From the depths of her bed of snarling coils and hissing pistons emerges a thought. _Well_, Fiora thinks, _not really a thought_. A recollection, perhaps.
Nothing more than a wisp of memory.
When she had been a human – a little girl, barely into her fifteenth year of age – life had been… fuller. The world had been bigger. She remembers a man with a sword wrapped in the sharp beauty of a storm. “Fiora,” he whispers as crimson lifeblood pours out of a hole in his chest, “Fiora, my daughter.” Then she’d been taken away by the men in the long, flowing cloths the colour of the blood that discoloured the bluesteel of her blade.
Had she loved him? Yes. His death brought more anguish, more pain, more death, than her frail, ruined shoulders could withstand. Did the world have to pay? Yes. Maybe it did. Maybe, if she could show them his worth in blood, they would understand. When would they comprehend the meaning of loving one that was lost?
Fiora had been dead for a long time.
Why, was true death not when one’s heart stopped beating, but when one’s heart stopped beating for another?
The bleeping heart monitor screams in distress. _Why?_ The sword is calling for its owner. _Why?_ Her fingers are replaced by long, graceful, shiny things that reflect the harsh, broken light. _Why am I still alive?_
A little girl, on the ground in front of her, crying crystal tears that fall to the ground like the dewdrops of the earliest dawn as the door hisses shut behind her, stemming the river of blood that she had harvested from the researchers’ bodies.
_Fiora, my dear, Father has a present for you – here, a new doll. Do you like it? What will you call her?_
The blade’s hilt is spattered with blood.
So are her hands.
_Fiora, my child, a respectable girl needs not meddle in the art of swordplay. Where are your dolls? Come along, now._
A hand, greasy with engine oil, suffocates her. Fiora’s sky-blue eyes shoot open – wrenching her from her nightmare – as her lungs shriek for air – for the air from her youth, back in the time in between.
Air, unpolluted by the bright, sour, coppery, bitter smell of blood.
The Scientist smiles sadistically at her. “Good morning, my _daughter_.”
_You are not my father._
She looks at him with all the hate in the world as her mouth opens in agony. No sound comes out.
_My father is dead._
Fiora cries – tears long overdue. Tears long gone.
_Why are you crying? Go play with your dollies like a good little girl._
The man in front of her is less of a human than she is – the irises of his eyes are the colour of stale milk, and his skin hangs from his crooked, warped frame like melted candle wax. He smiles again – baring haphazard, picketed teeth – and takes a long, thin drill from his pocket. Fiora looks away and bites her lip until it bleeds crimson tears as The Scientist rips into her arm – but she feels no pain; the only thing she can hear is the agonized screaming of metal against metal.
He can’t seem to stop muttering, over and over and over again, like a mantra, “It’s not good enough. Not good enough. Not good enough.”
Fiora can’t remember how long it’s been since – since what? Since she’d truly felt _alive?_
The Scientist grimaces at the glazed-over look that crosses her pale, impassive face and severs a cord in her arm with a pair of scissors.
Severed. Disconnected. Paused. A full stop in a never-ending sentence.
He can’t hear the heart rate monitor over his own paranoid mumbling.
_Fiora Laurent, will you claim House Laurent and take up the blade in your father’s name?_
_I am not Fiora Laurent any more._
She’s a product of a man’s twisted fantasy, built in a facility six feet below the ground. Long forgotten, discarded among the dreams and memories, collecting dust.
Now she knows she’s not human. An oil leak in her shoulder spatters foul-smelling liquid onto her neck. She ignores it as The Scientist wipes it off with an engine cloth.
_I wonder what the outside world smells like._
Something goes wrong, then.
The pain detectors, rusted and barely functional after centuries and centuries of neglect, rattle awake. The Scientist, engrossed in the dark landscapes of his own mind, doesn’t look up.
_I wonder what it’s like out there._
He drills into her arm. This time – unlike the countless times he’s violated her body – Fiora can feel it. A thin, jagged needle that worms into her flesh and blossoms into an explosion of pain. She screams – soundlessly.
_I wonder what it’s like to be alive._
Sparks litter the ground like tiny pieces of shattered fire-glass as The Scientist is abruptly ripped from his deranged muttering. He removes the drill from Fiora’s arm, but by then, it’s far too late.
One second too late in an overflowing river of time.
The lithium-ion batteries stored in the curve of her back send rivers of white electricity jumping across her cold skin.
_What am I?_
The Scientist moves closer, tail between his legs, shouting incoherent words and holding his hands up in a pathetic expression of surrender.
_What will I be?_
White-hot light glows from her palms as she tears herself free of the bonds that have held her for centuries – even millennia.
_How long has it been since I tasted fresh air?_
Her eyes are flooded with purple light as The Scientist falls away from her like a snowflake caught in a blizzard.
His head hits the ground with a sickening thunk.
Fiora breathes in the contaminated air and flexes her hands. Except they’re not of her flesh anymore – they’re a beautifully crafted blackish-silver metal that moves like liquid on her skin. Fiora shuts her eyes and waits, seating herself on her throne of snarling coils and hissing pistons. She’s not sure what she’s waiting for, but she waits anyway.
Her instincts are not wrong.
The double doors in front of her – plastered with the words _PROJECT: Fiora_ – are wrenched open by an elegant hand, clothed in orange-gold light. Fiora opens her eyes and takes in the harsh light of the outside world as steam – not blood – floods into the room.
The voice sounds like warmth and light and stolid strength.
It sounds like the sun.
The person in front of her holds out a sword – a slim, deadly, beautiful thing that trails violet light. Fiora slices it through the air and marvels at the way it moves; like a knife through water.
A familiar smile emerges from beneath the glowing mask. For a moment – just a moment – Fiora remembers something.
_A shield – a sword – a golden set of armour – long, auburn hair trailing down wide shoulders – golden skin – the fierce glare of a great, blinding circle in the sky._
It remains just long enough for her to remember how to want, and then it's gone – erased from the plane of her memory.
“Come. You have been away for a long time.”
Outside, in the hallway, there are more. More rooms. More people, from the time in between.
The doors open.