wf_nicole_icon.gif wf_zachery_icon.gif

Scene Title Prelude
Synopsis Hold until the moment when you know you'll kill.
Date August 19, 2016

The Innovator's Laboratory

Gone are the days of updos. Fortunately, she feels comfortable with her hair down in the literal sense, even if it’s not her metaphorical state of existence. Sitting in front of the vanity mirror, she arranges the dark locks of glossy hair around her bare shoulders. Everyone who matters seems to like it when she appears vulnerable, and so she shall.

But as she goes to rest her hands on the surface of her vanity, her hair is tugged painfully and it results in a quiet grunt of pain. Reaching up, she untangles an errant tress from her left hand, where she hadn’t relaxed her grip enough to keep from trapping the strand in the joints of her artificial fingers.

She bites back a curse. Damn thing, if overheard, will only invite another tune up.

The offending limb is held out in front of her and stared at with disdain. She’d like to detach it and slam it against the vanity until it smashed into little pieces, but… That would invite trouble. It represents what happens when she’s disobedient. A lesson she’ll not soon forget.

Four Years Earlier…

There is blood on her face and in her hair, hot and wet. Terror in her eyes and in her stomach, cold and hard. “Oh my god,” Nicole Nichols gasps, staggering back a step. “Oh my god, you— Anika. You killed her!”

Technically, Anika killed herself.


For what feels like entirely too many seconds, this is the only noise to leave Dr. Zachery Miller, who is standing a good distance away from the jaws of the new crushing machine that stands in the bio-waste disposal room of the laboratories. Still, there's a splatter of red sprayed across the collar of his ill fitting lab coat.

When he begins to move again, he does so all at once — sidestepping to throw a frantic look behind him, to the open door leading out. Some day in the years to come, he won't worry about the opinions of colleagues anymore, but in this moment panic still flashes across his features like second nature. Something he has yet to shake. "I— I didn't, actually," he sputters, rushing to the door to press a palm flat against it. It clicks shut with a certain finality.

When he turns around again, hand still on the door, it's with a still crude attempt at composing himself but a very practised look of real, actual threat in his eyes. "I told her to take 20 steps forward. The movement sensor did the rest of the work."

The look works, because Nicole is backing away from him slowly. Not toward the crusher, to be clear. Still, she’s brave enough to give her opinion a voice. “You’re a monster.” she wants to scream. Wants to break down sobbing. None of that will serve her right now.

Reaching up with a shaky hand, she wipes some of the blood away from her cheek, letting out a keening whine when she sees it slicked across her fingers. In her head, she counts down from five. As she does, she wipes her hand on her sleeve and gulps down several large breaths. Finally, on the count of zero, she looks up, calm as he’d like her to be.

“I’ll get a mop.”

There are things Zachery could say to defend himself, or on the nature of monsters and of man. But he comes up short, letting his gaze drift over the woman ahead of him and the blood on her, on the floor. On the wall.

Working here will take commitment. This new life will take commitment. Much as he tries to swallow it back, the shock that keeps him from blinking and knits his brow shows he's not quite there yet, frozen in place. But he will be.

"… Yes." His response comes delayed, but steady with purpose. Which comment it's a response to is left unsaid. "I'll get another subject."

Another subject.

So, not her then.

Nicole is grateful for that implication and it makes her feel sick as she makes her way to the supply closet. With his back to her, he can hear the dull thud of the wooden mop handle against the metal bucket. The scrape of the latter as she drags it out of the closet. It clangs against the metal basin as she fills it in the sink. The water sloshes as the bucket is drawn back up and set on the floor again for a moment.

Then there’s her footsteps approaching again. Nicole watches his back, senses his moment of uncertainty. Weakness. This is her chance. All she has to do is…

Her footsteps quicken. That and the grunt of effort are all the warning Zachery gets before Nicole is heaving the contents of the metal pail at him. The water isn’t scalding, nor cold. It’s actually not an unpleasant temperature, if not for the fact that he’s just had it thrown on him.

Nicole drops to the ground and shoves her hand into the puddle at his feet, her panicked breathing coming in whimpered gasps. She makes her move to discharge every watt of power she has stored thanks to her ability.

A single spark ignites, dancing over fingers before being claimed by the water and finding purchase in Zachery, who draws in a sharp breath and whips around, incensed.

Incensed… but otherwise fine. Holding still, shoulders squared, water dripping from fists balled up with quiet fury and disgust at the woman gathered before him. But with nothing following the initial spark, he waits in anticlimactic silence.

His face slowly relaxes. Fury pushed down in favour of clinical observation. There is no noticeable change to his expression when he steps slowly back, out of the wet of water and blood, and watches as the safety measure in Nicole's brain activates — shocking her in turn, from the inside, and with a vengeance.

"Latency issue," he notes in an exhale, with an uncertainty that fails to be present once he lets his shoulders drop and hands unfurl. His voice goes cold. "Interesting."

The weakness that allowed for this to happen is one that will not be shown again.

The shriek that tears from Nicole’s throat is unholy as she crumples the rest of the way to the floor. Water and blood mix beneath her as she convulses. It isn’t that the agony was an unexpected component of this plan, it’s just that she had also expected to take him with her. The hope had been that she would come out the other side of this and he wouldn’t.

There’s a primal fear within her that this will be the end. That she’s about to die here and now on this floor, or that she’s about to be thrown into the crusher to suffer the same fate as Miller’s previous assistant.

As consciousness begins to blessedly slip away, she’s not capable of enough coherent thought to realize that the worse fate is to survive.

A sensation of movement comes to her just before the darkness, the fabric around her neck tightening as she is dragged, by the arm, elsewhere.

The last words she hears are delivered through gritted teeth.

"You will come to regret this more than you know."

Four Years Later

Nicole is dragged, by the arm, elsewhere. Hers linked with her keeper's. He holds her artificial hand close, pressed to his side through crisp, tailored suit.

"Doctor Zachery Miller," he declares to a member of staff by the door, voice rising over the burble of laughter inside the lavish building he's waiting to enter. "And guest."

Once inside, a confident strides carries him and his plus one through room after room of gathered crowds in fancy dress, only ever stopping long enough to pleasantly acknowledge greetings but never long enough to chat. "I hate parties like this," he says, nodding with a carefully composed smile offered to a familiar passerby whose name he couldn't possibly be bothered to remember. "Twenty minutes of this should be enough, I think - don't you?"

Once at the party, Nicole is on. Even though she feels completely dead inside, no one would be able to tell it from the way she smiles so brilliantly. Easily. It’s a fundraiser, and this has always been her domain. Rich people part with their money more easily when they’re happy. Sure, they’ll donate to a cause that’s grim, but usually with the promise that it will bring them more wealth. More opportunity. More chances for smiles from pretty women.

“I know,” Nicole responds to Zachery’s commentary genially, expression hiding the fact that they both hate this down to their bones (and her servos). “Forty will get you more funding,” she assesses.

That might be true. Or she might just like for him to suffer for twenty minutes longer than he’d usually like.

The fingers of her flesh and blood hand squeeze his elbow gently. “I need to go freshen up,” she informs him. “I just saw Mrs. Richardson duck into the ladies’, and… Well, she’s a vein we can tap.”

See? She’s working.

For him.

As she should be.

"Thirty." Zachery replies with a sneer that's wrangled smoothly back into a smile when he turns his head to bid another acquaintance of sorts a cordial, "Hello! How wonderful to see you."

It's only after he's swiped a flute of something bubbly from a tray that he cants his head in Nicole's direction, and without looking at her says with none of the feigned warmth remaining on his words, "Mention her husband." Nicole knows to take this as something stronger than just a suggestion. "Widows are more willing to make new, meaningful connections in the face of a recent loss."

Only now does his arm unhook from hers, and he steps forward and away without so much as a look back, leaving her to the vultures while he feigns enthusiasm for a group of party goers politely waving him over.

“You’re the boss,” Nicole murmurs as she slips away from the hook of his arm and strides toward the opulent women’s restroom. The kind with a lounge for an antechamber. It gives her a perfect setting to appear to be fixing her lipstick when the recently widowed Mrs. Richardson steps out.

“Doctor Miller sends his regards,” Nicole offers as a greeting. “And his condolences. Charlie was a great man. He’ll be missed.

Twisting the tube of lipstick down and recapping it to toss in her silver clutch, Nicole then offers her hand to shake after the other woman has finished washing and drying hers.

Her left hand.

Four Years Earlier

After hours of adjustments to see how long Nicole could withstand the onslaught of her own ability turned against her, she knew she would never again try and kill Miller. He was wary of her now. Punishment tended to be handed down swiftly and sometimes without good cause other than to remind her who was in charge.

Why he hasn’t just killed her, she can’t begin to guess at.

But eventually, it eased again. She played her part of the subservient little doll, building up trust again. Yes, he had broken her. Well done. All the while, her mind was on escape.

There would be only one way out.

Nicole looks up from her reverie, realising almost several seconds too late that she’s been spoken to. “Sorry, Doctor. Yes, I have it right here.” From the tray of surgical tools, Nicole lifts a metal clamp and passes it across the operating table to the impatient man.

She doesn’t throw up anymore during these procedures.

While he’s distracted, she wraps her fingers around the blade of a scalpel. He knows her movements. Maybe he hasn’t noticed this one, but he will the moment her adrenaline spikes and she lashes out at him.

So it isn’t him she lashes out at.

The clatter of the scalpel on the floor followed by the hiss and whine of pain is his first clue to what she’s done.

There’s only one way out.

There are three bodies in this room that Zachery is currently intimately aware of. One of which he's tending to, fingers around the bloodied incision that will soon be home to a newly installed cranial implant. It's a source of pride that he gets this exactly right, as efficiently and cleanly as he can.

It's also a source of pain, intuitively, thanks to his ability. A thing he's come to appreciate and admire the intricacy of over the last few years more than ever before. So when that scalpel hits the floor, and another bright distraction flares up in the corners of his mind, pleading for attention, he can't help but lift his gaze.

The look in his eyes would be pity, if only he hadn't spent it all. Now, it's just empty.

His hands still on a slowly bleeding neck and skull of the unconscious patient in front of him, he asks, "Did you think this would save you?"

Despite the fact that she’s fully intending — welcoming — bleeding out, Nicole still clutches at the ravine she’s carved into the inside of her left arm. Blood spills forth from it, slides between her fingers. She glares at him, defiant. “There is no saving me,” she counters with venom. “Not after all the things I’ve helped you to do. All the atrocity.

Slowly, she sinks to the floor next to the scalpel, but she doesn’t reach for it again. Her gaze stays fixed on him. She wants to watch him watch the life leave her eyes. Wants to see him realize how powerless he is against it.

She gets what she wants, at least in the sense that he watches her. Bloodied, gloved hands slip from his project on a sigh of an exhale, head dropping to one side as his eyes calmly trail from her eyes down to her mouth, then to the arm, before finally his attention settles on the drip of warm red on the cold, metal floor.

"You're right, in a way," he says with some delay, voice barely above a whisper but no less sure for it. He smiles a thin smile. "There is no saving you. You've been lost to the world for a long time now."

He moves calmly to stand over his unwilling assistant, then crouches down and touches the tips of index and middle finger down on the discarded scalpel. Dragging it closer to him, he adds, "But world - as they say - be damned."

His excuse for a smile disappears when he looks back up and into her face. "I'm not done with you yet."

She thinks she knows fear when he reaches for the instrument she’s used to engineer her own demise. She finds resolution in it. Do it, she nearly tempts. Finish what she started. End this. Forever.

That’s not fear.

Fear is what comes after his last. “No!” she cries, making a clumsy lunge for the scalpel. The strength is already leaving her, but she needs to escape this. Escape him. “No!

The scalpel is relinquished, but only in favour of the fingers previously pressed down against it wrapping suddenly around Nicole's wrist, keeping the tool out of her reach. The grip tightens still with every second.

"Look at what you've done." Zachery chides leisurely, disappointment lurking in how his tone of voice lowers. He doesn't need to look to see the damage to muscles, arteries. The already numbing fingers.

"Be seeing you shortly," he tells her, more slowly than he needs to, especially with the puddle below ever growing. "You'll be good as new." He turns that wrist, enough to twist, his study of her face growing suddenly overeager as an idea brings with it the beginnings of a grin. "No," he amends. "You'll be better."

Nicole begins to sob, terrified. Anguished. The twist makes her cry out. Causes her to slip closer to the floor, her forehead touching the cold surface as he continues to wring blood from her arm. She heaves, gasps, and writhes. Tears mingle with the crimson pool. This had meant to be on her terms, not his.

He always gets what he wants, doesn’t he?

It’s the last thought Nicole has drift through her head before she succumbs to oblivion.

Hours later, she awakens to the sound of her name and a hand on her brow, almost delicate. Except delicacy is only employed in the name of precision where Zachery Miller is concerned. Still, Nicole doesn’t flinch away from the touch of his hand. The table behind her head is unyielding anyway.

Her breath comes from her in soft, even pants. She expected to be strapped down. Expected to find a bit in her mouth to keep her from biting through her own tongue. Maybe he wants to hear her beg this time?

But there’s no pain. Surely, she should be feeling pain. Through the fog, Nicole tries to focus. Tries to see past the bright lights and the spots in her vision that appear when she squinches them shut tightly. Her elbow is sore. Something appears to be pinched there at the crook of her arm. A tourniquet, no doubt. He had to staunch the flow of blood somehow.

But why doesn’t the wound hurt?

Experimentally, Nicole flexes her fingers. There’s a metallic clicking sound against the table as she does. She can’t stop herself from giving breath to the first syllable of her confusion. “Wh—”

Her eyes find Miller’s face finally, full of confusion. Full of anger. Her eyes are a dull, flat blue from the lack of charge she carries now. Her extremities feel cold without the power coursing through her.

Slowly she looks down the table, down her body. When she tries to lift her head, she finds he holds her firm. She lifts her damaged arm slowly.

No, not damaged.

Whole and porcelain white. Dark shadows crease the joints of her fingers as they curl inward.

Not shadows.

Embedded in her forearm, there’s a rectangle. Blue and glowing. A port.

Gradually, the pace of her breathing quickens as she takes every piece in. It’s the whir when she moves her fingers, moves her arm closer to her face to inspect it in the light, that gives it away for what it truly is.

Nicole doesn’t even realize she’s been shrieking until her throat is already raw.

"You don't get to choose when you leave."

The words are spoken sharp as acid into her ear upon the birth of a necessary inhale between cries. His hold on her releases. Zachery pulls away and straightens back up before starting to slowly round the table, folding his hands behind his back and continuing to speak regardless of any noise being made.

"You get to keep up appearances while parts of you disappear. Taken by force…" He lifts his face, leveling a look down midway his calculated stalk around, his gaze as cold and fixed as his presently perfect posture. "Surrendered, or rejected. The less you struggle, the more you have left by the end."

Then, the lecture suddenly over, he asks with ill-fitting cheer that does not find its way onto his face - "Don't you like it?"

Four Years Later

The donation is secured. Nicole is alone, retching her guts up into the toilet. Tears in her eyes burn as much as the bile in the back of her throat. She heaves and sputters, coughs, finds she has nothing left to give.

Crouched on the floor with her right arm slung around the porcelain bowl, she indulges in the breakdown she’s never allowed when she’s in her master’s presence. Hiccuping sobs echo off hard tile. There’s no one in this world who will help her. No way out. He’d just find some way to harvest her brain and turn her into a machine.

Gagging when she thinks of herself trapped in a cold metal husk like Colin Verse, she does what she always does when she finds herself overwhelmed.






The crying stops abruptly. Nicole lifts her head, imagining that her puppetmaster has just switched off her emotional affect. The sick is flushed away. If only the feeling were as easily discarded. By now, this is part of the routine at these sorts of events. When she reemerges, she’s all flawless make-up, fresh breath, and smiles.

“It’s done,” Nicole tells Zachery as she retakes his arm. “We should probably take a turn around the dance floor before we leave. It’s a wonderful way to show sincerity and commitment.”

A tension enters Zachery's jawline at the movement against his arm, and though he lets his attention float between the faces visible among the room before him, he remains otherwise motionless. He's running low on smiles and courtesy and pretend niceties, and what amount he has left will not be spent on the woman next to him.

At least not without any clear benefit.

When he moves again, it's sudden, with purpose, and with a damn near convincing look of excitement about this dance floor. Let's commit. The sooner he can leave. It does not match the scalding tone in which he tells Nicole, as he walks. "Next time, throw up quicker."

Ah. So it shall be her suffering and his delight in it again, shall it? Insanity is trying the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result, isn’t it? It’s not particularly good science, that.

Then again, Nicole was always a political scientist.

Out on the dance floor, with artificial arm draped across the back of his shoulders and the one that still conveys the warmth of her skin resting lightly against his face, she gives him a small smile. For all the world that might be looking on, she seems the vision of a smitten woman.

“Maybe next time I’ll get lucky and choke on it.”

If only.

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