Blooming Roses

Chapter 1

by Rose_Director

Tags: #drones #scifi #clothing #f/f #f/m #f/nb #robots

The megalithic building stands proud against the concrete and glass towers beside it, making mortals of titans. Sheer, elegant, imposing; the structure kisses the sky, inspiring awe in those who observe it. This effect becomes overwhelming in its courtyard, where these same observers are rendered ants in a temple of giants. You let a breath fill your lungs, feeling it sweep out through your anxious smile. Here it is. Rose Cybernetics.The sliding doors of the atrium open with a hissed breath as you enter. You knew that the company did its best to impress its visitors, but if the scale of the building hadn't already set an imposing stage, its lobby would finish its show. Seeming as though it was open to the air, the 'ceiling' of this enormous space rests comfortably at the top of the building itself. From this, a tiered array of circular floors wrap along the outer walls like a serpent's coils. Light permeates the structure from a myriad of sources, all carrying a natural hue that - if what you've heard is accurate - mirrors the color of the sky outside. The sterile whites and greys of the building carry accents of saturated color across its industrial carpeting and in stripes along its walls. Of a similar color set, furniture that seems more like modern art gives the entire area an almost organic quality.

The structure itself, though, is complemented in its unique qualities by those within. Figures all around you work busily, writing on whiteboards, collaborating in clusters of various sizes, darting from group to group, and delivering items as though their need was known preemptively. Interestingly, these forms all appear dissimilar from each other. They represent myriads of body types, clothing styles, and gender presentations, yet they all wear a sleek cover across their faces; a brushed, dark curve that obscures all facial features while displaying imagery of its owner's choice. Pulling your attention from your surroundings, you return to your task. A desk labeled 'check-in' sits at the atrium's center, and inquiring there seems to be the place to start.

"Hello, welcome to the Rose Cybernetics Center! How can we help you?" The person at the desk carries a spritely, delicate voice, and their words appear across their faceplate as they speak. Almost as if understanding your hesitation, the words 'she/her/hers' flash across her screen.

"I- um, hi," You've practiced this interaction many times before, but trying to get words out when you're already off-beat is a bit like trying to tame a tiger while wearing rollerblades. The staffer looks at you again, tilting her head curiously in a motion that dangles her blonde ponytail against her shoulder. It's unsettling to interact with someone with no face, yet looking into her faceplate is somehow calming all the same. Rippling waves of various colors splash across the black of her display, soothing cool tones that remind you of northern lights. You take a breath to settle your heart, acclimating yourself to the unusual sight, and try again. "I'm here for my in-person interview. I-I heard that you'd be expecting me?"

Even without seeing her face, you get a good sense of the smile under her faceplate as its colors take on a gentle warm hue. "Of course, applicant 3B90, right this way." The staffer stands and walks out from behind the desk, as another worker wordlessly takes her place. You find yourself unsettled by the exchange; it almost felt more mechanical than human. Suppressing a shudder, you follow the staffer as she leads you to one of the elevator wells built into the side of the building."If you don't mind, um," you speak, immediately cursing the way your words always drift away midsentence. "How can I help you, applicant 3B90?" The warmth associated with her smile appears again, easing some of the anxiety in your chest."It's ah. Sydney, please. What's your name?"

"Oh, I'm sorry, Sydney. I'm GIU-2CE5, but you can call me 2C if you like!" As with all of her words, these too float across her display, as does a small '^-^' emoticon afterward. Having gotten more accustomed to the way she emotes, you see the way her tone seems to perk up at the opportunity to share this particular bit of information."Sure," you say as she guides you into an elevator and presses a button for one of the middle floors, "that's your employee number, or um. Whatever, but how about your name?"

She pauses for a moment, and you can see her faceplate's slow visualization stutter briefly as she thinks. "Nope, but 2C's my nickname!" It's painfully clear to you that she likes that 'nickname' at least, and you doubt you'll get further on this line of questions, so you let it go with a sigh.

"2C it is, then." Okay, maybe it *is* a bit cute to see her get excited about something so simple.The elevator dings and she leads you out through its doors, grabbing your hand to pull you along. The contact is startling, but you don't seem to mind too much as you shrug and let the enthusiastic girl drag you along. On these lofted floors, full glass windows look out on the open atrium while the walls of offices and cubicles emerge, finally welcoming you into something more familiar. She pulls you into an office, empty except for two chairs and a small cabinet, and gestures for you to take a seat. You comply, settling into a piece of furniture that has no business being as comfortable as it is. 2C takes the opposite chair, crossing her legs. 

"Okay, Sydney, I'll be conducting your interview! Let me know, and we can go ahead and get started." Hearing this surprises you. Sure, you keep an open mind when it comes to most things, but getting interviewed by a front desk greeter for a network administration position is almost surreal. 

"Alright, so what is this, exactly?" 

2C's 'smile' flashes again, and she cheerily explains the Rose Cybernetics hiring process. You know most of this stuff already; the company runs a series of difficult online challenges that lead the way to their application portal. From there, you don't need to submit a resume (thankfully, since yours is in desperate need of some TLC), but they do ask you to solve a problem in realtime over an internet call. If you've shown your skill, they speak with you in a brief remote interview to learn more about you as a person, then give you one final in-person meeting. This last interview, to your knowledge, is a formality; they'd already told you to bring everything you needed to move in, after all. It's at this point where the details get fuzzy, though. As much as you've searched for information about what this would even be, you'd found nothing but missing links and dead-ends.

"This meeting is a different kind of test! We're going to hook you into our internal network for a moment, and see how you take to it." She reads your confused look, and the waves on her display bubble lightly, almost in a light giggle.

"What do you mean? Will I have a laptop?" You watch as the laughing effect grows. She holds up a hand as if to ask for just a moment, then stands and walks over to the cabinet. Sliding out a slim, black box, she strides back over to you and places the box in your lap. It's blank, unadorned, and made of showy cardboard. You start removing the lid, suction keeping the base from falling as it slides slowly, and an idea of what might be waiting inside dawns on you. Tossing away the newly-liberated lid, you stare directly into the item you'd been expecting and dreading; a faceplate, returning your stare.Just above the glossy covering, embedded into the packaging foam, a small bolt-like object sits ominously. You've already seen the faceplates, but this thing..? It makes the whole situation even more concerning.

"Don't worry about that receiver - for now, just put your faceplate on - I bet you'd look so cute! Oh, I'm so excited, I get to see what your display shows before anyone else!" 2C's demeanor is a confusing thing; her screen jumps and reacts to her mood, and so does her voice, but her body language and physical responses - while present - are significantly muted. Her posture is almost perfect, and her movement is unsettlingly smooth. Just one more uncanny part of this business, you suppose. Considering your current situation, you catch yourself worrying about the results of this interview again, for very different reasons this time. Your eyes widen with anxiety, as your heart beats faster in your chest.

"Sydney, look at me, okay?" her faceplate's coloration shifts back to those comfortable blues and greens. "Putting the faceplate on won't do anything permanent." Her hand is holding yours. "It'll press against your face, make a tight seal, and beam everything its cameras pick up into your eyes once it starts up."

She's holding both of your hands now.

"When I press the receiver to your neck, it'll let you control the faceplate with your mind, just like I do!" Her display wiggles in a playful pattern for emphasis.

Her hands are soft, reassuring.

"Once you take them off, it'll be back to normal, okay? Just a taste now, that's what this interview is for."

You nod, thoughtlessly. With 2C's hands still holding yours, you reach to the faceplate in your lap. Her reassurance pools in your chest, and after slowing your heartbeat with a couple of deep breaths, you press the dark shape to your face. It's cold, almost like your face is pressed against a window, and begins to shift against your skin. You can feel it exerting a suction force, and for a terrifying instant, you realize that you can't breathe. As you try to pull in a breath, a refreshing current of air wafts in through its respirator, and your brief panic recedes. At first, your vision is blank. Another few deep breaths go by, and imagery starts to flow back into your eyes. Dim at first, most likely to keep you from being immediately overwhelmed, slowly building until your surroundings resolve around you again. You've needed glasses, apparently; the world around you appears sharper now than before, and much more detailed. Looking over at 2C, a small blurb of information hovers over her head. It's a single word; 'contented.' You'd figured that she was just good at reading emotions, but this was cheating!"H-have you been reading me from your s-screen this whole time?" you stammer.

"Oh, no, not quite. That info comes from your receiver. I'm just good at guessing!" The panel shifts to 'proud,' before progressing to 'flirty.' You're about to comment on it, when she decides to continue. "By the way, that faceplate looks so so cute on you!"

Your cheeks redden, and you're, surprisingly, thankful that the unlit display is covering your face. You still have almost no idea why the company would require wearing these things, but the anonymity is surprisingly refreshing.

"O-okay, I've handled the mask-faceplate-whatever, I'm good to keep going."

2C's faceplate lights up a monochrome green as she tilts her head, and you see metadata confirming that it's posed as a question. You nod again in response, and she stands up to walk behind you. Your anxiety builds at the thought of a person directly behind you, but it subsides as chilling metal touches your skin. The mechanism's electromagnetic fields warp your thoughts, pulling at them as though they were elastic. The tension builds and builds as your mind becomes a coiled spring, the receiver forcing it ever tighter. The force, the pulling, the pushing; it feels like everything that makes up your mind is about to explode. "Relax," 2C's voice cuts through the swirling forces and mental struggle, "just let go, let the flow of information sweep over you.” 


At her last word, your entire being stalls, before sinking into a state of extreme ease. All of that tension, so overwhelming moments ago, courses through your body, letting you accept this new pathway for information to travel through. As you pick up the pieces of your consciousness, you shake your face from the empty stupor it carried a moment ago - thanking your mask once again - and actively sift through the data streaming into your brain.The Rose Cybernetics building is already impressive from a visual perspective, but looking at it for what it is, the glowing connected consciousnesses of every mind in the structure lighting up before you, you feel your jaw drop automatically. Your gaze returns to 2C, whose current emotions register as 'pleased.'

2CE5 > [You can talk to me like this now, you know.] The thoughts sound like her voice, and you jump as you hear them. [It's strange to start with, I know, but this is how we all communicate here; much faster.]

Realization dawns on you, and without prompting, your thoughts pour through the connection between you. [How do I respond- oh wait I'm responding now this is amazing but hard to control how do I sto-] flows out of you, in combination with a variety of related emotions, images, and half thoughts.

You spend the remaining interview time experimenting with this paradigm shift in interaction, communication, and existence that's somehow both entirely new, yet confusingly familiar and natural. After only a few minutes, it feels as though 2C understands you on a deeper level than anyone you've ever met, just as your understanding of her reaches that same depth. She explains that for the sake of getting you used to this, she's the only one linked to you. She shares - with enthusiasm - that after you've had enough time to acclimate to this shift, you'll be able to open connections with anyone and everyone in the entire facility. Her excitement bounces through your mind, and you can't help but let that positivity bubble up until it begins to play across your faceplate, too. Your display is a lot less abstract than 2C's; instead of the amorphous waves against a black background, your faceplate decorates itself with images of the cosmos. Galaxies, nebulas, constellations, all proudly used to emote in a way that words never could. It feels freeing, strangely enough, wearing a screen like this. It's a window, you think, glasses for the mind. You can feel 2C thinking to herself, the sign to expect a burst of new information broadcast from her mind to yours. As you do, you can't help but think just how cute she is! So excited over being called 2C; of course, if someone called you 3B90, you'd probably melt too. It's confusing to you, looking back, why you thought that names were so important. After all, designations are just so much more convenient!

2CE5 > [You were broadcasting that, 3B,] 2C's smug feeling drips between your connection. Your blush returns to paint your cheeks bright red, and you notice another - somewhat less innocuous - response between your legs. She waits, perfectly aware of the effect her words carried as she feels it flowing through her mind from yours, before continuing. [I think that our interview was a success! Come back tomorrow, and we can get you fitted with a permanent set.]

3B90 > [I have to take it off?]

2CE5 > [It'll be alright, just one more day.] Through your mental link, she sends you more feelings of relief, complemented by a physical hug. She looks up at you for a moment questioningly, before you nod gently, confirming your begrudging acceptance as she pulls the receiver away from your neck.

With all that meta-information gone, you squeeze against her even tighter to compensate. As your mask falls away, you feel strange; naked even. Leaving the office room, stepping into the elevator, and giving your goodbyes to 2CE5 all serve the singular goal of making you feel that much more alone. For a brief moment, you consider just how strange it is to be feeling these things at the hand of your new employer, but at this point, you're in far too deep to do anything but shrug.

"Before I- um... go, will I see you again?" you stumble out the question, mouth once again failing you.

2C's smile lights up her faceplate again - stars, it's so beautiful to see - and a giggle creeps out too.

"I wouldn't be too worried about that, 3B! After all, I'll be your new supervisor!"

Hearing your designation excites you in a way that feels almost enchanting, and you blush deeply in response. The part of you that might have questioned why she of all people would be your supervisor remains muted, as the excitement of the prospect tingles down your spine. Only a few hours ago, you would have scoffed at yourself, but now you can't help but be excited; tomorrow is your first day at Rose Cybernetics.

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