All Roads, Part I


sf_nicole2_icon.gif sf_zachery2_icon.gif

Scene Title All Roads, Part I
Synopsis The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single ████.
Date March 19. 2021

It was snowing that night. The first snow of the year.

Nicole Nichols looks small when seated on a wide leather sofa, lit by the warm glow of a crackling fireplace. The glass of whiskey she cradles long since turned to little more than melting ice cubes, but she hasn’t had the presence of mind to set it down on the coffee table in front of her.

She works the whiskey glass around in her hand, rotating it a quarter revolution each time. The ice clinks and sloshes around inside, adding a soft noise to the howl of wind outside the penthouse. Conflicting emotions tumble through her mind like ice in the glass and manifest as fresh tears.

“I understand this isn’t easy for you, Ms. Nichols,” says the well-dressed man seated in an armchair opposite Nicole. Daniel Linderman’s attorney, Bryant Kotch, is a pragmatic man, but in the wake of tragedy it’s sometimes hard to see that pragmatism as anything other than cruelty. “Unfortunately, the particulars of Mr. Linderman’s will are in some respects, time-sensitive.”

Setting down a folder on the coffee table between them, Kotch fixes his stare on the much younger woman. “Daniel has entrusted you with control over his estate, in so much as they pertain to his son’s ability to wield it.”

Kotch slowly sits back, folding his hands in his lap. “We need to go over all of this before morning, because there’s some things requested in Daniel’s will that need to be enacted immediately…”

Kotch’s expression grows deadly serious. “Matters of inheritance.”

Four Years Later

52 Miles West of New York City

New Jersey

March 19th
5:54 pm

You can blink and miss the town of Hope, New Jersey. Driving down the 519, the town is little more than a single road through the heart of downtown with a few shops, a school, and a church. Even at what should be rush-hour traffic it feels remarkably dead and the road is wide open.

For Nicole and Zachery Miller, this isn’t just a drive out into the country. This is a journey into the unknown. The last fifty miles have felt frustratingly normal, traffic on the George Washington Bridge keeping them in the city, the Lincoln Tunnel backed up due to an accident. It took driving all the way into Brooklyn and taking the Narrows to Staten Island to get out of New York, and it felt like the city was fighting them the entire time.

And if everything they’ve seen and experienced, if everything Asami has said is true, it was.

It was far from the speedy getaway from the city that she’d hoped for. The bumper-to-bumper traffic that impeded their exodus had Nicole’s teeth on edge. All she wanted to do was meet the open road and open up the engine of the “borrowed” sports car most graciously lent to her by — well — Valerie. Instead, every horn that blared was Harvey’s frustrated tantrums. In every wail of a siren that went past, over, or around them was Avery’s helpless cries for relief from her illness.

She was all too eager to pay the last toll out and watch it all slip into what would soon be a distant memory of a bad dream.

Now, she sits in the passenger seat, staring at a Xerox of a series of pages from an old road atlas she watched Isaac pore over the night before. Thoughts of family road trips to visit ẘ̷̢͓́̕͜͠ͅh̶̛̺̩͇͂̀ơ̸̮̗̺̽͋͘?̸̫̱̼̲̍̀ out in w̴̺̽̃h̸̢̡̩͔̐e̵̗͛̂͠ṙ̸̡̨̘̲ë̷̛͙̾̋?̷̼̖̀ and to navigate from shotgun while her mother sprawled out in the back seat for a nap. Her finger traces over the colored line that represents their space in the world right now.

Or at least as the world was in 1984.

“You need anything?” Nicole asks her husband like she’d ask the senator before she’d inevitably have to send him up on stage, like it or not. “I grabbed a flat of water, we’ve got ice in the cooler, some of those bottles of cold brew…” Turning from her inspection of the back seat — one that seats only inanimate objects that don’t require legroom — she leans toward him with an impish little grin that he can hear in her voice without having to turn his eyes away from the road. “No, I know what you want. You want some of the orange juice.”

They will tell such tales of the decimation of Kaylee Petrelli’s rosé supply if they never manage to leave this place. For now, the only murmuration of such events is straight from the perpetrator’s mouth. She’s still mad at him, but she’s had a lot to drink about it. She’ll let it go until they find what they’re looking for in Vegas. No promises of the armistice holding out after that point.

Zachery may as well be an animatronic for how still he sits, how measured his driving has been. The complaints about reroutes stopped a few inconveniences into the drive, but he also hasn't spoken since on much of anything else, after.

Last night was a lot. Sobriety has never felt this bad. But a lack of control is possibly even worse, so here he is. Here, still hungover, in Hope, even if its presence in him is—

"What?" Zachery replies suddenly in a distracted, crisp sort of voice that implies his own temper has not yet fully cooled. It's corrected to something more level when he adds, "Orange juice. Sure." He lifts his gaze to the rear-view mirror, then returns it to the road with the same wire-thin shred of concentrated focus that's kept him from a complete meltdown so far. "You're very calm."

Undeterred by the lukewarm nature of Zachery’s response, Nicole slips out of her seatbelt and practically lays herself out over the center console before twisting herself around her chair and prying open the lid of the icebox with a satisfying pop. With the ability to see what she’s digging through, she comes up quickly triumphant with a skinny single-serve bottle of OJ.

“You didn’t even ask why I know you’d want the orange juice.” Bottle held by the neck, just below the safety band, she gives it a quick series of shakes back and forth.

His head dipping ever so slightly, Zachery glances to the side. Just for a moment, curiosity pierces through whatever other thoughts racing through his mind. "Pray tell. Why would I want the orange juice."

Nicole laughs quietly, a soft thing at first, little bubbles of mirth climbing their way to her surface. Her lips press together tightly in a bloodless line, trying to keep her face straight — or trying to bring it back to that state, regardless of how far from shore that ship has sailed — while the corners of her mouth fight for control and more laughter resonates in her.

Mrs. Miller leans in, conspiratorial, like they might have to keep their conversation clandestine from the wrapper of her chewing gum in the cupholder. She waits until she can open her mouth to speak without just laughing instead. She’s on her last frayed nerve, and he’s always known her to get the giggles when things have become too much. This, delivered to him in a stage whisper—


“Because I stole them!”

…is unexpected.

Zachery stiffens. "You…." The road ahead is treated to a sneer not meant for it, and one hand presses hard into the steering wheel while he lifts the other in an abrupt, exasperated shove of fingers into his hairline.

The elbow that consequently nearly hits Nicole in the face and might thus create some space between them is just a bonus. "You're acting like a teenager," he snaps forward, returning none of her mirth. "I'm not just counting on you for the directions, I'm—" He swallows dryly, reaching his free hand now to the side, for that drink, stolen or not. "Keep it together. Please."

The bridge of her nose is soundly grazed. Nearly thumped, honestly! Nicole recoils hard enough that she bounces the back of her skull off the passenger side window and utters a quiet and accusatory ow! at the whole door of the vehicle.

“But you like it when I—” She stops and swivels back into her seat after handing off the juice. She appears confused for a moment before the realization properly dawns on her and she starts to pull her seatbelt back into place, a click sounding the return to safe, lives-life-within-the-lines Nicole. Dejected, she gathers up her directions again, and pulls her knees up to rest her heels on the seat while the skirt of her dress — also belonging to someone more carefree than this version of her — shivers lightly in the forced air coming from the car’s vents. The slope of her legs serves as the stand for the facsimile atlas.

The other you likes it,” Nicole whispers to herself in a hushed grumble. She reaches for the cupholder and her coffee there. The Frangellico and creme de cacao she’s mixed in with it spread a warmth through her that feels familiar. She should feel warm like that all the time. From the inside out.

The orange juice bottle is only barely accepted by Zachery, settled on a knee. "I'm sorry." The words leave him in a rush, too fast for any sincerity to latch on regardless of if it was ever going to be there in the first place.

Finally, with the rolling car coming up on a stretch of empty road ahead, he turns his head fully to Nicole. "I like it when I know what's going on. I feel like I should be mourning, or…" He trails off, the corners of his mouth twitching outward before he turns his attention grimly back to the road and holds the orange juice back up to her. "Bring any stolen vodka to add to this?"

If it's a joke, it's delivered flat.

“I mean, I didn't steal it,” Nicole responds quietly, the corners of her mouth drawing back in a small grimace. “She said to help ourselves, so I grabbed my leftovers.”

Still, she isn't offering to pour anything in his juice to make him a screwed driver.

There’s no sign of life outside of the car. Hope is, for all intents and purposes, a ghost-town. Admittedly, there’s cars in parking spaces. There’s bright yellow and red signs that read SALE in the windows of storefronts. There’s even birds. But there’s no people. On a warm, Friday evening there is no one outside. No one jogging, no one walking their dog, no traffic. It feels like a movie set that was shut down for the evening. But, perhaps, there’s a simple reason.

A grinding clunk chokes up from the front of the car. Zachery can feel it vibrate in the steering wheel and in his right foot on the accelerator. There’s a hollow sensation in the pedal, a sudden lack of resistance as the sheer weight of his foot pushes it flush to the floor, and yet at the same time the car is decelerating. The engine knocks once, twice, three times…

…and then dies in the middle of the road.

"Oh, for—" Zachery starts to say, and rather than trying to use the steering wheel to get the car to the side of the road he just ends up gripping it with the one hand he's still got on it like he's trying to tear the wheel clean off. Then, throwing his head back against the headrest, he looks suspiciously like he's using all of his remaining energy not to fill every bit of available space with profanities.


The driver's side window rolls down.

The bottle of orange juice comes hurdling out, hitting a patch of dirt and untended weeds with a dull and noncommittal thmph.

"Intensely unsatisfying," Zachery decides, every syllable slightly too short. He casts a glance at Nicole, finally letting go of the steering wheel and the name of the town both. "Great car."

Feeling unfairly accused when the whole thing seems to just give up in the middle of anywhere, Nicole frowns and leans away from Zachery. “Hit the hood latch,” she grumbles. Knowing he won’t, she slips her feet back into her Keds before leaning back in again and around Zachery to release the mechanism herself.

Popping the door latch with one hand and pushing the actual door open with her foot, she gets out of the car and heads around front of it to pull the hood up. “Don’t worry,” she promises, “I can get us riiiight back on the road.” First, she simply slides her hand under the hood to prop it up, tipping her head back so she can take a drink while she works. All without looking.

Her fingers flex like something should happen, but nothing does. The hood obscuring Zachery’s view out the windscreen shields his wife’s dignity at least a little when she recalls it’s the other her that jumpstarts a car with a quick pulse. Fortunately for them, this one flipped through the owner’s manual before they started their odyssey, so she knows what she’s looking at.

Nicole gives the engine a withering glare. “What do you call this then?” she asks, accusatory.

She knows she’s not looking at an engine. That’s for goddamn certain.

There’s things under the hood, but they include half a tire divided evenly down the middle, four rear view mirrors, several slices of different seat cushions—not the kind in this car—and a stack of steering wheels. All of which are flickering softly like an old CRT monitor recorded on a camcorder.

What's Zachery supposed to do, supposed to just trust?

Nicole barely has time to process what she's seeing before he's wandered up next to her with all the energy of a dying working dog. "What happened to the…" He stares at where the engine isn't, then to the left and right of the car, like its functional parts might simply have escaped.

"All right," he says calmly, when he sees nothing but the town's abandoned lack of answer. "Okay," he says somewhat less calmly, looking back at Nicole again. Searching her face as his fingers twitch at his sides. "Now what? Where do we go?" The impatience is still on his voice, but the hostility thaws into shaken confidence, eyebrows slanted. "If this isn't our world, if this…" He flickers, once, then twice, briefly out of sight, before sweeping an arm out to the car. "How do we fight that?"

That Zachery can’t maintain his own hostility means that Nicole is starting to lose her grip on her own. “Oh, god, please,” she mutters to herself as she moves to her open door again and pulls the lever that drops the seat forward, allowing her better access to the back row. Calling them seats is generous.

Dragging open the top to the cardboard box of bottles that are definitely not made from plastic, Zachery is able to see the way his wife’s entire being simply sags. “No.” She takes something from the box and tips her head back to whine fruitlessly at the ceiling of the car. “Come on.

Nicole steps back and brings herself to stand again outside the car. “This place has done a lot to us, and I’d even… I’d even entertained the thought of… Resetting so we could—” Well, just like he’d suggested to her, only without the entitlement portions of it. “But this is bullshit and I won’t allow it to continue.”

A jaggy cluster of purple grapes are held up, procured from where the wine must have been. “Look at this fucking garbage! I’m just offended now.” Like Zachery and his juice, Nicole angrily throws aside the pixelated mess. “I hate this.”

An involuntary laugh escapes Zachery as he watches Nicole, his expression still stuck on an increasing amount of panic that can't quite decide what it wants to evolve into.

"We're alright," he lies. "Come on. Fuck this entire… fuck this." He drags both his hands down his face and turns, continuing to walk down the road with forced decision. "We've got legs. They can't take those away, can they?"

As of yet, no.

“I suppose they can’t,” Nicole concedes with a sigh. She gathers up the pages of the atlas from the front seat, takes her sunglasses from the visor, and stuffs as many bottles of water into her bag as she can.

“Just… One thing though? Before we head out?” She waits to see if he’ll wait for her, pensive.

"This is madness," Zachery hisses to himself in some mix of desperation and anger before turning around and saying, much more loudly than he needs to (and louder still with every word), "I don't know what information I could possibly have to offer you at this point in time, in the shambles… the pandemonium that's replaced my prior understanding of everything, the shattered remains—"

He stops himself, taking a deep breath and doing his best to clear the annoyance from his face, even if what little isn't on his face still easily makes it into his voice. "Yes, kitten?"

Whatever embers of hope Nicole had been meaning to feed kindling have gone cold in the space of those two words. She looks away, down to the pavement at her feet and shakes her head. “Never mind,” she responds in a small voice.

After taking in a breath so deep that it seems to cause her to inflate and stand taller, Nicole rolls the memorized pages together and starts to walking down the road. “Let’s go.”

"I'll— " Zachery starts, but stays the rest of his sentence until Nicole's at his side. Only then does he start moving again, matching her pace. "I'll try to be more patient. More trusting. I'm… coming apart." His head lifts, his voice now a forced and almost pleasant level, but no longer hitting the register of hate-in-waiting. "But I'll pretend we're on a nice day out, together, the twins are—"

He swallows, blinks, then decides with a nod, "They're alright. And we're…" With a wary scan of the empty, empty street and the buildings adjacent, he sticks a hand out at his side, his knuckles brushing hers. "Remind me where we're even going."

“Yeah,” Nicole responds, a little flatter than she intends to when he says he’s coming apart. “Welcome to the club. You can be treasurer.” She sighs and slides the roll of directions into her bag as well, reaching for Zachery’s hand and taking it without giving him a chance to ignore the offer or spurn it.

“We’re going to Las Vegas.” That free hand spread out in an arc in front of them, like the highlight of a marquee. “The Corinthian. I think we’re supposed to remember having been there on a vacation. I remember—”

Brows lift and she shakes her head with a breath of laughter. “Getting struck by fucking lightning. That’s how I got my power. Or… how I first displayed a facet of it. You haven’t lived until you discover you can be a human defibrillator on the fly.”

As he walks, Zachery straightens his back. Nicole's gestures draw his gaze back onto her, and that's where it stays, eyebrows raised over blue eyes.

"Just… walking to the Corinthian," he says, voice steady. After all, it makes about as much sense as what's happened to them thus far. Studying her face while his own expression remains still, his fingers curl inward against hers. "You seem… gladdened."

Mania is like gladness, if less permanent. That Nicole doesn’t immediately answer isn’t a denial to Zachery’s assertion, it’s more that she’s distracted by the abstract. Just through a stand of trees, Nicole can see a tanker ship pitched onto its side, laying in the middle of a stretch of farmland. The propellers on the ship still turn, chewing into the earth as they do.

The little inconsistencies are starting to stack up, the oddities of their lives that had been easily dismissed are now undeniably present in front of their eyes. It’s a staggering reminder that this — all of it — is a fiction devised by their own subconsciousness. A prison of their own making. So what does that say about their marriage?

That’s what has Nicole suddenly quiet.

The props churn the earth as effortlessly as ice cream in a blender. The excitement of recounting her manifestation has drained from her by degrees. Somewhere about the time she meant to turn and ask him What about you?, she felt the heaviness of reality settle down.

Because, somehow, she doesn’t know how her husband manifested his ability to see into people and intuit their physiology. Nicole never even thought to ask him, and this one couldn’t tell her. What does that say about their marriage in the real world? Thoughts about reminding him that they have to escape because they have to find their real children fade into background noise. Static from an ignored radio.

“Zachery.” Now, it’s Nicole’s turn to stop walking. Crestfallen, she settles her gaze on him, just as lost emotionally as they seem to be physically. “You know I love you, right?”

Zachery's next steps fall as though he knew what was coming, serving to turn him around so he can keep continuing forward (or his backwards) with Nicole's hand pulled slowly toward him. He smiles, perfectly pleasantly, and answers easily, "You say it all the time."

He takes another small step, his fingers still loosely around his wife's, but his smile already waning to nothing. "I'm sure you say it all the time. Presumably not just before we… presumably not built in to the…" Failing to find the right words, he shakes his head and insists brusquely, "What's your point?"

The way he responds shakes her, and she doesn’t try to hide it. It shows in the slant of her brow, the trepidation in her eyes. The way her fingers tighten around his to keep him from slipping away, drifting apart from her in a very real sense. The implied supposition is a reasonable one, for all that it sets off all the panic sensors in her brain (literally?), leading her to ask the same questions. Before she can launch into some senseless and frantic placations, Nicole takes the time to breathe.


And out.

“My point is that… I married you here and in the life you don’t remember. That is real.” She laughs helplessly at the perfect memory of the very imperfect beginning of the shared life they pledged to each other. “You didn’t even have a ring.” Dropping everything, his hand included, she steps in and cups his face instead. “You got down on one knee and gave me a unicorn bandage, you absolutely beautiful lunatic of a man.” There are tears in her eyes, begging him to remember. Or at least to try and understand.

Though he does not look fully aware of it, Zachery is now stopped in his tracks. For a second, he finally glances toward the big fucking tanker ship and his whole face twists up into a 'what the fuck', before Nicole's words manage to draw his attention quickly back to her.

His eyes lock onto hers, and he… tries. Tries to understand. It shows in the tensing of his jaw, in physical bristling and the lifting of his shoulders, and in the fight still clawing at his words when he says, "That sounds…" Awful? He pauses, exhaling sharply and then… slowly nods. No more forced smile, just the uncertainty of standing in the middle of a place that isn't real, trying to find the things that are. "Right— it sounds right." he admits, with some stifled pain and amusement both, expression softening a little.

And then, he notes with certainty, "It wasn't the first time I asked."

Nicole presses her lips together tightly and nods her head, mute at first. “Mmhm,” she confirms of the persistence required to secure her hand in marriage. “The first time, it was a stupid, unrelated conversation, and you just… Came at it from around the back and through the side door and I got so mad,” she explains with a broken sound of laughter.

Even though the world is basically unraveling around them, Nicole stares into her husband’s eyes, impossibly fond. “We agreed to be together, even when it’s not convenient. I can’t think of a more inconvenient scenario right now than this.” Stroking his cheek with her thumb, she asks, “Are you willing to stick with me now? Even though things are falling to shit? Do you still want me through all of this?”

Overhead, birds in flight have turned into a flock of tangerines when no one was looking. A nearby cloud is pixelated like pop-art screentones, and parts of the ground have taken on a coral-like texture. Nothing is quite the same twice once either of them look away. Different arrangements of branches on trees, different colors on the tanker ship. It’s like reality is reloading the environment whenever they look away from something. Famed physicist Erwin Schroedinger would be having a field day with this.

The moment’s significance is lost on these two.

"I think I'm beginning to feel the… the in-between," Zachery answers. But it doesn't feel quite right. So he tries again. "I've been feeling it since I died." Saying it so plainly, he breathes a little easier, tension slipping from his posture and his face.

Things settle, one by one. Not quite into place, but into awareness. A mess of ideal situations and challenges and persistent failures and hard-won, satisfying successes, most of them contradicting each other. But much like the air-bound citruses, maybe none of that matters. Maybe what matters is what he's actually looking at. Who he's looking at. And how she bridges the gaps.

"The only thing that makes sense now, the only thing that stays the same— is you." He nods, as Nicole did, calm, before adding with a grin that is as weak as it feels foreign on his face. "And getting the fuck out of here."

“That’s right,” Nicole affirms. There’s a twist in her gut at the frankness with which he states that he died. If it had stuck, it would have probably killed her, too. She shoves it all down, the way she does with everything that bothers her. She ignores it. Maybe that’s part of why they get on so well with each other in this life.

It’s definitely part of why they have strife in the real world.

Lifting her head, she takes in just how much weirder things have gotten since they started out. “I think it’s working,” she murmurs, eyes wide. “I think the simulation is… losing its shit.” That’s probably the technical term. “I don’t know if we’ll hit Vegas by daybreak,” she jokes, “but we’re sure not in Kansas anymore, huh?”

Returning her full attention to her husband, Nicole presses in for a firm kiss. They’re still in this together. They can still do this. Even if she has no idea what happens when they all succeed and what’s around them just…

What? Vanishes? Do they all blue screen? Do they wake up? Will they remember any of this life. Nicole squeezes Zachery’s hand tightly. There’s only one way to find out.

When their kiss breaks, Zachery rests his forehead against Nicole's, his grin turning wry with how deep his thoughts sink.

But she's barely offered the time to see it before he pulls away, and puts his free hand promptly over her face, palm and fingers gently covering her eyes.

"Bear with me," he quickly pleads, closing his own eyes. "And if this doesn't work we'll have a good laugh about it, but I can turn invisible. Doesn't that seem like going off the fucking script? What if… what if us being here, just us knowing what we know and still carrying on is us having the upper hand over the— as you so beautifully stated, the world losing its shit? What if we just decide we're already exactly where we're headed?"

He shouts into the empty simulacrum of Hope, once more with feeling, "We're already there!"

Nicole makes a sound of surprise that’s accompanied by a bubble of laughter. “What are you—” She hushes when he asks her to just go with it, closing her eyes even behind his hand as a blinder.

“I can practically hear the slot machines!” Nicole adds to his assertion that Vegas is around them. “All that neon! The pushy jerkbags on the street corners, passing out business cards for the legalized prostitution…” Her eyes screw shut tighter and she imagines — remembers — the decor of the Corinthian. How posh it is compared to so many other casino hotels in Las Vegas. The Cosmopolitan can eat its heart out.

"You know, I've actually never been," Zachery admits, his brow knitting as his fingertips brushing against her skin where his other hand works its way slowly up the outside of her arm.

Come on. He might be in good shape but it's a hell of a run. Unless it isn't. The tension in his shoulders is released with a quick sigh, before he continues, "But now that you mention it— this sounds exactly like it does in films. In fact, I have an idea. While we're here, how about I marry you a third time?"

Readying himself, he grins lopsidedly at the fucking nonsense of it all, and then opens his eyes. "Let's go."

“A third time?” With his eyes now open, Zachery can see the wide smile his wife wears for him. “Aren’t you romantic!” Somehow, in the midst of all this uncertainty and stress, she’s starting to really believe that they can actually do it together.

Nicole opens her eyes and leans in to kiss her husband firmly. “I’m ready.”

Except, they aren’t. Ready, where they should be, where they expect to be. Pick one, all are correct.

It takes a moment for it to hit Nicole and Zachery, but somehow in the midst of this click your heels three times game they did wind up in Kansas. Or, perhaps more unfortunately, Harlem.

The particular morgue they find themselves in is as cold and quiet as most would expect a morgue to be, with most of its employees either out and about or in the adjacent offices. It’s also remarkably familiar to Zachery. It’s the Harlem Morgue, a space he operated out of just shortly before his life fully went off the rails.

The only person present in the main cold chamber, other than a stunned Zachery and Nicole is… Zachery. Younger, clean shaven, and in less-than-flattering pale green scrubs, standing over an overly large metal sink. He pulls off and flicks a used pair of plastic gloves into wastebin and turns to the sink to scrub his arms with an inordinate amount of soap, humming contently to himself. In the other end of the room stands a cot with a distinctly human shape over the white sheet that covers it, and the morgue table next to it looks like it's recently been used.

“Oh, god damn it,” Nicole sighs heavily as she surmises where they’ve ended up. “You used to work here,” she edifies for him. “On our first date, you took me there — to the ruins of it — and said we were going to burn it down together.” She closes her eyes and hangs her head, for a moment defeated.

“I talked you down from it,” she adds as an aside. The memory makes her ask herself a silent question — why did I even agree to see you again after that, you madman? — and she answers it aloud. “I think I enjoyed how intense you were, honestly.”

It's an intensity not currently showing in the older Zachery, who seems to be momentarily stuck processing the everything of it all while Nicole speaks. He begins to scan the cold chamber sluggishly, before shooting his wife a wry smile in confused appreciation. Without thinking, though, his gaze quickly snaps back to the third person in the room. His attention lingers there, and… his smile widens.

"Burn it down together," he repeats slowly, as if in confirmation of information received.

And then—

"Burn it down together!" The same words leave him in sudden exclamation, as he turns to Nicole with a wide, excited grin not dissimilar from the one she'd seen during that first date, his hands clasping her shoulders. "We have… some control over all of this! This proves it! If we mess up badly enough, perhaps we can… break— something. Anything!" He breaks promptly away, making his way toward some glass-doored cupboards and hoping for anything other than luck to guide his hand while he rifles through containers and bottles, stuffing some under his arms while others' lids are immediately unscrewed.

Zachery’s plan is only interrupted by the morgue doors opening and admitting a tall, smug-looking man in. His long-cut overcoat is bundled closed as he steps in, but open at the chest enough to allow him to produce a handkerchief that he uses to cover his face.


Jacob Henry Brent walks in and the sight of that bespectacled piece of shit sends an electric jolt up the back of both Zachery’s spines. In the younger, it elicits a jerk of his head toward Jacob the moment, “Doctor Miller,” slips past his lips. In the older Zachery, it’s a rush of recollection.

This fucker worked for Daniel Linderman. The memory crackles across the hemispheres of Zachery’s mind with a certainty that feels at once comforting and alien. A little glimpse of something from behind the veil, indistinguishable from a lifetime of other memories.

The younger Zachery glances in Jacob’s direction. "Ah! Mister Brent." The smile that occupies his face for too short a time to be absolutely genuine is about as warm as the morgue itself. And yanking a handful of paper towels from a dispenser on the wall he begins drying his hands, turning to face Jacob fully. "What can I help you with?"

While the coroner might make at least a marginal effort at appearing friendly, Jacob's somber and faintly irritated expression moves not even so much as a muscle towards a smile. He stays in place and simply watches the other man for several moments before finally speaking again. "Caroline Carter. I'm here to find out how and why she died. A client is interested in knowing."

Zachery glances down to his hands for a moment, before disposing of the paper towels. "Hmm." He hums, reaching to take his glasses off and inspecting them for anything that might have gotten onto them. Pleased that he managed to keep them clean, they go right back on his face. Jacob is eyed through the partially cracked lenses. "Carter. The one that was brought in recently?" He motions toward a metal door nearby, starting toward it.

Nicole turns slowly when she hears the approach. “Unbelievable,” she murmurs under her breath, shaking her head. “This asshole used to be the DA.” A beat. “Before the bomb.” Another beat, this time to glance distractedly toward her husband. “Don’t worry about that.” She waves it off, instead keeping her focus on Brent. “Pivoted to criminal defense after Civella fell out of favor.” It’s a vast oversimplification of the events that would have led Jacob Brent to this moment, but it, she thinks, suffices.

“God, I’d almost forgotten how tall he was.” After two more blinks, she shakes off the reverie and starts toward the cupboards with the chemicals. “This ought to be extremely flammable, right?” She smirks mostly to herself. “Don’t suppose you packed any smokes.”

"It, ah—" Zachery tries to reply to his wife, but the thought is never quite finished, the rest of it stuck in his throat.

It never makes it out, swallowed back down as the bottles he's got under his arm go falling to the floor. "It's my first bribe." His certainty is unwavering, but somewhat pained, voice dropped lower.

Stepping forward over broken glass, chemicals and warning labels, he walks toward the younger version of himself, unable to look away in his failing not to worry about it. "Her legs were all cut up and bruised. But her abdomen — she'd been cooked, somehow. From within. I had her marked as a falling victim. Internal bleeding. A compromise," the word may as well be poison for how quickly he spits it out. "For three hundred measly dollars."

Pausing in her search, Nicole turns slowly, eyes widening a fraction, mouth slackening into a small ‘o’ shape. “You remember,” she murmurs, astonished as much as confused.

He remembers.

All it takes is Zachery blinking for a moment for the world around him to no longer be congruent. Maybe Nicole blinked at the same time, maybe time doesn’t matter here. But the specifics of it don’t matter. Somehow they moved from morgue to beach without either of them seeing how the stage magician performed the trick.

The sun is nearly set, the air is warm and lacks any odor of low tide. Behind them, the New York City Safe Zone cuts a hauntingly familiar silhouette, save that the closer to the horizon either of them look, the more it resembles dissolving coral growths reaching up to the sky. Twinkling lights gleam in the windows of a beachfront business.

Merlot Joe’s.

The sand is warm under their feet.

It’s their wedding day.

Nicole breathes out hard as she begins to get her bearings, eyes panning one way, then the other, taking in the skyline and the more immediate surroundings. She offers her husband a shaky smile. Her hand, curled into a loose fist, is lifted and her thumb jut out to point back over her shoulder. “You know, Richard offered to get me out on a private jet. If… Just in case I got cold feet.” She laughs, an anxious sound that accompanies a flutter in her belly that makes her wince.

A psychosomatic notion.

“There’s a lot in life that scares me,” she admits, some of that anxiety melting as she reaches out to capture Zachery’s hands in her own. “Sharing my life with you is not one of them.”

Broken glass turned into its kinder constituent parts beneath him, Zachery finds himself elsewhere. Physically, mentally, in all the ways that count. He blinks vacantly, once, twice, until the hands touching his own snap his attention back onto Nicole's face.

Her words arrive late, and despite the sugar in the mix, the full breadth of their meaning seems to hit him like a dagger in the gut. "I think I would have understood," he admits, barely any louder than the beach itself. "If you had… left."

But he's barely even said it and he's shaking his head already, quickly following it up with a much more confident, "No!" He casts a sneer to the place of their wedding as if he might catch a glimpse of Richard through those windows - a man he's only just remembered but he would already like to strangle if his hands tightening around Nicole's are any indication. "No, absolutely fuck that! I would have been furious!"

He steps to the side, one hand promptly letting go as he begins walking - directly for the water. "We're getting out of here together. I don't care what that looks like."

“Good,” Nicole laughs through another bubble of anxiety. “I would hope so. Losing you would have pissed me off, too.” It would have devastated her, to be left at a moment so pivotally life-altering as that.

As he lets go with one hand, she holds fast with the other, moving along with him, with purpose, and without any prompting on his part. “Together or not at all,” she agrees with him.

But there’s a lingering sensation that something is wrong with this recollection of events. Not the least of which are the coral-like structures on the horizon that stretch beyond the visible sky, looking like calcified synapses. It’s the man down the beach, standing with his bare feet dug in the sand, tuxedo jacket shrugged off to loosely drape over his shoulders, bow-tie undone and collar open, wind in his short, white hair.

Nicole and Zachery both recognize him, for different reasons. It’s hard not to know one of the most infamous men in history.


Stay here, Nicole almost says to her husband. She’d tell herself it’s because she wants to protect him. It might be more accurate that she’d want a moment alone with this idolized figure from her past. A man whose memory she’s held so close and so dearly and with so much regret. Warped by distance and time, and a selfish need to make it into something good, when the reality was often quite the opposite.

But she doesn’t tell him to wait, not to intrude on this. None of it is real anyway, so what’s the point? Still, her fingers loosen their grip as she starts to make her way down the beach.

To the man whose empire she’d wanted so badly to inherit. A desire held so strongly that maybe it’s what crafted this farce in the first place. The view of New York bathed in the golden light from Linderman’s seat of power. For every person, place, and thing lit up by that radiance, the well of shadows created by it ran only deeper, and darker. And all of it, the glory and the despair, hers.

When the memories began to compete, she’d started to wonder if this was the best version of herself. If the simulation hadn’t turned misery upon her, would she have chosen this life over the mess that waits for her in the real world?

The one thing those two lives have in common is the longing for this meeting.

Smiling to herself, Nicole realizes she doesn’t need it anymore. Whatever this exchange is about to be, it isn’t about trying to recapture some lost fragment of her past, some attempt to ease old regrets. It won’t be some plea for what’s gone before to change, to become something it isn’t. She raises her voice to be heard over the sound of the water lapping at the shore, to announce her intent to carry forward to whatever follows. “Danny.” The breeze pulls a strand of dark hair free from the otherwise perfectly curled style.

Whatever happens, happens.

Maybe Zachery doesn't need to be told to stand back, this one time. Surprise raises his brows as he comes to a stop. Linderman's face brings with it complicated emotions, given his involvement in several of Zachery's moral missteps. In several lives. One less direct, one more.

Maybe it is the same acceptance that knocks on Nicole's door that has her husband stay put and say with both eyes trained on the other man's face, "Thanks for the wife, you crusty bastard."

Linderman turns to regard Zachery and Nicole with one raised brow and a lopsided smile. He lets his attention drift from Nicole to Zachery, then shakes his head in amusement. “Ever the wordsmith Mr. Miller. You missed a career opportunity as a poet.”

His attention drifts back to Nicole. “I called the two of you here, because I have a particular task I need handled that requires both discretion, and a not-insubstantial amount of money.” The latter is said with a glance to Zachery.

“Now, I know typically we work these kinds of meetings through layers of insulation. To protect one-another.” As Linderman talks, the noise of the shore becomes less and less pronounced. It is instead replaced with the sound of Claire de Lune playing through an integrated sound system in an office.

When did they get to an office?

Daniel Linderman’s private office overlooks Manhattan’s financial district. It is a spacious thing filled with his predilection for classical art from statues to paintings. Though the few pieces of pop art from Isaac Mendez tends to break up the oil and gauche fineries.

“I have a matter of substantial personal importance that I require your assistance in setting right,” Linderman explains. “Ms. Nichols,” he says of Nicole. “I need you to be something of a courier for me. Hold on to a piece of information until such a time as another requires it.” Then, to Zachery. “And I need you to do a medical examination.” He looks back and forth between the two. “Simple enough?”

This isn’t a hallucination. There’s something about this that feels… different. This isn’t something Optica is crafting. This actually happened. It’s a memory.

It’s a shared memory.

As if a mangled mix of memories wasn't enough. Zachery is visibly taken aback — he takes a few steps off to the side, focus sweeping across the paintings before it lands back on Linderman's face.

"…Simple," he echoes, in confirmation or musing, or both. "Ms. Nichols?" He can't help but aside in a forced out breath to the third person in the room who is not, presumably, his wife in this moment. "We never spoke face to face." But uncertainty knits his brow, and curls his fingers into fists. " When is this?"

Nicole stands unflappable in the face of the changing scenery. Claire de Lune never played at their wedding — she curated that playlist meticulously, and it wasn’t on it — and so she catches it as just another cue that reality’s about to shake and shift.

And it does not disappoint.

Daniel Linderman’s office is exactly as she remembers it. None of the strange incongruencies from other memories spliced into place like everything else they’ve seen so far. Nothing of hers to bleed into his, nothing of his to bleed into hers. This, as Zachery has noted, is theirs.

“No,” Nicole responds pleasantly. “I suppose we haven’t.” Fortunately for Zachery, his wife’s first marriage was to her BlackBerry, which was practically glued to her palm until she stopped working directly for and with the Office of the President. It certainly had a permanent residence there when she was personal assistant to the man handing out tasks before them. Bringing the screen to life, she checks the date on the calendar with only a brief glance.

Then she smiles, making sure to lift her gaze to Linderman when she does so, showing the appropriate amount of deference to her employer, especially in the face of someone who should not be privy to the fact that she isn’t just a pretty yes-woman secretary. “Of course, sir. Simple as can be.”

“Good, good. There’s some delicate particulars about this specific arrangement which is why I am handling it personally. Why you two are meeting. Why this is happening out of sight of prying eyes.” Linderman says, only reacting to the comments that seem to fit his particular recollected narrative. Then he makes a beckoning motion past Zachery and Nicole, and there’s a sound of a door opening behind them. In walks a wiry man who looks like a gallon of white trash squeezed into an expensive suit.


Mr. Zarek, nice of you to finally join us.” Linderman says, and the dark-haired and wiry man who—to Nicole—bears a too-striking resemblance to Kain Zarek saunters in, gaunt-cheeked and gray-haired. Their likeness is mostly in the eyes; tired, haunted, cold. “I’m getting Ms. Nichols and Mr. Miller up to speed.”

“Don’t let me stop you,” Zarek says, tucking his hands into his pockets and lingering behind the two.

Linderman looks back to Nicole. “Ms. Nichols,” he says, handing her an envelope. “I need you to review the documentation in that envelope. You needn’t memorize it, just be thorough in reading it though. You may start now.” He says with a patient smile before turning to Zachery.

“As for you,” Linderman says, stepping around his desk. “I would like your assistance in determining something to the best of your ability.” As he walks toward Zachery, Linderman takes off his suit jacket and lays it over his desk, then fastens his right cuff and rolls up his sleeve. “I believe I am physically unwell, but as of yet have not found a definitive prognosis. I would appreciate your clarity on that matter.”

Like Zarek carries with him an undesirable smell, Zachery bristles upon turning to look at the new arrival with distaste clear on his face. He watches everything and everyone closely in turn, lingering on Nicole just enough to say, "Careful."

Even if he doesn't seem quite sure why or how.

Then, he turns to Linderman again, recomposing himself and drawing in a big breath while straightening up his posture and attempting to straighten up memories between here and there — when was he publicly forced to admit he was SLC-E? Not until after the trials. That's not to say the right (or wrong) people didn't know, though.

He steps toward Linderman, curiosity holding his attention much more keenly on task now. As fascination would have seen him be. "Of course." He feigns the respectful tone he knows is expected. "How do your symptoms manifest?"

Nicole is smart enough to put two and two together. Discomfort rolls beneath her skin as she takes in the sight of Kain’s father, bringing her to break off her study in short order, even if Linderman hadn’t been calling her attention back to him.

“Thank you,” she murmurs almost more out of habit than anything else as she accepts the envelope, carefully opening it once she’s been given leave to do so. While she’s still unfolding it, she casts a furtive look in her husband’s direction, a subtle nod given to indicate that she’s heard him, and she agrees. Then her eyes move briefly again to Zarek. Linderman let on that he was sick in front of him?

She doesn’t speak a word of confusion or concern about it, long since used to showing herself in lockstep with her employer when it isn’t just their inner circle in the room. Regardless of whether Zarek qualifies in Linderman’s mind, he doesn’t rank for Nicole. Putting her eyes back on her own paper, such as it is, she holds her breath as she smooths it out and begins to read.

The document is—confusing. As Nicole looks at it she knows there should be letters there, should be text. But only scraps of it are legible, the rest looks redacted.


Zachery experiences a similar, but altogether different, form of redaction. When Linderman begins to speak about his medical condition, his words come out as a low, droning sound. Like the doppler of a truck’s horn in a tunnel. The noise becomes so loud that it’s difficult to bear until—

“Thank you, Mr. Abraham.” Linderman says, making the world feel like a jump-cut in a film.


Zachery and Nicole are both seated inside Linderman’s office, hands folded in their lap. Zarek is nowhere to be seen, and there’s a large man in the room in a tweed suit, glasses and a fedora, carnation flower in his lapel. He is folding two pennies into the palm of his hand. “Have them sent to the vault in Odessa.”

Caspar nods, giving one fleeting look to Nicole and Zachery, before stepping out of the office. As he does, another figure slides in. Tall, dark-skinned, dressed in a crisp suit. He wears a necklace bearing a gold half-helix symbol around his neck. He looks at Linderman in silence, awaiting instructions.


“Erase the rest from the last hour,” Linderman says of Nicole and Zachery. “It’s extraneous.”

Something feels deeply wrong, for in spite of their desire to move, to speak, to react Zachery and Nicole feel compelled to remain in place. Whatever happened to them between their last recollection and now—an hour’s worth of time—is unknown. But it feels as if some external force is pressing down in the back of their minds. It leaves them helpless as Rene approaches where they sit, leans in and presses a hand to cover their eyes and—

Somewhere Else


Paint peels off of dusty walls in parchment-like strips. A bright midday sun scorches through the blown-out frames of busted windows. There is drywall on the floor, portions of the ceiling missing through which daylight spills through. Dust drifts in the air in sparkling motes when the sunlight catches it, like tiny constellations.

Zachery and Nicole are seated in a pair of dilapidated leather chairs in the lobby of a long-abandoned clinic. A clock on the wall is stopped at 2:12. The air is hot, rippling waves of heat create a mirage effect just beyond the open lobby door. There is sand on the floor, windblown through the open door that leads out to a second-story walkway overlooking a sand-strewn parking lot.

Everything is silent, save for a whistling wind.

Nicole digs the heels of her hands against her closed eyes, a thin whine escaping her. She knows that moment, if not that moment. She woke up that way, once. Probably more than once. “Of fucking course,” she breathes out shakily. She recognizes Caspar Abraham — in hindsight, at least.

So, she had memories locked away in the Company vault underneath the Odessa, Texas facility. Had being the operative word. Nicole lets her hands fall from her face. One claps against her leg, but the other reaches out to seek one of Zachery’s.

“Where the fuck do you think we are now?” she asks her husband. “None of this is familiar to me.” Not even from a time during the war.

The war…

“Wait. Did we… make it?” Mrs. Miller starts to push to her feet.

Zachery blinks, slowly, as if he takes a little longer to regain proper control of himself. Just simply staring ahead of him like someone who had recognised nothing and no one.

Just adrift out on Lake Confusion.

His hand moves of its own volition, and it's only after he turns his head to look at it that he realises why, slowly getting to his feet alongside Nicole while replying in a voice somehow equal amounts tired and wired, "You're going to have to be so much more specific."

“Vegas,” Nicole murmurs. “I think this might be Vegas.” She breathes out. “This is proper fucked, so it seems just as likely.” Whether this is accurate, or just lifted from how she imagines Vegas would look today, well…

The wind is strong outside, blowing sand in through the demolished window and the door. Not a sandstorm, but certainly not a living city. With their eyes adjusted to the light, Nicole and Zachery can see the remnants of a strip mall this clinic lobby must have been a part of. Cars in the parking lot halfway swallowed by the desert.

"… Ha!" Zachery suddenly blurts out a laugh, brief as it is, before his grip on his wife's hand tightens. He cracks a lopsided grin, and takes one look at Nicole before beginning to pull her toward the door with him. "All right. So! We've moving forward. If it's Vegas, we're moving forward!"

He stops, and squints as a waft of sand hits the side of his head halfway on his way out. It doesn't stop his extra-energised ramble though. "There's so much I don't understand! So much I'm… fighting against if we're going where it feels we're going—" There's something pained in his voice now, and in the momentary gritting of his teeth. "The tiles of it feel wrong, everything I can pluck out that's I suspect to be real feels unstable and— and shit, but I'm using the stability of the here as grout if it fucking kills me."

If he puts enough emphasis on things as he makes his way to that door, it has to be true. "And we're moving forward."

Forward,” Nicole agrees, clutching Zachery’s hand tighter in return, moving with him toward the door at the pace he sets. “It’s weird, right?” Weird. Painful. Unsettling. Disturbing. So many different mostly negative things, all those conflicting memories. “We’ve got thi—”

Pff! Wincing, the wind blows sand and stray hair alike in her face. That was just undignified. “First the wine and now this?” she asks the universe/simulation, accusatory and rhetorical.

Once she’s swiped the dark wisps from her face, Nicole takes stock of where they are, looking for familiar landmarks. Something that will lead her to the Corinthian. “Come on. I think I know where we…”

Stepping out onto the second floor landing, it looks like so much ruin. There’s the strip mall, the derelict parking lot, the abandoned cars. All of the businesses are demolished, windows either blown out or boarded up. Nicole and Zachery descend a set of stairs to the parking lot, where ground-level businesses are filled with two to three feet of sand. It’s only when they get to the parking lot that they can see train tracks partially obscured by the shifting dunes, then across from them the parking lot for a partially demolished casino.

A casino of faded white, with toppled columns.

Nicole was looking for a sign, and she found one in sand-blasted neon lettering:


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