A chilling autumn breeze blew through the trees of Central park, bringing with it a flurry of freshly fallen leaves which stood a stark contrast to flocks of lively birds making their way steadily northward. 1896 was going to have quite a winter, if the mild frost that covered the grass daily was any evidence.
Despite the continuous cold weather, people were about the park as always, going about their business as only New Yorkers truly could. They were like the postal service in that respect. Not rain, sleet, or snow would stop New York's residents from going about their day to day drudgery. And besides, a bit of nippiness was nothing compared to the vast winter storms that plagued this region of America annually.
On this particular day the sun was shining particularly bright, illuminating the ghostly breath that puffed from the mouths of the park's current occupant.
At the center of a somewhat thick grove of oak trees interspersed with some hearty pines a clearing had been formed that had taken on the role of a children's play area. There was nothing truly special about the area. No toys or attractions to draw the little ones in. Just some soft dirt muddied somewhat by the wintery dew in the mornings and a gracious amount of open space. And to children, especially the children of the city's working class, that was enough.
Around the clearing's edges parents watched idly. Women read magazines or gossiped with one another while men ate their lunches or smoked amongst the trees, their every breath like a smokestack in the cool atmosphere.
On a nearby bench, one of several that dotted the parks pathways, sat a man with an array of papers spread out over his lap. A pen was gripped white knuckled between his thumb and forefinger as concentration wracked his facial features. The various notes he compiled was a vast amount of information to work with. Illustrations of strange metal skyways and of religious statuary and towers were scribbled as neatly as he could manage across the pages. Everything he had to work with.
Or at least everything he could clearly remember.
"What's tis one, daddy?" a small voice perked from the side.
Booker looked up at the small blue eyed girl before him, smiling toothily in her long skirts and messy pigtails pulled up between a pair of earmuffs. She was pointing to one of the larger illustrations, of an enormous angel, bent forward slightly as she offered her hand to the air. He smiled.
"That's where the princess lives, sweetheart" he told her for not the first time. The picture had long held a place in her nightly bedtime stories. Stories of a strange city in the sky where a beautiful princess was guarded by a monstrous bird, and of the disgraced night sent by a pair of twins to retrieve her. Her age had toned the stories down of course. No mention had been made of the gratuitous racism, bigotry, and hatred that had permeated Columbia's every pore.
Nor of the terrible violence the story's knight had committed in his earlier days.
She was far too young to hear of such things. She wasn't ready, nor would she understand.
"Why does she live in an angel, daddy?" she asked in a pointed manner far more intelligent than one would expect from an almost five year old.
He opened his mouth to answer, but stopped mid syllable.
"Actually" he pondered for a moment. "I don't know." His time in the airborne city hadn't actually revealed why the girls tower had taken such a shape. Surely there was a reason, though he didn't know it.
"Maybe it's because the princess is an angel, just waiting to be let out." Impromptu as the answer was, it was still true all the same.
"When will your book be finished, daddy?" Anna asked, her mind already jumping to a new topic as quickly as it had jumped to the first. Booker laughed.
"I don't know sweetheart. As soon as I can get my thoughts together. Why don't you go play with the others" he gestured to the rabble of children running circles around one another just ten yards away. He ruffled her hair affectionately. "Their more fun that your boring old man."
"Okay!" she perked, bouncing up and down on her heels before skipping back into the fray, skirts swishing with her movements.
Booker sighed, watching her go.
He had no idea what deity or strange cosmic entity had seen fit to smile on him, but he knew that it was far more than a scumbag like him deserved. Far, far more. His past was marred by screams and blood and death. The lives of innocents cut short by his vicious hand, the homes burned to nothingness by his will.
Those sins and more blackened the fabric of his being. Yet he found himself blessed by a loving daughter, whose eyes matched those of not only his late wife, but those of the strange tower bound girl who had given him a second chance.
It had been a rather jarring experience four years ago when he'd awoken from a manic, deliriously life like dream to find himself at his desk, the surface still cluttered with race tickets his Pinkerton files, and a variety of half filled liquor bottles with Anna wailing for attention in the next room.
Even in that moment, with the images of mechanized patriots and warring Vox populi fresh in his mind, the cries of the dying Songbird echoing in his ears and the sensation of drowning in the river as three versions of the same woman holding him down still tingling down his arms, did he question whether the whole experience was real or not.
It had to have been real.
The crudely stitched wounds that had etched his side had to have been real. The agonizing realization of the monster he could've become, the monster who he'd sold Anna to, had to have been real.
Elizabeth, with her doe-like blue eyes, god-like powers and charming naivety to the ways of the world, that had to have been real.
She, of all things, had to of been real.
Because to him, she was the most real thing in the world. His little girl, condemned to a fate he'd unwittingly assigned her.
Nearly twelve hours had been spent after his awakening huddling in his apartments back room, Anna cradled in one arm, his gun ready in his free hand.
No one would take her from this time. No one. Booker had been prepared in that moment to blow the smarmy face off Robert Lutece when he came talking of wiping away the debt in exchange for his little girl. No debt was worth that. Not this time.
And strangely enough, no one had come. Fate it seemed, or in this case, Elizabeth, had seen fit to give him another chance, erasing not only Columbia, but herself from the timeline.
And he was determined not to waste her sacrifice.
Working off his accumulated debts hadn't been easy. To be more accurate, it wasn't easy. Years of steady work had made a sizable dent in the sum, but there was still a ways to go. He'd left the Pinkertons on principle alone for a series of jobs that paid miserably to decent. He couldn't do the Pinks kind of work anymore, no after seeing what kind of things it could lead to in the form of the Vox and their vengeance driven rampage through their white supremacist tormentors.
Nowadays he made enough on average to keep the debt collector from storming his apartment intent on taking what they were owed. But their ominous shadow still loomed over his and Anna's life. There was still more to be paid, which is what had led him to his most recent project.
Booker knew very little about writing. Having received little in the way of schooling as a child, he didn't have a fancy vocabulary or scholarly merit to show off in his prose. All he really had was his memories of the accursed sky city, and his pension for telling a story that had come from being a soldier. Soldiers could tell one hell of a story when asked. Just ask Cornelius Slate.
Hopefully, all the various bits of information he remembered, from his journey with Elizabeth, to the customs and culture of Columbia would come together in the form of a book. It probably wouldn't sell well, but every last bit of incoming cash would help.
He had a complete story already formed out of course. His own, with the names tweaked a bit. However there was information he simply didn't have, things that even his illustrations or background information on Columbia's history couldn't fill in. For example, the early life of Daisy Fitzroy. Apart from her being one of the countless Africans carted into the city by Fink to be the slave labor workforce, Booker knew next to nothing about her life before that. Considering the dates, she was probably the daughter of a slave freed after the war. But other than that, the details were vague at best.
An entire stack of papers was dedicated to illustrations. Weapons, the Vigor bottle designs, various propaganda posters that had littered the city streets, and of course the skyhook design. Hopefully these details would help drawn in readers. Or if nothing else, help him externalize the craziness that was the whole situation. Maybe he wouldn't end up insane after all.
It wasn't until after he'd detailed the skyhooks rotating blade arrangement with a few careful pen strokes that he looked up to see that the sun had moved considerably across the sky. He lowered his gaze, and all at once, his heart came to a thudding stop.
Most of the parents around the clearings edge were gone, taking with them their miscellaneous youngsters. Only three or four children were left wrestling in a contorted heap. All of them boys. None of them Anna.
Booker stood up, sending papers and his pen scattering to the ground.
"Anna?" he called, looking from side to side. She was nowhere in sight. A few people looked up at his call, but otherwise said nothing, going about their business.
"ANNA!" he called again, the panic setting in. No one answered him.
He should have seen something like this coming. After all, every parent had their moments of fear. He'd had more than his fair share so far, having spent the last several years deathly terrified that Comstock would somehow show up on his door to take her from him once more. Now however, the fear was more real than ever. Anna was lost.
It had been unbelievably idiotic to think she'd be safe here while he worked. Even if he was a few feet away. This was central park for Christ's sake, home to any number of creepers and drunkards who prowled the bushes at night, initiating brawls and breaking teeth in punch-ups.
Without thinking Booker ran down the closest path, leaving his writings behind. They didn't matter. Nothing did. Not as much as this.
"Anna! Anna!" he called as he ran, sounding every bit like someone recently escape from a mental ward. "Anna!"
He continued in this manner for nearly an entire mile, crisscrossing down the pathways and calling his daughters name at the top of his voice.
It isn't until he's nearly grown hoarse and his legs are starting to ache exhaustedly beneath him that he's finally answered by a high pitched, teach etched voice.
"Daddy!" A brown hair blur came flying out of seemingly nowhere, burying itself in his side.
"Oh sweetheart" he breathed with relief, kneeling to wrap his arms around his shaking daughter. Anna's face is slightly puffy and stained with tears. "Oh thank God…oh thank God" he breathed in the scent of her hair, holding her as tightly as he could without hurting her. He would never let her out of his sight again. Ever. He wouldn't lose her again. "Where did you go? You had me worried sick!"
"She wandered off after a man walking some puppies" said an eerily familiar voice. "No worries. She just got lost."
Not loosening his hold on Anna, Booker looked up.
It was Elizabeth.
If his heart had stopped before, it burst now.
She literally hadn't changed since last he saw her, standing waist deep in river water beside her half dozen counterparts. Since she drowned him, and broke the cycle of chaos and destruction that had created Columbia and Comstock alike.
The same high class blue dress fell elegantly down her form, bird charm sparkling on the choker around her neck. Her skin is beautifully pale, and her eyes, round and doe-ish are just as full and expressive as he remembered. Full of feeling, and more sincere than any other eyes he'd ever seen before.
They locked eyes. She smiled.
"Elizabeth" he says barely above a whisper, scarcely believing it.
"I found her in the trees over there, trying to get back to you" she said before he could open his mouth. "She wanted to see the dogs. She's curious, that one." Her smiled widened. "Trust me, I should now."
"How are you here?" he asked. Without thinking he stood up, cradling Anna in his arms like a newborn. Tired out from her tears, it didn't take long for the small girl to drift off to sleep. "I-I thought….I thought you were gone."
"So did I at first" she took a step closer, trailing a finger down his cheek. "It's a long story, actually." Turning, she made to walk in the opposite direction. "Do you have time for a walk?"
The answer was obvious.
Apart from the young girl in his arms, it was much like old times as they walked the length of the park, taking in the various food venders who hawked their wares to anyone passing. Booker half expected gun wielding radicals to come screaming out of the woodwork. He would draw his weapon, and Elizabeth would toss him some ammo or a vial of salts. They would fall into their combat groove smooth as clockwork.
While the park lacked the splendor and glorious workmanship of Colombia's vistas and avenues, but that didn't matter.
Somehow, Elizabeth was here with him. The girl who was his daughter, and who had saved him from himself. All Booker could do was revel in her presence as they moved, listening to her tell her story.
"I didn't know what had happened at first" she began, fingering the thimble that still covered the stub of her right pinky. "After I…drowned you, I expected to disappear like the others. To not exist anymore. That was what was supposed to happen. With you drowned, I should've been gone. But I wasn't. It really spooked the minister when he found you dead right in front of him. There aren't many drowning at baptisms, apparently." Booker smiled a little. Yes, there was the cheek he'd come to love in her. For someone isolated for most of their life, she had a remarkable command of speech. Reading helped with that it seemed.
"Before long the Luteces showed up. Out of nowhere, as always, to cryptically explain what had happened. They'd probably be here right now if I hadn't asked them to let us have a private moment." She paused to take a breath. "When I drowned you, Comstock was erased forever. And in the process, so was my life. My life as I know it anyway" she glanced at Anna, her little doppelganger.
"By all means I shouldn't really exist anymore. Columbia never came to be, so I couldn't have grown up there. But that would've been a paradox. If I never existed, I couldn't have been there to drown you. So, as the Lutece's put it, I've become like them. Infinite is the word they used to describe it. I exist everywhere and everywhen at once. Free to roam the multiverse as I see fit." Her eyes sparkled. "When I'm not checking in on you two, that is."
"You've been watching?" Booker asked quietly. It genuinely surprised him. "I'd've thought you'd want to be done with me…." His gaze fell, the shame of his past creeping over his unshaven cheekbones. "After all I did to you. You've had enough of me for a lifetime." He'd sold her into captivity, into a life under the thumb of Songbird and his master.
A finger pressed upward on his chin, forcing him to look his elder daughter in the face.
"I forgave you for that a long time ago" she whispered. "You made up for that when you let me drown you. That was your redemption Booker. That was you realizing your mistakes, and paying for them willingly. That's as much as anyone can do about their sins. Not washing them away, making up for them."
They stayed like that for a long time, with her hand beneath his face, the sleeping Anna between them. It was a moment of tenderness that Booker would've scoffed at were he not at the center of it. This was his family. His little girl, and his grown up little girl, with all the power of creation at her fingertips.
After a while the embrace broke apart, and the walk resumed much as it had before.
"What have you been up to then?" Booker asked. A though occurred to him. "Actually, how long has it been for you? You don't look any different."
Elizabeth considered the question before shrugging.
"I'm not sure. I don't really perceive time the same way anymore. It could've been minutes, or centuries since then, I can't tell. Either way, I don't age anymore. As to what I've been up to, well, I've been doing a bit of reading lately."
Seemingly out of nowhere Elizabeth pulled a large leather-bound book which she held open somewhere in the middle. It had gold, red and blue coloring, and the front cover read.
INFINITE: by Booker Dewitt.
Dumbfounded, he reached for the book.
"Ah ah ah," Elizabeth teased, pulling the book out of reach before it disappeared into nothingness, probably into a tear or something. "That would be cheating. You have to finish the book first. Then you can read it. It's really well done by the way, you're a good writer, Booker."
"Where did you get that?" was all he could ask.
"I picked it up while I was hanging around in the 1960's. You know that city under the ocean I showed you? Turns out it's sort of an anti-Colombia. Instead of being run on religious extremism and bigotry it's run on capitalistic ideals and militant atheism. Well, that and the place is overrun by drug crazed mutants. But otherwise it's a rather interesting place."
Another silence fell, through which Elizabeth's smile never faltered. He didn't pry about the book. She probably wouldn't tell him anyway. That was in the future. Now was the present.
"You've been travelling then," Booker continued. "Seeing all the different worlds?"
"In a group, actually. There are others like me. Other Infinites, people unhinged from reality. Turns out I'm not the only one with powers like this."
"Others?" she nodded again.
"They're here, actually. Right over there. I asked them to give us some privacy." She pointed off the path and into the trees. Thirty yards into the thicket, Booker could see two young men roughly twenty, hands shoved casually into their pockets.
The one on the right wore a blue jacket with a neon yellow X embroidered on the back. Strangely enough, a single lock of his otherwise brown hair was purest white and fell heavily over his eyes. The one on the left was familiar to Booker, yet foreign at the same time. He couldn't;'t quite place where he'd seen him before, that is until he waved, showing the thimble adorning his right pinky.
"Holy shit" he breathed, the realization hitting him like a train.
"His name is Peter" Elizabeth told him. "Or Andrew. That's his birth name. He's the Robert to my Rosalind. The y to my x. He's a nice boy. I hope saying that doesn't sound to narcissistic" she giggled at the thought. "The other one's Nathan Summers, a psychic from another world."
Suddenly, her face grew solemn.
"I have to get going soon. We have places to be, things to see."
Saddened, Booker nodded.
"Will I see you again?"
"Of course you will" she replied. "I can't in good conscious leave this little one in your care forever, can I?" she ruffled Anna's sleeping head, earning a contented sigh. "Give her these when she wakes up, will you? She might need them someday." She produced two silver pendants. Both of them familiar. The bird and the cage.
"Which should I give her?" he asked as he pocketed them.
"I don't know" said Elizabeth, pressing a kiss to his cheek. "that's for you to decide. Don't worry, you always choose good for things like that." She smiled. "Goodbye, dad."
And with that, she winked out sight, leaving Booker and Anna standing alone on the path.
For those of you wondering who Nathan is, he's an Xmen character called X-man. Please read and Review!