Chapter 1: The City in the Air
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.”
“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…
“No! Bloody shite! Let me…”
...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.
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.
Chapter 2: Columbia
Sarah explores Columbia and finds the floating city of wonders is not all that it seems.
Sarah reached the bottom of the ramp and stopped as she realised that water covered the floor. And not in a ‘someone knocked over a bucket’ way, but laid out inches thick, like a carpet. She shrugged and stepped forward. The boots she was wearing were sturdy and still in one piece, thankfully. The sloshing sound reminded her of something...Sarah sighed. Everything reminded her of something, but she couldn’t remember what! It was infuriating and confusing, and she kicked a foot in frustration, sending an arc of water through the air, the ripples spreading outwards.
She waded through the church. It was was rather beautiful, in its way, the candles lined up on various altars flickering, their light reflected in the water, the high vaulted ceilings and colourful stained glass windows, and the angelic singing that was floating up from below. A picture caught her eye, and she paused, running a hand through her hair as she looked up at the massive portrait. Sister Rachel again, huh? The woman with short blonde hair and a silver eye stared down at Sarah. She was quite striking - dressed all in white and with one hand clasping a silver-tipped cane, the other turned palm upwards and balancing what looked like a ball of flame. Sarah supposed it symbolised...something. The woman’s chin was held high and her expression was clearly intended to be beatific, but instead suggested she was thinking of the punchline to a very cruel joke.
There was an altar dripping with candles underneath the painting, so many candles that new ones were just set on top of the old, resulting in a mass of wax with wicks burning at intervals. Sarah swallowed the impulse to blow them all out, and, taking one last look at Sister Rachel, set off through the water again. She felt something tickle her upper lip, and rubbed her knuckles against it. They came away bloody.
She saw a white-robed figure at the side of an archway, and approached cautiously. The man had a benevolent expression and smiled as she drew near.
“Greetings -” he paused for a moment and ran his eyes over her clothing, “ - sister?”
Sarah nodded in return, glancing past him to the stairwell, water trickling down the wide stone steps.
“So, “ she said, turning her attention to his face, and giving him a grin, “What is this place?” She raised her eyebrows, hoping she came across as a slightly clueless tourist.
The man beamed.
“Why, this is Heaven, friend! Or at least as close as we’ll see ‘til Judgement Day.”
Sarah barely managed to keep her eyes from rolling.
“Wonderful!” she said brightly. “And this leads to the city?” She pointed down the stairwell.
The man nodded and bowed his head. Sarah watched him for a moment but no more information seemed to be forthcoming, so she muttered much obliged and began descending the stairs. Better not ask too many questions, else I’ll get made before I can get to the girl, she thought just keep yer head down Manning . The singing grew louder as she moved further down, boots splashing in the trickling water. She barely noticed the windows and the stained-glass patterns that depicted, in turn, a key, a flame, and an eye. As she reached the bottom of the stairs, she whistled soundlessly at the sight of the huge hall, the domed ceilings, the masses of candles outlining passages of water, and the large stone angels leaning out from the wall to form a central archway.
Sarah was impressed by the sheer scale of the place, even though the overt religiosity just kept getting creepier. Her hands reached for the flask almost unconsciously. With the bourbon burning her throat, she strode forward through the water, seeing a small crowd of white-robed figures ahead. A voice reached her, the acoustics of the building enabling her to hear every word.
“And every year on this day of days, we recommit ourselves to the our city, to our Prophet, Sister Rachel. We recommit through sacrifice, and the giving of thanks, and by submerging ourselves in the sweet water of baptism.
And we remember the founder of our beloved city, Father Comstock, called to God before his time, after working tirelessly to build this new ark to save us all. We pray for his soul, and find solace in the knowledge that he found a soul as pure as his before being taken, that our sweet Sister Rachel brought him peace and light in his final hours.
And we pray for Sister Rachel, and for the Lamb, for she shall be the savior of us all. The Lamb will guide us through the darkness, and lay waste to our enemies in the Sodom below! The Lamb is an Angel, sent to us in pure white light, and we will protect her against the False Shepherd. We shall know him by his mark, and we shall strike him down before he defiles our Lamb. Amen!”
Amen murmured the voices of the crowd.
Sarah scratched at her bandaged hand, and cleared her throat, and heads turned towards her. The speaker gave her a sharp look, then smiled.
“Is it someone new?” he asked, “Someone from the Sodom below?”
“Uh. Is this the way into the city? Columbia?” She plastered a smile on her face.
He chuckled. “Sister, the only way to Columbia is through rebirth in the sweet waters of baptism. Will you be cleansed, sister?”
Her smile wavered.
“I’m just looking for passage.” she stated. No bloody way some religious weirdo was holding her down in a giant bathtub and drowning her. The small crowd around her moved closer and there were cries of ‘hallelujah’ and ‘reach out, sister!’ Sarah’s legs wanted to run, but there was nowhere to run to. Shite, she thought, better get it over with. The man took both her hands, leading her forward a few steps where the water was deeper. Then he placed his hands on her shoulders and lifted his voice.
“I baptize you, in the name of our Prophet, in the name of our Founder, in the name of our Lord! And make her born again, in the bosom of Columbia!”
“...wait…” the words became bubbles and the sound of the man's voice became both louder and further away. She struggled instinctively but the hands that held her down were strong and unyielding. After what seemed an eternity her head broke the surface, and she breathed in raggedly.
She made a move as if to rise but the hands still gripped tightly. His bright blue eyes looked down into hers as if studying her soul. He smiled grimly.
“This sinner doesn’t look clean to me, brothers and sisters” he pronounced, and pushed her down under the water again. It roiled around her and Sarah squeezed her eyes shut and tried desperately not to take a breath. That image of the odd green corridor flashed across her eyelids again. The laughter...the blonde hair that she could almost touch with her fingertips...a girl's voice whispering sestra. The sudden flash of pain in her head forced her eyes open and she saw a wash of red drift past. As she stared upwards through the water, her sight wavered and she saw the blonde woman from the posters and paintings, Sister Rachel, looking down at her, and felt fingers snake around her neck. In her panic, Sarah thrashed and kicked but there was only water, water as heavy as lead holding her down. Her vision went black.
✶ ✶ ✶
Sarah opened her eyes to find herself back in her office, someone shouting outside the door and punctuating it with a fist.
bang-bang-bang Bring us the girl !
And wipe away the debt! bang-bang-bang
Her feet moved towards the door against her better judgement and she swung it open, then staggered backwards as something exploded. Gripping the doorway, she gazed in horror at the hellish landscape in front of her - a city, aflame, the whistling of bombs dropping, the sound of gunfire. Two figures were outlined against the darkness and fire - one, a woman in white with short blonde hair, half turned and smiled at Sarah, her eyes glowing red. Or rather, reflecting the flames in their silvery mirror-like surface. The other was slumped on the ground, long blonde curls hiding her face as she sobbed, shoulders shaking the huge white-feathered wings that rose from her back. Sarah stepped towards her instinctively, hands reaching out to comfort, then Sister Rachel, for it was her again, raised a hand in warning - a hand that contained a sizzling ball of flame. With a flick of her wrist, the fire shot towards Sarah’s face, and she screamed as the flames filled her vision, then she fell backwards with a splash, sinking beneath the water until everything went black again.
✶ ✶ ✶
When Sarah next opened her eyes, she was lying in the sun on a patch of green lawn, surrounded by garden beds and trickling fountains. She turned her head slightly, and watched a hummingbird dart among the leaves, iridescent feathers glinting. It startled and flew away as she sat up, rubbing her forehead. Bloody priest needs to learn the difference between baptizing and drowning, she muttered to herself. How long have I been lying here anyway. Her clothes and hair were mostly dry. She stood up, stretched, checked her satchel, touched her gun, then headed through the garden. Apart from the creepy people in robes, kneeling in odd places and praying under their breath, the gardens were beautiful - dense green shrubs and flowers filled the beds, there were birds and bees fluttering and buzzing, the sun was warm and the air pure. Sarah couldn’t quite believe they were floating in the sky...she paused and stamped her boot down, hard, a few times. It seemed solid enough. Ahead of her lay another doorway. She hesitated, her hand on the doorknob, almost afraid to turn it. She swallowed, and pushed the door open.
Sarah blinked. Behind her lay the peace and quiet of the gardens, before her lay the bustling city centre of Columbia. Her brow creased. Did Columbia even have a centre, spread out as it was over the many floating islands? She shrugged and watched as the section she stood on sank down to meet the next - ingenious metal plates flipped over and down to lock the two islands together, and she quickly skipped across, finding herself on a bridge of sorts. People stood in pairs, or small groups and there was a celebratory air, as if the entire city was on holiday. A sparkle against the blue sky caught her eyes, and she realised that it was the fireworks she heard when she first landed. She walked by a hot dog cart, and was hailed with a friendly greeting by the vendor. Sarah nodded and smiled in return, and wandered over to the side of the bridge. Looking down, she placed her palms on the comfortingly solid stone parapet.
The sheer drop of air below was going to take some getting used to. Other small islands bobbed up and down nearby - some had only one or two buildings on them, others contained entire blocks and cobble-stoned streets. Sarah craned her head upwards. Some sort of metal rails, curving in the air, sat high above her. A series of crates rattled past, flying along the tracks like an upside train. She looked down again. There were things that looked like giant metal barrels with huge blue flames burning in them at the bottom of all the floating islands, pointed at various angles. Whatever the creepy cult that ran this place was, they were geniuses, or at least, had hired geniuses.
She continued to gaze around, but tuned her ears to the conversations around her.
Oh lord, yes, it’s so irritating when the buildings don’t dock on time. Yesterday I had to catch a gondola, rubbing elbows with all sorts….Has it really been an entire year since the Lord sent us our dear Prophet and sweet Lamb? Why, I simply can’t believe it!...What fine weather we have today - it’s so clear you can see the World Below….come along now, dear, we’ll miss the raffle!
A year? She’d been in New York for a year...while this place had been happening. Sarah turned around and leaned back, elbows on the warm stone. How had she never heard of this place? You’d think a floating city would be the marvel of the world! Two young ladies strolled past, arm in arm, parasols held aloft. They stared at Sarah, whispering behind their hands and giggling. She gave them a shallow bow, then a wink. One blushed, and giggled again, while the other’e eyes grew wide in shock and she grabbed her friend's arm, pulling her away. Sarah grinned, and wandered after them, figuring she’d had enough time to acclimatize, and she should get on with the job. There seemed to be a general drift in this direction. Everyone was heading to this raffle, it seemed.
She found herself on a street leading upwards, lined with stores. Most of them were closed, with metal bars across the doors and the windows shuttered. A group of citizens stood around a carriage, exclaiming over the horse. As she passed by, she realised the horse was actually made out of metal - a copy of a horse that made neighing sounds and stamped it’s great metal hoof on the cobblestones. She tore her gaze away with some difficulty and kept walking..
A brick wall that was covered with a massive poster caught Sarah’s eye and she paused. It depicted a black cowled figure reaching out a bony, clawed hand to a cowering lamb with a red ribbon around it’s neck - a hand that had black letters etched into the back.
Sarah’s right hand clenched into a fist, then she cradled it in her other hand, scratching at the bandage. Glancing around nervously, she unwound the fabric and stared at her hand. At the letters on her hand.
The script at the top and bottom of the poster proclaimed ‘The False Shepherd Seeks Only to Lead Our Lamb Astray!’
She ran her fingers across the raised scar of the initials, and tried to remember how they got there. She must have done it herself...presumably after a lot of bourbon. But why? What did they mean ? And how was it connected to this place? The now-familiar stab of pain visited her temples and she hurriedly wrapped the scar back up before anyone saw it. Sarah got the feeling the ‘false shepherd’ would be tossed out of town right quick, and in Columbia, that meant you definitely wouldn’t be coming back.
Sarah walked on, slower now as she thought about the case. The girl - the lamb - had been here for at least a year. Why only send someone after her now? And why Sarah? Did she have some unknown connection to this girl? Could the initials on her hand merely be some kind of coincidence? Those weird visions she had during the baptism - what did they mean? She sighed and raked her fingers through her hair, then touched her gun lightly.
Best to get to the girl as quickly as possible. Maybe she would have some answers.
Around the corner was another bridge, and more people. Sarah took in more than her quick glances would suggest, and she could see the citizens of Columbia were monied folk who were well-dressed and well-fed. There were no beggars or ragamuffins littering the streets, everything was clean and shiny and -. Sarah frowned. There was definitely something a little off about the scene before her. It was all a little too perfect and nice . Quite the little Utopian society they’ve got going up here, she thought, which means someone else is doing all the dirty work ...She was suddenly homesick for her office back in Chinatown. C’mon Manning, get the job done and get out, same as always. Get paid and go home. She saw some men in uniform - not military but police. So, they do get some trouble up here , she thought, not without a little satisfaction. One was holding a strange metal contraption aloft on one hand - a sort of triple hook that spun around. An odd type of weapon?
Then she looked further ahead and saw the giant angel gently bobbing in the air, and Sarah grinned. Hopefully she could find her way there while everyone was distracted with this raffle, get the girl out, and...wait, how did you leave Columbia? Well, she’d sort that out when she needed to. She made her way through the gathering crowds and found herself at a dead end. It seemed the only way to get to the statue was through the park where the raffle was being held. She followed the edge, trying to ignore the vast space beside the small fence, and stepped around a set of small binocular viewers. She paused, stepped back, and put her eyes up to one, moving it around until she had a good view of the giant statue. It was floating on a island all of its own.
The viewer moved down and now she was looking at a street just over on the next island, empty but for two figures. One was juggling. The other had their arms crossed and was patently ignoring the first. Sarah saw sunlight glint off red hair and drew back sharply, looking over the viewer and only seeing an empty street. She put her eyes back to the binoculars and again, saw an empty street. She scratched at her head. What the ...She jumped as a voice behind her called her name.
“Miss Manning! Telegram!” The young boy waved the piece of paper at her excitedly, then saluted and took off at a run when she grabbed it from his hand. How did he know my… She smoothed the paper out and read the message.
Manning STOP Do not alert Sister Rachel to your presence STOP Whatever you do, do not pick #77 STOP Lutece
Sarah crumpled the telegram into a ball, and turned around in a circle, glaring. The Luteces! Again! How could they be here , and at the train station and in the boat? She snorted at herself. She was currently walking around a floating city. It seems anything was possible!
She followed the brightly coloured signs into a small square with booths set up around the perimeter. There were some shooting games, and other stalls that were selling booze. Or it looked like booze at least, in some pretty fancy bottles. Another had some odd little machines called voxophones which allowed you to record your own voice and then play it back, like some kind of portable gramophone.
The bottles had turned out to contain what they called ‘vigors’, a drinkable substance that enabled you to do all sorts of magic tricks - control machines, shoot fire or electricity from your hands, make people fly up into the air. Sarah had shook her head in disbelief, muttering bloody ridiculous, but had been silenced and astonished by a demonstration. For a place so bent towards religious worship, they certainly liked their earthly distractions. She spotted the gate that led to the park and sidled through the crowd, only to be barred by a - what the hell ?
It seemed to be some kind of automaton atop a box - a torso with arms that waved around, and a mouth that opened and closed under a curled moustache, a slightly tinny voice booming out of a small grill in the throat.
“Sorry, pal, the raffle is all sold out. Entrance is reserved for dignitaries and very important personages alone!”
“But,” Sarah felt ridiculous talking to the tin man, “I only want to pass through the park. Just...let me through?”
The tim man waved his arms again.
“Sorry, pal, the raffle is all sold out. Entrance is reserved for dignitaries and very important personages alone!”
Sarah stared at the metal face and blank eyes, then through the bars of the gate. She could just see the angel in the distance. She kicked the bottom of the automaton and stalked off, circling the booths until she came back to the vigors. A young woman carrying a basket of green bottles stepped in front of her, smiling flirtatiously.
“Dear friend, “ she cooed, “Have you ever lost a penny to a vending machine? Ever had a pay telephone refuse to connect you to a -” her eyes swept up and down Sarah, and her smile grew wider, “ - loved one? Well, now you can wrest back control and bend any machine to your will!” She plucked a bottle from her basket and held it out to Sarah. “The first time is free,” she mock-whispered, and winked. Sarah smiled back, brushing the woman’s fingers with her own as she took the bottle.
“Much obliged, ma’am,’ she said, biting her lip as she stared at the bottle, then shrugged, twisted the lid off and tipped the liquid down her throat.
“With just a whisper, they’re all yours…” she heard, and the world took on a fuzzy quality as the woman in front of her blew a kiss and disappeared into a bright green light, leaving behind the sound of whispering. Sarah felt dizzy, blinked, and then everything was as it had been. Her hands continued to glow green for a moment, and then they too returned to normal. She turned her hands over and wriggled her fingers.
“Huh,” she muttered, and looked over at the tin man blocking the gate. “May as well give it a shot…” Her hands glowed green again and she aimed them at the automaton, emitting a faint greenish ghost which appeared to enter the machine and leave it imbued with a green aura.
The arms waved enthusiastically.
“Well, if it isn't Assemblyman Buford! Your spot at the raffle awaits! Don't know why I didn't recognize you before. Odd! Always good to have gentlemen of your caliber at our fine fairgrounds!” The gate clicked and swung open. Sarah smirked. Machine possession? Likely to come in handy again. She swaggered through the gate, then stopped short with a groan.
“You two again ?” She hissed. “Are you following me?”
Rosalind Lutece held out a tray with a coin on it. Robert Lutece stood beside her, a sandwich board over his shoulders. They both looked at her with identical smiles.
“Heads?” queried Rosalind.
“Or tails?” asked Robert.
Sarah’s stare moved from one to the other.
“Are you serious ?” she said loudly. “Just...let me get on with it, yeah?”
Sarah kept staring, then threw her hands up and took the coin from the tray. She flipped it in the air, closed her eyes, and said “Tails.” The coin landed on the tray with a plink.
“Hmm.” Rosalind sounded noncommittal, then chalked a mark onto Roberts board under ‘Heads’. The ‘Tails’ side was blank. He gave a sigh.
“I never find that as satisfying as I’d imagined.” he said wistfully.
“Chin up!” Rosalind comforted him with a touch under his chin. “There’s always next time.”
“I suppose there is.” They wandered off to the side, and Sarah noticed the back of the sandwich board was also covered in tally lines under ‘heads’. She supposed they just asked everyone through the gate to flip a coin. Oddballs. She headed towards the crowd, passing by a group of children playing hopscotch. The rhyme wasn’t one she recognised - something about a songbird dropping kids from the sky? There was another poster warning of the False Shepherd, (You Shall Know the False Shepherd by His Mark!), which Sarah hurried past while her fingers smoothed the bandage around her hand.
When she made it to the park proper, she pushed her way through the crowd, murmuring ‘scuse me and employing her elbows when that didn’t work, then she was suddenly confronted by another young lady with a basket. This one was full of baseballs with numbers scrawled on them. A man stood up on the small stage set up on the grass and shouted,
“Welcome to the 1912 Columbia Raffle and Fair, ladies and gentlemen!” He took off his hat and bowed elaborately. “Jeremiah Fink at your service!”
The girl held the basket up to Sarah and asked,
“Wouldn’t you like a ball, ma’am?”
“Uh…’ Sarah made a show of patting her pockets. “Afraid I left my purse at home.” The girl laughed.
“Silly, there's never a charge for the raffle. You been sleeping under a rock?”
Dammit. She stuck her hand in the basket and pulled out a ball.
#77. Dammit. Wait, what does the winner get? Everyone seems excited enough…
On the stage, Fink waved his hat in the air.
“Bring me the bowl!” he shouted jovially, then smoothed his moustache as another young lady walked out onto the stage with a large bowl filled with numbered cards. “Is that not the prettiest young white girl in all of Columbia? Haha!” he plunged his hand into the bowl and pulled out a ball.
Sarah’s forehead creased and she glanced around uneasily. People were laughing and clapping.
“And the winner is -” Fink paused for effect, “Number seventy-seven! Number seventy-seven, come and claim your prize!”
The girl beside Sarah gasped and called out,
“She’s the winner! Over here!” she waved at Fink and pointed to Sarah.
“Come and claim your prize, ma’am! First throw!” Fink commanded, waving her over. She moved forward through the crowd reluctantly. First throw? At what?
The crowd had started to chant first throw! first throw! first throw! Sarah looked around, bewildered, then her horrified gaze was dragged to the stage. A young couple were revealed, tied to two stakes against a painted backdrop of jungle leaves. The boy was pale and red-haired, the girl dark-skinned with tight curls. They both wore sackcloth and terrified expressions. Sarah felt her stomach drop as she realised exactly what was happening.
“Please...don’t do this…” the young woman begged, “...please…”
“Don’t hurt her!” cried the young man, “Let her go and you can do whatever you want to me! Please…”
Sarah gripped the baseball hard enough to hurt. For a seemingly endless moment, she weighed up throwing the ball and then getting out of here and on with her work. She felt sick. Then Fink leaned over and shouted,
“Come on, are you gonna throw it...or are you taking your coffee black these days?”
Sarah looked up sharply into Fink’s smug face, then back down at the ball. Bollocks.
“Oh, I’ll throw it, you son of a bitch,” she said clearly, and stretched her arm back, aiming right at Fink’s face.
She felt her arm being grabbed from behind and the ball drop, then the bandage around her hand being pulled off. She jerked her arm back, but it was too late as those closest saw the black mark.
“The False Shepherd! It’s her, she’s the false shepherd!” People started screaming and pushing each other to get away from Sarah, while she strained against the the policemen who had hold of her shoulders. A third stepped in front of her and lifted the strange metal device she’d seen earlier. The large hooks whirled menacingly.
“Now, where'd you get that brand, girl? Don't you know that makes you the back-stabbin', snake-in-the-grass False Shepherd?” bellowed Fink. “We ain’t letting no False Shepard into this flock! Let ‘er have it, boys.”
The copper smirked and the hooks spun faster as he brought it closer to Sarah’s face. She leaned back as far as she could, watching the man’s hand, then as he brought it around she ducked her head and turned, swinging the copper behind her around to the front so the hooks plowed into his face. She winced as the blood splattered across her. The man fell to the ground, the device still in his face. Sarah leapt forward and slid her left hand into the handle and yanked. It slid free with a jerk, and a sound that made Sarah think meat salad , then she spun around and waved it at the other police nearby. Let’s see, fingers go here, this makes it turn ...she pressed down and the hooks twirled, blood still flying off. Her right hand had already dropped to her pistol and she freed it from the holster.
Sarah grinned and started to run.
just FYI (and to cover my own butt), Bioshock Infinite is a MASSIVE game with a LOT of converging storylines, and a HUGE amount of weird shit going on all the time, and I will be paring the plot down considerably! The most obvious difference is Sarah - although she is taking the place of Booker, she is not him, and her story will be v different! Thanks for reading this far (all two of you?) <3
Chapter 3: The Girl in the Tower
Sarah has her first encounter with the Prophet, and finally makes it to Monument Island.
Sarah sprinted down an alleyway, ducked behind some barrels and checked her gun. So much for keeping a low profile…even if she made it to Monument Island, there were bound to be guards crawling all over the place. This case was surely more trouble than it was worth. But Sarah found herself unwilling to give up. It wasn’t just the money either...she knew that girl needed her help. It was the only thing she felt certain of right now.
After loading more bullets, she inched forward and checked the alley. Clear. Best get moving again. She’d been tempted to drop the hook after one block. It wasn’t exactly weightless. Then she’d seen policemen flying in on those rails in the air - Sky-Lines, they were called. The hook attached to the rails and you could zoom along to anywhere in the city. Sarah suspected it had something to do with magnets and...well, that was pretty much where her scientific knowledge ended. Columbia was full of surprises. Flying gunships abounded - the Possession vigor had come in handy there, allowing her to turn the gun turrets against the Columbians, and an announcement system had informed all and sundry that the ‘False Shepherd’ had arrived just as ‘the Prophet had foreseen.’ Pfft. Easy to foresee something when it’s already here!
She leaned her head back against the wall and looked up at the sky. Who had really built this place? And why? Why break away from the world, and still bring the worst of humanity along with you? She bumped the back of her head against the bricks a few times, then stared down at her hands. They had blood drying on them, and not all of it was hers.
Chewing on her bottom lip, Sarah pushed her hair back behind her ears and listened intently. Maybe she’d actually given them the slip this time. She crept out from between the barrels and shadowed the wall until she reached the corner, peering around, then up. The angel was looming now, massive against the blue sky.
The Sky-Line curved above her head and across the street to the back of a restaurant. Maybe it was low enough to jump on over there.
She ambled out of the alley, hoping she looked like any old Columbia resident taking a turn around the block. One thing she’d learnt from experience - if you ran, you got chased. And sometimes that was half the fun, but sometimes you could walk instead, and they wouldn’t even notice you strolling away with their wallet. Sarah smirked to herself. Not that she did that anymore. Hardly.
She whistled a little tune as she reached the steps to the restaurant. While she had been leading the coppers on a merry chase, she’d ran past one of the gondolas - small flying ships that appeared to serve as ferries between islands - that had a barbershop quartet singing on board. The tune had been unknown to Sarah but it was catchy enough. How had it gone…? God only knows what I’d be without you, she sang under her breath, then shook her head. She’d put a foot on the bottom step when she heard a voice.
“Hey! Hey you!” The shout came from down the block and Sarah ignored it, as if she couldn’t imagine why someone would be shouting at her, and kept mounting the stairs - then ducked as shots rang out. Oh, bollocks. She drew her pistol again and chanced a peek over the bannister. There were a lot of uniforms advancing on her. Slowly, though, as if they didn’t want to get too close. She sidled back down the stairs and peered around the balustrade, took aim and fired one-two-three pause one-two-three. Always shoot in threes , she heard a voice in her head say, more likely to hit, easier to keep count of your bullets . For a second she stared into space. Who had told her that? Then more bullets whizzed past. She heard shouting, stopped her leg from jittering, and fired again. A few of the police had gone down, the rest were gesturing and pointing.
“Bring in the Fireman!” a voice yelled. Sarah looked around her barricade and stared in disbelief at the approaching figure. It wore a kind of thick padded suit with metal parts, with - she squinted - some sort of container on it’s back and pipes glowing red coming out of it. It almost looked like a suit of armor - if the armor was full of fire. She could feel a breath of hot wind and the air now had a faint smoky smell. A voice bubbled and echoed out of the metal mask covering the face.
“The Prophet condemns you!”
Sarah was sure she could see flames escaping from the narrow slit where the mouth sat. How are they even alive? The figure moved it’s hands and a fireball came racing towards Sarah. Her eyes widened and she ducked back behind the stone bannister. Flames splashed on the street and over her head.
Bloody hell! She remembered the vigors on sale at the fair...but surely they didn’t turn you into this. Oh, right, the vigors...she concentrated and her hands glowed green. Moving quickly, she ducked upwards and sent a faint green shape flying at the ten or so police that were left. She’d found out it worked on humans as well as machines, and now she saw one of the police shudder and jerk upwards as she was Possessed. Then she turned her weapons on her fellow coppers, and the crowd quickly dwindled as they fought amongst themselves.
That left Sarah with the Fireman.
More fireballs arched overhead, and roars echoed as they missed their target. The air was hot and dry now, and she wished for a drink of cool water. A hand reached for her flask, then froze as she heard the crackling voice cry out again,
“It burns! It BURNS! Let me out!” Then there was just screaming and it was coming closer. Oh shite.
Sarah swung out, still crouching, and fired. At this range she couldn’t miss. And she didn’t. The Fireman fell to the pavement, flagstones cracking under the weight and heat. Sarah edged closer, pistol at the ready. The figure was still mumbling in short bursts.
“Release me from this pain….this torment.” The gloved hands clawed at the mask. “Can you hear me, Prophet?” One hand reached towards Sarah. “I beg for mercy. Mercy!” There was a high-pitched whining noise, and instinct told Sarah to run.
She barely made it back behind the bannister when the Fireman exploded in a roar. Flames rained down from the sky, and when Sarah peeked out again, the few small trees and shrubs in the area were also burning. The bodies of the police were scattered around the street, some in pieces, all on fire. She looked around at the devastation, thinking about how the Fireman had begged for mercy. From the Prophet? Didn’t they all work for the Prophet, this Sister Rachel? Had she done this to them? She ran her hand through her hair. It was shaking. This place...these people. It was all so horrible, and somehow horribly familiar. She couldn’t shake that feeling.
She needed to get off the streets for a while. She looked up at the building in front of her.
Sarah stepped through the doorway and softly closed the door behind her. There was no key, or bolt, so she dragged a chair from the cloakroom and wedged it under the handle. She peered through the gauzy window coverings and saw no movement. Right then. She looked around. It was a fairly fancy place, the kind of place she could never afford to eat in, and would probably get kicked out of even if she could. Trying not to think about what she had just seen, Sarah walked stiffly past the cloakroom, down the long entrance hall and into the dining area. Lush carpet overlaid with patterned rugs, round tables with small glass lamps in rich jewel tones, a gleaming wooden bar that was being further polished by a -
“We have company,” said Robert Lutece as he wiped the cloth over the wood.
“We do indeed,” agreed Rosalind Lutece from her position in the kitchen doorway.
Sarah turned around and strode back out through the archway she’d just entered, stopped, kicked a chair hard enough to send it flying at the wall, then spun around and walked up to the bar.
“WHY -” she shouted at the pair, clenching her fists at her sides, “ - ARE YOU FOLLOWING ME?”
Rosalind sniffed. “ We were already here.”
“Why are you following us ?” queried Robert, continuing to buff the bar.
“Bloody hell,” Sarah sputtered. “Forget it. Just...forget it. I’m going out the back way.” she pointed, “ and you two can just stay here and keep being useful .” She packed as much sarcasm as she could into that last word, and strode towards the kitchen. Rosalind looked amused, but said nothing, standing aside as Sarah swept past. She and Robert exchanged a glance, she raising an eyebrow, he giving a slight shake of his head.
“Hmm, perhaps you’re right.” Sarah heard her say. “Will it affect the result, do you think?”
“It’s hardly an experiment if we don’t experiment a little .” Robert’s voice grew fainter.
Don’t wanna know, don’t care she muttered angrily, swiping an apple from a box and biting into it viciously. How can they just… The back door slammed shut behind her and she looked up at the skyline, rubbing her forehead. The Sky-Line stopped right here. She went to step forward before realizing she’d exited onto a sort of porch, with a drop over the end that went all the way down. Leaning against the back wall of the restaurant, she finished the apple and tossed the core over the side, eyeing the large hooks attached to the building floating next door. I wonder… she had to keep moving. There’d be more police along soon - that explosion wouldn’t have gone unnoticed. She raised the Sky-Hook up, ran at the edge of the porch and jumped out over nothing. For a second she was sure she was going to plummet like a stone, but instead she was pulled upwards and forward, the Sky-Hook latching onto the freight hook with a clunk. Sarah hung there, blinking, then saw the line of hooks ahead of her. My shoulder’s gonna be bloody sore tomorrow, she thought, then leapt again, and again, until she dangled over a wide, pleasant verandah dotted with shrubs and small metal tables and chairs under large umbrellas. She jumped again, this time back onto solid ground. Well, solid ground that was also flying through the air.
Sarah walked over to the simple wooden door that stood ajar, and listened. She could hear the faint sounds of music, and two voices holding a heated conversation. She frowned and slipped through the door, finding herself in a kitchen with a pantry to one side, a door to the other. She pushed it open carefully.
“Violence is not the answer! As much as I support her cause and her people, blood must not be shed.”
A woman’s voice countered with,
“What do you expect the people to do? How they treat them...it was bound to happen!”
The man’s voice grew louder. “Violence is not a foregone conclusion. If we can…” Sarah saw him enter the hallway, and his shocked expression as he saw her.
“It’s you!” He turned his head to address his companion. “The one they’re after…” He turned back to Sarah and gestured her to enter. “You can go out the side door, quickly!” She hesitated, unwilling to put her trust in any of these people. But a loud banging on the front door startled both of them and she quickly moved down the hallway and to the door he was pointing at, while his wife opened the front door and kept the police there chatting. She saw a large printing press and dozens of posters lying about, and craned her head to read them but the man thrust a scrap of paper into Sarah’s hand and opened the door.
“She may be able to help you,” he whispered as he ushered her out into the street and shut the door firmly in her face. Sarah looked at the hastily scrawled name.
Daisy Fitzroy. Who the hell was she? What else is going on here? She shoved the paper into her vest pocket and gazed around until she found the giant angel again. Down the block she could see where the Sky-Line started again, and headed that way. Two figures in blue entered the street, but facing away from her, and her shoulders tensed. She didn’t want to kill anyone else, not unless she had to, but they were between her and the Sky-Line. She kept walking, being careful to stick to the middle of the street where there were large leafy trees to cover her. When the two coppers turned a corner and disappeared, she relaxed a little. She found herself whistling that tune again under her breath, and grinned. Maybe this case would work out after all. Now she was under the Sky-Line and glancing around to check she was still unwatched, raised the Hook.
Let’s give it a whirl she muttered, and jumped.
The hook attached with a clank and Sarah felt herself suddenly zipping along at a fair speed. She looked down, and as she sped above the pavement, and then suddenly sky, wished she hadn’t. The world dropped away beneath her feet - she could see clouds, and other small city islands that oscillated below her. The wind tore at her hair and it streamed back from her face. Her eyes watered. Her feet dangled. It wasn’t exactly elegant, or even comfortable, but it certainly was fast. The giant angel was getting closer.
Oh shite. So were those crates on the rails. How do you get off this thing? Sarah asked herself out loud, bracing herself for the impact. As she sped towards the crates, she strained to lift her legs up into a sort of sideways crouch, and her feet hit the first crate, which swung and banged into the second crate. The chain reaction set the whole line of crates swaying back and forth, but they stayed attached. Sarah pulled on the Sky-Hook, and dropped onto the decking below quite easily.
She looked around. She had landed on one of the gondolas, stationed at a dock. No one was around. A large sign told her that this was indeed the way to Monument Island. There was also a CLOSED poster plastered over the picture of the angel statue. All gondola travel cancelled! Tradespeople please access Monument Island via Sky-Line! Sarah shrugged. Right then. She walked under the crates until the Sky-Line was clear again and prepared to jump again as a loud humming noise came into hearing. She hesitated, looking around wildly, then her eyes widened as a massive Airship rose into view. Large trumpet-shaped speakers at intervals carried the voice of who Sarah could only assume was the infamous Prophet.
“I know why you’ve come here, False Shepherd,” Her voice was calm and controlled, the upper-class English accent surprising, and yet somehow not surprising at all. “I can see all your sins. Those you have abandoned. Those you have injured. Those you have slain. The lack of faith, the drinking, the gambling, the -” the voice hissed the next word, “ - fornication. And now you come here to steal the Lamb away from Columbia, from me .”
Sarah’s eyes narrowed.
“You don’t know me!” She shouted at the airship. “And I was sent here by the girl’s family! I’m here to take her home!” Her hair blew around her face and she pushed it back angrily.
There was a quiet chuckle from the speakers.
“Were you? There is so much you don’t know, Sarah.” Sarah froze. How does she know my name? “And so much I have seen.” The voice rose again.
“Do you know why these people will die for me? Because I have seen the future in their glory, and hence they are content. I have seen the the glory of Columbia and where the Lamb will lead us. I have seen you , Sarah Manning, and let me tell you - some debts can never be repaid.” The Airship was close enough now for Sarah to look in the windows, and she could see Sister Rachel. The blonde woman in white stared back at her, a red-painted smile on her face, radiating confidence and authority, practically glowing against the dull metal of the ship. Her one silver eye glinted, and Sarah felt a flash of pain, raising her fingers to find a bloody nose.
The woman raised some sort of small radio to her mouth.
“The Lord forgives everything.” She nodded at something to the side, then continued in that clipped tone, “But I’m just a Prophet. So I don’t have to.”
Ropes flew down from various points along the Airship decks, and dozens of uniformed figures slid down them, landing on several of the other docks nearby.
Sarah ran towards the nearest rope, swinging the Sky-Hook around in time to meet the nearest soldier - and these were definitely soldiers - as his feet landed, knocking him off the dock. He plummeted down through the wisps of clouds, while Sarah grabbed the rope and started climbing. Her muscles ached. She could hear bullets whistling past her. As she reached the deck and pulled herself over, she saw Sister Rachel look at her and shake her head, turn, and sweep through the door behind her. Sarah scrambled to her feet and ran inside the airship, but by the time she made it to the door, it was locked. Another of the smaller Gunships lifted portside, and she saw a flash of white and blonde hair aboard it. She kicked the door in front of her, then ran to the door opposite, opening it to find the control room. It smelled of fuel.
Not a complete loss. I can fly this to the tower...use it to escape... she stared at the controls, frowning. There was a sound behind her and she spun around, gun ready, but saw only an unarmed woman in a white robe. She looked like the worshippers Sarah had encountered when she first arrived. She lowered the gun.
“It’s...I won’t hurt you. I just want to…” She stopped. The woman still had her eyes closed, praying in a whisper as she exposed the box of matches in her hands. The smell of fuel was stronger now.
“No!” cried Sarah, “Don’t -”
The woman smiled peacefully as she lit a match and dropped it at her feet. There was a whoompf sound and flames licked at her robe. She lifted her arms in the welcoming pose of the angel that Sarah could see behind her and the flames spread.
Sarah was stuck, horrified, then, as it grew difficult to breathe, she darted through the fire and back out onto the deck, running, chancing a glance back. The woman was completely engulfed in fire now and still utterly silent. Sarah reached the end of the deck and looked down. Shite.
There was only one way off and she took it.
As she fell through the air, body moving as if still running, she concentrated on the glint of sun on the Sky-Line and strained towards it. As the magnetic field caught and the hook attached, she closed her eyes in relief. Then opened them again quickly as she saw flames roaring against her eyelids.
She sped away from the now blazing airship, slowly listing downwards, and towards Monument Island. Get the girl, get out. Get the girl, get out, she repeated to herself, trying to block out the image of the woman calmly burning alive.
The entire city spread out below her as she sped along. There was still a sense of wonder in her as she looked down. Columbia looked so beautiful from a distance. Now she understood the saying ‘ignorance is bliss’. The Sky-Line swooped down, then arched upwards again, passing houses and gardens, businesses and markets. The fireworks still glittered in the distance against the endless blue sky. The angel was so close now. Sarah looked up, and up - it had looked huge from miles away and up close it was simply massive. It reminded her of the first time she had seen the Statue of Liberty when she had landed in New York. There was a building in front of it, two stories high, covered with smaller angel sculptures and dotted with elegant arched windows. There was another set of crates ahead and she brought her legs up, ready to brace herself against them. When she had swung to a stop, she carefully detached and fell down onto the large paved area below. A huge sign above her spelled out ‘MONUMENT ISLAND’ in hundreds of golden light globes. Stone steps led upwards to large wooden doors.
It was quiet. Sarah studied the building, ears cocked, but she heard nothing but the wind. Where were the guards? Surely there had to be some kind of security detail? Or had they been certain she’d never make it this far? Why even lock the girl up? Why was she so important to Sister Rachel? What did she have planned for Columbia and the girl? As she looked up at the angel, she realised there had been no portraits or photographs of the girl anywhere in the city. Sister Rachel’s smugly beautiful face had been plastered everywhere, as had the warnings about the False Shepherd, yet the revered Lamb was nowhere. Sarah wondered what she looked like and what her bloody name was.
She shook her head and trotted up the stairs. Surprised to find the doors unlocked, she shoved them open and found herself entering a courtyard, green lawn and flower beds around a fountain with no water, a path leading across to a wide ornate gate covered in signs reading CAUTION! CLOSED! OFF LIMITS! By Order of the Columbian Police Authority. Orange lights flashed. Sarah smirked to herself and scanned the top of the fence and gate, then climbed it in a matter of seconds. There hadn’t been a fence in the whole of Brixton that could stop her younger self climbing it.
More stairs, another door. Now she seemed to be under the angel itself. She moved through what seemed to be a locker room for the guards - who were nowhere to be seen. Or maybe for some sort of doctors? There were white lab coats hanging on hooks, and a modesty screen with ‘Columbia Science Authority’ and a symbol consisting of a key and a lightning bolt printed on it. The key...Sarah patted the satchel. She’d quite forgotten about it in all the running around. There were more signs - ‘SPECIMEN IS DANGEROUS Please Follow Quarantine Protocols ’ , ‘ DANGER! DO NOT APPROACH THE SPECIMEN !’, ‘ Past This Point 12 hour Quarantine - Approval: Columbia Science Authority.’
Sarah looked at them blankly. Specimen? Dangerous? What the hell was going on here? She’s just a girl! She pushed through another set of doors and entered a dimly lit hallway. Something - some type of machine - was sputtering sparks on one side, but she barely noticed, her eyes riveted to the chalkboard straight ahead. It was covered in diagrams, columns of numbers, drawings of the outline of a young woman, and labeled ‘Specimen Morphology’. Sarah’s forehead furrowed. She didn’t understand any of this. They were...studying the girl? Why?
She turned a corner to see more odd machines spitting sparks, and another doorway flanked by large signs that declared DANGER! DO NOT SPEAK TO THE SPECIMEN and PAST THIS POINT 72 HOUR QUARANTINE Approval: Chief Scientist Lutece . She stopped dead in her tracks. Lutece? But...if they were part of this whole debacle, why come to her at all? If they wanted the girl rescued, why not sneak her out themselves? What the bloody hell was going on here?? The more confused Sarah got, the angrier she got. She shoved the next lot of doors open, boots stamping on the tiled floors. She’d almost welcome someone to fight at this point. But there was no one, just empty rooms filled with scientific equipment, more warning signs, thick electrical cables that ran from room to room and down the hallway. One room contained a film projector that was still running, but to a room of empty chairs, most of which were overturned. Another was full of jars on shelves, and a smaller glassed-in room that contained a chair very much like the one that flown Sarah to Columbia. She scowled at it, and at the medical instruments that sat next to it.
Another set of doors opened, this time into a large room with a high domed ceiling.
WARNING Do Not Approach Siphon While Specimen Is Awake, a sign warned. A small chalkboard with a chart drawn on it, the line raising sharply on the horizontal was scrawled over with FACILITY UNSAFE. The desk below looked like it had been abandoned in a hurry. Behind the chalkboard, taking up the centre of the room, was a large raised round circle, in which was some kind of machine that Sarah had never seen the likes of. It was made of metal and glass, electricity playing over the surface, the zapping and hissing sound oddly familiar to her ears. Behind it were large round drums that seemed to pulsate with a sound she could barely make out. Some kind of...tune? But warped almost beyond recognition. She didn’t know what to make of it, so she kept moving. She didn’t bother reading any more of the signs. This place was creepy as all get out, and she was determined to just find the girl and leave as quickly as possible. There was another hallway, which ended in an elevator. Sarah got in, slammed her fist against the one brass button, and stood, her leg jumping. It was so quiet.
She exited into a strange narrow room, with a corridor leading off it. It looked rather like the confined space of a ship. Ahead of her was a lever. She touched her fingers to it, then shrugged, and yanked. Large metal plates slid aside and revealed a window into a - room? Sarah put her face up to the glass and tried to see if the girl was in there, but it was empty. Just a dresser, a desk, a board with some sort of word puzzle on it. She followed the corridor and came to another door, but this had a noticeboard titled SPECIMEN LOCATION outside it with a list of rooms, each with a small light next to it. Library, Dining Room, Dressing Room, Bathroom, Bedroom, Conservatory.
So...the girl lived here? And they observed her? Did she even know they were watching her, all the time? Would it be better if she did know? Sarah couldn’t even imagine. She’d kept herself well guarded, moved around a lot, valued her privacy. But this - this was sick .
The little bulb next to Dining Room lit up. Sarah moved, opening the odd metal door door, feeling like she was in of those submarine things she’d read about. She ran along a wooden pathway to the next door, burst in and found another room with metal plates covering a window. She pulled the lever and the room was exposed, and there she was. The girl.
Her back was to Sarah and all she could see was a mass of blonde curls. Sarah breathed out in relief - she’d started to worry that the girl would just vanish before she found her, that she’d be running down hallways forever. She bent forward to knock on the window, then hesitated. She didn’t want to spook the girl. She folded her arms and watched her move about the room. There was a painting on an easel, tubes of paint on a tray with several brushes. It was of London - Sarah recognized it immediately, the bridge, the clock...she must have copied it from a book. The girl stood in front of the picture, head tilted to one side, then she stepped back and made a sort of parting gesture with her hands, like she was opening a curtain. Sarah jumped and swore involuntarily as a light flashed and the space in front of the girl sort of - opened up - to reveal part of a busy street. Sarah’s jaw dropped open as she realised it was London. It looked grainy and somehow less colourful than real life, but Sarah knew it was really London. It was really there . As she gaped, a bus came barreling straight towards the gap, headlights making her blink. The girl jumped back and the tear closed. Yes , thought Sarah, that’s what it looked like - like a hole torn in the air.
While she stood there, stunned at what she had just seen, the girl left the room. Sarah still hadn’t seen her face. She ran down the next corridor, and saw the bulb next to Library start to glow. Right. She set off again, feeling oddly invigorated now that the end was in sight. The walkway tilted upwards now and Sarah suspected she was nearing the top of the statue. Another room, same as the last. Sarah pulled the lever and as the window was revealed, so was the very large library. Shelves and shelves of books lined the walls, and two small flights of stairs met underneath a window, where the silhouette of the girl was outlined. Her fingers were touching the glass and her posture was wistful. How long has it been since she was allowed outside , Sarah wondered in horror. She touched the window in front of her, searching around the edges for a way in, but it was solid. There was yet another metal corridor, so she ran along it.
The next door opened out into the air, and Sarah was blown backwards by the wind.
“Bloody hell!” she shouted and gripped her coat around her, edging out onto the walkway and gripping the handrail. It seemed to lead around the exterior of the angel. As she rounded a corner, she saw the giant head of the sculpture and struggled up the stairway that ran along it. Finally she came to another door, and another, and then she found herself in a strange round room. The floor seemed to be attached by thick metal chains, and Sarah could see no more doors. She shifted and felt the floor move under her feet, and turned to leave but she was too slow, the floor gave way, tipping sideways. Sarah tried to grab one of the chains but it slid through her hands and she fell, wordlessly yelling. Luckily, it wasn’t that long of a drop and she landed with a thud on the carpet, crawling with desperate speed as she tried to avoid being hit by the falling debris. Rolling over, she groaned and opened her eyes to find an upside face staring at her in astonishment.
“Uh...hello?” Sarah mumbled. The face tilted this way and that, as if deciding how to react, then the mouth opened and a scream pierced Sarah’s eardrums.
“Huh.” She rolled over and tried to stand up, but was hindered by a book hitting her in the head. “Ow! What the -” Another book flew past. “Hey! Wait!” She got to her feet, crouching slightly in a vain attempt to ward off the next book that came hurtling at her. “Hey, quit it! I’m not gonna hurt you!” The girl paused, panting, blonde curls tumbling over her shoulders. Sarah straightened up and looked at her properly for the first time. And sat back down on the floor with a thump .
The girl had her face. She had Sarah’s face .
The two of them stared at each other in stunned silence.
Thanks for reading! I've been updating this faster than I expected because it's all I can seem to write atm :)
Chapter 4: The Lamb and the Songbird
Sarah and Helena run.
yep, TWO versions for your listening pleasure, and again, I urge you to listen to these links because they're super cool :)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The girl was still holding a heavy text with both hands, ready to knock Sarah on the head with it. The gilt on the book cover glinted in the sunlight, picking out the title - The Principles of Quantum Mechanics - and the author’s name - R. Lutece - and Sarah stared at it, again?, then back up at her face. Her eyes were wide and greenish-gold, just like Sarah’s, but she was pale and the skin around her eyes a faint pink colour. The hair was so blonde as to be almost white and tumbled in frizzy curls over her shoulders and down her back. She wore a simple outfit of a blue skirt with a sailor-style shirt, a wide blue bow knotted at the front. But her face…
Sarah shook her head, breaking the spell, and got to her feet again.
“Look…” she said soothingly, holding her hands out placatingly, “I’m not here to hurt you, all right? My name’s Sarah. I’m here to take you home.”
The girl took a step back.
“Are you real” she asked, her voice slightly hoarse as if not used much. “You look...you look just like me?” She dropped one hand to her side, and the book fell with a dull thud . The other drifted towards Sarah’s face. A thimble covered the tip of her pinky finger. Sarah wanted to jerk her head back but was stilled by some vague whispering at the back of her mind, telling her that it was safe. She trailed her fingers down Sarah’s cheek, and Sarah felt - the laughter, the green place, hands holding hers. A finger dabbed at her upper lip and came away bloody.
Sarah and touched her own fingers to her nostrils, wiping the blood away.
“No..it’s fine...it just happens sometimes.” She wiped her hand on her vest. A little more blood wouldn’t make a difference. “So, uh...what’s your name, anyway?” She felt lightheaded.
“Oh! I’m Helena. Helena Duncan.”
A puzzle piece moved into place and Sarah was nodding before Helena had finished speaking. Yes, of course, you’re Helena, of course you are. Then she frowned again. Duncan? That’s not...right.
She ran her hand through her hair. The girl - Helena - continued to talk.
“I’m sure I’ve...” Her face lit up. “I dreamed about you. I dreamed that we were friends!”
Sarah shuffled her feet, looking at Helena warily.
“Yeah, well...we’re not friends, are we?” But why do you look just like me?
Helena tilted her head, looking puzzled.
“You said you’ve come to take me home? But this -” she waved her hands around, “ - is my home? It’s always been my home.” Her hands fluttered back to her sides and she tugged at the ends of her sleeves. The words sounded unconvincing, like she was parroting something taught to her.
Sarah hesitated. She hadn’t really thought past ‘get the girl, get out’. And she really wasn’t prepared for this .
“Uh…” she stopped. Tried again. “So…” dammit. The girl didn’t even know she was in a cage.
She sat down on the small flight of stairs that led to the window and tapped her fingers on her knees.
“How far back do you remember?”
Helena frowned delicately, pulling at her bottom lip. Her gaze drifted to Sarah’s hands and her frown deepened. She bent over and poked a finger at the letters.
“What does this mean?”
Sarah looked down. She’d almost forgotten. She looked up again. Helena’s face was openly curious. So she didn’t know about the whole ‘False Shepherd’ deal?
“Oh...I don’t really know.” She shrugged. The letters itched and she rubbed them against her leg. Helena’s mouth curled up at one corner.
“My name begins with ‘H’”, she suggested. Her hands worried at each other. Sarah looked at them and pointed at the thimble.
“What’s with that? Are you sewing something?”
Helena glanced down at her hands, then hid them behind her back. Her lips tightened.
“No. It’s...I have…” she closed her eyes and spoke rapidly. “I have a deformity and need to keep it covered. Sister doesn’t like to see it.” She looked up at the ceiling, avoiding Sarah’s stare.
“Sister? Y’mean Sister Rachel?”
“But..she’s not really yer sister though, right? That’s just her...title, isn’t it?” Sarah said, slowly, trying to understand. If that was the girl’s sister, who had paid her to come here?
Helena finally met her eyes again.
“She says sisters look after each other. She...keeps me safe.” Her voice was tremulous.
Sarah gave her an incredulous look.
“By keeping you locked up in here? Don’t you want to go outside?” She waved a hand. “Talk to people?” She hesitated again. Then a thought struck her. “Maybe...go visit London?”
Helena’s face lit up.
“London? Is that where you’re from?” Her fingers crept to a lock of hair and started to twist it around as she talked. “I don’t know why but I’ve always wanted to go there! It looks so...I mean. In books…” she trailed off. Sarah desperately wanted to ask her about what she had seen Helena do, the way the air had opened up. She shuffled her boots against the carpeted stairs, and thought. Then she grinned crookedly.
“Why don’t we -” She stopped as a odd little tune started playing, like some kind of piping whistle. Sarah looked around wildly. Where the hell was that coming from? It stopped, then a whining siren started to blare. Helena had gone even paler, both hands at her mouth.
“He’s coming.” She darted forward and grabbed Sarah’s hands in hers, pulling her to her feet. For a moment they were face to face, blinking at each other and almost smiling, then Helena frowned and tugged.
“You have to go!”
Sarah was pulled along behind her like a kite string as she dashed from one end of the library to the other, almost crashing into her as she come to a sudden standstill.
“There’s no way out. He’ll find you.” she hissed.
Sarah shook her head, bewildered.
“Who’s ‘he’? Who’s coming? Guards?”
Helena pressed her lips between her teeth, eyes flitting around the ceiling and the gaping hole left by Sarah’s fall.
“Wait!” she called out. “Um...I’m getting dressed!” She shifted from foot to foot. Sarah pointed.
“What about that door?” It was similar to the ones out in the metal corridors, but bigger, and with a massive lock in it instead of a handle.
Helena gave her a look.
“No key,” she said in the tone of someone explaining something perfectly obvious. She fixed the lock with the same look she had given Sarah. “Haven’t been able to pick it.”
Sarah’s eyes widened and she slapped herself in the forehead, detaching her other hand from Helena’s to pull at her satchel and dig through it, fingers finding the box and scrabbling for the -
“A-ha!” she said triumphantly, brandishing the large key in front of Helena’s face.
There was a loud chirping noise - like a bird but somehow metallic. Sarah looked up.
“What is that?” she asked, but Helena had snatched the key and was spinning it in her fingers. Then she held it up to the light. Sarah realised there was a pattern cut into it, the engraving so delicate that she hadn’t noticed it before. On one side was a simple birdcage. On the other, a silhouette of a flying bird. Helena tilted her head and then nodded. There was another chirping sound, louder and closer.
“Uh, are you gonna tell me what the hell that is?” muttered Sarah, suddenly missing the comforting feeling of the other girl's hand in hers. As if she’d read her mind, Helena grabbed her again and pulled her over to the door, standing on tiptoes to slide the key into the lock.
It turned with a loud click and the door swung open. The two girls looked at each other with matching crooked grins. There was a loud crash from above them and they both looked up, then back at each other, then they were running, Helena towing Sarah after her.
“What is that? What the bloody hell…” Sarah panted.
“Songbird...looks after me.” Helena called over her shoulder. “Keeps me safe. Doesn’t like strangers.”
But what is he? Sarah thought, blinking as she watched the blonde hair bounce up and down in front of her, slightly mesmerised by the strange familiarity of the sight.
They’d run down a corridor and through another door, which led back into the wooden walkway that Sarah had used earlier. The siren was louder out here and there was dust being shaken from the ceilings. She began running faster, and started leading the way, Helena looking around distractedly at her new surroundings.
“C’mon! There’s an elevator through here!” she threw over her shoulder.
“A what?” Helena asked.
“A bloody elevator!” They dashed down the narrow corridors, passing the now-exposed rooms, and she felt Helena slow down, pulling backwards. A loud shriek rent the air, but she stopped dead, staring through the window into the dining room. Sarah yanked at her hand but she wouldn’t budge.
“What is this?’ Helena moved to the window and put her palm flat against it. “That’s...that’s my room. This...this is a mirror.” Her face was confused and wounded, her voice small. “They’ve been...watching me? This whole time?” Her hand slapped the glass, making Sarah jump. “Why?” Her face turned to Sarah’s, the pain in her eyes too bright to look at. Sarah shrugged, shuffling her feet.
“I don’t know. But maybe we should -” There was a scraping sound, like claws scrabbling on metal and Helena blinked. Her jaw shifted and she took another look at the empty room and then walked away, fast, holding Sarah’s hand so tightly it hurt.
“Helena? Hey!” Sarah reached out with her other hand and grasped her shoulder, and Helena flinched. Sarah took her hand away. “Look. I think we need to get out of here and then we’ll...figure all this out, yeah?”
Helena nodded, staring at the floor. They reached the elevator and Sarah jabbed the button several times in quick succession.
“C’mon, c’mon,” she muttered, shifting from one foot to the other.
They both jumped back as an ear-splitting shriek of tearing metal filled the air and three huge curved spikes thrust through the wall beside them. Sarah shouted,
She yanked Helena’s hand, putting herself between the girl and the gaping holes in the wall. There was a kind of jerking, fluttering movement and suddenly a giant glowing eye appeared in the torn metal. It was golden in colour, then, as it zeroed in on Sarah, darkened to red.
“What the hell is that thing!” she hissed back over her shoulder. Another piercing skreeek split the air, and the eye disappeared. There were more scratching sounds and the whining of more metal being ripped apart.
The elevator doors exploded in in bits of wood and steel as a huge bird head smashed them outwards. Both of the girls jumped backwards, crying out in unison. Sarah gazed in disbelief as the head turned from side to side, the shining red eyes fixing her to the spot. What the… it looked like a bird but one made out of metal and leather. It banged against the doorframe, trying to force it’s head through.
There was another whirring noise, just audible over the screeches and the siren, and suddenly the elevator arrived, smashing into the top of the bird's head and pushing it downwards a little. The huge beak opened and screamed, the sound somehow both robotic and desperate. It tried to move upwards again, but the elevator merely jolted a little and came down again, this time knocking the bird down the elevator shaft. The elevator went screaming down after it, sparks flying from torn cables.
It had all happened so fast that Sarah and Helena still stood grasping each other in shock. Sarah slowly let go and edged forwards, ready to jump back if the giant bird reappeared. She peered over into the shaft. All she could see was flashing lights and hanging cables and twisted metal…and a way out. I hope.
“C’mon, we can jump across, use those stairs!” She called out to Helena, holding her hand out behind her instinctively. She felt a hand slip into hers and she gripped it, briefly wondering why it felt so...natural. She raked her hair back out of her eyes, and eyed the gap.
Helena jumped across first, making the distance with ease, then Sarah, her coat flying out behind her. They joined hands again without thinking and ran up the stairs. These were metal, and their boots clanged. It seemed to be some kind of maintenance stairwell. The siren hadn’t stopped, and now it rejoined by the screeching of the metal bird, echoing up behind them at first, then moving higher, and closer.
“He’ll tear the building apart,” panted Helena, as they passed more flashing lights and rusty walls, adding “I don’t think he likes you,” with a slightly hysterical giggle.
“You think ?” scoffed Sarah, smiling a little despite herself. They reached the top of the stairwell and came up against another door, this one with a wheel in the centre.
Helena grabbed it, pulling to no avail. Sarah squeezed next to her and yanked, her arm and shoulder muscles screaming at her, and the wheel moved jerkily. The door swung open and they both tumbled through, Sarah grabbing Helena’s arm before she went over the edge of the walkway into the clouds. They were outside the statue, the moving skyline of Columbia just visible through wisps of clouds. Sarah saw a huge dark shape fly past, and down, partly obscured by mist, but she could make out the shape of wings. They looked more like bat wings than bird wings, and the wingspan must have been, jesus bloody christ, fifty feet, at least.
The sound of grinding metal and stone, and the birds screeches filled the air. The statue was swaying, and the two of them stayed low as they moved further up the walkway. Sarah realised they were on the very top now, right above the wings, and they were out of places to run. Songbird swooped by again, snapping its beak at Sarah, and she pressed herself back against the stone curve of the angel wing behind her.
Helena looked up from where she crouched just below Sarah, biting her lips, and then her eyes widened as the statue swayed and tipped sharply, and she slowly teetered backwards, falling into thin air. Sarah yelled and leapt forward, just managing to grab a hand, but her other hand flailed wildly, grabbing at the walkway rope only to find that was falling too. The two of them toppled through the air, Helena screaming Sarah’s name, Sarah desperately grabbing at the Sky-Hook at her waist, trying to force her hand into it before -
The Sky-Line rose out of the clouds, gleaming, and Sarah swung the hook around, trying to get a lock, Helena's hands still clasped around hers. She felt a moment's relief as the hook attached and they sped downwards towards the closest buildings. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the great dark shape of the bird speeding alongside them, then dart up and over and down, four sets of claws out, straight into a gunship. The bird and ship rolled and started to fall out of sight as the Sky-Line curved past a building, then back towards the statue. Sarah watched in horror as the giant head of the angel tumbled off, and fell towards them, passing by close enough to buffet their swinging bodies back and forth.
The Sky-Line sloped down to meet the suspension bridge below, Sarah throwing out various curse words as they were bumped and shaken, her arm almost numb from Helena’s weight. They raced perpendicular across the bridge and out the other side, gently lifting upwards. Songbird swooped by gracefully, red eyes glowing. The Sky-Line looped back to the bridge and now the entire top half of the statue was falling, giant pieces sliding off and down, a wing slamming into the bridge below them and breaking it into jagged sections. She could hear Helena screaming beneath her, and yelled her name in a vain attempt at comfort. Then, suddenly the Sky-Line twisted and snapped, sending them both plunging through the sky.
“Sarah!” Helena cried as her hands slipped away, her face white, and then gone.
In one bewildered second, Sarah thought I’ve lost her again, and then she was falling, falling, with nothing to grab onto.
The sunlight reflected off water, and there was time for Sarah to think oh there’s an ocean up here too, before she hit the surface with a splash, instinctively curling into a ball and holding her breath. Her eyes opened - the water was remarkably clear and she could see girders, and steel cables as thick as her leaving trails of bubbles as they sank. There was a muffled shrieking and Sarah kicked backwards as a huge dark shape dove into the water and swam towards her, head turning this way and that. It got close enough for Sarah to stare right into one large red eye. It was covered with a thin metal grill, and it twanged at some memory but Sarah was too terrified to think. As she struggled not to breathe, Songbird suddenly jerked backwards, the eye’s surface seeming to splinter and crack. A thin, echoing wail spread through the water, and the bird spasmed, grabbing it’s own head with its claws, backing away in distress and disappearing into the murky distance.
Sarah pushed upwards but couldn’t hold her breathe any longer and a stream of bubbles escaped her mouth. It was the last thing she saw before everything went black.
She was back in her office, but it was lit by a strange green luminescence that rippled across the walls. She looked around and saw a little girl with blonde plaits and strange golden eyes sitting on her desk, one leg swinging. Her heel hit the desk in time with the knocking on the door. The banging got louder and she ran to the door, flinging it open. Water poured in around the feet of Sister Rachel, who stood before her, leaning forward slightly with both hands on her cane, silver eye shining like a star.
“Bring me the girl and wipe away the debt,” she intoned. The words were echoed by the child behind her in a flat, emotionless voice.
Sarah slammed the door shut and turned to find the office empty except for a few gasping, flopping fish on the floor, before everything went black again.
✜ ✜ ✜ ✜ ✜
There was nothing and then there was a burning sensation in her chest.
Sarah woke up like she was climbing out of a sinkhole, coughing and spluttering, feeling pressure on her chest. Her eyes blinked open to see Helena, her damp hair hanging in straw-coloured ringlets as she bent over Sarah, hands pumping downwards. Her eyes seemed to glint gold in the sunlight. Gulls wheeled overhead.
“Sarah? Sarah?” A hand patted her cheek a few times, pap-pap and Sarah opened her eyes again.
“Whu,” she mumbled. “Where,”
Helena looked relieved, and sat back.
“A beach. I think.” Her nose wrinkled up. “There’s sand?”
A beach? In the sky? Sarah tried to raise herself up on her elbows, and managed it for about ten seconds before she fell back down. She decided to stay prone for a while. It seemed...nice down here. A hand tugged at hers.
She flapped her other hand dismissively in the general direction of Helena, keeping her eyes mostly shut. She could just see the blue of the sky through her eyelashes, and the movement of Helena’s head as she looked around with frank interest.
“m’fine. Just gonna lie here. A bit.” The hand stopped tugging, and she felt it let go, after a gentle squeeze. There was distant music playing. She heard Helena whisper,
“Do you hear that?” Sarah could practically feel the girl vibrating with excitement, and she flapped her hand again.
“G’ have some fun,’ she said, “Dance.” She dug the back of her head into the warm sand and threw an arm over her face.
Helena clambered to her feet.
“I won’t be long,’ Sarah heard her say, then the sound of sand crunching under running feet, the sound of the distant gulls, the far-off music.
She drifted off to sleep.
The music in all the Bioshock games is quite a significant part of why I love them so much. And in Bioshock Infinite you get this weirdness of modern songs appearing in a 1912 setting, and performed in the style of the time. (There IS a reason for this!) Anyway, I believe most of the arrangements for those songs were done by Scott Bradlee, who then went on to form the band Postmodern Jukebox - a loose collection of musicians from all over the world who perform modern songs in old-timey styles, which is exactly my jam! I was lucky enough to see them live last year, and it was one of the most incredible gigs I have ever been to. Just...wow!
Sorry but I just had to babble a bit because I just love the music so much!
anyways, hope you enjoyed all the gratuitous sestre hand-holding :D
Chapter 5: Battleship Bay
Sarah gathers information and Helena has a Good Time.
soundtrack - Rory O'Moore (saddle the pony)
In my attempt to ascertain when this song was actually written (safe to say it's a traditional Irish folk tune, so has been around well before Columbia!), I discovered that Rory O'Moore was one of the instigators of the Irish Rebellion of 1641, so we've all learned something today :)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Eventually, Sarah opened her eyes again with no idea how much time had passed. Rubbing her face, she sat up, yawned and stretched and looked around. She scratched her head, trying to comb through the tangle of curls as she looked at the water. It was lapping at the sandy shore like an ocean does, but it couldn’t possibly be that large. Then she noticed the short waterfall pouring out of a squat concrete building over to one side - there must be some sort of water-replenishing system built in. And it agitated the water just enough to make small waves. Ingenious, really.
People in striped bathing suits, the kind that covered you from knees to shoulders, were everywhere - sitting on the sand or on blankets, or under large beach umbrellas, sprawled out on deck chairs, wading ankle deep in the water...but none of them were Helena. She jerked forward in a moment of panic and scrambled to her feet, shaking sand out of her mostly-dry trousers and jacket. The satchel still sat beside her, along with the box inside, and she slung it back over her shoulders. Everything seemed calm here, and Sarah relaxed a little - presumably the news of the False Shepherd hadn’t reached all the outlying sky islands yet. She can’t have been asleep for too long then. She took a step, then looked at her hand. That damn H.M….she rummaged in the bag and found a scrunched-up (but fortunately clean) handkerchief and tied it around her hand, covering the letters. There. At least the water had washed all the blood off.
After straightening her tie and waistcoat, and checking the pistol at her waist, she set off over the sand, almost stumbling into some children digging sand into buckets.
“Hey there!” she said brightly, crouching down to eye level. “Have you seen a girl...looks like me but with -” she wriggled her fingers around her head, “ - blonde curly hair?”
One of the kids shook his head, while the other pointed under Sarah.
“You knocked over my castle!” Her voice trembled, and Sarah shuffled backwards to reveal a pile of sand that may have once been vaguely castle-shaped.
“Oh...shite.” she muttered, then looked up at the little girl with a apologetic expression. “Here, I’ll help you build another one, all right?” While she packed sand into one of the buckets, she casually glanced around, but couldn’t spot Helena anywhere. She scooped the sand faster. What if she had been caught, and taken back? Sarah remembered the sight of the huge angel breaking into pieces, and glanced up at the horizon. There were a few other floating islands barely visible through the hazy clouds, but the fallen bridge and the remains of Monument Island were nowhere to be seen. Did we fall so far? Or did the angel just drift away?
She smoothed her hand across the top of the bucket, then flipped it upside down and carefully slid it upwards. A perfect, small tower of sand appeared, and the little girl's face broke into a grin.
“Ta-da!” crowed Sarah. She looked around for some shells to decorate it with before realising there probably wouldn’t be any. She did find a small stick, however, and proceeded to trace some narrow windows and a drawbridge in the sandcastle. She leaned back on her heels and smiled as the children continued their argument over who was the king of the castle, then foraged in her pockets for coins, pulling out two silver dollars, and telling them to put their hands out before flicking them up in the air and then dropping one in each palm.
“Ice creams!” she suggested brightly. Standing up, she brushed off her hands, then kept walking.
Passing by a small group of young men, she paused to ask them if they’d seen a girl with curly blonde hair. They shook their heads - one tipped his straw boater at her, saying, “I prefer brunettes myself,” with a wink and a smile. Sarah laughed and kept walking, circling the beach and listening to the random snatches of conversations.
I miss real beaches.
Yes but on real beaches you’re forced to mix with all sorts of people…
That’s what the Vox Populi do, stir up trouble. They’ll be coming for us in our beds next!
Sister Rachel should send the Founders down there and stomp them out - cockroaches…
Get a load of that one, looks like she just woke up from a bender!
There was a burst of laughter and Sarah forced her face to stay neutral, her fists balled in her pockets. She certainly couldn’t afford another fight, not now she had Helena to look after...once she found her. Hell, she couldn’t wait to get out of this place...should be fairly easy to steal one of those gondolas or gunships or...her eye was caught by a large airship gliding overhead, scowling when she saw the name. The Hand of the Prophet. A banner painted with a likeness of Sister Rachel adorned the bulging side, looking down upon all of Columbia. Of course she would have her own personal airship…
The temptation to take not only her ‘beloved Lamb’, but also steal the woman’s own ship made Sarah’s scowl turn into a grin.
Still smiling, Sarah interrupted a quartet of young women to ask if they’d seen a girl with curly blonde hair. The young ladies, parasols aloft, all shook their heads as well. A few of them looked rather politely scandalised at Sarah’s appearance, but one skipped after her as she walked away.
“Say, if you’re looking for an escort, someone to show you around…” the woman slipped her right arm through Sarah’s left, “...I’d be happy to oblige?” Her hair was blonde, not the white-blonde of Helena’s curls, but a dark gold, and held off her face in a loose bun, her eyes grey but somehow warm as she smiled. She twirled the parasol above her head and dug her bare toes into the sand. Sarah summed her up in a glance - one of Columbia’s well-heeled residents, who’d probably never gone hungry or had to wash a dish in her life. Still, she was very pretty.
She hesitated, then gave the woman a crooked little smile in return. It might be useful to talk to a local, she figured, and if it happened to be a rather attractive local, all the better. She bowed her head slightly.
“That’s very kind of you, Ma’am.” They fell into step across the uneven sand. “I actually am looking for my sister.” The sentence slipped out before Sarah even realised it. She shook off the feeling of lightheadedness - after all, it was the perfect cover story, given the resemblance between her and Helena. “She ran off somewhere while I was napping.”
A smile flashed over the woman’s face and her arm through Sarah’s pulled her slightly closer.
“Ah, so not just any blonde then!” she teased. “Have you been in Columbia long? You and your sister?”
Sarah thought quickly.
“Only a few days,” she lied easily. “What an...incredible place. So beautiful, and -” she mentally cringed at herself, “ - clean. Well-run.” She thought about the raffle. It seemed like an age ago. “It was my sister’s idea to come here on a pilgrimage. I barely know a thing about the place!” She arched her eyebrows quizzically and bit her bottom lip. “I’m sure you are a fount of knowledge though, Miss…?”
The girl blushed, looking down demurely.
“Oh, please, call me Ada.” Her fingers pressed down on Sarah’s arm.
“A pleasure, Ada. And I’m Sarah.” She placed her other hand over Ada’s briefly and flashed her another smile. “Now, tell me all about Columbia!”
The two of them strolled around Battleship Bay, as Sarah discovered this particular area was named, while Ada gave her a short history of the magical flying city.
Or, not magical at all, as she explained, but literally built on science. The ‘Lutece Field’, discovered by the brilliant and renowned physicist Miss Rosalind Lutece, oh, don’t frown Sarah, I’m sure we’ll find your sister soon! was what enabled the buildings and land to stay afloat. What Sarah had thought were huge engines underneath the islands were fans that assisted with steering and ‘driving’ the islands from place to place, and there were special balloons in strategic places,(such as along the Sky-Lines), but the Field was the force holding Columbia up in the pure sky, and away from the Sodom below.
That was the means of the city but not the reason for it being, however. Initially built for the World Trades Fair to showcase the United States unmatchable initiative and prowess, Columbia had seceded from the Union under the hand of the much beloved and missed Father Comstock as ‘Another Ark for Another Time’, a place where pure and righteous folk could escape the trials and tribulations of the world below.
“Although,” Ada looked up at Sarah through her eyelashes, and lowering her voice, “You mustn’t think we don’t know how to enjoy ourselves as well.” Sarah curled her mouth into a smile. There was certainly no shortage of courting couples in all corners - for all it’s many, many faults, sexual repression didn’t seem to be any more prevalent in Columbia than in the real world. She remembered the raffle, and bit the inside of her lip, her smile dying away. As long as you stuck to your own kind, it seemed.
“It had been most surprising when Miss Lutece’s brother had turned up here, no one had any idea that he even existed, of course it was a terrible tragedy what occurred…”
Sarah barely registered those last words as she again glanced up at the massive airship gliding overhead, distracted by the idea of stealing it. It was larger even than the one she had been aboard earlier, the one that had gone down in flames. Sarah repressed a shudder at the memory, and began to look away from the vessel when her eye was caught by an odd flicker in the sky next to it. She tilted her head and squinted, but merely saw a glimmer of light and then it disappeared. It looked very much like what the air had done when Helena had...done whatever she'd done. Huh.
She steered Ada towards the long, low building that walled off the left side of the beach, her eyes scanning the scattered crowds for the sight of Helena. She should be fine, as long as that Songbird didn’t appear again. If no one actually knew what the Lamb looked like...and Helena didn’t give herself away. Then she pointed at the airship.
“Now, what about Sister Rachel? Did she come here with Father Comstock?” Her tone was lightly curious, but her ears keen. Exactly how many of Columbia’s residents be willing to burn themselves alive for her?
Ada glanced up at the airship, her face lighting up.
“Oh,” she sighed, hand on her collarbone, “That is quite a tale.”
“It was a year ago today, when Our Prophet first appeared.” Ada sounded like she was reciting an oft-heard story. “Father Comstock was leading worship and performing baptisms in the Welcome Centre - the entrance to Columbia where we all pass through the cleansing waters, Sarah - when a great sphere of golden light appeared, so bright as to be blinding. Some say they saw an angel with great feathered wings, seven feet tall with golden fire burning in her eyes.” There was the slightest twinge of doubt in Ada’s voice as she told this part of the story. “When the light dwindled, there were two young women huddled together in the shallow water - Rachel, who was injured but still strong, and her sister, the Lamb, who was grievously ill and near death. Father Comstock immediately saw that they had been sent here by the Lord Himself, sent to him for protection. Rachel told him they had been in a terrible place, too terrible to even speak of, but she had found a way out. She threw herself on Father Comstock’s mercy, and he baptised her there and then.”
Sarah raised an eyebrow. The Rachel she had seen didn’t seem like the type to throw herself on anyone’s mercy. Or the type to grant mercy to others…
“The Lamb was transported to Monument Island and placed under the immediate care of the finest physicians of Columbia. She grew stronger in body, but suffered terrible amnesia and nervous vapours.” Ada’s voice had turned sympathetic when she reached the Lamb’s part of the story. For a moment Sarah wondered if she could be trusted with the truth...but immediately rejected it. Never fully trust anyone but yourself, and even then, keep an eye out. She leant towards the young woman.
“And she is still there? The Lamb? Locked away in that great angel?” Her face was open and quizzical, and Ada smiled at her trustingly.
“She is, indeed, kept under protection. For it has been foretold,” here her voice once again took on the quality of recitation, “that the False Shepherd will claw its way into Columbia to drag the Lamb back to the deep pit and rip her away from her beloved sister as it had tried to before. The False Shepherd caused Sister Rachel a great injury before she escaped its clutches, and she vowed before God and the Founders that she would never allow that to happen again. But God blessed her wound and gave her an eye of silver, to mark her as His own.” Ada blinked, as if coming out of a trance, then glanced sideways at Sarah and gave a little laugh.
“It does sound rather dramatic, I’m sure!” she said brightly. “But strange as it may seem, Sister Rachel has foretold many things that have since occurred.” She leaned her head closer to Sarah, and whispered, “They say she sees the future through her shining eye.” She leaned back again, and continued in a voice growing fervent, "She tells us there is a great war coming, that the Sodom below will tear itself apart. But Columbia will be there to bring the world to its true glory. Sister Rachel and the Lamb will save us all."
Her tone turned wistful. “I feel terribly for the Lamb though, shut away up there, with no friends but the Songbird. She must be so lonely.”
“Mmm,” murmured Sarah, “I’m sure she must be.” The story was becoming more confounding all the time. Her head was starting to hurt again, but at least her nose wasn’t bleeding. Then she remembered herself, and asked in an enquiring voice,
Ada nodded. “Another gift from God. The Songbird is the protector of the Lamb.” Her voice rang with sincerity and pride, and Sarah smiled and nodded while she wondered how to nicely get the hell away from her.
They walked past another group of young men, these doing calisthenics, and entered a long, covered walkway. Sarah peered at what looked like some sort of boiler room at one end, various pipes and dials and switches, and workmen in overalls scurrying around. Must be what keeps that waterfall going …
On the wall opposite was a poster advertisement for the Aerodrome, complete with illustration of the Prophet’s airship. Sarah read the poster, filed the information away. That’s where she needed to go.
Then the walkway opened up to another beach area, and Sarah could hear the music again. There was the sound of a fiddle and an accordion and a pianola played a rolling jig, and she could see a small crowd gathered at the end of a long pier, some spinning and twirling while the rest stood around the outside, clapping in time with the music and stamping their feet.
Sarah’s heart strangely leapt as she saw the unmistakable sight of Helena’s hair flying in the breeze in the middle of the circle, and she had the urge to run towards her. But Ada was still holding onto her arm, so Sarah swallowed the lump in her throat and kept strolling and smiling at her companion, letting Helena dance a moment longer.
She didn’t understand the strength of her reactions to this girl. She’d always been protective of the girls she’d been paid to track down, even the ones who didn’t need it so much. But there was something different about Helena, some kind of...light, that drew Sarah in. Was it the resemblance? That must mean something, right? It couldn’t just be a coincidence. An image flashed through her mind of the photo on her desk back in New York, and it was gone before she could focus on it, the stab of pain in her temples making her wince slightly.
Ada stopped, a concerned look on her face.
“Are you quite alright, Sarah?” she asked.
Sarah tried to smile. “Fine.” she forced out. “Just...a headache.”
Hands firmly gripped her arms and led her to a shady spot.
“Sit down and I’ll fetch you a cool drink. I believe I had some headache powder in my bag as well...just wait here, my dear, and I shall be right back!” Ada shyly tucked Sarah’s hair behind an ear, smiled, then hurried back the way they came, the red of her parasol glowing in the sun. Sarah watched her go, pressing on her temples as the pain ebbed.
She sat for a moment, fidgeting with the makeshift bandage around her hand, then staring at her boots as they kicked into the sand. Then she nodded and stood up. Time to go and fetch Helena and get out of this place. Ada seemed sweet, but she was also just as brainwashed as the rest of this damn city, and liable to turn them in if she realised Sarah was the dastardly False Shepherd and her ‘sister’ the precious Lamb.
Sarah headed towards the pier. Her hands dug in her pockets, and pulled out a scrap of paper. The ink had run from the water but she could still read the name - Daisy Fitzroy. She fixed it in her mind then tore the paper up into tiny pieces. Something told her it wouldn’t be in her best interests to keep it on her. She thought about what she overheard earlier - something about...vox populi? Her brow furrowed as she tried to remember the tiny amount of Latin she had picked up over the years. Voice...people? People’s voice? Was there some kind of underground revolution building up? She tapped her fingers against her thighs.
With any luck, they wouldn’t even need to seek out this Fitzroy woman. And why would she be inclined to help a stranger, when she clearly had her own troubles. Sarah shrugged to herself, and as she mounted the wooden steps leading up to the pier, the wind changed and the music suddenly grew louder. The tune was familiar, a rollicking Irish jig that made her want to clap her hands and stamp her feet with the rest of them, but instead she stood outside the circle and tried to gain Helena’s attention without attracting anyone else's. However, the discrete waves had no effect on the girl, and she continued to dance, merrily spinning and ducking and weaving before grasping someone's hands and spinning them in a circle.
Sarah stopped waving and gesturing, and just watched her for a moment. She’d seemed so young and scared back in the tower, but now…all those notices and signs about ‘the specimen’ and ‘danger’ and whatever else. The way she had casually torn the air open. But the girl was just...a girl.
Helena threw her head back, laughing, then let go of the hands and started clapping. Her face was alive, and hungry, eyes darting over the faces around her, the sky, the beach - then she caught sight of Sarah and her grin grew even wider.
‘Sarah!” she cried and ducked through the circle, holding her hands out. “Come dance with me!”
“Uh,” Sarah took a step back, “No, thanks.” She glanced around, but no one seemed to be paying them special attention.
Helena looked faintly puzzled by her refusal. She spread her arms out, as if trying to encompass the sea, the sky, the sand, the people...the entire world outside the tower.
“What could be better than this ?” she said, tapping her boots on the boards in a passable hornpipe. Sarah laughed in spite of herself.
“How about...London?” she replied, in a low voice.
Helena stopped and grabbed her hands.
“London? Really?” Her eyebrows drew together. “But...how will we get there?”
Sarah pointed at The Hand of the Prophet, just disappearing from view.
“On that airship. It’s making a trip to London and we can be on it.” She felt vaguely guilty about the lie but she had to get the girl out of here somehow. Hell, maybe they should make a side-trip to London, before taking Helena to New York and whoever waited for her there.
“But, y’know, if you’d rather stay here and dance , then…” she grinned as Helena pulled at her hands, away from the circle and down the pier.
“No! Let’s go! Let’s go now .”
She held onto Sarah’s arm tightly as they walked and her head moved back and forth as she tried to see everything at once. Sarah could hear her whispering I’m out, I’m out, I’m out! to herself, and just tried to keep her steered in the right direction.
“The smell!” said Helena loudly, then pressed her lips together and continued more quietly, “I’ve never...does it always smell like this? The sun is so bright! And all the people!” she turned around to look back at the dancers, then gestured at the beach.
Sarah chuckled. “The beaches I know don’t smell like this.” The beaches on Columbia lacked the salty air of a real seaside, but also the stink of seaweed and rotting fish. As they stepped down onto the sand, she thought about what she’d always called ‘Shite Beach’ - a scraggy piece of land next to a river made undrinkable by factories upstream. She and her foster-brother would hang out there when their foster-mum was sick of them hanging around the house. She felt a sudden stab of guilt. The fight with Mrs S, that last big fight that had led her to running away, and pickpocketing enough to buy the cheapest passage to the States...she’d never even sent a postcard back home, not even to let them both know she was still alive.
“Sarah? Sarah...look.” Helena was pointing at a small kiosk. Rows of fairy floss on sticks lined the counter like small pink clouds. A sign read ‘Free Samples!’
Sarah shrugged. “Price is right,” she said, pushing the memories of home to the back of her mind.
Helena’s face lit up and she lunged at the kiosk, filling one hand with as many as possible, forming a kind of ferris-wheel of fairy floss, then pressing several more into a bundle into the other. She stuck her tongue into one and her delighted eyes met Sarah’s as she made a mmmpfhhh sound.. Sighing loudly, Sarah shook her head.
“That’s...a lot of sugary shite ya got there. You better not throw up on my bloody boots.”
Helena inhaled the rest of the first serving, shook her head determinedly, then started on the next. There was already a bright pink stain around her mouth. Sarah wrinkled her nose in mock disgust, then scooped a fingerful of the cotton candy into her own mouth. God, it made her teeth hurt.
They’d walked across the entire beach now - not that it was that big - and headed up another flight of stairs to a set of turnstiles that seemed to lead into some kind of gift shop.
They pushed through, the metal gates clanking as they turned, and were met with a barrage of Sister Rachel’s face. It was plastered over posters, postcards, banners, and framed icons. There were also smaller copies of this Father Comstock, all beard and powerless posturing, his image dull and worn next to the smooth glossiness of the Prophet.
Helena stopped eating abruptly, mouth hanging open. Her tongue was solid pink and her face was pale.
“Sister Rachel,” she whispered. Her eyes darted around the room as if expecting one of the images to come to life and step off the paper. Sarah didn’t blame her - the eyes of every visage followed her as she wandered around the store.
There was the most common study of Sister Rachel The Prophet with a golden halo. Sister Rachel standing in a long white gown, balancing a sphere of fire in her hand. Sister Rachel spreading her arms over a crowd of people - Sarah could tell it was supposed to be a protective gesture, but she found something rather predatory about the woman’s stance. Sister Rachel with an angel behind her, face hidden but topped by golden curls, wings outstretched. She darted a glance at Helena, who had gone back to the fairy floss, but now ate at it in a hurried fashion, like it could be grabbed away from her any second, her eyes still wide and apprehensive as she stuck close to Sarah.
“C’mon,” Sarah muttered. “Let’s get out of here, get to the Aerodrome.” She raised an eyebrow and Helena nodded, a tiny scared smile flashing across her face. Sarah slung an arm across her shoulders.
“Don’t worry,” she said quietly. “I won’t let her hurt you. Or take you back. All right?”
Helena nodded again, smiling properly this time, and leaning into Sarah for a moment. She pointed at a large basket near the exit, and made a face. It was full of miniature versions of the angel where she had been held.
They headed up the next flight of stairs, and found themselves on a boardwalk, looking down upon the beach. There were small stalls selling boxed chocolates, and flower bouquets, and offering to take their photographic portrait. Sarah eyed the crowds nervously. The longer they were here, the more likely news of the False Shepherd was to spread and she didn’t want to get cornered. What could they do, jump off the side? Her gaze was dragged down and she realised that the land far, far below them was visible. She stepped closer to the railing along the boardwalk and stared intently. Yes, she could see green lands and rivers and lakes and even the shape of buildings, all tiny like she was looking down at a kind of toy. She realised she had been holding her breath, and let it out, raggedly, and half-laughed at herself.
Helena joined her, shading her eyes to look.
“I can’t wait to see what it’s like down there,” she said, dreamily, then took another huge bite of her floss. Now not only her tongue, but her fingers, and much of her lower face was pink. Not to mention parts of her shirt.
Sarah turned and leaned against the railing, folding her arms and looking down at her boots.
“It’s...alright. Some of it’s beautiful.” She frowned, then shrugged. “Some of it isn’t.” She looked up and groaned as she saw Helena engaging a couple in conversation. Then she saw the red hair and heard the posh accents and groaned again.
“Oh, they’re both so pretty.” She heard Helena say as she bent over whatever the Luteces held in their hands.
“The bird?” asked the man.
“Or the cage?” asked the woman.
“Or perhaps the bird?” he suggested gently.
“Nothing beats the cage,” urged the other.
Sarah glowered at the redheaded twins from behind Helena, arms still folded tightly across her chest, but they ignored her completely, even as Helena spun around to thrust two small open boxes at her.
“Which do you think?” There were two brooches - one with a bird in flight, the other a stylised birdcage. “The bird is so pretty. But there’s something about the cage.” She shook her head, blonde curls flying. “I can’t choose. Sarah?”
Sarah sighed and looked down. It seemed wrong to choose the bird, a reminder of Helena’s warden, but surely the girl had had enough of cages.
“This one,” she said, tapping it.
“Yes?’ said Helena, then nodded. “Yes. I love it.”
“Surprising. I expected the cage.” said Rosalind in an undertone.
“If you're going to be a sore loser, then I shan't do this again.” replied Robert evenly.
“Now that's just sophistry.” There was the barest hint of amusement in her voice.
Sarah looked up again after helping Helena fasten the brooch to her ribbon choker, ready to give the twins a right bollocking...but they were gone. She hadn’t noticed them walking away, they just...weren’t there anymore.
“Goddamnit,” she muttered between clenched teeth. If they ran into them again, she was going to put one of them in a headlock until they explained themselves.
Her frustration was replaced by apprehension as several people along the boardwalk screamed, others gasped, and there were cries of the tower! And the false shepherd, it must be! And where is the songbird? Why didn’t the Prophet foresee this?
She grasped Helena by the elbow.
“We should go,” she said in a low voice. Helena stared at what was left of Monument Island, fully visible now that the clouds had completely cleared. The setting sun behind it outlined the remaining wing and lower torso that calmly bobbed up and down.
“It was my home,” she said in a small, uncertain voice. “It had always been…” Her voice trailed off and she frowned. Sarah tugged at her arm gently.
“I don’t think you’ve been here as long as you think,” she whispered, glancing around the distressed crowds. “But...look, c’mon. We need to keep going.”
Helena followed her, still thoughtfully taking mouthfuls of fairy floss, brow creased. Sarah pulled up short at the sight of a line of people at what seemed to be a hastily-assembled checkpoint just through the doorway of the building they needed to pass through. The blue uniforms of the Columbia police dotted the crowd now, and were patting down the people at the front of the line.
“Shite!” muttered Sarah, pushing her hair back and trying to look like a respectable citizen. Helena peered around the doorway, innocently munching away, eyes darting around the foyer. Then her mouth curled at one corner and she tilted her head, indicating that Sarah should follow her.
She did so.
There was a double set of doors over to the right, and the two of them wandered over casually, Sarah reaching behind her to push the handle down.
“Locked,” she hissed.
Helena made a face as if Sarah was being rather dense, handed her the remaining fairy floss, then dug into her skirt pockets. Her face indicated she was finding many interesting items in there that may come in handy at a later time - then she grinned crookedly and pulled out a small roll of fabric that opened to reveal a few slim pieces of metal. Sarah’s eyebrows raised. She’d never had the patience to learn how to pick locks. She checked that they were out of the coppers line of eyesight while Helena fiddled with the lock, tongue poking at the corner of her mouth.
“How’d you learn how to do that anyway?” Sarah muttered. The vision of the air tearing open passed through her mind. This girl was proving to have many odd talents.
“Locked up with nothing to do,” Helena shrugged, “except read. I learnt - many things.” She nodded sharply as the lock clicked and the handle turned under her fingers. They slipped through the door and softly closed it behind them. Helena immediately plucked the fairy floss from Sarah’s hands and continued nibbling.
They were in a wide corridor, seemingly the employee thoroughfare. There were large notices at regular intervals reminding them ‘Do not speak to the patrons Unless spoken to first!’ and “Keep this area Clean - it’s your Job!’.
Sarah brightened. If they could keep off the public route, all the better.
The corridor led to a small storeroom, and a set of wooden stairs led up to another corridor. As they passed through, the song playing on a radio sitting on a long bench faded out, and an overly-bright voice started a spiel -
Is your housekeeper acting suspicious? Try asking the girl a few key questions, such as "don't you think those Vox Populi folk have a valid complaint against the Prophet?" And "I'm sure some of your friends have attended meetings...I'd sure like to see what they're all about!" Now, back to the music…
“The Vox Populi again…” Sarah murmured. Helena blinked.
“Vox populi, vox Dei,” she said.
“Oh, you learnt latin as well as lockpicking?” Helena nodded, then she translated,
“The voice of the people is the voice of God.”
“ What people though?” she queried. “The ones in charge or the ones doin’ all the work?” She shook her head. “Anyway, the Vox Populi just sounds like more trouble than we should bother with. I just want to get out of this place, not get dragged into some...uprising that’ll likely get us both killed.”
Helena sucked the last shred of fairy floss from the stick in her hand.
“Uprising? You mean like...Les Miserables?”
Sarah looked back at her blankly.
Helena waved the unnaturally pink stick around in the air.
“The Paris Uprising!” she exclaimed, then put the stick back in her mouth and ruminated some more.
“Oh, right. That. Something like that, yeah.” Sarah shrugged. School hadn't been a priority in her life. They reached the top of the stairs and turned another corner, finding two sets of doors marked with large signs stating ‘Colored & Irish Washroom’. She tensed up as she realised there were people here as well, until one of them spoke to her.
“It’s you. Glad to see you still alive, miss.” The young man spoke with an Irish lilt, and he had his arm around his companion, the young woman leaning her head on his shoulder and looking at her with friendly brown eyes.
“Do I...?” Sarah began, then the realization hit her. “You’re from the Raffle.” She shoved her hands in her pockets. “Well, I’m glad to see you’re both still alive, too.”
“We’d never got away if it weren’t for you,” said the woman softly. “Daisy said there were folks like you out there.” She dug in a pocket and pulled out a scrap of blood-red silk. “Take this now. If ya’ll run into Daisy, show her this so she knows you’re on our side.” She handed it to Sarah, who stared down at it, remembering how she had hesitated with the ball, and hating herself for it.
“Thanks,” she mumbled and shoved the fabric scrap into an inner jacket pocket. Helena stood aside, looking from face to face with inquisitive eyes, and tapping the pink candy-encrusted stick against her bottom lip, but staying silent.
Sarah cleared her throat. “We’re, uh, trying to get to the Aerodrome.”
The Irishman pointed at the double doors ahead.
“Afraid you’ll need to go the public way.” He chuckled. “People are on the lookout for the False Shepherd, but the descriptions are way off. You should be safe,” he waggled a hand, “for now.”
Sarah nodded, and shifted her legs uncomfortably.
“Thank you!” Helena said loudly, sliding her hand into Sarah’s. She could feel the stickiness from the fairy floss.
“Yeah, thanks,” said Sarah, adding “good luck..with, uh, everything…” She let Helena tug her along the corridor to the doors.
“They were nice,” she whispered into Sarah’s ear, loudly. “What is this raffle?”
Sarah closed her eyes for a moment and breathed in.
“I’ll tell you later,” she whispered back, and cracked the door open. Scanning the crowd for blue uniforms, she saw none, and opened the door wider.
“Let’s go get ourselves an airship.”
here are some wonderful illustrations by the marvelous modelcitizenthespian on tumblr!
Chapter 6: The Hand of the Prophet
Sarah and Helena make good on an escape plan.
- It all depends on you - Irving Kaufman and his Hotel Astor Orchestra. (an actual Old-Timey song!)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The large hall they entered into was lined with arcade amusements - games with small versions of automatons acting out childhood versions of war. They paused to watch a few of Dimwit and Duke’s antics, which were basically all the same - the clean-cut, blonde, heroic Duke showing up the pudgy buck-toothed Dimwit with the rumpled hair and big nose. Helena watched with a puzzled expression, and Sarah tapped her foot with her arms folded tight. It was so obviously propaganda of the most simple kind that it made her angry. These people were all brainwashed and they were doing it to their kids! Columbia seemed to love informational posters, and they were here in abundance, depicting brave, blonde children defending Columbia from the ‘foreign hordes’. Huge inflatable versions of the pair hung from the high rafters
Even the names given to different areas - Battleship Bay, Soldier’s Field, Hall of Heroes - made it obvious that in Columbia, war was a noble and worthy pursuit. Her gaze swept along the room. There were souvenirs being sold - Duke and Dimwit dolls, complete with miniature rifles , and vending machines - like the one that had blocked her way at the gate to the Raffle, topped with speaking automatons- sold ammunition, vigor upgrades and the blue salts that helped keep the vigors working.
Sister Rachel says there is a great war coming
But was she really going to swoop down and save the world from war...or was she going to start one herself?
Sarah and Helena moved through the crowded hall as quick as they could without attracting suspicion, only coming to a halt when Sarah looked around and found Helena had stopped to talk to a man with an impressive moustache and a tray of yet more fairy floss. Somehow she’d restrained herself to only two servings this time.
She caught Sarah’s exasperated look, and slowly extended one of the pink masses towards her, speedily withdrawing it when Sarah shook her head.
“Sarah,” she said solemnly, “Did you see that man’s moustache?”
“...yeah?” Sarah grabbed her elbow and steered her away from a blue uniform. Helena giggled.
“Sarah. Sarah? Look, Sarah,” Helena presented her upper lip, now the owner of it’s own very large moustache made of fairy floss. Sarah rolled her eyes, but couldn’t stop herself from snorting as the girl wiggled her mouth back and forth, and waggled her eyebrows in unison. Then she stuck her tongue out and pulled the pink moustache into her mouth and grinned.
She knew they had to get out of Columbia as fast as possible...but Sarah found herself lingering at moments like this. She liked being around Helena - despite only meeting her a matter of hours ago, she felt more comfortable around her than she did around others she’d known for years. strange, innit, she shrugged to herself. They wandered down a wide hallway lined with dark wooden benches and large urns of greenery. Signs pointed to the ‘White Only Washroom’.
Helena looked puzzled.
“Why is one bathroom for whites and one for coloured?”
“It just is.” Sarah said. Then she added, “because people are bloody stupid sometimes.”
“It seems unnecessarily complicated,” said Helena, frowning. The hallway turned out to be a dead end and they turned back, past people resting on the benches, some children playing jumping jacks, a mother berating her young son for running after an Irish girl. Sarah and Helena glanced at each other, Helena still frowning. Sarah shrugged.
They re entered the hall and headed towards the wide staircases at the other end.
Sarah nudged her and nodded at a poster for the Aerodrome.
“Keep following the stairs, looks like,” she said quietly. “C’mon.”
They had come to another set of turnstiles, when a woman’s voice behind said “Nicola? Nicola, is that you?” They both looked around and saw a policewoman, clad in one of the blue uniforms. Sarah tensed, ready to step in front of Helena, but she just smiled at the woman and shook her head.
“Oh,” she said politely, “No, I’m not Nicola.”
The woman tapped her chin. “Hm. Are you sure?”
Helena raised her eyebrows at Sarah, and patiently said, “I’m very sure. My name is Helena.”
“Oh, what a lovely name,” said the woman and walked through the turnstiles without a backward glance. Sarah frowned.
“That was...odd.” Helena said as she passed through the turnstile. Sarah followed her.
An announcement came that the park was closing, they were the last customers for the day.
The crowds thinned as they moved upwards, Helena sucking at the last of her fairy floss quietly, Sarah nodding at passers-by who smiled or tipped their hats. She snuck occasional glances at Helena, wondering how she could be so knowledgeable about things like French history, but know nothing about how the world worked now . Maybe her library had been very...selective. Maybe she really had spent her life locked away from the world. Then she shook her head. Someone had sent her here to find the girl and bring her home...she had only been here for a year. But then, where had she been before that? Was Sister Rachel the one who had stolen her? Brought her here in a golden flash of light ...
Pain stabbed through her temples and she bit her lip.
It didn’t matter, really, as long as she got the girl out, right? Let’s just get the hell out of here. She noticed Helena staring at her with a concerned look.
“What?” she snapped. Helena looked hurt.
“Your…” she tapped her nose. Sarah brought her fingers up to her face and wiped blood away from below her nose. She shrugged dismissively.
“It’s fine.” They had reached the top of the stairs now and stood outside the Aerodrome ticket office. Sarah sighed. “Look, Helena. Sorry I snapped at you, yeah? I get these headaches and…”
Helena tilted her head and studied her face. Then nodded and gently patted at her shoulder. She looked past Sarah at something and and pointed.
“You need to eat, Sarah.” There was a hot dog cart set up just outside the ticket office. Right on cue, her stomach grumbled, and she heard Helena giggle.
“Yeah, yeah,” she sighed and dug in her pockets for coins. The vendor eyed her nervously and fidgeted with his tongs.
“One dog...” she heard a small sad sound behind her. “Two dogs, one with mustard, one with - “ she heard a voice whisper everything! “ - the lot, thanks.” The vendor nodded and looked blankly at the cart for a moment, then started lifting lids off the various compartments. Sarah stood, tapping her foot until he passed over two hot dogs that looked edible, at least. She paid him and took a huge bite. Helena did the same and made the sounds of someone discovering something wonderful. They wandered into the ticket office. There were a few people scattered around, doing studiously casual things like reading newspapers and checking their watches. There was one blue uniform and the wearer was busily examining herself in a compact. Sarah’s eyes narrowed. It was the same one who had spoken to them just before. She scoped the room.
It was all a little too casual. And quiet. No one was speaking except for the hot dog vendor, who was replying in a stilted manner to an equally stilted customer enquiry about sauerkraut. It was so quiet she could hear the large clock above the exit ticking. She walked up to the counter and leaned on one elbow, smiling at the man behind it. He was on the telephone and averted his eyes from Sarah’s, speaking in hushed tones. She listened impatiently, tapping her fingers on the wood. Helena lingered in the centre of the room, savouring the last bite of her hot dog, and gazing around with interest. Her fingers worried at her sleeves, as if part of her was picking up on Sarah’s concern.
“I don’t know...both...I suspect she’s carryin’ something. Sure, we can get both apples with a single pick.” He jumped as Sarah hit the bell on the counter. “Just a minute, there. Hmm, I got it. We’re ready. Send in the bird. Guess I’ll call you back when the matter is in hand.” He hung up.
shite Sarah thought I don’t like this and grinned at him, hoping it reminded him of a shark.
“Two tickets for passage to The Hand of the Prophet.”
“Sure, friend,” the man answered, still not looking at her. “Let me just get those for you.” He rummaged under the counter. There was the sound of the main door slamming shut behind her, but she didn’t take her eyes from him. When he pulled his hand out, it was not holding tickets.
Sarah was ready, and before he could use the knife, she was grabbing his collar and yanking him close enough to land a punch. He fell back, half-screaming through a broken and bloody nose, dropping the knife on the counter. She grabbed it, slashed out at his throat, hearing him gurgle as she spun around in time to see a man grab Helena by the arm. She cried out...and then the blonde girl kicked him hard in the crotch, and brought her elbow down on his bowed head. Sarah sent the knife through the throat of a second man reaching for her. Blood spurted and his hands clawed at the knife as he staggered backwards and fell.
The two girls stared at each other for a long second. There was blood on Helena’s face and a look of shock, then her jaw set in a way that Sarah recognised, and she struck out at the policewoman who tried to grab her arm.
“Don’t touch me,” she hissed at her, and the other five men now fanning out and advancing.
“Get the specimen!” shouted the policewoman. “And the other. Alive.”
Sarah slipped her hand into the Sky-hook, moved quickly forward, and pressed it against the back of nearest mans head. She lightly pressed the trigger and sent the hooks whirling slowly next to his ear. He froze, hands lifting, eyes sliding sideways towards her.
“The Prophet sends her regards, False Shepherd,” his voice was almost steady, but his hands trembled. Faith sometimes became elusive when death was staring you in the face...or tapping at the back of your skull.
Sarah snorted dismissively, brought her boot down on the back of his knees, then knocked him out with a blow of the Sky-hook.
Helena was now in the middle of a knot of people, face white as she struggled. As Sarah started to run forward, she felt the air thicken, and suddenly it was like running through water. She called out Helena’s name - or tried to - her voice swallowed up into silence...and then she watched in astonishment as the tight group of people became an expanding circle of flying bodies, the thud as they hit the various walls sounding very far away.
There was a sound like air rushing back in, and Sarah found herself moving again, skidding to a halt beside the blonde girl, who was staring down at her hands with a bewildered expression. She looked up at Sarah, her mouth open.
“How did you…” Sarah began, then shrugged, and holstered her gun. “Is that one of those Vigors, or somethin’?”
Helena shook her head.
“I just. Didn’t want them touching me.” She was turning her hands over and over, experimentally waving them in front of her. “Huh.” She looked around at the bodies, biting down on her lower lip and tugging at her sleeves. “Did I kill them?” she whispered.
Sarah wandered over to the nearest one and poked it with a boot. The policewoman’s head moved slightly and one eye half-opened, fluttered shut again.
She shook her head.
“Still alive. But we should go before they get up again.” Looking around, she thought - they really weren’t expecting that , were they? Helena has tricks up her sleeve that even she doesn’t know about. Sarah glanced at her speculatively. So the Lamb had some magic after all...is this why the Prophet had her locked away? Was she a threat? A weapon? Was she the only thing that Sister Rachel was afraid of?
Helena caught Sarah’s stare, and placed her hands behind her back, looking at the floor. Her eyes moved to the body of the man with the knife in his throat, and flicked back up to Sarah. Then down again.
“Have you killed many people,” she asked the floor.
“Only the ones who tried to kill me first.” She sidestepped the question and fidgeted with the bandage still around her hand. It was spotted with blood - but not her own, so that was alright.
“Look. They have your description now...mine too, I guess, so it’s gonna be harder for us to slip through the net. Now we just need to,” she waved a hand, “keep ahead of them.”
Helena nodded and finally met Sarah’s eyes again.
“So, did you have books on fighting in yer tower as well?” Sarah changed to a light-hearted tone as she headed to the metal gates that were rolled down over the exit, trying to lift one with a grunt. Helena’s face brightened.
“Yes, many!” She joined Sarah, grasping at the bottom of the gate and yanking. It slid up a few inches, then crashed down again. “Judo. Boxing.” She stood upright and held her balled fists up in front of her face, bounced on her feet, throwing a few jabs at Sarah, who gave her a crooked grin.
“You got my back, yeah?” she teased, wanting to clean the blood off Helena’s face, wanting to not need her to fight, wanting to just...take her home. She shook herself. Take her home to her family . That’s what she meant. That was what she was gettin’ paid for.
Helena stopped her boxing display and blinked owlishly at Sarah, then nodded. Sarah grinned and bent down again, fingers gripping the gate.
“Good. I feel much safer now.” she said, then pulled. Helena did the same, with a matching grin.
They managed to lift the gate just high enough for them both to sidle under. It dropped back down with a crash that echoed through the wide corridor ahead.
They were led around the back of the ticket office, and then outside to a gondola station. Sarah again felt the dizzying realization of being up in the clouds. She could still see snatches of the earth far below, and when she felt Helena’s hand sneak into hers and squeeze it comfortingly, she squeezed back. Helena pointed at the gondola parked on one side of the platform, and Sarah looked up, and up, at the line that curved upwards and disappeared into the clouds. It stretched all the way up to the Aerodrome proper - a large floating building with the name picked out in lights that glowed gold against the darkening sky.
There was a flash of light somewhere below them that lit up the clouds, and a noise that resembled thunder. Sarah shook free of Helena’s hand and grabbed the rail, leaning over the side of the platform. There were several of the gunships moving purposefully through the air towards another, smaller group . The former had bright red banners flapping over the sterns, the edges jagged and torn. Straining her eyes, Sarah could see those on board had red sashes over their clothes, which seemed to be a pastiche of different military uniforms. The other boats contained Columbia Authority men and women, clad in blue.
“Looks like your uprising has begun,” she tossed over her shoulder. Helena joined her at the rail, biting her lips in what was either fear or excitement. Sarah frowned at her.
“A lot of them are gonna get killed,” she said. “On both sides.” Although, she added to herself, anything that distract the Authority from us...
Helena frowned as well, and Sarah thought is that what my eyebrows do?
“You’re right,” she answered, looking down at her hands. “But…”
They were interrupted by another great rumble. It was a small cannon mounted on the head gunship, aimed at the Columbians, of the type that Sarah had used the Possession vigor on during her run through the city. It blasted a hole in the side of the closest ship, but the crew stayed onboard, and fired back. The gun flashes were bright against the gathering gloom.
“C’mon, Helena, let’s leave ‘em to it.” Sarah moved towards the gondola. She didn’t want to get caught in the crossfire of what looked like the beginning of a civil war. Helena followed, trailing her hand along the rail and looking back at the gunships, the gunfire reflecting in her eyes and giving them a golden cast. Sarah paused as a memory flickered across her mind, gone as quick as her feet can move.
The gondola was simply built - basically a deck with a tiny cabin at either end, and cables leading up to the Aerodrome. Both doors were locked, and Sarah cocked her head at Helena, who tilted her head in response and rummaged in her pocket for the lockpicks. Once the doors were open, the gondola seemed simple enough. Pull the lever and it followed the cables.
She just hoped it wouldn’t attract undue attention from the firefight below.
The gondola started smoothly and they began their ascent. Sarah leaned against the cabin door, arms folded. Helena gazed out the windows, winding her fingers around each other and pressing her lips together. The skyline beyond her was really quite beautiful - as the sky darkened, Columbia’s lights came on, and presented a scene out of a fairytale. Buildings were lit up in a rainbow of colours, various billboards glowed softly. Sarah could see a ferris wheel slowly turning on one of the islands, lights making it a spectacular spiderweb. She wondered how big Columbia actually was . What with the constant movement of the different islands, and the layered elevations of the sections, it was almost impossible to tell. Her reverie was broken by a soft voice saying her name.
“Mmph?” she said blankly.
“Sarah...why did you come here? You said you were sent to take me home. Who sent you?” Helena’s eyes shone in the dim lights. Sarah felt the urge to hug her, again, but stayed where she stood, and sighed.
“Honestly? I have no idea. I was paid by an...agent. They said you were missing and your family wanted you back.” She pushed a hand through her hair. Something stopped her from telling Helena that the Luteces were involved. She wasn’t sure why. “Got money to burn, whoever they are.” Her boots started tapping against the deck. “Had a photograph of you. And that key that got us out of the tower…”
Helena wound a strand of hair around a finger, staring at Sarah thoughtfully.
“So...it must be someone from Columbia. Or they’ve been here.”
Sarah frowned. It seemed the bloody Luteces had more than been here - they helped build the damn place! So, why go out of their way to contact Sarah and send her on this merry chase? It didn’t make sense!
“But...you do have a family somewhere, yeah? Helena, you’ve only been here a year!”
She shook her head.
“No. I’ve always...I’ve always lived in Columbia. I…” she trailed off, rubbing her forehead. “I...remember.” Her eyes flicked to Sarah, away, then back. She took a deep breath.
“The last year is clear. Before then is...fuzzy. I was...very sick. For a while. Sister Rachel...helped me.”
“By locking you up?” Sarah asked indignantly. “By having you spied on?”
Helena shook her head again, voice starting to shake.
“To keep me safe . To make me better .”
Sarah’s voice rose.
“They stole you from your family, and had you locked up so they could study you, Helena. They called you a specimen ! There was all kinds of weird shite in that tower, not including your giant bloody mechanical friend!” She felt a sudden coldness. The songbird... send in the bird the man in the office had said. Just what they needed. She scanned the sky outside but saw nothing but fairy lights. As she turned her head, she thought she saw another flicker in the air, like the strange light she had seen from the beach. Then it was gone.
Helena was pressing her lips together tightly, and staring out the window as Sarah shouted. When she stopped shouting and looked at Helena a little shamefaced, she slowly sidled closer to Sarah and whispered, as if she were afraid of being overheard.
“Sometimes. I dream. Of another place.” Her hand slid into Sarah’s. “And you were there.” She was trembling. “I used to think it was just...me. But now I know. It was you.” Sarah swallowed the rage she’d felt a moment ago, and slid an arm around the girl’s shoulders. “I told Sister Rachel about the dreams,” she continued into Sarah’s shoulder. “She. She never visited again after that.”
The gondola rocked slightly as it climbed and the wind blew, masking any far-off sounds of gunfire. The tiny cabin was warm and the buildings floated serenely in the distance, twinkling.
“When I saw you. And you...were real .” Her hand gripped tight. “It makes me think. The place in my dreams was real. Also.”
Sarah looked at the blonde girl's hair, tinted with faint coloured light, and the eyes that were identical to her own, and thought about the dreams she’d had. But they were just dreams, they didn’t mean anything. They couldn’t .
“Hey,” she whispered back into the blonde curls, “this place...is it...like there’s this green light..and water…”
Now Helena was holding both her hands and she pulled back a little to look Sarah in the face. Her eyes were wide.
“Yes!” she exclaimed. “Like being underwater!” A smile pulled at her mouth. She was suddenly excited again, like she had been on the pier. “We have a connection, Sarah! You feel it too...don’t you?”
Sarah looked away, staring out the window at the lights. Columbia was awfully pretty from a distance. She ran a hand through her hair, pulling at the few tangles left after her dip in the bay earlier.
“I don’t…” she started, then worked her jaw back and forth. “None of this makes any sense!” she was trying not to shout again, but Helena shrank back a little anyway. “I grew up in London. I can remember everything!” But, to her horror, Sarah found she couldn’t recall what her foster-brother’s face looked like. Mrs S, yeah. The sharp blue eyes and an Irish accent that could be soothing or strident was burned into her mind. Yet other details seemed to float away as soon as she put an effort into picturing them. She rubbed her forehead. “Sorry.” She glanced at Helena and tried to smile. “I just don’t understand half of what’s goin’ on right now. I mean... look at us.”
She waved a hand, trying to convey the confusion of their resemblance and her inability to explain it.
“We could be bloody twins! But we can’t be!” She slapped a hand down against the door. “God!”
Helena wrapped her arms around herself.
“Maybe. If we get to London…” she said softly, lifting one shoulder in a lopsided shrug. “I just know. I need to go there.”
Sarah tapped her fingers against the door. They were nearly at the Aerodrome now, the sign spelling out the name in hundreds of golden-yellow light bulbs curving over another grand building, all arched windows and marble columns and frescoes of angels. A great metal frame rose up behind the signage, and the Hand of the Prophet sat in dock at the top, high above them. She felt her spirits rise slightly. They were nearly free. Her teeth bit into her inner cheek as she thought.
Take the airship to London? Or to New York? Take Helena where she wanted to go, or where Sarah was being paid to take her?
New York would have answers...but maybe London would too. There must be a reason for the girl being so drawn to the place. Sarah had a sudden, sharp need to sit down at the old, scratched-but-highly-polished kitchen table with Mrs S, and have a cup of tea. Maybe she could make sense of all this.
The gondola halted with a gentle bump , and the two girls looked at each other silently. Then Helena smiled tremulously and stepped out of the cabin. Sarah followed her onto the deck. They both stopped as they saw the poster bearing Sister Rachel’s face that greeted them on the landing.
“Can’t bloody get away from her, can we?” Sarah said, trying to lighten the mood. It fell somewhat flat.
They climbed the stairs, and slipped through the doors. There was a wall directly in front of them, forcing them left or right. Sarah put out an arm to stop Helena when she heard noises beyond. Ambush, she thought. Of course it couldn’t be that easy … She sidled over to the right side and took a quick peek around the corner. A large room, several more large-scale paintings of Sister Rachel, a double staircase meeting at an elevator door. She eyed the distance, and counted only six blue uniforms.
Putting a finger to her lips, she silently unholstered her gun, then slipped her other hand into the Sky-hook. Helena gestured back, making a pushing motion. Sarah nodded, pointed at the left end of the wall. If the girl could use that - ability, or whatever the hell it was, all the better.
She managed to shoot two of them before they started shooting back, and whaled one with the Sky-hook when he rushed the wall, splitting his skull. Then she saw a swirl of movement on the other side of the room, and the remaining three police flew upwards, then sideways, hitting the wall and sliding down to the floor. Sarah nodded approvingly. Helena nodded back. They ran up the stairs on either side, meeting at the elevator door, Helena jabbing the button impatiently, hopping from foot to foot. The doors pinged open and they were inside, where she pushed the UP button, and sighed, leaning back against the lift wall.
“I can’t believe,” she said dreamily, “That I’ll finally get to see London…”
She jerked backwards suddenly, and waved her hands in front of her face. Sarah stared.
“You alright?” she said.
“Bee! Bee!” Helena sputtered, hands a whirlwind.
“Oh, bloody hell,” Sarah muttered. “Just...squash the damn thing.” She could hear the buzzing now, and flicked a finger as it came perilously close to her ear. She missed.
“No, I can’t!” Helena’s voice sounded shocked at the suggestion, even as the timbre was slightly hysterical. She looked at Sarah, pressed her lips together, then muttered what sounded like a prayer and gestured like she pulling curtains apart.
Sarah watched open-mouthed as she realised the girl was opening a tear. And shooing the bee through it. She shook her head.
“Helena, what the bollocks is that?” The tear shimmered and flickered a little, but Sarah could see a blue sky and roses on a balcony, as if they were looking out a window in another part of the world. Helena glanced at her, half-smiling.
“Oh,” she said matter-of-factly, “It’s a tear. I used to open them all the time in the tower.”
“Yeah, but... what is it?” Sarah repeated.
“It’s like…” Helena lifted her eyes to the ceiling and pulled at a strand of curls. “Like...a window. Into another world. LIke this world but...not.” She smiled. “Mostly they’re not that interesting. Maybe...a different lampshade, or coffee instead of tea?” She reached out and picked one of the roses, and its scent filled the lift. “But sometimes there are beautiful things.” She stepped forward and tucked the rose into one of the buttonholes in Sarah’s jacket. Sarah smiled back at her, then glanced out the window to marvel at the sight.
Her smile dropped as she saw a dark shape flash across the sky.
“Helena -” she said urgently, “I think you need to close it.” The shape flew past again, turning and presenting a dark silhouette of wings against the blue. “Helena! Now!”
The girl spun around in time to see the Songbird rear up as it spotted them, then swoop towards them. Helena was pushing her hands together, or trying to, but it looked like she had an invisible wedge between them.
Sarah shouted again, being helpless to do anything else, and Helena gritted her teeth.
The tear snapped shut just before the Songbird reached it and they heard it scream, the sound fading away quickly.
They both stood looking at each other in shock for a moment. Helena moved closer to Sarah, and before she could move again, Sarah grabbed her hand.
“Shite, that was close.” she breathed. She could feel the other girls pulse racing in time with her own. “Wait...he’s not gonna be waiting for us outside, is he?”
Helena shook her head.
“In another world. Maybe.”
The elevator dinged as they reached the top, and they stepped out onto a narrow platform that led to the airship. They both made a face as they were confronted yet again with the giant face of Sister Rachel. Sarah still felt like she was watching them the entire time through that damn silver eye. She gave the portrait a small, smug grin.
“Thought you’d put up more of a fight than this.” she muttered, half to herself.
Helena tugged at her hand, eager to board.
The airship was luxurious inside - rich red velvet seats, dark wooden shelves holding a small library above a well-stocked bar, bowls of fruit and baskets of bread rolls, doors that led to a similarly luxe yet somehow sterile bedroom suite, completely furnished in shades of white and ivory and eggshell. Sarah whistled.
“Could get used to this,” she laughed as she bounced on one of the velvet seats. Helena was already examining the various levers and handles on the control panel.
“Looks simple enough,” she declared, pulling and pushing. Sarah leapt up and joined her, pushed a bundle of tools out of the way, and reached out to still her hands.
“Look, Helena. We have a choice here. New York or London.” Helena blinked.
“Yeah. That’s where your family is. Or whoever it is that’s payin’ me to find you.” She rubbed her forehead. “They’ll have answers. One way or another.” She met Helena’s eyes, raising her eyebrows.
“But…” the girl said helplessly, “ I have to go to London. I need to. I just -” She looked down at her hands. “I just know I need to get there.”
Sarah sighed. Maybe it would be easier to just take her to London first and see what happened. Maybe she could drop in on Mrs S and let her know she was okay. New York would still be there…
She threw her hands up in the air.
“Alright then! London it is!” She finished entering the coordinates that Helena had started, then pushed the button that started the engine. The thrumming sound came up through the floor, there were a few jerky movements, and then the airship had lifted free of the dock and was sailing west. Helena laughed, but there was a shrill edge to it.
“I’m really leaving,” she said quietly, “I’m really leaving, I’m really leaving, I’m really -”
Sarah glanced at her, frowning. The girls face was pale, paler than usual, the pink bags under her now-glassy eyes suddenly more pronounced. Her hands gripped the edge of the control panel so tightly the knuckles were white.
“Helena?” Sarah touched her shoulder, gently. “What’s...are you alright?” She was staring out the window, but in the way that suggested she wasn’t seeing anything. Her head turned as Sarah touched her.
“I’m really leaving. I’m...really leaving? I’m leaving...Columbia?”
“Yeah, you’re really leaving,” Sarah reassured her, taking in the sweat beading at the edge of her golden hair. “It’s gonna be alr -”
Helena spun and hit her on the side of the head with a wrench.
Sarah was dimly aware of the wrench falling to the floor and Helena covering her mouth in horror. Then everything went black.
Oh no! What's up with Helena??
Chapter 7: The Voice of the People
Sarah makes a deal, and searches for Helena again.
There was a loud rumbling sound, and pinpoints of light, and pain. A lot of pain. Later, Sarah remembered flashes of activity as she’d swam in and out of consciousness.
The wrench falling to the floor with a clunk.
Helena backing away, looking panicked, vanishing out the door.
Gunfire. Shouting. A woman’s voice.
She came to fully with her head and shoulders hanging out the airship door. For a second she stared in incomprehension at the upside down skyline of clouds and inverted buildings, then began to struggle upwards.
“Oi!” she yelled, “What the bloody hell are you playin’ at!”
She wanted to kick whoever was holding her legs down...but on the other hand, they were holding her legs down. And keeping her from going for a very long drop. So she satisfied herself with cursing some more, until she was dragged back into the airship.
“Fresh air did the trick, Daisy,” Sarah heard a voice say good-naturedly. “This one’s awake.”
She tried to sit up, winced, and settled for resting on her elbows as she looked up at the woman leaning against the control panel. She was dark-skinned, wore khaki breeches and a white button-up shirt with a bright red scarf looped around her neck, and knee-high boots. Sarah squinted through the pain in her head. She couldn’t be much older than Sarah, but she was clearly in charge here. Other people bustled around the small space, gathering the food, looking longingly at the alcohol but not touching it, sorting ammunition and weapons, tending to their wounded.
The woman would occasionally point and give an order. Now she stepped forward and leaned over Sarah, a few locs falling loose of the ponytail on her neck, hands on hips. Her dark brown eyes were serious, but there was a curve to her lips that seemed amiable, if not friendly. Sarah realised her own mouth was hanging open a little and shut it with a snap.
“So,” the woman said, “So you're this ‘False Shepherd’ we been hearing so much about. Caused a mess of trouble at the raffle.” Her voice was grudgingly approving. “Young Mary and Jimmy were lucky you came ‘long.” She held up the scrap of red silk she’d been winding around a finger. “Found this in your jacket.”
“You’re Fitzroy then?” Sarah said warily.
“Nothin’ but.” Daisy said.
She struggled to a sitting position, managing to slide up the wall. Daisy gestured at one of the men and he brought over a metal cup of water. Sarah took it gratefully, the water sliding down her parched throat and helping the headache recede a little.
‘Thanks.” She nodded at Daisy, groaning at the movement and clutching at her head.
“Someone got you real good, Shepherd,” she observed, sounding a little amused.
“Yeah,” she gingerly touched the lump near the back of her head. “She sure did.”
Daisy’s eyebrows arched.
“That lil blonde thing we saw running out of here?” She snorted. Sarah looked up at her, half-smiling at herself, and lifted her shoulders in a shrug.
“She’s got some tricks up her sleeve, that’s for sure.” She pulled herself to her feet, then bent over and put her hands on her knees until everything stopped spinning. Why the hell had Helena attacked her? Something was very wrong - she’d looked...odd. Sick or somethin’. Now she was off wandering around by herself with half the city looking for her and…
“Look,” she said in what she felt was her most reasonable tone of voice. “I got no problem with you, or the Vox, but this is my airship and I need it, so - “ She was interrupted by a snort.
“ Your airship?” Daisy said incredulously. “Really? 'Cause it sure looks like the ol' Prophet’s airship to me.” She looked at Sarah with a challenge in her eyes. “And the Vox need it more.”
Sarah stared at her.
“But...listen...I’m not looking for a fight but…”
Daisy stepped closer.
“There’s already a fight, Shepherd,” she said softly, gesturing at the several wounded fighters lying on the floor. “Only question is, which side you on? Old Comstock was the god of the white man, the rich man, the pitiless man. And Sister Rachel? She plays along the same rules, ‘cause it works to keep her on top. The only thing she really believes in, is herself. But if you believe in common folk, then join the Vox. If you believe in the righteous folk, then join the Vox.” Her voice had risen and she spoke passionately. Sarah could see why they followed her - into death, even. She hesitated, weighing up the cost of pitching in with the rebellion and probably getting killed in the process, against the chances of getting a favor out of Fitzroy and finding Helena. She sighed.
“I just want the airship back.” she said, not quite looking Daisy in the eye.
“And the Vox shall give her to you.” Daisy said. There was a note of disappointment in her voice - but Sarah was used to disappointing people. “But first, you must help the Vox. Down in Finkton, there's a gunsmith who can supply weapons to our cause. Get our guns from him, and you’ll have your ship back.” A card flicked between her fingers, and she handed it to Sarah.
She stared at the card - Mr. Chen Lin, Gunsmith - and closed her eyes for a moment, groaning inwardly. Not only had she lost Helena, now she had to run around this damn city again doing errands for - she sneaked a peek at Daisy while the woman was turned away, her eyes straying down the entire length of her figure - someone with their own damn army. A damnably attractive someone, too. Sarah would never admit it, but she wanted to impress her. Idiot she muttered at herself.
“Bloody hell,” she snapped, “Fine!” Her hand went to her holster and she frowned. “Oi, where’s my gun?”
Daisy grinned and picked the pistol up from the table, tossing it in her hand and catching it with the handle pointing at Sarah.
“Extra ammo in your bag there,” she nodded at the satchel, then studied Sarah’s face for a moment. “That girl is the Lamb, ain’t she? You just gonna spirit her away from here in this airship?”
“Yeah?” Sarah said defensively.
Daisy looked at her almost sympathetically.
“The Prophet ain’t one to let go of her pets,” she said, picking up another handgun and checking the bullets, spinning the chamber as she talked. “The girl could come in handy as a bargaining chip, though, if you can find her again…”
“No!” snapped Sarah, the anger instant. “We’re not gonna use her for anything. I’m here to take her home , that’s it!” She rubbed her forehead fitfully. “If I can bloody find her,” she muttered under her breath. Now the girl was between two armies. The Songbird could snatch her up any moment. Sarah shouldn’t be so worried - Helena could protect herself, and no one was going to kill her - but…
She missed her. Dammit.
“Wait,” she said, “Finkton? As in, that Fink bastard that runs the raffle?”
Daisy’s mouth curled in distaste.
“The same,” she spat.
Sarah smiled grimly.
“If I run into him, I’ll be sure to send your regards.” she told Daisy, as she shrugged on her coat and looped the satchel back over her shoulders. The Sky-hook slid back into her belt.
Daisy snapped shut the gun she was toying with, placing slender fingers on the hilt of a large Bowie knife at her waist.
“I plan on givin’ them to him myself.”
Sarah nodded in understanding. Then she fiddled with her tie, loosening the knot a little.
“So, uh…” she said quietly, feeling the need to talk to someone, and not just because she wanted to extend her time in this woman’s company -“I saw the Prophet earlier. Came after me on another airship, made threats.” She saw Daisy cock an eyebrow. “But since I got He...the Lamb out of the tower, nothing. Just the Authority, and they’re taken down easily enough…”
“The Prophet don’t tend to leave Comstock House.” she said. “Why she even came to Columbia, I don’t know. She don’t like the sky.”
Sarah looked at her sharply.
“You’ve met her?”
“I was workin’ up at Comstock House when she first arrived. Yeah, I met her. Used to be real nice to us all...when she had an audience. Then ol’ Comstock passed, and we were all sent packin’. Has her own special staff.” She lowered her voice. “I suspect she had a hand in helping Comstock meet his maker early.” Daisy looked at Sarah, her expression unreadable. “If she came out to see you, that means you’re somethin’ special.” She gave a low laugh. “Means trouble.”
Sarah combed her hair back with her fingers, and looked up at Daisy through her lashes. The women stared back, then smiled a touch flirtatiously.
“You got a name, Shepherd?”
Sarah hesitated, then answered.
“Well, Sarah Manning, the Vox could use someone like you. Think ‘bout it.”
Sarah shrugged, then smirked, and said,
“So, where are you dropping me off then?”
Ten minutes later, she was dusting herself off on Finkton Docks.
“When I said ‘drop me off’ I didn’t mean so literally,” she muttered angrily. The airship, with Sarah dangling from a rope, had barely slowed down over the docks. Luckily, some big coils of rope had broken her fall. Somewhat.
Looking around, she finally realised it was daylight again - early morning by the look of it. Bloody hell, how long was I out for? Workers swarmed over the docks, loading crates, unloading crates, unpacking crates. There were people scrubbing the walkways that joined the docks together, moving in time to the tinny music playing over conical loudspeakers in slightly creepy unison. Someone had left their lunchpail and cap on a stack of boxes next to the rope coils, and Sarah looked around again, casually picking up the hat and putting it on, twisting her hair up and hiding it underneath. Her stomach rumbled and she shrugged, opened the lunch pail, taking the bread and cheese, leaving the apple and whatever the hell kind of meat the brown lump was.
As she sauntered along the first dock, she munched on the food and the pain in her head eased a little. There were four docks, with skylines above, and gondolas parked in-between. Small buildings at either end which Sarah assumed were offices. And a walkway leading off to Finkton proper. She followed it, skirting around the deck-scrubbers. They kept their heads down and their movements measured.
The music was joined by a voice. Sarah scowled as she recognized it.
“ The most common complaint I hear from the working man is that they are...unhappy...with their lot. "Why torment yourself?" I ask. The ox cannot become a lion. And why would you want to? Who wants all those responsibilities and worry? You do your job, you eat your food, you go to sleep. Simplicity is beauty.
You know, I wasn't born deaf. I hear what it is people are saying. "Why?" you say, "Mr. Fink, we have to work 16 hours a day?" Let's be clear: I would like nothing more than to shorten your work day, but the fact is, I simply can't. Why not, you ask? Well, I can sum it up for you in one word: Morality. You see my friends, the idle hand is the tool of the Devil. You take industry from a man's hand, and what goes in its place? Whiskey, women, and dice! And I, for one, will not have that in our friendly little town. No, sir! I will not!
Now, Jeremiah Fink has a philosophy: You see, a company is like Noah's Ark. You have the lions, whose purpose is to keep order amongst the lesser creatures. Then you have the cow. The beasts of burden. Now, they provide meat, milk, and labor. And then, well, there are the hyenas. The troublemakers. Who only serve to rile up the cattle.
The hyena is a trickster. They live to stir up trouble. So, you beware the hyena. They will leave you with naught but the sound of their laughter!
Do you know what Daisy Fitzroy and her anarchist cronies want for you? "Strike!" they say. "Throw down your tools!" they say. Why, I tell you, the moment you do, you will see what those hyenas are made of! I ask you, where are they going to be when it's cold outside and your boy's got the Mumps and you've got nothing on your table but regret? Don't you see what the Vox Populi are selling? They're selling dreams! And dreams, my friends, they don't come cheap!”
His little sermon over, Fink’s voice went silent and the meditative piano music poured out over the docks again. People aren’t cattle, you son-of-a-bitch. In fact, I wouldn’t trust you near any damn cattle either. She noticed most of the crates were stamped with FMG - Fink Manufacturing, or Fink Industries. She leaned against a wall that followed the walkway, chewing the last of the bread. Closing her eyes, she recalled those words on various things throughout the city - the vending machines, the mechanical horse and carriages, boxes and crates around the stores...Fink had his finger in many a Columbian pie, it appeared. A giant of industry. She opened her eyes and looked around at the men working, not even stopping their work to take a breather, and there no conversation at all.
Sarah followed the walkway, walls rising up on either side. It led around a few corners, the tinny music following her all the way to a large warehouse with massive doors. The peeling letters painted over them told Sarah this was the Fink Delivery Centre. She assumed she could find a way into Finkton through here - otherwise it was a dead end. She pulled one of the doors sideways and it slid open slowly, with creaking protestations. More docks, and walkways, and stairs, leading in and up. She sidled through the doorway, made sure her hair was still tucked away, and strode forward as if she knew exactly where she was going. She’d already passed a dozen idle gondolas before she heard a shout from one of the men.
“Get outta here, snipe. You wanna know what we do to pretty little stowaways? Or maybe you don't.” The tone was menacing and Sarah was moving in it’s direction before she even realised it. Then she saw the solidly built man grab Helena by the arm - because of course it was Helena, she realised with a deep feeling of relief - and before she could call out to her, Helena had made a gesture and the man flew backwards. He landed on his back on the gondola deck, making an oof sound. Sarah couldn’t stop the snort of laughter, and Helena’s head spun around.
“Sarah!” she cried, stepping forward. Her face glowed for a moment, then she wrapped her arms around herself. “Sarah,” she said again, softly. “You’re...okay?” Her face was anxious now, and she watched Sarah warily.
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine.” Sarah waved a hand dismissively. “Bit of a sore head but…”
Helena squeezed her eyes shut. Anxious gave way to panicky , and Sarah stepped towards her, hands out.
Her eyes snapped open, and she started backing away.
“No...stay away!” She held her hands up and Sarah felt the slightest pressure against her body, stopping her from moving any closer. Helena kept backing away. “Just...leave me alone!” She moved one hand forward, then turned and ran. Sarah felt the push of air, and staggered backwards.
“Bloody hell,” she muttered, then shouted after the fleeing girl. “Helena! Wait! Helena!”
Groaning, she started to run. Her head pounded, her feet hit the boards with with speed, and she saw the flash of blonde hair ahead of her. They ran through high piles of crates, and stacks of boxes and coils of rope, past men with shocked faces, past large crates swinging from the skylines. Helena turned her head to see Sarah gaining on her, and started opening tears randomly.
Sarah was slowed down by a marching band suddenly appearing in her way, before the tear snapped shut as Helena kept running. Then she was in the middle of a mass of balloons and streamers and the sound of cheering. The next tear sent a train hurtling straight across her path, and she yelled at Helena to stop, again. They were both running at speed at a brick wall now, and Sarah began to slow down.
She has to stop now, yeah?
Helena barely paused before she’d opened a tear in the wall and ran through it. Straight into a group in the uniforms of the Authority.
The tear closed behind her and Sarah slapped her hands against the wall, shouting Helena’s name.
“Goddamit!” she yelled. She rested her cheek against the cold brick, and realised she could hear voices.
“Call it in, call it in! We got the specimen.”
“Let go of me! Don’t touch me!”
“The Prophet wants you home, girl.”
Sarah pushed herself back from the wall, looking around wildly. There - a door. She ran over, unlatched it and ran into another dimly lit space. Helena had just - run through the wall , not into a different world as she’d first thought. There had to be a way...she ran the only way open to her - along another wooden walkway, bounding up the stairs two at a time. She could still hear Helena screaming and ran faster. Why doesn’t she just...push them away...what are they doing to her……..why did she run away from me
Rounding a corner, she saw a large open space ahead, and slowed down, crouching and slinking along the wall. There were several large open crates lined up against the opposite wall, and when she crawled over to look, she found weapons - sniper rifles, carbines, handguns that looked much more powerful than her pistol. Another crate held a stock of vigors and salts. Sarah picked up a bottle thoughtfully. Shock-Jockey! the label blared. She was likely to run out of ammo sooner or later, even with the spare Daisy had given her. Every little bit helps. She could see Devil’s Kiss. Undertow. Murder of Crows. Her brow furrowed. Possession. She flexed her hands but there was no green mist. She rummaged for the Salts, the bright blue of the curved bottles made it stand out against the more angular and darker designs of the vigors. Sarah pulled the top off the bottle, sniffed it, shrugged, and drank.
Insofar as it tasted of anything, it tasted...blue. And salty.
Then she picked up the Devil’s Kiss bottle, remembered the Fireman, and put it down again. There was another scream and her head shot up. Helena sounded more angry than scared. Sarah grabbed a bottle at random, coming up with the Shock Jockey again. The label showed a fist full of lightning. She exhaled nervously, then poured it down her throat. No whispering this time, no green mist.
“Well, that wasn’t so…”
Her hands started to spark and glow, they hissed, and bolts of pain ran down her arms and shot through her body. She fell backwards, sitting on the floor with her back braced against the wall, eyes wide at the silver crystals sprouting from her palms that spat electric shocks. The skin blistered and peeled and she bit her lips, keeping the scream in her throat. She held her hands up in front of her, staring in horror. Then there was one final bzzzt! And the pain was gone, the skin was whole and pink, her hands were normal.
Sarah let her breath out in relief.
“Bloody hellfire,’ she panted. Another scream came from outside. “Shit!” She crawled over to the open end of the small room and peered into a large sunken courtyard, steps on the right leading up to a dock with a gondola hovering, uniforms everywhere, more steps straight ahead where Helena was flanked by two large men. As she looked, Helena kicked one in the ankle. Sarah wriggled backwards and grabbed one of the sniper rifles, laying low and putting her eye up to the scope. The men were handcuffed to Helena, one on either arm. Sarah swore under her breath. Guess she can’t use her powers if she can’t use her hands...they were better prepared this time. She thought for a moment - shoot the two men, leave Helena weighted down by two bodies. Maybe she’d be able to reach her lock picks and free herself? There was a sky-line that circled the courtyard - she could pick a few of them off from up there. And there was one of those automaten-topped cannons on the gondola. Sarah grinned.
She didn’t understand how the vigors worked, but she knew how to use them. She sent off a pale green shape at the cannon, and it began to shoot rapidly at the uniformed guards. Since she already had the sniper rifle in her hands, she took a few shots, and three guards went down. Then she grabbed one of the smaller guns - a hand cannon - and leapt with the Sky-hook aloft, speeding around towards Helena and her two bodyguards. Sarah could see she’d stopped screaming at them and was now watching Sarah with a mixture of excitement and worry.
Sarah wriggled her fingers, feeling the power build up, then let loose a stream of electricity at the police in the courtyard below her. Strangled screams rang out as their bodies jittered and shook in a highly localised electrical storm. Four more dropped, wisps of smoke the only movement around their bodies. The two men cuffed to Helena were shooting at Sarah, but she was moving too fast. Folding her legs beneath her, she eyed the men and began to count one two three jump
“Helena, DUCK,” she yelled, and rolled as she landed, coming up shooting, using both hands to balance the heavy gun. Both the men’s heads exploded in a shower of blood and brains, leaving Helena on her knees as the weight of their corpses dragged her down to the floor. Sarah quickly scrambled over to her, whispering it’s okay just gotta get you out of these, patting her skirt pockets and pulling out the lockpicks. Unrolling the fabric, she squinted at the tiny pieces of metal, then raised her eyebrows at Helena.
“Little help?’ she said hopefully. Helena pointed with her chin.
“The third one...no, from the left. Yes.”
Sarah poked it into the cuffs and wiggled it around until she felt a click. She felt a smile lift the corner of her mouth.
“Maybe I can get the hang of this after all!” she said cheerfully, as she worked on the other cuff.
“Mm.” Helena said softly. “Then you won’t need me at all.” The second cuff clicked open. Sarah rubbed the red marks around Helena’s wrists.
“Don’t be silly,” she said without thinking, “I’ll always need you.” Then she heard her own words and bit her lip, feeling her face flush. “I mean. I’m still gonna get you out of here.”
Helena was looking at her intently. As Sarah looked back, her eyes skittered away and she stood, pulling her wrists free.
“Sarah...” she started, then stopped, pressing her lips together. Sarah stood as well, noticing there was blood in Helena’s hair and on her clothes, along with a ripped sleeve. Her boots were scuffed now too. She looked at once older and more weary than the girl Sarah had met in the tower, and terribly, terribly young.
“I don’t think you can. Get me out of here.” She looked past Sarah, staring up into the sky. The breeze sent wayward curls floating around her face. The blood was bright against the blonde, and Sarah felt the urge to dig out a handkerchief and clean her up a little.
“I can! I made a deal to get the airship back, and we can…”
Helena shook her head and said “It doesn’t matter.”
Sarah stared at her and her voice got louder.
“I was sent here to take you back to your family, and I’m gonna do that, Helena. We just…”
Helena sighed and kept looking at the sky.
“What if I hurt you again?” she whispered, and finally looked back at Sarah. “What if I kill you next time we try to leave?”
Sarah felt her breath leave her for a moment. Oh.
“Helena. Why…?” she trailed off.
Helena started to look panicky again.
“I don’t know what happened! I was so happy! But then. It felt like a leash.” She closed her eyes. “A leash in my head. Like...silver.” She shook her head and shrugged, arms wrapped around herself. “It was like I. I could see myself grab the wrench. But I couldn’t stop it. I just knew. I had to stop you .”
Sarah had folded her own arms, staring at Helena, then up at the sky, then back at Helena. Her lower lip trembled, and she was on the verge of tears. Sarah stepped closer to her, putting a tentative hand on her shoulder. It twitched, then Helena leaned into her touch, so Sarah put her other hand on the other shoulder, and then Helena was sniffling against her vest, and Sarah was stroking her hair and making comforting noises. She didn’t know what the hell was going on, but damned if she was going to abandon the girl now.
Her thoughts raced. Like a leash in her head… she remembered thinking that the people in this city were brainwashed. Could it be…
Helena had stopped crying now, but kept her head resting on her shoulder.
“What do we do now, Sarah?” she asked, rather shyly.
“Well…” Sarah answered vaguely, “We can get the airship back from the Vox…” she hesitated, the finished in a rush, “...I just need to supply enough weapons to arm an entire uprising.” She grinned nervously as Helena drew her head back and gaped at her.
“But. Where from?”
Sarah waved a hand.
“From a gunsmith in Finkton. Easy money.” She hoped her voice sounded more confident than she felt at the moment. The deeper into Columbia she went, the more trouble she seemed to find.
“And then -” she took a deep breath. If she was right about this…
“I think we should call on Sister Rachel.”
Helena’s eyes widened, then she nodded and wiped her nose on her sleeve. Sarah wrinkled her nose at her, and dug in her pockets for a handkerchief, handing it over. Helena smiled shakily and blew her nose, then tilted her head to the side.
“Sarah?” she said.
“I like your hat.”
aaaand they're back together again -phew!
the music playing over the speakers on Finkton Docks is Nocturne in E-flat major, Op. 9, No. 2 by Chopin, 1832. This is the version from the game, which is crackly and slightly warped. I love it!
Chapter 8: A Hyena in Wolf's Clothing.
Sarah and Helena make their way to Finkton to find Chen Lin, and secure weapons for the Vox Populi.
Sarah and Helena had snuck around the backlots of Finkton Docks for half an hour before finding a small Authority watch house staffed by a skeleton crew, everyone being out on the streets in search of the False Shepherd. We need to get you some clean clothes, Sarah had said. They snuck in through the back door, Helena keeping watch while Sarah poked through a few lockers. There was a sink as well, and she’d wet the small hand towel and cleaned Helena up best she could, then threw her a clean shirt she’d found, along with some trousers. There was a spare Sky-hook in the next locker, which also yielded a big green peacoat with brass buttons which Helena sank into, delighted with all the pockets.
Sarah watched her transfer the contents of her skirt into it - her lockpicks, the key Sarah had given her, handfuls of hard candies wrapped in rustling paper, a bundle of string, a compass, dark red crinkled-up rose petals, a small notebook with a pencil stub, a tiny paper umbrella, assorted feathers, tiny sea shells, a red ribbon which made her head hurt when she looked at it...Sarah sat with her face in her hands for a minute, fascinated.
“Where did you pick up all this junk?” she asked, picking up a round wooden thing with a string looped around it that looked like some kind of odd children’s toy.
Oh,” Helena shook the skirt, seeming satisfied that everything had been removed. “Some of it was in the tower. Mostly through tears, though.” She folded the skirt neatly, running her hands over it repeatedly as she talked. “I remember. At first the tears would stay open. Longer. And it was easier to…” she gestured, “open them.” She frowned. “Then it got harder. But now. It’s easier again. It - “ she paused, pulling at her bottom lip, “I think there are places where they are already.”
Sarah sat up. Those flickers in the sky?
“I think,” she said slowly, “I’ve seen some of them. Like little rips with light kinda -” she wriggled her fingers, “shining through?”
Helena sat up straight as well, almost clapping her hands.
“Yes!” she exclaimed, “umm...spontaneous tears!” She slumped again. “I wish I had some of my books.”
“So,” Sarah said cautiously, “Why haven’t you ever just...walked out through a tear? I mean…you could go anywhere?” She thought about all the times she’d wished for a hole to open up for her to run through, to just...run. She scratched the back of her right hand absent-mindedly, pulling aside the makeshift bandage to get her nails against the skin.
Helena was shaking her head.
“It’s not -” she stopped, screwing her face up as she thought. “Sometimes I stepped through. But. I just couldn’t. Stay there.” Her hands were still fiddling with the skirt. “I couldn’t…”
Sarah folded her arms.
“You couldn’t leave.” she stated. Helena stopped stroking the skirt, and nodded. Sarah tapped her boot on the floor, her fingers against her arm.
“Where did it come from, this...power?” she burted out. “If it’s not one of those vigors, how…”
Helena gave her a look , and pointed a finger upwards.
“God sent it to me.”
Sarah felt her mouth open to make some smart aleck remark, biting her tongue just in time. Then they both looked up, startled, as a voice came from outside the door.
Shite, thought Sarah. They’d been so wrapped up in conversation that they’d forgotten where they were… She held a finger to her lips and Helena mirrored her, then nodded. Sarah rose and silently moved over to the door, sliding her hand into the Sky-hook - when she looked back, Helena had already hidden herself somewhere. Sarah felt a smile twitching at the corner of her mouth. The girl was a quick study.
A shadow moved under the door, then the handle rattled. A voice called out. The door opened, and Sarah tensed as a man in uniform stepped through, turned his head, and saw her. His mouth opened but the Sky-hook fell and he dropped to the floor, Sarah grabbing hold of his collar on the way down in an attempt to minimize noise. She cocked her head, listening to the murmur from the next room. There were only two offices, and the locker room, and she was certain there’d only been three coppers altogether. They’d probably come looking for this one soon. She sighed and dragged him behind the row of lockers, into one of the toilet stalls and pulled the door shut.
“Helena,” she hissed, “let’s get outta here.”
Helena reappeared from the back of the room, pulling the big green coat around her and tugging on a hat. Sarah’s hand flew to her head and her mouth gaped. She hadn’t even noticed that the hat was missing from her head. Then she shrugged and whispered, looks better on you. Helena smiled, teeth digging into her lower lip. Sarah scrounged in the lockers again, pulling out another flat cap and tucking her own hair into it. If they were on the lookout for two girls now... Then the two of them slipped back out the back door.
They soon figured out that they would need to use the sky-lines to get into Finkton proper, or at least to the Finkton Job Centre, the gateway to the town, and Helena was gleeful.
“This is going to be fun!” she crowed, spinning the hooks with a finger and grinning widely.
“More fun than last time, at any rate.” The picture of Helena’s face as she’d slipped from Sarah’s hand and fell into the depths flashed past, then she shook her head. Everything was fine. They were together now. She reached out and tucked the blonde curls under the cap.
When they found the nearest sky-line and jumped aboard, Sarah could hear Helena behind her, laughing the entire way. They leapt off at the doors to the Finkton Job Centre, joining a small crowd of people, all variously looking down-on-their-luck, and saying their goodbyes to their spouses and children. Sarah rolled her eyes as another homily from Jeremiah Fink crackled to life over the speakers.
Now, some folks just aren't satisfied with their place here at Fink Industries. But I tell you, there's a purpose for all living things. Would the Pharaohs of Egypt have been able to stand at the top of their pyramids if the Israelites had not made their bricks? Would the captains of industry have been able to ride the rails had not the Chinamen laid the track for them? So, I say, chin up! History is built on the backs of men like you!
“Yeah, slaves are just playing their part in the great chain, right?” She muttered to herself.
Not happy with your pay? Well, be of good cheer. History tells us the painter Seurat would take no money for his art! Why, that George Washington would only accept the presidency if he were paid a single dollar a year! So, don't let money come between you and your craft!
Sarah let out a string of cursewords under her breath, eyeing the few police around the doors. They were clearly on alert, but hadn’t recognised the two of them. She glanced at Helena and hurriedly poked a strand of blonde hair back under her hat, then pulled on the brim of her cap so it covered her face a little more. Her fingers tingled a little, like they were just itching to let more bolts of lightning loose. Instead, she slid her hands into her pockets and walked nonchalantly through the crowd. Helena followed her, digging into the coat pockets and copying Sarah’s walk.
There were stairs up to the entrance, and the bronze statue at the top of a happy family proclaimed YOUR FUTURE IS FINKTON. It was flanked by two large golden statues of Fink himself, holding an open pocket watch in his hands. Probably has these poor bastards days counted down to the last second, she thought.
They entered, finding themselves in what was basically a huge hall with a windowed office in the middle of it. People stood in lines to apply for jobs which, according to the hastily painted posters hung next to the elevators at one end, didn’t exist. There was one of those automaton machines between the elevators, waving its arms and announcing -
“Welcome to Fink Industries Recruitment! We are not looking for any help! You hear that - no help!” The cheery voice and rakish straw boater failed to lighten the mood.
Armed guards stood in front of the lifts, keeping their gazes on the disgruntled folks muttering in front of them.
“How will we get in?” whispered Helena. Sarah shrugged.
“Illegally.” she answered and jerked her head to the side. “Let’s look around.”
There were stairs off to the side and they slipped down to find a locked door. Helena grinned and pulled out her lockpicks. Sarah kept watch, although she felt the guards upstairs had their hands full already. Nothing more dangerous than hungry and desperate people in a mob, if you push them a little too hard. She wondered how so many had ended up in Columbia. Maybe the promise of Heaven was too enticing to resist for some. Maybe they’d believed it really would be a better place for everyone . The lock clicked open, and the found themselves in another airy space, with yet more stairs down to a room lined with cabinets and desks. Golden statues of Jeremiah Fink were as ubiquitous here as the posters of Sister Rachel's face were throughout Columbia. Sarah carefully shut and relocked the door behind them. Helena pointed up at a sign.
“Service elevator!” she stage-whispered. Sarah nodded, and looked over the balcony, then squatted and gestured to Helena to do the same.
They looked through the bannister; Sarah scowling, Helena wide-eyed.
There was a large figure holding some sort of crank-gun. At least eight feet tall and wearing what looked like…
“He looks like George Washington,” hissed Helena in her ear.
“Another statue?” Sarah whispered back, staring at the figure. It moved, turning, and pacing across the floor. “Uh. I guess not.”
A mechanical-sounding voice issued from the striding automaton.
“Fear not the Prophet's love, nor her judgment.”
"Rejoice, because we have escaped the Sodom Below.”
“The blood of the Prophet shall sit the throne and bathe in flame the mountains of man! "
Sarah watched open-mouthed. Every time she thought this place couldn’t possibly throw up something else to surprise her...meanwhile Helena was whispering rapidly.
“Oh. It’s a - mmm. Motorized Patriot. I read about them. They’re supposed to be. Um. Guides. To show people around the city.”
“With those guns?” Sarah shook her head. “I think they got promoted.”
The Patriot moved jerkily as it stamped back and forth. When it turned, Sarah could see wheels and cogs jutting out of its back. Beside her, Helena pointed and nodded.
“Weak point,” she whispered into Sarah’s ear. Then she frowned. “I wonder if…”
But Sarah was already moving crab-like along the bannister rails, keeping an eye on the Patriot.
“What is anarchy if not a knife in the back of our Prophet? ”
Sarah carefully sidled down the staircase, while Helena watched her from the gallery above, thoughtfully biting at her lower lip. At the bottom of the stairs, Sarah paused, then ran to the nearest pillar while the Patriot’s back was turned, hand on her gun. She looked up at Helena, raising her eyebrows, trying to stop her leg jittering. Helena watched the Patriot and when it had turned its back again, nodded rapidly. Sarah swung out, concentrating on her left hand - the electricity arced out like contained lightning bolts, and the Patriot stopped short as it spread over the metal of its body, hissing and crackling.
While it was frozen in place, she raised the handgun and fired directly into the mechanics, sending more sparks flying. The Patriot let out a roar, starting to turn as the electricity died away, and Sarah moved swiftly, keeping to its blind side and continuing to fire at the protruding cogs, flexing the fingers on her left hand and letting the Shock Jockey loose again.
There were hissing and popping sounds, and a voice full of static stuttered,
“F-f-for the g-g-glory of C-c-columbia!”
Then the bewigged head of the Patriot popped off, flying into the air, and landing on the floor with a metallic bang. The remaining body stood still for a moment, then toppled forward with a crash.
Sarah burst out laughing. She leaned against the pillar, shoulders shaking. Above her, Helena sprang up and clapped her hands together.
“Pop!” she said, in a satisfied tone, and made her way down the stairs, boots tapping on the wood. Sarah had finished laughing by the time she’d reached her, but she gave Helena a crooked grin.
“Pop!” she echoed, then chuckled again. She lifted the cap off her head, and combed through her hair with her fingers, shoving the hat into a pocket, then bending to pick up the crank gun that had fallen from the Patriots hands. “Blimey.” Powerful , she thought, but too slow to get started . She let it drop again.
“Sure is some Utopia they made themselves,” she muttered.
“Some say,” said Helena, not looking up from the ledger she was now leafing through, “that Utopia is not a place, but a people . So. We must choose carefully.” Her eyes flicked up to meet Sarah’s and her mouth pulled up at one side in a smile that seemed to say she had found her utopia already. Closing the ledger, she ran her fingers down the soft leather cover, and said softly,
“Fifty percent of what people earn. Here. Columbia.” She placed the ledger back on the desk and drummed her fingers on it. “It goes to the...Comstock House Foundation.” Lines puckered between her brows. “Which means…”
“...it goes straight to Sister Rachel.” finished Sarah. And Fink gets a lot of bang for his bucks.
Helena wandered around the room, opening desk drawers and poking into shelves, occasionally examining something, and either putting it back, or squirreling it away in one of the big green pockets. Sarah watched her for a moment, and felt the smile on her face after another moment. These quiet moments filled her with contentment - and she wasn’t used to that feeling. Shaking her head, she loped over to her and slung an arm over her shoulders.
“C’mon, Helena. Let’s go find Mr Lin and get out of here.”
Helena was rummaging in a drawer, and looked up at Sarah, leaning into her slightly.
“Wait. There’s something - “ she yanked at whatever was stuck, and the drawer jerked open. Helena pulled out an oblong of burnished metal and wood, with what looked like a gramophone record sticking out of it. Sarah stared at it blankly, then snapped her fingers.
“It’s one of those...what are they called again? Voxophones!”
Helena hummed in agreement, and turned the box over in her hands. There was a small label with a name and date on the back.
“Jeremiah Fink.” she read out. “March 1911.” Her head tilted. “I know that name.”
“Had a run in with him earlier.” She remembered his sneer, and cold eyes. “Should warn you. If we run into him again, it’ll get - “ she half-shrugged, “ - messy.” Then she thought about Daisy and her knife. “Well. Maybe not as messy as it could be.”
Helena was only half listening, pulling at her lower lip in contemplation.
“No, that’s not…” she mused, “Oh. Albert Fink. I think. This is his brother.”
“And what does Albert do? Organise cross-burnings or somethin’?”
Helena looked confused.
“No, he makes music. I have many...I had. I used to listen to his songs. In the tower.” She sighed. Sarah took the voxophone from her unresisting hands, examining it and clicking the little lever that started the shellac disc spinning, startling at the voice issuing from the box.
“The truth is, I don’t have a lot of time for all that ‘prophecy’ nonsense. I tell you, belief is... is just a commodity. Sister Rachel, well, she does produce. But, like any tradesperson, she’s obliged to barter her product for the earthly ores. You see, one does not raise a barn on song alone. No, sir! Why, that’s Fink timber, a Fink hammer, and Fink’s hand to swing it. She needs me -- lest she soil her own. The dear Sister understands this better than Comstock ever did. I suspect her ‘faith’ is more in herself than in the good Lord. And why not, indeed?”
The voxophone spun to a stop, and the needle lifted back into its little slot. The two girls looked at each other, expressions mirrored.
“So,” Sarah said slowly, “Fink does Sister Rachel’s dirty work?” Sister Rachel plays the same line, Daisy had said. She lets Fink run things on the ground while she swans about in a mansion in the sky? Helena was frowning now.
“What did he mean. That her faith is in herself, and not God? I…” Her hands fiddled with her cuffs.
“Yeah. Daisy said the same thing. It’s all just -” she waved a hand in the air. “ - a front. She doesn’t care about what happens down here, so long as she’s still in charge.”
Helena’s eyes widened.
“But. She used to pray with me.” Her hands clasped together, tightly, as if to stop them shaking. “She. Insisted . Every Sunday she would visit and.” She stopped, teeth digging into her lower lip. “Afterwards, I felt…”
She stopped, glancing at Sarah, then looked upwards.
“Afterwards,” she repeated slowly, “I always felt better. Calm. Not…” Her shoulders flexed and wriggled, like she had an itchy back. “Not lonely. Or scared.” She was frowning.
So was Sarah.
“Let’s go grab the lift,” she said, mind racing. She reached out and touched Helena gently on the arm. “C’mon.”
Helena, deep in thought, nodded and followed Sarah to the lift doors, silently watching as she hit the call button with her fist.
Sister Rachel would pray with her regularly. Some kind of...hypnosis, I’d wager. Keeping her under control. But then...why stop?
Sarah dug her fingers into her hair again, frustrated, and winced as she brushed against the lump on her skull. Helena noticed, a guilty look swam across her face, and she looked down at the carpet, lips pressed tightly together. Sarah sighed, reached out, and squeezed her hand.
“Look, Helena. I know you didn’t want to hurt me, alright? We just need to be...careful. Yeah?”
Helena nodded, face serious.
The lift doors opened.
They entered, and Sarah immediately scowled at the posters mounted on either side. The same old ‘False Shepherd’ one that she’d seen all over the city, and one depicting the Songbird in flight over the giant angel tower.
ALL PRAISE THE SONGBIRD, it read, FOR HE IS THE PROTECTOR OF THE LAMB.
Helena’s eyes widened, and she tugged on Sarah’s hand.
“The lamb ? They call me the lamb ?” she stared at the other poster. “And you…”
“Yep.” Sarah said cheerfully. “The False Shepherd, here to lead you astray!” She gave a sort of bow, and Helena giggled, covering her face with both hands. The thimble on her little finger glinted, and Sarah blinked. She’d barely noticed it this entire time, and was suddenly consumed by curiosity. Helena saw her staring, and curled her hand shut, turning her attention back to the first poster, and Sarah thought she looked slightly wistful as she touched her fingers lightly to the Songbirds image, her other hand on the bird cameo at her throat.
Looking away, she pushed the button and the lift began to descend.
As it did, a recording started to play, and Sarah groaned.
“Loves the sound of his own voice, don’t he?” she grumbled.
Greetings! My name is Jeremiah Fink, and I want to share with you my personal creed. What is the most admirable creature on God's green earth? Why, it's the bee! Have you ever seen a bee on vacation? Have you ever seen a bee take a sick day? Well, my friends, the answer is no! So I say, be...the bee! Be the bee!
They went down, down, down. The thick glass window at the rear showed them passing layers of warehouses and factory floors and conveyor belts and cramped dormitories, dominated by a huge clock beyond that was set to only four times - sleep, leisure, prayer, and the largest: work.
Now, some say to me, "Fink, why is it that we get paid in tokens that are only good at the company store?" Well, I'll tell you what: I'll be damned if I'd let any of you poor folk get robbed at some shady establishment. You see, the Fink Company Store brings you Fink products! At a price designed specifically for the Fink worker.
Small billboards with Fink’s mustachioed face, and a variety of slogans slowly traveled past their eyes.
Killing Time Kills Columbia.
Keep Hands and Feet Away From Machinery - Everything Costs Something!
Eyes Forward - A Good Worker Always Keeps His Eyes on His Work.
Now, if somebody comes along and tells you that you are getting the "short end of the stick", do you know what they're really saying? Why, they're saying, "Friend, what you do doesn't matter." "Friend, you're being taken for a fool." "Friend, you're no better than a slave." Well, here's what you tell those stuffed shirts: you say, "I ain't no slave. I ain't no fool. I...am a Fink man, and proud of it."
Fink had his fingers in every pie in Columbia. Small wonder he had the run of the city, while Sister Rachel tended to more - ethereal matters.
Bet she’s got eyes on him though. Eyes and ears. And a bullet ready and waiting - just in case.
As they came into sight of the open air again, both Sarah and Helena made identical snorting sounds at the sight of a huge golden statue of Jeremiah Fink. He held an open pocket watch in his golden hand, and stood stories tall, wisps of cloud around his knees.
“And not even half the size of his bloody ego.” Sarah said, arms folded.
Helena put her head to the side, eyeing the statue critically.
“Very...shiny.” she offered.
Sarah watched Helena fiddle with the thimble on her finger, and half opened her mouth to push the subject, but was startled into silence by the elevator coming to a stop, and the sound of a telephone ringing. Helena’s head jerked around in surprise and they stared at each other for a befuddled moment. She recovered first, and leaned closer to nudge Sarah’s shoulder with her own.
“Are you going to answer that?” Helena nodded at the small box on the elevator wall.
Sarah shrugged, opened the small wooden door, and lifted the receiver.
“Uh, hello?” she said, raising her eyebrows at Helena, who pushed close to her, ears cocked.
“Miss Manning?” The voice of a young lady queried.
“Hold for Mr Fink, please.” The line buzzed for a moment, then the unmistakable voice of Jeremiah Fink boomed through the telephone.
“Miss Manning! Fink here! My dear, we’ve had our eye on you, and I can tell you right now that you are our top candidate!”
Sarah’s mouth gaped. Top candidate? For what? Getting killed? Helena grabbed hold of her arm and mouthed candidate? And Sarah shrugged again. She spoke into the telephone.
“Last time I saw you, you wanted me dead, Fink.” There was silence, then she heard a rather unpleasant-sounding chuckle.
“Why, things change so rapidly in the modern world, Miss Manning. Enemies become allies, businesses merge, the great chain of progress pulls us all along with it! Now, my associate Mr Flambeau will help you with anything you need.” Fink gave another low chuckle and rang off.
Sarah glared at the telephone. The elevator started moving downwards again with a slight jerk.
“What the hell was all that about?” she asked, slamming the receiver down with a satisfying bang and ran a hand through her hair.
“A job?” Helena suggested, twirling a finger in her own hair, the curls coming loose under the hat. “Or…”
“Some sort of trap.” stated Sarah flatly.
Helena nodded, blonde curls pulled tight around her finger.
They stood in silence for the remainder of the ride, Sarah frowning and kicking her heels back against the wall, Helena looking thoughtful.
A trap, thought Sarah, or he wants to make some kind of deal. Hedging his bets.
Finally, the lift reached the ground floor and the doors opened. The two girls stepped out, warily, to find themselves in a high-ceilinged room with huge doors covered with an iron gate opposite them. There was a table covered with an assortment of useful looking items. Behind the table stood a young gentleman in a velvet jacket, and dark hair that reached to his collar, framing his rather round face.
“Ah, Miss Manning,” he said, and gave a shallow bow. “Welcome to Finkton. Please help yourself to anything you think you may need during your visit.”
Sarah looked at the blue Salt bottles, the ammunition, the shotgun, the wad of money. What the hell was going on? Then she heard Helena’s voice.
“What does Mr Fink want? From us?” she asked Mr Flambeau. He looked at her, and Sarah couldn’t see any recognition, or interest at all. Surely he knew who she was? Who both of them were…?
“Excuse me, miss, Mr Fink’s interest is strictly in Miss Manning.” His voice suggested that there was nothing of any interest that Helena could possibly provide, and Sarah spitefully wanted her to throw him up against the large doors behind him with a wave of her hand, and see how bored he sounded then .
“But why…” Helena started, and his placid tone interrupted her.
“So sorry, young miss. But any questions regarding the...lady’s application should be taken up with Mr. Fink directly.” And with that he turned, fiddled with something in a corner, and then the gate rattled up and the doors to Finkton swung open.
Sarah blinked, and Helena’s nose wrinkled.
It was certainly a far cry from the wide paved streets of the upper Columbia, with its trees and fountains and stone angels everywhere. Finkton streets were dusty and only partly paved with cheap looking brick, the buildings low and wide and mostly wooden, and there was a definite lack of greenery. Workbenches were set up on the corners, and figures hurried back and forth with supplies. The doors were open to the long warehouses, exposing the bent backs in front of sewing machines in the closest one. The others banged and thumped with machinery, shadows moving in smoke. Sarah could hear that same piano music that played on the docks, noting the multitude of fluted speakers dotting the buildings.
Bloody hell, probably has his little speeches playing down here all bloody day
There were guards here, too, their blue uniforms standing out against the greys and dull browns of the streets. Sarah instinctively tugged on her cap brim, even though she realised that if she was here on Fink’s good graces, they wouldn’t attack her without reason.
There was a platform straight ahead of them, with job listings on a board. A group stood in the street while a man in a suit shouted at them that there was no work today. The people were shouting back about feeding their families. Sarah tried to ignore it all.
Helena was looking around with interest, hands clasped behind her back. Her eyes followed the people hurrying around the streets, taking in everything they did. Sarah nudged her.
“Hey, let’s find Mr Lins shop. In and out.” she said in a low voice. Helena turned, and took Sarah’s arm.
“You didn’t tell me. Who you made a deal with?” she whispered. “For the airship.” Unease washed over her face, and was gone.
“Daisy Fitzroy.” she hissed, sure that that name would get her into trouble.
Helena grinned widely.
“A great hero. Or the worst of scoundrels!” she said brightly. “Depending on who you talk to.”
Sarah cleared her throat, unable to stop a small smile at the thought of the revolutionary leader.
“Uh. She sure is...something, alright.” Her cheeks felt hot, and she turned her head so Helena couldn’t see.
“Do you trust her?” Helena asked, and Sarah scuffed her boots as they walked, considering.
“Yeah,” she decided. “She’s a straight shooter.”
Helena nodded decisively, apparently willing to trust anyone that Sarah did. They rounded a corner and found themselves in front of Chen Lin’s store, a wide set of wooden stairs leading up to the door, and a sign proclaiming him to be gunsmith and machinist. Sarah wondered briefly why the doors were firmly shut, where all the other workshops were busily open, but the handle turned when she tried it, so she shrugged and walked in. Helena followed and immediately started poking around the shelves that lined the small room.
Sarah glanced around - boxes of machine parts, a barrel of rifles, a locked cashbox - but no Mr Lin. There was another set of doors at the back of the room. Through them was a large and quiet space, with a brightly burning furnace at the rear. The room was empty. She frowned.
Helena followed her through the doors and stopped, looking puzzled. Sarah glanced at her.
“Yeah, I know.” she said. “Something’s wrong.” She led the way up the simple wooden staircase at the side, stopping at a little corner with a shrine set up on a narrow bench. Several candles burned low, and there was incense dust among them. Delicate orchids stood in small vases and flanked a statue of -
“Gautama Buddha.” Helena said in her ear. Sarah jumped a little. “I read about him.”
“Huh.” Sarah gazed at the little shrine. Beautiful and peaceful though it was, she imagined it would be placed on the same level as blasphemy in this city. Helena kept talking.
“The founder of Buddhism. He spent 49 days under a Bodhi tree. Until he achieved enlightenment.” She touched a finger to the statue, stroking the texture of the wood.
“Something tells me dear Sister Rachel don’t cater to idols being worshipped that ain’t her.” Sarah said, listening carefully and hearing nothing from upstairs. “C’mon.”
They mounted the next set of stairs and found a room containing machinery, and work benches, but still no people. There were stools lying on the floor, papers thrown around, signs of a struggle. Sarah’s blood ran cold, remembering the same signs back at the lighthouse and the body she’d found. She drew her gun and circled the room but found nothing apart from metal and wood. And paper.
Holstering the pistol, she bent and picked up a sheet of paper, turning it over to find a drawing of a man she guessed to be Chen Lin. She read the words underneath the picture out loud.
"Gunsmith Chen Lin wanted for known connections to the outlaw Daisy Fitzroy." She dropped it back on the floor. “Bloody hell. We’re too late.” She kicked a table leg. Poor bastard, been dragged off somewhere, and now they wouldn’t be able to get the airship back. She dragged her hands through her hair.
“Sarah,” whispered Helena, “listen.”
Sarah tiptoed over to where Helena stood at the top of the stairs, and cocked an ear.
There was a quiet sobbing coming from below.
They looked at each other, then crept down and peered around the corner together.
A woman stood at the shrine, head bowed and shoulders shaking. Her black hair was shot with grey and pulled into a bun, over brown eyes bloodshot from crying. She looked at Sarah and Helena with no surprise, just resignation. Sarah shifted on her feet, feeling awkward.
“Uh, we’re looking for Mr Lin? Is he...here?” She could already see the answer in the woman’s face. Mrs Lin shook her head.
“Mr Lin, not here. They take him. They - “ she stopped, sobbed a little, then looked at Helena and burst into a stream of Mandarin. Sarah listened, picking up a word here and there, suddenly embarrassed that she’d lived in Chinatown all these months and could barely say ‘thank you’.
Helena, on the other hand, had taken Mrs Lin’s hands in her own, and was nodding and chatting just as fluently. Sarah shook her head in bemusement - more book learning, she guessed.
Helena squeezed the woman’s hands, then turned back to Sarah.
“The police came and took him. The Flying Squad. Whoever they are. To the Good Time Club.” She sucked her lips between her teeth, looked at the floor, fiddled with the coat cuffs. “She wants to know - why didn’t the Vox Populi help? Or Daisy Fitzroy?” Turning back to look at Mrs Lin and the shrine, she added softly,
“She’s praying. For the Buddha to bring him back.”
“Shite,” said Sarah under her breath. She could see by the look on Helena’s face that they were gonna have to go find Chen Lin, and that meant walking into more trouble . Shite shite shite. She rubbed her face, then clapped her hands together.
“I guess we better go break him out then,” she said, smiling at Mrs Lin, who watched her warily, eyes skipping to Helena, then back to Sarah. Then she grabbed Sarah’s hands and bowed a few times, saying what Sarah recognised as a string of ‘thank you’. She felt her stomach sink in response to the woman’s trust. What if we really are too late… She extricated her hands after bowing back, and they left, Helena soothing her with a few more words before they made their way back down the stairs and out into the front room.
She grabbed Helena by the arm before she could walk out the front door.
“This is gonna be real dangerous, Helena. Some special police squad took him, which means they’re probably working him over right now, trying to get information. We can’t just....”
Helena was looking at her, eyes huge. She covered Sarah’s hand with her own.
“You rescued me.” Her voice was soft, but determined. “That was dangerous. Wasn’t it?”
Sarah looked at her, then at the floor.
“Mrs Lin. She’s counting on us. We can’t just…” Helena trailed off. “We need to help her.”
“We will, alright? Just - stay close, keep your eyes open, listen. Yeah?”
Helena nodded, sharply, putting her hand on the door handle. Sarah put her hand to her waist and felt the comforting shape of the gun there. She nodded back, and they pushed the doors open, and headed back out into Finkton.
Chapter 9: Two Sides of the Same Coin.
In the search for Mr Lin, Sarah and Helena find a world of possibilities.
Sarah pulled her hair back and tucked it up inside her cap again. It was warm here in Finkton - the sun was bright but she suspected the temperature also had something to do with the heavy smoke that poured from the chimneys atop the surrounding factories. The area where they were now was less a small town than a huge factory floor. The workbenches all over the streets, crates coming in on the sky-lines, the open warehouses...
They were looking for the Good Time Club, where Mr Lin had been taken...and hopefully still was, alive. Helena was quiet, still wearing the big green coat despite the warmth of the air. Sarah kept looking at her, worried but hiding it under nonchalant smirks. She seemed to be taking what had happened to the Lin’s personally, and if they found nothing to bring back but a body, Sarah didn’t know what would happen.
As they passed by one of the smaller warehouses, Sarah glanced in the ajar doorway and stopped short at the sight of one the tears flickering in the centre. She guessed that was why the place was deserted.
“Helena!” she hissed. “Look.” She grabbed the coat sleeve and tugged her to the door.
Helena’s eyes grew wide.
“A tear.” she said, walking into the warehouse. Sarah followed.
“Can you open it?” She asked, not taking her eyes away as the light flickered again, the colours shifting from white to yellow to crimson.
Helena held a hand up and walked around the tear, her fingers stretching as if feeling the light. Then she held both her hands up and moved them like she was ripping a piece of paper in half.
The tear shimmered and twisted and opened a little more. Music came out of it, loud, and fast, and like nothing she’d ever heard before.
Sarah’s mouth dropped open as a voice filled with passion and pain half-sang, half-shouted words. She felt her hands tingle with electricity, and the hair on the back of her neck stood up. She made out - ome folks are born silver spoon in hand they only help themsel- before the tear snapped closed again. The sudden silence was like waking from a full colour dream back into a drearier reality.
Helena sighed and shoved her hands into her pockets.
“Sometimes they won’t…” She waggled her head side to side.
“Did you hear that? That was...what was that?” Sarah said, still staring at the tear as it glinted silently. “It was....amazin’. I’ve never heard music like that before!”
Helena gave her a small smile.
“I don’t think anyone has heard music like that before.” she said cryptically, tilted her head to the side, and began to walk backwards towards the doors. “Sarah. We have to…”
“Yeah, comin’,” Sarah replied, her fingers still tingling. She reluctantly left the tear behind and joined Helena back out on the street.
People scurried past, seemingly doing their best to avoid even looking at the two of them. Their faces were tired, and while there was much more variance in skin colour among them, all had a greyish tinge to them. Helena looked at all of them with concern. Sarah looked at Helena, wanting to shake her a little. We can’t save everybody. She rubbed the back of her neck. Maybe not even ourselves…
They turned a corner, and there was the Good Time Club, probably the fanciest building in this part of Finkton. Wide sandstone steps led up to a veranda with bay windows and large polished wooden doors, with the ubiquitous golden Fink statue clutching his golden watch in the centre.
The lights on the marquee spelled out SARAH MANNING AUDITION TODAY! in gold. The ‘M’ was crooked.
Sarah ran a hand over her face in bemused horror. Her name in lights.
Helena looked from the marquee to Sarah and back again.
“You’re famous,” she said lightly. Then, more seriously, “Should we just...go in?”
Candidate...audition...what was Fink’s game here? Out loud, Sarah said,
“Let’s check around the back. Maybe a door’ll be...open.” She winked at Helena, and felt oddly uplifted when she returned the wink with a small grin.
The sides of the building were smooth brick and cement, the windows too high to climb to. But behind the lumber stacks at the rear was a door. It was locked, of course, with a lock that caused Helena to drop into a sitting position, and stare at it in silence. When Sarah started to speak, she waved a hand at her, without taking her eyes from the lock. Then she pulled out her lockpicks, studied them seriously, picked three, and set to work. Sarah shrugged, leaning back against the warm brick and watched her work. It seemed to take a very long time, but it was no more than ten minutes later when Helena hissed triumphantly and the door opened.
“Nice work,” whispered Sarah, gently touching Helena on the shoulder. “Be careful, alright?”
She led the way into the narrow corridor. There were two doors. The first opened to a stairwell heading down. Sarah could hear faint voices, but couldn’t make out any words. She closed that door and opened the other one carefully, then motioned Helena through. They found themselves in a dressing room, with cosmetics scattered in front of mirrors surrounded by light globes, and hints of satin and feathers peeking out of a wardrobe in the corner.
“A ‘good time’ for Fink and his cronies,” muttered Sarah. She stiffened as the idea that this was what she going to be auditioning for occurred to her - then she snorted and shook her head and quietly moved to the other door in the room, cracked it open, peering out into the club. She could see figures moving around, a few more gathered around the bar on the first floor. Christ, I could use a bourbon , she thought desperately. Her flask had run dry a while ago.
She closed the door again, grabbing a chair to wedge under the handle. She jumped at the sound of Fink’s voice, spinning around with the gun in her hand before she realised it was another voxophone. Helena held it up in front of her, trying to hide her entire self behind the contraption.
“Bloody hell!” Sarah groaned, her arm dropping. Helena slowly lowered the voxophone, the pink bags around her eyes suddenly vivid against her white face. Sarah holstered the pistol and held a hand out.
“Sorry, Helena, I thought...sorry.” She took the voxophone Helena was holding out, and frowned. “Wait. If you used your...power...would it stop bullets? Gunfire?” She remembered how the air had felt thick, back in the ticket office where Helena had first used it.
“Hm. Maybe...I don’t know.” Helena tugged her sleeves down, covering her hands.
Sarah tapped her foot a few times.
“Well, hopefully we won’t need to find out.” she said firmly, and pressed the lever.
I had thought you a fool, dear brother. When you told me that you heard wonderful music trumpeting from holes in the thin air, I began to doubt your mental integrity. But not only have you made your fortune from these doodads, you have lit the path for me as well.
Helena raised her eyebrows.
“It must be for Albert. Fink.” she said in an interested voice. “He’s hearing music through the tears. And…” she slid a hand free of it’s sleeve and waved it in the air. “Passing them off as his own!” Her hand moved to her face and she pulled on her lips thoughtfully. “I think. From different times .”
Sarah’s eyebrows raised as high as Helena’s.
“Different times? You mean...from another year, or…? I thought they just opened up into another part of the world. Or, parts of another world? Wait…” This was starting to hurt her head, and not in a nosebleed way, just in a ‘not smart enough for this shite’ way.
Helena smiled at her, patiently.
“Think of it like...there’s this world. And then there are a million other worlds. All almost exactly the same. The tears are a...window. Into another version of this world. Or maybe this world but a hundred years from now!” She waved both her hands now, warming to her subject. “I read books on science...physics. Trying to figure it out.”
Sarah tried to follow.
“And what did the books tell you?” She saw Helena open her mouth again, and held up a hand. “Doesn’t matter. We should probably save the science class for later, anyway.” She placed the voxophone back onto the dressing table. “They must be keeping him downstairs somewhere. C’mon.”
Helena nodded and tugged her cap into place. As they crept down the stairs, she whispered into Sarah’s ear.
“The books taught me. There is a world of difference between what we see. And what is .”
Sarah made a mmm noise in response, then held her finger up to her lips. She needed to concentrate on their little mission, not try to understand some kind of...quantum bloody multiple worlds theory. She pushed the nagging worry about what Jeremiah Fink was bringing through the tears to the back of her mind.
The voices were louder now, as they reached the doorway at the bottom of the stairs, and Sarah peeked around the doorway to see two blue-suited Authority guards at the other end of the room. She ran her eyes over the room. Two desks and a block of filing cabinets sat in the centre. A notice board covered with memos and wanted posters was taking the attention of the two guards. She flexed her fingers and aimed.
One guard was enveloped in the green mist of Possession. He shuddered slightly, then drew his gun and shot his partner point blank in the head before she’d even noticed. For a moment he stood, swaying, then blinked and shot himself, his body joining the other on the floor.
Sarah listened for footsteps, or more voices. Nothing. She stood, sliding the gun from its holster and keeping it loose in her hand, just in case. Helena followed her, looking at the bodies on the floor silently as she passed them. Blood had sprayed the notice board, and dripped down the penciled faces of Daisy Fitzroy and a variety of other Vox outlaws.
The next room was empty except for stacks of boxes, and another door. Helena pointed to a chalkboard hanging next to it, and tapped a finger on the last name.
Chen Lin. Cell 9.
Through the door was a larger room, more boxes, and a furnace. Vox Populi posters lay in heaps, next to advertisements for Chen Lin’s store, and the fire burned bright with bundles of paper. Other items lay on shelves haphazardly. Sarah guessed it was evidence disposal. The next doorway led to another room. Sarah let out a chuckle.
“Keep thinkin’ I’m underground. But we’re still in the sky.” She looked at Helena. “Do you ever get used to it? Being up here?”
“I don’t really remember anything else,” she said pensively, then she flicked her eyes at Sarah, and asked in return -
“Do you ever get used to the killing?”
Sarah opened her mouth. Closed it. She rubbed a hand over her face and avoided Helena’s eyes, looking instead at the blonde curls escaping from the cap on her head.
“Faster than you can imagine.” she replied softly.
She hadn’t been lying when she’d told her earlier that she’d only killed in self-defence. But now, the self-defense was pre-emptive. She couldn’t wait for them to try any longer. They’d kill her and take Helena and she had to stop them. And she wasn’t gonna think about it.
The next room was dark. There was a table with a collection of liquor bottles on it at the rear, some chairs, and a projector. It was still running a loop. Chen Lin tied to a chair, shaking his head, the bruises obvious even in the grainy black and white. Voices shouted at him, using words that made even Sarah wince.
The light flickered over Helena’s face.
Her mouth was a straight thin line, and her clenched fists peeked out of the coat sleeves. Sarah sidled closer, wrapping her hand around one of the fists. It immediately opened and enclosed Sarah’s hand tightly.
“How can they treat people this way.” Her voice was soft, but sounded all the angrier for it.
Sarah reached out with her other hand, fumbling with the knobs on the projector until the sound clicked off. In the silence, she could hear voices echoing from further on, so she kept hers low as well.
“The ones that have the power...they like to treat people like things. Makes it easier if you believe the folks you’re kickin’ aren’t really human.” And other folks ignore it, and that makes it easier again , she thought, suddenly despondent. The mob at the raffle, that she’d nearly been a part of…
She pushed that feeling away and squeezed Helena’s hand, whispering -
“So let’s go stop them.”
Through the next doorway was a long, wide corridor, metal doors gleamed dully in the dim lighting. There were more guards, one leaning against a wall smoking a cigarette, two standing at the far end, talking in low voices. Sarah saw Helena wrinkle her nose up at the smell that hung in the air. Stale sweat, blood - not to mention other bodily wastes. A secret little prison under his club, and no accountability. She was hating Fink more every moment, and her hands itched with wanting to punch someone. But she kept her head, again using the Possession vigor.
The smoker let the cigarette drop from suddenly listless fingers, then drew his gun and shot one of the other guards, before being shot himself. By then, Sarah was halfway down the corridor, hand extended, and lightning engulfed the remaining guard, her body dancing on the spot before falling onto the cracked green tiles.
Behind her, Helena was busily opening all the cell doors. Some were empty save for blood-stained mattresses and empty food tins. Some still had the bodies in them.
Sarah started to think that Daisy Fitzroy would be positively gentle with Fink, compared to what Helena would do to him. She wasn’t saying anything, but her face …
Cell number nine was the last door on the right. Helena made short work of the lock and they found themselves in another large dark space, with a large cell ahead and metal stairs to the side. The cell was empty, so they headed down, moving as fast as possible without their footsteps echoing. They both jumped as the public address system crackled to life.
“Miss Manning, my dear girl! You know the best kind of interview is one where the applicant doesn’t know they’re being evaluated! Had quite the obstacle course set up for you - but you seem to have bypassed that. I like a little ingenuity! I’ve been watching you since the Raffle, and you’re quite the lion in the arena! And you’ve stolen the Prophet’s dear little sister from under her nose. Most impressive! Now, look, I know that Fitzroy has come calling as well...and hence my problem. She’s got the jungle all riled up and I need a new head of security. You can hardly blame me for looking after my own interests, can you? At any rate, I believe you’ll find your business with her has come to an end.
Lions walk with lions, Manning, not hyenas!”
They’d reached the bottom of the stairs now, and the sick feeling that Fink’s words had left in Sarah’s guts were immediately confirmed by the pools of blood on the tiled floor, and the silence from the open cell in front of them. She could make out a table covered with all manner of surgical - and blunt - instruments, and a lightswitch. She walked forward, trying to step over the blood, and flicked it.
She heard Helena gasp behind her.
One single naked bulb hung from the ceiling, casting a cold light over the man tied to the chair. He slumped to the left, unmoving, his face almost unrecognizable under the bruises and cuts and swelling and dried blood.
“Mr Lin,” breathed Helena. She moved forward and reached a hand out, bit her lip, then gingerly placed her fingers on his exposed neck. After a moment she raised her eyes to Sarah, and shook her head. “He’s...we’re too late.” The anger in her eyes had been replaced by a deep sorrow. “This is what Fink meant.”
“Yeah.” Sarah’s voice cracked slightly, then roughened. “Now we need to get someone else to make those guns for the Vox.”
“No!” Helena snapped, shocked.
Sarah hardened herself.
“Dead is dead, Helena.”
The light flickered. It was pitch black for a second too long, then a man’s clipped voice said -
“Dead is dead.”
The light came back on, and revealed two figures in the doorway.
“What the hell…” Sarah said, blindsided. “ You ?”
“ I see...heads.” said Rosalind Lutece.
“And I see tails,” replied Robert Lutece. He held a coin up between two fingers so one side faced him, and the other his sister.
“It’s all a matter of perspective.” Rosalind kept talking over Sarah’s sputtering curses, while Helena watched the two of them with her head tilted to the side, seemingly fascinated.
“Wait, you are following me! Did Sister Rachel send you after me?” Sarah demanded, then stopped and thought. That wouldn’t make any sense - why would Sister Rachel go out of her way to get the False Shepherd to Columbia? She shook her head, confused. The two of them - in matching vest, tie and jacket ensembles - glanced at Sarah, the turned their attention back on each other.
“What do you see here, from this angle?” continued Robert, conversationally.
“Dead,” answered Rosalind. “And that angle?”
“Alive.” Robert stated.
Beside her, Helena stirred and murmured Sarah...look.
She looked at the body of Chen Lin, stepping back as a tear flickered over and around him. It was wide enough to see into quite plainly. She scratched at the initials on her hand, and let out a breath.
“The body...it’s gone,” she said, staring through the tear. Same room, no body, no blood. She moved, and the tear shimmered, and she could see the body. Moved again, and the body disappeared.
“It was never here.” corrected Robert.
Sarah kept staring, as did Helena.
“Another Columbia?” she said, her mind racing. Another Columbia where Lin was still alive, they could get their weapons to the Vox, get the airship, get home?
Helena nodded, seemingly buoyed up by the appearance of the Luteces and the tear.
“A different Columbia,” she confirmed.
“The same coin,” Robert said.
“A different perspective.” said Rosalind.
“We have to go through,” Helena said, decisively. “But how. This looks bigger than…” She was interrupted by a slightly amused Robert.
“It’s like riding a bicycle…”
“One never really forgets,” agreed Rosalind, almost smiling.
“One just needs the courage to climb aboard.” Robert finished, actually smiling.
The lightbulb flickered again, and the Luteces disappeared in the second of darkness.
Sarah dashed over to the door, her head spinning, but there was no sign of them.
“How the bloody hell do they do that?” she demanded, turning around on the spot. She rejoined Helena at the tear. “Do you know them?”
“Oh yes. I mean. No.” Helena lifted her shoulders. “I didn’t recognize them earlier, on the boardwalk. I was just so…”
“Full of sugar,” muttered Sarah.
“Mm. But they...she is the one who invented...” Helena was getting animated, the prospect of helping the Lin’s was a probability again and her anger had diminished slightly. “Rosalind Lutece! She made Columbia fly! I have - had - all her books.” She frowned. “But the Luteces disappeared years ago. At least. That’s what..”
“Your books say,” finished Sarah. She grinned at Helena, and got wry smile in return. “Yeah, I’d actually picked up some of that along the way.” She thought about Ada and had a second of regret, but it was hardly the first time she’d pulled a disappearing act on someone. “But they just keep showing up! How do they...oh, forget it…” She gestured at the tear. “Shall we?”
Helena nodded, suddenly serious again. She concentrated on the tear, raising her hands and moving them in that particular way, and the tear widened slowly. Gritting her teeth, she pulled at the air. Sarah felt a slight vibration coming up through her boots, and the skin on the back of her neck goose-pimpled.
The tear grew wider, until it encompassed most of the cell. Helena spoke, her voice showing the strain it was taking on her.
“If we go through. I don’t think I can get us back.” She looked at Sarah, her face a mirror. “Are you ready?”
Sarah nodded, apprehensive but ready. Helena bobbed her head towards the other room, and Sarah stepped into it, feeling a lightheadedness that passed quickly enough. Helena jumped in after her, and the tear snapped shut behind them.
The cell was exactly the same, except for the lack of blood and bodies. And the roaring of voices and gunfire creeping through the building. Sarah looked up the stairwell.
“Something tells me one dead gunsmith ain't the only thing that's changed,” she mused.
Helena joined her, her excitement palpable.
“Another Columbia,” she breathed, following Sarah’s gaze, then grabbing her hand and trotting up the stairs, letting their boots make noise this time. Some of the shouting was coming from the large cells that faced the stairs. Groups of Vox fighters with their red sashes rattled the bars and yelled for freedom. Sarah couldn’t see any cell doors though, and they kept moving.
As they exited the door at the top of the stairs, Sarah’s hand flew to her gun as she spotted the guards. The guards….the same guards that they’d killed on their way down. They stood, swaying and mumbling and almost shimmering on the spot.
“What the hell?” She walked closer to the guard nearest her, listening to the string of words.
I'm disgusted, DISGUSTING, sick, sick, sick…
She skirted past and tried the other two.
Did I...why am I still here...?
I hate one of me...WHO DO I HATE? Can't tell WHICH ONE... Two in here...Who is the I? Which ONE hates WHICH?
“Sarah. Their noses. They’re all bleeding.” Helena was staying close to her, her earlier euphoria sinking rapidly.
“They were dead. I killed them. They were dead!” Sarah heard her voice turn shrill and took a deep breath. Helena touched her shoulder.
“Not in this world,” she said softly. “Come on.” She tugged at Sarah’s arm and they made their way back down the corridor, past cells now occupied by the living, through the room with the projector. Sarah watched the screen as they went past. Chen Lin was seated in a chair, not tied, and still being questioned until a voice cut in to say:
Scofield says cut him loose. Wife’s got friends in high places, and we need the cell.
They're bringing his tools to the lockup. That'll keep him clean, I guess.
His wife? She thought, but was distracted by more guards, the other guards she’d killed, but not killed.
They too swayed on their feet with bloody noses. They didn’t seem to see Sarah or Helena, but focused on something invisible. One whispered what do we do now , over and over as they passed.
They reached the stairs back up to the club, and Sarah paused, placing her hands on Helena’s shoulders and looking her in the eyes. Helena looked back, her face a mixture of apprehension and excitement and determination.
“Helena. What’s wrong with those people? Do you know why they’re...why they’re like that?”
She pressed her lips together tightly, then slumped a little.
“I think. They remember. Being dead.” Her voice was balanced between pity and curiosity.
Sarah felt lightheaded again, and touched her fingers to her own nose in a moment of panic, but there was no blood. She rubbed her face and straightened the cap. Helena copied her, shoving curls back into hiding and buttoning her coat.
“We better head back to the Lin’s,” she said.
They moved quietly up the stairs, listened at the dressing room door to what sounded like a furious Jeremiah Fink screaming at his head of security about trespassers in the basement, then were at the back door before the the guards from this reality could catch them. Helena made much quicker work of the lock this time and they were back out on the streets of Finkton. They looked at each other as they saw the marquee. It was blank now.
“Guess I didn’t get the job.” Sarah joked. Helena offered a strained smile.
There were a lot more police on the streets now, and both of the girls kept their heads down until they were back at the gunsmiths. The doors were still unlocked, so they went in, through to the back room. There was silence. Sarah scowled.
“Too quiet.” she muttered. “There should be...machines. Noise.”
Now Helena led the way upstairs. They paused as they came to the corner with the shrine. But it wasn’t a Buddhist shrine in this Columbia. An icon of Sister Rachel, her halo in gold leaf, replaced the statue. The candles still stood before it, burning bright, the light shimmering off the halo and the silver of her eye.
Sarah shivered, once again feeling like she was watching them, somehow. Helena dug her hands into her coat pockets, moving closer to Sarah.
They continued upstairs, and found Mr Lin in the workroom at the top. Except there was no machinery anymore, and Mr Lin was bending and adjusting things that weren’t there.
“Mr Lin?” Helena said hesitantly. “Excuse us, Mr Lin?”
The man looked up, cupping a hand around an ear.
“Who are you? Speak up, machines very loud!”
Sarah stepped closer.
“My name is Sarah Manning, Mr Lin, Daisy Fitzroy sent me…”
“Stand back, machines are dangerous!” Mr LIn shook his head in exasperation. “Wait downstairs with Mrs Lin.”
Sarah tried a louder voice.
“Fitzroy sent me. Weapons for the Vox? Can you hear me, Mr Lin?”
“Machines very dangerous. No place for stupid people. Want to lose pretty head? Downstairs!” The man shouted at them, and pointed, then squinted and bent down to turn an invisible handle.
Helena held her hands up in surrender and turned to go. Sarah joined her, whispering urgently.
“What’s going on? Is he the same as those guards?”
She nodded, arms wrapped around herself.
“I think so. I didn’t…” her voice trailed off.
They headed downstairs, and the woman now standing at the shrine was taken aback, her hands still clasped in prayer to the Prophet as she turned to face them. Her hair was in a bun, but it was brown, and her eyes were blue.
“Uh, sorry,” said Sarah. “We’re looking for Mrs Lin?”
The woman looked confused.
“I’m Sarah Lin. Can I help you?”
Sarah shook her head.
“No, Chen Lin’s wife? A little Chinese lady?”
Mrs Lin’s face was even more confused.
“Do...do you mean Chen’s mother? I’m afraid she’s been dead for years.”
Helena tugged on Sarah’s hand, and whispered into her ear.
“Sarah, this is Mrs Lin. Another Columbia, remember?”
Sarah tried to wrap her mind around it, but pretty much failed.
Mrs Lin continued speaking, clearly in need of someone to talk to.
“They took Chen's tools. What's he got without his tools? If he could work again, maybe...i-if he could work, he'd…” She trailed off, sniffling a little.
Helena stepped forward and took her hands, soothing her.
“Mrs Lin, “ she said, darting a glance at Sarah, “Can you tell us who took his tools? Maybe we can. Help?” She raised her eyebrows and Sarah rolled her eyes, then nodded.
“If we get ‘em back, maybe it’ll help your...husband.” Sarah said, wondering if it actually would. But they weren’t getting any guns unless Lin had the means to make them, so…
“Goddamn police. They took them and locked them up, in the impound in Shantytown.” Mrs Lin’s voice was bitter. Sarah wondered whose strings she’d been able to pull, and how they’d have to pay for it. Not someone up at the top, else they wouldn’t have taken the machines and tools as well, but just high enough to save his life.
Sarah pulled her cap off and dug her fingers into her scalp. This was becoming some sort of wild goose chase. But what choice did they have?
“Well, let’s go to Shantytown,” she said loudly. Both Helena and Mrs Lin jumped a little, then Helena smiled and Mrs Lin bowed her head in relief. As they left, she turned back to the icon of Sister Rachel and thanked her for sending help. Sarah opened her mouth, but Helena nudged her and gave her a look, so she shut it again until they were outside.
“She thinks we’re bloody angels sent by the Prophet, or somethin’!” burst out Sarah. “I’m havin’ trouble understanding all this, Helena, to be honest.” She pinched the bridge of her nose. Maybe she shouldn’t try to understand it. Just keep moving, get the job done...hell, let Helena do all the thinking.
Helena’s fingers twined around each other.
“Did you notice. Mr Lin had a bloody nose.” Her wide hazel eyes met Sarahs, full of concern.
“Mhm.” Sarah looked away. She was fine. No nosebleeds for ages now. And Lin would be fine once they got his tools back to him. They just had to...keep moving. Get the job done. God, she was tired. Starting to repeat her thoughts. Wait. Was there another her running round here? Or maybe this was a Columbia she had never come to in the first place…
“Sarah,” Helena hissed, interrupting her rambling thoughts, “Those guards are staring at us.”
Sarah glanced around, casually, scratching her nose. The guards were showing interest, but not drawing their weapons, so she just took Helena by the arm, and unhurriedly walked the other way. They had passed the gate to Shantytown earlier, in the other Finkton. She’d got the feeling that wasn’t the ‘official’ name for it, and when she looked again at the roughly painted letters high above their heads, she could see the words ‘Factory Worker Housing’ just visible underneath.
They passed through the gate, passed crates on sky-lines, passed more guards. They’d come back into the open air onto what looked like ship-deck, wooden planking beneath their feet and raised sides of metal. It bobbed up and down gently like a ship, too, but one that sailed on air.
Helena’s head was turning back and forth. Sarah followed her gaze and saw more tears - small ones, barely visible, but there.
Sarah realised the tears had been appearing more and more...did Helena attract them somehow? Or maybe her power caused a reaction in the world around her. She could feel the headaches coming back, and she dug her fingers into her temples for a moment, then smiled reassuringly at Helena when she gave her a concerned look.
The two of them strolled past the last of the guards, and walked into the elevator, Sarah heaving a sigh of relief as she jabbed the button and the doors slid shut. Helena looked at the floor and twirled a finger in the curls that had inevitably escaped the hat again.
“If you want to ask,” she said quietly, “you can ask.” Her hand stopped fiddling with her hair, and waggled the little finger with its thimble at her.
Sarah crossed her arms.
“Alright then. What happened to your finger? Was it an accident or…?” She tried her hardest not to stare, but the light glinted off the thimble and drew her eye. Helena gave Sarah a half smile.
“It’s a mystery. Really!” She held it out in front of her, tilting her head this way and that, examining it. “It’s always been that way. Maybe Songbird knows. But he’s not telling.” She placed the thimble against her lips. Then her smile slowly died away. She looked down at the floor. The elevator rumbled gently down and down. Sarah unfolded her arms, and stepped closer, dipping her head to look in her eyes.
“Hey. What’s wrong?” she asked. Helena’s mouth opened, closed.
“You must think. I’m some kind of...freak. Opening holes in the air. Making the dead live again. My only friend is a giant bird.” She wouldn’t meet Sarah’s eyes, so Sarah took another step and gently laid her hands on Helena's shoulders.
“I’m your friend, yeah? You’re stuck with me now.” Sarah wasn’t surprised to find that she meant it. Helena made a sniffling sound and wrapped her arms around Sarah, and they stood like that for the remainder of the elevator ride.
of course, the song Sarah hears through the tear in the empty warehouse is Fortunate Son. I was quite tickled with the idea of a Sarah Manning from 1912 hearing rock'n'roll for the first time and just having a straight-up eargasm!
Chapter 10: A Martyr to the Cause
Sarah and Helena head down into Shantytown and find another layer to Columbia.
The elevator finally whined to a standstill, and the doors opened to reveal the dark underside of Columbia. As bright and clean and well heeled as the streets were above, dingy and dirty and destitute were the streets of Shantytown. Sarah could easily see why the residents called it that.
It was dimly lit - no sunshine made it down here past the factory smoke and the buildings so tall that you could barely see the top. There were some buzzing street lamps, and fires burned in old oil drums along the cobbles. Rubbish was everywhere. It looked like there had been attempts to keep it under control, and swept into haphazard piles but the breeze scattered bits and pieces around.
Boxes and crates had been set up with old food sacks as bed and blanket. They lined the streets and alleyways, and Sarah wondered how many people lived down here. More than the ‘official’ number, she was sure. It reminded her of some of the less savoury areas of New York, or London. Lines of washing stretched overhead between the buildings.
The people were thin and tired looking, hunched over in corners, or warming themselves around the drums. Hastily painted signs asked for for food, for work, for medicine to help sick children. A Fink MFG sign flickered in the background, not a few of the light bulbs broken.
A large piece of cardboard that read WHY HAST THOU FORSAKEN US? leaned against a crate on which stood a man shouting out a sermon of his own to a small crowd.
“This is what they want, brothas...to keep you so HUNGRY you can't speak but to beg... To keep you so IGNORANT you can't think of solutions to all your problems... To keep you CHASIN' that almighty SILVER EAGLE, so you can BUY EVERYTHING they're sellin'...to keep you down, brothas... But Daisy Fitzroy says there's ANOTHER WAY...another way comin' REAL SOON.”
The people around him didn’t cheer, but nodded and made sounds of agreement.
There was a feeling in the air. Change was coming, alright, for good or bad.
Helena was looking around in disbelief as they picked their way along the street that led away from the elevator, her hands picking at each other. A woman in a grubby apron sorted food cans on a crate, next to a pile of dead rats. Sarah felt queasy. If you were hungry enough, any meat was meat.
“This is because of Fink?” Helena asked flatly. Her eyes followed a gaggle of kids as they dug through a pile of half-rotten fruit, one using a short, sharp knife to remove the edible bits and pass them to the smallest first. “Daisy’s right. He needs to pay. For all of this.”
“Not before she pays us,” she said, scanning the streets that led off this one. One led a twisting path off to the right. Ahead was a small plaza and a sign on a squat building that read ‘Graveyard Shift’. A faint sound of music escaped the half-boarded up windows. Sarah grinned. She could smell a bar from ten blocks away, but this one was right there.
“The impound is probably that way.” she pointed right. Then she tipped her chin forward. “How about we just...check out this place first, hey?” She’d pulled the cap off again - it was colder down here and she raked her hair over her shoulders. Helena looked at the bar, wrinkled her nose, then back at Sarah, who had her eyebrows raised hopefully.
“Hm,” she said, her voice doubtful. Sarah tried pouting a little, and Helena’s mouth twitched into a small smile. “Alright. But not too long.”
Sarah grinned crookedly and slid her arm through Helena’s, escorting her down the shallow steps and across the paved plaza.
“At least we’re among…” she considered the word ‘friends’. “...people who don’t want us dead.” And I can relax for five minutes and have a drink, she thought. Her eyes ran over the surrounding area. Other large brick buildings floated nearby, crowding the sky. The flicker of tears caught her gaze - one...two...three...there seemed to be more popping up as they went along. Maybe Helena was attracting them.
Helena pulled her hat off as well and shoved it into a pocket. After extensive rummaging, she pulled out the faded red ribbon and used it to tie the wild blonde curls back into a ponytail. It caught Sarah’s eye again, and she rubbed her forehead as a headache came and went.
She remembered...red ribbons on dark braids. Which was stupid, because there hadn’t been any hair ribbons in the orphanage, and Mrs S didn’t hold with that kind of frivolity either. It must have been some other girl. A school friend. Someone.
There was a pause in the chatter when they entered the bar, and suspicious faces turned towards them, smoothing out when they saw that the two young women didn’t wear the blue uniform of the Authority. The crowd was mixed - men and women, black and white, irish and chinese, they all sat at rough wooden tables and drank together. Sarah headed straight for the bar. It consisted of wooden doors laid over barrels, and a wide range of bottles on shelves behind a barman who watched her with his arms crossed and a sharply wary look. Some of the bottles were unlabeled, but Sarah could tell bathtub moonshine when she saw it.
She dug in the satchel for some silver dollars, and nodded at the barman.
“Bourbon,” she said.
He nodded back, slid a mostly clean glass across the bar, and poured a measure of dark liquid into it. From a bottle with a label on it, she was relieved to see. The bourbon went down her throat too easily, and she gestured for a refill.
Helena, meanwhile, had wandered over to the gramophone in the corner, and was currently leafing through the stack of recordings. A bluesy number was spinning below the flared trumpet, a voice wailing about tainted love. Sarah wondered if this was one of the other Finks recordings and where he had heard it.
She picked up her glass and ambled through the crowded tables, half heard conversations floating into her ears on the way.
Fitzroy says be ready, we head up soon….their little girl was dying, the Vox got the medicine she….just sayin’, we could be dead tomorrow and….haven’t seen those two before…
“Lookin’ for somethin’ in particular?” Sarah nudged Helena with an elbow, interrupting her humming. She took a sip, letting the bourbon roll around her mouth, listening to the music. “Don’t mind this one,” she said, tapping a boot to the rhythm
Helena tilted her head to the side, and looked at Sarah.
“Those dreams. Do you remember...music?” She hummed a little, stopped, and shook her head. “Sometimes I think I know. Then it -” she wriggled her finger in a spiral. “ - floats away.”
Sarah opened her mouth to say ‘no’ and paused, her brow creasing. She closed her eyes and thought about the green light and...
“Yeah,” she said, her voice low. “It makes me want to dance.” She opened her eyes again and shrugged, sipping her drink. “Can’t remember how it goes, though.”
Helena kept pawing through the records, disappointment on her face.
“I’ll find it.” she whispered. “Somewhere…”
Sarah tipped the remainder of her borbon down her throat, looked longingly at the bar, sighed, and put the glass down on the nearest table. She could hold her liquor but she didn’t want to get sloppy.
“C’mon, Helena, we better go do this. Don’t wanna keep Daisy waiting too long.” She stared into the air for a moment, then cleared her throat and shuffled her boots on the grimy floorboards when she realised Helena was trying not to laugh. “What?”
“You were smiling.” Helena told her. She clasped her hands together under her chin and batted her eyelashes at Sarah. “Don’t want to keep Daisy waiting,” she repeated and then pursed her lips and made kissing noises. Sarah felt her face heat up.
“Shut up,” she muttered. “C’mon!”
Now Helena did laugh, and she followed Sarah back out the door and along the street to the impound. It twisted and turned, made narrower by numerous shelters cobbled together out of wood and sheets of corrugated iron.
They passed more people, huddling around the fires, or in corners under old sacks, some stretched out on grubby thin mattresses, coughing, weeping, or just staring blankly into space. The sky was blocked by clouds and smog and smoke from the factories. Sarah had no idea what time of day it was. The sun had been bright up in Finkton though…
Helena had stopped laughing fairly quickly, and she paused to speak to people along the way, a few words here and there, digging in her pockets for sweets and sharing them out with the children. Sarah didn’t know what she was saying, but when she rejoined Sarah, she looked worried, the set of her jaw revealing her anger as well.
They reached another small open area. A few small garden beds, full of ripe tomatoes and budding corn, were fenced off and hung with notices saying ‘Assets Seized by order of the Columbia Authority - Vox Sympathisers’. Sarah and Helena looked at each other, their faces mirroring each other with quiet anger. Then they saw the two men in stocks at the top of the stairs, and Helena’s expression turned to shock. Sarah wished she was shocked.
The sign in front of the stocks labeled the men Labour Agitators. Other signs were stacked around - Traitors. Propagandists. Fifth Columnists.
“If I was made to work sixteen hour days for no actual money, I’d be agitatin’ as well,” Sarah muttered. The men didn’t look at them as they passed, their faces resigned as they stared at the ground. After a moment, she realised Helena wasn’t following, and she turned to see her picking the big padlocks that were keeping the stocks firmly shut.
“Shite,” Sarah muttered, and rejoined her. “Helena, we don’t have time for…”
Helena cut her off.
“You had time for a drink,” she pointed out, calmly carrying on with the second padlock. The first man was standing, rubbing his wrists, and eyeing Sarah warily, but Helena gratefully.
Sarah pressed her lips together. Girl had a point. The two men thanked Helena in low, hoarse voices, then supported each other back down the stairs and vanished into the gloom. The two women walked in silence along the rest of the crooked street, and came in sight of the impound. Sarah cursed long and hard.
This wasn’t some dodgy little watch house. This was a multi-story fortress, fronted with gun turrets, and likely filled with heavily armed police. Voices floated up towards them, and Sarah sidled up to the iron fencing ahead and peered down on a small fleet of gunships, dotted with blue uniforms. Helena crouched beside her, fingers curled around the metal of the fence, resting her forehead on the railing, and glowering at the man who was shouting at the rest.
“The Vox Populi are the bastard child of the Foreigner and the Heathen, and like all bastards, we serve it best by smothering it in its crib. We hear tell that the gunsmith was making weapons for the Vox. We squashed that gunsmith like a bug and took his tools for our own! Make no mistake, soldiers: the Vox and weapons go together like fire and gunpowder. One spark and we'll have a blaze we cannot control!”
Sarah scowled. She could see who the bastards around here were, and it weren’t the Vox. She crouched down next to Helena.
“I count a dozen down there,” she nodded. “Get through them, jump on the sky-line to the station, I’ll use my vigors on the turret and that should get us in the door, at least.” She concentrated, flicking her fingers until they glowed green. “You ready?”
Helena kept looking at the guards below them.
“It’s not just Fink, is it?” she asked slowly. “It’s...Rachel.”
Sarah was taken aback. Helena had never referred to the woman by just her name before. It sounded strange without the ‘Sister’ preceding it.
Helena kept talking.
“It’s just. She’s in charge. She must know. ” She finally looked at Sarah. “Maybe she kept me locked up. Because she knew I’d…” Her voice trailed off and she let her forehead bump against the railing. Sarah touched her shoulder.
“We’ll make it up to Comstock House, yeah? And then you can talk to her yourself. Give her a right bollocking.” She half-laughed, but Helena didn’t even smile. Sarah tried another tactic. “I mean, Rachel didn’t start this - ”Sarah waved a hand to encompass all of the floating city. “She just - played along.”
“Is that any better?” Helena said sadly. She stood up, exposing herself to the guards, and moved quickly towards the stairs that led down to the gunships.
“Oi!” Sarah hissed, but it was too late. “Shite!” She followed, running, and glancing down at the guards to see if they’d noticed.
One of them saw Sarah, and nudged the guard next to them, pointing. She and Helena weren’t wearing the scarlet sashes of the Vox, which probably bought them just enough time to attack. Sarah aimed her hand at the guard, sending off a green cloud. Then he drew his weapon and shot the man next to him. Suddenly they were all shooting - at Sarah, at the possessed guard - and then Helena was on the deck of the first ship, blonde curls whipped around her head by the wind.
Sarah was ducking and weaving, behind pillars, down the stairs, and then she was beside her, fingers crackling with electricity.
The possessed guard was down, and a few others were too. As the survivors turned their guns on the two girls, Sarah let loose the Shock-Jockey, and it arced from the nearest guard to the last, then the air was full of screams and the smell of burning flesh. She felt Helena move beside her, and then a heavy sensation, and the guards were lifted off their feet and sent flying. There were no walls to stop them here - the bodies dangled in the air and then dropped down into the clouds and vanished.
Sarah swallowed, fiddling with the strap of the satchel while stealing a glance at Helena’s determined face. She was staring up at the Watchhouse, forehead creased. Then her gaze dropped to the dead guards speculatively. Sarah looked at them too.
“The uniforms?” she said, prodding one corpse with her boot. There were some bloodstains, but that shouldn’t draw any attention given the circumstances, and the sizes weren’t too far off. “That should help get us in the door at least.”
“No more sneaking,” Helena said. Her face dropped. “Oh. My coat.”
“Leave the coat here, we’ll pick it up on the way out.” She pulled her hair back off her face, scratched her scalp. “Yeah. This could work.” She picked up a blue cap that had fallen from a head now facing downwards on the decking, putting it on and tucking her hair up into it. Then she looked at Helena again and smacked herself in the forehead. “No it won’t!” She pointed at their faces, their identical faces. Funny how she had stopped thinking about it after a while, like it had just always been that way.
Helena, one arm still in the coat sleeve, looked at Sarah, and touched her own face with her free hand.
“Oh,” she said, wonderingly, “I had forgot also.” She slid her arm free and dropped the coat at her feet, then looked around again, picking up a small hessian sack. “Maybe you are guard, and I am your prisoner.” She pulled the sack over her head, made a sound, and pulled it up again so it sat on top of her head. “It smells of…” her nose wrinkled, “cabbage.”
Sarah snorted with laughter.
“You’ll live,” she said, picking up the green coat and handing it back. Helena grinned and put it back on, hugging herself for a moment, then fiddling with the sack, pulling it through the loop of her thumb and forefinger.
Sarah looked around the decks, momentarily tempted to just take one of the gunboats and fly off with Helena. But that would mean letting down Daisy - and the Vox, of course - and she doubted that Helena would let her at this point. She was becoming more invested all the time, and Sarah was - she looked at Helena again, scrunching the sack up and smelling it again with a frown.
She’d barely been around Sarah for a day or so, and had gone from a shut-in to a girl who kills people with a wave of her hands, with powers that actually scared Sarah a little.
Not that she admit it. Anyway, who was she to judge? Plenty of blood on her own hands.
Finding a guard the same size was easy, pulling the uniform off the body was harder than she’d thought. The dead can’t undress themselves. She rolled her street clothes up and stuffed them into her satchel.
“C’mon then, let’s head over.” Sarah pulled out her Sky-hook, and Helena followed suit after making sure she still had her hair ribbon in her curls.
It was only slightly nerve-wracking, walking up the front stairs of the impound under the gentle humming of the human-shaped gun turret. Sarah kept an eye on it as they passed, waiting for the green light of the eyes to turn red, but the blank face just passed over them, and then they were through the front door. There was a wide hallway with storage rooms on either side, and another set of doors ahead.
Sarah took a deep breath, steadied her twitchy legs, and hissed ready ? to a muffled uh-hm from under the sack now covering Helena’s face. Her hands were tied behind her back - Sarah had made sure they were loose enough for her to wriggle out of quickly enough, if needed.
Although, it wouldn’t surprise her if Helena was as much of an escape artist as a lockpicker...she could probably teach Houdini a thing or two. Sarah took a breath, and pushed her way through the doors, dragging Helena after her.
There were uniforms everywhere - ahead through a long window, upstairs along the balcony, bustling in and out of the several offices. There was an underlying sense of panic held in check, and Sarah couldn’t help but smirk a little, knowing that she and Helena were responsible for some of that panic. She felt Helena take a tiny step to the left, and looked that way to see a sign that read ‘Holding Cells’ pointing down a flight of stairs. So she went that way. A few guards threw her curious glances, but they seemed to be more about her faceless prisoner than her. Sarah just kept walking.
Should’ve just mugged the first guard I saw in Columbia, she thought wryly, coulda waltzed through the city and into the tower in this uniform…
There was a tired looking man shuffling papers on a desk at the bottom of the stairs. When Sarah started talking, he just waved her through the next door.
“You’re in luck, there’s still one cell empty,” he said to his papers. “Should just shoot ‘em all, if you ask me. Save us some space, and time.” He sniggered, still not looking up, which was just as well because it meant he couldn’t see the look on Sarah’s face. She could feel the tension in Helena’s arms, and steered her through the door and down another flight of stairs, these wooden and narrow. There was no one down here but the handful of people in the cells, who looked at Sarah - or rather, at her uniform - and turned away. In one of the cells, two bodies lay on the floor attracting cockroaches. A step further and the smell hit her.
“Oh...jesus,” she mumbled, covering her mouth and nose with a hand, as she pulled at Helena’s bonds with the other. Helena lifted the bag off her head and screwed up her face.
“How can they just...leave them down here?” she asked Sarah angrily. The living inmates were looking at them again now, trying to figure out why this guard was letting her prisoner go. “When the Vox get their weapons. They’ll stop all this. Won’t they?” She tugged at her sleeves so they covered her hands and looked at Sarah pleadingly. “Daisy can make a change?”
“Helena...look.” Sarah had turned around to see the storage space opposite the cells, piled high with the machinery from Chen Lin’s shop, and stacks of other confiscated Vox weaponry and propaganda. She chewed on her lip. “How are we gonna get this back? Shite…” Her hand found her satchel and she sighed, pulling out her clothing to change back into. “We didn’t really think this through…” She glanced at Helena, who tilted her head, then pointed.
There was also a tear.
The air shimmered around the machinery; the flickering tear exposed an empty space.
Sarah stared, then said,
“Well, if the tools aren’t here...they must be -”
“Back at the shop,” finished Helena, fingers curled around her coat cuffs. “Sarah, I...if we go through another tear. I don’t think I can bring us back.” Her eyes gazed at something over Sarah’s head, lips trembling slightly, and Sarah knew she was thinking of those dead/alive guards back in Finkton. But then something in her expression hardened, and she nodded jerkily.
“Just lemme get changed first, yeah.” Sarah muttered, shimmying out of the blue trousers and jacket, and pulling back on her own. The prisoners kept their eyes to themselves, but Helena smiled at her boxer shorts and vest. Cheaper than the usual women’s garments, and a lot more comfortable too, Sarah always said. As she pulled her own jacket back on and knotted the tie loosely, Helena stepped closer to the tear. It flickered again, expanding until they could see the other room clearly. Sarah craned her head around, and grinned a sharp-toothed grin when she saw the empty cells. She nodded at Helena.
“Do it,” she said, and Helena held her hands out, brow furrowed in concentration. The tear wobbled, widened, the floor vibrated, and Sarah could hear the prisoners alarmed voices behind her. They weren’t making enough noise to attract attention from upstairs, preferring to take their chances with this mysterious phenomenon rather than risk another beating.
The air hummed and Helena spread her hands out, yanking them apart with a small grunt. The tear widened again, but instead of snapping shut after they stepped through, it kept expanding outwards until it disappeared, and they were standing in a place that was the same but entirely different.
That was a far cry from last time , Sarah thought, maybe she’s gettin’ stronger.. . A sharp pain bloomed in her temples and she staggered, reaching out for a wall to lean on, but finding Helena instead and grabbing at her arm.
“Sarah!” Helena slid an arm around her and held her up while she rubbed her head. The pain faded and Sarah blinked.
“I’m alright. Bloody hell.” She stood up straight . “That was…”
“Hmm,” Helena hummed in agreement. “It feels. Easier.”
For you, maybe, Sarah thought, and touched her fingers to her head again. She still felt a little...odd.
The space that had contained Chen Lin’s machines and tools was instead stacked with crates labeled CONFISCATED! Weapons with red fabric wrapped around the stocks and grips lay about the floor. As Sarah had spotted, the cells were now empty, and there was the faint sound of roaring voices in the distance, punctuated by gunfire. The last cell still had two bodies in it, but they were guards. The wall above them was daubed with red paint (at least, Sarah hoped it was paint), that said THE FOUNDERS WILL BLEED. She double checked her gun, and what she had left in the satchel - ammo, some apples (which hadn’t been in there before, she was certain), all the other bits and pieces.
There was a low whine, then the building shook a little, dust falling from the rafters. They both looked up, then at each other.
“Sounds like we did something,” said Sarah, combing her hair back with her fingers. “I hope it was the right thing,” she added under her breath. Helena glanced at her, smiled lopsidedly.
“Sarah, if the Vox get their weapons? They’ll have a revolution. And Columbia will be a better place.” She sounded very certain. Sarah wished she could be that certain.
“Yeah. And we’ll get our airship and get out of here, go to New York…” Sarah faltered, squeezed her eyes shut. “I mean, London.” She felt a little distracted, like she was being subtly pulled in different directions.
“After we visit Rachel,” reminded Helena, pulling at a curl and twisting it around her finger. “I can’t believe. Surely she doesn’t really…” she shrugged and headed towards the stairs, jaw set.
Sarah followed, listening to the sound of voices and explosions grow louder as they went upwards. The desk was no longer occupied, and now there was a pile of voxophones covering it. She paused and looked over them, lifting a few and reading the labels dangling from the short needle arms.
“These are all Daisy Fitzroy,” she stated, and pressed the little lever on the top one.
You ever see a forest at the beginning of a fire? Before the first flame, you see them possums and squirrels, running through the trees. They know what’s coming. But the fat bears with their bellies full a’ honey, well -- you can’t hardly wake them up from their comfortable hibernation. We’re going to Emporia. And then, we gon’ see what it takes to rouse them from their slumber.
Sarah frowned, rapping her knuckles on the desk.
“Emporia?” She looked at Helena.
“Oh, that’s the shopping district. Very -” she twirled a finger, “ - fancy.”
Sarah nodded and picked up another voxophone.
When you forced deep underground, well -- you see things from the bottom up. And down at the bottom of the city, I saw a fire burning. A fire's got heat aplenty, but it ain't got no mouth. Daisy...now, she got herself a mouth big enough for all the fires in Columbia.
She found herself smiling at the sound of Daisy’s voice, the restrained anger as familiar to Sarah as her own face. Looking over at Helena again, she thought my own face.
Helena cleared her throat, and Sarah realised she’d been staring at her. She scratched her scalp, and grinned crookedly, then pointed upstairs.
It was eerily quiet in the building just above them. All the noise was coming from outside. And when Sarah and Helena reached the top of the stairs, they saw why.
Bodies littered the floor - mostly in blue uniforms, but some in the dull colours of the Vox, bright red sashes hiding the blood. The shouting from outside was louder now,
THE VOX THE VOX THE VOX
and another explosion rocked the building. Red banners hung over the mezzanine, over the doors, like giant splashes of blood against the walls.
“Sounds like your revolution is already happening.” Sarah said, craning her neck to see upstairs. Just more bodies and banners. Helena moved over to her, sliding a hand into Sarah’s.
“We need to go. Check on the Lin’s.” she said, and tugged, “Come on.”
The short corridor to the outside doors was littered with huge round spiked balls, sea mines? Sarah thought fleetingly, how’d they get them up here, then they were through the doors and overlooking the remains of a battleground.
There was shouting and flashes of gunfire from the Sky-lines, and more bodies - bodies everywhere. The small gunships were covered with them. Sarah wondered if the guards they had killed in the other Columbia were still down there, twice dead. Great red banners flapped from every building. Fires burned behind broken windows.
Sarah felt a twisted sense of satisfaction, and then anger for the people down in the streets. Revolutions were all well and good but innocent people always got caught in the crossfire.
“Shite.” She pulled the Sky-hook out of her belt. “Helena, be careful, yeah? Lotta bullets flying around.” She leapt, and the Sky-line carried her back down to the gunships, Helena a few feet behind. They ran up the stairs, around the corner, and almost straight into a guard in blue. Sarah reacted instantly, her hands moving in unison to stun him, then shoot. The body fell at their feet, and, much to Sarah’s shock, Helena spat on it.
She’s changing with every jump, Sarah thought, am I? Is there another me?
They made their way down the narrow winding street, passing empty shelters and small fires. There was shouting up ahead somewhere and less gunfire than before. The stocks were still empty, but a young girl sat between them, frizzy hair peeking out from under a flowered scarf and teeth shining against her dark skin as she sang.
“Some folks are born silver spoon in hand
Lord, don't they help themselves, oh
But when the taxman comes to the door
Lord, the house looks like a rummage sale, yes
It ain't me, it ain't me, I ain't no millionaire's son, no
It ain't me, it ain't me; I ain't no fortunate one, no, no
Some folks inherit star spangled eyes
Ooh, they send you down to war…”
The two of them paused for a moment, taking in the fearlessness of the girl, and the beautiful timbre of her voice, before Sarah snapped her fingers in recognition.
“That’s the song we heard through the tear!” She laughed. “Sounds different.” There were no loud guitar sounds, and the style was bluesy rather than...whatever that other sound had been. In the background, red banners flew and fires raged and people screamed. But she kept singing, and Sarah found it hard to tear herself away. But Helena tugged at her hand impatiently, so the made their way back to the street that led to the elevator, passing more red flags and hastily made up posters of Daisy Fitzroy with the slogan JOIN THE VOX splashed across them.
A Vox fighter hurried past, barely giving them a glance, only to stop and backstep to look at Sarah. Her eyes lit up.
“You’re Sarah Manning, hero of the Vox!” she exclaimed, grabbing Sarah’s hand and enclosing it in her own to shake it. Sarah looked back at her blankly. “We’re heading up above,” the woman called over her shoulder as she resumed her errand.
The headache returned with a vengence and Sarah winced slightly. Helena helped her walk to the end of the street, where a crowd of the Vox were shouting and thrusting guns into the air.
“What the hell…” Sarah muttered, squinting up at the giant poster above the plaza. It was her. It was definitely her, fist in the air, a gun in the other, hair streaming behind her. SARAH MANNING, it read, MARTYR OF THE REVOLUTION. She felt woozy.
“Wait...martyr?” she mumbled. Beside her, Helena gently removed her arm, and moved so she was holding onto Sarah’s shoulders instead, looking into her face.
“Sarah.” she said softly. “Your nose is bleeding.”
Sarah lifted a finger to her face. It came away bloody. She spoke slowly as images came to the surface of her mind.
“I remember...we...Daisy and I...burnt down the Hall of Heroes...I led the Vox here…” She dug her fingers into her scalp, pulled at her hair. “It’s like I have...two memories.” The poster still hung there. “I need a drink.” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. The headache retreated.
Helena pulled on her bottom lip, then nodded.
“I think. You died here, Sarah. The Vox think you’re a martyr. A hero.” Her hands fluttered until she tucked them back up in her sleeves.
“They need a better class of hero, then.”
They made it across the plaza, Sarah keeping her head down, not wanting to be recognized, and walked into the Graveyard Shift. It was empty now (of the living, at any rate), and Sarah walked straight up behind the bar and grabbed a bottle, tipping it up so the bourbon flowed down her throat. It seemed to have the desired effect of drowning the other memories, and she leaned on the bar, took another short slug, then replaced the lid. She looked to the left and noticed a passageway.
Placing the bottle on the bar, she went through the doorway and followed the passage to some stairs, stumbling down them in the dim light. They led to a cellar, and there was some scrambling sounds and hushed voices. As she stuck her head over the bannisters, she caught the tail end of a child crawling into the straw under the stairs. Then Helena called out,
“It’s alright! We won’t hurt you.” She pulled at the strap of Sarah’s satchel and dug into the bag, pulling out the apples. When she reached the bottom of the stairs, she said out loud, “I’ll just put these here. On this barrel.” Then she clasped her hands behind her back, humming, and walked away. Some furious whispering ensued from the straw.
Sarah ignored it, walking around the cellar until she found a voxophone in a dark corner. It had her name on it. Somehow she wasn’t surprised. She stared at it for a moment, then pressed the lever.
“Bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt.” As plans go, I'd seen worse -- except this girl was already gone. Monument Island's a bloody ghost town. Seems like they evacuated her when they heard I was here. Was told Sister Rachel spirited her off to that fortress of hers. As an easy job, this just went from bettin' on the river to...drawing dead. But then there’s the Vox. Gotta say -- they’re loaded up good. Problem is, I got to help them with their damn revolution first...then we take Comstock House by storm. I do that, I get the girl.”
Sarah’s mind swirled. She’d come looking for Helena, but joined up with the Vox instead. She’d died before getting to her. She lifted her hands and turned them over and over. She had been here, and now she was dead, but she was here again, and… Helena put a gentle hand on her shoulder.
“It’s alright, Sarah.” She took the voxophone out of Sarah’s unresisting hands. “She isn’t you.” She pulled Sarah close, wrapping her arms around her, rubbing her back soothingly. Sarah closed her eyes and let herself be comforted, pushing the false memories back down, down, down. She didn’t protest as she was led back up the stairs into bar, pausing only to grab the bottle, and then out into the plaza and up the street to catch the elevator back up to Finkton. As they walked in silence, Daisy Fitzroy’s voice played over the P.A system.
Sarah Manning died for this day! It was she who spoke with one voice of the people! Now is the time to stand true to her cause! To our cause! Now is the time for Fink to fall! To the factory! Let the mighty be laid low! For the people, for Sarah Manning, and the true voice! We're going to the factory -- and we're not just gonna burn it down! Only way to be sure is to pull it up from the roots!
Sarah laughed, bitterly.
“Bloody hell,” Her voice cracked. “Daisy sure knows how to put a shine on shit.”
Helena frowned at her.
“But she’s right. About you, Sarah. You are a hero. You saved me .”
“Not in this world,” Sarah said moodily, refusing to shift her eyes from the concrete below her feet. “And not even...I mean, what if we never make it out of here?” They’d reached the elevator and she slammed her fist against the button. There was still a lot of noise behind them, but she ignored it. When the lift arrived, she stepped in and leaned against a wall, arms crossed tightly, while Helena chewed on a thumbnail and darted glances at her.
They rode in silence all the way back up to Finkton.
sorry about the wait for this one (guess I got distracted by the actual show!), plus I've been very lazy with my writing. But here we are, in another Columbia....
Chapter 11: The Girl They Call Fitzroy.
Sarah and Helena fight their way through this 'new' Columbia to meet up with Daisy Fitzroy.
soundtrack - St James Infirmary
- Duke Ellington version from the Bioshock Infinite soundtrack
- a modern version by Rising Appalachia if, like me, you love a female vocalist who doesn't change the pronouns!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
By the time they stepped back out into Finkton, Sarah had climbed back out of the hole of her mind, and left the other memories down there. She’d also left the bottle of bourbon emptier and rolling on the elevator floor. She hesitantly gave Helena’s hand a squeeze, slightly embarrassed by her temporary breakdown, but it was forgotten as the scene in front of them sank in.
Civil war had come to Columbia.
Sarah put a hand on her gun, eyes flicking around the area, her other hand clenching and flexing as she readied the vigors. The length of the deck was scattered with bodies, clad in the blue of the Authority, and the red sashes of the Vox. She was somewhat relieved to see the blue uniforms were in the majority.
Then she remembered those dead-not-dead guards swaying and dazed after their first reality jump, and her stomach turned. The fighting seemed to have moved on - she could hear gunfire and shouts from further ahead.
Beside her, Helena looked this way and that, her jaw moving like she was digging at a sore tooth with her tongue. The she stepped down to the nearest body in red, knelt, and put her hand out to the dead man’s face. Her fingers hovered for a moment while she whispered something, before gently closing the corpse's eyes.
Sarah stepped around other bodies, still scanning for survivors, or threats.
Nothing. Just the false peace of the deserted battlefield and the sound of red banners snapping in the wind.
Tears still flickered in the air, more appearing as she looked up.
She shook her head, and walked over to where Helena still crouched.
“Guess the Vox have their weapons now.” The words came out accusatory, and Sarah bit her lip, sighed, tried again. “I meant...we should find Daisy, get the airship, get gone.” She looked up at the sound of a distant explosion. “This is the Vox’s problem now.”
Helena stood, pulling at her coat sleeves. Her eyes finally pulled away from the dead man, and met Sarah’s. When she spoke, she sounded distant.
“I’m not sure if I brought us to a world. Where the Vox have weapons.” One shoulder lifted. “Or I created one.”
“Created one?” repeated Sarah blankly.
Helena waved a hand.
“A theory. I was working on. Maybe the tears are...responding to me. Like some kind of...quantum wish fulfillment.” She twirled a finger in her hair, then grew still. “We need to check on the Lin’s.” She stood straight now, almost thrumming with urgency. Her feet began to pick their way among the fallen. Sarah watched her, stomach still knotted up.
Then she sighed and followed. A thought struck her and she stopped to pull two red sashes from the bodies. A few of the Vox’s faces looked familiar - she’d probably seen them in the airship when she’d met Daisy - and then she stopped looking at them, keeping her attention on the blonde curls ahead of her and moving forward. When she caught up to Helena, she handed her one of the sashes, and tied her own so it crossed her chest and shoulder.
“Don’t wanna be shot by our own side,” she explained.
Daisy, now...how was she gonna react when Sarah Manning, martyr of the Vox, turned up again like the bad penny she was? Sarah hoped like hell she wouldn’t shoot first and ask questions later.
They made their way back past the crates that still hung from the Sky-lines, and edged through the gate back into Finkton, staying low. The gunfire was louder here, and people made mad dashes across open spaces, skidding behind crate stacks and barrels.
Sarah drew her gun, hissing stay low, and the two of them took off in a kind of crouching run. Reflexes took over as a blue-clad figure appeared to the right, Sarah firing almost before she realised it. Another was lifted off it’s feet and thrown backwards against a wall with a wave of Helena’s hand. They ran around the corner, up the stairs, and burst into the gunsmith’s shop.
Sarah stopped, so suddenly that Helena ran into her, then spun around and grabbed Helena by the arms, trying to steer her back outside. Helena pulled back, confused, saying what is it, let me… and pushed Sarah aside.
Her face went white as she saw the bodies of Mr and Mrs Lin lying on the floor. They’d both been shot, blood pooling around them and sprayed across the doors to the backroom. Mr Lin’s hand still reached out for his wife. Sarah swallowed, rubbing her head as the pain came and went. Helena was crying quietly a few feet away.
“This isn’t what was supposed to...,” she sniffled, and wiped a green sleeve across her face.
“Helena…” said Sarah helplessly.
“They’re dead. Sarah. Because of me.” Her hands worried at each other. “Maybe...maybe there’s another tear. I can. Fix it.” Sarah could hear the desperate hope in her voice.
“And what if the next world is even worse?” she asked, ‘Hey? What then? We can’t just...run away from this, not again.” I would have, before, I would have run as far as I could, tryin’ to find a world where I fit. Pain flashed through her head again, and she drew a breath in sharply. “Helena, let’s just go find Daisy and get us home.” A frown creased her forehead. “Get you to London, anyway.”
Helena rummaged through her pockets and pulled out a handkerchief, blowing her nose loudly. Sarah moved closer to her and put a hand on her shoulder.
“You just opened the door, and we stepped through it.” she said. “ This is not your fault.” She squeezed the shoulder for emphasis, and added as gently as she could, “Come on.” Helena nodded and stuffed the hanky back in her pocket, although she kept sniffling for a while afterwards, the pink circles around her eyes more noticeable.
They left the Lin’s shop, and skirted around the wall to the left, following the sound of shouting and cheering. The Vox had swept through the factory floor, as Sarah thought of it, and there were no one in a blue uniform left alive. She felt slightly sick. Sure, she’d seen some shite, but being in the middle of a war was another thing altogether. Not to mention the smell - blood and gunpowder and shit.
Her eyes widened as she saw everyone moving towards them. For a second she panicked, wondering if she was supposed to lead them, wondering if she’d fail again.
Then she realised they were headed towards the massive doors opposite the gunsmiths. The sign overhead told her it was the Factory Entrance - This Way, and she heard Daisy’s voice in her head saying to the factory! Right then. She nodded towards the gate and Helena nodded back, her eyes still red but her lips set in a straight line.
There was a huge shining lock on the doors - Helena took one look at it and shook her head, but kept staring while she pulled at her lower lip. Two of the Vox set down a bag next to the doors, and one knelt while the other handed him a greenish-grey lump.
Sarah’s brow furrowed, then her eyebrows raised.
“Well, that sure is one way to open a door,” she muttered, and Helena smiled a strained smile. They stayed back until the gelignite blew the lock inwards, and then the crowd surged forward again, crying THE VOX THE VOX THE VOX. The two of them tagged along, through a room already scattered with bodies, and burning vending machines. Water trickled down from burst pipes in the ceiling, leaving a route clear through the centre.The air was thick with greasy smoke, but they were soon through the next set of doors, out in the open air, and then it was another fight.
Daisy Fitzroy’s voice crackled over the P.A system, making Sarah search for her in the crowd ahead, but it was just her voice, making more speeches.
Brothers and sisters, I wish to speak plainly to ya. When you look at yourself, you see a face of a person, yes? A human being. But do you know what Fink sees? He sees livestock. He sees the nag that pulls his plow. The monkey that shovels his coal. If he could feed you hay, he'd feed you hay. If he could bed you down in straw, he'd bed you down in straw. And when your arms get frail and your legs grow weak, they'll bleed you dry, boil off your skin and turn you into chop. Now, if you wanna be a mule -- go on and be my guest. But if you wanna be a PERSON, well...then you best come talk to the Vox.
I wonder how it happened. Sarah felt the fear rising up her throat again, the knowledge of her failure making her hesitate to charge on like the rest of them. She crouched behind a pile of crates, rubbing her head, wondering if she could force her other memories open again. Did I do something stupid and heroic and…
“Sarah.” Helena’s voice was in her ear, and Sarah blinked, looked at the eyes identical to her own, but full of fierce concern. “I don’t want to lose you too.” She hesitantly placed her palm against Sarah’s cheek.
“You’re you. Not her.” Her eyes didn’t leave Sarah’s until she took a deep breath and nodded, and let Helena help her up.
Concentrate, Manning, she told herself, don’t die, and then she and Helena joined the fray.
I would like to offer some words of council to one Jeremiah Fink. Now, we should be all familiar with Mr. Fink's "philosophy" on the good people of this city. So it should come as no surprise that he views myself and the Vox in an unflattering light. He thinks we sow discord. Thinks we stir up trouble. He sees us as violent and hateful, and I resent those claims. We are peaceful. We are loving. We love everybody who loves us, but we don't love anybody who doesn't love us. We're peaceful with you long as you peaceful with us, but this notion escapes our "esteemed" Mr. Fink. Which is why we are left with no other option than to throw down tools and pick up rocks!
The Vox had mostly cleared the way, and the two of them took care of a few stragglers. Helena moved like she was dancing, in a way - sweeping arm motions and quick sidesteps, her partners rising into the air as they struggled, and then dropping over the side, screams quickly fading. Sarah switched back and forth between vigors, the gun in her right hand growing warm.
Possession on the turrets, Shock Jockey on anyone in a blue uniform, bullets for both.
The next set of gates were at the end of the long body-littered deck, and were flanked by gun turrets that were now smouldering piles of metal. There was deep siren sound, and all heads turned as an airship - Sarah’s heart jumped, before she realised it wasn’t the Hand of the Prophet - pulled around above them, small flashes of light betraying the position of the Authority on board. Vox fighters made speedy dashes for cover, a handful being caught by a grenade and killed outright.
Small mercies, thought Sarah. She’d never had to put a mortally wounded person down, and she didn’t want to start now. From their point behind the thick metal base of one of the broken turrets, Sarah examined the position of the airship, the angle of the nearest Sky-lines, and how the Vox members were scattered about.
“If we’re gonna get through the gates,” she said to Helena, “we need to take down that airship. Everyone is pinned down.” Or, she thought, we could just...take it. Leave right now. The flash of guilt she felt surprised her, but only a little. She looked at Helena, then at the other fighters.
“Well, looks like we’re closest. Game?”
Helena nodded, eyes glowing with that righteous fury that she’d seen in Daisy’s. Was that a day ago? Two days? Another lifetime, Sarah thought grimly, literally.
Sarah counted under her breath as the airship inched forward along between the deck, and the buildings floating a few hundred feet away. Her hand slipped into the Sky-hook. The occasional shot rang out from both sides. Then she readied herself, already feeling her legs jittering, and bolted to the nearest Sky-line, jumping and connecting and flying towards the buildings next door. There was the sound of Helena making a whooping noise behind her, and, despite everything, she smiled.
The Sky-line passed through a tunnel in the red brick warehouse that was bobbing lazily in the air, and as it curved out the other side, it brought her near enough to the airship to -
Sarah half-jumped, half-fell onto the large flat surface of the wing, swinging the Sky-hook at the guard that had her gun raised, and knocked her back so far that she stumbled backwards off the edge. A few steps forward, and a downwards jump, and she was at the side of the ship, ducking behind metal barriers to avoid the gun turret that blocked the door. There was a crash as Helena landed, rolled, and slid down beside Sarah.
The green mist of Possession was sent at the turret, the humanoid figure atop immediately turning it’s attention to the Authority guards behind it. Shouts and screams rang out, and Sarah ran forward, holstering her gun, and scooping up a dropped shotgun. She kept to the back of the turret, and as the green cloud started to fade, emptied the shotgun into it. It exploded in a whine of metal.
The door was clear, and Sarah edged close and carefully peered around into the large open space of the centre of the airship. She frowned.
“Another one of those things. The Patriots,” she whispered to Helena. This one also looked like George Washington, she noted, rolling her eyes, and rubbing the fingers of her left hand together until tiny sparks started to pop. “I’ll take care of him. You go give those snipers a little push, yeah?”
They could see through to the other side of the ship, and the figures stationed along the deck with their sniper rifles. Helena looked, narrowed her eyes, nodded and flexed her hands. Then she held a finger up, pulled a small blue bottle of one of her pockets, and handed it to Sarah.
Sarah mouthed ‘thanks’ and emptied the Salts bottle, gagging theatrically although she was growing used to the strange salty taste. Helena watched her intently until she nodded, then they both took off running.
Sarah headed straight for the Patriot as it marched and turned, electricity arcing from her hand and stopping it in its tracks. Then she circled behind it, aiming the shotgun at the cogs protruding from its back.
Meanwhile, Helena dashed across the floor and was out the other door. One by one, the snipers jerkily flew off the side and vanished down into the clouds, to the sound of distant cheers from the Vox. She had a satisfied look on her face when she rejoined Sarah in the cabin. The Patriot lay on the floor where it had crashed forwards. The shotgun had turned out to be a lot faster than the handgun.
Sarah grinned at her.
“Good work!” she crowed, and pulled her in with an arm around her shoulders. Helena leaned into her for a moment, sporting a matching grin. They ambled out onto the narrow deck around the cabin, and Sarah looked around for an anchor of some kind, managing to cobble one together out of thick rope looped around the wing supports and tying one of the broken Patriot cogs to the other end.
The two of them made the short leap from the deck to where the Sky-line passed just under the airship, and Sarah tossed the weight of the rope down to the Vox fighters who stood yelling and whistling. One grabbed the makeshift anchor and hooked it onto one of the broken turrets, and a few others took the Sky-line upwards to secure the airship for the Vox. A moment later, red banners were flying from the port and stern.
Sarah and Helena slid downwards and landed back on the decking in front of the gates that now swung open. Flights of stairs led up, and they joined the Vox running up them, through another set of doors and into the Factory. Open doors exposed lines of vending machines topped with various styles of automatons, now being dismantled and the goods liberated as the Vox swept through, smashing everything they could reach. Factory staff emerged from windowless assembly lines, faces ranging from fearful to fiercely jubilant as their sixteen-hour shifts were cut short.
Guards were still attacking in waves, but these grew lesser as the Vox moved forwards and grew in numbers, absorbing factory workers as it went. Sarah noticed some of the Vox in costumes she hadn’t seen before - crimson padded suits with grotesque devil’s heads, whose wearers threw balls of flame.
“Firemen,” she muttered, trying not to remember the ones she’d already encountered. At least the Vox version didn’t scream in torment every other minute. The closest heard her, and lifted up the grinning red face to show a young black man underneath, looking wide-eyed at Sarah.
“You’re her, right?” he said, narrowing his eyes and looking her up and down. “You’re Manning. We heard you were done for.”
Sarah laughed, hoping it sounded more convincing to him than it did to her own ears.
“Yeah, I heard that too,” she said lightly, shrugging and laying the shotgun that she’d kept hold of across her shoulder.
The man grinned as wide as his mask, and clapped her on the other shoulder.
“Daisy sure will be glad to see you,” he winked, and rubbed his fingers together to produce a flame and lit the cigarette he’d pulled from the bandolier.
Sarah and Helena exchanged a glance. Helena had that little smile she got whenever Daisy’s name was mentioned, but all Sarah could think was god...I hope so. To distract him - and herself - from the topic of Daisy, she jerked her chin at his costume.
“So, fireman. What’s the deal with the other ones, those suits full of flame? Put one down earlier, and,- ” she shook her head at the memory, dragging fingers through her hair, “ - he was screamin’ about mercy and the Prophet…”
The man nodded, all cheer washed from his face, and he blew smoke upwards.
“Bad business, the Firemen,” he grimaced. “A real, uh, special punishment for those who spoke against Sister Rachel. Accused her of murdering ol’ man Comstock.” He leaned forward. “I heard she don’t believe in heaven’n’hell, so she made her own.” He shuddered slightly. “Now, me? I chose this. That’s what the Vox do. Choose.” The tip of the cigarette glowed red. “For ourselves.”
Helena caught her eye again, and they gave the man a wave and wandered away. She pointed at a raised area with two elevator doors. One had been smashed in, wires pulled out. The other was still working and the little dial atop the door said the elevator was currently on the top floor.
“It goes to Fink’s office,” Helena said quietly. “That’s where she’d go. Right?”
“Fink’s a dead man walkin’.” she said bluntly. “If he’s even still walkin’ by now.” She sighed and rubbed her forehead. Maybe finally getting rid of Fink would leave Daisy in a good mood, and she’d listen to Sarah explain how she’d returned from the dead. When she glanced back at Helena, she wasn’t surprised to see a glimmer of satisfaction on her face. After that tour of his private little prison, and Shantytown - not to mention that raffle set up - Sarah clenched her teeth. Helena looked back at her, mirroring the set jaw, and they mounted the stairs. Sarah jabbed the call button and tapped her boot as they waited.
The fight had moved past them now, the rattle of gunfire becoming more erratic as it moved further away. Closer, the sound of voices lifted in song reached them, boosted by someone playing a blues harp, and Sarah could discern at least one loud Irish accents singing about the ‘girl they call Fitzroy’. She shifted from foot to foot. Daisy was the real hero of the Vox. Not her.
Her reverie was broken by the ding of the elevator, and she and Helena stepped in. As it rose, they passed layers of assembly lines, still running but unstaffed. The ‘Dollar Bill’ and ‘Veni! Vidi! Vigor!’ vending machines remained empty, crates falling onto floors, spilling and smashing bottles, the bright greens and reds and yellows of the vigors mixing with the vivid blue of the salts on one level; the ammunition and weapons that would fill the ‘Minuteman’s Armory’ rolling and clattering onto the floor on the next.
Helena twisted a finger in her hair, staring out at the factory works.
“What he said about Rachel. Punishing people.” Sarah noted again the lack of the honorific ‘Sister’. “ I. I know it’s true. But I can’t…” she kept staring ahead. “How could she…” She and Sarah both jumped a little as there was a shrill ringing noise erupted from the wall-mounted telephone. The elevator jerked to a stop.
Sarah bit her lip.
“This better not be Fink again…” she snapped, and picked up the handset.
“Yeah? Hello?” She leaned a shoulder against the wall.
There was silence, then a voice simmering with an undercurrent of rage and grief spoke in a deceptively calm drawl.
“I saw you die, Shepherd. Saw it with my own eyes.”
Sarah squeezed her eyes shot, then looked over at Helena. She gave a little shrug.
“Daisy...listen...the Vox have their weapons here, yeah? Do we still have a deal for the airship?”
Another beat of silence. When Daisy spoke again, Sarah could hear the curiosity struggling through.
“You sure sound like the Sarah Manning I knew. But that Sarah Manning died for the Vox Populi. She’s a hero to tell our children stories about. So...you’re either an imposter, or a ghost.” Her voice was still angry, but Sarah could just hear the nugget of hope in it. She swallowed.
“There’s a third option here, Daisy.” Sarah spoke quickly in case she hung up. “You seen those weird things in the sky around? Like...the air is...splitting?”
A longer beat of silence.
“Yeah. Yeah, I’ve seen a lot of those around lately.” A humourless chuckle came down the wires. “You tellin’ me those things raise the dead?”
“Not exactly.” Sarah sighed and leaned her head against the glass. “Look, get us up there, and we can explain it all.”
“We?” No pause that time, but her voice was back to ‘suspicious’.
Sarah looked at Helena. She nodded.
“I’ve got...the Lamb with me.” She mouthed ‘sorry’ at Helena, who shrugged again, and gave her a lopsided grin. “She knows more about it than I do.”
“Huh. You found her.” Daisy sighed into the receiver. “C’mon up then.” The anger had slipped away a bit, and now Sarah could hear how tired she sounded. Then the line went dead, and the lift jolted into movement. She replaced the handset, and rubbed the back of her neck.
“Well...hopefully she won’t shoot us on sight, then.” She found herself reaching out to take Helena’s hand for some comfort, hesitated with her fingers stretched out, and felt a rush of something hit her heart when Helena took it without even looking. Her eyes traveled up from their entwined fingers to the face that was hers but not hers, and she smiled in sudden relief.
This was what the other Sarah didn’t have.
“No wonder the bloody idiot got herself killed,” she muttered to herself. A sharp pain flashed through her temples, and was gone, leaving her slightly lightheaded.
“Hmm?” Helena murmured, squeezing Sarah’s fingers. She squeezed back.
The lift slowed down, stopped, and the doors glided open.
A few Vox members were scattered around the large room they stepped out into, dragging bodies through a doorway on one side, methodically stripping them of weapons and ammunition and anything else that might prove useful to someone else. They looked over curiously at the two girls, but continued their work.
Straight ahead was a line of desks under a sign saying Office of Jeremiah Fink - Chief Executive. Sarah rolled her eyes when she saw more of the large golden statues, that Fink clearly loved more than his own humanity, standing around the walls. They moved through the room, stepping over the smears of blood and scattered papers. Double doors led outside to a round marble-floored platform, with stairs leading up ahead of them, and stairs leading down to the left and right.
They went up.
A large building rose up before them, with the familiar Fink logo on the huge clock face at the top of a tower, and a long, low wing that stretched out to the edge. The Hand of the Prophet was docked at the end of it. Sarah sighed in relief. The building gleamed in brass and brick and large ornately framed windows...but now, scarlet banners flapped in the wind, and the clock had stopped ticking. As they came to the top of the stairs, they saw Daisy staring out at them through a ground floor window.
She jerked her head to her right, then disappeared.
Sarah squinted into the window as they passed, and thought she could see a slumped shadowy figure, still wearing a top hat. Fink, maybe. Alive? Maybe.
By the time they walked around the side of the building, Daisy had opened the doors and stood, one hand holding a hand cannon, the other resting on the hilt of her Bowie knife. Her eyes flicked over Helena with mild interest, but kept returning to Sarah. Her expression was flat, like she was trying to suppress whatever hope she had that the woman in front of her was real. After studying them for a long, uncomfortable moment, she waved them in and led them to the room on the left, furnished with two desks and matching chairs, a tiny sofa in front of the window, and a drinks trolley.
Sarah let out a relieved sigh.
“Thank bloody god,” she said out loud, and poured herself a bourbon. “Uh, anyone else…?” Helena screwed her nose up, plopping herself down on the sofa, and Daisy just shook her head. She stood with her arms crossed, looking exactly as she had in the other Columbia, if somewhat wearier, and with blood on the white shirt and streaked over her face. Her locs were bundled up on the nape of her neck and tied with a red silk scarf.
“So. This is the Lamb.” she said, giving Helena a proper once over, and then staring between her and Sarah. “You two are kin.” She didn’t question, just stated it.
“No,” said Sarah.
“Maybe,” said Helena.
They both looked at each other, and then at Daisy. Sarah downed her drink and poured another.
“We don’t know what we are,” she admitted. “Never met until, what, a few days ago? And that wasn’t here. Not this Columbia, I mean.” she looked at Helena and raised her eyebrows beseechingly.
Daisy raised her eyebrows as well, but disbelievingly.
“You two better get to explainin’.” The deep brown of her eyes glittered with amber where the sunlight hit her face. “We still got a lot of work to do. So make it quick.” She turned one of the chairs around and straddled it, arms folded across the back. “Tell me how a dead woman is sittin’ here drinkin’ with me.”
Sarah and Helena exchanged glances, then started to talk.
They told her everything that had happened since they had met in the tower - or at least, the summarised version - taking turns until they were finishing each others sentences. Daisy listened, occasionally interjecting, seeming to grow slightly more relaxed as the story sunk in. She still kept her eyes on Sarah, examining her face, her hands, the way she tapped her feet.
“Quite a tale,” she said, fingers drumming against the chair back, “I ain’t saying that I believe all of it, but - “ she looked at Sarah again. “Here you are, Shepherd, large as life.”
Sarah chuckled over her glass.
“And twice as ugly,” she retorted, taking a sip.
Daisy, unexpectedly, smiled.
“Now, I wouldn’t say that,” she drawled, and stood up. Sarah felt a blush moving up her neck, not daring to look at Helena, knowing she’d be sitting there making that stupid kissy face.
“I’m done with my business here,” Daisy continued. “And if the two of you are really gonna take on the Prophet by yourselves...we better get you on that airship. Hear you got me a replacement too.” She looked at Sarah again, and winked, so quickly that she thought she’d imagined it. “Deal’s a deal, Shepherd.”
Helena spoke up.
“Is it Fink? In there?” she nodded towards the other room. “He’s dead?” Her face darkened when Daisy nodded, and her hands twisted around each other. “Good.” she said flatly.
Daisy gave a surprised chuckle.
“This one’s a wolf in lambskin, Shepherd.” She tipped her head to the side, and looked out the window, tapping her fingers on the knife hilt. “Helena. I need to speak to Sarah.” She stepped over to the doorway and pointed. “Second room down. Fink’s son is in there. I ain’t one to hold the son responsible for the sins of his father and I don’t plan to hurt the boy. Somethin’ tells me you’re good with children...do you mind?” She turned and looked at Helena, who looked back, examining Daisy’s face. Then she nodded and stood, turning at the last minute and waggling her eyebrows at Sarah as she went through the door.
Sarah quickly downed the remainder of her drink, poured another one, and let herself drop down on the sofa. She wrapped her hands around the glass, feeling her leg jitter.
“Did I...did she...do good, then?” she asked her glass, then took a sip.
“Yeah. She did good,” Daisy replied, softly, and took a seat next to her. She shifted so she was facing Sarah, and leaned an elbow on the sofa back. “May have been out for herself when she started, but she gave the Vox her all at the end.” There was something sadly tender in her voice, and Sarah glanced over at her, suddenly feeling like she was stepping into a delicate minefield. She tipped the remainder of her drink down her throat and wiped her hand across her mouth.
“I...I want to ask how it happened.” she said, looking at the window, then at her feet. “But if you tell me, maybe the memories will come back and -” she looked at Daisy, “ - I dunno, my brain might explode or somethin’.” Her fingers dragged through her hair. She could feel Daisy’s knee barely pressing against her own, and she gambled on that horrible tenderness in her voice, and placed a hand on it.
The knee didn’t move.
When she looked up at Daisy, the woman was staring at her with a strange mix of affection, resentment, and a dash of indecision.
“I know I’m not...her. But…” she drifted off, not sure what she was going to say. She felt Daisy shift position next to her and sigh.
“No. You ain’t her. But...hell...“ Daisy reached out with slender brown fingers and cupped Sarah’s chin, leaning forward and then stopping, eyebrows raised slightly, eyes questioning.
Sarah answered by letting herself lean forward, her mouth barely an inch from Daisy’s full lips. She closed her eyes as Daisy’s mouth covered her own, and let herself stop thinking for just a moment. When the kiss ended, she opened them again and found Daisy looking at her with a small sad smile. She placed a palm against Sarah’s cheek.
“Better get you on your way, Shepherd,” she said lightly, and drew her hand away. She stood, stepped over to one of the desks, and pulled out a voxophone, rubbing a thumb back and forth over the polished wood. “Dunno if this’ll set off those headaches of yours, but...I found it. After.” She held the voxophone out, and Sarah took it. It felt heavier than the others she’d picked up through the city, and her fingers hesitated to touch the ‘play’ lever.
The she did, and her own voice came crackling out.
(cough) Daisy... you win this bloody war, you send this to New York. (hacking cough) They ain't getting the girl. Whoever they are -- (uhhhshit) Maybe I did right by you and the Vox. I...I hope so...Get her to London if you can...for me……….I’m sorry….lena...lena?
The pain hit her head like a train and the voxophone dropped from her hands as she grabbed her head. Daisy was standing close enough to catch it before it smashed on the floor, and she hurriedly tossed it on the sofa before grasping Sarah by the shoulders.
“Sarah…” Sarah could hear her voice coming from a long way away. “Sarah, you’re alright. Sarah.” Slowly, the pain ebbed away again, and she felt Daisy press a handkerchief against her nose.
Shit, she muttered and took over the handkerchief, while Daisy put an arm around her shoulders and walked her to the room where Helena was currently acting the part of the Songbird for a small boy with red eyes but an entranced expression under a mop of dark curls. She ran in a circle with her arms outstretched, making squawking sounds, swooping at the boy with her clawed hands out.
When she saw Sarah clutching the bloody square to her face, she stopped and ran over, taking the weight from Daisy. The boy remained seated on the floor, mesmerized by the sight of the two of them, and seemingly unafraid of Daisy.
“Sarah...” Helena crooned, wrapping her arms around her back and gently stroking her hair. She looked at Daisy inquiringly. The other woman shrugged.
“Probably shouldn't've given her that voxophone,” she muttered. “Thought she’d want to know, anyway.”
“It’s fine, Daisy, Helena,” said Sarah, voice muffled by Helena’s shoulder. She straightened up and wiped away the last of the blood from her nose.”That was a bad one though.” Her eyes met Daisy’s and they both almost smiled. Then she turned back to Helena. “We should get goin’. It’s time to visit dear Sister Rachel.”
Helena hummed in agreement.
Daisy walked out of the room, and opened another set of doors that revealed a long corridor. It led to a small dock in the open air, with the huge airship waiting. She frowned, and turned to Sarah.
“You could’ve just taken the one you captured out there,” she said thoughtfully.
“Wanted to see you,” she said, and smirked. Daisy’s mouth curled up at the corners. Helena looked from one of them to the other, mouth open and eyes starry.
“Well,” Daisy said, suddenly serious again, “ship’s loaded up with food, water, ammunition...everythin’ you need. Travellin’ over Emporia is best - our people are there now. There’s a gate to Comstock House there, too, unless you want to fly right up to the Prophet’s windows.” She grinned humorlessly. “She’ll have her own little army of Founders, no doubt.” She stepped forward and took Helena’s hand. “Glad to have met you, finally.” She crooked her head. “Ain’t nothin’ like what I expected. You take care of this one, you hear?” She pointed at Sarah, and Helena nodded enthusiastically. Then she extended a hand to Sarah, clasping her wrist. Sarah did the same. Their eyes met for a moment.
“What are you gonna do with the kid?” Sarah asked.
“Find his ma,” Daisy answered, then she lowered her voice. “It ain’t Fink’s wife, neither.”
Then she ushered them down the hallway, and when they stepped onto the airship and looked back, she was gone. Sarah felt her chest hurt, but only for a minute. Helena looked around nervously, as if thinking about the other airship and what had happened in it.
In this reality, the airship was littered with evidence of the Vox’s use of it, and draped with red banners, masking the clinical whiteness somewhat. One covered what looked like a statue, and Sarah, curious, peeked underneath. Just another angel, but this one was gold, wings folded behind her back, and holding a set of pan-pipes to her sculpted mouth.
“Huh,” she muttered, and let the fabric flutter back down.
Helena was fiddling with the controls, plotting the course to Comstock House via Emporia. Sarah joined her and touched her shoulder.
“You alright?” she asked gently. Helena chewed on her bottom lip, then nodded.
“A little. Nervous.” she said. Her eyes squeezed shut. “Rachel will be...angry. With me.”
Sarah laughed out loud.
“I think she’ll be a lot angrier with me!” Sarah grinned, then pushed down the engine button, and heard the roar beneath her feet as it came to life. Within a few minutes, they were sailing high above Columbia, blue skies above and the city in the clouds spread out below.
Emporia was close enough to see the wide streets and garden beds that connected the fancy shop fronts when a whistling noise came from behind them, in the cabin. Sarah frowned, turning around, and Helena’s head shot up, her face going pale.
“No, no, no,” she gasped, leaning forward to look out the window.
“What is it…” Sarah cried out, then she saw a giant dark shape swoop down past the airship. “Oh, shit,” she said, as the Songbird rolled gracefully in the air, then headed back up towards them. The whistling continued, and she realised it was the same tune that had played in the tower library. “The music calls it…” she muttered, and strode over to the angel statue, yanking the banner away to reveal the panpipes moving jerkily up and down. The whistling was coming from here, and she cast about for something to hit it with, her hand eventually closing over something metal and heavy, and she brought it down on the top of the statue, hitting it until it stopped with a dying whine.
She realised she was holding the wrench in her hands, the one that Helena had knocked her out with, and she dropped it.
“Is it - “
Before she could finish, the Songbird collided with the front of the airship, smashing the front window and sending Helena stumbling backwards. Sarah barely kept her balance, grabbing one of the chairs that was bolted to the floor.
“Helena!” she shouted, fumbling at her waist for her gun. Then the Songbird screeched, shifted its huge claws so it was holding onto the ship, and rolled again. The airship rolled with it.
Sarah held on grimly as everything turned upside down. Boxes and bottles and paper and anything else that wasn’t attached, including Helena, fell through the air. Before they could hit the ceiling, the ship rolled again. Everything seemed to hang, motionless, for a moment.
Then gravity caught up, and she lost her grip, and fell.
The last thing Sarah saw before she blacked out was Helena slamming into the floor beside her.
Daisy Fitzroy does get her own 'folk hero song' in the game, although she comes to a much worse end :/
'They built a city in the clouds
They raised her up with joy
Reflection of America
From Maine to Illinois
But we were put in bondage
Suckered by the rich men’s ploy
Until our chains were broken by
The girl they call Fitzroy!'
Chapter 12: The Impossible Twins
Sarah and Helena enter into Emporia, and discover some surprising facts about their old friends, the Luteces.
The garden was quiet and shady, and the butterflies flashed blue wings as they fluttered around the rosebushes. Sarah was holding Helena’s hand, and they were walking down a small hill, towards a stream lined with trees and flowering bushes. She could hear heavy footsteps behind her, but she wasn’t afraid. They made her feel safe. Helena turned and smiled and said a word that Sarah didn’t recognize, татусь . It made Sarah’s head hurt.
She turned to look behind them and the Songbird was there, waddling along on it’s huge clawed feet, wings folded like a bat's. It turned its head with jerky movements to examine her with great glowing green eyes, first one, then the other. A faint whistling noise started playing from somewhere in the bushes and she felt Helena’s fingers digging into her hand. The small bones creaked as her grip grew tighter and tighter, and then the Songbird spread it’s wings out, dwarfing the two girls (because they were girls, children, she realised, in matching pinafore dresses and bare feet), and Helena screamed NO, and Sarah
Sarah woke up with a start, lifting her head too quickly and wincing at the sharp ache that started in her head and travelled down her back. She was face down on the slanted floor of the airship, and as she cautiously moved her limbs to the general result of pain, but not enough to indicate broken bones, she heard Helena shouting, and banging on the door.
“No, no, stop it! Sarah! We need to -” she pulled on the door, “ - stop them! He’ll come back. He’ll come back!”
Sarah watched blearily, then managed to make it to a sitting position.
“What…?” She mumbled, and coughed. When she’d spat up some blood, and pulled herself to stand against a wall, holding onto a chair to keep from sliding sideways, she realised there was music coming from outside. There was a plink-plink-plink of someone jabbing at a piano, trying to play a tune, but not quite getting it.
There were voices too, gently quarreling voices that were annoyingly familiar.
“That’s not it.”
“It certainly is.”
“Isn’t. Try again.”
“Here you are then,”
“Oh, god, not them,” Sarah groaned, and fumbled her way over to Helena, and the door.
“No, that’s the E.”
“Sarah! Are you - we need to stop them playing. The whole song...it’ll. Call him back.”
“Hmm. No, that is not it.”
“Is. Is. Is. Pay attention.”
Sarah leaned against Helena’s shoulder, and joined in the effort to open the door. It soon pulled loose, and she swung it open, using it for balance. Then she tried standing on her own, and was pleasantly surprised to find she could. The airship had crashed right through a wall, and they were in some kind of space with a high domed ceiling, with statues of angels lining the walls, standing in niches. Helena had already jumped down to the paved ground, rubble and bricks providing a kind of stair.
She ran towards the two redheads seated on a bench before an upright piano.
“Stop! Stop it!” she shouted, but the tune had been picked out correctly, and Rosalind Lutece exclaimed in triumph.
“Ha! There it is.”
Helena grabbed the fallboard and slammed it down, barely missing the fingers of the Luteces, who looked at her as if she had committed a mildly embarrassing faux pas at an afternoon tea.
“What are you doing!” she hissed at them. “He’ll come back now!”
“The notes were correct.” said Robert Lutece.
“The instrument was not. ” said Rosalind.
“One needs both to get his attention.”
“ But if you know how to sing to him…”
“He will take you where you need to go.” Robert stood as Sarah, who had stumbled her way down out of the wreckage of the airship, joined the party, and he handed her a card.
Helena shook her head, baffled.
“You are the Luteces, aren’t you? I thought you…”
“We are where we are needed.” Rosalind cut her off.
“And needed where we are .” Robert added.
Sarah stared down at the card in her hand - ‘Songbird Defense System’ was written in elegant script next to a cross-section diagram of a statue head, all cogs and gears, illustrating how the tune was played on an interior whistle.
“So…” she said slowly, “Rachel uses these songs to control the Songbird,” she flicked the card with a finger. “Are there others we can use? Something to keep the bird off our bloody back?”
“Perhaps you should ask the maestro herself.” she said.
“Well, that’s where we’re headed, but can’t you…” Sarah looked up to find she was speaking only to Helena, and sighed heavily. “Of course…”
“They just…” she spread her fingers out theatrically, “vanished.” Then her fingers disappeared into her hair, and her eyes grew wide. “Maybe they learnt how to, hmm. Travel without using tears?”
“Well, at least they left the piano,” Sarah said sarcastically. The airship had crashed into the outskirts of Emporia, (she hoped), and the only way left to go was through the walkway the piano was blocking. She took another look at the card, then shoved it into her satchel. “Gimme a hand with this.” She leaned against the heavy wood.
With both of them shoving, it was easy enough to move it so they could squeeze through. When they emerged into the sunlight again, the clouds had parted above them and revealed a huge mansion floating some way up. Sarah turned to see Columbia laid out behind and below her, drifting in and out of clouds. There were flashes of light down there, the occasional echo of faint explosions, and flashes of red from the Vox banners that hung over half the city now.
Sarah absentmindedly ran her hand down the red sash she was still wearing, and thought about the small, sad smile on Daisy’s face. Maybe they’d see each other again, but for now she sighed, and put her out of mind.
There was much bigger fish to fry.
Helena was staring up at Comstock House, her coat sleeves pulled down so they covered her fingers, and she was pressing her lips together tightly. Clouds roiled around the base of the house, dark greys and black with flickers of lightning. Three towers, the central one taller and topped with an angel, rose from the already imposing building. The two on either side were fitted with searchlights, their glow dimmed by the sun.
Then Sarah was distracted by the sound of voices, shouting impatiently. As they walked further along the path, she could see a few of the smaller ships - the gondolas - hovering next to people gathered on the edge of the floating island. They were jumping across, one by one. A few people were complaining loudly about leaving their cases and trunks behind, and one woman was crying hysterically in fear, unable to even approach the edge and the open air that lay underneath.
As the two of them got closer, a few of the folks on the outskirts of the crowd saw them, and a man pointed at them and shouted the Vox! causing a ripple of frightened looks and children being swept up into parents arms through the crowd.
Sarah mockingly saluted towards the crowd, and just kept walking. Helena followed after hesitating for a brief moment, looking slightly hurt that children could be afraid of her.
“Where are they all going?” she asked Sarah in hushed tones.
“Away from here. I imagine some of ‘em will be leaving Columbia altogether, if they can,” She looked back over her shoulder. A few faces were still turned towards them, but in a kind of fascination, not fear. “Maybe some will help rebuild it into a better place. I mean, actually better. For everyone.”
Helena made a humming noise, and dug her hands into the deep green pockets. She pulled out a lollipop and yanked the wrapper off with her teeth before sucking it into her mouth, the stick travelling from side to side. Sarah rubbed a hand over her stomach, then felt around in the satchel for an apple. It was a bit bruised, but still good.
That’s probably a metaphor or somethin’ , she thought, and bit into it.
The walkway veered off to the right, and up some stairs under a sign telling them they were entering Prosperity Plaza. More angel statues towered over them - one held a key, the second a sword - the blank stone eyes staring out of faces that resembled Helena’s, and her own, made Sarah feel uneasy. Between them, water was cascading down over artfully placed rocks, pouring into a large circular pool, dotted with water lilies. Garden beds lined the walkways, park benches were placed in shady nooks and overlooking the view of the city below, as it slowly glided through the clouds.
The massive red banners that hung from the building up ahead looked both rudely out of place, and somehow fitting. They billowed in the gusts of wind that seemed to be stronger up here, but otherwise it was eerily quiet.
“Port Prosperity Station,” Sarah read out loud. Wide and shallow steps lead up to the doors, between two identical stone angels holding swords. Sarah kept half an eye on them as she tried the doors. Stone that came to life seemed hardly a stretch, after all they’d seen. But they remained frozen in place, guarding doors that wouldn’t budge when Sarah pushed down on the handles.
The back of her neck prickled with the sensation of being watched, but when she turned around in a circle, hand at the gun on her waist, she saw nothing, and no one.
She lifted an eyebrow at Helena, who crouched down and fiddled for a few minutes, and then door handles turned, and they were inside the station. For a moment she was reminded of London Central, a fuzzy memory of huge domed ceilings and people everywhere. She supposed this is what it would look like if a war had swept through it.
Curved stone steps led up to wide pathways on either side, sunlight flooding in through high arched windows to illuminate the scene.
Rubbing at the back of her neck, she avoided looking at the streaks of blood on the tiled floors. Statues had been tumbled, leaving piles of shattered stone. Must have been some work getting all the bodies cleaned up. At least we missed out on that.
She turned to Helena, who was eyeing the bloody tiles with an unreadable expression, then looked at Sarah with her head tilted.
As one, their faces turned upwards to a message daubed in red across a huge portrait of Sister Rachel that sat on the wall straight ahead.
TELL US PROPHET
DO YOU SEE US COMING?
Helena wrinkled her nose, then walked closer and sniffed.
“Paint.” she said.
Sarah thought she sounded a little disappointed. She herself tried not to notice how Rachel’s eyes still followed her, even under the red paint. She cleared her throat.
“So. That...music. It always call the bird?” Sarah asked, looking at Helena’s profile.
She nodded, then met Sarah’s gaze.
“Always. It used to…” her eyes wandered up and the corner of her mouth twitched upwards. “...make me happy.”
“What?” Sarah frowned. “Bloody hell, why ?”
Helena looked at her, round-eyed. The sun streamed through high stained glass windows and gave them a golden glow.
“He was my friend,” she said simply. She began crossing the tiled floor to the wide corridor that opened up on the right side. “He’d bring me food. New books. Science journals. After my sister…” she stopped, her hands clutching at each other. “After Rachel stopped visiting. He was all I had.” Her feet began moving again and she glanced sideways at Sarah. “Until you.”
Sarah opened her mouth. Closed it. A sick feeling in her stomach that felt confusingly like guilt left her speechless for a moment, then a surge of anger came up her throat.
“I can’t believe she just left you there!” she snapped, her fists clenching, wanting to punch something. Or someone.
Helena merely gave a lopsided shrug, although she avoided Sarah’s eyes. They’d mounted the steps and were now walking along a spacious corridor, lined with high stone pillars and more of the seemingly endless supply of angel statues.
Sarah reached out to grab her arm, but stopped herself just in time, running her fingers through her own hair instead.
“So,” she said, hoping to distract her, “if this is a station, there must be gondolas, or somethin’, yeah? To take us to Emporia?”
Helena chewed on her lip, and nodded.
They continued on down past scattered piles of deserted luggage, until emerging into the open air again. The metal limbs and cog wheels of a Motorised Patriot or two were scattered about among the pools of blood and bundles of clothing scattered over a balcony of sorts. Sarah poked her foot at a head with the jaw missing, all the gears exposed, and fake eyes popping out.
The gondola here ran on a cable instead of flying, and the two thick metal lines that ran upwards also supported huge angels, their arms outstretched, leading to a grand edifice of stone and arched windows. WELCOME TO EMPORIA was lit up in a shining arch between two glowing glass domes. It looked particularly striking against the darkening sky.
Some of the buildings that were visible had flames dancing in the windows; one that looked like a small fancy hotel on it’s own little floating island was fully engulfed. It lilted to the side, and Sarah supposed the whatever that was holding it up would soon fail, and send it hurtling down towards the earth. Thick columns of black smoke rose from several points.
Comstock House was even closer now, looming just behind Emporia, searchlights circling and what looked like hundreds of windows glimmering with soft light.
She walked to the edge and poked her head out over the railing, still feeling that second of vertigo as she looked down. It wasn’t as bad now - either because she was used to the height, or because the clouds and the gathering darkness made it hard to see the ground.
The clouds were heavier than before, and grey. The parts of Columbia she could see hung with red banners, and some of the buildings down there burned as well, the smoke mixing with the clouds and making them look even thicker. It looked like the Vox had taken over the entire city by now - and left Comstock House for the two of them.
Sarah wondered if maybe she should have asked Daisy for help. An army of her own.
She shook her head at the thought. Fighting for their own freedom was one thing. Fighting her battles was quite another, and she couldn’t ask that of anyone. Not anymore.
No, this was for her and Helena to do. The more she thought about it, the more she felt that Sister Rachel wanted them to come to her. That she was waiting for them.
Of course, that meant walking into her territory, like walking into a bloody mousetrap. Or a spider web. She scratched at her scalp, and turned back around, scoping out the area again.
A timetable framed in ornate wrought iron sat above a short balcony, and stairs swept around on both sides, leading down to a gondola sitting in dock, all polished wood and shiny brass trimmings, the huge wheel that wound the cables sitting just behind it.
There were even a few trees, branches curving gracefully outwards, and Helena lifted her face, watching the silvery leaves shimmer in the wind, and running her fingers down the rough bark of the trunk.
“I miss the garden,” she murmured.
“Garden?” Sarah echoed, rubbing the bridge of her nose as an ache came and went. “You had a garden in the tower? I didn’t see it.”
“I...no,” Helena frowned. “It must have been a dream.”
“Yeah…” Sarah said slowly, “A dream. A garden...with blue butterflies, and -” She stopped as the ache came back, sharper, and her hand automatically wiped her nose, but there was no blood this time.
Helena looked at her with wide eyes, drawing closer and whispering, as if someone would hear them.
“Yes. The butterflies! And it felt…”
“Safe,” finished Sarah, and then she shrugged. “At first.”
“Sarah,” she continued to whisper, twisting a finger in her hair. “Do you. Can...Rachel really be a prophet?” She stared up at the tree again, “When she would visit me. Sometimes she would look... Hmm. Strange. Her eye would shine. And then she would be very quiet.” Her head tilted. “They call her The Prophet. She must have…” Helena pulled her finger out of her hair and waved her hand.
“ Prophesied something”, finished Sarah. Her eyebrows rose as she remembered Ava from the beach. “She says there’s going to be a war. And not this one,” she gestured at the burning buildings of Columbia. “Down below.” She turned to Helena, hesitated, then spoke in a rush.
“When I first arrived here, in Columbia, I had a...dream. Or maybe it was a vision. I dunno. But I saw a city on fire. New York, but bigger. And Sister Rachel was there.”
Something caught Sarah’s eye and she started down the steps to the gondola, waiting until Helena was beside her before she continued.
“You were there too,” she said bluntly. “At least, I think it was you. It was definitely your hair. But you had actual wings, feathers and all. Like an angel.” She reached out and slung her arm over Helena’s shoulders. “You were crying. Then...Rachel threw fire at me and I woke up.” She shrugged. “I’d nearly bloody drowned gettin’ baptised, so I just…”
She waved a hand dismissively.
Helena pressed against her side, humming, then said hesitantly,
“If she’s really going to start a war. We have to stop her.” Her gaze shifted from Sarah to the sprawling city beyond her. “What’s she done...we can’t…”
“Let it happen again,” Sarah finished.
They walked aboard the gondola. Sarah checked the back cabin while Helena unlocked the front. There was a dead man - presumably the previous driver - slumped in the narrow space behind the door and blood was splashed across the rear window.
Someone had dragged a finger through it and written NOWHERE TO HIDE, letters dripping red.
Sarah turned away, and shut the door behind her. She joined Helena in the front cabin. Before setting her hand to the lever, she nudged the girl and pointed with her chin.
Behind each hovering angel on the cable lines was a platform holding a billboard, and on the first two platforms, facing each other, were Rosalind and Robert Lutece.
Sarah yanked at the controls and the gondola started to travel forward and up. Just before they reached the first set of platforms, Robert pitched a baseball across the air in front of them, and Rosalind swung a bat, hitting the ball with a crack.
Sarah stared at them as they passed, but they ignored her.
Helena grinned, seeming to forget their troubles - at least for the moment.
“I hope we get to talk to them again,” she said enthusiastically. “I want to know. How they do that .” She pointed.
The Luteces were ahead of them again, on the next platform to the left.
Robert was seated at an easel, paintbrush in hand, studying Rosalind as she posed holding an apple aloft. Their clipped English accents were audible as they spoke to each other in raised voices.
“I told you they’d come,” said Robert.
“No, you didn't.” sighed Rosalind.
“ Righ t, I was going to tell you they'd come.” he reasoned.
“ But you didn't.” she retorted.
“But I don’t .”
“Are you sure that's right?” Rosalind asked.
As the gondola slowly passed the duo again, their voices sounded like there was an echo, like they were coming from two places at once. She could hear waves slapping against wood and there was a smell of salty air - and then it was as if the world snapped back into place, and no time at all had passed.
Sarah glanced at Helena, but she didn’t seem to have noticed anything strange. She ran her hands through her hair, then leaned against the counter above the lever and craned her head to look back at Robert’s painting. She blinked.
It was of himself.
“I was going to have told you they'd come?” he was saying doubtfully.
“No.” Rosalind’s voice was an exact mix of frustration and patience.
“That's not the subjunctive.”
“I don't think the syntax has been invented yet.” Robert opined.
“It would had to have had been.” she said confidently.
“Had to have...had...been?” he mused. “That can't be right.”
Helena clapped her hands.
“Ha!” She exclaimed, then glanced at Sarah, noting her scowling face. “They seem to want to help,” she said.
The Luteces were now on the platform ahead and to the right, along with a gramophone. They waltzed in a tight circle and continued their conversation in fond tones.
“Odd, isn't it?” Rosalind asked as she stepped with precision.
“The facts that sometimes we…”
“...finish each other's sentences?” queried Robert.
“Exactly.” Rosalind said with satisfaction.
“It would be odder if we didn't.” Robert pointed out.
“Hm.” Rosalind tilted her head and smiled at her brother.
“They seem to be out of their bloody minds,” muttered Sarah.
They’d reached the top of the line now, and as she looked back down, she couldn’t see the Luteces anywhere. The gondola slowed to a halt. Sarah looked up at another huge domed ceiling, another grand set of stairs. She sighed, and followed Helena as she skipped off the gondola in her baggy trousers. Tinny music drifted down from the fluted trumpets that sat in the corners of the ceiling, a jaunty tune that did nothing to dispel Sarah’s irritable state. Every time those two smug redheads showed up, she somehow forgot everything she wanted to ask them. And then once they were gone…
By the time the two of them had reached the top of the stairs, Sarah was left with the vague sense that she’d forgotten something, and then she was distracted by the strange crackling sounds that seemed to come from everywhere.
It sounded like lightning, and she thought about the stormy clouds about the foot of that huge mansion.
“Comstock House must be closer,” she called to Helena, who’d ran ahead. “You hear that?” There was no answer and Sarah sped up, panicking, but Helena was just around the corner, standing in front of a large poster mounted on the next set of stairs.
It depicted the tower, a golden halo around the carved facsimile of Helena’s face, her wings and arms outstretched to encompass the words ‘ The blood of the Prophet shall sit the throne and bathe in flame the mountains of man!’
Helena turned as Sarah joined her, eyes wide.
“One of those Patriot tin men was spouting that line,” Sarah pointed out. “It’s just...more propaganda.”
Helena shook her head, hands fidgeting in her pockets.
“I think,” she said quietly, tilting her head, “Rachel has...plans. For me.” She slid her hands out of her pockets and examined them, turning them over and over. When she looked back up at Sarah, her eyes were shining with tears. “I don’t want to...what if she makes me…?”
“She won’t.” Sarah clasped Helena’s hands in her own, rubbing her thumbs back and forth against the palms in a soothing gesture. “We’ll stop her, yeah? I won’t let her hurt you anymore.”
As Helena sniffled, and nodded resolutely, Sarah smiled at her, while inside her stomach tightened. Maybe she should face Rachel alone - what if this leash she had on the girl wasn’t just to keep her in Columbia…
She didn’t want to fight Helena. And she wasn’t sure she could, even if she had to.
They both walking, mounting the stairs and following the corridor as it turned left, then right, and led them to another set of staircases. Sarah looked longingly at the bar that sat opposite the stairs but kept walking, past the shuttered offices and scattered rubbish.
At the top was an atrium with steps leading up to balconies on three sides, overhung with long swatches of red fabric. The two of them stopped as they saw the small group of people on the other side, several of whom drew weapons at the sight of them.
Sarah lifted her hands, palm outwards, her red sash obvious.
Helena waved, grinning.
The Vox members relaxed and the guns were lowered, and they resumed their hushed conversation. A few of them watched Sarah and Helena as they crossed the wide paved floor.
Sarah realised that they’d caught up with a clean-up crew when she saw the pile of bodies behind the group. Most of them were in blue uniforms, and a few in red, but there were also ones in the ordinary clothes of the citizens of Columbia. She saw Helena blanche at the sight of a few limp children, her hands tucking themselves away in her sleeves.
“They didn’t ask. For any of this.” Helena had tears in her eyes, and Sarah reached out to touch her face gently.
“Did you?” Sarah asked softly, while her mind raced. Bloody trouble with wars is, no matter how necessary they seem, people always get caught in the crossfire . Helena sighed and gave her a small, sad smile.
Are they just throwing them over the edge of the city , she wondered, feeling vaguely horrified at the thought of a rain of dead bodies falling on the ‘Sodom below’.
But there were carts, and tarps to cover them, and she thought she heard the words ‘fire purifies’, so she decided that there must be incinerators up here somewhere, and it clearly wasn’t her problem.
She tugged on Helena’s hand gently and they kept walking. The walkways were spacious, lit with stylish lamps, and adorned every so often with elegant advertisements for Vigors, Sky-hooks, and the various businesses of Emporia. There were several for the Emporia Algonquin, with the motto “Fortune, Faith, Family’. As long as you were wealthy and white, from the looks of the family depicted, she thought bitterly.
Arched leadlight windows let in what was left of the sunlight. They eventually came to another gate - this one already wide open, the ornate lock in pieces on the floor.
An archway at the other end stated that the turnstiles below it led to Downtown Emporia.
There was a hole broken through the stone wall to the right, the rubble still smouldering. As she looked closer she saw charred remains, and quickly turned away, covering her nose and mouth with her hand. The smell was sickly.
“One of those Firemen, looks like,” she said, realising Helena was right beside her, screwing her face up at the sight. “C’mon.” Over on the left was a store that stood surprisingly open and relatively untouched. The register had been upturned and emptied but nothing was on fire.
Helena’s face lit up as she saw the shelves and shelves of books, and she dashed forward before Sarah could stop her.
“C’mon,” she protested, “I didn’t even stop at that bar this time!”
But she ambled in after Helena anyway and set about poking at random books. She’d never been overfond of reading, or at least not the idea of sitting in one place long enough to.
There was a pile of books and toys in one of the front corners that looked like it had been set up for a book-burning, and when Sarah drew closer, she saw that it was made up of those bloody awful Duke and Dimwit stories, dolls depicting both the title characters, and posters ripped up into shreds. Her hands automatically patted her pockets for matches, but stilled as she realised the entire place would probably go up in flames, and she didn’t think Helena would approve.
When Sarah walked deeper into the store and found a polished wooden staircase, she followed it down to find walls lined with books, and a cosy alcove in the middle with lamps and sofas. Helena already had a small pile of books in her arms and a determined look on her face as she studied the high shelves. Sarah tilted her head to read the spines but the names - Planck, Thomso, Zeeman - left her blank. She put a hand on her satchel, still heavy with ammo and other sundries, and gave her a doubtful look.
“I’m already carryin’ enough, Helena…”
Helena clasped the books to her chest and looked at Sarah with big eyes, and lips that seemed on the verge of trembling.
Sarah almost smiled, but quickly turned it into a frown, crossing her arms.
Helena sighed and looked at the books in her hands, picked out a few of the slimmest volumes and secreted them away in the big green coat. Her trousers were looking a bit grubby, but they were still in one piece. Sarah had a vague feeling that once it got dark again, the wind would turn cold.
The metal of the turnstiles creaked as they passed through, and beyond lay a long room leading to an elevator, a set of high arched windows flocked by red velvet curtains looking out onto the darkening sky, and elegant chandeliers hanging from the high ceiling. Two curved counters sat in front of the windows, newspapers still sitting in piles on top of them, next to empty registers.
ANARCHISTS LOOSE IN OUR FAIR CITY! read the headlines, giving Sarah a small sense of satisfaction. “Death too good for ‘em!” says Warden Watts.
But not too good for you, I bet , thought Sarah. Whoever he was, Watts was most likely dead now.
The elevator at the end of the room had a call-button unlike any Sarah had seen before - numbers on dials that turned to present different combinations as she ran her fingers over them.
“It’s just a simple dual-dial lock,” Helena said knowingly. “The code…” she hoisted herself up on the nearest counter and lowered her head to look behind it, boots in the air, “...will be here. Somewhere.”
“Yeah, course,” Sarah tried to sound blase, and went to look around the other counter, before Helena made a satisfied sound and waved a small ledger at her. Sarah grinned, and took a step back towards her, freezing as a whistling noise began to pipe out from behind the first red curtain.
Helena dropped into a crouch, holding a finger to her lips, and Sarah ducked down, raising her eyebrows. They were both hidden from the window, and she motioned for Helena to join her. The blonde silently crawled over, and when Sarah opened her mouth, she covered it with one hand, the other pointing upwards.
There was a beat of silence, then the building shook slightly, plaster dust falling like like light snow. A loud metallic shriek echoed outside, closer, and closer, and the building shook again.
Another second of silence left Helena and Sarah staring at each other, hands entwined without them even noticing. Then the window exploded inwards in a shower of glass and splintered wood, and the two of them pressed closer against the counter as a green light passed around the room.
Odd little noises filled the air, like the trills and warbles of a bird coming out of a metal pipe. Sarah shifted a foot, having sat on it awkwardly and the light turned orange, the noises taking on an urgent cast. Helena held onto her hands tightly, pulling as Sarah leaned back slightly, just enough to peer upwards and into the face of the Songbird. It’s head was turned sideways, the great amber eye aimed at the other end of the room, and Sarah stared at the cracks that covered the surface of it, remembering how close it had got in the water before the pressure had forced it to withdraw.
She very carefully lowered her head, trying not to breathe too loud, meeting Helena’s eyes again and seeing the incredulous relief there. They watched the amber light sweep the room again, then there was a loud screech, the sound of metal claws scraping and huge wings opening, and the Songbird was gone. A cry floated back through the air, already at a distance.
Sarah squeezed her eyes closed, feeling a sudden surge of adrenalin make her legs jerk beneath her. She grabbed the counter edge and lifted herself up, gazing out the broken window, ready to duck again at the first sign of wings. Helena stood beside her, still holding onto an arm.
“I won’t go back,” she said in quietly determined voice. She squeezed Sarah’s arm tightly. “Promise me. You won’t let him. Take me back.”
“Course not,” Sarah replied, “We’ll find a way to stop him.” She almost winced as Helena’s fingers dug into her forearm. “I promise.”
“I won’t go back,” Helena repeated, “and if he…” Her eyes flicked down to the gun on Sarah’s hip, and then back up at Sarah. “You need to...”
Sarah shook her head in horror.
“I’m not gonna shoot you! I’ll stop him. I’m never gonna let them take you again, Helena!” Her voice cracked, and she looked out the window at the outline of floating buildings and clawed her hands through her hair.
“I won’t go back.” Helena said again under her breath, letting go of Sarah’s arm and walking quickly to the elevator to fiddle with the dials so they read 0451. The door pinged and opened, revealing a window-enclosed box which would have granted amazing views, had the glass not been covered with long swathes of red fabric. The wind made the fabric ripple and lift, enough to catch glimpses of elaborate stonework and the glint of Sky-rails.
Sarah jabbed the one button, and they travelled downwards, stopping after barely half a minute. The doors refused to open, with Sarah’s fist pounding on the button only producing the sound of gears grinding and whining.
“Bloody hell,” she snarled, hitting it one more time in frustration. “They must’ve blocked it.” The red fabric flapped in the wind, and she looked down onto a balcony, then up at the Sky-rail through the gaps.“Looks like we go out this way.” She pointed and slid the satchel off her shoulders, weighing it in her hands, and studying the windows. “Stay back, yeah?”
The satchel swung forward and crashed through the pane closest to the wall. Sarah carefully pulled it back in, then reached through the hole and grabbed hold of the Vox banner to pull that inside as well. She draped it over the remaining glass, holding an end out for Helena to hold, and then methodically smashed the remaining glass. The fabric ensured the glass fell harmlessly downwards, and there was soon an empty frame for them to jump out.
Now that the banner was out of the way, they could see the grand balcony on three sides of a central platform, on which stood another of the large angel statues. This one held a key in her hands, stone face tilted down. Behind her was a stone building topped with a dome flanked by brass eagles, wings spread. It was the same style as every large bank she had seen in New York.
Beyond the dome, the towers of Comstock House were still visible, searchlights bright now against the dim sky.
“Financial District,” Sarah read aloud from the arch above the angel. Harmony Lane was directly ahead of them, to the left of the angel, large curved gate closed, and to the right was a gate to the Market District. That one was open, so Sarah shrugged and pointed. “That way?’
“I think,” she mused, “either way will get us there.” Her mouth moved as she chewed the inside of her lips for a moment, and her eyes flicked around the area, then to the sky. Her hands moved as she fiddled with the thimble on her finger. When she was satisfied there was no sign of the Songbird, she pulled her Sky-hook out of hiding and slid her hand into it.
Sarah followed suit, and jumped first, a moment of panic giving way to exhilaration as the hook caught onto the rail. After they’d both leapt to the safety of the middle platform it was an easy walk to the open gate.
The clouds were dark now, coiling endlessly in on themselves, and the sound of lightning cracked. Not thunder, Sarah noticed, just the endless noise of lightning. Flashes lit up the clouds.
Through the gate was what would have been an elegant covered walkway, if not for the still smouldering fires and occasional smashed window. Many of the stores were closed, doors shut and gates locked - some with cheery “Back in 5 mins!” signs in the windows. Sarah guessed the resistance - or lack of - the shopkeepers had a lot to do with the condition their stores had been left in.
Past the walkway and up some steps were more shopfronts - a burning delicatessen, untouched bottling works, a closed confectionary store which distracted Helena for a few minutes, while Sarah turned around to see open air and the back of the huge bank-like building, red banners flying everywhere she looked, smoke spiraling into the sky and, when she squinted, the nothingness that the buildings were sitting on. She still got a little dizzy, and quickly looked away, dragging Helena away from the window of chocolate boxes.
The path led to the right, and a higher set of stairs, and more room for gardens. The greenery of the bushes and trees softened the grey stone of the streets, and many of the stores were the restful creamy colour of sandstone. A row of wooden market stalls had been left in disarray, baskets upended and vegetables scattered over the cobbles.
“What a waste,” Sarah muttered. Helena dashed ahead to a wide round fountain that sat in the middle of a plaza encircled by garden beds, but it was dry. As she turned back to Sarah, she spotted something and called out, pointing emphatically.
Sarah followed her finger to see a wide double shop-front, undamaged, with ‘Lutece Laboratory’ etched across both windows in elegantly curved letters. Above the door was a sign similar to those back in the tower.
‘DANGER!’ It read. ‘Risk of Death or Serious Injury! By order of the Columbia Science Authority.’
Sarah smirked, and crooked her head at Helena. She wasn’t going to pass up a chance to poke around in those annoying buggers business.
The double doors opened inwards. The small antechamber within was in some disarray - bookshelves half-emptied, a floor lamp lying on it’s side, filing cabinets obviously rifled through. A set of odd metal globes stood in a corner, wires leading from one to the other.
It had the same air as the rest of Emporia, deserted, but Sarah felt that it had been empty long before the Vox had arrived.
When she pushed through the second set of double doors, she was surprised to find a homely looking interior, not the sterile laboratory she was expecting. Helena kept close to her side but looked around with interest. There was a carpeted staircase leading up on the right, and what looked like living rooms to the left. The entrance hall was wide and inviting, with wallpaper in warm colours, and a desk and bookshelves set up under the stairs.
Sarah and Helena walked slowly in a circle around the ground floor, through the front living room, armchairs and side-tables looking rather incongruous next to small standing chalkboards and oddly shaped glass equipment. Books were scattered over every surface.
The next room was large and mostly empty, apart from a chalkboard on the wall, and some furniture that had been pushed against the wall.
They both stared up through a large hole in the ceiling, the floorboards of the upstairs room visible over the gouged plaster.
“What the hell..?” Sarah said, turning to Helena, who was examining the parquetry floor. A boot traced scratches and indentations, then she looked up again.
“There was something here. Equipment? Something...big. Heavy.” She pulled at a blonde curl. “It must have been...important.” Now she had both hands in her hair. “Maybe it’s how they can travel?”
“And now it’s gone.” Sarah rubbed her chin. I bet I know who took it, she thought, which means, yeah, it’s important. When she met Helena’s eyes, she could tell she was thinking the same thing. Then she could feel her scalp crawling, and the air shimmered in front of them.
Sarah took a step back, tugging Helena back by her coat. They watched as a ghostly image of an upturned table and some plates drifted past, as if caught in a breeze, and faded away. The afterimage of a tear hung in the centre of the room, then shrank to nothing.
“What was that?” Sarah hissed. The hair on the back of her neck was standing up. Helena’s eyes were wide.
“Hmm. It was almost like. An echo? A minor quantum loop?” She gazed around. “Possibly. The act of being observed…hmm.” Her face screwed up in thought, and Sarah threw her hands up in confusion, walking away to poke around some more. There was doorway leading back out to the hall, but before that, a kitchen. Like the other rooms, it served two purposes - there was a stove, and canned food on the shelves, pots and pans, as well as a bench covered with medical equipment, flasks and crucibles, piles of paper with equations and notes scribbled on them.
The bread on the sideboard was hard to her touch, but the cheese smelled alright, so Sarah broke off a chunk to nibble on as she made her way back to the desk in the hall.
She froze with her hand halfway to her mouth when she saw the photographs that lay on it.
One showed the door of her office back in New York, with the words ‘Her office, 108 Bowery, New York, NY’ in red ink curving over the black and white image.
The other depicted the lighthouse that had led her to Columbia. Here the red words said simply 'Only one obstacle’.
Sarah felt her skin tighten with anger. They’d been watching her? Like they’d been watching Helena here in the tower? Had anyone sent them to hire her, or was this all just part of one of their sick experiments?
And what did the second photograph mean?
“Only one obstacle…” she muttered, picking up the print and crumpling the edges in her tense fingers. The dead body in the lighthouse? Had the Luteces killed him to clear the way for Sarah? Did that mean Rachel had known she was coming all along? Even in this reality? She became aware that her head was aching, and she dropped the photograph back on the table, staring at them as she dug her fingers into her scalp.
The sound of Helena’s footsteps roused her and she shuffled the photographs into the other papers lying on the desk, hiding them on some instinct she didn’t understand. When she turned, Helena had a satisfied look on her face and her hands waved in the air as she started to talk.
“I think they had a device. That opened tears. And controlled them! There were notes...a progression of the Lutece Field!” Her hands stilled and she looked down at them, swallowing. “Maybe that’s why. They were studying me? In the tower? It was them, wasn’t it?”
Sarah looked away, chewing her bottom lip.
“Yeah. Yeah, I think so.” she said softly, feeling unbearably guilty. Why, she asked herself, you didn’t put her there. “But it was Rachel who put you there.”
Helena raised her eyebrows at the urgency in Sarah’s voice.
“Y-es?” she said, giving her a puzzled smile. “I remember. Shall we - “ she pointed upwards.
Sarah pushed away from the desk, nodding. They passed a multitude of framed photographs on the way up, but none of them showed the twins as children. There were several of a serious looking young girl who evidently grew up to become Rosalind Lutece, but none of Robert. Old-fashioned wedding pictures were sandwiched between a shot of the angel tower, and one of Big Ben on the London skyline.
At the top, Sarah nearly tripped over a cable as thick as her leg. It snaked from the other end of the landing into what appeared to be a bedroom, the one with the hole in the floor. The two other doors were locked and gated. Helena looked at the cable and the metal box it came out of.
“A kind of...power generator?” she mused out loud, then pointed. “Look. More.” They stood in the corners of the bedroom, the cables reaching towards the vaguely circular shape ripped out of the floorboards. Sarah gazed around the room, then, wondering why even as she did it, got down on the floor next to the bed and lifted the edge of the quilt that covered it.
Nothing but a wooden panel.
She sat back on her heels, chewed her lip, then bent forward and ran her hand along the edge of the polished wood, grinning as her fingers found a slight bump. She pressed it, there was a click, and the panel swung outwards, revealing a sizable space containing a few more notebooks, and several voxophones.
Behind her, Helena gasped. Sarah looked up at her and smirked.
“Oldest trick in the book,” she said smugly, hoping like hell it wasn’t obvious she was as surprised as Helena. She handed her the notebooks, then pulled out the voxophones - all labeled with Rosalind Luteces name, and dates ranging from the 1890’s to the previous year.
Sarah made herself comfortable on the floor, grabbing a pillow to sit on, and started sorting the voxophones into order from oldest to most recent, tilting her head at the floor beside her.
“Gonna listen with me? Could be something useful. Or, y’know, science-y.” She wriggled her fingers. Helena nodded, already in the middle of a notebook, and dropped down onto the pillow next to Sarah, leaning companionably against her side as she continued to read.
Sarah pressed a lever and the precise tones of Rosalind Lutece filled the room.
- When I was a girl, I dreamt of standing in a room looking at a girl who was and was not myself, who stood looking at another girl, who also was and was not myself. My mother took this for a nightmare. I saw it as the beginning of a career in physics.
Helena huffed in quiet amusement, and Sarah tossed the voxophone on bed, starting the next one.
- I had trapped the atom in mid-air. Colleagues called my Lutece Field “Quantum Levitation”, but in fact, it was nothing of the sort. Magicians levitate. My atom simply failed to fall. If an atom could be suspended indefinitely, well -- why not an apple? If an apple, why not a city?
“Still sounds like magic to me,” admitted Sarah, moving on to the next recording.
- The Lutece Field entangled my quantum atom with waves of light, allowing for safe measurement. Sound familiar, brother? That's because you were measuring precisely the same atom from a neighboring world. We used the universe as a telegraph. Switching the field on or off became dots and dashes. Dreadfully slow -- but now, you and I could whisper through the wall…
Sarah stiffened, meeting Helena’s wide-eyed stare.
“Wait, what?” She replayed the voxophone, listening carefully, then sat, head swimming. “They’re not twins. They’re - “
“The same person,” finished Helena. The notebook had dropped from her fingers and she was holding Sarah’s hand tightly. “But from different...keep listening.”
1893 Brother, what Comstock failed to understand is that our contraption is a window not into prophecy, but probability. But his money means the Lutece Field could become the Lutece Tear -- a window between worlds. A window through which you and I might finally be together.
“So, this Father Comstock, the one who created this city,” Sarah said slowly, “He thought he could use Rosalind’s invention,” she waved at the gaping hole in the floor. “To, what, see other realities and pretend to be a Prophet, and...I dunno, manipulate everyone?” She shook her head. “I guess Rachel took over in more ways than one.” She hesitated, then told Helena what Daisy had told her, about Rachel cutting short Comstock’s sickness.
Helena looked more sad than shocked.
“He was a bad man,” she said simply, still holding Sarah’s hand, and leaning over to start the next voxophones.
- You have been transfused, brother, into a new reality, but your body rejects the cognitive dissonance through confusion and hemorrhage. But we are together, and I will mend you. For what separates us now, but a single chromosome?
- When I finally brought my brother through, he seemed to lack the capacity to square his own reality with this one. I suspected such a thing would happen, yet had no means to accommodate his distress. His behavior was that of the feebleminded. He hemorrhaged nearly continuously from his nose. Naturally, I was able to transfuse him from my own veins and thus avoid catastrophe. In the end, it was music that proved therapeutic and grounded his thoughts. A middle C vibrates at 262 Hz, no matter what the universe.
Sarah automatically touched her own upper lip, half expecting to see blood. Her fingers came away clean. An idea was rolling around in the back of her mind, and she suspected in Helena’s too. But she felt that neither of them wanted to say it first.
Are we like the Luteces? Same face, same person, different reality?
She grabbed the next voxophone and jabbed at the lever.
- That ghastly Fink fellow has been busy of late. He has sent his minions out to prowl the city, on the lookout for Tears wherever they might appear. They are armed with camera and One could only presume he is no longer content to steal patents from his own reality. No surprise, then, his scientific "breakthroughs." I imagine I could also appropriate parlor tricks like incinerating trees with the snap of my fingers. But the universe offers more delicious fish to fry.
Sarah laughed. “So both the Finks were stealing ideas through the Tears! Albert with the music and Jeremiah with the vigors...I wonder where they came from?” She lifted her free hand and flexed it to produce sparks, watching them spit and then subside.
- Father Comstock is dying. The metastasis has aged him so quickly. Why does this Comstock decay, while a Comstock in another world remains fit? If genetics are destiny, what accounts for the difference? Perhaps exposure to the contraption? Hm. It merits further study.
“Last one,” Helena noted, looking down at the voxophone on the floor. The others were now scattered over the bed. She fidgeted. “I thought maybe. If they’d been watching me…”
“Oh, shite,” Sarah looked at her. “There were probably more back in the tower, I didn’t...sorry.” She squeezed Helena’s hand, feeling her sigh resignedly. Then she pressed the lever on the last voxophone.
- Sister Rachel has sabotaged our contraption. Yet, we are not dead. A theory: we are scattered amongst the possibility space. But my brother and I are together, and so, I am content. He is not. The business with the girl lies unresolved. But perhaps there is one who can finish it in our stead.
“Rachel killed them,” Helena said. Now her voice was shocked. “But - “
“They’re alive,” Sarah said, wonderingly. “We’ve seen them. Talked to them. They...Helena, they were the ones who hired me to come here and find you. I dunno why I didn’t tell you that before.” She chanced a look, and found Helena gaping at her. “They said your family were looking for you.” She exhaled noisily. “Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt,” she recited, then frowned and rubbed her head. “But I still don’t...what are they? Alive or dead?”
The lights flickered off, and then a familiar voice made the girls hands grip even tighter together.
“Why do you ask what - “
“ - when the delicious question is when?”
The lights came back on, illuminating Rosalind and Robert Lutece standing close together in the doorway. Robert looked at Sarah and Helena, the corners of his mouth holding the hint of a smile. Rosalind gazed over at the space left by the hole in the floor, lips tightening in umbridge.
Then they resumed speaking in the odd back-and-forth way the had.
“The only difference between past and present...“ explained Robert,
“...is semantics.” Rosalind rejoined.
“Lives, lived, will live.”
“Dies, died, will die.”
“If we could perceive time as it truly was…” Robert said thoughtfully,
“...what reason would grammar professors have to get out of bed?” Rosalind added snarkily.
Helena suddenly dropped Sarah’s hand and stood up, advancing on the Luteces. They stood still, raising identical eyebrows.
“You were watching me, In the tower. You. You helped Rachel keep me there. Why. Why didn’t you...” She jabbed a finger at one, then the other. “Who hired you? Where is my family? I don’t…”
Sarah’s frozen feet finally moved, catching Helena’s arm as she realised the girl was crying, and pulling her close. She glared at the Luteces over the blonde curls as Helena sobbed into her neck.
“Perception without comprehension…”
“...is a dangerous combination,” Rosalind finished somberly, all traces of her earlier sarcastic tone gone. “Your family is closer than you know, Helena.”
“Chin up!” Robert added encouragingly. The lights flickered again.
“Wait!” Sarah cried out, but they were already gone. “God DAMN IT!” She kicked the floor, then held dug in her pockets for a handkerchief, eventually finding a cleanish one and wiping Helena’s face. “Damn it,” she muttered again, “Every time they show up, I forget to punch them, then they bloody disappear again.” She held the now damp hanky out, and said “C’mon, blow your nose.”
Helena took it and obediently make a honking noise into the cotton square, then abruptly sat on the end of the bed.
“Do you think,” she began, eyes flitting up to Sarah, then lighting on different points around the room. “That we’re like them?” Her shoulders drooped. “I mean…”
“I know. I thought it too.” Sarah admitted, sitting next to her. “I mean, it would explain why we look alike. But,” she scratched at her head. “There’s something not right. I mean - “
Helena finally looked straight at her.
“It doesn’t feel. True?” Her eyes were wide and greenish-brown and exactly like Sarah’s own - but they weren’t Sarah’s eyes.
“Yeah,” she nodded, “It doesn’t feel true. Not in my gut.” She slipped a hand inside her coat and over her waistcoat. “We’re...something. But we’re ourselves, yeah?”
“Yes.” Helena relieved smile made Sarah grin back at her, and then they were hugging again, and laughing in a giddy way, like they’d made it through a hurricane together. After a few minutes, they broke apart, and Sarah stood, pulling Helena up after her.
“Guess we can’t put it off anymore,” she said. “Time to go to Comstock House.” She fancied she could still hear the crackling of those storm clouds that surrounded it, even in here.
“Yes.” Helena straightened her coat and combed her fingers through her hair, mirroring Sarah as she did the same. “It’s time.”
They walked down the stairs, side by side, and headed back out into Emporia.
I shamelessly stole the title for this chapter from this amazing fic by YaYaSestrahood, as it seemed to fit so well and also it saved me from thinking one up for myself, because this chapter seemed to take forever to write and now my brain doesn't work.
THANKS BUDDY! <3
Chapter 13: The Lives of Sister Rachel
What has Sister Rachel been up to all this time, you say? uhh, stuff?
this is for @orphanbeige HAPPY BIRTHDAY!
soundtrack - Requiem Mass In D Minor K. 626: Sequentia VIII Lacrimosa (1792) - 'wobbly' version from the Bioshock Infinite soundtrack.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The windows in Comstock House were huge, and plentiful, and Rachel liked to stand at one, or the other, and look down upon Columbia as it floated serenely through the clouds.
At least, it was serene from up here - if she ignored the columns of smoke and occasional explosions. Down there, she knew, the False Shepherd had once again left a trail of death and destruction behind her, kicking aside the carefully constructed veneer of civilisation, and allowing anarchy to reign. The Vox Populi had taken control of key areas, and was still decimating the Authority, under the command of that scurrilous Fitzroy woman.
Still, Comstock House had never been beached, and would not be this time either.
She sighed. Brother Daniel had already informed her that the Shepherd had fallen. Was she even trying ? It was disappointing but hardly surprising - at least, not anymore. Songbird always did his duty.
If she ever made this far, well. She might be worth facing again.
The silver of her left eye glinted in the window reflection and one hand reached up, fingers hovering just to the side of it, fluttering slightly in the glass. Then it dropped back to the cane, and her thumb rubbed over the top, as she contemplated the next course of action.
For now, she headed back to the viewing room, the thump of her cane alternating between the thick, lush rugs, and floorboards. The elegant white gown reached up her neck, and down her arms, and trailed along the floor behind her.
Small figures peered out of doorways in the long, long hallways. They disappeared
as she drew closer, then reappeared as she passed, eyes glowing in the shadows.
They weren’t here for her . They were here for the other one. One by one they slipped
back through the flickering tear in a disused room.
Rachel reached the end of the hallway, paused, leaning on her cane. Then her head snapped around to study the area behind her.
But there was nothing. Just shadows, and the howling wind outside the windows.
She continued on, pressing her lips in a tight line. She knew when they were around - it was like a slight shiver in the air, with the soft pattering of tiny footsteps, and the barest of whispers - but she couldn’t see them, and as yet she wasn’t entirely sure what they were.
And Rachel hated not being sure of things.
The door to the viewing room was small and carved with a simple pattern, a far cry from the general ostentatious air of the mansion. Rachel appreciated luxury, but it didn’t have to be so…gaudy. She closed her eyes for a moment and remembered the elegance of Rapture - it was far more her taste than this Edwardian flouncing. And the terrible open sky that went on forever.
She shuddered, delicately.
Going out into the open to confront the False Shepherd had cost her some comfort - not that any of the Founders knew. To show weakness was to be weak. She understood that.
And so, over the past year, she had fed them a careful meal of lies and vague allusions to the miasma of sin that hung in the air, even the high, pure air of Columbia. That the Prophet needed to keep her mind and body free of the impurities that people - even the good, God-fearing folk that made up this city in the air - were helpless to stop emitting. That she needed to spend hours in prayer and meditation every day.
That she needed to be as close as possible to the top of the sky at all times so God could whisper into her ear.
Her mouth twisted in a smirk.
The fools, they believed every word. Of course, she did spend the occasional few hours in carefully prepared districts - just a few days ago she had been in the welcome centre. Rachel had always found that place surprisingly restful - something about the dim lighting and the water everywhere that reminded her of home.
It had been the anniversary of the day Rachel, and the Lamb had arrived in Columbia. Naturally, she needed to show herself to the faithful.
And oh, the adulation had been worth every moment of discomfort.
The old man had been preparing them for her, and he hadn’t even known it. Back in Rapture, Andrew Ryan had been defeated by his own free market, but he had been right about one thing - religion’s only value was as a means of control. Establishing a theocracy had been one thing, but the lack of an heir to carry on his work had been Zachary Comstock’s weakness. Rachel had seen the way into Columbia in more ways than one, and so she had taken the abomination, snatched her from her sister’s arms, and brought them here.
The injury had at least been useful - proof of the ill intentions of her enemies - and she had thrown herself on the mercy of Father Comstock, allowing herself to be baptised, playing the part of a martyr still able to be saved, later fitting herself neatly into the role of daughter.
He had already been dying, talking about his tumors like they were both a reward for his faith, and a punishment for his sins.
However, he had lingered on...and on...and on, and finally Rachel had taken his fate into her own hands. He had been so eager to meet his god, she thought, but so oddly reluctant to die.
In the end, of course, her will was stronger than his.
And then Columbia had been hers. Her ‘sister’ had already been quarantined - the purity of the Lamb had to be maintained, after all - and remained so until Rachel could be sure her memories were what Rachel needed them to be. There were things that had shifted when they moved through. Some sort of symbiotic exchange had taken place that she hadn’t foreseen, and the plasmid she had used to open the doorway here had been diluted to the point of uselessness, the power somehow transferred.
And the other girl had become an abomination of a different kind.
She was held at bay, at first, by a wall of false memories...with a tiny crack built in.
Another safeguard, a leash, that would keep her in the confines of the city - that had been child’s play, an old trick learnt from old monsters.
And finally, the Siphon. A new and much more powerful trick...although it didn’t prevent the Tears entirely, it stifled them, suppressed the girl’s power just enough.
It had been simple to keep her isolated, slightly trickier to develop the Siphon, harder still to hide her intentions from that damnable Lutece woman and her suspicious brother.
They’d had to go.
It was almost a shame. Rosalind had been interesting. Robert, however, had held her back with his conscience, weighed her down with his good intentions, and she had, foolishly, loved him enough to allow it.
Once the Siphon was in place and Helena contained; once the sabotage on the Device had been reversed and the Device moved to Comstock House; once the crack opened wide enough to allow through a sliver of Helena’s past life to swim through her dreams - she could cease pretending to care about the girl, and leave her in the tower, a beautifully broken piece of bait, just waiting to be saved.
Rachel had confidence that the other one would come for her. Eventually. And then...she touched one fingertip to the side of her left eye.
Rachel pulled an ornate key out of her sleeve, opened the door and entered the room, locking the door firmly behind her, then moving into the centre of the room, where the Device sat. She leaned on the cane as she contemplated it.
A large circular web of metal hung from the high ceiling, with a support on either side, forming a kind of arch. Cables as thick as her arm ran up and down the supports, thrumming with electricity. The air in the middle of the arch flickered slightly, responding to her presence like a lazy cat to the possibility of food. She ran her fingers over the small panel of switches and buttons, then pressed in a sequence and watched the tear grow and flex and open.
The cane pressed into the thick carpet as she leaned forward, mouth open ever so slightly.
As the image shimmered and stretched and then grew stable enough to study, her eyes widened. Slightly grainy at first, the tear showed her the entrance to Emporia. There were small figures moving towards the doors and they looked like…
Rachel’s fingers moved quickly over the buttons and the figures grew larger. For a moment the image flickered, then it stabilised.
The suggestion of a smile flitted across her face.
It was her. The False Shepherd. Alive. And Helena too, but that was of no consequence.
Her thumb rubbed against the silver top of the cane, slowly, back and forth.
Then she quickly punched in another set of numbers and opened another tear, then another, and another, until...there it was. The half-fallen tower, still smouldering a little, outlined against the blue sky.
The smile grew wider.
She had made it, at last. And made her way here.
Her fingers tingled at the very thought of her, and so Rachel lifted her hand and snapped her fingers, letting the flames out to dance over her skin. One of her holy gifts...so they all believed. She longed to see these flames reflected in Sarah’s eyes as they widened in fear. She wanted to hear her beg. Sarah would come to heel.
No matter how many tears they ran through, Rachel would always be there, waiting.
And the other? She would take care of herself.
Rachel smiled at the flames, wider and wider until her teeth shone and her cheeks hurt. Then she clenched her fist and the fire dwindled away to nothing. A small white light was flashing on the top of the panel, and she rubbed her thumb over and around it before pressing it down.
Another tear opened, and she looked at the figure looking back at her.
“Rachel,” she said, inclining her head slightly.
“Rachel,” replied the other, repeating the gesture.
They gazed at each other, allowing themselves a moment of contentment. Then they began a conversation of two halves making a whole.
“She escaped you this time. And now she is here.”
“Yes. The Songbird failed.”
“And yet, my success will be our success.”
A nod, a curve of the lips.
“The uprising is crushed.”
"The uprising continues.”
“Secured. And also with her.”
“It will be quite a shock for her.”
“It will be... illuminating.”
Rachel stared at her mirror image, her other self, and as one, they both reached out a hand, fingers hovering just either side of the tear. If only they could…
But they had seen the toll it had taken on the Luteces, and until all the variables were fully worked out - divided they would stay. All of them.
Two Rachels sighed. Two Rachels inclined their heads in farewell. Two Rachels pressed the button that powered down the Device and closed the tear.
And then she was alone again.
That familiar emptiness settled in the pit of her being. After her realization that there were, in fact, an infinite number of Rachel Duncans, and all she had to do was rip a tear in reality to find them, it hadn’t made her feel insignificant, or scattered. Instead, it had made her stronger, more sure of herself, more...entire. She was a singular mind in infinite bodies, every one of her bent to the same purpose.
To make her pay.
To make all of them pay.
✫ ✫ ✫
After leaving the viewing room, carefully locking the door and secreting the key back in her gown, Rachel made her way to the east wing. Parts of it reminded her of home - not just Rapture but very specifically DYAD. White floors and glass walls and the peculiarly medical smell of chemicals, blood, and death.
The faithful provided an endless array of subjects. She was still a scientist at heart.
Her steps were slower than before, and her reliance on the cane greater. She suspected the Device had some effect on her injuries, possibly a temporary reversal of the traces of ADAM that still lingered in her system. The healing was - unreliable. But the pain was bearable.
And she could never stay away from the Device for long.
The central door had a very special lock, a panel that matched her hand and could only be opened by her hand. As she raised her hand to press it against the metal, something made her pause. She lifted her eyes to the small hatch in the door, and silently opened it, peering through at the chamber within. Her face froze.
It was empty.
Rachel’s eyes blinked rapidly.
It was impossible.
But the bed lay vacant, straps dangling down to the floor.
The doctors stations were idle.
She realised now that the entire wing was eerily silent. Something had occurred. Something had changed. Something had gone…
As she turned and started down the hallway again, as fast as the pain would let her, cane tapping on the white tiles, she could feel the air around her vibrating, as if the frequency of a billion atoms was changing.
As she reached the door at the far end, closing her fingers around the handle, Rachel saw the solid wood disintegrate in front of her, and the metal of the doorknob melted away in her fingers. She lifted her hand and saw the skin begin to glow, softly golden. Her other hand gripped the cane, willing it to remain solid, and she slowly turned to see what she could only think of as a collapse of reality, with her in the centre.
Nothingness surrounded her and shrank down until she herself was -
Rachel stood at one of the hundreds of windows of Comstock House, looking down upon Columbia as it drifted serenely through the clouds...
Chapter 14: In the House of the Prophet.
Sarah and Helena finally enter Comstock House...
soundtrack - Everybody Wants to Rule the World, 1912 version by Scott Bradlee This is possibly my favourite old-timey cover song on the entire soundtrack :)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The sky was almost fully dark when they exited the Lutece Labs, showing the searchlights of Comstock House clearly now as they moved in smooth circles.
“This way. I think.” Helena pointed right, and the two of them made their way up more stairs and down streets lined with more shops, shut down tight, or broken open and burning. The long swathes of red fabric covered half the street, it seemed, and they flapped in the wind, putting Sarah on edge.
She half-expected someone to jump out at them from behind one, but other than the wind and that ever-present crackling of lightning, Emporia was silent. Except…Sarah cocked her ear.
There was the faint sound of tinny piano music drifting around the corner, and she felt her fists clench, but when she and Helena rounded the corner, the Luteces and their piano were nowhere to be seen.
♯ welcome to your life ♯
The music continued, voice crooning over the piano, and now the slight scratchy quality made it clear that it was a recording. It seemed to be coming out of a small building that had cracked away from the foundations, leaving a gap between the cobbled footpath, and its frontage.
♯ there’s no turning back ♯
Sarah stepped forward carefully, Helena right behind her, and they both looked down into the gap. It was too dark now to see much, but Sarah got the dizzying impression of a bottomless drop between the bricks and cobblestones. The path that led around the building had sunk down several feet, and an exposed pipe was dribbling water down over it, creating a tiny waterfall that vanished into darkness.
♯ even while we sleep ♯
The door was open. Then Sarah realised of course it wasn’t the door, because that was somewhere down below. The entire building had fallen downwards and they were looking into the first floor. The ground floor was now at basement level. She could see a body on the tilted floor inside, a smashed up grand piano, and gramophone records scattered everywhere.
♯ we will find you ♯
The tune was coming out of the flared trumpet of a gramophone, precariously balanced on what was left of the piano.
“It’s Albert Fink’s house!” Helena blurted out, then she nudged Sarah in the ribs, and pointed.
A Tear was flickering in the middle of the room, just to the side of what Sarah supposed was Finks body. Music flowed out of it, intermittently overpowering the gramophone as the Tear grew and subsided. It was different from that song that had sent electricity up Sarah’s spine earlier, and different again from anything she had ever heard. A woman’s voice sang something about girls wanting to have fun, and then the Tear shrank and disappeared in front of their eyes, and the gramophone merrily continued to spin in the background.
♯ acting on your best behaviour ♯
“ Should we jump up and look around?” asked Sarah, doubting the records, and other assorted instruments with snapped strings and torn skins would do them much good.
♯ turn your back on mother nature ♯
Helena stared into the room unblinkingly, then sighed and shook her head.
“If he was anything like his brother...” She lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “Let him rot.”
♯ everybody wants to rule the world ♯
As they carefully made their way down onto the sunken path beside the building and up the other side, Helena grabbing hold of Sarah’s hand and not letting go until they were on the level cobblestones of the next street, Sarah found herself humming along with the melody that still tinkled out of the broken windows that were above them now.
“Catchy, innit,” she muttered, when Helena began to hum as well.
“Hmm,” she nodded. “I wonder. Where it came from. Another time?” She hummed louder and swung Sarah’s hand back and forth before letting go.
♯ there’s a room where the light can’t find you ♯
The street ahead opened into another little plaza, this one with a long balcony overlooking the open sky, and straight up to Comstock House, looming ever larger over them. Sarah stared at it, the inky clouds that boiled around the base and the endless lightning bolts that cracked.
♯ holding hands while the walls come tumbling down ♯
“How do we actually get there?” she asked, leaning on the railing and kicking at the cobblestones with a boot. “No bridge. Gondola? Don’t tell me we hafta go steal another airship?”
♯ when they do I’ll be right behind you ♯
Helena was staring upwards too, her lips tight.
“I think,” she said slowly, “there is a bridge. Locked down.” She turned to Sarah. “We just have to make it across.” Her hands dug back into her coat pockets. “Songbird,” she added, giving Sarah a meaningful look.
“What you said back there...when he came.” Her throat was dry, and Helena hadn’t looked away. Sarah found her own eyes dropping at the need in the others. “I won’t…I mean. I don’t think I’d be able to.” She glanced up. Helena’s gaze didn’t waver.
♯ so glad we almost made it ♯
“If he were to take me back. After...all of this.’ Her eyes softened. “After you. Sarah. It would be...death. Worse than death.” Now her eyes dropped as well. “Now I know. What I’m missing.” Helena stepped closer and took Sarah’s hand again, tucking her fingers against the palm. “Don’t send me back.”
♯ so sad they had to fade it ♯
Sarah looked at her. The pink skin around the eyes was darker now and she looked tired, and small in the oversized coat. But her jaw was set in that determined way that Sarah’s own often was, and she felt the overwhelming need to both protect her, and set her loose on everyone who had hurt her.
♯ everybody wants to rule the world ♯
She squeezed the fingers in her hand.
“I won’t. I promise, yeah?” Her face felt hot, and she cleared her throat, silently cursing herself for making promises she wouldn’t be able to keep. There was no way she’d be able to just…
But she’d deal with that when it happened. If it happened.
The tune faded into the distance as they walked further along. There were rather pretty signs for the Memorial Gardens, green with art nouveau stylings, that lay to the left of them, and as they passed underneath an ornate archway, a helpful map informed them that the gate to Comstock House was just around the corner.
Victory Square, as the space that the archway led to was named on the map, was a large open area with a huge statue in the centre. Not an angel, Sarah was surprised to see, but a bearded man holding aloft a sword. Deep holes pitted the stone, but the Vox’s weapons have evidently not been strong enough to topple Comstock. At least, that was who Sarah assumed the statue to be, and her gaze passed over it indifferently.
Up wide semi-circular stairs sat a stone building - Comstock House etched into a large bronze sign mounted over the doorway. The gate itself was wrought iron, decorative but sturdy. Helena took one look at the lock and sucked in her cheeks. It consisted of a metal plate in the shape of a hand, which made a harsh buzzing sound when Helena tried fitting her hand in. Sarah wrapped her hands around the bars and shook it ineffectively, then stepped back and studied the top of the gate, eyes narrowed.
Helena turned to say something, but stopped with her mouth open and followed Sarah’s eyes.
After a moment’s calculation, she announced confidently,
“I will fit!”
Within a minute, she had scaled the iron bars and squeezed over the top. Sarah watched, a half-grin on her face, shrugged and followed.
A short arched walkway with wooden doors led to another walkway, this one ending in an open-air deck flanked by two brick and sandstone towers. Flags fluttered atop both of them but they were too ragged from the howling wind to look like anything.
A metal lever stood straight ahead, below rails that curved slightly upwards towards Comstock House. It seemed to hover over their heads now, the shining windows oddly inviting against the threatening exterior. Even the constant wind and the lightning strikes weren’t loud enough to drown the sound of Sarah’s pulse in her ears, quickening as she looked up, and up.
“Another gondola, looks like,” Sarah said loudly, over the din. Just keep pushing forward , she thought, get in, find Sister Rachel, and then… she shook her head, then ran a hand through her hair, and breathed deeply. Helena stood close, eyes darting around the sky a little nervously.
“Well…” Sarah reached out and grasped the lever, thumb pushing the little catch at the top and yanking it to the right. It clunked into place, and Sarah lifted her hand, smiling at Helena, who stumbled backwards with a terrified expression as the Songbird swooped up from below, mere inches away from them both.
“Sarah!” she cried.
The screech it let out felt loud enough to burst eardrums, and Sarah winced while reaching for her gun as Songbird smoothly spun in the air above her and then dove right towards her. She heard Helena scream as Sara was knocked backwards and pinned down by those huge metal claws.
“Helena, run,” she yelled, still fumbling for her gun. The great bird moved its head side to side, studying her with each eye in turn, and they shifted from amber to red. Sarah swore she could hear the mechanical clicking as they changed, even as the weight of the Songbird pressed down and she felt the edge of a claw slice through the trouser fabric above her thigh. She stifled a groan and tried to raise the pistol she’d finally managed to work into her hand, only to hear another ear-splitting screech.
Songbird brought his other huge claw around to pick Sarah up, shook her like a rag doll, and then tossed her aside almost off-handedly. As she sailed through the air, she thought she could still hear Helena screaming, not in fear, but angrily, and then she hit one of the windows at the top of one of the towers. All she could hear was splintering wood and shattering glass as she crashed through, and the thud of her body landing on dusty wooden floorboards, just before her head hit the opposite wall and she blacked out.
Her eyes opened, and she saw a rug and a floor and heard a whooshing noise. When she rolled onto her back she saw a ceiling fan, rotating slowly. whoosh-whoosh-whoosh. Her head didn’t hurt. Am I dead, she wondered, and sat up. Wait...this is my office, how did I…
“Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt.”
It was the Luteces voices but with a nasty, urgent edge to them.
Sarah staggered as she stood. The Luteces stood in front of her office door, the green light shining through the glass pane making them into unmoving, unreadable silhouettes.
“Bring us the girl...wipe away the debt.” echoed another voice behind her and Sarah turned to see Helena, dead-eyed and expressionless, sitting on her desk. One of her feet moved back and forth mechanically, bang-bang-bang.
Her head snapped around as music started playing, staring at the other door in the office. But it wasn’t a door anymore, or rather, it was a door but not the right door. Big and square and metal, with a wheel in the centre, it looked like a ship bulkhead, or…
Somewhere, a voice warbled, beyond the -
Helena lifted her face to the ceiling and screamed and Sarah
Sarah was suddenly awake and in pain and still lying on a dusty floor. Outside the wind and lightning still roared and crackled and then -
“Oh shit,” Sarah mumbled and tried to sit up, the screeching of the Songbird getting closer and closer. She looked up - an engraved metal plate encircled a soft ceiling light, and it shook as something heavy landed on the outside. Dust drifted down as the entire tower vibrated. The metallic scraping noises were the same as they had been back in the tower, the first time he had -
A terrible grinding sound filled the room as a section of the roof was torn loose by great metal claws, and the blazing red eyes shone down at her. Sarah scrabbled in the debris. Bricks had toppled in, and crumbled bits of mortar were stuck in her hair, and the remains of the ceiling light spat sparks, and she couldn’t find her gun.
Songbird moved his head back and forth, then he gathered his wings up and leapt down, advancing on Sarah.
“Bugger off,” she spat, trying to wriggle backwards, seeing for the first time how oddly human his shape was when standing. A huge clawed foot came down on her legs and she muffled a scream of pain. The big red eye studied her, then Songbird lifted his huge clawed hand and -
Sarah craned her neck to see Helena standing close, too close.
“Don’t! Don’t hurt her!” She moved closer to Songbird, trying to get in between his eyeline and Sarah. “Please.” She held her hands out, conciliatory.
Songbird stopped, and looked at her, tilting his head back and forth, huge beak clicking. Then he used one of those huge claws to push her aside, absurdly gentle, raising the other claw and bringing it down towards Sarah’s face, as she desperately tried to push herself through the floor. Her ears echoed with Helena’s voice saying don’t send me back.
“I’m sorry!” Helena screamed.
And the claw stopped an inch from Sarah’s face. She stared up in horror, mouth gaping, and then dragged her gaze to Helena. Tears were pouring down her face and her hands shook as she held them out. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have left.”
Songbird regarded her with his red eyes, head tilted as if listening.
“I...I’ll come home.”
No, thought Sarah dully, don’t. She shifted slightly, and the claw holding her down became heavier.
She stopped moving, staring at Helena, finally hissing her name as quietly as possible in an attempt not to piss Songbird off any more.
Helena glanced at her, shaking her head, then looked back at Songbird. Mechanical trills emerged from the curved beak. She reached a hand out and touched him softly on the weirdly jointed claws.
“Please…” she said, “Leave her alone. And you can take me back.”
Sarah’s eyes kept jumping around the huge figure that was so close to her. The skin that was leather and metal, the wings, the glass eyes that were now glowing amber over Helena’s face, the stance that was more man than bird, the size that was too big to be human. For the first time she noticed what looked like a small oxygen tank attached to his back, the information banging around her brain like a moth in a candle.
What is he, she wondered, not for the first time, and why does he remind me of…
Songbird finally moved his claws away from Sarah’s face and lifted his other from her legs, and she let out a long shuddering breath, wondering if she could even stand up. The huge hand opened and Helena stepped into it, wrapping her arms around what passed for a thumb. The eyes blinked, closing like a camera shutter, his huge head bowing and touching Helena’s softly. When they opened, they were green, lighting up the small room and something else banged at the back of Sarah’s mind, but was forgotten instantly as Songbird kicked another window out.
Helena was looking miserably back at her, eyes swollen and red, face utterly defeated.
“I’ll find you,” Sarah mouthed, hoping she'd understand.
Helena just shook her head and reached a hand out, as Songbird cleared a space big enough, and took to the sky, cradling her against his chest like she was a child.
Sarah couldn’t move at first, weighed down by everything they’d been through the last few days...all the people that had died...the promises she had made...and broken.
Manning, you useless piece of ...she spat at herself and crawled over to the hole in the wall. She could just make out the shape of Songbird over Comstock House, circling around the searchlights and then down behind the building. Grabbing at the bricks that now stuck out at right angles, Sarah hauled herself up, testing her legs one at a time. Great, not broken. Nasty cut on one thigh. She pulled at her shirt, yanking the tails up and set about ripping a makeshift bandage out of the now-grubby linen. She tried to move as fast as possible, heart thumping in her throat, anger and fear and the adrenaline from her close encounter speeding around her body and making her hands shake.
When she tried leaning on the leg, it hurt but it was bearable. Her gun turned up under the heavy velvet curtain twisted around the glass and splintered frames of the window that she’d been thrown through. As she looked out the hole again, she saw the big metal hooks on both of the towers that stood either side of the deck. Sarah blinked.
I guess that’s how Helena got up here, didn’t even think...
And the bridge was opening.
Sarah didn’t stop to think - she’d wasted enough time already. The Sky-hook clanged onto the hooks as she made her way back down, landing with a wince as pain shot through her thigh.
Instead of the gondola that the rails had led her to expect, massive partitions of metal and wood were rising and slamming down on the tracks. Lightning strikes sizzled as they struck. Sarah had no idea if that was part of the process, or some sort of warning, or a defense system, and she didn’t care.
She began to run as fast as she could as the bridge was laid down in front of her. She kept running until the pain in her leg was a searing ache. The wind was wilder and colder and it whipped her hair around her face so she could barely see, but she kept running.
“Helena,” she tried to shout but ended up panting instead. “I’m coming!” They can’t take you from me again, she thought grimly, and kept running. A lightning bolt hit the bridge right in front of her, the light making her eyes squeeze shut and she stumbled, but didn’t fall. She opened her eyes to more white light, but this was…
At first she just stared, almost coming to a complete stop before she shook herself and kept on.
“Snow?” she muttered to herself, pushing her hair back and squinting upwards at the white filled sky. “It’s bloody July!” The snow was already piled up, like it had been falling for hours, and she scooped up a handful, pressing it against her leg wound. Her steps got faster after the pain was numbed somewhat.
There was a cry from ahead, and she tried to quicken her stride even more, the snow crunching under her boots.
“Helena?” she yelled.
“Don’t touch me!” Helena screamed. “Just take me back! Why are you - .”
As the front stairs of Comstock House came into view through the falling snow, Sarah saw a Tear, and her steps faltered as she realised that’s where the voice had been coming from. There was another scream before the Tear twisted and closed and she grimaced, pushing herself up the stairs and through the huge front doors.
That were unlocked and unguarded.
Sarah barely thought about it, running down the entrance hallway, past alcoves alight with candles, and pushing through another set of doors into a cavernous hall under a domed ceiling. Shadows flickered. Candles lined the edges of a shallow pool, wax dripping down into the water, setting blobs floating like tiny water lilies. Sarah heard music - scratchy and warped, it sent a shiver down her spine. And the voice...
It was Helena’s voice. She was sure it was Helena’s voice. But it too sounded scratchy...and very tired. Sarah itched at her hand, the scars burning.
Some dream of money. Some dream of love. My Sister dreamt of a flood of fire.
We were given Eden. And we turned it into Sodom. Why do we deserve salvation?
The Lord gave Noah a fish in the form of a flood. But He was not so easy on me...
He said, "Prophet, I want you to train a nation of fishermen.
Then there was the statue. It was Helena, no doubt about it. But she wasn’t an angel anymore. She held a sword aloft with a fierce expression on her stony face, clad in a long dress, stone curls somehow still wild. Candles glowed around the room, hundreds of them. She looked up at the words emblazoned on curved stained-glass above the statue, light pouring through from behind and making it glow a hundred times brighter than the candles.
Our Lady Helena.
“What the hell…” Sarah breathed, residual anger turning to confusion. The spoken words caught up with her. Had Helena called herself a prophet?
Snow was still falling, and she looked up to see the domed ceiling was made up of panes of glass, cracked and broken. It looked...old. She tore her gaze away from the statue and started to make her way around and behind it, following a shallow ramp also lined with candles.
Helena’s voice was ahead of her again, anger and fear evident in every word.
“What is this place? Why won’t you let me. Go back to my tower? What are you...planning to do to me?” Sarah heard other voices, muttering in the background. She rounded into another corridor, and saw another Tear wink out of existence.
“Damn it!” she snapped. There was so much she didn’t understand about how these things worked. She was sure that Helena was in this building somewhere, though, and the Tears were just...she shook her head. There was another set of doors ahead. This time she drew her gun first, and quietly pushed one of the doors open enough to slide though.
This room was grimmer than the last - grey stone stained with soot or possibly mould, huge columns that reached up stories high, snow falling lightly onto the cracked paving stones. Piles of masonry lay in the corners. From the look of it, ceilings had partly collapsed and never been repaired. Colourless curtains rippled on the broken windows.
Sarah started around in horror, not so much at the decor, but at the occupants. They stood in corners, or crouched on the floor, shoveling snow into their mouths, or stared into space.
Children. Or at least, children-sized.
They seemed to be little girls, all with blonde plaits, and all wearing the same little pinafore dress in varying states of raggedness and filth. Sarah felt a coldness that didn’t come from the gaping windows and the snow.
They all had golden glowing eyes.
Suddenly, every weird dream, or vision, or whatever, that she’d had since arriving in Columbia pressed into her mind. The little girls, the garden, Songbird...they were all connected somehow. She gasped as pain tore across her temples, leaning forward and shutting her eyes. When it passed, she straightened up, noticing none of the girls were paying her any attention. At all. She carefully moved closer to one, and realised it...she...was shimmering slightly, flickering. It reminded her of - she bit her lip as the vision of those guards she’d killed being alive in another reality, the way they had wavered, like their reality was too thin.
But the girls noses weren’t bleeding, and they didn’t seem to be in any pain.
What were they?
Sarah stiffened as she heard Helena’s voice again. In the centre of the room was an elevator shaft, surrounded on three sides by angels a full story high. She could see three or four floors above her, balconies running around the shaft, topped by another cracked glass dome.
Straight ahead of her was a small billboard which read NO SIN EVADES HIS GAZE above a picture of...Sarah felt sick.
Still, the strange little girls didn’t seem to any threat, so she carefully passed around them, and the elevator shaft, following the sound of Helena’s voice, not seeing the other figure until it was too late.
She froze. It was small, and had a contraption on its head that exactly mirrored the one in the picture. Metal, with a golden sheen, covered its face completely, with only a small allowance made for the nose, and a hole for the mouth, out of which light shone like a miniature searchlight. Flared trumpets, like the ones on a gramophone, pointed outwards like two huge ears, and the whole thing rested on the shoulders. It was wearing a kind of little suit, knickerbockers and a jacket, boots, and it’s hands grasped about in the air.
Then she took a few cautious steps. Helena was screaming now, and this...person? Didn’t seem dangerous, and -
The head turned and caught her in its light, and a howl rent the air. A small finger pointed straight at her, and suddenly there was movement everywhere, as the little girls came running at Sarah. Some were now armed with lengths of pipe and broken stone, and the others just attacked with tiny fists and kicked at her with their bare feet. She pushed them away, but they kept coming at her, pulling at her trousers and jacket, hitting her with their makeshift weapons.
Luckily, they seemed to only have the strength of children, and Sarah easily wrestled away one of the pipes. She waved it at them.
“Oi!” she shouted, “Get away!” The pipe swished through the air, and without even meaning to, Sarah hit one of them on the side of the head. She collapsed. Sarah sucked in a breath, but the rest of them kept hitting her and kicking, and her leg hurt, and so did her head.
“Bloody hell,” she cried, poking at them with the pipe, “Look, I don’t wanna hurt you...shit!” One of them had hoisted a rock with enough force for it to hit Sarah in the head and split her scalp. She could feel blood running down her neck, and tried to stay calm - scalp wounds always bled a lot. She’d be fine. But she’d have to…
“Shit,” she said again, and started laying about with the pipe, expertly using enough force to knock the girls out, but not enough to kill them. She hoped. Shooting soldiers who were shooting at you was one thing, but children? She could hear Helena alternately sobbing and screaming, and some sort of weird noise - a kind of sinister electric thrumming.
By the time she’d laid all the girls out, her shoulder ached, and she had to rest for a moment, feeling like she was going to throw up. The other...thing...had disappeared when the girls had attacked.
She forgot about the pain when another scream tore out nowhere.
“No, don’t...please. I...I don’t understand. Please stop. Please…” The thrumming was louder and so were the screams. Sarah banged on the big metal door opposite the lift. A sign said AREA RESTRICTED and ENTRANCE ONLY BY WARDEN’S APPROVAL. The screams sounded like they were coming from beyond the door, but it could be another Tear, she thought, anger and fear knotting up in her gut. She tried pressing the button that sat next to an intercom, and spoke loudly when it hissed.
“Look, I just want to see the girl, I…” She broke off as a maniacal wheezy laughter emitted from the speaker and then it was dead air again. She rested her head on the cool metal door and banged it a few times. She needed Helena to get to Helena, she thought, and huffed out a croak of laughter.
“Please...please…” The thrumming grew louder and Helena screamed, babbling a string of words as Sarah started to bang on the door again with both fists. “No, just tell me what I did! Please...please just let me go! Just...just let me go! No, please! I'll be...I'll be your sister. I'll be your sister! I'll beyoursisterI’llbeyoursisterI’llbeyoursister!”
Silence fell. Sarah felt tears running down her own face and she sniffled, wiping her nose on her jacket sleeve, then slammed her hands against the door one more time. When she turned, the elevator was sitting there, gate open, empty except for a flickering Tear. Helena spoke again, sounding less hysterical.
“What is this place? Why won’t you just send me back?”
“It’s too late for that now, child,” answered a man’s voice full of fake concern. “Your sister gave you a lovely home...but you chose to destroy it.”
“She’s not my sister,” snapped Helena, and the Tear shrank into nothingness.
“Well, at least the elevator works,” Sarah muttered, hesitating before stepping in. Could be a trap. Could be the only way to get to Helena. She bent and picked up the length of pipe she’d dropped, the weight of it a cold comfort. She took a deep breath and pushed the button. Her boot kicked against something and she looked down to find a voxophone sitting in on the floor. Crouching down, she pushed the lever and was somehow not surprised to hear Helena’s voice, speaking in the same scratchy, measured way as the speech she’d heard in the first room.
I suppose the Siphon. Is a kind of leash. Yes, my sister put it on me. But when the time came. Neither did I remove it myself. What would happen. If I took off the leash, and I found I was...as obedient as ever?
A leash? Like whatever Rachel had done to her head? Or some other sort of leash? What the hell was the Siphon? How had she even made these recordings? She’d only been taken twenty minutes ago, when did she have the time to....
Something was swimming around the back of her brain, but she couldn’t grasp it. Helena’s voice sounded so...old. Old and full of regret.
Sarah stood, taking a few steps back and forth as the elevator slowly rose, creaking a little. This place looked more like a prison than the luxurious mansion she imagined Rachel living in. Dark and dank, and collapsing into ruin. When the elevator groaned to a halt, she saw more of the little girls in the next room, and hefted the pipe in her hand. The light of another whatever-the -hell that thing had been swept back and forth across them.
A sign above the door just said HER LOVING EMBRACE.
Sarah clawed her hair back off her face, scowling. If the girls did nothing until instructed by the...other, then if she just avoided it’s light, maybe she could sneak by. She didn’t have the stomach for clobbering another group of children into unconsciousness. By timing it right, and with the help of the big square pillars everywhere, she was able to slip through the room without incident.
Helena’s voice crackled over the speakers.
Like my sister, I could see all that Would be, Might be, and Must Not Be.
Sarah chewed at her bottom lip. Nothing in this place made sense. Rubble blocked hallways, rusty wheelchairs sat in odd corners, papers that looked vaguely like medical forms were scattered everywhere, doors lay locked behind iron gates. She was starting to change her opinion from ‘prison’ to ‘asylum’.
The next room she could get to was through a large square doorway, a sign stating simply
WHERE WE LIE.
“Lie...down? Or…” Sarah wondered, then heard voices ahead. Another Tear shimmered inside a round glassed-in area, white-tiled and brightly lit. There was a table with medical implements, a chair with restraints attached to it...and pools of blood on the floor. Sarah clutched the pipe tighter as she heard another voice she recognised come out of the Tear.
“My dear,” said Sister Rachel, voice almost syrupy, “would you like to pray with me?”
“They’re...hurting me.” Helena sounded weak now. “Please…”
“Come now, Helena. We’re going to cure you.” Rachel said. Sarah imagined she could hear her tapping her cane methodically.
“I’m not sick,” said Helena insistently. Rachel sighed.
“Your spirit is. My dear sister, all I ever wanted was for you to live up to your potential .”
Sarah snorted as the Tear blinked out of existence. “I bet,” she muttered. There was another narrow room to the side labeled WHERE WE WEEP. She stuck her head in and found a furnace blazing away, and piles of shrouded corpses haphazardly stacked in front of it.
“Bloody hell,” she breathed, then covered her nose and mouth with a sleeve. The smell was more than ripe. A voxophone lay on the floor next to the door, and she stooped to pick it up, glancing around sharply.
Was someone leaving her a trail?
The voice that came out of the tiny speaker this time was stronger, and more assured - the assurance of the intensely faithful.
Our minds are born festering with sin. Some are so blighted, they will never find redemption. The mind must be pulled up from the roots. My children are without blame. Without fault. And without choice. For what is the value of will when the spirit is found wanting?
Sarah dropped the voxophone back on the floor with a crash. What the hell have they done to you? You don’t even sound like you anymore.
The corners of the larger room were dark but she could see shapes of hospital gurneys and upended tables with chains hanging limply. The entire place was giving her the serious creeps. Out in the central atrium, the snow was still falling, and Sarah could see her breath. The next room was titled WHERE WE CLEANSE, and she entered, hoping not to see more bodies, dead or otherwise. But there was nothing but a long room with dirty bathtubs in a line down either side and a bare globe that flickered on and off. At the other end was a Tear and she moved towards it, pressing a hand down on her thigh as the wound complained.
“I’m Dr Pettifog, Helena. I’m going to be taking care of you.” Sarah distrusted the man's voice instantly. Any doctor working with Sister Rachel had to be crooked.
“Get...away from me,” Helena sounded exhausted, but like she still had some fight left. Sarah couldn’t wrap her head around the differences between the Tears, the voxophones, and the recorded announcements.
The doctor made an interested noise, like he was making a note.
“Defiance, even after all this time...Sarah Manning just left you here, Helena. You need to give up on her.”
“She...will...come.” Helena insisted. She sounded like she could barely hold her head up, but the belief in her voice made something in Sarah’s gut twist.
“Shite, Helena…” she whispered. Wait, what did he mean ‘after all this time’?
The next room was WHERE WE SLEEP, and Sarah peered around the doorway to see rows of single beds with iron frames on wheels, bare mattresses stained and worn. The floor was cluttered with medical screens, more mattresses, and a few toys. Ragged curtains waved as snow blew in the broken windows, and Sarah wasn’t surprised to see another cluster of the weird little girls, blonde braids limp as they sat aimlessly on the floor, or on the beds facing the walls. Their faces were blank as their forms shimmered slightly in the moonlight.
She ducked backwards as the light of another thing swept the room. The blankness of the mask it wore chilled her to the bone. It stood atop of a bed in the centre of the room, and she mapped a route in her head to bypass it. Lucky there was so much clutter to hide behind, and there was a certain regularity to the way it moved.
Sarah crept along the length of the room, practically holding her breath the entire way. A close examination of the girls made her think that somehow, they weren’t really here at all. As she reached the next doorway, a Tear flickered open in front of her. There were two men talking now, one the same doctor as before.
“The specimen needs to be destroyed! We couldn’t even hold her in that tower and now the Prophet is…”
“Destroy the Lamb?” The second man’s voice was incredulous. A true believer, Sarah guessed.
“If we modify the procedure, we could…” Dr Pettifog went on smoothly. “It would be safer for everyone. It would seem an accident…”
The Tear winked out and Sarah stood, wincing as pain flared in her thigh. She had to get to Helena before... She had circled around back to the atrium, but now she was at the rear of the elevator. There were iron stairs leading upwards. The hallways to left and right were full of masonry and fallen rubble, but there was something else to the right...Sarah followed the glimmering light to another Tear. It was Dr Pettifog again.
“You’re not eating, dear,” he was saying, “Is something the matter?”
“I’m...not...hungry.” It was still the weak-but-defiant Helena, and her voice tore at Sarah’s heart. You have to eat, Helena, you have to stay strong until I...
“You'll need to eat sooner or later.” His tone never shifted from steadfast reasonableness. “If you hold out for Sarah, you'll just starve to death. Come now…”
And then that Tear was gone too.
There’s so many of them, Sarah mused, and getting closer together. Maybe she’s opening them somehow, doesn’t even know it. She made her way up the stairs, limping a little, jumping slightly as Helena’s voice came over the speakers, steely and righteous.
And what did the Lord receive. In return for His gifts? Eve and her apple? Sodom and Gomorrah? Humanity wrote a bad check...and the flood was the only way to settle accounts. For what is Columbia, if not a different Ark, in a different time?
The room at the top of the stairs was blocked off by bars, the way to the right blocked by rubble, so Sarah followed the hall to the left.
“The Lamb is ready. It's time.” The Tear spoke decisively in Rachel’s voice.
“Prophet, even if we cure her...why do you think she'll do what you ask?” The second unnamed doctor said doubtfully.
“My sister has two problems, doctor.” There was something smug about the way she said the word 'sister'. “One is the condition your science will cure her of. The other affliction is of a... spiritual nature.”
“What affliction is that?” The doctor asked.
Rachel, you bitch, when I find you, Sarah spat through her teeth, walking unevenly over layers of rubbish and into a weird L-shaped room filled with shelves and shelves of heads. Sarah stared around the room, lip curled in distaste. They seemed to be models of those Motorized Patriots, with a general air of the founding fathers, or so she supposed. Old men in white wigs, they all looked alike to her. It turned out to be a series of small rooms, each with shelves of metal parts and rubbery looking masks. Sarah spent the whole time feeling like something was moving just out of sight, and she tried to move faster. She nearly walked right through the next Tear.
“Your surgery is tomorrow, you know. You better eat.” Dr Pettifog said evenly. “Hmmm...you still expect Sarah to burst in and rescue you, don't you? It's been six months.”
The Tear shrank and shut on Sarah’s shocked face.
“Six months?” Her voice came out in a whisper. “How can it be six bloody months?” She rubbed her face. Unless...these Tears, or some of them at least, were windows into the future? Shit, this stuff was still way over her head. Six months...jesus… Walking numbly, welcoming the pain in her thigh now, she almost missed the voxophone sitting on a low shelf.
“Bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt.” But in the end... who'll have to pay down all of our accounts? Where does her guilt start... and mine end?
This time Helena sounded old again, voice trembling and weary. Sarah was coming to think of her as being three different people - Old Helena, Prophet Helena, and...her Helena. The Helena she was gonna save.
After she crossed the next room, she was back at the atrium again. Going around in bloody circles. But she was inside the barred-off room now. Maybe she was getting somewhere after all. It was so quiet that she was sure every step could be heard throughout the entire house. The way to the left was a ceiling-high pile of fallen masonry, and to the right was a sign that read WHERE WE LEARN.
This should be interesting, Sarah thought sourly, and limped on.
Even before entering, the organ music playing something vaguely hymn-like filled her ears, and it was joined by Helena’s voice - Prophet Helena, Sarah thought. The room was dimly lit in order to show the film being projected on a small screen. There were a number of small wooden desks, school desks, but they were piled up on top of one another, making a precarious stand for the projector. A pulpit stood before the screen and chalkboards covered with tiny writing on either side.
Sarah rested her leg, lowering herself onto an overturned bookshelf and stared at the screen. It seemed nonsensical - a series of images of the downtrodden, of angels, images of Sister Rachel, the tower, Songbird outlined against the sun. But as Helena’s voice droned on, they took on an ominous quality, somehow both warning and reassurance.
Someone once promised me she would free me of my chains. But in the end...she abandoned me to serve her own needs. But, in some ways, I thank her: she showed me exactly how much faith our species deserved. God put His faith in people once, too. It seems that we have something in common. Disappointment.
I did not always love the Prophet. In truth, I ran from her embrace. Instead I followed a woman who seemed to be...everything my sister was not. But she was a False Shepherd. And when the wolves came for me...she was nowhere to be found.
Sarah lowered her head into her hands, digging her fingers into her scalp. This was some kind of living nightmare she was wandering around in. When she slowly became aware of the weight of the satchel on her knees, her hands yanked out of her hair so fast she ended up with long strands clinging to them. She dug frantically in the bag for her flask. If she could have a drink, just one drink, maybe the world would come back into focus, and she could drown this horrible sick guilty feeling, and...her shaking fingers brushed against the cold metal of the flask.
There was only a mouthful left. Hot tears stung her eyes, and she pressed the heels of her hands into them until she saw stars.
“Right.” she said flatly. “You can sit here snivelling, Manning, or you can keep going until you find her. You still have a job to do.” When she stood, pain stabbed her leg, and she half-grinned. The only way out of the room without going backwards was through a broken window - she looked at it closer. A broken mirror. A small area on the other side looked like a viewing room. Sarah didn’t even want to think about who had been watching who here. She climbed over the broken glass carefully, and followed the sign that pointed to the WARDEN’S OFFICE.
Should be a way to open that gate downstairs. That’s gotta be the way to Helena.
The space beyond was a long dusty room, with glass partitions and desks behind them, and lockers at the far end. Crates were stacked up in the corners, next to wooden filing cabinets. It was all reminiscent of the Authority watch-house they had snuck into back in Shantytown.
That seemed like years ago.
Sarah turned to the stairs, hesitated, then did a circle of the room. As she was expecting now, a voxophone waited for her at the back of the room, sitting on a desk. The voice of Old Helena filled the dusty air, pausing in between words like the effort to speak was costing her.
As the days pass...I believe less in God. More in Lutece. My powers shrivel...as my regrets blossom. All of this...because my sister failed me. By the time I realized...how far I'd gone...it was too late to stop it. But there is still one last chance...at redemption. For all of us.
Lutece? Redemption? Sarah’s brow furrowed as she placed the voxophone back on the desk. She rapped her knuckles on the wood, then walked back to the stairs. Her leg ached as she went up, grasping the rail tightly.
The Warden’s office was just a large alcove with desks and a wall of small screens. Sarah drew closer, fascinated despite herself. They showed different areas of the house, slightly fuzzy but enough for someone to know everything that went on here. She moved closer and squinted. The first room was empty now, all the little girls she’d left unconscious gone.
She pressed a hand over the cut on her thigh. Had someone been up here watching her ?
Beneath the screens was a panel of buttons and switches and a lever. And a voxophone.
What I've done...cannot be undone. I cannot stop...what I have put in motion. But perhaps...I can keep it. From ever starting. She was my first hope, and now...she is my last.
Sarah tried to picture Helena croaking into the voxophone, curls covering her exhausted face, believing that Sarah had left her to rot...and her heart felt like it was bleeding. She lifted her head and stared unseeingly at the glowing screens, reaching blindly towards the lever in front of her and pushing it forwards with a clunk. There was movement on one of the screens and she blinked, then saw the gate opening downstairs.
“Right,” she said, and turned around to find one of the masked figures directly behind her, it’s mouth-light shining directly in her face.
A startled yelp came out of her throat and she automatically struck out with a fist, her entire body jerking. There was a siren-like howl and it disappeared in a shimmering swirl of mist.
“What the bloody hell are those things!” she half-shouted, heart pounding. Taking a few deep breaths, she ran a hand through her hair and then drew her gun. Straight back downstairs and through that door and....if Helena wasn’t there, she’d… I’ll find her...I have to.
When she exited the Warden’s office and retraced her steps downstairs, she noticed the bars that blocked off egress to the atrium had lifted, and headed out that way instead. Down the next flight of stairs, the elevator was waiting, open on the opposite side now. She could see through it into HER LOVING EMBRACE, and those odd little girls had disappeared as well.
The speakers above her crackled to life, the voice was the one she thought of as Prophet Helena.
I am here to finish my sister's work. As she was baptized with water, I shall baptize the Sodom Below with fire...and prepare for the coming of the Lord. Are we worth saving if we will not save ourselves? There will be no salvation until fire floods the cities and covers the plains. Once this world has been born again...a million others wait their turn.
Baptism is the rebirth of the spirit...but sometimes the mind gets in the way. If the mind will not yield. Then you must expose the mind to every version of itself. Either the mind will yield...or be reduced to a blank.
A million worlds...but she couldn’t waste time thinking about it, she’d go mad. Before getting back in the elevator she leant down to scoop up some more snow, and the relief she felt as she pressed it against the wound in her thigh made her groan out loud. She could still feel the dried blood from her cut scalp down her neck, so she rubbed some melting snow into it, and felt a little less sticky.
The voxophone still sat in the elevator corner. Sarah frowned, her hand hovering over the ‘down’ button. No, it had been in the other corner. She pressed the button, and used the toe of her boot to flick the little voxophone lever.
Tomorrow. The leash comes off. Because all of this...has to end. But even if I destroy the Siphon, will I be strong enough...to see all the doors...open whichever I choose? And if I bring her here. Who is to say that she would be any match for the monsters...I have created?
The leash...the siphon. When the elevator had rumbled its way back down to the ground floor, Sarah was lost in thought. Who was this her that Helena was bringing? ‘Opening the doors’ must mean the Tears. Monsters...the little girls? The masked others? Had Helena made them, like Rachel had made the Firemen? The doors opened and she stumbled out, gun at her side as she entered the gate.
Screams reached her, Helena’s screams, and she snapped out of the state she nearly fallen into.
“Helena!” she yelled, her voice echoing off the stone walls. “Hold on!” She ran past another looming angel statue, this one reading a scroll, and behind that was -
It vanished and she gritted her teeth and kept going, through another gate and into what might have been a grand hallway, once. Doors to her right were gated, a crooked sign stating OPERATING ROOM, and Sarah muttered no thanks.
Snow had drifted down from a huge gap in the ceiling at the other end, a collapsed chandelier was half-buried in a pile of white, and the floor had fallen in, exposing pipes and foundation blocks. Her gaze dragged up a shattered staircase to the open doors at the far left end, and her heart stopped at the sight of the silhouette outlined against the pale grey clouds in the background.
Sarah half climbed, half slipped down into the hole in the floor, pulled herself up the other side and limped her way up what remained of the stairs, not taking her eyes off the figure.
It turned slightly.
“Hello, Sarah," a voice croaked. "It’s good to see you.”
Despite of how terrible she sounded, Sarah broke into a grin. It was Helena, she’d found her, finally, but...why did she sound so - she moved closer, the doorway above her due to the sunken floor.
“As you can see. The monsters are running the asylum. They don't even listen to me anymore. All I can do is watch. What I set in motion...slide into its terminal stage.” A hand gestured, then dropped back to her side. “It took all I had left in me...just to bring you here.” Helena was facing her now, but it was still too dim to see her face.
“Helena, I don’t understand.” Sarah said, even more confused now. “I could hear you screaming. I’ve been running all over this damn place looking for you!” She limped closer. “But we can get out of here now, yeah? Screw Rachel, let’s just - “
“Sarah. Take my hand.” She reached down, taking Sarah’s hand in hers. It felt...different but Sarah couldn’t quite figure out why until she was face to face with Helena and her jaw dropped.
Helena was old.
The voice on the voxophones had sounded old but actually seeing it...her face was lined and wrinkled, lips thinner, and her hair, while curly as ever, was a mix of white and silvery grey. It was held up in a loose bun, tendrils spiralling around her face and down her neck. And she wore some kind of white gown, severely high-necked, long-sleeved and draping along the ground as she turned and gazed outwards.
Sarah turned also, and for a moment, she thought she was dreaming again. She dug her fingers into her thigh and felt the pain shoot down her leg and the terrible scene before her didn’t change.
Fire was raining down upon a city - New York, just like in the dream she’d had. But the buildings...she couldn’t recognize most of them. At least, not those she could see beyond the air-ships crowding the sky - air-ships and the entire floating city of Columbia, a sprawling war machine that looked unstoppable. Sarah stared down in horror. A billboard on top of a building, taller than any building she’d ever seen, bore the words New for 1984 and a picture of a car, not like any car she’d ever seen either.
nineteen eighty four, she whispered, a glimmering of understanding starting to dawn.
The whistling of bombs and explosions and gunfire provided a grim background for Helena’s words, spoken in that scratchy, tired voice. Sarah looked back at her.
Her eyes were deeper set, but the same green-brown as they had always been, the same as Sarah’s.
“ The blood of the Prophet shall sit the throne, and drown in flame the mountains of man." Helena intoned. “Maybe Rachel was a Prophet after all.” She turned back to Sarah, tilting her head. “It wasn't the torture that broke me. It wasn't the...indoctrination.” Fingers met, worrying at each other. “It was time. Time rots everything, Sarah.” Her hands stilled and she lifted one, reaching out to Sarah’s face. “Even hope.”
Sarah swallowed as Helena touched her cheek, the feel of her fingers papery thin.
“I was coming for you,” she said hoarsely.
“Songbird.” Helena let her hand drop. “He always stops you.”
“But,” Sarah protested, “I’d find a way, I’d never - “ Helena shook her head, and put a finger to her lips.
“It’s too late,” she said softly. “For me. I brought you here...for your sake. Yours and hers. Here.”
She held out a card. It looked like the card given to her by the Luteces about the Songbird. Sarah took it, examining it with a frown.
“What is it?” she asked.
Helena smiled crookedly, lines deepening even more.
“It’s for her. She’ll understand.”
“But what does it mean?” Sarah looked at the card again. Blot-filled writing, drawings of bird cages...
“It’s...advice,” Helena said evasively, stepping back from Sarah but fixing her suddenly bright eyes on her.
“Advice? What sort of bloody advice?”
Helena smiled again, drawing her hands together.
“How not to become me.”
She spread her hands as she spoke, Sarah realising what she was about to do at the last second. She opened her mouth to say wait and then…
...then she was standing at the end of a hallway, lush red carpeting beneath her feet, pristine white walls, chandeliers on the ceiling where they belonged. There was a tickle on her upper lip and she mechanically wiped away the blood.
A gramophone was spinning on a side table behind her. Next to it sat a gilded bird cage, empty. Huge bay windows showed a dark sky and distant stars...but no snow.
♯ -dom and of pleasure ♯
She was back in 1912. At least, she was pretty sure she was, and that meant there was still time to...
A scream made her snap to attention and she started to run towards the doors at the other end of the long hallway, gritting her teeth at the pain in her leg.
♯ nothing ever lasts forever ♯
This time, she wouldn’t let anything stand in her way.
♯ everybody wants to rule the world ♯
The wonky organ music that plays over the film in WHERE WE LEARN - Canon in D major (1694) by Johann Pachelbel The song playing through the Tear in Albert Fink's house is, of course, the Cyndi Lauper song Girls Just Want to Have Fun, which we heard the old timey versions of earlier!
There's probably only one or two chapters left in this story, folks. Thanks, as always, for coming along on the ride! <3
Chapter 15: Reunion
Reunions and discoveries.
As she ran down the hallway, the wound in her thigh burning and her lungs aching, Sarah grabbed at the Sky-hook hanging at her waist to stop it banging against her other thigh, clutching it tightly as she neared the door at the end. In the other hallway, this door had led to the Operating Room, but here, it was just a door.
Sarah slowed her step, then stopped as she reached the door, putting her hand on the knob and her ear to the wood.
Voices - Helena, two, maybe three others, and a odd buzzing noise. Her fist tightened around the doorknob. Helena was crying now, sobbing in pain, and Sarah’s knuckles were white. She wanted to burst in and kill them all, but instead she took a few deep breaths and gently cracked the door open.
The space beyond was large, with a ceiling that looked two stories tall and a floor tiled in black and white. But straight ahead was an area enclosed in glass and Sarah saw that, despite the lack of signs, this was still an operating room.
Helena half-lay, half-sat on a hospital gurney behind the wall of glass, clad in a long white hospital gown, her body jerking and writhing as two men in white smocks and surgical masks stood over her, watching her impassively. As Sarah stared in horror, she saw that there was something attached to Helena’s back, something metallic and snakelike, shining darkly under the bright lamps which surrounded the bed. She dragged her gaze up and saw Sister Rachel standing above the theatre on a small balcony, hands clasped on her cane. She was smiling.
Helena cried out, pulling against the fabric straps that attached her hands to the bed frame, her hair white under the harsh lights. One of the doctors crooked his head and spoke loudly.
“You two men upstairs...if she gets ornery, just hit her with the machines. She opens one tear, and there will be nothing but regrets.”
Sarah shifted her gaze from Rachel, casing the rest of the room quickly. Two other areas, one on each side of the balcony, holding two more men in white, and machines covered with buttons and levers. One of them pushed something and the buzzing sound heightened, and cracked.
Sarah shouldered the door open and shouted.
“Stop it! Rachel, what the bloody hell are you doin’ to her!” She pointed the gun at the figure in white, although chances were the glass surrounding the theatre was thick enough to stop a bullet. It felt good to have Sister Rachel in her crosshairs at any rate.
Rachel lifted her head and met Sarah’s gaze, laying one hand on the railing in front of her. The lights glinted off her one silver eye. When she spoke, she sounded almost pleased.
“Sarah. You finally made it.” Her head tilted slightly to one side. “But what is that charming American expression...a day late and a dollar short?” She watched with a small smile tugging at her red lips as Sarah looked one way, then the other, half listening to the white-coated men in the chamber.
“Can't we give her something to quiet her down?” Sarah recognized the voice as Dr Pettifog.
“Well,” answered the other - the true believer, his bald head shining like a skull under the lights, “the Prophet says half the procedure is the pain…”
Dr. Pettifog sighed. “Hmm. When the body cries out, the spirit listens.”
There were doors on either side of the glass chamber. Sarah kept her eyes on Rachel as she lowered her gun, then darted towards the door on the left. The white-clad figure merely watched her, lifting her hand in a gesture that had Helena screaming again.
“Do you hear that, Sarah? That is the sound of your interference. You have led my sister into temptation, and now…” Another choked scream. “She must be cured of it.”
“She’s not your sister!” Sarah yelled, then gritted her teeth as she skidded through the doorway, finding herself in another long, grand hallway lined with tall arched windows, and intricate Persian carpeting. There were a few alcoves containing small red velvet sofas and side tables, and a short set of stairs at the far end and -
“Oh shit,” Sarah sputtered, and dived forward to escape the gunfire coming from a turret on the stairs, sliding behind a section of wall that was just large enough to cover her. The turret was like the others she’d seen throughout Columbia, topped with metal sculpted to look like a soldier, red light shining from its eyes. She waited for the break in gunfire, rubbing her fingers against her palm, then swinging out far enough to send the green mist of Possession at the turret. The red light turned to green and she ran towards the stairs, her own gun ready, and when soldiers started to appear, she was ready to take out the ones the turret missed.
Lightning arced from her free hand, soldiers jittered and fell, but they kept coming, so she switched back to Possession and now they were fighting each other as well.
Rachel’s voice echoed through the hallway, made slightly tinny by the fluted speakers high up in the corners. They were the same as the other Comstock House.
“She may not be my sister now, Sarah. But believe me when I tell you - she will be.”
The sound of Helena’s hoarse, fanatical voice on the Voxophones rang in her ears and Sarah shivered. She had made it to the turret on the stairs, now a twisted mess of metal and squatted behind it, hurriedly reloading her pistol and wishing she’d picked up a few more weapons along the way. The bottle of Salts was running low as well.
A quick glance around the turret base showed an open doorway leading into a large room...and another three - no, four, turrets. Marble columns stretched down the centre of the room, and low voices escaped from behind them, hissing instructions.
Sarah carefully sent Possession at one of the turrets, then at another. They began shooting at one another, as well as at the hidden soldiers, and she dashed across the floor and into another alcove, crouching and picking off the few soldiers that came her way. She looked behind her and realised the alcove was actually a doorway - a strange metal doorway that resembled the ones in the tower, opened with the spin of a wheel. Another opening led to a staircase and she crept up it, trying not to let her boots clang on the metal. At the top was the small area with the machines and one of the men dressed in white. He was staring down at Helena, finger poised over a button, and when Sarah came right up behind him, silently, and pressed her pistol into the back of his neck, he froze.
“If you press that button again…” Sarah hissed, digging the barrel still hot from firing into the soft flesh.
He slowly moved his hand away from the machine and it joined the other one in the air. Sarah heard him swallow.
“Please...I didn’t want…” His voice shook, then dropped to a whisper. “The Prophet..she...my...my family…” He stopped, turning his face slightly. Sarah could see terror in his eyes and it wasn’t all because of her. Her hand loosened and she stepped back, then brought her fist down on the sweet spot on the back of his skull and he dropped to the floor, unconscious.
Running her eyes over the machine and the thick cables that snaked out and down, she chose a lever and pushed it. There was a slow whining sound and the buzzing lessened. When she peered over the machine and saw Helena, her heart thumped at the sight of her face, still twisted in pain.
“She shut down one of the generators!” shouted the bald doctor.
Sarah ran back down the stairs, letting her boots clatter now.
“If we don't sedate her and she shuts down the other one…” Dr Pettifog said warningly.
She ran out into the large room with the columns, barely noticing the scattered bodies and what remained of the gun turrets, rattling the handles of a set of wooden doors to no avail, and then found the next metal door that led to the next metal staircase.
“We're not sedating her!” insisted the other loudly.
As Sarah leapt up the last step and pointed her gun at the second man in white, who sneered at her and moved his hand toward the machine and the button that was identical to the other one.
“I don’t have time for this shite,” she told him, and shot him before he could press it, covering the panel in blood and brains instead. She stepped over his body and pulled the lever, and finally the power whined all the way down. The buzzing stopped and she could hear Helena whimpering.
“Helena! I’m comin’ down!” Sarah shouted, “Don’t either of you bastards touch her!” She turned, paused, realising that Rachel had been silent through all this, and punched her thigh in anger, wincing. Had she snuck out, or was she hiding, waiting to strike?
“She shut down the other siphon!” cried Dr Pettifog.
Siphon? thought Sarah, that’s the siphon? Below her, the doctors voices were louder and filling with fear, and she turned back to see why.
“She's getting up...she's…” The bald doctor was backing away from Helena as she sat up shakily, pulling herself forward by the thin straps around her wrists, her eyes shining as she stared at both of them. The tendons in her neck stood out as she pulled harder, until the sound of fabric ripping filled the air.
Her head tilted to one side. One hand lifted.
“No!” screamed Dr Pettifog. Sarah watched, fascinated despite herself. She should get down there, but something told her Helena could handle this by herself. That she needed to.
A Tear opened. Sarah gaped. It was bigger than any of the Tears she’d seen in Columbia - it encompassed the entire space outside the glass of the chamber, like another world was rolling over this one. It was an ocean, grey-green with choppy waves that grew larger by the second. Sarah found herself shading her eyes and squinting out to sea, eyes widening at the massive waterspout that was spinning closer and closer.
Helena sat still as the cyclone swept around her and into the chamber, her gurney a little island of calm. The two doctors, however, were caught in the spiral of water, their screams choked by water. Lamps blew over, equipment blew sparks and the huge glass window exploded outwards. She gestured, almost dreamily, and the cyclone curled around her again and moved away, back out to sea.
The Tear closed like a blind being pulled down and Sarah let out the breath she hadn’t even realised she’d been holding in. Helena slumped forward, head in her hands, and Sarah felt panic surging through her.
“I’ll be right there, Helena,” she yelled and ran down the stairs, taking two at a time. There were no other doors on this side of the room, only the locked wooden ones, so she ran back around the way she had come, having to pick her way over broken glass and carefully step over what remained of the wall of the chamber.
Helena sat on the gurney, trying to reach the metallic tube in her spine, face pale and desperate with frustration. Torn fabric hung from her wrists.
“Helena, wait,” Sarah called as she crunched over the glass-covered floor. “Let me help.”
Helena looked up at her, blonde curls limp with sweat, green-brown eyes huge and brimming with tears.
“Sarah. You came back,” she whispered. The pink skin around her eyes was had darkened, and she was trembling. What Sarah had thought was a hospital gown turned out to be a long white dress, the back buttons gaping open to allow the tube to attach. A chill ran through her as she realised it was the same kind of dress Helena had been wearing when she had been old and the world was on fire.
The same kind of dress that Rachel wore.
She gently wrapped her hands around Helena’s shoulders and pulled her forward a little, feeling arms wrap around her waist and a head lean on her chest. The metal tube was made up of pieces slotting together like scales, and it coiled down and disappeared into the back of the room. Blunt hooks protruded from the end and dug into the flesh of Helena’s back, holding it in place. Sarah ran her fingers over it, feeling sick to her stomach at the sight.
“Sarah,” Helena mumbled into her vest, “It hurts.”
“Shhh, I’m gonna fix it, okay?” There must be something to release the...her searching hand found a catch. “I’ve got you, Helena...you ready?”
“Just do it,” she said numbly, and Sarah wrapped one arm around her shoulders, pressed down with the other hand, and the hooks released with a hiss of air.
She carefully pulled at the tube, exposing a large needle-like spike that had been lodged in Helena’s spine and she swore under her breath at length, while Helena groaned and slumped against her in relief. Sarah tossed the tube as far away as she could, watching it slither and coil against itself, and then lie inert in a puddle. When she looked again at Helena’s back, the puncture wound was red and slightly swollen, but seemed clean, and the hook indents were slowly filling back up with blood.
She softly touched the skin around it, and then the other, older looking scars that covered her back.
“Shite, Helena, what did they do to you?” she said quietly. “I’m gonna see if I can find some bandages or somethin’ to cover that up, yeah? You alright?” Her hands cupped Helena’s face and tipped it up, finally allowing herself to feel relieved.
Helena looked up at her, mouth trembling in a smile, and sat up a little straighter.
“Yes,” she said thoughtfully. “Yes, I am alright.” Her hands covered Sarah’s, and they shared a long look. Then she patted at Sarah’s hands, and let go.
Sarah combed her hair back, still rattled, then snapped her fingers.
“I have something for you,” she said, rummaging through her pockets, then the satchel until she found the card. “Uh, someone gave it to me.” She held it out. “I mean, you gave it to me. To give to you. Uh.” It sounded even weirder said out loud, but Helena merely took the card and studied it, brow furrowed. Sarah walked over the glass and poked around the corners of the room, prodding at things left strewn all over by the cyclone. A small medical kit turned up, and she dressed the puncture wound as best she could. Her fingers fumbled with the small buttons up the back of the dress, the thin white fabric slowly closing over the feathery scars. She bit her lip and didn’t ask.
“Your dream. Of New York.” Helena’s voice wavered. “It happens. And I’m the...I...it was me.” Her voice cracked and she squeezed her eyes shut.
“But we can stop it,” said Sarah urgently. “You...she gave us a way to get past Songbird. We’ll find another airship, somethin’, and get out of here.”
Helena exhaled and opened her eyes, continuing to stare at the card. Her fingers worried at her bottom lip.
“Sarah.” she said quietly.
“London,” Sarah kept on babbling, “London, Helena, remember, you wanted to go to London? You can meet my foster mum. And we’ll - “
“Sarah,” she said louder, and stood up, still looking at the card. “We’re not leaving. We need to. Find Rachel.” Helena sounded calm now, and resolute. Sarah knew that voice and knew she wasn’t going to be able to change her mind. But she took a stab at it.
“Why? Why don’t we just leave her behind?” She avoided looking at Helena as she said it. “Just - go.”
Helena shook her head.
“You saw...what I become. What she turns me into.” She looked up from the card, her mouth set in a thin line. “I will not let her.” Her eyes were steady on Sarah’s.
‘And, what then?” Sarah said, crossing her arms. “Kill her?” There had to be an end to the death somewhere, she thought, but Rachel was dangerous. Not just to Helena, but all of Columbia and by extension, the world. And we can’t just leave anyway, because of whatever she did to your head. And I promised Daisy...
Helena tilted her head and gazed at her unblinkingly.
“Are you moralizing, Sarah? How many people have you killed today?” She didn’t say it accusingly, just as a matter of fact.
Sarah shuffled her feet, looking down at the floor.
Exactly, she thought, I already have plenty of blood on my hands. And I can’t let you get any more on yours.
“I won’t let you kill her, Helena.” She shook her head, and glanced up at the blonde girl, who frowned at her.
She lifted a hand.
The ocean was still there, the cyclone twisting on the water and turning back towards them.
“And how will you. Stop me?” Helena asked in an emotionless voice.
Sarah felt a chill run up her spine and she held her hands up.
“I won’t.” she said. “‘cause I’m gonna kill her for you.” She held her breath and watched Helena steadily, pushing down the stab of fear in her gut.
Helena gazed at her a moment longer, eyes searching Sarah’s face, then dropped her hand and the ocean disappeared again. She nodded.
“Together,” she said seriously, before grabbing Sarah in a tight hug and whispering, “I missed you.”
Sarah smiled tightly into her hair.
“Missed you too,” she replied, trying to shake the memory of the other Comstock House, the other Helena, the one she failed, from her mind. When she shifted her weight, the pain in her thigh flared, and she let go of Helena and dropped onto the gurney, pulling the medical kit toward her.
Helena helped her untie the makeshift bandage and clean the cut, which had stopped bleeding at last, rebinding it with fresh linen. She’d propped the card up next to Sarah, darting glances at it, her forehead crinkled.
“This symbol…” she tapped at the drawing of the birdcage.
“The cage?” Sarah said, sliding off the gurney and testing her weight. The leg still hurt but not as much.
“Mmm,” Helena agreed, and pointed. “The writing is a cipher. Easy. But the cage...” Her shoulders lifted. “Did she...I...say anything?”
Sarah screwed up her face, thinking, then shook her head.
“No...just that you’d understand it.” She checked her gun, reloading it before sliding it back into the holster. “Bet the bloody Luteces would know,” she added resentfully. “Damn useless for a pair of geniuses.” As she patted her pockets and checked the satchel, she remembered one of the voxophones from the future. “Although…” she said slowly, “I think they helped you...later. Somehow.”
but can we trust them here and now, Sarah wondered.
“Mmm,” Helena hummed and looked at the floor.
Sarah followed her gaze and blinked at the shattered glass everywhere, then looked back at Helena’s bare feet.
“Piggyback?” she said, her mouth curling up at the corner. Helena’s mouth did the same. She nodded.
Sarah’s boots crunched over the floor as she made exaggerated groans about how heavy Helena was, and Helena breathlessly laughed into her ear, arms wrapped loosely around Sarah’s neck. She dropped onto the carpet in the hallway lightly, still grasping the card in one hand.
“I miss my coat,” she sighed, and passed it to Sarah, who slid it into a pocket. As they walked up the hallway, the white dress trailed behind her.
“Oh, bugger,” Sarah groaned, “Your coat! Your lockpicks.” She rubbed her face in annoyance.
Helena tilted her head towards Sarah.
“Your bag,” she suggested, and when Sarah opened the satchel and rummaged through, she found a few loose picks and whistled in relief.
“There’s a door around here - it should get us where Rachel was. Pretty sure she’s scarpered off, but there might be something useful?”
By now they were in front of the door in question and Helena looked at it thoughtfully, placing her hand on the wood.
“Yes. I think so too.” She crouched and begin to fiddle with the lock, occasionally twitching her shoulders as if to shake something off her back. The thimble on her little finger glinted.
Sarah looked around, studying the bodies of the soldiers. They weren’t clad in the blue of the Authority, but a kind of off-white - apart from the red that now stained it - with slightly fancier looking embellishments.
Must be the her special guard, what they called - the Founders? She smirked. Not that special.
The lock clicked and the doors opened.
Stairs led straight up to a lofty-ceilinged room, containing only a desk in the centre, and a filing cabinet against one wall. The small round balcony where Rachel had stood was empty.
“S’pose it was too much to hope she’d be cowering away in here,” Sarah muttered, scuffing a boot against the floorboards. Pushing her hair back, she began to rifle through the desk. Next to her, Helena looked at the wood-paneled walls. She tugged at her lower lip.
The desk drawers yielded some Salts, a sheaf of papers with scribbled notes and sketches of the device used on Helena, and a voxophone.
It was unlabeled but when Sarah pressed the lever, she recognised the voice of the bald doctor, the one who had looked like a skeleton.
The procedure should help immensely with the...issues we've had with the girl. Once the device is implanted, any efforts on her part to...alter the state of things will emit a most painful electric shock. Pavlov made a dog salivate. We'll make this one weep .
Helena’s shoulders twitched again, her lip curling in anger, and Sarah took a few steps and pitched the small machine over the balcony to join the broken glass below. The sound it made as it smashed only made her feel a tiny bit better.
“Those bastards,” she snarled, turning and kicking the desk. “Got half a mind to drag dear Sister Rachel back here when we find her, and stick that...that thing in her back!”
Helena hummed, still staring at the wall. Sarah followed her gaze, frowning, then looked back at her, eyebrow cocked. When Helena walked over to the corner and started trailing her fingers down the paneling, Sarah joined her.
“What we lookin’ for?” she asked, running her own hands down the wall. Without answering, Helena pressed on a tiny knothole and there was a whirring sound.
The wall slid open.
Behind it was a wrought iron staircase that spiraled up into the shadows.
“How did you know it was there?” she asked, squinting upwards but unable to make out anything.
“I think...I’ve been here a while,” Helena answered softly.
Sarah stiffened, her stomach dropping.
Helena walked forward, her hair and the white gown almost glowing in the shadows.
“Long enough,” she murmured evasively, and started making her way up the stairs, her bare feet silent on the metal stairs.
Sarah followed, watching the train of Helena’s dress slipping upwards in front of her as she chewed on her lip. There was no sound coming from the darkness above, and Sarah tried to place her boots carefully so as not to warn Rachel - or anyone else waiting and listening. Helena moved like a ghost above her. She seemed stronger now, after appearing close to collapse from the strain of the ‘treatment’, and then opening that huge Tear.
A shiver ran up Sarah’s spine and the letters on the back of her hand prickled. Absentmindedly rubbing her hand against her leg, she kept turning upwards, wondering how fast Rachel could have made it up this tight spiral with that ivory cane. When the hand stopped itching, she dropped it onto the hilt of her gun, and made ready.
The white dress in front of her stopped moving and Sarah stepped on the train, grabbing the bannister as her foot slipped a little on the silky fabric. They’d reached the top of the stairs, and Helena was standing on wide wooden floorboards at one end of a long, bare room, with a high ceiling of exposed beams and rafters. The simplicity was in stark contrast to the opulence in the rest of the mansion, and Sarah found it almost homely. Until she saw what Helena was staring at, and she muttered what the hell?
It was a statue of an angel - that in itself wasn’t so strange, not in this place, but it was an exact copy of the tower where Sarah had first found Helena. Plaster wings stretched out either side, and her arms reached towards them. Helena’s face (Sarah’s face), with a beatific expression gazed back at them with blank eyes, curls frozen in place.
But it was what was inside the angel that both of them stared at.
The torso was open, hollow like a dollhouse, with a tiny copy of Helena standing stiffly in a small room where the angels ribs would be, if angels were wrought of such earthly things. Under that, the angel’s hips enclosed miniature struts and framework, leading downwards to little doorways, and surrounding tiny copies of…
Sarah frowned as she recognized the strange drum-like objects she’d seen in the lower floor of the tower, and the glass-and-metal machinery that had zapped with electricity.
“The siphon…” she breathed, the memory of the warning signs rushing back into her head. That thing they’d stuck in Helena’s back wasn’t the siphon, but a scaled-down version of...whatever those machines in the tower were. She hadn’t understood what they were then- hell, she barely understood it now - but it somehow kept Helena...subdued? She rubbed her forehead, squeezing her eyes shut as she tried to remember everything she’d seen and heard about it.
“Siphon…” said Helena slowly, moving closer to the model tower, her fingers grazing their metal counterparts.
“Yeah,” Sarah answered, pushing her hair back behind her ears as she tried to find the right words. “You… the other you, she talked about it on these voxophones I found. Called it a leash. And all this - “ she had moved up beside Helena, and squatted in front of the small tower, pointing at the contraption at the bottom. “This was some kind of machine I saw when I went through the tower…” she wriggled her fingers, letting a few sparks fly. “...all electrified? And these things were making these sound , like some kind of deep humming?”
She stood and crossed her arms.
“There were all these labs and...stuff. Deserted. Warning signs everywhere. And then...you.”
When she looked back at Helena, she was still staring at the tiny copy of herself, trapped in one tiny room. Sarah wondered if she’d heard a single word. Then she gave a slight shiver, and stepped back.
“Yes,” she said, “This is why - ”, her hands crept together and tugged at the long sleeves of the white dress. “I remember...opening Tears...and then. It got harder.” Her shoulders drooped. “Rachel must have…” she added softly.
my sister put it on me. Sarah nodded.
“The Tear you opened down there was huge, though…” Where are those bloody doctors now?
Helena’s mouth twitched.
“It took...everything I had. To open it.” She twisted a finger into her curls and tugged. “I was. Angry.” Her eyes skittered away from Sarah’s.
It took all I had left in me...just to bring you here…
“They bloody deserved it!” she snapped. “And Rachel - she’s scared of you. If we could, I dunno - “ she stared at the model tower again, shrugging. “Destroy the siphon?”
Helena darted a glance at her.
“The whole tower?” Her hands found each other again, twisting and turning. “Sarah. How?”
“I...shite, I dunno. If only we’d...the Vox could have helped, maybe.” Sarah kicked out at the base of the model, jarring her leg as the tower refused to budge. “Ow, shit!” Then she sighed, and took her gun out of the holster, checking the chamber. “Look, let’s just concentrate on sorting Rachel out first. She ain’t bulletproof.” She cocked an eyebrow at Helena. “Is she?”
Helena looked up at the ceiling, sadness washing across her face.
“I don’t think...I have any idea. What Rachel is.” She continued to look up, not at the ceiling anymore but beyond it. "Sarah," she said softly, "Are you afraid of God?"
Sarah snorted in surprise.
"Nah," she answered easily. But I think I'm afraid of you. She wondered if Helena had heard her thoughts somehow when she looked even sadder, before she stepped around the tower.
Behind it was another wall, as plain looking as the one down below in the office. Helena regarded it for a brief moment, then moved forwards, ran her fingers down and pressed another knothole.
The wall hummed aside.
Sarah peered around Helena, then looked up. The skin on the back of her neck crawled.
There was the atrium, with the elevator, the corridor and balcony squared around it, the curved glass-paneled ceiling above. It was the mirror image of the Comstock House she had already passed through - but here the windows were whole and the ceiling intact and the walkways free of debris. There were thick, soft rugs instead of snowdrifts on stone, and gilt-framed paintings adorned the walls.
The other place was feeling more and more like a nightmare that she’d had, although the silence behind the opulence here gave her a different kind of uneasiness.
“Where do you think she’d go?’ Sarah asked, stepping forward into the corridor cautiously. Helena slid the wall shut behind them and joined her, sliding her hand into the crook of Sarah’s elbow and pulling her forwards until they stood at the window that overlooked the inner balcony. She looked upwards and pointed at the top floor.
“Guess we better find some stairs. The lift is too bloody noisy.” She tried to remember the layout, but she’d taken so many twists and turns due to cave-ins...if this was the first floor...her forehead pressed against the window and she peered down. The metal stairs were there, leading from the balcony around the elevator to the next floor.
Grabbing Helena’s hand, Sarah led the way through the hallway out to the balcony, up the stairs, then through a series of rooms- one lined with books and dotted with soft-looking velvet armchairs, the next adorned with ornate silver and gold wallpaper, but containing only a white grand piano. The piano stool had feet carved to look like lions claws, Sarah noted as they passed quickly and quietly. The dead silence had been replaced with the faintest sound of stringed instruments playing melancholy airs that always seemed to be coming from the next room, but would fade when the door opened.
The windows they passed showed a starry moonless sky with the faintest tinge of dawn light.
There seemed to be an endless supply of what Sarah supposed were sitting rooms - chairs and sofas and chaise lounges, delicately carved side tables and elegant ladies writing desks. Rachel lived here?
As much as the other Comstock House was an asylum, this one was a museum.
When they walked into a long room that had walls crammed with framed paintings of all sizes, they both drew back, Helena automatically taking Sarah’s hand, at the sight of the life-size and full-length portrait of Rachel that was the centrepiece of the wall ahead of them.
At first Sarah was distracted by the clothes she was wearing - there was a lot less of them, for a start, and then by the fact her left eye matched her right in colour. But when Helena’s hand tightened almost painfully around hers, the background of the portrait drew all of her attention.
“The green place…” Helena said wonderingly, and Sarah saw that Rachel stood in front of a window - an oddly-shaped window that looked out into a deep green ocean, tiny jewel fish glowing in the distance.
The sharp pain that stabbed through her temples made her drop Helena’s hand to grab her own head. When she opened her eyes again, she was looking down at spots of blood on the carpet, staining the thick ivory pile.
“Sarah?” Helena patted her back gently as Sarah leaned forward, hands on her knees.
“‘m fine,” she mumbled, and straightened up, slowly. Her eyes skittered over the other walls, lingered for a bemused moment on a group of paintings depicting women and swans - then glanced back at the portrait. “What the hell is that place? Why is it so…”
“Familiar?” Helena asked. She studied Sarah, fingers at her mouth.
“Yeah. And how does she know about it?” She rubbed her forehead, then pulled her hair back until her scalp burned. There was a kind of theory swimming around in her mind, and she suspected in Helena’s as well, by the speculative look on her face. But she felt like it might split her head right open, so she kept it submerged, for now.
There was a set of doors in the wall to the right of the portrait, and Sarah strode over to them, expecting them to be locked, but the handles turned easily and the doors swung open to reveal wide wooden stairs, immaculately clean, polished bannisters stretching upwards. The same stairs that had led to the Warden’s Office before. Her hand automatically moved to rest on the hilt of her gun.
Sarah started up the right side of the stairs, Helena up the left, the only sound the hushed swishing of her dress train on the steps.
The room at the top didn’t contain any desks or viewing screens - just large french doors that opened out onto a long, wide balcony. The sky was lighter now, that slightly washed out blue tinged with gold all around them, causing the golden angels that loomed either side of the doors to cast deep shadows behind them.
It was quite pleasant in the cool morning air - there were large stone tubs containing deep red rhododendrons and white oleander at either end of the sandstone paving, and some wrought iron garden furniture of the type with ornate curls and spindly legs - or it would have been, if not for the circumstances.
The two of them walked to the edge and looked down.
Columbia was below them, stretching downwards and outwards, the fairyland of lights somewhat diminished by fire and smoke. A few of the smaller individual islands were completely dark, tipping dangerously, and seemingly adrift. Monument Tower looked no bigger than the model in the secret room below, the broken wing and missing head seemed far less incongruous now against the backdrop. Something nagged at the back of Sarah’s mind but she ignored it, raising a hand to the scarlet sash she still wore across her chest.
The war had raged on while they had both been lost inside Comstock House, and she wondered if Daisy was still down there, if the Vox was winning, if it was all over bar their own part in it. She sighed and turned to Helena, whose brow was furrowed.
“She should be here,” she whispered, “I could. Feel it…” Her fingers flexed and the air briefly smelt of salt water, then her hands dropped.
“Struggling against the prophecy will only exhaust you further, my dear,”
Rachel’s voice rang out in the cool morning air, and the two girls jumped. Sarah drew her gun, pointing it at the wide open french doors but the doorway and the small room beyond was empty. The gun traversed the length of the balcony, but found nothing...except small fluted trumpets mounted high above the angels, which crackled to life again, words falling with a slight tinny echo.
“She will keep failing you, Helena. How many times must she abandon you before you come to your senses?”
“Where are you, you bitch!” Sarah shouted, keeping her gun raised as she stalked along the balcony, boots angrily scuffing at the marble. Helena kept her wide eyes on the doors, trembling slightly.
There was a noise that could have been a chuckle if it had contained any humour.
“Oh, Sarah.” Rachel murmured through the speakers. “Must you fight me every step of the way?”
Sarah snarled at the air.
“You sent your bloody army after me! You could have just let her go!” She turned around in a tight circle, wondering if Rachel would just appear out of thin air, or...she paused as she noticed Helena’s eyes flitting back and forth, still staring towards the doorway. Sarah followed her gaze.
“No. No, I don’t think I could have. You don’t set a trap, and then let the bait go free.”
The gold angels flanking the doorway.
The gold angels with the panpipes that called the Songbird.
Helena seemed less panicked than thoughtful, though, and when Sarah mouthed what? , merely motioned Sarah over and then rummaged in the pocket of the jacket, pulling out the note from the other Helena and studying it with renewed interest. Rachel’s words caught up with Sarah and she spun around again, shaking her head in confusion.
“Trap? So it was you that hired me to come here and..and find her? Some sort of sick joke, hey?” The Luteces really were working for her this whole time, then, those backstabbing -
There was a pause that went on for just a little too long. Then Rachel began to laugh - a laugh that sounded bitter and delighted at the same time.
“What’s so damn funny?” Sarah shouted, so angry the gun was shaking in her hands. Helena was ignoring the both of them, still staring down at the card, lips moving.
The laughter stopped. Now Rachel’s voice was witheringly condescending.
“You really don’t understand a thing about...any of this, do you, Sarah?” There was a sibilant sighing sound through the speakers. “I was under the impression - mistaken, I see - that you came to Columbia of your own accord, in search of your long lost...well. Need I spell out every little detail for you?”
Sarah looked at Helena, who had finally looked up halfway through Rachel’s last words.
“Don’t know what the bloody hell you’re talkin’ about.” Sarah blustered, staring at Helena and the face so inexplicably identical to her own. The sick feeling that Sister Rachel was the one who could tell them everything they wanted to know was growing in the pit of her stomach.
“Clearly. You never used to be so...obtuse. Hmm. I was rather hoping for more of a challenge.”
“Sorry to disappoint, Sister Rachel,” she retorted in a voice heavy with sarcasm. Her feet couldn’t stay still and so she took another wide circle of the balcony, head spinning with questions. why would she want me to come here what did she know who was helena who was rachel who am i
As she passed the golden angels again, she eyed the panpipes warily, but they remained fixed in position, and silent. Her trigger finger twitched. There was something...not right. Less right than before. Something was different.
The hair on the back of her neck stood up and for a brief moment all she could hear was the blood thumping through her ears.
Then Helena made a loud, delighted sound and smacked the card in her left hand across her right palm.
“Cage!” she said, and grinned. "Songbird!"
“Huh?” Sarah turned towards her and took a step before an arm slid around her neck. She froze, then tugged at it with both hands, but it seemed as ungiving as marble.
Another arm lifted a hand in front of her, snapped its fingers, and flames appeared with a whoompf to dance over the pale skin. Sarah felt the heat drying her eyes, and the long, loose hairs around her face floated upwards, threatening to sizzle. Beyond the flames she was dimly aware of Helena’s face, seeming a million miles away.
She felt a mouth move against the shell of her ear.
“It’s a new day, Sarah,” purred the voice of Sister Rachel, “Don’t you think it’s time we had a little chat?”
I believe this is the penultimate chapter - it's hard to believe this story is nearly done and I'm very grateful to those who have stayed on this ride with me <3