Chapter 13: Happy Birthday
May 4, 1959
"What's the matter, Alice? Does this demented dance of love and death not assuage your concerns for romantic love in the afterlife?" Cheshire purred. "Or is there something missing perhaps? Maybe a dash of crimson red to liven up this dreary monochrome of the breathing and the breathless?"
"Do keep quiet, Cat," Alice whispered from the corner of her mouth. "I'm trying to enjoy the play." She was silent for a few moments and then leaned just enough to whisper again in Cheshire's ear. "And I would hardly call it dreary. It is one of Sander Cohen's after all."
"Patrick and Moira, The Story of Love After Death", was the cream of Rapture's crop of musical productions. It was one of Cohen's earlier works back when the city was still young and most people had appreciated Cohen's work before it became strange. It wasn't in production before her sojourn in Rutledge, and since it hadn't been playing in theaters through popular demand during her last visit to Fort Frolic, now was as good a time as any.
It also helped that today was her 20th birthday, and the Guardians' main gift to her had been a mandatory, one-day "vacation" to Fort Frolic, along with a sizable amount of cash to spend. Personally, she thought it was all a bit much, especially the money.
The crossbow that Tooth had given her as soon as she had walked in the door, on the other hand, was a prize indeed. A five-bolt chamber, easy to carry and aim, and all without the recoil and noise of a gun. Perfect for a silent kill.
She had ripped up some practice dummies at North's range with it before Aster had shooed her out the door and to the bathysphere station. He was likely just jealous that his and the other's gifts weren't ready yet.
So far, she had shopped in Sofia Salon High Fashion (50% off!) and the Gardner Delux Modern in the Southern Mall, checked out the selections at the Rapture Records store in Poseidon Plaza, gambled a hundred dollars each at Sir Prize and Pharaoh's Fortune (and won the jackpot of two hundred and fifty dollars at the latter), and checked out Cohen's most recent additions to his Collection. The finale was the earliest showing of Patrick and Moira, heralded by Tooth as the last of Cohen's great works before he met his current muse. Ryan's ban on censorship had done wonders for Cohen, and strange things to most of Rapture.
As the curtains went down and the actors and actresses took their bows, Alice stood and clapped with the rest of the audience. From what she had gathered, it wasn't nearly as romantic as Cohen's supporters claimed it was, and not nearly as unnerving as his detractors, including Anna Culpepper, believed it was. In her taste, it was a blend of the two, and it could have done well to have more of both.
Cheshire politely tapped his paw on the other in a feline version of a clap. "Now that that's done," he yawned, "shall we return to North's little subterranean and submarine kingdom?" He grinned wickedly. "Unless you wish to sample the alcoholic wares of ones Sinclair and D'Epoque, maybe even dare to try Robertson's own burning brand of addiction?"
"ADAM is more than enough for me, thank you Cat," Alice murmured softly, "and don't you worry; we are heading straight home and you can sate your own addiction of North's store of milk."
The crowd filtered out of the theater, some steering off for the other businesses and stores of Fort Frolic, while most headed down the Atrium staircase towards the bathyspheres. Alice was among the latter group, Cat padding along behind her. The afternoon was fading into evening, and she preferred to spend it at North's with the others.
At the bottom of the stairs, she glanced to her right. Months earlier in October, she had arrived at this exact same spot after exiting the exact same theater after seeing the exact same show. There had been a small crowd gathered around then, staring and gaping at something glowing…
"Now what's going on here," she muttered, raising an eyebrow at the dense group clustered at the bottom of the stairs. Despite all of the entertainment these idiots were allowed here, they always wanted more. Granted, she had fun today (a modicum considering Bumby had practically ordered her to go and enjoy herself as a reward for improving so much), but moderation was a virtue (as her mother used to say - or had it been her father?).
From the way they were all staring, one would think an Eve's Apple strippers had decided to put on a show right in the Atrium, if it wasn't for all the women starring as well. Statistically, it was unlikely that there would so many women who batted for the other team in one group. Judging from how many were arm-in-arm with their husbands/boyfriends, it was something other than carnality.
Her curiosity piqued, Alice pushed her way through the group. She noticed the impromptu attraction glowed a blue-purple. Odd sounds were also eminenting from the source - low piping or whistling. When she came to the front row of the group, she couldn't help but stare too.
It was...she had not idea what it was. Flickering in mid-air a few feet off the ground was a...hole in the air? It was like someone had taken a knife and cut a vertical slit through a quilt or blanket, a tear that kept trying to close itself only for another part of it to open up. Wisps of something trailed along the edges of the tear. Whether they were from within it or without, she couldn't tell. Peering in was like looking through a static-afflicted television screen at the same scene, showing a distorted version of the Atrium directly behind it.
After moving around the Tear and seeing that it was the same from all angles, Alice did what any one cursed with her curiosity would do; she hesitantly reached up and touched the Tear. A sensation like an electric shock traveled up her arm, making her yelp and jump back, rubbing her hand. With a strange hum/shriek, the Tear opened wider, showing more of the distorted Atrium. The other onlookers shouted and backed up in a hurry, leaving solely Alice to witness what the Tear had to show.
Rubbing her arm and grumbling, Alice didn't notice the Tear's expansion until a familiar voice came out of it.
"Alice dear, come along. Mother and Father will be wondering where we are!"
Even with the distortions of the Tear and the passage of time, Alice recognized the voice with a start. In an instant, she was as close to the Tear as she dared, straining around and looking for the voice's source within. She found it standing at the same spot where she had first spied the gaping group. It was her long-dead sister, Lizzie, alive, well, and as beautiful as ever.
"Coming Lizzie!" If she thought her shock couldn't be greater, it just did. The girl who came down the stairs after her sister was her double in every way except in health and clothes. Her hair was clean and even, her eyes were bright and alive, her face flush with health, her fine, quality clothes a far cry from the ugly striped dress Witless had scrounged up for her.
"Of all of Anna Culpepper's plays, that one was the finest I've seen yet!" other-Alice said. "Far better than that hack Cohen." Not only did she look better, she was far happier than she had any right to be.
"Alice, be nice," Lizzie lightly scolded her. "Sander Cohen may be just that, and Fort Frolic may be Culpepper's, but you shouldn't speak ill of the missing."
"Isn't it 'speak ill of the dead'?" other-Alice asked.
Before Lizzie could answer, two more voices came into the conversation.
"There you two are!" Lorina Liddell appeared with her husband Arthur Liddell right next to her. Both were visibly older, but were also alive and healthy.
"How was the play?" her father asked, his eyes twinkling. "Not too much propaganda, I hope?"
"There were...overtones," Lizzie replied. "I somewhat miss the days when Sander Cohen was Ryan's main artisan. Ever since Culpepper jumped on Ryan's bandwagon and Cohen jumped off, she seems to have gotten a little...Cohenish, herself."
With that, the Tear closed. Alice could only stare at the place where it had occupied. Her parents were alive, no they were dead, she had just seen them, it wasn't real it was an hallucination, who was that girl who had her name and face, why did she have Lizzie and her parents, they were hers, it wasn't fair!
And with that, her vision shattered in a shower of bloody glass, and her world turned into fire and chaos.
Bumby hadn't been happy about her "relapse", even when it became known that other Tears were appearing in Rapture, showing impossible things. Alice shook her head and continued walking towards the metro station. That particular memory wasn't pleasant, even if she had every intention of keeping it.
Cheshire quickened his pace until he was abreast of her. "Alice, there is something that you should consider whenever you recall that one instance-." His subdued tone stopped her short, allowing her to evenly stare at him. For once, no mischief danced in his eyes; she had no idea what was in its place.
"Two variations of the same saying in fact," Cheshire continued. "'She who saves a soul saves a universe', and 'Whoever destroys a soul, destroys the world'. Think on that, if you care to." He vanished as he always did.
Alice recognized both sayings. Cheshire had said the first himself, and he had quoted her father for the second. Like most of his advice, it was a riddle, but unique. He hadn't mocked her for one, and there was a visual for it. A hole in the air with another her, Lizzie and her parents, all alive and well.
Ironically, the oddest bit was Culpepper and Cohen. Culpepper was one of Ryan's most vocal critics, and Cohen his most vociferous supporter. The idea that they would switch roles was ludicrous, especially considering that they hadn't. Whatever that Tear had been, it didn't make any sense whatsoever.
Then again, when did anything in her life make sense?
There was a small crowd at the metro station, milling around the bathysphere. Approaching, Alice could hear them complaining loudly, the high expectations that came from a middle-to-high class lifestyle in Rapture surfacing.
"Where is that bathysphere? I'm going to be late for my appointment with Steinman!"
"Hey, hey, I got a reservation at the Tea Garden. Five minutes late, and they give the slot to somebody else!"
"Really, you'd think that with all the money that Austen charges for his bathyspheres, running on time would be simplicity."
"The guidance system on those things was whipped up by Fontaine Futuristics, what do you expect?"
"Ain't nothin' wrong with Fontaine products, just the old owner."
Alice rolled her eyes and turned around. Opposite the metro station was another bathysphere dock, one which lead to Arcadia. Most of the bathysphere docks connected multiple destinations depending on the control options; a few could only allow travel to one specific destination. It all depended on the layout of the city and the expected traffic for those two areas. It was a detour, but at least it would be a pleasant one.
Alice had memorized all the one-way docks a long time ago, seeing as not many opted to use those and they were a relatively discrete way of getting around. Most of Rapture's higher-ups didn't use them as they had the aire of being maintenance areas, somewhere they didn't want to be seen and also a chance to muss their fancy clothes.
Before she was halfway across the hall, Alice spotted them. Standing by the entrance to the other dock were two of Cohen's stage performers, the ones that usually danced out front at his club in High Street. These two were very different though; they were built far more like the football linebackers at Ryan Stadium. One of them sported twin handcannon pistols in shoulder holsters and a tommy gun in his hands, eyes scanning for anyone who got too close. The other sported the crystals growths of a Frosty on one arm, while the other was coal-black with fiery-red veins. Guards, and both looked like they knew what they were doing.
"What in the Atlantic?" Alice muttered, one hand rubbing the Vorpal Blade's handle gently. Something was wrong here, and likely about to get worse.
The PA system came to life with a short-lived screech of static before a soft melody began playing. Alice heard the crowd in the metro station quit their jabbering and perk their ears up. The voice that echoed throughout Fort Frolic was one very familiar to Rapturites from every part of the city.
"Good evening, fair patrons of the arts!" Sander Cohen crooned. "The struggle of the artist has never been greater in Rapture, all thanks to this war between Atlas and Ryan. Ryan and Atlas, who can only struggle against each other." A note of scorn came into his voice with their names. "My friends, the true enemy is not the petty Parasites or the belligerent Ryan Security. No! It is the doubters, those vile little insects who've dogged the minds and hearts of the artist since civilization arose from the muck!" His voice arose to a scream after mentioning the doubters.
"Forgive me for that outburst; artistic temperaments can easily upset at the best of times." Cohen cleared his throat with an exaggerated 'ahem'. "With the authority granted to me by the Rapture Council, I am declaring Fort Frolic off-limits to all bathysphere travel, incoming and outgoing. This old bird has one last frolic in him, and you are all my guests!"
With that, the PA system clicked off.
As the meaning of Cohen's words penetrated her understanding, Alice barely resisted the urge to smack her head with her palm. "Oh, damn," she swore.
She and every other soul in Fort Frolic was trapped and at the mercy of a mad artist and a purported madman. From what she remembered of the Warden, there were no entrances to Fort Frolic. The closest point was about a hundred yards off from Cohen's Collection, through a hundred yards of ocean bedrock. Doable, if she had far more explosives than she currently did, and if she wasn't in a fishtank of a city where every blast was an invitation for the ocean to come in.
She snapped back to reality as a cacophony of shouts and running feet broke out behind her. While she had been realizing her plight, the crowd at the metro station had decided to turn into a mob and make a mad rush for the alternate dock.
"Wait, stop-," Alice jumped out of the way of a particularly large man as he barreled past. From her new spot in the hallway to the Atrium, she could only yell warnings and invectives at the crowd streaming past.
"Stop! You imbeciles, can't you see that-"
A burst of tommy gun fire roared out, followed by screaming. A burning ball of magma soared through the air and detonated right as it fell among the crowd. The four caught in its range howled in pain and floundered around as the fire consumed them. Alice averted her eyes, trying to contain the images that flashed through her brain at the sight.
Two more people were suddenly frozen in place before bullets shattered them into crystalline pieces. The rattle of the tommy gun was replaced by the blasting of two hand-cannons. A man's head exploded, while the woman by his side was thrown on her back, blood streaming in an arc from the huge wound in her chest.
As the survivors streamed past her in a broken column, the miraculously untouched ignoring the wounded with the exception of loved ones, Alice could only groan.
Of course madness would break out on her birthday.
"Irony is the fact that the Deluded Depths is more orderly than its counterpart, this fortress of frivolity and madness," Cheshire smiled, proud of his wordplay.
"Cheshire, you have been making light of our present situation for the past three hours," chided Alice. "If you have nothing to contribute in the way of escaping from this madhouse, I suggest you keep quiet!"
Cheshire smirked as he disappeared, his mission of finally getting a rise out of her a complete success. Alice rolled her eyes and huffed as she realized that she had played right into his paws. Not surprising considering her present situation.
She had explored almost every inch of Fort Frolic looking for a way to get out, even visiting Eve's Garden in desperation. She had left with the owner yelling that anyone remotely associated with Nan Sharpe was banned from his "establishment" and that he'd better never see her "skulking" around ever again.
Fort Frolic had just been cut off from the rest of Rapture by one of the worst of the city's madmen and he was worried that the former ward of his former competition might be spying on him? Either he was lost in the depths of delusion far below the Dreary Lane Theater, or he was in shock and had continued on as though everything was normal.
That hadn't stopped her from scouting out Eve's Garden for any possible escape routes. Thank goodness for her ability to astrally project herself using Cheshire. With him, she had literally covered every square inch of Fort Frolic. She had also scouted any routes to get to Cohen with. If things got truly desperate, she would go straight for the man himself and make him let her out. She hadn't yet because Cohen had a direct line to Ryan and she didn't want to draw attention to herself and the Guardians.
Some part of her, the absolute darkest part of her, wished that Rapture would just go to hell already, complete and utter social breakdown like what Wonderland had gone through. In a (somewhat) functioning society where even a few citizens supported the ruling establishment, killing off the guards and beheading the monarch would only backfire on her and her friends. During both the Queen's reign and the Dollmaker's siege, she had been actively at war with both enemies and their armies. Here, she was sneaking around, trying to do some good without attracting the wrong kind of attention.
She shook her head. There was one last place for her to check out: Sinclair Spirits. If that wasn't ironic-
"It is," chimed in Cheshire. "In fact, the irony is greater considering who is currently behind the counter in that particular store."
Alice gave him another glare and huffed again as she mounted the stairs to Sinclair Spirits. She swore to herself that if Sander Cohen himself was behind the counter, she was going to blow his brains out right there and then take anything resembling a key off his body. She needed to get out of this place before either she got caught up in one of Cohen's mad art projects, or the Guardians decided to storm the place.
She froze and stared at the familiar face that was chatting up the two people at the bar. It was only a few moments but it was enough for her former landlord to spot her.
"Well, I'll be a sea monkey's uncle!" Augustus Sinclair, Esq. flashed his thousand-dollar Steinman smile at her. "Alice Pleasance Liddell! Of all the people to be trapped in this loony bin, you are the last one I would have ever pegged to be in here."
It took a moment for Alice to get over her surprise, a moment more to get over her horror that Sinclair of all people knew her middle name, before she could speak.
"I could say the same of you, Sinclair," she finally replied. "How does the biggest grifter in Rapture come to be trapped with the rest of us plebs in Fort Frolic?"
One of the bar goers glared up at Alice from her bottle of wine at the word "plebs". She likely would have said something if Sinclair hadn't cut her off.
"Shrewd businessman, my dear," he corrected. "I was checking up on my business interests here in the Fort when Cohen finally decided to flip his lid for good." He shook his head. "Found my manager going through the cash register, hoping he could bribe Cohen's pretty boys into letting him go. I let him try it, then got my cash back when they blew his head off. Got blood all over my money, though."
Alice gave him one of her patented looks.
"We are currently trapped in Fort Frolic at the behest of a man who was obviously losing his mind before he even touched ADAM," she said, maintaining eye contact, "and you're worried about money?"
Sinclair shrugged. "There's still a good number of people here who haven't caught onto that just yet. And if I manage to get out, I'm goin' to make sure that I'm takin' whatever I can get out of this particular branch of Sinclair Spirits. Won't be getting anythin' from this one when everything's said and done."
Alice nodded and then took a moment to study the bar's occupants. She recognized both of them. The man was Suresh Sheti, one of Fort Frolic's performers, a master "mentalist", his shows of supposed clairvoyance and mind-control dazzling even the most skeptic of audiences. He wore a white suit with a matching turban wrapped around his head, a sash as red as the rose pinned on his breast wrapping around him from shoulder to hip. His back was to her, blocking any view of his supposedly bi-colored face.
The woman was Mlle Blanche de Glace, an actress famous on both the surface and in Rapture. Her talent on the stage was renowned for its emotional depth and power. The oddest thing about her was the bipolarity of her social interactions: She spent half the time in total and absolute reclusion, eschewing all human interaction, and the rest of the time being extremely sociable, her need for human contact eclipsing that of Rapture's most active social butterflies. She had turned back to her drink, wrapping her brown fur boa around herself. Her steel blue, strapless dress suited her, contrasting sharply and elegantly with the strawberry blond hair.
Why two of Fort Frolic's best were drowning their sorrows (and barely doing much of that as evidenced by the high level of alcohol in their glasses), Alice had no idea.
"So, any of my fine wares today tickle your fancy?" Sinclair asked, taking advantage of her silence.
"Seeing as it's my birthday, and I'm stuck here, I might as well enjoy a glass of Arcadian Merlot," she decided. Cheshire smirked up at her, his barb about trying alcohol or nicotine turning out to be true. Alice ignored him.
Alice took a seat away from the performer and the actress and laid down the money for a glass of wine while Sinclair poured it out and set it down in front of her. She nodded her thanks and took a sip of it. If there was one thing Rapture spirits had going for them, it was the fact the majority of them were watered down to stretch the actual stuff as far as possible. Both Aster and North decried the practice of watering down alcohol, but Alice preferred it this way; much easier to get down and it wouldn't affect her nearly as much.
Alice contemplated the deep red of the merlot, idly swishing it around her glass between sips. She shouldn't really be drinking this; not only was it alcoholic, but it would drain her EVE reserve, even if only by a little. She had heard of a gene tonic that reversed the effect of alcohol on EVE, replenishing it instead. "Booze Hound", wasn't it? Witless would have loved that; she would've probably been one of the first to splice up with it, if she was still around.
Alice was on the last dregs of her wine when Sinclair saddled up to her and leaned in. "Listen kid, now that Sheti and de Glace are gone, I'm gonna let you in on a secret, just for your birthday, you understand?"
Alice glanced down over at the seats that the aforementioned individuals had filled and froze when she saw that they were still there, nursing their drinks and paying no attention whatsoever to their surroundings, or each other for that matter. When two people sat next to each other at a bar, even a high quality one such as a Sinclair Spirits in the nicer areas of Rapture, there was usually some conversation. But no, Sheti and de Glace just sat and sipped at their drinks.
She felt a chill race up her spine at the unreality of the scene and situation and looked back at Sinclair, hoping that he hadn't noticed that anything was amiss. He didn't show any physical symptoms of splicing, but one didn't need to splice in order to go mad, she knew that firsthand. Either he was somehow hallucinating that they had left, or she was imagining them still there. Judging by their behavior, the latter was more likely.
"Are you sure that you haven't been dipping into your wares, Sinclair?" she asked. "Generosity is not something I would have expected of you."
"Believe me Liddell, I'm not doin' this out of the goodness of my heart. There's a 'Power to the People' machine down in the cellar, only one in the entire Fort." He reached down beneath the counter and pressed something, a button. At the grinding sound behind her, Alice turned to see a door sliding open. "Consider this a trade: I scratch your back, you scratch mine when it starts itching. Sound good?" he finished.
Alice eyed him for a moment before answering.
"As long as I or my friends don't get a knife in the back," she finally stated, "I accept your offer, Sinclair."
She got off her seat and started for the door. She noticed Cheshire rolling his eyes at her and stopped. Turning around, she gave Sinclair one final warning.
"If this is a trap, Sinclair, this won't end well for you."
Sinclair raised his hands in a faux-surrender.
"I understand. No tricks, I promise," he crossed an x over his heart. "Cross my heart, hope to die."
Alice snorted in derision at the poor word choice as she turned back to the door. Going down the stairs, she glanced back at the couple. They remained at their bar stools even as Sinclair removed their empty glasses and began cleaning them.
Cheshire was waiting at the bottom of the stairs, sniffing at a bottle of Arcadian Merlot.
"If this was served in London, the producer would be laughed out of business," he snarked, wrinkling his nose. "Is there any particular reason for your sudden trust in Sinclair? I don't recall any instances of his honesty, if he has any, shining through."
"Sinclair is a greedy, dishonest, money-grubbing con artist," Alice said, "but he is not stupid. Making an enemy out of me is stupid, insane, or both."
Cheshire straightened up and stretched luxuriously, each individual vertebrae in his nearly-exposed spine popping.
"A fair point," he conceded, "though his sanity is in question at the moment."
Alice paused, then pointed back up the stairs. "Be a dear, Cat, and keep an eye out for him."
Cheshire rolled his eyes and sat down like a guard dog. "The things I'm forced to do," he bemoaned. Alice ignored him pointedly.
A safe sat next to the Power to the People station. Alice eyed it for a moment before mentally shaking her head. Sinclair was allowing her to use one of his stations for free, she wasn't going to repay him by stealing from his safe.
The Power to the People stations were an embarrassment to Ryan. Fontaine had them installed throughout Rapture to give away weapon upgrades for free. Thankfully, Ryan hadn't gotten around to getting rid of them, mostly because even his most loyal supporters knew free was sometimes better than not, as was the case with the older El Ammo Banditos. Sadly, the upgrades were standardized to the weapons that were readily available in Rapture, such as the Tommy guns and the Webley Mk pistols, whereas her real-world Teapot Cannon and Pepper Grinder couldn't be upgraded like the Wonderland versions could be. At least the real ones were designed to be like the fully-upgraded fantasy guns.
The choices available to her were for the Hand Cannon, the China Broom, and her new Crossbow (Tooth must have learned how to make them from the original producer). The Hand Cannon's upgrades would result in a faster firing rate and a larger ammunition capacity. The China Broom's allowed for a larger ammunition capacity and easier reloading. And the Crossbow's were a lesser chance of the bolts breaking and an increase of the damage they caused.
After some thought, Alice chose the larger ammunition capacity for the China Broom, doubling the original three shells to six. She placed the weapon into the open slot of the machine, hurriedly jerking her hand back when it snapped shut. As the machine whirred and buzzed, she rocked back and forth on her heels with her arms behind her back.
When the machine finished with a loud whizzzz and opened up, Alice tested out the modification by loading six shotgun shells into the gun. When it tested true, Alice gave it her smirk of approval and turned around.
Sheti and de Glace were standing right behind her.
The China Broom was brought up to her shoulder almost instantly, the bead aiming directly over Sheti's turban. To his credit, he didn't even blink.
De Glace, on the other hand, had a pistol aimed right at Alice.
"Jeune femme," she trilled in a chilly French accent, "kindly be putting that weapon down. If we had wished you dead, we would have struck when your back was turned."
Alice considered that for a moment before lowering the butt of the gun from her shoulder, keeping it at the ready. De Glace did the same, cold eyes watching her every movement. The French actress reminded Alice of a predator that wasn't hungry enough to strike, but would if provoked.
Alice glanced around the pair to find Cheshire lounging at the foot of the staircase. At the very brief glare she sent his way, he just grinned saucily and resumed grooming.
The urge to skin him had increased by several magnitudes.
Sheti had barely moved, his eyes boring into Alice's with an intensity that made her uneasy. It wasn't lust that gleamed out at her from his brown depths; it was a burning curiosity, like she was a particularly odd insect specimen. The colors of his face were split halfway down the middle: Pure white on his right side and almost pure black on the left. His facial features gave no clues as to which side was his true pigment, if either truly were. Odds were it was a shade somewhere in between.
"Alice Pleasance Liddell," he finally said, giving her a short bow. "It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance. I am Suresh Sheti and this lovely lady of taste is Mlle Blanche de Glace, if you already didn't know of us."
Alice inwardly groaned at Sinclair's reveal of her middle name while dropping down into a small curtsy. She kept her gun at the ready.
"Yes, I am aware of who the two of you are," she answered. "Sadly, I never had the opportunity to witness your theatrical careers here in Fort Frolic. However, this isn't exactly how I imagined meeting with any celebrities. That is, in a cellar in a shop at the back-end of a locked-down Fort Frolic."
She gave them a moment to answer her unasked question, and when none came, she went ahead and asked it.
"What do you want?"
"My apologies for answering a question with another question, but how familiar are you with my show?" Sheti responded. The intensity of his gaze had died down, but the curiosity was still there, still studying her.
Alice frowned at him. "You're the 'Mystic of Rapture'. Your show is essentially that of a mentalist's. You perform feats of 'magic' in front of an audience, showing them something that they've never seen before. I'm familiar with the concept."
Now, Sheti smiled. "Another of my more common talents is the ability to divine inflections in tone." At Alice's momentary look of confusion, he explained. "You don't think that my mental capabilities are real, that they are just as much of a fiction as a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat."
A thin veil of annoyance had entered into his voice by then. Alice tightened her grip on the China Broom and allowed Old Man Winter to begin coating her hand. Better safe than sorry, especially these days.
"Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong," Alice began cautiously, "but there is only one real power in this world, and that's the almighty dollar. All other sources of power in this world are tied directly or indirectly to money, even Plasmids."
"That last commodity could be changing all that soon," de Glace said, "but that is not what Monsieur Sheti is talking about. He means the true power of the mind."
"I swear to God if you just let a madman and a madwoman pass you by, Cheshire, I'm going to skin you and wear your fur as a coat," Alice mentally growled.
"The human mind is capable of more than just thinking, Ms. Liddell," Sheti continued, "it is rare, but there are individuals who possess mental abilities that allow them to read, manipulate, or even control the minds of others. Sadly, I am limited to only one of those three, but my skill with what I can do is exceptional."
Alice took stock of both of them. If what she said next brought on an attack, an Old Man Winter trap right between the two of them would freeze them both solid, and then the China Broom would finish them off.
"If what you're telling me is true, and I highly doubt it," Alice said, casting the bait, "then why tell me?"
A flash of anger appeared in eyes both brown and blue/grey, but only for a moment in the former. Sheti smiled, a very odd smile like he was about to tell Alice the secrets to the universe.
"Because, Ms. Liddell," he said, "I cannot divine your thoughts no matter how hard I concentrate, and I wish to know how and why."
He moved fast, stepping towards Alice and raising a hand to her head. Alice raised the gun, pressing the barrel right into Sheti's chest and began to pull the trigger. Before her finger could complete the action and send buckshot through the performer's chest, his hand touched her forehead.
The ground opened up beneath her feet in a burst of blue-green light, and she fell.
By the time Alice regained her faculties, she was floating gently down to the green verdant floor of the fusion of the Vale of Tears and Pauper's Drop.. Over the trees and the buildings of Skid Row, the trains of the Looking Glass Railway screeched from one end of Wonderland to the other, as a Shipwreck Shark glided overhead with the grace of a predator in its element.
As soon as Alice touched down on the ground, a voice spoke out of midair.
"Ms. Liddell, if you can hear me, may I have permission to enter your mindscape?"
Alice easily recognized Suresh Sheti's voice. It would have been melodic had the situation not been so bizarre. She was silent for a moment before answering.
"If you will explain what exactly is going on, then yes," she finally said.
Without a sound, Suresh Sheti appeared before her. As soon as he had finished blinking from the light, his eyes went wide as he took in the surrounding environment.
"Dear God," he whispered, "now this is a mindscape!"
Alice cleared her throat, bringing his attention to her. He blinked again before bringing his hand up to cup his chin in thought.
"You continue to surprise, Ms. Liddell. It is rare for one's mental image of themselves to match their physical appearance."
Alice glared at him in frustration. "I am getting very tired of your wordplay. Mindscape? Mental image? And what did you do to me? How did you send me to Wonderland and how are you here?"
Sheti raised a hand in an attempt to calm her. "Everything I said earlier is true; there are an infinitesimally small number of people with powers that have no connection to ADAM, mental abilities that can be very useful when utilized correctly.
"My talent is being able to read the minds of others. Somehow, you are able to block me out, and you aren't even aware that you are doing it. You don't even register my attempts. Of course, you drew my interest."
"I trust that your interest is friendly?" Alice asked, sensing a window to interject. "Because if it is not…"
She reached out to Wonderland and clamped down on the connection to the real world. It was strange, manipulating Wonderland on this level. The barrier between her dream world and the real one was like a membrane, thick and strong in the majority of Wonderland. The entry and exit points were incredibly thin, able to come apart to let her in or out before closing up like they were never there. When Bumby's influence had finally been exorcised from her mind, she had slowly become aware of the control that she wielded over the fabric that of Wonderland's existence.
She had let Sheti into Wonderland, and just now she had thickened the divider at the entries and exits to the point that Sheti would need a drill bigger than a Big Daddy's to get out. And even if he was able to figure out how to escape, he would be at point blank range from her China Broom in the real world. Either way, the cards were stacked in her favor.
Sheti must have sensed her alterations to Wonderland because he froze for a moment, fear and amazement briefly dancing in his eyes.
"Rest assured, Ms. Liddell," he quickly answered. "My intentions are honorable. I merely wish to ascertain your abilities and provide any advice if necessary. It is very rare to come across another of our own, and I firmly believe that talents such as ours should be refined and fully realized. Would you be interested?"
Yes, yes she was interested. Yet another tool for her to utilize in her fight for survival in Rapture. However, they were in Rapture, so it was certain that there was a price attached.
"What would I be giving in return for your services?" she asked.
He waved a hand. "Merely to know the basics and limits of your own power. I didn't feel you probing my own psyche, so you either don't know how or you simply can't. Would you allow me to discern what your true power is?"
Alice considered it for a moment. On one hand, he would know how her mental "power" (if she even had any) would work. On the other hand, the more power she wielded, the easier it would be to protect herself and her friends. If Sheti went back on his word, or betrayed her later...well, she would cross that bridge if she had to.
"Very well," she decided. "You may divine my mental abilities if you will tell me how to best use them."
Sheti nodded, and then closed his eyes.
The most curious experience washed over first Alice and then the surrounding area, stretching out to engulf Wonderland. It felt like being a bug pressed right against the glass of a microscope, and then remaining in its view as it zoomed back to see one's environment.
It ended right as Sheti opened his eyes. Gasping lightly, he took out a handkerchief and dapped carefully at his brow.
"This...is easily the largest and most complex mindscape I have ever had the privilege of studying," he managed. "A mindscape is essentially your subconscious mind. It's a representation of the parts of your mind that you are normally unaware of. Most are usually the size of a residence to the size of a small town. The smallest I've ever seen was the size of a safe and was created by a very paranoid and fearful man. Most are never aware of their mindscape, and fewer still understand theirs.
"From what I can divine, your psychic abilities are very internalized: You can create and control your own mindscape on a level I've never seen before, and you are immune to telepathy. You can also bring that enormous cat of yours into the real world and use it either as a distraction or use its own eyes and ears." He smiled.
"Your 'Cheshire Cat' gave me quite a start when I first saw him. Most 'familiars' as they're called are much smaller and not nearly as detailed. He even appears to have his own personality and mind separate from your own."
Alice couldn't help but smile. "I can most certainly say he does. He annoys me to death half the time and gives me cryptic advice for the other half."
"Hmmm," Sheti rubbed his chin in thought. "He must represent the part of your psyche that represents your internal monologue.
"As for your active powers, you do have one: You can mentally enter the mindscapes of others, just as I did. You simply place your hand on the other's head, and the rest will come naturally. I strongly advise you to ask permission of those whose minds you wish to inspect as I asked for yours. The mind is the most private and safe place we know; violating it is just as bad if not worse than violating a body."
"I am glad that you think so," Alice said. "I'll always be sure to ask first."
Sheti smiled and then looked up. "When we return to the real world, would you be so kind as to not shoot me in the chest? Mlle. de Glace wouldn't take kindly to it at all."
Alice nodded. "I'll make sure not to, Mr. Sheti."
He mimed tipping his turban and disappeared from Wonderland. Alice closed her eyes and willed herself out right after him.
With a start, she was back in the real world. Sheti jumped back as she jerked the China Broom towards the ceiling and hurriedly took her finger off the trigger. Alice was breathing hard from the effort of not killing someone for once.
Suresh Sheti straightened his suit and nodded to Alice while De Glace slowly put her gun back into her handbag.
"I trust that, in return for the revelation of and advice about your abilities," he said as he adjusted his turban, "that any future encounters we have will be less...hostile?"
"That is perfectly reasonable," Alice replied, checking over the China Bromm to make sure it was in order. "Please refrain from sneaking up on me though, I don't react well to that."
"We will take that into consideration," de Glace said. She placed her arm around Sheti's shoulders and began steering him to the stairs. "I look forward to your future performance on the stage of life, Mademoiselle Liddell."
Sheti gave Cheshire a little bow as he and de Glace passed him at the foot of the stairs. Alice strode right up to the oversized feline and glared down at him.
"Cat, what in the Atlantic was that?!" she hissed.
"I sensed that they meant you no harm," Cheshire replied. "If they had, I would have alerted you to their presence."
"Meaning no harm or not, they almost gave me a heart-attack," Alice retorted.
Cheshire have a cat's equivalent of a shrug. "When you're not on edge…" he began.
"You're taking up too much space," Alice finished, rolling her eyes. "You're going to drive me to an early grave, Cat."
"To the contrary, I'm driving you to a late one," Cheshire smirked as they mounted the stairs. "If you undo all my efforts and die in this sinking cesspool of a city, the blame will sit entirely on your shoulders, Alice."
Another few hours of searching through For Frolic for an escape, Alice found herself back at the Atrium. Besides ammo and some food, she had found nothing of any real value. She resisted the temptation to begin stealing from the shops. It hadn't gotten bad enough that such behavior would be found acceptable, but that wouldn't be the case for long. She had long spent the cash given to her and won at the slots for more ammunition.
Tempers were flaring, and people were starting to get desperate. The line at the Gatherer's Garden reached down to the bottom of the stairs; that meant more plasmids, which meant more splicers later on.
Alice had no intention of waiting around for Fort Frolic to go to hell ahead of the rest of Rapture. It wouldn't take long for her to become the apex predator of this particular habitat, but judging by the madness that Cohen spouted every now and then from the PA system, he was likely spliced to the nines and very dangerous, to say nothing of the present and future splicers.
There would be more predators at large in the rest of Rapture, but in a far bigger pond than Fort Frolic.
Alice finished loading her guns and injecting a fresh EVE hypo as she entered the Atrium. Her target was just across from her, behind the doors that lead out to the Apothecary shop and the Bathysphere station.
Killing Cohen's guards wouldn't get her access to the Bathyspheres, but it would get her on Cohen's radar. He was dangerous, but the Red Queen had been too, and he didn't hold a candle to her tentacles.
Emerging from behind the staircase, Alice noticed for the first time the crowd that was gathered around the atrium stage. Frowning, she sheathed the Vorpal Blade and joined the crowd, carefully making her way to the front.
The crowd was oohing and awing over the apparent realism and masterful work of Cohen. From the compliments attributed to their captor, he was likely close by or watching, and they didn't wish to anger him.
The focus of attention were two plaster-of-paris statues. A man and a woman, set up as though to admire one of Cohen's paintings: The woman was clutching her hands to her chest as though her heart was about to beat out of itfrom sheer adoration, while the man's hands were flung out like he had discovered the secret to life and it was beautiful.
Alice snorted quietly at their positions before realizing something about their expressions. They didn't match their posture; instead of amazement and admiration, they were of horror and terror. They were so real that Alice felt a shiver go up and down her spine. This type of realism wasn't the perfection that artists sought; it was too real to be art. A horrid feeling welled up in her stomach as suspicion flooded her brain.
Getting as close to the statues as she could, Alice tilted her head and looked up at their noses. Instead of two indentations that would have signified nostrils when looking at the statues straight on, she saw two gaping holes. Breathing holes.
Her fears confirmed, Alice glanced around, her mind racing to expose Cohen's newest depravity. Her eyes alighted on a Victorian-style hat worn by an upper-class woman and its ridiculous adornments. The light reflecting off a hatpin leaped out at her and she acted, striking like a snake, grasping it and yanking it from the hat.
Before the owner could even turn and reprimand her, Alice took the pin and jabbed the sharp end into the man's left foot.
The result was instantaneous. The man's arms jerked hard from their positions, sending bits and pieces of broken plaster flying over the heads of the stunned crowd. A muffled scream accompanied the action and the plaster around his mouth cracked.
"They're real!" someone screamed out. The crowd began a small, contained stampede to get away from the stage.
"Cohen's gone off his knocker!"
"We need to get out of here!"
"He's going to kill us all for his art!"
"Why isn't Ryan doing anything about this?!"
The Atrium lights suddenly dimmed except for red ones that gave the environment a hellish glow focused on the stage. With a whoosh of displaced air, Sander Cohen himself appeared on the stage, rage contorting his face.
"Doubters!" he roared. "Screw all you fucking doubters! You can't paint a portrait without soiling your smock!"
His rabid eyes spied Alice jumping away from the stage, her grasp on the hatpin pulling it out of the man's foot and prompting another muffled scream.
"YOU!" he screeched, pointing at her. "You've ruined my art!"
Before Alice could retort or bring a gun or plasmid to bear, Cohen vanished in a swirl of red particles and rushing air. A moment later, he reappeared at the head of the staircase, breaking up the line and scattering the people.
"Whoever kills that fucking doubter is free to go!" he raged, pointed at Alice. "I'll even throw in a plasmid and ADAM if you make it threatric!"
All at once, everyone in the Atrium had eyes only for Alice. The desire for freedom mixed with the greed for ADAM in their faces as weapons came out and fire and lightning began dancing on fingertips. Cohen smiled viciously down at Alice and vanished again.
Music began playing over the PA system as the former members of the crowd began to walk towards Alice, their fear gone, replaced by bloodlust. She couldn't recognize the song, but she knew which play it was from: The Nutcracker, one of Momma and Lizzie's favorites.
Before Alice could say a word, they attacked. Sidestepping a baseball bat, Alice targeted her first assailant with Possession. He stumbled forward, barely missing her as he tried to change course. He recovered from charging her, turning to attack the people who had been right behind him, wailing on them with his bat. The woman whose hatpin Alice had taken brought a pistol up, only to have it returned to her courtsey of Telekinesis, right through her hand.
Her hand free, Alice whipped out her hand cannon and braced herself for the onslaught.
Within moments, the Atrium was enveloped in chaos. Thanks to Possession and Enrage, Alice was able to take the huge numbers advantage her assailants had and turn them against each other. Spider-splicer hooks and elemental projectiles flew through the air alongside bullets and buckshot. Mr. Baseball Bat lay dead on the ground, chest riddled with bullet holes, his killer now trying to gun down a back-flipping splicer, only for a hook to slice through his throat.
Alice carefully picked her targets, shooting those not Possessed or Enraged with her hand cannon. When that ran out of ammo, she switched between her newly-upgraded China Broom for close targets and her new Crossbow for more distant enemies. If only there had been Wonderland versions of these weapons, things would have been smoother than they had been with just the Pepper Grinder and the Tea Cannon.
A part of Alice was horrified with how easily she was killing and who she was killing. These weren't mindless Ruin or braindead Card Guards, nor were most of them even spliced. They were just people.
And they were trying to kill her at the behest of a madman. Sane or no, imaginary or no, an enemy was an enemy, and she had no intention of letting these toothed and clawed sheep slaughter her.
When the number of the living had been cut in half, and those Possessed passed out and the formerly Enraged ran away instead of attacking her again, it happened.
Just as both the China Broom, the Crossbow, and her EVE reserve were out and she was digging an EVE hypo and her Pepper Grinder out, a massive explosion rang out. Alice's body lurched forward.
Confused, Alice put a hand to her back to steady herself, only to find feel something wet trickling down it. Her hand came back red, dripping with her blood.
She turned around as quickly as she could to face her attacker, only for a perfect barrage of buckshot and bullets to perforate her chest.
Alice recognized her attackers as she fell back, three of Cohen's disciples, their names escaping her. Staring up into a spotlight, she was only vaguely aware of Cohen's disciples being attacked to keep them from finishing her off. Her limbs grew cold as her ADAM-laden blood leaked out onto the floor, her vision cracking at the edges. Shadows gathered around her, resolving into human predators who looked down at her with no pity. They stood only to gain from her death.
Alice sneered up at them, and then let loose.
Black and white. Spatters of red.
Shouts. Screams of rage, pain, fear.
Others, sprawled around her. Enemies, would-be killers.
Fire. Lightning. Small projectiles peppering her sides.
Under attack. FIGHT, SURVIVE.
Blade out and ready.
More red. More screams.
Life flowing out of enemies, flowing into herself.
No more enemies.
Alice came back into reality with a jolt, heart racing, head pounding. Gasping for breath, Alice bent down and rested her hand on her knees. As air was inhaled and exhaled, she became aware of what was lying on the ground in front of her. It took her a few moments to realize just what it was: A severed human arm, its fingers wrapped around a still-glowing hook.
At the end of the trail of blood that started from the open end of the arm was the rest of the body. The woman was a spider-splicer as evidenced by her hooks. Her expression, the parts still recognizable as human anyway, were twisted in a combination of amazement, fear, and horror. Her mid-section was a mess, criss-crossed by a number of huge and bloody cuts, all leaking massive amounts of crimson blood. If she hadn't already been dead, she would have been shortly.
The Vorpal Blade glinted in Alice's right hand, a single faint sliver of light surrounded by the hot, thick syrup of Dracula's favorite beverage.
Alice steeled herself as she realized what had just occurred, and stood up to survey the battlefield. What she saw wasn't that different from some of the more macabre stuff from Wonderland when the Dollmaker was on the loose.
The only difference was, these had once been people in the real world, not the imaginings of a mentally-ill individual.
Surrounding her and the spot where she had fallen were the freshly dead corpses of about a dozen people. It was "about a dozen" because of how many pieces there were.
Various weapons lay around, firearms and melee, all soaked in blood. Arms, legs, and, in one case, a head, were completely severed from multiple bodies. The intact torsos bore multiple lacerations and cuts that came very close to completely bisecting the target, allowing the innards of her...vic-opponents to spill out on the ground. Blood was still coupously pouring out of the wounds, steam rising up from the bodies as Rapture's cool air came into contact with the still-warm viscera.
The closest thing in comparison from Wonderland was when she had killed a Madcap. The only difference was that their humanoid bodies disintegrated soon after death and their blood disappeared shortly after staining the ground. Apparently, unlike enemies in Wonderland, real enemies were much more fragile and susceptible to a high-speed, ultra-strong blade.
The only person in the room still standing was her. Outside the circle of mutilation and death, there were multiple bodies, results of her usage of Possession and Enrage. The few still breathing were likely the ones who she had hit with Possession and who had been knocked out as soon as it had worn off. Judging from the far-off sounds of running feet and screams, those who had any sense had run off as soon as she had unleashed her Hysteria.
Alice tensed as the lights turned completely off, save for a spot-light at the head of the Atrium's staircase. A drum-roll accompanied the spotlight's activation, ending with a twin bursts of white smoke. Striding out from the smoke was Sander Cohen himself. As he descended the stairs, glitter shot out from the railings at specific intervals.
"Oh my god, oh my god, OH MY GOD," Cohen said with a tone of reverence as he neared the bottom of the staircase, stepping over a body without breaking step and stopping not six feet away from her. He had been staring at Alice the entire time of his descent, not with the leering lust of the men who used to visit the Mangled Mermaid, or the cross of pity and disgust from the middle and upper classes. This was pure, unadulterated awe.
Alice couldn't help but feel a shiver shoot up her spine.
"That...was...BEAUTIFUL!" Cohen yelled, making Alice jump. "That scream...that burst of power...the blood...your attackers falling before you like wheat before a scythe." He inhaled and exhaled deeply as he remembered her Hysteria. "You're not a Doubter," he almost whispered, "you're an angel."
That was the first time anyone had called her that. Another shiver swept up her spine.
"In return for such a gift for my muse," his tone turned all business in a moment, "I grant you a teleportation plasmid and all the ADAM on my person."
Reaching into his coat pockets, Cohen pulled out a plasmid bottle marked "Teleportation" and a very large flask of glowing, red ADAM. He held them out to her.
"And in addition, I grant you a boon of me," he added. "Anything you want, I'll give it to you."
Alice didn't have to think twice as she wiped her blade clean and tucked it under her arm.
"I would like to leave Fort Frolic," she said as she reached for the bottles and put them into her bag, one hand instantly going back to grip the Vorpal Blade's handle. There was no telling how Cohen would take that request.
"But of course," Cohen replied graciously. "I'll order the bathysphere up straight away and tell my guards. You can come and go from Fort Frolic as you please, my Angel of Death. In the meanwhile, I will begin creating a painting, one to supersede all of my past works, commemorating your victory here. I will eagerly await your return to see it."
As he turned to leave, Alice remembered what she had heard of Sander Cohen about his "charity work", which resulted in the disappearance of multiple little girls. They either wound up as Little Sisters or became victims of Bumby's clientele. Alice gripped the Vorpal Blade, imagining herself plunging it into Cohen's back again and again until he laid dead on the floor.
Before she could enact this, Cohen disappeared in a flash of red. Alice darted forward, swinging for the petals and catching nothing but air. She scowled and considered tracking Cohen down in his theater and ending his mad, repulsive life.
Weariness suddenly overcame her. It was late, she had almost died, and she had used Hysteria to come back from the brink, along with killing a number of normal Rapturites and splicers. Cohen was making himself at home in Fort Frolic and had no apparent interest in continuing his previous "charity". Should it become evident that he was or worse, she'd come back and finish him off then.
Alice visited the Gatherer's Garden on the Atrium's second floor. There was enough ADAM in the flask for her to get several more slots, a Health Upgrade and an EVE Upgrade, Wrench Lurker and Wrench Jockey (overkill was guaranteed kill in her opinion), and Cyclone Jockey and Sonic Boom. She held off from splicing in the Teleportation plasmid; her project with Tenenbaum required it.
As Cohen had promised, the bathysphere surfaced at the metro station. She was alone as she boarded the sphere. She set the destination for Market Street; it was best that she warned the Guardians of Cohen's takeover of Fort Frolic and Cohen's dive into new madness.
As the hatch closed on the sphere, Alice saw the two of them standing by the stairs: Mlle Blanche de Glace and Suresh Sheti. They both applauded her, de Glace now eyeing her with respect. Alice took a bow as the sphere descended down into the water.