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Aberrant: Children of Quantum Fire - [Interlude] On Bitter Tides [FIN]


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May 7th, 2027

Sakura wiped sweat from her brow and stood slowly back from where she'd been squatting over an plot soil, an artificially created microcosm of the carbon cycle that she had been tinkering with as a template for the gardens to be set in lower levels of the creche. Several of the Lucrezia's bustling around the underground complex were immediately at her side, helping her stand up and then coaxing her over to the couch in the "experiment room", where they were testing out ideas for how to fit everything together in minature as the creche itself slowly started coming together.

She looked up at her helpers and gave them a grateful smile, one hand curled over her already large belly. "Thanks," she panted out, chuckled. "I feel a little ridiculous. Isn't the whale stage supposed to be later on?"

Two of the Lucrezia's settled down on either side of her, one of them rubbing her hand over Sakura's womb. "Well, you are carrying triplets. I think the whale stage got a bit of a head start. Let's just hope you still fit through the doors in a few months," she teased.

Sakrura grabbed one of the decorative pillows and swiped at Lucrezia with it, "Oh. thanks!" The the dissolved into giggles while Sakura rested for a minute.

In the background the interview with the Count and Chang could be heard from the TV they'd left on in another room just to listen in on while they worked. "....your last album, Days of Being Wild, was released a year ago to incredibly positive reception. Is another album in the works?"

"Perhaps. I have several different pursuits at the moment. Another album will come when it is ready." Something had already annoyed Chang and could be heard in the low buzz of one of her voices, while three others remained cool and professional.

They should have known not to bring up the incident with Shenti Shen-Zhan, stupid little poser that couldn't take no for no, the Lucrezia actually watching the interview mused. Some men. Lesbian, hello. Not just a weekend title.

"Count Orziaz," the interviewer, a perky brunette that looked ten years to young for her job, continued, "you've been a public fan of White Rain's artistic creations. Have you ever thought about trying..."

Sakura glanced up at one of the Lucrezia's with her. "She really does hate doing this, doesn't she?" she asked quietly.

Lucrezia kissed her on her forehead. "She wouldn't be doing it if it wasn't worth it to her." At Sakura's look she sighed and nodded, "But yeah, she hates it." A wicked grin snuck onto the latex shifter's lips, "Don't worry, I'll make it up to her when she gets home."

Sakura chuckled and then sighed, "Time to get back to work. I have some ideas on altering some different types of phosphorescent fungi to put off different spectrums of light until we have a combination that replicates the spectrum of the sun. Then we'll have a way of generating light for the trees and gardens without having to use those lamps. And a life cycle that can mimic the day and night...." She sighed again, thinking it all over, but Lucrezia had learned over the past few weeks how to read the flowering nova - she was loving every moment of this.

The two Lucrezia's helped her stand again and one left to go help another one that was working with Shiv and Cindi on one of the lower levels, directing their contractors in getting the walls into place with the reinforced metals The Alchemist had created for them. Things were actually coming together, which made the Mirror Queen's wifes stomachs flutter; what they were doing was more dangerous, more important, and more intricate than any political maneuver than Chang had ever tried to pull off before. Even Lucrezia was working herself to the edges of her capabilities to keep their movements and ripples in the world as small as possible. Maybe that's part of the point. I haven't pushed this much for some time; it's probably doing me good. Chang would think so, she's always wanting all of us to push more and farther.

The thought made her smile and several of her selves began humming as they worked in different places around the creche. Things were coming together, and Sakura would have a place to give birth to her children in safety and the company of friends who understood. What more could a mother ask for?

In the background, the interview continued, tensing and relaxing as the Mirror Queen and Count Orziaz dazzled their baseline audience. Whether they cared or were trying to or not.

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I hate this. Yet I do it for the children.

Chang Zha-Yang sat upon a horseshow-shaped red leather couch, formed of her own body as always. Both Count Orzais and the interviewer sat upon her, one as relaxed as if he were on a wicker chair on a veranda, the other fidgety and awkward no matter how comfortable the couch might be.

Orzais did indeed wring an agreement out of her to do this interview, but that had not prevented Chang from making it hell for him. She made several demands; some of them not even close to reasonable. One of those was that the interviewer, whoever they were, would have to recline upon her during the interview. If they declined, so would she.

To the baseline’s credit, she did her best to hide her surprise as Chang morphed her buttocks into the couch, and tried not to squirm, but Chang knew better. She had felt the lie in the woman’s voice when she said she was comfortable, and several others during the first twenty minutes of their chat.

Another awkward demand was that the interview was to take place in China, in Guangzhou province, the place of her birth, on a hill overlooking the graveyard in which her father was buried. The most awkward of all was that she insisted there be no camera crew.

Orzais took all in stride, of course, with humour and teasing. Not only had he managed to wrangle cooperation out of the Chinese authorities – never easy – he had managed to get a cedar wood stage built for them, with bonsai trees and copious amounts of green tea on hand, a selection of some of the finest huangjiu wines that he knew she liked, and a comparatively subtle serving of food for himself and the interviewer. A mixture of both Japanese and Chinese ancestry, fitting Chang’s own early travels after she erupted.

The camera issue had been solved with micro ‘drone’ cameras that were remote controlled from a broadcast station nearby. Though built with her perceptions in mind – Orzais knew how much she hated the buzzing of most such devices – they were still slightly annoying, moving about like flies to get a hundred angles for later editing. She complained at first, but relented. In the end, he jumped through all her hoops, and she knew when she was being unreasonable. He was a friend at the end of the day, and this, just a favour.

Chang’s goblet-hand was filled with shaoxing wine, liquor made of red yeast rice that she was fond of as a baseline. Over the years since her eruption she had come to drink it often when seriously thinking about her baseline life.

Angela Kenning was one of N!’s up and comers, a driven young girl who Orzais seemed to have taken under his wing with a series of exclusives and interviews that had made her very rich in a short space of time. Chang saw her as a talking head on the television now and again. She had a pretty, angular face, with clear blue eyes and clean blond hair, somehow emphasized by the oval spectacles she wore. She had come dressed professionally in a blue shirt and black trousers, and a simple hand recorder.

She was beginning to look a little rough, shivering sometimes even though the day was warm, and focusing increasingly on Count Orzais, splendid today in a silk shirt and running trousers, splendid and casual by even degrees.

“Perhaps we ought to take a small break?” Count Orzais offered, and Angela leapt at the chance. After giving quick courtesies, she left their stage to smoke out of sight and out of listening distance.

“Well, this is going swimmingly,” Chang said, all four voices dripping with irony.

Orzais sighed. “Chang, you are being more awkward than I anticipated. You knew the poor woman would find you overwhelming. Most Novas do. You could make it easier for her.”

“I could offer to do her dishes for a week, too, but you’ll never get me in there even if you can persuade me that half of her dishes are my wife in disguise,” Chang replied.

The provoked a smile from the Count. “What do you think of her?”

Chang shrugged. “A baseline.”

“I see your legendary skills of observation have not abandoned you,” Orzais said. “The questions have not been too annoying, I hope?”

“If by ‘annoying’ you mean ‘inane waste of my valuable time’ then no they have not been too ‘annoying’, but I’m certainly not feeling like this is worth my investment.”

The Count straightened his tie and cleared his throat. “I think you mean my investment. Essentially you’re a paid guest, and you did not come cheap.”

“Brilliance never does. I presume the ‘good’ questions are yet to come?”

“Oh, undoubtedly. This is your first sit-down interview in over a decade. It’s considered a major coup for her. You can’t blame her for asking everything she can, and I suspect she’s been provided with a laundry list of questions to ask by the N! network executives.”

Chang nodded and sipped her wine. They nattered on for a short while, and she felt a little of her irritation drain away. Angela had been grilling her with questions about OpNet rumours, past associations, opinions on the Congo, political views, her view on the brief unveiling of Proteus, the Teragen’s activities (without touching on Glory so far), and a few queries on a cult she had not even known existed.

It was dull, dull, dull, dull, dull.

The day was good, really, the wind rich with the scent of flowers and flavoured a little by distant wafts of food from a town several miles away. Orzais had been thorough in scouring the nearby area of everything that might annoy her. There were no animal corpses hidden in the long grasses as she would have expected, no scent of feces on the air which she could almost always smell a little, even if just from rodents and other small animals people never noticed. The sun was up and bright and shining, the sky was cloudless, though she would rather it were raining.

She just felt bored. Orzais assured her that her opinions would change people’s views, but she did not believe that. A few weak-minded fools would bow down and listen but most people would listen, be amazed, and then go off to live their lives and have whatever arguments they always had. Talking heads would discuss her for a week or two, and then the whole affair would be just another file in Orzais’ growing catalogue. The interview would change nothing.

Maybe that was it. The whole affair felt pointless.

“You know,” she said, as Angela finished her cigarette and a call with her executive that she probably thought Chang could not hear, “I’m going to end up quite depressed over this.”

The Count laughed, and gave a knowing shake of his head. “You are a treasure, my dear. I’ll say this: I’ve never had so much trouble, nor gone to so much effort, for a single interview before. The budget for all of this,” he laughed again. “You can be quite ridiculous at times.”

Chang smiled. “Oh my dear Count, I’m only just warming up.”

“Be nice, please.” He said, then turned and rose as Angela approached. “Angela, dear, are you prepared to continue?”

“Yes, I think I’m quite ready,” she said, though there was a tremor in her voice and a tremble in half the muscles down the right side of her body. Chang felt the lie, the way she felt all lies. They had a special sort of sound to them that always picked them out of conversation the way a black feather stands out on a white bird or an off-tune note stands out in a harmonic symphony. Every time Angela asked a question like this Chang heard those notes. Lies annoyed her, always had. Unless they so good she could not quite tell. Those she respected.

Chang gestured at the couch to her left. “Then by all means sit, and let us continue.”

Angela placed her recorder on the table beside her tea and the plate of dim sum that was waiting for her. “Okay, Mike. Roll in three, two, one, and we’re live. Mrs. Chang,” she said, “I wonder if we can talk about the rather public incident with Shenti Shen-Zhan?” Her smile was frozen.

You impertinent little zip. No sign of her anger showed in Chang’s face or posture, but she saw the quick glance Orzais threw between her and Angela, felt the muscles in his muscular buttocks clench. Chang gave an indulgent smile. “We can if we must. I believe I’ve addressed the issue already, by proxy.”

“That’s true but I thought it might be better to get your opinions from the horse’s mouth, as it were.”

Chang rolled her wrist one hundred and eighty degrees to turn the palm upwards. “Go right ahead,” she said, her voices all sweetness, like the calm winds inside the eye of a storm. She heard Count Orzais mutter ‘oh dear’ under his breath.

“Shenti is very well connected with you, to hear him tell it. He, like you, was born in Guangzhou province, he attended the same art college, and he has similar powers. He’s gone on public record as saying you are ‘sexually compatible’ shall we say? When he professed his love to you in Ibiza, however, you by all accounts very rudely rebuffed him. He has always addressed you with great respect, and it just puzzled me that you would be so offended by his proposition? Why did you respond so aggressively?” Angela’s frozen little smile grew even more fixed.

Maybe it was something in her eyes that warned the baseline this was dangerous ground. Chang felt molten, and while she was keeping firm control upon those emotions, she could not guarantee that there was not a degree of anger visible from without. Aggressive, she says. At my word Shiv would have skinned him and made a robe of it.

When she spoke, one of her voices was a low chuckle. “Shenti likes to exaggerate and, dare I say it, blatantly lie. I was born in Guangzhou, the largest city of Guangdong province. He was born in Kunming in Yunnan province. These distinctions might be minor to outsiders, but to anybody born in China they are vast. For one thing, the distance between my city of birth and his is just under seven hundred kilometres. I’m aware that distances aren’t what they used to be in the Nova age, but provinces are what they are, and he factually was not born in Guangzhou.”

“He claims his family moved to Yunnan very shortly after his birth.”

“He can claim they moved to the moon for all I care. A lie is a lie, and the details do not make it less egregious even if they are more believable,” she said, in a tone that defied Angela to contradict her again. Shenti’s voice was full of those tell-tale discordant notes when he attempted to inflate their ‘mystical connection’. He attended an art college that I was enrolled in, forcibly and against my will, for one day. I attended it once and never again returned. This is a matter of public record. I was never actually college educated because I refused to allow the Chinese government to direct me.” Her fury was rising. She rotated her right wrist back and forth just to let some of the tension out of her in something other than a banshee shriek that would leave Angela Kenning’s mind forever scarred. “As for our ‘power connection’, he can stretch a reasonable distance, about three kilometres. I can go across the Atlantic Ocean. Easily.” The last was a small exaggeration.

Chang simply sucked her wine through the bottom of her goblet, no longer bothering to use her lips, then shaped it back into a hand and laced her slender fingers. “Shenti Shen-Zhan is at best a deluded fool. He assumes because we have superficially comparable powers that we are somehow spiritually linked. Even if he were right – and he is not – that does not mean we are sexually linked. He hides an entirely base lust behind spiritual pretensions, and like all such people resent it when the truth is thrust rudely in front of his face. And, if I must point it out, I am a married woman, and a lesbian. He’s not a woman, and wouldn’t be a pretty one if he were.”

Count Orzais chuckled. “Saying that, pictures of him in a dress would be appealing to the Chinese populace, I’m sure. I’ve heard he’s an outstanding ballet dancer.”

Chang took the hint. It was the subtlest of undercurrents, but as loud as a clarion call to her ears. Let me handle this, he was saying. She was content to allow him to. The Shenti incident had put Lucrezia in a foul mood for months, for reasons that somewhat eluded Chang. Lucrezia being in a mood had begun a self-replicating ripple effect, though. Shenti now considered it generally better to go nowhere near Ibiza or the Rainbow Room.

“You must understand,” the Count was saying, “while I have my playboy reputation, not every beautiful Nova is the same. Chang has a reputation for sexual escapades that is actually undeserved. She picks her lovers with care and concern, not least because of the way she has changed over time. And in truth, even if none of this were true, he was simply disrespectful.”

“To say the least,” Chang offered.

Angela gathered herself, seemingly aware of how much she had pushed acceptable limits. “Well, let us move on. Your last album, Days of Being Wild, was released a year ago to incredibly positive reception. Is another album in the works?"

Chang relaxed a little at this. It was a bland question, of course, but at least it was on an interesting subject. "Perhaps; I have several different pursuits at the moment. Another album will come when it is ready." She could hear her own annoyance in the low buzz of one of her voices, while she managed to keep the other three cool and professional.

"Count Orziaz," Angela said, turning to him now, "you've been a public fan of White Rain's artistic creations. Have you ever thought about trying to produce an album yourself?"

The Count took that with a brilliant grin. “Not after I heard my dear friend’s recent performance in the Rainbow Room. I imagine you’ve heard tell of it yourself?”

Angela – reluctantly – went back to Chang. “Any comments about that, Mrs. Chang? I have heard a few scattered recordings of you… well... displaying yourself in the Rainbow Room recently.”

Chang nodded. “It was an ill-conceived performance. The song and the music were acceptable, but the overall performance was flawed. It was less than half of what it should have been. If you’re curious about the song itself it’s slated to be the title track of my next album when it’s complete. I assure anyone who has heard those recordings that the real thing will blow it out of the water, as it were. There will be a music video for this. I’ve agreed to do one for Pantheon Productions.”

“Really?” Angela seemed happy to speak to her now. “That’s quite a change in your usual direction, if I may say so. Is there a reason for that?”

Change shrugged. “It just feels right for this song. The album will be distributed the same as always. The song could end up being standalone, too. It’s half of a commission piece. For a movie,” she said in manner of an explanation, contained a hefty tone that dissuaded the baseline from pressing any further.

“If I can return to the Shenti incident one time, just to bridge onto another topic, what do you feel about the growing obsession people are showing towards you? There have been Nova-centric cults based on you and your work springing up in various countries around the world, and the Defense for Human Dignity and Free Will Organization are saying you’re responsible for several suicides and violence against ‘lesser’ Nova artists such as The Muse, following excoriating comments you have made about them in public,” Angela said, her voice brittle and fearful.

Chang did not feel any stirring of anger, though. “Maybe I am. What of it? I’m not going to start asking forgiveness for human stupidity. I certainly never asked them to do anything of the sort and none of my songs or art can even faintly be interpreted as doing so. Frankly I’m uninterested in this ‘race war’ idea that seems to grip the populace from time to time. I’ve always maintained, like the Count, that baselines and Novas need have nothing to do with one another but that we can live side by side if that’s what people prefer. Personally I consider myself separate and live separate, so what other Novas choose to or not to do is entirely their affair and not something I wish to delve into.”

“But didn’t you once compose the song ‘Angel of Harmony and Despair’ which dealt with this exact sort of issue concerning Jason ‘Bombshell’ Bellefleur? It sounds to me – if you’ll forgive me – that you’re being a little hypocritical on this issue.”

“No. Jason – at least then – was seemingly oblivious to the negative effects of her existence. I am absolutely aware of them and have been for years, just as I am aware that my current form makes baselines like you uncomfortable.”

She stiffened up at that. “I don’t-“

“The muscles down the left side of your body are tensed up to a degree that you are in danger of going into cramp,” Chang said, two voices analytical, two bored, “your voice tremors with every word you say, your heartbeat is elevated and your breathing irregular by turns. You glance frequently at my breasts or cock, not that you wish to look at any of them but you find the glow of my eyes unsettling, as shown by the way you clearly glance at one and then the other than back again. You’ve noticed that my clothes are formed of my hair and that also makes you uncomfortable and, though you’ve agreed to sit upon this couch, you’re aware that it is in fact my arse, and that – again – makes you uncomfortable.” Chang favoured her with a glowing smile. She laughed. “I’d say ‘relax’ but there’s no point. You’re not going to. There’s a reason I’m a recluse, Angela. I need nothing from humanity nor do I demand or expect anything from you. I am happy to accept your regard; indeed I’m moderately flattered that you offer it to me. But is it not rather backhanded when you cannot bear to be in my presence? I have no need or temptation to flaunt myself for your perusal and approval. In short, if the entirety of humanity decrees me apostate, I lose nothing.”

It took several seconds for the baseline to process Chang’s words. She swallowed, breaking eye contact. She looked to Count Orzais as if to remind herself that there was something sane in her vicinity, and took a deep, calming breath. When she looked back, there was just a touch of iron in her gaze and Chang felt the first stirrings of interest in the woman. “Then why do you distribute your albums? If we’re so unimportant, why do you even share your music with us?”

Chang gave her mysterious smile. “I’m afraid you’re not going to draw me on that issue. But let me pose this to you. Who is that really distributes my albums? Me, or the people I give them to? And what’s to stop them from destroying the recordings?”

In truth, she suspected that Narcosis wanted to make the deal to have redistribution rights to Chang’s work to prevent exactly that scenario. Angela Kenning had done her homework, for sure, though.

“What about the standing deal you have with Pantheon Productions allowing them to redistribute your work?”

Chang waved her hand dismissively. “It’s the same affair. I never asked them to, I just didn’t try to stop them. Why would, or should I? My only involvement with that is producing artwork for the album covers, and that is purely on a commission basis.”

The interviewer was stopped dead in her tracks by that answer. She was not satisfied with it at all, but she knew that was the best she was going to get. “W-Well, what about the violence against ‘competing’ artists I mentioned earlier?”

“That is a more pressing issue, I agree. But I’m still not sure what you expect of me. I don’t think any work of art should be destroyed, for any reason. Vilified, yes, but not destroyed. Art tells us who we are as people, and collectively it says so much about our culture and our history. I value both of those things intensely. So: don’t destroy works of art. Mock them. It’s far more effective and amusing. Let the galleries which contain these abominations become monuments of shame to the pretensions of the failures enshrined within. But don’t consume them in fire. Otherwise, they might make more.” Chang raised her hand up high, and performed a mock bow from sitting. “There. I’ve made my comment. Not that it will change anything in the long term. People will do as they do.

“Oh, but where it comes to violence against The Muse,” she shrugged. “I won’t deny I smiled when I heard. He’s overrated and talentless, and his appeal lies entirely in the fact he’s a Nova idiotically obsessed with Christian doctrine and the idea all Novas erupt due to demonic possession. I don’t know what you expect me to say concerning him. I don’t want his work destroyed, but he’s still an insult to every Nova, and relies on gory and horrific imagery, thinly veiled allusions to Christian myth and shock value. If people are beginning to see that and want to send him a message, good for them.”

“May I put my own word in on this issue, Chang?” The Count said.

“Be my guest.” She formed her hand back into a goblet and poured more wine for herself, beginning to relax once more, or as much as she ever would during this interview.

“I would add that The Muse’s popularity is an example of the exact sort of anti-Nova sentiment that the Teragen exists to oppose. While Chang’s tone is brusque and straightforward, the central point at work in The Muse’s body of art is one that is contemptible on every level…”


Far away, in another part of the world, a tall man watched Chang talking on an old-style TV, his expression darkening with every word she spoke.

He was well-built, with a shock of jet black hair and dark, threatening lines running over the surface of his skin, dressed in black jeans and a shirt. He was known as Scrambler, one of the two leaders of The Primacy.

The room was small but clean and tidy, obsessively so. He had been pacing, wearing a hard line in the carpet. Another Nova was sat upon a red felt couch, tossing a tennis ball against the roof and catching it. “You know, Scram, you’re going to set the carpet on fire at this rate.”

She didn’t get it. Listening to Chang always made him angry, and listening to her for any length of time just made him angrier and angrier. She sometimes sounded so close but never made the right jump. When she was taking apart that stupid zip she was almost the Terat she should have been, letting the bitch see her own weakness and showing it to her and the rest of the world.

And then… then she started warbling on about her music and Bombshell – fucking Bombshell – and all this other irrelevant bullshit. “Baselines and Novas living side by side,” he muttered.

“You know, they’re talking about other stuff now. It’s interesting. Really.”

“Alex, I’m gonna rip your fucking spine out if you don’t stop jibing me.”

Alex was a good-looking man, and a member of the QNA when he wasn’t ‘porting members of Nova Vigilance between their remaining safe houses. Since Geryon lost to Glory and Epoch died and they all got their asses handed to them, they’d always been on the run from someone or another. Scrambler had begun to feel like he was running from her. She who had the gall to surpass him in chrysalis, to reach the third stage despite the fact she owed everything to him in the first place.

But he could get even now.

“I’m not jibing! It is interesting. Listening to you go on about her you’d think that all the waters around China heat up as she approaches in that weird, slightly sexy stretchy way she does.” Alex chuckled. “So, you want that ‘port or not? I gots lots of quantum and nowhere to go with it.”

Yes. Yes I do. His spies inside the Pandaimonion had filtered news back to him of something Chang was up to. Something big. Once he got the details… well, he had wrecked a city block. Shrapnel found that funny, but warned him that they needed to be careful. He knew that, of course, and normally he was careful. But Chang… the bitch pressed is buttons all wrong.

Time to press them right back.

“Open the ‘port, Alex. Enjoy the fucking interview.”

“Oh, I will. They’re talking about us now! Ooo, there’s Glory on inset. Ain’t she pretty?”

“I hate your guts.”

“Everyone does,” Alex said, cackling.

He threw his tennis ball at a spot on the wall, caught it on the rebound, and then made a ‘tearing’ motion with his other hand. The wall seemed to peel apart into a glowing square of light.

Scrambler stepped through.

Instantly he was far away, underground in Ibiza, in what Chang called The Creche, a mockery of The Nursery, and an insult to the whole Teragen.

In front of him was Lucrezia. One of her, anyway.

Her face fell as she saw him.

“Hello, darlin’. No need to call the wife.” He raised his hand, reaching into her head, into her node, and prodding it just so. “I reckon she’s going to be out more than long enough.”

He raised his hand, a ball of black energy forming above the palm. Blue energy crackled across the outer surface, coruscating between his fingers and up his arm.

“Oh god,” she said, “no please don’t.”

Scrambler grinned. “Just did.” He clenched his fist.

Lucrezia let out a heartrending scream as, right in front of his eyes, a half dozen other copies of her dissolved, the flesh flowing away into that weird latex stuff before disappearing altogether, leaving just the one of her before him, clutching her head, crawling on the ground.

He kicked her in the ribs, hard enough that she flew against the wall and bounced off. Scrambler cracked his knuckles. “When the wife’s away, eh?” He said, looming over her.

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Sakura was wrenched out of her nap by Lucrezia's scream; everyone else had gone home for the night, but the two of them had stayed late, as usual, to go over the day's progress, check the budget, and adjust the timeline. She nearly rolled off the couch in her haste to stand up, making her way down the hall as quickly as she could. "Lucrezia?" she yelled. "Lucrezia, where are you? Are you okay?"

She barreled into the room to find a strange man standing over her sobbing friend, smiling with that sickening look only a sentient monster could make. She didn't know who he was, but she understood an attack when she saw one; panic coiled in her gut, flushing her cheeks and seeping the room in the smell of burning flowers. She reached for her power over time, to give her and Lucrezia a change to escape, but the monster was quicker and grabbed her by the arm, smacking her on the side of her head. "None of that from you, either, slut."

The shock of pain and the feeling ofthe loss of part of her herself, skyrocketed her panic. She couldn't run and he was stronger and faster than her. Images of her flights from the mother hunters, of the close calls and the feeling of bullets pierce her flesh flashed to her mind; her heart was beating so loud and for that moment all she could hear was the rush of blood in her own ears.

Then he flew across the room, impacting the reinforced wall with a sickening thud; had it been merely concrete he mostly likely would have gone through it. He slid down the wall, but landed upright on his feet, his expression moving from contempt to murderous rage. "Bitch!"

He lunged at her and she curled herself up around her unborn children, crying with fear for them and herself and Lucrezia. But the impact - the impact on her body - never came. Instead there was another crackling thud just a foot from her head - then another, and another. He kept screaming and pounding while Lucrezia laid curled up in the corner and sobbed, trying to pull herself together, to do something, and utterly incapable of even moving away from the maniac in the room.

Sakura finally looked up when the lack of pain penetrated past her terror, staring at the furious man with wide, shocked eyes. Somehow a field of energy had been created, a bubble extending around her and flashing iridescent patterns of blue light from where the stranger's fist struck it again and again. She was safe...maybe? She couldn't feel her power, couldn't reach for her abilities, but someone was protecting her. Lucrezia. He can still hurt Lucrezia. She moved slowly, trying to keep the man focus on her, on her face and her eyes so he didn't notice the shifts occurring in the background. It worked for may a foot or two before he regained enough control of his temper to stop pounding uselessly on the bubble. He narrowed his eyes, catching in a moment exactly what she was up to. "Oh no you don't, you cow," he growled as he lunged for Lucrezia.

This time, Sakura managed to be just a fraction faster to place herself between the monster and her Teragen friend. The bubble wouldn't let her in, but standing as close to her as she could Sakura managed to effectively block the man's ability to reach his target. Still terrified, Sakura pulled together what courage she could and glared at the man. "Leave."

He laughed and new chills ran down her spine. "Oh, don't try that trick on me, cunt. You think I can be bossed around?" He stepped up to the bubble, leaning on it to loom over her. "Smacking her around was just entertainment. You two ain't going anywhere until the realbusiness is done. And then you, little princess, you're going away where you should be, where you'll serve your race like the breeder you are. Why Fong didn't set you straight, I don't get. You'd should've been learning from the source herself and instead you up and walk out to wander off to who the hell knows where. What'd she do ta piss you off?" His eyes narrowed, "Or are you stupid or something? Messed up in the head even before these perverts got their hooks in you?"

When she said nothing and just continued to glare at him he gave an angry huff and around, continuing to lean on the bubble with his arms crossed. "Whatever. Now we just need you're shit of a wife to show up, Lucyloo, and then the party'll really get started." He laughed again and all Sakura could think was: So that's what a psychopath sounds like. She shivered and wondered who "they" were.

Bereft of all powers and protected only by the incomprehensible bubble around Sakura, they waited.

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Chang was quite content to let Ms. Kenning relax with Count Orzais for a time. He used her genuine disgust about The Muse to bridge into a broader point about the modern Teragen, and that in turn to bring her back into the discussion.

The Count’s verbal skills were legend and for good reason. While their relationship had always been a little strained by politics, Chang would always respect him as both a fellow Terat and a friend. Seeing him beside Angela Kenning put an exclamation point on the ridiculous assertion that he was a ‘zip-lover’ or whatever insulting epithet was in-vogue amongst the baser Terats this month.

Kenning returned to Chang with a little reluctance. They had been talking for somewhere close to an hour now. Her changes were too much for baselines to handle over a long time, no matter her efforts to be personable. Of course, it did not help that Kenning had angered Chang a time or two. Over the years Chang had noticed that her anger was a rather devastating weapon.

“…of Geryon and his compatriots by Utopia,” The Count was saying, “I feel that the propaganda machine has gone into overdrive. That is in part why I wanted to bring in some of my compatriots in this series.”

Angela’s face was serious now, and focused. Chang could read her intentions easily enough from her face without her opening her mouth. This was one of those questions provided for her, that she had been told to ask. The N! executives wanted their soundbytes. “What are your feelings about the Chicago battle, Mrs. Chang? For that matter, how do you feel about the various encounters post-Chicago where Glory has repeatedly stopped Geryon in his tracks?”

Chang sipped some more shaoxing wine, gathering her thoughts. I could imagine what James would say, if he were here. It would not have been flattering. “I think that several Nova children are dead who otherwise would not be,” she said. “Utopia is guilty of many sins but none more egregious than becoming so concerned with winning public support that they will happily put defeating the Teragen as a higher priority over the safety and the preservation of Nova lives. I don’t know exactly why Geryon was in Venezuala, but I do know that in both France and Sweden he was running interference in Proteus Operations aimed at killing Nova children. I’m led to believe those operations were carried off successfully as a result of Utopia’s grand standing but I’ll leave that for the public to investigate. It should all be a matter of public record.”

“So you believe that the loss of human lives involved in these incidents is justified?”

“Last I checked it was Glory who started the fight, not Geryon. Why don’t you ask her? He’s not subtle, but he doesn’t go around casually murdering people. I think everyone is smart enough to understand that. Geryon’s concern is with the preservation and the upholding of Nova rights, rights which, by the way, are supposedly afforded to us by human legislation which goes peculiarly unenforced where Novas are concerned. You don’t see Utopia jumping up to defend Nova rights, either. In fact, Utopia is mostly silent on abuses inflicted on Novas. This seems rather inexcusable to me. I won’t deny that Geryon goes too far, nor would I ever act as he does, but the fact is he wouldn’t need to act if, say, Utopia were more concerned with ensuring Novas are not abused and less about their profit margin.”

“You think that Glory did something wrong in opposing him?”

“I’m bored of this topic now. If you want to really talk about the matter, interview Glory. I am not a member of Vigilance, nor am I especially friendly with Geryon. I do believe characterizing him as a terrorist is reactionary and foolish. If you’re desperate for a soundbyte, here’s one. I hope that Geryon’s defeat signals a fundamental shift in the nature of the cause, that the crush of fist and bone is going to switch more towards words and policy. The Teragen are still riding high in popularity polls which suggests to me that baselines are not just absorbing everything Utopia puts out like the brainless sponges they clearly wish they were. Likewise, I hope Utopia starts trying to do for the Nova population what it’s done for the baseline population, and stops pretending that it’s not to blame for Proteus. There’s no shame in admitting a mistake. There is shame in not learning from one.”

Count Orzais smiled and nodded. “I quite concur with my lady’s statement on the matter. Geryon has ever been a friend to the Nova people. Young Glory – much to my disappointment – is as much a tool of Nova oppression as Caestus Pax. I’m led to believe she visited Chang in the Rainbow Room not too long ago, though,” he said, in an entirely pointed and leading manner, “so perhaps there is hope.”

Chang rolled her eyes. “She was quite pleasant.”

Angela seemed delighted to have this idea raised. “What did you talk about, if I may ask?”

“That remains between us, I’m sure you understand. It was a private conversation even though it peculiarly occurred in the middle of the world’s most popular nightclub while over a hundred Novas were dancing on the dancefloor. Kids these days, eh? They do have the strangest ideas.” She gave a glorious smile, and hoped that Glory herself was watching, and appreciated that Chang did not take her opportunity to toss her under the proverbial bus.

Angela frowned, but did not push her luck. “Well, it seems we are getting near to the end of our time together. I do have a few more questions, if you’re willing?”

Her voice was a confused muddle of desires, as if she wanted Chang both to leave and to stay, though no doubt Angela would have preferred to spend all her time with the Count. Chang was happy to leave, but just before she could speak Orzais cut in.

“I’m sure you can handle a few more questions, your grace. What harm can they do?” His smile was winning, impossible to argue with.

As if that would stop me, she thought. But she owed him, and gave her word. That mattered. “Very well,” she said. “I will refuse to answer anything I deem inane or unworthy of my time, however.”

“Of course,” The Count said, in a tone that made her wonder how she could even suggest otherwise. “I’m sure Ms. Kenning has saved the best for last.”

“Well, I certainly tried to, Count,” she said, and laughed a little. “Mrs. Chang, everyone knows you’re an artist. So I was wondering, what’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?”

That was an easy answer, and not a bad question. After a moment’s thought, Chang deemed it worthy of her attention. “December twenty fifth two thousand twenty one, on the slopes of Mt. Hakkoda in Japan, with twelve of my wife,” Chang said, smiling with remembrance. “There was a blizzard, a fierce wind, the kind of cold that would kill any baseline without protection. I could see each individual snowflake as it went rushing by, feel the wind on my naked skin, and hear it rolling off the mountain and through the trees, sweeping the snow into flurries. It was like nature itself making love to me. Then my wife went dancing off into the blizzard and into the woods, singing. I followed her but she transformed one of herself into a glass dome and two of her were inside, posed as if in a snow globe.” Her smile grew fonder, as she remembered more clearly. Her cock grew a little thicker and longer, stiffening.

She had put her hand upon the glass and stared inside, listening to the sound of her wives calling to her from somewhere behind and among the trees, like spirits of ice. They were all around, and with her. Those in the globe were posed like ballet dancers. She kissed the glass, and Lucrezia’s face formed in it and kissed her back with a glassy tongue.

“We made love up there,” she continued, “in the blizzard and the snow, and eventually inside the snow globe, only this time I extruded the globe from my flesh and had all of my wife’s bodies inside me. The blizzard lasted for about three days, and we made love for all of them, never stopping once save to whisper in each other’s ears. It was glorious. We were up there for a belated wedding anniversary. We had been forced to skip it that year due to some… issues that arose, and made the trip to make up for having done so. It turned out very well. I’ve never before seen how beautiful winter was, but I’ll never forget that.”

Angela’s eyes were fixed on Chang’s thickening shaft. She was sweating. But when Chang stopped speaking she snapped out of her trance and gave her a thin smile. “Well, that does sound quite delightful.”

It wasn’t ‘quite’ anything, she wanted to say. It was heaven. I could have died happy up there. We both could have. Just us up there in the snow, one inside the other, writhing in pleasure and bathed in each other’s love, she thought, feeling tears gathering behind her eyes. I am so lucky to have her. But she let this insult to her memory slide, and waited for the next question.

“Did you specify this date for a reason?” Kenning asked. “I understand this interview was slated for May fifth?”

“This is the anniversary of my eruption over twenty years ago. It seemed… nostalgic.”

“I think you’ll like the next one,” Angela said, her voice confident and her posture straightening as she slipped back into her professional mind-set. “A long time ago you created a work of art in which you completely converted a house, in which you used every room and surface and everything. That house still stands in Ibiza and is frequently visited when the Count permits people to do so.”

“This is all true,” Chang said, uncertain of where the question lay.

“I was wondering if you might have imagined a more ambitious project. Your talents seem to have grown almost exponentially over the last few years, certainly in the musical arena. Likewise, your paintings seem to be improving drastically. What about, uh, grander works, like that? Have you considered redesigning a cityscape, perhaps?”

My, my, Chang thought, giving a glance over at Count Orzais, that’s a rather suspiciously pointed question. I wonder if he has something in mind. Good question, though. She gave her most brilliant smile. “Well… yes, in fact. I’m still quite proud of what I accomplished with that house, but,” she gave out a speculative hum with two of her voices, “I can do better now. By all means, if somebody wants to donate their city to the cause do contact me. But bear in mind that the result won’t exactly be fit for human habitation.”

“Might you be bartered down to a skyline, perhaps?” Count Orzais offered, nibbling on a peach. “I can imagine plenty of Mayors and the like being willing to consider that.”

You utter scoundrel, Chang altered the surface of her body underneath him, making the couch ridged and covered with pointed studs that dug into his backside and the underside of his legs.

Orzais gave an uncomfortable grimace and then eased himself up before moving to the left and sitting back down, while Chang reabsorbed the studs before they could be noticed. When Angela gave him a curious look the Count smiled again. “Oh, just a cramp, my dear, do continue. Something about a skyline, I believe?”

So that’s what he and Narcosis have been scheming up. Oh, he had somewhere in mind. No doubt several mayors were being given financial incentives and funding to give ‘serious consideration’ to making the proposition. Oh well, I’ve woven my rope. Might as well make the noose and hang myself as well. “I could work with a skyline, yes. Some of them are actually quite pretty already, especially Tokyo, New York, Paris, Shanghai as well. Yes, a skyline is workable. I could do smaller scale works on a few city blocks as well, perhaps even reuse a ghost town or some other unoccupied place,” she said, giving The Count a helpful little smile. I Might as well make my own offer. She could feel The Count’s delight at her words.

Angela seemed extremely excited by Chang’s answers. If she wanted exclusives and news out of this interview, Chang just provided them for her. “Well that’s wonderful news, Mrs. Chang. Moving on a little, then, it’s known that you are a sort of ‘teacher’ for people who approach the Teragen. There’s mention on Nova message boards that you even have some sort of secret resources and philosophical works concerning Teras. What do you see as your greatest weakness as a teacher or a role model?”

Chang screwed her lips up in distaste. This question pleased her less. “I do not suffer fools gladly.” The silence afterwards was stony. After a few seconds she gave a ringing sigh. “I can be brutally honest at times.” Finally she threw her hands up. “It’s a stupid question. A teacher can never be a good judge of their own failings. All I can do is teach what I know as best I can, and adapt to each student’s foibles. To date I’ve had no failures, but if you asked all of my students I’ll bet they could all tell you something I do wrong, point out an amusing quirk, share an anecdote about how I failed to get it at some point or another. Go interview Puck from Exalt! He is my student as well, and none too shy about embarrassing his elders.”

“So you consider yourself an excellent role model?”

“No, I’m an appalling role model. I promote people to think for themselves and walk their own path. To follow in my footsteps requires a dramatic failure of understanding both of my art and my teachings. Next.”

“This one’s a personal favourite,” Angela said. “If you had one hour of uninterrupted talk time to talk to someone, who would it be?”

Chang gave her a harsh glare. “Inane. I am done here,” she said to Count Orzais.

He gave a single nod, and then turned to Angela. “My dear, I believe my friend has other business to attend to. She can become – as she says herself – quite brusque when her attention is so divided. If you will be so kind as to stand up, I’ll escort my friend from the premises and we can continue later.”

The baseline looked shaken, but gave a meek nod and stood up. The Count rose as well, finishing his peach and spitting the pip out.

Chang rose. The couch let out a great creaking sound as it collapsed inwards, leather turning back to flesh and refining into Chang’s smooth, pert buttocks, at first hugely oversized but swiftly squeezing down to soft and flawlessly shaped. Hair tendrils snaked out from the gap in her clothes, covered her bared arse and then knitted into another patch of her trousers. Her whole ensemble then shifted into a backless black PVC halter top and thigh-length leather boots, modified to emphasize her triple breasts and warped by her shaft. Tattoos fluttered into being down her arms, each a work or art on its own, dragons coiled with teeth bared and complex interwoven lines.

Angela’s face had gone while at milk. “Cut,” she squeaked.

Count Orzais offered Chang his arm. “Your grace,” he said. “I shall accompany you to the gateway point.”


Back in the Creche, across the sea from China, underground beneath the Rainbow Room, Scrambler continued to face off with Sakura.

She had been holding her ground, much to his annoyance, but he could smell the fear on her. Studying the emanations from her node, he could tell the shield was not coming from her. He knew Lucrezia had no such abilities, which left the unpleasant likelihood that one of her kids was doing it. Well ain’t that a turn up for the books. If more of them got active in the womb maybe we wouldn’t need to hide the parents as much.

That left him with a problem. He could find the node and mess with the quantum flow easily enough, but Scrambler had very little understanding of how sensitive a baby Nova’s node might be, and the last thing he wanted to do was risk causing brain damage to one of the next generation. Allison would never forgive him for that.

On the other hand, he needed to get to Lucrezia. She would be good to work out a little tension with, yes, but Chang was the real issue. His old student was much easier to talk to when you could threaten her with something. He had learned long ago that threatening her was pointless. She had no fear of death. Threatening her wife, on the other hand…

Sakura stared at him, her eyes green and wide, with her mouth slightly open. She had her arms outstretched protectively, keeping Lucrezia behind her.

Scrambler ran his eyes around the edge of the force-field, visible to him as a flickering ball of blue-white energy. He tapped on it like one might on a glass window. Then he grinned, as he realized something interesting. “You know,” he said, “you’re a real selfish friend.”

Sakura frowned. “What?”

He jumped up, and landed legs splayed on top of the force field, looking right down at her. “If ya can’t go round…” he winked, “go over.”

Sakura turned, trying to move closer to Lucrezia, but she had no more options. Scrambler hopped nimbly down behind her, snatched Lucrezia by her black hair, then dragged her kicking and screaming across the ground. He chuckled. “I always heard she was a screamer.”

Scrambler jerked her into the air and punched Lucrezia in the gut. “Behave. Or you’ll make me cross. Now, are you going to be a good girl and turn into a stool for me, or am I going to start breaking limbs?”

“Fuck you,” Lucrezia hissed.

“Oh yeah, you go both ways, don’t ya? Maybe later, honey. Right now I’m getting a bit of a cramp in my legs, and I’d like to sit. Fix it.”

He tossed her down face first. It felt good. The bitch had spited him several times, and he suspected she betrayed some Primacy secrets to her wife not so long ago. One of their less experienced members had become enamoured with a certain Nova who disappeared very shortly after being introduced to the others. He knew her ways. Lucrezia was very, very good at wrapping people around her little fingers.

Scrambler reared back and soccer kicked her in the side of the head. That felt good, too.

Lucrezia’s neck twisted so far it should have snapped, the flesh turned to latex for a moment. Then she rolled onto her back and looked up with hateful, dizzied eyes.

“Change, whore,” Scrambler growled.

Lucrezia flowed into her latex form. Her chest rose up and formed into the stool, while the rest of her sucked in and flowed into the legs.

Scrambler made a show of dusting himself off and then sat down on her. He snorted. “She can’t even do this well,” he said to Sakura. “Might as well put the whore to work, though, eh? You see what’s left of her if you take away her quote-unquote ‘copies’? She’s nothin’. But she thinks she’s so clever.”

“I don’t understand why you’re doing this,” Sakura said.

“Oh, don’t you?” Scrambler grinned. “Chang’s not mentioned me?” His eyes were black as pitch, but cracked like the surface of a mirror struck by a fist. “I’m the reason she’s a Terat. I’m why she is who she is. Everything she’s got, she got through me. And I’m the guy she stabbed in the back to get it. ‘Course you probably knew all that from Caroline, right? Or not. But you know about the Nursery, don’t you?”

Sakura was silent, but there was a ‘yes’ in the look she gave him.

“Oh yeah. That’s where the next generation are being born and cared for, raised right, free of this baseline bullshit that drags us all down. Raised by Mal and Bounty and Scripture – you’d like Bounty for sure – and you if you want. And you should want. This is a war we’re fightin’, honey. The new race versus the old, and humanity ain’t steppin’ aside anytime soon. They’re killing us when they can. The Nursery’s how we keep the kids safe. And Chang,” Scrambler gave a shake of his head. “Fucking… Chang… That arrogant bitch thinks she knows better than Mal. She’s building this crèche to fuck us all over. Because that’s what she does.”

He rose, turned and kicked Lucrezia over. The stool went spiralling through the air and smashed into the wall. He’d have liked her to shatter, but instead she compressed, reformed, bounced off the wall and slowly stretched back into her lovely – unquestionably lovely – human shape. “You don’t know a damn thing about her, Scrambler.”

“Never asked your opinion, whore. Shut your mouth before I stick my dick in it. Oh wait, you’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

Lucrezia grinned. “No chance. You’re tiny.

He felt a stab of rage, but resisted. “You know, you better damn well hope she gets back soon. Else you’re gonna be dead when she does.”


Chang stepped out of Gateway’s body in the safety of Meh’Lindi’s bar and grill. The tall, statuesque Russian woman trembled as she did, and the fleshy edges of the warp that slit her body from mouth to groin rippled with delight.

Her mind felt tired from the long interview, but she was pleased that it was over. No doubt by tomorrow people would be opining wisely on how wise, foolish, threatening, arrogant, or whatever her comments were. And the world would go on turning, unchanged, the same as ever. Interviews depressed her. Nobody ever really listened to them. Interviews were entertained, presented as such, and devoured by people seeking that. She supposed her fans would listen with more attention to detail, but there were not that many of them. Chang never took the effort to try and create fans the way most media-centric Novas did.

As Chang turned her head round to kiss Gateway on the nose, she slid softly closed, and returned the kiss chastely. “Your grace,” she said, accent showing as always. She started pulling on her discarded shirt. “There’s a problem.”

“What problem?”

“Lucrezia’s disappeared.”

Chang felt a stab of worry. “What do you mean ‘disappeared’?”

“I don’t know, there were a dozen of her bouncing around up here, and then they just… melted. I was going to get Shiv, but there wasn’t time.”

That doesn’t make sense. Unless… oh Gods. “Go to Shiv now. Tell her to contact Darion immediately. I think I’ll need to talk to him.”

“Darion, why?”

“I’m going to need his phonebook,” she said, and strode off swiftly in the direction of Meh’Lindi’s basement. “Is Meh’Lindi down below?”

“No, your grace, she went out. I don’t know where.”

“All for the better.”

Lucrezia never disappeared by choice. She was incapable of it. The only way it could happen was for somebody to force her, and she could think of only one person who was likely to have done that. How could he get here? I tried so hard.

She entered the elevator uneasily and punched the button. Her insides seethed as she descended, though she stood still and unmoving.

It was not long after leaving the elevator when she heard the sounds of her wife in pain. She clenched her jaw, tightened her hands into fists, then relaxed them and walked unhurriedly. Chang forced herself to breathe evenly, just using the air to provide pace and structure for her thoughts, to calm herself down.

She walked the increasingly well-reinforced corridors to the crèche and descended two levels to where Scrambler faced off with Sakura.

Lucrezia dangled from one of his hands by her neck. For a moment Chang feared her dead, but just then her wife turned to look her way.

Scrambler responded instantly. He turned to look over his shoulder, grinning. His free hand raised, a ball of coruscating black energy forming in the palm. Then he closed his fist, and it shattered, and Chang felt a stab of pain through her node and brain. She felt an odd tightness in her throat, as a special chord down there stopped working.

“We’ll have none of that banshee noise you call singing,” he hissed.

Chang rubbed her throat and continued to approach him. After only a few moments she saw Sakura in the corner, grossly pregnant as usual, her belly huge and swollen. Not too much unlike her own stomach when she swallowed Lucrezia. She looked petrified.

“My, my, Scrambler,” Chang said, looking from Sakura to Lucrezia and back again, “I see you’ve finally gathered the nerve to fight pregnant women. Or is it her babies you’re after? Sakura can be rather fierce over a chessboard, after all. Are you upgrading to toddlers next, or babes still in the crib? I’d be careful; Sakura tells me they tend to bite. They may be a bit much for you.”

Scrambler chuckled. “I dunno, you plannin’ to fuck a five year old yet? It’s about all you’ve got left.”

“Children are of no interest to me. I prefer my lovers experienced and mature in body. Perhaps I’ll be able to answer in the affirmative should I encounter an extremely young shapeshifter. Puck is only two years old, technically, and were he female there’s no doubt I’d have bedded him by now. I see no reason to believe his ridiculous maturation rate will remain unique,” her tone was casual and unbothered, and that seemed to throw Scrambler off a little. Such was her intent, and she was pleased it worked. If he was allowed to control the pace, things would get out of control.

Chang looked to Lucrezia, whose eyes were full of relief and hope and love and fear, and then to Sakura, who was shaking but seemed calmer than Lucrezia. “I see you’ve been treating my wife and my friend with your usual level of courtesy. A less generous Nova might accuse you of being rude.” Lucrezia was injured. She could hear it.

“And you?” Scrambler said.

“Will dispense with the accusation part and move straight to sentencing. I believe I’ve told you not to touch my wife, Scrambler, and in no uncertain terms.”

“Who,” he said, dropping Lucrezia to the ground, “her?” He put his foot on her head and forced her right down to the floor, then put enough pressure to squeeze it flat. “This bitch?” As she oozed free and reformed he snatched her up by her hair a second time and lifted her up like some sort of prize. “You wouldn’t be talking about this little slut, would you?”

They were brutal attempts to force a reaction out of her. Chang let them wash off her. She could hear an off-kilter creaking in her latex innards, and hard places where she was no longer flowing right. Signs of injury altogether more worrying than the grimaces she was making. “Yes, that would be the one,” she said, all four of her voices mild as a summer breeze. “Now put her down or I’ll have you gutted and use your intestines as the basis for a new line of Christmas lights.”

He laughed at her. “Like you could. You’re nothing.”

“Scrambler,” Chang said, “I’ve had a bad day.” She put the full force of her displeasure into her gaze, and fixed her own glowing eyes on the mirror-crack surfaces of his. Her orange-and-ochre eyes refracted there, a thousand times. “I would strongly advise against pushing me right now. Put my wife down, or I will make you my enemy.” When Chang went on, her voices changed, all four gaining an iron edge, a rising note of threat that began subtle and became overwhelming. “I will put aside all side projects, all endeavours, all outside interests and devote my absolute attention to ruining your every endeavour and reducing all of your dreams to dust and ashes. I will make your fall a work of art so terrible that you will tear at your hair and come at me with claws and teeth… and Shiv will rip you limb from limb before feeding the bleeding pieces to Meh’Lindi. I permit you to view me with disdain, Scrambler, as some dissipated, hedonistic artist revelling in her own perversion. I advise you to continue in that ignorance.”

He met her gaze through the whole speech. And only in the end did he show a twitch just below his eye. For half a minute he just stared into her eyes, and licked his lips several times. For a moment, she thought he would call her bluff, and their long cold war would come to a crashing end. Perhaps he saw the truth of her intentions, though, for just then his lip twitched, and he threw Lucrezia aside like a man might an empty drink carton.

Chang inclined her head, a little relieved. “That was the wisest thing you’ve ever done.”

Lucrezia melted into a latex puddle and flowed over to Sakura, then reformed behind her. She did not go too close, though. No, she cannot get close. What’s happened here?

Scrambler followed her eye. “Some sorta force field. Your pal’s got some tricks.”

“Evidently. I’m surprised you didn’t turn it off.”

“Tried, failed. And I don’t fail. My guess is that one of those kids she’s carrying did it.” He screwed his lips up in distaste. “Like I’d ever kick a pregnant Nova,” he shook his head. “Kids these days, they got no faith in their elders.”

Chang walked past him to Sakura and tapped her hand against the unseen wall of the force field. “Fancy that,” she murmured. “Are you unharmed, Sakura?”

“Fine,” she said. Her eyes were full of fear, her hands clutched protectively to her swollen belly. “I’m sorry I couldn’t help Lucrezia.”

“It’s all right. I’ll deal with this. We go way back, Scrambler and I,” she said, gave a reassuring nod to Lucrezia, who was hugging herself, and turned back to her one-time mentor.

“Release Lucrezia. Let her multiply. You know this is painful for her.”


“Then release her.”

“I don’t think so. First thing she’ll do is go talk to Shiv and as much as I’d like to catch up with my old pal, I reckon you’ve pretty much ruined her and seeing what you’ve done I think I might see red and be forced to call your bluff,” Scrambler said, fists clenched. “I’ll never forgive you for what you did to Shiv.”

Chang smiled. “Fortunately for me, she has, and would be pleased to devour and digest you if I let her. I think I might enjoy feeling your body turn to mush inside her.” She felt an actual stir of arousal at the idea. Interesting. I never really wanted to kill him before. She rotated her neck all the way round to look at her wife again. That feeling surged when she saw her sitting there, shaking and rocking and murmuring under her breath. She turned away. Who knows, maybe I’m a good person after all. “Why are you here, Scrambler?”

He cast his eyes around. “Oh, I thought I’d have a look around. See what you’re building behind our backs.”

“It’s rather nice, I think. Needs some work, quite bare bones.”

“And it’s gonna stay that way. You’re not fucking over Mal, Chang. You’ve gone too far this time. I always warned you. You could never keep your mouth shut about Mal and here you are all these years later, betraying him. Oh, it’s gonna be sweet seeing what he does to you.”

Chang ground her teeth together. She had always considered the odds of Mal intervening low, but they were not a null. Scripture was more likely, and she felt certain she could deal with him. “Very little, I suspect. Much like you.”

“Oh, I’m going to do something. I’m going to shut this place right down. You know damn fucking well that we all back the Nursery. Orzais does. Narcosis. Sin-Eater.” Scrambler approached her with each name until he was looking right down at her. “All your friends. You’re alone on this, Chang.” He grinned wider than she’d ever seen. “I’ve waited for you to be without friends. Now we get even.”

Chang laughed. “Please, don’t even try. Even, Scrambler? I surpassed you long ago. You’re never going to catch up. You’re never going to beat me. And you’re never, ever, going to persuade me that you’re relevant anymore.”

His eye twitched. “What did you say?”

“You are not deaf. You are a dinosaur, like all of The Primacy. Utopia beat you. The arms race is lost. Glory took the lot of you single-handed, and with Pax behind her? Well, you’re out of luck. You’re rats, scurrying in the dark, screaming about Nova superiority while other Novas beat you over the head with clubs… and I laugh about it.”

Scrambler roared like nothing human, gripped her by the throat, and pivoted on the spot before launching her at the wall. “Chang!” The voice was Sakura’s, mixed with a terrified scream from Lucrezia. It was a chaotic whirl of sound.

Chang let herself relax. She hit the wall and her body flattened against the bare stone. Pain lanced through Chang’s chest and spread through her back. She let it, contained it, and kept it from her face.

Rather than turn she inverted her features, so her front became her back and back her front, and simply stalked back towards Scrambler, whose lip curled but he seemed unsurprised. They had done this dance before. Without missing a beat, Chang slapped him. “I am not scared of you!” she screamed, full in his face, elongating her body so she was nose to nose and her mismatched and glowing eyes were reflected in his cracked and broken ones.

There were some moments of silence, then. Lucrezia sobbed, but sniffed back her tears. Sakura uttered soothing words from inside her shield. Chang glared at Scrambler. She could hear his hands opening and closing, his fingers grinding into his palms. His mirror-crack eyes, clouded with rage, seemed to clear a little. “Guess not,” he said.

Chang spoke; her four voices a harmonious, threatening hiss. “You shot all your arrows at me years ago, Scrambler. You’ve got nothing left to threaten me with. Now get out, or I swear, I swear by every god that has ever been, you will not leave Ibiza alive.”

He looked over at Sakura, and then back at Chang. “You’ve killed yourself, bitch. You went against Mal, and that arrogance is going to cost you. I fucking promise it will. I’m going to drive this through your heart and watch you bleed out into the gutter. And when it’s all said and done, and everything you’ve tried to do is burned and broken… I’ll be there, to watch you beg for mercy, and whisper ‘no’. Sakura belongs with the Nursery. You and your slut can have your way with her for a while, but not forever,” he said, with a smirk. “The One Race needs her.”

“It’s not our place to make her choices. If you were a half-decent Terat you’d know that. Go. You won’t get another warning.”

Scrambler nodded. ”This is the end, Chang. For you and your little harem. This is where the corruption you bring to the Teragen gets weeded out. I've watched you take strong women, noble women, and break them down into pathetic wretches hanging off that cock of yours," his hand blurred down and he gripped it, squeezing so hard it hurt. "I'll rip it off, bitch. Mark my words. If you give a damn about any of them, you tell them to run. Run back to me. Run back to Sin-Eater. Or just run. Because there's going to be nowhere left to hide for anyone that sides with you." He let go of her, then spat on the floor and strode past her.

Chang watched him go, rubbing the bruised spot on her shaft where his fingers had dug into the sensitive flesh. A wall of energy appeared in front of him, and he disappeared into it.

The moment he was gone she ran to her wife.

Lucrezia had been crying. “I’m sorry. I… he…”

“Shush,” Chang said, and hugged her to her breasts. “Just hold me until it passes, my heart. Don’t let it go, though. Remember how this feels. This is what you were, long ago. And it shows you who you are today, and what you might be tomorrow.”

Lucrezia nodded, and held her, shivering.

Chang stroked her hair and looked up at Sakura. “My mentor,” she said, by way of explanation. “He’s an old friend and an old enemy. And right now… a big problem.”

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The force-field flickered out of existence a moment or two later; Sakura had spent that time thinking. "Chang, what are we going to do? I mean, if those people..the Nursery....what would they do to be the only place like this?" Her voice was mostly steady, the tremor in it undectable to baseline senses but nearly a shout of fear for those like the Mirror Queen. She was curled up around herself, her arms hugging her unborn children as she tried to stay calm and think; panicking now would just waste whatever time they had. "Is...is there anyway to stop people from doing that?" She motioned to where Scrambler had disappeared. "All of our security measures...they don't mean much if one person that knows we're here can just march an army in on a whim. Or kidnap the children," she added in a whisper.

She stood up slowly, using the wall as support, "And he knows where we are, and is going to tell other people. We're not ready." The tremor in her voice was fading, replaced by a hard determination. "So, we have to make some decisions. We can leave, try to start over somewhere else, but that doesn't really solve the problem. He'll keep looking for you and for us. We can go to them," she swallowed, the tremor back, "Divis Mal, the ones that run the Nursery. Tell them about ourselves before he does and see what happens then. Or we can stay here, keep going forward, look for allies that will stand with us and wait for whatever's going to happen to happen." There were other options she could think of, quite a number of them, and all of them involved explicit violence. She wouldn't voice those, though she was certain the others would.

She bit her lip as another thought struck her. "Or we could go public. It would be dangerous, but if we go aggressively public, especially to the entire nova population about what I can do for them, it might gain us enough protectors to make everyone think several times before attacking us." She closed her eyes and sighed, "That's all I can think of for right now."

"I-I'm sorry. That I couldn't help," she whispered to Lucrezia, still cradled in Chang's arms.

I will not cry. If I cry, that's all I'll do for the next hour, and that doesn't help anyone.

I will not cry.

"Chang," she blinked back her tears, her youth and fear showing in her eyes, "what are we going to do?"

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Chang listened stoically, her own mind moving at inhuman speeds, considering the dwindling options before her and the amount of time they needed to be confident of anything like security. Her brief encounter with Scrambler’s strength seemed to have left her with a broken rib, and it bit her with every movement.

Lucrezia shuddered in her arms. “Oh… finally.”

Her body began to writhe and warp. She slipped out of Chang’s arms and rested on her hands and knees. Liquid latex poured in a torrent from her mouth, spreading in a growing pool beneath her. At the same time, her back erupted upwards, and began to shape another torso. Her limbs warped and seemed to split, and the first of her copies straddled her back as the pool spread beneath and around them.

Chang stepped back, watching the glistening pool with gladness in her heart. This was who her wife was, not the tiny creature Scrambler reduced her to. She put her hand to her chest, and under her clothes she wove her hair into a tight series of bandages underneath her cock and about her chest to bind up the rib. Beneath her flesh she moved filaments and tendrils, gripping the bone and dragging it into the right position. It would help her heal.

Forms began to push out of the pool, arms and breasts and faces and legs. A dozen of Lucrezia climbed out of the pool and lay on the ground touching their bodies as if discovering them for the first time. Their voices rose up in a united groan of pleasure. Soon enough there were thirty of her, the latex pool was gone, and they clothed themselves in flesh once again.

“We should fucking kill him,” one of her snarled, and several others clenched their fists. “Feed him to Shiv and laugh while she digests him. Yeah, I can stand for that.”

Chang felt her voice loosening up once again, and rubbed her throat. “Vengeance and hate do us no credit, my love. Scrambler has violated you in a way most cruel. You are in no right state of mind to comment. When we are done here I want you to go to Shiv. All of you, and relax.”

“I want you to fuck each of me in turn,” Lucrezia said, “I want you to show me that I’m back. I want you to sanctify my body again. That’s how I’ll relax, and not before. I want us to make love for weeks and spit on his grave afterwards. Or just cum on it.” Her lip curled in a snarl.

There was steel in her voice, and anger, and pain. So much pain it near broke Chang’s heart. Lucrezia felt dirtied, raped, ruined and soiled. You push my limits, Scrambler. “As you will, Lucrezia, but you may be waiting a while, both for the weeks we can share and the grave for us to defile.”

“Both are worth waiting for.”

Chang turned to Sakura. “So far as I know teleportation cannot be prevented. In fact I was relying on that to get people to the crèche safely.” She wished she could alleviate the young mother’s fears, but she had nothing for her. “You forget our position. I picked this location deliberately. The crèche is situated beneath the foundations of the Rainbow Room. Utopia’s attack on the Amp Room is infamous, and Andy Vance is a personal friend of Count Raoul Orzais, who is today one of the most powerful members of the Teragen. Any attack significant enough to damage the crèche will damage the Rainbow Room, and that will not please Andy, which will not please The Count.”

She laced her fingers behind her back and began to pace. “I see no need to go to Mal like naughty school children begging for leave. This is my decision and we have done no wrong. He has no right to naysay me, and I’ll say the same to his face if it comes to that. Scrambler is fond of fear, as you may perhaps have noticed. It is a cruel thing, what he did to my wife. I’m sure you can conceive of how… traumatic that was.”

Lucrezia’s bodies almost vibrated with anger. “I’ll rip his damn node out with-“

Lucrezia,” Chang said. Her voices were sharp-toned, allowing no disagreement. “Be quiet now. This is no time for petty vengeance. Revenge is a luxury best saved for times of indolence.” She fixed one of her wives with a hard glare, and Lucrezia could not meet her gaze. “Now,” she said, turning away once again. “If The Primacy was in ascendance, they might well come after us directly, but they cannot and will not. Scrambler’s options are thus limited, and neither Mal nor Scripture will jump to his word. We have more time than he wants us to believe, and he hopes to make us squander it with fear and worry. It may even be that Mal and Scripture ignore him altogether and force him to act alone. Regardless, Scrambler will motivate his resources to inconvenience us, to damage our cause. But he will not reveal us to Utopia. Do not misunderstand him. His actions are motivated by the desire to see the Nova race grow and prosper and by his belief that I represent a fundamentally wrong approach to that. He will commit no action that would endanger you in particular, though he cares little for my fate. I will not be diverted from my course by fear, nor motivated to act by its whimsy.” She gave Sakura a studied look. “Come with me. It is time for The Mirror Queen to return to the stage, and for Chang Zha-Yang to go to sleep for a while.”

Sakura looked a little perplexed, but nodded. Lucrezia fell in behind her, and Chang strode towards the exit of the crèche, the paths upward and the elevator to Meh’Lindi’s Bar and Grill. With every step her gait became more a stride, and a sense of determined authority came over her countenance.

Meh’Lindi herself had returned to her lair, and she moved amongst the shadows and the pillars, giant and four-legged, with her enormous tearing maw across the front of her body and her humanoid torso stretching up above it. “I have heard,” she said with her body-mouth, the voice strangely whispery, almost angelic. “What do you need of us, my queen?”

Chang stretched her arm up and put her hand to Meh’Lindi’s cheek. “Of you, Meh’Lindi, I require nothing at this time. We need to escalate the operations though, and cut your lair off from the crèche proper. You have plans for a new exit, yes?”

Meh’Lindi inclined her head. “The building has not yet begun, though.”

“Correct that at once and give them whatever motivation is needed to speed their endeavours.”

“Your grace,” she said, dipping her front legs in some queer form of a bow. “Shiv awaits you above. She has untied herself and is ready for the red ruin.”

“Kind of her, but unnecessary for now. Lucrezia, please leave a few of you behind to talk. Meh’Lindi, Scrambler shut down her duplication ability.”

Meh’Lindi’s expression was nigh-impossible to read in this form. The human skin beneath the plates of her head and upper torso maintained a detached expression, and her lower torso with its enormous mouth and no other features was incapable of expressing recognizable emotion. Yet she bristled and stamped her feet, and clenched one of her hands into a fist. “My dear friend,” she said, and telescoped one of those hands down to touch Lucrezia’s hair. “That is a cruelty indeed, but I suppose it is to be expected. Did it hurt?”

“More than you can know.”

“I will listen if you wish to talk.”

Chang proceeded to the elevator. Some of Lucrezia piled in with her, a few remained with Meh’Lindi. As they shut the doors to the cargo elevator, Chang saw two of them hug Meh’Lindi’s huge front legs, and the enormous and monstrous Terat quietly spoke to her.

There is history between Shiv and Scrambler, Chang thought. But I have never been sure of exactly what that constitutes. She suspected he had mentored her for a time. If so it would certainly explain why things were such a sore spot involving her.

Chang stood, with her expression intense and cold, until the elevator stopped and the Lucrezias opened it up. Shiv stood beyond.

Unbound she had a very different seemed. She stood straight-backed, her masked and blind eyes looking straight ahead, with her hands open at her sides. “You are injured,” she said immediately.

“Yes,” Chang replied. Shiv could likely hear the broken rib grinding in her chest. “It is nothing. The injury done to my wife is altogether more… aggravating.”

Shiv nodded. “I can imagine. Do you wish him dead?” her long, elegant fingers let out a cracking sound, and short blades jutted from the tips. Blades that could cut through tank armour like fresh air.

“No,” Chang replied, with simple honesty, “Though perhaps it reflects poorly on me that I do not. He is not our concern. What happens next, on the other hand, will be. I require you to gather all those who have come to my banner, Shiv. It is time that they all know what great work has been wrought here.”

Shiv cocked her head to the side, her lips – bright green today – parted just a little. “If my queen believes that wise.”

“It is not wise. But it may reveal the traitor in our ranks if there is one. And if one of mine has betrayed me to Scrambler, then you may get to show your skill with those blades, my dear.”

A smile quirked her lips and the blades retracted into her fingers. Shiv reached up and plunged one of her arms deep into her tight, presented cleavage. It disappeared up to the elbow, and she seemed to rummage around before pulling her arm out once again. She held a phone. “I will make the necessary calls.”

“Summon Darion. I need to speak with him.”

“I hear and obey. Is Sakura unhurt?”

“I’m fine, Shiv, thanks,” she said. When Chang looked over, Sakura gave her a reassuring nod.

They moved off.

Chang let Lucrezia and Chang talk behind her, wrapped up in her own thoughts and pondering what steps they needed to go through next. She had always been prepared for this eventuality. Sooner or later, like The Alchemist had warned, someone would talk. That someone would regret their decision sooner rather than later, and die screaming.

Most of Lucrezia, despite her spoken determination to stick with her, faded off with Shiv around. Chang expected that. Shiv was strong, deadly, the protector of her little circle even if not the only one that could fight. Meh’Lindi was as much or even more dangerous than Shiv if she put her mind to it. But nobody felt safer than when around Shiv. Maybe it was the size of her bosom.

Darion Mograine met them, being Chang, Sakura and three of Lucrezia, just outside Meh’Lindi’s Bar and Grill, speeding up on his motorbike and skidding to a stop. He was a tall, handsome and slender man who dressed all in black, which served to emphasize the brilliant silver of his straight, waist-length hair and silver eyes, both of which reflected and glimmered in the dim moonlight. His skin had a healthy, ruddy glow but bore a natural look. A long, straight-bladed sword was sheathed down his back. He slid off his bike and took off his driving gloves, then pressed his fist to his palm and bowed, first to Chang and then to Sakura. “Your grace, and my ladies. I hear we’ve had an unexpected visitation.”

“Hello Darion. Male today, I see.” It was no great surprise that he arrived quickly. If he were at home, Darion lived just a few blocks away.

“The ladies say it suits me,” he said. “What do you require of me today?”

“Mostly I need your phone and your time.”

“I have one fully charged and the other in abundance. My node is running on empty right now anyway.”

“You have been hard at work?”

“Always, my queen,” Darion said, affording her a smile.

“That is pleasing. I require you first to contact Count Orzais. It is time he learns what his money has built. We have a long history of backing one another, even if not completely certain of each other’s intentions. I believe he will support me.”

Darion opened his coat, and for a moment revealed that underneath his long black leather jacket he was clad in gold and shining armour. From his belt he took a small black box which clicked and unfolded in sections to form a pad. He began to trace glyphs and symbols on it with his fingertip, while the jacket fell closed. “Count Orzais. Very good. He’s currently in China, wrapping up that interview. Nice work, by the way. I thought you made a good accounting of yourself.”

“Thank you,” Chang said, unable to avoid a little annoyance from creeping into her voices. “After him, contact Caroline Fong. She’s the only Terat who knew what I intended, and she could have stopped me long ago. I do not know how powerful she is in material terms, but I think she will likewise lend her support, and that support will go a long way if Scripture or Mal become involved.”

He nodded. “That may be an understatement, my queen. Contacting her could be more difficult, though. Her networks are close-knit and involve few people. I do not know how safely I can contact her using my own more mundane resources.”

“I thought you were seeking her for study?”

“As per your advice, indeed I am. That doesn’t mean I’ve succeeded, though,” he looked regretful. “I will make what efforts I can in this endeavour, your grace, but you may be better off asking Count Orzais to seek her out if you do not know where she is yourself. Has she no OpNet address?”

Chang shook her head. “None that I know of, I’m afraid. After Caroline…” Chang ran her teeth together, “contact Geryon.”

Darion looked up from his pad. “Geryon?” His voice contained a heavy note of doubt. “I was not aware that you were friends.”

“We aren’t. But if I know James Booth, he will support my endeavour here. And Scrambler won’t see this one coming,” she said, and felt a definite surge of worry. Geryon was at best a random element. “This is a time for bolt strokes, Darion. Scrambler has always thought me a coward because I do not flex my muscles and roar at the sun. It’s time to show him exactly why I became The Mirror Queen.” When she said the words, her four voices were harmonious, ironclad, determined.

Darion gave a nod.

Chang went on with a laundry list of other contacts she wanted Darion to get in touch with bearing messages, code words, and orders. “And after that,” she said, after the last was given, “I want you and Shiv to find out who talked. I am having her arrange a gathering of our membership. That should be a good chance for you to work your magic.”

“Of course, your grace,” he said mildly. “And if it turns out you were betrayed, rather than… duped?”

“Defer to Shiv on the matter of punishment. She’s so much more… creative than you are in that arena.”

It was entirely possible that nothing foul had happened to uncover the crèche, and if so, so be it. But if she had been betrayed, the traitor had endangered the future of all of them. It was time for her foes in the Teragen to learn what it meant to rouse the ire of the Mirror Queen.

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Sakura followed Chang mostly silently. Her attunement with nature and the open heart her parents had raised her with made her a very open-minded person, but she had to admit that Chang, her wife, and many of their friends tested her shock value at times. She was very appreciative at the moment that Meh'Lindi and Shiv were on her side; even the thought of being the target of their anger or hatred made her shiver. The Lucrezia's flanking her kept hold of her, murmuring soothing words. As much for me as for herself, I think. Sakura soothed in return, letting the two of her fuss over her and leaning on her for support as they walked. Chang's stride and confidence was making her feel more safe, more protected, but it was a little hard to keep up with in her current state.

Do not trade freedom for the illusion safety, child, a voice she hadn't hear in decades whispered in her mind from the past. Run the wilds, listen to the howls and the silence. Fall, so you may fly. Take strength from those around you, but make it your own.


She listened as Chang made her plans, and then interjected quietly, "I can get in contact with Caroline." She glanced up at the Mirror Queen, one hand protectively settled on her womb, "Arrangements were made with....everyone. Would....should I contact the others as well? I don't know if they'll....if they'll help, but I can ask."

She pursed her lips, "It might also be a chance to...to bridge this outside of just the Teragen. So far, I'm the only non-Terat involved, and that should change. Andy would help us, I think. That's more likely than Anteus. He's...well, quite frankly he sees things so differently...on such a different scale, that I'm not sure he'd consider his daughter as important enough to pull him away from his studies. He might, though. He seemed....genuinely surprised and pleased that I'd asked him, but it took a couple of hours to get his attention to do so." She shook her head, a slight smile returning to her expression, "He was building a new species of algae that used different nucleotides to form the DNA."

Darion stared curiously at her, taking in her beauty, her pregnancy, and her assertion that she could do right now what he'd been attempting for monthswith his silver-moon eyes. So this is her. Hot. And useful. Let's see if she can deliver.

At Chang's nod, Sakura closed her eyes and reached until she found what she needed, a swirl of cherry blossoms kicking up around her in the still night air. Within moments three of the warblers so common to island swooped down just as she held her arms for the birds to perch on; two on one side and one on the other. She opened her eyes eyes and stared at the singleton; slowly its white feathers began to change, taking on a deep green hue with flower-pink tips. Chang's perceptions could pick out the breast feather that had "Meh'Lindi's Bar and Grill, Ibiza" etched subtly in lighter tones of green. A baseline would never notice it unless they knew exactly which feather to look for and had a magnifier handy to make out the letters; even another nova would most likely miss it if they weren't looking for it.

They bird began to grow then, eventually roughly ten times larger than it had been; without her nova-endowed strength, there was no way Sakura would have been able to support the bird on her arm anymore. It began to flap it's wings, faster and faster than it should have been able to, and took off into the night with a speed to rival it's new size. The other two followed suit: white to dark green, the message on the breast feather, the size, and then the impossibly fast take-off in different directions. It had taken maybe three minutes for the Spring Goddess to call winged servants to her, remake them, and send them on their way; cherry blossoms flitted over the three of them and dusted the street now. "There. They should get to their destinations by morning and be back by dark tomorrow, with good winds. Hopefully we'll hear from the others before that." At the curious look from Darion, Sakura explained, "They'll stay in fast-time if I don't slow them back down, and they're insectivores. They're not used to hunting for enough food for their size now. Not to mention the fact that they're rather conspicuous. When they come back, I'll return them to the way they were."

She looked to Chang again, "Do you want to talk to anyone else? I'm certain the Storm King would lend us aid, although I know you find that distasteful. Also, we should come clean with Jason. She's a friend and she shouldn't find out from an enemy or a news report if...if things go certain ways." She remembered Shen's lesson in those confused weeks waiting for her mother to come back for her; Chang was strong, and Sakura had found her own strength again because of the Mirror Queen. She was grateful to her friend for that, but it meant that she would also challenge her, demand to take her place as a full partner now. Her voice was firm, and her gaze challenging to be defied on this. "She deserves to know."

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Not for the first time, Chang wondered how little she knew of Sakura’s capabilities. It seemed like she was pulling out new tricks every other day. She watched the birds growing and changing with quiet amazement. Her eyes took in every feather, every confused little twitch the animals gave as their whole worlds turned mad in Sakura’s hands.

Darion headed back to his bike. “If you have no more need for me, my queen, I’d best get onto that little laundry list you just gave me.”

Chang turned her head round to give him a nod. “Go, Darion, and be quick.”

He gunned the engine, gave Chang a delightful wink, then spun his bike round and roared off into the night.

As the noise diminished, Chang walked over to Sakura. “It is not a matter of distaste. I am a Terat, and that does impart certain restrictions upon me. Everything I have built here, everything, is on the line. If I begin collusion with Einherjar and Jason and everybody else then the consequences for me and mine could be tragic. Any port in a storm is not a sound policy. In fact, that policy would play exactly into Scrambler’s hands.” She looked around the empty street. “The night is full of listening ears. We should not discuss this in the open air. For now we will return to the Rainbow Room, and we can talk on the way.”

Chang moved to the centre of the street. She flooded herself with quantum. Her body swelled and distorted, expanding in great surges in all directions as fleshy wheels stretched out from her chest and hips, as her legs folded in and became the elongated boot and her back arched out into the hood of what quickly became a sleek, dark limousine. Flesh turned to steel, her engine gunned.

One of the Lucrezias slipped into the driver’s seat. Two of the others gently urged Sakura into the back.

Chang formed a version of herself out of one of the leather seats, a sort of leather homunculus, lacking perfect details but a reasonable simulacrum to focus their attentions upon when speaking. She felt a little calmer as Lucrezia began to rub herself against the leather of the front seat, to caress and stroke her dashboard and the steering wheel before gently hitting the gas pedal and pulling them out of the back alley into Ibiza’s night streets.

She was sitting across from Sakura now, with the heavily pregnant Nova flanked by two of Lucrezia. “Scrambler would love nothing more than for me to over-react and weaken my position, and in so doing strengthen his case that I am betraying my fellows in the Teragen. You knew from the beginning that in the majority it would be Terat children who used this crèche. You know that was my intention all along, the very genesis of this idea. Do I object to it being used by non-Terats? No. But you are not the naïve made you so casually and easily pretend to be. You know that others will find our presence uncomfortable, and there will be chafing. This is precisely why we planned to make more than one such crèche. As for the people you mentioned… who is ‘Andy’?”

“Andre Corbin,” Sakura said, her eyes still a little harder than they were. She knew Chang was going to put up resistance.

“Of the Aberrants,” Chang mused. “Andre’s involvement would be best kept peripheral. He is a controversial figure amongst The Primacy and Nova Vigilance members, and Geryon in particular hates the man. In other words, he’s likely to foster more trouble for us than he will solve. Anteus is altogether less awkward. He is no friend to the Teragen but nor is he a foe, and has entertained the possibility of joining us in the past. As I understand it he decided that he could accomplish his aims better alone, and had no particular wish to join any form of crusade or adopt any agenda other than his own. I respect that stance, not that I imagine he holds me in any especial regard. If you can get him to offer whatever assistance he is willing to offer, then that will be a good thing.”

“And Jason?” Sakura asked, in weighted tones.

“Why precisely do you wish to inform her? I do not consider ‘because she’s a friend’ to be a valid argument. I have several friends whom I have not revealed the truth to, Count Orzais among them who has probably been the best friend I’ve ever had. I have lied to him repeatedly over this, and because he is my friend, he has chosen not to investigate. Like Jason, I intended to let him know when the time is right. I am unconvinced as yet that the time is right to let Jason know, especially given her past history with Scrambler.”

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Sakura crossed her arms, the heat of temper in her voice. "Multiple creches were for numbers and accommodating physiological differences, not philosophic ones. Otherwise you've simply created the Nursery over again in your own image. And that you'll have to do on your own." She shook her head, "I am not going to play Teragen politics. I am not a Terat, nor do I intend to become one and this is the primary reason. And I handle your presence just fine. People can get the hell over themselves or simply not use the creche, but that should be their decision, not yours. We need help if we're going to do this, and this is only going to happen if that help and the creches that are created are open for more than just the few non-Teragen you approve of or if those same are just shipped off to some secondary site when we can't even get the first one finished without being attacked by a Terat."

"There will be no creche if we do not consolidate our support, instead of pushing others away because they aren't Terats. Jason deserves to know, and yes, 'because she's my friend' is good enough answer for me. For you, though, think a little deeper. She;s an openly fertile nova mother with a public tragic past from motherhunters. She's a popular, positive world-wide cultural icon. She can help us with much more than just money, but that's all we can ask for without telling her why and for what. And unless her history with Scrambler is a positive one, I don't see how telling her that he is the genesis of this threat is somehow counterproductive."

She continued on, each point adressed and pressed without a chance for interruption. "As for Andy and the Aberrants....you said yourself that you're not a friend of Geryon, but you are reaching out to him because of what this means to novas as a race. Andy might only offer some personal help because his own child is involved, but what if the Aberrants would throw in their support as a group? You would deny that chance because some of the Teragen don't like Andy personally? What, is this high school? If Geryon would consider this an important enough issue to aid you when it seems that the Teragen have been rather content with the Nursery as their solution to childbearing and rearing, then do you honestly believe that he'll walk away because he doesn't get along with one other person involved? And if that's the truth, then is he really reliable enough to be trusted to be involved? What if I don't like him? Or vice versa?"

"And Anteus," she sat back, her body still rigid with anger, "that I concede, as I said before I sent the message. He's not likely to take a personal interest, or at least not act on that personal interest."

She knew she had the absolute advantage in this and that was part of why she had let her friend primarily steer the project so far, but at some point they had missed each other's understanding of the purpose and the parameters of the creche. Perhaps that is my fault. Perhaps I should have spoken sooner. Perhaps perhaps. Perhaps the sky should be green, but it isn't today and today is what we are dealing with. The creche doesn't exist without me, and as unfair as that may be to our friendship, it is the truth. I will not be a broodmare for you, Chang. Not even a maker a broodmares. Life is a gift, to close it off and say 'only you or you' is a cruelty that should be only the province of gods. I know this. I have said no before, and been that cruel god. I won't create something that will make that cruelty easier, make it ingrained. That is why I hate the Nursery you have described to me. Bounty seems the cruelest god of all, to say yes and no, to say 'child' and not 'parent', and to do so over and over again because she alone had the power to say either. Perhaps that is what I should say to, but I don't know how to say it more clearly than I have before.

Life is unfair in this: you cannot do this without me, but I can do it without you.

She sighed and and frowned deeply, rubbing the bridge of her nose. "This is something you and I need to come to terms on right now. We are not aligned in our visions, and that will give Scrambler all he needs to tear this apart before it ever comes to be. I will not be a second Bounty for the Teragen, even under better conditions than the Nursery. If that is what you want, then on this we part ways right here. I will not limit what I can do for novas to one ideological group. Not for you, not for Caroline, not for Andy."

"If you cannot handle that, if you will not ally yourself with those outside of the Teragen," she to her friend, her determination tinged with the anticipation of regret, "then this is a rather absurd situation for the two of us to be in. I am not a Terat, I am not an Aberrant, I am not a Utopian. I am a person, and I will offer my gifts for all people that would be parents. If I must do that on my own, I've done so before and I will simply start again. I have no issue doing so from Kinshasa, if that is the option left. I would not ask you compromise your values, if that is what the crux of this is, but nor will I compromise mine for you. If we cannot agree, if we cannot see as one, then Scrambler need not have bothered with his threats and violence. The creche would have failed anyways."

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Chang felt more than a little stirring of fury in her breast. The timing of this little tirade was less than ideal, and Sakura was either being wilfully ignorant of her position or flat-out lying to provoke a response. At this stage she had too much respect for Sakura’s intelligence to believe the former. “You pick a shrewd time to play hardball with me. I am not taken in by your naïve façade, though I’m certain most other people are. I’ve been watching you every bit as intently as you’ve watched me, and of the two of us I know which has been the more open, and which of us has been the one to sacrifice in this endeavour. My entire life is on the line here, everything I’ve worked for and everything I’ve done for nearly a decade. What have you risked? Nobody here would ever harm you, I can promise you that, yet there you sit essentially threatening me with walking off into the night and leaving me to wither on the vine. And you have the temerity to accuse me of politicking! Last I checked my wife was the one violated down there, while you stood by and watched!” There was pure fury in all four of her voices there, but it was only a flash, like a spark in the darkness. “I am nursing a broken rib, and my wife has been all but raped. What has happened to you? He scared you a little. You will forgive my lack of sympathy, I hope. And I do not appreciate you grotesquely misrepresenting my position in order to guilt me into giving you leave to talk to Jason. That is altogether more insulting than anything Scrambler said to me down there, especially coming from someone who has called me a friend. Perhaps I did not note the sarcasm when you used the word.”

She let out a deep sigh, and had her homunculus lean back. Chang focused her attentions on the outside world for a while, on the play of the wind over her metallic exterior and the sounds of life ringing out through the night. Scrambler would be laughing hysterically if he could overhear this. Angry words could undo what they were building. Emotions were running high for both of them, for all of them. She needed to rein herself in. All of a sudden she felt like she were back in the garden, with Sakura reminding her of how much better King Einherjar was, and how much more he could offer her. Though funnily enough, the one thing he would give her more of than I do is enemies.

“Almost all of those words were ill-judged, and my fury was misplaced. My apologies. Scrambler and I have… history. I hope that I sounded casual down there, it is a response I have crafted because he is desperate to provoke me in all he does. But he has dealt me injuries tonight. I can do without my… friend… pouring salt on my wounds.” Her tone was accusatory. “Perhaps you do not mean to, and I apologize if you take offense at that. But I have observed you to be something of an instinctive manipulator, and the timing of your tirade is… troubling, especially given these issues are hardly new.”

She raised a hand to cut off any possible answer. “I am not truly accusing you. More thinking out loud, while trying to beat around the bush of admitting that Scrambler got to me this time, the only way he reliably can: Through my wife.”

Chang rolled her shoulders. In the front seat, Lucrezia leaned forward and kissed the steering wheel right in the centre. Chang formed lips there, and kissed her back. There was no need for Sakura to see that. Not right now. I must do what I can to alleviate her fears before she makes a mistake. She must see that I’m not her enemy.

“Sometimes I wonder why I bother arguing with my fellows. This is what I and Narcosis and even Count Orzais protest against. We say that we can work with others, that suspicion is not necessary. Yet here you are raining it down on me from on high. I am coming to the conclusion that I’m appalling at picking allies. Everyone seems suspicious of my motives no matter how honest I attempt to be.”

“It’s a gift,” one of the Lucrezias said. “And maybe this is why the Nursery happened. Other people don’t play well with us. Not for long, anyway.”

Chang shook her head. “It seems so. But Narcosis created the Pandaimoinion specifically to play well with others. Who knows, maybe I’m as different from her as Sin-Eater tells me.”

“Well. You are a recluse. Doesn’t quite go with the party animal image,” Lucrezia said in a wise, sagely tone.

The second of the copies turned to Sakura. “Sakura, you’re missing the point. If the Aberrants throw in their weight as a group, we’ll basically be throwing up a giant glowing flag that the Teragen aren’t welcome. Scrambler will use that to make the case that Chang’s betrayed us all, and it’ll look exactly like that, and Chang is the one who will suffer while you’re bouncing around happily making babies. Is that how you want this to work? You get what you want and her life gets ruined in the process? You’re saying that we can’t exclude anyone but you’re going to exclude us. You think the Aberrants don’t do politics? That Einherjar doesn’t? Give me a break. He calls himself king. What is he now if not a politician? Scrambler hates my wife, and me, and everything we do here, and you’re literally helping him with every word. You want to go running around like a hen that’s been set on fire shrieking for help when there’s no need to. Over-reacting never helps. The Teragen has been trying to work with outside groups for a long time, but most think we’re terrorists or we’re too dangerous. You sound like a bloody Utopian. It’s not all our fault, you know.”

Chang shook her head. “Not all, but we bring much of our bad reputation on ourselves. It’s an irrelevant issue and not one worth talking about now. I have had enough of fighting, and cannot be bothered with fighting my allies as well as my enemies. Let me put this before you, Sakura: The crèche is half-built. If you want sole control of it, say so and it is yours. Gather whatever allies you like and finish the work yourself. I’ve set enough wheels in motion tonight to ensure the facility is completed without too much disruption, and will apply some additional steam in the morning. As you are so keen to point out, it’s not as if I have any choice in this matter. You have picked your moment well, I grant you that. I’m all-in at this point; I must complete what I have begun. And indeed if you choose to abandon me I have no use for the facility, and thus might as well cede it to your control.” She gave a bitter laugh. “You know, this is why I leave the politics to Count Orzais normally. He would never have been manipulated into a situation such as this. Nor would my wife, come to think of it.”

Both Lucrezias shrugged. “No, but I’m a lot more cynical than you are, not half the artist, and besides, anyone can see who has the cock in this marriage.” She winked.

Chang appreciated that, and her smile gained some genuine warmth. Up in front, the kissing was taking on an altogether more passionate note. Chang extended tendrils from the leather seat and began to caress her wife's body, and for a moment her engine hiccuped, the result of her mental shiver of delight. “Thank you, beloved.” She refocused on Sakura. “To clarify my position: I never intended nor demanded that you use your abilities for one group. That is not what I said, nor what I meant, nor the reason why I am not keeling over begging for you to run to whoever will come to our side. If you ever accuse me of that again, our association is over and our friendship annulled. I hope those words make clear how offended I am by your insinuation, and we need never readdress this matter.

“I am motivated by attempting to prevent a serious problem from becoming a genuinely dangerous problem. If you are worried about what Scrambler might do, then perhaps you should consider how best to prevent him doing it instead of seeing a small campfire and pouring gasoline on it in an attempt to see how pretty the forest will be when it’s burning. You think getting Jason involved will help? It’s as like to give him what he needs to put together a genuine Primacy strike team. I am trying to avoid violence, Sakura. Nuclear deterrence theory was bullshit when the baselines tried it, and it is even bigger bullshit when Novas do. All it takes is one of us – just one – to stand up and say ‘Yes, I am hard enough’ and the entire thing goes to hell. You want to set up an equivalent of nuclear deterrence here. That’s what Jason suggested to you on your movie set, and it is why I told you not to listen. It. Does. Not. Work. If you think I am wrong, go to the grave of Knockout, and recall that it was baselines who killed her, not Novas. We can’t even scare them off, and you think you can scare off people like Scrambler? He’s a bully, yes, but all that means is when it comes to the blood and the thunder he’d rather make sure it’s someone else bleeding on his behalf. And do you really think that if we gather so many allies that Project Proteus will simply fail to notice that we’ve built the crèche here? This is why I wanted to maintain secrecy. The more people who know, the more it will get out, and the chances of a Proteus strike on the crèche rise from fair to middling to completely inevitable. I cannot prevent you from committing such blatant folly, but I do not have to give my blessing while you do it. Allow me to explain what I have begun tonight, and hopefully you will see the wisdom in it and the method to my madness.”

She leaned forward with the homunculus, while Lucrezia, driving, began to circle the Rainbow Room’s block and make a route back out into the town. Chang liked being driven, and the pleasure of the experience helped to calm her in this far from calm situation. All she could do was be as earnest and straightforward as possible, and hope Sakura understood.

“Scrambler’s best hope for screwing with us is to alert the Nursery and those running it. Caroline Fong is a personal friend of Jeremiah Scripture, who is Mal’s confidante and paramour. It is possible a word from her could in itself disarm this situation. But I am not content to leave it at that. Count Orzais is quite ridiculously well connected inside the Teragen and without. If he lends his support to this cause – and he will – he can put some subtle obstacles in Scrambler’s way that will hopefully allow us to finish construction. With construction done, the sensitive time is over with. As for Geryon? Geryon is very well respected in the Teragen, in the Primacy and of course in Nova Vigilance. Many members of The Primacy – Scrambler included – are also part of Vigilance. Having Geryon on our side disarms Scrambler. It makes any physical aggression a near-impossibility. His hate for Andre Corbin, however, runs deep, and is tied mostly to Corbin’s role in getting Caroline imprisoned in Bahrain. This is not a fucking high school issue, Sakura.”

Chang went quiet for a moment, as a small firestorm of anger started up in her own chest. This was not anger directed at Sakura, though, but at the sad chain of events which led to Fong’s capture, and a little inherited anger from the many impassioned rants Geryon had launched in Corbin’s direction since The Aberrants were formed. She calmed herself with another effort of will. “She was tortured in there for years and made the subject of medical experimentation. Perhaps you are ignorant of that and I will not blame you if that is the case, but do not insult us by acting as if there is no reason to take issue with Andre Corbin. If you could get Sophia Rousseau involved, things would be rather different. You disrespect Caroline’s suffering with such an offensive dismissal, and you disrespect Geryon by implying that this is some childish dispute. Andre did not intend this, but his actions caused it to happen. You cannot blame any friend of Caroline’s for being angry for that; even if you would rather they had a more forgiving nature. And, having given you a tongue lashing, I actually concur with you. I’ve urged Geryon to forgive and forget several times, and Count Orzais has done so as well. He is not obliged to do so, and it is hypocritical to place a higher standard on my associates than you do on your own. Need I point your attention to The Morrigan?”

She took a calming breath and let out all the residual anger. Caroline never talked in detail about what was done to her in Bahrain, but everyone knew it was horrible, and what little she did say confirmed what they suspected. “As I was saying, Geryon could completely prevent Scrambler from being able to mount an attack. I hoped to have you meet him, and in fact I hoped you would persuade him. He is not like to be motivated by me, no more than I am able to really motivate you. I am not a terrible speaker, but I am not a persuasive one either. He will need a little persuading, because Scrambler will have been in his ear, lying about what we’re doing in the crèche. You can tell him what we’re actually doing. Geryon does believe in propagation of the One Race, and he will not object to the idea of a safe place for Novas – Terat or not – being able to go to in order to raise their young in peace. Geryon has been running around Europe like a blue-arsed fly trying to save the lives of Nova families for no other reason than it is the right thing to do. He is a violent man, but a good one and I respect him. He does not like me, unfortunately. As you yourself are discovering… I can be awkward.

“And the final point. The crèche is not yet built. Things are vulnerable. Now is the best time for Proteus to strike and that is why I have pushed for secrecy. Once it is complete Proteus’ options will be limited. Only Novas will even have access to the facility and if you wish you may personally select those who will guard it. This will give us a high chance of being able to weed out possible Proteus Operatives before they can attack the crèche from within. To attack externally they would have to go right through the Rainbow Room with a bunker buster explosive. Deploying that in Ibiza would be virtually impossible for more than a dozen reasons which I can lay out if you truly require it, as I worked them out while determining the location months ago before I had even met you. Secrecy is our best option until everything is in place. But you wish to make so much noise that they will know instantly what we are doing, before we are prepared to properly defend the crèche, and I promise you they will act. This is Jason’s thinking. It is folly, it is foolish, I will not support it and I will not assist you in committing such a grievous error. I explained as much to you when you first discussed this matter and my feelings are the same now as they were then. Need I point out to you that Jason is the one who is down a wife? I do not want this to end in tragedy, Sakura. There has been too much of that. Yes, she is a positive, worldwide cultural icon. That did not scare them off the first time. It won’t scare them off now, either. Not one – I repeat – not one of our enemies gives a damn what Jason or any friend of Jason thinks about them. Once everything is in place, however… then the crèche can reap the benefits of association with Jason Bellefleur, but until then she is a negative in my estimation.”

Finally, Chang lay back. She felt exhausted. Fighting Sakura was the last thing she wanted. “I have explained as thoroughly as I can. Please understand that I have been planning for this eventuality from day one. If you truly disagree with something I have said, by all means raise your arguments, suggest additional people that might assist. And in the end, if you do not trust me, the crèche is yours to do with as you will.”

Meanwhile, in the front seat, things took an even more pleasurable turn, as Chang further warped the seat, and Lucrezia writhed against her in growing excitement. She had not wanted to indulge so swiftly, but Sakura was pushing her too hard. She needed to let off some steam, and quickly, before harsh and poorly considered words unravelled everything. Assuming they have not already.

Some serious Iron Willage going on here to resist aberrations and teh angry!

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Sakura listened in return, the rising and falling scents of her emotions whipped behind them in the wind of their movement. There was a near minute of silence before she spoke. "I didn't know. Caroline never told me about....." she sighed and ran hand through her hair, loosing a rain of cherry blossoms that were quickly replaced by new buds.

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath; Chang could feel the tremors from her body through the seat. "You think I'm manipulative. I guess that's true. I've....before...." She took another deep breath and pushed through the flashes of memory and fear to pull words together. "Until those people started hunting me, I've never really been hurt. I've never been...vulnerable. And I guess I've just gotten my way so much that dealing with anyone that can actually tell me no and mean it, it's...a little frightening too." She gave Chang a sad smile, "I don't know if you'll take this as a compliment, but the only other people in the world that have really been able to tell me no are my parents." The sad became wistful. "I miss them," she whispered.

Another moment passed as she watched the city spin around them. "I...I think we need to start again. We got lost somewhere, between us, and not because of him." She sat up as straight as she could and started out slowly, "I don't know as much about the worlds as you do, and I don't like to lie. Most especially to my friends. We've asked so much of many and lied to them either by omission or just by total falsehood. That makes me....uncomfortable, at best. But I do want this to happen, and yes, I could go talk to the Storm King about it, but it would just be one more project on the docket for the Congo. He might care, but not the way you do." She shrugged, trying to work out her frustration and confusion and fear. "And they have the Den branch opening up there, anyways. That's enough attention, even with the protection the country can provide, that I do understand why going to him is not the best idea."

"I feel like I'm being trapped, Chang. Not even that it's intentional, but I left Caroline and Andy for a reason, the same reason: I will not hold my gifts aloof to one faction of novas over others. Hell, I won't keep my gifts only for novas and I never have. I help novas more than baselines simply because of the numbers. While there are an absolute number of more sterile baselines that wish to be parents, the percentages are complete opposites. There are enough baseline orphans out there for every one of those would-be parents to raise a child. Novas....I'm not a Terat, but I am a biologist. We're a sub-species of humanity, a bifurcation point of evolution thatis leading to speciation, but only if novas can become procreationally viable. But the Teragen, the Aberrants, the Utopians, as groups they're all like....like kids on the playground, shoving everyone around so that they're king of the swing-set and get to determine what novas will be." She sighed again, "I'm not trying to be offensive, that's just the only analogy I can come up with at the moment. I don't want to play those games, and I'm not willing to be the...the extra queen on the chessboard for any side."

"I'm not 'raining suspicion down you', Chang. You flat out stated not ten minutes ago that your intention was for this creche we're building right now to be primarily for Terats, and only later creches to be for others. That is what I protest. That was not the vision I had thought we were working on. There are more than just Terats that are sterile, and there more than just fertile Terat novas that are in danger because they have families. Ignoring them, giving a disproportionate amount of access and protection to Terats simply because they are Terats, this is what bothers me to the point of contention. And you say that part of your basis for this is because Terats make other uncomfortable; my return is the same: let that be their decision, not yours."

She scrubbed her face with her hands, the crash after the adrenaline rush leaving her exhausted. But this had to be figured out now. "We need a compromise. If Andy responds, then I'll ask him to see if Sohpia will meet us a liaison with the Aberrants, if that would make an alliance with them on this matter possible without alienating too many potential allies in the Teragen. The trade-off there is that they would have equal access to the creche, to me, as any Teragen would. Utopia...." she sighed again, "is too dangerous and contentious to approach at all about the creche. Perhaps when we are in a stronger position, we can use the BodyShop to publically provide at least the fertility treatments I can do - and that I would suggest being set within the Congo. I do understand enough of Utopia's past to know that anything more with them risks far too much. I suggest the same arrangement for the creche with the Congo: a liaison to negotiate with for a trade of resources for access to the fertility treatments and the creche for those that would feel safer there than in the Congo."

"We could meet with such liaisons away from the creche site, and lay out the ideas and basic plans. We control access through teleportation or warp, as you suggest, and let those groups decide if our terms are acceptable or not. If not, we move on with the resources we have and hope that that is enough. You become the Teragen liaison, and if Scrambler shows up with Bounty or Scripture or even Divis Mal himself, then they will speak with me. To return the bluntness, no, this does not occur without me, so the final responsibility of what it becomes and what it causes is mine." She shivered again, "The idea of standing up to those three terrifies me. I know that I'm outclassed on power and probably in every other way as well, but if the three of them hold at all to the philosophy of Teras then they will not object. This is my path, my way, and a path for novas to travel with me if they so choose." Her voice dropped to a low hum, "I hold no illusions that they could overwhelm me, imprison me, force me through any number of means to perform my gifts for them, like a coin-operated toy. That is simply the reality of the difference in power between them and myself. So, we continue on and pray to any listening gods that it doesn't come to that."

She turned to one of the Lucrezia's next to her, her voice a low sharp reprimand, "Chang's life isn't the only one on the line, Lucrezia. I am, by simple virtue of being, a threat to many and a prize to be won and used by most of the rest. I know that, even if I hate it. I can't change that, but I can -and do- choose my friends carefully because of it. Otherwise I'd've been a slave to my powers from the day they manifested. I'm juggling my freedom, my life, the lives of my children, and my own sense of any point to my life with all of this. Please give me some due on that."

"That is the best I can think of right now. The best compromise, the best chance of success."

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Chang felt a little relief. It seemed they had crested the hill of their discontent. She let herself be driven in silence for a time, just listening, and feeling the smooth road passing under her wheels.

“You still misunderstand me, Sakura. When we began I agreed that the crèche would be open to anyone. The reality is that people will not come. Some will, those who trust us, but many will not because their children will have to interact with ours. You’ve encountered Terat children, I presume?”

Much to her surprise, Sakura shook her head. “I’ve helped a few Terats conceive but I’ve not ever met a Terat child. I guess they’re all in the Nursery.” She said that with a sour twist to her lips.

Chang raised one shining hand to concede the point. “You are correct. The children begin, not tainted, but changed. Imagine one born with my endowment, for example. Or the inhuman flexibility of my bones, or even born as a half-liquid creature, never fully solid, or even born like Meh’Lindi, with a gaping, gnashing maw. Do you think that quote-unquote ‘normal’ parents are going to feel comfortable around them, with their ‘perfect’ nova children? And how much worse do you think it will be when parents are being rendered uncomfortable by children in the crèche? If my suspicions are wrong then all will be well. If they are true then over time this particular crèche will be predominantly Terat. That is all I am saying, Sakura. Not that we should by policy exclude anybody, but that by its very nature, over time there will be more Terats here than not.

“You hold politics in disdain, but they have their eye on you, and you cannot escape their grasp just by wishing it so. The children have to come from somewhere, and those parents are going to have their own prejudices and doubts. I am not attempting to force anything on them, and I never was, but I have no need to, either. You’ll rarely find a Nova with ‘no opinion’ on the Teragen, and you’ll find plenty that hate us who would still want children. Will they be comfortable to have their children raised around ‘tainted monsters’? All I was ever doing was acknowledging a truth self-evident to anybody who has been on the receiving end of Utopian propaganda for any length of time. It seems you have misinterpreted my words. That is my folly and I apologize. But you are complaining about something I have never intended, and attempting to defend a position I do not hold grows tedious swiftly.”

Lucrezia, sitting beside Sakura, hugged her with one body and took her hand with the second one. “We do know you care about this, Sakura, and we both know you could end up dead. That’s another reason we’ve been so secretive, and partially why I don’t get why you’re so desperate to go as public as possible. It’s obvious you want to be independent. But you often seem to have no respect for what Chang’s put on the line. If Scrambler has his way, she’ll probably end up dead, or at the very least her power base will be broken and she’ll be kicked off the pantheon. That means nothing to you, maybe but it means a very great deal to us.”

She raised one of her hands to touch Sakura’s cheek. “And honey, take it from someone who knows: if you don’t want to be a piece on the chessboard, you must become a player. You have no other choice. Your powers make you important, and if you do not take control of your own life, people are going to take it from you. Don’t think for one second that by planting your flag in the ground and saying ‘I will take no sides’ that people will let you. The second you turned up on Einherjar’s doorstep, well, sorry honey, but you damn well took a side. You and he and all the king’s men can scream to the heavens that you’re ‘an honoured guest’ but nobody that doesn’t already agree with you will see it that way. And you know that. The irony is, if you don’t want to play these games, you need to get good at them first.”

“Or marry someone who can play them for you,” Chang said.

Lucrezia gave a solemn nod. “All I’m saying is that it’s in your best interests, and definitely in the best interests of your children, to learn how to play the game. And you can’t do that if you don’t even understand why everyone hates each other. You can’t even negotiate from that position.” Lucrezia smiled at her. “Do you understand? You’re putting yourself in a position of weakness, and then trying to negotiate with some of the most powerful Novas in the world – most of whom have good reasons to hate one another – and then complaining that they do. I’m sure it helps give you a sense of superiority, but it won’t get much done. And if you think you’re a politics target, just wait until the kids are born. Dear lord that could turn into a clusterfuck.”

Chang murmured an agreement. “Could, but should not. In short, what we’re both saying is that you should not rely on Jason or Einherjar or me or my wife or anyone else to do what you are capable of doing yourself, and probably better than them. And you are far better at all of these things than you pretend. It’s time to drop your disguise, stop being a victim, and change things. Use your gifts to take your destiny in your own two hands… or someone else will.” Chang’s dark leather homunculus gave a nod, accompanied with the strained sounds of something moving that ought not to. “It won’t be me. I can speak for nobody else. All I can say is that I support what you want to achieve, and hope that you return the favour.”

She fell quiet for a moment then, to let Sakura consider those words. They were well-meant, no call to join the Teragen or anyone else, but a call for her to take action on her own behalf, to use all her node-given abilities to make real the future she envisaged. It was the same advice she gave to her students, she realized, only phrased a different way, and the irony struck her as so profound it was laughable. Here I am, with a woman who has no interest in my politics whatsoever, and I’m still playing teacher to her. It’s become a damn instinct.

And indeed, she had to check herself from going on another rant. She scythed into it before the first word could leave her lips, cut out ninety per cent of what she was about to say, and boiled it down to one, singular, salient point. “Remember always what you said about Geryon, and how you responded when I told you why he hates Andre Corbin. I think it’s an object lesson for you on why you must grow more informed. You can easily negotiate between groups. I’ve seen that much in you. But you will fail, I promise you, you will fail, if you don’t learn more about the situation first.”

Sakura seemed to bristle a little at that. It was growing to be a long night for all of them. Chang laughed, though, and when she seemed puzzled she shrugged. “You must admit, we’ve been heatedly agreeing with each other for a while. It’s really quite a bizarre feeling.”

She smiled at that. “So what about my terms?" Sakura was listening intently, but what she thought of Chang’s various warnings she could not hope to tell. There was respect in her, though, Chang knew that much.

“They seem acceptable to me. The Aberrants have worked with us in the past and will do in the future. Rousseau is a very intelligent, capable and resourceful woman. So long as we serve her ends she’ll work with us. What those ends are I can’t fathom, but they seem positive for the Nova race as a whole so there’s no true point of contention between Teragen and Aberrant. Honestly, Corbin’s the only issue. I am perfectly content to be – as you put it – a Teragen liaison. If you like, I can attempt to arrange a pre-emptive meeting between you and Scripture, hopefully after we’ve sicced Caroline on him. As for Scrambler, he is a problem you should never have had to deal with and so I will shoulder the usual burden of dealing with him, as is only appropriate. We Terats are a loose band of brothers but we are a brotherhood, and families do have the occasional drooling idiot.”

Sakura actually giggled a little at that, and Lucrezia laughed out loud. “Tell me about it.”

“But the point is, if you attack us, we’ll begin to gather, and all of a sudden a minor issue with one Terat becomes an enormous issue that has dozens of Terats gathering to strike back. As such, it’s better to get Terats to deal with Terats wherever you can. I do strongly recommend using me for that purpose,” she winked with one of her bare leather eyes. “There’s no shame in moving me about as a piece on your board. I’m rather used to the role, and besides, most people fail to notice that I’m usually the board as well.”

Chang’s lips stretched into a grin.

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Chang raised one shining hand to concede the point. “You are correct. The children begin, not tainted, but changed. Imagine one born with my endowment, for example. Or the inhuman flexibility of my bones, or even born as a half-liquid creature, never fully solid, or even born like Meh’Lindi, with a gaping, gnashing maw. Do you think that quote-unquote ‘normal’ parents are going to feel comfortable around them, with their ‘perfect’ nova children? And how much worse do you think it will be when parents are being rendered uncomfortable by children in the crèche? If my suspicions are wrong then all will be well. If they are true then over time this particular crèche will be predominantly Terat. That is all I am saying, Sakura. Not that we should by policy exclude anybody, but that by its very nature, over time there will be more Terats here than not.

Sakura said nothing to that, letting Chang continue, but her fingers touched her lips and then slid through her hair again. She cradled one of the displaced cherry blossoms in her hand and swallowed back a swell of emotions that had nothing to do with now and everything to do with the truth of what her friend had said. Even those parents might not like their children, if they're not the 'perfect' they expect.

She listened as Chang went on, weighing her words and her own thoughts carefully. When she spoke, it was quietly but intensely. "I have not put on a disguise, Chang. I might be naive, I might be uneducated, but I haven't been duplicitous. Not on purpose. As for being a victim....you think my going to the Congo was the act of victim? Or saying that I feel trapped is? I did what I had to do. That's not 'being a victim', that's surviving. I don't like having to be hard, having to argue or push people to get what I want, but I will if it is important enough to me. That is not the actions of a victim. Nor is being able to be both soft and hard as needed any sort of disguise. They are both parts of myself."

"I will learn," she said, as she let the blossom flit off into the air-stream behind the Chang-cycle, "about the history of these groups, about the people, and about the politics. I hate politics, I hate the very nature of what it is and why it exists, but I will learn and I will play if that is the only way to give my children and all the other children in this world some hope of a better future. From motherhunters, from race wars, from sheer human and nova stupidity. I will learn." She sighed and nodded to Lucrezia, "And I will play."

"As for publicity, the reason I bring it up with along with Jason or the Storm King is because it is another option of how to go about this. Not everything has to be cloak and daggers." She picked another blossom from her hair, a nervous habit that always gave her hands something to fiddle with. "There are dangers in doing that, I know that. You're trading one set of problems for another, but at least considering those options and other problems is a good idea. You might be able to deal with the public dangers easier than with the secretive ones. It simply has seemed to me that you did not want to consider other options." She shrugged, "That's not an accusation, just an expression of how I've felt."

As they circled back to the Rainbow Room for the third time, she closed her eyes and tried to fight off the fatigue from the adrenaline drop and her pregnancy combined. "Could....could we please go inside? The movement...it's starting to get to me and I would be eternally embarrassed if I was ill all over you." The last was said with a weak self-deprecating smile. "Besides, if there's more we can do before we hear back, I assume it is not something that can be done out on the street."

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“On this we agree,” Chang said, and up front Lucrezia began to turn towards the Rainbow Room. Behind the dark windows of the driver’s seat her body was beginning to be warped and twisted by the wildly shifting chair on which she sat and the roof and the metal of Chang’s changed flesh. In part Chang drove herself now, for her wife’s hands were trembling with delight.

“I’m surprised that you would come to such a conclusion,” she said as she turned them towards home. “I am a Terat of the Pandaimonion, a close friend of Count Orzais and Narcosis and I’ve spent long hours talking about their philosophies and their politics. I know more about publicity than most Novas ever will. I am a recluse because I choose to be, and as you have witnessed, it’s not as if either Orzais or Narcosis leave me alone on this matter. I understand the benefits of publicity, Sakura, and I always intended that we would go public eventually. Cloak and dagger is not a natural fit for me. I cannot play the game the way my wife does so effortlessly, or you do with such natural and unintentional duplicity. This does not come naturally to me, Sakura, and I never act without considering the alternatives.”

They were beginning to pull into the car park. It was busy as ever but Chang maintained a VIP parking spot just for herself and her closest friends. There was no need to be ‘parked’ but she liked to play the role, to go through the steps of being what she was pretending to be. It felt good, in some undefinable way.

Lucrezia nodded. “In fact, she can’t. Ever since she came out of her last change Chang’s mind has gone through a paradigm shift. This is no joke: if you ask her to go down to the shops to buy you some milk, she will instinctively consider every possible option she could use to get to the shops, acquire the money, select the correct brand of milk for your needs, and how to get back as swiftly and efficiently as possible. She’ll then consider other extenuating factors such as her mood, your mood, other things which may occur on the route, and so on and so forth. In the space of a split second,” Lucrezia said, shaking her head. She had that look in her eyes, the look of love and awe that she wore from time to time. Chang knew that she scared her wife from time to time, and a large part of that was how coldly she considered everything put before her.

Chang shrugged. “My mind has adapted and changed over the years. I think faster than even most Novas can conceive of. Always assume that I have considered and – for whatever reason – discarded every option I can imagine in anything I am involved in, from the smallest project to the grandest. Because I have, and probably did hours, days, or months before you thought of the idea. This is not to say I am always right, of course, but bearing this in mind should help you to deal with my peculiarities. If I am dismissive, it is because I have already thought extremely hard on the subject and dismissed it after due and careful consideration. To wit: all you and I are doing right now is vocalizing a conversation that went on in my head more than three months ago when I first envisaged a need for a crèche. I am psychologically incapable of not considering other alternatives, without taking an enormous effort to give myself over to instinct, and that requires huge external pressure as well as a peak of emotion. As bizarre as it sounds, I even consider the best way to bring my partners to orgasm during sex.”

“It’s worked, too,” Lucrezia said, with a little pleasurable smile. “She’s even better than she used to be.”

“Familiarity helps on that issue, as it does with Shiv, or Cindi, or any other lover I know well. I have a sort of mental flow chart, though it’s more complicated than that.”

Sakura opened her mouth to answer, closed it again, and then smiled. “Oh. I didn’t know.”

“It is a somewhat less… obvious change than others I have undergone. I believe many people assume that only my body has changed. We are here.”

The doors opened of their own accord, and up front Lucrezia was released by the tendrils stretching and contorting her body. For long moments she lay across the front seats, still warped and twisted. Then she melted down to liquid latex and poured out of the front, caressing everything on the way before pooling on the ground and reforming outside.

When Sakura and the other Lucrezias left, Chang collapsed herself inwards, her body letting out a great metallic screech that changed swiftly to a queer bubbling noise. Metal and leather and oil turned to flesh and bone and hair, and soon enough Chang stood in place of the limousine, naked for moments before her hair flared and wrapped her body before shaping into a flowing crimson gown patterned with gold fireflies.

Chang followed them inside the Rainbow Room, entering via one of the security doors in the car park rather than going out front where Novas would be queuing up to enter.

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The dim hallways they passed through to the section of rooms that served as Chang's personal home at the Rainbow Room were a blur for the exhausted young nova; She was dimly aware of the music and sounds of novas enjoying themselves in the club, but it was a background drone at best. The two older novas gently pulled her into one of the bedrooms set aside for guests and tucked her into the four-poster king-sized masterpiece (complete with old-style drapes to keep out any light from the windows in the morning).

They left quietly, though Sakura could hear the chorus of voices between the wives as they made their way to their own room; whispers of loving words, teases, innuendos, and outright instructions coming from Lucrezia on exactly how Chang was going to relax both of them while Sakura recovered and they waited on the birds and Darion. Not for the first time, Sakura felt conflicted on her own interactions with humans, baseline and novas. Animals and plants were so much easier, but while they loved her, they could never be in love with her nor she with them. She was almost always surrounded by...friends wasn't quite the right word, but friendly feelings and loving creatures, but she was also always lonely. Reaching out never seemed to work out right. Chang....she'd been more of a friend than Sakura had really ever had before, and even then, it was so complicated. So...frustrating at times. Animals, plants...they never defied her. They couldn't.

I'm a spoiled brat, she thought with a little laugh, tears in her eyes as her emotions and hormones kept flowing in peaks and valleys. She was curled up around herself, as much in the fetal position as she could be in her current state. And now there's going to be so many more people involved. People like Chang, people that will tell me no and stick to it. Her heart beat faster at the thought, mostly scared but also with a growing sense of anticipation. What if I can't handle it? What if I fall apart? What if I start meaning to make people treat me like the animals and plants do? I don't want to be that person.

Then don't be.

But I'm afraid.

Fear is a part of life. You're going to be a mother soon. Time to grow up.

What if it's all a mistake?

It's done. The children. The creche. Stop worrying and start doing what you decided to do, what you said you'd do.

You're a little cruel, you know?

Yes, we are.

Tired of fighting with herself now and knowing that she wouldn't b able to sleep for a while anyways, Sakura uncurled herself and padded across the room to pick up the OpPad laid out on the dresser for guests to use; she propped herself up on pillows back in the bed and clicked the device on. She typed in a search on the search site that the 'net opened up on. A page was selected and she sighed as she began reading:

The first known nova to appear in the aftermath of the Galatea explosion in 1999 was Randel Portman, who became known as the Fireman due to......

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