I was actually female, too..." She waved back in the direction of the house and the children, "Obviously. But if I told him what I've told you, he'd never see me as anything other than a boy pretending to be a girl, and we lived in a....less than progressive....backwoods. So I left."

,,

"Not the most brave move of my life," she admitted, "but it's what I did. I went home long enough to talk to my folks and tell them I needed some time to figure myself out. They gave me the money they'd been saving up for college, if I'd wanted to go, and told me to keep in touch. I sent Willem a letter a few weeks later, just to say that I cared for him but I wasn't able to be the woman he'd want in his life. And I started wandering. Figuring out my powers, helping people where I could, learning about the world beyond the mountains and woods I'd grown up in. I met Anteus, and Caroline, and Andy. Eventually I decided I wanted a family just like all the people that I helped get pregnant..." Her scent wilted into a burnt petal smell, "Then the motherhunters came for me and I fled to the Congo."

,,

She did finally look up at him again, the anger-pain scent fading back to neutral buttercups. "The rest I'm pretty sure you know. You were there for most of it," she teased with only an undertone of pensiveness. "So, now you know nearly all my secrets, Darion. All the interesting ones, I think. Have I run you off yet?"

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Darion smiled. The sun caught and danced in his silver eyes and hair. "I'm a terat, Sakura. Half of my friends have either violently murdered someone in cold blood or worse, for one reason or another." And let's not get into what I've done personally. "No, you haven't run me off. Funny that we both have a history in Japan though."

,,

He put his hands behind his back as they walked, and enjoyed the feeling of the wind on his skin. He could feel it in ways most couldn't, because of his almost unique control over the forces of momentum. The wind did a lot in that regard. Over there it tugged upon loose grass, further on upon stones, far off to their right, sand on the beach. Back when he was a young nova, still bleeding from the wounds of his loss and trying to learn about his power without going into a facility, he'd gone all wushu and trained on beaches. Between wind, sea and sand, he'd quickly begun to learn a lot about momentum and the fun one could have with it.

,,

"So, a different world?" He looked back at her, smiling. "That's interesting. Do you know how you got here? How your mother did it?" He shook his head. "Actually, forget it. If Puck can do it, why not your mom? Novas, novas, novas. Fucking the rules and each other in equal quantities. And yes I do mean that multiple ways." He grinned. "Shen... I've heard the name before. Never met him. He was connected with Coraline Boehm. Something to do with him dying, I think? Chang asked me about it once. Do you know what happened there? Did you keep in touch?"

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She had smiled back, amused that he'd thought it was the violence she'd spoken of that usually spooked people and not the fact that she was technically a hermaphrodite, but then he did follow Chang, so he might not have really even noticed. The smile faltered when he asked about Shen; she shook her head. "I didn't know he was dead," she said softly, "and after he found people to leave me with, I never heard from him again. I only heard about him from Coraline and Darrik. He," she sighed and lifted a shoulder in a half-shrug, "he started raising novas sometime after getting r-...after me. I don't know what changed, but they - those two, at least - they seemed to love him like a father and look up to him."

,,

"And I don't know how my mother was able to shift between worlds. She...she was kind of like this world's Divis Mal or Pax, the way people looked at her and the greater power she had than any of the other novas over there. That was part of why the Emperor was so insistent about her marriage into the Imperial Family. It was expected that her children would allow Nihon to stand above the United States, even if it meant allowing non-Japanese blood into the line. He was...a thoughtful leader. A planner, much more so than his son." She hadn't understood these things when she'd been a child, not completely, but sifting back through her memories with an older eye and the enhancements of her apotheosis, she could see them now. It didn't make her love or hate him more, but she did understand better.

,,

"What about you, Darion?" she asked after a moment of quiet between them. "Would you tell me your story?" He was a friend, even a confidante, but of all the Anavasi she knew, he was the most adept a keeping attention - and questions - off of himself. Lucrezia could probably run circles around him when it came to outright intrigue, but she did have an advantage of numbers. He was trusted mystery, but still a mystery, and after half a year of knowing him most of what she could say about him would sound like a besotted teen or N! sound-bites.

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She came at him with the tough question, this beautiful, kind, and somehow moderately innocent nova... and mother. Darion could not face her. He wiped imaginary dust from his silver eyes, studied the ground below and the sky above. He sighed. "No."

,,

He saw the tiniest flinch. She hoped for the other answer, for trust.

,,

Darion put a hand on hers. She did not pull back, but studied him intently, searching. "Sakura... I... have secrets. We all do. If I tell it, I'd have to leave things out. Important things. Life-changing things. I have to lie a lot. More than you can know though not more than you can imagine, I'm sure of that." Starling, and her gallery of victims, his mind flashed through war zones in the middle east, of flying bullets and men falling dead at his - or her - hand. Part of why he always looked male today was that he always looked female then. Even Darion's combat suit had been fitted for the female figure.

,,

She smiled, a sad smile, but a beautiful one nonetheless. "You can tell me something, though, surely? After everything we've been through. You can trust me a little."

,,

"I do. It's the unseen eyes I'm unsure about. And when you live around Chang Zha-Yang for long enough, you start to appreciate how damn hard it is to truly have your shit kept to yourself. Alright, here's the innocent bits, at least." He leaned back, resting his elbows on the ground behind him.

,,

"I was born in the US of A, grew up to a fairly normal family. Had me one of them sports scholarships, not football like my father wanted, but basketball. White men - you see - can actually jump. I was a gymnast, too, but never got too far with that. Not until much later when I'd erupted. Like most people I was a Nova fan, wasn't much into the Teragen. But by and large I left them alone and they left me alone and that was good. I ogled the stars, and tried to avoid running into them in the workplace. Novas get a lot of trouble there, you know."

,,

"Taking people's jobs?"

,,

"No, but a lot of layoffs happen when the right nova signs up. One of the Anavasi - a painter - she can paint an entire canvas in about one point three seconds. Has to be one colour, can't do detail work, but she can do it. If you were running a house decoration company, would you hire five to ten guys to do a mansion, and pay them for... fuck... a month, maybe? Or would you hire one nova who could do the entire job inside a day? Price is higher, yes, but the work turnaround is so much astronomically higher as well. And that's the problem. From the top to the bottom, novas make things so efficient that the little guy gets squeezed out."

,,

"So what did you do with yourself?" She warmed up now. Maybe this had been all she wanted in the first place, and he misunderstood.

,,

You, sir, need to lighten up a little, he thought. "Oh bits and bobs. I started teaching martial arts. Novas don't touch those kinds of roles, normally. Too low key, too low paid, and honestly if they've erupted, ninety per cent chance that they'll find teaching baselines either banal or too difficult because of the differences in their body. The nova physique is just plain more efficient than a baseline's, much more resistant to wear and tear. After a while all novas suffer a little mental slide away from the baseline. It's impossible to avoid. So I did that, got into personal coaching at a local gym."

,,

"You mentioned an enemy."

,,

She said it softly, but it was still a prod. Yeah. You're making this sound altogether too innocent, killer. "School friend turned not-so friend. We ran into each other at a few different points in our lives. Mostly in the martial arts, but it started out on the basketball court. I got the scholarship he wanted. Beat him at the gym. Beat him at the gradings. Maybe it was fate. We just kept running into each other. Craziest shit imaginable. Two guys living in cities in the same state, yet somehow our paths kept crossing. For him it was business travel. He went into steel manufacture, not that much of that happens in the States anymore. And at some point, he got that special ego, the one that says 'I'm rich, and nobody gets one up on me.' Only I kept getting one up on him. And he did not like that.

,,

"I'd already met my future wife. She was living in the States and we hooked up fast. I always had a thing. Charisma, I guess, that special type that gets women interested. When my old friend turned up the knob too much, I fled. Went back to her home, made it mine. Figured enough water between us would cool off the feud. Took ten years to find out I was wrong."

,,

He felt dirty for the lies. But he told the first big one and he had to follow through. The enemy was real enough. But the two of them buried the hatchet before Darion left the States and they'd had no contact since. Still, the cover story needed to be told in its fullest, the better to bury the dead down deep.

,,

"So there you have it, thereabouts. I told you earlier how I lost my family."

,,

"How did you come to the Teragen?"

,,

Vengeance. "Good old idealism. You see the cause differently once you're looking at it from the other side. And, uh, you know. I could sympathise with novas that wanted to have them some kids. It's a nice feeling, been a father. It's not right that so many never got to know what it's like."

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