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Aberrant: Children of Quantum Fire - [Interlude]Sculpting Tommorows (Fin)

Karren Gaunt

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Date: May 5th

Partisipants: Coraline, White Rain, others later on

One month, one week, and a handful of days after the Terat Elder White Rain last spoke with a sheltered, young Nova named Coraline Boehm, she would receive an Opnet Mail at a very special site she had reserved for her students and writings, the message originating from one CBoehmLS9@nova.net

Mrs. Chang Zha-Yang,

Last time we talked, you gave me some helpful advise about using proper tools to proper tasks and thinking for myself. May we meet again, somewhere outside the Rainbow Room? I've been through some changes and started walking a new road recently, and I can use another perspective if you have a few hours to give it.

-Coraline Boehm

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To: CBoehmLS9@nova.net

From: MQueen@blackcourt.net

Ms. Boehm,

Greetings and salutations. It’s a pleasure to hear from you again. I hope your trip around the universe was enlightening as well as pleasurable.

If you have some sort of inexplicable vendetta against the Rainbow Room, I will be pleased to meet you in Meh’Lindi’s Bar and Grill. If you’ve been to Ibiza I assume you’ve seen a travel brochure, so finding it should be easy enough.

I look forward to hearing more about this ‘new road’ of yours.

-Chang Zha-Yang/ White Rain/ The Mirror Queen


Life was a perennial bother. The money spent on setting up the Creche had already moved from ‘ridiculous’ to ‘obscene’, but the expenditure was beginning to smooth out and she felt that they might stay in budget.

She was beginning to set up plans for a place of her own to stay in, or more precisely, somewhere for her adherents within the Pandaemonium to gather. The time was drawing near for them to draw their own line in the sand and walk separate from Narcosis.

Leaving Shiv to organize things in the Rainbow Room, she had Lucrezia drive her the few blocks to Meh’Lindi’s Bar and Grill.

While Lucrezia took off the driving helmet she did not need, Chang clicked and cracked out of her bike shape and returned to human form before entering the building. She clad herself in her customary chong-sam and en pointe heels, choosing an azure blue for the main colour with a white fringe and a delicate swirl of golden leaves as a pattern across her chest.

Today was a rare day indeed, for Meh’Lindi herself was above ground, and wearing what approximated her human shape.

They found her sat in the shadows off to one side of the bowling alley upon a long bench, watching the families eat their fried foods and toss balls at wooden pins along the dozens of bright, straight alleys while the chefs cooked up more food at the back of the building and the clerks kept the flow of visitors going strong.

Meh’Lindi was clad today in an artfully shredded sleeveless T-Shirt and a bright red cheerleader’s skirt, with white stockings and gym shoes. Her hair – red as blood – hung long and straight down to her shoulders at the sides and all the way down to the small of her back. Black lines, seemingly etched into her skin, betrayed the real nature of her illusion. The ‘flesh’ was just chitin plates with the colours changed. Yet for all that she was attractive, her exterior smooth and perfect, her red and yellow eyes clear and lively. She was quite large-breasted today, though not disproportionately so, for she stood just shy of seven feet tall. A purple veil hung down over her mouth, decorated with a symmetrical black wheel design.

“My queen,” she growled as Chang and Lucrezia slipped onto the bench beside her. “You’ll draw attention to me.”

“I believe I’ve done that already,” Chang said. Everybody had turned to look by now. “My apologies if you wished to be alone.”

Meh’Lindi chuckled, a dangerous, rasping sound. “My voice puts them off easily enough. If I really want them gone, I can always show my teeth.” She made a clacking sound, and took off her veil.

Beneath the veil her mouth was wide, almost ear to ear with no cheek membranes, and her teeth were inches long as impossibly sharp. Chang once heard an anecdote from Leviathan that Meh’Lindi had bitten a chunk out of a tank with that mouth of hers. “In case someone wants to come over,” she said, by way of explanation.

“Has my guest arrived yet?”

“Coraline?” Meh’Lindi shook her head. “Not that I know of, anyway. I’ve set a room aside for you down in my lair if you need one. Does it sound… villainous to call it a lair?”

Lucrezia laughed. “Lindi, you spend half your time as a thirty foot tall monster with a mouth bigger than the average pickup truck. I don’t think the house exists that would fit you.”

Meh’Lindi gave a gloomy nod.

Chang could tell she was in a thoughtful mood. There was something in the way she stared fixedly down the line of bowling alleys which betrayed it. “Thinking about your lost humanity?” She offered.

“Something like that,” Meh’Lindi said.

Chang gave her wife’s thigh a meaningful squeeze when it seemed she might speak. “Are you in the mood to speak of it?”

“Not really. Later, I think. I’ve changed again, you know.”


Meh’Lindi nodded, leaning forward and resting her chin on her hands. “I’ve found a new form. Smaller, quicker. Lithe. Gigeresque. Did you ever watch that movie aliens?”

“A little before my time,” Chang said.

“Mine too. We used to watch those movies and ones like them to get ideas for what to do with baselines who fell into our traps,” she said, her deep, growling voice becoming almost dreamy. “Well, I suppose if it comes to it I can live out those fantasies a little better than before, eh? I’ll show you tonight maybe, when everyone’s gone home. Or down in the lair.”

And with that, she fell into silence. Meh’Lindi was not the greatest of conversationalists. In many ways she reminded Chang of herself when she was younger. Internally focused, always thinking, always questioning herself and her path. She had very high hopes for Meh’Lindi. As an artist she had been questionable, but of late was beginning to show some artistry worthy of a Nova.

“I will wait here I think. We can think together, while I wait for my young friend.”

Meh’Lindi turned to her, gave a slight nod, and put her veil back on. “You might as well make a proper bench, then. These aren’t half as comfortable.”

Chang did so, with a smile.

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Coraline entered Ibiza in her usual fashion, by Warp, albeit a half-mile above her target this time, allowing herself to tumble for a heart-pounding second or two before bringing her fall under control in a whisper of quantum to touch down on the concrete outside. She was a vision in black and red eufiber molding into a long sundress, tights, and sandals, hair red as a volcanic sunset and in a ponytail high on the back of her head. It took moment to look around and adjust to the sheer quanity of quantum auras and their varying burdens of taint or chrysalis her vision was picking up, unintended consequences of her training as a tick in her ear gave reminder that time was passing. That she was keeping Mrs. Zha-Yang waiting.

She wouldn't do that. Not today.

The young metamorph went to push open the door but one of stunned baseline onlookers moved to do it for her. She could have easily beat the man there, but she held back enough to allow him the gesture and offer a grateful smile in reply. Inside, she took in the surroundings for a heartbeat or two before homing in on a couch that was not a couch and two women who could be anything but baseline in apperance on a whim if she read what she was reading right. "Mrs. Zha-Yang. Thank you for meeting me," her chorus intoned once she was close enough to be heard without shouting or seeming to be talking to herself, offering a slight nod of her head in greeting, white-on-black eyes taking in the three Terats.

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When Coraline entered the building, Chang felt something… different.

It was a tough feeling to place or describe, a strange sense of otherness about the young Nova, that for a moment she found peculiar and then placed. Bombshell, she thought, she feels like Bombshell.

Somehow Chang did not notice it at the time, but seeing Coraline here, cross-referencing what she felt then, her mind made the connections faster than any computer and came up with a solid, glowing anomaly.

Bombshell was untainted, completely so, to the point that it was almost eerie. Chang never thought of that as overly peculiar, it just seemed to be ‘Bombshell’. But what if there was something deeper at work? Some unspoken change had come over her, which affected her very node and made taint accrual difficult, perhaps impossible.

Cora did not feel that way when last they spoke. My, my. What have you been up to?

The feeling bothered her somewhat, but she edged around it in the corridors of her mind. Taint made Novas feel odd, too, and baselines especially so. Of course all ‘taint’ really consisted of were specific quantum emanations stemming from the node. She could not see them, but Meh’Lindi could.

Looking to her right, she saw the monstrous Nova leaning over, squinting. She threw a sidelong glance at Chang, sniffed the air. “Smells funny, looks funnier,” she growled, then gave a sudden twitch of her head, so sharp it ought to have snapped her neck. There was the click of chitin plates slithering back into place, a subtle popping of bone. “Fascinating.”

Chang nodded. It seemed they would have more to talk about later than she expected. Lucrezia could feel it, too, and seemed to cope considerably less well.

When Coraline hailed them Chang’s own eyes, one orange and the other ochre, brightened up as she slipped into easy, accustomed courtesy. “And welcome to you, Coraline Boehm. Technically it’s Mrs. Chang, though. The family name comes first in Chinese. My given name is Zha-Yang.” She gestured across the bowling alleys, not that anyone was bowling now that Coraline had entered the room. “We’re watching baselines bowl. Would you care to join us? There is a grill if you are interested in food. My friend Meh’Lindi here is as picky an eater as I am, and is a great connoisseur of meat.”

Meh’Lindi offered nothing. She was no longer quite looking at Coraline, her eyes flickering over the general area around her. Occasionally her nostrils flared and her decorative veil rippled as she flicked out her tongue to taste the air.

Lucrezia, to her credit, recovered well enough that she showed none of the unease she felt. Chang could hear it though. Underneath the surface her latex insides were churning in a pleasant cacophony. “There’s plenty of bench if you want it. My wife’s, of course,” she said. “It’s tough to go back to normal seating after a while. She’s just so good to sit on.”

Chang nodded. “I am a doormat, it is true.”

That provoked a rare chuckle out of Meh’Lindi. It was a terrifying sound, deep and throaty and sinister, rendered so mostly by her lack of cheek membranes. The sound was not shaped the way it was in other mouths. “Only when Lucrezia asks nicely, I think.”

“Don’t be silly,” Lucrezia said. “I don’t ask. I demand.”

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Coraline did not flinch under the somewhat intense regard of the trio of Terats, standing her mental ground and filing the reaction away for later consideration along with the sense of distaste she had to fight down at seeing more clearly the injury chrysalis did their physical and quantum health. It was still... better than letting taint completely have it's way with them after all. Right?

Outwardly, she chuckled and settled into a cross-legged sitting position in mid air, her own new favorite quirk since apothesis made defying gravity so effortless. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Chang. I thought you might have westernized it already," she responded before focusing on Lucrezia at the prospect of food other than small portions of rice and fish, "It would be a pleasure to talk over food if you're offering. I haven't been able to eat my fill for longer than I care to think about really."

And then she smiled, bright and wryly, "Perhaps somewhere out of imediate eyeshot of the other customers though. They seem too busy watching us to actually bowl."

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“Reasonable,” Chang said.

“I’ll deal with it,” Meh’Lindi said, rising smoothly from the bench and moving off.

It did not take long to arrange a balcony seat overlooking the alleys. Not as private as retreating to the lair, admittedly, but Chang could not be certain that such privacy would be needed.

Lucrezia ordered copious amounts of food. Meh’Lindi had a choice and expensive menu for the more choosy eaters, with measures of spice, salt and pepper worked out to the grain and combined in unusual ways. For them, naturally, Lucrezia ordered the best, on her own tab.

Meh’Lindi seemed to disappear, but she would have found herself a place to watch from. Coraline was an interesting anomaly to study. No way would she let her go by unobserved.

Plates of steaming meat were brought to their table, spiced ribs and legs of lamb, roasted vegetables cooked in meat fats, and cuts of chicken and peppered beef, pork with mint, vinegar and Szechuan peppers. The food smelled divine and even looked amazing. Chang suspected Meh’Lindi might have spiced them herself. She could do things swiftly when the mood took her, like Chang herself, and she knew that she had a definite aesthetic for her food that she liked to see maintained.

Chang observed Coraline floating, while Lucrezia tore into a rack of beef ribs. “You do not sit. Is the air so much more comfortable than my body? I think not, somehow. I wonder, Coraline, what has happened to your node? You feel different than before. It’s not a new sensation, but I’ve always thought it something inherent. It seems that I was wrong in that belief.”

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After a pause to release her not-quite-subconsious rebellion against gravity and settle down onto the offered living seat, Coraline looked up from picking out her selection various suculent-smelling meats. She would have to avoid indulging like this everyday, but once or twice couldn't hurt. It certainly tasted good enough from her sampling bite to be worth the occasional indulgence.

She considered Chang's statement, guessing that the older nova had met another Qi Meng practioner. Uncle Shen couldn't be the *only* one... Useful if she could find out who once she had affirmed some of the things she'd learned in the valley.

"Oh? From who?" the young metamorph questioned before smiling as she cut up a piece of pork, "And the same thing happened to my node as happened to my eyes just in case you thought my changing Tell was just a fashion choice. The first results from some training I'm going through to keep my taint under control before it becomes a, and I apolgize if I offend, problem. I left to deal with some issues I need to work out before going any further, some things I need to do before I feel like I can be so selfish as to hide and train with the world the way it is."

Coraline looked down again, chorus shy and grateful, "You gave me some very good advise that helped me get through the training I did *and* bring myself to leave it early. I don't think my path will be yours or Norman's, but good advise is good advise."

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Chang screwed her lips up in distaste. “What a waste.”

The implications were obvious now that she met two of them. Bombshell, somehow, was unable to accrue taint. It made sense looking back on it. No Nova she knew of had ever gone twenty years without picking up a single aberration. In fact she once looked forward to Bombshell doing so with fascination. Who knew which direction she might begin to evolve in? Over time, though, it became more and more obvious she would not.

“I wonder, have you told your paramour about his problem, yet?” Chang said, her voices gently teasing. “I’m sure if anyone should be told right now it’s Norman. Last I checked he didn’t even seem to think he had a taint ‘problem’. That must be terribly distressing for you. Terats like me and he are such… terminal cases, after all.” She always assumed Norman would have taken her not-too subtle hints from their first meeting and started to clue Coraline in on their philosophy, but it seemed he had not. Quite the oddity, really. If he truly loved this girl, and he certainly gave that impression, Chang thought he might come to rue his inaction one day.

“Long live the new flesh etc. etc.,” Lucrezia said a she finished a rib and sent the bone spinning into the air. It landed on the edge of her plate, spun four times and came to a stop. She lacked the mind-boggling dexterity of her wife, seemed almost graceless beside her, but she was still more coordinated than any baseline would ever be.

Chang nodded. “Quite. I’m glad you found my advice useful. Did you take my most important piece of advice and speak with the Harvesters? You seem as ignorant about what we do in the Teragen now as you were then. I quite concur that the path of Teras is not for everyone. It requires more discipline and bravery than most people possess, not to mention an extremely open mind, and the penalties for failure are harsh indeed. To be honest I’d rather we had less self-proclaimed Terats and a far more strict approach to those we take on, but while Utopia is beating on our doors with sticks…” Chang sighed with all four voices, and warped her hands into knife and fork in order to attack Meh’Lindi’s own special five-spice chicken. “Well, some of my compatriots will take anyone so long as they’ll fight for our basic cause, and I suppose the more failures we have – and we have a lot of them – the more refined Teras will become. Either way it’s a problem, no doubt about that.”

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Coraline was midchew when Chang made her verbal jab about Norman, blanching in all too human fear and anger based on her own uncertainties but managing to avoid acting on it. She swallowed her bite. And took another after that until Chang was finished with her speech. "The Teragen aren't terminal. I've seen those nearly lost to taint. Seen a young girl named Saris, a member of my generation born *from* taint, mad and sick and in pain from it to the point there was only one mercy I could think of at the time to give her before she hurt others who didn't deserve it," she exhaled, chorus just barely holding steady, "It took me a long time to forgive my mentor for forcing me to make that choice. Forgive myself for making that choice."

She was more sure as she put that behind her, drawing a breath, "I'm not prepared to teach anyone, not yet. Not for a while. But we as novas need more than one way to deal with taint, master it instead of having it master us. Keep being ourselves, in our minds, no matter how 'new' our flesh becomes, controlled or not. It's certainly been all *I've* been able to hang onto since I was old enough to wonder why everyone didn't see a different reflection every time they looked in the mirror."

The young metamorph worked on a different piece of meet, "And you're right I need to talk to Norman. I'm working my way up to that just in case... well, my change had this effect. to get over any of my own involuntary prejudice before I inadvertently hurt someone I care about more than my life. Nervous and hoping an older and wiser head might be able to forgive any mistakes I make. Including this rant probably."

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Chang smiled indulgently and bit into the chicken. It was divine as always. Some Novas, once they reached the point where they had no need to eat, never did. Meh’Lindi had no nutritional need for food, and like Chang herself could happily dine on brickwork, sheet steel and glass when the mood took her, but there was something to be said for the raw delight of taste.

“You know, bizarre as it is, eating this reminds me of that special salad I made with broken glass. I must make that again.” She winked. “Norman is wiser than his years, but he’s like to be taken aback. It depends what exactly your… path entails. Is it compatible with Teras? Your words seem to imply not, but by all means enlighten me.” Chang suspected not. The similarity to Bombshell all but sealed it. Coraline's relationship with Norman - and whatever changes this new 'path' of hers might impose upon it - was something of a sore spot. That fact was worth bearing in mind.

“As for the other thing, well, you do realize that the whole point of Teras is to better learn about yourself? Hmm. Probably not else you would like not have phrased that the way you did. You’ll rarely find a Nova who is as aware of who they are than those of us who have reaped the rewards of Teras. Very few in the public eye or who have pretensions of humanity or – even more laughably – normality are even close to such an understanding. Most Utopians suffer from such delusions, though not all, and most of those end up joining us eventually.”

She ate another bite of chicken and ran it over her tongue, picking out all the different pieces and spices that went into the cooking, the oil and the subtle metal tang of the pan used to cook it. Even that was specifically selected in Meh’Lindi’s recipes. Most baselines viewed it as a quirk, never realizing that there were plenty of Novas who could indeed taste metal in the food they ate, just from the food having been cooked inside metal.

Lucrezia let out a long breath. “Hot. She’s not joking when she says ‘hot spice ribs’ is she?”

Two of Chang’s voices chuckled, the remaining two made a small and happy sigh. “The word ‘hot’ does take on a rather different meaning when you’re talking about a woman who used to go for baths in active volcanoes. Just the same way that ‘fast’ takes on a different meaning when you’re talking to one who can hop off to the sun for a pleasant view in the afternoon,” she added, nodding at Cora.

Lucrezia glanced over at her, nodded, and then reached for more meat. “When you’re right, you’re right.”

Chang nodded. “It’s a gift,” she refocused on Coraline, studying her with eyes now changed, the left shifting to brilliant emerald, the right to black as pitch. “I’m sure those Utopians I mentioned would commend you on your action involving this ‘Saris’ you speak of. It’s not a name I know. I don’t suppose it would be if it’s from your generation and you killed her. Tell me, why did you find it so hard to forgive yourself for making that choice? Do you believe it was the wrong choice to make?”

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"It wasn't. But she was a child. The day I can kill children without regret is the day I don't want to know me," Coraline answered in not so much a whisper as an exhale, "You said once that taint is a choice. For her, it wasn't. Damned from the start just because of what her parents did. And all the children like her who hurt others without meaning to are the fuel behind the ones hunting me. Victims used to turn the rest of us into victims. It isn't right."

She paused to chew a bite or three and really enjoying it, gathering her thoughts behind a soft chorus of pleased noises. Oh, she had missed this. If... When she had worked things out with Norman, they had to go here. The Rainbow Room certainly wouldn't be the same again, a positive headache, at least until she had adapted more to her new vision.

She picked up again, happier with a new topic, "Think T'ai Chi Ch'uan as the basis of the art. Except refined to nova levels enough to see an energy on the other side of your quantum and use that to wash out your taint like soap cleaning a stain out of a piece of cloth. It's been hard even to push far enough to just see the energies I'm supposed to be manipulating, be the fulcrim of my internal balance."

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Below, the usual gaggle of Nova watchers were beginning to gather, though Meh’Lindi did employ a few Novas for security who would help prevent things from becoming disruptive. Chang ignored them, though she found their presence somewhat distasteful. At least up here they were given appropriate space.

“You mistake. Damned because of what their parents didn’t do. A Nova has little need to do anything in order to accrue taint. They do need to do something to get rid of it, though. And you’re a fool if you believe that rare examples like her are the ‘fuel’ Proteus uses to come after us. They had no idea that such creatures could even exist, and were sterilizing us long before Novas had a chance to become pregnant. Do you really think we’d have been so easily fooled into believing that we were all ‘naturally’ infertile if that was the case?” She quirked an eyebrow, cut some meat, bit and chewed. “Please, dear, give your elders some credit. I admit they make a convenient justification, but do not be taken in by it. Mother-hunting is a necessity for Utopia, and obligatory for Proteus. They have different but fundamentally aligned aims, as I’m sure you’re well aware. I presume your brother Darrik is not the origin of that data he provided me concerning Proteus’ recent operations? You know why they do what they do. These tainted children are – at best – mere confirmation of their reasoning. Even if every child in the world was like you, they would still seek your blood.”

This talk of a new ‘energy’ was quite fascinating. And the idea that T’ai Chi Chuang would be the basis of her path was frankly bizarre. Maybe all knowledge did originate in China, after all. It seems I was born in a fortunate location, she mused. Caroline Fong, the mother of Teras, was Chinese as well. What an intriguing coincidence. She allowed Coraline her usual poor word choice. In a way she hoped she never changed. It would be amusing to see how long it took for steam to start pouring from Geryon’s ears when she started inflicting these metaphors on him.

“Interesting that the martial arts would be turned to in this matter of taint,” Chang muttered, considering various conversations she had been involved in with other Terats and Shiv in particular. “Shiv – you’ve seen her I’m sure – has said that the martial arts have been crucial to her own development over the years. Even now, under my tutelage, she has turned her artistic explorations towards the martial arts and found that to assist her on the path. It seems there’s more to this than I initially thought. How intriguing. What is this ‘energy’ you speak of? This is the first I’ve heard tell or even rumour of such a thing.”

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"Oh, Aeon would still want all of us dead or controlled even without tainted child novas," Coraline conceded even as she kept track of the nova watchers below with a part of her attention, "But they wouldn't have nearly the support they have from other factions to be their eyes and ears. I've read files in which they say as much. And one agent of theirs we captured turned almost imediately soon as she found out what the untainted ones, terat and true, were like."

"I don't know what it is honestly, beyond being a part of my chi that exists outside of my quantum. A part every terat so far has... I'm sorry again, but... bent and altered to redirect your taint as a power source and control it, a twist different in every one of you I've seen since the valley. That's what it looks like anyway. I left early after all," she finished with an apoligetic smile and ripping into a new piece of beef.

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This one has a head like a block of cement, Chang thought. For someone so physically adroit and agile, so beautiful and elegant, Coraline appeared to have no grasp on either courtesy or subtlety. There must be something I’m not seeing, or Norman really is a young boy at heart.

She remembered seeing Coraline and Infinity at the Rainbow Room, obviously fawning over him and him trying to mediate between them. Looking between the two of them… well, it wasn’t hard to see why he would choose the fascinatingly beautiful Coraline with her ever-shifting features and chorus of voices. Ah, the songs I’d sing with a voice like hers. Or perhaps it is her eagerness he finds so appealing. That was a possibility. There was an enthusiasm in Coraline’s manner, one lacking in the often miserable Infinity. Yet it lacked that infectious quality Chang could often feel in the truly charismatic, that quantum 'kick' which made Novas more than human in more than gross physicality. Her voice was so interesting, though. It’s easy to be seduced when even the slightest conversation is delightful.

Thinking that, Chang wondered if she could mimic it somehow. Her control over sound was such that she had yet to test its outer limits. That might make a worthwhile experiment.

“Unlike you, I’ll not judge that which I don’t understand, but I’d point out that right now it’s you who is giving off the strange and peculiar vibe. A quandary for you: If two people look at one another and both find the other strange, which of them is the strange one?”

“I’m going to go for a drink,” Lucrezia said, rising and giving her wife a kiss on the head. “I’ll be back in a minute. Don’t eat my meat. Or the plate.”

Chang cradled her wife’s head and kissed her gently on the lips. “Fear not. Your plate will remain untouched. You forget: I’m an extremely picky eater.” She pointed down at her own plate, which was occupied only with a handful of dishes, all of them unique from the rest of the platter.

“True, and Meh’Lindi knows your tastes.” She gave a wave to Cora and jogged off towards the stairs. Chang turned her head one hundred and eighty degrees without in any way turning her body, to study her wife’s butt with entirely lascivious interest.

Looking back round, she flowed her fork back into a hand and took a bite from a rack of ribs that had been dipped in a honey sauce, cooked on a pan that had spices infused into the metal itself, then dusted with four different grades of salt and Szechuan peppers. “I will have to devote some time and resources to learning more about this little discovery, for sure. If there’s a new form of energy out there, something as yet unseen and unharnessed… well, who knows what it can be used for? If it can influence quantum, and quantum forces are the building blocks of the very universe, well, that’s awfully interesting. The Harvesters have made leaps and bounds in comprehending the exact nature of taint, but they’ve never encountered this energy of yours.” Though with Meh’Lindi’s help perhaps that might change now, she thought, hoping Meh’Lindi was seeing something useful in Coraline’s quantum emanations. “We could probably refine Teras down to its purest form if we could find a reliable way to sift out taint, which would be of benefit to everybody.”

She considered Cora’s comments about Aeon while the young Nova ate her meat, studying her carefully. “The Nova tools of Aeon and Proteus can be helped. The baselines?” She shook her head. “Some don’t know, but most do. Utopia is a different affair, but still fundamentally corrupt and poisonous to our future. The only hope for it is to get it to turn completely on Proteus, which I’m sure you’ve noticed hasn’t happened despite it coming to light. And to be honest, even if Proteus was extinguished, another would grow out of Utopia, another Proteus with similar names and different faces. Utopia’s ideology makes Proteus inevitable, though they’ll deny it. Forgive me a little preaching to the choir. I understand you’re not fond of Utopia yourself.”

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"Not until they cut ties with Aeon, burn what they can find of Proteus to the ground, and apoligize for being stupid enough to work with them both and operate as their vector, no," responded Coraline softly after a mouthful of lamb, white-on-black eyes fully aware that the odds of that happening was somewhere between slim and none, "And glad to be able to help. The more of us exploring as many techniques of controlling taint in as many avenues as possible, the better. It's something we all have to cope with if we want to help the future Sarises of the world. They deserve better than final mercies."

She paused a moment, visibly hesitating before asking, "Have you worked with any precogs among the elder Terats, Mrs. Chang? If so, how often have you found them to be wrong in what they claim to see?"

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Chang gave a four-voice chuckle. “Yes. Teras is unfortunately a poor solution for anyone who is of unsound mind, and there is a point of taint accrual where following it is unlikely to help in time. I must ask, though, how long have you been aware of this ‘new energy’? I suspect that you are neither its origin nor the one who made the discovery. This means that somebody has made a discovery which could completely change the future of Novakind and is sitting on it, handing out what they know to rare individuals while many of their fellow Novas go insane from taint accrual. I find this… concerning,” she said, entirely serious.

It seemed inconceivable that this discovery could have been made in the last few months. It fitted too smoothly, observing the dramatic lack of change in Bombshell. Though perhaps there was some edge to this discovery, and like chrysalis it could warp the mind or body even further if improperly applied. But then, would that not be an even better reason to get the knowledge out there in the community, for the true scientific Nova minds to examine it? “Is there some danger to this energy, Coraline? Perhaps if improperly channelled it can damage the body even further?”

She left the other matter to lie for a while. There were bigger issues to attend to right now.

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Coraline thought about the question, pretty features considering what she had been put through to get this far, the katas she had started to learn and the emphasis on prevention over removal. About whether she may have made a mistake coming here and if she had let her concern for others overshadow her caution in talking about this here and now.

"I think it might. It certainly nearly knocked me off my feet when I changed, and I've spent the last four months, long story, doing nothing but preparing and learning about myself and my limits," she mused aloud, chorus thoughtful, "It was so hard even to see past my quantum to first spot it even with help. Like not thinking about something someone's told you to not think about. So much of my training was about control. About preventing node ab... not overworking our nodes over removing taint. The importance of internal balance in all aspects of ourselves, baseline and nova."

"My teacher has never lied or hid anything from me that was important. Nor is he cruel when he doesn't have to be. He saved me, raised me, taught me lessons I never wanted to learn but wouldn't want to forget. He's a good man, and if I had the power I have now without his lessons in self control and Martial Heroism... I probably would have done something we'd all be regreting right now. If this energy from the other side of our chi was safe and easy to channel for everyone after a bit of training and focus, he would have shared it. I know it."

She sucked in a breath, composure fracturing slightly and dopplering her chorus with it, "And I think he believes he's going to die by the end of the year. He's been so rarely wrong about what he says he sees, always known what to do before he does it. And I refuse to stand by and risk letting him die. Even to learn Qi Meng from him before he goes."

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Qi Meng… so this is what it’s all about. Chang studied the young Nova as she spoke, quietly pleased that her prodding and poking had produced something useful. It seemed less and less likely that the girl’s mind was open enough for Teras. Well, it’s nice to be able to bring something useful to the table at the next Pantheon meeting.

“I cannot concur with your assessment. Either your teacher is ignorant about the nature of taint or he is knowledgeable and hidden what he knows from you. In both our meetings you have taken an arrogant and supercilious stance towards the matter, and in the past four months – as you tell it – your knowledge on the subject has not advanced one iota. You’ve already had to apologize to me twice and caught yourself just there due to this obvious gap in your learning. I urged you to do something about this in the strongest tones. Did he? If he did, why did you not bother to do so?

“As for what you say about sharing his knowledge… well, could you not the same of Teras? Yet we do not freely share knowledge of that. Do you assume that we have some villainous intention behind our decision? Or is it more likely that we have our reasons, be they good or ill? My point, Coraline, is that you should not assume anything. Especially not when dealing with somebody who can apparently see the future. I have dealt with such people, and their motivations are not ours. They think about tomorrow, not today, and their agendas are shaped accordingly. Has it not occurred to you that he may have picked out you and – I presume – a few others for very specific reasons tied into what he sees in the future? You seem to assume a very great number of things, Coraline, and think about comparatively few. I strongly advise you to change that trend before, as you say yourself, you end up doing something we’ll all regret. Let us assume for one moment that indeed he has seen his death. What if you’re the one he has seen doing the deed? Unlikely, I’m not pushing this hard. But if that were so, and he wanted to prevent it, why would he not bring you under his wing and fill your head with his teachings? Maybe in the future he envisaged you were a Terat. Why, what an interesting gap there is in your knowledge on that front.” She favoured Coraline with a knowing smile. “You see the problem? When people act based on future knowledge, their motivations and their methods become increasingly arcane. They break the rules of rational thought and logical progression because they do not see the world in that way.”

She let Coraline stew on those words for a few moments and ate some more meat. Lucrezia returned and slid back into her seat with a bottle of red wine. She popped the cork and poured some for herself. “Did I miss anything?”

“Yes,” Chang said. “I’ll fill you in later.”

“Oh,” she said, grinning, “I’ll look forward to that. As always.”

“Shush,” she said and batted a hand in Lucrezia’s direction. “Taking a more moderate and positive stance on your teacher, his impending death might force him to ‘streamline’ his teachings, and any teacher desires their knowledge to survive them. I know I do. If, again, he sees his teachings as important in the future, that would again motivate him to ‘cram’ everything in. How exactly did he manage to get you ‘four months’ of training? It’s only been a month since we last talked. Is he some sort of time manipulator? And the final thing I have to posit: has it not occurred to you that he believes he must die? Those capable of seeing the future are very difficult to kill for obvious reasons. Unless they come to the conclusion that their deaths are necessary, of course, at which point they can become quite intransigent on the issue. What makes you believe that he believes he will die?” She asked, giving Coraline a cool, appraising look. “And in the event that he believes he must die… will you let that happen? Or will you act to save him, because you love him? And if he believed that, would he not then be motivated to lie to you, or to hide something that is undoubtedly important from you, in order to prevent you from saving his life?”

She leaned back in her seat and laced her fingers, her mind taking over and beginning to analyse and consider the data Coraline was providing her.

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Coraline came out of her listening-but-not-reacting state, sucking in her first breath for about a minute, obviously troubled and realizing how outmatched she was in this particular verbal fencing match, how much she'd given the Terat even so far. Still... That last tirade was helpful to put things in perspective. Even if it made the task of saving Uncle seem more tricky. And she'd have to filter out mental fishooks. She'd just have to try harder on picking her battles.

"...Thank you for that. It helped," she managed more calmly, more centered in herself if more wary, "I'll think on the topic before I blurt out an answer to your questions. I'm being reminded that my node helps me think more quickly than a baseline not more deeply. And I imagine yours helps you do both. New topic while we finish up what's left of this delicious meal?"

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Chang gave a nod. “You are correct in that assertion. I’m not sure that a topic switch is a wise idea at this juncture though. You’ve seemingly come to me with only this on your mind. And I must ask, what makes you think your uncle is dying, or expects he will die?”

She softened her voice a little. Coraline had taken on that glassy eyed look she saw the first time they talked. I thought she might have become a better listener since then. It made things more difficult by far. Coraline did not seem to realize that she was tangling with complex issues.

“And I must ask again: if your uncle believes he must die, will you permit that if it is in your power to prevent it? And if so… why?”

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That earned White Rain a Look just a few wrong words from fight or flight. And then a grudging nod. Coraline did get that the issue was complex, but she wouldn't digest it in one go like this. And she wanted to get it right. So she tried to gather her thoughts over a mouthful of pork.

"I asked him why he isolated us in the time bubble he made, and he answered that I needed to be much more advanced in my studies by the end of the year. He's never forced anything without good reason, and during four months of training, doing nothing but thinking and drilling... I thought. What could keep him from teaching me later, after I've gained life experience I badly need to truly master this path, but him dying? Even an exile from Earth, extreme and unlikely as that is in just seven months time, couldn't keep him from us and us from him," she intoned, chorus steady and focused, "I won't stand by if I can save him. Not without a better reason than I can imagine him giving. He's been a father to me in every way that really matters, and what kind of daughter would I be if I didn't try, if I didn't exploit the fact that he himself has stated he can't see my future anymore since my Apothesis? We're all so powerful. So impossible. There has to be a way can I can help make the world enough of a better place that I can try for one life in particular to be saved along with it."

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Chang could see and feel the tension in Coraline’s shoulders, down her back and through her legs. It seemed strange to listen to her pontificate about discipline and balance and such when her own emotions were so volcanic. Well, she did say she was just getting started. I wonder if her teacher worries about her progress. Surely he must. If he truly suspected that he was dying, the survival of his teachings should be paramount on his mind.

“There are several logical conclusions from that rather limited statement,” Chang said, picking her words with care to avoid further needling the girl. “One, as you have assumed, he is shortly to perish. However, given that you seem to believe he is honest with you in all things, there is no especial reason to believe this is so unless my posited scenario is accurate and he fully intends to die. In that instance, you should consider that saving his life could have horrific consequences. It is a rare person who is eager to perish, even knowing that they ought to. If his death is coming and he is not warning you...” She left the rest unsaid. “That is only one possible interpretation, however.

“A second option is that he has foreseen some terrible disaster which his teachings may be required to avert. In this instance, your refusal to complete your training could have serious consequences in the long run. However, it does not sound like he fought your attempt to leave. It remains highly possible that there is some calamity on the horizon that he does not feel it worthwhile to warn anybody about. This is common amongst those with precognitive abilities, I might point out.

“A third option is that in seven months he has reason to believe you will personally require his teachings and suspects he will not be on hand to provide advice. Perhaps he has foreseen himself in some other place, and separated from you by happenstance or intention on his own part. There need not be anything sinister in this.”

Now seemed the best time to push forward another idea; and one Coraline did not seem to consider. “Why precisely do you feel you must follow his path? Your casual dismissal of Teras strikes me as ill-judged. You know so very little, Coraline, yet seem certain of so very much. What is your future, dear? And where does Norman fit into it? I know it’s a sore topic with you right now, but it won’t do you any good to pretend that it’s going to wait. You need to start thinking about your future, and believe me, it won’t wait. Tell me this: why is it so unthinkable to you that you join your brother Darrik in the Teragen? I presume you have talked about his decision. Did you not find his reasons… satisfactory?”

She kept her tone soft, probing and non-combative. Coraline seemed to have an oddly tender disposition, and she seemed to be straddling a crossroads. The girl could make a good Terat, Chang thought. She would need to settle down some, of course, but that would come in time. Her enthusiasm would be a positive, for certain, and Geryon would no doubt appreciate a new, powerful ally in his struggles against Utopia. It was difficult to tangle with this ‘Qi Meng’ though. She had so little information, and no knowledge of the flaws and gaps in its ideology. Without that, it was hard to even make a case that Teras might be better for Coraline than Qi Meng. She would fit well on Teras, though. That much seemed a certainty. I owe it to Norman to try and make her see that. If I do not… She considered that strange feeling that rolled off her in waves. There may be a romantic tragedy in the offing.

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Options two and three made the young metamorph perk up in happiness. Possibilities she and her siblings had missed that didn't involve Uncle Shen dying while still fitting the facts. And he had given her his blessing to explore if she could live Qi Meng out in the world. Maybe they were all wrong, and an outside perspective like Mrs. Chang's was correct. Didn't mean she could stop trying her best, but it did take some of the burning imediacy off her shoulders.

"My brother will always have my love and support, but he is not me."

"I'm not particularly smart or superhumanly charming, so I'm just going to apoligize for stepping on your toes right now in case I stumble over my own thoughts again," she returned after allowing her mental balance to absorb the questions, "I can't see the future nor would I want to. All I can see is my past and my present, Mrs. Chang, and what that tells me is that, so far, I want to avoid getting taint, remove any taint I get, and, ultimately, use the gifts my node gives me without forcing things to the point of injuring myself. I used to speak to my node when I was younger and had no one my own age to be around, still use it as a curse word despite knowing it's just another part of my body now after one too many exasperated lectures from one of my sisters. I still respect it for being the part of me that makes everything I do possible. It's... Qi Meng can remove taint and the changes they force on us as novas, however hard it is to keep the balance needed. Teras appears to not be able to do that, to reject the very idea if the Terats I have seen in the Rainbow Room are normal for a group so focused on individual paths. I prefer the first option, "

"Call me a fool for feeling that way, and I know now that this will make my relationship with Norman more difficult. Perhaps impossible. But he would want me to do what would make me happy, and all I can do to do that is be myself as hard as I can. And right now that includes walking my teacher's path, at least for a little while. Try it on outside of a sheltered valley and see if I like it."

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Chang smiled. “Funnily enough, were I to put Teras in the most glowing terms, ‘be yourself as hard as you can’ strikes me as an apt description. In fact I may well steal that for future use. Teras is based on the idea that we, as Novas, can be so much more than we are today. It is about embracing evolution and change, and learning as much as we can about what it is to be Nova. I am in a position of disadvantage. I do not know enough about Qi Meng to fairly compare my own philosophy, but it strikes me as suspicious when someone claims their path is 'opposite' to mine own yet when they speak of their own intentions they sound so very familiar. Could it be that you were put upon your path before you had time to understand what it was or what it meant? Could it be that you are a Terat already, but have not been given the chance to see it? Unfortunately I am incapable of answering that question.” No doubt that much was your uncle's intention.

Coraline’s mind seemed to be made up for now, either way. That was unfortunate. On the other hand she had now confirmed that ‘Qi Meng’ and this new energy she spoke of could cleanse taint from the body of a Nova. That was impressive. The battle of hearts and minds could not always be won, but in this instance Chang did not think she could really lose. The only one who could was Coraline herself. Chang hoped she had planted enough seeds of doubt that she would start to seriously consider the way her life was going. She sounds too much like one of us at times. It cannot be a coincidence.

“Teras changes us, absolutely. Indeed that is the point. And what is so wrong about change? Do you fear it? Has something in your past made you afraid of what you might become in the future? I think that may be so. The things you say about taint and Teras reek of Utopian dogma, which is highly amusing to me given your dislike of the organization. They are terrified of taint as well, and so have no understanding of it. Because they have no understanding of it, they have good reason to be terrified. Their reason is, however, no better than common baseline’s reason for being afraid of the dark. In the Teragen,” she said, sliding the last piece of meat between her lips and cleaning her rather Spartan plate, “we believe we can be better than that.” She gave the girl a cool, appraising look. "And I think... you believe the same. Time will tell if I think correctly."

Lucrezia seemed content to stay out of the discussion, to eat and drink. She had her eyes on Chang more than Coraline. Perhaps she was still unnerved by the strange sensation emanating from the young Nova.

“Still, I would appreciate it if you keep me informed on how your 'live testing' proceeds. Hopefully you’ll come to me with a more open mind one day, and we can see just what you’re really capable of. For the meantime, may I ask what exactly this path requires of you? You say you have not tried it in the outside world, but what precisely is ‘it’? Obviously your uncle believes you can learn the whole lot in whereve he is. Where is the conflict for you?”

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"I will, Mrs. Chang," Coraline responded after just enough of a pause to show that she actually thought about the answer before smiling in genuine happiness, the first full and unfettered smile to cross her face since she had entered the building, "You've really helped me get an angle on solving a few problems. Up here, in my head, where all problems really become problems rather than things that happen to us."

She planted her right fist in her left palm and bowed her head respectfully before looking up over the devastated table, her own plate depleted and hunger sated, "Thank you for the meal, too. You'll have to let me treat both of you some time. I have money now actually, and I'm not talking about small unmarked bills my parents hid in caches around the world to relocate us."

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Well, that counts for something, I suppose. It felt good to be appreciated. Some times she believed that was the best thing about being a teacher and a Terat of the third stage. Others looked up to her, and came to her with their worries and their fears, and their hopes for their own glorious future and asked her to guide them. That let her look upon the wonders they wrought and the magnificence they became and think 'I played a role in that'. She was leery of taking too much credit for another Terat's successes. Shiv and Meh'Lindi especially had been almost completely reshaped by Chang's influence. Yet she did not let herself think that. All she did was show them potentials in themselves, and now they worked to play those potentials out, like lengths of silk being passed through eager hands.

If I'm making her think, then I am doing good, Chang thought. Under the table, she felt Lucrezia stroke her ankle with one foot. There was love in her wife's eyes. She probably knows this expression by now, whatever it is.

"The problems of the mind are the ones which haunt us longest and with the greatest enthusiasm," Chang said, leaning back and relaxing over her finished plate. Lucrezia was taking longer than either her or Coraline. "Always be wary of them. I know you have rebuffed my offer for now, but I still suggest that you read through some of the materials on that OpNet address I sent you. Perhaps there is more in them that will call to your soul."

Lucrezia leaned back, too, watching Coraline now, frowning a little. She sipped her drink rather than speak. I wonder if she realizes how much like a baseline she is behaving?

"How well does modelling pay for a young girl these days?" Chang smiled. "Your eyes are rather clear betrayals. I suggest you make a brand out of them, if your body is going to remain morphic. Other shapeshifting models do similar things. The gifts of taint are reflections of who you are. Learning to embrace them in a productive manner is always good for the soul."

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"It pays well enough to make it worth my time. It's... interesting actually when I let myself relax into the meditative now during a shoot, and now that I have the time to actually get good at it, I mean to," Coraline answered, "Including making a brand of the quantum quirks I inherited from my Mother which Darrik can no doubt help with. A cover and more resources to help others who need it. Every little bit helps."

She chuckled, realizing something, "Node, the me of six months ago would be horrified to hear me talking about doing work like this. About living on the grid at all. About how I refuse to filter out nearly as much of what I see and hear any more. About how many problems out there I see as being part of my responsibility to help solve and worth risking myself over if I can find a way to actually help."

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Chang inclined her head as she listened. She waited, knowing her wife – a frequent model herself – would comment on this at least.

“Keep an eye out on faces in the crowd, if you can,” Lucrezia said. “Specifically, watch for people who aren’t really paying attention to the show but are watching you. Anytime you spot someone like that try and find out who they were afterwards. You’ll be surprised and probably rewarded by that. I’ve made a few friends and started dealing with a few enemies that way. Guarantee you’ll have agents of Utopia at every single show you do, and probably at least one Proteus eye.”

“At least,” Chang said. “What is this about ‘filtering’ your perceptions? How sharp are they? And what exactly do you see as being your responsibilities?”

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Coraline nodded graditude to the advise, mindful of the eyes and ears who had already started popping up at her jobs and disappearing when challenged by one of her brothers or DeVries security personel. Her expression went vague, paying full attention to the input gently nipping at her thoughts all conversation, expanding her senses with touches of quantum. Her pupils dilated ever so slightly, pulse picking up as that much more blood flowed to her ears and nose.

"Pretty sharp. My hearing fuzzes out at some point past the islands among fish and waves and birds with an mountain of noise that I need to focus to pluck out anything specific. If I squint, I can watch proteins at work in a cell and the satelites flying overhead. Three days ago you ate..," she paused, expression going politely blank before she finished with a glance at Lucrezia, "Her and something made out of metal. I can see patterns, how a driver down on 12th Street will fail to slow down enough to avoid... Yeah, he hit that parked car. He's sounds okay though."

She turned her abhuman gaze fully back on Chang and her wife, "It's a lot, and I still can only process so much of it at a time, but I used to ignore 90% of it unless my name was mentioned or it involved my sibling's safety or otherwise was important to me. Survival reflex in a small complex with my siblings back when my senses were still only 'slightly' sharp. I'm trying not to do that any more. Use all my extraordinary tools to extraordinary ends."

"And I want to protect us from those who want to destroy and enslave us for existing. My Generation. Yours. The next. Pay forward the life I was given in service protecting others and not let a single Motherhunter get away without a trace or let myself sucumb to rage and make things worse by destroying the duped who can turned against their employers. It's going to be hard, but I won't give up," the young metamorph finished with resonating conviction in her chorous.

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“Impressive,” Chang said. Her feelings were completely genuine. Coraline seemed as perceptive as herself, perhaps a little more, perhaps a little less, and clearly less experienced. Perhaps she would surpass Chang before too long. They will render us irrelevant, these children of ours. It was a sobering thought, though not a new one. My, how foolish will they look, those radicals who call for a Nova society to be a pyramid based on power. Let children run the world and you’ll soon have bouncy castles on every street corner and corpses in every house.

Lucrezia finally finished her own meal and patted her belly. “Meh’Lindi knows her meat. I guess it comes from eating baselines.”

Chang nodded. “She has eaten of that particular meal many a time. It made her curious.”

“You know, if you can listen that well,” Lucrezia said, “you’ll be able to hear everything everyone’s saying at your shows. That’ll really help you out.”

“It’s surprising what people say when they think they aren’t being overheard. I wonder, where do baselines fit into your heroic aspirations? For that matter, why are you becoming a model when you could be out there sharpening your skills to better protect the One Race? You are quite right that it’s going to be hard. So why are you splitting your attention? Geryon says much the same things where it concerns the next generation. He spends every day doing nothing more than recruiting other Novas to his cause, training to sharpen his skills, and trawling his information networks to anticipate where Proteus and Utopia will strike next. He only interacts with the rest of the Teragen when time allows, and even then it is to excoriate us to assist him with his larger mission. If you’ll forgive me, it seems contradictory for you to tell me with such conviction that you intend to fight against Proteus with one word and in another say you have the time to become good at modelling. Would those many hours getting ready for your photo shoot and dancing before drooling baselines not better be spent practicing your combat skills?”

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"Probably not actually. There's more than one kind of battlefield, and while I'm confident enough fighting anyone who can't shrug off a tank shell or sneaking in and out of anywhere, socially... I'm far more limited, especially when it comes to baselines. I need the practise. Besides, I can repay a debt my family owes someone who's done us a lot of good so far this way, and Aeon hasn't moved to engage in open warfare against Novakind yet... I've been persuaded to allow myself to be selfish enough to persue some personal development while my family uses their talents to root out Proteus better than I ever could. When they do find out how we can hurt them though or news of a Motherhunter raid I can intercept..."

She nodded, thinking of the coming storm in Congo they had to prevent, "Then we'll see the fruits of the training I've put myself through so far, Mrs. Chang, and the four hours a day I still put myself through to maintain and refine it all."

The young metamorph cleared her head, adding, "And Baselines are complicated. We came from them. The kinds of flaws and mistakes they fall prey to are largely the kind of flaws we fall prey to. This is still mostly their world if the success of the Motherhunters mean anything. They're weaker than us if we could ever work together. And... most of them would rather not destroy us. What *makes* this so hard is the fact that if we want to keep baseline resentment from breeding more motherhunters when we do win, we have to do so without hurting too many of them. Or else they'll be stupid and angry enough to chase us even if we do give them everything they want and leave the planet for a dozen new Edens."

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“An exaggeration,” Chang said dismissively. “A knight may bait a dragon in its den, but only if they believe they have an advantage. Should the baselines develop the technology to adequately fight us then they may chase to other worlds, but most likely they would prefer to leave us be. You’re an odd sort of saviour who leaves all the work to other people,” she observed. “I’ve seen your recent successes against them. Do you think they will sit on their hands and meekly let you beat them senseless? You cannot afford to wait until the critical moment to see the fruits of your training. You need to find sparring partners, ones that can test you in the real world and expose your remaining weaknesses, thereby to close them up. It may be that finding such a partner is difficult, of course. You children are of an obscene level of ability. Perhaps Einherjar or The Morrigan might be able to contest with you. I would suggest my own Shiv, but I think your raw speed would overcome her.”

She speaks with sincerity yet gives no credit to her foes, Chang thought. And why not? She is like unto a goddess. How could mere baselines and crusty elders hope to compete?

Lucrezia regarded Chang sceptically. “I’m not sure you’re right, you know. These kids are stupidly powerful. Unless Proteus are hiding a few second gens in their back pocket, I don’t see what they can do. She isn’t even twenty and her perceptions are as sharp as yours already. When she’s your age you’re going to look dull and blind in comparison. Honestly, I think we’ve won. Kind of funny, don’t you think?”

“What is?”

“Geryon, Leviathan and company, flexing their muscles and roaring at the sky,” Lucrezia said, and chuckled. “All they had to do was spread their legs and fuck more. Bounty had the way. The children win the war by default.”

“Perhaps you are right. But whose war, I wonder? Irrespective,” she said, returning her attention to Coraline, “it is foolish to wait until battle is joined to find out if you are sufficient to the task. You seem to be relying on Proteus remaining weak while you grow stronger. You should afford more respect to an organization that is still managing to murder Novas despite literally being the enemy of the world. This is no surprise to me. Humans are not difficult if you study them for any length of time. Have you been watching the baselines bowling below the balcony? I have, in a peripheral manner. But that is enough with perceptions as sharp as ours.”

For a moment or two Chang focused on those peripheral senses, on what she had perceived from the humans all around them. She focused on one particular aisle, on how the game had progressed and things she had overheard.

“For example, in aisle six there are five people bowling. One of them is a girl with some passing resemblance to you. Up until our arrival she was bowling well but her game has fallen apart since then due to her being distracted. Rather than refocus upon her game she is spending every moment she can watching your back, and accordingly her play is getting worse still. At the conclusion of this set she will be mocked by her compatriots, and will blame you for it. All five will then begin complaining about Novas, rather than acknowledge the obvious truth that it is their friend’s own failings which have brought her to this situation. Listen for a while.”

A baseline server appeared and took away their plates, while the two of them listening to the goings on in aisle six. They came to the end of the game, as Chang said, and two of the men laughed at their female companion’s score. One said she was lusting after Coraline. The response was angry, almost savage, and spiteful. The woman threw a resentful look up at the balcony and swiftly turned away when she saw Chang’s glowing eyes upon her. Soon enough they were complaining about how hard it was to focus when Novas were around.

“But she will return to the alley. You defeated her by proxy today, though you meant no harm, though you were merely existing and sharing a meal with a friend. When she comes back it will be with thoughts of ‘beating’ you, and that will drive her to perform better. Every time Proteus receive a report of your victory, they will be driven to desperation for a time, and then rebound determined to outdo themselves. This pattern has repeated throughout human history, it’s what defines their species and explains their success. Accordingly, baseline resentment for us is as fundamental as their love. We have broken their hold on the top of the food chain, shattered the societal rules they have crafted, and casually reshaped their world to fit us. They will not have it. Nothing we can do will prevent the rise of more motherhunters. Proteus is a simple systemic response to our existence, an antibody forged out of the human subconscious to defend itself against a growing threat. We are a threat, Coraline, and nothing anyone does or says will change or hide that fact. You are seventeen, and my equal in many ways, my vast superior in others. How much more ridiculously powerful will your child be? The entire human race will soon be invalidated by individual child Novas. It’s half-happened already and this is only the second generation. How long do they have, do you think? Twenty years, perhaps? If Novas had not been sterilized, we would probably be nearly into the third generation already. Never delude yourself: Proteus are right, from a humanocentric point of view. We render human achievement obsolete, and will completely divert their destiny. Tell me, Coraline, how would you feel if this was happening to Novas? And then ask yourself this: are you as dedicated to your mission as they are to theirs?”

Using the Mega-Int 3 ‘feat’ from New Flesh to easily predict the actions of baselines in her vicinity

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Coraline hesitated after listening to the group in question and Chang's analysis of it. She had spotted potential listeners, nova and baseline on her sweep, still had a quarter of an eye on them. But this was important, a final gift for this exchange, and none of the listening gear in the building itself seemed to wired to anything but the complex of opague tunnels below their feet.

"Sometimes the best thing you can do when someone is running about, trying to kill you, is sit exactly where they can see you and seem to do nothing. Especially if your friends are lurking in the shadows prepared to take advantage of them leaping on such a valuable prize," Coraline countered softly, almost too soft even for Chang to pick out, "My teacher told me that Aeon is planning to do something soon in Angolia to destroy King Einherjar's Congo, the closest thing we have to a homeland right now. We're going to stop them, embarass them. Turn the effort against them as best we can. And my job for now is to seem the frivalous child I wish the world had given me and mine more chance to be."

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Chang smiled. “I presume that you have good reason to assume Proteus will target you, then. Otherwise your friends will have wasted their preparations,” she replied, but with one voice only, and that one just as quiet as Coraline’s, and hidden by her other three. “Bait is only good when someone takes it.”

Those answered her comments about the Congo. “I suppose it is home to some Novas, yes. Given that less than two dozen out of a population of several thousand would classify it as such, you may be stretching the definition somewhat. Regardless, you seem certain of your direction. Time will tell whether it was chosen well or otherwise.”

In truth she felt uncertain of much that Coraline had said so far. Her extremely vague references to heroism and seeming lack of dedication to battle pointed towards the sort of false certainty common to the young. Much would likely depend upon Norman, and how he responded to this peculiar change which had come over her.

“This is the first I have heard of a planned attack upon the Congo, but I’ll put the word about. It might be that those who ought to know do already or that my compatriots are saving the news for a future meeting. It is largely irrelevant to me and not something I can influence. If Proteus is involved, good luck on that embarrassment. If I can offer some small assistance in that regard, do not hesitate to contact me. Of course… if they are planning an attack on the Congo, don’t you think they have bigger fish to fry than you? It’s quite pointless to have yourself as bait out in the open when your enemies are trying to take on an entire Nova nation. Compared to that, you’re really quite a minor worry.”

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"You'll be among the first to know if we get them to make a mistake in their striving to be beat us at all costs, Mrs. Chang," Coraline answered in the same extremely soft volume, "Mistake or success, we'll have learned something."

She returned to a more normal volume, nodding her head respectfully at Chang's wife, "Thank you for the advise on who to look out for. We've already had a few interested parties looking around, and an incident with one of my sisters."

The young metamorph stood up, composed expression on her features, "Thank you again for the meal and conversation. It was helpful. Very helpful. But I have younger novas I promised to help to keep an eye on as they stretch their wings."

She waited for a farewell nod from the two Terats before provoking a final wave of apoligetic disruption with her departure to the door and the open sky.


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