All Roads, Part II


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Also Featuring:

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Scene Title All Roads, Part II
Synopsis In their journey to the heart of Optica, Nova and Isaac discover that not all truths are pleasant ones.
Date March 19, 2021

“Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.”

It isn’t meant to sound like a threat, but its often hard to infer the words of Daniel Linderman as anything but. Even as he is, laying in a hospital bed and thinner than Isaac has ever seen him in his life, he feels larger than reality.

“I need you to… understand, Isaac.” Linderman says, motioning to his son with a hand laden with a heart-rate monitor dangling off one finger, “that quote is the cornerstone of the Linderman Group’s empire.” He says with a stern certainty in his eyes, even if they seem cloudier and less distinctly blue than before. “I need you to remember that, Isaac. Because I won’t always be around to remind you.”

Were it not for the bed, for Daniel’s fragility, it would be easy to imagine this as just another lecture. But even the grandeur of Daniel Linderman’s penthouse cannot change that this room has transitioned from bedchambers to hospice care. Stage-4 pancreatic cancer has taken its toll on Daniel, on those around him, and on the stability of his empire. The latter of which seems to be all he is concerned with.

And yet, reaching one rail-thin hand out toward Isaac over the side of his bed, Linderman looks different than Isaac has ever seen him.

He looks afraid.

Five Years Later

50 Miles Outside of New York

March 19th

6:12 pm

Long shadows of stick-bare pine forests stretch out across the winding Route 15. The sun is nearly set in the rear-view mirror of a stolen Chevy Malibu. For a moment, when Isaac catches his own reflection in the rear view mirror he is surprised by the intensity of his own eyes. Rather than dwell on the thoughts behind those eyes, he adjusts the mirror up to get the setting sun out of them.

Out the passenger side window, Nova Leverett watches the trees buzz by. It’s been a long day trying to get out of the city. Every road off of Manhattan felt like it was closed down by one automobile crisis or another. It was only when they decided to steal a car and head north out of the Bronx that things started to open up. It was just like Asami had warned them, that the simulation would try to keep them in New York, to prevent them from straining its resources and causing the cascading failure they’re all counting on.

Yet, for the moment, none of that feels real. The atmosphere in the car feels real, the tension between she and Isaac, the pine forest outside the windows on the freeway. Only the lack of traffic makes things feel different, and then all it does is highlight the sense of isolation. It’s easy to squint and forget about the absolute insanity they’ve experienced over the last few months.

As if, at any moment, they could all wake back up in their beds. As if all of this was just one bad dream.

The silence stretching for too long, Nova feels the need to fill it, and turns to smile at Isaac. “Never thought about adding ‘Grand Theft Auto’ to our respective illustrious resumes, but it definitely helps diversify our skill sets, don’t you think?” she says. “I wonder why that worked. I guess the system just doesn’t register this car as yours?”

The wondering aloud isn’t really done in earnest – she only cares that it worked, and isn’t particularly interested in the how and why. “What’s the plan when we get there? Or do we just figure it out when we get there?”

At a glance she seems calm, but her worry manifests in the way her fingers tap out the chords of some harried musical composition on imaginary frets on her knee as they drive.

Isaac Faulkner keeps his hands on the wheel and his eyes on the road, busily trying to squash the existential dread roiling in his guts.

He does chuckle dutifully at Nova's joke — he doesn't find it particularly funny, but he's grateful for the attempt to lighten the atmosphere. "We're heading to the Corinthian. It was… the crown jewel of Dad's empire, I guess," he says quietly. "If we keep to schedule, we should be the first ones there; I'll take care of booking rooms for all of us. Beyond that… well, I guess it depends on…"

He trails off, shaking his head, because he isn't sure what it depends on — whatever the not-voices in Asami's head say, he supposes. "I'm glad you got to drive the Spyder a little bit, at least."

“I could get used to driving that,” Nova says with a smile. “Sure beats the Subway. You know, except for the traffic, and the parking, and parking structure fees, and everything that comes with owning a car in the city – and that’s without the entire construct of reality trying to pen us in and not letting us leave.”

Her smile is wry, but it softens as she watches Isaac – that shake of his head, the effort to laugh at her attempts at jokes and humor her.

“It’s scary,” she says, more serious now, “letting go of control. For you probably more than most. Nicole, too, I think, and Kaylee. Even me to a far lesser extent. Those of us in the public eye – me mostly aspiring to be – you have to control so much of everything, and now everything is literally out of our control. We don’t know what’s going to happen when we get there, and we can’t prepare for it, unless Gabby or Asami have a super useful vision, if they can even fall asleep with everything going on.”

She’s only managed a couple of fitful hours herself.

Nova reaches over to touch the side of his cheek lightly. “It’s okay to be scared. I am.” She offers him a small smile. “But I don’t need you to pretend not to be scared for my sake. You’re far too progressive for that, Senator.”

Faulkner doesn't respond to her words — not verbally, at least. But as she speaks, his composed expression starts to crack and melt away, giving way to a tired, careworn expression. His lips still twitch ever so faintly as she brushes his cheek, but a genuine smile is a thing hard to come by in this state.

It's not until the end that he speaks, letting out a soft chuckle. "'Progressive'," he echoes quietly, sounding faintly amused. "I feel Agent Darlow might offer a different selection of adjectives," he quips… but it's a half-hearted thing, bereft of the conviction that might sell it.

He sighs. "You're right, though. About… control. And especially when it comes to Nicole. I was telling her the very same thing…" For a moment, he does manage a smile about that, but it fades as swiftly as it had come. "But you're right in that it most certainly applies to me, as well. Since… well, for most of my adult life, I've always tried to have a handle on things, but now it feels like… like my life is falling apart around me. Like every handhold I try to reach for is just… crumbling away. And that's before any of… this."

He takes a deep breath. "And yes. I'm afraid," he admits. It takes a lot to force those words out, and afterward a part of him wants desperately to take them back.

Faulkner exhales… then he chuckles. "My father once told me something, towards the end. Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once." Had he understood those words, then? Perhaps not. But now…

"Now… I find myself wondering which I've been. Which I'm being right now," he says quietly. "Driving to Vegas while my father's legacy burns in the rearview…"

“You’re not being a coward,” is Nova’s quick retort, brows drawing together into a stern glower as she looks his way. “You’re— ”

As if the universe heard what Isaac said, the stolen car chokes out a horrible mechanical clatter from beyond the dashboard. There’s a grinding, clunking, clattering noise that rumbles up from the engine. The smell of burning plastic wafts out of the dashboard vents, and Isaac feels the accelerator suddenly lose all resistance as the weight of his foot causes it to sink straight down to the floor. But at the same time, the car decelerates and comes to a rolling stop in the middle of the road.

There’s another loud clunk from inside the engine, then, silence.

Whatever Nova was about to say remains unsaid as the car makes its terrible death rattle. When it comes to a stop, she turns around, looking through the side window, then the back window, then the other side, before her gaze returns to the long road before them.

She leans a little, to look at the dashboard, for signs of empty gas tanks or any of the other annoying symbols that light up the dash when cars break down. “I am going to guess that this isn’t because we accidentally put diesel instead of unleaded in,” she murmurs. “I expect a tumbleweed to blow by any moment.”

Her eyes move from the dashboard to his face. “We are far too far away to walk. What the hell do we do? Hope one of the others passes by and flag them down? Call Asi or Daphne to ask for teleportation services?”

Isaac's face remains turned towards the road as Nova makes her retort, but he's definitely watching her out of the corner of his eye. He isn't exactly surprised by the intensity of her response… but the car's engine chooses that moment to make its own interjection, drawing Isaac's attention back to it. He frowns, perplexed at this very sudden total breakdown.

"If they stick to their routes, none of the others will pass by," he answers distractedly, shifting the car into park and turning off the ignition. He pauses there for a moment, considering… then he pops the hazard lights on and pops the hood. "Check the pack in the back; there's a false bottom. If we get jumped…" he hesitates for a moment. "Just don't point it anywhere you don't want to perforate."

With that said, Isaac opens the door. "I'll check the engine, see if I can figure out what's wrong; we can see about calling Daphne after that. Let me know if you see anything out of the ordinary," he says, stepping out.

It only takes a moment for Isaac to pop the hood and understand what’s wrong with the vehicle. There are four lawn chairs where the engine should be, stacked one atop the other, a two-foot-by-two-foot square of lawn, and a cube of space that simply looks like the sky from any angle its viewed at. The contents where the engine should be flicker softly, sometimes jumping around and rearranging themselves.

Nova can already tell something is wrong without needing to check the engine. Out the passenger side window there’s a chevron of birds, like they’re flying south for the winter, except they’re flying upside-down and backwards through the sky.

“Right,” Nova answers, shaking her head slightly at her absentmindedness regarding the plan for the group’s multi-pronged approach on Las Vegas. She is about to turn to reach into the back seat for the bag when the sight of migrating birds catches her eye out the window – and then just before she looks away, the wrongness of them keeps her staring.

After a moment, she opens the car door, half stepping out to stand. “Something out of the ordinary,” she says as Isaac deals with what he sees in place of the engine. She points upward at the glitchy creatures, then ducks back inside to find the bag.

Pulling it into the front seat with her, she searches for the false bottom and the Glock 19 she knows Isaac stowed away there for safe keeping.

"Yeah…" Isaac says; it takes him a moment to pull his eyes away from the nonsense beneath the hood to look up at the oddity in the sky. Out of everything he's seen so far, it's this that finally has him really starting to consider that Asami's madness might be… something other than madness. "Yeah, me too…" he says distantly. "I… I don't think this is going to run. Not like this…"

He raises a hand, as though to reach out and touch this… whatever this is… but then hesitates. "Grab me a stick or something, will you? I… I think maybe I don't want to touch this," he calls, still staring at the madness that has replaced the engine.

The sounds of nature, of a desolate stretch of road between two forgotten towns feels natural in spite of the condensed unreality sitting where a car engine should be. But as Isaac’s question hangs in the air, so to do unreal sounds. Or at least, incorrect ones.

There’s a distant din of carnival music hanging in the air, soft and melodic, the distinct notes of a circus calliope. It’s not coming from any specific direction, the noise is as omnipresent as the wind through the trees and the upside-down birds flying {error} for the winter.

Fingers curling around the gun, Nova turns to watch the road in one direction, as another Nova, dressed all in black seems to accordion out of her and take a few steps away. Taking up vigil position there, Nova 2 watches the other side of the road with narrowed, guarded, kohl-smudged eyes. The music is unsettling, and she isn’t willing to do anything without eyes on at least those two directions.

A third version of her, this one with long blond hair, folds out of the original, and offers a smile, before heading to the side of the road, looking for something that might serve as a stick.

“I’m afraid I’m going to pick up a stick and it’s going to turn into a snake in my hand,” she admits to Isaac. “Or worse. Trying not to think of what might be worse, or I might make it manifest into reality. Ugh, now I’m thinking of what’s worse.” Her nose wrinkles, but Nova 3 spies a sturdy-looking stick and reaches to pick it up gingerly, just waiting for it to turn into something she really doesn’t want to be touching.

Carrying it over (still in stick form at least for the moment), this Nova glances down at what Isaac stares at. “It’s like we’re in an immersive Dada exhibit at MOMA or something,” she says wryly, handing him the stick.

“Do you hear that or am I just cracking…” she wonders aloud, looking up and around.

"I hear it," Isaac confirms. He musters a tight smile as he takes the stick from a Nova, though it doesn't quite cover the worry in his eyes. "It's not October, otherwise I'd be thinking of Something Wicked This Way Comes," he says… then, looking up, his eyes find the geese again. Still flying upside down and backwards.

Isaac lets out a heavy sigh, his shoulders slumping a bit… then he squares them again. "Or maybe it is," he says. "If Asami's right, then who's to say that time is any more real than anything else?"

He punctuates that remark by poking at the cube of 'sky' gingerly with the stick. Not that he has much hope of the engine coming back at this point, but knowing how this sort of oddity behaves would be useful if they happen to encounter any more of them.

When Isaac touches the stick to the “sky” it passes through and then bends at a 45-degree angle, sharing the stick off as though snipped by clippers. Isaac looks at the perfectly smooth end where the stick was sheared, then a split second later the other end of the stick falls out of the sky and lands at Nova’s feet.

Confirmed, that’s not safe at all.

“Same. Creepy carnival vibes not helping,” Nova says, though anything she was about to add regarding the time of year it might be in the ‘real world’ is lost as she sees the block of sky saw off the stick.

When the stick lands at her feet, she jumps back like it has turned into a snake.

“So I guess we walk?” she suggests, stepping over the stick to get closer to his side, and offering her hand to him. “I don’t think Roadside Assistance is going to be any assistance today. Or, you know. Ever.”

She offers Isaac a weak smile and then her hand. “You’re still very handsome when you’re having an existential crisis, by the way. It goes well with your eyes.”

The way the stick bends and shears draws a frown to Isaac's face; when the other end of the stick drops, he stares at it thoughtfully for a moment.

Then he nods. "We walk," he agrees, taking Nova's hand… but at her comment on existential crises, he turns to her… and an actual smile crosses his face, his dark eyes sparkling. "Well, if I'm going to have an existential crisis… there's no one I'd rather have at my side for it," he says lightly. His tone is almost teasing, but the sentiment itself is sincere.

His expression turns serious quickly enough, though. "Follow the creepy carnival music, I guess," he says, grimacing at just how bad an idea that sounds like.

The calliope music eventually fades into the sound of wind chimes and then running water. The road doesn’t change much as Nova and Isaac walk, though the mountains in the distance start to feel like they’re tilt-shifted miniatures. Something about the way the light refracts off of the air around them, the way the grass looks, it just feels like they’re walking in a tiny diorama and at any moment a huge hand will come down to just—

All dark thoughts arrest when Nova and Isaac round a bend to find a brick wall with a train tunnel cut into it, like something out of a Wile-E-Coyote cartoon. The road turns straight into the pitch-black tunnel, and all the world around it feels flimsy and two-dimensional. Nothing is casting shadows correctly anymore, not the trees, not the clouds. The suspension of disbelief is crumbling in the way the world around them has become so much like the cardboard backdrop of a stage play.

“Beyond weird,” Nova murmurs as the world shifts and flattens. “It feels like you could just… knock it down, or open a door in the cardboard sky and walk through it, like that one movie with Jim Carrey.”

The comparison is an apt one, Nova realizes, only after she’s said it – Truman’s entire life was a lie, much like theirs. Her brows draw together, and her hand tightens around his. She’s tried to stay positive, to keep her spirits up, but the closer they get to wherever they’re going, the more nervous she feels. Nicole couldn’t tell her anything about her life, after all.

“We go in there? Do we become flat, too?” she wonders, glancing over at Isaac, like she wants to be sure he’s still a fully three-dimensional person, and not looking like the Flat Stanley construction-paper version of himself like she remembers making of herself in the third grade. “Did that even happen?” she asks, aloud, like he’s following her train of thought, and then she shakes her head. “Sorry. Talking to myself.”

"The Truman Show," Isaac says, smiling. "I remember that one. Pretty sure that was your pick, wasn't it?" he says, looking back to her. "I never thought it'd be quite so applicable," he admits. His smile fades quickly, though. "Of course… Truman had the option to turn back," he points out… then he sighs. "Or… maybe he didn't. Not really. You… can't really put the genie back in the bottle, can you?"

Though that's not really true, either. Nicole's husband had managed… before Asami had dragged him back. But taking that path really would be cowardice, wouldn't it?

Isaac closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, and when he looks back to Nova, he manages to muster a smile once more. "You know… I find myself asking that a lot, lately," he says quietly. "Whether the lives we remembered really happened. If Nicole is right… if that other world is the real one… then our pasts didn't happen. Not really." And as much as that's horrifying and bewildering… there is a strange and awful hope that he finds in that, too, one that he doesn't want to dwell on.

So he doesn't. Instead, he looks back to the tunnel, his hand tightening around Nova's — whatever else might or might not be real, there's still the feeling of her warm hand in his. "I think someone's opening a way for us. Maybe it's Violette," he says, and try as he might, he's not quite able to keep his voice from flattening a bit at that name.

"Whoever it is, though… unless we want to try to walk back to New York, I think this is our exit," he says, his hand tightening just a bit on Nova's; it's the only indication he gives as to how conflicted he's feeling about this.

"Shall we?"

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Gerrit VanDalen stares across the table at Nova, brows raised to his graying hairline, an expectant look on his face. Bright morning sun spills through large windows overlooking the coast of the Amstel River in Amsterdam. Brightly colored sailboats sit in the water, catching Nova’s eye for just a moment before Gerrit realigns her attention, talking past her.

“She’s being difficult again.” Gerrit says with a wrinkle of his nose. An auburn-haired woman leans in to Nova’s periphery. She grabs a small jar of jam from in front of Nova, and slides it across the table to Gerrit.

“Stop freaking out your father.” Jacoba says with a kiss to the top of Nova’s head.

In the adjacent kitchen, Isaac Faulkner might as well be part of the wallpaper for how no one seems to notice him. Jacoba walks right past him to start cleaning up the kitchen from breakfast. Nova, however, can see his confused expression clearly.

Whatever Nova had been thinking or doing, she can’t remember. She drops the knife she had been holding, smeared with cherry preserves, onto her plate with a clatter as she twists in her chair to look around. At her mother, then her father… then finally catching sight of Isaac. The splatter of cherry preserves on white china looks like a murder scene in miniature.

“How…” she murmurs, but the rest of the words don’t come out.

Instead, her eyes seek Isaac’s. Her brows draw together and she looks like she’s about to cry. “This was real,” she whispers to him, before turning back to stare at her father, whose open and frank features are an older, heavier and more masculine version of her own, etched with experience and a thousand laughs.

“Papa,” Nova says, suddenly – she’d never called her parents anything but Mom and Dad the times Isaac’s heard her speak of them. She reaches for Gerrit’s hand, then turns to Jacoba. “Mama.”


That was fucking weird. Is fucking weird. Isaac Faulkner is not often or easily put on the back foot, but the situation they find themselves in now has him at a momentary loss. He takes a moment to cast his mind back; had they even stepped into that cartoon tunnel? They had resolved to, yes, and were surely about to step forward… but instead…

Instead, this. Which… is perhaps another piece of evidence pointing to Asami's theory being the correct one, as galling as it is to admit that.

On reflex he musters his best smile as the auburn-haired woman steps into the kitchen… and ignores him. Doesn't even seem to notice his existence. With no one there to see his expression save Nova, Faulkner's smile fades back into that puzzled frown. That frown deepens, just a bit, at Nova's assertion that this was real

… but that look on Nova's face.

At that look, Isaac can only remain silent; he musters a faint smile and keeps his concerns to himself for the moment. Instead of speaking, Faulkner's gaze sweeps over the scene they find themselves in, taking in the details. He studies the woman for a moment — Nova's mother, it seems — then slips quietly into the dining room, taking up a position beside Nova. As pleasant as this apparent detour down Memory Lane may be, Faulkner is decidedly not at ease.

Gerrit doesn’t notice Isaac at all as Nova takes his hand. He gives a small squeeze to it, reflexively, but his expression is a mixture of confusion and embarrassment. “Papa?” He splutters, smiling awkwardly.

“She’s going to ask you for a car,” Jacoba says with a wry smile, glancing at Nova out of the corner of her eye.

“We’ve talked about this,” Gerrit says with a little hesitance, looking back and forth between Jacoba and his daughter. He seems to accept his wife’s perspective on this, Nova’s angling for something. “Two more years and we’ll buy you a car, you don’t really need one right now anyway.”

Faulkner feels like Ebenezer Scrooge on a journey into the past, intangible and unheard, a specter in the kitchen as eyes pass over him, unseeing.

The tears that well up and then fall from Nova’s eyes aren’t because she won’t be getting a car, though her father and mother – these echoes of them – may think so.

She pushes away from her chair and throws herself into her father’s arms first, hugging him tightly. “Ik geef niets om een ​​stomme auto,” comes out a muffled sob against his shoulder, yet still clearly in a different language for Isaac’s ears.

Before her father can respond, she turns to fling her arms around her mother in an equally tight hug. “I miss you,” she whispers, and that feeling feels deeper than it should, like she hasn’t seen them for far longer than the Juilliard student’s last visit with them.

The feeling is true; the rest of it isn’t.

“You can’t see him?” she whispers of Isaac, pulling back to look up at Jacoba’s eyes, then over at Gerrit.

Isaac's unease at this — at being unseen, unheard, unnoticed, looked through — does not abate. It would be all too easy for that to sharpen into irritation, to express itself in knife-sharp wit.

And yet… it never quite does.

He doesn't miss the intensity of Nova's emotions; the tears in her eyes, the ferocity of those hugs. Isaac Faulkner has a good eye for people, when he chooses to use it, and he knows Nova well enough to pick up that something's just a bit off here. "It doesn't seem so," he observes quietly, before looking back to Nova's parents, studying them. "You know… I always wanted to meet your parents. Someday," he says quietly, taking the moment to look at them. "They seem…" he pauses, trying to find a word. "Kind," he settles for, hoping it doesn't sound as awkward as it feels; kindness is not a quality he normally remarks upon. He wonders, briefly, what they would think if they knew him.

Gerrit seems ill-equipped to handle Nova’s emotions, awkwardly wrapping his arms around his daughter while looking pleadingly at his wife for assistance. Jacoba’s expression softens when Nova visibly becomes upset and she rises up from her seat, coming over and putting a hand gently down on Nova’s back. “What’s gotten into you?” She asks, glancing back at Gerrit who shakes his head helplessly.

Gerrit looks at Nova, then to the kitchen, and back again. He reaches up and brushes his hands through Nova’s hair, brows furrowed. “Are you having headaches again?” He asks her, warily, searching her tear-glassed eyes.

Gerrit’s inquiry leaves Jacoba concerned, and she crosses her arms over her waist and follows Gerrit’s line of sight to the kitchen. It’s likely she doesn’t hear it, but she does look at the refrigerator beside Isaac. It’s notable to Isaac because the refrigerator has started making noises like a revving car engine might be contained behind the door.

Schatje,” Jacoba says, gently rubbing her hand on Nova’s back. “What’s wrong?”

Nova shakes her head, tears falling and she steps back to reach for Isaac’s hand. “They are,” she says to him, pressing her lips together to keep from sobbing. “Gerrit. Jakoba. Van…”

Her voice cracks and she laughs instead of sobs, turning to him.

“My name is Nova Van Dalen.

Her hand squeezes his, and the other reaches up to wipe at her tears. She gives her parents one more wistful look – it seems safe here, but that safety is a lie. The whole thing is a lie.

“We need to get out of this. It’s not real. I mean, it is real, somewhere. This is where I lived. I never lived in New York City. I think that that New York City is a lie, too. It’s broken now, different,” she says, and tugs his hand as she backs away from the table.

“Maybe if we just… leave. Maybe we’ll be back on the road.” She heads to the front door, opening it to whatever is on the other side.

Van Dalen is a name that Faulkner doesn't know, has never heard; he files it away for future reference. Meanwhile, though, the fact that the refrigerator is suddenly making car noises is… concerning. He offers no resistance as Nova takes his hand, leading him towards the front door. "Right," he murmurs, sounding confused.

Then he nods. "Yeah," he says, more firmly this time. He doesn't have a handle on what's going on here, but thinking about it… it seems relevant to him that Nova's parents seem to think Nova wants a car and then suddenly the fridge starts making vroom vroom noises.

"Right. I'm with you," he says to Nova, following her to the front door. "Goodbye, Mr. and Mrs. Van Dalen. It was nice to meet you," he offers over his shoulder as Nova opens the door.

But it doesn’t open to the outside of the Van Dalen’s home.

Beyond the door is the Van Dalen’s home, again. It is a mirror of the one they are standing in right now, except here it is night time. The sliding door in the kitchen is open, thin curtains gently blowing in the breeze. It is an unusual sight at night, a door open like that. The scene, just the way it’s lit raises the hairs on the back of Nova’s neck. There’s something familiar about it, hauntingly so.

As is the silhouette of the man who does not belong in her home.

He is a giant, bald-headed and dressed in black, walking through the kitchen toward the stairs to the second floor. Something about his appearance causes Isaac’s palms to sweat, his heart to race. Like an animal’s instinctual fear of a predator.

One that begins creeping up the stairs.


Nova steps through, then stops short when she sees she’s back in the same house. Her eyes swiftly scan the room, noting that open door and shivering a little – more from the imagery than the sudden feel of night air.

She doesn’t speak, but a very small, very frightened noise starts and stops in her throat – a scream that dies just as it’s born – when she sees the giant man creeping toward the stairs. For a long moment she doesn’t move, paralyzed as she hears the whine and creak of the wooden stairs under his weight. She takes in a deep breath through her nose and seems to hold it, like she might draw his attention if she doesn’t.

Would he see her? Her parents did.

A longing look is given to the front door, like she wants to turn and head out again, but something pulls her forward. An awful curiosity. Curiosity killed the cat, her mind murmurs, something one of her omas used to say.

Nova’s fingers slip through Isaac’s as she follows Iov at a distance; hanging back to see what he does – no, what he did. This is a memory, if she lets it play out as it happened, of that Nova’s sure.

The hairs on the back of Isaac's neck stand on end at the sight of the bald giant walking through Nova's house — no, not walking. Stalking. He's stalking.

He's not aware that his hands have clenched into fists until he feels Nova's fingers brush against his hand; almost immediately his hand uncurls and his fingers wrap around hers. He follows behind her as she creeps up the stairs, after the giant… his other hand curling and uncurling all the while. The sight of this man fills him with a dread that's almost sickening in its intensity; it brings back unwanted and unwelcome memories of Kain Zarek beating twelve shades of shit out of him the long, miserable time he'd spent recovering…

…but this predator is creeping through Nova's house. Faulkner may not be able to punch this son of a bitch out, but if he lays a finger on Nova he's damn well going to pick up the heaviest object he can lift and break it over his head. And Faulkner can lift quite a lot.

Iov creeps up the stairs without hesitation, surprisingly quiet on his feet for his height. He doesn’t notice Isaac and Nova shadowing him as he reaches the first door at the top of the stairs. Nova knows it’s her parents’ room.

Iov opens the bedroom door, fingers pressed to his lips and shushes the air. The sound of the shush sends a chill down both Isaac and Nova’s backs. They’ve heard it before, but it clings to them like some kind of dream. Hazy, half-recollected.

Then Iov turns and moves to the next door, finding the bathroom. He hesitates, glances around inside, and then moves to the next door down the hall that is partly ajar. Even when she left for boarding school, Nova was able to come back home and have the security of her room. Unchanging, untouched.

It was a place of safety and security, until that security was violated.

Seeing Iov pushing her bedroom door open, Nova is horrified to see herself laying in the bed. Now the vision feels more real, the eerie nightmare-like quality comes into a sharp focus as the mussy-haired young woman in the bed wakes up screaming at the sight of Iov.

Suddenly Nova is in the bed. Nowhere to be found beside Isaac. She is at once the observer and the observed, staring up at the pale, towering man looming over her bed like a monster out of the closet. Rather than a soft hush, Iov opens his mouth and screams at Nova.

The sound is horrifying and inhuman, a single bellowing roar that causes her heart to skip a beat, her vision to blur, and her extremities to go numb. Her vision spots, and her world—including Isaac’s—sinks into total darkness.

 // if memory cannot be allocated
  if(ptr == NULL) {
    printf("Error! memory not allocated.");

“We need to start looking at this as a permanent condition.”

  printf("Enter elements: ");
  for(i = 0; i < n; ++i) {
    scanf("%d", ptr + i);
    sum += *(ptr + i);

  printf("Sum = %d", sum);

“Your daughter may never wake up. And I think… you have to weigh your options.”

  // deallocating the memory

  return 0;

Isaac jolts awake in a chair opposite of a hospital bed. It’s like he’d been visiting Nova and fell asleep in the chair by her bedside. Except Nova is both next to him in the other guest chair, and in the bed. The Nova in the bed lays almost like a corpse, eyes open and focused on the ceiling, but unmoving.

Outside the hospital windows, an unfamiliar city skyline greets Isaac.

Then, a moment later, Nova wakes up screaming in the chair beside him.

Isaac Faulkner hates hospitals. He has unpleasant memories of them.

He remembers waking up in a bed, just like the one in this room, after his 'fight' with Zarek. Remembering how much he'd hurt. How weak he'd felt. How ashamed. How stupid.

He remembers Linderman's last days. How the old man, who'd always seemed vital, impervious to the years… suddenly wasn't. How time seemed to catch up to him brutally, not all at once but at an accelerated and ghastly pace. Slow enough to draw out the inevitable, but far too quickly for him to wrap up all of the work, the empire he'd invested his life into. All the things he'd left undone. The horror of it.

He remembers Nicole, laying in just such a bed after he'd executed his plan. The nightmare of knowing that this was his fault, but somehow even worse than that — that despite all the planning he'd invested, all the care he'd taken, he hadn't even managed to do this right. The knowledge that he could still correct that failure, and yet… he couldn't quite bring himself to do it. Of watching the agony she had gone through, because of his goddamn failure and his goddamn indecision. Of thinking to himself that if Linderman had still been alive, he'd have been disappointed as hell in his adopted son… just as Nicole would be, if she knew.

And now… now, a new reason to hate hospitals.

Because in the bed before him, it's not Isaac Faulkner, not Daniel Linderman, not Nicole.

It's Nova. And in her eyes is a look that chills Faulkner to the bone, because it's… nothing. The eyes of the girl in the bed have an empty, glazed, not here look, like she's just a still-breathing corpse.

For a long moment it's the Nova in the bed that occupies the entirety of his attention; it's only with an effort that he's able to tear his gaze away, to take in the rest of the room. The unfamiliar skyline is noted, but far more importantly — the Nova in the bed is not the only one. There's another Nova in the chair next to him, and this one seems only to be sleeping. Isaac leans over, one hand reaching out for her shoulder —

— and then she starts screaming.

Isaac scrambles up fast enough to send the chair he'd been sitting in skidding back… but almost immediately he moves forward again, reaching over to lay his hands on Nova's shoulders. "Nova! It's okay! You're alright!" he exclaims, as much to force down his own panic as to reassure her.

She feels like she’s been screaming forever – but it’s only now that it’s been heard. Isaac’s voice, Isaac’s hands on her shoulders help to ground her, and finally she takes a shaky, shuddering breath. She nods, but her eyes are still wild, and she turns to look at the bed.

“This is what I have to come back to,” she whispers, tears filling her eyes as she stands. One hand reaches up to squeeze Isaac’s on her shoulder, but she angles to move past him and to the side of the hospital bed. One hand reaches out to touch the other Nova’s.

“She’s awake,” she whispers, to Isaac. “I… I was awake.” Not the right word. She shakes her head. “I was conscious. But I couldn’t wake up.”

Her fingers curl around the other Nova’s, mindful of the IV and wires she’s hooked up to. “I know you’re in there. We know what happened. Maybe we can undo it.” Her voice is small, and Nova glances over at Isaac, tearful eyes almost apologetic. “When we get back…”

She can’t complete the thought, but turns away to head toward the door. “We should go.”

There’s a feeling about those words, go. They bring a lurching sensation of dread that makes the horizon viewed out the windows creep closer as though each window was a telescoping lens. The shadows in the room grow darker, deeper, and the sun tracks an irregular pattern across the wall, matching its wobbling arc through the sky. The world really is breaking apart.

But internally, it’s floodgates opening. It’s a lifetime of experiences, divergent from the ones of the Optica simulation. It’s the terror of being locked in to your own body. Even when Nova rises from the bed, the leaves a ghosty after-image of herself in it, laying motionless, eyes open and unblinking toward the ceiling.

Her hands tremble, that chill down her spine she felt when Iov crept into her room grows. She can hear her mother and father’s voices, saying they love her, saying they’re sorry. Isaac can hear it too, echoing off of the walls, like ghosts in a stage play.

“We don’t know what caused your daughter’s condition.”

Shadows of men move along the walls.

“You need to be prepared for the possibility she may never wake up.”

The sun sets below the horizon like water circling a drain.

“There may be an option for her.”

The hospital room is thrown into darkness.

“What if I told you there was a way to give your daughter a new life?”

A loud click fills the air, and Nova’s chest tightens. Memories flooding back, voices with no faces, conversations made as if she was unaware. Labs, doctors, and—

She remembers.

An emergency exit sign lights up in the pitch blackness of the hospital room. Except it doesn’t read EXIT, it reads:


The shadows grow long, the horizon closes in, and the sun slides from the sky like the broken yolk oozing from a cracked egg; the voices of ghosts whisper and echo around them as the world closes upon them like a hand curling into a fist, and Isaac Faulkner is afraid.

"When we get back, I'll find you," Isaac says hurriedly as night falls, his eyes wide. "I swear it."

And then darkness falls.


But the worst didn't come to pass. Faulkner is in the dark… but he is not alone. He lets out a low, shuddering breath. "You had me worried for a second," he murmurs.

A sign lights the way, burning red against the darkness, spelling… nothing. Something. Something Isaac can't make out, but feels like he should be able to anyway. Not a word on the tip of his tongue, but something like it. He swallows, aware his mouth is suddenly dry. "Shall we?" he asks.

They did it on purpose. Nova’s mind whirls, struggles like an overworked hard drive, to make sense of two lives; it’s like watching two films spliced together and trying to understand either. Her hand tightens on Isaac’s, using him to center her… even as she realizes there’s no Isaac in the life she’s remembering.

The real world.

Her lips tremble and she presses them together to keep within the despair that wants to be wailed out into the world. His voice comes through, and she nods. Before Nova takes another step toward the exit, though, she pushes forward to wrap her arms tightly around him. He can feel her wet, warm tears against the fabric of his shirt. Her mind, overwhelmed with the sudden onslaught of reality, still manages to hone in on the details of this world; the feel of his shirt against her cheek, the way his shoulders feel beneath her hands. Part of her marvels at how real it is, and her lips part in a half-sob, half-laugh, realizing it’s her parents’ work that make this fake world so very real.

Her parents’ work that gave her a beautiful life, when they were told it was the only way she could.

“We shall,” she murmurs, stepping back and sliding her hand back into his. “If…if you can’t find me or I can’t be helped, just…”

Nova glances back to the dark room behind them. “Remember me, okay? And that I loved you,” she says, as she steps forward.

Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once. Again Isaac recalls those words, and as they step forward into whatever lies beneath that sign, he thinks he finally understands his father's words.

"And I love you."


“Can he hear us?”

Isaac awakens with a start, going from door threshold to buckled into the back seat of a Chevy Tahoe. There’s two men in the front seat, both smoking. Beside him, Nova is unbuckled. Outside, there’s street traffic and buildings, bright sun and strip malls. The enormous bald man—Manny—is driving, and the other man, the one with the wolfish smile—Silas—is sitting in the passenger seat, smoking.

“He's four. What's he gonna' do, tell Santa?” Silas replies, taking a drag off of his cigarette.

“Look,” Manny says, glancing into the rear-view mirror to make sure Isaac’s fine. “I just don’t want Mr. Linderman to—”

“Stop being such a fucking baby. Jesus Christ.” Silas does not seem concerned. He plucks his cigarette from his lips and jabs it in Manny’s direction. “We’re here.”

Manny pulls the Tahoe around, coming up out front of a whitewashed skyrise. He stops the car and gets out while Silas does the same. All around outside the car windows, there’s landmarks of a destination iconic for its Kitsch and glitz.

Las Vegas.

We're here.

Faulkner's hands move slowly and on autopilot, unbuckling his seat belt and opening the door, stepping out into the desert sunlight.

"This… this is Las Vegas," Faulkner says slowly, his expression showing the confusion he feels… but behind the confusion is a certain haunting sense of deja vu. The dissonance of it leaves him feeling uneasy and uncharacteristically subdued. "He said I was four. This… this must be a memory, then." The words feel like broken glass coming out of his mouth.

He hesitates for a moment, then looks over to Nova. "We should… follow them. I guess." As much as he doesn't want to. As much as he doesn't want to be here.

Nova’s brows furrow as she watches the two men in the front seat talk and she tries to get her bearings. They feel like dangerous men, carting around a child, and she looks over at Isaac with worry in her eyes for him – the grown him, the man she knows and loves, even if the world surrounding them was fake. Whatever he’s about to see, she wants to protect him from it.

But it’s not possible. She knows that, too, just as she knows who she truly is.

She nods, sliding out from the same door as him rather than opening her own. Once out, Nova takes his hand. “They may be able to hear and see you,” she whispers. “Be careful.” She’s sure they have weapons, and she’s not sure what might happen to him, to them, if things go sideways.

“Are we in the Vegas we were trying to get to, or just the one of your memory?” she wonders. Or both?

Nova suggested they follow, but as it turns out they’re coming for Isaac. It’s Manny that comes to the back seat, reaching in to unbuckles Isaac and then— reaches through Isaac’s torso like he wasn’t even there and pulls from inside him a four year old boy with a mop of blonde hair and chubby cheeks. Manny picks young Isaac up, letting him ride on his shoulders.

The outside is blinding sunlight. Palm trees and the looming silhouette of a black pyramid across the street with a sphinx out front. That isn’t the casino they’re taking young Isaac to, however.

“You really need to get a fucking hat, Manny. You're gonna look like a fucking tomato tomorrow.” Silas says, adjusting his sunglasses as Manny shuts the door again. It’s enough to push Isaac and Nova to that recommended movement; follow them. They exit the vehicle from the same side, still holding hands.

“I’m going to be a bronzed god,” Manny replies with a gigantic smile, jostling little Isaac on his shoulders enough so that the boy laughs. “I put on tanning lotion.”

Silas snorts and laughs loudly. It turns into a cackle as they turn away from the pyramid and the sphinx, across the street, toward that blindingly white building with towering columns. Red letters arch near the roof, neon glow drowned out by the blinding sun.


“Hey,” Manny says as they approach the doors.


“Put the fuckin’ cigarette out, Silas. We’ve got a kid here.”

Isaac stares as Manny grabs… not him, but…

Is that him?

It must be. That's… that's him when he was four. Okay. That is all kinds of weird, but right now he's not going to argue it, since everything since the Connecticut state line has been one flavor of weird or another. And there is definitely a silver lining in this.

"They can't see us," Faulkner points out, his hand holding Nova's; there's the barest hint of relief visible in his voice as his eyes follow the smaller of the two — Silas. Weirdly it's that one that sets his teeth on edge, not Manny. He takes a breath as he spots where they're taking him, his stomach roiling. "The Corinthian; that's where we're going," he points out. "They refered to Mr. Linderman earlier, which probably means they're working for him…"

The question of which Vegas they're in sees him pause to consider for a moment, but evidence. "This seems like a… a memory," he says, and again he has to force those words out… but the evidence, at this point, is overwhelming, and even the one playing the devil's advocate has to concede when there is no longer reasonable doubt.

No matter how much it hurts his pride. No matter how hollow it makes him feel.

But standing around isn't going to help anyway. "Well. The way forward seems to be through this, so…" he says, squeezing Nova's hand and flashing her a tired smile before he starts to walk.

Nova’s eyes widen as the men come back, and then she draws her hands up to her face when she’s given the opportunity to see tiny Isaac as a child – not just a photo, but the actual thing. Or, well, a simulated version of the actual thing.

“Oh, my God, you were so cute!” she declares, turning to look at him with sparkling eyes. If she were an anime character, they would be star or heart shaped, but they’re still living mostly in a realistic simulation, even if it’s been 31 flavors of weird since they left New York.

Her fingers lace with his and she squeezes his hand, looking up at him as they walk. She knows him well enough by now to know that it’s hard for him to be wrong. “They’re actually kind of sweet with him, huh,” she says in a low voice, despite the fact they can’t hear her.

“You were obviously adored, even by the…” what word does she want to use there? Mobsters? Henchmen? “Employees,” is a safer, more diplomatic choice.

Isaac and Nova follow the two employees through the front doors of the Corinthian and are immediately bombarded by the noise and chaos of a live casino floor. Just inside the casino’s palatial lobby there’s dozens of themed slot machines, a concierge desk, and then steps leading down to the marble-floored main floor.

The Corinthian is themed after a Greek pantheon on the inside, with towering columns and faux ivy creeping up them. Plaster-posing-as-marble statues line the front lobby and the rich red carpet is detailed with a gold diamond pattern.

Manny looks around the brightly lit and noisy casino floor, scanning the crowd of people sitting on stools at the slots with their plastic buckets of tokens. But the two employees of Mr. Linderman don’t linger long. Manny and Silas take little Isaac through the casino floor to a roped off elevator by the entrance. The black-suited security guard watching the door recognizes them by appearance, but balks at the toddler they have.

“We’re gonna turn him in for chips,” Silas says with a wry smile, giving a too-long stare to the guard on their way into the elevator.

Under his breath, Manny reassures little Isaac with a tap on his leg: “We’re not gonna turn you in for chips, unc’a Silas is just like that.”

Isaac had been prepared for many things; Nova's absolute delight at the younger version of him, however, catches him off-guard. For a moment all he can do is stare in amazement, the weirdness of all of this completely forgotten… then he laughs, a bit self-consciously. "I… suppose so," he concedes. Then, grinning, he looks over to her. "I'll trust your judgment. Though were I less trusting sort, I might accuse you of being a bit biased," he teases, a gleam of amusement in his dark eyes.

But Silas and Manny are on the move, which means they need to be moving as well; luckily Manny with a baby riding on his shoulders is tall enough that it's hard to lose track of them, even in the crowds that throng the Corinthian.

Silas's comment about turning the baby in for chips draws a surprised snort from Isaac, and he files that one away for later use. It's good material. "I wonder just how many chips he's hoping to get for me," Isaac deadpans to Nova.

Isaac is not as amused at the prospect of trying to crowd into the elevator with them, but losing track of the three is even less appealing. He looks over to Nova, a grimace on his face.

“Just a little bit,” Nova admits, laughing, her eyes on the small child, his innocent eyes and his giggles that are so unlike Isaac and yet she can still see how he would grow into the man beside her.

She can’t help but be a little charmed by the two employees’ handling of the little boy, and she laughs aloud at the joke Manny makes, and Silas’ reassurance of little Isaac.

“You’re priceless, so it wouldn’t be enough,” she tells the Isaac beside her. But she does quicken her steps so they can make it into the elevator, hoping that their invisibility doesn’t wear off in such closed spaces. They’d been okay in the car, after all.

“Anything seem familiar?” she wonders, looking up at Isaac.

Outside of the specter of Daniel Linderman, not really. Even this hotel, the Corinthian, a place supposedly important enough that Linderman’s goons would bring someone here is a blank spot in Isaac’s memory. There is no Corinthian in the simulation. But here… here it’s as real as the smell of cheap drinks and even cheaper cologne.

Silas casts an askance look at Manny, then reaches for his pack of cigarettes in his coat. He can feel Manny’s eyes on him and reluctantly slides the cigarettes back inside and exhales a sigh through his nose. “If we get stuck with this fuckin’ runt…” He says, jamming the button for the penthouse.

“Language.” Manny chides as the elevator starts to rise.

“Oh no, the kid’s gonna grow up with a potty mouth. Oh fuck, oh no, oh shit.” Silas rolls his eyes and laughs, then slaps Manny on the back. “C’mon, Calavera, lighten the fuck up some, alright? I’m just kiddin’. I’m just havin’ some fun.”

Manny side-eyes Silas. “Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask, how’s Lyndsay and Annie doing?”

The question elicits a twitch at one corner of Silas’s mouth. He looks down at his feet, sniffs loudly, and looks like he’s working up the nerve to answer right when the elevator stops and the doors slide open.

“Fine.” Silas says dismissively instead, stepping out of the elevator into the actually marble-floored penthouse suite of the Corinthian. The two men walk through the penthouse with an open familiarity, cutting through the foyer and up a short series of steps into an office lined with bookcases and an antique, floor-mounted globe.

Silas puts a hand on Manny’s chest and stops him from further approaching as they hear a voice coming out of the office. Silas furrows his brows, concentrating on something, then creeps up to the doorway.

“…no, he’s alive. Fortunately for all of us, yes. I can’t shake the suspicion that this may have somehow been targeted.” Says the rough-voiced old man with a difficult-to-place accent. Silas knows it immediately. It’s Daniel Linderman.

Silas glances at Manny, then looks back into the office as they eavesdrop.

“I’m not being paranoid. Paranoid people make mistakes. I’m merely being cautiously proactive.” Linderman says. “You know how many enemies I have.”

Less interested in what he’s overhearing, Manny reaches up and tussles little Isaac’s hair and makes a just remarkably stupid face. Isaac bursts out with a giggle and slaps his palms down on Manny’s head, earning a slit-eyed stare and a grimace from Silas.

“I’ll have to call you back,” Linderman says, having heard the noise. “Something has come up.” Then he hangs up the phone.

Faulkner considers Nova's question for a moment before he answers. "…no," he says softly, his expression perplexed.

"No," he says again a moment later, this time with a palpable unease. This place… should seem familiar, shouldn't it? Shouldn't it?

Silas and Manny's dialogue provides a welcome distraction, though that prickling unease never quite leaves his mind, no matter how much he tries not to think about it… until, at least, he hears the voice from the office. The voice of Daniel Linderman.

There's no mistaking that voice, and the sound of it elicits a whole complicated tangle of emotions in Isaac. He lets out a slow, shuddering breath, his shoulders straightening a bit. "It's him," he murmurs without explanation.

Faulkner glances to Nova for a moment, then follows Manny and Silas forward; the latter's inclination to eavesdrop is noted with a frown and narrowed eyes, although he can't really say much about it, considering he's doing the same. What Linderman is saying, though, swiftly draws Isaac's attention; he tilts his head. Under the circumstances, it's not beyond the realm of possibility that Linderman is talking about him… but who is all of us?

Silas’ less than kind language about the small boy draw a glare from Nova, and she reaches to tuck her hand in the crook of the adult Isaac’s elbow, squeezing lightly as if to console him if the mean man’s words hurt his feelings.

“What’s your first memory of? Real or not. How old?” she wonders.

When she hears Linderman, though, Nova quiets, looking up at Isaac with worry in her eyes, then over at the little boy. She can’t help but smile at him, like maybe he could see her, the way she would if this was all happening with people who could see and hear her just as she could see and hear them. Instead, she’s like a fly on the wall – which is both strange and a little comforting, in its way.

Nova’s question elicits a haze of conflicting memories from Isaac. Like he’s trying to make out the lyrics to a song while several others play. It was never this hard to recall his childhood, and yet now—

“Mr. Mackenzie, Mr. Calavera, you can come in.”

Silas makes another sharp face at Manny and then turns, gliding into the office as if he weren’t just eavesdropping and ending his concentration on whatever it was he’d been thinking about. “Hey boss, sorry about the wait. We got the kid, right as rain. But uh, I was hoping since we laid low with him for a couple days maybe we could, you know, hand him off?”

Slowly, Linderman swivels his chair around and sets a cord phone onto the receiver. He is significantly older than Silas and Manny, white-haired and balding with deep wrinkles cut into his brow. He looks past Silas, ignoring him, and squares a look on little Isaac as Manny finally takes the kid off of his shoulders.

“Ain’t a hair on his head out of place.” Manny says, setting Isaac down on his feet with another ruffle of his hair. “‘Cept that one. I guess.”

Daniel Linderman slowly rises from his desk, looking at Isaac with the reproachful gaze of someone who isn’t sure what to make of what he sees. And yet, there is a slowly growing warmth behind his eyes. A softening of his hardened features.

“I would hope not more than a hair or two were amiss,” Linderman says with a narrowing of his eyes. “That’s my son you’re talking about.”

Manny and Silas share a dubious look to at one-another, as if neither of them had been let in on that bit of information. Neither is willing to remark on it first. Instead, Linderman asks the harder questions. “Elia and Carson?”

Silas raises his brows and grimaces, rubbing his hands up and down his arms. Suddenly he’s not so chatty. Manny gently covers little Isaac’s ears and the world becomes muffled. They’re talking but neither Isaac nor Nova can hear it. Because little Isaac never heard it.

Because this is a memory. Because this is real. Because this all happened.

"First… memory?" Faulkner asks; he's very glad of Nova's hand resting in the crook of his arm, because he's feeling a little dizzy. "I…"

He trails off, his eyes shifting to the side as he tries to make sense of his scattered recollections; panic begins to roil from the depths of his mind as he finds himself struggling to pin down his own memories.

Linderman's voice gives him something to focus on. And that look.

And —

That's my son you're talking about.

"What?" he whispers aloud. "But…"

But… that's not right. Faulkner's parents had died when he was young. There'd been… there'd been a tragic accident. Daniel Linderman had adopted him. He'd been adopted.

…hadn't he?

Faulkner's breathing grows shaky… and as Manny gently covers the young Isaac's ears, as the voices of Linderman and Manny grow muffled and indistinct, the truth — a thing he had theorized, but not truly accepted — is driven home like a spike being hammered into stone.

This was real.

Elia and Carson. Nova knows those were Isaac’s parents’ names, but the way Linderman asks about them suggests whatever happened to them just happened, and whatever that was was bad.

When the conversation gets muffled, she frowns, looking over at Isaac. “Maybe he was your real dad, and Carson didn’t know?” she wonders, eyes widening slightly at the implications. “Did he…”

She doesn’t want to suggest that Isaac’s father had anyone murdered. Her gaze falls back on the little boy, her expression turning from curious to one of sympathy.

Muffled noises turns to dimming light. The ambient lighting of Linderman’s office narrows down to a single overhead source, pulling in curtains of darkness that surround Isaac and Nova. Soon there’s no other sound than their breathing, the rustle of their clothes.

Then… wind.

Then, birds.


Then it's daylight, alarmingly bright and blinding daylight. Somewhere on a grassy hill surrounded by an entire urban neighborhood consumed by vegetation is Isaac—nearly identical to how he looks right now—with a slender redheaded woman with high cheekbones and delicate fingers. She pinches the fabric of a blanket laid out over the grass, watching Isaac come to sit by her side. There's a picnic basket between them.

He's smiling—ear to ear and nervous—rummaging through a picnic basket with a backdrop of a city that only vaguely looks like New York on the horizon. So much of it is ruin or ramshackle. Manhattan is visible from the hill they're on, but its surrounded by a high concrete wall. The Statue of Liberty is visible in the distance, or what's left of it. Just the broken bottom fourth of twisted green metal.

And yet here is Isaac, not minding the ruin. Here is Isaac pulling out breadsticks and a small container of marinara sauce, a tray of seasoned meatballs speared on fancy toothpicks for an appetizer, a pan of lasagna, paper towels, paper plates, utensils… and last but not least, a bottle of red wine and plastic cups. Here is Isaac…

…on a date.

Nova takes a breath at the sudden change of scenery, at that sudden bright sunlight that hurts like it does when one comes out of a darkened theater. She squints,sighing a little in relief to find they’re nowhere dangerous… at least not physically.

Her brows draw together as she sees Isaac joining the redhead on the blanket. Her mind recalls instantly a similar date where they were across the water in Manhattan, behind that wall – only those tall buildings surrounding Central Park were still whole, not the remnants they were today.

Lips press together to keep the sob that rises in her chest inside, and she takes a step back, to let Isaac have this memory to himself. Whatever it is, it doesn’t include her.

She turns away, trying to wipe a tear away without him seeing it, and she studies instead the changes in the scenery from what she knows and what, apparently, is.

Isaac frowns at the vista. In some ways, this seems to confirm some of his fears about the other world Nicole and Asami had talked about. He moves closer to the vantage point.

Nevermind the picnic basket — takeout Italian? Whatever for, when he could have La Luz?

Nevermind the wine — in plastic cups, no less!

Nevermind the girl.

Nevermind the scene at his back, gently pulling at him with the insistent gravity of an event horizon in the distance; he ignores it, standing fast against it. "New York! Ah, New York, what have they done to you?" he says aloud, looking out over the horizon.

Nevermind the cold and simple logic of it, that he can see the shape of but does not let himself articulate.

Nevermind this awful feeling, clawing at his throat and making his hands tremble.

Nevermind the… the…


No matter how much he might try to resist, no matter how much he might despise everything about this… it's happened, hasn't it? The truth is the truth, no matter how much one might wish it to be otherwise; whatever had happened to this world, there's no way he could ever have met Nova, let alone fallen in love with her. Why would he not be out dating?

And as he lets himself articulate that cold and simple logic — A, therefore B; not-A, therefore not-B (which is not always true, but alas, in this case seems to be) — the trembling of his hands stills, the tightening knot in his throat chokes off any more words he might try to utter, and the devil's advocate ends his last desperate stand.

Isaac Faulkner's shoulders sink, his gaze falling to the green grass between his feet — were Nicole here, she would surely be berating him for his posture. But she is not here; no one is here. Even Nova, he becomes aware, has stepped away, and he is grateful for that; as much as he loves her enough to fight the world for her, he finds that he needs a moment. Just a moment. To grieve the loss of the future he's been dreaming of, this past… however long it's been.

He raises his hand to his face, pinching the bridge of his nose and entirely by coincidence wiping his forefinger and thumb over his eyes; the pollen here must be truly atrocious, to have caused his eyes to water this badly. Or perhaps there's been a sudden sunshower, localized only to his eyes; in this world of memories and ghosts they find themselves in, transported through time and space, who can say? Stranger things have happened.

Isaac lets out a slow breath, studying the details of the skyline one last time… then he turns to face the scene again. Still there, it seems; looks like the other him's doing a decent job. He judges his other self's technique to be a little less polished, but then, his other self seems a little less polished, doesn't he? Just as this other New York is less polished.

He closes his eyes, then opens them again… and now he sees Nova, standing very still and small and surveying the horizon, just as he had been, and he feels his heart twist again. Damn these sunshowers.

After a moment, he moves silently to stand behind her, his back to hers, his eyes still surveying this… scene from another life. The Isaac Faulkner he'd been in the… the world outside the simulation.

Maybe she doesn't want to hear from him right now. Maybe in that other place that Nicole and Asami say they'd come from, he'd never met her. But he knows her now, and loves her now. If he must leave every other piece of himself behind, so be it, but that he will keep.

“Dinner is served.” Isaac hears himself say and it twists that knot in his chest tighter.

Birds, breeze, distant traffic. What is this world?

“This.” The redhead says with a smile, sitting on a hip with her legs tucked up beside her and one hand to the blanket to support the way her torso leans aside towards her companion. “This is perfect. Much more thoughtful than an ‘all-on-the-line’ scavenger hunt.” It’s true. “Let me get that,” She reaches out to take up the bottle of wine, fishing a bottle-opener-and-corkscrew combo tool out of her pocket with a gesture that is clearly second nature. Her left arm, that reaching for the bottle, is wrapped thrice around the middle in a layering of black flex bandage, a bit of stark white gauze peeking out the underside. She pays it no mind but for some subtle and inconvenient stiffness it forces upon the motions of that arm.

“So, we’ve gone over all the important stuff: favorite colors, favorite food, favorite places, favorite games… ” The redhead's blush is still unwaning, a gentle flush backdrop to a sift of cinnamon freckles. Her demeanor is an effortless charm, navigating social waters with serpentine flexibility. Eyes partway lidded she asks. “What more could you possibly need to know?” There’s a playful sarcasm to her, a self-deprecating jest about the easy, superficial way she’s seemed to, without have said anyway, insist they carry on up till now. She tilts her head and lofts a brow, expression warm in a more subdued way.

Isaac nods, making a small gesture with his hands — by all means. As she reaches for the wine bottle, he notices the bandages wrapping her left arm, and his smile dims just a bit, a flicker of puzzlement touching his lips… but it's probably something minor. Maybe she fell or something?

Well. She obviously isn't worrying about it, so neither will he. As she asks her question, though, Isaac's smile takes on a thoughtful cast. He doesn't answer right away, either; instead, he grabs a cup to pass to Jo, taking the time to consider.

"There's always more to know, isn't there?”

The knot in Isaac’s chest only tightens when he hears himself say that. Because he remembers a ship at sea, blood in his mouth, someone named Aman, he knows this redhead’s name is either Isis or Joanne depending on the identity she’s posing as. He knows—

—he knows there’s no Nova.

He knows this world. This ruined, blood-soaked world propped up in the ashes of a civil war.

Isaac remembers.

"Ah," Isaac breathes, tensing; in his mind, the world turns upon its axis. There is perspective. And then… the world turns again.

"I remember," he says softly, his eyes wide with surprise. "I remember it all, Nova. I remember who I…" he hesitates. "Who I was."

Because he isn't just that anymore, is he? He remembers the things he's done, in this Ordinary World, and he always will; it's a part of him. He studies the scene awhile longer, then turns back to Nova — still so still and quiet, staring at the horizon. He raises a hand to reach out to her as he has so many times before… then he hesitates.

Then he lays his hand on her shoulder. "Do you want to know?" he asks, his voice quiet and gentle. He wants to share this with her… but he can tell she's hurting, too.

She feels very small standing there, very alone despite the fact she knows he’s right behind her. Behind but not beside, a small voice tells her. He has a life in the “real” New York – she’s in a coma somewhere in Amsterdam, unable to communicate, alive in the barest meaning of the word.

When he speaks, she looks down, brows drawing together and watching a tear or two fall to the grass between her feet. Nova’s hand rises to touch his, and she takes a breath; he can feel her steadying shudder on its exhale, before she turns around.

Those blue eyes seem all the bluer thanks to the recent wash of tears, still clinging to her lashes. “I will always want to know who you are, Isaac,” she says, her words certain and solid despite everything else. This isn’t his fault. It isn’t the redhead’s fault, whoever she is, and Nova tries to convey that there’s no blame, in the soft smile she offers Isaac that cracks after a moment.

“I’m glad you have someone to go home to,” she offers, softer yet. “Someone who loves you.”

Gently, Faulkner reaches out to her, one finger gently wiping the tears from her eyes, and then he draws her close.

"I remember both lives. Like two movies, playing side by side. Very different movies — one's a slice of life, the other is… some sort of mob thriller, I think," he says, not without a flicker of momentary amusement, "but in each, I can see the ghost of the other. In the life I lived out there, I was…" he hesitates for a moment, considering his words. "I was never quite sure who I was, not really. I didn't know I was Linderman's son; in fact, there was a lot about my past that I didn't remember. But I remembered New York, and so I came here — to the New York Safe Zone — to try to find some pieces. After the Bomb, after the Civil War. I didn't know who I was, really… but I wanted to know. I wanted to be someone."

"Whereas in the life I lived here — in New York, with you — I was. I got what I wished for… but I had to deal with the darkness of that, too. Daniel Linderman was… neck deep in bad business, and the path charted for me led me through the worst of it; maybe the simulation managed to drag the things I'd forgotten out of my brain and tie them in. Some of the things I did here… I never could have imagined, before. I could very well have drowned in that darkness… if I hadn't had someone near and dear to me to remind me of my better self," he says, one hand reaching down to thread a lock of stray hair behind Nova's ear. For a long moment, he says nothing more, just strokes Nova's hair.

"We need to get to Vegas," he says at last. "If Nicole and Asami are right, we were put in here against our will. We need to get out, and get to safety, and then — once we know what's out there — we can figure out what comes next. Okay?"

Her eyes lift to find his, and even in her pain, that gaze helps to steady her. She listens, smiling when he speaks of her influence, and leaning into his hand when Isaac weaves that strand back. She knows he’s right – they have to move. And she wants to leave this place she’s never seen and can’t really remember. She knows about New York, about the civil war and the bombs that had shaken not only the United States but the entire world with their repercussions. But she didn’t live it.

But she doesn’t want to leave this moment where it’s just the two of them – Isaac’s body blocks the picnic from her view, the redhead that clearly loves him, and whom he loves. There’s no animosity for the woman, only a hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach, anticipating the loss of what Nova has now.

Getting to Vegas means the rest of them have a chance at living the lives they were taken from. But for Nova, she’s not sure what waits for her – more hospital rooms, monitors, IV drips? Whatever that man had done to her, could it be undone?

All of this goes through her mind as she stares up into Isaac’s eyes, and Nova lifts a finger as if to say one moment. Standing on her toes, she brushes her lips against his for what might very well be the last time, a last kiss, before whatever else the simulation throws at them as they try to make it to their final destination. It’s almost chaste – because he has someone else, and while the redhead just behind him can’t see them, it feels wrong for the kiss to last more than a moment. But for all its brevity, it’s full of love and wistfulness.

Stepping back on her heels, she nods. “Okay.”

And in that agreement, everything comes crashing down.

Somewhere Else


It feels like waking up, but the situation is too unreal.

Isaac and Nova jolt awake in the front seats of a car burned by intense fire. The interior is melted, seats blackened. Everything is covered in a fine layer of soot and sand. Blistering heat and bright mid-day sun shines through the blown out windows. Long, jagged shadows are cast across the car by the eviscerated remnants of nearby buildings, none over four stories tall.

A hot, dry wind blows through the car, and outside the pair can see a sun-bleached and cracked stretch of city street with shifting sand dunes partially covering it. And a pyramid.

A black pyramid.

It’s the same one from Isaac’s childhood memory—the Luxor Hotel—except it looks to have exploded and partially collapsed on itself. But across the street from the Luxor, just a block away, is a stark white hotel with toppled columns and crooked, neon signage that reads:


It takes Faulkner a moment to get his bearings; the scene they're facing is one of utter devastation. He looks over, where Nova is, thankfully, in much better shape than their surroundings, and lets out a shaky breath. "Glad we didn't take Kaylee's car," he manages.

But the horror of this place is such that even gallows humor seems too much. He looks over to Nova one more time with concern — something about that last kiss had felt like… like…


He shakes his head, turning to the door and trying the handle; it doesn't budge, so he braces himself and exerts a bit more force. A lot more force, and then rather more than that; finally, with the squealing of metal on metal, the damnable thing opens, melted weatherstripping flopping uselessly out onto the sand. He looks back, then extends his hand to Nova. "This… isn't exactly what I was picturing, but… we're here. Welcome to Las Vegas."

The pyramid, broken and shattered, looms silently, but it's the sign across the street that draws his attention. "And that's where we're going. The Corinthian."

Everything is an overload on the sense – the smell of burnt metal, rubber, and leather; the glaring sunlight and unfathomable heat – but Nova barely responds except to blink at the drastic change. She looks around, her expression solemn, then flinches just a little when Isaac shoves the door open, the sound an assault on her hearing.

The smile for his attempted joke comes late, like it’s taken a few seconds for the words to make their way through the tangle of thoughts at the forefront of her mind. But it’s an ephemeral thing, slipping away as she takes his hand and climbs out of the ruined car.

“There’s a graphic novel with a character named The Corinthian,” she says, unsure of which Nova knows that bit of trivia. “A villain.” It somehow feels apt, though hopefully what awaits them in the casino before them is not so dangerous or evil.

Something tells her that’s a losing bet.

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