Divergent Branches


bella_icon.gif brennan_icon.gif kristen_icon.gif luis_icon.gif marjorie_icon.gif

milena_icon.gif nadia_icon.gif odessa4_icon.gif russo_icon.gif veronica3_icon.gif warren_icon.gif

Scene Title Divergent Branches
Synopsis A lecture on the nature of the SLC-expressive and their origins sparks some debate and elicits some wildly divergent answers from the gathered panellists.
Date October 5, 2010

Suresh Center - Kastin Auditorium

The lobby of the Suresh Center is an open, very well-lit space; the exterior walls are more window than wall. There's a raised half-level on the right side of the irregularly-shaped room as one walks in, carpeted in pine-green, decked with oak furniture and small table lamps; a comfortable-looking space, with actual living plants at the top of the stairs and scattered here and there elsewise. Continuing to the left brings one to the receptionist's desk, a small vending area located just beyond that.

Passing the receptionist brings a visitor to the core of the building. Here are the Kastin and Chapman auditoria, named for donors who provided the money that built them; rooms designed to seat many people for lectures and presentations, equipped with large projector screens, pervasive sound systems, and video recorders. Four conference rooms fill out the central section, reduced in scale but no less comprehensively outfitted. The wings which branch off to either side contain rows of classrooms: smaller, more private and personal, some with installed technology and some with nothing more elaborate than a whiteboard.

The classrooms, conference rooms, and auditoria are all available for public use; anyone who wants to reserve one may do so for a nominal fee, be it to teach a class, hold a meeting, or present a seminar. There are no restrictions on subject, nor even the credentials of the instructor or lecturer, though the Center waives all liability for courses taught by a third party (which is all of them). These courses and seminars are all by definition open to the public. Donations may be requested, or small fees charged, particularly for courses with a materials cost.

The Kastin Auditorium in the Chandra Suresh Memorial Center has a maximum capacity of 350 occupants in tiered seating facing a half-circle central stage. Upon that center of attention under the glow of bright lights, a tall and weathered looking old man in a charcoal gray suit stands at a podium, his wrinkled hands resting at either side, a tiny microphone headset curled around one ear. He speaks with a confident, stern voice to a full house.

"Our most precious gift, without exception, is the desire to know more."

Behind Doctor Luis are set ten chairs, each one filled with a different guest from the audience who was pulled aside on entering the theater, asked if they would like to participate in the town-hall style portion of the lecture. Behind them, a projection screen displays a clear image of a black symbol, a straight vertical line with ever narrowing bars crossing it, ascending to the top in a shape reminiscent of a pine tree. To those with a mind more for theology in the crowd, it is recognized as religious esoterica known as the ladder of transmigration.

"To look beyond what is accepted as the truth and to imagine what is possible."

Stepping away from the podium, Doctor Luis begins to walk slowly across the stage, his eyes cast out towards the filled seats and the spectators listening to his opening speech. In the middle aisle of the seats, there is a microphone stand reserved for the audience portion of the lecture to come. For now the light above it remains turned off, and the lecture attendant watching it has his hands folded behind his back, listening to Doctor Luis' speech.

"We humans are capable of so much more than we ever had believed. We enter this new decade of the millennium not as the naive children who entered it, but tempered by our experiences; Mature, aware, empowered."

Narrowing his eyes, Luis' thin lips press together in a contemplative but still hard expression, his gray brows furrowed and wrinkles seeming cut deeper across his face in the overhead lightning. He turns his back to the seats, walking towards the projection screen and motioning to the symbol thereupon. "The Ladder of Transmigration was known in the sixteenth century as a symbol representing increasing awareness of humanity of the world around them, and an ascendency towards the total enlightenment."

Briefly sweeping his attention across the faces in the seats, Luis turns his back to the participants, facing the audience again. "This symbol is synonymous with the Golden Chain of Homer, an alchemical representation of the transcendence of man." Clicking a remote control concealed in one hand, Luis changes the screen behind him to show a tall symbol of linked rings, each link containing a different symbol all its own within, and each one written beside it by Latin.

"This is the age of Transcendence," Luis explains, "this is an age where mankind is reaching beyond its previously perceived limitations and becoming aware of the potential it has always had. Religion and science need not be mutually exclusive entities, nor do they need to interact. One can see, however, the hand of the other in each work. Is there a God that has guided us to this point? Is natural selection leading us down this path of Evolution? Or is there a third force at work?" One of Luis' brows raise slowly.

"That is what we are here to discuss today," Luis explains as he moves towards an eleventh chair, more plushly upholstered than the others and at the end of the line, taking a seat beside a dark-haired woman there, offering her a nod of his head. "Today, I am joined by eleven randomly selected men and women who will discuss with me the origins of the SLC-expressive. The origins of the Evolved. The origins of Transcendence."

Motioning to the guests, Doctor Luis lifts one brow. "May I get a round of applause for our volunteers?" And so does the auditorium light up with applause, and the house lights come on over the other seats, illuminating the guests chosen to participate.

Marjorie Mihangle really has no idea how she ended up here. She complimented one of the nice producers on his shirt, got to talking a little, ended up giving him a bag of a few cookies - she always keeps a few such bags in her purse in case she meets some people - and then she found herself on stage. The woman is a bit paler than normal, and her cheeks are flushed - signs of being nervous, most likely. In her brown dress with puffed sleeves and rosebud prints, her curled hair in a bun and her bright red lipstick, she looks like something out of the '50s. Her purse sits on her lap and she remains perched on the edge of her seat, back perfectly straight. As the lights come on, she blinks a little, raising a hand to shield her green eyes before she finally has a chance to look around and see those around her.

The spotlight isn't new to Bradley Russo, although it is new to his producer, Kristen, who he glances towards with a lopsided grin, well as much of one as he can muster given the circumstances: too many drinks and not enough rest in between. Enough to sober up, but not enough to sleep off the splitting headache. Consequently, his smile comes out in something between a smile and a cringe. His lips strain together with another wince. So much for staying away from pasty-inducing lights.

His bloodshot eyes look away from the direct brightness, focusing on the woman beside him instead. Kristen had already seemed suspicious when he'd insisted that he had nothing more than a migraine; he is, still, officially on the wagon, even if he's off on a practical level.

Russo manages to grin at the audience, grin and bear it, with a tug on his blue button up shirt peeking out beneath the black jacket Kristen insist he wear, so much that he forces dimples to crater his cheeks. Nothing like faking it.

There is no such thing as coincidence in this world, Veronica knows, so when she is asked to sit on the panel, she is certain it's so that she can keep an eye on the rest of the audience, like some sort of plainclothes secret service agent. The fact she's apparently expected to speak and contribute to the discussion has her ruing last night's dinner with Matt Parkman, and not because the coconut lime chicken soup is giving her heartburn.

The agent watches Dr. Jean Luis carefully, trying to build a bridge in her mind between what seems like a kindly and wise old man with the mad man she suspects him to be. She's still deciding just what persona to wear in this particular role — naive and trusting, or educated and cautious? Is she meant to show support for Luis as an agent of propaganda, and will not playing that role get her in any sort of trouble? All of these questions clutter the Institute agents mind as she sits, seemingly calm, no flush on her cheeks or fidgeting at being in the spotlight.

Nadia Ba'albaki, the dark-haired woman who graces the walls of the Suresh Center outside of the auditorium, is seated comfortably in her chair, closest to Luis' chair. She made her appearance today to not only learn from this man, but to also further her own recognition amongst people. She has goals to reach, and she can't do as well when she doesn't have some of that sweet spotlight.

The petite Moroccan woman wears a white dress that ends just below her knees, lined in black, complete with a pair of black Prada pumps. She's looking more and more like the celebrity these days, actually rather enjoying the opportunity to get dressed up daily. Dark eyes follow Dr. Luis across the stage, a pleasant smile worn upon her face. As the spotlights come on, it is a charming, practice smile the Nadia offers to the audience, taking the spotlight in stride.

People are sources of nervousness. Lots of people in a room are a source of more nervousness. She wasn't always this way, but, having become accustomed to being on her own for so long, she feels just a little bit out of her element. No, Milena doesn't have stage fright, but she's a little dazzled by the lights, the fancy words, the… She turns around to look at the giant f-like dohicky on the screen behind her, turns back to the crowd, and bites her lip. Yeah, she has some bottled-up words to say on transcendence and awareness and how most people suck, but this probably isn't the proper forum for it. So she'll probably stick her foot in her mouth anyway.

It's warm in the auditorium, but Milli still has both of the long-sleeved shirts she's wearing pulled down to her wrists, despite the fact that she's sweating. Her legs and arms are crossed - very drawn into herself and away from the people on either side of her. She doesn't want them to touch her if she can help it.

She glances to one side, trying to meet the eyes of the person she came with. It's too bad he isn't telepathic, or else he'd hear her thinking about how she feels a lot like a trapped squirrel.

Next, she looks to Nadia - the only other person in the places that she knows. In truth, Milena kind of hates her, just a little, for her advocation of registration. Look what it does to people! Grunting and slouching down in her chair, she looks painfully un-glamourous in contrast to the celebrity.

Only here originally to scope out potential Evolved if someone slips up and shows their ability, Warren only intended to stay for about an hour until he was approached about the panel. Sure, why not? Microwave cannons and robot blueprints can wait a bit. Now he sits up on stage, taking in the people up there with him. He recognizes a few people, but resigns himself to straightening his white gloves, then the black tie in the middle of the matching unbuttoned jacket to his suit. Hopefully Milena does alright, but if she doesn't, hell, there's always a way out.

Little surprise that some of the people on the panel are ones that are employed or have some degree of fame attached to their name with regards to taking questions, answer questions or providing some serious discussion. Brennan's off to the side, opposite end from Marjorie, a neat grey suit with a fine pinstripe, solid dark red tie and a warm smile of his face. He's no stranger to this, last time it was at Praeger's side and the physician is glad to be up high and at a vantage point. If someone starts to make trouble, he can swiftly see to negating them if they use abilities. Of which, he's hoping, that some folks don't come down to that.

Oh, Bella is so very sure that the choices were random. Only random chance could account for the presence of so many Institute affiliated individuals lining the seats on stage. Only random chance could have landed Dr. Sheridan in the lineup. How could it be anything other than a roll of the dice?

That's sarcasm, by the way. That thing where you say something but mean just the opposite. It's like irony's less subtle cousin. But subtlety, Bella judges, has no place in this particular presentation. Someone less adept at controlling their expression would not be able to hide the scorn she feels as (what she deems) pseudo-mystical crap is projected onto the screen and Dr. Luis (in her opinion) rambles on about transcendence. Someone less bitter about her associations than Bella, of course, would not necessarily feel so much scorn as to have difficulty hiding it. But reaction and counter reaction balance nicely. Dressed in a jungle green blouse and corduroy pants, Dr. Sheridan sits in her spot in the line, legs crossed, arms folded, turning to smile a pleasant smile at the audience before giving her fellow interlocutors a quick examination.

Susan Bell is so going to have her head for this.

Bright lights do nothing to bring any semblance of a rosy hue to the pallor of Doctor Odessa Price's face. Her being, really. Her white hair and her skin seem to almost glow beneath the lighting, making more severe the contrast of her dark red lips and the scarf knotted around her throat. A red cross adorns the black patch over her left eye, but it's mostly obscured by the way her uneven bangs are swept across that side of her face and pinned in place. Her black sweater suddenly feels like a poor choice under the heat of artificial illumination. The wide black leather belt around her midsection feels constricting, and the charcoal wool of her skirt almost too heavy.

Despite the unease of being unexpectedly the literal spotlight - however shared it may be - Odessa keeps it off her face. If anything, she draws a sharp opposition to Bella Sheridan's own feelings, showing nothing but a bright adoration for Doctor Luis and his work. The uglier feeling churning in her gut is something much, much closer to jealousy. It's hidden behind a smile of dark lips, but shown in a glance exchanged with her ginger-haired friend. If anyone can read Odessa's nuances, it's Bella.

When the applause dies down Doctor Luis has crossed one leg over the other in his seat, leaned back with elbows on the arms of his chair, fingers steepled by his mouth and heavily-lidded eyes scanning the faces in the crowd. "Today's lecture will be a departure from the droll experiences many of you may have experienced in your post-secondary education." One wrinkled hand is motioned out towards the group, a single gray brow raised.

"This is going to be an experiment, a social experiment. Whereupon individuals of mixed upbringing, genetic status, and perception of the world will discuss with me on the nature of what society has called the Evolved or the SLC-expressive. We will discuss the topic and each of you will have a chance to speak, then perhaps go a second round if we reach a very delightful point of conversational percolation. Following the round-table discussion," Luis motions out to the crowd, "I will have a volunteer from the audience come to the microphone to ask questions of our panelists. But I ask, please, that your questions remain at least tangentially related to the topic of discussion."

When he's done addressing the audience, Luis looks back to the panelists, offering them a stage smile as he leans forward in his chair, resting his hands on his knees with a slap of his palms. "Our first topic begins where all stories start, in the beginning." The verbal 'air quotes' around that last phrase are palpable in Luis' tone as the Frenchman offers a look across the panelists.

"Doctor Chandra Suresh, of whom this facility is in honor of, postulated in his work Activating Evolution a handful of possible points of origin for the SLC-expressive." One of Luis' brows lifts as he begins to explain the points. "A mutation agent is his first postulation. Whereupon outside biological sources, such as a virus or transposon. A chemical source such as mutagens, or thalidomide. Radiological exposure from extraterrestrial radiation produced by the sun, sunspot activity, and remote supernovas. Or a man made source, such as intentional genetic engineering."

Looking out to the audience, Luis lifts a brow again. "Doctor Suresh's second theory of the existence of the SLC-expressive is the existence of a human sub species, which had interbred with Homo sapiens, re-emerging because sufficient quantities of genetic material once dispersed have gathered in specific individuals."

Luis offers a look across the audience, scanning expressions. "This could be plausible because of much lower mortality rates in the modern age, allowing the diffuse genetic material is re-emerging from the Homo sapiens gene pool." Murmuring rises in the crowd as Luis broaches topics bordering on pseudo-science with each and every moment. But then, a decade ago the Evolved would have been considered fantasy.

"Without going into each and every possible explanation for the SLC-expressive," Luis turns to the panel, "I would like to see what our guests personally believe. The origin of the 'Evolved' is one of nature's greatest mysteries, and yet each person in this audience must have their own personal interpretation of them. For some of you I imagine this is a personal issue, as any one of our panelists may be Evolved. What are your beliefs, and why do you believe them? Is it science that governs you? Or something else?"

The small lapel mic is a little uncomfortable for Marjorie, who touches it once or twice. That causes a muffled tapping sound, but at least she realizes to remove her hand before she starts talking. And she seems a little surprised that eyes fall on her to do so, to talk first. "Oh," she says, green eyes going a little bit wider. "I'm first? Oh, alright, I…um. Well then. My name is Marjorie Mihangle, I am a single mother, a piano teacher, a baker and candle maker. I'm a Tier II registered Evolved. Um," she reaches up, touching the lapel mic again. Her awkwardness, at least, comes off a little charming, and a little annoying as most awkwardness is. "I read Dr. Suresh's book, and I personally found the explanation of the human sub-species to be the one which resonated most with my understanding of the world. I don't claim to be a scientist or anything, and I'm as religious as the next person, but I doubt God's hand came down out of the blue. The likelihood that Evolved have become more prominent as population exploded in the past 200 years seems the most likely. More people, more opportunities, in my view." She offers a little dimpled smile. "I…thank you." She quiets and glances to her right, to the next person to talk.

"Hello," Brad's voice comes out a little gruffly, "I'm Bradley Russo, host of a political debate program, and it's my delight to be here," with bloodshot eyes. "I'm a registered non-evolved."

The question is considered carefully while Brad chews his bottom lip. What does he believe anyways? Russo rarely has to consider his own thoughts, only questions to elicit others'. "Look, I'm a man of faith. I believe science gives us explanations of why things are the way they are, but beyond that I believe in a Creator, someone who had a plan to make SLC-expression occur. And I agree with Dr. Suresh's assessment, it makes sense that the next phase of evolution would happen at a time like this. Medical advances have increased our life expectancy, as such genetic changes can present. And hey, like Ms. Mihangle, I make no claims at being a science guy. But the science seems to make sense, at least from a lay perspective." He winks and flashes the crowd that bright toothy grin complete with dimples, always playing to the crowd.

Kristen's demeanor since entering the facility with the star of the show has been one of hidden hostility. When Brad asks his question, she takes a breath through her mouth as if to stop him but she doesn't, yet. Instead a sly smirk crosses her elfin features and she narrows her eyes at her counterpart. "You smell like a distillery…" she whispers in a hiss before smiling up to Luis and raising her pen into the air. Someone has a question.

"Doctor, Kristen Reynolds from The Advocate, my question is fairly simple. If my host is right and SLC expression is just another phase of evolution, what's to stop Homo Sapien from going the way of Homo Neanderthalensis? Isn't it a common theory that they lived at the same as Homo Sapiens and were hunted to extinction by them? And if so… Could the mass hallucination just be a precursor to a natural stage of evolution that would render Homo Sapiens extinct?"

"It's been proven by neuroscientists that one-third of the frontal lobes are dormant," Veronica begins, not giving her name nor her affiliation. She should have asked if she is supposed to. "The removal of the bulk of these lobes shows no change in what we would consider intelligence, though there can be some behavioral changes. What this suggests is that all humans have huge amounts of untapped ability and intellect."

The brunette agent takes a slightly nervous breath, her whiskey-brown eyes moving toward Dr. Luis and offering him a slight smile. "Given my own experiences, I would suggest that we all have the ability to evolve — some do and some don't. I can't explain why the SLC shows up in some and doesn't manifest for years, while in others, it doesn't show up at all, but lies hidden — perhaps dormant, much like those chunks of frontal lobes we don't use. I don't believe it's necessarily something that we're born with or not born with, but instead some part of our brain engaging and bringing out the power, often in moments of necessity. How many Evolved tell us stories of suddenly being able to fly, because they found themselves falling? Being able to breathe underwater, because they were drowning? It's not just a matter of genetics, which is one reason there's no reason to hate those who are SLC-Expressive. You don't know when it will happen to you."

As her turn comes to speak, Nadia flashes a stage smile to the audience, one she's practiced in front of the mirror far more than even she is comfortable with. Her hand raises, flipping a strand of hair over her ear, as she smiles out over the audience. In truth, she feels just as awkward as Marjorie does, but she's had a lot more time under the public eye, and is much more able to cope under pressure these days.

"My name is Nadia Ba'albaki. I'm an architecture student, an artist, a sculptor, and they tend to call me the Face of Registration these days. I'm also a Tier 2 Registered Evolved. It is a pleasure to be here speaking to all of you today!" She offers an easy smile to the crowd as she speaks. "I have an interesting set of beliefs, or so I am told. I was raised Muslim, and a part of me does believe that Evolved abilities are a gift from Allah himself, just as all life is a gift." She smiles warmly over the crowd. "I'm certainly not much of a science person, like those who spoke before me, but I do believe that both science and religion have application in this matter. Science simply explains what religion theorizes, in my beliefs."

She settles back in her seat, smiling. "Simply put, I believe that both science and religion make sense in their attempts to to explain Evolved. What else is evolution, but a gift, whatever its source may be?" She hopes she doesn't sound too much like a dumb celebrity who hasn't a clue on what she's talking about. With her luck, she probably does.

Origins of the Evolved. That's a touchy subject, but one she probably should have expected before she came here. The academic side of her demands she give some sort of scientific answer - that things don't just happen. There's no spontaneous generation, no throwing rags and a handful of rice in a corner to get powers to pop out. Sitting forward in her chair, she remembers what it was like to teach in front of a hall full of students. It doesn't make it any more comfortable…

"Yeah, I'm…" Milena mutters, her voice shaking. "I'm actually a— God, if anyone would believe it, I … got my Ph.D. when I was… way too young. And everything I did to get there came with an instruction… book, a manual, something I could read and look back on to show me where this theory came from. Why we can't see black holes and why planets are round. And you think about what… text books would have been like back before they discovered that the earth was actually round, you laugh." She pauses. "You… laugh now, but, then, people took what little knowledge they had as fact and so when other theories popped up, it didn't matter if the world had been round all along, that— was the origin of the study. That was the first time in history someone said, 'okay, the world is round.' So it's not really that there's some Big-Bang event and suddenly the… God or Yahweh or Flying Spaghetti Monster said 'let there be powers.' It was, and now we're… creating our own origins. Our own…"

She shakes her head, trailing off. "And one day, we're going to write our own instruction manual and this whole…" She makes a roundabout gesture with her arms. "Thing, era, will be the 'origin.'"

Standing up and brushing his jacket, Warren looks over and offers Milena a proud smile. She stood up and no one shot or kidnapped her, good job! "My name is Warren Ray, tier-0 registered Evolved. I'm a private engineer and inventor, and I believe that everything has a purpose, is a part of someone's grand machine. I'm not speaking of God, or evolution, I mean man. I believe our evolution and progress as a civilization is currently in our own hands, and that our abilities, being SLC-expressive, is something that was most likely engineered in an attempt to take us to the next stage in our progression. I've read many books on evolution, it's not magic, and I don't believe there was a race of fire shooting cavemen."

He looks back at the panel, then to the audience as his eyes blink, and, suddenly they're completely metallic-looking and reflective. "As for why this was done to us, introduced into our genetic code, well, who could know? It may be the military, or perhaps people with good intentions. But what I believe our purpose should be, are modern day miracles, an improvement in everyone's lives, Evolved and non-Evolved alike. If I could sum up my entire point in one phrase, then I'll just end with: 'Miracle Day should be every day'." Then, he promptly sits down, and smooths out his pants.

"Well. Put me in the genetics camp." Brennan raises his hand, tacking on a wry laugh after Warren sits down. "Tent, sleeping bag and all." He smiles, shifting in his seat as it seems it's his turn, scanning the crowd, nodding to the other panelists. "I'm Doctor Harve Brennan. I work here at the Suresh Center and I'm a power negator. I'm not a scientist and not an overly religious man, so you won't hear me saying God is responsible, though I'm sure there's others in the world who would. Some of our panelists here seem to credit him.

"As you can see so far, we all have our diverse opinions. But I believe it's much like any other human condition or feature or quirk that only shows up when a specific gene is just switched on for whatever reason." Brennan's hands that were clasped, lift outwards as if to say he doesn't know why it switches on. "Like blue eyes or being able to fold your tongue to even having hair above your second knuckle. There's no rhyme or reason, no discernible pattern as to who will find themselves going in to register and find that the test turns out red instead of the blue they expected. In my small," he says small and laughs, "family, out of five of us, only one is without the SLC gene present and we'll find out soon if our son to be does or doesn't. So it's not even a guarantee, if you have family that has it present in their genetics. People who possess the SLC-Expressive gene don't even always manifest. They could just remain positive and yet never, ever hit their crisis point that brings on the manifestation of the ability."

Brennan shakes his head. "Some point, during development in utero, when the cells are dividing, when that spark of creation of life that prompts the splitting from one, to two, to four, to either cells and onwards to the creation of a tiny human, I believe that a genetic switch is hit and you're either born with an extraordinary ability, or born an extraordinary person. I acknowledge that it could, in the future near or far, be an engineered thing. Gene therapy to give those who wish it, the chance to become SLC-expressive, or even, for those who seem to have been graced with an ability that they find impedes their day to day life, a chance to become just an extraordinary human."

There was a time when Isabella Sheridan would have played nice. She would have gotten up to the microphone and smiled and introduced herself and said something that sounded nice and inoffensive and intelligent and then she would have sat down. This was when self preservation was a virtual guarantee and self advancement was chief in her mind. But, in precise opposition to the assertion that ethics begin when necessity ends, Bella finds herself wanting to stand on principle precisely now that her life is in near-constant peril, or, at least, now that she perceives it to be such.

Dr. Sheridan has been letting words and ideas click away in her mind as the speakers before her state their views. Views that irritate Bella to greater and lesser degrees. By the time she has risen to take her turn, glancing for a moment at Luis before turning her eyes to the crowd, she is ready to speak. As to what may follow…

"My name is Isabella Sheridan. I am a psychiatrist and research psychologist specializing in the psychology of the SLC-Expressive. And, since it apparently has been treated as relevant to this discussion, I am an avowed atheist. And I have some corrections to make to previous statements before I voice my own opinion. Please excuse my rudeness, but accuracy is crucial in dialogue."

And here she goes: "First of all the emergence of Evolved in such numbers in recent years is statistically unlikely to be connected to the explosion in population. Such an explosion would dilute such genes further, and is the result of the reduction of environmental pressures that would make an SLC-Expressive individual more likely to survive and reproduce.

"Secondly, science is not an alternative mode to religion, nor does it deal with separate questions. That rhetoric is employed by embattled faith systems that must more and more rely on metaphor and vagaries to hide the fact that what was once preached as literally true is materially and provably false. Science is, neither, some distinct entity or cabal, but rather a process of empirical observation meant to test hypotheses. The core of scientific thought is that nothing is provable, only disprovable, and unlike religion which is baroque and monarchical - that is, assuming much a priori and subordinating to itself all observations that follow - science is spartan and meritocratic - assuming nothing a priori save for our ability to observe and communicate, and willing to discard its claims as soon as a more valid claim arises.

"Thirdly, there is no such thing as 'natural stages of evolution'. Evolution is an effect of reproducing systems under competitive and environmental stressors, not a plan or a chain or a ladder. There is no, I repeat NO teleology to evolution. The theory describes a process, it does not outline a programme. To behave otherwise is simply bad science, misinterpreted either out of ignorance or the willful desire to turn knowledge into ideology. Ms. Anderson, you have couched your question in incorrect terms, but worse still, your very formulation of the question pushes us towards dark territory, of the sort we have not ventured into since the rise of National Socialism. I request a moratorium on all such alarmism.

"Fourth, as to the dormancy of the frontal lobe, while an interesting line of discussion, it is best not to bring it too close to the pervasive myth of the nine tenths of the brain that have no known use. The brain does not work in such an easily quantifiable way. No disrespect meant, but speculation on such specific, technical matters will only perpetuate misunderstandings.

"Fifth, the semi-spherical nature of the Earth was discovered by the Greeks, and known amongst the learned since long before Columbus. The myth of the world's flatness was perpetuated so as to make easier explanations as to why the range of ships was limited. The actual reasons were food and water being in limited supply. However, as to your suggestion that this is the origin of the Evolved… I heartily agree. The SLC-Expressive exist as such upon entering our discourse. This is the moment. On that matter, I concur.

"As I concur with my colleague, Dr. Brennan. Simply put, with the political climate being such as it is, we cannot afford to get lost in speculations. We must approach these questions soberly and with an eye for the facts. Purpose and meaning are byproducts, the result of knowledge applied and used as an instrument. Important, but always perverse.

"In closing," Bella's eyes cut back to Luis for a moment - dare she? "I decline to state my registration status. I object to registration unequivocally, viewing it as a violation of basic civil liberties. It is a tool for social control, a retrograde response to that which we do not understand and cannot yet fully account for. This discussion, and many more, should have been conducted before such a system was enacted.

"Thank you for your time and your patience." She turns, and walks back to her seat.

By the time Bella is reclaiming her seat, Odessa's hand has come up to cover the surprised O shape of her dark red lips, her visible eye as wide as a saucer. It's her turn to speak, and she isn't sure she can find words. Behind her palm, her mouth works to form some sort of words. A rebuttal. An addendum. Anything.

Swallowing down the lump in her throat, Odessa's hand drops back to her lap and she looks out toward the audience with a bewildered expression, before turning her gaze to Doctor Luis, trying to read his face for some sort of cues as to whether this is a line of discussion worth pursuing further. Doctor Price has brownie points to be earned here. After a deep breath, she forces a smile onto her face and lifts her shoulders once in a casual shrug. "How does one follow such a grand speech as that?" she queries good-naturedly.

"I am not a woman who believes in God," Odessa admits without hesitation. "I am a firm believer in science and medicine. And while the nine-tenths myth is certainly over-perpetuated, A-" She stops herself short, correcting quickly, "the lovely young woman in the middle there is correct in the findings of neuroscience." A nod is given toward Veronica. I totally did not almost just call you Agent Sawyer in front of everyone, okay? "Such findings are worth discussing, and I do thank Doctor Sheridan for pointing out that there is no relation between those, and the myth she cited."

Odessa shoots a look to Bella out of the corner of her eye, the shake of her head nearly imperceptible. "I…" She looks back out toward the audience, "I must admit to some discombobulation. Doctor Sheridan's arguments were quite unexpected, and quite dizzying. I raise no additional points at this time."

There's something assessing about Luis' expression when Bella begins picking apart the various answers of others while delivering her own. There's a smile that scrolls wide across the old man's mouth, creasing the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes and his laugh lines, giving him a froglike countenance, all the way through to Odessa's awkward attempt to follow up Bella's dissertation.

"Not one answer exactly the same," Luis notes with a pinching motion of his fingers towards some of the panelists with each syllable. "And there you see visible representation of the uniqueness of the human experience. No one single person, even those of similar educational backgrounds, believes quite the same thing." Luis' smile flattens some as he turns to address the panel.

"What I've done here is allow each of you to demonstrate the situations that many in the scientific community face when attempting to discern the origins of the Evolved. Each of us has a diverting path of perception and beliefs that colors our responses and the answers we want to see." There's a motion to Bella.

"Doctor Sheridan, for instance, would be wholly reluctant to ascribe to a divine solution were God himself to descend from the clouds and proclaim the Kingdom Come on her front lawn. While Miss Ba'albaki may be more receptive to such an outcome, but wholly more scrutinizing of a scientific answer, for the sake of conjecture." Leaning back in his chair and folding his hands in his lap, Luis lets his lips return to that earlier razor-thin smile.

"I, for one, do not put much faith in the works of Doctor Chandra Suresh. I know to say such a thing in his house as it were is bordering on heresy, but needs be said. While he may have pioneered the concept of the Evolved in the eyes of popular culture, there were other researchers long before Doctor Suresh and his son."

Looking up into the audience, Luis narrows his eyes as he notices the light on the microphone stand come on. "We're going to accept a question to one of our panelists from the audience before we diverge further to the next question. Which of you has a question they would like to asks our guests?" One of Luis' brows lift as he watches hands go up, his chin lifting, viewing the prospective candidates down the bridge of his nose.

"Yes you, in the blue shirt in the fourth row?" Luis motions into the crowd, a few people begin looking around until the lecture attendant points to the man Luis is gesturing to and brings him up to the microphone on the auditorium stairs. "What is your name, what is your question, and who is it for?"

When he approaches the microphone, there's a whine of feedback for a moment, followed by a wince. Then, the young — likely college aged — man leans in again and offers an apologetic smile. "Um, h— hello. My name's Mark, I'm a third year at Columbia Law and a Registered Evolved. I'm…" there's a look across the group of panelists. "My question is for— Professor Daley?" No one has called her professor in a long time.

"I took a few years off from school after the bomb, because— because of personal issues. But— I don't know if you remember me. I used to attend your astronomy courses at Staten Island University. I um," casting an askance look to the crowd, Mark turns his attention back to Milena. "When you were talking about the people of this generation writing the guidebook to how the Evolved would see themselves in the future, I… I was wondering if you had any intention of actually participating in that. I know— I know myself and a lot of your former students— we know you're Tier-2, Agrogenesis?" Oh, the glories of the public registry.

There's a fond smile on Mark's face though. "We'd like to know if you'd be interested in teaching again. I mean— anything, even here at the Suresh Center. Your experiences with your ability, it— they could help a lot of people like myself who're just now realizing they're Evolved. I'm— I'm unmanifested, so…" Trailing off, Mark offers an apologetic smile. "I guess that's my question."

After she answered Luis' question, Milena kind of looked down at the floor, barely giving a glance up - though that glance came with its own built in little sneer - when Bella punches holes in her answer. "Would be better researched if this weren't on the fly," she mutters to Warren, though she seems to have completely forgotten the mic is on and she's still broadcasting.

Out of everyone to be picked first to answer a question, she didn't expect it'd be her. Wide, dark blue eyes home in on the student asking the question. She blinks, looking, for a moment, quite lost. She'd considered getting back what she had at one point, but with her little government-funded fortress, she was happy to stay out of the spotlight. It seems somehow inappropriate to mope and slouch when some of her students are here.

"Uh…" she says, recollects herself, and stands.

Approaching the edge of the stage, she squints, and smiles. The face is familiar, but she's had so many students. Astronomy lectures can have audiences of hundreds. Tact, though. "I remember you," she says, voice slightly less shaky. Talking to students is easier, and talking to students who don't hate you for being Evolved is a lot easier.

"There's a lot that would go into it. We'd have to redefine society… What it means to be a citizen. There's going to be upcoming years where there'll be votes on… Maybe not the same issues that have been faced in civil rights battles in the past, but similar. And… People are going to get hurt." She bites her lip before going on. "If any one person wrote that book - figuratively or literally - it'd be a disaster. I have a lot of anger. Someone else might have a lot of hate. It'd be so… skewed. I know it sounds cliché, but we're all kind of writing history right now. The only thing someone's going to have to do is pen that history. So… let's make it a good read."

As for teaching… Milena rubs the back of her neck. It's a tempting idea, one she's… actually considering. With a glance to Luis, then back at Mark, she chooses her words carefully. "I really hadn't considered that, either. But it's a…" She looks at the others again. "It's a possibility? It's something that could definitely help, but I'm not…" It doesn't seem she's as capable of finishing a thought as she once was, or, she's just caught by surprise. In any case, she never finishes it in any form, and instead goes back to her seat. Before she gives the floor to someone else, though, she says, "Thank you, Mark. I'll consider what you said."

"Thank you Professor Daley." Mark says with a hopeful smile before ducking away from the microphone. Luis leans back in his chair, offering a look between the twicent and his former teacher, then across to the panelists.

"Not quite what I had in mind, in the issue of pertaining to the topic but touching none the less." Luis offers a feigned smile as he steeples his fingers in front of himself again, brows furrowed and head tilted askance, considering his 'randomly selected' group again. "In progression with the topic we discussed earlier, I would like to go back on to the notion of the history of the SLC-expressive as a phenomenon. There was a study released last year from MIT that cited a surge of activity surrounding the SLC-expressive in both birth-rate and manifestation following the 2006 total eclipse, a celestial event that — mind you — coincided with a heightened sunspot activity and a period of powerful solar flares. The birth-rate for the Evolved has begun to decline steadily since 2006, and looking back in history, there have been signs of presumed Evolved activity during other periods of high solar activity."

Luis rests his chin in one hand, looking across his panelists, then out to the crowd. "In early 2009, there was a group of researchers in Russia whom exhumed the bones of the historical figure Rasputin and were able to ascertain with a high-degree of probability that Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin possessed the Suresh Linkage Complex, potentially giving credence to claims that his body remained alive even after being poisoned, shot, drowned and his remains burned."

Luis drums his fingers across his chin. "With that in mind, and bearing your earlier answers, do you feel that there is a strong historical presence for the SLC-Expressive — for the Evolved — in our ancient past? If indeed there was no population-related boom of the Evolved as Doctor Suresh suggests, then why do you feel it took so long for society to recognize them?"

Luis lifts one brow and asks, "Do you feel the nuclear explosion in Midtown Manhattan was a necessary wake up call?" Murmuring in the crowd grows at the question. "Not to say that the death and loss of life was a positive, but do you feel that the tragedy itself was necessary to prove without a shadow of a doubt that the world was not as black and white, scientifically? Furthermore, do you believe that with the revelation of the Evolved that certain scientific principals we have come to take for granted would need to be re-evaluated?"

That there were Evolved hundreds of years in the past is not news to Veronica, having fallen victim to an assault from Adam Monroe, having lost someone, presumably, to the same. She merely nods at the first question, though her brows knit together in thought at the latter. "I would say that it's entirely possible that there were SLC-Expressive individuals in the past. It would certainly help to explain the historical mysteries and enigmas that have perplexed scientists and archaeologists for hundreds of years. Stonehenge, for example, would have been much simpler to explain if we attribute it to a terrakinetic. Stories of miracle healings or even the rising of the dead — when we look back on those with today's mindset, they're certainly explainable," the agents says, glancing down the row toward Luis and then out to the audience.

"As for the second question, I would say the world has never been black or white scientifically. Even if you take out the Evolved from the equation, science is always exploring and finding answers to things thought to be impossible in the past. Once, we thought the sun revolved around the earth — that was a black and white fact that turned out to be wrong." Veronica crosses one pinstriped leg over the other, leaning back in her seat. "But sadly, for some people the world will always be black and white, even when rational people know it isn't. For some people, it's going to be us or them, you or me, right or wrong. There are no shades of gray, and these revelations simply polarized them in a different way. Those people aren't interested in learning, aren't interested in finding the potential of both non-Evolved and the Evolved."

She exhales, a little surprised at her long answer, smiling a bit sheepishly so her dimples show. "But whether it was necessary or not — whether it was a good thing or not — that Evolved people exist is a truth, and the truth is something that shouldn't be hidden, not from people seeking to understanding, not from a civilized society." Veronica knows that more ironic words have seldom been spoken — truth is something the Company has never been about, and the Institute is no different.

As it comes to her turn, Nadia fidgets slightly, before flashing that stage smile at the crowd once more. "I personally believe that Evolved have been around for a very long time, longer than society gives credit for. What of the tales of mages and magic practicers in the old days? With Evolved being a very real thing, what is to say that Evolved haven't been around since the beginning of time? Every form of mythology has its unbelievably powerful warriors, magicians. What is to say these figures in history weren't Evolved?" She tilts her head to one side, peering up at the ceiling thoughtfully.

"I think that people didn't want to believe that these stories about powerful mages are true, for the longest time. It's a big thing for everybody to comprehend. It was big for me when I manifested, and it was big when the world recognized it, finally." There is more fidgeting on Nadia's end. "I think that the explosion was…an extremely unfortunate catalyst that has proven that Evolved exist. Um…I think that it did prove that the world isn't as black and white as we once thought. As for scientific principals…I won't pretend to know much, but it's possible!" She flashes another stage smile.

"We've seen evidence of meta-humans that have come before. Psychometers and pre-cognitives who could read palms that everyone just discounted as easy luck, asking the right questions. Telepaths who were deemed individuals who were suffering from schizophrenia. We had people in times of drought who could promise rain for a fee, who in the end we see was just an atmokinetic. They probably caused the drought in the first place. Easter Island."

Brennan shrugs his shoulders. "I could even go so far, taking off of Miss Sawyer's remarks, that Jesus himself, could have quite possibly been such an individual who might have possessed the SLC-Expressive gene. Forgive me for the outrage that might come from even suggesting such a thing. I'm not Dan Brown, but I'm sure it could make an interesting and controversial book. There's stories of him curing blindness, bringing Lazarus back from the dead, surviving in a desert for forty nights, people leaving their lives and following him, even turning water into wine. Right there, he's possibly a healer, replication of organic matter, chemical manipulation, empath. The list goes on."

Brennan gestures to Luis. "Rasputin. How many of our political leaders in the past could possibly have been low level empaths and not known? Maybe Pavarotti was an audiokinetic? Maybe the shooter on the grassy knoll? Camouflage. The possibilities are endless as are the permutation of abilities that any person can be born with. I have yet to ever see two alike abilities. You'd have to really go back and do a great deal of genetic testing to see if they were just extraordinary individuals,or extraordinary abilities coming into play."

"Was the Midtown disaster a necessary wakeup call?" Brennan shifts in his seat then shakes his head. "No. If it hadn't happened, maybe something else would have come along that wasn't so disastrous, that wouldn't have taken so many lives and instead have benefited them. My wife knew what she was and what she could do, long before the disaster Midtown. She didn't have a name for it. She does now. Maybe Phoenix would have exposed the world with their miracle day project in which they did so much for the city and we'd be reacting to SLC-Expressive individuals in a very different way. And as Miss Sawyer said, again, we're always evaluating and re-evaluating our science. The world was not round at one point, the sun was not the center of our universe and we still debate fiercely if we're descended from apes."

Warren stands again, clearing his throat and giving Veronica a slight smile, though it's more a smile a teacher would give a student before correcting them. "Stonehenge isn't much of a mystery, I could build Stonehenge by myself, ability or not. If one person can do it without tools, surely an ancient group could do it. But Doctor… it was Doctor, right?" Warren nods a head to Luis as he politely makes sure he's giving the correct address. "Who says society is just recognizing it? Ancient reports of the supernatural, demons, vampires, werewolves. The Mothman who supposedly terrorized Point Pleasant in 1966. The Jersey Devil, who legends say was cursed by the devil because its mother gave birth to 13 children. Whose to say it wasn't simply an SLC birth blown hugely out of proportion?"

But he's not done, continuing as he gestures with a raised finger. "The Salem witch trials, which we largely brush aside as simple paranoia, but who's to say this wasn't some mass SLC outbreak? Ancient people reacting to something they couldn't possibly explain. Can you imagine how many supernatural or just plain crazy incidents could be substantiated simply by adding SLC as the variable? Countless stories of exorcism, the Tunguska event, the Antikythera mechanism. Jesus, if real, could have been one of the most powerful Evolved in history."

Bella has decided, it appears, to fully assume her role of roundtable buzzkill. Her tone is dry, her expression close to bored, and she doesn't stand to speak. "While the possible presence of Evolved in the historical record might certainly help us gain new perspective on certain mysteries, I'd suggest we be careful about invoking 'who's to say's'. The same could be said of UFO's or other paranormal phenomena. Every time there is region of doubt, these bogeys get raised as an easy solution, but that's sheer laziness. That's not explanation or investigation: it's pure conjecture. Were there Evolved throughout history? Quite possibly. But theorizing their presence in the gaps of our knowledge isn't the same as filling those gaps. It's projection, not proof.

"So please, let's not pretend that 'who's to say' is saying anything at all. And let's not reduce every great or controversial or dangerous figure to some possible-Evolved. The end result is either SLC celebrationism slash supremacism, or SLC hate and denigration. Every demon and every angel becomes Evolved. There are mysteries, but we would be remiss to think we'd found in SLC manifestation some sort of skeleton key to all the locks that impeded us, many of them merely imagined, invented by our superstitions and paranoias.

"As for the Midtown explosion, it was a wholly unnecessary event and a total tragedy. It served to increase in no way our scientific understanding of the Evolved. The Bomb could just as well have been a bomb. It's the attribution of it to an Evolved event that makes it relevant to our discussion at all. The world at large could have found out about the Evolved in any number of ways. The notion of historical Evolved alone indicates as much."

Odessa's heart sinks to her stomach. Her dismay doesn't show on her face, but a quick shiver runs through her frame from the way she suppresses the display of emotion. Her fingers clench into fists in her lap. Lipstick transferred to her palm from the earlier covering of her shock is transferred again to the backs of the knuckles of the opposite hand. And when Doctor Luis decries the works of both Doctors Suresh, her posture straightens rigidly. It's seemingly impassively that she listens to the points raised by the other panelists. By the time her colleague has finished speaking again, Odessa's mouth has gone dry.

Bella's rendered Odessa speechless again.

Panic is gripping at Doctor Price. It's like that nightmare that most academics have at one point in their lives, that they show up for a test, or an important presentation, and they have nothing prepared. They have nothing to say. And they fail the whole module. After a moment of - what is for her - uncomfortable silence, Odessa lifts her head. "I believe the bomb was a necessary evil," she says in a quiet voice, picked up and amplified by the microphone on her sweater. "The SLC-expressive have existed for centuries." And in the case of Adam Monroe, literally some have lived for centuries. "Until two-thousand-and-six, they were only a blip on the radar. Countless anomalies left unexplained. This…

"What happened in Midtown was tragic. It was horrid." And it's still attributed to the wrong man. But that's a secret Odessa just has to continue to hold inside. "But it pulled the wool from over our eyes. We can't deny anymore that the SLC-expressive are out there. The circumstances of their reveal are terrible. But the world needed to wake up, as Doctor Luis put it." To signal an end to her train of thought, she turns her face, trepidatious expression and all, to Luis.

From back in her seat, Milena is much more interested in the conversation than she had been before. Maybe it's the encouragement of a familiar face, or the recollection of actually enjoying being up in front of people who don't all want to hurt her. And yet, she can't help searching the audience for another familiar face just before she speaks again - one that she'd fear. One who might not hurt her, but one who would evoke memories that would sting just as powerfully as physical wounds.

Milena laughs. "The sun." She shrugs. "We already know that things up there…" she points upward. She's probably not talking about the ceiling, but things beyond earth's atmosphere. "Effect Earth. So it's entirely possible. The moon affects tides, and … various… cycles. Ahem. But… The fact is there are a ton of different … things that could… I mean, we've only scratched the surface of things like dark matter and neutrinos and— I won't get into a lecture here, but there's still a lot out there to discover.

"But the sun wouldn't necessarily cause peoples' genetic codes to mutate. Not like this. Not… So variably and extensively. It's… A catalyst. Maybe. Something to give those things a push. Plants use the sun to generate ATP, so it could be that this gene becomes more prone to activation in sunlight. The precedent is there."

The second part of the question goes unanswered for a moment. Maybe if she pretends she didn't hear it - or forgot it was asked - she can get a free pass on that one. "You… never call a tragedy a necessary wake-up call." Her eyes shut for a moment, and she rubs at her arms. If it hadn't happened… Maybe she'd still be living the life she wanted. "I think— I just… Some water. I'll just be right back." Standing, she heads for the wing of the stage, having no real intention of actually returning. But she might just go splash her face with water, so it's not a total lie.

Having rested his weight to one side, cheek on his closed fist, Doctor Luis offers a steady nod on listening to each of the panelists. "History is fraught with misconceptions and finger-pointing when taking into account mystical phenomenon," and it's at this point notably clear — most likely to Bella in the sharpest sense — that Doctor Luis does indeed have his head somewhere in the clouds as far as pure science is concerned, which given all of the unspeakable experiments she's heard of him performing and the co-workers he had assigned to her on Staten Island, not entirely unexpected.

"We all must choose to look back with scrutiny on history, consider the impossibilities as potential and look on the face of the unbelievable as a prediction of what may yet be." Lips twitching as he tries to seem dour despite being a little over-stimulated by the conversation, Doctor Luis turns to address the crowd, offering an askance look to Milena as she rises from her seat to move off the stage, then to Warren Ray as the engineer quickly rises to follow her.

"Ah," Luis' eyes scan the floor of the stage, then look back up to the crowd. "The future we are now in brought us the revelation of so-called super-human abilities. Telepathy, mind control, pyrokinesis… and the things that are considered absurd today may in the future become once more our reality. We are, as a species, on the verge of a very exciting time of development as a culture, where the powered can offer new insights and new revelations into the human condition and our own reality."

Resting one hand on the arm of his chair and sitting up straight, he asks to the audience, "What could be next? Time travel? Alternate dimensions? Parallel universes just beyond our reach?" One gray brow rises. "Let us think on that, while we have a short recess so that our panelists can catch their breath and compose themselves."

His expression shifting to a measured smile, Luis looks up to the group from his chair.

"We've only just begun to scratch the surface."

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