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Above the Clouds

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Sarah looked up and down the train platform, then arched her eyebrows in disbelief as she heard a familiar voice.

“....entire thought experiment.”

“One goes into an experiment knowing one could fail.” said another familiar but slightly deeper voice.

“But one does not undertake an experiment knowing one has failed.”

She slowly turned around.

“You two again?” she said in a confused voice. “You couldn’t have given me a lift here? The train was bloody crowded.” And hot , she thought, as she ran her hands through her hair and lifted it off her neck for a moment, scowling at the red-headed twins drinking tea at a small table. She’d been making her own way to the first set of coordinates listed, traveling by train and foot.

 

Rosalind raised an eyebrow, while Robert dabbed his mouth with a napkin.

“We are terribly sorry, Ms Manning, but we had other matters to attend to -”

“- that simply could not wait. But you are here - ”

“ - and here you are!”

The Luteces glanced at each other, both raising their teacups for another sip.

Sarah stared at them, her lips pulled tight. Then she rolled her eyes and swaggered past their table.

 

“Should we…?” said Robert hesitantly, leaning sideways a little to watch Sarah.

“Follow?” queried Rosalind. “Mmm, we’ll see her again soon enough.”

“We always do.’ he agreed. “More tea?”

“Please. We have time, after all.” Their eyes met above matching amused smiles.

 

Sarah was sweating in her coat after ten minutes. She took it off and slung it over her satchel, rolling the sleeves of her shirt up. After absentmindedly scratching the bandage wrapped around her right hand, she pulled the now-creased and grubby envelope out of the coat’s inside pocket and looked at the diagrams and coordinates again. She cross-referenced with the map she’d pulled from another pocket and groaned. Still a ways to go yet, but she should be there by sunset if she kept the pace up.

damn bloody ginger-headed weirdos, why don’t they just go fetch the girl, they probably drove here, if only I could afford a bloody car…

Even she realised she was being somewhat short-tempered with the Luteces , but there was just something about them...something that made her head hurt if she tried to think about it too much. She wiped the sweat off her face and trudged along, finally spotting the small dock up ahead, the low light of the sun glinting off the ocean.

 

The air was quiet but for the gulls squawking and the waves slapping against the pylons. Sarah looked up and down the small stretch of beach, but didn’t spot a boat of any kind.

bollocks she muttered through clenched teeth. The next point was definitely out to sea, how the hell...her head jerked around as she heard the sound of rowing. There was a small dinghy approaching, two passengers clad in the bright-yellow raincoats common among fishermen. For an odd moment she felt like she was looking at a dream she’d had once, then shook herself. Her eyes narrowed suspiciously as the boat pulled closer. When it drew up dockside and the two faces looked up at hers, she dropped her head and squeezed the flesh between her eyebrows as her skull thumped.

“You again,” she sighed in resignation.

 

“Would you prefer to swim to your destination, Miss Manning?” sniffed Rosalind Lutece, fingernails tapping on a large cigar box sitting on her lap. Robert gave his sister a hint of a frown, then carefully stood to offer an arm to Sarah. She merely huffed at him, tossed her coat and satchel into the stern, then half-stepped, half-leapt, down, balancing herself on the edge of the dock. Robert nodded, and sat back down. Rosalind smiled.

 

Sarah settled herself on the rear seat. She looked up at the sky - the sun was still just over the horizon but a front of inky-black clouds were pouring into the sky. A match flared and Robert lit the lantern hanging above the bow before grasping the oars and setting the boat on it’s way.

 

“Will we make it before the storm hits?” she asked as she pulled her coat back on, taking a short swig out of the hip flask she’d almost forgotten about, and adding sourly  “Doesn’t look like there’s an extra raincoat for me.”

“Not to worry, Ms Manning.” Rosalind assured her, “Robert is an excellent rower.”

“Practice does make perfect,” Robert agreed. “Although I would greatly appreciate it if you would assist.”

“Perhaps you should ask her. I imagine she has a greater interest in getting there than I do.”

“Hmm, I suppose she does...but there’s no point in asking.”

“Why not?”

“Because she doesn’t row.”

Rosalind’s head tilted quizzically. “She doesn’t row ?”

Robert shook his head. “No, she doesn’t row.”

“Ahh. I see what you mean.” She passed the box she was holding behind her, without looking around, and Sarah took it in her hands, staring at the lid.

 

There was silence for a moment and Sarah’s hands traced the label on the box - Le Marquis D'Epoque, it read, with a logo of a man’s head. He wore glasses and smoked a pipe and had a slightly odd looking suit on. Like the Luteces themselves, it seemed somehow strangely familiar and completely alien. She had the strangest feeling that the two of them were holding their breath, as if waiting for her to...what?

Then she shook her hair back and lifted the lid.

There was a large ornate key, and a handful of silver dollars underneath some paper. She lifted up a postcard, illustrated with a statue of an angel towering over a small group of people. The angel’s wings were outstretched, her arms reaching out as if in welcome, and her hair sculpted in flowing curls around her head. Sarah looked at the angel. At the title, ‘Monument Island’. She turned the card over and over in her fingers, then looked back at the angel. Pain flashed through her head and she dropped the postcard back in the box.

There was a photograph of a girl. Not a good photograph - it seemed that she’d been turning away from the camera and so it only revealed part of a cheek, a hint of a profile. Mostly the frame contained a mass of curly blonde hair, some contained in a faded red ribbon. Sarah’s heart gave a loud thump as she ran her thumb over the girl’s image. She didn’t know why - she’d been sent after plenty of runaway girls in her job. Found them all too. (That didn’t mean she’d returned all of them to their families. Some of those girls ran away for a damn good reason - Sarah had always had a few spare dollars and a trustworthy friends address out-of-state for those girls.)

Still staring at the photograph, Sarah realised there was a second person, hidden behind the mass of hair, as if the girl had turned her head towards them. She could just make out a section of smooth, pale hair and an eye staring directly at the camera. She held the photo closer and squinted.

There was something peculiar about the eye, something almost...mechanical? Was the second figure a statue, or…? Shrugging, she turned the photograph over and read the flowing script - B ring to N ew Y ork u nharmed . Damn right I will , she thought to herself, feeling a sudden surge of fierce protectiveness. She placed the photo on top of the postcard and rubbed her forehead, foot tapping against the wood of the hull.

 

“We’ve arrived,” announced Rosalind. The boat slowed, then jerked to a halt, just as fat drops of rain started to fall. Sarah looked up at the sky - the clouds had completely covered it now, a mass of black and grey roiling overhead. Then at the lighthouse beside them.

She rubbed her hands over her eyes. The headache had faded, only to be replaced by the strange feeling of déjå vu. Which didn’t make any sense. She’d never been to a lighthouse before. She’d never travelled this far north before. The only time she’d even been on a boat before was the ship across from England and she’d spent most of that being sick in the tiny cabin.

Images flashed against her eyelids as she pressed her fingertips against them. Someone running along a odd, green-lit corridor in front of her, blonde hair flying. A giant silver eye peering in a window. Hands grabbing her own and holding on so tightly the bones creaked. Water, water, everywhere. Her eyes snapped open and she jerked upright without thinking. The boat tipped and slapped back down on the growing waves, nearly knocking her off her feet. She dropped back onto the seat, her hands wrapping around the edge, then stood up again, slowly this time. Grabbing her satchel, she slung it across her body and climbed up the short ladder attached to the dock, feeling the sudden and urgent need to be back on land.

She could hear the Luteces whispering behind her.

 

“Shall we tell her when we’ll be returning?”

“Would that change anything?”

Rosalind hummed. “It might give her some comfort.”

“At least that’s something we can agree on.” Robert’s voice was mildly acerbic.

 

Sarah pulled herself up onto the wooden palings of the dock, stamped her feet as the wind shifted direction and grew cold, and looked around. By the time her gaze fell back on the boat, it was already moving away.

 

what the

“Oi! Is someone meeting me here?” she yelled at the two yellow blobs.

 

“I’d certainly hope so,” called Robert.

Rosalind’s voice drifted over the waves. “It does seem like a dreadful place to be stranded!”

And then the boat was gone, swallowed up by the darkness. The lantern above the bow glowed like a small golden star, then it too was gone. Sarah stared out to sea. For a moment the wind shifted again and she was sure she heard a chorus of ‘Row, row, row your boat’ borne across the water. Then the rain started pouring down in earnest, and she hurried towards the lighthouse.

 

It rose up before her, shining white in the rain, the huge light at the top flashing its warning. She lifted her hand and banged on the door with the heel of her hand, shouting “Hello? Anyone here?” The door shifted inwards under her hand, and she nudged it open further with a boot. There was dim light coming from a few lanterns, and the faint sound of music

♯ makes me love everybody ♯

coming from higher up.

Sarah called out again. “Hello?” She sidled through the doorway, touching the gun in her holster for reassurance.

A wide staircase spiraled upwards on her right. Directly ahead was a large basin of water on a table. Above it hung a framed piece of embroidery that stated in baby-blue cross-stitch -

   OF THY SINS I WILL WASH THEE

Sarah raised an eyebrow and muttered bloody hell. She’d never been one for religion, just tried to do right by people...if they did right by her. She didn’t have time for all the hellfire and damnation shite, not in her line of work, and certainly not in her personal life either. Drinking, fighting, gambling, women, men...those church folk would tie her to a stake and light her up before you could say ‘amen’. She flicked a finger at the water’s surface and smirked as her reflection rippled.

There was another framed homily at the base of the stairs which read

    FROM SODOM SHALL I LEAD YOU.

She rolled her eyes and started up the stairs, frowning at a few cups and plates scattered about, stopping still at the sight of a bloody handprint on the wall. Her eyes darted upwards but saw no movement, and there was still no sound but the tinny music.

Placing her feet carefully, she continued upwards after drawing her gun.

it was tried in the fiery furnace ♯  

The first level was empty of people, but there was clear signs of a struggle - an overturned chair, more food cans and broken crockery all over the floor, another smear of blood near the next flight of stairs. There was a wood-stove used for cooking and various sacks and boxes were piled up against the curved walls. Sarah skirted around the walls, keeping one ear cocked for any sounds, drawn to a noticeboard above a desk.

There was a map of the United States, with pins stuck into various cities, and red string looped around around. She took a step back and looked at it again. The red string formed a shape like a bird, or...a bird. Sarah felt uncomfortably like the shape was something else altogether but she stopped thinking about when her temples gave a warning pang, and turned her attention to the timetable pinned on the wall next to the map. Arrivals, departures, Columbia...Columbia? Where was that, Canada? She shook her head in confusion, and quietly headed up the next set of stairs, barely noticing the next piece of embroidery that claimed

     TO THINE OWN LAND SHALL I TAKE THEE

Peering over the top, she could see a couple of old bedframes with bare mattresses. Music crackled out of the radio

♯ it will do when I am dying ♯

on the small table and she tiptoed over to it and slowly turned the dial until it clicked off. Silence fell. She turned, and flinched as she saw the body.

 

The blood that had pooled underneath the chair was still tacky, but the body was cold. There was a single bullet hole in the sack that covered the head. Sarah thought about the blood on the walls, the scattered utensils....there had been a struggle, then a murder.

Or an assassination she muttered to herself. This job might turn out to be more dangerous than she’d expected. She stood and stared at the body and listened keenly.

When she had heard nothing but silence for long enough, she holstered her gun, shrugged and gathered up the silver dollars lying on the floor around the dead man’s boots.

There was another set of stairs. The framed embroidery here read -

   IN NEW EDEN SOIL SHALL I PLANT THEE.

Sarah paused for a moment, thinking. The stink of religion around this place...had the girl been stolen away by some sort of cult? Run away to follow one of those charismatic preachers that usually turn out to be less-than-holy? Had someone been supposed to meet Sarah here? Was the body that of the lighthouse-keeper? Or someone else who had tried to find the girl? How were the Luteces wrapped up in all of this? Why didn’t they just go and bring the girl home themselves - they seemed to know everything…

She rubbed her forehead again. The faint pressure she could feel around her skull was doing her cognition no favours. The hip-flask pressed against her thigh and she chewed on her lip, then reached down to grab it. This was the soberest she’d been for...a while. She wasn’t enjoying it.

 

Wiping her mouth, she slid the flask back into her pocket, then climbed the stairs. They were metal now, leading up to the top of the lighthouse. The squawks grew louder and she could hear the subtle roar of the ocean again, then she could see it. The waves crested and fell, dark silver tipped with white. The clouds were still blotting the sky, but the rising moonlight filtered through. For a moment, Sarah just stood with her hands curled around the rail, watching the waves rise and fall, rise and fall. She felt an intense longing for something she couldn’t put words to, as if the answer to all her problems was right there, beyond the sea, if she just knew how to…

She shook herself and kicked a boot against the rail and walked around the small round balcony until she found a door. It was locked up tight and Sarah was taken aback by the three small brass bells that hung from it. Each had an engraving - a flame, a key, an eye. She frowned, then pulled out the box with the photographs, and now all the other paperwork associated with this case. She rifled through until she pulled out the odd diagram, which she now realised was of these very bells, each with a number scrawled next to it.

“All right then,” she muttered, and rang each bell in accordance with the numbers written. She jumped and swore loudly as a ear-splitting siren sounded from above, like a foghorn in the clouds - the clouds that glowed a deep and fiery red in time with the blasts.

There were answering horns from the lighthouse, one two three. The clouds lit up again, one last long siren blasted out, and then the door in front of her opened, the huge light closed up like a flower and lifted away, to be replaced by a chair rising from a trapdoor in the floor. It looked very much like a barber's chair, red leather, black metal.

Sarah raised her eyebrows. This shite just keeps gettin’ weirder she thought, as she walked around the chair and eyed it carefully.

“Well,” she mumbled, “I guess they want me to sit in their fancy chair…” She suddenly felt exhausted. Ever since that morning the Luteces had shown up at her door, she had been running on nerves and vapors and the occasional swig of bourbon. There was something about this case...something important and it was driving her to distraction because she didn’t know why .

 

She sat in the chair, gripping the arms and kicking her heels back against the legs. Then manacles clamped over her wrists and she jolted upright, pulling her arms to no avail.

‘What the hell!” she shouted, wriggling in the chair desperately, while a mechanical-sounding voice gave instructions that she paid no heed to. Fire roared beneath her feet, metal segments encased the chair, turning it into a kind of capsule with a window at face height, the top of the lighthouse opened up, the voice recited ascension...ascension in the count of five...

count of four…

three…

“No! Bloody shite! Let me…”

two…

“...out!”

...one. Ascension. Ascension.

and before Sarah knew it, the chair shot upwards into the sky.

The same calm voice read out what sounded like measurements as wisps of clouds passed by and the roaring sound beneath her feet grew louder and then evened out.

 

Five thousand

 

Ten thousand

 

Fifteen thousand.

 

HALLELUJAH

 

As the rocket, chair, whatever the hell this was, passed through the thick layer of clouds and slowly glided through the air, Sarah’s disbelieving gaze fell on buildings, streets, a gigantic statue of an angel, an entire city….all floating in the air. Just...floating. She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment then opened them again to the exact same sight. Clouds drifted past a massive bridge between two floating islands and a kind of blimp flew past below, small wings at the side with propellers.

Sarah felt slightly dizzy, trying not to look down but finding her eyes dragged to that expanse of nothingness under the clouds. She leaned forward slightly, narrowing her eyes, trying to see anything that might resemble actual land….or sea, considering where she had ascended from . But there was just air, dotted with a dozen drifting islands covered with buildings, all gently hovering.

Birds flew past, seemingly unbothered by all this floating scenery.

The rocket started to glide downwards. She passed buildings close enough to see in the windows - perfectly ordinary rooms in perfectly ordinary houses that were suspended twenty thousand feet in the sky. Her eyes took in a massive poster attached to the side of one of the houses. Sister Rachel, it proclaimed, Our Prophet . A coldly attractive woman with smooth blonde hair stared at her, a golden halo painted around her head. The eyes...no, just the left eye. It was coloured silver, while the right was an amber shade. She felt as if the silver eye was not only staring at her, but seeing and watching her.

Sarah gazed at the face, the somehow familiar face, her gut twisting, until a bolt of pain flashed through her head and her eyes squeezed shut. When she opened them again, the poster had passed.

Sarah’s hands gripped the end of the chair arms and her leg started twitching. That strange feeling of déjå vu that had come over her at the lighthouse still hovered and her nerves were twanging. Who knew what would be waiting for her when she...she looked down at the manacles on her wrists.

“Bloody shite,” she muttered, “I’m a sitting duck.”

The capsule dropped gently onto a platform, then descended into a vertical tunnel of some kind, flashing between light and dark, more vaguely biblical sounding phrases flashing past her eyes at each level, then landed with barely a bump and locked into place. The steel withdrew from her wrist and she breathed out in relief, massaging her wrists. She could hear singing - not the tinny sound of a radio or the crackling of a gramophone, but the sound of heartfelt voices raised in songs of praise. For one bewildered moment she thought angels... then shook her head at herself.

There was the sound of metal sliding and clunking, and she tensed up as a panel in front of her lowered down, becoming a ramp, leading into a candle-filled, airy space. The stained glass windows and angel statues dotted around made it obvious this was a church of some kind. Her girl-napping-religious-cult theory was starting to seem more and more likely. As she warily looked out of the capsule, she could see there was no one waiting for her, no guards or anything of that nature.

She took out the postcard again, ignoring the flash of pain looking at the angel gave her. Monument Island. Obviously that was the bloody floating island with the giant angel on it. She could only assume that’s where the girl was being held. Nodding sharply, she stuffed the card back into the satchel and resolved to keep a low profile, find the girl, and get the hell out.

 

Sarah stood at the top of the ramp, listening to the singing, then filtered it out, and listened to all the other sounds - distant voices talking, water sloshing about, a popping noise that took her a moment to place as far-off fireworks. She straightened her coat, dragged fingers through the tangled mane of hair, checked the satchel, patted her gun, and walked down the ramp into Columbia.