The Thinker


bao-wei_icon.gif squeaks_icon.gif

Scene Title The Thinker
Synopsis The ziggurat is a strange place, and Squeaks' exploring shows her just how much.
Date August 01, 2019

Praxis Ziggurat

The Praxis Heavy Industries North American Headquarters, also known as the Ziggurat, is a self-contained enclosed arcology constructed between 2015 and 2017 on the former island of Alameda in what is now the California Safe Zone. The arcology's purpose is to serve as a centralized base of operations for all of Praxis Heavy Industries' North American operations, primarily the reconstruction of the California Safe Zone.

The Praxis Ziggurat looms 42 stories over street level and houses all of the conveniences of a modern city within, reserved exclusively for Praxis Heavy Industries employees. The arcology features corporate offices, an internet hub and on-site support services, shopping centers, restaurants, and a hotel reserved for corporate guests. The arcology also hosts a suite of automated and human security features. Located below the arcology is a nuclear power plant that fuels not only the arcology, but will also power all of the California Safe Zone.

Though the California Safe Zone is a sister region by name, it is nothing like New York's save for there being a large stamp of international territory; on this coast, that would be Praxia and the Ziggurat. The inside of the Ziggurat is gargantuan, a small city of its own, with all that entails. Squeaks has freedom inside, more or less. She can explore to her heart's content, so long as it doesn't require clearance.

Doors, incidentally, open for her here.

There is plenty for her to see throughout the complex, including the internet hub and library. Both a reminder of home and something bitterly sad as well. Not much in the way of small places to poke around in, but always a door to open. There's even a pool. Even if Squeaks isn't a swimmer, the facility has a panning window and lights that quite feel like the sun. Lounge chairs stored along a wall, a small patio area with potted plants.

At odd hours it is more dimly lit, though not unlocked. Perhaps it ought to be.


The water is calm and dark. The air is still. Both are cold, and breath puffs on the air.

Exploring is a priority, and much of it was done in the first days following her arrival. Squeaks has learned a lot about where things are and various ways to reach them. The secure areas are secretly confounding. She's found entrances, obviously, but not how to get inside.

Not yet anyway.

No actual attempts have been made. Yet. It might happen one day, curiosity is a strong driving force, like a tsunami, it keeps pushing and pushing.

But so far she's avoided even looking slightly interested in what's behind those doors that are closed to her.

Otherwise, Squeaks has taken full advantage of searching her new world and trying to understand all the strange nuances of it. Her creeping about has led her far from her apartment today, which in itself isn't unusual. She's not exactly a prisoner. Not entirely. Her path is intending to take her past the pool — she's visited a couple of times before, but today she's got other plans — but there's something strange about it this time.

There's a weird chill, colder than the normal coolness of the huge structure. It makes the teen’s feet stop and entices to take a peek inside.

A glance doesn't get her much; quick study shows an empty facility, not even maintenance at this hour. The smell of chlorine is more diluted than her other visits, air crisp and not at all like the conditioning. More akin to winters she has lived through, or the latched dark behind a freezer door. Condensation has formed on the walls and ceiling, a fine dewy frost underfoot.

Between the water, the silence, and the scarce light, it possesses an oddly similar ambiance to the underground she is so used to traversing.

With the water as flat as can be, its surface reflects the pinpricks of the night lamps in the ceiling, the crimson of an exit light, a blurry gray eking inside when Squeaks pokes her head through.

Despite there being nobody inside, it is hard to shake the feeling of being watched.

Darkness isn't a deterrent. Squeaks can see just fine without lights, it just takes a little noise. Not the kind her shoes make, though. The faint, wet scuffing as she eases further from the door and deeper into the pool room doesn't produce enough sound — or the right kind anyway — to help her.

Maybe it won't hurt, either. Maybe the watcher is just her imagination making things up in a strange place.


A quick series of ultrasonic chirps and squeaks is made once she's slightly more than an arm’s reach from the door. Her head turns as the noises leave her, eyes following the lines that make up the room. A second series follows, and she turns again, examining what she sees in the sound. Also searching for any watchers.

As Squeaks goes traversing some into the pool space, the feeling lingers. Imagination can be a powerful thing.

Until those clicks of hers go across the water.

The room is boring, lined with the trappings she expects; once her echoes reach the water, they return to her with the strangest of patterns. Big. Low in the water. Camouflaged from her eyes but not her ability. The ensuing pause is heavy with apprehension.

Nothing reveals itself, despite the shift of movement down there which Squeaks can detect with her sonic rebounds.

The girl’s head tilts a tiny bit at the return from the water. That’s curious. And also a little worrying. What if it’s someone that’s drowned? Carefully, intentionally chosen tiles are used as stepping stones to take her closer, with neck craning for a better look. What if it isn’t a drowned person?

What if it’s an alligator?

That thought, as absurd as it is, brings Squeaks up short of the poolside. It’s hard to decide which one she’d rather find. Neither one is the most honest answer.

Her feet shift, weight transferring to the balls of her feet as she pushes herself to stand taller. Almost on tip-toe. “Hi,” she calls out, barely louder than a whisper. Tension leaves her feet and she settles into a normal stance, but she refrains from getting closer. “Are… are you… did you drown?” There’s no splashing, no movement except the faint current from the filters. A little louder, “Do you need help?”

Nobody there, no body, no alligator- - technically speaking. She can see her face reflected back from the surface of the pool as she inquires down at it, as if a drowned person might actually answer. Be able to.

The stringy girl doesn't get an answer in the way she would likely prefer. Shadows coalesce at the bottom of the pool, misshapen and jagged. Clicks show solidifying, heft, and the vibration of a thing hard to place.

A single mote of color swims into sight, bobbing under the water, a tiny lantern. Chillingly, it sharpens into focus; the dark produces the slitted gold of a cyclopean eye peering back at her, its pupil pinning like a bird.

The movement draws the young teen closer, achieved by leaning without actually moving her feet. A frown forms, puzzled by the strangeness — it's nothing like anything she's seen here or anywhere. “What…” Her tone is perplexed, but the question cuts off with a surprised shriek.

The golden eye is real! It's not just a haunting image burning on a television that shouldn't be working at all.

She twists to back away, for a second not remembering the strangely, damply frosted tiles. Her shoes slip and she thuds jarringly onto her elbows and backside, against the floor. Her retreat barely pauses then, hands and feet find small purchase on the slick tiles but somehow she manages to crab backward then stop only when her shoulders hit the wall.

A shriek that makes the shape ripple and warp. She didn't look into the eye long enough to see the difference in color, depth, manner as it squints back at her. Sloshing takes over the edges of the pool, slapping up onto the tile in her wake. Squeaks looks on as it freezes onto the floor. Lights playing off of the water already marble the walls; they marble in a similar way through it as it rises up in a wave.

An icy set of claws scrapes up onto the pool's edge, followed by the jagged angles of a forelimb, and then the other lifts in its wake. A golden flicker peers up over the side, frost trickling in a radius. Ice spreads upward, spiny and thick; the light marbles now through the ice, clear, filtered water illuminating crystallized shapes.

The peering lasts for several moments, eye twitching in study from behind and between sword-sharp digits.

It definitely isn't an alligator. It’s too big to be anything…




The word is murmured fearfully, as though any louder and it might fully summon whatever is lurking inside the pool. Squeaks’ eyes are as wide and round as they can possibly go without them popping out of her head as they follow the claw rise from the water and grasp the side of the pool. Her arms press against the wall, fingers splayed as though to search for the door out again. A search obviously forgotten in her panic.

Her feet draw up and as close to her body as she can manage as ice creep across the floor, half shielded by the bend in her legs. “Help,” she calls out in a small voice.

Years past, he may have flinched more than he does now; as it stands, her whispering earns a narrow of eye and a pursuant lift of frame. As the first limb scratches its way onto the tile, it's big enough to trap her with its palm. Alligator it may not be, but there's absolutely something reptilian in the way the rest of it emerges.

Water splashes from the pool and freezes there, moisture climbing upwards with crackles and pops. Only the front half looms in front of her, the back a vast field of stalagmites down into the water, freezing the surface to stillness.

It is colder than before, a winter contained inside the ziggurat.

A craning, crocodilian jaw full of teeth lifts up, neck cracking into a heron-like swoop before the nose angles down at Squeaks. The monster is almost crystal clear, all the gift of filtered water and chlorinated chemicals. It could be pretty, if it weren't so sudden and huge. A spray of light reflects on the ceiling above its head, where that eye peers from the depth of a socket.

Squeaks does not encounter a hasty, bloody end. Rather, the thing settles at the poolside as a sea-lion might, head cocked, eye bright.

As she's loomed over, Squeaks can only stare up at the creature and will herself to be smaller. Or turn invisible, that would be good too.

Invisibility isn't her ability though, so she stays perfectly seeable by that single gold eye.

Her ability has more to do with sound, which continues to click and squeak spontaneously. The pool room and its occupants reverberate back at the teenager in fits and starts, giving the monster an even more terrifying appearance overlaying it's natural form.

“I'm sorry.” The apology comes fast when the creature settles alongside the pool. Squeaks works her far hand along the wall and inches against the frigid surface. She might find the door before she finds her death. “I'm sorry… I just… it's so cold.”

No heartbeat, no bones, not yet. Her echoes chitter through the ice, and that head tips a little more, watching as she paws along the wall to inch further away.

Rather than a proper answer, the air around her feels as if it were a breeze, upwind at the back of her neck and blowing up the ends of her hair. With it, a fair portion of the cold ebbs away, the circle of ice around the creature thickening and shrinking. Cold remains, though feeling far more humane than before, less like the arctic wind.

"You must be Jacelyn." Mouth unmoving, it calls her by name, voice deep and hollow. Teeth open and shut, click-click.

As if caught under a disapproving stare, the shift of fake-wind makes Squeaks stop in her attempted escape. Her lips fold in over her teeth while her head tips, eyes rolling to look everywhere all at once. There's no openings that she can see, no windows, just the door she's trying to get to. And now somehow it isn't so cold, just chilly.

Blue eyes snap to the monster when it begins speaking. At least she's guessing that's what's saying words. The puzzled look that had begun to form over the change in temperature remembers itself and returns to apprehension. With a side of suspicion thrown in.

The beast had used her name.

“Jac,” she's quick to correct in spite of her misgivings, a quiet, single word confirmation. She's who the monster thinks she is.

For all that Doctor Bao-Wei Cong is terrifying- - he is not void of everything else. Certain things remain, poignant when they show themselves. His curiosity is almost never satisfied, nor his desire for more. More what? It is difficult to discern. Just. More.

He watches her watching him, nails drumming with clickity-clacks on tile.

Suspicion is healthy.

"Jac.", amended, confirmed. The serpentine neck lowers down towards the floor, leveling with her eyes from where he lounges. Bits and pieces chip and flake from his hide, chiseling away idly under an invisible hand. Armor shrinks, frame condensing as the ice folds in on itself. Looming becomes less, gradually.

"Like exploring, do you?" His tone is vaguely amused, "I've seen you. Poking around. We have not had the pleasure of meeting. Until now, that is."

Squeaks’ eyes flit to every strange sound then away again, focus fast in returning to the monster’s face. “I like knowing where I am.” Which isn't exactly the same as exploring in her mind. “It's good to know.” Safe is what she really means.

The teen gets her feet under her, but doesn't rise up out of the crouch she puts herself in. Her movements are slow, both because of the slickness of the tiles but also because she's not sure if the monster is going to attack or not.

Slow movements are necessary when dealing with wild creatures and as much as she knows, the thing she's talking to is a wild creature.

Squeaks shifts her weight a little, maybe trying to get a better look. “What… who… are you?”

"I've heard that you were an underground denizen too. In the City." The creature's answer is vague and not what she wants to know, but it seems to come across as agreeable, even if not particularly friendly yet. "I was too."

Presumably, that was a long time ago, as Squeaks has never seen something quite like him down there before. At worst, damage from the cold and remnants of old haphazard dens remain, clawed into the sides of tunnels like a great badger.

"Who." he corrects passively. "Doctor Cong. I work far below." A claw taps against tile, nail filings shedding as his shape compacts. Smaller, smaller, more humanoid. Still long, clawed limbs, spikes down hunched back, the drag and scratch of a spiny, vestigial tail. His face is almost a mockery of one, a sculpt out of jagged shapes and planes, a jaw much like before- - an open maw lined with sharp points. That eye peers out at her, still, sitting deep down in its black socket.

Not as looming now, though still big, at least Squeaks can see that he is most certainly a who despite the array of icy armor.

“The Underneath. I lived there for a while, before I found my family and got adopted.” If the ice and cold strikes a memory from her time in the tunnels, Squeaks doesn't share it. “It's dangerous now. Way more than before. People are being eaten by rats.” And as fanciful as that sounds, her honesty toward the tale is almost palpable.

The girl shrinks back when the monster — Doctor — introduces himself. She sinks to sit on the floor, behind legs so that her knees serve as a shield. “Why… why are you…”

The question doesn't fully form. Maybe it's impolite enough that fear of being in trouble for it keeps her from finishing it. Squeaks folds her lips in over her teeth and presses them closed. She sometimes asks too many questions. Probably this is one of those times, so she tries to stop before they spill out.

"I can imagine that it is much more dangerous, yes." This is all that he says in response to the news of man-eating rats; nothing shocks him anymore, much less that. It's still interesting, of course. As are the girl's mannerisms, which are absolutely indicative of her time out there alone. He'd seen all of that before, too.

In another world, he did something about one of them.

Squeaks can still see through parts of the ice, light from the poolside glittering on frost. Cong's presence seems to ease when he does; her showing up here didn't startle him as much as he did her- - but it was still an intrusion. He is used to having his space. And being avoided. But there was no way for her to know that.

"Why am I like this? Why am I here?" Bao-Wei guesses. One hand lifts to tap claws against the plane of his chest, the ridges of brow lifting in an expression she is able to read. "You know as well as I do that it's impossible to learn without asking questions," One side furrows, a questing expression of its own. "Speak up.**"

Squeaks’ head shakes at the prompting, a noise in her throat follows to underscore her decision. She should pass on asking questions, thank you. Her head turns, maybe with the intent of seeking out the doorway and measuring the distance she'd have to cover to escape — she should know that anyway, even if she wasn't talking to a monster — but her eyes stay angled to watch Doctor Cong.

“I ask too many questions,” she explains finally. Her voice is small, matching her posturing. “I wasn't… I wondered why… but I should go now. Because… because you're busy.” It's a logical reason, grown-ups are usually busy.

He is used to this, it appears, the gilded iris in his face roving away and back again, a visual sigh. The denizens of the ziggurat know not to get on the Doctor's bad side- - so they stay all too professional in their questions. It's always duty, never curiosity.

It's hard to hide his own. Especially at times like this, faced with something- - someone- - new.

"Not particularly." Ice seats him there on the poolside, rather than using the floor as Squeaks chooses to. The angle of his arm perches on a knee, fingers buckling under the bored lean of head. Cong is clear in his attempt to seem undisturbed, going as far as running a tending hand idly down the spindles of ice dripping from his jaw.

"I do not sleep. I find ways to distract myself." Such as haunting pools.

The young teen stares hard, still with her face turned away but her eyes slanted toward the ice creature. And within that gaze, she's searching, likely trying to find some trickery, something about the unspoken invitation that will lead her to trouble.

There's easily a million of them, but not any she can put words to. Not that make sense.

So invited, she considers where to start.

“How come you don't sleep.” Not the most interesting of choices, but it is the last thing Doctor Cong admitted to.

Squeaks wraps her arms around her knees, half turns her face toward the monster. Which doesn't look as much like a monster now. She's still suspicious though. “And why are you all ice? Is that… that's why it's cold here but not out there. Are you a… a dragon?” Her eyes narrow slightly, squinting.

There is not anything that she can see which could lead to trouble; Bao-Wei appreciates his privacy, of course, but ignorance is not an excuse for him. Besides… she is too important to ignore. Squeaks' paranoia here, for the most part, is just that.

As the redhead forms her thoughts, his gaze is unblinking, the crinkle jutted nose an idle, leftover gesture of patience. Jac's last question is the first to earn a reaction, which is simply a dry-throated laugh, a note hollow, eye squinting back.

"Only when I want to be," Bao-Wei turns his hand out, fingers curled, "I don't sleep because there is no need. Once upon a time I was as meat and bone as you are," Whether she buys into this or not is up to her. "That changed when I decided that my work was more important than my- - very human- - life."

Cong's answers are ponderous, eye casting into the middle distance as he answers her.

“Do you always want to be?” Or did might be a better question, when Squeaks pauses after to think about the answers she's been given. “There's books about dragons, but… not like real science type books. Mostly stories.” Probably because no one has ever seen a living dragon.

She doesn't make herself comfortable as she settles in to ponder and feed her curiosity. That cautious nature remains, a creature herself ready to bolt at the first sign of trouble.

“Why… and how did you change?” Probing questions now. Squeaks tilts her head a little bit, blue eyes still squinty. “What sort of work do you do? Why couldn't you stay human?”

"That would depend on the mood I'm in." In the case of this visit… well, chancing on the trickster side. As Squeaks gets into some Real Questions(™), Bao-Wei leans forward where he sits, intent.

"I was making something to give abilities to non-evolved. Testing failed too many times, and they pulled the plug. I was so close- - so I used myself." A hand clenches, knuckles crackling, fingers releasing again. Hubris, in its basest form.

"You could argue that I was on the mark, hm?" Cong's shoulders roll in a shrug, far from lamenting foolish choices he'd made a lifetime ago. "No going back from that. I can still force myself into the shape I once was, but why bother? This one … it's me now."

"Not having to deal with the aging process is decidedly a perk."

“Oh.” Something in Doctor Cong’s answer to the harder questions has Squeaks withdrawing, becoming more cautious. If that's even possible. She looks away, maybe mulling over the answer, wondering if she has more questions.

She's not sure she'd want to know the answers, if she did have more questions about the monster-man.

She chews on her bottom lip. Her eyes eventually slide over to the doctor again. “How do you know who I am,” she asks slowly, uncertain.

She asked and he provided. Just as he implied he would. That eye is dimming and lighting, a vestige of a blink. Perhaps he thinks it is a question she should be able to have answered herself? Still, Bao-Wei gives a thoughtful click of jaw, a cant of head, rattle of spiny tail clattering out from its dip in the pool. It seems to coalesce around his frame, not unlike a cat.

"I work for your father." And of course he doesn't mean the 'adoptive' one, watching the young girl for her more physical reaction. "Mostly lab work. But I am also a physician. He's, ah," Cong's head angles away, choosing his words. "Given me something of a purpose. I've stayed. Not that anyone else would have me. I stay because I might yet accomplish something for the good of man, which would shock old associates, I'm sure…"

As old men reminiscing tend to do, he rambles, eye distant, voice always deep.

Squeaks probably could have guessed at the answer, but it isn't often she's given seemingly free rein to ask anything. Besides, making sure a guess is right is important for knowing how things are. Especially since there's a whole lot still that she doesn't know about Adam.

“What kinds of work?” Even though she's naturally guarded, that question still bubbles to the surface. “What… what are you trying to accomplish? Like with your…” The teen nods her head in Cong’s direction. “The giving abilities thing to not Expressives?”

"Equality is too stale of an answer." And not untrue, but also not the whole truth. "I was willing to do this to myself because I believe evolution does things in the best interest of itself. People like Expressives… they'll inherit the Earth." Not the meek.

"I work on projects in the best interest of the future. Primarily biological, though I've consulted on engineering and energy concepts." Bao-Wei issues a faux-sigh. "When Adam says he wants to help the world, he speaks the truth of his own making."

Is that a vague enough dragon answer?

Vague or no, Squeaks stares at the dragon-man with only her apprehensive wondering. She still doesn’t trust him, that’s something she’s given no effort to keeping it hidden even while her demeanor shifts from plain fear to timidity. There’s a lot to think about with what the doctor does, why he’s here. A purpose to… what she can only guess at. And how come he used himself to test things?

Given what she knows about genetic testing, that seems not only really very dangerous but also pretty dumb.

None of this is spoken out loud. It, along with other questions that go unasked, cloud her expression with the simple desire for understanding. Squeaks leaves it to air, like a fine wine those things she wants to ask will be better given a chance to breathe. “Do you like being here?” A more mundane question, the kind that doesn’t really matter except she’s got nothing but time and can always think of things she doesn’t know about.

Doctor Cong appears perfectly at ease with long pauses. There is no sound of breath from him, just the aura of cold air and the tick tick scrape of pieces shifting amongst themselves. A very much living golem, stock still until it needs to be.

"Not as much as I could." He admits, after a longer pause tacked onto his end. Golden eye narrows some, rolling to the side in a brief examination of the door, the pool, his circle of frost, back to Squeaks. Even though his voice still carries that uncanny depth, it errs into demurity. "However, it is always better outside of the complex. I have no need for self-containment there. Especially at the sea. Under it, time to time…"

"You know how it is- - the need to stretch." At least, something like that. Mentally, for him.

“It's okay here.” Squeaks may or may not know how it is, so that's how she chooses to reply this time. She looks and sounds honest enough too. She misses home, though, but that's hidden away. Kept secret. Her head turns, a slight swivel that takes her entire focus off Cong for a few seconds so she can examine the room. “It's very different. But… but it's okay.”

Her eyes return to the dragon-man, and her shoulders hitch with a very small shrug. “I'm not allowed outside alone. It's… it isn't safe or something? But I have a balcony so I can go outside that way.”

"Hff, it's safe if you know how to defend yourself." He doubts she is strong enough to fend off some of the unsavory elements, by his cadence. "This place is in a city, the city in a safe zone, the safe zone in the badlands." Called badlands for a reason, one can assume.

"More likely you are not allowed off of the grounds because you are clever." Even though he's only spoken with her a short time, Bao-Wei has still seen her, heard of her, listened to others talk about her. There's a spark of kinship there, perhaps. Wiggling one's way under doors and out of trouble. "Clever enough to figure a way out, if you really wanted to."

She's clever? Squeaks’ eyes squint slightly at the praise. It's a subtle one, but enough to remind her she should be cautious around people. And ice-dragons. “No, probably because it's not safe,” she repeats without a measure of insistence.

If there's a way out, she'd find it. That's how she was able to navigate the underground labyrinth for so long. She found the ways through the cracks.

But none of that is admitted to right now. Squeaks keeps a steady, guarded gaze on the Doctor. There's still a slight narrowing of her eyes, still suspicious. “But it's still okay here. Just different. That's okay too.”

The lack of insistence tells him he is on the right track. If you say so, youngling. Bao-Wei's frame lifts some from its moorings, ice crackling and splintering as he picks himself up.
"Yes, it is very different." Without much of a shake, his hide shudders and spills excess ice to the floor at his feet; claws trail small scores in the frost. "If you really want to see the outside, however… I suggest that you ask. Maybe you will get lucky. The bay is lovely despite the carcass of civilization."

“Are you leaving?” Squeaks’ newest inquiry comes without any acknowledgement to his suggestion. Who would she ask anyway? Her feet tuck in as close as she can to avoid the bits of ice that skitter across the tile toward her. “Where…” No, that's definitely not any of her business. She sighs out the rest of that thought without giving it any words and looks aside.

Ice is harmless as chunks, and this is no different. If anything, they give off the faint chill and puff of air and cold, crystalline and clear. Her question turns his head, and his golden iris settles on her for another moment. If she wants to know something else, best time to ask.

"Unless you would rather I stay?" Bao-Wei considers her posture. "…I know I make you uneasy." He pauses again, stance ponderous and shifting. "I came here to… filter." It's an odd thing to say, but given the fractals and shine of his body, one can assume the pool had something to do with it. How do ice monsters bathe? "I didn't come here to frighten teenage girls, despite my colleagues' misconceptions."

“No,” Squeaks answers quickly, but not hastily. She should start finding her way back. “Just wondered. I make people uneasy too.” Which might be a comical statement if not for the earnesty in her tone. It doesn't come with an explanation, but it's followed by her standing, movements cautious still, and a quick search for the door.

Bao-Wei Cong's answer is a half-hearted shrug, and a hollow noise to indicate his ambivalence. So be it. He doesn't seem offended. He isn't. So few people choose otherwise regardless.

His eye studies her one last time as she stands, furrowed under brow and offering one last glint of reception.

"Be seeing you." The ice monster clicks his jaw one more time, turning the opposite way from the door towards the locker rooms. His frame droops and cracks, unspooling into an ambiguously serpentine shape which winds away through the back, a trail of glittering frost in his wake.

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