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Aberrant: Children of Quantum Fire - [Interlude] Aftershocks [FIN]

Shosuro Miren

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Early April 14th, 2027

Exalt! Building

Puck had tucked Brute...Eden...his sister into bed; they both knew she didn't need to sleep, but she was still exhausted from everything that had happened and a little sleep at least would help. Scripture had left while the two of them were still sitting on the floor of the office and Infinity had either slipped out at some other point or gone with him. Either way, Puck was alone there now, his mind and senses still reeling from what had happened to him. He stared at his hands on the desk, then raised one and flexed it; the black-and-red blade winked into existence and then back out again as Puck sighed and ran his hands through his hair. It was just so much!

That's what mentors are for, right? And it's, what, eight in the morning in Ibizia? That's not a totally pathetic time to call, is it? He let out something between a snort and a laugh. Not pathetic there, nevermind the time here.

He fished into his pockets for his OpPhone before he remembered that he'd crushed it half a day ago; muttering to himself to remember to buy a new one, he picked up the old-style phone that had been in the room when he'd bought the building. He spun the dialer, each click and chime of the numbers sounding off with a precision that almost gave him a headache.

"Yes?" a voice asked after only a single ring.

"Shiv. Um, it's Puck. Is...is Chang available?"

There was a pause on the other end and Puck could feel Shiv evaluating him over the phone. "Puck. Are you alright? You sound...different."

"I'm..no, I'm not, really. That's why I'm calling. And I am. Different, I mean. Something happened. Like Chrysalis, but...not. Like....I don't know. Scripture said something about it being like what happened with Norman a bit ago."

Another pause, then, "I see. I shall see if Her Grace is available."

"Thank you, Shiv," Puck said quietly, tapping nervously along the leather inset of his desk as he waited.

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Chang’s feet were planted on the roof of the Rainbow Room. Her head was over two hundred miles away, watching the sea racing by underneath her as her body elongated at incredible speeds, so fast that she chased the sun across the sky and kept pace as she slid from time zone to time zone. Some Novas fly, she thought, I don’t.

She had already seen one flier on her way, a Team Tomorrow Nova she did not recognize whose look of surprise when he saw her hurtling towards him was priceless. The man tried to ask her a question, and she heard it well enough, but he could not keep up and she was in no mood to snake her body back in order to speak with him. Her youngest student was in need of her, or so it seemed.

In truth it was always difficult to distract her when she was bridging somewhere. From the moment of her eruption, supreme flexibility had been her calling card; it was the first power she evinced. Her incredible perceptions, enhanced intellect, shape-shifting abilities… they all came later, bleeding in over a period of weeks as she adapted to her new state of being. And it still felt good. There was never a weary feeling, the sort of contempt birthed from over-familiarity, nor that most despicable of feelings, where one took their blessings for granted. If anything, she loved what she had more now than ever, because she no longer feared the consequences of doing so.

Chang’s whole body felt warm and supple, almost like a lover’s hands were reeling her out, though it felt a hundred times better to actually have someone do it, as she had learned with Lucrezia over the years. This was sensual, not just a painless flexing of quantum muscles as was often the case but a bone deep feeling that suffused her entire being. In her early days she resisted that feeling, fearing that these pleasurable sensations were some sort of ‘trap’ built into her quantum signature. She feared it would lead her from the philosophical and intellectual development that her new condition offered and towards a taint-maddened descent into sadness and dissolution.

And to think, she thought, racing over the glimmering sea and studying the way the sun refracted off the rolling waves, people think I’m uptight even now. They’d probably wonder how I was able to live if they met the old me.

These days she was wiser, and could luxuriate in the pleasures uniquely hers without any loss of thought or fear of harming her strides in Teras. Indeed, embracing those sensations had been the key to reaching her first chrysalis, the turning point which led her to the Teragen. And Lucrezia… she had been the key to embracing those. These days she liked to be stretched by another. It was one of her favourite bits of foreplay, to just soften her flesh and see what her lover did with her hyper flexible body. And the advantage of knowing a lot of artists was that they often went wild when aroused and given such a canvas to play with.

Unfortunately she and Lucrezia were involved in that exact activity when Shiv interrupted them. Nothing but a request from one of her students could have roused her, or would have been considered acceptable to Lucrezia. So it was she had to leave her beloved behind and take her sense of arousal on the road, as it were.

Bridging did not enhance those feelings. It was a little like having a massage to soothe tension, and she felt she would need it. Best of all, it allowed her to see and smell and listen and taste and touch the world as she moved through it. Many Novas preferred to teleport or gate around, but that was not her way, not true to her nature. She was an artist. The wealth of sensations that a lengthy bridge produced was food and drink, the raw materials she could use to shape true beauty. Only she and The Alchemist really shared this. There were few Novas indeed as flexible as either of them, and fewer who appreciated the joys of the condition. Chang often went bridging with The Alchemist while on student-mentor talks. She thought it a good way to foster the correct frame of mind for growth and philosophical consideration. At least I can be certain I am not just twisted. She thought. Or at least, not alone in being so. There is a degree of satisfaction to be taken from that.

Eventually she spied land and soon after splashed down upon a roof in Greenland. Her body whip-snapped back together, even faster than it stretched, and this was an altogether greater pleasure. But she had no mouth to voice it, as she dissolved into a liquid mass of flesh which poured off the roof and sent people fleeing in confusion and panic.

She sucked herself back in before anything unfortunate happened, pulling her liquid extremities up the wall and drawing her mass together, compressing back towards her human shape. As her legs caught up she joined them together into her upper torso and head, and began her second bridge without any pause.

The way the baselines reacted to her arrival in Greenland persuaded her that perhaps a slight change in course would be for the best. Rather than take her next stop to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, she made straight for Manhattan, and after the many hours she needed to reach her maximum extension she dived straight down into the water.

It hit her face hard, and she smiled as she raced down through shoals of brightly-coloured fish, curving her flexible flesh around great masses of rock and coral before exploding outwards on the seabed. She made no attempt or pretence at solidity this time, rippling as a huge amoeboid mass that sent the sea animals scurrying from her. A thick fleshy strand exploded outwards and upwards, smashing the surface of the sea and heading towards Manhattan, no longer possessing any defining characteristics.

The water rushing past and through and off her intensified the process a hundredfold. She would have loved to share this with The Alchemist. I’ll keep it in mind for next time.

This was why she tried to bridge where she went rather than get someone to warp her about. It filled her with ideas, concepts, possibilities for beautiful things she was yet to make.

Her journey took seven hours in total, and the sun never left her. Manhattan’s skyline of towering buildings rushed by underneath, and she zipped between them, attracting awed responses from the baselines below.

By the time Chang’s outermost strand splashed down on the Exalt! balcony, people had already figured out who it was racing by overhead.

As her semi-liquid mass whipped back in she piled up against the window and spilled off the edge of the balcony to drip down the exterior walls. She drank in the tastes of metal and glass and concrete.

Puck waited for her inside, watching. She studied him, sensing his apprehension, gauging just how much he had grown. She could feel it in the quantum emanations rolling off him, see it in the incredible definition to his beauty. He reminded her of Bombshell, the way she might have been if she did not undergo a complete gender shift after casting off the husk of Jason Bellefleur. And right now he looked desperate for somebody to talk to.

Chang formed out of the liquid mass of her body, and took her first step toward him while still compressing. She squeezed herself flat and slipped through the tiny cracks in the balcony doorframe. Inside she swelled back out, and her hair flared before wrapped her in a fine blue dress patterned with red butterflies. A long ponytail extended the length of her back to bounce against her buttocks.

“Puck,” she said. All four voices were in harmony. “You have changed indeed. Congratulations are in order, I suppose. It seems that in a flash you have surpassed your elders and left most of the Nova population scrabbling in the dust. I’ll be fascinated to see what chrysalis does to you.”

His expression was strained, though, bespeaking something akin to pain, not the sort of unshackled joy and elation she expected. “Yes,” he said, and ran his hand through his dark hair, “you and everyone else, I guess.”

“Something is wrong.” It was not a question.

“Make a seat?”

Chang’s dress warped as her tight buttocks erupted outwards, and rapidly formed a comfortable armchair first of flesh, but then of old wood, engraved with fine figures running, leaping, and dancing all across its surface. She gestured to Puck. “The floor is yours, Puck. What is bothering you on this joyful day, which requires more than an elated phone call and an invitation to watch you show off?”

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When Shiv had told him she'd be bridging over, he'd almost snapped that he needed her now, not seven hours from now. But he'd bit his tongue; he was the one asking the favor and he'd never known Chang to travel any way but by her own body. He'd just have to wait.

He spent the few hours or so reading through articles and doing his daily administrative duties for Exalt!, but the silence ate at him and eventually he left the office to wander the halls. That had been...a mistake. The members, they often touched him or smiled and hugged him or even kissed him if they passed him in the hallways or came upon him in a room and he wasn't caught in something else, but today....the first person he saw, a man named Kevin, didn't even bother with a hello. He grabbed Puck and began undressing him just outside of the elevators; while Puck was usually up for a romp, he didn't really encourage such in the halls and certainly not where someone getting off the elevators might trip over them. He tried to gently pry Kevin off him, but the man didn't take the hint; it took ordering him away in sharp rebuke to even pull the baseline back to something of his senses. He apologized profusely, but couldn't keep from reaching out to touch Puck even as he spoke. Puck beat a hasty retreat away from him, but Kevin followed. Everyone Puck passed by had the same reaction and soon he had a contrite but determined mob dodging his steps. He fled back upstairs, locking the penthouse elevator level and the doors from the stairwells. It was the first time he'd ever locked a door in the building and his heart was racing with confusion and fear. What do I do now? How...how can I stay here, do what I'm doing, if that's going to happen every time someone sees me?

He'd paced through the penthouse, trying to distract himself with busy work. But he'd already finished his official work for the day and he couldn't concentrate enough to work on something artistic. He could hear them downstairs, whispering about what they'd seen, wondering when he'd come back down and why he'd run away from them. They were afraid now, too. Well, afraid and wanting to institute a no-clothing policy for him. The last at least got a small smile out of him and the idea for how to spend the remaining hours until Chang arrived. News reports had already flooded in that the elusive White Rain was headed over the Atlantic, headed for Greenland from her trajectory. He sent messages to several of the more sexually adventurous, psychologically stable, and strong-willed members of Exalt!, asking if they'd be willing to come up to the penthouse and keep him distracted for a few hours. The replies, all affirmatives, flooded back almost instantly.

By the time Chang was spotted over New York, Puck had showered and dressed himself again, leaving his exhausted lovers to their sleep in his oversized bed. The sex and the company had helped a little, taking the edge off of his fear while he waited for his mentor to make it to the balcony of his office. All this, and the evening and day before, he told her after taking a seat on her; his voice was still singular, but it caressed her like a skilled lover's hand. The touch of his skin along her leather seat-self, even the scent of him, the taste of him on the air, was intoxicating; it was distracting enough that someone of less willpower and experience probably would have lost entire sections of his explanation in the haze of his presence.

"And to top everything off, the only thing I know I can do...that's different from the kind of things I could do before, is this." The blade he'd spoken of, beautiful and terrible and pulsing with anger and hate, appeared in his hand. He laid it across his lap and just looked at it for a moment. "I mean, there's more, I can feel it. Like something just out of reach or somethign you can touch or taste but can't see. I feel....lost." He looked up at her at the last word, his eyes mirroring his words with heart-wrenching intensity.

"I don't know what to do," he admitted quietly. "Everything's changed and I didn't...it's not...it's not like Chrysalis. I mean, I don't really remember what happened when I was born, so I guess that was different from what people usually go through in Chrysalis, too, but this was....it felt like dying and being reborn, like exploding and somehow coming back together again. I feel like I did when I came out of my first Chrysalis..." He gave a half-shrug, "Though I can talk this time, so I guess that's a step up."

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She could not help but marvel at how much Puck had grown since last she saw him. And all this change over a matter of hours, if Shiv was to be believed. Like an eruption, only different, she thought, recalling how Norman described his apotheosis to her on one of their talks.

Nothing he said about the baselines’ response to his changes surprised her. Baselines found her almost irresistible and most of them were put off by the transformations taint and chrysalis had wrought upon her body. Puck outshone her as the sun did a table lamp.

His story about Eden and their parents interested her most. The recounting he offered was patchy, of course, based only on Eden’s fractured accounts of her experiences and what details Scripture chose to share. But the fire in his eyes when he spoke about it said a great deal. There was rage in him now, something that had been lacking in the past.

“It sounds much like chrysalis, yes, only much swifter. You have undergone a change on the most fundamental levels of your being. Not to mention your quantum signature has undergone a dramatic spike.” She watched him turning his blade over and over in his hands, looking at it, and her, and it, and her, always confused, always lost. “Your blade,” she said, “may I hold it?”

Puck shrugged. “Sure.”

She took it from his hands. It felt warm, and the edge felt deadly sharp. Chang flicked it so the blade was balanced point down on her fingertip, then unbalanced it to her other hand. There was a spot of blood welling up from her finger where the point had been. “You are angry,” she said. “Enraged. This is a new thing within you. Tell me more, Puck. Explain to me what it is that makes you angry, what it is that angers you so.”

He looked confused. “Eden-“

“No, Puck. You need to think deeper. You have your sister. She was hurt but she is here, in your hands, as safe as she is ever likely to be. What is it about what was done to her that fills you with rage? Is it a fundament of the actions performed, or is it only that your sister was harmed? And what of this story about you being what Eden was ‘supposed’ to be? How does that make you feel? When you look at her now, do you think that she suffered to ‘create’ you? Karmically, perhaps?”

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He shook his head, frowning. "No. I don't believe in that. I mean, everything's energy in the end, but I don't believe in things like karma. What happens happens because we decide for it to happen, every moment, every person. Right now."

The blade in her hands blinked out of existence and then reformed in Puck's hand. He laid down on the desk, looking annoyed at himself, and started pacing through the room as he spoke. "They were...stupid. Arrogant," he glanced back to her. "My parents. Children aren't...clay to be sculpted or a painting you make of yourself, only younger. They're another person. A soul, if you want to use that word. Worthy of respect and only in your care. Not owned by you, and only created by you in a biological sense. My...mother..." there was deep venom in the word "...might have given birth to me, but that is where any claim or hold she had on me ended. Thankfully. If they have any pride in who I am or what I've done...I intend to inform them of the egregious error of thinking."

The blade blinked from his desk to his hand; Puck gave an annoyed huff and it blinked out of existence once more. "Besides, when I went to see them, they were rather...put off by me. I might be beautiful and intelligent, but I'm not the perfect little starlet and worshipful son they were trying to engineer." His lips curled into a malicious grin, "I like other boys and black and studs and spikes and orgies and whips and chains and anything else I please." He flicked off the memory with a sharp motion of his hand, "My mother couldn't even stay in the same room as me."

"I'm angry...enraged, as you said, because they were given a sacred trust - another life in their hands, to protect and nurture, and abused that. Simply because the child wasn't some carbon copy or idealized version of themselves! What arrogance! What pride! Hubris enough to make any Greek weep!" He motioned widely, as if to take in the island or the whole world, "It's bad enough when baselines do it, but us? Novas? We don't even have the excuse of ignorance. The worst you have when a baseline is broken is a serial killer or a suicide bomber or just a broken person that weeps in dirty clothes on street corners. Brute - Eden...I've seen just a fraction of what she can do. If she'd broken to hate and rage instead of self-loathing, you'd've seen an ice age for Texas. She agonizes over the deaths of men sent to kill her, maybe four or five that died when she defended herself, but she could flatten Manhattan if the mood took her."

"Yes, I'm angry because my sister was hurt! I'm rather pissed that the only reason I exist was the vain hope that I'd pander to their vanity! I'm even pissed because they're still out there! I want to go out there, to...to..." The blade pulsed back into Puck's hand and he threw at the floor in frustration. He was breathing hard, great gasps of air even though he usually forgot to breath for anything other than speaking. His voice was quieter when he finally spoke again, but all the more intense, focused like the blade itself. "I'm angry because we should be better than this. Because I went to the Nursery as was given everything, while Eden was left literally out in the cold because our parents were too stupid and self-centered to be parents. No one should...should be allowed to hurt children like that. I don't...I never really was a child, but I do remember feeling lost and helpless, of needing someone to be there for me and help me figure things out. That is a parent, genetics be damned. Nova or baseline, no child should ever be treated like they don't matter. Like they're nothing unless they're exactly what someone else wants them to be. That's cruelty on level...I don't want to grasp."

He was still pacing, making a careful path around the blade still angrily pulsing on the carpet, but he seemed to have run out of words for the moment. Even flushed and flustered, he was inhumanly beautiful and the weight of his anger was a palpable thing in the room. For a baseline hearing this, it would have been like the anger of God lashing at them; what if it had been Puck and not Eden who had come first, who had disappointed? He'd never had powers as such before now, but just the thought of the building he was in and the devoted followers he had gathered in a scant few months was enough to make one shiver at the thought.

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Chang blinked when the blade vanished from her hand, and her fingers, almost of their own accord, laced, save for her middle fingers which arched up. She leaned back and listened, enjoying the sound of Puck’s voice but focusing hard upon the words he spoke.

She studied his face, the play of muscles under the skin which betrayed his feelings as much as and sometimes more than his tone of voice. Her eyes followed his knife when he flung it at the floor, and watched it stuck there quivering, as if reflecting the shaking rage in its creator’s soul.

When he was done, an odd smile crossed her lips. “You’d be surprised by the humility of the Greeks. I spent some years alone amidst the ruins of their civilization. There’s evidence enough to believe the Greeks considered the heroes of their imagination to be actual giants, men ten, fifteen feet tall, with the bodies they are were so fond of carving. The Greeks saw the flow of history as a sad tale of man’s devolution from an exalted state of heroic godliness to the mean-spirited mass that crawled upon the earth in their own time. Funnily enough, I suspect the Greeks would have worshipped us unquestioningly. There’s a degree of irony in this, given my own eruption came from an attempt at a bacchanalian rite.” She chuckled. “Maybe the Greeks did know what they were talking about, after all.”

Puck frowned at her, a look of such devastating confusing and hurt that she had to steel herself to avoid losing her train of thought.

“Do you not find it ironic that we Terats are living out this Greek interpretation of history? It was Mal who created the chrysalis, the quote-unquote ‘giant’ in our history. And it is towards that giant we crawl, we mean-spirited Greeks covering the earth and revelling in our node-granted gifts. You have to admit, it’s an interesting comparison. The greatest arrogance of Novas is the belief that we are somehow immune to the flow of history and the cruelties of blind, indifferent chance.”

Chang stretched out one of her arms and plucked Puck’s knife from the floor. She tossed it from hand to hand, and then tossed it back to him. “It seems to me that you are angry because this truth has rudely been forced upon you. Before, you could consider your past irrelevant, it had no bearing upon you. Your parentage was a matter of no concern. Now you have a sister, and her scarring led to your birth. Had she been the child they wanted… no Puck.”

She said the words with utter delicacy, her four tones organized to make them echo and echo ‘no Puck… no Puck… no Puck’ and she caught his eyes as she said them. He ground his teeth, and his hand clenched on the hilt of his blade.

“You cannot ignore this, Puck. Nor can you allow yourself to ignore what was done to your sister. You were born from it. Sooner or later, you must grasp this cruelty, and reject it or embrace it as a part of your being. You know my belief on these matters. In order to grow in chrysalis and to advance in Teras we must settle the pains of our past, and go forth without bitterness. You’ll never do that so long as Eden exists and this issue is unresolved in your own heart. She’s now a living embodiment of a past you have pretended for so long that you did not have. For you it all began in the Nursery, where all was – more or less – right. Now your past has grasped you by the scruff of the neck and made you look at the ugly truth of your origin. The question is… what do you do now?

“It seems to me you harbour a degree of resentment for your parents.” Her tone was maddeningly casual. “Yet you seem uncertain about how to proceed even on this matter. What is it that confuses you? What stays your hand from slaying them?”

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"Scripture." He folded his arms, the blade disappearing again, and closed his eyes. "And the fact that I don't know where they are. They might still be in Texas, but...." He shrugged.

He started pacing again. "And killing them....death is easy. You're just...dead. They should suffer. They should feel unwanted and unworthy and every bad thing they ever made Eden feel or think." He brought the blade back on purpose this time, running a finger over the edge, "I get why I made this. I was angry. Angrier than I've even been in my life, but...but it was impulsive. Childish." He banished the blade again. "Useful for other things, other times, maybe. Those people, the don't deserve an easy cut, a quick death. They deserve to be humiliated and degraded. And sterilized." His voice had become calm as he spoke, a chill tone that was calculating and perfectly controlled. Chang had listened to serial killers, true sociopaths, speak with more emotion.

He'd stopped pacing, but he ran a hand through his hair and glanced in the direction of Eden's bedroom. "And I don't know what killing them would do to her. It might help things, or she might blame herself for their deaths and break down even more. I won't put her at risk just because I resent them or hate them. She's been through enough." He finally paced back over to the couch next to where Chang was sitting and slumped down on to it. "I don't know what to do. For myself, for her. Everything's just...complicated."

He leaned forward, towards her, his eyes earnest and still lost. "I do understand. I mean, I can see every thought, every so-called chain of logic that led them to do what they did. I can...can hear it, in my head. See from a thousand angles, a million different points of view. That's part of the madness of it. I can understand. But I never will, either. My mind sees the who and the what and the how, but my heart can't even begin to truly unravel the why. It's utter madness." He rubbed his hands over his face. He let out a snort of a laugh, "And the most absurd part of it all? I am exactly what they asked for: beautiful, intelligent. If I wanted to act, I'd make my mother look like a ragdoll without a day's worth of training to her name. She'd live in my shadow, something I somehow doubt she'd be able to stand even if the rest of me didn't offend her delicate sensibilities so much. And since last night? I can understand things, grasp entire new worlds of thought...and while I wasn't a paragon of nova intelligence before, I was still far above a baseline's understanding. I'm exactly what they asked for, other than than everything else about me."

"What do I do with that?" he asked earnestly. "I've never felt like this before. Everything feels like it's spinning out of control, but I know it isn't. Exalt! is still here, Eden should be able to start healing now, and I'm...more. I should be celebrating and instead I'm just freaking out. What do I do with that?"

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Listening to Puck talk about the complexities of his thought was slightly alarming, in truth. It spoke to a dramatic leap in his intellectual capacity, and Chang had to entertain the likelihood that Puck now surpassed her. We’re going to look fossilized at this rate, we so-aptly named ‘elders’.

Unbidden she found herself thinking back to a conversation with Snow, one of many where the young Nova rambled on about her ideas for a possible Nova nation. Human society, she said, was built on a principle of redundancy, the acknowledgement that the old would fail and die, and be replaced by the next generation. There was nothing even remotely comparable in any twist upon a Nova nation. Meh’Lindi estimated upwards of five hundred years of life for Chang, and far more for Lucrezia. The Alchemist, by all scientific estimates, was completely eternal. In Meh’Lindi’s words, The Alchemist might well witness – and survive – the heat death of the universe, and drift through eternity until she survived the birth of another.

What will the young do with us, I wonder, when they have so bluntly surpassed our capabilities? It was a serious issue. Puck could make his parents into grandparents at any moment. The generational movement of Novas had the potential to be ludicrously swift.

Chang kept all those thoughts inside, though. Puck’s worries were of a different sort, even if they were related. She wondered idly if he might have already considered the things she was thinking now.

She found this new edge to Puck quite interesting. When he was done talking, she reached out and took his hands.

“I am delighted, on behalf of the rest of the world, to bid you welcome. From here on out things start getting complicated, and cruel, and uncertain. This is the end of your metaphorical childhood. Childhood is not an age, Puck; it’s a state of being. You were a child before, because you were innocent and naïve and you did not understand. Now you are grown up, because you’ve now understood that the world can and will affect you, a lesson I often said in words but you never could understand because it’s one that must be felt. It’s no great surprise that you are ‘freaking out’.”

Puck nodded. “But what do I do?

“What do any of us do when we fall?”

“Get up, and keep on walking,” Puck said. This was an old exchange, a distillation of one of Chang’s lessons about the rocky nature of Teras.

“This ‘apotheosis’ may be separate to Teras and the path towards your chrysalis, but the fundamental message does not change. If I am being unspecific it is because you are likewise being unclear. Without knowing how your apotheosis has changed you I cannot lay down a clear guideline. One thing that is obvious to me is that your intellect has increased, perhaps dramatically. Have you tried reading, by any chance? If you will permit me to make a possibly flawed comparison, your situation reminds me of my own emergence from chrysalis, only with half the information.”

Puck cocked his head to one side. “What do you mean?”

“Your chrysalis was unique because you remember nothing of it. I emerged from my chrysalis – as most Terats do – with an enhanced awareness of my own being. I had a solid ‘feeling’ for how I had changed. Nonetheless I did not know, and I began to studious series of tests to explore my new limits. One of the best I have found is to pick a book, a painting, or other appropriate task, object or activity, and to do it. That will allow you to swiftly determine what gross changes have occurred and redefine those activities in your mind.”

He nodded. “I can think of a few things that fit for that.” Puck was calming down a little, now.

“About your parents. Have you discussed this matter with Eden? There’s no need to force anything, but if you feel vengeful thoughts and worry about her reaction, why not ask her? It is at best disingenuous to use her as a limiting factor when you can either confirm or remove her as one with a simple question. The real limiting factor here is that I think you are afraid of yourself, of what you might do if she removes herself as a block. And it’s worthwhile to be, given how little you know of your current capabilities. Right now, Puck, you should do very little. You should think. Spend a few weeks familiarizing yourself with your new capabilities and redefining the relationships which have defined your life up to now. And turn your heart towards this painful question. Because you must find an answer, one that makes sense, and I would say that you must not take vengeful action until you have that answer. When it comes, when you face your parents, it must be with a clear heart, with frank understanding both of what they did and what it means and why,” she kept his gaze locked, and now it was hers that was hard and intense.

She released his hands. “I find your talk of more… creative punishments for your parents quite interesting. Are you in any position to inflict such judgements? If you are to act as a scion of justice, your punishment must be just also, and have no basis in emotion. And if you are not acting out of a sense of justice, from whence does your anger rise? Your parents committed no crime against you. They joined the Teragen, they gave you to the Nursery, they did everything that could ever have been asked of them. Regardless of their eventual rejection of you, you are the favoured son, the one who did good. The world is your oyster, the baselines bow down and worship at your feet. And your sister?” Chang shrugged. “She fades away. Let me ask you another painful question, one to put your new capabilities towards.”

Puck tensed up. Perhaps he knew what she was about to ask.

“Were your parents truly wrong about Eden?”

“How can you-“

Listen. Your sister was loose in the world for over a year. In truth, not much longer than you. Her existence is separate, and different. But if both of you died tomorrow, whose passage would be mourned the more? Whose existence – in the end – would have mattered most? I propose this. Your parents want this for you,” she gestured at the building around them, “not an empty arctic wasteland. What they did is unforgiveable, but given the parameters they established and their apparent goals, was their appraisal of Eden incorrect?

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Puck started to answer, a swift emotional answer, then checked himself and sat and thought. He pulled all that he'd been told by Scripture about how Eden had been treated and from that how she'd been seen by their parents; he pulled at his own memories, of her and the Nursery and what he'd learned from there and his time in the larger world.

"Yes." The answer was clear and confident, and he returned Chang's steady gaze with his own. "They were given Eden to care for, and never appreciated her gifts. They wanted a miniature version of themselves, and so they taught her to despise anything that didn't fit that narrow definition of 'good' or 'wanted'. She's amazing, Chang, the things she can do. She could balance on the head of pin, literally, if she wanted to, but she sees that as worthless as 'nothing special' to quote her directly. She makes me look like a lumbering Neanderthal next to her, and she's far more educated than she gives herself credit for. Far more than I am, though I admit that I can probably close that gap fairly quickly now," he smiled, oblivious to his expression of pure love the had spread across his face as spoke. "She can grow, like Giantess. It's...amazing. And they thought it was worthless, so they taught her to think it was worthless, too. Just because it wasn't like them."

He stood up again, pacing over to the mantle above the faux-fireplace across the room from his desk. "People like me, even love me. Worship," he said the word with distaste, "there are some that do that too, even though I keep asking them not to. But the number of people that mourn your death - that's no measure of a person. Being likable doesn't make you better. And fuck what my parents wanted for me. I made Exalt! because I wanted to, and they have no claim on it. They will never be allowed to participate in it, and if they ever make any noise that they have any share in its glory - that will earn a quick cut just to shut them up." That venom had crept back into his tone, but it was more controlled now.

He shook his head, "No, that's not a way to view people, by the expectations of others. Especially when those others are abusive fools. Eden hasn't had the chance to truly choose her path in the world yet. Yes, she was on her own for a year, but that man, that monkey with a node raped her mind and left her psyche in tatters. That she survived that year at all is a testament to her strength, her own will pitted against the depredations committed on her for years by an uncaring mother and a cruel and abusive father. She has time - I don't know how long - but time before she's even close to where I was when I left the Nursery. I was nurtured and mentored and given space to discover and be myself. She still has to put her mind back together enough to even begin to do that."

He glanced back at Chang, his words measured and resolute. "So, yes. Their appraisal was wrong. Their expectations were absurd and they asked the wrong questions. Eden is who she is, and that is precious and every bit as important as me, regardless of how many people follow her banner or would weep at her grave."

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Now that is impressive. I didn’t expect him to master himself that quickly. The depth of his analysis was of a significant quality, too. It was not in her to be awed to silence, even when presented with a surprise or even by someone her superior. Even when she first re-joined the Teragen she answered the words of Scripture and Mal with candour and even harsh criticism when she believed it warranted. With the future of her student in front of her, Chang could do nothing other than rise to the challenge.

“That is a most pleasing response, Puck. It has long been a worry that you define yourself too much by the baselines around you. We are agreed that there is nothing fundamentally incompatible between Teras and baseline existence, but it’s quite another to lose yourself amongst them. Herein lies an object lesson for why that has been such a pressing concern. Your parents are guilty of an entirely baseline emotional response.”

Puck ran his hand through his hair. “Not quite following.”

“They wanted for their daughter what they did not achieve themselves.” Puck seemed to understand instantly with those words. “It is a common thing amongst baselines to seek success through their children, especially such successes as they were incapable of achieving themselves. It sounds like your parents were motivated by just such a feeling. Do you not see? This is an object lesson for why the Teragen is necessary. Novas are capable of horrific harm, and baseline motivations are too often petty and selfish. As you said yourself, baselines with a node. That is the default existence of most Novas. Even ones I am fond of such as Bombshell. In the Teragen we seek to be something more. But you are in an awkward position. Your parents joined the Teragen, did they not?”

He clearly did not want to hear that, but he gave a nod anyway. She could feel his wrath in the way he clenched his fists, in the set of his jaw.

“So how can you judge them, when you do not know who they are? Can a person be forgiven for the most horrible of mistakes, or must justice be served for the crimes of the past? Here is where you take a stand, Puck. A critical stand. Here is where you learn once and for all what justice means to you. Never before has a crime against Novas been thrust so violently in front of your eyes. What is the right thing to do, Puck? And ask yourself this,” Chang said, her lips curving in a smile, “what would Geryon do? For now you walk on his ground, and it is time to think more about the paths of your elders and who is right and wrong. Your focus has been so laser tight upon Exalt! that I have often been worried you have a limited perspective on the wider Teragen. The pain your sister has gone through is your call to arms. You are of the second generation, but the sins of the first have just caught up.”

Puck did not play party politics. He existed almost outside the Teragen, so isolated was he from the actions of his elders. But now his rage brought him onto well-trod ground. She would not miss this chance to make him see the world through a more broadly Terat view. He was so near to speaking the rhetoric of Vigilance, and not half as far from the supremacist talk of Shrapnel and Scrambler and the rest. Who are you, Puck, and who do you want to be?

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He listened, his mind blazing through different tracks of thought, different interpretations of her words with a speed and depth that was nearly distracting. But he listened and he thought. Though only a second or two passed before he answered, he'd thought more about how and what to answer than he could have in days worth of time before. And the answer surprised him, enough to shock away any attempt of pretense.

"It's not my place."

He blinked and made his way back to the couch, catching Chang's eyes as he continued. "They didn't do anything to me. Other than conceive me. They never got the chance. I'm angry, but it's Eden's decision, Eden's vengeance or justice. If, when she's ready to talk about it and act on it, if she wants me to do something, then I will." He shook his head, "But it's not my decision. To act, that would be to make my anger at her pain, her past, as more important than her emotions, her decisions about her childhood and the person she wants to be." She could feel him shaking from the ups and downs of his emotions, the minute tremors travelling through the fabric and frame of the couch down to the floor and lapping gently at her senses. He closed his eyes, letting his head drop a little. "Scripture was right. I was so angry at the time...if Eden hadn't needed me then...."

When he looked up, his expression was more centered, but still vulnerable. "I will always hate them, Chang. I can't forgive what they did - but it's not because they did it to my sister. Not because they conceived me out of selfishness and stupidity. It's because they hurt a child. They abused their gift of fertility and the - the sacred, I guess - care of another living, thinking person. I've read articles on children that were abused and heard the stories from some of the Exalt! members, but...they weren't like Eden, not so...obviously hurt. They hadn't been harmed so deeply and thoroughly as Eden has because their abusers weren't telepaths or even novas. I hate all of them. That two of them are my own parents...I guess it just tipped something over in me."

There was pause; he was waiting for her reaction, still unsure of himself. His expanded understanding was helpful, but also confusing and a little frightening. He knew that he'd've thought very differently, had thought pretty much the opposite, before he'd changed. But now - now he could see it all so more clearly, see the larger picture of himself and his sister and the whole tangled, ugly mess. But was he right? Or was he still missing as much as he had when he'd become so enraged that it had triggered this change in him the first time?

He searched Chang's expression, looking for something, even rejection, to give him direction.

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The answer he received was open arms. Chang enfolded Puck in an embrace, her triple breasts squeezing against his chest, over-large shaft twitching softly against his body, warm beneath her clothes.

When they parted, she was smiling. “You are growing up fast. Once you needed me to do most of this sort of thinking for you. Now you’re doing in moments what I need hours to do. At this rate I’m going to need to form a cane for myself and pretend I have a limp.”

Puck’s expression became pained. “Don’t even suggest that. I’m really not sure how I’d respond.”

“Age means considerably less than it used to. You are correct. It isn’t your place. But whose place is it, I wonder? Is it Scripture’s? And if it is, why? Because he said so? Teras is a tenuous thing, Puck, a thin and dangerous line between the land of take-whatever-you-want and the land of do-as-you-please. But neither way leads to a future for any of us, in the end. I’ve seen nothing out of the Nursery that convinces me of our initial anarchic roots. It’s all going to go wrong.”

Chang turned her mismatched, glowing eyes on Puck, wondering. Are you still my student, Puck, or are you a confidante, now? There was always a point her students reached where Chang began to let them in on her fears for the future, on the reasons for her teachings and her beliefs. Puck was never near that point before. She studied him, thinking.

“It may be that hate is a part of you now, a part you will need to wrestle with and find a place for in your heart.”

“Hate consumes,” Puck said, repeating one of Chang’s oft-repeated phrases. “And perverts Teras.”

“Such is my opinion. It worked for me, and for those closest to me who have reached chrysalis. I’m hoping Shiv will soon, or The Alchemist. I believe they are closest. Lucrezia may be closer still.” She shook her head. “‘You will hear of a philosopher by his words and ye, by his works thou shalt know him.’ There is much on the line for me. I cannot know if I am a good mentor yet. I can only hope. But at least you seem to be turning out well, and technically you’re already second stage. It may be you and your sister are inextricably bound, if the ‘rules’ of apotheosis are anything like those of the eruption.”

Puck nodded, listening intently. Her voice was even now, cool, returning to the quiet meditative state he knew best from their many lessons and discussions. Every word seemed invested with the weight of years of consideration, years he had yet to live.

“Themes from our eruptions follow us through the ages. This has been true in every case I’ve ever encountered. In my case it came in an orgastic, bacchanalian rite. I don’t think that requires much in the way of explanation. The Alchemist’s came in a failed suicide attempt. Shiv’s through a gang rape. Narcosis has been moderately mysterious about her own eruption but I am willing to extrapolate from her behaviour that it involved extremely weighted power relations. She has become a creature of domination, and such are usually born from powerlessness and submission. Sin-Eater, like The Alchemist, came from rape, and again nothing else needs be said. You’ll see what I mean if you look into it yourself, but please, don’t take my word for it. Now more than ever, I urge you to rethink anything I say. Who knows, maybe you’ll correct me. My point, anyway, is that your apotheosis is linked to your sister’s suffering, or at least to your learning of it. It may be that she is crucial to your future in some form or another, and in a far more fundamental way than simple brother and sister. If you seek an immediate direction, I suggest you focus your attentions upon that relationship and what it may mean for you going forwards.”

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His eyes faded away somewhere distant for a moment. "I remember...I was angry, but even more than that I just wanted to be able to fix everything. Scripture, he couldn't heal her mind completely. He said..." Puck took a steadying breath, "he said that the damage was too severe for him to fix all the way. That there were gaps in her memory that were just gone, completely ripped out of her brain, and there were other places where he could feel that the memories weren't right, but he couldn't untangle what was illusion and what was true memory."

"I wanted to help her and to make sure that no one could hurt her, hurt anyone, that way again." He pursed his lips and pulled the sword out of the quantum aether again, "And I gave myself a sword." He put a hand over one side of his face. "Brilliant," his tone was half-serious, but tinged in such a way that Chang knew he was teasing himself as much as berating. "That and the fact that I can hear feathers rustling on pigeons nesting on the Statue of Liberty and everything between here and there, which is really distracting."

"I..Scripture...I don't know. About it being his place or mine or anyone's. I guess that's a decision he's got to make for himself, just like I did." He glanced up at her, "Y'know, this whole 'growing up' thing sorta sucks. At least I didn't have to go through puberty, though. I hear that's a whole 'nother nightmare." They both chuckled at that and some of the heavy feeling in the room lifted. Puck pushed himself up off the couch, leaving the blade behind to fade out at some point. "Would you like to stay for dinner? I know we probably have more to talk about, but...I could use a little break and we had a pastry chef start his live-in last week, Lindsey Cochran. He and Bethany have been running through every cookbook and personal recipe they have between the two of them, so there's pretty much a steady buffet of sweets and new concoctions coming out of the kitchens at all hours."

He had headed for his desk and his OpPad even as he made the offer, but he paused before he'd opened up the internal messenger program; the slim electronic device was carelessly balanced on his fingertips as he stared out the window. "I don't like being angry, Chang," he said quietly. "I don't like hating. It's exhausting and distracting and wastes time better spent on and with the ones you love. I don't want hate to be a part of me. Not like that."

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“Yes I can stay for dinner if you like,” Chang said.

“You know, this isn’t something you particularly want to hear, but has it occurred to you that your father has done a rather incredible job with your sister? Jeremiah is extraordinarily powerful. For even him to be unable to correct the damage done…” she shrugged. “Well, I find myself affording a degree of respect.”

Puck twitched when she said that.

“Your perceptions have expanded as well, then?” Chang said, rising and reabsorbing her furniture. Puck nodded. “Impressive. That I can certainly assist with. There are many ways to put such perceptions to one’s benefit, but it requires discipline, hard work and meditation. In short, all of the things you’re bad at.”

The jibe earned a rueful smile. Puck ran his hands through his hair. “Well, it is a time of change.”

“We can discuss that, and the value of hate, over dinner.”

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Late Evening, May 26th, 2027

Exalt! Building

"You're angry." Chang's voice came from behind him; he'd been distracted enough with his OpMails that he hadn't registered the sounds of her landing on the balcony or sliding through the barely-there slit between the french doors. He managed not to start, but nodded even as he put a hand on the sword and banished it from the room and universe for a while. "Yeah, I am."

Chang strode around the desk and made a chair of and for herself, the rich grain of the wood and sumptuous deep red of the upholstery matching the room perfectly. "Understandable. Someone did poison you, after all."

"Yeah," Puck avoided looking directly at her, sending off the last of his own web of misdirections and intrigues and wondering just how much Chang knew about what her wife was up to. Probably not much more than any of us that she's pulled in. Devious woman...He could feel his anger raising again and cut it off. He was learning to acknowledge his anger as a part of himself, but he had decided the last time that Chang visited that he wasn't going to let it control him or dictate his actions. "Thanks for coming to see me. Did...did Lucrezia pass along my request to talk to you? About Scripture and this crèche you're building?"

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Chang reclined back, studying Puck thoughtfully. She had guessed that he was angry based on prior experience. No sign showed from outside. Before he was an open book, now… the walls were high and hard today. Ominous, she thought. And I like this talk of my wife not at all.

“No,” she said, “she has not. In fact I haven't even seen my wife for several days now. She hasn't been this busy in... well, ever, really. I came when I heard you had been poisoned. So far as I knew you were quite happy over here doing Exalt! things.”

It was a strange thing, to sit there in that room, being studied by the former boy and having no idea what was happening behind his eyes. She had no reason not to assume this to be a power play. Narcosis, Orzais and others in the Teragen frequently employed such tactics with her, tiresome as they were.

“Am I to take it that there is something on your mind?”

“Yes,” Puck said. Only that. His voice was cold and flat.

“Then do enlighten me, Puck. Contrary to propaganda, I’m not actually that fond of my own voice.”

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He started to speak again, then realized that his anger was still coloring his actions and undeservedly so on his mentor; she didn't know what Lucrezia was up to. He could tell that now, and that it was starting to annoy her. He ran a hand through his hair and reigned himself in. "Sorry, I'm still...I do not like being poisoned." He gave a huff of a laugh, "Then again, I doubt most people do."

"Anyways, Lucrezia came to visit me a little while ago. She'd infiltrated Exalt!, which was not the most pleasant of surprises, even if it did help me shore up some soft spots in our security." He stood and fetched them both hot cups of a spiced tea, something new from Bethany and brought up a little while ago by the mother/aspiring chef for her friend. "We spoke about several things, including Scrambler's attack on you and that fertility nova, Konohanasakuyahime. I'd put together that you were building some sort of second Nursery - Lucrezia said you were calling it the crèche - and I asked her why you didn't simply get Bounty and Scripture's backing from the start, to avoid stupidity like Scrambler from daring to attack you or this crèche." He passed her the filled cup and saucer, a delicate porcelain creation that was hand-painted with yellow roses and no doubt the creation of one of the aspiring baseline artists in Exalt!.

He sat back in his chair, regarding her with open puzzlement. "She said that you didn't trust Scripture. I haven't been able to figure that out, so I wanted to ask you - to hear why directly from you. I know Lucrezia as well as anyone can in the short time I've been around her, so I wanted to hear it from you." There wasn't recrimination or accusation in his voice, just an honest lack of any understanding on how or why someone would distrust Scripture or his motives and actions when it came to the Nursery and the second generation of novas. He sipped at the tea, watching her over the rim as he waited for her reply.

She wrapped her hands around the cup, tasting the composition of the glaze and paint as much as the tea as she considered her response; her mismatched eyes watched him carefully, trying to read the lines of his face, the minute movements of muscles like she'd been able to only two months ago. He could read her frustration as easily as she once read him; it was disconcerting on both sides. "My wife has partially misunderstood my stance," she said carefully once she spoke. "Nonetheless, why precisely do you care?"

Puck blinked, surprised at the question. "Well, for one, with the backing of Bounty and Scripture and the Nursery itself, you'd never have had Scrambler on your doorstep. The entire point is security for nova children, isn't it? Then why deny a strong source of security?" He set his cup down and frowned, "It's more than that, though. I care because I value you and Scripture both, as mentors and something akin to what children have as parents." His lips quirked at the expression on her face from that. "Don't worry, I'm not planning on crawling into your bed if I have nightmares or asking you for money for college.....I guess I just don't understand what Scripture has done that would make you distrust him, especially when it comes to raising children and keeping them safe from motherhunters and even the dangers they pose to themselves with their own power." He shook his head, "It just....doesn't make sense to me."

Chang laced her fingers together, the digits sliding bonelessly over each other to create a latticework of flesh. "Then perhaps you ought to think a little harder. I know you're capable. You have access to the same data that I do, and you're rather familiar with the Teragen's history. Put together a few facts, and theorize for me. Why might I not trust him? Why might I doubt Jeremiah Scripture? Think with your mind, not your heart."

Puck frowned, almost pouting, but did as she instructed. "I suppose...I know some have issue with the Cult of Mal, and he's the leader of the faction." His brow knit, his tone touch with incredulity, "Do you think he's indoctrinating us? Trying to force us along his path or some path of his choosing?"

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Chang’s smile was indulgent. “Well, I suppose it’s an attempt, but you barely scratch the surface. There are many reasons to… doubt Jeremiah Scripture. To say that I do not trust him is perhaps not accurate. I disagree with him on most if not all of his philosophy, however, which in the Teragen is a rather meaningful thing to say.”

She took up her teacup again and sipped it. “‘You will hear of a philosopher by his works and ye, by his works thou shalt know him’,” she said, her four voices echoing. “And what works they are. The Cult of Mal, and all that came of it. And let us not forget, Marcel Delorimier, The Apostle. A peculiar coincidence also that Jeremiah just so happens to deify his lover. How did you phrase it, Puck? Hubris to shame any Greek? Where is Scripture ardently speaking out against us deifying the man who once wrote that we are all peers, all equals in Teras?”

Chang looked out the window now, though in truth she was looking to some place far away and long lost, the place the Terats talked of back then which first lured her to the movement, and which caused her to leave it when she realized it was not in evidence. “I feel that Scripture, like Mal, may well be the perpetrator of a colossal and hurtful lie, a lie which has redefined the history of the world and could end it quite easily.”

They always promise the world, these leaders of Novas, Chang thought. Pax, Mal, Scripture… I suppose me as well, these days. Her lip curled in distaste. She never chose to be a leader, never wanted to be. That role was forced rudely upon her, but done so by so many that she had no choice save to do honour by their trust.

Puck sipped his tea, listening in silence, studying her the way she once studied him. She wondered if he could dissect her as easily as she once did to him, too. A frightening thing, this apotheosis. No wonder Proteus is so desperate to kill them all.

“As I said, my wife was not entirely accurate. The case is less that I distrust Jeremiah Scripture and more that I distrust his works. I like the man, he is kind-hearted and well-meaning, wise and brilliant. But such people can still be wrong. And I believe that he is wrong, has been proven wrong, and has shown little sign of learning from his mistakes. I find that disturbing. Still, let us start at the big one, shall we?” Her voices came together to form a harsh, clinical tone, sharp and incisive as a scalpel.

Puck shifted in his chair, as if her words made him feel just slightly uncomfortable. She saw the hackles rise and settle down the back of his neck.

“My most essential distrust of Scripture is that I believe he stands in betrayal of the principles that I hold most dear, that of peerage. I do not believe Scripture views other Terats as his peers. Rather, I believe he views us as his inferiors, to be judged and watched and guided. Oh, he would not say in such terms, he’s far too good a speaker for that, but they do say actions speak louder than words, and Scripture’s actions are very loud indeed. He holds himself every bit as aloof as his beloved, taking executive action when it so suits him – and them – and he is beholden to nobody while we are beholden to him and Mal. Take the example with you and your sister. What actual right did Scripture have to act then? You said it yourself, it’s up to Eden. Ah, but you’ll say it’s Scripture’s prerogative to act as he wishes.” Chang leaned forward. “Funny, I seem to recall you saying that he very firmly told you not to act, to leave it all up to him. Strange how the edict to do as your conscience bids runs truer for some than for others, hmm?

“In truth, I’m not certain that Scripture has any faith in the Teragen at all. Let me ask this about the Nursery. Why must it be Scripture and Mal who raise all of our children? Explain this to me Puck. You cannot hand wave and say that this is Bounty’s choice ergo we must respect it. This is a decision that will define the entire future of our race. Why should one of us get to make that decision? Why was nobody asked? Why is it that after nearly thirty years the exact same pair are making all of the important decisions, while trucking out the same old show and song and dance about how we’re all equals in the node, all peers, all One Race?”

Chang had not vocalized these concerns to anyone. She could feel Puck’s new charisma working on her, his new will dragging out her answers. She could resist it, but why bother?

“The answer to this is simple. They – being Scripture and Mal – do not care what our opinions are. They believe they know best and rely on the good faith of the rest of the Teragen. Good faith I do not have. I am a skeptic by nature, Puck. I question everything. My beliefs and theirs, and it disturbs me, disturbs me more than I can possibly explain to you, how little critical thought is applied to the words of Divis Mal and Jeremiah Scripture. How can I have faith in the man who allowed The Apostle to grow so powerful that he, in league with Tarik almost wiped out you and all the other Children of Teras? There are one of two options. One is that Scripture knew of The Apostle’s betrayal and permitted it to happen for his own oblique reasons. The other is that he did not know. In either case, his credo has not altered one bit, and he still proclaims the same flawed philosophy. And here is my explanation for why I believe it is flawed. You know I am dear, dear friends with The Alchemist. Cyndi is probably my favourite student, in fact, and you know also she is a devout Wiccan. I hope also, that you can tell the difference between her faith, and that of Scripture’s Cult of Mal.

“I have always had an issue with Scripture’s belief that Novas should embrace a new faith, especially one embodied in Mal. Listen to Clarion for five minutes if you need to understand why. I recommend a stalwart mind and earplugs. Then look at history. Baseline history is largely defined by religious wars, fought by hair-brained zealots eager to slaughter in the name of their god of the age. Somehow, Jeremiah Scripture fails to notice that his doctrine has created that exact pattern amongst us. Remember what I told you, Puck, here in this very room not so long ago?”

Puck drew himself up and nodded. “‘The greatest arrogance of Novas is the belief that we are somehow immune to the flow of history and the cruelties of blind, indifferent chance.’ I think that’s how it went.” His lip twitched, just a little. For a moment he did not meet her eyes. There were thoughts going on behind his eyes, consideration of her words and their import.

“The flow of history shows us what religion does to the mind. It strips away rational thought, and causes zealotry, and eventually violence. This is not a slippery slidey slope fallacy, in fact such things are essentially unnecessary amongst novas, because individuals are capable of taking such drastic, devastating actions. Two Novas, and only two, came within inches of murdering everyone in the Nursery. But even if it were such a fallacy, the Cult of Mal is a breeding ground for madness and obsession. I hope you will not doubt me in that, at least. Blind, indifferent chance granted The Apostle to be Scripture’s disciple. Yet he must bear the blame of that failure, because a student’s failings must necessarily be his mentor’s. I cannot free Scripture of blame in this. His philosophy led directly to this series of events, his oversight allowed it to occur. And this is the man I am supposed to trust to raise the entirety of the second generation of Terats?” Chang shook her head. “I think not, Puck. Scripture is not perfect. He is no better equipped to be a parent than the rest of us.”

There was silence between them after that, for some time. She drank her tea, listening to the sounds around her. Puck said nothing. After a while, Chang straightened up and shrugged. “Still, this returns us to my first question. Why do you care? My voice is a quiet one, in the end. It’s not like anyone listens to me. I’m the perverted, pretentious artiste who dares to contradict Mal and disagrees with almost everyone for the sake of doing so. But remember, Puck, my first and truest message, is that you ought to think for yourself. How can any of us do that if we’re supposed to acknowledge Divis Mal as our God?

“As for the Creché, the answer is simple enough. I wanted to do this separately. Scrambler’s involvement was unexpected. I was more concerned about Proteus. I could not count completely upon Scripture or Mal’s support, ergo it was too risky to approach them. I could not take the chance of news getting out. It turns out I miscalculated. As I said earlier, none of us are perfect. I made a mistake. Perhaps, like some of my detractors will be so keen to tell you, I am just not as clever as I think I am. I am also individualistic to a fault, and asking others for assistance does not come to me naturally. In this I acknowledge Jeremiah as my superior,” Chang said, with a warm smile. “Really, I’m sure he finds me infuriating. I know he’s spoken on my behalf before, and I repay him with such cruelty. But I do not compromise my beliefs or my ideals, ever, for anyone. I did not as a baseline, I will not as a Terat. I think he actually respects that about me, regardless of the somewhat negative consequences.”

Puck nodded. He was listening hard, seeming to think through every word, but he could as easily be dismissing them all. It did not matter, as it never did when it came to speaking of her philosophy. Puck knew this voice, this tone, all too well. It was Chan g at her purest, relating her beliefs and the reasons behind them as clearly and completely as she could manage, with absolute certainty, not in her rectitude, but in her own honesty. Few Novas knew themselves better than Chang Zha-Yang. It was the source of her seemingly endless inner strength.

“I’m still not clear on the purpose of the Creché,” Puck said.

“To provide an alternative to the Nursery. I won’t lie, indoctrination has occurred to me. Would you be surprised to learn, though, that my main concern is that you are being taught Teras from too young an age?”

It was the first time a true crack showed in Puck’s icy exterior. He blinked rapidly, and ran his hand through his hair, that timeless tic of his. “Uh… yes?”

Chang smiled. “I have always maintained that Teras must be a choice, and that is more true than ever after my recent discoveries with Coraline Boehm. It is a monumental decision, Puck, one that you were uniquely incapable of taking due to an accident of birth, but it’s true for every other Terat.” She frowned. This part of her discourse was new. She had never vocalized it before to anyone, not even to herself.

“It ties into many a talk I have had with Snow. As a people, we are savages. We Terats are barely even a rudimentary society. We have no law, no rules, no system, and yet we are not anarchic, either. We are closer to a quantum-based tribal culture. Look through any faction. Can you think of one where the leader was not the most powerful involved? You cannot because it does not exist. Yet if this claim of being One Race is to remain that, rules we must have, and a society of some stripe. But that cannot happen while all of the children are raised by three Novas. Society is formed at the lowest level by the interaction of children from different parents. Parentage itself is a bracing challenge. It’s one that many Terats need to face. You have your bias, no doubt, because of what happened to Eden. It’s a difficult case, I agree, but the answer is not to pick three Novas at random and say ‘you there, be the parents of all of us’. Unless we truly are just ‘One’ race, and the rest of us are extraneous to requirements.”

She leaned forward, frowning deeply. “I am not being very clear on this because in truth I am myself… uncertain. I have never pursued parentage, even though Lucrezia has broached it once or twice, because I believe I would be a terrible parent. But does it not bother you, that in just under thirty years, the Teragen has not moved one step closer to finding a place of our own? That after all of this time, our war goes on, unchanged. Yet in just five years, Einherjar made a king of himself.” She gave a snort, and it was pure derision. “Vanity, though I have admiration for the man and his achievements. I think you’ve seen the statuary I made for his palaces. His successes inspired me a little. Where are we going, Puck? And I hope that it frightens you a little that I’m asking that question. I’ve been a…” again, her lip twisted, “leader in the Teragen for some years. I’ve been party to many discussions, and I see no hope, no sign of the future. All I’ve seen is ‘make Nursery, have babies, hope.’ We failed you, Puck. We should have made something better for you. I suppose in the end, the Creché is my attempt to contribute, my apology to the next generation.”

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Puck sat heavily in his chair, feeling the tea cool degree by degree as he listened and considered all that his mentor had said. "I've never liked religion or worship," he started quietly. "It's the one thing Infinity and I really disagree on to the point that we just won't talk about it around each other."

He set the cup down and pressed his fingertips together, obviously pensive. "Those loons on the other side of Central Park that call themselves the 'Supplicants of the Ascent', they were started by a member of Exalt!. He didn't think that we should be so...open in who was allowed to apply for membership. He wanted to make us exclusive, 'invitation only' was the phrase he used. When I told him no, he...I don't know, twisted it up in his head and went and started a cult." He scrubbed at his face, another tic of his for when he was frustrated with someone or something, "And now I've got a bevy of worshippers that do things like leave half-starved kids with love peoms etched into their skin chained up to the dumpsters behind the kitchens or tied up in a conference room. Or they hold public vigils in the park to show their devotion to me. I even had a flock of lawyers over here the other day because one of them changed their will to leave their fortune to me and then walked out into traffic in front of this building." He looked genuinely sad at that and said softly again, "I really don't like religion."

"But, Scripture never asked us to worship Mal. I mean, you could see it in him, the way he talks about him and acts around him, but...it wasn't even implied, at least to me, that we had to be the same way. Infinity is, but..." he shrugged, uncomfortable, "that's her decision. The path she wants to follow."

He sighed. She'd made at least one deep valid point and he really didn't want to delve into it, but that was the whole point of the conversation. "You're right, though. The Cult of Mal....it's a powder keg and the only reason it hasn't blown up yet is that Mal never tells them to actually do anything and Scripture....well, neither does he, beyond looking to Mal as the perfection of what it is to be a nova. A god, I guess. I have to admit, I always got a little bored when he'd talk on the subject. I mean, Mal's awesome, in pretty much every sense of the word, and he's always been there if we needed him, but...he's not close. Not like Bounty and Scripture." He nodded the point to her, "I can understand why that bothers you, the Cult, and why you disagree."

"As for The Apostle..." he paused slightly, "well, I hope I'm not judged by the actions of Jeramiah Cossan when others look at me." He held up his hands, "I know the situation isn't exactly the same. Cossan was a member of Exalt! for only a few weeks, and not my personal student, but still. Judge a person by their actions, I agree on that, but a mentor is not a puppet-master to their students. Or at least shouldn't be. We all make our own decisions."

He stood up and paced again, stopping at the mantle and leaning up against the marble embellishments there. "I think...I think that's why Mal isn't close, why he says so little. He could be a puppet-master to us all, baseline and nova, if he were of a mind to. And blatantly and still make us not care. I've learned how to...to function around baselines over the past few weeks, but Chang, if I wanted to - I could tell everyone here at Exalt!, at least all the baselines, and probably Dr. Loshe as well, to go jump in the ocean and let themselves drown. Without even effort on my part to overcome the most basic instinct of any living creature. That's terrifying. It's worse with the Supplicants. Every time I make a public statement or one of them gets close enough to just hear me say something, suddenly it's gospel and used as an excuse for anything and everything. I mentioned at a restaurant two days ago that I like cinnamon on my hot chocolate and then I heard earlier today from Eric that Nymphaea has the Supplicants buying up cinnamon and hot chocolate and that they're to use that as a holy drink during their rituals or whatever! And that they're not allowed to have either at any other time!" He thrust his arms out, "What stupidity is that? It's cinnamon and hot chocolate!"

He pulled himself back and waved an apology, "Sorry, I'm getting off-topic. They've just been...worse than usual lately, and only getting worse with time. I've even had people coming in asking if they have to join the Supplicants first before they can apply for Exalt! because that's what their blasted OpPage says!" He grew silent for several moments, brooding by the fire place.

"I think you judge him too harshly," he finally broke the silence with careful words, "but that's your opinion. And mine, so there it is. And I must admit that I do feel a little hypocritical, grilling you like this."

Chang arched a brow, clearly surprised by the admission and wondering just what he was up to that he would feel that way.

He glanced back to her. "Darrik. Well, more specifically Gwen and Agatha. I spoke - carefully and a little vaguely - with them about the Nursery, about a safe place for their children to grow up. They refused, all three of them. And...it's not my place to force them or to take the children they've conceived from them simply because I think the Nursery is the best and safest place for a nova to be raised and nurtured in. But I won't see them become victims of motherhunters....so, I've been putting some things together. Not a Nursery, at least not like the Nursery. Not even something just for the security of the children, but a place that safe for any child or even adult in Exalt!. Different things. Different...stages, I guess. You talked about not knowing where we're going, as the Teragen. I can't answer that, but I know with Exalt! that it's heading somewhere. I can feel it all building towards something, but I can't quite put all the pieces together to see what yet."

He strode back over to her, giving her a moment to extend her lounging chair into a full couch so he could sit comfortably while they continued to talk. "So much has been going on, I haven't even had time to tell you the new things I've discovered I can do. It ties in, trust me. First off, I can attune...massive amounts of materials or people. Darrik's been teaching me this method he created, and apparently when I erupted I gained a power that does just about the same thing, so it's just more on more. Second..." Puck disappeared from the couch in a blink, replaced by a silver-gold glowing humanoid form, and then he blinked back again to his normal fleshy self, "there's that. Star says it's a pure quantum form that creates light by exciting the particles that pass through it - me. It's...odd, but comfortable, too? The really important part about it, though, is that when I'm like that I can...feel?....just about everywhere. And I can follow the quantum flows...move myself around anywhere I can perceive like that. The first time it happened...I space out. Literally. I jumped...somewhere. I could see all these galaxies, galactic clusters, even. It was...amazing, overwhelming. And it took a little while to find my way back."

He lounged against her sofa-self, more like he'd been before his apotheosis than she'd seen before, sharing his secrets and discoveries with her like he had. "Also, apparently my organ tissues is...more evenly dispersed now." He laughed, "Dr. Loshe found that very disturbing at first, but now she's trying to figure out if she can do the same thing....which brings me to the next thing. I think I can teach her how to do it. We keep track of everything here, at least everything we can think of and have the tools for, and after I changed, I became like a super-teacher. At first we just noticed it with the Bodhi lessons, but we noticed that the people getting the Bodhi lessons....well, the were getting smarter, not just more educated, but that their IQ's started jumping on the tests we do periodically. So we did some experiments and I can teach things, not just knowledge but potentials. I've..." he hesitated, then pressed on, wanting to tell someone and trusting Chang's discretion, "I've been able to teach some of them quantum-based abilities. Sort of. Not stuff that you've got to be able to manipulate quantum to do, but stuff that's only been found in novas before."

"I think I can do more. There's other things, stuff that just sort pulls at my mind, tugging this way and that, but I haven't been able to make it click yet. I've been focusing on the intelligence stuff, mostly, making it easier for people to learn. Bodhi, specifically, but just learn in general." He watched her nervously now, no idea of how she'd react to all of this and not having intended to have opened this discussion so soon. But he needed to share with someone, especially someone that he looked to still for guidance and honest reactions, and Chang was his mentor. He had two more secrets to possibly share with her, but he needed to know how she felt about what he'd revealed already before he made that leap.

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Chang smiled at him kindly. “Puck, you are growing up fast. You know the power of our voices. I am probably no longer as dangerous as you in this regard, but we are still birds of a feather, as is Scripture. Does Scripture truly need to ‘tell’ people to worship Mal? He implies it, and you know that he does. That is all that’s needed, and Scripture knows the power of his own voice. More than anybody, he knows. This is the thing about me, and now you as well. We are not on our knees looking up any more. Mal is not so very far away, nor is Scripture, and we can see with open eyes what it is they do. To me it is our duty to do so. I want the Teragen to be… so great. I fear that we began from a rotten seed.”

Puck knew the implication well enough. He actually looked around as if he might have feared Mal to boil out of the shadows, full of vengeful wrath.

“Mal should have been wise enough to nix the entire idea of ‘Cult of Mal’. Even if neither Scripture nor Mal intended Mal to be ‘the god’ in question, the name is… leading, shall we say? I respect both of them too much to believe they did not consider the consequences. And if I am overestimating them, well, that says a great deal right there. And Scripture… he creates these things, then takes his hands off the wheel and sits back as if to say ‘this isn’t my van, I just turned the engine on’. It’s irresponsible. Don’t you agree with that, Puck? Can’t you see what I mean?”

It looked like she was stabbing him in the gut with a knife. Puck wasn’t trying – or perhaps even wasn’t able – to hide his feelings at this point. He was thinking through what she said, and his new intellect did not give him the comforting, protective blanket of incomprehension. She could see it behind his eyes. He was following her logic perfectly, and hated where it led him.

“Yes,” he said, and that one word sounded agonizing. “I see where you’re coming from. I still think you are being too harsh.”

“And about Mal?”

“I don’t know how to even approach that question.”

“Indeed,” Chang said, her four voices grave, serious, even ominous in the darkness of their tone. “What peers we are, hmm? We’re scared even to approach the idea of criticizing our lord and master. Oh, wait, he’s not our lord and master, is he? Or is he? Funny how he speaks, and everyone leaps to obey his every utterance. I’ve not seen him act to do something about this. True he does not play an active role in day to day activities, and I do believe that he is not lying when he says that he seeks peers. But I do fear that he is losing faith in us, and rapidly. Because he had an idea of what the Teragen was meant to be, and do you know what I think?”

Puck was so tense he could have shattered like glass. It was right there in his eyes. He could have said her words for her, his lips even moved, but Chang saw the muscles tense and his jaw clenched with a clack of tooth on tooth. He was tuned into her way of thinking now, and he knew where she was going.

“I think that Mal was wrong from the very first. I think Mal completely misunderstood the very nature of that which is Nova. He knew that which is Mal, but not the rest of us. And I don’t think he knows what to do with what he’s got, and is waiting for us to become what he wants us to be. And we are never going to be that thing. He’s not patient, Puck. People say he is, but he’s not. The publishing of the Null Manifesto was reactionary, almost knee-jerk, badly timed, poorly conceived, even Count Orzais could see that and Mal concurred with him. After the fact, though. Which means either he did not realize that it was a poor idea at the time but did it anyway – which is madness – or that even Mal is prone to emotional, thoughtless action. You’re not wrong for saying that I’m too harsh. I’ve always had a sombre disposition. You know, I can’t actually remember smiling when I was a child. Not once. I must have, but I don’t remember smiling.”

That broke some of the tension in the air, and Puck grinned. “I can imagine that all too easily, I’m afraid.”

Chang nodded gravely. “We all have our crosses to bear. You are more positive than I, and I fear, you may even be my intellectual superior now. Mayhap you can…” her eyes flicked around, as if seeking something not even Puck’s eyes could discern, “mayhap you can identify somewhere or something that I have put too much emphasis upon, something I’ve grossly misinterpreted.” Chang began to grind her hands together. “Maybe something I cannot even conceive of that melds all of these doubts of mine into a full tapestry that reveals the hidden purity. I mean… there must be a reason that nobody listens to me, no matter how polite and eloquent I am. That’s my greatest fear, you know, being wrong. Being wrong about everything and that I’m leading my students down a dark and maddened path. They deserve better of me. I want to see them all in Chrysalis one day. The Alchemist, Shiv, Meh’Lindi, all of them.”

“I know,” Puck said. It did not seem to make him feel comfortable. It was a breach of the mentor – student relationship he still valued, and, Chang felt, perhaps not one he was ready for.

“My final word on Scripture: there is a gap of experience between us. You know the man, I know his works. But you are more of a people person than I. You know how much value I put on philosophy, upon principle, morals, and yes, beliefs. I am an atheist unquestionably, but I see nothing wrong with the faith of The Alchemist. Are you curious why I find no issue with her faith yet take so much issue with the – ahem – unending bullshit of the Cult of Mal?”

Puck cracked a grin at that one. “No need to be gentle on my account, Chang, tell me how you really feel.”

Chang raised her hand, clicked her fingers, and parted her lips. She did not speak, her mouth just opened, and sound emerged. What sounds emerged were a perfect series of TV and movie ‘bleep’ sound effects, as if to cover up a string of expletives.

Puck laughed into his hand. When that was done he nodded. “Okay, I’ll bite. Why are you okay with Cyndi?”

“The difference between Cyndi and The Cult of Mal is that her faith was there first. She was not a – how you say – functional girl, but her faith was always strong. The entire point of the Cult of Mal is to take Novas who have no beliefs and convert them, or replace the beliefs of Novas who have belief already with those of the Cult. Cyndi follows the path of Teras and has explained to me in excoriating detail – and believe me, I made her – how nothing in Teras actually contradicts her religious faith. What I find to be the most reassuring aspect is that she struggles often with these things. There are conflicts, frequently, and she often comes to me for advice in resolving them. But that is not what the Cult promises. On the contrary, the Cult act as if life is simple once you accept the truth of Mal. Mal makes everything better. He slices, he dices. The Apostle once said, ‘it is Mal who makes us more than novas’. Cyndi is not more than Nova. Her faith does not make her ‘better’ than the rest of us, as the Cult of Mal would have you believe. Her faith is her faith, and a part of what makes her the wonderful person she is. The Cult say that Mal is the one who gives form to Teras. Cyndi recognizes that Teras is inside her, just as it is inside any other Nova. Her faith is a part of it. Why not? If being nice to baselines works, why not a belief in spiritual energies and godheads and suchlike?” She smiled at Puck.

“I object to that! I’m far more than just ‘nice’.”

“Indeed. So, I see a fundamental difference in the relationship between faith and Teras when I look at the adherents of the Cult of Mal and The Alchemist. I’ve considered that it may be bias because she’s a beautiful, sexually compatible woman and exceedingly pleasant, but I have settled those concerns. What finally settled it was seeing her with her ‘coven’. You know she’s the leader of a baseline witch coven? Seeing her with them… honestly, it reminds me of you with Exalt! She shared with them, and she met them on an even playing field. That I found remarkable. In every way she was their superior… but not in faith. There was nothing self-serving in it, nothing self-aggrandizing. For all the way she dresses and looks and the way she slits her wrists for show, she’s one of the most genuine Novas I’ve ever met. Faith I’d take on a case by case basis, but with The Alchemist, I have no fears.”

Puck nodded. “Okay.”

“Now, as to your blatant showing off,” Chang gave him a clap. “You’re a lot showier than you used to be, certainly. I envy you, being able to go up there and see things from outside. It must have been beautiful indeed through your eyes. As for this thing involving Bodhi,” she turned her head, considering it, “That is quite fascinating,” Chang said. “So you are a ‘super teacher’. Utopia would be thrilled to hear that one of us has become so community-minded.”

Puck’s eyes widened, and he shook his head.


He shook his head again. “I think if they find out they’ll want to bomb the site from orbit. You know, just to be sure.”

Chang sighed. “I suppose you’re right. But still, that’s most remarkable. I’m not some niggard on a hill, Puck. If you want to share your gifts with your oversized fan club, go right ahead.” She laughed when his eyes widened.

“You’re being cruel.”

“Forgive me, I’m attempting to lighten the mood somewhat and I’ve never had the greatest sense of humour. If I comprehend you correctly, you’re suggesting that your invented language is actually making people smarter?”

“Not quite,” Puck said. “More that I can make people smarter using it. And other things, too.”

“My, my. That’s impressive indeed. Well, you'll not hear me complaining about the idea of more intelligent people in the world. Just be careful about the proverbial handing of a nuke into the hands of an ape. Not everyone is well-suited to being intelligent, and some people would be positively deadly if they were smarter. Leviathan, for instance. And no, you can't tell him I said that. You speak of potentials… do you mean you can unlock, inner depths? Perhaps grasp an artistic spirit buried in a baseline’s soul and help them express it? Hmm. Yes, very interesting. I can think of nothing comparable, so there’s little I can say. Do keep me informed, I’ll think about it, see if anything occurs to me in terms of practicing. I wonder, does it have applications in bed?”

Puck tried not to laugh.

“I know, I know, but sex is important to you. You know my teachings on the matter. I’ve always believed it’s important for Terats to redefine their sexuality through the lens of their transformations and powers. Before you could not really do that, but now? You say you can attune matter. Could you do that with a baseline? Take them with you to the heart of the galaxy and make love in the heart of stars? If you can I suggest you do. If not, well, at least try it with a box of oranges or something. It could be useful down the line. Might I ask a follow up question from our last talk?”

“Go ahead.”

“Actually I’ll quickly interject, I find it delightful that your eyes aren’t glazing over. I do talk a lot when I get rolling, don’t I?”

Puck shook his head and waved her off with both hands. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Chang reached out and put a hand on his cheek, and put the other on the back of his head. “Yes you do, but thank you for the pretence nonetheless. I hope you are able to take more from our talks now, as opposed to the mental equivalent waking up afterwards in a haze wondering what happened last night and why you’re wearing that traffic cone.”

“I am, really.”

Chang put her hands back in her lap. “I posited last time that Eden might be important to your future development. Has that been shown to be inaccurate? You’ve not mentioned her once in all this. She must seem… very slow.” It was a well-chosen phrase, and not really a question. Brute was dull-witted, of that there was no question. Her name was given in cruelty, but it was not completely unfair.

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A slow, proud smile spread across the beautiful man's features. "She's nearly as smart as I used to be, now. She was the first one we noticed, from the Bodhi lessons. It was hard for her at first and then she just started to get it, way faster than she had before or really than anyone else in her class. She's on the low end of nova intelligence, but she's there now." He shrugged and frowned a little, "Though, she's not picking up some of the other things I've been teaching, things the baseline members have been able to incorporate into themselves. It's...frustrating. I think....I dunno, that there's still some part of her that's...scarred?"

He shook his head. He couldn't change whatever it was right now, but he was working on; some part of his mind was always devoted to his sister. "But still...it's improvement." He glanced up at Chang, still reclined on her couch-self, but she could feel the tension threading through him. "There's more."

Isn't there always? Chang thought, but only arched a brow and motioned for him to continue.

"The things I've been teaching, the feel like...like pieces of a puzzle, and I think I've figured out what it's fitting into. I get this feeling sometimes...we figured out that I had to attune people to teach them the...the nova stuff. And while I'm teaching...sometimes it feels like...like I'm connecting to them, that we're....eh." He sighed, "I don't even have a good word for it in Bodhi yet. Sometimes I think I can sense what they're thinking, sort of what we're thinking." His face twisted into a disgusted look, "At first I thought it might be telepathy. Some dreg of my father pushing through, but it doesn't happen unless I'm attuned to them and it's never happened except with the group I've been working with on the Bodhi and the other. And some of the members, they've described the same feeling between each other during the lessons. We've started experimenting, seeing if we can make it happen on purpose, but...well, we had one time we think was a success, but we haven't been able to repeat it. Frustrating, but challenging too. That was yesterday, so I'm hoping we're making progress on...whatever it is."

"There's that...and....well, the other, I'm not quite sure, but..," he ran a hand through his hair, "I...I think I can...sense...latents." He glanced at Chang, then away again, the last having come out in a bit of a rush. "When I changed, I could feel the quantum around me....for kilometers, and the same thing the first time I changed to that energy pattern, only much much farther. And there's been this...when I go out, there's people that just feel...different. I've been tracking them and Eric pulled the medical records on them...along with everything else he could find, but the few of them that have had the tests done, they're all latents. The rest have never been tested..."

He paused, then shrugged. "So I had the ones that are Exalt! members tested...they're all latents. All like three of them, but....I had all the other members tested, and none of them are latents. It's statistically significant, given how rare latency is in the general population and that Exalt! has a fairly good sampling of backgrounds in its membership. And it's just like everything else. I feel like I've scratched the surface of something much more, I just don't know yet exactly how to - to delve deeper." He gave her a hopeful look, "I don't suppose you've had students with the same issues before? Not really knowing everything they could do? Star and I are getting a proper lab set up, but you still have to know the questions to ask in that kind of environment."

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“Naturally,” Chang said, covering up her blurring thoughts. She was one of the fastest thinkers in the world, faster even than Novas quantifiably more intelligent than herself, and these suggestions were very worthy of her consideration.

“In fact it’s happened every time eventually. Prudence is by far the most drastic example – though she is Shiv’s student, not mine – but all of my…” Chang paused, and for a moment an expression of quite whimsical amusement crossed her face. “Well, I suppose friends is the right term. All of my friends have at some point changed or grown, and come to me for advice. I wear the biggest beard in the Pandaimonion, after all.”

Puck nodded, rather than laugh at the obvious joke. “And what advice did you give them?”

“I helped put together meditations, physical exercises, and courses of raw brute force quantum manipulation designed to help them delve to those inner depths. Admittedly, the network of powers you have developed are eclectic, and I’ve never dealt with a student of such staggering power.” She folded her hands in her lap and studied him, putting together ideas like a builder erecting a tower. Between one blink and the next, her eyes blazed new colours, the right flaring jade green, the left blind white. “For starters I would recommend focusing upon this ability to sense latents. No doubt you are correct in your summation that you have additional abilities, but it is best to take these things a step at a time. Our powers are often like links in a chain, and when you strengthen one link, the next slips naturally into place. Meditate upon how those senses feel, explore them and what they mean within the corridors of your mind, go to old and familiar places with known latents and see if their presence changes the ambience somewhat. It is small things like this which help both to unlock our inner depths and to make small baby steps on the path of Teras. Keep in touch with me over the next few weeks. You can teleport around now, apparently, so just pop in when it’s convenient and you have something to report. I’ll put a personalized program together for you before long.”

She could see the relief pouring off him at her words. It was the confidence in her four-toned voice, she thought. For all his power Puck had no idea what to do next, or where it was leading him. Chang knew the value of a confident and reassuring voice on hand to soothe one’s fears. Admittedly, she had always banished such stabilizing forces. Chang considered such things to be challenges she must face alone. But that was her way, and she was a hermit pretending to be a socialite. Puck needed people on a literal level. All of a sudden, that quirk of his made sense.

“What do you think of Bodhi?” Puck said, his voice full of pride.

“It sounds to me that your Bodhi has mutated into a sort of mimetic linguistic/telepathic combinant virus.”

Puck looked at her blankly. “That doesn’t sound good.”

“It’s neither good nor bad, really, just a description which may or may not fit. Theoretically – assuming I have made the correct connections from what you’ve said – Bodhi has become an infectious idea, laced with foreign information that can enact severe changes on the brain and perhaps even the body of the infected. The key to the theory is that as the idea spreads and propagates in the minds of multiple hosts, it gains new qualities, and when shared verbally takes on a new aspect. Hence ‘Combinant’, for alone it can accomplish very little, but as the infection grows, so too does its effect.”

Beyond their room Chang could hear the many souls of Exalt! going about their business. Most of them knew she was in the building speaking with Puck, and plenty were theorizing as to what they were discussing.

“Have you mastered your perceptions enough to pick out individual conversations, by the way?”

Puck nodded. “The exercises you set were very helpful.”

“I used them myself. There’s only a handful of Novas in the world who can sense as acutely as us, or perhaps I should say ‘you’. It seems your senses surpass mine own.” She could not keep a slight sense of awe from her voice. “Thirty years of trying and studious growth, and you’ve outstripped me in three. I admit, I’m envious,” she glanced out of the window, and watched a man a half mile away sitting at his office desk, talking on the phone. There was lipstick on the lapel. Oh dear. That was sloppy of him. “As much as I can smell or see or hear or feel, I always think that I could do and create so much more if only I could only perceive more.”

She concentrated on the man, and narrowed her eyes a little. Chang reached out with quantum precision, and gave a gentle push on her senses, as if touching a boat at the edge of a stream to send it on its path with the current. A moment later, she was looking through the man’s eyes, listening to his voice as he muttered and mumbled under his breath, hearing her own words from his vantage. Chang was keeping this little trick under wraps for now, though perhaps she would share it with Puck later.

Chang glanced over the documents the man was reading. They detailed a corporate merger he was in the middle of. The dullness of it was enough to make her pull her perceptions back. She blinked twice as she readjusted to the switch.

Puck was nodding at her. “I’m not sure about this one, you know.”

“I may be incorrect, I’m not a scientist and my own understanding is drawn from conversations with Meh’Lindi. As I understand it, the addition of quantum spice permits all kinds of additional or unpredictable or even nonsensical effects to result from internalizing the idea, including what appears to be happening in your case… group telepathy. Perhaps even an outright merging of consciousness, as the scattered idea of Bodhi combines into a greater whole through its many and varied vehicles. Meh’Lindi and a few of her Harvester friends were batting around some more extravagant ideas for exploring the applications of poisoners, partially due to seeing what The Alchemist could do with herself. You’re aware that there are many Novas capable of creating not just poisons, but diseases, pathogens, infections and viruses as well. As it was explained to me this was part of an idea to make the idea of Teras into a transmissible Nova-only virus, communicable via speech. As she explained it, they could theoretically make it happen, but only one strain of Teras could be thus transmitted, and so they discarded the idea.”

“I’m a virus?” Puck exclaimed.

Chang raised a hand to interrupt him. “Perhaps you are. There’s no real shame in that. Some viruses have been around longer than the human race. I find it quite tiresome how few Novas are able to appreciate the grandeur of things less obvious than themselves.” She glanced down at the magnificent bulge of her cock and the triple swell of her breasts. “Of course, I am aware of the irony of saying that, given how obvious I am, but the message is oft truer than the messenger. Such is the advantage of being a philosopher: my words can often outstrip my appearance and impart wisdom despite people’s prejudice against me.”

“No fear of that here,” Puck said. “Though you do make even me feel inadequate at times.”

She smiled at that. “I’m sure your lovers are glad. I wonder, does Bodhi have this effect without your presence, or only if you are involved? If it occurs without you, then yes it can be said to be viral in nature. If you think about it, it would spread gradually as baselines taught it to one another, as is the case with any mimetic object. If you are required for Bodhi to have the effects that you have outlined, then it could still be such a virus, but it one chained to your quantum signature. Whether or not I am right I suggest you explore this interpretation. It at least provides another angle from which to view your evolution.”

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"It's only happened with me, so far. It's only happened when I attune all of us, actually. That's how it all got started...I was teaching asked the group if they minded me working on my attunement power during the class, too. That's when things started to change....so, I guess it's me." He pursed his lips, "Okay, so meditation, hanging out around latents, teleport oranges to the edge of space, and look into whether or not I'm some sort of quantum memetic virus..." He shook his head, "I do have the most interesting 'to do' lists after talking with you, Chang."

He was quiet for a moment, his mind meandering back over their conversation. "I still disagree with you, about the Nursery and to an extent about Scripture, but I can't disagree that more safe places for nova children is a good idea. I'll help, as I can, but I will be honest that your crèche won't be my first priority."

He stood, "But it will be a priority, so let me know what you need and I'll do my best to get it to you." He bowed to his mentor, a grin tugging at his lips, and held a hand out to her, "Would you like to go? To the edge of the universe, I mean? It's....inspiring, at the least."

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She smiled, and it was both unreserved and genuine. “The edge of the universe,” she said. Chang felt an actual fluttering in her heart, as if it were eager to take flight. And what things might there be to see there? All of her students surprised her with something sooner or later. They all offered some experience, something all theirs that nobody else could share.

Her eyes shifted, one to blind white, the other to shining yellow. “I think… that would be very nice, Puck. Yes, I would like that.”

Puck grinned, and he seemed every bit the boy again. “Okay, then. Anything else to add to my ‘to do’ list?”

Chang smiled. “I recommend citrus bergamia risso for the oranges. The peel is used to flavour earl grey tea.”

Puck gave her a slightly suspicious look. “Why those?”

“Well, if you’re going to take fruit to the edge of the universe, you must make sure they have class, as with any other date.”

He laughed. “Citrus bergamia risso it is.”

Chang rose, sucking back in the chairs and compressing them into buttocks once again. “You must take care in everything you do, Puck. Never let it get… mundane. Love what you are. Love it because there is so much beauty in the world, and you and me and a few lucky others, we’re granted the gifts to truly see it.” She took a deep breath, and for a moment, she felt genuinely overcome. These were old emotions, raw, unending, and they stirred at the greatest of times. Often they stirred when she was with her wife. “So see it. Open your eyes as wide as they’ll go, and don’t let anyone shut them.”

“You think I would?” His eyes were twinkling, and full of mischief. “When you gave me those exercises, to really explore my perceptions, to get used to them, and the first thing I saw was ‘go to an aquarium’, I was confused. But I went. And it was amazing. I still haven’t found a live car wreck to look at, though.”

She shook her head. “You clearly aren’t trying hard enough. It’s New York, isn’t it?” She looked around. “I can hear four different death rattles right now. Not the best of sounds. And now, Puck, for the other lesson. Change, and grow, but always stay the same. Never lose the wonder. Don’t let yourself grow old.”

Chang felt good saying the words. Not because they were all touchy-feely and nice and kind, but because they were heartfelt. They were hers. Every time she bridged, or shifted, or even formed clothes, it was fantastic. Glorious. Hers. She hoped he would take the same joy from his teleportation, or in being a mimetic combinant virus bent on world domination. Because they were Terat as well as Nova, and it mattered that they never stop loving being what and who they were.

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Puck slipped behind her, wrapping his arms around and saying softly into her ear, "Old, never. I'll be Peter Pan forever!" He laughed and she could feel the shift in him as his quantum signature flooded through her and his body faded into a tingling sensation of quantum along her back.

The first jump took them above the disk of the Milky Way, far enough away to take the galaxy in in one look but still well within the galactic group. He let them float in the Void for a little time, for Chang to take in the sight and for himself to find the next interesting point to jump to. They jumped a dozen times, each jump taking them farther from home and closer to that place on the edge of everything that Puck had jumped to the first time. He did his best to pick the most interesting places, in nebulae forming new stars, just far enough from black holes that were doing stellar dances with nearby stars, even just to a blank space where most of the universe was blocked by a cloud of dense planetoids, black beyond black. Finally, they were where he'd been before, looking out one direction on the glittering jewels of galaxies that scattered across existence in careless patterns, and in the other direction the nothingness of the true Void that hid whatever might exist outside in the space between realities.

He loved the enraptured look on her face, almost religious in its intensity, as they made their way through the universe. About halfway through, he'd begun to hum something, the first original piece of music Chang had ever heard from him. And "heard" was a strange thing to both think and sense, as she knew there was no air or water, no medium to carry sound waves to her, but still, he was humming in all defiance of what little scraps of physics novas were leaving to existence. Once they were settled in their final destination, the humming turned to singing, at first wordless and then a poem of awe and wonder at the universe in Bodhi. His silver-gold form lost all semblance of humanoid shape and spun itself around her in a dance of light and quantum warmth in step with his impromptu song. It was a spontaneous and utterly genuine expression of his love of his new powers and his excitement at sharing them with her.

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Chang went far away, deep into that place where only her muse dwelled. The door was flung wide now, and her mind filled with a million images, all inspired by what she was seeing. The galaxy, the universe in all its incomprehensible magnificence.

She, too, began to slide away from humanoid form. Chang expanded, her clothes unwinding, flesh warping and splitting. By degrees her body grew rounded, her limbs disappeared. Chang swelled and expanded until she formed a great wheel a hundred feet across with two dozen spokes, and all across her surface there were figures moving, slipping and sliding as they crawled out from her centre.

Lucrezia, she thought, if only you were here with me. We could make love among the stars.

Chang turned, a wheel in space, and Puck sang, drifting between and around her spokes, before settling into an orbit around her. She could make no sound and contribute nothing to the magnificence he was blessing her with. But she could magnify his song a hundred times over. So she did, causing it to echo and reverberate in the endless black of space.

She saw in all directions, listened to the incredible silence of the universe, felt the shocking nothingness of the void with such blazing intensity that her mind struggled to contain it. But contain it she would. On every side there was a galaxy, a star burning in the dark, a sprinkling of asteroids so far away they seemed like glistening crystals, for they were naught but colossal chunks of ice blazing with the reflected light of nearby suns.

When Puck brushed her again, Chang reached out with sudden need, feeling the raw energy of his pattern, and at once internalizing it. Like an infection the glitter spread through her, and the wheel of flesh became a wheel of silver-gold quantum, raw but shaped.

Chang felt as if she saw herself anew. For this was the universe. Not a nation, not a continent nor a world, not even a galaxy, this was the universe in its awesome entirety. This was hers to see and to explore, and to in some way record. For that was the artist’s duty. To record what they saw, and render it in a form comprehensible by fellow mortals.

I will, she thought, though thinking was hard in the storm of images burning through her synapses. I will scar the minds of all with what I’ve seen. What I make will change everyone that views it.

The new sensations of this form, the sights around her… it was too much. ‘She’ fractured, as every mental process turned to absorbing this experience in its entirety, towards absorbing the entire universe into her being in case she should die never seeing this again. There was no room for wisdom, for intelligence, for personality.

Maxing for shapeshift to take her wheel shape, converting accrued taint into chrysalis due to gaining a new perspective on her place in the universe.

Full Distractible aberration in effect.

Also debuting – as far as Puck knows – a new ability, but in fact just the first in-game use of I am All as All is Me to take on some of the same qualities as his energy form

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Had he had eyes or eyelids at the moment, Puck would have blinked as his mentor took some of his essence and incorporated it into herself. They danced like that, light and endless shifting form on the edge of everything, for hours. By the time Chang had absorbed everything she could of this experience and her mind had allowed her to come back, Puck had finished his song and committed it to memory to record when they got back to Earth. Watching Chang as she cascaded through shapes and colors and just being had had him as distracted as the vista itself, but she'd been slowing down for almost an hour now.

She was still glittery, but she'd pulled herself into a perfect sphere so he ventured a cautious, "Chang? Are you back? Do you want to head back home or stay here for a while longer?"

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It was so strange, being like Puck. Chang’s capacity to match her own nature to that of her environment had never resulted in this. She had tried being electricity before, and laser energy. But somehow, that always kept her in a coherent shape. Here, though, with Puck, her wheel shape seemed limiting after a while, for all the beauteous symmetry of its construction.

She became formless, then moved through non-symmetrical and then non-euclidean shapes, forming impossible geometries with the outline of her energy form. Chang was a master of shaping her own body. Given no limitations to work with, her wild imagination, stirred into madness by this experience, resulted in the wildest of variations.

Chang ran through every colour she could imagine, and wondered if perhaps she might become colour next, and what that might be like, and what she would do if she were the colour red. Would she be angry at being associated with lust, or proud? Red always struck her as a proud colour, never humble if sometimes subtle.

Eventually she settled on a ball of energy floating in space. It reminded her of Meh’Lindi, and the shape she retreated to when she had nothing to do but think and there was much of that to be done. It took time for Puck’s words to properly penetrate her consciousness.

Most of her consciousness was focused upon perceiving the universe around her, and the part of her which was not was trying to remember those shapes she made of herself. If she could, she thought she could reflect that in her flesh, a much more awkward medium but the one truest to her at this stage of her development and – she felt – most like to always be her natural element. She might take on other states, be they metal or energy or liquid of a thousand types, but flesh was the state she almost yearned for. Everything else was inspiration for what to shape from stretchable skin and flexible bone.

Her features formed in the ball of energy, huge and stretched across the curvature facing Puck. She could not speak, but mouthed a simple, “Yes,” and, “home.”

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