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Genius Loci

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The twins have some very nice bottles of Chateau Lafite Rothschild '86, and they swear over too many glasses of it that they will not stop until the job is done.

They are precise. They choose to define job as Elizabeth's extraction from Columbia and done as the elimination of Comstock from all potential timelines. How it will happen is uncertain. The weight and measure of the lives involved is resistant to quantification. Elizabeth's survival seems necessary for their purposes, Comstock's unacceptable, and Booker's merely desirable. Anyone else is extraneous, as unfortunate as that is. They are not in the business of making the world fair.

"To results," toasts Rosalind.

"To desirable results," says Robert.

"And to publication in a journal that doesn't exist yet!" she shouts. She has bought a new notebook for the occasion, and with a flourish, marks Attempt #1 at the top.

By the end of the evening, she is gloriously drunk and he is but marginally better. It is an unsteady pair that weaves its way to a hotel in the Lausanne of 1924, and a hungover one that rows Booker off the coast of Maine the following day.

 


 

Attempt #1 ends almost as soon as it begins. Comstock has left an armed guard in the lighthouse.

They are quiet over Booker's still-warm corpse. Good wine and quick failure are alien sensations. Observing from the sidelines may be scientifically correct, they agree, but ultimately insufficient for the integrity of the experiment. Each universe must be prepared for an attempt before it begins. They will not overlook the obvious again.

Robert grips the shoulders and Rosalind picks up the feet. They slide the body into the ocean. The wind is very cold.

 


 

For attempt #2, they flip a coin and Rosalind loses, so she is the one to shoot the lighthouse guard. Robert drags him to a nearby chair and props him against the wall, covering the face with a burlap sack he appropriates from the nearby supply closet.

Rosalind watches with the gun hanging loosely in her hand. "It seems almost profane to ask a woman to do this."

"If it helps you, dear sister, think of it as me."

"But it was me. That was the point."

He holds up the quarter they used for the wager. "Does the coin have a sex?"

What they don't know is that another guard lurks in the crowd of penitents at the baptism. The second Booker falls in a spray of red mist, his blood staining the robes of the screaming onlookers. The guard returns to a hero's reception by Comstock, who is endlessly smug over his foresight concerning the appearance of the "False Prophet." Failure is to be expected, but gloating is intolerable.

They divide murders. Rosalind will shoot the lighthouse guard in each fresh universe, and Robert, being larger, will drag the baptism guard into a quiet corner before the priest and his supplicants arrive.

 


 

Attempt #3 benefits from their preparation, and Booker successfully navigates both the lighthouse and the baptism. The twins are surprised to discover that his movement within Columbia itself is unhindered. Their good mood evaporates when a sharp-eyed grocer spots the "AD" on his right hand and runs into the plaza, shouting for the police.

Rosalind aims a kick at some nearby zinnias while they listen to the shooting. "He can't even get to the girl."

"Be reasonable. We're making progress," says Robert. He is using his penknife to halve an orange. "Neither of us expected instantaneous results."

She looks. "Did you steal that from the man's store?"

"He deserves it under the circumstances. Here's your half."

Three killings seems excessive to them. The grocer, a Mr. Weatherby, can be shuffled out of the way with an urgent telegram from his wife concerning a vegetable shipment at Columbia's northern air dock. In future attempts, Mr. Weatherby arrives to discover that no such shipment exists, Mrs. Weatherby protests that she never sent him a message, and the transport authority insists that no cargo is ever permitted to land in Columbia during a parade.

The Luteces do not care. The clerk left in charge of the store is tired and distracted in all possible universes.

 


 

In attempt #4, Booker explores Columbia for nearly five hours before the police are finally alerted. The twins attempt a high-five, having seen one on a field trip to 1989.

 


 

Attempts #5-9 all end under a hail of bullets from the police, albeit in different places around the city. Try as they might, they cannot construct a set of circumstances in which Booker can reasonably avoid them.

Robert's stomach rumbles.

"Are you hungry?" Rosalind asks, unnecessarily.

 


 

The twins retreat to a London garret in 1897 for what Robert calls a council of war and Rosalind an argument. He sets dinner on the table, and she stuffs her handkerchief into a broken windowpane in an effort to lessen the stench of the Thames. The venue is a poor one, they agree, but it suits the conspiratorial mood.

"The problem isn't so much being found," says Robert, waving a jellied eel with his fork. "It's fantasy to presume that a man tasked with stealing Comstock's most valuable possession can remain undiscovered for long. Our task is to manage the fashion in which he's discovered, not delude ourselves into thinking that it won't happen."

"I'm not keen on the choice of day. It's a public holiday. The city's full of police."

"Correct. But the crowds are a much better cover for DeWitt than anything we could have engineered ourselves. With so many police on guard duty around the city, the public safety department can't bring reserves to bear quickly. Holidays are ideal."

Rosalind is using eels and potatoes to construct a model of the solar system on her plate. "I still feel like there's something we're missing. We seem to be wedded to the idea of keeping him hidden until he reaches the girl. If we're exploiting crowds and police confusion anyway, then we should pursue that, and worry less about being found out. The stealth approach is too constraining."

He shrugs. "Perhaps, but we did manage it with Weatherby. He might just be the first of many."

"A city full of Weatherbys is a very ugly thought." Rosalind sets her fork down and looks at him, hard. "How many variables are we going to control for? How many telegrams do we have to send, or people to kill, or police to avoid? There are trillions of potential interactions on this one day, and Booker hasn't set foot on Monument Island yet. Robert, what you're suggesting could take years and a great deal of violence that I'm not sure I have it in me to commit."

"I don't disagree. However, the time frame is no objection."

"You can't be serious."

"I have never been more serious in my life," he says flatly. "You must realize there is a moral imperative to succeed with this. This isn't an experiment where the fixation on producing a particular outcome is wrong. It's a mission. We should treat it as such."

"We tried. Just getting him to the girl has been far more complicated than we ever anticipated. It won't get any easier past that point – in fact, it'll only get harder. Do you really want to spend years of our life on this?"

"Years are only important to people who have to count them. We have eons."

"Which is probably what this is going to take." She slumps. "Maybe the problems we caused are a constant and not a variable. Maybe we're bastards in every universe. It might be time to write this all off as a loss and stop meddling."

"After 9 tries?"

This is intended to needle her, and it succeeds. "The number is irrelevant. The pattern of consistent failure is not. If the definition of insanity is doing something over and over again while expecting different results, then I choose to be sane."

They have long since finished with dinner. Robert tugs her handkerchief out of the broken windowpane, and the reek of the nearby river flows into the room. "We don't have to do something over and over again – that's the point. Every universe is an opportunity to change a few things and see what happens."

She accepts the handkerchief from him. "I don't know why we see this differently."

"That's our variable," Robert says quietly. "You didn't take the man's child away from him. I did."

A nearby Circle Line train rattles the house. Rosalind watches a half-eaten potato jitter across the plate and thinks on causality.

They leave.

 


 

Booker dies to Columbia's police in each of the next three attempts. The argument for more direct intervention has been settled.

 


 

Booker reaches Elizabeth for the first time on attempt #13. Robert attributes this to their decision to provide him with an early shield infusion. Rosalind attributes it to luck. The former is vindicated by Booker's otherwise inexplicable survivability in subsequent attempts: The latter, while conceding that the shield is a necessary variable, observes that Booker and Elizabeth both die in Songbird's resulting attack on Monument Tower and (their conversation has now reached the level of a shout) that they are not much further along than they were.

They are at least spared the sight of the bodies, which rest beneath the rubble. Songbird circles overhead, piping with its eerie voice and jabbing at the ruins in rage and incomprehension.

Rosalind squints at the sky-line arcing around the island and thinks.

 


 

Attempts #14-19 end on Monument Island.

 


 

On attempt #18, Rosalind has a sudden idea and disappears for a few moments to 1908. She returns, triumphant, having given a copy of their Principles of Quantum Physics to Elizabeth as a gift for her 16th birthday.

"I don't see how that's supposed to help, Rosalind."

"It can't hurt," she says with asperity.

Elizabeth's grasp of tears and her ability to summon them is noticeably more fluid. It doesn't fix their immediate issues, but they think it will pay dividends in the future.

 


 

On attempt #20, an otherwise disastrous early conflict with law enforcement provides a solution for Monument Island. While the twentieth Booker eventually dies to a swarm of police, he manages to wrestle a sky-hook away from one and effects an almost-successful getaway via the local freight line. They do not need to discuss the implications. Robert is practically dancing with excitement.

They jump to a virgin universe to survey and map the Columbian policemen armed with sky-hooks on that particular day. The annual raffle not only boasts a skyhook-armed sergeant, but a sparse police presence due to the need for security along the parade route elsewhere.

"And we can get popcorn there too," says Rosalind.

 


 

The Luteces begin a now-familiar routine: Give Elizabeth the book. Kill the lighthouse guard. Kill the baptism guard. Send the fake telegram to Mr. Weatherby. Follow Booker unobtrusively through the city and find a convenient moment to slip him the shield infusion. (They cannot agree on an ideal time and are not certain it affects the results anyway.) And now, they steer Booker to the raffle and the sky-hook that awaits him there.

The result is the first successful extraction of Elizabeth from Monument Island, though Songbird catches them on the sky-line not a minute later. It snaps Booker's neck and grips Elizabeth tightly, swooping off toward Comstock's airship as the girl struggles and cries.

"To progress!" toasts Rosalind at dinner.

 


 

They use attempt #22 solely to confirm that Songbird has unobstructed vision of the sky-lines. Booker and Elizabeth are caught and crushed by the monster shortly after their escape from the tower. The twins are violently sick at the sight of the bodies, and then discover that they are out of medicinal brandy.

"Does it bother you," says Robert, wiping his mouth, "to use attempts that we know will fail? To let them die like that for nothing?"

She leans on a rail, trembling. Vomit is splattered against the landing below. "Yes. I mean, it's not that they die for nothing, but yes, it bothers me. I just don't see how it can be helped if we see this through to the end."

"We may kill hundreds of them before this is over, and that's not even the worst way they could die." He scrubs at his eyes, stifling a hysterical giggle. "Oh, God, I should never have used that moral imperative argument. We feel guilty about what we did, so we'll keep killing them until we get a version we like. Do slap me if I ever start nattering on about ethics."

Rosalind is too ill to reply. They are silent for a few minutes, watching the Songbird. It does not seem to understand that Elizabeth has died, much less that it is responsible. The massive construct lands on top of the rubble from Monument Island, and without much notice simply discards Booker's corpse in the bay. What remains of Elizabeth lies in its cupped hands. It very gently touches her with a finger, waiting for a sign of life that will never come.

Robert peers over the railing. "I don't think it meant to kill her."

"As if that matters." Rosalind is still pale, but straightens. "There's nothing more we can do here. However, I'd prefer not to jump into another try straight off, if you're quite all right with that."

"You will hear no objections from me."

They call off further attempts for a few days ("To the extent that space-time and the various measurements thereof apply to our circumstances," says Robert) and spend time with good company in the Menlo Park of 1963. When Rosalind mentions that she has bought more bullets for her pistol, it is time to try again.

 


 

Attempt #23 is an unexpected triumph. They nudge an additional airship into Columbia's skies with a bribe to an overworked permits clerk, and it is the simple, elegant solution they have needed all along. Songbird, unable to see Booker and Elizabeth for a crucial three seconds' worth of concealment afforded by the airship's route, vents his rage on the sky-line leading back to Battleship Bay. This gives them a bad scare when the line ends and their charges tumble into the sea. Robert is prepared to write the pair off as another set of deaths when the girl surfaces, spluttering, dragging a half-sensible Booker among the waves. Her hair is dark and plastered against her, and she swims like a seal to the beach.

("Where did she learn to swim?" Rosalind wonders.)

The twins follow them for the rest of the day, taking notes at a furious clip. They are unsure how long their incredible luck is going to last and are mindful of the need to acquire data. Rosalind's interactions with the adolescent Elizabeth weren't (Rosalind argued) sufficiently predictive of her adult personality. They have the uncomfortable realization that, barring the physics book, they have not really accounted for Elizabeth's impact on future attempts.

Elizabeth is both a revelation and a problem. She is very smart, and they approve. She is very beautiful, and this is much less helpful. The Luteces do not miss the sidelong glances from the men on the boardwalk. While the girl herself is is too inexperienced to have any sense of what the attention means, the twins are uncomfortable on her behalf and mindful that it won't help Booker's efforts to escape notice. Elizabeth is also very naïve, and that makes them nervous. Booker's violence horrifies her, and an early encounter with Comstock's men sees her fleeing for safety elsewhere while yelling at Booker to stay away. The twins have just agreed to split up and watch them separately when Booker rallies and catches up to her, having messily dispatched Comstock's thugs in the interim.

They fight, they yell, and they circle each other like prizefighters with the measure of each other's deficits, but they remain together. On her flight through the boardwalk, Elizabeth has seen the abundance of propaganda concerning Comstock and the "lamb," and realizes that the mobs of armed men in the city exist largely to keep her within it. The mental calculation is straightforward, and Booker, however unappealing, is her best option for escape. It is a more sober and serious young woman who follows Booker for the rest of the day.

Rosalind toys with her pen. "This is a more volatile partnership than I would like."

Robert shrugs. "An early encounter with the police may frighten her enough to stay with him, but I agree it's not ideal. Very poor for control purposes."

"I thought this wasn't an experiment."

"Oh, do shut up."

Data accumulates as the day advances through Soldier's Field and Finkton; they agree to assess it "when convenient" - a tacit admission that the attempt will eventually fail. As evening approaches, Booker carries an exhausted Elizabeth to bed in a seedy Finkton boardinghouse, and then collapses in a nearby chair. He eyes a bottle of scotch on the sideboard long enough for the twins to get nervous, but doesn't open it before falling asleep. He wakes occasionally to check on Elizabeth, but she sleeps without interruption after the most exciting day of her life.

The Luteces celebrate with champagne and chocolates, certain that they are finally on the right path. It almost doesn't matter that Songbird smashes the First Lady (and within it, Booker and Elizabeth) the following day, and they turn to their notes with great interest.