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Aberrant: Children of Quantum Fire - [COMPLETE] A Time For Seeing


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Time: Four days after In The Light of Day

Place: The Congo, one of Einherjar’s many, many palace gardens

Chang Zha-Yang walked upon a path of precise square paving slabs in one of King Einherjar’s many gardens. Tall trees rose up in clumps along the perimeter walls and created a subtle partition that put three distinct sections into the garden. Long-limbed and leafy, they whispered in the wind, while birds twittered from the upper branches.

Beds of violet and crimson flowers peaked out from the trees’ shadows and gathered in expansive rows that the path wound between like a drunken serpent, fringed on every side by verdant green grass. She made for the centre of the garden, where a marble fountain burbled and trickled clean cool water into a wide bowl at the bottom.

It pleased her to see these things succeeding. Though landscaping was not an area she often ventured into, Chang possessed a natural feel for all the arts and never failed to excel. With the gardens she sought to forge peaceful places, yet ones that echoed the violence which birthed them.

Some of the trees bore careful carvings on the trunks, war koans she constructed from Old Norse, latin, ancient Hebrew and Mongolian writings, echoing the words of conquerors from ages past. The fountain’s central figure was a take-off on Einherjar himself, not the near-lifelike carvings she crafted to glorify him, but a fully deified version that bore similarities to depictions of Zeus, Yahweh and other father gods. When settling down to make the statue, Chang’s first thoughts were to combine him with the old gods of war, but in becoming King Einherjar grew from a mere warrior to being something more… interesting.

“Hard to believe he used to be an Elite,” said one of Lucrezia, sliding her arm around Chang’s waist. Five of her followed behind, taking in the garden’s many sights, looking for all the little hidden things that Chang always put into her creations. “Do you think there’ll be other Nova ‘kings’ in time, or is he an anomaly?”

“I hope so, for our sake,” Chang replied. The fountain was approached by four different strands of the winding path, and ringed by four curved and short stone walls, with a bench at each. She sat beyond the bench, shaping her own seat from her body, as always.

Three of Lucrezia, all shaped like different women, all divinely beautiful and graceful, slipped onto the bench at either side of her. “You’re such a pessimist at times. I mean, if we have to put up with baselines, why shouldn’t we be their rulers? It’s not like we can’t do a better job of it than they do.”

Chang smiled. Her wife was beautiful, intelligent to a degree, but she never came close to Chang on the latter count. At times she saw things a little simply. “If we set ourselves up as their rulers we limit ourselves to their limits. Our endeavour becomes theirs, chained to their needs, else we are not rulers but tyrants. But if we are tyrants, why bother with the baselines at all save to satisfy a childish need for servants and fawning busybodies? We cannot truly grow or find our own way if we choose to rule over humankind. Is Teras the right way, beloved? If it is, we cannot rule humanity. Our goals will grow alien over time, ourselves distant. A ruler must never be too distant from his people. Once he loses sight of those over which he rules, he is doomed to indolence, selfishness and eventual destruction.”

Lucrezia laughed with all three of her bodies, and leaned on Chang’s shoulder from both sides. “I swear, some days you could look at the brightest sun and see nothing but clouds on the horizon.”

“It is not my fault if I am the only one that can see them,” Chang protested, putting on an offended tone with two of her voices, while the others retained their quiet tone of amusement. She sighed. “You are right, of course. I over-think. I believe that such is the burden of brilliance.”

Lucrezia’s third body slid into Chang’s lap, pressing firmly against her, squeezing against Chang’s large shaft. Chang wore a somewhat altered take-off on jeans and shirt, with her ‘shirt’ melded into the jeans at the front for decency’s sake. Her jeans were blue and ripped at the knees, her shirt white, emblazoned with pretend bloodstains that formed a complex and maze-like pattern, bulged outward as ever by the presence of Chang’s shaft. The Lucrezia before her wore a sheer white gown that left little to the imagination.

“I love you when you’re arrogant,” she said, grinning, and laced her arms around Chang’s neck. “Not that you’re wrong, of course.”

“Too many of our kind are ashamed to admit what they know. The trick is acknowledging one’s strengths without losing sight of the weaknesses. I am brilliant, but over-cautious. And I am frequently wrong. Too many of us believe we’re incapable of that failing, inside the Teragen and out. I hope that’s a baseline weakness that our children will grow out of, but I admit that I am not pinning my hopes on it.”

“I love it when you talk dirty,” Lucrezia grinned, nibbling at her lip.

Chang took the hint, and kissed her, losing herself in Lucrezia’s lips and the unnatural smoothness of her skin. Her long, thick tongue slithered deep into Chang’s throat, tickling all the way down inside. The other two held close to her body, quiet and content to hug. Desire stirred her heart and warmth spread through her skin. Her shaft thickened and swelled, growing half-hard, almost as thick as Chang’s torso.

They broke apart, though Lucrezia’s tongue was still deep in her throat. Her blue eyes were clouded with lust, though she slowly pulled her tongue free and retracted it into her mouth. She stroked at Chang’s cock through her shirt, and a trail of burning ecstasy followed her fingers, sending pleasure she felt in her ‘clothes’ and shaft alike.

Chang studied her, and allowed a breath that came out as a strangled gasp of pleasure. “Are you growing hungry yet?”

“Always hungry when I see this,” she said, with a devilish smile. “I want you to stretch me next time. Really stretch me.”

“Though to answer your question,” said the one sitting to her right, “no I’m not hungry yet. Still, want to do it? Perhaps we should lie in the fountain? It’s been a while since we made love underwater.”

Every breath she took was a seductive whisper. Chang resisted, though. There were times and places for things. Though three of her four voices trembled, the fourth was clear. “That would be inappropriate, I think. I am your Mirror Queen, after all. It’s important to let people believe I’m respectable.”

“Oh, you’re going to tease me,” all three of them said, pouting at her. “You’re horrible sometimes. Since when did you ever care about being ‘respectable’? Does anyone join the Pandaimonion if they’re worried about being respectable?”

Chang relaxed back into her faux-stone flesh. One of the copies rose and hopped up on the fountain, then clambered up the statue to balance atop the god-Einherjar’s head, balancing on a single toe like a ballerina. The copy in her lap slipped onto the bench beside her.

“You are right, of course. Artists have never been respectable types. Rather we’re scruffy and famous for being penniless dreamers. I set myself standards long ago, though, and always endeavour to live up to them. Those are the iron rules for us, don’t you think? Besides, someone might be watching,” she added, teasing as best she could.

“Let them watch. What’s seen can’t be unseen, right? Stretch me out halfway across the garden. Let them watch that and stay quiet,” she gave a throaty chuckle. “And if they show themselves, we can pin them down and I can watch you absorb them. That’ll teach ‘em.”

Chang nodded. It would, in fact, teach them. “It might also cause a degree of botheration for our host. I don’t believe any of his guests have ever killed one another. He might be upset, and Einherjar being upset would at the least be annoying and almost certainly result in my expulsion from his kingdom. That would be a little inconvenient, I think.” Or he would kill me and have done with it, she thought. The Congo might be more affluent under its Nova master, but it maintained its old reputation for violent justice. And under him, how could it be otherwise? Some of his reputation was over-statement, of course, but there was steel behind it. Einherjar had a refined understanding of the nature of strength. It meant nothing without a certain determination to apply it.

Lucrezia nodded. They all fell quiet for a time. The copy on the statue grew bored and flipped off the statue, landing in a forward roll onto the grass. One of the two on the bench joined the other three in exploring the garden.

Chang listened to the wind, rubbed her toes into the stone beneath her feet and studied the work she had done on the statue to see how well it stood to the test of time. For now at least the marble seemed new-cut, though darkened by the water which seemed to pour down from Einherjar’s shoulders like a shimmering cape. She liked what she did with this garden. In the end she thought she might have been a little too subtle, that the message was so easy to miss that it might as well not exist. Landscaping was a troubling subject. It always seemed so hard to guide where people’s eyes would be drawn without rendering everything artificial. She began to ponder how to deal with the issue.

“If I may ask,” Lucrezia said, “you’ve been pretty quiet since the Count’s party. What happened after Raoul took you off?”

“He arranged an interesting meeting with a few of our descendants. A gorgeous young man by the name of Darrik whom you would have been all over-“

“Literally,” Lucrezia said.

“-and an altogether more mysterious fellow named Carnal. A protégé of Sin-Eater.”

“Oh, goodie,” Lucrezia said. “Did you two play nice?”

“Actually, yes,” Chang said, all four voices combining to show her disapproval at Lucrezia’s words. “It seems she’s decided to settle matters between us. It’s for the best, of course. We’ve all got bigger problems to worry about.”

“There was a pretext, I assume?”

Chang shrugged. “She disapproves of my association with Narcosis and my mission. So, just about everything that matters, really. But there’s nothing wrong with polite disapproval, and it seems I’ve slotted in above Narcosis in Sin-Eater’s esteem. I suspect Raoul’s hand in it, else some scheme of hers. Either way, it’s less pettiness to worry about and I’m content with that arrangement. We’ll see if we can sort things out. With Raoul in the shadows I expect there’ll be some sort of accord. Honestly, Sin-Eater’s an awful lot more reasonable than I am. I have a stubborn streak a mile wide.”

Lucrezia looked directly at Chang’s cock and pursed her lips. “You know, I’m actually above this particular pun. That’s simply too easy.”

Chang smiled at her and stroked her cheek. “But I set you up for it so beautifully! If you won’t accept my gifts, whatever will we do when it’s time for celebration?”

“Tear off our clothes and make glorious love under a full moon, and ideally don’t stop until the next full moon rises. How’s that sound?”

She inclined her head. “Quite pleasant.”

“Quite? Quite?” Lucrezia shook her head. “If I wasn’t married to you…”

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Sakura had risen early, as she usually did, the sun calling to her. She hadn't left her apartment much in the past few days, despite Esperance's continued insistence that she was allowed, even encouraged to do so. The woman had taken to visiting her once or twice a day, usually to bring her meals or something to decorate the rooms that had been left bare for each new tenet to do with as they pleased. Sakura had never had her own apartment, at least not one that wasn't someone else's house and already decorated, so she had little idea what to do. She'd though of growing some plants inside, but that would have meant potting them and removing them from the fresh breezes and direct sunlight; she didn't want to sacrifice their greatest health and happiness just for a little natural comfort in her ultra-modern, manufactured cave. So currently, several landscape paintings adorned the walls of the greatroom and figurines, both Congolese and more international in origin, sat graceful on small tables around the room. One in particular, a white and silver marble statue of Guanyin Pusa, a buddhavista of compassion and peace percieved as both male and female in different parts of Asia, was her current favorite and was displayed on the wooden coffee table; the table was a dark rich brown made from some local type of tree that Sakura didn't know the name for but that set off the light colors of the Guanyin statue perfectly.

She'd taken only a few moments this morning to consider its beauty and Guanyin's resonance with herself before slipping out of the window-doors of the greatroom and down into the garden; she'd found a favored spot for her morning transformation, on the far side of a stand of trees that created a partition between her and the achingly beautiful statue of King Einherjar in the center of the gardens. She could see the statue from her balcony, but it still only made her heart ache with the distress she had caused her host and protector, and his daughter. She stepped silently through the vegetation, greeting the happily contented plants with soft touches and a light brush of her mind before standing gently on a patch of cleared earth. Her clothes slowly made their separate transitions: some to the her shoulders and hair to turn into large, vibrant green leaves and the other half to slither down her legs into knotty brown roots that quested their way through the soil to dip into the water table beneath. She closed her eyes and rearranged her skin, bring her chloroplasts to the surface and tinting her entire body an emerald shade. This was her peaceful time, when she could let her senses simply meld into the garden itself and be free of the worries of the sentient world. Lately, she'd been staying this way for hours, sometimes well into the afternoon.

Today, something, or more someones, intruded on that peace. It took time for her mind to register non-plants in the garden and then to pull together enough to understand that it was people. Several, though she couldn't quite make out what the voices were saying or how many of them there were; the tree partitions were wonderfully crafted to create both sight and sound barriers around the garden. In truth, Sakura was quite startled. In her few days since she had been moved she had never encountered another soul in this garden, despite the beautiful landscaping and expertly crafted statue. Perhaps it was out of deference to her. She frowned, her mood dipping low: perhaps it was out of fear of her. Either way, there were people here now. She debated simply leaving as quietly as she had come, but curiosity caught her as she heard an oddness to some of the talking, a voice or voices that spoke in perfect unison but in different tones and harmonies. Novas, then. Or at least one nova.

She slipped towards the trees that separated her from the unknown other occupants of the garden, still mostly transformed to what Andre had called her dryad-self and what Anteus had called her true self. She remembered that argument:

I'm still human, Anteus.

No, you're a nova.

That's still human. I'm just not a baseline. And I'm not a plant. I love them, but I'm not one of them.


In her reverie, she moved closer than she intended, stepping between two of the trees to catch sight of the others sharing the garden with her and unintentionally putting still-green and mostly naked self within easy sight as well. She was smiling ruefully, the closest to a true smile she'd come to since the disaster of her first morning in Kinshasa, her eyes focused on a far away memory of a time with someone who simply understood, even if he was an opinionated git at times.

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Chang heard Sakura’s movements, quiet and subtle though they were. Even had she been silent, the sound of her ribs tickling the inside of her skin and the brush of her skin on leaves would have betrayed her presence.

By the time she had ventured through the trees, Chang was watching her, having altered her eyes to observe the heat shimmer from her body and magnified her vision to get a better look. The woman’s beauty was breathtaking, enough to put the old Bombshell in the shade, and enough to fully harden her cock. It grew fully as thick as a human torso, pushing up past her breasts in a vulgar spire.

Ordinarily she would have been thinking about her wife now, but instead Chang wanted to stretch over there and pin the green-skinned woman against one of those trees, to take her instead and have Lucrezia… what?

No. She did not want her wife there with her at all.

That was what tipped her off. It was violent realization that something had twisted in her mind and derailed her from normal thinking. Chang often made love to other women, but Lucrezia usually at least watched if she did not join in. And the idea of… yes, of pushing her away, of sending all five of her to do whatever with the rest of her, was unconscionable.

Chang saw the mist of pheromones pulsing off the woman’s body. She closed up her nose, but they soaked into her skin. With an effort of will, she bludgeoned her brain back into shape, forcibly placed Lucrezia in her place of pride, enshrined in the temple of her lusts and love.

She took a deep, bracing breath.

Lucrezia was rather more overtaken. Chang could hear a rush through all her bodies. It was a simultaneous quickening of the pulse, a warming of the skin, a catching of breath, and a general movement towards Sakura. They moved with eerie, unnatural synchrony now, as her true nature became apparent.

Chang put a hand on her wife’s shoulder. “Darling, she’s doing something to your head. Don’t question me,” she said, making her voice piercing, loaded with authority. “Whatever you feel, rein it in.”

Lucrezia looked at her, then. Through lust-fogged eyes she stared at Chang, and something cleared a little. She gave a nod. “She’s pretty.”

“As are you, beloved,” Chang kissed her on the forehead, and then made her ways over to the newcomer. Lucrezia hung back, rubbing her heads and peering at Sakura cautiously, like one might at a cat that had mysteriously appeared on one’s couch.

Chang smiled, appearing unaffected, though only because every time her mind attempted to wander she shoved her thoughts back into their proper alignment. “Hello, there? I believe I’ve heard of you though we’ve never met. A friend of Caroline’s, yes?”

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Sakura blushed when she realized she'd been spotted; she had little issue with nudity, but other than with Anteus, she'd only ever allowed herself to become her tree-self in private. It was her own time, her one thing that she'd been possessive about before her children. So she quickly rearranged herself into a more human tone, the same bronzed skin she had been favoring since coming to the Congo, and a flowing green tunic with brown leggings. She stepped out from the trees and watched the woman that approached her and the others that had followed with such strange, synchronized movements. Clones, maybe? Or telepathically linked novas? She didn't know any of them, and they all sort of intimidated her, but she didn't want to be rude.

She nodded at the woman who had spoken, the one with the many voices, "Yes, I spent some time with her a few years ago. She was kind to me and aided me find people in need of my help." And I'm carrying her child. Not something to share just yet, maybe.

"My apologies, but I don't believe we've actually met before." She bowed formally to the assembled women, "I am Konohanasakuyahime, but I am usually called Sakura for simplicity."

She waited patiently for the others to introduce themselves.

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Chang listened intently to her as she spoke. She seemed honest and forthright. Though it could be illusion, she had a feeling that the pheromones were unintentional, perhaps a natural development of her taint.

She watched as the tree-like woman’s eufiber rose out of the ground and descended from the sky, settling into clothes while her skin changed its hue toward a more human appearance, though she remained green of eye and lips.

“I am Chang Zha-Yang, known to the world at large as White Rain, and among the Teragen as The Mirror Queen. Caroline is a good friend of mine. This is my wife, Lucrezia,” she said, making a wide gesture at the five assorted copies present with them.

The closest one raised her hand. “Hi. That’s some aura you’ve got going there. I was about ready to jump your bones.”

She went quiet, though Chang knew the urge was still strong inside her. Willpower had never been her wife’s strongest quality. “It is good to meet you, Sakura. Caroline led me to believe that you might be the walking solution to our fertility issues, on a small scale at least. That’s a heavy burden, though I’m sure it has ten thousand joys along with it. Do you like this garden, by any chance? I designed it myself when I was last here, but landscaping and I have never quite seen eye to eye. I could do with a more critical set of eyes to offer an opinion. My wife is a touch biased.”

Chang hoped the thrust would get the young nova to unwind a little. She seemed tense, somehow, and withdrawn. That would not do at all.

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She blushed a cinnamon red at Lucrezia's frank statement, though she looked as uncomfortable as embarrassed. "My...my apologies....I-I can't control that. I'm sorry."

Chang's question about the gardens rescued the young nova from her discomfort. She looked around the garden and smiled, her eyes closing briefly as she touched upon the emotions of the plants again, "It's very beautiful, very peaceful. The plants here are loved, and that's just as important as sunlight, rain, and good soil." She blinked and looked back at her new companions, "I can't say much for formal landscaping; I'm used to being in the wild. This place seems....harmonious? No - peaceful, even if that is not generally how things are in the wild."

"Caroline taught me a little of the Teragen when I was with her, but we were more focused on finding novas that wanted to be parents and helping them conceive. It was a nice time, I suppose, but very tiring." She frowned, chewing at her lip and unconsciously laying a hand across midsection, "Eventually we had more and more novas coming to us, wanting...well, hardly wanting children or to be good parents, so I moved on."

Wanting to move away from thoughts of her last few days with Caroline, which were no fault of her host, Sakura asked with polite curiosity, "What brings you to the Congo? Do you live here or are you just visiting?" Her question encompassed both novas, as she assumed the wives generally traveled together; she seemed to have no bias against their union, as some hidebound baselines and even novas still did even as far into the 21st century as they were.

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Lucrezia shrugged at Sakura’s discomfort. “It’s ok. We’ve all got our quirks, right?”

Chang followed Sakura’s body language, each twitch of muscle in her face and limbs. She sought understanding, as always. When Sakura’s hand went to her belly, she wondered why. The ‘mother goddess’, much like Bounty, only free and out in the world. Caroline seemed to believe it for the best.

When Sakura asked about their business, Lucrezia laughed. “No, we don’t live here. Chang lives in the Rainbow Room more or less, I’ve got a few homes here and there, but mostly stay with her.”

“Indeed,” Chang said. “I could probably afford another home, but the Rainbow Room more than suffices for my needs. These days I have little need for comforts, though they’re pleasant enough. As for why we are here,” she glanced to her wife, “how do you phrase it again, Lucrezia?”

“We’re here on ETB. Evil Terat Business,” she said, and waggled her fingers while making a face.

Chang rolled her eyes, one of them white as fresh snow, the other black as a raven’s wing. “By which she means we came to attend one of Raoul Orzais’ parties. If evil was committed, it was mostly against the various languages spoken by the attendees. At one point they inflicted a punning contest on my ears. Not that they knew I was listening, of course,” she muttered. Then she gestured at her cock, still hard and huge. “I broadly stay out of the public eye. My presence tends to put people in an odd mood. Shall we sit? For some reason it feels more civilized to do so.”

Her hair rippled, revealing the true nature of her clothes and giving momentary glimpses of her triple breasts, almost allowing her shaft to burst free. Her buttocks swelled out behind her, spread along the grass and grew upward, forming into a pair of stone benches, one for Chang and Lucrezia, one for Sakura.

Chang sat, the strand of flesh her buttocks had become melding into the stone as she did. “Please, sit down. I’m very comfortable, as my wife will always attest. If you do not approve of my attempt at décor I can make something more to your liking.”

Lucrezia sat, though she fidgeted and did not seem half as comfortable as Chang. “She put me off beds forever. I only sleep in her, now. Well, I say sleep. I prefer recline myself. It sounds so much more indulgent.”

She’s coping well, Chang thought, studying her wife for a moment. I hope it holds. I believe Sakura is a little skittish over something.

“Caroline and I are very good friends. She spoke about you with enthusiasm. While she’s never said so explicitly,” she leaned forward, dropping her four voices to a ghost’s whisper, “would I be right in my belief that you’re carrying her child?”

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Sakura sat down gingerly at first, then with more ease as Chang molded the bench into an almost couch-like construction that relieved some of the minor aches and pains that Sakura was beginning to feel. Pregnancy might be easier on novas than baselines, but carrying triplets still made it a challenge. "Th-thank you," she said hesitantly, unsure of the etiquette when sitting on a couch-shaped person. She nodded at Chang's assumption, "Yes, she was kind enough to let me take a sample of her DNA and create a child of ours. Several others agreed as well...I'm carrying triplets. I think next time, I'll try one at a time. I just wanted to make sure they had others they could relate to, play with, that sort of thing. Now I'm just tired, and I'm only about five weeks along. Thirty-five more weeks and I'm going to be totally exhausted. And then I'll have infants to take care of."

Her complaining was entirely good-natured and she wrapped her arms around her growing children, obviously already completely committed to and in love with them already. She looked the two (six) novas over curiously, "Does Count Orziaz have parties here often? Do the Teragen do a lot here? I really don't know much about the Congo, beyond a little of the history and meeting the king and his daughter." She shivered a little at the mention of the Morrigan, but that wasn't that unusual of a reaction to the violent feral nova.

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It was Lucrezia who answered, perhaps a little too eagerly for Chang’s liking. “Oh, we do this and that. King Ein the Magnificent is always eager to remind us of his ability to stomp us flat or sic his attack daughter on us.”

Chang gave her wife a sidelong glance. “What my dear wife means to say is that Einherjar does not permit much in the way of open activity. Certainly he does not permit activities of the sort that get my compatriots in the headlines, nor which would harm any of the Congolese. He is a monarch, and has absolute power in the Congo. He’s not keen on letting anyone forget it. As you may be able to imply, though, there is a small degree of tension.”

“Which she doesn’t feel because she knew him before he was important,” Lucrezia said.

He was always important, Chang thought. The world just didn’t notice for a time. “Mostly it is the Children of Teras who dwell here, safe in the Congo. Most of the elder Terats view the Congo with suspicion. It is hardly a shining example of our philosophy, after all, and Einherjar has no interest at all in fighting the battles we consider necessary. He has his power base, and he will continue to build upon and expand it. Our battle with Utopia and Proteus and the baseline governments who oppress and murder Novas goes on. We cannot fight it from here.”

“We’re staying in the Congo to relax,” Lucrezia said, “though Chang only relaxes for maybe a nanosecond every day. We’ll be going back to Ibiza at the end of the week. What about you, Sakura?” As she spoke, her eyes trailed down to Sakura’s belly, and back up.

Chang leaned back, feeling a touch sour. Her wife was not wrong, but that was not a bad thing. It did not stress her to be serious, such came to her naturally. More and more, Chang thought she understood The Mathematician, who was already infamous for his demeanour. It had been easier once, long ago before her mind began its rapid expansion. But she perceived so much and could eke so many things out of small details and traceries of information. It was hard to relax when there was simply so much to think about.

And now, right before her, was something new to consider. The Congo seemed to be picking up a proliferation of the second generation, between Norman’s Children of Teras, Sakura and some of the other children who lived in and around the area. With a breeder like Sakura here, Einherjar’s pet nation would have to rise still further in the Pantheon’s considerations.

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Sakura shook her head in the negative, a small frown of worry stealing into her expression. "No, I'll be staying in the Congo. I came here for sanctuary, somewhere I and my children would be safe while they grew up. He, King Einherjar, he granted me sanctuary, though I think he may be regretting it now." She sighed, trying not to fall back into her melancholy, "He hasn't kicked me out yet, though he did move me over here where I wasn't quite so...available...troublesome?....to the rest of the palace or the king's guests."

She smiled faintly at Chang, "Though he did put me next to a beautiful garden, which was kind."

She frowned again, though this time in confusion, "The Children of Teras? Who are they? Are they a faction in the Teragen? Caroline told me that there were several and described some of them to me, but I have to admit that I wasn't paying much attention at the time. I was...focused. I worked almost exclusively with plants and animals, mostly with Anteus, before I met Caroline. She pushed me, mostly gently, towards helping people. Interacting with them, even if only briefly enough to make them fertile and ensure the child was...well, healthy and as close to what their parents wanted as I could make them." She sighed and looked sad, "That's why I stopped for a while, why I left Caroline. People kept coming, more and more, that didn't want children. They wanted soldiers or just flat out weapons that wouldn't know or be capable of questioning their so called parents or what they were doing."

She pulled herself back from unhappy memories again and returned to her earlier question. "I'm sorry. The Children of Teras, who are they again?"

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Chang considered Sakura’s words, and her position. The Congo was safe for her, at least to a degree. She had previous relations with the Teragen that could sour her… and yet…

Her own worries surfaced. Mal. The Children of Teras. Bounty. An enclosed triad, father, mother, and x number of children. As if Mal was the only father of the Nova race, the only one with the right to raise the next generation.

That bothered her. When she voiced these worries to Caroline – and she rarely shared them with anyone else – the slightly older nova had been quiet for some time. Then, out of nowhere, she simply asked, ‘So what are you going to do?’

Sakura seemed to offer an answer to that.

Chang put a hand on Lucrezia’s arm when she opened her mouth to speak. “I’ll field that one. The children of Teras are a new faction. They’re led by Norman Holden, also known as Surge, a second generation nova and son of Raoul Orzais. He is powerful. His faction consists mostly of other children, but the vast majority of those are Bounty’s brood, birthed by her from various nova parents, else taken into the Nursery for their own protection shortly after their birth. They’ve since been raised exclusively by Bounty as their mother and Mal as their father. I presume you at least know about Divis Mal?”

Sakura looked a little bashful, and scratched her head. “I know of him.”

“I see,” Chang said. “Oh dear. This could take a while.” She then proceeded to tell Sakura everything. The coming of Mal, the publishing of the Null Manifesto and the chaos which followed, leading eventually to the rise of the Teragen, the establishment of Teras, and finally to the Nursery, the part that would interest Sakura most of all.

“So you see,” Chang said, “the point is to bring the children up in Teras from their earliest days. Caroline and I are a little divided on this matter. Teras is her brainchild, her great offering to the future of our people. I do not blame her for supporting the Nursery. I see it as dangerous, though. Something like Teras… it should, it must be chosen. It feels too much like forcing a religion onto our progeny. I don’t know. I am not a mother. Nor a father,” she said, giving her shaft a playful swat. “Do my fears ring true in your heart, Sakura? Or am I becoming a crusty academic in my old age, worrying about matters that are of no practical interest to anyone?”

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Sakura was quiet for a long time. As she'd been told about the Nursery, though, the smell of cherry blossoms bloomed into something smokey and rough; Chang was the first person in Kinshasa to see Sakura angry. It was a common emotion for her, but when it settled in, it was with a deep current. But she held her tongue, waiting for Chang to finish, and then to think some and calm down be fore she answered.

"When I was born, my father and my mother hated each other. My mother, she was a nova called Freedom; she'd ended the siege of Berlin and and would have ended World War II in days if she hadn't been imprisoned by her government, the United States, for her temerity to enter combat as a woman, no matter how powerful of one. Japan had been willing to surrender immediately after Berlin was taken, but only to Lady Victory, as she was known then. She spent three years in prison, collared and kept in solitary confinement instead. Once she was released, she left for Japan; she spent years there rebuilding a nation that hadn't needed to be destroyed and subjugated. Like here, the treaty that ended the war prevented Japan from maintaining a standing army, so Mother made them an insidious one: intelligent, powerful dogs that bonded with people to become personal protectors, potent poisonous plants that only the Japanese were immune to, those sorts of things. Thousands of them, all adding up to a defensive capability unrivaled in the world and so long as it was left unemployed in violence, one entirely undetected by the technologically-centric "developed" world. In thankfulness for this and in order to permanently add Freedom's power to Japan, as she'd changed her name when she left the States, the Emperor of Japan ordered his eldest son to court Freedom and marry her." The lovely young woman sighed pensively, "My mother really did believe he loved her and she conceived the son and heir he so desperately wanted almost immediately after their wedding. A little while later, she discovered his long-running mistress and the four year old son he already had. She also discovered that he hated her, hating having to marry a gaijin freak, even if she was a Kami no Ningen. Mother reacted....poorly. She....she altered the baby. Made him appear to be a girl at least on the outside by causing him to be unable to interact at all with androgen, the hormone that causes all of the later physical differentiation between males and females. All she told my father was that because of what he'd done and how he was, she'd changed the baby from a boy to girl, just so he wouldn't have the divine heir his father had forced him to marry her for. She stuck around Japan just long enough to give birth to me, left me at the Imperial Palace, and went off to head the cult that had sprung up declaring her the personification of Gaia or something. I don't really remember, except that she wasn't around."

"Life at the palace was...abusive. My grandmother hated me the most, calling me a devil child and telling me I had dirty blood. They wouldn't get rid of me because I did have royal blood and I was a Kami no Ningen, but I'm probably the only Imperial Princess that spent their childhood scrubbing floors and running away from family and servants that would beat me with broomsticks and bags of rocks if they caught me." She recited the abuse from far away, her eyes roving the garden as her mouth spoke painful words. "When I was six, I was betrothed to a cousin of my father's. He was already in his forties, had several mistresses and illegitimate children, and was rather unpleased with being forcibly betrothed to the half-gaijin freak, as he called me. I was set to be sent to his household when I was thirteen and then sent somewhere far away from his offended senses once I bore him a legitimate heir. Luckily for me, my mother decided to take an interest in me again a couple of years later when my father managed to sanitize his mistress' official bloodline and history to gain his father's approval to marry her and legitimize my older half-brother. I don't know why she cared then, except maybe the idea of my father getting to have everything he wanted after hurting her so badly just....I don't know. Made her angry? Made her remember she had a child? Either way, she took me from the palace, from that time, that Earth, and brought me here. She'd found a man named Shen who was willing to watch me for a few days while she went back to take care of something. She never came back, so Shen found me a family willing to take me in and remote enough from civilization that such a young nova child wouldn't be seen by many or hopefully noticed by those in power."

"It worked, and I love my Mom and Dad, though how they managed to get through all my nightmares and emotional...issues....when those issues could end up with bees swarming the house or freak deluges of rain...or the one time I trapped us in the house for a week and month passed outside just because I didn't want to have to go a party for a girl in the nearby village that I didn't like." She gave a huff of a laugh, "It took that long for me to figure out what I did and then how to undo it."

She looked between the novas, Lucrezia's lounged along Chang's body, and leaned unconsciously towards them, wanting to give her words weight, "I'm telling you this not for sympathy. What happened, happened. The past can't be undone, and who would want to be? You are made of your experiences. I kept the title I was given by the Imperial family, Konohanasakuyahime, the goddess of humanity, to remind of me of where I came from, but I ask that people call me Sakura Miyazu because that is the name Shen gave me when he found a family to for me to live with."

"My parents, the ones that truly raised me not the ones that simply passed on their genetics, they had a son. He erupted while he was away at college. He wasn't a particularly powerful nova by most standards, but smart and dedicated to using his new gifts in psychology, the field he was studying when he erupted." She took a steadying breath, her own pain was always easier to deal with than others, especially the parents that had shown her the love and patience of saints. "He was drug out of his dorm room one night and tied to the back of a truck. They dragged across most of the town before drilling nails into him to pin him to a cross and then setting it on fire, like the Klu Klux Klan would do. The police looked into the matter, but when the Church of Michael Archangel took credit for the act and hid the individual perpetrators behind the bulk of their follows and a bevy of lawyers, the entire incident was quickly swept under the rug as an "unfortunate random hate crime." It was an election year in the city and the mayor would lose office without the support of several members of that abominable church. So, when Shen asked, they took me in, kept me safe, and dealt with everything that comes with an eight year old that was more than any baseline child would ever be in almost every way and could cause havoc with pretty much all of nature and time when she got upset. If there were ever people that should truly be running the world, being listened to by baselines and novas alike, it's my mom and dad. They even understood when I left, though they worry about me."

"My Apotheosis," she sounded out the word, obviously not quite used to it yet, "was triggered when my boyfriend, a baseline named Willem, and I first made love." She colored slightly at the admission, but she seemed more nostalgic of the memory than embarrassed. "It was my eighteenth birthday and...well, I learned a lot about myself that night, including my...interesting...sexual situation. I left. Willem wouldn't have been comfortable dealing with the fact that I'm technically an XY chromosome, even though I changed during my Apotheosis to be as much female on the inside as I appear to be on the outside. I didn't excise my male side, though, and I wouldn't lie to someone I love about an important part of who I am. So I left. I left home, the village, the life I'd known, and went searching for something better to do with the powers I'd grown up with and the ones that had manifested that night than just watering crops for local farmers or making sure cows and sheep were carrying healthy offspring."

"I found Anteus first, and he taught me a great deal. About control, about what to do where and how to hear where the world is hurting. He also taught me that you have leave sometimes to keep growing and to be able to come back at some point. He passed me along to friend's of his that could use my help and teach me other things in return, and so on. That's eventually how I ended up with Caroline, and then with Andre. Those are the parents of my children. I have samples from a few other novas that interested me for their personalities or their powers, but those three were the ones with most fascinating powers and that taught me the most about who I am, who I want to be, and how I make the transition." She leaned back against the Chang-couch again, collecting her thoughts together to make everything she'd just said come together with purpose. "I don't believe that all people are able to be good parents, whether they are capable of siring children on their own or not. That's why I refused many of the later novas that came to Caroline and I; most of them were militant and cold, wanting miniature powerful soldiers or living quantum weapons to unleash on their enemies. I won't put a child in the position that I grew up in, either from gross personality flaws in the parents or ambitions for the children to be other than the beloved offspring of their parent or parents. And as such, I would never condone stealing children from their parents just to raise them in your own personal philosophy of the world. That is despicable and I don't care what the philosophy or justification is." Her anger and outrage was a palpable presence in the garden, the smell of burning flowers and the heightened combative pheromones turning the peaceful oasis into a charged space of agitated plants and angrily buzzing insects.

She closed her eyes and concentrated, forcing herself once again to calm down and stop riling up the garden and the skies. Once she had a strong enough hold of herself, she opened her eyes again and continued. "I agree that children must find their own way as they come into being adults. Parents should shelter them when they need it, love them at all times, and make sure that they have the tools they need to learn and be discerning when they do venture out on their own. To do otherwise is to treat a child as a commodity or a slave. This "Nursery" sounds exactly like that, preying on the desire for novas to have children, and then taking away the point of it beyond mere genetic survival. My father wanted nothing to do with me and left me to the abuses of his mother and anyone else that happened by, exiling me to the servant's quarters and making it known to them and their children that there would be no retribution for anything done to me. I think he was hoping someone would 'accidentally' manage to kill me or that I would eventually run off on my own. My mother abandoned me twice. They weren't parents, they were genetic donors; that is what Bounty and Divis Mal have rendered would-be parents into, most especially those that think they have no other option for children and might at least be able to reconnect with them once they're released from this child-prison. And if Divis Mal is the leader of the Teragen, if he is who the others look to for guidance and an example, then the Teragen are headed towards becoming the most heinous of monsters, no matter what they look like or how much taint they accumulate. Even baselines can become utter fiends without a touch of taint."

"I've spent six years learning how to do what I do to the best of my ability; six years helping humans - baseline and nova - have children when they thought there was no hope for such joy in their lives. I have cured family lines of congenital diseases, given children the greatest potentials they are capable of having, healed injuries and regrown limbs, restored forests and created animals and plants that can withstand and even fight back against the depredations humanity has inflicted on the planet. I have done this because I love the world. I love my family and I want to see others have and love their families. I want people to be able to live in harmony with themselves and the world, to do their best by each other and live fulfilled lives. Five weeks ago I decided that I wanted that all for myself as well, and I expanded my own family by three. Then people started hunting me, trying to kill me and somehow tracking me across continents and oceans. I know the world isn't perfect, I know people do horrendous things to one another, but I do what I can to help and I try to find a way to stop the senseless violence and abuse that I know about." She watched Chang intently, "That is me, as briefly as I can state, from birth until now. I don't know really how or if that fits in with Teras, but that is path I have found as I went from a child to an adult and I thank whatever divinities that might exist that my parents let me find on my own with their love as my strength and their understanding as my light. To be hobbled by having a way forced on you, on being shown no other alternatives and being taught that you must be only that way, that is to send children alone into the dark wilderness of the world with only brittle minds and stunted souls to guide them. That is cruel and monstrous and something I will oppose with all my being."

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As Sakura talked on and on, Chang leaned back into the faux-stone of her body and folded the fingers of one hand around the fist of the other. She listened hard, not just to the words but to the weight she placed on each one, to the barely-contained emotion at some times and the raging feeling in others.

By the time she finished, Chang’s heart was pounding. The woman had a way about her, a way of making people feel what she did. Chang had that, too, when she chose to exert it. Seeing Sakura’s fire showed her how cold she could be at times.

Lucrezia was shaking. “You know, most of the time I’m pretty mild, but that sort of thing makes me want to burn the world and just start over.” She shuddered. “Sorry. I know that isn’t helpful.”

Chang put a hand on her wife’s leg. “Remember my quotable quote.”

She nodded, her form rippling now, warping subtly as something unseen shifted under the surface of her skin. “Yeah, I remember. ‘If you find yourself talking like Shrapnel, find a wall to headbutt.’ Will you do the honours?”

A wall of flesh rose up on Lucrezia’s side of the bench and hardened into stone. With a rippling, sour grimace, she banged her head against it. The wall then dissolved to flesh and melted away back into the stone of the bench.

Chang kissed her wife on the brow. “There. And now I’ve kissed it better. Lie in my lap for a while.”

Lucrezia curled up in Chang’s lap, folding her legs up and hugging her knees, crying silently.

Chang looked up at Sakura. “My wife is more emotional than I am. I apologize if I seem unmoved. It has become a habit of mine. I shall take it from that long discourse that you concur with my feelings. That is good. There is little I can say to your past. It is unfortunate, and I am glad you have no allowed it to break you. Some of us carry deep scars from such things, but you do not appear to. If you ever feel the need to talk, or require a sympathetic ear, you could do worse than to seek me out.”

In her lap, Lucrezia’s form settled, now shifted into that of a slender, beauteous blond-haired woman with wide blue eyes. Chang noticed that her other copies had all reverted, too. She nodded behind her. “That is my wife’s true form, if the term is applicable anymore.”

“It’s not,” Lucrezia protested, her voice a little muffled by Chang’s jeans, and her sniffing back her tears.

“Thank you, dear. Well, when she’s not wearing other forms, she looks like this. I don’t see it often.” She began to stroke Lucrezia’s silk-soft hair. “My own past is considerably less interesting, though I too have family issues. I was a youngest daughter in a fairly affluent family in China. Looking back I believe I may have been autistic, though the eruption appears to have burned it out of me, or at least corrected the more dysfunctional aspects of the condition. I was always a brilliant artist, but impossible to guide, stubborn, unwilling to learn things I had no interest in and I had interest in little. I could probably have come to something good, but when the state attempted to ‘assist’ me, I simply refused to create rather than take advantage of their offer.

“Novas made me feel irrelevant. Or, if not that, as if I was pointless. I could not hope to ever match them or even be in the same hemisphere. I made the extraordinarily unwise choice of joining an eruption cult.” She smiled, then, and shook her head. “I was lucky, ridiculously so, but still that was the most foolish decision I made. I knew it myself, and nearly died in the learning. After my eruption, though, things degenerated swiftly with my family. I was more beautiful than my sisters, more intelligent and wiser than my brothers and parents, and more talented than ever. I’ll not go into detail. There were arguments. Things were said and thrown. You know this song well enough. They disowned me in the end. Since then I’ve made my way alone. Even when I joined the Teragen I eventually left and went back to solitude. It took me years before I decided to become a Terat in truth and help the organization, though I’ve always walked the path of Teras.” Her voices were deeply meditative, thoughtful.

Lucrezia sat back up, drying her eyes, and kissed Chang on the cheek. “I’m going to go and play with the rest of me for a bit. I’ll be back. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” She rose and popped over to kiss Sakura on both cheeks. “See you in a while, Sakura.”

Chang waved her off. “I believe you may be being slightly harsh about the Nursery, but I can see where you come from. Likewise, I’m sure you can see why I believe it is important the children make their own minds up. I’ve done so most of my life. But am I right? It bothers me, Sakura. People rely on me now. They come to me for guidance, for help on the Teras path. I want to push them to make their own minds up on everything, especially what I teach them, but do I do it only because of my past or because that is truly the right thing to do?” Now she seemed pensive, and her voices fractured. One went on, but the other three gained tones of sadness, grief and fear.

“I have another so-called ‘quotable quote’. The problem with the world is that wise people are so full of doubts while zealots and fools are certain. Am I wise or a zealot? Or am I neither, and just a fool pretending?” She studied Sakura with her mismatched white and black eyes, wondering both what the beautiful young woman would think of this sudden outpouring, and why on earth she was doing it. She had not opened up like this to anyone outside her inner circle in years.

“This is how I feel when I question Mal, Sakura, and oh I have questioned him. You have not met Mal, let alone spoke to him, but if you had this discussion would have a very different sort of feel. You would not say what you have said if you knew Bounty, either. She is a wonderful, empathic person, absolutely dedicated to the continuation of the Nova race. The Nursery began as protection. You have encountered the talons of Project Proteus, the motherhunters. Our children are safe at the Nursery. And Mal…” she spread her arms uselessly, and dropped them into her lap. “If Novas have a god, he is it. None hold a candle to him, and he seems so right when he speaks. Yet of late he speaks less and less. His focus is on the children. I wonder if he has given up on his proxy children in the Teragen, and hopes that the next generation will show the path Novas will walk. You must read the Null Manifesto,” Chang said. “I think you may disagree with much of its content. I know I did, but it is fascinating and emotive. The first true Nova ideology, rather than just take-offs on baseline ideas.”

Sakura’s condemnation of Mal bothered her, but Chang could not say why. That crinkled her features. She knew herself better than almost anyone. It was rare for her to be lost in determining her own motivations. This she would need to meditate upon.

“You could be a Terat, yes,” Chang said. “Some of us follow Mal slavishly. We have a self-proclaimed ‘Cult of Mal’ in fact.” She shook her head, a motion laden with buried contempt. “Teras is not about Mal, though. It is about the individual. This is why the Nursery bothers me, I think. It is an attempt to force unity where the principle of Teras is that unity is ideal but not necessary. I believe that if we all strive to advance ourselves, unity comes from that united strife. It is so difficult that nobody can truly walk the path alone. I created some paintings and sculptures about it, to show my belief. We should catch one another when we stumble, and help each other stand tall. But we should not be forced to. Ah. I am rambling. This is Mal,” she said, pointing at herself. “He is so hard to think clearly about.”

Chang leaned forward, and stretched her arms across the short distance between them to take Sakura’s hands in her own. “I would like you to think about Teras a little. Perhaps seek out Raoul Orzais for a second opinion. He is often in the Congo, and I know he would be delighted to have you as a guest. I fear that my focus upon choice prevents me from proselytizing. In my peculiar ideal world, everybody would already know about Teras and come to me only when they want to follow the path. I’m a terrible spokeswoman,” she said, smiling ruefully. “Read the Null Manifesto, talk to Orzais. Perhaps we can talk about it in depth one day. I believe you could be a wonderful Terat. We need more with good hearts and open minds. Indeed, I think that is where our future must lie, or be directed towards. I would also like you to consider something else,” Chang said, steeling herself.

She felt guilty even as she began to speak. “You are safe here. I have no real right to ask anything of you, especially since we are not friends and did not know each other before this conversation. But you could help me to reverse some of the harm I believe the Nursery will do. If you could help other Terats have children, away from the Nursery, then perhaps things will be better. Caroline asked me, when I raised my fears, what I would do. There is nothing I can do myself. For us in the Teragen, Bounty is the only option. And that means she will be the mother, and Mal the father. We have no choice. I can spread the word about your existence, but you say that has been done once already and done more harm than good. So I will not, and will instead ask that you think of helping me with my scheme, and perhaps giving it a more cohesive and productive form.”

With a final sigh, Chang rested back, retracting her arms once again. “I will not misjudge you if you prefer to simply stay in the Congo, birthing children, playing with them in the gardens. Everyone has the right to peace and happiness, and gods know there’s little enough of it for our kind at times. But this is something I cannot do alone. I need help.” All of her voices united on those last three, bare and honest words. She felt… what? Excited?

The Mirror Queen was not known for her subtle manipulations and scheming. If Sakura did choose to help, this would be Chang’s first true ‘project’. Reaching out to the monsters amidst their number, attempting to create an artistic paradigm inside the Teragen, these were not projects to her. They were inevitable results of her influence, almost prerequisites for her to have any.

But this… she was proposing something that would change the direction of the whole movement. The scope of that humbled her. I have grasped the ring of power, she thought. But am I worthy to hold it?

That would be revealed only by time and effort.

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Sakura started at Lucrezia's vehement reaction to her words, and even more so to her violent correction of her thinking. She said nothing, though; her way was not everyone's way, and it wasn't in her to judge people harshly on most subjects.

She listened to Chang speak with the patient attention that spoke to her Japanese heritage, however twisted it had been. She spoke hesitantly at first, wondering if she was betraying her friend and the mother of one of her daughters, "I think...I think that was what Caroline was doing, finding novas, probably at least some or many of the Terats, that wanted children but didn't want to give them up this Nursery. She was the one who found most of them, the ones that weren't already around us, bringing them to our...clinic, she called it. I would help them there and they would stay until I was sure that the pregnancy had taken and then adjust the children to be as healthy, as....it's hard to explain. While novas are still fetuses, I can...change them, adjust them. Give them what they need to survive and thrive, even alter their quantum signature to predispose them towards some of the powers of their parents. Once they're born, their signature is too strong for that, I can't do any more, like I can with baselines."

"I-I want to stay in the Congo, at least for now." She swallowed, some of the fear of her past month shadowing her verdant eyes. "It's the safest place I know of. The king, he has a great deal of power and influence and reputation for being honorable to a fault. But...perhaps we could establish a-a clinic like I had with Caroline here. Terats that wanted children, wanted to raise them on their own, they could come here and I could help them. Then my children and I would still be under the Storm King's protection, but we would still be helping." She was avoiding saying his name, she knew, but what had happened a few days ago and how he avoided her now, it still hurt. He had been so kind to her and seemed like such a nice and interesting person; Sakura had very few friends, and losing a potential one - potential two, if she also counted Tahir - to her affect on people, it stung deeply. She looked up Chang, meeting her mismatched eyes without a flicker of disturbance, "Do you think...would that work? Could the people you're speaking of, could they get to here?"

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Chang shook her head. “That is not ideal. I personally feel that setting up a clinic is like to bring down the thunder upon his head. He would put out the idea that he is unassailable and invincible, that nobody can threaten him or his people. Sakura,” Chang said, turning her hands over, palms open and upward-facing, “you know how baselines respond to threats. Einherjar’s rule is based upon the threat of brutal and violent recrimination upon anyone that threatens him in turn. Set up an explicit clinic for nova fertility inside the Congo…” she shook her head a second time. “It could tip the balance. Word would get out before long, from our side if not from sources inside the Congo. He may believe that the baselines are cowed, but I am not so convinced.”

She frowned and cupped her own chin. “The journey itself could be set up easily enough, though. We have our share of space-jumpers. For this to be done on any significant scale I would prefer it to be done under our terms, not under a king’s good graces. A few individual meetings could be arranged easily enough, and the trail to you kept covered with enough due diligence. Still, there is much to be said for not putting all of our eggs in one basket. Do you not see that as an issue here? We are reaching a point where ‘let’s just do it in the Congo’ is the de facto response to any logistical problem. I am uneasy about it. The Children of Teras are here already, and the Nursery is in this part of the world as well. I suppose there’s something poetic about the Nova race making its cradle on the African continent, but there’s also something potentially dangerous in placing all of our hopes in a – pardon the pun – stormy warrior-king with a violent temper. Do you not see how quickly everything is consolidating around two people? Mal guides the Nursery, and outside Mal, it seems Einherjar is rapidly becoming the sole guardian of the next generation. You, these other children I hear whisper of, Bombshell and her daughter, the Children of Teras…”

Chang fell quiet, her lips screwed up in thought. “It feels too fragile, Sakura. I’m no more comfortable allowing Einherjar to be the guardian of our future than I am with Mal doing it. One has forged a peace based on the threat of war, the other… well, nobody’s even sure what Mal intends these days. That is not to say that we cannot arrange something small scale. Should Einherjar become truly insurmountable, things would be different, but that time has not yet come. But allow me to make this absolutely clear,” Chang leaned forward, and her voices grew intense.

“You cannot use your powers, ever, and be safe. Not you or your children. If you wish to help, that is good. If you do not, if you care more about your children’s safety and future, then let your powers lie and use them as rarely as you can. The motherhunters came for you because you made yourself a problem. They will come again if you choose to assist me or if they learn you are helping other Novas to breed. This is not me being cautious or paranoid, I am relaying a simple fact of our time. Einherjar’s threats and bluster will not avert that. They view your powers as a direct threat to the survival of the human race. What can he possibly threaten them with that tops the threat they believe you represent?

“In short, Sakura, you cannot have your cake and eat it. You cannot be safe and secure the future of the Nova race, not when there are many who will gladly kill you and your children to prevent that future coming into being.”

Chang smiled and leaned back once more. “Which brings our little talk full circle, does it not? The problem, the central moving part in this discussion… is choice.”

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Chang could see the firm line of determination set into Sakura's jaw, "I can be scared, terrified, but I won't be cowed. Something was done to the novas I helped, I could feel that in them. We deserve the right to have children, to have families, every bit as much as any baseline. I understand that people will see me as dangerous, that I'll never be completely safe and neither will my children. The same can be said of any parent and any children, though the threat is more directed in my case. But I've already been helping both novas and baselines. I'm not going to stop now. I'm willing to help the people you want to help, your friends and companions in the Teragen, if they want it, but I'm going to help others too, anyways. My parents taught me: 'When you have a gift or talent to help, you share it. That's how the world becomes a better place.' I suppose that's my quatoable quote. I won't just sit around doing nothing, stewing in fear. What would be the point of living at all, then?"

"I came to the Congo because I believed it was the safest place I could think of, not because I thought it was some perfect bastion of protection. As for the king...I admit that I don't know him very personally, but he doesn't seem the type to kidnap children or force them follow some cult of personality or a pet religion." Her eyes narrowed, showing a shrewdness and intelligence that had been hiding shyly behind her normally sweet demeanor. "He's granted me sanctuary, promised to do everything he can to keep me safe, and that was on the first night that I came here and with no requirements or insinuations of favors in return. I believe he would do so for any novas that came here to have and raise their families, so long as they were willing to abide by the laws of the Congo - laws that seem to mostly just be common sense." Her voice lowered, if it didn't soften, "I believe that he would put the same statement to the world about novas that become Congalese citizens to have and raise their families in safety that he has to those that are already citizens: namely that any attack on them is considered an attack on the whole and that the entire might of the country, not just of the Storm King himself, will be brought to bear on the perpetrators. He has forged a new Pax Romana, in a way. I will use that so long as I have no other adequate alternative. We deserve to be treated with dignity and basic humane compassion. That includes having children and raising them without having to run across the world every day just to keep from being murdered by fearful psychopaths."

Her tone softened and she looked almost forlorn, "I hate violence among sentient creatures, Chang. It's so...pointless and cruel. Animals fight because they have only limited understanding and instincts to guide them. We are better than that, but still there are those that act on those instincts and on petty hatreds, and even the pitiable ones whose minds are too twisted to do little else but lash out. I don't even know if I could bring myself to harm another person, but just standing aside isn't an option for me either. I just can't." She shuddered, her thoughts dark but determined, "And I prove that there will be more like Bounty born to the nova race or erupting from the baselines. Even if I am killed, even if my...." she couldn't finish the words, so she simply pushed ahead, "there will be more. Someone else will take our places. Life prevails."

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Chang gave a sardonic laugh. “Einherjar is the undisputed King of the Congo, with an army at his back and the love of his people. It costs him nothing to offer you all of those things. Is he invincible? No. But he cannot be attacked piecemeal. If trouble comes it will be in a tidal wave. If he did demand something from you, you’d be well within your rights to call him churlish. Still, I concur that he has a good soul, and I am confident you’re in good hands.” And yet, even as she said it, Chang gave Sakura a long, appraising look. “So long as his libido stays in check.”

She gave Sakura a wink. The words were not a jibe, just an acknowledgement. Chang knew Ein more by reputation than anything else, but she doubted the beautiful young nova would escape his interest. Whether or not he was as lecherous as people claimed… well, she tried not to go off opinion and speculation. The things speculated about her alone had put her off the habit for life.

Chang continued, willing to engage Sakura on that same practical level she had chosen to demonstrate. “My point is that we in the Teragen have far less resources, considerably less public support, and are much more vulnerable. Would we ask a little favour in return? Yes. Is that so unreasonable? You may not have realized it, but people don’t usually jump at the chance to aid us.” Chang gestured at Sakura. “You are a convenient case in point. I’ve asked for help, you have acknowledged the problem and seem to wholeheartedly agree that it exists, and yet you have rather unsubtly pointed out that there’s not really that much in it for you. Result? You won’t help me… save under your terms. This is reasonable, and I do not blame you for it. Nonetheless, why should we operate under any different rules? We have just as much on the line. Utopia is our enemy, and Proteus too. We suffer their raids and attacks on a regular basis.”

She grimaced. There were unfortunate economic realities working against Chang’s scheme. Further debate, it seemed, was pointless. Nonetheless, she felt she needed to defend the Teragen a little. If nothing else it might help down the line, and soften her opinions a touch. “As I said, I understand the choice to remain here under his protection. You have forced a bitter pill down my throat on this front. But I will swallow it, and concede. You have an option we do not, and I cannot fault you for taking it.”

For now, the battle was lost. “Fortunately for me, I believe you may be right. There will be others like Bounty and yourself. I shall hope to come across another in good time. As it stands, the sort of aid you are willing to offer will not help our Nursery problem – if a problem it is - without also transferring wholesale to live under Einherjar’s protection, which will never happen. If you would like to help us in whatever small way you’re willing, talk to Count Orzais. In the meantime I shall worry about the problems of this, ah, ‘heinous monster’, as I believe you phrased it, and seek some alternate solutions.”

If Sakura would not help, and it was clear she would not at this juncture, she did raise the hope that others might. The Nursery’s power derived from Bounty being the Teragen’s only option to breed. In a way, Sakura’s heavy-handed condemnation stung, but she could well be right and her words mirrored the very fears which drove Chang away from the Teragen all those years ago. But could she possibly come across a sweeter, seemingly more willing nova? She could see the glimmers of intelligence in Sakura’s eyes now, the steel trap mind hidden behind the sweetness, but Chang saw it as depth rather than fakery.

The defeat deflated her a little. Chang’s eyes grew hooded, her gaze pensive. This discussion had stirred up all her fears, even added weight to them, and offered no real hope or suggestion of a solution. This was an unpleasant state of affairs, to be sure. And Sakura’s choice raised the spectre of a problem on its own. If they are birthed elsewhere… How can we protect them? Isn’t that why the Nursery was set up in the first place? But the Congo is not an option.

“Let me explain the difficulty with the Congo/Teragen arrangement. I can tell you are taken with Einherjar and what he has built here,” she said, gesturing vaguely at the palace all around them and towering high above up ahead. “You say we deserve to be treated with dignity and basic human compassion. I say we deserve also to be treated as equals. That is impossible in the Congo. Is Einherjar your equal, Sakura? He is not, clearly. What word can you use to describe him? King, I suppose. Your ruler. Your master. Perhaps, if you will not allow that, he is your keeper, or your warden. Fitting I suppose, given the effect your pheromones and aura seem to have on others around you.”

Chang leaned forward once again, though her voices remained sombre, sounding ever more tired and sad. “The problem is that this is his world. It’s not yours, or mine, or anyone else’s, it is Einherjar’s, and his alone. His word is law, his will and his desires shape this land’s future. Nothing you say is relevant unless he agrees with it. That is not the world the Teragen wishes for our kind. I do support what he has accomplished. You’ll see plenty of evidence of that around the palace. But I only support it up to a point, and I support him far more than many of my compatriots. This hierarchy is every bit as poisonous as drilling Teras into our children before they can think for themselves. It traps us into the same errors committed throughout the ages. There is nothing new here. It is just an exceptionally pretty version of all that has come before. I believe – and here is my little bit of naivety and idealism – that novas are capable of building something truly better than what came before. I do not believe it can ever be done here. You will not hear quite the same argument from any other Terat, but we all have our version of it. So you see, Einherjar is the solution to your problem, but he is absolutely no help with mine. Is he a friend to the Teragen? Yes, unquestionably. Raoul would not be here, otherwise. But he is not a close one.”

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She almost interrupted Chang's words several times, to ask a question or refute something that had been said. In the end, she simply started from what had been last said and moved her way back through the conversation. Her voice was tempered steel when she spoke, "I am the king's guest. Neither his citizen, slave, serf, nor any other such arrangement. From my understanding, I would have to serve a year in the military to even begin to become a citizen, and I will not raise my hand, my powers, or any weapon against another sentient being."

"As for helping members of the Teragen conceive children, I am 'jumping', as you say, at the chance to do so. But what good would that enthusiasm be if I am dead? How can I help anyone then? I am here for sanctuary. It is in my nature, my wont, to travel. It causes less problems and I can help more people, but I cannot leave. Do you think I want to be trapped here? The city is beautiful and I can hear the jungles singing even from behind these stone walls, but I am here because I have no other option. The king has been kind, and I do have a great deal of respect for what he has accomplished." She quietly left out her own attraction to him and what had happened in the atrium her first morning in the palace. "The idea of a clinic here was an offer of a compromise. I could help those you know of and then they could stay or leave as they desired. Others are willing to be violent, to turn and destroy those that hunt them. I am not."

She again looked Chang directly in her mismatched eyes, "I've been called foolish and worse for that, but what is the point surviving if you betray everything you are, everything you hold dear, just to keep breathing? Who is living then? Certainly not you. It is someone else, someone changed and twisted by what they've betrayed in their souls. That's different for each person, I know that, but we all have those things that are more important to us than our own lives. When my children are grown, or when the world is safer for them, I have no doubt that I will travel again. If your friends will not come here, then they may wait until then; we seem to be, for those not killed fighting, a long lived people."

"As for wanting anything in return for what I can offer...I don't." She conveyed every bit of genuine sincerity to that sentence as she could. "If my safety and my children's safety were not an issue, I would willing go with you and help every potential parent create the children and family they want. That is what I was doing before someone started hunting me."

Her next words carried an offended tone, her eyes narrowed and her lips pursed in mostly checked anger. "How is my concern for my own safety a demand on the application of my powers? That is the only thing I want right now, and it has nothing to do with being willing or unwilling to use my powers for the benefit of the Teragen. If you or the organization could guarantee that safety while I worked, I would do so. The Congo, the city of Kinshasa and the palace in specific, grant that security, which is why I suggested setting up here. And if the Teragen lack so much, they should spend the time to work together to create for themselves what the Storm King has created here: a place for their own where they need not fear hunters or discrimination. Do not blame him for accomplishing what an entire nova organization has failed to do on their own. He is living proof that it can be done, which simply begs the question on why the Teragen or some faction within them haven't. Outside of this hidden Nursery controlled by two of your leaders, it seems."

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Chang fell quiet. She had miss-stepped. There was a reason she did not usually play political games, and this was it. She lacked the subtlety to get people to see her way and willingly bend to her needs.

She bowed her head, and gave a sad smile. “It seems I am poor at explaining the problem, if all you took from my talk of Teras and hierarchies and making new things is that I ‘blame Einherjar for his success’. Still, you are right. Who am I to criticize? I have little compared to him, and have achieved less. File me away with other naïve fools and failures, and speak with Count Raoul Orzais. He is better at this than I am, and he will be both delighted and able to assist you with your clinic. I will do what little I can, but it is only that; a little. As you have clearly surmised, I'm simply not very useful.”

Her feeling of defeat spread through her frame, and her shoulders slumped. It felt quite pathetic to admit that. Orzais held the real power. It would be foolish to attempt to do what she knew he could do better. All she could do was guide those who sought it, and attempt to change the world through art. It was proving reticent. And if she could not even do that... what did she even bring to the Teragen?

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Sakura slumped as well, feeling tired and upset that she had snapped at Chang. "I'm not angry at you. Well, I was a little, but I'm not now. It just sounded like you were saying I wasn't willing to help because I wasn't willing to do it all on your terms, while accusing me of the same."

She pursed her lips and spoke with compassion and conviction. "You're not a fool, and if this garden is any indication, you're certainly not a failure. We just...misunderstood each other. Communication isn't easy, especially when all you have to go through is language. It's horribly inaccurate and limited. Sometimes I wish I had a way to communicate with people the way I do with....everything else. Not quite telepathy and not quite empathy, but just understanding."

"Besides," she waved her hand in dismissal, "I'm talking to you and you're the one who asked, not this Count Raoul. For all I know, he'd end up a drooling mess on the floor just because I walked in the room. I haven't been able to have an actual discussion with someone this long without them trying to seduce me or run off with me in years." A faint smile touched her lips, almost wicked in its knowing, "Not that that's always unwelcome or anything, it can just get in the way of, well, talking."

"And we don't need money or such to run a clinic like this. There's no surgeries or medications, there's just quantum and a touch. All we would need is a room or a private place of some kind. If you can provide such a place that's safe, or be willing to take the compromise of at least the use of my power here in the Congo, if not the eventual outcomes, then we can do this." She sighed with longing, that sweet and hopeful self emerging again. "It would be nice to feel useful again, instead of being the dangerous guest that's treated nicely but kept at a safe distance from everyone."

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The placation worked. Chang’s smile returned. Her smile was always a wonderful thing, a touch mysterious, a little seductive, but always thoughtful.

“Well, that’s true enough. Raoul is a bit of a ladies’ man. There aren’t many novas with my level of self-conception. That’s a bit of horn-tooting, I know, but it’s true. I’ve spent almost my whole life meditating and guiding my own development. I knew something was wrong the minute I wanted to fuck you and send my wife away. Not the fucking part, I mean. The sending my wife away. I always share,” she put her hands to her mouth, the thumbs brushing her bottom lip.

“There are safe rooms in the Rainbow Room, dark back rooms that nobody knows about. But it is a club, and I can only imagine the sort of effect you’d have in there. I quite understand your issue with communication. Normally I’d say I’m good with words, but perhaps you have gotten to me a little,” she winked at her. “And also it is possible I was a fool and said things I shouldn’t have. On that note, since my last chrysalis I have developed a form of, well, I suppose you’d call it sexual telepathy. That might be a new one to add to the books. I think it’s why my relationship with Lucrezia has remained so strong. I must be a difficult woman to live with.”

“You are,” Lucrezia shouted over.

Chang paused and rotated her neck one hundred and eighty degrees to glare at her wife. Three of the clones were sat around the fountain statue, looking at her and smiling. They blew a kiss in unison. “It is rude to eavesdrop.”

“Says the woman who is currently listening to discussions going on several miles away from here,” Lucrezia replied, grinning.

“None of those conversations are interesting and I’m not paying a huge amount of attention to them. Save the one about the turtles, for it contains some interesting trivia.” Chang turned her head back round. “As I was saying, before somebody with whom I have a very faint association interrupted: It is not that I’m saying you won’t help… it’s more that I feel I’m of little assistance here. I suppose you’re not the only one who wants to feel useful. The essential problem is not the making novas pregnant. Our often over-active libidos and some quantum poking can sort that out as you say yourself. Bounty’s proven that much. The issue is them being whisked off to the Nursery for their own protection. And while I pushed you towards Raoul… he fully supports Bounty.”

Chang lay back in her bench, pondering. “However… we might be able to do something about that in Ibiza. I am not the richest. Despite being on the Pantheon and my artistic endeavours, I donate a large portion of my income to baseline charities as a matter of philosophy. Even for this I cannot change that. It is part of my path. Most of my inner circle, though, are not so inclined and are considerably richer. Orzais would support me financially, I am sure of that, and Narcosis would do so as well. The Rainbow Room might also serve if we converted the basement.” She shook her head, realizing that she had begun to think out loud. “I apologize, Sakura, I’m thinking. The issue is safety, as our little argument has demonstrated. I shall need to create a crèche. Not a Nursery in the sense that Bounty and Mal have made it. Just a place where the parents can be with their children in safety, should they feel their own dwellings insufficient. Does that make sense to you? Or am I over-thinking? As I see it the problem is not the pregnancy. It’s what happens afterwards and keeping it quiet.”

“It’s easier than you think,” said Lucrezia, now sliding over the back of Chang’s bench, rubbing her body down the stone-flesh to sit beside her once again. “I’ll worry about that. You two do the magic.”

“I remain sceptical,” Chang said. Lucrezia was as arrogant as Chang herself, but not half as cautious. This was not something they could afford to screw up. “What is your take, Sakura?”

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"I agree that the problem is as much the pregnancy as the children when they're young. A pregnant nova still needs protection, too. And I like the idea of a crèche; a sort of communal and optional nest for the families. I read a book growing up, Stranger in a Strange Land. The characters in it built up a sort of commune-temple that was really as much about learning this particular language and how it made you think and providing a place for the members and families to live in. That sounds a bit like the Nursery, only you were always allowed to leave."

She looked around the garden for a moment, getting up to pick up a large granite rock that had been imported in as part of the landscaping. She grinned and held the stone out to Chang, an impossibly small hand supporting weight. "May I?"

At the Mirror Queen's nod, Sakura began breaking the granite boulder into smaller pieces until she had dozens of hand-sized pieces. She would pick two up, squeeze them in her hands until they were much smaller, then combine them in one hand and pick up another small section of granite. After only a few repetitions of this, Chang and Lucrezia both could feel the heat of the compression and see small blisters beginning to form on the Blossom Princess' hands. She stopped every few moments to flick out bits of detritus, removing whatever it was she found undesirable in the stone as she compressed it. She continued on, wrapping one hand around the shrinking rock once it was small enougmaking her way through all of the granite, even the flecks that had broken off when she smashed the boulder. The heat rose even higher once she had only one stone left, causing actual burns on her hand, though she didn't stop. Instead, she stared at her hand intently, feeling the the minute compositions left in the stone and smiling before squeezing one last time, hard enough that a pop of heat and air could be heard coming from her clenched hand. Before opening her hand, she exerted her quantum once more, healing most of the damage to her hands; some blisters and reddened still remained, but she could easily deal with them later. She carefully flicked away the last bits of dark stone clinging to whatever she was holding then made her way back to her new companions; grinning like a child opening Christmas presents.

The small thing she placed in Chang's hand was still warm to the touch and roughly elliptical in shape; the sharp lines and edges gave away the previous rock's now crystalline structure. It was a deep but dull shade of red and weighed perhaps five ounces; it took Chang only a brief second to understand that she was most likely holding an extremely rare deep red rough diamond in the seven hundred carat range. Even if it lost some size and weight in cutting and polishing, it was enough by itself to at least get their proposed venture up and and running. Sakura looked tired, mostly likely from expending a fair amount of quantum in a short period of time, but she smiled expectantly at Chang. "I can't do that all the time, it takes the right type of stone and I have to be careful not to ruin my hands...the first time I tried that, I ended up with a piece of worthless slag and burns so deep it took weeks to heal, even with my powers."

She sat down next to/on Chang, giving her a shrug. "I'm willing to try this if you are. We'll have to work on the details and we'll probably butt heads all over the place, but that's how great things are accomplished, no?" She let out a very drained sigh and slipped down to lay across the bench-shaped part of Chang. "Sorry, usually I can do more without getting so tired, but...well...the children take up a great deal of my energy, even now. I just need a little rest, to lie down for a bit, and I'll be up for more. We can still talk, I'm just not going to be moving around much."

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They both watched Sakura with wonder in their eyes, disbelieving as she took a simple rock and in just a few short minutes put a shining, uncut diamond into Chang’s open hand.

The sound of the thing fascinated Chang. She could hear the stone grinding, the impossible pressure being exerted by Sakura’s hands, and hear the sizzling of her skin as that pressure created heat. The strength of the earth itself was in the woman’s hands, and its produce now in Chang’s.

When Sakura lay down on the bench, Chang began to reshape it. The stone softened to silken skin, rippling and moving against Sakura’s body as it flattened and broadened, before it shifted into a somewhat incongruous bed, right there in the garden, its mattress softer than anything even Nova technology could create, and moulded flawlessly to Sakura’s contours to give her best comfort. Fittingly, the colours were green and white.

Chang’s expression did not shift as she made the bench transform, but she loved it nonetheless. Twenty years, and this never grew old, never stopped filling her body with subtle pleasure and delight. Lucrezia snuck a hand around to Chang’s butt, where it melded into the bench, and rubbed the soft flesh there. Sparks of much less subtle pleasure raced up Chang’s spine into her skull, and she let out a little gasp.

“Yes,” she said, blinking. “I think this will do very well.” She turned the diamond over and over in her hand, studying its facets and becoming slowly absorbed in the way it caught the light. “It could be hard to get a buyer-“

Lucrezia laughed. “Leave that to me. Thirty of me, remember? Something like that, you’ll get more auctioning it to jewellers and collectors than through directly selling it. A stone like that, the base price – which will be absurd – will go up at least three hundred per cent. With me there to control the crowd and manipulate things, I reckon I’ll get the eventual buyer to add seventy to eighty per cent on top. Being conservative and not acknowledging that I am in fact the sneakiest person you know,” she said, and flashed a truly devious grin at both her wife and Sakura. “We’ll fleece dem bitches.”

Chang nodded. Her wife’s manipulations were somewhat unique, but all the more devastating for it. Unlike many of novakind’s great manipulators, Lucrezia had some odd quality that made it hard to even realize it was happening. That, coupled with the fact her approach was predicated on anything up to a dozen of her working in synchrony to achieve the same purpose, meant she could achieve incredible things.

“I have always trusted you on such matters, beloved. I will trust you now, likewise.” She turned the diamond over and over in her hands, and looked over at Sakura. “We will do this thing. I’ve spent a long time building up my part of the Pandaimonion, trying to help the Teragen internally, to even direct our people onto a more peaceful course. Now I need to help the next generation. I’ve been criticized by my fellows for being over-cautious, and for raising more problems than I solve. It’s high time I work to challenge that reputation.”

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Sakura mumbled something that sounded like assent, an absent, "M'kay." Her body, however, was far too interested in simply melting into the wonderful bed that Chang had become.

Slowly, the Blossom Princess drifted into a peaceful slumber, content in the understanding, however grossly naive, that she was completely safe in the palace; that the sun was warm and the breeze was pleasant and all the plant and insects around her were content to be about their daily business while she napped. Her clothing, taking an unconscious cue from its owner, fanned out into a leaf-like blanket and mixed with the small blizzard of cherry blossoms petals that had started in the garden when Sakura had first begun compressing the granite into something truly precious. She looked young laying there, not the unnatural youth some novas were able to maintain through their quantum, but truly young, her expression in her sleep of simple and utter contentment.

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“She’s beautiful,” Lucrezia mumbled, leaning forward and rocking beside Chang.

Chang stroked her hair, luxuriating in the softness of it, and in the soft sigh her touch evoked. “You are beautiful, too, my love. You are more beautiful than me, at least, if not equal to her in an objective sense.”

It earned a nod. Sakura was gorgeous in repose, unconsciously graceful in the minute adjustments she made as she sprawled in the emerald softness of Chang’s body. The way her hair splayed on the bed seemed designed to frame her features, to bring them into definition. She knew the look. All of the beautiful people gained that benefit, even Chang.

Even, she thought, laughing inside her own skull. What madness that was. She was one of the most beautiful novas in the world. Not top ten, probably not even top fifty, but easily top one hundred, taint excepted. Taint included she actually jumped the queue considerably. There were some who lavished on tainted beauty, many of them in the Teragen. Lucrezia was especially so.

Now, with Sakura silent, an unnatural tremble had entered Lucrezia’s skin. It darkened in places. Chang could hear the soft, delicious squeak and creak of her latex flesh-self under the surface. Her form rippled and moved in a way profound and unnatural and beautiful beyond words.

Chang leaned in and kissed her gently on the lips. The tremble became a great body-wide shudder. “I want her, Chang. I want to divorce you and bury her with me and keep her forever. Every moment I have to keep telling myself ‘I love her’ and even then my eyes trace to Sakura sometimes. It’s so hard to think clearly. You have no idea how terrifying you are.”

“What do you mean?”

That!” She tore her eyes away from Sakura to look at Chang with disbelief. “You’re sitting there… you’re planning. In the presence of that,” she pointed at Sakura, “you are plotting and scheming for the future. Good god. Scrambler’s insane to want you for an enemy. There could be a ball of fire fifty miles wide descending upon you right now, and you’d just look at it and say something snippy like ‘how unfortunate’ or ‘we should be going now’. I…” she trailed off, shaking her head. “I don’t see how you can do it.”

Chang looked over to the sleeping Sakura, peaceful and quiet, balling some of Chang’s covers up and hugging them. She could feel the curves of the girl’s body, the unspeakable softness of her skin, so pristine and fine and almost glowing in the midday sunlight. They had been talking for some time.

It pleased her that she had no need to reach out and touch Sakura. She might actually look a bit overcome without it, as she doubted she could resist at least touching the girl. Or woman. Or both. And apparently a boy and man, as well. That seemed greedy, somehow.

“We all have our gifts,” Chang said. “But I have always been this way. When I was but a baseline girl, I was taken into a room with a man in a fine suit and hard-faced men in soldier’s uniforms. They were polite when they asked for me to put my artistic talents to work for the people. I said no. It was not me, I said. You are not me. The people are not me. I am me. Chang Zha-Yang. Those exact words, all said in a high piping tone while I rocked back and forth on my chair.” She snorted. “There I was, a girl of nine, talking down to a man of fifty and proclaiming my individuality. I probably looked mad. The eruption cannot give us everything. I know who I am better than anyone. I know I love you. When Sakura’s pheromones muddled that, there was no way of hiding the truth from me. Because I know I love you,” Chang said, turning back to her wife. “Mal himself could not persuade me otherwise, and I would protest as much before every god in heaven until they sent me to burn in hell. And I’d protest it there, too.”

Lucrezia began to cry. “That’s the sweetest horrible thing I’ve ever heard.” She leaned over and laced her arms around Chang’s neck, her form still rippling and shifting. Her curves fluctuated, breasts tightened and shrank. “You’re not going to hell. Never. I’m a one-woman army. I’d break you out. Shiv would be with me, and Meh’Lindi and all the rest. You’re our Queen.”

Chang laughed. “And that after I was just complaining about a nova King,” she said, and kissed her wife on the lips. “You’ll make me sound a hypocrite if you’re not careful.”

“So what? You don’t give a shit what people think about you. You know yourself, right?”

They embraced, there in the garden, as close as ever, their usual rules of courtesy and the distance of taint and change reduced to centimetres. They whispered lovers’ things, talked of sex and coming closer still, and laughed.

After a while they separated, and reclined in silence in the quiet afternoon sun.

In that silence, Chang studied Sakura in detail, taking in the scene around her, too. The bed, the covers rumpled around and against her, the way she held them against herself while curling up in contented sleep. Then, with wider scope, the trees and grass around, the flowers peaking from under the trees. Then the breeze on Chang’s skin, the wind tussling Sakura’s hair, the scent of life and death on the wind.

Her world narrowed, narrowed, blurred. All became the Sakura-vision. Nothing unrelated remained.

Dimly, she felt a touch on her arm, but could not respond.

“Oh,” said a distant voice, “you’ve wigged out.” There was a touch on her face, maybe a kiss. “I’ll watch over you both, until you wake.”

Chang had no ability to answer. She could only watch, bathed in Sakura’s feminine magnificence, her mind blazing with images as the raw fire of her artistic creation began to process the vision. She could have fought it off, but she did not.

Sakura deserved to be appreciated. Nobody could appreciate her better than The Mirror Queen.

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