Chapter 5: Reassembly Needed, Destruction Not
Click-click-click-click-click-click. . . .
"I keep expecting the hour to strike for tea. Wouldn't be surprised if it did, honestly – Hatter's relationship with Time has always been uneven."
The clicking overhead ahead continued unabated as the teapot cable car – a product of Hatter Industries, as an interior plaque proudly proclaimed – trundled along its wire. Alice stood right in front of the spout, gazing out the large window at the floating factories that made up the adopted homeland of her (once and possibly still-former) friend. "Hmph – the Hatter's Domain. Almost as I remember it," she murmured, smiling slightly as she marked the familiar tall windows glowing red, the gears and cogs turning and drifting through the sky, and the broken hat-shaped topper resting on the central clock tower. Not the most welcoming place in the world, but not nearly as bad as the Land of Fire and Brimstone – or Queensland. She shuddered as she recalled bricks sculpted of muscle and veins, and blood splashing in the fountains of the castle keep. She'd take toxic green skies and dirty grey walls scribbled with manic words over that any day. Besides, the domain looked to be in somewhat better repair than when she'd last seen it – at least, all hints of Rutledge's influence seemed to be gone. That was good, right?
"Appearances, as you know better than most, can be deceiving, Alice," the Cheshire Cat said in apparent response to her thought, appearing before her in a flash of mottled white and orange light. He lifted a blue-skinned paw toward the window. "Much has changed since your last visit."
Alice eyed the Cat. Was that supposed to have sounded as sinister as he made it? "Dr. Bumby says that change is constructive," she replied, twirling a lock of hair around her finger. "That different is good."
Cheshire's expression didn't change, but there was a general stiffening of his posture that suggested he was not convinced by Bumby's words – not that Alice blamed him. She'd rate most of the changes in her life as rather less than constructive. Having to move to Houndsditch in the first place being near the top of the list. "Different denotes neither bad nor good, but it certainly means 'not the same,'" he said, orange eyes flicking left as what looked like a plucked dodo fluttered its way through the sky. "A concept your doctor seems to struggle with, given your frequent complaints about his chosen treatments." Abruptly his face was inches from hers, voice turning dark as his smile gained an extra edge to it. "Find the Hatter, Alice. He knows more about different than you."
Alice stepped back, frowning. Did Cheshire always have to be so bloody ominous? She knew there was something wrong with Wonderland now, thank you very much – no need for the theatrics. She'd allow him the point, though – anyone who'd turned himself into more machine than man (not that Hatter had ever been much of the latter) would have to know more about different than the rest of his kin. And after seeing the Vale of Tears collapse into Ruin-soaked crumbs so close to the wreckage of the Looking-Glass Line, she definitely wanted a talk with Wonderland's premier industrialist. Was he up to his old tricks – back on a quest to turn the world into a mechanical wasteland? Did she have to give him another lesson in good table manners, so to speak? Or was she about to discover that the former haberdasher had fallen to a more lethal power? I was ready to blame him for the Ruin fountaining out of every crack in the landscape, but – that's not really his style, Alice thought, twisting her lips. He's all about gears and cogs, hats and tea, rockets and steam. Sludge would gunk up all his great works – he'd be more liable to clear it away than spread it around. His Nightmare Spiders were partially constructed from doll heads, yes, but that's hardly enough to convict the man. Automaton. Whatever the bloody hell he is.
Still, I can't afford to be too hopeful either. Anyone who has the ability to upgrade himself like he can is a dangerous foe. After the Jabberwock and the Queen, he's easily the one who came the closest to killing me. And I don't fancy another round of having the world tilt and spin around me while I'm trying to take him down. Blasted syringes. . . . She rubbed her arm with a scowl, before letting her expression soften. It would be wonderful if he's become a friend again, though. He was nice to talk to, if nothing else. And if the Duchess, of all people, can become an ally after previously attempting to devour me whole – "But does he know more about the difference between bad and good?"
Cheshire and Alice both started, then jerked their heads toward the noise. A Bolterfly was throwing itself against the far left window, fracturing the precious glass barrier. Looking around, Alice could see a whole swarm descending on the car, all flinging themselves at the fragile panes in an attempt to shatter them. "Making friends, Alice?" Cheshire asked, coolly regarding the growing destruction. "You're as randomly lethal and entirely confused as you ever were."
"Would you prefer I act like a certain hobbyist entomologist I know and pull out a sketchbook to record these wretched things for posterity?" The car rocked under the assault, making her stumble. Would the peppercorns of the Duchess's grinder penetrate the glass? On the other hand, that would still result in a broken window, and when you were this high up. . . .
"A certain hobbyist entomologist would be more interested in why you've taken on one of the curious abilities of his ex-wife, I would think," Cheshire retorted, his grin becoming more of a smirk. "Why are you imitating the dead, Alice? I thought you were past wishing to be like them – or is Emily special, for some reason?"
Alice glared at Cheshire as the car shuddered again to the tune of more tiny cracks! She barely had enough patience for his riddles at the best of times – and certainly not when she was under attack. "Useful defense is nothing to be sneezed at," she snapped.
"I never said that. I only suggested most people would not think of a friend's former love and how best to emulate her when threatened by death," Cheshire replied, one ear waggling.
Insufferable feline! "I've managed without you so far, Cat," Alice informed him coldly, flicking her wrist. "Return to whatever hovel's home to you – I'll call if I need you."
Cheshire's grin widened. "Predictably rash. It's not a question of 'if,' Alice, it's 'when,'" he said, smug certainty dripping from his voice. Alice was prevented from taking him down a peg by the sight of the docking station rushing by. Moments later, the leftmost window finally shattered under the Bolterflies' onslaught, letting in the raging swarm. "Now hold on, and, as they say, 'shut up.'"
With that, he was gone. Alice rolled her eyes. "So typical," she muttered, kicking away a hissing Bolterfly before grabbing the nearest handhold and bracing herself.
The car rocketed forward, straight toward what Alice knew had to be the thickest wall in the entire complex. The Bolterflies, sensing danger, scattered just before the spout introduced itself to the green-stained brick. There was a terrific crash, a cloud of black smoke, the scream of metal against metal, and a jolt that sent her tumbling across the out-of-control car. Her head smacked against the steel frame, and all went dark for a minute.
She regained consciousness to find herself sprawled out on a dull grey metal plate suspended from the ceiling by a thick chain, a hovering steam jet belching hot air in front of her. Above her head, the shattered remains of the teapot car rested atop what appeared to be an intricately worked girder. Alice pushed herself upright with a wince. "I've made more graceful entrances," she muttered, brushing herself off. "I suppose I should be grateful nothing's – broken. . . ."
She frowned as her vision cleared, allowing her a proper look at her body. What on earth had happened to her dress? Instead of bright blue and white cloth, she was suddenly clad in deep black and brown leather. Her apron had been shortened to a tongue of rivet-edged chocolate, attached to an outside corset held in place with no less than three belts. Another belt stretched up her chest before linking itself to a frilly white collar – the only piece of the outfit that didn't squeak as she moved – securing her omega symbol to her throat. She twisted her head to take in a stiff-veined bow fastened to her back, now sporting a clock instead of a skull, then critically examined a midnight sleeve wrapped in more of those useless belts. "Curiouser and curiouser – but I'll grant that this suits Hatter's Domain better than my other gown," she murmured.
Then the blood drained out of her face as something else occurred to her. "Damn – he wouldn't–" She grabbed her head and felt her hair. No, long as ever, thankfully. "Whew! You see fit to alter my fashion sense, but not to 'fix' the one thing you've complained about most," she commented to herself with a smirk. "Typical Hatter." She looked up at the machinery high above her head, then jumped into the steam jet. "Let's see if there's anything else still typical about you."
Turn valve – The stiff metal wheel groaned under her hands – receive steam.
Alice smiled as the requested steam jet appeared, hovering at the far end of the checkered platform. Fortunate that my mind does not hate me enough to leave me stranded out here, she thought, jogging toward the billowing white flow. Maybe now I'll finally be able to penetrate Hatter's factories and see if he knows anything. Funny – after being literally dropped into the middle of this domain on my last visit, I never thought it would be this hard to get inside. She sighed. Then again, there's a good chance he's trying to keep me out of his sanctum. My hopes of him being friendly seem more ill-founded by the second. . .but I really should reserve judgment until I see him face-to-face.
She paused at the edge of the platform and scanned the area around her, mentally going over her path. Jump into the steam jet, float over to that – gear? Cog? She'd never been quite sure of the difference – that kept raising and lowering, leap over to that other bit of broken floor floating randomly in the middle of the sky, jump again to the hole roughly smashed out of the wall of the nearest building, then cross her fingers and pray that it actually led–
Wait. She could see something shimmering atop the tiny red light mounted on a girder to the right of the cog (or gear). Alice backed up and squinted at it. It was – a crystal butterfly! Victor! I wasn't expecting a memory from him here, she thought with a smile. Then again, I wasn't expecting any from Lizzie either, and Wonderland just saw fit to present me with one. A rather extraneous one, granted – did I really need a reminder about how open and gentle her heart was? She shrugged and leapt into the steam. No matter – time for a little detour on my journey.
Her skirt billowed out around her like a parachute, supporting her over the column of hot air. Alice bit back a giggle – much as having to take the long way around Hatter's Domain made her want to gnash her teeth at times, it was almost worth it for the chance to fly on the wings of steam again. I wonder if Victor would want to draw me as an angel if he saw me now, in all my black-clad glory? she thought, spinning in place to face the light. Or would he just want to see if he could fly too? Not that I could blame him – this is my favorite part of all this. She pushed herself forward, drifting out of the flow – then, right before gravity could reassert control, flexed her knees and jumped.
For a split-second, the air went solid under her feet. Then she was floating again, coasting through the sky on a cushion of jewel-colored feathers and glowing butterflies. She closed her eyes, luxuriating in the freedom of almost-flight. Perhaps this was more limited than being a bird or bat with proper wings, but she'd take it none the less. Not that she had much of a choice, given that the outer edges of the domain was nothing but floating chunks of checkered floor, slowly spinning hunks of machinery, and dangling pieces of oversized cutlery, all suspended in a field of endless, bottomless green. She'd have died five times over if she hadn't been gifted with this amazing skirt. Still, even if the power was hers only as a matter of necessity, she was going to enjoy it to the fullest. When one was fighting this hard for her peace of mind, one had to take her pleasures where she could find them.
Her boots touched down atop the light. Alice opened her eyes, flicked the hair out of her face, then leaned forward and touched the butterfly.
"'Earn Your Keep.' Hmph. One would think Dr. Bumby had ulterior motives in placing this right in front of my–"
Alice nearly jumped out of her skin, sending the sampler she'd been trying to straighten swinging madly from its nail. She slapped it hard against the wallpaper to stop it falling before darting into the foyer. Victor was stumbling through the front doors, coughing and wheezing like he'd gone back in time and convinced his younger self to take up the pipe. "Victor!"
She rushed forward to support him. "Take it easy – deep breaths now," she counseled, patting his back. Bloody hell, he was the exact same shade of ugly grey as the ash in the fireplace. "Are you all right? Why don't you sit down. . . ."
Victor let her lower him into a chair, still gasping for breath. Alice hovered over him as he struggled to speak, wondering if it would be necessary to fetch Dr. Bumby – or even a real doctor. The poor boy looked about ready to faint. "Oh – the smog today is just awful!" he eventually choked out, leaning heavily on his knees. "I don't know how anyone can stand it. How do the people here do it, Alice? Who would want to live in a city when it's so smelly and dirty?"
Alice grimaced, rubbing her throat in sympathy. "Search me, Victor," she mumbled as the memory dissipated. "If I had my way, I'd be out in the country – as far from London as I could possibly get. And I know you'd be right by my side." She snorted. "Oh hell, let's be honest – you'd be two miles ahead of me and speeding away." She'd always thought no one could hate the city as much as her, but Victor – oh, he utterly despised it. All her complaints about Whitechapel were magnified tenfold in his mind. He'd started to acclimatize himself to the grime and slime and crime as the months went on, but it hadn't stopped his griping at all. Although I'd guess that at least some of his loathing is misplaced hate toward his parents for making him move there, she hypothesized. Entirely justified misplaced hate, of course. If I ever met a person who said they enjoyed living in Whitechapel, I'd wonder if they'd recently escaped from Rutledge.
I wonder what he's doing while I'm gallivanting about here?
Alice pursed her lips, staring thoughtfully out at the yellowy-green horizon. She hadn't considered such a question before, too busy with others, but now that he was on her mind. . . I miss him, she realized. She missed the comforting presence of his body at her side, taking the corners and lanes with her. The wide-open spaces of Wonderland were a great improvement over the cramped streets of Whitechapel, but. . .they were also much lonelier. "Look what you've done to me – it used to be that I didn't care if I had anybody nearby to converse with as I went," she mock-scolded his memory. "What would you make of the Hatter's Domain, Victor? I know it's not much to look at–" she took a deep sniff "– but it certainly smells better than Whitechapel. Must be a side effect of having freshly-brewed tea as a fuel source rather than coal and wood." She smirked as a thought came to her. "Easier on your lungs, but hardly as good for your stomach, I bet."
As if in response, her own belly let out a rather pitiful-sounding growl. "Hush, you," she told it. "It may smell good, but I wouldn't trust anything from Hatter's tea table until I was sure it was both poison- and mercury-free. And that none of the cutlery or teacups were going to attack me."
Her stomach either didn't or wouldn't grasp the dangers of eating tainted food with murderous utensils and growled again. Alice jabbed it with a finger. "Hush or I'll tighten the belts on this new corset and give you something to growl about."
Silence. Alice smirked again. "Much better. At least I have that much control over myself." She gazed out across the landscape (airscape?), at the hole she'd been aiming for. "And who knows," she added, springing into space and twirling to reach the gear (or cog) before it lowered again. "Perhaps Hatter does too. Wonder if he'd be willing to give me the answers I seek if I promised to attend a tea party. . . ."
So this is the Lost & Found. Or, rather, the Dump This Here & Forget About It. I hope those crayon scribbles have continued to steer me right. . . .
Alice splashed her way into the large room, appraising it with a disgusted look. As befitted a glorified garbage heap, it was a mess. Piles of melted cogs, gears, and other bits of metal waste loomed over her head in strange statuary. Old forgotten barrels filled with rancid tea lined walls that were slowly giving way to rust. Stagnant water stood in greenish pools on the pitted, uneven floor. This was a place where no creature would willingly spend any time at all – and yet, straight ahead, propped up against the largest mountain of trash and muttering to himself about "bad dreams" and "blasted good nights," was the subject of her search – the Hatter.
Well – part of the Hatter. Alice's steps slowed as she neared the pile. What was in front of her was nothing more than the Hatter's head. It looked about the same as she remembered – green skin, jagged teeth, overlarge ears and nose – but it terminated at the neck. He didn't even have his hat! What on earth has happened to the rest of him? Scanning the pile revealed his torso sitting not too far to the left, still bound in the white canvas of a straitjacket – or, well, what one could have of a straitjacket without sleeves. His limbs were nowhere to be seen, however, with only the plugs for where arms and legs connected to his body proving they existed. Frowning, she reached down and picked up his head (lighter than she expected – perhaps he really didn't have a brain, like she'd always quietly suspected). "Hatter, I recall leaving you in a decrepit condition – but not in pieces."
"What? What?!" His yellow eyes popped open, darting all around before finally focusing on her. "Oh, it's you," he grumbled, tone deeply derisive. "Took you long enough!"
Alice decided to ignore his lack of gratitude – there were bigger fish to fry. "What's happened here?" she asked, turning his head gently to and fro in her hands. It was a pretty sorry sight. His skin was speckled all over with cuts and bruises, and one ear was nearly split in half. Yet it was still the fact that his bald pate was uncovered that disturbed her most. "You've lost your hat! And some – parts – are missing," she added awkwardly. She knew she should be more concerned over the fact that Hatter had been torn into pieces, but – well, he seemed to be surviving well enough just as he was. The fact that his hat had disappeared to parts unknown, however – that sent chills down her spine. What sort of calamity could result in someone as powerful as the Hatter being deprived of his namesake chapeau?
"Missing indeed," Hatter agreed, his teeth scraping the buckles of her corset. "Though things being what they are, I barely miss their missing!" he added, sounding like he was trying to convince himself as much as Alice.
Alice wasn't fooled. "Wouldn't say no to a bevy of cockroaches to carry you around, I think," she commented, carrying him over to his torso. "Let's get you settled a bit more comfortably." She fitted the neck into the top plug, releasing him once she heard it click into place. "Better?"
Hatter wiggled his head a few times. "Some," he allowed, then scowled at her. "Now, as for what's happened – you should know that better than I! It's your place, after all! I know my place!"
Alice put her hands on her hips, wondering why everyone – particularly people who were well-known for upsetting the Queen of Hearts and getting themselves thrown in jail by the White King and Queen – had to lecture her. What was wrong with some friendly conversation once in a while? You've spoiled me, Victor, you really have. "When did you ever know your place? Or how to keep it?" she retorted. "Now what's going on?"
Alice's head jerked toward the ceiling as the room vibrated violently. What the – was that a whistle, or –
"Aaahhhhh! That's going on!" Hatter cried, eyes wide and upset. "And around, and up and down, in my ears, through my eyes, up my nostrils, down my gullet and writhing in my guts!"
That – sounded a lot like something she'd said to Papa once at the Waterloo train station. And that noise, a high-pitched shriek over a low roar – it did remind her of a steam engine. Were Hatter's factories rebuilding the Looking-Glass Line, then? Had she managed to get herself all worked up over nothing?
But. . .Hatter wouldn't be getting this flustered over something so innocent. Not to mention that had been no ordinary roar. That had been a tortured screech of metal and steam, a sick perversion of the sound her sweet little train had made. No – if the Looking-Glass Line was being rebuilt, it was being rebuilt in a form Alice didn't think would pass muster. "Papa was exceedingly fond of trains," she commented with a frown. "I don't like them much."
"You won't like this one at all," Hatter informed her, brow furrowed. "Nothing like when Mock Turtle was in charge of the Looking-Glass Line. This railroad's a bloody shambles! The stink is ferocious; light blinding; noise hellacious–"
"Ah, quite, Hatter," Alice said quickly, cutting him off before he could really get going. "I get the idea. A bad train. But what do we do about it? You can't even get up–"
There was a clanking from inside the wall, then a mechanical arm (like a stripped-down version of Hatter's own missing limbs) suddenly popped out and grasped Hatter by the cog embedded in his back, lifting him high into the air. Alice stepped back, startled. Oh – maybe what I said just now summoned it? Seems logical. . .but then again, trying to apply that to this world tends to just drive one madder. At least I won't have to haul him around with me.
Hatter himself barely seemed to notice his change in position. "The world is upside-down, Alice!" he whined. "Inmates run the asylum – no offense," he added hastily as Alice gave him a look. "And worst of all–" His eyes squinted, as if attempting to contain tears. "I'm left tea-less!"
"Tragic," Alice responded in the blandest voice she could muster. Of course that would be the only thing he cared about. Typical idiot. Why had she come to this forsaken dump to find him again?
On the other hand. . .she finally had a hint as to what was happening. For all his instability, Hatter had been the first to give her some real information. Even if he wasn't exactly a friend, he neither appeared to be a foe. Maybe if she completed the work she'd started. . . . "If I do help, will you help me in return?"
"Cross my heart! If I had one," Hatter amended. "Find my limbs and toss them into the chutes! Machines will do the rest." He gave her what passed for a smile with him. "Be on your way now, that's a good girl! Heh-ha! – best way out is through the clock face."
"Clock face?" Alice craned her head. Beyond jagged, dagger-like clock hands and dangling rusted chains was a ceiling made of glass, marked with the hours in Roman numerals. The symbol for mercury glowed crimson in the center, hauntingly familiar. "Are we below where you tried to kill me last time?!"
"No – where I intended to disable you and turn you into a mechanical creature much like myself," Hatter corrected, although he had the sense to sound embarrassed about it.
"Yes, because that's so much better."
"I'm past that now, Alice, I swear! I promise not to harm one strand of that overly-long hair of yours. And you'll have quite a bit of trouble getting to the source of the problem without me. I'm the only one who can get you to Assemblage (or Destruction) As Needed! That wonderful skirt of yours may allow you to traverse small gaps, but my legs could cross a canyon in a single bound!" he proclaimed proudly.
"I'll hold you to that," Alice informed him, crossing her arms. "Who has your limbs, anyway?"
"Who else? March and Dormy!"
"The March Hare and the Dormouse?" Alice blinked, trying to process that. The March and Dormy she'd known had been rather silly creatures, more prone to overdosing on scones and sugar than violently tearing friends apart. Even when she'd come across them in Hatter's lab, strapped to horrific torture devices and transformed into wretched half-mechanical chimera, Dormy's main complaint had been the lack of refreshments. Them suddenly staging a coup and leaving their best friend to rot in the bowels of his own factories was – different, to say the least.
"The very same! I thought we were getting along rather well in the wake of the Queen's passing. I'd given them some lovely upgrades, all the tea they could drink, all the riddles they could answer. . . ." Hatter sighed, eyes downcast. "It was almost like old times." His brow crinkled with anger. "And then they suddenly came storming in one day talking about 'new regime' this and 'forget the past' that – forget the past, bah! They didn't seem too keen to forget when they tore me to pieces! I told Dormy that the rat tail was all I had, and that I'd give it some fluff when I had the chance–"
Alice stared down at her feet as Hatter ranted on. "Forget the past?" she echoed softly. Well, it appeared two Wonderlanders had embraced Dr. Bumby's favorite philosophy. It didn't seem to be doing them much good, however. Certainly hadn't done Hatter much good. Just another reason to doubt the good doctor's effectiveness. Or maybe March and Dormy are applying it wrong – they'd be the sort to mix it all up. . . . "Where can I find them?" she asked, turning her attention back to her friend.
"And I said that monocle – what? Oh. The March Hare is ruining my hard work in Cranking Up & Pressing Down, while the Dormouse is making a mess of Smelling & Regurgitating," Hatter growled, then frowned. "Or is it the other way around?" He shook his head. "Doesn't matter – visit either you like first. They're both mad as monkey mash!"
"Right," Alice sighed. Her eternal destiny – to go among mad people. "And how exactly do I get out through the clock face?"
"The elevator, of course!" Hatter cried, jerking his head left and right to indicate little alcoves in the garbage, both screened in by sheets of scrap metal. Alice could see a large steel pillar in one and a pressure pad in the other through the gaps. "Just weigh down the pad to call it, then unweigh the pad to uncall it! Easy as 3.14159265359!"
Alice was about to ask how on earth she was supposed to do that and take the elevator at the same time when the faintest outline of shimmering purple caught her eye on the outer wall of the pad's alcove. One hiccup and a brief loss of height later, the image of a mechanical rabbit clutching a watch was revealed to her. Aha – another use for those strange clockwork "bunny bombs" she'd collected on the way down here. "I see," she said, returning to her normal size and summoning the suggested implement. "I suppose I should thank you for these," she added to Hatter, holding it up. "They've been most useful in breaking through blocked passages. I don't know why they ended up in the junk piles with you."
"March must have been upset they didn't look like him. But aren't they lovely? If only the White Rabbit had gotten a chance to see them," Hatter said, all pride. "Well, that's up to you now. Go on, you're wasting Time! And he doesn't like that now any more than he did in the past."
"I don't like it either." Alice set the first rabbit against the sheets of old grating wedged in front of the pressure pad and set it hopping. Moments later, all that was left of both blockage and bomb were a few screws on the floor. She smirked over at Hatter as she set the second to clear the path to the elevator. "But I'm afraid you'll just have to hang around until I'm done."
"Oh, very funny," Hatter muttered. "Just get my limbs so we can put paid to these usurpers!"
"Nooo! My precious domain! And the guests! All I really wanted was another tea party. . . ."
Alice gaped as Hatter knelt down by the bodies of the March Hare and the Dormouse, cradling them to his chest. What the hell was he on about? Not a minute ago he'd declared vehemently that those two deserved to die for being the "destroyers of Wonderland!" For God's sake, he'd been the one to smash their giant automaton and kill them! (Which annoyed her just a pinch – she was the one who'd had to avoid being dissolved like a sugar cube in boiling tea and pounded flat as a pancake by steel fists. She'd wanted to be the one to give them a taste of their own medicine – been itching for it. Though, admittedly, she wasn't sure how she would have taken care of that monstrous amalgamation of their domains. . . .) And now he wanted to stay here and mourn their fallen foes while Assembly (or Destruction) As Required fell down around their ears?! She'd been capable of changing moods on a dime back in the asylum, but this – this took the cake. How much mercury leaked into that brain of his during his years as an actual hatter?
Not to mention there was the matter of the train to consider. She'd only gotten a glimpse of Wonderland's new rail line as it pulled out of the factory, but what she'd seen had not been encouraging. The train had looked more like a row of corrupted cathedrals, elegant arched metal painted black as night and stained glass windows glowing red as hot coals as they'd thundered past. Streams of fire had leeched from the engine, licking at the sides of the monstrosity and sending her pulse racing. The smoke and ash that had poured from the stack had had the very stench of Hell itself. And as it had chugged out into the cloudy night, Alice had sworn she'd seen Ruin dripping from its undercarriage. An "infernal train" she'd called it, and there were no better words for such a horror. Something like that could only hurt her precious Wonderland – and now it was loose in her head! And the only three people who could tell her anything about how to stop it were dead, dead, and obliviously suicidal! "Please, Hatter, you promised!" she yelled above the sound of falling beams and hissing steam, trying to get her ally's attention. "Where is that train going? What's its purpose? Tell me – now!"
Hatter glared at her as he extracted a teacup from somewhere in the depths of his gigantic hat, recently reclaimed from the trash heaps. "There's no time for – whatever it is you want to talk about," he declared, then grinned. "It's time for tea! Talk trains with Turtle, he ran the Looking-Glass Line." Before Alice could reply, he turned away again, clearing his throat. "Come on, you lot!" he cried to the broken corpses splayed across his lap. "We can still be friends! I've got a fine Darjeeling – drink, drink!"
It was pathetic, the way he shoved the cup against their unresponsive lips. "Why do you want to have another tea party with them?" Alice demanded, fists balled. "They tore you to bits and left you to rot in the deepest recesses of the Lost & Found! Or have you taken that advice you loathed about 'forgetting the past' to heart all of a sudden?"
Hatter ignored her, dumping hot tea over the Dormouse's limp whiskers. "Come along, Dormy, that always used to get you up in a jiffy!"
"They're dead, Hatter!" Alice screamed, losing all patience at last. "And we will be too if we don't escape! Perhaps you don't care, but I do! Wonderland's in danger again, and I must save it!"
Hatter shot her a look over his shoulder. "Now see here, your young man's told you many times that the dead can get up and walk again!"
"My–" Alice blinked. "He's not my–" Well, she guessed he was, in a way, but – no, getting off track Alice! "Victor's a sweet boy, but there's some admitted questions about his sanity–"
"As if you're one to judge," Hatter pointed out. Alice inclined her head, forced to give him the point. "And don't say he's not your young man – what if it was him here? I'd be more polite if you wanted to spend your last minutes in his company!"
"He wouldn't – if he'd been trying to murder me – if it was a matter of life and death–"
But deep inside, she knew Hatter had got her. What if it was Victor lying there, limp and cold and – She bit her lip, trying not to picture it. When that didn't work, she instead tried to picture him up and about, just with a blue tinge to his skin and perhaps a few bones sticking out here and there. That – didn't help much either. Either way he was dead, and. . .could she really just leave him there? Could she run away without taking even a fraction of a second to say goodbye?
Hatter smirked. "And you always told me it was rude to make personal remarks."
"In my defense, Victor has never tried to kill me," Alice shot back, annoyance surging through her. How dare Hatter make her show weakness! Especially at a time like this! "Nor would I ever be his murderer." She swallowed, softening her voice. Yelling was getting her nowhere – she had to get him to see sense before it was too late. "Hatter, my memories are shattered. I'm trying to collect the pieces – and I now believe the train impedes me," she added, repressing a shiver. If that grotesque locomotive was indeed the true source of the Ruin. . .well. There was no time to waste in catching up and reducing it down to scrap metal. "You must help me – you promised!"
Hatter, however, was unmoved. "Ask the one who 'helps them who help themselves,'" he informed her, turning away. "Whoever that is."
Alice was just opening her mouth to either plead with or yell at him again when a ceiling girder snapped and fell, crushing the unfortunate hatmaker and his 'guests.' It was quickly followed by a rain of bits and bobs from all over the domain – one of Dormy's sleepy teapots (still not looking quite awake), a pounding fist from March's domain, half a factory sign with the letters glowing bright pink. . . . Alice shielded her head from the onslaught, turning to run back the way they'd come – only to find it already blocked by debris. "Oh, perfect. . . ."
The air filled with the smell of tea leaves as lava-hot liquid began to flood the factory, pouring in from whatever remained of Smelling & Regurgitating. Alice tried to climb the pile of junk forming in front of her to escape, only to be chased back down by a piece of checkered floor nearly taking off her head. She glared at the hidden remains of the Hatter as the tea lapped at her boots. "Very pithy," she spat. "He deserved to die."
"I knew that goblet was filled with poison. I could have saved him. I didn't. Because I felt he deserved to die."
Alice bit her lip as Victor's voice echoed across her memory. That had been a recent confession, about how Lord Barkis had met his end. Victor had admitted it to her as a secret shame of his, and she'd reassured him that he'd done nothing wrong in her eyes by letting the nobleman kill himself. The bastard was a thieving murderer the world was better off without. Was Hatter really in the same league? He had helped her figure out at least a little of what was going on. . .but then, on her last visit here, he'd tried to murder her, and performed horrific experiments on his friends! Except – well, she'd killed him first, and March and Dormy had more than gotten their own back by the look of things here. And they'd all been guests at the tea party the night of the fire – it had been their screams that had helped her wake up before the flames reached her room. . .oh, she was being unfair, letting her temper get the best of her again. . . .
Unfortunately, she didn't have time to regret her moment of derision for long – the tea was now at her neck. She kicked her feet and paddled her arms, trying frantically to keep above the surface, but it just kept rising and rising, faster than she could swim. Is this how it ends? she wondered as the liquid finally swallowed her head. With me drowning in tea – in ignorance?
Then everything went black.