Written for Yuletide 2013. The title is from Vienna Teng's brilliant "Landsailor," nearly all of which gives me Elizabeth feels now that I've finally finished the game.
This fic draws from my own interpretation of the game's final revelations and how I wanted/decided to believe things shook out, so it's not necessarily going to match others' interpretations or, say, IGN's timeline, although I did draw from the latter for my understanding of the chronology of events. I'm also ignoring the Burial at Sea DLC because it's not even complete yet, I haven't played it, and I neither like nor particularly understand what I've read about it. Well, I like the fact that apparently you finally play as Elizabeth, at some point, but the rest sounds kind of weird, to be honest.
April 2014: Made some additions to the later half of the fic to address a major plot hole I'd introduced without even realizing it. See end notes for more on that.
Build all my wildest dreams
But there's a storm outside your door
And I'm a child no more
headless and faceless
tireless and seamless behind these walls
this is my progress
when you don't notice my lines at all
I split the world open
delve ever deeper in my alchemic arts
I crack the ciphers to free up your mind, your life, your heart
Oh I am altered now for good
Shield these eyes no more
"Landsailor," Vienna Teng
She belongs nowhere, and so she belongs everywhere. For as long as she can remember she has known peace (of a sort) and craved freedom, and now the possibilities open to her are dizzying.
Sometimes she thinks her skull should crack from the strain of infinity—should, but does not, will not. She can drink the universe—the multiverse, the whole of existence—to its dregs and still be thirsty for more knowledge, more life, simply more. She endlessly creates herself because she is free, unmoored, and that reality is so intense she feels almost drunk with it.
She is Elizabeth, and she has freed herself and created herself, and she can do anything.
She can do anything. That doesn't mean she can do everything. It's tempting to try, at first, but a lifetime locked in a tower has taught her patience, and the sudden explosion of infinite timelines that should overwhelm her but doesn't has shown her everything else. All actions have consequences, somewhere, chains of cause and effect rippling through time.
But now she can see those chains and ripples. Now she can choose.
A small family is involved in an auto accident. They're not the ones driving, because they can't afford a car, but it doesn't matter to the outcome. In one world, the parents die, and the child goes to an orphanage. In another, the child dies and the parents survive, but they are torn apart by the loss, turning on each other, drowning themselves in drink for a few precious hours of numbness.
Elizabeth studies the ripples, studies the timelines, finds the exact point where they diverge, and tugs.
A small family is involved in an auto accident. In one world, they all die. In another, they all survive. Elizabeth knows what she's doing now, so they live, properly, no memories of their own deaths chewing away at their sanity. Nothing is created or destroyed, simply exchanged, and the laws of the multiverse carry on without interruption—but a family with nothing except each other remains whole.
If a successful experiment always brings with it this rush of joyful satisfaction, Elizabeth thinks, then she begins to understand the Luteces a little better.
The baptism is a critical nexus point, but it is not the only one, and its effects were never going to ripple out across the whole of the multiverse anyway (even if it was best, in the end, for Booker to think so). Anything that can happen must happen, and when she looks, Elizabeth sees all of it. Sometimes Columbia doesn't exist at all, wiped out when Booker died before Comstock could be born. Sometimes Columbia continues for decades, growing ever more corrupt, a paradise for the privileged and hell for everyone else until the city's leaders choose to wage war on the teeming masses below and nothing is left unscathed. Sometimes revolution literally rips Columbia apart, some of its pieces plummeting to Earth below while the rest drifts along forever, a mythical ghost town in the sky that everyone has heard of and few believe. Sometimes the Vox succeed, establishing their own hierarchy, their own brutal laws, and for all that the people they claim to represent have been so intensely wronged, their rule is no better. Sometimes Columbia is nothing but a failed experiment. Sometimes it never exists at all. Sometimes Zachary Comstock is assassinated, and cooler heads prevail. Sometimes he dies and his successors are worse.
It's tempting, at first, to think she can change all the worlds, and that if she can she must. But she has seen herself take up the mantle of the Prophet, too, heard Comstock's inflections twisting her own voice, and everything she is flinches from that possibility like it burns her. She's a closer thing to a deity than Comstock ever was, yes—but he made a monster of himself because he believed he was better, that he alone could decide what was best for everyone.
She's already suffered for the sins of her father. She'll be damned before she becomes him and passes down this one.
It's almost as tempting, then, to give way to a kind of despairing ennui: if she cannot change everything, what is the point of doing anything? It's the struggle of humanity writ large across the multiverse with the brushstrokes of reality-warping power that will never be quite enough to make everything right, and she has read enough and seen enough to know that it will paralyze her if she lets it. So she doesn't. She watches and waits and collects tiny moments that matter until she believes, again, that these little points in time mean something in the face of infinity.
Something else she doesn't tell Booker: the Songbird's presence splinters across dozens of worlds and she knows, now, where it came from. There is an alleyway, and a portal, and a father desperate to undo his worst mistake and snatch back his baby girl from forces he doesn't understand. Sometimes he makes it. Sometimes he simply fails (the child does not always lose her little finger, even—sometimes it's more, and sometimes it's less). But sometimes he jumps just as the portal closes and he's squeezed through a rapidly narrowing rip in the fabric of multiple realities, the edges of the portal shredding his body and the void-space between worlds shattering his mind. What tumbles to the floor in Comstock's world is a bleeding, screaming mass of flesh that is barely alive, barely sentient, and still reaching for Anna.
Comstock steps back with a grimace. "That wasn't supposed to happen."
"Apparently it was," Rosalind Lutece says, crouching next to the body that used to be Booker DeWitt. It's tapered off to moans as it lies in a slowly widening pool of its own blood. "Interesting. I suppose no one's ever come through quite like that."
"No one who's survived," Robert says.
She smiles. "Precisely."
"Experiment with your toys later," Comstock snaps. "Get rid of this one."
Rosalind rubs her chin, thoughtful. "Perhaps not. The child will need a guardian, after all."
"Quite." Robert crosses the lab and retrieves a bulky syringe. "Shall I put him on ice? Save him for—"
"Fink? Splendid idea. Before he bleeds out, if you don't mind."
Comstock's gaze flicks uneasily between the twins who should not be twins—he will have to deal with them before they undermine him, but now he focuses on more immediate concerns. "Are you mad? You do realize who he is, don't you?"
"Of course we do," Robert says mildly, and injects the syringe's murky, faintly glowing contents into DeWitt's spine.
"But you do not." Rosalind straightens and steps away from the body to face Comstock. "He is no one. Trans-dimensional passage through an unstable portal is not something a human mind—or body, clearly—is meant to survive."
Comstock stares at her. "You tell me this now?"
"Unstable," Robert repeats. Next to him, DeWitt twitches and begins to relax. "Collapsing. You and the girl were in no danger."
"Not from that, at any rate." Rosalind's tone turns brisk. "You wanted us to retrieve the girl, and we have done so. If you want to keep her, she will require a suitable, single-minded guardian."
"Give Fink a few years, and I'm fairly certain he'll make you one." Robert glances down at the mangled body; the bloodflow has halted and it's going still as it's preserved until it can be useful again, but its eyes, before they finally fall shut, remain fixed on the baby. "But he'll have to start with something—"
"—and this one hardly lacks devotion," Rosalind finishes. "In fact I'd wager that's about all he's got left, here or elsewhere. I suspect he's been rather…fragmented. More chances for Fink to get something right, though, and he will, sooner or later."
He does, of course, although he doesn't know the identity of the soul he uses to build the Songbird. He doesn't know the name of the man-machine hybrid he glimpses through a rift and uses to inspire its design, either, so he has no idea of that particular irony, and if the Luteces do (they probably do), they don't mention it.
But Elizabeth knows. She is also well aware that she was directly responsible for the death of her father three times over—or rather, three iterations of her father—and each time it happened by water. It's appropriate enough, she supposes, with the symbolism of baptism and sins being washed clean, although she's less concerned with that than with the possibility that it's inevitable.
Death is always inevitable. Perhaps not for her, not anymore; she is after all quite singular at this point. But if Booker's death by water is a constant, it begins to feel too much like fate, and she has never particularly liked the idea of predestination, for her or for anyone else. That's what the multiverse means, in some ways—if anything that can happen has happened, somewhere, then it must happen and everything is inevitable, and free will is at best an attractive illusion.
But choices matter. Choices always matter. They are, more often than not, the major points of divergence, and even with infinity in the equation, when all possible choices have been and must be made, simultaneously—that still means something.
(It meant something, in the same way, that she spoke to Booker when he was drowning, even though he couldn't hear her—that she murmured, "It's okay, it's all right, I'm here, just let go," and he did, like the Songbird. But unlike the Songbird, he had a choice, because he could have saved himself.)
If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do. She's not certain who said that—the phrase comes out of time, somewhere, with the weight of others' teachings behind it—but it fits, and she likes it.
She can't change everything. It's not possible, and even if it were, it might not even be desirable. Infinite possibility means nothing when all the differences are erased. But she can choose—of all the lives in the multiverse, she can truly choose, she who spent a previous lifetime forced only to react to others' choices, caged and bound and used and molded and hurt. She can choose.
So she does.
Through one of the doors, she sees a world where Booker refused his baptism, refused to hand over his daughter to a strange man from another world, choosing the terrifying unknown over the regret of giving up his child. It's not isolated from the other worlds—nothing really is—but it has the potential to be better, at least in part, if the right choices are made, if events are nudged in the right directions.
Elizabeth nudges, and tugs, and chooses, subtly twitching timelines into place, arranging strings of coincidences that help clear some of Booker's debt. When she has to give a name, she says she is Elizabeth Booker, which feels more right than any of the other obvious options—but there's more she can do, more she wants to do, so finally she reveals herself to Booker. Then she gives him the name Elizabeth DeWitt and tells him she's his cousin, and he is too desperate for help to investigate her claim, and then too grateful to question anything she says.
She's not going to help raise Anna DeWitt, not exactly; she's acceptably confident that doing so won't result in paradoxes or tangles of causality, but the idea of becoming essentially a mother to her much younger sister-self feels odd, and the important thing is to ensure that Anna can make her own choices, become her own self.
But Elizabeth can help, and that's exactly what she's going to do. The timeline she calls her own gave her no practical experience with children, but she's seen so many things and been so many people that she knows much more about raising children than Booker does, and she knows Booker well enough to know how to bully him into taking care of himself when that's what he needs. She bears her own griefs, but they don't cripple her—and more importantly, she knows more than anyone else about the powers she's reasonably certain Anna's going to develop.
She knows all the Lutece twins' research, too, knows the Siphon inside-out now—and she has access to numberless tools and components, after all. She rebuilds the Siphon in miniature and hides it inside a Songbird toy, not to leech away Anna's power but to bleed off what she can't yet control and let it dissipate, harmlessly, back into the fabric of realities. It's funny, in its own way, that she and Anna both owe Comstock something—he had the Siphon designed for his own selfish purposes, but there are places where he didn't, and in more than one elsewhere, her power tore apart Elizabeth or Columbia or both before she had a chance to grow old enough and strong enough to master it.
Anna will not be a victim of powers she doesn't understand or people who want to use them. She will make her own choices.
When Elizabeth brings Anna the Songbird-Siphon, Booker stares at it, brow furrowed in something that approaches a hint of recognition. "Where did you get that?"
"From a toy shop," she says, and turns the conversation back to Anna so deftly he doesn't realize she hasn't given him a real answer. Anna takes to it immediately, making the issue moot, because anything that will keep her content is a godsend that Booker doesn't want to question.
"He's going to watch out for you," she tells Anna as she leans over the crib. "And you have to take care of him. Can you do that?"
"Ghhh," Anna says, and sticks the toy's beak in her mouth.
Anna is five the first time she opens a tear, and Elizabeth is there to see it, because she can be anywhere and anywhen she wants, and there is little point to that if she doesn't know where and when she wants to be. In this case, the actual when was one of a few possibilities, as was the event itself, but Elizabeth guessed from the beginning that this Anna would also be marked by the splintering of her sister-selves across worlds even though her physical form remained intact. Elizabeth isn't entirely sure what she thinks about the fact that the multiverse has again proven her right, but that isn't the point; the point is that she planned for this outcome, which means she can still act.
It's a tiny tear, that first time, flickering above Anna's bed, just enough to pull through a doll that doesn't exist here. Anna beams at both of them, and Elizabeth admires the doll enough to cover for Booker, who can't seem to do anything but gape at his daughter. Once she's examined the rift for stability and helped Anna close it again, she drags Booker away and spends a somewhat exhausting hour getting him to understand what his daughter can do and heading off a full-blown panic before it can start.
She doesn't let him ask too much about how she knows this, just sticks to the basic story that yes, infinities of parallel worlds exist, the ability to open connections to them is a wild talent in the family, and she doesn't know much more than he does aside from having taught herself. Booker's still lost enough that he doesn't push her much. Mostly he tries to listen to her but stares at his daughter, and finally Elizabeth grabs his hand and makes him look at her.
"It's okay," she tells him, and in her voice is a thread of the same power that fell on her as the Seed of the Prophet, only now it's harnessed for a very different person. "It's all right. She's going to be all right. You have no idea how strong she is. Trust your daughter, and trust me."
It's only a few months after this that Anna begins making drawings of a city in the sky. She's no artistic prodigy, at least not at this point, so it's hard to see specifics, and there's nothing for Booker to recognize. Elizabeth knows what to ask, though, and there's enough in Anna's rambling description of her dreams to show that the flying city doesn't spring only from her imagination.
She doesn't push the issue, but nearly every time she checks in on them after that, Anna's got more drawings to show, increasingly detailed and increasingly familiar, and Elizabeth might worry except that's not something she does anymore—history isn't going to repeat itself, not here, because she's not going to let it, and if other timelines are bleeding through into this one, she will deal with it. So she still doesn't push it, and she lets Anna talk about her city in the clouds on her own.
It's a child's vision at first, but it grows as Anna does, and by time she's twelve, she's started to develop real plans. By the time she's fifteen, they're starting to sound like something that might actually work. "I've read Utopia," she tells Elizabeth, "I know it's not possible to create a perfect society. But I think—there are so many people with nowhere else to go, people who have nothing, and if they had a chance—"
"Do you have a name for your city yet?" Elizabeth asks. The name doesn't mean fate either, but she wants to know.
Anna's eyes are bright with the determination of the Prophet and a steadiness that is all her own. "I was thinking. I've been calling it Haven. I think it could work."
"I think you're right," Elizabeth says. And she is. She sees it, a new world and a new door that Anna DeWitt has willed into being, that she's going to make a reality through fierce intelligence and sheer stubbornness, and Elizabeth can't help grinning back at her.
This matters. Of course this matters. It won't be perfect—of course not, nothing is. But it matters, and it's going to be beautiful.
I suspect I'm not the first person to come up with this headcanon about the Songbird, but for whatever it's worth, I didn't read it anywhere else; I thought of the possibility right after finishing the game, so...it may not be an original idea, but it's still mine. And it makes sense-to be honest it started making slightly less sense to me as I was writing this and had to develop things past my original vague idea, because parallel worlds are super confusing if you start thinking about them too much, but it's my headcanon now and I'm sticking to it. There's a really interesting symmetry to the idea even beyond Booker/Comstock/Songbird dying in water each time, in that Elizabeth's relationship with the Songbird reflected a lot of child/parent relationships in general. When she was young she loved it because it brought her things and she considered it her protector and only friend; as she grew older, she started to hate it and see it as her jailer. If that doesn't work really neatly as a metaphor for how children and then teenagers tend to view their parents, I don't know what does.
Also, I apologize for any parts of this that don't make sense, because I'd only finished the game about a week before I wrote this and hadn't had a huge amount of time for it to settle in my brain.
April 2014: Okay, so, I TOTALLY DID NOT REALIZE until Righteousham pointed it out that Elizabeth got her powers to begin with because her finger was severed, splitting her physically between different dimensions. I managed to miss that in the main game, and I still haven't played the DLC, which apparently makes this connection much more explicit. That wouldn't affect this fic except, you know, I gave this Anna powers too. Rather than make any major changes to an already-finished fic, I just added a few sentences that boil down to "handwave handwave parallel universes, I'm not a scientist, don't think about this too hard".
In addition, now that Burial At Sea is complete, this fic is officially AU for the DLC (if one even considers the DLC to be canon, and I'm not sure that I do). I'll probably play it at some point, because ELIZABETH AS PROTAGONIST YES FINALLY, but from reading a detailed synopsis, there's a lot about it I don't like. Among other things, I vastly prefer the truly infinite possibility remaining at the end of the main game and represented in my fic to the complete shuttering of all that possibility in the DLC.