Refreshingly Alien


bella_icon.gif seren_icon.gif

Scene Title Refreshingly Alien
Synopsis Thanks to a forgotten cardkey, a curious pair (and one imaginary friend) become friendly associates.
Date July 11, 2019

Raytech NYCSZ Branch Office

Time-lapsed, the past hour would provide a sequence a bit like the Evolution of Man but in reverse. A proudly erect (if occasionally pacing) figure degenerating into slouch, and then into a slump, and at last into a sit, weight born less on its legs than on the surface of the wall against which it rests, a picture of dejection. In the still-pale light of early morning, Dr. Isabella Sheridan finds reason to regret her haste upon leaving her apartment today. She’d so been looking forward to the pleasures of moving through a nearly-abandoned space, spared even the minimal psychic expenditure that comes with putting on a polite smile as she coasts past her co-workers on her way to her office. The plan was perfect; she’d had her percolator on a timer, had her outfit - an off-white wool skirt suit and sensible low heels - all laid out for her the night before, so no pre-caffeinated style decisions would be necessary.

Alas, the dregs of Bella’s coffee have gone cold in the base of her mug and she is beyond even fussing over whether or not she’s dirtying her clothes with sidewalk crud as she keeps an ill-tempered vigil by the entrance to the Raytech facility. It’s been just shy of thirty minutes but it’s felt like hours, and a very particular mix of pride and shame have kept her from just going home to grab her ID card, because that is all she’s missing. And that’s all she needs.

It’s not that early after all, right? Someone must be coming soon.

Someone, something.

Because it's not a human that first approaches, that's for sure.

The creature that sparkles into existence out of thin air appears with no sound and very little pomp, save for the unfurling of its furry self midair to land on the sidewalk with not so much as a sound of complaint. Its teal form shakes itself out, one little paw after the other until all four are limber, and it follows the action up with a vigorous shake of its rabbitlike face that catches the light of the carbuncle-red gem melded into its forehead. Its long ears twitch and gradient into an emerald hue, the creature's existence a thing still up for debate. Behind it, a bushy foxtail swishes, separating into three separate trunks.

Whatever the odd little thing is, as soon as it exists, it takes an interest in Bella, stretching and then padding its way delicately in her direction, nose twitching curiously. Just shy of arm's reach, it pauses, turning back —

“Gotcha!” A voice emanates from standing height, invisible arms becoming tangible only after they grab hold of the creature, like connection with it is what gives them form. A decidedly human person becomes visible and cradles the unreal creature, gray eyes alight with life and limned with a joyous silver while they ruffle the fur on the creature's belly. “Thought you could sneak off on me,” they croon down to the little beast. “Joke's on you, Baird.”

Only then do they look up, silver chain looped through their earlobe glinting in the early morning sun. They politely, sheepishly nod their head to the figure before them, features unhidden by anything as pesky as hair because they wear it shorn short, close to their head. They're clothed in grays and blacks, a dark opposite to Bella's off-white.

“Sorry about him, he just gets curious,” they apologize sincerely. Only then do they note how odd it is to find someone waiting outside with coffee. It's a visible thing, the realization bringing a furrow to their brow as they debate the best way to ask what brings the stranger around. “Hopefully he didn't bother you?” they probe cautiously. “Are you here for a meeting?”

Were it not for the diffuse quality of Bella’s waiting-attention, she might have caught the creature upon its appearance, and been subsequently shocked into sanity-doubting self-searching. Her training would have her judge it a hallucination, and an acutely perplexing one, since she’d be hard pressed to find in the vaults of her imagination anything remotely resembling the fantastical critter.

As luck would have it and as (relative) a mercy to her nerves, Bella only notices she’s no longer alone when a person appears and speaks aloud, causing her head to snap up and her eyes to open. In that moment she inhabits a liminal state between unguarded and alarmed, and the newcomer is treated to an honest blank of incomprehension. Quickly, though, the mask slips into place, in the form of an ever-so-slightly rueful smile. “Oh- that’s… fine. Quite all right,” she says, bracing one arm against the wall, the other scooping up her purse as she draws herself into a stand. She dusts herself off, at least one third for the sake of performance, and in seconds flat she has her hands clasped before her, swiftly recomposed.

“I forgot my key card at home,” she says, by way of explanation, “and thought someone might be along who could let me in. Isabella Sheridan. Experimental psychology.” Bella extends a hand, offering a shake, eyes taking a moment to leave the newcomer’s face and take in what they’re holding. More self-possessed now, Bella manages to mostly conceal her surprise. “Is that… some sort of chimera you’ve got there? I’m actually quite good at avoiding meetings, so please forgive me for not knowing about whatever project you’re working on.”

In the few moments it takes for Bella to come to her feet, the creature — Baird — wriggles his way into a less compromising position, attempting to scrabble up the arm of the person holding him. All the better! It frees them up to less awkwardly shake Bella's hand when it's offered out. “Seren, Seren Evans. I work here as an architect under Ms. Valerie,” they greet warmly, but let go quickly to make sure Baird isn't about to fall off their shoulder as he crawls up one arm and snakes around their back to lay his head down on the opposite shoulder. His form lengthens and narrows to allow for it, tails still wafting through the air off to Seren's side, completely possessed of a mind of their own.

To the point Seren has to bat one away from their face, though it's followed by a pet of the creature's rubied forehead, fingertips scritching where fur meets gem.

“I'm surprised I've not seen you around before…” they note with open caution, but nothing like suspicion. Bella certainly looks as though she could belong here, and she said she's good at avoiding others! “I'd thought I'd met nearly everyone, but I do mostly stick to just my floor.” A soft click follows the comment. Maybe they should explore more?

Only belatedly do they look to the creature on their shoulder, a small but fond smile reserved for him. “Oh, Baird? Him and I are very good friends. He's something different almost every day, but we've been together as long as I can remember.” The creature in question flicks his intelligent, curious gaze back Bella's direction, dark eyes observant if not downright judgmental. Aware of his mood, Seren draws a face and lightly bats Baird's nose with a fingertip. “Be nice. You're worse than Coyotl sometimes, I swear.”

There’s enough felinity in Baird’s present being and bearing that the gaze of judgment seems entirely in keeping. Bella’s own regard in return is cool, but hardly prickly. Strange though the creature may be, its mysteriousness is in its unfamiliar form rather than its uncertain intentions. It looks like something that does what it wants, without need for concealment. Admirable, really. If only Bella felt so free.

“We try to keep things pretty carefully controlled in my wing,” Bella says, “many of our clients are dealing with very difficult life circumstances- trauma, anxiety, depression. Much of it originating or at least linked to SLC expression, which can lead to some tricky triggers in an integrated workplace. So there’s a good reason for us not to host office parties.” That doesn’t necessarily explain why she is so scarce; in offering information she buries the lede.

In further service to that, she gives Baird her pointed attention. “You don’t have to tell me more than makes you comfortable, but… is your little friend here a SLC manifestation?” A safe guess, really, whenever anything weird happens. With time-travel and dream-traversal on the table, the bar for normalcy is at an all-time low.

Seren’s attention whips back to Bella at the mention of trauma, a wrinkle briefly tangling their brow before it smooths. “Learn new things every day about this place, if you look long enough,” they comment mildly, lightly, no judgment for the unnamed clients who don't embrace Expression quite like they do. No prying for potentially confidential information, either.

Instead, they twist to one side to point one hip at the door, reaching for the keycard attached there to zip it over to the scanner. It sounds like Bella has important work to get going on, after all.

Pulling the door open, they nod to indicate she can head first into the lobby currently lit only by emergency lighting — not even Sera is here yet to brighten the front desk space. At the question, Seren turns back attentively, a small smile settling in on them. “He is,” they announce with quiet pride. “Baird is often with me, but we get other visitors sometimes, too. Getting it under control was hard as a kid, and the world was a far less understanding place.” The admission brings something distant to their gaze, but they patiently shake their head to bat the thought away. “It's a whole new era, now, though. One without the Company. It took me a while to get used to … you know, being me, after keeping it hidden for so long…”

They look off down the halls, a weight in their gaze. “Everyone here at Raytech has been very kind, though. Very accepting.” With a huff of laughter under their breath, they add with a knowing look back at Bella, “In more ways than one.” Letting the door close behind them both, Seren settles their hands into the pockets of their dark jeans, thumbs hooking beltloops.

“Is that a good thing? Never quite knowing every aspect of the place in which you work?“ Bella’s tone falls just short of clinical inquiry, but in so doing oversteps mere casual conversation. Skipping straight past small-talk. “I’d guess it mitigates boredom but… I’ve plenty of clients who are deeply troubled by the unknown and the uncontrollable.” Her head tilts just a little. “I don’t get that vibe off of you. But then again, we’ve just met.”

Her smile goes extra gracious as Seren opens the door for her, and she makes a quarter-curtsy of appreciation before stepping into the building. It’s a well-trodden path, even in low-light conditions, so she keeps her attention more than half on her early-morning companion, catching the little subtleties, signs that hint at but do not yet disclose meaning. A quirk of her lips is for Bella’s own benefit, a silent acknowledgement that at least her rescuer this morning is not boring.

“I hope you realize,” she says, “that speaking like that is a sure way to pique my curiosity. Consider yourself warned when I start to poke and pry.”

To that, Seren can only smile, something whimsical about it and the lightness of their step. “It's always good to have a little wonder in your life,” they opine.

“As for Raytech, I just marvel at how many pies this place has its fingers in.” For a moment, fleeting, there's a warmth in the air, the scent of a freshly-baked — no, freshly-ground coffee? — and then it's just as soon gone. Seren carries on as if nothing had happened at all, hands still in pockets, eyes still gleaming with that edge of silver on gray. “I guess there's leeway for it, since all of it's experimental, and most of it sells and sells well.” With a thoughtful hm, they sheepishly concede, “I dunno.” It was too early for anything beyond surface-level musing, apparently. Baird yawns widely in agreement.

“What brings you in so early, anyway?” they ask, pausing outside the elevator bank. Another card swipe, and the elevator doors ding open instantly, having already been waiting. “I was just wanting to work on some sketches before the day began, but…” they trail off, fingertips wagging over the array of buttons inside the elevator. “What floor?” they ask absently.

“Seven,” Bella requests, seeming quite content to let Seren take point on the button pushing. She maintains a prim posture, handbag clasped in hands before her, readying herself for when the elevator moves into smooth acceleration.

“To be honest? I wanted to avoid the crush of humanity.” She quirks her lips, qualifying her smile with assuagement. “But don’t worry. You are hardly crushing me. And your familiar there is refreshingly alien.” Indeed, the whole meeting is tinged with a strangeness that, thanks to its distinct lack of menace, seems to neatly counterbalance her glum patience of minutes before. She did not wait in vain.

“So when you speak of the virtue of wonder, does that mean you’ll leave me wondering about you?”

Once the lift starts its ascent, Seren keeps postured in the direction of the door, though they do turn their head slightly back in Bella’s direction. “I can understand that,” they sympathize earnestly. “I’m coming in early for … much the same reason, I guess.” They blink once at the reference to Baird as a familiar, gaze dropping to the creature curled around their shoulders. A soft hm leaves them, a smile tugging at the corner of their mouth.

They reach across their body to scritch the underside of Baird’s chin with the side of their index finger. He leans into it, eyes drifting shut soundlessly. Without warning, starting from the middle of his back, he starts to materialize into something entirely different. His entire form turns into a string of bubbles all disparate and floating apart, the size of healthy table oranges. Seren is quick to withdraw their hand to reduce the risk of accidentally popping their familiar’s new form, chuckling at him while the bubbles hover in a loose halo above and around their person, some even floating behind Bella.

“I suppose I am.” Seren finally replies to the question, slightly belated after appreciating the floating bubbles. After a weighty beat, they look back to Bella, the edges of their eyes softening with a smile.

“At least until I know what you might be wondering about,” they add gently. “That might change things a bit.” With some grave humor, they aside, “I’ve been known to answer direct questions on occasion.”

“Apologies for disturbing your solitude,” Bella says, “in future we can compare schedules. If we’re smart about it we’ll never have to see each other again.” She offers a smile at the end of this quip, accenting her deadpan delivery to avoid confusion. Misanthrope though she may be, she doesn’t want to alienate her co-worker, not this early on.

And so Bella is at further pains not to appear startled by Baird’s sudden change in form, one as sudden and total as chemical sublimation. She’s relatively practiced at this, the delicate matter of appearing receptively neutral in the face of shocking confidence, at seeming unfazed by the strange and alarming. This tests her, however, inching her brows up her forehead with the irresistibility of reflexive response.

“There’s a difference between direct and gauche, but I have to take the risk; what do you call your particular SLC-Expression?” A tricky inquiry, not unlike asking about someone’s place of origin in a time of burgeoning xenophobia. But they are in the confessional space of the elevator. And Seren don’t seem particularly prickly. “Not what they have in the registry, but the way you view it.”

“If this is the kind of company I’d be keeping by coming in this early, running into you again,” Seren ventures in reply to the quip, “I don’t think I’d mind the occasional collision.” One corner of their mouth tugs back in a smile, and they gesture loosely with one hand. “Though I’d definitely recommend not making a habit out of forgetting your badge. My schedule’s nothing if not inconsistent.” Letting out a chuckle, they sigh, “Definitely depends on if I’ve been helping Miss Devi with any of her projects or not. She keeps … fascinating hours.”

What politer way to say they have no idea how she gets away with her schedule?

Seren seems a little less enchanted than before with the conversation when it turns to the topic of naming their ability, but that apprehensiveness shies away almost instantly at Bella’s additional qualifier. They shift their gaze back to the other occupant in the elevator as the doors slide open, answer cut short by the outward rush of bubbles into the landing bank for the elevators. “Hey, don’t get running too far ahead!” The lift of their voice lowers back to a normal level when they furrow their brow. “Seren,” they remind themselves in a mutter, “He doesn’t even have ears right now, who knows if he can hear you.”

What a life to lead.

Hand on the elevator frame to prevent it from closing in much the same way one holds open a door open to be polite, Seren steps out after Bella. The area off to the right looks to be another waiting room like down in the lobby seven stories beneath them, and off to the left, halls requiring another cardswipe for entry. They let out a quiet hm to themselves, attention naturally drifting toward the hall… and only secondarily to the waiting room space. The bubbles move as a loosely contained conglomerate, rushing up and down furniture and in a general circle about the room. In the sprint, one of the bubbles collides with the wall and simply bounces off, unbroken, before racing to join up with the rest of the group.

“Baird,” Seren calls out in a warning tone, and suddenly the bubbles stop. In so doing, they coagulate back together, forming the outline of the three-tailed creature Baird had been before. The singular, smooth image lays down on one of the chairs, face hanging off the edge while looking in the direction of the humans. Tails float lazily, breezily up in the air behind him rather than clinging to the chair as well.

“Some days,” Seren admits, “I feel more cat-herder than anything else.” Their nose wrinkles at making the teasing, direct reference to their familiar. “… but I’ve got more friends than just Baird, they just come around less than they used to. And I can do more than summon familiars— it used to be I could create just about anything you could imagine, to tell the truth.”

Looking off in Baird’s direction still, their gaze slides unfocused. Something compels them to be a little more honest than usual about their ability, adding, “Not these days. There’s,” Seren has to pause to find the right word for it, “Limits, now. I can create the world if I wanted, but it also feels like my horizon’s shrinking. Things take more effort than they used to. It’s silly; It shouldn’t. I’ve had this ability my whole life. Since I was a little kid, even.” Self-conscious suddenly, they let a hand hang off the side of their neck again, fingers gracing the script on the side of their neck, one which covers over but doesn’t completely conceal the isotope marker it’s laid over. Seren looks back to Bella with a smile meant to cover the potentially worrying situation over. “Sorry — that part’s not exactly an answer to your question.”

Perhaps as a distraction more than a demonstration, their offhand lifts and they open it from a loose curl. Directly on their palm blooms an exotic yellow flower, an amaryllis with orange streaking, and pistils that glow. “I don’t think I can sum up what I do with any one phrase, was I think where I left off.”

“That’s kind of you to say, Seren. I warn you, though, I’m less personable than I appear.” Whatever that means; Bella doesn’t elaborate on this particular bit of self-deprecation, and its delivered with the lightness of one still trying to be charming. All the same, she’s happy to slip free of subject status. Baird is useful in this way, its mischief a useful means to refocus the conversation on the topic that interests her. She presses, but with delicacy.

“I’m glad that you’re not trying to hem yourself in with glib definitions. It would be like trying to sum up your body in a single phrase. You could try, but you’d always be rendering it a cartoon, something which, however expressive of a truth, lacks… depth.” It’s fine philosophy, and good cover for her keen-eyed consideration, the collection of details: not just the amaryllis blooming, but the change in the quality of their gaze, the tell-tale touch on the script and what it conceals. She doesn’t ask, and doesn’t stare, but she most definitely takes note. “And I’d guess that your own expression is particularly resistant to flattening.

“I’m not SLC-Expressive myself.” A shrug at this, but not a wistful one. If her professional interest is tinged with any envy she hides it well. “I’m curious, how do you feel about that… shrinking? Do you feel it’s been becoming steadily so since childhood- or is this sense of limitation more acute?”

Perhaps Bella isn’t as personable as she’s let on, but it’s nothing that seems to particularly concern Seren. They shake their head, hand falling away from their shoulder. There’s no words to counter it; just the silent insistence her company isn’t insufferable.

And even if they weren’t, Bella’s evocative description is worth taking note of. It captures Seren’s interest, visible in the touch of silver that encroaches on the grey of their irises. There’s something inflating about the language she uses, that helps to better soften the personal question that comes after. There’s a moment of hesitation where they remember the profession of the person they’re talking to, but lay any suspicion about it aside.

“If it was something that gradually happened over time, it wasn’t something I really noticed until recently. Within the last two years or so.” Polite. Direct. Seren’s gaze narrows on a distant point while they think. “I mean… A lot has changed in the past few years. I’ve changed. It’s just—”

Seren smiles, the brightness of it a little forced, but not lacking in luster as they look back to Bella. “It’s just changing with me.”

“I’m a bootleg Buddhist at best,” Bella says, “but I think you are at least on the right track, with regards to understanding the inevitable and irreparable nature of change. Knowing and feeling have a complicated relationship, though.”

She gravitates forward, retaining their momentum. They’re just going to work, talking on their way. She doesn’t want to give Seren the sense they’ve been anchored, cornered, or otherwise in a situation which could make friendly inquiry feel suddenly like inquisition.

“If I had to guess, I’d imagine that it is at least a little scary, or a little sad. Childhood is often enough an object of nostalgia, but compound that with something that… well, I get the sense that Baird is a friend to you.” Bella lifts a hand, halting the progress of her own speculations. It’s bad form to wildly hypothesize about someone you’ve just met, particularly to their face. “I don’t mean to sow strife. I just wanted to say- that I could understand how you could feel ambivalent about it, in spite or even because of its inevitability.”

Seren can't help but laugh at bootleg Buddhist, but they're polite enough to keep it soft. They nod gratefully for her view, for her seeing things from their side … but that appears to be as far as they're willing to go for the time being. They look back at Baird, giving a subtle kick of their head in the direction they're heading so he can follow after, and the bubble-creature scrabbles on the seat and then in the air before soaring behind them. He'll slowwwlyyy catch up, apparently.

"Baird's my oldest friend," they do admit. "Some of my other friends, though, they don't come around as much anymore. At first I thought it was because they were shy of the new city, but now…" Seren trails off as they swipe their card and pull open a door back to the more-secured halls of the Raytech building. If they're surprised they have access, it doesn't show.

"I should let you get back to your routine," sounds almost like an apology, complemented with a small smile that echoes the sentiment. "If I'm going to get any sketches done before everyone else gets here, I should go get started on that, too."

Bella’s deft enough to sense a disengagement tactic, and so she lets her gait slow, allowing space to increase between she and them. Cold coffee in one hand, purse over her other shoulder, she assumes the posture of parting, facing Seren’s way but setting her feet at a different angle than theirs.

“At the risk of ending an otherwise pleasant interaction with a colossal faux pas,” Bella preambles, “I think you might benefit from talking to a professional. Not me!” She’s quick to amend. “I’d rather have a friendly associate than a client, and I’m out of that career track anyways. But… I urge you to take those feelings seriously.”

She doesn’t offer a hug or a shake. Instead she makes a little bow; polite distance made manifest. “Nice to meet you, Seren,” she says, with the light formality of a summer blazer - composed but still sunny, “and you, Baird. Enjoy the morning.”

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