The moon shone weakly through the haze of smoke that carried upon it the faint scent of fire and death, the charred signatures of war. Beck spun around, the boat beneath his feet was gone, the bone-numbing cold of the Arctic wastes replaced by the warmth of a summer’s night on the streets of Manchester. He recognised this place, this time… The city had fallen, the resistance crushed by the mechanized mage armies of Rasputin, and tonight was the the military ball to celebrate the victory of Her Imperial Majesty Tsarina Victoria’s army. Yet more than that, this was the night he met…
“Me,” his wife’s voice hissed in his ear. “This day should have been the happiest of my life, but you ruined it,” her anger was colder than the dark-stained ice that rolled and cracked in his heart. “I was going to marry him!” she thrust an accusing finger towards a handsome naval officer , “but you had to go and spoilt it all.”
Beck found his voice, a small dry thing deep at the back of his throat, “I… We… we fell in love here…”
“You took me from everything I was promised!” she shouted, “My life was laid out for me, so easy, so perfect. But you took all that from me! I was to be the wife of a great officer in the Imperial Navy but instead I left it all behind, ran away with you, you who were nothing! A grubby doctor from some godforsaken hole in the North!”
“No, it wasn’t like that,” Beck gasped. “ You hated your life, hated the atrocities Rasputin’s mages were committing, hated what England had become….”
“I was eighteen! A stupid, naive girl! You took me from my family, took me from my life! And for what? So we could live together in a hovel? Always looking over our shoulders? Never settling anywhere? What life was that for me? What life was that for my children?”
“They were my children too!” Beck snapped back. The slap across his face made his ears ring.
“They were MY children! You lost them the day you killed them!” she screamed in his face, her hatred white hot and terrible.
The streets of Manchester had gone, replaced by the hills and valleys of the Bowland forest thronged with columns of fleeing refugees in a chaotic exodus. The Lincoln Line had fallen two days before and the rout was complete with the mecha-mage armies hounding the resistance mercilessly, pushing them north towards the ruins of Scotland. The stragglers, exhausted and defeated, were a terrible sight and Beck’s heart ached to witness it again.
“Remember this?” his wife was by his side again, “remember the squalor and misery you subjected us to? Remember the people dropping dead where they stood? The stench of death and fear? The constant attacks? And this is the life you gave me and my children!”
“You can’t blame me for this,” Beck countered, “You wanted to fight with me, support the resistance. You left your family to be with me…”
“Something I regretted every day of my life! I should have been in London! I should have been married to an Admiral! But no, you cursed me to a miserable life up here tending to these pathetic fools!”
“No! No, that’s not true, you loved your life here, you loved the resistance, you loved me…”
“I hated you! I hated you!” she screamed at him and he felt the dark void inside squirm and stretch, growing stronger and bigger. Maybe she was right. He could have turned his back on the resistance and lived in comfort in London. The resistance was a joke, it never stood a chance of winning, not against the mages, not against the nightmares they conjured up. He must have known that, he must have known that fighting them was for fools, a death sentence. And that’s what he’d given to his wife… that’s what he’d given to his children, a death sentence. He closed his eyes, pushing his balled fists into them.
When he looked up again, the forest had gone and he was stood on a small wooden dock next to a battered fishing trawler being hurriedly loaded with supplies by its desperate crew. Further down the coast the Imperial Navy were shelling anything that floated into matchsticks, staining the sea and the sky red. He felt sick, the shameful memory of leaving his friends behind twisted and swelled inside him. He had deliberately split away from them, leaving them to their fate, hoping that their desperate attempts to escape would allow him and his family valuable time to flee to Iceland. From there he had no plan to speak of as the world had long ago shifted from pink to red but at least in Reykjavik he would have some breathing space, some safety.
“Don’t you dare!” his wife hissed, “Don’t you dare tell me this was for us! You left your friends, the people you promised to fight and die with. You left them to be slaughtered by the Navy because you are a coward! Don’t you dare tell me this was for us!”
Beck looked at the burning sky; all the people he’d fought with caught by the Navy and whatever horrors the god-forsaken Mages called up from the depths of the ocean. She was right. He had abandoned them. He had run like a coward.
“Yes, like a coward. And like a coward you used me, my children, as the excuse you needed. Iceland? ICELAND? How could we have lived in Iceland? We’d have been shipped right back, or more likely simply dumped into the sea to save them any trouble with Rasputin!”
“I… I had no choice,” Beck tried.
“You always had a choice, always! You could have left us, my family still had connections. You could have stayed away from the resistance, taken up a practice in London. You could have left me to my life when you met me! You could have given yourself up to the Navy instead of taking us here!”
The sudden icy wind ripped at Beck’s skin. Now he was on the boat as it slowly cracked its way through the icy sea. His journey had come full circle leading him back to the Arctic. He could never escape from here. In truth, he had never ever left this place, he carried it around with him wherever he went. He turned slowly, looking behind the boat. Two small bundles of rags lay alone and still on the ice. His children… his beautiful, wonderful children.
“No! Not yours! Mine! My children and this is where you murdered them. You vanity, your pride, your cowardice led them here and your inadequacies let them die,” his wife’s face was twisted by pure, naked hatred that sang to the growing, swelling emptiness inside his gut.
“No… I… we had no choice. The navy followed us, we had to head north. The chased us non-stop. We had to try for the north-west passage, to make for America,” but it seemed to him that a stranger spoke his words as he no longer believed them. He knew the truth, he’d always known and his wife had simply helped him out of his denial. Without him, without his pointless existence, his useless cowardice, they would have lived.
“Don’t forget the crew, every one of them lost their life following your insanity!”
Yes. Only he had lived. First his… no, not his, never his but always her children, taken by the terrible cold, dark stains on the perfect ice as he left them behind. Then the crew, one by one, falling to the cold or hunger or disease. Then his wife, his love, his life, the woman he’d stolen from her perfect life and taken to her death, the woman he promised to protect yet allowed her to witness the death of her children before dying in agony herself. Then the storm, only he and a young lad left as the boat sank beneath the night-shrouded waves. And when the sun rose again only he remained. Only he lived. All of them gone. All of them dead. All of them murdered by his cowardice and inadequacies…
Faces flashed before his eyes, all the people he’d killed or allowed to die, all the people he’d failed to save, all the pain and loss he’d inflicted on the world. His wife, her children, his friends, Li Fe and his family. All of their blood on his hands, dark stains creeping and crawling along his skin, scouring him away, taking him over, the darkness enveloping him, swallowing him whole, eating him alive.
From far away there was a noise above him. He had a vague notion of people shouting, struggling, fighting around him. Whatever it was he no longer cared. His eyes saw only dark stains on perfect ice. The darkness inside him was complete.
To be continued…
Links to other blogs and stories:
1) All Dr Beck’s Journal Entries can be read here.
2) All my “Steal Head” posts can be read on my blog here and on the Steelhead Ning here.
3) The latest “Steal Head” Story So Far recap can be found here.
4) All my “Mutations” posts can be read here.