Monday, January 18, 2016

Special Entry: Champagne Kisses

Special Entry: Happy Belated New Year's! Astral calendars may not line up when there's over a billion recognized in the Known, but that's not going to stop Lunai from throwing her own New Year's Eve bash! Too bad the only person talking to the organic in the corner was the girl he made cry a few weeks earlier...

What Are You Doing New Year's Eve? by Mindy Smith

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                 Felix had known once he'd met Lunai's army of crystal pumpkins that the white haired femme would take some getting used to. Not in a bad way or a crazy way, just an I've-never-had-to-deal-with-this-on-a-regular-basis-and-find-it-difficult sort of way. And he would get used to her he thought – she was smart as well as strange and had a rapid-fire mind that often leapfrogged his line of thought in refreshing, if not randomized, bursts – even if her organic obsession did strain the nerves on his worse days.
                But being squeezed into a room jam packed with twenty plus Hybridians and their suffocating static was another matter entirely. It went past his deeply ingrained social anxiety. The intermingling bubbles of bioelectricity were physically making it hard for him to breathe.
                It wasn't so bad in the corner by the window, because of the outlet infinite space offered the built up electricity or because there was at least a yard between him and the other guests Felix would need specialized equipment to discover, but either way he knew he probably looked like a gawky wallflower, standing here alone. So far in the festivities none of the others had noticed though. Even Lunai had stopped shooting him meaningful looks over the rim of her champagne glass and was deeply absorbed in a discussion with one of her many, many friends.
                Felix looked down at his, swirling the flute she'd given him and agitating the bubbles into a tangy haze. He didn't know enough about the real stuff to know if she'd synthesized this batch for them special, but it was nice to drink something he recognized, so he thought it'd be rude to ask.
                He leaned against the bulkhead behind him, letting his eyes roam the room as he took another sip. She really knows how to go all out, he thought as he took in the tinkling decorations hanging from the ceiling lights, the way the light bounced off them giving the room a golden shine. The light mixed with the bubbles from the champagne, the soft music that filled the room, and created a pink and gold haze that was comfortable and new. Everything sparkled, but not enough to hurt the eyes.
                "Did she get it right?"
                Felix nearly upended his glass over his shirt – one of the professional-looking button-ups Au'relia had ordered for him before she'd realized he wasn't a button-up kind of guy. Lunai had already made him change when he'd shown up in his snowman mechanic sweater; if he messed up this one, she might stick in him a bib and be done with it.
                A petite figure stood next to him, long black hair pulled back in some kind of braid that still left fine lengths of hair to fall over her shoulders so she could fiddle nervously with it. Onyx eyes flicked toward him from underneath starched bangs without meeting his own.
                "Noella?" Felix asked, surprised to see her at something as extroverted as a party, even if she was Lunai's friend. Then he remembered her question and looked around quickly at the lights and decor and fizzy bubbles. "Oh. Yeah, she did real good. I feel like I'm in a year 2000 movie, only with aliens."
                He hadn't meant it as a joke, but she gave a tiny laugh anyway into her glass. "That's good," she said, her voice just high-pitched enough to be heard over the general chatter in spite of its softness. "Lun was so upset when she realized she missed out on Christmas that she set out to make as authentic a New Year as she could. She'll be glad she succeeded."
                Felix nodded, his eyes immediately finding their hostess in the hubbub. It was easy, with the effervescent light striking white-silver in her hair, a single band of gold shining near her ear. She was surrounded by a small cluster of their fellow Blue Sector scientists, most of them male.
                The usual awkward weight of someone expecting him to speak started to press down on him, and Felix fiddled with the stem of his glass. "So, ah, what are you doing over here?" he asked when he couldn't stand the unfulfilled expectations any longer.
                Noella's eyes grew larger. "Oh, sorry. Did you want to be alone? I can go stand somewhere else. You were just, ah, you were the only one I know here besides Lunai so, I thought..."
                That wasn't what I meant, Felix thought quickly but didn't know how to say that without sounding stupid, so instead he changed the subject before she could leave hanging her head.
                "That's, um, that's a nice necklace," he said, grasping at straws.
                She stopped and looked down at the bit of silver he'd seen glinting in the hazy lights. She gave him a smile he didn't quite understand, like they were discussing some inside joke.
                "Thanks," Noella said as she fingered it. "A co-worker gave it to me."
                Felix frowned. Someone else was handing out presents? What for? It couldn't be Lunai – she'd missed Christmas and had sulked for the last month because of it – but maybe Watts? There is a Father Christmas-ish quality about the old man...
                He finally got a better look at the charm and felt his face burn red. It was his. The one he'd made her. For Christmas. Duh.
                Felix turned away, burying his nose in his glass to hide the color of his face. Noella didn't seem to notice, probably too caught up in her own discomfort. She hadn't come quite as close as when she'd arrived, but she hadn't left yet either. Obviously she was warming up to him.
                "What'd you give Lunai?" she asked curiously a moment later, only a slight waver in her high, rasping voice.
                Felix had to swallow quickly to give her a timely answer. "A potato," he confessed. "A real one. She was very excited about it."
                Noella giggled. And for once, it wasn't at his expense.
                Felix straightened up without realizing it. He did notice however, when some of his anxiety, just a little bit, began to evaporate. "Caspin got a sock. Just one," he managed to grin at her. "I told him the other one must have been stolen by a Blue-stitched Uggle."
                "Sounds dangerous," Noella supplied.
                Felix sagely nodded. "Oh yes. Sometimes they get so enthusiastic about their catch, they just take the foot with it."
                She smiled behind her glass, shoulders hunched around her ears as if she was trying to hide the fact. "That explains why he was lurking outside Ratakin's hole the other day."
                Noella nodded. "One of Jak's earlier experiments," she told him, naming the head of the Persephone's robotics lab. "About this big-” She held the space of a large rat between her hands. "-temperamental wiring, and spits acid. He got out of his cage and chewed a home for himself out of the wall. No one's been able to convince him to come out."
                Felix laughed, picturing Caspin in his perfectly starched lab coat hunkered outside a metal mouse hole on his hands and knees, waiting for a beastie that didn't exist.
                "So much better than coal," he murmured to himself. Then at Noella's questioning look explained, "That was my first idea, but I thought the cultural significance might be lost on him."
                From the look on her face, it was lost on her too. She just murmured, "Oh," and turned away.
                "Hey," Felix dared to ask after several minutes had passed in silence. "Can I ask you something?"
                Large black eyes flicked to him and waited. He took that as a yes.
                "It's just, that's a very...unique resonance to your vocal patterns. Did something cause that or...?" he trailed off, losing momentum.
                A hand rose to her throat self-consciously. "No that's, that's just my voice," she told him, cheeks flushing faintly. "Lunai says it must be because I don't use it enough."
                She gave him a weak smile that Felix returned as he mentally tallied up how long they'd been working together. Month, month and a half, he decided. And even then I hardly ever hear her speak. Maybe Lunai's right.
                "And your-" She tapped one finger to one corner of her forehead. "-your scar? How'd you get that?"
                Felix reached a hand up before he realized what she was talking about; the faint white scar half hidden in his hairline. "Oh. Um, running from a psychopath at the bottom of a canyon in the middle of galactic nowhere."
                She stared at him like a third eye had popped out of his forehead. "Oh."
                They went back to staring at the other guests, but it was not a comfortable silence. Felix felt like he had to explain. Not about Kla, but why he'd asked about her voice.
                "Watts explained it to me," he said under the sound of the other party goers. "The other day. About your family."
                She'd been staring at him with those too large eyes of hers, confusion painfully obvious, but when he mentioned her family, she quickly turned away, her hair sliding forward to hide her face.
                He waited, shoulders tight, and was relieved when she didn't start crying again.
                "I'm sorry," he remembered to tell her.
                She didn't look up, but gave a tiny nod of her head, making her hair ripple.
                Felix resisted the growing urge to hide deeper in the corner himself, telling himself he'd started this painfully personal conversation and the absolute least he could do was finish it, but it was a difficult temptation to resist. Without any clue how to pull out or close the topic entirely, he stood there, mouth opening and closing like a fish as he considered words and immediately discarded them as insufficient.
                He must have tossed out twenty different starts before he heard the girl make the most unexpected sound.
                Noella laughed.
                The she did it again, a little louder this time, so Felix knew he hadn't just heard someone else. "Sly old man," she said, looking up enough that Felix saw the smallest smile in the Known Universe on her face. She met his eyes hesitantly. "It's just that-" She fidgeted, fingers wrapping around each other. "-he told me about you too. When I was...hiding from you." Her tan face flushed crimson, but she quickly pressed on. "About the difficulties you had on Earth-" She faltered. "-and about your mother."
                It was Felix's turn to duck. He nodded slowly as he slid his hands into his pockets. He wasn't really surprised, he found. If Watts would tell him the darkest day of Noella's life just to help him understand her, then of course he would do the same to help Noella.
                A thought occurred to him and the corner of his mouth jumped: Maybe she'd realized that too and that was why she'd laughed.
                He leaned harder against the wall behind him and crossed his feet at the ankle, letting the wall take his weight off his feet. "Does it bother you?" he asked after a moment of consideration. "To have so much in common with an organic?"
                She turned to look at him briefly. "It did," she admitted. "That's why I avoided you so long. I-" Her fingers twisted. "I didn't know how to face someone like you." She huffed a semi-frightened laugh. "I still don't really. When it comes down to it."
                She trailed off, biting her lower lip, all amusement gone.
                Was this what he looked like when people tried to talk to him? When he clammed up on them, so lost in his own head he forgot how to relate to people even on the most basic level? Not that they ever bothered to relate to him much either...
                He shook off the surliness trying to creep up on him and refocused on Noella. "I feel like that with pretty much everybody," he told her.
                Felix gave her a self-depreciating laugh and was rewarded when she peeked out of her shell again. A few feet away, Lunai and her hangers on broke into a loud round of laughter, making Felix and Noella jump at the sudden volume.
                They shared a look of shared embarrassment before sinking back into their relative obscurity. There was only a half hour or so until midnight now and they waited it out in mutual and untroubled silence, watching the more socially adept Blues...mingle.
                "I wonder how she does it."
                Felix looked over to see Noella's glittering black eyes watching the same cluster of people he was. With all the shine about, Felix saw there was a hint of brown in them – like a piece of amber glinting in a cave. "The...decorations?" he asked, looking back around the room. "Um, I don't know. A ladder, I guess..."
                Noella shook her head and laughed. "No, not that. That." She pointed at Lunai and her rapt listeners. "Parties. Talking. People. She makes it look so easy."
                "Oh." Felix nodded. "Yeah, I was just thinking the same thing," he said as Roller – one of the robotics lab's more functional metal minions – noticed them and held out refreshed glasses with an over the top (and rather annoying) puppy-like eagerness to please.
                Felix took it but the meter high robot only stared at him, making insecure and hopeful whirrings.
                Felix tried not to glower. "Yes, thank you Roller, thank you," he stressed when the rolling machine only squeaked closer, optical sensors glowing brightly at him.
                "All right everybody!" Lunai called out from the rough center of the room as Felix finally sent Roller on his way with a forceful nudge of his foot, getting a sliding whistle from the startled robot. "According to Perseph's chrono, the new standard year begins in seven, six, five-!"
                The whole room counted down the new year and when they reached one, outside the stars didn't change position, the planets still spun on their same axis and the Known didn't cease expanding, but inside they all cheered because something had changed anyway. A new year. A new chance. At what exactly Felix didn't quite know, but he looked forward to finding out.
                It was a strange feeling, he thought, one he hadn't felt since before leaving home.
                "Happy New Year," Felix told Noella under the uproar with an uncertain but actual smile. She flashed him a startled one of her own and mumbled the words back. And then, without any warning that he saw, she leaned over and lightly pecked him on the cheek.
                Felix stared at her like she'd tried to set him on fire.
                Noella's face immediately glowed florescent red. "Oh, s-sorry. Did I get that wrong? I thought it was weird, but Lunai said humans did that for luck in the coming year. It's wrong, isn't it? She probably got it off <Organicisms>. It's wrong."
                Felix relaxed at the name of Lunai's favorite data site. "Half wrong," he told her. "But don't worry about it. Here." He held out his champagne flute. "Usually we just toast and make ridiculous resolutions like-” He frowned, thinking of what he could possibly want in the coming year. "Like to a working prototype," he decided.
                "O-oh," Noella stuttered, staring at his glass. "Right." She awkwardly clicked her glass against his, eliciting a pleasant chime. "A working prototype," she repeated, and then before she lost her nerve, quickly added, "And to new friends."
                Felix stopped, surprised. Then he felt his mouth twitch, just a little. "That one's better," he told her, chiming his glass against hers again. "To new friends." Cor was always saying he needed more anyway.
                Noella smiled and ducked her head, shyness returning in full. Felix didn't bother her about it, understanding better than anyone else in the room its weight.
                They spent the rest of Lunai's party in the relative peace of their corner, enjoying the silence.

Happy (Belated) New Year's!
All the best wishes for 2016 from Perseph and Co. 

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