Wings of Wax

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Wings of Wax (Bioshock Infinite*)

By Thom Jordan

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Despite the ungodly layers of insulation and soundproof panelling--stuffed and bolted inside and outside the walls that Lieutenant Marigold Sprigg has seen for himself--sleep is impossible aboard Columbia. If it's not the roar of the propellers, it's the bone-rattling tremors of the engines, powerful and unceasing. But tremors are good; tremors means the airship isn't about to take a nosedive into the Pacific Ocean. It's when all is quiet should you start to panic.

There's a knock on Sprigg's cabin door, booming and authoritative; a knock that doesn't appreciate waiting and won't hesitate to bust you down to deck-scrubbing for a week, so you'd better get your ass up, boy. So Sprigg rises, rakes a hand through his greasy hair, and reaches the door with three swaying strides. The colonel outside is still in formal dress, but Sprigg notices that he has a bottle and two tumblers in his hands. The man says, "You haven't been getting any rack time, have you?"

Sprigg doesn't need to look in the mirror to know how bloodshot his eyes look. He feels them, prickly beneath his eyelids. He tells the colonel, "No chance of that now, I assume."

"Few fingers of this, and you won't have to worry about it." The colonel pushes his way into the room and takes a seat at the desk. Sprigg settles for the foot of his bed. "At least, according to me ol' mum."

The colonel is an older man with stiff, whiskery eyebrows and shaggy hair that needed to be pulled into a tidy pony, but somehow wasn't, and Sprigg sure as hell won't ask why. With his impeccable, grey moustache, the man looked like the type formidable enough to have charged into some fray on rabid horseback, sabre drawn and poised--once upon a time. Sprigg often wonders if he'd worn the grayback's colours. He's an old cowboy, the colonel.

When he passes Sprigg his tumbler, the colonel looks like he's mulling over something in his head. Thinking about phrasing, as to approach a difficult subject. Sprigg knows why he's here now, but the officer's presence is enough to keep his ass firmly rooted to the mattress. The colonel finally begins, "It ain't easy, I know, but you've got to move past it. You've got questions--"

Sprigg flicks reproachful eyes in the colonel's direction. "Funny way of moving past it, sir. That's all."

"It's not my intention to keep you in the dark."

"Pitch black, from where I was standing," Sprigg says. "Down in gunnery."

They had always known what Columbia was capable of. They were just asked to keep it to themselves, is all. The immigrants of the floating city had barely noticed the contingent of uniformed troops tromping all over the place, and they never thought to ask. Sprigg had been told that everything was deliberate and for the safety of Columbia, that they were planning for the intangible--the elusive What If. It wasn't long before What If turned into What Did.

At Sprigg's mention, the colonel purses his wrinkled lips. "You made the right choice. But a bad situation, all 'round."

Sprigg doesnt know if he should agree--if he can agree. He can still smell the pungent, acidic odour of gunpowder and smoke, his eardrums screeching, and his vision starburst and swimming. He remembers a single gunshot by his ear, and first gunnery officer Warnes is violently halted in his protest. Seconds earlier, Warnes had refused to give the order, and now Sprigg would assume the responsibility that came with his sudden, blood-splattered promotion. Cold eyes and a smoking pistol close behind him helped make the decision for him.

When Columbia fired her guns for the first time, the world grew quiet. Sprigg realized that that was the only time he could no longer hear the thrum of her engines, and the panic still followed. Kilometres below, the Chinese city of Peking burned golden in the night sky--a manmade sunrise that was eight hours too early. When his hearing returned, it wasn't the engines Sprigg heard first. It was the screaming. No more shots rang out. No more shots would ring out.

"That," Sprigg says to the colonel, carefully, "that I understand. But why are we running? Why do we have to run?"

The man replies, "Opposite of that, Lieutenant. Columbia's making a stand. What happened there was a wakeup call. You didn't kill those people, Sprigg. Truth is, Chaffee and McKinley did--that mick, Republican bastard."

"They're saying we've seceded. Gone against their orders. That we're criminals. That's the word that's getting around."

The colonel is hesitant to deny this. "That's a little strong. But the big man--Comstock--he knows what he's doing." When the colonel mentions the name, his eyes widen and sparkle like he's doing a loving sermon on the lord Jesus Christ--maybe with greater enthusiasm. "Man's got vision, Sprigg. He sees McKinley for what he is--what he'll turn America into. Columbia doesn't belong in their hands, and you and I both know it. To them, we're a weapon. But we're more than that. We're a people--a nation. The people down there won't ever see that, as long as we stick around and carry out orders like some stupid, faithful pup."

Sprigg remains silent. He doesn't look so convinced. The colonel's downed a quarter of the bottle already; the Scotch hasn't even touched Sprigg's lips. He rolls the tumbler between his sticky palms.

"They reached up, down there," the colonel continues. "Reached up and got a hold of something glorious, but they're unfit to lay claim to it."

"What's that they're looking for?" Sprigg asks.

"Recognition," the colonel says. "Power. But they're losing their grasp, Sprigg. They can't hold onto it--or us--the way they're running things back home."

Sprigg narrows his eyes. "You got a problem with the homeland, sir?" He's always respected the man, his wisdom and experience that he imparts like a senile, rambling grandfather. Sprigg can't help but start seeing him differently--still senile, still rambling, but more pointed and bitter; the town drunk boozing around the local beer halls, reeking of onions and urine. Someone you gave time to out of pity or cruel amusement.

But the colonel speaks as if Comstock's voice is emanating from some gaping crevice, a ragged tear that he'd stolen in from on the colonel's body like a parasite burrowed deep within his consciousness. He says, "It's our duty to protect the world from its foreign hordes, and there's only one man who sees what for. He's got the brains and the heart to do it, too. He's a true American, in every sense of the word. A patriot, man. Those red boys down in Washington? McKinley and his cronies? They aren't sticking true to what made this country in the first place, and that's the right to take what we want. Expand, purge, and do the work of our lord."

With a twinge, Sprigg just about asks if he's referring to God, or Comstock. The words become interchangeable. "They're just a party of folks," he says. "The people will keep its rulers in line. I mean, isn't that the backbone that keeps us upright? If they wanted to take over the world, they'd say so. But they won't, because they'll find someone who won't agree--who'll make it a fight to get past."

"They don't think it's possible. It's up to us to show that it is," the colonel says. He grinds his teeth and growls, "They want to conquer the sky. Every one of them. Even the nay-sayers. It's in all of us to want it, Sprigg. That's what makes us... us." Now the colonel gets up to leave. "See, but Icarus got greedy. His old man should have beat some sense into him. Maybe we don't want the world. Maybe we're too good for the them's down there. Could be that the fight was over before it ever started. All I know is, Comstock's getting out before the place burns itself to the ground. We're lucky to be along for the ride."

"Comstock's just a man himself," Sprigg mutters. "Man who controls a nation that happens to be armed to the teeth."

The colonel tells him, "You get some sleep now, the sun ain't too far away. You made a decision down in gunnery, and I'll hold you to it, Lieutenant. You're with us now, and there's nothing more to be said about it. Busy day coming."

Sprigg stares out of his window, past the skyline of Columbia hurtling through the darkened clouds. Glowing daybreak is visible in the distance, the blaze of the sun casting an ominous light on the waking nation. He says, "Icarus might have dreamed big, but it's wings of wax we're flying on."

*For the Gamespot writing contest dated 20 March 2013