Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics


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Scene Title Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics
Synopsis There are three kinds of falsehood.
Date August 22, 2016

Outer District

It’s rare that Nicole Nichols is let out of her cage, but sometimes she earns a treat in the form of being sent on errands Dr. Miller finds too menial for him. She’s been conditioned at this point not to attempt escape. She’d never make it out of the domed city, and when she was found…

Mechanical fingers adjust their grip around a canvas shopping bag hanging at her side while she walks the streets. Sometimes, she indulges in a stroll. As much as she hates it here, at least it isn’t the lab. If she’s going to have a small taste of freedom, she may as well indulge it.

If she had to hazard a guess as to why he allows her outside at all, she suspects it’s because it makes her despair deepen every time she’s forced to return.

It’s a thought she doesn’t dwell on as she turns down a narrow lane that will lead her to a patch of green that grows in a square in the rear of four apartment buildings. There’s a bench where she can sit and rest. It’s so rare she enjoys rest on her own terms.

Every now and again, despite his best efforts, Agent Isaac Faulkner finds himself in possession of a block of time that isn't consumed by his meticulous scheduling. This is not entirely a welcome development; invariably, it results either from someone cancelling an activity on him, or from someone else dropping something into his schedule at short notice that forces him to rearrange his life to accommodate it. Something like, for instance, Operation Kentarchos. He still hasn't entirely gotten his schedule straightened out after the rash of reschedulings caused by his research for Kentarchos… though admittedly, the probable benefits of his involvement there are such that he can't be too irritated about it.

Ah well. There's a jazz club that Isaac occasionally frequents; he'd planned to catch a cab, but this gives him time to walk instead. Walking can be good, on occasion; it's good for the body, and it gives him time to mull over his thoughts… and to think, for example, about his fellow teammates. He takes a left turn off an already quiet street, slipping behind some apartment buildings to shave a minute or so off of his travel time.

As Nicole comes out the mouth of the laneway, she catches sight of someone else arriving on the opposite end of the square from her. Bright blue eyes blink several times. Uncertainty about how to proceed doesn’t quite make it to the rest of her features. She could veer off quickly, pretend she never saw the man that she does recognize from the other day. That in and of itself would certainly be more conspicuous than she already is.

So, the answer to this conundrum is to lift her chin as the distance between her and Agent Faulkner closes to a conversational one, and to smile politely. She doesn’t verbalize a greeting, however. Perhaps it’s simply that she’s used to being seen and not heard. Or maybe she’s simply trying not to invite or request interaction.

Well, well. Agent Faulkner had intended to put in some research time to figuring out Nicole's patterns and ambushing her just like this later on, but it would appear that that is no longer something he's going to have do… not right away, at least. He's of the opinion that meticulous planning is generally a superior approach over simply relying on dumb luck, but that doesn't mean he's going to turn his nose up at dumb luck if it comes wandering up to him.

Faulkner's eyes lock onto Nicole's, his lips curving into that familiar pleasant smile. "Ms. Nichols! This is a surprise. I was just thinking that I still needed to chat with you at some point, and here you are," he says, all but purring in satisfaction. He tilts his head slightly. "Do you have a moment, or are you in a hurry?"

Nicole is clearly flustered when Agent Faulkner actively engages her, beyond compulsory pleasantries. Slowing to a stop, her lips curl up into a smile that doesn’t reach her eyes. Those eyes say something akin to oh god, help me, if he wants to look hard enough. “I…” She looks down her shopping bag, then back up to him and shakes her head.

“No. I suppose I’m not in any hurry.” It would be nice to have an excuse to linger outside, even if she is uncertain of Isaac’s motives. His self-assured manner induces concern. She’s wary of being treated as a pawn, but… it’s roughly all she knows at this point. “How can I help you, sir?”

"Nothing onerous, I assure you," he laughs. "I…" he begins, only to hesitate; bringing up their previous 'conversation', even as a frame of reference, would probably not be constructive. Better to steer away from that, perhaps, even if it means repeating himself.

"…was hoping to discuss our mutual participation in… a certain upcoming operation. Obviously, I'm not going to cover anything sensitive; however, I was hoping to meet with you to discuss your particular skillset, and what you can bring to the team."

The woman is silent at first, save for the quiet whirring of servo motors in her left arm and the rustling of canvas as she adjusts her grip on the bag. Not because it had gotten uncomfortable - the strap doesn’t bite into the joints of her fingers the way they would the other hand.

“Of course,” Nicole replies blandly. “Although perhaps you’d be better off speaking with Doctor Miller about the role you’d like for me to play? I serve him, after all.” Which in any other context might sound like a dig at Agent Faulkner. Some sort of insubordination in the making. After the display he’s seen, it sounds more like a gentle reminder that she won’t be doing anything she isn’t authorized to do by her master.

"Oh, I'll certainly do that!" Faulkner says, giving a cheery smile. "I will of course be speaking with him concerning any prospective strategies or tactics regarding your utilization; I'm well aware that you've been working under him for… what, four years now? I assure you that it's neither my intention nor my desire to start some asinine interdepartmental squabble. This is strictly an informal talk, Ms. Nichols, and if you'd like me to be on my way, you have only to say the word."

"But. It would save some time if we could do this now, rather than having to requisition you in a more formal setting. Some of my time, some of your time… and some of the Doctor's time, most especially. That strikes me as something he might appreciate, don't you think? I, ah… get the impression he's not big on distractions from his… work."

Gradually, Nicole lifts her chin as Faulkner offers his assurances that he’ll be running all of this past her employer. Slowly, she nods. “You’ve done your homework.” For four years, she’s been Miller’s favorite subject. People are starting to talk, so she shouldn’t be surprised.

“And you’re right about that.” Her lips twitch in an expression that could be mistaken for a smile. “He doesn’t like to be distracted. By anyone. For any reason.” She inclines her head to one side slightly. “But he’ll tolerate a worthy distraction.” Which is to say that the edicts handed down from the powers that Zachery serves are considered worthy, whether or not he may be annoyed by them.

The dignity is exchanged for subservience. Nicole’s chin dips toward her chest now, her gaze downcast deferentially. “How can I serve?”

Faulkner's grin ratchets a couple of notches tighter as Nicole asks how she can serve. He has a feeling that there's something important to be understood in her phrasing there, but unfortunately any thoughts he might have on the matter are somewhat overshadowed by a momentary surge of atavistic revulsion that takes even Isaac himself aback.

"I always do my homework, Ms. Nichols," Faulkner says, his tone carefully restrained. "Due diligence is the cornerstone of success; that, and striving for self improvement." It's almost a platitude, but it's true… and, more importantly, saying it gives him a moment to recover, to reorganize his thoughts. He's definitely going to have to think about what brought that on later… but not now. He's got an interview to conduct right now.

Unexpected reactions aside, he's already learned something here: she's potentially willing to answer questions about Miller, if they're phrased properly. She'd volunteered more than he'd been expecting… though it's probably best if he doesn't press too hard on that front. He has the impression that if she thinks he's trying to sound her out about Miller, she might close down on him altogether.

Now, on to the matter at hand. "As to what you can do, Ms. Nichols," Faulkner says, composing a stern expression, setting his gaze on Nicole and holding it there relentlessly, "you can answer fully, honestly, and to the best of your ability." He lets that one sit a moment; when he speaks again, his voice is low and quiet — a tone calculated to draw Nicole in. "That last one is important. If you feel that I may be mistaken in some assumption or supposition, I want you to say so. If you feel that you can't answer a question without placing yourself in an adverse position, I expect you to tell me that, as well, and I'll consider the matter in question to be tabled. The point of this is to facilitate results, and for that, I need accurate information. I trust you understand where I'm coming from?"

Nicole lifts her chin again while Isaac lays out the ground rules of the conversation. If she caught any of his look of revulsion, she doesn’t show it. Slowly, the storm clouds that cling to her seem to lighten. Nodding along to show her understanding, he might think he glimpses the ghost of a smile.

Yes. She can play this game of his.

“I do,” Nicole confirms. “Please, Agent Faulkner.” That smile is just a little more solid now. “Proceed.” She gestures to him with her flesh and blood hand, palm up and spreading out before them. The floor is his.

Okay. Good. The ice seems to be broken — the first couple of layers, at least — and he's established something resembling the basics of a rapport.

Now, to follow up. Ordinarily he'd pitch a softball or two now to give her a chance to get into the swing of things… but given his line about wasting time, throwing one that's too obviously a softball is going to come across as hypocritical — and that is a death knell for any hopes of maintaining credibility. Going for the kill probably isn't going to deepen rapport, either, though. What to do, what to do…

Split the difference.

"Alright," he says, flashing a small smile of his own before shifting to a studious, attentive expression. "What would you say you're good at, Ms. Nichols?"

It’s the wrong question. That becomes readily apparent by the instant shuttering of the light in her eyes. (The metaphorical kind. Her power still keeps those blues blazing.) “Following orders,” Nicole answers mildly. “I wasn’t always.” Unconsciously, she reaches for her left arm, rubbing the hard panelling through the soft fabric of her lightweight knit sweater.

“I’ve much improved.”

Even though she falls silent for a moment, she doesn’t break eye contact. Doesn’t demure. She’s still thinking about her answer. “I’m sure you’ve done your homework on me. You know I was in politics, worked for Daniel Linderman before all of this.” Her right hand falls to her side again. “Somehow, your bosses decided to overlook my many talents and decided I’m much more useful as a battery for Doctor Miller.”

The fact that she would not have used her soft skills to further the DoEA’s agenda might have something to do with that decision, admittedly.

A faux pas. Frustrating. On the other hand, her frustration is also not as tightly buttoned up as it could be, so that's something. "I've read your file," Faulkner admits. "But files tend to be… such dry things. Limited. By their nature, files seek to summarize — to reduce complex events to their lowest common denominators, to work messy circumstances into neat coherent narratives. As a result, they give a completely artificial perspective; there can be a significant gap in the way an outside observer might recount something, and the way the person herself might recount it." And in that gap, you can find a person's inherent bias, which takes you one step closer to being inside their head. There is a reason people say the Devil is in the details, oh yes.

Faulkner pauses, then glances to Nicole. "As an interesting side note, for example… the version of Doctor Miller's file that I was able to access had a great deal of… redacted material in it," he observes, with a very definite blandness. "After meeting with him, I feel I understand that a bit better."

He tilts his head slightly. "Your file is somewhat less heavily redacted, but still a distinctly dry piece of reading material. Your previous employers were noted, as was your eventual submission to the Department, and your subsequent assignment to Doctor Miller as his assistant, in an official capacity." He raises an eyebrow, pausing for a moment to give Nicole a chance to speak, if desired.

There’s a trace of mirth in Nicole’s eyes at the mention of just how redacted Zachery Miller’s file is. Of course it is. So much of what he’s done is unconscionable, even to the people sanctioning his research. They’d rather see the results, and not know what it takes to get there.

“What else do you feel you need to know about me?” Nicole lifts a brow. Slowly, she’s coming more into herself. She’s standing tall and playing this game with him and she’s enjoying it. This isn’t the porcelain doll in Miller’s laboratory, but the woman who existed before she surrendered. “I am wasted on this position. I just wanted to take my negation drugs and live in my hovel in peace.”

She smiles then, a sour expression. “Mitchell never liked me much.” Whether or not this is that sort of retaliation is anyone’s guess, but it’s an easy supposition for her to make. It makes everything feel like it has a reason. Like the horror that her life has become isn’t just senseless.

"You sought to make nothing of yourself, Ms. Nichols?" Faulkner asks quietly, his expression blank. "That seems a terrible thing to aspire to." Because she'd gotten it, hadn't she? Just not the way she'd wanted it. Wasted on this position. Maybe that's true. Certainly it would appear to be, based upon her qualifications. And yet…

He abandons that line of thought; it's pointless. Distracting. Useless. More importantly, there's her question. What else would he like to know?

"Well. There are the statistics," he says after a moment, frowning thoughtfully.

"I find statistics to suffer from all the same problems that files do, except even moreso — dry reading, and a perspective divorced from subjective reality. Mark Twain once said there are three kinds of falsehood: lies, damn lies, and statistics," Faulkner says, offering the ghost of a smile; he's a fan of the second one, himself. "Statistics can be twisted to support virtually any hypothesis you'd care to… but they do serve a purpose. Used correctly, statistics can point out all sorts of phenomena that might otherwise slip under the radar, as it were…"

"For example… finance reports. Budgetary allotments, equipment requisitions — things like that. If you examine Doctor Miller's financials alongside those of others of his approximate stature, there's a distinct mismatch, starting about… four years ago, I believe, and steadily increasing. Would I be correct in inferring that you're part of the reason for that?"

There’s an audible inhale before Nicole answers his question. “I can see the writing on the wall, Agent Faulkner. I’ve learned when to keep my head down.” And she’s happy to let the subject go on that. She’d rather be a living nothing than a dead somebody.

It’s the next topic that brings about a broad smile. “I’m quite good, aren’t I?” Yes, she’s part of the reason for that. “I still have connections here. I know people. I read people. And things go a lot smoother when Miller has the proper funds to accomplish his goals.” Which might explain why she’s willing to help in that regard when she otherwise seems not to have much care for the man who pulls her strings.

“I was good at fundraising.” Nicole closes her eyes briefly, tipping her head to one side as she grants, “Still am, obviously.” Her mouth tugs upward to one side, a little playfulness having overcome the ice he’d tried to break through so delicately. “Are you convinced yet of my usefulness?”

The writing on the wall, she says. Oh yes, he knows all about that. It's the whole reason he took this career path — because he saw every other door in the corridors of power slamming shut, one after the other, until this was the only one left that actually led anywhere. Yes, he knows all about the writing on the wall, it's just that his approach wasn't to roll over and play dead.

Except… maybe it was, come to that. In a way.

He lets out a slow breath. A part of him wants to snap at Nicole and look where that got you… but he manages to keep that part contained. For now. Maybe later he'll let it out. Give the speed bag some work.

Her comments on the next topic, though… there we are. Finally. A skill — several skills! — beyond following orders, which… can be a skill if you're creative about it, but is generally more of a bare minimum. Like being able to breathe and think at the same time, or walk in a straight line, or count to ten (with or without use of fingers).

Faulkner's eyes flicker to Nicole; he studies her for a moment as he considers his response. "Most people are useful, Ms. Nichols," he says. "It's just a matter of finding where to put them so that they can do what they're best at — or at least something they're good at — instead of hammering square pegs into round holes, which is a waste of energy and doesn't do the job that well anyway."

"But then… you already know that, don't you?" Or knew it once, maybe; he suspects that the part of her that knows that sort of thing is normally kept locked away in some quiet room in the corner of her mind, asleep. Yes, he thinks he's definitely going to have to work in some time with the speed bag later. Maybe the heavy bag, too.

“I do,” Nicole confirms. Stepping forward to bridge some of the conversational gap between the two of them, she reaches out with her free hand to lightly run her index finger up the outside of Faulkner’s arm. If she weren’t wired such as she is, she might let some sparks dance on her fingers.

“I can be very useful to you, Agent Faulkner,” is her quiet promise, her eyes on his as her finger traces that circuit from wrist to shoulder. “But I don’t think there’s going to be much left of me to make use of if you leave me to Miller’s devices.”

This is the first glimmer of hope Nicole Nichols has had in years. She prays she can remember what to do with it.

Oh. Well, isn't this a surprise. Faulkner sincerely had not been expecting her to play the princess-in-durance-vile card. Which would cast him as… what, the white knight? Him? Absurd. Surely she doesn't think that he's going to run and throw himself in pitched battle with Miller the Mad Dragon, does she? Hadn't he expressly said he wasn't here to start some asinine interdepartmental squabbling? What on earth is she thinking?

It's not a hard question to answer. The wild difference in her behavior suggests an answer, but the personnel records he'd reviewed before his initial interview with Miller are the real smoking gun. Miller has had a laundry list of assistants, and none of them before her have lasted very long; two to three weeks is the typical run, typically ending in death… or being 'reassigned' to a job code that he had previously suspected to be a cover for death, and now suspects to be a cover for something worse.

Nicole Nichols has lasted in this situation for four years, keeping Miller sated… but Miller does not seem to be someone who appreciates the past, or, for that matter, thinks about the past at all, save in terms of what it contributes to his future research. Ergo: she is desperate.

If that were all, he'd let her rot. Maybe not without a modicum of regret, but he'd do it all the same; Miller is perhaps distasteful, but he seems like someone who could have some uses. But there is one remaining factor, one more element that rebalances the equation in Nicole Nichols's favor: her analysis is not wrong.

She claims she could be useful to him, and Isaac thinks she's right. Not particularly so in Operation Kentarchos, perhaps — although admittedly electrokinesis is a rather useful ability for combat situations, should it come to that — but in the long run, Nicole Nichols is the kind of investment that could pay dividends. She's served at the left hand of a criminal kingpin, and at the right of a presidential aspirant; that kind of experience is worth its weight in gold to someone with ambition, and Nicole knows it. More, she's seen through Faulkner well enough to know that he does have ambition. A point in her favor, that.


Ambition without caution is a knife without a hilt… and Agent Isaac Faulkner has not survived as long as he has, has not climbed as far as he has, by being stupid or reckless. Hope gleams bright in the light of day, but in the dark of the night? Ah, there despair has a certain comforting weight… and he's pretty sure that Miller has made sure that Nicole Nichols is intimately acquainted with it.

All of this he calculates as she runs her finger lightly over his arm, his dark eyes opaque as he studies her luminous ones… and smiles. A gentle smile, a kind smile, as he reaches out and oh-so-delicately cups her chin. "I think you could, Ms. Nichols," he says quietly. "I think we could potentially be quite helpful to each other in the long term."

He lets that sit for a moment — only a moment! — and then he drops his hand away. "But the foundation of a good working relationship is good information flow, Ms. Nichols. If we're to work together, I'll need to ask a few further questions. More difficult ones," he says, his tone all business now.

"About Doctor Miller and his research. About the… 'accident'… that took your arm. And about the extent of the modifications he's performed on you."

Seconds tick by and agony twists in her guts. Every moment he doesn’t respond to her olive branch is a moment spent anticipating being crushed beneath his heel and being sent back to her employer with nothing to show for her tardiness. She already knows she’s in for an unpleasant evening, and she’d much rather it had been worth it.

But he offers touch for touch and her skin is warm beneath his hand. A slow smile spreads across her face. For all that he sees her desperation for what it is, she seems genuine. Though, perhaps it’s most possible to see a person for who they truly are when they’re desperate.

Her fingertip traces gently over the shell of his ear only to draw away when he releases her chin. “You can examine me, if you like,” Nicole offers mildly. That could mean exactly what it sounds like on the surface, or it could be a promise of something intimated by the reciprocated contact. Maybe it’s his choice which it is.

The shopping bag’s handles whisper over the fabric of her sweater, bunching it up as it slides to the crook of her arm when she lifts it for his inspection, revealing more of her artificial limb. If the appeal to him to be her knight in shining armor won’t work — and she expected that to be a longshot anyway — she knows what most men truly want.

Nicole watches her mechanical fingers flex, turning her wrist one way, then the other in a display of the precise articulation. “He made me crush a man’s windpipe once.” Which is to say, yes, she may be useful against the insurgency. “It was so simple. Like—” Her fingers close into a fist with a quiet click of metal on metal. “Crushing a ping pong ball.”

As though she’d been lost in a moment of thought, she shakes her head to clear whatever memories may have been threatening to draw her under and turns her attention back to the man in front of her. “So far, it’s just this. And, of course, the implant. He’s promised that he’ll take me apart and improve me piece by piece, however.” That it’s only her arm that’s been replaced so far is nothing short of a miracle in her book. “I’m not negated.” If he hasn’t figured that out by now, that’s willful ignorance on his part. “But I can’t tap into my power without an override from Miller. To do so is the equivalent of shoving a fork into an industrial electrical conduit.”

Playing for all she's worth, it seems. Good. He notes the innuendo, appreciates it, but he'll pass on any… deeper examination for the moment.

No, what he truly wants just now is information, and Nicole seems willing to oblige. Gingerly, he runs a finger along the cold metal of her arm. His eyes rise to meet hers as she talks of crushing windpipes — a warning, that. Or it's taken as one, anyway.

"An override… same principle as the killswitch he used, then?" he asks, his eyes narrowing slightly. "And is it spoken? Or is there some other trigger?"

Nicole watches his fingers brush over her arm. She doesn’t feel it like she knows she should, but she still does in a sense. “I don’t know how it works,” she admits. “He… doesn’t really explain the things he does anymore. Not how they work, just that they do.” And then he demonstrates.

“It’s a mechanism. Something he keeps on him. Taking me offline is done verbally. It’s simpler.” That much she knows Isaac’s witnessed for himself, even if he doesn’t necessarily know what the trigger word is. “He can force me to use my power. He doesn’t need to force me not to.” She’s already explained what happens if she does. Pain is a powerful deterrent. Reaching over, she taps the port embedded in her forearm. “He plugs me in like an external battery.”

She wasn't kidding. He actually does use her for a battery. There's a part of him that actually wants to laugh at that; it's absurd. Practical, though. Faulkner will give him that. And hey, there's another skill.

More relevant, though: the added functions are almost certainly built into her implant, or into the socket for her prosthetic. He assumes there has to be something like that, at least, given that she has motor functionality; prosthetics haven't really been an area of research for him. He makes a note to fix that shortcoming.

"You have given me a great deal of information; this has been very helpful, Ms. Nichols," he says, more formally. "Is there anything else you can think of that I need to know? Or do you have any questions for me?"

“Just one thing,” Nicole responds casually, letting the shopping bag slide back to her wrist while she tugs her sleeve back into place. “I will do whatever it takes for you to get me out of that lab.”

She may as well be honest. He’s already pegged her desperation. “I don’t want to be cut into little pieces while he talks about improvement.” There’s very real fear of that and she lets it show in her eyes. “You get me out of there, and I’m yours.

All men want power, and what is Nicole if not a conduit for it?

Faulkner peers at her, his face expressionless as he studies her. "I think, Ms. Nichols… that Operation Kentarchos will be occupying much of Doctor Miller's attention for some time. And afterwards, if things go well…"

He smiles then, and for a moment there's actual life in his eyes. "Promotions all around, most likely. A shiny new lab for Doctor Miller " hopefully in Antarctica somewhere " a corner office for me. Positions can change, in that kind of reorganization." His expression sobers. "Until then… endure. Continue doing as you've been doing. We'll be speaking again soon enough."

“I’ve endured a lot,” Nicole offers up as a promise that this is not an unreasonable request he’s making of her. Is she frustrated she’s going to have to prove herself on this operation in order to buy her golden ticket to freedom? Certainly. But it’s not unexpected.

Her gaze lowers from his eyes, down the length of his nose, lingers on his mouth for a moment, before drifting further. Nicole reaches out and grasps his tie in both hands. If he was worried for a moment, she means to assuage him by adjusting the silk knot at his throat, straightening it out with care. Then, she smooths down the lapels of his jacket, proving she can be just as delicate with her mechanical hand as she is with the one made of softer material.

“As you wish, Agent Faulkner.”

Isaac Faulkner stands still and expressionless as she straightens his tie, smooths his lapels, but that fire still burns in his eyes. When she's done, he offers a smile — a real smile, thin and sharp as the barest edge of a crescent moon. "To the future, Ms. Nichols," he says softly.

Then his features settle back into that pleasant smile. "Until then."

He inclines his head, and turns to walk away. Both of them have promises to keep, and miles to walk before they sleep. Both of them have higher powers they are yet beholden to.

For now.

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